Dickens & Our Irresponsible Financiers

Merdle and Lord Tite Barnacle in "Little Dorrit"

Merdle and Lord Tite Barnacle in “Little Dorrit”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kobe: The Lone Wolf Going Down

Death of Akela in "Jungle Books"

Death of Akela in “Jungle Books”

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

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

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

And now here’s Phillips quoting Kipling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Virtues of a True Conservative

Pleasence as Septimus Harding

Pleasence as Septimus Harding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Against Race Oppression, Turn to Love

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Martin Luther King Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

listen children

By Lucille Clifton

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

we have never hated black

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

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

pass it on

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

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The Creator Spirit’s Deep Embrace

"Flight of the Golden Hawk" by Wingsdomain

“Flight of the Golden Hawk” by Wingsdomain

Spiritual Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

The Avowal

By Denise Levertov

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

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

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Peter Wimsey vs. Oklahoma Executions

A hanging at Tyburn "Tree"

A hanging at Tyburn “Tree”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Wimsey as the hanging hour approaches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fox Would Appall Conservative Trollope


It appears that, once again, Fox News is going out of its way to stir up anti-Muslim hatred, what with Rupert Murdoch tweeting,

Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible 


Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US. Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy

The sentiment was echoed in multiple Fox programs, as this wonderful Daily Shows spoof reports (and then turns on its head).

I was thinking about Fox News last week as I was driving back from New Orleans listening to Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. In his 1855 novel, Trollope describes a publication that wields a similar amount of influence. The Jupiter awes people by its ability to throw devastating thunderbolts at public figures from Olympian heights:

“Is this Mount Olympus?” asks the unbelieving stranger. “Is it from these small, dark, dingy buildings that those infallible laws proceed which cabinets are called upon to obey; by which bishops are to be guided, lords and commons controlled, judges instructed in law, generals in strategy, admirals in naval tactics, and orange-women in the management of their barrows?” “Yes, my friend—from these walls. From here issue the only known infallible bulls for the guidance of British souls and bodies. This little court is the Vatican of England. Here reigns a pope, self-nominated, self-consecrated,—ay, and much stranger too,—self-believing!—a pope whom, if you cannot obey him, I would advise you to disobey as silently as possible; a pope hitherto afraid of no Luther; a pope who manages his own inquisition, who punishes unbelievers as no most skilful inquisitor of Spain ever dreamt of doing;—one who can excommunicate thoroughly, fearfully, radically; put you beyond the pale of men’s charity; make you odious to your dearest friends, and turn you into a monster to be pointed at by the finger!” Oh heavens! and this is Mount Olympus!

Trollope is amazed at how convinced The Jupiter is of its infallibility. Always it sees who is blameworthy and always it knows exactly what should be done:

It is a fact amazing to ordinary mortals that The Jupiter is never wrong. With what endless care, with what unsparing labor, do we not strive to get together for our great national council the men most fitting to compose it. And how we fail! Parliament is always wrong: look at The Jupiter, and see how futile are their meetings, how vain their council, how needless all their trouble! With what pride do we regard our chief ministers, the great servants of state, the oligarchs of the nation on whose wisdom we lean, to whom we look for guidance in our difficulties! But what are they to the writers of The Jupiter?

One of the Jupiter’s leading columnists is Tom Towers, whom Trollope refers to sarcastically as a “heaven-sent messenger”:

All, all is wrong—alas! alas! Tom Towers, and he alone, knows all about it. Why, oh why, ye earthly ministers, why have ye not followed more closely this heaven-sent messenger that is among us?

Were it not well for us in our ignorance that we confided all things to The Jupiter? Would it not be wise in us to abandon useless talking, idle thinking, and profitless labour? Away with majorities in the House of Commons, with verdicts from judicial bench given after much delay, with doubtful laws, and the fallible attempts of humanity! Does not The Jupiter, coming forth daily with fifty thousand impressions full of unerring decision on every mortal subject, set all matters sufficiently at rest? Is not Tom Towers here, able to guide us and willing?

I think of all those viewers and listeners who turn only to the rightwing media for their information. Towers’ arrogance, meanwhile, is only too familiar to us as we survey people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (and reaching outside of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and RedState’s Erick Erickson). These men revel in the fact that GOP politicians must kowtow before them, kiss their rings, and walk back any disparaging comments they happen to make. Here’s Trollope describing Towers:

He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power;—how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humor, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him: ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what The Jupiter would say. Tom Towers never boasted of The Jupiter; he scarcely ever named the paper even to the most intimate of his friends; he did not even wish to be spoken of as connected with it; but he did not the less value his privileges, or think the less of his own importance. It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.

I wonder if Murdoch thinks of himself as a god. I have no doubt that Rush Limbaugh does.

When a character points out to Towers how his attacks are hurting the kindly old warden Septimus Harding and asks him to refrain, Towers’ applies a defense that we see Fox pundits regularly use. It is not he who is attacking the man. Rather, he is defending the public’s interests. He answers to a higher call:

“And now suppose for a moment that I had this power, and used it as you wish: isn’t it clear that it would be a great abuse? Certain men are employed in writing for the public press; and if they are induced either to write or to abstain from writing by private motives, surely the public press would soon be of little value. Look at the recognised worth of different newspapers, and see if it does not mainly depend on the assurance which the public feel that such a paper is, or is not, independent. You alluded to The Jupiter: surely you cannot but see that the weight of The Jupiter is too great to be moved by any private request, even though it should be made to a much more influential person than myself: you’ve only to think of this, and you’ll see that I am right.”

The discretion of Tom Towers was boundless: there was no contradicting what he said, no arguing against such propositions. He took such high ground that there was no getting on to it. “The public is defrauded,” said he, “whenever private considerations are allowed to have weight.” 

John Bolt, a progressive who realizes that his naïve criticism of the warden has unleashed a monster, sees through Towers’ sanctimony. He leaves Towers’ apartment muttering about what really drives publications like The Jupiter. The only interest that Towers consults is his own:

The idea of Tom Towers talking of public motives and purity of purpose! Why, it wouldn’t give him a moment’s uneasiness to change his politics to-morrow, if the paper required it.

In all fairness, I should note that Trollope is a conservative and that The Jupiter appears to have a progressive, not a conservative, slant. (Trollope is a conservative in the best sense of the word, and I’ll write next week on his legitimate concerns with progressivism.) Media of all political leanings can be guilty of the arrogance and the sanctimoniousness that Trollope describes, and mainstream and leftist publications would love to have Fox‘s influence. In our current climate, however, they do not.

They also do not claim to be infallible. The New York Times, Rolling Stone, CBS’s Sixty Minutes, National Public Radio, MSNBC, while far from perfect, are far more likely than conservative media to acknowledge their mistakes. “Fair and balanced” Fox News, by contract, either denies, doubles down, or goes silent when it is caught out. It appears not to experience a “moment’s uneasiness” when it decides to change its politics on an issue.

I’ll note one exception. Apparently one Fox guest–Steve Emerson, Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism—did walk back his assertion that Birmingham, England is “Muslim-only” and that in

parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.

It so happens that Birmingham is 22 percent Muslim, and no one has yet found these Muslim religious police in London who are beating people up.

Emerson admitted that he was wrong so maybe Fox is making strides. Then again, I don’t know if Fox itself acknowledged publicly that his claims were over the top.

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After Paris: Dryden on Dangers of Hysteria

Popish Plot Playcard, 5 innocent Jesuits hanged

Popish Plot playing card

I’m hoping that the French will take a good look at America after 9-11 as they contemplate responses to the horrific massacre in Paris. The amount of damage that we did to ourselves and the world all but handed the terrorists the victory they coveted.

Given that people have been warning about overreactions for hundreds of years, however, I have little hope. Yesterday I mentioned the endless blood feuds that arose as Beowulf’s society responded to violence. Today I focus on John Dryden’s description of the hysterical response to the “Popish plot” of 1678, which convulsed England for three years. This “plot,” which was entirely in the head of one Titus Oates, led to the execution of 22 innocent men.

Dryden describes the events in his masterpiece of political satire Absolom and Architophel, which draws on the story of Absolom’s rebellion against his father King David. In Dryden’s allegory, Charles II is David and his illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth is Absolom. Because many in England were worried about the Catholic James succeeding his brother, they used the anti-Catholic hysteria to persuade Monmouth to rebel against Charles. Active plotting was underway when Dryden wrote the poem and there would be an active rebellion once Charles died and James ascended to the throne in 1685. James put down the rebellion and Monmouth, like Absolom, ended up dead.

I use the poem to show how unscrupulous people can use events like the Paris massacre for their own nefarious purposes. Rightwing political groups and rightwing media, including Fox News, are fanning anti-Muslim hatred in the wake of the killings. Some predict that France’s extreme rightwing party, the racist National Front, will prevail in the next elections.

As Dryden sees it, plots, whether “true or false,” invariably get used to stir up the masses:

But when to sin our biased nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, 
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

By the time Dryden wrote his poem, it was clear to most that the Catholic threat had been overhyped. Dryden appears to think that there was some minor plotting by Catholic extremists—even this is now in doubt—but his point is that the reaction was out of all proportion. It’s like saying that all Muslims are terrorists because a few carried out the assault. Here’s Dryden describing how the fear game gets played. The “oaths” are from Oates and other accusers who perjured themselves while the “dying vows” are from the innocents who were executed:

From hence began that plot, the nation’s curse;
Bad in itself, but represented worse;
Raised in extremes, and in extremes decried; 
With oaths affirmed, with dying vows denied;
Not weighed nor winnowed by the multitude,
But swallowed in the mass, unchewed and crude.
Some truth there was, but dashed and brewed with lies,
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all.

Dryden notes that, unlike the lame Catholic plot (which as I say didn’t actually exist), the consequences of the hysterical overreaction proved dire, threatening the government itself:

This plot, which failed for want of common sense,
Had yet a deep and dangerous consequence; 
For as, when raging fevers boil the blood,
The standing lake soon floats into a flood,
And every hostile humour, which before
Slept quiet in its channels, bubbles o’er;
Work up to foam, and threat the government.

Having described a discouraging state of affairs, Dryden indulges in a concluding wish fulfillment that is (to put it mildly) overblown. David/Charles informs everyone that his mild manner is not to be misunderstood as weakness. After he speaks firmly and restores order, his actions are seconded by God (!):

“For lawful pow’r is still superior found,
When long driv’n back, at length it stands the ground.”

   He said. Th’ Almighty, nodding, gave consent;
And peals of thunder shook the firmament.
Henceforth a series of new time began,
The mighty years in long procession ran:
Once more the god-like David was restor’d,
And willing nations knew their lawful lord.

I’m all for a “series of new time” but I’m not counting on God to intervene. I’m afraid we’ll have to sort this out through representational democracy, something Dryden did not believe in.

Posted in Dryden (John) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Grendel in Paris

Grendel in the movie "Beowulf"

Grendel in the movie “Beowulf”

Once against I find myself turning to Beowulf in the wake of a mass shooting. I don’t much to say that I haven’t said before, but the points are still worth repeating.

I have described how the Grendel rage that we saw in the Charlie Hebdo killers also showed up in Anders Breivik (the Norwegian killer), Jared Loughner (the Tucson killer), Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood killer), and James Eagan Holmes (the Aurora killer). I first wrote a post applying Beowulf to mass killings five and a half years ago, and I am struck but how many more people have died since then.

Beowulf is always relevant because the poet understands well how violence can tear apart a society from within. Medieval Anglo-Saxon England was a fractious culture, and, then as now, Grendelian resentment ate away at certain discontents. The Beowulf poet memorably captured this phenomenon through cannibalistic trolls. The impact of such violence was greater then as the society was smaller and more fragile, which is why the depictions are so vivid. The dynamics are the same, however.

The Beowulf poet also knew, probably from personal experience, what didn’t work in handling such rage. While his society, like our own, indulged in revenge fantasies following a killing, the poet knew that lashing out only unleashed blood feuds. No sooner has Beowulf killed Grendel than Grendel’s mother makes an appearance, and the second half of the epic is filled with an interminable string of revenge killings.

But if heavy-handed retaliation wasn’t a solution, neither was naïve conciliation. Queen Wealhtheow thinks that she can use placating words to win over her discontented nephew Hrothulf, but no sooner has King Hrothgar died than Hrothulf kills one of her sons and takes over the kingdom.

Put in modern terms, neither the forceful response favored by the right nor the conciliatory response favored by the left proves entirely effective. No wonder Hrothgar has his head in his hands following the attacks.

Beowulf tries to strike a balance. His response to Grendel is forceful (a strong grip) but measured (he doesn’t lose his cool the way that Unferth, killer of kinsmen, does). While Beowulf has no illusions about diplomatic marriages and we see their failure in the case of Finn and the Heatho-Bards, he deals sensitively with the explosive situation he encounters in Hrothgar’s court. Similar sensitivity—a strong but measured response—is called for in the current situation.

Whether we will get a smart response is another matter.

In addition to the killings, I thought about their target. I realized, after reading this fine article by Max Fisher in Vox, that Charlie Hebdo engages in more sophisticated satire than I originally thought. It is misunderstood in the same way that Daniel Defoe’s “Shortest Way with Dissenters” was misunderstood in 1702.

Defoe, trying to expose the ruthlessness with which people wanted to put down Puritan dissenters, wrote an article that appeared to advocate severe measures against dissenters. He hoped thereby to wake people up. Likewise, Charlie Hebdo often pens racist stereotypes to capture how the rightwing sees minorities. Unfortunately for the artists, both Defoe’s satire and Charlie Hebdo’s have been read straight, and Defoe was even praised by some anti-Puritans. (Then they found the essay was a satire and put him in the pillory.) Likewise, Charlie Hebdo has been seen as racist in its depictions of minorities. That’s always a danger in people missing the point.

Incidentally, Fisher doesn’t altogether absolve Charlie Hebdo of racism, noting that it “punches down,” treating vulnerable minorities the same as it treats those that are privileged. A great satirist like Jonathan Swift never makes that mistake: you don’t satirize those who are vulnerable. (Swift notes that one doesn’t satirize a cripple for walking funny.) As Lucille Clifton (no satirist) used to say, her job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. One has no business afflicting the afflicted.

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker is less concerned about differential treatment of satiric targets and just sees Charlie Hebdo as operating in the Rabelaisian tradition:

Wolinski and his confederates represented the true Rabelaisian spirit of French civilization, in their acceptance of human appetite and their contempt for false high-mindedness of any kind, including the secular high-mindedness that liberal-minded people hold dear. The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally…The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear…

Gopnik calls this “the joy of ignobility” and says it is what the cartoonists were killed for: they refused to honor the sacred. Whether we praise or criticize the satire, however, we must stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to engage in it.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, Clifton (Lucille), Defoe (Daniel), Rabelais (Francois) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Count to Five-and-Twenty, Tattycoram

 as Tattycoram

Agyeman as Tattycoram

I spent yesterday with my two-year-old grandson, doing puzzles, reading books, and cleaning up a mess that the family dog got to before I did. (That’s probably more than you wanted to know.) There was also a meltdown, but at least one of the stories we read together dealt with meltdowns.

High Five magazine, a descendant of the Highlights magazine that I remember from my own childhood, currently has a story about a boy who learns to take three deep breaths when he gets flustered. The story has very little artistry to it but I appreciated its didactic aims. I was in favor of anything that could help me in the moment of crisis.

My wife, who is an expert in early childhood education, informs me that deep breaths are useful because young children have trouble separating themselves from their emotions. The “executive function” of their brains is not yet active so they need external help. The first step to calming them down is to hug them, but there are other things—like getting them to breathe deeply—that are useful. My son skillfully uses “time outs,” which is what Max’s mother resorts to in Where the Wild Things Are (although Darien doesn’t deprive Alban of dinner).

As Alban and I breathed together, I thought of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, which I’ve been listening to as I travel. Mr. and Mrs. Meagles have an adopted daughter (she has been abandoned by her mother) who is jealous of the love they lavish on their natural daughter. Though they try to be sensitive, she periodically becomes hysterical, directing against them her anger against her mother. One of Mr. Meagles’ strategies is to have her count to five-and-twenty, as in the following scene:

‘Hey?’ cried Mr Meagles. ‘Count another five-and-twenty, Tattycoram.’

She might have counted a dozen, when she bent and put her lips to the caressing hand. It patted her cheek, as it touched the owner’s beautiful curls, and Tattycoram went away.

‘Now there,’ said Mr Meagles softly, as he gave a turn to the dumb-waiter on his right hand to twirl the sugar towards himself. ‘There’s a girl who might be lost and ruined, if she wasn’t among practical people. Mother and I know, solely from being practical, that there are times when that girl’s whole nature seems to roughen itself against seeing us so bound up in Pet. No father and mother were bound up in her, poor soul. I don’t like to think of the way in which that unfortunate child, with all that passion and protest in her, feels when she hears the Fifth Commandment on a Sunday. I am always inclined to call out, Church, Count five-and-twenty, Tattycoram.’

Mr. Meagles is a “scoops and scales” businessman whose imagination is limited. Counting to twenty-five works for Tattycoram as a child but ceases to function when she gets older and when she seduced away by the nefarious Miss Wade. Mr. Meagles shouldn’t be overfaulted, however. Like many parents, he does his best with the understanding he has. If his big heart and his empathy for Tattycoram’s situation are not enough deter her from the self-destructive track she is on, then she probably can’t be saved but just welcomed back in after she hits bottom. I haven’t finished the book yet but she appears destined for a fate similar to that of, say, Little Em’ly in David Copperfield.

Alban, luckily, is still young enough to be excited about the breathing exercise. I have full confidence that his executive function will start operating in a few years.

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And God Said, “That’s Good”


Michelangelo, Creation Story (Sistine Chapel)

Spiritual Sunday

Christians are currently in the Epiphany season, that moment when the divine enters the human realm. The liturgical readings, therefore, do not only include the three wise men following the star but other Biblical passages that tell of God becoming manifest in the world. The creation story is one of these moments.

James Weldon Johnson, the poet famous for penning “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” wrote a version of the early verses of Genesis that is noteworthy for how it personalizes the creation. I particularly like his explanation that God created humans because He was lonely, his description of the void as “a hundred midnights/ Down in a cypress swamp,” and his comparison of God to a mammy cradling her baby.

Although written in 1922, Johnson’s poem accords with the theories of certain contemporary theologians who see God as maturing along with humankind. In Genesis, as they see it, God was experimenting with materiality.

The Creation
(A Negro Sermon)

By James Weldon Johnson

AND God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.”

And far as the eye of God could see 

Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp. 

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!” 

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on His right hand,
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up. 

Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas;
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down. 

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder. 

Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said, “Bring forth! Bring forth!”
And quicker than God could drop His hand.
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said, “That’s good!” 

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.” 

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think; 
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!” 

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image 

Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.


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500 Days of Marianne & Willoughby

Deschanel, Gordon-Levitt in "500 Days of Summer"

Deschanel, Gordon-Levitt in “500 Days of Summer”

In a recent post I discussed how, in my Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy class, I encourage my students to compare the works we read with modern romantic comedies. Windy Vorwick discovered exciting new things, both about Jane Austen and sibling dynamics, when she compared Sense and Sensibility with Disney’s Frozen. For her part Jane Harkness, another student, made a fruitful comparison between Sense and Sensibility and 500 Days of Summer.

500 Days has become a cult classic amongst college students and twenty-somethings. That may be because (spoiler alert) it invites us to expect the classic romantic ending, only to deviate. What one expects to be a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl drama becomes instead boy meets girl, boy loses girl but can’t admit it, boy finally admits to losing girl. Tom’s denial of losing Summer is shared by the audience, who keep expecting a traditional romantic comedy. In the end, we finally acknowledge that Tom—and we ourselves—must move on past Summer. As the title indicates, the season of this love affair should have ended long ago. In the movie’s final scene, Tom meets a possible new girlfriend, an architect like himself, named Autumn.

The thematic point is also made by Tom’s departure from a job churning out clichés for a greeting card company for an architectural career where he will build things that matter. The movie strikes my students as profound because it guides them to a more mature view of the world.

Marianne Dashwood also has her generic expectations dashed in Sense and Sensibility. For a while, her life conforms to the plot of a romance as the handsome Willoughby rescues her when she sprains her ankle. He plays along with her fantasy for several months but then leaves her for someone with the money to support the lifestyle he desires. It takes Marianne a long time and a serious illness before she can face up to this reality.

In 500 Days we only gradually realize that we are seeing the relationship through Tom’s eyes, not the way it really is. We are left in no doubt, however, when the screen splits, showing us simultaneously what Tom thinks is going on and what is actually happening. Marianne is in as much denial as Tom is and her illness is the equivalent of his depression. Her mother, meanwhile, acts like a 500 Days spectator, participating in the delusion. Of those who are witnessing the relationship, only the observant Elinor has doubts.

Comparing Sense and Sensibility with 500 Days gave my student a new respect for Jane Austen’s novel. Having herself identified with Tom’s denial and his difficulty with letting go, she could understand her reluctance to embrace the Marianne-Colonel Brandon marriage. After all, part of us wants summer to last forever.

But the satisfaction that Jane derived from maturely accepting the ending of 500 Days made her appreciate why Austen ends Sense and Sensibility as she does. Willoughby, dashing though he is, represents a state of arrested development. A life with him, like a life with Summer, means that we will always be stuck in romantic novels and clichéd greeting cards. It is far more exciting to marry a mature partner who shares our intellectual and creative passions. Or in Marianne’s case, to marry someone with substance and to take on meaningful responsibilities. Here’s Austen on Marianne’s future:

Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting,—instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on,—she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.

When I look at my students, my heart is stirred by images of them graduating and using their gifts in the world. That’s the most romantic ending of all.

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Twelfth Night and the End of Carnival

"Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night"

“Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night”

My wife and I are currently in New Orleans with my mother for a few days before the semester begins. Among the things that I’ve learned here is that New Orleans celebrates Twelfth Night as well as Mardi Gras and that some people believe that the carnival season stretches from the twelve days of Christmas to Fat Tuesday, which this year is February 17. If I calculate correctly, that makes for 55 straight days of carousing.

The Twelfth Night procession that we witnessed this past Tuesday, however, looked more like the end of the current carnival season than a revving up for Mardi Gras. Although spirited, the parade was small and made me think of how Shakespeare’s play also is about winding down.

First, a note on what we witnessed, which was a merging of Twelfth Night with Joan of Arc’s birthday. There were many Joans, some riding horses, as well as monks in cowls, angelic virgins, blasphemous “flaming heretics,” a couple of jazz bands, and a death figure with his ashes bringing up the rear. In other words, the symbolism we associate with Christmas—light coming to the world in dark times—was repeated in the Joan of Arc narrative. There was nothing of Mardi Gras’ blow-out feel, however.

Shakespeare’s play also has the feel of something coming to an end. For four glorious acts, it’s a subversive play that gives voice to a host of repressed desires. I’ve written in the past about how you can find in the play “what you will” (the play’s subtitle), with men getting to imagine themselves as women (Orsino) and women as men (Viola), men getting to imagine themselves as loving other men (Orsino-Cesario, Antonio-Sebastian) and women getting to imagine themselves as loving other women (Olivia-Viola). There are also Malvolio’s class-climbing dreams.

By the end, however, the carnival has turned sour and the characters return, almost with relief, to their predefined roles. It’s as though people become nostalgic for the old order once the joyous rebellion of the late 1960s gives way to the decadence of the 1970s, when Woodstock becomes Altamont. Toby Belch’s prank turns so sour that the fool refuses to keep it going. Real violence threatens Viola as Orsino looks for a victim upon whom to vent his balked desire for Olivia, Malvolio stalks off the stage swearing revenge, and Antonio is left alone in chains. We find ourselves embracing the return to normalcy where everything seems to be familiar. The 1970s give way to the Reagan 1950s.

One sees this even in the GLBT community. After all the turmoil of the 1980s when “the band played on,” we now see many promoting…marriage and family.

Of course, after a while normalcy will invariably start feeling repressive and we will need another outlet. Viola may find herself resenting Orsino’s patriarchal imperiousness, and Sebastian may find himself longing for his carefree sea-going days with Antonio. Viola will perhaps feel the urge to cross-dress again and maybe Orsino will encourage her to do so as a way to bring back the easy camaraderie they once had. The fool will return and it will be carnival time again.

In New Orleans, I am learning, one never has to wait too long.

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A Deep Faith in Lit’s Redemptive Powers

Stoner 2

Yesterday I sang the praises of John Williams’ overlooked 1965 novel Stoner. Today I summarize a recent New York Times review of the book that points out that the novel has a “profound faith in art.” No wonder I loved it so much.

Analyzing the novel’s staying power, reviewer Steve Almond writes,

[T]here is something distinct and thrillingly subversive in the resurgence of Stoner. I am no doubt overstating the case, as fanatics do, but I find it tremendously hopeful that Stoner is thriving in a world in which capitalist energies are so hellbent on distracting us from the necessary anguish of our inner lives. Stoner argues that we are measured ultimately by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the burnishing of our public selves. It is, in other words, a searing condemnation of our current cultural moment—one that happens to have been written nearly 50 years ago.

As Almond sees it, Stoner is an antidote to our narcissistic celebrity culture. We have devolved, Almond says, from a society that values character to a society that values personality and performance:

To read the book today is to recognize how shallow our conception of the heroic has become. Americans worship athletes and moguls and movie stars, those who possess the glittering gifts we equate with worth and happiness. The stories that flash across our screens tend to be paeans to reckless ambition. We might be willing to watch a drama about a meek high-school science teacher, but only if he degenerates into a homicidal meth tycoon. Heck, even our literary memoirs have to tell a “larger than life” story to find a wide audience.

I’ll note that Alexander Pope was complaining about something comparable in 1711 when he wrote Rape of the Lock so it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. But the problem is still real and it probably means that, even as Stoner gains fans, it will never be widely read. The novel’s protagonist is the antithesis of a headline grabbing personality:

As for William Stoner, he’s the archetypal literary Everyman taken to the 10th power—a timid medievalist who spends his life amid ancient texts. He looks upon the university with sincere reverence, as a sanctuary for those who still believe in the world of ideas. Long before his retirement, he is regarded as a relic around campus. He would qualify as something closer to a fossil today.

Almond uses his review to take a number of potshots at our obsession with social media before hitting us with a zinger. First his attack:

Consider our nightly parade of prime-time talent shows and ginned-up documentaries in which chefs and pawnbrokers and bored housewives reinvent their private lives as theater.

And this is what the rest of us are up to, as well. Consider the growth industries in our tech sector: social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter, look-at-me apps like Instagram and Snapchat, content-sharing websites like YouTube and Pinterest that serve as founts of personal marketing. If you want to be among those who count, and you don’t happen to be endowed with divine talents or a royal lineage, well then, make some noise. Put your wit—or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks—on public display.

Otherwise, you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.

And now for Almond’s zinger:

But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end? Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives.

As a fictional hero, William Stoner will have to dwell in obscurity forever. But that, too, is our destiny. Our most profound acts of virtue and vice, of heroism and villainy, will be known by only those closest to us and forgotten soon enough. Even our deepest feelings will, for the most part, lie concealed within the vault of our hearts. Much of the reason we construct garish fantasies of fame is to distract ourselves from these painful truths. We confess so much to so many, as if by these disclosures we might escape the terror of confronting our hidden selves.

If you buy Almond’s account of our existential anguish, then you might appreciate why he sees Stoner as a redemptive work of art that is also about the redemptive power of art. While Stoner is repeatedly “forced to confront his own weakness, his limitations as a son and a father and husband and scholar,” Almond observes that he nevertheless “refuses to turn away.” This is what it means to lead a truly examined life, and it is what separates our greatest artists from the rest of us—and why we look to them for guidance and inspiration.

Stoner’s reward for living an authentic life is a deathbed epiphany. Here’s author John Williams in the novel’s concluding pages:

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

To which Almost asks,

How many of us can say the same of ourselves?


Added observation – To follow a related line of thought, Stoner makes reference to the intensity with which World War II veterans sought out education after returning from the war. My father was one of these veterans, first at Carleton College and then at the University of Wisconsin, and he often talked about how special the time was. Here’s Stoner’s experience as a teacher of these students:

The years immediately following the end of the Second World War were the best years of his teaching; and they were in some ways the happiest years of his life. Veterans of that war descended upon the campus and transformed it, bringing to it a quality of life it had not had before, an intensity and turbulence that amounted to a transformation. He worked harder than he had ever worked; the students, strange in their maturity, were intensely serious and contemptuous of triviality. Innocent of fashion or custom, they came to their studies as Stoner dreamed that a student might—as if those studies were life itself and not specific means to specific ends. He knew that never, after these few years, would teaching be quite the same; and he committed himself to a happy state of exhaustion which he hoped might never end. He seldom thought of the past or the future, or of the disappointments and joys of either; he concentrated all the energies of which he was capable upon the moment of his work and hoped that he was at last defined by what he did.

Maybe I owe to my father my own conviction of literature’s urgency.

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Overlooked Novel Teaches Us How to Live


After two friends separately recommended John Williams’ 1965 campus novel Stoner as an overlooked masterpiece, I sat down and read it. I can report that they were right.

Stoner is a campus novel but, unlike most campus novels, it is not comic. I theorize that most writers of such novels, especially those employed by universities, fear looking silly by complaining too much about academe. After all, it affords them an easier life than writers of previous generations have endured. They don’t need to please finicky patrons or a brutal marketplace, and they risk looking trivial when they complain about working conditions.  By engaging in comic satire, the authors of comic campus novels are able to vent their frustrations about small things without seeming small themselves.

Unfortunately, in the process they generally fail to do justice to the very big intellectual and creative passions that light up many of those who work at colleges and universities. Sure, it may seem strange to outsiders to see grown men and women arguing passionately about, say, 17th century metaphysical poetry. Even a non-comic work like Margaret Edson’s W;t seems perplexed that someone could be as combative about the work of John Donne as Vivian Bearing is. In Edson’s mind, it takes a terminal illness to awaken Vivian to anything approaching a sane perspective. Campus novels like Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe, David Lodge’s Trading Places, Small World, and Nice Work, Jane Smiley’s Moo, Richard Russo’s Straight Man and others dismiss the efforts of intellectuals in their own ways.

Stoner is different because it talks about intellectual passion as a love affair. At the same time, the author acknowledges the world’s skepticism. In fact, the novel seems to go out of its way to make Stoner and his academic career seem small. Its genius is to uncover more substance than meets the eye.

Protagonist William Stoner is the son of subsistence farmers who attends the University of Missouri to major in agriculture. While there, he falls in love with poetry, although it takes a professor to point this out to him. After all, the world he comes from sees literature as extraneous, a needless extravagance.

The ground begins to shift beneath Stoner’s feed when he encounters Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, which is the one that begins, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” Here’s his response when his professor asks him to explain it:

Sloane’s eyes came back to William Stoner, and he said dryly, “Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?”

William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desktop. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.”

Shakespeare’s sonnet expresses the war between mortality and love, with the speaker feeling his love vividly because he is getting older. Stoner picks up the themes in an inchoate way. His fellow students, younger than he is, are filled with an inner light, even as a shadow hangs over them. In the very moment when Stoner senses his mortality, he awakens to the blood flowing through him. Nothing in his world has prepared him for such an insight.

He cannot answer his professor’s question, but he keeps taking English courses. Finally the professor calls him in and points out to him that his life is about to take a different turn:

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential. Then he was walking out of his office. His lips were tingling and his fingertips were numb; he walked as if he were asleep, yet he was intensely aware of his surroundings. He brushed against the polished wooden walls in the corridor, and he thought he could feel the warmth and age of the wood; he went slowly down the stairs and wondered at the veined cold marble that seemed to slip a little beneath his feet. In the halls the voices of the students became distinct and individual out of the hushed murmur, and their faces were close and strange and familiar. He went out of Jesse Hall into the morning, and the grayness no longer seemed to oppress the campus; it led his eyes outward and upward into the sky, where he looked as if towards a possibility for which he had no name.

And later on:

As his mind engaged itself with its subject, as it grappled with the power of the literature he studied and tried to understand its nature, he was aware of a constant change within himself; and as he was aware of that, he moved outward from himself into the world which contained him, so that he knew that the poem of Milton’s that he read or the essay of Bacon’s or the drama of Ben Jonson’s changed the world which was its subject, and changed it because of its dependence upon it.

Even simple grammar grips him and he is excited to teach a course in freshman composition:

Though he was to teach only the fundamentals of grammar and composition to a group of unselected freshmen, he looked forward to his task with enthusiasm and with a strong sense of its significance. He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibility that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived.

Of course, just as there is  a gap between the poetry of early love and the prose of marriage, so there is a gap between his love of language and literature and how they show up in his job:

But in the first classes he met, after the opening routines of rolls and study plans, when he began to address himself to his subject and his students, he found that his sense of wonder remained hidden within him. Sometimes, as he spoke to his students, it was as if he stood outside himself and observed a stranger speaking to a group assembled unwillingly; he heard his own flat voice reciting the materials he had prepared, and nothing of his own excitement came through that recitation.

He experiences a version of that gap also in the graduate student essays that he writes and in the book that he eventually publishes. Although he works hard at his teaching and becomes better in the classroom, he is never a brilliant teacher.

Then a horrible wife and a horrible chairman combine to make his life miserable, with the first dividing him from the daughter he loves and the latter taking away from him the medieval courses that light him up. They also bring to an end his beautiful relationship with a dissertation student. Stoner never complains, just as his parents never complained, and simply forges on. Comic campus novels put most of their emphasis on these petty humiliations.

But not this one. Stoner realizes, long after the affair has ended and he is getting old, that his love, whether for this woman or for poetry, outweigh everything else. His love is as strong in his late fifties as it was when he first encountered Shakespeare in college:

Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him—how many years ago?—by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine [his mistress], as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it more fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

At the end of his life, lying on his deathbed, he acknowledges how his life would not appear much to others:

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be…He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? He thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.

The book does not end there, however. In the final pages he has an epiphany that validates his life:

A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure—as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been.

In his last moments, he fingers the book that he wrote:

It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial…He opened the book; and as he did so it became not his own. He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive. The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay.

Comic campus novels satirize the intellectual life because it seems small. Stoner acknowledges that it may seem small but points out it doesn’t have to be. Stoner is ultimately a big man because he honors the call within himself and follows it. We all have it within us to follow that call.

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Alice in Standardized Education Land

Tenniel, "Alice in Wonderland"

Tenniel, “Alice in Wonderland”

Please indulge me as I wax enthusiastic about my youngest son. Tobias Wilson-Bates is currently writing a fascinating dissertation about “Victorian time machines” that has changed the way I see the era. Tobias doesn’t only look at H. G. Wells-type time machines although he does examine that novel. He also notes that the Victorians frequently saw novels themselves as time machines, what with their ability to take us back in time (the historical novels of Walter Scott) or to encompass an entire life span (as in David Copperfield). The 19th century was fascinated with time in part because mechanization was upending conventional notions of time.

It used to be that every locale had its own time. As Tobias notes, “[O]ne could literally step from a train platform in one time, onto a train that existed in a different time, and then get off that same train minutes later in a third time.” This situation couldn’t continue on if people were to catch their trains and if trains weren’t to crash into each other. Time has to be universalized and standardized.

One of Tobias’s most exciting ideas is that, once people started thinking of standardizing geography, they also started thinking of standardizing people. Therefore, standardizing railway schedules and factory workdays led inexorably to the idea of standardizing education. And here we are today.

Tobias is teaching as a sabbatical replacement at my college (and his alma mater) this year and last semester gave a talk for our Faculty Seminar Series. He gave me permission to share it here. He notes that, from the first, there was resistance to standardizing time and people, especially from Lewis Carroll. (Mary Shelley also expresses qualms in Frankenstein, as does Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies.) It is no accident, Tobias says, that Alice was written only three years after the Revised [Education] Code of 1862. Carroll’s masterpiece anticipates the frustrations that teachers feel today about all the standardized testing their students are required to undergo. 

I love Tobias’s concluding point: that Alice is truly radical when she turns the questioning back on the teacher.

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

Thank you for having me. It has been incredible coming back to St. Mary’s to teach after going here as an undergrad. I’ve compared this experience to drawing back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, but the wizard is actually more incredible behind the curtain. This really is a special place, and my experience here both as a student and a teacher has been wonderful, above all because of the incredible faculty. It’s with some nerves but a feeling of deep honor to be part of this intellectual community that I begin my talk.

My larger research focuses on the curious relationship of two words in the nineteenth century that circled each other in any number of ways before combining to provide perhaps the most memorable literary trope of the 20th century, “Time” and “Machines,” with the trope, of course, being Time Machines. In my research on texts, particularly novels, that play with time and mechanization, I was struck by the distinct lack of scholarship on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (published 1865) as a text that was reacting to its broader educational context, not the least because Lewis Carroll was a math teacher at Oxford with an intense love for children and children’s literature.

People of course have written about Carroll and his parodies of educational texts like Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715), a group of poems never out of print from its publication through the end of the 19th century and a text consistently assigned for memorization in schools (“How Doth the Little Busy Bee” and all that). But there is no mention of Lewis Carroll operating under the purview of a larger educational paradigm, and this omission exists despite the fact that perhaps the most landmark legislation of mass education, the Revised Code of 1862, came into existence just three years before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

To wrestle with the conceptual disconnect behind the omission of Carroll’s intervention in his educational context, I want to think through the logical pairing of standardization and nonsense. After all, we often use the one as a measure of the other. What standard behavior or cultural norm must be violated in order for a text to move beyond the term fiction, even beyond fantasy, into nonsense?

I begin by talking about a tea party. In June, 2012, New York Times Columnist Gail Collins wrote an extensive review of the effect that Tea Party politics had on the decisions made by the Texas school board, a political body that is elected and extremely vulnerable to the influence of generous political donors.

She describes a science curriculum decided on by a committee chaired by a man who believes “evolution is hooey” and a social studies “expert” who believes that income tax is contrary to the word of God in the scriptures. Other notable inclusions demanded by the board included the philanthropy of industrialists, the positive elements of McCarthyism, and a detailed attention to the guy who broke the motorcycle speed record. Things like slavery and segregation are all but ignored, and Islam, the world’s second largest religion, appears in a side note referring to the terrorist activities performed by some of its adherents.

Lest this seem like a one-state issue, Professor Keith Erekson, director of the Center for History Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at El Paso, estimates that the proportion of social studies textbooks sold in the US containing the basic Texas-approved narrative range from about half to 80 percent.

The reason for this is that textbook companies blanch at the prospect of making multiple textbooks for different state markets. It is better, for economic purposes, to find a way for one book to squeeze in under the Texas restrictions and then be marketed across the country.

Hopefully this opening anecdote reveals two things: the first is that nonsense may well be inherent to standardized education, and the second is that when it comes to standardizing education in a capitalist environment, economics always trumps education.

To put it another way, the changes made by the Texas school board do not interfere with the working of capitalism as such, and, insofar as standardization is about producing an acceptable national subject, children taught out of these textbooks would hypothetically not be ostracized in any state of the union.

What Collins describes in the Texas educational system is not standardization gone wrong, but rather standardization being unusually transparent. A closer look at common educational practices quickly reveals not just the arbitrary themes imported from contemporary politics, but also the deep-seated cultural practices that become ubiquitous and commonplace under the conceptual framework of the standard educational subject.

In this talk I will look at the moment in British history when government began putting standardization into practice. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published three years after the first major legislation on the subject (the Revised Code of 1862), and I will be discussing how Lewis Carroll’s dream-world acts a direct reaction to and commentary on the logic of standardization.

In the mid-nineteenth century, standard practice still generally meant cultural norms rather than legislated uniformity. The first great impetus towards standardization was the implementation of standard railway time. The speed of trains and the dangers of lacking precision made it necessary to coordinate time between stations, and the trains were eventually coordinated by the time at the Greenwich observatory in London.

However, for several decades after the trains began this practice, many towns (Oxford among them) continued to have a local time in addition to railway time, meaning that you lived in one time, but another time cut through town at great speeds.

By 1855, it was reported that 98% of towns had converted to using Greenwich Mean Time, but there was no legislation on the practice until 1880. Even at that point, England, Scotland, and Wales shared “London Time” while all of Ireland ran on “Dublin Time.”

In the United States, “The Day with Two Noons,” the day when all railroad clocks were reset to standard time at noon, didn’t happen until 1883. It wasn’t until 1916 that Greenwich mean time became the basis for civil time throughout the British Isles, and by the time GMT had reached near international recognition in the mid-twentieth century, most leading countries had already begun transitioning to Coordinated Universal Time (CUT). Not only did time take a very long while to become standard, but the terms of standardization as such have continually shifted during its evolution.

When in Alice’s Adventures we see a tea party frozen in time with “mad” characters speaking about Time as a temperamental interlocutor, this seems, and is in part, fascinating nonsensical play. But a confusion of times was also a proposition not too unfamiliar to Victorians, and it’s worth pausing a moment to reconsider the way Carroll sets up his own play with “time” as a word, a cultural artifact, and a standard practice:

Alice sighed wearily. “I think you might do something better with time,” she said, “than wasting it on asking riddles that have no answers.

“If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Alice.

“Of course you don’t!” the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. “I dare say you never even spoke to Time!”

“Perhaps not,” Alice cautiously replied; “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”

“Ah! That accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now if only you kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked.”

The dialogue, which is central to Carroll’s famous tea party scene, depends upon the linguistic play on various cultural associations with time. Tea time itself as a concept is the subject of hazy cultural practices placing the snack in between four and seven p.m. Even the personification of time as a “him” is completely standard practice, as can be recognized in the figure of “Old Father Time.” However, this is a scene that involves clocks (a theme that initiates the novel with the time-obsessed white rabbit) and references to mathematical time that highlight a version of time that seems to have fallen outside of creative discourse. The Hatter’s conflation of “fictional” temporality with “real” time is at the heart of the “nonsense” the scene produces.

But it’s worth reiterating that at this period in history, one could literally step from a train platform in one time, onto a train that existed in a different time, and then get off that same train minutes later in a third time.

Culturally, this variety of times was completely normal, but the mass implementation of trains and the speed with which one could leap from one time into another made the diversity of time shockingly apparent and, more pressingly, a major economic problem. Karl Marx explains the basic logic of capitalism as a movement between equivalence and exchange. The more readily a commodity converts into the universal equivalent (money), the easier it is to exchange. The old saying “time is money” is profoundly apt in thinking out this relation. Time is far more effective in economic terms if it acts as a universal equivalent for exchange–that is, as a homogenous medium that can be plotted and indexed for the purpose of efficient economic movement.

It is my contention that the standardization of time, increasingly accepted by 1855, set the stage conceptually for the standardization of education. A unified national time seems to make thinkable the idea of a standard subject existing within that time. One could readily imagine children across the country aging and learning set patterns of information simultaneously.

To put it concisely, this practice might be considered the standardization of a “lifetime.” In literature, there is a genre that deals explicitly with the historically specific development of a life over time, the Bildungsroman. Although originally a German genre that dealt with specific late-eighteenth century class formations in Germany, the genre was copied and refigured across continental Europe and England, where the social upheaval of the industrial revolution demanded new forms of storytelling to detail the creation and experience of a lifetime.

The quintessential English industrial bildung narrative is Frankenstein. In depicting a scientist’s life story that involves the artificial production of a new kind of life story, we see both the education of an industrial subject and the deep existential anxiety of what it means to produce life and to be produced as a life. We might say that two artificial beings are formed simultaneously, one via scientific education and the other via technology. These two social elements were already trending towards mass production and standardization. At a critical moment in the text, Victor Frankenstein is stunned by the realization that if his creature receives a mate, the dangers of the monster would transition from those of an individual to those of a population.

In the years after the publication of Frankenstein, building people transitioned from science fiction to a national obsession. The cultural debate took up the question of what to do with the growing population of “wasted” children.

Given the intense religious and political deadlock between Anglicans, Catholics, and Nonconformists who ran the nation’s various public schools, legislation to manage children, and hence the root of mass education, were economic measures. The Factory Acts (in particular the 1833 Factories Act), designed to reduce the working day, make factories safer, allow for oversight, and reduce child labor, included a provision that child workers be given two hours of education a day.

A year later, the New Poor Law demanded that workhouses for the poor include separate facilities for educating the pauper children. In order to avoid intense sectarian debate, these institutions had either no standard for teaching and knowledge, or that material was barebones secular subjects and rote memorization.

This system of education, which amounted to barely more than putting dozens of children of all ages into cramped rooms with a single vastly underpaid teacher, was predominant as the only “regulated” system of teaching until James Kay-Shuttleworth, secretary for the Committee of Council for Education between 1839 and 1849, began implementing a standardized system of training teachers.

In order to incentivize more effective teaching, the government instituted, in the Revised Code of 1862, a system of payment-by-results inspection that would award teachers for how well their students did on standardized exams. While the committee attempted to create an acceptable exam that would incorporate religious education into the testing, sectarian divisions struck down even the most banal exam material. This set the stage for a system of knowledge that monetarily rewarded instructors for how their students performed secular knowledge and provided no incentive for religious instruction.

Perhaps nowhere did this political evolution of education appear more vividly than in the fantasy writing of Thomas Kingsley, a contemporary of Lewis Carroll who wrote the The Water-Babies (1862). Kingsley was a fascinating historical figure who existed at a political / scientific / theological nexus it would be almost impossible to reproduce.

He was tutor to the Prince of Wales; first Professor of Modern History at Cambridge; Chaplain to Queen Victoria; a staunch defender of Thomas Arnold’s education reforms; and sat on the Edward Eyre Defense Committee with Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson after the Morant Bay Rebellion; he was in regular correspondence with Charles Darwin (and was anonymously cited by Darwin in the second edition of The Origin of Species); and a review he wrote provoked a controversy with John Henry Newman that prompted the writing of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Perhaps more than any other Victorian, we might imagine Kingsley as possessing a multi-faceted view of the period’s major minds and intellectual discourses.

From this position, Kingsley became passionate about the state of national education. In his well-known lecture “Human Soot,” on the subject of the impoverished masses, given at the Kirkdale Ragged Schools in Liverpool, Kingsley said:

The great majority of children who attend this school belong to the class of “street arabs,” as they are now called; and either already belong to, or are likely to sink into, the dangerous classes–professional law-breakers, profligates, and barbarians. … Let us take hold of these little ones at once. They are now soft, plastic, mouldable; a tone will stir their young souls to the very depths, a look will affect them for ever. But a hardening process has commenced within them, and if they are not seized at once, they will become harder than adamant… 

And further on:

“[T]he existence of such an evil is proof patent and sufficient that we have not yet discovered the whole will of God about this matter; that we have not yet mastered the laws of true political economy, which (like all other natural laws) are the will of God revealed in facts. . . . I conceive a time when, by a higher civilisation, formed on a political economy more truly scientific, because more truly according to the will of God, our human refuse shall be utilized, like our material refuse.”

Whether you prefer to think of poor children as street arabs, barbarians, or human refuse, it is worth taking note of how Kingsley’s vision translates into fictional fantasy.

In The Water-Babies, written three years before Alice, the chimney sweep Tom is wrongfully accused of robbing a wealthy house (it turns out he was just cleaning the chimney!) and is chased across the country until he drowns in a quiet pond. He then is birthed out of his soot-covered shell and becomes a tiny larval “Water Baby” that cavorts about with bugs and fish underwater. Eventually he swims out to sea and receives a stringent moral education from two mechanical fairies, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. These fairies travel through time and collect photographs of immoral humans devolving into apes.

Tom sets off on an adventure to speak to the Titan of science, Epimetheus, and finally succeeds in regaining his body and becoming a “a great man of science” who

can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth.

Kingsley’s vision of Tom as industrial waste (his body is repeatedly described as being made up of coal dust) is repurposed through scientific-theological education into a productive industrial subject. And it’s worth noting that the title of the novel is The Water-Babies, plural, signaling Kingsley’s fantasy of Tom as a model for the mass production of enlightened pauper children.

The Water-Babies, unlike Alice, has never been described as nonsense, and it is interesting to see where it has been included in conversations about Alice’s Adventures.

In his book The Making of the Alice Books, Ronald Reichertz discusses the predominance of informational literature in the reading practices prescribed for nineteenth-century children. Against this literary formation, Reichertz discusses a series of authors who participate in imaginative literature that explicitly combats informational didacticism, or, as Dickens famously imagined it, Gradgrindian teaching, the heartless utilitarian memorization of information. Recihertz lists William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Catherine Sinclair, Thomas Kingsley, and Lewis Carroll as all championing the imagination as necessary for childhood learning.

What strikes me as problematic about this list is that Carroll is, in some meaningful ways, as different from his fellow imaginative authors as he is from the didactic educational catechisms of William Pinnock, who wrote “A catechism of the history of Greece, including its literature, geography, and antiquities.” Thomas Kingsley, as I have shown, was incredibly critical of educational reform, but he was critical as someone who had an alternate vision of a standardized system of mass education. Kingsley’s critique is of the way standardization is done, not whether or not it is desirable as a practice. The end goal of a productive industrial subject remains the same. Imagination is merely the vehicle through which young minds might be more efficiently programmed with scientific and religious information.

When we bring this question of a reproducible subject to bear on Alice, we see something quite different:


‘Who are you?’ the hooka-smoking caterpillar asks of Alice in chapter 5 of her adventure:

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’

‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

‘It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; ‘but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’

‘Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; ‘all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.’

‘You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ‘Who are you?’

Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation. Alice felt a little irritated at the Caterpillar’s making such very short remarks, and she drew herself up and said, very gravely, ‘I think, you ought to tell me who you are, first.’

‘Why?’ said the Caterpillar.

Here was another puzzling question; and as Alice could not think of any good reason, and as the Caterpillar seemed to be in a very unpleasant state of mind, she turned away.

Despite being written in the form of questions and answers, this is not a catechism. A catechism forecloses the possibility of an opposed position. There is only a question and a correct answer for the response to that question. We might think about this as an underlying logic of standardization. To reference my opening example, the cultural debate has become whether the Texas school board has chosen the correct focus for textbooks, not whether or not there should be standardized textbooks, or even what standardizing such narratives does to children’s education.

This is not to say standardizing is wrong or damaging or that there is some organic alternative available inside the Alice books. Rather, Carroll proposes a kind of thinking that is precisely NOT that. The book does not provide a competing ideological agenda like Kingsley, but rather poses questions without answers that lay ubiquitous cultural practices open for debate.

In her conversation with the Caterpillar, Alice is repeatedly frustrated and confused by being asked who she is. The questions continue until she fires back “I think, you ought to tell me who you are, first.” This image, of a child asking questions back against the unyielding catechism of identity formation, is the legacy of Carroll’s resistance to education, and there is a danger in consigning this act, even in the most sympathetic terms, to mere nonsense.

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Where Do the Magi Go from Here?

James Tissot, "Journey of the Magi" (1894)

James Tissot, “Journey of the Magi” (1894)

Spiritual Sunday

There are some interesting poetic meditations on the Epiphany, one of those moments in the Christian calendar when the divine and the earthly coincide. In Muriel Spark’s rendition of the story, which was probably influenced by T. S. Eliot’s version, the three kings haven’t fully grasped what they’ve seen. Their demonstrating subjects who claim they no longer need kings are not just making a political statement. A new kind of king has entered the world, a spiritual one rather than a secular one. Indeed “king” is a misleading metaphor, even though it is regularly applied to Christ. Its use in monarchical societies is driven by a poetic need to use contemporary associations to emphasize spirituality’s ascendency.

To further emphasize this point, it is key that kings have witnessed divinity entering the world. Mere shepherds don’t count.

The kings in the poem wonder where they go from here. It’s a good question, put to us most bluntly during the Christmas and Easter seasons but before us always.

The Three Kings

By Muriel Spark

Where do we go from here?
We left our country,
Bore gifts,
Followed a star.
We were questioned.
We answered.
We reached our objective.
We enjoyed the trip.
Then we came back by a different way.
And now the people are demonstrating in the streets.
They say they don’t need the Kings any more.
They did very well in our absence.
Everything was all right without us.
They are out on the streets with placards:
Wise Men? What’s wise about them?
There are plenty of Wise Men,
And who needs them? -and so on.

Perhaps they will be better off without us,
But where do we go from here?


Previous posts on the Epiphany 

Epiphany Sunday and the Arabian Nights

Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

The Dove Descends, the Spirit Soars

 Uncontrollable Mystery on the Bestial Floor

The Journey towards Renewal

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Sports Saturday has been suspended. I will continue to blog from time to time on sports and sports-related issues  but there will no longer be a special Saturday feature.

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Lost Cities Spur the Imagination

Machu Piccu

Machu Picchu

This Christmas I received the most remarkable as well as the most unexpected gift of my life. Ever since I was a boy, I have longed to see the Incan city of Machu Picchu. My wife and my son Darien and his wife are sending me there this coming summer.

We haven’t settled yet on the particular tour so I’m doing research into different possibilities. I know that I will want the trip to be as information-rich as possible.

Whence my fascination? I know that I read a book when I was in middle school called Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations by Robert Silverberg. It was available through the Junior Scholastic Book Club and I couldn’t get enough of it. Although I was drawn also to the Mayans, I think the Incans were my favorite vanished civilization because I too grew up on top of a mountain.

Not longer after reading Silverberg’s book, I discovered Hergé’s Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun. I’ve since realized how Eurocentric and even racist the book is, but at the time it enthralled me.

There is something about lost cities and vanished civilizations in general, not just the Incas, that sets the imagination ablaze. They have immense potential because reality no longer circumscribes their limits. The lost city of Atlantis in particular has fired people’s fantasies because it’s a city that has altogether disappeared—they’re aren’t even ruins that we know of unless (as some believe) Atlantis was actually the island of Crete, destroyed by a volcano-caused tidal wave. Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities takes advantage of how all things become possible in an imagined city.

I remember a Swedish children’s book that helped me understand how this imagination process works. In Selma Lagerlof’s The Adventures of Nils, read to me by my father, Nils has been shrunk in size and is flying all over Sweden on the backs of a flock of Canadian geese. At one point a stork acquaintance, Herr Ermenrich, awakens him in the middle of the night and takes him to the shore. I include the detail of his finding a worn coin because it will prove important:

To start with, the boy intended to climb a sand-hill and see how the land behind it looked. But when he had walked a couple of paces, he stubbed the toe of his wooden shoe against something hard. He stooped down, and saw that a small copper coin lay on the sand, and was so worn with verdigris that it was almost transparent. It was so poor that he didn’t even bother to pick it up, but only kicked it out of the way.

But when he straightened himself up once more he was perfectly astounded, for two paces away from him stood a high, dark wall with a big, turreted gate.

The moment before, when the boy bent down, the sea lay there—shimmering and smooth, while now it was hidden by a long wall with towers and battlements. Directly in front of him, where before there had been only a few sea-weed banks, the big gate of the wall opened.

Nils wanders through the city, which proves to be opulent and beautiful:

In the deep archway there were guards, dressed in brocaded and purred suits, with long-handled spears beside them, who sat and threw dice. They thought only of the game, and took no notice of the boy who hurried past them quickly.

Just within the gate he found an open space, paved with large, even stone blocks. All around this were high and magnificent buildings; and between these opened long, narrow streets. On the square—facing the gate—it fairly swarmed with human beings. The men wore long, fur-trimmed capes over satin suits; plume-bedecked hats sat obliquely on their heads; on their chests hung superb chains. They were all so regally gotten up that the whole lot of them might have been kings. 

At first Nils passes unseen through the city but, when a merchant sees him, he is led to understand that the city will be restored if he buys anything. He rushes out to retrieve the coin but, by the time he gets back, the city has disappeared. The stork explains what has happened: 

“But I will not conceal from you that Bataki, the raven, who is the most learned of all birds, once told me that in former times there was a city on this shore, called Vineta. It was so rich and so fortunate, that no city has ever been more glorious; but its inhabitants, unluckily, gave themselves up to arrogance and love of display. As a punishment for this, says Bataki, the city of Vineta was overtaken by a flood, and sank into the sea. But its inhabitants cannot die, neither is their city destroyed. And one night in every hundred years, it rises in all its splendour up from the sea, and remains on the surface just one hour.”

“Yes, it must be so,” said Thumbietot [Nils], “for this I have seen.”

“But when the hour is up, it sinks again into the sea, if, during that time, no merchant in Vineta has sold anything to a single living creature. If you, Thumbietot, only had had an ever so tiny coin, to pay the merchants, Vineta might have remained up here on the shore; and its people could have lived and died like other human beings.”

“Herr Ermenrich,” said the boy, “now I understand why you came and fetched me in the middle of the night. It was because you believed that I should be able to save the old city. I am so sorry it didn’t turn out as you wished, Herr Ermenrich.”

He covered his face with his hands and wept. It wasn’t easy to say which one looked the more disconsolate—the boy, or Herr Ermenrich. 

This is not the end of the matter, however. Seeing how disconsolate Nils is, the geese take him to another city to teach him a lesson:

The boy came from the east, and the sun had just begun to go down in the west. When he came nearer the city, its walls and towers and high, gabled houses and churches stood there, perfectly black, against the light evening sky. He couldn’t see therefore what it really looked like, and for a couple of moments he believed that this city was just as beautiful as the one he had seen on Easter night.

When he got right up to it, he saw that it was both like and unlike that city from the bottom of the sea. There was the same contrast between them, as there is between a man whom one sees arrayed in purple and jewels one day, and on another day one sees him dressed in rags.

Yes, this city had probably, once upon a time, been like the one which he sat and thought about. This one, also, was enclosed by a wall with towers and gates. But the towers in this city, which had been allowed to remain on land, were roofless, hollow and empty. The gates were without doors; sentinels and warriors had disappeared. All the glittering splendour was gone. There was nothing left but the naked, gray stone skeleton.

The same contrast is also that between an imagined city and an actual one. Nils feels better for not having saved Vineta:

When they had arranged themselves for sleep, Thumbietot was still awake and looked up through the open arches, to the pale pink evening sky. When he had been sitting there a while, he thought he didn’t want to grieve any more because he couldn’t save the buried city.

No, that he didn’t want to do, now that he had seen this one. If that city, which he had seen, had not sunk into the sea again, then it would perhaps become as dilapidated as this one in a little while. Perhaps it could not have withstood time and decay, but would have stood there with roofless churches and bare houses and desolate, empty streets—just like this one. Then it was better that it should remain in all its glory down in the deep.

“It was best that it happened as it happened,” thought he. “If I had the power to save the city, I don’t believe that I should care to do it.” Then he no longer grieved over that matter.

The author, however, disagrees in a way that I think I will disagree with Nils once I see Macchu Piccu:

And there are probably many among the young who think in the same way. But when people are old, and have become accustomed to being satisfied with little, then they are more happy over the Visby that exists, than over a magnificent Vineta at the bottom of the sea.

When I make my journey, I think I will be just as interested in how the civilization has evolved to present-day Peru—in how the Incas are still alive, even if no longer so magnificent—as I will be in its past history. The living fascinate me even more than the dead.

But that being acknowledged, I suspect there will also be moments where my imagination will soar without restraint. I’ll let you know.

Hergé, "Prisoners of the Sun"

Hergé, “Prisoners of the Sun”

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Tell of Winter’s Tales and Mirth

David Wilkie, "Blind Man's Buff"

David Wilkie, “Blind Man’s Buff”

New Year’s Day

Here’s a joyous New Year’s Day poem, written in the 1620’s or early 1630’s by carpe diem poet Robert Herrick. I like the way that he insists that we overlook all the bad news out there as we focus on Christmas greenery and feasting, which foreshadow “plenteous harvests” ahead.

Among those dangers we are to ignore are hostile parliaments Some 15 years are so after the poem was written, Parliamentary forces overthrew Charles I, and the Puritan republic that followed banned many of the festive Christmas traditions that Herrick celebrates. (See my post on how Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol helped bring them back 200 years later.) So the poet who penned “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is once again offering good carpe diem advice.

In fact he mentions rosebuds at one point in this poem. The “Liber Pater” or “free father” is Bacchus, god of wine, who makes our brains spin:

Sit crown’d with rosebuds, and carouse
Till Liber Pater twirls the house
About your ears…

Meanwhile, the “full twelve holidays” throughout which we are supposed to frolic are, of course, the twelve days of Christmas. So hang up your plow and harrow and pull out your bagpipes.

A New Year’s Gift
(Sent to Sir Simeon Steward)

By Robert Herrick

NO news of navies burnt at seas;
No noise of late-spawn’d tittyries;
No closet plot, or open vent,
That frights men with a parliament;
No new device or late-found trick
To read by the stars the kingdom’s sick;
No gin to catch the state, or wring
The freeborn nostrils of the king,
We send to you; but here a jolly
Verse, crown’d with ivy and with holly,
That tells of winter’s tales and mirth,
That milkmaids make about the hearth,
Of Christmas sports, the wassail-bowl,
That tost up, after fox-i’-th’-hole;
Of blind-man-buff, and of the care
That young men have to shoe the mare;
Of twelve-tide cakes, of peas and beans,
Wherewith ye make those merry scenes,
Whenas ye choose your king and queen,
And cry out: Hey, for our town green;
Of ash-heaps, in the which ye use
Husbands and wives by streaks to choose;
Of crackling laurel, which fore-sounds
A plenteous harvest to your grounds;
Of these and such-like things for shift,
We send instead of New-Year’s gift.
Read then, and when your faces shine
With buxom meat and cap’ring wine,
Remember us in cups full crown’d,
And let our city-health go round,
Quite through the young maids and the men,
To the ninth number, if not ten;
Until the fired chestnuts leap
For joy to see the fruits ye reap
From the plump chalice and the cup,
That tempts till it be tossed up;
Then as ye sit about your embers,
Call not to mind those fled Decembers,
But think on these that are t’ appear
As daughters to the instant year:
Sit crown’d with rosebuds, and carouse
Till Liber Pater twirls the house
About your ears; and lay upon
The year your cares that’s fled and gone.
And let the russet swains the plough
And harrow hang up resting now;
And to the bagpipe all address,
Till sleep takes place of weariness.
And thus, throughout, with Christmas plays
Frolic the full twelve holidays.

Added note: “Tittyries” are wild young men’s clubs. “Gin” I think is short for engine and means snare or trap. In other words, Herrick is inveighing against devious plotting and calling for straightforward and full-hearted celebration.

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Top Post of 2014: Black Lives Matter

Black Lives MatterLooking over my posts this past year, I think one of the most important stories was the rise of racial tensions, caused by the continued killing of unarmed black men. Those tensions radiated outward so that even our quiet college experienced heated conversations. Someone chalked “black lives matter” on the wall of our fine arts building, reflecting the vulnerability that too many young black men feel.

I am therefore reposting what I consider to be my most significant essay of 2014 in which I turned, appropriately enough, to America’s most recent Nobel laureate. In Song of Solomon Toni Morrison has a lot to say about how black lives are undervalued, especially the lives of black men. Morrison says that black men should not respond with violence, however, nor should they deny their blackness, nor should they retreat into self-pitying victimhood. Her novel is a call for them to acknowledge their strengths and step into them.

“Everybody Wants a Black Man’s Life,” from BLTB, Feb. 24, 2014

So we have another appalling trial verdict allowing a white man to get away with shooting an innocent black teenager. Although the jury’s hung verdict leaves open the possibility for another trial and although Michael Dunn may go to jail for life for the other counts against him (attempted murder for firing at the other three youths in the car as they fled), his killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis was the latest graphic instance of “stand your ground” at work. [Update: In the follow-up trial, a jury found Dunn guilty.]

As a number of people have pointed out, if Dunn had killed everyone in the car, he might have gotten off. Others have noted that the law appears to be a successor to the old lynching laws: if a white feels threatened by a black man, it is his or her right to kill him.

Of course the law is understood to sanction only white on black violence, not black on white. Responding to an earlier killing, Barack Obama asked what we all recognize as a rhetorical question: “If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”

After the verdict was announced, I found myself thinking, “Everybody wants a black man’s life.” The line is from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) so I went back to check the context.

One of Obama’s favorite booksSong of Solomon is the account of a young black man of privilege (Milkman) who doesn’t know what he wants in life.  He embarks upon what becomes a roots quest, but before he does so, he has a serious talk with his one-time best friend Guitar, who is killing innocent whites as payback for the killing of innocent Blacks. Here’s Guitar:

 Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, “universal,” human, no “race consciousness.” Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, “But they lynched my papa,” and they say, “Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.”

In his quest Milkman experiences what Joseph Campbell would describe as a belly-of-the-whale moment: alone in a dark wood, he questions his identity and takes stock of his life. This occurs when he finds himself, improbably, involved in a night hunt for a bobcat. During the hunt, he almost dies—and speaking metaphorically, he does die, coming back to life with a new love of life and a new sense of purpose.

In the killing and skinning of the bobcat he sees, in all its clarity, his own situation. (His last name is Dead.) This blunt assessment of his condition is the first necessary step to envisioning new possibilities for himself.

He thinks of Guitar’s words as he watches his fellow hunters skin the bobcat. The scene is a tour-de-force. On the one hand, it captures without flinching the violence that is being enacted upon black men. (Earlier in the novel there are references to the Emmett Till lynching, and we ourselves can think of Trayvon and Jordan.) On the other, by joining Guitar’s words to multiple genital references, it indicates how whites, threatened by black masculinity, seek to emasculate young black men. The underlined sentences come from conversations Milkman has had with Guitar:

Omar sliced through the rope that bound the bobcat’s feet. He and Calvin turned it over on its back. The legs fell apart. Such thin delicate ankles.
Everybody wants a black man’s life.”
Calvin held the forefeet open and up while Omar pierced the curling hair at the point where the sternum lay. Then he sliced all the way down to the genitals. His knife pointed upward for a cleaner, neater incision.
“Not his dead life; I mean his living life.”
When he reached the genitals he cut them off, but left the scrotum intact.
“It’s the condition our condition is in.”
Omar cut around the legs and neck. Then he pulled the hide off.
“What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?”
The transparent underskin tore like gossamer under his fingers.
Everybody wants the life of a black man.”
Now Small Boy knelt down and slit the flesh from the scrotum to the jaw.
“Fair is one more thing I’ve given up.”
Luther came back and, while the others rested, carved out the rectal tube with the deft motions of a man coring an apple.
“I hope I never have to ask myself that question.”
Luther reached into the paunch and lifted the entrails. He dug under the rib cage to the diaphragm and carefully cut around it until it was free.
“It is about love. What else but love? Can’t I love what I criticize?”
Then he grabbed the windpipe and the gullet, eased them back, and severed them with one stroke of his little knife.
“It is about love. What else?”
They turned to Milkman. “You want the heart?” they asked him. Quickly, before any thought could paralyze him, Milkman plunged both hands into the rib cage. “Don’t get the lungs, now. Get the heart.”
“What else?”
He found it and pulled. The heart fell away from the chest as easily as yolk slips out of its shell.
“What else? What else? What else?”

Grabbing the heart is important. Guitar claims to love blacks, but he has allowed white racism to so twist his heart that he turns to violence, not only against innocent whites but also against Milkman, his best friend.

Milkman, by contrast, is asking, “What else?” What other possibilities are there? In the course of his subsequent roots quest, he will discover he has a large heart. He loves his ancestors, the people in his life, even the friend who is trying to kill him. We see this great love expressed by Milkman’s aunt after Guitar guns her down: “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ’em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

As Aunt Pilate dies in Milkman’s arms, Morrison writes,

Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly. “There must be another one like you,” he whispered to her. “There’s got to be at least one more woman like you.”

The flying images point to something bigger than hatred. Morrison contends that black solidarity and black love will carry the day.

When I look at the families of Trayvon and now of Jordan [an updated list should also include the families of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice], I am struck by their strong determination not to be defined by the hatred of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Even as vile racist voices in the culture and in the rightwing media seek to characterize their sons as thugs, these families focus on the light.

Morrison’s book too ends with a leap into the light, a black man not having his life taken but risking that life instead to advance into an unknown future. It’s a dazzling conclusion with an element of magical realism that allows us to imagine something beyond imagining: a different future than Guitar’s endless killing drama can arise out of these heartrending tragedies. In the scene, Guitar with his rifle sits on one crag and an unarmed Milkman sits on a facing one. “Shalimar” is Milkman’s slave ancestor who, according to legend, flew back to Africa:

 Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew. If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Innocent black men may die, but flight is still possible.

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2014, Eeyore, & Silver Linings

E. H. Shepard, "Winnie the Pooh"

E. H. Shepard, “Winnie the Pooh”

I’ve been reading Winnie the Pooh and assorted A. A. Milne poems to my soon-to-be-three grandson and have been focusing on the character of Eeyore. That’s because it’s so easy to be an Eeyore these days, given the media’s penchant for feeding our pessimism. But just as Eeyore learns to find happiness in two failed birthday presents, so it’s possible to feel good about the year that is just about to expire.

I was reminded of this when watching a recent episode of Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show “All In.” Looking for silver linings in 2014, Hayes and his guests mentioned the continuing success of Obamacare, the remarkable drop in the crime rate, the rapid expansion of same sex marriage rights, and the accelerating economic recovery. Even some of the grim stories, like the Ebola epidemic, showed that the federal government has the ability to step up and handle crises. Meanwhile President Obama, rather than retreating to lick his wounds after the Democrats lost the Senate, appears to have picked up his game, what with a promising new agreement with China over carbon emissions; a breakthrough in diplomatic relations with Cuba; new pollution controls; and relief for the undocumented immigrant parents of American citizens.

Eeyore doesn’t look for silver linings. Here he is grumbling over the fact that no one has remembered his birthday:

Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood by the side of the stream, and looked at himself in the water.
“Pathetic,” he said. “That’s what it is. Pathetic.”
He turned and walked slowly across it, and walked slowly back on the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.
“As I thought,” he said. “No better from this side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.”

And further on, in an exchange with Pooh:

“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.

“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”
“Oh! Said Pooh. He thought for a long time, and then asked, “What mulberry bush is that?”
“Bon-hommy,” went on Eeyore gloomily. “French word meaning bonhommy,” he explained. “I’m not complaining, But There It Is.”

It is very easy to yield to this mindset if one spends all one’s time dwelling on the negatives. Think of the Eeyore birthday story, however, as offering a different way to approach life. Upon hearing of their friend’s unhappiness, Pooh and Piglet step up to the plate, as Americans often do, and determine to do something about it.

To be sure, their efforts come up short. Pooh absentmindedly eats all the honey that he is prepared to give Eeyore for a gift, and Piglet falls down and bursts the balloon that he is bringing. Our good intentions often fail in execution.

And yet, almost miraculously, Pooh and Piglet make the occasion memorable. Eeyore has received perfectly complementary gifts:

“Why!” [Eeyore] said, “I believe my balloon will just go into that Pot!”
“Oh, no, Eeyore,” said Pooh. “Balloons are much too big to go into Pots. What you do with such a balloon is, you hold the balloon—
And as Piglet looked sorrowfully round, Eeyore picked the balloon up with his teeth, and placed it carefully in the pot; picked it out and put it on the ground; and then picked up up again and put it carefully back.
“So it does!” said Pooh. “It goes in!”
“So it does!” said Piglet. “And it comes out!”
“Doesn’t it?” said Eeyore. “It goes in and out like anything.”
“I’m very glad,” said Pooh happily, “that I thought of giving you a Useful Pot to put things in.”
“I’m very glad,” said Piglet happily, “that I thought of giving you Something to put in a Useful Pot.”
But Eeyore wasn’t listening. He was taking the balloon out, and putting it back again, as happy as could be….

To be sure, pots and balloons could be read as symbols of political failure. Herbert Hoover promised a chicken (not honey) in every pot, only to witness instead the Great Depression. Eventually the air goes out of all those national convention balloons that cascade upon candidates, some of whose speeches could be described a hot air tricked out in bright colors.

But if even Eeyore can be happy at honest attempts to brighten up his life, then the rest of us should be willing to be more forgiving of our public servants when they are less than perfect. Many of them–perhaps even most of them–genuinely have our welfare at heart. Let’s resolve to stop throwing temper tantrums just because life isn’t always gaiety, song-and-dance, and here we go round the mulberry bush.

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“Frozen” Is “Sense & Sensibility” with Ice


When I teach my class on “Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th Century,” I encourage my students to compare the works with contemporary romantic comedies. This means finding modern parallels for various Restoration and Neo-Restoration plays, Wilmot, Pope and Montagu poems, and comic novels (we read Tom Jones, Evelina, and Sense and Sensibility). Not only does finding parallels give my students new insights into the older works, but they come to understand better how we continue to use couples comedies to work through our relationships.

Some of the comparisons have been inspired. To cite two, Windy Vorwick compared Sense and Sensibility to Frozen while Jane Harkness compared it to 500 Days of Summer. I’ll save the parallels with 500 Days for a future post.

The Frozen comparison has the virtue of suggesting that the Elinor-Marianne relationship is more dynamic than it is sometimes seen. Too often students regard the author and Elinor as unassailable voices of reason and assume that Austen’s intended happy ending involves Marianne coming to see the light. Elinor, in this interpretation, doesn’t change, nor does she need to. Some of my students are dissatisfied with the novel because of this.

In the Disney movie, however, the elder controlling sister and the younger romantic sister must both change if a happy ending is to be achieved. Sense and Sensibility becomes a more interesting novel if one sees a similar drama at play.

Frozen has an elder sister, Elsa, who is overly controlling because she fears turning those around her into ice, a special power that she possesses. Her younger sister Anna, on the other hand, is romantic and impulsive and wants to marry the first prince who comes along. Elsa must learn that she can use her powers for good as well as ill if she only learns to loosen up and be less fearful. Anna, meanwhile, must learn to become more discriminating in her relationships. Her early love affair with Prince Hans parallels almost exactly Marianne’s early relationship with Willoughby and ends just as badly.

At one point in the film, Anna tells her elder sister that she should have shared her hidden fear that she would destroy those around her. Together, she says, they could have figured out how to control those powers. It could be argued that Elinor should share her own painful secret, her knowledge of Edward’s hidden engagement to Lucy Steele, with Marianne. After all, once the news is out, Marianne proves more than capable of supporting her sister. Indeed, it could be argued that Marianne’s romantic impulses are in part a reaction to her sister’s excessive reserve. This is certainly the dynamic in Frozen.

I have long thought that the real relationship in Sense and Sensibility is between the sisters and that the men are just instruments for making it possible for them to live in close proximity for the rest of their lives. Here’s Austen’s final paragraph:

Between Barton and Delaford [Brandon’s estate and Edward’s parsonage], there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate;—and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

Frozen ends similarly. Although Anna thinks that she needs a true-love kiss to keep her heart from turning to ice, what ultimately saves her is her selfless sacrifice on behalf of her sister. Yes, she finds a man, but that’s not where the movie’s energy lies.

Come to think of it, Marianne begins to heal when she learns how Elinor has suffered. Heroically rising to her support takes her mind off of her own misery.

And here’s another parallel that Windy pointed out. When Elinor finally explodes, dumping all her misery in Marianne’s lap in one monumental venting, she is not unlike Elsa unleashing snowstorms. Elinor ultimately learns, however, that the venting is less destructive than holding her emotions in. She thought that her mother and sister could not handle her unhappiness but they both prove up to the challenge. It is by retreating into her palace of ice that Elinor alienates her sister. Here’s Marianne describing how it feels to be frozen out:

We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.

Mind you, it is understandable why Elinor has behaved as she has, just as Elsa’s behavior is understandable. Elinor has had to play the mother because Mrs. Dashwood has abdicated that responsibility while Elsa’s parents die in a shipwreck, forcing her to grow up too early. One doesn’t blame either Elinor or Elsa. If they are to achieve happiness, however, they need to step out of their comfort zones and learn to trust those they love.

Once they do, a true love story is the result. The two sisters reconcile and life happily ever after.

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Lit, Like Christ, Is Divinity Made Manifest

Leonardo da Vinci, "St. John the Baptist"

Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist bears witness to the word made flesh

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary reading may be the best known passage from Scripture. It fascinated me as a child, even though I didn’t understand it. Or perhaps I was riveted because I didn’t understand it. It reads more like poetry than prose, and I had the same relationship with John 1:1-14 that I had with, say, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” This is to say that I caught snatches of meaning in memorable phrases that lodged in the mind.

In addition to explaining the meaning of Christ’s entrance into the world, the passage works to describes any connection that is opened up with spirituality, including poetry. I wrote this past week about the mystical transformation that occurs when we encounter literature. Poetry begins with words but they take on a particular reality (flesh) in our minds, what Shakespeare calls  “a strange consistency.” Their manifestation in the world opens up a bridge with a spiritual world of inexpressible mystery. In the grip of powerful words, we step into our biggest selves.

Think of the prophet John as a literature teacher or librarian, bearing witness to this power that the rest of the world might have a light for seeing through the darkness. I cite the passage as it appears in the magnificent King James version.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

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Sports Saturday Finis

Y. A. Tittle after 1964 championship game

Y. A. Tittle after 1964 championship game

Sports Saturday

I have decided to suspend Sports Saturday because my imagination has run dry. I have discovered that there are a limited number of stories in sports so that I am tempted to return to literary passages I’ve used in the past. This goes against the spirit of this blog, which tries not to repeat itself.

For instance, every time I see a veteran on his last legs, I want to quote Ralph Hodgson’s “The Bull,” which begins,

See an old unhappy bull.
Sick in soul and body both.
Slouching in the undergrowth
Of the forest beautiful,
Banished from the herd he led.
Bulls and cows a thousand head.

And concludes:

Pity him that he must wake;
Even now the swarm of flies
Blackening his bloodshot eyes
Bursts and blusters round the lake,
Scattered from the feast half-fed,
By great shadows overhead;

And the dreamer turns away
From his visionary herds
And his splendid yesterday,
Turns to meet the loathly birds
Flocking round him from the skies,
Waiting for the flesh that dies.

I applied the poem to Brett Favre and have been tempted recently to apply it to Roger Federer and Peyton Manning. I’m not sure, however, that I will learn anything new.

I will continue to blog about sports events as the spirit moves me, just not on a weekly basis. My thanks go out to those readers who have supported the Saturday column.

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Joy Shall Be Yours in the Morning

Graham Philpot, "Wind in the Willows"

Graham Philpot, “Wind in the Willows”

To accompany yesterday’s post I ran the wonderful Ernest Shepard illustration of the caroling field mice in Wind in the Willows, one of my favorite episodes in the novel. I revisited the story and realized that I loved it in part because it is so like our own Christmas rituals. We too sing Christmas carols at the special 4:30 Otey Parish Christmas children’s service in Sewanee, Tennessee and then return home for a sumptuous meal.

This year we attended with a very squirmy three-year-old and so only made it through half the service. Nevertheless, the spirit still flowed. Here’s the carol sung by the field mice, which contends that animals were the first to cry “Nowell.”


By Kenneth Grahame

Villagers all, this frosty tide,
Let your doors swing open wide,
Though wind may follow, and snow beside,
Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;
Joy shall be yours in the morning!

Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,
Blowing fingers and stamping feet,
Come from far away you to greet—
You by the fire and we in the street—
Bidding you joy in the morning!

For ere one half of the night was gone,
Sudden a star has led us on,
Raining bliss and benison—
Bliss to-morrow and more anon,
Joy for every morning!

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow—
Saw the star o’er a stable low;
Mary she might not further go—
Welcome thatch, and litter below!
Joy was hers in the morning!

And then they heard the angels tell
“Who were the first to cry 
Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning!”

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The Minstrels Played Their Christmas Tune

Wind in the Willows

Ernest Shepard, “Wind in the Willows”


Keen though the air may be, it will not freeze or check “the music of the strings.” William Wordsworth’s “stout and hardy” minstrels bravely sing on, tapping into the rich renewal symbolism of the evergreen laurels, whose natural green is transformed into a “rich and dazzling sheen” by a lofty moon.

With them we wish you a Merry Christmas.


By William Wordsworth

The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened?–till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And “Merry Christmas” wished to all. 

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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.

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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!

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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


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

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

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