Monthly Archives: January 2017

The GOP’s Faustian Bargain with Trump

New York Times columnist David Brooks says that the GOP is striking a Faustian bargain by collaborating with Donald Trump. Christopher Marlowe shows the price that is paid for dealing with the devil and also tells us how one can get one’s soul back.

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One Equal Temper of Heroic Hearts

Federer and Nadal resumed their legendary rivalry in the Australian Open finals and played a match for the ages. They are both old in tennis terms and by all rights should have been surpassed by the next generation. Therefore Tennyson’s “Ulysses” seems the proper poem to acknowledge them.

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Trump’s Crusoe Wall Goes Up in Airports

This past weekend so a flurry of illegal and unconstitutional executive orders that created chaos in airports and elsewhere as travelers from certain countries found themselves in detention. Defoe captures versions of such dramas in “Robinson Crusoe.”

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The World’s One Hope: Compassion

Bertolt Brecht’s “”The World One Hope” addresses the problem of growing callousness but then points to how we can break through to compassion.

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Interpreting Lit by Computer

A new study purports to “reveal what exactly it is about popular stories that makes us love them most.” Your own explanations about why you love the characters you do are for more revealing. I include David Lodge’s mockery of such computer studies in his novel “Small World.”

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Trump to Torture’s Opponents: Drop Dead

Donald Trump wants to bring back torture, specifically waterboarding. Like the colonel in Carolyn Forché’s poem by that name, he is a showman who seeks to intimidate.

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1984 Explains Why Trump Keeps Lying

“1984” gives us new insight into Donald Trump’s incessant lying. We are not supposed to apply logic to contentions that Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s. We are supposed to submit to power. The more outrageous the lie, the more Trump demonstrates his power when people go along.

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Holding to Higher Principles

Poets and other artists help keep alive the flame of higher principles. That’s why authoritarians like Donald Trump last out against them.

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Can Poetry Stop This Man?

Poetry may not have been able to stop Donald Trump, but it has its ways of mounting resistance. Poems by Tennyson, Auden, and Yeats explain how.

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Empty but for Pain: How Faith Is Perverted

During Inauguration activities on Friday, we saw two dramatically different versions of Christianity, with one pastor finding scriptural backing for Donald Trump’s wall and another presenting him with the Sermon on the Mount.

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How Will the Future Judge Us for Trump?

Jane Hirshfield’s poem “What Will They Say” was reprinted by the National Academy of Poets to coincide with the inauguration of Donald Trump. Imagining what future generations will say of us, she urges them to understand us. Which is not to let us off lightly.

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The Good Ol’ Boy That Conned America

Flannery O’Connor “Good Country People” may help us understand why America got taken in by the man getting sworn in as president today: Donald Trump conned people whenever he caught them feeling superior to him.

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Jonathan Swift, Master of Fake News

Fake news, which played a role in the 2016 election, may have become particularly sophisticated, but satirists have been creating fake news since at least the days of Jonathan Swift. Take, for instance, Swift’s “The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston,” which supposedly lowered the crime rate but which, for that reason, is problematic.

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Trump as Browning’s Pied Piper

Charlie Pierce of “Esquire” makes good use of Robert Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin” to describe Donald Trump’s con job. Then he imagines the tables turned and Trump as the deceitful major who stiffs his employee.

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The President Who Loved Literature

In a remarkable interview with “The New York Times,” Barack Obama spoke about the importance of literature in his life. The range of his reading and the sensitivity of his responses is astounding.

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We Benefit When We Check Our Privilege

Do be blind to one’s privileges is to live in a world of shadows and phantoms, as Ralph Ellison and Lucille Clifton both make clear. Life if much richer if we identify our blindnesses and engage with people as three-dimensional beings.

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

Both Martin Luther King and James Weldon Johnson, in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” drew strength and courage from the Book of Exodus.

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Obama’s Problematic Allusion to Atticus

In his farewell speech, Obama quoted Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In light of the white backlash against having had a black president, however, the Atticus Finch of “Go Set a Watchman comes to mind, making Obama’s allusion seem a bit weak.

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Aristotle Changed the Way Europe Thought

In “Aristotle’s Children,” Richard Rubenstein gets us to rethink the Faith-Reason and Religion-Science splits. When Aristotle revolutionized the High Middle Ages, Church leaders and thinkers tried to reconcile the tensions. Knowing this has me rethinking Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Donne.

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Obama Calls Upon Us To Be Wiglaf

Putting the president’s farewell address last night in terms of Beowulf, Obama was calling upon us to be Wiglaf. Wiglaf is Beowulf’s nephew who, after having lived a comfortable life during Beowulf’s reign, realizes that Beowulf can’t solve all his problems. He must step up himself to save the country from the dragon.

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Lit As a Framework for Exploring Death

Paul Kalinithi turned to existential writers as he attempted to understand the fact that he was dying. He arrived at a more spiritual understanding than he anticipated.

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Reading Lit To Find the Meaning of Life

Paul Kalinithi moves between neuroscience and literature as he tries to understand the meaning of life and death, including his own terminal disease.

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The Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

In a very engaging poem, Scott Bates tells the story of the Epiphany from the point of view of the came of one of the Wise Men.

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Personal News: A 2018 Retirement

In June 2018, after 38 years of teaching college, I will retire. I don’t want to go out like Walter Savage Landor’s old man–“the fire is low

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The “Buried Giant” of Fascism Stirs

Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy novel “The Buried Giant” works as a fairy tale parable of the shakiness of the European Union and the rise of rightwing parties.

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Morrison: Where America Went Wrong

Toni Morrison’s 2008 novel “A Mercy” seems to start with a promising vision of America before everything goes wrong. It’s as though she starts with the optimism of the Obama years and then predicts the Trump backlash.

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My Next Project: How Lit Changed History

I lay out the parameters of my current book project, “How Literature Changed Western History.”

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Dying of a Broken Heart

Two 18th century items: Henry Fielding believed that it was possible to die from a broken heart, which some speculate explains actress Debbie Reynolds’s death after her daughter Carrie Fisher died. And prankster Jonathan Swift has a characteristic list of New Year’s resolutions.

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