Sir Gawain & the ISIS Beheadings

The headless Green Knight instructs Gawain

The headless Green Knight instructs Gawain

The world has watched in horror as ISIS militants have beheaded hostages, which in turn have generated copycat beheadings. At the moment, I am teaching one of the great literary works about beheadings although this one has a happy ending. Nevertheless, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives us some insight into why this act horrifies us so much more than other forms of lethal violence.

I should note that I am entering into the gruesome task of distinguishing between degrees of barbarity because I fear that our visceral reaction to the beheadings will lead to irrational decisions. In deciding whether or not to strike back against ISIS, it is imperative that we retain a cool judgment. Understanding the nature of our gut horror will help us find a calmer place on which to stand.

In Part I of the poem, the Green Knight strides into Camelot and challenges the knights to a beheading context. They can cut off his head with the large axe he has brought and then, in a year’s time, he will return the favor. At first he is greeted with “a swooning silence…as all were slipped into sleep”—in other words, a state of shock—but then Sir Gawain steps forward and delivers the blow. The Green Knight retrieves his head, which instructs Gawain to show up at “the green chapel” at the appointed time.

In the poem, the beheading carries a lot of symbolic significance. The Green Knight, a version of the legendary “green man” of Celtic tradition, can be seen as a stand-in for nature. He is essentially telling Christian Europe that it has lost connection with nature and the natural body and lives too much in its head. By contrast, he himself is so connected with nature that the mind and body cannot be severed. After all, if we cut down vegetation, it simply grows back again.

As we are individuals and not generalized nature, however, we cling to our separate identities. A key part of this identity is our head, which is the primary marker of who we are. It contains our features, our windows to the soul, our brain. Without it, we are an unidentifiable slab of meat. If ISIS wants to goad America into its war, it’s hard to imagine a more provocative act than beheading James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines.

By way of contrast, shooting someone in the head, while also awful, doesn’t seem to strip us of our personhood in the same way.

To make this point a different way, one of the most humane forms of execution is the guillotine, which offers sure and instant death. But in America, those who favor the death penalty prefer electrocution or medical injection, even though those can go horribly wrong. That’s because they are easier to rationalize, seeming to align the justice system with impersonal science. Cutting off someone’s head, on the other hand, makes the execution seem personal.

In short, we see the ISIS beheadings and we ourselves feel eradicated. We respond with fury.

In the medieval poem, the Green Knight loses some of his aura of horror when he tells Sir Gawain his name. He is Sir Bertilak and the entire beheading game has been a plot to bring Camelot down a peg. It sounds as though British Intelligence is close to identifying the ISIS executioners and, once they do, the beheading will no longer appear quite so much as a natural force stripping westerners of their personhood. It will be one person killing another. The evil will not be undone but it’s almost as though some kind of order will be reintroduced. Our justice system knows how to perceive murder.

I see one other way to apply the poem to the beheadings. Despite his critique of Gawain, the Green Knight says he is impressed with his knightly qualities, by which I suspect he means his self-discipline and his willingness to face up to danger. While Gawain needs to acknowledge his natural impulses, there is also something to be said about his ability to control them. In addition to a warm heart, one needs a cool head.

In other words, Gawain needs to balance reason and passion, mind and body. If he does, Camelot will remain powerful.

In his well-known poem “If,” Kipling talks about keeping one’s head while all around are losing theirs, a line which I hope it is not tasteless to quote. We are hearing a lot of hysterical responses to the beheadings by senators like John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz and others, and we need to keep our heads. Otherwise, we will get pulled into the darkness of the terrorists.

Posted in Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Children Wrestling with Faith & Doubt

Eastman Johnson, "Child at Prayer"

Eastman Johnson, “Child at Prayer” (1870)

Spiritual Sunday

My faculty reading group recently discussed a fine Alice Munro short story about a girl experimenting with religious belief. “Age of Faith” captures, in a profound way, how sensitive and intelligent children may turn to religion in an attempt to make sense of the world.

The story is both comic and heart wrenching. The narrator, Del, lives in the small Canadian town of Jubilee, which has five churches: the United Church, which has absorbed “all the former Methodists and Congregationalists and a good chunk of Presbyterians”; the Catholic Church, whose members “seemed bizarre and secretive as Hindus, with their idols and confessions and black spots on Ash Wednesday”; the Baptists, whose hymns “were loud, rollicking, and optimistic, and in spite of the austerity of their lives their religion had more vulgar cheerfulness about it than anybody’s else’s”; the leftover Presbyterians, “people who had refused to become United” and who were “mostly elderly, and campaigned against hockey practice on Sundays, and sang psalms”; and the Anglicans, who in the eyes of the narrator are not as interesting as the Catholics or the Baptists and not as stubborn as the Presbyterians, but “the church had a bell, the only church bell in town, and that seemed to me a lovely thing for a church to have.”

Del’s mother seems to be in a perpetual state of protest against God and the church, and when she attends services her daughter keeps expecting her to stand up and argue with the minister. Partly to rebel, Del starts going to church regularly. Many readers will identify with her mixed motives:

Why did I do this? At first, it was probably to bother my mother, though she made no outright objection to it, and to make myself interesting. I could imagine people looking at me, saying afterwards, “Do you see that little Jordan girl there, all by herself, Sunday after Sunday?” I hoped that people would be intrigued and touched by my devoutness and persistence, knowing my mother’s beliefs or nonbeliefs, as they did. Sometimes I thought of the population of Jubilee as nothing but a large audience, for me; and so, in a way it was; for every person who lived there, the rest of the town was an audience.

The following year, Del wants “to settle the question of God”:

I had been reading books about the Middle Ages; I was attracted more and more to the idea of faith. God had always been a possibility for me; now I was prey to a positive longing for Him. He was a necessity. But I wanted reassurance, proof that He actually was there. That was what I came to church for, but could not mention to anybody.

“Anybody” includes the minister. As Del explains, “I was afraid the believer might falter in defending his beliefs, or defining them, and this would be a setback for me.”

In one comic scene, Del decides to put God to the test and prays for a miracle, namely to be saved from a home economics class in which she is proving to be an inept seamstress. When the teacher finally gives up on her and exempts her, she at first believes that God has intervened. Then she generates an entirely new set of doubts:

I thought at first that what had happened was plainly miraculous, an answer to my prayer. But presently I began to wonder; suppose I hadn’t prayed, suppose it was going to happen anyway? I had no way of knowing; there was no control for my experiment. Minute by minute I turned more niggardly, ungrateful. How could I be sure? And surely too it was rather petty, rather obvious of God to concern Himself so quickly with such a trivial request? It was almost as if He were showing off. I wanted Him to move in a more mysterious way.

I haven’t begun to exhaust all of the ways that “Age of Faith” captures a complex inner life andsuggest that you track it down and read it yourself. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a version on-line, but it is to be found in Munro’s collection Lives of Girls and Women.) I’ll just mention the powerful ending where Munro kicks the story into a whole new gear. The family dog must be shot for killing sheep, and Del’s little brother, who has been watching his sister’s religious quest, suddenly become interested in the power of prayer. In response, however, Del turns into her mother, skeptical when faced with real suffering. Here’s the story’s conclusion:

I simply thought, and knew, that praying was not going to stop my father going out and getting his gun and calling, “Major! Here, Major—“ Praying would not alter that.

God would not alter it. If God was on the side of goodness and mercy and compassion, then why had he made these things so difficult to get at? Never mind saying, so they will be worth the trouble; never mind all that. Praying for an act of execution not to take place was useless simply because God was not interested in such objections; they were not His.

Could there be God not contained in the churches’ net at all, not made manageable by any spells and crosses, God real, and really in the world, and alien and unacceptable as death? Could there be God amazing, indifferent, beyond faith?

“How do you do it!” said Owen stubbornly. “Do you have to get down on your knees?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

But he had already knelt down, and clenched his hands at his sides. Then not bowing his head he screwed up his face with strong effort.

“Get up, Owen!” I said roughly. “It’s not going to do any good. It won’t work, it doesn’t work, Owen get up, be a good boy, darling.”

He swiped at me with his clenched fists, not taking time out to open his eyes. With the making of his prayer his face went through several desperate, private grimaces, each of which seemed to me a reproach and an exposure, hard to look at as skinned flesh. Seeing somebody have faith, close up, is no easier than seeing someone chop a finger off.

Do missionaries ever have these times, of astonishment and shame?

Watching Del, we gain insight into the skepticism of her mother and into our complex relationship with the divine. In children we see our own vulnerable selves and may remember when we too had an innocent faith in God before having our hopes dashed. Maybe we worry that they will be similarly disillusioned. As we collide with suffering, prayer can seem like a recklessly extravagant act, not to be indulged in by those who are hunkering down just to survive.


Related Post on Alice Munro: Munro’s Strategy for Emotional Survival

Posted in Munro (Alice) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Longing for Grace in the Face of Chaos


Sports Saturday

Here’s a Howard Nemerov poem for those who are trying to settle into the football season while remaining uncomfortable with all that is wrong with the NFL. Written in 1975, the poem articulates Nemerov’s own ambivalence about football.

At one point Nemerov compares the players to totemic scarabs, pointing out their resemblance to hard-shelled beetles. In ancient Egypt, scarab totems were used to ward off evil, and Nemerov theorizes that we watch football in the hope that we can arise above the chaos of life. Fans long for those moments when clarity will arise out of “the spaghetti of arms and legs/Waving above a clump of trunks and rumps”:

The runner breaks into the clear and goes,
The calm parabola of a pass completes
Itself like destiny, giving delight
Not only at skill but also at the sight
Of men who imitate necessity
By more than meeting its immense demands.

Nemerov applies the word “grace” to when we step beyond the realm of necessity, beyond grim fate, beyond gravity and fly. We wish for times when the football, despite its shape, doesn’t wobble but soars with a tight spiral to the “patterning receiver on the hands/The instant he looks back.” Such moments, the poet tells us,

     move the viewers in their living rooms
To lost nostalgic visions of themselves
As in an earlier, other world where grim
Fate in the form of gravity may be
Not merely overcome, but overcome
Casually and with style, and that is grace.

But the moments of grace are offset by other aspects of football. While the agon or struggle of football may seem like the heroic Battle of Troy where men struggled for “power and preeminence,” Nemervov reminds us that ultimately it is about money, especially for the owners who “own, are and carry a club”:

     Money is the name of the game
From the board room to the beers and souvenirs.
The players are mean and always want more money.
The owners are mean and always have more money
And mean to keep it while the players go
Out there to make them more; they call themselves
Sportsmen, they own, are and carry a club.

In a line that may draw on Freud’s equation of money and feces, Nemerov adds, “Remember this when watching the quarterback’s/Suppliant hands under the center’s butt.” (After reading that, I’ll never see the center-quarterback exchange quite the same again.)

Furthermore, no matter how wonderful the moments and how heroic the traditions, eventually everything just starts blending together so that nothing any longer surprises or delights us:

                   [A]ll the games
Are blended in one vast remembered game
Of similar images simultaneous
And superposed; nothing surprises us
Nor can delight, though we see the tight end
Stagger into the end zone again again.

Here’s the poem:

Watching Football on TV

By Howard Nemerov


It used to be only Sunday afternoons,
But people have got more devoted now
And maybe three four times a week retire
To their gloomy living room to sit before
The polished box alive with silver light
And moving shadows, that incessantly
Gives voice, even when pausing for messages.
The colored shadows made of moving light,
The voice that ritually recites the sense
Of what they do, enter a myriad minds.
Down on the field, massed bands perform the anthem
Sung by a soprano invisible elsewhere;
Sometimes a somewhat neutral public prayer
For in the locker rooms already both
Sides have prayed God to give them victory.


Totemic scarabs, exoskeletal,
Nipped in at the thorax, bulky above and below,
With turreted hard heads and jutting masks
And emblems of the lightning or the beast;
About the size of beetles in our sight,
Save for the closeup and the distant view,
Yet these are men, our representatives
More formidable than ourselves in speed and strength
And preparation, and more injured too;
Bandage and cast exhibit breakages
Incurred in wars before us played before;
Hard plaster makes a weapon of an arm,
A calf becomes a club. Now solemnly
They take up their positions in the light,
And soon their agon will begin again.


To all this there are rules. The players must
Remember that in the good society
Grabbing at anybody’s mask will be
A personal foul and incur a penalty.
So too will pushing, tripping, interfering
In any manner with someone else’s pass.
Fighting is looked on with particular
Severity; though little harm can come
To people so plated at shoulder, head and thigh,
The most conspicuous offenders are
Ejected from the game and even fined.
That’s one side of the coin, the other one
Will bear the picture of a charging bull
Or some such image imprecating fear,
And for its legend have the one word: Kill.


Priam on one side sending forth eleven
Of many sons, and Agamemnon on
The other doing much the same; is it
The Game of Troy again? the noble youth
Fiery with emulation, maneuvering
Toward power and preeminence? Well no,
It’s not. Money is the name of the game
From the board room to the beers and souvenirs.
The players are mean and always want more money.
The owners are mean and always have more money
And mean to keep it while the players go
Out there to make them more; they call themselves
Sportsmen, they own, are and carry a club.
Remember this when watching the quarterback’s
Suppliant hands under the center’s butt.


We watch all afternoon, we are enthralled
To what? some drama of the body and
The intellectual soul? of strategy
In its rare triumphs and frequent pratfalls?
The lucid playbook in the memory
Wound up in a spaghetti of arms and legs
Waving above a clump of trunks and rumps
That slowly sorts itself out into men?
That happens many times. But now and then
The runner breaks into the clear and goes,
The calm parabola of a pass completes
Itself like destiny, giving delight
Not only at skill but also at the sight
Of men who imitate necessity
By more than meeting its immense demands.


Passing and catching overcome the world,
The hard condition of the world, they do
Human intention honor in the world.
A football wants to wobble, that’s its shape
And nature, and to make it spiral true
‘s a triumph in itself, to make it hit
The patterning receiver on the hands
The instant he looks back, well, that’s to be
For the time being in a state of grace,
And move the viewers in their living rooms
To lost nostalgic visions of themselves
As in an earlier, other world where grim
Fate in the form of gravity may be
Not merely overcome, but overcome
Casually and with style, and that is grace.


Each year brings rookies and makes veterans,
They have their dead by now, their wounded as well,
They have Immortals in a Hall of Fame,
They have the stories of the tribe, the plays
And instant replays many times replayed.
But even fame will tire of its fame,
And immortality itself will fall asleep.
It’s taken many years, but yet in time,
To old men crouched before the ikon’s changes,
Changes become reminders, all the games
Are blended in one vast remembered game
Of similar images simultaneous
And superposed; nothing surprises us
Nor can delight, though we see the tight end
Stagger into the end zone again again.

Does Nemerov see football fans as tight ends–too much Bud Light?–staggering across the finish line of life? Is this the poet looking back at all the hours he has spent watching football on TV and coming to the conclusion, reached also by poet James Wright while “Lying on a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” that “I have wasted my life”? But Wright has his revelation while relaxing from work and gazing at butterflies and chicken hawks and listening to the lowing of cattle.  Nemerov arrives at his insights while gazing at colored shadows in a polished box in a gloomy living room. We watch replays of replays. Again again.

Posted in Nemerov (Howard) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Test Your Knowledge of Jane Austen

Barbara Leigh Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Barbara Leigh Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh

The peer mentor for my Jane Austen first year seminar, who has the wonderful Jane Austen-y name of Emma Taylor (heroine + governess in Emma), alerted me to a blog post by one Mallory Ortberg on “How to tell if you’re in a Jane Austen novel.” In addition to being fun to read, it tests one’s Jane Austen knowledge. I’ve shared my guesses below.

Ortberg has written a similar post on Dickens so make sure you check it out.

Warning: Certain of the situations admit of multiple answers.

  1. Someone disagreeable is trying to persuade you to take a trip to Bath.
  2. Your father is absolutely terrible with money. No one has ever told him this.
  3. All of your dresses look like nightgowns.
  4. Someone disagreeable tries to persuade you to join a game of cards.
  5. A woman who hates you is playing the pianoforte.
  6. A picnic has gone horribly wrong.
  7. A member of the armed forces has revealed himself to be morally deficient.
  8. You once took a walk with a cad.
  9. Everyone in the neighborhood, including your mother, has ranked you and your sisters in order of hotness. You know exactly where you fall on the list.
  10. You say something arch yet generous about another woman both younger and richer than you.
  11. You have one friend; he is thirty years old and does business with your father and you are going to marry him someday.
  12. You attempt to befriend someone slightly above or slightly below your social station and are soundly punished for it.
  13. A girl you have only just met tells you a secret, and you despise her for it.
  14. You have five hundred a year. From who? Five hundred what? No one knows. No one cares. You have it. It’s yours. Every year. All five hundred of it.
  15. There are three men in your life: one true love, one tempting but rakish acquaintance, and a third distant possibility — he is courteous and attentive but only slightly interested in you. He is almost certainly the cousin or good friend of your true love, and nothing will ever happen between you two.
  16. A woman who is not your mother treats you like her own daughter. Your actual mother is dead or ridiculous.
  17. You develop a resentment at a public dance.
  18. Someone you know has fallen ill. Not melodramatically ill, just interestingly so.
  19. A man proposes to you, then to another, lesser woman when you politely spurn him. This delights you to no end.
  20. A charming man attempts to flirt with you. This is terrible.
  21. You have become exceedingly ashamed of what your conduct has been.
  22. A shocking marriage of convenience takes place within your social circle two-thirds of the way in.
  23. A woman in an absurd hat is being an absolute bitch to you; there is nothing you can do about it.
  24. You are in a garden, and you are astonished.

My guesses: 

  1. This could either be the Allens in Northanger Abbey or the Elliots in Persuasion. Probably the Elliots as the Allens aren’t so much disagreeable as irritating and Catherine doesn’t need persuading. (Anne does.)
  2. Sir Walter Elliot again.
  3. This is presumably all the novels, given Regency styles and the popularity of muslin (which Tilney is an expert on).
  4. Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.
  5. I don’t recall any of the female villains playing the piano so I’m drawing a blank. Marianne Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet play, as does Jane Fairfax, but they don’t really hate anyone. And Mary Bennet is in her own world. Does Caroline Bingley play the piano? (Maybe it’s Emma, who dislikes the fact that Jane plays better than she does. But “hates” seems too strong a word.)
  6. Ah yes, the picnic from hell in Emma.
  7. Presumably Wickham.
  8. Hmm, given all the walking and all the cads, there are numerous possibilities. Marianne with Willoughby seems the most likely, but Fanny takes a walk in Portsmouth with Henry Crawford.
  9. Pride and Prejudice, of course, although I’m not sure where how Mrs. Bennet ranks all her daughters. Would her ranking be Jane, Lydia, Elizabeth, Kitty, Mary?
  10. Would this be Elizabeth about Miss Darcy?
  11. Knightley and Emma, of course.
  12. Maybe Emma and Harriet only Emma is more than slightly above Harriet. Often such friendships work out (Anne and Mrs. Smith, Catherine and the Tilneys).
  13. Lucy Steele, of course
  14. I can’t think of anyone who has 500 a year. Bingley has 5000.
  15. I was just talking about this scenario in class yesterday—the three men in Elizabeth Bennet’s life are Darcy, Wickham, and Fitzpatrick Fitzwilliam. Ortberg could have thrown a cousin into the mix as well.
  16. Emma and Anne have both lost their mothers and have mother figures in Miss Taylor and Lady Russell respectively. Elizabeth has a ridiculous mother but her aunt Mrs. Gardiner is more friend than mother.
  17. Elizabeth, of course, comes to hate Darcy for his put-down. Emma hates Elton for putting down Harriet but her dislike doesn’t begin there.
  18. This sounds like Mrs. Smith. I suppose Louisa Musgrove and Marianne both become melodramatically ill. And then there’s Mary Musgrove, who is a hypochondriac.
  19. Elizabeth is not delighted when Collins marries Charlotte, nor do we have a report of Anne being delighted with Musgrove marries Mary (although maybe she is). These are the only examples I could think of.
  20. Henry Crawford.
  21. This describes half of Austen’s heroines: Catherine, Marianne, Elizabeth, Emma. (The other half are Elinor, Jane, Fanny and Anne.) “Mortification” is one of Jane Austen’s favorite words.
  22. Carlotte-Collins and Maria-Rushworth might fit here but they aren’t exactly shocking (other than that no woman of sense should be marrying either of these men except out of desperation). I also believe the marriages occur much earlier than two-thirds of the way into the novels. The Elton marriage isn’t shocking either.
  23. I’m drawing a blank on the hat but I can think of several female bullies: Mrs. Ferrars insults Elinor, Fanny Dashwood attacks Lucy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh berates Elizabeth (although Elizabeth fights back), and Mrs. Norris bullies Fanny.
  24. Elizabeth is astonished by Darcy and later by Lady Catherine in gardens. Fanny is astonished by the way Crawford and the future Maria Rushworth are behaving.
Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Happy Birthday, Phoebe Strehlow Bates

Philip Leslie Hale, "Grandmother's Birthday"

Philip Leslie Hale, “Grandmother’s Birthday”

My mother turns 89 today and continues to live a rich and active life. Unlike the woman in the picture, she doesn’t have two live-in maids but resides alone. She spends her time writing a poetry column, participating in book clubs and women’s groups, swimming regularly in her lake, reading novels (especially Austen, Dickens, and Trollope), and fighting an unending battle with nature in her house in the woods. In her case, nature in tooth and claw is represented by beavers damming up the water flow, pileated woodpeckers attacking the siding, squirrels gnawing on the video lines, mice invading her car, flying squirrels and bats nesting in the eaves, raccoons invading the back porch, and deer eating anything she tries to plant.

Some part of her has to remain young to keep fighting the good fight. Because 89 is the new 75, here’s a Robert Service poem written to celebrate his own 75th birthday. Happy birthday, mama.

Birthday (16th January 1949)

By Robert William Service

I thank whatever gods may be
For all the happiness that’s mine;
That I am festive, fit and free
To savor women, wit and wine;
That I may game of golf enjoy,
And have a formidable drive:
In short, that I’m a gay old boy
Though I be
My daughter thinks. because I’m old
(I’m not a crock, when all is said),
I mustn’t let my feet get cold,
And should wear woollen socks in bed;
A worsted night-cap too, forsooth!
To humor her I won’t contrive:
A man is in his second youth
When he is
At four-score years old age begins,
And not till then, I warn my wife;
At eighty I’ll recant my sins,
And live a staid and sober life.
But meantime let me whoop it up,
And tell the world that I’m alive:
Fill to the brim the bubbly cup -
Here’s health to
Posted in Service (Robert) | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Marc Antony for the Prosecution

Brando as Marc Antony

Brando as Marc Antony

Our favorite federal court judge, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. of Georgia’s Northern District, is once again allowing us to share his ruminations on the brilliance of William Shakespeare. Today’s essay is from a talk he gave last Friday to the Intellectual Property Law Section of the State Bar of Georgia.

In the past, we have run one article about Judge Thrash’s use of Shakespeare in his own arguments and rulings (here) and another by the judge on Shakespeare’s understanding of the legal profession (here). Today he uses his 21 years of experience as a trial lawyer to assess the relative merits of Brutus’ and Antony’s arguments following the assassination of Julius Caesar.

By U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash, Jr.

It is a real honor and privilege for me to participate in your meeting. This morning, I am going to do something a little unorthodox today by conventional bar association CLE practice. If it works, I think that we all will have some fun this morning; if it does not, then this will be soon forgotten. The title of my part of this session is “Lessons on the Art of Trial Advocacy from William Shakespeare.”

Now, I bet that some of you are thinking to yourselves: “I am a hot shot patent or trademark or copyright lawyer. There is nothing for me to learn from an Elizabethan playwright who has been dead for 500 years.” Well, if you are thinking that, I am going to spend the next 30 minutes or so trying to persuade you that you are wrong.

In doing that, I will concede two points. The first is that William Shakespeare knew nothing about patent law or trademark law or the law of copyright. He knew nothing about that because there was no patent or trademark or copyright law then as we know it today. Think about that for a minute. In 1600 in England, it was perfectly legal for anyone to print and sell the plays of a genius like William Shakespeare. And many did. That is why we have such a variety of published texts for many of his plays.

The second point that I will concede is that the real Shakespeare – the one who actually wrote the plays and not some imaginary pseudo-anonymous author like Sir Francis Bacon – was not a lawyer. With only a couple of exceptions, lawyers and judges do not play large roles in his major plays.

But there is much to be learned from him. In my opinion, Shakespeare was the greatest single writer in the history of the English language. His only rival is the King James version of the Bible. Although only two of Shakespeare’s major plays have lawyers and judges as their central characters, he talks a lot about lawyers and judges and trials. One Shakespearian scholar has suggested that before his father’s financial problems arose, Shakespeare was a pupil at one of the Inns of Court. He poses the hypothesis that Shakespeare got his first taste of the theater by staging plays at his Inn of Court.

Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that Shakespeare knew a lot about lawyers and the courts of justice. It is well documented that his plays were regularly performed at the Inns of Court. I suspect that there were more than a few law students drinking in the taverns – not to mention frequenting the whorehouses – that surrounded the Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames River across from the City of London proper, and outside of the jurisdiction of its authorities. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare has one character say: “And do as adversaries do in law–Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.” I hope that we will do a little of that eating and drinking as friends over the next two days.

When I say that I will be talking about Shakespeare and the art of trial advocacy, you may anticipate that will be discussing The Merchant of Venice. There is an actual trial in that play which includes the beautiful speech by Portia and the line, “The quality of mercy is not strained.” Or you may anticipate a discussion of Measure for Measure, which is all about law and justice and has another beautiful speech by Isabella on mitigation of punishment.

Instead, however, I will be examining the two funeral orations by Brutus and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. I believe that a thoughtful analysis and comparison of the two speeches may make us all better advocates.

To set the stage, it is the Ides of March, March 15, 44 B. C. The Roman Republic has been in turmoil and civil war for years. Julius Caesar has famously crossed the Rubicon with his army, has entered Rome, has defeated the patrician forces under Pompey, and is the virtual dictator of Rome. Then a group of conspirators, including Brutus, assassinate him on the floor of the Senate in order– they say – to prevent him from becoming king. They then go out to convince the people that they have done the right thing.

Cassius goes off to speak to one group. We then hear Brutus’ speech to the crowd in the forum:

Brutus: Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy, for his fortune; honor, for his valor; and death, for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak, for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
All: None, Brutus, none.
Brutus: Then none have I offended. I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy; nor his offenses enforced, for which he suffered death.
[Enter Mark Antony, with Caesar's body.]
Brutus: Here comes his body, mourned by Mark Antony, who, though he had no hand in his death, shall receive the benefit of his dying, a place in the commonwealth, as which of you shall not? With this, I depart, that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.
All: Live Brutus! Live! Live!
1st Plebian: Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
2nd Plebian: Give him a statue with his ancestors.
3rd Plebian: Let him be Caesar.
Brutus: Good countrymen, let me depart alone,
And for my sake, stay here with Antony.
Do grace to Caesar’s corpse, and grace his speech
Tending to Caesar’s glories, which Mark Antony
By our permission is allowed to make.
I do entreat you, not a man depart,
Save I alone, till Antony have spoke.” [Exit Brutus]

Well, that is a pretty good speech. Shakespeare did not write bad speeches unless he intended to do so. If you want to hear a bad legal speech, and a hilariously funny one, go to Dogberry’s speech to the Justice of the Peace in Much Ado About Nothing.

But to get back to Brutus, there are a few problems. First, the speech is very abstract, very formal, very rhetorical. He starts out referring to himself in the third person as Brutus. It is only toward the end that he consistently refers to himself as I. And he spends most of his time talking about himself and not Caesar.

Second, he tells the crowd to believe him because of his honor. He has the reputation of being an honorable man. But what if it turns out that he has done something dishonorable, like an act of ingratitude or betraying a friend? Does that mean that the crowd can disbelieve everything that he said.

Most importantly, I think, he fails to connect up Caesar’s ambition and the Romans’ loss of liberty. Like many lawyers in addressing a jury or a judge, Brutus is talking over the heads of his audience. Shakespeare very subtly points this out when he has one of the plebians say, “Let him be Caesar.” The plebian has completely missed the point of Brutus’ speech.

But Brutus at least temporarily has the support of the crowd. Fatally, he leaves and reserves no time for rebuttal. Always try to get the last word in any argument.

Mark Antony’s speech, given with the permission of the conspirators, is of course very famous:

Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones:
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honorable man,
So are they all, all honorable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend: faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse. Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am, to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause.
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason! Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
1st Plebian: Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.
2nd Plebian: If thou consider rightly of the matter, Caesar has had great wrong.

Antony’s speech is too long to go straight through it without pause, so I will break it up with my comments. In the beginning the crowd is still with Brutus, so Antony has to start out carefully.

He does this by saying (falsely) that he is not here to praise Caesar. He then refers to his adversary as ‘the noble Brutus.” Then, ever so skillfully, he stabs him in the back with the line, “And Brutus is an honorable man.”

He does it softly and with seeming sincerity here. He repeats the line over and over, however, so that it begins to drip with irony. By the end of the speech, “And Brutus is an honorable man” will be spoken with savage satire.

Antony demolishes the argument that Caesar was an ambitious man. He does this with concrete examples of what Caesar had done or not done, including refusing the crown. He also throws in Caesar’s love of the people. I think that an advocate will always be more successful by appealing to what motivates his audience than by appealing to his own honor or credibility. After disarming the crowd, he praises Caesar and reminds the crowd of why they loved him:

But yesterday, the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the world. Now lies he there,
And none so poor to do him reverence.
O masters! If I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who you all know are honorable men.
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honorable men.
But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet. ‘Tis his will.
Let but the commons hear this testament,
Which pardon me, I do not mean to read,
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds,
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.
4th Plebian: We’ll hear the will! Read it, Mark Antony!
All: The will! The will! We will hear Caesar’s will!
Antony: Have patience, gentle friends. I must not read it.
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And being men, hearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you; it will make you mad.
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs,
For if you should, oh, what would come of it?
4th Plebian: Read the will! We’ll hear it, Antony! You shall read us the will! Caesar’s will!
Antony: Will you be patient? Will you stay awhile?
I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it,
I fear I wrong the honorable men
Whose daggers have stabbed Caesar.
I do fear it.
4th Plebian: They were traitors! “Honorable men”?
All: The will! The testament!
2nd Plebian: They were villains, murderers! The will! Read the will!
Antony: You will compel me then to read the will?
Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
And let me show you him that made the will.
Shall I descend? And will you give me leave?
All: Come down!

Let’s pause here. Okay, Antony has demolished the case that Caesar was ambitious. He now has some tangible evidence that he can show to the crowd – the will. But he is going to create some suspense by not showing it to them yet. That is like a lawyer telling a jury that he is going to tell them how the story ends but later. Antony wants to get the crowd really worked up by seeing a picture in their mind’s eye – the picture of Caesar’ s bloody and mutilated body. He will show them that before he reads the will.

So he says,

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle; I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on.
‘Twas on a summer’s evening in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through.
See what a rent the envious Casca made.
Through this, the well-belovèd Brutus stabbed,
And as he plucked his cursèd steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,
As rushing out of doors to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knocked or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him.
This was the most unkindest cut of all,
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquished him; then burst his mighty heart,
And in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.
Oh, now you weep, and I perceive you feel
The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar’s vesture wounded? Look you here!
Here is himself, marred as you see with traitors.
1st Plebian: Oh, piteous spectacle!
2nd Plebian: O noble Caesar! We will be revenged!
All: Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay! Let not a traitor live!

Let’s pause. So now Antony has used his second and third demonstrative aids – the mantle and the body of Caesar. He has set up this straw man – that Brutus and the others are honorable men – and has destroyed it by showing that they are envious traitors and bloody murderers. The crowd only needs one more little push.

Antony: Good friends! Sweet friends! Let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honorable.
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it. They are wise and honorable,
And will no doubt with reasons answer you.
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts.
I am no orator, as Brutus is,
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man
That love my friend, and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
To stir men’s blood. I only speak right on.
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me. But were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.
All: We’ll mutiny!
1st Plebian: We’ll burn the house of Brutus!
Antony: Why, friends, you go to do you know not what.
Wherein hath Caesar thus deserved your loves?
Alas you know not. I must tell you then:
You have forgot the will I told you of.
All Most true! The will! Let’s stay and hear the will!
Antony: Here is the will, and under Caesar’s seal.
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.
2nd Plebian: Most noble Caesar! We’ll revenge his death!
3rd Plebian: O royal Caesar!
Antony: Hear me with patience.
Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbors, and new-planted orchards
On this side Tiber. He hath left them you
And to your heirs forever–common pleasures
To walk abroad and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?
1st Plebian: Never, never! Come! Away! Away!
We’ll burn his body in the holy place,
And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses!
Take up the body! [The crowd exits with the body to attack and burn the houses of the assassins]
Antony: Now let it work! Mischief, thou art a-foot:
Take thou what course thou wilt.

The verdict is in: Mark Antony has just given the greatest and most successful closing argument in all of literature.

Another well known judge has said this about the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony:

A law school course in trial or appellate advocacy could be built on a comparison of Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches. The weaknesses in the former, which are equally weaknesses in an oral argument to an appellate court or a closing argument to a jury, are its overtly rhetorical character (which is likely to put the audience on its guard), its failure to engage the audience in dialogue, its lack of detail and anecdote, its failure to appeal to the concrete interests of the audience, and the decision to waive rebuttal. Antony, in contrast, ingratiates himself with an audience predisposed to be hostile to him, ticks off three arguments against Brutus’s charge of ambition (they are weak arguments, but since Antony knows that he will have the last word he doesn’t have to worry that they will be picked apart), displays emotion, brandishes Caesar’s will (Antony’s first use of a prop – and how judges and juries love physical evidence, so welcome a relief from lawyers’ endless rushes of words!), tells an anecdote about Caesar, displays Caesar’s shrouded body (the second use of a prop), shows the gashes and bloodstains in Caesar’s toga and then dramatically unveils the naked, mutilated body (the third prop, consisting of wounds more eloquent than words), disclaims oratorical ability in a successful effort to disarm the audience, uses the terms of the will to appeal to the audience’s concrete interests and sense of gratitude, invites frequent interruption to create the illusion of conversational give-and-take, and ends in a state of high excitement. Antony’s speech is concrete, vivid, personal, colloquial, versatile, dramatic, eloquent, blunt, and emotional. It is a model of forensic oratory, though obviously not one to be imitated slavishly by lawyers in an American court.

That is Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner in his book Law & Literature. So I submit that good ol’ Will Shakespeare has much to teach us even now 500 years after he wrote his last play. That is why the plays are still read and performed. Certainly he has enriched my life, particularly in the last few years.

I hope that this presentation has been of some value to you and not just much ado about nothing. And I hope that you are not recalling what Macbeth says as his faces his ultimate calamity: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Rather, I hope that you are thinking of Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

Thank you.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Violins of Autumn

Vincent van Gogh, "Autumn Landscape"

Vincent van Gogh, “Autumn Landscape”

When I was 13, my French professor father had a sabbatical in Paris and my brothers and I attended a French school. Sessions ran from 9-12 and 2-5 with a two-hour lunch break, and for the final half hour of each session we memorized poetry. To this day I can still recite various fables of La Fontaine and short poems by Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Verlaine, including the heart-rending “Chanson d’autumne.”

I later learned that Verlaine’s poem, which could be about growing old or entering depression, is a French favorite. As a child, however, I just knew that it tugged at my heart with a delicious sadness as I recited it aloud. I imagined myself as the dead leaf, giving myself over to the wind and allowing myself to blown hither and yon. The image seemed to add gravitas to my life.

Here it is, first in French and then in English.

Chanson d’automne

By Paul Verlaine

Les sanglos longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon Coeur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,

Je me souviens
Des jours ancients
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Autumn Song

The long sobs
Of the violins
Of Autumn
Wound my heart
With a monotonous

All choked
And pale, when
The hour chimes,
I remember
Days of old
And I cry 

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

Posted in Verlaine (Paul) | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Gillibrand & Montagu vs. Senate Sexism

Montagu 3

Because of the stories of domestic violence that have been surfacing in the NFL, I have been putting off writing about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s account of sexual harassment from fellow senators in the Congressional gym. In addition to the story itself, I have been struck by criticism directed at Gillibrand at how she has handled it. I have been teaching the 18th century poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and think that how this early feminist handled sexism casts some light on Gillibrand’s own approach.

Here, according to People, is Gillibrand’s account of her Congressional colleagues acting badly:

In Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand, 47, shares a sobering incident in the congressional gym, where an older, male colleague told her, “Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!” On another occasion, she writes, after she dropped 50 lbs. one of her fellow Senate members approached her, squeezed her stomach, and said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!”

This being American politics in the 21st century, Gillibrand herself is now being criticized for her response. As Amanda Marcotte of Slate observes,

Whenever a woman tells her story of sexual harassment, there are those who set to work trying to blame her—for everything from what she wore when she was harassed, to her failure to punch the harasser in the noseSen. Kirsten Gillibrand revealed this week that she has been subjected to sexist comments about her body from her male colleagues, and, with a distressing inevitability, the discussion quickly became about how she, individually, should be doing more to stop this harassment. Gillibrand owes it to us to name names, the argument goes, lest she court accusations that she’s lying, and also in order to bring those men to justice. 

Marcotte goes on to explain why she thinks Gillibrand has handled the incident the proper way and how, by directing attacks against her, people are dodging the issues that she has raised:

Gillibrand’s stories have the potential to provoke a genuine discussion about the widespread nature of sexual harassment, which would be lost in the finger-pointing extravaganza that would result from making specific accusations. But maybe that’s been lost already: By shifting the focus away from the inappropriate comments and touching and toward blaming Gillibrand for supposedly not doing enough to hold her colleagues accountable, we’ve pretty much reached the unproductive portion of the conversation. Republicans are already exploiting the narrative that this is Gillibrand’s fault for not naming names. Frank Luntz is out there suggesting that she’s concealing their names because they’re Democrats.

The only people who would benefit from Gillibrand naming names would be political reporters covering the day to day happenings of the inevitable scandal. So let’s not do this, OK? If you really are opposed to sexual harassment, then let’s talk about what we can all do to prevent it, instead of asking a senator to sacrifice her career to get embroiled in a go-nowhere “he said/she said” scandal.

In 1727 there was a famous court case in which libertine William Yonge, who had separated from his wife, sued her lover. Here’s how the case is described by the Norton Anthology of British Literature:

In 1724 the notorious libertine William Yonge, separated from his wife, Mary, discovered that she (like him) had committed adultery. He sued her lover, Colonel Norton, for damages and collected 1500 pounds. Later that year, according to the law of the time, he petitioned the Houses of Parliament for a divorce. The case was tried in public. Mrs. Yonge’s love letters were read aloud, and two men testified that they had found her and Norton “together in naked bed.” Yonge was granted the divorce, his wife’s dowry, and the greater part of her fortune.

An outraged Montagu wrote “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband” in which she imagines Mrs. Yonge’s protest. While she speaker acknowledges that she doesn’t expect to soften Yonge’s heart, she writes,

But this last privilege I still retain;
Th’ oppressed and injured always may complain.

I imagine that Montagu showed her poem to Mary Yonge in a show of support. Montagu could even point to a certain private revenge fantasy available to Mrs. Yonge: if her husband was busy making love to others, he could never be sure if his own children by his next wife would be his or not.

But Montagu did not feel that she could make her poem public and one can understand why. It wouldn’t have helped Mrs. Yonge at all and it would have put the entire focus on mouthy women. As it was, the poem wasn’t published until the 1970s.

“The Lover: A Ballad,” which was published during Montagu’s life time, was a different case. Like “Epistle,” “The Lover” calls out the double standard women have to endure. Answering those poets that urge women not to be coy but to gather their rosebuds while they may, Montagu responds that “I hate to be cheated, and never will buy/Long years of repentance for moments of joy.” But what makes the poem publishable is its light touch. Montagu may attack the carpe diem tradition, taking on such poets as Herrick, Lovelace, Suckling, Marvell, and Wilmot, but she does it with wit. One doesn’t see the intense melodrama of “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge.”

In the first stanza, Montagu brilliantly sums up most of the arguments women have had to listen to from the “seize the day” crowd:

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

But the real reason she turns down overtures, Montagu says, is because she hasn’t yet found a man good enough. Zing!

The poem proceeds to set forth the qualities she would like to see in a lover. If such a one were to turn up, she assures her readers, she would “cease to be proud.” The poem is rather remarkable in a woman claiming the right to sexual enjoyment, with Montagu writing,

Till lost in the joy we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive.

Montagu then adds a formidable “but,” however:

But till this astonishing creature I know,
As I long have lived chaste, I will keep myself so.

What has all this to do with Gillibrand’s response? Montagu figured out what she could make public and what she could not. A light comic touch would work whereas a strong accusatory stance would not. It sounds like the New York senator is making similar calculations.

Posted in Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rosh Hashanah: Weave Real Connections

Seven of Pentacles

Seven of Pentacles

Spiritual Sunday: Rosh Hashanah

Looking ahead to Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday, here’s a lovely Marge Piercy poem. I’m not sure why she calls it “The Seven of Pentacles” other than that the pentangle is a special symbol in the Kaballah. A google search on the meaning of the Seven of Pentacles Tarot card says that it stands for “love in right relations” and could be a caution to spend our time wisely and to work well so that we will have no regrets. The man in the picture seems to doubt whether he has done so. If we are observant and intentional, however, we will reap a rich harvest.

In the poem, we see that tending our garden means honoring all the life that participates in the growth. It is therefore a good poem/prayer for the upcoming High Holy Days, when observers reflect upon how they have been living their lives and spending their time.

The Seven Of Pentacles

By Marge Piercy

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs. 

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Posted in Piercy (Marge) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peterson and Literary Child Thrashings

Adrin Peterson

Adrin Peterson

Sports Saturday

Sadly, for the second Saturday in a row I must devote my sports column to action off the playing field, this time to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s flogging of his four-year-old son. For flogging is what it was, even though Peterson’s defenders are calling it a spanking or a “whuppin’.”

When I hear people defending Peterson, what comes to mind are various rationalizations one encounters in British literature, from Thwackum in Tom Jones to the parents and teachers in Tom Sawyer to Baloo in The Jungle Book to Lord Peter Whimsey in Dorothy Sayers’ last short story.

Most child psychologists say that spanking accomplishes nothing positive, especially with four-year-olds. And that doesn’t even touch on a spanking that leaves cuts on the private parts that are still visible a week later. But let’s examine what different authors have to say about it.

In the Sayers story “Talboys,” a bleeding heart acquaintance of Lord Peter’s wife Harriet is appalled when he canes his son Brendon for stealing peaches. Harriet, however, defends Peter for the disciplined way he does it. He has a clear understanding with his son about the rules and the consequences for breaking them. Brendon appreciates operating under such a clear set of guidelines, and Peter does not cane him in a rage but more as an impartial referee. Harriet notes that such a regimen works only on Brendon and not on their other son, who is far more sensitive and needs a different set of consequences.

In The Jungle Book, we have Baloo arguing that his disciplinary program is necessary to keep Mowgli alive. It’s not unlike the argument that African Amerian comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted recently following Peterson’s indictment: “A fathers belt hurts a lot less then a cops bullet!” Here’s Kipling:

All this will show you how much Mowgli had to learn by heart, and he grew very tired of saying the same thing over a hundred times. But, as Baloo said to Bagheera, one day when Mowgli had been cuffed and run off in a temper, “A man’s cub is a man’s cub, and he must learn all the Law of the Jungle.”

“But think how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all thy long talk?”

“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”

“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy—softness. Ugh.”

“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly. “I am now teaching him the Master Words of the Jungle that shall protect him with the birds and the Snake People, and all that hunt on four feet, except his own pack. He can now claim protection, if he will only remember the words, from all in the jungle. Is not that worth a little beating?”

Whether or not Whimsey’s and Baloo’s child-rearing practices would work in real life is not clear. At least these disciplinarians operate in a disciplined way, however. They show respect for those they spank and do not rob them of their dignity. Peterson, by contrast, appears to have lashed out in a rage.

Anyone who has had young children knows they can drive us nuts. At those moments, we have to do everything we can to remain mature adults, and sometimes we don’t entirely succeed. But when we go to the lengths that Peterson did, we cross the line into abuse.

One gets a glimpse into the anger that can build up in children who have been caned by looking at Kipling’s story “The Elephant’s Child” from his wonderful Just So Stories. There we see adults reacting badly to a child’s natural curiosity and then a child acting out a revenge fantasy.

Here’s how the story begins:

In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn’t pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant–a new Elephant–an Elephant’s Child–who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. And he lived in Africa, and he filled all Africa with his ‘satiable curtiosities. He asked his tall aunt, the Ostrich, why her tail-feathers grew just so, and his tall aunt the Ostrich spanked him with her hard, hard claw. He asked his tall uncle, the Giraffe, what made his skin spotty, and his tall uncle, the Giraffe, spanked him with his hard, hard hoof. And still he was full of ‘satiable curtiosity! He asked his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, why her eyes were red, and his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, spanked him with her broad, broad hoof; and he asked his hairy uncle, the Baboon, why melons tasted just so, and his hairy uncle, the Baboon, spanked him with his hairy, hairy paw. And still he was full of ‘satiable curtiosity! He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of ‘satiable curtiosity!

One fine morning in the middle of the Precession of the Equinoxes this ‘satiable Elephant’s Child asked a new fine question that he had never asked before. He asked, ‘What does the Crocodile have for dinner?’ Then everybody said, ‘Hush!’ in a loud and dretful tone, and they spanked him immediately and directly, without stopping, for a long time.

And here’s the story’s conclusion, which I imagine Kipling’s child readers found very satisfying. It lets us see just how much pent up anger there can be in the victims:

One dark evening he came back to all his dear families, and he coiled up his trunk and said, ‘How do you do?’ They were very glad to see him, and immediately said, ‘Come here and be spanked for your ‘satiable curtiosity.’

‘Pooh,’ said the Elephant’s Child. ‘I don’t think you peoples know anything about spanking; but I do, and I’ll show you.’ Then he uncurled his trunk and knocked two of his dear brothers head over heels.

‘O Bananas!’ said they, ‘where did you learn that trick, and what have you done to your nose?’

‘I got a new one from the Crocodile on the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River,’ said the Elephant’s Child. ‘I asked him what he had for dinner, and he gave me this to keep.’

‘It looks very ugly,’ said his hairy uncle, the Baboon.

‘It does,’ said the Elephant’s Child. ‘But it’s very useful,’ and he picked up his hairy uncle, the Baboon, by one hairy leg, and hove him into a hornet’s nest.

Then that bad Elephant’s Child spanked all his dear families for a long time, till they were very warm and greatly astonished. He pulled out his tall Ostrich aunt’s tail-feathers; and he caught his tall uncle, the Giraffe, by the hind-leg, and dragged him through a thorn-bush; and he shouted at his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, and blew bubbles into her ear when she was sleeping in the water after meals; but he never let any one touch Kolokolo Bird.

At last things grew so exciting that his dear families went off one by one in a hurry to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, to borrow new noses from the Crocodile. When they came back nobody spanked anybody any more; and ever since that day, O Best Beloved, all the Elephants you will ever see, besides all those that you won’t, have trunks precisely like the trunk of the ‘satiable Elephant’s Child.

Perhaps it seems natural and even proper to beat one’s children if one was beaten as a child. As Kipling’s story suggests, however, even in an era when spanking was entirely taken for granted, it built up deep resentment. Is there anyone willing to argue that this is healthy?

In the story’s conclusion, we are told that  “nobody spanked anybody any more.” Dare to dream.

Posted in Kipling (Rudyard), Sayers (Dorothy) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sweet Tea, A Sign of God’s Love

iced tea

The South Carolina poet John Lane kicked off our “Voices” creative writers series this year and gave one of the most engaging readings I have ever heard. I’ve been teaching Lane’s poetry in my Introduction to Literature class and we’ve been focusing on his environmental poems, some of which are very hard hitting. Poems like “The Truth about the Present” and “Shopping” take to task those who are spoiling the earth.

Because today is Friday, however, I’ve opted for a lighter poem, one that takes me back to my childhood in southern Tennessee. Note how Lane uses the word “civil” in his poem “Sweet Tea,” which is meant to invoke southern civility and which he carefully contrasts with the Civil War and the Confederate flag, which are not so civil. Sweet tea, he points out, transcends race hatred since everyone likes it.

I enjoy how he uses the female pronoun while quoting various Biblical passages, including the Genesis creation story and John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”). The poem may also have an echo of the Song of Solomon in its reference to the poet’s beloved. Spirituality takes many forms, including the communal rituals involved in making and sharing sweetened iced tea.

I sadly disagree with only one point that Lane makes. The Confederate flag does not seem to be fading from southern towns, especially since the election of Obama. It had a revival following the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation suit and it’s having a revival now. But he’s right that southern hospitality hasn’t gone out of fashion: you’re still likely to be called “honey chile” or “sweetie” by waitresses in any southern cafe you enter.

Sweet Tea

By John Lane

God rested on the seventh day, but early in the morning,
before the sun strained into the Southern sky,
she made sweet tea from scratch.  She boiled the water
in a black kettle, put in the orange pekoe bags
and let them stand as the water perked, and then
she did what gods know to do: she heaped in Dixie
Crystal sugar while the brew was still warm as the day.
For God so loved the world she made sweet tea. For she served
the tea to anyone who admired her creation.  To anyone
walking down the street of the wet new neighborhood,
to the mailman delivering early on that next day
of that second week, to the milkman in his truck, the black
man working in the yard, to the white man selling peaches
door-to-door.  On God’s sidewalk there was an X scratched
by hobos. They knew to come to God’s back door and you’d
get a plate of leftovers and all the sweet tea you could
drink.  They knew the sugared pints of contentment. They drank
sweet tea from God’s back steps and went on their wandering
way again.
For God knows sweet tea fills with love and refreshment from
any long train. For sweet tea is safe as an oak forest
camp. Sweet tea, clinks in jelly jars. Sweet tea,
sweeter as it stands.  For God’s sake we brew it
like religion.  For God’s sake we carry it now in styrofoam
cups in cars.  We drink it in winter.  We drink it always.
And this poem would not lessen sweet tea’s place in the creation.
Sweet tea is not fading from the Southern towns
like the Confederate flag.  It lives in houses all over town.
Black folk brew it often as white folk.  Take the flag off
the state capitol.  It doesn’t mean anything to me.
But leave me my sweet tea, a recipe for being civil.
This poem stands cold sweet tea up as God’s chosen beverage.
The manifest Southern brew.  When sad I draw figures
in the condensation of glasses of sweet tea.  I connect
the grape leaves on the jelly jar, cast out any restaurant
that will not make it from scratch. When lonely I go
to the house of my beloved.
For I love a woman who makes sweet tea late at night to eat with
Chinese food.  For her hands move like God’s through the ritual.
For it is as if she had learned it along with speaking in
tongues.  For I love the way her hands unwrap the tea bags
and drop them in the water.  For I love the unmeasured sugar
straight from the bag, the tap water from deep in the earth.
For the processes are as basic as making love.
For our bodies both are brown like suntans inside from years
of tea.  For sweet tea is the Southern land we share, the town,
the past.  When we kiss it is sweet tea that we taste as
our lips brush.  When we are hot it is sweet tea we crave.
When we have children it will be sweet tea.
And they will learn tea along with Bible stories and baseball.

Posted in Lane (John) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Marianne’s Passion for Dead Leaves

Benjamin Leader, "The Beech Wood" (1859)

Benjamin Leader, “The Beech Wood” (1859)

My Jane Austen class has been thoroughly enjoying Sense and Sensibility. Since our weather in southern Maryland has finally turned autumnal, I share today Marianne’s passion for dead leaves.

Among the poets that Marianne loves is James Thomson, a Scotsman and early Romantic poet. (We used to call such poets “pre-Romantic” to give Wordsworth and Coleridge credit for kicking off the “actual” movement.) Thomson’s “The Seasons” (1730) taught sensibilities like Marianne how to appreciate nature. Here’s an excerpt from “To Autumn”:

But see, the fading many-colored woods,
Shade deepening over shade, the country round
Imbrown, a crowded umbrage, dusk, and dun,
Of every hue from wan declining green
To sooty dark. These now the lonesome muse,
Low- whispering, lead into their leaf-strown walks;
And give the season in its latest view… 

Thus solitary and in pensive guise
Oft let me wander o’er the russet mead
And through the saddened grove, where scarce is heard
One dying strain to cheer the woodman’s toil.
Haply some widowed songster pours his plaint
Far in faint warblings through the tawny copse;  
While congregated thrushes, linnets, larks,
And each wild throat whose artless strains so late
Swelled all the music of the swarming shades,
Robbed of their tuneful souls, now shivering sit    
On the dead tree, a dull despondent flock,
With not a brightness waving o’er their plumes,  
And nought save chattering discord in their note.  

As I revisited the relevant passages in Sense and Sensibility, I noticed for the first time a subtle shift that shows Austen, like Elinor, gently mocking her enthusiast. When Marianne is first leaving the family home of Norland, she imagines that all will remain changeless, even the leaves:

Many were the tears shed by them in their last adieus to a place so much beloved. “Dear, dear Norland!” said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house, on the last evening of their being there; “when shall I cease to regret you!—when learn to feel a home elsewhere!—Oh! happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more!—And you, ye well-known trees!—but you will continue the same.—No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer!—No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade!—But who will remain to enjoy you?”

When some time later she has a chance to query Edward about Norland, however, the leaves are no longer resisting decay:

“And how does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.

“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh,” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”

“No; my feelings are not often shared, not often understood. But sometimes they are.”—As she said this, she sunk into a reverie for a few moments…

The “sometimes” is a reference to Willoughby, who shares her sensibilities. Marianne has essentially shifted from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”–with its focus on timeless beauty–to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which also focuses on dead leaves (although the two poems were written eight years later).

Austen then offers a counter perspective from Edward, who appears to be as unromantic as Elinor—although, to be fair, the two of them may simply be teasing Marianne. When Marianne urges Edward to appreciate nature’s beauties, he responds with utilitarian pragmatism:

“Now, Edward,” said she, calling his attention to the prospect, “here is Barton valley. Look up to it, and be tranquil if you can. Look at those hills! Did you ever see their equals? To the left is Barton park, amongst those woods and plantations. You may see the end of the house. And there, beneath that farthest hill, which rises with such grandeur, is our cottage.”

“It is a beautiful country,” he replied; “but these bottoms must be dirty in winter.”

“How can you think of dirt, with such objects before you?”

“Because,” replied he, smiling, “among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane.”

“How strange!” said Marianne to herself as she walked on.

And later in the book:

You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.”

On the one hand, Edward is playing the classicist to Marianne’s romantic, arguing for an 18th century balance of beauty and utility. Through him, Austen is correcting Marianne’s tendency to go to extremes. To be sure, Austen doesn’t entirely dismiss Marianne’s excitement and has Elinor accusing Edward of a counter affectation: she says he pretends to appreciate nature less than he actually does.

Whether he’s guilty or not, however, the satire has a serious side. Just as Marianne’s romantic notions lead to her disastrous entanglement with the unfaithful Willoughby, so one of her long nature walks nearly kills her.

In other words, Austen knows how dangerous nature can be. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s benign, she seems to be saying. Nature can run women into imprudent relations, render them mad, and even kill them. We romanticize nature, whether internal or external, at our peril.

Still, Marianne is right to enjoy a beautiful autumn. There is nothing like it.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Thomson (James) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Euripides | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Adorno (Theodor), Benjamin (Walter) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Bronte (Emily) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Behn (Aphra) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Wilmot (John) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Browning (Elizabeth Barrett) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.”


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.

Posted in Burns (Robert) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Lewis (C. S.) | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Cording (Robert) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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:


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.

Posted in Under (Marie) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Travers (P. L.) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Thoreau (Henry David) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Eujenides (Jeffrey) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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. 

Posted in Brecht (Bertolt) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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
      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.

Posted in Levertov (Denise) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments


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

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete