A Novel about Unexpected White Violence

kindred

Tuesday

I have been teaching Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) in my American Fantasy class and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As the body count of African Americans killed by police continues to climb, this time travel story of a modern black woman who suddenly finds herself subjected to slavery-era violence seems all too timely.

Nor is Kindred only about that. Because Dana has a white husband, the book is able to explore multiple levels of racial friction. There is no easy polarization between the races in this novel. Instead, we see how systemic racism impacts even a loving interracial marriage.

The plot goes as follows. Dana finds herself dragged back in time whenever one of her ancestors, a white slave owner named Rufus, faces death. She can return to the present only when she herself feels that she is in danger of dying. She makes six trips back in time, once with Kevin. (Anything she is touching goes with her.) While her own trips occur over a 20+ year interval, as in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books very little time elapses in 1976 America. This means that she first saves Rufus as a child in 1815 when he is on the verge of drowning and last leaves him when he is a plantation owner in the 1830s.

Dana, it turns out, has a blood connection with Rufus, which explains why he is able to call her back. She also knows which slave he must impregnate to start her line. If Rufus dies before giving birth to Dana’s ancestor, then presumably Dana won’t exist. (The 1985 movie Back to the Future has this plot element.)

Butler isn’t just being cute with these relationships, however. She is exploring how black-white and also black-black relationships are distorted by racism. Dana therefore has mixed feelings about Rufus, whom she sees as having potential. He is even redeemed to a degree by his love for an African American woman, a relationship that is of course impossible in this society. Unfortunately, he becomes increasingly cruel as he seeks to override his empathy.

Where the story really hits home is in the relationship between Dana and her white husband. When Dana is first dragged into the past and then returns, Kevin can’t believe what she has gone through. This is understandable, of course, but it is also an extreme version of how whites and blacks, even today, experience the world differently.

In fact, when Kevin accompanies Dana on one of her trips back, he sees the slave system as more benign than she does. After all, he’s dining with the master while she is witnessing slaves being whipped. Kevin may be an open-minded man—after all, he married an African American woman—yet we see numerous blindspots. At one point, for instance, he has romantic dreams about exploring the “Wild West” and has to be reminded by Dana that this history was less romantic for the Native Americans.

As the book continues, Dana sees unsettling similarities between Kevin and Rufus, including a desire to possess her. To Kevin’s credit, however, he spends the five years when they are separated (this in the 1820’s) working for the underground railroad and almost dying. He also deeply loves her and does all he can to get back to her. But there are things about her reality that he just can’t see.

Dana, meanwhile, has her own blindspots. For a long time, she judges one house slave severely for buying into the master’s agenda, not realizing that people must often make such compromises in order to survive. She herself is regarded with suspicion by the field slaves, and sometimes even the house slaves, for her relatively privileged position with regard to the master. Her challenge is to understand their reality. By the end of the novel, she has come closer.

One scene in particular resonated with the class. Never knowing when she will next be pulled back in time, Dana packs a kit of things that she will need to help her survive. (It is always tied to her waist so that she won’t leave it behind.) This, we said, is like African American youths going out in the world with a set of instructions in case they are stopped by the police. One never knows when one is going to be plunged into an entirely different reality.

St. Mary’s College at the moment is having an on-going series of discussions, workshops, panels, lectures, and other events to address diversity issues, so my students were particularly open to Kindred. We concluded that, like Dana and Kevin, we must have conversations that never stop.

White students (and faculty) require these conversations become they must become aware of the advantages of privilege, how we don’t need to worry about certain things. One of the best ways to become aware is to talk to students of color. The latter, very understandably, are often tired of having to educate white students about how their experiences are different. But as one African American student said to me, “It frustrates me that I always have to be the one to tell them—but then I figure that, if I don’t, they’ll never learn.”

I thanked her for her generosity and said that we all stood to gain if we work together. The Dana-Kevin marriage doesn’t have to founder on the rocks of systemic racism.

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On Broken Ceasefires, in Homer & in Syria

Bombed trucks that were carrying aid to Syrian civilians

Bombed trucks that were carrying aid to Syrian civilians

Monday

We had a few hopeful days as Russia and the United States appeared to have brokered a successful ceasefire in Syria. But that hope was shattered last Monday with the deliberate bombing of a 31-truck aid convoy taking food and supplies to civilians in Urum al-Kubra, currently controlled by the rebels. Once again the Syrian government and its Russian ally behaved like Hera and Athena in Book IV of The Iliad.

Zeus, who loves order, approves when the Greeks and the Trojans agree to a ceasefire. It appears that the Trojan War may finally come to an end, which is more than the recent ceasefire in Syria hoped to accomplish. Here’s Zeus proposing a cessation to the hostilities in the Robert Fitzgerald translation:

                        Let us then consider
how this affair may end; shall we again
bring on the misery and din of war,
or make a pact of amity between them?
If only all of you were pleased to see it,
life might go on in Priam’s town,
when Menelaos took Helen of Argos home.

As in Syria, however, there are forces resisting any accommodation:

At this proposal, Hera and Athena
murmured rebelliously. These two together
sat making mischief for the men of Troy
and though she held her tongue, a sullen anger
filled Athena against her father. Hera
could not contain her own vexation, saying:

“Your majesty, what is the drift of this?
How could you bring to nothing all my toil,
the sweat I sweated, and my winded horses,
when I called out that army to bear hard
on Priam and his sons?”

In response, Zeus tries to shame Hera. As in the case of the Syrian government, it is to no avail:

Coldly annoyed
the Lord Zeus, who drives the clouds of heaven,
answered,
                                                            “Strange one, how can Priam
and Priam’s sons have hurt you so
that you are possessed to see the trim stronghold
of Ilion plundered?
                                                            Could you breach the gates
and the great walls yourself and feed on Priam
with all his sons, and all the other Trojans,
dished up raw, you might appease this rage!”

To restore peace to his household, however, Zeus agrees to let Hera and Athena have their way. Athena’s version of the Syrian bombing is to disguise herself as a Trojan and convince the archer Pandaros to take a shot at Menelaos:

                                                         Son of Lykaon,
I have in mind an exploit that may tempt you,
tempt a fighting heart. Have you the gall
to send an arrow like a fork of lightning
home against Menelaos? Every Trojan
heart would rise, and every man would praise you,
especially Alexandros [Paris], the prince–
you would be sure to come by glittering gifts
if he could see the warrior, Menelaos,
the son of Atreus, brought down by your bow,
then bedded on a dolorous pyre!

That’s how ceasefires get broken: someone, seeing an advantage to be gained, takes a shot and we’re back to blood and slaughter. That there are malevolent gods playing upon our worse impulses makes as much sense as any other explanation.

While The Iliad glorifies heroism, it has also been described as one of history’s great anti-war texts. In Book IV, Homer gets us to long for peace and then shows us the perversity that puts it out of reach.

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I Am Lazarus Come Back from the Dead

Leandro Bassano, the Rich Man and Lazarus

Leandro Bassano, “Lazarus and the Rich Man”

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve have only just realized that the “Lazarus” mentioned in T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is not Mary and Martha’s brother, the man whom Jesus brings back from the dead. Rather, he is the Lazarus mentioned in today’s Gospel reading about the rich man in hell.

This is not news to Eliot scholars, but it certainly has me looking at Prufrock in a slightly different light. I now regard the speaker as even more hopeless than I did before. Here’s the passage from Luke (16: 19-31):

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock is frustrated that his society cannot see its emptiness. As someone who experiences this emptiness only too keenly, he imagines himself returning—as the rich man wants Lazarus to return—to wake his society up. Here’s the relevant stanza:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all.” 

Note that Prufrock is already talking himself out of causing a scene. The Biblical passage gives him an excuse for his inactivity. After all, Abraham tells the rich man that a Lazarus visit wouldn’t do any good anyway. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Prufrock will go on to compare himself, not to Prince Hamlet, but to the “easy tool” Polonius. So he’s certainly not going to put himself up there with Moses and the prophets.

Prufrock’s very decision to quote this Biblical passage means that he has already decided that his word won’t do any good. That’s why he can so easily imagine the woman putting him down. He has given up before he’s even started.

In his later Christian poetry, Eliot will focus on leaving the society of the rich man and attaining the faith of Lazarus. It’s as though, through poems like Prufrock, “The Hollow Men,” “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land, he is coming face to face with the sterility of a world without faith. Once he realizes that there is nothing to be gained by this path, he turns his eyes towards Lazarus with the angels.

Further note: Having just taught Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in my “Existential Fantasies of Haruki Murakami” seminar, I can’t help but hear the Inquisitor responding to Jesus with the critique, “You can’t ask people to follow Your hard road without providing them with miracles to help them. Lazarus coming back from the dead would be a miracle and would aid those who are not as strong as You. Instead, you demand that they rely only on faith, just as you will later say to Doubting Thomas, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ You may appear to be kind and caring, Jesus, but your program is too harsh for humanity.”

As someone who is optimistic about human potential, I want to counter that Jesus was right to have faith in us and that we are indeed capable of rising to the occasion. After all, hasn’t Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as an advocate with the Father to help us.  Ivan Karamazov, however, forces me to question whether this is just an article of faith. Can I back it up with empirical evidence?

Correction: Reader William McKeachie sent in a slight correction. Jesus told his disciples that he would be their advocate with the Father in heaven and would communicate with them through the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are not as dependent on their own resources as Ivan claims. Ivan is operating through a secular humanist model and discounting the power of divine love. When we open ourselves to God’s love, much that seemed hard becomes suddenly easy.

The brilliance of Brothers Karamazov lies partly in the Ivan-Alyosha debate. By telling the story at one point about the suffering undergone by various children, Ivan serves as a corrective to facile faith. The novel ends, however, with the beauty and strength of Alyosha’s vision. Ivan, meanwhile, goes mad.

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Black Lives Mattered to Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Friday

When normal words fail, poetry steps in. After two more police shootings of unarmed and innocent black men—which led to riots in Charlotte and Colin Kaepernick-style kneel-down protests all over the country—The New York Times devoted a full page to a Langston Hughes poem. It is a reminder, to those who need a reminder, that African Americans deserve the same respect as all other Americans. In other words, Black Lives Matter Too:

I, Too

By Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America. 

I am the darker brother. 
They send me to eat in the kitchen 
When company comes, 
But I laugh, 
And eat well, 
And grow strong. 

Tomorrow, 
I’ll be at the table 
When company comes. 
Nobody’ll dare 
Say to me, 
“Eat in the kitchen,” 
Then. 

Besides, 
They’ll see how beautiful I am 
And be ashamed— 

I, too, am America.

The “too” is a reference to Walt Whitman and his poem “I Hear America Singing.” I like how Hughes pairs a warning—the speaker talks about being so strong that no one will dare to relegate him to the kitchen—with a positive incentive: once you know me, you’ll see “how beautiful I am.” Among racism’s deep tragedies is that we miss out on a lot of human beauty.

One encounters only the threat in Hughes’s well-known and very angry poem “Harlem,” which my novelist friend Rachel Kranz sent me while watching the Charlotte riots:

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred? 

      Does it dry up 
      like a raisin in the sun? 
      Or fester like a sore— 
      And then run? 
      Does it stink like rotten meat? 
      Or crust and sugar over— 
      like a syrupy sweet? 

      Maybe it just sags 
      like a heavy load. 

      Or does it explode?

You know that African Americans are ready to explode when even conservative Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee and an African American, vents his frustrations about the recent shootings. Here’s my loose transcription of what he said on MSNBC’s Hardball Wednesday night:

There is this growing view in the black community that we’re no longer perceived as human beings, that when a cop comes up to us, approaches us, they’re reactionary, they don’t see us as non-threatening, they see us automatically as a threat. That is not a perception for black people. That is a reality.

You do what they tell you to do—you put your hands up, you get shot. You’re handcuffed and you get shot. You’re down on the ground and they’re standing on your neck and you get shot. You’re in the back of a police wagon and you wind up dead. So you tell me what environment is safe for an African American male when it comes to contact with the police.

And:

I no longer know if telling my kids to…turn the light on in the car, roll the windows down, do everything the officer tells you to—if it’s going to come out on a good end or a negative end. That is the frustration that you hear expressed more and more openly by black folks. You tell me what we need to do and we’ll do that.

Until police departments learn to see black citizens as beautiful people, we are going to see continued explosions.

Added note: There is some dispute over whether Keith Lamont Scott, the man shot in Charlotte, was carrying a book (as his relatives say) or a gun (as the police say). So he may not have been unarmed. But as Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson points out, North Carolina is an “open carry” state, meaning that citizens are allowed to carry guns. Or as Robinson observes, they are if they are white.

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You Never Did the Kenosha Kid

GOP Chair and "Kenosha operative" Reince Priebus

GOP Chair and “Kenosha political operative” Reince Priebus

Thursday

 A tiny little kerfuffle in the GOP is giving me an excuse to revisit about the only thing I remember from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read back in the 1970s. The dust-up involves a top aide of Ohio governor John Kasich calling GOP chair Reince Priebus a “Kenosha political operative.” Someone from or associated with Kenosha also shows up in an extended riff that Pynchon executes upon a sequence of six words:

you never did the Kenosha kid

Priebus, who is indeed from Kenosha, Wisconsin, threatened sanctions against Kasich and other of Donald Trump’s primary opponents who are refusing to endorse him. The threat led Kasich’s chief strategist John Weaver to retort that his boss “will not be bullied by a Kenosha political operative that is unable to stand up for core principles or beliefs.” (I agree that Priebus has no core principles or beliefs.)

In Gravity’s Rainbow, World War II American serviceman Tyrone Slothrop has been fed truth serum to figure out why his sexual trysts always occur at points where German V2 rockets will land 24 hours later. Pynchon’s thematic point, like Stanley Kubrick’s in Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Love the Bomb, is that orgasmic explosions followed by death (or “the little death”) link missiles and sexual intercourse.

As he fights through his serum-induced haze, Slothrop imagines different contexts, word meanings, and punctuation for the sequence of words. It’s a very Joycean exercise (as in Finneghan’s Wake) and may also have been inspired by Joseph Heller’s riff on John Milton and Washington Irving in Catch 22. I must admit that such language play is not really my thing. I prefer my words to be a bit more stable and my referent points a bit more grounded.

I see Slothrup’s riff as applicable to the RNC’s Kenosha Kid, however. Priebus is leading a post policy party (whatever Obama’s for, they’re against it), which finds its ultimate articulation in Trump’s ability to embrace a wide variety of contradictory positions. For instance, he can be the nation’s leading birther for five years and then, in an instant, accuse Hillary Clinton of founding birtherism and applauding himself for ending it. Even worse, Priebus, Mike Pence, and various Trump surrogates repeat his contortions. Accountability, apparently, is for wimps.

In such an environment, words are infinitely malleable. Or to use another analogy, they slip their halters and run wild and free, as they do in Pynchon’s riff. There are nine variations or sub-variations:

(1) Slothrop imagines sending a letter to “the Kenosha Kid” asking, “Did I ever bother you, ever, for anything, in your life?” and hearing back,

You never did.
The Kenosha Kid

Next he imagines four interchanges:

(2) Smartass youth: Aw, I did all them old-fashioned dances, I did the “Charleston,” a-and the “Big Apple,” too!

Old veteran hoofer: Bet you never did the “Kenosha,” kid!

(2.1) S.Y.: Shucks, I did all them dances, I did the “Castle Walk,” and I did the “Lindy,” too!

O.V.H.: Bet you never did the “Kenosha Kid.”

(3) Minor employee: Well, he has been avoiding me, and I thought it might be because of the Slothrop Affair. If he somehow held me responsible —

Superior (haughtily): You! never did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you …

(3.1) Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you … ?

The next variation imagines the Kenosha Kid as a god who hands down language to humankind but forgets the word “the”:

(4) And at the end of the mighty day in which he gave us in fiery letters across the sky all the words we’d ever need, words we enjoy today, and fill our dictionaries with, the meek voice of little Tyrone Slothrop, celebrated ever after in tradition and song, ventured to filter upward to the Kid’s attention: “You never did ‘the,’ Kenosha Kid!”

The next variation turns “kid” into a sentence-ending verb:

(5) Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.

Then there is “kid” as a baby goat that is to be sacrificed:

(6) (The day of the Ascent and sacrifice. A nation-wide observance. Fats searing, blood dripping and burning to a salty brown…) You did the Charlottesville shoat, check, the Forest Hills foal, check. (Fading now…) The Laredo lamb, check. Oh-oh. Wait. What’s this, Slothrop? You never did the Kenosha kid. Snap to, Slothrop.

Finally, in the strangest dialogue of all, Slothrop imagines some dark nebulous figure called Never “doing”—as in busting or even killing—the Kenosha Kid. Will Slothrop be next?

(7) In the shadows, black and white holding in a panda-pattern across his face, each of the regions a growth or mass of scar tissue, waits the connection he’s traveled all this way to see. The face is as weak as a house-dog’s, and its owner shrugs a lot.

Slothrop: Where is he? Why didn’t he show? Who are you?

Voice: The Kid got busted. And you know me, Slothrop. Remember? I’m Never.

Slothrop (peering): You, Never? (A pause.) Did the Kenosha Kid?

Does this make you feel better about the somewhat dull policy wonk that Trump is running against? At least you know what her positions are.

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I Am Trump, the Great and Powerful!

Denslow, the Wizard of Oz exposed

William Denslow, the Wizard of Oz exposed

Wednesday

This past Friday Americans got to play a scene from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, complete with a collapsing screen. Or in this case, a collapsing backdrop.

As you no doubt have heard, Trump flimflammed everyone with his announcement of a press conference where he would retract the lie about President Obama’s birthplace that he has been peddling for the past seven years. While he did indeed retract the lie, he replaced it with two others: 1) that he stopped his birther claims after Obama produced his long form Hawaiian birth certificate and 2) that Hillary Clinton originated birtherism.

The “press conference,” meanwhile, was instead an opportunity to a) showcase a new Trump hotel and b) parade a number of military figures, some of them birthers, who are supporting him. Even cynical reporters were taken aback by Trump’s utter contempt for them. But as evidence that the gods weren’t entirely willing to let the incident go, here’s the New York Times reporting on the event’s conclusion:

Mr. Trump took no questions after his remarks about Mr. Obama. As reporters shouted questions, he smiled and left the room.

Not long after, the structure holding up the curtain that had provided a backdrop for his remarks collapsed, sending American flags toppling to the ground.

Which brings us to the moment where “the Great and Terrible Oz” is exposed:

“You must keep your promises to us!” exclaimed Dorothy.

The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice. “But don’t strike me–please don’t–and I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Upon reflection, the Wizard of Oz parallel is even more accurate than I first realized. Trump too can collapse when people stand up to him. Reporters noted how passive and meek he was when meeting with the Mexican president, and he quickly backed off of his bluster when a black woman pastor in Flint, Michigan stopped him from bashing Clinton in her church. In each instance, Trump regained his bravado in recounting the episode afterwards, but that’s the way it is with bullies. They are great and terrible until someone knocks over the screen.

Further thought: There is one significant difference between the Wizard of Oz and Trump. When caught out, Oz at least admits that he’s a humbug whereas Trump doubles down. Trump interviewers can only dream of having a moment like the following:

“Making believe!” cried Dorothy. “Are you not a Great Wizard?”

“Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”

“And aren’t you?” she asked.

“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”

“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”

“Exactly so!” declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. “I am a humbug.”

The backdrop collapses as MSNBC's Katy Tur reports

The backdrop collapses as MSNBC’s Katy Tur reports

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A Poem in Praise of Libraries

Abbey library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Abbey library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Tuesday 

Norman Finkelstein, my best friend in graduate school, has just sent me his recently published New and Selected Poems (Dos Madres Press, 2016). The collection bears the marvelous title The Ratio of Reason to Magic, and while I have to admit that many of Norman’s poems are engaged in conversations that I am not privy to, a few hit home. I’ve written about my favorite one here–it’s a meditation on the Pan scene in The Wind in the Willows–and today I share the best poem I’ve ever read about libraries. “Open to the Future” is a poem written to honor the anniversary of a 175-year-old Cincinnati library.

If the quotation marks are any indication, Norman has folded into the poem some passages he found from the Mercantile Library’s early founding documents. In so doing, he captures a number of paradoxes about libraries.

For instance, they look both backwards and forwards, preserving past books and encouraging future books. Books are time-bound ( “a rubber stamp stamping the date”) and they are timeless. Although the institution was established by “earnest, responsible” men (“not a college-bread man among them”) on pragmatic principles (“to extend our information upon mercantile and other subjects of general utility”), it was first run by a librarian named Doolittle. (I’m sure that Norman is tickled by the fact that Doolittle ran the Mercantile Library. I think of William Butler Yeats’s observation in “Adam’s Curse” that the poet is regarded at an “idler” by “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.”) The business end of the library seems at odds with those who wander in the stacks and who have “succumbed to a peculiar disease” called “archive fever.” Among those suffering from the disease are decidedly unpragmatic

bookmen and penmen,
commentators and scribes,

Talmudists and scholiasts,
philosophes and exegetes,

romancers and poets
of a certain age.

The poem ends with a few more paradoxes. The very way that the archives are set up may point to the way that life used to be lived—and yet it is also true that

The archivist
produces more archive,

and that is why the archive
is never closed.

As he dives into the archives, the poet both acknowledges literary tradition (“the law and its interpretation”) and resists it in order to make something new. The library signals continuity (“in the future/as in the past”) and it signals change (“in the future/not as in the past”). It awaits the book that “remains to be written/to be housed/ to be read.”

The closing lines sum up the paradoxes. The library is, on the one hand, “historical and historicizing” and, on the other, “opening to the future.” It is “taking place” and it is “commencing.”

Here’s the poem:

Open to the Future

In honor of the 175th anniversary of the Mercantile Library, Cincinnati, Ohio

1.

The library
is the history of the library

The book
is the history of the book

The lecturer
delivers the lecture

And the gentleman reads
in the armchair by the lamp

And the ladies’ lounge
and the card catalogue

The stacks
and the wrought iron stairs

The rubber stamp
stamping the date

The clock and the calendar
and the word in time

The word in the book
goes forward in time

Though the young merchant
holds it fast

Clings to it
as he clings to his bride

In the hour after
they read to each other

When supper is over
and the street falls still

2.

“…to adopt the most efficient means
to facilitate mutual intercourse;

to extend our information
upon mercantile and other subjects

of general utility;

to promote a spirit of useful inquiry
and qualify ourselves to discharge

with dignity,
the duties of our professions

and the social offices of life.”

3.

Earnest, responsible,
–“not a college-bred
man among them”–

their determination powered
by a fierce, ambitious joy–
subscriptions of $1800

700 books purchased
and a librarian named Doolittle
paid $200 a year–

Catalogue this discourse
between chronicle and paean
between monograph and song.

4.

I long ago succumbed
to a peculiar disease

relatively rare
but still to be found

among bookmen and penmen,
commentators and scribes,

Talmudists and scholiasts,
philosophes and exegetes,

romancers and poets
of a certain age.

The sage has labeled it
archive fever:

to acknowledge and to resist
the law and its interpretation

in the place where it is housed
in the house that is its place.

5.

“What is no longer archived
in the same way

is no longer lived
in the same way.”

Yet

“The archivist
produces more archive,

and that is why the archive
is never closed.”

6.

So that in the future
as in the past

So that in the future
not as in the past

the book remains to be written

to be housed
to be read.

The library
“opens to the future”

historical and historicizing
but opening to the future

commencing

taking place.

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Trump’s Pleasure Dome (with Caves of Ice)

Trump Tower in Chicago

Trump Tower in Chicago

Monday

I can think of few political slogans that capture the heart of a presidential campaign as well as “build that wall.” While the literal wall that Donald Trump wants to build would supposedly keep undocumented workers out of the country, the slogan also works metaphorically. It is a wall between “us” and “them,” with “us” as whites and “them” as people of color. There’s a reason why Trump’s crowds chant it. Increasingly, so do race-baiting students, in class and at sporting events.

I still think the best literary exploration of walls is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (see my post on that here), but another powerful meditation on “walls and towers” is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The poem is particularly applicable to Trump as Kubla Khan is also a builder of impressive buildings, the “stately pleasure-dome” being his version of Trump Tower.

Kubla Khan’s decision to wall in the magnificent gardens and ancient forests appears to be a hubristic assertion of control:

So twice five miles of fertile ground 
With walls and towers were girdled round; 
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, 
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; 
And here were forests ancient as the hills, 
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 

It becomes clear, however, that Kubla Khan doesn’t actually control the gardens and forests. To psychologize using Trump, the need to dominate reveals an underlying insecurity, as do boasts of manly prowess. Kubla Khan’s walls and towers are nothing compared to “that deep romantic chasm” and its “mighty fountain.”

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river. 

The river has the potency that Trump claims for himself. But because Kubla Khan has sought to assert his dominance, the potential life affirming forces of nature turn sterile. The sunny pleasure dome, for all its appearance of solidity and triumph, is undercut by the waves and the lifeless ocean/caves of ice that underlie it.

Put in Freudian terms, Khan has sought to impose his will by repressing the forces of the unconscious, and the result is sterility and psychosis:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war! 

The more Donald Trump tries to bully and subdue, the more all becomes dead and corrupt. Trump Tower may appear as an object of desire, but at its core are sterile caves of ice.

   The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
   Floated midway on the waves; 
   Where was heard the mingled measure 
   From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! 

Put another way (to quote from Bob Dylan), Trump “took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste.”

The poem ends with the poet trying to articulate the contradiction that he sees, an apparently powerful figure who is, at his core, empty. I don’t know if it will take a poet with flashing eyes and floating hair to expose the Trump’s hollow core, but somebody needs to do it fast.

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My Blind Eyes Were Touched with Light

Patty Duke in "The Miracle Worker"

Patty Duke as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”

Spiritual Sunday

I didn’t know that Helen Keller wrote poetry until I came across “In the Garden of the Lord.” Images of the light of Christ—captured in “Amazing Grace” by the line “Was blind but now I see”—take on extra power when the speaker is literally blind. When Keller talks of her blind eyes being touched with light and then follows it up with an account of touching fruits and flowers and feeling the wind on her face, one gets that she is experiencing God with all her being.

In the Garden of the Lord

By Helen Keller

The word of God came unto me,
Sitting alone among the multitudes;
And my blind eyes were touched with light.
And there was laid upon my lips a flame of fire.

I laugh and shout for life is good,
Though my feet are set in silent ways.
In merry mood I leave the crowd
To walk in my garden. Ever as I walk
I gather fruits ad flowers in my hands.
And with joyful heart I bless the sun
That kindles all the place with radiant life.
I run with playful winds that blow the scent
Of rose and jessamine in eddying whirls.

At last I come where tall lilies grow,
Lifting their faces like white saints to God.
While the lilies pray, I kneel upon the ground;
I have strayed into the holy temple of the Lord.

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Trump, “FDA Food Police,” & The Jungle

the-jungle-upton-sinclair

Friday

One of Donald Trump’s favorite targets is “overregulation,” and yesterday he went after food inspections and “the FDA food police.” This gives me the opportunity to talk a novel that very tangibly made our lives better. After Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) described what was happening in the meat packing industry, Congress went to work and required rigorous health inspections.

Now Trump wants to turn the clock back. As The Hill reported yesterday,

Donald Trump floated rolling back food safety regulations if he wins the White House in November.

In a fact sheet posted online Thursday, the campaign highlighted a number of “specific regulations to be eliminated” under the GOP nominee’s economic plan, including what they called the “FDA Food Police.”

The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food,” it read.

“The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when,” the statement continued. “It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”

“Inspection overkill” was not the problem in 1906. Although Sinclair wanted to alert people to the plight of U.S. workers, he observed that his book created a sensation “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” Passages such as the following stirred public outrage:

With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest—that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.

Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose. In the pickling of hams they had an ingenious apparatus, by which they saved time and increased the capacity of the plant—a machine consisting of a hollow needle attached to a pump; by plunging this needle into the meat and working with his foot, a man could fill a ham with pickle in a few seconds. And yet, in spite of this, there would be hams found spoiled, some of them with an odor so bad that a man could hardly bear to be in the room with them. To pump into these the packers had a second and much stronger pickle which destroyed the odor—a process known to the workers as “giving them thirty per cent.” Also, after the hams had been smoked, there would be found some that had gone to the bad. Formerly these had been sold as “Number Three Grade,” but later on some ingenious person had hit upon a new device, and now they would extract the bone, about which the bad part generally lay, and insert in the hole a white-hot iron. After this invention there was no longer Number One, Two, and Three Grade—there was only Number One Grade. The packers were always originating such schemes—they had what they called “boneless hams,” which were all the odds and ends of pork stuffed into casings; and “California hams,” which were the shoulders, with big knuckle joints, and nearly all the meat cut out; and fancy “skinned hams,” which were made of the oldest hogs, whose skins were so heavy and coarse that no one would buy them—that is, until they had been cooked and chopped fine and labeled “head cheese!”

It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast. Some of it they would make into “smoked” sausage—but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it “special,” and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.

Be wary of those want to take America back to the “good old days.” We may not like what we’d be taken back to.

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For Hillary, Witch Hunts Never End

the-crucible

Thursday

In recently hacked and then leaked e-mails, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was revealed to have confided to his successor Condoleezza Rice that the Congressional Benghazi investigations of Hillary Clinton were a “witch hunt.” Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post says the same thing about the right wing’s health accusations although in a more indirect way: she alludes to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Petri is focused on the conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, which have long been circulating and which, as her Washington Post centrist columnist Ruth Marcus has complained, actually are a coded way of saying that it takes someone with a man’s stamina to be president. It’s unfortunate that Clinton’s recent bout of walking pneumonia suddenly appeared to give credence to the wingnuts

Petri begins her column by mentioning all of the rumors that have been flying:

Let us suppose, for a moment, that everything we have ever heard about Hillary Clinton’s health is true.

She has had multiple strokes. Also, she has multiple sclerosis.

She depends upon a stool.

She has Parkinson’s. And HIV.

She might or might not have asthma.

She has one year left to live.

There are at least two so-called Hillary Clintons. One is a body double. Both wear adult diapers, which accounts for the shape of their garments, but they are not very subtle about it, so that many YouTube users were able to notice and comment.

She is constantly suffering from seizuresblackouts, falls and collapses.

She has unspecified heart trouble.

She has lupus.

Also, “there’s special needs there” (Rep. Louie Gohmert’s words, not mine) and the only way to help her is through the power of prayer.

(This is probably just one of the many pernicious side effects of taking an extraterrestrial as a lover.)

The fact that Donald Trump regularly cites some of these conspiracy theorists and has hired others that run their columns in their publications means that we can’t laugh them off quite as easily as we might have in other times.

And now, here are Petri’s allusions to Miller’s play:

If we really want to feel at ease about what is going on with Hillary Clinton’s health, as well as about those rumors that her glance can curdle milk, that the cat Socks was her long-term familiar, and that Trump looks the way he does because Clinton once looked at him with the Evil Eye and will not allow his virile member to return to him, there is only one approach to take.

We must test her correctly. She must be placed upon a ducking stool, then weighed against a sack of Bibles, and then we must hear Giles Corey’s testimony against her. We must learn: Does soaking a cake in her urine and feeding it to a dog cause her to cry out in pain? Does her body bear the Devil’s Teat? Does she mutter to herself? Did Abigail see her dance in the glen with the Lord Beelzebub, then fly off into the night with a loud cry?

To give you a taste of the judges, here’s the death pronouncement from Chief Judge Thomas Danforth in Miller’s play. We have been hearing a lot of his harshness and self-righteousness from Hillary’s accusers:

Now hear me, and beguile yourselves no more. I will not receive a single plea for pardon or postponement. Them that will not confess will hang. Twelve are already executed; the names of these seven are given out, and the village expects to see them die this morning. Postponement now speaks a floundering on my part; reprieve or pardon must cast doubt upon the guilt of them that died till now. While I speak God’s law, I will not crack its voice with whimpering. If retaliation is your fear, know this—I should hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law, and an ocean of salt tears could not melt the resolution of the statutes.

Back to Clinton. Maybe her recent illness just proves that she’s human. Given the way she kept circling the globe as Secretary of State, how she stood up against relentless Congressional questioning for hour after hour, how she has campaigned relentlessly for months, we may have found ourselves thinking that she did indeed have supernatural powers. Instead we learned that (in the opinion of moderate conservative Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post) Hillary, as a woman, didn’t feel that she had the luxury of calling in sick and so tried to push through. And came up short.

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Solace for Vets from Sophocles

Antonio Zanchi, "The Death of Ajax"

Antonio Zanchi, “The Death of Ajax”

Wednesday

Here’s a New Yorker story that confirms this blog’s deepest claims for literature: a group has been doing dramatic readings of Greek tragedies in order to reach out to veterans suffering from PTSD.

Robin Wright reports attending a dramatic reading of Sophocles’s Ajax on the eve of 9/11, along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a couple of hundred military officers and veterans and their families. Here’s what she witnessed:

They were rapt when the Emmy-winning actor Reg E. Cathey wailed in agony onstage, as Ajax, a great Greek warrior overcome with guilt, madness, and suicidal rage during the ninth year of the Trojan War. In a blind fury, Ajax slayed all the cows and sheep around him, believing they were the commanders who had betrayed him and his honor. He turned his home into a blood-strewn slaughterhouse. When he came to, he was overcome with shame.

“When a man suffers without end in sight, and takes no pleasure in living his life, day by day wishing for death, he should not live out all his years,” Ajax moaned. Tears flowed down his cheeks—and the play was only a reading. Moments later, Cathey enacted Ajax’s suicide. “No more talk of tears,” Ajax said. “It’s time,” and he lunged onto his sharpened sword.

Wright observes,

The ancient Greeks, who lived in the world’s first militarized democracy, at one point faced war on six fronts. They understood the toxic costs of conflict. Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides wrote tragedies about the human spirit shattered, corrupted, and abused by war. Sophocles, who was also a long-serving general, wrote Ajax. Catharsis was so integral to Greek military life that war tragedies were performed during annual theatre festivals for seventeen thousand troops, from lowly cadets to commanders, writes the author and director Bryan Doerries, in his 2015 book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.

The article then sets forth the devastating statistics indicating why the plays are still crucial:

Sixty per cent of veterans from the most recent wars now suffer a mental-health issue related to their military service, according to a survey, in May, by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Forty per cent have contemplated suicide—at least once. Twenty veterans kill themselves every day, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported in July, from the first comprehensive study of military suicides. The study scoured fifty-five million veterans’ records, from 1979 to 2014. (Suicides among female veterans increased by eighty-five per cent over that period.) Those figures do not include suicides among active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, which began to increase in 2005.

The idea for the dramatic readings was Bryan Doerries, who runs the group Theater of War and who has translated Ajax and Philoctetes, also by Sophocles. Here’s an account of performing the latter play:

At the 9/11 reading of the plays, David Strathairn, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, portrayed Philoctetes, an injured warrior abandoned on an island by his own forces. “Earth, swallow this body whole, receive me just as I am, for I can’t stand it any longer!” he screeched, pleading. The pain “cuts straight through me. I am being eaten alive.” He depended on “a special herb” to diminish his anguish. 

“Oh, I am wretched!” he lamented. “Death! Death! Death! Where are you? Why, after all these years of calling, have you not appeared?” Unlike Ajax, Philoctetes was saved, after nine years of suffering, albeit mainly because his skills as an archer were needed for war.

Read the article to get a full account of the different responses to the readings but here ‘s one of them:

The first performance was for four hundred marines in San Diego, in 2008. In the public discussion afterward, as Doerries recounted in his book, Marshéle Waddell told the audience, “I am a proud mother of a marine and the wife of a Navy Seal. My husband went away four times to war, and each time he returned, like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into the house. The war came home with him. And, to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’

At another reading, a veteran reported,

I suffer from combat-induced P.T.S.D.,” he told the audience, choking up. Isolation is a euphemism now for trying to deal with the horrors, agony, guilt, shame, and fear accrued in war. Those who suffer are often like Ajax, he said. “Sometimes we do things that we don’t recall.”

Yet another veteran quoted a line from Ajax at the grave of a friend:

He had spent the afternoon in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the area where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. He was visiting the grave of a friend. From memory, he cited the lines from Ajax: “Cut my throat right here, right now, add me to this pile. End my suffering.”

There are also passages from Ajax that speak to the suffering of spouses, such as the words of Ajax’s wife, who tries to save her husband but cannot.

Often the most power part of the performances are the conversations that they engender afterwards. The article concludes with Doerries discussing his new appreciation for tragedy:

“It took a hundred performances for me to realize people want to talk about the darkest aspects of the human experience,” Doerries told me. “I had thought tragedies were an extreme expression of pessimism, depicting a world in which we humans barely apprehend the forces upon us—fate, chance, luck, governments, genetics, gods—until it’s too late, and we’ve destroyed ourselves and our families for generations to come.”

But why, then, he asked, did the Greeks hold three days of theatre festivals for a third of the population? “What if the purpose of tragedy is not only to wake us up to the fact that we can make a choice before it’s too late but also to connect us with each other—and understand that we can face it as a community?”

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Prisons, America’s Growth Industry

William Johnson, "Chain Gang"

William Johnson, “Chain Gang”

Tuesday

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to this disturbing account on “How Prison Labor Is the New Slavery and Most of Us Unwittingly Support It.” She also reminded me about how she had described prisons as the new growth industry in her 2000 novel Leaps of Faith.

Leaps of Faith has proved prescient in a number of ways, including in its exploration of same sex marriage. Now that people in both political parties are finally expressing concern about how many people are incarcerated in America’s prisons, it’s worth looking back at what Rachel had to say 16 years ago.

First, here’s the situation as described by the article:

With 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world. No other society in history has imprisoned more of its own citizens. There are half a million more prisoners in the U.S. than in China, which has five times our population. Approximately 1 in 100 adults in America were incarcerated in 2014.  Out of an adult population of 245 millionthat year, there were 2.4 million people in prison, jail or some form of detention center.

The vast majority – 86 percent – of prisoners have been locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes, many of them drug-related.

And now for something you probably did not know:

American slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crimes” well into the 21st century. Not surprisingly, corporations have lobbied for a broader and broader definition of “crime” in the last 150 years. As a result, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) people performing mandatory, essentially unpaid, hard labor in America today than there were in 1830.

The article goes on to cite many of the companies taking advantage of prison labor, including Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T, and British Petroleum (to clean up its Gulf of Mexico oil spill). It’s a fascinating article.

Leaps of Faith doesn’t touch on unpaid, hard labor but it does discuss the prison boom. Flip, an actor who does temp work to pay the bills, at one point finds work with “TechnoMort,” which

is going into the prison business, the one true growth industry of the new millennium, along with computers, of course. But according to Georgia, my TechnoMort supervisor, who gives me an impassioned first-day orientation, computers are a capital-intensive industry that is unlikely to employ large numbers of human beings, since replacing human labor with machines is the whole point of computers. Whereas prison is a labor-intensive industry that promises to keep thousands if not millions of Americans gainfully employed for generations to come. Which means that if I don’t get an acting job soon, I should probably forget about learning Excel (which Tanya has been telling me to do) and just go get trained as a guard.

“It’s not just the prisons themselves,” Georgia explains earnestly as she leads me to a desk that looks remarkably like the one I had at [my previous job]. “It’s all the satellite industries. It’s been an economic renaissance for upstate New York, it really has. Because even if you don’t want to work as a guard or a cafeteria person or a social worker or a janitor or a—a—“

“A warden,” I suggest helpfully, drawing on my extenstive knowledge of old prison movies. But Georgia looks doubtful.

“Well, of course, they only have one warden per prison,” she says. “So I don’t think that profession would provide all that many jobs, I really don’t. But even if you didn’t work inside the actual prison, you could work for a food servicer company, or the company that does the laundry, or the one that trains the dogs, because all those services are now subcontracted out. And in Texas, and Ohio, and North Carolina, and lots of other places, they have private companies running the whole prison. So it’s not just expanding the public sector. It’s also expanding the private sector. Some of those communities, you go out there and you’ll find that pretty much every single person in town works for the prison.”

Georgia then recommends that Flip apply to work full-time for TechnoMort, sounding like a Donald Trump supporter as she does so:

“Because the salary is fairly good, and the benefits are truly excellent, and also, of course, you’d be performing a public service.” She switches on the computer. “Because,” she continues, “most of those criminals locked up upstate come from right here in New York City, so we should all be grateful that they’re not running around loose. Because otherwise—“

“So we supply the prisoners and they supply the prisons?” I say. “That seems fair.”

She looks at me sharply to be sure I’m not joking, but I try to keep a straight face and apparently I succeed.

“There’s a reason the prison industry is growing so fast,” Georgia says sternly. “Society is breaking down. These people have to go somewhere.”

I am trying really hard to keep a straight face.

“Well,” she says, “you live in the city, don’t you? So you know where the criminals come from. The vast majority come from just seven New York City neighborhoods, they really do, which would be all right if they stayed in those neighborhoods, but they don’t, they have to wander the streets and mug and rape and murder the rest of us, so I must tell you that I, personally, am extremely thankful that there are companies like TechnoMort that make it easier for communities—not just in New York, of course, but all over the country—to solve their security problems in the most cost-efficient way possible. Because, believe me, every dollar that they save on construction is a dollar that can go into enforcement and security, which means that once those people are behind bars, they stay behind bars, and I for one feel safer for it.”

This is probably one of the few times when “I’m sorry” actually isn’t the right response to a work-related conversation, so I just nod and try to look impressed. Georgia hurries off, promising to come back and check up on me in half an hour or so, and I look despairingly at the huge stack of forms. All over the country, apparently, city, county, and state officials are thinking about the most cost-effective way to build new prisons. Well, there’s a cheerful thought.

In a promising new development, the Justice Department this past month announced that it will stop using private prisons on the grounds that “the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.” That’s a small step in the right direction, even if it only will impact 22,000 prisoners. Unfortunately, the directive will not effect state prisons, where most prisoners of America’s prisoners are housed.

It does cast doubt on Georgia’s enthusiasm for TechnoMort, however. Some things you want the government to do.

And you don’t want anyone operating a slave system.

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Poems To Mourn a Russian History Prof

Vasily Tropinin, "Alexander Pushkin"

Vasily Tropinin, “Alexander Pushkin”

Monday

On Saturday our college had a memorial service for Tom Barrett, our Russian historian who died of cancer last May at age 54. While most of this blog’s readers do not know Tom, I share remarks that my English colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black delivered because they demonstrates how we turn to poetry to make sense of the senseless. Jennifer pulled from Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, and Walt Whitman while her husband Andrew cited a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I start with the Ovid passage–Pythagoras’s reflections on the endless flux of time–because they dovetail powerfully with Jennifer’s talk:

In all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,
Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by.
And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,
A rolling stream–and streams can never stay,
Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies and follows.
Always, forever new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed…
(from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XV)

And now for Jennifer’s talk:

What is the Grass?

Eulogy for Tom Barrett, Professor of Russian History, by Jennifer Cognard-Black, Professor of English, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

I. All is Dust

 One of Tom Barrett’s favorite Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, once wrote this to a friend about the inevitability of death, even as we humans struggle for life: 

’Tis time, my friend, ’tis time!
For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look—all is dust, and we shall die.
 

Each of you has a cup of dirt, and I want you to take a moment to pick it up and look at it. I ask that you really look at it. That you note its darkness, its coarseness, the bits of clay and earth and stone that make it up. Touch it. Consider how it feels: cool and soft and grainy and dense. Taste it or smell it. Put a little on your tongue; put your nose down in it. What does dirt taste like?  What does it smell like? “Earthy” is too simplistic. The taste is bitter. It’s fusty, dark, de-composed—a word that means to reverse the action of the verb “to compose,” which is to form, to frame, to fashion. Dirt is un-formed, un-framed, un-fashioned—un-done.

So what does the dirt taste or smell or feel like?
It feels like Tom Barrett.
It smells like you.
It tastes like me.
For we will all go to it, eventually.

This cup of earth is our future. “Look—all is dust, and we shall die.”

 II. Tom 

I’ve never known someone who was more aware of the fact that we humans are walking dirt than my dear friend Tom Barrett. Because Tom lived with a chronic illness for most of his life, he was well aware that his time on this planet was a gift—and so he also understood that we humans need to live large each and every day.

And Tom did live large—with gusto and gratitude.   For one, he loved good food. He and his spouse Liisa held lavish Russian dinners, for which Tom flavored his own vodkas with cardamon and lemon. Indeed, Tom loved good food from almost any ethnic background—Italian, French, Scottish, Southern, and even Midwestern (though not so much the tater-tot casserole). Everything from caviar to collard greens would make Tom pat his belly, laugh his big laugh, and say, “That was fantastic!”

Beyond good food, as all of you know, Tom also adored jazz. He and Liisa would drive to Baltimore or to DC or even all the way to Pittsburgh just to hear a certain jazz musician or combo. Any time spent in Tom’s house was a kind of crash course on the history of jazz, for he was always moving to its rhythms.

Tom also had a passion for film noir and worked hard to get his friends to understand that we needed to feel passionate about it, too. And so Tom and Liisa held Noir Nights. I myself came to appreciate the corniness of the good guys, the oily evil of the bad guys, and especially the slinky femmes fatales in all of their melodramatic glory.

And then, of course, there was Tom’s keen interest in history—particularly Russian history and its popular culture. Tom relished giving his students an understanding of Russia and its culture that went far beyond textbooks. He brought in political cartoons, advertisements, popular novels, comic books, music, and he even wore his ushanka to class so that the students could step inside Russian history and not just learn about it in a cold or sterile way.

Good food, hot jazz, film noir, and all things Russian. In these ways, Tom Barrett lived large.

And yet Tom lived large in other ways, too—not just through the delights of the body and the wonders of the mind, but also by being brave in the face of adversity. He was brave through a long and painful illness. But he was also brave in other ways. When faced with a glaring inequity against someone else—be it friend or foe, colleague or student—Tom spoke out about it. And when he himself was treated unfairly, Tom held fast—knowing that he was on the side of what was ethical and right.

Yes, Tom Barrett lived large each and every day. He laughed and danced and joked and ate and also discussed and argued and stood strong when necessary.

At the dedication of a monument to Pushkin in 1880, another favorite author of Tom’s, the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, gave a speech. In this speech, Turgenev said,

[The] task of a thinking individual…is to go forward, despite the dirt and difficulty of the path, to go forward without losing from view even for a moment those fundamental ideals on which the entire existence of the society to which he belongs is built.

Tom Barrett was someone who—despite the dirt, despite the difficulty of the path—was always going forward. So he lived large; he moved forward…and he loved.

Tom loved completely. He loved his spouse and his children fiercely. He loved his sister and his extended family fervently. And he loved his friends with this same fierceness, this same devotion.

 Tom was the best friend one could ask for. He didn’t really care about what you did—but about who you were. When I was with him, I knew that it was his soul talking directly to mine. That we weren’t wearing any masks. He saw me for who I am, and he let me see him for who he was. His love was real and complete. To again quote Puskin—from a poem called “To My Friends”:

So, play and sing, friends of my years!
Lose very quickly [the] passing evening,
And, at your [carefree] joy and singing,
I will be smiling through my tears.

III. The Grass

Living large, going forward, loving completely.

I want to go back to that cup of dirt you have in your hand. Coming around are cups of grass seed, and I ask you to plant a few seeds in your dirt. Put your seeds deep into this earth, feel what that’s like, something small taking root in your cup—and in you.

It is my hope that, when you leave today, you will take your cup of dirt, and you will put it in some warm, sunny place and water it and watch it grow green. And then, over the next few weeks, you will see in front of you not something symbolic, but something true—that out of death, there is always life. And that the life we all live comes out of those who came before—those who lived large, moved forward, and loved completely.

While you plant your seeds, I will end this afternoon with what I most wanted to say—which are words from Walt Whitman, that great American poet and prophet. These words come from Section 6 of “Song of Myself,” and they speak to the splendid and miraculous power of death to bring life.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any
            more than he.

 I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
            stuff woven.

 Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord…,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see
            and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the
            vegetation….

 And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men…,

It may be you are from old people and from women, and from
            offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps…

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death…,

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Posted in Ovid, Pushkin (Alexander), Turgenev (Ivan), Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On 9/11, Firemen Ascended Jacob’s Ladder

William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder"

William Blake, “Jacob’s Ladder”

Spiritual Sunday

I’m not entirely sure about this, but I believe that Lucille Clifton wrote her seven 9/11 poems on the day of the attacks and the six days afterwards. In other words, for a week she used poetry as a daily meditation to process what had happened.

clifton-911-poemLucille was a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland when she wrote these poems, and we have posted all of them on plaques around St. John’s Pond, which sits in the middle of our campus. As this is a Sunday in addition to being the 15th anniversary of the attacks, I look at the religious imagery that appears in several of the poems.

The first poem turns on its head what it means to believe that God has blessed America. Often Americans assert that we are blessed because, as a wealthy and safe country, we are “exempt” from the suffering experienced “in otherwheres/israel ireland palestine.” Clifton notes that, with the attacks, we received a different kind of blessing, one that is in line with Jesus reaching out to the wretched of the earth: God has blessed us with the knowledge of what these “otherwheres” regularly experience:

1 Tuesday 9/11/01

thunder and lightning and our world
is another place no day
will ever be the same no blood
untouched

they know this storm in otherwheres
israel ireland palestine
but God has blessed America
we sing

and God has blessed America
to learn that no one is exempt
the world is one all fear
is one all life all death
all one

In Wednesday’s poem, Clifton reminds us that Muslims no less than Christians are God’s children. God has multiple names and many tongues. This is not the time to focus on divisiveness, she says, either anger against Muslims or anger against those targeting Muslims. This is a time to pray together under one flag, “warmed by the single love/ of the many tongued God.”

2 Wednesday 9/12/01

this is not the time
i think
to note the terrorist
inside
who threw the brick
into the mosque
this is not the time
to note
the ones who cursed
Gods other name
the ones who threatened
they would fill the streets
with arab children’s blood
and this is not the time
i think
to ask who is allowed to be
american America
all of us gathered under one flag
praying together safely
warmed by the single love
of the many tongued God

Thursday’s poem uses a passage from Genesis (28:12) to honor the firemen who gave their lives. There we read that, while dreaming, Jacob “saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

3 Thursday 9/13/01

the firemen
ascend
like jacob’s ladder
into the mouth of
history

Friday’s poem refers to the historical suffering of oppressed groups and passes along to all Americans an insight Clifton has struggled to learn as an African American woman: victims are not to blame for their suffering. While various rightwing preachers like Jerry Falwell said that the 9/11 attacks were in retribution for America’s toleration of homosexuality, Clifton reassures Americans that we have done nothing “to deserve such villainy.”

4 Friday 9/14/01

some of us know
we have never felt safe

all of us americans
weeping

as some of us have wept
before

is it treason to remember

what have we done
to deserve such villainy

nothing we reassure ourselves
nothing

Saturday’s poem invokes Jesus and asks whether there is a higher purpose at work in our suffering. Lucille wonders whether there will be miracles of love in store for us, even as she acknowledges that the intention of “the gods” is difficult to understand:

5 Saturday 9/15/01

i know a man who perished for his faith.
others called him infidel, chased him down
and beat him like a dog. after he died
the world was filled with miracles.
people forgot he was a jew and loved him.
who can know what is intended? who can understand
the gods?

Sunday’s poem is dedicated to Lucille’s new granddaughter, born five days before the attacks. As she looks over the St. Mary’s River that flows by our campus, Lucille is struck by the calm, which is in marked contrast with the attacks. While she is well aware of humanity’s history of injustice and the many reasons to hate—she is “cursed with long memory”—she chooses to love instead.

Her granddaughter, she notes, is born innocent into a violent world. While Bailey will become aware of the bad, however, she will also become cognizant of the good. Buoyed by new life, Lucille talks about how she loves all of the world, despite “the hatred and fear and tragedy.” Ultimately, love trumps all.

6 Sunday Morning 9/16/01
for bailey

the st. marys river flows
as if nothing has happened

i watch it with my coffee
afraid and sad as are we all

so many ones to hate and i
cursed with long memory

cursed with the desire to understand
have never been good at hating

now this new granddaughter
born into a violent world

as if nothing has happened

and i am consumed with love
for all of it

the everydayness of bravery
of hate of fear of tragedy

of death and birth and hope
true as this river

and especially with love
bailey fredrica clifton goin

for you

It so happened that Rosh Hashanah fell upon September 17 in 2001, prodding Lucille to find symbolic significance in the Jewish new year and the supposed anniversary of Adam and Eve. While human evil emerged from the Garden of Eden, so did human love. Lucille writes that “what is not lost” from that original connection with God “is paradise.” In the sweet and delicious image of “apples and honey,” we see that Lucille believes that not all has been lost:

7 Monday Sundown 9/17/01

Rosh Hashanah

i bear witness to no thing
more human than hate

i bear witness to no thing
more human than love

apples and honey
apples and honey

what is not lost
is paradise

And so we continue on, finding something to salvage in even the grimmest of times.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Twain Anticipated Trump’s Crazy Talk

donald-trump

Friday

One of the more disturbing aspects of the 2016 election is that Hillary Clinton’s equivocations and white lies, fairly normal in politics, are being equated with Donald Trump’s outright fabrications.

Many Americans seem more willing to tolerate a conman’s blatant disregard for the truth than the careful parsing of a professional politician. Who cares if he denies having made previous statements that are on tape, such as his support for the Iraq War? His very outrageousness, which some describe as his political incorrectness, only boost his brand.

Consider his boast that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Or his bragging that, when he was a businessman, “I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” By not paying any homage at all to truth (to borrow from La Rochefoucauld’s observation about hypocrisy),  Trump proves that he is not “a politician.”

Despite his outrageousness—or perhaps because of it—Trump is deemed more trustworthy by 15 percentage points than the woman who takes truth telling seriously, even if she sometimes departs from it. The New Yorker’s David Remnick lays out just how ridiculous this is:

“Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President, does not so much struggle with the truth as strangle it altogether. He lies to avoid. He lies to inflame. He lies to promote and to preen. Sometimes he seems to lie just for the hell of it. He traffics in conspiracy theories that he cannot possibly believe and in grotesque promises that he cannot possibly fulfill. When found out, he changes the subject — or lies larger.”

When politics become mere entertainment, a candidate can get away with blatant lying, at least to an extent. To get a sense of how refreshing Trump’s fans find him, I turn today’s blog essay over to Mark Twain’s depiction of a presidential candidate who lays bare his crooked past. Note how much fun the speaker has in dispensing with normal political constraints.

The Presidential Candidate (1879), by Mark Twain

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his night shirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.” These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

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i sing of Kaepernick glad and big

San Francisco Colin Kaepernick

San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick

Thursday

The National Football League’s season begins tonight, but it seems that there been less talk about action on the field and more about San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the National Anthem because of America’s treatment of people of color. This reminded my friend Carl Rosin of E. E. Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” and he sent in the following essay.

By Carl Rosin, English Teacher, Radnor High School

“We almost beat one guy to death to make him kiss the flag,” a patriot in Litchfield, Illinois, told a Chicago reporter in 1940.

So begins Garrett Epps’s Atlantic Monthly article “America’s New Lesson in Tolerance,” which addresses NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s unpopular protest against the American flag and national anthem by linking it with unpopular protests of the 20th century. The erudite Professor Epps, who teaches law and writing at the University of Baltimore, delves into the 1940 Supreme Court case Minersville School District v. Gobitis.

Noting how SCOTUS got Billy and Lillian Gobitas’s name wrong, Epps describes the case of two Jehovah’s Witnesses who “refused to engage in a required flag salute and pledge of allegiance at their Pennsylvania elementary school”:

Lower federal courts supported their right to refuse the pledge. The case, however, reached the Supreme Court in 1940, as German armies were grinding toward Paris. The justices rejected the children’s religious-freedom claim to an exemption from the flag-salute requirement…. In the majority opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that “We are dealing with an interest inferior to none in the hierarchy of legal values. National unity is the basis of national security.” The legislature must have the freedom to promote that unity by requiring children to pledge allegiance, he wrote, and religious objections were no defense.

The fascist threat of the era – a legitimate existential threat that dwarfs current-day threats to our nation – seems to have rationalized the decision. The imprimatur of the high court, furthermore, seemed to sanction some shiver-inducing injustices against Witnesses: beatings, looting, burning, torture, castration. One can barely recognize the America in which such things were done.

And yet, of course, we do, and literature is an especially eloquent reporter. To Kill a Mockingbird, “Strange Fruit,” and Sterling A. Brown’s poignant and under-acknowledged poetic ballad “He Was a Man” (to name just a few literary works) all call out the extrajudicial monstrosity of lynching. Atrocities such as those perpetrated against citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, meanwhile, are captured by E. E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big.”

The poem, which preceded Gobitis by nine years, may be most infamous for its profanity, which retains its sting even today. It tells the story of a “conscientious object-or,” Olaf, whose refusal to fight for the nation results in his being imprisoned, then tortured, then allowed to die. Complicit in his death are the military brass (“a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride”), brutally conformist soldiers, and ultimately the president. Olaf is the prisoner they

stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl

As he is unbowed, they escalate to cursing and beating him. The savagery increases further, as the officers

egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat

Finally, at the president’s behest, they throw Olaf into a “dungeon,” where he dies.

As shocking as the imagery is, I suspect that Olaf’s reaction shocked the public even more. I cringe to think that his “impoliteness” may have led some to feel that he deserved no better. The first stanza of abuse ends with a demand for compliance, to which Olaf

responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

Cummings challenges us: does profanity directed at the beloved national symbol poison our interpretation of the profane one, innocent though he may be? After the “teasing” (Cummings makes powerful use of understatement) with roasted bayonet, Olaf doubles down on his commitment:

Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

This intensity, emphasized by the diction that alarms censors, escalates the abuse, resulting in Olaf’s death. In the final stanza, the speaker has elevated Olaf to a kind of sainthood. He is the most American of the characters in this condensed tragedy.

Epps describes how the Court corrected its shortsightedness on Gobitis:

By 1943, the court itself repented. The public outcry, the addition of a new justice, and three switched votes produced a new rule. Whatever “free exercise” of religion required, the new majority decided, the salute requirement violated the First Amendment’s twin guarantee, free speech. In a famous passage, Justice Robert Jackson wrote that “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Perhaps because of the reversal, anti-Witness violence subsided. The Court is to be commended, all the more so because World War II was still in progress with the outcome far from certain.

Epps concedes that Kaepernick is not a perfect analogue for the Gobitases. Even if he were, he has no right to expect to be free from criticism or even backlash (within legal limits, that is). That being said, there is cause for concern. The unfettered trolls of the Internet have been making threats that are compatible with what the Witnesses suffered. The fear that disunity engenders is a dangerous force.

For example, consider the passions that were fanned by the Cold Warleading to powerful warnings, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) to the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960). Outsiders fare very badly in both.

These texts call for us, like Miller’s John Proctor, to stand up for principles, as per Martin Niemöller’s classic quotation that begins, “First they came for the Socialists….” The Atlantic’s always-insightful “By Heart” series, in which modern authors discuss literature that inspired them when they were young, features Alexander Maksik lauding the way his boldly non-conformist teacher taught Cummings’s boldly non-conforming poem. Maksik recalls how that teacher and poem “began to turn my apathy into contempt for apathy.”

Those offended by Cummings’s characterization of the U.S. military would probably see the poem not as a hypothetical indictment against the threat posed by dogmatism but as a treasonous accusation against the United States. Indeed, the poem was published the same year that the poet visited the Soviet Union. That may have cost Cummings some sympathy, but poets aren’t in the business for sympathy.

Similarly Kaepernick’s socks, depicting pigs wearing police caps, give a whiff of an ad hominem attack that has soured observers on the seriousness of the protest.

Even if the messengers are compromised, however, the message of Epps’s neatly-stated concluding line reverberates: it is un-American to tell us what to kiss…or what to eat.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand; 
but–though an host of overjoyed 
noncoms(first knocking on the head 
him)do through icy waters roll 
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed 
anent this muddy toiletbowl, 
while kindred intellects evoke 
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag 
upon what God unto him gave) 
responds,without getting annoyed 
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers 
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride) 
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse, 
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease 
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you. 

Further thought: I googled and did a brief database search into a history of protests against and censorship of Cummings’s poem, but, to my surprise, came up empty. Perhaps in the interbellum period, when America was isolationist to an extent that is hard to imagine today, few conflated his anti-militarism and anti-fundamentalism with anti-Americanism. I will ask a librarian friend to check further and will report back what she finds.

Posted in cummings (e.e.), Miller (Arthur) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy

Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy in "Handmaid's Tale"

Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy in “Handmaid’s Tale”

Wednesday

Phyllis Schlafly, the individual most responsible for preventing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, died Monday at 92. I disagreed with Schlafly in almost every respect but I will laud her for one thing: she served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale.

Serena Joy is the woman who helps establish a repressive society in which women are treated as chattel. The contradiction, of course, is that, in her activist efforts to keep women from gaining power, Serena Joy gains power. The same was true of Schlafly, as Amanda Marcotte of Salon reports:

As Susan Faludi chronicled in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “The woman who opposed the ERA because it ‘would take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a full-time wife and mother in the house supported by her husband’ was a Harvard-educated lawyer, author of nine books, and a two-time congressional candidate.”

Speaking to Newsweek in 1977, Schlafly said, “Women find their greatest fulfillment at home with the family.”

When reporters Susan Fraker and Elaine Sciolino pointed out that Schlafly “has a maid to do the cleaning” and “a secretary to handle her correspondence” — and has a career as a politician and a professional speaker, Schlafly denied the contradiction.

“I certainly do support some type of other interest,” she retorted. “But family demands and concerns have priority. I have canceled speeches whenever my husband thought that I had been away from home too much.”

I should note that Serena Joy is not only based on Schlafly but also on Tammy Faye Baker, a rightwing televangelist. Offred, the protagonist who now works for the family as a “handmaid,” remembers reading a profile about Joy:

She wasn’t singing anymore by then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.

I should add that Serena Joy is not pure Schlafly but also has an element of the rightwing televangelist Tammy Faye Baker.

Michelle Goldberg of Slate points out another irony with Schlafly that Atwood also notes with her character. If Schlafly had not been a woman, she probably would have found her way into Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. As it was, she was shut out.

Something comparable happens to Serena Joy, who marries a prestigious military commander and then finds herself relegated to permanent housewife status:

She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she’s been taken at her word.

Fortunately for Schlafly, she wasn’t able to turn back the clock entirely and return to a 19th century patriarchal society. As a result, she was able to remain an influential figure almost to the end. Her last book, just out, supports Donald Trump as a reincarnation of Barry Goldwater, whom she helped elevate decades ago with her book A Choice, Not an Echo.

Atwood lets us know what might have happened had Schlafly gotten the society that she said she wanted. Here’s Offred again:

Her profile is towards me. I can see that in the quick sideways look I take at her as I go past. It wouldn’t do to stare. It’s no longer a flawless cut-paper profile, her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses and whole streets disappear overnight, into sudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them. Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of things to come.

By the end of the novel, Serena Joy is drowning her dissatisfaction in alcohol, and her husband is turning to other women for sexual satisfaction. I don’t know enough about Schlafly to know if anything similar happened with her—perhaps not entirely as she, unlike Serena Joy, had “unfeminine” outlets—but I can’t imagine that those driven by resentment and paranoia ever find true inner peace.

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Reflections on Art for Art’s Sake

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray

Tuesday 

In my Theories of the Reader class last week I had my students look into the “art for art’s sake” philosophy, a late 19th-century movement that included such figures as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. I had them read Wilde’s preface to Picture of Dorian Gray and an excerpt from his Decay of Lying. We also read excerpts from the trial where Wilde was cross-examined by attorney Edward Carson about both the preface and Dorian Gray.

I find that art for art’s sake discussions invariably become hopelessly tangled. After all, can a love of beauty ever be entirely separated from the other reasons that attract us to a novel, poem or play? Aren’t we also interested in how relatable characters grapple with recognizable issues? Even if one argues that literature’s main goal is a transcendent joy, it can be argued that such joy itself is a pragmatic result, at which point the argument becomes circular.

As the author of a blog claiming that “great literature can change your life,” I must debate with aestheticists. In many respects, my implied antagonists are those who don’t think that literature can change a life—who think that either literature is irrelevant or, at best, should be relegated to a purely artistic realm of its own (which is the view of art for art’s sake proponents). In many if not most of my essays, I am having an implicit debate with “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen, the martyrs call the world.” I borrow the phrase from Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” where Yeats, like Wilde, is going after a narrowly pragmatic society that doesn’t value poetry.

I’ve concluded that valuing art for art’s sake is not a pure activity but a philosophy that can only be understood as relational or reactive. In other words, such a philosophy arises as a corrective to a society that has lost perspective. If society decrees that only narrowly pragmatic activities have value—that, say, making money is the only thing that is useful—then Wilde is justified in asserting, “All art is quite useless.” He sees art as a means to keep him from getting dragged into the cash nexus.

It’s worth noting that, if art does that, then it’s not useless after all. Wilde is playing with what we mean by useful.

Wilde also fought against art getting dragged into a narrow moralism. There were Victorians who, while they saw literature as valuable, did so only to the extent that it taught moral lessons. This is another kind of pragmatism and it too can damage the artistic enterprise. That’s why Wilde came up with another provocative maxim: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

I’ll discuss in a moment why Wilde doesn’t really believe this. But when he talks about well written books—in other words, beautiful books—he is not defining beauty as a thing in itself but as a counterweight to his crass, didactic, materialistic, industrial capitalist society. Similarly, when I allude, tongue in cheek, to a 1935 DuPont ad slogan in my blog title—“Better Living through Chemistry”—I create an apparent oxymoron that allows me to be pragmatic without being narrowly pragmatic (or so I hope). After all, the playfulness in the title is supposed to gesture towards the unpragmatic playfulness of literature.

Meanwhile, the society that I am addressing is one where students are eschewing the liberal arts, and especially the arts, for “practical” majors like nursing or business or engineering. Many parents want their kids to aim towards lucrative professions in their course selection, and I’m trying to use their own pragmatism against them–which is to say, to give literature a chance. I try to do this in a way that acknowledges the independence of literature, but I must acknowledge the danger that I will reduce literature to something with narrow use value.

The reason I believe Wilde’s pronouncements should be regarded as counterweights rather than as propositions in and of themselves is that Dorian Gray doesn’t bear out the philosophy of its preface. Carson saw Wilde as an immoral libertine for saying that there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral book—in other words, Wilde appeared to put himself above society’s morals—and he argued that Dorian Gray was an immoral book that corrupted young men. Dorian Gray, however, can be seen as having a powerful moral lesson. Indeed, it shows the soul-destroying consequences of trying to live an art for art’s sake lifestyle.

The proponent for such a life style in the novel is Sir Henry Wotton. Among his aphorisms are the following:

Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.

And:

To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

This philosophy has a catastrophic effect on Dorian, who leaves a trail of broken lives and suicides in his wake.

In the trial, Carson read from both the preface and the novel in an attempt to cast Wilde as Sir Henry and young Alfred Lord Douglas as Dorian, the young man corrupted by an older. Wilde, however, saw himself in Basil, the painter who worships Dorian. Whereas for Carson, Wilde was a vile pervert who wanted sex with young men, Wilde saw himself as a soul who longs for beauty and found it in beautiful men. For him, it was Carson who had the dirty mind, and he sought out beauty as a defense. Thus his aphorisms for the preface,

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

And

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

In short, Wilde sought out beauty as a refuge against his sordid society. This may have seemed to be art for art’s sake—a transcendent realm that resided on another plane—but it was actually art for Wilde’s sake. He saw art as a means to keep himself from getting dragged down into the muck of Victorian sexual repression and crass materialism.

This is not the only function for art, however. Other periods have other needs and create other kinds of literature. Art for art’s sake, which seemed a soul saver in the 1890s, appeared as precious and overly refined to later audiences.

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Work Makes Us Soar, Money Not So Much

Laura Knight, "Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring" (1943)

Laura Knight, “Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring” (1943)

Monday – Labor Day

As today is Labor Day, here’s a clarifying conversation about the nature of work that appears in Rachel Kranz’s novel Leaps of Faith (2000). The scene involves Rosie, a union organizer, who is trying to establish a union at an urban university (modeled on Columbia University). Jack is a clerical worker and an ideological leftist so they often clash about whether revolution or incremental change is better. Rosie loves her work but the stress is taking a physical toll on her.

The “leaps of faith” mentioned in the title are the conviction, held by several of the novel’s major characters, that significant change can occur even when there’s seems no objective reason to hope. Change includes same sex marriage (note that the novel was written in 2000), various theatrical breakthroughs, and a successful strike. Rosie believes that the university workers can prevail, but she is frustrated by how they hold back from committing themselves and experiences moments of deep doubt. Her conversation with Jack helps her realize some of the internal factors she is up against:

“Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and being,” Jack practically smacking his lips with satisfaction. “This alien essence dominates him, and he enjoys it.”

“What?”

“Karl Marx,” Jack says, taking a bite of his eggplant Parmesan sub…

“Don’t you just love that?” Jack is saying. “Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and being. Money represents something that used to be this wonderful part of human beings: their ability to work, to accomplish things in the world. Their essence. And then the essence gets alienated, it gets taken away and used against them. So instead of doing good work that they love, they have to go work for money, they have to work for some boss, who makes a huge profit off of their work. And the richer he gets, the more power he has over them, so they’re actually helping him to dominate them.

“And then they want that money. They envy their rich boss, never realizing that they’re the ones who make him rich. But as if that whole process weren’t enough, Marx has to say that they enjoy it.”

“But most people don’t enjoy their jobs,” I say…

“Do you enjoy your job?” Jack says, one of those sudden switches in conversational direction that I never expect from him.

“Oh, I love my job,” I say. “But I don’t have a real job. My job is to change everybody else’s job. Of course I enjoy that.”

Jack laughs. “So you’re exploited, but not alienated,” he says. “Because I think the union takes incredible advantage of you and all the other organizers, as far as I can see, although you obviously work the hardest—“

“No, I don’t. Plenty of other people—“

“Yes, you do. But that’s not my point. My point is, people don’t enjoy their jobs, obviously, except for weird exceptions like you—because face it, Rosie, most people who work as hard as you do are lawyers or stockbrokers or something, and they usually don’t enjoy their jobs, per se, but they do make tons of money. Or else they’re factory workers or nurses or whatever, working double shifts and overtime because they desperately need the money. Which is my point. Or rather, Marx’s point. It’s the money that dominates people, the money they themselves create by working so damn hard and so miserably, and then it’s the money that they enjoy being dominated by.”

“And this is important because—“…

“It’s important because—I mean, Rosie. Why are people so invested in keeping their lives the way they are? Instead of making revolution, I mean, instead of changing everything?”

“Oh, Jack, for heaven’s sake,” I say, which I find myself saying to him fairly often. How can someone with whom I basically agree make my own ideas sound so simple-minded? “It’s hard to change things. It’s dangerous. You could lose your job. Or, if you’re talking about revolution, I don’t know. You could get beat up, or shot, or put in jail, or tortured, or whatever else happens to people who—“…

“No,” Jacks says, “it’s not just because they’re afraid of getting shot that people don’t want to change things. It’s because they actually like things the way they are. They like all the stuff they buy. They like all the stuff they think they’re going to buy. They’d rather have that stuff, or the prospect of it, than to think about how the world could be different.”

“So you basically think people should work all day and then go home and feel so miserable that they’re ready to change everything?”

“I don’t think people should be miserable,” Jack says. “I think they are miserable. And what they enjoy is being dominated. By television. The things they buy. The money they go out and spend. Their jobs make them miserable, and they go out and spend as much as they can so they’ll feel better, and it doesn’t work, and they have to keep working harder just to stay in place, and it still doesn’t work, and then they think it’s their fault, and they buy some self-help book to tell them why, and it still doesn’t work. And then they fall in love, and that doesn’t work, and then they’re really at a loss—“

“And all that time, they could just be making a revolution.”

“Right,” says Jack. “And then, like you, they’d have jobs they’d enjoy.”

I can’t help laughing. “Jack,” I say, “I’m no different. I watch television. I buy things.” I eat, I think, but I’m not going to say that to him. My life is killing me, if [my doctor] is to be believed, but I’m not going to say that either.

“Well, you’re part of the society you’re living in,” Jack says. “You’re not a saint.” He grins at me, which I didn’t expect. “Thank God.”

A little later in the conversation, Jack lays out his foundational beliefs and then challenges Rosie to do the same:

“I’m a Marxist,” Jack says. “This is my creed.” And he quotes [from The Communist Manifesto], “‘Uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man’—people,” he interrupts himself, making a face, “but the quote doesn’t work if you say ‘people,’ so ‘man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relation with his kind.” Meaning that—”

“I know what it means,” I say, with some asperity. “I have read Marx.”

Jack grins at me again. “So what does it mean?” he says. “In twenty-five words or less.”

“I suppose it means that we can’t have any illusions anymore about how brutal everything is,” I say slowly. “How brutal everything is, and then how we have to be honest about that. About why. We can’t say it’s fate, or God’s will, or destiny, anything solid, anything holy. It’s just—a few stupid people with power lording it over the rest of us. And we help them dominate us, first by working for them and making them rich, and then by buying whatever they want us to buy, and then by believing whatever they want us to believe, and then by telling ourselves that it’s our own idea. And then it is our idea, because if you have something inside you long enough, then it is you, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how sick it makes you—then it is you, and at least part of you does everything you can to hold onto it. And then, to add insult to injury, we enjoy the way they dominate us, we enjoy the little crumbs they throw at us, because what else are we going to do with ourselves. How else are we going to keep on living?!”

Well, I certainly didn’t expect to get this upset.

“But you are doing everything you can to change things,” Jacks says finally. “And that is what keeps you going.”

I point to myself, to my secretly bleeding body, to my exhausted throat, to my, all right, all right, all right, to my weight. “I’m certainly a great advertisement for the cause,” I say with a bitterness that surprises me. “I’m sure anyone who saw me would want to jump right on board.”

“Well, I would,” Jack says softly.

“You don’t count,” I say, blinking back the tears that seem all too ready to intrude these days. “You were already on board.”

There is a long, awkward pause.

“I’m sorry,” Jack says finally, leaning toward me over the table. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He smiles, a very, very small smile. “See,” he says, “I find it a relief to say the way things are. It makes me feel—I don’t know. Exhilarated. You feel bad about it. But still, you don’t despair.”

I look at him skeptically.

“No, no, what you just did, that wasn’t despair,” he says. “You just feel bad that it takes other people so long to see what you already know. But you don’t give up on them.”

Throughout her writings Kranz asserts that efforts directed toward taking control of our working conditions bring us deep satisfaction. With that in mind, we need to keep fighting the good fight, no matter how hopeless it seems.

Currently she is nearing completion of her next novel, which is about the greatest leap of faith of all: in the late 1850s, when abolitionist movements were falling apart and it appeared that slavery would endure indefinitely, certain activists kept on striving to end it.

Less than a decade later, almost miraculously, slavery would be no more. Kranz challenges us to apply that same hope to our current problems.

Further note: Since it’s on the subject, go here if you want to read a quick account of how much better the Fair Labor Standards Act (1937) made the lives of working class Americans. The efforts of people like Rosie and the ideals of people like Jack meant that there is a ban on child labor, workers no longer have to put in 60-hour days, and owners have social and economic obligations to their employees.

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The Singing of a Flute Came from the Sea

Anambas Island, Indonesia

Anambas Island, Indonesia

Spiritual Sunday

If summer ends with Labor Day, then poems invoking childhood memories of water and sun seem appropriate. “It may be we shall touch those happy isles,” says a hopeful Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, and Yeats, standing in a city street, hears the Lake Isle of Innisfree “in the deep heart’s core. In that spirit I share Frithjof Schuon’s haunting poem, “The Island.”

Schuon’s message is one that Milton offers up in the final stanzas of Paradise Lost. The Archangel Michael consoles Adam that he need not mourn his departure from Paradise because “[thou] shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”

The Island

By Frithjof Schuon

Islands of bliss and everlasting youth,
Floating like flowers on an endless sea
And never touched by sorrows from this world:
Such happy islands thou wilt never see.

Behold: what thou hast dreamt of may be real,
It is not elsewhere, it is what thou art
If thou rememb’rest God; then thou wilt find
The golden island in thy deepest heart.

The singing of a flute came from the sea;
The water vanished, and the flute was me.

 

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Satanic Trump Unleashing Dark Forces

Gustave Doré, Milton's Satan inspiring his troops

Gustave Doré, Milton’s Satan rousing the devils of hell

Friday

To the delight of white nationalist David Duke, rightwing provocateur Ann Coulter, and many other members of the alt-right, Donald Trump’s recent hate-filled rant against immigrants indicated that he is not “softening,” as some in the media had thought. Reading about Coulter’s enthusiasm—she called the speech “Churchillian” and tweeted, “I think I’ll watch this speech every night before going to bed so that I will sleep like a baby”—I was put in mind of how Milton’s Sin and Death are energized by Satan’s success in the Garden of Eden. The passage captures how Trump is exciting many of America’s darkest forces.

Sin is Satan’s daughter, having emerged Athena-like from his head (at which point he proceeds to rape her, thereby giving birth to their son Death). Although she is far from where Satan has just seduced Adam and Eve, she senses his victory and is intoxicated:

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on, 
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.

Just as the alt-right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:

Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn
By this new felt attraction and instinct.

Once confined to the shadows, she will join us on Earth. Or as Hillary Clinton puts it, Trump is “taking hate groups mainstream.”

Sin, in her excitement, turns to Death, who promises to accompany her to Earth. His eager anticipation resembles how the alt-right is salivating over the chance to impose a harsh regimen upon immigrants, Muslims, Hillary, and whomever else it hates. Milton’s Death smells the scent of blood:

I shall not lag behinde, nor err
The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable, and taste
The savor of Death from all things there that live…

Some commentators have observed that, even if Clinton beats Trump in November—not a certainty—he has unleashed forces that will not be easily contained. The Paradise Lost version of this is the bridge, constructed of “asphaltine slime,” that Sin and Death construct between Hell and Earth. This is the bridge across which all of Hell’s fallen angels, turned into snakes, will travel.

In other words, whatever happens in November, Trump has opened the gates of hell, and we will be dealing with the consequences for years to come.

I find this such a dispiriting prospect that I must remind myself that Paradise Lost ultimately projects a happy ending where love triumphs over hate. To be sure, it takes a while–the arc of justice bends slowly–but the Archangel Michael assures us it will happen:

Add virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

To be sure, this is a vision of inner Paradise. Milton had just seen his Puritan commonwealth crumble and was retreating from the world. We, on the other hand, can continue to work towards a more perfect union. I like to think that most American are charitable toward their immigrant neighbors and that, out of this spirit, we will create a nation happier far.

But we’ll have to battle a lot of snakes first.

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Politically Incorrect Okay for Hemingway?

Still from "The Sun Also Rises"

Still from “The Sun Also Rises”

Thursday

I share today a thoughtful essay on political correctness by Carl Rosin, a wonderful high school teacher who has appeared previously on this blog. Carl uses The Sun Also Rises to complicate the debate over Donald Trump’s attacks on political correctness. As Carl points out, one of the most positive characters in Ernest Hemingway’s novel is politically incorrect, but that doesn’t excuse the ways in which Trump stigmatizes women and minorities. The main issue is one of respect, which Bill Gorton demonstrates and Trump does not.

Carl left a software engineering job to become a teacher and has won various awards, including local and regional awards and also the PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) national award for high school teaching.

By Carl Rosin, English Teacher, Radnor High School

A few months ago, a 22-year-old San Francisco-based supporter of Donald Trump engaged Atlantic Monthly writer Conor Friedersdorf in an extended conversation that focused on political correctness. The young man wrote that his support for Trump expresses his

resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture. That’s where it’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.  Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. There is no saying, “Hey, I disagree with you,” it’s just instant shunning. Say things online, and they’ll try to find out who you are and potentially even get you fired for it. Being anti-PC is not about saying, “I want you to agree with me on these issues.” It’s about saying, “Hey, I want to have a discussion and not get shouted down because I don’t agree with what is considered to be politically correct.

“I feel like I have to hide my beliefs,” he continues. Although he concedes Friedersdorf’s point that President Obama has vociferously opposed PC (e.g.,  here and here), he argues that

Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness…, but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?

The young Trump supporter’s assertion – one that seems to be shared by observers from Clint Eastwood to Frank Luntz– is that many Americans want to see and perhaps follow in the footsteps of someone who “walks the walk” by eschewing the self-censorship so often disparaged under the term “political correctness.” Clive Crook, in an op-ed for Bloomberg, lays it bare:

The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

The content itself, these commenters suggest, may not really be important. Perhaps it is the style itself that has the greatest appeal: a bluntness, a perceived plain-spokenness, even the mythically democratic and anti-aristocratic coarseness that no less an icon than Alexis De Tocqueville observed in many 19th-century Americans (as opposed to artifice and scriptedness – terms that at least some pundits use often to describe Hillary Clinton’s style).

I tend to focus on content, so I was surprised and intrigued by this perspective. As a teacher of literature, I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway, the original straightforward, no-nonsense writer who doesn’t care what you think.

More specifically, these thoughts sent me back to Bill Gorton, one of the memorable characters in Hemingway’s finest novel, The Sun Also Rises (1925).

But first, a brief meander through Hemingway’s Modernist ethos, which is especially appropriate given the fact that structure and style are key aspects of the connection being investigated here.

Modernism offers a rich literary landscape, populated by Joyces and H.D.s and Woolfs and Stevenses and Eliots; Hemingway’s version of the Modernist ethos relies strongly on form. Many Modernists took on the concept that we should question assumptions (about art) that “sustained” previous generations of viewers/readers. Hemingway, for one, took action in the development of his well-known and oft-parodied spare form. He recast an artistic tradition of elegant prose and authorial authority into something plain that doesn’t try to do what it cannot. For instance, land is beautiful, and because language cannot make it so, it shouldn’t try.

I’m thinking specifically of a scene in The Sun Also Rises when narrator Jake Barnes and his buddy Bill Gorton go fishing in the Spanish mountains. They have not invited their problematic friends. Hemingway puts the following description in Jake’s voice:

It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big gray trees well spaced as though it were a park.

“This is country,” Bill said.

154 mostly Anglo-Saxon words in six sentences; only 9% of the words are polysyllabic (average word = 1.1 syllables), and nearly every word might be used comfortably by an average third-grader. Three-quarters of the verbs are in the passive voice. Nothing fancy/poetic here. Repetition, concatenation, simple vocabulary, to-be verbs, run-on sentences: prototypical Hemingway prose. I love the lack of an adjective in Bill’s comment.

(I took a quick look at some typical Obama and typical Trump paragraphs of similar length. Guess which one is more like Hemingway in style? I digress….)

Now to Bill Gorton, a secondary character but one who is in line with much of Hemingway’s moral code. He is also the king of the politically incorrect statement.

Bill’s very first conversation with Jake features him using the word “nigger” 14 times on a single page in chapter 8, as he rambles drunkenly about a prize-fight he saw in Vienna. He is also dismissive and sarcastic about religious believers, reserving special vitriol for Catholics and Jews. In chapter 9, he complains to a priest on the train,

“When do us Protestants get a chance to eat, father?”

“I don’t know anything about it. Haven’t you got tickets?”

“It’s enough to make a man join the Klan,” Bill said. The priest looked back at him.

His anti-Semitic remarks, of which there are many, generally target Jake’s difficult friend Robert Cohn. Bill rails about Cohn’s “Jewish superiority” and even refers to him as “That kike!” in chapter 15.

Not omitting sexual orientation, he manages to slur both male and female homosexuals in chapter 12.

Bill uses uncouth language and says racist things, but somehow he is still a good person – possibly the best human in the novel. The black boxer he slurs is clearly someone he respects; Bill compliments the man effusively and helps him out of an unfair jam. His anti-Semitism, equally distasteful in vocabulary, is set off against that of another character, Mike Campbell, who rockets past the realm of inappropriate speech to truly distasteful excess in his mistreatment of Robert Cohn. This is literature: we partake in the dialectic of perceiving a well-crafted, multifaceted character.

I didn’t fully appreciate Bill when I first encountered this novel, in part because of the offensive vocabulary. He has grown on me tremendously through repeated readings, however. He embodies a particular intensity, an honest and unfiltered commitment, that the novel promotes thematically.

Along the way, language must be sharpened to draw our attention to the sordid ways in which manners and so-called “civilized” patterns lure us into the kind of lull that brings on existential crisis. Bill himself muses, “After a while you never notice anything disgusting.” Hemingway opposes the kind of sensitivity that obscures a greater truth. Indeed, Bill is a true, supportive, generous, loyal friend to Jake and others who need and deserve one. He works, unlike the more flawed characters (Cohn, Campbell, even the mercurial Lady Brett Ashley). He is funny and straightforward, even as he speeds past the brink of coarseness. In many ways, he epitomizes An American.

So should we, on the basis of Bill Gorton, follow Trump’s advice and jettison political correctness? Examining the two reveals their differences.

For one thing, Bill is revealed as decent despite his crudeness, not because of it. Mike Campbell, the aforementioned foil, makes many similarly crude statements, and yet Mike’s character comes off as profoundly negative. Mike, cuckolded and embittered but not facing his crisis head-on, ferments into a nastiness that sounds a bit like some of Trump’s more infamous tweets. Mike, although a veteran himself, disrespects others and selfishly destroys medals borrowed from another veteran. He does not work but borrows excessively, continuing to spend and gamble promiscuously until he is “stony” and cannot cover his tab. He then borrows from his fiancée, Brett, leaving her with so little that Jake has to rush off to rescue her. Bill, by contrast, is gentlemanly with women, works hard (so he can vacation heartily), lives within his means, and interacts with friends openly and with surprising sensitiveness. Impoliteness itself is not an indicator of merit.

The way Mike and Bill interact with Robert Cohn is instructive. In the chapter 13 scene that follows the first bullfights, Mike sneers viciously at Robert, seeking to unman him by equating him to the castrated steers. Every member of the group has also criticized Robert, but upon witnessing this scene, Jake reports, “We were embarrassed.” When Mike’s attack intensifies, Bill “stood up and took hold of Cohn” to lead him away from the conflict. Bill’s words can be harsh, but when it comes to the decisive moment when character is rendered, his actions reveal a human kindness.

Trump’s statements, in contrast, do not show him opposing sensitivity that obscures a greater truth. The candidate marries outrageousness with inaccuracy and stereotyping, not unpleasant truths. This is where style has to cede ground back to content. Fact-checking websites have made it clear that Trump is uniquely dismal in adhering to the truth.

Trump regularly is applauded for identifying political correctness as the source of what’s wrong with America, and it is true that Bill Gorton also takes arms against patterns of speech that would someday be called “PC.” But Bill’s actions demonstrate that his opposition to customary deference and politeness does not interfere with his trustworthiness, consistency, and loyalty. Setting aside any judgment on Trump’s political positions, his personal, political, and business histories do not offer convincing evidence that he is trustworthy, consistent, or loyal.

Finally, in the context of the novel, while it is true that recognizing and “checking” privilege may not figure into Bill’s actions, they are central in Jake Barnes’s character arc. Jake, rendered impotent by a war wound, laments being unable to pursue a long-desired romance with Brett. In an unusually introspective passage, Jake triggers his movement toward a greater acceptance of his lot. This involves recognizing that his perspective wasn’t the only one worth valuing:

I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came.

Sensitivity and empathy help us develop toward our more mature selves. Even in Hemingway.

That said, it defies a plain reading of Hemingway to cite him in defense of political correctness. Language can obscure the truth and oversensitivity can create its own breed of intolerance and divisiveness. Blaming political correctness for the nation’s ills, however, creates a straw man out of PC’s excesses, concealing the fact that thoughtful, respectful, polite discourse can lead to personal and national progress. It is hard to discern between appropriate self-control and inappropriate self-repression, but we can do it. As Bill Gorton advises, “Never be daunted.”

Posted in Hemingway (Ernest) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Doctors Need Lit To Stay Human

Goya, "Order and Disorder"

Goya, “Order and Disorder”

Wednesday

Earlier this summer I came across this New York Times article about “Reading novels at Medical School.” Daniel Marchalik, M.D. , a urologist who also heads the literature and medicine track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, uses literature to help his interns handle the pressures of medicine and maintain a healthy perspective on life and death. 

For instance, an Emily Dickinson poem helps the hospital’s interns acknowledge both their own grief and that of their patients. The poem begins with the kind of grief that one might encounter in a hospital ward but then expands beyond to include a generalized human depression and aching heart. I quote the first five stanzas as the most directly applicable to a doctor-patient relationship: 

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes—
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long—
Or did it just begin—
I could not tell the Date of Mine—
It feels so old a pain—

I wonder if it hurts to live—
And if They have to try—
And whether—could They choose between—
It would not be—to die—

I note that Some—gone patient long—
At length, renew their smile— 
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil—

I wonder if when Years have piled— 
Some Thousands—on the Harm— 
That hurt them early—such a lapse
Could give them any Balm—

 

Literature is vital for doctors, Marchalik argues, because medical routines can become deadening:

The students are here [in the book group] after long days in class and on the wards because they have discovered that medical education is changing them in ways that are unsettling. I remember that uneasiness well. My own medical education began with anatomy lab. The first day with the cadaver was unnerving, but after the first week the radio was blaring as we methodically dissected the anonymous body before us.

Two years later, on my first clinical rotation, I discovered that it does not take long to acclimate to the cries of patients as I hurried past their rooms, eager not to fall behind in a setting where work must be done quickly and efficiently. This practiced detachment feels necessary, a form of emotional and physical self-preservation. But with little time to slow down, ignoring our own thoughts and feelings quickly hardens into a habit.

Marchalik also mentions leading a discussion of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,  and he recounts an experience that is familiar to literature teachers: the work elicits a response that he does not anticipate. The story, he notes is about

a depressed middle-aged Tokyoite’s attempt to retrace his past in order to understand how his life became so empty. We talk about the main character’s colorless perception of the world, and why his mind feels so inaccessible to us.

I receive an email from a student later that evening. He, an aspiring psychiatrist, tells me the story of a much-admired college mentor. “I heard last week that he committed suicide. I am still crushed,” he writes. “He was diagnosed with depression but seemed to be doing great.” If he so misjudged his teacher’s state of mind, he worries, how will he make it as a psychiatrist?

Another novel, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, gets Marchalik’s group talking about the ethics of animal testing:

The novel is narrated by a woman whose “sibling,” we later discover, is a chimpanzee who was raised with her as part of a human-chimp experiment. We used the book to think through real-life examples like the Silver Spring Monkeys — a series of gruesome primate experiments that both galvanized American animal-rights groups and led to breakthrough scientific discoveries.

A third-year student talked about the three years he spent working with rhesus macaques. Research from his lab led to breakthrough discoveries about memory and behavior and contributed to therapies such as deep brain stimulation. “Doesn’t that answer the ethical questions?” he asked.

Another student talked about studies that she worked on for several years before starting medical school. “Have you heard of professional testers?” she asked the room. “People whose only source of income is volunteering for different studies, mostly college kids and immigrants? Shouldn’t we be talking about human research also?” For me, the discussion proved transformative. I walked into that class firmly supporting animal research and walked away still supporting research but no longer eating meat.

Meanwhile, a novel about a dystopian future in which people are raised to be organ donors elicited this response:

As I’m walking out of the classroom at the end of the evening, a third-year student approaches me to tell me he’s been thinking more deeply about his experience of being an unrelated organ donor to his step-uncle, a man he barely knew. “It’s been on my mind since we read Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ last month,” he says. “I want to write about it. I don’t even know how I feel about it, and I need to figure it out.”

Even when the novels don’t have direct application to medical issues, Marchalik says, they serve a vital function:

Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work. Reading attentively and well, we hope, will become a sustaining part of our daily lives and practice.

More proof that literature is a vital resource in our survival packs.

Posted in Dickinson (Emily), Fowler (Jaren Joy), Kazuo Ishiguro, Murakami (Haruki) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Trump Echoes Marc Antony

Sir John Soanes, "Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar"

Sir John Soanes, “Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar”

Tuesday

Over the weekend Mark Thompson of The New York Times compared Donald Trump’s speaking style to that of Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and said that this gives him a rhetorical advantage over Hillary Clinton. His speaking technique conveys a sense of authenticity, which is how Antony is able to turn the tables on the far more sincere Brutus.

Here’s Thompson’s argument:

It may feel like a new phenomenon in contemporary American politics, but the “I just want to tell it like it is” maneuver is a familiar one in the annals of rhetoric. It’s what Mark Antony is up to when he says to the Roman crowd in “Julius Caesar,” “I am no orator, as Brutus is; / But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man,” in the midst of his “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech, one of the most cunning displays of technical rhetoric, not only in Shakespeare, but in the English language.

Rhetoric is the language Rome’s elite used to debate; by denying that he knows the first thing about it, Mark Antony is in effect tearing up his gold membership card and reassuring his plebeian audience that, though he may look rich and powerful, he is really one of them.

Thompson observes that the authoritarian Italian president Silvio Berlusconi used this technique to great effect, so it’s not surprising that Trump would gravitate to it as well:

Nearly four centuries after Shakespeare wrote those words, Silvio Berlusconi successfully struck the same pose in modern Italy. “If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s rhetoric,” he told the Italian public. “All I’m interested in is what needs to get done.”

But for all its protests, anti-rhetoric is just another form of rhetoric and, whether Mr. Trump is conscious of it or not, it has its own rhetorical markers. Short sentences (“We have to build a wall, folks!”) that pummel the listener in a series of sharp jabs. This is the traditional style of the general (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) or the chief executive, a million miles from the complex and conditional — and thus intrinsically suspect — talk of the lawyer/politician. Students of rhetoric call it parataxis and it’s perfect, not just for the sound bite and the headline, but for the micro-oratorical world of Twitter.

In contrast to Antony, Brutus makes a nuanced case, drawing a distinction between the valiant Caesar who is his friend and the ambitious Caesar who is angling to become a dictator:

If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition. 

At first the crowd is persuaded by Brutus, but Antony then cunningly bypasses Brutus’s nuanced reasoning by appealing directly to the mob’s pleasure center. Brutus is dismissed with a sarcastic wave of the hand:

But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Clinton may not be the noblest Roman of them all but, like Brutus, she goes in for fine distinctions. As a result, she comes across as an inauthentic politician and lawyer, so much so that her equivocations and white lies seem worse than Trump’s outright fabrications. Thompson notes,

In many ways, her problem at the mike is the opposite of Mr. Trump’s — cerebral, calculated, stripped of all spontaneity and risk, her style epitomizes what fans of “tell it like it is” bluntness think of as untrustworthy.

He also cautions that, while Clinton may be currently leading in the polls, “authenticism” has recently registered some significant victories:

Authenticism scored a victory in Britain’s vote on European Union membership, and authenticist anti-politicians and ultra right-wing parties are polling strongly in many European countries. It would be wrong to assume that any one election will see it off this time.

Root for Brutus.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

On Forgetting Old Students

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson

Monday

Classes begin today and I am certain to undergo an embarrassment that occurs every semester: I will fail to remember the names of certain former students, including students that I taught last semester.

It’s become so predictable that I now warn my classes that it will happen. “Just give me a couple of hints and you will come flooding back to me,” I tell them. Sometimes the hint I need is the essay that they wrote for me, which I can often remember in meticulous detail. Faces and names, unfortunately, are a different matter.

Therefore, I found myself empathizing with Phillotson, Jude’s old teacher in the Thomas Hardy novel, when Jude looks him up years later. Jude only had a few night classes with this teacher, yet Phillotson lit a divine spark within the boy. Here’s the scene of their separation:

“I shan’t forget you, Jude,” he said, smiling, as the cart moved off. “Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can. And if ever you come to Christminster remember you hunt me out for old acquaintance’ sake.”

And now here’s their encounter some 20 or so years later when Jude does in fact hunt him out:

“I don’t remember you in the least,” said the school-master thoughtfully. “You were one of my pupils, you say? Yes, no doubt; but they number so many thousands by this time of my life, and have naturally changed so much, that I remember very few except the quite recent ones.”

“It was out at Marygreen,” said Jude, wishing he had not come.

“Yes. I was there a short time.” 

Jude and Phillotson go on to become adult friends and then rivals, but the old teacher can never fully appreciate how large he loomed in Jude’s young life.

But that’s okay. Teaching is such a hit and miss operation that we never know who we are touching and who escapes unscathed. Teachers are a bit like Queequag in Moby Dick, who constructs the coffin that eventually, as a life buoy, saves Ishmael. We don’t know what impact our teaching will have—it sometimes feels like we are throwing a box randomly into the sea—but it means everything to the person who grasps hold of it.

What we can do is make every effort to reach out to our students. Then, regardless of whether we remember them or not, we won’t be surprised to learn that we made a difference in their lives.

Posted in Hardy (Thomas), Melville (Herman) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

When Christianity Becomes a Money Cult

The Money Cult

Spiritual Sunday

Last week I listened to a fascinating Sam Seder interview (on The Majority Report) with Chris Lehmann, author of a new work entitled The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016). In his book Lehmann seeks to explain how it is that certain Christian denominations are embracing capitalism and singing the praises of wealthy people such as Donald Trump, despite Jesus’s admonitions about the money changers, the eye of the needle, the rich man in hell, “render unto Caesar,” “the last shall be first,” etc.

Among other things, Lehman has an explanation for the apparent hypocrisy that enrages Howard Nemerov in his poem “Boom!” It’s not hypocrisy, he says, but something more complicated, albeit still disturbing.

Lehmann sees himself building on the work on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he says needs updating and revising in light of how “prosperity theology” has flourished in America. Weber believed that 17th century Calvinists, with their belief in predestination, strove for material success to reassure themselves that they were amongst the elect and not the damned. This isn’t logical—if one’s fate is already decided, one can’t alter it—but it makes psychological sense. It’s human nature to want to tilt the playing field.

In his groundbreaking Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt made a powerful case that Puritan uncertainty led to the British novel. Figures like Daniel Defoe scrutinized their lives meticulously for signs that they were amongst the elect, and their detailed journals morphed into novels. Think of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, whose constant fears about damnation lead to intense self-examination and incessant work. The result is a transformed island.

The old view of the American Puritans—that their faith declined with the material success of the republic—is wrong, Lehman says. Instead of American religion becoming secularized, he asserts that “the market was sanctified.” This continues on today and America remains a very religious nation. Even though church attendance has declined in the mainline denominations, the pews are full in the giant megachurches that preach a “theology of abundance.”

In these churches, the “frank celebration of wealth” has become a spiritual virtue. Those who attend these churches are charged to envision their “materially striving selves” as “their better spiritual selves.”

Lehmann says that this tendency has always present in certain strains of American Christianity. He particularly singles out Mormonism and American Gnosticism. The latter, which Harold Bloom has described as America’s major contribution to Christianity, preaches “a highly distilled and militantly individualistic version of the solitary Puritan encounter with the divine.” Seeing the individual soul as “tragically marooned in an alien and fallen created world,” American Gnostics

elevate themselves above the grubby demands of merely social existence, preferring to project their cosmic identities into a drama of redemption beyond history, in which they are reunited with the true, transcendent, and hidden God who authored their heroic destiny.

Lehmann notes that such a vision leads easily to “the Narcissistic Personality” and self-infatuation and allows “all manner of cultural evasions of unpleasant facts, from the cult of the redeemer nation to the smiling assurances of the prosperity gospel.” He describes the results as a money cult:

What sets the Money Cult apart is how closely the content of this potent American offshoot of Protestant faith now mirrors so many of the baseline assumptions of consumer capitalism. In this curious vision of a world turned upside down, America’s long-standing quest for the purified and restored version of true primitive Christian worship has produced the hulking megachurch and the spectacle-driven piety of the televangelist age. The social ethic of the New Testament–under which the poor were the true heirs to the planet, and early Christians held all property in common–has morphed into the prosperity gospel, which deems worldly success a direct sign of divine favor, and translates the ministry of Jesus into a battery of business stratagems and motivational slogans.

And

Today’s meritocrats insist with their own religious fervor that material reward gravitates naturally, by dint of a self-evidently benign spiritual force, to the most deserving most talented, and best-educated class of achievers, who have stayed faithfully attuned to the market’s higher dictates.

So Nemerov was responding to something deep in the American psyche after reading an Associated Press article about President Eisenhower’s pastor linking wealth and spirituality. I love where the poet compares backyard barbecues to burnt offerings and wonder whether he has in mind Jeremiah 6:20: “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me” (6:20). After all, he sounds at times like he’s channeling the prophet:

Boom!

By Howard Nemerov

SEES BOOM IN RELIGION, TOO


Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) –President Eisenhower’s pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of “unprecedented religious activity” caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.”

These fruits of material progress,” said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, “have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached.”

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it’s just one
religious activity after another: the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God’s great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.
 

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
When Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week’s vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.
 

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop’n’shop
‘n’pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name’s Sake, Amen.

Are you feeling as spiritually clogged as I am by this accumulation of material things and in need of some purifying fire. I turn again for aid to Dinah Morris, the preacher from George Eliot’s Adam Bede that I quoted last week. I didn’t get into the tough love part of her sermon in that post but, with Lehmann and Nemerov showing how we are twisting the Gospel, I feel the need for it now. Dinah, earnest soul that she is, has none of Nemerov’s cosmopolitan irony but gives the message to us straight:

“See!” she exclaimed, turning to the left, with her eyes fixed on a point above the heads of the people. “See where our blessed Lord stands and weeps and stretches out his arms towards you. Hear what he says: ‘How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’…and ye would not,” she repeated, in a tone of pleading reproach, turning her eyes on the people again. “See the print of the nails on his dear hands and feet. It is your sins that made them! Ah! How pale and worn he looks! He has gone through all that great agony in the garden, when his soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death, and the great drops of sweat fell like blood to the ground. They spat upon him and buffeted him, they scourged him, they mocked him, they laid the heavy cross on his bruised shoulders. Then they nailed him up. Ah, what pain! His lips are parched with thirst, and they mock him still in this great agony; yet with those parched lips he prays for them, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Then a horror of great darkness fell upon him, and he felt what sinners feel when they are for ever shut out from God. That was the last drop in the cup of bitterness. ‘My God, my God!’ he cries, ‘why hast Thou forsaken me?’

“All this he bore for you! For you—and you never think of him; for you—and you turn your backs on him; you don’t care what he has gone through for you. Yet he is not weary of toiling for you: he has risen from the dead, he is praying for you at the right hand of God—’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And he is upon this earth too; he is among us; he is there close to you now; I see his wounded body and his look of love.”

Then, focusing on the jewelry worn by one of her women listeners, she launches into an attack on vanity and consumption:

“Ah, poor blind child!” Dinah went on, “think if it should happen to you as it once happened to a servant of God in the days of her vanity. SHE thought of her lace caps and saved all her money to buy ’em; she thought nothing about how she might get a clean heart and a right spirit—she only wanted to have better lace than other girls. And one day when she put her new cap on and looked in the glass, she saw a bleeding Face crowned with thorns. That face is looking at you now”—here Dinah pointed to a spot close in front of Bessy—”Ah, tear off those follies! Cast them away from you, as if they were stinging adders. They ARE stinging you—they are poisoning your soul—they are dragging you down into a dark bottomless pit, where you will sink for ever, and for ever, and for ever, further away from light and God.”

Unlike the proponents of prosperity theology, Dinah does not see poverty as evidence that we are spiritual failures:

“Dear friends,” she said at last, “brothers and sisters, whom I love as those for whom my Lord has died, believe me, I know what this great blessedness is; and because I know it, I want you to have it too. I am poor, like you: I have to get my living with my hands; but no lord nor lady can be so happy as me, if they haven’t got the love of God in their souls. Think what it is—not to hate anything but sin; to be full of love to every creature; to be frightened at nothing; to be sure that all things will turn to good; not to mind pain, because it is our Father’s will; to know that nothing—no, not if the earth was to be burnt up, or the waters come and drown us—nothing could part us from God who loves us, and who fills our souls with peace and joy, because we are sure that whatever he wills is holy, just, and good.

“Dear friends, come and take this blessedness; it is offered to you; it is the good news that Jesus came to preach to the poor. It is not like the riches of this world, so that the more one gets the less the rest can have. God is without end; his love is without end—”

     Its streams the whole creation reach,
     So plenteous is the store;
     Enough for all, enough for each,
     Enough for evermore.

Riches are finite, God’s love in infinite. We need to remember that.

Further thought: I’ve written more positively about American Gnosticism in a previous post about Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, both of whom I see working within the tradition. As with most traditions, there is a light and a dark side.

I remember my dissertation advisor, J. Paul Hunter, warning about the dark side–the danger of solipsism–when he talked about Robinson Crusoe. When Crusoe thinks that earthquakes are sent from God to deliver a message to him, he is putting himself at the center of the universe. It’s interesting how Crusoe doesn’t seem to need other people whereas, in real life, a man stranded on a desert island by himself for 18 years would go mad. In America’s case, too much focus on the self  undermines the community.

Posted in Defoe (Daniel), Eliot (George), Nemerov (Howard) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Walmart Practices a Tom Sawyer Economy

Norman Rockwell, "Tom Sawyer"

Norman Rockwell, “Tom Sawyer”

Friday

Thanks to Tom Sullivan over at the Hullabaloo blog, I have a new way of seeing Walmart’s business practices. Because of the way the retail giant gets taxpayers to support its workforce, it can be described as practicing a “Tom Sawyer economy.” I have in mind, of course, the famous scene where Tom gets the other boys to whitewash his fence for him.

Sullivan quotes a Forbes article on how Walmart gets society to cover its costs:

Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report published to coincide with Tax Day, April 15.

Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of 400 national and state-level progressive groups, made this estimate using data from a 2013 study by Democratic Staff of the U.S. Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“The study estimated the cost to Wisconsin’s taxpayers of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, which often force workers to rely on various public assistance programs,” reads the report, available in full here.

“It found that a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year, or between $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.”

Sullivan notes that Walmart has also externalized the cost of theft prevention. It has an out-of-control theft problem, but rather than hire more people to watch over its items, it relies on the police. As a result, police forces around Wamarts often find themselves pushed to the limits. Shannon Pettypiece of Bloomberg Business Week told NPR about her interviews with various police forces:

“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.”

Pettypiece added,

Walmart says they’re trying to do things like put more employees at the door. They’ve been trying to invest in theft prevention technology, devices they can put on merchandise or more, you know, visible security monitors. The police complaint is that they’re not moving fast enough, and they’re not moving far enough.

And I talked to one retail analyst who thinks Walmart needs to add an extra quarter million part-time employees in its stores to really have the employee presence out on the floor that would deter theft. And for Walmart, that’s going to cost them billions of dollars to fix this problem like some people would like to see.

If this is a Tom Sawyer economy and Walmart is Tom, then we taxpayers are Ben Rogers and the other suckers. Ben is the first to see Tom at work and is astounded at what he sees:

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

Come to think of it, this captures how, time and again, many state and local governments give corporations large tax breaks to locate there. The companies devour the apple and pocket the goodies as we whitewash their fence–which is to say, construct infrastructure, provide services, and staff schools. They show little gratitude for these amenities, however, and depart as soon as they find a sweeter deal elsewhere. We, meanwhile, are left with weather-beaten boards and unemployed whitewashers.

Of course, we could force companies to pay their way and to return the tax monies if they up and leave. Guess which of our two political parties would like to see that happen.

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Welcome Class of 2020 (and Others)

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

The tower of Michel de Montaigne

Letter to an Entering College Class:

As you prepare to enter into the classes, the residence hall life and social life, the activities, the sports teams, and the other opportunities that St. Mary’s College of Maryland offers, it’s useful to look at the university ideal and why colleges are set up as they are.

I could go back to Plato’s Academy, founded 2500 years ago, but I’m going to focus instead on the chateau of Michel de Montaigne, the 17th century French writer famous for his reflective essays. Montaigne was an active military man, but at a certain point he retired from the service and withdrew into a tower that housed his library. While there he reflected upon the world, writing essays about everything from revenge to sexual impotence to his cat. His “essais,” loosely translated as “attempts,” changed the way we see writing.

The idea of college as a safe place to reflect upon the world continues today. In our case, college is a bucolic retreat, a school set in a beautiful natural setting where one can escape from what William Wordsworth described as “the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world.” We seek to offer you a congenial space where you can engage in higher order thinking.

But that being said, it is also true that the so-called “real world,” with all its problems, can’t be entirely shut out. This invariably comes as a shock to us. After all, weren’t we promised a safe space?

Fortunately, St. Mary’s offers you intellectual tools for understanding what the world is as it is. In your history classes you will study instances of conflict throughout the ages.  In your psychology classes you will study why people behave the way they do. In your sociology and anthropology classes you will study why societies are constructed as they are. In your biology classes you will study genetic imperatives. In your Cultural Perspectives classes you will study how cultures very different from your own operate.       

And that’s not all. In “the St. Mary’s Way” we have a code that calls upon us to respect and listen—really listen—to each other.

To be sure, we don’t always live up to our ideals. After all, we ourselves come from this real world and bring with us many of its anxieties, fears, insecurities, and prejudices. That’s only to be expected. But because we have these ideals, we have a framework for working through our issues.

Someone who speaks powerfully to this matter is Lucille Clifton, whose poems you have undoubtedly seen as you’ve walked around campus. Lucille, as we all called her, taught at St. Mary’s for almost twenty years, and she has long been one of America’s most beloved poets. This is in large part because she sympathizes with people going through tough times. Clifton has poems that help large women feel better about their big hips, abuse victims better about their bodies, and women in general feel better about biologically induced mood swings. People of color experiencing racist attacks have found solace in Lucille’s poetry, and she has also helped us experience the perspective of autistic children. Lucille’s poems have appeared on California billboards and New York subway trains to sustain people.

Lucille understood that honest conversations, difficult though they are, in the end make us better able to create a world that will honor us all. Once we step beyond our fear and our anger, we begin to see the full potential of each human being. At that point, we can begin looking for ways to support him or her.

St. Mary’s can’t entirely build a Montaigne tower to protect you from this world. Even though we have a requirement—Experiencing the Liberal Arts in the World—that is designed to alert you to how you can apply your training to the outside world, and even though we have an active Career Center to help you transition into that world, ultimately there will be shocks along the way. The world is a challenging environment.

Our role is to give you the tools you need to develop your own ways of understanding it and finding your way through it. You will “learn how to learn,” and we will also provide opportunities for you to practice what you are learning in a variety of situations, whether in a class, a student organization, or just a casual lunchroom conversation. If you add these to your life’s toolkit, you’ll be okay.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Montaigne (Michel de), Wordsworth (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Teachers, Don’t Nip Their Buds

Vincent van Gogh, "The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin)," 1888

Vincent van Gogh, “The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin),” 1888

Thursday

The children and teachers in our Maryland county public schools started school yesterday so here’s a William Blake poem to mark the occasion. Think of it as a protest against bad schooling rather than against all schooling. After all, education at its best taps into our natural love of learning and enlivens rather than deadens. A good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.

Blake, however, saw many M’Choakumchilds (to borrow the figure from Dickens’s Hard Times), which is why he inveighs against people and systems that nip young buds before they can blossom. “The Schoolboy” appears in Songs of Experience and shares themes with “The Chimney Sweeper” (“They clothed me in the clothes of death,/And taught me to sing the notes of woe”) and “The Garden of Love” (“And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, /And binding with briars my joys and desires”). The image of the bird in the case, meanwhile, shows up in “Proverbs of Hell”: “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”

May all of us who are teachers keep our eyes on the prize–which is to nourish young people.

The Schoolboy

By William Blake

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

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Lochte, White Privilege, & the Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

Wednesday

I’ve never liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, where a tree takes masochistic delight in her lifelong devotion to a boy who, when he becomes a man, exploits her and ultimately reduces her to a stump. A classic enabler, she is “happy” regardless of what he does to her. Having read the story meant that I could appreciate a recent Alexandra Petri column in The Washington Post. Petri sees a version of the man in Ryan Lochte, the American gold medal swimmer who played to the hilt the role of the ugly American in the Brazil Olympics. She also applies the story to Brock Turner.

As you probably know, Lochte vandalized a gas station bathroom, which drew the attention of the police. He later claimed that he had been robbed at gunpoint, but the story fell apart fairly quickly and something resembling the truth came out. Brazil, which is fighting against Western stereotypes, was offended, and the whole affair left a stain on what was otherwise a stellar U.S. performance in this year’s games.

For his part, Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman but received a six month sentence because the judge felt sorry for him. Many observed that he would have received a harsher sentence had he been poor or a person of color.

Petri titles her column “Ryan Lochte and the Privilege Tree.” In her version of the parable, Lochte commits one outrage after another but is always protected by his privilege. She makes clear how, if he were black, he would not receive such a tolerant reception. Here’s a sampling. The gun incident, of course, is an allusion to Tamir Rice, the Cleveland 12-year-old who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun:

One day the boy was hungry. “Tree,” said the boy, “I am hungry.”

“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Go to the corner store and steal some candy and run back here to me.”

And the boy did. He filled his pockets with candy and ran back to the tree as quickly as he could. The man who owned the store chased after him, but when he saw the boy beneath his tree he shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and the theft did not go on his permanent record. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)

The boy grew older. “Tree,” said the boy one day, “I am bored.”

“I know what to do,” the tree said. “Pluck one of my branches and carve it into a toy gun and wave it around. That will amuse you.”

And the boy did. And the tree sheltered him under its thick leafy canopy of privilege and everyone who saw him shrugged and said, “Boys will be boys.” And there were no consequences, and the tree protected him, and no one even thought to telephone the police. (For, after all, he was just a boy.)

Petri’s story concludes with the ending of white privilege, which forces Lochte to face up to consequences:

And the boy grew very old and so did the tree. One day the boy heard his tree creaking in the wind.

“What is the matter, tree?” the boy asked. “Are you all right?”

“No,” the tree said, and shivered. “I am not. Trees like me should be for children, not grown men. Look.” And the tree pointed, and the boy saw for the first time that there were not many trees like his still standing. “I ought to have been cut down long ago.”

“Cut down?” the boy asked, and for the first time in his life the boy was frightened. “But then what will happen to me if I do something wrong?”

The tree shrugged. “The same thing that happens to everyone else,” it said. And the tree groaned and fell.

And the boy saw that the world was not quite so wonderful when you could not shelter anywhere better than a Reasonable Doubt Shrub (which is nice, but nothing like a Privilege Tree). And the boy saw that it was not he who was wonderful, but his tree, which had protected him for so long, without his realizing it. And the boy, at last, grew up.

Some say.

I believe that Trumpism and the rise of the extreme right are, above all, the result of a white temper tantrum over the browning of America. Petri points out that white privilege may not be around too much longer to protect those who have long taken advantage of it.

Posted in Silverstein (Shel) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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