Monthly Archives: May 2009

Swift’s Attack on Cynicism

Venturing into the heated atmosphere of Supreme Court confirmation politics yesterday is a nice lead-in to my topic for today, which is the temptation to become so disgusted with human behavior that we throw up our hands and walk away. Or, since walking away is not really an option, the fantasy of doing so. Jonathan […]

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Sotomayor and Latina “Bias”

I’m going to take a break from one political topic—the disillusion that some who voted for Barack Obama are experiencing or will experience (and the ability of Gulliver’s Travels to help idealists of all stripes to understand and work through disillusion)—to take on another. There is a (predictable) furor over President Obama’s choice of Sonia […]

Posted in Blume (Judy), Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Nabokov (Vladimir) | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

Silencing Inner Doubts through Fanaticism

Continuing the discussion on how Gulliver’s Travels can help us handle the challenges of political disillusion, I turn to Book II, where Gulliver finds himself stranded in the land of the giant Brobdingnags. In Book I, as I noted in the last entry, Gulliver can remain aloof from human perversity—and when, in the end, it […]

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Using Gullibility as a Shield vs. Disillusion

In Book I of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver lives in a world where he can be “above it all.” He can afford to be open-minded and generous because most issues don’t really affect him. Although he is, as his name suggests, gullible, it is gullibility that he can get away with. I stress this point because […]

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Swift, Obama, and Idealism

Like many Americans, I was excited, inspired, and rendered hopeful by the election of Barack Obama as president last November. I felt that, at long last, we could accomplish great things in this country. I have also been thinking how I will respond when my high hopes run up against reality. At least I’m old […]

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Death and Language’s Limitations

In spending the last two weeks discussing how poetry can come to our aid in a season of death, I have been exploring how poetry responds to its greatest test. Death and dying can trigger our deepest fears, generate panic, denial and anger, prompt us to question everything we believe in, and send on frantic […]

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A Death Poem Must Acknowledge the Pain

For today’s entry on poems that can come to our aid when we are confronting death, I will be looking at two. In both poems, the speaker has lost a loved one. One of them, which I have known and loved since high school and whose sentiments I agree with, now angers me. The other, […]

Posted in Auden (W. H.), Burns (Robert) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

After Apple-Picking, Then What?

So much of the poetry that comforts us in time of death is infused with images of nature, poems like (in my case) Mary Oliver’s “Lost Children,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Perhaps the reason is that, with death, our natural side asserts its primacy in a way that cannot […]

Posted in Donne (John), Frost (Robert), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Can Pastoral Elegies Ease the Pain?

In a grad school class I once heard Peter Lehmann, a friend of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, say that, during the London blitzkrieg of 1940-41, all the London bookshops sold out their poetry. This means, I think, that in times of tragedy we turn to poetry for solace. It’s like the way that people who […]

Posted in Milton (John), Shelley (Percy) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Poetry in the Face of Death

  Because of my concerns over my friend Alan and his cancer, I will spend another week looking at the role that poetry can play as we confront death and dying. Today’s entry describes how poetry made its way into my life following the death of my son Justin, described in last week’s opening entry […]

Posted in Auden (W. H.), Borges (Jorge Luis), Oliver (Mary) | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

Sir Gawain and a Friend’s Cancer

Just as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight supported me as I grieved for my son, so is it supporting me now as I interact with a close friend, a philosophy professor, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Alan’s tumors began in his neck and eyelid and have now migrated down to his lungs. […]

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On Accepting Death and Living Life

The German philosopher Heidegger argues that, by refusing to face up to the fact that we are going to die, we human beings cut ourselves off from life as well. Essentially, by seeing death as a horrible thing, we deny that we are natural beings in a natural world. In so doing, Heidegger goes on […]

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Gawain’s Castle of Life and Death

In the weeks following my son Justin’s death, after the funeral and the memorial service and the departure of friends and relatives, I retreated into my study (it was summer vacation). I had to do something so I returned to a book I had begun writing on “how classic British literature can change your life.” […]

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A Camelot Knight with One Year to Live

Before talking about how Sir Gawain and the Green Knight came to my aid following Justin’s death, let me go through it (for those of you haven’t read it or haven’t read it recently), focusing especially on the way it handles the topic of death. The poem is in the top five of my “favorite […]

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The Death of My Oldest Son

I am devoting this week to a work that came to my aid when I was dealing with the death of my oldest son nine years ago. I will introduce you to Justin and then describe how a medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, helped give me images and a framework for the […]

Posted in King (Stephen), Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Empowering Conversations about Race

As I look back over this past week of entries, what conclusions can I draw? First, that literature can serve the cause of race relations in this country. The friendship between Huck and Jim spurred my dreams of black-white friendship when I was a child being raised in segregated schools in the south, and it […]

Posted in Morrison (Toni), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments closed

When I Defended Song of Solomon

I think it was 13 years ago or so when I read in our county newspaper that a high school student was objecting to a book he had been assigned to read in an Advanced Placement English class. The book was Toni’s Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning Song of Solomon, a book on the Advanced Placement list, and […]

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Should Huck Finn Be Banned?

How much impact can images from a book like Huckleberry Finn have upon a reader? I’ve written about the importance of Huck’s courageous stand upon me as a young child, so I would answer, “ a tremendous impact.” But could there also be a negative impact? Could the docile and comic Jim undermine the self […]

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Can Huckleberry Finn Damage Readers?

Yesterday I mentioned that Huckleberry Finn has been banned in some schools, perhaps because of Huck’s liberal use of the “n” word. Now Twain, of course, doesn’t use that language because he himself is racist but because he wants to capture Huck’s “white trash” ignorance, which Huck then magnificently transcends. But the argument has gone […]

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Huck and My Desegregation Battles

Here’s a personal story of how a literary classic came to my aid at a critical time in my life. When I was in sixth grade in Sewanee, Tennessee (the year was 1962), I was a plaintiff in a civil rights case. School systems all over the south were defying the Brown vs. Board of […]

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

It’s “just” a story

I promised to write about the “just” in “it’s just a story,” so here goes.  “Just,” an adverb meaning “only” or “simply.”  A way of saying that a story (and I’m talking of fictional stories here) is not something to be taken seriously.  Unlike, say, reality, which presumably is to be taken seriously.    Story slips us into the world of make […]

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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