Flannery O’Connor’s Dislike of Ayn Rand

Neal and Cooper in "The Fountainhead"

Neal and Cooper in “The Fountainhead”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Frightens the Ferguson Police

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Angel Infancy

Angelika Kauffmann, "Children with Bird's Nest and Flowers (late 18th C)

Angelika Kauffmann, “Children with Bird’s Nest and Flowers (late 18th C)

Spiritual Sunday

Julia and I are back from our vacation in Iowa and Chicago and are currently visiting our two-year-old grandson Alban in Silver Spring. I love his intense engagement with small, everyday things. The 17th century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan finds a spiritual meaning in such engagement.

In his lovely poem “The Retreat,” Vaughan expresses a view similar to that of Wordsworth in Intimations of Immortality, which Vaughan’s poetry undoubtedly influenced. Children in their “early days” can still see, in a cloud or a flower, “shadows of eternity.” Life has not yet distracted them from “a white, celestial thought,” and they still see “through all this fleshly dress/ Bright shoots of everlastingness.” Note the poet’s deep longing to “travel back,/And tread again that ancient track!” Since leaving childhood, he feels that his soul has been staggering drunkenly forward. Through adult language he has taught “my tongue to wound/My conscience with a sinful sound” while sin has corrupted his once innocent senses. Therefore, death is not something to be feared but a “retreat” back to that innocent state.

Being around children causes one to pick up this vision. Here’s the poem.

The Retreat

By Henry Vaughan

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space,
Could see a glimpse of His bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
      O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But, ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

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An O’Neillian NASCAR Tragedy

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Kevin Ward, Tony Stewart

Sports Saturday

I don’t follow NASCAR racing in the least so you know that something bad had to happen for people like me to start reading about the sport. But when three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart accidentally killed a young driver who had gotten out of his car to yell at him, I took notice.

Apparently Stewart is a love-him-or-hate-him type of driver, one who is “old school” and loves to push the limits. He also appreciates his racing roots and sometimes returns to the dirt tracks of his youth to race on, as he did the night of Kevin Ward’s death. An aggressive driver who likes to bump other cars when they get in his way, Stewart has also been known, when he himself is bumped out of contention, to get out of his car and yell at the offender. Ward was acting like Stewart when he got out of his own wrecked car to yell at the veteran. No one is sure what happens next but it sounds to me like Stewart wanted to scare Ward and miscalculated, perhaps because he was riding on a dirt rather than an asphalt track. As he buzzed him, his back fishtailed, dragging Ward under and killing him.

The episode sounds like one of those generational tragedies that Eugene O’Neill writes, say Desire under the Elms. In that play there is a grizzled old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, who is hard as the rocks in his New England fields as he raises three sons. He even chooses to return to his old farm—like Stewart returning to the dirt tracks of his youth—rather than opting for easier farming out west. None of his sons are as tough as he is. At one point, after momentarily acknowledging weakness, he boasts of his toughness:

I’m gittin’ old–ripe on the bough. (then with a sudden forced reassurance) Not but what I hain’t a hard nut t’ crack even yet–an’ fur many a year t’ come! By the Etarnal, I kin break most o’ the young fellers’s backs at any kind o’ work any day o’ the year.

His youngest son, Eben, is tough as well, however. When Cabot describes him as soft, the other brothers disagree:

Cabot–(with a contemptuous sneer) Ye needn’t heed Eben. Eben’s a dumb fool–like his Maw–soft an’ simple!

Simeon–(with his sardonic burst of laughter) Ha! Eben’s a chip o’ yew–spit ‘n’ image–hard ‘n’ bitter’s a hickory tree! Dog’ll eat dog. He’ll eat ye yet, old man!

Eventually Eben encroaches on his father’s prerogatives, impregnating his young wife. She kills their son when she realizes that he is getting in the way of their love (Eben fears the child will inherit the farm). She repents and turns herself in and then Eben, taking responsibility for putting the idea in her head, does so as well. In this world, those who are soft go under. Unfortunately in the NASCAR tragedy, standing up to the old man and getting crushed were not metaphorical.

How will Stewart respond? He has disappeared from view–gone into hiding, as one newspaper headline puts it–as the authorities consider whether to bring charges. In the play, Cabot has a few moments of self doubt but then embraces the hardness that has brought him nothing but loneliness and forges on as before. We’ll see if the veteran driver does the same.

O’Neill’s play offers him an alternative, however. Eben could throw off Abby since he’s not technically responsible and continue to chase the farm. However, by choosing to align with her, even though it will mean going to jail, means that he has found a higher value. The stage directions even let us know that he gets a look of “grudging respect” from his father when he does so. Stewart could learn something profound from the tragedy. Will he soften any or remain rock hard?

Posted in O'Neill (Eugene) | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

René Magritte and Edgar Allan Poe

René Magritte, "Attempting the Impossible"

René Magritte, “Attempting the Impossible”

Note: I’m on vacation in Chicago at the moment and will put off until Monday an extended reflection on the very disturbing events in Ferguson, Missouri. I can see already that Ralph Ellison will help provide powerful insight into what is going on.

The Chicago Institute of Art currently has a fascinating René Magritte exhibit that has taught me, among other things, that Magritte was drawn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Knowing this gave me new insights into the painter.

Supposedly Attempting the Impossible, pictured above, was originally to be given a title honoring Poe. According to the museum’s explanation, writers have linked the painting to a passage from “The Pit and the Pendulum”:

It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see.

The observation sent me back to the story, which in light of the exhibit became more interesting than I remembered it. Suddenly Magritte was not just a game-playing trickster but someone who saw just how unstable reality is. Rather than being light and playful, he may have been holding on to sanity for his dear life. One biographical detail I picked up—that Magritte avoided Paris’s Bohemian community and lived a middle class style of life in the Parisian suburbs—made sense to me. For all of Magritte’s apparent mockery of the man in the bowler hat who is to be found throughout his work, the conventionality of such a figure also gave the artist a place to stand when everything else was capable to slipping free of its signifier into an infinite play of signification. If we can’t all comfortably agree to the convention that the words for things and pictures we use for them are the things themselves—that the word “pipe” and the picture of a pipe are in fact a pipe (see painting below)—then we have lost the ground beneath us.

The fear of losing his grounding is also what haunts Poe’s narrator when he finds himself in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition:

I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber — no! In delirium — no! In a swoon — no! In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed. In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence. It seems probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. And that gulf is — what? How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage, are not, at will, recalled, yet, after long interval, do they not come unbidden, while we marvel whence they come? He who has never swooned, is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower — is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention.

Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember; amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed, there have been moments when I have dreamed of success; there have been brief, very brief periods when I have conjured up remembrances which the lucid reason of a later epoch assures me could have had reference only to that condition of seeming unconsciousness. These shadows of memory tell, indistinctly, of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down — down — still down — till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart, on account of that heart’s unnatural stillness. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun, in their descent, the limits of the limitless, and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness — the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.

Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound — the tumultuous motion of the heart, and, in my ears, the sound of its beating. Then a pause in which all is blank. Then again sound, and motion, and touch — a tingling sensation pervading my frame. Then the mere consciousness of existence, without thought — a condition which lasted long. Then, very suddenly, thought, and shuddering terror, and earnest endeavor to comprehend my true state. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move. And now a full memory of the trial, of the judges, of the sable draperies, of the sentence, of the sickness, of the swoon. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed; of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall.

So far, I had not opened my eyes. I felt that I lay upon my back, unbound. I reached out my hand, and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes, while I strove to imagine where and what I could be. I longed, yet dared not to employ my vision. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. 

Maybe Attempting the Impossible is inspired by Poe because Magritte is not clear where his painting is emerging from. The painter thinks he is representing the real, but if reality is so elusive, then he doesn’t really know the source of his image. The world we walk on begins to dissolve, held together only by agreed-upon conventions.

While in the Chicago Institute of Art Julia and I also checked out the cubists and other modernists who challenged traditional representation. Magritte, while he seems more representational than Picasso and Braque, is simply questioning in a different way. After the horrors of World War I, one could see why such wholesale questioning would be going on.

Perhaps Magritte gets a special exhibition now because our conventional understandings of reality are once again being upset, this time by globalization and postmodernism. Without commonly held social conventions, societt and political systems start falling apart. Maybe that’s why our politics are becoming dysfunctional and why some are being drawn to fundamentalism and political absolutes. They are reacting against the uncertainty that both Poe and Magritte sensed.

Further thought: I remember literary theorist Gerald Graff making a very prescient critique of the avant garde and deconstruction in the 1970’s. Rather than challenging bourgeois capitalism, as the movements claimed they were doing, Graff said that they were ultimately serving capitalism’s ends by removing any checks to people buying things. The sexual revolution, for instance, would ultimately just open the way for Madison Avenue to use sex more blatantly. Magritte may have realized this. While making fun of middle class respectability–the pipe, the bowler hat–he could also be holding on to them for dear life, lamenting the slippery slope upon which we are embarked.

Maybe this fear explains why I, unlike all but a handful of my colleagues, wear a tie when I teach.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

Posted in Poe (Edgar Allan) | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Robin Williams Made Poetry Cool

Robin Williams as Keating in "Dead Poets Society"

Robin Williams as Keating in “Dead Poets Society”

Like Robin Williams fans everywhere, I was deeply saddened by his death. Since this is a literature blog and Williams gave us one of cinema’s great depictions of a literature teacher, I devote today’s blog to his portrayal of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.

Although I generally admire the film, I also have some reservations, which I have written about here and here. Looking back, the fact that the film ends with a suicide is particularly disturbing in light of Williams’ own suicide. I’ll talk about that in a moment. First, however, I want to praise Williams for his performance. Keating must convince a group of high achieving adolescents that literature is the most important thing in the world, and Williams does the convincing in so convincing a manner that we too are inspired. For instance, I was pumping my fist during the following monologue:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Keating is quoting from Whitman’s “Oh Me! Oh Life!”:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

It makes sense that Keating would lean heavily on the American transcendentalists, who were fighting against American pragmatism and obsession with money. The other major poet in the film is Henry David Thoreau. If the students are persuaded to sound Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” from the top of their desks, it is in part because Keating has stirred them with Thoreau’s vision of a life lived deliberately. They want to march to the beat of their own drummer.

Now to my criticism of Neal’s suicide, which is more about the movie than about Robin Williams. As I wrote in the first of my posts,

As I see it, Dead Poets Society actually underestimates poetry’s power, and that for some interesting reasons.  It believes poetry can inspire people to perform acts of courage and defiance but not that it can prevent them from committing suicide.

If poetry comes up short, I don’t believe it is poetry’s fault.  Rather, I would argue, the fault lies within Keating’s teaching, which counters the scientism of J. Evans Pritchard by celebrating a sensual and thoughtless immersion in poetry.  This immersion is vital and wonderful and without it poetry truly is dead.  But more can be done with poetry.  Neil, I think, fails to grasp an important insight to be found in the very play in which he is performing.  

And in my follow-up post:

Reflecting on Midsummer Night’s Dream might have caused Neil to realize he had other options.

Think about it.  The play has a character, Hermia, whose father, Egeus, is just as tyrannical as Neil’s.  If she doesn’t follow his orders and marry Demetrius, Egeus will have her put to death  (King Theseus gives her a third option: she can also be imprisoned in a convent for the rest of her life.)  So she and Lysander run away.

Running away isn’t the only solution offered by the play.  In response to tyrannical laws, the play offers the anarchy of nature and the imagination. People that try to impose their will on others discover that life responds in crazy ways.  Oberon orders Puck to bring order to the passions of the lovers and Puck botches it wonderfully.  Neil, who is playing Puck, has before him a vivid image of how authority can be subverted.

And then there is the image of hope that the play provides.  In the play’s comic ending, the rule of law is superseded by the rule of love and conflict gives way to reconciliation.  While Neil can’t see, in his own life, anyone who will overrule his father the way that Theseus overrules Egeus, it is an image that he could hold on to.  The world of the imagination has helped many endure oppressive conditions. 

Instead, the most resourceful and sane student in the film acts like someone who has no resources against tyranny and who melodramatically takes his own life.  Peter Weir presents this to us as a higher vision—Neil is depicted as a combination of Dionysus and Christ—but the death just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

What if, in addition to teaching his students to respond passionately to poetry, Keating had also coached them to be thoughtful about it?  What if, knowing that most boys have major issues with their fathers, he had led a class discussion in which, say, they had talked about Hermia’s situation and her responses?  What if they had talked about the healing power of comedy?

For that matter, what if they had read, say, Antigone, in which Haemon quarrels bitterly with his intransigent father Creon and then commits suicide–and then talked about what it means to be a young man that feels stretched to the max?  It’s not just that, in Creon and Haemon, Neil could see a father softening up towards his son (albeit too late).  It’s that Neil, through literature, would feel less alone in his suffering, would realize there are authors out there who understand him.  They might have answers and, even if they don’t, they have made the world appear a richer and more complex place.  A good reflective discussion about these issues would help Neil see beyond his situation.  It might even lead to a powerful private conversation with his teacher where they would talk about options.  Instead he folds in on himself.

Literature, even when it’s about suicide, is antithetical to the narcissistic tunnel vision of the suicide.  How can a film about the healing power of literature have the character who loves literature the most kill himself?  Do the filmmakers believe what they’re preaching?

I hope I don’t sound glib about literature’s healing powers. Literature, of course, has failed to prevent any number of suicides, including those of poets Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and others. Perhaps literature would not have saved Robin Williams even if he had shared Keating’s love of literature. In the grip of horrific depression, it’s hard to see anything but one’s pain.

Then again, there’s Christopher Marlowe’s claim, in Doctor Faustus, that literature and the arts can at least make some difference:

My heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent:     
Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven,     
But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears,     
“Faustus, thou art damn’d!” then swords, and knives,     
Poison, guns, halters, and envenom’d steel     
Are laid before me to despatch myself;     
And long ere this I should have slain myself,     
Had not sweet pleasure conquer’d deep despair.     
Have not I made blind Homer sing to me     
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?      
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes     
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,     
Made music with my Mephistophilis?     
Why should I die, then, or basely despair?

With Faustus, I sometimes see literature as fighting a rearguard action against the forces of chaos and despair. It may not always prevail but we would be absolutely defenseless without it. I’m so sad that Robin Williams, in the end, wasn’t able to find the resources he needed to continue on.

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American Politics, Dashiell Hammett Style

Dain Curse

I’ve been taking advantage of my vacation to read through the collected novels of the best known novelist from my home county, whose complete works I discovered on my mother-in-law’s bookshelf. Not many people know that Dashiell Hammett was born in Great Mills, Maryland, about five miles from the college where I teach. Locals report that after his departure—apparently he got out of St. Mary’s County as soon as he could and never looked back—area ministers for years held up his womanizing, his boozing, and his leftist politics as their go-to example of a sinful life.

I’d only read The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon and so jumped at the chance to read The Glass Key, The Dain Curse, and Red Harvest.  Along the way, I found a good explanation for much of today’s political discourse.

Have you noticed that those who speak in ringing absolutes are often better at grabbing the spotlight than those who value nuance? Those filled with passionate intensity outshout those who regard policy questions as complex. In The Dain Curse the narrator notes that, most of the time, even thinking people feel lost in a fog. As he sees it, those who seem sure of themselves are in actuality attempting to override their inner doubts. We’d be better off, he believes, if we admitted openly how confused we actually are.

The narrator is saying this to a woman who is convinced that she is gripped by a curse. He is trying to convince her that she’s perfectly fine:

Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place…

You’re old enough to know that everybody except very crazy people and very stupid people suspect themselves now and then—or whenever they happen to think about it—of not being exactly sane. Evident of goofiness is easily found: the more you dig into yourself, the more you turn up. Nobody’s mind could stand the sort of examination you’ve been giving yours. Going around trying to prove yourself cuckoo! It’s a wonder you haven’t driven yourself nuts.

And later:

According to me it was as foolish to try to read character from the shape of ears [the woman has no ear lobes] as from the position of stars, tea-leaves, or spit in the sand; anybody who started hunting for evidence of insanity in himself would certainly find plenty, because all but stupid minds were jumbled affairs.

Two types of peole are being criticized here. On the one hand, there are the “stupid minds”—those who never “suspect themselves now and then”—who mindlessly spout talking points. They are guaranteed to run the country into a ditch. But Hammett is also challenging people like myself who emphasize the value of reason and rational thought.

I don’t want to go too far along this line and dismiss the value of clear thinking. It means something to have science on one’s side. Policy should be guided by the fact that most scientists believe that hydrocarbons are warming the planet, that most economists believe Obama’s stimulus helped pull the United States out of recession, that most doctors believe the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any drawbacks. But translating science into politics is often a muddle and even rational people don’t always act rationally.

Maybe Hammett’s private detectives capture how life really works. Unlike Dupin or Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade and the others do not figure things out from some high rational plane. Rather, they jump into the crime scene and muck around. Here’s how the narrator in Red Harvest describes his method:

“Plans are all right sometimes,” I said. “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”

“That ought to be good for another drink,” she said.

This narrator, like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, is trying to set all the corrupt parties against each other so they’ll bring each other down. He compares his strategy to playing with dynamite and acknowledges that one false move could blow up in his face. Or as he puts it,

I was in a good spot if I played my hand right, and in a terrible one if I didn’t.

In other words, public policy may be more poker than a game of chess. It takes good players but no one can see all the cards, emotions run high, and there’s a fair amount of luck involved.

Further thought: There’s a passage in Red Harvest that’s a pretty good description of how the Republican right wing is taking the GOP away from the Republican establishment. For years this establishment has been relying on social wedge issues to turn out voters (like “acid, amnesty, and abortion”), only to redirect the focus back to financial issues (such as corporate tax breaks) once it attains power. Now, thanks to figures like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, the right wing is flexing its muscles and most centrist Republicans are terrified of being “primaried.”

In the book a mining boss uses shock troops to break a strike and then, like the GOP establishment, is upset when he has to share power with them:

The strike lasted eight months. Both sides bled plenty. The wobblies had to do their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strikebreakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army, to do his. When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker.

But, said [labor organizer] Bill Quint, old Elihu didn’t know his Italian history. He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and the state. To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild. When the fight was over he couldn’t get rid of them. He had given his city to them and he wasn’t strong enough to take it away from them. Personville looked good to them and they took it over. They had won his strike for him and they took the city for their spoils. He couldn’t openly break with them. They had too much on him. He was responsible for all they had done during the strike.

If the GOP fails to win the next presidential election, this may be a good reason why.

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Pantry Moths in the Howling Storm

pantry moth

I opened a kitchen cabinet recently and a Blake poem instantly leaped to mind. The reason: pantry moths. Can you guess the poem?

First, however, I’m looking for ways to eradicate the moths. We seal everything tightly and periodically wipe down all surfaces, yet there is still that fluttering. Nothing seems to work.

The poem, however, only seems to be about the worm that flies in the night. It’s really about the complex interaction, in our adult world, between romantic love and sexuality. While we long for purity and innocence, at the same time we are ashamed of what we see as our sinful selves. Indeed, our very longing for innocence may be propelled by the desire to escape from our secret shame. Blake doesn’t overstate when he describes our mental turmoil as a howling storm. Freud called this process sublimation and said it led both to great suffering and great art.

The Sick Rose

By William Blake

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Rice is less romantic than roses but our invisible worms take whatever they find.

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Whitman’s Blast of Green Grace


Summer is as good a time as any for loafing around Walt Whitman style. “I loafe and invite my soul,” he proclaims in Song of Myself. “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

As Whitman sees it, we are all leaves of grass, individuals and yet part of a collective whole. My father imagines a hippy and homosexual leaf of grass (the poem was written in the early seventies) describing life from his point of view. Think of him as a gay blade. He may even be a descendent of the poet as he resides in the Camden, New Jersey cemetery, where Whitman is buried. As Whitman promised,

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

This is a particularly amorous leaf of grass, shimmying with joy as Whitman lays his head in the lap of Camerado (one of Whitman’s out-of-the-closet poems). “That ain’t Nobodaddy,” which is to say, this isn’t your traditional paternalistic, vengeful sky god but a sensuous spirit of the earth who celebrates the lovers. “Listen to my cord/vibrate like a harpstring in the winds of God,” he says, and earlier, echoing the Song of Solomon, “I make your garden fair, Beloved.”  The poem moves towards an orgasmic climax with very explicit sexual imagery:

 A blast of green grace
in the great land beneath the amorous blue
all things hang on me
like a drop of dew…

Walt Whitman lovers will find in the lyric echoes a number of the bard’s poems. And now, here’s our blade of grass asserting himself:

 Lines of a Blade of Grass Delivered at Dawn at the Camden NJ Cemetery

By Walt Whitman

I am a leaf of grass
rising in the rising sun
I belong to an infinite community of lovers
yet I am one
I wave in the dawn like the American flag man
Life is my bag man

Look at me
flying from the top of Columbia’s tree!
I am a blade of leaf I am the antenna
on her conky TV
I make your garden fair Beloved
I curl your hair Beloved
you better believe it

Believe me I swing like lace
on the skirts of the sky by Atlantic’s shore
I sway in the seawind
and I am shimmying with Joy
Joy is my boy buddy
and that ain’t Nobodaddy

Listen to my cord
vibrate like a harpstring in the winds of God
I mean I tune your piano
you clod
who don’t know your grass from a hole in the ground
Listen When you got laid Camerado
I got played

I got a blast of green grace
in the great land beneath the amorous blue
            all things hang on me
            like a drop of dew
I got the world on the tip of my tongue like a drop
            of spit man
                                    no shit man
I am Walt Whitman

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Something Different Crosses the Threshold

Ivan Aivazovsky, "Jesus Walking on Water"

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Jesus Walking on Water”

Spiritual Sunday

I gave observed that, while I find many of Mary Oliver’s luminescent poems to be very Christian, she doesn’t make explicit references to the Bible. My friend Barbara Beliveau alerted me to an exception. It concerns today’s Gospel reading, which is the story of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm.

Given Oliver’s interest in nature and in storms generally (see “Lightning”), it figures that she would be drawn to this episode. from Matthew (14:22-33):

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Which part of the story do you think that Oliver finds the most frightening? Read on to find out.


By Mary Oliver

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
   stood up in the boat
      and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
   that night.
      But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
   the threshold—the uncles
      mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
   to sharpen his knife.
      Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water—
   sometimes, for days,
      you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
   one or two of them felt
      the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
   that wants to swallow everything,
      gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
   how the wind tore at the sails
      before he rose and talked to it—

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was—
     a thousand times more frightening
         than the killer storm.

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Wonder in an Old Leather Mitt

Babe Ruth's glove, 1926

Babe Ruth’s glove, 1926

Sports Saturday

Here’s a lyric that makes my heart sing, perhaps because I recently spent time with my two-year-old granddaughter Esmé. Even though she’s younger than the girl in the poem, I saw the same sense of wonder at the world.

“Pasttime” seems to be about baseball but then, when one probes further, it becomes a poem about growing old and bridging the years between generations and sensing infinite possibilities. In some ways it reminds me of James Leigh Hunt’s poem “Jenny Kissed Me.” But first to the baseball poem:


By Emilio DeGrazia

A girl, nine years of wonder
Still on her face,
Stands directly on the bag at third
Running amazed fingers along the wrinkles
Of my old leather mitt.
It is the bottom of the ninth,
And everywhere in the world
The bases are loaded.

Baseball gloves are like totems, acquiring ever more significance with each passing year. Think of them as adult versions of the velveteen rabbit. I remember reading years ago a baseball player’s description of his glove—maybe it was Brooks Robinson, maybe Cal Ripkin—and I was struck by how he kept patching it together rather than acquiring a new one. It had that kind of meaning for him.

In this case, the glove is an extension of the speaker and the little girl is fascinated by it, running amazed fingers along the wrinkles, perhaps as she is fascinated by the speaker (let’s say he’s her grandfather). She sees the glove as more than an aging piece of leather and suddenly, through her wonder, he sees himself as something more than an aging piece of leather. It doesn’t matter than he is in his ninth inning.

The title is wonderfully evocative. Baseball is (or was) the national pastime and, along those lines, he and the girl are just passing time. But the speaker, initially, is feeling old, as though he is past his time. Then, however, he is taken back to a past time by the girl’s sense of wonder. For a moment, he has passed time and entered a new realm. Everything seems possible.

And now for the James Leigh Hunt poem:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
   Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
   Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
   Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
   Jenny kiss’d me.

Actually, this creeps me out a little. I like DeGrazia’s poem better.

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Headed for the City of Big Shoulders

Depression era mural, Eugene, Oregon

Depression era mural, Eugene, Oregon

Today Julia and I are leaving family in Iowa to spend a  week in Chicago. Among other sights, we plan to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, which used to have hands-on physics experiments designed by my great uncle Gordon Fulcher.

The trip has given me an excuse to revisit Carl Sandburg’s famous homage to the city, written a hundred years ago this past March. It seems terribly dated now given what has occurred to America’s industrial base, Still, it’s fun to bask in the memory of a working class machismo that makes so apologies for the rougher side of the city.Today, sadly, there are still plenty of gunmen killing, even though Al Capone no longer rules.


By Carl Sandburg

    HOG Butcher for the World,
     Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
     Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
     Stormy, husky, brawling,
     City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
     have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
     luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
     is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
     kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
     faces of women and children I have seen the marks
     of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
     as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
          Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
     white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
     man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
     never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
     and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
     Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
     Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
     Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

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A Large Pig Haunts the University


We are currently visiting my wife’s family in Washington, Iowa. Julia grew up on a pig and cattle farm in Grace Hill, a Moravian community outside of Washington, and while her family lost the family farm in the early 1980s recession (which was a depression for Iowa), she still has a sentimental attachment to the farming community there. She therefore suggested that I write today’s post on Jane Smiley’s Moo.

One of my colleagues, who wrote her MFA thesis under Smiley at Iowa State, notes that her campus novel was a farewell to the university. By which I mean that, because it’s a thinly disguised roman à clef, many members of the school recognized themselves in Smiley’s characters and were glad to see her gone. But then, few schools look good after a campus novel takes them apart—I think of what Mary McCarthy did with Sarah Lawrence in The Groves of Academe—so it’s about par for the course. Calling her fictional Iowa State “Moo U,” as Smiley does, shows you the direction in which she’s headed.

If increasing numbers of authors seem to writing campus novels these days, it’s in part because universities have become the new patrons. If you can’t make a living on the open market—few authors can—and if you can’t find a wealthy individual to subsidize your efforts—almost no one can—then the university is your fallback income. To be sure, you have to teach creative writing courses as well as write, which seem an intolerable burden to some authors. But writers, at least at research universities, are usually chosen more for the prestige they bring than their teaching abilities. Once she wrote Thousand Acres, Smiley had glow to bestow.

But not all authors are happy with the arrangement and they often use campus novels to vent their spleen. There’s a problem here, however. Not only are universities paying them a decent wage—sometimes a great wage—for what is often a reduced course load, but universities aren’t all that dramatic. Sure, there are rivalries within the faculty, but they seem pretty trivial, as Kissinger’s famous witticism notes. (Why are faculty disputes so bitter? Because the stakes are so small.) Life may seem dramatic for undergraduates—after all, they are undergoing significant growth—but for most of them, their food and lodging is paid and they live in a protected environment.* So what’s an author to do?

Write a comic novel. That way you can complain but without being seen as taking yourself all that seriously (even though secretly you may be dead serious and really mad). Iowa State wasn’t wrong to see Smiley as giving them the middle finger but she did it in a humorous way. At least humorous for those who don’t show up in it.

Since I am married to a pig farmer’s daughter, I share a passage about Earl Butz, a giant pig named after the agriculture secretary under Nixon and Ford who was prone to verbal gaffes.  Earl Butz is an agricultural experiment by Dr. Bo Jones, who wants to figure out how large a hog can grow:

“Hog,” he said, “is a mysterious creature, not much studied in the wild, owing to viciousness and elusiveness. Can’t get the papers, you know, to take yourself to Uzbekistan, even if you had the funding. Never been a hog that lived a natural lifespan. Never been an old hog. Hog too useful. Hog too useful to be known on his own terms, you know. What can I do with this hog, when can I eat it, what can I make of this hog, how does this hog profiteth me, always intervenes between man and hog. When I die, they’re going to say that Dr. Bo Jones found out something about hog.”

Earl Butz proceeds to take on special symbolic significance in the novel. No one other than Jones and a student know about him and, when Jones goes missing (on a visit to Uzbekistan to study pigs in the wild), the university begins to pull down his enclosure, not realizing that there is a pig as large as a dining room buffet inside. Suddenly the pig is rampaging through the university:

Mrs. Loraine Walker saw him, and saw him for what he was, the secret hog at the center of the university about whom she had been dismissing rumors for a year. He lumbered past, his high squealing underpinned by labored breathing, his white hide streaked with red where he had scraped himself. Something about the enormous barreling, frightening animal struck her as poignant. Even as she jumped back, she held out her hand as it to pat him on the head.

Earl’s death seems to become an ominous portent for Moo U and maybe universities everywhere: bloated from consuming an ever increasing resources, he can’t stand on his own four legs and collapses. Hmm.


*Relatively protected, I should say. We can’t overlook the  1 in 5 women who are sexually assaulted on campus each year.

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A New Sun Blots Vesuvius

atom bomb

Anniversary of Dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima

In memory of Hiroshima, here’s a powerful poem by Richard Tillinghast, written in the early 1960’s. Tillinghast is a former student of my father’s, who included the poem in his anthology Poems of War Resistance. I like how the poet initially finds hope in the cycle of life, only to have it sour on his tongue. The promise of “new greenness” is a mock promise in a world where we are still threatened with nuclear warheads (as was certainly the case in 1962).

I pick up an ominous allusion to Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” In the Irish poet’s vision of the apocalypse, we are waked from stormy sleep. In Tillinghast’s poem, “all of Europe seems/To drowse here, dazed in the sun towards death.”

A Poem on the Nuclear War, from Pompeii

By Richard Tillinghast

The August blackberries harden and sour.
Their vines rattle at a breath of volcanic dust
Through the portico of Jupiter Sator.

Plucked juicy from broken stone, the fruits suggest
A semblance of cycle. The principle could not be
More apparent; in the wreck of the past,

In the dead fusion of marble and lava, the seed
Of new greenness begins. But the berries sour on my mouth.
Hot wind and cinder sun have frayed

The vines and wizened the sweetness of the berries’ growth
Not only Pompeii, but all of Europe seems
To drowse here, dazed in the sun towards death.

It is a time of stopped time, when ruins
Of the human mind are tangled with stunted fruit
Of the future. A new sun blots Vesuvius—
Of earth and sky, the old but the new destroyer.


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Poetry Changed during World War I

F. Matania, 'If you get through... tell my mother... ' Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-561310/The-battle-lines-drawn.html#ixzz39AlqUB00  Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

F. Matania, “If you get through… tell my mother…”

Many of the awful things that occurred in the 20th century can be traced back to “the war to end all wars,” which began 100 years ago this week. Would we have had a less bloody century if we had managed to avoid it? At the very least, we might have escaped Hitler and Stalin. But as a sign that the resilient human spirit can show itself in even the darkest of circumstances, World War I produced some great literature.

I’m using the anniversary as an excuse to read, for the first time, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which I’ve somehow missed. I’m already taken with the epigraph:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

Of course, the idea that war is an adventure is often used to inspire young men to put their lives on the line. In the early days of the World War I, before the horrors of trench fighting opened people’s eyes, much of the poetry that England produced was sentimental.

There was, for instance, John Freeman’s “Happy Is England Now,” which now makes one want to throw up. The second stanza, for instance, passes too easily over the deaths of the soldiers, which it describes as “faithfullest children”:

Happy is England now, as never yet! 
And though the sorrows of the slow days fret 
Her faithfullest children, grief itself is proud. 
Ev’n the warm beauty of this spring and summer 
That turns to bitterness turns then to gladness 
Since for this England the beloved ones died.

Rupert Brooke’s well-known “The Soldier” is only slightly better as it masks self-pity and a large dose mascochism with stoic resignation. Note how he makes death seem sweet and pastoral:

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

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

And then there’s Alan Seeger, who has us thrill to glorious martyrdom. Note the contempt he pours on those who are “pillowed in silk and scented down.” It’s almost as though Seeger has been seized with Stockholm Syndrome, giving himself entirely over to the agenda of those who are sending him to his death:

I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   

I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.       
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   

And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.       

God knows ‘twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   

Where hushed awakenings are dear…   
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Brooke died in 1915 and Seeger in 1916. It’s as though it took the entire war to produce one of the world’s greatest anti-war poets. Wilfred Owen would die in the last week of the war but, before then, he directly attacked the sentiments that had been drummed into, and accepted by, young soldiers like Brooke, Seeger, and himself. “Futility,” for instance, reads like a response to Brooke:

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Here there are images of growth such as one finds in Brooke, along with the same gentle tone. But instead of reaffirming an “English heaven,” Owen finds life to be theater of the absurd. What’s the point of the clay growing tall if death is where it’s all headed?

Meanwhile,  “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which I’ve posted on here, functions as a rebuttal to Seeger. Owen finds the old maxim, “Sweet and fitting it is to die for your country,” to be a lie. This is response to a man coughing up his guts following a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

There is no glorious barricade storming here. Just “death’s grin from ear to ear,” as the defining poem of modernism would put it in 1922.

Such powerful poems, unfortunately, did not prevent World War II or Vietnam, or Iraq. Young men continue to “boil bloody and be spilled “ (“Strange Meeting”) and “die as cattle” (“Anthem for Doomed Youth”). Poetry doesn’t appear capable of preventing the world’s great tragedies.

But at least poetry can help us find our bearings when we find ourselves lost in darkness. Owen’s verse, earned at a cost of immense suffering and death, is there for us to hold on to.

Posted in Brooke (Rupert), Freeman (John), Owen (Wilfred), Seeger (Alan) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Keeping Environmental Hope Alive

Brazil rain forest deforestation

Amazon deforestation

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is visiting Madagascar at the moment and reports back with very discouraging environmental news. Although Madagascar has pristine beaches and some of the most rare and diverse forest, plant, and animal species in the world—Friedman specifically mentions the lemurs—it is falling prey to unscrupulous exploiters, an exploding population, and poverty:

[T]he population of Madagascar is exploding, and the forests and soils are eroding. The soil for agriculture here is iron rich, nutrient poor and often very soft. Since 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been chopped down for slash-and-burn agriculture, timber, firewood and charcoal over the last century, most hillsides have no trees to hold the soil when it rains. Flying along the northwest coast, you can’t miss the scale of the problem. You see a giant red plume of eroded red soil bleeding into the Betsiboka River, bleeding into Mahajanga Bay, bleeding into the Indian Ocean. The mess is so big that astronauts take pictures of it from space.

My wife Julia discovered something comparable going on in the Gambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa which she visited recently. There too the forests are coming down, often to fuel cooking fires. And we all know about the Amazon.

Here’s a sad but beautiful poem by my father, “They Are Cutting Down the Jungles of Brazil,” which imagines shutting out all the awful news by retreating into a world of dreams. Our poets, like giant sloths, hang between earthly reality and heavenly imagination as they seek to keep hope alive. If we cease dreaming and succumb to reality as it is, we truly are lost. As always with my father, images of flight point to human possibility, even in the most discouraging of times:

They Are Cutting Down the Jungles of Brazil

By Scott Bates

The Giant Sloth
Like a giant Moth
From a branch
of the Cecropia Tree

He dreams
Of the Jungle above the Sun

Upside down
Heaven and earth
He closes his eyes

And flies
Like a giant Moth

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Wrestling with (My God!) My God

Leloir, "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel"

Leloir, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”

Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading is the fascinating story of Jacobs wrestling all night with an angel. Gerard Manley Hopkins makes powerful use of the episode in “Carrion Comfort.”

First of all, here’s the story from Genesis (32:22-28):

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

I turn to the always essential Victorian Web for commentary on the poem:

The poem reprocesses and reissues the original story by making the wrestling match an experience of metamorphosis: The narrator feels himself transformed into a piece of meat at the hands of his attacker. The first stanza, which envisions the narrator reflecting on the long night of wrestling, discusses the strength and abilities of his attacker in the context of nature. His opponent has “lionlimbs” and his right foot is equated to a “rock.” The second stanza envisions a new form of blessing at the hands of the angel, who here becomes a literal expression of God who, in wrestling the narrator, confers upon him joy.

Carrion Comfort

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

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The Lonely Sea and the Sky

Greg Pease, "Yacht Racing Past Thomas Point Light House"

Greg Pease, “Yacht Racing Past Thomas Point Light House”

Today is the conclusion of Maryland’s Governor’s Cup Race, an overnight race that begins in Annapolis, Maryland’s second capital, and concludes in St. Mary’s City, its first. Often the most frustrating part of the race occurs at the end, when the sailors round Point Lookout, leaving the Chesapeake Bay and entering the Potomac River. For many boats, this occurs around dawn, and the wind often drops at this point, making for a drawn out last few miles to their final destination.

As they enter the St. Mary’s River, however, they often have their spinnakers at full mast and it’s a glorious sight. Since 1982, my wife has organized a church breakfast for the exhausted sailors and we listen to them reliving the journey and comparing notes. No matter how slow the journey, they are always thrilled to have taken part.

Here is one of England’s most popular poems to celebrate their journey:

Sea Fever

By John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Although there are not many whales in the Chesapeake and August breezes don’t cut like a whetted knife, the sailors experience “the grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.” And after they exchange merry yarns, they return to their boats and enjoy a quiet sleep.

And then there’s a party.

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Obama Is No King Lear (Thank Goodness!)

Ian McKellen as King Lear

Ian McKellen as King Lear

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik makes great use of a King Lear passage to dismantle accusations that Obama is weak and effeminate. Gopnik observes that Obama’s critics aren’t actually advocating, with regard to foreign policy, that Obama do anything other than what he is doing. They just want him to look fiercer:

The curious thing, though, is how much the talk about manliness—and Obama’s lack of it—is purely and entirely about appearances. In the current crisis over the downed Malaysian plane, all the emphasis is on how it looks or how it might be made to look—far more than on American interests and much less on simple empathy for the nightmarish fate of the people on board. The tough-talkers end up grudgingly admitting that what the President has done—as earlier, with Syria—is about all that you could do, given the circumstances.  Their own solutions are either a further variant on the kinds of sanctions that are already in place—boycott the World Cup in Russia!—or else are too militarily reckless to be taken seriously. Not even John McCain actually thinks that we should start a war over whether Donetsk and Luhansk should be regarded as part of Ukraine or Russia. The tough guys basically just think that Obama should have looked scarier. The anti-effeminate have very little else to suggest by way of practical action—except making those unambiguous threats and, apparently, baring your teeth while you do.

The Shakespeare passage that Gopnik quotes occurs at the moment where Lear’s heartless daughters have just ruthlessly and systematically stripped their father of all dignity, denying him even a single retainer. Sputtering like a child, Lear brandishes nameless threats:

No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

The United States is not as impotent as Lear in this moment although crippling itself through its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan bears some resemblance to Lear crippling himself through giving up his kingdom. The invasions of the Bush years have left the United States exhausted and unwilling to start any more wars. As a result, our neoconservatives can do no more than throw temper tantrums. Here’s the continuation of the Lear passage:

You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

At this point Lear plunges into the storm and proceeds to rail, Dick Cheney-like, at the unfairness of his fate.

There’s a glimmer of hope in King Lear, however. His utter humiliation leads him to discover the love of Cordelia. By the end of the play, tragic though it is, Lear has gotten his priorities straight.

Gopnik wonders whether we can as well:

We don’t need tough guys. We need wise guys. We’ve tried tough guys, and it always ends in tears. Tough guys you know right away because they’re never scared of a fight. Wise guys you only know in retrospect, when you remember that they quietly walked away from the fight that now has the tough guy in a hospital. Wise women do that, too.

Will we appreciate Obama only in retrospect?

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Poetry, the Road to Virtuous Action

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

I am currently writing a book on—surprise!—how literature can change our lives, and I am currently rereading what some of the world’s great literary theorists have said about literature’s impact. This means that you can expect to get periodic posts on what people in the past have said on the subject. Today you get Sir Philip Sidney, who I am thoroughly enjoying and who is proving to be remarkably relevant.

The Defense of Poesy was written in 1579 (for point of comparison, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were born in 1564), probably as an indirect response to attacks on poetry by Puritan moralist Stephen Gosson. I’ll get to the attacks in a moment.

Sidney believes that the chief end of “earthly learning” should be “virtuous action.” Poetry, he asserts, is more effective than any other endeavor in getting us there.

Sidney sees poetry’s two main competitors as moral philosophy and history, and each comes up short. Moral philosophy, he essentially says, is hard to understand and not much fun to read while history is limited by what actually happened. Only poetry can delve beneath appearance to grasp deep truths and serve them up in ways that we find delightful.

I particularly enjoy the passages where Sidney talks about what we learn from the different literary genres. Comedy, he says, gives us examples of how not to behave (“it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one”), as does tragedy (which “openeth the greatest wounds, and showest forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue”). Lyric poetry, meanwhile, “giveth  praise, the reward  of virtue, to virtuous acts”; sets forth moral precepts and natural problems; and sometimes sings “the lauds of the immortal God.” Finally there is heroical poetry, which Sidney sees as the highest form of poetry. He especially waxes eloquent about The Aeneid. As you read it, recall that Sidney was regarded as the quintessential Renaissance man, a fine poet, courageous soldier, and polished courtier:

For, as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy. Only let Æneas be worn in the tablet of your memory, how he governeth himself in the ruin of his country; in the preserving his old father, and carrying away his religious ceremonies; in obeying the god’s commandment to leave Dido, though not only all passionate kindness, but even the human consideration of virtuous gratefulness, would have craved other of him; how in storms, how in sports, how in war, how in peace, how a fugitive, how victorious, how besieged, how besieging, how to strangers, how to allies, how to enemies, how to his own; lastly, how in his inward self, and how in his outward government; and I think, in a mind most prejudiced with a prejudicating humor, he will be found in excellency fruitful…

The attacks that Sidney mentions being directed against poetry we still see today. They include:

–poetry is a waste of time
–it is the mother of lies
–it is effeminate
–it infects us “with many pestilent desires, with a siren’s sweetness drawing the mind to the serpent’s tail of sinful fancies.”

In this last attack, I think of criticism directed over the ages against such books as Sorrows of Young Werther and Lolita, not to mention current day attack against young adult fiction like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Perks of a Wallflower.

Sidney counters each attack, famously saying in response to the charge of falsehood that the poet doesn’t claim that his stories are literally true but that they reveal a deeper truth. (The poet “nothing affirms.”) At one point he essentially calls Jesus a poet for his use of parables. And while he must acknowledge that his beloved Plato wants to banish all the poets from his ideal republic, he notes that Plato himself uses metaphor, drama, and other literary conceits in his writing.

Sidney concludes his counterattack by asserting that poetry is not

an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage; not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit…

There are questions that Sidney’s argument dodges. To cite one example, he says that virtue is taught by comedy if the comedy is used right, which begs the question of when comedy is used wrong. I’m actually open to the argument that a distinction between right and wrong use could help us distinguish between great and not-so-great literature, but that’s a topic I’ll return to on another day. It’s enough to note here that Sidney’s essay indirectly raises the issue, even if it doesn’t explore it.

Posted in Sidney (Sir Philip), Virgil | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day

Henry Scott Tuke, "The Sun Bathers"

Henry Scott Tuke, “The Sun Bathers”

Today was a perfect summer day—not too hot or humid—which led me to compare it, and find it more lovely, than a summer’s day. Have you ever noticed that the young man that Shakespeare finds superior to a summer’s day probably resembles it all too closely? All the things that threaten summer threaten our love as well. Our relationships are often shaken by the rough winds of May, our warm passion hath “all too short a date.” Sometimes we are hot tempered, sometimes overcast and depressed. And always at our back we hear the winged chariot hurrying near as time etches lines into our faces.

The young man to whom the sonnet is addressed is saved only by the intervention of the neo-Platonic poet, who is able to stop the moment through the eternal medium of poetry. But the speaker is hardly benign. He is letting the young man know who really wields the power. Without the poet, he will go the way of all summer days.

So don’t leave me.

Sonnet 18 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.     
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,     
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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Groucho’s Night with T. S. Eliot

Night at the Opera

Night at the Opera

My son Toby recently alerted me to a fascinating New Yorker article on a correspondence between T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx. Eliot was a huge fan and Groucho, somewhat flattered, eventually accepted a dinner invitation. Lee Siegel believes that, upon further scrutiny of the letters, he has uncovered a simmering tension in what he once believed to be a warm relationship.

In retrospect, there was every reason to anticipate tension. As Siegel notes,

Groucho, a highly cultivated man whose greatest regret in life was that he had become an entertainer rather than a literary man—he published some of his first humor pieces in the inaugural issues of this magazine—could not have been unaware of Eliot’s notorious remarks about Jews. 


Groucho was a pop-culture celebrity, a child of immigrants, an abrasive, compulsively candid Jew. Eliot was a literary mandarin, the confident product of St. Louis Wasp gentry, and an elliptical Catholic royalist given to grave, decorous outbursts of anti-semitism.

I’ve quoted before Jewish poet Philip Levine’s own mixed feelings about Eliot. Even while acknowledging his admiration for Eliot, Levine sometimes quotes a line from “Gerontion”—“the jew squats on the window sill”—and follows it up with the complaint, “and the son of a bitch didn’t even capitalize ‘Jew.’”

Siegel describes Groucho wanting to have a serious intellectual discussion and Eliot not wanting his beloved film star venturing into his realm of “high culture.” Eliot might go slumming into Jewish vaudeville—it allowed him to feel not quite so prissy and stuck-up—but he didn’t want Jews and entertainers moving into the neighborhood.

After studying the letters, Siegel concludes that things could not possibly have gone well. (As far as Siegel can tell, the correspondence ended after the meal.) Note how, in the following interchange, Eliot comes across as a patronizing snob, triggering a very understandable fury:

Eliot seems to have wanted Groucho to consider him a warm, ordinary guy and not the type of stiff, repressed person who disdained from a great height “free-thinking Jews.” He can’t quite bring it off—his acquired British self-deprecation stumbles into an American boorishness. On the eve of Groucho’s visit to London, Eliot wrote, “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that … you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.” 

Compared to the buried anxieties that Eliot stirred in Groucho, though, Eliot’s strenuous bonhomie seemed like the height of social tact. The font of Groucho’s and the Marx Brothers’ humor was an unabashed insolence toward wealth and privilege. Born at the turn of the century to an actress mother and a layabout father in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, the brothers turned the tumult of their hardscrabble origins into a universal reproach to the rigidity of social class. The encounter with Eliot brought out Groucho’s characteristic tendency to hide his embarrassment about his origins by pushing them in his audience’s face.

The Marx Brothers were hypersensitive to the slightest prerogatives of power; a person in authority had only to raise a finger to turn them hysterical and abusive. “I decided what the hell,” Groucho said once. “I’ll give the big shots the same Groucho they saw onstage—impudent, irascible, iconoclastic.” They fought with studio bosses and alienated directors and comedy writers. The humorist S. J. Perelman found the brothers to be “megalomaniacs to a degree which is impossible to describe.” There was a tremendous release in watching them utter and enact taboos in the face of power and privilege. That sense of liberation—of something unthinkable and impossible being deliciously actualized—is what makes even their less funny movies enthralling.

In the meal, apparently, Groucho wanted to talk about King Lear and Eliot (as Groucho saw it) wanted to talk about the movies. Here’s Groucho’s account of the meal:

According to Groucho’s letter to Gummo—the only existing account of the dinner—Eliot was gracious and accommodating. Groucho, on the other hand, became fixated on “King Lear,” in which the hero, Edgar, just so happens to disguise himself as a madman named Tom. Despite Tom Eliot’s polite indifference to his fevered ideas about “Lear” (“that, too, failed to bowl over the poet,” Groucho wrote to Gummo), Groucho pushed on. Eliot, he wrote, “quoted a joke—one of mine—that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile politely. I was not going to let anyone—not even the British poet from St. Louis—spoil my Literary Evening.” Groucho expatiated on Lear’s relationship to his daughters. Finally, Eliot “asked if I remembered the courtroom scene in Duck Soup. Fortunately I’d forgotten every word. It was obviously the end of the Literary Evening.

I would love to have heard what insights Groucho had into both Edgar and the fool, given that he plays the truth-telling fool in his movies and may have seen himself as having to assume the disguise of a madman in Wasp America. Siegel thinks that Eliot may have appreciated some of what Groucho had to say but that Groucho couldn’t hear his praise:

In the trial scene in “King Lear,” Edgar/Tom protests the Fool’s own nonsense, saying, “The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale.” Perhaps that was Eliot’s inner cry of protest at dinner, too. But Groucho was so defensive in the presence of the “British poet from St. Louis” that he seems to have missed Eliot’s subtle homage to his intellect. Groucho still could not shake the primal shame that was the goad of his comic art as well as the source of his self-protective egotism.

If I understand Siegel’s point, he is suggesting that Eliot may have signaled to Groucho that he was already a genius and that he need not be defensive–feel haunted–but that Groucho could only hear an elitist putting him down.

I don’t blame the defensive Groucho for having misunderstood, given that Eliot did come across as an elitist. In some ways, Eliot resembles the pretentious Margaret Dumont in Night at the Opera. To be sure, Eliot genuinely understood high culture. But he had his own American defensiveness, which took the form of longing for upper class British status, and it sounds like Groucho picked up on this defensiveness and went on the attack, seeking to bring deflate Eliot’s pretensions by calling him “Tom.”

As I think about it, both Eliot and Groucho can be seen as reacting to modernism, only in different ways. In Eliot one finds a nostalgia for a lost order so that the tone of the Wasteland is both elegiac and despairing. But the stress of upholding the ideals of high civilization was so draining that, for comic relief, he turned to dark Jewish humor. As the despised Jew, meanwhile, Groucho had no reason to be nostalgic for high Western ideals—Tudor England, for instance, banished all Jews—and so responded to the world falling apart with a cynical humor that dismantled every institution. Duck Soup’s wholesale anarchy was too disturbing for many people in 1933 but Eliot got it.

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Loud Sneezes, a Sign from the Gods

Telemakhos sneezing, Penelope laughing

Telemakhos sneezing, Penelope laughing

My father used to have a very loud sneeze and I have carried on the family tradition. This became a point of discussion yesterday when I startled my wife and my son with a loud exhalation. Darien, who has not carried on the tradition, pointed out that one can train oneself to sneeze quietly.

My response was that my sneeze was a sign of good luck sent from the gods. I had in mind Telemakhos’ sneeze in Book XVII of The Odyssey.

The situation is as follows. Odysseus has returned and is disguised as a beggar in his own hall. Penelope wants to see him, and a timely sneeze from her son signals that her fortunes are about to change. Here’s the passage:

Then wise Penélopê said again:
“Go call him, let him come here, let him tell
that tale again for my own ears.
                                                            Our friends
can drink their cups outside or stay in hall,
being so carefree. And why not? Their stores
lie intact in their homes, both food and drink,
with only servants left to take a little.
But these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves, our fat goats and our sheep,
carousing, drinking up our good dark wine;
sparing nothing, squandering everything.
No champion like Odysseus takes our part.
Ah, if he comes again, no falcon ever
struck more suddenly than he will, with his son,
to avenge this outrage!”
                                               The great hall below
at this point rang with a tremendous sneeze
“kchaou!” from Telémakhos—like an acclamation.
And laughter seized Penélopê.
                                                           Then quickly,
lucidly she went on:
                                       “Go call the stranger
straight to me. Did you hear that, Eumaios?
My son’s thundering sneeze at what I said!
May death come of a sudden so; may death
relieve us, clean as that, of all the suitors!

A sneeze, in other words, can signal that a final cleansing is at hand. Which means that I don’t have to change my behavior.


Further thought: The 18th century, which idolized Homer, marveled at how the bard could could touch all aspects of the human experience, from the most sublime sentiments to the tiniest human details. In the end, this is what led them to rank the rough Homer over the more polished Virgil, who had been preferred in the 17th century. Telemakhos’ sneeze could be exhibit A for tiny human details. It’s also good to see Penelope laugh.

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The First Day of the Feast Has Come

Ramadan feast

Ramadan feast

Spiritual Sunday

Here’s a poem by the sublime Rumi to celebrate tomorrow’s end of Ramadan. According to Wikipedia, Sufis read the story of Zulaikha’s lust for Joseph as the soul’s longing for God. (Jews and Christians know Zulaikha as Potiphar’s wife.) The Ramadan fast has sharpened this longing for the divine, which Rumi also expresses through (if I read the poem correctly) Mary’s assumption into heaven and Jacob joining with Rachel after 14 years of waiting. The poem explodes with images of freedom:

Do not despair, my soul, for hope has manifested itself;
the hope of every soul has arrived from the unseen.

Do not despair, though Mary has gone from your hands,
for that light which drew Jesus to heaven has come.

Do not despair, my soul, in the darkness of this prison,
for that king who redeemed Joseph from prison has come.

Jacob has come forth from the veil of occlusion,
Joseph who rent Zulaikha’s veil has come.

You who all through night to dawn have been crying “O Lord,”
mercy has heard that “O Lord” and has come.

O pain which has grown old, rejoice, for the cure has come;
O fastened lock, open, for the key has come.

You who have abstained fasting from the Table on high,
break your fast with joy, for the first day of the feast has come.

Keep silence, keep silence, for by virtue of the command “Be!”
that silence of bewilderment has augmented beyond all speech.

From the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi,
translated by A.J. Arberry, Mystical Poems of Rumi, 1968


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To Hear an Oriole Sing



Sports Saturday

I don’t multitask well with sports, so only now that the NBA finals, the World Cup, and Wimbledon are over have I looked at the baseball standings. I was amazed to discover that my team, the Baltimore Orioles, are in first place in their division. I don’t expect it to last but I’ll enjoy it in the mean time.

In their honor, here’s one of Emily Dickinson’s numerous Oriole poems (I know of at least three). As you read it, see if you can anticipate how I apply it to the O’s:

To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing—
Or only a divine.

It is not of the Bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto Crowd—

The Fashion of the Ear
Attireth that it hear
In Dun, or fair—

So whether it be Rune,
Or whether it be none
Is of within.

The “Tune is in the Tree—”
The Skeptic—showeth me—
“No Sir! In Thee!” 

Dickinson is talking about  how a poem will move some people while leaving others cold, but here’s the baseball application: To most people, the Baltimore Orioles are just a common team. To a fan, however, they are divine. The “Fashion of the Ear”—which is to say, the predilection of the spectator—determines whether a team is dun or fair, whether it is filled with mystical promise (like a rune) or not. We give the team credit for the joy we feel—the tune is in the tree—but the skeptic points out that it is actually we the crowd who are bestowing meaning.

So we root, root, root for something that is within ourselves.


Further thought: The poem shares some ideas with a Wallace Steven poem that I particularly like, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” (which I write about here).

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

Books about People Reading Books

Illus. from E. Nesbit, "The New Treasure Seekers"

Illus. from E. Nesbit, “The New Treasure Seekers”

Wednesday’s post has me thinking about my fascination with stories about people who read stories. When I was a child, my reading set me apart from others, and my current theory is that reading about people who love books as much as I did made me feel less alone and less weird. In today’s post, I’ve begun a list of all those books that I remember turning to for consolation, up through adolescence.

E. Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers and The Would-be-goods

My father read me these E. Nesbit books about the Bastable children who, in spite of their best intentions, are always getting into trouble. Oswald Bastable and his siblings are great fans of Kipling’s The Jungle Books and greet each other with the words, “Good hunting.” Their love of Kipling pays off as it wins over a rich uncle, who saves them from poverty.

My friend Rachel Kranz told me that she was raised on the Edward Eager Magic books (like Half Magic and Seven Day Magic), where the children refer to Nesbit’s books. I’m sorry that I didn’t know about them as a child as I’m sure I would have fallen in love with them.

A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh and Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows 

These works don’t entirely fit my schema since Pooh and Ratty are not readers but poets. Nevertheless, it made sense to me that they would be drawn to poetry and that those around them wouldn’t understand this attraction. (Mole is respectful, Piglet less so.)

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons

The children in the Ransome books (all of which I read) are drawn to Stevenson’s Treasure Island to help them in their imaginary play.

Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Land of Story-Books”

Speaking of Stevenson, I related to this poem from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

At evening when the lamp is lit, 
Around the fire my parents sit; 
They sit at home and talk and sing, 
And do not play at anything. 

Now, with my little gun, I crawl 
All in the dark along the wall, 
And follow round the forest track 
Away behind the sofa back. 

There, in the night, where none can spy, 
All in my hunter’s camp I lie, 
And play at books that I have read 
Till it is time to go to bed. 

These are the hills, these are the woods, 
These are my starry solitudes; 
And there the river by whose brink 
The roaring lions come to drink. 

I see the others far away 
As if in firelit camp they lay, 
And I, like to an Indian scout, 
Around their party prowled about. 

So when my nurse comes in for me, 
Home I return across the sea, 
And go to bed with backward looks 
At my dear land of Story-books.

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

When I read Huckleberry Finn in high school, I recognized that Tom was borrowing from Alexander Dumas, either The Count of Monte Cristo or the sequel to The Three Musketeers (Twenty Years After) when he concocts an elaborate escape plan for Jim.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

David doesn’t have much going for him when he finds himself thrust into a boarding school by his evil stepfather Mr. Murdstone, but he has read a lot of novels. Steerforth, the boy who all but runs the school, admires David for this knowledge, which raises David’s status with the others. I dreamed that my own reading would raise my stature in some way.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

I related to Jane’s desire to withdraw from her unkind surroundings into a world of books when she is a child.

As I compile the list, I realize that these books were the exceptions rather than the rule. Most of the characters in the books I loved were not readers (Alice, Jack Hawkins, Frodo Baggins). In fact, sometimes the characters actually leave books in order to have adventures: the Penvensies decide to explore the house rather than drearily read in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Mary pulls Colin away from his books in The Secret Garden. It’s as though the authors are like the hypocritical lady authors that Jane Austen censures in Northanger Abbey. Defending Katherine for her love of gothic novels, Austen writes,

I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?

C. S. Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and others may not censure their characters for reading novels, but they certainly don’t show them reading as avidly as they themselves read.

Maybe there’s a good reason for this. Maybe reading for them felt so real that they had to talk about their characters as if they had stepped out of books and obliterated all the traces. The Pevensies aren’t shown to be readers but a very bookish soul created them.

Now I, as a literary scholar, seek to rediscover those traces, hearing echoes of (in The Narnia Chronicles) Nesbit, Grahame, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, James Barrie, George MacDonald, and countless others. I no longer require that the books that inspired the authors be explicitly named.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte), Dickens (Charles), Grahame (Kenneth), Milne (A. A.), Nesbitt (E.), Ransome (Arthur), Stevenson (Robert Louis), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Textualist Judges Out of Control

William Hogarth, "The Bench"

William Hogarth, “The Bench”

I’ve been following with some concern a D. C. Circuit Court ruling on Obamacare that only citizens who sign up under state exchanges are eligible for federal subsidies to help them purchase it.

In case you haven’t heard, two conservative judges on the D. C. circuit court have said that people who signed up for Obamacare in the federal exchanges cannot receive federal subsidies on the grounds that the language in the law seems to say so. Although those who wrote and passed the law claim otherwise—that federal subsidies should be available to all those who are eligible in every state—the judges claim that they are textualists following the letter of the law. As a literature professor, I’ve seen up close the problems with extreme textualism. More on that in a moment.

First of all, however, here’s Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast looking at the D.C. court’s 2-1 decision. As he sees it, the judges are seizing on a typo to (this in the words of the third judge) “gut” the law. Tomasky associates the justices with Justice Antonin Scalia:

[T]ypically, Scalia is a textualist. You can tell what that means, I’d wager, without me even explaining it, and in this case, it ain’t good: “I can’t read legislators’ minds. I can go only by the words in the bill. If they left out a word, they left out a word. Tough.”

In fact, there are other sections of the ACA, say several experts, that clearly at least imply the presence of or need for a federal exchange. And plain common sense tells you that Congress didn’t pass this huge and elephantine—and federal—law, whose very point was to enable more Americans to purchase health coverage, with the expectation that said coverage would be limited to the citizens who happen to live in some states but not others. It is facially, as they say in the law business, absurd.

In other words, while the words may be vague, one can tell by looking at the bill as a whole what Congress intended.

Scalia is the most ardent textualist on the Supreme Court, claiming that he just follows the words of the Constitution (or in cases such as this, a Congressional bill) without looking at context. But that’s not how language works, as Nicholas Bagley of The Incidental Economist points out:

To understand the legal fight, keep in mind that words don’t have meaning in a vacuum. Words have meaning only because they mean something to those who speak and to those who listen. They’re communication devices. (As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously explained, you can’t have a private language. Language is public or it’s not really language at all.)

So if you’re trying to make sense of a statute, the question for an interpreter is what Congress meant to communicate by the words that it chose. Usually, that’s easy to figure out. Words are not infinitely malleable. They have meaning in our linguistic community. And it’s a good rule of thumb that Congress means what it says and says what it means.

But not always. Sometimes a statute uses words that don’t track what Congress meant. Sometimes that’s because Congress made a mistake. But more often, loose language fails to get corrected because, when taken in the context of the statute as a whole, the meaning of the statutory text is pretty clear.

This is not an especially controversial point. Words always accrue meaning from context, and that context can affect the meaning of the words that the speaker selects to convey that meaning. If my wife says to me, “Do you mind taking out the garbage?” and I say “yes,” even as I dutifully take out the garbage, it’s clear from context that by yes I meant no. And yelling “fire!” means something very different in a crowded theater than it does at a firing squad.

So too with statutes. Text really is the best guide to meaning. But sometimes the broader statutory context demonstrates that Congress meant to convey something very different than what a literal construction of an isolated snippet of a statute might suggest.

This is what appears to have happened here. Congress got sloppy in some of its language and foes of Obamacare seized on their words and pushed a point in an effort to undermine Obamacare as a whole. A 4th Circuit Federal Court, ruling on the same case later in the day, descried what it saw as an attempt “to deny to millions of Americans desperately needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction” of the law.

And now to textualism. In the 1950s, American literature professors wanted the same kind of certainty that scientists had and so claimed that text was paramount. What mattered more than anything else was the words on the page.

And to a degree they were right. After all, we read literature because of the language, and the greatest authors are the best wielders of language. But the formalists, as they were called, went further. They tried to exclude all that was not language from the discussion. Therefore, the historical context was unimportant. So was what the author intended (the intentional fallacy). Readers with their various biases were definitely unimportant (the affective fallacy). Only the words mattered.

At the height of formalism, an anthology of poetry was published that omitted all authors and all dates as being irrelevant.

This led to some comic situations. One I recall involved the interpretation of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Many formalists found this to be a perfect poem but there was one sentence that caused confusion:

My vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires and more slow.

To understand “vegetable love,” it is useful to go back to the Renaissance, where one discovers that a distinction was drawn between the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational soul. (This is laid out in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.) Vegetative would be our corporal side. But note how this requires a journey back in history. Reading the poem without any historical sense, one might conjure up images of giant cauliflowers.

Now, one can somewhat figure out, from the context, what the image means. If one has the philosophic and historic context, it becomes even clearer.

Or here’s another example. In Laura Bohannan’s famous essay “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the text of Hamlet gets subjected to wild interpretations by Nigerian villagers who approach it from an entirely different context. Although they do manage, in spite of the cultural distance, to make some observant points, nevertheless they would do more justice to the play if they factored in the British Renaissance context.

Textualism, like formalism, may claim to hold the words sacred, but textualists are more apt to be blind to their biases than those who look at context. As someone described their approach, textualists are like people who arrive at a party and only see the people they want to talk with. In the case of Obamacare, Congress intended that as many Americans as possible have access to health care. To interpret their words otherwise is to be guilty of willful blindness.

Posted in Marvell (Andrew) | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reading Lit through the Eyes of Others

Joseph Severn, "John Keats"

Joseph Severn, “John Keats”

A recent Page-Turner column in the on-line New Yorker touches on a subject that is close to my heart: “Reading through Someone Else’s Eyes.” Regular readers of this blog know that I talk constantly about the significance of how different readers respond to literature. In the New Yorker piece, author Brad Leithauser reflects upon the pleasures involved in doing so, which he finds to be even “more rewarding” than figuring out what an author was thinking:

But more complicated still—and, in some ways, more rewarding still—is the attempt to read a book through someone else’s eyes. Your thoughts triangulate. You wonder. What did person X feel when he read Y’s book. 

It needn’t be a novel. Maybe it’s a collection of stories, poems, even essays. Someone you’re interested in—your person X—found this book entrancing. It’s no longer sufficient to know what the author was thinking. Now you want to know what person X thought the author was thinking.

Perhaps you read a book that you don’t much care for. Then you discover that some writer you adore, and with whom you feel psychologically aligned, loved it. So you open it once more, this time attempting to apprehend it through his eyes. “What did he see in it?” you ask yourself. The question provides a rhythmic march through its pages: What did he see? What did he see?

Leithauser cites a number of examples. For instance, Ovid, especially in the 1567 Arthur Golding translation, becomes especially interesting when one learns that he was a major influence on Shakespeare. Literary scholar Helen Vendler’s view of Milton changes when she reads him through the eyes of Keats, as signaled by the Romantic poet’s marked up version. Here’s Vendler:

To read Paradise Lost through Keats’s eyes is to see it in part as a poem of Shakespearean characterization, but chiefly as a poem of luxuriant and opulent description, full of growth, change, ripening, delectable sweets, and golden profusion.

And then there’s Leithauser reading the poetry of New Yorker poetry Howard Moss through the eyes of poet May Swenson, whose underlined copy of Moss’s poetry he just happens to own:

How would she ever have supposed that her dialogue with Moss would become a trialogue, in which another reader would materialize to question and puzzle over her annotations?

But the best part of Leithauser’s essay is imagining why his mother would have loved the Elsie Dinsmore books. In the process of exploring her affection for them, he understands more about her childhood.

Leithauser even finds himself trying to figure out who he himself was at an earlier age on the basis of some marginal notes he wrote:

Of course, it’s a highly conjectural, iffy business—trying to read through someone else’s eyes. Or even, I’d add, through one’s own. Given enough years between visits, rereading a book can feel startlingly alien. Recently, I opened a collection by a contemporary poet who had meant much to me in college. Here was a stanza beside which I’d written in the margin, in a penmanship larger and somehow more hopeful-looking than my present hand, “Brilliant!” I stared and stared at the passage, seeking to reawaken a distant excitement: What did he see in it? But I couldn’t. The moment would have been less unnerving, I suppose, if I’d scrutinized the passage and determined, with some comforting recourse to the superior discernment of age, that it was, in fact, clumsy or orotund or emptily romantic. But it seemed merely bland. I longed to get back into the head of that fervent undergraduate, to read sympathetically through his eyes. I was naturally quite interested in him, and approached him with good will, but for all his fervency he remained stubbornly aloof. In the end, he was a stranger.

Leithauser’s article got me thinking about why I myself am so fascinated by other readers reading, and I plan to write about this quite a lot in upcoming weeks. Here’s one theory:

Maybe I’m interested in other readers reading because it makes me feel part of a community. Unlike most of the kids around me, I spent my childhood immersed in books, and knowing that others were out there having intense experiences made me feel less weird. I admit to being a very impressionable person, one who likes to fit in, so when I heard about people having strong responses to works, it was as though I had been given permission to have strong responses.

That’s one possible explanation. More are on the way.

Posted in Keats (John), Milton (John), Ovid, Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why the Wealthy Get Wealthier

Colin Firth as Darcy

Colin Firth as Darcy

As growing income inequality becomes a pressing problem, one of the unexpected hits of the past year has been Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty believes that, under capitalism as it is presently practiced, the income gap between the wealthy and the rest of us will inevitably grow wider because there will always be more money to be made from capital investments than from economic growth. Therefore, those who inherit money will always be able to make more money than those who work for it. Piketty’s suggested solution is greater taxation on the wealthiest in order to redistribute the income downward.

A blog post by Tim Fernholz at Quartz takes note of how Piketty draws on Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac to make his points. Novelists are very useful to economists because, according to Piketty, they

depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that neither statistical nor theoretical analysis can match.

Here’s Fernholz describing Piketty’s use of Austen and the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk. Piketty explains why, in Jane Austen’s world, the income of the wealthy is fairly predictable:

Among many things I learned reading Piketty’s book was how to understand the class dynamics of 19th century literature. The characters are always talking about their incomes, but never seem to be doing any work. Turns out that “in the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, the fact that land (like government bonds) yields roughly 5 percent of the amount of capital invested is so taken for granted that it often goes unmentioned. Contemporary readers were well aware that it took capital on the order of 1 million francs to produce an annual rent of 50,000 francs.”

One reason that they could be so certain about these numbers is because inflation wasn’t really part of the picture. Monetary stability lasted from the 18th century through World War I, when massive government borrowing combined with massive physical destruction to upend economic affairs. That’s the reason, Piketty says, that novelists aren’t specific about money anymore. He cites the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, whose novelist protagonist in Snow says “there is nothing more tiresome for a novelist than to speak about money or discuss last year’s prices and incomes.”

The exception, I suppose, would be Persuasion, where Captain Wentworth is able to amass a fortune by capturing French ships. But once he does so, he settles down, buys land and makes investments, and joins the rentier class.

The self-made man is the exception rather than the rule, however, as Piketty illustrates through his use of Balzac’s Pere Goriot:

The Balzac novel that Piketty draws on most is the tale of an entrepreneur who makes a fortune in the lucrative pasta business in revolutionary France, before cashing out—”much in the manner of a twenty-first-century startup founder exercising his stock options”—to invest his wealth and give his daughters a substantial enough inheritance that they can marry well.

Was this obsession with inherited wealth just a byproduct of writerly envy from Balzac, who was perpetually in debt from failed business ventures? Not necessarily—Piketty’s data shows that inherited wealth was about 20% of national income in the France of that time. This created a nasty situation where it was impossible to work enough to match what one could earn with inheritance. In Le Père Goriot, this is made explicit through an ambitious young man, Rastignac, who comes to understand that no matter how long he works as a lawyer, he will never have the fortune he could gain by marrying a wealthy heiress.

What does that mean in practice? A society where the main standard of success is earning 20, 50, or even 100 times the average annual income. Similar standards are found in the pages of Britain’s Jane Austen, but also in the US: In Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, a key plot point revolves around an engagement broken off when the dowry is only 20 times the average income, rather than 60. “It was perfectly obvious,” Piketty writes, “that without a fortune it was impossible to live a dignified life.”

It’s worth noting that Balzac was Karl Marx’s favorite novelist. Although Balzac was a monarchist—note how he added the “de” to his name to mimic nobility—Marx said he learned more about how capitalism works from the novelist that he did from the leading economists of the day. Truth trumps ideology in the hands of a great artist. Piketty shares Marx’s admiration of the reactionary novelist.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Balzac (Honoré de), James (Henry), Pamuk (Orhan) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Children’s Hour, Pros and Cons

Eastman Johnson, "Christmas Time"

Eastman Johnson, “Christmas Time”

Over the weekend I got to wrestle on the living room floor with my two-year-old grandson Alban. As I did so, I flashed on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Children’s Hour.”

This 1863 lyric was a popular favorite for decades, one of those poems that children were regularly required to memorize. I encountered it first when my father read it to me as a child, and my second encounter was when I saw Don Martin’s Mad Magazine spoof of it. Martin, of course, took shots at its sentimentality.

But Mad wasn’t the first publication to question “The Children’s Hour.” Lillian Hellman in 1934 played off against the poem by using its title for her own play about a disaffected girl in a boarding school. In order to avoid being sent back to the school, she accuses two of her teachers of having a lesbian love affair, thereby destroying their lives. In other words, so much for the innocence of little girls.

The problem with oversentimentalizing children is that it doesn’t do justice to their full personhood. When one has rigid expectations of what innocence is supposed to look like, one doesn’t give children room to breathe. I get a sense of suffocation when the narrator of Longfellow’s poem talks of trapping his three daughters, even though the trap is “the round tower of my heart”? That image, it is worth noting, follows up a genuinely disturbing image of Bishop Hatto being eaten alive by the mice that invaded the tower where he was hoarding grain from the starving peasants. I wonder if some part of Longfellow doesn’t feel nervous about how vulnerable children make him feel.

But that being said, I felt no cynical distance when I was wrestling with Alban. Instead, “The Children’s Hour” affected me as Longfellow no doubt intended. I was totally sentimental. Here’s the poem:

The Children’s Hour

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Between the dark and the daylight,
     When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
     That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
     The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
     And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
     Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
     And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
     Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
    To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
     A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
     They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
    O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
     They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
     Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
     In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
     Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
     Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
     And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
     In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
     Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
     And moulder in dust away!

One other thought: We had a party for two-year-olds yesterday afternoon and I recalled another association I had for “the children’s hour” when my own were small. Successful though the party was, at around 5 all the children began to get tired and to melt down. Each parent there recognized the signs.

Julia and I used to call this “the arsenic hour” although I can’t remember why. Maybe it was because our children seemed poisonous to us at those moments. Or maybe it was because we thought that only arsenic would quiet them. At these moments, sentimental poems about children seem a mockery and one resorts to gallows humor to survive.

I once hypothesized that child cuteness, starting with those large eyes, is a biological defense mechanism to protect children from the parents who they are preventing from sleeping and who are crazed with fatigue.

Of course, the nice thing about being a grandparent is that you get to pass the child back to the parents when he or she starts acting up. You can wrestle with them to your heart’s content. Someone else gets up in the middle of the night.

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A Divine Stairway of Sharp Angles

William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake, “Jacob’s Ladder”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Old Testament reading in our church is about Jacob’s ladder, the dream vision that Jacob receives from God about his future. Denise Levertov uses the story to describe how poetry is composed.

First, here’s the account in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19a):

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.

In Levertov’s 1961 poem, the stairway is the transcendent poem. It must be built of the tool we have, which is imperfect language. Rather than directly expressing radiant and evanescent angels, the poet must deal with sharp angles. The doubting night gray of the sky testifies to the challenge he or she faces.

It is a theme in much of Levertov’s poetry, however, that struggling in the face of doubt is how we experience the divine. Men may not be angels and the rocks we use for building may scrape our feet.  Nevertheless, just as Jacob, his head pillowed on a rock, sees a stairway to heaven, so does our rock have “a glowing tone of softness.” The poet feels the light brush of angel wings and the poem ascends:

The Jacob’s Ladder

By Denise Levertov

The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels’ feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.

I pick up at least two other poems that Levertov may be alluding to. In “The Altar,” George Herbert talks about the paradox of a hard stone altar being a means of opening a hard heart to God. (See my post on “The Altar” here.)

A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.

The other is Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which has an image of a ladder. The poet laments the end of his youthful romanticism, which once gave him marvelous poetic images (his circus animals). Now, however, he feels trapped in his own grimy and mundane reality.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. 

The miracle is that, out of this unpromising material, Yeats constructs the ladder that is his poem. For those of you wrestling with your doubts about whether transcendence exists, you can look to the miraculous existence of poetry and be reassured.

Posted in Herbert (George), Levertov (Denise), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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

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