Monthly Archives: May 2011

Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

I, however, find all the posturing over Medicare depressing. When the Democrats respond with their own scare tactics, they just become Tweedledee to the Republicans’ Tweedledum.

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Weep, For You May Touch Them Not

In his poem “Greater Love,” Owen describes two deaths. One is the physical death of soldiers, which is tragic enough. But the other death is also heartbreaking: the death of innocence that occurs when people become intimately acquainted with war.

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Each Enclosed Spirit Is a Singing Bird

I awoke this beautiful spring morning to hear the birds at full throttle, giving me an excuse to post a wonderful bird poem by Henry Vaughan, the 17th century metaphysical poet.

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Barcelona-Madrid Is Like Goneril-Regan

Think of the elder Lear sisters as Barcelona and Madrid and Edmund as a spot in the Champions League final. This would make Goneril Barcelona since she’s the one that emerges (temporarily) triumphant.

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Goodbye, Lenin. Goodbye, Wall.

Unlike the other “Films about Fences” I showed, Goodbye Lenin involves the trauma of a fence coming down. The fence in this case is the Berlin Wall and the trauma is the shock to East German sensibilities when they have to negotiate the chaotic complexities of life under capitalism.

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New Orleans, Kind to Strangers

For me as a tourist, New Orleans was a study in contrasts: the best live music I have ever heard performed in seedy bars, old world charm a block away from Bourbon Street decadence, the elegance of the Garden District mansions clashing with the boarded-up Katrina-ravaged houses of the Ninth Ward. There is a similar study of contrasts in the most famous literary work connected with the city.

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Believing 6 Impossibilities before Breakfast

Slate Magazine recently had a Jacob Weisberg column that invoked Alice through the Looking Glass in talking about the current Republican Party. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books seem indeed to be works for our times.

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A Biological Explanation for Literature

At one point, the protagonist of The Elegance of the Hedgehog tackles this blog’s central question: “Of what use is literature?” Renee is a materialist who doesn’t believe in a transcendent reality. For her, literature (and art in general) is a sophisticated biological survival mechanism.

Posted in Barbery (Muriel) | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

Remembering the Freedom Riders

King’s speech, not surprisingly, was the most memorable part of the weekend. At the time, he was upset at the violent race riots underway in Newark and Detroit. I remember him thundering, “Therefore I tell you, not ‘burn, baby, burn’ but ‘build, baby, build!’” and I carried those words with me into college.

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Let Me Not Love Thee If I Love Thee Not

In threatening God that he will find another master, George Herbert sounds like a five-year-old threatening to run away from his mother. Deep down, he is acknowledging that he has no choice but to love God.

Posted in Herbert (George) | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bulls vs. Heat, a Homeric Battle

I designate the Miami Heat as the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad. After all, they represent a kind of dream team, kings from different city states coming together to seek glory. The Bulls are like the Trojans in that they have only one top-tier fighter. Derrick Bell is their Hector.

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Vote for My Budget or I’ll Shoot Myself

Threats by Congressional Republicans to vote against raising the debt ceiling limit—which would result in the United States defaulting on what it owes–reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles where the black sheriff (Cleavon Little) threatens to shoot himself.

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George Orwell and Waterboarding

An indication that defenders are not entirely at peace with the practice is their use of a euphemisms. They don’t call waterboarding “torture,” even though the U.S. used to call it torture and it has generally been considered torture since the Spanish Inquisition used it. They instead call it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Anyone who knows George Orwell’s 1984 recognizes this as classic doublespeak.

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Doctor Faustus and Depression, Ctd.

Here’s an account of how a student of mine turned to images of devils and hell such as are found in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus when she was suddenly fell victim to depression at nine years of age.

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Can the Mississippi Be Bullied?

It appears that New Orleans will be spared the flooding that has occurred further up river, thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers playing God and determining who gets protected and who goes under. While it’s certainly amazing what the Corps has accomplished, but one can’t help but think of Mark Twain’s skepticism in Life on the Mississippi almost 130 years ago.

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Class of 2011: Brains Deeper than the Sea

St. Mary’s College of Maryland President Joseph Urgo turned to an Emily Dickinson poem as he talked to graduates about the value of a liberal arts education.

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God’s Non-Explanation for Suffering

As I think of the deaths and the destroyed communities that natural disasters have recently caused, from the Japanese tsunami to the Alabama tornadoes to the Mississippi flooding, the Book of Job comes to mind. After all, it is a story that addresses that most fundamental of questions, why do bad things happen to innocent people?

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Chicago’s Roman de la Rose

What’s in a name? Would Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Posted in Shakespeare (William), Stein (Gertrude) | Tagged , , , , , | Comments closed

Bin Laden’s Sunset, Elegant Hedgehogs

Bin Laden in his mansion conjures up images of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. And Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog gives a perspective on eclectic film tastes.

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Faustus, Case Study of a Depressive

Today I share the story of a student making the case that Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a case study of a depressive.

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Lit Beats Psychology Any Day

In addition to giving us psychological insights, literature also trains us to become better people. By engaging in the act of reading, Susan Cain says in a Psychology Today article, we increase our ability to empathize.

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Bartleby and the Missing Professor

One of the strangest reading stories I have ever encountered involves an English professor who mysteriously disappeared and Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener.

Posted in Melville (Herman) | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Bullying in Twelfth Night

Although I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, students continue to provide new insights into works that I thought I knew. Sophomore Wick Eisenberg did so recently with a Twelfth Night essay in which he examined an issue that has become a national concern: bullying.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

The Green of Jesus Is Breaking the Ground

According to the church calendar, we are still in the Easter season,and the hope of the resurrection continues to be mirrored in beautiful May days. Lucille Clifton intermingles the spirituality of religion and the sensuality of life as well as any poet I know. Here’s a poem in her Jesus series. As far as she’s concerned, there’s no conflict between religious ecstasy and the sights and sounds of spring or the wonderful smells emanating from people’s kitchens and the music from their radios.

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Derby Day: We Galloped All Three

It’s Derby Day so here’s a horse racing poem with galloping anapests (three-beat poetic feet, unstressed, unstressed, stressed). Unfortunately, two of the horses don’t make it to the finish line. At least the third horse is suitably rewarded. This 1834 Robert Browning poem is not based on an actual event, but it’s a lot of fun.

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The Godfather Takes Out Bin Laden

My first thought when hearing how Bin Laden was killed was that it sounded like the plot out of an action adventure movie (only without a heroine). There are also a number of parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

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The Witch that Walks in the Fields of Spring

Here’s a poetic warning that my wife directs to those who close their eyes to the miracle of May that is exploding all around us.  Maybe we miss out on spring because we are plugged into our iPods or talking on our cell phones or texting.  Or for that matter, blogging. Ignoring spring requires a […]

Posted in Bates (Julia) | Tagged , , , | Comments closed

Osama, Obama, and Sam Spade

There’s something about celebrating the killing of someone, even a mass murderer, that leaves me queasy. Exploring the parallel I drew Monday between America and Sam Spade helps me get a better grip on the issue.

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A Philosophy Teacher’s Last Lecture

In the memorial service held in honor of my philosophy colleague Alan Paskow, we listened to some observations Alan recorded about his favorite poem, Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” I share them with you here. Alan recorded them for his funeral service and I think I understand why.

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When a Man’s Partner Is Killed . . .

What literary work does one turn to when justice is finally accomplished against the architect of of 9-11? Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish suggests the following quotation from Dashiel Hammet’s Maltese Falcon.

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Answer the Door, Child–Truth is Knocking

We had our major awards ceremony this past Saturday. As is tradition, we began with a poem by Lucille Clifton that she allowed us to adapt slightly for the occasion.Our president then gave one of his patented speeches, this one centered on Plato’s Meno. It was exactly what I wanted our students to hear: a full-blown defense of the liberal arts.

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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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