Chaucer’s Solution for Sexual Assault

Illuminated manuscript illus. of Wife of Bath


Writing about the sexual harassers in the news, the New Yorker’s Masha Geesen recently made a point that reminds me of the Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale. Chaucer has some useful advice for us as we struggle with how to respond to everyone from Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Bill Clinton to Louis C. K., Al Franken, and Charlie Rose.

Geesen identifies our problem when she writes that

it is not possible to hold to account every man who has ever behaved disrespectfully and disgustingly toward a woman. Nor even every senator, or every comedian. And, even if it were possible to punish every single one of them, what would be accomplished? Punishment, especially when it is delayed, is not a very effective deterrent.\

In the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer provides an answer with her story of a young knight who rapes a maiden and is brought before Queen Guinevere and her court. While the women could very easily condemn him death, they instead assign him a challenge: he must find out what women most desire. If he fails, he will be executed.

Let’s put aside the question about whether an actual rapist should go free—of course he shouldn’t—and bring the issue closer to the one at hand. What should we do to the thousands of men who harass and assault every year? I suspect that the Wife of Bath and Guinevere would agree with Geesen that we can’t punish them all. Guinevere’s sentence, therefore, has real wisdom.

To understand women, the knight must listen to them as though his life depends on it, because it does. He quickly learns about the difficulty of his task as every woman gives him a different answer. This means he must expend substantialeffort to hear the desire under the words. He must imagine what the world feels like to a woman.

Only when men start engaging in such efforts can real change begin to happen. In other words, assaulters should be given educational opportunities before we throw the book at them.

bell hooks makes a version of this point in her book The Will to Change: Man, Masculinity, and Love. As hooks sees it, many men have been shamed about being soft, undergoing a form of emotional abuse. To assert their manhood, they believe they must assert their dominance over women, who stand in for their soft side. Anger and revenge undergird these power plays.

This doesn’t absolve sexual assaulters of responsibility. In fact, the knight will be punished if he can’t evolve. But the story gives him that opportunity.

What passes for the right answer will not allay the anxieties of males fearful of “a war on men.” An old crone, in return for marriage, tells the knight that women most desire “sovereignty over men.” So how, you ask, does confirming the very fears that contribute to sexual assault solve our problem? Hold on, Chaucer’s not done with us yet.

Before sharing his further insights, here’s the dramatic scene where the knight reveals his answer:

When they are come to the court, this knight
Said he had held his day, as he had promised,
And his answer was ready, as he said.
Very many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, because they are wise,
The queen herself sitting as a justice,
And afterward this knight was commanded to appear.

Silence was commanded to every person,
And that the knight should tell in open court
What thing (it is) that worldly women love best.
This knight stood not silent as does a beast,
But to his question straightway answered
With manly voice, so that all the court heard it:

“My liege lady, without exception,” he said,
“Women desire to have sovereignty
As well over her husband as her love,
And to be in mastery above him.
This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.
Do as you please; I am here subject to your will.”
In all the court there was not wife, nor maid,
Nor widow that denied what he said,
But said that he was worthy to have his life.

Sovereignty is not the real answer, however. The Wife of Bath knows that simply reversing the power imbalance will not bring about peace between the sexes. Her tale arrives at a much more satisfactory answer.

The knight, understandably, is not happy about being married to an old crone. At first she tries to reason him into happiness. If he could only look past her looks and her low station, she tells him, he would see the beautiful person underneath and be content. Not being a very deep person, however—he is a rapist, after all—he’s not persuaded.

The crone then goes to Plan B: he can either have her as she is, which, while old and ugly is also faithful, or (being in actuality a fairy) she can transform herself into a beautiful and young but also unfaithful woman. The choice is up to him.

I love how the choice puts his manhood anxieties front and center. At first glance, there appears to be no satisfactory solution: either he will be laughed at for having an old wife or for being a cuckold.

His year spent listening to women has not entirely been in vain, however, and he responds with the following:

This knight deliberates and painfully sighs,                 
But at the last he said in this manner:                 
“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,                 
 I put me in your wise governance;                 
Choose yourself which may be most pleasure                 
And most honor to you and me also.                 
I do not care which of the two,                 
For as it pleases you, is enough for me.”

His wife approves:

“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” she said,                 
“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”

“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

“Kiss me,” she said, “we are no longer angry,                 
For, by my troth, I will be to you both —                 
This is to say, yes, both fair and good.                 
I pray to God that I may die insane                 
Unless I to you be as good and true                 
As ever was wife, since the world was new.

As I read the story, Chaucer is saying the women most desire respect, They’ll settle for sovereignty if that protects them from assault, but any power imbalance turns relationships into win-lose affairs. Men and women will be most happy if they share power and share responsibility. When that happens, men will no longer see women as castrating witches but as beautiful companions.

Unfortunately, being a fairy tale, the Wife’s tale is a vision to aspire to, and her actual life is less happy. She tries to engineer a power sharing marriage with husband #5, signing over her wealth to him so that they can live what looks like a conventional marriage. He, however, is young and insecure and feels he must dominate her to be a real man.

The result is constant strife. He insists she stay home, she insists on going out. He psychologically abuses her by reading her stories of wicked wives, she tears three pages out of the book and pushes him into the fire. He beats her, rendering her permanently deaf in one ear, and she, being the forceful woman that she is, grabs her wealth back and reasserts her dominance. Having failed to educate her husband, she figures that sovereignty is better than submission. Medieval patriarchy in the end proves too much for them.

We’ve made a lot of progress since then, however. Now many of us realize that we only subject ourselves to incessant anxieties when we define our self worth by our ability to dominate women. Our insecure president presents us daily with object lessons to this effect. As hooks points out, if we see men as capable of change, we may accomplish more than we can with draconian punishments. Even Chaucer’s rapist knight makes progress.

Of course, if men can’t and refuse to change, then we must look to the sovereignty of the law to control their behavior. But it’s worth giving at least some of them a second chance and see how they respond.

Further thought: Of course, the knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale is young and just starting out in life. Whether men who have been harassing women for a lifetime are capable to evolving is another question. At least those who fess up, like Franken and Louis C.K., have more promise than those who stonewall, like Trump, Weinstein, O’Reilly, Cosby, and Moore.

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The Assault on Rand Paul, a Theory

Still from Norman MacLaren’s “Neighbors”


Although not one of the bigger news items these days, the strange case of a neighbor assaulting Kentucky Republican senator Rand Paul is puzzling pretty much everybody. Although the neighbor is a Democrat, everyone insists that the set-to was not political. New Yorker columnist Jeffrey Frank turned to a novel by Thomas Berger to figure out what actually happened.

We know what the effects of the battle were. Rene Boucher tackled Paul, causing six broken ribs and a pleural effusion. Some theorize that the battle was over property rights and lawn trimmings:

Jim Skaggs, the developer of Rivergreen, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the two doctors, who have been neighbors for more than seventeen years, have a long and somewhat disagreeable history, much of it focussed on property rights. Although Skaggs was once the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, he seemed to side with Boucher, whom he called a “near-perfect” neighbor, as opposed to Paul, who, he said, was less willing to go along with the regulations of the homeowners association “because he has a strong belief in property rights.” Skaggs thought that the breaking point came when Paul allegedly blew lawn trimmings into Boucher’s yard. “I think this is something that has been festering,” Skaggs said, mentioning past disagreements over who should cut down a tree branch when it stretched over a property line. The Times reported that Paul grows pumpkins, and composts.

Pumpkins and compost may well be at the root of things. This fall has been unusually warm in Kentucky, and the heat may affect decomposing organic matter in unpleasant, olfactory ways. Paul, who leans toward libertarianism, could well have considered the compost of a private gardener, on private property, to be an inalienable right, and one can sympathize with that view.

To borrow from Alexander Pope, can mighty contests rise from such trivial things? According to Berger’s novel Neighbors, they certainly can. Frank says that the novelist “understood the weird rages that spring up between people in close proximity”:

 “I hope we can be friends,” Ramona, a new neighbor, tells the novel’s protagonist. “I’m sure we can,” he replies, to which Ramona says, “I didn’t mean that polite social kind of shit.” Berger’s characters seem less stable than the residents of Rivergreen, and the neighborliness-gone-bad is more ominous, as when he writes, “To have an outright enemy as one’s nearest neighbor, when one lived at the termination of a dead-end road, with only a wooded hollow beyond, a weed-field across the street, was unthinkable.”

Frank also unearths a lesson that Berger, when the novel came out in 1980, said that he learned from Kafka:

That at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial.

Maybe Frank is pushing things a bit when he extrapolates from the Paul-Boucher incident to America in general, but I’m willing to entertain the idea. Anyway, he thinks that such crankiness is spreading to a lot of Americans these days. A lot of neighbors seems to be squaring off these days:

The sinister banality of American life periodically moves into view, with a lot of it these days emanating from Donald J. Trump, the person who was elected President, a year ago. 

 Which neighbors, after all, is America not quarreling with these days—we can start with Mexico and Canada and then move on to old allies, such as Australia, Germany, and South Korea. Meanwhile, closer to home, many Alabamans say they would rather vote for a pedophile than for neighbors who are Democrats.

I’ve wondered for a while if electing Donald Trump was a sign of decadence more than anything else. Entertainment can take center stage when the economy is humming along and other people are fighting our wars. “Sinister banality” sounds like a wealthy nation problem.

As, for that matter, does a battle over lawn waste.

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The Evangelical Rose Is Sick

Spiritual Sunday

Of all this past year’s political surprises, few things have left me more open-mouthed than rightwing evangelicals hitching their wagons to sexual predators like Donald Trump and former Alabama judge Roy Moore. So grateful are they to these men that they countenance behavior they would instantly condemn in anyone else.

To regain their moral compass, they need the poetry of William Blake, and I am sharing several poems to get them started. Let’s look first, however, at the nature of the problem.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, one of the chief architects of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, believes that right-wing politics have become “untethered from morality and religion,” and he accuses churches that enable this divide of heresy at least, if not idolatry:

What institution, of all institutions, should be providing the leaven of principle to political life? What institution is specifically called on to oppose the oppression of children, women and minorities, to engage the world with civility and kindness, to prepare its members for honorable service to the common good?

A hint: It is the institution that is currently — in some visible expressions — overlooking, for political reasons, credible accusations of child molestation. Some religious leaders are willing to call good evil, and evil good, in service to a different faith — a faith defined by their political identity. This is heresy at best; idolatry at worst.

Gerson’s critique of Trump Christians concludes,

Many of the people who should be supplying the moral values required by self-government have corrupted themselves. The Trump administration will be remembered for many things. The widespread, infectious corruption of institutions and individuals may be its most damning legacy.

Radical Blake doesn’t share Gerson’s politics, but he would agree about religious institutions selling their souls for political and economic power. In Songs of Experience he goes after Anglicanism, England’s state religion.

“The Chimney-Sweeper,” for instance, calls out a church that rationalizes state oppression of children, refusing to condemn parents who sell their children to be chimney sweeps. “Weep! weep” is how children too young to pronounce their “s’s” advertise their services:

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother?  Say!’—
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’

Maybe this is a good place to mention that the party claiming it is for God and family values still has not renewed the Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is perilously close to running out of funds; and that if the Senate’s tax bill passes, 13 million people will lose their health insurance.

Blake also equates church complicity with state oppression in “London”:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

If you listen to Roy Moore invoke the name of Jesus as he goes after homosexuality, Muslims, immigrants, and women he has assaulted, you will understand Blake’s anger in “The Garden of Love”:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;

So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

Gerson’s warning may find its best articulation, however, in a poem that doesn’t specifically mention religion.  When a beautiful vision is corrupted by base desires, it resembles a sick rose:

O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Rightwing evangelicals’ dark secret love for Trump and Trumpism are destroying the Christian rose. As Gerson rhetorically asks, “[H]ow many Americans would identify evangelical Christianity as a prophetic voice for human dignity and moral character on the political right?”

No wonder church affiliation is plunging.

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Brecht Quatrains for Challenging Times

Bertolt Brecht


I have long been a fan of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry, and now a new translation of his War Primer, written in America during World War II, has just been published. Although the quatrains are paired with World War II photos, it doesn’t take much to apply them to current events, especially to Donald Trump and the Resistance.

Nation reviewer Noah Eisenberg notes that the collection is somewhat surprising given that, just before World War II, Brecht wrote, “A Bad Time for Poetry.” Eisenberg observes that Brecht anticipates Adorno’s famous dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” by writing

In my poetry a rhyme
Would seem to be almost insolent.

Yet write he did, sometimes with rhyme.

Here are some poems from War Primer that still ring powerfully. Trump is not Hitler, yet we can relate to the fear expressed in this poem, written as though by the Fuhrer:

Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep,
I know the way Fate has prescribed for us
That narrow way towards a precipice.
Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.

Or how about this one, which shows Hitler, like Trump, turning his back on his populist promises? Neither man drained the swamp, and Trump’s cannon is now aimed at Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, consumer protections, and other programs beneficial to the middle class:

Promising Socialism, there he stands.
Listen: a New Age will be proclaimed.
Behind him, see the work of your own hands:
Great cannon, silent. And at you they’re aimed

Here’s one, powerfully understated, for refugees who think that the United States is a safe haven from violence. Isenberg notes that it was written “in response to a photo in Life of a Jewish mother and her child, who had survived a shipwreck while en route to Palestine”:

And many of us drowned just off the beaches.
The long night passed, the sky began to clear.
If they but knew, we said, they’d come and seek us.
That they did know, we still were unaware.

One last one. This quatrain calls out to descendants of activists who have become complacent. It was originally written in response to a picture of young German university students following World War II:

Never forget that men like you got hurt
So you might sit there, not the other lot.
And now don’t hide your head and don’t desert
But learn to learn, and try to learn for what.

Hard-won rights can be reversed. Never forget as you push for social justice.

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A Teacher, Lit, & a Jailed Student

After J Barnett, “Elizabeth Fry reading Bible to Newgate prisoners”


The Atlantic has just reviewed a book that is now on my must-read list. Among other things, Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick explores the impact of literature upon poor students of color in a blighted rural Arkansas town.

The first part of the memoir describes Kuo’s experience as a Teach for America teacher in an eighth grade English classroom. When she returns as a lawyer a few years later to support a former student jailed for murder, she once again finds herself teaching him English. The reviewers praise the book for avoiding both the white savior narrative and the fatalistic narrative. We see literature making a difference but in unexpected ways.

As a beginning teacher, Kuo learns to let go of her expectations and listen to her students:

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Whatever hopes Kuo has when she leaves, however, are brought into question by what subsequently happens to many of these students, especially Patrick Browning. At one time, reading seems to open limitless possibilities for Patrick:

He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the school-wide award for “Most Improved” student. 

Yet Patrick eventually drops out of school and then is involved in a scuffle that ends in a death. The circumstances are such, Kuo says, that a white defendant might have been able to argue self-defense, but Patrick feels so guilty that he can’t stop confessing. Kuo wants him to change the narrative about himself:

[M]aybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

The connection is reading and writing:

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

Although he initially thinks that his English experiences are in the past, Patrick begins to shift:

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobefor instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s NarrativeHe reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

Patrick is also inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel in the form of a long letter that a dying father writes to his infant son. In his own letter to his infant daughter, Patrick

describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

Reading with Patrick appears to be a clear-eyed look at what a teacher can and cannot accomplish. If she had stayed at the school, Kuo admits, it still might not have made any difference. After all, our students go on to lead their own lives. But Kuo also avoids fatalism, exhibiting what the reviewers describe as “the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart.” Rather than asking herself, “why did you ever think you could make a difference in a person’s life?” Kuo concludes,

But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Patrick, who pleaded to manslaughter and was paroled two years later for good behavior, faces an uncertain future, despite his reading. Literature didn’t keep him out of trouble, and it may not land him a job. Literature doesn’t bring about miracles.

Then again, maybe we need to rethink miracles, which may not look like we think they’re supposed to look. Maybe literature has changed Patrick’s life in ways that aren’t measurable.

Teaching English is an act of faith.

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Fall, Season for Beautiful Depression

John Lee Fitch, “Brook in Autumn”


Apparently autumn is a bad season for people who suffer from depression. The good news is that poets, who suffer from depression 30 times more than the general population, have a way of turning lead into gold.

Today I share a beautiful autumn poem by a depressed Edna St. Vincent Millay, but let’s glance at some other poems first. John Keats, in the greatest English language poem about autumn, encourages the season to get over its inferiority complex:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…

Paul Verlaine, in a poem that every French school child memorizes, writes,

The long sobs
of autumn’s
wound my heart
with a monotonous

Mary Oliver sees depression as an opportunity to get real. “Blue Heron” begins with a dismal image but ends with a comforting image. First, the opening:

Now the blue heron
wades the cold ponds
of November.

In the gray light his hunched shoulders
are also gray.

He finds scant food–a few
numbed breathers under
a rind of mud.

Several years ago a student of mine, who suffered from depression, wrote that the poem is about survival. When we are hunkered down in our misery, she said, we need to tend to whatever little fire we have:

In a house down the road,
as though I had never seen these things–
leaves, the loose tons of water,
a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all–
I sit out the long afternoons
drinking and talking;
I gather wood, kindling, paper; I make fire
after fire after fire.

In Millay’s “Autumn,” as in Verlaine’s poem, the poet captures the music of the heart breaking. The feathered pampas-grass, its ranks thinned, is like embattled Native American warriors. The dark creek, its customary defenses gone, suddenly finds itself exposed: “Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak,/ Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek.”

This speaker is not to be consoled by nature’s cyclical promise that Beauty will be born again after first ailing and dying. Such “consolation” is like clumsily reassuring mourners than their loved one is in a better place. In the depths of depression, the poet can only see Beauty stiffened like a corpse and staring up at the sky. “Oh, Autumn! Autumn!” she cries out in her agony, “What is the spring to me?”

And yet, out of that agony, arises beauty:


By Edna St. Vincent Millay

WHEN reeds are dead and a straw to thatch the marshes, 
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind 
Like agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned 
Of half their tribe, and over the flattened rushes,
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak, 
Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek, 
Then leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes 
My heart. I know that Beauty must ail and die, 
And will be born again,but ah, to see 
Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky! 
Oh, Autumn ! Autumn !What is the Spring to me?

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Tess, More Relevant Than Ever

Gemma Arterton as Tess


I didn’t foresee that having a sexual assaulter as president, followed by a wave of revelations about other sexual predators, would add special urgency to Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. The students in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar, however, are speaking about the novel with a passion and intelligence surpassing what I’ve seen when I’ve taught it in the past.

We are examining how literature impacts lives (what else?), and Tess certainly had an impact. A Lord Salisbury provides one account:

“The Duchess of Abercorn tells me that the novel has saved her all future trouble in the assortment of her friends. They have been almost fighting across her dinner-table over Tess’s character. What she now says to them is “Do you support her or not?” If they say “No indeed. She deserved hanging: a little harlot!” she puts them in one group. If they say “Poor wronged innocent!” and pity her, she puts them in the other group where she is herself.

“Pure woman” is what most set readers off, challenging as it did social expectations regarding female behavior. I share here snippets from some of the contemporary reviews I assigned and what my students gleaned from them.

A review from The Pall Mall Gazette (December 31, 1891), while positive, gives a sense of the jolt readers must have felt upon reading Tess. One normally expects “brighter fictions” from Hardy, the reviewer wrote, with “comedy and happy endings” softening tragedy and “a rustic geniality” leading to “a residuum of happiness when all is told.” In Tess, however, one encounters a drama “with all the modern significancy you please.”

That “significancy,” other reviews made clear, had to do with the issue of Tess’s purity. The Athenaeum (January 9, 1892), singling out the word “pure,” castigated the author for dabbling in “sexual ethics” and embroiling himself in “moral technicalities.” Such preaching, the reviewer declared, taints what is otherwise “a faultless piece of art built upon the great tragic model.”

My students argued that the reviewer wants to avoid looking too closely at Tess’s rape, as though he had his fingers in his ears and was saying “la la la la la la la.” To draw a modern parallel, it is the way that certain defenders of Roy Moore, Donald Trump,and Bill Clinton have avoided examining too closely what transpired. The reviewer is essentially asking for a picturesque rural story that doesn’t disturb our moral universe.

The class’s esteem for Hardy rose as we realized that he added “pure woman” precisely to prevent readers from avoiding the issues raised by the rape. He didn’t want a recurrence of what happened when the novel came out in serial form. There the editors forced him to make cuts so that readers wouldn’t have to wrestle with whether a woman could be good even if she failed to fit society’s narrow criteria.

Three changes in particular allowed audiences to see Tess as pure in the conventional sense. She is tricked into a sham marriage with Alec rather than staying with him three weeks after the rape; she doesn’t baptize her dying baby (in fact she doesn’t have a baby); and she isn’t living with Alec at the end of the book.

Hardy not only restored what he had written originally, but he added “pure” so that readers would feel the full dissonance between their value system and Tess’s actions.

Significantly, the one reviewer who understood Hardy’s purpose was a woman—which is to say, one who felt boxed in by the purity codes that Hardy was attacking. Clementine Black predicted that Hardy’s determination to grapple earnestly with “serious moral problems”

will assuredly cause this book to be reprobated by numbers of well-intentioned people who have read his previous novels with complacency. The conventional reader wishes to be excited, but not to be disturbed; he likes to have new pictures presented to his imagination, but not to have new ideas presented to his mind. He detests unhappy endings, mainly because an unhappy ending nearly always involves an indirect appeal to the conscience, and the conscience, when aroused, is always demanding a reorganization of that traditional pattern of right and wrong which it is the essence of conventionality to regard as immutable. Yet more, of course, does he detest an open challenge of that traditional pattern, and Tess of the D’urbervilles is precisely such a challenge.

Picking up on “excited but not disturbed,” students Courtney and Sabrina compared Black with reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, who says that great works of literature challenge the reader’s “horizon of expectations” whereas lesser “culinary” works merely confirm it. In retrospect, we could also have invoked Bertolt Brecht, who wanted art to upset world views that, while seemingly immutable, could actually be changed.

Other reviews show the expectations that Black faced. The Saturday Review (January 16, 1892) complained that Hardy made Tess too sexual for someone who is supposed to be pure, as if one can’t be both. Late 19th century readers apparently became hot and bothered at mention of a woman’s breasts:

The story gains nothing by the reader being let into the secret of the physical attributes which especially fascinated [Alec D’Urberville] in Tess. Most people can fill in blanks for themselves, without its being necessary to put the dots on the i’s so very plainly; but Mr. Hardly leaves little unsaid. “She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that caused Alec D’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect; a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from their mother without the quality it denotes.” It is these side suggestions that render Mr. Hardy’s story so very disagreeable, and Tess is full of them.

Perhaps for the same reason, Robert Louis Stevenson was offended by Tess as was Henry James (who called her “vile”). Student Margaret speculated that the author of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde was willing to see complexity in men but not in women. After all, pure women were supposed to save men from their savage side.

I asked my women students whether they still feel pressured to be pure and, for the most part, they said they didn’t. But they attributed this to the college bubble and noted that men’s longings for inexperienced “girls” is still out there. Any woman who accuses a man of assault can expect such standards to be applied, as we are seeing with the Trump and Moore victims who have come forward.

In other words, Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented remains only too relevant.

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Roy Moore’s Obsession with Lolitas

Mason, Lyon in Kubrick’s “Lolita”


To understand Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s predilection for adolescent girls, turn to Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece teaches us a lot about the mindset of a pedophile.

Not that Moore and Humbert Humbert are much alike. Moore is a fire and brimstone southern evangelical while HH is a cosmopolitan European who wows a small American town with his sophistication. HH is not at all religious, which means that his own inclinations don’t have a religious dimension. Nevertheless, both men are engaged in an obsessive search for purity, which they find in “nymphets.”

In case you haven’t been following, a meticulously sourced Washington Post story revealed that, 40 years ago, Moore strategically separated a 14-year-old girl from her mother and later went on to caress her and have her touch his penis. Moore denies the story.

He does not dispute, however, that, as a young district attorney in his thirties, he dated high school girls, including a 17-year-old he encountered in a high school civics class where he was brought in to lecture.  As one former colleague informed CNN,

It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls, everyone we knew thought it was weird…We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall…

Humbert Humbert describes what “nympholepts” long for:

But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child, “enfant charmante et fourbe,” dim eyes, bright lips, ten years in jail if you only show her you are looking at her. So life went. Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for. The bud-stage of breast development appears early (10.7 years) in the sequence of somatic changes accompanying pubescence. And the next maturational item available is the first appearance of pigmented pubic hair (11.2 years). My little cup brims with tiddles.

A shipwreck. An atoll. Alone with a drowned passenger’s shivering child. Darling, this is only a game! How marvelous were my fancied adventures as I sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book. Around the quiet scholar, nymphets played freely, as if he were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen. Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameloenic cheek. Another time a red-haired school girl hung over me in the metro, and a revelation of axillary russet I obtained remained in my blood for weeks.

Lolita’s power lies in the seductiveness of its prose. To keep from being drawn into HH’s mania, one must constantly remind oneself that he is an unreliable narrator putting his own spin on the events. One need but to take a step back, however, to realize he is a monster. As Dolores herself puts it at one point,

I was a daisyfresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me.

Just as Roy Moore found ways to win the trust of 14-year-old Leigh Corfman’s mother—the young attorney offered to look after Leigh as the mother went into the courthouse for a custody hearing—so HH insinuates himself into the Haze family. He marries Charlotte to stay close to 12-year-old Dolores and then finds all obstacles removed when Charlotte is hit by a truck. HH picks up Dolores from camp, takes her to a hotel, and has her take a sleeping pill as a prelude to sex. In his telling, however, it is Dolores who initiates sex with him.

In short, both HH and Moore sacrifice children to their own ends. Dolores is never anything more than Lolita to HH, and the same can be said of Moore’s victims.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, literature professor Azar Nafisi discusses how her students, secretly reading Lolita in revolutionary Iran, identified with Lolita while seeing in HH the mullahs imposing their vision upon women. Moore, meanwhile, is a white Christian fundamentalist with his own purity hang-ups. As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times reports,

For decades, one of the most sanctimonious moralizers in American politics has been Roy Moore, the longtime Bible-thumper in Alabama who crusaded against gays, transgender people, Islam and “sexual perversion.”

Moore suggested just this year that the 9/11 terror attacks were God’s punishment because “we legitimize sodomy.” He has said that homosexuality is “the same thing” as sex with a cow and should be criminalized, and argued that Representative Keith Ellison should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he is a Muslim.

Evangelicals like Moore are filled with self-loathing at their own sinful desires, which they project outward. Thus they seek to purify America of the contamination of LBGTQ, premarital sex, brown bodies, and other forms of desecration. They champion fetuses, which are still innocent, but lose interest once the fetuses become sinners in a sinful world (so no social welfare for children born in poverty). In their misery, they look to pure young girls for salvation.

Humbert Humbert draws audiences in with his gorgeous and impassioned prose, Moore with his self-righteous politics. When we don’t resist such narcissists, we drown in their sickness.

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God’s Prayer to Us: Live Kindly, Live

Nikolai Astrup, “Spring Night in the Garden” (1909)

Spiritual Sunday

I very much enjoy James Richardson’s casual conversation with God in “Evening Prayer.” I imagine the speaker kneeling in a mostly empty church as he launches into a reasonable exploration of religious rules and rituals. By the poem’s conclusion, however, the speaker’s prayer has moved from logic into a mystical understanding which delivers, in return, a prayer from God.

The speaker begins by matter-of-factly excusing both God and humans for religion. We can’t blame God for religious wars, religious rulings made in panic (which almost always end badly), and religious purism (whose intolerance leads to violence). Nor can God blame us for being afraid of Time, “the only thing not yours.” The speaker then acknowledges, however, that any equivalence will be false since humans bear more of the blame than God. After all, we have a habit of adapting our belief systems to “what we wanted to hear.” We are obsessed above all with the commandment, “Thou shalt believe in religion’s rules”:

How can we blame you for what we have made of you,
war, panic rulings, desperate purity?
Who can blame us? Lord know, we are afraid of time,
terrible, wonderful time, the only thing not yours.
Granted, we heard what we wanted to hear,
were sentenced, therefore, to our own strange systems
whose main belief was that we should believe.

In the second stanza, the speaker reinforces the idea that religious rules are human constructs since God operates without them. Moreover, since only humans make choices, God gave us “Everything,” leaving the choosing up to us. “Everything” includes the imagination, which imagines “what isn’t”–namely, that God has come up with rules for us to live by and that we are God’s special people. What we do with our imagining, the speaker says, is “an error you leave uncorrected”:

You, of course, are not religious, don’t need any rules
that can be disobeyed, have no special people,
and since a god, choosing (this the myths got right),
becomes human, avoided choices
in general, which is why there is Everything,
even imagination, which thinks it imagines
what isn’t, an error you leave uncorrected.

The final stanza humorously imagines that God released (to Nietzsche among others) the rumor that God is dead, thereby throwing us out of clear rules and back on faith. Uncertain, we can only “Pray into what you have made.”

Once we leave behind the notion that God is a divine accountant tallying up who is orthodox and who is not, we are left with something greater. God is like a lake at night into which all are peacefully received—“the overhanging pine, the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men, weigh as they will.” Our pupils widen in wonder:

The rumor you were dead, you, I think,
suggested, letting us got with only Pray
into what you had made. By which you meant,
I know, nothing the divine accountants
could tote up on their abaci click, click,
but to widen like a pupil in the dark.
To be a lake, on which the overhanging pine,
the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men,
weigh as they will, are peacefully received,
to hear within the silence, not quite silence
your prayer to us, Live kindly, live.

In the not quite silence of this lake, our evening prayer is answered with a return prayer. What more foundational could God ask of us than that we live kindly and that we live?

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Twitter: Shorter Is Sweeter


To end this week on a light note, I’ve been enjoying adverse reactions to Twitter increasing its character limit from 140 to 280. J. K. Rowling, for instance, wrote,

Twitter’s destroyed its USP [unique selling point]. The whole point, for me, was how inventive people could be within that concise framework.

Stephen King, meanwhile, dramatized the power of concision in his characteristic way:

280 characters? Fuck that.

The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, speaking for Tolstoy, has her own very funny take:

can’t believe I only get 140 characters -Tolstoy

Is there a creative writing teacher anywhere who has not assigned the haiku form to make Rowling’s point? The intensity of imagery and expression in a great haiku poem would be diluted with more words. Take, for instance, this haiku by the great master Matsuo Basho:

Autumn darkness 
on this road I travel      alone 

Of course, most tweets aren’t poetic. Nevertheless, twitter has a punchiness that can pull one in for hours. The good news: if everyone opts for longer tweets, perhaps it won’t be quite so addictive.

Speaking of short verse forms, here’s a limerick tweeted out by @Limericking on the character increase:

The character count that we knew
Was decent and proper and true,
But nothing can last,
And changes come fast,
So one dark November it grew.

To which a reader responded:

My two-eighty dream has arrived
More lim’ricks can now be contrived
More rhyming creation
With less limitation
Increases the pleasure derived.

Whatever your feelings about 140 vs. 280, @Limericking is a joy to visit. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a serious limerick–the final rhyme often functions as a punch line–and in this dark age we need all the humor we can get. Here is @Limericking turning its attention to the Russia investigation:

Paul Manafort getting indicted
Has many Trump-watchers excited
They cannot but notice
It’s leaving the POTUS
Increasingly thickly beshited.

And on recently indicted White House aide George Papadopoulos, who thought he was dealing with Vladimir Putin’s niece to get Hillary Clinton’s stolen e-mails:

It typically looks a bit bad
When one of the staffers you had
Pursued stolen email
Supplied by a female
Who claimed a relation to Vlad.

One more:

Bob Mueller, the fellow inquiring,
Continued his efforts, untiring,
So in a short while
We may see a trial
Or else a Nixonian firing.

Previous posts about Twitter

Tolstoy and the Forerunners of Twitter

The Brave New World of Twitterature

#TrumpBookReports (in 140 characters)

If Trump Tweeted Classic Lit Reviews…

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Hardy Understood Sexual Predators Well

Hans Matheson as Alec d’Uberville, sexual predator


After discussing Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman with my Senior Seminar students, I declare it to be the novel for the age of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all those other powerful men who have harassed, assaulted, and raped vulnerable women (and sometimes men). Hardy held sexual predators fully accountable for their actions by adding the inexorable word “pure” to victimized heroine.

The adjective is necessary because virtually every predator tries to impugn the victim. If the woman is not pure, predators say, then what happens is at least partly her fault. They were saying that in 1891 when the first serialized installment of Tess appeared and they’re saying it today.

As a result, discussing Hardy’s novel is like walking through a minefield. As soon as our class tried to figure out what exactly happens in the woods—Hardy has drawn a curtain over the actual assault—one student wanted to close down the discussion then and there. After all, once one begins distinguishing between a hard rape and a soft rape, one leaves enough daylight for predators to accuse the woman of consent.

Here’s the situation: Tess’s employer Alec d’Urberville, whose sexual advances she has been resisting for weeks, rescues her from an angry woman on a late-night journey home from a fair. As the novel puts it, however, Tess has only escaped the frying pan to fall into the fire. Alec deliberately gets them lost, Tess falls asleep, and “a coarse pattern” is “traced” upon “this beautiful feminine tissue”:

“Tess!” said d’Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

All we are explicitly told is that Tess’s rape is not as “ruthless” as rapes in the past have been. Then Hardy complicates the matter further by having Tess stay with Alec for “a few weeks” before leaving him. When she finally does, she talks about her “weakness” and being “dazed by you for a little.” A defense attorney today would jump on those facts in a heartbeat.

Nor is it only predators and their attorneys who do so. In a case of editorial malpractice, the editors of the Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, 3rd edition (1990), thought that they would help out readers by adding titles to the chapters, which Hardy only numbered. This chapter they titled “Seduction or Rape,” thereby making the very distinction that Hardy challenges. Given that Tess has been under assault from her employer for weeks, to suggest that she might have been seduced shows that the 1990s editors aren’t much more enlightened that the novel’s first audience.

My students were much more clear, perhaps because they are third wave feminists, perhaps because we all participated in Maryland’s mandated sexual assault workshops. Those extra weeks, that accepting some of the blame, are irrelevant they said. First of all, Alec is employer, upper class, and male while Tess is an inexperienced farm girl, so the field has already been tilted. Furthermore, in addition to unwanted sexual advances, Alec also sets psychological traps for Tess, paying money to her family to foster within her a sense of indebtedness and gratitude–which in turn undermines the leverage she has to resist him. When Tess leaves him, he throws in her face the predator’s final justification, which is that the woman knew what she was getting into. In other words, she acted of her own volition:

“I didn’t understand your meaning till it was too late.”

“That’s what every woman says.”

“How can you dare to use such words!” she cried, turning impetuously upon him, her eyes flashing as the latent spirit (of which he was to see more some day) awoke in her. “My God! I could knock you out of the gig! Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?”

Later in the novel, when they meet up again and Tess again resists him, Alec makes clear that his intercourse with her has never been about sex. It has been about power:

“[R]emember one thing!” His voice hardened as his temper got the better of him with the recollection of his sincerity in asking her and her present ingratitude, and he stepped across to her side and held her by the shoulders, so that she shook under his grasp. “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again.”

Had Tess left him the morning after the rape, many Victorian readers would have allowed Hardy to call his heroine pure. By making the situation more complex while still insisting on her innocence, he denied them such an easy out. As a result, audiences reacted in fury.

Two weeks ago, the White House reiterated claims that the 16 women who have publicly accused Trump of sexual assault are all lying. How will we respond when defense lawyers find defects in them, as they invariably will? Will we insist upon a narrow definition of purity or will we, like Hardy, look at the broader facts of the case? I like to think we’ve made progress, but we’ll see.

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Murakami on Ideology’s Hollowness


 In yesterday’s discussion of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, my students seized upon a diatribe against narrow-minded ideologues. In the novel, Murakami mentions leftwing radicals who kill a fellow student, but if he were looking at America today, he might well call out Trump followers who believe whatever he tells them and Congressional Republicans who mindlessly repeat “tax cuts,” “repeal and replace,” and “second amendment rights.”

Such slogans and talking points have nothing to do with living and breathing human beings. Crafted to trigger a Pavlovian reaction, they circumvent rational thought and human empathy, going straight to the reptilian brain. Oshima, a trans librarian, cites T. S. Eliot as he calls them out:

[W]hat disgusts me…are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to…

 And further on:

Those are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.

 Oshima may be able to keep such people out of his library, but they are feeding upon and transforming our society. It takes strong and healthy minds to stand up to them.

Further thought: Conservative David Brooks making Oshima’s point in a recent New York Times column:

To be a moderate is to be at war with idolatry. It’s to believe that we become free as we multiply and balance our attachments. 

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Lit Encourages World Citizenship

Lawrence Jacobs


 On Friday I warned about the dangers of leftwing purists who believe that only members of a particular demographic group should write about that group. In her 1997 book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes a similar argument. To reduce literature to political identity, she says, is to ignore its greatest asset, which is the ability “to cross group boundaries in imagination.”

Nusbaum differentiates between world citizenship and identity politics. To become a world citizen, one must journey outside one’s own group, and Nussbaum believes that literature is the ideal vehicle. Identity politics, on the other hand, is “antihumanist” because it celebrates difference “in an uncritical way,” denying “the very possibility of common interests and understanding”:

In the world-citizen version of multiculturalism, the ethical argument for adding a work such as Invisible Man to the curriculum will be Ellison’s own argument that our nation has a history of racial obtuseness and that this work helps all citizens to perceive racial issues with great clarity. In the identity-politics version of multiculturalism, by contrast, the argument in favor of Invisible Man will be that it affirms the experience of African-American students. This view denies the possibility of the task Ellison set himself: “of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.”

Nussbaum doesn’t entirely deny the significance of one’s group identity. “If we want to understand the situation of a group,” she writes at one point, “we do well to begin with the best that has been written by members of that group.” She also says we must take identity seriously rather than facilely asserting that “we are all alike under the skin”:

Experience and culture shape many aspects of what is “under the skin,” as we can easily see if we reflect and read.

She is concerned, however, that identity politics in the end traps us within our separate identities. Literature is vital, she argues, because it “expands sympathies that real life cannot cultivate sufficiently”:

 It is the political promise of literature that it can transport us, while remaining ourselves, into the life of another, revealing similarities but also profound differences between the life and thought of that other and myself and making them comprehensible, or at least more nearly comprehensible. Any stance toward criticism that denies that possibility seems to deny the very possibility of literary experience as a human social good.


[T]he great contribution literature has to make to the life of the citizen is its ability to wrest from our frequently obtuse and blunted imaginations an acknowledgement of those who are other than ourselves, both in concrete circumstances and even in thought and emotion. As Ellison put it, a work of fiction may contribute “to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience.” This contribution makes it a key element in higher education.

Though those practicing separatist identity politics in literature departments often claim to be of the left, Nussbaum sees them as ultimately conservative, retreating into cloistered selves. Literature, she says, should be used to advance a far more radical vision:

[I]t is always radical, in any society, to insist on the equal worth of all human beings, and people find all sorts of ways to avoid the claim of that ideal, much though they may pay it lip service. The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love one’s neighbor was and is radical, in a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven.

As I said in Friday’s post, the key is to establish truly diverse communities so that writers and readers, scholars and students, both share their different perspectives and find commonalities. This is more vital than ever at a moment when we are experiencing identity politics in the virulent form of white nationalism. Those in the resistance must form alliances, not insist on separateness. Literature will help us do so.

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The Blue Guitar vs. Facebook

Picasso, “The Old Guitarist”


The news about Russians exploiting Facebook to influence the America’s 2016 election keeps getting worse, making a recent CNBC column about the social media giant appear particularly hollow. I mention Matt Rossoff’s defense of Facebook since someone has quoted Wallace Stevens’s poem The Blue Guitar in refutation. It’s not every day that the difficult modernist poet makes it into the public eye.

First, here’s the relevant passage from Matt Rossoff’s Oct. 15 defense:

Facebook was built to make the spread of ideas as frictionless as possible. If those ideas are angry, polarizing, ill-informed, ignorant (call them whatever you want) it reflects the people who are spreading them, not the platform on which they’re spread.

In other words, social media is holding a mirror up to ourselves, and we don’t like what we see.

A forum that exposes users to 3000 ads from Russian troll farms, however, is not an accurate mirror.  Facebook now estimates that 150 million people saw these ads in the course of the 2016 election. This led Joe Weisenthal, co-Host of What’d You Miss, to quote Stevens’s poem after first responding to Rosoff,

I don’t think social media is just a mirror of society. Observing and sharing can change the underlying things.

The blue guitarist in Stevens’s poem is the artist, “a shearsman [tailor] of sorts,” who changes “things as they are.” Stevens said that he didn’t have Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” particularly in mind when he wrote the poem, but he was a fan of modernist painting so it works. Are you can substitute Paul Cezanne or Paul Klée, Stevens’s two favorite painters, if you prefer:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman [tailor] of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And upon social media as well, as we have learned to our sorrow.

To be sure, that we can be manipulated by electronic advertising dates back at least to Vance Packard’s bestselling The Hidden Persuaders (1957). The Russians, headed by a former KGB officer, just did it on an unprecedented scale and with spectacular results.

Since Wallace Stevens has entered the conversation, today’s post explores his ideas to figure out whether actual art—not Facebook—offers any possible solutions to our quagmire where truth itself seems up for grabs. If Donald Trump can fabricate any reality he wants while undermining institutions responsible for determining truth (the press, universities, science, the courts, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Labor Statistics, various governmental agencies), can we turn to art for assistance?

Rossoff’s use of a mirror analogy in his Facebook defense traces back to Shakespeare.  To capture the truth of a character, Hamlet tells the players, an actor must “hold a mirror up to nature”:

[L]et your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure

Samuel Johnson, in his “Preface to Shakespeare,” wrote that the Bard followed his own advice:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.

The relationship of art to reality obsessed Stevens, with Blue Guitar being an extensive meditation on the subject. While sometimes glorying in art’s ability to create its own reality, Stevens also worries about that power. After all, are there any checks and what happens to objective truth? Given what happened with Facebook, this is not an academic question.

As a modernist writing at a time (1937) when people were losing faith in institutions like religion and the government, Stevens wondered whether beauty could be the ultimate arbiter. In “A High Toned Old Christian Woman,” after playfully and provocatively arguing that poetry and religion are equally fictitious, he asks why not make poetry our religion?

Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.

In the end, however, Stevens concluded that poetry can’t be utterly fanciful. If it is not grounded in truth and reality, it will lose its vitality:

 The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.

In short, even when the blue guitar changes things as they are, it must do so in the service of what is real. Great literature speaks what is true and thus can help us fight against unscrupulous leaders who attempt to bend us to their fabricated reality.

Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum says that great literature turns us into better voters. Given social media’s growing ability to disseminate fog, we need the blue guitar now more than ever.

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How Can I Focus My Flickering Mind?

Spiritual Sunday

Many great Christian poems lament the inability to feel God’s presence. “When my devotions could not pierce Thy silent ears,” George Herbert writes in “Denial,” “then was my heart broken, as was my verse.” Denise Levertov expresses similar sentiment in “Flickering Mind” but takes the responsibility entirely on herself, crying out, “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”

Levertov seems to be describing what Buddha called “the monkey mind”:

Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention.

In this poem, however, the mind is not a monkey but a minnow, which

darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.

Levertov concludes the poem with a very Herbert-like request, asking God for assistance. In her imagery, the stream of life has become a fountain emanating from a sapphire:

How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

With Levertov, connection with God is always indirect. Here’s the poem:

Flickering Mind

By Denise Levertov

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away—and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

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Beware of Literature’s Purity Police

Woodcut from Swift’s “Battle of the Books”


In a recent New York Review of Books article, novelist Francine Prose weighs in on the furor caused by a Kirkus review of Laura Moriarty’s young adult novel American Heart. Although originally receiving a star, the book had the star removed after the first Amazon reviewer, and then many others, attacked it for being a white savior narrative.

Prose summarizes the plot as follows:

Moriarty’s dystopian novel imagines a future in which Muslims are being herded into internment camps, a fact of minor importance to the novel’s white heroine, Sarah Mary, until she befriends an endangered Iranian Muslim, a professor named Sadaf. 

The Amazon reviewer, who appears to be a white woman going by the name of Leah, minced no words in her attack:

fuck your white savior narratives
fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person
fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea…
to my Muslim friends, i’m sorry this book and this mindset exists

Now, if “my Muslim friends” is a sign that Leah is not herself Muslim, then she too is engaging in a savior narrative, a self-appointed spokesperson riding in to speak up for oppressed Muslims. Self righteousness mixed with paternalism is a heady brew. So, should we listen to Leah or to the reviewer who wrote the original starred review, described by Kirkus as “an observant Muslim person of color”?

But I want to put that aside for the moment and look at the white savior genre. It’s true that many works fall into this category–and even more if one expands it to “white observer” narrative. If we banished such stories from the canon, we would have to drop Othello, Oroonoko, “Modest Proposal,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Passage to India, and Heart of Darkness, to name just a few off the top of my head. Prose mentions some of these, adds a few more, and then points to how much poorer the world would be without them:

I can still remember how pained I was, the first time I read The House of Mirth, to stumble on Edith Wharton’s portrayal of the sleazy Jewish banker, Simon Rosedale, who “had his race’s accuracy in the appraisal of values,” whose “idea of showing himself to be at home in society was to display an inconvenient familiarity with the habits of those with whom he wished to be thought intimate”—and whose ambitions are dashed by a society matron who recognizes him “as the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within her memory.” Though I would have preferred that a thoughtful editor had advised Wharton that her flat, biased, and stereotypical portrait of Rosedale was a serious flaw in her novel, I have never wished that her book had gone unpublished because of a furious online outpouring of rage. Moby-Dick might not exist if a sensitivity reader had objected to Melville’s depiction of the indigenous Queequeg, silent, telling fortunes. It’s painful to imagine someone reading Huckleberry Finn and having only one thought: fuck your white savior narrative.

If authors never moved beyond their own race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual preference, then fiction would be monochromatic. In fact, we wouldn’t have fiction. As Prose points out,

Isn’t reading an experience that the writer allows us to “live”? Doesn’t fiction let the reader imagine what it might be like to be someone else? Or to enable us to consider what it means to be a human being—of another race, ethnicity, or gender? Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked “lived experience” of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife? Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?

Those who look for purity soon find themselves on a slippery slope. Should, for instance, Lucille Clifton and Alice Walker, hailing from a developed nation, be excoriated for how they characterize Africans? (A Nigerian colleague at St. Mary’s told Lucille Clifton that her depiction of Dahomey women was a sentimental fiction.) For that matter, should we allow middle class members of an ethnicity write about lower class members of an ethnicity?

A version of this debate used to convulse leftist politics. What did it mean, for instance, that many of the spokespeople for the working class were themselves middle class, including Karl Marx and Frederick Engels? Wasn’t there some “savior-ism” going on here? And yet many of the world’s liberation movements have been spearheaded by people from privileged backgrounds.

I’m not against critiquing works for their various blindnesses. I myself have criticized To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed Prose makes exactly the mistake that I warned against in Monday’s post when she defends the book for making people uncomfortable. (I said there’s no virtue in making black students in a Mississippi school system uncomfortable in the way that it does.) I argued, however, that rather than banning To Kill a Mockingbird, which might indeed open some white eyes, teachers should add other works to complete the picture, say, poetry by Clifton and Langston Hughes.

While I agree with Prose for the most part, she fails to acknowledge a real concern with the publishing industry:

“The fear,” one literary agent told me, “is that if a publisher takes on a book written by a successful white male writer about a disabled Native American lesbian, a real disabled Native American lesbian might have trouble placing a book about the same subject at the same house; the publisher already has one.”

Prose’s response is unsatisfactory. First of all, she doesn’t call out this facile agent for piling up adjectives to convey a sense of political correctness run amuck. Also, she assumes that the white writer has written a better book that this hypothetical disabled Native American lesbian—and if he/she had not, then of course the DNAL author would be the one that gets published. Literary merit would prevail:

What this suggests is that books are being categorized—and judged—less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors.

In other words, Prose is arguing against literary affirmative action. The problem, however, is that editors have unconscious biases, as W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out many years ago in “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). That’s what the furor is about in the first place. It’s why a white teacher trying to do the right thing gets blindsided by black objections to To Kill a Mockingbird.

 The solution is to have as much diversity as possible in every field and to have open conversations about our differing perspectives. Only when this is the case can we really be confident that merit will be the final criteria.

Critiques of Moriarty’s book may well be warranted (I haven’t read it so can’t say), but I am against self-righteous purity police wielding shame as a weapon. I agree with Prose that this is a form of bullying, not to mention a cowardly and ineffective way to address our very real problems:

Literature will survive online social media bullying just as it has survived book burning and state censorship. One of the ugliest aspects of bullying is the way the aggressor finds easy targets and avoids the bigger, tougher challenges. But these attacks—and capitulations—may make it harder for us to champion the importance of the imagination at a time when we so urgently need to imagine a way to solve the larger crises that face us.

If nothing else, it sounds like Moriarty wants to engage with people unlike herself. Leah is not interested in engagement.

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Bone-Crushing Prince of Dark Days

Special Counsel Robert Mueller


A recent Washington Post article contrasting Donald Trump and Robert Mueller brought to mind the Mary Oliver poem “In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl.” Reading it gives me some sense of how the president feels when he sees Mueller at work. In this drama, Trump is the crows while Mueller is the owl.

Greg Miller contrasts the two men as follows:

Trump has often treated the probe as a political assault to be met with counterattacks in both public and private, rather than a legal minefield to be navigated carefully. He has fired his former FBI director, lashed out frequently on social media, shuffled teams of lawyers and called for the prosecution of Democrats — all part of a highly public but so far unsuccessful attempt to derail the investigation.

Mueller, by contrast, has been silently methodical. He has not uttered a single word in public, works from an undisclosed location in Southwest Washington and demonstrated the same discipline and disdain for theatrics that defined his 12-year tenure as FBI director. Submarine-like in approach, Mueller has remained entirely below the surface except when delivering legal strikes that have included the raid of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home and the indictments this week.

I knew for sure that Trump was panicking when I saw the following three-part tweet the Sunday night, in anticipation of Monday’s announcement of indictments:

Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?), the Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more. Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia ​”collusion,” which doesn’t exist. The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s ​are now fighting back like never before. There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING! 

Trump’s distraction tactics, successful in the past, are not working this time, and his final imperative is a desperate call for help. “DO SOMETHING!”

“Crows and Owl” is a poem about humans’ fixation with death, symbolized by the owl. For our purposes, however, it captures how Trump is fixated on the Mueller investigation. He dreams of destroying Mueller as the crows dream of destroying the owl, who may appear a “great bumble” but is in reality a “sleek slicer.” Because the special counsel works in silence, he takes on a mythical aura. He is Trump’s “dream,” his “waking,” his “quarry,” his “demon,” the “pine god who never speaks but holds the keys to everything.” Like the crows, Trump can’t stop thinking about him:

[W]hen one of them spies you out, all stream
straight toward violence and confrontation.
As though it helped to see the living proof.

The president has reason to fear: it appears that Mueller, like the owl, is preparing to pick off Trump’s associates in crime “one by one.” He has already nailed George Papadopolous and is hissing and snapping around Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.

In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl

By Mary Oliver

Great bumble. Sleek
slicer. How the crows
dream of you, caught at last
in their black beaks. Dream of you
leaking your life away. Your wings
crumbling like old bark. Feathers
falling from your breast like leaves,
and your eyes two bolts
of lightning gone to sleep.
Eight of them
fly over the pinewoods looking down
into the branches. they know you are
there somewhere, fat and drowsy
from your night of rabbits and rats. Once
this month you caught a crow. Scraps of him
flew far and wide, the news
rang all day through the woods. The cold
river of their hatred roils
day and night: you are their dream, their waking,
their quarry, their demon. You
are the pine god who never speaks but holds
the keys to everything while they fly
morning after morning against the shut doors. You
will have a slow life, and eat them, one by one.
They know it. They hate you. Still
when one of them spies you out, all stream
straight toward violence and confrontation.
As though it helped to see the living proof.
The bone-crushing prince of the dark days, gloomy
at the interruption of his rest. Hissing
and snapping, grabbing about him, dreadful
as death’s drum; mournful, unalterable fact.

Interviewed by Rachel Maddow Monday night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews predicted that Trump will ultimately be brought down by what brought Richard Nixon down: the truth of the matter. Or as Oliver puts it, “mournful, unalterable fact.” Pray that his optimism is warranted.

To Trump, Robert Mueller is Oliver’s “bone-crushing prince of the dark days.” The more the special counsel goes about his business, the louder the crows scream.

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Guinevere over the Centuries

John Collier, “Queen Guinevere’s Maying”


I am currently supervising a two-semester senior project with Sara Hirshon (we call them St. Mary’s Projects or SMPs) and am using today’s post to get my head around it. In addition to assisting both me and my student, it could well interest you.

Sara Hirshon is an English-Political Science double major who is using feminist political theory to chart evolving depictions of Guinevere. She is focusing on three literary moments—Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in 12th century France, the first appearance of Guinevere as we have come to know her; Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in Victorian England; and two contemporary works, Mercedes Lackey’s Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit and Alice Borchadt’s Tales of Guinevere.

Sara is also drawing on three political theories: Simone de Beauvoir’s process of “othering”; Carole Pateman’s “sexual contract”; and Judith Butler, Wendy Brown and Linda Zerilli’s “social constructions of women.” It’s an ambitious project but Sara has convinced me and her political science mentor (Diana Boros) that she can hold it altogether.

De Beauvoir pointed out that women have traditionally been defined, not as beings in and of themselves, but as whatever men are not. Therefore, even when they are doing the same jobs as men—Chrétien’s patron Marie de France presided over the court and would go on to twice serve as regent—they are seen as Other. Women have been Other-ed throughout Western history.

Othering has taken different forms at different times, however. In the court of Marie de France, the “sexual contract” took the form of courtly love, with femininity constructed as a lady who issues commands to her knight. In bourgeois England, romantic marriage became the ideal, with the woman constructed as “the angel on the hearth.” For third wave feminists in 21st century America, the sexual contract is partnership, with the ideal being the super woman who can balance a successful career with a romantic relationship and a nurturing household.

Sara notes that Guinevere shifted from public figure in the 12th century to private in the 19th and back to public in the 21st.

I look forward to what Sara will discover about how these different literary works use Guinevere to negotiate issues of female power and female autonomy. Already she notes that, at least in the 12th and 19th centuries, the works simultaneously granted and circumscribed female power. In Marie de France’s court, courtly ladies were seen as commanding their knights but within carefully defined constraints. In Victorian times, Guinevere was both an ideal lady and a seductive temptress whose sexuality could bring down Camelot.

I hope Sara addresses what is achieved by resorting to the Guinevere story. Why are modern women still drawn to it, even though they must drastically alter the story or dip into her Celtic matriarchal roots to make her acceptable to modern readers. The modern versions are ingenious but why hold on to Guinevere at all?

I’ll provide Sara’s answers in April.

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Putin as Murakami’s Boris the Manskinner

Vladimir Putin


To understand why the Russians intervened to help Donald Trump, experts consistently advise us to “follow the money.” More than anything, Vladimir Putin hates the Magnitsky sanctions, which prevent corrupt Russian officials from taking money stolen from Russia out of Russia. Their hope has been that Donald Trump will suspend the sanctions, thereby reopening the escape routes.

I’ve been teaching Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and finding unsettling parallels between Putin and “Boris the Manskinner,” a truly frightening character. My only consolation is that Putin is not quite the mastermind that Boris is. More on Boris in a moment.

First to the Magnitsky Act, which is named after a Russian tax accountant who was murdered after he began investigating tax fraud by Russian officials. According to an Atlantic article last July, there are understandable reasons why Russian officials responded so violently:

What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?

As far as I can tell, here’s the simplest explanation for what has happened. The Russians were apparently willing to forgive Paul Manafort his $60 million debt to them if he could get them inside access to the Trump campaign. That’s why he offered to run Trump’s campaign for free. The Russians wanted Manafort to set up the Russian meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kusner, and others in order so that they could trade their “dirt” on Hillary Clinton (the stolen e-mails) in exchange for promises to lift the sanctions if Trump were to win the election. The Russians delivered on their promise of assistance and now Trump would like to lift the sanctions. It appears a fairly simple case of quid pro quo, albeit one involving a lot of actors.

Experts consider the Magnitsky Act to be brilliant because it targets, not the people of Russia, but the kleptocrats. Canada has passed its own Magnitsky Act, as has Estonia, and there’s a chance that Europe will follow suit. One has only to follow the money to see why Putin is furious.

Boris the Manskinner is a Stalinist who finds himself imprisoned in Siberia after a misstep. He turns the situation to his advantage, however, in ways that Putin would envy. Lieutenant Mamiya, a Japanese prisoner and Boris’s accountant, describes how he operates:

Boris had been helping himself to a good forty percent of the foodstuffs, clothing, and medical supplies being sent to the camp by Moscow and the International Red Cross, stashing them in secret storehouses, and selling them to various takers. He had also been sending off whole trainloads of coal through the black market. There was a chronic shortage of fuel, the demand for it endless. He would bribe railroad workers and the stationmaster, moving trains almost at will for his own profit. Food and money could make the soldiers guarding the trains shut their eyes to what he was doing. Thanks to such “business” methods, Boris had amassed an amazing fortune. He explained to me that it was ultimately intended as operating capital for the secret police. “Our activity,” as he called it, required huge sums off the public record, and he was now engaged in “procuring” those secret funds. But this was a lie. Some of the money may have been finding its way to Moscow, but I was certain that well over half was being transformed into Boris’s own personal fortune. As far as I could tell, he was sending the money to foreign bank accounts and buying gold.

Putin is purportedly the richest man in the world, his $200 billion fortune more than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos’s fortunes combined. If his political fortunes change, however, Russia could claw the money back, which is why he must squirrel it away.

We never learn what happens to Boris the Manskinner although we can imagine him riding out the various changes in government, just as the former KGB agent Putin has managed to do. Boris’s secret is his ruthless and relentless focus on power and money:

My own country is hopeless. It was almost better under the czars. At least the czar didn’t have to strain his empty head over a lot of theory. Lenin took whatever he could understand of Marx’s theory and used it to his own advantage, and Stalin took whatever he could understand of Lenin’s theory (which wasn’t much) and used it to his own advantage. The narrower a man’s intellectual grasp, the more power he is able to grab in this country.

Could that be the key to Trump’s success, that he doesn’t care about anything other than grabbing power? Does he hold Paul Ryan in thrall because the Speaker of the House doesn’t have a sound system of values that can stand up to him? If the Ayn Rand-loving Ryan believes in nothing higher than Randian self interest and tax cuts for the wealthy, then no wonder he is being exposed as an empty suit. The same goes for Mitch McConnell, the win-at-any-cost Senate Majority Leader.

In the novel Mamiya, a man without a vision, finds himself unable to take down Boris when he has the chance. A representative of Japan’s World War II generation, he is judged to be not “qualified.” Are we qualified to stand up to Trump and Putin?

Happy Halloween.

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Mockingbird Discomfits the Wrong People

Peck and Peters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”


On Friday I sympathized with the black mother who complained that her daughter had been rendered “uncomfortable” by classroom discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird. Around the country, however, many opined that literature’s ability to discomfit is actually a good thing. To cite one essay chosen at random, teacher Christina Torres at Education Week writes,

Books like To Kill a Mockingbird make us uncomfortable because it shows things that not only upset us, but it shows us things about ourselves that may upset us. 

So isn’t Harper Lee just doing what great authors do, which is shake us out of our complacency?

It’s true that great literature often jolts us into self questioning, so much so that we might argue that doing so is a defining characteristic of great literature. In this case, however, we need to look at who exactly is being discomfited.

To set up my case that To Kill a Mockingbird fails in this department, I turn to something that Lucille Clifton used to say regularly at her poetry readings. “I want to afflict the comfortable,” she would declare, “and comfort the afflicted.” Her own poetry does both. “Poem in praise of menstruation,” for instance, affirms suffering women while “wishes for sons” afflicts men who don’t sufficiently sympathize.

It would be one thing if To Kill a Mockingbird discomfited Biloxi’s white students, but there have been no reports of that. Rather, it appears to have afflicted one of the afflicted. And to what end? To make her realize that racist language can emerge out of the mouths of sympathetic white girls? She may already know this.

I admit I need more facts to ensure that I’m doing justice to all parties. It may well be that the teacher sees To Kill a Mockingbird as an ideal vehicle for teaching students the evils of prejudice, not only against African Americans but also against those with neurological disabilities (Boo Radley). Given Mississippi’s racial history, one can sympathize with the teacher, especially at a time when white supremacists are on the rise. Better to teach Lee’s novel than to avoid the question of race altogether.

It may also be that the white students in the class will benefit from seeing the evils of prejudice presented in black and white terms. If some of them are discomfited at seeing racism’s ugliness, then a small victory has been gained. I’m all for opening minds with whatever tools are available.

But to put this discomfort in a broader perspective, I think white Biloxi students would have been more discomfited by Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, books that have been banned by numerous school systems. Somehow white discomfort counts for more than black. I saw up close what happened when a former student paired Huckleberry Finn with Morrison’s Song of Solomon at Leonardtown High School. Both liberally use the n-word but guess which one got banned.

Lee’s novel would be greater if it discomfited more. Flannery O’Connor, who excoriates overly comfortable whites in stories like “The Artificial Nigger” and “Revelation,” accused Lee of writing a fairy tale, and I suspect she regarded it as a white liberal fantasy. To Kill a Mockingbird is a relatively safe book to teach because it jostles only certain boats. Indications are that Lee wanted it to discomfit more—Go Set a Watchman shows what she could have done—but that editors persuaded her to pull some of her punches. She became a wealthy woman, but I wonder if she ever felt trapped by the adulation.

When, in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar, I ask my students to analyze a literary work that caused a stir, they are to look at the controversy through the eyes of everyone involved. To study the Biloxi incident, one would look at the school system, the students (white as well as black), the parents, the local newspaper, and those outsiders who took an interest. I suspect a fairly good picture of the current state of American race relations would emerge.

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Rightwing Evangelicals Bind with Briars

Blake’s “Garden of Love” (note the binding briars)

Spiritual Sunday

I wrote last Sunday about how colleges are not as hostile to religion as rightwing evangelicals charge, and a recent 538 article by Daniel Cox backs this up. Today, I’m going to make an even stronger claim: college can actually strengthen religious faith. If you want your children to have strong and robust religious beliefs, advise them to attend a liberal arts college and to take humanities courses.

Right now, many students associate religion with conservative evangelicals, who come across as shrill and intolerant. They particularly dislike rightwing attempts to control female sexuality. This was clear to me Friday when my Intro to Lit class discussed Lucille Clifton’s menstruation poems, a discussion that veered into religion and the poetry of William Blake.

I’ll elaborate in a moment. First, here’s Cox summarizing some of the attacks on colleges:

In a speech last week at an Alabama university, Donald Trump Jr. alternately mocked and ridiculed the culture of college campuses that teach students to “hate their religion” and “hate their country” — places where the moral teachings of the Bible are held up as “hate speech.” Trump Jr.’s impassioned condemnation of campus politics and college professors has become an increasingly common refrain in conservative politics, particularly among the conservative Christian wing. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum railed against the indoctrination occurring on college campuses (and used an errant statistic to buttress his claim). A year earlier, Newt Gingrich similarly accused college professors of undermining the Christian values of the Founding Fathers.

The research, Cox observes, does not bear out these claims. The studies he cites confirm what I too have witnessed, especially the third study:

A pair of University of Texas sociologists argue that “the religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education.” They suggest that, instead, students’ religious lives lie dormant, “waiting to be awakened” upon graduation. Another study found that while education did seem to have a negative impact on religiosity at one point, this is no longer the case. Still other research suggests that religious values neither increase nor decrease so much as they are “reexamined, refined and incorporated” with other beliefs.

Since we push our students to “always question why”—they are at an age where this comes naturally to them—it makes sense that they would be reexamining, refining, and incorporating. They want to know what gives life meaning, and they will occasionally turn their increasing conceptual ability to this question. My church (Episcopalian) likes to say that we don’t check our brains at the door, and I am confident that God can handle any intellectual gauntlets thrown down. Faith only grows stronger when it joins with Reason.

Those who think that Reason is about replacing God have a myopic view of the matter. They see Reason as a sterile tool used to impose human control on the world while banishing mystery, a Dr. Frankenstein-type arrogance, and it is true that such types do exist in the Academy. Many more, however, see reason as a wonderful gift (the religious among us call it a gift from God) for exploring creation in its many manifestations.

In politics we often see a narrow view of Faith battling a narrow view of Reason, with (predictably) narrow conclusions merging. Intellectual inquiry is not politics.

Our class conversation about Lucille Clifton was not narrow. People often love Clifton because she chooses to celebrate subjects that people find shameful, like black skin, large hips, sexuality (especially shameful for abuse victims), and menstruation. In our discussion of “poem in praise of menstruation,” we talked about the origins of the shame that some women still feel about their periods. Students mentioned religions that regard women as “unclean” when they menstruate.

Since my Intro to Lit course has nature as its theme (nature includes biological bodies), we looked at how controlling nature and controlling women’s bodies have often been associated. Pentheus in Euripides’s Bacchae both refuses to worship Dionysus and insists the women remain indoors at their looms. Dionysus, who will not be denied, drives the women into the mountains and upends patriarchal control. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan Le Fay, essentially a Celtic mother goddess, has the Green Knight humiliate prideful Camelot, proving to Gawain that he is more attached to his body than he admits. In the Green Knight’s eyes, Gawain’s real sin is that he’s ashamed of this attachment.

The best poet for our purposes was William Blake, who excoriates the establishment church for the way that it wields shame. In our discussion, we revisited “The Garden of Love”:

I went to the Garden of Love, 
And saw what I never had seen: 
A Chapel was built in the midst, 
Where I used to play on the green. 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut, 
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door; 
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love, 
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves, 
And tomb-stones where flowers should be: 
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, 
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Habiscus, which my library group discussed two weeks ago, has a horrific example of a church briar binding a child’s desire. The novel features a Christian businessman who is so rigid that he severs ties with his father, a traditional animist, and beats his wife and children whenever he sees them straying. We gain some sympathy, however, once we learn that, when he was a child, a Catholic priest forced him to dip his hands into near boiling water after catching him masturbating. The father relayed that abuse along to his own family.

Presumably even the most doctrinaire of American rightwing evangelicals don’t go to this length. They are not providing my students with positive or effective ways of negotiating the challenges of the modern world, however. Instead, their Christianity appears myopic and reactionary. And it’s not as though my students lack a spiritual hunger. Many turn to our literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and religious studies classes to make sense of  life’s spiritual dimensions.

When our students leave us, they take what they have learned and construct their own vision of God and the world. Those who follow a Christian path become deep and soulful Christians.

Rightwing evangelicals don’t trust them to find their own way. It’s as though they have a hothouse image of their faith, believing that it can’t withstand robust questioning. When I recall the many students I’ve had whose parents didn’t allow them to read the Harry Potter books, I think of a conversation in Pride and Prejudice about the difference between “a slight, thin sort of inclination” and “a fine, stout, healthy love.” The first, Elizabeth says, can be destroyed by contact with literature while the second is nourished. Mrs. Bennet begins the conversation:

“When [Jane] was only fifteen, there was a man at my brother Gardiner’s in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.”

“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

Are rightwing evangelicals more interested in driving people from Christianity than welcoming them to it? I’m coming to think their faith isn’t very deep. Just angry and loud.

Posted in Adichie (Chimamanda Ngozi), Austen (Jane), Blake (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Foes of Mockingbird Have a Point


When I first heard that To Kill a Mockingbird had been pulled from a Biloxi, Mississippi school room last week, I initially assumed that resurgent white nationalism was involved. Upon further digging, however, I learned that black parents were complaining that the novel made their child uncomfortable, not white. That launches an entirely different conversation than the one I anticipated.

Opposed to censorship though I am, in this instance I support those attacking the book. At least to a point.

The Biloxi Sun Herald has the story:

Biloxi School District became the focus of a national public outcry earlier this month when it pulled To Kill A Mockingbird from the classroom lesson plan because a parent and grandparent complained it made their child uncomfortable…

 The parents complaining…told the Biloxi School Board that the teacher allowed students to laugh at the use of the N-word in the text and discussions and disagreed with the need for such a racist word in a classroom setting for 13- to 14-year-olds.

Here’s the complaint in the mother’s own words:

“Students were laughing out loud at the teacher’s response. That’s unacceptable to me,” she told the board. “Is there not a better way to teach about that era and the horrors of that era, other than having kids laughing in class when the N-word is said? It should not be required reading for all students. My child shouldn’t have to sit in that class like that.

“It’s not a conducive environment,” Yolanda Williams said. “It’s not just the book, but supplemental material that had the N-word.

 “We have to get to the point where we have zero tolerance for that,” she said. “The school board needs to take a real look at the curriculum as a whole. I think something has gone amiss. There’s a serious issue and it’s not uncomfortable, it’s outrageous.”

Jessica Williams [the grandmother] said they are a military family that came to Biloxi more than 20 years ago, and her grandchild was raised not to see herself as black.

“Is there no better way to teach?” she asked the school board. “My (grand)child should not have to sit in a classroom like that.”

Similar complaints have led certain schools to ban Huckleberry Finn, either officially or in practice. One can understand why, especially these days. If outward expressions of racism are becoming increasingly common, then seeing the n-word casually used in a novel can appear to legitimize the practice.

It doesn’t help that the likable Scout uses the word numerous times. Here’s a random example, taken from when the children are trying to build a snowman from very little snow:

Jem scooped up an armful of dirt, patted it into a mound on which he added another load, and another until he had constructed a torso.  

“Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a nigger snowman,” I said.

I’ve written several post on why white readers love the novel more than black readers. After all, the hero is a white liberal who comes in and saves the day while the virtuous blacks serve as one-dimensional foils. They are virtuous because they know their place, standing up to honor Atticus in the courtroom. This helps explain why the book did as well as it did, even in the south.

I find Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, far more honest for the way it exposes the earlier fantasy. Atticus can be a benign savior only as long as the blacks don’t demand equal rights. Once they do, he joins the White Citizens Counsel, prompting Calpurnia to quit in disgust. Now that’s a discomforting vision.

In Mockingbird, the n-word is not problematized the way it is in, say, Huckleberry Finn. Huck is clearly an ignorant white kid, an unreliable narrator, and the drama is whether he will rise above his prejudices. His trashy language battles with his love for Jim, and love wins out. The crude language is exposed for what it is.

We don’t get the full humanity of African Americans in Mockingbird, however. Even when Atticus chastises Scout for using the n-word, it’s not because it dehumanizes people of color. Rather, it’s because it’s a class marker. The book is classist as well as racist, as seen in its contempt for the Ewells. Only “common” people use the n-word:

“Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” I asked him that evening.

“Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.”

I was raised in segregated Tennessee and remember once, in third grade, using the n-word. I remember this because I was told in no uncertain terms not to use it anymore, and I didn’t. Why hasn’t Atticus done the same with Jem and Scout? To be sure, this was in 1950’s Tennessee, not in 1930s Alabama, but Lee’s sequel suggests that Atticus doesn’t come down harder because it’s not a big deal for him. By contrast, it’s a very big deal to Twain how Jim is treated.

The mother and grandmother in Biloxi probably didn’t undertake an in-depth textual analysis of Mockingbird, but they sensed that their child was undergoing a version of the dehumanizing that occurs in the book. They focused on casual use of the n-word as an indication of deeper problems.

I’m interested in how the teacher handled the class’s laughter. How sensitively was the racism in the novel addressed, and did he or she supplement Mockingbird with works by black authors, say Langston Hughes or Lucille Clifton? (Both write short and powerful poems that eighth graders can grasp.)  A school system that truly respected its children of color would not, I suspect, get such parental complaints.

So no, don’t ban To Kill a Mockingbird. But take the concerns of these parents seriously and know that, if you don’t teach the novel well, it will bolster existent racism (and classism). Literature packs an explosive punch and, like dynamite, can be used for bad as well as for good.

Further thought – While I’ve critiqued Mockingbird in past posts, I’ve also discussed how important it was to my own development. Like Scout, I too was called an n-lover growing up, and seeing how she fought back inspired me. I also drew strength from this exchange with Atticus when the expression is directed at him:

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything — like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain — ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”  

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”  

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody. . . I’m hard put, sometimes — baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t let Mrs. Dubose get you down. She has enough troubles of her own.”

I now realize that Atticus’s large mind here is partly a sign of his privilege: he knows he’s above these other people. Nevertheless, the scene supported me in the face of similar attacks and made me resolve to be a bigger person, a good desire to have fostered in the battle against racism.

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Wild Accusations of Witch Hunts

1876 illustration of Salem witch trial


Recently there have been dubious instances of people accusing others of witch hunts. Donald Trump has called the Robert Mueller collusion investigation “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history,” and Woody Allen, speaking of the sexual harassment charges against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, has warned, “You also don’t want it to lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

As someone interested in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, I read Steve Hendrix’s Washington Post article about when and how the expression became common usage. Others applied the expression to politics before the play, but Miller cemented it in our minds.

First, however, a note on Woody Allen’s anxiety. From the training that everyone at my college undergoes every year, I can report that Allen here is being hysterical: winking, even if it does occur, does not lead to harassment charges. In organizations where there is a process (which apparently included neither The Weinstein Company nor Fox News), conversations are held and people are warned before action is taken (unless their actions are much severe than winking). The Hendrix article notes the irony of Allen pointing to women as witch hunters when traditionally they have been the victims.

Allen, in other words, is seeking to cast doubt on legitimate charges, not get at the truth.

According to Hendrix, “witch hunt” as a political expression has its origins in American hysteria about communism, going all the way back to the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution. Raymond Robbins, a Red Cross officer who witnessed the revolution up close, requested that a Congressional Investigatory Committee “deal with suspected Bolshevik sympathizers with intelligent action instead of in a ‘witch hunt’”:

Sen. Lee Overman (R-N.C.): “What do you mean by ‘witch hunt’?”

Mr. Robbins: “I mean this, Senator. You are familiar with the old witch-hunt attitude, that when people get frightened at things and see bogies, then they get out witch proclamations, and mob action and all kinds of hysteria take place.”

However, it would be a later investigation that, in conjunction with Miller’s play, would “forever weld ‘witch hunt’ into the political lexicon.” The phrase, Hendrix notes,

would become synonymous with McCarthyism, named for the Wisconsin senator who accused civil servants, soldiers and writers of traitorous communist ties with no proof.

One of those he would accuse, playwright Arthur Miller, would finally draw the circle from Sen. Joseph McCarthy all the way back to zealot judges of Salem with his acclaimed parable drama, The Crucible.

Trump’s practice of accusing his enemies of whatever he himself is guilty of—note his trumped-up charge about Barack Obama’s illegitimacy—means that the devil can turn even powerful indictments to his purpose. Unlike the judges in Miller’s play, however, special counsel Mueller appears to be investigating Trump in a sober and and grounded manner. It’sTrump who is rolling around on the ground screaming and pointing fingers in all directions.

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Ishiguro Anticipated Brexit, Trump

Kazuo Ishiguro


Here’s an overdue congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro, the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve posted on Ishiguro’s Buried Giant  and thought long and hard about Remains of the Day since reading it in the 1990s. A recent article in Electric Lit by Alexandra d’Abbadabie picks up on a theme that I’ve identified as well: Ishiguro is good at detecting darkness beneath surface civility.

Or as the Nobel committee put it, he “uncover[s] the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

Observing that the novel was written during the Margaret Thatcher era, d’Abbadabie observes that Remains of the Day helps us understand why people hitch themselves to authoritarian figures who screw them over. Mostly set in the years prior to World War II, the novel is narrated by Stevens, an exemplary butler who slavishly follows his master. His low point comes when he fails to question Lord Darlington, a fascist sympathizer, for sending a Jewish servant back to Germany.  As Stevens explains to the head of housekeeping,

The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

Darlington agrees, explaining to him at one point,

Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place for universal suffrage and the like.

What does Stevens get out of this arrangement? By aligning himself with the legendary British tradition of butlers, he is able to hold on to his dignity. As d’Abbadabie puts it,

He knows he’s being played, a small cog in the greater machine of things, and comforts himself in the mythology of The Great English Tradition.

In America, it’s useful to see white nationalists, especially as related to the Confederate statues, in this same light. It doesn’t matter whether Trump is taking away healthcare, enriching the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, and stripping consumer protections. Many of his followers never thought they had control over those issues anyway. What matters is that he affirms the proud tradition of white heritage, along with such patron saints as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In return, they will slavishly believe anything he tells them.

D’Abbadabie says that last year she saw such thinking everywhere:

Reading this novel after the Brexit vote, after “President Trump” became reality, is incredible…I could see him, in the middle-aged white men openly talking about English cultural supremacy, English pride in June 2016“we call this land of ours Great Britain,” Stevens says early on in the novel. 

In my own post on Ishiguro, I too saw him anticipating, not only Brexit, but the rise of the extreme right in Europe and the United States. Buried Giant shows Merlin enchanting a dragon’s breath so that the entire nation will forget the civil strife between the Britons and the Saxons. Unfortunately, the dragon is getting old and the forgetfulness charm is fading. It’s only a matter of time before tribal memories will return and war again will break out. A Saxon warrior predicts the end of the Britons:

“[W]ho knows what old hatred will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

“How right to fear it, sir,” Wistan said. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbors’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance. For you Britons, it’ll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you. You’ll flee or perish. And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace of your people’s time.

The difference between Remains of the Day and Buried Giant is that Ishiguro’s vision has gotten darker. At the end of the earlier novel, fascism is a thing of the past and Stevens is trying to figure out how to respond to his new and much more informal American master. We reflect upon the irony of his ending up here after selling his soul and giving up love to preserve the Great British Tradition.

In Buried Giant, by contrast, bloody tribalism looms. After a remarkably long period of peace, which includes the Pax Americana and the founding of the European Union, are we about to sink once again into nationalist hatreds? The signs are worrisome.

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Kelly as Coriolanus? Dear God, No!

Fiennes as Coriolanus


Last week witnessed four memorable speeches, including excellent ones by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Atlantic’s Eliot Cohen says, however, that the two that stood out were the ones by “wounded warriors.” In a fine article, Cohen compares Sen. John McCain to Richard II’s John of Gaunt and Chief of Staff John Kelly to the grieving father Talbot in Henry VI, Part I.

Where McCain’s remarks soared, however, Kelly’s suddenly veered off into Trumpian darkness, which Cohen attributes to projection. That is, everything Kelly said about Trump’s critics actually applies more to Trump himself. Cohen speculates that Kelly is becoming frustrated and bitter at what he has been forced to sacrifice for Trump and so is lashing out. Once again, the president’s incessant lying is contaminating someone who works for him.

Rather than Talbot, I would compare Kelly to Coriolanus, whose bitterness against republican rule leads him to betray his country. We can only hope that, like Coriolanus, Kelly finds his way back to the light.

McCain is in that light. Here’s Cohen making the comparison:

Senator John McCain, bearing the wounds of years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison, with an incurable cancer in his future, spoke while receiving a medal. John Kelly, grieving for his son lost in battle and for others like him, surprised and stunned reporters in a White House press conference. Their contrasting visions of this country, of military service, and of our future bear reflection.

It was Shakespearean. John McCain, like old John of Gaunt, might truly say, “O, but they say the tongues of dying men, Enforce attention like deep harmony: Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.” John Kelly, like the grim warrior Talbot looking at his son’s corpse, might say “Triumphant death, smear’d with captivity; Young Talbot’s valour makes me smile at thee.” But the two could not be more different.

McCain’s was a speech of fire but also of light: “What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country.” As he, like Bush, denounced blood-and-soil nationalism, he told his listeners, “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” But staring into the shade as he is, McCain sang of others: “I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me.” He celebrated America, “this wondrous land,” and if he paid tribute to those who fell, he spoke chiefly of an America that makes “the future better than the past.”

Kelly’s speech too started out movingly as he described “the care with which American soldiers treat their dead comrades, the impossibility of saying the right thing to bereaved parents, his solitary walk among the graves at Arlington.” Then, however, it became

a meditation on the difference between “the 1 percent” and the rest of us, between those who bear the sting of battle and burden of grief at young lives lost, and those who watch from the sidelines. He lashed out (inaccurately, as it turned out) at the politician who overheard the call because she was a friend of the family. He lurched into images of the past in which women were regarded as sacred. He pointedly discriminated among those asking questions, suggesting that only those who were Gold Star relatives or knew a stricken family had the right to ask him questions. Indeed, the White House press secretary later declared that it is improper for anyone to question a Marine four star—a statement worthy of Wilhelmine Germany at its worst.

Kelly’s speech ended with disdain for those who are not military:

He told those in the audience that he did not look down on them for not having served; rather people like him—again, the 1 percent—merely feel sorry for civilians. But his final shot—“So just think of that”—undercut the previous sentence. The contempt was unmistakable.

I’ll compare Kelly’s contempt for civilians with Coriolanus’s contempt for the mob in a moment. Let’s look first at the McCain-Gaunt comparison.

The elderly Gaunt regards with dismay the irresponsible Richard II, whose dissolute behavior is running England into the ground. He hopes that his words, coming from a dying man, might have a salutary effect on the young monarch:

John of Gaunt
Will the king come, that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?

Duke of York
Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;

For all in vain comes counsel to his ear.

John of Gaunt
O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen’d more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,
My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.

York knows the king too well to hold out any hope, however. Richard’s ears, he says, are “stopp’d with other flattering sounds.” And so it proves the case as Richard calls Gaunt “a lunatic lean-witted fool” when offered advice. “Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,” he says, “This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head/Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.”

We see the full weight of the tragedy in Gaunt’s loving description of England. One’s country never looks so beautiful as when bad leaders damage “her reputation to the world.” England, Gaunt says, is “now bound in with shame” and “hath made a shameful conquest of itself”:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

And finally:

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

Kelly too talked nobly for a while, moving everyone with talk of his dead son. So does Talbot:

Come, come and lay him in his father’s arms:
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.

To switch suddenly from Talbot’s heartbreaking grief to Coriolanus’s contempt for the mob is to experience the confusion of those that were listening to Kelly. Here’s the Roman general heaping scorn upon those who do not fight, which is also scorn for fickle politics:

What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun…
                                        He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. 

Unlike his fellow general Menenius, who knows that he has to work in concert with the people, Coriolanus becomes more and more dictatorial. Frustrated with republican politics, he complains that “crows…peck the eagles.” He could be Trump and Kelly complaining about the press and vocal women of color.

When Coriolanus is banished, he claims (sounding a bit like Ayn Rand’s John Galt) that it is actually he who is banishing Rome:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts!

This attack by a military man against republican rule is so powerful that Coriolanus, according to Wikipedia, was banned in late 1930s France and then again in post-World War II Germany for being too popular with fascists.

Although Coriolanus joins the enemy and attacks Rome, ultimately he redeems himself by striking a peace deal rather than conquering the city. He pays the ultimate price for doing so as his allies kill him as a traitor, but at least he proves faithful in the end.

If Kelly truly believes that the military are superior to civilians, then he represents a Coriolanus-type threat. Democracies are messy even in the best of times and don’t run like a military hierarchy. On the other hand, if he can find his way back to American ideals as Coriolanus finds his way back to Rome, then redemption is possible.

Might Kelly rediscover honor and, like John of Gaunt, speak truth to his powerful boss, whatever the cost? Sen. McCain stands as a model.

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How Owen Meany Comforts the Bereaved

Myeshia Johnson mourns the death of her husband


A number of tragedies are being overlooked in the quarrel between Donald Trump and the friends and family of slain Green Beret Sgt. La David Johnson. First, we should focus on those who are grieving, not anyone else. Then we should turn our attention to how Sgt. Johnson and the others got killed and why his body was initially left behind.

It will take time to figure out what happened in Niger. Trump can take immediate lessons from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, on comforting grieving families.

Rule #1: it’s never about you, only about the mourners. During the Iraq War, one grieving sister said that George Bush “listened while I screamed at him & then held me as I sobbed, you fat f***ing liar.” Bush understood that his first responsibility was to the family and friends, not to his ego.

In the recent case, however, we saw first Trump and then chief of staff John Kelly drag Congresswoman Frederica Wilson through the mud while implicitly criticizing the Johnsons for letting her listen in on Trump’s phone call. Under normal circumstances, I agree that Wilson should have stayed quiet about the interaction, but I am willing to grant her some slack because she, as a mentor to Sgt. Johnson and a family friend, was thrashing around in her own grief. She was appalled by how Trump’s insensitivity hurt Mrs. Johnson and told the world.

Owen Meany’s military job is comforting the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam. Once, when he is delivering a body on an airport tarmac, he encounters a family that is tearing itself apart in its grief. I quote from the novel at length so that you will see how emotionally volatile such situations can be. The “boy” is a teenager with weapons who is playing at being a soldier. Owen speaks in a high-pitched voice because of a damaged larynx:

“Don’t you speak to your sister that way,” the man said.

The boy, not moving, said: “Fuck you—she’s not my sister, she’s just my half sister!”

The mother said: “Don’t speak to your father that way.”

“He’s not my father—you asshole,” the boy said.

“Don’t you call your mother an ‘asshole’!” the man said; but when he stepped closer to the boy on the tarmac—as if he were positioning himself near enough to kick the boy—the boy rose unsteadily to his feet. He held the machete in one hand, the bayonet in the other.

“You’re both assholes,” the boy told the man and woman—and when his half sister commenced to cry again, he once more tipped back his head and spat the tobacco juice; he did not spit on her, but he spat in her general direction.

It was Owen Meany who spoke to him. “I LIKE THAT SHEATH—FOR THE BAYONET,” Owen said. “DID YOU MAKE IT YOURSELF?”

As I had seen it happen before—with strangers—the whole, terrible family was frozen by Owen Meany’s voice. The pregnant girl stopped crying; the father—who was not the tall boy’s father—backed away from Owen, as if he were more afraid of The Voice than of either a bayonet or a machete, or both; the mother nervously patted her sticky hair, as if Owen had caused her to worry about her appearance. The top of Owen Meany’s cap reached only as high as the tall boy’s chest.

The boy said to him: “Who are you? You little twit.”

“This is the casualty assistance officer,” the major said. “This is Lieutenant Meany.”

“I want to hear him say it,” the boy said, not taking his eyes off Owen.

“I’M LIEUTENANT MEANY,” Owen said; he offered to shake hands with the boy. “WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” But in order to shake hands with Owen, the boy would have had to sheathe at least one of his weapons; he appeared unwilling. He also didn’t bother to tell Owen his name.

“What’s the matter with your voice?” he asked Owen.


As a natural bully, the boy respected being bullied. “Yes, sir,” he said snidely to Owen.


“Yes, sir,” the boy said.


“Yes, sir,” the boy said quietly; he looked at a loss about how to PAY SOME ATTENTION to his dead brother, and so he stared forlornly at the corner of the flag that was near enough to the open tailgate of the hearse to be occasionally moved by the wind.

Then Owen Meany circulated through the family, shaking hands, saying he was sorry…

When someone has died, we must PAY SOME ATTENTION to him/her and to family and friends. Everything else is a distraction.

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Religion in Class? Teach It, Don’t Preach It

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby,’ “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”


After a year and a half, I’m finally writing my long-intended response to Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column about academe’s bias against Christians. A liberal not afraid to reflect on liberal bias, Kristof quotes a sociologist who says, “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”

Okay, let’s give some credit to academia that more isn’t made of this man’s since that’s not true of  society at large. I get his point, however. I only wish that I had had him in my classes because I talk about Christianity fairly frequently. After all, how can one teach Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as I did Friday, without discussing the mariner’s confession to the hermit upon reaching land? In fact, I called upon the Catholics in the class (I myself am Episcopalian) to walk us through how their faith regards confession and penance.

But here’s the thing. I have to talk about Christianity in ways that don’t exclude the non-Christians in the room. If professors are to talk about their faith, it must be a tolerant faith, one that is open to the claims of other religions. Can you be accepting of your non-Christian students if you think they’re all going to hell?

My own view of religion is my view of literature. That is to say, I see both as elaborate symbol systems designed to put us in touch with things that are beyond us. Although religious rituals can only get us so far–an observation that applies also to language–we turn to ritual and to language because they are what we have. Any final articulation will always be beyond us because God is always beyond us.

Many of my students—not all of them—are in spiritual search. In Wednesday’s class, many of them grappled with Wordsworth’s notion of a universal soul in Intimations of Immortality, which got Wordsworth himself in trouble with orthodox Christians of his day. Before Wordsworth, we discussed how Blake could be anti-church but pro-Jesus. (Being college students, many are questioning the faiths they were raised in—many will return eventually—and drew a distinction between religion and spirituality.) Before that, we talked about Christian Camelot’s encounter with Celtic earth religion in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And before that we discussed a religion that, because no one practices it anymore, we now call mythology (Dionysus worship in The Bacchae). Given that most English-language literature before the 20th century emerges out of a Christian context, it would be malpractice on our part to ignore it.

Discussing religion is not the same as preaching it, however. That’s where I draw the line. And for the record, I am against preaching secular materialism as well. Above all, our first duty is to respect our students.

This respect must extend to conservatives and evangelical Christians. Kristof is absolutely right there. It should also extend to people of color, to LBGTQ students, to women who believe in their right to control their reproductive decisions, to people with neurological and physical challenges, and to DACA kids. We try not to hire people for whom ideology is more important than the complex beings that are their students.

Kristof observes that universities are more welcoming to liberals than to conservatives and there are reasons for that. Western academe has been most influenced by the empirical and non-Christian Aristotle and then by the deist Enlightenment (hello, Thomas Jefferson). How could it not have a liberal bias, defining liberal in its most expansive sense? Academics must be committed to the truth, even when it challenges traditions and shakes up old certainties. In that way, it’s not a natural fit for conservatives. Maybe that one reason most faculty are liberal.

I’ll agree with Kristof, however, that when liberals become orthodox and rigid, they cease to honor the academic ideal. In such instances, they cannot truly call themselves liberal. I will admit that, being human, sometimes we academic liberals fall prey to our biases. But we have an ideal that informs us that this is not good, which makes us more likely to self-correct when people call us out. Many of us take Kristof’s column seriously.

For all our faults, the faculty that I know strive to respect their conservative students no less than their liberal students. They are also more open to, say, Nazis speaking on campus (as long as they don’t threaten violence) than certain conservatives are to black athletes kneeling at football games. Unlike our president, we don’t believe that people should be fired and that newspapers should lose their licenses for disagreeing with him.

The one thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance. Take away free and open dialogue and the university dies.

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How Moliere Is Saving France


Few writers are able to apply literary lessons to contemporary politics as well as The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. In a very smart article, he says that French president Emmanuel Macron is drawing upon Moliere to chart a wise course for France. Gopnik observes that the 17th century writer’s social comedy provides Macron a model for walking the fine line between idealism and pragmatism.

According to Gopnik, Macron is a Moliere fanatic. In a televised interview last Sunday, he

engaged in an exchange of the proto-romantic Alceste’s opening lines from The Misanthrope with a journalist, who took up the accompanying role of Philinte, Alceste’s best friend, who represents simple common sense.

Once can see why Macron would relate to the play. Alceste, after all, is objecting to customary political behavior:

Am I so very wicked, do you think?

Go to, you ought to die for very shame!
Such conduct can have no excuse; it must
Arouse abhorrence in all men of honor.
I see you load a man with your caresses,
Profess for him the utmost tenderness,
And overcharge the zeal of your embracings
With protestations, promises, and oaths;
And when I come to ask you who he is
You hardly can remember even his name!
Your ardour cools the moment he is gone,
And you inform me you care nothing for him!
Good God! ’tis shameful, abject, infamous,
So basely to play traitor to your soul;
And if, by evil chance, I’d done as much,
I should go straight and hang myself for spite.

It doesn’t seem to me a hanging matter,
And I’ll petition for your gracious leave
A little to commute your rigorous sentence,
And not go hang myself for that, an’t please you.

How unbecoming is your pleasantry!

But seriously, what would you have me do?

Be genuine; and like a man of honour
Let no word pass unless it’s from the heart.

But when a man salutes you joyfully,
You have to pay him back in his own coin,
Make what response you can to his politeness,
And render pledge for pledge, and oath for oath.

In the interview, Gopnik said, Macron spoke in Alceste’s voice but with Philinte’s views. Here’s Philinte’s defense:

There’s many a time and place when utter frankness
Would be ridiculous, or even worse;
And sometimes, no offence to your high honour,
‘Tis well to hide the feelings in our hearts.
Would it be proper, decent, in good taste,
To tell a thousand people your opinion
About themselves? When you detest a man,
Must you declare it to him, to his face?

Rousseau, it’s worth noting, hated Moliere for (as he saw it) making fun of Alceste. That’s because Rousseau was an earnest idealist who identified with the misanthrope. Macron, by contrast, is a centrist politician who united the center left and the center right against Marine Le Pen’s fascism. Politically speaking, he has to join a high-minded idealism (Alceste) with a down-to-earth pragmatism (Philinte). Macron’s knowledge of Moliere, Gopnik says, helps him see his challenge clearly.

The problem is this: pragmatism is not very inspiring, and middle-of-the road moderates are often targets of derision. Social comedy, however, is suspicious of ideological purism of any kind and thus gives moderates more credibility. By invoking Moliere, Gopnik says, Macron

was cautioning against dogmatic answers to practical problems. He was, in short, speaking on behalf of Molière’s great theme: the folly of fanaticism of every kind, whether it be the religious fanaticism in Tartuffe, in which a self-seeking pseudo-holy man warps a family’s life, or the social fanaticism in The Misanthrope, in which the proudly plainspoken Alceste has to be instructed by his mistress and his friends that too much candor is egocentric and vain, and not admirable. In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Molière makes fun of the aspirational fanaticism of the moneyed middle-class man who discovers, thanks to an expensive tutor, that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, and in The Imaginary Invalid he makes fun of the hypochondriac’s desperate desire to be cured by some systematic, if entirely fake, doctoring. In The Learned Ladies, Molière’s proto-feminist point is not that the ladies should not be learned but that their natural wit—all that they know already from their own experience—is more profound than what their lecherous tutors, with their extravagant poetic pretensions, wish to teach them.

Social comedy has a social policy wisdom that more elevated genres, such as epic, tragedy, and lyric poetry, lack. This makes Moliere the perfect model for Macron:

That French lesson—about the madness of finding a one-size-fits-all solution to a many-shaped and many-sized humanity—though delightfully convincing when presented as social comedy, is hard to make glow as social policy. So, on Sunday night, Macron was in the strange and contradictory position—one that made his performance on the whole as disconcerting as it was effective—of trying to stare down fanaticism fanatically. He held that the leftist belief in a kind of organized social revenge against the wealthy élite is just as destructive as the right-wing nationalist belief in an orgy of revenge against the educated élite. He spoke for the fierce urgency of not always being too urgent, for the glamour of moderation, for the eloquence of small-bore social engineering.

Macron sounds a lot like the left-of-center Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom disappointed the left, and Gopnik admits that comedy can appear to give short shrift to our emotional hunger. Obamaesque calls for Hope and Change, after all, sound more epic or lyrical than comic. What comedy can do, however, is “make[ ] sanity look appealing and alive to our dramatic imagination.” Gopnik concludes,

It is the rare leader—America not very long ago had one—who can make small sanities resonate as inspiring ideas. France should be, and may be, so lucky.

So let’s hear it for social comedy. In America, unfortunately, the genre that is currently serving us best appears to be comic satire, which helps us keep our sanity in the face of absurdity. When the GOP controls all branches of government and rightwing fanaticism dominates the GOP, then other genres have a hard time gaining traction.

Luckily, we have a patron writer of our own that we can turn to. Our Moliere is Mark Twain.

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Is Atwood’s Dystopia America’s Future?

The aftereffects of Hurricane Maria


Increasingly, Trump’s Maria is making Bush’s Katrina look like a day at the beach, what with continued breakdowns in communication, logistics, and distribution. Many still can’t get clean drinking water, and most of the island is still without electricity.

I find myself wondering if, American citizens or no, Puerto Ricans will one day be denied access to the mainland. After all, a million pissed-off residents moving to Florida could tilt the state blue in future elections. The idea came to my mind as I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood (2008), which imagines a wall between Texas and the rest of the United States after similar environmental disasters.

Atwood’s deep understanding of socio-economic, environmental and technological issues gives credibility to her dystopian literature. In Year of the Flood, conditions have become so bad that a mad scientist finally decides to wipe out the human race with a super-destructive virus. Before he does so, however, we see the effect of extreme class inequality and unregulated capitalism. Texas, we learn, suffers alternately from (sound familiar?) extreme droughts and super-intense hurricanes.

We get this account from a Texas immigrant:

Amanda told me about the droughts in Texas—how her parents had lost their Happicuppa coffee franchise and couldn’t sell their house because no one would buy it, and how there were no jobs and they’d ended up in a refugee camp with old trailers and a lot of Tex-Mexicans. Then their trailer was demolished in one of the hurricanes and her father was killed by a piece of flying metal. A lot of people drowned, but she and her mother held on to a tree and got rescued by some men in a rowboat. They were thieves, said Amanda, looking for stuff they could lift, but they said they’d take Amanda and her mother to dry land and a shelter if they’d do a trade.
“What kind of trade?” I said.
“Just a trade,” said Amanda.

The trade probably involves sex although Amanda never confirms this.

At first Amanda and her mother are put in a football stadium with tents. After her mother dies from contaminated drinking water, Amanda escapes because

the refugees were supposed to be farmed out to work in whatever job they were told to. “No free lunch,” people were saying: you had to pay for everything, one way or another.

Atwood captures here the paternalism we are also seeing from some who lecture Puerto Rico, starting with the president. Those who have had bad luck are expected to pay back any aid with interest, the assumption being that they want this free lunch.

Amanda walks north with thousands of others. The one time she hitches, she has to fend off a sexual assault. And then:

“Then I had to get past the Wall,” she said.
“What wall?”
“Don’t you watch the news? The Wall they’re building to keep the Tex refugees out, because just the fence wasn’t enough. There’s men with sprayguns—it’s a CorpSeCorps wall. But they can’t patrol every inch—the Tex-Mex kids know all the tunnels, they helped me get through.”
“You could’ve been shot,” I said.

Amanda lays out two different ways that people respond to the catastrophes:

In her place I would have just laid down in a ditch and cried myself to death. But Amanda says if there’s something you really want, you can figure out a way to get it. She says being discouraged is a waste of time.

All power to those who refuse to be discouraged, but not all have Amanda’s power. In any event, America hasn’t arrived at Atwood’s dystopia yet. Our president seems determined to get us there, however.

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Trump, 4 Dead Soldiers, & Col. Cathcart

Balsam as Colonel Cathcart in “Catch-22”


Few novels understand the military mindset better than Catch-22. Nevertheless, I imagine that even Joseph Heller would gape at Donald Trump’s latest claim that he has been far more caring than his predecessors towards Gold Star families. After all, Trump made this claim after admitting that he had not yet contacted the families of the four Green Berets who died in Niger two weeks ago

When asked about them, Trump sounded like a student caught out for not having done his homework. He first said that the letters were on the way, or would be soon, and then tried to change the subject by contrasting himself with Barack Obama with what everyone agrees was a vile calumny. Here’s ABC’s account:

Almost two weeks after four Green Berets were killed in an attack in Niger, the Trump administration has faced criticism over its response. On Monday, Trump said he plans to call the families of the fallen soldiers to offer his condolences. But he also falsely claimed that Barack Obama and other presidents did not make personal calls to bereaved military families.

“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. Lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call,” Trump said.

He said he plans to call and send letters to the families “either today or tomorrow.”

When challenged by a reporter, Trump walked back his response.

“I was told that he didn’t often. Lot of presidents don’t,” Trump said. “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes. Maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. Some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like the combination.”

As many noted, while Obama and George W. Bush would have been at the airport when the bodies were flown back, Trump was playing golf.

During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came in for a storm of criticism when people figured out he was auto-signing letters to the families of soldiers who were killed. Trump, however, makes Rumsfeld sound like Mr. Rogers. I’d say that the president was on a par with the execrable Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22 only Cathcart at least feels he must make an effort to console families. Trump reaches out only after he is exposed.

Cathcart’s outreach involves “sincere” form letters, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Here’s his order to the chaplain:

“Starting tomorrow,” he said, “I want you and Corporal Whitcomb to write a letter of condolence for me to the next of kin of every man in the group who’s killed, wounded or taken prisoner. I want those letters to be sincere letters. I want them filled up with lots of personal details so there’ll be no doubt I mean every word you say. Is that clear?”

The chaplain stepped forward impulsively to remonstrate. “But, sir, that’s impossible,” he blurted out. “We don’t even know all the men that well.”

“What difference does that make?” Colonel Cathcart demanded, and then smiled amicably. “Corporal Whitcomb brought me this basic form letter that takes care of just about every situation. Listen: ‘Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs.: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.’ And so on. I think that opening sentence sums up my sentiments exactly.”

Sure enough, Cathcart means every word the letters say. After Doctor Daneeka supposedly gets killed, his supposed widow hears from the colonel:

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka:
Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.

It’s one thing for Trump to disrespect Gold Star families. Far more worrisome is that such lack of empathy might lead him to underestimate war’s human toll, including the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war with North Korea. (“If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?” then-candidate Trump once reportedly asked in a foreign intel briefing.) What if people dying are no more real to him than people getting fired on The Apprentice.

For a leader who takes matters of life and death seriously, I offer you Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. When a deserter must be executed, Ned himself does the deed. He explains why to his son Bran:

[W]e hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.

We have a president who refuses to take responsibility for anything, including the servicemen and women who are fighting and dying under his command. He is a man afraid to look others in the eye. He doesn’t know what death is and he is uninterested in finding out.

Further developments

The stories keep coming, such as this one from a father whose son died last June, as reported by Washington Post:

President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

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Three Poems for Surviving Trump


Nancy LeTourneau of Washington Monthly had a very timely article yesterday about emotionally surviving the Trump presidency. Keeping abreast of the news these days, she observed, is “toxic and exhausting,” leading to fatalism and burnout. She shared a David Whyte poem to lift the spirits, however, and I have added two others in the same vein, by Lucille Clifton and Emily Dickinson.

LeTourneau quotes Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen as someone who sums up her state of mind

For millions of Americans, Trump has become an unbearable, infuriating, enraging, and draining presence in our national life…

I’m the ultimate optimist. I’ve written countless articles about how the world is getting safer, freer, wealthier, and healthier — and it is. But the collective effect of Trump’s presidency has caused me — and many I’ve spoken with — to question our belief in and hopefulness about America. Reactionary forces that we all know existed, but many of us believed were on the decline, have been unleashed on the country. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, which of course have always existed, have become normalized and part of the political discourse in ways that are completely alien to our experience of American politics. Public corruption, the shredding of political norms, and a deficit of public compassion now seems to define our body politic.

LeTourneau’s spirits picked up, however, after she returned to a community organizer’s article on handling one’s emotions in dark times. Marshall Ganz identifies the danger of negative feedback loops and then provides an antidote:

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

After quoting Ganz, LeTourneau said she stopped enumerating all of Trump’s outrages with a friend and then turned to a Whyte poem about finding faith in dark times. (I once shared it during Advent.) For the purposes of her column, LeTourneau changes the word “faith” to “hope,” but I have restored the original wording. Faith works just as well here if you see it as faith that the best in humans will prevail:


I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

The darkness that we witness appears final only if we allow it to gain ascendency. The key is to hold on to the light, which is what Clifton does in her own poem about the moon.

The moon has bad associations for Clifton—she experienced it as the eye that witnessed and did nothing when her father abused her—but after he died (he is “the man who killed the bear,” the “coalminer’s son”), she rethought her relationship with it. The moon, she observes, knows how to borrow light even when all around is dark. In other words, it doesn’t need a lot in order to shine:

only after the death
of the man who killed the bear,
after the death of the coalminer’s son,
did i remember that the moon
also rises, coming heavy or thin
over the living fields, over
the cities of the dead;
only then did i remember how she
catches the sun and keeps most of him
for the evening that surely will come;
and it comes.
only then did i know that to live
in the world all that i needed was
some small light and know that indeed
i would rise again and rise again to dance.

When she was a colleague, Lucille once mentioned to me that she would read this poem at conventions for abuse survivors. It assured them that, even when one feels like a city of the dead, one can rise again to dance. All one needs is “some small light.”

Dickinson would agree. A tough-minded explorer of human psychology—no maudlin sentimentalist she—the poet tells us that hope can sing without stopping even during the sorest gale, in the chillest land, or on the strangest sea:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Right now our “Extremity” is Trump and the political party that enables him. As depressing as that is, don’t forget that Hope is near at hand. It will sing to us, caress us with its feathers, and keep us warm.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Dickinson (Emily), Whyte (David) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


  • 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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