The Divine Enters thru Imagination’s Holes


Christmas Eve

My brothers are all in Sewanee, Tennessee for the first full family Christmas gathering since my father died a year and a half ago. Scott Bates loved Christmas and we feel his absence acutely. I invoke his memory by sharing one of his Christmas poems.

This particular one expounds upon holes as it reflects upon the arrival of the messiah. Various literary characters from my father’s favorite childhood books make their entrance through holes, including Santa and figures from Alice in Wonderland, At the Back of the North Wind (a knot hole), The Water Babies (Tom is a chimney sweep), and “The Three Little Pigs.” These are all miracles of the human imagination, and the point of the poem is that we are the messiah that we await. As Gandhi famously put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

If Christmas means realizing that the divine dwells within the human, then the spirit of Christmas occurs whenever we fictionally identify with characters. For stories to work their magic, we must open ourselves to them, makes ourselves into holes. Put another way, we must suspend our disbelief, empty ourselves, become as little children. We learn to do this so automatically that we take it for granted and forget how amazing it is. Christmas, which in my family always involves a lot of books, is a good time to appreciate the miracle of reading. Scott Bates calls it “the hole marvelous shebang.”

“Scott and Phoebe and Sam” are my parents and youngest brothers. The rest of us are the hole gang.  

Holey Night

By Scott Bates

We were watching here
at the foot of our chimney hole
for something miraculous to drop
like Alice
or the White Rabbit
or the North Wind or bill the Lizard or
Tom the Chimney Sweep or the Big bad Wolf or a round
little man with a bowl full of jelly

or at least a man from the toy shop
with a bowl full of video games

We were watching here in short
on the most exciting night of the year
when suddenly
it occurred to us
or maybe we had heard it somewhere
that the hole truth
the hole story
the hole marvelous shebang in a word
Alice Bill Tom Santa the Wolf
the Ox the Ass
the Reindeer
even the Mouse
(holey understandably)


so here we are
with holehearted
good wishes for a


Scott and Phoebe and Sam
and the hole gang

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Dickens Returned Christmas to Its Roots


I’ve always heard that Dickens invented Christmas as we know it so I appreciated an article in The Daily Beast providing some of the details. The key work was Christmas Carol although I’ve blogged in the past about how Pickwick Papers also played a role. According to Clive Irving, Dickens didn’t so much invent our Christmas as return it to its medieval roots:

When A Christmas Carol was published just in time for the Christmas of 1843, the holiday had been in a long decline in England. The habit of celebrating Christmas had flourished there in medieval times as a wanton combination of marking Christ’s birth, the Roman orgy of Saturnalia, and the German winter festival, Yule.

Irving attributes the decline to the Anglican church and the industrial revolution:

Although the Anglican Church still held considerable power over the customs of Victorian England the observation of Christmas was, by then, more doctrinal than hedonistic. The folk memory of medieval community life had been wiped out by the industrial revolution. Large swathes of the countryside were depopulated. Rural churches were deserted, and the connection between the land and the bounty of harvests was gone.

What Dickens gave England was an alternative to urban squalor.

In the large cities the urbanized working class were slaves to a plutocracy. Dickens grew up in a London where child labor was ruthlessly exploited. In 1839 nearly half the funerals in London were for children under the age of 10. What would later become familiar as Dickensian London was one vast, grinding machine that simultaneously generated enormous wealth and widespread public squalor, replete with public hangings, thieving lawyers, and a merciless judiciary.

Irving says that passages from Christmas Carol like the following spoke to longings that grew out of this reality:

The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe….

Irving notes,

The story’s subliminal narrative is all about the creation and management of appetites. And what is the great lure toward which all efforts are ultimately directed? A table creaking under the weight of a Christmas banquet, a classic celebration of binge eating and drinking. But it’s more than that as the ritual has a social significance. Dickens’s observation is acute to the moment: in a society that spends most of its days in bleak deprivation there is always a latent and irrepressible desire to have a communal fling.

We see this hunger in other Dickens novels as well. In Hard Times, for instance, a society browbeaten by Grandgrind longs for the extravagant imagination of the circus. The students at David Copperfield’s grim school feast upon his stories. But no work has had the impact of Christmas Carol.

Posted in Dickens (Charles) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Holiday Gathering of the Bates Clan

The execrable Bonnie Prince Charles rallies the clans

The execrable Bonnie Prince Charles rallies the clans

The Bates clan is gathering at my mother’s home in Sewanee, Tennessee. We aren’t really Scottish but I use the word “clan” because family lore has it that one of our branches is descended from James Scott, the rebellious Duke of Monmouth. In any event, “Scott” has long been a family name so a Walter Scott poem about clan gathering seems in order.

My father said his mother was always proud of our supposed connection with Monmouth until learning that, if it existed at all, it wouldn’t have been through legitimate channels. After learning that, she went quiet on the matter. Of course, Monmouth himself was illegitimate. As John Dryden writes in Absolom and Architophel, supposedly about King David fathering Absolom but actually about Charles II fathering Monmouth,

Then Israel’s monarch after heaven’s own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,
Scattered his Maker’s image through the land.

“The gathering of the clans” may be a Sir Walter Scott invention, written when Scottish nationalism was on the rise several decades after England perpetrated a genocidal attack on the Scottish highlands on account of their participation in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

In the following poem, Grigalach is another name for MacGregor. The folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor was lionized by Scott after the MacGregors had their name banned following the rebellion.

Our own gathering isn’t quite so bloodthirsty but we may do some halooing:

MacGregor’s Gathering

By Sir Walter Scott

The moon’s on the lake, and the mist’s on the brae, 
And the Clan has a name that is nameless by day; 
Then gather, gather, gather Grigalach! 
Gather, gather, gather Grigalach!

Our signal for fight, that from monarchs we drew, 
Must be heard but by night in our vengeful haloo! 
Then haloo, Grigalach! haloo, Grigalach! 
Haloo, haloo, haloo, Grigalach!

Glen Orchy’s proud mountains, Coalchuirn and her towers, 
Glenstrae and Glenlyon no longer are ours; 
We’re landless, landless, landless, Grigalach! 
Landless, landless, landless, Grigalach!

But doom’d and devoted by vassal and lord, 
MacGregor has still both his heart and his sword! 
Then courage, courage, courage, Grigalach! 
Courage, courage, courage, Grigalach!

If they rob us of name, and pursue us with beagles, 
Give their roofs to the flame, and their flesh to the eagles! 
Then vengeance, vengeance, vengeance, Grigalach! 
Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance, Grigalach!

While there’s leaves in the forest, and foam on the river, 
MacGregor despite them, shall flourish for ever! 
Come then Grigalach, come then Grigalach, 
Come then, come then, come then Grigalach!

Through the depths of Loch Katrine the steed shall career, 
O’er the peak of Ben Lomond the galley shall steer, 
The rocks of Craig-Royston like icicles melt, 
Ere our wrongs be forgot, or our vengeance unfelt! 
Then gather, gather, gather Grigalach! 
Gather, gather, gather Grigalach!

So here we are, gathering, gathering, gathering. While there’s leaves in the forest and foam on the river, we Bateses will flourish forever. Haloooo!

Posted in Dryden (John), Scott (Sir Walter) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Peace of Wild Things

Tidewater swamp at St. Mary's College of MD

Tidewater swamp at St. Mary’s College of MD

Spiritual Sunday

I focus on humans’ relationship to nature in my Introduction to Literature course, and this past semester many students wrestled with the spiritual malaise that arises when we become separated from nature. Conversely, many chose to write about the spiritual nourishment that a close relationship with nature provides. In today’s post I provide a quick overview of the course to show how it gave rise to such rich discussions.

I began the course with Wendell Berry, for whom our contentious relationship with nature is a major theme. Several of the students wrote about “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The students agreed that Euripides’ The Bacchae was an important work to read, even though it depressed them mightily. In humans’ attempts to control nature they recognized the sickness, described by the seer Teiresias, that possesses King Pentheus in his battle with Dionysus:

For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo

And further on, this time from the chorus of Bacchae:

What fury, what venomous fury
rages in Pentheus,
the earthborn and earthbound,
spawned by the sperm of the snake!
No man,
but a monster caged up in a man,
leaping through eyes of blood
to strike at the kill,
a vicious dwarf with giant dreams
pitting his strength against the Gods.

Less melodramatic but making a similar point is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Nature has identified a disturbing arrogance in the court of Camelot, which advocates a world-denying version of Christianity. The Green Knight’s elaborate set of trials for Gawain are designed to demonstrate that he cares more for this world and for his life than he admits—and that this care is a positive thing, not an infirmity.

Shakespeare revels in young love in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the natural flow of feelings threatens a power-obsessed older generation, which invokes “the ancient Athenian law” to prevent it. Because Shakespeare’s play is a comedy rather than a Euripidean tragedy, it ends with nature and society reconciling, but not before the mischievous nature sprite Puck has humbled the humans.

Spiritual malaise becomes an explicit theme in the Romantics. “The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth laments and talks about what we have sacrificed in order to achieve material possessions. “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon,” he writes.

I received a fascinating essay on Wordsworth from an inner city student who talked of the powerful experience he had when he participated in a special program where students from his high school were taken to the country. He saw his experience mirrored in Wordsworth’s lyrics. For him, the world that was too much with him involved a great deal of fighting, often over things as trivial as tennis shoes. (“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”) At times he too felt that he wandered lonely as a cloud.

After having been to the country, however, he said he brought back with him, and was sustained by, the kinds of memories that Wordsworth describes:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I received two or three essays on the existential agonies of Coleridge’s ancient mariner after killing the albatross, a gratuitous act that (so one student argued) he perpetrates simply because he can. Cutting oneself off from nature leads us to see ourselves as “alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide, wide sea.” The mariner’s healing revelation is to discover that all creatures, even the “slimy, slimy things,” are precious:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

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

I’ve written many times about the spiritual vision of Mary Oliver’s nature poetry, even though she seldom talks overtly about religion. I suspect that Oliver wrestles with depression, which is one reason why her nature-based epiphanies are so powerful. In “Egrets,” for instance, she first describes going the woods right before dawn, the darkest hour:

I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.

All changes, however, when, as dawn breaks, she witnesses three white egrets:

–a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them—
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

Including Lucille Clifton’s poetry in a nature-themed course had the beneficial effect of drawing women’s biology into our discussions of nature (hips, menstruation, menopause). Clifton also writes traditional nature poetry, however, such as “killing the trees in southern maryland.” I don’t have access to a copy of it at the moment but it describes a neighbor in her subdivision bulldozing some trees to take care of a “leaf problem.” One tree going over she compares to an Indian chief frozen on the Trail of Tears. (You can see her reading the poem here.)

The three novels I taught in the course all deal, in one way or another, with human alienation from nature. Courtney talked about the powerful sense of peace that she got from reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior:

When I get overwhelmed by such feelings I find my peace and purpose out in the woods, in the silence of the wind, in the small bird’s song blending with the rattling of the leaves dancing with the breeze. Kingsolver portrays, through this work, how a strengthened relationship with the world of nature can influence such lost souls and change their lives for the better. Nature is the one thing that can bring peace to those who feel lost and trapped in a world that they sense they do not belong in. Once individuals realize that they are a part of something so boundless and magnificent, they begin to see the purpose behind their struggles and find the will to carry on and overcome even the most challenging of obstacles.

As I posted recently, Leslie Marmon Silko has a particularly powerful account of our alienation in her novel Ceremony:

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and the bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

I ended the course with Cormac McCarthney’s All the Pretty Horses, whose protagonists venture into the wilderness to reconnect with nature. Many of my students found themselves stirred by John Grady, about whom McCarthy writes,

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardent hearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.

How my students responded to these works reaffirmed for me their hunger for spiritual connection. Many of them come to St. Mary’s College because we have an exceptionally beautiful river-front campus. The literature gave them a framework and a language for what they are seeking.

Posted in Berry (Wendell), Clifton (Lucille), Coleridge (Samuel Taylor), Euripides, Kingsolver (Barbara), McCarthy (Cormac), Oliver (Mary), Shakespeare (William), Silko (Leslie Marmon), Sir Gawain Poet, Wordsworth (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are the Gods Out to Destroy Manziel?

Johnny "Football" Manziel makes the money sign

Johnny “Football” Manziel makes the money sign

Sports Saturday

Just over two years ago I saw Greek tragedy written all over Johnny Manziel, the gifted quarterback from Texas A&M who had a spectacularly bad debut this past Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. His quarterback rating was 2.0, the second worst ever recorded for a quarterback starting his career. Cincinnati won 30-0 and I’m not sure whether the Brown’s offense ever got into Bengal territory. One NFL analyst compared Manziel to a junior high player competing with professionals.

In the game where I predicted disaster—the Aggies were playing Alabama in Manziel’s final college year—the quarterback actually exceeded my expectations. Texas A&M put up a good fight, losing 49-42, prompting one sports poet to write,

The Tide offence was overwhelming,
But they couldn’t stop Johnny from the usual Manzielming. 

So maybe Manziel will recover from this Sunday’s thumping, which after all was only one game. For the record, Peyton Manning set records for most interceptions his rookie season. Nevertheless, given Manziel’s cockiness, my comments are worth revisiting. Here’s the column:

Reprinted from BLTB, September 14, 2013

I am unhappily predicting a Greek-style tragedy for Johnny “Football” Manziel, the extraordinary Texas A&M quarterback who beat the national champions Alabama last year and went on to win the Heisman trophy as a freshman. Today, after a tempestuous summer where he was investigated by the NCAA, he faces the Crimson Tide once again.

Manziel’s crime was signing autographs for pay. He dodged the bullet, however, because no one stepped forward to testify. As a result, the NCAA has had to drop charges. Lest autograph signing sound like a small thing, Jonathan Chait notes that, if student athletes are allowed sign autographs for money, then alumni and others will start using autographs as a backdoor means of funneling thousands of dollars to them.

In addition to breaking NCAA rules, Manziel also doesn’t seem to be handling his newfound fame well. Texas, along with other statesm worships those who excel in football, but there is a danger that Manziel’s elevation will feed into his already oversized ego and prove to be his undoing–just as Oedipus, once made king of Thebes, is prepared to run roughshod over anyone who stands in his way? Will we find ourselves in a few years time shaking our heads like the chorus at the end of Oedipus Rex?

You residents of Thebes, our native land,
look on this man, this Oedipus, the one
who understood that celebrated riddle.
He was the most powerful of men.
All citizens who witnessed this man’s wealth
were envious. Now what a surging tide
of terrible disaster sweeps around him.

Or do we have here a Faustus situation. Just as Faustus is not content with being the scientific equivalent of a Heisman trophy winner but wants even more, will Manziel demand even more adulation?

Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir’d his overthrow…

Marlowe’s play concludes with the chorus echoing the Oedipus chorus:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight…

I hope, both for Manziel and for football fans everywhere, that he finds a way to balance his extraordinary self-confidence with some humility. Otherwise he may gain wisdom only at the price paid by many of the tragic heroes from the Athenian and Elizabethan stages.

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San Luis Rey, a Bridge of Love

The model for the Bridge of San Luis Rey

The model for the Bridge of San Luis Rey

My library book discussion group last night discussed The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a 1927 Thornton Wilder novel that has long been on my “read some day” list. It was the right book for the moment as I have been mourning two friends who died recently, faculty colleague Andy Kozak and fellow book group member Jane Aldridge.

The book originates from that most fundamental of questions, why death? Or more specifically, why does death strike randomly? Or does it?

The last question is one that a witness to a tragic death is trying to answer. A Peruvian monk, one Brother Juniper, sees five people precipitated into the gulf when the Inca rope bridge they are crossing breaks. The novel is set in the 18th century so, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, he sets out to study the five people to see if he can figure out how God intervenes in the world. He fails and, to make matters worse, the Inquisition takes offense at his investigation and burns both him and his book at the stake.

Our group found ourselves discussing not only the book but Jane, who died suddenly while on a travel tour to Malta. As we shared what we knew, we realized that we were trying to make sense of what in the end makes no sense, which is Wilder’s point. Although all the bridge victims can be linked, the connections don’t add up to an explanation.

As we read what Brother Juniper has uncovered about their lives, however, we come to learn that each has a great soul, despite unpromising exteriors. We especially see this in a pathetic old marquesa who discovers an unexpected fount of selfless love and writes an extraordinary letter to her estranged daughter right before she dies. Wilder reminds me a bit of Isak Dinesen in the way he reveals inner luminescence.

We learn from the novel’s concluding section that Juniper fails to find connections because he looks only at those who have died. The real connections grow amongst the survivors. For instance, the Abbess, who feels like her work is for naught because of the deaths of the two orphans (Pepita and Esteban), finds new meaning when the daughter of a marquesa shares the letter with her:

The Consesa showed the Abbess Dona Maria’s last letter. Madre Maria dared not say aloud how great her astonishment was that such words (words that since then the whole world has murmured over with joy) could spring in the heart of Pepita’s mistress. “Now learn,” she commanded herself, “learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace.” And she was filled with happiness like a girl at this new proof that the traits she lived for were everywhere, that the world was ready.”

In the end, the Abbess, the daughter, and the mother of a boy who was killed nurture each other. Before the accident they had been facing estrangement of one sort or another, but now their lives have taken on new significance.

As the Abbess sees it, the bridge of death has become a bridge of love. It is a link between the land of the living and the land of the dead that sustains us when all appears meaningless:

“Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Bridge of San Luis Rey was a good book for the Advent season. When our group exited from the library, we were greeted by the neighborhood Christmas and Hanukkah lights.

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Austenland, a Game for Janeites

Abeni, Jacob, Izzy, Mairin & Sharon play Austenland

Abeni, Jacob, Izzy, Mairin & Sharon play Austenland

At the end of each fall semester, we have a “fall festival” where the first year seminar students present a project to the community that shares some of what they have learned. This year my Jane Austen class invented a board game for the occasion, which they are calling Austenland.

In the past, my Austen seminars have constructed a conduct manual (What Would Jane Do), a Facebook page involving all the characters in Sense and Sensibility, and a psychological questionnaire in which you can determine which Austen hero and/or heroine you most resemble. Links to these projects, including the questionnaire, are provided at the end of today’s post.

Modeled on Candyland, Austenland involves a trip to “Happily Ever After,” also know as Pemberly. To get there, players must draw cards that either send them forward or back. You can take a shortcut if you land on one of three bridges (“garden walk,” “shortcut to Bath,” and “gift of good fortune”). Along the way players pass Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Bath.

Up to six players can play at a time, choosing from amongst the heroines of the novels. (The token piece for Sense and Sensibility has Elinor on one side and Marianne on the other.) The players are also issued cards informing them of their fate depending on their placement. The game ends once one player wins, with the other players receiving a ranking depending on their positioning.

The stakes for finishing poorly at dire. Here, for instance, is what awaits Elizabeth Bennet:

First place – Marriage to Mr. Darcy
Second place – Marriage to Colonel Fitzwilliam
Third place – Live with her parents for the rest of her life
Fourth place – Marriage to Mr. Collins
Fifth place – Marriage of Wickham
Sixth place – Death from consumption

A class had a vigorous debate on whether death from consumption was worse that being married to either Collins or Wickham.

Here are some of the cards that players draw to advance their pieces. Can you name the novels?

–The love of your life, whom you turned down, has been just as successful as he said he would be and is now comfortably rich and still unmarried. Move back three but add six to your next turn.
–Edmund returns your horse. Move forward five spaces.
–Sir Thomas sends you to live with your poor family. Skip a turn.
–You listen to Lady Russell’s advice. Go back to start.
–You refuse to participate in a play. Draw again.
–You misread Harriet’s love preference. Go back two.
–You get stuck talking to Lady Middleton about her children. Lose a turn.
–Lady Bertram promises you one of her pugs. Go forward one.
–Edmund realizes that Mary is not a good person. Move forward ten spaces.
–Fanny Dashwood moves into your home. Move back five spaces.
–You are entranced by Henry Crawford’s performance of Shakespeare. Go back one.
–Willoughby leaves you and writes you a harsh rejection letter to boot. Go back to start.
–An admirer sends you a piano. People raise their eyebrows. Draw another card.
–You miss an engagement with the Tilneys. Go back five spaces.
–Your family acts up at a neighborhood ball. Go back five spaces.
–Your bright eyes catch Darcy’s attention. For forward three spaces.
–You turn down Darcy’s marriage proposal. Go back three spaces but then move forward an extra four spaces for each of the next three turns.
–You become deathly ill but then you see the light of reason upon your recovery. Lose a turn but draw two cards on your following turn.
–Jane Fairfax accepts your desire to make amends. Move ahead five spaces.
–Willoughby comes to your rescue after you twist your ankle. Move forward three but then move back five on your next turn.
–Sir Walter reads the Baronetage to you three times in a row. Miss your next turn.
–You suspect General Tilney of having murdered his wife. Move back two spaces.
–You heroically sacrifice the love of your life to atone for your past sins to Harriet. Move forward ten spaces.
–You resist pressure to visit Blaise Castle in order to honor a commitment. Move forward five spaces.
–You see something wrong with Mr. Elliot even before you know the facts about him. Move forward seven spaces.
–You stand up to Sir Thomas’s pressure to marry Crawford. Go back five spaces but, on your next turn, go forward fifteen.

Creating and then playing the game did more than prompt to revisit all of the novels. It also made us keenly aware how Austen structures her marriage plot.


Previous Jane Austen Seminar Projects:

Which Jane Austen Character Are You? 

Ask Jane: Expert Relationship Advice

If Jane Austen Used Facebook… 

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Connecting Art to Life

Tobias Wilson-Bates

Tobias Wilson-Bates

Christmas came early this year. I gave a reading of essays from Better Living through Beowulf as part of our college’s Creative Writers series and I was introduced by…my son.

Actually, it has felt like Christmas all semester long. Tobias Wilson-Bates, who is finishing up a dissertation on “Victorian Time Machines” at the University of California at Davis, is a visiting instructor at our college, and we are able to interact regularly. He is proving to be a very popular teacher, which I knew would be the case. Every time a student raves about him, of course, is music to my ears.

Currently Tobias is on the job market. He has to revise his dissertation one last time before final submission but has recently increased his chances of finding a position by placing articles in Victorian Studies (on Kingsley’s Water Babies) and Dickens Studies (on David Copperfield). Here’s his lovely introduction, which probes the value of a liberal arts education:

By Tobias Wilson-Bates, Visiting Instructor, St. Mary’s College of MD

In some ways it is a strange time to be at a liberal arts college and perhaps even stranger to be working in the humanities within a liberal arts institution. College seems increasingly to be an economic and statistical matter, whether it’s the horror of over 1.2 trillion dollars of student loan debt, or the 16.8% underemployment rate for recent college graduates, or the 44% percent of employed college graduates who are in a job that doesn’t require a degree. Whatever the metric, college seems to be about metrics, a sort of runaway extension of the old stereotype that parents are horrified when their child decides against engineering to get a degree in the arts.

The liberal arts is a model of pedagogy that imagines the surest path to personal fulfillment and success is to teach students to identify what motivates them and what they desire, and then to have those student teach themselves how to achieve that goal. This is not, strictly speaking, a way to promote job numbers, but it is a way to offer students the best tools for constructing a rewarding life, not something that any national discourse seems to be tackling right now. Indeed, even academic disciplines seem to generally disregard this element of their students’ lives, namely, that students have “lives” and that intellectual disciplines are also always about how students choose to live those lives.

In The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Wayne Booth laments that “[m]any critics today still resist any effort to tie ‘art’ to ‘life,’ the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘practical.’” He wrote that in 1988 but it still rings true today with an emphasis on how “practical” college is as an increasingly pre-packaged vocational proposition.

I have had the privilege to watch Robin Bates engage in exactly this conversation about art and practicality for the last 30 years (roughly speaking–I’m not sure how aware I was as a baby), and the two things that have been abundantly clear from my earliest memories are that (1) he cares deeply about how his academic discipline affects his students’ lives, and (2) his students respond with a depth of feeling, originality, and intellectual rigor that would be the envy of any teacher I have known in my subsequent career.

This focus on “life” as it is lived in its most dynamic, exciting, traumatic, and terrifying moments has kept his work current and engaging for decades. If you wonder what that looks like, just ask him about Twilight or Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. If you don’t have time to track him down, just check out his extremely successful blog that spins from top 10 lists of literary marriage proposals to deeply poetic considerations of death and grieving.

I would like to end with a personal anecdote relating to his blog. Recently I was sickened by the ISIS beheadings that were circulating on the internet. As a new father, the idea of something like that happening to my child hurt me deep down. That someone could be so hurt and so angry that he would behead someone, and that he too was someone’s child, confused and saddened me in ways I had trouble expressing or coming to terms with. This was only amplified by a national discourse that immediately leapt towards racial and religious hatred and calls for all-out mechanical war.

My dad wrote on the beheading that day by relating the terror of the event to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a story of chivalry that begins and ends with beheading. His central thesis was that beheading horrifies us more than other acts of lethal violence because it seems to “strip us of our personhood.” In applying the story he illustrates what that violation looks like, but he also describes how the story is able to offer a form of redemptive knowledge about fear and identity.

I do not feel any less saddened by the beheadings, but I am empowered by a discourse that provides alternatives to unthinking hatred and fear when confronting the tragedies of our current political landscape.

To me, this is the liberal arts, the humanities, indeed humanity, and I cannot think of someone who has been a more dedicated advocate for a form of education so unrelentingly humane as Professor Robin Bates, my father.

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Inviting Jane into Your Life

Hathaway, McAvoy in "Becoming Jane"

Hathaway, McAvoy in “Becoming Jane”

It’s time to write about my first year seminar students’ semester-end responses to Jane Austen. As always, they are very rich. As I’ve noted many times, each generation must reinterpret the classics for themselves because, as times change, so do our interpretations. The class stepped up to the challenge.

I report here on their presentations as well as their essays. They were to share their ideas in such a way as to engage the interest of their auditors. In my opinion, this happens far too infrequently at scholarly conferences.

Northanger Abbey

Abeni Schoen was amazed at how well Northanger Abbey conveys the challenges of being in a new environment without any friends. She talked about how easy it is, when feeling lonely, to fall in with the wrong kind of people (Isabel and John Thorpe) and how one needs the right kinds of friends (such as the Tilneys) to survive. Her own Tilney-like friends, she said, regularly call her out when she strays from studying.

I was struck, in Abeni’s presentation, at her sense of wonder that Jane Austen understood her so well. She had thought her to be a dusty museum relic. Abeni now has a clear model for how she can become a guide for new students in the years to come.

Sense and Sensibility

Abby was fascinated by Marianne’s romantic sensibilities, which she identified with. At first she saw both Elinor and Austen as critical of Romanticism but ultimately concluded that both have more nuanced views than she realized. Elinor sees perfectly well how suffocating and hypocritical are the guardians of social order, like Lady Middleton and Fanny Dashwood. Deeply in love with her sister, she is not anti-romantic. She just worries that, by exposing herself as she does, Marianne makes herself too vulnerable. Elinor understands and sympathizes but wants her to become more prudent so that she won’t destroy herself.

Lenora Yoder, meanwhile, was fascinated by how two sisters can have such opposite personalities. Although this leads to conflict, she concluded that it also spurs them to grow in interesting new ways.

Pride and Prejudice

A number of students took up my invitation to think of Pride and Prejudice as a marriage manual. In her essay presentation, Kelly Culotta told us that her mother raised her as a “lady” (no burping in public) and that she internalized at an early age that she must grow up to be like Julie Andrews in order to get a man. Thus she loved the scene where Elizabeth, out of concern for Jane, improperly walks through the mud to Netherton. A real lady, Kelly concluded, is a woman with a strong sense of self, not someone who wears pearls.

Meg showed us covers of the magazines that adolescent girls read, such as Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, and talked about their advice about landing a man. While following such advice might get one a Collins or even a Bingley, Meg said that it cannot get you a Darcy, who is looking for someone with substance. One would therefore be far better off reading Pride and Prejudice than Cosmo.

Samantha Shortz wanted to figure out why so many of the relationships in Pride and Prejudice, starting with the Bennet marriage, go horribly wrong. She was eloquent on the many wrong reasons that people enter relationships and told stories of her own acquaintances who paraded their boyfriends to stir up envy. She took delight in lambasting Lydia for how she triumphs over her older sisters once she is married to Wickham.

Jacob, the one male in the class, was interested in how men are seen as property in Pride and Prejudice, as signaled by the famous opening passage:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

His question: What does being seen as property do to the male characters’ sense of themselves.

His answer: It damages them. Bingley can’t figure out if women love him for himself or his money and so relies on Darcy to run interference. Being property gives Mr. Collins an inflated sense of himself and it does something similar to Darcy. Jacob pointed out that their two failed marriage proposals to Elizabeth have a lot in common.

Darcy, however, is able to rise above seeing himself as entitled property. Once he stops thinking that Elizabeth as lucky to get him—instead he must become worthy of her—the relationship can change. Collins, by contrast, gets a woman who marries him only because he is the heir to the Longbourn estate.

Mansfield Park

Emily wondered how Fanny is able to withstand the intense pressure to marry Henry Crawford given that she has been raised to think very little of herself and to do what others command. Emily argued that she is bolstered by progressive religious values, first instilled in her by Edmund.

Emily associated Fanny and Edmund with the progressive Anglicanism of William Wilberforce, who helped end the slave trade, and noted that Fanny saw herself as a kind of slave. (In one very uncharacteristic moment, she queries Sir Thomas about his own slaves in Antigua.) In standing up to the Bertrams, Fanny can be associated with those quiet but strong women who refuse to back down in the face of social injustice.

Sharon, meanwhile, wanted to figure out which marriage would have been best for Fanny. Although originally unimpressed by her marrying Edmund—the marriage seemed dull to her—she came around to the rightness of it as she imagined Fanny and Henry together. She realized that, unless Henry substantially changed, such a marriage would not work because Henry would only be attracted to the glitter of society whereas Fanny would require a life of substance. The same problems would arise in a Mary-Edmund marriage. In the end, therefore, Edmund-Fanny is the only marriage that has promise, and Sharon noted that their parish would be very lucky to have them as a pair.

Liz, who was fascinated by Henry, explored whether he was capable of changing in a way that would win him Fanny. She concluded that the decadent example of the Prince Regent and Henry’s upbringing by an admiral who keeps a mistress goes so deep that he is all but incapable of change. She contrasted him with Darcy, who can change because he has good values at his core.

In her presentation, Liz shared a Kanye West quote which not only summarizes Henry pretty well but also explains why people, especially celebrities, are still having Henry’s relationship problems today: “How could you be me and want to be someone else?”


Arielle and Mairin were interested in Emma’s manipulative behavior. Arielle compared both Emma and Mrs. Elton to the “mean girls” in the film of that name and noted that their desire to control comes out of a deep neediness. Mrs. Elton’s neediness, her status as a “Wanna Be,” makes a little more sense because of her lower class position. But why should “Queen Bee” Emma need to control Harriet?

Both Arielle and Mairin traced it back to the death of Emma’s mother and her lack of strong parental guidance as she is growing up. Mairin, constructing a psychological profile, noted that, by always getting her way as a child, Emma craves guidance, even though she tells herself that she doesn’t. Therefore she tries to give Harriet the guidance that she herself wants. She can only be truly happy, however, when she finds a partner who can provide this guidance.


Maya Schumacher was interested in how Persuasion mirrors Austen’s own life. She drew parallels between Wentworth and Tom LeFroy, Austen’s early love, which may have been broken up by his parents. Charles Musgrove’s proposal and Mr. Elliot’s likely proposal, meanwhile, are like the proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither, who proposed to Austen and was first accepted and then, the following day, turned down.

Maya argued that Austen is using her last complete novel to revisit her life’s decisions. By examining Anne, we can conclude that Austen regretted not marrying LeFroy, even though she understood why his parents thought otherwise. We also see that she was confident in her other decision.

Caitlin Schoen compared Anne with Liz Lemon on 30Rock. Getting older and feeling under pressure (including self-pressure) to get married, Liz can’t bring herself to marry someone who doesn’t fit the proper profile. Caitlin showed us a clip from the show where Liz’s boss Jack Donaghy works as a kind of Lady Russell, appearing in Liz’s head when she is on a date with a man whom likes but who has yet to find a job. Given how confident the man is about his future, his resemblance to Captain Wentworth is perfect.

Holding up the Croft marriage as an ideal, Caitlin argued that, having glimpsed the possibility of an egalitarian marriage with Wentworth, Anne becomes determined never to settle for anything less, which is why she turns down her other suitors.

Finally, Elizabeth Okundaye and Sophia Williams (not her real name) were interested in Anne’s lack of confidence and her inability to put her own needs first. Sophia compared Anne’s upbringing to her own: having a disabled sister meant that she had to subordinate her own desires. Sophia argued that Anne builds up the self confidence that is undermined by such a background by becoming indispensable in serving others. A commitment to caring for people leads her to become a powerful woman. Wentworth sees how indispensable she has become during the Louisa Musgrove accident, and other men start gravitating to her as well.

As always I was thrilled to see how Austen has stepped into the lives of my students and become an invaluable companion. I could see why they chose the works that they did and how Austen is helping them build upon their strengths. They are well on their way to becoming remarkable people.

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The CIA’s Heart of Darkness

Brando as Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness"

Brando as Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”

Last week we saw the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report and it reveals the horrors we anticipated it would. One literary work above all comes to mind.

It is the novella that film director Francis Ford Coppola turned to when he set out to capture the nightmare that was the Vietnam War. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is only too applicable to what the CIA did following 9-11.

Jonathan Chait lists some of the tortures that the agency engaged in:

Men were shackled to walls or ceilings for days, in diapers, locked in coffins, rectally violated, subject to days of sleep deprivation, beaten, and (in one instance) murdered. Several intelligence staffers reported being traumatized by the experience.

Most issues admit of some degree of ambiguity but torture does not. As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones puts it,

Either you think that state-sanctioned torture of prisoners is beyond the pale for a civilized country or you don’t. No cavils. No resorts to textual parsing. And no exceptions for “we were scared.” This isn’t a gray area. You can choose to stand with history’s torturers or you can choose to stand with human decency. Pick a side.

Heart of Darkness, of course, is about a man of great promise who journeys to the Congo to make his fortune. He goes with high hopes and with plans to bring the light of Christ to the heathen. Instead, he is swallowed up by his inner darkness. As the narrator remarks upon seeing the human heads that Kurtz has posted around his stockade,

there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.

Nietzsche famously describes what has happened in Beyond Good and Evil:

If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.

This helps explain why the torture program spun out of control. Often, it seems, the CIA tortured simply because it could. Such things happen when the window into the abyss is opened. Here’s Kurtz’s assistant describing how Kurtz relished his power to play God:

He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased.

When one abandons all humanity, one long longer has any vantage point from which to judge human action. Kurtz reaches this place and it was the road that America’s torture program was taking us down. Marlow describes how it works:

There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces.

Kurtz’s one saving grace is that, in his last moments, he at least struggles with what he has done. Marlow gives him credit for looking back at his life and recoiling in horror. Some of those responsible for our own torture program haven’t gotten to this point.

Chait describes the response of Dick Cheney, who pushed torture and is now vigorously defending it. Remorse isn’t on his radar screen:

Appearing later that night on Fox News, the former vice-president was no longer merely dismissing the report’s conclusions out of hand. Nor was he retreating to the slick evasions or complaints about George W. Bush’s feelings that so many of his fellow Republicans had relied upon.

The host, Bret Baier, asked Cheney about Bush’s reported discomfort when told of a detainee’s having been chained to a dungeon ceiling, clothed only in a diaper, and forced to urinate and defecate on himself. “What are we supposed to do? Kiss him on both cheeks and say ‘Please, please, tell us what you know’?” Cheney said. “Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts.”

Just as Marlow does not want Kurtz’s Russian assistant to tell him everything Kurtz has done, so many on the right are choosing not to examine what occurred in our torture facilities. But not Cheney. Chait tells us what this means:

Here, finally, was the brutal moral logic of Cheneyism on bright display. The insistence by his fellow partisans on averting their eyes from the horrible truth at least grows out of a human reaction. Cheney does not even understand why somebody would look away. His soul is a cold, black void.

Or as Marlow describes Kurtz,

His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines. 

Pray to God that we can make our way back up to the light. Pray that we, and especially our policy makers, never descend into these depths again.

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Waiting for the Messiah to Knock

Artist unknown, Hanukkah celebration (c 1700s)

Artist unknown, Hanukkah celebration (c 1700s)

Spiritual Sunday

Hanukkah, Judaism’s festival of lights, begins Tuesday evening. As this Steven Schneider poem reminds us, Jews will be celebrating in places the old patriarchs never could have imagined.

But as the wind howls in the darkness, the Messiah is capable of showing up anywhere. Even in Nebraska.

Chanukah Lights Tonight

By Steven Schneider

Our annual prairie Chanukah party—   
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes.   
Friends arrive from nearby towns   
and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight,”   
spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.   
The candles flicker in the window.   
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.   
If you squint,   
the neighbors’ Christmas lights   
look like the Omaha skyline.   
The smell of oil is in the air.   
We drift off to childhood   
where we spent our gelt   
on baseball cards and matinees,   
cream sodas and potato knishes.   
No delis in our neighborhood,   
only the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks.   
Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out,   
waiting for the Messiah to knock,   
wanting to know if he can join the party.

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This Isn’t a Football, It’s a Shoe

Henri Rousseau, "The Football Player"

Henri Rousseau, “The Football Player”

Sports Saturday

Football has become such a quarterback-driven game that few teams without an elite signal caller have any chance of lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy. It also appears that the best quarterbacks of the future will resemble the ones of the past. They will be pocket passers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

These two legends are noteworthy for their their ability to read the field and get rid of the ball in under three seconds. This explains why, even though they are relatively immobile, they seldom get sacked.

Here’s a poem about a quarterback who holds on to the ball too long. In his defense, he is not presented with an ideal situation, something comparable (so the poet tells us) to corn syrup when what he wants is genuine maple syrup. Then again, the truly great quarterbacks can make something happen even under the more challenging of conditions.

Should this quarterback have pulled the trigger? You decide.


By Louis Jenkins

I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back…
I’ve got protection. I’ve got a receiver open downfield…
What the hell is this? This isn’t a football, it’s a shoe, a man’s
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.
I realize that this is a world where anything is possible and I
understand, also, that one often has to make do with what one
has. I have eaten pancakes, for instance, with that clear corn
syrup on them because there was no maple syrup and they
weren’t very good. Well, anyway, this is different. (My man
downfield is waving his arms.) One has certain responsibilities,
one has to make choices. This isn’t right and I’m not going
to throw it.

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The Quest of the Marvelous Tree

Currier and Ives

Currier and Ives

Here’s a mystical villanelle written by my father about searching for the perfect Christmas tree. ‘Tis the season for such poems.

The symbol of the evergreen, which comes from northern Europe solstice traditions rather than the Middle East, carries with it the promise of new life in the bleak midwinter. The “Cave with the Wonderful Key/Which only the children know” is both a fertility image and an opening into the world of the imagination. In sailing out into an uncertain sea, the sailors are like children, discovering marvelous new lands.

I catch echoes of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre,” Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” and maybe some Derek Walcott and Edward Lear (“The Jumblies,” “The Owl and the Pussycat”) although many of the images escape me. Wherever they came from, they are thoroughly in tune with the magic of Christmas, especially as seen through a child’s eyes.

Quentin Hope, incidentally, was a French professor at Indiana University and a close friend of my father’s. They spent many hours “in lybrarye” searching for literary treasures. For my father, library archive work was like an Easter egg hunt so it makes sense to me that he groups himself with the children entering a cave with a magical key and the sailors discovering exotic new worlds. I suspect this poem grew out of conversations my father had with Quentin, also a first-rate scholar.

The Quest of the Marvelous Tree
                                      --Christmas card for Quentin

By Scott Bates

On the quest of the marvelous tree
The children ski over the snow
As sailors sail out to sea

Past islands of ginger and tea
Over dolphin hills they go
On the quest of the marvelous tree

So scholars in lybrarye
On greening mastheads flow
As sailors sail out to sea

Past the Islands of Cybele
And the Hills of the Cat and the Crow
On the quest of the marvelous tree

In the Cave with the Wonderful Key
Which only the children know
And sailors who sail out to sea

And scholars like Quentin and me
Who sail on our songs through the snow
On the quest of the marvelous tree
As sailors sail out to sea

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The Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge

Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) reading

Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) reading

 One of my seniors, Emma Taylor, informs me that, upon graduating, she plans to take up the “Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.” This involves reading the 339 books that have made an appearance on the Gilmore Girls, a show that my wife watches on Netflix. Apparently the teenager Rory Gilmore is an avid reader, a model that I’m glad is out there.

Of course, I had to check the list out. You can find it here.

On the whole, there are a lot of good books although I’d make a number of substitutions. Dubliners is obviously a better selection than Finnegan’s Wake, and why read a biography about Pushkin in place of Pushkin’s poetry?

I can report that I’ve read 158 out of the 339 books on the list if I’m allowed to count those collections where I’ve read at at least some of the poems or short stories (such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese or Eudora Welty’s Collected Works). There are some offbeat books that, amazingly, I’ve read (like The Scarecrow of Oz), some books that I’ve read that I wish I hadn’t (The Godfather), and some books that I have no desire to read (Churchill biographies). There’s a lot of Stephen King but not his best work. Still, any list that spurs people to read is a worthwhile list.

In today’s post I’ve decided to play “Humiliation.” This is a game invented by David Lodge in (I think) his comic campus novel Small World. Members of Lodge’s English department play a game in which they cite works that they feel they should have read but haven’t. One gets more points—in other words, one is more humiliated—by the number of other contestants who have in fact read the work.

One junior professor, very competitive, reveals that he hasn’t read Hamlet. He wins the game but his revelation is remembered at tenure time and he is turned down.

Here are the works from the Gilmore Girls reading list that I feel humiliated for not having read. Or more accurately, they are works that feel like holes in my life list:

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
The Divine Comedy by Dante (although I’ve read Inferno, which is listed separately)
Iron Weed by William J. Kennedy
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
Night by Elie Wiesel
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
Sanctuary by William Faulkner
Daisy Miller by Henry James
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

And then there’s the work that I’ve vowed to read during next year’s sabbatical, just as I read Anna Karenina on my last one:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Let me know how many works you’ve read from the list. And please share other reading lists that you would recommend.

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Toni Morrison: Stand Up & Breathe

I can't breathe

LeBron James before a Brooklyn Nets game

Professional athletes have created a stir in recent weeks by expressing sympathy for unarmed victims of police killings, such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Five St. Louis Rams players entered the football arena Sunday with their hands held high, a sign of solidarity with those protesters who have been crying out, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The tee-shirt worn last night by LeBron James was particularly poignant: “I can’t breathe” were the last words uttered by Garner before dying from a police chokehold.

I think black athletes are stepping out of their normal apolitical stances (recall Michael Jordan and Tiger Wood) because they so strongly identify with those African Americans who are metaphorically finding it difficult to breathe freely in today’s America. The suffocation image speaks to them, I think, because it captures how they feel dogged by certain realities that don’t affect white Americans. These include skewed arrest rates for black youths, racial profiling, and the many signals that get sent out that their lives are worth less than other people’s. In today’s post, I share a passage from a Toni Morrison novel on what it feels like to breathe freely, without worry.

First, however, I share how I came to realize that different people can experience the same landscape in radically different ways. Until I got married, I had no idea that stairwells, parking garages, and parks at night were other than what I thought they were. Call it the myopia of male privilege. My youngest son, who has married a woman from Trinidad and has two young daughters of color, is going through his own awakening.

Milkman in Song of Solomon is engaged in a roots quest that has alienated him from a former friend, who is out to kill him. I won’t write anything today about the deadly clash in the book between black moderates and black extremists as it doesn’t relate to recent news. At the moment I am interested in how resignation in the face of suffocation can turn to hope.

The two men are in a forest and Guitar is garroting Milkman with piano wire. Milkman first feels a wash of sadness and surrenders to his fate but then gets a second chance at life:

The wire pressed into his neck then and took his throat. It cut like a razor into his fingers, tore into the skin so deeply he had to let go. The wire pressed into his neck and took his breath. He thought he heard himself gurgling and saw a burst of many-colored lights dancing before his eyes. When the music followed the colored lights, he knew he had drawn the last sweet air left for him in the world. Exactly the way he’d heard it would be, his life flashed before him, but it consisted of only one image: Hagar [his former girl friend] bending over him in perfect love, in the most intimate sexual gesture imaginable. In the midst of that picture he heard the voice of the someone holding the wire say, “Your Day has come,” and it filled him with such a sadness to be dying, leaving this world at the fingertips of his friend, that he relaxed and in the instant it took to surrender to the overwhelming melancholy he felt the cords of his struggling neck muscles relax too and there was a piece of a second in which the wire left him room enough to gasp, to take another breath. But it was a living breath this time, not a dying one. Hagar, the lights, the music, disappeared, and Milkman grabbed the Winchster at his side, cocked it, and pulled the trigger, shooting into the trees in front of him. The blast startled Guitar, and the wire slipped again.

Milkman’s exhilaration and new sense of empowerment after escaping reminds me of what the protesters are feeling. By naming and confronting those realities that have circumscribed their lives, they are able to walk tall and free. Here’s Milkman:

[H]e found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking it like he belonged on it, like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there—in the earth and on the place where he walked. And he did not limp.

Few things are more powerful than this sense of belonging. We all deserve it.

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Falling Out of Love with Tom Jones

Tom Jones

I didn’t think this would ever happen but I am falling out of love with Tom Jones.

For me, this is momentous. Henry Fielding’s masterpiece is the reason why I chose to make 18th century British literature my graduate school specialty. I figured that any era that produced a work of such comic genius was worth studying.

There are multiple reasons why I have loved Tom Jones. Fielding has a dazzling wit, which sometimes takes the form of elaborate and very sophisticated jokes. I like the meta-narrative aspects of the novel, where the author humorously badgers his readers and critics as he examines the parameters of this exciting new–or “novel”–genre. I was in love with the virtuous Sophia and was prepared to name by daughter after her (but had only sons). Above all, I was drawn to Fielding’s hero, whose warm heart, generous nature, and love of life caused me to forgive him when he strayed after various loose women. I could have quoted the following passage from Jane Austen’s Persuasion in his defense:

She [Anne Elliot] prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

I admit that it’s somewhat strange to bring in Austen seeing as how she disapproved of Tom Jones, considering it lewd. It’s no accident that she makes the doltish John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey a fan of the book. Thorpe undoubtedly is attracted more by the bawdy humor than the subtle wit, and while my reading of the novel is more sophisticated, I must admit to enjoying its off-color side.

For years I regretted that I didn’t write my dissertation on Fielding. Instead, at the suggestion of my dissertation advisor, I studied one of Fielding’s major rivals and someone who couldn’t stand him. Tobias Smollett, a thin-skinned Scottish surgeon-turned-novelist, has thinly veiled attacks of Fielding in Peregrine Pickle, which may have been fueled by jealousy at Fielding’s success and probably by class resentment as well. Fielding was in the gentry, to which Smollett desperately wanted to belong.

A side note: while Smollett may not have liked Fielding, the two were linked in the public mind. In 1750 the Bishop of London attributed two earthquakes to the licentiousness that he said had been unleashed by Tom Jones and Smollett’s Roderick Random.

Anyway, I wrote my dissertation about the cranky Smollett instead of the (as I saw him at the time) open-hearted Fielding. But as I am currently seeing Fielding, Smollett wasn’t altogether wrong to be irritated. There is a certain sense of class entitlement, sometimes taking the form of a brittle defensiveness, that now rubs me the wrong way. Literary scholar Claude Rawson pointed this out to me when I was in grad school but I didn’t see it then. I do now.

For instance, I thought Fielding’s constant badgering of the reader to be in good-hearted fun. I now see it as driven by a defensive fear over the fact that his prerogatives are being challenged. He is irritated that critics with no class pedigree can take shots at him. The explosion of print and the rapid rise of the mercantile class is changing the world in ways that threaten his privilege.

For an instance of his defensiveness, note the introductory chapter to his final book, in which compares his novel to a stagecoach ride. Perhaps we have had quarrels along the way, he says, but let us put them all aside now that we are ending our journey. Despite his apparent offer of open-hearted reconciliation, however, he concludes the chapter with complaints that people have maligned him and predictions that he will outlive them. This is hardly taking the high road:

And now, my friend, I take this opportunity (as I shall have no other) of heartily wishing thee well. If I have been an entertaining companion to thee, I promise thee it is what I have desired. If in anything I have offended, it was really without any intention. Some things, perhaps, here said, may have hit thee or thy friends; but I do most solemnly declare they were not pointed at thee or them. I question not but thou hast been told, among other stories of me, that thou wast to travel with a very scurrilous fellow; but whoever told thee so did me an injury. No man detests and despises scurrility more than myself; nor hath any man more reason; for none hath ever been treated with more; and what is a very severe fate, I have had some of the abusive writings of those very men fathered upon me, who, in other of their works, have abused me themselves with the utmost virulence.

All these works, however, I am well convinced, will be dead long before this page shall offer itself to thy perusal; for however short the period may be of my own performances, they will most probably outlive their own infirm author, and the weakly productions of his abusive contemporaries.

Tom Jones has an over-the-top happy ending in which two landed families and traditional values are reaffirmed. Fielding gets away with this in the same way that the film The Princess Bride gets away with its own happy ending: an intruding ironic narrator masks the cloying sweetness. I now see the apparent author’s apparent confidence, however, as hiding an underlying panic.

So it is Fielding’s sense of entitlement that has come to bother me. Maybe that’s because, living in a country experiencing rapidly growing income inequality, I am finding myself less sympathetic with those who accuse the 99% of class warfare and small-minded resentment. The accusations ring hollow.

Also, I can’t help but notice that the book is increasingly difficult to teach. In my class we spend three and a half weeks on it, yet it fails to strike deep chords the way that, say, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility do. Students are not impressed with the purity of Sophia, nor do they find funny the sexual innuendo or the old maid jokes. If Tom Jones moved their hearts, the length and the complexity of the sentences wouldn’t matter as much. But they find relatively little payback for all the work they put into it.

I have to admit that I myself am less moved than I once was. So while I still admire Tom Jones, I no longer love it. This coming summer I’ll be rereading Fielding’s Joseph Andrews in search of a substitute. At least it’s a lot shorter.

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Wheezles and Sneezles

Shepard, "Now We Are Six"

E. H. Shepard, “Now We Are Six”

I’m finally climbing out of the bad cold that I’ve had since Wednesday and that forced me to cancel my final class on Fanny Burney’s Evelina. One poem, featuring the literary character that I was named after, always comes to mind at such moments. I had it memorized at an early age, meaning that I must have used it to put a narrative framework around whatever illnesses I had:


By A. A. Milne

Christopher Robin
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him
His bed.     
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,

And some more for a cold
In the head.
They wondered
If wheezles
Could turn
Into measles,
If sneezles
Would turn
Into mumps;
They examined his chest
For a rash,
And the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
In sneezles
And wheezles
To tell them what ought
To be done.

All sorts of conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.
They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
Came first.
They said, “If you teazle
A sneezle
Or wheezle,
A measle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
The wheezle
Or sneezle,
The measle
Will certainly go.”
They expounded the reazles
For sneezles
And wheezles,
The manner of measles
When new.
They said, “If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
May even ensue.”

Christopher Robin
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them today?”

The poem captures a major compensation for being a sick child, which is that one is the center of attention. Now that I look at it from the vantage point of a parent, however, I think it also does a good job of reflecting parental panic. We are prepared to bring in “all sorts of conditions of famous physicians” if that’s what it takes.

I’m looking forward to the vanishing away part.

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The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

Gerard David, "Nativity"

Gerard David, “Nativity”

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve had a bad cold for the past few days so I’m reposting one of my father’s nativity lyrics. It’s a somewhat grim environmental poem that reminds me of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” In this case, the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem takes the form of cockroaches holding mass meetings.

Since we are in the midst of the Advent season, acknowledging our discouragement is entirely appropriate. With Earth’s sixth mass extinction well underway—this one being the first caused by a single species—we have more reason than ever to long for a Christmas miracle. At least President Obama and the Chinese have begun talking about climate change.

Reposted from December 24, 2012

“The Nativity Plot” is inspired by the Douglas Adams series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, specifically the episode where it appears that dolphins are superior creatures who have been trying to warn humans about impending disaster. Given my father’s love of nature, the poem is a timely reminder that “peace on earth good will toward men (and women)” needs to be extended to the other species that we share the planet with. Adams’ book So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish gives a whole new meaning to “indicator species.” These canaries in our ecological coal mine remind us that we must push much harder than we have been to address issues of climate change and other threatened human-made disasters. The poem ends on an ominous note, but we can use it as a spur to action.

Like another one of my father’s poems that I shared recently, “Nativity Plot” notes that many of the symbols bound up in the Christmas story have roots in other world religions. The ox and the ass don’t show up in the gospel versions of the nativity–they were late additions to the birth story– and my father’s theory is that the ox comes from Mithra, the bull god of the Roman soldiers, while the ass is associated with the Greek god Dionysus. The holy dove that descends at Jesus’s baptism, meanwhile, might have origins in the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

The Nativity Plot

By Scott Bates

“Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impeding destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger, but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits…”The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

As in earlier times
we were alerted…

As for example when (with
tremendous foresight
and incredible organizational ability)
those two remarkable animals
the Ox and the Ass (crudely referred to
in other contexts as “Mithra” and “Dionysus”)
carefully arranged and supervised
a quiet little coming-out party
in the middle of the night in a central location in the
                                                      Middle East
in an attempt to raise the ratio of basic intelligence in the universe
(The operation had been carried out under the direction of the Dove “Isis”
who had personally delivered the main invitation
while assorted sheep goats camels sheepdogs etc.
rounded up kings and shepherds for publicity)

It had been quite a success
and brought about a number of needed reforms
but that was a long time ago
and since then a lot of people have blown it
and a lot of other people haven’t even gotten the message
in spite of everything the dolphins and others
(like rats chimpanzees great auks and Galapagos finches)
could do to straighten us out

Too bad
It was a nice little planet
and in the meantime we’ve been wondering
what those cockroaches have been
holding mass meetings about
in our kitchen…

Or as that old folk song favorite “The Rock Island Line” puts it,

Jesus died to save our sin
Glory to God we’re gonna need him ag’in.


Other Christmas Poems by Scott Bates

Christmas Bird Count from Santa’s Sleigh

Where are the Games of Yesteryear 

Moving towards Death’s Doorway 

No Room for Them in the (Holiday) Inn 

A Solution to Nativity Scene Battles

Holly & Ivy Dance to the Music of the Moon

Night before Christmas on the Moon

Move with the Wind, Sleep under the Snow

Midwinter Transformation: A Poem

An ABC of Children’s Books

The Divine Comedy, Doggerel Version

Books Unleashed in Christmas Carrels

Epiphany Sunday and the Arabian Nights

Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

A Roc for Christmas (Annual Bird Count)

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A Poem for Monday Morning QB’s

Dennis Gaubetz

Sports Saturday

Apparently Ogden Nash, famous for his outlandish rhymes, was a Baltimore Colts fan. Here’s a lyric he penned which, given out much bigger players have gotten, is even truer today than it was in 1968. Dennis Gaubatz was a linebacker for the Colts.

Those of us who watch the games from a distance have no idea how violent the game really is.

Look at Number 53
Dennis Gaubatz,
that is he
looming 10 feet tall
or taller
above the Steelers’
signal caller.
Since Gaubatz acts like
this on Sunday
I’ll do my
quarterbacking Monday.

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Clean Air Is Bad for the Nation?!

Hard Times

I often suspect that Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was raised on Charles Dickens. A recent column reads as though it came straight out of the 1854 novel Hard Times.

The subject of Krugman’s column was Republican outcry about cleaner air standards:

Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed regulations to curb emissions of ozone, which causes smog, not to mention asthma, heart disease and premature death. And you know what happened: Republicans went on the attack, claiming that the new rules would impose enormous costs.

There’s no reason to take these complaints seriously, at least in terms of substance. Polluters and their political friends have a track record of crying wolf. Again and again, they have insisted that American business—which they usually portray as endlessly innovative, able to overcome any obstacle—would curl into a quivering ball if asked to limit emissions. Again and again, the actual costs have been far lower than they predicted. In fact, almost always below the E.P.A.’s predictions.

Hard Times is about life in Coketown, whose skies are forever black thanks to the belching factories. Dickens describes a nightmarish setting:

Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays.  You only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town.  A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness:—Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen.

You can guess how the factory owners react whenever the government threatens to regulate any aspect of their business. Where Krugman speaks of curling into a quivering ball, Dickens talks of falling into pieces like “fragile chinaware”:

The wonder was, [Coketown] was there at all.  It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks.  Surely there never was such fragile chinaware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made.  Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before.  They were ruined, when they were required to send laboring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.  (bold italics mine)

Today owners threaten to ship their business overseas. Victorian factory owners had their own threat involving the seas:

[One prevalent fiction] took the form of a threat.  Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used—that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts—he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would “sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.”  This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.

Luckily for the nation, the mill owners ultimately put the greater good above their own narrow interests:

However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it.  So there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.

Recall Dickens next time you hear people complaining about clean air regulations.

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Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Artist

Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home"

Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home”

Today I continue my love affair with Alison Bechdel’s 2006 illustrated memoir Fun House. Radically different though our childhoods were, both the author and I had fathers who were passionate about books and initiated us into the world of literature. (Both were literature teachers although my own father was not a closeted gay man.) Bechdel and I also use books in similar ways, sometimes seeing direct parallels with our lives, sometimes seeing ironic contrasts.

Of course, we see this only in retrospect. When we first encountered the works, we just experienced the magic of fictional identification.

It so happens that our fathers were drawn to many of the same books, most notably Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses. Here’s what she has to say about these and other literary works.

Remembrance of Things Past

We stopped for a moment by the fence, Lilac-time was nearly over; some of the trees still thrust aloft, in tall purple chandeliers, their tiny balls of blossom, but in many palaces among their foliage where, only a week before, they had been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, these were now spent and shriveled and discolored, a hollow scum, dry and scentless.

That’s how Proust describes the lilacs bordering Swann’s Way in Remembrance of Things Past.

My father, as I say, had begun reading this the year before he died. After the lilac passage, Proust describes Swann’s garden in a feat of both literary and horticultural virtuosity that climaxes in the narrator’s rapturous communion with the pink blossoms of the hawthorn hedge.

Through the hedge, Proust’s narrator could see even deeper into Swann’s garden. There, surrounded by jasmine, verbena, and pansies, sat a little girl. The young narrator, failing to distinguish this girl, Gilberte, from the general floral fecundity, instantly fell in love with her. If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust.

Proust would have intense emotional friendships with fashionable women, but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender. The narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.

My father could not afford a chauffeur/secretary, but he did spring for the occasional yardwork assistant/babysitter. He would cultivate these young men like orchids.

Winnie the Pooh and James and the Giant Peach

Joan was a poet and a “matriarchist.” I spent very little of the remaining semester outside her bed. This was strewn with books, however, in what was for me a novel fusion of word and deed. I lost my bearings. The dictionary had become erotic. (“Os- Mouth. Oral, oscillate, osculate, orifice.”) Some of our favorite childhood stories were revealed as propaganda. (“God. Christopher Robin’s a total imperialist!”) Others as pornography. In the harsh light of my dawning feminism, everything looked different:

The walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling. James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious.

Catcher in the Rye

Dad didn’t have much use for small children, but as I got older, he began to sense my potential as an intellectual companion. Years of neglect had left me wary. But then I ended up in his English class, a course called “Rites of Passage, and I found that I liked the books dad wanted me to read.

In a scene that cuts perilously close to home, Bechdel remembers her father conducting a class discussion of the scene where Holden’s English teacher makes a pass at him.

The Importance of Being Earnest

At one point Bechdel’s mother is playing Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s play, and while Bechdel falls in love with it, the covert references to homosexuality (bunburying) elude her, just as her father’s secret life is eluding her. Passages from the play take on special significance in light of what Bechdel later learns about her father.

Colette’s Autobiography

A chance gift from her father when he is giving Bechdel books to help with a course on Ulysses (below), Colette’s autobiography becomes intertwined with Joyce’s novel to contribute to Bechdel’s lesbian awakening:

I referred back to Colette herself, basking in her sensualism as perhaps the sea-ravaged Odysseus had in the ministrations of Nausicaa. And like Nausicaa’s Ulyssean counterpart, Gerty MacDowell, she was even good for a wank.


I can’t begin to do justice to the way that Bechdel uses James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is her father’s favorite book. It’s a book that Bechdel stumbles into by accident and which she resists—but which proves to be the work that most shapes her memoir. Finding resemblances between Stephen Daedalus’s relationship with his spiritual father Leopold Bloom and her relationship with her own father leads to final understanding and some reconciliation.

In her use of Ulysses, I particularly like Bechdel’s demonstration of how elastic literature can be. It is impossible to predict all the ways that literature impacts our lives, and sometimes the works that students resist the most have the greatest effect. Sometimes the effect doesn’t show up for years:

Having neglected to plan an independent project for our short January term, I was forced to select a class from the meager list of offerings. Could this Hobson’s choice have been a form of divine intervention, like the Goddess Athena’s visit to Telemachus when she nudged him to go find his long-lost dad, Odysseus? For I was beginning admission to not just any English class, but one devoted to my father’s favorite book of all time.

Remarkably, this interview with Mr. Avery [the teacher] occurred on the selfsame afternoon that I realized, in the campus bookstore, that I was a lesbian.

And indeed, I embarked that day on my odyssey which, consisting as it did in a gradual, episodic, and inevitable convergence with my abstracted father, was very nearly as epic as the original.

And further on:

[In response to the teacher’s question “whether we learn anything concrete about Bloom and Stephen’s encounter? Do they connect?”]

I had no idea. By the time the January term ended. I still had two hundred pages to go. And like Odysseus’s men who had fallen in with the lotus-eaters, I felt no urgency to continue.

The regular semester began and I still hadn’t met with Mr. Avery for my oral exam on Ulysses. I had a more daunting test to face first: descent into the underworld [the Gay Union]. It was a benign and well-lit underworld, admittedly, but Odysseus sailing to Hades could not have felt more trepidation than I did entering that room. Nor could he have been more transformed by the initiation that befell him there. In the week after the meeting, my quest shifted abruptly outward. My parents received the letter on the same day that I bullshat my way through the Ulysses exam.

And further on:

I was adrift on the high seas, but my course was becoming clear. It lay between the Scylla of my peers and the swirling, sucking Charybdis of my family. Veering toward Scylla seemed much the safer route. And after navigating the passage, I soon washed up, a bit stunned, on a new shore.

Like Odysseus on the island of the Cyclops, I found myself facing a “being of colossal strength and ferocity, to whom the law of man and god meant nothing.” In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared.

Yet while Odysseus schemed desperately to escape Polyphemus’s cave, I found that I was quite content to stay here forever. Joan was not just a visionary poet and activist, but a bona fide Cyclops. She’d lost one eye in a childhood accident vividly reminiscent of the way Odysseus blinded Polyphemus.

After coming out, Bechdel receives a letter from her father which directly quotes Ulysses:

Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as “gay” in the way I am “gay,” as opposed to bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myself—a sort of inverted Oedipal complex. I think of his letter, the one where he does and doesn’t come out to me. (“I am not a hero.”) It’s exactly the disavowal Stephen Dedalus makes at the beginning of Ulysses—Joyce’s nod to the novels’ mock-heroic methods.

Critical though Bechdel is of her father, the closing panels of her book capture the debt that she owes him. Unlike Dedalus and Bloom, she and her father share a blood as well as a spiritual paternity. But there is also an inversion. Shifting over to the other Daedalus story, she may be an Icarus inheriting the artistry of his father, but it is the father who hurtled into the sea. The literary and artistic heritage that he passed along to her, however, saved her as she faced her own challenges as a lesbian in a heterosexual world. Or as Bechdel, drawing on memories of her father catching her when she jumped into the swimming pool, puts it,

But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.

Like Stephen Dedalus, he is neither all bad nor all good but simultaneously anti-hero and hero. Literature guides Bechdel to this complex understanding.

Posted in Bechdel (Alison), Colette, Dahl (Roald), Joyce (James), Milne (A. A.), Proust (Marcel), Salinger (J. D.), Wilde (Oscar) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bechdel Uses Lit to Understand Her Life

Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home"

Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home”

Over Thanksgiving I read the remarkable and widely applauded Fun House (2006), an illustrated memoir by Alison Bechdel who used to write the syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. I was most drawn in by the way Bechdel turns to literary works to deal with the contradictions in her upbringing.

The Bechdels lived in a small town in New York. Bechdel focuses especially on her problematic relationship with her father, who was an English teacher, funeral home director, and closeted gay man. She believes he deliberately allowed himself to be hit by a truck while she was away at college, perhaps because he had been getting in trouble with the law for soliciting students, shoplifting, and other crimes.

The Bechdels were never sure what to expect from their father from one moment to the next. As Bechdel puts it, “His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.” In one extended analogy early in the book, she describes him as Daedalus as he obsessively restores an old Victorian house. The resulting “labyrinth” captures their tangled family life. To do justice to the text, you need to see it along with the pictures, but this will give you a taste:

He would perform, as Daedalus did, dazzling displays of artfulness…Daedalus, too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects. He blithely betrayed the king, for example, when the queen asked him to build her a cow disguise so she could seduce the white bull. Indeed, the result of that scheme—a half-bull, half-man-monster—inspired Daedalus’s greatest creation yet. He hid the minotaur in the labyrinth—a maze of passages and rooms opening endlessly into one another and from which, as stray youths and maidens discovered to their peril, escape was impossible.

The half-bull, half-man monster is a powerful description of Bechdel’s closeted father and reminds me of Lucille’s description of her abusive father as wolfman. As Bechdel sees it, her father built the house in such a way as to contain himself:

The embarrassment on my part was a tiny scale model of my father’s more fully developed self-loathing. His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it. Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs.

My mother, my brothers, and I knew our way around well enough, but it was impossible to tell if the minotaur lay beyond the next corner.

At one point Bechdel explains why she so often turns to literature to describe her parents:

I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.

Among the classics mentioned by the memoir are:

The Great Gatsby

After [reading Fitzgerald’s] biography, [my father] tore through Fitzgerald’s stories, seeing himself in various characters… Dad does not mention identifying Gatsby’s self-willed metamorphosis from farm boy to prince is in many ways identical to my father’s.

Like Gatsby, my father fueled this transformation with “the colossal vitality of his illusion.” Unlike Gatsby, he did it on a school teacher’s salary.

Washington Square

If my father was a Fitzgerald character, my mother stepped right out of Henry James—a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces. A plain, dull, but wealthy young woman falls in love with the smooth-talking fortune hunter, Morris Townsend.

Taming of the Shrew

My parents met, I eventually extracted from my mother, in a performance of The Taming of the Shrew…It’s a troubling play, of course. The willful Katherine’s spirit is broken by the mercenary, domineering Petrucchio…Even in those prefeminist days, my parents must have found this relationship model to be problematic. They would probably have been appalled at the suggestion that their own marriage would play out in a similar way.

Portrait of a Lady

If The Taming of the Shrew was a harbinger of my parents’ later marriage, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady runs more than a little parallel to their early years together. Isabel Archer, the heroine, leaves America for Europe. She’s filled with heady notions about living her life free from provincial convention and constraint.

Isabel turns down a number of worthy suitors, but perversely accepts Gilbert Osmond, a cultured, dissipated, and penniless European art collector. My parents made a trip to Paris soon after their wedding, to visit an army friend of my father’s. They had a terrible fight in the car. Later, my mother would learn that dad and his friend had been lovers. Much like Isabel Archer learns that Gilbert had been having an affair all along with the woman who introduced them.

But too good for her own good, Isabel remains with Gilbert. And despite all her youthful hopes to the contrary, ends up “ground in the very mill of the conventional.”

Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning

[Quoted in the memoir as her mother’s favorite poem]

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.

It’s about the crucifixion. In many ways my mother’s Catholicism was more form than content, but sacrifice was a principle that she grasped instinctively. Perhaps she also liked the poem because its juxtaposition of catastrophe with a plush domestic interior is life with my father in a nutshell. Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time.

Gatsy and Fitzgerald again

The idea that I caused his death by telling my parents I was a lesbian is perhaps illogical. Causality implies connection, contact of some kind, and however convincing they might be, you can’t lay hands on a fictional character.

There’s a scene in The Great Gatsby where a drunken party guest is carried away by the discovery that the volumes in Gatsby’s library are not cardboard fakes. “What thoroughness, what realism!” he exclaims. “Knew when to stop, too. Didn’t cut the pages!”

My father’s books—the hardbound ones with their ragged dust jackets, the paperbacks with their creased spines—had clearly been read. But in a way Gatsby’s pristine books and my father’s worn ones signify the same thing—the preference of a fiction to reality. If Fitzgerald’s own life hadn’t turned from fairy tale to tragedy, would his stories of disenchantment have resonated so deeply with my father? Gatsby in the pool, Zelda in the asylum, Scott in Hollywood, an alcoholic dying of a heart attack at forty-four.

My father was forty-four when he died, too. Struck by the coincidence, I counted out their lifespans. The same number of months, the same number of weeks—but Fitzgerald lived three days longer.

For a wild moment I entertained the idea that my father had timed his death with this in mind, as some sort of deranged tribute.

But that would only confirm that his death was not my fault. That, in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. And I’m reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond.

I’ll report on the second half of the book in a later post. But better yet, go out and buy a copy for yourself.

Posted in Bechdel (Alison), Fitzgerald (F. Scott), James (Henry), Shakespeare (William), Stevens (Wallace) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Open Season on Young Black Men

B. T. Blackwell, "Algernon"

B. T. Blackwell, “Algernon”

I have the perfect poem for the Grand Jury that refused to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last week. And for the jury that refused to convict George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. And for the Ohio Grand Jury that, this past September, refused to indict the officer who killed a man in a Walmart who had picked up an air rifle and was absent-mindedly swinging it around as he talked to his family on his cell phone.

The poem appears in Hilaire Bellock’s Cautionary Tales for Children, a 1907 spoof on the heavy-handed didactic literature of the 19th century. The most spectacularly awful of such books was the 1845 Der Struwwelpeter, which has one poem in particular that haunted me as a child. In it, a man with scissors for hands cuts off the thumbs of a boy who refuses to stop sucking them. In those days, parents apparently could only hope to change child behavior if they threatened drastic enough consequences.

Belloc’s poems are hilarious parodies, as one can tell from reading some of the titles:

–Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.
–Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies.
–Matilda: Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death.
–Rebecca: Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably.

Given how dreadful Belloc’s punishments generally are for misbehavior, the one meted out for trying to shoot one’s sister provides a notable contrast. No doubt the father in this case served on one of the recent juries. Or maybe he’s an executive officer in the National Rifle Association:

Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister was reprimanded by his Father.

Young Algernon, the Doctor’s Son,

Algernon 2







playing with a Loaded Gun.

He pointed it towards his sister,
Aimed very carefully, but

Algernon 3







Missed her!

His Father, who was standing near,
The Loud Explosion chanced to Hear,

Algernon 4








And reprimanded Algernon
For playing with a Loaded Gun.

Algernon 5







There’s one significant difference between Algernon and the various shooters, however. At least Algernon got reprimanded.

Now, if Algernon had been black, the police could have shot him, as Cleveland police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice five days ago for carrying “an toy airsoft gun that shoots non-lethal plastic pellets.”

Moral: Don’t be a young black man–or boy–in America.

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Banishing Fear by Standing Tall

Ferguson protesters chanting, "Hands up! Don't Shoot"

Ferguson protesters chanting, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot”

Police officer Darren Wilson, whom a Ferguson Grand Jury refused to indict last week for shooting Michael Brown, is the latest in a long line of police and vigilantes who have gone free after killing unarmed black men. Upon hearing the decision, one National Public Radio columnist turned to an Audre Lorde poem for comfort.

Note that I’m not saying that Wilson is guilty. That should have been up to a jury to decide. But the public was denied a trial, even though, as the saying has it, in America you can indict a ham sandwich. Once again we saw America’s race-skewed criminal justice system at work.

The Washington Post’s Colbert King summarized this system as follows:

In places like Ferguson, police represent white authority. Authority empowered to enter the community backed by the extralegal support of white sentiment. Authority whose word is taken against the word of an accused African American. Authority that not only arrests, but punishes, too.

Where else can you fire 12 shots at an unarmed teenager, at least six of which strike his body, and walk away?

The New York Times’ Charles Blow, meanwhile, noted,

An October analysis by ProPublica of police shootings from 2010 to 2012 found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police officers than their white counterparts.

And here’s his colleague Nicholas Kristof, who quotes the same report:

If you’re white, your interactions with police are more likely to have been professional and respectful, leaving you trustful. If you’re black, your encounters with cops may leave you dubious and distrustful. That’s why a Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 64 percent of African-Americans believe that Officer Wilson should be punished, while only 22 percent of whites think so.

After the verdict, NPR columnist Syreeta McFadden found herself repeating a stanza from Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival,” just as she had when George Zinnemann was declared “not guilty” after shooting Trayvon Martin:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

Here’s McFadden explaining her reaction:

Each time I re-read this stanza from “A Litany For Survival,” the chaos and confusion I feel is cleared away. The lines are clean and defiant. They name our aches, our hurts, the paradoxes of our living, and slay that demon that dogs our days, fear.

By the poem’s end, I’m washed clean. It’s a blessing and a baptism and a challenge to me to engage in a world that would seem to deny my life.

I needed it again, when news came of the shooting death of Michael Brown, and then again this week.

This poem is meant to break spells and fevers. That line, “we were never meant to survive” warns us of difficulties that will come. I think of this poem when I see photos of black millennials protesting police brutality. Fire and smoke envelop them as they face off with the police force of what was once just another city in the middle of America.

Some further explanation is perhaps warranted as to what McFadden finds so liberating about the poem. After all, why would a poem naming the fear that Blacks internalize with their mother’s milk–—and that heavy-footed whites have made sure that they internalized– give her hope? The final lines of the poem make it a little clearer so here is “A Litany for Survival” in its entirety:

A Litany for Survival

By Audre Lorde

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

As I see it, Lorde concludes by saying that, if being silent is not going to chase the fear away, Blacks might as well speak up. After all, if they were never meant to survive anyway, then what is there to lose? The poem bolsters McFadden because it clears away the false assurances that lead to inaction. Protesting millennials refuse to be afraid but instead stand tall.

It is always better to speak.

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Advent and Horror at the Void

Colette Scharf, "Empty Tomb and Three Crosses"

Colette Scharf, “Empty Tomb and Three Crosses”

Spiritual Sunday

I share a Donald Hall poem to mark this first Sunday of Advent. Advent always strikes me as a contradiction: Christmas is in the air but we focus for a few weeks on the darkness that leads up to it. The church music is heavy, as are the purple altar cloths. We know the story ends happily yet we are caught in the grip of the fearful suspense.

Hall’s poem links Advent to the days before the Easter Resurrection. The cradle that will hold the Christ child and the tomb that will hold His adult body are both empty and the poet is filled with “horror vacui” or horror at the void. This linking is also to be found in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” where the birth of the Christ child is linked with “a water-mill beating the darkness,/And three trees on the low sky.” There the Magi narrator asks,

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.

Hall’s poem also alludes to Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” where the poet describes birth and death as inextricably entwined..

So Advent is, first of all, a season of death. It is because the darkness weighs so heavily upon us, however, that Christmas seems miraculous. In reply to the poet’s horror, God answers with a child and a star.

Hall speaks to this veering between spiritual emptiness and the “rebirth of everything possible” in a Paris Review interview. He is describing the minister who drew him to Christianity:

Watching him, listening to him, I became aware that it was possible to be a Christian although subject to skepticism and spiritual dryness. I used to think that Christians believed everything, and all the time, which is nonsense. If you have no dry spells, I doubt your spirit. We watched Jack live through the deserts when he would give sermons that were historical or philosophical. After a while he would liven up, go spiritually green again. He was a great one for Advent, the annual birth or rebirth of everything possible.

“Advent” reminds me of the powerful simplicity of Christina Rossetti, who also wrote Advent poems and who may have inspired Hall’s lyric: .


By Donald Hall

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
Horror vacui.


Note on the artist: The artist’s work can be found at

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Belichick Ranks with Lit’s Great Plotters

Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick

Sports Saturday

There is one game and one game only that football fans are talking about this weekend. Peyton Manning fan though I am, I can’t say it’s Broncos-Chiefs. No, the Patriots-Packers match-up may well be a preview of the Super Bowl given how well both those teams are currently playing.

In addition to featuring the two best teams according to most experts, the game has an archetypal feel, with the best quarterback in the league—Aaron Rodgers—pitted against a team that resembles an infernal machine with Professor Moriarty as the coach. Yes, I have written posts applying both Jean Cocteau’s description of fate and Arthur Conan Doyle’s super villain to Bill Belichick.

Here’s an instance of Belichick’s system at work. Against a very good Indianapolis Colts team, running back Jonas Gray, playing in only his fourth game, ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries to set a franchise record. But because he was late to a team meeting the following week, Belichick benched him against a good Lions team. In his place, he played veteran LeGarrette Blount, whom he signed on Thursday, and Blount proceeded to rush for a very respectable 78 yards and two touchdowns against one of the best defenses in football.

In seeing the game as a battle between a supremely gifted athlete and an organization that can crush the life out of virtually any team, I don’t do entire justice to the Packers’ team nor to the gifted individuals on the Patriots’ roster, beginning with Tom Brady. But it is also true that Rodgers can improvise and use his legs while Brady’s genius lies in making Belichick’s system work. Belichick has ways of plugging practically anybody into this system or, to be more accurate, he has an uncanny genius for devising a system that allows the players he has to make the most of their abilities. As if this were not enough, he changes the system week to week depending on whom the Patriots are playing.

Maybe it’s because I have seen Belichick teams beat Peyton Manning so many times that I don’t see Rodgers having much of a chance, even playing at home. Two works that come to mind and reinforce my pessimism are Portrait of a Lady and Liaisons Dangereuses.

Both novels feature very sympathetic young women—Isabel Archer and Madame de Tourvel –who are staked out for destruction by fiendish plotters. Isabel is particularly cocky, thinking that she’s in control of her own destiny, and in this way she resembles Rodgers. She is betrayed by Madame Merle, who tricks her into marrying the loutish Gilbert Osmond. Merle knows just how to play her.

The same is true of Madame de Merteuil in Liaisons Dangereuses. Others are mere putty in her hands and she ruthlessly brings down everyone in the book just because she can. When her co-plotter Valmont, in spite of himself, falls in love with Tourvel, she knows how to defend against this one saving grace and plays on his ego to goad him into betraying his heart. Belichick knows that, to win, you take away the opponent’s greatest strength and force him to beat you in other ways. Like Merteuil, he is ice cold in diagnosing the opposition. He knows just how his victims will act.

Belichick knows well how others think of him. He knows the envy-filled joy that would swell up opposing fans were ever to start losing. At the end of Liaisons Dangereuses, Merteuil is exposed and, when she visits her theater box, finds herself shunned and hissed. In what has to be seen as a case of piling on–a football analogy–author Choderlos de Laclos throws in a case is disfiguring small pox as well. And yet, despite her fall, her critics come across as no better than a cackling mob. Even in defeat, she rises above them in her splendid isolation.

Actually, the only character who bests her is one of those that she destroys. Tourvel falls in love with Valmont and gives up her life for that love. To turn her example into a lesson for Patriot opponents, play your heart out, leaving nothing on the field. When you do so, losing becomes irrelevant.

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Black Friday: Don’t Just Shop

J. D. Roybal, "San Ildefonso Pueblo Corn Dance" (1961)

J. D. Roybal, “San Ildefonso Pueblo Corn Dance” (1961)


As today is the beginning of the holiday shopping season, it’s good to remind ourselves to resist consumerism and focus on what is truly important. We give gifts at the darkest time of year to affirm our belief that life is bountiful, even though the dark, cold days indicate otherwise. Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity all have their festivals of light, another way of affirming this belief.

Gift-giving can descend into crass materialism, however. As I am currently teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, here’s a story from the novel about what happens when people become distracted by flash and glitter and neglect their spiritual roots.

One of many old Pueblo tales that appear  in Ceremony, this one is about a conman who comes into town and impresses everyone with his magic. The people become so mesmerized by him that they neglect Mother Corn, who angrily packs up and leaves. The wasteland drought that follows is Silko’s metaphor for both the spiritual and the environmental devastation that results when a culture forgets what is most important.

Throughout Ceremony, Silko applies the old tales to current developments. In this case, the conman’s magic is white people’s technology, which so dazzles the Indians that they forget about the deep wisdom to be found in their age-old customs. As the wise old Josiah says to the book’s protagonist before telling him the story,

“[T]here are some things worth more than money.” He pointed his chin at the springs and around the narrow canyon. “This is where we come from, see. This sand, this stone, these trees, the vines, all the wildflowers. This earth keeps us going.” He took off his hat and wiped his forehead on his shirt. “These dry years you hear some people complaining, you know, about the dust and the wind, and how dry it is. But the wind and the dust, they are part of life too, like the sun and the sky. You don’t swear at them. It’s people, see. They’re the ones. The old people used to say that droughts happen when people forget, when people misbehave.”

In the upcoming holy-day season, we too must remain mindful of our mother corn altar. We must not forget the god or spirit or belief system that grounds our lives. Telling our age-old stories, including the one about a god who was born in humble circumstances two thousand years ago, is a way of doing this.

Here’s Silko’s story:

One time
Old Woman K’yo’s
son came in
from Reedleaf town
up north.
His name was Pa’caya’nyi
and he didn’t know who his ather was.

He asked the people
“You people want to learn some magic?”
and the people said
“Yes, we cn always use some.”

Ma’see’wi and Ou’yu’ye’wi
the twin brothers
were caring for the mother corn altar,
but they got interested in this magic too.

“What kind of medicine man
are you,
anyway?” they asked him
“A Ck’o’yo medicine man,”
he said.

“Tonight we’ll see
if you really have magical power,” they told him.

So that night
came with his mountain lion.
He undressed
he painted his body
the whorls of flesh
the soles of his feet
the palm of his hands
the top of his head.
He wore feathers
on each side of his head.

He made an altar
with cactus spines
and purple locoweed flowers.
He lighted four cactus torches at each corner.
He made the mountain lion lie
down in front and
then he was ready for his magic.

He struck the middle of the north wall
He took a piece of flint and
he struck the middle of the north wall.
Water poured out of the wall
and flowed down
toward the south.

He said “What does that look like?
Is that magic power?”

He struck the middle of the west wall
and from the east wall
a bear came out.

“What do you call this?”
he said again.
“Yes, it looks like magic all right,”
Ma’see’wi said.
So it was finished
and Ma’see’wi and Ou’yu’ye’wi
and all the people were fooled by
that Ck’oo’yol medicine man,

From that time on
they were
so busy
playing around with that
Ck’o’yo magic
they neglected the mother corn altar.

They thought they didn’t have to worry
about anything
They thought this magic
could give life to plants
and animals.
They didn’t know it was all just a trick.

Our mother
was very angry
over this
over the way
all of them
even Ma’see’wi and Ou’yu’ye’wi
fooled around with this

“I’ve had enough of that,”
she said,
If they like that magic so much
let them live off it.”

So she took
the plants and grass from them.
No baby animals were born.
She took the
rainclouds with her

Keep in mind that, to keep the Mother happy, all we need to do is honor her. It doesn’t even cost any money.

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America’s Obsession with Pie

Learn from the Pig to take whatever Fate orr Elder Persons heap upon your plate.

Learn from the Pig to take whatever Fate/Or Elder Persons heap upon your plate.


As a child I loved the cantankerous Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children and New Cautionary Tales, which describe the gruesome things that can happen to children if they run away from nursemaids, tell lies, ignore their reading lessons, and the like. (They will be be devoured by a lion, burned alive, and gored by a bull respectively.) A poem about strange culinary tastes around the world, equally delightful if not about children, has a section on what Belloc sees as America’s weird obsession with pie. Since pumpkin pie holds an almost equal footing with turkey in Thanksgiving feasts, here is “On Food.” The pie references occur midway through.

The final line of the poem is a reference to the Latin phrase De gustibus non est disputandum, which means that there can be no dispute in matters of taste.

On Food

By Hilaire Belloc

Alas! What various tastes in food,
Divide the human brotherhood!    
Birds in their little nests agree
With Chinamen,    
                                 not with me.

Colonials like their oysters hot,
Their omelettes heavy— I do not.    

The French are fond of slugs
and frogs,    

The Siamese eat  
The nobles at the brilliant Court
Of Muscovy, consumed a sort
Of candles held and eaten  
As though they were asparagus. 

The Spaniard, I have heard it said,
Eats garlic, by itself, on bread:
Now just suppose a friend or dun
Dropped in to lunch at half-past one
And you were jovially to say,    
“Here’s bread and garlic! Peg away! ”
I doubt if you would gain your end
Or soothe the dun, or please the friend.

In Italy the traveler notes  
With great disgust the flesh of goats  
Appearing on the table d’hotes;    
And even this the natives spoil
By frying it in rancid oil.

In Maryland they charge like sin
For nasty stuff called terrapin;
And when they ask you out to dine
At Washington, instead of wine,
They give you water from the spring
With lumps of ice for flavoring,
That sometimes kill and always freeze
The high plenipotentiaries.

In Massachusetts all the way
From Boston down to Buzzards Bay
They feed you till you want to die
On rhubarb pie and pumpkin pie,
And horrible huckleberry pie,
And when you summon strength to cry,
“What is there else that I can try ?”
They stare at you in mild surprise
And serve you other kinds of pies.
And I with these mine eyes have seen
A dreadful stuff called Margarine
Consumed by men in Bethnal Green.

But I myself that here complain
Confess restriction quite in vain.
I feel my native courage fail
To see a Gascon eat a snail;
I dare not ask abroad for tea;
No cannibal can dine with me;
And all the world is torn and rent
By varying views on nutriment.

And yet upon the other hand,  
De gustibus non disputand— 


Although I live in Maryland, I have never dined upon terrapin. I plead guilty, however, to iced water, pies, and margarine. We also fill our turkeys with oyster stuffing, and then (to the horror of my Slovene friends, who never mix meat with fruit) we add cranberry sauce.

On the other hand, I myself have never gotten used to the American practice of putting marshmallows on sweet potatoes. Yech!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Singing a Lullaby to a Dead Child

Maxfield Parrish, "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"

Maxfield Parrish, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”

As wonderful as the holidays are, they are also sad times as I find myself thinking about family and friends that I have lost. Actually, I should say that holidays are wonderful in part because I reconnect with those I have loved.

I wrote the following post four years ago when my colleague in the philosophy department, Alan Paskow, was dying. It’s about the lullaby that I sang to my son Justin on April 30, 2000 after they pulled his body from the water. Among the thanks I will be offering up tomorrow is having had Justin for 21 years.

Recovered post, September 13, 2010

From time to time I have reported on my friend Alan, who is dying of cancer but who continues to hold his head up and, to the amazement of us all, refuses to get depressed. We held another one of our salons in his honor this past Thursday.After hearing Alan report on the latest developments (the tumors continue to multiply), we addressed the salon’s topic: “saying goodbye.” Each of us was to recount a story, good or bad, that involved leave-taking.

The stories were all powerful and moving. Some were dark, goodbyes that were not said for one reason or another. Others contained moments of grace. The word “goodbye” derives from “God be with ye,” and as we talked I sensed that our stories were an indirect way of saying goodbye to Alan.  Though one never knows, I think he has some time left, and we have another salon scheduled in three weeks.

My own story involved my son Justin. Because he drowned, Julia and I were not able to say goodbye so that he could hear us. We said goodbye nevertheless, however. After his body had been recovered and we were sitting in the ambulance with him, Julia gave him a Reiki massage while I put my hands upon his heart and sang him a lullaby that I had sung to him as a baby. It was a lullaby that my parents had sung to me and that their parents, I believe, had sung to them. Here it is as I remember it:

Baby’s boat’s a silver moon
Sailing through the sky–
Sailing through a sea of sleep
As the stars float by.
Sail, baby, sail,
Out upon that sea,
Only don’t forget to sail
Back again to me.

Baby’s fishing for a dream,
Fishing near and far,
His line a silver moonbeam is,
His bait’s a shining star.
Sail, baby, sail,
Out upon that sea,
Only don’t forget to sail
Back again to me.

Singing it took me back to a time when he was vulnerable and I was assuring him that he was safe with me. I was telling him that again. Only it wasn’t true this time.

Of course, I was singing the lullaby for myself as well. I found some comfort in the idea of death as sleep (“to die, to sleep, no more,” says Hamlet). Perhaps, wherever he was, he was being wrapped in loving arms.

Reinforcing these images of a mysterious sea that we journey to every night was a Eugene Field poem my father used to read to me. (He read each of us children a poem every night, along with a story.) The Maxfield Parrish painting above is an illustration of the poem.  A replica of the painting was in my grandmother’s house and now is in my parents’ house:

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe,
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew.
The little stars were the herring fish
That lived in that beautiful sea—
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish—
Never afeard are we”;
So cried the stars to the fishermen three:
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home;
‘T was all so pretty a sail it seemed
As if it could not be,
And some folks thought ‘t was a dream they ‘d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea—
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
And Nod.

In Margaret Edson’s play W;t, a sophisticated literary scholar finds comfort in the children’s story Runaway Bunny as she is dying. (I write about it here.) In my own time of agony, a lullaby invoking a sea voyage into a world of dreams spoke deeply. Sometimes I still think of Justin as sailing through a sea of sleep as the stars float by.

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Climate Change: Signs of Witchery

glacier melting

Politics these days features a lot of phony hysteria about the death of the republic, the shredding of the Constitution, etc. etc. Meanwhile, an issue that should be generating panic yet is politically all but ignored is climate change. Despite the U.N.’s recent report that we are on the verge of an irreversible downward climate spiral, our attention deficit hyperactive media chases mini-scandals and makes much ado about nothing. It’s as though we’re arguing about our place in line while Genghis Khan is heaping up mounds of skulls as he sweeps across the border.

To help raise the alert level, I offer a Native American author’s take on what we are doing to the planet. As Leslie Marmon Silko of the Laguna Pueblo sees it, we are in the grip of witchery.

First the latest, as reported by The Washington Post:

The Earth is locked on an “irreversible” course of climatic disruption from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the impacts will only worsen unless nations agree to dramatic cuts in pollution, an international panel of climate scientists warned Sunday.

The planet faces a future of extreme weather, rising sea levels and melting polar ice from soaring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, the U.N. panel said. Only an unprecedented global effort to slash emissions within a relatively short time period will prevent temperatures from crossing a threshold that scientists say could trigger far more dangerous disruptions, the panel warned.

Silko wrote her acclaimed novel Ceremony in 1977 before climate change was on our radar. If she were writing today, however I have no doubt that she would mention it in the poem below, which is a fanciful description of a witches convention. The various participants are having a contest over who can be the baddest witch. The winner simply tells a story, one which encompasses everything from ecological warfare used against the Indians (blankets infested with small pox, buffalo herds deliberately slaughtered) to the polluting of ground water, the draining of the aquafers, the damming up of rivers, and the mining of sacred mountains. Some of this mining points to final apocalyptic destruction as it involves uranium:

Finally there was only one
who hadn’t shown off charms or powers.
The witch stood in the shadows beyond the fire
and no one ever knew where this witch came from
which tribe
or if it was a woman or a man.
But the important thing was
this witch didn’t show off any dark thunder charcoals
or red ant-hill beads.
This one just told them to listen:
“What I have is a story.”

At first they all laughed
but this witch said
go ahead
laugh if you want to
but as I tell the story
it will begin to happen.

Set in motion now
set in motion by our witchery
to work for us.

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer and the bear are objects
They see no life.
They fear
They fear the world.
They distroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

The wind will blow them across the ocean
thousands of them in giant boats
swarming like larva
out of a crushed ant hill.

They will carry objects
which can shoot death
faster than the eye can see.

They will kill the things they fear
all the animals
the people will starve.

They will poison the water
they will spin the water away
and there will be drought
the people will starve.

They will fear what they find
They will fear the people
They will kill what they fear.

Entire villages will be wiped out
They will slaughter whole tribes.
Corpses for us
Blood for us
Killing killing killing killing

And those they do not kill
will die anyway
at the destruction they see
at the loss
at the loss of the children
the loss will destroy the rest.

Stolen rivers and mountains
the stolen land will eat their hearts
and jerk their mouths from the Mother.
The people will starve.

They will bring terrible diseases
the people have never known.
Entire tribes will die out
covered with festering sores…
vomiting blood.
Corpses for our work

Set in motion now
set in motion by our witchery
set in motion
to work for us

They will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
Up here
in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.

Set in motion now
set in motion
To destroy
To kill
Objects to work for us
objects to act for us
Performing the witchery
for suffering
for torment
for the stillborn
the deformed
the sterile
the dead.

set into motion now
set into motion.

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now –
it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without that kind of thing.
Take it back.
Call that story back.”

But the witch just shook its head
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur
and feathers.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming.
It can’t be called back.

As grim as this picture is, however, Silko’s novel offers some hope. If we can learn to respond to the Earth as the protagonist in the story does, then we can begin to reverse the damage that has been done.

Unfortunately, the witchery has a good head start and we’re running out of time

Posted in Silko (Leslie Marmon) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Invisible Men (and Women) No Longer

Immigrants listening to Obama's speech

Undocumented immigrants listening to Obama’s speech

With President Obama’s recent use of prosecutorial discretion to stop deporting immigrants who are parents of American citizens, we’re hearing a lot the phrase “out of the shadows.” The words got me thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who retreats to the shadows but then, in the epilogue, reports that he will be returning to the light.  While the situations aren’t identical, of course, there’s a fair degree of overlap.

IM (he doesn’t have a name) “hibernates” into the shadows after trying fruitlessly to prove that he is a three-dimensional human being. After he has been beaten down repeatedly, he surrenders and resigns himself to his invisibility. Our undocumented immigrants, who are all around us and yet are officially invisible, experience something similar:

So there you have all of it that’s important. Or at least you almost have it. I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in, if you will—and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint.

IM talks about shedding his naïveté but not his idealism, an evolution I could imagine with our current immigrants. It sounds like a contradiction but IM feels liberated once he stops worrying about what others think of him. Since he couldn’t change their minds anyway, he can focus on the possibilities at hand. In America, there are still many possibilities:

[L]ike almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being “for” society and then “against” it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase—still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.

To be sure, politicians like Ted Cruzes, Steve King, and Jeff Sessions are trying to put America in a traditionally white strait jacket. The danger posed by such figures explains why IM remains in hibernation for as long as he does:

Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

IM realizes that hibernation, however, is what has kept the status quo in place. Indeed, it was the so-called undocumented “dreamers” coming out of the shadows and holding dangerous protests that helped push Obama to his executive decisions. IM invokes one of America’s founding visions: e pluribus unum, out of many one. He holds to this even though the world remains “just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before.” What has changed, he says, is a clearer understanding of the struggle such a vision calls for:

[O]nly now I better understand my relation to it and it to me. I’ve come a long way from those days when, full of illusion, I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health.

And further on:

Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s “winner take nothing” that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many.—This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.

The book concludes with an observation that no nativist will acknowledge and yet which has a deep truth:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Just as immigrants defined our past, so will they define our future. The question is whether we will face the changes openly with smart legislation or whether we will continue to avert our eyes and melodramatically posture. Be prepared for a lot of posturing.

Added note: In his New York Times column today, Charles Blow sounds a very similar theme. Here’s his conclusion:

Make no mistake: This debate is not just about this president, this executive order or immigration. This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.

Posted in Ellison (Ralph) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


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