Old Lit as a Transformational Experience

Rembrandt, "Scholar Seated at Table with Books"

Rembrandt, “Scholar Seated at Table with Books”

I’ve been heartened by a couple of New York Times columns that Frank Bruni wrote recently (here and here) about a college encounter with an inspirational English teacher. I have some quibbles with the teacher, however.

Bruni’s first column was written in response to the contempt Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has been expressing for the University of Wisconsin, by slashing the budget and by attempting to strike “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from the University’s mission statement. Walker wants to replace these phrases with “the state’s work force needs.”

To which Bruni asks,

I’m not sure where Lear fits into work force needs.

Actually, I think that King Lear should be required reading for CEOs since it shows clearly how a leader living within his power bubble can run an organization off the rails. Bruni, however, is referring to a moment in a Shakespeare class at the University of North Carolina when Professor Anne Hall made the Bard’s language come alive. Bruni describes this as the most transformational educational experience of his life.

In his mind’s eye Bruni sees Professor Hall

swooning and swaying as she stood at the front of a classroom in Chapel Hill, N.C., and explained the rawness and majesty of emotion in King Lear.

I heard three words: “Stay a little.” They’re Lear’s plea to Cordelia, the truest of his three daughters, as she slips away. When Hall recited them aloud, it wasn’t just her voice that trembled. It was all of her.

Rediscovering love only to lose it again is about as tragic as life gets. Literary moments like this remind us what is truly important. No wonder Bruni was blown away.

Bruni believes that the country started taking a Gradgrindian approach to education when then Governor of California Ronald Reagan asserted that taxpayers shouldn’t be  “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and that “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” Since then too many public policy makers have insisted that college should be judged according to its financial payoff. Bruni argues otherwise:

But it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.

And it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.

Bruni also describes how, because of Hall’s Shakespeare class, he learned about the power of language:

“Stay a little.” She showed how that simple request harbored such grand anguish, capturing a fallen king’s hunger for connection and his tenuous hold on sanity and contentment. And thus she taught us how much weight a few syllables can carry, how powerful the muscle of language can be.

She demonstrated the rewards of close attention. And the way she did this — her eyes wild with fervor, her body aquiver with delight — was an encouragement of passion and a validation of the pleasure to be wrung from art. It informed all my reading from then on. It colored the way I listened to people and even watched TV. 

So far I’m totally with Bruni. I have a couple of concerns about Professor Hall, however, who contacted Bruni after the column appeared and who was the subject of a follow-up column.

I am worried that a lifetime of teaching literature hasn’t kept her from becoming “cranky,” a word that she applies jokingly to herself but that may fit. Here she is sounding like the curmudgeonly William Bennett as she complains about the current state of the English curriculum:

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and …” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

I admit to feeling a bit defensive here, given that I teach a British Fantasy class that ranges from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to The Golden Compass, with works like The Tempest, Eve of St. Agnes, Goblin Market, and Fellowship of the Ring ranged in between. I also teach a course entitled “Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th century” and have been known to show a current romantic comedy or two to demonstrate how Wilmot, Congreve, Behn, Poe, Fielding, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burney, and Austen are negotiating relationship issues in ways that we can relate to. The class fills up and the students get excited about how, say, Rape of the Lock addresses current sexual assault concerns.

Hall, who like me is in her sixties, laments the passing of a time when students felt that they were not well-rounded if they hadn’t read all of the “dead white men” in the canon. This leads me to wonder how she responds to the fact that in literature, as in art, music, history, philosophy, and the other arts and humanities, coverage is no longer possible. We’ve discovered too much good stuff to ever return to 1950s curriculums. Even in our introductory surveys we have to assign representative works rather than everything.

Hall also doesn’t acknowledge that often students in her golden era would sometimes come to regard the subjects of required surveys, whether Chaucer or Milton, as dusty museum relics rather than as living, breathing human beings trying to make sense of the world. The key lies in the teachers, not the courses. Good teachers, including Professor Hall, do whatever is necessary to engage students in the material. If taking advantage of students’ love of animals helps to get them excited about “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” then I see no problem. And for those appalled by the inclusion of Quentin Tarantino in a course, have you taken a good look at 17th century revenge tragedies? John Webster is the Tarantino of Jacobean drama.

I notice, incidentally, that Hall herself teaches a course called “Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece” and raves about one of her students, an undergraduate business major. Would this student have taken the course without the “and Politics”?

Hall needn’t be worried about Shakespeare, who will always have his own surveys. So will Jane Austen, the Brontes, Mark Twain and various others. But as for special classes on Chaucer, John Dryden, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, there’s a reason that lamenting their demise (of the special classes, not the authors) feels like lamenting the end of compulsory Latin and Greek. And I speak as one who still teaches all these writers.

Better to be like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who bravely waves a fond goodbye to her youth and vigor:

Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!     
The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.

The bran we English teachers have to sell is still pretty good stuff—sometimes even better than the flour we grew up with—and we can be right merry as we peddle it.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Murphy: Something Funny in Everything

Murphy's "word for the day" in  SNL's "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood"

Murphy’s “word for the day” in SNL’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood”

Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary celebration turned out to be quite a show, especially with the appearance of Eddie Murphy, who skipped the 25th anniversary. This gives me an excuse to share a Lucille Clifton’s poem about Murphy, “from the wisdom of sister brown.”

By all accounts, Murphy saved SNL in the early 1980s when it was on the verge of collapse. According to actor Ed Norton, Murray represented a “seismic shift and a reinjection of excitement” into the show. Monologues like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” and “Lincoln’s Birthday” are still striking for their handling of racial stereotypes.

In her poem Clifton also mentions Murphy’s comic predecessor, Richard Pryor. Pryor also made fun of stereotypes of race, most famously in his word association interchange with Chevy Chase where racial epithets, including the n-word, fly wild and free. Clifton picks up a key difference, however.

I don’t know if Sister Brown is an actual person or if Clifton is simply taking on the persona of a wise old woman who looks at the world and sees things that the younger generation misses. For instance, whereas many are dazzled by Elizabeth Taylor, “Sister Brown” is drawn to the tricky smile of singer Lena Horne. Brown sees world weariness where others, especially white audiences, might see only fun. It’s a carefully masked weariness, however. Here’s the poem in its entirety:

from the wisdom of sister brown

By Lucille Clifton

on sisterhood

some of our sisters
who put down the bucket
lookin for us
to pick it up

on lena (born 6/30/17)

people talk about beautiful
and look at lizabeth taylor
lena just stand there smilin
a tricky smile

on the difference between
eddie murphy and richard pryor

eddie, he a young blood
he see somethin funny
in everythin   ol rich
been around a long time
he know aint nothin
really funny

If Murphy became a bigger star than Pryor, it may be in part because he was less threatening to white audiences. A refusal to avoid certain topics helps explain why Pryor’s s television show didn’t succeed. I’m not certain that Clifton is accusing Murphy of failing to pick up the bucket put down by Pryor, however. Perhaps she is just shaking her head at a generational shift.

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Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point

Richardson in "Handmaid's Tale"

Richardson in “Handmaid’s Tale”

Here’s a story I never thought I would see: The Handmaid’s Tale is required reading for entering West Point cadets.

Salon reported the story of Margaret Atwood’s trip to the military academy to speak about her novel. The cadets were also assigned Ursula Le Guin’s fine short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

I’ve posted on Handmaid’s Tale in the past, usually in the context of conservatives trying to roll back women’s reproduction rights (here and here). Her dystopian future, inspired by 1984, imagines that fundamentalist Christians have taken over America following an environmental catastrophe that has led to significant declines in fertility. To rectify the situation, they decree that young fertile women are to serve as “handmaids” to produce children for patriarchs and their sterile wives. The model is the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar-Ishmael story in the Book of Genesis, a plausible illustration of how zealots pick and choose the passages they want from holy scripture. Women who have abortions and men who aid them are publicly executed.

The Salon article, unfortunately, doesn’t go deeply into the kind of conversations that the orientation leaders hope will emerge from the book. Lt. Col. Naomi Mercer, an Iraqi war veteran and assistant professor, just observes that “[t]he Army has real gender issues, still” and that Handmaid’s Tale “at least creates a vocabulary to talk about those issues. It was very prescient.”

Among those issues, of course, is the large number of sexual assaults in the military. Last year 5,983 assaults were reported, and the number is probably low. In any event, sensitivity needs to be raised, and Atwood’s novel is one way to raise it.

For instance, it articulates how society is crippled by gender power imbalance. West Point cadets surely pick up on the fact that the patriarch described in Handmaid’s Tale is a military general. Though the state sanctions his having sex with Offred, his handmaid, his life is not fulfilling. In fact, we see him starved for intimacy, so much so that he secretly plays scrabble with her at night. If West Point men understand that men as well as women pay a price for patriarchal sexism, then something important will have been achieved. True happiness in a relationship occurs when there is genuine reciprocity, but one needs to think beyond traditional notions of dominance and submission to get there.

There are also important lessons in the book for women who turn their back on feminism, as noted in this interchange between a cadet and Atwood:

But he did have a question. He couldn’t help but notice that some of the worst treatment the novel’s female characters receive comes at the hands of other women.

“That’s true,” Atwood said. “That’s how these things work. All dictatorships try to control women, although sometimes in different ways. And one of the ways they control any group is to create a hierarchy where some members of the group have power over the others. You get those people to control their own group for you.”

The general’s wife Serena Joy, who may be modeled on Phyllis Schafly, is deeply unhappy, even though she lives as the honored wife in the kind of patriarchal marriage that she, like Schlafly, has advocated. To live a pedestal life is not to honor one’s whole being, as West Point female cadets understand well. Like Schlafly, Joy has once been a public figure, but she is now reduced to keeping house and feeling resentful towards the handmaid that she hopes will provide her with a child. Not surprisingly, she turns to alcohol to cope with a discontent she can’t acknowledge.

I like the idea of the male and female cadets discussing the end of the novel, where Offred collaborates with her male guards to get free and fight back against the system. If assigning the book can help influence men and women to work together to break free of traditional ways of thinking, then Lt. Col. Mercer will have accomplished something special.

A note on the other reading assignment, which involves a related imaginative exercise. In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Le Guin asks us to imagine a perfect society that has only one flaw: its existence relies on the imprisonment of a child.

From the perspective of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis a la Jeremy Bentham, the trade-off seems a good one: although one child is victimized, everyone else is happy. The truly enlightened, however, are those who can empathize with the child and who walk away from Omelas, even at the cost of their comfortable existence.

How wonderful that tomorrow’s military leaders are being challenged to think outside their own perspectives. They will be better leaders if they can see the world through the eyes of the men and women who they command and the men and women they interact with in other cultures. This is literature being called upon to do heavy lifting.


Previous posts on Handmaid’s Tale

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True?

Threatened by Female Empowerment

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A Song of Love for Julia

Julia Bates, the love of my life

Julia Bates, the love of my life

Today the woman I married 42 years ago turns 64, which means that two Beatles songs come to mind. I still need her and I still feed her and I continue to sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia.

I fell in love with Julia for many reasons but one of them must have been because of the easy way her name slides off the tongue. My first poetic encounter with the name was not the Beatles song but a wonderfully sensuous Robert Herrick poem. “Upon Julia’s Clothes” was taught to me in 1967 to illustrate iambic meter:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!

Both Julia’s silks and the sound of her name liquefy, and John Lennon’s own handling of the name is filled with water imagery. According to WikipediaLennon’s mother, killed by a drunk driver, was named Julia, and Lennon moves between the name and Yoko Ono, whose first name means “child of the sea.” In the song, Julia is an ocean child calling out to the singer, but he finds language inadequate to express his feelings. He twice turns to the mystical poet Kahlil Gibran to help him out:

The line “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you” was a slight alteration from Kahlil Gibran‘s “Sand and Foam” (1926) in which the original verse reads, “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” Lennon also adapted the lines “When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind” from Gibran’s “When life does not find a singer to sing her heart she produces a philosopher to speak her mind.” (Wikipedia)

In this instance, however, life has found a singer to sing her heart. “Julia” works as a kind of mystical incantation, crooned out and repeated over and over. Lennon voices his longing for his mother and elides that longing with his love for Ono.

You can hear the song on YouTube here . The lyrics go as follows:


By John Lennon

Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia

Julia, Julia, oceanchild, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering
In the sun

Julia, Julia, morning moon, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind, Julia

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Hum hum hum hum… calls me
So I sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia

Let this also be my song of love for Julia. Happy Birthday, sunshine.

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

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

Stephen King's Pennywise from "It"

Stephen King’s Pennywise from “It”

Following the killing this past week of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Abu-Salhaof, the three North Carolina Muslim students, my inclusion of Steven King’s It in my American Fantasy class seems timely. Perhaps more than any other contemporary author, King dreams America’s nightmares, and one of the nightmares he explores in It is America’s penchant for killing.

“It” is the deranged clown Pennywise, who functions as an archetype of communal violence. He is timeless, and in King’s novel he returns to wreak havoc in the town of Derry, Maine every 25 years or so. In one instance he prompts white supremacists to burn down a black bar with everyone in it, in another to mow down with overwhelming firepower a group of outlaws. In the two years covered by the novel, 1958 and 1985, he is killing children. “It,” it’s useful to remember, is the English word for “id.”

Because the thought that their children are being murdered is so horrific, people find ways to deny that it is really happening, just as they push from their minds the horrific incidents of Derry’s past. They would rather think of themselves as the kind of town one encounters in Leave It to Beaver.

The seven children who comprise “the Losers Club,” however, see It for what it is and confront the clown. In 1958 they rely on their innocence to fight It. In 1985 they must (to quote Jesus) become as little children in order to defeat the monster again.

I’ll be discussing in future posts if King’s novel provides any guidance to countering the violence that we see periodically erupting in different parts of America. In today’s post I examine what King sees when he looks at our country.

Like Poe and Hawthorne, in whose gothic tradition he writes, King sees a contradiction at the heart of America. The Puritans envisioned building a “city upon a hill” and thought that they could start history anew, cleansed of past taint. I discussed last week how the “white city” of the 1893 Columbian Exposition drew on this ideal and in turn inspired The Wizard of Oz (1900). In his introduction, L. Frank Baum writes,

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

Baum in turn inspired Disney, who also sought to leave out the nightmares. Historian Peter Manseau describes the same process at work in  a new book in which he argues that some of John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical power lay in their invocation of the city upon the hill vision. They were promising us that we could be clean again.

Manseau notes that the vision is founded upon a lie, which the 19th century gothic writers also recognized. If you have to think of yourself as pure, you just drive your evil into the subconscious, and the Puritans were haunted by visions of the devil. Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown thinks he can follow the saintly path of his Puritan ancestors, only to discover from the devil that they committed horrific acts:

I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.

It doesn’t seem a stretch to see either the devil or Pennywise as intimate friends of Craig Hicks, who first assembled an arsenal of guns and then murdered the Muslim students. Or for that matter, to see the clown directing the actions of the police officers who killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice; or the vigilantes who killed Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis; or the Newtown killer, the Aurora killer, the Fort Hood killer… Every month adds new names to the list. In many ways, King seems less to be writing a gothic fantasy and more to be simply recording American life today.

For instance, King has his finger on America’s love of guns, which is integrally bound up in much of the killing. Note, for instance, how he describes the orgasmic bloodletting where Derry unloads on the outlaw gang:

It was all over in four, maybe five minutes, but it seemed a whole hell of a lot longer while it was happening. Pete and Al and Jimmy Gordon just sat there on the courthouse steps and poured bullets into the back end of the Chevrolet. I saw Bob Tanner down on one knee, firing and working the bolt on that old rifle of his like a madman. Jagermeyer and Theramenius were shooting into the right side of the La Salle from under the theater marquee and Greg Cole stood in the gutter, holding that .45 automatic out in both hands, pulling the trigger just as fast as he could work it…There must have been fifty, sixty men firing all at once.

To view America from the outside, with our lax gun laws and our killings, must be to see a community gripped by insanity. Like the inhabitants of Derry, however, those of us who live here close down our minds after our initial horror and fatalistically move on. Only an idealistic child, in all his or her naivete, could imagine putting a stop to the rampages of homicidal clowns.

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Learning to Love the Desert

Ivan Kramskoi, "Christ in the Wilderness"

Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872)

Spiritual Sunday

Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, which gives me an opportunity to grapple with a poem that has always eluded me. As far as I can tell, T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” (1930) takes the despair expressed in “The Hollow Men” (1925) and turns it upside down. Now despair seems to represent not the end of hope but the starting point of faith.

For Eliot, however, faith does not come easy. If “Ash Wednesday” provides us with a vision of salvation, it also shows us that salvation may come only after a momentous struggle. As C. E. Chaffin writes in a very clarifying essay on the poem,

In AW Eliot’s poetic persona has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith. That faith requires of him complete submission, including the admission that faith must ultimately come from without because the “within” is exhausted.

That makes “Ash Wednesday” a very appropriate Lenten poem. Lent is that season that calls upon us to burn away the dross so that we can find the gold. That is the purpose behind Lenten disciplines.

In today’s post I examine the first section of “Ash Wednesday,” where the poet compares himself to a couple of suffering lovers, the 15th century Italian poet Guido Calvacanti and Shakespeare’s sonneteer. After acknowledging his suffering, Eliot then concludes that such suffering is a good opportunity to pare away distraction and begin to build a relationship with God.

“Because I do not hope to turn again” appears in a Calvacanti poem where a poet who is dying tells his love he will not see her again. “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope,” meanwhile, is from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, which opens in a state of despair:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least…

Shakespeare’s sonnet dramatically turns around, just as Eliot sees faith in God turning him around:

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

As I said, such a shift does not come easy to Eliot. “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?” he asks at one point and then acknowledges that our former wings have become “merely vans to beat the air.” We can no longer recover the “vanished power of the usual reign.”

But rather than despairing in this powerlessness as he does in “The Hollow Men,” Eliot thanks the suffering for pointing him towards the divine. Once we fully realize that we cannot “turn again” and that the world is transitory and limited—when we have hit rock bottom, in other words—then we can “rejoice, having to construct something/Upon which to rejoice.”

Eliot sounds Buddhist when he asks God to “teach us to care and not to care,” which I read as a request for instruction in how to be compassionate even as we give up our old desires. Because we thrash around in our discontent, Eliot wants God to “teach us to sit still.” Once we do so, then we can sincerely call out the words of the “Hail Mary” prayer: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Achieving a state where we can truly listen and pray–that is what Lent is all about.

Ash Wednesday

By T. S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Posted in Eliot (T.S.) | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Spend Valentine’s Day with a Novel

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

Valentine’s Day

Better than going out on a Valentine’s Day date, curl up up with your favorite literary hero. Or so advises Claire Fallon of The Huffington Post, who provides a witty Rorschach test which informs why they fall in love with the male characters that they do. She sets up her choices with the following explanation:

Over the years, I’ve giggled with friends over various fictional studs, but, just as in real life, we often disagreed as to which romantic figure reigned supreme. In high school, I was Miss Sarcastic, and Mr. Darcy did seem like the ultimate — a handsome foil for my sharp comments who would be won over by my spirit and sass. Other friends prized dark, brooding men, like Mr. Rochester, whose melancholy seemed to promise sensitivity, an artistic nature, or a painful secret (in this case the last, unfortunately, but they can’t all be winners). Some women preferred carefree rogues who represented freedom and fun. And more often than not, our tastes in fictional men seemed to say far more about our true natures than we realized.

I recognize all those that Fallon has chosen from the classics. Some of the others are unfamiliar:

Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables)
Laurie (Little Women)
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)
Benedick (Much Ado about Nothing)
Four (Divergent)
Mr. Knightley (Emma)
Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
Dean Moriarty (On the Road)
Rochester (Jane Eyre)
Levin (Anna Karenina)
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
Edmond Dantes (Count of Monte Cristo)
Uncas (Last of the Mohicans)
Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind)
Will Ladislaw (Middlemarch)
Aragorn (Lord of the Rings)
John the Savage (Brave New World)
Edward Cullen (Twilight)
Caspar Goodwood (Portrait of a Lady)
Jaime Lannister (Song of Ice and Fire)

It’s a good list for the most part although why any woman would choose Heathcliff is beyond me. (Then again, two female characters do.) Here’s Fallon’s explanation:

You’re drawn to troubled, even dangerous men — maybe it’s just your fear of boredom, maybe it’s a secret desire to be the woman he would reform himself for, but probably it’s a little bit of both. But whether he reforms or not, you’d rather risk his unpredictable moods than trudge through a dull routine with a more stable guy. Anyway, what’s more romantic than a man’s love for you driving him half insane? 

I’m really impressed with the inclusion of Will Ladislaw, who has always been a favorite of mine. But I like even better the woman he marries, Dorothea Brooke, which gave me the idea to make up a list comprised of my favorites among the female partners. What emerges is an even stronger list:

Dorothea Brooks
Jo March
Elizabeth Bennet
Scout Finch (we’re about to discover what she’s like when she grows up)
Jane Eyre
Kitty Levin
Cora Munro (a fitting partner for Uncas)
Isabel Archer
Catherine Heathcliff II (but not her mother)

If one were allowed to keep the author but make substitutions, I would choose

Viola over Beatrice
Anne Elliot over Emma
Eowyn over Arwen

Who would you add?

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Sarah Palin as Dorothy

red pumps

In yesterday’s post I shared the kind of interpretation of The Wizard of Oz that gives English teachers a bad name. When students hear us claiming that the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan or that the Wicked Witch of the East stands in for Wall Street banks, they feel confirmed in their suspicion that we are either magicians or bullshit artists. Many of them see little point in mastering such an arcane art.

They don’t realize that they themselves are constantly drawing such symbolic equivalencies. They see, say, a movie about a U.S. sniper in Iraq and feel reassured that the United States is not in decline. They don’t have to think twice that the sniper symbolizes America. Their own symbol-reading and symbol-making capacities are constantly at work.

So as teachers, how do we take the mystery out of what we do? I like Robert Scholes’ suggestion, in The Crafty Reader, that we spend more time teaching literary biography and historical context. If students get to know an author’s life and times closely, they can begin to understand why he or she would be drawn to certain images and narratives. There’s even more reason to identify if the authors  struggle with issues close to the students’ hearts.

In my teaching of Wizard of Oz, this means bringing the students into the ambitious Baum’s struggle to achieve the American dream during an economic depression. Because they themselves are wrestling with student debt and an uncertain future, these biographical facts hit home.

I think the story’s mythical power comes from how it simultaneously captures our longing for the American dream and our fear that the dream is “somewhere over the rainbow.” The original book grew out of the recessions and depressions that ended the 19th century. The legendary film appeared in 1939 during the Great Depression at a point when people were losing hope in Roosevelt’s New Deal. Now, in the uncertain economic times of the early 21st century, we have audiences flocking to see the long-running musical Wicked (2003).

My students weren’t terribly taken with the idea of the Cowardly Lion as Bryan—who’s he?—but they perked up at my suggestion that we had a Dorothy running for vice-president during the 2008 economic meltdown. I have in mind, of course, Sarah Palin.

Now that much of the Republican Party is bailing on the former governor of Alaska, we may forget just how much symbolic power she wielded at the time. Wearing her famous red pumps, she was for many the populist savior that was going to lead America out of its economic doldrums. A pioneer spirit like Dorothy, she claimed to represent “real America” as she opposed the evil witches of the east and west coasts. Anticipating the Tea Party, she convinced her fans that she was the exposing “great and powerful” humbugs, whether they be the government or the GOP establishment. Throughout the south there were billboards with the single word “Sarah!”

She hasn’t fared well since then and, for that matter, Dorothy herself begins to fade in the later Oz books. No one ages in the Land of Oz and the enterprising innocence act gets old. But the lesson for our purposes is that the politicians who capture our imaginations are those who tap into deep mythologies. The symbolic power of Wizard of Oz became a bit clearer to my students when they saw it in the context of contemporary politics. Once they could imagine Palin as Dorothy, Bryan made more sense as the Cowardly Lion.

English teachers are not magicians. We are just attuned to how human beings use images and narrative to understand the world. We empower our students when we pass that knowledge on.

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Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

Wizard of Oz

I’m currently teaching L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900) in my American Fantasy course and am discovering that Baum’s book was a watershed event in American fantasy, comparable to the publication of Lord of the Rings in England.

It’s an open question which of the two works has been more influential. Tolkien’s trilogy has certainly had more of a literary impact, spawning the “sword and sorcery” genre that shows no appearance of abating. The Wizard of Oz, on the other hand, can be seen as leading to Walt Disney and the Disney empire.

I’ve asked my students to write about how The Wizard of Oz is an American fairy tale. In certain ways, Oz hearkens back to John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” that Puritan vision of America as a place to step beyond history and build God’s kingdom on earth. The vision inspired the building of “the white city” for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which is where Baum probably got the direct inspiration for Oz. Carl Sandburg might describe Chicago as the “hog butcher of the world,” but for Baum it was the Emerald City.

In an article entitled “There’s No Place But Home,” Jerry Griswold points out that Oz is a version of the United States. In the East there are the Munchkin farmers, versions of the prosperous and well-mannered Pennsylvania Dutch. The West, the country of the Winkies, is a wild and savage wilderness of wolves, savage crows, and killer bees and also a land filled with Indians (the winged monkeys) and Asian immigrants (the yellow Winkies). The South, the Quadlings, has both hammerhead hillbillies and dainty china people. The north, the Gillikins, has the hills and lakes that Baum associated with his vacation home in Michigan.

American politics as well as geography enter into The Wizard of Oz. In 1964 high school English teacher Henry Littlefield argued that Wizard of Oz was a satiric allegory of late 19th century populism. The idea enjoyed popularity for a while but then fell out of favor, in part because scholars started unearthing new facts about Baum’s political leanings. For instance, rather than a supporter of populism, he may have been a critic, which turns Littlefield’s interpretation on its head.

I’ve just read Quentin Taylor’s “Money and Politics in the Land of Oz,” however, which has convinced me that many of the populism parallels stand up, even though the overall idea needs tweaking.

Here’s the gist of the argument. Baum witnessed up close the Midwest’s drought and economic recession when he was a newspaperman in 1880s South Dakota and folded those conditions into his book. At the time, there was a major clash between East Coast banks, which wanted to return America to the gold standard, and Midwestern farmers, who were seeing their farms go under and hoped that they would be saved by moving to a bimetallic currency that included silver. (Gold and silver, incidentally, were weighed in ounces or oz.) Having silver in circulation would lead to some inflation, thereby raising the price of the farmers’ crops while effectively decreasing the cost of their fixed mortgages. At the height of the conflict, William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination for president with his legendary “thou shalt not crucify mankind on a cross of gold” speech.

As Littlefield and others have seen it, one finds the following equivalencies in the novel:

Dorothy – America’s innocence and can-do spirit
Yellow brick road – gold standard

Wicked Witch of the East – eastern banks
Silver slippers (changed to ruby in the movie) – silver coinage
Cyclone – Mary Lease, a firebreathing populist orator known as “the Kansas Cyclone” (Dorothy’s last name is “Gale”)
Toto – teetotalers, allied with the populists
Scarecrow – farmers
Tin Woodman – industrial workers
Cowardly Lion – William Jennings Bryan (get the rhyme?)
Giant spider killed by lion – corporate monoliths
Wicked Witch of the West – grim natural conditions
Wizard of Oz – Washington politicians

In this allegorical reading, if the electorate, operating out of Dorothy’s pioneer woman optimism, can march on Washington (like Coxey’s “Army” of the unemployed in 1894), free itself from the East Coast banks, and pressure slippery politicians to endorse bimetallism, the Midwest will be returned to prosperity. To do so, however, they must live up to their potential, which includes farmers using their brains, industrial workers discovering their hearts, and leaders displaying courage.

As Taylor notes, there are far too many correspondences to throw the theory out altogether. The problem lies in the heavy-handed way in which people have applied the symbols. Baum’s grandson declared such allegorizing to be “insane” given the fact that no one had picked up on it for 64 years. What good is an allegory if no one recognizes it as one?

It’s safe to say that The Wizard of Oz is not an allegory the way that Animal Farm or Gulliver’s Travels are allegories. Those works point to our own world to make their satiric points. Orwell meant for us to see how the descendants of Marx and Lenin had betrayed the ideas of the Russian Revolution. We are not reading too much into the work if we see Old Major as Marx/Lenin, Snowball as Trotsky (also some Lenin), and Napoleon as Stalin.

But I don’t think that Wizard of Oz is as innocent of allegorizing as, say, Tolkien claims Lord of the Rings to be. Tolkien insisted that his book should not be read as corresponding to current events, even though it is hard not to see the Shire as England, Tom Bombadil and Britain’s ancient Celtic roots, Sauron as Hitler, the Nazgul Black Riders as Nazi Storm Troopers, Saruman as Stalin, etc. I’m sympathetic with Tolkien’s point, however, because, unlike Orwell, he is creating a self-contained fantasy world. If it reflects the events of the time, it does so as all literature does. Tolkien doesn’t want us to see our world in Middle Earth. He wants to escape our world.

Taylor gives us a third way of looking at Wizard of Oz: it’s a children story that doubles as a private joke. In this joke, Baum is not promoting any particular cause but is having fun along the way. For instance, he’s neither for Bryan nor against him but having fun at his expense, including joking about his supposed cowardice for opposing American imperialism into the Philippines and (equating him now with the Wizard) seeing him as a Nebraska blowhard full of balloon-like hot air. The fantasy would win out over the satire, however, and Oz took on a life of its own in the numerous sequels.

Although few outside Ron and Rand Paul-type libertarians argue about gold and silver anymore, other themes from Baum’s time are alive and well today. It’s why Wizard of Oz has become like Cinderella or Snow White, an archetypal fairy tale capable of generating ever new versions. I’ll have more to say about Baum’s creation in future posts.

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An Ideal Place to Study Lit

Shangri-La in Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937)

Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon” (1937)

High school English teachers sometimes have to remind themselves that Shakespeare wasn’t targeting adolescents in his plays, and college English teachers similarly need to shake free of early adulthood framework that begins to define the works that they teach. It’s an occupational liability that we encounter.

This was the subject of a conversation I had this past December with my 32-year-old son Darien and with John Grammer, who runs the University of the South’s School of Letters each summer in Sewanee, Tennessee. Darien talked about how reading Moby Dick after spending several years in the world of business made the novel a far richer experience than it would have been had he encountered it in college.

Reading the novel on the New York subway, Darien was very attuned to Pequod’s hierarchy, which was not unlike that of an advertising firm he had once worked at. He loved the images of the men working together with urgency and a sense of common purpose. He was also attuned to how bad management can run an enterprise off the rails. The Quaker investors who are financing Captain Ahab would be more than a little concerned if they knew about his obsession. One hopes they are insured.

John talked about how wonderful it was teaching adults in the Institue of Letters. Many of them are high school teachers, who prize the chance to explore literature with other adults before returning to the classroom. Sewanee sits 2000 feet up atop a plateau, making it an idea place to read and discuss.

Thinking about John’s institute, I was put in mind of James Hilton’s description of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, also perched high in the hills. One could do worse than model a school on the monastery that Conway encounters there:

He did not think he had ever been so happy, even in the years of his life before the great barrier of the war. He liked the serene world that Shangri-La offered him, pacified rather than dominated by its single tremendous idea. He liked the prevalent mood in which feelings were sheathed in thoughts, and thoughts softened into felicity by their transference into language. Conway, whom experience had taught that rudeness is by no means a guarantee of good faith, was even less inclined to regard a well-turned phrase as a proof of insincerity. He liked the mannered, leisurely atmosphere in which talk was an accomplishment, not a mere habit. And he liked to realize that the idlest things could now be freed from the curse of time-wasting, and the frailest dreams receive the welcome of the mind. Shangri-La was always tranquil, yet always a hive of unpursuing occupations; the lamas lived as if indeed they had time on their hands, but time that was scarcely a featherweight. Conway met no more of them, but he came gradually to realize the extent and variety of their employments; besides their knowledge of languages, some, it appeared, took to the full seas of learning in a manner that would have yielded big surprises to the Western world. Many were engaged in writing manuscript books of various kinds; one (Chang said) had made valuable researches into pure mathematics; another was coordinating Gibbon and Spengler into a vast thesis on the history of European civilization. But this kind of thing was not for them all, nor for any of them always; there were many tideless channels in which they dived in mere waywardness, retrieving, like Briac, fragments of old tunes, or like the English ex-curate, a new theory about Wuthering Heights. And there were even fainter impracticalities than these. Once, when Conway made some remark in this connection, the High Lama replied with a story of a Chinese artist in the third century B.C. who, having spent many years in carving dragons, birds, and horses upon a cherrystone, offered his finished work to a royal prince. The prince could see nothing in it at first except a mere stone, but the artist bade him “have a wall built, and make a window in it, and observe the stone through the window in the glory of the dawn.” The prince did so, and then perceived that the stone was indeed very beautiful. “Is not that a charming story, my dear Conway, and do you not think it teaches a very valuable lesson?”

Conway agreed; he found it pleasant to realize that the serene purpose of Shangri-La could embrace an infinitude of odd and apparently trivial employments, for he had always had a taste for such things himself. In fact, when he regarded his past, he saw it strewn with images of tasks too vagrant or too taxing ever to have been accomplished; but now they were all possible, even in a mood of idleness.

Having grown up in Sewanee, maybe it is nostalgia that causes me to think that time stops there as it does in Shangri-La. On the other hand, retreating from the world to bury oneself in books sounds idyllic to me. If you think you might be interested in John’s program, it runs this year from June 7-July 17.

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If Beowulf Went to War with ISIS

Beowulf vs. Grendel's Mother

Beowulf vs. Grendel’s Mother

If you want to see Grendel’s Mother in action, look at current events in the Middle East. Even Beowulf would have difficulty defeating this incarnation of the monster.

I teach my students that the monsters in Beowulf are symbolic articulations of various destructive human angers. Grendel anger, the hot rage of those who feel left out, passed over, or otherwise aggrieved, drives many of our mass killers. The Dragon is the frozen rage of the deeply depressed, which is capable in an instant of spouting fire and leveling everything around it when it feels encroached upon. And then there is Grendel’s Mother, the grieving anger of those who have lost someone precious.

After seeing an ISIS propaganda video of a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive, Jordanians are in the grip of this last anger. Just as Grendel’s Mother feels compelled to make someone pay for the death of her son, so Jordan immediately executed some of the terrorists that they had contemplated trading for the pilot, and they have upped their aerial bombardments.

It’s not only Jordan that is dancing with this monster. Americans have been fantasizing about their own scorched earth response to ISIS beheading American captives.

Anglo-Saxon society understood such intractable anger well because it had a significant problem with blood feuds. One encounters multiple stories in Beowulf of kings either engaging in such feuds or trying to tamp down the anger that the feuds have unleashed. Take, for instance, King Finn of the Frisians, who first tries diplomatic marriage and then anti-hate laws to defuse a powder keg of hate. Neither approach works.

Finn at first tries to ensure peace with the Danes by marrying the Danish princess Hildebuhr. Fighting still breaks out between the Danes and the Frisians, however, and Hildebuhr sees both her Danish brother and her Frisian son killed in the battle. Then, because neither side triumphs, the two warring sides must figure out a way to coexist. Finn forbids his men to provoke King Hengest and his Danes:

With oaths to Hengest
                                          Finn swore
openly, solemnly,
                               that the battle survivors
would be guaranteed
                                      honor and status.
No infringement
                              by word or deed,
no provocation
                           would be permitted.

Unfortunately, these well intentioned efforts fail as emotions run too deep. The Danes take to arms again:

                                 The wildness in them
had to brim over.
                               The hall ran red
will blood of enemies.
                                       Finn was cut down…

One can think of the current situation as a continuing blood feud brought about by grieving anger. When the U.S., grieving over 9-11, attacked Saddam Hussein (not that he had anything to do with it), we helped propel a number of Hussein’s Baathist forces into their own grieving anger. Some of these people are key figures in ISIS.

Meanwhile the Shiites, who we helped to power and who had their own scores to settle with the Sunnis, unleashed their own set of  Grendel’s Mothers. Revenge killing leads to revenge killing leads to revenge killing. Invading Iraq was insane because we needlessly introjected ourselves into someone else’s blood feud.

As a hero, Beowulf finds productive ways to deal with the angers that rip societies apart. Is there anything that he can teach us?

First, we learn what does not work. When Beowulf is battling Grendel’s Mother at the bottom of the her monster-infested lake, he learns than sword blows have little impact. In other words, to respond to ISIS with mere sword blows (or bombs) is ultimately ineffective.

Beowulf also learns that the iron grip that worked against Grendel will not work against grieving anger. An impressive show of strength and an iron will are not enough. ISIS is not going to back down.

What does work for Beowulf, however, is the invocation of a higher ideal, represented by the great sword that he finds in the underwater hall. This sword has been forged by giants in the golden age before the flood and represents a higher warrior authority. Beowulf uses this sword to kill the monster.

Our own version of such authority, I think, is a political solution. Yes, swords must still be involved, but ISIS can ultimately be stopped only if the area’s nations come together to oppose it and if the Iraqi Shiites move beyond sectarianism and include Sunnis in the government.

Delicate diplomacy will be critical so don’t listen to those blustering war hawks that fantasize hacking away with swords. Beowulf is impressive because he refuses to be overwhelmed by the murky depths of the Mother’s anger. He maintains his poise even when things are at their worst.

In other words, like Beowulf we need to keep our heads, which is awfully hard when we see people being beheaded and burned alive. No one said that being an epic hero is easy.

Do our leaders have it in them to be Beowulfs? Do we?

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The Unassailable Thankfulness of Life

Joseph Wright of Derby, "The Orrery"

Joseph Wright of Derby, “The Orrery”

Spiritual Sunday

Before sharing today’s poem, I take a side-glance at Barack Obama’s prayer breakfast reflections, which the usual suspects are attacking. The president is being accused of smearing Christianity, but a post I wrote a while back on Uncle Tom’s Cabin bears him out.

In case you didn’t hear about the comments, Obama said that we should never judge a religion by its extremist elements. If we were to do so, we would need to dismiss Christianity no less than Islam:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ.

Harriet Beecher Stowe makes it clear how often slave owners quoted the Bible in defense of their ownership of other human beings, even as she also makes a religious case against slavery. Nor, as the president notes, did using the Bible to justify discrimination end with slavery. Growing up in the segregated Tennessee Bible Belt, I heard people claim that African Americans were black because they bear the curse that Noah bestowed on his son Ham.

And now to another issue that riles up the Christian right: evolution.

Robert Barasch, a regular reader of this blog, wrote to me about how he came to write “Miracle, Anyway” (2003).  At 37 he went back to school to take a zoology course and found himself fascinated by the origins of life:

These early organisms, consisting mainly of alimentary functions, moved through their world staying alive by partaking of nourishment, processing it, and moving the waste out. Along the way these tube-like structures changed (in some individuals) to include gills where there had been only perforations. These in turn evolved into mandibles, fins, air bladders, and lungs, and along the way we had fish, amphibians, primitive hominids, and finally us.  All this, according to Darwinian theory, occurred without being directed.

I love how the poem reminds us that, in our impassioned debates about creation, we sometimes lose sight of (to quote Lucille Clifton’s “the inner child”) “the damn wonder of it.” These include those “Darwinites” who militantly refuse to consider the possibility that life has a spiritual dimension and those “designerites” who just as militantly insist on reducing creation to their own simplistic formulations. When terror of the unknown rules people’s theories, then “all discussion, all wisdom, all art, all science” are indeed put at risk.

Barasch answers these debates in the same way that e. e. cummings describes the universe responding to the philosophers, scientists, and theologians who seek to uncover its secrets: “thou answerest them only with spring.” In “Miracle, Anyway,” they are answered by life’s “unassailable thankfulness.”

“Thankfulness” is not a word that scientists generally use, just as creationists don’t have a very good explanation as to why God would keep tinkering with creation. Yet Barasch captures both the marvels of evolution and the passionate way that life seeks that which is beyond itself, eventually taking a form that “hungers for the moon.” Again quoting from his note,

I think I have always been aware of the contingencies surrounding individual lives, hence terror and existential anxiety. How could one not be appreciative of the obstacles each of us has overcome? It seems miraculous to me. 

Here’s the poem, which appeared in the literary journal Confrontation:

Miracle, Anyway

By Robert Barasch

Say Darwin was right,
that the busy muscles I saw working
on the sigmoidoscope monitor
were performing their ancient task
of pushing casts down and out
while the front end was gobbling aliment
and moving forward to new ground,
that front end grown articulate
with new mouthparts to sample,
to explore and extract, to chew
and spit and make sounds,
having grown an organ of memory
for returning to choice places,
pulling the new partners along,
using the heart, lungs, and other additions
to go further and further,
the simple ameba and the complex worm
grown into the giant with the tongue
that reaches, that tastes, that speaks,
that hungered for the moon.
Say Darwin was wrong,
and the designer of the miraculous tube
saw it was good and could be better,
starting simple, adding complexity
until there were more parts than we can count.
Say Darwinites are terrified at the thought
of a source of knowledge beyond their ken;
say designerites are terrified at the thought
of no mind beyond our own.
Say terror rules all discussion,
all wisdom, all art, all science.
Say those simple tubes know no terror –
only fleeting dissatisfactions
that flicker and fade
in the seamless fabric
of their voraciousness and motility
and their unassailable thankfulness.

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Clifton Brings Black History Alive

Winslow Homer, "The Cotton Pickers"

Winslow Homer, “The Cotton Pickers”

Black History Month

Black History Month begins this week so I’m turning to Lucille Clifton reflections on the importance of looking back. Her book “quilting” ((1991) is particularly rich in the number of poems it has on this subject.

In “i am accused of tending to the past,” Clifton insists on talking about things that others would like to remain buried. Because history’s winners always want to forget the people they walked over to get where they are, history’s downtrodden need spokespeople to reconstruct the obliterated past. Clifton believes that the poet must provide history “faces, names, and dates” for this history, even if she offends when she does so:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.  

One piece of “History” that Clifton fills in is the Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. In an interview with Bill Moyer, Clifton recounted how her tour made no mention of slaves, as though a small white family had managed a two thousand acre plantation by themselves. She discovered unmarked stones in a cemetery indicating where slaves had been buried and insisted on seeing the plantation’s inventory. The following poem was the result:

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

The word “lies,” of course, works as a pun, as does the final “hear.” The shift in spelling and the sudden silence, however, suggests another possibility. If we listen hard enough, we can “hear” the truth in the blank space. The poet’s job, Clifton told Moyer, is to point us to that truth:

Clifton: [W]e cannot ignore history. History doesn’t go away. The past isn’t back there, the past is here too.

Moyers: Is it part of poetry’s job to recover history, to proclaim it, and to correct it when necessary?

Clifton: Yes. All that may be needed is that the injustice in the world be mentioned so that nobody can ever say, “Nobody told me.”

When one gives faces and names to History, the descendants of those who have been erased can begin to walk tall. Clifton makes this point in “lucifer speaks in his own voice.” Lucille feels a kinship with Lucifer, with whom she shares the Latin prefix “lux” or light. In her version of the story, Her Lucifer is not an evil devil but a perceived troublemaker who upsets the established order of Eden. She, who “has some of the devil inside her,” sees Lucifer and herself herself upsetting people with their uncomfortable truths.

Truth-telling is vital because “some must walk or all will crawl.” Which is to say, only if we have justice for all will we have a truly just society. As a subversive poet, Clifton must “slither” into our lives to awaken us:

i who was called son
if only of the morning
saw that some must
walk or all will crawl
so slithered into earth
and seized the serpent in
the animals… i became
the lord of snake for
adam and for eve
i   the only lucifer
light bringer
created out of fire
illuminate i could
and so
illuminate i did

Black History Month is about illumination. The truth shall make us free.

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Pesticides vs. Sweetness and Wings


Barbara Kingsolver gave eloquent fictional testimony to the plight of the monarch butterfly in her 2012 novel Flight Behavior, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is consider declaring it an endangered species. According to a recent blog in Scientific American,

Populations of the iconic and beloved monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) have dropped an astonishing 96.5 percent over the past few decades, from an estimated 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million in early 2014. 

Apparently the major cause is the decline of milkweed, often brought about by the rise of herbicide-resistant crops. (These crops survive being sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup but the milkweed dies.) Other pesticides are also to blame, as is logging and a killer storm in 2002 that killed 500 million monarchs.

Here’s a Scott Bates poem pointing out that we lose more than just butterflies with mass exterminations. We lose a source of spiritual regeneration.

Drawing on the erotic spirituality of Song of Solomon (a.k.a.,  Song of Songs), Bates imagines the butterfly gathering place as a sensual and nurturing womb. We don’t need to go to heaven to find solace for our existential despair. When we open ourselves to nature, we touch the divine:

The Underside of Heaven’s Gates

By Scott Bates

“Blessed is the man that heareth me, Sophia, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.” –Proverbs 8:34 

“Open to me, my sister, my life.” –Song of Solomon 5:2 

Swarms of golden butterflies
pour into the secret gardens of Mexico.

Through the gates and
into the temples
of the Sierra Madre
to sleep like gods,

rocked by the quiet
breathing of the moon.

               I touch
               your wings

Since I’ve raised the issue of precious insects threatened by the irresponsible use of pesticides, this is a good place to mention a progressive action group demanding that Home Depot and Lowe’s remove neonicotinoid pesticides from their shelves. According to Credo Mobilize, last summer 60 thousand bees died when neonicotinoid pesticides were sprayed on linden trees in the Portland, Oregon suburbs. If you’re not worried about hive collapse, you’ve forgotten where your food comes from.

Mary Oliver imagines herself as a bee in her joyous poem “Happiness.” This too is a poem about the healing capacity of nature. Notice how she starts off depressed, thinking of herself as a lumbering bear and “a black block of gloom.” Once she encounters “the honey-house deep as heartwood,” however, she is transformed into “an enormous bee/all sweetness and wings.”

Hold these images in your mind next time you hear about Congress opposing environmental regulations.


By Mary Oliver

In the afternoon, I watched
the she bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness–
honey, that the bees store
in the trees’ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods.  And then
she found it!  The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees–honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until

maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly–
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings–
down into the meadows, the perfection
of honeysuckle and roses and clover–
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.

Posted in Bates (Scott), Oliver (Mary) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On Poe & the Paranoia of Anti-Vaxxers

Norman Rockwell, "Before the Shot" (1958)

Norman Rockwell, “Before the Shot” (1958)

What’s with all the craziness on immunizations? Certain public figures (Chris Christie, Ron Paul, Bill Maher, Robert Kennedy, Jr.) are saying that it should be a matter of personal choice whether people get their children immunized. Because enough parents have chosen wrongly, we are witnessing a dangerous outbreak of the measles, a disease that we had all but eradicated. Do you remember the good old days when everyone agreed that vaccinations should be mandated to achieve “herd immunity”?

Some of the current thinking reflects a suspicion of science and some a suspicion of government. Unscrupulous politicians, preying on these fears, are making life unsafe for all of us.

It’s not a bad thing to express skepticism about science and scientists. Literature has been doing so since Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and, even before that, Jonathan Swift in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels. In my American Fantasy course at the moment, we are discussing how positivist science’s one-dimensional view of the world has prompted us to turn to fantasy, which articulates truths about the human condition that such science can’t touch.

But science properly understood and responsibly practiced is a boon to humankind, as witnessed by the fact that measles, mumps, small pox and other diseases are currently exotic outliers rather than the common experience of childhood that I remember them as.

My fantasy course provides some insight into America’s new anti-science bent. I especially have in mind Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny,” which I taught last week. It may explain why a significant part of our population is falling for paranoid narratives that seem immune to rational discourse.

Freud talks about how we push under or repress fears that we recognize but don’t want to face up to. When we shove these fears into our unconscious, they become toxic. They emerge in uncanny stories that induce feelings of dread.

The major fear Freud writes about is fear of death. He also points to various desires, the incest desire being the most dramatic, that we experience innocently as children but come to regard as abhorrent. It strikes me, however, that science and social science have been so effective at revealing new threats to us that we have a whole new set of fears that we may be tempted to close our eyes to. Among the new threats are:

–human-caused climate change
–technologically doctored food
–an exploding world population that requires increasingly complex management
–the cultural dislocations caused by globalization and the internet

Often fears related to these issues are addressed by dystopian science fiction, with Margaret Atwood making particularly important contributions in recent years with her Oryx and Crake trilogy. Our narratives move from science fiction into gothic horror when we push under the fears triggered by these developments. Sci-fi horror is good at capturing how we feel when we repress the fears generated by modernity.

I’ve been teaching various Edgar Allen Poe short stories where scientific insight fails to provide the confidence and security we expect. At first glance, to be sure, science promises to banish the shadows of the uncanny, just as Freud’s psychological science strove to banish the hysteria caused by (to put it simplistically) shame over having sexual urges. In a story like “Murders of the Rue Morgue,” super detective Auguste Dupin shows that the mysterious murder of two women in a seemingly locked room actually has a logical explanation.

The story is eerie or uncanny because we recognize, but then deny, that humans have it within them to commit such horrific acts as decapitating a woman with a razor. Learning that the perpetrator is an escaped orangutan, not a human, should come as a relief. But one of my students said that she found this development to be the most uncanny thing about the story. That’s because, in the primate, we recognize a double of ourselves that we don’t want to admit to.

Another uncanny masterpiece, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, relies on this disturbing resemblance between humans and apes.

And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted. (emphasis mine)

Stevenson’s novel, of course, is about how the civilized Doctor Jekyll is so horrified by his potential for savagery that he seeks to expel it. By pushing it away, unfortunately, he just renders it toxic and more powerful. He becomes Mr. Hyde.

Evolutionary science, rather than clearing up the uncanny with the light of truth, only further confirmed the unsettling kinship that people felt with apes. This is why many in the 19th century were as horrified by Darwin as they were by Freud—they were repulsed because, deep down, they saw some truth in their theories.

Poe’s insightful observers, like today’s scientists, do not dispel shadows but create new fears. Roderick Usher’s exquisite sensitivities pick up realities missed by the narrator, who tries to apply common sense to the strange sounds emerging from Madeline’s vault. Even Dupin, who seems to represent the triumph of logic over magical thinking, sees himself as a creative genius rather than as someone prosaically making sense out of “just the facts, m’am.” It’s a short jump from Dupin to the narrators of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-tale Heart,” who use their considerable intellects to wall up their murder victims.

To repeat my general point, scientists and social scientists are opening up powerful insights into all kinds of things, from the climate to human behavior to economics. Then they are bewildered when people resist their conclusions and think they have to become yet more convincing. People don’t reject their theories because they are unconvinced, however, but because they are unsettled. They move into avoidance, and their avoidance leads to paranoid fantasies about scientists, the president, the government, big business, and God knows what else.

And the paranoia leads to a measles outbreak.

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

The Super Bowl, Comic & Tragic Versions

Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

What a Super Bowl that was, with amazing twists and turns all the way through! Depending on who you were rooting for, it was either heartbreaking tragedy or exhilarating comedy. A work comes to mind for each.

If you were one of the few Americans who did not see the game, here’s a recap of the final minutes. After having given up a first half lead and then going down by ten points in the third, the Patriots fought back to take a four point advantage with just under two minutes left in the game. Seattle then drove the length of the field in a minute and had the ball on the one-yard line with a minute to go and three chances to punch it in.

For good measure, they had a timeout left and they had “Beast Mode” running back Marshall Lynch to do the heavy lifting. Lynch may be the premier short yardage runner in the National Football League and he had been carrying tacklers with him all day. Even if the Patriots were to stack the line, few doubted that Lynch would break through for the winning score.

Instead, hoping to catch the Patriots off guard, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass. And was intercepted!

If you were rooting for the Patriots, the ending of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is what you want.

Throughout the play, highwayman Mac the Knife has effected a number of miraculous escapes, just as the Patriots escaped the Baltimore Ravens and appeared ready to escape Seattle. In the end, however, he is betrayed to the authorities and is sentenced to be hanged. A player who has been watching the play objects to such an ending:

Player. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.

Beggar. Most certainly, Sir.—To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice.—Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all either hang’d or transported.

Player. Why then, Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.

So what does the playwright do? He arranges a timely interception–I mean, intercession:

Beggar. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—So—you Rabble there—run and cry, A Reprieve!—let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

The Patriots’ escape was an absurd ending, but that is the very essence of comedy. No one predicted that the game would conclude like this. Joy reigned supreme in New England.

Seattle fans, by contrast, must have felt like they were being toyed with by the malevolent gods mentioned in King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

They experienced as well the hellish torment of Tantalus, who is teased with luscious fruit, only to have it snatched away the moment it approaches his lips.

The story that comes to mind involves another man about to be hanged, which makes for a nice symmetry. Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” made into an Oscar-winning short film in 1962, gives us a Confederate sympathizer and saboteur who has been sentenced to be dropped from the bridge. If you don’t want me to spoil the ending, you can first read it here before concluding this post.

In the story, the rope breaks and, by swimming downstream, the man is able to escape, diving deep every time he sees the troops preparing to fire. The river then turns into rapids, taking him far beyond their reach. His neck hurting and his throat parched, he then plunges into the forest and runs all night, working his way back to his plantation. Here’s how the story ends:

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

This is how the game’s ending felt to Seattle fans: they were on the verge of a beautiful delirium, they were springing forward to clasp the object of their desire, and then reality set in, bringing them up short with a cold, hard shock.

Sports can be cruel that way.

Posted in Bierce (Ambrose), Gay (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Lit Make the Rich More Empathetic?

Jean Georges Ferry, "Two Women Reading in an Interior"

Jean Georges Ferry, “Two Women Reading in an Interior”

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist known for his support of the downtrodden, has written a column about failures of compassion in our country and what we can do to build empathy. I was glad to see that he included reading literature among his recommendations.

First to the problem. Kristof cites various studies that suggest that those who are wealthy and isolated are less empathetic than the rest of us. Take, for instance, charitable giving:

[T]he wealthiest 20 percent of Americans give significantly less to charity as a fraction of income (1.4 percent) than the poorest 20 percent do (3.5 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

That may be partly because affluence insulates us from need, so that disadvantage becomes theoretical and remote rather than a person in front of us. Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas.

Kristof cites a neurological study about how fiction increases empathy, with great fiction proving more effective than beach reading or non-fiction. (I’ve posted on that study here.) Kristof also cites Thomas Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence, which argues that the world is increasing in empathy. Pinker traces some of this back to the 18th century and expanding literacy.

Although I’ve shared Pinker’s ideas in the past (here and here), they’re worth revisiting. You can check out this excerpt for what Pinker says about fiction, but I’ll sum up his major observations.

First, he notes the power of satiric fiction such as, say, Gulliver’s Travels:

We have already seen how satirical fiction, which transports readers into a hypothetical world from which they can observe the follies of their own, may be an effective way to change people’s sensibilities without haranguing or sermonizing.

Turning then to realistic fiction, Pinker borrows a number of ideas from historian Lynn Hunt:

In [the epistolary novel] the story unfolds in a character’s own words, exposing the character’s thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Hélöise (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed: You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me … Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment.”

French philosophe Denis Diderot was also a Richardson fan:

One takes, despite all precautions, a role in his works, you are thrown into conversation, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, you feel indignant. How many times did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theater for the first time, crying: “Don’t believe it, he is deceiving you.”… His characters are taken from ordinary society … the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself.

Pinker cites Hunt’s causal chain, in which “reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.” While he rightly acknowledges that attributing the decline of violence to literature must be seen with with some skepticism, he still comes down in favor it:

But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy. Around the same time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin mobilized abolitionist sentiment in the United States, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839) opened people’s eyes to the mistreatment of children in British workhouses and orphanages, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (1840) and Herman Melville’s White Jacket helped end the flogging of sailors. In the past century Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse- Five, Alex Haley’s Roots, Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (a novel that features female genital mutilation) all raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored.

One caution is in order. As I’ve noted in the past, if people can play upon the emotions to promote progressive causes, they can also do the same to promote reactionary ones. Here’s a passage from that blog post:

A colleague of mine, Christine Wooley, studies the sentimental novel and talks about how sentiment can be used for less than noble purposes. For instance, late 19thcentury African American novelist Charles Chestnutt was concerned that readers would bathe in novelistic scenes of pathos but not do anything about it. (As a countermeasure, he turned to realism and naturalism, providing almost scientific descriptions of the lives of African Americans.) More perniciously, Thomas Dixon in The Clansman, which D. W. Griffith turned into Birth of a Nation, used emotional scenes of brutish Blacks assaulting virginal white women to justify Jim Crow laws. Emotions can be used for reactionary as well as progressive causes, 

Perhaps a point to be made here is that we must distinguish between different levels of empathy. Great literature opens us up to our full humanity whereas lesser literature does not. For instance, Dixon may open our hearts to Little Sis as she flees from a black rapist, but he reduces us to our primal fears in his depiction of this man. For that matter, Dixon also reduces women to heavenly creatures in his melodrama. By contrast, a great author, even if he’s reactionary (say, Balzac), shows us the full range of what it means to be human.

Put another way, an author who subordinates art to an agenda cannot do justice to our capacity for empathy. Pinker is not a literary historian and so doesn’t dwell on this distinction between good and bad literature, but we can appreciate its importance. And apparently even brain scans are now picking up the difference.

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The Golem, A.I., and God

Golem of Prague

Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague

Spiritual Sunday

My friend Jackie Paskow alerted me to this post where a Jewish rabbi takes on Steven Hawking’s confident and unequivocal assertion that there is no god. The article deals with the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Hawking is very pessimistic on this score. As he sees it, we are well on the road to creating computers that can outthink us and ominously warns, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech turns to the 17th century Jewish legend about the golem of Prague to reflect upon the matter. While the story, a forerunner of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, gives us ample reason to be worried, it also points to what is missing in Hawking’s thinking.

In the legend Rabbi Judah Loew uses Jewish mysticism to turn a lump of clay into a monster that will defend the Jewish people. He makes it come alive by inscribing the word “emet” or “truth” upon the creatures forehead.

Things go wrong, of course, and the creature slips the bounds of control. Blech explains:

Much to his consternation however, Loew soon realized that once granted its formidable strength, the golem became impossible to fully control. Versions of the story differ. In one the golem fell in love and, when rejected, turned into a murderous monster. In another the golem went into an unexplained murderous rampage. In perhaps the most fascinating account, Loew himself was at fault — something akin to a computer programmer’s error — by forgetting to deactivate the golem immediately prior to the Sabbath, as was his regular custom. This caused the golem to profane the holiness of the day and be guilty of the death penalty.

One sees the template here for not only Frankenstein but also those dystopian movies like Terminator and The Matrix. The golem also makes an appearance in the Michael Chabon novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

There is nothing in Hawking’s universe that can stop the unleashed monster, but the same is not true of the golem:

The rabbi erased the first letter of emet — the aleph with a numerical value of one, representing the one God above who alone can give life. That left only the two letters spelling the Hebrew word for death, “met.” No longer representing the will of the ultimate creator, nor bearing the mark of God on his forehead, the golem turned into dust.

Put another way, there may be a power beyond ourselves that can save us from ourselves. If there is not, then Hawking’s pessimism is full warranted. As Blech puts it:

Perhaps the biblical God in whom I and so much of the world believe must also deeply regret the “artificial intelligence” with which he imbued mankind. Perhaps we are the greatest illustration of the fear we now verbalize for our technology — creations capable of destroying our world because we doubt our creator. 

To be sure (as militant atheists never cease to point out), belief in a god has not stopped people from doing awful things. Indeed, the Bible itself is filled with countless examples of this occurring, and often atrocities are committed in the name of God. But in those instances, people have turned their back on divinity and made false idols of their own fears and desires. They have reduced God to themselves rather than humbled themselves before God and taken guidance. If people like Hawking are right and there is no God—if there is nothing but a materialistic universe—then there is indeed no check.

Faith in God is a faith in a higher wisdom and a higher love that we can invoke to step beyond our darkness. Take that away and, okay, the end of the human race may well be at hand.


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The Miraculous Ride of Tom Brady

Tom Brady

Tom Brady

I’ve been avoiding thinking about the Super Bowl, largely because Tom Brady is playing in it and Peyton Manning is not. But as much as I root against Brady and the Patriots, I have to admit that they are a marvel. Since they are named after the Massachusetts revolutionary heroes, I quote from the best known poem about those earlier patriots.

I have in mind, of course, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” To be sure, the poem is historically inaccurate, with Samuel Prescott and Williams Dawes getting left out. They had the misfortune to have names that didn’t scan or rhyme as well as Revere, which is how history sometimes gets written. Still, it’s a stirring poem, written in the early days of the Civil War to inspire the North to battle.

Unfortunately for Seattle, they have to stand in for the British. That’s not entirely inappropriate as they are the reigning power. Unlike the Red Coats, however, they are not heavily favored.

There are more resemblances on the other side. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is like the patriots of old in that he has a genius for adapting his game plan to fit whatever circumstances he meets and to bend the rules in ways that infuriate the enemy. He figures out when the opposing team is signaling “one if by land and two if by sea,” and, like the embattled farmers, his attacks are versions of firing “from behind each fence and farmyard wall.” If he’d been commanding the 1775 patriots, maybe he would even have found a way to change the flight of the musketballs.

For the record, I think the Patriots are guilty of deflating the footballs in the same way that Henry II was guilty of Thomas A Beckett’s death or Henry IV of Richard II’s. “Have I no friend will rid me of these rock hard balls?” (My post on plausible deniability can be found here.) Luckily for football, this did not change the outcome of the Colts game.

The Patriots are hoping for a reprise of the Battle of Concord:

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled, —
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

If Belichick and Brady really do route the enemy, then their names will become as legendary in sports history as Paul Revere’s exploits are in American history. Years from now we will be recounting how a coach and his quarterback dominated for league, winning their first Super Bowl and their last (if it’s their last) an amazing 13 years apart. Listen my children…


Previous Posts on the Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks Prepared to Swoop and Kill 

Seahawks: Unleashed, Endlessly Hungry 

Zeus Predicts Broncos Will Win 

Competing Narratives in the Superbowl

Previous Posts on the New England Patriots

Belichick Ranks with Lit’s Great Plotters

Tom Brady Channels Medea’s Fury 

Mannings vs. Brady, Hector vs. Achilles 

Bill Belichick as Professor Moriarty 

Belichick and Saban: Infernal Machines 

No Man Is an Island (Not Even Reavis) 

A Poem for Every Playoff Team 

Schadenfreude and the NFL 

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Media Is Like White Queen: Scream First

Tenniel, "Alice through the Looking Glass"

Tenniel, “Alice through the Looking Glass”

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker makes great use of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in writing about New York’s blizzard-that-wasn’t. I’m talking about the snowstorm that didn’t happen this past Tuesday.

Just talking this way already indicates how the situation invites comparisons with Carroll’s Looking Glass world. Gopnik then very cleverly uses Carroll’s reversals to make an even broader point about how, thanks to the media, we spend a lot of time getting worked up over potential crises and scandals, only to act (if they fail to materialize) as though we had been calm all along.

Gopnik associates the White Queen with Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen before labeling the former as ruler of “the Kingdom of the Snow That Fell Before It Started Falling.” He sets up the parallel by quoting instances of the media hysteria that preceded the non-storm:

“In New York City, the latest National Weather Service update hints a bit more strongly that this storm could over perform there, saying, ‘It should be a raging blizzard,’ ” read one report. It continued, “Although official forecasts say 20-30 inches for the city, a top-end scenario of three feet is still possible, which could break the city’s all-time single storm snowfall record (dating back to 1869) by 5 to 10 inches.” The report said that the N.W.S. office in Boston warned that the storm’s “central pressure will explosively deepen on Tuesday, at a rate twice that of a ‘bomb’ cyclone.” One N.W.S. forecaster said, “It’s bombogenesis, baby!” The storm was called “historic” and “crippling.” And “explosively deepening”—this is snow porn, of course, and for some reason it excites us. We like the Armageddon until it’s here.

The actuality in New York (although not in Boston) was closer to what a rabbinical student says in an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story that Gopnik quotes:

Snow comes from heaven, and brings us the peace of a better world.

Here’s the scene with the White Queen:

The Queen began screaming so loud that she had to leave the sentence unfinished. “Oh, oh, oh!” shouted the Queen, shaking her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. “My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!”
Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam engine, that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears.
“What IS the matter?” she said, as soon as there was a chance of making her heard. “Have you pricked your finger?”
“I haven’t pricked it YET,” the Queen said, “but I soon shall—oh, oh, oh!”
‘When do you expect to do it?’ Alice asked, feeling very much inclined to laugh.
‘When I fasten my shawl again,’ the poor Queen groaned out: ‘the brooch will come undone directly. Oh, oh!’ As she said the words the brooch flew open, and the Queen clutched wildly at it, and tried to clasp it again.

Then the crisis occurs:

‘Take care!’ cried Alice. ‘You’re holding it all crooked!’ And she caught at the brooch; but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the Queen had pricked her finger.
‘That accounts for the bleeding, you see,’ she said to Alice with a smile. ‘Now you understand the way things happen here.’
“But why don’t you scream now?” Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.
“Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,” said the Queen. “What would be the good of having it all over again?”

After quoting Carroll, Gopnik moves on to media behavior and our responses generally:

The Queen’s final remark is the motto of the modern American media, apropos of pretty much anything. We get hysterical at first, and by the time the snow explosions don’t take place, or it emerges, say, that Benghazi isn’t a scandal, or we experience the American Ebola epidemic that never happened—Why, We’ve Done All the Screaming Already! With our doom prophets, no one even recalls the snow warning that went wrong, the super predators who didn’t appear.

And further on:

We live … every morning[ ] in the White Queen’s Kingdom.

Gopnik points out that, unlike the case with many of our hysterical forecasts, the White Queen’s finger actually bleeds. Also unlike us,

at least the White Queen knows that she is having the emotions in the wrong sequence.

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No-Name Women vs. Anti-Abortionists

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston

I can’t believe that once again Republican politicians are discussing legitimate vs. illegitimate rape. This time the culprit is South Carolina Lindsay Graham. This time even anti-abortion GOP congresswomen rebelled.

In past posts I’ve sometimes turned to Tess of the D’Urbervilles to explain why rape and abortion are far more complex than rightwing activists claim (see below), but today my choice is Maxine Hong Kingston’s story “No Name Woman.”

To be absolutely fair, Graham didn’t actually use the phrase “illegitimate rape.” Rather, he asked anti-abortion activists to provide him with “a way out of this definitional problem with rape.” In other words, he was asking for a way to distinguish between so-called legitimate and illegitimate rape without shooting himself in the foot. At the heart of his question was his belief that (in the words of New Republic writer Brian Beutler) “women will lie about rape if that’s what it takes to get an abortion.” And of course at the heart of that belief is that he knows better than women about what they should do with their bodies.

The reason rape won’t leave the abortion conversation is because it is the grayest of the three exceptions that some (but far from all) anti-abortionists are willing to grant: “rape, incest, and the health of the mother.” So after already splitting hairs, the rightwing are splitting subhairs. What they aren’t prepared to acknowledge is that lives are immensely complicated and that women often have deep and powerful reasons for choosing to abort.

Kingston’s powerful story (or quasi family memoir) tackles the complexities although, in her protagonist’s case, the victim is not a fetus but a live baby. Kingston’s aunt, back in China, had a child through an adulterous affair and then committed suicide by jumping into the village well with the baby in her arms. This occured after the outraged village had torn apart the family’s house, trampled its crops, and destroyed its livestock. They don’t stop to ask about the specifics of the case.

Kingston can only speculate upon what these specifics are. One is that her aunt had been raped:

My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.

Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers. She had to have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps he worked an adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for the dress she sewed and wore. His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told.

Another imagined scenario is that her aunt, whose husband had left years ago for America and who was living in barren circumstances, acted upon deep and forbidden longings.

Whatever the reasons, they don’t matter any more to the villagers than the reasons for an abortion matter to anti-abortion radicals. It is enough that a woman broke their rules. As a result, they are willing to unleash unholy hell upon her and her family.

Kingston writes of how the villagers punished her aunt “for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them.” Maybe that is what infuriates our own anti-abortionists: that women want to have a private life, secret and apart from them.

Previous posts on America’s abortion and reproduction debates

John Irving’s Defense of Abortion 

Imagine Austen vs. War on Women

SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House 

GOP vs. Women=Pentheus vs. Bacchae

How the Rightwing Would Respond to Tess 

Ryan, Abortion, and Hardy’s Angel Clare 

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True? 

A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape 

Threatened by Female Empowerment

Unruly Women Playing Cards

Purity Tests Kill the Patient  (Hawthorne’s The Birthmark)

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The Frolic Architecture of the Snow

George Austustus Williams, "Snow Storm"

George Austustus Williams, “Snow Storm”

For those of you in the Northeast who are being battered by the monster snow-storm, here’s a well-known Ralph Waldo Emerson poem to help you appreciate it aesthetically. In Emerson’s vision, the snow-storm is a powerful artist who turns his back on conventional rules (“naught cares he for number or proportion”) and extravagantly follows his own genius. As a result, suddenly coops and kennels are hung with “Parian wreaths” (Parian marble is the pure white marble favored by the ancient Greeks), and a “swan-like form invests the hidden thorn.”

In a past post on Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” I have noted that a snow day is “found time,” providing us an opportunity to break with normal work or school routines and see the world with new eyes. Emerson’s poem urges us to do the same. The snow forces the traveler, the courier, and the farmer to stop what they are doing, and they can take advantage of this opportunity (“Come see”) to witness this great artist at work.

The artist is humble as well. When the sun returns, he will retire “as he were not.” But the art world will remember and seek, through laborious effort, to imitate the architecture that this mad artist threw up in a night, as though in a frolic.

A masterpiece is being created outside your window, so stop and appreciate it. Then go back to your radiant fireplace.

The Snow-Storm

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.


Previous posts on snow

 First Snowfall, a Moment of Grace 

Praise the Wet Snow 

Velvet Shoes, Walking in Snow 

Move with the Wind, Sleep under the Snow 

Snow Days Open Up Cracks in Time

What Extreme Cold Teaches Us 

Captain Nemo Invades New England 

Midwinter Transformation: A Poem 

Earth, Love, Birches and Ice Storms 

Gripped by a Mind of Winter 

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Medicine Incomplete without Poetry

Sir Luke Fildes, "The Doctor"

Sir Luke Fildes, “The Doctor”

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to Alastair Gee’s article in The New Yorker about how medical journals are increasingly including poetry in their pages. In oral cultures it was normal to combine poetry and medical knowledge because that was the the most effective way to transfer information from one generation to the next. Gee alerted me to the fact that the 11th century Islamic thinker Avicenna

summarized his Canon of Medicine, one of the foundational encyclopedias of early medical knowledge, in a poem. It was written in rajaz metre, whose structure made it particularly easy to remember, and disseminated throughout medieval Europe in Latin translation. (Avicenna’s advice on dealing with convalescents: “Try to lift their spirit through welcome words and pleasant company; / Give them sweet-scented perfumes and flowers.”)

For much of the 20th century, by contrast, many doctors have seen poetry as fairly useless, at least with regards to their profession. That has been changing in recent years, and increasingly pre-med students have been enrolling in my literature classes because medical schools want well-rounded doctors. Now medical journals are following suit.

Some of the poems cited by Gee’s article are in the poetry-as-transmission-of-knowledge tradition, such as “The Uncerative Colitis” written by pathology professor Sanjeev Narang and published in The International Journal of Medical Science Research & Practice:

Begins in the rectum and backwards it goes
No mercy to any part of colon it shows.
Continuous it is, skip areas without
Ulcerative colitis it is, without a doubt.
Mucosa has ulcers, you should know
Linearity & superficiality they show.
Muscle contracted & narrow, problem does pose
Provides it, the appearance of a garden hose.
Sometimes it waxes and sometimes wanes
Accordingly active or resolving status it gains.
Crypt abscesses are always produced
And goblet cells are markedly reduced.
Congestion & mucosal regeneration noted have been
Dysplasia to Neoplasia-spectrum entire is seen. 

If I’m suffering from uncerative colitis, I’m all for poetry that helps my doctor visualize the problem and remember what to do. The “no mercy” part sounds terrifying.

Then there is the poetry that wrestles with questions of meaning. Gee’s article has several rich statements by poetry editors, such as the observation of Michael Zack of the pulmonary journal Chest, that poetry is

a tool physicians may use to express or visit that whole vastness beyond their scientific intellect.

And a comparison of patients to poems by Johanna F. Shapiro, co-editor at Families, Systems, & Health:

You think a patient is going to be like a well-organized essay, but what you really get is a poem. You’re not sure what they mean, and they don’t tell you everything all at once, up front.

And a contrast noted by Charlene Breedlove, poetry editor at the Journal of American Medicine, between the medical articles, whose purpose is to “narrow the amount of interpretability in what you’re saying,” and poetry, which

moves in the opposite direction—it moves to open the possibilities of language. It wants to explore unnoticed possibilities.

Michael LaCombe, poetry editor for the Journal of Internal Medicine, cited the following Shakespearean-style sonnet as his favorite amongst those he has published. It was written by a New York internist and reminds medical professionals of something they sometimes forget. Poetry is good at restoring perspective:

The Morning Rounds

By George N. Braman

He’d sometimes stop and stare long into space
In mid-sentence, as if recalling sounds;
“He’s lost the thread again,” I’d muse, and grace
The awkward pause with words, resuming rounds.
He’d stop at still another patient’s side,
And he’d start an easy conversation
At which he was adept; then gently glide
To the chart lodged at the nurse’s station.
“He’s still the master,” I’d grant and conclude
Not to let him down, even if the fact
Of this or that lab value might elude
His grasp or his RX was inexact.
His patients glowed with convalescent thanks;
We, his entourage, gladly filled the blanks.


Previous posts on Poetry and the Medical Profession

Medical Schools Should Require Poetry 

John Donne and Bad Bedside Manner

A Nurse with a Literary Background

Doc, Prescribe Me a Poem

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(Limitless Pity Makes All Large & New)

Jakob Steinhardt, "Jonah Preaches in Nineveh" (1923)

Jakob Steinhardt, “Jonah Preaches in Nineveh” (1923)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Old Testament reading is the episode in the Book of Jonah after that conflicted man returns from the whale episode and this time does what God has commanded him to do, which is to prophesy to the people of Nineveh about their wickedness. In the Keith Schlegel poem I have chosen, one sees the tension between justice and mercy. One feels on much more solid ground when there are only crimes and punishments. Schlegel’s Jonah burns with conviction and righteous fury.

In the story, Nineveh does in fact repent after hearing Jonah’s words and God changes His/Her mind and spares the city. Jonah is so upset that he withdraws to a shady bower.

To prompt Jonah to understand the act of mercy, God has a worm kill the plant so that Jonah suffers from the heat. God’s point: although the people in Nineveh may have deserved to die, what has Jonah done to deserve the shade? Maybe deserving, as Clint Eastwood says in The Unforgiven, “has nothing to do with it.”

Put another way, while God guides our notions of what is right and wrong, God can’t be reduced to humans’ understanding of justice. The point is beautifully made by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings about Gollum: when Frodo says that Gollum deserves to die for his murder and other horrible deeds, Gandalf replies,

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.

Schlegel concludes his poem with this wonderful shift in perspective. After we think we’ve got everything figured out, our divine capacity for empathy enters the picture and changes all our calculations. It’s as though, right before Jonah’s eyes, God has grown into something far bigger than anything Jonah could have imagined.

The vision is made all the more powerful by the way that Schlegel tosses it off as a parenthetical statement. What appears to human eyes as an afterthought is the main point.

Jonah in Nineveh

By Keith Schlegel

For long days, hot among the ashes
In which they sat, I walked.
They burned, of course, and so did I.
Fair, if effects be chained.
Worth it, if justice is final,
Confirming consequence from cause.
Fair if the predictable,
Just is the certain,
When we know.

“The End is Near,” I cried,
Until the syllables grew hoarse,
My soles blistered,
And the straps of the sandwich boards
Cut my shoulders.
So what if they fasted, and wept, and prayed?
Too little, too late.
Should a three-day fast abolish
Decades of excess?

This is why I fled before:
That fate not be fickle and that I
Not burn like this.
I sought a bower
Bereft of promised ill,
Your promise.

So let me die, ashamed,
Made a liar by your lies.
You repent your revelation; let me
Repent my repentance, and theirs.
You changed your changeless mind!
(No, but as nature and this city grow, pity grew.
Limitless pity makes all large and new.) 


Previous post on Jonah

A Spiritual Quest Begins inside a Whale

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Dickens Understood Resentment Well

Illus. from "Little Dorrit"

Illus. from “Little Dorrit”

I sometimes think that if I really understood how resentment works, I would understand American politics. It seems to drive a lot of what we do, especially when times are hard.

For example, the Tea Party movement was triggered by Rick Santelli’s resentful rant against proposals to help homeowners who had purchased homes they could no longer afford and who were facing foreclosure. Often the real culprits were banks making irresponsible loans but put that aside for a moment. Even if the defaulting owners had indeed been irresponsible, supporting them could have saved the housing values of “deserving” homeowners. That’s because propping up one house on a block can protect the others from also losing value.

Instead, people preferred to vent their spleen on the unfortunates and everyone lost billions in home equity. I suppose it was a version of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Dickens’ Little Dorrit, which has all my admiration at the moment, provides us with vivid images of resentment. It also offers us an old-fashioned alternative.

The former governess Miss Wade functions as the spirit of resentment in the novel. We watch as this angry woman virtually possesses Tattycoram, an orphan who has been adopted by the well-meaning Mr. and Mrs. Meagles to be a companion to their daughter. At times Tattycoram is grateful to them but at others she burns with resentment. It is at those moments that Miss Wade wades in, as in their first encounter. Tattycoram first:

I am afraid of you.’

‘Afraid of me?’

‘Yes. You seem to come like my own anger, my own malice, my own—whatever it is—I don’t know what it is. But I am ill-used, I am ill-used, I am ill-used!’ Here the sobs and the tears, and the tearing hand, which had all been suspended together since the first surprise, went on together anew.

The visitor stood looking at her with a strange attentive smile. It was wonderful to see the fury of the contest in the girl, and the bodily struggle she made as if she were rent by the Demons of old.

‘I am younger than she is by two or three years, and yet it’s me that looks after her, as if I was old, and it’s she that’s always petted and called Baby! I detest the name. I hate her! They make a fool of her, they spoil her. She thinks of nothing but herself, she thinks no more of me than if I was a stock and a stone!’ So the girl went on.

Tattycoram’s mood is only temporary, however, and eventually she works her way back to gratitude:

‘Go away from me, go away from me! When my temper comes upon me, I am mad. I know I might keep it off if I only tried hard enough, and sometimes I do try hard enough, and at other times I don’t and won’t. What have I said! I knew when I said it, it was all lies. They think I am being taken care of somewhere, and have all I want. They are nothing but good to me. I love them dearly; no people could ever be kinder to a thankless creature than they always are to me. Do, do go away, for I am afraid of you. I am afraid of myself when I feel my temper coming, and I am as much afraid of you. Go away from me, and let me pray and cry myself better!’

Wade is persistent, however, and eventually pulls Tattycoram away from her home. When Mr. Meagles tries to retrieve his adopted daughter, Wade stokes Tattycoram’s sense of ill-treatment:

‘See here,’ she said, in the same level way as before. ‘Here is your patron, your master. He is willing to take you back, my dear, if you are sensible of the favor and choose to go. You can be, again, a foil to his pretty daughter, a slave to her pleasant willfulness, and a toy in the house showing the goodness of the family. You can have your droll name again, playfully pointing you out and setting you apart, as it is right that you should be pointed out and set apart. (Your birth, you know; you must not forget your birth.) You can again be shown to this gentleman’s daughter, Harriet, and kept before her, as a living reminder of her own superiority and her gracious condescension. You can recover all these advantages and many more of the same kind which I dare say start up in your memory while I speak, and which you lose in taking refuge with me—you can recover them all by telling these gentlemen how humbled and penitent you are, and by going back to them to be forgiven. What do you say, Harriet? Will you go?’

The girl who, under the influence of these words, had gradually risen in anger and heightened in color, answered, raising her lustrous black eyes for the moment, and clenching her hand upon the folds it had been puckering up, ‘I’d die sooner!’

Wade isn’t entirely wrong and Mr. Meagles acknowledges that he has made mistakes, starting with the name. All of us, I dare say, have both slighted others and been the targets of slights. But a life filled with resentment is a miserable life, as Tattycoram learns from her time spent with Wade. She describes it when she returns to the Meagles family at the end of the novel:

Oh! I have been so wretched,’ cried Tattycoram, weeping much more, ‘always so unhappy, and so repentant! I was afraid of her from the first time I saw her. I knew she had got a power over me through understanding what was bad in me so well. It was a madness in me, and she could raise it whenever she liked. I used to think, when I got into that state, that people were all against me because of my first beginning; and the kinder they were to me, the worse fault I found in them. I made it out that they triumphed above me, and that they wanted to make me envy them, when I know—when I even knew then—that they never thought of such a thing.

And further on:

I have had Miss Wade before me all this time, as if it was my own self grown ripe—turning everything the wrong way, and twisting all good into evil. I have had her before me all this time, finding no pleasure in anything but keeping me as miserable, suspicious, and tormenting as herself. Not that she had much to do, to do that,’ cried Tattycoram, in a closing great burst of distress, ‘for I was as bad as bad could be. I only mean to say, that, after what I have gone through, I hope I shall never be quite so bad again, and that I shall get better by very slow degrees.

Mr. Meagles’ reply is very Victorian but still useful for us today. First, he points out someone else who had even more reason to resent the world—Little Dorrit—but who has taken a very different approach. He concludes by advocating a life of duty:

I have heard tell, Tatty, that [Amy Dorrit] was once regularly called the child of this place [Marshalsea Prison]. She was born here, and lived here many years. I can’t breathe here. A doleful place to be born and bred in, Tattycoram?’

‘Yes indeed, sir!’

‘If she had constantly thought of herself, and settled with herself that everybody visited this place upon her, turned it against her, and cast it at her, she would have led an irritable and probably an useless existence. Yet I have heard tell, Tattycoram, that her young life has been one of active resignation, goodness, and noble service. Shall I tell you what I consider those eyes of hers, that were here just now, to have always looked at, to get that expression?’

‘Yes, if you please, sir.’

‘Duty, Tattycoram. Begin it early, and do it well; and there is no antecedent to it, in any origin or station, that will tell against us with the Almighty, or with ourselves.’

The advice sounds almost quaint in this day and age where we are focused on our individual happiness, but maybe we should root for a sense of duty make a comeback. Instead of being caught up in a sense of our own victimization, maybe we should stop focusing so much on ourselves and ask what good we can do in the world. We can approach life with a sense of gratitude and ask what we can do with the gifts we have been granted.

Now, this good might involve protecting the oppressed, as Dickens sought to do. I’m not saying that we should just turn a blind eye to injustice. But there’s a difference is dwelling upon the wrongs that have been done to us individually and focusing on lifting the burdens on others. The second is a healthier and a happier way to live.

So watch out for those political Miss Wades as they seek to intrude themselves into your life. When you feel the temper coming upon you, when you feel that madness threatening to engulf you, don’t turn to Ted Cruz or Fox News but push them away. They claim to understand you and sympathize with you but their influence is toxic.

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Dickens & Our Irresponsible Financiers

Merdle and Lord Tite Barnacle in "Little Dorrit"

Merdle and Lord Tite Barnacle in “Little Dorrit”

Several weeks ago I knew nothing about Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Now I think it’s an amazing novel and also a timely one. As I watched the President in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night describe how we are finally putting the 2008 recession behind us, I felt like protagonist Arthur Clennam at the end of the novel when he emerges from debtors prison and begins working productively again.

Clennam, like many others, is taken down by Mr. Merdle, a Bernie Madoff figure who is running a Ponzi scheme. Merdle works closely with the Barnacles, well-paid civil servants who work for “the Circumlocution Office.” As a result, Merdle establishes a reputation for guaranteed returns. Many innocent people are pulled in.

When he realizes the fraud will be discovered, Merdle, unlike Madoff, commits suicide. According to Dickens scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the affair was based on a bank crash that occurred in 1856 when Dickens was writing his novel. John Sadlier, a Member of Parliament and Junior Lord of the Treasury who was regarded as a financial wizard, was “busy plundering the Tipperary Bank until it …collapsed, with debts of £400,000.” He also committed suicide, and the bank owner he worked with was sentenced to 14 years for fraud.

Merdle’s association with the Barnacles is a good depiction of our own financial wizardry, where Wall Street financiers get special tax favors and banking deregulation from the government while creating paper rather than genuine wealth. In Dickens, the Circumlocution Office represents the way the people use government monies for the benefit of themselves and their friends while stiffing the public. Our own “Circumlocution Office” results in (to quote from Obama’s speech)“giveaways the superrich don’t need” and “lobbyists [who] have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight.”

In Little Dorrit, there is a momentous meeting between Lord Tite Barnacle and Merdle that captures such unholy alliances:

As a vast fire will fill the air to a great distance with its roar, so the sacred flame which the mighty Barnacles had fanned caused the air to resound more and more with the name of Merdle. It was deposited on every lip, and carried into every ear. There never was, there never had been, there never again should be, such a man as Mr Merdle. Nobody, as aforesaid, knew what he had done; but everybody knew him to be the greatest that had appeared.

Dickens also compares the buying of Merdle shares to an epidemic, and it overtakes even the level-headed Pancks, a rent collector with a good heart. Just as respectable people were drawn into the Madoff scheme by other respectable people, so does Pancks draw in Clennam:

‘I’ve gone into it. I’ve made the calculations. I’ve worked it. [The investments are] safe and genuine.’ Relieved by having got to this, Mr Pancks took as long a pull as his lungs would permit at his Eastern pipe, and looked sagaciously and steadily at Clennam while inhaling and exhaling too.

In those moments, Mr Pancks began to give out the dangerous infection with which he was laden. It is the manner of communicating these diseases; it is the subtle way in which they go about.

‘Do you mean, my good Pancks,’ asked Clennam emphatically, ‘that you would put that thousand pounds of yours, let us say, for instance, out at this kind of interest?’

‘Certainly,’ said Pancks. ‘Already done it, sir.’

Mr Pancks took another long inhalation, another long exhalation, another long sagacious look at Clennam.

‘I tell you, Mr Clennam, I’ve gone into it,’ said Pancks. ‘He’s a man of immense resources—enormous capital—government influence. They’re the best schemes afloat. They’re safe. They’re certain.’

Of course the schemes are not certain at all, and both Pancks and Clennam are ruined when Merdle is exposed. By the end of the book, however—this is what reminded me of our country’s recovery—Clennam is out of prison and working with an engineer who knows how to build things that people actually need.

Think of him as someone serving his country by repairing our fraying infrastructure instead of being a Barnacle receiving special governmental favors for his own private indulgence.

The engineer’s words to Clennam could also apply to us as we recover from the nightmare of 2008:

First, not a word more from you about the past. There was an error in your calculations. I know what that is. It affects the whole machine, and failure is the consequence. You will profit by the failure, and will avoid it another time. I have done a similar thing myself, in construction, often. Every failure teaches a man something, if he will learn; and you are too sensible a man not to learn from this failure. 

Let us pray that we have in fact learned and are not drawn into another bubble. Step #1 is to maintain and strengthen the regulatory mechanisms that we have set up to monitor the Merdles and the Barnacles.

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Kobe: The Lone Wolf Going Down

Death of Akela in "Jungle Books"

Death of Akela in “Jungle Books”

It makes my day to see a sports essay quote Kipling: in a superb ESPN Grantland piece, Brian Phillips recently compared Kobe Bryant to Akela, the “Lone Wolf” and leader of the pack in The Jungle Books. The comparison is even more apt and holds more lessons than Phillips realizes.

Phillips notes how Bryant has always thought that he can do everything by himself. Now, however, his image of himself is foundering on the shoals of reality. Bryant’s skills have diminished and the players around him are not very good, with the result that the Lakers are one of the worst teams in the NBA. Nevertheless Bryant appears to think that, if he keeps on taking shot after shot, he can singlehandedly will the Lakers to victory. Here’s Phillips describing his mentality:

This season is the distillation of the go-it-alone challenge Kobe set for himself back when O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., or even sooner — Kobe, remember, is the star player who invited none of his teammates to his wedding. (It’s a wonder he invited his wife.) He can’t win, a fact that has no apparent bearing on the fury with which he is trying. We’re seeing Kobe stripped of everything except the will to succeed, a will that persists despite being hopeless. We’re seeing him face his doom with a fearlessness that is ludicrous, profane, and maybe slightly inspiring. We’re seeing the existential Kobe Bryant.

And now here’s Phillips quoting Kipling:

A few months ago, I read The Jungle Book to my 8-year-old niece. She listened with huge eyes to Kipling’s story of talking wolves and vengeful tigers and the Law of the Jungle; as soon as we were finished, she demanded to hear it again. One of the places where her eyes got biggest was the part about Akela, the Lone Wolf, who rules the pack from atop the Council Rock. Do you remember this? It’s silly, like Kobe Bryant, and also kind of moving, like Kobe Bryant. Akela is strong and cunning. But he knows that one day he must lose his strength, and that when that happens, the young wolves will challenge him and pull him down and kill him — which, of course, nearly happens in the course of the story. There’s a lot of talk in basketball about players who are alpha dogs; an October 2013 Sports Illustrated cover depicted Kobe as the last of the breed. But ask my niece what happens when alpha dogs reach the end.

The passage from Jungle Books is actually more complicated that this. As Phillips sees it, Kipling’s Law of the Jungle simply describes what happens to every athlete when he or she gets old. Bagheera sums up succinctly the ruthless hand of Father Time:

Akela is very old, and soon the day comes when he cannot kill his buck, and then he will be leader no more. 

To my great sadness, Peyton Manning too may have reached the point where he is unable to kill many more bucks.

Kipling doesn’t stick with the Law of the Jungle as he describes it, however. First of all, while acknowledging that Akela can’t do what he used to, Kipling complains that Akela is brought down by a trick. The tiger Shere Khan, exerting an unhealthy influence on the young wolves, has persuaded them to set up a trap for Akela. The Lone Wolf explains to the pack what has happened:

Free People, and ye too, jackals of Shere Khan, for twelve seasons I have led ye to and from the kill, and in all that time not one has been trapped or maimed. Now I have missed my kill. Ye know how that plot was made. Ye know how ye brought me up to an untried buck to make my weakness known. It was cleverly done. Your right is to kill me here on the Council Rock, now. Therefore, I ask, who comes to make an end of the Lone Wolf? For it is my right, by the Law of the Jungle, that ye come one by one.

Kipling is trying to have the law of the jungle both ways here, holding it up as deep wisdom yet also looking for ways around it. There’s something to be said for the ruthlessness of the law, which allows for fresh leadership. Because Akela’s skills have slipped, he can’t enforce discipline over the younger wolves anymore. Shere Khan wouldn’t have any influence over them if Akela were still in his prime. In other words, by hanging on too long, Akela has helped create the situation that brings him down.

In another violation of the Law, Kipling seems to approve of Mowgli resorting to fire to save Akela. In a sports context, this sounds suspiciously like an owner overriding a general manager to retain a superstar whose time has passed. If the Law of the Jungle is all knowing, then trickery should neither be able to speed it up nor delay it.

Part of the problem is with the Law’s criteria. If it only insists on the buck test, then it overlooks other ways in which a leader contributes. Only after Akela jumps to the Mowgli team and goes off to kill Shere Khan do the young wolves discover how much they relied on him:

Ever since Akela had been deposed, the Pack had been without a leader, hunting and fighting at their own pleasure. But they answered the call [to come see Shere Khan’s hide] from habit; and some of them were lame from the traps they had fallen into, and some limped from shot wounds, and some were mangy from eating bad food, and many were missing.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Kobe Bryant thinks he needs to kill bucks to be the leader whereas there might be other roles he can fill. He refuses to adjust and, as a result, other teams are swarming around him with their teeth bared.

The result is not pretty although Phillips finds it fascinating. At the very least, Bryant is being true to who he is:

Kobe is alienating because he doesn’t care about dignity. If preserving his sense of who and what he is means ending his career loudly and embarrassingly, he will be as loud and embarrassing as he can. He has severed his ties, imperiously, with the support systems that keep other great players respectable after their skills erode — with teammates, coaches, and executives who could help mask his weaknesses and fawn over him in the press. …The role Kobe is playing is one he created for himself. He is showing us what happens when an alpha dog dies ungracefully, the way alpha dogs are supposed to die. It is hilarious and painful to watch, and probably to live, too, although who knows? It can’t be easy.

The end, as Phillips suggests, does not have to be undignified. For an alternative ending, we can turn to Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Think of him as Akela in the fight against the Red Dogs, described in the second Jungle Book.

The Red Dogs are an unstoppable force that kill everything in their path. Mowgli manages to outwit them, however, by running them into an enormous beehive so that they leap off a cliff. Those who survive the fall are finished off by the wolf pack in the river below.

Akela, who has essentially turned the pack over to Mowgli by this point, dies in this last great battle. His death is noble and heroic:

“There is no more to say,” said Akela. “Little Brother, canst thou raise me to my feet? I also was a leader of the Free People.”

Very carefully and gently Mowgli lifted the bodies aside, and raised Akela to his feet, both arms round him, and the Lone Wolf drew a long breath, and began the Death Song that a leader of the Pack should sing when he dies. It gathered strength as he went on, lifting and lifting, and ringing far across the river, till it came to the last “Good hunting!” and Akela shook himself clear of Mowgli for an instant, and, leaping into the air, fell backward dead upon his last and most terrible kill.

Duncan, unlike Bryant, has turned the alpha dog role over to others and become an important part of a collective effort. The result last year was another NBA title. Even if there had been no championship, there would still have been dignity.

Kobe is made of different stuff, and it appears he will prove to be a true Lone Wolf down to the very end.

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The Virtues of a True Conservative

Pleasence as Septimus Harding

Pleasence as Septimus Harding

As my wife and I were driving down to Tennessee, New Orleans, and then back to Maryland over the holidays, we listened with rapt attention to two Victorian novels, Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.

I was struck by how both authors grapple with some of the same political issues that we face today. Trollope was a conservative and Dickens a progressive, but they don’t fit neatly into the boxes we have assigned for conservatives and progressives. Or to put it slightly differently, they complicate the issues in enlightening ways, perhaps because good novels aren’t propaganda. As a result, both novels could open up fruitful dialogue between today’s warring factions. I’ll write about Trollope today and Dickens later in the week.

Trollope has Dickens-like progressives in mind when he directs his satiric barbs against John Bold, a man of property who wants to root out corruption. Bold’s target becomes Hiram’s Hospital, an establishment that takes care of twelve old men that have fallen on hard times. It so happens that the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a kindly old rector named Septimus Harding, is also the father of the woman that Bold loves.

Harding receives 800 pounds a year—a substantial sum—for administering what today we would call a senior center. Each of the men receives one shilling four pence a day, along with an extra twopence a day that Harding (against the advice of others in the church) voluntarily gives up from his own salary. The income gap in the past was not so great—at times the warden made hardly anything at all—but in recent years the value of the land has soared, making it possible for the warden to receive a very comfortable salary.

Bold is convinced that the man who set up the hospital’s endowment in 1434 never meant such a disproportionate percentage of the funds to go to the church administrator and begins a lawsuit. The Jupiter, a crusading newspaper, takes up the cause and links this case with other instances of church greed. Harding, who cares much more for his pensioners than he does about the money, is horrified to see his name dragged through the mud.

Meanwhile several of the pensioners, who have been saved from a wretched old age by the hospital, start thinking of themselves as entitled to 100 pounds a year. Indeed, they seem to be perfect exemplars of Mitt Romney’s 47%, men who want others to lavish “gifts” upon them. Trollope depicts their ringleader Abel Handy as particularly repellant. Here’s an interchange Handy has with Bunce, the one pensioner who argues that the current arrangements are more than fair. Bunce first:

“Did any of us ever do anything worth half the money? Was it to make gentlemen of us we were brought in here, when all the world turned against us, and we couldn’t longer earn our daily bread? A’n’t you all as rich in your ways as he in his?”—and the orator pointed to the side on which the warden lived. “A’n’t you getting all you hoped for, ay, and more than you hoped for? Wouldn’t each of you have given the dearest limb of his body to secure that which now makes you so unthankful?”

“We wants what John Hiram left us,” said Handy. “We wants what’s ourn by law; it don’t matter what we expected. What’s ourn by law should be ourn, and by goles we’ll have it.”

Though he obviously dislikes Handy, who at times sounds like a union organizer, Trollope is even harder on Bold, and his criticism is conservative thinking at its most eloquent. He acknowledges that Bold has some justification for targeting church greed but believes that reformers, in their zeal, risk doing more harm than good:

[Bold’s] passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large. Bold is thoroughly sincere in his patriotic endeavors to mend mankind, and there is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others,—if he could be brought to believe that old customs need not necessarily be evil, and that changes may possibly be dangerous; but no, Bold has all the ardor and all the self-assurance of a Danton, and hurls his anathemas against time-honored practices with the violence of a French Jacobin.

The novel goes on to show the damage done by Bold’s reforms. Harding, shocked by the attacks from The Jupiter but agreeing that perhaps he does receive too much, resigns his post for a much smaller living elsewhere. Once he leaves, the hospital falls apart, and Trollope relishes showing us the consequences. What progressives have sown, so shall they reap:

[O]ther tidings soon made their way into the old men’s rooms. It was first notified to them that the income abandoned by Mr. Harding would not come to them; and these accounts were confirmed by attorney Finney. They were then informed that Mr. Harding’s place would be at once filled by another. That the new warden could not be a kinder man they all knew; that he would be a less friendly one most suspected; and then came the bitter information that, from the moment of Mr. Harding’s departure, the twopence a day, his own peculiar gift, must of necessity be withdrawn.

And this was to be the end of all their mighty struggle,—of their fight for their rights,—of their petition, and their debates, and their hopes! They were to change the best of masters for a possible bad one, and to lose twopence a day each man! No; unfortunate as this was, it was not the worst, or nearly the worst, as will just now be seen.

“The worst” proves to be the loss of Mr. Harding’s spiritual presence:

It is now some years since Mr Harding left it, and the warden’s house is still tenantless. Old Bell has died, and Billy Gazy; the one-eyed Spriggs has drunk himself to death, and three others of the twelve have been gathered into the churchyard mould. Six have gone, and the six vacancies remain unfilled! Yes, six have died, with no kind friend to solace their last moments, with no wealthy neighbor to administer comforts and ease the stings of death. Mr Harding, indeed, did not desert them; from him they had such consolation as a dying man may receive from his Christian pastor; but it was the occasional kindness of a stranger which ministered to them, and not the constant presence of a master, a neighbor, and a friend.

Nor were those who remained better off than those who died. Dissensions rose among them, and contests for pre-eminence; and then they began to understand that soon one among them would be the last,—some one wretched being would be alone there in that now comfortless hospital,—the miserable relic of what had once been so good and so comfortable.

The building of the hospital itself has not been allowed to go to ruins. Mr Chadwick, who still holds his stewardship, and pays the accruing rents into an account opened at a bank for the purpose, sees to that; but the whole place has become disordered and ugly. The warden’s garden is a wretched wilderness, the drive and paths are covered with weeds, the flower-beds are bare, and the unshorn lawn is now a mass of long damp grass and unwholesome moss. The beauty of the place is gone; its attractions have withered. Alas! a very few years since it was the prettiest spot in Barchester, and now it is a disgrace to the city.

I hear in this development a critique of liberals in general. By moving so quickly to dismantle various institutions in the name of progress, they risk damaging the deep wisdom that lies within tradition. To cite one instance where I was guilty of such myopia, when I was among those in the 1960s waving the flag of sexual revolution, labeling marriage as a “bourgeois convention,” and excoriating the hypocrisy of patriarchal households, I didn’t fully acknowledge the virtues of “the traditional family.” A more gradual cultural evolution might have wrought less damage and incurred less of a backlash. That backlash has been behind the rise of the Christian right.

I’m not going to concede the entire argument here. Tradition could have kept African American suppressed for another hundred years, along with women and members of the GLBT community. There will always be a tension between conservatives and progressives. That tension can even be good, with each perspective checking the worst tendencies of the other. Trollope reminds us that sometimes change needs to happen at a slower pace than progressives would like.

One reason I like Barack Obama so much, and why he has such a fan in the conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan of The Dish,  is that he recognizes this. (Sullivan sees Obama as a true conservative and regards many of today’s so-called conservatives as dangerous radicals.) While many of Obama’s incremental steps have disappointed his progressive followers, they may have made a deeper impact because they were incremental.

Think again of the novel. If Bold had worked quietly with his future father-in-law, then together they could have redirected his salary and achieved something close to what Bold wanted. Instead he chooses confrontation and creates chaos.

We learn in the sequel that a better situation ultimately emerges. After several years during which Hiram Hospital decays, a new warden is appointed and paid 450 rather than 800 pounds. The extra money is used to set up a second establishment for 12 female pensioners.

By that time, however, Bold has died as Trollope rather callously kills him off between The Warden and its sequel Barchester Tower. This change could have occurred while he was still alive, and he would have undergone less humiliation and felt the satisfaction of a vision validated.

Posted in Trollope (Anthony) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Against Race Oppression, Turn to Love

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Martin Luther King Day

In honor of Martin Luther King, I went rummaging back into Lucille Clifton’s early race poetry. Clifton’s first book of poetry came out in 1969, which is to say at the height of the black militancy movement. Some of the poems reflect the Black anger of the time, but Clifton never entirely succumbs to it. Always she uses her poetry to find a solid place on which to stand and anger is never her last resort..

I’ve written earlier on “the meeting after the savior gone,” in which she acknowledges the sense of being lost after King’s assassination. After  declaring, “now i guess you got to save yourselves,” the poem concludes with a parenthesis:

(even if you don’t know
who you are
where you been
where you headed)

Many of the poems in her early books show Clifton trying to understand young angry black men, some of whom have turned to violence. She is more sympathetic than many today would be, and her poem about a heroic Eldridge Cleaver is more than I think he deserves (this cleaver “will not/rust/break, or/be broken”). One is reminded in these poems how hotly anger burned when African Americans felt free to express it openly in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But Clifton isn’t ever entirely on board. In “apology (to the panthers)” she talks about having to be talked around to appreciating the Black Panthers. Some of her poems about “tyrone” and “willie b” don’t so much approve of these race riot participants as seek to understand them. Clifton is always exploring.

But if she is unsure about militancy and the internal splits between liberal and militant Blacks, she’s not unsure about her advocacy for the oppressed. Her guiding star, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In “listen children” she puts herself forward as a wise mother who can see the truth that transcends all divisions.

While one doesn’t want to overly sentimentalize Clifton, who has some sharp edges, the warm and inclusive voice one sees in this poem is key to her popularity. Her concluding advice makes me think of slaves secretly passing on a dangerous or liberating message. African American power, as Martin Luther King understood well, lay in a sense of solidarity, and love was more effective than anger at cementing bonds.

listen children

By Lucille Clifton

listen children
keep this in the place
you have for keeping
keep it all ways

we have never hated black

we have been ashamed
hopeless       tired       mad
but always
all ways
we loved us

we have always loved each other
children…….all ways

pass it on

Additional note - I’ve just returned from our college’s annual Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast, where we heard talks by a prominent Democrat (Steny Hoyer) and a prominent Republican (Michael Steele). It made me wonder whether we could extend Clifton’s words about rifts within the African American community to America as a whole. Both men talked about “reaching across the aisle” to address common concerns, whether with regard to the rollback of voting rights amongst minority voters (Hoyer) or the death rate amongst African American youths in the inner cities (Steele).

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The Creator Spirit’s Deep Embrace

"Flight of the Golden Hawk" by Wingsdomain

“Flight of the Golden Hawk” by Wingsdomain

Spiritual Sunday

Both today’s Old Testament and New Testament readings give us images of people opening themselves to the divine without hesitation. In the first of the two stories, the child Samuel hears God calling in the night and, after first mistaking the voice for that of the chief priest, says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” In the second we read about Philip, upon encountering Jesus, informing Nathaniel that “we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

In “The Avowal,” Denise Levertov talks about the deep faith required for believing in God. Believers are like swimmers that “lie face to the sky/and water bears them” or “hawks [that] rest upon air and air sustains them.” Put another way, their support seems ephemeral and yet they are upheld. I’ve written in the past about how opening oneself to divinity is like opening oneself to artistic energies, which Levertov refers to as “the Creator Spirit.” Just as we struggle to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, so the poet knows that sometimes the hardest part of creativity is allowing a poem to come with “no effort.”

Levertov’s “Creator Spirit” reminds me how Milton’s identifies the Holy Spirit as his inspiration, his epic muse, in the opening lines of Paradise Lost. There are flight images here as well, although of a dover rather than hawks:

And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant…

When the Creator Spirit comes, it is like an act of “all-surrounding grace.”

The Avowal

By Denise Levertov

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

 Note on the artist: The photo “The Flight of the Golden Hawk” by Wingsdomain can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/pressreleases/new-photo-art-print-flight-of-the-golden-hawk-by-wingsdomain.html.

Posted in Levertov (Denise) | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Peter Wimsey vs. Oklahoma Executions

A hanging at Tyburn "Tree"

A hanging at Tyburn “Tree”

So the state of Oklahoma, after having spectacularly botched Clayton Lockett’s execution nine months ago (you can read the grisly details here), successfully executed Charles Warner last night for murdering and sexually assaulting an 11-month-year-old girl in 1997. There is no doubt that Warner was a monster but I want to focus on what the death penalty risks doing to the rest of us. If we in America are going to continue killing people, we at least can take guidance from Lord Peter Wimsey on how to hold on to our humanity as we do so.

The book I have in mind is Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of Dorothy Sayers’ novels about her famous detective. Wimsey is on his honeymoon with Harriet Vane, only to discover a corpse in the basement of the farmhouse that he has bought for her.

The murderer turns out to be a particularly vile man and at the end of the book he is hanged. We learn at that point that Wimsey suffers deeply for every man that he sends to the gallows. In the past he has suffered alone, but now he has a wife to turn to. The two find a deep purpose to their union as Harriet comforts him through the hanging hour.

What strikes me about Busman’s Honeymoon is the contrast between Wimsey’s response and that of many Americans, who have become hardened and indifferent to executions. I remember how shocked I was when I heard about George W. Bush’s smirk when asked about not granting clemency to Karla Faye Tucker, but I have since come to expect such reactions. Here’s Tucker Carlson’s account of his interview with Bush:

In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, “A number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker.” “Did you meet with any of them?” I ask. Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them”, he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for it [the interview]. I watched his interview with Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?'” “What was her answer?” I wonder. “‘Please,'” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “‘don’t kill me.'” I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.

I single out Bush but there are tens of thousands—maybe more—who similarly shrug off, mock, or even celebrate our executions. Whenever they do so, they violate something precious within.

Peter Wimsey, by contrast, does all he can to maintain integrity. He makes sure that the murderer has a first rate defense lawyer, and he goes to see him to persuade him to make amends for some of the harm he has done. He also asks for his forgiveness. Ultimately, his efforts are in vain as the man responds by “baring his teeth at death like a trapped rat.”

Though the murderer forfeits the chance to reconnect with his own humanity, however, Wimsey never does. Here is his discordant rambling three hours before the 8 a.m. execution as Harriet holds him:

Three hours more….They give them something to make them sleep….It’s a merciful death compared with most natural ones….It’s only the waiting and knowing beforehand….And the ugliness….Old Johnson was right; the procession to Tyburn was kinder….”The hangman with his gardener’s gloves comes through the padded door.”

The connection between a Samuel Johnson observation and an image from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol is confusing, but Sayers is making a sophisticated point. Our executions can be seen as more inhuman than they were in the days when they were a public spectacle at Tyburn. Here’s Johnson’s make executions private:

[T]hey object that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators; If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public were gratified by a procession and the criminal was supported by it.

And here are three stanzas from Wilde’s poem. The “he” is the one who metaphorically “kills the thing he loves” and so escapes hanging, as opposed to the man described in the poem, who “has got to swing” because he killed literally:

He does not wake at dawn to see  
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,  
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,  
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste  
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes  
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks  
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst  
That sands one’s throat, before
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves  
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,  
That the throat may thirst no more.

We hide our executions under a façade of humanity and science—although this façade was ripped away in Oklahoma’s “bloody mess” nine months ago when Lockett’s veins exploded and he writhed for at least 30 minutes before dying of a heart attack. Last night Oklahoma tried to restore the façade..

Back to Wimsey as the hanging hour approaches:

“[T]hey hate executions, you know. It upsets the other prisoners. They bang on the doors and make nuisances of themselves. Everybody’s nervous….Caged like beasts, separately….That’s the hell of it…we’re all in separate cells….I can’t get out, said the starling….If one could only get out for one moment, or go to sleep, or stop thinking….Oh, damn that cursed clock!…Harriet, for God’s sake, hold on to me…get me out of this…break down the door…”
“Hush, dearest. I’m here. We’ll see it out together.”
Through the eastern side of the casement, the sky grew pale, with the forerunners of the dawn.
“Don’t let me go.”

The light grew stronger as they waited.
Quite suddenly, he said, “Oh, damn!” and began to cry—in an awkward, unpracticed way at first, and then more easily. So she held him, crouched at her knees, against her breast, huddling his head in her arms that he might not hear eight o’clock strike.

Busman’s Honeymoon counters the horror of death with a powerful testimony to love where we experience our humanity to the fullest. Sayers ends the book with a stanza from John Donne’s magnificent “Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset.” It is her farewell (other than one short story) to her famous detective and the woman who is worthy of him. I quote it in this post on the death penalty because it reminds us how high we can soar and what we sacrifice when we lose sight of our inner divinity. The story of Tullia, daughter of Cicero, is that the funeral lamps were supposedly still burning when the tomb was opened 15 centuries later:

Now, as in Tullia’s tomb, one lamp burnt clear, 
       Unchanged for fifteen hundred year, 
       May these love-lamps we here enshrine, 
In warmth, light, lasting, equal the divine. 
Fire ever doth aspire, 
And makes all like itself, turns all to fire, 
But ends in ashes ; which these cannot do, 
For none of these is fuel, but fire too. 
This is joy’s bonfire, then, where love’s strong arts 
Make of so noble individual parts 
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.

Here’s praying that we never lose touch with this inner fire.

Posted in Donne (John), Johnson (Samuel), Sayers (Dorothy), Wilde (Oscar) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


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