Mass Killings, Our Most Dangerous Game

McCrae, Banks in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932)


In the wake of the Parkland, Florida shootings, one word in particular stood out. One survivor declared to NRA fan Marco Rubio that “guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week,” and the father of a dead child emphasized that his daughter had not been shot so much as “hunted.” Former John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt used the same disturbing verb on MSNBC but extended it to high school kids around the country: “They feel hunted.” The word brought to mind Richard Connell’s well-known short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924).

I thought of the story again when Donald Trump fantasized the following day about armed teachers taking out killers with concealed handguns.  Since he’s no reader, Trump may not have read “Dangerous Game,” but he’s certainly seen many of the hunted-turned-hunter movies that Connell’s influential story has inspired.

In case you missed it, here’s what Trump had to say while meeting with survivors, parents and others in the White House:

“If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said, stating that schools could arm up to 20% of their teachers to stop “maniacs” who may try and attack them.

“This would be obviously only for people who were very adept at handling a gun, and it would be, it’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone,” Trump said. “Gun-free zone to a maniac — because they’re all cowards — a gun-free zone is ‘let’s go in and let’s attack because bullets aren’t coming back at us.'”

Among the many, many problems with this scenario—Lawrence O’Donnell finds all the holes in what he calls Trump’s “fantasy war game”–the president doesn’t acknowledge that handguns would be pitted against AK-47s. This is pretty much the situation in “Dangerous Game.”

Big game hunter Rainsford is (improbably) washed ashore on the island of the Russian Count Zarroff, who has become tired of hunting animals and now only hunts human beings. He gives Rainsford a knife, a few hours head start, and three days to stay alive. In addition to rifles and a brutish attendant, the count also has a pack of dogs.

So much for giving the prey a sporting chance!

The story conveys the panic of being hunted with lines such as “It was flight now, a desperate, hopeless flight, that carried him on for some hours.” Nevertheless, being a man who has fought in World War I and also hunted large predators—in other words, not a teacher—Rainsford outfoxes the Russian, leaping off a cliff into the sea (so that Zaroff thinks he has died) and then swimming back to the count’s estate to finish him off.

Somehow Rainsford does this without being detected by Zaroff’s pack of hounds but, hey, that’s only a minor plot hiccup, one that the reader is willing to let slide. More important is Rainsford enacting Trump’s NRA fantasy of a good man with a gun (knife in this case) taking out a bad man with a gun.

There was a time when governing parties didn’t turn to action adventure fiction to address the nation’s problems. I never thought we’d see as hopeful the maxim that candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose—hopeful because we can only wish we had a president interested in governing. Instead, Trump sees all of life as drama and is no more interested in fixing America’s gun problem than he is in fixing its DACA problem, its healthcare problem, its infrastructure problem, or its opioid addiction problem. Fixing problems is not cinematic.

The GOP as a whole faces this challenge at the moment, but Republicans try to be more restrained about desiring Wyatt Earp gunfights at the O.K. corral. As usual, Trump rushes in where more cautious souls fear to tread, thereby reinforcing his reputation as a man who tells it like it is. Those who govern in prose, however, know the pure and simple truth is that more guns mean more deaths. Anything else is NRA spin.

For our purposes, it is appropriate that Count Zaroff is Russian given that Russian bots flooded twitter with pro-gun tweets following the Florida shooting and that (although this has yet to be definitively proved) Russia may have funneled campaign funds to 2016 Republican candidates through the NRA. Think of the 90% percent of Americans who favor universal background checks as Rainsfords, fighting for our lives in a rigged game where we only have our wits and determination to fall back on.

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Magical Realism’s Special Powers

Frida Kahlo


My magical realism class has been exploring how people use the genre to negotiate important issues in their lives. We’re still figuring it out but are starting to arrive at some interesting insights.

Magical realism, as the label indicates, is a genre that lives on the border between realist fiction and fantasy. This border is porous, with magic emerging organically out of a reality that we recognize, sometimes with actual historical figures and events. Like realist fiction, it presents us with pressing social issues but, like fantasy, it cloaks them in a special aura that makes them more bearable.

This is important because historical catastrophes threaten to overwhelm us. As scholar Wendy Faris observes, the magic in magical realism counteracts the overwhelming power of death and depersonalization that history visits upon humankind. Small and vulnerable though we may feel, the magic gives us a sense that there is power in the universe that can push back–or at least encapsulate and thereby contain great tragedies.

Thus, we don’t feel entirely wrung out when 100 Years of Solitude presents us with an American-engineered massacre of banana workers; Midnight’s Children with the Pakistani atrocities in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh); Tin Drum with the rise of Hitler; Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with Japanese atrocities in Manchuria; Beloved with the horrors of slavery; and The White Hotel with the holocaust. Magical realism is like a colorful balloon, tethered to history but finding ways to rise above it.

In a similar way, magical realism is not as emotionally searing as the social realist melodramas of an Emile Zola, an Upton Sinclair, or a John Steinbeck. It doesn’t threaten to overload the empathy circuits in quite the same way. While this may lessen our engagement with pressing social issues (this is magical realism’s downside), it also ensures that we will not turn away.

Magical realism also is able to capture just how dislocating these events are. In a conventional historical novel—say, in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels—we view history through the lens of an omniscient author, or we get the account of a first-person narrator or the vantage point of one or more characters. This gives us some sense of control over reality. In magical realism, however, time, space and identity are all up for grabs, refusing to behave as we expect them to. As a result, a magical treatment of history may do more justice to history’s insanity than linear narratives and stable characters.

In magical realism recounted by jester-like narrators, such as Oskar in Tin Drum and Saleem in Midnight’s Children, historical craziness is further emphasized. Often their sense of proportion is off, leading to a black humor becomes another way of cushioning the blows of history. For a non-magical instance of such black humor, think of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Finally, magical realism seems particularly adept at capturing the momentousness of the events described. Magic bestows grandeur in a way that realist fiction does not (War and Peace and Grapes of Wrath being notable exceptions). In the distant past, works have relied on gods and goddesses to endow significance, as in The Iliad, The Bhagavad Gita, The Hebrew Chronicles, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. While Midnight’s Children contains references to Hindu deities—Saleem has affinities with the elephant god Ganesh and his mistress with the river goddess Lakshmi—the other works I have mentioned rely exclusively on magic and the supernatural to elevate their subject matter. Thus in Solitude there are foundational mothers who live deep into their hundreds, in Beloved an inexorable ghost who feeds on mother guilt.

A quick survey of reviews shows how grand the works appear to readers:

— Garcia Marquez “gives a voice to South America.” – Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman
— “Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.”–New York Times
–“The Tin Drum will become one of the enduring literary works of the twentieth century.” – Nobel committee
–[about Beloved] “A masterpiece. . . . Magnificent. . . . Astounding. . . . Overpowering.”  —Newsweek
–[about Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] “Mesmerizing. . . . Murakami’s most ambitious attempt yet to stuff all of modern Japan into a single fictional edifice.” —The Washington Post Book World

I’ll share more insights as the class comes up with them. At the moment, however, our major takeaway is that magical realism (to use a Lisa Simpson neologism) embiggens us.

Posted in Garcia Marquez (Gabriel), Morrison (Toni), Murakami (Haruki), Rushdie (Salman) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Foodie Lit, an Antidote to Anorexia?

Edwin Abbey, the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner


Once again my friend Sue Schmidt has alerted me to a book about literature and life, this one about how literature helped save a life. In The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, formerly anorexic Laura Freeman describes how books helped her to begin eating again.

Many of the books were memoirs, but I focus here on the novels that she mentions. According to Guardian reviewer Sarah Hughes, Charles Dickens’s “lavish shared meals” helped her start thinking of food as an adventure. To put yourself in Freeman’s place, imagine how this passage from Christmas Carol might get you interested in eating again:

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. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

The Grocers’! oh, the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.

Not all food novels worked for Freeman. At first, one might think that a passage such as the following in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat would be enticing:

The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the white powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisù, a smoky, burned flavor that enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapor rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning. 

Because Harris’s protagonist uses chocolate to rebel against a repressive Catholicism, however, Freeman says that the novel triggers the very anxieties she is trying to overcome. It makes sense that one who stopped eating because she was trying to become “smaller, quieter, less conspicuous” would shy away from Harris’s all-out battles between an indulgent chocolate store owner and a repressed village curate. Here’s Freeman describing her relationship with chocolate:

Chocolate is a strange, stubborn thing. It’s sold as a representation of ultimate sin and temptation, and unfortunately I think it’s rather knotted in my mind with all those ideas of badness and naughtiness. Like anyone, I have better days and worse days.

Dickens’s feasts, by contrast, come with less psychological baggage.

Freeman mentions one final novel that, while not about food, nevertheless played an important role in her recovery:

The unashamed gluttony of Laurie Lee may have altered her attitude to food – her description of a trip to Spain, during which she was finally able to try meals she would previously have rejected, are almost transcendent – but it was the advice of a very different author that lingered longest. “I really loved T.H. White’s The Once and Future King,” she says, “in particular, Merlin’s advice to his young apprentice, Wart, that when you’re low or sad, the thing that never fails, the thing you have absolute control of, is to teach yourself something, learn something new. It made me realize that when I am having a bad day – and they do come around – I can go to a museum, read a book, or go for a walk. I can fill my brain with something that isn’t my own nitty-gritty unhappiness.”

White’s novel is a quest narrative, and it sounds as though Freeman’s book is as well. As she tells the reviewer,

 I think for people who have had anorexia or battled through depression there is a little undercurrent of it their whole lives. I hope that what my book is about is finding ways to be happy and love life. To make a future for yourself that isn’t bound by the various restrictions the illness puts on you.

Posted in Christmas Carol, Dickens (Charles), Harris (Joanne), White (T.H.) | Leave a comment

Satan and Trump, Gifted Demagogues

Gustave Doré, Satan as a gifted demagogue


A Weekly Standard article recently pointed out that 2017 was the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost’s publication, which I should have noted given how often I teach it. Milton’s first-hand encounter with tumultuous times may help explain why his epic remains relevant and why it “has been translated more frequently in the last 30 years than it was in the preceding 300, mostly into non-Western languages.”

Among other things, Paradise Lost captures how a charismatic and unscrupulous leader can bend people to his will. Like America’s president, Satan speaks to his followers’ sense of loss, exacerbates their feelings of grievance, and feeds them fantasies of revenge. Milton scholar Michael Mattix explains Satan’s effectiveness:

Notwithstanding Milton’s famous promise in the opening section of the poem to “assert eternal providence / And justify the ways of God to men,” it is Satan’s poem from beginning to end. He is the first character to speak, and he is eloquent, bold, full of feeling for others. His first words are ones of consolation for his fellow fallen angel Beelzebub: “O how fall’n! how changed / From him who in the happy realms of light / Clothed with transcendent brightness didst outshine / Myriads, though bright!” He follows this with a word of encouragement: “All is not lost: th’unconquerable will / And study of revenge, immortal hate / And courage never to submit or yield— / And what is else not to be overcome?” He promises the other demons that he will never yield to God’s tyranny and tells Sin, with whom he had relations after she burst from his head Athena-like, that he will set her and her son free from “this dark and dismal house of pain” and, like a loving husband and father (at least until the mask slips), provide a home where “ye shall be fed and filled / Immeasurably: all things shall be your prey!”

Citing another scholar’s observation that Satan is “the first literary terrorist,” Mattix describes how he strokes a crowd to further his own interests:

In short, Satan says all the rightly compassionate things only to the “right” people, who are, of course, his people, and only when his own interests are at stake. He is unflappable only in front of a crowd, courageous only when it is personally advantageous. He acts like a good leader, father, and husband—and even argues with nearly perfect reasoning that he is more morally upright than God himself—all while serving only himself. He is a god of unchecked liberty, and, therefore, in Milton’s view, a god of chaos and destruction.

In my own posts comparing Donald Trump to Satan (see below), I have labeled them both consummate narcissists. We saw further proof this past weekend when, confronted with incontrovertible evidence of Russian election meddling, our president could only focus on himself. Taking steps to protect the nation never crossed his mind. Mattix shows Satan craftily engineering the council in Hell so that he will get all the glory:

But like everything else that Satan does, the offer [for a volunteer to journey to Eden] is a façade. Unsurprisingly, no one volunteers after Satan’s bleak description of the “perilous attempt” and he quickly chooses to do it himself, thus showing himself of “highest worth” and solidifying his authority over his peers…

What happens next demonstrates Satan’s political savvy: he makes sure that no one can speak after he himself has stepped forward. Satan understands that potential rivals might go for cheap glory by volunteering late:

Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, least from his resolution raised
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refused) what erst they fear’d;
And so refused might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn…

Mannix also quotes archangel Michael warning Adam about the Tower of Babel, where people put themselves above God rather than submitting to His authority. In a democracy, presidents must submit to the authority of the American people, and they become usurpers if they set themselves up as rulers. In the following, think of “inordinate desires and upstart passions” as a thirst for power, “Reason” as the higher faculty that calls us to serve:

In book 12, after the archangel Michael tells Adam about the Tower of Babel, Adam laments that his progeny, following Satan’s example, will desire to raise themselves above their peers and assume “Authority usurped from God not giv’n.” Michael responds that political tyranny is the direct result of men neglecting to rule their own liberty with reason and using that liberty instead to pursue “upstart passions”:

Reason in man obscured or not obeyed
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the government
From reason and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.

Satan is ultimately defeated, but boy does he make people’s lives miserable before that happens.

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Is Sexist Lit Gaslighting Women?

Rose Mead, “Molly Reading” (1920)


Reader and friend Sue Schmidt alerted me to a combative article in The Guardian about the misogyny of many of America’s most applauded 20th century authors, including John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Ernest Hemingway. Interestingly enough, the author gives Vladimir Nabokov a pass.

Egregious instances of sexism are to be found in all of them, Sarah Churchwell writes, and the critical world, by applauding them, causes women readers to doubt their own experiences. After all, how can women quarrel with a Nobel-prize winning author like Bellow. As a result, women are “gaslighted,” their experienced reality contradicted by powerful men. The concept originates in the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play and the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie where a husband engineers the surroundings to make his wife think she’s crazy.

I appreciate Churchwell mentioning that Jane Eyre pushes against gaslighting. There is good good reason why Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece has been the go-to novel for unionizing governesses, suffragettes, and 1970s feminists over the years. Unfortunately, Churchwell doesn’t mention the many powerful female authors making their presences felt today. In my college’s English courses, students are more likely to encounter Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan than Updike, Roth, Bellow, and even Ernest Hemingway. Meanwhile Norman Mailer, whom Churchwell takes to task, has all but faded from view. These male voices may have contributed to patriarchy at one time, but they no longer rule the roost.

The article feels like a throwback to the 1980s, when Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) still felt like a revelation. Then again, as Donald Trump brings back 1950’s sexism, it’s true that the optimism of third-wave, “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” feminists sounds suspect. Perhaps we really do need Churchwell’s refresher course in second-wave feminism. She’s especially attuned to literary dismissals of strong women, as in this critique of Bellow’s Herzog:

Some of the worst culprits are not the misogynists of old, however, but men telling stories in the very decades that women were making real political and professional gains. Second-wave feminism spurred a backlash among certain men, including influential storytellers whose perceptions framed the cultural moment and helped create an ambient contempt for women’s perspectives. “Please, Ramona,” Saul Bellow’s Herzog thinks, “you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch – everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.” Her body is “everything”; her voice positively objectionable. Bellow won the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 for “the human understanding” in his work.

Churchwell is similarly critical of Roth (and also delivers a sarcastic dig at Jonathan Franzen):

The more feminists tried to call all this out [authors beating up on feminists], the more they were lampooned by the same male artists as overwrought and idiotic. Take Roth’s multiple prize-winning, often brilliant The Human Stain (2000), deemed by many to be a masterpiece. Most of its plot and all of its comedy rely on the farcical stupidity of an academic feminist named Delphine, who hysterically overreacts to the revelation that her colleague Coleman Silk is having an affair with a woman who works at the college as a janitor. “She understood that Coleman Silk had managed to unearth no less than a misogynist’s heart’s desire … the perfect woman to crush.” Delphine freaks out not because of her feminism, however, but rather because of her unreciprocated crush on Coleman. That’s right: women only object to sexual harassment when they feel sexually rejected. Times have changed, of course: three years ago brought us Annabel, in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (2015), a self-righteous feminist who makes men urinate sitting down as a gesture of equality.

What would happen if any of these books had ever hinted that feminism might just have a point? The problem is not an author choosing to mock a feminist; they aren’t sacred. The problem is that these stories, granted so much cultural authority, have for half a century and more been subjecting the very concept of feminists to near-universal derision, gaslighting the entire feminist perspective.

Interestingly, Churchwell defends Lolita:

Perhaps the most controversial of all is Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Humbert Humbert is a monster and paedophile – he admits as much, regularly. But he can’t be trusted; so the question is where the book’s sympathies lie, whether Humbert or Nabokov is the misogynist. And Nabokov demonstrably embeds Lolita’s despair, powerlessness and insistent assertion of agency into the tale. The novel almost locks you into the perspective of a charming sociopath, for many readers all too closely – but it never undermines Lolita, never suggests she likes being abducted and raped, or deserves it. Indeed it makes clear how desperate she is to get away from Humbert – that he is the mad one. Nabokov doesn’t gaslight Lolita: he gaslights Humbert.

As Humbert reveals, in what may (or may not) be his moral epiphany, the great tragedy of Lolita is “the absence of her voice” – an absence that bothers many readers, as it is clearly intended to. 

Lolita is Churchwell’s exception, however. What concerns her most is that critical praise has brainwashed many women readers:

Even more frustrating, however, is that many women readily assert the importance or greatness of these books. Male readers by comparison rarely use the compliment “universal” to describe a book written by a woman: in fact, it’s difficult to recall a single instance. Women don’t have that option: if we read, we must read about men; if we think, we must think about what men think.

The power of such thinking has had dire political ramifications:

It has been much remarked that some of the most influential US male media figures who dismissed the allegations of sexual harassment against Donald Trump were themselves fired shortly thereafter for serially committing the same offense. These men’s vested interest in whether our culture takes sexual assault seriously was allowed to shape the political outcome, to put a confessed sexual assaulter in the White House, and not coincidentally to sabotage the reputation of his opponent, who just happened to be a woman. The media campaign against Hillary Clinton was nothing if not gaslighting on an epic scale.

Meanwhile the White House has just been forced, with notable reluctance, to remove not one but two senior advisers credibly accused of domestic violence. 

Churchwell concludes,

Patriarchy works unseen to valorize men’s perspective, and invalidate women’s. When we don’t recognize the way it shapes the world, then we do not understand that world properly: our perspective becomes unreliable. In other words, patriarchy continues to gaslight us all.

Since I mostly teaching older literature, I can’t say for sure which authors dominate contemporary literature syllabi. What Churchwell describes, however, sounds like the courses from my college years (1969-73) and perhaps a decade after, not what people are teaching now. Key has been the increasing diversity of faculty, who focus on the cultural and political forces at work in the literature they teach. Churchwell doesn’t mention this development.

In other words, the patriarchal narrative no longer holds unquestioned sway in college classrooms. That’s one reason why colleges are currently under attack.

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte), Nabokov (Vladimir), Roth (Philip K.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Mine It Was To Call

Juan Fernández de Navarrete, “St. John the Baptist in Prison”

Spiritual Sunday

I was thumbing through A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry (ed. James H. Trott) and came across a lovely poem about John the Baptist, who is mentioned in today’s liturgy reading. I make special mention of my source because it provides the only biographical information I can unearth about Sydney E. Jerrold (1895- c. 1940), a nun in the Order of the Assumption. I was able to google her brother, Tory newspaper editor and fascist sympathizer Douglas Francis Jerrold, who published his sister’s poems after her early death.

“John in Prison” is told from the vantage point of the evangelist. Jerrold speaks up for those who prepare the way for others, as John did Jesus. Since that’s how I see my role as teacher, I identify with the sentiment.

If you need a John refresher, here are some of the Biblical passages that the poem alludes to:

–There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

–Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)

–Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?
Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Matthew 11:2-6)

John in Prison

By Sydney E. Jerrold

I hardly saw His Face.
I knew Him not till Heaven had given sign.
He passed, yet never did His eyes meet mine
For one short perfect space.

Yet mine it was to call
“Behold the Lamb of God”—and they who heard
Went from my side, sought Him, and at a word
Followed Him, leaving all.

I scarcely heard His voice–
Not me He called to Him from Jordan’s side—
Yet to the Bridegroom have I led the Bride,
And I, His friend, rejoice.

And now—“What things you see
Relate to John,” He saith—“The prophecies
Are all fulfilled, and blessed be he who is
Not scandalized in Me.”

 Not blessed who baptized,
Watched, prayed and thundered to prepare His way,
Bore witness to the Light—but blessed they
Who are not scandalized.

Lord, be it ever so–
Before Thy Face to show the way of peace
I go, a passing voice that must decrease
Whilst Thou, the Lord, must grow.

The ways of peace are mine–
Though sharp and shining be the sword’s way home
The Spirit and the Bride shall whisper “Come”:
Then shall my eyes meet Thine.

 I wonder if Jerrold wrote the poem when she was dying since it sounds as though she is assessing her life and worrying that she came up short. She reminds me of Denise Levertov in the way she laments barely experiencing God’s presence—“I hardly saw His Face.” She grumbles that she is not one of the disciples, who were called to greater things, but consoles herself that she has introduced the Lord to others: “Yet to the Bridegroom have I led the Bride.”

As she sees it, the one who came to bear witness to the Light does not receive a blessing. Fighting resentment, at one point she sounds almost sarcastic: “Not blessed who baptized, watched, prayed and thundered to prepare His way.” Perhaps she is trying to write herself into acceptance: “Lord, be it ever so–.”

In some ways, she sounds like John Milton “On His Blindness,” another poet that kicks against the role God has assigned him. Complaining that his blindness limits his contributions, Milton hears Patience assuring him that “who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” and “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

I think Jerrold wrote this while dying because of the reference to decreasing “whilst Thou, the Lord, must grow” and the lines “the ways of peace are mine–/Though sharp and shining be the sword’s way home.” Sharp thought her disappointment may be, however, her consolation will be that, at last, she will be Christ’s bride herself.

Then, at last, she will see God face to face.

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NRA Uber Alles


Mass shootings are occurring with such demoralizing regularity that I’ve almost ceased blogging about them. Here’s the post I wrote following the Nevada killing, which just needs a few tweaks to apply to the Parkland Florida shooting. For instance, Florida “doesn’t require a permit or a license for someone to own a gun, allows purchasers to buy as many guns as they want at one time, and does not regulate assault weapons.”

Reprinted from Oct. 3, 2017

Throughout the years, following a mass killing I have often turned to works that capture evil at work in the world, most notably Beowulf and Paradise Lost. The links I have posted at the end of today’s essay are only too relevant to Sunday night’s mass killing in Las Vegas.

I want to turn today’s focus in a different direction. As a number of people have noted, the shooter who killed 59 and wounded 520+ did not act alone. He had an accomplice: the National Rifle Association.

I share today the angriest poem my genial father ever wrote, which takes the organization to task. I ran it seven years ago after the Tucson killings and it seems even more appropriate today, given the arsenal of assault weapons the killer managed to assemble….

In “Ballad of the National Rifle Association,” my father unloads on the gun group for the ways that it exploits white male anxieties. The poem was “triggered” by a gun ad in Gun World that guaranteed “shooting satisfaction.”

“Ballad” is a complex mixture of fantasies and fears, combining macho displays of supremacy, erotic dreams of manly sexual performance, and various emasculation fears. Stanza two is filled with power rape fantasies (“Whang her bang her get your action”).

At one point Bates imagines Hollywood scenarios of protecting virginal daughters while cleansing the world of urban “putrefaction.” In this drama, which one sees in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the virginal daughters are the longing for a lost innocence while putrefaction is the black Other that makes anxious whites feel small and fearful. Donald Trump, of course, plays on fears of threatening African Americans (for instance, his description of urban neighborhoods as “hell holes”), and, right on cue, after the Las Vegas shooting Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned Chicago violence as a reason not to enact gun control measures.

The poem’s deep dive into the psychology of gun fanatics also examines revenge fantasies against chaotic nature and against parents—which is to say, against the fathers who mock their sons’ sensitivity and the mothers whose sensitivity they both long for and hate (because it makes them feel vulnerable). “Pistol Pentheus” is Euripides’s uptight control freak in The Bacchae, who tries to assert his manhood and is torn apart by his Dionysus-crazed mother. There is also an Oedipal reference to shooting the castrating father before he shoots you and adds your “skin” to his collection.

The utopian vision of a new Jerusalem is a power fantasy designed to override anxieties: a militarized America is very good at “winging rockets,” whether at enemies or at the moon. (“It’s natural the boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” W. H. Auden wrote about the moon landing.) The poem was written in the 1990’s but is impressively prescient given how commonplace apocalyptic language has become among many Christian gun-toting enthusiasts.

My father writes the poem in a southern accent. Having spent most of his life in southern Tennessee, he saw up close how susceptible poor Appalachian whites were to NRA fear mongering. The poem appeared in his collection The ZYX of Political Sex (Highlander Research and Education Center, 1999) so expect the language to be explicit.

Incidentally, Lucille Thornburgh, to whom the poem is dedicated, was a longtime union activist.

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

In memory of Lucille Thornburgh, dedicated worker for social justice, who liked this poem.

“For your shooting satisfaction . . .”–from an ad in Gun World

Pistol small arm handgun gun
Trooper Trailsman Frontier Scout
Smith & Wesson Remington
Combat Cobra Knockabout
Browning Sheridan Colt Snap-Out
Single-six and Double-action
Give you shooting satisfaction.

Pistol short arm peter prick
Rod avenger redmeat dong
Johnnie joystick reamer dick
Dummy fixer hicky prong
Swinging sirloin two feet long
Have a similar attraction
Every boy can be King Kong
With a shooting satisfaction.

Pistol-heist her hunt her down
Line her up and ream her right
Ride her home get off your gun
Shag her shoot her up tonight
Jump her hump her out of sight
Whang her bang her get your action
Fill her full of dynamite
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Po-lice save your pity
For the dirty rotten hood
Gun him down in Inner City
Like they do in Hollywood
Save your daughter’s maidenhood

And pulverize the putrefaction
Trash him baby trash him good
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Pentheus git yer maw
Afore she tears you limb from limb
Beat yer pappy to the draw
And incidentally get him
The sonavabitch who wants yer skin
To add it to his rug collection
Blast yer pappy Jungle Jim
Fer yer shootin’ satisfaction.

Pistol Patriot shoot your wad
The world the moon your mouth your brother
Build Jerusalem by God
Winging rockets at each other
Love your country like a mother
Love your enemy dog-fashion
Love your neighbor till he smother
In your shooting satisfaction.


Pistol pirate cool tycoon
Do us all a benefaction
Go take a flying fuck at the moon
For our shooting satisfaction!

Previous Posts on Mass Killings

The NRA Preying on Anxious Men

Manchester Suicide Bombing: Grendel Evil vs. Beowulf Strength of Mind

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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The Joker (Trump) Takes Over America

Heath Ledger as The Joker


In a recent 100 Years of Solitude post, I talked about the presence of carnival in magical realism and wondered whether American politics has become carnivalesque. Following up on this notion, I asked the students in my Magical Realism class to imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children transported to an American setting. It so happens that, in his latest book, Rushdie does the transporting himself.

The Golden House (2017) is not magical realist, nor is it anywhere near the quality of Midnight’s Children, but it is characteristic Rushdie. I find interesting how a recently naturalized American, as Rushdie is, tries to make sense of his new country. Here’s his account of the 2016 election, during which America “left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.” “D.C.,” he writes, was under attack by DC” [as in DC Comics, if you need the allusion explained]:

It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen—it was not an age of heroes—but his archrival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!

 The green fright wigs would be red baseball caps, the chant “Trump, Trump, Trump.” The candidate’s supporters back him, the narrator says, “because he was insane, not in spite of it”:

The origins of the Joker were disputed, the man himself seemed to enjoy allowing contradictory versions to fight for air space, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero. Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cowboys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemisms from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he’s in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he’s our guy. The black bat-knight has flown! It’s a new day, and it’s hoping to be a scream! All hail the United States of Joker! U.S.J.! U.S.J.! U.S.J.!

 What comes next is simply a listing of what happened during the election. I was disappointed when I first read it since I expected Rushdie’s colorful hyperbole. As satirists such as John Stewart and The Onion have observed, however, when truth is over-the-top, satire struggles to keep pace. Rushdie’s list reminds us just how abnormal these past two years have been:

It was a year of two bubbles. In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowds laughed right on cue. In that bubble the climate was not changing and the end of the Arctic icecap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American.  [Emphasized to honor Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and staff.] In that bubble, if its inhabitants were victorious, the president of the neighboring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations to keep the killers and rapists south of the border where they belonged; and crime would end; and the country’s enemies would be defeated instantly and overwhelmingly; and mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers; and the parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam; and international treaties would not have to be honored; and Russia would be friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker’s shady enterprises; and the meanings of things would change; multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business enterprise; and three and a half thousand lawsuits against you would be understood to prove great business acumen; and stiffing your contractors would prove your tough-guy business attitude; and a crooked university would prove your commitment to education; and while the Second Amendment would be sacred the First would not be; so those who criticized the leader would suffer consequences; and African Americans would go along with it all because what the hell did they have to lose. In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, and the right person to hold the nuclear codes in his hand was the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouth giggler who asked a military briefing team four times why nuclear weapons was so bad. In that bubble, razor-tipped playing cards were funny, and lapel flowers that sprayed acid into people’s faces were funny, and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny, and sarcasm was funny even when what was called sarcasm was not sarcastic, and lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eight-four.

It’s worth noting that not all of this craziness is Trump’s doing. Some of it has become Republican orthodoxy, especially with regard to climate change, immigrants, and guns.

In the other bubble, the narrator writes, were New Yorkers, who “could identify a conman when they saw one.” The chapter ends with the contest in doubt, perhaps because Rushdie completed the novel before November, 2016:

It was the year of the great battle between deranged fantasy and gray reality, between, on the one hand, la chose en soi, the possibly unknowable but probably existing thing in itself, the world as it was independently of what was said about it or how it was seen, the Ding an sich, to use the Kantian term—and, on the other, this cartoon character who had crossed the line between the page and the stage—a sort of illegal immigrant, I thought—whose plan was to turn the whole country, faux-hilariously, into a lurid graphic novel, the modern kind, full of black crime and renegade Jews and cocksuckers and cunts, which were words he liked to use sometimes just to give the liberal elite conniptions; a comic book in which elections were rigged and the media were crooked and everything you hated was a conspiracy against you, but in the end! Yay! You won, the fright wig turned into a crown, and the Joker became the King.

It remained to be seen if, come November, the country would turn out to be in a New York state of mind, or if it would prefer to put on the green fright wigs and laugh. Ha! Ha! Ha!

 We now know how the electoral college chose. The joker jiggered reality.

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Leaders Who Make Their Own Reality


I’ve been thinking a lot about how a president’s non-stop lying can change a country. It’s no secret that most politicians lie from time to time, but Donald Trump’s wholesale assault on the truth is another matter altogether. With the help of enablers at Fox News and the Republican Party, Trump is changing reality itself.

Salman Rushdie shows how such a process works in Midnight’s Children. Through strong arm tactics and voter fraud, the President’s Muslim League in 1958 Pakistan triumphs over the Combined Opposition Party. The newspapers then report “a crushing victory,” leading the narrator to conclude that

 in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case.

The narrator contrasts this top-down reality with his own vision, a loose federation where multiple perspectives exist. As he observes,

maybe this was the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence—that in the first I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities, while in the second I was adrift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies.

Saleem concludes the meditation by distinguishing between “what-had-been-sanctified as truth” and what we know to be so. The former has an unfair advantage because we become worn down “by Time, by habit, by…pronouncement, by lack of imagination, by…acquiescence.”

Marlow in Heart of Darkness talks about the rot that sets in when people lie:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. 

By “flavor of mortality,” I think Marlow means the lack of anything enduring. Without the possibility of truth or higher principle, existence becomes no more than a meaningless flux.

If Trump’s lying works, should Democrats follow suit? Only if we truly want to surrender to the heart of darkness. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Jesus asks. There are worse things than losing to Trump.

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Chaucer Invented St. Valentine’s Day


Among poetry’s many gifts to the world is St. Valentine’s Day. In Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer took marriage, which in the Middle Ages was a business affair, and joined it with the courtly love tradition, giving the holiday the aura that continues to this day. Write for the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Parliament of Fowls describes the goddess Nature pairing up all the birds:

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every fowl comes there to choose his mate
Of every kind…
And that so huge a noise the birds do make
That earth and sea and tree and every lake
So full it was that there was hardly space
For me to stand so full was all the place

The poem is a dream vision, with the poet at first loathe to enter the garden because of the second of two signs posted on the gates. While the first promises the pleasures of love, the second points to love’s torments:

Sign 1

Through  me men go into that blissful place
Where hearts are healed and deadly wounds are cured;
Through me men go into the well of Grace
There green and lusty May shall ever endure;
This is the way to all good adventure
Be glad, thou reader, and thy sorrow off-cast
All open am I; pass in, and speed thee fast.

Sign 2

“Through me men go,” thus spoke the other side,
“Unto the mortal wounding of the spear,
Of which Disdain and Danger is the guide,
There tree shall never fruit nor leave e‘er bear.
The stream shall take you to the sorrowful weir
Where as the fish in prison is all dry;
Escaping is the only remedy.”

Chaucer is fearful until his guide assures him that, because he himself is not in love, he has nothing to fear. He can simply watch other people experiencing love’s highs and lows.

Upon entering he encounters a beautiful garden:

A garden saw I, full of blossomy boughs
Upon a river, in a bright green mead,
There as sweetness evermore enough is,
With flowers white, blue, yellow, and red,
And cold well-streams, nothing dead,
Filled with fishes swimming small and light,
Their fins were red, and scales were silver bright.

On every bough the birds heard I to sing,
With voice of angels in their harmony;
Some busied themselves with more birds forth to bring;
The little coneys to here play did hie,
And further all about me I could see
The dread-filled roe, the buck, the hart and hind,
Squirrels and gentle beasts of every kind.

Of instruments of strings all in accord
Heard I so play such a ravishing sweetness,
That God, that creator is of all and lord,
Had heard never better, I must here confess.
Therewith a wind, it could be nothing less,
Made in the green leave a nose so telling soft
As to the ears the fowls’ song came.

In this garden he sees many of the mythological gods, including Cupid, Venus, Bacchus, and Priapus, a male fertility god marked by oversized genitalia. There are also ladies dancing, one lady without any clothes, and youths disporting on the green. The real drama of the poem, however, involves the birds.

The goddess Nature is there to make sure that everyone pairs up, but the other birds have to wait as three royal hawks argue over who should marry the lady hawk. Since a royal wedding must precede all others, the birds begin to get restless and start complaining. To break the impasse, Nature hands the decision over to the lady, who decides to wait a year. Thankfully, Nature doesn’t force the other birds to wait but allows them to get on with it:

And when this work was brought unto an end,
To every fowl Dame Nature gave his mate
By even accord, and on their way they went.
Ah! lord! the bliss and joy that they did make!
And with their necks each gave the other wynde [embrace],
Thanking always the noble goddess kynde [nature].

The poem concludes by invoking St. Valentine and promising that winter will end:

Saint Valentine that has been set on high
Thus sing the many birds all for thy sake —
Now welcome summer with the sun in sky
That hast this wintry weather over-shake.

Joy to you as you celebrate or search for your own bird.

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Swift Predicted Trump’s Lies

Gustave Doré, Satan rallies his troops


Washington Post satirist Dana Milbank has alerted me to a Jonathan Swift essay on “Political Lying” that is only too relevant. Political lying took some of its modern forms in the 18th century with the rise of political parties, and the great satirist, ever alert to change, captured some of its characteristics. Even Swift, however, could not imagine a liar as blatant and shameless as Donald Trump.

Milbank turned to Swift while describing a lie that Trump propagated about a dead border patrol agent. Rogelio Martinez died after his car ran into a culvert—it may have been sideswiped by a tractor trailer truck—but that’s not what Trump and Trump wannabes said:

President Trump and his allies saw an opportunity to whip up anti-immigrant fervor. At a Cabinet meeting Nov.20, Trump announced, with cameras rolling, that “we lost a Border Patrol officer just yesterday, and another one was brutally beaten and badly, badly hurt.... We’re going to have the wall.” He also issued a similar tweet.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, offered a reward “to help solve this murder” and to “help us catch this killer.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) declared the incident “a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses.

And then there was Fox News, reporting that “a border patrol agent was brutally murdered” and going with the headline “Border Patrol agent appeared to be ambushed by illegal immigrants, bashed with rocks before death.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson reported that Martinez was “attacked at the border in the most gruesome possible way.”

The FBI determined, however, that no murder had been committed. When no one issued a retraction, Milbank turned to Swift:

It has been more than 300 years since Jonathan Swift wrote about the utility of falsehood: “If a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect... like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

This is pretty much how Trump does business, and he has inspired other Republicans to follow suit. After all, in a world where there is no accountability, what’s the downside? This helps explain the GOP assault on institutions tasked with fact-finding, such as the media, universities, research institutions, and governmental agencies. Meanwhile rightwing evangelicals, who should value truth, have become Trump idolaters.

Noting that Satan is the follower of lies, Swift describes him in a way that we will find familiar. After all, the percentage of angels that Satan seduced to his side is roughly the same as Trump’s loyal base:

We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first essay of it was purely political, employed in undermining the authority of his prince, and seducing a third part of the subjects from their obedience: for which he was driven down from Heaven, where (as Milton expresses it) he had been viceroy of a great western province; and forced to exercise his talent in inferior regions among other fallen spirits, poor or deluded men, whom he still daily tempts to his own sin, and will ever do so, till he be chained in the bottomless pit.

Swift then observes that those who came later surpassed the father:

But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him.

Political lying, Swift says, can be used both to gain power (think of the 2016 election) and to revenge oneself after having lost it (which we are sure to see if the GOP loses the House in 2018 or the presidency in 2020):

But here the moderns have made great additions, applying this art to the gaining of power and preserving it, as well as revenging themselves after they have lost it; as the same instruments are made use of by animals to feed themselves when they are hungry, and to bite those that tread upon them.

Swift very much captures Trump with regard to consistency. Although the president claims to have a great memory, Swift notes that great liars easily forget what they said previously:

There is one essential point wherein a political liar differs from others of the faculty, that he ought to have but a short memory, which is necessary, according to the various occasions he meets with every hour of differing from himself, and swearing to both sides of a contradiction, as he finds the persons disposed with whom he hath to deal. 

Swift’s subsequent comments concern Prime Minister Robert Walpole, but he could just as easily be talking about Trump:

The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it; so that if you think fit to refine upon him, by interpreting everything he says, as we do dreams, by the contrary, you are still to seek, and will find yourself equally deceived whether you believe or not: the only remedy is to suppose, that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all; and besides, that will take off the horror you might be apt to conceive at the oaths, wherewith he perpetually tags both ends of every proposition; although, at the same time, I think he cannot with any justice be taxed with perjury, when he invokes God and Christ, because he hath often fairly given public notice to the world that he believes in neither.

I don’t think Trump invokes God or Christ in his lying—he is much more likely to introduce his lies with “Believe me”—but otherwise Swift’s description applies only too well. In response, many Americans do indeed regard the president’s pronouncements as “inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all.”

Swift only misses the mark in thinking that a liar is beyond being shamed or, as he puts it, rendered “notorious.” He seems to think that, if a liar is exposed, there will be consequences. Even Swift could not imagine a man openly telling falsehoods that can easily be checked.

But then, he did observe that liars surpass Satan with their “continual improvements,” so Trump might not surprise him. Swift would conclude that he has made his master proud.

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White House Assaulters & Goblin Market

John Bolton, “Goblin Maret”


Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1859) felt particularly urgent when I taught it this past week given the spousal abuse stories emerging from the White House. Rossetti’s poem vividly captures the dynamics of male entitlement and how authoritarian personalities are infuriated when women stand up to them.

Misogyny and authoritarianism go hand and hand, which helps explain the high number of instances. Chief of Staff John Kelly, who “has a history of believing men over women,” was prepared to defend staffer Rob Portman to the hilt until a photograph of a black eye emerged. (Never mind the credible complaints of two ex-wives.) Vox lists others in the Trump orbit who have been accused of abuse or violence:

  • Steve Bannon, CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign and White House chief strategist until August 2017, was charged in 1996 with domestic violence, battery, and dissuading a witness. According to a 1996 police report quoted in Politico, Bannon’s then-wife said he grabbed her neck, then threw the phone across the room when she tried to call 911. The charges were eventually dismissed when Bannon’s wife was “unable to be located,” according to court records — she filed for divorce a few months later.
  • Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, was charged with battery in March 2016 after a Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, reported that he had forcibly grabbed her. The incident was captured on video, but a prosecutor declined to proceed with the case.
  • Andrew Puzder, Trump’s initial nominee for Secretary of Labor, was accused of assault and battery by his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein. In documents that were part of their 1988 divorce proceedings, Fierstein said that Puzder had struck her “violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck, without provocation or cause.” And in 1990, Fierstein spoke of her experience on The Oprah Winfrey Show, saying Puzder had told her, “I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this.” Fierstein retracted the abuse claims in a letter to Puzder after his nomination for labor secretary; he ultimately withdrew from consideration.
  • President Trump, meanwhile, has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 17 women. One of them is his ex-wife, Ivana, who reportedly stated in a 1990 divorce deposition that Trump had pulled out a fistful of her hair and raped her. In 2015, after Trump announced his candidacy for president, she issued a statement saying that a Daily Beast story about the alleged rape was “without merit.”

To Vox’s list we can now add speechwriter David Sorensen:

[Sorensen’s former wife Jessica] Corbett first contacted The Post a week before Porter’s case became public. She said that during her marriage to Sorensen, he ran a car over her foot, put out a cigarette on her hand, threw her into a wall and grasped her menacingly by her hair while they were alone on their boat in remote waters off Maine’s coast, an incident she said left her fearing for her life. During part of their marriage, he was a top policy adviser to Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

She said she did not report her abuse allegations to police because of Sorensen’s connections to law enforcement officials.

The goblins in Rossetti’s poem appear to offer women what they want. Seen in terms of our drama, Laura is enticed by the promise of fulfilling her heart’s desire. What woman would not want to marry the successful and charming Portman, who according to ex-wife Jennie Willoughby outwardly appears a perfect gentleman. (“Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out.”) Think of him as selling women goblin fruit:

Come buy, come buy: 
Our grapes fresh from the vine, 
Pomegranates full and fine, 
Dates and sharp bullaces, 
Rare pears and greengages, 
Damsons and bilberries, 
Taste them and try: 
Currants and gooseberries, 
Bright-fire-like barberries, 
Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy.

Unfortunately, the fragile egos of authoritarian types such as Trump, Porter, etc. rely on the submission of women. Without that, they feel they are nothing. For a woman to resist, therefore, represents an existential crisis that can trigger blows. The women who give in (Laura) function as momentary reassurance whereas those who refuse to play the game (Lizzie) elicit just such violence as Trump and Trump staffers meted out to their wives:

They began to scratch their pates, 
No longer wagging, purring, 
But visibly demurring, 
Grunting and snarling. 
One call’d her proud, 
Cross-grain’d, uncivil; 
Their tones wax’d loud, 
Their looks were evil. 
Lashing their tails 
They trod and hustled her, 
Elbow’d and jostled her, 
Claw’d with their nails, 
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking, 
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking, 
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots, 
Stamp’d upon her tender feet, 
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits 
Against her mouth to make her eat. 

To a degree, Rossetti bought into the Victorian angel-in-the-house ideal. In Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem by that name, women are especially to be commended for their submission if the man does not deserve it. Therefore, the goblins’ assault becomes an occasion for Lizzie to exhibit Christian fortitude and endurance:

Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her, 
Coax’d and fought her, 
Bullied and besought her, 
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink, 
Kick’d and knock’d her, 
Maul’d and mock’d her, 
Lizzie utter’d not a word… 

Heroic martyrdom is problematic because it strips women of other responses, but we can still look to Lizzie as a model because she holds fast to her sense of self worth. This allows her to maintain her dignity against men who are “mad to tug her standard down”:

White and golden Lizzie stood, 
Like a lily in a flood,— 
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone 
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,— 
Like a beacon left alone 
In a hoary roaring sea, 
Sending up a golden fire,— 
Like a fruit-crown’d orange-tree 
White with blossoms honey-sweet 
Sore beset by wasp and bee,— 
Like a royal virgin town 
Topp’d with gilded dome and spire 
Close beleaguer’d by a fleet 
Mad to tug her standard down. 

Lizzie’s strength saves the abused Laura, a wonderful instance of female solidarity. (Perhaps Laura is who we too often are, Lizzie who we aspire to be.) The sisterhood lauded by the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement is captured in the closing lines of the poem, where Laura recalls Lizzie’s aid:

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.

Men can develop such friendships with women but they must surrender their sense of entitlement to do so. At the moment, it is very difficult to find useful models amongst Trump Republicans.

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The Wind Is Awake (But Will You Stir?)

Adolf Kosarek, “Night Wind,” ca. 1855

Spiritual Sunday

As Christians look ahead to Lent, which begins Wednesday, here’s a haunting John Burt to poem that clarifies the meaning of the season.  Lent is the time to get down and get real, cutting through distractions and focusing on what is important. That is why some people engage in various forms of abstinence: they reason that indulgence takes our mind away from spiritual search. As Sir Gawain and the Green Knight puts it,

After Christmas there came the cold cheer of Lent,
When with fish and plainer fate our flesh we reprove.

Perhaps reproving their flesh gets some people closer to God, but I find that poetry works better for me. Last year I gave myself over to Milton’s Paradise Regained. This year I’ve chosen Wordsworth’s Prelude.

Poems like Burt’s “On the Will to Believe” are also useful, especially as I wrestle with the parts that elude me.

The opening line points towards spiritual awakening—the Holy Spirit is often described as a wind—but isn’t certain if something within us will stir in response. Will our souls awake? Will we have the will to believe?

Who is awake? The wind is awake.
But will you stir? Her wakefulness is part of yours.

The remainder of the first stanza gives us discouraging images, suggestions of a dark night of the soul that may cause us to lose faith. To be sure, the wind offers us a guiding star that “she stole for you alone,” which sounds comforting—even more so because the wind is female—but the remaining lines offer no guarantees. As we gaze into the night sky, we see nothing but crucifixion, empty hands, broken relationships, and emptiness:

Will you walk with her in the darkness?
Here is the star she stole for you alone.
She will show to you a tree of thorns,
Her empty hands, that broken bridge.
You will read in the book of faces
But you will not find your own.

The second stanza provides some relief. After all, don’t we sometimes need to be brought up short to find God? Only when we stop and lie down do we begin to pay attention:

And you will remember then to stop, to lie
Down still, to say that if there were a mark
It would be there, and there would demonstrate
The love, the will, the calm necessity.

We’re not home free yet, however. After all, we’ve been given an “if”–if there is an indicator marking God’s presence in the dark sky above us–and upon that “if” hangs our belief in love and purpose. Once again, the final lines offer us no guarantees as we wander through a cold world, watched over by an unresponsive moon:

The clouds will scud among the glaciers of the mountain.
The idiot moon will watch in the cold.

Or as a discouraged Yeats puts it:

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:   
That you were beautiful, and that I strove   
To love you in the old high way of love; 
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown   
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Will be push ourselves past despair and will ourselves to believe? The poet leaves the final choice up to us.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

On the Will to Believe

By John Burt

Who is awake? The wind is awake.
But will you stir? Her wakefulness is part of yours.
Will you walk with her in the darkness?
Here is the star she stole for you alone.
She will show to you a tree of thorns,
Her empty hands, that broken bridge.
You will read in the book of faces
But you will not find your own.

And you will remember then to stop, to lie
Down still, to say that if there were a mark
It would be there, and there would demonstrate
The love, the will, the calm necessity.
The clouds will scud among the glaciers of the mountain.
The idiot moon will watch in the cold.

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Like Sula, Trump Unites Old Opponents


One of the many surprises during Donald Trump’s first year has been the way that the left and the non-Trump right have learned to talk to each other. People with whom I have disagreed strenuously in the past I now take seriously, figures like Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, Max Boot, Michael Steele, Nicolle Wallace, Rick Wilson, and others. Trump has brought us together in ways that, during the Obama years, would have seemed impossible.

These figures have moved to the left and I have moved to the right. They are calling out Trump Republicans for their racism and sexism and I am seeing the need for a strong FBI and patriotic rituals to preserve democracy. In the past, we focused on our differences, but those differences seem self-indulgent in light of Trump’s authoritarian threat. We are like Toni Morrison’s black community when confronted with Sula.

Sula is the mean girl in Morrison’s novel by that name. She casually watches her mother burn, kicks her grandmother out of the house she built, sleeps with her best friend’s husband, and manages to alienate virtually everyone she encounters. Yet in an unexpected reversal, she has a beneficial effect. Because of Sula, the town focuses on what is most important:

Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. 

To cite one instance, an abusive mother who believes Sula has attacked her child suddenly changes her ways:

She became the most devoted mother: sober, clean and industrious. No more nickels for Teapot to go to Dick’s for a breakfast of Mr. Goodbars and soda pop: no more long hours of him alone or wandering the roads while she was otherwise engaged. Her change was a distinct improvement…

The improvement lasts only as long as Sula is alive, however. Once she dies, the situation reverts to normal:

Hard on the heels of the general relief that Sula’s death brought a restless irritability took hold. Teapot, for example, went into the kitchen and asked his mother for some sugar-butter-bread. She got up to fix it and found that she had no butter, only oleomargarine. Too tired to mix the saffron-colored powder into the hard cake of oleo, she simply smeared the white stuff on the bread and sprinkled the sugar over it. Teapot tasted the difference and refused to eat it. This keenest of insults that a mother can feel, the rejection by a child of her food, bent her into fury and she beat him as she had not done since Sula knocked him down the steps. She was not alone. Other mothers who had defended their children from Sula’s malevolence (or who had defended their positions as mothers from Sula’s scorn for the role) now had nothing to rub up against. The tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made. Without her mockery, affection for others sank into flaccid disrepair. Daughters who had complained bitterly about the responsibilities of taking care of their aged mothers-in-law had altered when Sula locked Eva away, and they began cleaning those old women’s spittoons without a murmur. Now that Sula was dead and done with, they returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people. Wives uncoddled their husbands; there seemed no further need to reinforce their vanity. And even those Negroes who had moved down from Canada to Medallion, who remarked every chance they got that they had never been slaves, felt a loosening of the reactionary compassion for Southern-born blacks Sula had inspired in them. They returned to their original claims of superiority.

I’ve heard more than one pair of left-right commentators long for a post-Trump future when they can return to their old debates, which would be a sign that both parties are operating as they should. In that event, will we forget, as the Medallion townsfolk do, the mutual love and respect that is possible? Perhaps. I like to think, however, that Morrison’s community never entirely forgets the love they discovered when Sula was commanding center stage.

To riff off of Queen Elizabeth I’s observation about Catholics, Protestants, and “one Christ, Jesus, one faith,” perhaps Democrats and Republican moderates can embrace the idea that there is only one United States of America and that “all else is a dispute over trifles.”

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Reading My Way to Adulthood

Ralph Hedley


Teaching Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife, the second volume of his Dark Materials trilogy, has me thinking of how I used reading to negotiate the end of my childhood innocence. Pullman’s target, as I explain here, is the church, which according to him fetishizes innocence and uses adult sin as a money maker. You can read in that post how I see Pullman’s view of religion as one-dimensional, but today I reflect upon my adolescent self.

As a child, I did not want to grow up. Segregated Tennessee seemed like a bleak and uninviting place—I grew up amidst contentious civil rights battles—so I retreated into fantasy. Above all, I wanted to join the fellowship of the ring. Few books before or since have impacted me as forcefully as Tolkien’s trilogy.

In choosing that work, it was in tune with the author. Tolkein’s fantasy germinated in his own desire to escape, in his case the horrors of World War I trench warfare, which he witnessed close up.

My English teachers, however, insisted that I read more adult fare. If Lord of the Rings topped the works that I loved, Catcher in the Rye topped the list of those I loathed. I hated everything about it–Holden’s interactions with his fellow students, his swearing, his smoking, his running off to New York, his encounter with the prostitute and her pimp. I felt soiled.

Years later, knowing that our most intense reading experiences tell us much about ourselves, I returned to Salinger’s classic. Imagine my shock when I discovered that my resistance to growing up is the central theme of the novel. You know the passage, which involves his 10-year-old little sister, whom Holden adores:

“You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”
“What? Stop swearing.”
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like–”
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Of course, Holden is projecting here. He wants someone to catch him. He wants to go back to an innocent time before he became a confused adolescent, a time when his brother was still alive. He responds to his fears and anxieties by acting up.

I too was projecting. I hated the novel because it exposed to me my own inner turmoil. I identified too closely with Holden.

So what did I do? Sartre and Camus afforded me a compromise. On the one hand, they told stories that were enough like parables that they felt like literature, not life. (Salinger felt like raw life.) On the other hand, they dealt with concerns that seemed Adult. I felt at a safe remove from life, even as a gingerly dipped my toe in it. For a long period of my life, existentialist authors had “all my thought and love” (to borrow a phrase from Yeats).

I somehow made my way into a adulthood. But God it was hard!

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English, a More Practical Major than STEM

Isaac Israels, “Reading Girl on a Sofa” (1920)


I always like to pass along good news to my English majors so here’s an article assuring them that they’ve made a good practical choice in choosing their area of study. According to Cathy N. Davidson,  author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, internal studies conducted by Google of its 72,000 employees have discovered that the STEM disciplines are overrated.

When Google began operations, Davidson said, it originally targeted computer science students from elite universities. Its “Projected Oxygen” results, therefore, were unexpected:

[W]hen ‘Project Oxygen’ was carried out in 2013, the results gathered came as a shock to the industry. ‘Project Oxygen’ concluded that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in last. The top characteristics of success at Google are so-called “soft skills,” such as communication, good leadership, possessing insight into others’ values and points of view, having empathy and a supportive nature towards others and possessing good critical thinking and problem solving skills, along with the ability to create connections across complex ideas.

Of course, reading and writing about literature develop these soft skills. Davidson notes that, even when STEM-trained employees have done well, is has been “despite their technical training and not because of it.”

A follow-up Google study reinforced the findings:

On top of that, Google also carried out ‘Project Aristotle’ last spring, which analyzed data on its inventive and productive teams, and supports the importance of soft skills, even in high tech environments. This study showed that the most innovative and productive ideas were actually coming from Google’s B-teams instead of their highly professional counterparts and esteemed scientists who would be categorized as A-teams, which further consolidates the fact that the best teams at Google exhibit soft skills such as generosity, curiosity, empathy and emotional intelligence with a keen emphasis on emotional safety, also. 

Davidson concludes with an observation that I share with my students all the time—and which I can now say with increased confidence:

The humanities and the arts and the pleasure in studying them make us not only work ready, but world ready too, and the world is in desperate need of the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

Literature, which seems to take us out of the world, helps us operate more effectively within it.

But then, you already knew that.

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Trump Drama as Sherlock Mystery

Illus. of “Five Orange Pips”


As I watch Donald Trump eliminate one law enforcement official after another, I feel that I’m in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Five OrangePips.” A secret society (the Ku Klux Klan) is systematically eliminating people who pose a threat to them, and even the great detective fails to thwart them. In the story, however, the bad guys only kill three people, whereas DonalTrump has taken care of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, US Attorney Preet Bharara, FBI Director James Comey, and at least two of the FBI officials with whom Comey shared details of the meeting where Trump pushed him to drop the Flynn investigation (James Baker and Andrew McCabe). Furthermore, reports are that he would like to fire Special Counsel Bob Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and anyone else in the Justice Department who refuses to swear loyalty.

It could well be that Rep. Devon Nunes’s “memo,” which implies but fails to prove improper use of FISA warrants to surveille Carter Page, was supposed to provide Trump an excuse to fire Rosenstein (who signed off on the warrant). Trump would then hire a friendly attorney, who would rein in the Mueller investigation.

The lesson from the firings: absolve Trump of all wrongdoing or you’re out.

In the “Five Orange Pips,” the KKK targets a former member who has absconded with some compromising documents. After killing this individual and his brother, the society sets its sights on the nephew. In each case, five orange pips are sent as a warning.

John Openshaw first goes to the police, just as Rosenstein went to Speaker Paul Ryan. Like the House Republicans, however, the police do nothing:

“I have seen the police.”
“But they listened to my story with a smile. I am convinced that the inspector has formed the opinion that the letters are all practical jokes, and that the deaths of my relations were really accidents, as the jury stated, and were not to be connected with the warnings.”
Holmes shook his clenched hands in the air. “Incredible imbecility!” he cried.

Unfortunately Openshaw is killed, one of the few instances where Holmes fails to save a client. Nor does Holmes successfully avenge his death. Instead, divine justice intervenes, sinking the ship.

“Five Orange Pips” was one of Doyle’s favorite stories, which is puzzling given its various loose ends. For instance, we never learn why the first victim broke with the KKK and fled to England, nor why the KKK sends orange pips to people (the brother and nephew) who don’t know the meaning of them. Perhaps Doyle was proud of the sense of impending doom that he creates, complete with a raging rainstorm.

Does Rosenstein see himself as doomed? Has he been slipped the equivalent of five orange pips by our white-supremacist-in-chief? Trump watchers are experiencing the same suspense as Doyle’s readers.

“Five Orange Pips” provides another parallel, which may be even more apt: Openshaw’s uncle resembles our increasingly anxious president. As the silent forces close in on the old man, he goes into full-blown panic. He nephew reports on his last days:

Yet I could not shake off the vague feeling of dread which it left behind, though the sensation grew less keen as the weeks passed and nothing happened to disturb the usual routine of our lives. I could see a change in my uncle, however. He drank more than ever, and he was less inclined for any sort of society. Most of his time he would spend in his room, with the door locked upon the inside, but sometimes he would emerge in a sort of drunken frenzy and would burst out of the house and tear about the garden with a revolver in his hand, screaming out that he was afraid of no man, and that he was not to be cooped up, like a sheep in a pen, by man or devil. When these hot fits were over, however, he would rush tumultuously in at the door and lock and bar it behind him, like a man who can brazen it out no longer against the terror which lies at the roots of his soul. At such times I have seen his face, even on a cold day, glisten with moisture, as though it were new raised from a basin.

I have compared Trump’s concerns about the Mueller investigation to the Mary Oliver poem “In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl,” where the crows obsess about the owl that is waiting to eat them. In this scenario, Mueller is “the bone-crushing prince of the dark days.”

 Or maybe Trump is the fox in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” “Sir Renard” does everything he can to shake off the hunters, only to fall prey to the inexorable Lord Bertilak. The Lord of Death, as I see the figure, always gets his prey.

But to return to the Sherlock Holmes stories, Mueller resembles the detective chasing his most famous antagonist. To be sure, Trump is no Moriarty, but many of us are praying that Mueller proves to be a Holmes:

But the Professor [Moriarty] was fenced round with safeguards so cunningly devised that, do what I would, it seemed impossible to get evidence which would convict in a court of law. You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill. But at last he made a trip—only a little, little trip—but it was more than he could afford when I was so close upon him. I had my chance, and, starting from that point, I have woven my net round him until now it is all ready to close. In three days—that is to say, on Monday next—matters will be ripe, and the Professor, with all the principal members of his gang, will be in the hands of the police. Then will come the greatest criminal trial of the century, the clearing up of over forty mysteries, and the rope for all of them; but if we move at all prematurely, you understand, they may slip out of our hands even at the last moment.

We have more than three days ahead of us, but like Holmes we are terrified that Trump will “slip out of our hands.” Over half the country is rooting for a classic detective story ending.

And as for the prospect of the GOP reining in the president? “Incredible imbecility!”

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Eagles’ Win Was Like a Thunderbolt


Congratulations, Philadelphia, on your first Super Bowl championship ever. In Tennyson’s well-known poem, the eagle falls with the force of a mountain fragment.

The Eagle (A Fragment)

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands; 
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls. 
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Caught between Faith and Doubt

Kashmiri Muslim praying

Spiritual Sunday

I’m currently teaching Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in my Magical Realism course and came across a great description of being caught between blind faith and Enlightenment Reason.

Speaking for myself as a person of faith, I don’t see the two visions as incompatible. Sometimes one focuses on the material realm, sometimes on the spiritual. Nevertheless, it’s an effective passage.

The narrator’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz, is a Kashmiri Muslim who has returned from studying medicine in Germany. Unfortunately, Kashmir now looks small and provincial to one who has lived in Heidelberg, and as Aziz prays to Allah, he finds himself unable to block out the voices of his fellow students. Praying on a frosty morning, he bumps his enormous nose on the frozen ground:

On the morning when the valley, gloved in a prayer-mat, punched him on the nose, he had been trying, absurdly, to pretend that nothing had changed. So he had risen in the bitter cold of four-fifteen, washed himself in the prescribed fashion, dressed and put on his father’s astrakhan cap; after which he had carried the rolled cheroot of the prayer-mat into the small lakeside garden in front of their old dark house and unrolled it over the waiting tussock. The ground felt deceptively soft under his feet and made him simultaneously uncertain and unwary. “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful…” – the exordium, spoken with hands joined before him like a book, comforted a part of him, made another, larger part feel uneasy – “… Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Creation…” – but now Heidelberg invaded his head; here was Ingrid, briefly his Ingrid, her face scorning him for this Mecca-turned parroting; here, their friends Oskar and Ilse Lubin the anarchists, mocking his prayer with their anti-ideologies – “… The Compassionate, the Merciful, King of the Last Judgement!…” – Heidelberg, in which, along with medicine and politics, he learned that India – like radium – had been “discovered” by Europeans; even Oskar was filled with admiration for Vasco da Gama, and this was what finally separated Aadam Aziz from his friends, this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors – “… You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help…” – so here he was, despite their presence in his head, attempting to re-unite himself with an earlier self which ignored their influence but knew everything it ought to have known, about submission for example, about what he was doing now, as his hands, guided by old memories, fluttered upwards, thumbs pressed to ears, fingers spread, as he sank to his knees – “… Guide us to the straight path, The path of those whom You have favored…” But it was no good, he was caught in a strange middle ground, trapped between belief and disbelief, and this was only a charade after all – “… Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, Nor of those who have gone astray.” My grandfather bent his forehead towards the earth. Forward he bent, and the earth, prayer-mat covered, curved up towards him. And now it was the tussock’s time. At one and the same time a rebuke from Ilse-Oskar-Ingrid-Heidelberg as well as valley-and-God, it smote him upon the point of his nose. Three drops fell. There were rubies and diamonds. And my grandfather, lurching upright, made a resolve. Stood. Rolled cheroot. Stared across the lake. And was knocked forever into that middle place, unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve. Permanent alteration: a hole.

I love the phrasing “knocked forever into that middle place, unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve.” Many throughout history have fought a version of this battle. Aziz’s hole is described by Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Only it’s not my battle, perhaps because I entered religion from the opposite direction. Raised in an atmosphere that didn’t encourage belief in the divine, I concluded in high school that Darwinism explained everything about earth’s creations. Yet even as I did so—I still recall where I was when I arrived at the conclusion—I sensed something wrong about being able to reduce all of creation to a set of scientific principles. I remember feeling both powerful and empty. Years later, I would choose to voluntarily enter Aziz’s middle place.

Only my middle place can be described with positives: I believe in God and I believe that science is a powerful force for truth. Unlike Aziz’s German friends, I have never mocked believers. I don’t feel the need to set myself up as an all-knowing judge of other people’s belief systems.

Faith can emerge out of open-mindedness.

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we have always loved each other

Lucille Clifton


For African History month, here’s a lovely poem calling upon oppressed groups to believe in themselves and love themselves. The relationship between discrimination and low self esteem is such that a wise mother like Lucille Clifton must remind us that we are loved.

In the face of reality’s slings and arrows, a protected inner place is needed to guard this truth (“keep this in the place you have for keeping”). Initially, people who have been beaten down don’t believe they are loved so Clifton assures them with an indirect declaration (“we have never hated black”). As she patiently explains the situation, however, breaking down certain words for emphasis (“always” into “all ways”), the truth blossoms into an affirmative (“we have always loved each other”).

Fortunately, one needn’t rely entirely on oneself. The community will find ways to communicate the truth, just as it passed along subversive messages in slave times. Once one fully believes, all things are possible.

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

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On the Carnivalesque in Magic Realism


As I was teaching 100 Years of Solitude Tuesday, I applied my theory that fantasy is always oppositional. As I see it, fantasy invariably opposes some reality that the author finds unsatisfactory.  If you examine a fantasy work closely, you will find the forces that the author is resisting.

For example, Edgar Allan Poe exposes the limitations of Enlightenment Reason in his gothic horror—his mad killers are extremely logical—and J.R.R. Tolkien battles technology and modernity in Lord of the Rings.

So what realism, I asked my students, does Garcia Marquez’s magic push against? One target appears to be Spanish colonialists imposing their order upon the Colombian people.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival helps us understand the author’s project. As the Russian theorist saw it, carnival time disrupts the normal order of things, allowing new creative energies to emerge. Many of the greatest magical realist novels feature carnivals, whether it is the gypsies in 100 Years, the clown-like narrator of Midnight’s Children, or the mad drumming of Gunter Grass’s protagonist. There’s even a carnival scene in Beloved—the picnic—although unfortunately it precipitates the book’s tragedy.

Bakhtin, who spent many years in Stalin’s gulag, found something democratic in medieval street carnivals. (He also celebrated laughter and the body.) In his book on Rabelais, he differentiates between official pageants, which were intended to bolster the existing order, and people’s pageants, which undermined it:

Carnival festivities and the comic spectacles and ritual connected with them had an important place in the life of medieval man. Besides carnivals proper, with their long and complex pageants and processions, there was the ‘feast of fools’ (festa stultorum) and the ‘feast of the ass’; there was a special free ‘Easter laughter’ (risus paschalis), consecrated by tradition. Moreover, nearly every Church feast had its comic folk aspect, which was also traditionally recognized. Such, for instance, were the parish feasts, usually marked by fairs and varied open-air amusements, with the participation of giants, dwarfs, monsters, and trained animals. A carnival atmosphere reigned on days when mysteries and soties [satirical and topical comedies] were produced. This atmosphere also pervaded such agricultural feasts as the harvesting of grapes (vendange) which was celebrated also in the city. Civil and social ceremonies and rituals took on a comic aspect as clowns and fools, constant participants in these festivals, mimicked serious rituals such as the tribute rendered to the victors at tournaments, the transfer of feudal rights, or the initiation of a knight. Minor occasions were also marked by comic protocol, as for instance the election of a king and queen to preside at a banquet ‘for laughter’s sake’ (roi pour rire).”

 [These occasions] built a second world and a second life outside officialdom, a world in which all medieval people participated more or less, in which they lived during a given time of the year.

Scholar Brenda Cooper, perhaps drawing on Bakhtin, argues that magical realism is inherently democratic. That’s because it

opposes fundamentalism and purity; it is at odds with racism, ethnicity and the quest for taproots, origins and homogeneity; it is fiercely secular and revels in the body, the joker, laughter, 

100 Years opens with Colonel Aureliano recalling a gypsy carnival as he faces a firing squad. His encounter with ice when he is a child is the marvelous intruding into the mundane. These same gypsies periodically disrupt life in Macondo, introducing new wonders such as magnets, magnifying glasses, flying carpets, and the like. These inspire town patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia to embark upon manic projects.

The novel itself has the feel of an over-the-top carnival, with its extravagant mingling of magic and everyday life. For a tiny sampling, here’s a description of the parties thrown by Buendia’s great grandson, Aureliano Segundo, when he walks out on his tradition-obsessed wife and moves in with his mistress:

He never looked better, nor had he been loved more, nor had the breeding of his animals been wilder. There was a slaughtering of so many cows, pigs, and chickens for the endless parties that the ground in the courtyard turned black and muddy with so much blood. It was an eternal execution ground of bones and innards, a mud pit of leftovers, and they had to keep exploding dynamite bombs all the time so that the buzzards would not pluck out the guests’ eyes. Aureliano Segundo grew fat, purple-colored, turtle-shaped, because of an appetite comparable only to that of Jose Arcadio [his grandfather] when he came back from traveling around the world. The prestige of his outlandish voracity, of his immense capacity as a spendthrift, of his unprecedented hospitality went beyond the borders of the swamp and attracted the best-qualified gluttons from all along the coast. Fabulous eaters arrived from everywhere to take part in the irrational tourneys of capacity and resistance that were organized in the house of Petra Cotes [his mistress]. Aureliano Segundo was the unconquered eater until the luckless Saturday when Camila Sagastume appeared, a totemic female known all through the land by the good name of “The Elephant.” The duel lasted until dawn on Tuesday.

As my class discussed the novel, we wondered whether it represented the rise and fall of the colonial classes in Colombia, with the incestuous Buendia family finally collapsing in on itself. Perhaps the forces of nature that bury the final survivor represent the proletarian revolution that the Castro-supporting Garcia Marquez longs for. The red ants devouring the house sound communistic.

While magical realism might have a democratic strain, however, we must keep in mind that populism isn’t always positive. Americans at the moment are living through a carnivalesque moment that is undermining traditional institutions. Suddenly, however, it is liberals like me defending traditional institutions while rightwing figures like Steve Bannon fantasize about bringing everything tumbling down. It has never been more important to me that school children every day pledge allegiance to the United States of America (with emphasis on “one nation” and “liberty and justice for all”).

Could it be that, after eight sober years of “no drama Obama,” Americans want pageantry? After all, enough voters opted for a carnival barker instead of an unexciting woman who would have, in boring fashion, attended to hurricane victims, conducted careful diplomacy, and seen to the normal functioning of government. Who wants a model family like Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha when we can have a leader who lies incessantly, hurls abuse left and right, grabs women by their unmentionables, and pays hush money to a woman named Stormy Daniels? Donald Trump sounds like any number of characters in Garcia Marquez’s novel.

Norms and standards that have been in place since the founding of the republic are shifting under our feet. The lines between reality and fantasy have become porous. Carnival may be setting loose new energies, but not all of them are positive.

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Telling Your Name the Livelong Day


I wrote this post before Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address, but I already know that it will be filled with grandiose declarations and over-the-top boasting. If you listened and felt slimed, check out the 1996 Nobel speech of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, which reader Sara Fisher sent in to cleanse yourself.

Meditating on what differentiates poets from “torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans,” Szymborska observes that the latter are certain while the former are not. People such as Trump

know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

Szymborska opts instead for incessant questioning:

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended….

Poets, if they’re genuine, must…keep repeating, “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre” …

Trump, I suspect, has never uttered the words “I don’t know.” His insecurity is such that he must present himself as being in control at all times. In his mind, nothing is worse that being a “loser,” as was revealed once again in an incident that has just come to light involving the FBI’s former acting director Andrew McCabe:

The day after he fired James Comey as director of the FBI, a furious President Donald Trump called the bureau’s acting director, Andrew McCabe, demanding to know why Comey had been allowed to fly on an FBI plane from Los Angeles back to Washington after he was dismissed, according to multiple people familiar with the phone call.

McCabe told the president he hadn’t been asked to authorize Comey’s flight, but if anyone had asked, he would have approved it, three people familiar with the call recounted to NBC News.

The president was silent for a moment and then turned on McCabe, suggesting he ask his wife how it feels to be a loser — an apparent reference to a failed campaign for state office in Virginia that McCabe’s wife made in 2015.

McCabe replied, “OK, sir.” Trump then hung up the phone.

Under presidential pressure, McCabe has just resigned.

I’m trying to think of literary figures who are as petty and vindictive as our president, but all that currently comes to mind is an Emily Dickinson poem that captures Szymborska ‘s distinction between poets and politicians:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Trump is more than ready to banish nobodies. How dreary to spend every waking hour croaking your name.

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Atwood’s Jezebels at the Presidents Club

Moss, Fiennes in “The Handmaid’s Tale”


The Pool, an online journal, referenced The Handmaid’s Tale in an article about the recent Presidents Club scandal, and the allusion is an apt one. Kat Lister draws comparisons with the private club to which the Commander takes Offred.

According to Wikipedia, Presidents Club Charitable Trust is (now was) a British charity that holds an annual charity dinner for male guests only. This past month the dinner featured 130 scantily clad “hostesses” who were instructed to wear “skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels.” In the course of the evening, they “were subject to groping, lewd comments, requests to join guests in their bedrooms, questions whether they were prostitutes.” One attendee even exposed his penis to a hostess. We know this because reporter Madison Marriage went underground and reported on the affair.

Other than the black outfits, the event does indeed sound like “the Club” in Handmaid’s Tale, where (as Lister puts it) “seedy high-ranking officials act out their male privilege behind closed hotel doors.” Here’s the scene that greets Offred upon entering:

The women are sitting, lounging, strolling, leaning against one another. There are men mingled with them, a lot of men, but in their dark uniforms or suits, so similar to one another, they form only a kind of background. The women on the other hand are tropical, they are dressed in all kinds of bright festive gear. Some of them have on outfits like mine, feathers and glister, cut high up the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie, shortie nightgowns, baby-doll pajamas, the occasional see-through negligee. Some are in bathing suits, one piece or bikini; one, I see, is wearing a crocheted affair, with big scallop shells covering the tits. Some are in jogging shorts and sun halters, some in exercise costumes like the ones they used to show on television, body-tight, with knitted pastel leg warmers. There are even a few in cheerleaders’ outfits, little pleated skirts, outsized letters across the chest. I guess they’ve had to fall back on a mélange, whatever they could scrounge or salvage. All wear-make-up, and I realize how unaccustomed I’ve become to seeing it, on women, because their eyes look too big to me, too dark and shimmering, their mouths too red, too wet, blood-dipped and glistening; or, on the other hand, too clownish.

…It’s like a masquerade party; they are like oversize children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks….

“It’s like walking into the past,” says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. “Don’t you think?”

In both instances, Lister writes, the issue is abuse of power and who’s in control. It doesn’t matter that the “hostesses” volunteered. In the one case you have women with limited options hiring out for a job, in the other slaves who are told they are “rentals”:

 “Here,” the Commander says. He slips around my wrist a tag, purple, on an elastic band, like the tags for airport luggage. “If anyone asks you, say you’re an evening rental,” he says. 

We learn that many of the Club’s “Jezebels” are former professional women who prefer this life to the grim alternatives. The Commander points out some of them to Offred:

 [W]e have quite a collection. That one there, the one in green, she’s a sociologist. Or was. That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position; some sort of fast-food chain or maybe it was hotels. I’m told you can have quite a good conversation with her if all you feel like is talking.

Lister says that the assertion of male power in the President’s Club is really about employment rights and who’s the boss. She calls upon us to remember

working women who lack a platform and a voice – in boardrooms, catering kitchens, science labs and on shop floors. Women with bills to pay.

Lest you doubt that the Presidents Club event aims to bolster the guests’ belief that they deserve to be movers and shakers—that’s the hook that pulls them in–check out Atwood’s Commander. He uses “the Club” to reassure himself:

He retains hold of my arm, and as he talks his spine straightens imperceptibly, his chest expands, his voice assumes more and more the sprightliness and jocularity of youth. It occurs to me he is showing off. He is showing me off, to them, and they understand that, they are decorous enough, they keep their hands to themselves, but they review my breasts, my legs, as if there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. But also he is showing off to me. He is demonstrating, to me, his mastery of the world. He’s breaking the rules, under their noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it. Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all.

Or as Donald Trump was overheard to say on the Access Hollywood bus,

You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything….Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

As depressing as all this is, Lister finds one silver lining:

In the pits of all the groping, pinching, genitalia-flashing and up-skirting, it’s important to remind ourselves that, despite our deepest fears, we’re not in Gilead. At least, not yet – despite the Trump-Weinstein effect. Yesterday, an undercover female reporter managed the unthinkable: she shut The Commanders down. 

This is what #MeToo is all about.

Further thought: Here’s another parallel with the president. The Jezebels must watch their weight to work for the Club, the Commander tells Offred:

“They’re strict about that. Gain ten pounds and they put you in Solitary.” Is he joking? Most likely, but I don’t want to know.

And here’s our president in a radio interview with Howard Stern:

“You know, Howard, she’s got the kind of a body and makeup where, about one day after the baby, it’s going to be the same as it was before,” Trump said during an appearance on Stern’s show on Dec. 7, 2005.

“You’re giving her one day?” Stern asked.

“One or two,” Trump replied.

Moments later, the future president reconsidered. “I think I’ll give her a week,” he said. “No, I’ll give her a week.”

Was he joking? Do we want to know?

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Lit for Survivors Lost in a Dark Wood

Gustave Doré, Dante in a dark wood


Commonweal recently published a heartfelt article by West Point visiting English professor Cassandra Nelson on how literature can help trauma survivors recover. Nelson begins with an angry comment about a University of Chicago dean’s facile dismissal of  trigger warnings, even though she herself opposes them. She, however, speaks from the vantage point of one who was triggered, and her reasoning is far more thoughtful.

Nelson was abused as a child and not believed. When she was in graduate school, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao surfaced memories she had repressed and suddenly she found herself living in a version of Dante’s “dark wood”:

It is not giving away too much of the plot to say that Oscar’s sister is molested, and as I read about her experience I had a memory—no words, just an image, and a smell, and a feeling of absolute terror—of being abused. My first impulse was to refuse to believe that it was real, and I actually managed to wall it off again for a few months. But when the memory surfaced a second time, and wouldn’t go away, there I was: twenty-eight and scared out of my mind, confused about what had happened and what else might have happened, shut out by the same family systems that had allowed the abuse to happen in the first place…The physiological effects alone—panic attacks if I tried to exercise, an endless well of sorrow if I drank, nightmares when I slept—were overwhelming. I had entered, through no fault of my own and very much against my will, what readers of Dante might recognize as a dark wood. “In the middle of the journey of our life,” he begins the Inferno, “I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death.”

A lifetime of reading came to Nelson’s aid. “Dante had Virgil,” she writes, “and

I had Julian of Norwich, and Saul Bellow, and Thomas Pynchon, to guide me through the vagaries of life, to explain the pain I felt, and to teach me the primacy of love and the sacredness of children.

Musing on the impact of literature, Nelson writes,

Why is literature so helpful as a guide? For one thing, because words can make order out of chaos. Indeed, they might be the only things that ever have. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, when “the earth was without form, and void,” God used language to separate the light from the darkness, and the earth from the waters, thereby paving the way for creation and human life….In everyday life, too, language can help separate us from the sometimes overwhelming muddle of real-time existence….[N]aming can provide both power and balm. The sufferer from chronic pain who finally receives a diagnosis knows this; the child who understands, at last, that his mother’s coldness or fury was caused by alcoholism, or schizophrenia, or anything else that wasn’t his own worthlessness, knows this too.

Her discovery of literature’s healing powers led Nelson to read in a whole new way:

No longer do I read fiction to cultivate a sophisticated scholarly distance. I read it to find out how to live, which is the only reason why anyone ever reads anything in the first place. Children love fairy tales precisely because they provide a worst-case scenario and, usually, a way out. What if I should someday find myself, like Hansel and Gretel, left alone to starve in the woods? How can I keep my wits about me, to escape starvation and the evil witch?

By reading, then, we gather resources for the times we will need them:

As a teacher, I want my students to wrangle with the language of Shakespeare’s play, yes, but I also hope that they will gather up these pearls of wisdom as they do, like squirrels gathering nuts, against the day when they might find themselves alone and in the woods in a time of famine.

Nelson delves most deeply into Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, a book that probably comes with trigger warnings in some classes since we see a father sexually assault his daughter Pecola. Nelson looks closely at the parents’ background and, while not excusing them, talks about the power of understanding why such things happen:

[T]hese moments serve to strip Cholly and Pauline of power and menace: they’re not exciting, diabolical villains or larger-than-life monsters or unstoppable forces of nature. They are fathomably and stoppably cruel. One could take concrete steps to counter them, to prevent them from developing a capacity for such cruelty in the first place.

The novel also helps relieve survivors of guilt they may be experiencing:

Such moments in Morrison’s fiction…reveal that the abuse falls on Pecola not because she deserves it, but because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—small and vulnerable and dependent upon people who did not or could not face their own hurts and fears before having a child.

While Nelson finds Bluest Eye liberating, she doesn’t say the same about Lolita, writing that she can no longer stomach Humbert Humbert’s self-justification. She reports having seen a student burst into tears during a discussion of the novel, and I myself once had a student yell at a “Madness and literature Class” team-taught with a psychologist and stomp out.  Yet despite such incidents, Nelson opposes trigger warnings.

She gives a couple of reasons. First, facing the trauma is better than ignoring it:

Although the student with a trauma history has something to fear in the short term,—I’m sorry to say that it does get worse before it gets better—he or she has much, much, much more to gain in the long term, by not ignoring the wound.

Nelson goes even further. Labeling painful subject matter, she says, actually disempowers the survivor because the practice “encourages a kind of prurient reading”:

If you’re scanning every page waiting for a scene of rape or murder that you know is coming, you’ve given the material more power over you, in some sense, than if you had just stumbled onto it. In a way, the painful subject matter becomes the star of the show, when it isn’t, necessarily, in the context of the work as a whole or the life.

Stumbling onto a work without expectations can be immensely powerful. After all, could anyone have predicted that Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would launch Nelson on her powerful journey while Lolita would initially leave her unmoved? Life doesn’t come with a pre-programmed warning so why should literature? The only way to brace for the unexpected, Nelson says,

is to develop the capacity to stay calm enough, alert enough, and secure enough in your own worth and the goodness of God to keep your eyes open and face reality.

While she observes that “the only way to develop this kind of equanimity is the hard way,” reading is also vital. After all, literature’s primary responsibility is to truth, and “it’s the truth—and not a running from the truth—that sets us free.”

Previous Posts on Trigger Warnings

Warning Labels for the Classics

Why It’s Good To Offend Students

“Leda and the Swan”–Warning Necessary?

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How To Find a Paradise Within, Happier Far

Gabriel visits Adam and Eve in “Paradise Lost”

Spiritual Sunday

Like many, I have been flummoxed by the religious contortions of rightwing evangelicals in their support for Donald Trump. John Milton would have choice words for them.

In case you haven’t heard about evangelical Trump worship, here’s Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton:

The leader of the conservative evangelical organization Family Research Council said that evangelicals were happy to give President Donald Trump a “do-over” after a previously unpublished 2011 interview with adult film actress Stormy Daniels revealed that she may have been paid to remain silent about an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006.

Speaking to Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere about the Daniels incident, Tony Perkins said evangelicals “kind of gave him — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” using a golfing term that refers to a free stroke given to a player after a poor shot.

Perkins argued that the good Trump could do for evangelicals made up for his un-biblical behavior and warranted a free pass. He told Dovere that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

Perkins’s remarks reflect a wider trend among white evangelicals (81 percent of whom voted for Trump in the 2016 election): Many choose to disregard Trump’s decidedly debauched, decades-old public persona to focus on his anti-LBGTQ and anti-abortion stances. Many, including Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, have chosen to mark a clear division between Trump’s past and his present, describing him as a “baby Christian.” 

Religion scholar Reza Azlan explains their devotion by observing that

we essentially conceive of God as a divine version of ourselves, and we implant in God our own values, emotions, personalities and even our own bodies, but we also implant in him our own politics.

In other words, evangelical Trump admiration is self-admiration.

To be sure, human beings invariably project. After all, the images that we use to articulate our sense of the divine must come from ourselves. Poetry (and art and music) do a better job of it than politics, but even poets must use figures that we recognize from our own lives.

But to approach the divine, we must reach beyond ourselves. Great poetry assists in this. By contrast, Perkins, Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham tangle up God with their worldly self-interest. Milton calls such people false prophets.

His attack occurs in Book XII of Paradise Lost when the archangel Michael is laying out the future to Adam. Adam initially gets excited upon hearing about Jesus and his sacrifice.

  O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!

However, Adam then worries about what will happen after Jesus leaves:

But say, if our Deliverer up to Heaven
Must re-ascend, what will betide the few
His faithful, left among the unfaithful herd,
The enemies of truth?  Who then shall guide
His people, who defend?  Will they not deal
Worse with his followers than with him they dealt?

Michael acknowledges that he is right to be concerned and proceeds to explain about the Holy Spirit or “Comforter”:

  Be sure they will, said the Angel; but from Heaven
He to his own a Comforter will send,
The promise of the Father, who shall dwell
His Spirit within them; and the law of faith,
Working through love, upon their hearts shall write,
To guide them in all truth; and also arm
With spiritual armor, able to resist
Satan’s assaults, and quench his fiery darts…

For a while, the apostles will spread the word, winning “great numbers of each nation to receive with joy the tidings brought from Heaven.” Unfortunately, they will be followed by “grievous wolves,” an allusion to Matthew’s warning about “false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (7:15).

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition… 

Along with the figures I have mentioned, I would add prosperity theology preachers as people focused on secular power as they claim God for themselves:

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…

As a result of their efforts,

                                                             Truth shall retire
Bestuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith
Rarely be found:  So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign;
Under her own weight groaning…

Interestingly, both Milton’s and Trump’s evangelical followers see the world caught in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. As Reza Aslan sees it, Trump Christians make up an apocalyptic cult:

Cult members tend to believe that they are taking part in a cosmic performance, that they are fighting in a battle between the forces of good and evil. And if “good” doesn’t win — if cold, hard reality overtakes the cult leader’s lies and fantasies — the whole enterprise may collapse, sometimes violently.

That some of Trump’s supporters view the president in cosmic terms is clear. A month after the inauguration, Pat Robertson said those who oppose Trump are “revolting against what God’s plan for America is.” Paula White, the pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida and a Trump spiritual advisor, recently told her congregation that resisting Trump is tantamount to “fighting against the hand of God.”…

Trump’s truest believers have sounded downright apocalyptic: “This is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats,” [Dallas First Baptist Church pastor Robert] Jeffress said in 2016. “It’s a battle between … righteousness and unrighteousness, light and darkness.” [Ohio pastor Frank] Amedia declared that God personally told him that Trump’s presidency was paving the way for the Second Coming.

Milton too believes that the Second Coming will clean up the world, with Jesus descending from the clouds

                                                           to dissolve
Satan with his perverted world; then raise
From the conflagrant mass, purged and refined,
New Heavens, new Earth, ages of endless date,
Founded in righteousness, and peace, and love;
To bring forth fruits, joy and eternal bliss.

I don’t think that Milton would include Democrats as those who need to be purged and refined.

That being said, I don’t buy his version of the apocalypse any more than I do that of white evangelicals. I think that Jesus meant for us to work with the world we have rather than engage in magical thinking about some future where God sticks it to people we don’t like. Milton gets it right, however, when he has Michael tell Adam that Paradise can be achieved through good deeds, faith, virtue, patience, temperance and, above all, love:

                                                                [O]nly add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable; add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance; add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

Punching Barack Obama and leftists does not lead to a Paradise within, happier far. America would be a happier place if we all did what Jesus actually wanted.

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Wordsworth Changed How We See Nature

Haydon, “William Wordsworth”


Few poets have impacted the way we see the world more than William Wordsworth. In a recent Guardian article, novelist Margaret Drabble doesn’t mince words in describing his influence:

Wordsworth changed forever the way we view the natural world and the inner world of feeling. He also connected the two indivisibly. We are his heirs, and we see and feel through him. His vision illumined our landscape.

We now are so accustomed to see the world in this way that we forget  that it was not always thus. Poets in the 18th century may have enjoyed a good landscape, but they didn’t then link the experience with intimate states of mind, as Wordsworth does in the concluding stanza of his beloved “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud”:

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. 

About Wordsworth’s autobiographical Prelude, which I’ve never read in its entirety, Drabble writes,

It is a work of astonishing originality, both in its subject matter (childhood and the growth of the mind, described with a pre-Freudian insight unprecedented in literature) and in its form. The verse is powerful, supple, subtle, freely flowing. Wordsworth revered both Shakespeare and Milton. His is the third great iambic voice in the English language.

I like to tackle a long poem or a series of poems for my Lenten discipline. Last year I read Milton’s Paradise Regained. I believe I have my candidate for this year.

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Marquez: How GOP Can Regain Its Soul


I am currently teaching One Hundred Years of Solitude in my Magical Realism course and am struck by how magical realism might be the only genre that could do justice to our current politics. I’ll be exploring this idea in the weeks to come. I’m struck by similarities between the great liberal hero Colonel Aureliano Buendia and the Republican Party. Aureliano begins by fighting for higher principles, but the incessant wars ultimately become about nothing more than power and ego. As one of his closest friends tells him, “You’re rotting alive.”

Fortunately for Republicans dismayed about how the GOP has been Trumpified, Aureliano finds his way back to his ideals. It just takes courage and a great deal of effort. As he learns, it is “easier to start a war than to end one.”

Before Aureliano wakes up, however, we see him losing his inner compass:

Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction…He was weary of the uncertainty, of the vicious circle of that eternal war that always found him in the same place, but always older, wearier, even more in the position of not knowing why, or how, or even when.

At one point he has a conservative mayor executed, even though the man was formerly a friend and the best mayor his hometown of Macondo has ever had. The mayor tries to remind him “of their common aim to humanize the war” and to triumph over “the corruption of the militarists and the ambitions of the politicians in both parties” but to no avail as Aureliano uses the “tyrant’s plea” (as Milton calls it in Paradise Lost) to justify his action:

“Remember, old friend,” he told him. “I’m not shooting you. It’s the revolution that shooting you.”
General Moncada did not even get up from the cot when he saw him come in.
“Go to hell, friend,” he answered.

The scene is repeated later only at this point Aureliano has rediscovered his principles. When he enters the man’s prison cell, he has a different message:

“Let’s get out of here before the mosquitoes in here execute you.” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez could not repress the disdain that was inspired in him by that attitude.
“No, Aureliano,” he replied. I’d rather be dead than see you changed into a bloody tyrant”
“You won’t see me,” Colonel Aureliano Buendia said. “Put on your shoes and help me get this shitty war over with.”

The process that occurs next is a version of what I would like to see occur with the GOP:

It took him almost a year of fierce and bloody effort to force the government to propose conditions of peace favorable to the rebels and another year to convince his own partisans of the convenience of accepting them. He went to inconceivable extremes of cruelty to put down the rebellion of his own officers, who resisted and called for victory, and he finally relied on enemy forces to make them submit.

Imagine Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell bucking their extremist wing and proposing measures to protect Dreamers. Imagine them moving the party back to the center.

Garcia Marquez assures us that it is worth it:

He was never a greater soldier than at that time. The certainty that he was finally fighting for his own liberation and not for abstract ideals, for slogans that politicians could twist left and right according to the circumstances, filled him with an ardent enthusiasm.

Do the current GOP leaders have such greatness with them?

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Le Guin: To Refuse Death Is To Refuse Life

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018


When I learned yesterday that fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin had died, I thought of The Farthest Shore, where she explores humans’ fear of death. The third of her Earthsea series, Farthest Shore is about a dark wizard who, seeking to become immortal, opens up a crack between this world and the afterworld. As a result, a strange lethargy is spreading through the land. Magic is disappearing, people are forgetting the old songs, and the wise old dragons are losing the power of speech and committing suicide.

Although Farthest Shore is a young adult novel, Le Guin must have thought of its themes as she went through her final illness. In their quest to confront the dark wizard, the archmage Ged and the young prince Arren seek to understand how death impacts the way we view life. At one point Arren is paralyzed when Ged appears to be dying, and Ged later asks him what he thought and felt:

“Nothing, my lord—nothing! I thought there was no use in doing anything. I thought your wizardry was gone—no, that it had never been. That you had tricked me.” The sweat broke out on Arren’s face and he had to force his voice, but he went on. “I was afraid of you. I was afraid of death. I was so afraid of it I could not look at you, because you might be dying. I could think of nothing, except that there was—there was a way of not dying for me, if I could find it. But all the time life was running out, as if there was a great wound and the blood running from it—such as you had. But this was in everything. And I did nothing, nothing, but try to hide from the horror of dying.”

This image of life running out is one which the dark wizard will also use when they finally find him. He has achieved what humans think they want—immortality—but as a result life no longer enchants. When he opens up a portal between the living and the dead through which he can pass, all light is sucked out of his world:

I opened the door between the worlds and I cannot shut it. No one can shut it. It will never be shut again. It draws, it draws me. I must come back to it. I must go through it and come back here, into the dust and cold and silence. It sucks at me and sucks at me. I cannot leave it. I cannot close it. It will suck all the light out of the world in the end. All the rivers will be like the Dry River.

Earlier, in response to Arren’s horror at death, Ged tells him, “To refuse death is to refuse life,” and,

There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

Then he becomes very direct:

Listen to me, Arren. You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose….That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself—safety forever?

Ged makes the same point to the dark wizard:

You cannot see the light of day; you cannot see the dark. You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self. All that which you sold, that is yourself. You have given everything for nothing. And so now you seek to draw the world to you, all the light and life you lost, to fill up your nothingness. But it cannot be filled. Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven, could fill your emptiness.

As she was dying, I’m sure Le Guin must have known that the pain was more than offset by the richness of the life she had lived, a richness experienced precisely because one day it would end. She would not have given up her writing craft, the passion of her heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for herself.

This richness she shared through her novels, short stories and poems. That part of her lives on.

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How Atwood Rescued This Single Mom


It’s not often that a student tells you that an author turned her life around, but Ashley Kadva says this of Margaret Atwood’s novels. I’m currently mentoring Ashley’s senior project and you will be impressed by how the Canadian author came to the aid of someone who endured a very tough childhood. Because of the sensitivity of the material, I got Ashley’s permission to tell her story, and she checked over the post before publication.

Ashley’s St. Mary’s Project consists of a memoir and a thematic analysis of Edible Woman, Surfacing, and The Robber Bride. As a single mother who had returned to college in her thirties, Ashley was looking for a topic that would allow her to explore the intricacies of relationships. From what I knew of Ashley from a Pride and Prejudice essay, I suggested Atwood. Ashley glanced at Edible Woman and recognized at once that Atwood was the right author for her.

Ashley spent last summer immersed in Atwood novels, which triggered various childhood memories. These included:

–her grandmother calling Child Protective Services to force Ashley’s mother to allow her to have life-saving urinary tract surgery;
–Ashley spending days in the car as her addicted parents drove the family long distances to obtain drugs;
–a near sexual assault from a friend of her stepfather while her mother turned a blind eye; and
–a rape by a 19-year-old when Ashley was 13.

Following the rape, Ashley writes, she became promiscuous but then looked to marriage as a form of salvation. She believed those around her, including her religious grandmother, when they told her that landing a husband would make her worthy and respectable.

She increasingly felt empty in the marriage, however, and it ended. Before it did, however, she determined to go to college to find herself.

She recognized a kindred soul in Atwood when she encountered the notion of being an edible woman. Marian is a college graduate in an empty job who finds herself pressured to get married. Increasingly, however, she finds herself unable to eat. Finally, she freaks out her fiancé by presenting him with a large cake in the form of a woman. This metaphorical expression of how she feels she is being devoured drives him away and helps free her to begin exploring new possibilities.

If Edible Woman helped Ashley imagine a life outside of marriage, Surfacing alerted her to the necessity of facing up to her dark childhood. The unnamed protagonist cannot understand why is unable to experience emotions and why her relationships don’t progress. A dive into a lake functions as a metaphor for a dive into her past, and there she encounters a memory that she has repressed, a fetus from an abortion. Upon resurfacing, she goes mad, tearing down all vestiges of civilization around her—she is in a family cabin in the woods—but this tearing herself down to essentials is a necessary step if she is to begin building a new self. By the end, as Ashley interprets the novel, she is ready to leave the island and return to the world.

An important Atwood observation for Ashley, from another work, observes that “you must take the longest journey, to oblivion. And die the death, the long and painful death that lies between the old self and the new.”

The Robber Bride goes more fully into the need to take action. The novel involves three women who are plagued by a woman (Zenia) who steals and then destroys their husbands. As the novel progresses, however, it’s unclear whether this woman even exists or whether she is a dark alter ego who makes the husbands pay for their emotional abuse. The women, after all, have allowed these men to walk all over them, especially Charis (a.k.a. Karen) and Roz, so maybe Zenia is a repressed anger that rises up and takes revenge.

The figure of Karen/Charis sent Ashley back into her childhood. Karen is repeatedly raped by her uncle while her aunt closes her eyes, and she survives psychologically by imagining a double self. (While one is being assaulted, the other floats above.) She names this doubled self Charis, and Charis goes on to practice meditation and open up a shop selling crystals, incense, candles, wind chimes, and other such paraphernalia.

Charis pretends her Karen past never happened but, by repressing her anger, she becomes an emotional doormat, opening herself up to exploiters like American draft dodger Billy. Billy mooches off of her until a supposedly sick Zenia shows up, first stealing him away from Charis and then turning him into the authorities for selling pot.

Or maybe it’s an unleashed Karen who turns Billy in. In Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, the psychologist who analyzes the murderess theorizes that she has been possessed by a dead friend, the victimized and now very angry Mary Whitney, who orchestrates the murder without Grace’s knowledge. Karen, released by Zenia, may function similarly.

The point of these intricate and murky plot twists is that women may be angrier than they admit to themselves, and repressed anger turns toxic. To progress forward in a healthy way, one must acknowledge the anger. By the end of The Robber Bride, the three female protagonists have formed a sisterhood—Zenia has brought them together—and are prepared to move on.

Which is how Ashley is using Robber Bride. As she says, she wants not to be a victim but to construct a happy and fulfilling life for herself and her boys. To do that, however, she must recognize the narratives in which she has been trapped. Analyzing and applying Atwood’s novels has allowed her to do precisely that.

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Shafak: Storyland Is the Taste of Freedom

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak


I have just listened to a wonderful TED talk by the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak that indirectly makes a powerful case for a literary education. Shafak doesn’t specifically recommend that we read more lit when she discusses “the revolutionary power of diverse thought,” but she makes it clear that great writers articulate the world’s diversity.

Shafak says that the pressures of our global world have people longing for simple answers:

I think our world is full of unprecedented challenges, and this comes with an emotional backlash, because in the face of high-speed change, many people wish to slow down, and when there’s too much unfamiliarity, people long for the familiar. And when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity.

 To negotiate these challenges, “emotional intelligence” is required. Without it, societies fall prey to demagogues: 

[The demagogue] tells us that we all belong in our tribes, and he tells us that we will be safer if we are surrounded by sameness…I think [demagogues] have one unmistakable quality in common: they strongly, strongly dislike plurality. They cannot deal with multiplicity. Adorno used to say, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.” But I ask myself: What if that same sign, that same intolerance of ambiguity–what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we’re living in? Because wherever I look, I see nuances withering away…

I think binary oppositions are everywhere. So slowly and systematically, we are being denied the right to be complex…

While we may not acknowledge our complexity, we are not as “solid” as the demagogue claims:

So just like solid countries was an illusion, singular identities is also an illusion, because we all have a multiplicity of voices inside. The Iranian, the Persian poet, Hafiz, used to say, “You carry in your soul every ingredient necessary to turn your existence into joy. All you have to do is to mix those ingredients.”

And I think mix we can. I am an Istanbulite, but I’m also attached to the Balkans, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Levant. I am a European by birth, by choice, the values that I uphold. I have become a Londoner over the years. I would like to think of myself as a global soul, as a world citizen, a nomad and an itinerant storyteller. I have multiple attachments, just like all of us do. And multiple attachments mean multiple stories.

Here, then, is the vital necessity of storytellers: they point out the multiplicity that the authoritarian denies.

“So what can we do?” Shafak asks. To construct a more diverse perspective, we must learn from the enemy:

The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran used to say, “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind.” I think it’s a great motto for our times.  

So from populist demagogues, we will learn the indispensability of democracy. And from isolationists, we will learn the need for global solidarity. And from tribalists, we will learn the beauty of cosmopolitanism and the beauty of diversity.  

 Shafak concludes by noting that writers are central to this learning process:

 I think for writers, for storytellers, at the end of the day, there is one main homeland, and it’s called “Storyland.” And the taste of that word is the taste of freedom.

So to sum up, writers help foster the emotional intelligence necessary to live in a complex and diverse world. Through literature, we push against the demagogues that rail against complexity. To read is to resist.

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The Always Overflowing Sea

Turner, “Fishermen upon a Lee shore”

Spiritual Sunday

Given that today’s liturgical reading is Jesus inviting his disciples to become fishers of people (Mark 1:14-20), here’s a Pablo Neruda poem about fishermen. The poem works as a parable about our relationship with God and also with the environment.

The sea, Neruda makes clear, refuses to conform to human logic or human convenience. Even using a single word to refer to the sea reveals our desire to reduce and control because the sea is never one thing. The sea refuses to be pinned down, refuses to offer us a single answer:

There’s sea.
But what sea?
It’s always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes

The sea’s relationship to the shore is like our relationship to God: its message, sometimes stern, sometimes soothing, confuses us. We must listen very hard to begin to make sense of what we are being told:

It slaps the rocks
And when they aren’t convinced,
Strokes them
And soaks them
And smothers them with kisses.

At one point Neruda describes the sea as a dog , at another a tiger. Sometimes the sea stammers, sometimes it asserts. With all the animal imagery, I think of C.S. Lewis seeing Christ as Aslan and of Mr. Beaver’s caution:

“He’ll be coming and going,” he had said. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.

Tame, however, is what we want from the sea. In Neruda’s final stanza, the fishermen demand that the sea conform to their needs, pointing out to it that they are in control because they name it (“Oh Sea, this is your name”). Although they claim it as a “comrade,” they regard it as such only when it caters to their agenda, and they criticize it when it beats hard or shouts loud. “Give us this day our daily fish,” they demand, which would sound reasonable if they hadn’t previously described the sea as their foe. The poem concludes with a mixture of self pity and greed:

We are meager fishermen,
Men from the shore
Who are hungry and cold
And you’re our foe.
Don’t beat so hard,
Don’t shout so loud,
Open your green coffers,
Place gifts of silver in our hands.
Give us this day
our daily fish.

They will be grateful if the sea delivers, hostile if it doesn’t. That’s not how the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to work.

In The Book of Job, Satan observes that, while it easy to be devout when things are going well, experiencing hardship is another matter. When a suffering Job finally challenges God, God responds with a fair amount of sea imagery to make the point that divinity is beyond our comprehension:

 Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, “This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt?”


Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?

By concluding his poem with an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, Neruda invests the sea with spiritual meaning. The sea reminds us that we are small but at the same time invites us to step beyond our utilitarian perspective into a broader appreciation of creation. The “gift of silver” demanded by the fishermen may allude to the Judas payment: we betray Christ and we betray ourselves when set ourselves up as the ultimate measure. Creation offers us much more, but our minds must expand beyond narrow self-interest to see it.

Ode to the Sea

By Pablo Neruda

Surrounding the island
There’s sea.
But what sea?
It’s always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes
In blue
In sea spray
Says no
And no again.
It can’t be still.
It stammers
My name is sea.

It slaps the rocks
And when they aren’t convinced,
Strokes them
And soaks them
And smothers them with kisses.
With seven green tongues
Of seven green dogs
Or seven green tigers
Or seven green seas,
Beating its chest,
Stammering its name,

Oh Sea,
This is your name.
Oh comrade ocean,
Don’t waste time
Or water
Getting so upset
Help us instead.
We are meager fishermen,
Men from the shore
Who are hungry and cold
And you’re our foe.
Don’t beat so hard,
Don’t shout so loud,
Open your green coffers,
Place gifts of silver in our hands.
Give us this day
our daily fish.

Added note: In church yesterday we sang one of my favorite hymns (#470 in the Episcopal hymnal) which also compares God and the ocean: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” This is the sea stroking and smothering with kisses. The hymn goes on to make Neruda’s point (and the God of Job as well): “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind.”

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

    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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