House of Spirits, Authoritarians on the Rise

Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueba in “House of Spirits”


What with Donald Trump ascending to the White House, Vladimir Putin throwing his weight around, Turkish President Erdogan claiming dictatorial powers, and French fascist Marine LePen making it to the second round of France’s presidential election, authoritarianism appears to be having a moment. Suddenly there are dire warnings about the future of multicultural democracies, as Adam Gopnik recently noted in a New Yorker article entitled, “Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?”

As it happens, Gopnik actually thinks doomsayers are overreacting and warns of the dangerous allure of “presentism”:

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. 

So don’t be too sure that ethnic nationalism is about to sweep through all developed countries. Yet while I take some comfort from  Gopnik’s article, I also find myself paying a lot more attention to literary descriptions of authority figures.

Here, for instance, is Isabel Allende’s description in House of Spirits of landowner Esteban Trueba. Whether Trueba is providing his peasants with schools or deflowering their daughters, building them houses or busting unions, there is one constant: he is the boss and may not be questioned.

I find it unsettling that many of his tendencies can be found in our current President, with only a few checks and balances preventing Trump from following Trueba’s path. I have no doubt that Trump dreams of possessing such unchallenged power:

In the course of the next ten years, Esteban Trueba became the most respected patron in the region. He built brick houses for his workers, hired a teacher for the school, and raised the standard of living of everyone on his lands. Tres Marias was a good business that required no help from the seam of gold [in his mine]; on the contrary, it served as collateral for an extension on his concession to the mine. Trueba’s bad temper became legend, and grew so exaggerated that it even made him uncomfortable. He forbade anyone to talk back to him and could tolerate no opposition; he viewed the slightest disagreement as a provocation His concupiscence also intensified. Not a girl passed from puberty to adulthood that he did not subject to the woods, the riverbank, or the wrought-iron bed. When there were no more available women in Tres Marias, he began to chase after those from the neighboring haciendas, taking them in the wink of an eye, anywhere he could find a place in the fields, usually at dusk. He did not bother to hide, because he was afraid of no one. On a few occasions, a brother, father, husband, or employer showed up at Tres Marias to call him to account, but faced with his uncontrolled violence, these visits in the name of justice or revenge became less frequent. Word of his cruelty spread throughout the region, provoking jealous admiration among the men of his class. The peasants hid their daughters and clenched their fists helplessly because they could not confront him. Esteban Trueba was stronger, and he had impunity. Twice the bullet-riddled bodies of peasants from other haciendas were discovered. There was not the shadow of a doubt in anybody’s mind that the guilty one was from Tres Marias, but the rural police simply recorded that bit of information in their record book with the tortured hand of the semi-literate, adding that the victims had been caught committing a theft. The matter never went any further. Trueba continued polishing his reputation as a rake, sowing the entire region with his bastard offspring, reaping hatred, and storing up sins that barely nicked him because he had hardened his soul and silenced his conscience with the excuse of progress. In vain, Pedro Segundo Garcia and the old priest from the nuns’ hospital tried to suggest to him that it was not little brick houses or pints of milk that made a man a good employer or an honest Christian, but rather giving his workers a decent salary instead of slips of pink paper, a workload that did not grind their bones to dust, and a little respect and dignity. Trueba would not listen to this sort of thing: it smacked, he said, of Communism.

“They’re degenerate ideas,” he muttered. “Bolshevik ideas designed to turn the tenants against me. What they don’t realize is that these poor people are completely ignorant and uneducated. They’re like children, they can’t handle responsibility. How could they know what’s best for them. Without me they’d be lost—if you don’t believe me, just look what happens every time I turn my back. Everything goes to pieces and they start acting like a bunch of donkeys. They’re very ignorant. My people have it fine now, what more do they need? They have everything they want. If they complain, it’s out of sheer ingratitude.

Trump contends that he’s a populist who cares about coal miners, industrial workers, and other members of the white working class. Don’t be fooled. Trump has Trueba’s contempt for his followers. He wants grateful subjects, not citizens.

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Handmaid’s Tale, More Relevant Than Ever

Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale”


With Hulu set to release The Handmaid’s Tale tomorrow, I have gathered together all the posts I’ve written on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic. As several observers have pointed out, the series, which would have seemed merely interesting had Hillary Clinton been elected president, seems urgent now that we have a “pussy grabber” in the White House and learn more daily about the toxic misogynist culture at Fox News.

Nor would things be much better if Donald Trump were impeached. Mike Pence not only is a firm opponent of abortion, Planned Parenthood, and various forms of birth control, but he even fears being alone with women. The religious right salivates over the prospect of either Trump or Pence replacing the aging Ginsburg and Breyer with rightwing justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. Atwood reminds us that the desire to control women’s bodies never entirely leaves political conversations.

Those rightwing women who have signed up for the campaign should be wary, however. Sarah Jones’s recent New Republic article advises women like Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway to read Handmaid’s Tale as it has lessons for them as well. If they lash their wagons to misogynist men, they may end up like the frustrated Serena Joy, a powerful woman who helps bring the fundamentalists to power and then finds herself confined to her husband’s home.

Jones describes how reading Handmaid’s Tale while attending a religious college prompted her to leave the church. She was struck by how, at her school, rightwing women used feminism’s tools to advance measures designed to oppress women. This is exactly what happens in Atwood’s novel:

My alma mater capitalized on the “pro-woman” claims established by Schlafly and her ilk. Their greatest achievement was to take a language of female empowerment from the women’s movement and turn it to their own purposes. No one has noted this inversion more ruefully than Atwood. Offred’s mother, we are told, was a second-wave feminist. She envisioned a porn-free society that would largely exclude men. “You wanted a women’s culture,” Offred imagines telling her. “Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

In the Tale, this paradox is exemplified not just by Serena Joy but by Aunt Lydia. Cruder and lower-ranked, Aunt Lydia is the hand that wields the cattle prod. She’s charged with the re-education of future Handmaids, and she accomplishes this by emphasizing both the high value of women and the necessity of their oppression. “A thing is valued,” she teaches, “only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls…. Think of yourselves as pearls.” Serena Joy chose her life. Lydia is empowered to attack other women with a cattle prod. Both are proof that women are represented in Gilead’s power structure. If feminism is only about representation, choice, or some vaguely sketched notion of empowerment, it is difficult to say our Serena Joys and our Aunt Lydias are not feminists.

Feminism has to stand up for the freedom of all women, not just some women, Jones says:

The Handmaid’s Tale does more than present a possible future: It asks us to consider how we’d end up there. A form of feminism that celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed, will usher us into fascism. Feminism means something. Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too. Allow an antichoice woman to call herself a feminist, and you have ceded political territory that you cannot afford to lose. Stripped of political meaning, “feminist” becomes an entirely subjective term that anyone with any agenda can use.

Fortunately we’re not in Atwood’s world yet, perhaps because we haven’t had the environmental or nuclear cataclysm that Atwood sees as a necessary precondition. But like many liberals since the election, I have taken to periodically reminding myself, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Atwood’s masterpiece helps us remain vigilant.

Previous posts on The Handmaid’s Tale

GOP Christians Send Readers to Atwood (Feb. 2017)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is topping bestseller lists at the moment. The reason is probably because of the GOP’s prospect of success in curbing reproductive freedom.

Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy (Sept. 2016)

Recently deceased Phyllis Schlafly served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “Handmaid’s Tale.” Because Serena Joy gets the society she says she wants, however, her life turns bitter. Schlafly was lucky to live in a society that allowed women to have their own careers.

Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point (Feb. 2015)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is required reading for entering West Point cadets. Good things could happen.

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True (July 2013)

With the rise in state legislatures passing anti-abortion legislation, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” seems more relevant than ever.

Threatened by Female Empowerment (Oct. 2012)

Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” addresses issues raised by the Taliban shooting of a Pakistani school girl and also speaks to our abortion fights.

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To Save Planet, Scientists Must Protest

March for Science, April 22, 2017


My favorite sign from the various marches for science that occurred this past weekend read, “So bad even introverts are here.” In my experience with scientists, most would rather be in their labs than out protesting. They believe that seeking out truth should be above politics.

The sense of being above others can invite charges of elitism that are sometimes warranted. I think of the special friendship between two Victorian scientists in The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

He eyed Charles more kindly.

“A Darwinian?”


Grogan then seized his hand and gripped it; as if he were Crusoe, and Charles Man Friday….They knew they were like two grains of yeast in a sea of lethargic dough—two grains of salt in a vast tureen of insipid broth.

Our two carbonari of the mind—has not the boy in man always adored playing at secret societies?—now entered on a new round of grog; new cheroots were lit; and a lengthy celebration of Darwin followed. They ought, one may think to have been humbled by the great new truths they were discussing; but I am afraid the mood in both of them—and in Charles especially, when he finally walked home in the small hours of the morning—was one of exalted superiority, intellectual distance above the rest of their fellow creatures.

Elitist or not, Charles and Grogan would have seen politics as necessary in Victorian England to give science its proper due. Since then, however, science has largely won out over theology, allowing scientists to bask in the illusion that they can keep their hands clean. With the religious right having put their candidate in the White House, those days have come to an end.

The need for scientists to enter the political arena is made clear in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Entomologist Ovid Byron, studying a climate-induced crisis within the monarch butterfly population, tries to limit the scope of his responsibilities. Protagonist Dellarobia is not so sure:

“We cannot jump to conclusions. All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science.”

It seemed to Dellarobia that the task of science was a good deal larger than that. Someone had to explain things. If men like Ovid Byron were holding back, the [television reporter] Tina Ultners of this world were going to take their shots.

Byron is right that the measuring and counting have to be accurate and peer reviewed. The necessary support for their work will not be forthcoming, however, if they don’t convince people of its value.

With climate change, they have an uphill battle. Byron understands that scientists can’t always deliver what the public wants:

He avoided meeting her eye. “We should be physicians, or some kind of superheroes saving the patient with special powers. That’s what people want.”

She didn’t reply, wondering if he was right about that. Probably it was true. People resisted hearing the details of a problem, even when it was something personal, like their own cancer. What they wanted was a fix.

By the same token, scientists can’t deliver what television wants, as the following confrontation between Byron and Ultner makes clear:

“The station has gotten about five hundred e-mails about these butterflies, almost all favorable. Is this really where you want to go with this segment? Because I think you’re going to lose your audience.”

Ovid looked genuinely startled. “I am a scientist. Are you suggesting I change my answer to improve your ratings?”

When Ultner complains that she can’t get a good “visual” for a story about climate change, Byron explodes:

“You have a job to do, woman, and you are not doing it.” Ovid’s head dropped forward and his eyes narrowed, a posture that stunned Dellarobia. She’d never figured him for a schoolyard fighter. He took a step forward, leveling his finger like a blade toward her chest, inciting in Tina an equal and opposite step backward. “Fire is an excellent visual, Tina. So are hurricanes, and floods. The whole damn melting Arctic.” They edged into the part of the lab where the stuff was piled from the portion they’d cleaned up. “How will you feel ten years from now, when a serious lot of the farms in the world don’t have a damn rainy season anymore? And you were party to that?”

Byron’s speech, of course, doesn’t make it onto the television news, but someone records it, puts it on YouTube, and it goes viral. Byron becomes political in spite of himself.

Dellarobia, who herself may some day become a bridge between the science community and rural America, also persuades Byron to talk to school children, another way of getting the word out.

I teach Flight Behavior in Introduction to Literature, where it is not uncommon for half the class to be biology, biochemistry, and environmental studies majors. We talk about the need for scientists to step outside of their silos and regard their work in a larger context. They see how it may be necessary for them to talk to people with very different views of the world, including potentially conservative evangelicals in Appalachian Tennessee. We discuss how a liberal arts education will aid them.

According to the novel, extreme weather events can create an opening for scientists to make their voices heard. They just have to take advantage. Introverts must leave their labs.

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Kosinski Foresaw Our Television President

Peter Sellers in “Being There”


America is gradually coming to the realization that it has elected Chance the Gardener as president. If we want to understand Donald Trump’s unexpected success, we can find some answers in the  protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novella.

Being There is about a retarded man who suddenly finds himself adrift in the world after spending his entire life cared for by a wealthy man. Gardening and television are Chance’s only two activities, yet somehow they take him as far as the White House.

The book’s satiric joke is that Chance functions as a mirror in which everyone sees what he or she wants to see. We are such a narcissistic society, Kosinski indicates, that a person can go far by simply parroting back to others what they desire. For instance, when Chance spouts gardening truisms, people in high places see him delivering metaphors that validate their policy positions. The President asks Chance what he thinks about “the bad season in The Street” and approves of his response:

“In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” He raised his eyes. Rand [his host] was looking at him, nodding. The President seemed quite pleased.

“I must admit, Mr. Gardiner,” the President said, “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.”

The president goes on to quote Chance in a speech, which draws the attention of Washington insiders. When Chance makes another horticultural observation, people are impressed:

“Hear, hear!” the woman sitting on Chance’s right cried out. “He’s marvelous!” she whispered to the companion on her right in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. To the others, she said: “Mr. Gardiner has the uncanny ability of reducing complex matters to the simplest of human terms. But by bringing this down to earth, to our own home,” the woman continued, “I can see the priority and urgency which Mr. Gardiner and the influential men like him, including our President, who quotes him so often, give to this matter.” Several of the others smiled.

Recall that many people thought Trump was being metaphorical when he promised to deport millions of immigrants and build a wall.

The idea that voters project is nothing new. It is how our leaders manage to stitch together diverse constituencies. Where Chance and Trump are unusual, however, is that confusing television and reality is the very key to their success.

Let’s look first at television’s effect on each man. Here’s Chance venturing out into the world for the first time:

He was surprised: the street, the cars, the buildings, the people, the faint sounds were images already burned into his memory. So far, everything outside the gate resembled what he had seen on TV; if anything, objects and people were bigger, yet slower, simpler and more cumbersome. He had the feeling that he had seen it all.

And here’s Trump, as described by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine:

“Trump is an avid television viewer. He’s a product of television. He loves television. It’s his first source of interest,” former CNN host Larry King, a longtime Trump friend, recently told BuzzFeed. During the campaign, Trump once claimed in complete earnestness that he would not require policy advisers because he could get his information from “the shows.” He has reportedly selected his Cabinet officials in part based on whether they “look the part” for television — which sounds implausible until you remember that Trump’s candidacy was launched in large degree by turning the character he played on a reality show into a viable political persona. 

Indeed, Trump appears to have reversed his previous opposition to intervening in Syria based on televised images of children gassed by Bashar al-Assad:

“That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” Trump saw something on television that upset him, so he cast aside his position and formulated a new one, which neither Trump nor his advisers could articulate, driven by his newfound, apparently sincere, but diffuse outrage at the brutality of the dictator he had once touted as a potential partner against ISIS. The televised images of suffering overrode everything he had said about the issue for years.

Because of their familiarity with television’s conventions, both Chance and Trump are able to manipulate people. For instance, when a woman starts conversing with Chance, he appears to understand her:

Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encouraged her to continue and elaborate. Each time Chance repeated EE’s words, she brightened and looked more confident. In fact, she became so at ease that she began to punctuate her speech by touching, now his shoulder, now his arm. Her words seemed to float inside his head; he observed her as if she were on television.

Chance performs just as well in a televised interview, even though it is on a subject he knows nothing about:

Upstairs, Chance was met by Rand’s secretary: “That was a truly remarkable performance, sir,” the woman said. “I have never seen anyone more at ease, or truer to himself. Thank goodness, we still have people like you in this country.”

A fair number of people see Trump this way as well. Even though he lies with virtually every breath he takes, they regard him as more trustworthy than those who carefully parse their words. He knows how to perform confidence and sincerity.

Nor could anyone accuse either man of hiding who he is. Chance never pretends to be anything but a gardener, and Trump during the election forthrightly invited the Russians to hack the Clinton campaign. We perhaps think that Trump cannot have colluded with the Russians because he has so obviously refrained from criticizing Vladimir Putin while, at the same time, doing things that the Russian head wants (attacking NATO, changing the GOP platform on Ukraine). Wouldn’t he try to hide these things if he were guilty?

By the end of Being There, Chance appears to be Vice-President or maybe even President. We’re so apt to project that we overlook what stares us in the face. Until it’s too late.

Further thought: Although I’ve been comparing Donald Trump to Chance, in some ways Vice-President Mike Pence seems an even better candidate. He shows a face of granite resolve to the cameras yet it’s not clear that there is much behind the look. I remember the election debate when he only shook his head sadly when Tim Kaine detailed Trump’s many lies and contradictions, as though he was disappointed that his opponent had stooped so low. It worked for a while when he was Governor of Indiana, but then people caught on and his approval ratings were plummeting by the time he was chosen by Trump.

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Little Flower, If I Could Understand


Spiritual Sunday

Yesterday, for Earth Day, a number of my science colleagues marched in Washington protesting the administration’s attacks on empirical science. Donald Trump’s contempt for the scientific method and established scientific fact has galvanized people who have never before engaged in political action.

In an unholy alliance, Donald Trump has allied himself with rightwing Christians and large corporations as he goes after climate science, air and water standards, pesticide regulations, and the academy generally. It is therefore good to remind the public that not all of us who call ourselves Christian see a conflict between science and religion. Many of us are like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose poetry explores both the material and the spiritual realms.

Tennyson kept up with the latest scientific discoveries of his age. In Memoriam, where he struggles with his faith following the death of his best friend, alludes to recent geological discoveries. Idylls of the King, as the Victorian Web observes, sees God working through evolution:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world…

In “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” today’s poem, Tennyson uproots a flower in order to study it. It’s not enough to simply gaze and gaze, as Wordsworth does with daffodils, the pansy at his feet, and the meanest flower that blows. Like a scientist, Tennyson wants to scrutinize the root as well as the petals:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

While he may study the flower like a scientist, however, Tennyson is not a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking, striving to find scientific explanations for what we call God. He wants to understand “all in all” in addition to “root and all”—which is to say, the place of this fragile thing in the overall scheme of things. The poet, attuned to both beauty and botany, is so amazed at this tiny life form that he compares it to the complexities of divinity and humanity. He may hold the flower in his hands but it is beyond him.

Put another way, he’s not saying, “Through scientific observation I will figure out God and humanity,” but rather, “Truly understanding this flower is as far beyond me as understanding God and human beings is.” The poem does not signal arrogance but amazement.

The scientists I admire most are those that operate out of reverence and awe. While they seek to uncover the secrets of the universe, they do so out of divine curiosity. They search not for mastery but enlightenment.

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Sports Injuries, Declining Magical Powers


By the end of last year, my tennis game—a passion second only to reading—had reached a new level of excellence. Then, however, I developed a case of plantar fasciitis, and that was followed by cataract surgery in my left eye. When I finally returned to the courts two months ago, it was as though I was playing the game for the first time. My eyes refused to coordinate and balls bounced off my racket frame when I tried to serve. I ran gingerly and couldn’t reach balls that had once been routine.

Luckily I had literary precedents to comfort me, episodes in Lloyd Alexander’s Black Cauldron and Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea in which the protagonists lose their powers. That’s one thing that a lifetime of reading gives you: whatever happens, you can find a narrative where something similar has happened.

In Black Cauldron, Taran inherits “the brooch of Adaon,” a magical talisman that enhances his senses and awareness and gives him special prophetic powers. Wearing it, he feels a sense of mastery:

As Melynlas cantered over the frosty ground, Taran caught sight of a glittering, dew-covered web on a hawthorn branch and of the spider busily repairing it. Taran was aware, strangely, of vast activities along the forest trail. Squirrels prepared their winter hoard; ants labored in their earthen castles. He could see them clearly, not so much with his eyes but in a way he had never known before.

The air itself bore special scents. There was a ripple, sharp and clear, like cold wine. Taran knew, without stopping to think, that a north wind had just begun to rise.

Taran describes the experience thus:

“All I know is that I feel differently somehow. I can see things I never saw before—or smell or taste them. I can’t say exactly what it is. It’s strange, and awesome in a way. And very beautiful sometimes. There are things that I know…” Taran shook his head. “And I don’t even know how I know them.”

With these powers, he is able to guide his friends through treacherous marches and save them from the Death Lord’s murderous followers. He must surrender it to acquire the black cauldron, however, and finds himself stumbling through a reality that once he negotiated easily. That’s how I felt out on the tennis courts.

In Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is the most talented student at the magicians college, effortlessly performing feats of magic that others must labor to learn.

At all these studies Ged was apt and within a month was bettering lads who had been a year at Roke before him. Especially the tricks of illusion came to him so easily that it seemed he had been born knowing them and needed only to reminded.

I cite the passage, not because I’ve ever been a gifted tennis player, but to capture the distance between before and after. Ged loses his powers after his magic opens up a forbidden doorway and he is nearly killed by a dark shadowy figure. When he recovers, he discovers that he has lost his instinctive feel and must learn magic the hard way, just as everyone else does:

The boys he had led and lorded over were all ahead of him now, because of the months he had lost, and that spring and summer he studied with lads younger than himself. Nor did he shine among them, for the words of any spell, even the simplest illusion-charm, came halting from his tongue, and his hands faltered at their craft.

What I am describing is the experience of all injured athletes, and some never fully regain their abilities. Seeing these powers through the lens of fantasy fiction captures how precious their skills appear and how tragic it is when they are lost forever. To borrow a line from Robert Frost’s “Oven Bird,” we must grapple with what to make of a diminished thing.

Yesterday I hit some of my first good ground strokes in months, and my foot wasn’t too sore afterwards. Taran and Ged also recover. Hope springs eternal.

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Calling Out Trump’s War Enablers


I wrote yesterday about my distress over the applause Donald Trump is receiving for his aggressive moves towards Syria (which we bombed in violation of international law), Afghanistan (where we dropped the largest non-nuclear warhead ever delivered), and North Korea (which Trump appears to be deliberately trying to antagonize). An accolade that characterizes much of the response was MSNBC’s Brian Williams quoting a Leonard Cohen lyric while watching the bombing of a Syrian airfield:

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Let’s take a close look at the quotation which, like many of Cohen’s images, is surreal and enigmatic. Here are the first four stanzas of “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin”:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’d really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Perhaps, as some have suggested, Cohen is writing about breaking free of musical obscurity and storming two venues where musicians become famous. I suspect, however, that the MSNBC commentator recalls the lyrics because of the contrast between boredom and weapons, between working within a system and taking one’s cues from oneself, between dutifully standing in line and breaking ranks, between losing and winning (“you’re worried that I just might win”). Only suckers play by the rules.

Williams, after all, was a news anchor who himself bent the rules, inventing a story about being in a helicopter that was fired upon in Iraq. If the truth is drab, spice it up with an account of missiles. (CBS fired Williams for the fabrication.) So if Trump rushes in where the past president trod warily, well, that makes Trump all the more edgy.

Does America feel that it was deprived of adrenaline rushes under no-drama Obama and so is demanding them now? I think of James Carville’s 2004 reply to Republican accusations that John Kerry and the Democrats lacked a vision to counter George Bush’s wars:

I have no idea what they’re talking about. Under Bill Clinton, we had peace and prosperity. I don’t know which one of the two so offended them.

Are we a culture so decadent that stability is no longer a positive good? If we’re not sufficiently entertained, do we demand wars?

Whatever the cause, we now have people singing the praises of a president who is so unpredictable that he has the entire world on edge. Here is the very angry song that Brian Williams should have quoted:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

In a whacky Salon article, Anis Shivan argues that Dylan is our Rimbaud, a prophetic poet in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Yeats. “Masters of War” isn’t in their league but I’ll acknowledge that Dylan is a prophet. I quote from Shivan’s piece, preposterous though it is, because its accentuates the urgency of Dylan’s message:

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

Dylan’s song is no Waste Land. More to the point, it is no “Strange Meeting,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” or “Dulce et Decorum Est,” to cite poems by the greatest anti-war poet of the 20th century. But the song calls out war mongers in a powerful way, which is something that our media should be doing with Trump.

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Milton’s Jesus vs. Trump’s Bombs

William Blake, “The Second Temptation from ‘Paradise Regained'”


I have been disheartened by the accolades that Donald Trump has received from centrists and even liberals for dropping bombs, including the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan. Apparently all you need to appear presidential is to send in the U.S. air force. As someone sarcastically tweeted, since Trump craves adulation and is getting it for his belligerence, “what could possibly go wrong?”

For my Lenten observance, I read Milton’s Paradise Regained for the first time and can’t help but apply the four-book poem to our situation. The narrative focuses on Satan tempting Jesus in the desert and, since his major temptations concern military glory and conquest, it seems only too applicable.

Paradise Regained has pretty much the same plot as Paradise Lost. Just as Satan goes after Adam and Eve in the first work, so he goes after Jesus in the sequel. The council of hellish angels is still around, agreeing to whatever Satan proposes, and we see Satan once again using all of his rhetorical powers of persuasion to corrupt someone. Unfortunately, as in Paradise Lost, there’s not much drama when Satan’s adversary is perfect, so Jesus isn’t any more interesting than God is in the first work. Jesus knows exactly who Satan is when he shows up disguised, he knows exactly why he should reject each of the temptations, and he never exhibits any doubts.

We can ask ourselves, however, whether Satan’s offers would tempt us. Unfortunately, by falling for Trump’s bellicosity, a number of Washington insiders, mainstream media outlets, and others are demonstrating that they would not pass the test.

 I’ll get to Satan’s offers in just a moment, but first a word on the temptations episode. More than any other, it brought me to the Episcopalian church when I was in my forties. I was in spiritual search but wasn’t interested in stories of perfection. Once I saw Jesus as genuinely uncertain and conflicted, however, I realized that I could relate to him. He could help me with my own journey because he too had moments of doubt.

My Jesus, in other words, is not someone who started off with all the answers. In that respect, he’s more like the Jesus of Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ than of Paradise Regained. As I interpreted the desert episode, Satan’s temptations were actually Jesus’s own inner thoughts, which he wrestled with and then overcame. In that way, he became a model for me.

As we watching the uptick in military posturing, we would do well to follow the lead of Milton’s Jesus, even if we can’t do so in quite so serene a fashion. The two temptations that are currently the most relevant are wealth and power. When he sets out to tempt Jesus, Satan rejects Belial’s notion that he employ a beautiful woman and instead opts for “manlier objects”:

Therefore with manlier objects we must try
His constancy, with such as have more show
Of worth, of honor, glory, and popular praise;
Rocks whereon greatest men have oftest wrecked…

If Jesus is to be “king of kings,” Satan says, he will need money, and that he can supply:

Therefore, if at great things thou wouldst arrive,
Get Riches first, get Wealth, and Treasure heap,
Not difficult, if thou hearken to me,
Riches are mine, Fortune is in my hand;
They whom I favor thrive in wealth amain,
While Virtue, Valor, Wisdom sit in want.

Given our society’s obsession with wealth and the increasing influence of money in our politics, we must admit Satan’s offer to be potent. But Jesus doesn’t fall for it, prompting Satan to switch to an offer of glory. If you inspire people by appearing glorious, he points out to Jesus, won’t you inspire them to praise God?

                       [W]herefore deprive
All Earth her wonder at thy acts, thyself
The fame and glory, glory the reward
That sole excites to high attempts the flame
Of most erected Spirits…?

When glory is rejected, Satan offers Jesus positions of power, first to “sit upon thy Father David’s Throne” and then to succeed Augustus Caesar and take over the Roman Empire. With such power, he would be able to fulfill God’s promise to his people and to establish the kingdom of God in the world.

When we worry that the U.S. is not respected enough in the world (glory) and believe that our power resides in our wealth and our military might, we are following a Satanic road that leads to bloodshed. As Milton’s Jesus puts it, we are relying on the “cumbersome luggage of war,” which is

Of human weakness rather than of strength.

What should we really look for in a leader? When Satan claims that virtue, valor, and wisdom are irrelevant, Jesus counters that a great leader “governs the inner man, the nobler part,” unlike the leader who “o’er the body only reigns,/ And oft by force…” The great leader does not “subject himself to Anarchy within,/Or lawless passion” but rather is guided by honor, virtue and merit. On his shoulders, Jesus says,

                         each man’s burden lies;
For therein stands the office of a King,
His Honor, Virtue, Merit and chief Praise,
That for the Public all this weight he bears. 
Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King;
Which every wise and virtuous man attains:
And who attains not, ill aspires to rule
Cities of men, or head-strong Multitudes, 
Subject himself to Anarchy within,
Or lawless passions in him, which he serves.

Unfortunately, Trump follows his lawless passions, and for the moment that’s what we’re stuck with. We can, however, strive to rule our own passions, desires and fears. This means not falling in love with grandiose shows of military might where America struts its stuff.

Imagine if we were guided by Honor, Virtue, and Merit as we strove to serve the public. Sign me up.

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Masters of Spite: Satan and Trump

Gustave Doré, Satan observing Adam and Eve


Is it just me or does much of Donald Trump’s presidency seem driven by spite against the former occupant of the White House? There are theories that Trump ran for president in the first place to spite President Obama for mocking him at the 2016 Correspondents Dinner, and, true or not, a personal element seems to enter into a number of his presidential decisions. If so, it’s worth looking at a character who is defined by spite: Satan in Paradise Lost.

Merriam-Webster defines spite as “petty ill will or hatred with the disposition to irritate, annoy, or thwart.” In politics, it’s important to distinguish between honest policy differences and spiteful retribution. Many have seen the latter at work with Trump.

For instance, when Trump fired all of America’s ambassadors all at once rather than waiting for replacements to be found, former ambassador to Finland Derek Shearer said, “It feels like there’s an element just of spite and payback in it. I don’t see a higher policy motive.” Same with federal district attorneys.

New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz, meanwhile, thinks that spite is at work in Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act. The 24 million newly insured may have to pay for the fact that they have been helped by Obama. Similarly, the earth will have to pay for Obama’s focus on renewables, regulation, and conservation.

Milton’s narcissistic villain believes that everything is about him. God made Adam and Eve, he is convinced, just to spite him:

                             [T]o spite us more,
[God] Determin’d to advance into our room
A Creature formed of Earth, and him endow,
Exalted from so base original,
With Heavenly spoils, our spoils…

If spite motivated God, Satan says, then his own spite is justified:

Whom us the more to spite his Maker raised
From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.

Satan’s follower, like Trump’s, are fully on board. In their council of war, the fallen angels approve Satan’s plan to stick it to God:

But from the Author of all ill could Spring
So deep a malice, to confound the race
Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great Creator? But their spite still serves 
His glory to augment. The bold design
Pleased highly those infernal States, and joy
Sparkled in all their eyes; with full assent
They vote…

Satan takes a sadistic relish in imagining the suffering that Adam and Eve will undergo, even while pretending to be sympathetic. Gazing at them, he purrs,

Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy…

They will have God to thank for this suffering, he tells them:

                                             Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring; if no better place, 
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wronged…

Milton notes that Satan’s is utilizing “the tyrant’s plea” here, pretending that Adam and Eve will be victims of political necessity rather than pure spite. But don’t be fooled. As with Trump, this is not about policy. He wants to make the Big Guy suffer.

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A Trans Activist and a Poetic Judge


The New York Review of Books recently had an article about a judge who used a Naomi Shahib Nye poem to protest a Trump Education Department attack against transgender students. As the judge anticipated, the poem made his point more powerfully than legal language could have done.

In May, 2016, the Obama administration invoked Title IX and ordered America’s schools to allow trans students to use the bathroom corresponding to their chosen gender. Here’s what happened when Gavin Grimm started using the boys’ room in a Gloucester Country, Virginia high school:

None of the other students objected, but when some adults in the community learned that Gavin was using the boys’ room, they demanded that the school board step in. At a school board meeting, Gavin, still only fifteen, told the board that, “all I want is to be a normal child and use the restroom in peace and I have had no problems from students to do that—only from adults…. I did not ask to be this way, and it’s one of the most difficult things anyone can face.” He insisted, “I am just a human being. I am just a boy.”

The school board rejected his plea, and barred him from using the boys’ room, relegating him to a stigmatizing single-stall restroom that no one else used. Gavin sued and, represented by the ACLU (where I [David Cole] am the National Legal Director), won. The Fourth Circuit, relying on a guidance document issued by the Department of Education under President Obama, ruled that excluding Gavin from the boys’ restroom because he was transgender was sex discrimination in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which covers all schools that receive federal assistance. The court ordered the school board to allow Gavin to resume using the boys’ restroom. But the school board appealed. The Supreme Court stayed the order pending the appeal, and Gavin continued to be barred from the boys’ bathroom. After taking office, the Trump administration revoked the Department of Education guidance document calling for equal treatment of transgender students, upon which the court of appeals had relied, and in light of the revocation of the guidance, on March 6, the Supreme Court vacated the decision and returned the case to the court of appeals.

Cole points out Gavin’s courage throughout the affair:

The mere decision to come out to one’s parents as transgender requires tremendous bravery in a world that still too often dismisses individuals who are transgender as somehow alien. To come out to one’s principal, as Gavin did as a sophomore, demands still greater courage. To speak up in a public school board hearing, and then to file a federal lawsuit, calls for yet greater reserves. Gavin not only pursued his rights to the end, but did so with the utmost grace. Simply by doing so, he has educated a generation about the plight, and the dignity, of those who are transgender.

Judge Andre Davis recognized the courage and, while forced to join the court’s decision to lift the injunction, nevertheless felt that Gavin’s courage should be recognized. Cole quotes from his opinion:

The brief but eloquent opinion deserves to be read in full. Judge Davis compared Gavin to Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Jim Obergefell, and others who had “refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them.”

Gavin’s case, Judge Davis maintained, “is about much more than bathrooms… It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins. It’s about …  the simple recognition of their humanity.” By standing up for that principle, Judge Davis continued, Gavin “takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail.”

 At the opinion’s close, Judge Davis turned to poetry to capture Gavin’s bravery. Borrowing from Nye’s poem, “Famous,” he explained that Gavin is “famous,” not in the Hollywood sense of celebrity, but in Nye’s sense, because “[he] never forgot what [he] could do.”

“Famous” operates through a series of contrasts, and one has to think through each of them in applying them to Gavin. Here it is:


By Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

The poem quietly but insistently gets at the core of Gavin’s heroism. In the first stanza Gavin would be the fish, necessarily aware of his environment as others are not. In the second he is the loud voice that disturbs the silence of a status quo that is confident it will prevail.

The situation becomes more precarious in the third stanza. While cisgender people, like the cat, can afford to sleep comfortably on the fence, potential victims must always be on the lookout. Privilege means that you don’t have to worry about getting eaten.

It makes sense, therefore, that the next two images are of suffering and secrets: even though invisible to others, Gavin’s tears would be known to his cheek and his bosom secrets to his bosom. The bent photograph also fits in this category, a longing carried around but hidden.

It becomes increasingly clear that Nye is talking about the poor and the oppressed in the subsequent stanzas, and we move from potential conflict to support. The working class boot may not be a dress shoe but it finds a home in the earth. Nye wants to be such a home, smiling a smile of comradeship to shuffling men and to children that others find irritating. Maybe that’s why she invokes two unglamorous models for herself in the final stanza.

With a pulley, as poet George Herbert knew, one goes low to pull others up. The poet accomplishes this by smiling at people that others ignore. Button holes, meanwhile, don’t insist on themselves but accommodate themselves to the needs of others. The pulley is famous to that which is pulled up and the button hole to the button. Both are essential but unnoticed, the first an indirect support (the rope gets all the publicity), the second an absent presence.

Gavin, a fish noticing a river invisible to others, became a loud voice, disturbing the silence. He thereby woke up the cats, with all the potential danger they represent. Yet by going low, revealing himself as “deviant,” he lifted up others. Their unbuttoned clothing could find closure.

Gavin knew what he could do and he did it.

As a result, he may well become famous as the other civil rights cases mentioned by the Judge Davis became famous: fugitive slave Dred Scott, Japanese-American interned activist Fred Korematsu, segregation opponent Linda Brown (v Board of Education), and gay marriage’s Jim Obergefell. Those who become known as law cases usually do not set out to call attention to themselves. They just want live like everyone else.

Previous Posts on Naomi Shihab Nye

How the Dead Talk to Us

What Does a True Arab Do Now?

Finding a Place Where Hate Won’t Grow

Hear the Words under the Words

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Absent from This World, Alive in Another

Illus. Tenniel, Alice with the faun in the no names wood

Easter Sunday

It has become a tradition here at Better Living through Beowulf to share a Mary Oliver poem on Easter. Even though Oliver seldom talks overtly about religion, many of her poems have an Easter drama in which a world of darkness is touched by grace and redeemed. One sees this clearly in “Egrets,” which I wrote about on Easter 2010.

Today’s poem features a moment, occurring 30 years earlier, where Oliver believes she came face to face with the divine. The moment reminds me of the miraculous moment when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

The divine awakens Oliver from slumber while she is out picking blueberries. It is a moment that she remembers for the rest of her life and treasures in her heart. Seeing Mary Magdalene through Oliver’s poem, we can say that she too never saw the world the same again as she rose out of the rough weeds of her grief, sleepy and amazed, to listen and look. The beautiful apparition, “so wide and so deep it has lasted to this day,” infused her life with meaning.

Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957

By Mary Oliver

Once, in summer
in the blueberries, 
I fell asleep, and woke
when a deer stumbled against me.

I guess
she was so busy with her own happiness
she had grown careless
and was just wandering along

to the wind as she leaned down
to lip up the sweetness.
So, there we were

with nothing between us
but a few leaves, and wind’s
glossy voice
shouting instructions.

The deer
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees –

but the moment she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day; 
I have only to think of her – 

the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity, 
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight –

to be absent again from this world
and alive, again, in another
for thirty years
sleepy and amazed, 

rising out of the rough weeds
listening and looking.
Beautiful girl, 
where are you?

“Come, Lord Jesus,” we call out in our longing. Or “Beautiful girl, where are you?”

Further thought: I’ve been listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Father Richard Rohr and now have another way to understand what Oliver means by her two worlds. Rohr talks about the difference between chronological time and deep time:

To be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time. Because what you’ve learned, especially by my age, is that all of it passes away. The things that you’re so impassioned about when you’re 22 or 42 don’t even mean anything anymore, and yet, you got so angry about it or so invested in it. So, this word “contemplation,” it’s a different form of consciousness. It’s a different form of time.

Other Mary Oliver Easter poems

A White Cross Streaming across the Sky

Out of the Blackness Every Morning

Far off the Bells Rang through the Morning

A Breathing Palace of Leaves

The Silver Water Crushes Like Silk 

Dazzled by Dreams of the Body

Stepping Over Every Dark Thing

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A Poem in Favor of Taxation

Breughel, Joseph and and an expecting Mary in town to pay their taxes

Sometimes Saturday

Reprinted from April 15, 2016

As today is tax day, I looked around for a good tax poem and stumbled across one from the much mocked Edgar Guest, once known as “the people’s poet.” The poem isn’t great but, in an age when various irresponsible politicians have declared a war on taxes, it usefully reminds us what our money is for.

These days the poem almost seems quaint as it harkens back to a time when civic responsibility was regarded as a good thing. Remember when we saw paying taxes as a patriotic duty? How in the world did we allow Grover Norquist to take over our politics?


By Edward Guest

When they become due I don’t like them at all.
Taxes look large be they ever so small
Taxes are debts which I venture to say,
No man or no woman is happy to pay.
I grumble about them, as most of us do.
For it seems that with taxes I never am through.

But when I reflect on the city I love,
With its sewers below and its pavements above,
And its schools and its parks where children may play
I can see what I get for the money I pay.
And I say to myself: “Little joy would we know
If we kept all our money and spent it alone.”

I couldn’t build streets and I couldn’t fight fire
Policemen to guard us I never could hire.
A water department I couldn’t maintain.
Instead of a city we’d still have a plain
Then I look at the bill for the taxes they charge,
And I say to myself: “Well, that isn’t so large.”

I walk through a hospital thronged with the ill 
And I find that it shrivels the size of my bill. 
As in beauty and splendor my home city grows, 
It is easy to see where my tax money goes
And I say to myself: “if we lived hit and miss
And gave up our taxes, we couldn’t do this.”

If Guest’s poem makes you feel any better about paying your taxes today—well then, that’s further proof that poetry is capable of heavy lifting.

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O Christ Who Drives the Furrow Straight

Thomas Hart Benton, “Plowing It Under” (1934)

Good Friday

John Masefield, best known for his poem beginning “I must to down to the sea again,” first came to the public’s attention with The Everlasting Mercy (1911), a long narrative poem about a problematic rural character who has a religious awakening. In observance of Good Friday, I cite several passages from the ending of the poem.

According to blogger Arthur Kay, Everlasting Mercy 

shocked many with its frankness of language and subject, with its use of the vernacular and a depiction of English country life that sometimes strayed far from the charming scenes we associate with, say, the paintings of Arnold Constable. The poem begins with a grueling boxing bout, a grudge match that fits its rural background and setting quite realistically.

 Saul Kane’s redemption begins when a barmaid speaks to him about Christ:

“Saul Kane,” she said, “when next you drink,
Do me the gentleness to think
That every drop of drink accursed
Makes Christ within you die of thirst,
That every dirty word you say
Is one more flint upon his way,
Another thorn about His head,
Another mock by where He tread,
Another nail, another cross.
All that you are is that Christ’s loss.”
The clock run down and struck a chime
And Mrs. Si said, “Closing time.”

The closing of the tavern door brings to Saul’s mind the image of Christ knocking at our door—think of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting “The Light of the World”–and he suddenly feels the urge to open his heart:

The wet was pelting on the pane
And something broke inside my brain,
I heard the rain drip from the gutters
And Silas putting up the shutters,
While one by one the drinkers went;
I got a glimpse of what it meant,
How she and I had stood before
In some old town by some old door
Waiting intent while someone knocked
Before the door for ever locked…


I did not think, I did not strive,
The deep peace burnt my me alive;
The bolted door had broken in,
I knew that I had done with sin.
I knew that Christ had given me birth
To brother all the souls on earth,
And every bird and every beast
Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.

The next day, when Saul is out plowing, he kneel down to God and offers up a magnificent prayer. The fertility imagery reminds me of other writers writing at the time, such as Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence:

I kneeled there in the muddy fallow,
I knew that Christ was there with Callow,
That Christ was standing there with me,
That Christ had taught me what to be,
That I should plough, and as I ploughed
My Savior Christ would sing aloud,
And as I drove the clods apart
Christ would be ploughing in my heart,
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots,
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the holden harvests’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.

May Christ plough our hearts so that young green corn springs forth.

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Rakunks & Wolvogs & Pigoons, Oh My!


I’m currently teaching Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake in my Introduction to Literature class, along with a recent New Yorker article on gene splicing. It’s frightening how much Atwood’s 2003 novel is on target.

Oryx and Crake is the first novel in Atwood’s dystopian trilogy about life after mad scientist Crake has played the Jahweh of Noah’s flood, unleashing a killer virus to exterminate humanity while genetically creating a new race of peaceful, herbivorous people to take over (the Crakers). Crake makes sure that his friend Jimmy survives to look after them. Jimmy’s job is to provide them with origin stories and explanations for their surroundings.

Atwood’s dystopian projection is disturbingly realistic. Society has broken apart into protected luxury compounds and  desolate “pleeblands.” Corporations with names like OrganInc and NooSkin run everything, including the schools, while competing for customers. They’re utterly unethical, sometimes releasing deadly diseases so that people are forced to buy their medicines (at inflated prices, of course). If the GOP actually lifted all regulations on corporations and financiers, such a world could come into existence.

Along with the Crakers, there are other genetic mutations, which are now roaming free. These include rakunks (raccoons and skunks), wolvogs (wolves and dogs), phosphorescent rabbits, and above all pigoons, which are superintelligent pigs especially engineered to produce transplant organs. (A pigoon can grow five or six kidneys at a time.) The geneticists gets a kick out of playing God:

The rakunks had begun as an after-hours hobby on the part of the OrganInc biolab hotshots. There’d been a lot of fooling around in those days: create-an-animal was so much fun, said the guys doing it; it made you feel like God. A number of the experiments were destroyed because they were too dangerous to have around—who needed a cane toad with a prehensile tail like a chameleon’s that might climb in through the bathroom window and blind you while you were brushing your teeth? Then there was the snat, an unfortunate blend of snake and rat: they’d had to get rid of those. But the rakunks caught on as pets, inside OrganInc.

 This is just for fun, however. The real money is to be made in organ transplants:

There were pigoons at NooSkins, just as at OrganInc Farms, but these were smaller and were being used to develop skin-related biotechnologies. The main idea was to find a method of replacing the older epidermis with a fresh one, not a laser-thinned or dermabraded short-term resurfacing but a genuine start-over skin that would be wrinkle- and blemish-free. For that, it would be useful to grow a young, plump skin cell that would eat up the worn cells in the skins of those on whom it was planted and replace them with replicas of itself, like algae growing on a pond

The rewards in the case of success would be enormous, Jimmy’s father explained, doing the straight-talking man-to-man act he had recently adopted with Jimmy. What well-to-do and once-young, once-beautiful woman or man, cranked up on hormonal supplements and shot full of vitamins but hampered by the unforgiving mirror, wouldn’t sell their house, their gated retirement villa, their kids, and their soul to get a second kick at the sexual can? NooSkins for Olds, said the snappy logo. Not that a totally effective method had been found yet: the dozen or so ravaged hopefuls who had volunteered themselves as subjects, paying no fees but signing away their rights to sue, had come out looking like the Mould Creature from Outer Space—uneven in tone, greenish brown, and peeling in ragged strips.

The money involved reminds me of another recent New Yorker article, about Silicon Valley billionaires who are exploring technologies that would allow humans to live forever. (They might want to check out the Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels first. ) But back to gene splicing. In an article entitled “Rewriting the Code of Life,” Specter interviews scientists dreaming of genetically ending diseases that humans have battled forever:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars in the research of a team called Target Malaria led by Austin Burt, at Imperial College, in London. In laboratory tests, the group has already succeeded in using CRISPR to edit the genes of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, which carry the parasite that causes malaria, so as to prevent females from producing fertile eggs. In theory, as those mosquitoes spread across the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and mate, the population will begin to shrink. A few weeks ago, the Tata Trusts of Mumbai announced that it would fund a similar project in India.

Gene drives could also be used to help wipe out schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease, carried by blood flukes, that affects hundreds of millions of people each year and kills as many as two hundred thousand. In addition, the new technology could eliminate a variety of invasive species—from pests that eat up thousands of acres of crops to the mosquitoes spreading avian malaria so rapidly among the native birds on Hawaii that the Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy routinely refer to the state as “the bird-extinction capital of the world.”

Kevin Esvelt, who heads a “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., dreams of the day when humans will control evolution itself:

For Esvelt, that moment can’t come soon enough. “Natural selection is heinously immoral,” he said, invoking Tennyson’s view that nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Unlike Rousseau, Esvelt sees nothing “blessed” about man in his natural state. In fact, romantic notions of a natural world defined by innocence and harmony repel him. “The idea that nature is the essence of goodness, is purity and truth, is so foreign to my perception of the world that I can’t even conceive of how people can think that way,” he said. “There is such a fantastic degree of suffering out there.”

He went on to say that humans no longer need to be governed by nature, or rely on brutal and ruinous methods to control it. “When nature does something that hurts us, we respond with chemistry and physics,” he said. “We spread toxic pesticides that kill problematic pests, and often kill most of the other insects in the area as well. To get rid of mosquitoes, we use bulldozers to drain swamps. It works. But it also destroys wetlands and many other species. Imagine that an insect is eating your crops. If you have a gene drive and you understand how olfaction works in that pest, you could just reprogram it to go on its merry way. The pest would still be in the ecosystem, but it would just dislike the taste of your crop. That is a much more elegant way of interacting with nature than anything we do now.”

Who could argue with such results? One imagines that Jimmy’s father in Oryx and Crake once talked like this. (His wife wonders where his youthful idealism has gone.). Atwood reminds us, however, that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, she shows us an eco-terrorist so horrified as the state of the world that he weaponizes a pleasure drug to “cleanse it.” The Specter article mentions such acts as possibilities:

Virtually any technology that can serve a species can also harm it, however, either by accident or by design. A scientist capable of rewiring a mosquito to prevent it from spreading malaria, dengue, Zika, or any other infectious disease would almost certainly have the skill to turn that insect into a weapon. Earlier this year, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, listed gene editing as a potential weapon of mass destruction. Some scientists felt that he was being hyperbolic, but the authors of a report on gene drives issued this year by the National Academy of Sciences wrote, “It is not inconceivable that rather than developing a resistant mosquito, one could develop a more susceptible mosquito capable of transmitting a specific pathogen.” In other words, terrorists might be able to add to the saliva of a mosquito a gene that makes toxins, which it would transmit along with malaria. Just before Thanksgiving, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warned the White House directly that it is no longer difficult to imagine how somebody might, simply by editing a gene, transform a common virus into a biological weapon. “My greatest fear,” Esvelt told me one day, “is that something terrible will happen before something wonderful happens. It keeps me up at night more than I would like to admit.”

Atwood is far from the first author to warn about such scenarios:

For centuries—from Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Faust to Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, and beyond—people have harbored a persistent fear that some powerful form of life, manufactured by man with good intentions but excessive hubris, might one day slip beyond our control. No previous scientific advance, not even splitting the atom, has made this fear more palpable. Yet the research community often regards itself as the only acceptable arbiter of the way new inventions should be used.

Atwood shows us this research community up close. In a capitalist world where money is the bottom line, idealism is rapidly coopted. Living in his protected environment and paid enormous sums for his expertise, Jimmy’s father becomes a sterile technician and an emotionally empty father and husband. While his inventions benefit those with money, the rest of the world is shut out. Then Crake strikes.

As I taught the work, I pointed out to my science, social science and humanities majors how literature helps us make connections across fields of knowledge, thereby gaining insight that eludes specialists. While acknowledging that this might be their last literature class ever, I told them I hoped they would continue reading poetry, fiction and drama. The future of the world may depend upon it.

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Sleeping Bears?! What Would Papa Say?

Ernest Hemingway on safari, 1934


What’s with the GOP and its obsession with killing animals? At the moment I’m thinking of their new law, passed by Congress and signed by Donald Trump, allowing hunters to kill hibernating bears and wolf cubs in their dens, not to mention going after both with helicopters and wire snares. Margot Macomber would not be impressed.

I have in mind, of course, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” But before going further, here’s what’s been going on:

Hunters in Alaska can now shoot hibernating bears and use aircraft to track their targets, after the Trump administration repealed Obama-era wildlife protection laws.

The state of is home to 16 US national wildlife refuges, covering 76 million acres of land.

Under the previous law, hunters were prohibited from aggressive tactics such shooting or trapping wolves while at their dens with cubs, spotting grizzly bears from aircraft, killing hibernating bears, trapping bears with wire snares and luring bears with food to get a point-blank kill.

The president of the Humane Society has reacted with fury:

The vote in favor of H.J. Resolution 69, authored by Alaska’s Rep. Don Young, was 225 to 193. Those 225 members voted to overturn a federal rule – years in the works, and crafted by professional wildlife managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – to stop some of the most appalling practices ever imagined in the contemporary era of wildlife management. Denning of wolf pups, killing hibernating bears, spotting grizzly bears from aircraft and then shooting them after landing, and trapping grizzly bears and black bears with steel-jawed leghold traps and snares. The stuff of wildlife snuff films.

The hunting in Hemingway’s story might not win the approval of the Humane Society, but at least there’s more of a fair fight. Hunters get charged by lions and buffaloes and sometimes barely make it out alive. It’s all part of Hemingway macho.

And it’s about emasculation fears. Mrs. Macomber despises her husband because he runs away from a lion. Then, in the much debated ending, she shoots him—maybe accidentally but maybe not—when he shoots a charging buffalo, thereby reclaiming his masculinity.

I find the story painful because of how it portrays the wife. On the other hand, after watching all the women who voted for a serial sexual assaulter in this past election, I’m wondering if it doesn’t have some accuracy. Apparently certain women only respect alpha males.

In any event, the new laws aren’t about alpha males. They’re about wannabe alpha males who dream from a distance. I think of Dick Cheney blasting away at quail in a special reserve and of the Trump sons hosting luxury safaris and proudly displaying leopards, lions, and elephants that they’ve shot. While I’m at it, I think of Trump fantasizing about winning a purple heart and dropping $60 million worth of Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian airport.

I’m not saying that any of these men should be more macho. I’m no Margot Macomber. Rather, I’m critiquing them for embracing the macho poise in the first place. And for thinking they can be “real men” on the cheap.

The problem is that people in power do real damage when they’re strutting around, and it doesn’t help that Trump received applause for his Syrian escapade. Trump critic Fareed Zakaria gave Trump his first positive press in weeks when he said that “Donald Trump became the President of the United States,” and others followed suit. Wannabe alpha male Brian Williams, once fired from NBC for making up a story about being under small arms fire, called the bombing “beautiful.” What have they unleashed with a man who craves adulation?

In Macomber’s case, his shame prompts him to take reckless chances with a wounded buffalo. But at least his decision affects only him.

In light of the recent law, it’s interesting that Wilson—the macho lion killer who initially wins Margot’s admiration—violates the hunting code by hunting buffalo from his car. “It seemed very unfair to me,” the disillusioned woman says, “chasing those big helpless things in a motor car.”


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On Toddlers, Terrorists, and Loaded Guns

Illus. BTB, “Cautionary Tales for Children”


So much has been going on with Trumpism that, in some instances, I’m months behind commenting on the damage that it is doing. Therefore I missed the president’s order to reverse an Obama executive decision designed to keep mentally handicapped persons from acquiring firearms. I make up for that today, in part because it gives me the opportunity to share a darkly comic poem by Hilaire Belloc.

According to USA Today, Obama’s original order

would have applied to about 75,000 people who were “adjudicated as a mental defective” and who had applied for Social Security benefits, and had a mechanism to notify those affected so they could appeal. But congressional Republicans said the rule could ensnare people who had mental health issues but otherwise were competent to own a gun.

The GOP has regularly proved itself to be a fully owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association. But perhaps opponents of Trump’s reversal can find comfort in him signing the bill without a public ceremony. Apparently he didn’t want people outside the NRA to notice.

Conservatives’ casual acceptance of guns continues to scandalize many inside and outside the country. Statistics show that more people in America are shot by toddlers than terrorists, yet guess what gets all the attention.  Which provides a nice segue into our poem for the day.

I came across it while leafing through Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children last week in search of a poem about telling lies. To appreciate its humor, one must contrast it with the other poems in collection, most of which are gruesome. There is Matilda, “who told lies and was burned to death”: Jim, “who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion”; Henry King, “who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies”; and Rebecca, “who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.” As you can tell by the titles, they are blackly comic parodies of Victorian instructional verse.

A different fate is in store for “Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father”:

Young Algernon, the Doctor’s Son,
Was playing with a Loaded Gun.

He pointed it towards his sister,

Aimed very carefully, but Missed her!

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

And reprimanded Algernon
For playing with a Loaded Gun.

If Belloc’s other cautionary poems describe consequences that are disproportionate to the “crime,” this one does as well, only in the other direction. Although knowing the NRA, it would probably criticize Algernon, Sr. for overreacting.

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A Literary History of the Insult “Cuck”

1642 print–the wife will fool around after sending her husband to war


As one who regularly teaches Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Restoration comedy, I am well acquainted with the word “cuckold” and all of its implications. I find I must explain to my classes why people once found hilarious scenes of men growing imaginary cuckold horns when their wives slept with other men. In cultures obsessed with masculinity, readers and audiences used laughter as a protective mechanism against emasculation insecurities.

Thus it is worth taking seriously an insult frequently employed by the American far right that splashed into headlines this past week: “cuck,” short for “cuckservative.” The anxieties revealed by the word go a long way toward explaining current rightwing politics, including Trumpism’s emphasis on “law-and-order,” firearms permissiveness, the recent missile strikes on Syria, and the many sexual assault charges leveled against Fox News’ Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, not to mention Donald Trump himself. Oh, and add to that Trump’s executive order allowing the shooting of hibernating bears.

Notice how manhood issues are the common denominator.

“Cuck” showed up in the struggle that is currently engulfing the White House. According to Asawin Suebsaeng of The Daily Beast,

Donald Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon has called the president’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner a “cuck” and a “globalist” during a time of high tension between the two top aides, several Trump administration officials told The Daily Beast.

Suebsaeng draws on a Humpty Dumpty neologism (from Alice through the Looking Glass) to define cuckservative and show how it relates to “globalist”:

“Cuckservative,” a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative,” has become a favorite slur on the right, used like a sexually and racially charged version of “RINO,” a Republican In Name Only. “Globalist” is a term typically used by nationalist, pro-Trump right-wingers against political opponents; however, the term has also come under fire for at times carrying anti-Semitic tones. (Kushner is Jewish.)

I’ve written two posts recently (here and here) about the sexual anxieties of white nationalists, which explains why they are drawn to such works as Jean Raspail’s 1973 fascist novel Camp of Saints. For the rest of today’s post, I look at literary references to cuckolds to see how far back the anxiety goes.

Much of the humor in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale comes from the fact that the old carpenter marries a young woman, thereby all but asking to be cuckolded. “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold,” declares the miller, before launching into a bawdy story about an old man marrying a young wife:

This carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf,
Of eighteteene yeer she was of age.
Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,
For she was wylde and yong, and he was old
And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.

In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Faustus gets revenge on a detractor by planting cuckold horns on his head. It’s good for audience laughs although it’s also emphasizes the trivial ways that Europe’s leading intellectual is using his powers:

Faust. Wilt please your highness now to send for the knight that was so pleasant with me here of late? 

Re-enter the Knight with a pair of horns on his head.

How now, sir knight! why, I had thought thou hadst been a bachelor, but now I see thou hast a wife, that not only gives thee horns, but makes thee wear them. Feel on thy head.

Knight. Thou damned wretch and execrable dog,
Bred in the concave of some monstrous rock,
How dar’st thou thus abuse a gentleman?
Villain, I say, undo what thou hast done!

In Shakespeare, Othello is obsessed with the idea of wearing cuckold horns—“a horned man’s a monster and a beast”—and Desdemona pays the price. More comically, in As You Like It the lords joke around with the insult as a form of male bonding:

What should we give to the man who killed this deer?
Give him the hide and the horns to wear.
Then sing this song to send him home
(The other LORDS pick up the deer)
Don’t be ashamed to wear the horns.
They’ve been worn since before you were born.
Your father’s father wore it,
And your father endured it.
The horn, the horn, the lustful horn
Is not to be laughed at or scorned.

The humor here is that the horn is to be laughed at and scorned. There’s a kind of consolation, however, in knowing that you’re not alone in your anxieties.

I can think of no work that more thoroughly makes cuckolding its central joke than William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675). Horner’s name says it all: the protagonist’s mission in life is to put horns on the head of every married man. His stratagem is as bizarre as you’ll find anywhere: he pretends to have been rendered impotent by venereal disease, which allows him to penetrate the defenses of Sir Jasper Fidget, who uses him as a supposedly safe chaperone for his wife. The aptly named Pinchwife, meanwhile, goes to absurd lengths to make sure his wife does not put horns on his head.

Horner, of course, succeeds in making cuckolds of them all, and the play concludes with a “dance of the cuckolds.”

If we no longer find cuckold jokes funny, I tell my students, it’s because men no longer feel their manhood is contingent upon remaining in control of “their” women. Or at least I thought we no longer thought that way.

Given the prevalence of “cuckservative,” I can guarantee that cuckold jokes are popular amongst alt-right types. This is not a good thing.

Further note: I just discovered the “bunny ears” that people make behind the backs of others in photographs have their origin in cuckold horns. You learn something new every day.

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Must I Dwell in Slavery’s Night?

Marc Chagall’s “Fallen Angel,” painted over the course of World War II

Spiritual Sunday – Passover Week

In anticipation of Passover, I share a poem composed by the African American slave George Moses Horton. The Exodus story was as central to American slaves as it has been to the Jews, so a “slave’s complaint” seems appropriate. Reading it, one can see why the great Negro spiritual “Let My People Go” packed such a punch.

According to, Horton was born around 1798 and came into contact with students at the University of North Carolina in 1815, who encouraged his poetic efforts. The illiterate Horton would compose his poems while plowing and later dictate them to others. He published books in 1829, 1845, and 1865, becoming, according to, “the only American ever to publish a book while living in slavery.” Horton would leave his master’s farm in 1865 to join the union army.

The poem moves from a lament over the slave’s captive status to a vision of the freedom that comes with death. This was a coded way for slaves to talk about actual freedom. I like the way that “forever,” tolling ominously at the end of each stanza like Poe’s Raven, become uplifting at the poem’s end.

The Slave’s Complaint

By George Moses Horton

Am I sadly cast aside,
On misfortune’s rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride

Must I dwell in Slavery’s night,
And all pleasure take its flight,
Far beyond my feeble sight,

Worst of all, must hope grow dim,
And withhold her cheering beam?
Rather let me sleep and dream

Something still my heart surveys,
Groping through this dreary maze;
Is it Hope?–they burn and blaze

Leave me not a wretch confined,
Altogether lame and blind–
Unto gross despair consigned,

Heaven! in whom can I confide?
Canst thou not for all provide?
Condescend to be my guide

And when this transient life shall end,
Oh, may some kind, eternal friend
Bid me from servitude ascend,

When our pain is more than we can bear, poetry gives us words. That is no small gift.

Previous Passover Posts

Norman Finkelstein: Blood on the Door Posts 

Norman Finkelstein: Death and Miracles and Stars without Number 

Nicole Krauss: Replacing the Temple with the Torah

Muriel Rukeyser: The Journeys of the Night Survive

Primo Levi: A Night Different from All Other Nights 

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Calling Out Trump’s Assault on Nature

Johann Heinrich, “Teiresias”


Trumpism’s all-out assault on Nature has begun, prompting me to turn once again to Euripides’s The Bacchae. The indispensable surveys what we are facing.

First, here’s Brian Plumer last week:

In a sweeping new executive order, President Trump ordered his Cabinet today to start demolishing a wide array of Obama-era policies on global warming — including emissions rules for power plants, limits on methane leaks, a moratorium on federal coal leasing, and the use of the social cost of carbon to guide government actions.

Everyone knew this was coming: Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to repeal US climate regulations and unshackle the fossil fuel industry. But Tuesday’s order is only a first step. Trump’s administration will now spend years trying to rewrite rules and fend off legal challenges from environmentalists.

Sarah Frostenson, meanwhile, reported Tuesday on leaked EPA documents that reveal how the Trump administration plans to eviscerate the agency:

Leaked documents reveal just how President Donald Trump plans to decimate the Environmental Protection Agency and cut 31 percent of its funding.

The more detailed vision for the EPA appears in an internal memo by its acting financial officer that was shared with Vox. It includes the elimination of more funding for decade-long programs, drastically scaling back different departments within the agency, and more staff layoffs than initially proposed.

Some 50 programs are on the chopping block, including state grants for fighting environmental hazards such as lead and radon and at least 10 specific geographic programs, like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay program. Discretionary funds worth $21 million for “state-defined high priority activities” have been stripped, according to the memo, dated March 21.

What’s more, staffing cuts to the agency are now estimated at 25 percent, up from the 20 percent in cuts proposed in the March 16 “skinny” budget.

The staff cuts are intended to undermine state regulatory efforts:

[T]he current budget proposal would cripple state enforcement and regulation efforts, particularly for states already facing severely strapped budgets.

On average, the EPA funds 27 percent of a state’s environmental agency budget, often in the form of categorical grants, according to the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), a nonprofit association of state environmental agency leaders. And in the Trump budget, categorical grants get a 44 percent cut.

“What’s important to realize about these grants, is they are essentially ‘fee for service,’ or what we as a state receive for implementing federal programs on behalf of the EPA,” said Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “We have the responsibility for implementing the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act … but cutting that funding in half impacts our ability to get permits out as well as our inspection coverage.”

It is all of a piece with what else we are seeing from the Trump administration: assert dominion over Nature, over women’s bodies, over all perceived enemies, at home and abroad. At such moments we need Teiresias, who challenges Pentheus after he declares war on Dionysus and his followers. Speaking truth to power, the seer tells the king he is mad:

                                    So Pentheus,
listen to me. Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men are not shaped by force.
Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are.

At the end of his speech, Teiresias defiantlyasserts that he will continue to worship the god of Nature, regardless of what Penthesus does:

[N]othing you can ever say will make me
turn against the Gods. For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo.

Sound public policy carefully examines tradeoffs between economics and the environment in a way that does justice to both. Or as the Greeks put it that respects both Apollo and Dionysus (a.k.a. Bromius), civilization and wilderness. The chorus of Bacchae applaud Teiresias for honoring the balance:

Your words, old man,
most wisely balance
respect for the Gods.
Without shaming Apollo
you honor our Bromius, as a great God.

We face the danger that Trump’s madness will prevail and we will come to accept his assault as the new norm. Our seers strive to open our eyes.

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Donald, Who Lied & Was Burned to Death

Illus. BTB and Nicholas Bentley, “Matilda”


Looking back at 2012, it seems almost quaint that people accused Mitt Romney of running “the big lie” campaign (Newt Gingrich) or “a post-truth campaign” (Paul Krugman). In a post where I cited the poem I will be sharing again today, I wrote,

To be sure, all politicians lie sometimes–if not directly, then through evasion or fudging—and maybe it’s even necessary in a country where one has to speak to so many different constituencies.

Romney, however, appears to have taken lying to new heights in contemporary American politics.  Not only does he deny things he once said or did but he accuses his rivals of saying or doing things they never said or did and then attacks them for it. Blogger Steve Benen has started posting Romney’s most flagrant lies from the previous week each Friday. Last week’s post can be found here.

We can understand why Romney does so. If the extremists in your party are determining who the next candidate will be, you tell them what they want to hear and then, when elected, do what you were going to do anyway. Call it Machiavelli 101. It’s just that most politicians try to be subtler about it.

I obviously didn’t know how high the heights could go. One always sensed that Romney at least had some regard for the truth. That’s the point of a recent Los Angeles Times editorial that sets out to determine what sets Donald Trump’s lying apart from that of other politicians. While conceding that lies have “oozed…out of politicians’ mouths — out of all people’s mouths — likely as long as there has been human speech,” the Times concludes that Trump’s “disregard for fact” is

so profound as to suggest that he may not see much practical distinction between lies, if he believes they serve him, and the truth.

The Times explains why this is a serious matter:

[H]e puts the nation in danger by undermining the role of truth in public discourse and policymaking, as well as the notion of truth being verifiable and mutually intelligible.

In the months ahead, Trump will bring his embrace of alternative facts on the nation’s behalf into talks with China, North Korea or any number of powers with interests counter to ours and that constitute an existential threat. At home, Trump now becomes the embodiment of the populist notion (with roots planted at least as deeply in the Left as the Right) that verifiable truth is merely a concept invented by fusty intellectuals, and that popular leaders can provide some equally valid substitute. We’ve seen people like that before, and we have a name for them: demagogues.

So as not to be fusty any longer today, here’s a Hilaire Belloc poem from his darkly comic send-up of Victorian morality tales, Cautionary Tales for Children. We all need a little laughter at the moment. Incidentally, some of the instructional tales parodied by Belloc were in fact pretty bad.

Incidentally, the play mentioned in the poem, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, is inappropriate for children. Watching it is probably better than getting burned to death, but not by much.

Matilda (Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death)

By Hilaire Belloc

Matilda told such dreadful lies,
It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes;
Her aunt, who, from her earliest youth,
Had kept a strict regard for truth,

Attempted to believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not she
Discovered this infirmity.
For once, towards the close of day,
Matilda, growing tired of play
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the telephone

And summoned the immediate aid
Of London’s noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band

Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs and Bow,
With courage high and hearts a-glow
They galloped, roaring though the town,

“Matilda’s house is burning down!”
Inspired by British cheers and loud
Proceeding from the frenzied crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the ballroom floor;
And took peculiar pains to souse
The pictures up and down the house,

Until Matilda’s aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed
And even then she had to pay
To get the men to go away!

It happened that a few weeks later
Here aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that interesting play
The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her niece
To hear this entertaining piece:
A deprivation just and wise
To punish her for telling lies.
That night a fire did break out—
You should have heard Matilda shout!
You should have heard her scream and bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To people passing in the street—
(The rapidly increasing heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence)—but all in vain!
For every time she shouted “Fire!”

They only answered “Little Liar!”
And therefore when her aunt returned,
Matilda, and the house, were burned.

Comedy aside, what will happen to America when there really is a fire?

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Mosley & Du Bois: Art as Propaganda

Walter Mosley


A few weeks ago novelist Walter Mosley came to campus to deliver a talk and answer questions. In the process, I was introduced to an essay by W. E. B. Du Bois that I now plan to teach in my Theories of the Reader class. My colleague Colby Nelson asked Mosley to respond to the following passage from “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926):

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

The statement seems shocking. After all, aren’t art and propaganda antithetical? Would Dubois actually countenance, say, the formulaic socialist realist art required by Stalin’s Soviet Union? Isn’t art supposed to soar above politics, not muck about in it? That’s what these wailing purists would contend.

Du Bois knows this. But he also knows something else: what passes for art amongst some purists can have a propagandistic side. Hidden within otherwise substantive works are racial messages that people of color can see, even if whites cannot, messages that validate demeaning narratives. Du Bois provides an example of two contrasting racial stereotypes:

In New York we have two plays: White Congo and Congo. In White Congo there is a fallen woman. She is black. In Congo the fallen woman is white. In White Congo the black woman goes down further and further and in Congo the white woman begins with degradation but in the end is one of the angels of the Lord.

The culture wars of the early 1990s were heated in part because women scholars, scholars of color, and others newly arrived in college humanities departments pointed out that certain works of art were not as free of bias—not as pure—as their admirers claimed. White audiences often overlooked racial stereotyping.

If Du Bois really wanted African American authors to engage in propaganda, however, he would call for them to promote, say, civil rights. Instead, he says that an artist’s “bounden duty” is to Beauty and that, to achieve that Beauty, he or she must commit to Truth. If artists do their job, they will honor “goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor and right,” thereby gaining “sympathy and human interest”:

Thus it is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of Beauty, of the preservation of Beauty, of the realization of Beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before. And what have been the tools of the artist in times gone by? First of all, he has used the Truth — not for the sake of truth, not as a scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom Truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding. Again artists have used Goodness — goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor and right — not for sake of an ethical sanction but as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.

The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice.

This is a version of what Walter Mosley said. Before I elaborate, here’s the opening from Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, which owe a debt to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler:

I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.

I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.

Mosley told us that his first goal was to get his characters and his milieu right. He doesn’t worry about political correctness, he said, because his first obligation is to truth.

This means that he avoids both white stereotypes of African Americans and sentimental versions that African Americans have of themselves. I could imagine him agreeing with the following Du Bois observation:

We [black readers] are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as second-hand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people will talk of it. Our religion holds us in superstition. Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.

This passage could well have encouraged Richard Wright as he created Bigger Thomas, who at first seems just a confirmation of white fears but then becomes a three-dimensional figure in his own right. Mosley too doesn’t create pristine black characters.

The author noted that, if one respects character and milieu, Truth will have been served. What emerges is more accurate than, say, Donald Trump’s version of urban life. In this way, it can be seen as a kind of propaganda, and Mosley told us that he agreed with Du Bois. It is propaganda, however, only in the sense that Beauty and Truth are propaganda. “Negro art” undermines white versions of the world.

Du Bois asserts that art is ultimately about freedom, not constraint. When readers encounter Truth, they become “free of mind, proud of body and just of soul”:

The ultimate judge has got to be you and you have got to build yourselves up into that wide judgment, that catholicity of temper which is going to enable the artist to have his widest chance for freedom. We can afford the Truth. White folk today cannot…We must come to the place where the work of art when it appears is reviewed and acclaimed by our own free and unfettered judgment. And we are going to have a real and valuable and eternal judgment only as we make ourselves free of mind, proud of body and just of soul to all men.

When Mosley spoke, he drew more African Americans that I have ever seen at a college reading. Some said they had read ever one of Mosley’s 50+ novels. Others asked detailed questions about specific characters. It was an example of a black author getting the type of recognition that Du Bois describes:

Just as soon as true Art emerges; just as soon as the black artist appears, someone touches the race on the shoulder and says, “He did that because he was an American, not because he was a Negro; he was born here; he was trained here; he is not a Negro — what is a Negro anyhow? He is just human; it is the kind of thing you ought to expect.

Du Bois talks about “Negro art” as “propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.” Mosley has risen to the challenge.

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A Fascist Novel & Immigration Policy


Move over, Atlas Shrugged. Welcome, Camp of Saints.

On second thought, you’re both welcome in GOP-controlled Washington.

If you need confirmation of the power of novels, you need look no further than how Ayn Rand guides House Speaker Paul Ryan and how Jean Raspail does the same for Senior Advisor to the President Steve Bannon.

I’ve written a lot about Ayn Rand but I’m just now hearing about the French novelist Raspail. Last month The Huffington Post had an in-depth article on his 1973 work, and Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker recently traced its roots in French fascism. It’s scary stuff.

The plot, laid out in Huffington Post, involves waves of immigrants overwhelming Europe and then America while the liberal multicultural left dithers around. Among the horrors that ensue are the following:

The French government eventually gives the order to repel the armada by force, but by then the military has lost the will to fight. Troops battle among themselves as the Indians stream on shore, trampling to death the left-wing radicals who came to welcome them. Poor black and brown people literally overrun Western civilization. Chinese people pour into Russia; the queen of England is forced to marry her son to a Pakistani woman; the mayor of New York must house an African-American family at Gracie Mansion. Raspail’s rogue heroes, the defenders of white Christian supremacy, attempt to defend their civilization with guns blazing but are killed in the process.

Last week I compared the sadomasochistic fantasies of German Freikorps soldiers to the budget priorities of Donald Trump. I need not have looked for such an indirect connection since Camp of Saints, openly praised by Trump’s senior advisor, has similar fantasies.

For instance, I mentioned how the enemy in those 1920s pulp novels is compared to a watery, oozing mass that threatens to inundate the hard, clear outlines of white German identity. The novels also see this mass as sexual—which is to say, brown skinned people represent a forbidden longing which rightwing readers have repressed. One already sees some of that sexuality in the above description of Camp of Saints, with its royal prince marrying a Pakistani and an African-American family residing at Gracie Mansion (horrors!). The forced race mixing of sexualized brown bodies with victimized white bodies haunts the nightmare fantasies of white supremacists.

The novel has even more vivid images elsewhere. As you read the following description of the novel, remember that it was written in 1973, when hippies would have been associated with the sexual revolution:

Only white Europeans like [protagonist] Calgues are portrayed as truly human in The Camp of the Saints. The Indian armada brings “thousands of wretched creatures” whose very bodies arouse disgust: “Scraggy branches, brown and black … All bare, those fleshless Gandhi-arms.” Poor brown children are spoiled fruit “starting to rot, all wormy inside, or turned so you can’t see the mold.”

The ship’s inhabitants are also sexual deviants who turn the voyage into a grotesque orgy. “Everywhere, rivers of sperm,” Raspail writes. “Streaming over bodies, oozing between breasts, and buttocks, and thighs, and lips, and fingers.”

The white Christian world is on the brink of destruction, the novel suggests, because these black and brown people are more fertile and more numerous, while the West has lost that necessary belief in its own cultural and racial superiority. As he talks to the hippie he will soon kill, Calgues explains how the youth went so wrong: “That scorn of a people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest — none of that had ever filled these youngsters’ addled brains.”

And now check out the relationship of the novel to the seven-nation Muslim ban enacted by the Trump administration. Huffington Post authors Paul Blumenthal and J. M. Rieger find several Steve Bannon Camp of Saints references in 2015 and 2016 that point to the origins of the ban:

“It’s been almost a Camp of the Saints-type invasion into Central and then Western and Northern Europe,” he said in October 2015.

“The whole thing in Europe is all about immigration,” he said in January 2016. “It’s a global issue today — this kind of global Camp of the Saints.”

“It’s not a migration,” he said later that January. “It’s really an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints.”

“When we first started talking about this a year ago,” he said in April 2016, “we called it the Camp of the Saints. … I mean, this is Camp of the Saints, isn’t it?”

Like the Friekorps fantasies described by Klaus Theweleit, there is a mixture of sadism and self-pitying masochism in Camp of Saints. On the one hand, Calgues gets to kill hippies. On the other hand, the good guys tragically but heroically are overwhelmed by the brown hoards at the end. Rightwing readers are able to shed cathartic tears for themselves in a self-pity party at how liberal policies victimize them.

The Freikorps fantasies are obviously junk, but Gopnik is worried about Camp of Saints. That’s because it comes out of a rightwing intellectual French tradition, which gives it a bit more respectability. As Gopnik observes,

Camp of Saints is not clumsily constructed hate literature in the way that the hideous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi period and Julius Streicher is. It is instead designed as nostalgic literature mourning the passing of a coherent cultural structure that has been worn away from within.

This helps point to the explanation as to why the French right wing possesses, if not credibility, then at least surprising influence at home and abroad. In plain English, the French extreme right turned not to volk mythology but to royalism and the Roman Catholic Church, both of which were, at least to the eye of ideological desire, more passably attractive as counter-dreams to pluralistic liberalism than the fantasy creations of Germany or the United States. The French far right was aesthetic before it was, or as much as it was, authoritarian. 

Gopnik cites the following passage from Raspail’s novel as an example:

While the old man sat there, eating and drinking, savoring swallow after swallow, he set his eyes wandering over the spacious room. A time-consuming task, since his glance stopped to linger on everything it touched, and since every confrontation was a new act of love. Now and then his eyes would fill with tears, but they were tears of joy. Each object in this house proclaimed the dignity of those who had lived here—their discretion, their propriety, their reserve, their taste for those solid traditions that one generation can pass on to the next, so long as it still takes pride in itself. And the old man’s soul was in everything, too. In the fine old bindings, the rustic benches, the Virgin carved in wood, the big cane chairs, the hexagonal tiles, the beams in the ceiling, the ivory crucifix with its sprig of dried box wood, and a hundred other things as well . . .

Raspail turns to old things, Gopnik points out, when he wants to elevate his reactionary longings. They stand in for what was once good and wholesome and pure.

Gopnik mentions that one of Raspail’s literary forebearers is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a Nazi-sympathizing author whose Voyage to the End of the Night I read in a college 20th century French novels class. Céline’s novel is filled with such passages as,

I crawled back into myself all alone, just delighted to observe that I was even more miserable than before, because I had brought a new kind of distress and something that resembled true feeling into my solitude.

As I see it, the longing for a heroic past often arises out of a certain self loathing, with people looking for some cleansing savior to redeem them. As Gopnik points out, there can be a rightwing Catholic dimension to this dynamic–an obsession with human sin and corruption–and he finds traces of it in respected authors Léon Daudet, Paul Morand,  G. K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, all of them anti-Semitic.

Gopnik sums up Raspail’s current popularity amongst white nationalists as follows:

But the vogue of Raspail on the American extreme right…suggests that its apocalyptic aestheticism is simply the slightly more highbrow version of Donald Trump’s own more vulgar fantasies, the ones where American carnage and Celebrity Apprentice intertwine with grotesque intensity. Indeed, there’s a passage in Raspail’s novel, soon after the quotation above, where we’re brought into a ravaged New York where Central Park is occupied by bands of barbarians and a few terrified white people cling to its margins, an absurd image that exactly corresponds to Trump’s crazy image of American cities.

If you need a reminder that a multicultural democracy is not a rotting mass, turn to Walt Whitman’s multitudes, the crew of Melville’s Pequod, and all the rich immigrant novels that have been pumping new life into America for over two centuries. Think of Willa Cather, Anzia Yezierska, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, Bernard Malamud, Paule Marshall, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Bahrati Mukergee, Jamaica Kincaid, Julia Alvarez, Frank McCourt, Jeffrey Eugenides, Abraham Verghese, and Khaled Hosseini, to name just a few. Against that rich tapestry, complaints of our American Raspails seem like thin soup.

Not that this keeps them from whining. Huffington Post quotes one of the American publishers responsible for Camp of Saints:

“Over the years the American public has absorbed a great number of books, articles, poems and films which exalt the immigrant experience,” Tanton wrote in 1994. “It is easy for the feelings evoked by Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to obscure the fact that we are currently receiving too many immigrants (and receiving them too fast) for the health of our environment and of our common culture. Raspail evokes different feelings and that may help to pave the way for policy changes.”

Bannon likes to talk about culture wars and a clash of civilizations. He claims he has Islam in mind, but “Islam” somehow extends to include Hispanics, African Americans, Jews, and multiculturalism generally. He’s right about the clash of civilizations, however. America is fighting with itself about what kind of nation we will be.

Note which side has the better writers.

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Loving Led to Social Justice

Edgerton and Negga in “Loving”


Over the weekend I saw Loving, the recent film about the interracial couple that, in 1964, sued the state of Virginia in order to remain married and out of jail. The quiet but deeply moving film sent me in search of poems about miscegenation. As I expected, I found one by former poet laureate Natasha Tretheway, herself the product of an interracial marriage.

The issue has special significance to me as both of my sons are in interracial marriages. I don’t know how the deep south would have regarded Darien’s marriage to Korean-American Betsy, but I know for sure that they would have fought Toby’s marriage to Candice, who is from Trinidad.

Richard and Mildred Loving journey to Washington to get married and then return home to rural Virginia. Not long afterwards, they are arrested and warned that they will be thrown in jail unless they leave the state for 25 years. At one point in the film, Mildred asks about the arguments Virginia will use against them in the upcoming case and is told that the state regards her children as bastards.

I thought about my grandchildren and felt grateful to all the Civil Rights activists who put their lives on the line so that Alban, Esmé, Etta, and Eden could live in a very different America.   I was also reminded how we must push back against the current rise of white nationalism.

In her poem, Trethewey gives an account of her parents left Mississippi and then, like the Lovings, returned to the south for their child’s birth. Tretheway uses the poem to find a pattern in her fragmented life. Her chain of association leads from the journey to Canada to the underground railroad to Faulkner’s Joe Christmas—the martyred mixed race character in Faulkner’s Light in August who is a Christ figure—to the meaning of her own name.

The poem ends on a note of hope: the poet’s parents may have journeyed through the snow to get to Canada, but now the hills are green. Thanks in part to the Lovings, a poet who was born a bastard in the eyes of Mississippi will go on to become its poet laureate. Born near Easter, Mississippi, Trethewey looks back at what appears to be an Easter miracle: Peace wins out over War and Love triumphs over Death. Trethewey, her first name meaning “Christmas child,” doesn’t invoke the Loving case but she could have.

It’s a good reminder for dark times.


By Natasa Trethewey

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong—mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year—you’re the same
age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name—
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.

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A Dear Friend Is Made One with Nature

Dr. Kate Chandler

Spiritual Sunday

My colleague, office neighbor, and dear, dear friend Kate Chandler died yesterday of ovarian cancer. Kate, who taught courses in environmental literature and environmental writing, was the driving force behind our Environmental Studies program and also our campus farm. She was a luminescent soul and I will miss her more than I can say.

Kate was a Beatrix Potter scholar and several years ago contributed a post to this blog about Potter as a naturalist. (You can read it here.) Kate pointed out to me the accuracy of the flora and fauna in Potter’s animal stories, beginning with Peter Rabbit. Looking for balm for my sadness, I turned to a poem that she loved, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais, written in memory of John Keats.

Shelley wrote the poem as spring was blossoming, with all the irony that that entails. The return of the swallows is an allusion to Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” which concludes with Keats’s premonition of his forthcoming death: “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Unlike Keats, the swallows return the following spring:


Ah, woe is me! Winter is come and gone, 
       But grief returns with the revolving year; 
       The airs and streams renew their joyous tone; 
       The ants, the bees, the swallows reappear; 
       Fresh leaves and flowers deck the dead Seasons’ bier; 
       The amorous birds now pair in every brake, 
       And build their mossy homes in field and brere; 
       And the green lizard, and the golden snake, 
Like unimprison’d flames, out of their trance awake. 


       Through wood and stream and field and hill and Ocean 
       A quickening life from the Earth’s heart has burst 
       As it has ever done, with change and motion, 
       From the great morning of the world when first 
       God dawn’d on Chaos; in its stream immers’d, 
       The lamps of Heaven flash with a softer light; 
       All baser things pant with life’s sacred thirst; 
       Diffuse themselves; and spend in love’s delight, 
The beauty and the joy of their renewed might.

Kate felt that sacred thirst and she loved the creation story from Genesis that Shelley references: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.”

At this point in the poem, Shelley is still fighting death and notes a distinction between nature and “that alone which knows.” Nature, because it is not self-conscious and thus does not know death as humans do, does not die. As Shelley puts it. “Nought we know, dies.” Each spring the “leprous corpse” of the earth is touched by the “spirit tender” and “exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath”:


       The leprous corpse, touch’d by this spirit tender, 
       Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath; 
       Like incarnations of the stars, when splendor 
       Is chang’d to fragrance, they illumine death 
       And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath; 
       Nought we know, dies. Shall that alone which knows 
       Be as a sword consum’d before the sheath 
       By sightless lightning?—the intense atom glows 
A moment, then is quench’d in a most cold repose. 

Unlike the rest of creation, humans are separated from nature like a sword in a sheath. We are an “intense atom” that “glows a moment” before we are consumed by “sightless lightning.” Our brief blaze gives way to “a most cold repose.”

Shelley is not done yet, however. The stanzas I turn to next provided an epitaph for my son Justin, who drowned in the St. Mary’s River. Kate and I bonded over Justin because she herself lost a brother to drowning. She understood why I turned to the passage, “He is made one with nature.”

Shelley talks about a divine, creative, and “plastic” spirit—“plastic” because malleable–blowing through all creation. The material world is resistant to this spirit (“unwilling dross”), but if we open ourselves to it, we can become conduits, manifesting it on earth. This “Power,” Shelley says, worked powerfully through Keats and has now “withdrawn his being to its own.” We can call this Power “God,” even though Shelley does not. When we acknowledge the Power, we no longer feel like isolated swords:


He lives, he wakes—’tis Death is dead, not he; 
       Mourn not for Adonais. Thou young Dawn, 
       Turn all thy dew to splendor, for from thee 
       The spirit thou lamentest is not gone; 
       Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan! 
       Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air, 
       Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown 
       O’er the abandon’d Earth, now leave it bare 
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair! 


He is made one with Nature: there is heard 
       His voice in all her music, from the moan 
       Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird; 
       He is a presence to be felt and known 
       In darkness and in light, from herb and stone, 
       Spreading itself where’er that Power may move 
       Which has withdrawn his being to its own; 
       Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above. 


He is a portion of the loveliness 
       Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear 
       His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress 
      Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there 
       All new successions to the forms they wear; 
       Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight 
       To its own likeness, as each mass may bear; 
       And bursting in its beauty and its might 
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light. 

Kate too is now a portion of the loveliness which once she made more lovely. Keats was a Poet who made nature more lovely through lyrics about nightingales, bright stars, and autumn afternoons. Kate was a Teacher who got her students to write and think about the woods and the river. Through her, the one Spirit worked so that people saw Nature in all its richness.

By the end of the poem, Shelley is more confident that not all has been lost. In mourning his friend, he has written himself to a new connection with “the fire for which all thirst.” “Cold mortality” does not get the last word:


       That Light whose smile kindles the Universe, 
       That Beauty in which all things work and move, 
       That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse 
       Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love 
       Which through the web of being blindly wove 
       By man and beast and earth and air and sea, 
       Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of 
       The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me, 
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality. 

That Light, Beauty, Benediction and sustaining Love connect us to you, Kate, now and forever. Bless you as the Power withdraws your being to its own.

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Swift’s April Fools Broomstick Joke

Van Gogh, “Man with a Broom”

Sometimes Saturday – April Fools Day

As today is April Fools Day, I’m reposting a past post from the all time master of the April Fools joke, Jonathan Swift.

Sadly, our current president appears to think that every day is April Fools. The “story” of Obama’s fake birth certificate was not confined to April 1, nor was Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the Kennedy assassination, nor was Hillary Clinton’s massive election day fraud that won her the popular vote. Every day we’re also learning more and more  about the massive Russian fake news invasion that disrupted the 2016 election, an invasion that didn’t target only Clinton but also some of Trump’s primary opponents.

The health of our republic depends on relegating April Fools Day back to a single day. 

Meditation on a Broomstick – Reposted from April 1, 2014

One of the greatest April Fools jokesters of all time was Jonathan Swift. I’ve written in the past about one of his best jokes, how he posed as Isaac Bickerstaff and predicted that the astrologer John Partridge was a fraud because he hadn’t predicted that he would be dead in two months. But this wasn’t the only one.

Of course “Modest Proposal,” which would have resembled others such proposals around it in the bookstall, would have worked as a joke. I don’t know what time of year it appeared.

Another prank, which I can well imagine occurring on April Fools Day, was Swift’s “Meditation upon a Broomstick” (1701). Supposedly he was accustomed to read aloud from Robert Boyle’s Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects (1665) to the ladies in the Earl of Berkeley’s household, whose chaplain he was. Boyle can find a religious message in just about anything—giving meat to a dog, getting caught in a storm, cleaning the house—and one can imagine Swift becoming impatient with how mechanical Boyle could be. One day he substituted his own meditation.

It starts sedately enough, perfectly capturing Boyle’s style. While his listeners may have been surprised by someone choosing a broomstick as a subject for meditation, everything else would have sounded right:

THIS single stick, which you now behold ingloriously lying in that neglected corner, I once knew in a flourishing state in a forest. It was full of sap, full of leaves, and full of boughs; but now in vain does the busy art of man pretend to vie with nature, by tying that withered bundle of twigs to its sapless trunk; it is now at best but the reverse of what it was, a tree turned upside-down, the branches on the earth, and the root in the air; it is now handled by every dirty wench, condemned to do her drudgery, and, by a capricious kind of fate, destined to make other things clean, and be nasty itself; at length, worn to the stumps in the service of the maids, it is either thrown out of doors or condemned to the last use — of kindling a fire. When I behold this I sighed, and said within myself, “Surely mortal man is a broomstick!” Nature sent him into the world strong and lusty, in a thriving condition, wearing his own hair on his head, the proper branches of this reasoning vegetable, till the axe of intemperance has lopped off his green boughs, and left him a withered trunk; he then flies to art, and puts on a periwig, valuing himself upon an unnatural bundle of hairs, all covered with powder, that never grew on his head; but now should this our broomstick pretend to enter the scene, proud of those birchen spoils it never bore, and all covered with dust, through the sweepings of the finest lady’s chamber, we should be apt to ridicule and despise its vanity. Partial judges that we are of our own excellencies, and other men’s defaults!

At this point, however, Swift’s satire turns dark. Not only does he lament that those who set themselves up as reformers accomplish nothing—in fact, they do more harm than good—but he talks of the broom being enslaved by women and exploited. As someone who was frustrated that his many career ambitions were being thwarted and that he was confined to being a country chaplain and reading meditations to women, did he have himself in mind? It’s a fact that he himself had been kicked out of doors following the death of William Temple, his previous employer.

 But a broomstick, perhaps you will say, is an emblem of a tree standing on its head; and pray what is a man but a topsy-turvy creature, his animal faculties perpetually mounted on his rational, his head where his heels should be, groveling on the earth? And yet, with all his faults, he sets up to be a universal reformer and corrector of abuses, a remover of grievances, rakes into every slut’s corner of nature, bringing hidden corruptions to the light, and raises a mighty dust where there was none before, sharing deeply all the while in the very same pollutions he pretends to sweep away. His last days are spent in slavery to women, and generally the least deserving; till, worn to the stumps, like his brother besom [broomstick], he is either kicked out of doors, or made use of to kindle flames for others to warm themselves by.

The story goes that his auditors didn’t catch the joke until the next day, when they returned to the book to revisit this curious topic and found his version stuck inside. The best April Fools jokes are those that take a while to recognize.

Previous posts on Jonathan Swift’s jokes

Jonathan Swift, Master of Fake News: “The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston”

Swift’s Spectacular April Fools Joke: Isaac Bickerstaff and the Astrologer Partridge

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Gulliver, Recommended for Scientists

The airborne island of Laputa


Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who has found ways to popularize science, recently told Vox that his favorite book to recommend is Gulliver’s Travels, which has caused my respect for him to climb another couple of notches. That’s because he might well have in mind Book III, where Swift satirizes scientists and abstract mathematicians. Tyson says that, while most people know the voyage to Lilliput, “the real satire and insights into human nature come from Gulliver’s other voyages.”

Tyson strikes me as a scientist who has a grounded vision of his field, which is what makes him a great spokesperson. He knows how to connect to the questions and concerns of his audience and doesn’t get lost in the clouds. The scientists and thinkers in Gulliver’s Travel do not have his humility, believing rather that they are above everyone else.

This is particularly true of the Laputans, who are literally above everyone else as they live on a flying island. Being above the earth functions as a metaphor for being detached from reality, as can be seen in the way they converse:

The knowledge I had in mathematics, gave me great assistance in acquiring their phraseology, which depended much upon that science, and music; and in the latter I was not unskilled.  Their ideas are perpetually conversant in lines and figures.  If they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms, or by words of art drawn from music, needless here to repeat.  I observed in the king’s kitchen all sorts of mathematical and musical instruments, after the figures of which they cut up the joints that were served to his majesty’s table.

As elevated as this may seem, it has disastrous consequences for their practical lives:

Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevel, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined for the intellects of their workmen, which occasions perpetual mistakes.  And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper, in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet in the common actions and behavior of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music.  They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case.  Imagination, fancy, and invention, they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language, by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences.

Their impracticality extends to going about their daily business since they often get lost in their thoughts:

It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external action upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper (the original is climenole) in their family, as one of their domestics; nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him.  And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself.  This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of jostling others, or being jostled himself into the kennel.

Down on earth, the Laputans have a special science academy where, again, they are more interested in abstract schemes than practical experiments. To see where Swift’s own interests lie, we must go to Book II, where the large-minded giant king

gave it for his opinion, “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

Nothing so practical guides the scientists at the academy. For instance:

The first man I saw was of a meager aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places.  His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same color.  He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.  He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.”  I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.

He sounds like a scientist looking for grant money.

There are, to be sure, problems with science and mathematics that are driven only by practical concerns. Swift, brilliant satirist that he is, lets no one off the hook. The pragmatic Houyhnhnms, for instance, eschew abstraction altogether, with the result that their society lacks love or a sense of wonder. They are also only too willing, as a practical matter, to casually exterminate the Yahoos.

Tyson is a scientist open to self examination. Swift would approve.

Further thought: I can only imagine Swift’s response to a recent article in the New Yorker about Silicon Valley billionaires who are searching for ways to live forever. Swift warns us to be careful about what we wish for in his account of the struldbrugs, people born with an immortality gene.

Like the Silicon Valley billionaires, we first think that these people are the lucky ones. Gulliver discusses why immortality seems like a blessing:

I answered, “it was easy to be eloquent on so copious and delightful a subject, especially to me, who had been often apt to amuse myself with visions of what I should do, if I were a king, a general, or a great lord: and upon this very case, I had frequently run over the whole system how I should employ myself, and pass the time, if I were sure to live for ever.

“That, if it had been my good fortune to come into the world a struldbrug, as soon as I could discover my own happiness, by understanding the difference between life and death, I would first resolve, by all arts and methods, whatsoever, to procure myself riches.  In the pursuit of which, by thrift and management, I might reasonably expect, in about two hundred years, to be the wealthiest man in the kingdom.  In the second place, I would, from my earliest youth, apply myself to the study of arts and sciences, by which I should arrive in time to excel all others in learning.  Lastly, I would carefully record every action and event of consequence, that happened in the public, impartially draw the characters of the several successions of princes and great ministers of state, with my own observations on every point.  I would exactly set down the several changes in customs, language, fashions of dress, diet, and diversions.  By all which acquirements, I should be a living treasure of knowledge and wisdom, and certainly become the oracle of the nation.”

Swift then touches on issues that none of the billionaires are discussing. Gulliver learns that being born a struldbrug is instead a curse:

[Gulliver’s guide] said, “they commonly acted like mortals till about thirty years old; after which, by degrees, they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to fourscore.  This he learned from their own confession: for otherwise, there not being above two or three of that species born in an age, they were too few to form a general observation by.  When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.  They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren.  Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions.  But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort and the deaths of the old.  By reflecting on the former, they find themselves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others have gone to a harbor of rest to which they themselves never can hope to arrive.  They have no remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle-age, and even that is very imperfect; and for the truth or particulars of any fact, it is safer to depend on common tradition, than upon their best recollections.  The least miserable among them appear to be those who turn to dotage, and entirely lose their memories; these meet with more pity and assistance, because they want many bad qualities which abound in others.

I can easily imagine some of the Silicon Valley billionaires, were they to achieve their end, progressing in exactly this way.

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Freikorps Fantasies and Trump’s Policies


A recent New York Times column by David Brooks about Donald Trump’s philosophy got me thinking about a study of fascist fantasy novels that were penned by disillusioned German officers after World War I. It all comes down to a fetish for things hard and a horror of things soft.

Brooks is trying to understand why Trump has moved away from his expressed concern for white working class Americans. Unconvinced by his first two theories that Trump, in various ways, has been coopted by establishment Republicans, Brooks floats a third possibility:

The third possibility is that Donald Trump doesn’t really care about domestic policy; he mostly cares about testosterone.

He wants to cut any part of government that may seem soft and nurturing, like poverty programs. He wants to cut any program that might seem emotional and airy-fairy, like the National Endowment for the Arts. He wants to cut any program that might seem smart and nerdy, like the National Institutes of Health.

But he wants to increase funding for every program that seems manly, hard, muscular and ripped, like the military and armed antiterrorism programs.

Indeed, the Trump budget looks less like a political philosophy and more like a sexual fantasy. It lavishes attention on every aspect of hard power and slashes away at anything that isn’t.

Klaus Theweleit’s study is titled Male Fantasies: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. Theweleit unearthed a large trove of fantasy novels written by German Freikorps members and discovered recurring image patterns. The Freikorps were paramilitary groups composed of World War I veterans who felt, as Hitler did, that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” when the government abruptly surrendered. They fought against the Weimar Republic up until 1923, when they were outlawed, but would contribute to the rise of the Nazi party.

Their sexual fantasies are sadistic horror shows (and sometimes masochistic self-pity parties) and are revealing. Here’s a passage from one involving a Jewish Bolshevik “rifle-woman.” Believe it or not, Pahlen and the captors are the good guys:

“In that case,” Pahlen says softly, his face a frozen mask, “you’ll have to beat this woman to death. But not with those clubs of yours. Use that little Cossack whip that’s hanging from her wrist.”

“I’ll be damned!” the one man says. “That won’t be easy!” the second man declares, scratching behind his ear.

Pahlen pulls out a wallet that still gleams with the imprint of a seven-pointed crown, its edges worn smooth with use, and hands them a large bill. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s not against orders. She’s murdered so many people that this is simply a punishment for her crimes.”

“A rifle-woman then?” the first one asks.

“A genuine rifle-woman!” Pahlen nods absent-mindedly.

The first man laughs and licks his lips. “Then everything’s in order. We’d have done it even without the bill. One of the famous rifle-women, is she?” He repeats, shaking his head as he stares at her. Then they bend down again, grab her by her shattered arms, and haul her brutally away. Pahlen takes one last look at her face; she seems fully conscious, yet it is distorted by an animal hatred. Curses spring from her protruding lips, pouring forth with every breath she takes.

I turn to a review by Paul Robinson in The New York Times for a summation of Theweleit’s argument:

[Theweleit’s] central contention is that the Freikorps soldiers were afraid of women. Indeed, not just afraid, they were deeply hostile to them, and their ultimate goal was to murder them. Women, in their view, came in only two varieties: Red and White. The White woman was the nurse, the mother, the sister. She was distinguished above all else by her sexlessness. The Red woman, on the other hand, was a whore and a Communist. She was a kind of distillation of sexuality, threatening to engulf the male in a whirlpool of bodily and emotional ecstasy. This, of course, was the woman the Freikorps soldier wished to kill, because she endangered his identity, his sense of self as a fixed and bounded being. In this manner Mr. Theweleit links the Freikorps soldiers’ fantasies of women to their practical life as illegal anti-Communist guerillas: the Republic had to be destroyed because it empowered the lascivious Red woman, while it failed to protect the White woman’s sexual purity.

The solidity craved by the Freikorps soldiers and later by the Nazis can be seen in the hard, straight lines of Nazi art. They didn’t like anything soft or ambiguous, which explains their horrified obsession with liquidity and dirt:

[Theweleit] argues that aquatic and other liquid metaphors were associated in the minds of these soldiers with the loss of a firm sense of identity. Much of their literature speaks of Communism as a flood, a stream, or a kind of boiling or exploding of the earth – images he shows to be associated traditionally with sexuality.

In similar fashion, he argues that the idea of dirt terrified the Freikorps soldiers precisely because it also was linked in their minds to the loss of self and to bodily pleasure. The connection is perhaps clearest when the metaphors of liquidity and filth are combined, as in such notions as mire, morass, slime and excrement. Again, Mr. Theweleit shows how the anti-Communist rhetoric of the Freikorps soldiers was systematically informed by such metaphors, and he makes a plausible case for linking this political sentiment to their fear of sexuality. The member of the Freikorps, he writes, was hostile to ”all of the hybrid substances that were produced by the body and flowed on, in, over, and out of the body: the floods and stickiness of sucking kisses; the swamps of the vagina, with their slime and mire; the pap and slime of male semen; the film of sweat . . . the warmth that dissolves physical boundaries.”

To Robinson’s account, I add that their hostility stems from repressed desiring. The Freikorps soldiers resented the ice cold mothers they idealized and longed for the vibrant liquid bodies they demonized. Their hatred of the latter was really a hatred of how their emotions were opened up, leaving them feeling vulnerable.

It’s not only Freikorps officers who have such anxieties. Think of General Jack Ripper’s obsession with “precious bodily fluids” in Doctor Strangelove, which captured an authoritarian response to nuclear anxieties. And then think of white nationalists’ fear of emasculating women and interracial marriage. Theweleit’s theories can be extended to authoritarians of all stripes.

Not that Trump is an authoritarian. Like Paul Krugman, I see him as a wannabe authoritarian, one who lusts after the power of a Vladimir Putin or a Kim Jong-un but is checked by our constitutional democracy. Scrutinizing him through the lens of Theweleit’s fantasies, however, still seems to bear out Brooks’s assessment that he is guided by a preference for manly hard over nurturing soft.

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Moonlight Borrows from Baraka’s “Toilet”

Jerome, Sanders as Kevin and Chiron in “Moonlight”


Julia and I recently saw the Oscar-winning Moonlight and agreed with all the praise that film has received. At one point during the film, I thought I saw the influence of Imamu Baraka’s powerful play, The Toilet (1963).

The film gives us Chiron’s life in three acts: childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood. During his adolescence, he has a homosexual encounter on the beach with his closest friend Kevin, but the tenderness of that moment is shattered when Kevin, to prove to the school’s bully that he is no “faggot,” beats Chiron up. Rather than “stay down,” Chiron keeps getting up to take more hits, thereby denying Kevin an easy exit.

It is a pivotal moment in Chiron’s life. He decides to become tough and, after taking out bully with a desk and getting arrested, lifts weights in juvenile detention and goes on to become a drug dealer named “Black.” In the third act, he receives a repentant call from Kevin and begins to reconnect with his childhood sensitivity. He reveals that he hasn’t touched anyone since their moment together.

The entire story of the one-act Toilet is a similar fight scene, so much so that it almost works as a back story for Moonlight. Karolis has written a love note to Ray Foots, a smart boy for whom the teachers have high hopes but who is a member of a gang. Foots is set up to fight Karolis to prove that he is no “cocksucka.” He thinks he has escaped when he sees Karolis lying on the floor after the other gang members have dragged him to the bathroom.

Like Chiron, however, Karolis refuses to “stay down” and forces Foots to fight him. As he does so, he makes a distinction between “Ray” and “Foots,” the private face and the public. In the closet and out:

I’ll fight you, Foots! (Spits the name.) I’ll fight you. Right here in this same place where you said your name was Ray. (Screaming. He lunges at Foots and manages to grab him in a choke hold.) Ray, you said your name was. You said Ray. Right here in this filthy toilet. You said Ray. (He is choking Foots and screaming. Foots struggles and is punching Karolis in the back and stomach, but he cannot get out of the hold.) You put your hand on me and said Ray!

The other gang members come to Foots’s rescue and stomp Karolis. All leave but there is one final wordless scene:

After a minute or so Karolis moves his hand. Then his head moves and he tries to look up. He draws his legs up under him and pushes his head off the floor. Finally he manages to get to his hands and knees. He crawls over to one of the commodes, pulls himself up, then falls backward awkwardly and heavily. At this point, the door is pushed open slightly, then it opens completely and Foots comes in. He stares at Karolis’s body for a second, looks quickly over his shoulder, then runs and kneels before the body, weeping and cradling the head in his arms.

The tenderness is all the more powerful because of the sordid surroundings.

The play and film have pretty much the same message: in a difficult world, young black men deny and bury their sensitivity. A Chiron struggles within within Black and a Ray resides within Foots. When art articulates their condition, space is opened for hope.

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Milton Understood Ambitious Con Men

Gustave Doré, Milton’s Satan at one of his rallies


Reader Ruth Arseneault alerted me to a fine article in The Atlantic about the impact of Milton’s Satan upon the American imagination. Edward Simon shows how many of television’s most popular antiheroes, such as Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano, can be traced back to Satan, sometimes by way of Melville’s Captain Ahab. Satan, Simon argues, is quintessentially American.

Simon doesn’t mention Trump in his article, but perhaps he doesn’t need to. I’ve been making Lucifer-Trump associations for a while, however, including in my favorite post from last year. In it I argued that, just as Satan unleashes Sin and Death upon the world, so Trump gives the worst elements of America a “dark permission” to engage in hateful language and action.

Here’s what Simon has to say about Satan’s presence in America:

Curiously, the deeply modern Lucifer could also be considered one of the greatest characters in American literature, even though he was created more than a century before the United States was founded.

That’s in part because literary critics have decked Lucifer’s creator himself in red, white, and blue bunting since the 19th century. In 1845, Rufus Griswold wrote that Milton was “more emphatically American than any author who has lived in the United States.” 


Many of the values the archangel advocates in Paradise Lost—the self-reliance, the rugged individualism, and even manifest destiny—are regarded as quintessentially American in the cultural imagination. Milton may be a poet of individual liberty and conscience, but he was also one of the most brilliant theological explorers of the darker subjects of sin, depravity, and the inclination toward evil. Nothing demonstrates that inclination more than the long-standing appeal the charismatic Lucifer has had for audiences, an appeal mirrored by the flawed but alluring protagonists of some of TV’s greatest American dramas. What Milton’s Paradise Lost, the first version of which was published in 1667, also demonstrates is what can be so dangerous about mistaking an antihero for a hero.


[Lucifer] is a conflicted, brooding, alienated, narcissistic self-mythologizer. In other words, he’s a thoroughly modern man, and in a country as preoccupied with modernity as the United States is, he’s arguably an honorary “American” as a result. Milton’s fellow countryman, the novelist D.H. Lawrence, remarked in his under-read 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature that, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” The novelist had in mind not just the pioneer clearing lands that do not belong to him, but also the honey-worded con man who can justify his crimes in the sweetest language.

I’m currently teaching Paradise Lost and we have been wrestling with Satan’s charisma. I’m always look for the point when my students begin to turn against the archangel. Often it’s when he decides to make Adam and Eve pay for his own unhappiness.

The very fact that we find ourselves attracted to Satan, however, shows just how dangerous he is. I’ve long been convinced that Blake was wrong: Milton was not of the devil’s party without knowing it but rather out to show just how seductive this con angel could be. Now that we’ve seen our own Satan con his way into the presidency, it’s worth looking at what happens next in the poem.

As long as Satan was promising his followers great things if they would follow him into battle with God, he didn’t have to face the consequences. They could imagine the fulfillment of all their desires. However, once he butted up against reality (God), everything goes bad very quickly. Although Satan’s magnificent rhetoric is able to hold onto the allegiance of the fallen angels until the very end, their lifestyle takes a severe blow. Imagine relocating from Heaven to

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace 
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsumed…

Instead of taking responsibility for his broken promises, however, Satan sees himself as the aggrieved party. It’s all God’s fault! He talks a populist line, claiming to fight for liberty against tyranny, even as he himself sits on a

a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold…

(It sounds like the Trump’s gold-plated penthouse apartment.)

Above all, Satan creates his own internal reality. Simon cites and comments on a key passage:

In Mad Men’s very first episode, Don Draper memorably remarks, “What you call love was invented by guys like me… to sell nylons,” which recalls Lucifer’s famous assertion that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” Lucifer is not just a rebel, but also a character who has tricked himself (and many of his post-Romantic readers) into believing his very words can generate reality. Lucifer’s line is a pithy and dark summation of the American credo of self-invention. His mercurial nature and his rhetorical chicanery recall the verbal dexterity of Draper, who, like Lucifer, shed his original name.

When he proves unable to make heaven of hell, Satan doesn’t relent but doubles down. Now revenge, not any well-thought-through policy position, is uppermost in his mind. Unfortunately, he’s cunning enough to make life miserable for some decent people.

Who will save us from our own bad angels? That’s what voting is for.

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Finding Freedom in Masquerade

Henry Morland, “Beauty Unmasked”


Last week I wrote about Restoration and 18th century women writers pushing against the marriage narrative that defined their identities and their lives. They showed it was possible, if only momentarily, for a woman to pursue a male quest narrative—or at least, given that there were limited career options, to pursue her own amorous desires.

Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, I argued, each found ways to follow their self-oriented agendas that weren’t (to quote feminist scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis) “subordinate to, or covered within, the magnet power” of the marriage plot. Haywood’s Fantomina and Montagu have illicit affairs and Behn’s Helena reimagines marriage in a way that promises her more freedom. To be sure, we’re talking about protests against the system, not anything more radical. It would have been impossible to achieve anything more, especially in the couples comedy genre, which focuses on male-female relations.

We don’t get much more than protests in the two works I look at today, Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody (1709) and Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem (1780). Still, it’s interesting to see how they reconceptualize marriage in order to gain a little freedom.

Centlivre’s Miranda and Cowley’s Leatitia are as suspicious of marriage as male characters are. Miranda, disguised as a courtesan, chastises Sir George for seeking respectable marriage—even though, it so happens, this respectable marriage would be with herself:

Matrimony! Ha, ha, ha; what Crimes have you committed against the God of Love, that he should revenge ’em so severely to stamp Husband upon your Forehead—

George is so smitten with the masked Miranda’s wit that he is torn between her and the beautiful and more respectable Miranda. Of course, he is eventually able to get both. Slumming in disguise allows Miranda to be both sexually transgressive and quietly respectable.

In The Belle’s Stratagem, Letitia takes the disguise to another level. Realizing that her intended is infatuated with foreign-born beauties and regards her with indifference, she concocts a complex plan. She will make Doricourt hate her but then woo him in masquerade. Hatred is necessary, she explains to her father, because it is easier to turn hatred into love than to do so with indifference.

Therefore she pretends to be a simpleton when he visits her (they haven’t met since they were children, when their fathers arranged their future marriage) so that he is repulsed. Then, at a masquerade ball, she sweeps him off his feet. After she and her friends have fun laughing at him, she reveals her true identity. Though the play ends with marriage, it will be a marriage in which she can be her own woman. Here is her final interchange with Doricourt:

Letitia: This little stratagem arose from my disappointment, in not having made the impression on you I wish’d. The timidity of the English character threw a veil over me, you could not penetrate. You have forced me to emerge in some measure from my natural reserve, and to throw off the veil that hid me.

Doricourt: I am yet in a state of intoxication—I cannot answer you.—Speak on, sweet Angel!

Letitia: You see I can be any thing; choose then my character—your Taste shall fix it. Shall I be an English Wife?—or, breaking from the bonds of Nature and Education, step forth to the world in all the captivating glare of Foreign Manners?

Doricourt: You shall be nothing but yourself—nothing can be captivating that you are not. I will not wrong your penetration, by pretending that you won my heart at the first interview; but you have now my whole soul—your person, your face, your mind, I would not exchange for those of any other Woman breathing.

I grant that it’s a small victory and that the marriage plot prevails. Still, to gain a little freedom is something that other women writers and readers can build on. The arc of history is long but it bends towards the feminist movements to come.

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Fantasy, a Portal to the Numinous

Stevens, Watson in “Beauty and the Beast”

Spiritual Sunday

I’m on my way back home today after attending the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, where I learned a lot. For one thing, I’m much clearer about how spiritual hunger is one thing that drives readers to fantasy.

A panel discussion on “What Makes Fantasy Epic” spoke to this, as did a paper on Philip Pullman. In the first, Christine Mains reported that her students believe that epic fantasy must have gods. This speaks to a desire for some kind of transcendental meaning. The stakes are always high in epic fantasy—the fate of the world hangs in the balance—so what individuals do makes a difference. There is a clear purpose to their lives.

Panelist and fantasy author Brian Steveley observed that, unlike novels such as Jude the Obscure and McCarthy’s The Road, fantasy epics never leave him questioning whether he should get up in the morning. One audience member noted that fantasy epics—at least the popular ones—don’t leave one with feelings of existential dread.

Existential dread is more the specialty of the gothic, about which I heard several presentations. But that’s a post for another day.

One knows that Odysseus’s journey is significant because Zeus declares it to be so at the beginning of the epic. While listening to the panel, I thought about Georg Lukacs’s Theory of the Novel, where he sees the novel as the form the epic takes in a world where God is no longer tangibly present. Sometimes we sense the presence of divine providence at work in early novels–this explains Charles Dickens’s love of coincidence–but we no longer see an Odysseus conversing with Athena. Or, to cite a later epic, Adam talking to the angels Raphael and Michael.

As the rise of the novel coincided with the Enlightenment and the various knowledge and technological revolutions, it’s worth turning here to another theorist mentioned by a presenter. Charles Taylor has traced an evolution from enchantment to disenchantment to re-enchantment in modern Europe. When science threw out the occult, superstition, and sometimes religion itself, we were left hungry for spiritual mystery. Fantasy stepped in to fill the void.

Presenter Franziska Burstyn argued that this is the trajectory of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In addition to quoting Taylor, Burstyn also mentioned Harmut Rosa, who talks about the movement from alienation to resonance. Taylor’s model is more linear, she noted, while Rosa’s is cyclical.

I have strongly criticized Pullman’s attacks on Christianity—I think he constructs a caricature of the religion—but I agree with Burstyn that he uses animal daemons and angels to capture what it would be like to have a tangible relationship with the supernatural. That’s in large part what draws us to the books. Eventually Lyra becomes a new Eve, and love and maturity are re-enchanted.

I appreciated Burstyn quoting C.S. Lewis (whom Pullman can’t stand) in articulating how fantasy gets at our spiritual longing. Lewis writes,

It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for [the child] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.

Speaking of fairyland and enchantment, Julia and I watched the latest Beauty and the Beast Friday night, and, although it doesn’t approach Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version—one of my all-time favorite films—there is sweet scene where poetry itself “makes all real woods a little enchanted.” The bookish Belle is reading 19th-century Scottish poet William Sharp’s “A Crystal Forest” to the Beast, which causes him to see the winter landscape as though for the first time. It’s a re-enchantment of his grey existence:

A Crystal Forest

By William Sharp

The air is blue and keen and cold,
With snow the roads and fields are white
But here the forest’s clothed with light
And in a shining sheath enrolled.
Each branch, each twig, each blade of grass,
Seems clad miraculously with glass:
Above the ice-bound streamlet bends
Each frozen fern with crystal ends.

So we read fantasy, we watch Beauty and the Beast, and we read poetry and literature to re-enchant our lives. Fantasy lit gives us intimations of the numinous.

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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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