Monthly Archives: October 2009

A Punch in the Gut of Excessive Sobriety

Punch and Judy Let’s declare another comedy Friday and celebrate again the wit of Henry Fielding.  My first passage is a continuation of the mock epic encomium (expression of praise) to the book’s heroine that I posted yesterday: Reader, perhaps thou hast seen the statue of the Venus de Medicis. Perhaps, too, thou hast seen the gallery […]

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Idealism Under Siege, Irony to the Rescue

The Princess Bride, True Love Triumphant  In my Tom Jones class earlier this week, one of my students (Erin Hendrix) noted that one of the passages made her think of a scene in the movie The Princess Bride. This led to a discussion of how both works employ irony to help us hold on to […]

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Rumi’s Poetry and Weddings

Rumi           Rumi seems to be everywhere these days and has been for a while.  This past weekend I was at the wedding of Micah Vote, the son of a family friend, and a Rumi poem served as the foundation of the ceremony.  Here it is: May these vows and this marriage be blessed. May it […]

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Poeticizing the Pillory

Daniel Defoe pilloried  Poetry comes to our aid in all kinds of situations. Including when we’ve been condemned to the pillory. That, at any rate, is one of the ways poetry was used by Daniel Defoe, subject of yesterday’s post. Here’s what happened. Defoe was a Dissenter (or Puritan), which is to say, a fundamentalist […]

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Satirizing the Intolerant

 Daniel Defoe My daughter-in-law sent me a wonderful poem by Daniel Defoe, “A True Born Englishman,” posted by Andrew Sullivan in response to a Patrick Buchanan editorial.  Buchanan’s column was one of those hateful “they’re taking our country away from us” pieces, and Sullivan rightly asks who this “us” is.  As Sullivan’s translates it, Buchanan is […]

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Henry Fielding’s Comic Touch

I’ve just written a series of serious posts about literature and virtue, but since it’s Friday, let me go out of the week on a light note. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is not admired the way it once was, but one would be hard pressed to find any novel that is funnier. I share here […]

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For Vice: Novels, Not Stern Lectures

William Hogarth, “The Harlot’s Progress,” plate 4.  Continuing our discussion of whether literature can teach virtue, I present as an interesting case study Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, which I am currently teaching in my 18th Century Couples Comedy class.  I’ve mentioned in a past post that moralist Samuel Johnson attacked Tom Jones for corrupting young people. Furthermore, the Bishop of London accused […]

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Teaching Real Morality, Not Mere Piety

Hansel and Gretel In honor of the film release of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, I’ve been writing about children’s literature, when it’s truly moral and when it’s merely pious. It’s bad enough that the Victorians required their children to recite Issac Watt poems or that Christian fundamentalists rail against In the Night […]

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Subversive Nonsense Poetry

Mother Goose I was highly critical of Stanley Fish last week for attacking those who are “instrumental” about the humanities. My claim that the classics can change your life attributes an instrumental dimension to literature. But when I look at how certain parents have tried to foist preachy moralistic tales on their children, I find […]

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Honoring Our Inner Wild Rumpus

Illustration from Where the Wild Things Are I see that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) has been turned into a film, which has led Slate columnist Jack Shafer to revisit a controversy about the book. Apparently Sendak still can’t let go of a critique by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. I was surprised to learn […]

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You, Sir, Are No Jay Gatsby

  Everyone has something to say about Barack Obama, who has been the subject of non-stop scrutiny since last year’s Democratic primaries.  It therefore is not surprising that some would turn to literature to understand what he means.  Including, in recent weeks,  two New York Times columnists. Stanley Fish, the subject of three posts this […]

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Ignoring the “Advice” of Doctors

Oscar Wilde    Among literature’s gifts is its ability to bring humor into even the darkest of situations. On Tuesday I mentioned that one of Alan’s doctors told him that he’d probably be dead by this past June. I’m thinking that Alan decided not to follow the advice of his doctors—unlike Bunbury in the Oscar […]

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Yes, Stanley, Lit Can Change Lives

  George Herbert I’m trying to figure out why Stanley Fish bothers me so.  Maybe it’s because I’m already worried that our society doesn’t take poetry seriously enough.  Then an English professor with a national forum comes along and confirms that people should consider the study of literature as an arcane study yielding satisfactions only to […]

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Lit Is More than Just an End in Itself

Alan Paskow      Yesterday I talked about how Alan Paskow (in philosophy) and I violently disagreed with a series of columns that Stanley Fish wrote on his New York Time blog about the humanities.  Fish was going after those who use the humanities “instrumentally”—as good for something else rather than as ends in themselves.   Alan, […]

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Fish’s Claim that Lit is of No Use

Stanley Fish    Last week I was talking to my colleague in philosophy Alan Paskow about a Stanley Fish New York Times column. (Cancer update: Alan had one of the five tumors in his lungs removed two weeks ago through cyberknife surgery.) Although an old post—last January—it had stuck with us because it contradicts so […]

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Now for Something Completely Different

Georgia O’Keefe This past week I seem to have taken as a challenge Elaine Scarry’s observation (in The Body in Pain) that representations of physical pain in literature are rare. Two more I add to the list are the Blake professor in Gail Godwin’s The Good Husband, who is dying of cancer, and Rosie, the […]

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Trusting that Good Can Come from Ill

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus What have I learned about literature and pain this past week? First, that writers have taken up the topic, just as they take up every aspect of human existence. They imagine what it is like to feel pain and, through poetic images and fictional stories, convey that experience to readers. By entering […]

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Breaking through Pain’s Solitude

  I’ve had a chance to revisit the two classics that immediately came to mind the other day when I thought about literary depictions of pain.  Both were as powerful as I remember.  In D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, the death of the mother goes on and on, page after page.  As her son […]

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And a woman said, “Tell us of Pain”

Here’s a poem that deals directly with pain, from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.  I don’t entirely understand it but I’m intrigued by some of its claims: “And a woman spoke, saying, “Tell us of Pain.” And he said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of […]

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Can We Imagine Another’s Pain?

In Friday’s post I mentioned how we read and discussed the first few pages of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World in our most recent salon, held to support colleague Alan Paskow as he battles with cancer.  Scarry claims that language is inadequate when it comes to physical pain so […]

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Perpetual Migraines and Julian of Norwich

This is the first of a series of posts I will be writing on literature and pain.  There are a couple of reasons why I write about this now.  First, in last night’s salon in honor of my cancer-stricken friend Alan Paskow, we discussed the introduction to Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making […]

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Playing Cards in Rape of the Lock

The rules for ombre and how the hands are played in “Rape of the Lock.” Altogether brilliant.

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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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