Trump Policy Is Oliver Twist Redux

Cruikshank, Oliver Twist asks for more


According to a number of rightwingers, the Trump policy to separate children from their immigrant parents is actually humane. Fox News’ Laura Igraham wins some kind of award for asserting that the kids are being “temporarily housed at what are, essentially, summer camps,” while Breitbart editor Joel Pollak referred to the cages housing some of the children as “chain-link partitions.” Charles Dickens targets such people in Oliver Twist

Dickens accuses newborn Oliver of violating the poor laws by being born to an unwed mother, just as many of the immigrants entering the United States are violating our laws (this according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions) by fleeing violence. In the novel, the authorities “magnanimously and humanely” “farm” Oliver off to a workhouse:

For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in ‘the house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing…

The Trump administration doesn’t even have the excuse that the interned children are orphans as it essentially orphans them itself, thereby denying them “the consolation and nourishment” of family. Furthermore, in Trump’s recent executive order to keep families together—which just stops a policy that he himself instituted—there is no talk of reuniting the children who have already been separated.

Just so America’s own poor don’t feel left out, the GOP is planning more pain for them as well. In an irony that Dickens wouldn’t hesitate to expose, the House Republicans have just released their “Brighter American Future” plan to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, and other social safety net programs in order to balance a budget that they themselves threw out of whack with their tax cuts for the wealthy:

The House Republican budget, titled “A Brighter American Future,” would remake Medicare by giving seniors the option of enrolling in private plans that compete with traditional Medicare, a system of competition designed to keep costs down but dismissed by critics as an effort to privatize the program. Along with other changes, the budget proposes to squeeze $537 billion out of Medicare over the next decade.

The budget would transform Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor, by limiting per capita payments or allowing states to turn it into a block-grant program — the same approach House Republicans took in their legislation that passed last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act (the repeal effort died in the Senate, but the GOP budget assumes that the repeal takes place). It also proposes adding work requirements for certain adults enrolled in Medicaid. Changes to Medicaid and other health programs would account for $1.5 trillion in savings.

Social Security comes in for more modest cuts of $4 billion over the decade, which the budget projects could be reached by eliminating concurrent receipt of unemployment benefits and Social Security disability insurance.

The budget also proposes a number of other cost-saving measures, some of which could prove unpopular if implemented, such as adding more work requirements for food-stamp and welfare recipients…

[Update: The House just narrowly passed a bill requiring stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients.]

One goal of work requirements is to lessen the number of people applying for assistance, which brings costs down, even though more people go hungry and fail to get medical attention. GOP lawmakers know well that, the harder it is to get help, the more money the state saves. Recall that the Speaker of the House is a man who once publicly worried that the social safety net is a hammock and that Democrats were offering the poor “a full stomach and an empty soul.” Paul Ryan and his House colleagues will find themselves described in Dickens’s novel:

The members of this [workhouse] board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. ‘Oho!’ said the board, looking very knowing; ‘we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.’ So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors’ Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

The major goal of today’s GOP is to redistribute wealth upwards. They get in trouble when their cruelty becomes too obvious.

Further thoughts: A New Yorker article about a physician encountering an eight-year-old in immigrant detention provides another disturbing parallel with Oliver Twist. First, from the New Yorker piece:

“I asked the clinician, ‘When is this child going to be reunited with his parents?’ He was evasive. First it was ‘Oh, well, we don’t know.’ And then it was ‘Well, he won’t be reunited with his parents unless he behaves.’ The lack of compassion was scary, and it didn’t seem like there was really a plan.

“This boy seemed devastated—quiet and withdrawn. He barely spoke. I asked if he needed a hug. I kneeled down in front of the recliner, and this kid just threw himself into my arms and didn’t let go. He cried and I cried. And to think he’s been in a facility for a month without a hug, away from his parents, and scared, and not knowing when he’ll see them again or if he’ll see them again. While I held him, I heard the men standing behind me muttering that I was ‘rewarding his bad behavior.’ 

Here’s Oliver’s interview with the workhouse authorities:

‘What’s your name, boy?’ said the gentleman in the high chair.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

‘Boy,’ said the gentleman in the high chair, ‘listen to me. You know you’re an orphan, I suppose?’

‘What’s that, sir?’ inquired poor Oliver.

‘The boy is a fool—I thought he was,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

‘Hush!’ said the gentleman who had spoken first. ‘You know you’ve got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by the parish, don’t you?’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.

‘What are you crying for?’ inquired the gentleman in the white waistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What could the boy be crying for?

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Hair That Jumps Up and Dances

I’m currently spending a few days helping take care of my three granddaughters as their parents teach summer school and prepare to move the family into their first house. Last night I watched as Candice worked on the girls’ hair so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it when we got up in the morning.

Not that I would have known what to do with it, not having had any daughters of my own, much less daughters with “black hair.” My son Toby has been keeping me up to date in his own crash course. Esmé has tight kinky hair, Etta fine hair, and Eden something in between, and each head of hair must be treated in its own way if it is not to become hopelessly tangled.

I’m thinking that some day, when they are older, the girls will thrill to Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hair.” As with “homage to my hips,” Clifton turns a prevailing aesthetic on its head in what was her lifelong quest to support oppressed people feeling down on themselves. The poem appear in 1975.

homage to my hair

By Lucille Clifton

when I feel her jump up and dance
i hear the music! my God
i’m talking about my nappy hair!
she is a challenge to your hand
black man,
she is as tasty on your tongue as good greens
black man,
she can touch your mind
with her electric fingers and
the grayer she do get, good God,
the blacker she do be! 

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Dante’s Place for GOP “Moderates”

Gustave Doré, “Limbo”


E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post, one of the most broad-minded and tolerant columnists writing today, unloads on Republican moderates in a recent post, an indication of the degree to which they have abdicated their responsibilities. John McCain, Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, and a number of corresponding House Republicans may talk a good game, but their failure to stand up to Trump in any meaningful way makes them candidates for Dante’s first circle of hell.

Dionne writes,

Last week, South Carolina state legislator Katie Arrington ousted stoutly conservative Rep. Mark Sanford in a Republican primary by arguing that he was insufficiently loyal to the president. Arrington proudly declared: “We are the party of President Donald J. Trump.”

She’s right. And those Republicans who still proclaim their allegiance to moderation and civility lack the gumption to do anything about it.

Take, for instance, the refusal of Maine’s Susan Collins (R) to take a strong stand against Border Patrol separating mother and children:

First, from the experience of previous administrations, it does not act as a deterrent to use children in this fashion,” the Maine Republican said. “And second, and much more important, it is inconsistent with our American values to separate these children from their parents unless there is evidence of abuse or another very good reason.”

Collins also said a bill proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) and others to end the practice is too broad in its approach.

“Well first of all, let me say that I know Sen. Feinstein cares deeply about these children. She is a very compassionate person. But her legislation is not the answer. It is far too broad.”

If it’s too broad, then the solution is to work hard to find legislation that can pass, not just blame both sides as though one were helpless. Collins similarly refused to use her leverage on the tax bill to fight for Maine residents who need health care. (She got a vague promise from Mitch McConnell, only to see him renege on it.) Pairing up with two or more Republican “moderates,” she could force any number of issues. Instead, time and again, she chooses to do nothing.

Immediately after passing through the gates of hell, Dante encounters “the melancholy souls of those who lived withouten infamy or praise.” He groups these in with the angels who tried to sit out the Battle of Heaven between Lucifer and the good angels.  As Dante puts it, they care more for self than any cause:

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
  Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
  Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

These figures are rejected, not only by heaven, but by hell as well. As a result, they live a “blind life” between the two realms. Their eternal regret is not to have made commitments:

And I: “O Master, what so grievous is 
To these, that maketh them lament so sore?” 
He answered: “I will tell thee very briefly. 

These have no longer any hope of death; 
And this blind life of theirs is so debased, 
They envious are of every other fate. 

No fame of them the world permits to be; 
Misericord and Justice both disdain them. 
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass.”

Dante’s guide would rather move on to other topics than spend a moment more on such people. Dante says of them that “they never were alive,” and the gadflies and hornets that cause them to cry incessantly may stand in for their incessant regrets. Naked, they can no longer hide between Collins-like equivocation.

If these are times that try men’s (and women’s souls), a lot of our leaders are coming up short.

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Why an Af-Am Meg Is Important

Storm Reid in “Wrinkle in Time”


Last week our church sponsored the recent film version of Wrinkle in Time, which is providing the theme of this summer’s Vacation Bible School. Writing for The New York Times, African American author Salamisha Tillets says that casting Meg as an African American girl has a great deal of significance.

Tillet observes that the novel politically awakened a whole generation of white girls in the sixties and seventies. For instance, producer of the film Ava DuVernay notes the importance of Meg being “stronger than her father” and how, “for some of us, it planted the seeds of the women’s movement.”

Pamela Paul, meanwhile, writing about the significance of the book for The New York Times in 2012, noted the importance of “intense literary character identification” for bookish girls and wrote that identifying with Meg led to “the most startling transformation.” “It was under L’Engle’s influence that we willed ourselves to be like Meg Murry,” she wrote.

Tillet, however, remembers a more mixed relationship:

But for African-American girls like me, identification with Meg was not as easy. Even as we saw parts of ourselves in Meg’s heroism, we also had to resist our own invisibility in a novel that was unable or unwilling to imagine any people of color as inhabitants of the many planets, including Earth, to which its characters traveled. 

The issue of literary identification is a fascinating one. On the one hand, one doesn’t have to match up entirely with a character to identify. When I was 11, I related to few characters more intensely than I did to Shakespeare’s Viola, in large part because of her male exterior and female interior. Although I am not transgender, I was a sensitive boy who didn’t play football (a teacher once called me “a sissy”), and in Viola I recognized the conflict.

Likewise, I bonded with Jane Eyre as a freshman in a military high school. I too knew what it felt like to be bullied and hazed.

But that being said, it’s also true that one must sometimes contort oneself (to use Tillet’s verb) to identify with certain characters, even those one loves. After all, gender, class, race, and sexual preference are major identity markers. Often we aren’t aware of our contortions until we encounter a character who captures our full reality. When that happens, it’s as though we suddenly realize we’ve been seeing the world in black and white whereas it’s actually technicolor.

I think of a reading experience recounted by Samuel Delany, the first African American author to break through the formerly white wall of science fiction writing. Delany fixated upon a minor character that Isaac Asimov mentioned, in passing, as having a dusky complexion. For Delany, this symbolically meant there was a place for him in this world.

Seeing an African American Meg, Tillet writes, has given her a similar validation and, in the process, unleashed more of the novel’s power:

It is still my favorite from childhood, but now, rather than contort myself into Meg, I am able to see how the novel’s play with time and space continues to influence me as an African-American writer. I’m obsessed with how people, events and cultural objects from the past shape our understandings of race and gender in the present. A Wrinkle in Time might not ask the same questions that I do now, but it was the first novel I ever read that explored multiple time dimensions and gave me permission to imagine history as incomplete, unfolding, and a phenomenon with hopes that can be taken up by successive generations.

There’s a difference for Tillet between the novel symbolically opening up new life possibilities—she instinctively grasped that before—and doing so through an African American protagonist. Suddenly the possibilities seem a bit more real when they involve people who look like you.

It have three brown-skinned granddaughters who I can imagine falling in love with Meg some day, just as they have already fallen in love with Moana. The film, I now see, will enhance the reading experience.

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Trump, a Kane-Type Narcissist

Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”


One comment in particular jumped out at me in Donald Trump’s press conference about the North Korea summit, in part because it reminded me of a line in the president’s favorite film. When an understandably skeptical press wondered whether Kim Jung-un would follow through on promises to denuclearize, Trump replied,

I think he will do these things. I may be wrong. I may stand before you in six months and say, hey, I was wrong. I don’t know I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some excuse.

In other words, if things go badly—and they well might—then he’ll spin the failure away in some way. We know enough about Trump to know he’ll never say he was wrong.

In Trump’s beloved Citizen Kane, a toadying Bernstein at one point reminds Kane that he has promised to buy a lot more statues and pictures in Europe. With a roguish smile, Kane replies, “You don’t expect me to keep any of those promises.” He is charming and funny when he says it and everyone laughs, but in the scene we see a man who thinks he can play fast and loose with promises and is confident that people will love him regardless of what he does.

It is the ultimate con: you tell your marks that you con people and, instead of distrusting you, they feel in on the game. It’s as though you’ve granted them a special place of honor close to you.

Kane never loses Bernstein’s loyalty, but Jed Leland is another matter. While he’s willing to play Kane’s “stooge” for a long time, he pulls away when he recognizes the full scale of Kane’s narcissism (on election night) and then precipitates a crisis rather than sell his artistic soul (he refuses to praise the singing of Susan Alexander). He recognizes that this man who creates his own reality—“You provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war,” Kane tells his correspondent in Havana—is addicted to adulation. As Leland tells him,

You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.

And earlier:

You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered.

Inside Kane is a vast emptiness that can never be filled and he dies bitter and alone. That makes his story a sad one. His narcissism becomes dangerous when it is linked with political power. Kane’s relationship with Hitler and Mussolini, which we see in a newsreel, is reminiscent of Trump’s regard for authoritarians like Kim Jung-un, Putin, Erdogan, and Duarte. In the film, Kane downplays the damage they can do when asked by reporter about “the chances for war in Europe.” Kane replies with supreme confidence,

I’ve talked with the responsible leaders of the Great Powers – England, France, Germany, and Italy – they’re too intelligent to embark on a project which would mean the end of civilization as we now know it. You can take my word for it. There’ll be no war.

One believes such men because of their confidence, not because they understand what’s going on.

Of more interest to me than either Trump or Kane, however, is why so people embrace authoritarian narcissists. In that regard, I think Margaret Atwood is onto something in her Circe/Mud poems. There she explores why Circe, a powerful island sorceress, rolls over before Odysseus, even though he takes everything from her. Circe finds herself enchanted by a man who knows “how to take.” Think of her as a Trump idolater in the following lines:

There are so many things I want
you to have.  This is mine this
tree, I give you its name,

here is food, white like roots, red,
growing in the marsh, on the shore,
I pronounce these names for you also.

This is mine, this island, you can have
the rocks, the plants
that spread themselves flat over
the thin soil, I renounce them.

You can have this water
this flesh, I abdicate,

I watch you, you claim
without noticing it,
you know how to take.

Note the awe in Circe’s voice in those last three lines. Maybe that’s the power of a narcissist when he’s on a roll: he is so focused on himself that he reassures insecure souls looking for certainty. They love him, not in spite of his authoritarian leanings, but because of them. “Every woman adores a fascist/The boot in the face,” Sylvia Plath famously writes in a poem about her German father.

Authoritarian figures get away with stuff because weak people are enthralled with them. Education is key to creating strong men and women that can resist their lure, but that’s hardly an immediate solution to our present dilemma.

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Blake on Bible-Citing Politicians

The Attorney General cites Romans 13 to justify harsh immigration policies

Spiritual Sunday

We have gotten to the point where the attorney general is citing the Bible to justify ripping children from the arms of their mothers, many of whom are themselves fleeing possible murder and rape. In the past, this is when poets like William Blake have stepped forward.

Jeff Sessions gave the following defense of his policies:

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” Sessions said during a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.” 

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on the Biblical reference:

“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” she said. “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”

A Washington Post article noted that rightwing use of Romans 13 to defend oppressive measures is not new:

“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.”

The other, Fea said, “is in the 1840s and 1850s, when Romans 13 is invoked by defenders of the South or defenders of slavery to ward off abolitionists who believed that slavery is wrong. I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”

Apparently the passage has also been used to justify “authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.”

In another twisted use of the Bible, Republicans have cited it while cutting the social safety net:

Government officials occasionally refer to the Bible as a line of argument — take, for instance, the Republicans who have quoted 2 Thessalonians (“if a man will not work, he shall not eat”) to justify more stringent food stamps requirements.

In Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake lacerates the state and the church for teaming up against the vulnerable. The Church, Blake points out, mandates that people docilely follow the State, even when it consigns children to an early death as chimney sweepers. In his two “Holy Thursday” poems (Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper), he calls out the Church for providing religious cover for child cruelty.

In the first, “grey-headed beadles” herd poor children to church, who in their innocence give their hearts to Jesus. Blake sarcastically calls these men “wise guardians of the poor.”

In the Songs of Experience companion poem, Blake exposes as a shameful abomination the sanctimony that we are getting from people like Sessions and Sanders:

Is this a holy thing to see
   In a rich and fruitful land,—
Babes reduced to misery,
   Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
   Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
   It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
   And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns,
   It is eternal winter there.

For where’er the sun does shine,
   And where’er the rain does fall,
Babe can never hunger there,
   Nor poverty the mind appall.

I see that leading Catholic bishops have roundly condemned the Trump administration’s immigration policy. It’s time for Trump’s evangelical supporters to do so as well. And for Congress as well.

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Becoming Clever at Age Six

E. H. Shepard, “Now We Are Six”


My oldest granddaughter turns six today and my grandson turned six in January so I send out this A. A. Milne poem to the two of them. My educator wife says that the poet gets the age just right. In their early years, children can’t remember who they were, nor can they see their lives in any larger framework. By the time they are six, however, they can probably remember back to at least four, which allows them to make comparisons and begin predicting how the world works.

At six, they are also cracking the code of reading, which opens up an independent world of learning so that all information doesn’t come just from their parents.  This allows them to see themselves as having a role to play in events and decision-making. Full days at school also help them see themselves as part of something beyond family.

At the same time, first grade does not impose the harsh grading judgments that later grades will. Which means that staying six forever and ever sounds pretty good.

The End

By A. A. Milne

When I was one,
I had just begun.

When I was two,
I was nearly new.

When I was three,
I was hardly me.

When I was four,
I was not much more.

When I was five,
I was just alive.

But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

Happy birthday, Esmé and Alban.

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Retirement Changes How Time Feels


I concluded my British Fantasy course with Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time, which is helping me understand my own changing relationship with time now that I have retired. I can’t do full justice to Pratchett’s wild and wandering book in a single blog post (here’s a previous post), but I can explain how Pratchett’s general theme bears on my own changed life.

Pratchett plays with subjective dimensions of time, how time can seem to slow down or speed up depending on what one is doing. Because humans depend on a fair degree of regularity, Pratchett imagines Tibetan-like “monks of time,” who watch over time cylinders and shuttles to make sure that time is more or less evenly spaced out. Sometimes, when time threatens to spiral out of control, the monks dump time in places where it won’t do any damage (say, in prehistoric times) or borrow time from times where it won’t be noticed. The cylinders, incidentally, are called “Procrastinators,” after the passage from 18th century poet Edward Young’s  Night Thoughts that “procrastination is the thief of time.” Here’s an instance of the monks of time at work:

Lobsang ran his eye over the board again, and stared up at the rumbling cylinders, and then back to the lines of shutters.

There wasn’t anything written down about all this, Lu-Tze knew. You couldn’t teach it in a classroom, although they tried. A good spin driver learned it through the soles of his feet, for all the theory that they taught you these days. He’d learn to feel the flows, to see the rows of Procrastinators as wells or fountains of time. Old Shoblang had been so good that he’d been able to pull a couple of hours of wasted time off a classroom of bored pupils without them even noticing, and dump it into a busy workshop a thousand miles away as neat as you pleased.

Unfortunately for humankind, the universe has bureaucratic auditors who don’t take kindly to how humans, through their subjectivity and imagination, mess up time. As far as the auditors are concerned, humans represent a threat to the steady clicking of the universe’s clock, and they want human time to stop.

If that occurred, however, we would experience the apocalypse because all that makes us human (free will, human development, art) would end. A cosmic battle against the auditors is enjoined by a coalition of various forces connected with humans, including the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We don’t normally see death, war, famine and pestilence as our allies, but these figure realize they owe their very personification as horse riders to the human imagination and they don’t want that to end. In the end, the auditors are defeated, which means that humans can go back to wasting time, making the most of time, and all the other things that we do with time.

The major change in my own relationship with time is that,  in the past, if I wasn’t writing at this point in the summer, I knew I would regret it once August rolled around. Like many scholars, I would go into each summer with great ambitions—summer is the only really unbroken time that professors have—and I would invariably be disappointed that I didn’t accomplish all I wanted. Spending seven days organizing my mother’s library would have seemed like I was squandering time.

So I feel a strange  sense of inner conflict. Part of me is worried when I spend time “unproductively” and part of me feels deliciously liberated, and I don’t know how to reconcile the two. I’ve been told that I won’t really feel retired until classes begin in September, so we’ll see.

And then I wonder if, once September truly arrives, I will lose my current sense of urgency and, if so, whether this will be a good thing or a bad thing. Now that I don’t have to answer to anyone about productivity, will I be float free? Or will eventual incapacity or death stand in as my new September? I’ve been calling retirement “my permanent sabbatical,” but does that mean I will feel the need to present my sabbatical report to the grim reaper?

And if I no longer feel a sense of urgency, will I lose an important prod? There’s a haunting image in Ruth Rendell’s Solomon’s Carpet of a hunting falcon that has stopped flying, leading its owner to feed it less so that it will maintain its edge. The owner is tormented by its cries, however:

He worried about the bird’s weight, that if he did not fly he would gain weight and perhaps never fly again, so he restricted his food even further and Abelard screamed. Sometimes Jed thought he could see misery and despair in the hawk’s eyes, a desperate craving for food, as if there passed through his small, limited avian mind a knowledge that all there was in life for him was food and if he could not have it, or have enough of it, the stretching years ahead would be a slow, unrelieved torture.

How’s that for an image of retirement—“slow, unrelieved torture”? When Jed learns, however, that the bird is not dying but has a virus that prevents it ever from flying again, he is relieved. Now he can feed the bird all he wants, just as retirement can feed me with wasted time without my ever having to account for it.

This being a creepy Rendell novel, however, there’s a catch. By the end, Jed himself is going hungry so that he can feed his bird. With human beings, there is always some form of hunger, some form of compulsion, involved:

[N]ow he could keep Abelard in his room and feed him unrestrictedly. He could make the hawk happy. He could make the thing he loved endlessly happy. And it would be nearly endless, there was no reason why Abelard should not live twenty, thirty years. Close, side by side, day and night, they would live together in this room or some other like it somewhere, in companionable silence. The hawk would never fly again.

In a happiness that seemed to have come in the simplest and clearest possible way, jed sat watching the bird on its perch. He saw relishing his decision. After a long time, when Abelard opened an eye, Jed went to the cupboard and took out the meat he had intended for his own supper.

In other words, give me unrestrained time and I will find some discipline, not necessarily healthy, to constrain myself.

Constraint could involve filling up every moment with activity. Like Jed’s hawk, I feel that I’m supposed to fly again, and there has been almost no sitting around. Using Pratchett’s framework, I am pumping time into the Procrastinators, so if you, dear reader, have been wasting time, rest assured that I have you covered. Between us, the monks of time will have an easy time of it.

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What Our Libraries Reveal about Us


Today, had he lived, my father would be 95. (He died five years ago.) I’ve been thinking a lot about him over the past week as I have been merging my library with his and my mother’s 30,000 books and have seen his life laid before me in all the books he owned. Today I write about what they tell us about him.

As you can see from the picture, my parents have bookcases that rise from waist-level cabinets to the 14-foot ceiling of their large family room. To access the uppermost books, they have three library ladders. All of the shelves are full, which means that merging the two collections required a fair amount of culling. While Julia, my mother and I didn’t pass judgment on every book in the collection, we judged enough to fill over 25 boxes to donate to local libraries. This in turn opened up enough space for the roughly 25 boxes of books that I brought with me and that represented about a third of my own original collection.

In assessing my father from his books, I think about Dr. Watson trying to figure out what his new roommate does for a living:

I was on the point of asking him what [his] work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him. I enumerated in my own mind all the various points upon which he had shown me that he was exceptionally well-informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down. I could not help smiling at the document when I had completed it. It ran in this way—


–Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
–Botany.—Variable.  Well up in belladonna,
                    opium, and poisons generally.
                   Knows nothing of practical gardening.
–Geology.—Practical, but limited.
                               Tells at a glance different soils
                               from each other.  After walks has
                               shown me splashes upon his trousers,
                               and told me by their colour and
                               consistence in what part of London
                               he had received them.
–Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
–Sensational Literature.—Immense.  He appears
                           to know every detail of every horror
                              perpetrated in the century.
–Plays the violin well.
–Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
–Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair. “If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling all these accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all,” I said to myself, “I may as well give up the attempt at once.”

Here’s the information provided an outsider from my parents’ collection:

Above all, there’s a lot of literature.  Before the merger, there were 35 shelves filled with French literature and literary criticism, 16 with children’s literature, 20 with classic fiction, 12 with poetry (many of the books inscribed), 10 with drama, two with creative non-fiction, five with genre fiction, six with art books and cartoons, seven with nature and bird books, and multiple shelves with books about Word War II, Paris, colleges, religion, myth, science, political protest, feminism, LBGTQ rights, and travel. There were also shelves and shelves of literary magazines and scholarly publications. In addition, many of the books were filled with decades-old letters, reviews, articles, and notes.

Making the sorting process difficult was the way that books often overflowed boundaries. My mother’s collection of fiction had been invaded by a number of my father’s science books. The poetry was so prolific that it pushed into corners one could barely reach even from a ladder. (Applegate and Auden were barely reachable.) I found myself wondering whether my father ever threw a book away, especially when I encountered old political pamphlets and atlases that only had 48 states.

Watson never figures out that Homes is a detective. My father, I can report, was

–a French professor, dedicated teacher, and world-class scholar;
–a prolific poet specializing in light verse;
–an enthusiastic painter (his paintings involved plywood and lots of nails although he also incorporated marbles, bolts, hinges, and other hardware into his work);
–an ardent birdwatcher;
–a World War II veteran;
–a passionate advocate for social justice;
–an atheist who loved arguing with religious people.

And what about all the children’s books? My father held on to a child’s sense of play to the very end. Given that he had witnessed horrors in World War II, including Dachau, I think he used these books to hold onto a child’s sense of innocence. His four sons were important to him in that project.

In short, my father was a Renaissance man who threw himself into intellectual and artistic pursuits while finding nourishment from nature. No wonder, then, that I spent so much of my life frustrated that I couldn’t step into his shoes. Not until I reached my thirties did I learn that my own shoes were perfectly fine.

Our challenge has been to turn the collection into a working library rather than maintaining it as a museum. We’ve made strides in that direction but, not wanting to erase my father altogether, have also set aside shelves to hold all of his publications. This has meant salvaging the journals and anthologies that hold his poetry (including an old tattered New Yorker) but throwing all the other journals away.

The culling hasn’t been as traumatic as purging my father’s research notes, which I did last December and which I’ve compared to act of parricide. Nevertheless, it has worn me out.

In addition to the books on the shelves, there are boxes and boxes of my father’s own poetry books, which I will be advertising here in the upcoming weeks. For the price of postage, you will be able to get Lupo’s Fables, Merry Green Peace, The ABC of Radical Ecology, Songs for the Queen of the Animals, ZYX of Political Sex, and other works. Stay tuned for details.

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The GOP and Trump’s Modest Proposals

Rowlandson, “Swift’s Modest Proposal”


A contemporary satirist has just riffed on A Modest Proposal to protest taking immigrant children away from their asylum-seeking parents. In “A Modest Proposal: The GOP Meets to Solve the Problem of Children Separated from Their Parents,” McSweeney’s Devor Blanchor has taken Swift’s satire one step further by imagining how people might actually respond to the Modest Proposer’s idea, at least if the proposer were Donald Trump and his audience were Republican Congress and Cabinet members.

Swift’s essay begins as follows:

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for alms.

Blanchor, writing in the voice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, begins her drama similarly:

Jeff Sessions: It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great country, when they see perfectly good warehouses fill up with the children of migrant workers.

Swift’s modest proposer, however, didn’t institute policies that would ensure children growing up in poverty whereas Sessions and Trump are actually ordering the separations. The New Yorker has a powerful article pointing out that Trump et. al. use the language of domestic abuse to defend the practice. They contend it’s not their fault they must be barbaric:

In the final scene of Frederick Wiseman’s landmark documentary Domestic Violence, police in Tampa arrive late at night to the home of a man who is drunk and a woman who is sick. The man has called the police because he is angry that the woman, who is desperate to sleep, is “neglecting” him. Minute by minute, it becomes chillingly clear that the man wants her removed from the house before his anger turns into physical violence. In his mind, the woman’s misdeeds—to be ill; to need rest; to wish to remain in her own home—transform him into an instrument of pain, one that she is choosing to wield against herself. He raises his hands over his head in a gesture of surrender. It’s all her fault. He can’t help it. One of the abuser’s most effective tricks is this inversion of power, at the exact moment that his victim is most frightened and degraded: Look what you made me do.

Look what you made me do has emerged as the dominant ethos of the current White House. During the 2016 Presidential race, many observers drew parallels between the language of abusers and that of Trump on the campaign trail. Since his election, members of the Trump Administration have learned that language, too, and nowhere is this more vivid than in the rhetoric they use to discuss the Administration’s policies toward the Central American immigrants crossing the U.S. border. Informally since last summer, and officially since April 6th, the Department of Homeland Security has been separating parents from their children at the border, taking the parents into criminal custody and handing the children over to the Department of Health and Human Services to be placed in shelters and foster families, sometimes thousands of miles away from their parents. The process is compounded in its brutality by its perhaps intentional disorder, as a Boston Globe piece detailed on Sunday: parents in custody often have no idea where their children are, how to get them back, or if or when they will see them again.

Put aside the savagery of Trump policy for a moment and look at how the GOP has responded to it. At the moment, it appears that Republicans will countenance pretty much anything that the president does (although they might have drawn a line had he opposed tax cuts for the wealthy). They may mumble quietly or send out an occasional disapproving tweet, but that’s the extent of it. Given a 51-49 split in the Senate, it would only take two Republican moderates to split with their party to make a difference, but none are willing to go that far.

Which is Blanchor’s point. In her updated modest proposal, Sessions puts forth Swift’s ultimate solution, adding in Swift’s language “which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” Also quoting “Modest Proposal,” Homeland Security Secretary Kierstyen Neilsen adds,

What can I do? The President is angry with me. But I think what Attorney General Sessions is getting at here is that whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

The subsequent GOP response will ring true to anyone who has been following politics these days:

Speaker Paul Ryan: Hang on. Before you suggest eating these children, is there any way to take care of Dreamers without alienating the GOP base?


Speaker Paul Ryan: No. I guess not. But won’t the base object if we stop treating these children like human beings? If we actually propose eating them as policy? I mean, is that really a line we can cross?

Sen. Jeff Flake: Please let me retire with a teeny bit of dignity. Please.


Speaker Paul Ryan: Mmmmm. Delicious cutting of entitlements. Sorry. What were you saying?

Sen. John McCain: We can’t do this, guys.

President Donald J. Trump: SHUT UP LOSER!

Former Presidential Aide Kelly Sadler: Don’t mind him. He’s dying anyway.

Vice President Mike Pence: We cannot eat homosexual children.


Among Swift’s points is that only an extreme proposal can awaken the public’s concern about poverty, which appears so normal that people have found ways to ignore it. Blanchor believes that Trump’s excesses have also been normalized. Can her satire awaken the conscience of any Republican lawmaker?

As if in answer, here’s a recent Los Angeles Times story that takes The New Yorker’s domestic abuse analogy and makes it literal:

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has ordered immigration judges to stop granting asylum to most victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, a move that could block tens of thousands of people, especially women, from seeking refuge in America.

Abusers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your souls.

Further note: In her most recent column, Maureen Dowd cites an appropriate Swift quote:

Jonathan Swift said, “A wise man should have money in his head but not in his heart.” The Trumps have green running through their veins.

They have succeeded in superseding conflicts of interest with confluences of interest. Ethics bore this crew. The White House is just another business opportunity.

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Finding Hope in Dark Times

Muriel Rukeyser


Paris Review reports that Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem” has been circulating recently, and it’s easy to understand why. As with the speaker, most mornings many of us check the newspapers that “pour out of various devices” and feel “more or less insane.” “Poem” may have been written 50 years ago but it feels as though it appeared yesterday.

Rukeyser (1913-1980) was an activist as well as a poet and cut her teeth at 18 covering the Scottsboro trial, the infamous 1931 case where several innocent black men were sentenced to death for raping white women. Throughout the subsequent years, Rukeyser wrote about many of the world’s horrors, including the Spanish American War, the Holocaust, and the Vietnamese War. Poetry Foundation notes that she has been compared to Walt Whitman for her social passion and her optimism.

“Poem” doesn’t begin optimistically, however. In the first seven lines, the poet sounds like one who has indeed lived through one of the bloodiest centuries in world history. 1968 was, of course, a particularly tempestuous year:

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

Rukeyser does not succumb to fatalism, however, but turns instead to poetry. She writes to those she does not see and those who have not yet been born, which already signals a certain faith in humankind and in the future. Her writing gives her reason to hope since it reminds her that, even in the most dreadful of circumstances, people have found ways to communicate with each other and to imagine better ways of living:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

The next line makes paradoxical use of light and dark imagery to capture how humans have found hope even at times when no hope seemed possible:

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves.

Note the intimate steps in Rukeyser’s plan of action. To imagine unimagined values, people must reach out to others, working to reconcile their dreams with reality and “ourselves with ourselves.”

Once we engage in such activities, we stop worrying about the practicalities of what we desire, “let[ting] go the means” and waking into new and unrealized possibilities. Once we “reach beyond ourselves,” we do not merely survive a century of world wars but live:

                                           We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Here’s the poem in its entirety. Turn to it when the world seems too much with you:


By Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

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Straying into the Holy Temple of the Lord

Helen Keller

Spiritual Sunday

In honor of Helen Keller, who died 50 years ago last week (June 1, 1968), here’s a poem of hers that I’ve shared in the past. “In the Garden of the Lord” takes on additional power with the knowledge that she was blind. The line from “Amazing Grace”–“I once was blind but now I see”—was more than a metaphor for Keller.

On the other hand, Keller’s use of color imagery is purely metaphorical (the tall lilies “lifting their faces like white saints to God”). In a fine New Yorker article, author Cynthia Ozick notes that that Keller responded brilliantly to those critics who thought she shouldn’t use color in her poetry because she didn’t know color:

Those who ridiculed her rendering of color she dismissed as “spirit-vandals” who would force her “to bite the dust of material things.” Her idea of the subjective onlooker was broader than that of physics, and while “red” may denote an explicit and measurable wavelength in the visible spectrum, in the mind it varies from the bluster of rage to the reticence of a blush: physics cannot cage metaphor.

Whatever her relation to color, there’s no question about her acquaintance with gratitude and joy.  Ozick says that irony was unbeknownst to Keller, who had experienced true darkness and so did not need ironic distancing to protect her. The way she mixes earnestness with emotional overflowing prompts Ozick to observe, “It is as if Tennyson and the transcendentalists had together got hold of her typewriter.”

The final result is Keller giving herself over fully to her emotions. One encounters in this poem a truly open heart.

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 and 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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Celebrating 45 Years of Marriage

Jacques Louis David, “Antoine Laurent and Marie Anne Lavoisier”


Today Julia and I celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary. This one has brought back memories of our first year as we are once again moving into a one-bedroom living space (my mother’s guest house this time), just as we did in August of 1973.  We are excited, as we were back then, at being together and launching into a new stage of life.

The poem is apt in a number of ways. Donne and his wife Anne are a long-married couple and, with Donne traveling, have been separated for a number of months. My Julia has been living with my mother in Tennessee for the past two years while I finished up teaching at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Like the couple in the poem, our relationship is quieter than it used to be—fewer tear-floods and sigh-tempests than in olden days—but it has deepened.

In the poem, that depth is conveyed in part by the contrast between earthquakes and “trepidation of the spheres.” The first are dramatic and can be readily witnessed whereas, when the stars move, the effects are invisible to most, even though the influence is greater.

Seeking vivid ways to convey their connection, Donne comes up with his two of his most celebrated metaphors, beaten gold and a geometrist’s compass. While Donne is traveling far from home, he says that a fine thread, invisible to the eye but still tangible, connects him to his wife. I felt this often in the months that Julia and I spent apart.

The compass points to a different kind of connection, a kind of sympathetic attraction. As I have come home, the compass has grown erect, with the two ends meeting at last. My circle ends as it began so many years ago during a Minnesota summer.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away, 
   And whisper to their souls to go, 
Whilst some of their sad friends do say 
   The breath goes now, and some say, No: 

So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; 
‘Twere profanation of our joys 
   To tell the laity our love. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using Lit to Battle Fake News

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “Writing the Declaration of Independence”


Few contemporary authors are better qualified to talk about “fake news” than Salman Rushdie. In a past post,  I discussed how he raises the issue in Midnight’s Children, at one point saying of Pakistan and its military dictatorship,

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

Therefore, I was not surprised that he would write a smart reflection for The New Yorker on novelists’ special responsibility in combatting Trumpism.

Rushdie starts the article with a telling exchange between Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I:

“What, art thou mad? Art thou mad?” Falstaff demands of Prince Hal, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. “Is not the truth the truth?” The joke, of course, is that he has been lying his head off, and the prince is in the process of exposing him as a liar.

In modern parlance, we could also say that Falstaff is gaslighting Hal. Rushdie observes that the passage is only too relevant to today’s politics:

In a time like the present, when reality itself seems everywhere under attack, Falstaff’s duplicitous notion of the truth seems to be shared by many powerful leaders. In the three countries I’ve spent my life caring about—India, the U.K., and the United States—self-serving falsehoods are regularly presented as facts, while more reliable information is denigrated as “fake news.”

Unfortunately, Rushdie says, we cannot return to some golden age where “truth was uncontested and universally accepted.” That’s because “truth has always been a contested idea.”

Rushdie gives a brief history of 19th century literary realism to make this point:

[I}n the nineteenth century there was a fairly widespread consensus about the character of reality. The great novelists of that time—Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and so on—could assume that they and their readers, broadly speaking, agreed on the nature of the real, and the grand age of the realist novel was built on that foundation. But that consensus was built on a number of exclusions. It was middle-class and white. The points of view of, for example, colonized peoples, or racial minorities—points of view from which the world looked very different to the bourgeois reality portrayed in, say, The Age of Innocence, or “Middlemarch, or “Madame Bovary—were largely erased from the narrative. The importance of great public matters was also often marginalized. In the entire œuvre of Jane Austen, the Napoleonic Wars are barely mentioned; in the immense œuvre of Charles Dickens, the existence of the British Empire is only glancingly recognized.

I’ve written several posts making this point (including this one), noting that figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Antonio Gramsci (writing about class), W. E. B. Du Bois and Chinua Achebe (writing about race), and Rachel Blau DuPlessis (writing about gender) have shaken up what previously passed for reality. In our pluralistic world, classic realism is no longer an option for authors who want to convey the truth of life. Rushdie mentions what has taken its place:

In the twentieth century, under the pressure of enormous social changes, the nineteenth-century consensus was revealed as fragile; its view of reality began to look, one might say, fake. At first, some of the greatest literary artists sought to chronicle the changing reality by using the methods of the realist novel—as Thomas Mann did in Buddenbrooks, or Junichiro Tanizaki in The Makioka Sisters—but gradually the realist novel seemed more and more problematic, and writers from Franz Kafka to Ralph Ellison and Gabriel García Márquez created stranger, more surreal texts, telling the truth by means of obvious untruth, creating a new kind of reality, as if by magic.

If the magical realism of García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Rushdie is so powerful, it is because it captures the modern world’s “conflicting and often incompatible narratives”:

I have argued, for much of my life as a writer, that the breakdown in the old agreements about reality is now the most significant reality, and that the world can perhaps best be explained in terms of conflicting and often incompatible narratives. In Kashmir and in the Middle East, and in the battle between progressive America and Trumpistan, we see examples of such incompatibilities. I have also maintained that the consequences of this new, argumentative, even polemical attitude to the real has profound implications for literature—that we can’t, or ought not to, pretend it isn’t there. I believe that the influence on public discourse of more, and more varied, voices has been a good thing, enriching our literatures and making more complex our understanding of the world.

Rushdie is aware of the conundrum at which he has arrived, however. If there are conflicting realities, then who determines which one should have precedence? What is to prevent an autocrat from declaring his own preferred reality as the truth and using the power of the state to back it up? Drawing on One Hundred Years of Solitude, yesterday I described Trump’s determination to dictate the reality of Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria. Here’s Rushdie setting forth the problem:

How can we argue, on the one hand, that modern reality has become necessarily multidimensional, fractured and fragmented, and, on the other hand, that reality is a very particular thing, an unarguable series of things that are so, which needs to be defended against the attacks of, to be frank, the things that are not so, which are being promulgated by, let’s say, the Modi Administration in India, the Brexit crew in the U.K., and the President of the United States? How to combat the worst aspects of the Internet, that parallel universe in which important information and total garbage coexist, side by side, with, apparently, the same levels of authority, making it harder than ever for people to tell them apart? How to resist the erosion in the public acceptance of “basic facts,” scientific facts, evidence-supported facts about, say, climate change or inoculations for children? How to combat the political demagoguery that seeks to do what authoritarians have always wanted—to undermine the public’s belief in evidence, and to say to their electorates, in effect, “Believe nothing except me, for I am the truth”? What do we do about that? 

Literature has a special role in combatting this, Rushdie says, and for that he draws on the idea of universal human nature, which was big in the 1950s and 1960s (think of Edward Steichen’s 1955 Family of Man exhibit) but then fell into disfavor with the deconstructionists and, after them, the new historicists. Rushdie writes,

[W]hen we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. We can make people agree, in this time of radical disagreement, on the truths of the great constant, which is human nature.

In my opinion, deconstruction was a useful skepticism, getting us to challenge received truths, but ultimately it descended into nihilistic relativism. New historicism, like cultural anthropology, had its own contributions to make and its own limitations. Rushdie argues that the truth we experience with great literature gives us a unifying foundation to fight back against tyranny:

[A]s far as writers are concerned, we need to rebuild our readers’ belief in argument from factual evidence, and to do what fiction has always been good at doing—to construct, between the writer and the reader, an understanding about what is real. I don’t mean to reconstruct the narrow, exclusive consensus of the nineteenth century. I like the broader, more disputatious view of society to be found in modern literature. But when we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. 

Rushdie concludes by referencing German authors following World War II. Having seen their society “poisoned by Nazism,” they wrote “rubble literature (“Trümmerliteratur”), which was literature designed to rebuild their shattered language and their shattered country. Authors face a similar call today:

We stand once again, though for different reasons, in the midst of the rubble of the truth. And it is for us—writers, thinkers, journalists, philosophers—to undertake the task of rebuilding our readers’ belief in reality, their faith in the truth. And to do it with new language, from the ground up.

Having taught two Rushdie novels this past semester, one in Magical Realism (Midnight’s Children) and one in British Fantasy (Two Years, Eight Months, and 28 Days), I can testify that he is doing his part. Fantasy, when combined with a deep understanding of human nature, gives us space to imagine healthy alternatives to the deadening realities that threaten to crush us. Rushdie acknowledges multiple cultural voices in his fictions, even while also capturing our shared humanity.

I won’t say that reading good contemporary literature will solve our problems. It is, however, a powerful ally as we mount a resistance.

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Trump Reality: Puerto Rico a Success

Aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico


The Trump administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Maria has all but vanished from the news, causing us to wonder whether Donald Trump really can shape reality. In the early days, after all, he boasted about his A+ response and compared his performance favorably to George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina:

We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the—every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous—hundred and hundred and hundreds of people that died. And you look at what happened here with really a storm that was totally overpowering. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And what is your death count at this point, 17? . . . Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.

This past week a Harvard study reported that the death toll was actually closer to 5000, with deaths continuing to come in because of damage to health care, infrastructure, and other basic services. For the Trump administration, however, it’s as though the disaster never happened.

In other words, the situation resembles the banana massacre in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In that work, the government massacres striking workers at an American-run plantation and then claims that no one died. The one survivor, Jose Areliano Secundo, returns to discover that the massacre has vanished into thin air:

The official version, repeated a thousand times and mangled out all over the country by every means of communication the government found at hand, was finally accepted: there were no dead, the satisfied workers had gone back to their families, and the banana company was suspending all activity until the rains stopped. Martial law continued with an eye to the necessity of taking emergency measures for the public disaster of the endless downpour, but the troops were confined to quarters. During the day the soldiers walked through the torrents in the streets with their pant legs rolled up, playing with boats with the children. At night, after taps, they knocked doors down with their rifle butts, hauled suspects out of their beds, and took them off on trips from which there was no return. The search for and extermination of the hoodlums, murders, arsonists, and rebels of Decree No 4 was still going on, but the military denied it even to the relatives of the victims who crowded the commandants’ offices in search of news. “You must have been dreaming,” the officers insisted. Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened, and nothing ever will happen. This is a happy town.” In that way they were finally able to wipe out the union leaders.

The erasure is so complete that, when the military find their way to Jose Arcadio’s house, in magical realist style they literally cannot see him, even though he is sitting there before them. He, meanwhile, becomes a hermit obsessed with proving that the massacre actually took place.

Think of him as those Harvard academics toiling away in obscurity while the denying world moves on. Jose Arcadio’s brother stumbles upon him doing research years later after everyone has forgotten about him:

Jose Arcadio Segundo, devoured by baldness, indifferent to the air that had been sharpened by the nauseating vapors, was still reading the rereading the unintelligible parchments. He was illuminated by a seraphic glow. He scarcely raised his eyes when he heard the door open…

“There were more than three thousand of them,” was all that Jose Arcadio Segundo said. “I’m sure now that they were everybody who had been at the station.”

When CBS’s Leslie Stahl once asked Donald Trump why he relentlessly attacks the press, he replied, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” That doesn’t absolve the press from telling the world about one of Trump’s greatest failures. He, however, has found ways of creating his own preferred reality.

At the moment, unless you’re Puerto Rican, it’s as though the hurricane never happened.

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The Dangerous Art of Chainsaws


Today’s story and today’s poem both involve chainsaws but otherwise have very different endings. We had a rotten tree by our house, and as I watched the head of a local tree service instruct his 14-year-old son how to climb and attach the guide ropes, I thought of the grim Robert Frost poem “Out, Out.”

Fortunately all went well, unlike in the poem. Frost’s opening line provides an ominous foreshadowing of what it to come:

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was, 
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart— 
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it. 
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

I saw none of this New England coldness when Issac King made sure his son had his spikes firmly implanted in the tree, was properly balanced so that he could loop the ropes around a protruding knot, and had the ropes properly positioned so that they wouldn’t lash him as he rappelled back down. The job was relatively simple since our only requirement was that the tree fall away from the house. We watched breathlessly.

It so happens that we are familiar with the King family’s familiarity with chainsaws. Isaac’s grandfather Elvin was a regionally famous chainsaw artist who carved animals out of logs. He was so skilled that he could peel an apple with a chainsaw, and Isaac informed us that, when his grandfather was younger, he could even peel a tomato. Our family owns several King works.

It has not always been smooth sailing for Isaac as he almost lost a finger when cutting a lightning-struck tree. Fortunately, the hospital was able to resew the finger back on, and Issac said that he didn’t even have to postpone his vacation the following day (although his wife drove the car to the airport). The stoicism of Frost’s farmers did show up there.

Their toughness also showed up in his early lessons. He also told us about sliding half way down the very first tree he climbed, one where he was 50 feet up, because he didn’t set his spikes correctly and grabbing the bark for all that he was worth. Like the farmers in the poem, he learned his trade the hard way.

Fortunately, there are more safety protocols and safer equipment today than in Frost’s time. Everyone went home in one piece.

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Crude Caricatures Are Not Effective Satire

Caricature of Alexander Pope as a Catholic monkey


Recently two celebrities have been taken to task for making crude jokes, one at the expense of African Americans generally, one at the expense of Ivanka Trump specifically. Roseanne Barr’s television show was cancelled after she compared Valerie Jarrett to a monkey while Donald Trump demanded the firing of comedian Samantha Bee after she called his daughter a “feckless c**t” for failing to protest border patrol separating children from their immigrant parents. Here’s Newsweek’s account of the latter:

“After decades of ignoring the issue, Americans are finally paying attention. Well most of us. Ivanka Trump, who works at the White House, chose to post the second most oblivious tweet we’ve seen this week,” Bee said as a screenshot of Trump’s photo with her 2-year-old son Theodore flashed across the TV screen.

The photo, which Trump posted on Sunday, sparked a wave of criticism online with many people blasting her for being insensitive, considering the photo was shared while a country-wide debate was taking place regarding maltreatment of immigrant children.

“You know, Ivanka, that’s a beautiful photo of you and your child but let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices you feckless c**t,” Bee said. “He listens to you. Put on something tight and low cut and tell your father to f*****g stop it. Tell him it was an Obama thing and see how it goes, OK.”

I have a couple of thoughts, one of which I owe to my friend Rachel Kranz’s unfinished novel  Mastery. When Warren’s English friend Ian applies the c-word to his ex-wife, Warren is uncomfortable. Ian has been talking about their mutual acquaintance Joshua:

“I’ve never got on with Joshua since the evening he told me not to refer to my ex-wife as a cunt—do you remember? It was all I could do not to call him a cunt, though I suppose I should make allowances for the fact that the word simply doesn’t read the same way here as it does in England. I mean, Vivian is perfectly capable of calling me a cunt, and has demonstrated said capacity several times, frequently to an audience of highly interested third parties. I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy equal-opportunity insults. ”

            I laugh, though I can’t help saying, “Well, I’m not terribly fond of that word either. But I think I have the same trouble with any insult based on a body part. Somehow it makes me feel protective. “

            “Of the body part?”


            “That’s rather touching, actually,” Ian says…

I thought of this passage after Sally Field’s classy response to Samantha Bee:

I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.

In her critique of Bee’s comment, Field’s own satiric attack is more subtle. Ivanka Trump, she indicates, has none of these qualities.

As I see it, Barr’s and Bee’s insults are not equivalent because Roseanne is hitting down while Bee is hitting up—or at least hitting sideways. White dehumanization of blacks and male dehumanization of women has led to various horrors throughout history, and it’s not the same as blacks using the n-word or women using the c-word. In these latter instances, the use of epithets isn’t backed up with the full force of institutionalized oppression.

To extend the analogy to class, it’s worse for the economically privileged to talk about “white trash” and “trailer trash” than it is for those who are down and out.

But that being said, the great satirists don’t descend to the level of name calling. Alexander Pope, whose twisted back and Catholicism were frequently the target of opposing satirists, responded in The Dunciad with brilliant caricature, not crude invective. Liberals may feel a rush when they hear, say, Al Franken labeling Rush Limbaugh “a big fat idiot,” but the high is soon erased by the sea of mud that the name calling releases. In the subsequent exchanges, all feel as though they have been dragged through the mire.

The people who thrive in a mud fight are not those you want running your country.

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Teach Us All You Can of Saying Yes

Joshua Reynolds, “The Calling of Samuel”

Spiritual Sunday

Newly retired and returning to the church I attended as a child, today I will serve as crucifer and read one of my favorite Biblical passages from those years. The story of the Lord calling the young Samuel naturally appeals to children, and Nancy Shaffer has written a wonderful poem about the incident.

Here’s the passage (1 Samuel 3:1-10):

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Eli questions Samuel closely the following morning, and in that way the poem’s speaker is like Samuel’s mentor, seeing a child as a conduit to God. She first wants to know how to receive the call and then what to do with it. In this, she resembles Wordsworth questioning the shepherd boy in Intimations of Immortality. Wordsworth incredulously asks the “best philosopher” why he wants to acquire adult sophistication when he already has everything he needs:

Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might 
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height, 
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke 
The years to bring the inevitable yoke, 
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife? 

Shaffer knows that, somewhere during her life of cooking dinners and doing household chores, she began saying No. Now she wants to know how to change that No to a Yes.


By Nancy Schaffer

When you heard that voice and 
knew finally it called for you 
and what it was saying—where
were you? Were you in the shower,
wet and soapy, or chopping cabbage
late for dinner? Were you planting radish
seeds or seeking one lost sock? Maybe
wiping handprints off a window
or coaxing words into a sentence. 
Or coming upon a hyacinth or one last No. 
Where were you when you heard that ancient
voice, and did Yes get born right then 
and did you weep? Had it called you since
before you even were, and when you
knew that, did your joy escape all holding? 
Where were you when you heard that
calling voice, and how, in that moment,
did you mark it? How, ever after,
are you changed?

Tell us, please, all you can about that voice.
Teach us how to listen, how to hear.

Teach us all you can of saying Yes.

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June Love, Simple and Entire

Fragonard, “Happy Lovers” (c 1760-65)


To kick off the month of June, here’s a luminescent Richard Wilbur poem about a first love. It reminds me of my own early days with Julia, whom I met at Carleton College in the spring of 1972. The “first great gift” mentioned in the final line may be God’s creation of the Garden of Eden, and I remember associating my own love with that event.

Perhaps contributing to this association was the hymn that Cat Stevens had just made famous and that we would sing at our wedding the following June: “Morning has broken like the first morning/Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.” It all felt , to quote Lucille Clifton, “so very Eden.”

Whenever one mentions Eden, one looks for the fall, and hints of it show up in the poem. The line “more fatal fleshed than ever human grace” points to mortality, and the first line of the next stanza ends with the word “fall.” But instead of moving to a darker note, Wilbur finds special transcendence in the moment. Because they have fallen into each other’s company, their lives will flesh out in complex ways.

A pearskin’s fleck and trace are far more interesting than the pure light we associate with grace. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” in which he sees God’s hand at work in “dappled things.” Wilbur’s poet still seems as much in love as he ever was. The “truth and delight” that were promised on that June morning have been realized, and that is the greatest gift of all.

June Light

By Richard Wilbur

Your voice, with clear location of June days,
Called me outside the window. You were there,
Light yet composed, as in the just soft stare
Of uncontested summer all things raise
Plainly their seeming into seamless air.

Then your love looked as simple and entire
As that picked pear you tossed me, and your face
As legible as pearskin’s fleck and trace,
Which promise always wine, by mottled fire
More fatal fleshed than ever human grace.

And your gay gift—Oh when I saw it fall
Into my hands, through all that naïve light,
It seemed as blessed with truth and new delight
As must have been the first great gift of all. 

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For Roth, People Were Always Complex

Philip Roth


I feel that I am insufficiently acquainted with Philip Roth, who died last week. I first encountered him, believe it or not, in Sports Illustrated, which I read religiously as a teenager and therefore encountered an excerpt from the little discussed Great American Novel. It’s about a professional baseball league that is so corrupt that eventually all memory of it is expunged from the history books. In its heyday, however, it featured (so an unreliable narrator contends) a host of colorful characters, including the wonderfully named rookie pitching sensation Gil Gamesh.

In his greatest game, Gamesh pitches 80 straight strikes—none of them fouled off—so that he is one pitch shy of the most perfect of perfect games. The umpire calls the 81st pitch a ball, however, and the 82nd pitch takes out his larynx. Gamesh is banished from baseball for life and wanders the world in exile, sometimes (so legend has it) playing in pick-up games.

I wasn’t sure that I liked Great American Novel, but I was enthralled with the characters, especially a baseball team made of such misfits as two dwarfs (good at drawing walks), a one-armed player, and a kleptomaniac pitcher who keeps stealing the balls. Or so I vaguely remember.

I was a reserved and reticent child and Roth’s over-the-top imagination, featuring narrators who push again the bounds of sanity, was a revelation to me. I don’t know whether I could have handled Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read decades later and which would have exacerbated all my anxieties about sexuality. But Roth’s baseball novel showed me that literature could be an uncontainable force and was therefore something to be taken seriously.

My favorite Roth novel is The Human Stain, in large part because, when I first read it, it kept surprising me. Each time I thought was becoming a tiresome attack on political correctness, it upended my expectations.

Human Stain taught me that human beings are always more complex than the boxes we put them in. Our judgments invariably fail to do people justice. In the novel, a college professor uses the word “spooks” in class and is accused of racism by African American students. The incident seems like an example of political correctness run amuck, but the story becomes more complex.

It turns out that the professor is himself African American and has been passing for white all of his life. Thus, if he doesn’t handle the situation well, it’s in part become he is antagonistic towards his own race. It’s agonizing to see him break his mother’s heart, denying his race and his relationship to her so that he can “take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate.”

The novel provides insight into the lynching described in Maya Gittelman’s The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth (2016), which I’ve just encountered. In that book, a reporter learns that she had relatives on both sides of the lynching of four innocent African Americans in 1912—which means that there those with African American blood among the mob. Anxieties over being exposed and the need to deny may well have contributed to some of the ferocity. Roth captures how deeply race enters and complicates American identity.

Human Stain also has the most vivid description of PTSD that I have ever encountered. After reading it, no one can ever take the illness lightly again.

Retirement will give me a chance to read other Roth novels that I’ve been hearing about for years, especially American Pastoral. It’s slowly dawning on me is that my time for such reading has expanded exponentially.

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Reflections on Internet Trolling


A conservative reader whose intellect and integrity I respect, even while I disagree with him on practically everything, took me to task recently in an e-mail interchange for my criticism of “the Intellectual Dark Web.”  A sympathetic conservative columnist for the New York Times describes IDW as follows:

First, they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Second, in an age in which popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are, each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient. And third, some have paid for this commitment by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought — and have found receptive audiences elsewhere.

I observed that the egregious stances of some of these commentators—Kevin Williamson saying that women who have abortions should be lynched, for instance—sound more like attempts at trolling than legitimate engagement with ideas. In response, my conservative reader hinted that I too may be guilty of trolling when I, for instance, call Donald Trump “a wannabe Macbeth.” Since I need to subject myself to the same scrutiny that I devote to my political opponents, I wondered whether he was right.

As I see it, internet trolls are more interested in pissing off people they disagree with than with exploring ideas. Trolls are often fans of schadenfreude, taking delight in the distress of their enemies. If you have ever spiced up a victory by relishing the other candidate’s or the other team’s tears, then you have indulged in schadenfreude.  People of all political persuasions, I suspect, engage in this, and we should all resist it.

The greatest poetic illustration of schadenfreude that I know of is Thomas Love Peacock’s doggerel masterpiece “The War Song of Dinas Vawr.” Here’s the final stanza:

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

Principled neo-con David Frum (another conservative I respect) talked about the dangers of trolling in a recent Atlantic article. It may start off as a kind of performance art, he writes, but it can come to control the artist:

[T]he journey from winking provocateur to racist ideologue might be shorter than many imagine. You start out with the goal of provoking the left—and, well, what’s more provocative than posting a racist meme on the internet? But with each new like and upvote, an incentive structure forms, a community coalesces, an identity hardens. Before long, the line between performance and principle is blurred beyond recognition, your “true” beliefs buried under so many layers of irony that they’ve been rendered irrelevant.

So are there great works of literature that troll their opponents? Jonathan Swift comes to mind with satiric masterpieces like his “Isaac Bickerstaff” attacks on the horoscope writer John Partridge and his “Argument against Abolishing Christianity,” which targeted enlightenment types attempting to devise a rational defense of religion. “Modest Proposal,” meanwhile, attacks (amongst others) social engineers.

In my eyes, however, Swift is not a troll because he is more interested in exploring his issues than in riling up the enemy. He genuinely thought that horoscope writers were defrauding the public, that rational Christians were draining the mystery from religion, and that social engineers were dehumanizing the people they were supposed to be helping. He wrote about these subjects in dramatic ways that attracted wide readership, but he never got lost in his irony or his audience’s responses. To use today’s language, he never focused primarily on more clicks.

My responsibility as a blogger, therefore, is to make sure that I worry less about irritating (or for that matter, massaging) my readers and more about exploring my subject matter with honesty and integrity. Respect for others should be my bottom line.

As it so happens, I describe Trump as a wannabe Macbeth, not because I want to irritate Trump supporters, but because I genuinely fear what I regard as his authoritarian tendencies. If certain readers worthy of respect experience my essays as pokes in the eye, however, I need to reflect upon that. In the end I want to help foster a greater unity, not contribute to more polarization.

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What Is America’s Favorite Novel?

John L. Wellington, “Woman Reading a Book”


My cousin Rick Neumann alerted me the NPR list drawn up to determine America’s favorite novel. According to the NPR website, 100 titles “were chosen by the American public in a specially commissioned, demographically and statistically representative survey conducted by public opinion polling service YouGov.”  Book lovers can vote daily up until October to choose a winner.

A quick perusal of the list indicates that “favorite” is not the same as “best” since there are some execrable books on the list, including Atlas Shrugged, Twilight, the Left Behind series, and Da Vinci code, a book with plot holes so large one can drive a mack truck through them. But I’m not complaining since readers’ love affairs with certain novels are often as mysterious as love affairs generally. As Bottom would put it, “reason and love keep little company.”

Still, I would have liked to see my own favorite novel on the list, which is The Brothers Karamazov (Crime and Punishment is there instead). I also can’t believe that Tom Sawyer, good though it is, has replaced Huckleberry Finn. George Eliot is missing (Middlemarch anyone?), as are novels for 18th century Britain (I’d take either Tom Jones or Moll Flanders). If I have to select from the options available, however, my top ten (in order) are:

War and Peace
Jane Eyre
Pride and Prejudice
Alice in Wonderland
Gulliver’s Travels
Catch 22
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Invisible Man

I will be depressed if the following books make it into the top ten (and suicidal if one of them wins it all):

Atlas Shrugged
Hunt for Red October
Clan of the Cave Bear
The Godfather
Da Vinci Code
Game of Thrones

Jurassic Park
Left Behind

I’ve read 60 of the 100 novels and, unlike with Rory Gilmore’s list, don’t feel guilty for not having read more. But the fact that I want to quarrel and advocate is part of the value of the exercise. Anything that gets people talking about literature, even bad literature, is a good thing.

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Mourning the Mouthless Dead

Hans Larwin, “Soldier and Death”

Monday – Memorial Day

I’ve just discovered the poetry of Charles Hamilton Sorley, a World War I poet who died at 20 in the Battle of Loos (1915) and who anticipated the searing anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Like Owen, Sorley is a far better poet than the romantic Rupert Brooke to honor our war dead since those deaths will be in vain if we romanticize them. Our challenge is to learn from them so that future soldiers will not die in meaningless wars.

I mention Brooke only because I’ve just come across a reference to him in May Sarton’s Magnificent Spinster (1985), which I’m currently reading. As World War I rages, the teenage protagonist at first embraces the poet in her support of the war:

Jane, ardent, fiercely partisan on France’s and England’s side, reciting poems by Rupert Brooke as the gospel, had been swept with millions of others into a passionate rejection of everything German.

To Jane’s credit, she soon awakens to the dangers of such partisanship when she encounters the pacifism of her heretofore silent sister:

Jane was much too passionate to be naturally tolerant as Martha seemed to be. For her, tolerance had to be learned, and learned through living out strong convictions and the inevitable collisions that take place when strong conviction is confronted by reality, when a person actually lives what he or she believes. It had been a shock when quiet, gentle Martha spoke with such force about pacifism. In her heart of hearts Jane had to admit that the sister who had always chosen to stay in the background had a strength she had not suspected. And of course she had been wrong to speak so hotly against the Germans…

And on an impulse she took out her violin, tuned it, and played a Beethoven violin sonata. It would always be Jane’s instinct to do something active to solve problems.

Sorley’s poem too confronts romantic conviction with reality. I have no doubt that it also would have tempered Jane, pulling her out of her jingoistic fantasies:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honor. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

This past week I heard a memorial service sermon (for longtime friend Boo Cravens) that was powerful in the way it made a similar point. When mourning the dead, we must resist resorting too quickly to comforting metaphors, which can function as facile consolations. Before all else, we must acknowledge that “great death has made all his for evermore.”

After that, we can search for some greater meaning. But take it from a young man who grew up far too quickly and died far too young: our first task on this day is to acknowledge the horrors of war.

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A New Isaiah Walks the City Streets

Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, “Isaiah” (1838)

Spiritual Sunday

For today’s post I searched for a poet who modeled himself on Isaiah (today’s lectionary reading is 6:1-8) and found one unfamiliar to me. Blogger Niall McDevitt argues that English poet David Gascoyne, author of “A New Isaiah,” is one of the great overlooked poets of the 20th century.

In the lectionary reading, the prophet has a vision of God and hears the call:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; 
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

The anti-fascist Gascoyne wrote “New Isaiah” in 1932, a very uncertain time. Only 15 when he composed the poem, he adopts Oswald Spengler’s view that the West is in decline and identifies with Isaiah. His job is to call things as he sees them.

The poem begins with a vision of London as a spiritual wasteland:

Across the highways strewn with ashen filth
The ragged pilgrims come to the new Metropolis,
That cruel City, built of stone and steel,
where unveiled passions, unashamed crimes,
the windy avenues traverse, where lust
wars bitterly with lust, where naked lights
illumine nightly what the day concealed.

With a teenager’s bravado, Gascoyne regards himself as one of the few who “can read the signs.” Those who see America going through its own decline may find that the poem’s themes hit uncomfortably close to home:

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head
who cries his warnings to the careless crowds
who heed him not but arm themselves for wars,
who whet their swords for one another’s blood,
who go a-whoring with their own inventions
deaf to the cries of one who sees their fate:
“As Rome fell, ye shall fall,
as falling ye are now.”

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head:
“The world-metropolis is built on dust,
with fruitless labour, by the sweat of lust.

“To dust it shall return nor shall it rise again
till the world writhes in the tremendous pain
of a new birth in a far distant dawn,
nor can you hope to see that new world born.

“You cannot turn to God for there is no God left:
Your God is the Machine, of soul bereft.
Through all the discords of a striving host
the machine drones on, a steel ghost.

“Out of the foul refuse that the mob ignores
old vices rise that no one now deplores.
New Sodoms and Gomorrahs flourish in the dusk
which suck their foul fruit dry and throw away the husk.

“You cannot check the wheel of Fate.
The years are late. The years are late.
The West declines, Metropolis is falling…”
through the loud shade the prophet-voice calling.

The sun has gone. The City’s lights
shine out with fevered brilliance.
When at the last these brilliant lights shall fail
how dark and terrible the Winter night!
E’en now, above the giant roofs
rises a pale and waning moon –

Tis but a few can read the signs.

Isaiah prophesied so that people would wake up, not so that they would give up in despair. I particularly appreciate Gascoyne’s warning against new wars. He may say that “there is no God left,” but God can be found in the spiritual renewal that he calls for. The poem, like the prophet, encourages us to keep fighting the good fight.

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Murakami and Repressed Anger’s Toxicity


I been thinking of Haruki Murakami since reading about a football injury to a Japanese student that has the entire country in a uproar. I’ve become increasingly convinced, from teaching the novelist’s works, that many in Japan suffer from repressed anger, especially young men. Now I’m wondering if Murakami’s handling of repressed anger is what draws his millions of fans to his works.

The football injury occurred when a player was instructed to deliberately injure the opposing quarterback:

When asked to explain his actions, the linebacker who crushed the quarterback, forcing him from the game with injuries to the back and knee, delivered an answer that made many recoil: his coaches told him to do it.

In a stunning, nationally televised news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, the linebacker, Taisuke Miyagawa, said his coaches ordered him to “crush” the opposing quarterback or risk being benched. Miyagawa said that, along with other comments his coaches made, made it clear to him that he was to injure the quarterback.

Miyagawa, his hair trimmed in a close buzz cut, apologized for his actions and bowed deeply for 15 seconds. He recalled that after he was taken out of the game, he went into a tent on the sideline and cried. He was told he was weak. “You are too naïve,” Miyagawa recalled his coach telling him. “You felt bad for the opponent, didn’t you?”

“I wasn’t strong enough to say no,” Miyagawa, 20, said during the hourlong news conference. Members of his legal team flanked him. “Though I was ordered by the coaches, I could have refused but went ahead anyway and acted. It was weakness on my part.”

In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami describes several scenes in which Japanese officers command regular soldiers to undertake suicidal missions and commit horrific acts of violence. While the incidents at first seem unrelated to the novel’s central drama, which is Toru attempting to save his marriage with Kumiko, Murakami clearly feels that he must dig into Japan’s period of imperial expansion to understand young men today. As Toru notes at one point,

All of these were linked in a circle, at the center of which stood prewar Manchuria, continental East Asia, and the short war of 1939 in Nomohan. But why Kumiko and I should have been drawn into this historical chain of cause and effect I could not comprehend.

Toru doesn’t at first seem like a man with anger issues. He has developed what he calls his “emotional management system,” which allows him to “transfer the object of my unpleasant feelings to another domain, one having no connections with me.” He thinks that “the passage of time will usually extract the venom from most things and render them harmless.”

Toru’s failing marriage indicates that one can’t simply push one’s anger under, however, just as the football incident has signaled to Japan that not all is well. Toru begins to acknowledge his repressed anger when a stage magician thrusts his hand into a candle flame, alerting Toru that he himself is in pain. When the man later attacks Toru with a baseball bat—he thinks that Toru is stalking him—Toru wrests the bat from his grasp and beats him far beyond what the occasion calls for.

A bat also shows up in an historical account of a Japanese commander ordering a soldier to execute a Manchurian rebel with a bat. Toru, meanwhile, uses a bat to defeat his knife-wielding alter ego in a subterranean battle that essentially happens inside Toru’s mind.

A similar mental battle occurs in Kafka on the Shore. The 15-year-old Kafka has run away from his autocratic father so that he won’t go Oedipal on him, but his feelings are so strong that, in magical realist fashion, he telepathically gets another man to take on the killing mission. Although Kafka is hundreds of miles away, he awakes to find blood on his shirt.

Murakami may return to his anger theme in book after book because of how Japanese men are pressured to override their empathy and “crush” their opponents. Perhaps reading his novels will help them be strong enough to stand up to their coaches and other authority figures.

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My Three Book Projects

Hans Holbein the Younger, “Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam Writing”


I hope readers will forgive me if I have appeared slightly out of it this past week. Moving into my mother’s guest house—which meant moving a lot of stuff out and even more stuff in—is consuming all my energies these days. (The house is very small, with unfinished plank walls making up a bedroom, a living room, a tiny kitchen and a tiny study.) I end each day exhausted.

I can report, however, about my  three planned book projects. Driving a 24-foot truck for twelve hours without access to books on disk (my normal driving drug) meant that I had time to reflect upon titles, chapter breakdowns, and even some of the text. Here they are, in order of when I expect to complete them.

Using Literature to Understand Donald Trump

Many have been trying to make sense of Trump’s remarkable takeover of first the Republican Party and then the United States. As regular readers of this blog know well, I believe that literature provides particularly powerful insights into our current political situation. I will comb through all the posts that I have written about our president and the rise of the extreme right and then write the book.

Some of the posts I will simply republish, providing context in short prefaces. Others I can imagine revising, perhaps commenting on how our understanding has evolved. I plan for there to be chapters on Trump, on Trump’s enablers, on Trump’s followers, and on Trump’s opponents.

I would like to complete the project by the end of June. For speed’s sake, I will self-publish the book through Amazon, which will allow me to update it as events unfold. There are different ways to bear political witness, and this is my way.

The Green Knight’s Guide to Grieving: Lessons Learned from a Century that Endured the Black Plague

This is a project that I have long envisioned, and I finally will have the uninterrupted time to write it. As I’ve observed in the past, I find Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to be an extraordinary work, especially in the the pagan fertility god’s interactions with Christian Camelot. The poem is filled with the many different ways that we deny our mortality, and the Green Knight (as I see him) serves as wise life coach. That Gawain doesn’t learn all the Green Knight’s lessons makes the poem all the more real.

Though I have thought long and hard about this project, there’s still a fair amount of historical research that I must undertake. Perhaps I will submit the manuscript to a publisher in mid-autumn.

Unacknowledged Legislators of the World: How Poets Have Changed the Course of History

I’ve written several times about this project, which is the most ambitious of the three. I’ve already composed a long introductory survey of how thinkers throughout the ages have theorized about literary impact. While driving down to Tennessee, however, I decided on the four cases studies thatI will examine in depth.

Shakespeare, who was “not of an age but of all time,” shaped how people saw reality in any number of instances. Rather than choosing a single play, I will relate a series of stories about how Shakespeare changed the grounds upon which people operate..

So did William Wordsworth, who will be my second case study. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will be my third, given how her novel influenced (at different points of history) unionizing governesses, the suffragette movement, and 1970s feminism. Finally, I will look at how Lucille Clifton has given a number of oppressed groups a voice, including African Americans, women, and abuse victims.

I spent time writing sections of the book in my head as I drove down. Now I just need to find time to begin composing on my laptop.

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I Weep Like a Child for the Past

Santiago Rusiñol. “A Romance”


Since I’ve returned to my boyhood home, here’s a D. H. Lawrence nostalgia poem that I’ve always enjoyed. My mother even has a grand piano although I never sat at her feet as she played it.

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; 
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see 
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings 
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings. 

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song 
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong 
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside 
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide. 

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor 
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast 
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past. 

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Retiring to the Garden of Eden

Thomas Cole, “The Garden of Eden”


Julia and I arrived yesterday in Sewanee, Tennessee, the place where I grew up and where we hope to spend our remaining years. We arrived exhausted, having spent weeks boxing and disposing. On Saturday and Sunday we finally loaded everything on a U-Haul and headed south, stopping at a cousin’s wedding on the way. Driving a 24-foot truck itself took a lot out of me, but when I stepped out into the 18-acre mountaintop wood that surrounds my mother’s house, all the stresses fell away. It was as though I was Milton’s Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden on that first morning:

Now Morn, her rosy steps in the eastern clime
Advancing, sowed the earth with orient pearl,
When Adam waked, so customed; for his sleep
Was aery-light, from pure digestion bred,
And temperate vapors bland, which the only sound
Of leaves and fuming rills, Aurora’s fan,
Lightly dispersed, and the shrill matin song
Of birds on every bough…

To be honest, I didn’t think of this particular passage—that came later–but of waking up on the first day of summer vacation when I was a child and letting the fact that there was no school wash over me. In Tennessee the schools let out in the middle of May so the breeze and the temperatures were the same as I remembered them. All seemed fresh and possible then and all seems fresh and possible now.

While Milton’s Eden may surpass my mother’s wood, they share in common an untouched quality. The poet, articulating the philosophy that goes into the English garden (as opposed to more the more structured French garden), makes the point that no human intervention has been necessary to make everything perfect:

But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that sapphire fount the crisped brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise, which not nice Art
In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon
Poured forth profuse on hill, and dale, and plain,
Both where the morning sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierced shade
Embrowned the noontide bowers: Thus was this place
A happy rural seat of various view…

And so the next stage begins.

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Trump, Clifton, & Immigrants as Animals


I have become so inured to our president’s racism that it took me a moment to register the ugliness of a recent anti-immigrant tirade, where he referred to people crossing the border as “animals.” Here’s his statement, as reported by Dara Lind of Vox:

President Donald Trump referred to some people deported from the United States as “animals” during a roundtable discussion about California’s “sanctuary” law on Wednesday. After a California sheriff commented that her county is unable to notify ICE when an MS-13 gang member is in jail for a minor crime, Trump launched into a riff about “people trying to come in” and being deported who are “not people. They’re animals.”

As Lind notes,

It’s the latest in a series of statements stretching over Trump’s entire national political career that carelessly conflate immigration, criminality, and violence.

Let’s put aside for the moment whether any human being–including an MS-13 gang member or, for that matter, a white supremacist who shoots up a church or a school—should be regarded as an animal. Trump’s use of metonymy, with the image of a criminal immigrant standing in for all immigrants, is designed to inspired fear of “the Other.”

For the record, Trump is not just targeting criminals:

No matter how Trump is portraying his policy, his administration is not focusing on deporting people who have committed particularly heinous crimes, gang members, or people with criminal records. From Trump’s inauguration to the end of 2017, ICE arrested 45,436 immigrants without criminal records.

Lucille Clifton has a poem that captures what gives Trump’s metaphor its power. One would think that killing cockroaches isn’t controversial, and her poem “at last we killed the roaches” at first seems unexceptionable.

To be sure, in one of those unfortunate instances of evolving language, the poem has taken on unintended secondary meanings since she wrote it. “Roaches” is slang among some on the right, including police, for people of color living in urban areas.

As it turns out, however, the secondary meanings add to Clifton’s point because she doesn’t let herself, a descendent of people who were targeted by hate mobs, off the hook.  As she cleans her house, she realizes that even she is not immune from the thrill of righteous slaughter:

at last we killed the roaches.
mama and me. she sprayed,
i swept the ceiling and they fell
dying onto our shoulders, in our hair
covering us with red. the tribe was broken,
the cooking pots were ours again
and we were glad, such cleanliness was grace
when i was twelve. only for a few nights,
and then not much, my dreams were blood
my hands were blades and it was murder murder
all over the place.

I’m struck by the use of the religious word “grace.” Do Trump’s evangelical followers feel a thrill when he goes after immigrants from “shithole” countries and urban inhabitants living in “hellholes”? Do they feel anything like those who were whipped up to join the crusades to fight  the infidel or for those eastern European Christians whose anti-Semitic pogroms were set in motion by Good Friday sermons? Many who participated in 20th century lynchings were born again Christians who believed they had been washed in the blood of the lamb.

The exhilaration of cleansing can slide into “murder murder all over the place.” Trump is trafficking in very, very dangerous imagery.

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Light Breaks Where No Light Was Before

Blake, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven”

Spiritual Sunday – Pentecost

Today’s Pentecost post requires some explanation as the poem I have chosen features Lucifer rather than the Holy Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples so that they could experience God within, so Lucille Clifton’s devil has rebelled against stodgy tradition and is bringing new light into the world:

   light breaks
where no light was before
where no eye is prepared
to see
and animals rise up to walk

Clifton is not being perverse here. I suspect that, when Lucille was growing up, members of her church congregation thought that she had “the devil in her.” by allying herself with a rebel angel with a name like her own (“lux” means light), she could explore some of her own rebellious stances concerning sexuality, women’s bodies, and political resistance.

Lucille wanted her poetry to bring disruptive light to the world. The poem contains an allusion to Prometheus (“bringer of light”), who upset the traditional gods by bringing fire to humans.

Thus, think of Clifton’s cherubim in the poem as orthodoxy, which Jesus too rebelled against. While they dutifully sing traditional hymns of praise, Lucifer is down below causing excitement. To those disciples who found themselves suddenly filled with holy fire and speaking in tongues, the mediating religious institutions must have seemed dull. Or as Clifton puts it, “all is shadow in heaven without you.”

Clifton explores the limits of orthodoxy in her other Lucifer poems as well. (Today’s poem is the first in a sequence.) For instance, in “whispered to lucifer,” Clifton writes of a felt absence when Lucifer leaves heaven:

leaving us here in
perpetual evening
even the guardians

silent.    All of us
going about our
father’s business

less radiant
less sure

And in “lucifer understanding at last”:

if the angels
hear of this

there will be no peace 
in heaven

Jesus’s message was revolutionary in its belief that each individual, including tax collectors, prostitutes, and even gentiles, could have a personal relationship with God. To the church authorities, the devil must have seemed to be speaking through him.

oh where have you fallen to

By Lucille Clifton

How art thou fallen from Heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning? –Isaiah 14:12

oh where have you fellen to
son of the morning
beautiful lucifer
bringer of light
it is all shadow
in heaven without you
the cherubim sing

and even the
solitary brother
has risen from his seat
of stones.    He is holding
they say.    A wooden stick
and pointing toward a garden

light breaks
where no light was before
where no eye is prepared to see
and animals rise up to walk
oh lucifer
what have you done

Previous Pentecost Posts

Ken Sehested: Pentecost: When All Heaven Breaks Loose

Derek Wallcott: Pentecost Flames, Fireflies’ Crooked Street

Denise Levertov: Pulled into the Ring of the Dance

William Blake: To See God, the Eye Must Catch Fire

Euripides: Jesus as the New Dionysus 

Longfellow: Look into Thy Heart and Write 

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A Time To Gather Spiritual Honey


Here’s a good spring poem to take you into the weekend. Mary Oliver, whose poems often teeter between depression and ecstasy, finds herself lifted up by May blossoms that “storm out of the darkness.”

Although Oliver at first identifies with the bees diving into the flowers, ultimately she longs to be the flowers themselves. She admires how, though “mute and meek,” they have a deep certainty that “rides near the hub of the miracle that everything is a part of.” In other words, the flowers have a direct connection with the Life Force.

Those who do the diving, then, are using the flowers to make a primal connection, just as people use prayer to get closer to God and poetry to get closer to mystery. The blossom are miraculous because they come from a dark place and can make luminous our own dark places.


By Mary Oliver

May, and among the miles of leafing,
blossoms storm out of the darkness—
windflowers and moccasin flowers. The bees
dive into them and I too, to gather
their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs
is the deepest certainty that this existence too—
this sense of well-being, the flourishing
of the physical body—rides
near the hub of the miracle that everything
is a part of, is as good
as a poem or a prayer, can also make
luminous any dark place on earth.

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

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