Murakami and Repressed Anger’s Toxicity

Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Three Book Projects

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

Thursday

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

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

Using Literature to Understand Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Weep Like a Child for the Past

Santiago Rusiñol. “A Romance”

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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Retiring to the Garden of Eden

Thomas Cole, “The Garden of Eden”

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

And so the next stage begins.

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Trump, Clifton, & Immigrants as Animals

Monday 

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

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

As Lind notes,

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

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

For the record, Trump is not just targeting criminals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Light Breaks Where No Light Was Before

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

Spiritual Sunday – Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

leaving us here in
perpetual evening
even the guardians

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

less radiant
less sure

And in “lucifer understanding at last”:

if the angels
hear of this

there will be no peace 
in heaven

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

oh where have you fallen to

By Lucille Clifton

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

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

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

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

Previous Pentecost Posts

Ken Sehested: Pentecost: When All Heaven Breaks Loose

Derek Wallcott: Pentecost Flames, Fireflies’ Crooked Street

Denise Levertov: Pulled into the Ring of the Dance

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

Euripides: Jesus as the New Dionysus 

Longfellow: Look into Thy Heart and Write 

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A Time To Gather Spiritual Honey

Friday

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

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

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

May

By Mary Oliver

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

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A Tale of Two Realities

Ivanka Trump, Gaza protesters

Thursday

The contrasting images were stark: as Jared Kushner and Invanka Trump celebrated a U.S. embassy in Jersualem, Israeli soldiers killed over 50 unarmed demonstrators in Gaza while wounding many more. I can’t be the only one who thought of Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” moment. Or of the scene in Tale of Two Cities where a marquis’ recklessness leads to the death of a child.

The marquis, Dickens tells us, loves the effect of crowds scattering before his stagecoach:

 With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way.

Unfortunately, those who act without heeding the consequences, whether in 18th century Paris or current day Jerusalem, sometimes face a whirlwind:

At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged.

But for the latter inconvenience, the carriage probably would not have stopped; carriages were often known to drive on, and leave their wounded behind, and why not? But the frightened valet had got down in a hurry, and there were twenty hands at the horses’ bridles.

“What has gone wrong?” said Monsieur, calmly looking out.

A tall man in a nightcap had caught up a bundle from among the feet of the horses, and had laid it on the basement of the fountain, and was down in the mud and wet, howling over it like a wild animal.

“Pardon, Monsieur the Marquis!” said a ragged and submissive man, “it is a child.”

“Why does he make that abominable noise? Is it his child?”

“Excuse me, Monsieur the Marquis—it is a pity—yes.”

The fountain was a little removed; for the street opened, where it was, into a space some ten or twelve yards square. As the tall man suddenly got up from the ground, and came running at the carriage, Monsieur the Marquis clapped his hand for an instant on his sword-hilt.

“Killed!” shrieked the man, in wild desperation, extending both arms at their length above his head, and staring at him. “Dead!”

 In his speech, Kushner blamed the demonstrators for their deaths:

Kushner said in his speech, which was broadcast on TV, that “as we have seen from the protests of the last month, and even today, those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

The French marquis does pretty much the same:

“It is extraordinary to me,” said he, “that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is forever in the way. How do I know what injury you have done my horses. See! Give him that.”

He threw out a gold coin for the valet to pick up…

All previous presidents have had the wisdom, regardless of what they said on the campaign trail, to avoid enflaming the Middle East by opening an embassy in Jerusalem. Trump, who delights in upsetting conventional wisdom, plunged ahead. Now scores of people are dead.

Not that he cares.

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The Meaning of Steampunk Fantasy

Wednesday

After teaching Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in my British Fantasy class, I’m coming to understand the attraction of steampunk fantasy. If this genre confuses you, then today’s post is for you.

Although I prefer Gaiman’s other major works, I wanted a novel that broke with the Tolkienesque tradition of rural medieval fantasy. For a long time, such narratives ruled the fantasy world. In the 19th century, for instance, there were The Eve of St. Agnes, George McDonald’s Princess and the Goblin novels, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and William Morris’s Well at the World’s End. Lord of the Rings, with its mammoth influence, pulled everything into its orbit, and was followed by Lewis’s Narnia series, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea tetralogy, Robin McKinley’s works, and, more recently, Game of Thrones. Dirty urban landscapes seemed an anathema to fantasy as it was understood. It would be like Mordor replacing Lothlorien as the spiritual center.

Steampunk is a deliberate challenge to Middle Earth. Perdido Street Station author China Mieville loudly proclaims he detests Tolkien as he creates a polluted London filled with mad scientists, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, and strange creatures.

Wikipedia defines steampunk as “a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.” Often the characters wear clothing to match. Steampunk’s emergence, in my opinion, signals that we’ve moved into new historical terrain, where cyber technology is making us nostalgic for technology that we can touch and smell.

Traditional rural fantasy defined itself against industrial society and against modernity generally. Tolkien famously sought to escape the horrors of mechanized warfare that he encountered in the World War I trenches, longing for the country simplicity of the Shire and the return of the Ents. It’s not that technology is absent from Tolkien’s novels since, after all, medieval ironwork was very advanced at one point in history. But swords, no matter how lethal, come across as almost quaint when contrasted with gunpowder.

Cyber technology plunges us into a very different world. Steam engines and zeppelins appear as archaic as maces and crossbows. At a time when one can instantly access any music in the world, scratchy vinyl records are cool again.

One sees the transition underway in a fantasy work that, while not steampunk, is nevertheless illuminating. In Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam, we see the characters enthralled with the invention of the locomotive. In other novels, Pratchett has nomes and goblins learning to master automobiles and telegraph communication.

But Pratchett’s works are still situated mostly in the country. Gaiman’s Neverhwere, on the other hand, takes place largely within the London sewer system, along with all the smells, crud, and rats that one might expect to find there.

The novel is a portal fantasy with the major character, a colorless stock analyst named Richard Mayhew, aiding a woman named “Door” (it doesn’t get more portal than that) and suddenly finding himself in “London Below.” While there, Richard encounters various Victorian street characters and gothic monsters. As in any journey of the hero, he discovers previously unknown inner strengths.

History major Rachel Sonnenberg was fascinated by Gaiman’s “floating market,” which moves from one locale to another. As she notes, it contrasts with our anonymous commercial transactions, where as often as not we buy things on line without ever interacting with an actual person. Not so in London Below:

[W]hen Richard first arrives, “[he] stood there, alone in the throng, drinking it in. It was pure madness. Of that there was no doubt at all. It was loud, and brash, and insane, and it was, in many ways, quite wonderful.” Gaiman goes on to describe the market in detail, letting his readers soak in its splendor. With “a dozen different kinds of music, being played a dozen different ways on a score of different instruments,” the Market is a place filled with variety rather than monotony. The vendors themselves are unique. Rather than simply selling the basic sorts of goods that would be available at your stereotypical market in London Above, there are stands such as “Old Bailey’s for Information,” and even a lady selling garbage, calling out, “Crap, tripe, and useless piles of shit. You know you want it.”

At these unique vendors, the people of London Below use a bartering system. While in modern society transactions have become impersonal, in London Below the bartering makes trade a physical, interpersonal act. Without money, the transaction is entirely in the hands of the buyer and the seller. Furthermore, an object’s value is entirely dependent on what  the two people determine. There is no third party or large corporation involved in the transaction:“Everybody was buying. Everybody was selling.” While in modern society we rely on money, in London Below there is no currency. The people of London Below must engage and converse with those they are trading with, rather than simply swiping a card without lifting up their heads.

All fantasy, I periodically tell my students, is relational, often functioning as a critical commentary on the world as it is. When that world changes, fantasy changes. Expect a lot more urban fantasy in the years to come.

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Mike Pence=Elmer Gantry + Uriah Heep

Frederick Barnard, “Uriah Heep and David Copperfield”

Tuesday

While I almost never agree with George Will, I couldn’t help but notice his recent characterization of Mike Pence. In addition to calling vice president “oleaginous,” which promptly soared to the top of Google’s word searches (it means oily), Will also (on MSNBC) described him as a cross between Elmer Gantry and Uriah Heep.

For English professors, that’s as hard hitting as insults ever get.

Elmer Gantry is Sinclair Lewis’s huckster preacher while Uriah Heep is the oleaginous money lender in David Copperfield, who goes on and on about how “’umble” he is. Combining the two gets at both Pence’s very public avowals of faith (Gantry) and the earnest way he looks at television interviewers and says anything his self-interest dictates he say (Heep).

Will is bothered by how Pence parades his piety and believes that, as a darling of the religious right, Pence should not be such a shameless shill for the huckster Trump. In fact, Pence is worse than Trump because, as Will sees it, although he is capable of making moral choices (unlike the president), he has chosen badly—which makes him “the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party.” Will, who has spent most of his life castigating liberals and Democrats, writes that Pence “clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.”

When it comes to groveling, other literary comparisons also come to mind. In the past I’ve compared people like Pence to Allessio Interminei of Lucca, whom Dante confines to the eighth level of hell for his incessant flattery. As Dante sees it, forcing sycophants to wallow in excrement for eternity is the proper punishment since it’s a version of what such men did while alive.

After reading a recent New York Times article about Pence, however, I’m seeing another comparison: the vice president as Cassius.

Apparently Pence is using Trump’s non-interest in state and local politics to elevate his stature amongst GOP party leaders. He must be careful, however, since if Trump, like Julius Caesar with Cassius, detects “a lean and hungry look,” there will be trouble in the White House.

The Times reporters suggest that Pence’s sycophancy may be a way of cloaking his ambitions:

Republican officials now see Mr. Pence as seeking to exercise expansive control over a political party ostensibly helmed by Mr. Trump, tending to his own allies and interests even when the president’s instincts lean in another direction. Even as he laces his public remarks with praise for the president, Mr. Pence and his influential chief of staff, Nick Ayers, are unsettling a group of Mr. Trump’s fierce loyalists who fear they are forging a separate power base.

And:

Mr. Pence’s team is aware of the unease within the White House, and Mr. Ayers recently told one Republican ally that one reason Mr. Pence is so effusive in his public remarks about Mr. Trump — he has recently hailed Mr. Trump as a “champion” for conservatives and branded the recent tax cuts a “Trump bonus” for America — is to tamp down questions about his loyalty.

So take your choice—Gantry, Heep, Allessio, or Cassius. I’m struck that none of these resembles like Trump, who is neither pious nor falsely humble nor sycophantic nor coldly backstabbing. If Trump has a reputation for honesty despite lying all the time, it may be because, unlike Pence, what you see is what you get. Or as Will puts it,

Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying.

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Sending Students Out into the World

Arnold Böcklin, “Odysseus and Polyphemus”

Monday

Each year at our commencement, a faculty member reads a poem, and this year I was chosen for the honor. Here’s the intro I delivered on Saturday, along with the poem. I follow it up with some additional thoughts.

I choose today a poem about a sea journey, an appropriate metaphor for a college commencement held on the shore of an historic river. I’m pretty sure that “Ithaka,” by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, inspired the Lucille Clifton poem you see every day when you climb the stairs to the Great Room [“blessing the boats [at St. Mary’s]”), which is also about setting forth into unknown waters and which you are about to do.

In “Ithaka,” Odysseus thinks that he wants to get to his island home, just as you may think that you want a future in which everything is wrapped up neatly, perhaps in the form of a steady job or an ironclad relationship. I suspect most of you have heard, over and over, the question, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” Maybe you are proud that you can trot out an acceptable answer or vaguely disturbed that you can’t.

But Cavafy tells us that life is not about achieving a concrete goal. Goals are just the prods we use to set the journey in motion. The real goal is to discover the hidden wonders of the world and the hidden wonders inside ourselves. In other words, life is a continuation of the process you have been undergoing during your years at St. Mary’s. In the poem, the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops are savage cannibals that Odysseus encounters. Think of them as the dark moments of self-doubt that threaten to swallow you up. Cavafy assures us that, as long as we focus on the “rare excitement” of all that we encounter, those inner monsters will not get the best of us.

One personal note: I am retiring after 36 fulfilling years at St. Mary’s and feel that I am graduating along with you and embarking on my own next journey. To borrow images from the poem, during my time here I have received many rich treasures, smelled many sensuous perfumes, and had many profound scholarly conversations. So this poem resonates with me as well as it will, I hope, with you.

The poem has been translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you. 

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Further thoughts – The Lucille Clifton poem I refer to is printed on the wall in our Campus Center and has been read at previous commencements. I became convinced, as I examined the Cavafy poem, that it (along with the Irish blessing, “May the wind be always at your back”) inspired Clifton’s poem:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back          may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Cavafy’s poem has another personal association for our community. Cavafy talks about the pleasure and joy of entering harbors “you’re seeing for the first time.” As I read the poem, the students could see behind me the bay where Lord Calvert’s ship harbored for the first time in 1634. (This is the ship that Lucille had in mind when she wrote her poem.) Additionally, the first sight that many of our students had of the college was rounding the bend on Route 5 and seeing the water shining before them. For many, that sight alone was enough to bring them to the college.

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Hidden in the Dust: Clusters of Roses

Ramadan illustrations

Spiritual Sunday – Ramadan

Ramadan, when Islam celebrates Muhammad’s first Quran revelation with a month of fasting, begins Tuesday evening. Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, sometimes known as American Islam’s Poet Laureate, wrote a fascinating series of “Ramadan Sonnets” while fasting, a couple of which I share today.  As a non-Muslim, I have difficulty imagining undergoing Ramadam fasting, but Moore gives us a glimpse into its power.

“Ramadan House Guest” begins as follows:

Ramadan has come to live with us.
It is God’s private apartments
moved into our house
and taking over.

Where the doors were
are now entranceways into His Garden.
Where windows were are
continuous waterfalls. Abundance in the

dryness. Hidden in the dust:
clusters of roses. Sprung from our
footsteps: ascents.

In “Jealousy,” meanwhile, worshippers are jealous lovers who are so in love with God that they forget to eat:

The fast is also like
being so wracked with love
you can’t eat. Tossed and
wrenched and high and dry with
single-minded devotion and expectation that no single

bite or sip can pass our lips, our
eyes are parched, throat dry,
head gone elsewhere almost entirely, and

only with extreme concentration can we
perform our usual tasks with anything
like normality.

It sweeps us off our feet. It’s
bigger than we are. It goes
off with all our thoughts.

It’s a jealous lover.

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In Lit, Who Best Represents Each Job?

Ford Madox Brown, “Work” (1865)

Friday

I’ve set myself the challenge in today’s post to name the best literary depictions of different professions. It’s one of those exercises that’s more useful for spurring conversations than providing definite answers, but what else is this blog for? Feel free to add more professions to the list as well as weigh in with alternatives to my choices.

College Professor – William Stoner in John Williams’s Stoner (runner-up: Vivian Bearing in W;t)

Teacher – Lucy Snowe in Villette

Intellectual – Dr. Faustus

Scientist – Victor Frankenstein

Author – David Copperfield

Farmer – The Joad Family in Grapes of Wrath

Farmhand – George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men

Cowboy – Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove

Governess – Jane Eyre

Doctor – Doc Daneeka in Catch-22

Veterinarian – Doctor Doolittle

Nurse – Nurse Ratched

Lawyer – Tulkinghorn in Bleak House

Legal clerk – Bartleby

Ship captain – Marlow in Heart of Darkness

Sailor – Billy Budd

Whale harpooner – Queequeg

Fisherman – Hemingway’s Old Man

Carpenter – Adam Bede

Politician – Marc Antony in Julius Caesar

Dairymaid – Tess Durbeyfield

Military Commander – Othello (runner-up: Macbeth)

Enlisted Man –  Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried

Enlisted Woman – Mary Anne Bell (a.k.a. Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong)

Warrior – Homer’s Achilles

Private Eye – toss-up between Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe

Detective – Sherlock Holmes, of course

Gentleman Detective – Sir Peter Whimsey

Banker – Scrooge

Thief – Moll Flanders

Prostitute – Sonia in Crime and Punishment

Courtesan – Madame de Merteuil in Liaisons Dangereuses

Fence – Peachum in Beggar’s Opera (runner-up: Fagan)

Highwayman – Mac the Knife (runner-up: Alfred Noyes’s highwayman)

Housewife – Emma Bovary (runner-up: Mrs. Dalloway)

Factory owner – Bounderby

Factory worker – Boxer in Animal Farm

Landlady – Mistress Quickly (runner-up: Mrs. Hudson)

Squire – Darcy

Minister – Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews

Nun – Mother Superior in Doubt

Salvation Army missionary – Major Barbara

Realtor – the entire office of Glengarry Glen Ross

Salesman – Willie Loman

Send in your own favorites.

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How Fantasy Keeps Us Human

The bad and good angel in “Good Omens”

Thursday

I understand better why Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett are so beloved after teaching them in my British fantasy course. The two have found their way into millennials’ hearts partly because they use fantasy and humor to critique ideological extremism.

They do this very effectively in the collaboratively written Good Omens, which my student Sara Hirshon wrote about. The novel is about an apocalypse that doesn’t quite come off. Two angels that have been around since the Garden of Eden—good angel Aziraphale and bad angel Crowley–are instructed to prepare for battle as their bosses have declared that the end times are nigh. The angel and the demon, however, have come to understand each other over the millennia—one might say that they have reached across the aisle—and are enjoying earth too much to desire its destruction.

Meanwhile, a mix-up at a local hospital means that the antichrist has accidentally been placed with a normal family and the other child given over to the demons that are supposed to train him.  Other subplots involves the four horsepersons of the apocalypse (War is a woman) and a time-serving clerk that falls in love with a witch. In the end, the antichrist figures that he prefers hanging out with his friends rather than ending life on earth as we know it. In passages quoted by Sara, the teenage antichrist declares that, because the world “is full of all sorts of brilliant stuff,” he “doesn’t want anyone messing it about or endin’ it before I’ve had a chance to find out about it.”

The combined forces of Az, Crowley, the clerk, the witch, the antichrist, and the other kids on the block defeat the four horsepersons and also the devil.

Sara, an English-political science double major (see a description of her Guinevere senior project here), interprets Good Omens as a critique of ideology-driven politics:

Pratchett and Gaiman show how extremism easily overwhelms us so that we lose our humanity. Because of their fascination with humans, Az and Crowley no longer represent two extreme ideologies but instead become two flawed human figures that fight for the populace…Pratchett and Gaiman are warning us against extremism and politicians who lose touch with the people that elected them.

Looking at the period in which the novel was written (1990), Sarah speculates that it reflects the bitter ideological battles between Labor and Thatcherism. She then expresses her longing that the Aziraphales and Crowleys in today’s America would find common cause. Democrats and Republicans, she notes, “often hate each other as soon as they are alerted to each other’s political stance”:

If an angel and a demon can sit down over lunch…despite having conflicting ideologies, then who says humans can’t. In fact, I know of a case where a Republican and Democrat took a road trip together and ended up…with a better understanding of each other…Perhaps the world is not as black and white as Heaven and Hell claim and perhaps we all can have conversations with people with opposing views. If we do, you may discover he’s not so bad, even if he is a demon and you’re an angel.         

Pratchett explores similar themes in Thief of Time, which I taught in the fantasy course. There, the auditors of the universe—those who want things to function in a predictable matter—are upset that unpredictable humans are messing up their mechanistic order with imagination, free will, pleasure, and other traits that characterize us. (Think of the auditors as the agents in The Matrix, which may have influenced the novel.)  Among other things, humans play around with time, sometimes wasting it, sometimes making the most of it, sometimes slowing it down or speeding it up. The auditors therefore make arrangements to stop time, at which point human activity—which always interacts with time—will end. (The novel gets fairly philosophical on this point but Pratchett is both smart and witty about it.)

The four horsemen of the apocalypse show up again, along with a fifth horseman (Chaos). Rather than decimate people, however, they fight against the auditors. After all, they owe a lot to the human imagination, beginning with the human forms they have been endowed with:

To be human was to change, Death realized. The Horsemen…were horsemen. Men had wished upon them a certain shape, a certain form. And, just like the gods, and the Tooth Fairy, and the Hogfather [Santa Claus], their shape had changed them. They would never be human, but they had caught aspects of humanity as though they were some kind of disease.

As a result, Death has trouble getting the other horsemen to ride again. They’ve got other projects more interesting than wiping out humanity:

Because the point was that nothing, nothing had one aspect and one aspect alone. Men would envision a being called Famine, but once they gave him arms and legs and eyes, that meant he had to have a brain. That meant he’d think. And a brain can’t think about plagues of locusts all the time.

It’s worth noting that, when the novel was written, the world was relatively peaceful, what with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the independence movements in Eastern Europe. Today, Death might have an easier time recruiting Famine, War, and Pollution (replacing Pestilence, who has been sidelined by modern medication).

Pratchett’s point is that, while humans are undeniably flawed, they are a lot more interesting that the alternative. After all, how can you not love the species that invented boredom?

No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them up the evolutionary ladder.

Pratchett dramatically emphasizes our wonderful complexity by having the auditors try to imitate humans and become hopelessly confused in the process. Above all, their circuits are blown by chocolate, which causes them to experience ecstasy when having feelings goes against their very nature. Chocolate, as a result, becomes a major weapon in the battle to save humanity.

Many Gaiman and Pratchett fans fall in love with them because their novels are in love with our comic, bumbling, often silly, often trivial, but invariably interesting selves. In the face of that, ideology, extremism, and unthinking conformity don’t stand a chance.

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Will “The Fat Man” Sell Out Jared?

Greetstreet, Bogart, Cook in “Maltese Falcon”

Tuesday

Given that Donald Trump yesterday began violating the Iran Accord, Rudy Giuliani’s wild gyrations on behalf of the president are small potatoes. Nevertheless, I can’t pass up how much he sounds like a character in The Maltese Falcon.

Interviewed by Fox’s Sean Hannity, Giuliani predicted ferocious pushback should special counsel Robert Mueller search Ivanka Trump’s offices. Ivanka’s husband, by contrast, appeared to be another matter:

Giuliani: Ivanka Trump? I think I would get on my charger and go right into – run into their offices with a lance if they go after her. … If they do do Ivanka, which I doubt they will, the whole country will turn on him. They are going after his daughter?
Hannity: What about his son-in-law? You talked about him. 
Giuliani: I guess, Jared is a fine man. You know that. But men are, you know, disposable. But a fine woman like Ivanka? Come on. 

Jared has been in trouble for a while, from attempting to set up a back channel to Russia to extorting Qatar for real estate investments to lying on security forms. Might Trump jettison his son-in-law as readily as he has cut off others he regarded as impediments?

That’s what happens to Wilmer, the not-too-bright heavy in Maltese Falcon. Wilmer works for Casper Gutman (a.k.a. the Fat Man), who ultimately sells him out. The idea to do so is Sam Spade’s:

“Listen, Gutman, we’ve absolutely got to give them a victim. There’s no way out of it. Let’s give them the punk.” He nodded pleasantly at the boy in the doorway. “He actually did shoot both of them–Thursby and Jacobi–didn’t he? Anyway, he’s made to order for the part. Let’s pin the necessary evidence on him and turn him over to them.”

In the end Wilmer, perhaps like Jared, is deemed disposable:

The boy looked at Gutman.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but–well, by Gad!–if you lose a son it’s possible to get another–and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

In our case, the Maltese falcon would be the Trump presidency. Jared makes a good fall guy, having been at the Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-affiliated lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, Jr. was there as well, so the president could even drop the “if.” A son-in-law and a son could both take a bullet for Trump, claiming that the meeting was entirely their own idea and that the president knew nothing about it.

So maybe Trump escapes free and clear. After all, there is only one presidency. And by Gad! he’s already got other children.

Dashiell Hammet’s novel may also serve as a warning, however. The police report that Wilmer doesn’t take the betrayal well:

“Gutman’s dead. The kid had just finished shooting him up when we got there.”

Spade nodded. “He ought to have expected that,” he said.

Men like Gutman and Trump expect loyalty from everyone but themselves, but even the most devoted follower can flip and take you down.

Further thought: The Wilmer comparison applies even better to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who has been skirting the law for a while but may be nearing the end of his road. Trump allies have been alternately attacking Cohen (The New York Post) and placating him (Giuliani) in an apparent attempt to cover all possibilities. (The Post wants to undermine him in case he flips, Giuliani wants to reassure him that Trump has his back so that he wont flip.) Everyone assumes that Cohen will do real damage if he flips, which says a lot about the man who is president.

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Are Blogging Scholars a Step Forward?

Tuesday

Making use of a father’s prerogative, I write once again to tout the podcast The Stories We Tell Our Robots, hosted by my businessman son Darien Bates and my English professor son Tobias Wilson-Bates. In their most recent episode (#17), they use the story of Scheherazade to explore “tech paternalism” or “techsplaining.” Apparently computer engineers selling apps often use apocalyptic language (they “boil the oceans,” in business parlance) to persuade the public (as in, “The world will fall apart if you don’t buy the latest one”).

I write here, however, about whether internet platforms such as blogs have been good or bad for scholars disseminating their ideas (episode #16) As Darien interviewed me about Better Living through Beowulf, I figured you all would be interested.

Positively, blogging scholars can reach wide audiences and can do so quickly. Negatively, blogs do not undergo the rigorous vetting process that academic scholarship undergoes.

In my interview, I expressed my gratitude for the hard work undertaken by scholars, which I make use of daily. In the podcast, I said that scholars that become bloggers are like reporters that become pundits: they make use of their hard-earned expertise but may no longer be involved in the hard work of tracking down leads and cross-checking sources.

Although I didn’t mention it at the time, I could also have said that bloggers are like popularizers, people who use their communication skills to share the intricate interpretations (in the case of literary scholarship) with a wider public.

Darien and Toby end each of their podcasts with a “utopia or apocalypse” grade. I gave academic blogging a 7, deducting points for the lack of rigor. Tobias, a young scholar building his resume, awarded a 5 while Darien, one of the readers that the blog aims to reach, gave an 8.

Check out their podcast, which is filled with humor and wit as well as intelligence. You can even meet one of my daughters-in-law, who has a fascinating take on Black Panther (episode #10).

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Trump, Like Macbeth, Does Murder Sleep

Romney, “Macbeth and the Witches” (1785)

Monday

In my British Fantasy class, student Haley Bullis chose to write about the witches in Macbeth and at one point found herself comparing him to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.  I, meanwhile, had just read a Washington Post review (by Eliot A. Cohen) of Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant, a study of Shakespearean tyrants that finds parallels between Trump and Macbeth.

As Haley interprets them, the witches are a symbolic representation of Macbeth’s tyrant mind. Their escalating pronouncements track an ambitious man’s move to the dark side. First, they point the evolution from healthy to unhealthy ambition, from current position (thane of Glamis) to legitimate promotion (thane of Cawdor) to regicide:

First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

As Haley sees it, the witches are the devil who whispers into the ear of cartoon characters (also Doctor Faustus).

Although the witches subsequently address Banquo, this too can be seen as reflecting Macbeth’s interior thoughts since tyrants are prone to paranoia, as evidenced by Macbeth later turning on his best friend. After all, if they themselves have broken God’s rules, then why wouldn’t everyone else, even people close to them. Think of how Kim Jong-un and Saddam Hussein went after family members.

Thus, the witches addressing Banquo can be seen, not as external causes of his paranoia, but as internal seeds that simply await the right conditions to blossom. Think then, of the witches’ words to Banquo as Macbeth’s thoughts:

First Witch: Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Second Witch: Not so happy, yet much happier.
Third Witch: Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!

But if the witches reflect the tyrant’s dark ambitions and his murderous paranoia, what are we to make of their false assurances later on in the play? After all, they tell Macbeth that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” and that

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

Haley had an answer for this too. Tyrants can be simulataneously paranoid and cocky. Therefore, while the witches represent Macbeth’s paranoia with their mentions of Banquo’s heirs and of Macduff (“Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff;/Beware the thane of Fife”), with their other predictions they represent his belief he is invulnerable  As a result, we get a figure not unlike any number of dictators we could name.

And how about Trump? In certain ways, he shares this mixture of paranoia and cockiness. His desire to have the powers of a Kim Jong-un or a Vladimir Putin is his internal witch talking.

It’s probably a stretch, however, to think that his constant twitter mentions of witches—as in “WITCH HUNT!”—is him using Macbeth-type symbolism.

Whether or not Haley has Trump in mind, Washington Post reviewer Cohen thinks that Greenblatt does, although he feels that this is a flaw in the book:

[I]t is the truly great tyrants of Shakespeare’s work, Macbeth and Richard III, who are most in the spotlight. Here, [Greenblatt’s] analysis of the characters is masterly if slightly less sympathetic than they might otherwise be if he did not have the weight of the 45th president on his shoulders. Macbeth’s transition from more or less honorable and loyal servant of King Duncan to his murderer — and to the murderer of many others — is a tale of psychological development. So too is Richard III’s astounding soliloquy in “Henry VI, Part 3,” in which he describes himself as “like one lost in a thorny wood,/ That rents the thorns and is rent with the thorns,/ Seeking a way and straying from the way,/ Not knowing how to find the open air.” It is Shakespeare’s genius that in both cases we can see a complex if terrifying trajectory of a kind that would elude Trump, a considerably more static figure.

As Cohen sees it, Trump “is no Macbeth or Richard III” but

a triumphant (but teetotaling) Caliban with a Twitter account — full of all kinds of ambitions and fantastic conceits, who secretly craves the approval of the establishment he hates. Or, more likely Cloten, stepson of King Cymbeline, a brutal, spoiled, self-absorbed, misogynistic oaf who for his attempted trickery (which includes a wild murder-rape fantasy) comes to a very sticky end, indeed.

I like these other parallels but I’m not ready to drop the Macbeth altogether. Trump has at least talked of being willing to duplicate Macbeth’s assassination order of Macduff’s family, asking the CIA why it didn’t kill a terrorist’s family. True, I don’t find Trump to be as interesting as Macbeth, but that’s because he appears to lack Macbeth’s capacity for self-reflection and remorse. In other words, Trump may be more of a sociopath than Macbeth. It may only be our constitutional safeguards that prevent him from committing Macbeth type atrocities.

Rather than Greenblatt’s comparisons being undermined by his anxieties about Trump, it may be that having Trump as president makes the play all the more urgent.

Incidentally, Cohen is more appreciative of how Greenblatt handles those who enable tyrants, who do indeed have counterparts in the current GOP:

Greenblatt is powerful and more convincing, though, in his discussion of those who aid and support tyrants. He is particularly acute on the ways in which they deceive themselves about the end that awaits them, when, like so many Shakespearean characters, they become wise too late. Indeed, a chapter titled “Enablers” is the best in the book. This is a canny guide to contemporary Washington, for Shakespeare gives us all kinds of dupes, careerists, connivers and bullies who yield to the strange magnetism of power, no matter how unappealing he who wields it is. Here “Richard III” really does work as an instructive play on the dynamics of power…

And Cohen has one more on-target observation, which gets at the way that Trump (unlike Obama on occasions) doesn’t seem to be having fun being president:

[P]ower, once acquired, yields few satisfactions. As Greenblatt points out, the witty, even charming Richard of the first half of the play becomes increasingly dull, vicious and unimaginative toward the end. His head may be “impaled with a glorious crown,” but there is no real joy for him in it, and before long other parts of him will be impaled at Bosworth field.

We need every tool that literature can provide us for understanding our current political situation. Thank goodness we have Shakespeare in our toolkit.

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Authentic Awareness vs. Reason

Spiritual Sunday

Years ago, when I was skeptical of Christianity, Episcopalian rector Bill Pregnall invited me to an on-going conversation. Every two weeks or so we got together and discussed ethical issues, the meaning of life, and various other matters. Not once did he push me to convert, choosing instead to listen to my reservations about religion and my questions about the Bible. At one point, when I was complaining about the sterility of modern society, he said, “Perhaps you are hungry for mystery.”

I knew, at some deep level, he was right and I began joining Julia at church. The luminescent author Nicole Krause describes this hunger in Forest Dark, our current book group selection.

The novel alternates between a Jewish billionaire and his daughter Maya. At one point we learn about an unusual bat mitzvah request:

Long ago, at Maya’s bat mitzvah party, they’d had a palm reader. Never mind the unkosher presence of the occult: it was what she had wanted. (“What do you love most, Mayashka?” he’d once asked her as a little child. “Magic and mystery,” she replied without pause.”)

Now a novelist, Maya still hungers for magic and mystery. As a result, she is disturbed when a physicist propounds a multiverse theory:

[I]f there is not one but an infinite or nearly infinite set of worlds, each with its own physical laws, then no condition can any longer be considered the result of extraordinary mathematical improbabilities.

In Maya’s eyes, the theory robs the universe of wonder:

I’d never allowed myself to believe in God, but I could see why theories of a multiverse could get under a certain kind of person’s skin—if nothing else, to say that everything might be true somewhere not only carried the whiff of evasion but also rendered any searching useless, since all conclusions become equally valid. Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown come from understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered? In our view of the stars, we find a measure of our own incompleteness, our still-yet unfinishedness, which is to say, our potential for change, even transformation. That our species is distinguished from others by our hunger and capacity for change has everything to do with our ability to recognize the limits of our understanding, and to contemplate the unfathomable.

In a multiverse, on the other hand,

the concepts of known and unknown are rendered useless, for everything is equally known and unknown. If there are infinite worlds and infinite sets of laws, then nothing is essential, and we are relieved from straining past the limits of our immediate reality and comprehension, since not only does what lies beyond not apply to us, there is also no hope of gaining anything more than infinitesimally small understanding. In that sense, the multiverse theory only encourages us to know our backs even further on the unknowable, which we’re more than happy to do, having become drunk on our powers of knowing—having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it.

As a young professor, I was drunk on literary theory, but I also sensed that such knowing, in and of itself, was empty. That is why I sought out Bill’s conversations. I recognize my younger self in Maya’s continuing reflection:

Just as religion evolved as a way to contemplate and live before the unknowable, so now we have converted to the opposite practice, to which we are no less devoted: the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect. Since Descartes, knowledge has been empowered to a nearly unimaginable degree. But in the end it didn’t lead to the mastery and possession of nature he imagined, only to the illusion of its mastery and possession. In the end, we have made ourselves ill with knowledge. I frankly hate Descartes, and have never understood why his axiom should be trusted as an unshakable foundation for anything. The more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where once we lived in wonder, and understood it to be a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of being and the world. Now we have little choice but to live in the arid fields of reasons, and as for the unknown, which once lay glittering at the farthest edge of our gaze, channeling our fear but also our hope and longing, we can only regard it with aversion.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment led to the rise of the gothic novel as people found refuge from the blinding light of Reason in supernatural shadows. As I met with my British fantasy class for one last time yesterday, we talked about the hunger that leads them to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Diane Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett. I told them to take their attraction seriously.

I don’t reject Reason, but I no longer see it as the ultimate key to understanding the universe. Instead, I look for meaning through a combination of intellectual probing, religious worship, engaging with the arts (especially literature), and fostering relationships with loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. Oh, and playing tennis.

I’ve only begun Krauss’s novel so I can’t report on Maya’s endpoint. But I identify with her search.

Further thought: “Forest Dark” may echo Dante’s dark wood but, in a reversal, Krauss says that being “lost in that forest” promises a return to wonder and “authentic awareness.”

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Which Fictional Death Still Haunts You?

James Barry, “King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia”

Friday

After someone on Twitter threw out the question, “Which fictional death are you still not over?” I found myself ransacking my reading memories. I set out to think of 10.

First on my list would be an author rather than a character: I can’t get over Jane Austen dying before completing Sanditon. Or writing more novels generally.

Tess Durbeyfield has got to be #1.

I so much wanted the Othello-Desdemona marriage to work out.

Antigone gets to me as well.

As does Cordelia.

I understand the artistic reasons why Laura Esquivel kills off Tita at the end of Like Water for Chocolate but I’m not happy about it.

When I was a child, the deaths of Fili and Kili in The Hobbit hit me hard, even more than Thorin’s death.

I remember that my brothers and I sobbed when my father read us the endings of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s The Birds’ Christmas Carol. I still hear Hank crying out “Sandy” just before the death rattle. The death of the Carol Bird, meanwhile, tapped into the Victorian dying children cult that also includes Little Nell and Beth March. Looking back, I now realize it is pathos so thick you can cut it with a knife. I used to love fizzies and sugar in a straw at that age.

Few people read George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel anymore, but I remember being so traumatized by what happens to the hopeful young couple that I threw the book across the room after finishing it.

I came along too late for Leslie Burke (in Bridge to Terabithia), not to mention all those Harry Potter characters who die.

I can’t include Catherine Earnshaw Linton, Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. Their deaths just don’t tear me up that much. Wordsworth’s Lucy and Robert Burns’s Highland Mary, meanwhile, are too much idealized projections for me to mourn.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important ones. Feel free to send them in.

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Browning Describes Incel’s Misogyny

Daniel Gabriel Rosetti, “Lady Lilith”

Thursday

Like many who have been following the horrific Toronto van attack and its aftermath, I am learning about “incels” for the first time. The more I learn, the more the killer sounds like the speaker in Robert Browning’s deeply creepy poem “Porphyria’s Lover.”

Alek Minassian proclaimed the arrival of “the incel rebellion” on Facebook directly before plowing his vehicle into Toronto pedestrians. Terrorism expert Simon Cottee explains that “incel,” short for “involuntarily celibate,” is “a badge of honor among a fringe online subculture of misogynists who say they hate women for depriving them of sex.”

Cottee says that the resemblance between the van attack and attacks by ISIS-inspired fundamentalists is not accidental because both incels and ISIS have a similar relationship to sex and to women.  Here’s Cottee’s description of incel psychology:

Among those who identify with the “incel” movement, there is a pathological fixation on sex and women, and there is a self-pitying perception that everyone else, except the community of “incels,” is having sex. Women are craved, but they are also reviled for what the incels believe is their selective promiscuity: They seem to be having sex with everyone but them. This is internalized as a grave personal insult. The function of the “incel” movement is to transform that personal grievance into an ideology that casts women as despicable sexual objects.

The core emotion that animates “incels” is sexual shame. It’s not just that these men are sexually frustrated; it’s that they are ashamed of their sexual failure. At the same time, they are resentful of the sexual success of others, which amplifies their own sense of inadequacy. This explains why they gravitate toward an online subculture that strives to rationalize their shame and redirect the blame for their failure onto women.

Cottee identifies a similar psychology at play amongst jihadists:

Like incels, jihadists similarly crave sex, but the circumstances surrounding its consummation are closely regulated by their religious norms, which prohibit sex outside of marriage and same-sex couplings. Among jihadists, even masturbation is frowned upon, although Osama bin Laden famously issued a masturbation fatwa, permitting it in times of urgent need.

These men simultaneously want women to have sex with them and hate them for being sexual beings. Cottee provides a couple of examples:

Sayyid Qutb, the grandfather of jihadist ideology, was disgusted by Americans’ sexual license during the 1950s, yet he was clearly viscerally excited by its spectacle. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, instructed in his will that his body be prepared for burial by “good Muslims” and that no woman was to go near it, presumably because he found them dirty and spiritually contaminating. This aversion to women didn’t stop him from visiting a strip club just before the attack, but it did prevent him from shaking women’s hands. One extremist reportedly told the terrorism scholar Jessica Stern that he was “vaginally defeated.”

We see a similar dynamic amongst those Christian fundamentalist pastors and politicians who rail on behalf of “family values” and are then discovered to have had illicit affairs.

The speaker in “Porphria’s Lover” has a sexual assignation with Porphryia in a remote cabin. When she “glides” through the door, she appears to be an embodiment of his fantasy woman. In this way he differs from incels since, after all, he has a woman who wants to make love with him.

Seen another way, however, the progression is exactly what one sees in incels. At first, the woman is a fantasy, but when the fantasy changes into a real flesh and blood woman with sexual desires, the speaker shifts from adulation to disgust. Projecting his sense of sexual shame onto her, he notices her “soiled gloves” and her “damp hair”:

[S]he rose, and from her form 
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl, 
       And laid her soiled gloves by, untied 
Her hat and let the damp hair fall…

As the woman becomes amorous, the speaker is frozen in place. Nor can the woman get him to stir, no matter how hard she tries, leaving him feeingl all the more emasculated:

And, last, she sat down by my side 
       And called me. When no voice replied, 
She put my arm about her waist, 
       And made her smooth white shoulder bare, 
And all her yellow hair displaced, 
       And, stooping, made my cheek lie there, 
       And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair, 
Murmuring how she loved me…

It is after Porphyria leans her head against the speaker that he realizes his way out of his conflicted feelings. If she could just stay passive like this forever, he would no longer feel unmanned. Like the Toronto killer, he does what he feels is necessary:

That moment she was mine, mine, fair, 
       Perfectly pure and good: I found 
A thing to do, and all her hair 
       In one long yellow string I wound 
       Three times her little throat around, 
And strangled her.

The result is the perfect woman. Because death has obliterated her sexual desires, she once again resembles the woman of his dreams:

I warily oped her lids: again 
       Laughed the blue eyes without a stain. 
And I untightened next the tress 
       About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss: 
       I propped her head up as before, 
       Only, this time my shoulder bore 
Her head, which droops upon it still: 
       The smiling rosy little head, 
So glad it has its utmost will, 
       That all it scorned at once is fled, 
       And I, its love, am gained instead! 

Although we have never seen Porphyria scorn him, in the speaker’s head this has been the case. Such scorn is now at an end.

Supposedly virgins in paradise await ISIS members who sacrifice themselves for the cause. This of course is an impossible contradiction given that the women would no longer be virgins if they pleasured the men and would therefore be subject to the same disillusion voiced by Porphyria’s lover. The misogyny exhibited by terrorists, whether fundamentalist or incel, is terrifying in its circularity.

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Once More into a War, Dear Friends

Battle of Agincourt

Wednesday

It appears that, by appointing John Bolton as National Security Adviser, Donald Trump has added recklessness to incompetence in the management of foreign affairs. Over the weekend, we learned that members of the Trump administration want to attack Iran, as seen in their claim that “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” (Following the resulting furor, they changed “has” to “had” and blamed “a clerical error.”) Bolton was one of the neocons who urged the United States to wage a two front-war following 9-11, bringing to mind the figure of Canterbury in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Canterbury wants Henry to attack France, and trots out bellicose rhetoric to persuade him:

Gracious lord,
Stand for your own; unwind your bloody flag;
Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play’d a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France…

The king, however, worries that the Scots will take advantage of his absence. One of his advisors articulates his concern:

For once the eagle England being in prey,
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs,
Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat.

Canterbury, like Bolton, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, thinks that his country is so powerful that it can fight on multiple fronts. Take a fourth of your force to France, he advises the king, and leave the rest at home. In a sequence of analogies, he notes that England can achieve multiple victories “without defeat.” If fact, England deserves to “lose the name of hardiness and policy if it cannot “defend our own doors from the dog”:

As many arrows, loosed several ways,
Come to one mark; as many ways meet in one town;
As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea;
As many lines close in the dial’s centre;
So may a thousand actions, once afoot.
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat. Therefore to France, my liege.
Divide your happy England into four;
Whereof take you one quarter into France,
And you withal shall make all Gallia shake.
If we, with thrice such powers left at home,
Cannot defend our own doors from the dog,
Let us be worried and our nation lose
The name of hardiness and policy.

Canterbury and Bolton both seem justified in the short run. Canterbury can point to a great British victory and Bolton to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Fifteen years after Agincourt, however, the English were on the run, and the psychological and economic costs led to the War of the Roses and the end of Henry’s line.

If Trump adds Iran to Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans can expect a similar future.

Further Note: My Shakespearean colleague Beth Charlebois points out to me that Shakespeare points to this very outcome in the play’s epilogue:

Fortune made his [Henry V’s] sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed…

George W. Bush made both America and the Middle East bleed, and now it appears that Trump wants to do so as well.

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Inducting Students into an Honor Society

Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Scholar”

Tuesday

Yesterday, right before the St. Mary’s English Department kicked off a full day of senior project presentations, we inducted students into Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. Members of the department alternated reading passages from a script, which I share with you here because it’s got some great literary passages.

STD (what an unfortunate acronym!) was founded in 1924, which accounts for the quaint language in the ceremony. It also reflects the missionary view of literature propounded by such literary critics as F. R. Leavis. It is a view that got lost and that this blog is trying to resurrect, although I can’t pull off the ceremony’s grand tone and see the process as a bit more complicated. My colleagues often delivered their lines with a wry smile, as if to say, “This may sound over the top but, sure, why not?”

After setting forth the mission of the society, which includes promoting interest in literature and serving society by fostering literacy, we launched into the heart of the ceremony. I’m particularly struck by the emphasis on “sincerity” in addition to “truth.” The one speaks to the heart, the other to the head.

There is also mention of “design,” which I read as an emphasis on text and how words are put together on the page. When all is said and done, this is where we in literature departments take our final stand.

Department Chair:  Willa Cather once wrote, “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”  Likewise, the history of Sigma Tau Delta, begins in the hearts of its members—in their willingness to put thought into action.  The foundation of any organization lies in the sincerity of its members.  Without your willingness to stand, to be recognized, and to join with others, there would not be any Sigma Tau Delta.  Inductees, we recognize your commitment and your sincerity.  Together we can strengthen the foundation of our society and look forward in unity and purpose.

Faculty Advisor:  Sincerity in all things is vital to the creation of Sigma Tau Delta, as is our commitment to the truth that is vital to our shared vision.

 Third Reader:  Henry David Thoreau once said, “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to listen.” As members of Sigma Tau Delta, you understand the importance of communication, the value of listening, and the significance of expression.  You have proven yourselves capable of comprehending the English language and of pursuing the truth in works of literature.  Being a member of Sigma Tau Delta, and the English community as a whole requires that you continue these efforts and prepare yourselves to take the truths you have found here into the world, sharing with others your joy and appreciation of our discipline.  Truth cannot exist in a vacuum.  Like any art form, it must be shared to be understood.

Faculty Advisor:  As you prepare yourselves to discover truth, rest assured that the structure and traditions of Sigma Tau Delta will aid you.  The last element of our motto— design—exemplifies this point.

Fourth Reader:  William Shakespeare wrote, “As many arrows, loosed several ways, / Fly to one mark; as many ways meet in one small town; / As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea . . . So may a thousand actions, once afoot, / End in one purpose, and be all well borne / Without defeat.” We are like these many arrows, each coming from a different source, each with unique talents and varied interest; but as members of Sigma Tau Delta, we all promise to support one another and focus our energies to the Society’s goals.  We follow the design laid out before us, assured that our strength of intent and clarity of purpose will assist us in our aims.

Faculty Advisor:  Sincerity, Truth, and Design embody the basis, the purpose, and the structure of Sigma Tau Delta.  Without an understanding and an appreciation of these elements, our society would crumble.  Inductees, if you comprehend and accept our society motto as stated—Sincerity, Truth, and Design—please say “I do.”

[I do]

Faculty Advisor:  Then will you please repeat after me the pledge and the motto of our society:

“I shall endeavor to advance the study. . . . of the chief literary masterpieces. . . .[and also the literature of traditionally under-represented groups]. . . . and also to encourage worthwhile reading . . . to promote the mastery of written expression . . . and to foster a spirit of fellowship. . . among those who specialize in the study of the English language and English literature. . . ever keeping in mind our international motto. . . Sincerity, Truth, Design.”

We, as the faculty representatives of Sigma Tau Delta, are honored to recognize you as esteemed members.

Following the awarding of the certificate, the faculty advisor brought the ceremony to a close:

 Faculty Advisor:  Inductees, you have fulfilled your obligations necessary to join Sigma Tau Delta.  You have expressed your commitment to Sincerity, your devotion to Truth, and your dedication to Design.

And now, we will leave you, as newly inducted members of Sigma Tau Delta, with words by Emily Dickinson.  Please carry them with you as you grow with our organization:

We never know how high we are
Til we are called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies.

For the record, the Willa Cather passage is from O Pioneers!, the Shakespeare passage from Henry V. There’s a lot of striving imagery (with Agincourt on the horizon), maybe reflective of 1920’s American confidence. I’m only surprised that STD’s founders didn’t include Robert Browning’s “A man’s grasp should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”

Oh, and our chapter added the phrase “the literature of traditionally under-represented groups.” If we’re calling on students to go out and preach the word, we need to make a least that update.

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A River Poem in Memory of My Son

Danielle (Hersey) da Silva, “Church Point, St. Mary’s River”

Monday

Poet Jeanne Vote, whose children grew up with ours, several years ago penned this gorgeous poem about my son Justin. Justin died 19 years ago today in the St. Mary’s River.

Jeanne says she had a vision of Justin while looking out at a sailboat one evening.

I have received several poems about Justin over the years but never one as beautiful as this. Justin was a joyous soul, always singing and smiling, and many reported that their hearts lifted and their souls opened when they met him. Jeanne’s nature imagery captures this.

The art work too calls for explanation. Danielle (Hersey) da Silva was one of Justin’s closest friends. A first-year art major at the time of his death, she would go on to execute a remarkable series of four water colors three years later. The first showed a dark tangle of trees, to which Danielle appended Dante’s Inferno passage describing himself lost in a “dark wood.” In each subsequent painting, the woods begin to open up.

In the final painting (above), the trees part to show a view of the river, and a light shimmers in the place where Justin went under. The sequence captures Danielle’s spiritual journey from despair to hope. The final painting won the “Senior Purchase Award”–the college purchases an outstanding student work each year–and it now sits in my office. The college and Danielle are allowing me to take it with me when I retire.

Although Danielle’s painting depicts the river during the day, like Jeanne’s nighttime poem it captures the “sparkling light path [that] cuts across dark water.” “He is made one with nature” reads the tombstone that we placed in the cemetery that looks down upon the the scene in Danielle’s painting. Herons and egrets throng the shore.

Oh my beloved Justin, my luminous sailor, may you be embraced by the long arms of the moon.

river night

By Jeanne Vote

a small red boat
sits offshore, alone
waiting

one full moon
a sparkling light path cuts
across dark water

iridescent sails lift
music of a million wings
warm, golden unfamiliar sounds
random as fireflies

oysters slowly open
hidden crabs surface
great blues and snowy white egrets
line the beach

the sailor appears
skin luminous, moving
with perfect precision
the heart visible

soft scent breathing
winter jasmine, spring honeysuckle
summer lavender
autumn forget-me-nots

calm winds and following seas
my love, embrace
the long arms of the moon

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Islamic Philosophy vs. Muslim Fanatics

Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes)

Spiritual Sunday

Today I go into a debate in Salman Rushdie’s fantasy novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights between  two medieval Islamic theologians. The imagined debate between Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes) and al-Ghazali illuminates much of the religious infighting we are witnessing, and not only amongst Muslims.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ibn Rushd was a 12th century philosopher who believed that God gave us Reason to understand creation. The 11th century philosopher Ghazali, on the other hand (this according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) saw God rather than natural laws as the basis of reality. In other words, the debate was set within Islam between Reason and what Rushdie regards as blind faith.

Like Rushdie, I’m in the Ibn Rushd camp. In the Episcopal Church we sometimes say that, when we enter a church, we don’t check our brain at the door. God gave us this great gift to use it. Or as the Internet Encyclopedia puts it,

Ibn Rushd strived to demonstrate that without engaging religion critically and philosophically, deeper meanings of the tradition can be lost, ultimately leading to deviant and incorrect understandings of the divine.

Of course, we must guard against the sin of pride, as John Wilmot warns us in Satyr against Reason and Mankind. We can too full of ourselves if we don’t let God guide us. (See Frankenstein.)

In his novel, jinn awaken the corpses of Ibn Rushd and Ghazli, who debate from their crypts:

“Let us think of the human race as if it were a single human being,” Ibn Rushd proposed. “A child understands nothing, and clings to faith because it lacks knowledge. The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind’s long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age. It is not that God does not exist but that like any proud parent he awaits the day when his child can stand on its own two feet, make its own way in the world, and be free of its dependence upon him.”

“As long as you argue from God,” Ghazali replied, “as long as you feebly try to reconcile the rational and the scred, you will never defeat me. Why don’t you just admit you’re an unbeliever and we can take if from there. Observe who your descendants are, the godless scum of the West and East. Your words resonate only in the minds of kafirs [African blacks]. The followers of truth have forgotten you. The followers of truth know that it is reason and science that are the true juvenilia of the human mind. Faith is our gift from God and reason is our adolescent rebellion against it. When we are a;dult we will turn wholly to faith as we were born to do.”

“You will see, as time goes by,” said Ibn Rushd, “that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand one one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.”

“There,” said Ghazali,. “Good. Now, father of many bastards, you begin to speak like the blasphemer you are.” Then he turned to matters of eschatology, which, he said, was now his preferred topic, and he spoke for a long time about the end of days, with a kind of relish that puzzled and distressed Ibn Rushd.

And further on:

For what the living call life is a worthless triviality when compared to the life to come.

There are fundamentalist Christians who also believe this, making Ibn Rushd’s puzzlement relevant to more than just Muslim. As Ibn Rushd complains to the good jinn Dunia, Ghazali

believes that God has set out to destroy his creation, slowly, enigmatically, without explanation; to confuse Man into destroying himself. Ghazali faces that prospect with equanimity, and not only because he himself is already dead. For him, life on earth is just an anteroom, or a doorway. Eternity is the real world.

It so happens that Ghazali has released a dark jinn from a bottle and told him to instill fear in humans, thereby bringing them to God:

“Teach them,” Ghazali said, “Teach them the tongue of the divine Just-Is. The instruction should be intensive, severe, even, one could say, fearsome. Remember what I told you about fear. Fear is man’s fate. Man is born afraid, of the dark, of the unknown, of strangers of failure, and of women. Fear leads him towards faith, not as a cure for fear, but as an acceptance that the fear of God is the natural and proper condition of man’s lot. Teach them to fear the improper use of words. There is no crime the Almighty finds more unforgivable.”

“I can do that,” said Zummurud the Great. “They’ll be speaking my way soon enough.”

“Not yours,” Ghazali corrected him, but only mildly. When one was dealing with a Grand Ifrit one had to make certain allowances for his vast egotism.

Zummurud will not be the last Ghazali descendant to set himself up in place of God. In fact, the terror he, in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups, would horrify Ghazali:

As Ghazali would soon discover, however, sending the most potent of the dark jinn down the path of extreme violence could have results that alarmed the sender. The student soon surpassed the master.

Ibn Rushd is given one last chance for a counterargument:

The enemy is stupid. That is ground for hope. There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.

Philosophy does not get the last word in this novel, however. Though the good jinn Dunia (“the World”) once loved Ibn Rushd, in the end she opts for Geronimo the gardener, who resists the human urge to go flying off into abstractions and ideologies and finds a way to keep his feet planted on the ground. This is a metaphor that becomes literal in Rushdie’s fantasy, as, under the onslaught of the dark jinn, much of the human race suddenly find themselves floating upward.

Geronimo (originally Hieronymus in India but it becomes Americanized) helps Dunia thwart the forces of fanaticism. The jinn who fell in love with Ibn Rushd’s mind also finds that she loves humans’ love for the earth.

When I think of the earth vs. abstraction battle, I am reminded of Robert Frost’s poem about climbing birches:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

With her grounded forces, Dunia leads the charge against jinn fanatics and wins the day for humanity. This is the battle that Rushdie himself has been fighting in book after book, earning a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for writing Satanic Verses. With his earthy, carnivalesque fiction, the Indian author refuses to fit neatly into any ideology. We read him to keep ourselves grounded.

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Remembering Rachel: Joyous, Pulsing

Author Rachel Kranz

Friday

Tomorrow my son Darien and I will drive up to New York to attend the memorial service of my dear friend Rachel Kranz, whom Darien grew up thinking of as an aunt. I have been asked to deliver remarks at the occasion and decided to talk about Rachel’s two novels, one published and one unfinished. Here is what I plan to say.

While I have many, many memories of Rachel, going all the way back to when she walked into the Carleton College newspaper office in September, 1971, I will use my time to honor her the way that I honor the writers I teach in my literature classes—which is to say, using their works as windows into the soul.

Of all the identities that Rachel claimed for herself, first and foremost she thought of herself as a novelist. This may seem strange to outsiders since, of the scores of books that have her name attached to them, only three were novels. One went unpublished, one was Leaps of Faith, and one was the unfinished Mastery. Some of us who were reading early versions of Mastery thought it would be a masterpiece.

I first look back at Leaps of Faith, published by Farrar Straus in 2000. If every character in a novel represents some dimension of the author, then Rachel is the psychic reader Warren, the actor Flip, the experimental theater director Ellen, and the union organizer Rosie. Flip and Warren are trying to make a relationship work at the same time that Flip is pursuing an acting career and Warren is fathering a biracial niece that his mentally unstable sister has dumped on him. Ellen, meanwhile, fights insecurities as she deals with temperamental actors, and Rosie strives to do the impossible, which is unionize workers at a Manhattan university—which we know, from Rachel’s own unionizing work, to be Columbia. In other words, they are juggling multiple balls and trying to do so with integrity, even as the world confronts them with work demands, social, racial, and economic inequities, and relationship challenges.

The novel is alternately brilliant and rambling as Rachel strives to do justice to life’s complications, including her own complicated balancing act of writing, ghostwriting, activism, theater, poker playing, health maintenance, and family and friends. Of all literary genres, the novel is best suited for such variety. In Leaps of Faith, no character receives anything less than her full attention, her full intelligence, and her full honesty, which is how she always was with those gathered here. The “leaps of faith” in the title reflect her abiding belief that, even when all the odds seem stacked against you, we must keep fighting because the unexpected can happen. Flip finds acting jobs, Flip and Warren get married, Warren bonds with his niece, Ellen pulls off her play, and Rosie, like the Columbia unionizers, improbably succeeds.

I find Mastery to be an even more personal work, partly because Rachel wrestles so earnestly with what it means to care deeply for a world that perpetuates oppression and cruelty. At one point Rachel realized she was following Hamlet’s plot and his lament, “The time is out of joint. Oh cursèd spite/That ever I was born to set it right.” Both Hamlet and Warren are guided by ghosts.

Although Mastery would probably have been as lengthy as Leaps of Faith, if not longer, it has a tighter structure. Warren, the character with whom Rachel most identifies, finds himself visited by figures from America’s slave past. He figures out that the visitations are somehow connected with his family’s wealth, and the novel becomes a mystery, with Warren embarking on a journey to discover the source of the inheritance.

The mystery structure allows Rachel to explore the legacy of slavery and the way that we continue to be impacted by it, whether as black victims or white beneficiaries. In certain respects, the novel resembles Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which Rachel considered one of America’s greatest novels.

Warren’s research takes him back to a particularly dark time, the year 1859, when anti-slavery efforts were splintering and it appeared that human bondage would never end. In other words, it was a year when Rachel’s faith in social activism would have been tested to the max. We meet a wide variety of characters, including a northern abolitionist who goes south to investigate slavery; two homosexual slave traders; an Irish clerk who has a feel for money; a black slave owner and his mulatto slave; and others. Some of these figures reach through time to speak to Warren.

Rachel had almost completed the first three parts of her novel, which conclude with Warren figuring out the crime that has led to the visitations. Or perhaps he hasn’t, Warren doesn’t know for sure. He does, however, have a much better understanding of how slavery operated and how this history continues to impact us.

If Mastery were only a mystery, then it could end there. But Rachel insisted that it have a fourth part, in which Warren explores what to do with all the knowledge he has gathered. Historical mysteries involve people observing the past, and Rachel was not content to observe. She wanted to know how we can enter history.

Part IV, which runs to 46 singled-spaced type pages, doesn’t yield ready answers, which frustrated Rachel no end. By tracing the slave trade backward—from New Orleans to Jamaica to Senegal—Warren wants to learn how people resisted. Perhaps they can tell him what he himself should do. Unfortunately, the answers are indefinite.

Through it all, Warren feels the pain of the past. Or at least he does so until he decides to wash his hands of history. This is where I feel most in touch with the essential Rachel. Warren’s pain was Rachel’s pain. She was so distressed by injustice, felt it so deep in her bones, that it weighed her down. When Warren fantasizes about being free of these responsibilities, even if it means giving up his psychic powers, I imagine Rachel thinking the same. Indeed, we viscerally experience Warren’s relief when he loses his power and is freed from the painful visitations. As he sees it, he has gained mastery over his emotions.

But that freedom and that mastery represent an existential death. If Warren were to cut himself off from history, he would betray his best self. Therefore, in the concluding paragraphs, he acknowledges his link to history. Once he does so, the psychic connection comes back, as does all of humanity’s suffering. For Rachel, there was no other choice.

The novel’s ending dazzles me the way that The Great Gatsby’s ending dazzles me. When Warren is invited to give up his name in these final lines, he is being asked to deny history and his connection to it. This he cannot do any more that Rachel could do it:

The rotting bodies, the swamp, the stench.  The surging voices, the broken lives.  And knowing that I’m part of it.  No matter what I do, no matter what I ever do, the best and the worst of me have come from here. 

It’s not your fault, I can hear him say. And it isn’t. But it is.  

Just give me your name. Will you give me your name?  

The drumming is louder, the dancers wilder. What can that body do?

It’s not your fault, he says again, and it isn’t.  But it is. How did Jimmy put it? One big body all flowin with money. No matter what I do, I keep it going. The only choice is whether I’ll also help it stop.  

I look at the dancers, white shadows in the darkness. And I know, watching them, that I’ll never know what they know. I’ll never have their memories, their meaning, their pain. Not unless they tell me.  

No, I say, feeling the stench, the weight. Not my name, no. You can’t have that. And it comes so suddenly, it’s like the crack of a whip, that surge of energy that almost knocks me down. The machines that made their dresses, and the men who made the machines. The trees cut down to make the drums, and the axe that swung against each tree. The blood that flows like money, the money that dazzles like light. You’ll never be free of it, he says, and I say, I know. And piece by piece the world comes to life around me—It burns, it burns, this living world—useless, amputated, angry, bereft, joyous, pulsing, here—

Rachel insisted on experiencing that living world in all its many guises. However hot it burned, she needed to be in the flames. We loved her for her passionate engagement and find that, with her gone, the fire burns less bright.

We owe it to her to keep the fire going.

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D. H. Lawrence: People in Thrall to Things

Wilson as 1920s American expat in”Midnight in Paris”

Thursday

My colleague Ben Click alerted me to the D. H. Lawrence short story “Things” recently when I was talking about what to take into retirement. The 1928 story is a somewhat nasty account of two American idealists who romantically venture off to Europe and then, disillusioned, return to America with less money but a whole lot of stuff. As I try to figure out what to do with our own stuff, the story struck a chord.

Lawrence sets European culture against American materialism, and no one comes out very well. As their stay in Italy lengthens, Erasmus and Valerie Melville discover that their acquisitions undergo a diminishment:

[I]n the long hours after lunch; and in the long, usually very cold and oppressive evenings in the ancient palazzo: then the halo died from around the furniture, and the things became things, lumps of matter that just stood there or hung there, ad infinitum, and said nothing; and Valerie and Erasmus almost hated them. The glow of beauty, like every other glow, dies down unless it is fed. The idealists still dearly loved their things. But they had got them. And the sad fact is, things that glow vividly while you’re getting them go almost quite cold after a year or two.

Nevertheless, they can’t bear to part with a single item when they return to New York. After all, these “things” are a sign of cultural sophistication, a distant echo of the rich interior life they envisioned for themselves. Self-doubt creeps in, as does the practical matter of storage:

 The chunk of Europe which they had bitten off went into a warehouse, at fifty dollars a month. And they sat in two small rooms and a kitchenette, and wondered why they’d done it.

Occasionally, for two dollars, they spend “a brief, bitter hour [looking] at their “things.” Burdensome though their possessions have become, the couple can’t bear to part with them:

[Valerie] could have sold her furniture for a substantial sum. But nothing would have induced her to. Whatever else passed away — religions, cultures, continents, and hopes — Valerie would NEVER part from the “things” which she and Erasmus had collected with such passion. To these she was nailed.

The story ends on a sardonic note that we can see coming from the very first sentence. Erasmus settles for a job teaching Spanish, Italian and French literature at Cleveland University, and Valerie is able to restore the halo their “things” by showing them off to smitten Americans. It’s a bit like Humbert Humbert impressing Charlotte Haze and her small New England town with his European ways, and the couple ups the snobbery ante by pretending to be above snobbery:

And when they were in their up-to-date little house on the college lot of Cleveland University, and that woe-begone débris of Europe — Bologna cupboard, Venice book-shelves, Ravenna bishop’s chair, Louis Quinze side-tables, “Chartres” curtains, Siena bronze lamps — all were arrayed, and all looked perfectly out of keeping, and therefore very impressive; and when the idealists had had a bunch of gaping people in, and Erasmus had showed off in his best European manner, but still quite cordial and American, and Valerie had been most ladylike, but for all that “we prefer America”; then Erasmus said, looking at her with the queer sharp eyes of a rat:—

“Europe’s the mayonnaise all right, but America supplies the good old lobster — what?”

“Every time!” she said, with satisfaction.

The “what” gives away Erasmus, whom I would not want for a professor. Literature for him, I suspect, is just another possession to show off and feel superior about, which is why he takes on “a queer, evil, scholastic look, of pure skepticism.” This would not be occurring if he were guiding his students into the rich pathways that literature opens up.

But returning to the subject of my own things, should I be more ruthless as I cull through them. Should I apply a halo test, where an item either glows or it goes? How much do we need “things” to anchor cherished memories?

I’m still trying to figure this one out.

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Jane Austen Explains Mansplaining

Feild, Jones in “Northanger Abbey”

Wednesday

Literary Hub‘s Kelly Coyne recently had a useful article about Jane Austen’s criticism of mansplaining that reminded me of a senior project that student Carolyn Zerhusen wrote under my guidance several years ago. Carolyn described Austen’s fury at inferior male authors who looked down on her. Coyne holds up Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney as Exhibit A.

She examines the scene where Tilney scolds Catherine Morland for suspecting that his father murdered his mother:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

Coyne notes that

Henry’s lecture fits within a tradition of Austen criticism that Eve Sedgwick calls the spectacle of “Girl Being Taught a Lesson,” in which a heroine is put in her place by the male lecturer. 

Coyne then quotes one of the women who introduced the concept of mansplaining. In her essay “Men Explain It to Me,” Rebecca Solnit recounts a parallel incident:

When [Solnit] was young, she had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One family event, the physicist recounted, “as though it were a light and amusing” story, “how a neighbor’s wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her.” Solnit asks the physicist how he knew that the husband wasn’t trying to kill his wife. Of course, his explanation is just like Henry’s. The husband wouldn’t kill her, he explains gently, because “they were respectable middle-class people.” Thus “it was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her.” It’s a frightening story, but one that repeats itself again and again.

Mansplaining, Coyne explains, can undermine a woman’s instincts and cause her to doubt her intuition. In Catherine’s case, she is right that something is amiss, even though the general hasn’t in fact killed his wife. He has been a tyrannical husband, however, and he shows his true character when he unceremoniously kicks Catherine out of Northanger Abbey upon learnining that she has less of a fortune than he thought.. Catherine’s familiarity with gothic villains hasn’t entirely led her astray.

We have early indications that Henry Tilney is a mansplainer. At one point, for instance, we learn that he is attracted to Catherine because he can explain things to her: Austen wryly explains how this works:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Austen goes on to say that “to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms,” and she shows how Catherine’s naiveté feeds Henry’s vanity:

But Catherine did not know her own advantages—did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. 

I’d like to mount a partial defense of Tilney, however, who after all is the most sensitive of all Austen’s leading men. For one thing, he allows his sister to chastise him after he calls out Catherine for using the word “nice”:

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

In other words, although guilty of mansplaining, Tilney is also open to correction. With this in mind, we should revisit his later scolding of Catherine. I pick up uncharacteristic defensiveness in his reference to “every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.” Perhaps the general’s harsh treatment of his mother became a subject for neighborhood gossip and Tilney felt ashamed, especially since he felt powerless to protect her. Thus, when Catherine sees to the core of the general, he feels once again exposed and lashes out. His father more than Catherine is the real subject of his anger. In any event, he makes it up to her by braving his father’s wrath and coming to see her after she is kicked out of the house.

Mansplaining has its roots in male insecurity, which is why feminism, in this as in so many areas, liberates men as well as women. If men don’t feel pressured to come across as superior know-it-alls, they can have genuine conversations with women. Everyone benefits.

Further thoughts: In her article, Coyne fails to distinguish between sensitive and insensitive mansplainers. Austen’s novels are filled with egregious examples of the latter: John Thorpe, for instance, and Mr. Collins. For a counter example, Captain Harville in Persuasion catches himself in the act of mansplaining, which in turn leads to a powerful feminist insight. He and Anne Elliot are arguing about women’s constancy:

“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.”

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Caught in a Town’s Suffocating Embrace

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday

I recently received a fascinating 100 Years of Solitude essay from a student in my Magical Realism class. When Faith Wallace, who grew up in rural Maryland, read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, she recognized a familiar dilemma. Picturesque though the town of Macondo may be, it becomes a trap for those raised in it.

To explain her response to the novel, Faith talked about having had a fiancé who had their whole life planned for them. They would never leave the southern part of the state where they grew up but would have a family there and be content. Attending St. Mary’s College opened Faith’s eyes to the larger world. Ultimately, she chose to break off the engagement and explore that world and her own potential within it.

When discussing her essay with her, I recommended that Faith also read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where the protagonist, who like Faith has recently lost a mother, turns to marriage for its comfort and security.  Her best friend describes the house into which Dellarobia moves as a roach motel: once one enters, one never leaves. College, however, provides an escape route for Dellarobia, as it has for Faith.

In 100 Years, the fear of being locked in a community’s suffocating embrace appears in the matriarch’s fears of incest. When Ursula marries her cousin Jose Arcadio Buendia. she fears that they will have a child with a pig’s tail and resists having sex with him until he kills a neighbor for questioning his manhood. They flee together into the Amazon rain forest and found the town of Macondo.

Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss says the incest taboo is universal, not so much because of potential genetic deformities as because of the very real danger that the community will fragment into individual families. The fact that 100 Years ends with a pig-tailed baby and the collapse of the Buendia house graphically makes the point. “Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude,” Garcia Marquez solemnly intones in the novel’s final sentence, “[do] not have a second opportunity on earth.”

In her essay, Faith reported on an insulting southern Maryland slur that captures this symbolism. Those who confine themselves to St. Mary’s County are sometimes called SMIBs, an acronym for “Southern Maryland Inbred.” Whether or not actual instances of incest occur in our area, the acronym certainly signals the isolation–the solitude–that Faith feared for herself.

In her essay, Faith notes when the Buendias reach out beyond themselves and when they collapse inward. Ursula’s adopted daughter Rebeca, for instance, is set to marry dance instructor Pietro but marries instead Usula’s world-traveling son Jose Arcadio when he returns to Macondo. A horrified Ursula throws them out of the house, and when Jose Arcadio dies, Rebeca retreats into solitude.

Likewise, Ursula’s daughter Amaranta, next set to marry Pietro, instead falls in love with her nephew. Although she ultimately pulls away from him, she too retreats into solitude. In the Buendia household, those attracted to other Buendias up isolated from the rest of the world.

The drama repeats itself in the novel’s apocalyptic ending. Ursula Amaranta, Ursula’s great-great granddaughter, initially appears to have successfully left Macondo as she marries an interesting man and travels the world. Yet she obsesses about her childhood home and returns to restore it. Her husband, who has broad interests, finally becomes bored and leaves, after which Amaranta Ursula pairs up with her cousin. She thereupon gives birth to a child with a pig’s tale, who is eaten by red ants, while she herself dies of a hemorrhage. Her cousin is buried by a hurricane that the book describes as biblical.

I couldn’t very well counsel Faith to leave St. Mary’s County forever given that I myself am retiring to the town where I grew up. Ursula Amaranta’s mistake, however, is attempting to recreate her own childhood instead of finding a new life for herself. I don’t have that ambition, nor does Faith. Instead, she wants to discover the new woman who resides within her.

She couldn’t have chosen a better essay to end her college career, I told her.

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Filling Our Houses with Stuff

John R. Neill, Ozma about to be turned into bric-a-brac

Monday

We’re packing up our house to move and I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff we have accumulated over the years. We are disposing of boxes and boxes of bric-a-brac, a word I first encountered when reading Ozma of Oz as a child. L. Frank Baun’s third book in the Oz series captures how we become entrapped by “small articles commonly of ornamental or sentimental value” (Webster’s Dictionary).

In the novel, Oz’s new queen sets off to rescue the princess of Ev and her ten children, who have been sold to the Nome King by Ev’s king in exchange for a long life. The underground monarch turns them all into bric-a-brac and gives Ozma a choice: with eleven guesses she can either identify them or become bric-a-brac herself.

Ozma and her followers proceed to be added to the Nome king’s collection. Fortunately, Billina the hen overhears the king’s color coding system (purple for the Ev family, green for the Oz characters, etc.) and is able to free everyone.

Thematically, Baum may be criticizing early 20th century materialism. The Nome King runs an industrial empire that produces immense wealth, and the end result is rooms filled with bric-a-brac:

[Ozma] found herself in a splendid hall that was more beautiful and grand than anything she had ever beheld. The ceilings were composed of great arches that rose far above her head, and all the walls and floors were of polished marble exquisitely tinted in many colors. Thick velvet carpets were on the floor and heavy silken draperies covered the arches leading to the various rooms of the palace. The furniture was made of rare old woods richly carved and covered with delicate satins, and the entire palace was lighted by a mysterious rosy glow that seemed to come from no particular place but flooded each apartment with its soft and pleasing radiance.

Ozma passed from one room to another, greatly delighted by all she saw. The lovely palace had no other occupant, for the Nome King had left her at the entrance, which closed behind her, and in all the magnificent rooms there appeared to be no other person.

Upon the mantels, and on many shelves and brackets and tables, were clustered ornaments of every description, seemingly made out of all sorts of metals, glass, china, stones and marbles. There were vases, and figures of men and animals, and graven platters and bowls, and mosaics of precious gems, and many other things. Pictures, too, were on the walls, and the underground palace was quite a museum of rare and curious and costly objects.

For all his magnificence, the Nome King lacks taste. In their 1897 book The Decoration of Houses, which appeared ten years before Ozma of Oz, Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr. discussed the need to limit one’s bric-a-brac for fear that it will cover up the elegant lines of a house. Questioning whether beauty can be achieved by “the indiscriminate amassing of “ornaments,’” the authors go on to conclude,

Decorators know how much the simplicity and dignity of a good room are diminished by crowding it with useless trifles. Their absence improves even bad rooms, or makes them at least less multitudinously bad. It is surprising to note how the removal of an accumulation of knick-knacks will free the architectural lines and restore the furniture to its rightful relation with the walls.

I am here to testify that removing bric-a-brac from a house does indeed restore architectural lines. Not that the architectural lines in our cookie cutter house are all that interesting. Nevertheless, I’m realizing the degree to which bric-a-brac, even bric-a-brac that has personal meaning, clutter up our spaces.

In Wharton’s and Codman’s eyes, accumulating bric-a-brac indicates vulgarity. Especially bad is when the bric-a-brac is expensive:

The one-dollar china pug is less harmful than an expensive onyx lamp-stand with moulded bronze mountings dipped in liquid gilding. It is one of the misfortunes of the present time that the most preposterously bad things often possess the powerful allurement of being expensive. One might think it an advantage that they are not within every one’s reach; but, as a matter of fact, it is their very unattainableness which, by making them more desirable, leads to the production of that worst curse of modern civilization—cheap copies of costly horrors.

Wharton wrote her book at the same time that Thorstein Veblen was writing The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” America was well on its way to becoming a modern consumer society, and people used bric-a-brac to persuade themselves they had achieved middle class status.

As I sort through our worldly possession, I am reminded how enmeshed I am in consumer society. How much more money would Julia and I have had for, say, travel or charity had we not spent it on all this stuff?

Recall that, in Ozma of Oz, Ev’s royal family becomes bric-a-brac because the king fails to value what is most important. Ultimately, he experiences remorse and leaps into the sea. Ozma, by contrast, prioritizes people over things. It’s a lesson we must keep teaching ourselves.

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You Must Sit Down, Says Love

Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet”

Spiritual Sunday

Like many people, I love the 23rd psalm above all other psalms, and it has inspired some of the most gorgeous hymns in the Episcopalian hymnal. As the psalm is part of today’s liturgy, I am eager to learn which of those hymns we will be singing.

The 23rd psalm also provides the foundational image for one of George Herbert’s most beloved poems. In Psalmist confidently declares, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” and although Herbert’s anxiious speaker is far less assured, the table is prepared for him all the same:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

In church today, I will attempt to open myself up and allow myself to be served.

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Comey vs. Trump, Two Alpha Dogs

Friday

I must confess to having very mixed feelings about former FBI head James Comey as he goes around country promoting his book. On the one hand, I agree with Vox’s Matt Yglesias that we are in desperate need of public officials standing up for the rule of law. It takes courage to argue against the president for institutional independence and autonomy, and Comey got fired when he did so. On the other hand, Comey flouting FBI protocol is a big reason why Donald Trump is president.

Comey’s battle with Trump reminds me of Milkman’s battle with his father in Song of Solomon. Toni Morrison’s protagonist has right on his side when he defends his mother, but he also operates out of a male sense of entitlement.

The scene occurs when Macon Dead hits his wife. For the first time in his life, Milkman pushes back:

Macon didn’t wait to put his fork down. He dropped it on the table while his hand was on its way across the bread plate becoming the fist he smashed into her jaw.

…Before his father could draw his hand back, Milkman had yanked him by the back of his coat collar, up out of his chair, and knocked him into the radiator. The window shade flapped and rolled itself up.

“You touch her again, one more time, and I’ll kill you.”

The moment marks a turning point in their relationship. Milkman later learns, however, that his much put-upon sister Lena is not impressed. For years she has resented how her brother receives preferential treatment while she and the other Dead daughter must live narrow lives. Pointing out that Milkman accepts female caretaking as his due, she unleashes a bitter tirade:

“Where do you get the right to decide our lives?”

“Lena, cool it. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs. Well, let me tell you something, baby brother. You will need more than that….You are exactly like [our father]. Exactly. I didn’t go to college because of him. Because I was afraid of what he might do to Mama. You think because you hit him once that we all believe you were protecting her. Taking her side. It’s a lie. You were taking over, letting us know you had the right to tell her and all of us what to do.”

When Comey determined that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense (“no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case”), he should have let the Attorney General handle the matter. Instead, ignoring the direction of Loretta Lynch, he publicly scolded Clinton, even while absolving her. Then, a month before the election, he publicly mentioned finding new e-mails, which turned out to be old-e-mails. Nate Silver of 538, among others, believes the FBI raising new doubts about Clinton was the difference maker in a close election.

In other words, Comey used Clinton as a foil, beating up on her to establish himself as a noble warrior for truth. I can’t imagine him having done the same with, say, Colin Powell, Clinton’s predecessor, who also used a private e-mail server. As Huffington Post explains,

Here’s the thing: the Clinton investigation wasn’t an ordinary investigation, and that’s precisely why Comey should have shut up about it. He’s admitting that his July 2016 decision to publicly criticize Clinton was against FBI protocol. There’s policy in place to prevent FBI directors from doing things like making public statements or taking action that could directly affect an election, because the FBI director could have undue influence. Comey apparently felt that those rules didn’t apply to him.

As it turns out, he did follow protocol in the FBI’s investigation of Russian influence—set in motion by George Papadopoulos’s big mouth—which we heard about only after the election. The FBI investigations are supposed to be quiet until there’s a report, at which point the attorney general decides what to do. We know now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to accuse President Obama of election interference if he informed America of Russia’s attacks.

I think Comey is genuinely concerned about Trump’s assault on the rule of law and that, as Yglesias observes, anything else is secondary—just as Milkman’s defense of his mother takes priority over all else. And of course Trump, who believes the DOJ should function as his personal enforcers, is male entitlement personified.

But look at Comey through Lena’s eyes. He thought he knew better than a female attorney general how to handle a report on a female candidate. His comeuppance occurred after Trump was elected and he learned he was expected to be one of the president’s loyal flunkies. His male pride was offended as much as his sense of justice.

Further note: Jennifer Palmieri in a Politico article sums up James Comey’s intervention as succinctly as anyone:

His July 5th press conference, in which he appointed himself Hillary Clinton’s investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, was his original sin. 

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