The Making of a Literary Meal

Cover art by Sue Johnson

Cover art by Sue Johnson

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

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

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

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

Sunday Dinner

By Lucille Clifton

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

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

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

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

Family, Secrets, and Food

Blueberry Muffins and Rites of Passage

Beans and Rice, the Taste of Home

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Hillary Will Be Cast as a Witch

Garland, Hamilton in "The Wizard of Oz"

Garland, Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 Other Wizard of Oz posts

Sarah Palin as Dorothy

Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

Oklahoma Tornado Recalls Dorothy’s

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Earth Day: Please Brake for Woolly Bears

woolly bear

Earth Day

In honor of the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m sharing one of my father’s poems from his ABC of Radical Ecology. Scott Bates, a remarkably tenderhearted man, was the ultimate “I brake for animals” environmentalist. Once, to his delight, he came across a road sign in the Smokey Mountains cautioning motorists to watch out for woolly bear caterpillars crossing the road.

That sign may have been the inspiration for “B Brakes for Butterflies.” In the spirit of Earth Day, it reminds us to pay attention to even nature’s smallest denizens. Or as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner puts it,

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

One note on the following poem: I couldn’t arrange it typographically but the “B” in the third stanza should be lying on its back. The poem could be titled “Bates Brakes for Butterflies.”

B Brakes for Butterflies

By Scott Bates

And diamonded with panes of quaint device
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes
As are the Tiger Moths’ deep-damasked wings
                                                    John Keats

B brakes for butterflies because
butterflies are too beautiful to know not
to trust people

Somebody has to look out for them

Once when B was lying bare-bottomed in the sun
a butterfly landed on one of his back bumpers

Butterflies haven’t developed a healthy terror of
Civilization with its bounteous blessings
unlike other beasts
whose motto is
“If it looks (smells or sounds) like a human being
beat it”

They like to play tag in the middle of dusty mountain roads

B even serves for wooly bears bumbling along
like fur-bearing freight trains indomitably
across the burning pavement in their bare feet
although B knows they cause plant damage
he thinks they have enough enemies already
and some may grow up to be
deep-damasked Tiger Moths

Monarch butterflies flutter by in September from
                                             kingdoms in the north
on their own imperial wave-lengths
They dance after the sun like runaway stained-glass windows
They are on pilgrimage to the high forests of the Sierra Madre

B thinks that one way
not to possess beauty
is to smash it up on the highway

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A Fatal Diagnosis, an Almost Ghost

Konstantin Flavitsky, "The Death of the Princess Tarakanoff"

Konstantin Flavitsky, “The Death of the Princess Tarakanoff”

At the beginning of the year, I lost a great colleague and superb teacher—Andy Kozak in our economics department—to lung cancer. Now, at the end of the year, another dear friend, this time in the English Department, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Three weeks ago nothing seemed to be wrong, then she began suffering from fluid build-up, and now this awful news.

I still haven’t processed the development and want to inhabit a dream-like state of ignorance. I take this image from a Lucille Clifton poem about her husband’s lung cancer diagnosis. Written on the five-year anniversary, Clifton sounds as though she has been sleeping and doesn’t want to awaken to the awful memory. Or maybe she’s writing the poem late on the eve of the anniversary, after midnight, anticipating what the next day has in store for her.

Fred Clifton, who didn’t smoke, died of the cancer, and, as with my colleague, the news came out of nowhere. The date of the diagnosis is etched forever in Lucille’s mind:

4/25/89 late

By Lucille Clifton
(f. diagnosed w. cancer 4/25/84)

when i awake
the time will have jerked back
into five years ago,
the sea will
not be this one,
you will run
under a grayer sky
wearing that green knit cap
we laughed about
and, sweating home again
after your run, all fit
and well and safe, you will
prepare to meet that
stethoscopic group
and hear yourself pronounced
an almost ghost.

I assume the stethoscopic group is a reference to the doctors. The impersonal designation suggests that they could just as well be the three fates, who issue inexorable decrees. Blind to the tiny details that make up life—details that include silly green knit caps—the doctors transform, by their declaration, someone who appears vibrant and alive into “an almost ghost.”

I think Lucille wrote the poem when she was a poet at the University of Santa Cruz. Five years earlier, she and Fred would have been in Baltimore, where he was a professor at Johns Hopkins. Fred might well have been jogging in sight of the Chesapeake, a different sea and a grayer environment than sunny California. Lucille knows that, as soon as she opens her eyes, she will be jerked back to that fateful day.

When I saw my ailing colleague on Thursday, we joked about our courses and she commented on how much better she was feeling since they had drained the fluid from her lungs. I fought to keep from thinking of her as an almost ghost. I thought I succeeded but now I think I was just in denial.

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Why Read Lit? Let Me Count the Reasons

Auguste de Chatillon, "Léopoldine Reading the Book of Hours" (1835)

Auguste de Chatillon, “Léopoldine Reading the Book of Hours” (1835)

I’ve got three weeks until my sabbatical and can hardly wait to plunge into my next book project. You won’t be surprised to learn that it will be about the interaction between readers and texts.

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz has given me a good question to focus my efforts: “Why is literature essential to people?” Although literature is very obviously important to me, Rachel’s question prompts me to ask why I should insist that others read it. What can I promise them if they pick up the classics and what should I warn them about if they don’t? Today’s post is an initial response to Rachel’s question.

If you ask authors about the importance of literature, they sometimes become equivocal. I suspect that’s because they’re worried about banging their own drum too loudly or appearing pompous. Take, for instance, an interchange that appears in Nicole Krauss’s fine novel Great House, which I posted on recently. An author who has become famous makes fun of the question but for reasons that are complicated:

I made a point of answering the question I received with some frequency from journalists, Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you could write could mean anything to anyone?), with a little airtight thought experiment in which I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind, his mind and soul, and as the journalist contemplated this nuclear winter I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth.

The truth the author is avoiding has to do with issues her failure to nurture meaningful relationships. She has sacrificed her men to her writing and is now starting to have second thoughts. But that being acknowledged, I think she’s right. Nuclear winter seems an accurate analogy of life without literature.

The importance of literature is not self-evident, however, in that many non-readers appear to live lives that don’t resemble nuclear winters. In a well-known passage from his poem “Asphodel,” however, William Carlos Williams tells us not to be fooled by outer appearance:

My heart rouses
           thinking to bring you news
            of something
that concerns you
            and concerns many men. Look at
                        what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
            despised poems.
                        It is difficult
to get the news from poems
            yet men die miserably every day
                        for lack
of what is found there.

Nuclear winter, men dying miserably—is that enough to get people reading? Or perhaps the analogies sound hyperbolic and we should spell out the situation with every day examples.

“We are more than our hunger,” Mary Oliver writes in a lovely poem about frogs in April, and literature acknowledges this and gives us language to articulate what the “more” is. Without literature we would be trapped in tiny little mental boxes. We would see no more than what enters through our senses, we would feel suffocated by the world of “what is.” Our lives would seem so bleak that we would thrash around in fear and anger. Or at least be quietly desperate.

Putting this positively, literature makes us realize that the world is much bigger and richer than we ever imagined. To borrow a word invented by Lisa in The Simpsons, literature embiggens us. The possibilities of language and people that we encounter in literature appear to have no limits.

Of course, many people don’t read literature, just as many people thrash around in fear and anger. Sure, they know that they need stories, which they devour in a never-ending stream on television and elsewhere. But to distinguish between vapid wish fulfillments and genuine literature, consuming the first is like stuffing yourself with sugar and saturated fats. You don’t starve to death but your health takes a beating and maybe eventually you will in fact die miserably.

Even people who don’t read literature, however, benefit when people around them do, just as one might feel bolstered by the local church bells, even though one never goes to church. They have a sense that there is a bigger reality out there, even if they don’t think they have direct access to it.

Except that they do have access. Shakespeare’s “Let us not to the marriage of true mind admit impediments” has a way of showing up in the weddings of even non-literary couples. The magnificent King James translation of King David’s 23rd psalm does the same in funerals.

So simply being aware of literature has some good effects. The question then becomes, how much better do you want your life to be? Maybe my book, which will talk about how to use literature to its maximum effect, is equivalent to a fitness instructor. Sure you’ll help your body if you take an occasional walk, but if you really want to extend your life and live a relatively ache-free old age, you’ll work out. Or engage in disciplined close readings.

And now let me throw throw something else into the mix, knowing, as I do, that there are people who, though well-read, still feel claustrophobically caught within their own minds. I don’t think it’s enough just to read, wonderful though that is. You have to act upon what you read.

I am reminded when I say this of the Archangel Michael’s words in the closing stanzas of Paradise Lost. Adam has just learned about the immensity of God’s love for humankind and is feeling better about getting kicked out of Eden. Michael, however, tells him that it’s not enough just to know things. Our subsequent deeds must be “answerable” to our knowledge—which is to say we must act upon the higher wisdom we have attained and become better people. As Michael sees it, this means that Adam must add faith, virtue, patience, temperance and love to his life:

                                                                 [O]nly add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come called Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath 
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

How’s that for an incentive? If we behave and act upon the wisdom we find in books, we shall possess a Paradise within that far surpasses even the Garden of Eden.

It’s as though, when we enter a work of literature, we are on the hero’s quest as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll more fully explore this idea in a future post but today I focus on the “elixir” that the hero sets out to find, whether it be an amulet, a holy grail, or some other purifying symbol. Think of this as the special wisdom that one finds in a literary classic.

It is not enough, Campbell tells us, for the hero to find the elixir. He (or she) must then return to the world and share it with all humankind. This sharing is why we were put on this earth. The hero who doesn’t cross the return threshold is a failure.

So why read literature? Because you will find there treasures that are not only essential to your own well being but to the well being of the whole world. Upon your subsequent return to the barren wasteland, you will cause the water to flow again. Even those who don’t read will be able to drink.

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The Quiet Mystery Returns


Spiritual Sunday

Denise Levertov knows well how to describe the thousand distractions that separate us from God. In “Primary Wonder” she imagines them as courtiers and jesters, jostling for her attention in a crowded antechamber.

And then she is overwhelmed by the wonder of God’s “quiet mystery,” at which point “the throng’s clamor recedes.” It’s amazing enough, she says, that we aren’t confronted by a void when we examine our lives. On top of that, there is “cosmos, joy, memory, everything.” And there is also You, God, keeping it all going.

Thank you.

Primary Wonder

By Denise Levertov

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
                                                        And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

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In Praise of the Liberal Arts

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "A Reading from Homer" (1885)

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “A Reading from Homer” (1885)

It’s always heartening when political commentators in major newspapers sing the praises of literature. Nicolas Kristof, famous for traveling all over the world and writing about its suffering, talked recently of the value of Homer, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Khaled Hosseini.

The article is about the values of a liberal arts education in today’s world. Kristof describes Homer as mandatory reading for those wrestling with tough ethical decisions, such as the ones encountered by companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google and by companies engaged in genetic engineering. Here’s Kristof describing the challenges:

We need people conversant with the humanities to help reach wise public policy decisions, even about the sciences. Technology companies must constantly weigh ethical decisions: Where should Facebook set its privacy defaults, and should it tolerate glimpses of nudity? Should Twitter close accounts that seem sympathetic to terrorists? How should Google handle sex and violence, or defamatory articles?

In the policy realm, one of the most important decisions we humans will have to make is whether to allow germline gene modification. This might eliminate certain diseases, ease suffering, make our offspring smarter and more beautiful. But it would also change our species. It would enable the wealthy to concoct superchildren. It’s exhilarating and terrifying.

Homer reminds us that we are not gods but human beings:

In The Odyssey, the beautiful nymph Calypso offers immortality to Odysseus if he will stay on her island. After a fling with her, Odysseus ultimately rejects the offer because he misses his wife, Penelope. He turns down godlike immortality to embrace suffering and death that are essential to the human condition.

Kristof also mentions a 2002 report from the President’s Council of Bioethics that quotes the Old Man and the Sea. The report draws on Hemingway as it sorts through the difficult ethics of embryo research, noting that embryos deserve a special moral respect that can be lost in routinized and corporate research—but that it is also possible “to have reverence for a life that one kills.” I tracked down the Hemingway allusion in the report:

As we have noted, many proponents of cloning-for-biomedical-research (and for embryo research more generally) do not deny that we owe the human embryo special moral respect. Indeed, they have wanted positively to affirm it. But we do not understand what it means to claim that one is treating cloned embryos with special respect when one decides to create them intentionally for research that necessarily leads to their destruction. This respect is allegedly demonstrated by limiting such research – and therefore limiting the numbers of embryos that may be created, used, and destroyed – to only the most serious purposes: namely, scientific investigations that hold out the potential for curing diseases or relieving suffering. But this self-limitation shows only that our purposes are steadfastly high-minded; it does not show that the means of pursuing these purposes are respectful of the cloned embryos that are necessarily violated, exploited, and destroyed in the process. To the contrary, a true respect for a being would nurture and encourage it toward its own flourishing.

It is, of course, possible to have reverence for a life that one kills. This is memorably displayed, for example, by the fisherman Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, who wonders whether it is a sin to kill fish even if doing so would feed hungry people. But it seems difficult to claim – even in theory but especially in practice – the presence of reverence once we run a stockyard or raise calves for veal – that is, once we treat the animals we kill (as we often do) simply as resources or commodities. In a similar way, we find it difficult to imagine that biotechnology companies or scientists who routinely engaged in cloning-for-biomedical-research would evince solemn respect for human life each time a cloned embryo was used and destroyed. Things we exploit even occasionally tend to lose their special value. It seems scarcely possible to preserve a spirit of humility and solemnity while engaging in routinized (and in many cases corporately competitive) research that creates, uses, and destroys them.

Finally, Kristof points out how literature nurtures a rich emotional intelligence that deepens our relationships with those around us, offering us “lessons in human nature that help us decode the world around us and be better friends.” He mentions three minority writes who have helped build “bridges of understanding”:

Toni Morrison has helped all America understand African-American life. Jhumpa Lahiri illuminated immigrant contradictions. Khaled Hosseini opened windows on Afghanistan.

Although Kristof’s column left me cheering, I’m still scratching my head over why he concludes it with a John Adams quote that partially contradicts his major point. Writing to Abigail in 1789, Adams seems to buy into certain stereotypes of poetry and the arts:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History and Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Unlike Adams, I think poetry should be taught at the beginning, not the end. The ancient Greeks, after all, taught The Iliad to young men so that they would become better citizens and warriors. Poetry wasn’t just a frill that one indulged in after others had done the heavy lifting in politics and war.

Still, Adams created a country where I get to read and teach poetry. I’m very grateful.

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Saving Princesses from the Marriage Plot


I’m reporting today on a senior thesis about “the princess story” that Emma Taylor is doing under my mentorship. Given the centuries-old fascination with princesses, it’s a worthwhile project.

Emma says that her project grew out of conflicted feelings. On the one hand, she grew up fascinated by princess stories and Disney princess movies. When she reached a certain age, however, she began worrying that they were were sending the wrong message. Was she being socialized into a desire for pretty looks, pretty clothes, and a life spent under the protective gaze of a dashing Prince Charming?

Drawing on Jack Zipes, the world’s foremost expert on fairy tales and author of The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films, Emma couldn’t deny that there was something to this fear:

A socio-historical analysis of the tales shows that they were specifically used as a model for civilizing young girls, for they were to be “gentle, pious, and good, and their beauty and happiness depend on their spiritual qualities…The only defense of these poor rich girls is their virtuous behavior, patience, and tenacity.” Most importantly, these girls are “rewarded” for their good breeding and virtue by “a higher power” from which they “regain their status in life through marriage to a prince.”

The idea that the princess story brainwashes young girls has been a staple of much feminist thinking. But Emma, who thinks of herself as “a staunch feminist,” wasn’t altogether ready to admit that her desires had been colonized by patriarchy or that the pleasure she finds in princess stories is entirely negative. Reenacting a 1980s debate when women worried about censoring their own desires, Emma set out to find out whether anything could be salvaged from her princess fixation.

She was struck by how the story seems to have been changing in recent years so that even Disney is making movies that don’t altogether conform to the princess marriage plot, most notably Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013). For that matter, even some of the princess stories from Emma’s childhood seem to chart an unconventional path, such as Gail Carson Levine’s Newbery Honor book Ella Enchanted (1997) and the Drew Barrymore film Ever After (1998).

Emma found Ella Enchanted to be so powerful that she broke character and stole it from her middle school library. A book with this kind of power, she now reasons, must be doing something more than simply indoctrinating young girls into consumer capitalism.

Ella has the misfortune to be given the gift of obedience by a well-wishing fairy whose charms invariably backfire. Thus Ella must obey any command she is given. The few people who know of the curse take advantage of it, and when Ella meets Prince Charm she realizes that she cannot marry him, even though they are in love. That’s because unscrupulous people could manipulate her to get to him. Luckily her selflessness breaks the spell and they do in fact live happily after.

As Emma interprets the book, the curse under which Ella labors is the very submissiveness that feminists fear is being inculcated into young girls by fairy tales. In a sense, the book attempts to rewrite the princess story while hanging on to the princess. The same is true of Ever After, where the princess saves the prince and fights her own duel; Brave, where the princess chooses archery and independence over a prince; and Frozen, where the defining theme song “Let It Go” is an unrestrained celebration of girl power:

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free.

Significantly, the movie was attacked by Fox commentators for “turning men into fools and villains.”

Going back in time, Emma has learned that even older versions of the Cinderella story aren’t as regressive as they appear to us. The Perrault version spoke to the oppression of certain downtrodden classes in the 17th century, and the 1950’s Disney version has a heroine who is far more proactive than, say, the 1937 Snow White. Since then, Disney princesses have been becoming feistier by the decade. In other words, Emma is picking up fine distinctions that can be overlooked when feminist theory is too broadly applied.

Fairy tales reflect the values of the societies that produced them so that marriage will figure as a major female drama for societies that define women in that way. Emma argues, however, that we should see the princess as an archetype for the potential within girls, not as a static social role.

Drawing on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Emma says the heroine should be seen as one embarked on a heroic quest. While that quest may once have been oriented towards marriage, that doesn’t have to remain the case. “Follow your bliss,” Campbell famously counseled people, and a blissful existence these days might include creating ice castles.

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Mourning the Death of “Captain” Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln’s death 150 years ago today led to a poem that ranks among America’s most beloved poems, alongwith Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” “Oh Captain! My Captain!” was so popular that Whitman concluded many of his public readings with it.

It is powerful in large part because of the stark contrast between the cheering multitudes and the grim reality. The poet denies what has happened for as long as he can—“It is some dream”—before finally acknowledging the truth. His “father” gave his all and sacrificed his life so that the victor ship could come in with object won. The “bleeding drops of red” are both Lincoln’s and (metaphorically) Whitman’s.

I have an unusual perspective on the poem. President Jimmy Carter presented it to Yugoslavia after Grand Marshal Tito died, which is why Slovenia chose to have it read when it celebrated the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in 1995. I was in Slovenia on a Fulbright at the time and was asked to read the poem to a national television audience.

It came at the end of a long ceremony. Along with five others—we represented the allied forces, each with a poem chosen for us—I stood on a platform 20 feet in the air. I read next to last, right before the Slovenian reader, and I belted out the lines. You can read about the entire affair here.

The danger with the poem, which I didn’t entirely avoid, is that it lends itself to over-dramatization. Then again, if you are mourning the death of America’s greatest president, it’s hard not to let it all go.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

By Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                        But O heart! heart! heart!
                          O the bleeding drops of red,
                             Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
                         Here Captain! dear father!
                            This arm beneath your head!
                               It is some dream that on the deck,
                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

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How to View Prejudice in the Classics

LaShun Beal, "Deep in Thought"

LaShun Beal, “Deep in Thought”

Yesterday a New Yorker columnist tackled the thorny question of racism in classic literature. Elif Batuman, who is Turkish American, lists Turkish stereotypes she has noticed over the years, including in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Turkish women as exotics), The Brothers Karamazov (Turks as torturers), Heidi (a mean goat is nicknamed “The Old Turk”), and Pantagruel (Turks as cannibals).

As it turns out, I read the article after watching a smart first-year student violently react to Milton’s description of Eve in Paradise Lost. It is understandable why someone coming into her own in college would be taken aback by the following depiction:

 …though both 
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive Grace,
He for God only, she for God in him…

And by this one:

She as a veil down to the slender waste
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Disheveled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.

And then there’s this conversation with Adam:

To whom thus Eve replied. O thou for whom
And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head…

Batuman says that, despite her discomfort with objectionable passages in the classics, her normal impulse has always been to give them a historical pass:

To feel personally insulted when reading old books struck me as provincial, against the spirit of literature. For the purposes of reading an English novel from 1830, I thought, you had to be an upper-class white guy from 1830. You had to be a privileged person, because books always were written by and for privileged people. Today, I was a privileged person, as I was frequently told at the private school my parents scrimped to send me to; someday, I would write a book. In the meantime, Rabelais was dead, so why hold a grudge?

She has changed her mind, however, since seeing the revival of a forgotten 1859 play. Now she imagines a different response: let yourself be stimulated by the clash of value systems.

Irish writer Dion Boucicault wrote The Octoroon two years before the Civil War and it manages to contain both racial stereotypes and progressive ideas. For instance, it is pro-love, anti-lynching, and anti-anti-miscegenation. Furthermore, it has been produced and partially rewritten by the African American playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, leading Batuman to wonder,

What do you do with your mixed feelings toward a text that treats as stage furniture the most grievous and unhealed insult in American history—especially when you belong to the insulted group?

The result, if one frames a work as well as Jacobs-Jenkins frames Octoroon, can be “a work of joy and exasperation and anger that transmutes historical insult into artistic strength.”

So yes, we can decry Milton’s longing for a sweet and submissive wife, even as we also admire his three-dimensional Eve later in the poem, especially when she pushes through Adam’s anger and talks him down from his despair. We can give Milton credit for articulating a new vision of marriage—man and wife as partners—even if they are not as equal as we would like. Let’s not forget their lovely scene of lovemaking in their “blissful bower,” which was controversial at the time. And we can also be inspired by the way they leave Eden hand in hand, prepared to face the vast new world together. Our mixed reactions to Milton are part of the fun.

Reading books from the past calls upon us to read stereophonically, with different speakers in our brain picking up the different tracks. A model for me is Mr. Ramsay reading Sir Walter Scott’s Antiquary in To the Lighthouse.

Although a famous author and critic, Mr. Ramsay is extremely sensitive and feels defensive when one of his students makes a slighting reference to Scott, dismissing him as out-of-date,. Mr. Ramsay rereads his beloved author and notes that, although Scott is indeed old-fashioned, he also retains his power. One part of Mr. Ramsay’s mind is enmeshed in the plot, which brings him to tears, while another part contextualizes the novel:

[H]e went on reading. His lips twitched. It filled him. It fortified him. He clean forgot all the little rubs and digs of the evening, and how it bored him unutterably to sit still while people ate and drank interminably, and his being so irritable with his wife and so touchy and minding when they passed his books over as if they didn’t exist at all. But now, he felt, it didn’t matter a damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it–if not he, then another. This man’s [Scott’s] strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit’s cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears. Raising the book a little to hide his face, he let them fall and shook his head from side to side and forgot himself completely (but not one or two reflections about morality and French novels and English novels and Scott’s hands being tied but his view perhaps being as true as the other view), forgot his own bothers and failures completely in poor Steenie’s drowning and Mucklebackit’s sorrow (that was Scott at his best) and the astonishing delight and feeling of vigor that it gave him.

In short, we should neither throw classics on the ash heap of history nor treat them as idols beyonds human reach. Literature is most human when we wrestle with the authors, holding them accountable but acknowledging that they a lot more than we do and letting them move us to tears. The great works, including Paradise Lost, will survive the scrum.

Posted in Lawrence (D. H.), Milton (John), Rabelais (Francois), Woolf (Virginia) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Fantasy Saves Our Souls

Freeman in "The Hobbit"

Freeman in “The Hobbit”

I have been reading essay proposals from my American Fantasy class so today’s post is designed to help my students with the theory portion of their papers. Feel free to read along as well.

At its core, fantasy stands in opposition to prevailing visions of reality. If that prevailing vision is politically repressive, fantasy may become subversive. If that prevailing vision limits what people can see or imagine, fantasy opens up the mind.

I ascribe for the most part to fantasy scholar Ryan Mathews’s view that the literary fantasy of the past 200+ years sets itself up in opposition to the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution, all of which banished magic and supernaturalism to the shadows. Tolkienesque “high fantasy” is particularly antagonistic to these historical developments, which is why it opts for medieval technology. As Mathews puts it, literary fantasy

reawaken[s] imaginative faculties too long accustomed to control and command of the natural and created world, too long dominated and ruled by human reason.

Fantasy, of course, goes back to when the first human beings told stories around the fire. In earlier times, however, Mathews says that people used fantasy

to cast the infinite in finite terms, to translate overwhelming and eternal forces into down-to-earth language and physical presences, to use the imagination and the containment, or expression, of words to control and comprehend the overwhelming forces.

We can see both uses of fantasy operating in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (1988), which I wrote about recently. On the one hand, we see Chippewa Indians drawing on ancient myths, as they always have, to negotiate the world’s challenges, even though the myths change with changing circumstances. One Native American scholar (I’ll note his name once I relocate it) tracks the various social functions that the figure of the novel’s Lake Man has played over the past 700 years. Whereas once he was a demon figure who functioned to protect the lake (and therefore the tribe) from overfishing, in Erdrich’s fiction he becomes a spirit guide:

Tracks retells the flood-earth diver myth, reinterpreting Micipijiu’s traditional role as game boss to that of a spirit helper who will empower Fleur, and thus the Chippewa, in the struggle against cultural destruction and the effort to keep reservation land—the most precious commodity of any twentieth-century American Indian tribe—away from those who, like the wolf of earlier myth, greedily seek it for themselves alone.

On the other hand, Erdrich herself is very much a part of the new world and writes magical realism in her own battle with modernity. In her case, because of the embattled status of Native American culture, she makes explicit what in Tolkien is implicit. Tolkien implies a battle with the 20th century, seeing his own world in Saruman’s engines as he predicts that Middle Earth will come to an end. Erdrich, on the other hand, shows the battle directly, with old storyteller Nanapush drawing on the old stories to battle against government taxes and a blizzard of regulations. Erdrich is like Tolkien, however, in that she fantasizes about an older belief system that is less sterile and bleached out than the modern world.

But Mathews’s distinction between older and more recent fantasy doesn’t entirely work. A number of fantasy classics also stand in opposition to official reality. For example, Euripides in The Bacchae (405 BCE) sees Dionysus as a force pushing against an authoritarian insistence upon order and social propriety. Pentheus may believe in Zeus, who confirms his desire for strict regulation, but he doesn’t pay proper obeisance to this wild nature god who possesses the city’s women and sends them dancing into the hills.

In the 14th century, meanwhile, we see the mystical Celtic green man transformed into the Green Knight as he challenges a sexually repressive and nature-denying Christianity. And in 17th century Spain, Don Quixote is in rebellion against his age’s cutting edge technology, whether in the form of windmills, mass produced books, or seemingly self-propelled ships. In all of these instances, the realm of the marvelous is pushing against an overly circumscribed reality.

Returning to the present, it is clear that fantasists like Ursula LeGuin, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman are in full revolt against post-industrial capitalism, with its ability to shape mass opinion and homogenize everything that it touches. What draws my students to fantasy is largely an urge to hold on to something precious within. Instinctively, they are resisting what passes for reality

Posted in Cervantes (Miguel de), Erdrich (Louise), Euripides, Sir Gawain Poet, Tolkien (J.R.R.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Touching the Wounded God

Michael Smither, "Doubting Thomas"

Michael Smither, “Doubting Thomas”

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, particularly beloved by all who have experienced his doubts and longed for the reassurance of concrete evidence. Here’s the story as John tells it:

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:24-29)

Anglican poet Malcolm Guite has an interesting take on the story. Calling Thomas the “courageous master of the awkward question” and “father of my faith,” he sees him cutting through evasion and abstraction. Rather than seconding Jesus in his admonition that “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe,” Guite celebrates the seeing and the touching.

In doing so, he chooses the world-embracing rather than the world-denying tradition of Christianity. Many of the most “touching” moments in the Gospels occur when Jesus physically touches people, applying mud to a blind man’s eyes or washing the feet of his disciples. The poet notes that Jesus’s instructions are to continue his mission of touching. When we “reach out” to other people in the name of Jesus, we touch Jesus:

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.

Here’s the poem:

A Sonnet for St. Thomas the Apostle

By Malcolm Guite

We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

Reading the poem gets me to rethink Jesus’s initial encounter with Mary Magdalene a few verses earlier. At that moment touching is denied her:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:17).

Joyous although the moment is, I can imagine Mary being frustrated that she can’t take Jesus in her arms. After all, it is the touching and eating that makes the disciples’ later breakfast on the beach with Jesus seem so intimate (Luke 24:37-43):

[The disciples] were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

When the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, we can’t then simply ignore the flesh. If God so loved the world that He gave us his only begotten son, then we can love this world as well. Or as Guite puts it,

We cannot love some disembodied wraith
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

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The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

Lake Oroville, California

Lake Oroville, California

Is the California drought finally awakening—or more accurately, reawakening–the GOP to the reality of climate change? According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, “climate change deniers are in retreat.”

No so much in retreat, unfortunately, that they plan to stop resisting President Obama’s attempts to decrease coal emissions. Not so much that they will embrace the carbon swap legislation that was once a Republican idea. But at least most of those who will be running for president no longer sound quite so disbelieving.

My father was very concerned about global warming, and in the past I’ve shared his poems about how we are destroying the earth. Today I post one of his fables which, while it doesn’t address the issue directly, can be made to apply.

That’s because it posits a contrast that Californians especially will appreciate: we witness a struggle between the “green and naked body” of a mystical, life-affirming river and “the great black bloated Sun.” As the fable plays itself out, the water lily is enamored with the powerful sun, which we can associate with science and technology. Little does it realize that “the flush of April rain” is central to its continued existence.

When the river and the sun are in balance, all can live happily together, a ménage a trois. But by taking our water, and our atmosphere, for granted, we are rapidly squandering an irreplaceable gift.

The River the Sun and the Water Lily

By Scott Bates

A River once loved a Water Lily
Of all the Lillies she loved but one
Enfolding her green and naked body
In the flush of the April rain
     She had her in her blood
     But the Lily loved the Sun

The River slept with the Water Lily
Where Cattails flogged the senile Moon
Till their Capuchin shadows danced black masses
Between the Cypress knees
     Till the Limpkin shrieked at dawn
     And the Lily stretched in the Sun

And then they got drunk on the April weather
In the marsh together ménage a trois
And the River lay on her back and shivered

With fever etc.
     While the Lily played with a Water Spider
     And laughed and laughed at the Sun

The River died with the Water Lily
Of all the Lilies she died with one
When the Sun in heat destroyed the marshes
Her blood was turned to stone
     And he saw what he had done
     The great black bloated Sun


Other Scott Bates poems on environmental devastation

Koch Inc: Oligarchs of Order and Ordure

Everyperson’s Environmental E-Car

Mama Grizzly vs. Real Grizzlies

An Environmentalist’s Revenge Fantasy

Dr. Dolittle vs. the Oil Spill: A Fantasy

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

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Whitman’s Poem a Lesson for War Hawks

Union field hospital in Savage Station, Virginia

Union field hospital in Savage Station, Virginia

The American Civil War, which claimed the lives of more Americans than all other wars combined, ended 150 years ago today. As Senator Tom Cotton and other politicians breezily recommend bombing Iran, I recommend reading Walt Whitman’s “The Wound-Binder.”

Whitman begins his poem by imagining himself recounting his Civil War experiences to children in some distant future. Though they will want to hear about “hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous,” he will instead tell them about war’s victims.

The poem in this way reminds me of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” the phrase coming from Horace’s “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” Like Whitman, Owen graphically describes the wounded—in this case the victim of a gas attack—in order to open the eyes of children “ardent for some desperate glory.” It’s clear to me that Owen knew Whitman’s poem:

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.

In Whitman’s case, the qualifiers come in his parenthetical comments. He admits that he himself once had war fever before resigning himself “to sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.” Rather than applauding only his own side, he sees all the wounded soldiers as worthy of respect:

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

Whitman begins Section 2 with a soldier’s adrenaline rush as he charges the enemy. It then moves, however, to war’s tragic aftermath, even as “the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on.” Soldiers may initially feel exhilarated as they “enter the captur’d works,” but this moment fades quickly (like a swift running river) and one is left with the poet entering hospital doors bearing “the bandages, water, and sponge.” When one soldier turns his anguished eyes to Whitman, the poet says that he would die in his place if he could:

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)
But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

Section 3 is filled with descriptions of crushed heads, amputated hands, and gangrenous wounds. “O beautiful death! In mercy come quickly,” Whitman says at one point. This section especially should be required reading for all war hawks:

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)

In the final section, Whitman sees himself returning to these men in his dreams. Crucifixion imagery, found throughout the poem, appears in the final lines as Whitman describes crossed arms and a kiss. The poet is infused with a Christ-like sympathy and love for suffering humanity:

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

Gaze upon these sights, you masters of war, before you rush headlong into another one.

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America, a Land in Perpetual Search

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

Yesterday I wrote about how, in American Gods, fantasist Neil Gaiman detects a thirst for violence within the American psyche. His book ends with a victory over bloody paroxysms, however. The question is whether the ending is itself just a fantasy or whether it is a viable model for action. Does Gaiman provide genuine insight into how to save the American republic?

As I see it, through his protagonist he shows us that we should face up to our fears and evasions, turn our back on shallow wish fulfillments, and follow our higher instincts, which may take the form of mythic guides. These guides can can come from our various faith and folk traditions:

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you…

Among Gaiman’s gods are American legends, who arose because they fed some deep need. Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan make appearances.

Gaiman cautions, however, that one must listen to these guides intelligently and with full awareness. Don’t be pulled in by blind devotion because abdication of personal responsibility only leads to more violence.

“Shadow” is so called because he follows the lead of others, a shadow. If, in Yeats’ famous poem (which Gaiman quotes), the worst are filled with passionate intensity while the best lack all conviction, Shadow is among the best. The ghost of his dead girlfriend tells him he is not truly alive, but at least he is a sympathetic soul who has integrity and cares for others. In other words, he, like America, has potential, even though he also has a lot of work to do.

For a while, he is reactive rather than proactive. As the chauffeur of the Norse god Odin, he simply does what he is told. For a few months he lives a routine existence in an idyllic 1950s-style town where everything seems to be perfect.

None of this, however, is truly living, and there are many signs of trouble. As I noted yesterday, one source of America’s violence may be a disconnect between deep spiritual longing and the materialistic culture upon which it has to operate. People seek out places that seem to be vaguely spiritual—say, Rock City or Mount Rushmore—and leave dissatisfied. They want to find something to believe in and come up empty.

The hunger seems related to identity confusion. Odin at one point observes that America

is the only country in the world that worries about what it is…The rest of them know what they are. No one needs to go dsearching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.

The longing for certainty and stability can lead to devil’s bargains. In the case of the ideal town, their gated existence relies on sacrificing a young person each year. It is a version of what we ourselves do when we send young people off to war to protect us or sacrifice their future for our present convenience.

I’ve seen the identity confusion and the spiritual hunger in my students. It was particularly evident following the attacks of 9-11, when many felt that they knew who they were and what their lives meant for the first time. I saw it again during Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency, when genuine participatory democracy seemed possible again. But the newly discovered idealism of 9-11 patriots was cynically exploited to launch the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and the poetry of Obama’s “hope and change” slid inevitably into the prose of actually governing. When the glow wears off, people find themselves thrown again into doubt.

Gaiman advises us to take full stock of our existence and then venture out without illusion and without thinking that we have control. After his boss dies, Shadow decides that he will stop drifting and will instead undertake an extreme vigil, somewhat like a Native American vision quest. He wants to learn what there is to learn from being tested.

He gets the message that, if he is to find meaning in the world, it is up to him to make it. Neither fidelity to the old gods nor submission to consumer capitalism can offer him anything worthwhile. America is bigger than our conceptions of it and all we can do is make our way to the best of our abilities. As Shadow tells the contending forces of old gods and modernity,

You know, I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.

And as he himself is told by “the buffalo man,” a Native American spirit who stands in for “the land,”

You did well… You made peace. You took our words and made them your own.

There’s still a lot about Gaiman’s book that I don’t understand but he seems to be saying that Americans will always be in search, always dreaming. We can never know ultimately who we are, which makes the road novel the quintessential American genre.

Our challenge is to be at peace with this lack of certainty. Some freak out and become destructive whenever they encounter ambiguity. They believe they must force themselves and others into one mold.

They should consider instead Shadow’s final gesture, which points towards infinite possibility because Shadow is okay with an indefinite and an unknown future:

He tossed the [gold] coin into the air with a flick of his thumb.

It spun golden at the top of its arc, in the sunlight, and it glittered and glinted and hung there in the midsummer sky as if it was never going to come down. Maybe it never would. Shadow didn’t wait to see. He walked away and he kept on walking.

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A Fantasy about U.S. Thirst for War

American Gods

I’ve been stunned at the way that neoconservatives, ignoring the lessons of the Iraq invasion, appear determined to instigate a war with Iran. Experts are saying that the current framework, negotiated with Iran by the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, and France, is far better than anyone could have anticipated. Nevertheless, the GOP and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu are doing all they can to sabotage it, even as they refuse to suggest any credible alternatives. If the sabotage were to work, our partners would in all likelihood abandon the sanctions and Iran would go back to developing the bomb. Everyone would be worse off.

Currently America’s far right, in matters both domestic and foreign, has all but abandoned compromise, negotiation, and, for that matter, subtlety. Whether dealing with our enemies, our allies, the president, Democrats, or the GOP’s moderate wing, their default mode is attack. Republican right-wingers seem more interested in Armageddon than responsible governing.

A fantasy novel has helped me better understand why an American political faction would behave this way. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), which has become an instant fantasy classic, detects a strain of nihilistic violence within the American republic. Gaiman moved to the United States in 1992 and his book reads very much like an immigrant trying to figure out the new land he inhabits. He seems to be attribute America’s anger to the failure of its new religion, which is to say the worship of material goods and technological advancement, to provide genuine spiritual sustenance.

The American gods in the title have been brought over by the different immigrant groups, only to be abandoned shortly thereafter. “This is a bad land for gods,” we are told repeatedly. In Gaiman’s fantasy, the gods don’t entirely die out but live a marginal existence. It seems only a matter of time, however, before America’s current gods, which include Internet, Media, and Car, wipe them out. American Gods is a road novel and Shadow, the novel’s protagonist, wanders through the landscape looking for meaning. He also serves as Odin’s driver.

Odin doesn’t want to go down quietly and is urging all the other gods to join him in a grand showdown. In such a confrontation, the old gods won’t stand a chance, but it seems to them a better option than getting picked off one by one, as is the current situation. The final battlefield occurs in Rock City, Tennessee, one of those places that feel vaguely sacred to Americans. As Odin explains it to Shadow,

Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

Thematically Gaiman is making the point that America’s materialistic culture is wiping out any deeper spirituality, even though the longings are there. In fact, this seems like such an inevitable process that one of the new gods—a fat boy representing the Internet—asks why there has to be a confrontation at all. Won’t the old gods just naturally fade away?

As it turns out, however, Odin is playing a double game in conjunction with Loki. He doesn’t need the old gods to win. He just wants a lot of carnage, which he will feed off of and return in all his glory. A cult of violence is one old religion that many Americans could imagine joining. Here’s Odin, temporarily dead, explaining:

[T]he battle will bring [Loki] back. As the battle will bring me back for good. I’m a ghost and he’s a corpse, but we’ve still won. The game was rigged.

Shadow intervenes to stop the battle, explaining to the gods about Odin and Loki’s plot. As you read his words, think of those people and those forces in American politics that urge perpetual confrontation. Although many of them claim to be Christian and a few of them Jewish (William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz come to mind), what really energizes them is the god of war:

There was a god who came here from a far land, and whose power and influence waned as belief in him faded. He was a god who took his power from sacrifice, and from death, and especially from war. The deaths of those who fell in war were dedicated to him—whole battlefields that had given him in the Old Country power and sustenance.

Now he was old. He made his living as a grifter, working with another god from his pantheon, a god of chaos and deceit. Together they rooked the gullible. Together they took people for all they’d got.

Somewhere in there—maybe fifty years ago, maybe a hundred, they put a plan into motion, a plan to create a reserve of power they could both tap into. Something that would make them stronger than they had ever been. After all, what could be more powerful than a battlefield covered with dead gods? The game they played was called “Let’s You and Him Fight.”

Do you see?

The battle you came here for isn’t something that any of you can win or lose. The winning and the losing are unimportant to him, to them. What matters is that enough of you die. Each of you that falls in battle gives him power. Every one of you that dies, feeds him.

As Shadow comes to understand in the course of the novel, there is no inevitable clash between modernity and the old gods because all Americans can turn to their various belief systems to find spiritual sustenance, even in the face of rapid social change. As Gaiman explains, religions are sustaining metaphors that help people negotiate their challenges:

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all. God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you—even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

If people become hysterical, however, all religions become a single religion of bloodthirsty lashing out. The colorful distinctions between Jesus, Moses, Mohammed (both Sunni and Shia versions), the Buddha, Anansi, Osiris, Zeus, Coyote, etc. etc. will be wiped out and people will honor–in essence if not in name–only Odin.

Gaiman gives us a taste of the Odin religion when he describes how the god first arrived in the new world, in 813 A.D. He is honored by the sacrifice of a “scraeling,” the Norse word for indigenous Greenlanders:

Then they picked him up, a man at each shoulder, a man at each leg, carried him at shoulder height, the four men making him an eight-legged horse, and they carried him at the head of a procession to an ash tree on the hill overlooking the bay, where they put a rope around his neck and hung him high in the wind, their tribute to the All-Father, the gallows lord. The scraeling’s body swung in the wind, his face blackening, his tongue, protruding, his eyes popping, his penis hard eough to hang a leather helmet on, while the men cheered and shouted and laughed, proud to be sending their sacrifice to the heavens.

And, the next day, when two huge ravens landed upon the scraeling’s corpse, one on each shoulder, and commenced to peck at its cheeks and eyes, the men knew their sacrifice had been accepted.

While these Vikings are eventually slaughtered by the Greenlanders, Leif Erickson finds his gods already there and waiting for him when he arrives 100 years later. Odin still awaits us all if we allow ourselves to be drawn into more bloodletting.

Lest you become too discouraged, I’ll write tomorrow about Gaiman’s proposed solution. As I argued in my analysis of Stephen King’s IT, great fantasy writers delve so deeply into our condition that they often arrive at very interesting counter measures.

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“Jane Eyre” Still Challenges Us

Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

My student Brittany Buck, who is studying responses to Jane Eyre for her senior project, has opened my eyes to just how radical the novel was and continues to be. Brit is focusing on the inability of readers, from the mid-19th century to today, to fully digest the novel.

Although Jane Eyre was popular when it came out, it also scandalized a number of readers, most notably Elizabeth Rigby, who accused of being unchristian, unfeminine, and communist (or “chartist” as they called it then). Rather than dismissing such attacks, one can use them to appreciate Bronte’s revolutionary vision. German reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss provides a model for understanding the significance of hostile reviews.

As Jauss sees it, great works of literature challenge an age’s “horizon of expectations.” By contrast, those works that just confirm prevailing expectations can be seen as empty calories that don’t lead to change. There is nothing empty about Jane Eyre, which challenged the “angel on the hearth” ideal through its portrayal of Jane as a rebellious child and then as a restless governess and an independent teacher. Rigby may even have sensed what feminists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would admire about the novel in the 1970s, that in Bertha Mason one detects a deep pent-up anger that women couldn’t admit even to themselves. In other words, Rigby was so worried about Bronte’s revelations of female dissatisfaction that she had to attack the novel with both barrels. If she didn’t, maybe people would see her own independent work as dangerous.

For the record, even the most powerful woman of the age, Queen Victoria, urged women to be submissive angels.

Just because Bronte wrote a revolutionary work doesn’t mean that she was herself revolutionary, however. Brit writes that Rigby’s review so unsettled Bronte, as well as her friend and admirer Elizabeth Gaskell, that they both did all they could to soften how people saw the novelist. Bronte backed away from some of the radical implications of her novel in her letters and public comments while Gaskell, in her biography about Bronte, tried to reestablish her femininity. The art can go further than the artist.

What about those male admirers of the novel? As Brit points out, George Henry Lewes, one of the leading critics of the day (as well as George Eliot’s companion), focused on a less troubling vision of women: his favorite character was the saintly Helen Burns. The part of the novel he found most troubling, the scenes with Bertha, he dismissed as unrealistic gothic.

One could even argue that Bronte gave people looking for a more domestic version of women an escape hatch. After all, Jane returns to marry Rochester and nurse him back to health rather than pursue her own career. What could be more reassuring than “Reader, I married him”? 

Jauss’s theory, useful for understanding a novel’s initial reception, also has insights into its continuing ability to disrupt. Jauss ask whether a work will become more palatable, and therefore less powerful, once it has changed the horizon and created readers that are more open to its ideas. But horizons are not so easily changed, especially when it comes to our feelings about assertive women. Jauss believes that our most profound works of literature will continue to challenge our expectations for centuries after they first appeared, and Brit sees us still having a hard time accepting Bronte’s vision of confrontation. Brit believes that modern adaptations and interpretations of Jane Eyre, such as April Lindner’s young adult version Jane and the 2011 film Jane Eyre, try to soften the novel rather than face up to its radical implications.

Here’s where Brit argument seems to be going: In the 1970s, Jane Eyre provided the feminist movement with one of its most potent images, the “madwoman in the attic.” Gilbert and Gubar saw Bertha as standing in for all women trapped within the domestic sphere. Since then, however, many women have resisted this uncompromising vision of female anger. Today’s Elizabeth Rigbys essentially say, “I may believe in women’s rights but I’m not angry like those 1970s feminists.”

Jane is much more palatable if she is seen as the heroine of a love novel. But what if we were to regard Jane Eyre as a rebellion against the marriage plot itself? When Jane ventures out onto the heath, what if we were to regard it as an adventure story, with Jane, like a Bildungsroman hero, attempting to find a different plot for women. She proves herself able to learn Hindustani better than any man, rejects a career as a missionary if she has to marry to accomplish it, and then goes on to have a successful career as an educator. Even today we have trouble accepting this as a satisfactory story arc. We want Jane to return to Rochester’s arms.

We will know that our horizon of expectations has truly changed when we cease to demand the marriage or romance plot for female heroes. To be sure, even Bronte was ultimately pulled back to that plot in Jane Eyre. Her next novel, however, broke free. Even today, readers freak out over the ending of Villette, though it ends with the heroine happy and running her own school. Even today we are dissatisfied if the woman remains single at the end of her story.

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Out of the Blackness Every Morning

Albert Bierstadt, "Sunrise"

Albert Bierstadt, “Sunrise”

Easter Sunday

I have periodically turned to Mary Oliver to provide Easter poems, even though she seldom speaks overtly about religion. A number of her lyrics reenact the progress of Easter week, from dark suffering to miraculous release and ecstatic union with the divine. In “The Sun,” Oliver’s main focus is on the moment of transcendence.

“Sun” invites a religious pun, which a poet like John Donne takes full advantage of in “Hymn to God the Father”:

[S]wear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Oliver’s sun doesn’t have the Jesus reference but shines just as bright. “Have you ever felt for anything/such wild love?” she asks.

“The Sun” gives us a choice: we can either stand, emptied and receptive, and allow to sun to reach out and warm us. Or we can turn from this world and go crazy “for power, for things.”

Easter morning calls upon us to get our priorities straight.

The Sun

By Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it glides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?


Other Mary Oliver poems for Easter

Far off the Bells Rang through the Morning

A Breathing Palace of Leaves

The Silver Water Crushes Like Silk 

Dazzled by Dreams of the Body

Stepping Over Every Dark Thing

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The Cross Recounts the Crucifixion

Rubens, "The Crucifixion"

Rubens, “The Crucifixion”

Good Friday

A remarkable poem in Old English tells the crucifixion story from the cross’s (or rood’s) point of view. Scholar Helena Tampierováne believes that the poem, while obviously Christian, is also rooted in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon veneration of the Tree of Life. Therefore, we see a merging of paganism and Christianity.

Tampierováne quotes medievalist Leeming Fee on the spiritual significance of trees in ancient mythologies:

Thus the tree both exists in this world and seems to transcend it, and therefore may be seen to symbolize the oppositions of life and death and of eternity and transience. Trees are most often associated with life-giving energy, and due to their longevity are quite often thought to be repositories of wisdom: the Egyptian Osiris and the Greek Adonis, as resurrection gods, both are associated with trees, and the Buddha was born again in the wisdom he found under the Bodhi Tree. Sometimes both in the Indic and Norse traditions, a tree is thought to represent life and death on a cosmic scale, symbolizing the full manifestation of the universe.

As Tampierováne sees it, when pre-Christian England encountered missionary stories of the cross, it associated it with its own cultic trees. The tree in the poem regards itself working with Christ, even though they seem to be at odds.

The Dream of the Rood

“It was long past – I still remember it – 
That I was cut down at the copse’s end,
Moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
Told me to hold aloft their criminals,
Made me a spectacle. Men carried me
Upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.

“And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God’s word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.

“Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.

“A rood I was raised up; and I held high 
The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.
I dared not stoop. They pierced me with dark nails;
The scars can still be clearly seen on me,

The open wounds of malice. Yet might I
Not harm them. They reviled us both together.
I was made wet all over with the blood
Which poured out from his side, after He had 
Sent forth His spirit. And I underwent
Full many a dire experience on that hill.
I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.
Darkness covered the Ruler’s corpse with clouds
His shining beauty; shadows passed across,
Black in the darkness. All creation wept,
Bewailed the King’s death; Christ was on the cross….

“Now you may understand, dear warrior,
That I have suffered deeds of wicked men
And grievous sorrows. Now the time has come
That far and wide on earth men honor me,
And all this great and glorious creation,
And to this beacon offers prayers. On me
The Son of God once suffered; therefore now
I tower mighty underneath the heavens,
And I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became the cruelest of tortures,
Most hateful to all nations, till the time
I opened the right way of life for men.”

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The Love Songs We Hear Every Spring

Blackburning warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Although I still had to scrape ice off my car windows yesterday, it’s finally warming up in southern Maryland, which gives me the confidence to post a spring poem. Here’s one where my bird-watching French professor father muses April’s noisy male birds.

He is struck that, while they conduct their courtships with claims of how beautiful they themselves as they advise the females to gather their rosebuds while they may, ultimately they prove faithless come autumn. They may promise in their sales pitches that they will be conventional husbands, but hey then do an about-face, grow silent as the great swans that never sing, and abandon “bride Frau, Kinder, Kuchen.”

Nevertheless the female birds fall for these “itinerant braggarts” and “jongleurs” (wandering entertainers). Or rather, they hear a different drum: the promise of stability. Unfortunately, this means that they settle for “nestfuls of the barest kind.”

What’s the point of the poem? Maybe that women should ignore those men who beat their chests and say, “Look at me!” Choose instead quiet swans. You know what you are getting and they mate for life.

For the record, my father and mother were married for 65 years.

Bird Notes on a Beautiful but Noisy April Morning

By Scott Bates

Swans mate for life and never sing;
While many an errant bird
Releases, every public spring
The usual male word

Common to every Romeo’s
And salesman’s repertory
Que je suis beau! “Cueillons des roses!”
And, “This is my territory!”

Blowing his bugle. And echoing through
Pavilioned towers of trees
To Ladies listening—listening to
A different drum (forsooth!) in these

Itinerant braggarts bruiting blind
A beauty bare about
For nestfuls of the barest kind;
These jongleurs—who, in rout,

Convention-bound, abandon bride
Frau, Kinder, Kuchen, and all
To join great swans in their white pride
In the silence of the fall.

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Social Media, Our Modern Day Pillory

Meg Foster as Hester Prynne

Meg Foster as Hester Prynne

My friend Rachel Kranz has alerted me to a new book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which deals with instances of people being shamed by social media. Rachel challenged me to come up with literary examples of shaming, and I can think of dozens. Many of our great melodramas deal with public shaming, and the fear of being shamed lies at the heart of many of our great comedies. (We laugh in an attempt to rise above the fear.) Rachel’s own example of The Scarlet Letter, however, may best capture the intensity described by Ronson in the examples he provides in a preview of his book, published in the New York Times this past February.

His stories are appalling. For instance, there is the woman whose clumsy attempt at humor, sent to her 179 followers, was misread as racist and went viral so that she became demonized world-wide and lost her job. There is the man whose murmured joke to someone sitting next to him about computer dongles (this at a tech developers convention) was picked up by a woman in the row in front of him, who took a photo of him and tweeted it out. First he lost his job and then, in the backlash, she lost her job.

These two examples are noteworthy because we can relate to them. Who of us has not made insensitive comments at times, sometimes on social media?

In addition to giving us many other examples of social media’s power, Ronson looks back at our history of public shaming. He had assumed that it would decline when we became more urban, thereby allowing, say, an individual placed in the stocks to “just lose himself or herself in the anonymous crowd as soon as the chastisement was over.” He discovered, however, that punitive shaming continued on.

As his book makes clear, it’s alive and well today. It’s as though we have become a small community again, suddenly visible to all our neighbors. The Scarlet Letter may have written in the 19th century, but it captures how unwanted exposure feels to us now. His description of being pilloried sounds a lot like having an embarrassing tweet go viral:

In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks, against our common nature,–whatever be the delinquencies of the individual,–no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame; as it was the essence of this punishment to do.

As it turns out, Hester is condemned to stand next to the pillory, not fastened within it. But that is bad enough:

The unhappy culprit sustained herself as best a woman might, under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentrated at her bosom. It was almost intolerable to be borne. Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult; but there was a quality so much more terrible in the solemn mood of the popular mind, that she longed rather to behold all those rigid countenances contorted with scornful merriment, and herself the object. Had a roar of laughter burst from the multitude,–each man, each woman, each little shrill-voiced child, contributing their individual parts,–Hester Prynne might have repaid them all with a bitter and disdainful smile. But, under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.

Hester responds perhaps as well as one can respond. She neither seeks to hide the baby that she holds in her arms nor minimizes what she has done. The scarlet “A” has been wrought large enough for all to see. In other words, when you are caught out, don’t try to hide:

But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer,–so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,–was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself.

Just as twitter followers respond in every possible way, so too do the people of the colony. Some condemn, some are sympathetic:

“She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?”

“It were well,” muttered the most iron-visaged of the old dames, “if we stripped Madam Hester’s rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I’ll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one!”

“O, peace, neighbours, peace!” whispered their youngest companion. “Do not let her hear you! Not a stitch in that embroidered letter, but she has felt it in her heart.”

In the end, Hester is not destroyed but purged through her suffering. After paying the price for her social infraction, she finds a way to rise above it and become a beloved figure. By contrast, the mean-spirited Chillingworth, like those twitter haters who self-righteously pile on without examining their own flaws, fades away:

All his strength and energy–all his vital and intellectual force–seemed at once to desert him; insomuch that he positively withered up, shrivelled away, and almost vanished from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge; and when, by its completest triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further material to support it,–when, in short, there was no more devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly.

Unfortunately, today’s parasitic Chillingworths aren’t limited to one person. They have an endless supply to feed on.

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Erdrich Charts a Third Way for Fantasy

Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

My American Fantasy course, which I’m teaching for the first time, continues to open my eyes to how the genre works in the United States. I have been exploring the idea that there are two strains of American fantasy, that of L. Frank Baum and that of Edgar Allen Poe. Call them the light side and the dark side. Since teaching Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, however, I’m coming to think that there is a third strain, a Native American strain, that operates differently.

As I’ve noted in the past, the light and dark strains are coin sides of the same grappling with reality: Baum wants to banish shadows from his fantasy while Poe makes his home in those repressed shadows. Baum represents the tradition that stretches from John Winthrop’s “city on the hill” to Walt Disney, and in his view the power of positive thinking allows us to create the reality we want. We have but to believe hard enough. Poe, on the other hand, looks at what we must push under in order to believe that fantasy. In our political debates, I link those waving the flag of American exceptionalism with the Baum strain and those pointing out America’s sins with the Poe strain.

But in setting up this contrast, I leave out someone like Erdrich of the Anishinaabe people (the Chippewa tribe). While Baum and Poe are responding to Puritan Calvinism, the Age of Reason, and the industrial revolution—one either believes one can impose one’s will on the American landscape or acknowledges that there are dark forces that will invariably undermine human efforts—Erdrich draws on Indian myths and legends to create a world in which fantasy and reality bleed into each other.

Take the nature spirits, which impact life in some areas and not in others. The beautiful Fleur Pillager reportedly lies with Misshepeshu, the dark lake man, and this gives her terrifying powers, such as the ability to conjure up a tornados and to cast curses. Old man Nanapush, meanwhile, uses dream visions to guide hunters lost in the snow. But for Nanapush, this magic is just a tool that exists matter-of-factly alongside more plebeian tools.

To be sure, Erdrich’s magic resembles that of Baum and Poe in that it is circumscribed by western culture. Fleur’s powers ultimately cannot prevail against the white invasion, and her magic shares the same fate as the ancient deities described in (to cite two other books I am teaching) Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where the gods imported by the immigrants can’t stand up to television, the media, and the internet, and Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, where Pan is vanquished by Christianity, the Enlightenment, and capitalism.

But there’s a difference. Fantasy for Erdrich is not the either/or proposition that it is for Poe, Baum, Gaiman, and Robbins, where it exists in opposition to rationality. Rather, her characters move seamlessly between the spirit world and the impinging white world, sometimes casting spells, sometimes borrowing white technology. They move in a similar way between their own gods and the Christian god, and Nanapush has a way of using Catholic rituals to meet his own ends. As a result, they find a way to survive what Chippewa scholar Lawrence Gross describes as the “Anishinaabe apocalypse” of disease and white land grabs. Their stories are, as Gross sees it, a way of resisting an oppressive social order. They provide “a treasure trove of possibility to be accessed when need be.”

Fantasy offers us a way to cut through the noise of modernity and the forces of repression to touch base with foundational truths. Erdrich offers us a powerful Native American fantasy to help us in this endeavor.

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Ted Cruz’s Starring Role in “The Crucible”

The Crucible

Miller’s play was a response to Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts

A high school English teacher, Pat Osowski of Ripon High School (Wisconsin), wrote me last week asking whether I had ever written about The Crucible as he had just had a great experience teaching the work. I’ll share his story in a moment but, as it happens, I had indeed been contemplating a post on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play. That’s because Texas Senator Ted Cruz has announced that he is running for president and one story that has emerged is his acting in the play while at Harvard Law School

The story, as recounted by The Boston Globe, is fairly funny. The actors apparently had a successful opening night and, in a celebratory party, Cruz drank so much grain alcohol that he staggered through the performance on the following day–so much so that fellow cast members had to improvise lines to cover for him.

I’m not really interested in Cruz’s acting history, however. Rather, what draws me is the fact that Cruz has been compared to Joseph McCarthy—most notably by Christopher Matthew of MSNBC—and the play was Arthur Miller’s response to McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. Matthews points to Cruz’s use of innuendo and guilt by association, especially when he argued, in Chuck Hagel’s nomination hearings for Secretary of Defense, that we didn’t know for certain that Hagel hadn’t received money from North Korea. I therefore wanted to know who Cruz played.

If I were doing the casting, Cruz would play the cunning Putnam, who strategically uses charges of witchcraft to possess himself of other people’s land. It’s not unlike the way that Cruz conjures up political hysteria, even persuading his fellow Republicans to shut down the government, in order to get people to send him checks.

But no, Cruz played Reverend Samuel Parris, head of the community, father of one of the afflicted girls, and owner of Tituba, who comes to be seen as a witch. The Globe had fun with how Parris’s paranoia sounds a lot like Cruz’s:

As the lights rose, Ted Cruz held center stage, dressed in black and kneeling at a bedside. The first-year student at Harvard Law School delivered his lines with the emotions of a man gripped by anger, fear, and worry for his reputation.

“Do you understand that I have many enemies?” he thundered. “There is a faction that is sworn to drive me from my pulpit. Do you understand that?”

Here’s Miller describing the historical Parris in his stage notes. Does it sound familiar?

He believed he was being persecuted wherever he went, despite his best efforts to win people and God to his side. In meeting, he felt insulted if someone rose to shut the door without first asking his permission.

Parris, however, seems less secure than Cruz, who always exhibits supreme confidence. That’s why Putnam, who is contemptuous of Parris, seems a better fit. Then again, if Cruz were ever to ascend to a position of Parris-like power, he might be guilty of the same tyrannical behavior and reveal the same insecurities. I could imagine him as a Nixon-like president.

Hopefully Cruz playing Parris was not predictive of his eventual rise to supreme executive authority.

Back to my correspondent, who turned the famous controversy about “the color of the dress” to good use in his high school English class on The Crucible. Here’s his account, slightly edited for conciseness:

We had been watching The Crucible in a unit on conformity and the 1950s that we thematically connected with our U.S. History class. That was the weekend “the dress” blew up the Internet and people were fighting over what color they saw. So Monday morning I put a picture of the dress up on the school’s projector screen and stood in the hall as I usually do to greet students. I heard the discussions. Those that couldn’t decide were informed by other students. Arguments started about the actual color.

When class began I poked the hornet’s nest a bit more, and one girl declared that those who saw gold and white just needed to shut up. Then I asked how people were treated by those that felt they were wrong. We laughed about some of the reactions and talked about how stupid it was that people were making a big deal about a dress.

Then I asked them what would happen if the issue had been religion rather than a color. When this line of inquiry didn’t pan out, I asked the girl that had her friend tell her to shut up what might happen if people thought that seeing gold and white indicated devil possession and that the consequence was death. In the ensuing discussion, we agreed that one can’t easily conclude that either the girls or the town are stupid.

Few things are more important than teaching our young people to inhabit other perspectives. If they learn to do so, they will be less likely to fall for those who “know” the truth and assert that nuance is for squishes. Like, say, Ted Cruz.

Added note: After reading this post, Pat sent me the following note:

It would have been more ironically wonderful if he had played Judge Danforth, but Parris is a pretty good fit, too. Parris is power hungry but really, really paranoid and most people just don’t like him. One of my favorite lines in the play is Act I, Scene 4. Mrs. Putnam is mad at Rebecca Nurse saying that perhaps things just happen for other reasons than witchcraft, and Mrs. Putnam says that “there are wheels within wheels in this village and fires within fires.” Though she is trying to say that witchcraft is everywhere, we almost immediately hear Proctor and Parris arguing about Parris’ job security and how much he’s paid. It becomes clear that the wheels within wheels is going to be about power politics and money. It’s so subtly obvious like Miller is so good at writing. Proctor doesn’t have his children baptized because he didn’t want Parris laying his hands on them. I think there are a lot of comparisons to what Cruz has become.

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Replacing the Temple with the Torah

Great House

Spiritual Sunday 

I didn’t deliberately plan that this month’s library discussion group novel would tie into Passover week, but so it turned out. Nicole Krauss’s Great House is essentially a book about Diaspora Jews trying to find meaning in their lives in the decades after World War II. The novel involves four separate families—or three families and a single woman—who feel cut off and alone, and the stories themselves appear to have no connection to each other. The characters are like the dreamers in a haunting story created by the child of an Israeli lawyer who bears the emotional scars of the Holocaust. Perhaps because the father is unsettled by the image of his own deeply buried pain, he quashes his child’s budding imagination. Revisiting the moment years later in a confessional letter to his son, he writes,

I don’t support the plan, I told you. Why? you demanded, with angry little eyes. What will you write? I asked. You told me a convoluted story about four, six, maybe eight people all lying in rooms joined by a system of electrodes and wires to a great white shark. All night the shark floats suspended in an illuminated tank, dreaming the dreams of these people. No, not the dreams, the nightmares, the things too difficult to bear. So they sleep, and through the wires the terrifying things leave them and flood into the awesome fish with scarred skin that can bear all the accumulated misery. After you finished I let a sufficient amount of silence pass before I spoke. Who are these people? I asked. People, you said. I ate a handful of nuts, watching our face. I don’t know where to begin on the problems with this little story. I told you. Problems? you said, your voice rising and cracking. In the wells of your eyes your mother saw the suffering of a child raised by a tyrant, but in the end the fact that you never became a writer had nothing to do with me.

One can see the story originating out of the sensitive child’s awareness of the suppressed pain in his family, and the novel’s other characters have their own unexamined suffering.

As one reads the novel, one begins to realize that three of the stories are linked by a massive writing desk with 19 drawers and compartments, one of them empty and locked. At one point I wondered why the novel isn’t called The Desk, but Krauss explains the title toward the end of the novel. The desk symbolizes the Torah, and the Great House is the school of rabbinical studies that produced many of the interpretations and rituals that would come to define the Jewish identity following the Diaspora. An antique furniture dealer, searching for the desk in order to recreate his father’s study (the Nazis killed his father and rifled the family home), explains how the Torah was also an attempt, by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, to recreate something holy that had been lost—namely, the Temple of Jerusalem:

[Rabbi ben Zakkai] announced that the court of law that had burned in Jerusalem would be resurrected there, in the sleepy town of Yavne. That instead of making sacrifices to God, from then on Jews would pray to Him. He instructed his students to begin assembling more than a thousand years of oral law.

Over centuries, the rabbi’s ultimate plan revealed itself:

Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form. Later his school became known as the Great House, after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of God, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.

The story clarifies the plan of Krauss’s seemingly fragmented novel. Every character, having experienced a deep loss, is flailing around in a spiritual wilderness. The desk, which also brings to mind Jesus’s “in my father’s house are many rooms,” sets people off on journeys that are painful but ultimately fulfilling. Although the characters aren’t particularly nice and though their lives are filled with dark secrets and unspoken sorrows, the Torah infuses even tiny events with significance.

The antique dealer uses memories of lost houses to metaphorically capture this significance:

Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. In the next world, we will all dwell together in the memory of our memories. But that will not be for us, my father used to say. Not for you or me. We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.

At the end of the book, the dealer locates the desk but he cannot possess it. He realizes, however, that possession is not important and that he just needs a momentary reassurance that the Great House, the object of his long search, once existed whole. In the moment of connection, his doubts sink away:

I reached out my hand and ran my fingers across the dark surface of the desk. There were a few scratches, but otherwise those who had sat at it had left no mark. I knew the moment well. How often I had witnessed it in others, and yet now it almost surprised me: the disappointment, then the relief of something at last sinking away.

The other characters also find connection by the end of their stories although, in two cases, they do so through talking to the author of the shark story, now in a coma. In that state he functions as the dreaming shark, and his “absent form” gives them a chance, for the first time in their lives, to unburden themselves.

Passover and Easter speak to both the pain of the years in the wilderness and the hope of the Promised Land. Krauss provides no easy reassurance as her characters struggle, and the images of hope she provides are subtle—a Scheherazade story to keep alive a man in a coma, a father reaching out to his son for the first time, a note burned unread in a fireplace as a man forgives his dead wife and himself for their silences. Holiness breaks through in those moments where all those defenses we have built up, all those routines and coping mechanisms we have laboriously crafted, fall apart. As Krauss puts it,

We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch our tents and wait.

Further thoughts:

To further emphasize the themes in the book, I share two other passages. The first, a description of the desk, captures how it functions as a symbol of the Torah and the destroyed Temple. The second, a small event occurring during a Passover seder, shows Nadia, like the other the other characters in the book, lost and adrift as she identifies with a child crying out in the night:

I looked across the room at the wooden desk at which I had written seven novels, and on whose surface, in the cone of light cast by a lamp, lay piles of pages and notes that were to constitute an eighth. One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some larger, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now, on the cusp of their being suddenly taken from me, had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life, an order that, when my work was going well, took on an almost mystical quality. Nineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paper clips there) hid a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed tow rite. Those drawers represented a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of consciousness that could be articulated in no other way but their precise number and arrangement. Or am I making too much of it?

And here a moment of the seder, which is being held late after the children have gone to bed. In an earlier passage Nadia has been haunted by another child’s cry. Now, on this “night different from all other nights,” she captures a glimpse of what comfort looks like:

Suddenly, into this raucous roomful of adults enters this child. We were all so busy with each other that we didn’t notice her at first; she couldn’t have been more than three, dressed in those pajamas with the feed, her bottom still saggy with a diaper, and clutching a sort of cloth or rag, the shredded remains of a blanket, I suppose, to her cheek. We had woken her from sleep. And suddenly, bewildered by this sea of strange faces and the clamor of voices, she let out a cry. A wail of pure terror that cut through the air, and silenced the room. For a moment everything froze as the scream hung above us like the question to end all the questions that particular night, of all nights, is designed to pose. A question which, because wordless, has no answer, and so must be asked forever. Perhaps it was only a second, but in my mind that scream went on, and still goes on somewhere now, but there, on that night, in ended when the mother stood, knocking over her chair, and in a single fluid motion rushed to the child, gathered her in, and held her aloft. In an instant the child quieted. For a moment she tipped her head back and looked up at her mother, and her expression was illuminated with the wonder and relief of finding, again, the only comfort, the infinite comfort, she had in the world. She buried her face in her mother’s neck, in the smell of her mother’s long lustrous hair, and her cries slowly grew dimmer and dimmer as the conversation around the table started up again, until at last she became silent, curled against her mother like a question mark–all that was left of the question that, for the time being, no longer needed to be asked–and felt asleep.



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Robert Durst’s Iago-Like Soliloquy

Branagh as Iago

Branagh as Iago

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

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

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

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

Gopnik observes that the words have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Train Surfing: Thrilling but Chilling

The deadly art of train surfing in South Africa

The deadly art of train surfing in South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, don’t do it.

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How To Reflect upon the Death Penalty

Matt Damon in "All the Pretty Horses"

Matt Damon in “All the Pretty Horses”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GOP Budget Proposes Gruel Cuts

Cruikshank, "Oliver Twist"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When American Fantasies Are Dangerous

American Gods

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

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

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

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

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

And further on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the Dark, Cold Grime a Flower Comes


Spiritual Sunday

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

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

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


By Mary Ann Bernard

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

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

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

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

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

A note on the artist: The photo, along with reflections upon kingcups, can be found at

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Milne’s Old Sailor & ADD

S. H. Shepard, "The Old Sailor"

E. H. Shepard, “The Old Sailor”

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

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

The Old Sailor

By A.A. Milne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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