Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God

Melting Antarctic glaciers

Melting Antarctic glaciers

One of the students in my Introduction to Literature class, Danie Manos, noted similarities between Pentheus and climate change denialists as we were discussing Euripides’ The Bacchae. It was an insightful observation that brought home the relevance of the 2400-year-old play.

To read the play this way involves seeing Dionysus as a stand-in for nature. When humans respect and honor nature, then nature is benign. But when they seek to dominate it, nature responds with fury, tearing them apart. In the play, Pentheus is literally torn apart by forces unleashed by the angry god.

Danie mentioned having been in England when an unprecedented hurricane tore through the country last year. Others students noted the increase in hurricanes and tornadoes over the past twenty years in our own country, both in number and in intensity. Scientists are increasingly documenting the extent to which these are attributable to humans dumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. We can say that we are failing to honor the nature god.

Not that the ancient Greeks suffered from human-caused climate change. Human technology had very little impact on the earth at that time. But Euripides could see what happened when humans stifled natural impulses, whether it was locking up their women or asserting other stringent controls over human behavior. It’s not a stretch, therefore, to extend his observations to what is occurring today.

Of course, nature is not always benign even when we treat it well. One reason that the Greeks worshipped the gods was to placate them. One sacrificed to Poseidon prior to a sea voyage in hopes of a good trip. If the trip still went wrong, then one might conclude that there was something wrong with the sacrifice. Or that, for some unexplained reason, Poseidon chose not to accept the slaughtered bull, but at least we tried. The rituals people went through gave them the illusion that they had some control over an otherwise chaotic universe. Our need to believe we have some control lies deep within us.

In the case of climate change, however, we really do have control. Thus, watching Pentheus walk willfully into his doom is not unlike watching ourselves do the same. We are a living example of dramatic irony. Think of some audience gazing at us, our future foretold, and shaking their heads as we ignore every warning signal that the gods send us.

When Pentheus’ mother and grandfather survey the damage he has brought on himself and them, they lament that it isn’t fair:

Cadmus: Dionysus, hear our prayer. We have done wrong.
Dionysus: You learned too late. When you should have known us you did not.
Cadmus: We know that now. But you are too severe in prosecuting us.
Dionysus: I am a god, and you committed an outrage against me.
Cadmus: Anger does not become a god. You should not be like a human being.
Dionysus: Zeus, my father, agreed to all this long ago.
Agave (with a cry of despair): It is a decree, then. Old man, we are banished. How miserable!
Dionysus: Why put it off? It will be, by necessity.

The humans try to personify the gods so as to define them in human terms. We all naturally do this. But if nature represents blind results, then it will be impervious to our pleas. And just as Cadmus, innocent himself, suffers for what his grandson has done, so all of us will suffer for what the major polluters and their political allies are doing. Nature is not fair.

But in the case of climate change, it is relentlessly and brutally logical.

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Using Kipling to Voice Despair

Durer, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Durer, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

I see that Roger Cohen of the New York Times used a Rudyard Kipling poem to frame a despairing column today. The poem is “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” in which Kipling laments that we have forgotten universal wisdom to follow the fads of the day. Because we do, we can expect only disaster or what Cohen calls “the great unraveling.”

In Cohen’s vision, the great unraveling includes the rise of terrorism, Russia’s new imperialistic ambitions, Europe’s decline (led by Germany’s refusal to assume leadership), America’s withdrawal from the world, the rise of race hatred (whether anti-Jew or anti-Muslim), the loss of faith in democracy, and the outbreak of Ebola and other diseases. Among other targets, Cohen goes after the United States and the Obama administration:

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.

Cohen concludes:

It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

It must be difficult to be a political columnist. Periodically one is tempted to throw up one’s hands and declare everything is (to use a copybook phrase) going to hell in a hand basket, even though this can hardly be called the worst of times. (As I see it, the 14th and 20th centuries contend for that dubious honor, although there are other centuries for which one can make a good case.) If you know your Lord of the Rings, it can be Denethor gazing into the palantir. Still, it feels good to vent, just as Kipling was doing in 1919—which is to say, right after World I had ravaged Europe and killed his son.

“Copybook headings” were wise maxims that school children were expected to copy as they learned how to write. “The Market Place,” meanwhile, is where people pick up fashionable, and therefore dubious, new ideas. “Gods of the Copybook Headings” reads like a set of cranky complaints written by an old curmudgeon who is sick to death of “the Hopes that our World is built on.” These he sees as vain wishes along the order of “if pigs had wings, they could fly.” Or as another old maxim puts it, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”

Kipling’s complaints sound like those of today’s radical Republicans. He appears to be attacking pacifism and the new League of Nations (which will disarm us and then deliver us “bound to our foe”), the decline of the family and the suffragette movement (which will cause women to have no more children and men to lose “reason and faith”) and a new economic order based on taxing the rich to pay for collective benefits (robbing “selected Peter to pay for collective Paul”), thereby sapping people of the will to work. (Kipling may have in mind either communism or Teddy Roosevelt-style progressivism.)

If we ignore the older verities and plunge into what we think is “Social Progress” or “the March of Mankind,” then (Kipling predicts) “as surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,” we will experience terror and slaughter. And the Gods of the Copybook Headings will be able to say, “We told you so.”

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

By Rudyard Kipling

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.” 

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbor and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.” 

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all, 
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul; 
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy, 
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.” 

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. 
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, 
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins, 
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, 
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return! 

I wonder if Cohen, no rightwinger, really considered Kipling’s ideas when he wrote his column. After all, if the speaker of the poem were to have his way, women would still be subjugated to men and we would lack the safety net programs that have reduced poverty and hunger for millions. That’s as true as Two and Two make Four.

To be sure, it’s very useful for liberals and conservatives (by which I mean true conservatives, not the GOP’s radical fringe) to engage in debate, with liberals dreaming of a just world free of suffering and conservatives pointing out how imperfect human nature invariably undermines our dreams. Kipling’s ironic use of Miranda’s “brave new world,” which may have given Aldous Huxley the title for his famous dystopia, is an appropriate critique of naïve idealists. The Dog will return to his vomit just as humans, although fired by “Uplift, Vision, and Breadth of Mind,” will return to certain base impulses.

But Cohen himself seems to be a hopeless idealist in suggesting that the United States is weak for deciding it can’t do more. If anything, Obama’s foreign policy minimalism is more in line with Kipling’s conservatism than Cohen’s contention that America should be “an ordering power.” (Obama’s emphasis on “hope and change” at home is another matter.) Actually, like most rants, both Cohen’s and Kipling’s are contradictory and incoherent. Old maxims, rather than being ineluctable truths, can actually be used by partisans on either side of any debate. Think of the essay and the poem psychologically rather than as useful policy prescriptions.

Still, whenever a columnist turns to poetry to sort out a confused world, an interesting discussion emerges.

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How Capitalism Threatens Art

Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno

Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno

An excellent Alex Ross article in the most recent New Yorker argues that we should bring back the Frankfurt School, most notably Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. I feel fortunate to have been immersed in these thinkers as a history major at Carleton College (1969-73) and appreciate the case that Ross makes.

The Frankfurt School was a collection of neo-Marxist social theorists at Goethe Institute in Frankfurt, Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, a number of whom fled to the United States with the rise of Hitler. People started rereading them in the 1960s when they/we were looking for ways to understand the dynamics of advanced capitalist society.  I remember feeling at the time that our very ability to imagine alternatives to the society we were living in was threatened by capitalism’s ability to subsume everything.

In the 1990’s, with the triumph of Reaganism, Marx no longer seemed relevant to the modern world. Ross points out, however, that this has been changing with recent developments:

With the fall of the Soviet Union, free-market capitalism had triumphed, and no one seemed badly hurt. In light of recent events, however, it may be time to unpack those texts again. Economic and environmental crisis, terrorism and counterterrorism, deepening inequality, unchecked tech and media monopolies, a withering away of intellectual institutions, an ostensibly liberating Internet culture in which we are constantly checking to see if we are being watched: none of this would have surprised the prophets of Frankfurt, who, upon reaching America, failed to experience the sensation of entering Paradise. Watching newsreels of the Second World War, Adorno wrote, “Men are reduced to walk-on parts in a monster documentary film which has no spectators, since the least of them has his bit to do on the screen.” He would not revise his remarks now.

Ross focuses on Benjamin and Adorno because of the important ways they pushed each other on the subject of popular culture. Benjamin trumpeted how popular culture seemed a vibrant way of liberating us from traditional class society. His most famous quotation may be “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” and he looked to popular culture as a way of working outside the parameters of traditional power centers. Adorno, by contrast, argued for the continuing importance of the traditional arts.

Each of the men had his blindnesses, but Ross says that the debate between the two is vital. Adorno overlooked the importance of certain popular forms, especially jazz, while Benjamin could be guilty of failing to see how mass culture could itself be taken over by capitalism. At one point Adorno noted that both high and low culture were in danger of being ensnared by commerce:

Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change. . . . Both are torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up. It would be romantic to sacrifice one for the other.

Ross observes,

In particular, it would be a mistake to romanticize the new mass forms, as Benjamin seems to do in his mesmerizing essay [“Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”]. Adorno makes the opposite mistake of romanticizing bourgeois tradition by denying humanity to the alternative. The two thinkers are themselves torn halves of a missing picture. One collateral misfortune of Benjamin’s early death is that it ended one of the richest intellectual conversations of the twentieth century.

Ross points out that Fredric Jameson, a contemporary Marxist, attempts to reconcile the two thinkers, writing that the

“cultural evolution of late capitalism” can be understood “dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together.”

I appreciate Ross’s conclusion where he talks about the increasing difficulty to find freedom within art as capitalism seeks to intrude at all points. It can turn classical music into elevator music and advertising jingles, and it can commercialize hip-hop. Ross ends his article by talking of the challenges of finding liberation through art:

Above all, these figures present a model for thinking differently, and not in the glib sense touted by Steve Jobs. As the homogenization of culture proceeds apace, as the technology of surveillance hovers at the borders of our brains, such spaces are becoming rarer and more confined. I am haunted by a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour.”

Art’s major mission is to help us step outside the machine, even if only momentarily.

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Forgive 77 Times–and Don’t Stop There

Eichenberg's engraving of Lockwood's nightmare #2

Eichenberg’s engraving of Lockwood’s restless night

Spiritual Sunday

It has always been the case, and continues so today, that zealots pervert spiritually uplifting moments in sacred scripture to fit their own egotistical purposes. Wuthering Heights gives us a great example of this occurring.

Today’s New Testament reading shows us Jesus using numbers to teach his disciples the power of forgiveness. Actually, there are two different numbers in two different versions of Matthew 18:21-22. Emily Bronte would of course have been working with the King James Version but here they both are:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22, King James Version)

 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22, New International Version)

Needless to say, Jesus has neither 77 nor 490 in mind when he responds to Peter. Rather, he is poetically making the point that Peter has to think big when it comes to forgiveness, just as Jesus himself will do on the cross. Leave it up to judgmental fundamentalists, however, to focus on sin #491. Here’s the first of Lockwood’s two nightmares when he’s sleeping in Catherine’s childhood room at Wuthering Heights:

I began to nod drowsily over the dim page: my eye wandered from manuscript to print.  I saw a red ornamented title—‘Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First. A Pious Discourse delivered by the Reverend Jabez Branderham, in the Chapel of Gimmerden Sough.’  And while I was, half-consciously, worrying my brain to guess what Jabez Branderham would make of his subject, I sank back in bed, and fell asleep.  Alas, for the effects of bad tea and bad temper!  What else could it be that made me pass such a terrible night?  I don’t remember another that I can at all compare with it since I was capable of suffering.

I began to dream, almost before I ceased to be sensible of my locality.  I thought it was morning; and I had set out on my way home, with Joseph for a guide.  The snow lay yards deep in our road; and, as we floundered on, my companion wearied me with constant reproaches that I had not brought a pilgrim’s staff: telling me that I could never get into the house without one, and boastfully flourishing a heavy-headed cudgel, which I understood to be so denominated.  For a moment I considered it absurd that I should need such a weapon to gain admittance into my own residence.  Then a new idea flashed across me.  I was not going there: we were journeying to hear the famous Jabez Branderham preach, from the text—‘Seventy Times Seven;’ and either Joseph, the preacher, or I had committed the ‘First of the Seventy-First,’ and were to be publicly exposed and excommunicated…

[I]n my dream, Jabez had a full and attentive congregation; and he preached—good God! what a sermon; divided into four hundred and ninety parts, each fully equal to an ordinary address from the pulpit, and each discussing a separate sin!  Where he searched for them, I cannot tell.  He had his private manner of interpreting the phrase, and it seemed necessary the brother should sin different sins on every occasion.  They were of the most curious character: odd transgressions that I never imagined previously.

Oh, how weary I grow.  How I writhed, and yawned, and nodded, and revived!  How I pinched and pricked myself, and rubbed my eyes, and stood up, and sat down again, and nudged Joseph to inform me if he would ever have done.  I was condemned to hear all out: finally, he reached the ‘First of the Seventy-First.’  At that crisis, a sudden inspiration descended on me; I was moved to rise and denounce Jabez Branderham as the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon.

‘Sir,’ I exclaimed, ‘sitting here within these four walls, at one stretch, I have endured and forgiven the four hundred and ninety heads of your discourse.  Seventy times seven times have I plucked up my hat and been about to depart—Seventy times seven times have you preposterously forced me to resume my seat.  The four hundred and ninety-first is too much.  Fellow-martyrs, have at him!  Drag him down, and crush him to atoms, that the place which knows him may know him no more!’

Thou art the Man!’ cried Jabez, after a solemn pause, leaning over his cushion.  ‘Seventy times seven times didst thou gapingly contort thy visage—seventy times seven did I take counsel with my soul—Lo, this is human weakness: this also may be absolved!  The First of the Seventy-First is come.  Brethren, execute upon him the judgment written.  Such honour have all His saints!’

With that concluding word, the whole assembly, exalting their pilgrim’s staves, rushed round me in a body; and I, having no weapon to raise in self-defense, commenced grappling with Joseph, my nearest and most ferocious assailant, for his.  In the confluence of the multitude, several clubs crossed; blows, aimed at me, fell on other sconces.  Presently the whole chapel resounded with rappings and counter rappings: every man’s hand was against his neighbor; and Branderham, unwilling to remain idle, poured forth his zeal in a shower of loud taps on the boards of the pulpit, which responded so smartly that, at last, to my unspeakable relief, they woke me.  And what was it that had suggested the tremendous tumult?  What had played Jabez’s part in the row?  Merely the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice as the blast wailed by, and rattled its dry cones against the panes! 

Like many hell-fire fundamentalists, including the old servant Joseph, Jabez has no interest in forgiveness. He relishes too much the satisfaction he gets from pointing out to the world its many sins. If Jesus specifically mentions that 490 sins can be forgiven, then Jabez will single out the 491st.

Lockwood is spending the night with people whose lives have been ravaged by the failure to forgive. Heathcliff forgives no one and all must pay: Hindley, Hareton, Edgar, Isabel, Linton, young Catherine. Heathcliff can’t even forgive Catherine since, as he sees it, she has done away with herself:

‘Let me alone.  Let me alone,’ sobbed Catherine.  ‘If I’ve done wrong, I’m dying for it.  It is enough!  You left me too: but I won’t upbraid you!  I forgive you.  Forgive me!’

‘It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,’ he answered.  ‘Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes!  I forgive what you have done to me.  I love my murderer—but yours!  How can I?

The world of Catherine’s adult life is one where there is no healing grace. Come to think of it, there actually was one sin that Jesus found to be unforgivable and that was the sin against the Holy Spirit. Those who are without compassion, who cannot experience God’s healing forgiveness or forgive others, have condemned themselves to eternal torment. In Lockwood’s dream, the entire congregation, along with Lockwood himself, turn the wrathful eye of judgment upon one another and are locked in hellish combat.

The self-righteous Jabezes of the world are those that Jesus most had in mind when he called for forgiveness. My but they are a vocal lot!

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Can Raillery Defuse NFL Anger?

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Sports Saturday

On Thursday I compared 17th century rake culture and the male anxieties of poet John Wilmot with the macho culture of the NFL. If players like Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Ray McDonald have trouble leaving the gridiron behind when they negotiate their relationships with women, what are women supposed to do (other than avoid football players altogether)? Today I write about how one remarkable author imagined women successfully holding their own in their relationships with such men.

Aphra Behn made her living in a man’s profession, writing plays, erotic novels, political propaganda, and other works. In The Rover, she has her heroine go toe-to-toe with a version of Wilmot and come out on top.

The rover of the title is Wilmore, making it clear whom Behn has in mind. Like Wilmot, Wilmore is most comfortable with his fellow rakes and attempts to avoid emotional entanglements with women. (His goal, as he puts it, is to achieve “all the honey of matrimony, but none of the sting.”) At one point he almost rapes one of the play’s heroines, the love interest of his fellow rake Belvile. The incident leads to the following interchange:

Wilmore: By this light, I took her for an errant harlot.
Belvile: Damn your debauched opinion! Tell me, sot, hadst thou so much sense and light above thee to distinguish her woman, and couldst not see something about her face and person to strike an awful reverence into they soul?
Wilmore: Faith, no, I considered her as mere a woman as I could wish.

Through Florinda Belinda warns women what they can expect if they venture innocently into the rakes’ world. Indeed, this is not the only instance in the play where Florinda is almost raped by one of these rakes. The second time she is assaulted by Blunt, who has just been duped and emasculated by a prostitute and who is out to avenge himself on any woman he can find. Behn is telling us that, if a woman can’t rely on the fact that she is sweet and virtuous, then she’s got to find other options.

Angelica, a high-class courtesan, is less innocent than Florinda but even she makes the mistake of thinking that she has a special relationship with Wilmore. She discovers otherwise when he abandons her. In her case, however, she wins back some of his respect by threatening to shoot him. After all, this is a language that he understands. Then she concludes that he’s not worth killing and decides to look elsewhere. I suppose that’s one way that women might respond to the Ray Rices of the world.

But Behn most identifies with the feisty Hellena, who wants a relationship with Wilmore without being victimized by him. After all, he’s an exciting man. She decides that her best option is besting him at his own game. If he thinks that life is competition, then she will turn lovemaking into perpetual competition. She will not be a helpless or an aggrieved woman. She will not play the passive flower to his bee.

To be sure, she will insist upon a marriage contract because she doesn’t want “a cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of repentance at my back.” Women face consequences to the sexual act that men don’t. But she will make sure that the marriage that follows will have more of the same. She will keep him off balance at all times.

Note the following interchange after he finally asks her to marry him:

Willmore But harkye—The Bargain is now made; but is it not fit we should know each other’s Names? That when we have Reason to curse one another hereafter, and People ask me who ’tis I give to the Devil, I may at least be able to tell what Family you came of.
Hellena Good reason, Captain; and where I have cause, (as I doubt not but I shall have plentiful) that I may know at whom to throw my—Blessings—I beseech ye your Name.
Willmore I am call’d Robert the Constant.
Hellena A very fine Name! pray was it your Faulkner or Butler that christen’d you? Do they not use to whistle when then call you?
Willmore I hope you have a better, that a Man may name without crossing himself, you are so merry with mine.
Hellena I am call’d Hellena the Inconstant.

And then, in the play’s final lines:

Willmore Whilst we’ll to the Good Man within [the priest], who stays to give us a Cast of his Office.  Have you no trembling at the near approach?
Hellena No more than you have in an Engagement or a Tempest.
Willmore Egad, thou’rt a brave Girl, and I admire thy Love and Courage.
Lead on, no other Dangers they can dread,
Who venture in the Storms o’th’ Marriage-Bed.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that the kind of raillery that one hears in locker rooms will necessarily defuse the rage of a Ray Rice, and it is certainly the case that some men will victimize women regardless of what they do. In those cases, the women just have to get out of the relationship and bring charges. But if one has limited options, Behn seems to be saying that it may be possible to manage men in a macho culture by interacting with them in ways that they can understand. That may circumvent the anxieties that prompt them to lash out and maybe that will be the first step towards something that resembles sensitivity and mutual understanding.

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Literature as a Social Experience

Vittorio Reggianini, "The Poetry Reading"

Vittorio Reggianini, “The Poetry Reading”

A couple of years ago I met James Gomez, a Vietnam vet and recent retiree, who approached me when I was writing a blog post in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. One thing led to another, and soon we were talking about a Shakespeare class he was taking at Pace University. Out of that conversation came a post on Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff’s false claim to have killed Percy, and a Supreme Court decision about people wearing undeserved medals. (The post, one of my favorites, can be found here.)

Since then James periodically sends me clippings of Shakespeare in the news. Recently he alerted me to a review in The Wall Street Journal of Richard Branson’s The Virgin Way: Everything I Know about Leadership.” Reviewer Daniel Akst writes,

Is ours a time of inadequate leaders? It may seem so. In the realm of business, modern leaders have invited criticism thanks to their infatuation with short-term profits and their shameless embrace of staggeringly high compensation. If anything, there appears to be an inverse correlation between the growth of the leadership industry and the quality of the leaders we’ve seen in business as well as in public life.

Perhaps instead of reading books that purport to instruct on leadership—offering up more cliché than wisdom—would-be leaders would do better to delve into books about individuals who have grappled with the challenges and ordeals of guiding an army, a nation or a daring enterprise. Literature brims with such portraits. Think only of the Odyssey or Shakespeare’s Henry V. Tenacity is important in a leader, but what happens when tenacity becomes obsession? Herman Melville will tell you all about it in Moby-Dick.

Speaking of business leaders, James also noted that he’d been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller and was shocked to learn that the Folger Shakespeare collection was assembled by Rockefeller’s fellow Standard Oil robber baron Henry Clay Folger. As James noted, “Apparently Folger was a crook but he loved Shakespeare.” Sadly, great literature doesn’t always turn readers into good people.

Earlier in the summer James sent me a Wall Street Journal article of Ralph Gardner, who authors “The Urban Gardner,” describing an evening Shakespeare class in a New York City home. The class promised students a chance to “better understand the bard’s work and also to speak it with ‘confidence and pleasure.’” As Gardner observed,

That last part is from the course description. And if there’s anything more aspirational and optimistic, more brimming with purpose and promise, than an adult-education course catalogue, I haven’t found it.

Further on, noting that the instructor served wine to her students, he reported,

Come to think of it, wouldn’t night school be more fun if there was alcohol involved? Whatever might be lost in mental acuity or to slurred speech—admittedly, a liability if you were assigned the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V—would be more than compensated for by the temporary sense of well-being, melting inhibitions and false confidence that is liquor’s calling card.

I myself have served mead (just a taste) when I’ve taught Beowulf and I bake my students a whiskey cake at the end of every semester. Maryland law doesn’t allow me to do more, however.

Anyway, I thought of James today in my British Restoration and 18th Century Literature class when I talked about how, 350 years ago, people used literature as a foundation for social interaction. In the Restoration people went to the theater night after night—it was a place to see and be seen—and they read new poems to each other at social gatherings. It was only with the rise of the novel that people began seeing literature as a solitary, anti-social pursuit. My dissertation director J. Paul Hunter once described this as “the loneliness of the long distance reader.”

But even when we have a solitary experience, there’s a part of us that wants to share it. So I maintain this blog and so James sends me articles.

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Ray Rice, John Wilmot, & Macho Culture

Ray Rice

Ray Rice

Sometimes compelling national news occurs at just the time one is teaching related subject matter. As the media was showing the horrifying images of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator, my Restoration and 18th Century class was studying rake culture in the time of Charles II. A major poet from that time period—John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester—gives us insight into why Rice behaved as he did.

The age was less apologetic than our own about beating up women. In Wilmot’s poem “The Disabled Debauchee,” for instance, we see an aging libertine talking proudly of assaulting prostitutes:

Or should some cold-complexioned sot forbid,
   With his dull morals, our bold night-alarms,
I’ll fire his blood by telling what I did
   When I was strong and able to bear arms. 

I’ll tell of whores attacked, their lords at home;
   Bawds’ quarters beaten up, and fortress won;
Windows demolished, watches overcome;
   And handsome ills by my contrivance done.

Wilmot himself once “beat up” what he thought was a brothel, although he was misled and instead attacked a constable’s house. One of his friends was killed in the encounter, leading him to later write,

Frighted at my own mischiefs I have fled,
And bravely left my life’s defender dead;
Broke houses to break chastity, and dyed
That floor with murder which my lust denied…

Wilmot is not endorsing the “heroic exploits” of the disabled debauchee—the man is pathetic, not heroic—and the poet was more sensitive to women’s needs than many men of his time. Nevertheless, even Wilmot is far more interested in male honor and in male solidarity than in the lives of women. In his view, women just play games with honor while male honor is what makes life worth living:

Consider Real Honour then,
     You’ll find Hers cannot be the same;
‘Tis noble Confidence in Men,
     In Women mean mistrustful Shame. 

Just as Rice was an exemplary teammate, so did Wilmot find greatest pleasure in the company of other men. In “Love a woman? You’re an ass,” Wilmot retreats to male comradery because he feels uncomfortably vulnerable around women:

Farewell, woman! I intend
Henceforth every night to sit
With my lewd, well-natured friend
Drinking to engender wit.

In “To a Lady in a Letter,” meanwhile, Wilmot is willing to have his mistress sleep with other men as long as she allows him to drink with his buddies:

Let us (since wit has taught us how)
Raise pleasure to the Top
You Rival Bottle must allow
I’ll suffer Rival Fop.

We see Wilmot’s discomfort with female intimacy in “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” where the speaker feels less of a man when he is unable to make love to a woman he admires. He first vents his fury against his own offending member and then concludes with the disturbing image of the woman being subjected to “ten thousand pricks”:

And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

I’m not entirely sure how to take this concluding couplet but it sounds as though Wilmot is using an image of female humiliation and possibly gang rape to restore male pride. The point is that the speaker feels a fury at being unmanned and a woman bears the brunt.

Rice, accustomed to dominating in the ultra-violent sport of American football, resorted to inappropriate violence when someone who knew him intimately threw him off balance. His career is over because he did not know how to behave correctly on this other playing field. He’s far from the only man to resort to his physical superiority when at a loss. It’s why we must all stop glorying in male power and  become sensitive.

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The Secret Ecstasy of Reading

Corot, "Girl Reading" (c. 1850/55)

Corot, “Girl Reading” (c. 1850/55)

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lengthy poem Aurora Leigh—it’s been a missing specimen from my life list—and am thoroughly enjoying the young heroine’s experiences with reading. Orphaned at a young age and sent to live with her stern aunt in England, Aurora reconnects with her father by going through the boxes of his books:

Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,–where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books! 

I love the way that Aurora plunges into the books “without considering whether they were fit/To do me good.” She talks about being “generous,” which is to say, she surrenders herself completely to whatever each book offers:

Or else I sat on in my chamber green,
And lived my life, and thought my thoughts, and prayed
My prayers without the vicar; read my books,
Without considering whether they were fit
To do me good. Mark, there. We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book,
And calculating profits . . so much help
By so much rending. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth-
‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.

Aurora particularly loves poetry, which has a volcanic impact on her, sweeping away all constraints:

At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.
As the earth
Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat
The marts and temples, the triumphal gates
And towers of observation, clears herself
To elemental freedom—thus, my soul,
At poetry’s divine first finger touch,
Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
Convicted of the great eternities
Before two worlds.

To those who dismiss poets as “virtuous liars, dreamers after dark,/
Exaggerators of the sun and moon,” Aurora counters that they are

the only truth-tellers, now left to God,–
The only speakers of essential truth,
Posed to relative, comparative,
And temporal truths; the only holders by
His sun-skirts, through conventional grey glooms;
The only teachers who instruct mankind,
From just a shadow on a charnel wall,
To find man’s veritable stature out,
Erect, sublime…

Thus, while others might be impressed by kings and senators or by those who build pyramids and railroads, Aurora sees such people as “common men” when contrasted with poets:

The poet suddenly will catch them up
With his voice like a thunder. . “This is soul,
This is life, this word is being said in heaven,
Here’s God down on us!”

This is more or less what books mean to me. It’s exhilarating to find an author who describes my experiences.

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Scotland’s Vote: Victory or Gory Bed?

William Findlay, "The Liberation of Scotland" (1914)

William Findlay, “The Liberation of Scotland” (1914)

As Scotland looks ahead to a national referendum on separation from Great Britain in a little over a week, I’ve seen multiple references to Robert Burns’ well-known poem “Robert Bruce’s Famous March to Bannockburn,” more popularly known as “Scots Wha Hae.” The New York Times Paul Krugman, arguing that independence would be economically crazy as Scotland risks becoming like Spain, titled his column, “Scots, What the Heck?”

The poem was inspired by a visit that Robert Burns made to the site of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1787. He wrote in his journal,

Came on to Bannockburn: the hole in the stone where glorious Bruce set his standard. Here no Scot can pass uninterested. I fancy to myself that I see my gallant heroic countrymen, coming o’er the hill and down upon the plunderers of their country, the murderers of their fathers; noble revenge and just hate glowing in every vein, striding more and more eagerly as they approach the oppressive, insulting, and bloodthirsty foe! I see them in gloriously-triumphant congratulation on the victorious field, exulting in their heroic royal ardor, and rescued liberty and independence!

The French Revolution came between that visit and the date of the poem’s composition, further firing Burns’ imagination. Burns wrote to his publisher of being inspired by “‘glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient.” These other struggles were those of various radical Scots, who longed for a second Bannockburn.

England, however, reacted to France’s revolution by cracking down on independence movements, sentencing one radical Scottish leader to 14 years of transportation to Australia. Therefore, according to Wikipedia, Burns played it safe, agreeing to allow his publishers to publish his poem “as a thing they have met with by accident, and unknown to me.”

Bannockburn

By Robert Burns

At Bannockburn the English lay,–
The Scots they were na far away,
But waited for the break o’ day
That glinted in the east.
 
But soon the sun broke through the heath
And lighted up that field of death,
When Bruce, wi’ saul-inspiring breath,
His heralds thus addressed:–
 
“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled–
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led–
Welcome to your gory bed.
Or to victorie!
 
“Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lower;
See approach proud Edward’s power–
Chains and slaverie!
 
“Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
 
“Wha for Scotland’s king and law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or freeman fa’–
Let him follow me!
 
“By Oppression’s woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
 
“Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do or die!”

Now, 220 years later, Scotland will vote whether to lay the proud usurpers low. Or, in the minds of some, commit economic suicide. The day and the hour will be September 18, 2014. Stay tuned.

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Why Do We Laugh? Various Theories

Rembrandt, "Rembrandt Laughing"

Rembrandt, “Rembrandt Laughing”

I spent part of my first “British Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy class talking about “what is laughter?” The period features some of literature’s comic masterpieces and I wanted to give my students some theories that will help them unlock the meaning of comedies by Wycherley, Behn, Goldsmith, and Sheridan; novels by Fielding, Burney, and Austen; and poetry by Wilmot, Montagu, and Pope.

We started with Hobbes’ theory of laughter. Hobbes, of course, is famous for his vision of humans engaged in a war “of every man against every man.” According to Hobbes, without some kind of regulating authority—the Leviathan—our loves would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes’ theory of laughter flows from this bleak vision. As he sees it, we laugh to assert our own superiority over others:

Men laugh often (especially such as are greedy of applause from every thing they do well) at their own actions performed never so little beyond their own expectation; as also at their own jests: and in this case it is manifest, that the passion of laughter proceedeth from a sudden conception of some ability in himself that laugheth. Also men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison of which their own abilities are set off and illustrated. Also men laugh at jests, the wit whereof always consisteth in the elegant discovering and conveying to our minds some absurdity or another. And in this case also the passion of laughter proceedeth from the sudden imagination of our own odds and eminence; for what is else the recommending ourselves to our own good opinion, by comparison with another man’s infirmities or absurdity?

Hobbes wrote Leviathan in the late 1640’s in the midst of England’s Puritan-Cavalier civil war, which helps account for its darkness. It is very useful for charting some of the dynamics in Rochester’s poetry and plays like Country Wife and The Rover, where laughter often comes at someone else’s expense.

When the times became less tumultous, theories of comedy became more benign. In 1711 Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, examined the raillery that he and his friends engaged in. He appears to be directly refuting Hobbes’ notion that raillery is designed to assert superiority in a savage and barbaric contest. Instead, Shafesbury’s image is one of good manners and good humor:

[I]n private society. . . .where friends meet knowingly, and with the actual intention of exercising their wit and looking freely into all subjects, I see no basis for anyone to claim to be offended at the way of raillery and humour, which is the very life of such conversations—the only thing that makes good company, and frees it from the formality…

 …Wit framed by good manners can’t hurt any cause or interest that I care about; and philosophical speculations, managed in a civilised way, surely can’t ever make mankind more unsociable or uncivilized. That’s not the direction from which I can expect an invasion of savageness and barbarity.

Shaftesbury’s sensibility is more akin to the good-humored comedy of Pope’s Rape of the Lock.

My class pointed out that Shaftesbury doesn’t entirely refute Hobbes. After all, what if this tight group of aristocratic friends is making jokes at the expense of some other group. Maybe it’s not every man vs. every man but insiders vs. outsiders, tribe vs. tribe. This, after all, is how racial and ethnic jokes work.

Like Hobbes, Freud saw hostility as a dimension of laughter. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious he says that laughter arises out of whatever we push under. He is most famous for talking about sex, of course, but he also saw aggression entering in. Perhaps we push under our natural hostility so that we can all get along—we are socialized to be polite or politically correct—but the energy required to repress our hostility needs venting, which comes in the form of laughter. That’s why jokes, as the late Joan Rivers never ceased pointing out, are necessarily offensive.

Mikhail Bakhtin, however, has a very different view of laughter. A fan of Rabelais and Dickens, he sees laughter as going where serious literature is afraid to tread and, in the process, uncovering essential truths:

The Renaissance conception of laughter can be roughly described as follows: Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning, it is one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a peculiar point of view relative to the world; the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint. Therefore, laughter is just as admissible in great literature, posing universal problems, as seriousness. Certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only to laughter.

Drawing on these theories of laughter, one could argue that there are two kinds of laughter: generous laughter and mean-spirited laughter. Hobbes and Freud, two pessimists about human nature, see laughter as combative. Shaftesbury and Bakhtin, optimists, see laughter as communal and supportive. Which theory you find more compelling may come down to the kind of person you are.

Posted in Bakhtin (Mikhail), Cooper (Anthony Ashley), Freud (Sigmund), Hobbes (Thomas) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God Dreams Us, Not Vice Versa

Rembrandt, "Old Man Praying"

Rembrandt, “Old Man Praying”

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve known for a while that C. S. Lewis wrote poetry as well as fantasy, science fiction, and reflective works but I had never read any of his poems. I ventured out and found the following poem about prayer, which reminds us that praying, even when it appears to be empty and fruitless, can open a space for the divine to enter.

By the way, writing works the same way.

“Prayer” reminds me of those George Herbert poems, such as “Denial,” where the poet complains either that he can’t hear God or that God can’t hear him. I also think of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gushed,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.

C. S. Lewis agrees that prayer is a one-way conversation but then turns the argument on its head by noting that the one-way is from God to us, not the other way around. As L:ewis sees it, if we are an earthly manifestation of God, then we are an internal conversation that God is having. We are not dreaming of God because we are God’s dream:

Master they say that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since you make no replies, it’s all a dream
– One talker aping two.

They are half right, but not as they
imagine; rather, I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo! The well’s are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role, and through
My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus while we seem
Two talking, thou art One forever, and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.

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The Seahawks: Prepared to Swoop & Kill

The Seakhawks sweep down on Green Bay

The Seakhawks unload on Green Bay

Sports Saturday

Many people are predicting that the Seattle Seahawks will be the first team since the Patriots to win back-to-back Super Bowls, and Thursday night’s drubbing of a good Green Bay team appears promising in this regard. Here’s a poem about a hawk unleashing its “legion of boom” upon the other birds at a bird feeder. Imagine them as the other NFL teams.

Here’s the thing about the NFL, however. Like those other birds, the other teams will learn to adjust, and the mayhem we anticipate Seattle causing won’t necessarily continue on. They will weather Seattle’s attacks, at least somewhat, “scattering into the thinning trees” and then reassembling. Not all of them will have their necks snapped like the junco. They will regroup to eat their small measure in the fading light of Sunday afternoons.

Feeding the Birds

By Robert Cording

I wanted to do something
   After the sharp-shinned hawk
     Swept through my utopia

Of feeders–each one filled
   With seeds for all kinds
     Of birds–and snapped the neck

Of a junco pecking about
   On the ground, content to eat
     (or so it seemed) what fell

From the beaks of purple finches.
   For weeks my two-year-old had
     Named cardinal and goldfinch,

Chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch,
   The feeders gathering them
     From the reddening maples

Where starved leaves drifted away
   From their branches, nights colder,
     The sky rehearsing for winter.

I’d often sit at the window,
   Pleased by the way goldfinches
     Yellowed the air as they waited

For their turn or purple finches
   Dropped from the shed roof
     One after another. Even the jays–

Over-sized, bullying, loud-mouthed–
   Were kept in check: enough
     For all, they ate their fill

And left. And then the hawk came,
   Took up residence, perching
     On the electric wires, and waited

For those moments when, unwary,
   Trusting my simple paradise,
     A fattened junco might forget

Its instinct for shadows in the sun.
   I thought of banging on windows,
     A saving alarm, though

I could never be quite sure
   Of that brief, startling moment
     When, sweeping down from the air,

The hawk would choose to change
   The balance at the feeder.
     In the end, I did nothing.

The birds learned to save themselves.
   In time they grew accustomed
     To what is and isn’t possible,

Accepting, it seemed, the random
   Attacks with poise and equanimity,
     Scattering into the thinning trees

And then regrouping, one by one,
   To eat their small measure
     Those afternoons of fading light.

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Estonia Calls, Obama Answers

Marie Unger, Estonian poet

Marie Unger, Estonian poet

In a speech in Estonia on Wednesday, Barack Obama praised the country for having stood up to the Soviet Union 25 years ago with a two-million person human chain. With one eye on Russia’s recent  incursion into Ukraine, he also promised that NATO would defend Estonia and the other two Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania, if they are threatened. In the course of the speech, he quoted the Estonian poet Marie Under.

I think Obama and his speechwriters may have used the poem as the emotional center of the speech since it allowed the president to join two themes: Estonia’s freedom from the USSR and Russia’s recent escapade. At times it sounds as though Obama was directly answering Under. First, here’s her cri de coeur, which (as Obama notes) was written during the Stalinist takeover of Estonia. Under and her family fled to Sweden in 1944, living for a year in a refugee camp:

Denunciation

By Marie Under

I cry aloud with all my people’s mouths,
our land is smitten by a plague of fear and lead,
our land is shadowed by the gallows tree our land  
a common graveyard, huge with dead.

Who’ll come to help? Right here, at present, now!
Because the patient’s weak, has lost his hold.
But, like the call of birds, my shouting fades in emptiness:
the world is arrogant and cold.

The sighing of the old, the baby’s cry —
do they all run to sand, illusion, fail?
Men, women groan like wounded deer
to those in power all this is just a fairy-tale.

Dark is the world’s eye, its ear is deaf,
the powerful lost in madness or stupidity.
Compassion’s only felt by those whom suffering breaks,
and sufferers alone have hearts like you and me.

And here’s the excerpt from Obama’s speech where he quoted the poem:

During the long Soviet occupation, the great Estonian poet Marie Under wrote a poem in which she cried to the world, “Who’ll come to help? Right here, at present, now!” And I say to the people of Estonia and the people of the Baltics, today we are bound by our treaty alliance. We have a solemn duty to each other. Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now. (Applause.)

We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again. (Applause.)

When you want to reach deep into people’s hearts, there’s nothing like poetry to strengthen the message.

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How Disney Appropriated Mary Poppins

Illus. Mary Shepard, "Mary Poppins"

Illus. Mary Shepard, “Mary Poppins”

Last week I watched Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney movie about how Walt Disney overrode the resistance of  author P. L. Travers to make Mary Poppins. While I found Saving Mr. Banks rather light fare, I learned one interesting thing: author P. L Travers had the same objections to Disney’s movie version of the book that I did.

I avidly read Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, and Mary Poppins in the Park when I was a child. While I loved the adventures, I was most drawn to Poppins’ contradictory personality: while she seems emotionally cold, she always comes through for the children, sometimes taking them on amazing adventures, sometimes saving them from danger. When she serves the children their bedtime medicine in their first encounter, she never cracks a smile:

A spoon was attached to the neck of the bottle, and into this Mary Poppins poured a dark crimson fluid.

“Is that your medicine?” enquired Michael, looking very interested.

“No, yours,” said Mary Poppins, holding out the spoon to him. Michael stared. He wrinkled up his nose. He began to protest.

“I don’t want it. I don’t need it. I won’t!”

But Mary Poppins’ eyes were fixed upon him, and Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her—something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting. The spoon came nearer. He held his breath, shut his eyes and gulped. A delicious taste ran round his mouth. He turned his tongue in it. He swallowed, and a happy smile ran round his face.

“Strawberry ice,” he said ecstatically. “More, more, more!”

But Mary Poppins, her face as stern as before, was pouring out a dose for Jane. It ran into the spoon, silvery, greeny, yellowy. Jane tasted it.

Upon hearing at 13 that Julie Andrews would be playing Mary Poppins in Disney’s film, I knew that it was all wrong. The real Poppins isn’t the sweet Sound of Music Maria, nor would she ever crow about her “spoonful of sugar” strategy. I lived for the moments in the books where one catches a glimpse of Mary’s soft or her unorthodox side, but those moments are precious only because they are unexpected. If we were to see them all the time, there would be no magic.

I think I was drawn to the figure because people weren’t as expressive in the 1950s as they are today. My father would later learn to hug but I don’t remember many hugs at the time. Therefore Mary Poppins was my assurance that, behind emotional distance, we were cared for.

Saving Mr. Banks soft pedals Disney the way that Disney soft pedaled Mary Poppins, painting him  as a benign patriarch. That a Disney movie would whitewash the founder of the company is no surprise. But there is one revealing moment. Seeking to understand why Travers is working so hard to control her creation, Disney remembers how protective he was of Mickey Mouse.

Though the film shows him to be momentarily sensitive, however, it then downplays the fact that he does indeed wrest Poppins away from Travers and remake her in his own image. The 1964 Mary Poppins is all Disney, with the threat of emotional barrenness unacknowledged. That threat is central to to Travers’ drama. She had every reason to be furious.

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Thoreau To Obama: Play More Golf

Delmar Harmood Banner, "Solitary (The Wanderer and the Poet"

Delmar Harmood Banner, “Solitary (The Wanderer and the Poet)”

Carl Rosin, a friend and a fine English teacher at Radnor High School outside Philadelphia, contributes this post-Labor Day post reminding us why it is vital to our national health to keep reading the Transcendentalists, especially Henry David Thoreau. Carl is especially concerned about how students are overscheduled and neglectful of their inner lives. You will appreciate the Thoreauvian exercise that Carl gives his own students.

By Carl Rosin, English teacher, Radnor High School

Labor Day is over, and students and teachers, U.S. presidents and members of Congress, millions of Europeans, and many others have wound down their recent vacations and returned to school/work. The American mythology is awash in powerful ideas about the work ethic and productivity and progress, which may be why we as a nation are ambivalent about the idea of downtime or vacation.

We shouldn’t be. We should love vacation, and demand that everyone gets one. As the Transcendentalists would point out, “time off” is a boost, not a drain.

It is natural to assume that more time working results in more work done. The more important you are, the more the organization needs you to be on call. Some people – like the president – are expected always to be “ready.” This makes sense: there’s almost incomprehensible power in the position. But George W. Bush took a remarkably high number of vacation days (well over 400 by the end of his second term) while Barack Obama’s most recent vacation prompted a page one New York Times story. That recent Times news analysis by Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis observed,

Presidents learn to wall off their feelings and compartmentalize their lives. They deal in death one moment and seek mental and physical relief the next. To make coldhearted decisions in the best interest of the country and manage the burdens of perhaps the most stressful job on the planet, current and former White House officials said, a president must guard against becoming consumed by the emotions of the situations they confront.

That said, the public burns when presented with the image of a leader trying to do this detaching and unwinding. Partisanship lurks behind it, to be sure, but there’s something deeper, something on the level of myth, that these partisan attacks hook their claws into.

Philip Sopher recently wrote about an aspect of this in The Atlantic. He investigated alternatives to the five-day workweek that expanded the weekend, but noted that “the five-day workweek might already have so much cultural inertia that it can’t be changed. Most companies can’t just tell employees not to come in on Fridays, because they’d be at a disadvantage in a world that favors the five-day workweek.”

Google and Intuit are two of America’s flagship corporations that have experimented with 20% and 10% off-project time, respectively. Google’s famous Friday Projects came under threat in 2013, but Wired’s Ryan Tate suggests it is a healthy part of the culture at the extraordinarily successful company. Dan Pink’s extremely engaging business book Drivehighlights Intuit’s 10% Project (n.b.: promoted in Pink’s book by that company’s former VP of Innovation, my brother Roy Rosin) and Twitter’s “Hack Week”. Counterintuitively – to some – time off could be said to equal better time on.

“Yes, but,” intone the critics. Productivity matters and that demands time on the job. The U.S. is among the top five nations in productivity and cannot afford to lose ground, they say. We didn’t get there by taking more vacations and working less time, they say. That last is certainly true: as Tanya Mohn reports in Forbes, the U.S. is the only advanced economy with no mandatory paid vacation for its workers. The average American worker puts out 160 more hours of work per year now than in 1976; with globalization and the decline of labor unions, it seems likely that the increase will continue. The ethos of harder work, more work – which has swirled around controversy regarding corporate profit, wage stagnation, executive pay, burnout, and unhappiness – wields a megaphone in our society. Its opponents are trying to raise a chorus to oppose it.

Nowhere is the intensity of workload more prominent than in the lives of America’s competitive students. Studies, sports, clubs, volunteer work, family responsibilities, and jobs absorb their time – and the looming college admissions process also keeps them awake at night. Workers in school and business both could benefit from stepping back and heeding the admittedly idealistic philosophy of Henry David Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists. The results might be surprising.

Thoreau doesn’t comment on weekends or vacations specifically, but he has a lot to say about how our essential humanity is plowed under when we find ourselves driven like an ox-team by the exigencies of work. Indeed, he can come off as entirely dismissive about work. The deeper vein, however, is of the importance of maintaining one’s self, perspective, and principles. This takes care, which we all deserve.

The first chapter of Walden, “Economy,” reminds us that we humans can be more than automatons:

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.

Thoreau’s literary essay cleverly constructs this rhetorical appeal to reframe intense work as an offense to manliness, nature, and American values. He is surely aware that he is jousting against propagandists who use the Protestant work ethic to shame those who want time off and who impugn the manliness of any who refuse to take on the extra load of long hours. As one who regularly gloated about all-nighters and seventy, eighty, ninety hour workweeks, I can admit to having bought into that propaganda.

Thoreau famously decried how “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and how terrible it is to be one’s own “slave-driver.” Our anxieties and conformity drive us to disrespect our own principles in favor of appearances, property, and currying favor of others. Deeper in “Economy” Thoreau says the antidote is sleep – something that we know is in short supply for many of our fellow citizens, especially the poor who work several jobs, the caregivers, the ambitious, and students:

After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make. All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour…. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.

What is a better metaphor for vacation than the reinvigorating sleep that science tells us we must have if we want to remain strong and healthy? The benefits, Thoreau notes, are moral and intellectual, not simply physical. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” he writes, “not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”

The omnipresent critics say: impractical. Thoreau, in his next chapter, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” anticipates this.

If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.

The quest to keep expanding degrades the quality of the expanders and the expansion. We are slaves to “progress.” I can’t help but be reminded of the consumerist dystopia satirized in Pixar’s Wall-E. We watch smugly…but to one who is inside a hamster-wheel, it’s hard to see the escape so clearly.

One assignment my co-teacher Paul Wright and I give to the very accomplished high school juniors in our interdisciplinary Viewpoints on Modern America class tends to get their attention. When we read Walden, the students are told that they have to spend thirty minutes a day for five days outside doing nothing. No reading, no talking, no texting, no video games, no hanging out with friends. Solitude out-of-doors. After each thirty minute session, the student journals briefly about what he or she noticed or thought, or even what other thoughts that observation or thought led to. We teachers check off these journals, but we don’t read them.

One or more of the journals will serve as foundational material for a reflective essay the students start to write during the days that follow. That essay assignment, designed by my colleague Trevor Payne several years ago, asks the students to start with the description stemming from an observation in nature and to move through the process of understanding what they were seeing, eventually developing an abstract piece of reasoning inspired by it. Something analogical, perhaps.

For example, a student may sit on the grass in a backyard watching the leaves fall (the assignment happens in early October). This may lead one student to consider the literal physical force of gravity and abstract it to the idea of the mighty falling, while another may consider the browning and reddening and yellowing of leaves as one natural articulation of the archetype of death and rebirth. Students have followed hundreds of different paths in their writing: how gardening revises nature, the illusions created by early morning fog, the fear that shadow and darkness spur in us. Whatever direction their essays take, this is the students’ opportunity to practice an Emersonian process that is derived from Immanual Kant.

Along the path from observing to understanding to reasoning lie opportunities for reflection. This takes time and care. In a world where quizzes and homework and reading pile up – and I am responsible for assigning some of these, I know – it is unusual to have to stop and step back: to paradoxically do something by doing nothing. The “something” is thinking, and it is the key to the fulfillment of our promise as human beings.

My rabbi Peter Rigler speaks eloquently about the power of the Sabbath, and not only for Jews. He says is is not something to be endured but to look forward to. He quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who describes that day as creating “a cathedral in time”: an opportunity to break free from the mesmerizing dominance of the workweek and technology and busyness, to focus on the spirit. Our spirits need to be “fed” like our bellies do, but we too often overlook their needs because they neither bubble on the surface nor result in status.

Vacation in the most resonant sense, then, is not merely a removal from the must-do into the want-to-do. It is a seeking of stillness and the essence of individuality. When we look inside ourselves, is there anything to see? There will be, the Transcendentalists say, when we cultivate the way of the non-conformist. Perhaps the first few internal glances will reveal a depressingly sparse landscape, but any cultivator knows that seeds don’t sprout in a day.

William Deresiewicz, whose provocative new book attacks some icons of higher education in a way that Thoreau might have appreciated (Prof. Bates wrote about it recently), is much more deserving of praise for his 2009 speech, “Solitude and Leadership.” Delivered to students at West Point, Deresiewicz’s speech notes that it may seem counterintuitive for leaders to need solitude, but too many would-be leaders fail to include solitude in their personal regimens. It is in solitude that one builds the self who can lead others when the time is ripe.

I hope you got a real vacation this year, and that you’ll get one next year. I hope that you were able to use it not only to do exciting touristy things but also to ponder and be with yourself in reflection. More power to you, if you did.

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What College Clothing Choices Mean

St. Mary's students

St. Mary’s students

I mark today’s first day of classes with remarks our Academic Dean Beth Rushing made to the entering students last Friday. Catching my ear was an extended passage from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot, a work that very cleverly steps beyond the traditional marriage plot. As Beth points out, however, it also has a good description of the exploration and experimentation that occur at college. Having taught college for over 35 years, I can say that Eugenides captures perfectly the kind of students he’s talking about.

Beth is a sociologist and always begins her convocation talk with an entertaining demographic breakdown of the entering class. (For example, “Emily” was the entering class’ our most common name.) This year she then moved on to fiction.

By Beth Rushing, V.P. for Academic Affairs, St. Mary’s College of MD

…One of the books I read this summer was Jeffrey Eugenedes’ The Marriage Plot. For part of this book, the main characters are students at Brown University. Here’s the passage that prompted me to reflect on my advice for new students:

Moss Runk (this was a girl) had arrived at Brown as an apple-cheeked member of the cross-country team. By junior year, she had repudiated the wearing of gender-specific clothing. Instead, she covered herself in shapeless garments that she had made herself out of hot-looking thick gray felt. What you did with a person like Moss Run, if you were Mitchell and Larry, was you pretended not to notice. When Moss came up to them in the Blue Room, moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe, you slid over so she could sit down. If someone asked what she was, exactly, you said “That’s Moss!” Despite her odd clothes, Moss Runk was still the same cheerful Idahoan she’d always been. Other people thought she was weird, but not Mitchell and Larry. Whatever had led to her drastic sartorial decision was something that Mitchell and Larry didn’t inquire about. Their silence registered solidarity with Moss against all the conventional people in their down vests and Adidas sneakers who were majoring in economics or engineering, spending the last period of total freedom in their lives doing nothing the least bit unordinary. Mitchell and Larry knew that Moss Runk wasn’t going to be able to wear her androgynous outfits forever. (Another nice thing about Moss was that she wanted to be a high school principal). There would come a day when, in order to get a job, Moss would have to hang up her gray felt and put on a skirt, or a business suit. Mitchell and Larry didn’t want to be around to see it.

You know, sometimes, we at St Mary’s want to celebrate our uniqueness – we sell bumper stickers to remind ourselves to keep St. Mary’s weird.

Your time at St. Mary’s allows you the time and space and brilliant, creative compatriots that will enable you to explore your unordinary selves. Take advantage of that opportunity.

College is a glorious time to explore the unordinary. But you don’t have to dress like Moss Runk to do this.

Take a class or join a club that stretches you beyond the previous boundaries of your lives. Make friends with people who look or talk or act in ways that are different from you. Go to a lecture or a film or a performance, even if you think you might be uncomfortable.

In short, take advantage of this time in your life to be unordinary, like Moss Runk.

But be unordinary in your own way. That’s the St. Mary’s Way.

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Pledge Your Intellect to Freedom

Soviet education poster

Soviet education poster

Labor Day

Here’s a Bertolt Brecht poem that manages to merge the themes of Labor Day and a new semester, which begins tomorrow at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I like Brecht’s contention that the educational content one receives can’t be separated from the institution that delivers that content, even though we forget they are interlinked.

Public education is, at least in part, a downward distribution system. We take some of society’s resources to provide those in the lower economic strata a chance to rise. As Brecht points out, however, blood was shed to make this possible. First of all, there were the struggles of the Native Americans and of the Irish, the Italians, and the other immigrant groups to achieve equal opportunity in a country that tried to keep them down. It took labor clashes to end child labor and provide these children with free education. It took the Civil War and the civil rights movement to provide schooling for the descendants of slaves.

There are attempts to reverse these gains as two educational tracks are emerging in present-day America, one for the wealthy and one for everyone else. When states decide to cut funding for public education in favor of tax breaks for the top ten percent, then they are reversing the gains that were achieved through those struggles. While I feel proud to teach at a public college that works hard to enroll first generation college students, the education isn’t as accessible as it once was because state aid has dropped steadily. Poorer families are deterred by the immense debt load that looms ahead.

Brecht’s poem reminds us that the goal of education must always be human freedom. The “enemies of all mankind” that he refers to are those who would enshrine privilege and exclude everyone else.  “Men like you got hurt,” he reminds students at this school for the sons and daughters of workers and peasants, “that you might sit here.” So “don’t desert but learn to learn, and try to learn for what.”

Because I see a liberal arts education, including a grounding in literature, as the road to wisdom, I want my students to use it to figure out how to transform their society. Their education will be sterile if they just use it as a way to sit on other people. A knowledge of their history, boring as they may find it, is vital if they are to keep their heads.

To the Students of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculty

By Bertolt Brecht

So there you sit. And how much blood was shed
That you might sit there. Do such stories bore you?
Well, don’t forget that others sat before you
who later sat on people. Keep your head!
Your science will be valueless, you’ll find,
And learning will be sterile, if inviting
Unless you pledge your intellect to fighting
Against all enemies of all mankind.
Never forget that men like you got hurt
That you might sit here, not the other lot.
And now don’t shut your eyes, and don’t desert
But learn to learn, and try to learn for what. 

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War in the Name of Religion

Israel air strike on Gaza

Israel air strike on Gaza

Spiritual Sunday

As we watch the deaths mount up in Gaza, with Hamas and Israel’s rightwing government doing all they can to sabotage a two-state solution, I think of Denise Levertov’s poem about the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982. Born of a father who was a Hasidic Jew before converting to Christianity, Levertov was never hesitant to call out anyone for injustice. Therefore, when the Israeli army and Ariel Sharon allowed Lebanese Christian militants from the Kataeb Party to massacre hundreds and maybe thousands of Palestinians and Shiites in a refugee camp, she wrote this poem. Her shock is at seeing a people who themselves have suffered horribly from pogroms in being complicit in a current day pogrom.

While the recent deaths in Gaza cannot be seen as a pogrom—the Israelis, after all, have been responding to Hamas’ rocket fire and to its killing of Israeli teenagers—Israel bears responsibility for undermining Palestinian moderates, through the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and other provocations. It has created the conditions for Hamas to achieve power. Here’s Levertov’s poem, which talks of “so-called Jews” and “so called Christians.” In the tradition of Isaiah, Levertov calls out people who have lost touch was the foundational tenets of their faith.

Perhaps No Poem but All I Can Say and I Cannot Be Silent

By Denise Levertov

As a devout Christian, my father
took delight and pride in being
(like Christ and the Apostles)
a Jew.
   It was
   Hasidic lore, his heritage,
   he drew on to know
   the Holy Spirit as Shekinah.

My Gentile mother, Welsh through and through,
and like my father sustained
by deep faith, cherished
all her long life the words
of Israel Zangwill, who told her,
“You have a Jewish soul.”

I their daughter (“flesh of their flesh,
         bone of their bone”)
writing in this Age of Terror, a libretto
about El Salvador, the suffering,
      the martyrs,
look from my page to watch
the apportioned news—those foul
dollops of History
each day thrusts at us, pushing them
into our gullets—
      and see that,
   in Lebanon
   so-called Jews have permitted
   so-called Christians
   to wreak pogrom (“thunder of devastation”)
   on helpless folk (of a tribe
   anciently kin to their own, and now
   concentrated
      in Camps…)

My father—my mother—
I have longed for you.
Now I see
      it is well you are dead,
dead and
gone from Time,
gone from this time whose weight
of shame your bones, weary already
from your own days and years of
tragic History,
could surely not have borne.

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Austen, Moral Equivocation, and the NFL

Wes Welker

Wes Welker suffered his third concussion in two seasons last week.

Sports Saturday 

The NFL season is about to begin and once again I’m finding myself guilty of what the existentialists call bad faith or inauthenticity as I root for Peyton Manning. Although football is a sport that does terrible things to men’s bodies and brains, I push this awareness under and watch anyway. I deliberately deceive myself that it makes no difference that I watch, even though the game would have to change if enough of us stopped supporting it in its present form.

Actually, my moral equivocations are worse that that. I perform a mental two-step to help me feel better about myself: I tell myself that once Manning hangs up his cleats, I’ll stop supporting the game for good. No more watching a game where players set them up for future dementia or permanent crippling as they hurl their bodies against one another. But I’m not willing to stop watching as long as Manning has a good chance to make it back to the Super Bowl.

Where in literature does one encounter such equivocation? Several characters come to mind—Macbeth, Brutus, Ladislaw in Middlemarch—but as I’m currently preparing my Jane Austen seminar, Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park is at the top of the list. Edmund is an exemplary man, a future rector, but he is of two minds about a private theatrical of a scandalous play that his irresponsible older brother and his two sisters want to put on while their father is out of the country.

At first he takes a principled stand against it. But then their neighbor Mary Crawford, whom he loves, begins to argue for it. Suddenly it is possible for him to imagine playing Anhalt, a priest that she, playing Amelia, would make love to. This in itself doesn’t sway Edmund but it causes him to start finding ways to rationalize his support.

For instance, he allows another argument to sway him: if he doesn’t play Anhalt, his brother will bring in an outsider to do so, thereby exposing the family. In the end, Edmund surrenders and even finds himself titillated by his practice sessions with Mary. He lets the pleasures of the activity outweigh his moral qualms.

His siblings secretly revel in the fact that he has descended from his moral high horse:

It was, indeed, a triumphant day to Mr. Bertram and Maria. Such a victory over Edmund’s discretion had been beyond their hopes, and was most delightful. There was no longer anything to disturb them in their darling project, and they congratulated each other in private on the jealous weakness to which they attributed the change, with all the glee of feelings gratified in every way. Edmund might still look grave, and say he did not like the scheme in general, and must disapprove the play in particular; their point was gained: he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both as much the better as the happier for the descent.

Edmund should do what the heroine Fanny does, which is oppose the play regardless of the consequences. If he did so, in all probability he would prevent it, but that would simply be an extra bonus. The important point is standing up for what is right. Because people regularly fail to do that in Mansfield Park, scandal results.

Regarding the play, their father returns early, catches them in rehearsal, and is appalled. He’s especially upset with Edmund, who should know better.

And so it is with me and the NFL. I should know better. In fact, right now, having watched future Hall of Fame receiver Wes Welker go down with his third concussion in three years (and he’s probably had many more), I should be demanding that he walk away from the game. At my college, once an athlete has had three concussions, he or she is no longer allowed to play. But since Welker is critical to Denver’s Super Bowl hopes, I keep on coming up with reasons why it’s okay to have him continue playing. I close my eyes to the possibility of dementia at fifty.

It’s hard to do the right thing. But even as I say that, I think of Jane Eyre, who faces a much more serious moral dilemma than I do:

Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?

I know this is heavy moralizing for the beginning of a sports season. Then again, the welfare of human beings is at stake.

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The Race Projection behind the Killings

Design by Walter Logan

Design by Walter Logan

It has been horrifying to see the many instances of young unarmed black men being killed by vigilantes and police. Several times have we heard the police explain that the victims, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, were reaching for their guns. As MSNBC’s Joy Reid said the other night on All in with Chris Hayes, however, either this is a cover story that police use because they can always get away with it or there’s an epidemic of unarmed black men reaching for police firearms.

Sometimes the story takes novel twists—like the Louisiana black youth who “committed suicide” by shooting himself in the chest with a police revolver in a squad car while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Or the Walmart shopper who picked up a BB gun in a Walmart while talking on a cell phone and was gunned down.

This depressing news has me revisiting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man since it’s one of the great books about how whites can’t see anything other than their own fears when they look at black men. The “stand your ground” laws have grown out of these fears, as have the juries’ decisions to find vigilante killers like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn justified in killing innocent teenagers.  After all, if the jurors can identify with the fears, then the killers are a step closer to reasonable doubt.

Here’s the famous opening of Invisible Man. Think of it as Projection 101:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist.

You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.

Ellison then goes on to talk how frustrating it is to live as an invisible man. At one point he lashes out with violence to convince himself that he is real:

It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

He describes how he bumps into a white man and beats him up after he is called an insulting name. It’s worth noting such violent reactions have been the exception rather than the rule with most of the recent killings, even in Ferguson. True, there was some looting and some throwing of Molotov cocktails, but moderates worked to keep these to a minimum, even as the police seemed to go out of their way to provoke residents.

The Invisible Man says that his own violence is also the exception. I thought of President Obama’s muted response to Ferguson in the narrator’s description of his normal response:

Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. 

I think Obama’s strategy has been to avoid stirring up racist whites. Instead, he tries to do things behind the scenes, sending his attorney general to investigate Ferguson and working towards incremental change.

Many of his black followers are frustrated, however. After all, he has many more options than the Invisible Man, who is in retreat at this point in the book, hibernating until he can find a basis upon which to act. Obama, by contrast, is supposedly the most powerful man on the planet. The president knows, however, that racism remains a powder keg that can still go off. He walks carefully.

In some ways, he is like President Bledsoe in the novel who knows his college will survive only if he doesn’t offend the white establishment too much. The narrator must be expelled from the school because he threatens  to upset the delicate balance that the president is trying to maintain.

In our own time, rightwing commentators are doing everything they can to wake the sleepers up and get them to lash out at their nightmares. As a society, we still have a long way to go.

 

A note on the artist: Walter Logan’s design can be found at https://www.behance.net/gallery/3476483/The-Invisible-man-by-Ralph-Ellison

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Are College Students Sheep?

Charles Emile Jacques, " A Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep"

Charles Emile Jacques, ” A Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep”

Carl Rosin, a superb high school English teacher who has written guest posts for this blog, visited me last week and alerted me to William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Apparently Deresiewicz believes that people who attend the ivy league schools are obsessed careerists who don’t take advantage of the soul-exploring that a liberal arts education should help foster. Here’s a passage from the book:

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

While I think books like this usefully prompt educators to reflect upon the enterprise, too many of them feature dubious generalizations about students. Usually, it seems, they are written by college professors complaining that their students don’t behave like them. Seldom do they acknowledge the complex inner lives of their students or the variety of responses to education that are possible.

The book, for instance, doesn’t do justice to Carl, who attended Harvard and who is challenging high school students in exciting ways. Recently he won a national award for how he teaches his students philosophy. Nor does it do justice to my own education at Carleton College, which is not an ivy league school but does show up in top ten lists of liberal arts colleges. My teachers challenged us to question orthodoxy wherever we found it and And while I embraced this challenge, others did not but made their own paths through their education.

The difference between my generation and students today is that we didn’t exit college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The economy was still growing in the early 1970’s and those of us born into privilege assumed that we would eventually find good jobs in our futures. The assumption went so deep that we didn’t even think about it. Or at least some of us didn’t think about it: I’m loathe to generalize even about my class.

Today’s students face a much more forbidding environment so it would be surprising if they didn’t see their education differently. But that being said, I still have a wide range of students. Some are tracked toward medical school from the beginning and others, despite the forbidding economic realities, want to explore the world more and end up joining the Peace Corps or teaching abroad before they settle down. Or they go to graduate school, not for jobs but because they feel their minds are just starting to take off and they want to continue the process.

And I don’t even want to generalize about my pre-med students. While a few may be “science jocks,” others embrace the literature I teach as a chance to learn new things about themselves and the world. Even if they lockstep their way through medical school, I like to think that their experience with these authors will help them enter more fully the lives of their patients.

To be sure, St. Mary’s College of Maryland is not an ivy league school. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if there weren’t a comparable range of students in the ivies.

The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller makes a similar point in his own review of Deresiewicz’s book:

For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs [the teachers’] in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest. 

That’s what I see as well.

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Into the Depths with Smollett (Don’t Ask)

Smollett_Humphry_Clinker_Cover

Warning: Today’s post is not for the squeamish. I am undergoing a colonoscopy midmorning and so spent yesterday prepping for it. Prepping involved eating clear jello and drinking laxatives and a couple of quarts of what can be best described as liquid slime. (I gorged on bitterness–actually unbearable sweetness–without a name.) The work that came to mind was a novel included in my dissertation: Humphry Clinker.

This 1771 epistolary novel, written by the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett (or Tobias Smellfungus, as his rival Laurence Sterne called him), is also not for the squeamish. In the very first sentence we encounter crotchety-but-with-a-heart-of-gold Matthew Bramble complaining to his doctor about his constipation:

The pills are good for nothing—I might as well swallow snowballs to cool my reins—I have told you over and over how hard I am to move; and at this time of day, I ought to know something of my own constitution. Why will you be so positive?

In the pages that follow we encounter more references to excrement than most people want in a novel, including a doctor claiming that he can diagnose any disease from examining his patient’s feces. The eponymous hero of the book, meanwhile, has a name that is a scatological pun: “Clinker” is another word for dingleberry. Our first glimpse of Humphry is of his bare buttocks—he is the postilion on a coach (the postilion’s posterior) and the passengers looking through the window can tell that his pants have split.

But Humphry is a figure who promises that the world can be cleansed of its blockages. The passengers are dazzled by the whiteness of his skin and by the fact that he has no hair on his buttocks. If the book begins with talk of constipation, with an old man complaining not only about his health but also about all the changes going on in society, it ends with images of free circulation. Class barriers come down as Humphry turns out to be Bramble’s illegitimate son. There is a tearful reunion and, rather than continue to hold on to the past (and everything else that he is holding on to), the prickly Bramble makes peace with the world.

And so I plan to have done with this subject by the end of today. My mind will turn to other subjects, and this blog will become safe reading again.

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Are Liberals Killing the Arts? Uh, No

Frontispiece for "The Dunciad"

From “The Dunciad” (“No One Attacks Me with Impunity”)

A recent New Republic article ominously announced “Liberals Are Killing Art,” explaining that they are doing so by becoming “obsessed with ideology over beauty.” And you thought the culture wars of the early 1990’s were over.

The New Yorker’s Alex Ross had a fairly good refutation and I’ve got some objections of my own, but let’s let author Jed Perl have his say first. This seems to be the nub of his argument:

Do more and more liberals find the emotions unleashed by the arts—I mean all of the arts, from poetry to painting to dance—something of an embarrassment? Are the liberal-spirited people who support a rational public policy—a social safety net, consistency and efficiency in foreign affairs, steps to reverse global warming—reluctant to embrace art’s celebration of unfettered metaphor and mystery and magic? If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said the answer was no. Now I am inclined to say the opposite. What is certain is that in our data- and metrics-obsessed era the imaginative ground without which art cannot exist is losing ground. Instead of art-as-art we have art as a comrade-in-arms to some more supposedly stable or substantial or readily comprehensible aspect of our world. Now art is always hyphenated. We have art-and-society, art-and-money, art-and-education, art-and-tourism, art-and-politics, art-and-fun. Art itself, with its ardor, its emotionalism, and its unabashed assertion of the imagination, has become an outlier, its tendency to celebrate a purposeful purposelessness found to be intimidating, if not downright frightening.

And further on:

The trouble with the reasonableness of the liberal imagination is that it threatens to explain away what it cannot explain. 

There are dire consequences to this approach, Perl warns:

An illiberal view of art is gaining ground, even among the liberal audience. This is one of the essential if largely hidden factors that is undermining faith in our museums, our libraries, our publishing houses, our concert halls, symphony orchestras, and theater and dance troupes.

So if I understand Perl’s argument, because liberals aren’t waxing rhapsodically enough about the mystery and the magic of the arts or placing the arts on a special pedestal, people are losing faith in them. To a degree, Perl’s argument reads like a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s. With regard to literature, I can say that this was a time when scholars wanted poetry and fiction to provide a transcendence that was denied by rationalized society. Heirs of Matthew Arnold, they defined literature against all that was practical or down-to-earth, downplaying or even outrightly denying the significance of history and biography. At the height of this movement, an anthology of poetry was published without authorial names or dates. Literature was seen as timeless as a sacred text.

There was a reaction against such an extreme. With the rise of feminism and the other liberation movements and then of New Historicism, literature came to be seen as working hand in glove with history in various ways. And sure, some of these scholars went overboard  and didn’t draw meaningful distinctions between literature and other pieces of writing. There will always be scholars going to extremes to test out their theories.

In his New Yorker refutation of Perl, Rose argues for a both/and rather than either/or approach to the arts. Here he is addressing Perl’s complaints that critics have spent too much time looking for anti-semitism and/or fascism in the works of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein:

Contemplating such works, we can think in two modes at once, the aesthetic and the historical-political—generally a wise way to navigate the labyrinth of art. To debate whether politics is always present or always absent is to play a parlor game irrelevant to the complex, ever-shifting reality in which both artists and their audiences reside.

In other words, don’t wall off the arts from history but don’t reduce them to history either. To me it’s like love, which has both a transcendent and an earthly component. To reduce love to sex certainly strips it of its magic, but don’t think you can exclude sex altogether. In a wondrous paradox, literature simultaneously transcends the ages and is very much of its time.

Even Perl can’t entirely go back to the 1950’s and he acknowledges that history does play a role in how we see the arts. My sense is that his beef with liberals is more a beef with the project of the Enlightenment itself. Maybe he’s ultimately voicing a version of Wordsworth’s complaint that “we murder to dissect.” Maybe he wants less rational explaining and more starry-eyed wonderment.

Perl appears to be setting up a straw man and not many liberals fit his description. I suppose there may be a few arrogant twits who think that their theories explain away Shakespeare, but in my experience most of us are awestruck by the man.

And I can assure Perl, as one who does a lot of explaining and who teaches his students to formulate cogent interpretations, that there’s still a lot of room for starry-eyed wonderment in my classes. Even as I strive to rationally understand, say, our culture’s fascination with fantasy, I thrill to the fantasy visions of Shakespeare and Keats and Christina Rossetti and Tolkien and Haruki Murakami. Liberals couldn’t take the thrill out of the fantastic even if they wanted to (and why would they want to?). Readers know what they need.

One doesn’t save literature or the arts by building a sanctuary for them and approaching them with deferential silence. Shakespeare suffers more at the hands of the bardolaters than from those who historicize him. It is in the intersection of the artist and the world–and then of the work and the reader–where the magic happens. Or as Ross summarizes it in his piece,

Art does not stand apart from reality; if it did, it would have no life in it, no light, no darkness, no power.

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A Message from the Mower in the Dew

tuft of flowers

As I was mowing our yard yesterday afternoon, I saw a tuft of grass that I had missed in the previous mowing and suddenly was taken back to Robert Frost’s “Tuft of Flowers” and the summer of 2000. That was the summer following the death of my eldest son, and I would think of that poem as I mowed the grass. I remember hating the thought of cutting down the buttercups scattered throughout the yard. Life seemed altogether too fragile.

As sparing the buttercups would have meant not mowing our yard at all, I compromised by always leaving a swath of grass and flowers uncut. I saw myself as the unknown reaper in the poem:

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
 
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.
 
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
 
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,
 
As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’
 
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,
 
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
 
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
 
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
 
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;
 
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
 
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
 
I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.
 
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
 
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
 
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
 
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
 
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
 
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
 
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
 
Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’ 

Reflecting upon what must have drawn me to the poem, I now think it was the image of the bewildered butterfly looking at the suddenly desolate landscape:

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
 
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
 
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I told myself at the time that I was sparing the scythe for the sake of the butterflies. Now, however, I think that I left those flowers untouched because I wanted to believe that life would continue, even if all I could see at the time was death. I was the one searching frantically on tremulous wing and, by leaving a tuft of flowers, I was giving myself a symbol of hope. Maybe the impulse to protect came from a life force deep within, reassuring me that death didn’t have the last word. Maybe I was hearing a message from the dawn.

Poetry is the strangest thing. It gives us a framework to wrestle with our deepest questions, but we can’t tell ahead of time which poems we will turn to or how we will use them. Without those poems, however, life would be too dark altogether.

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Coming Home Like a Lamb to the Fold

John Gibb, "Shades Of Evening, The Estuary" (1880)

John Gibb, “Shades Of Evening, The Estuary” (1880)

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve been reading A Sacrifice of Praise, an anthology of Christian poetry from the middle ages to the 20th century. In the process, I’ve discovered and come to appreciate the poetry of British poet Ruth Pitter (1897-1992).

In her time Pitter was appreciated by figures like Hilaire Belloc, who talked about her “classical spirit,” and C. S. Lewis. “The Estuary” is a beautiful poem that only gradually reveals itself to be a poem about faith. In some ways, it can be read as a response to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

The Estuary

By Ruth Pitter

Light, stillness and peace lie on the broad sands, 
On the salt-marshes the sleep of the afternoon. 
The sky’s immaculate; the horizon stands 
Steadfast, level and clear over the dune.

There are voices of children, musical and thin 
Not far, nor near, there in the sandy hills; 
As the light begins to wane, so the tide comes in, 
The shallow creek at our feet silently fills:

And silently, like sleep to the weary mind, 
Silently, like the evening after the day, 
The big ship bears inshore with the inshore wind, 
Changes her course, and comes on up through the bay,

Rolling along the fair deep channel she knows, 
Surging along, right on top of the tide. 
I can see the flowery wreath of foam at the bows, 
The long bright wash streaming away from her side:

I can see the flashing gulls that follow her in, 
Screaming and tumbling, like children wildly at play, 
The sea-born crescent arising, pallid and thin, 
The flat safe twilight shore shelving away.

Whether remembered or dreamed, read of or told, 
So it has dwelt with me, so it shall dwell with me ever: 
The brave ship coming home like a lamb to the fold, 
Home with the tide into the mighty river.

The image of “lamb to the fold,” of course, sees the ship as a soul returning to Jesus, the good shepherd, who is represented as the tide of a mighty river.

There is no such reassurance in “Dover Beach,” where the tide of faith is ebbing, not flowing, and where ignorant armies clash by night:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In Pitter’s vision, one can hear the voices of children. The poem is infused with “the peace that passeth all understanding,” and renewed faith comes like “sleep to the weary mind.”

Added note: An earlier version of this post included a typo that appeared in the anthology. “The fight begins to wane” should be “the light begins to wane.” Thanks to my mother for pointing it out. And here I thought it was an allusion to the Matthew Arnold line about ignorant armies clashing by night. (Pitter’s night promises to be much more peaceful.)

The mistake, which casts some doubts on the anthology itself (this isn’t the first mistake I’ve found in it), reminds me of the great American scholar F. O. Matthiessen’s analysis of a passage at the end of Melville’s White Jacket. The protagonist falls overboard and brushes against “a great soiled fish” and Matthiessen talks of Melville’s brilliant use of “soiled” to capture the darkness the sailor encounters:

[H]ardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some “soiled fish of the sea.” The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.

The only problem was that “soiled” was a typesetter’s error and the word Melville had actually written was “coiled.”

Mistakes like this should keep us literary scholars humble. At least Matthiessen was tuned in to Melville enough to know that there was something about the phrase stood out.

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Can Fed Keep Going? The Bard Weighs In

Federer

Sports Saturday

In anticipation of the U. S. Open this coming week, I reflect on a passage that came to mind when I was playing my 32-year-old son Darien this past weekend. I beat him on Saturday and split sets with him on Sunday.

Darien is a superb athlete—he was captain of his college’s soccer team—and if he had time to practice more, he would beat me regularly. He has powerful topspin shots and very good reactions at the net. But I have 30 years of experience on him and throw off his rhythm with slices and blocked shots, which I refer to as old-man tennis. The strategy allows me to steal games that I should not win. I see myself as Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew. 

I suspect you don’t remember Gremio. He is the elder suitor vying for the hand of Bianca against Lucentio. It appears that Lucentio will win when he starts outbidding Gremio for Bianca’s hand. (Or to be strictly accurate, when his servant Tranio starts outbidding Gremio as the servant is disguised as the master so that Vincentio can pass for a musician and seduce Bianca.) However, although Gremio seems defeated, he warns Tranio that he’s an “old Italian fox” who won’t give up the field so easily.

Here is their initial interchange:

Gremio: Youngling, thou canst not love so dear as I.

Tranio: Graybeard, thy love doth freeze.

Gremio: But thine doth fry.
Skipper, stand back: ’tis age that nourisheth.

Tranio: But youth in ladies’ eyes that flourisheth.

The back and forth then moves on to a bidding war, with Tranio prevailing:

Tranio: Gremio, ’tis known my father hath no less
Than three great argosies; besides two galliases,
And twelve tight galleys: these I will assure her,
And twice as much, whate’er thou offer’st next.

Gremio: Nay, I have offer’d all, I have no more;
And she can have no more than all I have:
If you like me, she shall have me and mine.

Tranio: Why, then the maid is mine from all the world,
By your firm promise: Gremio is out-vied.

Here’s the passage that came to my mind:

Gremio: Now I fear thee not:
Sirrah young gamester, your father were a fool
To give thee all, and in his waning age
Set foot under thy table: tut, a toy!
An old Italian fox is not so kind, my boy.

To which Tranio replies (after Gremio has left),

A vengeance on your crafty wither’d hide!

So think of me as an old Italian fox. For that matter, think of Roger Federer as that fox, even though he’s only a year older than Darien. With Rafael Nadal injured and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray not playing their best tennis at the moment, there’s a chance that Fed, at 33, could “steal” another major trophy. He’s becoming more crafty with age, changing his racquet and charging the net more. He just might emerge triumphant.

If I am looking to Gremio for hope, unfortunately, the future does not look good. Youth, vigor, and money end up winning Bianca and Lucentio gets the prize. Gremio is left out in the cold.

In other words, Gremio’s threat to put the “young gamester” in his place is empty bragging on his part. Some day Darien will start beating my withered hide, and Federer’s craftiness will get him only so far. Even with one obstacle out of the way (Nadal injured or, in the play, the elder daughter Kate married off), what I fear is that, in the end, youthful Novak will come strutting in and run off with the girl. Too often in tennis it is youth that flourisheth.

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Munro’s Strategies for Emotional Survivial

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

My book discussion group met last night to discuss Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and for the first time I took a close look at our most recent Nobel laureate. Like the other members of the group, I saw my life in the author’s short stories.

Having recently spent time reading book after book to my grandson, I was immediately captivated by her description of reading to children:

The problem was that once she finished Christopher Robin, Katy wanted it started again, immediately. During the first reading she had been quiet, but now she began chiming in with ends of lines. Next time she chanted word for word though still not ready to try it by herself. Greta could imagine this being an annoyance to people once the dome car filled up. Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony. In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.

As my reading group discussed the book, we came to see that this relationship with monotony isn’t confined to children. Or rather, there seem to be two contradictory tendencies at work in Munro’s fiction: monotony provides a reassuring security and monotony threatens to suffocate. Some characters thrash around in this dull monotony and even try to sabotage lives that appear prosperous and stable. Others have made their peace with monotony, ratcheting down what they demand of life.

One member of the group mentioned an essay by Margaret Atwood on national identities that we had discussed a while back. Atwood says that while the American national story involves conquering the frontier, the Canadian national story involves simply surviving. We see the survival motif working itself out in the Canadian Munro. Sometimes people have lowered their expectations so as not to be hurt. In “Pride” a man with a hairlip is thrown off balance when a woman finds herself attracted to him and goes through some sad but comic twists to keep their cordial relationship from becoming intimate. In “Amundsen” a doctor suddenly and unexpected decides suddenly not to marry a woman as they are walking toward the courthouse. In “Train” a returning war veteran slips in and out of various people’s lives, his leaving seemingly timed to the rise of imminent intimacy.

Munro gives us insight into how she herself must have been taught to toe the line in “Night,” one of the autobiographical stories that conclude the collection. Note the contrast between the unimaginative father and the very imaginative child:

If you live long enough as a parent nowadays, you discover that you have made mistakes you didn’t bother to know about along with the ones you do know about all too well. You are somewhat humbled at heart, sometimes disgusted with yourself. I don’t think my father felt anything like this. I do know that if I had ever taxed him, with his use on me of the razor strap or his belt, he might have said something about like or lumping it. Those strappings, then, would have stayed in his mind, if they stayed at all, as no more than the necessary and adequate curbing of a mouthy child’s imagining that she could rule the roost.

“You thought you were too smart,” was what he might have given as his reason for the punishments, and indeed you heard that often in those times, with the smartness figuring as an obnoxious imp that had to have the same sass beaten out of him. Otherwise there was the risk of him growing up thinking he was smart. Or her, as the case might be.

The interesting twist in “Night” is that the child needs this father’s steadiness to recover from recurring insomnia accompanied by dark thoughts of murdering her sister. One night she meets her father sitting on the porch following one of her nocturnal ramblings and finds it immensely comforting that he expresses no alarm at her thoughts. By his simply taking them in stride'” – “Then he said not to worry. He said, ‘People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.'” – she  is able to start sleeping again.

Munro reminds me a lot of Chekhov. Women in her stories act out without ever being sure of what they want. Men are offered relief from loneliness but turn it down because their routine lives seem safer. Children carry around holes in their hearts from tragedies that have happened—the death of a sibling or of a beloved babysitter—and never face up to their grief. Acknowledging deep feelings would render them vulnerable and they fear they wouldn’t be able to survive.

Munro neither condemns nor applauds these responses but sympathetically describes them. She is like the woman in “Dolly” who temporarily goes off the rails and writes her longtime partner an unforgivable letter. Returning to him before he gets the letter, she is simultaneously relieved and exasperated by his readiness to tear it up without reading it once it arrives:

What a mix of rage and admiration I could feel at his being willing to do that. It went back through our whole life together.

The final paragraph in the book gets at this ambivalence from another angle:

I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral. I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him? I felt the same. We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.

Returning home for the funeral seems an extravagant gesture, putting one’s survival at risk. Should we nevertheless regret not doing it? Is it good that we then forgive ourselves since doing so is a way of keeping on? As always, these are open questions with Munro. She acknowledges human complexity so deeply that she refuses to settle upon a final judgment.

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Mass Extinctions Followed by Life

Field Museum's Evolving Planet exhibit

On our recent visit to Chicago, Julia and I visited the museums I remembered from my childhood: Science and Industry, the Art Institute, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum. I loved what I remembered and marveled at what was new. One of the new things is the certainty, in all the science museums, that the planet faces a grave threat from human-caused climate change. I wondered how all those deniers—and those claiming to deny—visit these museums without feeling ashamed of themselves. Has politics made them so dumb or so paranoid that they think there’s a vast scientific conspiracy afoot?

I was particularly enthralled with “The Evolving Planet” exhibit in the Field Museum where one walks through the history of the earth, revisiting each of life’s six mass extinctions along the way. The sixth is the one that our own species is currently visiting upon many of the other species. Part of the cause is climate change, and there is also habitat destruction and plain old direct killing.

The only consoling news was that life has always found a way to bounce back. When the dinosaurs went down, the mammals came into their own. The fish, meanwhile, have been evolving dramatically for eons, one form replacing another as the temperatures of the oceans changed, and I was blown away by all the diversity and wondrous beauty we saw in the aquarium.

I thought of a Richard Shelton poem that I like. It calls for us to step beyond self and pain and see ourselves as part of something bigger. We think that our death is just about us and try to frame it in our own terms, but our mortality highlights the grand collective enterprise that we are part of. Encountering death, listening to its whisper, can remind us how precious and beautiful life is.

In our current case, death is not whispering but shouting. (The Field Museum has a counter, which reaches double figures, informing us how many species have gone extinct since we got up that morning.) Will this help us appreciate the beauty that is all around us? Unlike previous mass extinctions, this one we have some say in. Poems like Shelton’s remind us that the continuing fight to save the earth in its current form is worth it.

Death

has no sense of honor. I challenged him
to battle, win or lose; but when I went
to meet him, he did not appear. Later
I heard his tiny voice whispering in my ear

You carried me to the battlefield
and brought me safely back again.
I have been with you always. I am here.

He followed me like a ghost. I had been told
ghosts could not cross running water, so I went
to the river and swam. When I came out
on the other shore. I saw a dragonfly
above me on the willow branch. Its wings
were fragile and transparent as an angel’s.
Again I heard the tiny voice. It said

Thank you for taking me across the water
on your shoulder. Rest on the riverbank.
I will watch over you. Sleep. I will be near.

I slept and dreamed I was the river’s
lover; and when I woke, a mist was rising
on the water. The moon came up and everything
was silver. It was more beautiful
than in my dream. I heard the voice again,
this time a murmur, a low wind in the trees.

Someday I will release you from your dreams
of self and pain, and make you part
of all things beautiful. You will  be useful
to the earth. Now you call me “Death”
but you will learn my other name
is “Life.” We are the same.

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Fighting Back against the Program

raised fist

As I read about all that America’s poor have to put with, starting with wages that don’t cover the cost of the basics, I sometimes wonder why we don’t have even more Ferguson protests. It’s as though, in America, most people passively succumb to the dictates of capitalism, even as it makes their lives very hard. I remember reading in the 1980s about Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan expressing his amazement that there weren’t more middle class protests against stagnating wages and growing income inequality. He wasn’t complaining since his sympathies were with the upper class. But he had anticipated more pushback.

I came across a poem of my father’s imagining a sheet of white paper that refuses to sign on with the program. After getting beaten around for a while, it finally turns revolutionary and starts quoting The Communist Manifesto.

The poem is dated in one way: Does anyone even know what a mimeograph machine is anymore? (We still used them when I was a graduate teaching assistant in the 1970s.) I can imagine the poem growing out of my father’s frustrations as he tried to print off syllabi for a course. Thematically, however, the poem is as relevant as ever. Push people around enough and sooner or later they will become doctrinaire communists. Or, since protest can swing either right or left, rightwing ideologues.

The Recalcitrant Sheet of Mimeograph Paper

By Scott Bates

A Sheet of Mimeograph Paper refused to go through the machine
No no it cried
Set me apart
Must I serve as fodder for a Mimeograph Moloch
Reduced
To the docile conformity and blank imbecility of my sheeplike compatriots
My purity sullied
My innocence destroyed

Will you track up my candor with your muddy feet
No no I protest
I refuse
Let me be crumpled into cabbage
Peeled into carrot strips
Abandoned with the used kleenices holey hermit sacks outcast chewing gum wrappers and all the other paper pariahs of your so-called civilization
Before you tattoo my backside with the decadent artifacts of a worn-out bureaucracy

They fed it through the machine
It came out blank
They fed it through again
Inexorably

At last it spoke
Dear Sirs it said
Pursuant to your request of long standing
and in full cognizance of the numerous difficulties involved
I am authorized to inform you at this time
You have nothing to lose but your chains

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Flannery O’Connor’s Dislike of Ayn Rand

Neal and Cooper in "The Fountainhead"

Neal and Cooper in “The Fountainhead”

Reader Sue Schmidt alerted me to this article about Flannery O’Connor’s abhorrence of Ayn Rand’s novels, expressed in a letter to a friend. As the article notes, O’Connor’s mention of hardboiled detective novelist Mickey Spillane is also of interest. Here’s what O’Connor wrote:

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

By unfavorably comparing Rand with Spillane, O’Connor is setting a low bar. While Spillane was immensely popular, his hardboiled detective novels are not in the same class with those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Basically, Spillane tickles the pleasure centers of the brain with sex, violence, and satisfying revenge fantasies but little more. He doesn’t have the same existential depth as Hammett. But O’Connor says he at least is closer to a Dostoevskan exploration of existential emptiness than Rand.

I suspect that the mention of Spillane is not entirely accidental. O’Connor must have read somewhere that Rand was a big Spillane fan. As the article mentions (and as Gene Bell-Villada points out in his excellent book on Rand), Rand saw Spillane as one of the big boys and better than Tolstoy:

[Victor] Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral–Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide–Spillane gives me the feeling of listening to a military band in a public park–Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.

Just as Spillane’s women love how his hero Mike Hammer treats them rough, so Dominique Francon is drawn to her quasi-rape by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead:

She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades.…She fell back against the dressing table, she stood crouching, her hands clasping the edge behind her, her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror. He was laughing. There was the movement of laughter on his face, but no sound.…Then he approached. He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.

But there’s more to the Rand-Spillane connection than this. In a sense, Rand ravishes her own readers in ways similar to how Mike Hammer ravishes his broads. She pounds them with her truth and, in an orgasmic intellectual moment, they feel themselves in the presence of a powerful force. Their surrender involves abandoning doubts, which they come to see as weak and pusillanimous. In the presence of real power, they feel reborn as part of a new certainty.

I suspect this is what disturbed O’Connor so much about Rand’s fans. Her own fiction questions received certainties and comes down hardest on those who are smugly convinced that they are in possession of the truth.

Look, for instance, at how O’Connor handles the smug Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.” The story’s protagonist thinks she has everything figured out, only to be challenged by a girl in a doctor’s waiting room who becomes infuriated at her sanctimony. Here’s the confrontation:

The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air. Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.

The girl could be O’Connor herself, lashing out against those who assume their superiority over others. But because she is engaged in genuine exploration, O’Connor is also scrutinizing herself for signs of Mrs. Turpin’s pride.

By the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin sees herself as no better than the others in her world. Needless to say, such humility was beyond Ayn Rand.

Posted in O'Connor (Flannery), Rand (Ayn), Spillane (Mickey) | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

What Frightens the Ferguson Police

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Like many people, I’m trying to figure out the significance of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, first the killing of an unarmed black man and then the militarized response to the protests, complete with tanks, SWAT teams, rubber bullets and tear gas. One author who can help us sort it all out is James Baldwin in his 1965 short story “Going to Meet the Man.”

First, a recap of the events, which at first glance appear to have been triggered by an incompetent police chief with access to heavy armaments. While I’m not a fan of Daily Kos, they do a pretty good job of summing up everything that was done wrong. Here’s their list:

1.    Officer kills an unarmed black teen in the street.
2.    Officer who kills the teenager requests assistance but does not inform his commanders of what happened. Instead, they learn it on the news like everyone else.
3.    The scene is left in the hands of the officer’s own colleagues who allow the officer to leave the scene of the crime. His vehicle is also allowed to leave the scene – presumably breaking the integrity of the chain of evidence.
4.    Victim is left lying in the road for four hours – inflaming the community and presumably destroying evidence.
5.    Witnesses say that the killing officer never bothered to check for a pulse once his victim went down. None of the other officers arriving on the scene checked for a pulse. Bystanders in the medical field were not allowed to attempt CPR.
6.    Rumor has it that the cellphones of possible witnesses were confiscated.
7.    Police launch campaign to protect the officer at all costs – including the destruction of the community of Ferguson.
8.    Police launch a full military invasion of the traumatized town of Ferguson.
9.    Police caught on international TV screaming, “Bring it! Bring it you fucking animals!”
10.    The response to a community protesting police brutality is the imposition of ‘martial law’ complete with authoritarianism, tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades and sound grenades.
11.    Police throw the Constitution out the window and arrest, assault and teargas journalists.
12.    Police arrest a well-known public figure for the “crime” of “failing to listen.”
13.    Chief of Police praises his officers for showing incredible restraint.
14.    After days of shocking behavior that caught the attention of the world, police finally release Killer Cop’s name – while concurrently launching a smear campaign against his victim. This decision to reignite the fuse of the powder keg is not run up the chain of command – despite pledges from the Governor that there is a new Sheriff in town.
15.    Chief of Police specifically says that he is not interested in talking to the community he has been victimizing.
16.    Chief of Police holds multiple press conferences in which he contradicts himself repeatedly.
17.    Chief of Police makes a statement praising the Killer Cop while concurrently smearing the dead teenaged victim at the center of the nation’s outrage:

“He was a gentle, quiet man,” Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Friday, referring to Wilson. “He was a distinguished officer. He was a gentleman. … He is, he has been, an excellent officer.”

A white southern sheriff is at the center of Baldwin’s story as well. In his case, he is at home unable to make love to his wife after a face-off with civil rights demonstrators. In the course of the demonstration, he has beaten a black man to within an inch of his life. As the sheriff dwells on the incident, he is taken back to a horrific community lynching that he witnessed as a young boy, one that involved burning alive and castrating. That memory stirs his manhood and he is able to make love to his wife.

What has brought about the sheriff’s impotence is a sense that he is no longer in control. One realizes that his sense of self-esteem has been dependent on the black community deferring to him, as they used to do:

He was only doing his duty: Protecting white people from the niggers and the niggers from themselves. And there were still lots of good niggers around—he had to remember that; they weren’t all like that boy this afternoon; and the good niggers must be mighty sad to see what was happening to their people. They would thank him when this was over. In that way they had, the best of them, not quite looking him in the eye, in a low voice, with a little smile: We surely thanks you, Mr. Jesse. From the bottom of our hearts, we thanks you. He smiled. They hadn’t all gone crazy. This trouble would pass.–

Now that they are no longer deferring, he is haunted by his vision of them:

He felt that he would like to hold her [his wife], hold her, and be buried in her like a child and never have to get up in the morning again and go downtown to face those faces, good Christ, they were ugly! and never have to enter that jail house again and smell that smell and hear that singing; never again feel that filthy, kinky, greasy hair under his hand, never again watch those black breasts leap against the leaping cattle prod, never hear those moans again or watch that blood run down or the fat lips split or the sealed eyes struggle open. They were animals, they were no better than animals, what could be done with people like that?

He has violent fantasies, especially when confronting the man he has beaten:

Now the boy looked as though he were dead. Jesse wanted to go over to him and pick him up and pistol whip him until the boy’s head burst open like a melon. He began to tremble with what he believed was rage, sweat, both cold and hot, raced down his body, the singing filled him as though it were a weird, uncontrollable monstrous howling rumbling up from the depths of his own belly, he felt an icy fear rise in him and raise him up…

Think now of the unarmed black men who have been killed in recent years (at least those who have made the headlines) and the juries that have ruled in favor of the killers. Trayvon Martin was killed by a self-proclaimed community watchman while walking home in a suburban housing development. Jordan Davis was shot for playing loud music while parked at a gas station. Eric Garner in New York City died from a police chokehold while being arrested for illegally selling cigarettes. Michael Brown was shot for walking in the middle of the street in Ferguson, and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles wasn’t doing even tht much in Los Angeles a couple of days later. Meanwhile, the man who killed Martin was found not guilty, as was the man who killed Davis (although he was sentenced for shooting at Davis’ friends when they fled the scene). In both cases, the juries concluded that they had reason to feel threatened.

I can think of no other explanation for such overreactions than racial fears. The fears are also behind the “Stand Your Ground” laws that states keep passing, and it’s worth noting that the last time the NRA actually supported gun control was when Black Panthers were carrying guns in the 1970’s. Since then, it is assumed that whites must have guns to defend themselves against people of color. These racial fears are whipped up by the rightwing media and by several Congressmen, who talk about whites as the real victims. A lot is attributable to people’s anxieties over having a black president and witnessing a nation that is becoming increasingly brown.

In the story, the sheriff is able to regain his manhood by channeling the sexual power he imagines blacks to have. The power he fears that Blacks possess is something he secretly longs for. Here he is in bed after recalling the lynching:

Something bubbled up in him, his nature again returned to him. He thought of the boy in the cell; he thought of the man in the fire; he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound, something between a high laugh and a howl, came out of him and dragged his sleeping wife up on one elbow. She stared at him in a moonlight which had now grown cold as ice. He thought of the morning and grabbed her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whispered, as he stroked her, as he took her, “Come on sugar, I’m going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you’d love a nigger.” He thought of the morning as he labored and she moaned, thought of morning as he labored harder than he ever had before, and before his labors had ended, he heard the first cock crow and the dogs begin to bark, and the sound of tires on the gravel road.

Baldwin is seeing Blacks as sacrificial scapegoats in the story, their crucifixion restoring life to a barren land. While I’m not sure that such a dynamic is at work in Ferguson, Florida, New York City, and Los Angeles, white fear and insecurity appear to be the prods that set off the violence.

Posted in Baldwin (James) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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