Author Archives: Robin Bates

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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Joy of Life Revealed in Love’s Creation

In Auden’s “Christmas Oratorio,” the shepherds stand in for the working class, who find love and personhood in the birth of Jesus.

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2016’s Top Story–Trump, Trump, Trump

Looking back of 2016, I choose three posts that stood out to me, all dealing with Trump. One compares him to Satan inspiring the invasion of Earth by Sin and Death in “Paradise Lost.” The other two compare him to Herman Melville’s “Confidence Man” and to the narrator’s son in the Raymond Carver short story “Why, Honey?”

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Reading Aloud Enhances Relationships

Couples reading aloud to each other can create a special intimacy, as George Eliot and George Henry Lewes realized in the 19th century. The radio and then television brought an end to that activity.

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Can Art Thwart Trump? A Debate

In which I argue with a writer who claims that art and artists have an inflated sense of their power and that they are irrelevant in the battle against Donald Trump.

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Did Western Liberalism Give Us Trump?

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat suggests that, to understand Trump’s rise, we look not to novels like Sinclair’s “It Can Happen Here” and Roth’s “Plot against America” and instead turn to works by French novelist Michel Houellebecq. These helps us understand the crisis of Western liberalism, which Douthat sees as the major culprit.

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Irving’s Xmas Essays Influenced Dickens

While Charles Dickens deserves much of the credit for our modern Christmas, he himself was heavily influenced by Washington Irving essays written when he was a boy. Irving describes a Christmas he witnessed while visiting rural England.

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Christmas During Life’s Storms

In “Christmas at Sea,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s speaker is both buoyed up and saddened by childhood Christmas memories.

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Dickens Returned Xmas to Medieval Roots

Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” didn’t so much invent Christmas as we have come to know it as take it back to its medieval roots.

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Decline & Fall of the American Republic?

Trump’s victory may signal the decline of the American republic, just as the rise of the Caesar signaled the end of the Roman republic. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is only too relevant to today’s politics.

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Murakami: Don’t Be a Sheep

Murakami’s “Wild Sheep Chase” is a modern parable that has important lessons for confronting authoritarian regimes. That’s the lesson one of my Bernie supporters took from it. Another student used it to support his decision to come out.

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There’s More to Christmas Than We Think

When fundamentalist Christians say that there is a war on Christmas, they point to secular and pagan threats. But many of the symbols they embrace are borrowed from other religions traditions, as this Scott Bates poem makes clear.

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Must Dreamers “Hibernate” Again?

Ellison’s Invisible Man must retreat to a hole–or, as he calls it, hibernate–after getting banged around by reality. With Trump as president, will the Dreamers and others who benefitted from Obama’s prosecutorial discretion have to hibernate as well, returning back to the shadows?

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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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