Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hell, an Inner Emptiness that Can’t Be Filled

“I think Hell is a fable,” Doctor Faustus tells Mephastophilis at one point in Marlowe’s 1593 tragedy. While many Elizabethans would have disagreed—the play terrified them precisely because they believed in a literal hell—we’re more sympathetic with the notion now. To most of us, fire and brimstone and devils with pitchforks are the stuff of […]

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7 Reasons We Help Others

Spiritual Sunday If I want to generate a spirited ethical discussion in a class, all I have to do is ask my students whether altruism derives from a higher moral sense or from enlightened self-interest. It is one of those questions that theologians, philosophers, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others can debate for hours. They draw […]

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Why Does Everyone Hate Duke?

Sports Saturday Once again, one of the most hated teams in the country resides atop the NCAA basketball rankings: Duke University.  In today’s post I find literary equivalents for the general animus against the Blue Devils. For the life of me I can’t understand why Duke is so disliked. Granted, I myself dislike Duke, but […]

Posted in Goldsmith (Oliver), Tarkington (Booth), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Mexican-U.S. Relations: A Touch of Evil

Film Friday I have been teaching an adult film class this semester in conjunction with a fascinating exhibit on fences that our college’s art gallery has mounted with help from the Smithsonian Museum. My contribution is to exhibit and talk about films that focus on fences, walls, and other types of boundaries. This past Tuesday […]

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Twain and Libya’s Bloody Endgame

The slaughter continues on in Libya, with the number of dead now in the thousands as Qaddafi turns his mercenaries, machine guns and tanks on his own people. While other parts of the country are in the arms of the resistance, he is holed up in Tripoli. It appears that he will indeed fight to […]

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Purchasing Stockings: A 1950’s Memory

What with Qaddafi slaughtering his people in Libya and workers up in (metaphorical) arms in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, the world seems a chaotic place at the moment.  Today, for respite, I offer a poem that will take you to a quieter time–quieter, that is, if you remember your childhood as being a quieter time. […]

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Watching Theater as Shakespeare Did

This past Saturday I got a front row view of what it would have been like watching Shakespeare in the early 17th century. Julia and I journeyed to the replica of the Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia to watch Comedy of Errors and also John Marston’s 1603 revenge drama The Malcontent. Some of drama’s greatest […]

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Song to the Men and Women of Bahrain

As the remarkable uprisings continue to erupt across the Middle East, I turn for a third time to the revolutionary poetry of Percy Shelley.  When one looks at his time period, one finds a number of modern day parallels. Napoleon’s wars, although imperial, still carried the ideas of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” into the rest of […]

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Step 1: Become Like Little Children

Spiritual Sunday We are currently in Staunton, Virginia with our friends Brent and Carter Douglass, having journeyed here to watch two Renaissance plays at the replica of the Elizabethan Blackfriars Theater.  I will have more to say about the plays later this week.  For the moment I share a wonderful poem that Carter has written […]

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Post Football Season Blues

Sports Saturday For American football fans, February is the cruelest month. Suddenly there are no Sundays to look forward to anymore. Suddenly there are no players or coaches or owners to excoriate. Suddenly there is, well, emptiness. It may be pushing it, but for me, the feeling is captured by a 1960’s Flannery O’Connor story. […]

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Chicks Who Kick Butt, 20th Anniversary

Film Friday Slate reminds me that 2011 is the 20th anniversary of Thelma and Louise, a film that once worked (and perhaps still does) as a gender Rorschach test. When it came out, many women loved it and many men didn’t. I remember walking out of the theater feeling very uncomfortable while my wife was […]

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Egypt’s Glorious Phantom Bursts Through

I’ve been looking for literature that can speak to the earth-shaking events going on in Egypt. Poetry seems almost unable to do justice to the joy that people are feeling as they revel in a vision of liberty. Maybe this sonnet by Percy Shelley gets at their breakthrough. On August 16, 1819, a large but […]

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The Moment Kindheartedness Walks In

Sometimes when I get depressed about the state of the world, I do two things. First, I remind myself that too often I allow myself to be stampeded into fear by media headlines, which use adrenaline to hook us. Second, I recollect the many generous and kind people in my life and in the world. […]

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Lit’s Precondition: People All the Same

I’ve just come across an illuminating contrast between literature and war.  Theater director Mary Zimmerman is currently staging a version of the Arabian Nights at Washington’s Arena Stage, and in the program notes she responds to the question, “Are you saying that you believe certain feelings are universal, or perhaps that we share an essential […]

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A Delicious Poem for Your True Love

My wife was sitting at a stoplight a few years ago when she heard a National Public Radio story about a fifth taste, the other four being sweet, sour, bitter and salty.  Often we know it by the name given it by the Japanese, who first identified it early in the 20th century, although we […]

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Rise Up, My Fair One, and Come Away

Spiritual Sunday St. Valentine, who has evolved into the patron saint of lovers, was beheaded by the Romans for (among other things) marrying Christian couples.  As Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, I turn to that most erotic of books in the Bible, Song of Songs (also know as Song of Solomon).Some, unnerved by its unbridled sensuality, have […]

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Rogers No Longer in Odysseus’ Shadow

Sports Saturday Something memorable occurred last Sunday in Dallas in addition to the Green Bay Packers bringing “Vince Lombardi home” in their Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Quarterback Aaron Rogers stepped out of the shadow of a legend. The literary equivalent that comes to mind is Homer’s Telemachus, but Rogers is Telemachus with […]

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A Strange Love: Orgasmic Self Destruction

Film Friday Last Friday I wrote that, in one respect, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is outdated: we no longer talk about our missile gap with the Soviet Union. In too many other respects, however, this filmic masterpiece feels all too contemporary, especially in the […]

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With Aging, Abundant Recompense

  In a follow-up to yesterday’s post where I talked about my cancer-ridden friend Alan, I examine another passage from The Brothers Karamazov. This one is focused on aging generally, not just death. If you ever find yourself getting depressed about getting old, check it out.   And check out as well William Wordsworth’s Intimations […]

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Life from the Vantage Point of a Deathbed

  I haven’t updated you for a while on my friends Alan and Jackie Paskow, former St. Mary’s colleagues. Alan has been suffering from terminal cancer for close to three years now, and Julia and I visit every Sunday night. Julia performs Reiki massage on Jackie while Alan and I talk. This past Sunday, while […]

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How Life Looks When One Is Property

Last week we had another fine presentation in the series of Twain lectures that my colleague Ben Click has been running. Once again a talk about race and Huckleberry Finn deepened my respect for that magnificent book. Here are some of the ideas I picked up, which I share with you from memory since I didn’t […]

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Poetry Unleashed in the Streets of Cairo

The Daily Beast website has an article about poetry that is being chanted in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt. (Thanks to the Daily Dish for alerting me to it.) It shows once again that language well used has the power to move mountains—or at any rate, to give historical players a firm place upon […]

Posted in Al-Shabbi (Abu al-Qasim) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

A Tiny Seed Can Save a Church

Spiritual Sunday       Like many mainline Protestant churches, our little Episcopalian congregation in St. Mary’s City, Maryland is having money difficulties.  The expense of aging buildings plus a recession that wiped out much of our endowment has forced us to hold fairly continuous fundraisers to balance the budget.    People have become testy and […]

Posted in Dostoevsky (Fyodor) | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Champ on the Field, a Thug Elsewhere

Sports Saturday Although it is a downer on the eve of Super Bowl Sunday, I can’t help but think of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through the lens of Joyce Carol Oates’ terrifying short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This is one reason I will be not be rooting for the […]

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Strangelove Somewhat Dated (Thank God!)

Film Friday Recently, maybe on National Public Radio, I heard a story that struck me as marvelous: an American tourist was visiting underground Russian bomb shelters. What with improving relations, apparently the Russians no longer feel they need a place where their government officials can hide out for two weeks following a nuclear attack. The […]

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Chaucer and Hugh Hefner’s Wedding

  Here’s a post that has been awaiting a moment when I thought this website could use a comic interlude. I’m not suggesting in any way that Hugh Hefner’s forthcoming marriage (check out Timothy Egan’s horrified response) is as newsworthy as, say, Egypt’s uprising (Monday’s post) or America’s problem with guns (yesterday’s post). But we […]

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Happiness Is a Warm Gun (Shoot, Shoot)

Following the Columbine High School shootings, outrage against permissive gun laws led, not to tougher gun laws, but to pushback by the National Rifle Association.  The NRA went on to help George W. Bush squeak by Albert Gore in the 2000 elections and has since become so bold that the 2006 Congress was afraid to extend […]

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In a Fairy Castle, an Invitation to Life

On Saturday I wrote about how Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century Arthurian romance, demonstrates that our fear of death keeps us from living as fully as we could. The Green Knight’s promise to us is that, if we change the way we approach death, we will live life with heightened intensity […]

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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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