Gogol’s Guide to Traveling

Rowlandson, “Coach Travel”

Friday

I’m driving back to Maryland from Tennessee today and so have chosen a passage on traveling from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, which I’m listening to at the moment.

I myself won’t have the same experience as Gogol’s traveler since I can’t lean back and fall asleep. Nevertheless, the passages reminds me of traveling by train when I was a child, especially “the rumbling of the wheels” and the enchantment of new sights. Visiting my grandmother in Evanston after Christmas, we would catch the train in Cowan, Tennessee when it was dark, fall asleep in our overnight berth, and then be greeted by the sight of Indiana snow when we awoke in the morning.

I will have one advantage over the traveler in Dead Souls, however. I will be listening to Dead Souls as I drive.

What a curious and attractive, yet also what an unreal, fascination the term “highway” connotes! And how interesting for its own sake is a highway! Should the day be a fine one (though chilly) in mellowing autumn, press closer your traveling cloak, and draw down your cap over your ears, and snuggle cosily, comfortably into a corner of the britchka [carriage] before a last shiver shall course through your limbs, and the ensuing warmth shall put to flight the autumnal cold and damp. As the horses gallop on their way, how delightfully will drowsiness come stealing upon you, and make your eyelids droop! For a while, through your somnolence, you will continue to hear the hard breathing of the team and the rumbling of the wheels; but at length, sinking back into your corner, you will relapse into the stage of snoring. And when you awake—behold! you will find that five stages have slipped away, and that the moon is shining, and that you have reached a strange town of churches and old wooden cupolas and blackened spires and white, half-timbered houses! And as the moonlight glints hither and thither, almost you will believe that the walls and the streets and the pavements of the place are spread with sheets—sheets shot with coal-black shadows which make the wooden roofs look all the brighter under the slanting beams of the pale luminary. Nowhere is a soul to be seen, for every one is plunged in slumber. Yet no. In a solitary window a light is flickering where some good burgher is mending his boots, or a baker drawing a batch of dough. O night and powers of heaven, how perfect is the blackness of your infinite vault—how lofty, how remote its inaccessible depths where it lies spread in an intangible, yet audible, silence! Freshly does the lulling breath of night blow in your face, until once more you relapse into snoring oblivion, and your poor neighbour turns angrily in his corner as he begins to be conscious of your weight. Then again you awake, but this time to find yourself confronted with only fields and steppes. Everywhere in the ascendant is the desolation of space. But suddenly the ciphers on a verst stone leap to the eye! Morning is rising, and on the chill, gradually paling line of the horizon you can see gleaming a faint gold streak. The wind freshens and grows keener, and you snuggle closer in your cloak; yet how glorious is that freshness, and how marvellous the sleep in which once again you become enfolded! A jolt!—and for the last time you return to consciousness. By now the sun is high in the heavens, and you hear a voice cry “gently, gently!” as a farm wagon issues from a by-road. Below, enclosed within an ample dike, stretches a sheet of water which glistens like copper in the sunlight. Beyond, on the side of a slope, lie some scattered peasants’ huts, a manor house, and, flanking the latter, a village church with its cross flashing like a star. There also comes wafted to your ear the sound of peasants’ laughter, while in your inner man you are becoming conscious of an appetite which is not to be withstood.

Oh long-drawn highway, how excellent you are! How often have I in weariness and despondency set forth upon your length, and found in you salvation and rest! How often, as I followed your leading, have I been visited with wonderful thoughts and poetic dreams and curious, wild impressions!

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Tolstoy on Resisting a Narcissist

Napoleon retreats before Russian resistance

Thursday

 Last week the Washington Post’s editorial page editor wrote Better Living through Beowulf-type column about War and Peace. Tolstoy’s novel, Fred Hiatt says, gives us a way of understanding Donald Trump and what it will take to defeat him.

First he quotes the following passage and asks who it reminds us of:

“A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions. ... The incompetence of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of the deception, and the dazzling and self-confident limitation of the man raise him to the head ... and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position,” Tolstoy writes.

Eerie, right? The dazzling and self-confident limitation of the man.

Okay, I dropped a couple of words from the passage. Tolstoy actually wrote “the seething parties of France,” and “the head of the army.” He was in fact describing not our president but Napoleon, for whom the Russian author harbored a magnificent contempt.

If Trump is Napoleon, then what can we learn from Napoleon’s defeat? Hiatt points out that, according to Tolstoy, the acts of great men are far less consequential than “the separate decisions of thousands of individuals: soldiers, peasants, shopkeepers, lords,” whose “actions flow together into a force that czars and generals can only pretend to control.”

Hiatt sees Trump, like Napoleon, as a clear and present danger to the nation–in our case, to our identity as a country “that welcomes newcomers and outsiders and allows them, in their turn, to become American.” Without this dimension, we are no longer an exceptional nation. While acknowledging that some of the battles must be fought in the courts and in Congress, Hiatt, like Tolstoy, says that our fate ultimately lies in the hands of we the people:

[T]he essential battle for the nation’s soul will be fought by every one of us, every day.

It is a battle we will win by embracing each other’s humanity: by welcoming the mosque down the street, helping a “dreamer” stay in school, translating a form for the parent at the next desk at back-to-school night. It is a battle, as Tolstoy would have understood, that will be won or lost by the nation’s soldiers, farmers and shopkeepers, and by its nurses and factory workers and teachers and office workers, too; by each of us, day by day, encounter by encounter.

Hiatt concludes with one caveat, however. Tolstoy, he writes,

wasn’t totally right about history. Even the mountebanks, the leaders of no convictions, can shift the course of events. But the rest of us, impelled by the generosity that has made America a great country, may have more power than we think.

This isn’t a real disagreement. After all, Trump, like Napoleon, can do a lot of damage before he is driven out. I only pray that Hiatt is right that we will be saved by our better angels.

Other applications of War and Peace

Trump, Prince Vasili, and Pure Cynicism

Great Pro-War Lit Doesn’t Exist

Tolstoy Calls Us To Aid Syrian Refugees

Tolstoy and the Forerunners of Twitter

On Sickness and the Power of Prayer

Hillary before Judges Like Tolstoy’s Pierre

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Panicked by Trump? Turn to Lit

Tolstoyan Therapy for Mental Illness

Tolstoy, the Novelist vs. the Activist

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Obama Was Invisible to White America

Elizabeth Catlett, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Wednesday

I suggested in Monday’s blog that some of white supremacism’s resurgence can be traced to hysteria over having had a black president for eight years. Birtherism played no small role in Donald Trump’s success. David Masciotra of Salon turns to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to make such a case.

Masciotra observes that Obama was a perfect example of Ellison’s invisible man:

Barack Obama was the invisible president. He was invisible simply because people refused to see him. Just as Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator explained about his curious existence of permanent placement in the optical shadows, paranoiacs see him as a “figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

Obama proved indeed to be a nightmare for a certain segment of white America:

The election of Barack Obama — a black man with an Arabic-rooted name after slavery and segregation, and at the height of cultural anxiety over Islam — collided with the consciousness of many white Americans. Among the wreckage and in the casualty count, was the vision of the American public, and the capacity to rationally observe, absorb and interpret the president…

The blindfold over the inner eyes is much too thick for the outer eyes to function properly. For millions of voluntarily blind Americans, the act of witnessing Barack Obama deliver his victory speech on November 4, 2008, shortly after the concession of an elderly, white war hero, caused post-traumatic stress disorder. They could no longer function as adults with clear eyes and clear thoughts. They would spend the next eight years speaking and acting as if they were habitual users of hallucinatory drugs — seeing the ominous signs of conspiracy, destruction, and subversion in every wink, grin, and gesture of the alien occupying the Oval Office. They believed and propagated the idea that Obama was an agent acting to undermine America…

The article notes how, time and again, the right tried to fit Obama into its stereotype of black people, regardless of the facts:

An interesting and revealing criticism of President Obama grew increasingly popular among conservative commentators at around the midway point of the presidency. National Review, Fox News, and other familiar sources of right wing reportage began to brand and bash Obama as “lazy” and “absentee” for his reportedly “unprecedented” and “excessive” vacation and golf getaways. Those same outlets soon issued a similar indictment of Obama’s “refusal” to host press conferences. Eventually, the mainstream media channeled the same story through their own, much louder amplifier, and the idea of Obama as a reclusive president has shaped public perception of his performance, with many Americans often commenting how they “never saw him.”

It turns out that Obama had taken fewer vacation days than any president since Jimmy Carter, and that he averaged two press conferences a month — more than Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon, the same as Clinton, and slightly less than both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The attack on Obama’s absenteeism read like much more than mere partisan insult. In addition to playing on old stereotypes against black men, it also demonstrated the blindness of those who say it and believe it. They actually could not see Barack Obama. He was in the White House — not on vacation — and he was speaking to the press, but millions of Americans believed otherwise. They do not see him, because they cannot see him. They see only what their imaginations allow them to see, and from the vantage point of that odd and obstructed view, a postmodern mystery of politics emerges to haunt America in the 21st century: Does President Barack Obama exist?

Against white supremacism’s version of America, Masciotra counterpoises that of Walt Whitman, which Obama knew and consciously invoked:

One of the few things that is certain is that the election of a living and breathing monument of multiculturalism, and a man who makes cheap puffery about diversity into magnificent reality — a black, white, African, American — is a triumph of the American story Walt Whitman put to poetry long before many others could develop the maturity and imagination to understand its wisdom. 

Masciotra notes that, at times, Obama deliberately echoed Whitman, especially Song of Myself. Note, for instance, this Whitmanian passage in Dreams of My Father:

We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country’s borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life… In the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

Walt Whitman, Masciotra says, proved to be prescient in his essay “Democratic Vistas,” where the poet worried that “genuine belief” in America was giving way to a materialist vision. Masciotra observes,

Over a century later, America has transitioned from Barack Obama — a learned, aspirational leader — to a man who presents America as nothing more than career advancement and material advantage. It is important, now more than ever, to consider the possibility that the idea of America is too radical even for most Americans.

The article concludes with a return to Invisible Man, observing that America is bigger and more confusing than any of us can figure out—and that Obama forced the issue:

President Obama, not always politically, but culturally, more thoroughly captured the idea of America than any other modern president. Of all the unanswerable and intractable questions that surround the Obama presidency and legacy, one conclusion is unavoidable for anyone with the intellectual honesty to look into the dark corridors of a personal and political belonging to a nation with an identity in constant flux and turmoil. It is the same conclusion Ellison’s narrator reached when he wrote, “Our fate is to become one, and yet many – This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.”

Masciotra concludes that we must move beyond projection and see what is actually there:

Barack Obama is invisible, because to see him would require that we all see ourselves. It would demand that we finally unmask the face we wear that is at once full of breathtaking beauty, but also irredeemably ugly.

Grown-ups balance their ideals with practical wisdom, following their dreams but also finding ways to compromise with a reality that has its own imperatives. As readers of this blog are well aware, I believe that literature provides one of the best pathways to attaining the necessary wisdom.

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Poetry Helped Feed Robert E. Lee Myth

New Orleans removes a statue of Robert E. Lee

Tuesday

As white supremacist groups rally around Robert E. Lee statues, people are taking a close look at the mythology surrounding the Confederate general. Unfortunately, some respectable poets contributed to that mythology.

The elevation of Lee to virtual sainthood was an established fact in southern Tennessee when I was growing up in the 1950s. I only recently learned that his early canonization owes a debt to various poets, some with good anti-slavery credentials. I’m also learning that Lee was not the benevolent patriarch that they depict but a harsh slave master, a war criminal when it came to African American prisoners, and, after the war, an outspoken opponent of African American rights who hinted that renewed white violence might be necessary. The poems, unfortunately, help whitewash this reality.

A recent Adam Serwer article in Atlantic Monthly lays out the case against Lee. After describing his record as a slave master, Serwer looks at his wartime record:

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. [Historian Elizabeth Brown] Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

The intolerance continued after the war when Lee was president of Washington College. Serwer notes,

Publicly, Lee argued against the enfranchisement of blacks, and raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South. Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and “could not vote intelligently,” and that granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.” Lee explained that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.

Serwer also reports that Lee turned a blind eye to Washington students when they formed a chapter of the K.K.K. and when they attempted two lynchings and were involved in attempts to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from nearby black schools. As Serwer puts it, “Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.”

Julia Ward Howe didn’t focus on Lee’s racial attitudes, however. After the war, the poet whose “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had bolstered Union soldiers was just grateful that Lee wanted an end to the hostilities. For that she honored him:

A gallant foeman in the fight,
A brother when the fight was o’er,
The hand that led the host with might
The blessed torch of learning bore.

No shriek of shells nor roll of drums,
No challenge fierce, resounding far,
When reconciling Wisdom comes
To heal the cruel wounds of war.

Thought may the minds of men divide,
Love makes the heart of nations one,
And so, the soldier grave beside,
We honor thee, Virginia’s son.

Herman Melville seems to have had the same feelings, depicting Lee as a gracious loser in “Lee in the Capitol.” The poem is based on an actual incident where Lee testified before a Congressional committee. Although Lee didn’t say much, Melville entered his mind and imagined what he might have said had he felt able to speak freely.

Melville’s Lee is an uncomplaining man who faces the triumphalist northern senators with quiet dignity. “Who looks at Lee must think of Washington,” the poet writes at one point. The stoic Lee wants no more, Melville indicates, than to contribute to the south’s healing as an educator:

The captain who fierce armies led
Becomes a quiet seminary’s head–
Poor as his privates, earns his bread.
In studious cares and aims engrossed,
  Strives to forget Stuart and Stonewall dead–
Comrades and cause, station and riches lost,
  And all the ills that flock when fortune’s fled.
No word he breathes of vain lament,
  Mute to reproach, nor hears applause–
His doom accepts, perforce content,
  And acquiesces in asserted laws;
Secluded now would pass his life,
And leave to time the sequel of the strife.

Melville paints the north as bad winners who want to stick it to the South, which is certainly the image I was fed in my Tennessee history classes and elsewhere. Given how the South would go on to re-subjugate African Americans, the senators in the poem have good reason for the questions they ask Lee:

Their thoughts their questions well express:
“Does the sad South still cherish hate?
Freely will Southern men with Northern mate?
The blacks–should we our arm withdraw,
Would that betray them? some distrust your law.
And how if foreign fleets should come–
Would the South then drive her wedges home”
And more hereof. The Virginian sees–
Replies to such anxieties.
Discreet his answers run—appear
Briefly straightforward, coldly clear.

Melville doesn’t tell us how Lee answered these questions, just that he is short and discreet. Given Lee’s racism, one can understand why he would have been “coldly clear” in response to the interracial questions. Melville, however, is more interested in the second set of questions, and here Lee’s answers are more satisfactory.

As Melville sees it, if the North treats the South well, the South will graciously return to the fold. Meville’s imagined Lee, after promising to never strive in arms again, asks for magnanimity from the victors:

My word is given–it ties my sword;
Even were banners still abroad,
Never could I strive in arms again
While you, as fit, that pledge retain.
Our cause I followed, stood in field and gate–
All’s over now, and now I follow Fate.

And

How shall I speak? The South would fain
Feel peace, have quiet law again–
Replant the trees for homestead-shade.
  You ask if she recants: she yields.
Nay, and would more; would blend anew,
As the bones of the slain in her forests do,
Bewailed alike by us and you.
  A voice comes out from these charnel-fields,
A plaintive yet unheeded one:
‘Died all in vain? both sides undone’
Push not your triumph; do not urge
Submissiveness beyond the verge.
Intestine rancor would you bide,
Nursing eleven sliding daggers in your side?

Far from my thought to school or threat;
I speak the things which hard beset.
Where various hazards meet the eyes,
To elect in magnanimity is wise.
Reap victory’s fruit while sound the core;
What sounder fruit than re-established law?

Melville’s Lee then proceeds to tell a story about a Moorish woman, kidnapped by Christians, whose conversion was not enough—they wanted her as well to “hate your kin.” Don’t ask me go this far, the maid requests, as does Lee. Isn’t enough that he return to being a dutiful citizen?

In Moorish lands there lived a maid
  Brought to confess by vow the creed
  Of Christians. Fain would priests persuade
That now she must approve by deed
  The faith she kept. “What dead?” she asked.
“Your old sire leave, nor deem it sin,
  And come with us.” Still more they tasked
The sad one: “If heaven you’d win–
  Far from the burning pit withdraw,
Then must you learn to hate your kin,
  Yea, side against them–such the law,
For Moor and Christian are at war”
“Then will I never quit my sire,
But here with him through every trial go,
Nor leave him though in flames below–
God help me in his fire!”
So in the South; vain every plea
‘Gainst Nature’s strong fidelity;
  True to the home and to the heart,
Throngs cast their lot with kith and kin,
  Foreboding, cleaved to the natural part–
Was this the unforgivable sin?

In other words, Lee loyalty to the South is compared to love for family, not to the continuation of a brutal institution. It is up to the North to win the South over, Melville’s imagined Lee goes on to say. If it does, all will be well. If not, there will be perpetual enmity, and it will be the North’s fault:

These noble spirits are yet yours to win.
Shall the great North go Sylla’s way?
Proscribe? prolong the evil day?
Confirm the curse? infix the hate?
In Unions name forever alienate?

From reason who can urge the plea–
Freemen conquerors of the free?
When blood returns to the shrunken vein,
Shall the wound of the Nation bleed again?
Well may the wars wan thought supply,
And kill the kindling of the hopeful eye,
Unless you do what even kings have done
In leniency–unless you shun
To copy Europe in her worst estate–
Avoid the tyranny you reprobate.”

In other words, unless you are lenient, you will infix hate.

This is pretty much a view of the matter as I was taught it. It was also the view that appears in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, where a Lincoln who would have been a forgiving father is replaced by rapacious senators who want to crush the south. The film, of course, was instrumental is the resurgence of the K.K.K., who were reaffirmed in their sense of thmselves as victims whose violence was justified. White supremacists continue to see themselves this way.

Julia Howe and Melville do not acknowledge the depth of the animus against African Americans. Melville had disagreements with Frederick Douglass on this matter, with Douglass in a far better position to know. Unfortunately, this meant that Howe and Melville helped sow the seeds for a pernicious myth that helped absolve the South of treason and therefore made it less likely that the federal government would intervene to protect the rights of African Americans.

Melville is a great artist but, in this case, he allowed his wish fulfillment to win out over an accurate depiction of southern sentiments. Thinking all would be well if anti-slavery people like himself were gracious in victory, he sorely underestimated the intensity of southern resentment.

As a result, his poetry helped turn a racist into a hero. We are only now beginning to undo some of the damage.

Update: Wow, I can’t believe that Trump, in today’s press conference, just did what Melville did: compare Lee to Washington: “George Washington was a slave owner… Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”

Those who balk at the comparison might appreciate Alexandra Petri’s twitter comment: “george washington owned slaves. but he also freed them in his will, favored ending slavery & didn’t fight a war to preserve the institution.”

Not surprisingly, Melville’s comparison is more complex than Trump’s. He observes that Lee was actually related to Washington (through Martha’s side) and  that there is indeed a disturbing connection between the two, which must be that they were both slave owners. This is so painful that Melville wants to “hide the thought.” He doesn’t say this to absolve Lee but to show that the sin of slavery runs back through the founding fathers:

Awhile, with curious eyes they [the Senators] scan
The Chief who led invasion’s van–
Allied by family to one,

Founder of the Arch the Invader warred upon:
Who looks at Lee must think of Washington;
In pain must think, and hide the thought,
So deep with grievous meaning it is fraught. 

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Baldwin Explains White Supremacists

White supremacists in Charlottesville

Monday

To understand the psychology of the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville over the weekend, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others, James Baldwin’s short story “Going To Meet the Man” (1965) is a good place to start. One begins to understand their irrational hatred and their attraction to violence.

The protagonist in the story is a white police chief who has come close to killing a non-violent protester—the man refused to stop singing Civil Rights songs—and who now finds himself unable to fall asleep. He is also unable to “get it up” and is experiencing severe self-doubts.

As he replays the events of the day, he thinks of other African Americans, some of them children, who have not been according him the respect he is accustomed to. As a result, he senses that the entire world is falling apart.

His memories then take him back to a moment of absolute certainty. When he was a little boy, his parents took him to a brutal lynching that involved castration and burning as well as hanging. He remembers the cathartic joy his family and the community experienced at the event. The memory brings his manhood back and he is finally able to make love to his wife.

The story makes clear how many white Americans have relied, for their self worth, on the belief that they were superior to African Americans. It’s as though that dependency has been baked into their DNA. Many of these people felt emasculated by the election of Barack Obama, just as the police chief feels emasculated by the marchers who will no longer show him the deference he once received. The chief rages at these marchers and at the government that backs them up. He feels alone and isolated.

To be sure, he is aware of others out there who think as he does, but at the moment they have retreated into silence, as though they are conspirators in a crime who must keep their mouths shut. Here’s how Baldwin describes the community:

They rarely mentioned anything not directly related to the [race] war that they were fighting, but this had failed to establish between them the unspoken communication of soldiers during a war. Each man, in the thrilling silence which sped outward from their exchanges, their laughter, and their anecdotes, seemed wrestling in various degrees of darkness, with a secret which he could not articulate to himself, and which however directly it related to the war, related yet surely to his privacy and his past. … They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people—while here they were, outnumbered, fighting to save the civilized world. They had thought that people would care—people didn’t care; not enough, anyway, to help them. It would have been a help, really, or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender. Thus they had lost, probably forever, their old and easy connection with each other.

Donald Trump has given such people a born again feeling, the relief that comes when you can openly step once again into your old hatreds. Having felt solitary for so long (although Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have provided some comfort), they are now discovering “their old and easy connection with each other.” No longer must they waste away in silence.

Last September I compared Trump’s extremist followers to Sin and Death in Paradise Loss. Although they are a universe apart from Satan, at the moment when he succeeds in corrupting Adam and Eve they feel a thrill. Sin knows that their moment has come:

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

As I wrote at the time, just as the fascist right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:

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

Trump has given these people a new confidence. They no longer feel bottled up within themselves and are journeying back to relevance.

In Baldwin’s story, the key moment in the lynching occurs when a man reaches up and castrates the corpse of the victim. It’s one of those scapegoat moments that brings the entire community together. To understand the resurgence of the far right, think about the exhilaration people felt, first at Trump rallies and now in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Barack Obama is no longer there to humiliate them, the hated Other is being exorcised, and their moment has arrived.

As Baldwin puts it, “Something bubbled up in him, his nature again returned to him.”

What we are witnessing is not rational. It operates at a primal level.

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O World Inapprehensible, We Clutch Thee

Ivan Alvazovsky, “Jesus Walks on the Water” (1888)

Spiritual Sunday

Francis Thompson, most famous for his poem “The Hound of Hell,” concludes a moving poem about how “the kingdom of God is within you” with an allusion to Jesus walking upon the water, today’s gospel reading. Thompson observes that we would witness a “many splendored thing” if we would but heed the angel wings beating at our “clay shuttered doors.” God is all around us, just as fish are surrounded by water and the eagle by air. “O world intangible, we touch thee,” he says, “O world unknowable, we know thee.”

If God is here at hand, then Jacob’s ladder could be pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross. If we find ourselves drowning, Jesus walks upon the Thames as well as on the Sea of Galilee (the Lake of Genesareth). Thompson, who suffered from opium addiction, looked for and found God in unexpected places.

In No Strange Land

By Francis Thompson 

“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—

That we ask of the stars in motion

If they have rumor of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—

The drift of pinions, would we hearken,

Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places—
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
Tis ye, tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry—and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder

Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry—clinging to Heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water,

Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

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Gogol Would Understand Trump

Nozdrev from Gogol’s “Dead Souls”

Friday

I’m currently reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) and have come across a character who helps me understand why many people, especially in the media, are fascinated with Donald Trump. Nozdrez may be an infuriating figure but, as I read, I can’t take my eyes off of him. Here he is described:

Nozdrev’s face will be familiar to the reader, seeing that every one must have encountered many such. Fellows of the kind are known as “gay young sparks,” and, even in their boyhood and school days, earn a reputation for being bons camarades (though with it all they come in for some hard knocks) for the reason that their faces evince an element of frankness, directness, and enterprise which enables them soon to make friends, and, almost before you have had time to look around, to start addressing you in the second person singular. Yet, while cementing such friendships for all eternity, almost always they begin quarreling the same evening, since, throughout, they are a loquacious, dissipated, high-spirited, over-showy tribe. Indeed, at thirty-five Nozdrev was just what he had been an eighteen and twenty—he was just such a lover of fast living.

Like Trump, Nosdrev must be constantly in the public eye and, like Trump, he thrives on conflict. Chaos appears to energize him:

Never at any time could he remain at home for more than a single day, for his keen scent could range over scores and scores of verses, and detect any fair which promised balls and crowds. Consequently in a trice he would be there—quarreling, and creating disturbances over the gaming-table…

Nozdrez, it turns out, has the same regard for the truth that Trump has:

Moreover, the man lied without reason. For instance, he would begin telling a story to the effect that he possessed a blue-coated or a red-coated horse; until, in the end, his listeners would be forced to leave him with the remark, “You are giving us some fine stuff, old fellow!”

After Trump, one can easily imagine Nozdrev on twitter:

Also, men like Nozdrev have a passion for insulting their neighbors without the least excuse afforded. (For that matter, even a man of good standing and of respectable exterior—a man with a star on his breast—may unexpectedly press your hand one day, and begin talking to you on subjects of a nature to give food for serious thought. Yet just as unexpectedly may that man start abusing you to your face—and do so in a manner worthy of a collegiate registrar rather than of a man who wears a star on his breast and aspires to converse on subjects which merit reflection. All that one can do in such a case is to stand shrugging one’s shoulders in amazement.) Well, Nozdrev had just such a weakness. The more he became friendly with a man, the sooner would he insult him, and be ready to spread calumnies as to his reputation. Yet all the while he would consider himself the insulted one’s friend, and, should he meet him again, would greet him in the most amicable style possible, and say, “You rascal, why have you given up coming to see me.” Thus, taken all round, Nozdrev was a person of many aspects and numerous potentialities.

Also like Trump, Nozdrev talks up everything he’s connected with, refusing to let facts stand in his way. Here’s only one instance from the many where he makes extravagant claims while refusing to let a rational assessment stand in his way:

The tour began with a view of the stables, where the party saw two mares (the one a grey, and the other a roan) and a colt; which latter animal, though far from showy, Nozdrev declared to have cost him ten thousand roubles.

“You NEVER paid ten thousand roubles for the brute!” exclaimed the brother-in-law. “He isn’t worth even a thousand.”

“By God, I DID pay ten thousand!” asserted Nozdrev.

“You can swear that as much as you like,” retorted the other.

“Will you bet that I did not?” asked Nozdrev, but the brother-in-law declined the offer.

And then there is his way of playing chess, which is not unlike the way that Trump is running the White House. Nozdrev is most interested in how much mayhem he can cause:

“I say again that it is a long time since last I had a chessman in my hand.” And Chichikov, in his turn, moved.

“Ah! I know you and your poor play,” repeated Nozdrev, for the third time as he made a third move. At the same moment the cuff of one of his sleeves happened to dislodge another chessman from its position.

“Again, I say,” said Chichikov, “that ‘tis a long time since last—But hi! look here! Put that piece back in its place!”

“What piece?”

“This one.” And almost as Chichikov spoke he saw a third chessman coming into view between the queens. God only knows whence that chessman had materialized.

“No, no!” shouted Chichikov as he rose from the table. “It is impossible to play with a man like you. People don’t move three pieces at once.”

“How ‘three pieces’? All that I have done is to make a mistake—to move one of my pieces by accident. If you like, I will forfeit it to you.”

“And whence has the third piece come?”

“What third piece?”

“The one now standing between the queens?”

“‘Tis one of your own pieces. Surely you are forgetting?”

“No, no, my friend. I have counted every move, and can remember each one. That piece has only just become added to the board. Put it back in its place, I say.”

“Its place? Which IS its place?” But Nozdrev had reddened a good deal. “I perceive you to be a strategist at the game.”

“No, no, good friend. YOU are the strategist—though an unsuccessful one, as it happens.”

“Then of what are you supposing me capable? Of cheating you?”

“I am not supposing you capable of anything. All that I say is that I will not play with you any more.”

“But you can’t refuse to,” said Nozdrev, growing heated. “You see, the game has begun.”

“Nevertheless, I have a right not to continue it, seeing that you are not playing as an honest man should do.”

“You are lying—you cannot truthfully say that.”

“‘Tis you who are lying.”

“But I have NOT cheated. Consequently you cannot refuse to play, but must continue the game to a finish.”

“You cannot force me to play,” retorted Chichikov coldly as, turning to the chessboard, he swept the pieces into confusion.

That’s just a small sampling. Yet as frustrating as Nozdrev is, he is far more interesting than the protagonist Chichikov, who is described as “cautious and frigid.” Which is to say, he resembles most of the politicians that Trump ran against.

If one had to choose, one would rather have Chichikov running the country. There is little doubt that Nozdrev would run it  into the ditch.

But Nozdrev makes for a far more interesting story, and in the 2016 many Americans wanted the more interesting story.

Reflecting on the character, the narrator observes,

Some may say that characters of his type have become extinct, that Nozdrevs no longer exist. Alas! such as say this will be wrong; for many a day must pass before the Nozdrevs will have disappeared from our ken.

We have living proof that the narrator is right.

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Could a Bestseller Help Defense Sec?

Thursday

Gen. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense

Secretary of Defense General James Mattis is proving to be one of the few bright spots in the Trump administration, fighting to save the Iran nuclear agreement against a hostile president. It was therefore heartening for me to hear that he is also a voracious reader.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, the general has accumulated “perhaps one of the largest personal libraries of an active-duty military officer ever known in the modern world.” Although most of the books Mattis mentions in FP’s interview have to do with politics and military history, he also lists a historical romance that I have read.

In response to a question about the relationship of personal development and dealing with violence, Mattis responds,

Well, personal development is a broader issue when you deal with violence. If you don’t have an understanding of a letter from a Birmingham jail, and how Sherman put the enemy on the horns of the dilemma, and how Scipio Africanus was able to triumph, if you can’t take those lessons of life and tie them together as a military commander, you’re going to have a hell of a difficult time, especially in a democracy where if you rise to high rank, you’re selected for tactical reasons, and operational, but then you have to deal with strategic reasons, and often you’re bringing war’s grim realities and trying to reconcile those with the political leaders you eventually deal with, their human aspirations, which are for a much better world than the primitive, atavistic one of the battlefield.

So you develop by broadening your understanding of human nature, of the ascent of man and everything else so that you can reconcile war’s realities, grim as they are, atavistic and primitive, with human aspirations, without becoming a narrow-minded person who at that point, you ought to give good military advice, but you can’t do so without trying to achieve a better peace, and so you need to have that broader reading as you grow and personally develop so you can actually do the job as a military officer, if you’re so fortunate that they keep you around long enough that you get promoted for a while.

I guess on a tactical level there was a novel by M. M. Kaye called The Far Pavilions, and, of course, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier. Nate Fick had One Bullet Away, and there’s some others on the tactical level.

Far Pavilions (1978) is a gripping Kim-type story set in the 19th century that culminates in a famous British defeat in the Second Afghan War. I became engrossed in it on my way to an MLA job interview in 1980 and still remember tiny details.

I understand why Mattis cites it. It is, after all, about a British blunder that cost the lives of 969 British and Indian soldiers after they were ambushed by Afghan rebels. It has tactical lessons in that regard, perhaps particularly poignant to Mattis since it is now Americans who are fighting and dying in Afghanistan.

But there’s another side to the novel that he may find relevant. Protagonist Ashton is born British but, because he loses his parents, he is raised Indian so that he has a foot in each world. Ashton goes on to join the Corps of Guides when he discovers his English parentage, and because he knows the language and the customs of the local populace, he can clearly see when his superiors are making stupid mistakes.

His special knowledge causes him great internal anguish. Should he blindly obey orders even when he knows they will lead to disaster? If he ignores his place and speaks up to his commanders, telling them the truth, will it even make any difference? As it turns out, he does warn the commanders about the trap, pays a price for doing so, and is ignored. A massacre results.

You can see where I’m going with this. General Mattis has a clarity that Donald Trump lacks, especially as the president promises to reduce North Korea to ashes. Trump has been similarly blind with regard to Iran, transgenders in the military, and other matters. To be sure, since Mattis is the Secretary of Defense and not a mere serviceman, his voice should command more respect. But Trump has been criticizing him him and also blindsided him on the transgender matter. The general must relate to Ashton in that respect.

The novel doesn’t have any clear answers—in fact, it suggests that there is nothing that Ashton can do to ward off the looming disaster–but at least it provides Mattis with a heroic narrative through which to process his own situation. The good news is that the story helps him see his options clearly. The bad news is that the author stresses the heroism of laying down your life for a battle you know will be lost. The book has a happy ending only because the hero is knocked out in the battle (thus, he doesn’t survive by fleeing) and is saved by the heroine.

If Mattis sees it as his duty to go along as the president marches us into nuclear confrontation with North Korea, he won’t be the only victim. He owes it to the country to speak his mind and to resign if he sees the president as a clear and present danger to us and to the world.

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School under the Sea: Reeling, Writhing…

John Tenniel, Alice listens to the Mock Turtle & the Gryphon

Wednesday

I’m never sure when to publish my back-to-school post. In Maryland, my home state, school now begins the day after Labor Day, but in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I spend my summers, I’m already seeing school buses.

Anyway, teachers probably need a laugh these days so here’s Lewis Carroll’s description of the Mock Turtle’s and Gryphon’s education. In the past I’ve shared an essay by my son about how Wonderland satirizes general education, which England was just developing. Let me know how you like Carroll’s dream of a world in which the school day “lessens” from day to day until there’s nothing left. As the Gryphon explains, “That’s the reason they’re called lessons.”

Enjoy the puns and have a wonderful school year. The nation owes a debt to its school teachers.

‘When we were little,’ the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, ‘we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle—we used to call him Tortoise—’

‘Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.

‘We called him Tortoise because he taught us,’ said the Mock Turtle angrily: ‘really you are very dull!’

‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,’ added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. At last the Gryphon said to the Mock Turtle, ‘Drive on, old fellow! Don’t be all day about it!’ and he went on in these words:

‘Yes, we went to school in the sea, though you mayn’t believe it—’

‘I never said I didn’t!’ interrupted Alice.

‘You did,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘Hold your tongue!’ added the Gryphon, before Alice could speak again. The Mock Turtle went on.

‘We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—’

‘I’ve been to a day-school, too,’ said Alice; ‘you needn’t be so proud as all that.’

‘With extras?’ asked the Mock Turtle a little anxiously.

‘Yes,’ said Alice, ‘we learned French and music.’

‘And washing?’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘Certainly not!’ said Alice indignantly.

‘Ah! then yours wasn’t a really good school,’ said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief. ‘Now at ours they had at the end of the bill, “French, music, and washing—extra.”’

‘You couldn’t have wanted it much,’ said Alice; ‘living at the bottom of the sea.’

‘I couldn’t afford to learn it.’ said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. ‘I only took the regular course.’

‘What was that?’ inquired Alice.

‘Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied; ‘and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’

‘I never heard of “Uglification,”’ Alice ventured to say. ‘What is it?’

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. ‘What! Never heard of uglifying!’ it exclaimed. ‘You know what to beautify is, I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ said Alice doubtfully: ‘it means—to—make—anything—prettier.’

‘Well, then,’ the Gryphon went on, ‘if you don’t know what to uglify is, you are a simpleton.’

Alice did not feel encouraged to ask any more questions about it, so she turned to the Mock Turtle, and said ‘What else had you to learn?’

‘Well, there was Mystery,’ the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers, ‘—Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling—the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.’

‘What was that like?’ said Alice.

‘Well, I can’t show it you myself,’ the Mock Turtle said: ‘I’m too stiff. And the Gryphon never learnt it.’

‘Hadn’t time,’ said the Gryphon: ‘I went to the Classics master, though. He was an old crab, he was.’

‘I never went to him,’ the Mock Turtle said with a sigh: ‘he taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say.’

‘So he did, so he did,’ said the Gryphon, sighing in his turn; and both creatures hid their faces in their paws.

‘And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

‘Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock Turtle: ‘nine the next, and so on.’

‘What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: ‘because they lessen from day to day.’

This was quite a new idea to Alice, and she thought it over a little before she made her next remark. ‘Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday?’

‘Of course it was,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘And how did you manage on the twelfth?’ Alice went on eagerly.

‘That’s enough about lessons,’ the Gryphon interrupted in a very decided tone: ‘tell her something about the games now.’

 

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Crashing against the Debt Ceiling

John Tenniel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Tuesday

I can’t believe that we are careening towards yet another debt ceiling crisis. We even have someone in the Cabinet who doesn’t recognize it as a big deal. At present, America and its budget are like Alice trapped in a small house.

Edward Kleinbard, former chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, describes the situation in a New York Times column:

Sometime in October, the United States is likely to default on its obligation to pay its bills as they come due, having failed to raise the federal debt ceiling. This will cost the Treasury tens of billions of dollars every year for decades to come in higher interest charges and probably trigger a severe recession.

The debt ceiling is politically imposed, and the decision not to raise it, and therefore to choose to default, is also political. It’s something America has avoided in the past. This time, though, will be different.

What’s different this time, Kleinbard says, is now we don’t have a responsible president, a Bush or an Obama, dealing with GOP extremists:

First, the administration is confounded by inexperience, incompetence and infighting. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has little expertise in congressional stage management, but he understands the gravity of the situation and has lobbied for a clean debt ceiling bill — one without conditions or unnecessary amendments.

But that puts him in tension with his White House colleague Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, who has intimated that breaching the debt ceiling would not be that consequential, and who has argued that the must-pass legislation should be used to advance the hard right’s agenda. Without a firm signal from the White House that the debt ceiling should not be held hostage to political agendas, it will be hard to get Congress to do the right thing.

Let’s remember that this is a self-inflicted wound. It’s not as though America can’t pay its debts. All Congress needs to do is raise the ceiling, as it has (with one accidental exception) ever since it mandated that there be such votes. Kleinbard explains what will happen if it doesn’t:

All valid claims against the United States are backed by the credit of the United States, full stop; the Constitution does not contemplate that some claims are more senior than others. The deliberate nonpayment of billions of dollars of uncontested claims every month thus constitutes default, even if the Treasury is paying some of its other debts. The resulting class-action lawsuits will enrich generations of lawyers.

Once the unthinkable happens, no future constraints on congressional irresponsibility with regard to the national debt will remain. Prioritization will constitute the intentional subordination, not just of one claim to another, but of all claims to the pettiness of congressional politics. As a result, the once unassailable credit of the United States will become a perennial hostage to politics, and in response the debt markets will demand much higher interest rates.

In the scene from Wonderland I have in mind, a miniaturized Alice has entered the house of the White Rabbit and drunk from a bottle, hoping it will make her larger. She gets what she wishes for:

‘I know something interesting is sure to happen,’ she said to herself, ‘whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does. I do hope it’ll make me grow large again, for really I’m quite tired of being such a tiny little thing!’

It did so indeed, and much sooner than she had expected: before she had drunk half the bottle, she found her head pressing against the ceiling, and had to stoop to save her neck from being broken. She hastily put down the bottle, saying to herself ‘That’s quite enough—I hope I shan’t grow any more—As it is, I can’t get out at the door—I do wish I hadn’t drunk quite so much!’

Alas! it was too late to wish that! She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney, and said to herself ‘Now I can do no more, whatever happens. What will become of me?’

For a while, the White Rabbit and various other animals cluster around confused–somewhat like the White House and the Republican Freedom Caucus–as they struggle what to make of Alice’s large arm protruding from the house:

There was a long silence after this, and Alice could only hear whispers now and then; such as, ‘Sure, I don’t like it, yer honour, at all, at all!’ ‘Do as I tell you, you coward!’ and at last she spread out her hand again, and made another snatch in the air. This time there were two little shrieks, and more sounds of broken glass. ‘What a number of cucumber-frames there must be!’ thought Alice. ‘I wonder what they’ll do next! As for pulling me out of the window, I only wish they could! I’m sure I don’t want to stay in here any longer!’

At one point they send in a lizard named Bill, who proves to be as ineffective as the amendments that GOP members are attaching to any attempts to raise the ceiling. (“The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill,” Carroll puns in the chapter title.)

Fortunately, there proves to be a simple solution: small cakes that will make Alice smaller.

So she swallowed one of the cakes, and was delighted to find that she began shrinking directly. As soon as she was small enough to get through the door, she ran out of the house, and found quite a crowd of little animals and birds waiting outside.

In our case, we can’t shrink Alice but we can enlarge the house. The point is, there is an easy solution.  Unfortunately, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observes,

To see default by a basically solvent government as more than a mere glitch, you’d have to believe that we have an unbridgeable partisan divide, with one party largely dominated by extremists, and with a president who is ignorant, incompetent, and vindictive.

Oh, wait.

Pray that the GOP comes to its senses. Send in the cakes.

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Trump as Raskolnikov

Monday

I’ve pretty much stopped reading Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, but I glance quickly at her columns to check for literary allusions, in which department she leads all other columnists. In her latest she compares Donald Trump to Raskolnikov, the axe-wielding protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s a parallel I hadn’t considered:

As we contemplate crime and punishment in the Trump circle, it should be noted that our Russia-besotted president does share some traits with Dostoyevsky’s spiraling protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

Both men are naifs who arrive and think they have the right to transgress. Both are endlessly fascinating psychological studies: self-regarding, with Napoleon-style grandiosity, and self-incriminating. Both are consumed with chaotic, feverish thoughts as they are pursued by a relentless, suspicious lawman.

But it is highly doubtful that Melania will persuade Donald to confess all to special counsel Robert Mueller III and slink off to Siberia.

Since reading Brothers Karamazov a few years ago—it’s become my favorite novel of all time—I’ve fallen in love with Dostoevsky. Recently I finished listening to The Idiot, with its wonderful and saintly protagonist Prince Myshkin. I was devastated by the ending and essentially went into mourning for two days. I’ve come to expect mad men in Dostoevsky novels and The Idiot delivered.

I actually see fewer parallels than Dowd does, however. True, both Raskolnikov and Trump see themselves as Nietzschean super men (Ubermenchen), superior to mere sheep-like mortals who slavishly follow convention. But Raskolnikov has an intellectual vision that he is trying to live up to, only to discover that taking the life of another person is a far more profound matter than he realized. He might be mad, but he has depth as well (for one thing, he reads extensively), and much of the novel is about his inner torment.

I don’t know that Trump is capable of inner torment. From what I can tell, he’s driven by nothing more profound than fear of failure. He has always thrived by brazening things out, and he assumes that what worked in the past will work in the future. America has yet to show him that he is entirely wrong.

This also means, however, that he couldn’t be a Dostoevskian protagonist. Those who go crazy in Dostoevsky novels are extremely sensitive individuals who think too deeply. In addition to Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin, there’s Ivan Karamazov and the Underground Man. Trump’s issue is not thinking too deeply.

Nor is Melania a Sonya, despite her Slavic roots. No prostitute with a heart of gold, she’s more an opportunist who saw Trump as a gravy train and climbed aboard. Don’t expect a repentance and redemption ending to their story.

Dowd may be on to something in comparing Mueller to the detective Porfiry, however. Porfiry figures that Raskolnikov is the murderer because of the way he keeps thrashing around. He figures that it’s only a matter of time before the student incriminates himself, and one can imagine Mueller nodding knowingly each time Trump let’s drop another clue.

In a sense, our own drama is how Crime and Punishment would read if we as readers weren’t shown Raskolnikov committing the murder. We see in Trump a man whose actions suggest that he’s done something wrong, but we still don’t know exactly what it is. (My guess is that Putin is squeezing Trump for laundering money for organized crime, but I don’t know that.) At any rate, Dowd is right about both Porfiry and Mueller: they are suspicious and relentless.

When, at the end, Raskolnikov sees an escape route open up for him—not to mention an opportunity to have committed the perfect crime—he chooses not to take it, preferring to save his soul instead: he confesses and turns himself in. I know for certain that Donald Trump would not make that choice.

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Transfiguration: I Saw a Tree inside a Tree

Vincent van Gogh. “Peach Tree in Blossom” (“Souvenir de Mauve”)

Transfiguration Sunday

The indispensable website Journey to Jesus alerted me to this Christian Wiman poem inspired by the Transfiguration story. The poem speaks of those moments where, to borrow from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, “we see into the life of things.” The Transfiguration was one such moment:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36)

Wiman describes seeing another reality beyond the one that normally presents itself to us (“I saw a tree inside a tree”) and like the disciples concludes that what he is witnessing “is not the life of men.” He senses “a single being undefined” or perhaps “countless beings of one mind.” Whatever it is, it has a “strange cohesion/Beyond the limits of my vision.”

“And that,” he concludes, “is where the joy came in.”

From a Window

By Christian Wiman

Incurable and unbelieving 
In any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree 
Rise kaleidoscopically

As if the leaves had livelier ghosts. 
I pressed my face as close

To the pane as I could get 
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit

That seemed a single being undefined 
Or countless beings of one mind

Haul its strange cohesion 
Beyond the limits of my vision

Over the house heavenwards. 
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood 
Exactly as it had and would

(But why should it seem fuller now?) 
And though a man’s mind might endow

Even a tree with some excess 
Of life to which a man seems witness,

That life is not the life of men. 
And that is where the joy came in.

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The Synergy between Statue and Poem

Friday

Senior White House aide and white nationalist Stephen Miller wasn’t altogether wrong on Wednesday when, in announcing Donald Trump’s support of a bill severely curtailing immigration, he separated out the Statue of Liberty from the famous Emma Lazarus poem connected with it. “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here,” Miller said, “but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty lighting the world, it’s a symbol of liberty lighting the world. The poem you are referring to, which was added later, is not part of the original Statue of Liberty.” 

The essay below, written by a former colleague and posted on this blog in the past, notes that there was indeed a divide. The statue was designed by the French as a testimony to Enlightenment ideals whereas the poem focuses on America’s status as a nation built and sustained by immigrants.

That being said, however, Miller was more wrong than right. After all, one of the triumphs of the Enlightenment was the Declaration of Independence, which riveted the world with its assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This belief is consonant with Lazarus’s poem and entirely at odds with the purpose of Trump’s support for anti-immigration measures. The White House was probably trying to gin up support amongst its base with the announcement, and that base has no more fondness for American-born people of color than it has for immigrants.

Ultimately, the synergy between statue and poem is greater than either one by itself. The two together inspire the world while generating attacks from the alt-Right. 

By Donna Richardson, Prof. of English, St. Mary’s College of MD

The New Colossus 

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” is a cultural icon, so popular when originally written that it redefined the Statue of Liberty as a celebration of immigration. Yet while the sestet (or at least its last five lines) used to be a cliché memorized by every schoolchild, most Americans are completely unfamiliar with the title and the first eight lines (the octave), which more broadly redefine American culture.

The poet initially structures her poem as a comparison between the “New Colossus” and the original Colossus of Rhodes.  The details of this comparison imply that America is a new kind of nation, a less patriarchal, more inclusive culture that values the worth of every human, even the most “wretched refuse,” rather than only the “storied pomp” of powerful elites in “ancient lands.”  Although many of these details are evoked by the language of the poem, a visual comparison of the Statue of Liberty with recreations of the Colossus of Rhodes reinforces this cultural difference, especially the features of geography that made America less self-protective and more welcoming.

Lazarus redefines the original meaning of the Statue of Liberty, which was intended by its creator as a monument to the spirit of revolution shared by France and America.  According to Wikipedia, the original name of the statue is “Enlightening the World”; she represents the Roman goddess Libertas, she carries a tablet of law on which is written “July 4, 1776,” and a broken chain lies at her feet.  These details imply that the torch is intended to represent the truths of the Enlightenment, especially the legal and political writings, which inspired both the American and the French Revolutions.

But Lazarus interprets the torch as a “lamp” lighting the path of “exiles” from political oppression in the old world; echoing the word “beckon,” Liberty’s “beacon hand/ Glows” with “world-wide welcome.” The Statue is particularly welcoming of the “poor” and “homeless” who can expect no social or political future in an overpopulated Europe which has rejected them (they are the “wretched refuse” of a “teeming shore”). These refugees are “tempest-tossed” literally and figuratively; the Statue is a welcoming sight after crossing the stormy Atlantic, but more welcoming as a sign of peace after political storms which have made them “homeless.”

The poet broadens her interpretation into a general cultural contrast between old and new worlds by focusing on the visual comparison and contrast between the Statue of Liberty and another statue that stood at the entrance to a city harbor, the Colossus of Rhodes.  One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was built in the early third century B.C. to commemorate the repulsion of an invasion from Cyprus.

The statue represents the god Helios, wearing a crown of light beams, carrying a torch, and armed with a bow and arrow. Since the Colossus lasted only about 60 years before it was destroyed by an earthquake, there are no known accurate representations of it that survive.  But later recreations of what the Colossus may have looked like suggest two major similarities with the Statue of Liberty: both wear visually-similar crowns of light, and both carry torches.  More important, both statues stand at harbor mouths to announce the victorious independence of their countries and the cultural values that made such independence possible.

Liberty, however, represents very different values.  To begin with, the statue is female rather than male.  Lazarus emphasizes several qualities that are traditionally-gendered female ideals connected with patron goddesses or female symbols for a culture.  Liberty is a “mighty woman” and her eyes “command” the harbor, but their gaze is “mild” and her power is that of a mother—the “Mother of Exiles.”

The Colossus of Rhodes, by contrast, is a “brazen giant”—“brazen” means “contemptuous boldness” in addition to “made of bronze.”  He also stands “with conquering limbs,” symbolizing the military victory of Rhodes over its neighbor Cyprus. Whereas the old Colossus literally stands for physical power and intimidation, Lazarus wants to interpret Liberty as representing a less tangible, more gentle, but even more powerful new female principle of welcoming and inclusion of all in freedom and equality before the law.

Lazarus uses a spatial description of Liberty to enhance the contrast between the values of the old Colossus and the “New.” The fact that there are no known accurate portrayals of its appearance led for hundreds of years to creative and unrealistic interpretations of its appearance.  Lazarus would have been familiar with the most flamboyant version, the one referred to in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1.2.136-139):

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

In this version, one interpretation of which is pictured here, the Colossus bestrides the harbor with one foot on each side, armed with bow and arrow, while tiny ships sail between his legs.  Such a giant statue would have been impossible to construct in that era, but the recreation emphasizes several ideas, including aggressive power and defensiveness, appropriate for guarding and controlling traffic into the entrance to a small enclosed harbor on an island.

Lazarus specifically invokes features of this visual conception of the old Colossus to emphasize that, by contrast, the New World is spatially as well as culturally welcoming and open (in fact, welcoming because open).  Rather than having “conquering limbs astride from land to land,” the New Colossus “gives world-wide welcome” to those who come to her harbor.  Visually, she is not “astride” either the harbor or other lands, but instead stands with her beacon on an island between the “twin cities” of Brooklyn and Manhattan (which in the late 19thcentury were still considered separate cities). The connection between these closely-related “twins” is not her physically conquering stride but her “mild eyes” that “command” the “air-bridged harbor.”

It is almost impossible to get the full scope of Lazarus’ description, including both cities that “frame” the harbor, into a photograph.  The broad, open vista her words evoke, along with placing her at a “sea-washed, sunset gate” relative to Europe, visually enhances Lazarus’ vision of what makes this New Colossus new and even more powerful than the sun-god of Rhodes.  She welcomes the “teeming masses” of Europe to the “open door” of a vast, apparently endless continent that dwarfs her physically in size, and whose airy openness is a metaphor for the intangibility of law, equality, and welcome which has superseded the glory of “Greek fame” with a greater moral as well as physical scope.

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Nazis and the Classics

Nazi book burning

Thursday

I’m rushing to finish the theory section of my book on Literature That Has Changed History, which I will road test in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar this fall. Today I share with you my section on Marxist Terry Eagleton’s observations about “the Rise of English.”

Eagleton is interested in how the study of English language literature became the respected discipline that it is. He attributes a lot to F. R. Leavis and his journal Scrutiny:

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation. Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence—what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values—were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

Although a literary theorist himself, Eagleton is skeptical that literature is this powerful. In his characteristic humorous way, he accuses the Leavisites of elitism:

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James. The Scrutiny case was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College.

Then, to further bring his hammer down, Eagleton mentions a notorious instance of people who, even though they read classic literature, did not become better people as a result: Nazi concentration camp commandants:

For if not all of those who could not recognize an enjambement were nasty and brutish, not all of those who could were morally pure. Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer…to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had wiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.

Eagleton’s cautions are useful for those who expect literature to accomplish miracles, but I want to look closer at his example before conceding his point. I find his Goethe example to be more flashy than substantive.

First of all, there is nothing in Goethe that condones genocide. In The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship one finds more support for those who opposed the Nazis than for fascism. Perhaps some Nazi commandants genuflected before Goethe the way some worship Shakespeare, seeing him as confirmation of national greatness. That would be an authoritarian way to respond to the German genius. But whether they actually engaged with him is another matter.

From what we know of Nazi reading habits, they were probably more likely to be reading pornography, sentimental romances, and shallow war stories than German classics. German scholar Klaus Theweleit, in his book Male Fantasies, analyzed troves of novels read and written by pre-fascist paramilitaries in the early Weimar republic. The books are filled with violent revenge fantasies and self-pitying death scenes.

As far as Hitler’s voluminous reading was concerned, it did not include literature, which he hated. According to his former Press Chief Otto Dietrich, Hitler read newspapers and histories but

ignored on principle theoretical or belletristic works. He had a special antipathy for novels, which he never read, and for poetry; poems were an abomination to him.

Probably the best examples of Nazis coming into close contact with good literature is during the famous book burnings. Among the authors burned were Brecht, Thomas Mann, Hemingway, Dreiser, Jack London, Heine, and Remarque (for All Quiet on the Western Front).

I’m willing to concede that there have been bad men who actually did read great literature and came away unscathed. It’s amazing how the mind can twist a work to suit its own agenda, a point made dramatically in Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto. In it a Nazi actor reinterprets Hamlet to make it acceptable to fascist audiences, but he must edit out Hamlet’s indecisiveness to pull it off.

If a mind opens itself in any meaningful way to Goethe or Shakespeare, it cannot coexist calmly with the gas chambers. Leavis may overestimate literature’s power, but Eagleton’s example does not deliver the coup de grace.

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Trump as Miss Havisham

Harry Furniss, “Miss Havisham”

Wednesday

I had an aha moment the other day when New York Times columnist Frank Bruni cited Great Expectations in a column about Donald Trump’s obsession with Hillary Clinton. Thinking of the president as Miss Havisham explains a lot about his recent behavior.

Bruni contends that Trump has become a virtual stalker:

At this point I think it’s fair to say that Donald Trump has gone beyond taunting and demonizing Hillary Clinton to a realm of outright obsession.

He’s stalking her.

He can’t stop tweeting about her. Can’t stop muttering about her. On Monday he addressed tens of thousands of boy scouts at their Jamboree, and who should pop up in his disjointed thoughts and disheveled words? Clinton. He dinged her, yet again, for having ignored voters in Michigan, which he won.

The Jamboree, mind you, was in West Virginia.

Now for the explanation, which cues up the Dickens reference:

He’s more or less back to chanting “lock her up,” as if it’s early November all over again. He has frozen the calendar there so that he can perpetually savor the exhilaration of the campaign and permanently evade the drudgery of governing and the ignominy of his failure at it so far.

Can you see where this is going?

Nov. 8 is his Groundhog Day, on endless repeat, in a way that pleases and pacifies him. That movie has a co-star, Clinton. If he dwells in it, he dwells with her. He can no more retire her than Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations, could put away her wedding dress. Clinton brings Trump back to the moment before the rose lost its blush and the heartache set in.

Miss Havisham, of course, never recovers from being jilted at the altar. When the day that was supposed to be the happiest of her life becomes a nightmare, she tries to stop time, freezing the moment just before it all went wrong. Pip witnesses the horror show:

Whether I should have made out this object so soon if there had been no fine lady sitting at it, I cannot say. In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials,—satins, and lace, and silks,—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on,—the other was on the table near her hand,—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-Book all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Nov. 8 was the day that was to wipe away all Trump’s insecurities, all the doubts that haunt him. At no moment did he ever feel happier. And then the heartache began.

The difference between Trump and Havisham, of course, is that Trump actually got what he thought he wanted. That aside, both find a way to make others pay for their disappointment. Miss Havisham poisons the mind of the beautiful Estelle so that, when she is a woman, she will break hearts as Miss Havisham’s heart was broken.

For his part, Trump forces his own surrogates to vent his fury, whether it’s Sean Spicer lying about inauguration day crowd sizes, Kris Kobach speculating that voter fraud caused him to lose the popular vote, or various senators continuing the jihad against Clinton. All are dragged into Trump’s mire like Estelle is drawn into Miss Havisham’s.

The GOP might take a lesson from Pip, who learns that Miss Havisham is not the benefactor he thought she was. In other words, don’t pin your future on Donald Trump but find your own way in the world, as Susan Collins, Lisa Murkoski, and John McCain have started doing. If this is to be a successful Bildungsroman or growth story for Republicans, they will cut the ties of dependence and becomes responsible grown-ups.

The country awaits.

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Trump as Alpha Dog Wannabe

Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Tuesday

I don’t often read The National Review but a recent Kevin Williamson article looking at Donald Trump through the eyes of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glenn Ross has caught my eye. Williamson says that Trump, like the competing realtors in the play, is a wannabe alpha dog.

The play is about the cutthroat world of real estate and makes such liberal use of the “F” word that the original cast (this according to Williamson) referred to it as Death of a F***ing Salesman. I can still remember where I was when I first read the play’s scorching dialogue.

To me, the play is a searing exposé of soulless capitalism and, as such, a worthy successor to Arthur Miller’s play. Williamson notes, however, that certain fans of the play—or rather, of the film—love it, not because it exposes capitalism but because they fantasize being winners who lord it over losers. They want to be Blake, played in the film by Alex Baldwin, who delivers an explosive speech:

As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

And further on, when someone asks his name:

Fuck you! That’s my name! You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. THAT’S my name. And your name is you’re wanting. You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them – go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you fucking faggots? A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing.

And finally:

You see this watch? You see this watch? That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much’d you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here – close! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don’t like it, leave. I can go out there tonight with the materials you’ve got and make myself $15,000. Tonight! In two hours! Can you? Can YOU? Go and do likewise. A-I-D-A. Get mad you son of a bitches, get mad. You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes BRASS BALLS to sell real estate. Go and do likewise, gents. Money’s out there. You pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t, I got no sympathy for you. You wanna go out on those sits tonight and close, CLOSE. It’s yours. If not, you’re gonna be shining my shoes. And you know what you’ll be saying – a bunch of losers sittin’ around in a bar. ‘Oh yeah. I used to be a salesman. It’s a tough racket.’

Williamson points out that Blake doesn’t have the same prominence in the play that he does in the film. The filmmakers wanted to create a larger-than-life alpha dog, which negates some of the power of the play, where the corporate bosses are more shadowy. Ruthless individualism is practically celebrated.

The same glorification of alpha dogs has occurred in other such works. My eldest son, who used to work in advertising, saw it at work in the television series Mad Men. While he found it a pretty good account of the emptiness of the industry, he noted that some in his office fantasized about living Don Draper’s lifestyle.

Or to cite another instance, a student of mine years ago told me how many of her high school buddies in a working class neighborhood fantasized about being Scarface in the Al Pacino movie. Again, they focused on the cars, the houses, and the beautiful women, not the soulless and ultimately dead-end existence of the protagonist.

Back to Glengarry Glen Ross. Williamson notes that some of these film’s fans have memorized Blake’s speech and were disappointed when they found them missing from a revival of the play. In other words, they want to be Blake:

They want to swagger, to curse, to insult, and to exercise power over men, exercising power over men being the classical means to the end of exercising power over women, which is of course what this, and nine-tenths of everything else in human affairs, is about. Blake is a specimen of that famous creature, the “alpha male,” and establishing and advertising one’s alpha creds is an obsession for some sexually unhappy contemporary men. There is a whole weird little ecosystem of websites (some of them very amusing) and pickup-artist manuals offering men tips on how to be more alpha, more dominant, more commanding, a literature that performs roughly the same function in the lives of these men that Cosmopolitan sex tips play in the lives of insecure women. Of course this advice ends up producing cartoonish, ridiculous behavior. If you’re wondering where Anthony Scaramucci learned to talk and behave like such a Scaramuccia, ask him how many times he’s seen Glengarry Glen Ross.

The article then goes on to say that Trump too has always been one of these wannabe alpha males. Williamson eviscerates the president as second-tier realtors are eviscerated in the play, describing him as a man who can’t close:

Trump is the political version of a pickup artist, and Republicans — and America — went to bed with him convinced that he was something other than what he is. Trump inherited his fortune but describes himself as though he were a self-made man. 

We did not elect Donald Trump; we elected the character he plays on television.

He has had a middling career in real estate and a poor one as a hotelier and casino operator but convinced people he is a titan of industry. He has never managed a large, complex corporate enterprise, but he did play an executive on a reality show. He presents himself as a confident ladies’ man but is so insecure that he invented an imaginary friend to lie to the New York press about his love life and is now married to a woman who is open and blasé about the fact that she married him for his money. He fixates on certain words (“negotiator”) and certain classes of words (mainly adjectives and adverbs, “bigly,” “major,” “world-class,” “top,” and superlatives), but he isn’t much of a negotiator, manager, or leader. He cannot negotiate a health-care deal among members of a party desperate for one, can’t manage his own factionalized and leak-ridden White House, and cannot lead a political movement that aspires to anything greater than the service of his own pathetic vanity.

If you want to get Trump mad, do not talk about him as a mean sonuvabitch. He will see that as a compliment. Describe him, rather, as soft:

He wants to be John Wayne, but what he is is “Woody Allen without the humor.” Peggy Noonan, to whom we owe that observation, has his number: He is soft, weak, whimpering, and petulant. He isn’t smart enough to do the job and isn’t man enough to own up to the fact. For all his gold-plated toilets, he is at heart that middling junior salesman watching Glengarry Glen Ross and thinking to himself: “That’s the man I want to be.” How many times do you imagine he has stood in front of a mirror trying to project like Alec Baldwin? Unfortunately for the president, it’s Baldwin who does the good imitation of Trump, not the other way around.

Williamson concludes his piece with a final blow: Trump is actually Shelley Levene, played in the film by Jack Lemmon. Levene is an over-the-hill salesman who whines constantly about how he’s the victim of unfairness and who commits a theft to keep from getting fired, only to be ruthlessly cut down by the play’s end.

Live by the alpha dog mythos and you’ll die by it. Unfortunately, if you’re in Trump’s position you can take a lot of people down with you.

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Our Most Prescient Sci-Fi Writer?

Octavia Butler

Monday

I have been singing the praises of Octavia Butler for a while now (for instance, here and here), so it is gratifying to see this New Yorker article praising the African American sci-fi author, who tragically died way before her time at 58 (she hit her head outside her apartment). Abby Aguirre believes that Butler’s Parable of the Sower wins out over Nineteen Eight-Four and Handmaid’s Tale in “the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time.”

Check out the following description to see if you agree:

Butler’s tenth novel, Parable of the Sower, which was published in 1993, opens in Los Angeles in 2024. Global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The middle class and working poor live in gated neighborhoods, where they fend off the homeless with guns and walls. Fresh water is scarce, as valuable as money. Pharmaceutical companies have created “smart drugs,” which boost mental performance, and “pyro,” a pill that gives those who take sexual pleasure from arson. Fires are common. Police services are expensive, though few people trust the police. Public schools are being privatized, as are whole towns. In this atmosphere, a Presidential candidate named Christopher Donner is elected based on his promises to dismantle government programs and bring back jobs.

The seminal figure in the Afrofuturist movement, Butler believes that social progress is reversible, a view that increasing numbers of people on the left are beginning to entertain. As Butler saw it,

As the public sphere became hollowed out, a fear of change would create an opening for retrograde politics. With collapse, racism would become more overt.

It perhaps takes a writer of color to see how potentially fragile are the hard-won victories of the Civil Rights movement. After all, Butler knew how poorly her mother, a maid and a single mom, was treated even in racially integrated 1950’s Pasadena.

Parable of the Talents is no less prescient than Parable of the Sower. It’s more unsettling now than when I wrote about the novel last August, before Donald Trump had been elected:

The sequel, Parable of the Talents, published in 1998, begins in 2032. By then, various forms of indentured servitude and slavery are common, facilitated by high-tech slave collars. The oppression of women has become extreme; those who express their opinion, “nags,” might have their tongues cut out. People are addicted not only to designer drugs but also to “dream masks,” which generate virtual fantasies as guided dreams, allowing wearers to submerge themselves in simpler, happier lives. News comes in the form of disks or “news bullets,” which “purport to tell us all we need to know in flashy pictures and quick, witty, verbal one-two punches. Twenty-five or thirty words are supposed to be enough in a news bullet to explain either a war or an unusual set of Christmas lights.” The Donner Administration has written off science, but a more immediate threat lurks: a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to “make American great again.”

If goose pimples are breaking out, you may like to know what prospects Butler sees for protesters:

In Butler’s prognosis, humans survive through an intricate logic of interdependence. Soon after leaving her family’s walled neighborhood, Lauren discerns that her natural allies are other people of color, including mixed-race couples, since they are likely to become targets of white violence. 

Are we seeing a comparable coalition beginning to form in resistance to Donald Trump, with people of color, women, LBGTQ and disability rights groups, progressives, and others finding ways to make their voices heard? So far, “the Resistance” has prevented Trump from implementing some of his most extreme proposals.

Science fiction, like fantasy, is able to dramatize social challenges in a way that engages readers who might otherwise turn away. After all, the future offers a safe, imaginary space to grapple with painful issues. As Ursula LeGuin notably said, the future in science fiction is a metaphor for the present, and the future that Butler imagined bears no small resemblance to our own present.

Further thought: A tweet from MSNBC’s Joy Reid reminded me of this quotation from The Parable of the Talents, which I had forgotten about. It should go up on every bulletin board:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

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The Pearl of Great Price Within

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s lectionary readings has Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a “pearl of great price.” The image shows up in a fine Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) poem, and knowing the allusion adds resonance to the poem.

First, here’s the passage. It’s one of a series of metaphors that Jesus uses to capture the process of spiritual search:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls.  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 3:45-46)

H.D.’s poem is one of a series in her book The Walls Do Not Fall . H.D. is famous for using images to capture complex emotional states. In this case, she uses shell images to convey how she goes through life with a hard exterior so that she won’t be hurt.  This seems necessary because she sees herself as a “flabby amorphous hermit” who can be devoured by sharks or crushed by the weight of the sea, which may be a reference to her depression (treated by Freud).

However, while she may shut herself off from the world, sometimes with a snap, she has a rich interior life which seems more valuable than anything the world has to offer. That is the spell that is to be found “in every sea-shell.” Therefore, do not be fooled by the hard exterior.

The reference to the pearl reminds us how pearls are created. A grain of send gets inside the vulnerable oyster, which must build up a defense against this denizen from the world out there. In its defense, the oyster, like the introverted poet, creates something of transcendent beauty, a pearl of great price.

Jesus calls upon us to seek out a comparable transcendence.

From The Walls Do Not Fall

By H.D.

There is a spell, for instance,
in every sea-shell:

continuous, the sea-thrust
is powerless against coral,

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone-marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow:

but infinity? no,
of nothing-too-much:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octopus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving.

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

selfless,
that pearl-of-great-price.

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GOP “Moderates,” the Hollow Men

Anne Lyman Powers, “The Hollow Men”

Friday

The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri has a scathing takedown of GOP moderates in a recent column, dramatizing how, though they may sometimes talk a good game, they invariably follow the mob. This proved to be the case earlier in the week when all but Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski voted to let action proceed on a healthcare bill that didn’t exist. The occasion was an exercise in cynicism devised by arch cynic Mitch McConnell, designed to allow Republicans to repeal Obamacare without being blamed for repealing Obamacare.

In the process, the “moderates” bore a perilous resemblance to T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne explains the rationale behind McConnell’s bill:

The most insidious aspect of McConnell’s strategy is that he is shooting to pass something, anything, that would continue to save Republicans from having a transparent give-and-take on measures that could ultimately strip health insurance from 20 million Americans or more. Passing even the most meager of health bills this week would move the covert coverage-demolition effort to a conference committee with the House.

The rightwing caucus, of course, is fairly blunt about what it wants, although even most of its members don’t say right out that they are in favor of depriving tens of millions of Americans healthcare and rescinding the ban on preexisting conditions. (They talk about “freedom” instead.) Compared to the so-called moderates, however, they come across as profiles in courage.

Here’s Petri speaking in the voice of a GOP moderate:

This bill is bad, and it was made in a process that was even worse. The courageous thing to do would be to stand against it. And yet no one will, not even me.

I am disgusted.

Bills ought to be passed with deliberation by committees. Change should be achieved in a bipartisan manner. Incrementally, day by day, we should reach a consensus — not perfect, by any means — but something that we can be proud of, nonetheless. That is why, when this dangerous and secret bill came up for a vote, I said “Aye,” in such a cold and cutting tone.

And in conclusion:

This bill was not given the process it deserves. We should have deliberated in committee. We should have held hearings. We should have done this the right way. There is only one way to proceed: We must absolutely proceed with it. I, for one, will fight it tooth and nail. I will do everything except vote against it.

Who will stand without me?

Compare such politicians with Eliot’s Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
    
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;
    
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us–if at all–not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

The poem has a running theme about feeling ashamed to look people in the eye, which is not a bad description for those members of Congress avoiding town hall meetings and refusing to meet with patients who would lose their healthcare. Instead, they prefer to gather in their bubble and avoid thinking about consequences to their constituents:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

When you have no core convictions–“Here we go round the prickly pear,” Eliot writes–then you don’t push back against rightwing billionaires but let them buffet you like scarecrows:

Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Eliot tells us how history will judge them if millions lose. They will be remembered with contempt.

If McConnell gets his way, the dream of affordable healthcare for all will end, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Further evidence of hollowness – The following just appeared in The Daily Kos lest you think that Petri exaggerates:

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) all really, really don’t want the skinny Trumpcare bill they are going to vote on in the coming hours to become law. They really, really hate it. They just held a press conference to say so.
 
Johnson says “‘virtually nothing we’re doing in any of these bills’ are keeping their promise to fix the problems with health care.” Graham called it a “fraud,” “disaster,” “pig in a poke” and also “half-assed.” McCain, again, said they needed some bipartisanship here.

So they’re all voting against it, right? Wrong.

This whole exercise was to say that they are going to vote for this bill just as long as House Speaker Paul Ryan promises he won’t let it become law. They are demanding a bipartisan conference committee with input from all the governors. And what will they take as a promise?

[Tweet from Frank Thorp V]: Asked how they’ll know they’ve got an assurance the House will go to conf: Graham: “It’s like pornography, you know it when you see it.”

Update: Good news! Three Republican moderates (I remove the quotation marks) stood up and joined with the 48 Democratic senators to kill the “skinny bill,” which would have thrown 16 million off of healthcare, raised insurance premiums by 20 percent, and started a death spiral (by revoking the individual mandate, key to financing the sickest). John McCain, perhaps thinking of how other cancer patients would be impacted by the GOP bill, shocked fellow Republicans by voting no, along with Collins and Murkowski. Maybe bipartisan fixes, such as reducing the price of pharmaceuticals and lowering premiums (which both sides say they want), are possible after all.

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Even Iago Should Not Be Tortured

Christopher Plummer as Iago

Thursday

When Ariel Dorfman talks, I listen. In a recent New York Times article, the Chilean who fled the Pinochet dictatorship in fear for his life, criticizes the punishment awaiting Iago at the end of Othello.

Dorfman, now a professor at Duke, first gained widespread attention with his How to Read Donald Duck, which is about Disney’s imperialist messages in his cartoons. Dorfman gained my respect when he spoke out against the U.S. invading Iraq. Even though Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator who visited unimaginable tortures on his victims, Dorfman said that preemptive war against him was wrong and would lead far greater bloodshed. Dorfman had credibility because of his intimate knowledge of dictators torturing people, and he proved to be right as well.

In his recent Times article, Dorfman addresses an upcoming court case brought by three people who were tortured by the CIA under the Bush administration. The defendants are the two psychologists

who devised the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that became the basis for the C.I.A. torture program described in shocking detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report.

This case leads Dorfman to contemplate the punishment meted out to Iago at the end of Othello.

Dorfman is concerned that, following another terrorist attack, we might return to torturing people:

Donald Trump vowed, during his campaign, to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse.” As yet, we have not seen that “worse,” since the counsel of his defense secretary, James Mattis — that such methods are useless and counterproductive — has prevailed. At least, as far as we know. It is not hard to imagine that a major terrorist attack is all it would take to revive such maltreatment. A recent survey found that almost half of Americans approved the use of torture if it led to information being extracted.

Dorfman says that he understands collective panic but that he has first hand knowledge of how torture contaminates everything:

But for those of us, like my wife and me, who lived through the ouster of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and witnessed the murderous regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the damage inflicted by torture — not just physically on individuals, but psychologically on an entire nation — is deeply corrosive.

Dorfman then uses Iago as a test case. Perhaps no character seems more deserving of extreme punishment in Shakespeare’s plays than Iago. In fact, if one looks at the source material, one realizes that Shakespeare stripped away any mitigating factors so that Iago seems spurred by nothing but pure malevolence.

Thus, the audience may take at certain satisfaction in Iago’s promised end:

For this slave,
If there be any cunning cruelty
That can torment him much and hold him long,
It shall be his. 

Dorfman lays out what fate spectators at the time could have imagined for Iago:

In 1595, for example, a Jesuit priest and poet accused of treason, Robert Southwell, was strung up at Tyburn. He was sentenced to be disemboweled while still alive, and his corpse ended up quartered, his head cut off, before a large, ogling crowd. Before his execution, Southwell witnessed in prison men “hanged by the handes eight or nine houres, yea twelve houres together, till not only their wits, but even their senses fayle them.” Other horrors he described were bodies broken on the rack, genital mutilation and starvation so severe that inmates would lick “the verye moisture of the walls.”

I must say that, when I first read the play in high school, I too took a certain satisfaction in what was going to happen to Iago, although I didn’t have this detailed information about Elizabethan Age tortures.

Dorfman’s point is that, while Iago may richly deserve punishment, torturing him rebounds on all of us:

Only when we have the moral courage to declare that someone like Iago, who has done so much harm, should not be put on the rack or have his genitals slashed or be forced to open his lips and scream and scream … only then, when we understand that hurting him in this way degrades us all, will we have advanced toward banishing this plague of cunning cruelty from the earth. I fear that day will be a long time coming.

As long as we remain trapped by the desire for reckoning and revenge, we avoid the most difficult truth about Iago: He is human, and enjoys as his birthright certain inalienable rights. This monster who planned the ruin of Othello and Desdemona with the cold, deliberate passion of a suicide bomber, happens, alas, to be a member of our species — an extreme litmus test for that species.

From such a perspective, Dorfman argues that we shouldn’t be arguing about whether torture works or not. We should be examining what torture does to those who approve:

The argument that we should abolish torture because it does not work may be the wrong one. The question that Iago asks all these centuries later is how torture works on us, what it does to our humanity, when we look on approvingly as his malignant body is taken away to suffer unspeakable pain.

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A Little Bit Chipped Off in Brilliance

Wednesday

I’m back in my mother’s Tennessee house after a 12-day trip with her to visit relatives. On Sunday we had a day such as I haven’t experienced for a while: for hours we simply sat and watched an open field of goldfinches, bluebirds, hummingbirds, and one wild turkey from my cousin’s porch in Acton, Massachusetts. It felt like a throwback to an earlier time.

Everyone seems to have a hummingbird feeder these days. Down in Tennessee, two hummingbirds fight over our feeder, not realizing there is enough for all. The dominant one spends more time chasing the other one away than he does actually feeding. Of course, I don’t expect them to change their evolutionary behavior on account of  a few humans suddenly taking it into their heads to provide a bounty that may or may not last.

Speaking  of evolutionary biology, D. H. Lawrence has a strange but powerful poem about prehistoric hummingbirds in his very fine collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers. Enjoy the unsettling images:

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of time,
Luckily for us.

Lawrence could have could have contributed to Alfred Hitchcock’s nightmarish “The Birds.” For him, nature threatens to swallow us up, even as we try to maintain our individuality as “a little bit chipped off in brilliance.” The casual “luckily for us” pulls us out of the trance that we have been drawn into by trying to laugh it off.

Don’t be fooled, however. Lawrence is terrified by the vision of life as a heave of matter.

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Does School Teach Kids to Hate Reading?

Tuesday

A recent blog essay by an elementary school teacher has me revisiting some of my boring English classes at Sewanee Public School, which I attended for grades 1-7. Tony Sinanis argues that the assignments that teachers traditionally attach to reading cause students to hate reading.

Sinanis switches hats from teacher to dad as he sets up his argument:

This post is not directed at any specific teacher, school or leader because I know everyone is working hard and that most are doing what they think is best for kids. This post is not an attack on ELA or reading teachers because I know they are trying to help kids grow as readers. Instead, this post is a plea from me, Tony the dad, who has watched his son’s love of reading be pushed to the brink of extinction. I am not blaming any specific teacher or practice I am just pleading my son’s case. You see, Paul has always loved reading – from the time he was 18 months old – and he could literally get lost in a book for hours at a time. He would sit, curled up on the couch, and get so immersed in book that all we would hear is laughter, oooohhhs or aaaaahhhs based on what he was reading. He would zip through entire series in a matter of days and would beg for trips to Barnes and Noble or the library. He would tell us all about the characters and their adventures. But as he progressed in school, that love for reading started to change.

While acknowledging that electronic gadgets might play some role, Sinanis thinks that the major culprits are

–Reading logs;
–Written responses;
–Book reports;
–Reading passages just to answer multiple choice questions;
–Close readings that involve studying the same book for months.

While such assignments didn’t kill my own love of reading, I do remember being confused by my English classes. The stories in our textbook were nowhere near as interesting as the stories I read at home, and, to make matters worse, they had these inane questions at the end of them. When I was older, I would compare the experience to eating a bad meal, with the questions being the indigestion that followed.

But I didn’t have to wait until later in life. Even at the time, my eight-year-old brain came up with a theory. I concluded that there were two kinds of reading in the world, real reading and school reading. Being a dutiful child, I went along with school reading but remember being bored. Not until high school, when suddenly I got to read The Iliad (the wonderful Fitzgerald translation) and The Odyssey (a less engaging prose translation) did I have positive associations with “English.”

My own kids had similar experiences but there were notable exceptions. Their second grade teacher—both of them had the same one—used to read aloud in class every day and the entire class was enthralled. I remember them coming back from school excited about The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Given that I read aloud to my kids up through middle school, I could imagine middle school and even high school teachers generating excitement through reading aloud.

Here are Salamis’s recommendations:

1) Let kids just read what they want to read; choice is a powerful incentive.
2) Let kids talk about what they are reading… book talks are awesome ways to hook other readers and spread book love.
3) Don’t attach an assignment to every reading activity.
4) Books don’t have to be the only thing kids read.
5) If an assignment has to be attached to a reading activity (for accountability purposes), give the kids choices about what they might do.
6) Confer with kids – talk to them about what they are reading and use that data to help our kids set their own reading goals so they get better.
7) Don’t make kids read one novel for months at a time and if you must do this, make it engaging!

To this I would add that parents have plenty of options at home in addition to reading aloud. Regularly visiting libraries and researching books that your kids might like is a good start. Then there are multiple ways that one uses literature to stimulate conversations, from the simple (“who was your favorite character”) to the imaginative (“what do you think Frodo would do in this situation?”).

It worked with my kids, one of whom is a businessman who reads Moby Dick on the train to work and the other is an English professor who reads at a deeper level than I did at his age. Of course, I’m an English teacher, but I plugged into my playful side more than my teaching side when I was raising them. Or rather, kids learn through play and so that’s the best way to reach them.

After all, literature is a form of play and was never designed for Gradgrindian exercises. Parents and English teachers alike should be able to take advantage of that.

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Flattering Trump Is Like Wallowing in S***

Gustave Doré, Dante & Virgin look down on the flatterers

Monday

There’s no doubt in my mind where in Inferno Dante would place Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, Donald Trump’s new communications director. Before I share it, here’s The Hill’s account of Scaramucci’s first press appearance. As the reporters drily put it, he “showed off some of the traits that may have won him the job”:

He frequently praised Trump, saying he loved the president, and that he was “very loyal” to him.

“I love the mission that the president has since the early days of the campaign,” Scaramucci said.

 “I grew up in the middle class, and so there’s a struggle out there. The president saw that before I did. I wish I could tell you I saw it before him, but he taught it to me.”

Scaramucci in recent months had become one of the most vocal defenders of Trump and his family. During an appearance on CNN in April, he compared the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Alexander Hamilton.

His effusive praise for the president was on full display during the briefing, as he pledged his commitment to Trump’s “America first” agenda and defended the president’s use of Twitter.

“To me, I think it’s been very effective use of reaching the American public directly and so listen, I welcome him continuing to do that. I think it’s very, very important for him to express his identity.”

Scaramucci also praised the president on his competitive nature and athletic skills.

“He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met, okay? I’ve seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire. I’ve seen him at Madison Square Garden with a top coat on, he’s standing in the key and he’s hitting foul shots and swishing them. He sinks 3-foot putts,” he said.

The former hedge fund manager also predicted the White House would score a victory in Congress on healthcare in the near future because “the president has really good karma.”

“I predict the president will get a win in healthcare. That’s my honest prediction, just because I’ve seen him in operation of the last 20 plus years. The president has really good karma, okay? And the world turns back to him,” Scaramucci said.

Dante reserves the two worst levels of hell, the eighth and the ninth, for the maliciously fraudulent. There we find the the Malebolge (“evil ditches” or “evil moats”), which according to Dorothy Sayers is “the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public.” (This is not a bad summation of the way Trump is undermining the public trust.). In one of the ditches on the eighth level are to be found the flatterers.

Dante must maintain a healthy distance, peering down upon them from a great height, because the stench is so great. The Scaramuccis of the world are immersed in human excrement, which has encrusted itself on everything around them. Not to mince words, they spouted shit when they were alive and now are up to their ears in it:

We were already where the narrow path
Crosses athwart the second dike, and forms
Of that a buttress for another arch.
Thence we heard people, who are making moan
In the next Bolgia, snorting with their muzzles,
And with their palms beating upon themselves.
The margins were incrusted with a mould
By exhalation from below, that sticks there,
And with the eyes and nostrils wages war.
The bottom is so deep, no place suffices
To give us sight of it, without ascending
The arch’s back, where most the crag impends.
Thither we came, and thence down in the moat
I saw a people smothered in a filth
That out of human privies seemed to flow…

Dante recognizes one of the figures, one Allessio Interminei of Lucca, who apparently was noteworthy for his incessant flatteries:

And whilst below there with mine eye I search,
I saw one with his head so foul with ordure,
It was not clear if he were clerk or layman.
He screamed to me: “Wherefore art thou so eager
To look at me more than the other foul ones?”
And I to him: “Because, if I remember,
I have already seen thee with dry hair,
And thou’rt Alessio Interminei of Lucca;
Therefore I eye thee more than all the others.”
And he thereon, belaboring his pumpkin:
“The flatteries have submerged me here below,
Wherewith my tongue was never surfeited.”

There’s one other figure described in this ditch, a prostitute who would extravagantly praise her lovers for the gifts that they gave her. Now, unable to find peace after a lifetime of linguistic perversions, she “doth scratch herself with filthy nails,/And crouches now, and now on foot is standing.”

I single out Scaramucci, whose tongue appears incapable of being surfeited with flattery, because he is a particularly blatant instance of the kind of people that Trump is surrounding himself with. I could just as easily have named Reince Priebus or Kellyanne Conway, and in an earlier post, I wrote about how Trump forced his entire cabinet to play Goneril and Regan to his Lear. The final result is that language is so undermined, so cheapened, that it’s like wallowing in shit. Only in the self-awareness that Hell inflicts–that is Hell–do they realize they are coated with it, leading to attempts to beat or scratch it off.

As always, Dante finds the perfect metaphor for the violation.

Further thought: Dante’s decision to stand far away from the flatterers as he looks down appears validated by the counsel of Eliot Cohen, former Bush Administration official, to stay away from the Trump administration. Last November Cohen warned that everyone who got pulled in would be poisoned and their good reputation sullied.

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Let Me Not Love Thee If I Love Thee Not

George Herbert

Spiritual Sunday

It’s been a while since I shared a poem by my favorite religious poet, George Herbert, so here’s one where he grapples heroically with “Affliction,” a current concern of mine given my ailing friend Rachel Kranz. I’ve posted on “Affliction” before but now, after seeing Rachel’s cancer up close, the images of illness hit harder.

I admire Herbert because of his willingness to go toe to toe with God. When he is suffering, he doesn’t hesitate to let God know.

Herbert reports that, as a young and healthy man, he found it easy to love God. He remembers his cockiness in the early days of his belief—“I thought the service brave”—as he focused on God’s blessings:

I looked on thy furniture so fine, 
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

Then, however, things took a turn for the worse, undermining his too easy confidence:

My flesh began unto my soul in pain, 
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

Even when he himself recovered, things continued bad as he saw friends taken down, turning him into a  “a blunted knife”:

When I got health, thou took’st away my life, 
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

I don’t entirely follow Herbert towards the end but it sounds as though he accuses God of a bait and switch, early on by making him think that belief will be easy and later by making possible a successful academic career at Cambridge to compensate for thwarting his court ambitions (“Thou often didst with Academic praise/Melt and dissolve my rage.”) Herbert finds himself so entangled with God that, when the going gets tough, he’s too far committed to pull out: “I was entangled in the world of strife,/ Before I had the power to change my life.”

By the end of the poem he is sick again and is so beaten down that he describes himself in uncharted territory: “Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me/ None of my books will show.” He wishes he were not human but a tree.

Regrouping, he tries to resign himself to God’s will. “I must be meek;/In weakness must be stout.” This doesn’t work, however, and he threatens to leave God altogether: “I will change the service, and go seek/Some other master out.” He makes this same threat in other poems, most notably “The Collar,” where he writes:

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
                         I will abroad! 

As in “The Collar,” however, he recognizes this as a temper tantrum rather than a serious threat. As I say, he is so entangled with God that though he feels abandoned (“though I am clean forgot”), he can’t help loving God. Life would be so much easier, he says, if he didn’t. “Let me not love thee, if I love thee not” is a way of saying, “I am tormented by not loving you as fully as I feel I should so please help me stop loving you altogether.”

God won’t allow this, however. Or rather, Herbert can’t leave God no matter how tormented he may feel. One finds Herbert periodically thinking, in his poetry, that life would be easier if his heart were a stone, but God seems always to find a way in, often through back door entrances. As Herbert writes at the end of “The Collar,”

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.

God watches us in our torment and loves us. Why do we find it so hard to get out of our own way and accept that love?

Here’s “Affliction (1)” in its entirety:

Affliction (1)

By George Herbert.

When thou didst entice to thee my heart, 
I thought the service brave:
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served?
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserved
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe.

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a lingering book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise,
Not simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill, till I came where
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me; not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure I then should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

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Jane Eyre on Caring for the Sick

Fritz Eichenberg, a blind and maimed Rochester

Friday

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with the elderly and the sick and it’s changing how I see the world. First there was the week I spent with my friend Rachel Kranz in a Bronx hospital (ovarian cancer, blot clots), and now my 91-year-old mother and I are visiting a 100-year-old relative in Maine who has difficulty walking. Life has both slowed down and gotten more intense as things once small suddenly loom large.

The image of Jane Eyre tending to Rochester comes to mind. When I returned to the novel’s conclusion, I discovered that Jane fits the angel on the hearth paradigm much more than I realized, as though she’s assuring the reader that she’s no longer the angry little girl or the restless governess.

I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth.  I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.  No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.  To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.  All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.

Jane proves to be the perfect helpmate:

Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near—that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand.  Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.  He saw nature—he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam—of the landscape before us; of the weather round us—and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye.  Never did I weary of reading to him; never did I weary of conducting him where he wished to go: of doing for him what he wished to be done.  And there was a pleasure in my services, most full, most exquisite, even though sad—because he claimed these services without painful shame or damping humiliation.  He loved me so truly, that he knew no reluctance in profiting by my attendance: he felt I loved him so fondly, that to yield that attendance was to indulge my sweetest wishes.

Jane and Rochester, of course, are two independent spirits, and I’m struck by how careful Jane is not to diminish him to “painful shame or damping humiliation.” I’m learning, as those experienced in the caretaking business already know, that it’s important not to regard the work as a sacrifice. Jane is well aware that seeing it as such can breed resentment and angry defensiveness, which is why she avoids the word. Here’s her interchange with Rochester right after he proposes marriage:

“Mr. Rochester, if ever I did a good deed in my life—if ever I thought a good thought—if ever I prayed a sincere and blameless prayer—if ever I wished a righteous wish,—I am rewarded now.  To be your wife is, for me, to be as happy as I can be on earth.”

“Because you delight in sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice!  What do I sacrifice?  Famine for food, expectation for content.  To be privileged to put my arms round what I value—to press my lips to what I love—to repose on what I trust: is that to make a sacrifice?  If so, then certainly I delight in sacrifice.”

“And to bear with my infirmities, Jane: to overlook my deficiencies.”

“Which are none, sir, to me.  I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.”

When one human being becomes dependent on another, his or her self-respect can be jeopardized. Caretakers need to respect both the needs of the patient and their own needs if the relationship is to remain healthy.  Jane finds a way to honor both.

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Ferreting Out Trump’s Purloined Letter

Roman Muradov, “The Purloined Letter”

Thursday

One of the most remarkable things about Donald Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin is how open it all has been. Granted, we don’t know the whole reason why Trump has been so accommodating. Like many people, I think there are shady money deals, which Putin knows about and Trump knows that he knows. The potential for blackmail seems substantial.

But in such situations one doesn’t usually pay off the blackmailer in public. One doesn’t ignore the entire GOP platform at convention time except for its Ukraine plank, which you rewrite in Russia’s favor. You don’t name your major Russia contact as head of the National Security Administration. You don’t offer to return Russia’s compound, seized by the U.S. to punish Russia for its election intervention, right after taking office. You don’t openly talk about lifting the oil sanctions against Russia (put in place because of the Ukraine invasion) and then choose an oil executive and opponent of the sanctions as your Secretary of State. You don’t fire the head of the FBI when he refuses to drop the Russia investigation and then openly admit that this is why you fired him. You don’t (this is the latest) spend over an hour speaking privately with Putin—no American witnesses—and take minimal efforts to hide the encounter. Every time something like this happens, commentators are both appalled and incredulous—appalled that Trump is doing it, incredulous that he’s doing it in the open.

And yet, so far, Trump seems to have gotten away with it. Maybe that’s because being brazen has always worked for him so he just keeps doing it. Why abandon your running game if it gets you 10 yards every time? Or maybe he’s learned a lesson from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Poe’s story involves a compromising letter that has been stolen by D–. The police know that the letter must be in D—‘s possession and ransack both the man and his apartment with the utmost care. In fact, they boast of their thoroughness to Dupin, the private eye who has been brought in on the case. Here’s the Prefect of Police:

“Why the fact is, we took our time, and we searched every where. I have had long experience in these affairs. I took the entire building, room by room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We examined, first, the furniture of each apartment. We opened every possible drawer; and I presume you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man is a dolt who permits a ‘secret’ drawer to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk –of space –to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us. After the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the fine long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we removed the tops.”

“Why so?”

“Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece of furniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and the top replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are employed in the same way.”

And:

“[W]e opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers. We also measured the thickness of every book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation. Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles.”

The letter, however, proves to be in plain sight: Dupin finds it, its exterior slightly altered, deposited in D–‘s letter rack.

D—has figured that the police will expect subtlety from him and so crosses them up with brazenness. To draw the parallel, it’s as though Trump figures that every scandal in the past (Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky) has been uncovered because of elaborate attempts to hide the evidence. So why not be open about it.

The press has certainly been like the police force in the story, tracking down every small lead and uncovering one thing after another. They even have a confession from the president’s son that he had a meeting with money launderers and Russian lawyers during the election. Drawing on the past, we anticipate that every new scandal will bring our D– down. Yet he continues to thumb his nose at us.

For the good of the country, not to mention truth and justice, we can only pray that we have our own Dupin in Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump may not be “an unprincipled man of genius,” as Dupin calls D–, but handling this scandal in the old way doesn’t look as though it will work.

Perhaps Mueller should take his cue from Dupin, who turns the tables in such a subtle way that D—doesn’t realize that he’s lost. By the time he is aware, Dupin predicts, he will have entrapped himself.

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A World of Books amid a World of Green

Edward Cucuel, “Young Woman Reading in a Garden”

Wednesday

My mother and I are currently visiting a 100-year-old relative, Marion Bowman, who alerted me to the Victorian/Edwardian poet Richard Le Gallienne. Marion turned to one of his poems about books when her librarian husband Ben died, and I found others when I went digging. The poems owe a debt to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and also make me think of Wind in the Willows.

Since Ben was passionately fond of books and Marion is a crack gardener (she loves books as well), Le Gallienne’s merging of the two worlds is perfect. These are also great poems for midsummer. The quotation by Edmund Gosse that inspires the first poem comes from a passage in his Gossip in a Library (1892), a set of personal reflections about the books in his own library:

I have heard that the late Mr. Edward Solly, a very pious and worshipful lover of books…was so anxious to fly all outward noise that he built himself a library in his garden. I have been told that the books stood there in perfect order, with the rose-spray flapping at the window, and great Japanese vases exhaling such odors as must annoy an insect-nostril. The very bees would come to the window, and sniff, and boom indignantly away again. The silence there was perfect…That is the library I should like to have. In my sleep, “where dreams are multitude,” I sometimes fancy that one day I shall have a library in a garden. The phrase seems to contain the whole felicity of man–“a library in a garden!” It sounds like having a castle in Spain, or a sheep-walk in Arcadia, and I suppose that merely to wish for it is to be what indignant journalists call “a faddling hedonist.”

A Library in a Garden

By Richard Le Gallienne

“A Library in a garden!” The phrase seems to contain the whole felicity of man.–Edmund Gosse 

A world of books amid a world of green,
Sweet song without, sweet song again within
Flowers in the garden, in the folios too:
O happy Bookman, let me live with you! 

The other poem was read at Ben’s funeral and captures how books reflect the wide range of our lives, from the spiritual to the mundane. Once again Le Gallienne resorts to garden imagery to capture their richness:

Books

What are my books?–My friends, my loves,
My church, my tavern, and my only wealth;
My garden: yea, my flowers, my bees, my doves;
My only doctors–and my only health.

Doesn’t this inspire you to prepare a treat, grab a book, and head for a picturesque spot?

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Mourning Jane Austen’s Early Death

Wednesday

Today is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, which should be a designated day of mourning since Jane was at the height of her powers when she died of Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 41. If forced to choose, I would live in a world (reluctantly) that was missing the final works of Charles Dickens (Our Mutual Friend, the unfinished Edwin Drood), George Eliot (Daniel Deronda), Virginia Woolf (Between the Acts), even Shakespeare (although The Tempest), although I love all of them. At any rate, I don’t feel the need for these authors to have written more. I find it intolerable, however, that Austen didn’t finish Sanditon, and I fantasize obsessively about other works she would have written.

Emma and Persuasion, after all, were going in fascinating directions, the first in terms of character development and formal innovation (Austen anticipated Madame Bovary’s free indirect speech by several decades), the second in terms of feminist exploration. I would give a lot to see where she would have ended up. I know for sure that I would have relished more of her comic satire and her razor wit.

The New York Times had an article Sunday talking about how Austen was a much more ambitious author than history has reported. I supervised a senior project a few years ago which made exactly this point and filled in the details. You can read the posts I wrote on Carolyn Zerhusen’s project here and here but, to summarize them, Carolyn found Austen to be intensely ambitious. She wanted to make as much money as Anne Radcliffe and Sir Walter Scott, considered herself a better writer than either of them (which she was), and was irritated that her worth wasn’t appreciated.

This was beginning to change by the end of her six years in the public eye. While Mansfield Park and Emma weren’t as popular as Pride and Prejudice, in part because the heroines aren’t as attractive or the marriages as glamorous, I can imagine Persuasion—Austen’s most romantic work—bringing in the larger audience she longed for.

Carolyn sees Austen, who didn’t suffer fools lightly, taking shots at Radcliffe in Northanger Abbey and at Scott and Lord Byron in Persuasion and Sanditon. The mild-mannered but wonderfully strong Anne Elliot in Persuasion delivers a powerful feminist message in Persuasion. Here’s Captain Haville’s argument about woman’s constancy and Anne’s reply:

“But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

 For Carolyn, the image of Austen as a woman disinterested in a writing career is disempowering, and she observes that “it hasn’t helped that the 2007 Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane portrays the author as ‘a wildly romantic woman whose stories are only the result of disappointed love.’” The same type of men whom Captain Harville quotes also provided descriptions of Jane Austen. It’s time to move past them.

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Caves of Ice, Prophecies of War

Greenland’s melting glaciers

Monday

With so many things in the news to worry about these days, it’s hard to keep in mind the most serious threat facing us, which is climate change. Scientists are now discovering that the Greenland glaciers are melting faster than predicted, which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise by the end of the century. A technical description of the melting process brings to mind Coleridge’s haunting poem “Kubla Khan.”

A  March Washington Post article reported on a new study of Greenland’s glaciers, entitled Oceans Are Melting Greenland in order to give it the eye-catching acronym OMG:

Greenland is, in fact, the largest global contributor to rising seas — adding about a millimeter per year to the global ocean, NASA says — and it has 7.36 potential meters (over 24 feet) to give. The question is how fast it could lose that ice, and over five years, OMG plans to pull in enough data to give the best answer yet.

“We’ve never observed Greenland disappearing before, and that’s what OMG is about,” says Josh Willis, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the principal investigator on the mission. “We want to watch how it shrinks over the next five years, and see how we can use that information to better predict the future.”

According to the Post article, while the results are not yet it, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

said in 2013 that Greenland’s melting might at most contribute 21 centimeters to sea-level rise by 2100, with some possible addition from rapid ice collapse (this is the high-end number for what scientists call the “likely” range in a worst-case global warming scenario, to be precise).

One reason for the accelerated melting involves caves of ice into which rivers are pouring, which is what made me think of Coleridge’s poem. Here’s the technical description of a process known as “dynamic thinning”:

Dynamic thinning is, in a way, a positive feedback loop. When it gets warm enough, the surface snow and ice begin to thaw. The melt water either pools or flows in rivers along the surface, or begins flowing under the snow that covers the ice of the sheet. In the process, it flows into small cracks, enlarging them as it moves towards the bottom of the ice sheet. The amount of melt water traveling through these fissures varies greatly. Waleed Abdalati, head of NASA Goddard Space Flight Centers Cryospheric Sciences Branch, mentioned that “for the first few weeks, the melt water sounds like a peaceful stream. Soon it takes on the menacing roar of a rushing river.”

As surface melt increases, it collects into rivers that carry it to turquoise blue pools or plunge into crevasses or ice tunnels called moulins or glacier mills. Moulin…can extend downwards hundreds of meters, reaching the base of the glacier, or can flow within the glacier. Wherever the water ends up, moulins can affect both the melting rate and also the velocity of a glacier. The streams bring surface heat in the form of water down through the glacier to the bottom of the ice sheet. Once the water reaches the bottom of the glacier, it acts as lubrication for the glacier, which then gains speed as it flows downhill towards the sea. Thus, a little melting can have a large effect.

In “Kubla Khan,” the sacred river Alph springs out of a chasm, meanders five miles, and then reaches “caverns measureless to man”—at which point, the prophecies become dire:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion 
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, 
Then reached the caverns measureless to man, 
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean; 
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far 
Ancestral voices prophesying war! 
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
   Floated midway on the waves; 
   Where was heard the mingled measure 
   From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! 

Or as Abdalati puts it, “for the first few weeks, the melt water sounds like a peaceful stream. Soon it takes on the menacing roar of a rushing river.”

Like the poet in the poem, one expects him to add, “Beware! Beware!”

The prophecies of war, meanwhile, are not coming only from climate scientists but also from the U.S. military, which predicts that world conflicts will rise as climate change disrupts the world order. Scientific American, for instance, has pointed out that a climate change-caused drought in Syria—the worst in its history—led to the war there as farmers flooded into the cities.

Meanwhile climate deniers block environmental legislation and focus on tax cuts for the wealthy, which would allow them to build more stately pleasure domes and gardens bright with sinuous rills.

Beware! Beware!

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Please God, Prepare a Fruitful Place

Vincent Van Gogh, “The Sower”

Spiritual Sunday

William Cowper has a lovely version of the parable of the sower and the seed, today’s lectionary reading. Cowper wrestled with crippling depression, which makes his final George Herbert-like plea especially moving: he asks God to make his heart, which he experiences too often as stony, to be receptive to divine grace.

The Sower

By William Cowper

Ye sons of earth prepare the plough,
Break up your fallow ground;
The sower is gone forth to sow,
And scatter blessings round.

The seed that finds a stony soil
Shoots forth a hasty blade;
But ill repays the sower’s toil,
Soon wither’d, scorch’d, and dead.

The thorny ground is sure to balk
All hopes of harvest there;
We find a tall and sickly stalk,
But not the fruitful ear.

The beaten path and highway side,
Receive the trust in vain;
The watchful birds the spoil divide,
And pick up all the grain.

But where the Lord of grace and power
Has bless’d the happy field,
How plenteous is the golden store
The deep-wrought furrows yield!

Father of mercies, we have need
Of thy preparing grace;
Let the same Hand that give me seed
Provide a fruitful place!

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Trump’s Unseen Playmate Jim

Playing with the unseen playmate in “Child’s Garden of Verses”

Friday

The news is so universally grim with our current president that I find myself looking for light notes. An Associated Press article provided one the other day when it set out to solve the “curious case of Trump’s friend Jim.”

Little does AP know that Robert Louis Stevenson solved the case years ago in A Child’s Garden of Verses.

First, here’s the AP’s report:

For all things Paris, President Donald Trump’s go-to guy is Jim.

The way Trump tells it — Jim is a friend who loves Paris and used to visit every year. Yet when Trump travels to the city Thursday for his first time as president, it’s unlikely that Jim will tag along. Jim doesn’t go to Paris anymore. Trump says that’s because the city has been infiltrated by foreign extremists.

While Trump “repeatedly talked about the enigmatic Jim while on the campaign trail,” he “didn’t receive widespread attention until Trump became president.” The story observes that, for Trump,

Jim’s story serves as a cautionary tale – a warning that even a place as lovely as Paris can be ruined if leaders are complacent about terrorism.

Jim’s biggest moment in the spotlight was during a high-profile Trump speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Trump explained that Jim “loves the City of Lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris. It was automatic, with his wife and his family.”

Trump one day asked Jim: “How’s Paris doing?”

“’Paris?” Jim replied, as relayed by Trump. “‘I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.’”

Reporters have been trying to track down Jim but with no success. Stevenson knows where he is, however:

The Unseen Playmate

By Robert Louis Stevenson

When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him, and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
‘Tis he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
‘Tis he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

‘Tis he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
‘Tis he will take care of your playthings himself!

Of course, now that he’s disenchanted with Paris, Trump’s unseen friend may no longer take the side of the French.

As if we needed further proof that our president is little more than a child.

Further thought: People also refer to the president’s eldest son as a child. The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri quotes Peter Pan in a column pointing out that people have been referring to the 39-year-old Donald Trump, Jr. as “a kid” and therefore not responsible for colluding with the Russians.

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