Beaten Down by Life

Evgeniy Vuchetich, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares”

Evgeniy Vuchetich, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares”

For a change of pace, here is one of my father’s thought-provoking fables about a ploughshare that was once a sword. The reference is to the Book of Isaiah (2:3-4):

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Although Scott Bates was a lifelong member of the War Resisters League and very much in favor of turning swords into ploughshares, in this poem the image seems more about how youthful ambitions are beaten down by the responsibilities and realities of life. Those of us who are older can ruefully look back at what we once thought was possible.

The Ploughshare and the Sword

By Scott Bates

A Ploughshare bent
With labor heard
A Sword who bragged
With every word
Look at me said he
So debonair
My razor wit
Can split a hair
My soul is bright
My arm is thick
My tongue is sharp
My laughter quick
By rich red wine
I’m satisfied

I once was a Sword
The Ploughshare sighed

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Trying (and Failing) to Shield Our Love

Michelangelo, "Pieta"

Michelangelo, “Pieta”

I lost a colleague and a good friend last week. Andy Kozak, who taught economics at St. Mary’s, died of the lung cancer that he discovered last spring. A dedicated teacher, Andy was one of the kindest men that I knew. He tried to teach up until the very end, but ultimately couldn’t go on and others in his department had to step in and teach his classes. My heart weeps for his wife Becky in her sadness.

Then Jane Aldridge, a member of my book discussion group and my adult film course, died while vacationing in Malta. Unlike Andy’s death, Jane’s one was totally unexpected. Again, I think of the deep sadness of her spouse.

A disturbing Stephen Crane poem captures how such events, though small in the eyes of the world, hit loved ones with apocalyptic force. In “God Lay Dead in Heaven,” we are presented with the image of God dead and the earth turning black and sinking. Monsters, “livid with desire,” fight over what remains of the world.

This is how it can feel to lose someone you love. God seems to be absent, we are swallowed up in blackness, and mental monsters are unleashed.

Having captured our feelings through cosmic melodrama, however, the poem then changes registers with powerful effect. Suddenly we are faced with an image that is all the sadder because it is so intimate: a woman tries to shield her sleeping companion from death.

Against these odds, she seems to stand little chance. We experience the full futility of her attempts to protect.

God Lay Dead in Heaven

By Stephen Crane

God lay dead in heaven;
Angels sang the hymn of the end;
Purple winds went moaning,
Their wings drip-dripping
With blood
That fell upon the earth.
It, groaning thing,
Turned black and sank.
Then from the far caverns
Of dead sins
Came monsters, livid with desire.
They fought,
Wrangled over the world,
A morsel.
But of all sadness this was sad —
A woman’s arms tried to shield
The head of a sleeping man
From the jaws of the final beast.

If you have a friend who has lost someone close, know that this is what he or she is going through. Nothing you do or say can banish those feelings. What you can do is acknowledge how bad your friend must be feeling. Tell your friend that you are there in support.

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We Blame Spiritual Directors for Our Sins

George Whitefield

John Wollaston, “George Whitefield”

Spiritual Sunday 

I have a dear friend whose husband recently lost his job as a minister of a small church. I cannot fathom why they fired him as he is a deeply spiritual man and very articulate, someone I wish were my own minister.

Something comparable happened in the Sewanee church of my childhood and also, very recently, to a friend heading a church just up the road. And these are just the instances that I have personal knowledge of. All over the country, spiritual directors are losing their jobs for reasons that have little to do with their performance.

This satiric poem, written in the style of Hilaire Belloc, helps us understand some of what is going on. I like the sarcastic way Sir John Betjeman assures us that we ourselves are innocent and that he’s talking about others, the unkind ones, who blame church leaders for not living up to their outsized and contradictory expectations. The vicars pay the price for their own unresolved issues.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our vicars but in ourselves.

Blame the Vicar

By Sir John Betjeman

When things go wrong it’s rather tame
To find we are ourselves to blame,
It gets the trouble over quicker
To go and blame things on the Vicar.

The Vicar, after all, is paid
To keep us bright and undismayed.
The Vicar is more virtuous too
Than lay folks such as me and you.
He never swears, he never drinks,
He never should say what he thinks.
His collar is the wrong way round,
And that is why he’s simply bound
To be the sort of person who
Has nothing very much to do
But take the blame for what goes wrong
And sing in tune at Evensong.

For what’s a Vicar really for
Except to cheer us up? What’s more,
He shouldn’t ever, ever tell
If there is such a place as Hell,
For if there is it’s certain he
Will go to it as well as we.
The Vicar should be all pretence
And never, never give offence.
To preach on Sunday is his task
And lend his mower when we ask
And organize our village fetes
And sing at Christmas with the waits
And in his car to give us lifts
And when we quarrel, heal the rifts.

To keep his family alive
He should industriously strive
In that enormous house he gets,
And he should always pay his debts,
For he has quite six pounds a week,
And when we’re rude he should be meek
And always turn the other cheek.
He should be neat and nicely dressed
With polished shoes and trousers pressed,
For we look up to him as higher
Than anyone, except the Squire.

Dear People, who have read so far,
I know how really kind you are,
I hope that you are always seeing
Your Vicar as a human being,
Making allowances when he
Does things with which you don’t agree.
But there are lots of people who
Are not so kind to him as you.
So in conclusion you shall hear
About a parish somewhat near,
Perhaps our own or maybe not,
And of the Vicars that it got.

One parson came and pepole said,
Alas! Our former Vicar’s dead!
And this new man is far more ‘Low’
Than dear old Reverend so-and-so,
And far too earnest in his preaching.
We do not really like his teaching,
He seems to think we’re simply fools
Who’ve never been to Sunday Schools.”
That Vicar left, and by and by
A new one came, “He’s much too ‘High,’”
the people said, “too like a saint.
His incense makes our Mavis faint.”
So now he’s left and they’re alone
Without a Vicar of their own.
The living’s been amalgamated
With one next door they’ve always hated.

Dear readers, from this rhyme take warning,
And if you heard the bell this morning
Your Vicar went to pray for you,
A task the Prayer Book bids him do.
“Highness” or “lowness” do not matter,
You are the Church and must not scatter,
Cling to the Sacraments and pray
And God be with you every day.

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Peyton Manning as Poe’s Dupin

Peyton Manning sets career touchdown record

Peyton Manning sets career touchdown record

Sports Saturday

So Peyton Manning did it, setting the career touchdown record last Sunday against San Francisco and then, for extra measure, adding three more touchdowns in a Thursday night win against San Diego. As he is a master at solving opposition defenses, in today’s post I compare him to Edgar Allan Poe’s legendary detective in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”

Both Dupin and Manning are renowned for their genius IQs. The Phi Beta Kappa quarterback can recall tiny details from football games played decades ago and use them to his advantage. He also studies game films obsessively and is remarkable for his ability to anticipate blitzes and other surprises that opponents throw at him. Against all probability, he won his fifth Most Valuable Player award last year. He is 38 and only three years removed from four neck surgeries, which most people thought would end his career.

Dupin describes his own thinking process as “ratiocination.” In “The Purloined Letter,” he figures out how to outthink the devious Minister D– in a very Manningesque way. Or should I say that Manning is Dupinian?

Dupin explains his method by describing a children’s guessing game he witnessed. One boy stood out:

I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘are they even or odd?’ Our schoolboy replies, ‘odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd'; –he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: ‘This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even’ guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed “lucky,” –what, in its last analysis, is it?”

“It is merely,” I said, “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”

Dupin uses a version of this game to retrieve a stolen letter that eludes the meticulous searches of the police. Knowing that the authorities will search his apartment with a fine toothed comb, Minister D– has hidden his letter in plain sight, changing the exterior and placing it in his letter rack. He has identified the police’s intellect but Dupin identifies his.

Manning employed a similar process in setting up the record-tying 508th touchdown. The Broncos have a very effective screen pass that takes advantage of the speed and elusiveness of Demaryius Thomas, their top wide receiver. With Thomas and the great slot receiver Wes Welker lined up to his left, Manning throws a quick pass to Thomas while he is still behind the line of scrimmage. Welker, meanwhile, takes off and blocks for him. The play has led to some long and spectacular touchdowns.

On Sunday Manning anticipated that the San Francisco defense would be anticipating this play. He therefore faked the ball to Thomas as Wes Welker took off as if to block one of the two players defending the play. Both defenders charged towards Thomas, at which point Welker, who almost never goes long, simply turned down the sideline and caught Manning’s pass in stride for a 39 yard touchdown. As announcer Chris Collingsworth observed, sometimes studying tapes of Peyton Manning will actually get you into trouble because he knows you are studying them.

Of course, Manning still needs to figure out how his opponents plan to play him. Here again Poe’s story helps us appreciate the intricacy of Manning’s mind. The eight-year-old prodigy explains his success to Dupin:

[U]pon inquiring of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: “When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”

I don’t know whether Manning employs facial expressions, but somehow he is able to identify his “reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.” He anticipates how wisely or how stupidly opposing teams will anticipate his moves.

There is another way in which Manning resembles Dupin. In “The Mysteries of the Rue Morgue,” Dupin is faced with a crime of unimaginable violence, but there seems no way that the killer could have entered the locked room. Dupin concludes that the killer could not have been human and then figures out that an escaped orangutan did the deed.

The stark contrast between extreme intellect and brute force shows up in many of Poe’s stories, signaling his mixed feelings about the Enlightenment. Even as he revels in the power of reason, he is also keenly aware of its limitations. The same author who created one of the great literary detectives also is famous for depicting madness and horrific cruelty. Sometimes he combines rationality and brutality in a single story: the narrator of “The Telltale Heart” is very rational in the way that he kills his neighbor and cuts him up.

Do you see how I am setting the stage for Manning’s accomplishments? Football is a bone-crunching, brain damaging sport in which men who are freakishly large, fast, and athletic hurl their bodies against each other for play after play. It is a savage game with long injury lists. Yet Manning, like Dupin, seems to rise above the carnage, analyzing each situation and figuring out an optimal response.

Of course, if he weren’t also an accomplished athlete, Manning wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But it is his cerebral approach to the game that distinguishes him from other players. He represents the triumph of raciocination.

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The Limitations of Cerebral Teaching

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

As part of my Friday “lost blog posts recovery project,” I am reposting an essay, slightly amended, that was written for January 19, 2010. It’s one of my more personal essays, describing the time in my life that I failed a course. I pull John Donne into the discussion. I wrote the post after exploring Margaret Edson’s W;t in a series of essays.

The new semester begins today.  Margaret Edson’s play W;t is a useful reminder of where I should put my priorities as I begin teaching.

When my career started out, I had a number of things in common with Vivian Bearing, the English professor and Donne scholar in W;t. I too reveled in the complexity of texts, how they both invited and resisted interpretation, how they slid away from attempts to arrive at definite meanings. Sometimes I valued this over the guidance they provide for living in the world.

But after getting too many cold and analytical essays from my students, who were just doing what I told them to do, I knew that something had to change. During my first sabbatical I examined what I wanted my teaching to accomplish and concluded that literature should make a difference in my students’ lives. I have spent the rest of my career exploring how I can help make this happen.

I now ask my students what is “at stake” in the works they are reading and in the essays they are writing. Why, I make them tell me, should somebody care? If they can’t answer that question, I work with them until they can.

Of course, one thing at stake is passing the course. But if that’s all that students cared about, then life would be a barren affair. In point of fact, even the most disengaged student wants learning to be more than a series of hoops. Most students, after all, are trying to figure the world out. They are on the cusp of adulthood and they want answers. I help them link the literature and their essays to their exploration.

One useful strategy is encouraging them to tell personal stories that relate to or are triggered by the literary works. To be sure, I insist that they enter into a dialogue with the work, not a monologue. That is to say, they are not to subordinate the work to their lives (that would be narcissistic) but must step outside of themselves. The work is both like and unlike their lives, and they are to figure out what that means. At its best, seeing the work in terms of their lives opens up new insights into the work and delving into the work opens up new insights into their lives.

In my blog I have told a number of stories (and will tell many more) about the rich student conversations with literature that I have witnessed. I sometimes wonder, however, if I pay a price for not being more of a Vivian Bearing, who dismisses the significance of her students’ lives. For her, the rigorous demands of literary interpretation trump personal considerations.

I have a colleague who is like Vivian, and students who take her courses wear them as a badge of honor. They feel that they are tested to the max and feel proud of the B or C they receive. There is no mushy sentimentality in these courses, no asking the students how they feel about a work (always my first question). The work has its own artistic and intellectual integrity, and the students either climb that mountain or they fall short. As Vivian says about Donne,

To the common reader—that is to say, the undergraduate with a B+ or better average—wit provides an invaluable exercise for sharpening the mental faculties, for stimulating the flash of comprehension that can only follow hours of exacting and seemingly pointless scrutiny.

To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political and mythological allusions, Donne’s wit is . . . a way to see how good you really are.

After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.

I admire students willing to take up the challenge thrown out by such a teacher. They are like monks undertaking an austere discipline. In the play, the doctor who is treating Vivian, Jason, once enrolled in her seventeenth-century poetry class out of such a motivation. “I made a bet with myself that I could get an A in the three hardest courses on campus,” he says.

But by the end of the play as she is dying, Vivian herself begins doubting this approach. It took a traumatic college experience to get me to doubt it as well.

While majoring in history at Carleton College, I took a class from a teacher who had the reputation of being hard-ass and demanding. I signed up because I was convinced he would root out my indolence and my penchant for procrastination, which I saw as my biggest flaw. (I now realize that I worked pretty damn hard but I didn’t see it that way then.) He would force me to be diligent.

There was something pathological about the whole situation. It was as though I wanted to deny feeling and submerge myself in a world of pure intellect. I was almost Ayn Randian in my quest.

No sooner had I enrolled in the course than I went into resistance. I was sullen in classes (and I am never sullen!) and, like Jack Burden in All the King’s Men, I began I began sleeping incessantly, taking four-hour naps and waking up exhausted. Then, perhaps to unconsciously provoke a confrontation, I quoted something the professor said in class in a newspaper article. It was innocuous enough but it broke an unwritten rule and was a rotten thing to do. In response, the teacher kicked me out of the class and gave me an F. He handled things badly but he was not wrong in his view that we had reached an impasse.

I took the class because I wanted to prove that I was a pure intellectual. Then a deep part of me, the emotional side that insists that there be balance, struck back with a series of symptoms. As I look back, I am struck by how I was able to orchestrate my victimization so that everyone saw my teacher as the villain. Instinctively I knew what it would take to set him off and I pushed his button. I’m not proud of myself, but I learned a lot from the experience.

For instance, I learned perspective: the earth did not open up and swallow me when I received the only failing grade of my life. Furthermore, I draw on the incident when I see my own students and advisees experiencing academic pressure. My Carleton advisor and the Carleton Dean of Students were at a loss, and I don’t want to be as ineffective.

When Vivian says, “I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language,” I see, and eventually so does she, the arrogance and the blindness in the statement. Donne is indeed wise. But for readers to tap into this wisdom takes more than cognitive intelligence. That’s my quarrel with Vivian’s teaching approach: she makes it seem as if interpretation is only a matter of intellect.

In fact, if there’s one problem with Edson’s play for, it’s that it doesn’t give Donne enough credit for operating in the emotional realm.  His poetry involves more than just dazzling wit. In fact, he himself was terrified by death and the prospect of hell. Sometimes his wit functions as psychological cover.

I also think that Vivian could have resorted to something other than The Runaway Bunny at the end of the play. It’s as though all canonical literature—not just Donne—has has been tainted by her academic approach so that only a children’s story escapes. But her mentor quotes a lovely passage from Hamlet as she dies: “Flights of angels guide thee to thy rest.” If we combine our emotional life, our experiences, and our intellect in the reading of literature, it will reveal its glories.

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Koch Inc: Oligarchs of Order and Ordure

The Koch brothers

The Koch brothers

It is truly dispiriting to watch all the money, much of it from undisclosed sources, that is being poured into this year’s election. (Thanks, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United decision.) By the time all is said and done, it is predicted that more than half a billion dollars will be spent on Senate and House races. The oil-rich Koch brothers say that they will be spending $300 million and they don’t have to say where.

If you want to understand why so many rightwing politicians are denying the fact of human-caused climate change, there’s a big part of your answer. It pays, at least in the short run, to believe that fossil fuels are not a problem.

Here’s a poem written by my father about oil barons like the Koches. The poem labels these figures “Officious Oligarchs of Order and Ordure” that would “Obliterate Oz,” by which he means our fair country. (As Joni Mitchell would put it, they are in the process of paving paradise.) The “Oceans of BUZZ,” I think, are the deliberately induced mind clouding that prevents us from seeing what they are really up to.

Pull aside the curtain, however, and the Wizards of Oz morph into the Lizards of Ooze.

O Is a Dirty Oil Man

By Scott Bates

O look out for the
Oil Barons the Omnipotent
Outrageous and Obnoxious
Owners of the O so declicate O-

Oligarchs of Order and
Ordure they would
for an Ocean of
buzziness busyness bossiness booziness

Opinionate and
Omniverous they are also
(but they don’t know it yet)

O look out
for the
(they think)

Lizards of Ooze

The one good piece of news I’ve heard is that the Rockefeller Foundation, which of course owes its money to Standard Oil, has decided that the future lies in renewable energy, not in ooze, and is pulling out of fossil fuel stocks. Who could have predicted that?

The poem appears in The ABC of Radical Ecology (1990).

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A Writer Walks into a Starbucks…

creators of Literary Starbucks blog

creators of Literary Starbucks blog

My student Windy Vorwick, who seems always on the outlook for literary blogs, has alerted me to yet another, this one featuring Starbucks. The conceit is that authors (or their characters) order a coffee in a way that reveals something about their lives or works.

The bloggers are students at Carleton College, which caught my eye as that is where I attended college. Maybe there’s something about my alma mater that produces bloggers. Anyway, it’s nice to see students paying attention to literature outside of class.

As one would expect, the items are hit and miss but some are a lot of fun and the blog as a whole works as a test of one’s literary knowledge. There’s also potential for the authors to grow into the idea as they go along, especially honing their skills at parody. Here’s a sampling. Enjoy:

Lady Macbeth goes up to the counter and sees three female baristas intently hovering over the espresso machine, chanting something unintelligible. She decides to order a Passion tea and proceeds to spill it all over her clothes and hands. She runs screaming to the bathroom. The three baristas cackle in uncanny unison.

Marlowe goes up to the counter and begins ordering a coffee, but before he can finish he is stabbed to death. No one will ever know what he was going to order, but some say it would have been better than what Shakespeare ordered.

William Carlos
orders shaken iced
tea lemonade.
It is delicious
so sweet
and so cold

J.D. Salinger goes up to the counter and orders an iced skinny flavored latte. He pays for it, but when the barista tries to give it to him, he instead attempts to engage her in conversation, claiming that he didn’t really want the coffee in the first place. Also, everyone is a phony.

Charlotte Brontë goes up to the counter for a cup of tea and Reader, she orders it!

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What Defoe Would Say about Ebola

1665 depiction of London plague

Depiction of the 1665 London plague

I’ve been revisiting Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) to see whether it can give us any insights into the Ebola epidemic that has broken out in West Africa and is now finding its way into Europe and the United. Here are a few preliminary observations and I’ll report back as I get deeper into the novel.

I’ll note first that Journal is indeed a novel, even though it reads like a journal. Defoe, who is regarded as the father of modern journalism, gives us a sense that he is right there witnessing the plague, even though he was only five in 1665, the time of the great London outbreak. But he did his homework before writing the work, which he frames as a memoir written by his uncle Henry Foe. The anecdotal way in which the novel is written is riveting.

Journal begins with a detail that is certainly not the case now, given the rapidity of modern social media. But Defoe foresees a time when the news will be more rapidly spread:

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

There are other similarities between now and then, however. For instance, as in several of the African locales, there were initial attempts to cover up the outbreak or to deny its severity:

But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true…

The recounting of small details, how the spread begins, sounds a lot like, say, the New Yorker’s account of how the Ebola epidemic started in a small village in Guinea. The Defoe passage continues,

…till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane. The family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible, but as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood, the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inquire about it, in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians  and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague. 

One of Defoe’s most striking observations is how extreme reactionary measures almost always backfire. Narrator Henry Foe sees this happening when the fearful populace calls for forced quarantines of sick families:

This is one of the reasons why I believed then, and do believe still, that the shutting up houses thus by force, and restraining, or rather imprisoning, people in their own houses, as I said above, was of little or no service in the whole. Nay, I am of opinion it was rather hurtful, having forced those desperate people to wander abroad with the plague upon them, who would otherwise have died quietly in their beds.

And further on:

[I]f anybody was taken sick in a family, before the master of the family let the examiners or any other officer know of it, he immediately would send all the rest of his family, whether children or servants, as it fell out to be, to such other house which he had so in charge, and then giving notice of the sick person to the examiner, have a nurse or nurses appointed, and have another person to be shut up in the house with them (which many for money would do), so to take charge of the house in case the person should die.

This was, in many cases, the saving a whole family, who, if they had been shut up with the sick person, would inevitably have perished. But, on the other hand, this was another of the inconveniences of shutting up houses; for the apprehensions and terror of being shut up made many run away with the rest of the family, who, though it was not publicly known, and they were not quite sick, had yet the distemper upon them; and who, by having an uninterrupted liberty to go about, but being obliged still to conceal their circumstances, or perhaps not knowing it themselves, gave the distemper to others, and spread the infection in a dreadful manner…

Although our medical knowledge is far superior to that of Defoe’s time, it is striking that we still seem to be more likely to panic and call for counterproductive solutions than to apply our knowledge in systematic and helpful ways. We know that the Ebola virus is spread through contact with secretions (this is why health workers are at such risk) and have the resources to intervene effectively, even if we don’t yet have a cure. But as Defoe’s novel makes clear, the rising hysteria is such that wise public policy procedures do not always prevail.

I’ll report back as I continue on with the novel and as developments continue to unfold.

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Making the Invisible Visible

Tuajuanda Jordan, newest St. Mary's College of MD president

Tuajuanda Jordan, newest St. Mary’s College of MD president

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man took center stage at the inauguration of our new president on Saturday. Given that Tuajuanda Jordan is a scientist, I was delighted to hear her quoting from the novel’s famous prologue to illustrate her vision for the college.

First, however, I owe a note of explanation to longtime readers of this blog. Four years ago I was reporting on the inaugural speech of our last president, Joe Urgo. I went on to write several posts about President Urgo’s speeches as he was an eloquent defender of the liberals arts and, as a William Faulkner and Willa Cather scholar, generally found a way to get one of both of those writers into his talks. Unfortunately, President Urgo was less successful as a president and made some bad personnel decisions, which alienated the community and, more critically, undermined our admissions efforts. He was therefore asked to resign.

Tuajuanda is the first African American president in the history of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. This fact had all the speakers, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, digging into Maryland’s racial past. Indeed, there seemed to be as much talk about Maryland’s colonial and slave history—the college is located in St. Mary’s City, where British Catholics settled in 1634—as there was about the future. Professor Jordan herself made references to a local slave market and to Maryland’s two most famous slaves, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

The theme of President Jordan’s talk was “making the invisible visible,” so it makes sense that she would turn to the theme of invisibility in Ellison’s book. She opened with one of my favorite passages from the famous prologue:

Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific. His body was one violent flow of rapid rhythmic action. He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent’s sense of time.

What does this have to do with invisibility? The explanation is intricate and ultimately very exciting. The unnamed narrator of Ellison’s novel is invisible because whites refuse to see him. While racism is awful, however, it also can be turned to one’s advantage. Here’s the narrator again:

Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.

Now to our college. When Tuajuanda talked about making the invisible visible, she wasn’t only thinking about herself as one who once would have been invisible. The unique mission of St. Mary’s is to provide a small liberal arts college experience to those who are relatively invisible, students of color and with lower incomes. Tuajuanda wants to increase our efforts to bring such students to St. Mary’s.

And there’s another invisibility that concerns Tuajuanda. St. Mary’s is frequently described as Maryland’s “hidden gem,” and Tuajuanda is determined that we not remain hidden. Part of the problem is that small state colleges are not taken as seriously as top notch private liberal arts colleges, perhaps because we are strapped for resources and can’t offer as many amenities. Our alumni have less money than those from many private institutions, making fund raising a notable challenge. But whatever the reasons for our invisibility, Tuajuanda has visibility in her sights.

Back to the Ellison passage. If, as a state college, we are taking a pummeling in the boxing ring of higher education, we need someone who can step through conventional wisdom and prove the smart money wrong. Tuajuanda already has a track record of thinking outside the box (or seeing through the nodes of time). When she was the director of the Science Education Alliance of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, she initiated programs to get undergraduates involved in original scientific research. It’s a model that many undergraduate programs now use. So if anyone can do it, she can.

One other thought. Tuajuanda’s Ph.D is in biochemistry, which leads me to think that this sentence from The Invisible Man may have special meaning to her:

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes.

President Jordan is out to change this peculiar disposition of the eyes. Pray that she succeeds.

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Enthralled by Anglicanism’s Theatricality

William Holman Hunt The Light of the World

Spiritual Sunday

Last month I posted on a wonderful Alice Munro short story, “The Age of Faith,” about a girl wrestling with issues of faith. In today’s post I look specifically at the protagonist’s experience with the town’s Anglican church since I myself am Anglican (or, as we call it in America, Episcopalian).

Most of the citizens in the Canadian town of Jubilee attend the United Church, whose congregation is made up of “former Methodists and Congregationalists and a good chunk of Presbyterians.” Del is frustrated, however, that while she wants to know whether God exists or not, her church focuses only on “what He approved of, or usually…what He did not approve of.” She does not feel that she can talk to anyone about this, however:

I did not think of taking my problem to any believer, even to Mr. McLaughlin the minister. It would have been unthinkably embarrassing. Also, I was afraid. I was afraid the believer might falter in defending his beliefs, or defining them, and this would be a setback for me. If Mr. McLaughlin, for instance, turned out to have no firmer a grasp on God than I did, it would be a huge though not absolute discouragement. I preferred to believe his grasp was good, and not try it out.

She chooses instead to try out a different denomination and chooses the Anglican church because it has a bell. Upon entering it, she is struck by William Holman Hunt’s famous painting of Christ knocking at the door (see above), the original of which is to be found in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:

I had not seen this picture before. The Christ in it differed in some small but important way from the Christ performing miracles in the United Church window. He looked more regal and more tragic, and the background against which he appeared was gloomier and richer, more pagan somehow, or at least Mediterranean. I was used to seeing him limp and shepherdly in Sunday-school pastels.

What really captures Del’s attention, however, is the rich Anglican liturgy and all the ceremony involved. For instance, she is struck by the statement of confession, which turned me off when I recited it as a child. To one like myself who always wanted to please people in authority and who felt that I was always doing things wrong, it simply fed my general sense of unworthiness:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord….

I can report that the Episcopal Church has since changed to a much more benign confessional prayer, perhaps because people felt that that the old one sounded too punitive and grim. As a result of the change, reciting the confession has become one of my favorite moments in the church service, a chance to reflect upon the past week and figure out how I could have had a more open heart and been a better neighbor:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.

What suffocated me, however, is what attracts Del:

So here was what I had not known, but must always have suspected, existed, what all those Methodists and Congregationalists and Presbyterians had fearfully abolished—the theatrical in religion. From the very first I was strongly delighted. Many things pleased me—the kneeling down on the hard board, getting up and knelling down again and bobbing the head at the altar at the mention of Jesus’ name, the recitation of the Creed which I loved for its litany of strange splendid things in which to believe. I liked the idea of calling Jesus Jesu sometimes; it made Him sound more kingly and magical, like a wizard or an Indian god; I liked the HIS on the pulpit banner, rich, ancient, threadbare design. The poverty, smallness, shabbiness, and bareness of the church pleased me, that smell of mold or mice, frail singing of the choir, isolation of the worshippers. If they are her, I felt, then it is probably all true. Ritual which in other circumstances might have seemed wholly artificial, lifeless, had here a kind of last-ditch dignity. The richness of the words against the poverty of the place. If I could not quite get a scent of God then at least I could get the scent of His old times of power, real power, not what He enjoyed in the United Church today; I could remember His dim fabled hierarchy, His lovely moldered calendar of feasts and saints. There they were in the prayer book, I opened on them by accident—saints’ days. Did anybody keep them? Saints’ days made me thing of something so different from jubilee—opens mows and half-timbered farmhouses and the Angelus and cancles, a procession of nuns in the snow, cloister walks, all quiet, a world of tapestry, secure in faith. Safety. If God could be discovered, or recalled, everything would be safe. Then you would see things that I saw—just the dull grain of wood in the floor boards, the windows of plain glass filled with thin branches and snowy sky—and the strange anxious paint that just seeing things could create would be gone. It seemed plain to me that this was the only way the world could be borne, the only way it could be borne—if all those atoms, galaxies of atoms, were safe all the time, whirling away in God’s mind. How could people rest, how could they even go on breathing and existing, until they were sure of this? They did go on, so they must be sure.

As I mentioned in my other post on the story, Del’s faith does not hold when it is really tested. In some ways, the exoticism of the Anglican rituals, which seems to hold so much promise, aren’t rooted deeply enough for Del and so can’t survive the hard knocks of tragedy. That sometimes happens when one goes journeying into a set of rituals which are not one’s own. They fail to sustain.

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KC Royals Storm into World Series

Mike Moustakis's spectacular catch

Mike Moustakis’s spectacular catch

Sports Saturday

So the wild card Kansas City Royals have upended all predictions and stormed their way into the World Series, upending the favored Angels and then the favored Orioles along the way. With their go-for-broke style, which at one point involved diving into a dugout to snag a foul ball (see picture), they captured the American League and the imagination of baseball fans everywhere.

Speaking of storming, their upending of all the experts’ predictions reminds me of the chaos we encounter in Shakespeare’s Tempest. In both instances, the design is to restore royals to the throne. Or to be precise, in Prospero’s case to restore a duke to his dukedom. Here’s Ariel describing the commotion he has unleashed to bring this about:

I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I’ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove’s lightnings, the precursors
O’ the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.
My brave spirit!

Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
Not a soul

But felt a fever of the mad and play’d
Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me: the king’s son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring,–then like reeds, not hair,–
Was the first man that leap’d; cried, ‘Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.’

Since being ousted by his brother 20 years earlier, Prospero has been plotting his return and, when the opportunity presents itself, he immediately seizes it. The desert island on which he and Miranda have been living is not unlike the American League cellar, the dwelling place of the Royals for decades. Like Prospero, the Royals were once powerful, reaching the World Series in 1980 and winning it in 1985. After years in the wilderness, they are returning to the big stage.

Can the Prosperian magic that has brought matters this far put the Royals back on the throne? Will they become the Miranda and Ferdinand of a brave new world? Giants, if not Caliban, stand in their way. Stay tuned.

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And a Woman Said, “Tell Us of Pain”

Frida, "The Broken Column"

Frida, “The Broken Column”

As part of my Friday blog post recovery project, I repost today one of a series of essays on pain–the one that mysteriously disappeared from my blog–written in October of 2009. (Links to the other posts are provided at the end of the essay.) At the time, I had one friend who was dying of cancer, and I also remembered vividly a previous student who was (and probably still is) suffering from a migraine that attacked her one day in high school and never left.

As an aside, I note that the student assistant who has been helping me identify and retrieve the missing posts suffers from perpetual pain herself. Since she was a girl, Vera Damanka has been been the victim of fibromyalgia, neuropathy, and possibly a variant of multiple sclerosis. Vera, who needs a wheel chair, has fashioned a student-designed neuroscience major and she hopes to attend medical school after she graduates. It meant a lot to me that she found meaningful the other essays on pain. She hasn’t seen this one yet and I dedicate it to her.


Here’s a poem that deals directly with pain, from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.  I don’t entirely understand it but I’m intrigued by some of its claims:

“And a woman spoke, saying, “Tell us of Pain.”
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”

Gibran, of course, may not be talking only about physical pain, but since that’s our focus this week, let’s read the poem with that in mind.  “Much of your pain is self chosen” is an intriguing idea. Novelist Rachel Kranz, whose excellent response to yesterday’s post I recommend, has taught me that our illnesses often can be interpreted as metaphorical expressions of psychological trauma.  (Of course, misfortune that is clearly not your doing doesn’t count unless you believe in kharma or paying for sins in a past life.)  If we interpret our pain accurately, we achieve a deeper self knowledge and learn about the issues we must confront.

I would like to believe, as Gibran advises, that we could approach our pain with wonder and joy, the way we should approach the miracles of daily life.  It seems hard to imagine doing so, however, when one is fighting a headache or experiencing stabbing sinus pains (how my own pain usually manifests).  Yet I heard once that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose sensuous poetry captures his openness to life, rejected pain medication when he was dying of leukemia. That was so that he could be open to all that life dished out, the painful as well as the pleasurable.  The seasonal changes, as Gibran puts it.

Did he watch the world with serenity in that state?  It’s hard to imagine.

For a counter vision, there is Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (2000). I don’t like the book the way I do his earlier works, but I vividly remember the book’s protagonist trying to use transcendental meditation to cope with the pain of insect attacks and other discomforts while traveling through the Amazon jungle. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally gives up and opts for the cocaine that his native guides use as a painkiller.

So Romantics and visionaries embrace pain as a breaking of the stone at the heart of the fruit, trusting that new understanding will emerge.  They advise that we drink the bitter cup, perhaps a reference to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  (According to Matthew, the day before his crucifixion, Christ prayed that God would “let this cup pass from me” and then surrendering, acceded to his destiny: “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”)  Tranquil acceptance and trust in the “tender hand of the Unseen,”  the Potter who weeps for us, is the recommended response to pain.

But the comic novelist, who focuses on the non-transcendent body, says that pain is a pain and that’s all there is to it.

I wish Robbins were wrong, but it’s easier to say that pain is a powerful tool for enlightenment when one is feeling well than when one is suffering.


Other Posts on Pain

Perpetual Migraines and Julian of Norwich 

Can We Imagine Another’s Pain?

Breaking through Pain’s Solitude

Trusting that Good Can Come from Ill

Posted in Gibran (Kahlil), Rilke (Rainer Maria), Robbins (Tom) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Hope in a Captured Fish

Winslow Homer, "The Fog Warning"

Winslow Homer, “The Fog Warning”

Yesterday I reported on my faculty book group’s discussion of analytic philosopher Adrienne Martin’s How We Hope: A Moral Psychology. Members of the English Department brought in two poems to supplement the discussion, and in my post I looked at Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is that thing with feathers.” Today I turn to the other poem, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”

First, however, I share some clarity I got from talking about a subject both philosophically and literarily. Philosophy, at least as Adrienne Martin practices it, is better at analyzing hope that conveying what it feels like to hope. Analytical knowledge offers up one kind of knowledge—a precise and scientific knowing—but it doesn’t appear to provide the intuitive understanding that comes with inhabiting a literary work. Dickinson does far better than Martin at conveying how remarkable a “thing” hope is.

This is not a criticism of philosophy. Each discipline has its own strengths and limitations, and a liberally educated person will look at the world through multiple lenses. In some ways literary scholars, with their systematic interpretations, are more akin to philosophers than they are to creative writers and can use philosophic tools to sort out literary vision. On the other hand, by making literature their subject, they may be more apt than philosophers to appreciate the special kind of knowing that artists provide.

Turning now to literary authors, they themselves benefit from knowing philosophy. I believe it was Italian social philosopher Antonio Gramsci who argued that writers should be conversant with the most recent advances in philosophy as they attempt to make sense of the world. There is a rational as well as an intuitive dimension to art, and writers have a special facility for synthesizing sense and verbal sound.

I should note that Plato doesn’t agree. In The Ion, Socrates  interviews an artist–a rhetor who gives dramatic readings–and concludes (or gets Ion to conclude) that artistic power is not science (artifice) but divine madness (inspiration). Is this an instance of a philosopher disrespecting the arts as some artists disrespect philosophy? I myself would argue for “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

So what insights does Bishop’s “The Fish” give us about hope? Here’s the poem:

The Fish

By Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels-until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go. 

As the poem begins, it appears that the fish is more resigned than hopeful: it doesn’t fight at all. The poem is not about the fish, however, but the meaning the poet gets from what she sees. As she examines the animal closely, she recognizes that it has escaped death time and again. At least five times it has been caught by people and escaped.

The more she looks, the more she sees–the poem moves beyond its short, matter-of-fact sentences–and the reader shares her growing awe and excitement. The dangling threads appear as military ribbons, which the fish coming to resemble an old combat veteran, and the speaker feels herself in the presence of ancient wisdom, begotten from brushes with death and the experience of suffering. Suddenly everything in her small and somewhat commonplace life is transformed. The rented boat with its rusty engine, its oily puddle of bilge water, sun-cracked thwarts, is filled with rainbow, rainbow, rainbow.

The fish escapes certain death to swim once again. It is not fruitless to hope against hope.

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What Does It Mean to Hope against Hope?

Théodore Géricault, "Raft of the Medusa"

Théodore Géricault, “Raft of the Medusa”

My faulty faculty book group talked about hope recently. Specifically, we discussed analytic philosopher Adrienne Martin’s book How We Hope: A Moral Psychology. The two English Department member of the group brought poems about hope to supplement the discussion.

Analytic philosophy is not my thing so I can’t do justice to Martin’s attempt to explain how hope works, but here’s an attempt. Martin spent two years in a cancer ward as a bioethicist observing the operations of hope in terminally ill patients who were receiving experimental drug treatments. Martin says that, because it was so clear that the patients were going to die, the doctors did not have to worry about purveying false hopes to their patients. Instead, the focus was on whether patients could use hope in beneficial ways.

Martin lists a number of the questions about hope that emerged from her study:

Is it really the last and best bulwark against crushing despair? If so, how does it work, and how is it lost? What does it mean to say hope is “false”? Is supporting hope ever literally deceptive? What are the best forms of hope? How does hope influence deliberation and decision-making?

And one other question from another situation:

How could hope seem to one person an unrealistic vagary and to another a solid anchor in a storm?

In seeking to address such questions, Martin takes as her base point of departure analytic philosophy’s “orthodox” definition of hope. This contends that hope is “a combination of the desire for an outcome and the belief that the outcome is possible but not certain.” Finding this definition to be inadequate, especially when dealing with the phenomenon of “hoping against hope,” Martin looks back at various philosophical debates. These include such figures as Aquinas, Hume, and Kant as well as more recent philosophers.

In the end, she arrives at a description of hope that includes one’s predisposition, one’s rational calculations, and one’s pragmatic concerns. If I understand her right, this is like saying one may have a hopeful or a despairing predisposition, one looks at a situation to figure out the odds, and one assesses the practical benefits of hoping. Even if the odds are terrible, there might still be worthwhile reasons to hope. Martin quotes philosopher Ariel Meirav, who turns to a Stephen King story-turned-movie, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” to show how these different element might interact:

Andy lives in the hope of escape, whereas Red despairs of this. Indeed, Red thinks that hope should be resisted, suppressed, for hoping in this virtually hopeless situation would threaten his sanity…Red will say, “I grant you it is possible, but the chance is only one in a thousand!” whereas Andy will say, “I grant you the chance is only one in a thousand, but it is possible!”

Of course, when we read or watch the Stephen King story, we know that both King and Hollywood tilt the genre towards making the impossible possible. We seek out such genre fiction precisely because it affirms our hopes. Or we do so unless we are Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest:

Cecily: I hope [the three volume novel that you wrote] did not end happily?  I don’t like novels that end happily.  They depress me so much.
Miss Prism.  The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Cecily.  I suppose so. But it seems very unfair.

Because our lives are not novels, better examples are those drawn from real life, such as from two of the patients that Martin observed:

Alan and Bess, the two phase 1 cancer research participants, strongly desire that the experimental drug will turn out to be a cure, and they agree that this outcome would be a “miracle”—the chances are less than one percent. Bess, however, has incorporated these attitudes, her desire and her probability assignment, into a justificatory rationale for hopeful feelings and activities. She stands ready to justify relying on a cure in making her future plans, though she also thinks she ought to have a back-up plan in place. She also thinks it is justifiable to spend a fair amount of time imagining scenarios related to a cure, such as good news on her next scan, or the return of health and energy. Moreover, she sees it as justifiable that, when she engages in these fantasies, she feels a positive feeling of anticipation—indeed, this is what we might call the feeling of hope, its occurrent affective presence.

In the original version of Cancer Research, I characterized Alan as hopeful but not as hopeful as Bess. He does not, I said, really hope against hope. Under the incorporation analysis, the difference is one of degree. Alan perhaps stands ready to justify some of these activities; he thinks it is reasonable to fantasize a bit about good outcomes and feel fairly positive about his fantasies. But he hesitates to go as far as Bess. That 1 percent chance, by his lights, permits a degree of hope, but it is still extremely low, and he is careful not to go too far and focus too much on the possibility of a cure.

I have to admit that philosophical analysis doesn’t come easily to me so it is with some relief I turn to poetry. One of literature’s most famous poems about hope, of course, is by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,      

And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.      

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;        
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.

Hearing hope’s tune in the gale is an example of hoping against hope. Indeed, Dickinson notes that the storm would have to be sore indeed for us to stop hoping. I suspect that, for her, even a 1% survival chance of survival is not that sore.

I’m also struck by how Dickinson, unlike our analytic philosopher, doesn’t spell out exactly what hope is or what it desires. It is a “thing” with feathers—not a bird—and it sings a wordless tune. Although, as Martin notes, calculation may enter in, hope is not only about calculation. It is more a warmth and a sweetness that never stops at all. It also defies calculation in never asking anything of us in return.

My colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black brought in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” which I’ll discuss tomorrow.

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How Do You LIke to Go Up in a Swing?

Eulalie, "The Swing"

Eulalie, “The Swing”

We currently are in the midst of our fall break and I celebrated by spending the day with Esmé, my two-year-old granddaughter. For half an hour I pushed her in a swing tied to a maple tree in our neighbor’s yard. She probably would have insisted on swinging even longer if she hadn’t had to leave.

As she gazed in fascination at the leafy branches above her, I couldn’t help but think of “The Swing” from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). I liked it as a child but had never examined it critically before. Looking at it in the light of Esmé’s enjoyment, I realized it captures many of the essential elements of swinging. Here’s the poem:

The Swing

By Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
  Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
  Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall,
  Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
  Over the countryside—
Till I look down on the garden green,
  Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
  Up in the air and down!

The poem conveys the regular rhythm of swinging, along with the sudden vistas that are opened up. It is irrelevant that the vistas described in the poem probably would not be witnessed from an actual swing. What Stevenson captures is how the child experiences swinging. I certainly witnessed such wonder in Esme’s eyes.

And then the session ends and the child comes down.

My mother believes that A Child’s Garden of Verses is underrated, and I think she’s right. Although some of the poems have an overly sentimentalized view of childhood, others capture the complex inner lives of children. Take “The Unseen Playmate,” for instance, which captures an interior dialogue that children engage in when they play alone. The poem has an eery or uncanny feel to it:

When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
‘Tis he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
‘Tis he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

‘Tis he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to your sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
‘Tis he will take care of your playthings himself!

If you grew up with the collection, it’s worth revisiting it. Or visiting it for the first time.

Further thought: Here’s a connection I got from a blogger when I was looking for an illustration. A favorite passage of mine from Charlotte’s Web was probably inspired by “The Swing”:

Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county.  It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway.  At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on.  It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed.  you climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy.  Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat.  Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped.  For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair.  Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope.  Then you would drop down, down, down, out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so  high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.

I now realize that my father must have been inspired by the poem and E. B. White both when he set up a rope swing in our back yard. One would hold the swing with one hand and climb to the top of our jungle gym. The ride, which was short but intense, seemed to take us over the horse fence in our neighbor’s yard.

One other thought: I’ve just made a connection between our rope swing and my father’s love of flying, which I’ve written about numerous times (for instance, here).

Posted in Stevenson (Robert Louis) | 3 Comments

Krauss’ Book about Imaginary Books

Mary Ferris Kelly, "Woman Reading in a Study"

Mary Ferris Kelly, “Woman Reading in a Study”

I’m a sucker for fiction about books, which is one reason why I love Jorge Luis Borges. In many of his short stories Borges will describe imaginary books, sometimes even quoting select passages. There is a Borgesian touch to Nicole Krauss’s delightful novel History of Love (spoiler alert), and Krauss reveals her debt by mentioning Borges in passing. (She says he lives close to a bookstore where a critical purchase is made but, because he is blind, he no longer visits it.) Reflecting on her book gives me a chance to understand why stories about books fascinate me so much.

In the novel a Polish Jew, Leo Gursky, survives the Holocaust by hiding out in a forest. His memory of his adolescent sweetheart, who has inspired his book The History of Love, helps keep him alive. Unfortunately, when he makes it to America to join up with her, he discovers that she was pregnant when they separated and that she has married someone else. He agrees not to reveal himself to the boy. He has learned how to be invisible and now he must stay so.

He watches his son from afar, however, and celebrates when he becomes a famous author. He thinks his own novel has been lost, but the reader knows that it has somehow made its way into print, translated from Yiddish into Spanish. His son falls in love with the book, even though he doesn’t know his father is the author, and the various twists and turns involve an adolescent girl involved in literary detective work as she makes the connection between father, son, and book.

As in Borges’ imagined books, we never know if an actual book could ever live up to the intriguing excerpts we are given. Gursky writes in the style of the real life Bruno Schulz, the Polish author who wrote the haunting Street of Crocodiles before being executed by one of Stalin’s firing squads. (Krauss pays homage to Schulz throughout the novel.) Here’s an excerpt where Gursky describes Alma’s effect on him. Remember that this vision helped keep him alive during the war:

If you remember the first time you saw Alma, you also remember the last. She was shaking her head. Or disappearing across a field. Or through your window. Come back, Alma! You shouted. Come back! Come back!

But she didn’t.

And though you were grown up by then you felt as lost as a child. And though your pride was broken, you felt as vast as your love for her. She was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence.

For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.

Of course there are certain cases in which the boy in question refuses to stop shouting at the top of his lungs for Alma. Stages a hunger strike. Pleads. Fills a book with his love. Carries on until she has no choice but to come back. Every time she tries to leave, knowing it’s what has to be done, the boy stops her, begging like a fool. And so she always returns, no matter how often she leaves or how far she goes, appearing soundlessly behind him and covering his eyes with her hands, spoiling for him anyone who could ever come after her.

Stories about books evoke the deep emotions that we who are book lovers associate with books. Thus, when we come across excerpts from imaginary books, it is as though we have discovered the portal to a magical world, and we imagine the marvels that must await us there. In a story of unrequited love, we also tremble on the edge of possibility. Our longing for love and our love of books intermingle, each one reinforcing the other. All around us the world shimmers.

Posted in Borges (Jorge Luis), Krauss (Nicole) | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Celebrating the Golden Calf

Filippiino Lippi, "Worship of the Golden Calf"

Filippiino Lippi, “Worship of the Golden Calf”

Spiritual Sunday

I stumbled across an interesting interpretation of the story of the golden calf, which is one of today’s Episcopalian lectionary readings. The story itself is open to multiple readings, but in the midrash or interpretation of Reconstructionist Rabbi Jacob J. Staub, it represents a rebellion by the people of Israel against an overly doctrinaire and grim version of Judaism.

In this reading, Moses is a psychologically wounded man who wants to impose his narrow vision of Jahweh on the Israelites, which he does by licensing the priestly class to slaughter all those who disagree. (The book of Exodus says that 3000 people were killed.) Straub’s Moses sounds a bit like Freud’s repressive patriarch in Moses and Monotheism.

I don’t recognize all the names in the third stanza but they seem to refer to a historical time when the Israelites worshipped multiple gods, some of which were later explained away as different names for the One God (for instance, Adonai). “Ashira” may be Asherah, once believed to be the female consort of Jahweh. Apparently Judaism was not a strictly monotheistic religion until some time after the Babylonian exile, which was when the Book of Exodus was written. While historians don’t have a solid date for the historical Moses, some place him around 700 years earlier.

In any event, Straub imagines a free-flowing spirit that is chillingly repressed by priests. Moses himself, meanwhile, ignores his wife Tzipporah and his sons. Straub wants Judaism to return to what he imagines are its more celebratory and less patriarchal roots. Our problem is not that we worship the golden calf, he says. It’s that we worship orthodoxy.

The Golden Calf

By Jacob J. Staub

From the valley below, the ebullient notes of celebrants, 
the beat of tambourines liberated after four hundred years of abuse.

Sing unto the One, 
Who smites the tyrant, 
Who hears the cries of the oppressed,
Who parts the Sea and plants the seeds for generations yet unborn.

Ana, pool your gold. Adonai, give it to God.
Hoshi’a, smelt it down. Na, cast the throne.
Ashira, link your arms. Ladonai, circle the fire.
Ki, spin into oblivion.
Ga’oh, let go, let go, let go.
Ga’ah, God is One, we are one.
With broken bodies of former slaves, we undulate, 
following the Source enthroned into the wilderness of promise.

And up over the ridge, the Levites wait, in formation,
swords on thighs, servants of the Lord, privileged 
to follow orders, to do as they are told.
A martial clan descended from the heroes of the Battle of Shechem,
they wear their forebears’ medals proudly.
They have been instructed in the proper use of herbs and oils,
in the dire consequences of disobedience, of initiative, of openheartedness.
In formation, they await the signal from Moses, down from the mountain,
to charge, to slay three thousand defenseless, spent from a night of celebration.

Moses claims that You love only him, 
that we were spared because he intervened,
that You do not like our offering.
Moses, who has never seen Your face—
not in the silent, steamy eyes of Tzipporah,
from whom he stays cloistered,
not in the bloody foreskins of his sons,
whom he ignores in the name of his holy work. 
Moses, who doesn’t touch.
Moses, who doesn’t dance.
Moses, the bridegroom of blood.

Guide him please, Holy One of Compassion.
We don’t need another Pharaoh to lead us into freedom.
Love him doubly, forgive him his wrath.
He was taken as an infant from his mother.
Only You know what befell the lad in the palace,
but below, all we see is his sweltering rage.
Otherwise, as You surely can foresee,
generations will mistake
fervent worship for idolatry.

Posted in Staub (Jacob) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Tom Brady Channels Medea’s Fury

John William Waterhouse, study for Medea

John William Waterhouse, study for Medea

Sports Saturday

When I watched the New England Patriots run roughshod over the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday, I was struck by their fury, especially that of quarterback Tom Brady. There were a couple of times on the opening drive when the future Hall of Famer attempted himself to bull through the defense, quarterback sneaking for a first down and then attempting to do so again for a touchdown.

When you’re looking for literature about fury, there’s no better place to go than the ancient Greeks, especially Euripides. I’ve decided to focus on Medea in today’s post. First, however, here’s the current situation with New England.

After Kansas City shellacked the Patriots two weeks ago, Schadenfreude seized NFL fans and commentators everywhere. This was no surprise given that the Patriots have dominated the league for so long and that their coach Bill Belichick makes no attempt to be agreeable. (Belichick’s name contains the Latin prefix for war, and belligerent and bellicose are words that fit him.) Many were glad to see New England humbled and not a few wondered whether Brady’s illustrious career was coming to an end.

Some of the quarterback’s fury, therefore, was directed against the doubters, and for one game at least he proved them wrong. But some suggested that Brady was furious also at the Patriots’ organization. While Brady’s archrival Peyton Manning has been given all the role players he needs to succeed, the Patriots sometimes appear to take Brady for granted. Although he is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, he has not been given skilled wide receivers who can stretch the field or skilled linemen who will protect him from sacks. Management thinks he can make do with lesser parts and didn’t seriously try to re-sign his good friend and reliable safety valve Wes Welker (who is now breaking records playing for Manning). They also traded away the heart of the offensive line, Logan Mankins, because he wouldn’t take a pay cut.

Brady, who had restructured his salary so that the Patriots would use the savings to support him, is rumored to have felt betrayed. When you have a future hall of fame quarterback, don’t you do everything you can to make sure he has everything he needs to win now, even if it means sacrificing your immediate future? That is what the Denver Broncos have been doing with Manning. The Patriots, by contrast, used their second round draft choice to choose another quarterback, one who they hope will be Brady’s successor. While the Bengals may have been the victims of Brady’s fury, therefore, perhaps his fury wasn’t directed only at them.

Now to Medea’s fury. After helping Jason obtain the Golden Fleece and then instigating a murder on his behalf, she learns that he wishes to marry the king of Corinth’s daughter, which will be a significant social step up. After all, Medea is only a barbarian. Meanwhile, his new father-in-law, understandably, desires that Medea and her sons be exiled. Think of this exchange of women as a blockbuster trade in a league where “what have you done for me lately?” is the reigning philosophy.

Medea’s nursemaid, lamenting the day her mistress ever met Jason, explains the situation:

Then my mistress,
Medea, never would’ve sailed away                                             
to the towers in the land of Iolcus,
her heart passionately in love with Jason.
She’d never have convinced those women,
Pelias’ daughters, to kill their father.
She’d not have come to live in Corinth here,
with her husband and her children—well loved

in exile by those whose land she’d moved to.
She gave all sorts of help to Jason.
That’s when life is most secure and safe,
when woman and her husband stand as one.
But that marriage changed. Now they’re enemies.
Their fine love’s grown sick, diseased, for Jason,
leaving his own children and my mistress,
is lying on a royal wedding bed.
He’s married the daughter of king Creon,
who rules this country. As for Medea,
that poor lady, in her disgrace, cries out,
repeating his oaths, recalling the great trust
in that right hand with which he pledged his love.
She calls out to the gods to witness
how Jason is repaying her favors.

If you know the story, you know how Medea gets her revenge. Death and mayhem are the order of the day—this is a Greek tragedy after all—with Medea first killing Jason’s bride and father-in-law with a poisoned crown and poisoned robe and then slaying their two young sons. The description of the bride dying is one of the most gruesome in all of literature. Some Bengal fans might have felt that their own heads were on fire as they watched Brady take their team apart:

[T]he poor girl woke up,
breaking her silent fit with a dreadful scream.
She was suffering a double agony—
around her head the golden diadem
shot out amazing molten streams of fire
burning everything, and the fine woven robe,                            
your children’s gift, consumed the poor girl’s flesh.
She jumped up from the chair and ran away,                                   
all of her on fire, tossing her head, her hair,
this way and that, trying to shake off
her golden crown—but it was fixed in place,
and when she shook her hair, the fire blazed
twice as high. Then she fell down on the ground,
overcome by the disaster. No one
could recognize her, except her father.

Of course, there’s one significant difference: Brady’s fury actually benefitted his coach and the Patriots. Given Belichick’s genius, maybe he even intended this to happen. I’ve compared him to Professor Moriarty in the past, and maybe Professor Belichick is psychologically manipulating his quarterback. A successful coach once told me that coaches who win regularly take advantage of all kinds of emotions, including team anger at themselves.

So who knows what is going to happen? Maybe the strength of Brady’s fury will carry his team to the Super Bowl. But if not, don’t be surprised if there is a day of reckoning and Brady leaves the team, although probably not in a dragon-drawn chariot. After which Patriot fans can say, along with Euripides’ chorus,

 Zeus on Olympus,
dispenses many things.     
Gods often contradict
our fondest expectations.
What we anticipate
does not come to pass.
What we don’t expect
some god finds a way                                                    
to make it happen.
So with this story.

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

You Don’t Have to Read between the Lines

Edouard Manet, "The Reader"

Edouard Manet, “The Reader”

To my unpleasant surprise, I recently discovered that some of my past Better Living through Beowulf posts have simply disappeared from the web. Not many, but even a few missing essays are enough to shake the confidence of one who thinks that what he writes has the permanence of paper. It is as though, to borrow from Keats’ gravestone epitaph, they have been “writ in water.”

I’m in the process of trying to retrieve them and have had partial success. I plan to devote the next few Fridays to my reclamation project and will repost these lost essays if I think they are worth saving.

Here’s an August 27, 2009 post, slightly amended, on Robert Scholes’ very useful book, The Crafty Reader (2001). Enjoy.


Since, in a previous post, I seconded Robert Scholes’ lament (in The Crafty Reader) that literature is often taught very poorly, I owe it to readers to talk explicitly how literature should be taught instead. Scholes has many useful suggestions as he pushes against the notion that literary interpretation calls for “reading between the lines.” Scholes says that we should rather look at how literature intersects with life.

Scholes describes reading as a craft, not an art, and to develop into a good or “crafty” reader he recommends “beginning by devoting a lot of time to a single poet whose poems clearly emerge from and connect to the ordinary events of human life.” He suggests choosing a poet that you already like, that writes on issues that interest you, and that seems to have a good range (so that you get a sense of the different directions that poetry can go).

Scholes chooses for an example the 17th century carpe diem poet Robert Herrick. There are a wide variety of things that Herrick does with his poetry, including sometimes just insulting people. The more we get to know Herrick, Scholes says, the more we start to understand why he chose the topics that he did, why he set up his poetic arguments as he did, why he chose certain verse forms. In other words, by situating Herrick’s poem in the real world and seeing it as a conversation with actual readers, one takes poetry out of any mystical realm—a realm in which there are secret meanings—and sees it instead as understandable human interaction. The human interaction may be complex, but it’s not mysterious.

Scholes offers up eight suggestions for becoming a good reader of poetry. Since I have evolved to teaching poetry this way myself, I find it gratifying that someone else would have laid it all out in a series of steps:

1. First, read poetry as if it were prose. Figure out what it’s saying. Scholes says that this includes paying attention to punctuation marks, spacing, and layout and making sure you understand every word. Also, he tells us to take note of strange words and words that seem to be used strangely.

2. Scholes repeatedly says to “situate” the poem. Ask yourself “what kind of poem this is, where it comes from, who is speaking, who is being addressed, what the situation is in which these words are uttered or about which they have been spoken.”

3. If the situation is unfamiliar, Scholes says to find out about it, along with the author’s life and time period. This is easier now than ever, what with Wikipedia only a mouse click away. Sometimes you can get information by discussing the poem with others.

4. Because some poetry is aimed at persuading readers, Scholes says to “consider whether you are persuaded or not.” When I teach Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” we discuss whether Marvell’s poem would in fact persuade a woman to go to bed with him. (Some say that, while Marvell’s argument itself is not persuasive, his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor makes him attractive.)

5. For those poems that aim to generate an emotion, Scholes says to identify that emotion and to consider whether you share that emotion. Are you inspired to become adventurous after reading Tennyson’s “Ulysses”? Or do you feel that Ulysses is being melodramatic and self absorbed and should just settle down and act his age?

6. Along the same lines, Scholes says that, if the poem “addresses a condition of being or represents a human event, consider whether it speaks for you, applies to your condition, or not.” Often the poems that hit us the hardest will be those that speak to experiences we have had. It helps to acknowledge this in reading a poem.

7. Now we’re ready to look at how we and others feel about the poem. “Do you—or they—like it, admire it, despise it, remain indifferent to it?” he asks and then advises discussing our responses with others.

8. Only after we have gone through these other steps, Scholes says, should we look at the form of the poem (“the specific words, the figures of speech, the use of rhyme or rhythm, the relation of the sounds to the sense of the poem”). Formal matters are more likely to be of interest once we know what the poem is saying and how we feel about it.

Scholes is essentially saying that teachers are not priests initiating students into holy mysteries but artisans teaching a particular craft. To the degree that poetry has a mystical or spiritual dimension, perhaps his approach doesn’t do poetry complete justice. But since too often poetry appears to students as a realm accessible only to special initiates, Scholes provides a useful corrective.

Posted in Herrick (Robert) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Eclipses in Literature

Hergé, from "Kings of the Sun"

Hergé, from “Temple of the Sun”

I hope you had a chance to see the lunar eclipse yesterday. In southern Maryland it went full at about 6:45 in the morning, with the earth’s shadow turning the moon a dusky red. A line from Lucille Clifton’s “poem in praise of menstruation” came to mind as I gazed at moon:

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon 

Literary passages about eclipses, however, are generally about the solar, not the lunar, variety. There is a racist scene, which the author later regretted, in a children’s comic strip I grew up with. In Temple of the Sun (1949) by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé (see above), the intrepid reporter Tintin uses his foreknowledge of an eclipse to escape being burned alive. Hergé later acknowledged that many ancient civilizations understood eclipses very well and regretted his depiction of the Incas.

He may have gotten the idea from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hank, who has been transported back to Arthurian England, uses his foreknowledge of an eclipse to escape execution. Here he is when he realizes that he has an escape:

“And I am to be burned alive to-morrow.”  The boy shuddered.

“At what hour?”

“At high noon.”

“Now then, I will tell you what to say.”  I paused, and stood over that cowering lad a whole minute in awful silence; then, in a voice deep, measured, charged with doom, I began, and rose by dramatically graded stages to my colossal climax, which I delivered in as sublime and noble a way as ever I did such a thing in my life:  “Go back and tell the king that at that hour I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the earth shall famish and die, to the last man!”

I had to carry the boy out myself, he sunk into such a collapse. I handed him over to the soldiers, and went back.

Because of a date mix-up, there is some suspense but eventually the plan works out. Hank plays the scene for maximum theatrical effect:

With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky.  I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning!  The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man!  The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless.  I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next.  When it was, I was ready.  I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun.  It was a noble effect.  You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave. 

After bargaining for his release and various powers, Hank has to stall the crowd—he can’t remember how long an eclipse lasts—but finally he sees the end near:

There was no response, for a moment, in that deep darkness and that graveyard hush.  But when the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out, a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude…

Twain ultimately is a bit more humble than Hergé, however. Maybe science can help us predict eclipses but it also can unleash holy hell upon the world. Hank’s vision of using technology to reform Arthurian England instead turns into an apocalyptic nightmare, and we see weapons of mass destruction unleashed to wipe out English knights. The 1889 novel all but foretells the devastation that World War I will visit upon the world 25 years later.

Men fantasize about blotting out the sun, women dream of being in sync with the moon. Which sounds healthier to you?

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Comedy & Sentiment, a Potent Mixture

William Churchill, "Woman Reading on a Settee"

William Churchill, “Woman Reading on a Settee”

I’ve been saving a Pelagia Horgan New Yorker article on “crying while reading” for a while, but now is a good time to share it as we are studying “the Age of Sensibility” in my Couples Comedy class. Comedy, to be sure, is generally seen as opposed to sensibility, a contrast of the head and the heart. Mixed together, however, comedy and romance become a potent genre, as we well know from our romantic comedies. One sees various 18th century authors, including Jane Austen, exploring the possibilities. (I end the course with Sense and Sensibility.)

I begin my course with Restoration comedies of the late 17th century in which one finds very little sentiment. That’s because Charles II’s English was still a very formal society with little interest in people “spilling their guts.” After all, as that revealing phrase suggests, to be emotional is to be vulnerable. I pointed out to my students that Hobbes’ theory of laughter reigned at the time and, in Hobbes’ vision, to be vulnerable is to be dead.

Vulnerability would become something positive in the 18th century, however, with French philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau leading the way. In works like Julie, or the Nouvelle Héloise and Confessions, the French philosophe championed the softer emotions. “I feel, therefore I am” was essentially Rousseau’s response to the Age of Reason.

The New Yorker piece talks about Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s million-word epistolary novel that disrupted households all over England as women neglected their chores and retired to their “closets” (small rooms) to bathe in the travails of kidnapped Clarissa Harlowe. Horgan quotes a fan letter written to Richardson by one Lady Bradshaigh:

I verily believe I have shed a pint of tears, and my heart is still bursting, tho’ they cease not to flow at this moment, nor will, I fear, for some time … in agonies would I lay down the book, take it up again, walk about the room, let fall a flood of tears, wipe my eyes, read again, perhaps not three lines, throw away the book, crying out, excuse me, good Mr. Richardson, I cannot go on.

Some kind of peak was reached in 1771 with the publication of Henry MacKenzie’s novel Man of Feeling. In one later edition of the book, available on-line, an editor counted 47 passages with tears in them, and that’s not including the passages where people are choked up. (The on-line version helpfully has links to all 47.) Here’s a sampling:

The desperation that supported her was lost; she fell to the ground, and bathed his feet with her tears.

Harley undertook her cause: he related the treacheries to which she had fallen a sacrifice, and again solicited the forgiveness of her father.  He looked on her for some time in silence; the pride of a soldier’s honour checked for a while the yearnings of his heart; but nature at last prevailed, he fell on her neck and mingled his tears with hers.

Of course, wherever there is a new trend, there is a reaction. Older people and traditionalists were suspicious of the new craze for expressing feelings, and one also saw a sincerity crisis where people faked tender feelings in order to manipulate others. Richard Sheridan captured this in School for Scandal, where the villain, Joseph Surface, poses as a “man of sentiment.” But despite the reaction, sentiment was here to stay, and Horgan’s article tracks it through the 19th century and into the 20th. For instance:

In the nineteenth century, the meaning of tears evolved in two divergent directions. Some writers sought to provoke ever more “elevated” feelings in their readers: Victorian sentimentalists wrote tear-inducing scenes, often centered on the death of a child, in an effort to inspire social and political reform. (Think of Dickens, or Harriet Beecher Stowe.) Other writers embraced the idea of an “addiction” to emotion. The “sensation” novel, a different type of Victorian best-seller, showed that tears could be enjoyable in themselves. Sensation novels were the forerunners of the modern thriller, mystery, and tearjerker; heavy on adultery, blackmail, bigamy, secrets, madness, and melodramatic twists and revelations, they were known for creating physical “sensations” in their readers— goosebumps, shivers, a pounding heart, and, in melodramas such as Ellen Wood’s “East Lynne,” tears. But these were tears without moral purpose or effect: sensation for sensation’s sake. Reviewers found the novels distasteful; readers bought them in droves.

In my couples comedy class, I talked yesterday about how Tom Jones, one of literature’s comic masterpieces, also has a heavy dose of sentiment. The touch of a baby’s hand, for instance, outweighs for Allworthy any arguments against sending the child away. We’ll be looking at the mixture of sentiment and comedy in Fanny Burney’s Evelina and also in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. In the latter work, Austen is concerned about the overly sentimental Marianne, who comes close to ruin and close to death because of the way she throws herself into affairs of the heart. But because she learns to balance sensibility with sense, there is a happy ending, and along the way there are some fairly humorous jabs at her sensitivity, such as Elinor noting that her rapturous conversations with Willoughby about the romantic poetry of William Cowper means that they’re rapidly going to run out of things to say.

Although there are exceptions, for the most part the 19th century didn’t exhibit the comic genius that the 18th century did, in part because it was so invested in a literature of feeling. But it did end with the brilliantly comic Oscar Wilde, who memorably mocked Dickens’ conclusion to The Old Curiosity Shop, which had readers everywhere sobbing.

‘One would have to have a heart of stone,” he wrote, “to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”

Sometimes the heart wins, sometimes the head, and sometimes they find a way to work together.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Fielding (Henry), MacKenzie (Henry), Richardson (Samuel), Sheridan (Richard), Wilde (Oscar) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet


I’m not entirely sure what to make of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), which I’m currently teaching in my Introduction to Literature class. It fits well with my theme, which is “Humans in Nature,” and I certainly agree with Kingsolver’s point that climate change is one of the greatest dangers facing humankind. I just have questions about literature that preaches a cause.

Before exploring my concerns, however, I should note how I use the book. I am deliberately jumping around in time, sometimes looking at contemporary authors and sometimes at revered classics so that the students can see how works like The Bacchae, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Midsummer Night’s Dream were once relevant in the way that Wendell Berry, Kingsolver, and Mary Oliver are relevant today. One week we’re talking about Pentheus and Dionysus, the next Camelot and the Green Knight, the next industrial polluters and climate catastrophe. I am teaching Flight Behavior because I wanted something that is very recent.

The novel is about the sudden appearance of monarch butterflies in an Appalachian forest one winter. The monarchs normally winter in Mexico but, probably because of climate change, have ended up in the U.S. and consequently are in danger of all dying when the weather turns cold.

This is a forest that a Tennessee hillbilly farmer (as his daughter-in-law Dellarobia calls him) wants to log in order to pay for balloon mortages that he has taken out on new machinery. But the logging will wipe out the butterflies and, that aside, would also lead to mud slides as the Appalachians are experiencing extremely wet weather, also due to climate change. Meanwhile Dellarobia, who feels trapped in her life, starts to see other possibilities for herself when scientists enter the area to study the monarchs.

While Kingsolver’s book aims to get us mad, both at those responsible for climate change and at the media and the rightwing politicians who enable the polluters, she also sympathizes with the poor Appalachian citizens who go along with the rightwing agenda. Kingsolver wants to figure out if they can be brought around to work with environmentalists to save the planet, even though they regard them with enmity. She explores their sense of powerlessness, which sometimes takes the forms of religious fatalism (“this must be God’s will”). Kingsolver also talks about the cultural blindness of leftwing activists.

As I have students from many different disciplines in the course, I have used Flight Behavior to make the point that literature is inherently interdisciplinary. In yesterday’s class we managed to relate the novel to economics, politics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology, and environmental science.

The students generally appreciated Dellarobia’s snappy observations and we shared favorite passages. On the other hand, not everyone was excited by the long science explanations that are scattered throughout the book, nor by the in-depth depictions of shopping in discount stores. I told them how important it was to leave their own silos and understand how other people thought and lived, which the novel works hard to accomplish. I’m not sure they were convinced.

A novel can be a powerful way to convey political messages, but good politics does not necessarily make for great literature. Kingsolver’s agenda seems to constrict thought in a way I don’t see happening in other novels of hers, say Poisonwood Bible or Lacuna. Then again, there are some very good novels that have political agendas, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Grapes of Wrath, which don’t feel so constricted. Maybe the difference is in the degree of complexity that the author captures. The great novels dazzle us by their ability to convey the depth of the human experience, even when the authors are clearly guided by a certain point of view.

Here’s a sample of Kingsolver’s preaching. Ovid, the scientist in the novel, is chewing out a television reporter for the way her news organization is avoiding the bad news about climate change:

Tina blinked once, twice. “Scientists tell us they can’t predict the exact effects of global warming.”

“Correct. We tell you that, because we are more honest than other people. We know evidence will keep coming in. It does not mean we ignore the subject until further notice. We brush our teeth, for instance, even though we do not know exactly how many cavities we may be avoiding.”

“Well, a lot of people are just not convinced. We’re here to get information.”

… “If you were here to get information, Tina, you would not be standing in my laboratory telling me what scientists think.”

She opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “What scientists disagree on now, Tina, is how to express our shock. The glaciers that keep Asia’s watersheds in business are going right away. Maybe one of your interns could Google that for you. The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, The canary is dead. We are at the top of Niagara Falls, Tina, in a canoe. There is an image for your viewers. We got here by driving, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?”

I’m glad Kingsolver is using her skill in analogies and character creation to warn us of the dangers. In passages like this, however, she sounds more like a lecturer than a novelist.

Then again, given how dire the threat is, perhaps we can’t be choosy.

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Literature as a Social Activity

Jean François de Troy, "A Reading of Molière" (1728)

Jean François de Troy, “A Reading of Molière” (1728)

I was recently alerted to an article in the New York Review of Books (thanks Carl Rosin) on a subject close to my heart: how literature can propel readers into significant social interactions. Here’s Tim Parks:

Novels…offer a feast of debate and create points of contact: are the characters believable, do people really do or think these things, does the story end as it should, is it well written? The way different people respond to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, or J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, will tell you a lot about their personalities without anything personal needing to be said. Novels are ideal subjects for testing the ground between us.

Parks provides great examples of how Tristram Shandy was received by fans, who “invented Tristram Shandy recipes, set up graveyards with the tombs of the novel’s characters, and named racehorses after them.” (This was in addition to the unauthorized prequels and sequels that were written.) Then, in the 19th century there was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Noting that the book was famously (and provocatively, I would add) subtitled A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, Parks writes,

How could she be pure, reviewers demanded, when first she had an illegitimate child with a man, then lived with him as his mistress while married to someone else? It was a good question. But Tess was so attractive, so endearing, and so incredibly unlucky. The divergence of opinion was so acrimonious that it became difficult to have supporters and detractors sitting side by side at society dinners. Essentially the novel had forced readers to reconsider received Victorian opinion on sexual mores, exposing the phobic side of polite society’s moral rigor. Inevitably, the more people raged against the book the more it sold.

Sadly, there don’t seem to be as many instances of literature having this kind of impact these days. Parks observes that the serialized novel

has been replaced by serialized television fiction that has become so successful at generating discussion that those of us who didn’t follow The Sopranos or The Wire were often made to feel left out.

Of course, there are exceptions, such as Harry Potter. It’s also interesting that sometimes the most intense battles are over young adult fiction, often initiated by rightwing groups. It’s interesting that people are more likely to take arms against the books that children are reading than books that adults are reading—as though they see literature as having lost its power over all but young people.

Parks mentions one adult author who is attracting a wide range of followers around the world, including me. I’ve had any number of interesting conversations with Haruki Murakami fans. Trying to understand to Murakami’s international popularity, Parks compares him with the also-popular E. L James and has this to say:

Both authors, it seems to me, in their quite different ways are fascinated by the same thing: the individual’s need to negotiate the most intimate relationships in order to get the most from life without losing independence and selfhood. If Shades of Grey had any seriousness, it was in asking these questions: How is sexuality to be negotiated in a couple? How can I give the other what he/she wants and remain myself? In a sense, How can I control what appears uncontrollable? In an infinitely more sophisticated and certainly more mystical fashion, Murakami invariably asks, How can I avoid being overwhelmed on the one hand by others, on the other by loneliness? Where is the middle way?

“Negotiate” is one of my favorite words. How can literature help us negotiate life? Parks expands the question to “How, by sharing our intense literature experiences with others, can we figure out this life together?”

Posted in Hardy (Thomas), Murakami (Haruki), Sterne (Lawrence) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Rich Reflects on Yom Kippur & Conflict

Maurycy Gottlieb, "Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur"

Maurycy Gottlieb, “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur”

Spiritual Sunday – Yom Kippur

Here’s an Adrienne Rich poem to commemorate Yom Kippur, observed this past weekend. As the day where Jews seek atonement for their sins against God and their fellow human beings, the holy day provides the Jewish-lesbian-feminist-leftist poet an occasion to reflect upon her longing for love to unite all humankind, upon the tribal and survivalist impulse that sets us against each other, and upon her personal desire for solitude. Quoting a passage from Leviticus– “For whoever does not afflict his soul through this day, shall be cut off from his people”—she sets herself the challenge to sort through these seemingly contradictory positions. She will not let herself off easy but will be as truthful as she can be.

I’m not going to explicate the entire poem but I try to provide enough guidance that you can understand the issues that are tearing at her mind. Although raised on the east coast, Rich appears to be writing her poem in a home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Her poem is in part a dialogue with a Robinson Jeffers poem, also set on the west coast, where the poet speaks of his own longing for solitude.

In the passage from “Prelude” from which Rich quotes, Jeffers describes how he went to the shore to find solitude and then found himself interrupted, in his imagination, by all the “hateful-eyed and human-bodied” about him. Unlike Christ, who is “rumored” to have died for humankind, he is ready to dispense with them: “you that love multitude may have them.” Here’s Jeffers:

I drew solitude over me, on the lone shore,
By the hawk-perch stones; the hawks and the gulls are never breakers of solitude.
When the animals Christ is rumored to have died for drew in,
The land thickening, drew in about me, I planted trees eastward, and the ocean
Secured the west with the quietness of thunder. I was quiet.
Imagination, the traitor of the mind, has taken my solitude and slain it.
No peace but many companions; the hateful-eyed
And human-bodied are all about me: you that love multitude may have them.

Rich understands his longing for solitude but then wonders, “what is a Jew in solitude?” I’ll discuss in a moment this apparent contradiction, a collective Jewish identity vs. a solitary Jewish woman reflecting and writing her poetry in “the poet’s tower facing the western ocean.” As attractive as the latter solitude can be, she acknowledges that it is also problematic. As the Jeffers poem demonstrates, it can set one off against humanity. Included in Jeffers’ “multitude,” Rich points out, are

separate persons, stooped
over sewing machines in denim dust, bent under the shattering skies of harvest
who sleep by shifts in never-empty beds have their various dreams
Hands that pick, pack, steam, stitch, strip, stuff, shell, scrape, scour, belong to a brain like no other

Rich associates the poet’s solitude with two not so positive examples: the wealthy in their gated mansions and the nativists with their guns, whether in Utah or the Golan Heights. One sees how conflicted she is when she argues,

Must I argue the love of multitude in the blur or defend
a solitude of barbed-wire and searchlights, the survivalist’s final solution, have I a choice?

Both solitude and love of multitude begin to get complicated as Rich pushes her exploration. On the one hand, she moves from the solitude of individuals to the solitude experienced by those who have been marginalized and oppressed. In her own case, these include both her identity as a Jew and as a queer woman. There are multiple references in the poem to Walt Whitman, and Rich would like to believe that America can move past such differences and contain multitudes.

It’s very interesting to think of Whitman’s vision in light of Yom Kippur. But opening oneself to strangers can be a way to get oneself killed, which is one reason why people cluster with others like themselves. But what if one’s own kind—Jews in this case—aren’t willing to forgive Rich for denying her Jewishness for the longest time (her father was Jewish, her mother not, and she was raised Christian). And how is she as a feminist supposed to feel about certain orthodox Jews believing it to be impure to touch a woman’s hand? As she notes, describing her cloud-like confusion,

This is the day of atonement; but do my people forgive me?
If a cloud knew loneliness and fear, I would be that cloud.

Who knows, perhaps Rich is writing this poem in solitude rather than attending the Yom Kippur atonement service.

Along the same lines, she wonders whether her desire to reach out and “love the Stranger” is a “privilege we can’t afford in the world that is.” She mentions at one point a woman killed with a swastika carved into her back and wonders whether she was killed because she was queer or because she was Jewish.

The poem ends in a vision of cataclysm, partly environmental, where everyone is thrown together whether they want to be or not. In that mixture, however, might we move beyond our tribal identities? Perhaps Arab and Jew, heterosexual and homosexual, will look back at a time when once we were solitary in the multitude but no longer are. Maybe the refugee child (the Jew?) and the exile’s child (the Palestinian?) will “re-open the blasted and forbidden city,” which could either be the literal Jerusalem or the  new Jerusalem that represents a utopian future where we all mingle. Solitude may mean something different in that newborn world.

Here’s the poem:

Yom Kippur 1984

By Adrienne Rich

         I drew solitude over me, on the long shore.
—Robinson Jeffers, “Prelude”

For whoever does not afflict his soul through this day, shall be 
          cut off from his people. 
—Leviticus 23:29

What is a Jew in solitude?
What would it mean not to feel lonely or afraid
far from your own or those you have called your own?
What is a woman in solitude: a queer woman or man?
In the empty street, on the empty beach, in the desert
what in this world as it is can solitude mean?
The glassy, concrete octagon suspended from the cliffs
with its electric gate, its perfected privacy
is not what I mean
the pick-up with a gun parked at a turn-out in Utah or the Golan Heights
is not what I mean
the poet’s tower facing the western ocean, acres of forest planted to the east, the woman reading in the cabin,
her attack dog suddenly risen
is not what I mean
Three thousand miles from what I once called home
I open a book searching for some lines I remember
about flowers, something to bind me to this coast as lilacs in the dooryard once
bound me back there—yes, lupines on a burnt mountainside,
something that bloomed and faded and was written down
in the poet’s book, forever:
Opening the poet’s book
I find the hatred in the poet’s heart: . . . the hateful-eyed
and human-bodied are all about me: you that love multitude may have them

Robinson Jeffers, multitude
is the blur flung by distinct forms against these landward valleys
and the farms that run down to the sea; the lupines
are multitude, and the torched poppies, the grey Pacific unrolling its scrolls of surf,
and the separate persons, stooped
over sewing machines in denim dust, bent under the shattering skies of harvest
who sleep by shifts in never-empty beds have their various dreams
Hands that pick, pack, steam, stitch, strip, stuff, shell, scrape, scour, belong to a brain like no other
Must I argue the love of multitude in the blur or defend
a solitude of barbed-wire and searchlights, the survivalist’s final solution, have I a choice?
To wonder far from your own or those you have called your own
to hear strangeness calling you from far away
and walk in that direction, long and far, not calculating risk
to go to meet the Stranger without fear or weapon, protection nowhere on your mind
(the Jew on the icy, rutted road on Christmas Eve prays for another Jew
the woman in the ungainly twisting shadows of the street:   Make those be a woman’s footsteps; as if she
could believe in a woman’s god)
Find someone like yourself.   Find others.
Agree you will never desert each other.
Understand that any rift among you
means power to those who want to do you in.
Close to the center, safety; toward the edges, danger.
But I have a nightmare to tell:   I am trying to say
that to be with my people is my dearest wish
but that I also love strangers
that I crave separateness
I hear myself stuttering these words
to my worst friends and my best enemies
who watch for my mistakes in grammar
my mistakes in love.
This is the day of atonement; but do my people forgive me?
If a cloud knew loneliness and fear, I would be that cloud.
To love the Stranger, to love solitude—am I writing merely about privilege
about drifting from the center, drawn to edges,
a privilege we can’t afford in the world that is,
who are hated as being of our kind: faggot kicked into the icy river, woman dragged from her stalled car
into the mist-struck mountains, used and hacked to death
young scholar shot at the university gates on a summer evening walk, his prizes and studies nothing, nothing
availing his Blackness
Jew deluded that she’s escaped the tribe, the laws of her exclusion, the men too holy to touch her hand;   Jew
who has turned her back
on midrash and mitzvah (yet wears the chai on a thong between her breasts) hiking alone
found with a swastika carved in her back at the foot of the cliffs (did she die as queer or as Jew?)
Solitude, O taboo, endangered species
on the mist-struck spur of the mountain, I want a gun to defend you
In the desert, on the deserted street, I want what I can’t have:
your elder sister, Justice, her great peasant’s hand outspread
her eye, half-hooded, sharp and true 
And I ask myself, have I thrown courage away?
have I traded off something I don’t name?
To what extreme will I go to meet the extremist?
What will I do to defend my want or anyone’s want to search for her spirit-vision
far from the protection of those she has called her own?
Will I find O solitude
your plumes, your breasts, your hair
against my face, as in childhood, your voice like the mockingbird’s
singing Yes, you are loved, why else this song?
in the old places, anywhere?

What is a Jew in solitude?
What is a woman in solitude, a queer woman or man?
When the winter flood-tides wrench the tower from the rock, crumble the prophet’s headland, and the farms
slide into the sea
when leviathan is endangered and Jonah becomes revenger
when center and edges are crushed together, the extremities crushed together on which the world was
when our souls crash together, Arab and Jew, howling our loneliness within the tribes
when the refugee child and the exile’s child re-open the blasted and forbidden city
when we who refuse to be women and men as women and men are chartered, tell our stories of solitude spent
in multitude
in that world as it may be, newborn and haunted, what will solitude mean?

Posted in Jeffers (Robinson), Rich (Adrienne), Walt Whitman | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Player vs. Player on a Simple Field

Hardy's nifty slide won game 2 for Baltimore

Hardy’s nifty slide won game 2 for Baltimore

Sports Saturday 

As a Baltimore Orioles fan, I am of course euphoric over their two victories to open a three-out-of-five series with the Detroit Tigers. A pessimist when it comes to things Oriole, I have been expecting them to fade all year long but they haven’t done so yet.

The other team in my backyard, the Washington Nationals, were less fortunate, losing their opening game against the San Francisco Giants.

If I weren’t an Orioles fan, I would be rooting for the Kansas City Royals, who have been a downtrodden team for decades. That being said, the Orioles haven’t exactly been flourishing in recent years. Nor have the Pittsburgh Pirates, who I also liked but who were bounced in the wild card playoff game by the Giants. Still, it’s good to see some teams finally breaking through after years of being mediocre or even downright bad.

Here’s a poem to celebrate baseball by Baron Wormser, former poet laureate of Maine. I like how he talks of each action holding “a tell-tale trait” and each moment convoking “an actual fate.” Because baseball is a linear rather than a range game (thanks for that distinction, Marshall McLuhan), we see a sequence of plays with crystalline clarity. The game is “player against player,” and there is a “keenness of conflict” between pitcher and batter, fielder against runner. These plays, while not having the same epic grandeur as the battles of the Homeric Greeks, nevertheless are “quiveringly real.” The mixture of “instinct, confidence, wit and strength” result in “a catch or a hit, something indicative, legible, quick.” The achievement “can be neither created nor feigned.”

However we may seek to explain success, however, there is also luck and mystery involved. Even as we watch the “tangible,” game, we cannot entirely pluck the meaning. Awestruck, we watch the struck ball as it rises and abjectly falls. What remains with baseball is what remains with poetry: “the unpredictable, adroit rhythm of it all.”

In Baseball

By Baron Wormser

Neither forces nor bodies equivocate:
Each action holds a tell-tale trait,
Each moment convokes an actual fate.

Reality, being precious, becomes a game
In which, nature-like, no two things are the same—
Whatever is remarkable is nicknamed.

The untitled fan applauds the grace of epithet
And thinks of warring Greeks, whose threats,
Stratagems, confusions, deeds though met

On a smaller scale are yet quiveringly real.
Player against player on a simple field,
It’s the keenness of conflict that appeals

To the citizen so sick of the abstract “they.”
Here, there is no such thing as a beggared day.
Achievement can be neither created nor feigned

And the whole mix of instinct, confidence, wit,
And strength emerges as a catch or a hit,
Something indicative, legible, quick

And yet as much a mystery as luck.
Lured by the tangible we strive to pluck
The meaning that cannot be awe-struck.

The exemplary fact remains—a ball,
The thing that rises and abjectly falls,
The unpredictable, adroit rhyme of it all.

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Walking Out in the Sun of October

Brian Pier, "Autumn Sunset"

Brian Pier, “Autumn Sunset”

Since we’re moving into October, luxuriate in the most sensuous poem I know about the month. I am, of course, talking about Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October” where, on his 30th birthday, he walks out into the town of his childhood and compares his feelings now with his feelings then. The sentiments he expresses are similar to those of Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up”:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Although Thomas may be older now and traveling toward heaven in a town “leaved with October blood,” he prays that his heart will always resonate to the scenery.

I’m particularly interested in the reference to “the legends of the green chapels” as I have just been teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The green chapel, which in the poem is a primitive earth mound from pagan times, is a symbol of our connection with nature and the earth. Thomas is establishing a mystical connection with nature in this poem.

Revel in “Poem in October” and then go out and revel in your own autumn.

Poem in October

By Dylan Thomas

         It was my thirtieth year to heaven
   Woke to my hearing from harbor and neighbor wood
         And the mussel pooled and the heron
                Priested shore          
   The morning beckon    
   With water praying and call of seagull and rook
     And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                 That second
         In the still sleeping town and set forth.

         My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
         Above the farms and the white horses
                 And I rose
             In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in a shower of all my days
     High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
             Over the border
                 And the gates
         Of the town closed as the town awoke.

         A springful of larks in a rolling
     Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
         Blackbirds and the sun of October
             On the hill’s shoulder,
     Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
     Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
             To the rain wringing
                 Wind blow cold
         In the wood faraway under me.

         Pale rain over the dwindling harbor
     And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
         With its horns through mist and the castle
                 Brown as owls
             But all the gardens
     Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
     Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
             There could I marvel
                 My birthday
        Away but the weather turned around.

         It turned away from the blithe country
     And down the other air and the blue altered sky
         Streamed again a wonder of summer
                 With apples
             Pears and red currants
   And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                 Of sunlight
         And the legends of the green chapels

         And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
         These were the woods the river and the sea
                 Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                 Sang alive
         Still in the water and singing birds.

         And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
         Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                 In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
         Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
         Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart’s truth
                 Still be sung
         On this high hill in a year’s turning.

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“Queer and Marxist Readings of Beowulf”


One of my students, Windy Vorwick, recently sent me a link to an amusing Buzzfeed post on “17 Things English Majors Are Tired of Hearing.” Each of the comments, composed or compiled by Jennifer Schaffer and Kirsten King, is accompanied by a snarky rejoinder that allows English majors to feel smug and superior. There is also an amusing clip from a movie or television show, often expressing exasperation.

I’m choosing to respond today to the rejoinder that mentions Beowulf but I’ll cite a couple of other comments and their replies first:

Comment: So are you going to be a teacher.
Reply: You’re a math major, are you going to be a calculator? 

Comment: But, like, what’s the point of poetry?
Reply: I don’t know, what’s the “point” of life?

Comment: O, creative writing? Sometimes I write for fun too.
Reply: Yeah, trying to plumb the depths of the human condition is a real walk in the park. I like to do it in my spare time too.

Comment: A humanities degree in this economy? Do you ever regret that?
Reply: I tend not to regret the things that give my life meaning.

Comment: But, like, what are you going to do for money?
Reply: I don’t know, it’s a really tough economy. The only jobs left for me are the ones that can’t be done by machines.

And then there’s this:

Comment: I’m so excited for my humanities requirement. I really need a break.
Reply: Totally! Try ENGL312: Queer and Marxist Critical Readings of Beowulf. Easy A.

Putting aside the fact that any professor limiting an undergraduate course on Beowulf to queer and Marxist readings is guilty of malpractice, I want to discuss what such readings would entail.

The Marxist part is fairly easy. There is definitely class in Beowulf between warriors and kings. Usually the tension is caused by kings hoarding wealth that should be distributed amongst deserving warriors. As I have written several times, both in my book How Beowulf Can Save America and in several posts (including this one here), there is even a monster in the poem, the dragon, that symbolizes greedy kings.

I believe that some of the rage in Beowulf can be traced to nostalgia for an earlier and simpler age when kings and warriors were comrades in arms. We see such comradeship between Beowulf and the young men who accompany him to Horthgar’s kingdom. When tribes were still small—before they became monarchies—such camaraderie was possible.

With growth and institutionalization, however, a distance grew up between kings and warriors, and the epic is filled with stories of kings who have lost touch with their men.

One reason Beowulf feels relevant to Americans today is that the growing income disparity between the wealthy and everyone else is generating a similar type of anger. We have our own Grendel-like resentment against the 1%, who frequently appear to us as hard-scaled and hunkered down dragons.

Applying queer theory to Beowulf is harder, not least because homosexuality as we now understand it is a modern invention. But let’s try this. My reading of Grendel’s Mother is that she represents the grief and horror that men feel at the death of comrades. She pulls them into a dark place, and to emerge back into society requires heroic fortitude.

Grendel’s Mother is a female monster because warriors felt unmanned by the grief they experienced and such sensitivity is something they associated with women. Beowulf goes to fight Grendel’s Mother after he is unnerved by Hrothgar’s paralyzing grief over the death of his best friend Aeschere. Whether Hrothgar’s and Aeschere’s bond is homoerotic (sexual) or homosocial (male bonding) is not clear but maybe the Anglo-Saxons didn’t draw a distinction.

I acknowledge that, in making the link between homosexuality and female sensitivity, I am stereotyping gays as super sensitive men. This is not universally true and, in the Renaissance, the stereotype actually ran the other way: male homosexuals, like Antonio in Twelfth Night, were regarded as particularly macho men. (By contrast, the heterosexual Sebastian is the one who sheds tears.) But men acting contrary to gender expectations does appear to threaten social order.

As far as women are concerned, there is the shrewish princess Modthrydho who refuses to conform to stereotypical female roles but wields a very male-like power, putting to death any man who looks at her. She is contrasted with the Geat queen Hygd, who is presented as the model wife. Although Modthrydho is eventually domesticated—she marries the warrior king Offa and they live happily ever after or something—the images of her that we retain are her transgressive gender behavior.

Is such interpreting as hard as organic chemistry or differential calculus? Let’s just say that English majors become fairly good at it. Whether anyone should be feeling smugly superior is another matter.

Posted in Beowulf Poet | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Ebola as a Stephen King Nightmare

Ebola patient and aid workers

Ebola patient and aid workers

The terrifying news coming out of West Africa has had me thinking of the first Stephen King novel I ever read. The news, of course, is the Ebola epidemic. The novel is The Stand.

So far the deadly disease has hit Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea the hardest. Nigeria also has 20 “laboratory confirmed cases” and Senegal one. The Center for Disease Control has registered 3091 deaths so far  although there may be many more.

Fortunately, according to the New York Times, the epidemic appears to have been halted in Nigeria. The other countries are less fortunate. The U.S. has set up mobile labs in Liberia, and the international community is moving into the other countries as well.

The Stand is about a deadly influenza that escapes from the biological weapons facility where it has been created–it is called “Captain Trips”–and proceeds to kills 99% of the world’s population. But that still leaves 1%, who are immune. They splinter into two campus, with the good guys (at least those in the United States) going to Boulder, Colorado and the bad ones going to Las Vegas. There is an apocalyptic final battle.

I read The Stand after a colleague took me to task for denigrating Stephen King without having read him. She recommended The Stand and, after being transfixed by that novel, I went on to read five or six other novels. I now think much more highly of him.

What stands out about The Stand is how well King captures the different survivors and the landscape through which they move. King has a great eye for detail. Here’s one of the passages that has been haunting me since hearing about the Ebola outbreak. It’s chillingly matter of fact but also resorts to black humor to mask the horror. Humor, after all, allows for some emotional detachment. Charles Campion is the Typhoid Mary who flees the facility and sets the epidemic in motion:

Chain letters don’t work. It’s a known fact. The million dollars or so you are promised if you’ll just send one single dollar to the name at the top of the list, add yours to the bottom, and then send the letter on to five friends, never arrives. This one, the Captain Trips chain letter, worked very well. The pyramid was indeed being built, not from the bottom up but from the top down—said tip being a deceased army security guard named Charles Campion. All the chickens were coming home to roost. Only instead of the mailman bring each participant bale after bale of letters, each containing a single dollar bill, Captain Trips brought bales of bedrooms with a body or two in each one, and trenches, and dead-pits, and finally bodies slung into the ocean on each coast and into quarries and into the foundations of unfinished houses. And in the end, of course, would rot where they fell.

Sarah Bradford and Angela Dupray walked back to their parked cars together (infecting four or five people they met on the street), then pecked cheeks and went their separate ways. Sarah went home to infect her husband and his five poker buddies and her teenaged daughter, Samantha. Unknown to her parents, Samantha was terribly afraid she had caught a dose of the clap from her boyfriend. As a matter of fact, she had. As a further matter of fact, she had nothing to worry about; next to what her mother had given her, a good working dose of the clap was every bit as serious as a little eczema of the eyebrows.

The next day Samantha would to on to infect everybody in the swimming pool at the Polliston YWCA.

And so on.

Fortunately for humanity, Ebola is not quite this infectious. Unlike in the novel, a concerted effort in this instance can make a difference. That concerted effort will take money and many more aid workers. It is imperative that it be made.


Reminder not to panic:  Although there is now a reported case of Ebola in the United States, the disease is not spread through the air but through secretions so don’t listen to anyone who tries to turn this into a King novel. Science and public policy, two dimensions of government under incessant attack by our extreme right, can in fact effectively address this issue.

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Imagine Austen vs. War on Women


David Bamber as the sanctimonious Mr. Collins

One political development I never saw coming has been the extreme right’s all-out assault on reproductive rights. It began with the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the systematic attempts by GOP-run state legislatures to first discourage abortions (say, through mandated ultrasounds) and then to close down abortion clinics through various dishonest maneuvers (so-called TRAP laws). Then there were attempts to restrict birth control, sometimes through religious organizations or religious owners of large corporations refusing to allow their employees to have access to free prevention, sometimes through legislatures passing “personhood amendments” that declare zygotes to be people while labeling certain birth control procedures as tantamount to abortion/murder.

There are ways to go about reducing the number of abortions, say through better access to birth control and family planning. Too many religious ideologues, however, are more interested in being righteous than in finding social solutions.

I found myself thinking of these people over the weekend while rereading Pride and Prejudice and watching reactions to the sexual escapades of Lydia and Wickham.

The responsible parties in the book—which is to say the sensible Bennets, Darcy, and the Gardiners—are interested in cleaning up Lydia’s mess, which threatens not only her future but that of her sisters as well. Then there are the judgmental moralists, such as Mary and Mr. Collins.

Note how they cannot even acknowledge that Lydia is a human being. Here’s Mary, who parrots sermon talking points and sees her sister as nothing more than a moral example:

Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin; that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful; and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.

And here’s Mr. Collins, smugly lording it over the family of the woman who rejected his marriage proposal:

Be assured, my dear sir, that Mrs. Collins and myself sincerely sympathize with you and all your respectable family, in your present distress, which must be of the bitterest kind, because proceeding from a cause which no time can remove. No arguments shall be wanting on my part that can alleviate so severe a misfortune—or that may comfort you, under a circumstance that must be of all others the most afflicting to a parent’s mind. The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this.

And later, after a marriage has been patched together:

I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the rector of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them, as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ 

We have a choice in how to respond to our present-day fundamentalists (and those politicians who cower before them). There’s the Elizabeth’s silent response to Mary:

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply.

And there’s Mr. Bennet’s sarcastic response to Collins:

That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!

Mr. Bennet gets a little revenge on the clergyman, however. It’s a tactic which, while it might not work on true believers, at least could work on those who cynically pander to such believers for their votes. In informing Collins of Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy, Mr. Bennet adds a twist note, knowing that Collins assiduously curries favor with the rich and powerful:

I must trouble you once more for congratulations. Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr. Darcy. Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.

Imagine how this will tie Collins into knots. Imagine what it would do to some of today’s political class.


Further note: Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you that blood is not being drawn in the decorous exchanges in Jane Austen novels. A further example: After Lydia has run off, Collins all but kicks the Bennet family when they’re down, noting how glad he is now that he didn’t marry into their family. Citing his noble patroness, he writes in his letter

you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.

Mr. Bennet gives as good as he gets. By pointing out in the letter mentioned above that Darcy will now be his son-in-law, he is essentially trumping Collins’ card with a higher one. “Who is in the catbird seat now?” I hear him saying. I heard someone compare Jane Austen novels recently to those kung fu movies where there is simmering tension waiting to explode at any moment. Eventually, the kicks and jabs come out.

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Sir Gawain & the ISIS Beheadings

The headless Green Knight instructs Gawain

The headless Green Knight instructs Gawain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Children Wrestling with Faith & Doubt

Eastman Johnson, "Child at Prayer"

Eastman Johnson, “Child at Prayer” (1870)

Spiritual Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t matter.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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