Climate Scientists, Our Cassandras

Geroge Romney, "Lady Hamilton as Cassandra "

Geroge Romney, “Lady Hamilton as Cassandra “


Of all the issues confronting us in this election, none is bigger than climate change. Either we will put into power a party that acknowledges that we must take action to avert disastrous climate events and rising sea levels—or a party that has nominated a candidate who calls climate change a Chinese hoax and who promises to reverse what progress we have made. In short, voting wisely has never been more consequential.

Yet despite the clear and present danger, Paul Krugman of The New York Times points out that no questions about climate change were asked at the three presidential debates. It’s as though a gag order has been dropped on the issue.

Climate scientists and policy experts must feel a lot like Cassandra, the Trojan daughter of Priam whose gift from Apollo was the gift of prophecy and whose punishment (when she resisted his advances) was that no one would believe her. Imagine them bewailing the future as Cassandra does in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. She was not believed when she warned against the Trojan Horse, and now she foresees her own death at Clytemnestra’s hands:

Woe for my city, woe for Ilion’s fall! 
Father, how oft with sanguine stain 
Streamed on thine altar-stone the blood of cattle, slain 
That heaven might guard our wall! 
But all was shed in vain. 
Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell, 
And I–ah burning heart!–shall soon lie low as well.

Robinson Jeffers also captures our situation in “Cassandra.” His observation that “Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer/Meet a tiger on the road” has been borne out by climate change politics. (Climate denialists would liefer face drought-caused California wildfires.) Currently we have many “religion-vendors” and “political men” who are pouring, “from the barrel, new lies on the old.”

Apparently Jeffers predicted that World War II would follow World War I if the world wasn’t careful. It goes to show that people don’t listen to poets any more than they do to climate scientists or cursed prophetesses. When our seers mumble a “crust of truth,” we look upon them with disgust.


By Robinson Jeffers

The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall,
The storm-wrack hair and screeching mouth: does it matter, Cassandra,
Whether the people believe
Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion-
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kindly
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.
No: you’ll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And gods disgusting—you and I, Cassandra. 

Posted in Aeschylus, Jeffers (Robinson) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lit Opens Minds to Suffering of the Other

Jean Germain Drouais, "Philoctetes"

Jean Germain Drouais, “Philoctetes”


I wrote recently about attending a Keti Koti dinner—a ritual modeled on the Passover Seder to look back at our slave past—and can now report that we had a follow-up workshop about how to build upon our insights. We broke into small groups—I was with three students—and they came up with goals that moved me deeply.

I also saw how literature could play a role to play in attaining those goals. Here’s our statement:

We need to foster empathy among students, faculty and staff. For example, when a racial incident occurs on campus, it shouldn’t just affect the minorities, it should affect everyone. We said that having this empathy would create an environment in which all people feel accepted regardless of their religious beliefs, sexuality, race, etc.

I recently taught a superb essay by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in my “Theories of the Reader” course that speaks to the power of “the narrative imagination” to foster such empathy. I’m planning several future posts on this essay, but today I will focus on her use of Sophocles’s Philoctetes and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Nussbaum starts with Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius, who she says

insisted that to become world citizens we must not simply amass knowledge; we must also cultivate in ourselves a capacity for sympathetic imagination that will enable us to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us. Differences of religion, gender, race, class, and national origin make the task of understanding harder, since these differences shape not only the practical choices faced but also their “insides,” their desires, thoughts, and ways of looking at the world.

While all of the arts “cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity,” Nussbaum writes that literature makes “an especially rich contribution.” That’s because of “its ability to represent the specific circumstances and problems of people of many different sorts.” She then quotes Aristotle:

As Aristotle said in chapter 9 of The Poetics, literature shows us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen. This knowledge of possibilities is an especially valuable resource in political life.

Nussbaum’s first literary example is Philoctetes, a play about the great Greek archer who is stricken by a lingering disease after stepping on a serpent guarding a sacred shrine. Because of his cries of pain and his wound’s stench, he is marooned upon a desert island for ten years. A seer informs the Greeks, however, that they cannot win the Trojan War without his archery skills.

Because Philoctetes is so bitter against his former comrades, Odysseus believes he must trick the archer into joining them, and he uses Achilles’s son Neoptolemus in the deception. After much agonizing, Neoptolemus blows up the plan by telling Philoctetes the truth.

Nussbaum observes that the play shows us two different ways to treat people. Odysseus doesn’t care anything about Philoctetes the man, regarding him as merely as the means to an end.

The chorus of soldiers, however, have a different response:

For my part, I have compassion for him. Think how
with no human company or care,
no sight of a friendly face,
wretched, always alone,
he wastes away with that savage disease,
with no way of meeting his daily needs.
How, how in the world, does the poor man survive?

This is the narrative imagination at work. Nussbaum writes,

Unlike their leader, the men of the chorus vividly and sympathetically imagine the life of a man whom they have never seen, picturing his loneliness, his pain, his struggle for survival. In the process they stand in for, and allude to, the imaginative work of the audience, who are invited by the play as a whole to imagine the sort of needy homeless life to which prosperous people rarely direct their attention. The drama as a whole, then, cultivates the type of sympathetic vision of which its characters speak. In the play, this kind of vivid imagining prompts a political decision against using Philoctetes as a means, and the audience is led to believe this to be a politically and morally valuable result. In this way, by showing the public benefits of the very sort of sympathy it is currently awakening in its spectators, the drama commends its own resources as valuable for the formation of decent citizenship and informed public choice. Although the good of the whole should not be neglected, that good will not be well served if human beings are seen simply as instruments of one another’s purposes.

While Nussbaum doesn’t comment on how the conflict between community and individual is resolved, it’s worth looking at how Sophocles handles it. We see a divine intervention (a “deus ex machina”) where Heracles, now a god and the one who gave Philoctetes his bow, descending to tell him that he will be healed if he goes to fight for the Greeks. Thus Sophocles lets us know that respecting the individual can also lead to a good outcome for society—a vital lesson for us to keep in mind in 21st century America.

I’ve written many times about Nussbaum’s other example (go here for the list), making the same point. By judging Invisible Man only by the color of his skin, society cannot see him for who he really is:

Its hero describes himself as “invisible” because throughout the novel he is seen by those he enncounters as a vehicle for various race-inflected stereotypes: the poor, humiliated black boy who snatches like an animal at the coins that lie on an electrified mat; the good student trusted to chauffeur a wealthy patron; the listening ear to whom the same patron unburdens his guilt and anxiety; the rabble-rousing activist who energizes an urban revolutionary movement; the violent rapist who gratifies the sexual imagination of a woman brought up on racially charged sexual images—always he is cast in a drama of someone else’s making, “never more loved and appreciated” than when he plays his assigned role. The “others,” meanwhile, are all “lost in a dream world”—by which they see only what their own minds have created, never the reality of the person who stands before them. “You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover that you’re as transparent as air.” Invisibility is “a matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”

Nussbaum then links Invisible Man with Philoctetes:

Ellison’s grotesque, surreal world is very unlike the classical world of Sophocles’s play. Its concerns, however, are closely linked: social stratification and injustice, manipulation and use, and above all invisibility and the condition of being transparent to and for one’s fellow citizen. Like Sophocles’s drama, it invites its readers to know and see more than the unseeing characters. “Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?” In this way, it works upon the inner eyes of the very readers whose moral failures it castigates, although it refuses the easy notion that mutual visibility can be achieved in one heartfelt leap of brotherhood.

Nussbaum’s essay as a whole argues that at stake is the very functioning of democracy, with novels being of utmost importance in the formation of good citizens. Ellison, she notes, thinks similarly:

Ellison explicitly linked the novelist’s art to the possibility of democracy. By representing both visibility and its evasions, both equality and its refusal, a novel, he wrote in an introduction, “could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic idea.” This is not, he continued, the only goal for fiction; but it is one proper and urgent goal. For a democracy requires not only institutions and procedures; it also requires a particular quality of vision, in order “to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience.”

At a time when, in our political discourse, we are seeing Mexican immigrants reduced to “rapists and murderers,” women reduced to beauty ratings, Muslims reduced to potential terrorists, and black urban communities reduced to “hellholes,” literature is no mere luxury. As Nussbaum summarizes her argument,

Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist’s interest—with involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s refusals of visibility. We come to see how circumstances shape the lives of those who share with us some general goals and projects, and we see that circumstances shape not only people’s possibilities for action, but also their aspirations and desires, hopes and fears.

And finally,

All of this seems highly pertinent to decisions we must make as citizens. Understanding, for example, how a history of racial stereotyping can affect self-esteem, achievement, and love enables us to make more informed judgments on issues relating to affirmative action and education.

This is essentially what the students in my work group were saying. If St. Mary’s is to function as a vibrant interracial community, we must “foster empathy” and then use that empathy “to create an environment in which all people feel accepted regardless of their religious beliefs, sexuality, race, etc.”

The courses I teach and the way that I teach them can contribute to this worthy end.

Posted in Aurelius (Marcus), Ellison (Ralph), Sophocles | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Light a Land Whose Children Shall Be Free

Winslow Homer, "Cotton Pickers"

Winslow Homer, “Cotton Pickers”

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s Old Testament readings is a lovely harvest celebration by the prophet Joel. I especially like the way it includes slaves in its blessing, which has led me to choose an 1849 poem by abolitionist and women’s right activist Phoebe Cary. Cary’s poem laments that, unlike New England farmers, slaves aren’t gathering their own produce.

While Cary does not allude directly to the Joel passage, there are other Biblical references, including the fearsome passage from Matthew 3:10, “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” With that image, Cary anticipates how a Christian framework will be employed to support the war against the slave-holding South, as seen in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” 

Here’s the passage from Joel (2:23-32):

O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;

for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain, 
the early and the later rain, as before.

The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.

And my people shall never again be put to shame.

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.

And my people shall never again
be put to shame.

Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams, 
and your young men shall see visions.

Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

In Cary’s poem, we begin with such images of a plentiful harvest, with perhaps allusions to Psalm 126:6, “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves.” But there are apocalyptic images even amidst this rejoicing, such as the reference to a bow being set. Perhaps she is thinking of the bow in Psalms 7:11-13:

God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day. If he turn not, he will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow, and made it ready. He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death; he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors.

We learn about the wicked in the third stanza, where the bounteous harvest brings to mind a gathering where one does not hear grateful singing. Where “oppression casts her deadly root,” there are heard instead “dull cries of almost dumb despair.”

The poem ends with a hopeful image, however. Dare to dream, Cary tells us:

So that the day-star, rising from the sea, 
Shall light a land whose children will be free!

The Harvest Gathering

By Phoebe Cary 

The last days of the summer: bright and clear 
    Shines the warm sun down on the quiet land, 
Where corn-fields, thick and heavy in the ear, 
    Are slowly ripening for the laborer’s hand; 
Seed-time and harvest — since the bow was set, 
Not vainly has man hoped your coming yet! 

To the quick rush of sickles, joyously 
    The reapers in the yellow wheat-fields sung, 
And bound the pale sheaves of the ripened rye, 
   When the first tassels of the maize were hung; 
That precious seed into the furrow cast 
Earliest in spring-time, crowns the harvest last. 

Ever, when summer’s sun burns faint and dim, 
    And rare and few the pleasant days are given, 
When the sweet praise of our thankgiving hymn 
    Makes beautiful music in the ear of Heaven, 
I think of other harvests whence the sound 
Of singing comes not as the sheaves are bound. 

Not where the rice-fields whiten in the sun, 
      And the warm South casts down her yellow fruit, 
Shout they the labors of the autumn done —   
      For there Oppression casts her deadly root, 
And they, who sow and gather in that clime 
Share not the treasures of the harvest-time. 

God of the seasons! thou who didst ordain 
      Bread for the eater who shall plant the soil, 
How have they heard thee, who have forged the chain 
      And built the dungeon for the sons of toil? 
Burdening their hearts, not with the voice of prayer, 
But the dull cries of almost dumb despair. 

They who would see that growth of wickedness 
      Planted where now the peaceful prairie waves, 
And make the green paths of our wilderness 
      Red with the torn and bleeding feet of slaves — 
Forbid it, Heaven! and let the sharp axe be 
Laid at the root of that most poison tree! 

Let us behold its deadly leaves begin 
      A fainter shadow o’er the world to cast, 
And the long day that nursed its growth of sin 
      Wane to a sunset that shall be its last; 
So that the day-star, rising from the sea, 
Shall light a land whose children will be free!

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#TrumpBookReports (in 140 characters)

Clinton and Trump in their second debate

Clinton and Trump in their second debate


If you want some light Friday reading, Nancy LeTourneau at the Washington Monthly has alerted us to a twitter stream that was generated by the following Tweet about Wednesday night’s debate:

Trump’s foreign policy answers sound like a book report from a teenager who hasn’t read the book. “Oh, the grapes! They had so much wrath!”

Here are some of the best 140-character responses, starting with the ones noted by LeTourneau:

Juliet. Such a nasty woman. She made Romeo kill himself. And believe me he could have done better. Look at her.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, worst cabin in the inner city. Terrible schools. Nasty women & bad hombres everywhere.

Lady Macbeth. Nasty woman. Blood coming out of her wherever.

This guy Sam says he likes green eggs & ham. Then he doesn’t. That’s why America doesn’t win any more. No leadership. Sad

Madeleine. Lives in a house in Paris. Great city. We have tremendous property there. I’ll be dating her in 10 years.

And here are some more, found at #TrumpBookReport:

Be, don’t be. This Hamlet guy needs to make up his mind. When I make up my mind, it’s great. I make the best decisions.

That Hamlet. Such a loser. Wrote a play to catch the king. When I’m prince, I won’t need a play. Believe me.

Sleeping Beauty? The Prince just started kissing her. Didn’t even ask. When you’re a prince they let you do it.

Look, I don’t know Voldemort. He said nice things about me. If we got along with the Death Eaters, wouldn’t be so bad.

That Giving Tree was a loser. It gave and gave and gave. Horrible deals. Ends up a stump. Schmuck.

Les Miserables, of course they are miserable, the inner city is a mess folks, believe me. People stealing bread everywhere.

The Hunger Games are rigged, folks. Everyone knows Katniss won because she played the woman card. Nasty woman. Very rigged.

Winnie the Pooh…don’t get me started. Low energy. Lazy. Overweight & no stamina. Always eating. He should be drug tested.

To Kill a Mockingbird? Nobody kills Mockingbirds better than me. I will kill the families of Mockingbirds. Believe me.

To Kill a Mockingbird? Believe me-if those mockingbirds had guns they wouldn’t have been killed.

Hilary had 30 years To Kill A Mockingbird, and she failed. A disaster! I know mockingbirds, I’ll launch a sneak attack.

I prefer the Mockingbirds that don’t get killed.

Anna Karenina. Such a nasty woman.

I like people who don’t fall under trains, OK?

I know more than those Russian generals do, believe me

That Rochester, he had some tremendously innovative approaches to dealing with his ex-wife. But he ended up with a 5. Sad!

It was the worst of times and the worst of times, OK? The worst. A disaster.

Gatsby? He says he was great. I don’t know. People are saying maybe not so great. I’ll make Gatsby great again.

Well, if you’ve got the crime, you’ve got to have the punishment. I believe in law and order, folks. Law. And. Order.

Sophie wouldn’t be my first choice is all I’m saying.

Fault? These stars are a disaster. A disaster, let me tell you. Believe me, I’m going to make stars great again.

Too many mice, not enough men. I’ll change that, believe me.

Who knows For Whom the Bell Tolls? It should toll for me, but the bell is rigged. Very rigged. Hemingway golfed with Bill.

Hester Prynne maybe a five. Believe me, Dimmesdale could do better. That Pearl, though. I’ll be dating her in 20 years.

I was against the war in Troy. Ask Hannity. And Helen was maybe a 6. She wouldn’t have been my first choice, believe me.

Huge whale. Tremendous Whale. Nobody has more respect for whales than me. Ahab’s Ship. Rigged. Sad.

Alice is hot. Maybe in ten years I will be dating her. Just grab her by the Cheshire Cat. Make Wonderland Great Again!

The first rule of Fight Club is I don’t have to accept the results of any fight I lose in Fight Club.

Those poor heights. They were wuthering. Wuthering so bad. Bigly wuthering. I’ll make them great again.

Narnia? Disaster. Very open borders in that wardrobe which is Hillary’s fault. Many many people pass through illegally.

Lolita. Beautiful woman. Phenomenal woman. In ten years, I’ll be dating her. That Humbert Humbert guy. So low-energy. Sad!

Where The Sidewalk Ends – Hillary has had 30 years to complete the sidewalk. It’s her fault the sidewalk ends.

Don Quixote was a loser, ok? He couldn’t even win against a windmill. Listen, I’ll beat all the windmills, believe me.

We’re gonna catch so much rye, you won’t believe it. We’re bringing those rye catching jobs to America.

The Western Front was so quiet. Too quiet, I say. I would never have left the western front like Hillary and Obama did.

Feel free to submit your own.

More #TrumpBookReports

The Huffington Post found some more good ones:

Pinocchio? He’s no puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!

Oedipus married his mother. Disgusting! She wouldn’t be my first choice, believe me!

Charlotte’s Web …Spider dies at the end… no stamina. What a loser.

Let’s just say I am the better salesman. It’s sad that he died, but I am better.

Catcher in the Rye. There used to be other grains. Terrific grains. The best grains. Hillary ruined this nation’s farms.

Voldemort was a bad guy, okay. He was a bad guy. But you know what he was very good at? Killing Muggles.

Nowhere does it say that anything actually happened between Lolita and Humbert, it was just boy talk.

There’s a Lord-and he’s got rings. Lots of rings. The best rings. And two of the best Towers anyone has seen.

Posted in Bemelmans (Ludwig), Bronte (Charlotte), Bronte (Emily), Carroll (Lewis), Cervantes (Miguel de), Dickens (Charles), Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Dr. Seuss, Hawthorne (Nathaniel), Hemingway (Ernest), Homer, Hugo (Victor), Lee (Harper), Lewis (C. S.), Melville (Herman), Milne (A. A.), Rowling (J. K.), Salinger (J. D.), Shakespeare (William), Silverstein (Shel), Steinbeck (John), Stowe (Harriet Beecher), Styron (William), Tolstoy (Leo) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reconnecting with My Dead Son

Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough in "IT"

Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough in “IT”


I had a shock of recognition while teaching Stephen King’s IT in my American Fantasy class yesterday. The approach to life that saves the day for the protagonist is the approach that got my eldest son killed 16 years ago. Yet I don’t think King is wrong. In fact, I was comforted once I saw the connection.

The novel is an uneven but ultimately smart and sensitive exploration of growing up. I’ve written before how the book is a version of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality—which is to say, the poem is both a lament about how adults lose their childhood connection with the spiritual world and a meditation on how to reestablish that connection. King believes that we must become children again and at one point directly writes, “the child is father to the man,” a line from Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up” that also serves as the epitaph of Intimations.

The villain in IT takes multiple shapes but it often works its will through adult dullness and cruelty. The two are related. On the one hand, pragmatic adults cease to believe in fairies (there are Peter Pan references in IT) and live lives of quiet desperation. The underlying anger they feel as their condition, however, results in periodic bloodlettings. Every 27 years–which is to say, once a generation–a homicidal clown reappears in the town of Derry, Maine and a series of horrors follows, usually culminating in a particularly awful event. The horrors include child killings, violent incidents of intolerance against vulnerable groups, and the like.

A group of seven children band together to fight and defeat IT in 1958. Then, 27 years later, they return to fight IT again. Since their major weapon is their childhood belief in magic, however, these now 38-year-old professionals must tap into the childhood selves to defeat IT the second time.

I was drawn to the scene where Bill Denbrough, the group’s ringleader and a character clearly based on King himself, must save his wife, who has been kidnapped by one of IT’s surrogates. While he has retrieved her from the clutches of IT, she is suffering from catatonic shock. His cure involves putting her on the back of his childhood bike and riding as he did when he was a kid.

This works metaphorically as follows: King believes that we become dull as we get older because we become overly cautious and forget our childhood dreams, entering the world of the “deadlights.” King sets this up as a tension between disquiet and desire. Here is Bill early in that fateful bike ride:

Downhill. Picking up speed. He felt a tremor of fear at the image, and a disquieting thought (old bones break easy, Billy-boy) ran through his mind almost too quickly to read and was gone. But…But it wasn’t all disquiet, was it? No, It was desire as well…the feeling he’d had when he saw the kid walking along with the skateboard under his arm. Desire to go fast, to feel the wind race past you without knowing if you were racing toward or running away from, to just go. To fly.

Disquiet and desire. All the difference between world and want—the difference between being an adult who counted the cost and a child who just got on it and went,, for instance. All the world between.

 Earlier in the book, when Bill is a child, we have an extend description of how Bill used to ride a bike. Here’s an excerpt from it:

He raced on, bent over his handlebars; he raced to beat the devil.

The three-way intersection of Kansas, Center, and Main was coming up fast. It was a horror of one-way traffic and conflicting signs and stoplights which were supposed to be timed but really weren’t…As Always, Bill’s eyes flicked right and left, fast, gauging the traffic flow, looking for the holes. If his judgment was mistaken—if he stuttered, you might say—he would be badly hurt or killed.

He arrowed into the slow-moving traffic which clogged the intersection, running a red light and fading to the right to avoid a lumbering portholed Buick. He shot a bullet of a glance back over his shoulder to make sure the middle lane was empty. He looked forward again and saw that in roughly five seconds he was gong to crash into the rear end of a pick-up truack that had stopped squarely in the middle of the intersection while the Uncle Ike type behind the wheel craned his neck to read all the signs and make sure he hadn’t taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Miami Beach.

The lane on Bill’s right was full of a Derry-Bangor intercity bus. He slipped in that direction just the same and shot the gap between the stopped pick-up and the buss, still moving at forty miles an hour. At the last second he snapped his head hard to one side, like a soldier doing an over-enthusiastic eyes-right, to keep the mirror mounted on the passenger side of the pick-p from rearranging his teech. Hot diesel from the bus laced his throat like a kick of strong liquor. He heard a thin gasping squeal aso one of his bike-grips kissed line up the coach’s aluminum side. He got just a glimpse of the bus driver, his face paper-white under his peaked Hudson Bus Company cap. The driver was shaking his fist at Bill and shouting something. Bill doubted it was happy birthday.

 Bill’s adult ride isn’t quite as adventurous, but it has enough risk-taking that it brings his wife back. Their marriage will not slip into a metaphorical catatonia because they can still access childhood magic.

Not all children survive these escapades, however. Justin, who was 21, was feeling particularly exuberant on April 30, 2000. It had been one of southern Maryland’s rainiest springs on record, but that Sunday was a perfect day. Justin went running down the hill in St. Mary’s City that leads to Church Point and, fully clothed, launched himself into the St. Mary’s River. A  rogue current grabbed him and pulled him into deep water, where he drowned.

When my kids were growing up, I told them I had two rules: “Respect other people and don’t ride your back on Mattapany.” Mattapany is one of two roads that lead to the college from where we live and, while it is the shorter, there are no shoulders. Basically, I was telling them not to do anything stupid.

So Justin did a version of Mattapany Road although, in his defense, Church Point is normally a safe place to swim. No one knew that the excessive rains had made it dangerous. But the bigger point is that he was living his life with youthful abandon. He was seeking a sensuous immersion in life and he lauched himself into the unknown. For a moment, he was flying.

This is all tied into a deep guilt I have felt about not doing all I should have to protect my child. I found King’s positive image of children throwing themselves into life to be reassuring. Justin was doing what he was supposed to be doing. A more cautious approach would have closed some of his avenues to joy. I am grateful to King for pointing this out to me.

King dedicates It to his three children (ages 14, 12, and 7), thanking them for teaching him how “to be free” and assuring them that “the magic exists.” Justin, along with his brothers, taught me how to be free. For 21 years he gave me a gift of inestimable value.

Further thought: It’s interesting that Bill Denbrough and I go through something similar with someone we loved. Bill loses his younger brother to Derry’s homicidal clown—Bill is at home sick and so can’t go out with George—and he carries around his guilt. He comes to realize, as I have come to realize, that we feel guilty because that allows us the comforting illusion that there is something we could have done. If we acknowledged our powerlessness, we would no longer feel guilty but it would also mean giving up our belief that we can control our destinies. I have come to accept my powerlessness and Bill does as well.

There’s another point of contact. After George dies, both of Bill’s parents retreat into grief, and Bill spends the rest of his life trying to be the good child that will pull them out of it. I remember resolving, on the night of the death, that I would not be that kind of parent, that my responsibility was to my living children. Bill’s battle with IT is an internal one where he must overcome those emotional scars. While we were all scarred by Justin’s death in ways that to this day we are discovering, I don’t think that Darien and Toby suffered as Bill does.

Two other Wordsworth sightings:
The line cited above–“Desire to go fast, to feel the wind race past you without knowing if you were racing toward or running away from, to just go”–sounds a lot like this passage from Tintern Abbey:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.

Meanwhile, my student Lee Morgan picked up an allusion to Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven” in the following passage. Five of the seven group members have survived the second encounter with IT, and four of them are walking how of the hospital room after visiting the fifth:

They walked into the Town House on a wave of laughter, and as Bill pushed through the glass door, Beverly caught sight of something which she never spoke of but never forgot. For just a moment she saw their reflections in the glass–only there were six, not four, because Eddie was behind Richie and Stan was behind Bill, that little half-smile on his face.
In Wordsworth’s poem, a child, asked how many children there are in her family, doesn’t distinguish between the living and the dead. This is one of my son Toby’s favorite poems because he sees himself and Justin in it. Here are the last two stanzas:
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”
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In Defense of The Merchant of Venice

Maurycy Gottlieb, "Shylock and Jessica"

Maurycy Gottlieb, “Shylock and Jessica”


Recently I was talking to my oldest son Darien, a former theater major, about Shakespeare’s problem plays. I had just finished teaching Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and the class was wondering whether Shelley’s defense of Dante and Milton could extend to The Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew.

Those two works are problems because they grate on 21st century liberal sensibilities. Darien mentioned a Washington Post review he had read over the summer arguing that people should stop staging Merchant of Venice.

Before looking at the review, let’s look at what Shelley says. The problem of Dante and Shakespeare for him is that their Christianity gets in the way of their art. Shelley is upset that Christian orthodoxy keeps deserving pagans out of Dante’s Paradisio and that it prompts Milton to turn a dynamic rebel into the villain of Paradise Lost.

I don’t agree with Shelley’s view of Satan—I think Milton is showing us the seductive force of narcissism by making Satan initially attractive—but I’m sympathetic with his idea. Inherited religious views can’t keep a good work of art down, and Dante’s divine vision transcends his orthodoxy. For Shelley, then, local prejudices are just outer disguises that allow subversive visions to walk amongst us. When he talks of “the distorted notions of invisible things” in the following passage: the atheist Shelley means religion: 

The distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton have idealized, are merely the mask and the mantle in which these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised.

Lesser poets focus on transient beliefs whereas the great poets focus on eternity–or in Shelley’s view, the human longing for liberation. Since Shakespeare is undoubtedly a great poet, is Merchant of Venice a call for human freedom? Washington Post reviewer Steve Frank thinks not:

It is time to say “never again” to this historical aberration. Every time it is produced, the play introduces new audiences to vile medieval tropes of Jew-hatred that we should have long ago left behind.

And further on:

Setting Merchant aside is not censorship. It is just good judgment. As audiences squirm in their seats at the Kennedy Center this week, I hope they have an honest conversation with themselves: Why are they there?  Because it is Shakespeare?  Because Jonathon Pryce is a famous actor who, in playing Shylock, asserts the “dignity of the persecuted,” in the words of The Washington Post’s reviewer? Does their attendance make them merely a witness, or rather an accomplice, to reviving dangerous racial slurs?

We should keep in mind that in the first century and a half of its history, “The Merchant of Venice” was hardly ever produced, and it virtually disappeared from the stage. Let’s give it a break for another 150 years — at least.

For the first century and a half, King Lear also was seldom produced—never without its Nahum Tate-engineered happy ending—so that in itself is no argument. But regarding its anti-Semitic slurs, I’d like to offer a Shelleyan defense. I start with the most memorable speech in the play, which is a brazen assertion of equality:

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

In this powerful passage, distinctions vanish between Christian and Jew. We cannot help but acknowledge Shylock’s humanity. We also see clearly how his thirst for revenge, problematic thought it may be, is in response to Antonio’s anti-Semitism.

Darien made the point that Portia’s get-out-of-jail solution is not terribly convincing. Shylock could simply say, “I don’t want the blood, just give me the flesh.” But Antonio’s lawyer knows she is not speaking to an unbiased jury but one that is looking for any excuse to allow her client to escape.

Shylock recognizes this and surrenders almost immediately. By the end of the play, we watch as everyone piles on him, a classic case of hitting down. Privilege has triumphed and something turns in our stomach as it does so.

Would people at the time have seen the play as i do? Perhaps not, but that is Shelley’s point. Once the local historical prejudices have burned away, we see a deeper drama than mere social scapegoating. We see vividly how privilege operates and how an outsider who tries to revenge himself against it never has a chance. A similar drama can be seen in Sir Toby and company piling on against Malvolio in Twelfth Night, pushing the joke to such a nasty extent that the fool has to step in and put an end to it.

Would we prefer to see Shylock as a virtuous victim? We might squirm less but we wouldn’t see as complex a depiction of a character. Shakespeare shows us how Sherlock has been twisted by the prejudice visited upon him. That people of privilege righteously denounce Shylock at the end of the play just adds to the pathos.

In a similar drama, society’s racism makes Othello vulnerable to Iago’s manipulation. He can’t confidently believe that Desdemona would prefer him to a white man.

There’s nothing wrong with being forced to squirm. Have faith that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing.

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Nobel Laureate Wrote Archetypal Ballads



It’s high time that I weighed in on the latest Nobel Prize winner in literature. As I know little about music, or song lyrics for that matter, I am agnostic on the choice of Bob Dylan. I like the argument made by the selection committee that Dylan falls within the oral tradition of Homer and Sappho, and I certain believe he caused us to look at song lyrics in a new way. He has an extraordinary number of memorable poetic lines which went right to the heart of his historical moment. He was certainly an outside-the-box choice.

There are arguments to be made for inside-the-box choices as well. Among American authors, I think of Richard Wilbur and Philip Roth, who write fine poems and novels respectively within a recognized tradition. Had either one of them won the Nobel, we wouldn’t be rethinking the prize itself.

The best argument for prizes in my view is that they get people to read more. I have added a number of unknown authors to my life list (unknown to me, that is) because they became Nobel laureates. In that respect, the selection of Bob Dylan doesn’t expand my horizons.

To honor Dylan, I share one of my favorite ballads, found on his album Blood on the Tracks. I love the narrative of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,”, which has the folkloric feel of a classic western, even as the Jack of Hearts works as trickster figure. Lily may think that her former lover’s luck has run out–is “the brand new coat of paint” courtesy of her new lover?–but the Jack of Hearts always comes out on top.

The card imagery, along with some Tarot imagery, gives a sense of fate inexorably unfolding, as do the ballad’s surreal dream images. (Everyone is ignoring a bank break-in that is underway, and the Jack of Hearts at one point escapes in the costume of a monk.) Like great ballads such as “Barbara Allen” and “Sir Patrick Spence,” there are suggestive ellipses that listeners must fill in for themselves.

Since I can’t get Donald Trump off my mind these days, I’ll note that there’s also Big Jim resembles the Donald:

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste

Like Trump, Jim gets into trouble from being too loose with the ladies.

If you want to listen to Dylan sing the ballad, you can go here:

Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts

By Bob Dylan

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

He moved across the mirrored room, “Set it up for everyone,” he said
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin’ before he turned their heads
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin
“Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?”
Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts

Backstage the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs
Lily had two queens, she was hopin’ for a third to match her pair
Outside the streets were fillin’ up, the window was open wide
A gentle breeze was blowin’, you could feel it from inside
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine
He made his usual entrance lookin’ so dandy and so fine
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste
But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town
She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown
She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear
“Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,” but he didn’t seem to hear
He was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts

“I know I’ve seen that face somewhere,” Big Jim was thinkin’ to himself
“Maybe down in Mexico or a picture upon somebody’s shelf”
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts

Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled
She had come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere
But she’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts

The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined
The drillin’ in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind
It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
No, nothin’ ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts

Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide
Was lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died
She was gazin’ to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts

Lily took her dress off and buried it away
“Has your luck run out?” she laughed at him
“Well, I guess you must have known it would someday
Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand-new coat of paint
I’m glad to see you’re still alive, you’re lookin’ like a saint”
Down the hallway footsteps were comin’ for the Jack of Hearts

The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair
“There’s something funny going on,” he said, “I can just feel it in the air”
He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
The door to the dressing room burst open and a Colt revolver clicked
And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it’s said that they got off with quite a haul
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town
But they couldn’t go no further without the Jack of Hearts

The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink
The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink
The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts

The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, “Closed for repair”
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
She was thinkin’ ’bout her father, who she very rarely saw
Thinkin’ ’bout Rosemary and thinkin’ about the law
But, most of all she was thinkin’ ’bout the Jack of Hearts

Further note: I didn’t realize until I went on line that there are a number of allegorical readings of the ballad, including one that parallels it with the Watergate break-in. You can find out about those readings if you go here.  (Make sure you check out the comments section.)

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Why We Fear Clowns



I’m late to recent reports of clown outbreaks, but as I’m currently teaching Stephen King’s It in my American Fantasy class, it gives me the opportunity to explain why many find clowns to be disturbing.

First, in case you also have been out of the clown loop, here’s what’s been going on:

The Great Clown Scare of 2016 started in the dog days of August, when a young man began wandering the streets of Green Bay, Wis., in gruesome black-and-white clown makeup, carrying black balloons. (It was later revealed that he was doing guerrilla marketing for a horror short.) A few weeks later, children in a Greenville, S.C., apartment complex told the police about clowns flashing green laser lights in nearby woods and trying to lure them with cash. The complex issued a warning to residents, but the police found nothing — not one frizzy strand of clown-wig hair.

Nevertheless, reports of sinister clowns have spread to at least 20 states, and abroad, causing school closings and several arrests. Notably, no American children have been physically harmed, though last week a man in a clown mask in Sweden stabbed a teenager in the shoulder. Law-abiding clowns are predictably upset, and have organized at least one “Clown Lives Matter” protest in response.

According to the article, there was also a noteworthy clown sighting in 1981, which may have influenced King’s 1986 story of Pennywise the clown, who rips the arms off children and does other gory things.

For my money, Sigmund Freud has the best explanation for why we are unsettled by clowns. Freud and Stephen King together help explain why we’ve had this recent clown eruption.

In his influential essay that seeks to understand the uncanny (cue the Twilight Zone theme music), Freud quotes psychologist E. Jentsch on how dolls and automatons can freak us out:

In proceeding to review those things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a very forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start upon. Jentsch has taken as a very good instance “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons. He adds to this class the uncanny effect of epileptic seizures and the manifestations of insanity, because these excite in the spectator the feeling that automatic, mechanical processes are at work, concealed beneath the ordinary appearance of animation.

Freud then applies his theory of repression to the case. In figures that are both us and not us, he says, we see forbidden desires and fears that we dare not acknowledge. Because we have pushed them under and denied them, they have become toxic. They surface in the doubling of ourselves and we are horrified.

All monsters function as doubles, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde being perhaps the text book example. Others are Beowulf and Grendel, Frankenstein and his monster, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, and the list goes on.

Freud doesn’t mention clowns specifically, but his explanation applies. The classic clown has features that we recognize as our own only they are also not our own because they are exaggerated (big mouth, bulbous nose, oversized feet). Furthermore, whereas society and our parents have engrained in us the value of self-control and self-restraint, clowns are out of control. Some children like clowns because of anti-social behavior but others are disturbed because, pressured by social shaming, they have learned to control this side of themselves.

In the novel IT, Pennywise is able to change its form into the deepest fear of each of the seven child protagonists. To Eddie Kaspbrak , whose mother has infected him with her hypochondria, IT appears as a scabrous leper while Bill Denbrough, whose parents are locked in grief over the death of his brother, encounters IT in a memorial picture album.

King doesn’t confine himself to the children, however. He is out to understand the hatred of the Other that seized America in the 1980s—remember gays and AIDS, the “evil empire,” and Willie Horton?—and he sees IT behind homophobic murders, racial lynchings, and other bloodlettings. The clown always shows up, as in the following scene where he goads a town into an orgasmic massacre of a robber gang:

He wasn’t wearing a clown suit or nothing like that. He was dressed in a pair of farmer’s biballs and a cotton shirt underneath. But his face was covered with that white greasepaint they use, and he had a big red clown smile painted on. Also had these tufts of fake hair, you know. Orange. Sorta comical…[H]e was leanin out of the window so far that Biff couldn’t believe he wasn’t fallin out. It wasn’t just his head and shoulders and arms that was out; Biff said he was right out to the knees, hanging there in midair, shooting down at the cars the Bradleys had come in, with that big red grin on his face. “He was tricked out like a jackolantern that had got a bad scare,” was how Biff put it.

At the end of this post I include times I have cited IT in response to some of our recent hate crimes, including the Orlando massacre and the killing of the North Carolina Muslim couple. Fortunately, Pennywise was thwarted last week when he encouraged Kansas “crusaders” to inflict “a bloodbath” upon Muslim immigrants from Somalia.

In this election we have seen a candidate—some would call him a clown—speaking to the toxic swamp that is the American id (German for “it”). He has called for violence against protesters, obliquely suggested shooting his opponent, and conjured up images of international banking conspiracies that echo Mein Kamf. He is giving permission for people to use language and to engage in behavior—especially towards women—that we have laboriously tried to move beyond. We can applaud ourselves that we now look down on behavior that was once commonplace, but Donald Trump threatens to set us back.

If, then, we imagine an infestation of dangerous clowns invading our communities, it is not surprising. They confirm our fear that America’s dark side is close to the surface.

Update:  I just saw a recent New Yorker article on clowns makes some of the connections with Donald Trump that I do. You can read it here.

Previous posts on Stephen King’s It

King Understands the Orlando Killings

King Looks for Hope in Our Children

King’s Vision of Environmental Devastation

Unlike Oklahoma, King Wants Real History

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

Imagination Unleashed: Children on Bikes

How Lost Innocence Can Breed Monsters

Late breaking clown news: Here’s the latest clown story, along with a picture. (The clown was found innocent.)


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The Eternal Doesn’t Want To Be Bent by Us

Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865

Alexander Louis Leloir, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel” (1865)

Spiritual Sunday

Like many people, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, today’s Old Testament reading. Rainer Maria Rilke has a powerful take on the episode in his poem “The Man Watching.”

First, here’s the story:

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32:22-31)

In Rilke’s poem I pick up echoes of both Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The poet appears to have been wrestling with depression but, after the brute force of that internal storm, he finds a certain peace. The new quiet is like “a line in the psalm book,” and he wonders why he chose to worry over tiny matters.

Worry comes from a need to triumph, to feel dominant. However, when he opens himself to forces greater than himself and allows them to remake him as the angel remakes Jacob, he becomes strong and does not “need names.”

As the poet talks of allowing himself to be dominated, I think of a passage from Shelley’s poem, with the west wind functioning as the creative force:

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! 
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! 

A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d 
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud. 

Both Shelley and Coleridge compare themselves to Aeolian lutes (wind harps), being played upon by the cosmos, and Rilke plays with the idea as well. In his case, however, the strings are Jacob’s sinews:

when the wrestler’s sinews  
grew long like metal strings,  
he felt them under his fingers  
like chords of deep music.

His final realization is that he grows “by being defeated, decisively,/by constantly greater beings.”

Here’s the poem:

The Man Watching

By Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after 
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes 
that a storm is coming, 
and I hear the far-off fields say things 
I can’t bear without a friend, 
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on  
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age: 
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,  
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!  
What fights with us is so great.  
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,  
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,  
and the triumph itself makes us small.  
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.  
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestler of the Old Testament: 
when the wrestler’s sinews  
grew long like metal strings,  
he felt them under his fingers  
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight)  
went away proud and strengthened 
and great from that harsh hand,  
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.  
Winning does not tempt that man.  
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,  
by constantly greater beings.

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Trump & Mac the Knife, 2 Escape Artists

William Hogarth, scene from "Beggar's Opera"

William Hogarth, scene from “Beggar’s Opera”


After learning last Friday that Trump has boasted of being a serial sexual assaulter, we saw him deny any such assaults in Sunday’s presidential debate. Apparently this denial has prompted a number of women around the country to share stories of Trump groping them or walking into dressing rooms when they were unclothed. Slate is keeping a running tally here.

If this is what finally ends Trump’s bid for the presidency, it will resemble the final takedown of Macheath, a.k.a. Mac the Knife, in John Gay’s 1728 musical Beggar’s Opera. Although he is married to Polly Peachum, the glamorous highwayman cannot stay away from the ladies, and in the end they bring him to the gallows.

I don’t see Donald Trump as a Macheath, even though I think he would like to see himself as one. Macheath is a more openhearted and generous rogue than Trump is. I do think, however, that the tremendous popularity of the play helps explain some of Trump’s popularity with his fans. Eighteenth-century audiences loved watching Macheath slip out of one jam after another, and Trumpistas have applauded as their man has slipped out of one supposedly fatal gaffe after another. How many times over the past year have pundits declared Trump’s campaign dead, only to be proven wrong? Trumpistas love it when the Donald sticks it to the authorities.

In the play, Mac makes the mistake of marrying the daughter of his fence, who thereupon bribes the highwayman’s favorite whores to turn him in. Although Mac should play it safe (stick to the teleprompter), he has some of the Donald’s effrontery and continues to behave as he always has.

When he is captured, Macheath sounds like Trump turning on his accusers:

Was this well done, Jenny?—Women are Decoy Ducks; who can trust them! Beasts, Jades, Jilts, Harpies, Furies, Whores!

(Sings) At the Tree I shall suffer with Pleasure,
At the Tree I shall suffer with Pleasure,
Let me go where I will,
In all kinds of Ill,
I shall find no such Furies as these are.

The capture doesn’t end it for Mac, however, any more than the McCain gaffe or the Megyn Kelly gaffe or the disabled reporter gaffe or the etc., etc. ended it for Trump. Mac seduces the daughter of the jailor and escapes again. Then he returns to his whores and is captured again. By the end, every woman he has ever impregnated shows up:

Jailor. Four Women more, Captain, with a Child apiece! See, here they come.
[Enter Women and Children]
Macheath. What—four Wives more!—This is too much—Here—tell the Sheriff’s Officers I am ready.

Yet Macheath slips his shackles one last time in Gay’s famous ending. This time, however, it takes intervention from the play’s beggar author to save him:

Player: But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.
Beggar: Most certainly, Sir.—To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice.—Macheath is to be hanged; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have supposed they were all either hanged or transported.
Player: Why then, Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.
Beggar: Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—So—you Rabble there—run and cry, A Reprieve!—let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

This is the Trumpista fantasy, not to mention the nightmare for the rest of us. Although Trump’s sexual assaults appears to be “the final straw” and Clinton is up in the polls, will he escape one last time and make his way to the White House? Will we have Trump triumphantly singing some version of Mac’s closing song:

But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow,
The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow.

If so, God help us all. Pray for poetical justice and go vote.

Further thoughts:

Both Trump and Macheath use slippery language to get out of scrapes. In Trump’s case, he effectively throws whatever he is accused of back on his opponent while labeling any of his offensive remarks as courageous instances of political incorrectness.

For many, the thrill of Trump is watching him wriggle out of situations that would take down any conventional politician. For his part, Macheath is such an electric character that he helped assure the success of Bertolt Brecht’s 20th century adaptation, Three Penny Opera, and he helped the career of Frank Sinatra, whose “Mac the Knife” was one of his signature songs.

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Kill All the Lawyers? Nope, We Need Them

Henry Woods, "Portia"

Henry Woods, “Portia”(1888)


I am delighted to once again share a talk on Shakespeare and the Law by U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash. Tom, who married a close childhood friend of mine, turns to Shakespeare to help him in his work. This particular talk, delivered before the Intellectual Property Law Institute on September 16, 2016, includes observations on the need for civility in the practice of the law. Among other plays, Tom cites Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, and practically all of the history plays.  

Tom reflects powerfully on the well-known Shakespeare line, “Kill all the lawyers.” He points out that what sounds like a joke becomes a terrifying reality, thus serving as a warning about what can happen when the law is disregarded. In an election season where we are seeing many norms broken and where one candidate has threatened to jail his opponent if he is elected, this citation is only too timely.

I also find fascinating how Tom categorizes different Shakespeare villains. As a judge who sees many criminals, he is able to draw on Shakespeare to help him understand why they behave as they do.  

Lessons in Professionalism

By Thomas W. Thrash, Chief United States District Judge, Northern District of Georgia

At the outset, let me say that it is an honor for me to be invited to speak to you on the topic of professionalism. The challenges that we face as a profession are not entirely new, but they do seem to be accelerating as we move into the 21st century. They include the loss of civility and professional courtesy, the win at all costs mentality that I see particularly in intellectual property cases, the unseemly hustle for business, the focus upon profit at the cost of healthy professional relationships, the growth of mega law firms that are partnerships in name only.

With that in mind, I am going to do something a little different from your usual CLE professionalism talk. Today, I am going to talk about lessons of professionalism from the works of William Shakespeare. Just in case any CLE police are listening in, I will make occasional references to the Lawyer’s Creed promulgated by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism. I commend it to you along with the Aspirational Statement on Professionalism, which can be found at the State Bar’s web site. If you were here last year, you heard Version 1.0 of this talk. This is Version 2.0 and contains much new material.

Okay, so lessons in professionalism from William Shakespeare. This may seem to be an odd choice of material for a CLE program addressed to a bunch of hotshot intellectual property lawyers. After all, Shakespeare was not a lawyer. To the best of my knowledge, he never used the word professionalism. With only a couple of exceptions, lawyers and judges do not play large roles in his major plays. Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from him.

In my opinion, Shakespeare was the greatest single writer in the history of the English language. His only rival is the King James Version of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible teaches us much about professionalism. For example, virtually everything that needs to be said is contained in Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” But the King James Version was written by a committee of scholars, not one man.

There is much that we can learn from Shakespeare, not just because of his grand and beautiful use of the English language, but because so many of his plays address the basic and fundamental questions of why people do bad things and why bad things happen to good people.

Although only two of Shakespeare’s major plays have lawyers and judges as their central characters, he talks a lot about lawyers and judges and trials. One Shakespearian scholar has suggested that before his father’s financial problems arose, Shakespeare was a pupil at one of the Inns of Court. He poses the hypothesis that Shakespeare got his first taste of the theater by staging plays at his Inn of Court.

Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that Shakespeare knew a lot about lawyers and the courts of justice. It is well documented that his plays were regularly performed at the Inns of Court. I suspect that there were more than a few law students drinking in the taverns and whorehouses that surrounded the Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames River – across from the City of London proper – and outside of the jurisdiction of its authorities.

Indeed, in the Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare has one character say, “And do as adversaries do in law–Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.” This addresses one of the core concepts of professionalism: civility. The Lawyer’s Creed includes this promise: “To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity, and civility.” Unfortunately, lack of civility–particularly in the litigation context–is one of the major problems that we have as a profession in 2016. With the win-at-all-costs mentality that exists, especially in high stakes civil litigation, lawyers are quick to demonize their adversaries, and too quick to accuse opposing lawyers of unethical and dishonest misbehavior.

After that, it is hard to imagine eating and drinking as friends. As often as not, this scorched earth approach to litigation backfires. Even when it succeeds in the short term, it makes it impossible to develop the professional relationships and friendships with opposing counsel that so enrich the practice of law. It also contributes to a decline in the public perception of lawyers as ethical practitioners in an honorable profession.

Let me begin by talking about the most famous statement by Shakespeare about lawyers, from Henry VI, Part 2: “First thing, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This is often quoted as a Dan Quayle like statement that there are too many lawyers, or that life would be better without having to have lawyers, or that lawyers are bad people.

In context, however, exactly the opposite is true. Henry VI, Part 2, is set in England in the late 15th century at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Henry VI is a weak and ineffectual king, and the nobles and great lords rule the country. England is in turmoil, with a charlatan named Jack Cade leading an armed mob of angry tenant farmers and tradesmen in a march on London with the aim of overthrowing the ruling elites and all of England’s legal and governmental institutions.

The statement about killing all the lawyers is made by Dick the Butcher, one of the leaders of the mob of anarchists. He wants to get rid of the lawyers because they are the defenders of the rule of law. Lawyers are defenders of a system of justice that curtails the arbitrary use of force. To me, recognizing our special role as defenders of the rule of law is an important aspect of professionalism.

Henry VI, Part 2 is rarely performed these days, which is a shame because it is a fine play. While I have never seen it performed in front of a live audience, I have read accounts by two Shakespearian scholars who have. Their experiences were identical. When Dick the Butcher says, “First thing, let’s kill all the lawyers” the audience laughs. This is a lawyer joke, right? Lawyer jokes are funny. But then Jack Cade follows is up with this:

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should
be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal
once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

Then some of Cade’s men come in with the Clerk of Chatham:

Weaver: “The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read and cast accompt.
Cade: O monstrous! Here’s a villain!
Weaver: Has a book in his pocket with red letters in’t.
Cade: Nay, then, he is a conjurer.
Butcher: Nay, he can make obligations, and write court-hand.
Cade: Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee: what is thy name?
Clerk: Emmanuel.
Cade: Dost thou use to write thy name? or
hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?
Clerk: Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up that I can write my name.
All: He hath confessed: away with him! he’s a villain and a traitor.
Cade: Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck.”

So Jack Cade and his mob hang the Clerk because he can read and write.

At this point in the live performances, the audiences get quiet and serious. Maybe this is not supposed to be funny. Then the mob kills Lord Stafford and marches on London, where Cade commands his followers to destroy the Inns of Court.

Cade: “So, sirs: now go some and pull down the Savoy;
others to the inns of court; down with them all.
Butcher: I have a suit unto your lordship.

Cade: Be it a lordship, thou shalt have it for that word.

Butcher: Only that the laws of England may come out of your mouth.

Cade: I have thought upon it, it shall be so. Away, burn
all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be
the parliament of England.

So all the lawyers will be killed and the Inns of Court will be destroyed so that no future lawyers may be trained. All property records are to be destroyed, as are all titles and class distinctions. Jack Cade’s words are now the law of England.

A messenger enters and announces the capture of Lord Say:

Messenger: My lord, a prize, a prize! here’s the Lord Say, which sold the towns in France; he that made us pay
one and twenty fifteens, and one shilling to the
pound, the last subsidy.
Cade: Well, he shall be beheaded for it ten times. Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord! now
art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal…. Thou hast most traitorously
corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to
the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed
justices of peace, to call poor men before them
about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin.

When Lord Say pleads for his life, describing the good works that he has done during his lifetime, Cade responds:

Cade: Go, take him away, I say, and strike
off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.
All: It shall be done.

Lord Say and his son-in-law are beheaded and their heads are stuck on long poles and paraded through the streets of London. At each street corner the severed heads are put together in a grotesques charade of a kiss.

By this time this time, the live audiences that had laughed at the lawyer joke are recoiling with horror at what is being done once the rule of law is overthrown.

Eventually, the mob is disbursed and Jack Cade is killed. Before then, however, Shakespeare has taught us an important lesson about the rule of law. As I said, I think that we have a professional responsibility to speak out when the rule of law is threatened. We should be vigilant to warn against modern day Jack Cades.

Let me repeat the Lawyer’s Creed that I mentioned just a moment ago: “To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity, and civility.”
The concept of fairness includes not overreaching–not taking unfair advantage of an adversary. The most famous example in all of literature of overreaching or taking unfair advantage is in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Antonio, a merchant, has borrowed three thousand ducats from local moneylender Shylock, who hates him. As collateral for the loan, Antonio has signed a bond in which he promises to allow Shylock to cut out a pound of his flesh if he does not repay the loan on time. All of Antonio’s ventures fail and he defaults on the loan.

Shylock then demands a judgment awarding him a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s friends offer to pay double the principal of the loan, Shylock refuses them and insists, “I would have my bond.” When the Duke of Venice pleads for mercy, Shylock replies,

The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law; there is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgment. Answer; shall I have it?

Then the heroine Portia, disguised as a young Doctor of Laws, enters the court to advise the Duke. She makes the most eloquent plea for mercy ever heard in a court of law:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings. But mercy is above this sceptred sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; it is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.

Shylock, however, refuses: “I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.” Portia then advises the Duke that Shylock is entitled to claim his pound of flesh under the law.

As Shylock summons Antonio to cut out his pound of flesh, however, Portia shocks and amazes everyone in the court when she says,

Tarry a little. There is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’ Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh. But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice.

Shylock demurs and asks for the return of his three thousand ducats. But Portia says that he can have nothing but his pound of flesh. Portia then advises the Duke that all of Shylock’s goods and lands are forfeited to the state because he – an alien – has sought to take the life of a citizen. In other words, Shakespeare counsels us against overreaching and making unfair demands of our adversaries.

I often think of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh when I am hearing a particularly nasty discovery dispute.

To me, as a former lawyer and now a judge, one of the great things about Shakespeare is his insight into why people behave badly. Some of his most vivid characters are simply amoral. They have no moral sense of what is right and wrong. For whatever reason, whether ego, envy, or ambition, they will do anything to get what they want. Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear are characters such as this.

Othello tragically does not recognize Iago for what he is. Thus, by the lies and machinations of Iago, Othello is transformed from a respected and heroic general into a homicidal maniac. Beware the Iagos of this world.

Other Shakespeare characters know that what they are doing is wrong but do it anyway because of greed, ambition, or sheer folly. King Claudius in Hamlet, MacBeth, and Lear are characters like this. King Claudius, who has murdered his brother to become king and then married the brother’s widow, is particularly eloquent in describing the struggle between his conscience and the desire to keep what he has gained through his evil deeds. After the play within the play, he has difficulty praying:

Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it, a brother’s murder. Pray can I not. My fault is past–but, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That cannot be, since I am still possessed of those effects for which I did the murder–my crown, mine own ambition and my queen. May one be pardoned and retain the offense? My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

King Claudius recognizes that bad behavior has consequences that cannot just be wished away.

Others like Othello and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra do not intend to do evil but are destroyed by their own passions and lack of self awareness. Shakespeare knows well that bad behavior usually begets more bad behavior. MacBeth, who first murders King Duncan and his attendants while the King is an overnight guest and then murders his comrade Banquo, says to Lady MacBeth,

For mine own good all causes shall give way. I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

He goes on to cause the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children before he himself is killed in battle and beheaded. One of my favorite Shakespearean scholars, Harold Goddard, said this about Macbeth:

How did Shakespeare have the audacity to center a tragedy around a murderer and tyrant, a man so different in his appeal to our sympathies from a Romeo, a Brutus, or a Hamlet? But Macbeth is at bottom any man of noble intentions who gives way to his appetites. And who at one time or another has not been that man? Who, looking back over his life, cannot perceive some moral catastrophe that he escaped by inches? Or did not escape. Macbeth reveals how close we who thought ourselves safe may be to the precipice.

Almost every lawyer that I have sent to prison for stealing from his clients has been a Macbeth. He starts out stealing just a little to support a declining law practice or an unaffordable standard of living. He sincerely intends to pay it back. Then he steals a little more from another client to pay off the first. He then steals more from another client to pay off the second and so on. He tells a little lie, and then a bigger one to cover up the first lie, and then a bigger one, and so on.

He then ends up sitting in a federal prison after his law license has been revoked thinking to himself, “How the hell did I get here.” Always remember that it is easier to tell your wife, “Honey we can’t afford the country club,” or “We have to take Johnny out of private school,” or “We can’t take that ski vacation this year,” than it is to explain why the FBI is knocking on your door at 6 a.m. with a warrant for your arrest. But back to Shakespeare.

Another lesson in professionalism is the importance of trustworthiness in relationships. Nothing is more destructive to trust than dishonesty and scheming for advancement. In Shakespeare’s King Richard III, lying and treachery are developed into an art form. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of King Edward the Fourth, wants to be king but has an older brother and two nephews ahead of him in the line of succession. In the preceding play Henry VI, Part 3, he tells us how he will get the crown:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.

Richard, who has a hunchback and a crippled arm, begins his famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech by announcing his intentions:

And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair, well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductious, dangerous,
By drunken prophesies, libels and dreams
To set my brothers, Clarence and the King,
In deadly hate, the one against the other.

Of the King, he says,

I’ll in to urge his hatred more to Clarence
With lies well steeled with weighty arguments
And, if I fail not in my deep intent,
Clarence hath not another day to live.

He then proceeds to have his bother Clarence murdered in the Tower by hired assassins, after which he begins wooing Lady Anne, the wife of Edward the prince of Wales and daughter-in-law of Henry the Sixth, both of whom he has just murdered. This scene shows Richard’s spectacular talent for lying.

First he tells her is that all that he has done has been because of his love for her. When she spits in his face, he responds with,

Richard: “Why dost thou spit at me?

Anne: Would it were mortal poison for thy sake.
Richard: Never came poison from so sweet a place.
Anne: Never hung poison on a fouler toad;

Out of my sight, thou dost infect my eyes.

Richard: Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Anne: Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead.
Richard: I would they were, that I might die at once,
For now they kill me with a living death. [He weeps.]

Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears,
Shamed their aspect with store of childish drops.

I never sued to friend nor enemy,

My tongue could never learn sweet soothing words,
But now thy beauty is proposed my fee

My proud heart sues and prompts my tongue to speak.

[She looks scornfully at him.]

Teach not thy lips such scorn, for they were made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,

Lo, here I lend thee this sharp pointed sword,
[Richard hands Anne his sword.]

Which, if thou please to hide in this true bosom
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,

I lay it naked to the deadly stroke

And humbly beg the death upon my knee.

[He kneels and lays his breast open. She offers at it with his sword.]

Nay, do not pause, ’twas I that killed your husband,
But ’twas thy beauty that provokèd me.

Nay, now dispatch, ’twas I that killed King Henry,
But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

[Here she lets fall the sword]

Take up the sword again or take up me.
Anne: Arise dissembler, though I wish thy death,

I will not be the executioner.

Her curses at Richard are truly magnificent, but he does not take no for an answer, telling lie after lie until he ultimately breaks down her defenses:

Anne: I would I knew thy heart.
Richard: Tis figured in my tongue.
Anne: I fear me both are false.
Richard: Then never was man true.
Anne: Well, well, put up your sword.
Richard: Say then my peace is made.
[Richard stands and sheathes the sword.]
Anne: That shall you know hereafter.
Richard: But shall I live in hope?
Anne: All men, I hope, live so.

Anne is in a very vulnerable position. Her husband is dead, and her father and father-in-law have been defeated and killed by the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses. Now here is he brother of the king making love to her, so at the end of the scene she accepts Richard’s ring. After she leaves the stage, Richard exults,

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?

I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
What, I that killed her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,

And I nothing to back my suit at all

But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her? All the world to nothing.

After Anne marries Richard, she never has a moment’s happiness and she dies of grief and sorrow. Richard, meanwhile, achieves the throne by lies and treachery, murdering his brother and executing his ally against the Queen, Lord Hastings, for not supporting Richard’s claim to the throne.

He then turns on his ally Buckingham, who spreads lies about the illegitimacy of King Edward’s children but then refuses to go along with the murder of the young princes. Richard becomes King after spreading rumors that his mother was an adulterer and his older brother a bastard. He then has the young princes in the Tower murdered and executes Buckingham. His villainy is been spectacularly successful in the short term.

As the butchery accelerates, however, Richard’s talent for dissimulation wans. His attempt to woe Princess Elisabeth fails. On the night before the fateful battle of Bosworth Field, the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him in a dream, and he confesses to himself that he is a villain, perjurer and murderer. On the battlefield, Richard fights valiantly, famously crying at one point, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” The forces of Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, defeat and kill him, thereby ending the Wars of the Roses.

Richard III was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to show what a genius he was at dramatic characterization.
 The lesson that we can learn today from the play is that what is gained by lying, treachery and scheming for advancement is inevitably lost.

As a judge, it is the speech of another of Shakespeare’s villains that I think of when criminal defendants want to blame their crimes on everything but their own bad behavior. In King Lear, the bastard Edmund is scheming to get his legitimate brother disinherited. He forges a letter which he allows his father to see. The Duke of Gloucester then blames his legitimate son’s supposed treachery upon eclipses of the sun and moon. When Edmund is on stage alone, he observes,

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

Shakespeare has Cassius say much the same thing more succinctly in Julius Caesar when he says to Brutus,

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.

In other words, we are morally responsible for our actions and their consequences.

As I said earlier, Shakespeare does not talk about professionalism as such. Two things that he does talk about a lot – and that are relevant to us today as members of the legal profession – are reputation and honor. The terrifying thing about Iago is that he starts out telling Othello the truth, assuring him that he should not be jealous. In doing so, however, he plants the seed that maybe he has something to be jealous about. When Othello demands to know what he thinks about his lieutenant Cassion and his wife Desdemona, Iago says,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.

Iago uses his reputation for honesty to destroy those he envies, as he in turn is destroyed in the end. Remember that a lawyer’s good reputation is more important than any case or any client.

The other thing that Shakespeare talks about a lot is honor. It is in the history plays that Shakespeare talks the most about what it means to be an honorable–or a dishonorable–man. In Richard II, act I, for instance, Henry Bolingbroke accuses the Duke of Norfolk of being a traitor. They each challenge the other to a duel: trial by combat.

Richard wants to prevent a quarrel, which will reflect badly upon him regardless of the outcome, and tells Norfolk to forget the insult to his honor. Norfolk responds,

Myself I throw, dread sovereign, at thy foot. My life thou shalt command, but not my shame. My dear dear lord, the purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation; that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay. Mine honor is my life; both grow in one. Take honor from me, and my life is done. Then, dear my liege, mine honor let me try. In that I live, and for that will I die.

King Richard foolishly forbids the trial by combat and banishes Norfolk from England for life. By the end of the play Bolingbroke has usurped Richard’s crown.

A discussion of the concept of honor in Shakespeare would not be complete without mention of the prince of dishonor, Sir John Falstaff, the fat old knight who eats, drinks, cheats, lies, and fornicates his way through life. Prince Hal, the heir to the King of England, much to his father’s dismay has fallen in with Falstaff and his crowd of riotous brigands at the Boar’s Heads Inn. Falstaff claims that he is a professional, and when Prince Hal berates Falstaff for making a living by highway robbery, Falstaff replies,

Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal. ’tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.

As members of an honorable profession, we must appreciate that professionalism means more than just technical competence.

Falstaff, as a loveable old rogue, is not motivated by honor. When just before the battle of Shrewsbury Prince Hal reminds Falstaff that “thou owest god a death,” Falstaff soliloquizes,

‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

True to form, when the crisis comes in the battle, Falstaff flops down on the ground and pretends to be dead in order to save himself. I could go on for hours about Falstaff’s topsy-turvey ethical world. But enough.

We love Falstaff because he is witty, irreverent, a teller of a tall tales. He is a great drinking buddy. He is fun to be around. But when Hal becomes King, he knows that he must leave Falstaff and turn to more honorable advisors such as the Lord Chief Justice. The life of Falstaff is a great lesson to those who would be tempted to sacrifice honor and reputation for ill-gotten gain or self-indulgent pleasure. Although Falstaff expects to be first man when Hal ascends to the throne, Hal knows that a good ruler must possess and exercise virtues and values that are the opposite of Falstaff’s.

The good ruler must have a conscientious devotion to duty, and not be ruled by his passions and appetites. In a word, he must behave professionally. Hal knows that he must abandon Falstaff and the dissolute crew from the Boar’s Head Inn. Thus, in the coronation procession, when Falstaff cries out, “God save thee, my sweet boy!” the King responds,

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester! I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, so surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane; but being awaked, I do despise my dream. Presume not that I am the thing I was, for God doth know, so shall the world perceive, that I have turned away my former self; so will I those that kept me company. When thou dost hear I am as I have been, approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast, the tutor and the feeder of my riots. Till then I banish thee, on pain of death, as I have done the rest of my misleaders, not to come near our person by ten mile.

Over the years this scene has provoked much anguish because we love Falstaff. Did Hal have to be so cruel? Personally, I think that he did. He had to do it to become King Henry V of fame and glory. As King Henry V, on the fielf of battle at Agincourt, he roused his men with the famous band of brothers speech which begins when Lord Westmoreland wishes that the English had more men. The King responds:

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

Thus, Prince Hal and Falstaff are a study in contrasts; a study from which we may learn much.

So I submit to you that good ol’ Will Shakespeare has much to teach us even now 400 years after he wrote his last play. That is why the plays are still read and performed today. Certainly he has enriched my life, particularly in the last few years. I hope that this presentation has been of some value to you and not much ado about nothing.

And I hope that you are not recalling what Macbeth says as his faces his ultimate calamity:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Rather, I hope that you are thinking of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

Thank you.

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Ahab Obsession and the Clintons

Illus. from "Moby Dick"

Illus. from “Moby Dick”


A recent Martin Longman article in The Washington Monthly has invoked Moby Dick to describe the obsession with the Clintons shared by many on the extreme right. However, rather than focus only on “Clinton Derangement Syndrome”—which brackets Bush and Obama Derangement Syndrome—I want to look at how the article accurately describes unhinged ideology. Those who turn their opponents into evil whales risk getting destroyed by their own obsession.

Longman notes how the obsession with the Clintons that brought down Newt Gingrich in the 1990s has led to the rise and (in all likelihood) fall of Donald Trump:

If you thought that the Republicans’ defeat in the 1998 midterms, the acquittal of the president, and the resignation of Newt Gingrich were the equivalents of Captain Ahab being lashed to the White Whale and dragged to the depths of the ocean, then you obviously didn’t watch last night’s debate. Because Captain Ahab lives!

In one of the earliest reviews of Herman Melville’s epic, George Ripley of Harper’s wrote that Ahab “becomes the victim of a deep, cunning monomania; believes himself predestined to take a bloody revenge on his fearful enemy; pursues him with fierce demoniac energy of purpose.” That seems like a good description of Donald Trump’s whole campaign, as he seeks vengeance for being humiliated by the president at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011. In a broader sense, though, it’s a description of the itch Trump was scratching last night for his base.

Longman goes on to describe all the ways that Trump was preparing to humiliate Hillary in Sunday’s debate, including inviting to his family box women who claim to have been assaulted by her husband:

“We were going to put the four women in the VIP box,” said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who represents Trump in debate negotiations. “We had it all set. We wanted to have them shake hands with Bill, to see if Bill would shake hands with them.”

Longman observes that only someone as unhinged as a Clinton obsessive would come up with such a plan, which was thwarted by the Republican co-chairman of the debate commission. Nevertheless, Trump still went on to refer to the women as the debate opened. Longman observes,

It was his chance to lob the worst accusations ever made against Bill Clinton like some kind of magic harpoon that would finally make the American people recognize the satanic possession of the Clintons. Also in Trump’s quiver were the most unhinged interpretations of Hillary’s missteps and vulnerabilities, from Benghazi! to the “missing” emails to her alleged role in silencing her husband’s accusers. To drive home the point, Trump referred to his debating partner as “the devil” and “Satan.”

This dogged focus prompted Longman to think of Ahab’s obsession, described by Ishmael as follows:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

When Trump, in the debate, said that Clinton has “hatred in her heart,” he was clearly projecting. It is a projection that he shares with his followers:

In circumstances like these, speaking to and for a base that has hunted the Clintons around the seven seas of American politics for more than a quarter century now, Trump’s performance was guaranteed to excite and stimulate the limbic system of hardcore Republicans, including many who have no use for Trump as a candidate or potential president. It must have been an almost euphoric experience for them.

The reality, however, is something else altogether:

Moby Dick was never “all evil” personified. Moby Dick was just a whale.

Likewise Hillary bears little resemblance to the demon lady that her opponents have made her out to be. She is a conventional center-left politician with a mixture of virtues and vices.

Because she is a woman, she has one interesting thing in common with Moby Dick, at least as seen through the eyes of Ahab-type rightwingers. The whale emasculates Ahab by biting off his leg, and we are seeing any number of emasculation anxieties surfacing in this election. Trump certainly sees his masculinity under attack. During the Sunday debate, a number of pundits speculated that he was trying to assert gorilla dominance, as described by Jane Goodall, as he stalked his opponent and towered over her.

Indeed, one wonders whether the GOP chose a blatant misogynist as their candidate because they were unhinged by the prospect of a woman as president. That’s how obsession works: that which you violently oppose, you help bring into being. Or as Ahab realizes on the third day of the final hunt,

[H]e’s chasing me now; not I, him—that’s bad.

If Trump were in this all by himself, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Ahab takes the Pequod down with him. Even if Trump ends up on the bottom of the sea on November 8, we will be digging through the wreckage for some time to come.

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We Mooste Calle Him “Hende Donald”

Paper theatre version of "The Miller's Tale"

McCune Canterbury Paper Paper Project, “The Miller’s Tale”


After reading this Vox article, I’m kicking myself for having missed a parallel between Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” and the behavior of a Geoffrey Chaucer character. Author Constance Grady has it right: in the recorded Access Hollywood tape that came to light this past Friday, Trump is a real life version of Nicholas in The Miller’s Tale.

If you need reminding, here is Trump boasting of how he has sexually assaulted women:

I just start kissing them. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Reports from numerous women report that, for once, Trump was telling the truth: he starts by kissing them and then moves on to groping. 

Chaucer’s Nicholas is an impoverished university student, not a billionaire star, but other than that his approach is pure Donald. His target is the wife of his landlord, an old carpenter who has ill-advisedly married a much younger woman: 

Now, sire, and eft, sire, so bifel the cas,
That on a day this hende nicholas 
Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye, 
Whil that hir housbonde was at oseneye, 
As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte; 
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte, 
And seyde, ywis, but if ich have my wille, 
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille. 
And heeld hire harde by the haunchebones, 
And seyde, lemman, love me al atones, 
Or I wol dyen, also God me save! 

Or in modern English:

Now sirs, now, so things came to pass,
That one day this courteous Nicholas
Began with this young wife to fool and play,
While her husband was down Osney way –
As clerks are full of subtlety and tricks.
And covertly he caught her by the sex,
And said: ‘Sweetheart, unless I have my will
For secret love of you, then die I will!’
And held her hard by the haunch bones,
And: ‘Sweetheart, love me, now,’ he moans,
‘Or I will die, as God shall me save!’

“Queynte” works as a pun for “clever” as well as a woman’s private parts, which is why the word gets repeated in the Middle English passage. But Nicholas’s signifier, “hende,” is an even better pun, meaning “courteous” but hinting at its modern definition of “clever or skillful in using your hands.”

Donald claims that “no man respects women more than I do,” which means that wants to be seen as “hende” in the medieval sense. His actions, however, show him to be the other kind of hende. Unlike Nicholas, however, he failed in making inroads with the woman mentioned in the Access Hollywood tape. Chaucer’s university student, while having none of Trump’s advantages, nevertheless persuades Allison to engage in consensual sex. He does not force her, dominate her, or humiliate her.

In certain ways, Trump more resembles the carpenter, an elderly man who has no business marrying a young woman that is as slick as a weasel and frolicsome as a colt. As the Miller observes,

He knew nat catoun [Cato], for his wit was rude, 
That bad [bade] man sholde wedde his simylitude. 
Men sholde wedden after hire estaat, 
For youthe and elde is often at debaat.

Of course, the Miller himself is perpetuating a sexist stereotype by suggesting to his aroused mostly male audience that young women like to be approached in this manner. However, we are hearing increasing numbers of complaints (including from beauty pageant contestantsApprentice cast and crew members,  and others) that “hende Donald’s” approach is a humiliating invasion.

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How Trumpism Gives a Dark Permission

Gustave Doré, Satan marshaling the fallen angels

Gustave Doré, Satan marshaling the fallen angels


I’m currently fighting a cold so here’s a past post, from September 1, which I still find only too relevant. Trumpism, in my opinion, has given people permission to display dark sides of themselves, darkness that sometimes even they aren’t aware of. Usually this darkness is limited to verbal expressions although occasionally in manifests itself in physical acts. At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where we are supposed to follow “the St. Mary’s Way” and where “St. Mary’s nice” is a term of pride, we have seen a spike in racial incidents, so it penetrates even supposedly protected enclaves. Suddenly social norms that we took for granted appear fragile.

John Milton, who lived through tumultuous times and saw his share of demagogues, understood the phenomenon well. When one takes a bite into the apple of hatred and intolerance, all the earth shakes:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

Reprinted from September 1, 2016

To the delight of white nationalist David Duke, rightwing provocateur Ann Coulter, and many other members of the alt-right, Donald Trump’s recent hate-filled rant against immigrants indicated that he is not “softening,” as some in the media had thought. Reading about Coulter’s enthusiasm—she called the speech “Churchillian” and tweeted, “I think I’ll watch this speech every night before going to bed so that I will sleep like a baby”—I was put in mind of how Milton’s Sin and Death are energized by Satan’s success in the Garden of Eden. The passage captures how Trump is exciting many of America’s darkest forces.

Sin is Satan’s daughter, having emerged Athena-like from his head (at which point he proceeds to rape her, thereby giving birth to their son Death). Although she is far from where Satan has just seduced Adam and Eve, she senses his victory and is intoxicated:

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on, 
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.

Just as the alt-right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:

Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn
By this new felt attraction and instinct.

Once confined to the shadows, she will join us on Earth. Or as Hillary Clinton puts it, Trump is “taking hate groups mainstream.”

Sin, in her excitement, turns to Death, who promises to accompany her to Earth. His eager anticipation resembles how the alt-right is salivating over the chance to impose a harsh regimen upon immigrants, Muslims, Hillary, and whomever else it hates. Milton’s Death smells the scent of blood:

I shall not lag behind, nor err
The way, thou leading, such a scent I draw
Of carnage, prey innumerable, and taste
The savor of Death from all things there that live…

Some commentators have observed that, even if Clinton beats Trump in November—not a certainty—he has unleashed forces that will not be easily contained. The Paradise Lost version of this is the bridge, constructed of “asphaltine slime,” that Sin and Death construct between Hell and Earth. This is the bridge across which all of Hell’s fallen angels, turned into snakes, will travel.

In other words, whatever happens in November, Trump has opened the gates of hell, and we will be dealing with the consequences for years to come.

I find this such a dispiriting prospect that I must remind myself that Paradise Lost ultimately projects a happy ending where love triumphs over hate. To be sure, it takes a while–the arc of justice bends slowly–but the Archangel Michael assures us it will happen:

Add virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

To be sure, this is a vision of inner Paradise. Milton had just seen his Puritan commonwealth crumble and was retreating from the world. We, on the other hand, can continue to work towards a more perfect union. I like to think that most American are charitable toward their immigrant neighbors and that, out of this spirit, we will create a nation happier far.

But we’ll have to battle a lot of snakes first.

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A Pure Heart To Speak without Fear


Spiritual Sunday, Anticipating Yom Kippur

I have been reading up on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews gather to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. Yesterday I came across Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur. “Avodah” is the name of the Yom Kippur service.

According to editors and translators Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, the Avodah service, which dates back to the centuries following the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., has always featured a rich and complex poetry. They say that though this poetry was “suppressed by generations of rabbis,”

its ornamental beauty and its deep exploration of sacred stories ensured its popularity for centuries. This literature, which produced dozens of poets and thousands of compositions before the rise of Islam, was barely known to us until the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a treasury of discarded medieval Jewish manuscripts, at the end of the nineteenth century. It could be argued that the discovery of this literature is in fact second only in importance among discoveries of Hebrew literary texts to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for our understanding of ancient Judaism, for it preserves linguistic forms, myths, and ways of thinking that we would not have known from Talmudic literature.

Here’s one ninth-century poem in which we see the poet asking the congregation’s permission “to entreat God on their behalf.” The poem would have preceded a key prayer. I like how it asks for the courage to speak without fear or treachery.

I implore the Rock of eternity,
Who has knowledge of the life of the innocent;
As I cast my eyes to the heavens,
I ask permission from the Merciful One.
And so too when I stand before the wise,
Who hear words from the truthful,
Who understand words of law:
I ask permission from the wise.
I look out at the congregation of the noble
And am fearful of the One who humbles and raises,
And of those standing behind me and before me as a fence.
I ask permission from the righteous,
The seed of the faithful,
Believers, sons of believers,
Who explore the law and understand.
I ask permission from priests,
Those who [ ] goodness on my behalf,
Who are satiated with good teaching and instruction.
I open my mouth with the permission of Levites,
Those who honor this day and fast,
and respond, “Holy, holy, holy”
And teach scripture and Mishnah diligently.
I open my mouth with permission of azanim [the listeners],
Those who are skilled in the subtleties of books,
Abiding in the shade of the One who dwells in mystery,
Who sing sweet, pleasant words.
I open my mouth with permission of scribes,
Those who eternally elevate the Living One,
Who say prayer before Him,
Who stand before the One who makes mountains.
I open my mouth with permission of those who recite liturgy,
Those who recite the specific and general,
Who sweep behind like water,
Who recite righteousness and justice.
I open my mouth with permission of singers,
Those who lend strong voices in melody,
Let their cry before You be pleasing.
May You consider the melody of my tongue,
I open my mouth with permission of the whole people.
O Almighty, as You forgive treachery,
Listen to my entreaties from above;
Grant me a pure heart that I may speak without fear or treachery.
I open my mouth with permission of the entire congregation.

Previous Yom Kippur posts

Adrienne Rich’s Yom Kippur Thoughts about Conflict 

Jane Kenyon: Thirsting of Disordered Souls

Rashani: Out of Darkness, Sanctified into Being 

Stanley Kunitz: Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter 

Philip Schultz: Believe in the Utter Sweetness of Your Life  

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Bring the Liberal Arts to West Point

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V


A recent Washington Post article by a former member of the infantry is arguing that the military academies should open their curricula. Joseph Zengerie says that the cadets miss out on some invaluable tools needed by the military when the STEM disciplines are overemphasized.

In support of Zengerie, I cite Sir Philip Sidney, a soldier himself who found certain lyrics more powerful than bugle blasts in rousing men to valor.

Zingerie says that liberal arts training is vital because the problems military leaders face is complex:

But even in an age of highly sophisticated warfare, our military leaders should not be too narrowly focused on STEM. If we want leaders who communicate clearly, solve problems creatively and appreciate cultural differences in theaters where they operate, studying the humanities is just as important as science, technology, engineering and math.


Those who lead need to be ready for the moments when they must summon their troops — who may be hurt or drained by fatigue — to rise, to respond, to prevail against the odds. That power doesn’t come out of the barrel of a gun or the insignia of rank, much less a math formula. It comes from an understanding of human motivation that can be gained by studying psychology, by analyzing history, by reading great literature. Military leaders should know that the familiar notion of troops as a “band of brothers” originates with the stirring speech Shakespeare’s Henry V delivers to his outnumbered forces at the Battle of Agincourt.

Here’s Henry’s “band of brothers” speech. It’s an instance of a leader developing buy-in among the troops before he asks them to put their lives on the line:

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

And here’s the famous speech which functions as Sidney’s bugle blast. Sidney has indifferent things to say about British drama, but that’s because he died before he Shakespeare got going:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonor not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble luster in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Such passages do not show up in one’s engineering courses. As Zengerie rightly observes, military situations require “an understanding that not everything can be quantified.”

Sidney certainly feels that way, Defending poetry against those who regard it as useless, he talks of song lyrics that have inspired him to charge into battle. It didn’t matter, he says, that the lyrics were crude and ancient and sung by itinerant musicians:

Certainly I must confess mine own barbarousness; I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style; which being so evil appareled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?

He then turns to other countries where songs inspire valor:

In Hungary I have seen it the manner of all feasts, and other such meetings, to have songs of their ancestors’ valor, which that right soldier-like nation think the chiefest kindlers of brave courage. The incomparable Lacedæmonians did not only carry that kind of music ever with them to the field, but even at home, as such songs were made, so were they all content to be singers of them; when the lusty men were to tell what they did, the old men what they had done, and the young men what they would do.

Sidney himself died in battle so he didn’t just talk the talk.

In his concluding remarks on the lyric, Sidney cites the “unimitable Pindar” as proof that the lyric is the kind of poetry “most capable and most fit to awake the thoughts from the sleep of idleness, to embrace honorable enterprises.” Although he acknowledges that he would have preferred “honorable enterprises” to be battles rather than Olympics events, Sidney adds that Pindar’s poetry was so powerful that Alexander the Great himself held no victory greater than an Olympics win.

Here are the opening lines from Pindar’s first Olympian ode, in which he praises the winner of the horse race:

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia.

So maybe Pindar and Shakespeare should be added to the curriculum.

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The Liberal Arts Will Not Die

Raphael, "School of Athens"

Raphael, “School of Athens”


My colleague Jeff Hammond, a national authority on Puritan poetry and a much lauded writer of reflective essays, recently gave a stirring defense of the liberal arts for our parents-alumni weekend. Jeff’s observations dovetail very nicely with Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which I happen to be teaching at the moment. Watching poetry getting shunted aside by people more interested in a narrow utilitarianism, Shelley distinguishes between “reasoners and mechanists” on the one hand and creative types on the other. These reasoners and mechanists are the forerunners of vocational education and they have limited vision. Poetry, by contrast, has a broad utility. “Whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense,” Shelley says, “is useful.”

By Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and George B. and Willma Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

As most of you know, St. Mary’s College of Maryland celebrated its 175th anniversary last year. That was a perfect occasion for devoting the Reeves Lecture to the liberal-arts mission that the College pursues. I hoped to articulate what, at the most basic level, a liberal arts education is all about. But a hurricane intervened — and the lecture was cancelled. Since our mission has not changed in the past year, however, I’ve decided to give that talk tonight. Maybe I’m a year off – but who’s to say that a 176th anniversary is any less significant than a 175th?

Besides, defending the liberal arts is an especially fitting topic for a Reeves Lecture. Willma Reeves, the founder of these lectures, was a passionate believer in a liberal education. From my conversations with her, I’m certain that she would have been amazed – and alarmed — by rumors that this kind of education is dying out. For some people, the end can’t come soon enough: for them, the phrase “liberal arts” is a synonym for hopeless impracticality and certain unemployment. Maybe they’re imagining young aristocrats strolling across manicured lawns while carrying gilt-edged editions of Cicero. That fantasy contains a dose of Anglophobia, a defensive reaction against the whole Oxbridge Thing and everything it stands for – or used to. After all, we’re Americans: a practical people, a nation of doers. We didn’t create the greatest country on earth by cow-towing to snooty traditions.

Actually, charges of elitism have some historical validity: originally, the liberal arts were elitist. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans who conceived them, the artes liberales were pursuits limited to “free men” — liberi in Latin. In contrast to occupational crafts, these “arts” were pursued by people for whom work was deemed unworthy activity. That’s why the word “school” comes from the ancient Greek scholé, which meant “leisure.” Only rich young Athenians had the leisure to chat with Socrates. Ditto for his student Plato, whose “academy” was named after a grove and gymnasium that were popular hangouts for idle aristocrats. His student, Aristotle, founded what was called the “peripatetic” school, which meant “walking around”: he allegedly taught while strolling. And the Stoics took their name from the colonnaded porch or stoa that framed the marketplace – another hangout for rich idlers. But here’s the deal: if you’re hanging out or strolling around with a philosopher, you aren’t herding sheep, picking grapes, or pressing olive oil.

The liberal arts reinforced social hierarchies because leisure was necessary for pursuing them. Nowadays they do the flat opposite. Today’s liberal arts education provides access to what was formerly reserved for the most privileged. Considered within the broad sweep of history, this reversal was fairly recent: while it had roots in the nineteenth century, it really took off in the middle of the twentieth, when the G. I. Bill made college affordable to non-elite veterans. The democratizing of the liberal arts is most visible at an institution that a century ago would have been considered a contradiction in terms: a public liberal arts college. But that, of course, is precisely what we are. Because we’re public, you don’t have to be a trust-fund baby to go here. You don’t have to be a legacy, either. As our many first-generation college students show, schools like St. Mary’s have turned the old socio-economic bias of the liberal arts on its head.

So much for claims of elitism. But another belief informs the assumption that the liberal arts are dying. That’s the belief that this kind of education fails to prepare people for jobs. Vocational panic has created huge challenges for liberal arts colleges: many are finding it hard to attract and retain students. St. Mary’s recently had an enrollment crisis of our own – and although we’re pulling out of it, other schools have not been so lucky. By one count, twenty-five liberal arts colleges have closed in the past fifteen years; around 40 more have merged or been absorbed into larger schools. Given this kind of pressure, simply appealing to tradition won’t cut it. We have to do a better job of clarifying and promoting the tangible benefits of a liberal arts education.

We might begin by addressing the charge that liberal arts colleges are out of touch with economic realities. In fact, American higher education had a practical bent from the start. Our first liberal arts colleges were established to train clergy; the so-called “normal” schools that came later were established to train teachers. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the goal of preparing middle-class American youth for meaningful work produced the large state universities established by the Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890. These new universities reinforced a perceived split between idealism and practicality. Colleges, private and often church-affiliated, continued to emphasize the liberal arts. Universities supplemented general education with career training in fields like engineering, medicine, law, and agriculture. Increasingly, universities were construed as “the new” and colleges as “the old.” While universities maintained a core of traditional disciplines, usually housed within a “College of Arts and Sciences,” the liberal-arts focus at small colleges was associated, more and more, with an impractical education.

But were the liberal arts ever really impractical? To answer that requires us to look deeper into the past – and also into human nature. As long as people have been learning things, we’ve been devising schemes for organizing what we’ve learned. In antiquity this ordering of knowledge was pursued most famously by scholars at the great Library of Alexandria, which functioned as a kind of think-tank for the ancient Mediterranean world. By the first century the Roman scholar Varro had organized learning into nine basic categories: logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, architecture, and medicine. Eventually, architecture and medicine were dropped from Varro’s list because they described professions rather than disciplines.

Thus arose the seven liberal arts as they were defined throughout the Middle Ages. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric comprised the Trivium, the foundation of language and thinking and therefore of all subsequent learning. The Trivium – roughly equivalent to the humanities, meant “the three ways.” The other four arts – math, geometry, music, and astronomy – formed the Quadrivium, roughly the origin of the sciences. Music might seem out of place there, but the ancients saw music in terms of mathematical proportions that corresponded with the structure of the cosmos.

That’s what the liberal arts originally were. But what, exactly, did they do for those who were able to pursue them? The answer lies in their remarkable range: to study them was to receive an education sufficient for moving through the world with some understanding of virtually everything that one might encounter. This versatility was due to the fact that even from the beginning, the liberal arts were not piles of knowledge so much as a set of tools and methods for acquiring knowledge.

The point was not to amass a specific body of facts, but to learn how to learn – to acquire the ability to teach oneself anything. Consider the degree to which the original liberal arts developed traits that still define a truly educated person. Logic fostered an ability to observe carefully and think critically. Rhetoric fostered an ability to communicate and interpret others’ communications effectively. The other five arts fostered an ability to grasp the relationships among things, whether those things were verbal (as in grammar), numerical (as in mathematics), spatial (as in geometry), sonic (as in music), or celestial (as in astronomy). Despite centuries of intellectual advancement, these basic skills still reside at the heart of a liberal arts education.

It is just here that the practical benefits of a liberal arts education become clearest. The best foundation for a productive work-life is not to learn how to do a particular job, but to learn how to learn. Because strong learners can adapt to new things, they are less dependent on shifting circumstances and current assumptions. Strong learners are especially well suited to functioning in environments where things are constantly changing – environments like today’s world. Precisely because the nature and conditions of work are changing too fast for job-training to keep up with them, a truly practical education cultivates a social, intellectual, and creative flexibility that cannot become outdated.

Perhaps ironically, the business community – for whom filling jobs is the top priority — has been crying out for adaptable, creative people with solid thinking and communication skills: precisely the kinds of people that a liberal education is designed to produce. It was once assumed that studying a particular set of subjects would produce such a person. This wasn’t wrong, exactly — but what really produced the educated person was the process of studying those subjects. Although the liberal arts always fostered valuable qualities and skills, those qualities and skills were rarely spelled out because nobody questioned them. Now, of course, they are being questioned – which means that we need to make them as explicit as we can. At St. Mary’s we’ve defined these skills as “critical thinking, information literacy, written expression, and oral expression.” These skills are timelessly valuable – and those students who attain them are solidly equipped to cope with this challenging job market. Instead of training them for specific jobs, their education has given them something far better: they’ve been prepared for careers.

In an attempt to highlight these qualities and skills, the College is developing vehicles for assessing how well we’re teaching them. But once you move beyond the practical benefits of a liberal arts education, you arrive at an outcome that cannot be so easily assessed: namely, a richer and fuller life. Those traditional liberal-arts questions – the nature of the beautiful and the good, the meaning and sources of happiness, the essence of the human condition – remain as fresh as when they were first posed. Questions like these involve values and ethics — and for that reason, each generation has to answer them for itself.

These deeper questions embody a timelessly indispensable human trait: curiosity. Even in ancient times, when most people lived unimaginably difficult lives, thinkers understood that the full experience of being human ought to consist of something more than just staying alive. What they sensed is affirmed in our DNA: humans are genetically hard-wired to learn, think, and feel a great deal more than is required for survival.

We might even define the essence of being human as this mysterious excess of inner activity. Beavers, for instance, build shelters just as we do, but beavers don’t keep repositioning logs in a new dam to see whether one arrangement is more attractive than another. In short, beavers don’t do aesthetics. Beavers also don’t spend much time pondering the moral significance of what they’re doing or the abstract essence of “damness.” Beavers don’t do ethics or metaphysics, either. Now, this is not to disrespect beavers, but merely to confirm that the predilection to reflect and imagine – and to be aware of ourselves doing so – is the genetic heritage of homo sapiens. Children display this biological imperative in its purest form: everyone knows how much a child enjoys figuring something out or seeing something new.

This innate curiosity is as old as the species – and it has helped us immeasurably. Here’s a special type of flint that is really good for making fire: pass it on. If we plant these seeds and stick around, we’ll get more food than if we simply eat the seeds and move on: pass it on. Gods who establish moral covenants with us are more worthy of our worship than gods who rely on brute force: pass it on. These twin epics in Ionic Greek celebrate not just the glory of war, but the sadness and waste of it: pass them on. Village A, which has better drainage than Village B, lost fewer people to the plague this year: pass it on. And so it goes: so it has always gone.

As improved drainage suggests, even the most idealistic defense of the liberal arts cannot avoid their practical benefits. This suggests that the traditional distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge has always been overstated. Learning for its own sake – an ideal central to the liberal arts tradition – has always had its practical side in the betterment of the human condition. Sooner or later, learning gets applied to something, and often the results are good.

Of course, deciding how learning gets applied is a question of values. The liberal arts tradition is concerned not simply with the acquisition of knowledge, but with the ethics of knowledge. In other words, a liberal education is not just about knowing, but about knowing what’s right. This does not mean that there is a single, liberal arts “position” on any given moral or political issue. Although a liberal education tries to connect values with learning, it does not predetermine the results of that connection. But while it refuses to dictate answers, it insists that moral and ethical questions be part of the conversation.

Here, too, practical outcomes are sneaking their way back in. What could be more practical than learning how to make ethical decisions? Consider all the professional schools – medical schools, law schools, MBA programs – that have been scrambling to add courses in professional ethics to their degree requirements. American higher education is rediscovering an old truth: few things are more practical than consequences, and no assessment of consequences can be restricted to the bottom line of profit. In fact, to provide job training without a liberal education carries some risk. Job training is not usually concerned with ethics and values: it tells you how to do a thing. A liberal education, by contrast, tells you how to do that thing ethically, and even whether it ought to be done in the first place.

Practical benefits also arise when we consider another objection to a liberal arts education. Given an uncertain future filled with challenging problems, why waste time studying anything that lacks immediate application to one or more of those problems? This objection sounds well-intentioned, but it overlooks how problems have always been solved – and that’s the process by which today’s “pure” knowledge often becomes tomorrow’s applied knowledge. The liberal arts emphasis on learning how to learn instills openness to unexpected knowledge – that is, to discoveries that are not short-circuited by a fixation on predetermined outcomes. If we don’t foster basic curiosity, we forfeit these unexpected discoveries and their potential uses down the road. Since the future will always bring unforeseen challenges, we have to keep ourselves open to pure inquiry – to the kind of learning that transcends immediate circumstance and need.

Of course, not every shiny new thing leads to improvements in the quality and ethics of life. The liberal-arts reflection on the proper uses of knowledge is the best antidote for abuses of knowledge. Solutions for future problems will require thoughtful people whose broad learning gives them plenty to draw on. Those problems will require more reflection, not less – and solutions won’t come if the thinking that goes into them lacks imagination or fails to account for as many variables as possible. Deep and wide-ranging reflection does not result from training, narrowly defined. It comes from being liberally educated.

If we weren’t living in a time of economic uncertainty, we wouldn’t even have to remind ourselves that knowing what is true, ethical, and beautiful is a good thing in its own right. In absolute terms, such knowledge requires no defense. Nor does developing a capacity to think for oneself or living a life that transcends material concerns. While the rewards of such a life cannot be quantified, one thing is certain: a life informed by this kind of awareness is fuller and happier than a life lived without it.

At root, a liberal arts education immerses us in human experience. This kind of immersion will never go out of date — presuming, of course, that we humans stick around. I’d even go so far as to say that our sticking around depends on having a critical mass of people who have acquired the qualities and skills fostered by the liberal arts. For one thing, the focus on values prepares people to make decisions that reach beyond their own self-interest. For another, the interdisciplinary experience fostered by the liberal arts – the broad sampling of various ways of knowing – develops people who are able to think outside of personal and professional boxes.

To put this another way, such people can think for themselves — an essential trait of informed and responsible citizens of a democracy. Even the most ardent supporters of a mainly vocational education would agree: our country cannot do without voters who can understand the issues and think for themselves, un-swayed by false or misleading claims. As we’ll see in a few weeks, the health of the American political system depends on the active involvement of such people.

The election aside, there’s no special controversy – or for that matter, originality – in claiming that it’s better to be aware than unaware, independent than dependent, and informed than uninformed. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is the often unrecognized practicality of a liberal arts education. Equally unrecognized is the potential impracticality of a narrowly vocational education. In this volatile global economy, the nature of careers – indeed, of work itself – is rapidly changing. As I have suggested, predominantly vocational education is limited precisely because the world is moving too fast for it. And here’s a seldom acknowledged secret: most jobs – their actual performance – can be learned in a few weeks, provided that the trainee has the curiosity and intellectual flexibility to learn something new. And with that, we’re right back where we started: with traits that a liberal arts education is uniquely positioned to foster.

There is a catch, however. For this kind of education to work, it has to be pursued honestly – and that means with commitment and rigor. If we’re going to counter accusations that a liberal arts education is just a laid-back dabbling in this or that, there’s no place for slacking. Students need to pursue the knowledge and insights gained in their classes as actively and aggressively as they can. There’s no place for slacking among faculty, either. We need to practice the subjects that we preach – to embrace and demonstrate the same passion for lifelong learning that we’re trying to instill in our students.

The fact is, it’s not liberal-arts graduates who are job-disadvantaged, but indifferent liberal-arts graduates. While the abilities and skills cultivated by this kind of education demand a genuine effort to acquire them, it is an effort that will pay huge dividends. We will always need people who can speak, read, and write well, and who can think critically and independently. We will always need people who can find information, grasp the basics of quantitative reasoning, and arrive at conclusions logically. We will always need people who know who and where they are in time and space — who can see beyond their immediate situation to embrace historical, cultural, and global differences. We will always need people who respect the communities they inhabit and the natural environments that sustain those communities. We will always need people who can appreciate artistic beauty, both for its own sake and for the simple reason that fellow humans created it. Most of all, we will always need happy people. The world is a better place when it contains people who are enjoying their lives by living them as fully as possible. In the end, people like this are the best proof that the liberal arts will continue to be, to borrow a phrase from horror movies, “The Education that Wouldn’t Die.”

I was reminded of this by an email that I got from my former SMP student Jeff Tolbert, who graduated some ten years ago. Jeff went on to study folklore at Indiana University, where he’s completing his Ph.D. He attached his first published article: it was a call for folklorists to break out of their academic isolation and engage more directly with the public. Now there’s a guy who has learned some things and wants to apply them to the larger world. And that, in a nutshell, is the liberal arts spirit. As long as there are people who love to learn and want to share what they’ve learned, the liberal arts tradition will retain its value in every sense of the word.

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Defending Homer against Plato

Akilleus and Odysseus

Akhilleus and Odysseus


I’m someone who has difficulty with pure abstract thinking, the kind that philosophers engage in. When I read Plato’s proposal to ban poets from his ideal republic, therefore, his argument is not enough. I only begin to understand what Plato is up to when I examine the specific passages he is objecting to.

Homer comes in for criticism from Plato for providing examples of gods and heroes who are not behaving god-like and hero-like. The philosopher fears that unformed minds might misbehave upon encountering these scenes. In today’s post I examine two examples.

The first seems to us entirely unobjectionable. Odysseus, right before recounting his adventures, talks about how wonderful it is to eat:

There is no boon in life more sweet, I say,
than when a summer joy holds all the realm,
and banqueters sit listening to a harper
in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped
with bread and roast meat, which a steward goes
to dip up wine and brim your cups again.
Here is the flower of life, it seems to me!

Plato is worried that young men will opt for this flower of life and get drunk rather than focus on glory in battle. His question is rhetorical:

When the tables are full of bread and meat, and the cup-bearer carries round wine which he draws from the bowl and pours into the cups, is it fit or conducive to temperance for a young man to hear such words? 

Now, it must be said that The Odyssey has a lot of eating in it. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones refers to Odysseus as having “the best stomach of all the heroes in that eating poem of the Odyssey” and Plato goes on to mention an even more objectionable scene. Again Odysseus is the speaker:

And I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget–
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding, 
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”

Fielding, as a comic novelist, has no problem with such a passage. After all, comedy revels in the earthly. Philosophy, not so much.

Another of the passages attacked by Plato is one of my favorites. He wants to “obliterate” the “obnoxious” scene where Akhilleus tells Odysseus that he would rather be poor and alive rather than famous and dead. Here’s the interchange, starting with Odysseus:

But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
we Argives did, and here your power is royal
among the dead men’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus:
you need not be so pained by death.”

                                                            To this
he answered swiftly:

                                    “Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

 Plato cites this passage, along with other doleful descriptions of Hades, as potentially harmful. After all, if death is depicted as so terrible, young men will do anything to escape it, including run away in battle.

Plato doesn’t give Homer credit for what he is up to, however. As I interpret Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, it is a interior journey where he is trying to figure out what to do with his life. Should he forego fame and spend the remainder of his days with Circe, a beautiful island nymph? Or should he venture out upon the sea again, with all the dangers that entails?

To stay is to be alive, which is why he imagines Akhilleus’s words. That’s not the end of the argument, however. Plato doesn’t mention Akhilleus’s follow-up question:

Tell me, what news of the prince my son: did he
come after me to make a name in battle
or could it be he did not?

Odysseus recounts how brave his son proved to be in the sacking of Troy, which reconciles Akhilleus to his death. Odysseus says,

But I said no more,
for he had gone off striding the field of asphodel.

See this an interior dialogue, Odysseus has had his doubts, but only when he was thinking only of himself. He then realizes that one achieves a kind of immortality through one’s children. This is one of a number of insights he gains from the underworld and he decides to leave Circe and head for home.

In other words, Plato is not looking at the overall argument, which agrees with him. Death does not get the last word. But maybe he worries that Akhilleus’s initial words are so powerful that they will drown out the rest.

In the end, we are seeing the difference between poetry and philosophy: the one delivers drama, the other delivers prescriptions.

Give me poetry every time.

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Childhood, Space of Terror & Enchantment

Joseph Francis Nollekens, "Children at Play"

Joseph Francis Nollekens, “Children at Play”


I have been enchanted by The Ratio of Reason to Magic, the recently published “New and Selected Poems” of my friend Norman Finkelstein. I am particularly dazzled by a poem that draws on Norman’s experiences as a father. I relate very much to his meditation upon the relationship of our adult and our child selves.

“Children’s Realm” borrows ideas and a couple of passages from a 1977 architectural book on creative living spaces. Authors Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein describe the core idea underlying A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction as follows:

At the core…is the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This idea…comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.

Norman focuses on the authors’ suggestions about setting up ideal play spaces. After quoting from Pattern Language on how the children’s rooms should connect with the outside world, he wonders whether he set up his own house correctly. By the second half, however, the poem has moved from physical spaces to those within the poet’s mind. The children may leave but the inner child remains:

was to be a sort of farewell,
whatever other frenzies
may visit us. Shall we
let go of their childhood
and still cling to our own?

Norman likes the idea in Pattern Language that “adults and children can co-exist, each without dominating the other.” This works as a wonderful analogy for the poet’s mind, which wants

a continuum of spaces
where the child at play
may pass by or enter
that place common to all
of my being

There’s a faint echo of Tintern Abbey in those last lines—Wordsworth’s memories of being a child roaming free in nature serve as “the soul of all my moral being”—and the poem has a Romantic cast to it. The poet asks that this childhood space never be

too far from that grown-up world
also of bodies and minds

of storms and of the peace after storms

Just as reason faces magic (to borrow from the collection’s title), so the child and adult face each other “across a space that is all/terror and enchantment.” The concluding phrase, repeated twice in the poem, speaks to the nostalgia for childhood but also to its dark anxieties. We are also terrified that this numinous world is lost to us forever.

Here’s the poem:

Children’s Realm

By Norman Finkelstein

“almost like a wide swath
inside the house,
muddy, toys strewn along the way,
touching those family rooms
which children need”

so that I wonder
how well we managed
to give them a world

                                    The second floor
                                    with its play space
                                    and bedrooms
                                    Summoned upstairs
                                    we were guests,
                                    never knowing who
                                    or what would greet us

Now they occupy
the common areas,
make them their own,
retreat only rarely
into bedrooms for the solitude
we always seem to crave

was to be a sort of farewell,
whatever other frenzies
may visit us. Shall we
let go of their childhood
and still cling to our own?

What was it led me
back to that realm
except the discovery
of my own needs
otherwise inexpressible
except through a language
of terror and enchantment?

“If there is an adequate children’s world,
in the manner described in this pattern,
then both the adults and children
can co-exist, each without dominating the other”

I want it so within myself
and within those I love–
a continuum of spaces
where the child at play
may pass by or enter
that place common to all
of my being

                                    Nor can it be
too far from that grown-up world
also of bodies and minds

of storms and of the peace after storms

the child and adult facing each other
                                    across a space that is all
                                                terror and enchantment.

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Butler & Grappling with White Privilege

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler


In response to Friday’s post about Octavia Butler’s Kindred, my colleague Sybol Anderson, a woman of color in our philosophy department who teaches Hegel, asked me to address two questions:

1. What story or stories in your family reflect or address the legacy of slavery for you?

2. What would make Kevin [the protagonist’s white husband] ready to *hear* (and not just listen to) everything Dana went through? What in that process do you think would ready Kevin for the whole truth of Dana?

I learned about the importance of such questions in the racial awareness exercises I went through last week. Too often whites see the indignities suffered by people of color as “their problem.” We may be sympathetic, as Kevin is sympathetic, but until we fully acknowledge how we ourselves have benefitted from slavery and its legacy, we can’t grasp “the whole truth of Dana.”

Actually, no one can ever grasp the whole truth of another, which means that privilege will always carry with it certain blind spots. We can, however, make a good faith effort to become less blind.

Before I turn to myself, let’s take a look at Kevin. Here’s a partial list of ways in which his perspective is different than Dana’s:

–while they are both starving workers doing temp work, he can breezily suggest that she take a longer lunch break, even though it could could cost her her job. He doesn’t need the work as much as she does;

–he can afford to be blind to the racism of his sister and is surprised when she opposes their marriage. Dana is not at all surprised and in fact predicts the opposition. In other words, naiveté is a luxury only the privileged can afford;

–Kevin automatically expects Dana to type up his manuscripts. (The year is 1976 and feminism is still struggling to make inroads.) Later, Dana’s slave-owning ancestor will expect her to do his correspondence, one of many ways in which the book links the two men;

–when he journeys back in time, Kevin, who eats at the master’s table, has a more benign view of slavery than Dana does. The following conversation, begun by Kevin, makes this clear:

“It’s surprising to me that there’s so little to see. Weylin doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what his people do, but the work gets done.”
“You think he doesn’t pay attention. Nobody calls you out to see the whippings.”
“How many whippings?”
“One that I’ve seen. One too goddamn many!”
“One is too many, yes, but still, this place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can mange…”
“…no decent housing,” I cut in. “Dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse when Sarah lets them. And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason—or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
“Wait a minute,” he said, “I’m not minimizing the wrong that’s being done here. I just…”
“Yes you are. You don’t mean to be, but you are.”

–Kevin and Dana pose as master and slave when they arrive in 1820s Maryland so that Kevin appears to be sleeping with his property. Kevin never appreciates how awkward this is for Dana:

I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed.

–when they return to the present, Kevin appears to blame Dana for having drawn him into her suffering. He’s also more worried about whether she’s slept with the master–a threat to his own masculinity–than he is by the fact that she has been whipped.

You may conclude from these examples that Kevin isn’t a very nice guy, but he’s actually the best of the whites. He loves Dana, he does all he can to save her, and when he goes back in time he risks his life to collaborate with the underground railroad. Butler isn’t really blaming Kevin. She is just showing how systemic racism and sexism impact even good people.

Dana, meanwhile, feels that she can’t tell Kevin everything that she has been through. Is she worried that the relationship couldn’t handle such truth telling? Whatever the reason, she doesn’t tell Kevin all the details of Rufus’s attempted rape and of her killing him:

Kevin would never know what those last moments had been like. I had outlined them for him, and he’d asked few questions. For that I was grateful. Now I said simply, “Self-defense.”

Why is Dana grateful? Is it because she herself doesn’t want to acknowledge how bad it is? Or perhaps she instinctively feels that she should cater to a white need to not be rendered too uncomfortable. As Lucille Clifton puts it in a poem that she wrote with me specifically in mind (you can read that story here),

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

As I said in Friday’s post, I think Dana and Kevin would be much better served by being more honest, with each other and with themselves. Race conversations are very difficult, however, even amongst people who love each other. An important first step for the Kevins of the world is to acknowledge how we have been shaped by our pasts.

So what are my own connections with slavery? Let me start with a general fact and then get personal. I recently read in Forbes the following report about what it means to be born white vs. what it means to be born black or Latino in this country. If whites do so much better, it’s because their wealth and assets haven’t been hampered—in fact, they have often been enhanced—by slavery and its legacy. Here’s from the article:

The typical black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household; the typical Latino household has just 8%, according to a recent study called The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters, by Demos, a public policy organization promoting democracy and equality, and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. (All figures come from theU.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation.)

This is what is called the racial wealth gap.

So where specifically has my family intersected with slavery? Although most of my family came to America after slavery had ended, they still came to a country made wealthy by slavery. My great-grandfather, an accountant, tried farming but quickly decided he could make more money and have an easier life as a bookkeeper.

My father, meanwhile, taught at the University of the South, a college that was built on slave wealth and that was specifically established for the sons of plantation owners. Although my father fought the college’s segregation policies during the 1950s, there was a way in which he—and I—absorbed some of the white paternalism of that environment.

Unprejudiced though I thought I was, I can point to far too many instances throughout my life where I thought I was supposed to be a white savior. As a result, when I have had my blindnesses pointed out to me, I have felt unappreciated and have withdrawn from the struggle for social justice. My own hurt feelings were more important to me than the suffering of people of color, which were far worse. (Another aspect of privilege is that it can afford to withdraw.). While, like Kevin, I deserve some credit for caring, like Kevin I need to learn more and do more.

In the end, the important thing for Kevin and Dana to commit to the marriage and do whatever it takes to make it work. They are stronger together than apart.

Further thought: Here’s one contribution Kevin brings to Dana’s plight. She is understandably hysterical after his first trip back in time and is in no emotional state to make cool-headed decisions. Because he has the advantage of detachment, he is able to figure out how the time travel works and how she must assemble a travel kit.

I think about this as I watch figures like Cornel West endorsing the Green Party’s Jill Stein, even though a vote for her aids Donald Trump. There are good reasons for African Americans to be suspicious of Hillary Clinton, but that is the marriage we have. Clinton won’t make things immeasurably worse. In fact, working as partners, she and her African American supporters could make them a lot better.

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Rosh Hashanah – A Stirring of Wonder


Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

In observance of the Jewish New Year, which begins this evening, I share poems by Denise Levertov and Muriel Ruykeyser. Rabbi Ellen Lippman alerted me to them in a Rosh Hashanah sermon where she reflects on what it means to be Jewish.

Lippman concludes that being a Jew means

to leave and to go, to act and learn, and act on what we have learned. For Jews throughout the ages, learning was done in order to act, to live. Halakhah [Jewish law and tradition], the path. For us, the learning, the prayer, the holiday celebrations serve as reinforcement: They remind us we are Jews, they teach us the foundational values, they give us time to rest and renew, they urge us to reflect and change — and keep going. 

Levertov’s “The Thread” captures the sense of connection with these foundational values:

Something is very gently, 
invisibly, silently, 
pulling at me-a thread 
or net of threads 
finer than cobweb and as 
elastic. I haven’t tried 
the strength of it. No barbed hook 
pierced and tore me. Was it 
not long ago this thread 
began to draw me? Or 
way back? Was I 
born with its knot about my 
neck, a bridle? Not fear 
but a stirring 
of wonder makes me 
catch my breath when I feel 
the tug of it when I thought 
it had loosened itself and gone. 

I like how Levertov says that the thread that pulls her is not a hooked fishing line, a noose or a bridle, which are all coercive. At its core, Judaism is not guilt-inducing burden or a suffocating tradition. The thread is more a “stirring of wonder,” a connecting that sometimes escapes notice but is there when we need it.

Rukeyser’s poem “To the Front,” written in 1944 when America was learning about the concentration camps, pushes against the horrors by describing Judiasm as a gift. In the excerpt cited by Rabbi Lippman, the poet says that ejecting one’s Jewish identity means “death of the spirit, the stone insanity,” whereas accepting it means to take a full life, even though that life may include “full agonies” and an “evening deep in labyrinthine blood/Of those who resist, fail, and resist.” God at such moment, may seem “reduced to a hostage among hostages.”

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift.    If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life.    Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment.     Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also.     But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

With the gift comes both exclusion (“the still/Torture, isolation”) and also “torture of the flesh.” But by accepting one’s Judiasm, one also accepts “the whole and fertile spirit” that is the “guarantee for every human freedom.” Although this freedom involves suffering, it also includes a vision of “daring to live for the impossible.”

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We Must Revisit Slavery To Find Healing



I participated in two remarkable healing rituals this past week that involved intense conversations with people of color. In addition to gaining important new perspectives on race in America, I also got a better understanding of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I wrote about Tuesday.

Mercedes Zandwijken, a Surinamese-Dutch woman, was on campus with her Keti Koti Table, a ritual modeled on the Passover Seder with the goal of promoting reconciliation between whites and the descendants of slaves. (You can find further information on her facebook page.)

Because we still carry around the scars of slavery, Zandwijken says, we need to address our history, and her rituals provide a safe and healing way to do so. I participated in a three-hour dinner where whites and people of color talked about where our ancestors had been touched by slavery and what it felt like today to have or not have white privilege.

In addition, there was a 24-hour conversational relay, involving one-hour conversations moderated by Zandwijken and her partner Machiel Keestra. Whites and people of color paired off before microphones on the campus center patio (anyone could stop by and listen) to answer certain questions and probe continuing pain.

The conversations were remarkable. Before giving you a sense of them, however, I turn to Kindred since it concludes with a powerful image of this pain.

As I reported Tuesday, Kindred is about an African American woman who, in 1976, finds herself in 1815 Maryland. What appears at first a plot gimmick—Dana is dragged unwillingly back by her white slave-owning ancestor whenever he faces death–proves to be something much more. Butler is essentially saying that we remain joined to our past and must face up to it if we are to become whole again.

In the final chapter, Dana stabs her ancestor when he attempts to rape her. He reaches out to grab her as she returns to the 20th century, however, and as a result she loses her arm. She has to be rushed to the hospital and is maimed for the rest of her life.

Readers want Dana to return safely to the present and resume her regular life, as though returning from an exotic trip. The maiming, however, reminds us that the past cannot be set aside so easily. The vestiges of slavery are still with us.

Many have written about how this is so, most notably Ta-Nehisi Coates in his National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. I won’t explore here some of the more prominent instances, such as police racism and the mass incarceration of black men, where we continue to witness the legacy of slavery. Instead, I want to relate a quieter story, one that I heard from one of my African American partners. It is all the more powerful because it is so personal.

Leah recounted how her grandmother used to wear a wrap around her hair. She did so, Leah said, because her grandmother, a slave, had done so. The reason for the original wrap was a rape.

Apparently Leah’s great-great-great grandmother was impregnated by the master of the house, and her daughter, having fair skin, was made to wear the wrap to mark her as a slave. (Zandwijken said it might also have been to make her less attractive so that she wouldn’t undergo the same fate.) Leah said that hair issues were still a thing in her family—her mother had mixed feelings about her straight hair, and Leah feels relieved that she herself has the tight curly hair of her father. In short, events that occurred in slave times still play a role in Leah’s view of herself.

Americans, especially white Americans, often avoid discussions of our slave past because we are afraid of encountering anger and pain and of being rendered uncomfortable. What the Keti Koti Table and the 24-hour conversational relay revealed, however, is that pain arises from closing our eyes to our past. Only when we open ourselves to it can nourishing friendships and conversations arise.

In the epilogue to Kindred, Dana does not entirely realize this. Although she and her white husband return to the place where she was assaulted over a century before, she feels that she cannot tell him everything that she went through. After my experiences this past week, I now see this as a missed opportunity. The two of them need a session with Mercedes and Machiel.

But that being said, I understand why she feels compelled to journey back, Healing requires a return.

Posted in Butler (Octavia) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Trump & Bounderby: Cut Taxes or Die

Josiah Bounderby, the capitalist in "Hard Times"

Josiah Bounderby, the capitalist in “Hard Times”


There was a lot to digest in Monday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but one moment especially jumped out to me just because I could hear the voice of Charles Dickens in the background. It was Trump’s proposal to further lower taxes and regulations on American business—what Clinton described as trumped-up trickle-down economics.

First, here’s moderator Lester Holt’s question, followed by Trump’s response. Trump begins by promising that his proposals will lead to an explosion of growth and then (this is where he sounds like a Dickens capitalist) lamenting that American tax policy is driving business out of the country:

Holt: Secretary Clinton, you’re calling for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. I’d like you to further defend that. And, Mr. Trump, you’re calling for tax cuts for the wealthy. I’d like you to defend that. And this next two-minute answer goes to you, Mr. Trump.

Trump: Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.

I’m getting rid of the carried interest provision. And if you really look, it’s not a tax — it’s really not a great thing for the wealthy. It’s a great thing for the middle class. It’s a great thing for companies to expand.

And when these people are going to put billions and billions of dollars into companies, and when they’re going to bring $2.5 trillion back from overseas, where they can’t bring the money back, because politicians like Secretary Clinton won’t allow them to bring the money back, because the taxes are so onerous, and the bureaucratic red tape, so what — is so bad.

So what they’re doing is they’re leaving our country, and they’re, believe it or not, leaving because taxes are too high and because some of them have lots of money outside of our country. And instead of bringing it back and putting the money to work, because they can’t work out a deal to — and everybody agrees it should be brought back.

Instead of that, they’re leaving our country to get their money, because they can’t bring their money back into our country, because of bureaucratic red tape, because they can’t get together. Because we have — we have a president that can’t sit them around a table and get them to approve something.

I posted the following passage from Hard Times (1854) in a past post about industries complaining about EPA air regulations, but it captures Trump’s whining as well. A sarcastic Dickens is amazed that industrialists manage to survive at all given how the deck is stacked against them:

The wonder was, [Coketown] was there at all.  It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks.  Surely there never was such fragile chinaware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made.  Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before.  They were ruined, when they were required to send laboring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke. 

And now business’s threatened retaliation, which sounds like a direct echo of Trump: 

[One prevalent fiction] took the form of a threat.  Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used—that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts—he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would “sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.”  This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.

So should we conclude from this the companies that want to leave their native country are unpatriotic? Not at all:

However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it.  So there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.

So maybe we should call Trump’s bluff and follow Clinton’s suggestions, which is to raises taxes, especially on the top income earners, and plow the money into infrastructure repair, childcare and family leave programs, college debt reduction, and the like. I predict we will not see many businesses pitched into the sea.

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Hillary Clinton Is Hermione Granger

Hermione helps Ron and Harry with their homework

Hermione helps Ron and Harry with their homework


Following Monday night’s presidential debate, columnist Paul Waldman compared Hillary Clinton to Hermione Granger. I agree that there are many resemblances, but I find one important difference.

First, here’s Waldman:

Debates demand preparation, and for her whole life, Clinton has been nothing if not prepared. She may not dazzle you with improvisational genius, but she will have spent more time doing her homework than anyone else in class (it’s no accident that people keep comparing her to Hermione Granger from Harry Potter). She’s ready to discuss any policy area, and she’s usually at her best when speaking extemporaneously. And once she makes a plan, she knows how to stick to it.

And here’s Hermione in The Sorcerer’s Stone:

I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course. I just hope it will be enough.

Hermione sometimes gets rewarded for her work, as in this compliment from Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban:

You’re the cleverest witch of your age I’ve ever met, Hermione.

At other times, she gets knocked down:

“That is the second time you have spoken out of turn, Miss Granger,” said Snape coolly. “Five more points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know-it-all.” 

Sometimes even Hermione seems to take on more than she can handle:

“Hermione, said Ron, frowning as he looked over her shoulder, “they’ve messed up your schedule. Look—they’ve got you down for about ten subjects a day. There isn’t enough time.”

“I’ll manage. I’ve fixed it all with Professor McGonagall.”

“But look,” said Ron, laughing, “see this morning? Nine o’clock. Divination. And underneath, nine o’clock. Muggle Studies. And”—Ron leaned closer to the schedule , disbelieving—“look—underneath that, Arithmancy, nine o’clock. I mean, I know you’re good, Hermione, but no one’s that good. How’re you supposed to be in three classes at once?”…

“On Ron, what’s it to you if my schedule’s a bit full?” Hermione snapped. “I told you, I’ve fixed it all with Professor McGonagall.”

Hermione, we eventually learn, pulls off the feat by means of a “Time-Turner,” which enables her to go back in time.

It’s not surprising that the lead female teacher would aid Hermione. J. K. Rowling, who used her initials so that people wouldn’t know that she was a woman, knows–as McGonagall knows–that sometimes women have to work three times as hard as men to succeed.

A number of commentators, observing the debate, saw Donald Trump as the entitled jock who thinks he can cram the night before the exam (although Trump didn’t even study the night before!) and Clinton as the honors student who has been studying for weeks and tells you about it. Chuck Todd of NBC even accused her of having overprepared. Such criticism, Clare Foran of the Athlantic observes, stems in part

from her willingness to transgress expectations of women. In 2013, Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are experienced to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively … she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she ‘should’ behave.” This backlash is likely at play to some extent in negative assessments of Clinton. Preparation suggests determination, assertiveness, and a desire for power that does not mesh with old-school gender stereotypes.  


It is impossible to separate criticism over Clinton’s ambition from the vast gender disparities that exist in politics. There is no feasible way that the first woman to win a major-party nomination could be a “natural” at trying to win an office that only men have won; there’s nothing effortless about trying to break a long-established mold in American politics. So it’s not hard to see why Clinton might feel pressure to demonstrate that she’s more prepared than her male counterpart—to prove that she’s ready for a position that American voters never before deemed a woman adequately qualified to hold.

And now for the difference I promised. Hillary is not willing to do one thing that Hermione does, which is sacrifice her own ambition while enabling that of others:

“How would it be,” she asked them coldly as they left the classroom for break (Binns drifting away through the blackboard), “if I refused to lend you my notes this year?”
“We’d fail our O.W.L.s,” said Ron. “If you want that on your conscience, Hermione…”
“Well, you’d deserve it,” she snapped. “You don’t even try to listen to him, do you?”
“We do try,” said Ron. “We just haven’t got your brains or your memory or your concentration – you’re just cleverer than we are – is it nice to rub it in?”
“Oh, don’t give me that rubbish,” said Hermione, but she looked slightly mollified as she led the way out into the damp courtyard.

So Harry gets to be the hero of the series and Hermione is relegated to sidekick. Hillary wants to change that.

Further thought:  Clinton also resembles Hermione in her concern for working women with children and for the mentally disabled. In Hermione’s case, she is an outspoken advocate for house elves. Just as Clinton boldly declared, in the 1995 Bejing Conference on Women’s Rights, that “women’s rights are human rights,” so Hermione agitates for Dobby and the others while her fellow wizards fail to see a problem.

Yet another thought: I just realize that the debate revealed another link between Hermione’s advocacy of house elves rights and Hillary Clinton work on behalf of women. Clinton noted that one of the slurs that Trump once directed against Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe from Venezuela, was “Miss Housekeeper.” Here he would have been playing on stereotypes of Latina women as housekeepers.

Just as Hermione, who is the child of Muggles (non-magical humans), identifies with another oppressed group, so is Hillary particularly sensitive to the plight of lower class women. Hermione knows what it is like to be spurned and fights even harder, both for herself and others. Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker points out that such a dynamic is also working with Hillary:

What Hillary actually has to do—and what she has done so far—is make an excruciating series of adjustments around the reality that her opponent’s sexism and racism, his petulance and unbalanced demeanor, has not sunk him, and has, in all likelihood, helped him along. But when the two candidates are next to each other, Clinton’s surreal, specific disadvantages in this Presidential race start to pay out their own dividends. Although she would never talk about it in the way that Trump discusses the victimization of being audited, Clinton carries the ever-expanding knowledge of what it’s like to be dismissed, disrespected, and treated unfairly…Trump’s candidacy may be anomalous, but his tactics, for Clinton, are predictable, even familiar. This is precisely why she was so calm and steely last night—so Presidential. It’s why she can express genuine solidarity with people like Alicia Machado, people whom Trump can barely see.

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A Novel about Unexpected White Violence



I have been teaching Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) in my American Fantasy class and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As the body count of African Americans killed by police continues to climb, this time travel story of a modern black woman who suddenly finds herself subjected to slavery-era violence seems all too timely.

Nor is Kindred only about that. Because Dana has a white husband, the book is able to explore multiple levels of racial friction. There is no easy polarization between the races in this novel. Instead, we see how systemic racism impacts even a loving interracial marriage.

The plot goes as follows. Dana finds herself dragged back in time whenever one of her ancestors, a white slave owner named Rufus, faces death. She can return to the present only when she herself feels that she is in danger of dying. She makes six trips back in time, once with Kevin. (Anything she is touching goes with her.) While her own trips occur over a 20+ year interval, as in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books very little time elapses in 1976 America. This means that she first encounters Rufus as a drowning child in 1815 and last leaves him when he is a plantation owner in the 1830s.

Dana, it turns out, has a blood connection with Rufus, which explains why he is able to call her back. She also knows which slave he must impregnate to start her line. If Rufus dies before giving birth to Dana’s ancestor, then presumably Dana won’t exist. (The 1985 movie Back to the Future has this plot element.)

Butler isn’t just being cute with these relationships, however. She is exploring how black-white and also black-black relationships are distorted by racism. Dana therefore has mixed feelings about Rufus, whom she sees as having potential. He is even redeemed to a degree by his love for an African American woman, a relationship that is of course impossible in this society. Unfortunately, he becomes increasingly cruel as he seeks to override his empathy.

Where the story really hits home is in the relationship between Dana and her white husband. When Dana is first dragged into the past and then returns, Kevin can’t believe what she tells him about the experience. This is understandable, of course, but it is also an extreme version of how whites and blacks, even today, experience the world differently.

In fact, when Kevin accompanies Dana on one of her trips back, he sees the slave system as more benign than she does. After all, he’s dining with the master while she is witnessing slaves being whipped. Kevin may be an open-minded white man who is married to an African American woman, but we see numerous blindspots. At one point, for instance, he has romantic dreams about exploring the “Wild West” and has to be reminded by Dana that this history was less romantic for the Native Americans.

As the book continues, Dana sees unsettling similarities between Kevin and Rufus, including a desire to possess her. To Kevin’s credit, however, he spends the five years when they are separated (this in the 1820’s) working for the underground railroad and almost dying. He also deeply loves her and does all he can to get back to her. But there are things about her reality that he just can’t see.

Dana, meanwhile, has her own blindspots. For a long time, she judges one house slave severely for buying into the master’s agenda, not realizing that people must often make such compromises in order to survive. She herself is regarded with suspicion by the field slaves, and sometimes even the house slaves, for her relatively privileged position with regard to the master. Her challenge is to understand their reality. By the end of the novel, she has come closer.

One scene in particular resonated with the class. Never knowing when she will next be pulled back in time, Dana packs a kit of things that she will need to help her survive. (It is always tied to her waist so that she won’t leave it behind.) This, we said, is like African American youths going out in the world with a set of instructions in case they are stopped by the police. One never knows when one is going to be plunged into an entirely different reality.

St. Mary’s College at the moment is having an on-going series of discussions, workshops, panels, lectures, and other events to address diversity issues, so my students were particularly open to Kindred. We concluded that, like Dana and Kevin, we must have conversations that never stop.

White students (and faculty) require these conversations become they must become aware of the advantages of privilege, how we don’t need to worry about certain things. One of the best ways to become aware is to talk to students of color. The latter, very understandably, are often tired of having to educate white students about how their experiences are different. But as one African American student said to me, “It frustrates me that I always have to be the one to tell them—but then I figure that, if I don’t, they’ll never learn.”

I thanked her for her generosity and said that we all stood to gain if we work together. The Dana-Kevin marriage can survive systemic racism.

Posted in Butler (Octavia), white privilege | 1 Comment

On Broken Ceasefires, in Homer & in Syria

Bombed trucks that were carrying aid to Syrian civilians

Bombed trucks that were carrying aid to Syrian civilians


We had a few hopeful days as Russia and the United States appeared to have brokered a successful ceasefire in Syria. But that hope was shattered last Monday with the deliberate bombing of a 31-truck aid convoy taking food and supplies to civilians in Urum al-Kubra, currently controlled by the rebels. Once again the Syrian government and its Russian ally behaved like Hera and Athena in Book IV of The Iliad.

Zeus, who loves order, approves when the Greeks and the Trojans agree to a ceasefire. It appears that the Trojan War may finally come to an end, which is more than the recent ceasefire in Syria hoped to accomplish. Here’s Zeus proposing a cessation to the hostilities in the Robert Fitzgerald translation:

                        Let us then consider
how this affair may end; shall we again
bring on the misery and din of war,
or make a pact of amity between them?
If only all of you were pleased to see it,
life might go on in Priam’s town,
when Menelaos took Helen of Argos home.

As in Syria, however, there are forces resisting any accommodation:

At this proposal, Hera and Athena
murmured rebelliously. These two together
sat making mischief for the men of Troy
and though she held her tongue, a sullen anger
filled Athena against her father. Hera
could not contain her own vexation, saying:

“Your majesty, what is the drift of this?
How could you bring to nothing all my toil,
the sweat I sweated, and my winded horses,
when I called out that army to bear hard
on Priam and his sons?”

In response, Zeus tries to shame Hera. As in the case of the Syrian government, it is to no avail:

Coldly annoyed
the Lord Zeus, who drives the clouds of heaven,
                                                            “Strange one, how can Priam
and Priam’s sons have hurt you so
that you are possessed to see the trim stronghold
of Ilion plundered?
                                                            Could you breach the gates
and the great walls yourself and feed on Priam
with all his sons, and all the other Trojans,
dished up raw, you might appease this rage!”

To restore peace to his household, however, Zeus agrees to let Hera and Athena have their way. Athena’s version of the Syrian bombing is to disguise herself as a Trojan and convince the archer Pandaros to take a shot at Menelaos:

                                                         Son of Lykaon,
I have in mind an exploit that may tempt you,
tempt a fighting heart. Have you the gall
to send an arrow like a fork of lightning
home against Menelaos? Every Trojan
heart would rise, and every man would praise you,
especially Alexandros [Paris], the prince–
you would be sure to come by glittering gifts
if he could see the warrior, Menelaos,
the son of Atreus, brought down by your bow,
then bedded on a dolorous pyre!

That’s how ceasefires get broken: someone, seeing an advantage to be gained, takes a shot and we’re back to blood and slaughter. That there are malevolent gods playing upon our worse impulses makes as much sense as any other explanation.

While The Iliad glorifies heroism, it has also been described as one of history’s great anti-war texts. In Book IV, Homer gets us to long for peace and then shows us the perversity that puts it out of reach.

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I Am Lazarus Come Back from the Dead

Leandro Bassano, the Rich Man and Lazarus

Leandro Bassano, “Lazarus and the Rich Man”

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve have only just realized that the “Lazarus” mentioned in T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is not Mary and Martha’s brother, the man whom Jesus brings back from the dead. Rather, he is the Lazarus mentioned in today’s Gospel reading about the rich man in hell.

This is not news to Eliot scholars, but it certainly has me looking at Prufrock in a slightly different light. I now regard the speaker as even more hopeless than I did before. Here’s the passage from Luke (16: 19-31):

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock is frustrated that his society cannot see its emptiness. As someone who experiences this emptiness only too keenly, he imagines himself returning—as the rich man wants Lazarus to return—to wake his society up. Here’s the relevant stanza:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all.” 

Note that Prufrock is already talking himself out of causing a scene. The Biblical passage gives him an excuse for his inactivity. After all, Abraham tells the rich man that a Lazarus visit wouldn’t do any good anyway. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Prufrock will go on to compare himself, not to Prince Hamlet, but to the “easy tool” Polonius. So he’s certainly not going to put himself up there with Moses and the prophets.

Prufrock’s very decision to quote this Biblical passage means that he has already decided that his word won’t do any good. That’s why he can so easily imagine the woman putting him down. He has given up before he’s even started.

In his later Christian poetry, Eliot will focus on leaving the society of the rich man and attaining the faith of Lazarus. It’s as though, through poems like Prufrock, “The Hollow Men,” “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land, he is coming face to face with the sterility of a world without faith. Once he realizes that there is nothing to be gained by this path, he turns his eyes towards Lazarus with the angels.

Further note: Having just taught Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in my “Existential Fantasies of Haruki Murakami” seminar, I can’t help but hear the Inquisitor responding to Jesus with the critique, “You can’t ask people to follow Your hard road without providing them with miracles to help them. Lazarus coming back from the dead would be a miracle and would aid those who are not as strong as You. Instead, you demand that they rely only on faith, just as you will later say to Doubting Thomas, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ You may appear to be kind and caring, Jesus, but your program is too harsh for humanity.”

As someone who is optimistic about human potential, I want to counter that Jesus was right to have faith in us and that we are indeed capable of rising to the occasion. After all, hasn’t Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as an advocate with the Father to help us.  Ivan Karamazov, however, forces me to question whether this is just an article of faith. Can I back it up with empirical evidence?

Correction: Reader William McKeachie sent in a slight correction. Jesus told his disciples that he would be their advocate with the Father in heaven and would communicate with them through the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are not as dependent on their own resources as Ivan claims. Ivan is operating through a secular humanist model and discounting the power of divine love. When we open ourselves to God’s love, much that seemed hard becomes suddenly easy.

The brilliance of Brothers Karamazov lies partly in the Ivan-Alyosha debate. By telling the story at one point about the suffering undergone by various children, Ivan serves as a corrective to facile faith. The novel ends, however, with the beauty and strength of Alyosha’s vision. Ivan, meanwhile, goes mad.

Posted in Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Eliot (T.S.) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Black Lives Mattered to Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes


When normal words fail, poetry steps in. After two more police shootings of unarmed and innocent black men—which led to riots in Charlotte and Colin Kaepernick-style kneel-down protests all over the country—The New York Times devoted a full page to a Langston Hughes poem. It is a reminder, to those who need a reminder, that African Americans deserve the same respect as all other Americans. In other words, Black Lives Matter Too:

I, Too

By Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America. 

I am the darker brother. 
They send me to eat in the kitchen 
When company comes, 
But I laugh, 
And eat well, 
And grow strong. 

I’ll be at the table 
When company comes. 
Nobody’ll dare 
Say to me, 
“Eat in the kitchen,” 

They’ll see how beautiful I am 
And be ashamed— 

I, too, am America.

The “too” is a reference to Walt Whitman and his poem “I Hear America Singing.” I like how Hughes pairs a warning—the speaker talks about being so strong that no one will dare to relegate him to the kitchen—with a positive incentive: once you know me, you’ll see “how beautiful I am.” Among racism’s deep tragedies is that we miss out on a lot of human beauty.

One encounters only the threat in Hughes’s well-known and very angry poem “Harlem,” which my novelist friend Rachel Kranz sent me while watching the Charlotte riots:


What happens to a dream deferred? 

      Does it dry up 
      like a raisin in the sun? 
      Or fester like a sore— 
      And then run? 
      Does it stink like rotten meat? 
      Or crust and sugar over— 
      like a syrupy sweet? 

      Maybe it just sags 
      like a heavy load. 

      Or does it explode?

You know that African Americans are ready to explode when even conservative Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee and an African American, vents his frustrations about the recent shootings. Here’s my loose transcription of what he said on MSNBC’s Hardball Wednesday night:

There is this growing view in the black community that we’re no longer perceived as human beings, that when a cop comes up to us, approaches us, they’re reactionary, they don’t see us as non-threatening, they see us automatically as a threat. That is not a perception for black people. That is a reality.

You do what they tell you to do—you put your hands up, you get shot. You’re handcuffed and you get shot. You’re down on the ground and they’re standing on your neck and you get shot. You’re in the back of a police wagon and you wind up dead. So you tell me what environment is safe for an African American male when it comes to contact with the police.


I no longer know if telling my kids to…turn the light on in the car, roll the windows down, do everything the officer tells you to—if it’s going to come out on a good end or a negative end. That is the frustration that you hear expressed more and more openly by black folks. You tell me what we need to do and we’ll do that.

Until police departments learn to see black citizens as beautiful people, we are going to see continued explosions.

Added note: There is some dispute over whether Keith Lamont Scott, the man shot in Charlotte, was carrying a book (as his relatives say) or a gun (as the police say). So he may not have been unarmed. But as Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson points out, North Carolina is an “open carry” state, meaning that citizens are allowed to carry guns. Or as Robinson observes, they are if they are white.

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You Never Did the Kenosha Kid

GOP Chair and "Kenosha operative" Reince Priebus

GOP Chair and “Kenosha political operative” Reince Priebus


 A tiny little kerfuffle in the GOP is giving me an excuse to revisit about the only thing I remember from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read back in the 1970s. The dust-up involves a top aide of Ohio governor John Kasich calling GOP chair Reince Priebus a “Kenosha political operative.” Someone from or associated with Kenosha also shows up in an extended riff that Pynchon executes upon a sequence of six words:

you never did the Kenosha kid

Priebus, who is indeed from Kenosha, Wisconsin, threatened sanctions against Kasich and other of Donald Trump’s primary opponents who are refusing to endorse him. The threat led Kasich’s chief strategist John Weaver to retort that his boss “will not be bullied by a Kenosha political operative that is unable to stand up for core principles or beliefs.” (I agree that Priebus has no core principles or beliefs.)

In Gravity’s Rainbow, World War II American serviceman Tyrone Slothrop has been fed truth serum to figure out why his sexual trysts always occur at points where German V2 rockets will land 24 hours later. Pynchon’s thematic point, like Stanley Kubrick’s in Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Love the Bomb, is that orgasmic explosions followed by death (or “the little death”) link missiles and sexual intercourse.

As he fights through his serum-induced haze, Slothrop imagines different contexts, word meanings, and punctuation for the sequence of words. It’s a very Joycean exercise (as in Finneghan’s Wake) and may also have been inspired by Joseph Heller’s riff on John Milton and Washington Irving in Catch 22. I must admit that such language play is not really my thing. I prefer my words to be a bit more stable and my referent points a bit more grounded.

I see Slothrup’s riff as applicable to the RNC’s Kenosha Kid, however. Priebus is leading a post policy party (whatever Obama’s for, they’re against it), which finds its ultimate articulation in Trump’s ability to embrace a wide variety of contradictory positions. For instance, he can be the nation’s leading birther for five years and then, in an instant, accuse Hillary Clinton of founding birtherism and applauding himself for ending it. Even worse, Priebus, Mike Pence, and various Trump surrogates repeat his contortions. Accountability, apparently, is for wimps.

In such an environment, words are infinitely malleable. Or to use another analogy, they slip their halters and run wild and free, as they do in Pynchon’s riff. There are nine variations or sub-variations:

(1) Slothrop imagines sending a letter to “the Kenosha Kid” asking, “Did I ever bother you, ever, for anything, in your life?” and hearing back,

You never did.
The Kenosha Kid

Next he imagines four interchanges:

(2) Smartass youth: Aw, I did all them old-fashioned dances, I did the “Charleston,” a-and the “Big Apple,” too!

Old veteran hoofer: Bet you never did the “Kenosha,” kid!

(2.1) S.Y.: Shucks, I did all them dances, I did the “Castle Walk,” and I did the “Lindy,” too!

O.V.H.: Bet you never did the “Kenosha Kid.”

(3) Minor employee: Well, he has been avoiding me, and I thought it might be because of the Slothrop Affair. If he somehow held me responsible —

Superior (haughtily): You! never did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you …

(3.1) Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you … ?

The next variation imagines the Kenosha Kid as a god who hands down language to humankind but forgets the word “the”:

(4) And at the end of the mighty day in which he gave us in fiery letters across the sky all the words we’d ever need, words we enjoy today, and fill our dictionaries with, the meek voice of little Tyrone Slothrop, celebrated ever after in tradition and song, ventured to filter upward to the Kid’s attention: “You never did ‘the,’ Kenosha Kid!”

The next variation turns “kid” into a sentence-ending verb:

(5) Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.

Then there is “kid” as a baby goat that is to be sacrificed:

(6) (The day of the Ascent and sacrifice. A nation-wide observance. Fats searing, blood dripping and burning to a salty brown…) You did the Charlottesville shoat, check, the Forest Hills foal, check. (Fading now…) The Laredo lamb, check. Oh-oh. Wait. What’s this, Slothrop? You never did the Kenosha kid. Snap to, Slothrop.

Finally, in the strangest dialogue of all, Slothrop imagines some dark nebulous figure called Never “doing”—as in busting or even killing—the Kenosha Kid. Will Slothrop be next?

(7) In the shadows, black and white holding in a panda-pattern across his face, each of the regions a growth or mass of scar tissue, waits the connection he’s traveled all this way to see. The face is as weak as a house-dog’s, and its owner shrugs a lot.

Slothrop: Where is he? Why didn’t he show? Who are you?

Voice: The Kid got busted. And you know me, Slothrop. Remember? I’m Never.

Slothrop (peering): You, Never? (A pause.) Did the Kenosha Kid?

Does this make you feel better about the somewhat dull policy wonk that Trump is running against? At least you know what her positions are.

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I Am Trump, the Great and Powerful!

Denslow, the Wizard of Oz exposed

William Denslow, the Wizard of Oz exposed


This past Friday Americans got to play a scene from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, complete with a collapsing screen. Or in this case, a collapsing backdrop.

As you no doubt have heard, Trump flimflammed everyone with his announcement of a press conference where he would retract the lie about President Obama’s birthplace that he has been peddling for the past seven years. While he did indeed retract the lie, he replaced it with two others: 1) that he stopped his birther claims after Obama produced his long form Hawaiian birth certificate and 2) that Hillary Clinton originated birtherism.

The “press conference,” meanwhile, was instead an opportunity to a) showcase a new Trump hotel and b) parade a number of military figures, some of them birthers, who are supporting him. Even cynical reporters were taken aback by Trump’s utter contempt for them. But as evidence that the gods weren’t entirely willing to let the incident go, here’s the New York Times reporting on the event’s conclusion:

Mr. Trump took no questions after his remarks about Mr. Obama. As reporters shouted questions, he smiled and left the room.

Not long after, the structure holding up the curtain that had provided a backdrop for his remarks collapsed, sending American flags toppling to the ground.

Which brings us to the moment where “the Great and Terrible Oz” is exposed:

“You must keep your promises to us!” exclaimed Dorothy.

The Lion thought it might be as well to frighten the Wizard, so he gave a large, loud roar, which was so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were. The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, “Who are you?”

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” said the little man, in a trembling voice. “But don’t strike me–please don’t–and I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Upon reflection, the Wizard of Oz parallel is even more accurate than I first realized. Trump too can collapse when people stand up to him. Reporters noted how passive and meek he was when meeting with the Mexican president, and he quickly backed off of his bluster when a black woman pastor in Flint, Michigan stopped him from bashing Clinton in her church. In each instance, Trump regained his bravado in recounting the episode afterwards, but that’s the way it is with bullies. They are great and terrible until someone knocks over the screen.

Further thought: There is one significant difference between the Wizard of Oz and Trump. When caught out, Oz at least admits that he’s a humbug whereas Trump doubles down. Trump interviewers can only dream of having a moment like the following:

“Making believe!” cried Dorothy. “Are you not a Great Wizard?”

“Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”

“And aren’t you?” she asked.

“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”

“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”

“Exactly so!” declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. “I am a humbug.”

The backdrop collapses as MSNBC's Katy Tur reports

The backdrop collapses as MSNBC’s Katy Tur reports

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A Poem in Praise of Libraries

Abbey library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Abbey library of Saint Gall, Switzerland


Norman Finkelstein, my best friend in graduate school, has just sent me his recently published New and Selected Poems (Dos Madres Press, 2016). The collection bears the marvelous title The Ratio of Reason to Magic, and while I have to admit that many of Norman’s poems are engaged in conversations that I am not privy to, a few hit home. I’ve written about my favorite one here–it’s a meditation on the Pan scene in The Wind in the Willows–and today I share the best poem I’ve ever read about libraries. “Open to the Future” is a poem written to honor the anniversary of a 175-year-old Cincinnati library.

If the quotation marks are any indication, Norman has folded into the poem some passages he found from the Mercantile Library’s early founding documents. In so doing, he captures a number of paradoxes about libraries.

For instance, they look both backwards and forwards, preserving past books and encouraging future books. Books are time-bound ( “a rubber stamp stamping the date”) and they are timeless. Although the institution was established by “earnest, responsible” men (“not a college-bread man among them”) on pragmatic principles (“to extend our information upon mercantile and other subjects of general utility”), it was first run by a librarian named Doolittle. (I’m sure that Norman is tickled by the fact that Doolittle ran the Mercantile Library. I think of William Butler Yeats’s observation in “Adam’s Curse” that the poet is regarded at an “idler” by “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.”) The business end of the library seems at odds with those who wander in the stacks and who have “succumbed to a peculiar disease” called “archive fever.” Among those suffering from the disease are decidedly unpragmatic

bookmen and penmen,
commentators and scribes,

Talmudists and scholiasts,
philosophes and exegetes,

romancers and poets
of a certain age.

The poem ends with a few more paradoxes. The very way that the archives are set up may point to the way that life used to be lived—and yet it is also true that

The archivist
produces more archive,

and that is why the archive
is never closed.

As he dives into the archives, the poet both acknowledges literary tradition (“the law and its interpretation”) and resists it in order to make something new. The library signals continuity (“in the future/as in the past”) and it signals change (“in the future/not as in the past”). It awaits the book that “remains to be written/to be housed/ to be read.”

The closing lines sum up the paradoxes. The library is, on the one hand, “historical and historicizing” and, on the other, “opening to the future.” It is “taking place” and it is “commencing.”

Here’s the poem:

Open to the Future

In honor of the 175th anniversary of the Mercantile Library, Cincinnati, Ohio


The library
is the history of the library

The book
is the history of the book

The lecturer
delivers the lecture

And the gentleman reads
in the armchair by the lamp

And the ladies’ lounge
and the card catalogue

The stacks
and the wrought iron stairs

The rubber stamp
stamping the date

The clock and the calendar
and the word in time

The word in the book
goes forward in time

Though the young merchant
holds it fast

Clings to it
as he clings to his bride

In the hour after
they read to each other

When supper is over
and the street falls still


“…to adopt the most efficient means
to facilitate mutual intercourse;

to extend our information
upon mercantile and other subjects

of general utility;

to promote a spirit of useful inquiry
and qualify ourselves to discharge

with dignity,
the duties of our professions

and the social offices of life.”


Earnest, responsible,
–“not a college-bred
man among them”–

their determination powered
by a fierce, ambitious joy–
subscriptions of $1800

700 books purchased
and a librarian named Doolittle
paid $200 a year–

Catalogue this discourse
between chronicle and paean
between monograph and song.


I long ago succumbed
to a peculiar disease

relatively rare
but still to be found

among bookmen and penmen,
commentators and scribes,

Talmudists and scholiasts,
philosophes and exegetes,

romancers and poets
of a certain age.

The sage has labeled it
archive fever:

to acknowledge and to resist
the law and its interpretation

in the place where it is housed
in the house that is its place.


“What is no longer archived
in the same way

is no longer lived
in the same way.”


“The archivist
produces more archive,

and that is why the archive
is never closed.”


So that in the future
as in the past

So that in the future
not as in the past

the book remains to be written

to be housed
to be read.

The library
“opens to the future”

historical and historicizing
but opening to the future


taking place.

Posted in Finkelstein (Norman) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


  • 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.

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