The Magic Spell Cast by Stories

Seymour Joseph Guy, "Young Girl Reading" (1877)

Seymour Joseph Guy, “Young Girl Reading” (1877)


To reward myself after 10 intensive days of grading essays and meeting with students, I spent Saturday rereading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, the novel that turned me on to the Japanese novelist. As I did so, I rediscovered a passage that pretty much sums up the rationale for this blog. Maybe Murakami’s bookishness is what hooked me.

The passage involves a math teacher who is also an aspiring novelist. Tengo loves both but, whereas math helps him escape from life, literature provides him with potential solutions for his problems. As Murakami puts it, a novel for Tengo

was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility.

Here’s the passage:

The world governed by numerical expression was, for him, a legitimate and always safe hiding place. As long as he stayed in that world, he could forget or ignore the rules and burdens forced upon him by the real world.

Where mathematics was a magnificent imaginary building, the world of story as represented by Dickens was like a deep, magical forest for Tengo. When mathematics stretched infinitely upward toward the heavens, the forest spread out beneath his gaze in silence, its dark, sturdy roots stretching deep into the earth. In the forest there were no maps, no numbered doorways.

In elementary and middle school, Tengo was utterly absorbed by the world of mathematics. Its clarity and absolute freedom enthralled him, and he also needed them to survive. Once he entered adolescence, however, he began to feel increasingly that this might not be enough. There was no problem as long as he was visiting the world of math, but whenever he returned to the real world (as return he must), he found himself in the same miserable cage. Nothing had improved. Rather, his shackles felt even heavier. So then, what good was mathematics? Wasn’t it just a temporary means of escape that made his real-life situation even worse?

As his doubts increased, Tengo began deliberately to put some distance between himself and the world of mathematics, and instead the forest of story began to exert a stronger pull on his heart. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world. But at some point Tengo noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of mathematics. Why should that have been? After much deep thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within.

Murakami gives us an instance of this narrative magic at work. Tengo grows up not knowing what has happened to his mother. His father, meanwhile, is a man of limited imagination who forces Tengo to accompany him on Sundays when he is collecting fees for Japanese National Television. (Having a child with him makes people more likely to pay up but Tengo hates it.) The boy draws on Oliver Twist to make sense of it all:

My real father must be somewhere else. This was the conclusion that Tengo reached in boyhood. Like the unfortunate children in a Dickens novel, Tengo must have been led by strange circumstances to be raised by this man. Such a possibility was both a nightmare and a great hope. He became obsessed with Dickens after reading Oliver Twist, plowing through every Dickens volume in the library. As he traveled through the world of the stories, he steeped himself in reimagined versions of his own life. The reimaginings (or obsessive fantasies) in his head grew ever longer and more complex. They followed a single pattern, but with infinite variations. In all of them, Tengo would tell himself that this was not the place where he belonged. He had been mistakenly locked in a cage. Someday his real parents, guided by sheer good fortune, would find him. They would rescue him from this cramped and ugly cage and bring him back where he belonged. Then he would have the most beautiful, peaceful, and free Sundays imaginable.

Stories worked this way for me only it was my gender, not my parents, that puzzled me. Because I had more in common with girls than boys, the books that riveted me were those featuring gender ambiguity, like Little Lord Fauntleroy, Ozma of Oz, and, when I reached middle school, Twelfth Night. They seemed to offer up solutions, only just beyond my grasp.

Indecipherable texts of a magic spell.

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Massacring the Environment Dakota Style

Chief Big Foot of the Miniconjou Lakota, illed in the Wounded Knee massacre

Miniconjou Lakota Chief Big Foot, killed at Wounded Knee


With a North Dakota winter and sub zero temperatures bearing down on those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, I see a convergence of images that all show up in Lucille Clifton’s poem “the killing of the trees”: environmental degradation, oppression of Native Americans, and frozen bodies. [Update: Late breaking news has it that President Obama has issued a stay, but that may not hold with the ascendency of Donald Trump, who apparently owns stock in the company building the pipeline.]

To review the situation, the pipeline was originally designed for upriver from Bismarck but, fearing protest from the city’s residents, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to move it close to (and upriver from) Standing Rock Sioux land. In doing so, it followed the long-established pattern of foisting our dirty projects (landfills, toxic waste dumps, fracking sites) upon vulnerable populations.

The Lakota fears of water contamination are well-founded. While oil companies promise that they will build and then maintain safe pipelines, their record shows otherwise. As CityLab website (connected with The Atlantic) reports,

Over the last twenty years, more than 9,000 significant pipeline-related incidents have taken place nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The accidents have resulted in 548 deaths, 2,576 injuries, and over $8.5 billion in financial damages. (Not counted in this total are thousands of less “significant” pipeline-related malfunctions.)

Lucille told me that she wrote her poem after watching her neighbor in a Southern Maryland subdivision bulldoze down the trees in his yard. The problem, he told her, was that they shed leaves on his lawn. As Clifton saw the trees goes down, she thought of the famous Wounded Knee photo of Chief Big Foot. “Pahuska” means long hair and is the Lakota name for General Custer:

the killing of the trees

By Lucille Clifton

the third went down
with a sound almost like flaking,
a soft swish as the left leaves
fluttered themselves and died.
three of them, four, then five
stiffening in the snow
as if this hill were Wounded Knee
as if the slim feathered branches
were bonnets of war
as if the pale man seated
high in the bulldozer nest
his blonde mustache ice-matted
was Pahushka come again but stronger now,
his long hair wild and unrelenting.

remember the photograph
the old warrior, his stiffened arm
raised as if in blessing,
his frozen eyes open,
his bark skin brown and not so much
wrinkled as circled with age,
and the snow everywhere still falling,
covering his one good leg.
remember his name was Spotted Tail
or Hump or Red Cloud or Geronimo
or none of these or all of these.
he was a chief. he was a tree
falling the way a chief falls,
straight, eyes open, arms reaching
for his mother ground.

so i have come to live
among the men who kill the trees
a subdivision, new,
in southern Maryland.
I have brought my witness eye with me
and my two wild hands,
the left one sister to the fists
pushing the bulldozer against the old oak,
the angry right, brown and hard and spotted
as bark. we come in peace,
but this morning
ponies circle what is left of life
and whales and continents and children and ozone
and trees huddle in a camp weeping
outside my window and i can see it all
with that one good eye.

Had she been alive to witness this protest, Lucille might have added “water” to her list of things threatened by Custer’s circling ponies. What Trump’s forces will do to the environment is currently giving me nightmares.

Further thought: Not afraid to hold herself accountable, Lucille acknowledges that one of her hands could be driving the bulldozer. After all, trees had to go down to build her own house. Her angry right hand, however, is as “brown and hard and spotted” as a felled tree or a felled warrior while her witness eye sees it all.

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John the Baptist: his mouth be true as time

Anton Raphael Mengs,"John the Baptist" (1760)

Anton Raphael Mengs,”John the Baptist” (1760)

Spiritual Sunday

To amplify today’s Advent reading I share Lucille Clifton’s version of John the Baptist. In her eyes, John is a black Baptist minister with an Afro.

The Gospel reading is from Matthew 3:1-12:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Clifton’s poem resonates with the enthusiasm and hopefulness of the “Black Pride” movement of the early 1970s, when the poem was written. Clifton’s John is preaching the social gospel.

The message is even timelier today given the high incarceration rates of young black men. Clifton is well aware that Jesus is a person of color:


By Lucille Clifton

somebody coming in blackness
like a star
and the world be a great bush
on his head
and his eyes be fire
in the city
and his mouth be true as time

he be calling the people brother
even in the prison
even in the jail

I’m just only a Baptist preacher
somebody bigger than me coming
in blackness like a star

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Poe: Trapped in the Prison of the Self



After reading essays on Edgar Allan Poe by two Chinese students, I am reminded of how essential a voice he is in understanding the American psyche. Such are the benefits of cross-cultural conversations.

Yixin Chen and Zhiwen Hu, one-semester exchange students at St. Mary’s, offered up interpretations that were influenced by their communally-oriented society. Writing on “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Zhiwen focused on how Poe shows the dark side of American individualism—which is to say, how an emphasis on self can turn into narcissism. Vincent, meanwhile, also looked at America’s emphasis on self. “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he argued, are about the individual mind terrified of dying.

Poe, as Harold Bloom once wrote, dreamt America’s nightmares, and he serves as a counterpoint to those celebrations of individuality that one finds in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Zhiwen noted how Roderick’s self-absorption brings about his ultimate demise. Roderick Usher’s activities are solitary (he paints, plays music, and reads), he has no friends, and his relationship with his sister verges on the incestuous. Feeling the need to counteract his isolation, he invites the narrator to visit him, but in the end his House, symbol of the self, collapses in on itself.

Having just witnessed America’s strangest election, Zhiwen was fascinated by what he saw as our self-absorption and our continual search for self-gratification. Poe captures this aspect of our national character fairly well, and I was put in mind of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, which had an impact on President Jimmy Carter.

Yixin examined Poe’s fixation on the individual in closed spaces, a topic that initially caught his eye because the Chinese are not accustomed to living alone. We had discussed Freud’s theory that haunted houses are symbols of the mind repressing uncomfortable truths it does not want to face. The uncomfortable truth in “Masque” and “Amontillado,” Yixin said, is that we are going to die.

This is fairly evident in “Masque,” where Prince Prospero seals the gates of his castle—shuts his mind—to the plague that is rampaging through the countryside. He then holds an extravagant masque ball to take his mind off death. The noisy party is interrupted every hour as the clock strikes, a momentary reminder that life is running out. Death is a horror because Prospero has spent so much effort repressing it.

Yixin saw a version of the same drama in “Amontillado.” Montresor sees his own vulnerable self in Fortunato, dressed in fool’s garb for Carnival, and hates him for it. He is also unsettled by Fortunato’s cough, perhaps a sign of tuberculosis. By meting out death himself, he thinks he can inoculate himself against it. In some ways, he is playing the Red Death to Fortunato’s Prince Prospero, but he is also himself Prince Prospero, attempting to seal death behind a bricked up wall.

Of course, death refuses to stay shut out and ultimately forces itself into our consciousness. Montresor appears to be telling his story as a deathbed confession, with the confession functioning as a reluctant admission of his coming fate. As with Prospero, Montresor finds death horrifying because he denies it so vehemently.

Yixin was particularly interested in how Montresor and Fortunato, killer and victim, are doubles of each other. Freud believed we find doubles to be uncanny (think of wax dolls, automatons, and clowns, staples in our horror films) because they originated out of our fear of death. Drawing on the work of Otto Rank, Freud says that doubles were originally our attempt to defeat death but that they became, as a result, uncomfortably associated with death:

The theme of the “double” has been very thoroughly treated by Otto Rank. He has gone into the connections the “double” has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and the fear of death; but he also lets in a flood of light on the astonishing evolution of this idea. For the “double” was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an “energetic denial of the power of death,” as Rank says; and probably the “immortal” soul was the first “double” of the body….[T]he same desire spurred on the ancient Egyptians to the art of making images of the dead in some lasting material. Such ideas, however, have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which holds sway in the mind of the child as in that of primitive man; and when this stage has been left behind the double takes on a different aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, he becomes the ghastly harbinger of death.

I have long known that Poe questions America’s celebration of individuality, but seeing him through Chinese eyes brought this home to me in a new way. We Americans preach the virtues of self-empowerment, forgetting its dark twin self-imprisonment.

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Figaro: The Play That Spurred a Revolution

Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais

Pierre-Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais


Be prepared to receive a number of reports about the students’ final projects in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar. Today I share Jacob Traver’s examination of Caron de Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro, which helped pave the way fro the French Revolution.

Interestingly, Beaumarchais’s preceding play, The Barber of Seville (1773), had been a hit with the king and the aristocracy. In both plays, Figaro the Barber plays the “clever servant” role (in Roman comedies, the clever slave role), running the show with a fair amount of license.

Despite their lower class status, such figures were seldom seen as threatening, in part because they were played for laughs. Audiences could enjoy the enterprising  servant, just as they enjoy the fool in Shakespeare’s comedies, knowing that the traditional social hierarchy would be reestablished in the end.

King Louis XVI expected more of the same with Marriage of Figaro. He was shocked, then, when Figaro starts spouting revolutionary rhetoric from the American Revolution. Indeed, Beaumarchais was a good friend to the Americans, financing ships that channeled supplies and arms to them. He was thorough “engrossed with ideals of social change through rebellion and revolution.”

In other words, the clever servant became too edgy. Figaro’s boss, the Count, has become bored with the wife that Figaro helped him win in the earlier play. Now he wants to invoke his droit de seigneur, the so-called right to sleep with the woman that Figaro is about to marry. Figaro is not pleased and delivers such lines as the following:

By an accident of birth,
He’s the master, I’m the slave.
If some day, wealth should follow worth,
He’d starve, and I’d take all he has.
Some will say “It’s nature’s balance:
Blood should count for more than talent.”
My lords: Remember, wise men say,
That every dog will have his day

When he saw a private showing of Figaro before it went public, King Louis was outraged, declaring:

It is detestable! That shall never be played; it would be necessary to destroy the Bastille before the presentation of this play would not be a dangerous piece of inconsequence! This man mocks everything which ought to be respected in a Government!

I’ll let Jacob take over from here:

There were to be heavy revisions and censorship applied to the text of Figaro if it was ever to be performed on stage. The play, in total, went through six censors. The scenes containing mentions of rebellion against or dissatisfaction with a “master” were to be removed, including a monologue from Figaro’s mother Marceline, who delivers a powerful indictment of men’s improper behavior and their disrespectful, unequal, and sexist ways with women. Any moment of the play where class, social, or gender roles in society were fluid, inverted, or broken were deemed unacceptable.

Despite all of the King’s hired “defenses” against Beaumarchais’s text, however, “it was too late; neither he (the sixth censor) nor his royal master could now stem the flood of popular clamor for the public performance of the play” (Cynthia Cox, The Real Figaro). The King, realizing he could not bar Figaro from the stage, finally gave permission for the final censored version to be performed.

On April 7th, 1784, “all of Paris wished to see this famous Marriage” (Cox) and “the crowds reached uncontrollable proportions, “doors broke down, iron railings gave way’” (Harlow Unger, Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur De Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution). People of all classes and social ranking flooded the theater to see this scandalous and infamous play that had evaded the clutches of the King and his censors. It was finally being performed for their entertainment and received tremendous acclaim.

Jacob notes that, while some members of the ruling class enjoyed the play—perhaps they were still focusing on the clever servant trope–others sensed the danger, with one declaring, “Right here lies the Revolution.” Eventually the King ordered Beaumarchais’s arrest, which enflamed the crowds even more. He had revealed himself to be a tyrant.

Jacob concludes,

The French Revolution was a result of many important factors, but The Marriage of Figaro brought many of those issues to the forefront.

As only art can.

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Dorothy as Feminist Threat

Denslow, Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West

Denslow, Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West


For the final assignment for my Theories of the Reader senior seminar class, my students select a literary work that, at some time in its history, functioned as “an event.” Their task is to describe the event and figure out its meaning. I spent Thanksgiving break reading the essays and have learned many remarkable things.

For instance, did you know that fundamentalist Christians targeted L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz in 1980s? They even won a lawsuit again the book.

According to my student Rebecca Kaff, parents were worried about their children being “seduced into godless supernaturalism.” The judge ruled in their favor, granting them compensation for the cost of transferring their kids to other schools and also allowing children to opt out of reading the book.

As Rebecca dug deeper into the book’s reception, however, she discovered there was more. The objections appear to have been directed mainly at the witches, especially the good witches (Glinda the Good and the Good Witch of the North). Witches were in the news at the time because feminists were reclaiming witch power, delving into history to rewrite the history of witchcraft and, in some cases, embracing the Wicca religion and resurrecting various earth goddesses. As has often been the case with witches, the Christian objections were to “godless superstition” per se but to the way that assertive women were challenging traditional patriarchy.

And wait, there’s more. Rebecca also discovered, from reading Evan Schwartz’s American History article “The Matriarch behind the Curtain,” that Baum’s good witches were in fact inspired by the women’s rights movement:

In 1882 Baum married Maud Gage, the daughter of Matilda Gage, “the most radical leader of the American woman’s rights movement.” Being a suffragist who worked with Anthony and Stanton, Gage was unwilling to let her daughter become a housewife and opposed the marriage as supported by Baum’s various bankruptcies and moves. Baum corresponded with her as she broke away from major suffragist movements to form the National Women’s Liberal Union and speak out about how women have been persecuted for centuries by men for witchcraft.


Baum sympathized with Gage’s feelings and was influenced by her accounts of the witch hunts for his characters…[H]e began to see her as a “spiritual mentor” who would advise and inspire him. When she visited Baum in 1888, she bid him write down the stories he told to his children, many of which were later published as fairy tale collections…After she passed away in 1898, he began writing The Wizard of Oz …[and] used the novel to honor her through Glinda the witch, who sends Dorothy home–redeeming her just as Gage did him.

In other words, the Tennessee fundamentalists were picking up on some deep currents in the book.

Nor was it only fundamentalists who were threatened. Rebecca observes that the famous 1939 movie itself toned down some of the book’s feminism. Although Dorothy is older in the film than in the book, she is actually less capable. Film Dorothy is tied more to Aunt Em, she cries more, she describes herself as “small and meek,” and in the end she vows never to leave home again.

Dorothy displays far more gumption in the book. Rebecca writes,

Multiple critics have praised the book’s version where Dorothy purposely dumps water on the witch in retaliation for the taking of her silver shoe. Then, not stopping to cry, “she drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door.”

From the first, in other words, Dorothy is an assertive female heroine, emerging out of the women’s rights movement and probably harkening back as well to America’s pioneer women.

Never underestimate how much strong women freak people out.

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Trumpist Masculinity Isn’t Kind to Men

"Sir Nigel Sustains Englands Honor"

“Sir Nigel Sustains Englands Honor”


Now that the wicked witch has been defeated, at least in the electoral college, will America be made great again by returning to 1950s-style, Mad Men masculinity? Guys who long for those days might like to know that things weren’t exactly great back then, as an Adrienne Rich poem from the era testifies.

I thought of “The Knight” when reading a recent Washington Post article claiming that “Sexist men have psychological problems.” According to Sarah Kaplan,

Psychologists looking at 10 years of data from nearly 20,000 men found that those who value having power over women and endorse playboy behavior and other traditional notions of masculinity are more likely to suffer from psychological problems — and less likely to seek out help.

The researchers identified 11 “traditionally masculine” norms in their study: desire to win, need for emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, sexual promiscuity or playboy behavior, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality and pursuit of status. They discovered that

the men who stuck more strongly to these norms were more likely to experience problems such as depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse and negative social functioning. They were also less likely to turn to counseling to help deal with those problems. The effect was particularly strong for men who emphasized playboy behavior, power over women and self-reliance.

According to lead author Y. Joel Wong of Indiana University, the results were in line with previous studies: “It’s something that’s been demonstrated over 20 years of research.”

Rich knew this 60 years ago. In her poem she observes that the pressure on men to live up to a hard exteriors took a terrific inner toil. Behind the “metal mask” she detects “rags and tatters.” The “walls of iron” wear the nerves to ribbons.

It’s a good reminder that feminism didn’t only free women. It also freed men from having to be knights in shining armor.

Rich wonders what it will take to free the knight from “the emblems crushing his chest with their weight.” Will they come crashing down and evolve gently? Men and women have made progress since the 1950s and now Trump wants to take us back to fight the old battles all over again.

The Knight

By Adrienne Rich

A knight rides into the noon,
and his helmet points to the sun,
and a thousand splintered suns
are the gaiety of his mail.
The soles of his feet glitter
and his palms flash in reply,
and under his crackling banner
he rides like a ship in sail.

A knight rides into the noon,
and only his eye is living,
a lump of bitter jelly
set in a metal mask,
betraying rags and tatters
that cling to the flesh beneath
and wear his nerves to ribbons
under the radiant casque.

Who will unhorse the rider
and free him from between
the walls of iron, the emblems
crushing his chest with their weight?
Will they defeat him gently,
or leave him hurled on the green,
his rags and wounds still hidden
under the great breastplate?

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If Swift Had Known Donald Trump…

Charles Jervas, "Portrait of Jonathan Swift"


Kudos to Mark Charney of Salon for setting Jonathan Swift loose on Donald Trump. Swift, maybe the greatest satirist of all time, would have had a field day with our politics.

Charney’s excuse for mentioning the 18th century author is a new biography by John Stubbs, which has got to be better than the dull-as-dishwater Irvin Ehrenpreis biography we relied on for years. In an interview with Stubbs, Charney asked him to imagine how Swift would see us:

John Stubbs explains that Swift “wasn’t at all what we’d call a liberal. He had very decided views on what people should believe and how they should behave.” But neither did he suffer fools, as he “detested the abuse of political power, or indeed any excessive use of force by the stronger party.” Swift’s chapter in Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver confronts the giant Brobdingnagians shows his rage against, as Stubbs put it in an interview with Salon, “doltish insensibility to those weaker than ourselves.”

Stubbs acknowledges that Swift’s writings are buoyed by an anger that is “very much like the anger against a corrupt establishment that seems to have carried Donald Trump to the White House.” But Stubbs adds that Swift would not let Trump get away with his rhetoric:

Simultaneously Swift incessantly expresses his disgust at how morally outraged and exploited people invariably fall for the cheap promises of politicians.

Charney then tries his own hand at seeing Trump through Swiftian eyes:

The whole Trump campaign sounded like a Jonathan Swift essay. A polite suggestion that Mexican-Americans should vote for someone promising to wall off their country, that Muslims should vote for someone aiming to bar entry of all Muslims to the United States, that lower-income families should vote for someone who plans to strip away any chance they have at healthcare, that women should vote for someone who seems to think that women are lumps of warm flesh to be grabbed at will.

The difference, of course, is that Swift is not serious:

There’s not that much of a gap between “A Modest Proposal” recommending that the poor solve their problems by selling their babies for meat, and the modest proposal that the U.S. keep those “bad hombres” out by building a wall across Mexico that the Mexicans will somehow pay for. The difference is in the intent of the delivery — Trump is serious and his supporters think it’s actually a good idea, whereas Swift writes in such a way that we recognize it as satire, we know that he, the author, does not actually endorse the crazy idea, and readers of his words are likewise in on the joke.

Charney also points out that Swift, unlike Trump, goes after the powerful, not the vulnerable:

[Swift] weighs in on how big fish seem to get away with big illegalities, while the little folk, the ones who can least afford it, are punished. “Laws are like cobwebs,” he wrote, “which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” Although he couldn’t have meant it, his choice of symbolic insect, a WASP, is particularly apt. The hard-luck minorities are always punished, but those white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as in the Oregon militia fiasco, somehow slip through.

I suspect that the next four years will give me numerous opportunities to refer to Swift, especially to his attacks in Gulliver’s Travels on courtiers using government to line their own pockets. In the meantime, I’ll just mention how Trump’s supposedly magnanimous decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton reminds me of the Lilliputian king’s “leniency” towards an innocent Gulliver.

In Trump’s case, according to the New York Times, he sees himself as gracious for not taking to court someone who hasn’t done anything indictable (this according to the FBI):

He said he had no interest in pressing for Mrs. Clinton’s prosecution over her use of a private email server or for financial acts committed by the Clinton Foundation. “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” he said.

The Lilliputian king, meanwhile, shows “mercy” by not having innocent Gulliver killed for high treason. Instead, he will merely shoot out his eyes. Here’s Gulliver’s response:

[N]or did any thing terrify the people so much as those encomiums on his majesty’s mercy; because it was observed, that the more these praises were enlarged and insisted on, the more inhuman was the punishment, and the sufferer more innocent. 

Imagine how such little men (six inches in the case of the Lilliputian) respond when their will is thwarted. And while we’re contemplating Trump’s graciousness, let’s remember that the Justice Department, not the President, indicts people, although that’s not how Trump sees it. We’d all better pray that our Constitution’s Separation of Powers holds.

We’ve never needed more for our own Jonathan Swifts to step up.

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The Twisted Fingers Letting Go


Spiritual Sunday

I came across a beautiful Advent poem about tortured hands while visiting the wondrous Journey with Jesus website recently. When I think of clenched hands, the last stanza from Blake’s “Grey Monk” comes to mind:

The hand of Vengeance found the bed
To which the Purple Tyrant fled;
The iron hand crush’d the Tyrant’s head
And became a Tyrant in his stead.

Then there is George MacDonald’s Lilith, whose clenched hand works as a metaphor for a barren womb. When she wants to reform, she discovers that she can no longer open it:

“Open thy hand, and let that which is in it go.”
A fierce refusal seemed to struggle for passage, but she kept it prisoned.
“I cannot,” she said. “I have no longer the power. Open it for me.”
She held out the offending hand. It was more a paw than a hand. It seemed to me plain that she could not open it.
Mara did not even look at it.
“You must open it yourself,” she said quietly.
“I have told you I cannot!”
“You can if you will—not indeed at once, but by persistent effort. What you have done, you do not yet wish undone—do not yet intend to undo!”
“You think so, I dare say,” rejoined the princess with a flash of insolence, “but I KNOW that I cannot open my hand!”

In a particularly unsettling image, Adam must cut off her hand for her to find peace and for water to flow again in the spiritual wasteland:

In a few minutes Adam returned with an ancient weapon in his hand. The scabbard looked like vellum grown dark with years, but the hilt shone like gold that nothing could tarnish. He drew out the blade. It flashed like a pale blue northern streamer, and the light of it made the princess open her eyes. She saw the sword, shuddered, and held out her hand. Adam took it. The sword gleamed once, there was one little gush of blood, and he laid the severed hand in Mara’s lap.

Whew, talk about coming not with peace but with a sword! MacDonald was a hard-line Calvinist and it shows up in his imagery. We’re assured, however, that Lilith isn’t hurt and the protagonist uses her severed hand to go find soul-sustaining water.

Alder’s image isn’t quite so horrific but the idea is the same. If you find yourself clenching a lot these days, listen to what her poem is telling you:

Advent Hands

By Catherine Alder

I see the hands of Joseph. 
Back and forth along bare wood they move.
There is worry in those working hands, 
sorting out confusing thoughts with every stroke.
“How can this be, my beautiful Mary now with child?”  
Rough with deep splinters, these hands, 
small, painful splinters like tiny crosses 
embedded deeply in this choice to stay with her. 
He could have closed his hands to her, 
said, “No” and let her go to stoning.
But, dear Joseph opened both his heart and hands
to this mother and her child.
Preparing in these days before 
with working hands 
and wood pressed tight between them.
It is these rough hands that will open
and be the first to hold the Child.

I see the hands of John,
worn from desert raging storms
and plucking locusts from sand ripped rocks 
beneath the remnant of a Bethlehem star.
A howling wind like some lost wolf 
cries out beneath the moon,
or was that John? 
This loneliness, 
enough to make a grown man mad.
He’s waiting for this, God’s whisper. 
“Go now. He is coming. 
You have prepared your hands enough. 
Go. He needs your servant hands, 
your cupping hands to lift the water, 
and place his feet upon the path to service and to death.
Go now, John, and open your hands to him.
It is time.”

I see a fist held tight and fingers blanched to white.
Prying is no easy task.
These fingers find a way of pulling back to old positions,
protecting all that was and is. 
Blanched to white. No openness. All fright.
But then the Spirit comes.
A holy Christmas dance begins
and blows between the twisted paths.
This fist opens
the twisted fingers letting go.
Their rock-solid place in line has eased.
And one by one the fingers lift
True color is returned 
And through the deepest of mysteries,
The holiest of holies,
O longing of longings
Beyond all human imagining 
this fist,
as if awakened from Lazarus’ cold stone dream
reaches out to hold the tiny newborn hand of God.

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Back from Surgery and Doing Fine

Paul Smyth, "Netley Hospital - 1918"

Paul Smyth, “Netley Hospital – 1918”


Yesterday I had something very special to be thankful for. After spending 18 days in the hospital recovering from back surgery, my 91-year-old mother returned home, just in time for Thanksgiving.

The surgery, which involved cutting away some arthritic growth and some scar tissue build-up from previous surgeries, was successful. For the first time in a long time, my mother doesn’t wince in pain every few seconds. The recovery, however, took a while. We thought at one point that she would have to be returned from Sewanee’s local hospital to the hospital in Nashville when spinal fluid started leaking from where they had opened her up. But a second round of stitches appears to have done the trick and now she’s home.

Given the ups and downs of her recovery, I suspect she will appreciate this Amy Lowell poem about “Convalescence.” At one point the survivor is up, then down, and even when he appears to have reached the shore, there is a moment of panic when the retarding waves suck at the weeds that have enmeshed him.

In the end, however, my mother is back where “poppies glow/And sandflies dance their little lives away.” Maybe there is some irony here: we are but short-lived sandflies and our “little lives are rounded with a sleep” (to quote Hamlet). Nevertheless, when we experience the land-winds and feel the sun on our face, we know that life is good.

Welcome home, mama.


By Amy Lowell

From out the dragging vastness of the sea,
Wave-fettered, bound in sinuous seaweed strands,
He toils toward the rounding beach, and stands
One moment, white and dripping, silently,
Cut like a cameo in lazuli,
Then falls, betrayed by shifting shells, and lands
Prone in the jeering water, and his hands
Clutch for support where no support can be.
So up, and down, and forward, inch by inch,
He gains upon the shore, where poppies glow
And sandflies dance their little lives away.
The sucking waves retard, and tighter clinch
The weeds about him, but the land-winds blow,
And in the sky there blooms the sun of May.

Further thoughts: I should have mentioned that this particular convalescent would be a wounded World War I soldier,which means that there is additional irony in the poppies (the killing fields of Flanders) and the sand flies (perhaps, depending on when the poem was written, Gallipoli Beach). In other words, the soldier may convalesce only so that he may be sent out to be wounded again.

Irony allows us to hold on to two ideas at the same time, however. Just because the joy of the moment may be tempered by foreknowledge of what is to come doesn’t mean that it is any the less precious. In fact, just the opposite.

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Thanksgiving in the Age of Trump

Norman Rockwell, "Freedom from Want"

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom from Want”


For Thanksgiving, I’m posting a passage from James Joyce that I hope does not describe your family feast. Although Thanksgiving is meant to bring families together, the results of this bruising election may tear some families apart. The Washington Post just ran an article on “Surviving Thanksgiving When You Hate How Your Family Voted.”

If it’s any consolation, this isn’t only an American problem. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a Christmas dinner is destroyed when the company splinters between Catholics and Irish nationalists. The conversation centers on Charles Stewart Parnell, who led efforts at home rule but then fell into into disgrace after the world learned of his affair with Kitty O’Shea. He died soon afterward. Here’s an excerpt:

–God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion
 before the world.
Mr Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with
 a crash.
–Very well then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for 
–John! John! cried Mr Dedalus, seizing his guest by the coat sleeve.
Dante stared across the table, her cheeks shaking. Mr Casey struggled
 up from his chair and bent across the table towards her, scraping the
 air from before his eyes with one hand as though he were tearing aside 
a cobweb.
–No God for Ireland! he cried. We have had too much God In Ireland.
 Away with God!
–Blasphemer! Devil! screamed Dante, starting to her feet and almost
 spitting in his face.

 Uncle Charles and Mr Dedalus pulled Mr Casey back into his chair again,
 talking to him from both sides reasonably. He stared before him out of
 his dark flaming eyes, repeating:
–Away with God, I say!
Dante shoved her chair violently aside and left the table, upsetting
 her napkin-ring which rolled slowly along the carpet and came to rest
 against the foot of an easy-chair. Mrs Dedalus rose quickly and followed her towards the door. At the door Dante turned round violently
 and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage:
–Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!
The door slammed behind her.

 Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on
 his hands with a sob of pain.
–Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!
He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

 Stephen, raising his terror-stricken face, saw that his father’s eyes
 were full of tears.

Political passions—or perhaps more accurately, political fears—threaten to make us one dimensional. We need to be bigger than what divides us.

The dinner interchange follows Casey’s recollection of a scene following Parnell’s downfall. After a meeting of Parnell followers, he has to wade into a group resembling a Trump rally:

We were down there at a meeting and after the meeting was over we had to make our way to the railway station through the crowd. Such booing and baaing, man, you never heard. They called us all the names in the world. Well there was one old lady, and a drunken old harridan she was surely, that paid all her attention to me. She kept dancing along beside me in the mud bawling and screaming into my face: PRIEST-HUNTER! THE PARIS FUNDS! MR FOX! KITTY O’SHEA!

It is hard to fault Casey’s explosion at the Christmas dinner given all that he has seen and been through, which includes imprisonment by the British. It’s his attack on Catholic priests, however, not the English, that arouses Dante. We must remember, as we look at our own dinners with people who voted differently, that Dante is a possibly ally: she once hit a gentleman with her umbrella “because he had taken off his hat when the band played GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.” In other words, be careful who you attack in your grief.

If Hillary had won, I would be counseling my fellow Democrats to avoid Dante’s triumphalism and to listen to the pain of the Trump supporters in your family. As I am instead in Casey’s position, I point to how he is ennobled by his love for the brilliant but flawed Parnell. His passionate commitment to Irish independence elevates him, just as your commitment to tolerance, inclusivity and progressive values elevates you. Draw on that knowledge to sustain you.

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Death Seems Comely at the Fall of the Leaf

Vincent Van Gogh, "Falling Autumn Leaves"

Vincent Van Gogh, “Falling Autumn Leaves”


Autumn came late to Maryland this year, probably because of climate change, but the weather finally changed this past week. Strong, cold winds turned the leaves yellow and orange and then knocked them down almost in the same breath.

Here’s an autumn poem by Daniel Gabriel Rossetti. Like many other poems about the season (for instance, John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Autumn Song” finds beauty in the melancholy passage of time. Life seems particularly precious when we verge on the season of death.

Notice how Rossetti looks for joy in absence rather than in presence. The heart “feels a languid grief” and we long simply “not to suffer pain.” We are like like a dried sheaf, “bound up at length for harvesting,” and our consolation is that this process, because it is natural and inevitable, can seem like a “goodly” or a “comely” thing. Like the leaves, we are coming home to rest.

Autumn Song

By Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf 
How the heart feels a languid grief 
Laid on it for a covering, 
And how sleep seems a goodly thing 

In Autumn at the fall of the leaf? 
And how the swift beat of the brain 
Falters because it is in vain, 
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf 
Knowest thou not? and how the chief 
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain? 

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf 
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf 
Bound up at length for harvesting, 
And how death seems a comely thing 
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf? 

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Civil War Battle, Image of Climate Denial

Matthew Brady photo

Matthew Brady photo


Of all my concerns about a Donald Trump presidency, foremost is that he will reverse the world’s advances in fighting climate change. While he declares climate change to be a Chinese hoax and promises to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Accords, the North Pole is reporting temperatures of 36 degrees above normal. In the words of Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, “We are so screwed.”

I’ve addressed this issue time and again and will continue doing so. Today I apply a disturbing Ambrose Bierce short story to the crisis facing the world.

No one who reads “Chickamauga” forgets it. A young deaf mute in 1863 is playing with his toy sword in the woods bordering the site of the famous Civil War battle that saw almost 35,000 casualties. He naps and, when he awakes, he sees hundreds of wounded men crawling through the forest in search of water:

They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

As a child, he doesn’t understand why grown men would be on their hands and knees and laughs at the sight. Their shattered jaws and blasted intestines don’t register with him. At one moment he imagines that they are an army that he is leading into battle. At another, he tries to climb on one of the men, only to be violently shaken off.

Seeing burning in the distance, he goes to check it out and dances in the excitement of the conflagration.

[T]he spectacle pleased, and he danced with glee in imitation of the wavering flames. He ran about, collecting fuel, but every object that he found was too heavy for him to cast in from the distance to which the heat limited his approach. In despair he flung in his sword–a surrender to the superior forces of nature.

Only gradually does he realize that he is witnessing the destruction of his home. The story ends him discovering his mother with her brains blown out.

The story is already a powerful indictment of people who play with the idea of war while overlooking war’s horrific reality. Trump’s bombastic threats to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and his backseat driving of the Mosul invasion suggests that he would like to play at war. But set that possibility aside for a moment and apply the story to climate change.

Trump and other climate denialists can shake their toy swords all they want at the mounting evidence of climate change—several of the hottest years on record, flooding in Miami, increasingly intense hurricanes in the Caribbean, historic droughts in California. They can choose to remain deaf and mute as humanity crawls towards its death. Sooner or later, however, they will discover that it is their own planet that is burning. It is their own mother who lies dead on the ground:

The child moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries–something between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey–a startling, soulless, unholy sound, the language of a devil…Then he stood motionless, with quivering lips, looking down upon the wreck.

I fantasize that, on this issue at least, Trump and the Republicans will wake up to the danger now that they run the government and have our fate in their hands. This is not a child’s game.

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Can Trump Cast Off His Falstaffs?

Baxter, Welles as Hal, Falstaff in "Chimes at Midnight"

Baxter, Welles as Hal, Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight”


The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, my good friend Sue Schmidt wrote me in a desperate search for a silver lining. Might not Trump prove to be Prince Hal, she wondered. Upon ascending to the presidency, was there a chance that he would banish his former disreputable companions and take seriously his leadership duties?

Let’s take a look at Henry IV, Parts I and II, to see such a shift in action.

While Henry IV is trying to consolidate his kingship after overthrowing Richard II, his son is off drinking with Falstaff in a world of no responsibilities. The following exchange gives a sense of their life:

Falstaff: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

Prince Henry: Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

The king need not be worried, however. Hal assures the audience that, when the occasion arises, he will adjust. His soliloquy is the first time he speaks in iambic pentameter, a sign that he can move at will from formless prose to the orderly rituals of kingship:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Has Trump just been lurking behind clouds of hate speech so that he can stun us us? Let’s imagine for a moment that this is his plan. Say that, having played the headline-grabbing political entertainer for the past six years, he suddenly becomes serious. Rather than follow through on incendiary promises to deport millions, register Muslims, restore racial profiling, and run up trillions in debt from high-end tax cuts, can he govern as a moderate Republican? Can he find compromises with Democrats, pass comprehensive immigration reform, set up a responsible infrastructure program, and strengthen universal healthcare. As The Washington Post reported yesterday, he has that potential, being an independent candidate who owes little to a political party or entrenched interests.

A positive sign would be if he were to cast off his old acquaintances, as Hal does at his coronation. The soon-to-be Henry V is as cold as ice as he strides down Westminster Abbey:

Falstaff: God save thee, my sweet boy!
Henry V: My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.
Lord Chief-Justice: Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?
Falstaff: My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
Henry V: I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.

“I know thee not old man” is one of the harshest rejections in all of literature. It breaks Falstaff’s heart but it is politically necessary. Henry V, meanwhile, goes on to glory at Agincourt.

So that’s our fantasy for Trump. How’s it going in real life?

It appears that Trump has not only brought his drinking companions with him to the White House but is making them his chief counselors. Above all, there is the rightwing extremist Steve Bannon, publisher of the “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill” Breitbart (in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Other sycophants are buzzing around him (Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie), and clash-of-civilizations Islamophobe Michael Flynn has already been promised the National Security Agency.

It also appears that Trump is preparing to monetize the White House the way that Falstaff, before he is rejected, monetizes his recruiting authority. Assigned to form a regiment, Falstaff takes bribes from rich parents to exempt their sons from inscription (“I have used the King’s press abominably”). As a result, he ends up with with

ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of companies, slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton’s dogs licked his sores; and such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust serving-men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace, ten times more dishonorable ragged than an old faced ancient

Could this be a foreshadowing of the Trump cabinet?

Trump is the first president in recent times who refuses to put his business dealings in a blind trust. His children will continue to run the branding operation, and we can be sure that every diplomat who wants to be on good terms with Trump will stay in his hotels and use his resorts. Also imagine the good real estate deals he stands to gain overseas from countries seeking to curry favor. The New York Times reports that, just last week, Trump met with three Indian business partners who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex south of Mumbai,

As several have noted, if Trump doesn’t enter the White House as an actual billionaire, he will certainly exit it as one.

Trump is no Prince Hal. I fear that what we saw in the campaign is what we are getting.

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All Must Love the Human Form



For those still feeling bruised by the election results and by the elevation to high positions of an anti-Semite (Steve Bannon), a racist (Jeff Sessions), and an Islamophobe (Michael Flynn), here’s a comforting poem. William Blake’s prayer-like lyric, appearing in Songs of Innocence, calls for loving every “human form,” including “heathen, Turk, or Jew”:

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
   All pray in their distress,
   And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
   Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
   Is man, His child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart;
   Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
   And Peace the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
   That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine:
   Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
   In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
   There God is dwelling too.

Blake’s vision does not end with this heartfelt prayer, however. In a companion Song of Experience poem, he observes that prayer must also be accompanied by social justice. We wouldn’t even need pity if there weren’t income inequality. We wouldn’t need mercy if we insured that “all were as happy as we.” Peace is not true peace if it arises out of fear of the other.

When Christians don’t condemn social injustice, Christianity becomes a deceitful or a poison tree:

The Human Abstract

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.

Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head,
And the caterpillar and fly
Feed on the Mystery.

And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.

The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through nature to find this tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the human Brain.

Blake’s tree is institutional Christianity, which in his day counseled the poor to be humble in the face of laissez faire capitalism. The poor were told to practice Christian submission, even as the system forced their boys into chimney sweeping and their girls into prostitution.

To a large extent, Donald Trump owes his victory to rightwing evangelical Christians, perhaps because of his promise to overturn Rowe v Wade and Mike Pence’s attacks on homosexuality. I ask these Christians to remember Jesus’s concern for the poor and to resist if Republicans start shredding the social safety net or massively deporting immigrants, both those who have lived peacefully in this country for years and those who come to this country fleeing oppression.

I ask this, not only because it is what Jesus would want, but because the tree of their faith will become corrupted if they don’t. Even the head of the Southern Baptist Convention worries that his church is becoming twisted by its too close association with Republican politics. Christianity will suffer caterpillar decay and maggot death if it doesn’t remain true to Christ’s message. Dark raven thoughts will nest in its brain.

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How Trump’s White Appeal Degrades



Last night my book discussion group discussed Snow, by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. I’ll have more to say on the novel as it provides insight into headscarf controversies (suddenly cropping up in the state of Georgia, of all places!) as well as Turkish politics. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot about Turkey in upcoming weeks as both Donald Trump (with two Istanbul hotels) and his proposed National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (whose major consulting client is Turkey) have some serious conflict of interest issues.

Today, however, I share a passage that gets at the pain that my students of color continue to experience from the recent election. Aside from the fact that millions of Americans downplayed or rationalized Trump’s racism and misogyny, a number have interpreted the election as a license to bully. My college’s African American president recently had the n-word thrown at her (this after she passed a man in a pick-up truck), and one of my Asian students was called “chink” by a fellow student. The Trump Effect is real.

In Snow, the poet protagonist at one point is having a conversation with an Islamic activist who talks about his experience as a political refugee in Germany. Blue talks about how he can’t help but see himself through German eyes:

When I was in Germany, at whatever Muslim association I happened to be visiting, in whatever city—it could be Frankfurt or Cologne, somewhere between the cathedral and the station, or one of the wealthy neighborhoods of Hamburg—where I happened to be walking, there was always one German who stood out of the crowd as an object of fascination for me. The important thing was not what I thought of him but what I thought he might be thinking about me; I’d try to see myself through his eyes and imagine what he might be thinking about my appearance, my clothes, the way I moved, my history, where I had just been and where I was going, who I was. It made me feel terrible but it became a habit; I became used to feeling degraded, and I came to understand how my brothers felt.

That whites don’t undergo this mental process is what it means to be privileged. Under Barack Obama, people of color imagined a day when they could stop worrying about how whites saw them. The election of Donald Trump let them know that millions of white citizens are willing to scapegoat them. Or at least they will vote for a presidential candidate who does.

My students saw themselves through the eyes of white Americans and they felt degraded. I, meanwhile, suffer on their behalf, as well as from the fact that most Trump supporters look like me.

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Toni Morrison: White Panic Led to Trump



Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison makes powerful use of William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom to explain Donald Trump’s electoral victory last week. For her, the election was white America mourning increasing encroachments on their “natural superiority”:

Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.

Morrison dramatizes the fear by paralleling Obama-era violence with incidents from the Civil Rights era:

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.

To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?

These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.

The author then connects the dots with the Trump’s victory:

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Faulkner is famous for his statement, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Morrison concludes her article by pointing to the continuing relevance of Faulkner’s greatest novel:

William Faulkner understood this [state of affairs] better than almost any other American writer. In Absalom, Absalom, incest is less of a taboo for an upper-class Southern family than acknowledging the one drop of black blood that would clearly soil the family line. Rather than lose its “whiteness” (once again), the family chooses murder.

Further thought: I’m struck by Morrison’s thought that most whites don’t really want to be seen as supporting a racist. After all, we like to see ourselves as decent people. You can understand, however, why people of color would be bewildered by the number of things that Trump supporters were willing to overlook and rationalize away in order to vote for him. It appears that there was nothing he could do to disqualify himself. White panic is a logical explanation.

Along these lines, I think of the virulent reaction among white readers to Harper Lee’s Go Tell a Watchman. Most people like to think of themselves as Atticus Finch, a tolerant white man who earns the deep respect of the black community by coming to the defense of an innocent black man against “white trash.” Lee understood only only too well, however, that when the Atticus Finches of the world found their positions of patriarchal privilege challenged, they were only too likely to join the White Citizens Council. White readers hated that reality and looked for every possible way to delegitimize the book.

Those who voted for Obama in 2008 and then Trump in 2016 may be like the two Atticus Finches. It is certainly the case that, in supporting Trump, they voted in accord with the Klan, White Citizens Councils, and Neo-Nazis. Americans of color, your fellow citizens, took note.

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HRC & McKinley’s Strong Woman Fantasy

Hillary Clinton Holds Campaign Roundtable In Las Vegas


Years ago a woman novelist told me that it would be a very long time before a woman was elected president of the United States. American misogyny, she said, runs very deep. I thought at the time she was being overly pessimistic and thought so again after Barack Obama became president. If the racial barrier could be overcome, certainly the glass ceiling was not far behind.

I should have trusted my friend to recognize the fear and loathing triggered by powerful women better than I would. Naively, I thought our country could handle such breakthrouhs. Before the election (but discussing relationships, not politics), I told my American Fantasy class that strong men are drawn to strong women—this while teaching Robin McKinley’s medieval fantasy The Chalice. This election proved the unfortunate corollary: weak men are repulsed by strong women.

The same is true of the other sex: strong women are stimulated by strong women, weak ones are threatened.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton is a strong woman. As the Guardian recently observed in an article well worth reading,

Sometimes I think I have never seen anything as strong as Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t mean that I like and admire everything about her. I’m not here to argue about who she is, just to note what she did. I watched her plow through opposition and attacks the like of which no other candidate has ever faced and still win the popular vote.

In McKinley’s novel, the “Chalice” is the second most powerful personage in the realm and is responsible for maintaining the health of the land lines. Someone with an intuitive feel for the land is always chosen as Chalice, and Mirasol, who raises goats and bees, has been unexpectedly picked when the first Chalice is consumed in a fire, along with her Master. This former Chalice wasn’t strong enough to stand up to a dissolute man and they both perish.

As my students and I discussed the novel, we came to realize that it is about the difficulties of a strong woman finding a man who appreciates her power. Mirasol is an unconventional Chalice because of her close relationship with her bees. Even though the bees are her strength, making remarkable honey and wax, they also scare men away. Get too close and you get stung.

But not if you’re a strong man. The Master sees the bees as the gift they are, describing them as “tiny golden sparks, as of fire.” He does not react badly to bee attacks:

[H]e hadn’t tried to crush the bee that stung him. He was holding her, very gently, against his forearm, with the tip of one finger. “There, little one, that’s not necessary. Don’t wriggle so, you’ll do yourself fatal harm. Your sting is barbed, you know, you have to tease it out slowly…” He raised his finger, and one rather tired and dazed bee flew away…

The outcome is far different when a weak man approaches the Chalice. In a final showdown between the Master and this man who seeks to replace him (and marry Mirasol), we see the two essentially subjected to a bee test. As they engage in single combat (called a “faenorn”), they are swarmed by Mirasol’s bees. Only one survives:

And the bees—hundreds of thousands, millions of bees, the Chalice’s own bees, the House bees, the wild bees of the forests, the bees of hundreds of hives in hundreds of meadows and gardens and glades all over the demesne—the bees plunged down from where they had hovered above the roof of the House, making a noise more like thunder than like the humming of bees, and covered the faenorn field in a black cloud…

The faenorn field seethed with bees, peaking like sea waves lashed by storm winds. There was one shriek above their thunder, a man’s voice: “I’m on fire! Burning—I’m burning!”And then…nothing.

When the bees are cleared away, the Master steps forth, more powerful than he has ever been. A strong woman has only made him stronger. The usurper, by contrast, doesn’t fare so well:

There was a muted exclamation when they found Horuld’s body. Mirasol looked over at it, almost indifferently, but with a touch of fear like a bad memory. It was, at first glance, difficult to differentiate from the dead bees that had covered it. He was black and shriveled, as if burnt in a fire to temper sword steel, his legs drawn up and his hands curled into claws. He wasn’t recognizable as Horuld; he was barely recognizable as human.

Unfortunately, America didn’t pass the bee test and we got a conman as a result. In The Chalice, bad things historically happen when a usurper ascends to the throne.

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What Would Beowulf Do?




What would Beowulf do in a Trump presidency? My 2012 book How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Combatting the Politics of Rage provides some answers.

I note first of all that the poem’s three monsters represent three different kinds of rage: Grendel is resentful rage, Grendel’s mother is grieving rage, and the Dragon is depression. Each of these was a significant problem in Anglo-Saxon warrior society and they remain problems today.

Locating the monsters in our own society involves seeing them both as others and as ourselves. On the one hand, Trump supporters are driven by each of these angers. Yet if we are to fight Trumpism effectively, we must be careful not to succumb to our own versions of these monsters—which is to say, we must not become Grendels, Grendel’s Mothers, and Dragons in our turn. Beowulf models ways of combatting the monster in others while maintaining internal control over our own dragons and trolls. If we follow Beowulf’s example, we at least have a fighting chance.

Writing in 2012, I talked a lot about rightwing working class resentment, which in the recent election took the form of lashing out at other vulnerable populations (especially people of color and American Muslims) in the belief that society’s resources were being wrongfully diverted to them. In 2016 many people heard people unlike themselves dancing to harp music in the White House and they crashed the party. And came away victorious.

I also argued in 2012 that the rightwing was grieving over their sense that the American dream was dying. Again, this led to attacking scapegoats. In the poem, Grendel’s Mother slays King Hrothgar’s best friend while Trump took out Obama’s potential successor.

Finally, people who had been hunkered down, like dragons in retreat from the world, were goaded into action in 2016. There was a smoldering anger, especially in the rust belt states, that many overlooked. As Beowulf makes clear, once the dragon is aroused, it erupts to scorch everything around it. The 2016 election represented such a scorching.

In the book I argue that if one can stand firm with a strong grip against Grendel, one can “disarm” him. In the upcoming weeks and months, liberals must stand firm against Trump. Conciliation and self-doubting will not do the trick.

Beowulf defeats angry grieving by means of a giant sword, forged by giants before the flood. In my book I argue that this sword is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is the liberals’ greatest weapon in the upcoming battle. For perspective, Frederick Douglass recognized the Constitution’s potential to combat slavery, even at a time when it appeared to enshrine it.

Finally, just as the Dragon cannot be vanquished by Beowulf alone—Wiglaf must come to his aid—so the Democrats must practice coalition politics as never before. No group can fight the fight alone. No one has all the answers.

Now to the internal struggle. Some will resent that conservatives get to act out their deep “burn it all down” frustrations while liberals have to be responsible and think of responsible governance. Get an iron grip on that resentful impulse, liberals. You have to go high, no matter how low they go. Note that going high does not mean backing down: Beowulf is not intimidated by Grendel’s fierceness but stares him in the eyes. You have to do the same.

With regard to grieving rage, there is a hot form (Grendel’s Mother) and a cold form (the Dragon). Both will tempt liberals. The hot form involves lashing out, and many grieving the apparent defeat of an inclusive and tolerant America will want to direct their anger in any number of directions, including against their allies. Again, keep your eyes on the prize—America’s founding ideals—and don’t be sidetracked by your own grieving.

On the other hand, you may want to retreat into depression. You may feel like the “last veteran,” who buries himself in a funeral barrow when he loses all of his companions, or King Hrethel, who retreats to his bed after his son is killed and dies of grief. Remember that you don’t have the bear the weight of your sorrow all by yourself. Allow Wiglaf to come to your aid.

Senator Elizabeth Warren had a suggestion along these lines the other night during an MSNBC Rachel Maddow interview. Offer to help out with an organization that you believe in, she suggested, like Planned Parenthood or some other group that will be facing Trumpist attacks. Solidarity with others is needed.

Under Barack Obama, too many of us forgot that democracy is hard and, for many, complacency crept in. The times call upon us to be warriors.

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Even in Bad Times, Life Goes On

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field"

Winslow Homer, “The Veteran in a New Field”


I am currently working on a post applying the ideas from my book (How Beowulf Can Save America) to how we can survive the Trump years. My plan is to publish it tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s a Thomas Hardy poem assuring us that this too shall pass.

The poem was written when World War I was going badly, which serves to put the Trump presidency in perspective. After all, except for how he could hasten the end of humanity by accelerating climate change, Trump won’t be as cataclysmic as “the War to End All Wars.”

“In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations'” takes its title from Jeremiah (51:20), with the prophet declaring, “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

As Hardy sees it, war or no war, farmers will continue to plow their fields and lovers will continue to flirt. The burning of couch-grass may echo a battle scene, yet unlike changing dynasties, the burning continues always the same. I am reminded of Carl Sandburg’s own poem about grass and battlefields: “I am the grass/Let me work.”

Trump is undoubtedly a disaster but life goes on. That’s some consolation.

In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”

By Thomas Hardy

Only a man harrowing clods
    In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
    Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
    From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
    Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
    Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
    Ere their story die.
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Poetry: Sure Solacer of Human Cares

Detail of Dieric Bouts’s "Weeping Madonna"

Detail of Dieric Bouts’s “Weeping Madonna”

Spiritual Sunday

weeping-madonna-2As I continue to grieve America’s rejection of Barack Obama’s dream of tolerance and inclusivity, I find comfort in this Emily Bronte poem. Strictly speaking it’s not a religious poem, but she speaks of the spiritual comfort that can be found in the Imagination. She says that Reason will not save us—as a professor currently mired in gloom, I can testify to this only too well—and Truth will “rudely trample down” any shallow fancies that we indulge in.

When Bronte contrasts Imagination with Fancy, she is drawing on Samuel Taylor’s Coleridge’s distinction in Biographia Literaria. Imagination, as Coleridge saw it, puts us in touch with “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception.” In the “finite mind” of the artist, we see a “repetition” of “the eternal act of creation.” Fancy, by contrast, is just a mental act of association.

The “Benignant Power” that is the Imagination can be a “solacer of human cares” and a “sweeter hope, when hope despairs.” So if the election results have plunged you into darkness, turn to a beloved poet, novelist or playwright. The forces that flow through them to give us King Lear and Intimations of Immortality, The Brothers Karamazov and, yes, Wuthering Heights, are more vast than the resentments and tribal hatreds that fuel our electoral politics. May they help you regain your bearings.

The Imagination

By Emily Bronte’

When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost, and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again:
Oh, my true friend! I am not lone,
While then canst speak with such a tone!

So hopeless is the world without;
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world, where guile, and hate, and doubt,
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou, and I, and Liberty,
Have undisputed sovereignty.

What matters it, that all around
Danger, and guilt, and darkness lie,
If but within our bosom’s bound
We hold a bright, untroubled sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days?

Reason, indeed, may oft complain
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams must always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy, newly-blown:

But thou art ever there, to bring
The hovering vision back, and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring,
And call a lovelier Life from Death.
And whisper, with a voice divine,
Of real worlds, as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet, still, in evening’s quiet hour,
With never-failing thankfulness,
I welcome thee, Benignant Power;
Sure solacer of human cares,
And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!

Further observation: Notice that Bronte doesn’t look to the Imagination just to make her happy, what she describes as a “phantom bliss.” It goes deeper than that. It reassures her that there is a benign power in the universe that whispers with “a voice divine” that there is a “sweeter hope, when hope despairs.” The Imagination is how she imagines God.

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Entering a Brave New Trumpist World

New York anti-Trump demonstration Thursday night

New York anti-Trump demonstration Wednesday night


A somber mood settled over our campus on the day after the election, and the silence in the halls reminded me of the silence on 9-11. Many of our students (those who were not Donald Trump supporters) were in a state of shock. It wasn’t just because colleges are traditionally liberal environments. I’ve been at St. Mary’s for previous Republican presidential victories—1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004—and not one of them felt like this.

I’ve mentioned Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man frequently in past posts and to do so again here. The novel captures the feelings of my students of color, my women students, my neurologically diverse students, my Muslim and LBGTQ and Jewish students. They all were experiencing a sense of erasure, as if they been rendered invisible.

It’s been a challenge to teach during this election season because, even as I want my students to apply literature to the issues of the day, I also strive to avoid taking political sides in the classroom. I have a responsibility to all my students, not just the liberals. To be sure, one can’t teach Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Joseph Conrad or Toni Morrison without grappling with issues of gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and other hot button issues. One can do so in ways that are not doctrinaire, however.

But how does one skirt politics when one of the candidates is doing everything we tell our students not to do, which is make sweeping generalizations about classes of people? How does one avoid criticizing Trump when he is associating my Latino students with rapists and murderers, my Jewish students with international banking conspirators, and my African American students with hellish cityscapes? What do you do when he mocks a disabled reporter and treats women as his personal play things?

My solution was to never mention Trump by name and to tell the class that, while I had strong political views, I had to be nonpartisan. My insistence on respecting others, while it was an implicit reproof of Trump, was also meant as a call to respect people with different political views. There was a special edge in my calls for tolerance, however. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum notes (I wrote about her in my election day post), the study of literature calls for us to acknowledge the full personhood of others. Her observation took on an air of real urgency.

When Trump won the election, every one of my students in vulnerable populations felt as though the country was giving them a middle finger salute. They had come of age during Barack Obama’s celebration of diversity, they were excited to be voting in their first presidential election, and then the sky fell in, leaving them feeling felt shocked and betrayed.

Maybe the literature that best suits the occasion is stories of people ripped from the warm cocoon of childhood and thrust into the brutal adult world. Flannery O’Connor’s “All That Rises Must Converge” isn’t a perfect choice since the protagonist is an adult son who should have moved out of his mother’s house long ago, but the ending captures his panic when she dies suddenly and he realizes he must confront the world on his own:

Stunned, he let her go and she lurched forward again, walking as if one leg were shorter than the other. A tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping her from him. “Mother!” he cried. “Darling, sweetheart, wait!” Crumpling, she fell to the pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, “Mamma, Mamma!” He turned her over. Her face was fiercely distorted. One eye, large and staring, moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed.

“Wait here, wait here!” he cried and jumped up and began to run for help toward a cluster of lights he saw in the distance ahead of him. “Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.

The world is full of guilt and sorrow, my children, and the comforting lights are drifting away. I will do what I can to support you but I can’t save you from it.

Further note: I see that Tim Kaine quoted from William Faulkner’s story Absolom, Absolom in his concession speech: “They killed us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.” Quartz has some smart thoughts about the choice:

It’s spoken by the poor white southern farmer Wash Jones to Thomas Sutpen, the story’s main character.

On a surface level the quote means something like “We’ve been defeated in battle, but we’re going to keep going.” After citing Faulkner, Kaine went on to say, “We know that the work remains. We know that the dreams of empowering families and children remains.”

There’s some irony to the choice of quote, though, that may have been lost on Kaine: the voice of Wash Jones is a stand-in for the socially disenfranchised poor whites of the American south. Jones idolizes the wealthy Sutpen, and clings to him for approval.

 Or maybe Kaine is a Faulkner fan and knows he’s chosen the perfect quote to subtly dig at Trump: Jones eventually realizes Sutpen doesn’t care at all for him or his family, rises up against Sutpen, and kills him.
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Good Readers Make Good Presidents



Last week, drawing on a Dave Odgard Buzzfeed article about the favorite books of America’s presidents (those that had a favorite work of literature), I got through the first 150 years. (I looked only at those presidents who cited literature.) I had hoped to conclude with Hillary Clinton, whose favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov, but it was not to be. I will therefore have to end with Barack Obama since our next president doesn’t read and doesn’t have any favorite books other than those that have been ghostwritten for him. Oh, and the Bible, at least when he’s addressing Christian audiences.

Here they are:

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

I love this choice, which indicates that Eisenhower had a sense of humor. Did his criticism of “the military industrial complex” reflect how Hank’s progressive vision is destroyed by the very weapons he sets up to defend it? Eisenhower was president during the era of “the great prosperity,” and the novel both reflects Yankee optimism and questions it.

JFK, From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

I remember hearing about Kennedy’s love of Fleming when I was 12 (in 1963) and all my friends were reading the famous spy stories. The Cold War and the Bay of Pigs may have been part of what drew Kennedy to Fleming, and of course he imagined himself as Bond with beautiful women. More positively, if accessing his inner Bond helped Kennedy remain cool during the Cuban missile crisis, then we owe Fleming a large debt of gratitude.

Richard Nixon, anything by Tolstoy

I’m not surprised that Nixon associated himself with Tolstoy’s epic sweep: he had grandiose visions of himself and even lived up to one of them in the breakthrough with China. I wonder if Nixon got anything from War and Peace, however. After all, he played Napoleon to Ho Chi Minh’s Russian army and made similar mistakes. In Nixon’s case, the jungle played the role of the snow, and Vasily Denisov, who conducts daring guerilla raids against the French, could stand in for the Viet Cong .

Gerald Ford, novels of Horatio Alger

Alger didn’t produce great literature. Odegard writes,

When Nixon lost Spiro Agnew as his vice president, the congressional leadership gave him no other option than to tap Gerald Ford. Seen as a fair and loyal leader, Ford was probably intended to help to lighten the administration’s increasingly sinister public image. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Ford’s favorite books to read while growing up were Horatio Alger novels. You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned a specific title; that’s because they’re all essentially the same story of a poor boy who works hard to escape poverty and is rewarded for some brave or honest action with a rags-to-riches reward (usually adoption by a wealthy gentleman). “They were all stories about heroes, poor boys who struggled and eventually succeed,” Ford recalled in an interview years later. “They were my favorite for reading.”

Ronald Reagan, The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

This one bothers me, given that Clancy has a cartoonish view of conflict with the Soviets. It doesn’t surprise me that the president who thought that Star Wars technology could work—it never did—would be drawn to Clancy. Reagan would have arrived at a deeper understanding of the world had he chosen Tolstoy.

George H. W. Bush, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This makes sense for a president highly regarded for his foreign diplomacy. Bush found War and Peace to be “an inspiring, lengthy treatise. I read it twice. It taught me a lot about life.” Maybe the novel came to his aid when he was negotiating with the Soviet Union and when he was launching the First Gulf War.

Bill Clinton, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

William Jefferson Clinton probably hasn’t read as much as Jefferson but he’s read a lot. Invisible Man shows up on a couple of his reading lists and may help explain his popularity with African American voters. Strange as it may seem now when he gets criticized by Black Lives Matter, Clinton was described by Toni Morrison as “the first African American president” for his sensitivity to black issues.

I’ve heard elsewhere that Hundred Years of Solitude is high on Clinton’s list. The mythic history of a South American country, enhanced by magical realism, probably helped him see the United States in a comparable light. Clinton was also sensitive colonialism’s legacy and may have appreciated the episodes involving United Fruit.

George W. Bush, “The Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle

The only book Bush mentions specifically is the Bible, which is too general for our purposes. I heard somewhere that he was a fan of Eric Carle’s “Hungry Caterpillar,” a children’s book about a caterpillar who eats everything in sight. Did this presage multiple foreign entanglements?

 Barack Obama, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

I’ve written in depth about the importance of this book for Barack Obama—for instance, the protagonist’s final and literal leap of faith:

What Milkman learns, and perhaps passed on to Obama, is that one must step openly into the conflict. Time and again, Obama has embraced big decisions, whether they have involved passing the largest economic stimulus in U. S. history, instituting a monumental healthcare plan, engaging in a daring rescue of the auto industry, going after Osama Bin Laden, embracing gay marriage, putting together a coalition to overthrow Libya, signing an order to cease deporting the children of immigrants, and a host of other things, any one of which could have (if it had gone badly) spelled an end to his presidency. Time and again in the past four years, Obama has leaped off the cliff into unknown territory. Tuesday night the country rewarded him for his daring.

Our greatest presidents have often been the best readers. And vice versa.

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The Grand Inquisitor Was Right



It will take a while to process what happened last night, but my first response was that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is right. The American people have chosen authoritarianism over the agony of choice that they encounter in a pluralistic, multicultural, postmodern society.

Last week I quoted Adam Gopnik on the difficulty of resisting our tribal impulses and making common cause with people unlike us. As Gopnik sees it, the miracle is that we ever pull it off:

Human groups, particularly those fueled by religious fanaticism or the twentieth-century equivalent, blind nationalism, always tend towards exclusion. To eliminate the tribal instinct may be impossible, but to raise the accidental practice of pluralism to a principle is what enlightened societies struggle to accomplish. And they have. It just turns out to be a horribly hard triumph to sustain. Along comes 1914 or 1933—or, God forbid, 2016—and the work comes crashing down. What really needs explaining is not why the Trumps of the world come forward and win. It is why they sometimes lose.

The Grand Inquisitor, in what is ironically Hillary Clinton’s favorite book, understands the odds. In Ivan Karamazov’s parable, Christ has come back during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition immediately locks him up. As the Inquisitor informs him, he has cruelly made life too difficult for people. They are supposed to believe in Him without the aid of miracles and without the aid of authority. They are to find God in their hearts. Only a few are able to do this, the Grand Inquisitor says, with everyone else being consigned to darkness.

In the following passage, think of the “love freely given” that Jesus advocates as accepting those that Donald Trump has attacked: Hispanics, Muslims, refugees, African Americans, the LBGTQ community, strong women. The Grand Inquisitor says that calling upon people to open their hearts, of their own free will is asking too much. Jesus would have done better to order them to do so and backed up command by miracles and authority, all things offered to him by Satan in the desert:

Nothing seems more seductive in his eyes than freedom of conscience, and nothing proves more painful. And behold! instead of laying a firm foundation whereon to rest once for all man’s conscience, Thou hast chosen to stir up in him all that is abnormal, mysterious, and indefinite, all that is beyond human strength, and has acted as if Thou never hadst any love for him, and yet Thou wert He who came to “lay down His life for His friends!” Thou hast burdened man’s soul with anxieties hitherto unknown to him. Thirsting for human love freely given, seeking to enable man, seduced and charmed by Thee, to follow Thy path of his own free-will, instead of the old and wise law which held him in subjection, Thou hast given him the right henceforth to choose and freely decide what is good and bad for him, guided but by Thine image in his heart. But hast Thou never dreamt of the probability, nay, of the certainty, of that same man one day rejected finally, and controverting even Thine image and Thy truth, once he would find himself laden with such a terrible burden as freedom of choice? That a time would surely come when men would exclaim that Truth and Light cannot be in Thee, for no one could have left them in a greater perplexity and mental suffering than Thou has done, lading them with so many cares and insoluble problems. Thus, it is Thyself who hast laid the foundation for the destruction of Thine own kingdom and no one but Thou is to be blamed for it.

What the people really want, the Grand Inquisitor says, is Miracle, Mystery and Authority. Donald Trump is setting himself up as an authoritarian strong man, he is promising miracles (“I can fix this”), and he is claiming he can do this with the the mysterious force of his personality. It has gotten him further than anyone thought possible.

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Lit Produces Good Voters

John Louis Wellington, "Woman Reading a Book"

John Louis Wellington, “Woman Reading a Book”

Tuesday – Election Day

As you go out and vote today (if you haven’t already voted), think of the following observation. It is from a 1961 article on the First Amendment by Alexander Miekeljohn, a British-born American political philosopher and university president:

[There] are many forms of human thought and expression within the range of human communications from which the voter derives the knowledge, intelligence, sensitivity to human values: the capacity for sane and objective judgment which, so far as possible, a ballot should express. [The] people do need novels and dramas and paintings and poems, “because they will be called upon to vote.”

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum begins her remarkable essay “Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education” with the passage. Her essay argues that literature enables us to think outside out own tribal groupings and imagine perspectives not our own:

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

Nussbaum says that we must read and we must read critically. Reading opens up our sympathies and reading critically allows us to recognize blindnesses in even great authors. The ultimate goal is fostering a vision of humanity that does true justice to our democratic ideals:

We are now trying to build an academy that will overcome defects of vision and receptivity that marred the humanities departments of earlier eras, an academy in which no group will be invisible in Ellison’s sense. That is in its way a radical political agenda; it is always radical, in any society, to insist on the equal worth of all human beings, and people find all sorts of ways to avoid the claim of that ideal, much though they may pay it lip service. The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love of one’s neighbor was and is radical. In a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven, we should defend that radical agenda as the only one worthy of our conception of democracy and worthy of guiding its future.

Now go out and put to good use all the reading you have done.

A thought on those who refuse to vote: If you feel that you’re above the fray, that no one comes up to your standards and so you should sit out this election, remember what Dante has to say about “the Uncommitted.” They are the first people he encounters in Inferno. Dante criticizes them for being self obsessed, and I think that caring more about your own sensibilities rather than about others who will be impacted by this election is a kind of selfishness.

I turn to Wikipedia for a description of the Uncommitted:

These are the souls of people who in life took no sides; the opportunists who were for neither good nor evil, but merely concerned with themselves. Among these Dante recognizes a figure implied to be Pope Celestine V, whose “cowardice (in selfish terror for his own welfare) served as the door through which so much evil entered the Church.” Mixed with them are outcasts who took no side in the Rebellion of Angels. These souls are forever unclassified; they are neither in Hell nor out of it, but reside on the shores of the Acheron. Naked and futile, they race around through the mist in eternal pursuit of an elusive, wavering banner (symbolic of their pursuit of ever-shifting self-interest) while relentlessly chased by swarms of wasps and hornets, who continually sting them. Loathsome maggots and worms at the sinners’ feet drink the putrid mixture of blood, pus, and tears that flows down their bodies. This symbolizes the sting of their guilty conscience and the repugnance of sin. This may also be seen as a reflection of the spiritual stagnation they lived in.

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Looking Back: Trump & Clinton in Lit



In anticipation of Election Day, I went back and looked at all the blog posts I have written this past year on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (Click on their names to get the full list.) I list here almost every literary character that I have made. As the more colorful and terrifying of the two, Trump got many more posts. As Milton understood in Paradise Lost and as William Blake pointed out, it’s easier to make a towering egotist interesting than an administrator.

An observation on my political prejudices: Whereas I don’t see Hillary as Lady Macbeth, Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched, Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West, or Spenser’s Duessa, I have conservative friends who do. My comparisons are not unassailable, and they would write different essays.

The usefulness of the comparisons for me is that they help me sort through the different dimensions of the issues, often opening up insight or at least perspective. As Sir Philip Sidney noted, poesie helps us to both understand and emotionally experience what is before us.

Donald Trump Literary Comparisons

–Citizen Kane (he’s so close to Charles Foster Kane, it’s scary)

–Proteus (hard to pin down)

–Willie Stark from All the King’s Men (like Stark, Trump upended the party establishment)

–Shakespeare’s great egotists (Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear)

–Noboru Wataya, the soul-sucking villain in Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

–John Gay’s Mac the Knife (two great escape artists)

–Handy Nicholas from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” (both grab women’s private parts)

–Satan in Paradise Lost (another supreme egotist who opens up the gates of hell)

–Bounderby in Hard Times (complains all the time about governmental regulations while stiffing his workers)

–L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz (both of them are con men capable of fooling the multitudes)

–Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (both are into building walls)

–the packing plant owners in The Jungle (or at any rate, they would favor Trump’s attack on regulation)

–Twain’s outrageous “presidential candidate” (who like Trump does not mince words)

–Marc Antony (capable of arousing crowds to violence, unlike his earnest but dull opponent Brutus)

–Melville’s Confidence Man (Is Trump America’s greatest con man ever?)

–Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen (his escalating outrageousness has kept him always on the front page)

–Octavia Butler’s Senator Andrew Steele Jarret in The Parable of the Talents (an almost exact match)

–Anthony Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte (another con man and a bankrupt)

–George Orwell’s Big Brother (they borh share a contempt for facts)

–Vice which becomes normalized (a process Pope describes in Essay on Man)

–a wannabe Homer (for his epithets—“Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary”)

–Sinclair Lewis’s Buzz Windrip (from It Can’t Happen Here) appealing to Mark Twain’s Pap

–Edmund in King Lear (“Now, gods, stand up for Trump!”)

–Goneril in King Lear (I argued that Obama is to Trump what Albany is to Goneril)

–Julius Caesar (unfortunately NeverTrump plotters couldn’t pull off what Cassius and Brutus did)

–the plague in Oedipus, Bonaparte in War and Peace, and Mary Shelley’s monster (The example of the creation who turned on his creator has been cited so many times this past year that I no longer notice it.)

–the corrupt politician in the Raymond Carver short story “Why, Honey?” (with the mother being akin to Trump’s enablers)

–Tolkien’s Ring Wraiths (who have been hollowed out by a lust for power—or in Trump’s case, by his neediness)

–C. S. Lewis’s White Witch, called forth by Nikabrik in Prince Caspian (anything to save the land from Hillary)

–Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (Trump’s supporters want to be led, not to exercise their free will)

–Yeats’s rough beast (stalking towards Washington to be born)

–Prince Vasili in War and Peace (another cynical man who will say anything to get his way)

–The Duke of Bilgewater (Twain knew a con man when he saw one)

–Homer’s Cyclops (unfortunately the GOP didn’t succeed in gouging out his eye)

–Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises (actually this is a contrast—both are politically incorrect but Gorton in an acceptable way)

–Kipling’s Dead Statesman (“I could not dig: I dared not rob: /Therefore I lied to please the mob.”)

–Robinson Crusoe (who is obsessed with building walls)

–Tom Buchanan (spoiled rich kid who, with his Daisy, “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness”)

–Big Jim in Bob Dylan’s “Jack of Hearts” (“he took whatever he wanted and he laid it all to waste”)

–Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT (another clown who engages in vile projections)

Hillary Clinton Literary Comparisons

–wonkish Hermione Granger (many have noted this one)

–Emma Woodhouse (flawed but ultimately has the right values)

–not Lady Macbeth (although this is caricature thrown at her)

–the women massacred by the angry men in Toni Morrison’s Paradise (“lock her up”)

–Moby Dick (with the GOP as the obsessed Ahab, who believe he has been castrated)

–Arthur Miller’s Salem witches (Hillary is often called something that rhymes with witch)

–Amy Dunne, the slasher in Gone Girl (not a “cool girl”)

–Not Ken Kesey’s castrating Big Nurse Ratched (but that is how Rush Limbaugh sees her)

–Barrie’s practical Wendy (as opposed to Bernie’s idealistic Peter Pan)

–Not Duessa from Faerie Queene (who arose out of a long Medieval history of misogyny)

–Tolstoy’s Pierre being questioned by Bonaparte’s tribunal (who are determined to find him guilty)

–Not the Wicked Witch of the West (I predicted from the first that she would be cast in this role and so she has been)

–Desdemona (I tweeted that her use of a private e-mail server were almost as innocent as that handkerchief)

–Nora in Doll’s House (she won’t stay properly at home)

–Oedipus (here’s hoping that, from the beatings she has taken, she has learnt a deep wisdom)

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Emily Dickinson & Going to Heaven

Raphael, "Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament"

Raphael, “Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament”

Spiritual Sunday

Today is the church service where we remember our dead, so here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that grapples with the concept of heaven. Writing about it gives me a chance to reflect upon what I think has happened to my eldest son, who died 16 years ago.

Dickinson is both “astonished” at the idea of going to heaven and struck by how “dim” it sounds. I don’t entirely understand what she means but suspect, since she is skeptical, that she finds the idea of heaven to be both extravagant and impossible to imagine (she has a dim sense of it). She puts the words “robe” and “crown” in quotation marks, as though she is skeptical of the conventional imagery associated with heaven. I suspect she’d agree with Mark Twain’s account of such imagery in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. Stormfield learns that white-robed angels with haloes and harps are merely metaphors for the sake of earthlings:

Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.

Yet that being said, Dickinson is drawn to the idea that going to heaven is a process as natural as a sheep returning home at night. (She’s clearly referring to the image of Christ the good shepherd here.) She also knows that two loved ones that she saw die (probably her cousin Sophia Holland and her friend Benjamin Franklin Newton) believed in heaven, although she herself does not.

Her disbelief arises in part from her fear that, were she to become too enamored with heaven, she would not pay enough attention to “curious earth.” I love that phrase because it captures how alive she is to the things of this world. She doesn’t use heaven as an escape mechanism.

Yet this same focus on earth means that, when it covers her loved ones, she experiences much more pain. She doesn’t have the consolation of thinking that she will ever see them again. She leaves herself a slight out in her quirky second stanza, however: if the person to whom the poem is addressed does in fact go to heaven, then it must exist and she can ask that a place be saved for her.

I say quirky because she I think she’s being self-consciously fanciful in imagining a reunion. We know what she really believes in the dark image of abandonment in the final line: “I left them in the ground.” No mention of going to heaven here.

To sum up, she seems to see heaven as an astonishing fantasy but can’t believe in it. Unbelief has the advantage of focusing her attention on the life she is given but it also exacerbates her heartbreak.

Going to Heaven

By Emily Dickinson

Going to heaven! 
I don’t know when, 
Pray do not ask me how,– 
Indeed, I’m too astonished 
To think of answering you! 
Going to heaven!– 
How dim it sounds! 
And yet it will be done 
As sure as flocks go home at night 
Unto the shepherd’s arm! 

Perhaps you’re going too! 
Who knows? 
If you should get there first, 
Save just a little place for me 
Close to the two I lost! 
The smallest “robe” will fit me, 
And just a bit of “crown”; 
For you know we do not mind our dress 
When we are going home. 

I’m glad I don’t believe it, 
For it would stop my breath, 
And I’d like to look a little more 
At such a curious earth! 
I am glad they did believe it 
Whom I have never found 
Since the mighty autumn afternoon 
I left them in the ground.

For myself, I think I stand somewhere between Dickinson and her friends. Because Justin loved to dance, I imagine him dancing in some ethereal realm, even while I know that “dancing” and “ethereal realm” (and, for that matter, “him”) are themselves metaphors. It makes no sense to me that the spirit dies utterly when the breath goes and I sense that Justin somehow exists (another metaphor). That’s as far as I can imagine, however. I am like Hamlet who, after seeing the ghost of his father, tells his friend,

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

Rather than letting that pull me away from “curious earth,” however, it makes here-and-now tangible life much more precious. As Robert Frost observes in “Birches,” “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I love the ground in which some of Justin’s ashes are buried and the river that contains the rest. Heaven resides in that love.

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Shakespeare Understood Trumpism

Ary Scheffer, "Macbeth"

Ary Scheffer, “Macbeth”


As we move into the final weekend before one of the most momentous elections in American history, we can thank Shakespeare for providing us with a healthy perspective on what we have before us. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observes that the Bard probably would have understood Donald Trump better than we do.

Perhaps thinking of those titanic egotists who bring down tragedy upon everyone around them (Lear, Macbeth, Richard III), Gopnik says that it is a mistake to see Trump’s rise as “a historical oddity.” After all,

The more tragic truth is that the Trumpian view of the world is the default view of mankind. Bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia are the norms of human life.

The real question, in Gopnik’s mind, is

not what causes them but what uncauses them, what happens in the rare extended moments that allow them to be put aside, when secular values of toleration and pluralism replace them.


Human groups, particularly those fueled by religious fanaticism or the twentieth-century equivalent, blind nationalism, always tend towards exclusion. To eliminate the tribal instinct may be impossible, but to raise the accidental practice of pluralism to a principle is what enlightened societies struggle to accomplish. And they have. It just turns out to be a horribly hard triumph to sustain. Along comes 1914 or 1933—or, God forbid, 2016—and the work comes crashing down. What really needs explaining is not why the Trumps of the world come forward and win. It is why they sometimes lose.

Gopnik observes that, while we believe in history, justice, and compassion, Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness. As Gopnik will go on to argue that Shakespeare would use such a framework to understand Trump, it’s important to understand exactly what Gopnik means. Here’s what he had to say in an earlier article where he expressed skepticism about modern adaptations of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion—three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not. The novelistic, psychological work of explaining why evil people are evil gets very little energy from him. His villains are the products not of trauma and history but of nature and destiny. He amputated Iago’s motive for malignancy from the Italian story where he found Othello’s tragedy, in order to make the evil more absolute. Even to ask if Shylock’s graspingness is a product of his people’s history of exclusion would not have seemed important to him. He wasn’t looking for causes. Though not satisfying to our modern sense of “psychology,” this is actually psychologically quite satisfying. The malevolent people we encounter in life are mostly just like that. They don’t have a particular trauma that, if addressed and cured, would stop them from being evil. They were creepy, malignant kids, too.

And Shakespeare believed in order as an absolute good. His most eloquent speeches are given to singers of well-ordered communities, as with Canterbury’s speech on the beehive in Henry V, or, most memorably, Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string / And, hark, what discord follows! / Then every thing includes itself in power, / power into will, will into appetite / And appetite, an universal wolf” devours all. Maybe he felt this way because the circumstances of the religious wars filled his youth, but even to put it like this is to show our prejudice for anachronistic historical or biographical explanations. He liked order. Most people do. He was perfectly aware that the social order he saw before him was arbitrary and unjust, but he was convinced that its absence would lead to chaos and cruelty, not to liberation and kindness. Although modern scholars like to pretend that this is one point of view among many on offer in the plays, any sensitive reader recognizes in the eloquence of the argument the pressure of personal faith.

But Shakespeare also believed in forgiveness in a way that we don’t. Really rotten people get forgiven, in the comedies and romances, at least, in ways that still make us uneasy. In The Tempest, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, bad actors get easy outs. Even Shylock isn’t killed. Dr. Johnson thought the moment when Hamlet delays killing Claudius in order to deprive him of any chance of forgiveness was “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” We are much more ostentatiously compassionate and much more effectively vindictive. Small incidents of plagiarism end careers—not a rule that Shakespeare himself would have escaped—and sexual sins can place their perpetrators forever beyond the bounds of redemption. In Shakespeare, rotten people do rotten things, but if they stick around and say they’re sorry they are forgiven. By contrast, we feel everyone’s pain, forgive no one’s trespasses.

Order looks pretty good right now given the prospect of a Trump presidency. Here’s Gopnik applying Shakespeare’s vision to Trumpism:

[S]uperior though our moral progress may seem, there are bitter truths in the old trinity [of fate, order, and forgiveness]. For, as Shakespeare would have grasped at once, there is no explaining Trump. He is one of those phenomena that rise regularly in history to confound us with the possibility—and black comedy—of potent evil: conscienceless, cruel and pathologically dishonest. That evil magnetizes followers of all kinds is another permanent truth. Overexplaining its rise is as foolish as pretending that it can be easily defeated. The threat it makes to an order that, however imperfect, is worth sustaining and defending reminds us of that order’s fragility.

I gather from this observation that Shakespeare would be suspicious of idealists, those who think a world can be shaped that will make Trumps unlikely. Profoundly conservative (in the good sense), Shakespeare thought that Trumps were inevitable and that the best we can do is minimize the damage. If Lear and Macbeth tear their kingdoms apart, maybe Edgar and Macduff can cobble them back together in a way that will make people’s lives not altogether miserable.

Interestingly enough, this might mean that a Hillary Clinton, more than a Barack Obama or a Bernie Sanders, is the right candidate for right now. Clinton is cautious about promising too much because that’s not how she sees the world. For her, politics is all about incremental changes, the art of the possible. This conservative vision may have been shaped by her Illinois Republican upbringing or it may have come about from the chastening experience of getting beaten up decade after decade. Looking at her, one is tempted to say, with Edgar in King Lear,

The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Whatever the explanation for her cautiousness, it may be what the country needs at the moment. Gopnik says that forgiveness will be called for in the event of a Clinton presidency, and while I don’t expect the GOP to ask for forgiveness for having nominated Trump, even Hillary’s enemies admit that she is able to work with those who have attacked her. She does not hold grudges but goes about doing the work that needs to be done.

Of course, forgiveness will not be the order of the day if Trump is elected. He does hold grudges, and if the country decides to forego order by putting him in charge, then we can expect King Lear-type chaos. In that case, God help us all.

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Trump, Murakami, and Our Dark Selves

Photo by Ralph Ford, Ohio Theater's "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"

Photo by Ralph Ford, Ohio Theater’s “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”


This past summer, while rereading Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in preparation for a course on the Japanese novelist, I wrote two posts comparing the novel’s villain to Donald Trump (here and here). I said then that I was unclear whether protagonist Toru Okada defeating Noboru Wataya provides any guidance for stopping Trump.

Now that I’ve taught the book, I have a better sense of Murakami’s project: he seeks to understand the resurgence of rightwing nationalism in 1990s Japan, the so-called lost decade. While the Japanese rightwing isn’t exactly like America’s—Wataya is an intellectual whereas Trump is just the opposite—Murakami grasps how demagogues tap into a reservoir of repressed rage and turn it to their advantage. Both serve as midwives to what Murakami describes at one point as a “gooy white thing like a lump of fat” that proceeds to possess the host.

Here’s one of the passages describing Noboru Wataya that I shared earlier when discussing his resemblance to Trump:

He knew how to knock his opponent down quickly and effectively with the fewest possible words. He had an animal instinct for sensing the direction of the wind. But if you paid close attention to what he was saying or what he had written, you knew that his words lacked consistency. They reflected no single worldview based on profound conviction. His was a world that he had fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought. He could rearrange the combination in an instant, as needed. These were ingenious—even artistic—intellectual permutations and combinations. But to me they amounted to nothing more than a game. If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established world view were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his grteat advantage to be free of such things.

 He had nothing to protect, which meant that he could concentrate all his attention on pure acts of combat. He needed only to attack, to knock his enemy down. 

In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Wataya is shown to access a slimy substance inside people. Here he is violating Creta Kano, a violation that involves tickling her pleasure centers while causing unimaginable pain:

In the midst of this pain and pleasure, my flesh went on splitting in two. There was no way for me to prevent it from happening. Then something very weird occurred. Out from between the two cleanly split halves of my physical self came crawling a thing that I had never seen or touched before. How large it was I could not tell, but it was as wet and slippery as a newborn baby. I had absolutely no idea what it was. It had always been inside me, and yet it was something of which I had no knowledge. This man had drawn it out of me.


Like a crowbar, the pain was prying open the lid of my consciousness—prying it open with an irresistible force and ragging out the jellied contents of my memory without reference to my will…Strange as it may sound, this was like a dead person watching her own autopsy. Do you see what I mean? I felt as if I were watching from some vantage point as my body was being cut open and one slimy organ after another was being pulled out of me.

I continued to lie there, drooling on the pillow, my body racked with convulsions, and incontinent. I knew that I should try to control myself, but I had lost the power for such control. Every screw in my body had not only come loose but had fallen out. In my clouded brain, I felt with incredible intensity exactly how alone and how powerless I was. Everything came gushing out of me. Things both tangible and intangible turned to liquid and flowed out through my flesh like saliva or urine. I knew that I should not let this happen, that I should now allow my very self to spill out this way and be lost forever, but there was nothing I could do to stanch the flow. I could only watch it happen. How long this continued, I have no idea. It seemed as if all my memories, all my consciousness, had just slipped away. Everything that had been inside me was outside now. Eventually, like a heavy curtain falling, darkness enveloped me in an instant.

Think of this as the bile that flows from one of those Trump supporters shouting racist, anti-Semitic, or misogynist at a rally or indulging in such sentiments from afar.

We get a better sense of what this slimy substance is from the account we get from Kumiko, who is Wataya’s sister and Toru’s wife. It appear to involve removing all inhibitions

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

Thus the self that should control the dark impulses gives way to those impulses:

My brother held me with yet stronger chains and guards—chains and guards that were myself. I was the chain that bit into my ankle, and I was the ruthless guard that never slept. Inside me, of course, there was a self that wanted to escape, but at the same time there was a cowardly, debauched self that had given up all hope of ever being able to flee from there, and the first self could never dominate the second because I had been so defiled in mind and body…

Although not a victim of Wataya, another character also discovers something dirty within herself. May Kashara is a precocious 15-year-old who has inadvertently caused the death of her boyfriend by playing games while they were riding his motorcycle. When she takes the opportunity to reflect, she sees the source of her problem:

Sitting still down there in the darkness, I could tell that something inside me—inside my body—was getting bigger and bigger. It felt like this thing inside me was growing, like the roots of a tree in a pot, and when it got big enough it would break me apart. That would be the end of me, like the pot splitting into a million pieces. Whatever this thing was, it stayed put inside me when I was under the sun, but it, like, sucked up some special kind of nourishment in the darkness and started growing sooo fast it was scary. I tried to hold it down, but I couldn’t. And that’s when I really got scared. It was the scaredest I’ve ever been in my life. This thing inside me, this gooy white thing like a lump of fat, was taking over, taking me over, eating me up.

A few paragraphs later, May theorizes about what it means:

Everybody’s born with some different thing at the core of their existence. And that thing, whatever it is, becomes like a heat source that runs each person from the inside. I have one too, of course. Like everybody else. But sometimes it gets out of hand. It swells or shrinks inside me, and it shakes me up.

Think of Trump accessing that heat source for his own purposes.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, Toru has his own issues, a pent up rage that comes out when he is attacked by a man he is following. Toru wrests the baseball bat from the man and then, to our surprise and horror, turns defense into an all-out assault. Our easy-going protagonist has a dark side we did not expect.

What saves him is his love for Kumiko and his concern for May. He is willing to face up to the dark side of himself and imagine a future where he cares for others. Empathy and love, in other words, are the keys to defeating Wataya. As his wife writes to him,

At least I still had the power to dream, I knew. My brother couldn’t prevent me from doing that. I was able to sense that you were doing everything in your power to draw nearer to me. Maybe someday you would find me, and hold me, and sweep away the filth that was clinging to me, and take me away from that place forever. Maybe you would smash the curse and set the seal so that the real me would never have to leave again. That was how I was able to keep a tiny flame of hope alive in that cold, dark place with no exit—how I was able to preserve the slightest remnant of my own voice.

 Toru battles with Wataya in his dreams the way that Beowulf battles with Grendel’s Mother, who functions as a symbol of humankind’s depression and vengeful grief. The baseball bat that he swings to fight off the knife in the dark is the solidity of his belief. His love for Kumiko never falters and, in the end, he will wait patiently for her to return home.

Perhaps this is what we must do in the face of Trumpism: hold fast to our belief in American democracy and our faith that our fellow citizens will make the right choice. Maybe standing strong in such faith–and acting on the basis of it–will defeat the forces of fear and chaos.

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Favorite Lit of Our Presidents

President Taft reading

President Taft reading


A couple of years ago Dave Odegard of Buzzfeed took on a project dear to my heart and looked at the favorite book of each of the American presidents. What more can we learn about them, he wondered, from the works they loved? I focus here on the presidents who, as Odegard sees it, favored poetry and fiction. In a couple of cases I’ve added to the list from my own knowledge.

In today’s post, I look at the presidents up through Franklin D. Roosevelt. I’ll look at the other presidents in a future post.

George Washington, Joseph Addison, Cato

I have to admit being bored to tears by Addison’s Cato in grad school, but it was much admired at the time. (It had fallen out of favor by the following century and Percy Shelley takes a swipe at it in Defence of Poetry.) This Wikipedia description of the play makes it clear why Washington would have liked it:

Based on the events of the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95–46 B.C.), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric and resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty. Addison’s play deals with, among other things, such themes as individual liberty versus government tyranny, Republicanism versus Monarchism, logic versus emotion, and Cato’s personal struggle to hold to his beliefs in the face of death. 

If Cato was Washington’s favorite work when he was being serious, Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal was his favorite when he wasn’t. Cato is about how politicians are supposed to behave while Sheridan’s intricate play about out-of-control gossip is closer to how they actually behave. Washington must have found Scandal a relief. It’s also a much better play than Cato.

Thomas Jefferson, everything

I agree with Oedgard that it’s impossible to choose a single work. After all, Jefferson’s library would go on to kickstart the Library of Congress, and you can find a list of books he recommended here. In addition to all the great classical writers making the list (Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, etc.), the list includes Pope’s Essay on Man and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This makes sense as the first one shows up in Jefferson’s political writings and the other must have given him a satiric perspective. Like Washington with Addison and Sheridan, Jefferson needed to balance seriousness with humor.

John Quincy Adams, Christoph Martin Wieland, Oberon

I have to plead absolute ignorance of both Weiland and Oberon, but apparently Adams, himself a poet, translated “the epic German fairytale poem.”

Andrew Jackson, Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield

Jackson was a horrible man but that didn’t prevent him from being a sentimental softie when it came to literature. Odegard says he didn’t read much, but Goldsmith’s novel about virtue triumphing over misfortune is an easy read. Had Jackson extended Goldsmith’s generous heart to the Cherokee nation, we wouldn’t have had the Trail of Tears.

Abraham Lincoln, the plays of William Shakespeare

According to Odegard, Lincoln’s favorite plays were King LearRichard the ThirdHenry the EighthHamlet, and especially Macbeth. I find it interesting that all are about overweaning ambition and the abuse of power, especially Macbeth. Well aware of how even good men can go off the rails, it sounds like Lincoln used Shakespeare to keep a check on himself.

Ulysses S. Grant, the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton

According to Odegard,

Grant admits to blowing off his studies at West Point and instead spending his time reading popular novelists in the library, like James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Walter Scott. But Edward Bulwer-Lytton is the one that Grant recounts reading the most, claiming to have read “all of Bulwer’s [15 novels] then published.”

I have to plead ignorance of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels. I note that, although Cooper and Scott’s wrote highly romantic novels of individual combat, Grant chose a different kind of warfare, an entirely unromantic strategy that involved sacrificing hundreds of thousands of men because the Union could afford to lose more men than the Confederacy. Earlier Union generals were ineffective because they were more Scott-like.

James Garfield, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Garfield’s childhood, which taught him self-sufficiency, helps explain his attachment to the story of a man who single-handedly conquers an island. According to Odegard,

Garfield was raised on an Ohio farm by his widowed mother and older brother. The Garfields didn’t own many books, just a few volumes plus the Bible and some school books, so when Garfield borrowed a copy of Robinson Crusoe his mind was blown. He spent hours reading and rereading it by the fire and would compare all other books from then on to it. As one biographer put it: “The impression made by that book upon his mind was never effaced. It only sharpened his appetite yet more for reading.”

Chester Arthur, Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray

It makes sense that a social reformer, which Arthur was, would have been drawn to Dickens.

Benjamin Harrison, Walter Scott

Odegard writes,
Like so many people of his time, Benjamin Harrison was a noted fan of Walter Scott’s so-called “Waverly novels.” From a young age, he absorbed Scott’s swashbuckling tales of adventure and honor. It’s probably what influenced the then 29-year-old Harrison to not only volunteer to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War without any prior military experience, but also recruit a regiment on behalf of the governor of Indiana. Harrison would start off the war as a second lieutenant, march with Sherman, fight in the battle of Nashville, and finish his military career as a brigadier general.

William McKinley, Byron’s poems

Odegard writes,
William McKinley was the last president who was also a veteran of the Civil War. As a boy growing up in Ohio, he developed an affinity for romantic poets like Longfellow, Whittier, and Byron. In fact, McKinley reportedly brought a book of Bryon’s poems with him on his way to fight in the war. 

Maybe McKinley was inspired by “The Eve of Waterloo,” which concludes with the stanza:

And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder, peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star;
While thronged the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering, with white lips — “The foe! they come! they come!”

Teddy Roosevelt, the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson

Odegard mentions a different work, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History, but I know from having read a Robinson biography that Roosevelt was a fan and even found the poet a job. Maybe the progressive president liked Robinson’s ability to capture ordinary people going about their lives.

Herbert Hoover, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Odegard writes,
If you know anything about Herbert Hoover’s life, you’ll understand why he favored Dickens’ David Copperfield above any other book. Like the Dickens character, Hoover was an orphan with a troubled childhood who persevered despite all that happened to him. Hoover was a self-made man, working his way through Stanford (then in its first year) and eventually becoming a millionaire in the mining industry.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the poetry of Rudyard Kipling

Apparently Roosevelt’s favorite poem was “If,” and, with the American economy imploding, he certainly had to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. Kipling, with his affection for the common foot soldier, would have approved of Roosevelt’s support for the downtrodden.

I’ll do the rest of the presidents tomorrow.

Posted in Addison (Joseph), Bulwer-Lytton (Edward), Byron (Lord Gordon), Cooper (James Fenimore), Defoe (Daniel), Dickens (Charles), Goldsmith (Oliver), Irving (Washington), Pope (Alexander), Robinson (Edward Arlington), Scott (Sir Walter), Shakespeare (William), Shelley (Percy), Swift (Jonathan) | Leave a comment

Toni Morrison Explains Hillary Hatred



 “Is America more racist or more sexist,” asked a Salon headline before acknowledging that “it’s a tough call.” If Hillary Clinton is elected to be our next president, we’ll be able to make comparisons.

I’ve been reminded how deep misogyny goes in the American psyche by Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise (1997), which I just finished reading. Morrison notes that there’s nothing that makes men crazier than independent women, and her novel helps us understand the cries to “lock her up,” Donald Trump’s promise to imprison Clinton if he’s elected, and the various “jokes” about hanging her or shooting her. (The latest one is from North Carolina Senator Richard Burr.) The hatred, out of all proportion to anything that Hillary has actually done, makes sense if one sees it arising from a primal fear of women with power.

Paradise is about the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma and a former convent, now a home for stray women, about two miles out. The men of the town come to feel increasingly threatened and eventually form a posse to massacre them.

A midwife, herself an object of suspicion because men fear their dependence on her, overhears them planning the attack. Their accusations have as little basis in fact as the Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster, and Benghazi charges:

Listen, nothing ever happened around here like what’s going on now. Before those heifers came to town this was a peaceable kingdom. The others before them at least had some religion. These here sluts out there by themselves never step foot in church and I bet you a dollar to a fat nickel they ain’t thinking about one either. They don’t need men and they don’t need God. Can’t say they haven’t been warned. Asked first [to leave] and then warned. If they stayed to themselves, that’d be something. But they don’t. They meddle. Drawing folks out there like flies to shit and everybody who goes near them is maimed somehow and the mess is seeping back into our homes, our families. We can’t have it, you all. Can’t have it at all.

The midwife understands that the reasons they give aren’t the real reasons—or as she puts it “the fangs and the tail are somewhere else”:

Out yonder all slithery in a house full of women. Not women locked safely away from men, but worse, women who chose themselves for company, which is to say not a convent but a coven.

She knows the men well enough to understand what is beyond each one’s talk. First there’s Sargeant, a successful businessman:

Some of it she got right away. Sargeant, she knew, would be nodding at every shred of gossip, chewing on the rag end of truth and wondering aloud why this deliberately beautiful town governed by responsible men couldn’t remain so: stable, prosperous, with no talk-back young people. Why would they want to leave and raise families (and customers) elsewhere? But he would be thinking how much less his outlay would be if he owned the Convent land, and how, if the women are gone from there, he would be in a better position to own it. Everyone knew he had already visited the Convent—to “warn” them, which is to say, he offered to buy the place, and when the response was an incomprehensible stare, he told the old woman to “think carefully” and that “other things could happen to lower the price.”

There is Wisdom Poole, a village elder:

Wisdom Poole would be looking for a reason to explain why he had no control anymore over his brothers and sisters. To explain how it happened that those who used to worship him, listen to him, were now strays trying to be on their own.

There is Steward, who still holds it against one of the women for having had an affair with his twin brother:

The women in the Convent were for him a flaunting parody of the nineteen Negro ladies of his and his brother’s youthful memory and perfect understanding. They were the degradation of that moment they’d shared of sunlit skin and verbena. They, with their mindless giggling, outraged the dulcet tones, the tinkling in the merry and welcoming laughter of the nineteen ladies who, scheduled to live forever in pastel shaded dreams, were now doomed to extinction by this new and obscene breed of female. He could not abide them for sullying his personal history with their streetwalkers’ clothes and whores’ appetites; mocking and desecrating the vision that carried him and his brother through a war, that imbued their marriages and strengthened their efforts to build a town where the vision could flourish. He would never forgive them that and he would not tolerate this loss of charity.

His brother Deacon, meanwhile, still holds his former lover responsible for his unfaithfulness to his wife:

The midwife doesn’t figure out all the individual motives but she knows a lynching party when she sees one:

Lone didn’t, couldn’t, know all, but she knew enough and the flashlights had revealed the equipment: handcuffs glinted, rope coiled and she did not have to guess what else they had….The men had not come there merely to rehearse. Like boot camp recruits, like invaders preparing for slaughter, they were there to rave, to heat the blood or turn it icicle cold the better to execute the mission.

Hillary, with her soaring ambition and loud laugh, is a “new and obscene breed of female.” Donald Trump tapped into something deep when he called her “a nasty woman.” There is a reason why men’s fantasies of shooting her.

Thank goodness she has security guards, which means she probably won’t share the same fate as the women in Paradise. Hopefully she also has enough voters so save us from Trump.

Perspective Check: If you want perspective on just how small Clinton’s e-mail issues are compared to what her opponent has done, check out this comparative list in Slate. Judging which candidate is “the most corrupt,” the article lists 239 items under Donald Trump, one under Clinton (“poor email server management”).

Relevant Research: According to Vox, new research indicates that the best indicator of Trump support lies in attitudes towards women:

Explanations [for Trump support] abound: They’re stricken with economic anxiety. They’re anxious about their social status. They feel left behind by the federal government. They’re authoritarians who want a forceful leader. They’re racists who oppose the changing demographics and norms of the US.

But there’s another important factor that these analyses have largely left out: sexism. Three political scientists who studied the connection between sexism, emotions, and support for Trump found that the more hostile voters were toward women, the more likely they were to support Trump.

Posted in Morrison (Toni) | 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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