Kafka’s K Would Feel at Home with FISA

The Trial

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a smart but very depressing Washington Post quiz in which respondents are invited to compare the United Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a.k.a. the FISA Court) with the court in Kafka’s The Trial. Nightmarish though Kafka’s court is, sometimes FISA is even worse.

According to Wikipedia, the FISA Court oversees “requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal law enforcement agencies.” The agencies that make the most requests are the National Security Agency (the NSA, sometimes known as No Such Agency) and the FBI. According to the Wikipedia article, the court’s powers “have evolved and expanded to the point that it has been called ‘almost a parallel Supreme Court.'” Sen. Ron Wyden has described the FISC warrant process as “the most one-sided legal process in the United States” and has observed, “I don’t know of any other legal system or court that really doesn’t highlight anything except one point of view.”

It’s clear why The Washington Post turned to Kafka’s Trial. In that novel, K never learns what he is accused of and goes through months of agonizing uncertainty. In the end, he finds it almost a relief when he is killed by two officials/thugs who show up and take him away.

If you don’t want me to spoil the quiz, take it yourself before you read on. Here, according to the quiz’s creators Alvaro Bedoya and Ben Sobel, are some instances where the FISA court is worse than Kafka’s court:

–Recipients of orders from the FISA court are typically prohibited from speaking about them in public. These orders are so secret that some recipients report actually having to return the copy of the order they received after reading it. 

Most proceedings before the FISA court are “ex parte,” meaning that judges hear from only one party, e.g. the FBI.

Bedoya and Sobel find some instances where the courts have things in common:

–Lawyers [in both courts] are barred from reading secret government filings about their clients. Lawyers who have practiced before the FISA court do report not being able to read all of the classified filings against their clients. Lawyers in The Trial are also frequently unable to read the charges filed against their clients. 

— Lawyers have to respond to secret government filings – without reading them.

Citing four quotations, Bedoya and Sobel challenge us to figure out which are from The Trial and which from people commenting on FISA. When I took the quiz, my only wrong answers occurred here:

–“…proceedings are generally kept secret not only from the public but also from the accused.” – Kafka

–“The public cannot argue that the… opinion should be released until it has seen the opinion, and it cannot see the opinion until it has been released.” –Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn

–“The targets of their proceedings are ordinarily not represented by counsel. Indeed it seems likely that targets are usually unaware of the existence of the proceedings…” – Judge Robert D. Sack, Second Circuit

–“The courts don’t make their final conclusions public, not even the judges are allowed to know about them, so that all we know about these earlier cases are just legends.” – Kafka

In one respect, FISA is better than Kafka’s Court, but only in the sense that 0.03 is better than 0.00. An expert in The Trial admits that “I never saw a single actual acquittal.” Bedoya and Sobel, meanwhile, quote a Wall Street Journal report that, “from 1979 to 2012, the FISC rejected 11 of the more than 33,900 government surveillance applications, a rejection rate of 0.03%.”

Sometimes when we throw around the descriptor “Kafkaesque,” we are being hyperbolic. Not in this case.

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Vacations Must Be More than Photographs

La Plaza de Armas de Cusco

La Plaza de Armas de Cusco

Friday I leave for Cusco and Machu Picchu to fulfill a life-long dream. Ever since I read Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations by Robert Silverberg. in seventh grade (I ordered it through Junior Scholastic Book Club), I have dreamed of visiting the legendary Incan sites. I’ll report on the trip when I get back. (I have posted in advance a series of essays for this blog so there won’t be any gaps.)

Although I was once a newspaper reporter and photographer, I don’t plan to let my camera define the experience. In other words, I am taking to heart Wendell Berry’s caution in “The Vacation”:

The Vacation

By Wendell Berry

He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

As I understand the poem, Berry is concerned that, by letting our cameras mediate our experiences, we lose an intimate connection with them. We don’t so much live as see ourselves living. Or put another way, we imagine others looking at our life—essentially taking photos of us—and judging by those images whether we are living it correctly. We use photos to validate the experience.

I read somewhere, maybe in Susan Sontag’s On Photography, that there is a spot at the Grand Canyon where people are advised to stand if they want to take the “perfect” Grand Canyon shot. Later they can look back at that photo and reassure themselves they have had “the Grand Canyon experience” that people are meant to have. Given that so many of the Machu Picchu photos look similar, I wonder whether there is a similar spot there.

So should we stop taking pictures? Should we just rely on memory, which Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest tells Cecily “is the diary that we all carry about with us”? (Cecily replies that memory “usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened.”) I don’t think this is Berry’s point.

I think he is advising us to open ourselves to the experience rather than reduce it to preset expectations. Take what is offered, even if it doesn’t resemble some perfect postcard with the requisite river, trees, sky, light, and rushing boat. This experience will far surpass vacation travel posters.

I will keep that in mind while visiting Peru. I admit that I have my own preset ideas, but ultimately I find people to be more interesting that photogenic ruins and am particularly interested in how modern-day Peruvians interact with their Inca heritage. I see the tour as a classroom experience, with everyone I meet as a potential teacher.

Because fully taking in an experience requires that we process it as well as immerse ourselves in it, I will keep a writing journal. As Cecily says of her diary, “If I didn’t write [the wonderful secrets of my life] down, I should probably forget all about them.” And as her apparent rival Gwendolen reports, “I never travel without my diary.  One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

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Soldier, Rest, Thy Warfare O’er

James Archer, "The Death of King Arthur"

James Archer, “The Death of King Arthur”

Memorial Day

“Let us sleep now,” writes Wilfred Owen at the conclusion of one of the greatest anti-war poems ever written. The wasted promise of human life described in “A Strange Meeting” is so heartrending that death seems a kind of relief, a devoutly wished consummation that ends the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The thousands of vets who have committed suicide after returning from war have arrived at that conclusion.

Sir Walter Scott captures death’s attraction in “Soldier Rest,” a ballad that is sung by the mysterious Lady of the Lake in the poem by that name. The battered James Fitz-James (actually King James V) finds his way to a strange castle in the wilderness and there he hears the following enchanting song:

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking:
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
In our isle’s enchanted hall,
Hands unseen thy couch are strewing,
Fairy strains of music fall,
Every sense in slumber dewing.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Dream of fighting fields no more:
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.

No rude sound shall reach thine ear,
Armor’s clang, or war-steed champing,
Trump nor pibroch summon here
Mustering clan, or squadron tramping.
Yet the lark’s shrill fife may come
At the day-break from the fallow,
And the bittern sound his drum,
Booming from the sedgy shallow.
Ruder sounds shall none be near,
Guards nor warders challenge here,
Here’s no war-steed’s neigh and champing,
Shouting clans or squadrons stamping.

Huntsman, rest! thy chase is done,
While our slumbrous spells assail ye,
Dream not, with the rising sun,
Bugles here shall sound reveillé.
Sleep! the deer is in his den;
Sleep! thy hounds are by thee lying;
Sleep! nor dream in yonder glen,
How thy gallant steed lay dying.
Huntsman, rest; thy chase is done,
Think not of the rising sun,
For at dawning to assail ye,
Here no bugles sound reveillé. 

It is scant comfort to those who have lost loved ones to war-related death, but perhaps they can console themselves with the idea that, for those men and women, war’s clamor has subsided and they are now at peace.

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To See God, the Eye Must Catch Fire

Linda Schmidt, "Pentecost Quilt"

Linda Schmidt, “Pentecost Quilt”

Spiritual Sunday

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the moment when the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit and realized that they no longer needed the physical presence of Jesus. Each of them had his own inner conduit to God. The Pentecost spirit is captured in a powerful poem by William Blake:

Here’s how Luke (Acts 2:1-6) describes the moment:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

I haven’t been able to track down the origin of Blake’s poem, which I’m assuming appears in one of his long mystical poems. Note the strategic use of the word “unless.” Blake is pushing against conventionality and one-dimensional reason, which in Blake’s cosmology is represented by the figure of Urizen and is contrasted with Los, who represents imagination:

Unless the eye catch fire,
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
The God will not be known.

About his poetic visions, Blake wrote,

I rest not from my great task! To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

A note on the artist: Linda Schmidt’s quilts may be seen at https://home.comcast.net/~shortattn/landscap.htm

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Stephen King & the War for America’s Soul

John Cayea, cover illus. for Stephen King, "The Stand"

John Cayea, cover illus. for Stephen King, “The Stand”

In my American Fantasy course this past semester one of my students, Steven Cook, helped me appreciate Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel The Stand. King wrote the novel to wrestle with nasty truths about America that were exposed by the Vietnam War. After reading Steven’s essay (the students could choose their own fantasy novel for their final project), I can see it as an important tool for examining the legacy of the Iraq War as well.

I’ve noted in the past how King, like Poe before him, dreams America’s nightmares. Steven writes that The Stand captures two sides of America: the America of “hatred and slights” and the America “that learns from the sins of the past and attempts to rebuild.” He quotes the following passage from the novel as his essay’s epigraph:

But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some awful tussle for the souls of those few people—for their souls, their bodies, their way of thinking. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what was on for us.

Those doing the tussling in the novel are the few survivors of a killer flu that has been generated by the U.S. military. Due to human error, the flu escapes the research facility and kills 99.9% of the world’s population. The good survivors are led by a saintly African American grandmother who sees visions, and they congregate in Boulder, Colorado, a place associated with the pristine West, hippy communes, and flower power. They dream of starting over and getting America right this time:

[Harold] sensed, more clearly than any of the others, that that was what the Boulder Free Zone was all about… Boulder itself was a cloned society, a tabula so rasa that it could not sense its own novel beauty.

King here is hearkening back to the early American settlers’ dream that, in the New World, they could leave history behind and build a city upon a hill. In the novel, it’s as though Noah’s flood has given the world a second chance to get things right. I mention in passing that the settlers who founded the 1634 English settlement where I live–St. Mary’s City, Maryland—came over in two ships named the Ark and the Dove.

Boomers like King and myself (King is 67, I’m 63) were raised on John F. Kennedy’s idealism– “Ask not what American can do for you, ask what you can do for America”–which was decimated by the Vietnam War. We saw the country that had founded the Peace Corps unleashing horrific fire power upon a tiny country. When we witnessed the defoliation of the Vietnamese jungles and when we learned about the My Lai massacre, we began wondering about ourselves. Maybe we weren’t as good as we thought.

The Iraq War has raised similar issues. Somehow the justified anger over 9-11 got twisted into a preemptive strike against a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks and that posed no real threat to us. Suddenly our leaders were manufacturing and selling us phony intelligence reports and ordering the torture of suspects. Once again Americans of conscience were filled with self doubt.

In King’s novel we see America’s dark side in the diabolic flag-waving Randall Flagg, a figure who comes to realize that he is the devil. He sets up his center of power in Las Vegas and begins assembling military hardware. A battle for the soul of America is in the offing.

In his essay, Steven smartly focuses on characters that wrestle with which side to join. Will they honor the light within or will they follow the darkness? Steven rightly observes that the real drama of the novel lies within their internal struggles. He looks at two characters who were bullied as children and notes how Nick, who is deaf and dumb, manages to rise above his past grievances while Harold, who was overweight, does not.

In an allusion to Satan tempting Jesus in the desert, King shows Nick considering but rejecting Flagg’s dark call. Here’s how Steven’s essay describes it:

Nick’s temptation is not so much that of gaining power, prestige, and avenging old slights, but rather having abilities that he had been robbed of from birth…. Rather than spending a long time trying to reach a decision, Nick rejects the offer immediately and from then on sticks to it: “He wanted all the things the black manshape had shown him from this desert high place…. But most of all he wanted to hear… [B]ut the word he said was No.” Despite all the things that Nick is offered, he still refuses, sensing that, despite what the creature in his dreams is offering, it comes at a price that is too steep. If we assume that the worship the dark man in his dreams demands is basically paying homage to the old destructive ways of society, then his refusal specifically marks a rejection of the principles of the darker side.

Harold, by contrast, in unable to  rise above “his inner demons and the relics of the old world,” which he has come to see as integral to his identity. He thinks that accepting the new opportunity that Boulder offers would be “to murder himself”:

[H]e himself, when faced with the knowledge that he was free to accept what was, had rejected the new opportunity. To seize it would have been to murder himself. The ghost of every humiliation he had ever suffered cried out against it. His murdered dreams and ambitions came back to eldritch (unholy/otherworldy/strange) life and asked if he could forget them so easily. In the new Free Zone he could only be Harold Lauder. Over there [in Last Vegas] he could be a prince.

In the novel, the darkness ultimately turns in on itself, accidentally blowing itself up with its own nuclear bomb. The citizens of the Boulder Free Zone, who would have been decimated in a war, are given a chance to build the world of their dreams.

Steven points out that the reprieve is only temporary, however, as Randall Flagg survives the blast. In the book’s conclusion, he is plotting his comeback.

Americans need to know that our dark side is always with us and always has been. Hawthorne, for instance, describes it at work in colonial times in his story “Young Goodman Brown.” There we see a devil figure, a literary forerunner of Randall Flagg, informing Brown,

I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.

We will revisit the decision to invade Iraq in the upcoming presidential election, in part because of its ongoing consequences (the rise of ISIS), in part because of the insight it gives us into candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. After all, Clinton voted for the war (although she now describes that vote as a “mistake”) while Bush has reassembled, as his foreign policy advisors, the very men who led us into the Iraq War.

In other words, we must recall that Randall Flagg is alive and well, only too ready to lead us to war with Iran. He will tempt up with our fears and with false promises (“we will be greeted as liberators”). Can we learn from our mistakes and do things right this time or will we be pushed, by our “hatred and slights,” into another Armageddon? Can we be the everyday heroes that King describes in his book, those who choose the light, or will we be seduced by dark incentives? Few writers today ask that question more compellingly than Stephen King.

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Liberals Must Reclaim Harrison Bergeron

Astin as Harrison Bergeron

Astin as Harrison Bergeron

As income gaps grow ever wider in the United States, conservatives regularly turn to a Kurt Vonnegut short story to defend inequality. But does “Harrison Bergerson” really say what they claim it does?

I begin with a nod to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who notes how the right has been using the story:

[T]he impulse to justify existing patterns of income distribution is powerful. Kevin Williamson reiterates the hoary case in National Review. Much of Williamson’s essay is dedicated to the straw man argument that liberals propose “eradicating” inequality, as opposed to the actual liberal position, which is to ameliorate it slightly while still accepting not only significant inequality but more of it than nearly any other advanced economy. Still, Williamson hits the familiar pro-inequality points. There’s the ritual mention of “Harrison Bergeron,” the Vonnegut short story about a dystopian society in which a “Handicapper General” levels down the smart, beautiful, and otherwise fortunate. There’s the likewise mandatory reduction of inequality to the fact that very short people can’t become basketball stars. And of course there are the paeans to the inescapable natural sources of inequality.

Here’s Chait’s conclusion:

[W]hen conservative intellectuals do make inequality the text (as opposed to the subtext), they have a taste for framing the question in absolutist terms. The work of Ayn Rand is of course their favorite, but “Harrison Bergeron” runs a distant second. (Previous right-wing references to this story include thisthisthisthisthis, and innumerable others.) Yet this story tells us nothing about actually existing liberal policies on inequality. The story describes an anti-inequality crusade so extreme it bears not the slightest resemblance to the actual United States. Vonnegut himself was a socialist, which might clue you in to the fact that he did not see this particular story as evidence that rampant egalitarianism had overtaken American government. If conservatives want to construct a persuasive defense of inequality, they need to locate their egalitarian dystopia not in old novels but in the world around them.

I disagree only with Chait’s complaint about people turning to “old novels.” Literature provides explanatory insight and emotional wisdom, and one can choose both nuanced argument and powerful stories. In fact, to examine “Harrison Bergeron” closely is to liberate it from rightwing ideology.

The story is set in 2081 and the “all men are created equal” clause in The Declaration of Independence has been interpreted to mean that no one can stand out:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

When George and Hazel’s extraordinary son, Harrison, is taken away from them, their governmentally-imposed handicaps prevent them from mourning their loss:

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

Their mediocre lives are suddenly interrupted, however, when Harrison appears on a televised dance show that they are watching. He is weighted down so that he can’t outsoar the other dancers, but that doesn’t stop him. His first step is to divest himself of all that is holding him down:

Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood – in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die.

“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.

“Even as I stand here” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”

Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.

After one of the female dancers accepts his invitation to dance, they put on a performance for the ages:

Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.

And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.

It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.

And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

What follows is a scene that today’s right wing interprets as an allegory of excessive governmental regulation:

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.

It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.

Several things are worth noting.

First of all, this is a more complex story than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. Entrepreneur John Gault and radical architect Howard Roark are presented without irony—so much so that they function as unintentional self-parodies. Vonnegut, by contrast, has some reservations about Harrison. As a rebellious artist himself, he recognizes certain megalomaniac tendencies. Would we really want our self-righteous artists becoming emperors and taking over the world? Unlike Rand, Vonnegut is not writing a simplistic parable.

But more significantly, does the rightwing really embrace paradigm-busting artists? Vonnegut is going after group-think, with physical constraints functioning as metaphors for what Blake called “mind-forged manacles,” and conservatives are not immune to such groupthink. Indeed, writing his story in 1961, Vonnegut was going after the very 1950s conformity that many current conservatives want to return to. That’s why “Harrison Bergeron” was embraced by the 1960s counter-culture movement, who were rebelling against what they saw as America’s sheep-like corporate culture. (Bergeron is derived from the French word for shepherd.)

Business conservatives like to see themselves as daring entrepreneurs, but in fact they almost always hedge their bets. The “risky” financial behavior that brought down the world economic system in 2008 technically wasn’t all that risky, at least for Wall Street financiers. After all, they had the government there to bail them out. Even in main street businesses, slow and steady is valued more than daring and innovative.

When it comes down to it, who is more supportive of daring artistic exploration like Harrison’s, liberals or conservatives? Who wants to levy taxes so that schools can offer music, art and drama? Who are the real champions of a liberal arts education that prods students to think outside the box and to question authority?

Those who loudly oppose “big gummint” are not really against government intervention—they just want government to support them and not other people.

Attacks on government safety net programs ignore how people work. In his famous hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow argues that we cannot self actualize until we have addressed our fundamental needs. In other words, if you really want people to soar, you first make sure they have access to basic necessities, such as food, shelter and medicine. Poverty shackles people far more than government regulation.

To use “Harrison Bergeron” as an argument for lower taxes, fewer business regulations, and elimination of basic social services is to ignore the foundation of truly creative thinking. Harrison can touch the sky because he lives in a world that supports orchestras and dance troupes and art for the masses (via television). If, in the story, his art is neutered the moment it starts causing people to start thinking for themselves—well, that sounds more like something that the Reagan-era National Endowment for the Arts would do, not liberals.

So here’s a way to read “Harrison Bergeron” in a way that does justice to Harrison’s liberating dance: ask yourself what it would take, not to bring everyone down to the same level, but to release their true potential. Insuring that everyone has access to health care is a good start.

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Is Don Draper a Modern Faustus?

Jon Hamm as a New Faustus

Jon Hamm as a New Faustus

Everyone is debating the Mad Men finale, where we see Don Draper meditating at a New Age facility in Northern California. Is he, after years of soulless living in a soulless profession, on the verge of regaining authenticity and true interpersonal connection? Or is this hope undercut by the final moment when he figures out how to monetize all this good feeling, coming up with a commercial that insures his place in advertising’s hall of fame: Coca-Cola’s iconic “I’d like to buy the world a coke.” Is this apparent tradeoff of inner peace for fame and fortune the show’s last cynical twist?

I’m not familiar enough with the series to offer an informed opinion, but I know what Christopher Marlowe would say. In the final two scenes of Doctor Faustus, Faustus has a chance to regain his soul as his life comes to an end. Instead, he finds the lure of materialism too strong and dies despairing and alone. Draper could end up in a similar place.

To be sure, he’s not dying. Like Faustus, however, he is looking back over his life and taking stock. Just as Faustus has Old Man assure him that redemption is still possible, so Draper has his niece Stephanie guiding him. Stephanie tells her uncle, “Be open to this. You might feel better.” The Old Man, for his part, tells Faustus,

I see an angel hovers o’er they head
And with a vial full of precious grace
Offers to pour the same into they soul!
Then call for mercy and avoid despair.

Faustus doesn’t listen to Old Man—Draper has a step on him here—and in the next scene he is behaving very much like the advertising executive in earlier episodes: he engages in an empty relationship with a beautiful woman, provided by Mephistopheles’s special escort service:

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,
To glut the longing of my heart’s desire:
That I might have unto my paramour
that heavenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose sweet embracings may extinguish clean
these thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow:
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

Put in Draper terms, Faustus, rather than abandon a life that has been dedicated to material things, thinks that he just needs one more woman to fend off the despair that lurks at the edges.

Faustus gets one final chance on his deathbed as he glimpses God’s infinite mercy:

O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.
One drop would save my soul half a drop: ah my Christ—

Even here, however, he can’t maintain the soul connection. Instead, he panics and instead clutches at the few seconds that remain in the material world. As the clock strikes twelve, the hour of his appointed death, he begs,

O soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.

Draper can either build on the new peace that he has experienced or he can use his glimpse of heaven to sell sugared little water drops that rot our stomachs and our teeth. Heaven or damnation.

Further thoughts: Renaissance scholars debate whether Faustus can in fact save himself or whether he is inexorably damned. I see this as less a theological issue than a psychological one: can one really turn one’s life around after spending a lifetime developing certain habits? Draper has been lured by the fraudulent promises of consumer capitalism for so long that perhaps there is no hope for him. If the danger he is in doesn’t bother us–if we think he’d be a fool to pass up on that Coca-Cola ad–then we are in trouble as well.

Along these lines my son, when he worked in advertising, told me that some of his colleagues wanted to be Don Draper and have his beautiful women, his gorgeous clothes, and his heavy drinking, high-end life style. I am reminded of the scene in Marlowe’s play where Lucifer rolls out the seven deadly sins. They were willing to make a Faustian bargain in a heartbeat.

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10 Memorable Poetic Pick-Up Lines

 Felix Friedrich Von Ende,  "Courtship"

Felix Friedrich Von Ende, “Courtship”

I submitted my final grades yesterday, which means that I can finally plunge full time into my next book project. Since my students’ essays are still dancing in my head, however, over the next few weeks you will be introduced to some of the many ways that they have incorporated literature into their lives.

One of my students, currently head over heels in love with another of my students (they make a lovely couple), has taken the love poetry of John Donne to heart. There’s nothing like discovering that a famous poet understands what it’s like to wake up in bed with your loved one.

Jacob particularly likes Donne’s “Good Morrow” and “Sun Rising.” He too has seen the Sun as a “busy old fool” interrupting the perfect world he was experiencing–a world that, among other things, demanded that, like Donne’s “late school boys,” he attend my class.

Jacob got me thinking about poems that can be used as pick-up lines. A lot of poetry has been written with that in mind. Tell me if the following passages would work on you.

First, there’s the straightforward carpe diem, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” approach:

Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
   You may forever tarry.

                          Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Andrew Marvell also uses carpe diem reasoning but goes for a more power-packed metaphor than gathering flowers:

      Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

                                       “To His Coy Mistress”

Then there is carpe diem reasoning that concludes with a disturbing threat, this by England’s most notorious rake:

Phillis, be gentler, I advise;
     Make up for Time mis-spent,
When Beauty on its Death-bed lyes,
     ‘Tis high time to repent.

Such is the Malice of your Fate,
     That makes you old so soon;
Your Pleasure ever comes too late,
     How early e’er begun.

Think what a wretched Thing is she,
     Whose Stars contrive, in spight,
The Morning of her Love should be
     Her fading Beauty’s Night.

Then if, to make your Ruin more,
     You’ll peevishly be coy,
Die with the Scandal of a Whore,
     And never know the Joy.

                              John Wilmot, “Song”

Ugh, I hear you say. Unless you like bad boys.

Donne uses intricate wit to woo women but one is not sure whether he thinks his logic will work or whether he’s trying to convince the lady that he’s got a great sense of humor. Maybe you’re half way home if you at least capture her attention, which surely he would have done with “The Flea”:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be…

                                   Donne, “The Flea” 

And then there’s Donne making a bad pun:

   To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

                                       “Elegy 19: On His Mistress Going to Bed”

Aphra Behn imagines “the rover” in her play by that name persuading a high-priced courtesan to waive her fees:

Yes, I am poor—but I’m a Gentleman,
And one that scorns this Baseness which you practise.
Poor as I am, I would not sell my self,
No, not to gain your charming high-priz’d Person.
Tho I admire you strangely for your Beauty,
Yet I contemn your Mind.
—And yet I wou’d at any rate enjoy you;
At your own rate—but cannot—See here
The only Sum I can command on Earth;
I know not where to eat when this is gone:
Yet such a Slave I am to Love and Beauty,
This last reserve I’ll sacrifice to enjoy you.

To the horror of Angellica’s handler, the rover is successful. Then, like a bee (his simile), he leaves her and flies off to taste another flower.

Here’s a pick-up speech that is meant as a hypothetical but that wins the heart of the lady, to Viola’s great distress:

[I would] Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house.
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night.
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.

                                         Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

And here’s a passage that achieves its aim, but unfortunately not to the advantage of the man who is delivering it:

Cyrano: Each look of yours excites a new virtue,
a new courage in me! Now at last do you,
begin to see? For you yourself, do you allow?
Can you feel my soul, at all, rise through the shadow…
Oh! But truly this night’s too beautiful, too sweet!
I saying all this to you, you listening, you, to me!
Too sweet! In my dreams, even the least humble
I never hoped for such! There’s nothing else
to do but die now! It’s through words alone, I know,
that I say you tremble in the blue branches, though.
For you do tremble, like a leaf among the leaves!
For you do tremble! Whether you wish it so, I feel
your hand’s adorable trembling as it plays,
down the whole net of the jasmine sprays!

                                        Edmond de Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac

On the other hand, here is a pick-up line that definitely does not work:

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

Even if this had any chance of success, Darcy immediately undercuts it with what follows:

He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority — of its being a degradation — of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

Austen’s concluding remark is classic understatement.

In fact, once women start answering back, we see the limitations of some of the other lines as well. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu makes this clear in “The Lover: A Ballad”:

This stupid indiff’rence so often you blame,
Is not owing to nature, to fear, or to shame:
I am not as cold as a virgin in lead,
Nor is Sunday’s sermon so strong in my head:
I know but too well how time flies along,
That we live but few years, and yet fewer are young.

But I hate to be cheated, and never will buy
Long years of repentance for moments of joy…

And what would work with Lady Mary? It’s simple: just be the perfect man:

And that my delight may be solidly fix’d,
Let the friend and the lover be handsomely mix’d;
In whose tender bosom my soul may confide,
Whose kindness can soothe me, whose counsel can guide.
From such a dear lover as here I describe,
No danger should fright me, no millions should bribe;
But till this astonishing creature I know,
As I long have liv’d chaste, I will keep myself so.

Although that being said, Lady Mary later fell for Franceso Algarotti, who then dumped her. Who knows what line he used on her.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Behn (Aphra), Donne (John), Herrick (Robert), Marvell (Andrew), Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley), Rostand (Edmond de), Shakespeare (William), Wilmot (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hamlet Instructs the Class of 2015

Czachórski, "Actors before Hamlet"

Czachórski, “Actors before Hamlet”

We had our commencement Saturday and heard, along with a heartfelt valedictory speech by a biology major and an inspiring commencement address by ColorOfChange director Rashad Robinson, a passage from Hamlet.

We generally have someone read a poem at our commencements, and this year Michael Ellis-Tolaydo, a prominent Shakespearean actor and director in the Washington, D. C. area, was chosen. Michael is retiring from St. Mary’s after 29 years and has been altogether remarkable. I was concerned after hearing his opening remarks, however.

He told the graduates that, as they go out into the world and apply for jobs, they should heed the advice he always gives his actors: stay true to who you are. My immediate reaction was, “Uh oh, here’s comes Polonius’s speech.”

You know the one I’m talking about. Polonius is counseling Laertes before he journeys abroad, and the joke is that Polonius doesn’t practice what he preaches—something which is true of many commencement speakers, come to think of it. He may tell his son, “To thine own self be true,” but he himself is a panderer and a conniver who is obsessed with appearance. I braced myself for the well-known speech.

I should have known my man better. Although Michael did indeed proceed to read a passage from Hamlet, he chose something else. The graduates got to hear Hamlet’s advice to the players.

Michael did a little editing, dropping topical allusions and the reference to Christians (which I’ve kept in). To the best of my remembrance, here’s what he read:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rages…

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theater of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed, that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

And then, with the quiet power of an actor who has taken Hamlet’s advice to heart, Michael delivered to the assembled graduates the final line of the instructions:

Go, make you ready.

Exeunt players.

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Scorn No Vision That a Dewdrop Holds

Photographer Sharon Johnsone

Photographer Sharon Johnstone

This past semester in my American Fantasy course I taught Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume which, among other things, sees Christianity at war with nature. In the whacky story of a medieval tribal king who determines not to give in to death, we watch his centuries-long relationship with the Greek god Pan, who declines with the rise of first Christianity and then Cartesian science. As Robbins sees it, Christianity devalues the body and the Age of Reason (“I think, therefore I am”) seeks to subjugate the natural world.

Christianity doesn’t have to turn its back on nature, however, and there is a tradition of Christian poetry that finds natural beauty to be an expression of God’s love for the world. One sees this in Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost and in the verse of Henry Vaughan, William Blake, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Irish poetry is particularly rich in nature imagery, perhaps because Christianity in Ireland didn’t entirely displace the Celtic connection with nature but rather drew on its deep vein of spiritual power. Here’s a beautiful poem by Eva Gore-Booth, Irish nationalist and suffragette from the time of Yeats. While it’s not overtly Christian, Christian mystics will embrace its vision of divinity making itself known in a dewdrop here, a glimmer of light there.

The Quest

By Eva Gore-Booth

For years I sought the Many in the One,
I thought to find lost waves and broken rays,
The rainbow’s faded colors in the sun–
The dawns and twilights of forgotten days.

But now I seek the One in every form,
Scorning no vision that a dewdrop holds,
The gentle Light that shines behind the storm,
The Dream that many a twilight hour enfolds.


A note on the photographer: Sharon Johnstone‘s amazing photos of dewdrops can be found at http://www.lostateminor.com/2012/02/17/stunning-macro-photographs-of-dew-drops/

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Obama Tells Black Graduates to Soar

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee commencement

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee commencement

’Tis the season of commencement addresses and Michelle Obama gave a speech last week at Tuskegee University that reminded me of the talks I heard regularly at Morehouse College as a first-year professor (1980-81). It also reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, one of the favorite novels of Michelle’s husband. Like Morrison, the First Lady talked a lot about flight.

In words that outraged the usual suspects on the right, Obama first acknowledged the reality faced by African Americans in this country:

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns.  They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser.  They don’t know that part of you.

Rather than be discouraged, however, Obama told Tuskegee graduates to rise to the challenge. She illustrated her point by alluding to the fabled Tuskegee airmen, the first African American military pilots. After mentioning the discrimination they faced, she described what they accomplished:

Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely — surely — they could eat at a lunch counter together.  Surely their kids could go to school together.

You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a “double duty” — one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans. 

One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way.  He said that a takeoff was — in his words — “a never-failing miracle” where all “the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.” 

And when he was up in the sky, Charles sometimes looked down to see black folks out in the cotton fields not far from here — the same fields where decades before, their ancestors as slaves. And he knew that he was taking to the skies for them — to give them and their children something more to hope for, something to aspire to.

Flight is Song of Solomon’s central metaphor as well. The protagonist Milkman feels stuck in his middle class life, where he collects rent checks for his avaricious father. The book begins with the image of a failed flight, with Milkman born on the day that a Mr. Smith leaps from a tower in an attempt to fly. We are told that

Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier—that only birds and airplanes could fly—he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull…

Milkman begins to step into his potential, however, when he undertakes a roots quest and learns that he had a slave ancestor who, according to local legend, was one of the mythical flying slaves who flew back to Africa and to freedom.

The discovery of his history is as liberating to Milkman as I hope college has been to the Tuskegee graduates. At the very end of the novel, in what may be a moment of magical realism, Milkman launches into the air.

Before I note what happens, however, I return to Obama’s speech. She instructed the graduates not to give up and become angry:

I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.

At the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman is pitted against Guitar, his former friend, who has succumbed to race anger and is killing innocent whites in reprisal for the murder of innocent blacks. In a shift that is characteristic of terrorists, however, Guitar does not stop there but begins going after members of his own race. Thematically the book is asking whether African Americans will soar above race hatred or be pulled down by it.

Here’s the book’s final scene, located on two adjacent mountain ledges. Guitar has just shot Milkman’s aunt Pilate and is about to shoot him. Note that we aren’t told what the future will be, just as Tuskegee’s graduates don’t know what’s ahead for them. “Shalimar” is Milkman’s flying slave ancestor:

Even as [Milkman] knelt over her, he knew there wouldn’t be another mistake; that the minute he stood up Guitar would try to blow his head off. He stood up.

“Guitar!” he shouted.

Tar tar tar, said the hills.

“Over here, brother man! Can you see me?” Milkman cupped his mouth with one hand and waved the other over his head. “Here I am!”

Am am am am, said the rocks.

“You want me? Huh? You want my life?”

Life life life life.

Squatting on the edge of the other flat-headed rock with only the night to cover him, Guitar smiled over the barrel of his rifle. “My man,” he murmured to himself. “My main man.” He put the rifle on the ground and stood up.

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

Or as Obama put it to the Tuskegee graduates, if they hold on to their hopes and refuse “to succumb to feelings of despair and anger,” they will fly “through the air, out of this world — free.”

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The Real Victims of Deflategate

Tim Roth, Gary Oldman

Tim Roth, Gary Oldman

Although I’ve been steering clear of “deflategate,” regarding it as much ado about nothing, I perked up when a commentator alluded to a couple of characters in Hamlet. Can you guess which ones?

Deflategate, in case you haven’t been paying attention (and if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?!), involved the New England Patriots deflating the balls used by their offense in the NFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. In part because of the infraction, in part because the Patriots have a history of cheating, and in part because they appear to have stonewalled the investigation, the sentence was severe: Tom Brady was suspended four games and the Patriots lost draft picks and were fined. Some people find the sentence unnecessarily harsh while others regard it as eminently fair. I have no idea who is right.

Here’s what caught my attention, however: the Patriots suspended indefinitely James McNally and John Jastremski, the two underlings who deflated the balls. Chris Matthews of MSNBC compared the two to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

R&G, of course, are the clueless characters in Hamlet who unwittingly bear a deadly letter from Claudius to the king of England. Claudius’s letter instructs the king to execute Hamlet, but Hamlet discovers the letter and rewrites it, substituting R&G’s names for his own. He makes it back to Denmark safely (via pirate!) while R&G are executed in England. The announcement that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” later became, of course, the title of Tom Stoppard’s piece of fan fiction. Or should we call it fan drama?

While Hamlet’s former friends are technically exploiting their past ties with the prince to spy on him, their punishment seems out of proportion to their action. After all, they are just following the strong suggestions of the man in charge, and they know nothing of the contents of the letter they are delivering. Similarly, McNally and Jastremski didn’t deflate the footballs on their own initiative. They knew exactly how Brady likes his footballs, Brady being a control freak. No one doubts that the quarterback was aware of their shenanigans. Yet they are the ones who are losing their jobs.

Hamlet lives to fight another day, defeating first Laertes and then Claudius, and so will Brady. R&G and the Patriots’ locker room attendants, by contrast, are relegated practically to a joke. While being metaphorically hanged by the Patriots is undoubtedly traumatic for Jastremski and McNally, who other than their friends and relatives will recall their names two months from now?

So it always is with the little man. As far as sports is concerned, we share Shakespeare’s class vision, lamenting the tragedies of great leaders while regarding everyone else as trivial and expendable.

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Poetry that Reclaims Women’s Bodies

Botticelli, "Birth of Venus"

Botticelli, “Birth of Venus”

Three years ago in my Early British Literature survey, Victoria Gottleib wrote about her bulimia in relationship to Milton’s Satan. (Victoria is now allowing me to use her name.) Last week I was gratified to witness Victoria’s remarkable senior project presentation where she discussed female self portraiture. It was inspiring to see how Victoria has built upon her early insights.

An Art and English double major, Victoria described a workshop she set up where women created self portraits in response to Kelly Cherry’s poem “Rising Venus” The poem is itself a response to Botticelli’s famous painting “The Birth of Venus.”

First, a couple of notes on Victoria essay’s about Paradise Lost. Victoria saw herself in Satan’s perfectionism and understood his self-destructive need for control:

Perhaps the Satanic sentiment I most personally relate to is Satan’s stubborn resolve that “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.” Satan would rather have a warped attainment of “perfection” than relinquish his absolute control and accept his true nature, shortcomings and all, something with which I identify. As selfish and depraved as my eating disorder, my own personal hell, is, in my mind I “reign” over it and find solace in the control with which it provides me, despite its innate detriment.

As I wrote in that 2012 post, I had a conversation with Victoria after receiving her essay in which I mentioned that Milton could do even more than give her a description of her condition. He also points a way to healing. As I quote my reply, I should perhaps note that Milton’s God does not have to be interpteted religiously but can also be seen as selfless love:

I told her that the next logical step for the essay may also be the next step for herself: to look at the love that Milton’s God promises. God’s love is infinite, and true heroism is acknowledging, as Satan never does, that one is worthy to be loved in spite of the imperfections that one perceives in oneself. Milton’s Adam and Eve come to understand this, which is why they, not Satan, are the real heroes of Paradise Lost. They are the ones who have the humility to turn back to God.

Imagine how exciting I found it, therefore, to see Victoria, three years later, using poetry to help women with low self-esteem come to terms with their bodies.

In her project, Victoria wrote about destructive depictions of women in the media and how first wave and second wave feminist poets fought back through their own portraits. The poems Victoria examined were Adrienne Rich’s “Rape” and “Planetarium”; Lucille Clifton’s “Sisters” and “Wishes for Sons”; Sylvia Plath’s “Barren Woman”; Andrea Gibson’s “I Sing The Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out”; and Cherry’s “Rising Venus.” She also looked at the self portraits of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

In addition to “Rising Venus,” Victoria set up workshops reflecting upon “Planetarium” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Here’s Cherry’s poem:

Rising Venus

By Kelly Cherry

They have it wrong:
I am not young,

was born old enough
to ride the rough

waves of the sea
without drowning, and immodestly.

Semen and seaweed clung
to my hair, hung

on my bare skin
sunstruck and shimmering in

the salt-stunned air.
I had to endure

such heaviness; to push
upward against the rush

of riptide and current.
I said, I can’t

do this, but I
did it, and I

made it look natural
to float au naturel,

easy as the art
of swimming in salt

water, my pelvis fallopian,
eager, the shell scalloped,

the shell’s translucent pink
a flat-out Freudian wink.

Did you think that
the shell beached itself? That

a breeze as soft
as a hand luffed

my long hair and
breathed me onto land?

And when I reached
shore, I yanked leeches

from my legs, dredged
sand from armpits, cadged

food from scavenging birds.
I learned the words

I would need here.
Learned want, learned fear

and how to live
with both. (How? Forgive

yourself for being mortal.)
Myth is the portal

through which we pass,
becoming human at last,

rising out of dream
and desire to realms

of reality, where love,
a woman, by Jove,

survives, strong and free,
engendering her own destiny.

In her interpretation of the poem, Victoria writes,

Often, society presents women as one of two extremes, extremes that are still inaccurate, generalized, non-dimensional representations. In employing the goddess type as the foundational metaphor in her poem, Cherry reclaims this type as her own, transforming it into a positive through poetry. In “Rising Venus,” the goddess is no longer the passive object of masculine infatuation, but a dynamic victor that enables her own survival and achieves her own fulfillment as an individual. The title of Cherry’s poem also alludes to Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus. This male-created portrait of Venus idealizes her. Botticelli painted Venus into being, giving her a lush, curvaceous body. Her skin is porcelain perfection, and most of it is exposed, spare the breast covered by her hand and her genitalia covered by a ribbon of her golden, flowing hair. When we compare this renowned, male-created representation of Venus with the representation of Venus that Cherry presents in her poem, we see how Cherry writes to reconstruct this representation of Venus and infuse it with meaning relevant to women’s actual lived experiences as opposed to mythologies about those experiences.

By titling her poem “Rising Venus,” Cherry suggests that perhaps the goddess Venus, serving as a collective image representative of all women, is the speaker. Cherry begins “Rising Venus” with the line “They have it wrong.” This bold statement immediately allows the poem’s female, first-person speaker to assert her true voice to correct the wrongs, to utilize her voice throughout the poem to define herself rather than accept the falsities bestowed upon her by the “they.” Though the poem never reveals the specific identity of the “they,” the text suggests “they” is anyone who ever sought to define the speaker in anything other than her own terms. Thus, the first line of the poem is an act of reclamation. In the second line of the poem, the speaker offers a correction: “I am not young.” In intimate first-person, the speaker states what she is not, then, in the following stanzas, states what she is: “born old enough / to ride the rough / waves of the sea / without drowning, and immodestly.” This striking image of a timeless woman tangibly depicts a speaker as a shameless speaker dominating the seemingly uncontrollable element of the sea. This image shows the speaker is more than she seems; she is capable and self-assured, and choosing to present herself in such a way. The rest of the poem continues in a type of descriptive narrative through which the speaker tells her story, building it up by overcoming obstacles, and ultimately establishes herself as empowered victor, goddess, woman.

And here is Victoria describing the workshops that she set up:

Each workshop loosely adhered to the following structure: introductions, initial discussion, reading of the poem, creative response to the poem, and concluding discussion (in which we viewed the creative works we produced and recognized their function as types of self-portraits in and of themselves). Each workshop ranged from an hour and fifteen minutes to about two hours, depending on the amount of time spent on discussion and creating works.

In her presentation, Victoria showed us some of the art that the workshop participants created. Here are descriptions of two of them:

–One participant drew a comic strip of herself as the Rising Venus. She titled the strip “& again,” revealing that the comic represented a cycle. The comic included three panels: the first one, in which water covered all but the top of the head of the figure, the second one, in which the figure rose up fully above the water in a victorious stance, and the third one, in which the goddess was slipping, falling back into the water. The participant spoke about how this cyclical comic showed her own struggles, how, just when she felt confident and secure in her life choices, she would slip and fall and the cycle would start again.

–[Another] participant portrayed herself as goddess in an artwork that expressed what she has overcome and dredged from herself. The creative work shows the figure standing exposed on the beach, as objects she has dredged from herself flow down from her and litter the sand. This participant stated the things she has dredged have been positive and negative. She pointed out the things she dredged from herself often included other’s expectations or standards, and how, while they were not always bad, they were not her own expectations and standards for herself. This participant talked about her personal struggle dealing with things she thought she needed to change about herself because they were things others thought she needed to change about herself. She stated that she overcame those outside expectations and has worked and is continuing to work to find what she wants for herself.

Victoria found a way to use literature, which had aided her in her own healing process, to help others. I was left saying, “Wow!”

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Toppling Shakespeare from His Pedestal

Bust of Shakespeare

Bust of Shakespeare

I met with my Early Brit Lit survey for one last time on Friday and, as the students ate the whiskey cake I always bake for them for the last class, we talked about the works we had read. I asked them to rate the works (thumbs up, thumbs down), in part so that they could see the wide range of responses the works had elicited. Every work had at least a few defenders and, on the other hand, even Shakespeare didn’t escape unscathed.

One student said she was sick of Shakespeare and another was put off by the gender bending of Twelfth Night. Then again, others said they had fallen in love with Shakespeare’s autumnal comedy, especially for its exploration of gender identity. King Lear fared even better and some, encountering it for the first time, essentially felt like Keats upon first reading Chapman’s Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into its ken.”

I was open to all the responses. I don’t want my students to worship at the altar of great literature but rather to have an authentic relationship with it. In other words, I want them to be like the students in an Rg Gregory poem when Shakespeare descends from his pedestal and begins to fraternize with them.

The teacher in the poem is guilty of bardolatry. That is, he has turned Shakespeare into a fetish and thinks it is enough to say that the playwright “was what we call/a great man” and that “apart from winston churchill/ shakespeare was the greatest/ englishman who ever lived.” The students get sore necks from looking up at this Shakespeare.

When they take Shakespeare away from the teacher, however, they have fun. Shakespeare tells them that he was “always pissing around…when he was their age” and isn’t shocked at all by their language. Meanwhile, the teacher goes back to reread the plays, discovers where he has gone wrong, and gets out of teaching.

If I ever find myself guilty to such idolatry, I’ll follow him out of the classroom. But I prefer to think that the teacher made the wrong decision. If he has indeed rediscovered his love of Shakespeare, then the classroom is exactly where he belongs.

the shakes 

By Rg Gregory

now pay attention
(said the teacher)
and look up here

the children looked up

this is william shakespeare

four centuries up
on a pedestal
was shakespeare’s head

he was what we call
a great man

the children got sore necks
looking up
and some began to look down

no no
you mustn’t look down
(said the teacher)
apart from winston churchill
shakespeare was the greatest
englishman who ever lived

the children’s eyes
drained to their feet
and their minds
played around with
their private parts

shakespeare was once
a schoolteacher who
had a second best bed
and he happened to write
thirty six plays

and sonnets and things
he has a noble brow
as you can see

the children stared

from a dusty old head
and a mothridden beard
two sour eyes
glared down

from being a bit bored
then very bored
the children began to have
explosions going off
in many parts of their

mutters came
out of their mouths
and then anger
followed by flames

shakespeare is a chauvinist
(they screamed)

why don’t you piss off
(they shrieked at the teacher)
and take him with you

now now children
(said the teacher)
shakespeare’s language
was always as noble
as his brow
he will be shocked
to hear such words

some of the class jumped
on the teacher
(as the young are inclined
to nowadays)
the rest began to rock
shakespeare’s pedestal

please no children
(cried the teacher)

you know not what you do
do you want to destroy
all that is good
in the world

the rocking went on
like an earthquake
and slowly
up four
centuries of stone
shakespeare’s head
began to wobble
and all of a sudden
it seemed to
jump from its pedestal
and drop
shaking itself
free of dust and
a beardful of moths

vandals desecrators
(raged the teacher)
wetting himself
no doubt

watch out
(laughed the children)

and the head
fell safely into
their outstretched hands

the teacher shrank away
(wet wet)
terrified to be so close
to the greatest but one
of the greats

the children flocked round
curious to find
what greatness was

shakespeare blew his nose
cleared his throat
(the last of the dust)
and said

hello kids
i’m famished
what’s to eat
tell me about yourselves
(and things like that)

he had a real face
and he spoke english
with a kind of
birmingham accent
and he didn’t seem to know
much more than they did

he was always pissing around
(he told them)
when he was their age

the teacher gradually
came back
very surprised
and (when he dared to look
at himself) obviously
very relieved

he went away and began
reading the plays
and (discovering
where he’d gone wrong)

got out of teaching

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Does Lit Blind As Well as Enlighten?

Illus. from "Robinson Crusoe"

Illus. from “Robinson Crusoe”

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz just finished up a stint in our college’s Artist’s House and left me with a series of challenging questions. I share today some tidbits from our last conversation.

What if literature, in addition to giving us special insight, also keeps us from seeing certain things, Rachel wondered. She is concerned that, as a woman novelist, there are certain stories that seem denied her.

Such as stories of ambitious women. We have a hard time imagining women in anything but marriage plots because great women novelists—Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot, for instance—have written powerful marriage stories.

They wrote such stories even when their narratives didn’t reflect their lives. Austen and Eliot, for instance, never married (Eliot lived with a companion) and Bronte ceased writing novels once she did so. Although all three were intensely ambitious, their female protagonists don’t reflect this ambition. We cheer when Jane gives up her teaching career and marries Rochester.

Rachel is frustrated that even a contemporary woman novelist like Ursula LeGuin, when she writes adventure plots, opts for a male rather than a female protagonist (Ged in Wizard of Earthsea). So does J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter books. Have novelists of the past circumscribed rather than opened up possibilities, Rachel asked.

She told one interesting story against herself: when she wrote Leaps of Faith (2000), which is in part a labor novel, she didn’t initially include gay labor organizers because they are not associated with the genre. This was in spite of the fact that, when she herself was involved in a strike against Columbia University, some of her best friends in the union were gay. The genre, in other words, blinded her to her own reality.

More positively, novels can help us conceive what was previous inconceivable. Rachel speculated that America couldn’t truly imagine having a black president until after Toni Morrison wrote Song of Solomon. Unlike previous black male heroes, such as Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Morrison’s Milkman is not defined by his rebellion against white society. He has his own quest, and the novel concludes with him flying into an unimaginable future. It’s no surprise that Song of Solomon is one of Barack Obama’s favorite novels.

Rachel wondered whether Song of Solomon helped us imagine a black man as “the hero of his own novel” the way that David Copperfield did for the bourgeois hero. Was it possible to imagine a genuine middle class hero before Copperfield, she asked.

I immediately thought of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders from over a century earlier. In fact, I do think that Defoe helped people recognize new capitalist energies that were beginning to flow through society. Suddenly there was a narrative framework to talk about them, even when (in Moll’s case) they involve criminal activity. Before Defoe, there was no language for capitalism’s restless drives

No sooner had I mentioned Robinson Crusoe, however, than Rachel became interested in what the novel was hiding. She pointed out that, although British colonialism by 1719 was fueled by the slave trade, Crusoe gives the impression that a white colonialist can do it all on his own, with Friday only showing up late in the novel. (For the record, Crusoe is shipwrecked while going to pick up slaves for his Brazilian plantations.) Rachel wondered whether Friday is included only to show that Crusoe has achieved the status of a gentleman. The ultimate capitalist can-do narrative hides its true labor history, which pretty much is how the right wing handles the American dream.

Jane Eyre, Rachel allowed, was an interesting case. While it appears to follow the marriage plot—this is why many readers love it—its depictions of female anger were groundbreaking. Women now had a story to articulate their frustrations.  It’s no accident that suffragettes in the early 20th century embraced Charlotte Bronte as a fellow traveler and that the feminist movement of the 1970s embraced, as its central image, Bronte’s “madwoman in the attic.” In other words, sometimes a novel can break new ground in one area if not another.

I should note that both Rachel and I are interested in the ideas of reader response theorist Hans Robert Jauss, who believes that great works of art challenge the age’s “horizon of expectations.” Because people are so committed to their normative way of viewing the world, Jauss says, they often react angrily against such works. The truly great works, he adds, challenge not only the horizons of their day but the horizons that are still in place decades or even centuries later. Thus (this is my example), Shakespeare still has a cutting edge to him in Twelfth Night as he expands the definitions of what it means to be a man and a woman.

Rachel and I are both interested in Jauss because he provides a framework for understanding how literature can change history. But whereas I see all great literature as inherently progressive because it serves to liberate human potential—I include authors who appear outwardly conservative or even reactionary, like Balzac and T. S. Eliot—Rachel sees literature as being a double edged sword, able to blind as well as enlighten.

As I enter six months of sabbatical research and writing next week, it will be a perspective I need to grapple with. Stay tuned.

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“Is My Son Mad?” Mary Asks

Mary and Jesus

Spiritual Sunday – Mother’s Day 

Here’s a poem about Mary as a mother trying to figure out her intelligent but very strange son. Thinking of her as a worrying mother makes her very human.

An Evening in Galilee

By Thomas Hardy

She looks far west towards Carmel, shading her eyes with her hand, 
And she then looks east to the Jordan, and the smooth Tiberias’ strand. 
“Is my son mad?” she asks; and never an answer has she, 
Save from herself, aghast at the possibility. 
“He professes as his firm faiths things far too grotesque to be true, 
And his vesture is odd — too careless for one of his fair young hue! . . . 

“He lays down doctrines as if he were old — aye, fifty at least: 
In the Temple he terrified me, opposing the very High-Priest! 
Why did he say to me, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” 
O it cuts to the heart that a child of mine thus spoke to me! 
And he said, too, “Who is my mother?” — when he knows so very well. 
He might have said, “Who is my father?” — and I’d found it hard to tell! 
That no one knows but Joseph and — one other, nor ever will; 
One who’ll not see me again. . . . How it chanced! — I dreaming no ill! . . . 

“Would he’d not mix with the lowest folk — like those fishermen — 
The while so capable, culling new knowledge, beyond our ken! . . . 
That woman of no good character, ever following him, 
Adores him if I mistake not: his wish of her is but a whim 
Of his madness, it may be, outmarking his lack of coherency; 
After his “Keep the Commandments!” to smile upon such as she! 
It is just what all those do who are wandering in their wit. 
I don’t know — dare not say — what harm may grow from it. 
O a mad son is a terrible thing; it even may lead 
To arrest, and death! . . . And how he can preach, expound, and read! 

“Here comes my husband. Shall I unveil him this tragedy-brink? 
No. He has nightmares enough. I’ll pray, and think, and think.” . . . 
She remembers she’s never put on any pot for his evening meal, 
And pondering a plea looks vaguely to south of her — towards Jezreel.

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A “Greatest Generation” Vet Reflects

Tom Lea, “That 2,000-Yard Stare” (1944)

Tom Lea, “That 2,000-Yard Stare” (1944)

Victory in Europe Day

Today, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, I repost a column that I wrote for V-E Day 2011. It includes a poem where my father looks back at his World War II experiences. 

War veterans are caught in a wrenching dilemma: to find relief they must talk about experiences that no one should ever have to go through or, for that matter, hear about. The poem below, one of the few instances of my father writing about his experiences in World War II, captures this dilemma.

The “Mike” in the poem is my  son Toby. My father was an interpreter in the war, landing in France a couple of weeks after D Day. While Tom Brokaw and others have sung the praises of “the greatest generation” and lauded their performance in “the good war,” my father is skeptical of the “greatest” designation (thus the quotation marks around his title).  He also shares the perspective of documentarist Ken Burns that World War II was not the good war but “the worst war.” He was in Munich when he heard about the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and felt that the United States had just forfeited any claims of moral superiority. He went on to become a lifelong member of the War Resisters League.

Like many children of World War II vets, I didn’t hear many of my father’s stories until late in life. My father wasn’t involved in any actual fighting, but he was in Avranches when it was bombed (he remembers fatalistically staying upstairs reading a book in the hotel where the soldiers were billeted rather than going down to the basement), and he barely missed being sent to the Battle of the Bulge. Although he had been specially trained to be a French interpreter, he spent most of the war as part of the occupying force in Germany.

Many baby boomers in the 1960’s complained about the reserve of their fathers. While I didn’t go through the same rebellion–indeed, when I got arrested in an anti-war sit-in after the Kent State shootings, my father told me he would have come and gotten arrested with me if he had known my plans–I wonder how much of the “generation gap” was caused by our fathers having seen things that they couldn’t pass along to us. For instance, my father saw the concentration camp at Dachau three days after it was liberated. The experience changed him permanently: raised the son of teatotalling Congregationalist Republicans in Evanston, Illinois, he returned from the war a drinking and smoking atheist who had voted for Roosevelt in 1944.

As he says in his poem, when we think of World War II vets we conjure up images of battle greatness. My father is great because of the humane vision he brought back with him. That vision is at the heart of who I am. I can’t begin to express my gratitude.

“The Greatest Generation”

By Scott Bates

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

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

It is still going on.  How will it end?

“It was people surrounded by dying men.”

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

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Lear: Finding Love in Adversity

Lear and Cordelia in Prison circa 1779 William Blake 1757-1827 Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05189

William Blake, “Lear and Cordelia in Prison” circa 1779

Students are continually opening my eyes to new things in the literature I teach. Lisa Fetter, for instance, has made me realize that contrasting Doctor Faustus with King Lear can work as a powerful meditation on the positive role of adversity in our lives.

Noting that both Faustus and Lear are men at the top of their professions, Lisa asks why one dies in peace while the other dies in hellish torment. The difference lies in what happens on the way to death and how they respond.

Both are egotists. Lear, accustomed to getting whatever he wants as king, imperiously demands love from his family. Instead he receives dissembling from the two daughters who hate him and silence from the one who loves him. After ceding his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, he thinks for a while that he still has the powers of a king and is driven mad by his inability to acknowledge and accept that he has lost them. Only when he is at his lowest point does he jettison his pride and open himself to the love of Cordelia.

The change is dramatic. He assures her in prison that he has never been happier:

Cordelia: We are not the first
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst.
For thee, oppressèd King, I am cast down.
Myself could else outfrown false fortune’s frown…

Lear: No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

When Lear dies of a broken heart over Cordelia’s death, it is at least a heart that is full of love. In that way he is like Gloucester, who also dies with a full heart upon his reencounter with Edgar.

Faustus, by contrast, is never brought low. At the end of his life he is being feted by royalty and he retains the respect of his university colleagues. Perhaps it is because external circumstances have not humbled him that he doesn’t open his heart to God’s love. His despair–he is contemplating suicide when he encounters the Old Man—is not enough to turn him from his Satanic pride. Note how the love described by the Old Man is similar to what Lear gets from Cordelia:

Old Man: Ah, stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps!    
I see an angel hovers o’er thy head,    
And, with a vial full of precious grace,    
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:    
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.

Faustus here is butting up against the reality of his impending death. Whereas Lear accepts the offer of the vial, however, Faustus finds the vision too painful and calls upon devils to torture the man. He cannot let go of his prideful self-sufficiency and instead demands love on his own terms. This proves as fake as the love initially demanded by Lear:

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,    
To glut the longing of my heart’s desire,—    
That I might have unto my paramour    
That heavenly Helen which I saw of late,    
Whose sweet embracings may extinguish clean    
Those thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow,    
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

Earlier in the play Faustus asks for a wife but can only get a “hot whore.” You have to give of yourself to have a soulful relationship–this is what Lear does to find his love for Cordelia–and Faustus will not take that step. His relationships therefore are condemned to be fleeting:

Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!—    
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.    
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,    
And all is dross that is not Helena.

Lear may die sad but, as I said, he dies with a full heart. Faustus, by contrast, dies in agony as he tries to hold on to the material world:

No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer    
That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.          
[The clock strikes twelve.]    
O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,    
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!          
[Thunder and lightning.]    
O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,    
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!          
Enter DEVILS.      
My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!    
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!    
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!    
I’ll burn my books!—Ah, Mephistophilis!          
[Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS.]

As Lisa and I discussed what differentiates Lear and Faustus, we wondered whether the latter’s intellect gets in his way. Lear is a creature of emotions whereas Faustus lives in his head. It is the intellectual who can’t, in the end, surrender to love.

Lisa asked me whether I could imagine a drama where an intellectual, by being humiliated and brought low like Lear, finds a path to salvation. I was stumped and could only think of the opposite, figures like Dorian Gray whose hard hearts create everlasting hells for themselves.

Better a hot king than a cold intellectual, I guess.

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Why Baltimore Blacks Are Down and Out

Illus. from "Hard Times"

Illus. from “Hard Times”

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a very interesting article about black poverty in Baltimore and suggested a Josiah Bounderby parallel. So here goes.

Bounderby, of course, is the “self-made” factory owner in Dickens’ Hard Times who asserts that the poor deserve their poverty because they should be pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. After all he, who was born in a gutter and knocked around as a young child, did just fine:

I was to pull through it, I suppose, Mrs. Gradgrind.  Whether I was to do it or not, ma’am, I did it.  I pulled through it, though nobody threw me out a rope.  Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.  Those are the antecedents, and the culmination.  Josiah Bounderby of Coketown learnt his letters from the outsides of the shops, Mrs. Gradgrind, and was first able to tell the time upon a dial-plate, from studying the steeple clock of St. Giles’s Church, London, under the direction of a drunken cripple, who was a convicted thief, and an incorrigible vagrant.  Tell Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, of your district schools and your model schools, and your training schools, and your whole kettle-of-fish of schools; and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, tells you plainly, all right, all correct—he hadn’t such advantages—but let us have hard-headed, solid-fisted people—the education that made him won’t do for everybody, he knows well—such and such his education was, however, and you may force him to swallow boiling fat, but you shall never force him to suppress the facts of his life.

Only, as it turns out, Bounderby has indeed suppressed the facts of his life—which are that he was born with advantages that became the basis of his success. Here’s the truth, as reported by his mother, Mrs. Pegler, when she is accused to having abused him:

‘Josiah in the gutter!’ exclaimed Mrs. Pegler.  ‘No such a thing, sir.  Never!  For shame on you!  My dear boy knows, and will give you to know, that though he come of humble parents, he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could, and never thought it hardship on themselves to pinch a bit that he might write and cipher beautiful, and I’ve his books at home to show it!  Aye, have I!’ said Mrs. Pegler, with indignant pride.  ‘And my dear boy knows, and will giveyou to know, sir, that after his beloved father died, when he was eight years old, his mother, too, could pinch a bit, as it was her duty and her pleasure and her pride to do it, to help him out in life, and put him ’prentice.  And a steady lad he was, and a kind master he had to lend him a hand, and well he worked his own way forward to be rich and thriving.’

And now for the truth in Baltimore. According to Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, as reported by Vox, if whites do better than blacks there, it isn’t because whites have a better work ethic, commit fewer crimes, or do less drugs. It’s because they have hidden advantages that blacks don’t.

First, the bottom line:

[H]olding all else equal — city, income, schooling, prison records, etc. — it’s much, much harder for a black man to rise up the income ladder than a white man.

And now for Alexander’s two explanations. The first one he calls “the policing trap”:

Alexander and his colleagues found a terrible trap that affected the lives of Baltimore’s poor black people, but not its poor white people. According to their study, poor black kids and poor white kids used drugs and committed crimes at roughly similar rates — if anything, there was a bit more drug use among the white children in the sample. But poor black kids were much more likely than poor white kids to be arrested. And once they were arrested, a criminal record was a much bigger hindrance to a poor black man getting a job than it was for a poor white man.

At the same time, due to their income composition, demographics, location, and so on, black neighborhoods had a lot more crime than white neighborhoods. And so, even putting aside any issues of racially biased policing, they were policed more intensely.

This created, in essence, a trap that closed in on poor black kids. Their neighborhoods had more crime, and so they were policed more heavily. That meant that even though they didn’t commit any more crime than poor white kids, they were arrested more often. And when they got arrested, it was harder for them to get a job after prison than it was for a white kid who got arrested, so it became that much more likely they would turn to illegal ways of making money, which meant more crime in the neighborhoods, which meant more aggressive policing, which meant more black kids getting arrested, which meant more young black men held back by criminal records, and so on.

The other explanation has to do with access to the industrial and construction trades:

Alexander’s work shows something often forgotten in that debate: all kids make some bad choices, but he finds, over and over again, that society is much more forgiving of the mistakes white kids make than the mistakes black kids make, and that high crime in black neighborhoods has created an aggressive approach to policing — often, though not always, for well-intentioned reasons — in which black kids get caught for their mistakes more often than white kids.

At the same time, Alexander’s results show how a legacy of racial discrimination can lead to a persistent disadvantage for young black men. Alexander finds one of the reasons that low-income white kids without much education recover more easily from criminal records is that they often have family in skilled trades who can help them out. The industrial and construction trades, which were the best-paying jobs available to men without much education, employed 45 percent of whites but just 15 percent of blacks, and in those trades, whites earned twice as much as blacks.

The result was that a white kid who made a mistake as a 19-year-old was a lot likelier to have an uncle in plumbing or construction who knew him as a good kid who screwed up and could give him a second chance. That kid’s uncle wasn’t being a racist when he helped out his nephew, but because of historical racism in those professions, many more of those uncles are white, and so it was easier for white kids to get their lives back on track than it was for black ones. That same black kid was often just a resume with a criminal record, and so he didn’t get that second chance.

Rachel points out one significant difference between Bounderby and those members of the white working class who accuse blacks of being welfare bums: the white workers’ lives aren’t exactly rosy. They therefore can be forgiven for being blind to their subtle advantages over blacks.

Unfortunately, however, the poor will remain poor and middle class wages will remain stagnant until the country as a whole seriously addresses income inequality. When the lower tiers are set against each other, only the wealthiest Americans benefit.

We need a Mrs. Pegler to expose the bootstraps ideology for the destructive fantasy that it is.

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Chaucer’s Squire Meets Tennyson’s May Queen

Artherton as Tess Durbeyfield at the May pole dance

Artherton as Tess Durbeyfield at the maypole dance


May has exploded in Maryland and, around campus, I see students walking hand in hand. If my own college days with Julia are any indication, they aren’t only holding hands. The men I imagine as Chaucer’s Squire, who is “fresh as is the month of May”:

With him [the knight] ther was his sone, a yong Squyer,
A lovyere, and a lusty bacheler,

With lokkes cruller [curly locks], as they were leyd in presse.
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.
Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,
And wonderly deliver, and greet of strengthe.
And he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie [calvary]
In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,
And born hym weel, as of so litel space,
In hope to stonden in his lady grace.
Embrouded [Decked out] was he, as it were a mede [meadow]
Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and rede.
Singinge he was, or floytinge [fluting], al the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May.
Short was his goune, with sleves longe and wyde.
Wel coude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde.
He coude songes make and wel endyte [compose],
Iuste [Joust] and eek [also] daunce, and wel purtreye [sketch] and wryte,
So hote he lovede, that by nightertale [all night]
He sleep namore than dooth a nightingale.

The women, on the other hand, are Tennysonian May queens:

The May Queen

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear;
To-morrow ‘ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;
Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest merriest day;
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

There’s many a black, black eye, they say, but none so bright as mine;
There’s Margaret and Mary, there’s Kate and Caroline:
But none so fair as little Alice in all the land they say,
So I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

I sleep so sound all night, mother, that I shall never wake,
If you do not call me loud when the day begins to break:
But I must gather knots of flowers, and buds and garlands gay,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

As I came up the valley whom think ye should I see,
But Robin leaning on the bridge beneath the hazel-tree?
He thought of that sharp look, mother, I gave him yesterday,–
But I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

He thought I was a ghost, mother, for I was all in white,
And I ran by him without speaking, like a flash of light.
They call me cruel-hearted, but I care not what they say,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

They say he’s dying all for love, but that can never be:
They say his heart is breaking, mother–what is that to me?
There’s many a bolder lad ‘ill woo me any summer day,
And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

Little Effie shall go with me to-morrow to the green,
And you’ll be there, too, mother, to see me made the Queen;
For the shepherd lads on every side ‘ill come from far away,
And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

The honeysuckle round the porch has wov’n its wavy bowers,
And by the meadow-trenches blow the faint sweet cuckoo-flowers;
And the wild marsh-marigold shines like fire in swamps and hollows gray,
And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

The night-winds come and go, mother, upon the meadow-grass,
And the happy stars above them seem to brighten as they pass;
There will not be a drop of rain the whole of the live-long day,
And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

All the valley, mother, ‘ill be fresh and green and still,
And the cowslip and the crowfoot are over all the hill,
And the rivulet in the flowery dale ‘ill merrily glance and play,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

So you must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear,
To-morrow ‘ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year:
To-morrow ‘ill be of all the year the maddest merriest day,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey), Tennyson (Alfred Lord) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Happens to a Dream Deferred?

Baltimore protesters

Baltimore protesters

Between David BrooksMaureen DowdNicholas KristofFrank BruniRoger Cohen, and Paul Krugman, the New York Times editorial page has a good record of dipping into literature to explore the issues of the day. Yesterday, it was Charles Blow’s turn as he cited a Langston Hughes poem.

The occasion was the “man bites dog” story of a public prosecutor, Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby, bringing murder charges against six police for the death of a black man. As Blow recounts in depressing detail, this does not happen often. Instead, African Americans have ample reason to expect that American justice will always side against them, whatever the facts.

Blow observes that the long history of police going unindicted or unconvicted after killing young black men

eats away at public confidence in equal justice under the law and reaffirms people’s worst fears: that the eyes of justice aren’t blind but jaundiced. 

Then he quotes Hughes:

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Speaking of Hughes, it’s worth applying one of his best-known poems to Baltimore. After reading it, how would you assess the state of its black citizenry:


By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In the multiple television interviews I witnessed where Baltimore inhabitants talked about the city’s deeply entrenched poverty and the routine instances of police violence, I saw people who were drying up in resignation, festering in hopelessness, and sagging in despair. They also told stories of people who had escaped into drugs and crime, which could be categorized as going bad like rotten meat.

And then some people exploded, burning a CVS. At which point the world began to pay attention.

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Political Consultants Should Read Lit

Henry Fuseli, "Macbeth and the Witches"

Henry Fuseli, “Macbeth and the Witches”

Mention Hamlet in the title of your column and you’ve got my immediate attention. Frank Bruni of the New York Times did so yesterday in an article about a Democratic pollster and political strategist and I clicked on it right away.

Bruni featured Joel Benenson because he was a theater major in college and Bruni is interested in the uses to which people put their liberal arts educations. Benenson helped get Barack Obama elected and is now working for Hillary.

Knowing how language works has proved to be very useful:

Parsing Hamlet and Macbeth gave him an “understanding of the rhythm and nuance of language,” he explained, that’s as useful as any fluency in statistics or political science per se.

And further on:

He was attracted to acting by more than the bright lights. “To do it well, you have to get at what’s going on beneath the words and the emotional content of it,” he said, adding that such attention to the details of speech and gesture is crucial “for anybody who’s communicating.”

So are a firm grasp of language and context, which drama and literature hone.

In that sense, he said, he prepared for a political world of slogans, focus groups and opinion surveys by doing plays by Harold Pinter and Terrence McNally and reading novels by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

All those glorious words really did pave the path to sound bites.

“THAT term has become derogatory,” he said, divulging that he once pushed back at Obama’s skepticism of such tidy, pithy locutions by saying to him: “Mr. President, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ is a sound bite. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’ is a sound bite. We remember them because they reflect high principle and clarity of thought and universal truths. That’s the power of them.”

Obama, who is very well-read himself (note his use of The Waste Land when he was courting a woman in college), probably didn’t need a lot of persuading. I’m sympathetic with his reservations, however. Language can be used for bad as well as for good. Just as, say, psychologists can exploit their understanding of the human mind to cynically manipulate people, so language and literature majors can misuse their special grasp of language.

High stakes politics, with all the money and power involved, threatens to lead practically anyone astray. I’m therefore more interested in how the authors Benenson mentions might help a political consultant stay in touch with his soul. I don’t know for sure if that’s why Benenson mentions Pinter, McNally, Hawthorne, Melville, and later Shakespeare—the article doesn’t give me enough to go on—so I’m going to discuss how I hope that he’s using them.

Hopefully he hasn’t turned to, say, Melville’s Confidence Man to figure out ways to dupe the American public. The protagonist figures out the weaknesses of a wide multitude of characters and proceeds to take advantage of them. If Benenson has this book in mind, let’s hope instead that he’s using it to see through slick-talking political salespeople.

Moby-Dick could be useful. After all it gives us one of literature’s great monomaniacs, and the presidential election process virtually selects for monomaniacs. Can Benenson keep his charges from destroying themselves and everyone around them?

The Scarlet Letter provides us a useful example of a self-righteous and soul-sucking individual in Chillingworth. That certainly would be useful knowledge in the political world.

Harold Pinter is famous for his “theater of menace,” where seemingly innocent conversations are filled with hints of dire threats. I suspect one encounters a lot of such talk in our centers of power.

I don’t know much about Terrence McNally but here’s a discussion of his work by professor Raymond-Jean Frontain explains why a political idealist might be drawn to him:

WHAT BRINGS AUDIENCES to the theater is “the expectation that the miracle of communication will take place,” explains a protester to the board of a city arts complex in Hidden Agendas, a one-act play that Terrence McNally wrote in 1994 in response to government-inspired attempts to censor an exhibition of the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. “Words, sounds, gestures, feelings, thoughts! The things that connect us and make us human. The hope for that connection!” The purpose of theater, McNally says in a subsequent interview, is to “find out” and explore “what connects us” as human beings. For McNally, theater’s most important function is to create community by bridging gaps opened between people by differences in race, religion, gender, and most particularly sexual orientation.

And in another article where Frontain quotes McNally, quoted by Wikipedia:

I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don’t think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to … Plays don’t do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.

I’m particularly glad that Benenson keeps three copies of the collected works of Shakespeare since, of course, the Bard provides the ultimate examples of political leaders who court disaster when they follow their egotistical impulses and forget about their sacred duty. Kent in King Lear is the ideal political consultant —although he gets fired for speaking truth to his boss—while the witches function in that capacity in Macbeth.

And who knows, maybe Bill Clinton wouldn’t have strayed with Monica Lewinsky if one of his advisors had given him Antony and Cleopatra.

Posted in Hawthorne (Nathaniel), McNally (Terrence), Melville (Herman), Pinter (Harold), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus as the New Dionysus



Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary reading—the parable of Jesus as the “true vine”—reminds me of a passage from Euripides’ The Bacchae. Translator Michael Cacoyannis, the Greek filmmaker, emphasizes certain parallels between Jesus and Dionysus in ways that get us to see the passage from John in new ways. First, here’s John:

Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

And now here’s Euripides, writing 500 years earlier. Like Jesus, Dionysus was born of a virgin impregnated by a god (Zeus). Some religious scholars believe that the story of the resurrection grew out of Dionysian fertility cults while others think that early Christians compared Jesus to Dionysus/Bacchus in order to elevate their new religion:

Next [after earth goddess Demeter] came the son of the virgin, Dionysus,
bringing the counterpart to bread, wine
and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
His blood, the blood of the grape,
lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
When after their daily toils, men drink their fill,
sleep comes to them, brining release from all their troubles.
There is no other cure for sorrow. Though himself a God,
it is his blood we pour out
to offer thanks to the Gods. And through him,
we are blessed.

A later passage brings Pentecost to mind:

This God is also a prophet. Possession by his ecstasy,
his sacred frenzy, opens the soul’s prophetic eyes.
Those whom his spirit takes over completely
often with frantic tongues foretell the future.

There’s also this:

He is life’s liberating force.
He is release of limbs and communion through dance.
He is laughter and music in flutes.
He is repose from all cares—he is sleep!
When his blood bursts from the grape
and flows across tables laid in his honor
to fuse with our blood,
he gently, gradually, wraps us in shadows
of ivy-colored sleep.

Like Jesus, Dionysus offends the authorities in charge of law and order, who take particular offense to his female followers. In one scene, King Pentheus becomes a Pontius Pilate figure, passing judgment on an unresisting Dionysus. We see Pentheus’s rage against this rabble rouser earlier in the play:

                                       The rest of you,
scour the city, find this effeminate stranger
who afflicts our women with this new disease
and who befouls our beds. And when you catch him,
drag him here in chains.
He’ll taste the people’s justice when he’s stoned to death,
regretting every bitter moment of his fun in Thebes.

I don’t want to push the parallels too far because Christianity took Dionysian rituals in a less earthly direction, proclaiming as heretics those who advocated for a more sensual Christ. Also Jesus, unlike Dionysus, does not insist upon vengeance.

Nevertheless, we can see why people found the Eucharist drama so compelling. By the time of the Last Supper, there was already a long mythic history of wine as a metaphor for a god’s life-sustaining blood.

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Whitman, Melville & Abolitionism

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz is currently serving a two-week stint in our College’s Artist’s House. and we have been talking about the power of literature to change the very categories by which people define reality. Rachel has steered me to a remarkable book on the radical abolitionists, The Black Hearts of Men, where author John Stauffer discusses how Walt Whitman and Herman Melville helped America imagine new ways of seeing itself.

Whitman’s vision was radical because it broke down barriers that were foundational to oppression. Here’s Stauffer:

In his 1855 Leaves of Grass Whitman articulated an empathic vision of America surpassing even that described by Radical Abolitionists a week earlier at Syracuse. Their respective visions shared many of the same features. Both visions evoked a democracy of inclusion, but without its inherent flaw—dating back to the Greeks—of forging that inclusion by excluding women, slaves, and blacks. Both portrayed a sacred society in which divinity dwelled within all people. Both contained an aesthetic of fluidity and connectedness between one person and another (and between Whitman and the reader), regardless of differences. And both contained elements of the sublime. For Whitman, the sublime appeared in the grotesque images of Southerners and Northerners, prostitutes and saints, blacks and whites, all living together in harmony. But while Radical Abolitionists at Syracuse focused on the means for achieving the new age, Whitman assumed that it had already arrived. For Whitman, his poetry itself created the condition of pluralist society that was no longer burdened by sin. It was in his poetry, rather than in his prose works or his life, that the new age was possible. 

Stauffer notes that Melville offered up a similar vision and that at least one abolitionist, African American James McCune Smith, picked up on it. In his amazing Republic of Letters, Smith depicted an ideal society that drew inspiration from Moby-Dick. Here’s Stauffer describing Smith’s vision:

His new “republic” consisted of a series of sketches—ten in all, the last one completed in late 1854—depicting working-class black men and women as heroic and dignified Americans in a retrograde society that had rejected them…The portraits range in type from a news-vendor, bootblack, washerwoman, and sexton, to a steward, inventor, whitewasher, and schoolmaster. Their work is the key to their character; it is what defines them, rather than their race, class, or gender. In McCune Smith’s Republic of Letters, there is no essential difference between men and women, black and white, rich and poor.

Do you see any resemblance to Moby-Dick? Here’s Stuffer:

[Smith’s] narrator and characters contain many of the same features as Ishmael and Queequeg, who form an intimate friendship by working, praying, and sleeping together despite their cultural and racial differences. Both Melville’s and McCune Smith’s characters undermine the cultural dichotomies on which the social order depended. As Ishmael says, he and Queequeg stand above the jeering glances of mainstream Americans—“a lubber-like assembly, who marveled that two fellow beings should be so companionable; as though a white man were anything more dignified than a white-washed negro.”

Stauffer makes a point about Whitman that I find interesting. Although Whitman put forth a radical new vision in his poetry, in his life and in his journalistic writings, he was unwilling to befriend blacks and to “act on the revolutionary ideas in his poetry. “Be radical—but not too damned radical,” he once counseled someone. While he opposed slavery, he was not in favor of immediate abolition.

I’ve noted frequently in this blog that literature is often wiser than we are. “We” includes the author. When we are in the grip of a poem or a story, we often see things that we are otherwise blind to. Whitman’s poetry took him places where his feet could not follow.

And here’s an interesting point about Smith’s use of Moby-Dick. Few readers knew about the novel and, for that matter, few people read Smith. Not all literature hits with the cataclysmic force of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet powerful ideas have a way of shifting the conversation and perhaps Moby-Dick, like Stowe’s work, played a role in The Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment.

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Mourning Lincoln, Mourning My Son


Yesterday I taught “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” for a colleague who is undergoing chemotherapy. As I was rereading the poem, I thought a lot about my friend, whose condition is severe, and I thought about my oldest son, who died 15 years ago today.

Justin drowned in a freak accident when a rogue current appeared in a popular swimming spot near our college and grabbed him. In Whitman’s mourning for Abraham Lincoln, I recognized many of my own thoughts and emotions from the days, weeks, and months that followed Justin’s death.

Justin died on a gorgeous spring day and I was struck, even as I thrashed around in pain, by the irony. This was a season of life, not of death! Whitman picks up on the same false note with Lincoln, who also died in April. Rich images of fertility are set against the journey of Lincoln’s coffin::

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Like Whitman, I pulled into myself and felt like I was peering out at the world. In Whitman’s case, he sees himself as a hermit thrush, singing the “song of the bleeding throat”:

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
a shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well, dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)

In my case I didn’t sing Whitmanesque free verse, but I did bury myself in literature, including Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and some of England’s great elegies (especially Adonais and In Memoriam). Without them I would have shriveled up.

As with Whitman, however, the poetry could barely hold its own against dark depression.  The star in the following stanza is Lincoln, and the “black murk” that hides it is both his death and Whitman’s despair:

O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.

And further on:

Falling upon them all [the American people] and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Yet even as I came to know death, I also became vividly aware of the insistence of life. I remember gazing in awe at the woods bordering our yard as the vegetation exploded. Life, I thought, will not be denied. We see a similar awe in Whitman as he takes note of the lilacs:

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

In ritually plucking the sprig, which he imagines laying upon Lincoln’s coffin, Whitman is asserting life in the face of death. My own protest against death was my resolution that our tragedy would not blight the lives of my other two sons, who were 19 and 17 at the time. The black cloud, I declared, would not define who we were as a family.

Now when I think of Justin’s death, the pain is still there but it is muted, like an old wound when the weather changes. The memory also reminds me that I am not what I once was: my empathy for others has deepened and my soul is more resonant. I understand Whitman’s vow to “keep” or hold on to “retrievements out of the night.” From his pain and from my own arise powerful images that sustain us:

For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

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Protesting Baltimore’s Racial Divide

Protesters demonstrate before Baltimore police station

Protesters demonstrate before Baltimore police station

My heart breaks as I see violence breaking out in Baltimore as a result of African American Freddie Gray dying while in police custody. Many of my students are from Baltimore, a good friend preaches at a church in a poor section of northwest Baltimore (near the Pimlico race track), and I have visited the city often.

The city hasn’t seen rioting like this since Martin Luther King was assassinated. Observers trace the unrest, not only to the nation’s ever expanding list of unarmed black men killed by police, but to Baltimore’s long history of poverty and racial divisiveness. As with many urban areas, things went downhill in Baltimore when jobs left the city in the 1960s.

One of the iconic poems to come out of the Harlem Renaissance takes note of Baltimore’s racial divide. The quiet simplicity of Countee Cullens’ “Incident”–the poem reads almost like a nursery rhyme–makes the incident described all the more horrifying.

Written in 1925, the poem reminds us that the world looks much different to those who are marked out by the color of their skin. Statistics show that, even when all other things are equal, Blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped on the sidewalk, pulled over while driving, suspended from school, and given jail time. Cullen points out that the prejudice starts young:


By Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Posted in Cullen (Countee) | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

In April, Frogs Shout Their Desire

Spring peeper

Spring peeper

The frogs are singing their lust in the marshes that border the college where I teach, bringing to mind Mary Oliver’s poem “Blossom.” Oliver’s harsh image of death—“Time chops at us all like an iron hoe”—gives a special urgency to the “frogs shouting their desire.” The poem thrusts forward in spasmodic bursts as it tries to capture “the burning.”

It so happens that I was teaching 17th century carpe diem poems yesterday and we were discussing exactly this contrast. Andrew Marvell conjures up images of worms and graves as he tries to persuade his coy mistress to “tear our pleasures with rough strife.”

Each of the poets we discussed invokes time and, while they talk about it differently, each sees a transcendent moment when the sexual moment trumps the chopping hoe.

To start with a contrast, Donne conjures up a Platonic vision where the sun stops in the heavens to shine upon the perfect lovers.

Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; 
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

Marvell, in the carpe diem tradition, acknowledges that he can’t hope for such a reprieve. He asserts, however, that the lovers can at least give the sun a run for his money:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

John Wilmot tells us that Heaven allows no more that a “live-long minute” of constancy:

Then talk not of inconstancy,
         False hearts, and broken vows;
If I, by miracle, can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
         ’Tis all that Heav’n allows.

For Oliver, time lies shattered as we enter the body of another.


By Mary Oliver

In April
   the ponds
         like black blossoms,
the moon
   swims in every one;
     there’s fire
         everywhere: frogs shouting
their desire,

   their satisfaction. What
      we know: that time
         chops at us all like an iron
hoe, that death
   is a state of paralysis. What
      we long for: joy
         before death, nights
in the swale—everything else
   can wait, but not
      this thrust
         from the root
of the body. What
   we know: we are more
      than blood—we are more
         than our hunger and yet
we belong
   to the moon and when the ponds
      open, when the burning
         begins the most
thoughtful among us dreams
   of hurrying down
      into the black petals,
         into the fire
into the night where time lies shattered,
into the body of another


Posted in Donne (John), Marvell (Andrew), Oliver (Mary), Wilmot (John) | Leave a comment

The Journey of the Reader Hero

Seymour Joseph Guy, "Young Girl Reading" (1877)

Seymour Joseph Guy, “Young Girl Reading” (1877)

Last week I promised to explore further how reading great literature can be a hero’s quest, a journey across a magical threshold such as that described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here’s what I came up with.

First, a note on why I find Campbell and his mentor Carl Jung so powerful. Both men believe that each of us has the inner potential to fulfill some special destiny. (“Follow your bliss,” Campbell famously advised.) It doesn’t matter whether this destiny is great or small. Maybe we are called upon to be president, maybe an English teacher in a small country school, maybe something that doesn’t have a label. The important thing is that we put the best of ourselves into play.

Our initial job is to identify our destiny and to develop the special powers we possess that are needed to achieve it. I see literature as a particularly powerful aid, a resource that can connect us with deep energies. Therefore, my job as a literature teacher is to guide students in the use this resource. I can’t tell ahead of time exactly which works will reach which students so I present them with a variety. Once I see a work catch hold, I encourage the student to write about it and insist that he or she make the essay meaningful.

Invoking Campbell, then, we can see a work of literature as a call to the reader hero. In a classroom setting, the teacher functions as a threshold guardian, guiding the student into the work. If students reject the call–which is to say, refuse to engage with a work that could change their lives–then they risk remaining stuck in their narrowness, experiencing all the anger and frustration that this involves. To them, the threshold guardian will seem a forbidding figure rather than a friend.

Even willing students will find the hero’s journey difficult. There are various challenges that they will encounter—say, understanding Shakespearean English or deciphering the long, difficult sentences of Faulkner. They may want to abandon the journey altogether (what Campbell describes as being trapped within the belly of the whale). Fortunately, they have access to various spirit guides, the teacher being the most obvious. (I offer up this blog as another.) Once they obtain the special awareness that literature provides—what Campbell calls the “elixir”–they are halfway through the journey.

Now they must act upon that wisdom, becoming the person that the work reveals them to be. This may be difficult, especially if their new understanding goes against parental or social expectations. They may feel tempted to pretend that the journey never occurred and return to their previous state (the temptress symbolizes this impulse). Maybe they will see literature as having nothing to do with real life. Acting upon the newly acquired knowledge is the hardest part of the journey, calling upon them to be heroes.

The same journey can occur for those who are no longer in the classroom. It occurs when you pick up a challenging work that you instinctively know you should read but that you’ve been avoiding. You may go through the same approach-avoidance dance that students engage in. Have courage, knowing that the rewards outweigh the hardships.

By invoking Campbell’s “monomyth,” I have, of necessity, been vague. It’s up to each of us to give body to his symbols. For concrete examples, feel free to peruse the archives of Better Living through Beowulf, which turns six today. Exploring literature’s special call is my life’s work.

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The God of Love My Shepherd Is

Good Shepherd

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary includes the wonderful passage where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd (John 10:11-18). George Herbert undoubtedly had Jesus’ words in mind when he set the 23rd psalm to rhyming verse.

First, here’s the passage from John:

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

In Herbert’s version of David’s psalm, the Lord becomes the God of love:

The 23rd Psalm

By George Herbert

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grass,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently pass:
In both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert,
And bring my mind in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Yea, in death’s shady black abode
Well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me, and thy rod
To guide, thy staff to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine,
Ev’n in my enemies’ sight;
My head with oil, my cup with wine
Runs over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love
Shall measure all my days;
And as it never shall remove,
So neither shall my praise.

Herbert regularly writes about being undeserving and straying from God’s love, and he does so here, even though this sentiment is not found in the psalm:

Or if I stray, he doth convert,
And bring my mind in frame:
And all this not for my desert,
But for his holy name.

Also, the cup that runneth over contains wine in Herbert’s version, a reference to the eucharist. And while David concludes, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,/ And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” Herbert writes, “Surely thy sweet and wondrous love/Shall measure all my days.”

Both sound pretty good.

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The Making of a Literary Meal

Cover art by Sue Johnson

Cover art by Sue Johnson

Last night I went to a celebration of a new “foodie lit”anthology, Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal. One of the co-editors is my colleague Jennifer-Cognard Black, who has contributed posts to this blog in the past (here and here). A number of the authors included in the book were there to read from their work. What with all the sumptuous descriptions of meals, you would not have wanted to go to the reading hungry.

Books that Cook is organized like a cookbook and most of the poems, essays, and short stories have accompanying recipes. As a blurb about the book explains,

All food literatures are indebted to the form and purpose of cookbooks, and each section begins with an excerpt from an influential American cookbook, progressing chronologically from the late 1700s through the present day, including such favorites as American Cookery, The Joy of Cooking, and Mastering the Art of French Cook. The literary works within each section are an extension of these cookbooks, while the cookbook excerpts in turn become pieces of literature—forms of storytelling and memory-making all their own.

The collection opens with an excerpt from Lucille Clifton’s “Sunday Dinner.” Lucille used to be a colleague and, because I have heard her read many times in the auditorium where the reading was held, I felt her absence. “Sunday Dinner” very much captures the flavor of the collection:

Sunday Dinner

By Lucille Clifton

One wants
in a fantastic time
the certainty of
chicken popping in grease
the truth of potatoes
steaming the panes and
gold and predictable as
heroes in history
melting over all.

We had a chance after the reading to sample a number of the recipes in the book, including an amazing carrot soup. The students were most appreciative.

Incidentally, another colleague, Sue Johnson in the Art Department, contributed the books cover design.

Jennifer teaches a “Books that Cook” class every other year that has two-year wait lists. If you’d like to see some of the writing her students have done, several years agothis blog ran several of their essays. You can click on the links below to read them.

Family, Secrets, and Food

Blueberry Muffins and Rites of Passage

Beans and Rice, the Taste of Home

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Hillary Will Be Cast as a Witch

Garland, Hamilton in "The Wizard of Oz"

Garland, Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz”

I have been vowing to stay away from the 2016 presidential race until (how’s this for an idea?) 2016, but today I am making an exception after hearing a recent student’s presentation on The Wizard of Oz. That’s because Jessica Edwards-Smith’s analysis of women figures in the novel prompted me to see very clearly how Hillary Clinton will be perceived by our vocal right wing politicians and pundits.

Some background explanation is necessary. As I have noted (see the links below), I have come to see The Wizard of Oz as one of America’s great fairy tales. Opening in depression America, it is the story of how a young pioneer girl inspires those who have lost hope with her optimistic can-do spirit. In one past post I noted that, in 2008, a number of people saw Sarah Palin in her red pumps as a new Dorothy. Grown men who felt disempowered by the economic downturn looked to the fresh and sexy Sarah and felt they could reclaim the country of their dreams.

I promise you that none of these men will see Hillary in this way. Instead, they will see her as an emasculating witch. As Jess noted, this is how Baum sees the witches in Wizard of Oz.

The novel starts with a description of a woman who is failing to lift up the drooping spirits of her man:

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

In the novel, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion are all versions of Uncle Henry. (The 1939 movie openly makes the equation between Dorothy’s companions and the workers on the farm.) Each one is stuck—literally in the case of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman—and has lost confidence in himself. Dorothy arrives with the promise of a new day, making a splash as she takes out one witch. When the Great and Terrible Oz proves to be a phony—think of him as the Washington establishment—she takes out the other witch herself. In the process, her three companions regain their self-confidence and each goes on to reign over a kingdom.

From a gender point of view, Baum is telling us that American women have the responsibility to inspire their men. If they do so, they are good witches. If they fail, they are bad witches.

Historians might argue otherwise. They might attribute the “long recession” of the late 19th century to rapacious monopolies and banks and recommend vigorous governmental regulation to curtail their power. Baum, however, informs us the real problem is a failure of belief. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion already have all the brain, heart, and courage they need. Dorothy just has to click her heels. The power of positive thinking will take us home.

Jess pointed out that Aunt Em has the potential to be the Good Witch of the North, a kindly old lady who gives Dorothy a protective kiss. Instead, she has become the Bad Witch of the West, tyrannizing over the men folk. In other words, America has failed because America’s women aren’t doing their job. Dorothy has grown up to be Aunt Em.

Or Hillary Clinton. I predict that, over the next year and a half—and if she is elected, for the four or eight years after that—the rightwing will do everything it can to cast Hillary as a witch who is emasculating America. The attacks will be conducted with the same intensity as the attacks against Obama but they will also be different. Gender will replace race as the great signifier.

Our responsibility as citizens will be to differentiate between honest policy difference and dark fantasy projection. As Bette Davis would say, “Fasten your seat belts, everybody. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”


 Other Wizard of Oz posts

Sarah Palin as Dorothy

Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

Oklahoma Tornado Recalls Dorothy’s

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

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