Touching the Happy Isles One Last Time

Peyton Manning


 Against all expectations, the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl. In what is  probably the final game of his stellar career, Peyton Manning went out with a win. True, he limped rather than sprinted across the finish line, aided by a historically great defense. Nevertheless, many experts consider this season one of his greatest achievements given all the physical infirmities he battled.

Several years ago, when Peyton went through a bad spell, I cited Robert Frost’s poem “The Oven Bird,” where he asks “what to make of a diminished thing.” On Sunday night that question confronted all of us who have been following Manning’s career.

It was a case of cognitive dissonance. Although he had the lowest ranking of any victorious quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl, he was still victorious. In answer to the question I posed on Friday, he touched the Happy Isles and met the great Achilles. The gulfs did not wash him down. Some football experts—those who look at more than Super Bowl wins—consider him the greatest quarterback of all time. (See item #60 in this Bill Barnwell ESPN article.)

So thanks for all the memories, Peyton, With Walter Savage Landor (in “Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher”), you can say of your playing days,

I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
         It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

For readers who want to reminisce over the past, here are the blog posts I’ve written about Manning going back to 2009:

Previous posts on Peyton Manning 

Old Age Hath Yet His Honor
Austen, Moral Equivocation, and the NFL
Peyton Manning as Poe’s Dupin
Is Peyton Manning Pitted against a Seattle Puck?
The Return of King Peyton 
Apres Peyton, Le Déluge
Peyton Manning and the Maltese Falcon
Peyton Manning as Moby Dick?!
Federer, Peyton: Made Weak by Time and Fate?
Bill Belichick as Professor Moriarty
What to Make of a Diminished Peyton
Manning vs. Brady, Hector vs. Achilles
Win or Lose, Turn to Beowulf
Quarterback Poems for Inspiration
Football Doggerel in Praise of the Colts
Manning as Beowulf, No Joy in Mudville
Schadenfreude and the NFL
Romanticism, Classicism and Football 

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The Most Commonly Taught Lit

Gwen John, "Dorelia by Lamplight, at Toulouse"

Gwen John, “Dorelia by Lamplight, at Toulouse”


The Washington Post last week alerted me to the Open Syllabus Project, which looks at the works most commonly taught in our nation’s colleges. One can separate the works into the disciplines that teach them so, of course, I checked out the literature offerings. The list is interesting although it’s dangerous to conclude too much from it.

The project collected all the syllabi it could find on-line. The creators explain how they tabulated the results:

If a work appears on a syllabus, it counts for the purposes of Teaching Score and other indicators of frequency.  If a work appears 10 times on a syllabus, it counts only once.  If it appears in ‘suggested reading’ or some other secondary list, it still counts. Our methods can’t reliably distinguish primary from secondary reading (yet).

Overall, the two works that did the best were Plato’s Republic and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Nothing unexpected there. In the literature category, I’ve listed below the top 50 works, excluding writing guides, assigned in English classes:

A couple of corrections were necessary, however. Some works were listed multiple times (Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and Songs of Innocence and Experience; Bartleby and Bartleby the Scrivener; Canterbury Tales and The General Prologue) so I recalibrated the totals. Canterbury Tales came in first and Shakespeare, of course, ran away with top author honors. Here they are:

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yellow Wallpaper
Sophocles, Oedipus
W. S. Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby
Kate Chopin, Awakening
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”
William Faulkner, “Rose for Emily”
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Jonathan Swift, “Modest Proposal”
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Homer, The Odyssey
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Galloway
Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland
Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”
Shakespeare, Othello
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
Alexander Pope, Rape of the Lock
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads
Sophocles, Antigone
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
Franz Kafka, “Metamorphosis”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter
Susan Glaspell, Trifles
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Melville, Moby Dick
Thomas More, Utopia
Declaration of Independence
Oscar Wilde, Importance of Being Earnest
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene
Shakespeare, Henry V
Sophocles, Oedipus

Many of the works are staples in Composition, Composition & Literature, and Introduction to Literature classes (the essays, poems, and short stories). I suspect that early British Literature surveys are underrepresented or we would see Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other such works. While my own syllabi are not on-line, I have taught 40 of these 50 works at one time or another.

At the very least, the list suggests canonical works are alive and well. I am particularly delighted to see The Canterbury Tales and Paradise Lost in the top five.

One other thought: The Washington Post article separated out the top ten literary works taught by ivy league colleges vs. everyone else. While there were some works in common, I was startled to see Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Spenser’s Faerie Queene. And while I love Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I would have expected Emma or Pride and Prejudice instead. These college, I suspect, teach more topic classes, fewer general education.


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Lyra’s Epic Journey To Grow Up

Kidman and Richards in "the Golden Compass"

Kidman and Richards in “the Golden Compass”

Spiritual Sunday

I’m using today’s post to reflect upon Philip Pullman’s thoughts about religion in The Golden Compass, which I’m currently teaching in my British Fantasy class. The book has stirred up religious controversy and we heard a direct report from one of my students, who informed us that her Catholic priest had advised parents to keep the book away from their children.

In Golden Compass, Lyra is an orphan growing up in a fantasy version of Reformation-era Oxford. Everyone in this world has an animal companion, called a daemon, that functions as a spirit guide. Lyra’s quest, at its core, is to grow up. Her “journey of the hero” is a coming-of-age story.

The maturation theme is complicated by society’s anxieties about sin. Sin takes the physical form of the astral dust that is pouring into the world through the thin atmosphere over the North Pole. While it leaves children alone, it becomes attracted to them when they enter puberty. Adults are entirely coated with it, which causes a great deal of consternation amongst the church authorities.

One other detail is important here. People’s animal guides can change forms before their humans become adults but then solidify into a single animal. We may have several possible selves in our childhood but eventually we grow into a fixed identity. The church authorities therefore see the daemons as sin attractors.

The church, we learn, is Calvinist. The Reformation appears to have been so successful that it has taken over the Catholic Church, with John Calvin becoming pope and moving the Vatican to Geneva. This is thematically important because of Calvinism’s intense focus on sin (think of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon). The church, as Pullman sees it, benefits from sin because it controls the process of repentance and penitence.

While the church may set itself up as the means by which people negotiate sin, however, other characters in the novel want to take more radical measures. One of these is designed to keep the children from growing up.

This is the aim of Mrs. Coulter, who (so Lyra eventually discovers) is her mother. Mrs. Coulter slices daemons from the children, a horrific act that she compares to castrating young boys to preserve their youthful voices. One of Lyra’s tasks is to free the children who have been kidnapped and are about to be sliced.

Seen as a family drama, Mrs. Coulter is an overly controlling mother who wants her daughter to remain forever innocent. If Lyra is to step into her own powers, she must rebel.

Meanwhile Lord Asrael, a man who (so Lyra eventually discovers) is her father, follows a different route: He wants to go to the source of sin and eradicate it, thereby returning Earth to a Garden of Eden state. To that end, he goes to the North Pole where the dust is streaming in and where, in the aurora borealis, one can see another world in the sky. He builds a bridge to that world and crosses it, apparently prepared to go to war with God himself. Much of Pullman’s imagery is drawn from Paradise Lost, with Asrael functioning as a Satan figure. (More on this shortly.)

Seen as a family drama, Asrael is the father who wants to create a safe sin-free world in which his child can grow up. Some home schooling parents have a version of this fantasy.

Lyra will not be able to grow up if either of her parents prevail and so has to battle against them. Indeed, her animal guide suggests to her that, if the adults think dust/sin is bad, maybe that means that it is in fact good. You can see why certain religious teachers would be convinced that Pullman is on the side of sin The fact that Lyra engages in adolescent sex in a later novel probably confirms their views.

Pullman would argue, however, that the church wants to control people, not help them grow up. Yes, we have free will and may exercise that will to commit sinful acts. But we can also use it to become fully self-actualized adults. In Pullman’s mind, the church is trying to keep us in a child-like state. Indeed, the church in his book doesn’t only target children. It also splits certain adults off from their daemons, turning them into soulless, unthinking functionaries.

I turn now to Paradise Lost to set up my discussion of The Golden Compass’s conclusion. Somewhat awkwardly, Pullman titles his trilogy His Dark Materials, an allusion to the moment when Satan is about to launch himself from Hell into Chaos and Night and make his way to Earth. His plan is to corrupt God’s new creation. The passage holds out the possibility that God, having created Earth from the void, may create other worlds out of these “dark materials”:

                                     Into this wild Abyss, 
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his Voyage

Along with images of chaos, Pullman gets his idea of a celestial bridge from Milton as well. Here’s the bridge that Sin and Death construct from Hell to Earth after Satan has seduced Adam and Eve:

Deep to the Roots of Hell the gather’d beach
They fastened, and the Mole immense wrought on
Over the foaming deep high Arch, a Bridge
Of length prodigious joining to the Wall
Immovable of this now fenceless world
Forfeit to Death; from hence a passage broad,
Smooth, easy, inoffensive down to Hell. 

In Golden Compass Asrael uses the energy from slicing Roger, Lyra’s closest boyhood friend, to build a “bridge to the stars.” He is replaying Satan as he crosses the abyss to a new world. The sacrifice of Roger is unutterably sad, a symbol of the end of Lyra’s childhood. Asrael has betrayed his daughter and through this betrayal she realizes that she was wrong to look to him for protection. Now she must assume responsibility for her own future as she crosses the threshold into adolescence and adulthood.

Thus we get the bridge from another vantage point: it is not a journey to stop dust but a journey to grow up. As Lyra puts it, “If Dust were a good thing…If it were to be sought and welcomed and cherished…”

Lyra follows the path of Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden of Eden. She leaves behind her (dead) child self and moves forward:

So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.

Or as Milton memorably puts it to conclude his epic:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Although Pullman’s use of Paradise Lost is clever and his images stay in the mind. I find it somewhat problematic how he characterizes Christianity. While there certainly are churches that try to keep their young people in perpetual innocence—no sex until marriage, for instance—there are others (including my own) that encourage young people to question and explore. Not all Christian denominations are obsessed with sin to the exclusion of all else. Not all churches want you to check your mind at the door.

Because of that, Pullman’s fascination with dust doesn’t seem all that vital to me and fails to engage. I don’t find Asrael’s battles with angels in Book III compelling but rather bizarre. His Dark Materials lacks the powerful storylines of Tolkien and Lewis.

The coming of age story, on the other hand, has my full attention. In my opinion, it saves the trilogy.

In other words, don’t look to Pullman for spiritual advice. But as a story about a young girl stepping into her powers, it works.

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Peyton: Old Age Hath Yet His Honor

Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning


I stopped blogging about sports a couple of years ago when I realized that I was starting to repeat myself. There are only a limited number of sports stories—the promising rookie, the heroic underdog, the squandered talent, the aging veteran, etc.—and I wasn’t discovering anything new when I applied literary works to the various figures.

This makes today’s post on the Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl contest easy to write, however. I have simply combined and updated three previous posts, two of them written leading up to Peyton’s last Super Bowl. They seem just as relevant applied to Sunday’s contest as they did to the Broncos-Seahawks contest.

Manning has strongly hinted that Sunday’s game will be his “last rodeo.” Many find the story compelling because the contest invokes the archetype of the aging king. Will he be able to reclaim his throne after all these years.

The sublime Cam Newton represents a new generation of quarterbacks who, like the suitors, appear to have taken over the hall. Many sports commentators have declared that Newton is the future, Manning the past. This seems particularly true this season when Manning struggled with interceptions and injury and missed several games. At times it appeared that Manning would never play again. It was as though, half dead, he had washed up on Calypso’s island, never to leave again.

That’s not how the story goes, however. The Odyssey opens with Zeus sending a messenger to remind “the great tactician” that he is still king of Ithaca and has a responsibility to venture out on treacherous seas to reclaim his throne. As Zeus puts it,

Could I forget that kingly man, Odysseus? 
There is no mortal half so wise; no mortal 
gave so much to the lords of open sky.

Read psychologically, Zeus represents the internal sense of higher ambition that spurs Odysseus to heroic heights. In Manning’s case, it is the drive to keep coming back to compete, even as his body fails him.

Odysseus ventures out upon the seas with a self-constructed raft and barely makes it to Ithaca. This pretty much sums up Manning’s season, which was the worst of any Super Bowl quarterback in the history of the NFL. Early in the season he was throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Then he missed a number of games with planter fasciitis, and he relied on his defense and unspectacular, error-free ball to get through the playoffs.

Virtually all the experts are predicting a Carolina win, and Odysseus’s odds for success aren’t much greater. After all, he will be facing 108 suitors, all of them in their prime.

Even if one accepts the narrative of Peyton as an aging king, however, that doesn’t automatically make him the hero. Yes, one story is that of Odysseus, King Arthur, Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Tolkien’s Aragorn. We can all feel good about that one. But there’s another one.

This is the story of the tyrannical king who holds on to power for too long, suffocating new growth. The archetype for such kings is the dragon in Beowulf. Killing or otherwise displacing such kings is, of course, the story of Oedipus, not to mention numerous other myths and fairy tales.

So perhaps you see Manning as beloved monarch and Cam Newton as a usurper. Or perhaps you see Manning as a dragon and Newton as regenerative hope. What you see undoubtedly may depends on your prior rooting interests.\

Or if you are a neutral observer with no dog in the fight, maybe you’ll root for whichever of the two narratives you find most compelling.

I won’t predict who will win but I will note how a later literary incarnation of Odysseus, Tennyson’s Ulysses, sets forth the possibilities. I’ve applied this passage in the past to both Manning and Roger Federer, his tennis equivalent, and it’s even more relevant now.

Ulysses finds himself restless in Ithaca and not ready to retire. He therefore rounds up his old comrades (not that any are still alive in Homer’s version) and sets out for one last journey. Or rodeo.

In this case, Ulysses is not reclaiming his throne but reaching outward for immortality. It is a heroic journey:

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

 The end could end in cataclysm, a version Manning’s thrashing at the hands of the Seahawks in 2014. Ulysses admits this is a possibility:

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down…

But it’s also possible that he will achieve Super Bowl glory one last time:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

And then, regardless of what happens, we must celebrate that he is making one last shot:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

On to Sunday!

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An ANTidote for Apocalyptic Talk

From "Antz"

From “Antz”


 Apocalyptic language seems all the rage in the primaries this year, especially amongst the GOP candidates but with Bernie Sanders as well. If it’s getting you down, here’s a poem by my father to lighten the mood.

True, it’s got its own apocalyptic message regarding the environment and militarism. But it’s told from the view of an “apocalyptic ant” and is heavy on the puns, so there’s a comic element. It appears in An ABC of Radical Ecology (1982, 1990).

How many Biblical references can you identify? The Nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Book of Revelations are heavily represented.

A Is for Apocalyptic Ant

By Scott Bates

who climbed to the
top of the Dome of the
Rock in Jerusalem and
proclaimed himself
the Antichrist

I am the dark beast he cried
my hour has come round at last my
Word has at last found flesh
I am the Alpha and the Omega
proclaimed by the prophets
I was born in Bethlehem of Judea
on Friday the Thirteenth
I was conceived parthenogenetically
by Machshamah
the Great Ant Mother of Nazareth
on the Long Night of the Dark Moon
the sun went down in the west
the workers left their flocks of aphids grazing
the masses traveled to my hill bringing
insects and frangipani and merd

Come to me you sluggards
Come build the Ant Hill of the Millenium
the fifteen signs are nigh
the oceans are beginning to burn

Nation is warring against nation
famine and pestilence are abroad in the land

two billion years of ground work
the ants are ready to rise

Blessed are the ants
for they shall inherit the earth

blessed is pollution
for poisoning the enemy

blessed is DDT
for building our reisistance

blessed is the Bomb
for preparing the way

blessed are the Warmakers
for bestowing the Kingdom of Earth upon us

thrice blessed am I
the Absolute Anticlimax
the Answer and the Antecedent

He spoke and the heavens
opened and a Chromium-plated Helicopter
descended and around about its
many wings shone a multitude
of B-52’s MIG-17’s and F-104”s praising
him in the highest and saying

while on earth there
was a great darkness and
the anti-sound of millions
upon millions
of moving

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Could Fascism Happen Here?

It Can't Happen Here


Everyone is trying to spin the results of the Iowa caucus to support their own preferred candidate. Third-lace Marco Rubio, for instance, is telling his “establishment” Republican rivals to drop out and support him. That way he can take on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz more effectively.

Rubio would be regarded as an extremist in normal times—he’s against abortions even in cases of rape or incest, for instance—but compared to Trump and Cruz he’s practically a liberal. Rubio will need to do a lot better, however, because in Iowa the most rightwing candidates (Cruz, Trump, Carson) garnered over 60% of the vote..

Could Cruz or Trump land the nomination? If one of them did, could he end up as president of the United States? Could it happen here?

I use that last questions to reference Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which is about a fascist takeover of America. Lewis may have had in mind Huey Long, the governor who all but ran Louisiana as a dictator. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the plot:

[T]he novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist United States Senator who is elected to the presidency after promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and traditional values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS.

I don’t see Trump or Cruz forming paramilitary groups, although some armed white supremacist groups have expressed support for Trump. The rest of the novel sounds disturbingly familiar, however.

For instance, there is Brigadier General Herbert Y. Edgeways, U.S.A. (ret.), who gives a speech with a title that we could easily see Trump or Cruz—or for that matter Rubio—delivering: “Peace through Defense–Millions for Arms but Not One Cent for Tribute.”

Like a number of current GOP candidates, Edgeways advocates cutting taxes for the wealthy and smashing laboring unions. He also opposes a minimum wage:

I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with ninety-five per cent of ’em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!

We also see an assault on science and technical expertise similar to what we are witnessing today:

We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline–Will Power–Character!”

At least Edgeways says that book-learning is “good enough in its way.” Cruz and company don’t even acknowledge that much.

And then there’s a character who anticipates Trump’s racism, and he’s even less concerned about “political correctness” than Trump is. He is described as follows:

He was not only 100 per cent American; he exacted 40 per cent of chauvinistic interest on top of the principal. He was on every occasion heard to say, “We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies [from Bohemia] and Chinks.” Louis was altogether convinced that if the ignorant politicians would keep their dirty hands off banking and the stock exchange and hours of labor for salesmen in department stores, then everyone in the country would profit, as beneficiaries of increased business, and all of them (including the retail clerks) be rich as Aga Khan.

A newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, early on realizes that fascist Senator Windrip could well make it to the White House. Jessup sounds the alarm, noting that liberals and moderates (today they would be moderate Republicans) are similar assault. In the process, he also notes the power of talk radio. The following passage is his conversation with a moderate conservative:

With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

“Rats! You’re exaggerating!” said R. C. Crowley.

Doremus went on: “If Bishop Prang, our Savonarola in a Cadillac 16, swings his radio audience and his League of Forgotten Men to Buzz Windrip, Buzz will win. People will think they’re electing him to create more economic security. Then watch the Terror!

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

“The answer to that,” suggested Doremus Jessup, “if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is ‘the hell it can’t!’ Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical–yes, or more obsequious!–than America.

Today, our nativists go after Mexican Americans, Muslims, and urban African Americans. In the 1930s, people went after communists, German Americans, Catholics, and, as always, African Americans.

They also had their own version of “freedom fries”:

Could Hitler’s bunch, or Windrip’s, be worse? Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’?… Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? . . . Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition–shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor–no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade–only of adults–right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!

Extremists take hold when “the establishment” think they can co-opt them. We’re increasingly seeing signs that people in power think that a President Trump would ultimately work for them. Banker R. C. Crowley in the novel similarly thinks that Windrip will come around to serving him. Note that he sounds like Mitt Romney complaining about the 47% of Americans who want “free stuff”:

“Well, what if [Windrip is elected],” protested R. C. Crowley. “It might not be so bad. I don’t like all these irresponsible attacks on us bankers all the time. Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he’ll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word–just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours–not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini–like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days–and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”

Trump is promising to make us “efficient and prosperous again.”

For the record, I don’t think it could happen here, just as it didn’t happen in the elections following Lewis’s book when fascism wasn’t as abhorrent as it became in World War II. Nevertheless, it’s unsettling how, as a nation, we have a dark strain that never seems to go away.

Note: After writing and posting this essay, i came acrossSalon article applying Lewis’s book in just these ways.

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The Very Deep Is Rotting in Flint, Michigan

Gustave Doré, the dead men in "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Gustave Doré, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


 I posted Friday on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan with passages from Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker. Here’s a relevant work that you are probably more familiar with: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

 The mariner shoots an albatross rather than making an executive decision that leads to the inadvertent poisoning of a city. Both actions, however, involve a high degree of arrogance. The mariner may want to assert that he, not the albatross, is responsible for the fate of the ship. Governor Snyder, thinking that he rather than democratically elected officials was more capable of running Flint (and various other municipalities), pushed through an “emergency management law” that gave him supreme executive authority.

His decision, like the mariner’s, proved disastrous. Like the mariner, he left a population without drinkable water. As Coleridge memorably puts it,

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

To push the comparison further, we could say the mariner’s “slimy things” are the lead particles in the Flint water. In any event, Flint residents are feeling a similar abhorrence for their water:

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue and white.

The poem tells us that there is salvation for the mariner only he undertakes acts of penitence. (“This man has penance done,/And penance more will do.”) Once he takes on the necessary tasks, the mariner learns to love “all creatures great and small.”

If Governor Snyder were truly to take the plight of his Flint constituents to heart, he could achieve some degree of absolution. He can’t entirely undo what he has done but he could mitigate some of the effects of the lead.

It would be a noble effort. But it won’t happen until, like the ancient mariner, he faces up to what he did.

So far, unfortunately, he seems unwilling to back up his sympathetic talk with meaningful action. We have yet to see real penitence. But one can hope.

Posted in Coleridge (Samuel Taylor) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump: The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Who Wasn't There

From Cohen Brothers film “The Man Who Wasn’t There”


Today in Iowa we see the first voting in the 2016 presidential primaries. Pundits are imagining a variety of different scenarios on the Republican side, none of them very appealing. The worst one (from my vantage point) is Donald Trump winning handily and then going on to win in New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored. After that, momentum begins to build so that he wins in South Carolina and Nevada, which in turn puts him in prime position to win the so-called South East Conference (SEC) primaries. At that point, it may be impossible for anyone but Trump to stop Trump from becoming the GOP nominee.

Trump has been defying conventional wisdom all last year, including, most recently, skipping the recent GOP debate in Iowa. While many predicted this would come back to haunt him, afterwards most found the debate to be a pallid affair without him. Many declared Trump the winner for the way he loomed over the debate and can be said to have pulled it in a nativist direction.. Furthermore, his rivals turned on each other, and especially on Ted Cruz, currently his major competitor. Cruz had his worst performance in any of the debates.

Trump’s effective absence reminds me of a poem that my father used to sing to my brothers and me when we were small. Cruz captures the Trump situation with uncanny accuracy:

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

Of course, Trump would complain loudly about the world “little.” If the poet had known about Trump, no doubt he would have written “huuuge.”

I dug into the history of the poem—well, I went as far as Wikipedia—and learned that it was inspired by “reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.” The complete version, written by Hughes Mearns in 1899, goes as follows:


By Hughes Mearns

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

The poem was turned into a 1939 song, which is when my father undoubtedly heard it. As far as the sentiments are concerned, millions would be only too willing to apply them to Trump.

Oh, how I wish he’d go away!

Posted in Mearns (Hughest) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

God’s Patience Is His Promise

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Spiritual Sunday

Here’s a lovely poem by Lucille Clifton about God’s promise of forgiveness. Its power lies in its simplicity.

God waits for the wandering world
he expects us when we enter
late or soon
he will not mind my coming after hours
his patience is his promise

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How Smollett Would React to Flint Water

Flint water after  the switch to river water

Flint water after the switch to river water


For a while now I’ve been trying to think of a work that captures the plight of Flint, Michigan residents after the state started poisoned their water supply. The rage of Matthew Bramble in Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) comes close.

No doubt you’ve heard about how the Governor of Michigan, acting through executive action, decreed that Flint would get its drinking water from the Flint River rather than from Lake Huron (via Detroit). This was supposed to save a couple of million dollars a year. Unfortunately, river water is far more corrosive than lake water and, as a result, it has been leaching lead out of the pipes. Residents, including Flint’s 9000 children have been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water for the past two years. Experts say that the health consequences, especially on the children, will be irreversible.

Smollett, a Scottish surgeon-turned-writer in the mid-18th century, was obsessed with pure water. He recommended cold sea baths for health and insisted on pure springs for drinking. When he saw water he considered unsafe, he let people know, and his curmudgeon protagonist expresses his disgust with the supposedly healing waters of Bath.

Bramble is in Bath for his gout. He discovers, however, that the water is not as pristine as has been reported. The problem in this case is not lead, however, but the running sores and skin diseases of other bathers:

Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch—, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye, was a child full of scrophulous ulcers, carried in the arms of one of the guides, under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight, that I retired immediately with indignation and disgust—Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin, when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence?—Good Heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! we know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s-evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating.

In one way, this is the reverse of Flint, where the water is causing skin diseases amongst its children rather than being caused by them. But like the Flint residents, Bramble is terrified by the prospect of drinking the water:

But I am now as much afraid of drinking, as of bathing; for, after a long conversation with the Doctor, about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the Pump-room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below.

Nor are the baths the only source of poisoned water. Bramble discovers, like the Flint residents, that he is trapped with no options:

In order to avoid this filthy composition, I had recourse to the spring that supplies the private baths on the Abbey-green; but I at once perceived something extraordinary in the taste and smell; and, upon inquiry, I find that the Roman baths in this quarter, were found covered by an old burying ground, belonging to the Abbey; through which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage; so that as we drink the decoction of living bodies at the Pump-room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath. I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach! Determined, as I am, against any farther use of the Bath waters, this consideration would give me little disturbance, if I could find any thing more pure, or less pernicious, to quench my thirst; but, although the natural springs of excellent water are seen gushing spontaneous on every side, from the hills that surround us, the inhabitants, in general, make use of well-water, so impregnated with nitre, or alum, or some other villainous mineral, that it is equally ungrateful to the taste, and mischievous to the constitution. It must be owned, indeed, that here, in Milsham-street, we have a precarious and scanty supply from the hill; which is collected in an open bason in the Circus, liable to be defiled with dead dogs, cats, rats, and every species of nastiness, which the rascally populace may throw into it, from mere wantonness and brutality. Well, there is no nation that drinks so hoggishly as the English.

Flint too has “excellent water” it could draw on in Lake Huron. For that matter, the Flint River water would have been fine had it been treated. The Governor Snyder administration, however, made a mistake and then covered it up as the residents became sicker and sicker. Because the city was under emergency management that could override local leaders, nothing was done for two years.

It took the residents shouting like Matthew Bramble for the state and the rest of the country to pay attention. It’s another question whether that will be enough to get the billions of dollars needed to replace the pipes and counteract the effects of the lead.

Posted in Smollett (Tobias) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Literature and Climate Change

melting glaciers


Two days ago my interview with cli-fi popularizer Dan Bloom was reposted on the Tele-read website and drew some interesting comments. Respondents debated whether “cli-fi” was a useful or a silly generic label.

I use today’s post to talk a little more about generic labeling and also to list my major posts on literature and climate change over the past few years.

One skeptic of the cli-fi label wrote a very funny response where he imagined the “fi” being attached to a wide range of literature:

I have said this before, the term cli-fi makes me less inclined to read a book with that label. It sounds silly and trivial. It smacks of a marketing gimmick too. Or maybe all genres should get a cutesy label.

Aye-fi: pirate fiction
Cry-fi: sad fiction
Di-fi: Princess Di fiction
Die-fi: high death count fiction
Hi-fi: drug fiction
My-fi: narcissistic fiction
Sty-fi: messy, unedited fiction
Why-fi: fiction that questions the meaning of life

…et al

Climate change is a serious subject and fiction that deals with it deserves better than a silly marketing label.

I appreciate the respondent’s point. On the other hand, one age’s silly marketing label can be another age’s received wisdom. “Sci-fi” itself was not taken seriously for a long time.

I find useful Rick Altman’s Film Genre, one of the best books I know on generic labeling. Although Film Genre focuses on the cinema—there’s much more money at stake in labeling films than in labeling novels—it has a very useful survey of genre history, going all the way back to Aristotle’s attempts to define tragedy and comedy.

Altman’s main point is that, although genres sometimes seem to have the solidity of natural fact, in reality they always emerge through a complex interaction of authors, audiences, and cultural institutions. Some genres take hold while others seem silly and fade away, but one can’t always predict ahead of time what will happen.

To cite a couple of his examples, what we now call the action adventure genre used to be called melodrama or “mellers.” Now we most commonly associate melodrama with “women’s films,” but these used to be called “women’s weepies.” (Some now call them “chick flicks,” although these can include comedy as well as melodrama.)

And then there are westerns, which used to be called “oaties.” And while “musical” may seem self-evident to us now, it evolved out of a diverse range of generic labels that used to include “revue,” “comic opera,” “minstrel shows,” and others.

One couldn’t have predicted that sci-fi would become a respectable generic label rather than a silly way of  describing a lot of pulp fiction, some of it featuring BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). But this genre would by taken up by authors who have become canonical, like Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula LeGuin, and Margaret Atwood. My point in Tuesday’s post is that sci-fi became respectable because rapidly evolving science and technology are such a key aspect of our world that a special genre focusing on them lent itself to serious artistic exploration.

I don’t know for sure that “cli-fi” will catch on, but there’s a chance it will. After all, climate concerns will increasingly make our lives difficult in the years to come.

Upon further reflection, however, I don’t think cli-fi will become as big a sci-fi. It seems more likely destined to become a sub-genre of “eco-lit,” which covers the same ground but has the advantage of (1) addressing humans’ relation to nature more generally and (2) including poetry and creative non-fiction in addition to fiction.

Speaking of eco-lit, here are posts I’ve written over the years about literature that casts light upon issues raised by climate change.

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne mentions the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but they are distant, and he makes the important point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet Henry Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. His most trustworthy counselor advises him to “See better, Lear,” thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno refusing to see the rebellion going on right before his eyes..

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard and contempt for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature responds when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

 The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance that the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior directly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions in the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment, here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

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GOP Christians Summon Witch/Trump

Swinton as the White Witch, "Prince Caspian"

The White Witch (Swinton) summoned in”Prince Caspian”


Nancy Le Tourneau of The Washington Month has alerted me to an article comparing evangelicals supporting Donald Trump to Narnian rebels conjuring up the White Witch in C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. It works for me.

Just because Jerry Falwell, Jr. recently endorsed Trump doesn’t mean that all rightwing Christians are doing so, Le Tourneau observes. Gina Dalfonzo accuses Trump’s Christian supporters of turning to the dark side instead of placing their faith in God and in a more godly candidate.

She has in mind the scene where Prince Caspian and his closest advisors are arguing with the dwarf Nikabrik about how to fight against the tyrannical Telmarine authorities, who have been routing them in battle. Caspian has blown Susan’s fabled horn for help but it doesn’t appear to have done any good. (Actually it has but they don’t know it yet.) Desperate, Nikabrik suggests that they summon the White Witch to save them.

The scene begins with Nikabrik describing their plight:

“To speak plainly,” said Nikabrik, “your wallet’s empty, your eggs addled, your fish uncaught, your promises broken. Stand aside then and let others work. And that is why——”

“The help will come,” said Trufflehunter. “I stand by Aslan. Have patience, like us beasts. The help will come. It may be even now at the door.”

“Pah!” snarled Nikabrik. “You badgers would have us wait till the sky falls and we can all catch larks. I tell you we can’t wait. Food is running short; we lose more than we can afford at every encounter; our followers are slipping away.”

He then introduces two dubious allies that he has brought to the meeting, a hag and a werewolf. While the two monsters share the same enemies as Caspian’s forces, they are not the kind of allies right-minded people should have. The hag, I must say, sounds a bit like a media consultant and the werewolf like a campaign fundraiser (“where I bite I hold till I die”):

Worshipful Master Doctor,” came a thin, whining voice. “So please you, I’m only a poor old woman, I am, and very obliged to his Worshipful Dwarfship for his friendship, I’m sure. His Majesty, bless his handsome face, has no need to be afraid of an old woman that’s nearly doubled up with the rheumatics and hasn’t two sticks to put under her kettle. I have some poor little skill—not like yours, Master Doctor, of course—in small spells and cantrips that I’d be glad to use against our enemies if it was agreeable to all concerned. For I hate ’em. Oh yes. No one hates better than me.”

“That is all most interesting and—er—satisfactory,” said Doctor Cornelius. “I think I now know what you are, Madam. Perhaps your other friend, Nikabrik, would give some account of himself?”

A dull, grey voice at which Peter’s flesh crept replied, “I’m hunger. I’m thirst. Where I bite, I hold till I die, and even after death they must cut out my mouthful from my enemy’s body and bury it with me. I can fast a hundred years and not die. I can lie a hundred nights on the ice and not freeze. I can drink a river of blood and not burst. Show me your enemies.”

Nikabrik then proposes using black sorcery to summon the White Witch:

“I mean a power so much greater than Aslan’s that it held Narnia spellbound for years and years, if the stories are true.”

“The White Witch!” cried three voices all at once, and from the noise Peter guessed that three people had leaped to their feet.

“Yes,” said Nikabrik very slowly and distinctly, “I mean the Witch. Sit down again. Don’t all take fright at a name as if you were children. We want power: and we want a power that will be on our side.”

And later:

They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.

I can’t tell the extent to which Dalfonzo believes that Barack Obama is like the tyrannical Telmarines. She seems at least sympathetic to such a parallel, describing an America where hope is lost and decent people are being driven to fear and despair:

But Lewis had a remarkable understanding of human nature. He knew what it was like to feel that all hope was lost. And he knew that fear and despair can drive decent people to look for someone, anyone, who projects an appearance of strength.

And further on:

Nikabrik’s fears are legitimate. His enemies are real and powerful and committed to the annihilation of his entire race. He is right to recognize the need for help. He is wrong to decide that help must come from a force equally merciless—wrong when he tells Caspian, “I’ll believe in anyone or anything . . . that’ll batter these cursed Telmarine barbarians to pieces or drive them out of Narnia. Anyone or anything, Aslan or the White Witch, do you understand?”

I hope that Dalfonzo is not hinting here that Trump’s Christian supporters have “legitimate” fears about “annihilation.” Speaking as a liberal Christian, I think such fears are bunk. But I agree with her that those who are fearful should not be relying on an electoral version of black magic and turning to demagogues like Trump. Dalfonzo recognizes a deal with the devil when she sees one:

This is how good people with strong, ingrained values—people who have invested time and money in the sanctity of life, religious liberty, and similarly noble causes—can come to support a man who changes his convictions more often than his shirts. This is how people concerned about the dignity of the office of President end up flocking to a reality-show star who spends his days on Twitter calling people “dumb” and “loser.” This is how some who have professed faith in Jesus Christ are lured by a man who openly puts all his faith in power and money, the very things Christ warned us against prizing too highly. As one wag on Twitter pointed out, “If elected, Donald Trump will be the first US president to own a strip club,” and yet he has the support of Christians who fervently believe that this country needs to clean up its morals.

So yes, let’s put our faith in God and also in democracy. And if conservatives could acknowledge that liberals also have strong ingrained values and believe in the sanctity of life, religious liberty, and other noble causes, that might stem some of the hysteria as well.

Posted in Lewis (C. S.) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Talk with a Cli-Fi Activist

Dan Bloom works tirelessly to promote climate fiction

Dan Bloom works tirelessly to promote climate fiction


I’ve been having e-mail conversations with Dan Bloom, a former journalist who claims that he invented the term cli-fi (for climate fiction). Dan is tireless in promoting novels that will promote awareness of climate change.

I like the cli-fi label because, at first glance, it appears to be a sub-genre of sci-fi. The overlap isn’t complete, however: Margaret Atwood writes a kind of science fiction (she calls it “speculative fiction”) but Barbara Kingsolver does not. This means that cli-fi could well have science fiction’s potential to generate its own sub-genres. It could well evolve as science fiction has evolved.

While sci-fi became identified as a genre in the 1920s and came into its own in in the 1950s, its origins can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries (the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein). This was a time when science and technology were first perceived to have a significant influence over our lives. Now sci-fi generates a rich array of works, from high literature to pulp fiction, not to mention numerous hybrids (sci-fi westerns, sci-fi noir, sci-fi horror, etc.).

Since human-caused climate change will increasingly influence our lives in the 21st century, I fully expect to see climate fiction follow a similar trajectory.

So far, cli-fi seems to be showing up mainly as futurist dystopian and disaster fiction. I’ve noted how even a contemporaneously set novel like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), while realistic, is filled with apocalyptic imagery (Ezekiel’s cherubim, Noah’s flood, Moses’s burning bush).

New genres don’t develop in a vacuum. Authors attracted to the genre seek each other out, magazines are formed, and (in this day and age) websites and blogs go into action. Dan Bloom’s website The Cli-Fi Report both takes note of and seeks to promote new climate fiction Here are excerpts from an e-mail interview I had with Dan:

Bates: When did you realize that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) was a problem?

Bloom: I was following the news about a warming world as far back as the 1970s and I even wrote a disaster novel in 1975, set in a flooded 2025 Manhattan. I sent the manuscript to New York literary agent, and one of his interns returned it with a note saying, “Interesting theme but your characters never come alive. Thanks for sending, though.” I never tried my hand at writing a novel again, but it was a good learning curve, and it taught me about the New York book industry.

Climate change caught my attention again when I was working at a Tokyo newspaper in the 1990s and we sent one of our reporters to Rio for the first big climate talks. His reports back to the paper made a big impression on me then. But I didn’t become personally involved until 2006.

I was in Taiwan when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report saying basically that if we don’t clean up our act soon, then our goose is cooked. I knew I had to do something.

I got in touch with James Lovelock, who had written an article in The Financial Times about the Earth as a living organism. He encouraged me to raise the alarm and I have been blogging ever since. The following year, I was encouraged when the New York Times wrote a piece about my essay on “polar cities.”

Bates: And how did you arrive at the name for the genre?

Bloom: In one of my blogs in 2008, when trying to find a Hollywood producer for a movie idea, I typed out the words “cli-fi movie” and the term was born. In 2011 I commissioned Jim Laughter (pronounced Lauder) to write a cli-fi novel, titled Polar City Red. We marketed the book as a “cli-fi thriller” and published it on Earth Day 2012. Margaret Atwood retweeted one of my tweets, informing her 600,000 followers that “there’s a new genre called cli-fi.” With Atwood’s book, the cli-fi term gained traction.

It received a second boost later that year when climate scientist Judith Curry at Georgia Tech, in her blog Climate Etc., discussed 25 cli-fi novels, past and present, including Polar City Red. The following year, in a story headlined “A New Genre Is Born: Cli-Fi,” NPR did a five minute segment on two new books about climate issues: Nathiel Rich’s Odds against Tomorrow and Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. At that point the term went viral.

Bates: What impact do you believe cli-fi can have?

Bloom: I have always loved literature that has an impact, books like On the Beach, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Stranger, Animal Farm, and Flight Behavior. For me, the best of cli-fi does two things: it delivers a powerful and emotional story and it pushes the reader to wake up to the existential threat that man-made global warming poses to future generations. So good cli-fi is both a great read and a call to action, either direct or indirect.

If it doesn’t wake us up, it’s just escapist entertainment. I am not interested anymore in escapism. We are facing a dire threat to our continued existence within the next 30 generations. I especially hope for cli-fi that will reach high school and college students.

Bates: How does cli-fi achieve these aims more effectively than non-fictional treatment of climate issues?

Non-fiction is good but charts and stats and photos only go so far. A great novel, on the other hands, hits the reader in the gut and leaves them with the feeling, “I must do something about this issue.”

Bates: There’s suspicion in certain literary quarters towards “social cause fiction” — which is to say, fiction that puts the cause that a work is propounding above aesthetic concerns. Is that something you worry about?

Bloom: The novel must be a novel, written with power. Otherwise it is just a comic book. But given how much of a threat climate change poses to humankind, one can’t quibble with a novel that wakes people up, whether it is great or pulp fiction. I think we need all kinds of novels. A pulp fiction cli-fi novel that does what On the Beach did for nuclear awareness would work wonders. It’s up to writers to write and literary critics can determine the line between classic and pulp later.

Furthermore, there’s a place for so-so cli-fi out there, self-published by hobby weekend writers. Most of them could never be published by a major publishing house. But that’s okay because they are exploring the issues. My own failed attempts at writing a novel, after all, brought me to where I am today.

Sometimes the most effective cli-fi literature, like Flight Behavior, doesn’t appear to be promoting a cause. You can tell that it raised awareness, however, because it was attacked by rightwing climate deniers.

Flight Behavior, I’d say, is one of the best cli-fi novels so far, a 10. Solar, a satiric yarn by Ian McEwan, I’d award a 5.

Bates: Tell us about your work alerting the world to climate change.

Bloom: It’s really just a hobby that fell in my lap with that now famous NPR broadcast just a few days after my 65th birthday. I am not a professional public relations person and I’m not an academic with a PhD or a literary critic or a theorist. Nor do I get paid. I have been working on behalf of cli-fi since 2006, 24/7 without any days off or vacations.

I do it as a labor of love and I haven’t looked back since. It’s solo work, there’s no staff, no office, no funding, no secretary or support crew, no university sponsorship or backing, and I don’t even own a computer! I work out of a smoky internet cafe in Taiwan, renting the computers there by the hour.

 It is the most meaningful work I have done in my life.

Posted in Kingsolver (Barbara) | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Blizzard Jonas: How the Wind Doth Ramm!

Jonas Blizzard 2016


Classes are canceled again for the second day in the row as we, along with the rest of the East Coast, have been pounded by Blizzard Jonas. Actually, in southern Maryland we got off easy: we only had ten inches. I therefore send out this Ezra Pound to those who took the full brunt of the storm.

Pound is parodying the light-heart medieval poem “Cuckoo’s Song” (“Sumer is icumen in”). No singing cuckoos, bleating lambs, lowing cattle, or farting goats in this one, however. Think rather of downed power lines, smashed fenders, and flooded basements.

Sing: goddamn!

Ancient Music

By Ezra Pound

Winter is icummen in, 
Lhude sing Goddamm. 
Raineth drop and staineth slop, 
And how the wind doth ramm! 
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us, 
An ague hath my ham. 
Freezeth river, turneth liver, 
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm, 
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm. 
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

Ah, poetry—it expresses what otherwise we would have difficulty articulating.

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Monarchs & Ezekiel’s Burning Coals of Fire

monarchs migrating

Spiritual Sunday

I’m currently teaching Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior in my Introduction to Literature class, having managed to squeeze in the first lesson right before the blizzard closed the school. The extreme weather conditions serve to underscore Kingsolver’s concerns about climate change, but I’ll save that post for another time. Today I look at the way she incorporates religion into her reflections on the disrupted migratory patterns of monarch butterflies.

Kingsolver sets her novel in the heart of the Baptist Bible belt—the mountains of east Tennessee—and discovers an unexpected clash between Christianity and capitalism. I say unexpected because we have been accustomed to seeing the disciples of Christ and the disciples of Mammon as allies in the GOP coalition. When God’s glory shines through nature, however, fissures begin to appear.

The novel begins with the protagonist, Dellarobia, on her way up a mountain to commit adultery, even though she’s aware that it will blow up her marriage. Suddenly, however, she encounters a great brightness. As she is not wearing her glasses, she doesn’t know that climate change and giant landslides have forced monarch butterflies to relocate from Central America. To her, the butterflies resemble a forest fire without the heat or the noise. While not particularly religious, she turns to the Bible for ways to express the moment:

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again. No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had. Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures.

 For the record, here’s the complete passage from Ezekiel (1:4-14):

As I looked, behold, a storm wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing forth continually and a bright light around it, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire. Within it there were figures resembling four living beings. And this was their appearance: they had human form. Each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight and their feet were like a calf’s hoof, and they gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides were human hands. As for the faces and wings of the four of them, their wings touched one another; their faces did not turn when they moved, each went straight forward. As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each had two touching another being, and two covering their bodies. And each went straight forward; wherever the spirit was about to go, they would go, without turning as they went. In the midst of the living beings there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches darting back and forth among the living beings. The fire was bright, and lightning was flashing from the fire. And the living beings ran to and fro like bolts of lightning.

Dellarobia believes that she has received a sign:

This was not just another fake thing in her life’s cheap chain of events, leading up to this day of sneaking around in someone’s thrown-away boots. Here that ended. Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.

She does not believe the sign is from God, however. Her view of God does not acknowledge God’s care for the sparrow, and her thinking reveals her low self esteem:

By no means was she important enough for God to conjure signs and wonders on her account.

Nevertheless, Dellarobia has a “road to Damascus” experience, and she determines to turn her life around:

She could save herself. Herself and her children with their soft cheeks and milky breath who believed in what they had even if their whole goodness and mercy was a mother distracted out of her mind. It was not too late to undo this mess. Walk down the mountain, pick up those kids. The burning trees were put here to save her. It was the strangest conviction she’d ever know, and still she felt sure of it.

The vision can’t only be for herself. Her father-in-law, a money-grubbing farmer, is prepared to irresponsibly clear-cut the timber, and Dellarobia must keep him from doing so. Without admitting that she has been up the mountain (which would reveal her adultery plans), she suggests to her husband that he check out the forest first. When he and his parents discover the butterflies, they become convinced that God has sent her a vision. They receive further confirmation of this when she appears to be visited by the Holy Spirit. The passage evokes John’s baptism of Jesus:

She raised her eyes to the sky instead, and that made the others look up too, irresistibly led, even Bear. Together they saw light streaming through glowing wings. Like embers, she thought, a flood of fire, the warmth they had craved so long. She felt her breathing rupture again into laughter or sobbing on her chest, sharp, vocal exhalations she couldn’t contain. The sounds coming out of her veered toward craziness.

The two older men stepped back as if she’d slapped them.

“Lord almighty, the girl is receiving grace,” said Hester, and Dellarobia could not contradict her.

The following day Dellarobia’s husband announces to the church congregation that she has had a vision, much to her embarrassment.

The battle is not yet won, however, as Bear is determined to use illegal DDT to wipe out the butterflies, which would otherwise clog “Trees for Money’s” machinery. It takes the intervention of the pastor, who believes the butterflies are a sign from God, to finally save them. The intervention includes

–specially chosen hymns (“The earth is a garden, the garden of my Lord”)

–a specially tailored sermon (“May we look to these mountains that are Your home and see You are in everything. The earth is the Lord in the fullness thereof.)

–a family conference in which the pastor speaks directly to the issue (“What I hear you saying is you want to log the mountain because it’s yours, and because you can. And my job here I think is to warn you about the sin of pride.”)

Bear’s family further pressures him, which takes a great deal of courage. First there’s his son Cub:

That’s true, Dad. When a man is greedy and gets too big for his britches, he pays for that. You’ve seen that.

Then Bear’s Wife wades in:

If you can’t live by the laws the Lord God made for this world, they’ll go into effect regardless….That land was bestowed on us for a purpose. And I don’t think it was to end up looking like a pile of trash.

Finally, after Bear calls the pastor a “tree hugger,” the pastor replies,

Well now, what are you, Burley, a tree puncher? What have you got against the Lord’s trees?

Bear finally capitulates and the pastor leads the family in prayer.

Kingsolver’s novel is neither religious nor unreligious. She does, however, have a spiritual vision of nature, and her book shows how the local culture uses its Baptist world view to process what is happening. In this instance, the forces of Mammon are routed.

There’s hope yet.

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Sarah Palin as Daisy Buchanan

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan


What do you do if you are a moderate Republican whose party has abandoned you? Perhaps you compare yourself to the jilted Jay Gatsby.

That’s what Ross Douthat of The New York Times did in his most recent column. Douthat is one of the “Reformicons” who are panicking as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz take over the Republican presidential primaries. As Rachel Maddow of MSNBC put it recently, old-time Republicans are like vegetarians at a picnic where the choices are barbecue and brisket.

Last week I wrote about another Reformicon, David Brooks of The New York Times, turning to William Blake to express his abhorrence of Cruz. For Douthat, Sarah Palin, who has just endorsed Donald Trump, is Daisy Buchanan.

Douthat talks about the brief romance he had with Palin after John McCain nominated her as his running mate. His language points to Gatsby:

As a political journalist, you never forget the first time you stop just covering a politician and start identifying with her. The first time you wed your high-minded vision of what politics should be to a real candidate’s perishable breath.

Here’s the original:

He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

For Gatsby, Daisy represents something that he is never able to put into words but that represents all his vague longings and aspirations.

Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees-he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

Douthat tries to make his dream more specifically but it may prove just as elusive:

[Fellow Reformicon Riehan Salam and I] thought the party’s opportunity (and the country’s) lay in a kind of socially conservative populism, which would link the family-values language of the religious right to an economic agenda more favorable to the working class than what the Republicans usually had offered.

…in Alaska, there was a young, rising-star governor. She was pro-life, evangelical, a working mom. And her record way up north was reformist in a distinctly nonideological way: She was best known for fighting a corrupt nexus of politicians and the oil-and-gas industry, tackling crony capitalism on behalf of ordinary Alaskans.

In his column, Douthat fully acknowledges how wrong he was (something Gatsby never does). Palin may have the populist credentials, but it is a shallow populism wedded to white identity politics. He calls himself an egghead, by which I assume he means a West Egghead, since that’s would align him with Gatsby and Nick Carraway. The Buchanans live in East Egg.

Douthat continues to dream but his dreams are more moderate that Gatsby’s. Or put another way, maybe the rightwing extremists are the true Gatsbys since they literally believe they can return America to its 1950s past. They won’t listen to reasonable Nick Carraways who advise them to adapt to the 21st century:

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

It’s noteworthy that Douthat has shifted from the passionate Gatsby to the cerebral Nick by the end of his column. By echoing the final paragraphs of the novel, like Nick he admits that the dream may be forever beyond his grasp:

Maybe — hopefully — there’s a bridge from Trumpism to a more responsible alternative, as there was between Huey Long and F.D.R. or from George Wallace to Richard Nixon.

But it’s also possible that my fellow eggheads and I are grasping at a dream that’s already slipped behind us — lost back in the land of might-have-beens, where the dark fields of Wasilla roll on under the night.

Here’s Nick’s summary description of Gatsby-like dreamers:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 Is today’s GOP borne back ceaselessly into the past, fighting the currents of historical and demographic change as they do so? They would be better served if they recognized Daisy for who she really is. Gatsby never does but Nick is more observant. His description of the Buchanans could easily apply to Donald Trump and his surrogate from Wasilla:

I couldn’t forgive him [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .

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LeGuin Attacks Federal Land Seizure

Ammon Bundy dismantles a fence at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Ammon Bundy dismantles a fence at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge


Ursula LeGuin, the fantasy and science fiction writer, surfaced earlier this week with a letter to the Oregonian complaining about its account of the rightwing militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The sentiments expressed reminded me of LeGuin’s great utopian novel The Dispossessed (1974).

LeGuin took issue with Oregonian’s front-page headline and article about the group:

The Oregonian’s A1 headline on Sunday, Jan. 17, “Effort to free federal lands,” is inaccurate and irresponsible. The article that follows it is a mere mouthpiece for the scofflaws illegally occupying public buildings and land, repeating their lies and distortions of history and law.

Ammon Bundy and his bullyboys aren’t trying to free federal lands, but to hold them hostage. I can’t go to the Malheur refuge now, though as a citizen of the United States, I own it and have the freedom of it. That’s what public land is: land that belongs to the public — me, you, every law-abiding American. The people it doesn’t belong to and who don’t belong there are those who grabbed it by force of arms, flaunting their contempt for the local citizens.

LeGuin goes on to explain that, when land is owned publicly, it becomes a site where compromises can be arrived at for the benefit of all:

Those citizens of Harney County have carefully hammered out agreements to manage the refuge in the best interest of landowners, scientists, visitors, tourists, livestock and wildlife. They’re suffering more every day, economically and otherwise, from this invasion by outsiders. 

The suffering includes (this according to a local judge) expenses costing local tax payers $60-$75,000 a day, as well as disruptions to their daily lives. The militants have also been destroying federal fencing around the refuge.

LeGuin’s views are elaborated in The Dispossessed, which is about a group of anarchists who have left the mother planet Urras and colonized its moon Anarres. The anarchists, or Odonians, set up a society operated according to strict communal principles. Everything is owned jointly and everyone, from the most brilliant scientist (the protagonist Shevek) to the simplest manual worker, has obligations to keep the place running (take out the garbage, undertake emergency farming, etc.). No one receives special privileges.

Urras is wealthier and greener, and A Io, the country that Shevek visits, practices a form of somewhat enlightened capitalism—which is to say, it has learned important lessons from our own Earth. In Earth’s case, the forces of greed have run unchecked, and companies out to make a buck have turned it into a wasteland. But even though A Io has escaped ecological catastrophes—LeGuin would undoubtedly mention climate change if she were writing the novel today—it still suffers from great income inequality, suppressing marginal groups and undeveloped nations. It also wants to use Shevek’s scientific breakthroughs to manufacture profitable technologies and nationalistic enterprises.

The vision that emerges from The Dispossessed is the one that informs LeGuin’s letter. She is sympathetic to the Odonian view that all land should be communally owned and that we should do away with private property. She is aware that, as soon as one group seizes land, it impoverishes others. But she also acknowledges that no group is perfect and that Odonians have their own blindnesses. No one has all the answers.

Shevek’s scientific breakthroughs will make possible instant communication across vast distances. As LeGuin sees it, communication is necessary if fences are to come down. A-Io sets up fences and so, it turns out, do the anarchists, who are suspicious of people who think differently than they do.

Today we would say that the different groups are occupying their own informational silos. Shevek is ultimately willing to sacrifice himself to open up communication.

That’s what LeGuin is advocating with regard to the federal lands—different groups must come together to figure out what is best for all. I would imagine that she would tell us not to be deceived by the rightwing militants tearing down the fences. They will rebuild those fences once they themselves own the land. A truly healthy society, on the other hand, talks across differences.

But it’s not easy to do so, as we know only too well. LeGuin’s novel ends with the future in doubt.

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Has America Become a Lion for Peace?




What a weekend we just witnessed! Not only did America ratify that Iran was in fact dismantling its nuclear bomb-making equipment and shipping nuclear materials off to Russia, but we engaged in a prisoner swap. Add to that the quick release of the American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters last week, and the world seems a tad bit safer. Diplomacy is a beautiful thing when it works.

True, America is still a militant nation. We are still dropping a lot of bombs. However, under Barack Obama, we are also increasingly being seen as a force for peace. We have made much progress since declaring preemptive and unnecessary war on Saddam Hussein.

Which reminds me of the repentant lion in one of my father’s fables. Once a devourer of missionaries, he sees the error of his ways and becomes a force for good. The United States may not be approaching sainthood but its turnaround is still welcome.

Enjoy the good news. It doesn’t happen often. Here’s the poem:

Saint Leo the Evangelical Lion

By Scott Bates

A Lion having
Devoured a very

Suffered through
Painful transmutation

From that day on
He shunned perdition
His bestial condition

All his erstwhile victims
With hearty feline
Pax vobiscums

Set on its way
The hundredth Sheep
That went astray

The hunted hounded
Hartebeest hid
With Hermits of
The Theobaid

Set up a home
Among the books
Of Saint Jerome

Ate straw with the Ox
Lay down with the Lamb
Roared homilies
At the Sons of Ham

And died beloved
By all they say
On March 31st
His holy day

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Beware Teachers That Satirize Students

John Masey Wright, "The Dunce"

John Masey Wright, “The Dunce”


I’m having a problem with two Tom Wayman poems I’ve encountered recently, perhaps because I am feeling anxious about returning to teaching after a semester’s sabbatical. I am bothered that I at first responded positively to the poems before realizing what was wrong with them.

Both poems denigrate students, which in my mind in a capital offense for a teacher. As I wrote last week, in “Did I Miss Anything” Wayman imagines sarcastic replies to a student apologizing (or not) for missing a class. I found the poem self-indulgent and a bit smug, even while I recognized my own urge to respond sarcastically when students ask me this very question.

In “Students” Wayman chastises students for not fully appreciating what he has to teach them. In his defense, he doesn’t entirely endorse the “Wayman” in the poem, gently mocking him as an aging man who resorts to desperate measures to communicate the urgency of his course. (“Wayman” tells his students to “adopt the Kung Fu Theory of Education, learning as self­-defense.”)

There’s even a hint that he himself may have once, as a student, ascribed to the “Vaccination Theory of Education.” (At least he recognizes it from his youth.) Nevertheless, he still comes across as a heroic defender of higher learning, struggling vainly to fend off the barbarians at the gates.

I’ve written that campus lit (novels such as Groves of Academe and Straight Man) must be comic because it’s hard to create tragedy or melodrama out of a job that pays a good salary to teach creative writing. After all, many writers of the past had to flatter patrons if they didn’t want to starve in a garret. Wayman is definitely funny and he may even grudgingly admire students for the “wisdom” in their response.

Ultimately, however, I think he just gives us caricatures. Judge for yourself whether you agree: 


By Tom Wayman

The freshman class­-list printouts
showed birthdates so recent 
Wayman was sure the computer was in error.
One young man, however, was curious 
about Wayman’s mention near the start of term 
of his old college newspaper: 
“You were an editor when?
Wow, that’s the year I was born.” 
The wisdom of the students
hadn’t altered, though.
Wayman observed many clung to 
The Vaccination Theory of Education 
he remembered: once you have had a subject 
you are immune
and never have to consider it again.
Other students continue to endorse
The Dipstick Theory of Education: 
as with a car engine, where as long as the oil level 
is above the add line 
there is no need to put in more oil,
so if you receive a pass or higher
why put any more into learning?

At the front of the room, Wayman sweated 
to reveal his alternative.
“Adopt The Kung Fu Theory of Education,” 
he begged.
“Learning as self­-defense. The more you understand 
about what’s occurring around you 
the better prepared you are to deal with difficulties.” 

The students remained skeptical.
A young woman was a pioneer
of The Easy Listening Theory of Learning:
spending her hours in class 
with her tape recorder earphones on,
silently enjoying a pleasanter world.
“Don’t worry, I can hear you,” 
she reassured Wayman 
when after some days he was moved to inquire.

Finally, at term’s end 
Wayman inscribed after each now­-familiar name on the list
the traditional single letter.
And whatever pedagogical approach 
he or the students espouse,
Wayman knew this notation would be pored over
with more intensity 
than anything else Wayman taught.

Am I wrong in picking up bruised feelings in this poem? Or that Wayman blames students while absolving himself? In any event, I think he is selling students short.

In my experience at a small liberal arts college, most students will rise to the occasion if the teacher approaches the subject matter imaginatively and with passion. Perhaps they have some preconceptions about some of the subjects (as I did with math), but their defensiveness arises mostly out of fear that they won’t be able to handle the material.

Once they realize that the course speaks to things they care about and that they themselves have contributions to make, most shift out of their indifference. Sure, grades will be important—after all, everyone around them is insisting on their importance, and sometimes scholarship money depends on maintaining a B average–but the grade is not what they will look back at years later.

I hope I don’t come across as humorless. After all, Wayman’s Vaccination, Dipstick, and Easy Listening Theories of Learning are caricatures that one regularly finds in great campus lit.

I’d be more forgiving if Wayman raked himself over the coals as well as the students. However, unlike the best satirists (Swift foremost amongst them), Wayman punches down, mocking those he has power over. As with “Did I Miss Anything,” he is using his poem to vent his frustrations, not explore why students behave as they do.

If Wayman were truly “moved to inquire” what his students were thinking, he’d discover complex and multifaceted human beings. He might even find himself able to move beyond the Kung Fu Theory of Education.


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Black in a White World


Norman Rockwell, “The Problem We All Live With”

Monday – Martin Luther King Day

As today is the Martin Luther King Holiday and tomorrow I begin teaching, I am posting a Clint Smith poem about being the only African American student in a mostly white classroom. Published recently in Watershed Reviewit reminds me of Langston Hughes’s well-known poem “Theme for English B.” 

Smith mentions the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that required all schools in the country to desegregate. As someone who was born in 1951 and raised in southern Tennessee, I can report that the schools in my county had still not complied with the Court’s ruling by 1960. As a result, I was a plaintiff in a lawsuit, brought by four black families and four white on behalf of their children. The suit said that we were being denied our rights to attend integrated schools.

I’ve described how we won the case and how the first black students began attending Sewanee Public School in 1962. It seemed like a miracle to me when Ronnie Staten, the only black kid in seventh grade, walked into my class. I find it no less miraculous these days that my white and black students take it for granted that they are in classes together. I had assumed, as a child, that segregation would always be with us.

Of course, much remains to be accomplished, as Smith’s poem points out. Like “Theme for English B,” his poem complains that assumptions are still made about African Americans based on their skin color. Everything is filtered through racial stereotypes.

Speaking as a teacher, I go out of my way not to engage in stereotyping. When one pays close attention to students responding to works, as I do, one sees them in their full individuality. That being said, there is one universal that I can fairly accurately predict: virtually all of my students of color have run up against racial stereotyping somewhere along the line. This is something we do talk about in my classes.

Smith, incidentally, has given a TED talk on “how to raise a black son in America” and he has taught black convicts in the prison system. He knows up close how one can descend from stardom to asteroid dust.

Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class

By Clint Smith

You, it seems,
are the manifestation
of several lifetimes
of toil. Brown v. Board
in flesh. Most days
the classroom feels
like an antechamber.
You are deemed expert
on all things Morrison,
King, Malcolm, Rosa.
Hell, weren’t you sitting
on that bus, too?
You are every-
body’s best friend
until you are not.
Hip-hop lyricologist.
Presumed athlete.
Free & Reduced sideshow.
Exception and caricature.
Too black and too white
all at once. If you are
successful it is because
of affirmative action.
If you fail it is because
you were destined to.
You are invisible until
they turn on the Friday
night lights. Here you are
star before they render
you asteroid. Before they
watch you turn to dust.

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Mary’s Dangerous Request at Cana

Geerard David, "The Marriage at Cana" (c 1500)

Geerard David, “The Marriage at Cana” (c 1500)

Spiritual Sunday

Rainer Maria Rilke has written a wonderful poem about the wedding at Cana (today’s Gospel reading), which is where Jesus performed his first miracle. As the poet sees it, Mary was a proud mother who inadvertently pushed her son on the road that led to his great sacrifice when she asked him to salvage an embarrassing situation.

In case you need a reminder, here’s John’s account (2:1-11):

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Mary has gloried in her son’s birth on a night which has come to seem monumental, and she has savored the way he impressed the temple elders as a boy. In the present situation, it is as though she is showing him off as she prompts him to solve the wine shortage. Looking back later, however, she realizes that, by prodding him to perform a miracle, she set the ball rolling toward the crucifixion. When we want our children to stand out, it’s sometimes more for our ego gratification than for their good:

She realized later
how she had pressed him into his way:
for now he really was performing miracles,
and the whole sacrifice was decreed,

irresistibly. Yes, it was written.
But was it already then prepared?
She: she had brought it on
in the blindness of her vanity.

Both were to suffer from this mother showing off what her son could do. Even as he shows her happiness in the moment, Rilke uses Eucharistic imagery to point towards the future. The mother, he writes,

did not understand
that the water of her tear-glands
had turned to blood with this wine.

Here’s the poem:

Of the Marriage at Cana

By Rainer Maria Rilke

Could she do otherwise than be proud
of him who made the simplest beautiful to her?
Was not even the lofty, large-accustomed
night as if beside itself when he appeared?

Did not also his once having lost himself
incredibly redound to his glory?
Had not the wisest exchanged ears
for mouths? And was not the house

as new at his voice? Ah,
surely she had hundreds of times restrained
herself from radiating her delight
in him. She followed him amazed.

But there at that wedding feast,
when unexpectedly there was no wine,–
she looked across and begged him for a gesture
and did not understand that he protested

And then he did it. She realized later
how she had pressed him into his way:
for now he really was performing miracles,
and the whole sacrifice was decreed,

irresistibly. Yes, it was written.
But was it already then prepared?
She: she had brought it on
in the blindness of her vanity.

At the table full of fruits and vegetables
she rejoiced with the rest and did not understand
that the water of her tear-glands
had turned to blood with this wine.

Posted in Rilke (Rainer Maria) | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Ted Cruz–Dark and Satanic?

Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg, "Coalbrookdale by Night" (1801)

Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg, “Coalbrookdale by Night” (1801)


 aCruzAn inadvertent William Blake reference recently got New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks in trouble with the far right. No one identified the source, however, which is too bad because it’s fairly applicable to Brooks’s point. Here’s what happened.

Brooks and Mother Jones Washington editor David Corn were discussing the news of the week with PBS anchorwoman Judy Woodruff. At one point the conversation took an unexpected turn:

Woodruff: You’re hearing a lot of back and forth between Rubio and Cruz, between Rubio and Christie. So, what’s going on over there, or is anybody making any headway among that group?

Brooks: Yes, Ted Cruz is making headway.

There’s — you begin to see little signs of liftoff. Trump has sort of ceiling-ed out. Carson is collapsing. And Cruz is somehow beginning to get some momentum from Iowa and elsewhere. And so people are either mimicking him, which Rubio is doing a little by adopting some of the dark and satanic tones that Cruz has, and so…

Woodruff: What did you — let me just ask, what did you just say?

If you know your Romantic literature—or for that matter, if you’ve ever been a school child in England who has sung England’s unofficial national anthem—you undoubtedly know that Brooks was quoting from “Jerusalem”:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

Neither Woodruff nor Corn picked up on the poetic reference, however, and so were startled. Corn nevertheless found a connection, noting that Cruz’s father, an evangelical pastor, regularly informs his congregation that Satan is guiding the actions of liberals:

Corn: Well, actually, if you go to a speech from his dad, who is a pastor, evangelical, Rafael Cruz, it actually is satanic.


Corn: He — I watched a speech in which he said Satan was behind the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.

So, it’s not…

Brooks: OK. Well, I withdraw the satanic from Ted Cruz.

Corn: You’re thinking that it’s political, but, sometimes, it’s literal.

Brooks: Mephistophelian, maybe.

“Mephisophelian” is a pretty good description of Cruz–not as heavily weighted as “Satanic” and capturing his debating agility. The rightwing media, however, reacted to “Satanic” as one would expect: “PBS: Ted Cruz and His Father Are ‘Satanic,’” blared the National Review, and others followed suit.

Without mentioning Blake, Brooks tried to explain himself.

But it’s dark and combative, and, frankly, harsh. It’s a harsh — he gets some jokes in the beginning, but then it’s just, we have enemies. We’re in an apocalyptic situation. We’re on the edge of the abyss. You need a tough guy to beat that back.

And that’s his personality. That’s not Marco Rubio’s personality. He’s a sunny — he’s been running the youthful optimism campaign, but he’s beginning, to prevent Cruz from getting liftoff, to mimic sort of that, get a piece of that.

 The ideas are ones that Brooks went on to voice in his most recent column:

Evangelicals and other conservatives have had their best influence on American politics when they have proceeded in a spirit of personalism — when they have answered hostility with service and emphasized the infinite dignity of each person. They have won elections as happy and hopeful warriors. Ted Cruz’s brutal, fear-driven, apocalypse-based approach is the antithesis of that.

While some would dispute Brooks’s belief that Rubio’s “youthful optimism campaign” is preventing Cruz from getting liftoff, I can see why the erudite columnist would channel Blake as he tried to get his point across. If Cruz’s language is apocalyptic, so is the poet’s. The question is whether the upcoming apocalypse will be positive or negative.

Rubio, as Brooks sees him, is Blake’s happy warrior, a positive force who wants to take America back to pre-polarized America (“build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”). Doing so means fighting, with bow of burning gold, against the “dark Satanic mills” that are taking over the Republican party. (These mills for Blake were not only coal-burning factories but also Oxford and Cambridge, whose narrow, pedantic instruction stood in the way of true enlightenment.) Brooks is worried that the darkness of Cruz and Trump will overwhelm the man that he sees as the GOP’s best chance.

In other words, it makes perfect sense that Brooks, thinking of Rubio as “green and pleasant,” would surface “dark and Satanic” to capture the contrast with Cruz. Without the poetic context, however, the word “Satanic” does indeed sound out of place.

Posted in Blake (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Becoming the Land’s People Is Hard

Frost reading "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration

Frost reading “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration


ObamaThe American Prospects’s Harold Meyerson recently explored whether Lincoln and FDR were better than President Obama at transcending partisan divides. This after the president speculated in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address that they would have handled the current polarization better than he has done. Meyerson concludes that they wouldn’t have done any better, in large part because they weren’t successful during their own presidencies. Meyerson quotes from Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” to emphasize just how difficult the task is.

Meyerson points out that Lincoln’s election triggered the Civil War—talk about polarizing!—and that Roosevelt could enact sweeping legislation only because he enjoyed “the most lopsidedly Democratic congresses in the nation’s history.” Both were excoriated by the opposition.

Obama has faced comparable attacks. Meyerson says that the red state-blue state divide, further exacerbated by Obama’s race, meant that “the odds that he could successfully reach across the aisle were essentially nil.” His soaring optimism upon entering the presidency has been worn down so that, by Tuesday night, he was warning against descending into tribalism. Here’s Meyerson:

If his State of the Union Address demonstrated anything, it’s that Barack Obama has a keener appreciation of American exceptionalism than any of his critics. He understands that this nation uniquely preceded the formation of its people, that, as Robert Frost wrote, “the land was ours before we were the land’s,” that what sets us apart as Americans is precisely that we don’t share a homogeneity of race or faith or country of origin, that because of that, our unity is an achievement, not a given, and our divisions, particularly of race, a constant danger. His curse has been that he has governed at a time when those divisions ran high and limited his capacity to create a better nation—though as he pointed out in last night’s speech, he’s accomplished a good deal within those constraints.

“The Gift Outright,” like most of Frost’s poems, is deceptive. While it might appear to be an embrace of Western Expansion and Manifest Destiny, it is not jingoistic. Pay particular attention to the line in parentheses:

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

The early colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia may have inhabited the land (“She was our land”), but America had not yet taken on the new identity that they would bestow. They thought of her rather as an extension of their English identities, which still possessed them.

Only when they gave themselves over entirely to the new land, when they became (psychologically) possessed by her and surrendered to her, did they become her people. The new land became the American experiment.

Unfortunately, the experiment included “deeds of war.” The first deed, I suppose, was the American Revolution, but there were others, including the Indian wars, the Mexican-American War, the threat of war against Canada (“Fifty-four Forty or Fight”), and the Spanish American War, which took us beyond the continent and into East Asia. We were indeed a “land vaguely realizing westward.”

The “deed of gift,” one scholar has noted, is probably a reference to Doctor Faustus signing his name in blood with Mephistophilis. In other words, possessing the land, with its hint of rape (or at least mastery), is something of a devil’s bargain. The America we love has been forged out of an ongoing and violent struggle.

I am reminded of cultural historian Richard Slotkin’s thesis that, time and again in its history, America has resorted to violence to regenerate itself–which is to say, to renew its sense of purpose. Slotkin discusses how the myth of the frontier grew out of this violence, and the “artless” land would be enhanced with stories of gunslingers and heroic pioneers. The land that Obama celebrated Tuesday night did not come easily.

This Obama well knows, as does Frost in his seemingly parenthetical aside about deeds. Here’s Obama describing the struggle that is required:

What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.

We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.

So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.

It won’t be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard.

The land may be ours but we are still becoming the land’s. We can’t afford to withhold our hearts—Obama’s warns about cynicism—because that makes us weak. Rather, we must surrender and gives ourselves outright. If we do so, we will continue to realize westward, at least metaphorically, and we will continue to fill this evolving land with our stories and our art.

If we give ourselves outright, the land will return the gift to us tenfold.

Posted in Frost (Robert) | Leave a comment

British and American Fantasy Contrasted

Lord of the Rings


A former student alerted me to this Atlantic article arguing that Britain produces better fantasy than America and giving the reasons why. While the piece is stimulating and helps me understand why I myself preferred British fantasy as a child, author Colleen Gillard makes a number of questionable claims. Above all, she defines fantasy in a particularly British way, meaning that American fantasy starts off at an immediate disadvantage.

Gillard sets up the contrast as follows:

The small island of Great Britain is an undisputed powerhouse of children’s bestsellers: The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Significantly, all are fantasies. Meanwhile, the United States, also a major player in the field of children’s classics, deals much less in magic. Stories like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are more notable for their realistic portraits of day-to-day life in the towns and farmlands on the growing frontier. If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.

Gillard goes on and on about the Puritanical moralism of American children’s literature and sees British fantasy as exempt. I’ll question this in a moment but let’s allow her to first make her point:

It all goes back to each country’s distinct cultural heritage. For one, the British have always been in touch with their pagan folklore, says Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor of children’s literature and folklore. After all, the country’s very origin story is about a young king tutored by a wizard. Legends have always been embraced as history, from Merlin to Macbeth. “Even as Brits were digging into these enchanted worlds, Americans, much more pragmatic, always viewed their soil as something to exploit,” says Tatar. Americans are defined by a Protestant work ethic that can still be heard in stories like Pollyanna or The Little Engine That Could.


American fantasies differ in another way: They usually end with a moral lesson learned—such as, surprisingly, in the zany works by Dr. Seuss who has Horton the elephant intoning: “A person’s a person no matter how small,” and, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” Even The Cat in the Hat restores order from chaos just before mother gets home. 

When my colleague Donna Richardson heard the argument that British fantasy isn’t moralistic, she all but snorted, asking, “Narnia, anyone?” She remembered finding C. S. Lewis “too preachy” when she was a child.

Nor is Lewis alone. Lord of the Rings sets up Frodo as a Christ figure and I have had a student convincingly argue that a major influence on Tolkien’s fantasy is Pilgrim’s Progress, by the Puritan preacher John Bunyan. Harry Potter also undergoes a Christ-like resurrection in the final book, overcoming Voldemort’s destructive hatred with Christian compassion. Therefore, I’m not buying Gillard’s assertion that

a world not fixated on atonement and moral imperatives is more conducive to a rousing tale.

Lewis, Tolkien and Rawlings are no less fixated on atonement and moral imperatives than many American writers. And incidentally, this fixation does not prevent them from composing rousing tales.

For that matter, there is a strong moral in Wind in the Willows, despite Gillard’s claim that it is exempt from such narrowness. She sets up a Puritan-pagan contrast after interviewing a Scottish child who is enthralled with Toad’s wild ways but bored by all the rules in Little House in the Big Woods. Gillard sees Toad as a liberating trickster figure:

Pagan folktales are less about morality and more about characters like the trickster who triumphs through wit and skill: Bilbo Baggins outwits Gollum with a guessing game; the mouse in the The Gruffalo avoids being eaten by tricking a hungry owl and fox. Griswold calls tricksters the “Lords of Misrule” who appeal to a child’s natural desire to subvert authority and celebrate naughtiness: “Children embrace a logic more pagan than adult.” 

Wind and the Willows has an adult message, however: If the landowning gentry acts as irresponsibly as Toad, then the working class weasels and stoats will take over the society. The book ends with the restoration of traditional classes, not with the Lord of Misrule in control. The Jungle Book ends similarly. These stories are no less in favor of final stability than is Where the Wild Things Are, which Gillard disparages in the same way she disparages Dr. Seuss.

While I disagree with Gillard on the fantasies’ moral messages, however, American and British stories do indeed have a different feel to them and I like some of her explanations. For instance, she emphasizes the different landscapes, domesticated countryside vs. the frontier:

Britain’s antique countryside, strewn with moldering castles and cozy farms, lends itself to fairy-tale invention. As Tatar puts it, the British are tuned in to the charm of their pastoral fields: “Think about Beatrix Potter talking to bunnies in the hedgerows, or A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh wandering the Hundred Acre Wood.” Not for nothing, J.K. Rowling set Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the spooky wilds of the Scottish Highlands. Lewis Carroll drew on the ancient stonewalled gardens, sleepy rivers, and hidden hallways of Oxford University to breathe life into the whimsical prose of Alice in Wonderland.

And then there’s Britain’s long, multi-layered history. I particularly like the article’s explanation for the many portal fantasies one finds in British fantasy:

Britain’s pagan religions and the stories that form their liturgy never really disappeared, the literature professor Meg Bateman told me in an interview on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. Pagan Britain, Scotland in particular, survived the march of Christianity far longer than the rest of Europe. Monotheism had a harder time making inroads into Great Britain despite how quickly it swept away the continent’s nature religions, says Bateman, whose entire curriculum is taught in Gaelic. Isolated behind Hadrian’s Wall—built by the Romans to stem raids by the Northern barbarian hordes—Scotland endured as a place where pagan beliefs persisted; beliefs brewed from the religious cauldron of folklore donated by successive invasions of Picts, Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings.

Even well into the 19th and even 20th centuries, many believed they could be whisked away to a parallel universe. Shape shifters have long haunted the castles of clans claiming seals and bears as ancestors. “Gaelic culture teaches we needn’t fear the dark side,” Bateman says. Death is neither “a portal to heaven nor hell, but instead a continued life on earth where spirits are released to shadow the living.” A tear in this fabric is all it takes for a story to begin. Think Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark Is Rising, Peter Pan, The Golden Compass—all of which feature parallel worlds.

Bateman notes that the Puritans rejected much of Britain’s rich folklore when they went to the new world, and they did not build upon the folk traditions of the Indians or the African slaves. But rather than obliterating fantasy, their decision led to a different kind of fantasy. America’s gothic tradition is one of its major contributions to world literature.

I have in mind the gothic fantasies of Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne and, later, Stephen King. These are not children’s fantasies along the lines of Tolkien or Lewis but they are fantasies nonetheless, and children are often fascinated by them.

Whether child or adult, we all need fantasy, and America has provided us with vital stories no less than Britain.

Further thoughts: I should have explained the relationship between the suppression of the Indians and the rise of American gothic. The Puritans may have come to America denying the existence of green men and fairies, but they very much believed in Satan and (as one sees in a gothic tale like Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”) projected Satan onto the cultural Other. America’s gothic vision functions as a corrective (as fantasy often does) to John Winthrop’s sunny vision of America as a city on a hill. When a culture tries to banish shadows, they show up as nightmares, the return of the repressed. Stephen King understands this well, and the gothic horror that he sees underlying America’s Leave It to Beaver towns is often associated with America’s violent history of subjugating minorities.

And another thought: America has its own mortal fantasies, foremost amongst them The Wizard of Oz. It’s not only Brits who think they can be whisked away. It’s interesting that the instrument in Baum is an extreme weather event, more in keeping with the wildness of the American frontier. And when the Connecticut Yankee  is sent back to Camelot in Twain’s novel, it arises out of a violent labor dispute between boss and worker. The American setting is much more rough and tumble than the British, giving its fantasies a rawer and less refined edge. Maybe that’s the major difference.

Posted in Grahame (Kenneth), Lewis (C. S.), Tolkien (J.R.R.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Singular “They” Is Here to Stay

Robert Harris, "A Meeting of the School Trustees"

Robert Harris, “A Meeting of the School Trustees”


After decades of marking student essays, I predicted that one day this change would come. It seemed all but inevitable. And yet I was still stunned when I saw Friday’s’s Washington Post article about it.

What is this momentous development? The singular “they” is on the verge of becoming grammatically correct.

To commemorate the occasion, I’m running a Philip Levine poem that makes dramatic use of the word “they.” Here’s what is currently happening:

Singular “they,” the gender-neutral pronoun, has been named the Word of the Year by a crowd of over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening.

In a landslide vote, the language experts chose singular they over “thanks, Obama,” ammosexual, “on fleek,” and other contenders for this annual award given to the most significant term or word in the past year.

The singular “they” is a big deal for English teachers and language purists, even if for no one else. The issue arose in the feminist 1970s when we began insisting on gender neutral pronouns. As a result of our instruction,“he,” “him,” and “his” are no longer used to refer to women as well as to men.

Unfortunately, the change has had an unintended consequence: we now see many more pronoun reference errors. In well over half the essays I read, I find students using the singular “they.” As in, “Everyone has their own way of doing things.”

One can correct to “everyone has his or her own way of doing things,” but that clutters up the sentence quickly, especially if there are more gender pronouns to come. Or one can back up and put everything in the plural (“All people have their own way of doing things”), but that can also sound inelegant. Besides, the plural form sometimes lacks the force of the singular.

In conversation, the singular “they” has become acceptable since we don’t expect people to back up when they’re talking. And as conversation goes, so eventually goes grammar. In English, where we lack a special academy (as they have in France), sooner or later our grammarians and handbook authors give up and go with common usage.

This has occurred with who/whom–“whom” is disappearing–and it is now not wrong to write “it’s me” rather than “it’s I.” (Or, if you want a more forceful example, “Woe is me” sounds better than “Woe is I.”) The singular “they” may still grate on the sensibilities of those who pay close attention to language, but its stealth entry into proper society has been underway for a long time now.

I only get half credit for my accurate prediction, however. That’s because I didn’t foresee the extra push that is leading to acceptance. Here’s from the Post article again:

But what gave this word new prominence was its usefulness as a way to refer to people who don’t want to be called “he” or “she.”

“We know about singular they already — we use it everyday without thinking about it, so this is bringing it to the fore in a more conscious way, and also playing into emerging ideas about gender identity,” said linguist Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who presided over the voting this Friday afternoon.

The change isn’t official yet, but increasingly people who do not use the singular “they” will sound stuffy and affected. As do those who currently say “to whom am I speaking.”

But enough about grammar (incidentally, we didn’t used to allow starting a sentence with a conjunction) and on to Levine’s poem and its spectacular use of the word “they.” Levine dips into Black English to give a sense of the oppressed rising up against their grinding lives. In the process, “they” does double and even triple duty. Sometimes it is simply a subject, sometimes it stands in for the possessive “their,” and sometimes it works as the subject-verb contraction “they’re.”

Levine’s brilliance lies in the way he allows multiple reading of the same “they.” For instance, I can imagine reading the title “They Feed They Lion” as either

They feed their (inner) lion


They feed, they’re a lion

The pressure of the pronoun, meanwhile, transforms the word “lion.” Perhaps it is an object (as in the first instance) or a predicate nominative (as in the second), or perhaps “lion” is a verb paralleling the verb “feed”–as in, “they feed, they lion. (One hallmark of English, which Shakespeare took full advantage of, is that nouns can readily be turned into verbs.)

But I’m saying all this in order that you don’t get get so frustrated with the word “they” that you stop reading. Just let the poem exert its power without worrying too much whether you understand the grammatical usage. The poem is Whitmanesque so go with the flow.

If it helps, think of the lion as Yeats’s rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Oppressive conditions are feeding the lion so that the second coming is at hand. In the final line, the lion comes. It’s a relevant poem given the current anger in the electorate, although I think Levine is looking at Black anger (“my white sins”), not the white working class anger of Donald Trump supporters.

They Feed They Lion

By Philip Levine

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter, 
Out of black bean and wet slate bread, 
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar, 
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies, 
They Lion grow. 

Out of the gray hills 
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride, 
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties, 
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps, 
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch, 
They Lion grow. 

Earth is eating trees, fence posts, 
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones, 
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls, 
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness, 
From the furred ear and the full jowl come 
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose 
They Lion grow. 

From the sweet glues of the trotters 
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower 
Of the hams the thorax of caves, 
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,” 
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels, 
The grained arm that pulls the hands, 
They Lion grow. 

From my five arms and all my hands, 
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed, 
From my car passing under the stars, 
They Lion, from my children inherit, 
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion, 
From they sack and they belly opened 
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth 
They feed they Lion and he comes. 

Posted in Levine (Philip) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Thoughts on Classroom Attendance

Frederick Richardson, illus. from "Mother Goose"

Frederick Richardson, illus. from “Mother Goose”


As I was putting together my syllabi for spring semester, which begins next week, I came across a Tom Wayman poem that I’m tempted to use as part of my attendance policy. Because the poem strikes a raw nerve among college professors, it apparently is well known in the profession although I only encountered it recently.

Like many college teachers, I regularly hear the question, “Did I miss anything?” from students who have missed a class. Like Wayman, my first impulse is to reply with sarcasm. After all, what am I supposed to say?

Wayman’s poem veers between two extreme answers to the question: “nothing” and “everything.” By the end, he works himself around to a very good answer of what the student missed—missed, that is, if the teacher has been doing his or her job.

Did I Miss Anything

By Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

       Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered

       but it was one place

       And you weren’t here

As much as I enjoy both the sarcastic humor and the concluding earnestness of the poem, however, it has prompted me to wonder whether students aren’t actually asking a different question than Wayman thinks. What if students are really saying, “I’m sorry I missed the class and I hope I didn’t miss anything important.” What sounds like an insensitive question may in actuality be an awkward apology. True, they’re hoping we’ll diminish the offense and lessen the shame by saying that, in fact, nothing much was missed. But at least they’re admitting that they feel ashamed..

So while a sarcastic reply tempts me—Wayman understands college teachers well—I’m not sure that piling more shame upon their already existing shame is the best response. When students ask me the question in the future, therefore, I resolve to answer it fully. Even if it involves an extended lecture/discussion.

That means it is incumbent upon me to insure that every class does indeed function as “a microcosm of human experience.” I must make sure that every class wrestles with some deep and abiding truths in a way that enriches all of our lives.

The students won’t get a sarcastic, shame-inducing comment, therefore,  but rather a mini-lesson on the value of literature. If I am successful, they’ll be so worried about missing something vital that they’ll do all in their power to attend all the remaining classes.

In other words, I will opt for inspiration in place of guilt.

Further thought: Here’s another way to interpret “Did I miss anything?” It’s a trick question. If you say yes, then you are put in a position of bragging about your class. So the proper answer is to point out how much the class as a whole–not just you as the teacher–were engaged in the learning process. And how the community suffered when it was deprived of the contributions of the missing student.

Posted in Wayman (Tom) | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

What in Me Is Dark Illumine

Leonardo da Vinci, "Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist"

Leonardo da Vinci, “Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist”

Spiritual Sunday

Christians are currently in the Epiphany season, which marks the moment when the world awakens to the presence of God in its midst. The official Epiphany is the wise men finding the infant Jesus, but there are many epiphanies and today’s Gospel reading provides another one: Jesus experiences an epiphany when he is being baptized by John. It is at this moment that Jesus fully realizes that God is within him:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Religiously speaking, an epiphany is any moment when God enters the human realm, and of course poets speak of having an epiphany when suddenly light breaks through. Milton alludes to a number of the Bible’s epiphanic moments to account for the inspiration that led to the composing of Paradise Lost.

For him, the Holy Spirit functions as his epic muse, a Christian version of Calliope, who inspired Homer and Virgil. In the well-known opening to his epic, Milton makes reference to Moses (“that Shepherd”) being inspired by the Spirit and that same spirit, “dove-like,” impregnating the “vast Abyss” at the beginning of creation:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit 
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste 
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, 
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man 
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, 
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top 
Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire 
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, 
In the Beginning how the Heavens and Earth 
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill 
Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flowed 
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence 
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous Song, 
That with no middle flight intends to soar 
Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues 
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme. 
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer 
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure, 
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first 
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread 
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss 
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark 
Illumine, what is low raise and support; 
That to the heighth of this great Argument 
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence, 
And justify the ways of God to men. 

 It is significant for Milton that epiphanies often occur at our darkest moments. Just as the Christmas star shone during the coldest and darkest time of the year and the Holy Spirit shone and overcame the darkness described in Genesis, so Milton himself launched into Paradise Lost when he was blind and in prison. It therefore makes sense that that his poem would begin in Hell, which he describes as “Stygian darkness” and “darkness visible,” and that it would conclude with Adam delivering such lines as the following. He has just heard about that sacrifice that Jesus will make ages in the future:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce, 
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Then that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!

Milton begins his poem in darkness, unsure how he can possibly justify God’s ways to man. How is one to make sense of all the suffering we undergo? By Book XII he has his answer.

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Introducing a New Genre: Cli-Fi

Buttersworth, "Ship in Storm"

Buttersworth, “Ship in Storm”


As I plan my Introduction to Literature class, which has “Nature” as its focus, I am finding useful a November Kathryn Schulz New Yorker article on literature and the weather. Schulz discusses how, in response to global climate change and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, a new literary genre is emerging: cli-fi.

First, however, she looks back at how we have interpreted weather over the centuries—by which she mostly means extreme weather since we don’t pay attention to the other kind. She appears to see four stages in the process:

–Up until the emergence of Renaissance humanism, extreme weather was seen as the work of angry gods. Piss off Poseidon by poking out the eye of his Cyclops son or eat the cattle of the sun god Helios and you’ll be shipwrecked and all your men will be killed. God in those days punished whole nations or groups of people;

–With the Renaissance and a Protestantism that emphasized one’s personal relationship with God, extreme weather became seen as the result of individual failings. For disobeying his father, Robinson Crusoe is subjected to a series of increasingly violent storms and finally finds himself stranded on a desert island. Then, for extra measure, God sends an earthquake that nearly buries him in his cave;

–With the scientific revolution, the weather became increasingly seen as uninfluenced by humans and so was regarded as merely metaphorical. Then even the metaphorical use of the weather got attacked, with John Ruskin saying that those authors who use weather to convey inner emotions (think of the storm in King Lear) are guilty of “the pathetic fallacy.” Their mistake was indicating a connection when there wasn’t one.

–Schulz says that this view prevailed for a while and extreme weather dropped out of literature (although she mentions exceptions like Grapes of Wrath). With the advent of human-caused climate change, however, weather is making a comeback.

Let’s look at each of these stages in turn. I’ve talked many times about how literature helps us make sense of the world. In ancient times humans had little control over nature, which panicked them. An explanation such as “angry gods” provided the kind of security that explanations offer us and it even suggested a course of action: offer the deities proper obeisance.

I remember reading Homer as a child and wondering why the Greeks so often failed to offer up the proper sacrifices to Poseidon or Zeus. Didn’t they know bad things would happen if they didn’t? But of course, storytellers are Monday morning quarterbacks: looking back at a disaster, they conclude that someone did something wrong. They don’t mention those times when nothing bad happens even though sacrifices are omitted.

Nature became more personal when our relationship with the gods, set in motion by Jesus but coming into fruition with Renaissance humanism and the Protestant reformation, became one-on-one. Schulz cites the change in Milton’s Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. Before they took the bite, I tell my students, the weather was like Southern California all the time. Afterwards, not so much.

We get a sense of what is in store when Eve reaches for the apple:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost…

And also when Adam does:

…he scrupled not to eat
Against his better knowledge, not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.
Earth trembled from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan,
Sky lowered, and muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completing of the mortal sin

At this point, God steps in and gets His angels to tilt the earth and rearrange the weather. (Among his other talents, Milton knows his science.) Here’s a sampling from what is a long passage:

While the Creator calling forth by name
His mighty angels gave them several charge,
As sorted best with present things. The Sun
Had first his precept so to move, so shine,
As might affect the Earth with cold and heat
Scarce tolerable, and from the North to call
Decrepit Winter, from the South to bring
Solstitial summer’s heat…. 

To the Winds they set
Their corners, when with bluster to confound
Sea, Air, and Shore, the Thunder when to roll
With terror through the dark aerial Hall.
Some say he bid his Angels turn ascanse
The Poles of Earth twice ten degrees and more
From the Sun’s axle; they with labor pushed
Oblique the Centric Globe…

Romantic poetry, of course, saw nature as a reflection of the soul, but, as the 19th century progressed, weather came to be seen as lacking special significance. It was just part of the impersonal universe that one had to deal with. Some authors are very good at emphasizing ironic contrast, with nature oblivious to human tragedy. In Mary Oliver’s “Lost Children,” for instance, a father frantically searching for his lost daughter is serenaded by the “thrush’s gorgeous and amoral voice.”

With our present-day actions resulting in super storms and killer droughts, however, humans are once again discovering that they have a special relationship with the weather, which consequently is once more becoming significant in literature. As Schulz observes,

What used to be idle chitchat about the unusually warm day or last weekend’s storm has become both premonitory and polarizing. Nor is there any innate melodrama left in meteorology. Weather is, instead, at the heart of the great drama of our time.

And further:

It is not just that the facts about climate change have become clear; it is that, in establishing those facts, the scientific model of weather, which eclipsed the symbolic one in the nineteenth century, is now colliding with it. These days, the atmosphere really does reflect human activity, and, as in our most ancient stories, our own behavior really is bringing disastrous weather down on our heads. Meteorological activity, so long yoked to morality, finally has genuine ethical stakes.

And because literature never fails to take up the great dramas of our time, new kinds of books are being written:

That shift began to be reflected in literature in the later decades of the twentieth century, with the emergence of the genre now known as cli-fi—short for climate fiction, and formed by analogy to “sci-fi.” As that suggests, novels about the weather have tended to congregate in genre fiction. The dystopian novelist J. G. Ballard wrote about climate change before the climate was known to be changing; later, Kim Stanley Robinson, Margaret Atwood, and many others used the conventions of science fiction to create worlds in which the climate is in crisis. More recently, though, books about weather are displaying a distinct migratory pattern—farther from genre fiction and closer to realism; backward in time from the future and ever closer to the present. See, among others, Ian McEwan’s “Solar,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior,” Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” Karen Walker’s “The Age of Miracles,” Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” and Dave Eggers’s “Zeitoun.”

I particularly appreciate Schulz’s concluding observation that stories about apocalyptic weather disasters are, in one sense, escapist: they give one the illusion of control without one having to do anything. That’s how the stories of an angry Poseidon also work. Back then, however, there really was little one could do.

We, on the other hand, can take dramatic steps to reduce the threat of climate change. The challenge, as Schulz points out, is not to fatalistically accept what is happening but rather to figure out what to do next:

But apocalyptic stories are ultimately escapist fantasies, even if no one escapes. End-times narratives offer the terrible resolution of ultimate destruction. Partial destruction, displacement, hunger, want, weakness, loss, need—these are more difficult stories. That is all the more reason we should be glad writers are beginning to tell them: to help us imagine not dying this way but living this way. To weather something is, after all, to survive. 

Posted in Milton (John), Oliver (Mary) | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Rubio vs. Bush: The Unkindest Cut

Camuccini, "The Death of Julius Caesar"

Camuccini, “The Death of Julius Caesar”


We are less than a month away from the Iowa caucuses (February 1), which will be the first time we see voting in what has already felt like an interminable presidential election. As of this moment, Donald Trump continues to soak up most of the oxygen , but there are other dramas underway, one of which has been called Shakespearean.

That was the adjective that Chris Hayes of MSNBC applied to the Jeb Bush-Marco Rubio relationship last October. Bush and Rubio, both Florida politicians, are vying to be the “establishment candidate” that will square off with the outsider candidates (Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson). At one point in their history Bush was Rubio’s political mentor, and upon Rubio’s ascension to Florida Speaker of the House, Jeb bestowed upon his protégé “the sword of Chang.” Rubio, when he needed direction, at times would ask himself “what would Jeb do?” It stands to reason, then, that Bush was hurt that Rubio decided to run against him for president rather that awaiting his turn. Increasingly they have been trading barbs.

So which Shakespearean drama fits the relationship? The ones that come to mind are Caesar-Brutus, Duncan-Macbeth, and Henry IV-Hal. Let’s examine each one.


Brutus, of course, delivers the “unkindest cut of all,” stabbing the man who thought that he was a friend. Caesar is on the verge of ascending to supreme authority when Brutus and the other senators assassinate him. I suspect that, when Hayes calls the conflict Shakespearean, this is the moment he has in mind.

When Rubio, in the first debate, put down Bush with devastating effect–“Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you”–it was as though he was wielding the sword of Chang against the person who gave it to him.

Caesar’s description of another of the assassins could also apply to Rubio:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.


Duncan is already king, not running for the position, when Macbeth murders him–but Bush, at the time that Rubio declared his candidacy, had all but been “crowned” as the eventual nominee by the Republican establishment.

I can well imagine a witch of ambition standing upon a “blasted heath” and whispering into Rubio’s head,

All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

Rubio, like Macbeth, for a while promised loyalty to Jeb:

The service and the loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part
Is to receive our duties; and our duties
Are to your throne and state children and servants,
Which do but what they should, by doing every thing
Safe toward your love and honour.

We learn very quickly how much Macbeth’s promises are worth.

Henry IV-Hal

In a very painful scene, Henry finds his son trying on his crown before he is dead. (In all fairness to Hal, he thinks his father is dead.) It’s not hard for me to imagine Jeb delivering a modern version of the following speech to Rubio:

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.

And further on:

Thou hidest a thousand daggers in thy thoughts,
Which thou hast whetted on thy stony heart,
To stab at half an hour of my life.
What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself,
And bid the merry bells ring to thine ear
That thou art crowned, not that I am dead.
Let all the tears that should bedew my hearse
Be drops of balm to sanctify thy head…

Hal is properly apologetic but there’s another line he uses, this time to his companion Falstaff, that I can imagine Rubio directing against his fellow Floridian:

I know thee not, old man.

Power struggles and the politics of succession can be harsh.

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The V-Word: Casting Hillary as Duessa

Hans-Burgkmair, "Whore of Babylon"

Hans-Burgkmair, “Whore of Babylon”  (fair face, hideous nether parts)


It’s not every day that you see a reference to Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale—or for that matter, to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene—so imagine my delight when I saw both of them quoted in a December Slate article about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during the most recent Democratic debate.

For those of you that don’t know the scandalous details, Hillary took longer to use the bathroom than did male candidates and so was not on stage when the debate resumed. Of course, Donald Trump had to weigh in, calling the entire episode “disgusting.”

Actually, the article goes beyond the bathroom break. Nora Caplan-Bricker argues that “vagina” has become the v-word for Republican politicians:

A quick scan of the historical record suggests that a mind unsullied by the details of female anatomy is a prerequisite for running on the GOP ticket. An Idaho legislator made headlines last winter when he asked in a hearing whether women could swallow tiny cameras to facilitate gynecological exams. “Fascinating. That makes sense,” he said, when the testifying physician explained that, no, ingested objects do not land in the vagina. (The lawmaker still considered himself sufficiently expert in lady-parts to declare abortions too unsafe for telemedicine.) Conservative politicians are also longtime boosters of the absurd idea that women can’t get pregnant from rape. As then-Rep. Todd Akin famously explained it in 2012, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” These displays provide a window into the mythos of the vagina that so haunts Republicans, and men, and maybe humankind in general. Witness the strange synthesis between the fear of a bottomless hole and the fear of a portcullis that could snap shut at any time.

Until recently, there was the active Twitter thread #Vagina2016, on which Clinton-haters summarized the likely Democratic nominee’s message to America as Vote for my vagina! To the participants, the joke needs no further elaboration: Vaginas are not good retail politicians; they are the stuff of nightmare.

Caplan-Bricker then launches into a history of western misogyny, starting with Rome’s Pliny the Elder and culminating in early British literature. Here’s what she has to say about Chaucer and Spenser:

In literature and folklore, the vagina is punished for refusing to be thusly confined. Tales from many cultures include the figure of the vagina dentata, which lures men in before baring its fangs. See, for example, its sinister aspect in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale,” where the sexuality of a deceitful young wife named May is compared to “the scorpion” whose “tayl is deeth.”* “Paired with swete and venym, May’s vagina becomes both pleasing and poisonous,” writes the scholar Tory Vandeventer Pearman, ready to both “sting” her husband and “suck” the life out of him. Similarly, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the dragon antagonist is a beautiful woman from the waist up, a monster below. This creature’s name is Error, which is exactly what being seduced by her entails.

In his prologue and tale, Chaucer’s Merchant laments his awful marriage and tells the story of January, a 60-year-old knight who decides to settle down and marry 20-something May. (Chaucer is why we refer to such unions as “January-May marriages.”) Of course, the marriage is a disaster and May starts a liaison with young X when January goes blind. Here’s the scorpion passage in full with alternating middle and modern English:

O sodeyn hap! O thou Fortune unstable!
O sudden chance! O thou Fortune unstable!
Lyk to the scorpion so deceyvable,
Similar to the scorpion so deceitful,
That flaterest with thyn heed whan thou wolt stynge;
That flatter with thy head when thou wilt sting;
Thy tayl is deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge.
Thy tail is death, through thy poisoning.
O brotil joye! O sweete venym queynte!
O brittle joy! O sweet venom deceitful!
O monstre, that so subtilly kanst peynte
O monster, that so subtly can disguise
Thy yiftes under hewe of stidefastnesse,
Thy gifts under appearance of steadfastness,
That thou deceyvest bothe moore and lesse!
That thou deceivest both high and low (everyone)!

Here, meanwhile, is Spenser describing the nether parts of the otherwise beautiful Duessa:

Her neather parts misshapen, monstruous,
Were hidd in water, that I could not see.
But they did seeme more foule and hideous,
Then womans shape man would beleeve to bee.

To the list, one could also add Milton, who applies Spenser’s description to Satan’s daughter Sin in Paradise Lost. And there was St. Augustine, who described prostitutes as a palace built above a sewer.

One doesn’t need to be a Freudian to see a connection between white middle class male anxieties, increasing gun sales, and increasing attacks on female reproductive rights. President Obama has been seen as an emasculating figure by many of his detractors, and a President Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly exacerbate these anxieties further.

At one point in her career, Clinton baked cookies to reassure Americans that they would not get a feminazi as their First Lady. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Clinton and Obama years, her opponents are not going to be won over by such strategies. I therefore suggest that she instead go full Wife of Bath:

In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument
As frely as my Makere hath it sent.

As Chaucer’s most memorable character understands only too well, sometimes offense is the only good defense. I’m not suggesting that Hillary become a dominatrix, with spurs and a riding whip. But she should push hard and unapologetically for women’s issues.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey), Spenser (Edmund) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

With Stories We Defeat Our Inner Moriarty

Sidney Paget, Holmes and Moriarty wrestle at Reichenbach Falls

Sidney Paget, Holmes and Moriarty wrestle at Reichenbach Falls


CumberbatchEnthusiasts of the BBC series Sherlock finally got the next installment that we’ve been awaiting for years, and I, for one, was fully satisfied. The following essay has a spoiler but not for the mystery that we are presented with. Rather, I’ll be talking about the choice to frame the episode in Victorian garb. Doing so opens up some smart insights into Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.

In the previous episode, Sherlock is called back from exile following the apparent return of supposedly dead Moriarty. To understand what Moriarty is (or was) up to, Sherlock casts his mind back to a similar mystery, unsolved, from late Victorian times. A bride committed suicide and then returned from the dead to kill first her own abusive husband and then a series of other harsh spouses.

Sherlock takes an overdose of his “seven percent solution” to aid him, and so everything we see is a hallucinogenic trip. It so happens that this trip takes the form of a Doyle story set during Doyle’s time period.

If a number of familiar characters appear to be a little off base, it’s because they are Sherlock’s version of them, not the actual characters. Furthermore, Sherlock has reinvented them as they might have behaved in the 19th century. (Watson comments on his ridiculous mustache.) Finally, Sherlock reinvents them as they might have been depicted in Watson’s account of them had Watson in fact been a 19th century storyteller.

In Sherlock, of course, Watson is a 21st century blogger. Sherlock is just transposing him into another century and imagining how he would have behaved and written in that century.

In other words, Sherlock is a 21st century figure imagining Watson and himself as Doyle imagined them. Of course, the scriptwriters of Sherlock are doing the reverse, recasting Doyle’s 19th century characters as 21st century characters.

Why is Sherlock imagining himself participating in a 19th century story featuring himself and Watson and written by Watson? He thinks that, by picturing the crime in its original setting with himself on the case, he can solve it.

While working on the mystery, he also engages in a metafictional analysis of Watson’s literary style—or rather, what Watson’s style would be if he were a 19th century writer rather than a 21st century blogger. In addition to being the world’s foremost detective, Sherlock also proves himself a skilled literary critic.

One can see why the show’s creators created this metafictional device. To produce their modern adaptations, they must delve deeply into Doyle’s stories, and this way they can comment on the stories’ features. Perhaps they even see this as a chance to vent, albeit with fondness, about the limitations of Doyle’s creations.

In the process, they discover that Mrs. Hudson is an overly flat character. That Sherlock’s dialogue sometimes sounds like it was written for a story rather than delivered by an actual human being. That Holmes uses Watson as a rhetorical foil. (At one point he discovers that Watson has left the room and that he is in fact talking to a chair–“I thought he’d improved,” Holmes says.) And that the stories themselves are contrived: sometimes they are overly Gothic, sometimes they are shaped more as mini-dramas than as accounts of actual crime solving.

Of course, we as readers don’t care. We just want good stories. Still, it’s fun to see their inner workings exposed.

There is a very tender twist towards the end of Sherlock’s hallucination. He has descended into his mind in order to solve the crime—remember, everything we see in 19th century garb is his imagination, not the actual Watson and Moriarty–and the mind can become a trap. Sherlock’s brother at one point says something to the effect that the most dangerous place for Sherlock is solitude. What if he were to get lost in his mind and never emerge?

This observation arises logically out of Sherlock’s description of Moriarty in the original Doyle story. Sherlock sounds like a paranoid madman or a conspiracy nutcase who has lost all touch with reality:

For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts—forgery cases, robberies, murders—I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught—never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up.

The Moriarty in Sherlock knows about Holmes’s obsessiveness, and his design is to use Sherlock’s mind against him. Perhaps his fiendish plot is to drive Sherlock mad, even though, being dead, he won’t be there to enjoy it. But maybe he doesn’t need to be. Maybe he’s so confident that he has already enjoyed the moment, knowing that he has set in motion a trap from which Holmes cannot escape.

It almost works. That’s why we suddenly see Sherlock and Moriarty wrestling at the Reichenbach Falls in a scene that is modeled directly on the original Sidney Paget illustration (see above). Remember, this Moriarty is all in Sherlock’s head and he is on the verge of casting Sherlock into the abyss. The real Moriarty knew all along that he would triumph.

There’s one thing he didn’t count on, however: Sherlock has Watson to ground him. Sherlock has used Watson’s storytelling to get out of his own mind and see the situation from another vantage point. It helps him solve the crime of the abominable bride and it allows him to defeat his inner Moriarty. That’s the meaning of Watson showing up in the hallucination and pushing Moriarty over the cliff.

In other words, for all that he makes fun of Watson’s stories about him, Sherlock knows that he needs them for the narrative that connects him to the world. That’s what stories do: they give our lives meaning. Even stories with literary limitations.

Posted in Doyle (Arthur Conan) | 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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