Kipling Has the Brexiteers’ Number

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson


Nick Cohen of The Guardian has made effective use of a Rudyard Kipling poem in castigating two rightwing journalists-turned-politician—Boris Johnson and Michael Grove—for their roles in Brexit. This is what you get, Cohen says, when you propose entertainment solutions for real world problems.

Given that America is currently watching a reality television star take over the Republican party, we can apply the poem equally to our own situation.

Cohen lays out what entertainment solutions look like:

Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game. Here is how they play it. They grab media attention by blaring out a big, dramatic thought. An institution is failing? Close it. A public figure blunders? Sack him. They move from journalism to politics, but carry on as before. When presented with a bureaucratic EU that sends us too many immigrants, they say the answer is simple, as media answers must be. Leave. Now. Then all will be well.

Johnson and Gove carried with them a second feature of unscrupulous journalism: the contempt for practical questions. Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness. The Leave campaign has no plan…Vote Leave did not know how to resolve difficulties with Scotland, Ireland, the refugee camp at Calais, and a thousand other problems, and did not want to know either.

Cohen says that, as a result, Johnson and Grove will have to answer to their followers:

The real division in Britain is not between London and the north, Scotland and Wales or the old and young, but between Johnson, Gove and [Nigel] Farage and the voters they defrauded. What tale will serve them now? On Thursday, they won by promising cuts in immigration. On Friday, Johnson and the Eurosceptic ideologue Dan Hannan said that in all probability the number of foreigners coming here won’t fall. On Thursday, they promised the economy would boom. By Friday, the pound was at a 30-year low and Daily Mail readers holidaying abroad were learning not to believe what they read in the papers. On Thursday, they promised £350m extra a week for the NHS. On Friday, it turns out there are “no guarantees”.

Kipling’s poem “The Dead Statesman” gets at this issue of accountability. The poem appears in “Epitaphs of the War,” a series of imagined epitaphs by people who died in World War I. Unlike most of the poems, however, “Dead Statesman” is about someone who sent others to their deaths. In other words, like the Brexit politicians, he’s playing fast and loose with other people’s lives:

I could not dig: I dared not rob: 
Therefore I lied to please the mob. 
Now all my lies are proved untrue 
And I must face the men I slew. 
What tale shall serve me here among 
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Notice how the Statesman’s major skill is making money by pleasing the mob. I told you that Kipling applies as much to Trump as to the Brexit politicians.

Cohen has another good literary allusion. Johnson and Gove are amongst the far right who pressured Prime Minister David Cameron to hold the Brexit referendum in the first place. When they won, thereby forcing Cameron’s resignation, they delivered glowing encomiums:

[T]hey gazed at the press with coffin-lid faces and wept over the prime minister they had destroyed. David Cameron was “brave and principled,” intoned Johnson. “A great prime minister,” muttered Gove. Like Goneril and Regan competing to offer false compliments to Lear, they covered the leader they had doomed with hypocritical praise.

Now that their lies are proving untrue, what tale will serve them as they face their “angry and defrauded” constituents?

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With Brexit, UK Betrayed Spirit of Chaucer

Canterbury Tales


 By voting to pull out of the European Union on Thursday, the United Kingdom violated the spirit of Geoffrey Chaucer. Allow me to explain.

In my opinion, no author captures what is best about the British as well as Chaucer, especially in The Canterbury Tales. One of the great works in the English language is about characters from every walk of life coming together in a common endeavor and sharing stories. This is all the more remarkable in that many are far from exemplary. While the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman are models to be emulated, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Reeve, the Merchant, the Miller, the Friar, and a number of others are real scoundrels.

Nor do they all get along. The Miller and the Reeve have an argument, as do the Summoner and the Friar. Each tells a tale denigrating his rival’s profession. And then there’s the Pardoner, who insults the Wife of Bath, while the Innkeeper tells the pilgrim-named-Chaucer that his “drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord!”

And yet they all manage to coexist. They are operating under a set of rules, set up by the Innkeeper, in which each gets to freely tell his or her tale while everyone else listens. The pilgrim who tells the best tale receives a free dinner at the end. Some of the tales are uplifting, some bawdy, some boring. The Wife, pleased to have center stage, delivers a prologue to her tale that goes on and on.

As my son Toby pointed out to me, they don’t live within information silos but gain insight into each others’ experiences. It’s as though (this again from Toby), they have “friended” on Facebook people with a wide variety of views. No one gets excluded.

And then there’s the author, who takes each character seriously. Chaucer knows how to listen, which is the ultimate form of respect. His listening explains the greatness of the work, how he is able to create such compelling and such detailed characters.

And since this is a post about Brexit, let’s note how much Chaucer owed to the continent, especially France and Italy. He traveled many times to France and Italy, became friends with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and borrowed heavily from Dante and The Romance of the Rose. He was thoroughly cosmopolitan and, as a result, changed the face of the English language. He made Shakespeare possible.

In short, Chaucer was generous, open-minded, and interested in everyone and everything. If the UK retreats into a very un-Chaucerian insularity, it will dwindle into a second rate country.

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Footprints on the Sands of Time


Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 9:51-62, includes Jesus’s seemingly harsh admonition to a young man to “let the dead bury their own dead.” This occurs after the young man asks Jesus for an extension. A famous Longfellow poem makes reference to the passage, and when one examines the conversation between poem and scripture, one comes to a deep understanding of both.

First, here’s the passage from Luke:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

And now here’s the poem. I’ve bolded the passage that alludes to Luke:

A Psalm of Life

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the young man said to the psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
  Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

It may be, in the Gospel passage, that Jesus is picking up on half-hearted commitment and replying in dramatic fashion to accentuate what is at stake. Presumably even Jesus wouldn’t begrudge allowing someone to go and bury a parent if that person really meant to return and wasn’t just engaging in evasive action. Jesus is pretty good at reading actual motives.

And there may also be an element of Jesus’s famous injunction (Luke 14:26) to leave father and mother to become his disciple. As cold and heartless as that sounds, it is a way of thinking about God’s presence in the world in a new way. One can be blinded by traditional ways of thinking.

Longfellow’s young man is certainly challenging the “wisdom” of his elders. He may have in mind Psalm 39:5-7:

Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.

Perhaps he’s also thinking of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes (1:2-3):

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

To be sure, there is genuine wisdom in both the psalm and the Ecclesiastes passage that Jesus would acknowledge: if we place our faith in riches and in labor, then we ignore the spirit. But it is also true that these passages can be interpreted as calling us to reject the world altogether. If we do that, we will fail to find God in the here and now. There is a certain strain of fatalism in both passages that a young person very understandably would object to. Isn’t there something wrong with giving up on all the heaven-sent opportunities before us?

Therefore, when the young man says, “Let the dead Past bury its dead,” he is calling out those who, looking back over their lives, conclude that all our earthly efforts are futile. If we eschew human endeavor and simply wait for heaven in the hereafter, we spurn God’s gifts. The important thing, therefore, is to

Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Perhaps the young man will leave “footprints on the sands of time” and perhaps not. Note that he is not saying that he wants to build up riches. He does not know what the fruit of his labor will be.

Rather than casting his eyes over human endeavor and declaring it to be an empty dream, he will “learn to labor and to wait.” God is in the laboring.

Further note: My friend Sue Schmidt, who has contributed Spiritual Sunday posts in the past, sent the following e-mail. Her passage from Matthew meshes perfectly with Longfellow’s poem:

Jesus says at another point,  “The kingdom of God comes through forceful men and forceful men take hold of it” (Matt 11:12ff). Here’s a great article about that.* We all know that to change things is difficult, and one must be prepared to live and act.

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America’s Dream: We Contain Multitudes

Norman Rockwell, "Spirit of America"

Norman Rockwell, “Spirit of America”


Today is a red-letter day in our family as my Trinidadian daughter-in-law gets sworn in as an American citizen. Candice Wilson came to this country many years ago to study at Middlebury College, and she received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Pittsburgh last year. She begins a tenure-track position at the University of North Georgia in August.

To welcome Candice to her new country, I share a section of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, that most American of poems. Whitman, of course, celebrates the rich tapestry of America to which Candice will be contributing. “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,” he writes.

To be sure, Candice is not a stranger to multi-hued cultures as Trinidad too contains many nationalities and ethnicities. Candice herself, I believe, is a mixture of Carib, French and Spanish Creole, and African. The following excerpt is from Section 16:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, 
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, 
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, 
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine, 
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same, 
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live, 
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth, 
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian, 
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye; 
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland, 
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking, 
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch, 
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,) 
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat, 
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest, 
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons, 
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, 
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, 
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest. 

I resist any thing better than my own diversity, 
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, 
And am not stuck up, and am in my place. 

Unfortunately, there are many out there who are resisting American diversity. Here’s hoping that we can all learn to be as inclusive as Whitman. If you knew my smart, kind, and effervescent daughter-in-law, you would open your arms to her with Whitmanesque generosity.

Further thoughts:

Candice becomes a citizen at a challenging time with white ethnocentrism on the rise. A recent survey of Trump supporters discovered the following:

  •  77 percent say it bothers them to come into contact with people who speak little or no English.
  •  81 percent say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
  •  77 percent say discrimination against Christians in the U.S. is a major problem.
  •  83 percent say the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences.
  •  83 percent say the values of Islam are at odds with America’s values and way of life.
  •  80 percent say immigrants constitute a burden on American society. 
  •  68 percent say the country has changed mostly for the worse since the 1950s.
  • 72 percent say we need a leader who is willing to break some rules to set things right. 

Candice and Toby, in other words, will have to fight to protect their children from the forces of white reaction. The good news is that Candice gets to vote in the upcoming election.

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Bringing an End to Bernie’s Romance

Age of Innocence


Yesterday I was listening to The New Republic’s Brian Beutler interview of Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol about Bernie Sanders and the state of the Democratic Party. In the Primary Concerns political podcast (the “Two Houses Divided” episode), Skocpol discusses how Sen. Bernie Sanders was “elegantly and ruthlessly” informed that his campaign was over. Immediately I thought of the scene in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence where the New York Brahmin community subtly intervenes to separate Newland Archer from the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska.

Just as Sanders had the quixotic illusion that he could be the Democratic nominee, so Archer thinks that he can leave his insipid wife and run off with the countess, who has separated from her abusive Polish husband. Archer, perhaps like Sanders, discovers that the forces arrayed again him are far more formidable than he anticipated.

To let Sanders down slowly, President Obama met with him for two hours before releasing a statement. Although the president acknowledged in the statement the senator’s considerable contributions to the political dialogue, he went on to fully endorse Clinton. Then, that evening, progressive icon Elizabeth Warren endorsed Clinton on the Rachel Maddow Show. Clinton herself has had nothing but praise for Sanders while declaring herself the winner.  Sanders has still not conceded, but the air has gone out of his campaign.

The Age of Innocence is set in 1870s Gilded Age New York. We watch as the .1% goes into overdrive once it realizes that Archer has fallen in love with Olenska.:

Archer sat silent, with the sense of clinging to the edge of a sliding precipice. The discovery that he had been excluded from a share in these negotiations [with Olenska], and even from the knowledge that they were on foot, caused him a surprise hardly dulled by the acuter wonder of what he was learning. He saw in a flash that if the family had ceased to consult him it was because some deep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longer on their side…

Various machinations are put into play, including Archer’s wife May telling Olenska that she’s pregnant, even though she doesn’t know it to be true. This precipitates Olenska’s decision to return to Europe, and May hosts a special dinner to bid her farewell. The leading New York families, who previously have refused to associate with Olenska, show up:

There were certain things that had to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and thoroughly; and one of these, in the old New York code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about to be eliminated from the tribe. There was nothing on earth that the Wellands and Mingotts would not have done to proclaim their unalterable affection for the Countess Olenska now that her passage for Europe was engaged; and Archer, at the head of his table, sat marveling at the silent untiring activity with which her popularity had been retrieved, grievances against her silenced, her past countenanced, and her present irradiated by the family approval. Mrs. van der Luyden shone on her with the dim benevolence which was her nearest approach to cordiality, and Mr. van der Luyden, from his seat at May’s right, cast down the table glances plainly intended to justify all the carnations he had sent from Skuytercliff.

In Sanders’s case, the meeting with the president may be the Democrats’ version of this meal. The senator dreamed of Countess Presidency, and now he has been told by the Democratic Party that he must return to his comparatively dull life in the Senate. They’ll accept him and praise him and let bygones be bygones if he promises not to cause waves:

In the drawing-room, where they presently joined the ladies, he met May’s triumphant eyes, and read in them the conviction that everything had “gone off” beautifully. She rose from Madame Olenska’s side, and immediately Mrs. van der Luyden beckoned the latter to a seat on the gilt sofa where she throned. Mrs. Selfridge Merry bore across the room to join them, and it became clear to Archer that here also a conspiracy of rehabilitation and obliteration was going on. The silent organization which held his little world together was determined to put itself on record as never for a moment having questioned the propriety of Madame Olenska’s conduct, or the completeness of Archer’s domestic felicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons were resolutely engaged in pretending to each other that they had never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible, the least hint to the contrary…

Wharton informs us that this is how New York society avoids scandal. It is certainly how the Democratic Party tries to maintain unity:

It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.

Having worked so hard, however, Sanders must be currently experiencing what Archer experiences: a sense of being boxed in by “the Establishment”:

As these thoughts succeeded each other in his mind Archer felt like a prisoner in the center of an armed camp. He looked about the table, and guessed at the inexorableness of his captors from the tone in which, over the asparagus from Florida, they were dealing with Beaufort and his wife [a couple brought low by scandal]. “It’s to show me,” he thought, “what would happen to ME—” and a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on him like the doors of the family vault.

The big question for people now is whether ardent Sanders supporters, after having experienced true love, can move on to a relationship with Hillary. In the novel, Archer feels for the rest of his life that something vital is missing, but he also becomes a model citizen who helps New York live up to it potential. He does his duty, even as he and the reader weep for what could have been. Will those who poured their hearts out to Sanders do the same?

Something he knew he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery. There were a hundred million tickets in HIS lottery, and there was only one prize; the chances had been too decidedly against him. When he thought of Ellen Olenska it was abstractly, serenely, as one might think of some imaginary beloved in a book or a picture: she had become the composite vision of all that he had missed. That vision, faint and tenuous as it was, had kept him from thinking of other women. He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died—carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child—he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honored his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

We need to hold on to the vision that Sanders invoked, faint and tenuous though it may be. At the same time, “the old ways,” which in our case are traditional party politics, also have some dignity and some good. For several months we dwelt in an age of innocence, but now we must face up to our fallen world.


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The Sewanee Gentleman & Related Poems

Some Sewanee students still wear gowns to class

Some Sewanee students still wear gowns to class


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see an exhibit on “the Sewanee gentleman,” researched and put together by Professor of History Woody Register, my good friend and tennis partner. I grew up in Sewanee—my father was a French professor at the University of the South for 40 years—and Woody’s discoveries fascinated me. As he included poems by Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling in the exhibit, I have an excuse to write about the exhibit here.

Sewanee was an all-male liberal arts college when we moved there in 1954 (I was three), and I heard a lot about the Sewanee gentleman. The male students wore coats and ties and sometimes gowns, followed an honor code where they pledged not to cheat (exams were not proctored), attended Episcopalian services at All Saints Chapel, and aspired to some version of southern gentility. The tradition went back to when the college opened in 1868. (It was to have opened in 1861 but the war intervened and then union troops burned the campus to the ground.)

Although the tradition of the Sewanee gentleman appears to have remained constant over the decades, Woody discovered that it has evolved and taken several forms. Sewanee initially was supposed to have been proof that the American slave-holding society was capable of great learning and cultural achievements, just like the slave-holding societies of Greece and Rome. The Sewanee gentleman, therefore, was conceived to be the scion of plantation owners, and arrangements were in place for students to bring valets and horses to campus. Not much emphasis was put on physical prowess.

That would change in the later 19th century, however. As football raged through college campuses, Sewanee used the sport to show that it too was part of the modern era. In 1899 Sewanee had a legendary team—during a six-day road trip they defeated  Texas A&M, Texas, Tulane, LSU, and Ole Miss—and a rugged masculinity became an integral part of what made up the Sewanee gentleman. This can be seen by the invocation of Robert Browning’s “Prospice” when a student died during a football practice a few years later. The poem seems particularly appropriate with its mention of fog since Sewanee is frequently blanketed by heavy mists:


By Robert Browning

Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat, 
The mist in my face, 
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote 
I am nearing the place, 
The power of the night, the press of the storm, 
The post of the foe; 
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form, 
Yet the strong man must go: 
For the journey is done and the summit attained, 
And the barriers fall, 
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained, 
The reward of it all. 
I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more, 
The best and the last! 
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes and forbore, 
And bade me creep past. 
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers 
The heroes of old, 
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears 
Of pain, darkness and cold. 
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave, 
The black minute’s at end, 
And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave, 
Shall dwindle, shall blend, 
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, 
Then a light, then thy breast, 
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, 
And with God be the rest! 

Eventually Sewanee, given its small size, would find itself unable to compete against other southern universities and dropped out of what had become the Southeastern Conference (the SEC). Then, in the 1950s, the “Sewanee gentleman” took a new turn, albeit a related one.

The Civil Rights movement had begun, Brown vs. the Board of Education was technically the law of the land (though not in practice), and “Sewanee gentleman” came to distinguish patrician racists from lower class racists. It was in this context that Kipling’s “Gunga Din” was quoted about the beloved—but also patronized—African American trainer Willie Sims:

Gunga Din

By Rudyard Kipling

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.
He was “Din! Din! Din!
You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
Hi! slippery hitherao!
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.”

The uniform ‘e wore
Was nothin’ much before,
An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind,
For a piece o’ twisty rag
An’ a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.
When the sweatin’ troop-train lay
In a sidin’ through the day,
Where the ‘eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,
We shouted “Harry By!”
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped ‘im ’cause ‘e couldn’t serve us all.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it 
Or I’ll marrow you this minute
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

‘E would dot an’ carry one
Till the longest day was done;
An’ ‘e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin’ nut,
‘E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.
With ‘is mussick on ‘is back,
‘E would skip with our attack,
An’ watch us till the bugles made “Retire”,
An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide
‘E was white, clear white, inside
When ‘e went to tend the wounded under fire!
It was “Din! Din! Din!”
With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could hear the front-files shout,
“Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!”

I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ‘a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
‘E lifted up my ‘ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ‘e guv me ‘arf-a-pint o’ water-green:
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
It was “Din! Din! Din!
‘Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ‘is spleen;
‘E’s chawin’ up the ground,
An’ ‘e’s kickin’ all around:
For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!”

‘E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.
‘E put me safe inside,
An’ just before ‘e died,
“I ‘ope you liked your drink”, sez Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone —
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen;
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

When the ultimate compliment you can give person of color is “E was white, clear white, inside,” there’s still some consciousness raising needed. Gunga Din may be “a better man that I am,” but his entire existence is defined by how well he serves the English soldiers. The “Sewanee gentleman” was expected to respect African Americans, but African Americans were also expected to know their place. A related drama occurred with women.

Sewanee is now integrated and co-educational, and the “Sewanee gentleman” has become a thing of the past. The poems too strike us as quaint relics of a bygone age.

Posted in Browning (Robert), Kipling (Rudyard) | 1 Comment

How Poker Resembles Novel Writing



I share today another post from my novelist friend Rachel Kranz’s poker blog. Even those of us who don’t play poker know that game requires risk taking, but we may not equate those risks with those taken by a novelist in the act of composing. As always with Rachel’s posts, you don’t need to understand the game to appreciate the larger applications to life.

Risk: Calculations of Risk-Reward Ratios in Life and Poker

By Rachel Kranz, novelist and poker player

Few things are worse than checking Twitter after a bustout and finding that the Day 2 you just busted from might theoretically have ended in a $400,000 first prize.  Although I netted a min-cash of just under $3,000 with my 18 big blinds, I did technically have a shot at that $400k, and now, busted, I don’t.  Even though my chances of winning were extremely low—with nearly 300 players left and a below-average stack, they weren’t much more than 0.33 percent—the loss isn’t just what was but also what might have been; the loss of a fantasy, as my old therapist would have said.

Fantasy is the stuff of live tournament poker, of course.  People who want the best risk-reward ratio multi-table online, where volume beats variance; or they play cash, where a skilled player will win 60 percent of their sessions as opposed to a skilled tournament player, who cashes only 15 percent of the time. A summer WSOP schedule has famously been compared to “a Sunday”—that is, roughly the same number of tournaments that an online player plays in a single day.

The variance is magnified if you stick to the low buy-ins, as I do, with their enormous fields—although they do have a lot of money at the top.  And because those big fields are so soft—filled with recreational players whose skill is nowhere near a match for my own—they’re ultimately my best choice. Where else can you spend $1,100 with an expected return of 40 percent—and the hope of winning $400,000?  Because skill actually does come into play, a poker tournament is not just a lottery ticket—it has what players call “positive expectation.” I show my investors the cold, hard figures—how often I win online, how often I’ve won before.  I’m a good investment, for both their money and my own.  But let’s face it: for most of us, fantasy sweetens the pot.

Fantasy sours, though, when the dream fails to come true—or, more accurately, when it feels as though I have failed to make it come true.  In the tournament I just played, I busted on a high-variance play, and I’m sitting here with my notes and stats, trying to decide if it was a smart risk or a stupid one.  On the stupid side:  I had enough chips to survive a while longer, and a better opportunity might have come along.  Plus, maybe it was a play that could never have succeeded, and maybe I was supposed to know that.  On the smart side: With nearly 300 players to go and 18 big blinds (which would have dropped to 12 in less than 15 minutes), maybe a high-risk play was warranted (always supposing that it wasn’t doomed to fail in the first place).

Dear readers, be grateful:  You’re getting one paragraph of rumination and analysis, but I’m going to be chewing this one over for the next few hours and discussing it with my coach for another hour or so after that.  (Unless he just says, “Nope, easy fold,” in which case I’ll have to spend some more time figuring out why I didn’t know that and how to know it the next time.)  Underneath the poker analysis, though, is some personal analysis:  What else was going on today that might have colored either my actual decision or my feelings about it?

And so I come to the notion of risk.  In poker, we try to make that term cut and dried.  Exactly how much are we risking, and by how much might we be rewarded?  Get the risk-reward ratio right, and you’re a winning player.  Get it wrong, and you’re likely to be unprofitable in the long run, even if you occasionally get lucky.

Even in poker, risk-reward is hard to quantify, especially when you’re playing a tournament.  I can’t just look at how many chips I risked and how many I might have won; I also have to look at how likely it was that I could win them (depending on my opponent’s range, his skill level, his likelihood of taking the actions he took with a hand that could allow me to win).  Plus, I have to look at opportunity costs:  Given that I had a playable stack and a mainly soft field, busting out is a bigger loss than if I had fewer chips and a table of guys who outranked me.  If I’m fairly likely to lose anyway, risking my chances isn’t such a big deal.

If these kinds of calculations are hard in poker, how much harder do they become in life?  As my novel nears completion—the revision will probably be done by this fall—I think about what I’ve risked to write it.  I began it in 2000, just as my first novel appeared, to underwhelming acclaim.  I spent years—and probably several thousand dollars—doing research in South Carolina, Louisiana, Jamaica, Senegal, as well as buying dozens of books and poring over hundreds of online documents.  When I finished my first draft in 2008, my friends thought it was brilliant, though even they didn’t fully understand what I was doing, probably because I didn’t, either.  My agent, publisher, and the editor I hired (another expense!) totally didn’t get it.

Back to the drawing board.  It took months to figure out how to re-address the material and several years to rework it.  False starts.  Lost friendships.  Broken relationships.  Cancer.  My mother’s illness and her death.  Family ruptures.  Lost faith—almost, but not quite.  Even when I no longer understood why I was still working on it, I couldn’t quite bear to let it go.  In poker, do they call that throwing good money after bad?  Or do they call it a profound faith in the long run, the dogged, willful, stubborn grit to outlast a losing streak that goes on far longer than you ever thought it could, that hurts worse than you ever imagined, that undermines your faith in yourself and your life’s purpose to a degree that seemed, literally, incredible—until there you are, faith lost, hope lost, purpose lost…until there you are, still writing.

What did I risk, all those years I devoted to that book?  What else might I have done?  What other achievements might now be listed under my name?  Who else might I have become?

Risk is a closed door, thick and impermeable.  You use all the tools at your disposal to guess at what’s on the other side—what hand your opponent holds, how likely he is to fold, how much you’ll win if your hand comes in, how much you’ll lose if it doesn’t.  Even if you know you’re risking your tournament life, how much is that life worth, really?  Even if you know you’re more likely to lose than to win, is the reward great enough to justify the risk?

We love poker because, at least sometimes, we can find the answers.  And maybe because it teaches us to love a life in which, often, we can’t.

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Trump’s “Truth” Is Like Big Brother’s

Still from "1984" (1984)

Still from “1984” (1984)


I suspect we will see an increasing number of allusions to George Orwell’s 1984 as Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency unfolds. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine uses the 1948 novel to figure out what differentiates Trump from other politicians.

Chait mentions Trump’s “promiscuous” lying and his authoritarian tendencies but acknowledges that mendacity and authoritarianism aren’t unique to Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee stands out, however, in the way that he combines the two and then takes them to levels we haven’t seen before:

Trump’s many critics have seized upon both traits as his two major disqualifications for the presidency, yet both of them frustratingly defy easy quantification. All politicians lie some, and many of them lie a lot, and most presidents also push the limits of their authority in ways that can frighten their opponents. So what is so uniquely dangerous about Trump? Perhaps the answer is that both of these qualities are, in a sense, the same thing. His contempt for objective truth is the rejection of democratic accountability, an implicit demand that his supporters place undying faith in him. Because the only measure of truth he accepts is what he claims at any given moment, the power his supporters vest in him is unlimited.

Chait points out that if Trump’s supporters grant him special dispensation to define truth however he desires, then the normal political laws no longer apply:

The normal rules of political lying hold that when the lie has been exposed, or certainly when it has been confessed, the jig is up. You have to stop lying about it and tell the truth, or at least retreat to a different lie. Trump bends the rules of the universe to his own will, at no apparent cost. His brazenness is another utterly unique characteristic. His confidence that he can make the truth whatever he wishes at any moment, and toggle back and forth between incompatible realities at will, without any cost to himself, is a display of dominance. Possibly Trump’s most important statement of the campaign was his idle boast that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes.

Orwell’s novel, Chait observes, captures the relationship between dictatorial authority and “the power to manipulate any fact into a binary but permeable scheme”:

The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. He had never seen the photograph that disproved their guilt. It had never existed, he had invented it. He remembered remembering contrary things, but those were false memories, products of self-deception.

Chait concludes that, while “truth and reason are weapons of the powerless against the powerless,” Trump has found ways to neutralize these weapons:

There is no external doctrine he can be measured against, not even conservative dogma, which he embraces or discards at will and with no recognition of having done so. Trump’s version of truth is multiple truths, the only consistent element of which is Trump himself is always, by definition, correct. Trump’s mind is so difficult to grapple with because it is an authoritarian epistemology that lies outside the democratic norms that have shaped all of our collective experiences.

It is vital, therefore, that those whose professions call for high ideals and a commitment to truth–journalists, educators, religious leaders, judges, politicians, and public servants of all kinds–do their jobs. Donald Trump’s emergence is what we get when we fall short.

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Listening for the Still Small Voice

Washington Allston, "Elijah in the Desert"

Washington Allston, “Elijah in the Desert”

Spiritual Sunday

Today in Washington, Iowa we are holding a memorial service for my mother-in-law Jeanette Miksch, who died at 94 on the eve of Mother’s Day. I link the occasion with today’s Old Testament reading about Elijah feeling lost and depressed in the desert.  God visits Elijah in his desolation but not in the form that Elijah expects (1 Kings 19:9-15).

No version of the passage rises to the level of the “still small voice” found in the King James translation. (The New International Version’s “gentle whisper” doesn’t have the same punch.) Charles Wesley’s simple but powerful poem captures the quiet meditative state we must aspire to in order to hear God’s voice.

Here’s the passage from 1 Kings:

And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?

And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?

And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria…

Wesley’s poem is marked by a childlike simplicity that does justice to the image:

The Still Small Voice

By Charles Wesley

Open, Lord, my inward ear,
And bid my heart rejoice;
Bid my quiet spirit hear
The comfort of thy voice:
Never in the whirlwind found,
Or where earthquakes rock the place, —
Still and silent is the sound,
The whisper, of thy grace.

From the world of sin and noise
And hurry I withdraw;
For the small and inward voice
I wait with humble awe:
Silent am I now and still,
Would not in thy presence move:
To my waiting soul reveal
The secret of thy love!

We miss you, Jeanette.

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King’s Clown Rampaged in Orlando

Pennywise, the clown in IT

Pennywise, the clown in IT


Perhaps no one understands what happened last weekend in Orlando better than Stephen King. The largest mass slaughter of Americans since 9-11 could easily appear in the pages of IT. I’m particularly thinking of the White Council’s attack on a nightclub called The Black Spot.

Have you noticed that killers often target people who are having a good time—or at least, who appear to be living contented lives? The killers’ rage is fueled by their sense that they are somehow excluded. Although we can never entirely understand a killer’s motivation, Omar Mateen’s homophobia may have arisen out of his own repressed homosexuality and his guilty desire to be partying with those he killed.

Previous poets have diagnosed the condition. For instance, here’s the Beowulf poet describing Grendel:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet . . .

And as I noted in a past post on the Tucson killing, such is also the case with Milton’s Satan as he gazes upon Adam and Eve:

[A]side the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines . . .

The incident in IT involves a bar set up in the woods of Maine by black servicemen in the early 1930s. They assemble a good Dixieland jazz band that begins drawing white and well as black customers. This catches the attention of the local white supremacist group:

[W]e underestimated how bad things might get. We all knew that Mueller and his friends must have known what was going on, but I don’t think any of us realized that it was drivin em crazy—and I mean what I say: crazy. There they were in their grand old Victorian houses on West Broadway not a quarter of a mile away from where we were, listening to things like “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” and “Diggin My Potatoes.” That was bad. Knowing that their young people were there too, whooping it up right cheek by jowl with the blacks, that must have been ever so much worse. Because it wasn’t just the lumberjacks and the barbags that were turning up as September came into October. It got to be a kind of thing in town. Young folks would come to drink and to dance to that no-name jazz-band until one in the morning came and shut us down…You could see fraternity boys from the University of Maine at Orono cutting capers with their sorority girlfriends, and when the band learned how to play a ragtime version of “The Maine Stein Song,” they just about ripped the roof off.

Eventually the white supremacists set fire to the nightclub and what follows sounds like a version of what happened last Saturday in Orlando. King, of course, is famous for conveying such horror and, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll spare you the description. Our own horror is still too fresh in my mind.

I’ll just note the manic clown who is behind the fire—IT—is a dark streak of violence that runs through American history. At other points in the novel, IT is behind the mauling of a child, the savage killing of a young gay man, the slaughter of a group of gangsters, and other horrific bloodlettings. IT is the force that the protagonists must confront, first when they are kids and then again when they are adults. King regards homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and other such expressions of fear and hatred as American as apple pie.

King also believes that a significant number of Americans tolerate the National Rifle Association’s extremism because the gun group appeals to a deep rage. Although we are told that most Americans want common sense gun reform, the behavior of our politicians tells a different story. They are doing what many voters, at their core, want them to do.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, King (Stephen), Milton (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Women vs. Unicorns in Poker, on Dates

"The Hunt of the Unicorn," Cloisters tapestry

“The Hunt of the Unicorn,” Cloisters tapestry


Julia and I are on our way to attend her mother’s memorial service so I’ll be away from my computer for a couple of days. Fortunately, my novelist friend Rachel Kranz, who is currently participating in the poker world series, is allowing me to post an essay she wrote recently on women in poker, unicorns, and the Stanford student recently found guilty of raping an unconscious woman (and then receiving the mildest of sentences). 

Rachel remembers encountering the myth of the unicorn–how it can be tamed by a virgin–in the horrifying incident in T. H. White’s Once and Future KingThere three boys tie a virgin to a tree to lure a unicorn and then cut off its head.

The article is the first of several that will be appearing in Adventures in Poker, Rachel’s blog which she is resuming again after a lapse of several years. I’ve read several of these forthcoming essays and they are superb. It doesn’t matter whether or not poker interests you as Rachel’s essays go far beyond the game. Make sure that you check them out.

Taming the Unicorn: Can We Make a World Where It’s Not Necessary?

By Rachel Kranz, novelist and poker player

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.

–Leonardo da Vinci

The other day I was sitting at the poker table and had occasion to ask a male opponent to arrange his stack in such a way that I could see his big chips.  The man was wearing earbuds and when I asked him the first time—I was sitting right across from him, 6 seat to 10 seat—his face didn’t change, so I asked him again.

He glared at me.  “Settle down!” he said disgustedly as he slowly began to rearrange his stack.  “Just settle down.”

Startled, I found myself responding before I could stop myself.  “You don’t need to be rude—I thought you couldn’t hear me.”

From the other end of the table, another male player burst out laughing.  “Settle down?  Who says that?”  His laughter was the perfect way to diffuse the situation, the play went on, and eventually someone else busted Settle Down Guy.

After he left, I thanked the man who had laughed.  Other players agreed—Settle Down Guy had overreacted.  But a man to my left took issue.  “Look, if the guy who told you to settle down didn’t do any other bad thing, maybe we should all give him a break.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But it’s hard being spoken to that way.”

“Well,” said the second guy, “maybe there’s something in your aura that attracts that kind of treatment.”

This is a great example of the kind of no-win microaggression that women face at the table—the niggling little incidents that so often keep you from being able to devote 100 percent of your energy to poker.  I’ve tried a range of responses—silence, arguing, explaining—and none of them are terrific.  Talking back can easily escalate an incident, but silence often invites escalation, too, until you finally give them a response.

This time I laughed and said, “Wow, what a terrific compliment!  Thank you!”

“No,” the guy insisted.  “It wasn’t a compliment.”

“Oh, so it’s an insult?  Should I be insulted?”

“No, it’s just an observation.”

“I think I’ll take it as a compliment then.”

“Are you being sarcastic?  It sounds like you’re being sarcastic.”

Cue a new burst of laughter from the original laughter, and we all went on to talk about something else.  I did what I could to ignore the hostility now emanating from this second guy, lost a race, and left the table.

Fast-forward to another tournament in a different casino, when a table change put me and Aura Guy at the same table once again.  Before I noticed him, I’d already started joking around with two guys at my end of the new table, so my mood was light and happy.  And when the whole table started gossiping about a famous prop bet, Aura Guy and I both joined in.

Then, on break, he came over.  “I really enjoyed playing with you today,” he said.  “I know we’ve had unpleasantness in the past, and I’d like to get past it and just move forward.”

“That’s terrific—me too,” I said, holding out my hand.  We shook on it, and that was that.  I thought, taming the unicorn. 

A few years ago, I was at a table with a drunk, angry guy who was in the big blind when I was in the cutoff.  He started yelling at me for “picking on his blind every time” until finally I said, “I’m not picking on you, I’m playing.  Stop it.”  He settled down into a sullen silence, and life went on.

Fast-forward to that summer, when I ran into the guy at a WSOP tournament window. “I’m so glad to see you again!” he said.  “I’ve been wanting to apologize to you ever since that time I yelled at you in December.  I was drunk, I was out of line—and of course you were just playing, not picking on me.  I’ve thought a lot since then about losing my temper and how I act when I get drunk.  I’ve stopped drinking while playing, and I’ve really been working on keeping my temper.”  I thanked him warmly for his kind words, and we shared a hug.

Taming the unicorn. 

For women players who trigger unwanted responses at the table—which is just about all of us—the fantasy is strong that if we could just find the right way to respond, we could somehow transform the environment within which we play.  This is certainly a fantasy shared by many good guys.  I can’t tell you how many of my male friends have told me, “Maybe if you just ignored it,” “Maybe if you made a joke out of it,” “Maybe if you tried being nicer,” “Maybe if you projected a tougher image,” “Maybe if you projected a softer image,” and my personal favorite, “Maybe you misunderstood.”

And so, when a man does seem to get that he is the one who’s behaved badly—or at least, that there’s another way to handle his feelings about me—it feels like a miracle.  Look, I want to tell myself, you did it!  You must have a terrific aura, because you have actually tamed the unicorn. 

Unicorn tapestry, Cluny MuseumThe myth of the unicorn—a hypersexual, violent beast with a huge phallic horn—goes back millennia in Western culture.  With all other humans, the unicorn is a dangerous monster, his horn a powerful weapon.  With a kind and gentle virgin, however, the wild beast becomes sweet and submissive, laying his head in the maiden’s lap and going peacefully to sleep.

I’ve thought a lot about this myth, especially when I read the story of the Stanford college student who was found raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.  The rape was interrupted by two Swedish grad students on bicycles, who chased the man until they caught him and called for help.  One of the Swedes was sobbing so hard by the time the police arrived that he could barely describe what he had seen.  (You can read the story here, the man’s father’s response here, and the woman’s extraordinary courtroom statement here.)

The woman had gotten drunk at a party and passed out.  Then the man had taken her behind a deserted dumpster and raped her.  These facts were not at issue.  The only issue was whether the sexual act—witnessed by the Swedish students—was consensual.  After the defense lawyer’s usual attempts to discredit the woman and her sexual history, a jury found the young man guilty.  The judge sympathized with the young man’s youth and inexperience, however, and sentenced him to a mere six months in jail.

It’s so hard, in talking about this horrific case, not to use the language of balance, to create parallel sentences linked by that seductive phrase, on the other hand. 

“He shouldn’t have raped her.  On the other hand, she shouldn’t have gotten so drunk she passed out.”

“He shouldn’t have raped her.  On the other hand, he had been drinking.”

“He shouldn’t have raped her.  On the other hand, maybe he really thought she wanted it.”

On some level, if you’re a woman in this culture, you have two choices.  You can take as default that the world is basically safe and welcoming, enough to allow you to loosen up at a party or sit down comfortably at a poker table.  Or you can take as default that the world is hostile and dangerous, so that you never, ever let your guard down.

The first strategy leaves you unprepared for the kinds of extra precautions that, as a woman, you have to take.  A guy can get drunk and pass out at a party—you can’t.  A guy can ask to see another guy’s chips without provoking an incident—you can’t.

But the second strategy leaves you defensive, angry, and likely to miss out on a lot of great opportunities.  The guy you meet at the party that you actually do want to date.  The guy at the table who really wasn’t insulting you, just offering you an opportunity to joke around, tease him back, be one of the guys.

The fantasy of taming the unicorn seems to resolve the two.  You think, If I can just be good and sweet and gentle enough. . . if I can just project the perfect combination of vulnerability and toughness . . . , if I can just rise above insults and hostility, completely impermeable and yet invitingly open. . Then the dangerous beast will turn into a sweet, gentle creature who lays his head in my lap and goes to sleep. 

Obviously, it’s not always a fantasy.  Sometimes we emerge from the situation with new possibilities.

Obviously, too, there is an on the other hand for me.  “Maybe I could have waited a little longer before asking that guy to show his stack?”  “Maybe I was a little too anxious—a little too controlling—a little too nudgy?”  “Maybe there really is something annoying in my aura which does attract that negative energy?”

The problem is, you don’t always want to tame the freakin’ unicorn.  Sometimes you just want to go to a party, have a few drinks, flirt with a few guys.  Sometimes you just want to see the other guy’s stack so you know how to size your bet.  Sometimes you just want to play poker.

So here’s to the Swedish students, who heroically intervened in a horrific assault.  Here’s to the guy who laughed—twice—intervening in a much less serious but still draining and demoralizing situation.  Here’s to the men who believe me when I tell them these stories, and to the women who share their own stories with me.  Here’s to me, on the days when I can be my best self with my clearest view of reality, and to me, on the days when I just don’t handle things well (but still—he should show me his stack!).

Here’s to a world where we don’t have to tame the unicorn—where all our mental energy is free for strategy and bet-sizing and thinking about ranges and frequency and game theory and odds.  I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime.  Still, I can hardly wait.

Posted in White (T.H.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Push a Button, Get a Free Short Story

Short stories dispensed via vending machines

Short stories dispensed via vending machines


The news has been so grim recently that I offer up a light story for diversionary relief. Apparently the French city of Grenoble, situated in the Alps, has installed eight vending machines that dispense free short stories for anyone interested. My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to the article.

Writing for the blog Mental Floss, James Hunt reports, 

The strange, screen-less contraptions are the brainchild of Christophe Sibieude (the co-founder and head of Short Édition) and Grenoble’s mayor, Éric Piolle. The pair hope that commuters and bystanders will make use of these stories to expand and enrich their minds while waiting around, rather than tapping their way aimlessly through Facebook or Twitter. Stories are dispensed according to how much time you’ve got to spend reading (one-, three-, and five-minute options are available), and the stories are printed out on long receipt-like paper.

The vending machines can be found in the various popular spots throughout the city.

Of course, I now want more details. Are these classic or contemporary short stories? Do new authors get a chance to introduce themselves through this venue? Could the vending machines be further refined so that you can choose the genre you are interested in?

But maybe it’s better to keep patrons guessing. At any rate, I like the message that gets sent: fiction is just as important to us as food and drink

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What Draws Kids to Eating Dramas

Helen Bannerman, "Little Black Sambo"

Helen Bannerman, “Little Black Sambo”


I turned 65 on Sunday and received one of the greatest gifts imaginable: a day with four-year-old Esmé (actually she turns four tomorrow) and two-year-old Etta. I also got to hold two-month-old Eden as we traveled down to Atlanta to visit Toby’s family.

In addition to time with the girls, I received two books: David Foster Wallace’s String Theory—all of his essays about tennis—and Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s book should prove useful for my fantasy literature classes as I teach  American Gods (in American Fantasy) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (in British Fantasy). Also, my mother gave me money for two tennis lessons.

Being with the girls at times resembled the scene described in Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” when the speaker is swarmed under by “grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, and Edith with golden hair.” I’ve written about the poem previously, including the grisly allusion to Bishop of Bingen “in his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine.” Bishop Hatto supposedly was eaten alive by the mice that invaded the tower where he was hoarding grain from the starving peasants. Here’s the Longfellow stanza:

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse Tower on the Rhine!

The phrase “devouring with kisses” tells us a lot about children. Sometimes, in play, the girls imagine themselves to be crocodiles or sharks as they pretend to devour me. At other times I am the one doing the devouring, smothering them with nibbles. They laugh and struggle to escape and then come running back.

Many of their stories also contain images of devouring and being devoured. For instance, they love “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. On Sunday afternoon Carle’s stories were the focus of a special family day at Atlanta’s High Museum, the Alliance Theater, and spaces in between. Esmé and Etta made hungry caterpillar headbands, saw screenings of the story and other Carle books, and acted out Carle’s story about the ten rubber ducks.

I think they would also love one of my favorites from my childhood, Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo” (1899), but I’ve decided I can’t read them a story with a name that has functioned as a demeaning racial epithet and that emphasizes skin color. Esmé, the only girl of color in her pre-K class, is already worried that she doesn’t look like her classmates. I used to love the story, however, because of how Sambo uses his problem-solving skills to avoid being eaten up by various tigers that he encounters. Here’s one of his interchanges:

And Little Black Sambo went on, and by and by he met another Tiger, and it said to him, “Little Black Sambo, I’m going to eat you up!” And Little Black Sambo said, “Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don’t eat me up, and I’ll give you my beautiful little Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings.”

But the Tiger said, “What use would your shoes be to me? I’ve got four feet, and you’ve got only two; you haven’t enough shoes for me.”

But Little Black Sambo said, “You could wear them on your ears.”

“So I could,” said the Tiger: “that’s a very good idea. Give them to me, and I won’t eat you this time.”

So the Tiger got poor Little Black Sambo’s beautiful little Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings, and went away saying, “Now I’m the grandest Tiger in the Jungle.”

Thinking about those two stories (and there are many others) has led me to conclude that eating stories are about autonomy. Children strive for independence at the same time that they depend absolutely on their parents. They want both adventure and security. Threatening to eat them plays to their ambivalence: devouring them with kisses assures them they are loved but also denies them their independence. “Little Black Sambo” is a narrative version of their running into captive arms and then struggling to escape.

Although Sambo loses all his fine clothes, he eventually gets them back as the tigers fight over who is the grandest tiger in the jungle. Attempting to devour each other, they race around a tree until they melt into a pool of butter, which Sambo’s mother then spreads on the 169 pancakes that he eats for dinner. In other words, he asserts his mastery by eating those who threatened to eat him. The very hungry caterpillar, meanwhile, goes through an orgy of eating that finally results in a different kind of autonomy: he is able to fly away as a butterfly.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud describes his grandson Ernst playing a “Fort-Da” or “Gone-There” game. He witnessed the child throwing away a spool tied to a thread while calling out, “Fort” and then pulling it back while saying, “Da.” Freud speculates that Ernst is playing out his anxiety of separation from his mother: the disappearing spool symbolizes her departure and the pulling it back her return. It is narrative at its most primitive but, through this narrative, the child is able to imagine having power. In contrast to his actual life, in this fictional realm he is the one “pulling the strings.” I think the books about devouring speak to a similar drama.

To summarize, Esmé and Etta are turning to fictional stories to negotiate one of the major issues they face, which is the relationship between dependence and independence, between their close bond with their parents and their autonomous selves. The drama is captured through images of eating, an activity they know well, and they insist upon hearing the stories over and over.

Further thoughts: 

I posted recently on Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind about how humans use stories to evolve. Thus we can say that, when Esmé and Etta listen to stories and create their own, they are developing critical faculties that will allow them to make plans, collaborate with others, and successfully engage in a host of other essential activities. Fiction, in other words, isn’t just a pleasurable extra.

The works we choose for them are very important. I wrote last October about how my son and his wife are choosing works that will help them counteract negative stereotypes about their hair and skin color, such as “Big Hair, Don’t Care.”

Posted in Bannerman (Helen), Carle (Eric), Longfellow (Henry Wadsworth) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

Grendel from the 2007 film version of "Beowulf"

Grendel from the 2007 film version of “Beowulf”


In what has become a grim tradition for this blog, I run the same post, slightly amended, whenever we have another major mass shooting. I have had to add the qualifier “major” since if I included those mass shootings where the victims “only” number in the single digits, I would run this post continually. The shooting in the Orlando gay bar, unfortunately, involves many more than that. The New York Times and others have labeled it the “worst mass shooting in American history.”

The responses never need much updating. President Obama himself acknowledges that he is repeating himself. Each time he sounds more like desperate King Hrothgar in Beowulf, who is flummoxed by the fact that Grendelian violence continues unabated. As I understand Grendel, he is the blood feuds instigated by Denmark’s own resentful warriors that ravaged Anglo-Saxon society. In other words, the violence comes from within, not from without.

Here’s The Washington Post reporting on Obama’s response following the Umpqua shooting this past October:

Obama bemoaned the fact that these tragedies have become so frequent, he said, that they no longer shocked the public. He urged media outlets to list the number of Americans who die each year from terrorist attacks against the number who are killed by guns, to show how much greater a threat gun violence poses to the country.

“Somehow this has become routine,” he said, looking a bit incredulous at the prospect. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine.”

Rather than listing the numerous tragedies that have occurred during his time in office — in Newtown, in Charleston, S.C., where a gunman killed nine parishioners in an African American church in June, and in countless other places — he noted that during an interview in July he lamented that the United States was the “one advanced nation on earth” that has not adopted “common-sense gun safety measures” in the face of multiple mass shootings.

“And later that day there was a mass shooting in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. That day,” he said, his voice strained.

At times, his tone turned combative. “Right now I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. ‘Fewer gun safety laws.'”

“Does anybody really believe that?” he said. “There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country, they know that’s not true.”

Whenever another shooting occurs, I feel like the grandmother in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony following another eruption of violence on the reservation. “I guess I must be getting old,” she says,

“because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited any more.” She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”

Few works of literature capture so powerfully the social violence that strikes from within as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. If Omar Mateen follows the pattern of previous Grendels, it will emerge that he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.

Here’s the passage of King Hrothgar helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia, just as we are the most powerful country on earth.

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, 
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old

were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

In his remarks after the Charleston shooting, Obama spoke of his “deep sorrow,” and of “the heartbreak, and the sadness, and the anger.” The Bewulf poet writes that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”

None of us knows when and where the next reaver of hell will strike. We only know that he will.

Further note: To put numbers to the number of mass shootings, there have been 133 so far in 2016 alone. There have been 1001 since Sandy Hook. The shootings have killed at least 1,141 people and wounded 3,943 more. A mass shooting is “an incident involving multiple victims of gun violence.”

Previous Posts on Mass Shootings

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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I Am a Glory That Cannot Unshine Itself

Bernini, "Ecstasy of St. Teresa"

Bernini, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa”

Spiritual Sunday

A few weeks ago I shared a poem about Joan of Arc by a former student, Clare Hogan, who wrote her senior project on “The work they did with sweat and light”: An Analysis of Ecstatic Narrative in the Poetry of Graham, Doty, and Szybist.” The project concludes with Clare’s own poems of spiritual ecstasy, including several about St. Teresa. I share one of those today.

Teresa’s autobiography, The Interior Castle or The Mansions, sets forth the seven stages of faith—seen as seven rooms in a castle—with the final stage being union with God. In Clare’s poem, Teresa begins with “the house of prayer I’ve made with my body” and then proceeds to shed layer after layer until she is a “sheet of sunlight.” The vine that would have been climbing up a house suddenly find itself deprived of the mortar it clung to and becomes a tulip.

But because spiritual ecstasy must operate through the human body, she also gives us the image of sunlight “pressing down into” the leaves of a dark oak and of the trees roots then “digging into the foundation, drinking, drinking.” Earlier in the poem Teresa imagines herself breastfeeding “some urgent hungry thing” but now it is she that is suckling celestial sustenance.

In other words, we seek to transcend the body to touch the divine but we are always within our bodies. The ecstatic union with the divine is both physical and non-physical. Here’s the poem:

Prayer of Teresa
after The Interior Castle or The Mansions

By Clare Hogan

Here’s the house of prayer I’ve made
of my body, where inside a woman cradles

her breasts, sore from feeding some
urgent hungry thing. Take away the house

and she’ll still be there, the skin spilling
from her hands, her skirts passing over

her thighs, her knees, like water. Take her away
and I’m vines crept up, no mortar to spread

open, a tulip. Take it. There I am, a sheet
of sunlight insistently beating—no house:

a house of light. And I am a glory
that cannot unshine itself, pressing down

into the leaves of that dark oak there, roots
digging the foundation, drinking, drinking.

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Trump’s Game of Thrones Invasion

The White Walkers invade Westeros in "Game of Thrones"

The White Walkers invade Westeros in “Game of Thrones”


Now that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee, everyone is wondering about whether she can reconcile with Bernie Sanders’s supporters. To emphasize what is at stake, David Corn of Mother Jones is invoking Game of Thrones.

I have to admit to not having read or seen the series but, on the advice of my colleague Donna Richardson, I will be teaching the first volume in my American Fantasy class this fall. Donna says that it is America’s best answer to Tolkien. Corn misquotes Puck in the following analysis but otherwise he seems on target:

In the HBO series Game of Thrones, one overwhelming theme has dominated the six seasons: humans should not get lost in bickering for power when an existential threat looms. All the various clans—the Lannisters, the Starks, the Targaryens, the Boltons, the Tyrells, the Baratheons, and others—waste blood and treasure vying for control of this throne or that castle, while a zombie army with the capacity to eradicate humanity is slowly advancing from the north. Oh fools, you mortals be. And as the political primary season draws to an end, Democrats are in a position similar to that of the assorted houses of Westeros. An existential threat is on the horizon: Donald Trump. He’s a narcissistic bigot who in power could be a profound danger. He seems to lack a basic understanding of the nuclear arsenal of which he would be in charge. He claims climate change is a hoax. He has vowed to play chicken with the debt ceiling. It is not hard to envision him triggering (or ignoring) crises that would threaten the survival of the United States or other parts of the globe. If he accepted budgets from the Republican-controlled Congress, millions of low- and middle-income Americans would lose assistance. And his Supreme Court appointments could well restrict reproductive rights, bolster corporate interests, and approve further erosions of voting rights. Make America great again? No, with Trump, winter is coming.

Given this harsh reality, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist independent turned Democrat who has run a stupendous campaign that has promoted progressive causes and inspired millions, has a stark choice. To continue his crusade to win the Democratic Party’s crown or to drop his claim and join forces with a rival to form a common front against the Night’s King (that is, Trump). And he ought to reach a decision soon.

To be sure, there are Republicans who are arguing that Hillary Clinton too represents an existential threat and so are prepared to vote for Trump despite the problems that Corn lays out. For me, this is a false equivalence and an example of the hyperbole that has overtaken our politics. As I said in a recent post, if Trump were the Democratic nominee against Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, McCain, or Romney, I would vote Republican. Trump is of a different order than anything we have ever seen.

To arms, people of Westeros.

Added note: I see that the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, former George W. Bush speechwriter and no friend to Democrats, is making a similar point about the special danger represented by Trump as he castigates Republicans who are supporting him:

So what were senior Republicans thinking when they endorsed Trump? I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties involved in opposing one’s own presumptive nominee. There is tremendous political pressure to be loyal to the team. The arguments against doing anything that might help Hillary Clinton are strong. “This is about moving our agenda forward,”said Ryan in justifying his Trump endorsement.

 Republican leaders, in other words, thought they were in a normal political moment — a time for pragmatism, give-and-take, holding your nose and eventually getting past an unpleasant chore.

But it is not a normal political moment. It is one of those rare times — like the repudiation of Joe McCarthy, or consideration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Watergate crisis — when the spotlight of history stops on a single decision, and a whole political career is remembered in a single pose. The test here: Can you support, for pragmatic reasons, a presidential candidate who purposely and consistently appeals to racism?

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Was T. S. Eliot a Key to Hillary’s Success?

Hillary Clinton at 1969 Wellesley commencement

Hillary Clinton at 1969 Wellesley commencement


Hillary Clinton’s victory speech Tuesday night moved me far more than I expected. Since then I have been reading articles about her extraordinary journey and came across a reference she made to T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” (from Four Quartets) in 1969 when she was a senior at Wellesley. That passage reveals something about the vision that has sustained her on her way to becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Ezra Klein of Vox has an article on just how difficult the journey has been. He says that we underestimate what it has taken for a woman to break through the presidential glass ceiling:

Perhaps, in ways we still do not fully appreciate, the reason no one has ever broken the glass ceiling in American politics is because it’s really fucking hard to break. Before Clinton, no one even came close.

Whether you like Clinton or hate her — and plenty of Americans hate her — it’s time to admit that the reason Clinton was the one to break it is because Clinton is actually really good at politics.

She’s just good at politics in a way we haven’t learned to appreciate.

Klein goes on to explain how presidential campaigns favor male traits:

But the quality we adore in presidential candidates — the ability to stand up and speak loudly, confidently, and fluently on topics you may know nothing about — is gendered.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both excellent yellers, and we love them for it. Nobody likes it when Hillary Clinton yells. As my colleague Emily Crockett has written, research shows people don’t like it when women yell in general:

“Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like “vocal fry” and “upspeak” when women use them, but often don’t even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as “aggressive,” which gets in the way of women’s personal and professional advancement. Women are much more likely to be perceived as “abrasive” and get negative performance reviews as a result — which puts them in a double bind when they try to “lean in” and assertively negotiate salaries.”

Klein continues,

It may not be impossible for a woman to win the presidency the way we are used to men doing it, but it is unlikely. The way a woman is likeliest to win will defy our expectations.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t appreciate Clinton’s strengths as a candidate. She’s winning a process that evolved to showcase stereotypically male traits using a stereotypically female strategy.

Klein then lays out what that process has been:

She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 208 members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; only eight have endorsed Sanders.

This work is a grind — it’s not big speeches, it doesn’t come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can’t summon.

But Clinton is arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over…

And Clinton isn’t just better — she’s relentless. After losing to Barack Obama, she rebuilt those relationships, campaigning hard for him in the general, serving as his secretary of state, reaching out to longtime allies who had crushed her campaign by endorsing him over her. (This, by the way, is why I don’t think you can dismiss Clinton’s victory as reflections of her husband’s success: She’s won her own elections and secured a major appointment in a subsequent administration.)

Klein concludes,

[I]n order to do something as hard as becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, she had to do something extraordinarily difficult: She had to build a coalition, supported by a web of relationships, that dwarfed in both breadth and depth anything a non-incumbent had created before. It was a plan that played to her strengths, as opposed to her (entirely male) challengers’ strengths. And she did it.

Now to “East Coker.” The first stanza of Part V provided the epigraph of Clinton’s Wellesley thesis on activist Saul Alinsky, and she referenced it again in her Wellesley commencement speech. The poem is about Eliot’s frustration that language continually lets him down in the welter of emotions. “Each venture,” he writes,

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

So how does one respond in such a case? One just keeps on trying. The effort itself is more important than whether or not one is successful. Gain and loss are “not our business”:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Here’s the passage in its entirety:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Admittedly, the 21-year-old Clinton and the middle-aged Eliot see two different things in this passage. For Eliot, there is a sense of understandable futility (bombs were dropping on London at the time) and he is searching for hope in Christianity. The final section of “East Coker” focuses on Good Friday rather than Easter Sunday, however, meaning that he is not entirely confident in his faith. The poem ends with an image of “dark cold and empty desolation”:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

By contrast Clinton, who is not an old man and who is more interested in community than in communion with God, sees “East Coker” as a call to fight the good fight, even though the outcome is uncertain. In her essay on Alinsky, which I’ve only skimmed, she is impressed with how Alinsky doesn’t allow reversals to overwhelm him. He just keeps trying.

We get a specific example of her own trying in her 1969 Wellesley speech. At one point, she is discussing how to restore lost trust between the generations, what we used to call “the generation gap” and what she refers to as “the trust bust.” She gives what I would call an Edgar Guestian “if at first you don’t succeed” reading of Eliot:

Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said “Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust.” What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All we can do is keep trying again and again and again. There’s that wonderful line in “East Coker” by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before.

.I’m not putting Clinton down when I invoke Edgar Guest. If her youthful idealism and her American can-do spirit transform Eliot’s world-weary ennui into a reminder to never give up, then more power to her. Her “trying,” as we are seeing, has taken her a very long way.

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Donne Can Help with a Separation

Frederic William Burton. "Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs"

Fredric Burton, “Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs”


Today Julia and I celebrate our 43rd wedding anniversary and, while we plan to spend many more years together, this coming year will be spent apart. I turn to John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” for how to handle the separation.

Julia will be splitting her time between my mother in Sewanee, Tennessee and my youngest son’s family in northern Georgia. My daughter-in-law Candice has just received a tenure-track film studies position at the University of North Georgia, and my son Toby still has his post-doc at Georgia Tech, so Julia will be helping take care of our three granddaughters—all under four—during midweek. Meanwhile I will be continuing my regular teaching duties at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We will see each during vacations.

Donne wrote “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” for his wife Anne in 1611 or 1612 when he was preparing to visit the continent. It begins with Donne telling his wife and himself to separate quietly, the way that truly spiritual persons face death. No “tear-floods” or “sigh tempests” allowed:

As virtuous men pass mildly away, 
   And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say 
   The breath goes now, and some say, No: 
So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; 
’Twere profanation of our joys 
   To tell the laity our love. 

The absence of commotion does not mean they are indifferent but just the opposite: their love is so holy that it calls for a new kind of response. We expect, in such situations, to see emotional earthquakes, but their love, like a movement of the spheres, can’t be seen down here on earth, even though such movement is more cataclysmic:

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears, 
   Men reckon what it did, and meant; 
But trepidation of the spheres, 
   Though greater far, is innocent. 

In imagining himself and Anne in a transcendent relationship, Donne plays with an idea that he elaborates upon in “The Canonization,” where he imagines the two of them being canonized and people making pilgrimages to visit their ashes. (“all shall approve/Us canonized for Love”).Their love, he asserts in “Valediction,” doesn’t require physical presence:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love 
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit 
Absence, because it doth remove 
   Those things which elemented it. 

But we by a love so much refined, 
   That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assured of the mind, 
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 

At this point, Donne provides two metaphors to capture the connection between Anne and himself. The first is gold thread that has been beaten into such airy thinness that the eye can’t see it:

Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat. 

Although e-mail and Skype are even more airy than beaten gold, they just don’t have the same metaphorical resonance.

The other metaphor involves a compass such as is used to circumscribe a circle. Even though one leg stays at home while the other wanders far away, the two remain in sympathetic connection, with the one revolving in place while the other moves through the world. When the wandering leg begins heading home, the other leg hearkens and becomes alert:

If they be two, they are two so 
   As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
   To move, but doth, if the other do. 

And though it in the center sit, 
   Yet when the other far doth roam, 
It leans and hearkens after it, 
   And grows erect, as that comes home. 

Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
   Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; 
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
   And makes me end where I begun. 

Julia, you are my center. However long we are separated, you will always be my beginning point and my end point.

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Donne vs. Brexit: No Nation Is an Island



Because this blog has been so obsessed with Donald Trump—overly obsessed in the opinion of at least one reader—I have neglected other significant issues, including the upcoming June 23 Brexit vote. I’m sure that others have already applied John Donne’s “Meditation 17” to the prospect of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, but here’s my contribution.

First, from what I can tell, an exit would both harm Britain’s economy and, in all likelihood, lead to the country’s break-up (with Scotland certainly leaving and perhaps Northern Ireland and Wales as well). According to a Vox article, it would also destabilize Europe and have serious consequences for the United States:

Much of the commentary around Brexit focuses on fierce debates about abstruse issues such as budgetary contributions, government benefits for foreign workers, and the future of British trade relations. But from an American perspective, such minutiae are basically irrelevant.

What’s actually at stake is much bigger.

Brexit is the British manifestation of a broader popular revolt against European integration that is gradually spreading across Europe. If the British people choose to abandon the EU at this vulnerable moment, it might well be the catalyst that causes the cancer of populism and disintegration — which is helping to drive this campaign in the UK — to metastasize across Europe at a dramatically faster rate.

If that happens, the entire project of European integration — the foundation of America’s policy in Europe since World War II — could be at risk of collapsing. If that happens, the United States will find itself much more alone in the world and having to bear a much larger share to manage global problems.

In short, the UK will suffer, Europe will suffer, the United States will suffer, and the world will suffer.

So what does Donne have to contribute to the conversation?

“Meditation 17” begins with a funeral bell tolling for a man who is dying of the plague. He does not realize that it is tolling for him and thinks it is tolling for someone else.

From this opening image, Donne goes on to state that all of us—or at least all Christians—are connected:

The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member.

Shifting to an image of a book’s scattered leaves, Donne says that the connection continues after death:

And when she [the church] buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

After some further comments on bells, Donne then shifts to a geographical image that is particularly relevant to Brexit. Note that Donne, despite being a citizen of an island nation, focuses on the European continent:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

This, in turn, leads to the line we all know:

…and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. 

In other words, we may think that the problems for which the bells are tolling are those of other people—but if we truly knew what was going on, we would realize that those problems are also our problems.

Before applying the passage to Brexit, I note that Donne is concerned with the state of our souls. It may seem to go against our interests to worry about the misery of others, he says. Don’t we have enough to worry about as it is? We should regard their misery as hidden gold, however. By digging it out and applying it to ourselves, we realize that we ourselves will one die. This in turn provides us with the necessary motivation to get right with God:

Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Those fantasizing about a British exit from the E.U. may think they can escape the current turmoil in Europe by withdrawing into island isolation. For that matter, Americans may think that, by building a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico, they can escape the political problems in Central and South America that are sending immigrants toward the border. We can choose to interpret the bell as an indication that someone else is suffering.

Or we can acknowledge that we are not an island and that the bell we hear tolls also for us.

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Marianne Moore and Muhammad Ali

Marianne Moore Muhammad Ali


I remember vividly when Muhammad Ali, who died Saturday, beat George Foreman in “the Rumble in the Jungle” (October 30, 1974). I was working as a reporter for a Winchester, Tennessee weekly, where I heard the n-word on a daily basis, especially from the newspaper’s publisher. More than anything, the publisher wanted Foreman to shut up this trash-talking black man. After all, he was (1) a Civil Rights activist, (2) an anti-war protester and (3) a Muslim. Like all of us, he was sure Foreman was going to tear Ali apart. In the end, of course, Ali was the one still standing.

The following day the publisher came in, shaking his head with deep disappointment but also with a sense of wonder. “The n_______ did it,” he said. In those days Muhammad Ali meant a lot to a lot of people, not all of it positive.

Looking for a literary angle on the athlete who was famous for spouting off doggerel, I came across a great article by Katy Waldman in Slate. She mentions how Ali has been described in one study as “the first heavyweight champion of rap,” with such memorable lines as “I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.” Along with his own poetry, he lifted others to poetic heights as well, including his cornerman Drew Bundini Brown’s famous description of him: “Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee/Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” He also inspired poet Marianne Moore, who wrote the liner notes for an album he released of his spoken word poetry.

The album appeared in 1963 when Ali was still Cassius Clay. Moore obviously gets a kick out of his hyperbole and, in response, indulges in some of her own. If he is “the greatest,” then why not compare him to William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Sir Philip Sidney? There’s even an allusion to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” although only for contrastive purposes: Ali is not one to bloom unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air. Here are the liner notes:

I AM THE GREATEST, if meant seriously, is comic, and if meant comically, is comic. It is romantic comedy, it is poetic drama. If it savors of diatribe, consider: “I worry not the danger, I have archly crossed the moor.” These rhyming couplets are a mode of verse, the New York Times says, for which more has been done here than by anyone since Alexander Pope. At a crucial moment—rather often indeed—altitude is saved by a hair from being the flattest, peanutiest, unwariest of boastings; saved one might say with Shakespeare, “by one of Caesar’s hairs.”

I AM THE GREATEST or MUCH ADO ABOUT CASSIUS has structure. Its hero, The Greatest—though a mere youth—has snuffed out “more dragons than Smokey the Bear hath.” Mighty-muscled and fit, he is confident, he is sagacious; even so, he trains, he fights: he is not ring-rusty, he acquires a title, a crown, a purse; a king’s daughter is bestowed on him as a fiancée–a princess. He is literary–in the tradition of Sir Philip Sidney, defender of Poesie. His verse is ornamented by alliteration. An official voice calls him: “Come forth, Cassius Clay.” A knight, a king of the ring, a mimic, a satirist, he calms his opponent: “Of course you’re tired and irritable. Control yourself.”

He has aplomb sufficient to impersonate Presidential “vigah.” He is not even deterred by “the small volks dragons.” He has a fondness for antithesis, will not only “give fighting lessons but falling lessons.” As The Greatest, he is, of course, master of hyperbole: his “punch raises his opponents clear out of the ring. The crowd is getting frantic. A radar station has picked him up. He is over the Atlantic.” Admittedly the “classiest and brassiest,” when asked, “How do you feel about the British calling you Gaseous Cassius,” his reply is one of the prettiest in literature: “I do not resent it.” He is a master of concision. Asked, “Have you ever been in love,” he says, “Not with anyone else.” Note this: beat grime revolts him. How not! Has any champion charm when beclouded by grime? He is neat, spruce; debonaire with manicure; his brow is high. If beaten–since mortal–he still is not “beat.” Might he, as winner, be Tel-elusive? Not so. He will be seen win or lose–in normal motion and slow. Could MUCH ADO, could The Greatest, disappear in desert air? “Anywhere at all?” Might “eight trillion” copies of I AM THE GREATEST be enough? No. He fights and he writes. Is there something I have missed? He is a smiling pugilist.

Moore doesn’t see Clay/Ali as entirely serious: he’s a hair away from altitude, by which I assume she means vanity. The passage about Caesar’s hairs is from Julius’s Antony famous funeral elegy where he says that people should beg a hair from Caesar to remember him by. Antony isn’t speaking entirely seriously here either—or rather, he’s saying one thing (“I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him”) but using his words for an entirely different agenda.

Maybe Julius Caesar comes to mind because of Clay’s first name at the time, although Moore doesn’t quote the most famous line about the leader of the conspirators: “Yond Cassius hath a lean and hungry look.” After all, Ali didn’t strike one as lean and hungry. He was more vibrant and alive.

The reference to Much Ado about Nothing may suggest that, at one level, Clay is bullshitting his audience. He’s pretending to make much ado about himself but it’s made up, just like the scandal at the heart of Shakespeare’s play.

Finally, because she is invigorated by Ali’s brashness, which would have been more startling in reticent 1963 than it would be today, Moore mimics it. She also conclude with a very Ali-type couplet:

He fights and he writes.
Is there something I have missed?
He is a smiling pugilist.

Waldman mentions that one could predict Moore’s admiration for Ali by reading her famous poem “The Octopus,” which compares ice-covered Mt. Ranier to an octopus. The poem then evolves so that one comes to realize that Moore is also writing about poetry: the mountain, like an octopus, comes upon us stealthily but then unleashes it power. In other words, mountains, poets and championship boxers all have something in common.

In the final stanza, when Moore talks about “neatness of finish,” you can imagine both a polished poem and a knock-out punch. The mountain moves stealthily until suddenly, without warning, we find ourselves entwined in its octopus arms and assaulted by winds that

tear the snow to bits 
and hurl it like a sandblast 
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.

Then the trees themselves are leveled as an avalanche is launched “with a sound like the crack of a rifle.” The quotations, incidentally, are from a state park manual. Here’s the final stanza:

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish! 
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus 
with its capacity for fact. 
‘Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth, 
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,’ 
it receives one under winds that ‘tear the snow to bits 
and hurl it like a sandblast 
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.’ 
Is ‘tree’ the word for these things 
‘flat on the ground like vines’? 
some ‘bent in a half circle with branches on one side 
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees; 
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves 
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape’ 
from the hard mountain ‘planned by ice and polished by the wind’– 
the white volcano with no weather side; 
the lightning flashing at its base, 
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak– 
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed, 
its claw cut by the avalanche 
‘with a sound like the crack of a rifle, 
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.’

The greatest boxers of the day saw that lightning flashing and found themselves buried under that curtain of powdered snow.

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Celebrate! The Month of Fasting Is Come

Ramadan fasting

Spiritual Sunday

Ramadan begins this evening so I once again turn to Rumi for an appropriate poem. In “Celebrate! The Month of Fasting Has Come,” Rumi compares the Ramadan fast to a friend, an intoxicant, a Sultan, “a beautiful fortune,” a secret illumination, a plentiful harvest, a silk outfit, and a troop of courageous soldiers. He also talks about the ecstasy of fasting, which he says causes one to lose one’s mind so that one blisses out looking at the moon as one’s hat falls off. The Sahur meal mentioned in the poem is the breakfast one eats before each day’s fasting begins. Shems of Tabriz is Rumi’s close friend and spiritual companion.

Celebrate! The month of fasting has come.
Pleasant journey to the one

Who is the company of the fasting.
I climbed the roof to see the Moon,

Because I really missed fasting
By heart and soul.

I lost my hat while looking at the Moon.
the Sultan of fasting made me drunk.

O Muslims, I have been drunk
since that day I lost my mind.

What a beautiful fortune fasting has.
What a wonderful glory.

There is another secret moon
Besides this one.

He is hiding in the tent of fasting
Like a Turk.

Anyone who comes
To the harvest of fasting in this month

Finds the way to this Moon.
Whoever makes his face

Resemble pale satin
Wears the silk clothes of fasting.

Prayers will be accepted in this month.
Sighs of the one fasting pierce the sky.

The person who sits patiently
At the bottom of fasting’s well

Owns the love of Egypt, like Joseph.
O the word which eats the Sahur* meal,

Be silent so that anyone
Who knows fasting will enjoy fasting.

Come, O Shems, the brave one of whom Tebriz is proud.
You are the commander of fasting’s soldiers.


Previously posted Ramadan poems by Rumi

No Room in This House for Two I’s

Break Your Fast with Joy

A New Song Comes Out of the Fire

Overrichness Is a Subtle Disease

The Spirit’s Table Has Arrived

Like a Reed, Open Yourself to God’s Breath

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Medicine & Lit, Working Together

Sir Luke Fildes, "The Doctor"

Sir Luke Fildes, “The Doctor”


My daughter-in-law Betsy Bates alerted me to this article about Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air, which I now know I must read. Kalanithi was an English major-turned-neurosurgeon who wrote about his dying, and in today’s post I share those excerpts from the book, quoted in the article, about the importance of literature in Kalanithi’s life. Consider today’s blog post to be a teaser as I fully expect to explore further how literature helped Kalinithi make sense of and cope with his dying.

Apparently it was literature that led to Kalinithi’s interest in neuroscience:

The throwaway assumption that the mind was simply the operation of the brain [was] an idea that struck me with force; it startled my naïve understanding of the world. Of course, it must be true — what were our brains doing, otherwise? Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms — the brain was an organ, subject to all the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic. That night, in my room, I opened up my red Stanford course catalog, which I had read through dozens of times, and grabbed a highlighter. In addition to all the literature classes I had marked, I began looking in biology and neuroscience as well.

A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values… Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.

Kalanithi would first go on to get an M.A. in English lit:

I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans — i.e., “human relationality” — that undergirded meaning. Yet somehow, this process existed in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiologic imperatives, prone to breaking and failing. There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.


For my thesis, I studied the work of Walt Whitman, a poet who, a century before, was possessed by the same questions that haunted me, who wanted to find a way to understand and describe what he termed “the Physiological-Spiritual Man.”

Eventually Kalinithi concluded that he needed to engage in hands-on work with the brain to ground his exploration:

I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was merely confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience. It was only in practicing medicine that I could pursue a serious biological philosophy. Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. I finished my degree and headed back to the States. I was going to Yale for medical school.

 And further on:

I had spent so much time studying literature at Stanford and the history of medicine at Cambridge, in an attempt to better understand the particularities of death, only to come away feeling like they were still unknowable to me… Such things could be known only face-to-face. I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal.

When Kalanithi began wrestling with his own dying, however, he found that science too was insufficient, and he returned to literature. At one point, when the cancer was in remission, he wrote,

No one asked about my plans, which was a relief, since I had none. While I could now walk without a cane, a paralytic uncertainty loomed: Who would I be, going forward, and for how long? Invalid, scientist, teacher? Bioethicist? Neurosurgeon once again…? Stay-at-home dad? Writer? Who could, or should, I be? As a doctor, I had had some sense of what patients with life-changing illnesses faced — and it was exactly these moments I had wanted to explore with them. Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? What better way to understand it than to live it? But I’d had no idea how hard it would be, how much terrain I would have to explore, map, settle. I’d always imagined the doctor’s work as something like connecting two pieces of railroad track, allowing a smooth journey for the patient. I hadn’t expected the prospect of facing my own mortality to be so disorienting, so dislocating. I thought back to my younger self, who might’ve wanted to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”; looking into my own soul, I found the tools too brittle, the fire too weak, to forge even my own conscience.

And further:

It was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day — no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

And finally:

All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living. But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life.


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Doctor Faustus: Lessons in Grieving

Doctor Faustus


I have written several times over the past seven years about how students of mine have turned to works of literature as they grappled with the death of parents. Five years ago Caitie Harrigan became obsessed with the Faustus story following the death of her mother—she read ten different versions for her senior project—and this past semester Andrew Giganti, who recently lost his father, wrote about Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in my British Literature survey. We don’t generally think that the drama of the man who sells his soul to the devil is about death, but Caitie’s and Andrew’s essays have me rethinking Marlowe’s play.

Here’s how I summed up Caitie’s senior project as it neared its end:

Caitie’s mother developed leukemia when Caitie was ten, and although it went into remission, a more virulent strain returned with full force when Caitie was 20 and she died in four months. Twice faced with the prospect of her mother’s death, Caitie found herself wrestling with existential questions about life’s meaning from an early age. When she got to college, she took a number of religious studies courses in addition to English courses but failed to find satisfactory answers. In fact, she was struck by the strangeness of ritual and the desperation of fundamentalists.

She found the figure of Satan compelling, however, and last month she figured out that the devil, as he appears in the Faustus stories, voices her own fear that life is absurd. When the devil tells Goethe’s Faust that life is a wasteland and humans are no more than grasshoppers, it struck home. Soul is put to the test in the story of Faustus, just as Caitie was testing her own belief in soul.

In other words, Caitie’s project was a roundabout way of exploring whether her mother had just disappeared into nothingness—in which case, life seemed to be meaningless—of whether there was a spiritual plane and her mother was, in some inexpressible way, still existent. If the devil could be proved wrong, then there was hope.

This wasn’t the only way that Caitie explored these questions. At times she sensed her mother’s presence. She just feared that what she sensed wasn’t real, that she was indulging in wish fulfillment. Wrestling with the story seemed to be a solid way of engaging with the question.

Andrew entered the story from a different angle. For him, Marlowe articulates the helplessness he felt in the face of his father’s death. As he says of the play,

Faustus’s need for control derives from his refusal to accept his own mortality; Faustus believes that by becoming all-powerful he will be able to conquer his own mortality.

There’s a lot to be said for Andrew’s reading. The trigger event for Faustus’s diabolic bargain appears to be an outbreak of the plague. While Faustus cures multiple cities of the malady—his prescriptions are “hung up as monuments”—the encounter with death reminds him that, sooner or later, all will die. Rather than fatalistically surrender to this fact (“Che sera, sera,/What will be, shall be”), Faustus fantasizes conquering death:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
there’s no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

Faustus’s bargain is for 24 years, and when I teach the play my students sensibly ask me why Faustus doesn’t ask for a life extension. The play is not about magic, however, but about human psychology, which is what Andrew realized. Say that Faustus is 46, in which case 24 years takes him 60, perhaps life expectancy for the age. Faustus may lust for intellectual and physical power because it gives him the illusion that he can control the uncontrollable. Wallowing in the seven deadly sins and fantasizing about Helen of Troy are other ways of coping. Put another way, he engages in fantasies and indulges in decadent behavior because he feels utterly powerless.

Andrew’s prose got a little tangled as he strove to articulate his helplessness—we both agreed the essay needed another draft—but you can see him wrestling mightily:

My demons are anxiety and depression, born from my inability to properly cope with the passing of my father. Every day, every minute, these demons drag and trap me in hell, a state of mind where I’m stuck in an endless void of my own consciousness. There is no fiery hilltop surrounded by leagues of black sand and lost souls unable to reclaim their graces. There is only I, my demons, and the constant realization that I could not control my father’s fate and save him from whatever awaits us after we close our eyes for the final time.

Andrew most identified with Faustus’s belief that his fate in entirely in his own hands. Faustus wants to control everything without help from God, regarding anything else as an ignoble surrender. Even when he is panicking on his deathbed, Faustus can’t let go and cries out to Lucifer—his egotistical desire for power—rather than to God. He can’t, as the saying has it, “Let go, let God.”

Andrew related to this, noting that he insisted on handling his grief all by himself rather than reaching out to others or to God. He did not, for instance, seek the help of a school counselor or a therapist. As a result, he floundered around, like Faustus, in his isolation.

Andrew called this “pride” and, in doing so, helps us better understand and even sympathize with the vice. Death is so painful that we long to be invulnerable and above it all. Unfortunately,by attempting to rise above our humanity, with all its limitations, we create our own private hells. This was Andrew’s biggest revelation.

What it taught him, he said, is that he needs to reach out for help in handling his grief. If the play has taught him that, it has proved a blessing beyond imagining.

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Trump Sees Garbage and Rocks in Foes



Continuing with my comparison of Donald Trump to the villain of Maruki Hurakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (see yesterday’s post), here’s a passage that describes Noboru Wataya’s contempt for losers. The more I read about Trump, the more I see a man who is so insecure that he lashes out against anyone who makes him feel small. It’s why Trump can’t overlook any slight, Amanda Marcotte of Salon yesterday speculated that he wants to become president mostly so that he can revenge himself upon his enemies and perceived enemies.

Here’s Noboru Wataya heaping Trump-like contempt upon Toru Okada, the man that his sister married. It should be noted that Toru, although unsure about his future, has substance and he deeply loves his wife, who relies on him for support:

From the first day I met you, I knew better than to hope you might amount to anything. I saw no sign of promise, nothing in you that suggested you might accomplish something worthwhile or even turn yourself into a respectable human being: nothing there to shine or to shed light on anything. I knew that whatever you set your hand to would end up half-baked, that you would never see anything through to the end. And I was right. You have been married to my sister for six years, and what have you done in all that time? Nothing, right? All you’ve accomplished in six long years is to quit your job and ruin Kumiko’s life. Now you’re out of work and you have no plan for the future. There’s nothing inside that head of yours but garbage and rocks.

Why Kumiko ever got together with the likes of you I’ll never understand. Maybe she thought the garbage and rocks in your head were interesting. But finally, garbage is garbage and rocks are rocks. You were wrong for her from the start. 

As I read the passage, I think of Trump’s assessment of John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

To fail is to be a loser in the eyes of both Trump and Noboru Wataya. Both attribute their success to their ability to excel in the world of dog-eat-dog capitalism, even though their own success owes much to a privileged upbringing;

Noboru Wataya’s boyhood there was strangely distorted in another sense. The parents were mad for their only son, but they didn’t merely shower him with affection; they demanded certain things of him as well. The father was convinced that the only way to live a full life in Japanese society was to earn the highest possible marks and to shove aside anyone and everyone standing in your path to the top. He believed this with absolute conviction.

It was shortly after I had married his daughter that I heard these very words from the man himself. All men are not created equal, he said. That was just some righteous-sounding nonsense they taught you in school. Japan might have the political structure of a democratic nation, but it was at the same time a fiercely carnivorous society of class in which the weak were devoured by the strong, and unless you became one of the elite, there was no point in living in this country. You’d just be ground to dust in the millstones. You had to fight your way up every rung of the ladder. This kind of ambition was entirely healthy.

It sounds like an episode of Apprentice, Trump’s reality show. It also may give us insight into the psychology of some of Trump’s followers: they thrill to Trump’s contempt for others, thinking that identifying with him somehow exempts them from that contempt. Although Trump indeed has contempt for them (“I love the poorly educated”) and they may well harbor a secret contempt for themselves, they can feel superior to McCain for being captured and to all the suckers who fell for Trump’s various scams, whether Trump University, his vitamin supplement kits, his various real estate deals that ended in bankruptcy, or whatever else. Oh, and he provides them useful scapegoats against which they can channel their anxieties (minorities, women).

Toru’s account of Noboru Wataya’s upbringing sounds very much like Trump’s, further helping un understand the New York billionaire (or is he merely a millionaire?):

And so his parents pounded their questionable philosophy and their warped view of the world into the head of the young Noboru Wataya. They egged him on, providing him with the best tutors their money could buy. When he took top honors, they rewarded their son by buying him anything he wanted. His childhood was one of extreme material luxury, but when he entered the most sensitive and vulnerable phase of life, he had no time for girlfriends, no chance to go wild with other boys. [In Trump’s case, his father sent him to military boarding school.] He had to pour all his energies into maintaining his position as number one.

What emerges in the novel is a man who casts a big shadow and who corrupts everything he touches. In response to Noboru Wataya’s “rocks and garbage” speech, Toru responds with a parable that pretty accurately describes the Trump’s world—and what America itself could become if Trump were to be elected president:

“Do you know the story of the monkeys of the shitty island?” I asked Noboru Wataya.

He shook his head, with no sign of interest. “Never heard of it.”

“Somewhere, far, far away, there’s a shitty island. An island without a name. An island not worth giving a name. A shitty island with a shitty shape. On this shitty island grow palm trees that also have shitty shapes. And the palm trees produce coconuts that give off a shitty smell. Shitty monkeys live in the trees, and they love to eat those shitty-smelling coconuts, after which they shit the world’s foulest shit. The shit falls on the ground and builds up shitty mounds, making the shitty palm trees that grow on them even shittier. It’s an endless cycle.”

I drank the rest of my coffee.

“As I sat here looking at you,” I continued, I suddenly remembered the story of this shitty island. What I’m trying to say is this: A certain kind of shittiness, a certain kind of stagnation, a certain kind of darkness, goes on propagating itself with its own power in his own-self-contained cycle. And once it passes a certain point, no one can stop it—even if the person himself wants to stop it.”

I’m still trying to figure out Murakami’s antidote to the Noboru Watayas in the world and within ourselves. When I teach works of inner monstrosity–such as, say, Beowulf–I tell my students to pay close attention, not just to the monsters, but to what it takes to defeat the monsters. In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru must undergo an inner journey, guided by the love of his wife, to confront and overcome Noboru Wataya. There is meditation involved, along with a centering of and belief in the self, a refusal to be taken in by appearances, and dedication to saving another person. But that’s all a bit vague. When I gain further understanding, I’ll share it with you.

After all, if Toru Okada offers us a convincing way to defeat the Noboru Wataya who is the presumptive GOP nominee, we need to know what it is.

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Trump as a Haruki Murakami Villain

Wind-Up bird Chronicle


This fall for the first time I will be teaching a first year seminar on “The Existential Fantasies of Haruki Murakami.” I find Murakami to be a mesmerizing writer, as do a number of my students, and I want to figure out just how much substance he has. In rereading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998), one of my favorites, I was startled to come across a character who reminded me of Donald Trump.

Noboru Wataya is the brother-in-law of Okada, the protagonist, and early in the novel Okada suspects that he is behind the unexpected desertion of Okada’s wife Kumiko. It so happens that Noboru Wataya is indeed mixed up with her disappearance, but in a complex way that touches on the novel’s deepest themes.

Before getting into the details, I quote at length Okada’s description of Noboru Wataya. I believe you’ll find the extended passage worth it because, other than Trump being a businessman while Noboru Wataya is an economist, the two are similar. Both have an instinct for debate, know how to deliver killer putdowns, and instinctively sense “the direction of the wind.” Both operate out of a vision that has been “fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought,” and neither lets consistency nor the fact get in the way. Because neither has any core convictions, neither is vulnerable to attack and therefore each can “concentrate all his attention on pure acts of combat. He needed only to attack, to knock his enemy down.” Here’s the passage:

Once he got a taste of the world of mass media, though, you could almost see him licking his chops. He was good. He didn’t mind having a camera pointed at him. If anything, he even seemed more relaxed in front of the cameras than in the real world. We watched his sudden transformation in amazement. The Nobora Wataya we saw on television wore expensive suits with perfectly matching ties, and eyeglass frames of fine tortoiseshell. His hair had been done in the latest style. He had obviously been worked on by a professional. I had never seen him exuding such luxury before. And even if he had been outfitted by the network, he wore the style with perfect ease, as if he had dressed that way all his life. Who was this man? I wondered, when I first saw him. Where was the real Noboru Wataya?

In front of the cameras, he played the role of Man of Few Words. When asked for an opinion, he would state it simply, clearly, and precisely. Whenever the debate heated up and everyone else was shouting, he kept his cool. When challenged, he would hold back, let his opponent have his say, and then demolish the person’s argument with a single phrase. He had mastered the art of delivering the fatal blow with a purr and a smile. On the television screen, he looked far more intelligent and relatable than the real Noboru Wataya. I’m not sure how he accomplished this. He certainly wasn’t handsome. But he was tall and slim and had an air of good breeding. In the medium of television, Noboru Wataya had found the place where he belonged. The mass media welcomed him with open arms, and he welcomed them with equal enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t stand the sight of him—in print or on TV. He was a man of talent and ability, to be sure. I recognized that much. He knew how to knock his opponent down quickly and effectively with the fewest possible words. He had an animal instinct for sensing the direction of the wind. But if you paid close attention to what he was saying or what he had written, you knew that his words lacked consistency. They reflected no single worldview based on profound conviction. His was a world that he had fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought. He could rearrange the combination in an instant, as needed. These were ingenious—even artistic—intellectual permutations and combinations. But to me they amounted to nothing more than a game. If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established world view were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his grteat advantage to be free of such things.

 He had nothing to protect, which meant that he could concentrate all his attention on pure acts of combat. He needed only to attack, to knock his enemy down. Noboru Wataya was an intellectual chameleon, chasing his color in accordance with his opponent’s, ad-libbing his logic for maximum effectiveness, mobilizing all the rhetoric at his command. I had no idea how he had acquired these techniques, but he clearly had the knack of appealing directly to the feelings of the mass audience. He knew how to use the kind of logic that moved the great majority. Nor did it even have to be logic: it had only to appear so, as long as it aroused the feelings of the masses.

 Trotting out the technical jargon was another forte of his. No one knew what it meant, of course, but he was able to present it in such a way that you knew it was your fault if you didn’t get it. And he was always citing statistics. They were engraved in his brain, and they carried tremendous persuasive power, but if you stopped to think about it afterward, you realized that no one had questioned his sources or their reliability.

These clever tactics of his used to drive me mad, but I was never able to explain to anyone exactly what upset me so. I was never able to construct an argument to refute him.It was like boxing with a ghost: your punches just swished through the air. There was nothing solid for them to hit. I was shocked to see even sophisticated intellectuals responding to him. It would leave me feeling strangely annoyed.

And no Noboru Wataya came to be seen as one of the most intelligent figures of the day. Nobody seemed to care about consistency anymore. All they looked for on the tube were the bouts of intellectual gladiators; the redder the blood they drew, the better. It didn’t matter if the same person said one thing on Monday and the opposite on Thursday.

Noboru Wataya is more than just a hollow man or a chameleon, however. We come to learn that his power lies in his ability to get people to surrender to their worst impulses. His sister describes this as a kind of rape of the mind that robs one of one’s autonomy:

If it hadn’t been for you [her husband Okada], I would have lost my mind long ago. I would have handed myself over, vacant, to someone else and fallen to a point beyond hope of recovery. My brother, Noboru Wataya, did exactly that to my sister many years ago, and she ended up killing herself. He defiled us both. Strictly speaking, he did not defile our bodies. What he did was even worse than that.

The freedom to do anything at all was taken from me, and I shut myself up in a dark room alone. No one chained me down or set a guard to watch over me, but I could not have escaped. My brother held me with yet stronger chains and guards—chains and guards that were myself.

And further on, explaining how she came to lose her moral compass:

He may have opened some kind of drawer inside me, taken out some kind of incomprehensible something, and made me give myself to one man after another. My brother had that kind of power, and as much as I hate to acknowledge it, the two of us were surely tied together in some dark place.

Okada understands what Kumiko tells him because Noboru Wataya has had a similar effect on him. As he explains to another character,

Every time I talk to that guy, I get this incredibly empty feeling inside. Every single object in the room begins to look as if it has no substance to it. Everything appears hollow. Exactly why this should be, I could never explain to you with any precision. Because of this feeling, I end up saying and doing things that are simply not me. And I feel terrible about it afterward.

Okada could more accurately say that there are two “me’s”—Haruki’s fiction is filled with images of splitting—and the darker “me” continually threatens to take us over. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is particularly interested in the way that Murakami revisits Japan’s dark history, especially its 1931 invasion of Manchuria. As Murakami describes it, in the course of the occupation Japanese citizens do previously unthinkable things, such as (in the case of one sensitive man) executing a Chinese prisoner with a baseball bat.

A one point in the novel Okada himself, when assaulted, finds himself pummeling his assailant with a bat far more than is warranted once he has gained the upper hand. Noboru Wataya, we come to realize, is ourselves, our dark double. As Okada has it explained to him by a guide figure who has herself been mentally raped by Noboru Wataya,

“Noboru Wataya is a person who belongs to a world that is the exact opposite of yours,” said Creta Kano. Then she seemed to be searching for the words she needed to continue. “In a world where you are losing everything, Mr. Okada, Noboru Wataya is gaining everything. In a world where you are rejected, he is accepted. And the opposite is just as true. Which is why he hates you so intensely.”

And further on:

“Hatred is like a long, dark shadow. Not even the person it falls upon knows where it comes from, in most cases. It is like a two-edged sword. When you cut the other person, you cut yourself. The more violently you hack at the other person, the more violently you hack at yourself. It can often be fatal. But it is not easy to dispose of. Please be careful, Mr. Okada. It is very dangerous. Once it has taken root in your heart, hatred is the most difficult thing in the world to shake off.”

“And you were able to feel it, weren’t you?—the root of the hatred that was in Noboru Wataya’s heart.”

“Yes I was. I am,” said Creta Kano. “That is the thing that split my flesh in two, that defiled me, Mr. Okada.”

Of course, Donald Trump not yet goaded his followers into doing anything on the order of what the Japanese did in Manchuria. However, he has the ability to incite hatred and then he feeds on that hatred. He resembles Noboru Wataya in the way he separates people from their higher instincts and puts them in thrall to their lower ones. I think of an important blog essay written by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein in this regard.

Bernstein is taking issue with an essay written by his colleague Megan McArdle that attempts to absolve the GOP for the rise of Trump. Republicans, McArdle said, didn’t put racist and misogynist ideas in the heads of Trump supporters. They just grew there.

Bernstein disagrees:

[V]oters have all sorts of ideas in their heads: conservative, liberal, some of which would make for good policy, some which would not. Most of those ideas — healthy or toxic — are relatively loosely held, and many times no candidate or party elicits responses based on those particular views. 

The more some ideas are frozen out of politics — for better or for worse — the less they thrive “in peoples’ heads.” And, more important, only when politicians highlight those ideas do they escape from peoples’ heads and become political issues. Yes, neither Trump nor earlier Republican dog-whistlers created the audience they played to. But there are many potential audiences in the electorate. Politicians and political parties choose which ones to nurture — and are fairly held responsible for those choices. 

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is filled with images of sterility, symbolized by a dry well. Okada must go deep into that well—which is to say, deep into the Japanese unconscious—to face up to a dark history that eats away at Japanese society. America needs to do some deep well diving of its own.

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Memorial Day: I Am the Grass, I Cover All

Site of Pickett's Charge, Gettysburg

Site of Pickett’s Charge. The Battle of Gettysburg saw around 50,000 casualties.

Memorial Day

When I was a child, we had a record of Carl Sandburg singing a number of songs, including “The Hearse Song.” That’s the one with the line “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.” It was apparently popular in World War I and I can understand why: its gallows humor would have appealed to soldiers confronted with the horrors of trench warfare. Laughing at death is a means of coping with it.

I thought about that song as I revisited the well-known Sandburg poem that I share today. In “Grass” Sandburg again talks about death in a matter-of-fact manner, and again the outer stoicism masks deep grief. Nature appears indifferent when soldiers die and their loved ones mourn. The grass grows and we forget.

Memorial Day is important because it interrupts the smooth passage of time, pushing against forgetfulness. Here’s the poem:


By Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 
Shovel them under and let me work— 
                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 
Shovel them under and let me work. 
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 
                                          What place is this? 
                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 
                                          Let me work.

Another well-known poem/song that picks up on this theme—only with flowers rather than grass—is Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” 

As grimly fatalistic as both poems are, however, the two populist poets are surely aware of how another people’s poet deals with death and grass. In Song of Myself Walt Whitman assures us that, although we may die in our individual selves, we become part of a collective self. Death, in other words, is not an end but simply a transmutation into the filter and fibre of America. Here are the concluding lines to Whitman’s poem:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Imagine that those whom we memorialize today have stopped somewhere and are waiting for us.

Posted in Sandburg (Carl), Seeger (Pete), Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trapped in Spiritual Crisis? Read Donne

John Donne

John Donne

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s post is about how one of my students, an African American woman with a difficult childhood, found John Donne to be a kindred spirit. In the 17th century metaphysical poet she recognized her own religious struggling.

Delia (not her real name) has given me permission to tell her story. Her father left her family when she was young and her mother spent seven years in jail. Delia was raised by her grandparents, who brought her up in their Christian faith. After Delia’s mother was released, the family lived in a halfway house, and Delia was disappointed when the restored family didn’t live up to her dreams. Her sister ran away after a failed suicide attempt, and Delia also mentions neurosurgery and the death of a beloved pet. As a result, she found herself doubting God.

Her grandfather had told her many times “that I was blessed, that God has a plan for me, and that I’m here for a reason.” But he also indicated that only those who fully opened their hearts to God would go to heaven, leading to deep anxieties when Delia found herself plagued by doubts. The doubts began when, as a child, a cousin committed suicide and Delia’s grandfather couldn’t confidently tell Delia that the cousin was with God. The doubts grew when Delia became an adolescent and she found herself seriously worried that she was bound for hell:

As the years went on, I found it harder to believe the words that once gave me strength and courage to face life’s challenges. My demons multiplied daily and soon my light dimmed. By the age of twelve, I started questioning if my existence was truly necessary, and at the age of fourteen, suicidal thoughts plagued me every night. My anxieties, depression, fears, and faith did battle into the night as I curled up in my bed and cried myself to sleep.

By the time Delia reached college, she had come to believe that “God does not have a plan for me” and that “my life will always have meaningless suffering.” Even when she thought back to her childhood training and told herself that “that none of that was true,” she still “could not stop myself from thinking these negative, deadly thoughts.”

To sum up her situation, she couldn’t reconnect with her easy childhood faith and saw her doubts as evidence that she was pushing God away, thereby bringing down upon her head terrible consequences. To make matters worse, she blamed herself for complaining. That’s because she had been taught a version of Christianity that contained a (non-scriptural) strain of self-reliance:

Since childhood I had been taught that God only helps those that help themselves, those that do not expect God to do it all for them. I tried every day to do just that: stand on my own two feet and not complain.

In Donne’s Sonnets #5 and #9, Delia sees a man caught in a version of her own mind trap. Donne, like Delia, knows that God is merciful to those who surrender to Him, and, like Delia, he perceives his doubts getting in the way, thereby triggering God’s wrath. In Sonnet 9, he believes his treacherous mind is taking him to hell whereas mindless objects like poisonous minerals, the sin-inducing apple, lecherous goats, and envious serpents get a pass:

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on (else immortal) us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d, alas ! why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And, mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in His stern wrath why threatens He?

Donne concludes that he can’t fix himself and that God must intervene. Donne asks God to step in and take over, forgetting and helping Donne to forget his lack of faith:

But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee ?
O God, O !  of Thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin’s black memory.
That Thou remember them, some claim as debt ;
I think it mercy if Thou wilt forget.

Delia finds a mind trap also operating in Sonnet 5. It opens as follows:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.

Delia observes,

If one were to survey the world, one would find that these fears and anxieties are universal. Though John Donne’s internal battle for his eternal soul is not a unique endeavor, it is a grueling one nonetheless. The salvation of the soul is one of the hardest puzzles man will ever have to figure out but it all comes down to the mind. Through his sonnets, Donne’s struggle for dominance with his mind seems to be ongoing throughout his life, one that he tends to lose more often than not. The mind can be a powerful instrument and a useful ally, but it can also be the greatest enemy that any man will ever face.

Delia is somewhat consoled by how, at the end of both poems, Donne acknowledges that

despite his vast amount of knowledge, he knows absolutely nothing of God’s plans or thinking…At the end of Sonnet 9, he asks, “But who am I that dare dispute with thee O God?” as he admits [his ignorance]. In Sonnet 5 he asks that God “burn me…with a fiery zeal/Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.” He is admitting to both himself and God that he cannot find the power within himself to save himself, that he needs God’s helping hand to open his heart.

In other words, she is beginning to realize that she has divine assistance. She doesn’t have to entirely stand on her own two feet.

Delia concludes,

Much like John Donne, I was at war with my mind and how I perceived God, my life, and myself. No matter how hard I tried, nothing ever seemed to be good enough. Reading Donne’s poems felt much like looking in a mirror. The fears and anxieties that John Donne struggles with are universal, especially within the religious communities. Even so, Donne’s true battle is not with his faith but with himself.

Our students are often engaged in titanic spiritual struggles. When needed, our greatest poets step up to the plate.

Further thought: On Thursday I wrote about Yale English majors who were complaining about being required to take surveys of dead white male authors. I call Delia to testify for the defense.

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Resisting the Witchery of Nuclear Warfare

Obama embraces a Hiroshima survivor during his recent visit

Obama embraces a Hiroshima survivor during his recent visit


Today, in a historically significant moment, Barack Obama will be the first American president to visit Hiroshima. Only one country has ever dropped nuclear weapons on another, and Obama will be acknowledging that fact. In doing so, he will be walking a delicate line on a host of political and diplomatic fronts.

To honor the occasion, I look at the unique way that one of America’s greatest Native American authors regards the nuclear bomb. In her 1976 novel Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko of the Laguna Pueblo explains that it is the result of witchery.

The novel is about an Indian war veteran who returns to the United States after having survived the Bataan death march. During this 62 mile trek through the Philippines, 2,500–10,000 Filipino and 100–650 American prisoners of war died. Tayo, the protagonist, sees the Japanese kill his wounded cousin Rocky during the march, and he returns to the United States with an acute case of PTSD as well as survivor’s guilt.

Tayo visits two medicine men, who see him as victimized by the world’s witchery. As Pueblo culture sees it, witches are the source of evil in our lives. (The Judeo-Christian tradition, by comparison, attributes evil to Adam and Eve’s fall.) Why are Americans set against the Japanese and European Americans against Native Americans? Medicine man Betonie recounts a darkly humorous origins story in which we see a malevolent witch inventing white people to win the prize of “biggest baddest witch” at a witches convention. These white people invade the Americas, devastate the region environmentally, and invent the nuclear bomb.

Ceremony is about Tayo’s healing quest, which in the end becomes a healing quest for the entire world. We are all caught in the grip of “witchery,” and Silko wants to know what we can do to shake free. Tayo provides a model in the way he reconnects with the land. In the climactic finale, Silko tests how deep his healing goes by having him undergo a test at an abandoned uranium mine. The mine is one way in which the Pueblo are, at least indirectly, connected with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We learn, early on, that there should have been no racial animosity between the Japanese and the Native Americans because they are related. Tayo, ordered to shoot some Japanese prisoners, cannot do so because he believes he sees his uncle Josiah among them. Although he is diagnosed as having jungle fever, what he sees is later confirmed:

“The Japanese,” the medicine man went on, as though he were trying to remember something. “It isn’t surprising you saw him [Josiah] with them. You saw who they were. Thirty thousand years ago they were not strangers. You saw what the evil had done: you saw the witchery ranging as wide as this world.”

Betonie concludes his origins story by describing the invention of the atom bomb:

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

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

set into motion now
set into motion.

Betonie, who has seen the wider world, knows about atomic warfare. He is therefore better able to help Tayo than the more cloistered Ku’oosh, the tribal medicine man to whom Tayo first goes for help. Ku’oosh turns to ancient Pueblo rituals to cure Tayo’s PTSD and, in the process, asks him if he has killed anyone in the war. Tayo’s question– “what if I didn’t know I killed one?”–confuses Ku’oosh:

But the old man shook his head slowly and made a low humming sound in his throat. In the old way of warfare, you couldn’t kill another human being in battle without knowing it, without seeing the result, because even a wounded deer that got up and ran again left great clots of lung blood or spilled guts on the ground. That way the hunter knew it would die. Human beings were no different. But the old man would not have believed white warfare—killing across great distances without knowing who or how many had died. It was all too alien to comprehend, the mortars and big guns; and even if he could have taken the old man to see the target areas, even if he could have led him through the fallen jungle trees and muddy craters of torn earth to show him the dead, the old man would not have believed anything so monstrous. Ku’oosh would have looked at the dismembered corpses and the atomic heat-flash outlines, where human bodies had evaporated, and the old man would have said something close and terrible had killed these people. Not even oldtime witches killed like that.

In the finale at the uranium mine, Tayo has a chance to kill his old time nemesis Emo, a brutal Indian who is trying to kill him and, in the process, is torturing and killing other Indians. If Tayo is unable to resist the impulse to do so, then his healing will have failed and he will succumb to the witchery. He offers hope for all of us in that he is able to resist:

He moved back into the boulders. It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud…

Because of Tayo’s ability to avoid being caught up in the madness of violence, the witchery collapses in on itself: the four Indians who have been searching for him instead turn on each other. Tayo, meanwhile, returns to his community healed, and we are told that—at least for the moment—the witchery has been defeated. The book ends with this poem:

Whirling darkness
started its journey
with its witchery
its witchery
has returned upon it.

Its witchery
has returned
into its belly.

Its own witchery
has returned
all around it.

Whirling darkness
has come back on itself.
It keeps all its witchery
to itself.

It doesn’t open its eyes
with its witchery.

It has stiffened
with the effects of its own witchery.

It is dead for now.
It is dead for now.
It is dead for now.
It is dead for now.

And then:

accept this offering,

There are many ways, of course, in which the witchery is still alive, and the presumptive GOP nominee has even refused to disavow using nuclear weapons in the world’s conflicts. Obama, however, with his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons, is taking a tiny step against the witchery with his visit.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of such a step. Our only hope is to push back against the witchery in whatever form it takes.

Posted in Silko (Leslie Marmon) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Defending the Canon vs. New Attacks

Salomon Koninck, "An Old Scholar"

Salomon Koninck, “An Old Scholar”


Here’s a Slate article very much to my taste. In it, Katy Waldman responds to attacks by Yale students against its English curriculum:

Recently, the requirements for the Yale English major have come under fire. To fulfill the major as it currently stands, a student must take either the two-part “major English poets” sequence—which spans Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Eliot—or four equivalent courses on the same dead white men. Inspired in part by articles in the Yale Daily News and Down magazine, Elis have crafted a petition exhorting the college to “decolonize” its English curriculum. Their demands: abolish the major English poets cycle and revise the remaining requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.” “It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the letter concludes. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

Regular readers of this blog probably already know my response. Many canonical works speak to our deepest concerns, including those relating to “gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity,” and marginalizing them deprives us of vital resources. To borrow from Ben Jonson’s famous observation about Shakespeare, they are not of an age but of all time. Hardman points this out:

I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white. For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars. The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.    

I would take this a step further. Sometimes the power of older works arises from the very fact that the authors have to push against oppressive ideologies. Twelfth Night is particularly ingenious because homosexuality was a capital offense in the Renaissance. Shakespeare couldn’t talk directly about same sex attraction and transgender longings so he came up with a pearl of a disguise. Meanwhile, Sophocles in Antigone, Euripides in The Bacchae, and Chaucer in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale create towering women protagonists who stand out precisely because the societies in which they reside are suffocatingly patriarchal. One could even make the case that today’s female and queer protagonists seem lesser because they exist in a more tolerant society.

I’m giving a version here of Herbert Marcuse’s argument in One Dimensional Man. Marcuse argues that Flaubert is able to voice “the great refusal” to consumer capitalism through Emma Bovary’s suicide because the society was less tolerant of adultery. Today’s permissiveness, he says, defangs her protest. People nowadays wouldn’t think twice when she tried to fill up the emptiness of her life with lovers.

I don’t entirely agree with Marcuse, however, because to a degree he denigrates contemporary literature. We need writers to keep writing regardless of the conditions because literature helps us to know ourselves and know our world. I depend on Lucille Clifton’s insights into racism just as I rely on Beowulf to teach me about murderous resentment. Fortunately, because of the heroic struggles of various oppressed groups, we now have far more diversity amongst our authors than we used to. But we can’t just focus on the present or, looking at the past, pretend that Margery Kempe teaches us as much about humanity than Chaucer (and I say this as a Margery Kempe fan).

One place where I agree with the Yale students is the need for greater diversity in English departments. Waldman agrees as well:

Also, you’ve pointed elsewhere to some deplorable statistics: Of 98 English faculty members, only seven identify as nonwhite, and none identify as Hispanic or indigenous. Yale urgently needs to address the homogeny of its professorship, both for students’ sake and its own.  

Diverse authors and diverse faculties shake up the traditional canon, both by adding authors and by causing us to see old works in a new light. On the one hand, Virginia Woolf rediscovered Aphra Behn and Alice Walker rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston. On the other, Women’s Studies have prompted us to sympathize with Bertha Mason, and Queer Studies have gotten us to rethink all of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies. We no longer regard works by dead, white men the same way that we did when live white men men were doing most of the writing and teaching.

Waldman makes another important point, which is that, whatever Yale English majors think, practicing authors themselves do not denigrate the canon:

The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it. There is a clear line to Terrance Hayes (and Frank and Claire Underwood, and Lyon Dynasty) from Shakespeare. There is a direct path to Adrienne Rich (and Katniss Everdeen, and Lyra Belacqua) from Milton. (Rich basically says as much in “Diving into the Wreck.”) These guys are the heavies, the chord progressions upon which the rest of us continue to improvise, and we’d be somewhere else entirely without them.

Like Waldman, I applaud these students for challenging received wisdom. That’s their job as students. I’m always excited when people take literature seriously, even to attack it. I just don’t agree in this case.

The solution is both/and. And while I know there are only so many courses that students can take, Yale’s requirement of two surveys or four equivalent courses hardly sounds like an imposition. A major, after all, generally requires 11 or 12 courses. As Waldman points out, it’s not as if Yale is teaching only canonical courses:

Here is what I am not saying. I am not saying that Yale shouldn’t offer a rich panoply of courses on female writers, queer writers, writers with disabilities, and writers of color. And it does! In addition to featuring names like Elizabeth Bishop and Ralph Ellison in its survey classes, the course catalog presents such titles as “Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism,” “Race and Gender in American Literature,” “American Artists and the African American Book,” “The Spectacle of Disability,” “Asian American Literature,” “Chaucer and Discourses of Dissent,” “Postcolonial World Literature: 1945-present,” “Black Literature and U.S. Liberalism” … and I’m not even counting the cross listings with the comparative literature; American studies; and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies departments.

Moreover, I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male…

English majors who graduate from college without having encountered Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton or Wordsworth would be like math majors who graduate without having taken calculus. And just think of all the richness they would miss out on if these authors were not a part of their lives.

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

Pope Foresaw GOP Capitulation to Trump

by William Hoare, pastel, circa 1739-1784

William Hoare, “Alexander Pope”


If Donald Trump becomes America’s next president, it may be because the electorate has come to see the abhorrent as normal. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, warning against such normalization, has turned to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man to spell out how it happens.

Essay on Man is Pope’s ambitious attempt to make sense of humanity in all its contradictions. It was written for a more optimistic age, and Voltaire would satirize in Candide its assertion that “whatever is, is right.” However, as Harvard’s Helen Vendler notes in Poets Thinking, Pope is not setting forth a systematic philosophy but rather exploring ideas, and among his concerns is how we rationalize vice.

In the moments leading up to the passage quoted by Gopnik, Pope has been talking about how all of us are a blend of vice and virtue. In fact, the seven deadly sins, when practiced in moderation, are actually virtues. For instance:

See anger, zeal and fortitude supply;
Even avarice, prudence; sloth, philosophy;
Lust, through some certain strainers well refined,
Is gentle love, and charms all womankind;
Envy, to which th’ ignoble mind’s a slave,
Is emulation in the learned or brave

It thus can be difficult to determine that point at which virtue slides into vice:

As, in some well-wrought picture, light and shade,
And oft so mix, the difference is too nice
Where ends the virtue or begins the vice.

While conceding that it is sometimes difficult to determine where virtue leaves off and vice begins, however, Pope says it is still possible to distinguish between the two. In other words, he warns against moral relativism. Pope’s warning is timely since we see many asserting a false equivalence, arguing that Trump is no worse than the conventional Democrat Hillary Clinton. Gopnik quotes the passage to conclude his article:

Fools! who from hence into the notion fall,
That vice or virtue there is none at all.
If white and black blend, soften, and unite
A thousand ways, is there no black or white?
Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;
’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.

In other words, if you consult your heart you will know the difference between white and black, between right and wrong—and, I would add, between Clinton and Trump. It’s when you take time and effort (pain) to confuse or mistake them that you get into trouble.

Pope goes on to complicate the argument further. While our heart may know the difference, confusion can still occur for those who become overly familiar with vice. Gopnik opens his article with the following psychological description:

   Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

To sum it up, we know at first glance, by consulting our heart, what is right and what is wrong. But that first glance can be overridden by familiarity.

Gopnik outlines that many of Trump’s former opponents are following the Endure-Pity-Embrace model to reconcile with him:

The three-part process by which the gross becomes the taken for granted has been on matchlessly grim view this past week in the ascent of Donald Trump. First merely endured by those in the Republican Party, with pained grimaces and faint bleats of reluctance, bare toleration passed quickly over into blind, partisan allegiance—he’s going to be the nominee, after all, and so is our boy. Then a weird kind of pity arose, directed not so much at him (he supplies his own self-pity) as at his supporters, on the premise that their existence somehow makes him a champion for the dispossessed, although the evidence indicates that his followers are mostly stirred by familiar racial and cultural resentments, of which Trump has been a single-minded spokesperson.

Now for the embrace. One by one, people who had not merely resisted him before but called him by his proper name—who, until a month ago, were determined to oppose a man they rightly described as a con artist and a pathological liar—are suddenly getting on board. Columnists and magazines that a month ago were saying #NeverTrump are now vibrating with the frisson of his audacity, fawning over him or at least thrilling to his rising poll numbers and telling one another, “We can control him.”

To cite just one example of someone who has turned 180 degrees, former Texas Governor Rick Perry now wants to be Trump’s vice president. This after, last July, calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism” and accusing him of being a “sower of discord” who

foments agitation, thrives on division, scapegoats certain elements of society, and offers empty platitudes and promises. He is without substance when one scratches below the surface.

He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.

To those who think they can control Trump, Gopnik has a definitive answer:

No, you can’t. One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is. He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day. It is articulated in his insistence on the rightness of torture and the acceptable murder of noncombatants. It is self-evident in the threats he makes daily to destroy his political enemies, made only worse by the frivolity and transience of the tone of those threats. He makes his enmity to American values clear when he suggests that the Presidency holds absolute power, through which he will be able to end opposition—whether by questioning the ownership of newspapers or talking about changing libel laws or threatening to take away F.C.C. licenses. To say “Well, he would not really have the power to accomplish that” is to misunderstand the nature of thin-skinned authoritarians in power. They do not arrive in office and discover, as constitutionalists do, that their capabilities are more limited than they imagined. They arrive, and then make their power as large as they can.

And further on:

The American Republic stands threatened by the first overtly anti-democratic leader of a large party in its modern history—an authoritarian with no grasp of history, no impulse control, and no apparent barriers on his will to power. The right thing to do, for everyone who believes in liberal democracy, is to gather around and work to defeat him on Election Day. Instead, we seem to be either engaged in parochial feuding or caught by habits of tribal hatred so ingrained that they have become impossible to escape even at moments of maximum danger. 

Gopnik concludes by describing the long-term damage that Trump can do and the pain we will undergo if we don’t stop him:

The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate. Before those famous schoolroom lines, Pope made another observation, which was that even as you recognize that the world is a mixed-up place, you still can’t fool yourself about the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable: “Fools! who from hence into the notion fall/That vice or virtue there is none at all,” he wrote. “Is there no black or white? / Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain; / ’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.” The pain of not seeing that black is black soon enough will be ours, and the time to recognize this is now.

I have been a Democrat all my life, but if Trump were a Democrat running against Romney or McCain or one of the Bushes, I would vote Republican. There is no excuse for voting for Trump. Ask your own heart and nothing is so plain.

Further thought:

A Mary Oliver passage from “An Old Whorehouse” came to mind as I read Gopnik’s concerns about voters coming to accept Trump as normal. It’s about children exploring an abandoned brothel and excitedly imagining what occurred there. Perhaps they’re not unlike those who are titillated by Trump’s unconventional prescriptions and his political incorrectness. The poem concludes,

It would be years before
we’d learn how effortlessly

sin blooms, then softens,
like any bed of flowers.

Posted in Oliver (Mary), Pope (Alexander) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hillary Clinton as Emma Woodhouse

Gramola Garai as Emma Woodhouse

Gramola Garai as Emma Woodhouse


Are Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorability ratings due to 25 years of nonstop GOP criticism? A wonderful New York Times article about how some women are endorsing her in part because she has been relentlessly attacked has me thinking of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Hold on a moment and I’ll explain.

In the article, Elizabeth Word Gutting relates all that her mother had to go through when her husband died in 1973, leaving her without an income even as she had a child to support. In the years that followed, she experienced many of the indignities that single mothers often suffered at the time, including hiring discrimination, sexual harassment, and problems with credit card, insurance, and finance companies. Here’s what this woman sees in Clinton:

For the first time in her life, my mom sees someone who can directly relate to her own experiences in a strong position to become president. Mrs. Clinton has led so many charges during her political career that have supported women, including fighting relentlessly for reproductive rights and speaking up for women and girls worldwide when she was secretary of state.

The author then reflects upon the moment during the Iowa primary when a young Bernie supporter asked Clinton a patronizing question about her unpopularity:

At a town hall a few months ago, a young man asked Mrs. Clinton why young people lacked enthusiasm for her.

She sounded a bit wounded, but she tried to explain what she’d been up against for so many years. Despite all the criticisms, she said, over the course of several decades in the public eye, all she could do was continue to stand her ground.

Hillary’s ability to stand her ground is why both mother and daughter are enthusiastically supporting her. The article concludes,

I also love that she is always the last woman standing. She has survived ceaseless attacks. It must get very tiring, and yet she never flags. She has been called a bitch and a witch and characterized as Lady Macbeth. She’s shrill, she shouts, she barks. She’s uninspiring, she’s unlikable and she’s not exciting the base. Sometimes I think that many people in this country are still scared to see a powerful woman. But I am more ready for her than ever.

In the years when my mom was a single mother, people commented on her lifestyle with alarming frequency. Why wasn’t she living with her parents, they wanted to know. Wasn’t she worried that if she didn’t marry again soon, her son would grow up to be gay? Her landlord came over after her husband died, hemming and hawing, saying how sorry she was, but also that she was hoping my mom might move out to be closer to family, which would probably be better for everyone.

Well. My mother persevered. She smiled politely and bit her tongue and did what she had to do to survive those rough years.

Remind you of anyone?

Now imagine America quoting from George Knightley’s apologetic marriage proposal to Emma next November:

I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.

Like Knightley, we are lucky that she is willing to say yes.

To be sure, many of Knightley’s criticisms have been just. Handsome, clever, and rich Emma, like Hillary, is a flawed woman who is overly fond of getting her own way. She’s a snob and she has an irritating penchant for interfering in other people’s lives, sometimes to their detriment. Austen knew that she was taking a chance in creating the character and worried that readers would not warm up to her. (“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”)

Even though Emma rubs many people the wrong way, however, she also wants to do what is right. Like Hillary, she spends hours patiently listening to people talk about their problems, and, like Hillary, she is committed to helping indigent women in her community. She wouldn’t win any popularity contexts in Highbury, but the most exemplary man in the area sees her true worth and honors her.

So enough with the cheap shots. It’s fine to have policy differences with Hillary, but stop beating up on her for being a strong woman.

Further thoughts: If people are indeed linking Hillary with Lady Macbeth, it’s worth looking into the comparison. The strongest charge against Lady Macbeth (well, besides goading her husband to murder his king) is that she “unsexes” herself in order to achieve power. I suspect much of the animosity against Hillary is that she is not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave.

Here’s Lady Macbeth’s famous speech about choosing power over femininity:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! 

Yet, like Hillary, Lady Macbeth must hide her ambitions. Her version of the “chocolate chip cookie bakeoff” with Barbara Bush is playing nice when Macbeth wants to disguise his murderous intentions towards Banquo:

Lady Macbeth:
Come on;

Gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks;
Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night.

So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you:
Let your remembrance apply to Banquo;
Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue:
Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards [masks] to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


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