This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Umpqua College shooting victim

Umpqua College shooting victim


Today I run a slightly amended version of the post that I wrote after Dylan Roof gunned down nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, which in turn was a repetition of posts I’ve written on previous mass shootings.. All I’ve changed is Charles Harper Mercer for Roof, Umpqua College for the Charleston church, and President Obama’s response.

The response didn’t need much updating since President Obama feels acutely that he is repeating himself. Each time he sounds more like desperate King Hrothgar in Beowulf, who is flummoxed by the fact that Grendelian violence continues unabated. As I understand Grendel, he is the blood feuds instigated by Denmark’s own resentful warriors that ravaged Anglo-Saxon society. In other words, the violence comes from within, not from without. Here’s The New York Times reporting on Obama venting his rage and sense of impotence at our continuing refusal to take concrete steps against our Grendels:

President Obama’s rage about gun massacres, building for years, spilled out Thursday night as he acknowledged his own powerlessness to prevent another tragedy and pleaded with voters to force change themselves.

“So tonight, as those of us who are lucky enough to hug our kids a little closer are thinking about the families who aren’t so fortunate,” the president said in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, named for a man severely wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet, “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.”

Mr. Obama admitted that he was unable to do anything to prevent such tragedies by himself. And he did little to try to hide the anger and frustration that have deepened as he returns again and again to the White House lectern in the wake of a deadly mass shooting.

And now for the amended version of the post I wrote just three and a half months ago:

Revised post from June 19, 2015

I am losing count of all the blog posts I have written about mass shootings since starting this blog six years ago. (Some of them are listed at the end of today’s post.) Today I write about the ten people killed and seven wounded at Umpqua College by a lone gunman.

I feel like the grandmother at the end of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony following another eruption of violence on the reservation. “I guess I must be getting old,” she says,

“because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited any more.” She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”

I too go back to a familiar story. Few works of literature capture the social violence that strikes from within as powerfully as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. If Charles Harper Mercer follows the pattern of previous Grendels, it will emerge that he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.

Meanwhile, we are like King Hrothgar, helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that we are the most powerful country on earth, just as Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia. One hears President Obama’s despair in his remarks:

On Thursday night, Mr. Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people have “become numb to this.”

“And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation,” Mr. Obama said. “Right now I can imagine the press releases being cranked out. ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. ‘Fewer gun-safety laws.’ ”

“Does anybody really believe that?” he asked, his voice rising.

He has been saying versions of this after each mass killing for the past six years.

In Beowulf, the spirit of resentful violence has been operating for twelve years. Here’s how the poet describes Grendel’s reign and the king’s sorrow.

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, 
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old

were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

In his remarks last June after the Charleston shooting, Obama spoke of his “deep sorrow,” and of “the heartbreak, and the sadness, and the anger.” The poet says that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”

None of us knows when and where the next reaver of hell will strike. We only know that he will.

Previous Posts on Mass Shootings

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

Posted in Beowulf Poet, Silko (Leslie Marmon) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clifton, Abortion, & Respecting Women

Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards testifies before Congress

Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards testifies before Congress


The GOP has been claiming for a long time that it is not conducting a “war on women,” but its attempts to defund Planned Parenthood belie that. In their hatred of abortion, they are prepared to deny poor women access to all reproductive health services.

It doesn’t matter that 2.7 million men and women visit Planned Parenthood annually and that one in five women have used its services in the course of their lives. It doesn’t matter that, as The Huffington Post reportsin addition to abortions (which are legal and for which PP does not use federal funds), in 2013 PP affiliates provided 865,721 Pap tests and breast exams; conducted 704,079 tests for HIV; and provided 1,440,495 emergency contraception kits.

The latest strategy of anti-abortion activists has been to use graphic (and doctored) images to stampede people into opposition. (The so-called beating heart baby in the sting video was actually stillborn—not aborted—and for that matter wasn’t delivered in a PP clinic.) Yesterday a Congressional committee badgered the head of Planned Parenthood for five hours although thankfully Congress, with the help of the Democrats, will not be shutting down the government over PP funding.

Shock may not work, however, as a very smart article in New York Magazine argues. Written by Rebecca Traister, it got me thinking about the body poetry of Lucille Clifton, including one poem about an abortion.

Traister thinks that male politicians, squeamish themselves, assume that women share their disgust. They forget that women have a different relationship with their bodies. Here’s Traister:

But as a broader strategy, the notion that educating women in the grotesqueries of termination will be a game-changer is absurd. As [PP director Cecile] Richards could tell [sting video director David] Daleiden if he asked her his question, women already know what abortion is. We know more about blood, innards, fetuses, and the babies they may become — in short, about life in reproductive bodies — than anti-abortion activists seem to understand.

The average age of menarche in the United States is 12; the average age of menopause, 51. During the intervening decades, most women bleed regularly, and if you think we emit that chlorinated blue water in the maxi-pad ads, you are incorrect. I was in high school the first time a friend joked about a “period chunk.” I was also in high school when I first heard that an acquaintance had had a grapefruit-size dermoid cyst removed from an ovary; as is not uncommon with those cysts, it contained teeth, hair, and skin.

The act of controlling or preventing pregnancy for a heterosexually active woman is filled with corporeal maneuvering. It can entail the daily, timed consumption of pills; implantation of a subdermal device; the obsessive monitoring of temperature and vaginal secretions; fiddling in unseen recesses with caps and diaphragms. Even the in-vogue set-it-and-forget-it IUD is not always as easy as it seems. Getting mine involved a snapped wire, retrieval, reinsertion, and the manual dilation of my cervix, which was the most exquisitely terrible pain of my life — and I am the veteran of three uterine surgeries, two of which resulted in babies and one in the removal of 20 fibroid tumors from my uterine wall.

Women do not need real talk about bodies; our adult days brim with the effluvia, the discomforts, the weirdness and emotional intensity and magnitude of our medical choices. Then there is pregnancy itself, wanted or not, and its attendant risks. Women pass early pregnancies into toilet bowls and sadly collect the remains of later ones in Tupperware containers to bring to their doctors. Most of us know of someone who has suffered the excruciating pain of stillbirth. One friend, bleeding 13 weeks into a deeply desired pregnancy, was told by her doctor not to worry unless she passed a clot bigger than her fist.

And further on:

Women know about blood. We know about discharge. We know about babies, and many of us also love them, their little feet and hands and eyelashes. And, yes, we know that those bitty features develop while the fetus is inside us. We also know the physical, economic, and emotional costs of raising those children outside our wombs.

Sixty-one percent of women who seek abortions already have at least one child. More than a third already have at least two children. Women know what pregnancy is and what abortion does. Perhaps it’s this common calculation that keeps so many women (and men) grateful to an organization dedicated to the maintenance of women’s bodies.

Many of Lucille Clifton’s poems bear Traister out, such as “homage to my hips,” “poem in praise of menstruation,” “poem to my uterus,” “to my last period,” and “wishes for sons.” Clifton ventured where previous poets dared not tread, and women have embraced her because they feel loved and respected, not judged. In “wishes for sons,” as I’ve mentioned in the past, they also recognize the arrogance of men who think they know best what women need.

It is in this light that “the lost baby poem” should be read. Although the speaker is expressing her regrets about her abortion, the poem doesn’t condemn her for what she did. In fact, we learn that she was going through a rough patch at the time. It does acknowledge, however, that there can be a psychological cost:

the lost baby poem

By Lucille Clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car       we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas        let black men call me stranger
always        for your never named sake

Lucille doesn’t turn her subject into a political abstraction but makes her a three-dimensional woman wrestling with life and vowing to be strong. Perhaps she would make a different decision now but, at the time, it seemed the best option open to her. When people argue that an abortion should be up to the woman, they are according her the respect that Lucille has for her.

And who knows, perhaps if the woman had had access to Planned Parenthood and had not been mired in poverty, there would have been no abortion and no regrets. But rightwing politicians aren’t interested in that.


Abortion Statistics: For the record, the Center for Disease Control reports that, in 2011 (the latest figures I could find), there were 730,322 legal induced abortions in America with a ratio of 219 abortions per 1,000 live births. In other words, hundreds of thousands of women chose to end pregnancies for countless reasons. According to CDC,

Most abortions (91.4%) were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; a smaller number of abortions (7.3%) were performed at 14–20 weeks’ gestation, and even fewer (1.4%) were performed at ≥21 weeks’ gestation. In 2011, 19.1% of all abortions were medical abortions. Source: MMWR 2014;63(11).

Past posts on literature and abortion

The Abortion Debate & Doll’s House 

Tom Sawyer, PP, & Medical Research

Female Freedom Drives Right Crazy

No-Name Woman vs. Anti-Abortionists

John Irving’s Defense of Abortion 

Ryan, Abortion, and Hardy’s Angel Clare 

Imagine Austen vs. War on Women 

SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House 

Threatened by Female Empowerment 

Pentheus vs. Dionysus=GOP vs. Women 

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True? 

A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape 

How Rightwing Would Respond to Tess 

Unruly Women Playing Cards 


Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump & GOP Tax Plans: All Humbug

Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz

Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz


Why were we shocked when Donald Trump once again “played us all for suckers” (as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it)? Word was that, in the spirit of his “populist campaign,” the Donald would break with Republican orthodoxy and deliver a tax plan that would help lower and middle class families while soaking the rich.

So what did we get? Well, we got what Dorothy got when the screen came down: a conman behaving like any other conman.

To set the scene, here’s Sargent explaining why we may have thought that, this time, things would be  different:

Not long ago, Donald Trump claimed that his rivals would allow “Wall Street” and the “hedge fund guys” to continue to “rip off the people by paying no or very little in taxes.” The implication was that Trump would raise the tax burden on top earners, which he seemed to underscore at the most recent GOP debate, when he ridiculed an opponent’s suggestion that raising taxes on the wealthy would constitute “socialism,” adding: “I know people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no tax, and I think it’s unfair.”

As I had argued, if Trump’s plan really did raise the overall tax burden on top taxpayers — which very much remained to be seen — it would have made him a real outlier in the GOP field.

So what does Trump’s plan call for? As Jon Chait of New York Magazine observes,

Trump’s proposal is extremely similar to all the other Republican plans. He would cut the top tax rate to 25 percent, even lower than the 28 percent rate proposed by Jeb Bush. While Trump would not eliminate taxes on investment income, as Marco Rubio proposes, he likewise plans to eliminate the estate tax, which currently applies only to inheritances over $10 million. Trump says he will pay for all this by eliminating “loopholes,” but fails to identify these loopholes. Even if he cleaned out every deduction in the tax code, there is not enough revenue to make up for the enormous tax cuts he would supply to the rich.

The conservative Tax Foundation predicts that the plan would add somewhere between 10 and 12 trillion dollars to the deficit. That’s trillion with a “t.”

In case you’re keeping score, here’s what we have so far regarding deficit-funded tax plans, as Kevin Jones of Mother Jones tabulates it:

Marco Rubio has a tax plan with a top rate of 35 percent that promises to boost our economic growth rate to 3.5 percent per year. Jeb Bush then came out with his plan, which has a top rate of 28 percent and a growth rate percent of 4 percent a year. Then Donald Trump announced his plan, which has a top rate of 25 percent and a growth rate of 6 percent per year.

To which Drum sarcastically asks,

Who’s next? Carly? I advise her to announce a plan that has a top rate of 20 percent and promises growth of 8 percent per year. Ridiculous? Sure, but who’s going to call her on it? I mean, what’s Bush going to do? Get into an argument about whose supply-side growth assumptions are the most out of touch with reality?

Apparently, all one needs to do in the GOP presidential primary race is don a populist mantle, claim that your tax plan helps the middle class, and ignore those who add up the figures. Once politics becomes a fact-free affair where whoever sounds most convincing wins, then reality television hosts like Trump and P.R. savvy CEOs like Carla Fiorina (and Trump again) will prosper. No wonder the Republican base is so angry with the Republican establishment and is current enthralled with people who have never held office.

The irony is that Trump, who has been profiting from their anger, is pulling the same stunt as the other faux populists.

L. Frank Baum was well acquainted with populist politicians, and I have written about how both the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard may symbolize politicians of the 1890s during the period of the Long Depression. The resemblances between the Wizard of Oz and Trump are therefore no accident.

When Dorothy and her companions first encounter Oz, we see him using the Trumpian strategy of proclaiming his awesomeness: “I am the great and terrible Oz.” Then, like Trump in a debate, he becomes a moving target so that no one can pin him down. He is a talking head with Dorothy, a beautiful woman with the Scarecrow, a hideous monster with the Tin Woodman, and a ball of fire with the Cowardly Lion. Later, after they have killed the witch, he is invisible, allowing everyone to project whatever they want upon him.

The Wizard even sounds like Trump-the-realtor. Here’s how he came to build the Emerald City—or shall we say, Trump Tower in Manhattan:

[The balloon] came down gradually, and I was not hurt a bit. But I found myself in the midst of a strange people, who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.

Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; and they did it all willingly and well. Then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.

Think of green as greenbacks—that’s part of Baum’s economic parable—and as Trump’s assurance that everyone can be rich. This is especially true of those who attend Trump University or sign on with ACN. If Trump is elected president, money will shower down upon us all. Or at least, upon those of us who aren’t losers.

Baum, of course, gives us the very satisfying scene of the conman exposed. May Trump and all those who make phony populist claims be similarly exposed:

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.”

Someday, I suspect, Trump will proudly take us behind the scenes, as the Wizard does, and show off how he pulled his scam.

Someone once said of P.T. Barnum’s success, “There’s a sucker born  every minute.” Pray that enough of us wake up by election day.

Further thought: Here’s the New Yorker’s John Cassidy summing up Trump’s tax plan and exposing his self-proclaimed concern for the lower classes:

According to an analysis by the liberal group Citizens for Tax Justice, [under Trump’s plan] households in the bottom twenty per cent of the income distribution would save about two hundred and fifty dollars a year. Households in the top one per cent would save, on average, nearly a hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars. So much for Donald Trump as the tribune of the masses.

Why did I refer to this cop-out as predictable? Because I doubted all along that Trump had the depth and gumption to be a genuine American populist—a Huey Long for the Internet age. Such a figure, if he had channeled worries about immigration, ISIS, and national decline, then combined these with some seriously populist proposals designed to exploit resentment of corrupt financial and political élites, could perhaps have emerged as a genuinely potent and dangerous force. But Trump isn’t that guy. A self-satisfied showman and self-promoter rather than a real insurrectionary, he ultimately hasn’t got much to offer. This tax plan makes it painfully clear.

And here’s Paul Krugman:

But I do want to weigh in for a minute on Donald Trump’s tax plan — which would, surprise, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit. That’s in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.


At this point there are no Republican candidates deviating at all from the usual pattern. Why, it’s almost as if nobody in the party ever cared about deficits except as an excuse to slash social spending, and is totally committed to redistributing income upward.

And there is, of course, no evidence — zero, nada, zilch — that cutting taxes on the rich will yield large economic benefits.

Posted in Baum (L. Frank) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Napoleon and Moscow on fire, artist unknown

Napoleon views Moscow on fire, artist unknown


I’m in the process of reading War and Peace for the first time—what breathtaking range!—and just came across a passage that helps explain climate change denialism. It occurs when the citizens of Moscow hear about Napoleon bearing down on the city.

First, let’s take note of how unhinged our rightwing denialists are. It’s not just Pope Francis, President Obama, and left-leaning political parties that are calling for action. According to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, even the world’s major conservative parties—all, that is, with the exception of the GOP—acknowledge the danger and recommend that proactive steps be taken:

new paper by Sondre Båtstrand studies the climate-change positions of electoral manifestos for the conservative parties in nine democracies, and finds the GOP truly stands apart. Opposition to any mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions, he finds, “is only the case with the U.S. Republican Party, and hence not representative of conservative parties as a party family.” For instance, the Swedish conservative party “stresses the necessity of international cooperation and binding treaties to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, with the European Union and emissions trading as essentials.”

Okay, you might say, that’s just Sweden. But all of the other non-American conservative platforms follow similar themes. Germany’s conservative platform declares, “[C]limate change threatens the very foundations of our existence and the chances of development of the next generations.” Canada’s, writes Båtstrand, “presents both past and future measures on climate change. The past measures are regulations on electricity production, research and development on clean energy (including carbon capture and storage), and international cooperation and agreements including support for adaptation in developing countries.” Even coal-rich Australia has a conservative party that endorses action to limit climate change. 

Commenting on Jeb Bush’s stated plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions on carbon pollution, Chait writes,

In any other democracy in the world, a Jeb Bush would be an isolated loon, operating outside the major parties, perhaps carrying on at conferences with fellow cranks, but having no prospects of seeing his vision carried out in government. But the United States is different. Here in America, ideas like Bush’s fit comfortably within one of the two major political parties. Indeed, the greatest barrier to Bush claiming his party’s nomination is the quite possibly justified sense that he is too sober and moderate to suit the GOP.

The GOP, in other words, is opting for the second option of the two described by Tolstoy:

As the enemy closed in on Moscow the attitude of the inhabitants to their situation, far from becoming all serious-minded, actually became more frivolous, as always happens with people who can see a terrible danger bearing down on them. At the first approach of danger two voices always speak out with equal force in a man’s heart: one tells him very sensibly to consider the exact extent of the danger and any means of avoiding it; the other says even more sensibly that it’s too wearisome and agonizing to contemplate the danger, since it is not in a man’s power to anticipate future events and avoid the general run of things, so you might as well turn away from the nastiness until it hits you, and dwell on things that are pleasant. Left to himself a man will usually listen to the first voice; out in society he listens to the second one. This is what was now happening to the good people of Moscow. It was years since there had been so much fun in the city.

Tolstoy’s passage reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” which may have influenced him. Although plague is stalking the land, the guests of Prince Prospero are madly partying. Or rather, they are partying because the pestilence is getting nearer.

Listening to the second voice while in the company of others is what today we call an information bubble. The GOP may not be having fun railing at environmentalists, scientists, the president and the pope, but it is certainly indulging in frivolous and irresponsible behavior. After all, rising seas, killer droughts, and storms of increasing severity represent a “nastiness” that is “too wearisome and agonizing to contemplate.”

Posted in Tolstoy (Leo) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Germany vs. Greece, a Greek Tragedy

Bernardino Mei, "Orestes Slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra"

Bernardino Mei, “Orestes Slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra”


Novelist Tom McCarthy has written an intriguing article for yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Magazine arguing that the current economic struggle between Germany and Greece is captured in the great Greek tragedies and perhaps even anticipated by them. It’s a complex piece but I’ll try to make sense of it.

In the article’s introduction, McCarthy asserts,

It is rare that a contemporary political state of affairs perfectly corresponds with a classical literary one — when the contours of the two align so entirely that not only does the latter help explain the former, but the new situation, with all its messy contingencies, seems to follow the carefully wrought logic of its aesthetic predecessor with such precision as to appear like a manifestation, or symptom, of it.

I don’t entirely follow McCarthy’s reasoning here. I like the idea that Greece’s financial collapse might unfold according to the logic of a classic Greek tragedy since art often captures deep patterns of human and social behavior. As this blog demonstrates daily, I obviously believe that literature of the past can cast light on current events. I’m just not sure what McCarthy means by Greece’s current problems being a “manifestation” or a “symptom” of classic Greek drama.

But set that aside. McCarthy makes the nice point that both economics and Greek tragedies involve dramas of the home:

Economics, etymologically speaking, is a Greek invention. The word comes from the Greek oikos, which means “house” or “dwelling.” At the basis of all economics is the practice of keeping one’s house in order. This is what virtually all Greek drama is about: the attempt to manage domestic affairs, whether “domestic” be understood at the scale of one household, or of a family spanning several generations (the house of Oedipus or Atreus, for instance), or of the literal stones and mortar of a home — the attempt to quell its rebellions from within, fend off attacks from without, keep it self-contained, autonomous, intact. What lends the drama to the equation is the fact that this attempt invariably fails. Take Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy. The patriarch Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, and the ensuing household struggle escalates into affairs of state and even conflict between gods. One oikos opens up into another — Greek oikoi are never closed. If it’s not present violence blowing them wide open, it’s past acts (as she approaches Agamemnon’s house, Cassandra shrieks that its very walls are spilling dreadful histories, “Remnants of bodies hacked / And murdered children’s bones”), private intimacies unfolding into public knowledge — the whole process driven by an inexpungeable reserve of guilt.

McCarthy, a fan of James Joyce and Joycean word play, then goes on to note connections between the words “guilt” and “debt,” especially in German (“schuld”). “To be guilty, schuldig, is to be in debt, and vice versa,” he writes and then adds that, while Greece owes a crippling debt to Germany, Germany hasn’t faced up to the ways that it also is guilty and in debt:

Greece is schuldig by definition, since it owes. But its debt, crippling though it is to the Hellenic household, is miniature compared with that of a nation that, within living memory, first (during occupation) plundered Greece’s gold, then (after armistice) received monumental sums of unearned credit.

And further on:

The great lesson of Greek literature (as Oedipus learns to his cost) is simply: You are guilty. Before you’ve even done anything, guilt is the precondition of your being. The house of Germany is indebted, more than most; it takes no Cassandra to spot the murdered children’s bones spilling from its walls. Its leaders, having profited from an open economy, are imposing upon Greece a spurious closed one tailored to suit their own ends. 

McCarthy observes that the incessant blood debts haunting the House of Atreus are finally resolved by the Athena’s intervention. Through her mediation, Aeschylus shows how democracy solves the problem of  blood feuds:

In the Oresteian trilogy, the inexorable guilt (of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter; of Clytemnestra, who murdered him in revenge; of Orestes, who killed her as a riposte to that; and so on, backward and forward for generations) gives rise to a series of claims and counterclaims that get resolved in what is effectively the West’s first civic trial, presided over by Athena. The task, for her and the citizen-jury she appoints, is not to work out who is right (all parties’ arguments are good), but rather to come up with an arrangement that can set all these contesting demands in some kind of balance that accommodates all sides. In so doing, she founds democracy. The groundbreaking event takes place in Athens.

So can the current economic standoff have a happy ending? Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman, who have argued against austerity economics, think that there must be some kind of accommodation if the euro and the Europe Union are to survive. Greece, as even the European bank has admitted, will never be able to pay off its debt. To insist that it continue trying to do so will lead to social upheaval and the rise of rightwing violence. Reasonable people, with or without the help of a goddess, should be able to see this.

McCarthy, unfortunately, foresees no goddess bringing the contending parties to an arena where all can be worked out. By playing hardball, Germany is threatening Greek democracy:

That the current Athenian parliament’s own resolutions are being struck down by Berlin-mandated bureaucrats makes the Greek citizenry’s long-running slogan “Error 404 — Democracy Not Found” even truer than they might realize.

Further note: In this morning’s New York Times column, Roger Cohen mentions Volkswagen’s immense cheating scandal (finding ways to fool emissions tests) as undercutting the country’s claims of moral rectitude. Dramatic irony, as every student of Oedipus knows, involves looking elsewhere for the culprit when at least some of the fault lies with you:

Germany has been pretty relentless about Greek cheating on its public accounts, tax evasion, nepotism, lax work habits and the rest. It had a case. Greece did all the above to get itself and the eurozone into their current hole. But its prescription — be more like hardworking, honest, reliable, virtuous Germany and get there through austerity alone — was far too rigid, and now all those lessons about cheating smack of gross hypocrisy. Leadership from the new Germany will fail if the temptation to hand out lessons is not resisted.

Posted in Aeschylus, Sophocles | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Jane Eyre: 1st Discipline, Then Love

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel passage is one that Jane Eyre turns to unwillingly at a major crisis point in her life. Jesus, playing the tough coach, gives his disciples difficult advice that they too don’t want to hear. Both the disciples and Jane need Jesus’s tough language, however, if they are to move past self and into love.

In the passage from Mark (9:38-50), Jesus catches his disciples behaving territorially. A stranger has been casting out devils in Jesus’s name, and the disciples think he is claiming spoils that they regard as rightfully theirs:

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

Concerned that his disciples won’t hear what he is saying, Jesus resorts to violent images:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

The disciples focus more on their own egos than on the love of God, and abandoning such pride can seem comparable to cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye. Our narcissism plunges us into an internal hell because it separates us from the divine. Jesus feels that he can’t make this point strongly enough.

Jane recalls the passage at a moment when she is in shock. She has just discovered that Rochester is already married and that she is about to experience once again her life of solitude and self doubt:

Some time in the afternoon I raised my head, and looking round and seeing the western sun gilding the sign of its decline on the wall, I asked, “What am I to do?”

But the answer my mind gave—“Leave Thornfield at once”—was so prompt, so dread, that I stopped my ears.  I said I could not bear such words now.  “That I am not Edward Rochester’s bride is the least part of my woe,” I alleged: “that I have wakened out of most glorious dreams, and found them all void and vain, is a horror I could bear and master; but that I must leave him decidedly, instantly, entirely, is intolerable.  I cannot do it.”

But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it and foretold that I should do it.  I wrestled with my own resolution: I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the awful passage of further suffering I saw laid out for me; and Conscience, turned tyrant, held Passion by the throat, told her tauntingly, she had yet but dipped her dainty foot in the slough, and swore that with that arm of iron he would thrust her down to unsounded depths of agony.

“Let me be torn away,” then I cried.  “Let another help me!”

“No; you shall tear yourself away, none shall help you: you shall yourself pluck out your right eye; yourself cut off your right hand: your heart shall be the victim, and you the priest to transfix it.”

I rose up suddenly, terror-struck at the solitude which so ruthless a judge haunted,—at the silence which so awful a voice filled.

Perhaps such tough coaching is what Jane needs if she is to be strong. She has all but turned Rochester into her idol and is in danger of succumbing to his seductive temptation, which is to become his mistress in France. If she were to give in, she would be tormented for the rest of her life.

Jesus is about much more than renouncing, however. Above all, he wants us to love. Later, when Jane is wrestling with an equally difficult decision, she again hears a voice calling out to her. This time, however, she is told to follow a sweeter path than the austere duty that St. John Rivers insists on. The moment occurs when she is on the verge of agreeing to become his wife and travel with him to India:

“Show me, show me the path!” I entreated of Heaven.  I was excited more than I had ever been; and whether what followed was the effect of excitement the reader shall judge.

All the house was still; for I believe all, except St. John and myself, were now retired to rest.  The one candle was dying out: the room was full of moonlight.  My heart beat fast and thick: I heard its throb.  Suddenly it stood still to an inexpressible feeling that thrilled it through, and passed at once to my head and extremities.  The feeling was not like an electric shock, but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling: it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor, from which they were now summoned and forced to wake.  They rose expectant: eye and ear waited while the flesh quivered on my bones.

“What have you heard?  What do you see?” asked St. John.  I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry—

“Jane!  Jane!  Jane!”—nothing more.

“O God! what is it?” I gasped.

I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room—nor in the house—nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air—nor from under the earth—nor from overhead.  I had heard it—where, or whence, for ever impossible to know!  And it was the voice of a human being—a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.

“I am coming!” I cried.  “Wait for me!  Oh, I will come!”

If the first call demands that Jane break with Rochester, the second urges her to return to him. She has developed a much stronger sense of self—her self-discipline helped her get there—and now she can follow her heart:

I broke from St. John, who had followed, and would have detained me.  It was my time to assume ascendency.  My powers were in play and in force.  I told him to forbear question or remark; I desired him to leave me: I must and would be alone.  He obeyed at once.  Where there is energy to command well enough, obedience never fails.  I mounted to my chamber; locked myself in; fell on my knees; and prayed in my way—a different way to St. John’s, but effective in its own fashion.  I seemed to penetrate very near a Mighty Spirit; and my soul rushed out in gratitude at His feet.  I rose from the thanksgiving—took a resolve—and lay down, unscared, enlightened—eager but for the daylight.

Jesus doesn’t demand discipline from us merely for the sake of discipline. If we see that discipline as an end in itself, as St. John appears to do, we become dry and brittle. Sometimes it is equally difficult to open ourselves to the love that Jesus wants us to experience. That is the Mighty Spirit that calls Jane and to which she responds.


Previous posts on spiritual questing in Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre as Lenten Meditation 

Herbert and Bronte on Spiritual Restlessness

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte) | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Yogi’s Yogi-isms: “Sheer Poetry”

Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra


A great baseball player who invented a new rhetorical device died this past week. Of course I’m talking about Yankee catcher Yogi Berra and the yogi-ism (or yogism).

A rhetorical device uses words in a certain way to convey meaning or to persuade. Other rhetorical devices include paradox, circumlocution, allusion, innuendo, and understatement. A yogi-ism is a statement that appears on the surface to be illogical or redundant but upon reflection makes some sort of sense. Yogi-isms are sometimes associated with “idiot savants,” which is to say, people who don’t seem very bright but who nevertheless deliver profundities.

In a fine Slate article Ben Zimmer, executive editor of and the Visual Thesaurus, analyzes Yogi Berra’s yogi-isms and finds them to be “sheer poetry.”

Before explaining why, here is a sampling. Not all of them were composed by Berra but all of them have been attributed to him at one time or other, prompting another yogi-ism from him: “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

–When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
–It ain’t over till it’s over.
–Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
–A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
–It’s deja vu all over again!
–If people don’t come to the ballpark, how are you gonna stop them?
–Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
–Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t go to yours.
–You can observe a lot by watching.

Some yogi-isms have been called malapropisms or dogberryisms after the characters of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals and Office Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. It would be more accurate to say that they are the reverse, however. When Mrs. Malaprop says, “If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs,” she is trying to show off but her misuse of words reveals her ignorance. The same is true of Dogberry when he says, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”

A yogi-ism, by contrast, sounds more like someone utterly unpretentious uttering a commonplace. Rather than exposing the speaker for trying to show off, a yogi-ism shows him or her to be unconsciously wise.

Zimmer says that yogi-isms are apparent tautologies (redundancies or examples of circular reasoning) that, upon further inspection, prove to be much more:

Yogi-isms were often tautological on the surface, but not so self-evident when you stopped to think about them. Take his dictum “It ain’t over till it’s over,” purportedly delivered to a reporter in the summer of ’73 when the Mets seemed out of the pennant race. “Taken as propositional logic, this is informationless,” wrote Lane Greene in the Economist. But in Berra’s higher logic, it makes perfect sense: the “over-ness” of a baseball game or season cannot be calculated ahead of time. Assumed conclusions do not necessarily equate to actual ones.

The same can be said of “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” which plays on two definitions of “nobody” (the other being “nobody of note”).

I’ve always been drawn to “It’s deja vu all over again,” which seems to be a tautological redundancy (yes, I did that deliberately). Sometimes we may feel, when describing a strong sense of having seen or experienced something in the past, that we are being overly dramatic or portentous. To say, “It was déjà vu all over again” is a way to deflate ourselves, a gentle form of self mockery.

In its obituary The New York Times makes a case for Yogi Berra being the greatest catcher in the history of baseball, and certainly he is in the top five. While he doesn’t reach so high in the field of rhetoric, he at least finds himself in the company of others who excelled at the short form, including

–La Rochefoucauld, who perfected the pithy maxim;
–Alexander Pope, who excelled in zeugma (ironic juxtaposition);
–Oscar Wilde, who delivered exquisite reversals;
–Dorothy Parker, who sliced you up with devastating put-downs.

Some would argue that Yogi Berra’s Hall of Fame baseball career was only his second greatest accomplishment.

Posted in Berra (Yogi) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Pope Francis as Shaw’s St. Joan

St. Joan on horseback (from 1505 manuscript)

St. Joan on horseback (from 1505 manuscript)


 Kudos to Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post for linking the visit of Pope Francis to a scene from George Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan. It’s a perfect fit.

Meyerson is discussing how uncomfortable the GOP must be—at least those in the party who want to cut food stamps, healthcare, and other programs for the poor—over the visit of a man who excoriates capitalism and the prioritizing of money over people. While acknowledging that Benedict and John Paul II also issued encyclicals criticizing capitalism, Meyerson notes that Francis has gone even further:

Where Francis has departed from his predecessors is that he has moved from talking the talk to walking the walk. The simplicity of his lifestyle, his emphasis on spending time among the poor and giving workers more control of economies where the deck, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has said, is stacked against them, are all radical departures from past papal practice. So, too, is the tolerance he has shown to gays, lesbians and divorcees — a tolerance that has roused the ire of church conservatives, for whom intolerance to these and kindred groups seems to express the essence of their Catholicism.

Then Meyerson brings in Shaw:

A pope infused by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and Jesus poses a threat to the current economic order. Conservatives are right to fear and despise him, as they would be right to fear and despise his role models. The final scene of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan” places Joan of Arc in a dream sequence in which all her persecutors, once she’s safely dead and canonized, praise her and acknowledge her sainthood. When she asks them if she should return to Earth and live again, however, they answer with fear, loathing and a resounding “no.” That, in essence, is the conservatives’ response to Pope Francis, and to the spirit and faith he embodies. 

Here’s the passage from St. Joan. Charles, the Dauphin that Joan crowned, is dreaming 25 years after her execution. Suddenly he is given a vision of what will happen, including Joan’s canonization 400 years later. He is also visited by recently vindicated Joan and sees her former persecutors honoring her:

JOAN. My sword shall conquer yet: the sword that never struck a blow. Though men destroyed my body, yet in my soul I have seen God.

CAUCHON [kneeling to her] The girls in the field praise thee; for thou hast raised their eyes; and they see that there is nothing between them and heaven.

DUNOIS. [kneeling to her] The dying soldiers praise thee, because thou art a shield of glory between them and the judgment.

THE ARCHBISHOP [kneeling to her] The princes of the Church praise thee, because thou hast redeemed the faith their worldlinesses have dragged through the mire.

WARWICK [kneeling to her] The cunning counsellors praise thee, because thou hast cut the knots in which they have tied their own souls.

DE STOGUMBER [kneeling to her] The foolish old men on their deathbeds praise thee, because their sins against thee are turned into blessings.

THE INQUISITOR [kneeling to her] The judges in the blindness and bondage of the law praise thee, because thou hast vindicated the vision and the freedom of the living soul.

THE SOLDIER [kneeling to her] The wicked out of hell praise thee, because thou hast shewn them that the fire that is not quenched is a holy fire.

THE EXECUTIONER [kneeling to her] The tormentors and executioners praise thee, because thou hast shewn that their hands are guiltless of the death of the soul.

CHARLES [kneeling to her] The unpretending praise thee, because thou hast taken upon thyself the heroic burdens that are too heavy for them.

And here’s the response to Joan offering to return in a scene that may have been inspired by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor:

JOAN. Woe unto me when all men praise me! I bid you remember that I am a saint, and that saints can work miracles. And now tell me: shall I rise from the dead, and come back to you a living woman?

A sudden darkness blots out the walls of the room as they all spring to their feet in consternation.

JOAN. What! Must I burn again? Are none of you ready to receive me?

CAUCHON. The heretic is always better dead. And mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic. Spare them. [He goes out as he came].

DUNOIS. Forgive us, Joan: we are not yet good enough for you. I shall go back to my bed. [He also goes].

WARWICK. We sincerely regret our little mistake; but political necessities, though occasionally erroneous, are still imperative; so if you will be good enough to excuse me–[He steals discreetly away].

THE ARCHBISHOP. Your return would not make me the man you once thought me. The utmost I can say is that though I dare not bless you, I hope I may one day enter into your blessedness. Meanwhile, however–[He goes].

THE INQUISITOR. I who am of the dead, testified that day that you were innocent. But I do not see how The Inquisition could possibly be dispensed with under existing circumstances. Therefore–[He goes].

DE STOGUMBER. Oh, do not come back: you must not come back. I must die in peace. Give us peace in our time, O Lord! [He goes].

THE GENTLEMAN. The possibility of your resurrection was not contemplated in the recent proceedings for your canonization. I must return to Rome for fresh instructions. [He bows formally, and withdraws].

Yes, we have our own churchmen and politicians who have made peace with our unequal power distribution and our gross income disparities. Joan’s final words could be ours as well:

JOAN. O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?

Posted in Shaw (George Bernard) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lit Classics, Our Most Valuable Friends

Florence Fuller, "Inseparables" (circa 1900)

Florence Fuller, “Inseparables” (circa 1900)


I’ve been rereading my favorite work by my favorite literary theorist as I continue to work on my “how literature has changed history” book. My memories of first reading Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction are so vivid that I can still remember where I was. Finally, I thought, someone is discussing, in a reasonable and humane way, how literature can change human behavior.

“Humane” is an adjective that very much describes Booth, who accords respect to everyone he encounters, even those he disagrees with. In The Company We Keep, he talks about the considerable difficulties with assessing a literary work’s impact. It’s very difficult to generalize, he admits, because different people can have widely different reactions to the same book. This doesn’t prevent some from attempting to censor works that they think will lead readers astray, however. In contrast with censors are liberals, who sometimes go to the other extreme and avoid talking about impact at all except in the vaguest way.

I’ve been noticing these two perspectives as I survey what theorists through the ages have said about literary influence. It appears that conservatives often see literature as having more of an impact—at least when they see the impact as negative—than do liberals. It’s a roundabout compliment to the power of literature.

Booth makes the good point that, if literature can do us good, then we must be open to the possibility that it also can do us harm. Or if we want to argue, as some have, that good literature is beneficial and bad literature is harmful, then we have to have a way of distinguishing between what is good and what is bad. Who gets to decide literary merit and, for that matter, who gets to decide whether an outcome is good or bad? For instance, Matthew Arnold thought that great literature could keep the workers from becoming dissatisfied with their lot in life whereas Bertolt Brecht wrote literature designed to alert workers to capitalism’s contradictions so that they would rebel against measures designed to placate them.

In short, Booth, as he openly acknowledges, wanders into very vexed territory. The Company We Keep tracks the movement of his mind as he sorts through these complex issues.

One of his best ideas is seeing our relationship with literature as similar to our relationship with friends. Figuring out whether a book is good for us or not is like figuring out whether a friendship is good for us or not. We have different kinds of friends for different purposes and the same can be said of books.

By thinking of literature in this way, Booth gives us a way to make judgments. After all, don’t we assess the impact of our friendships? It is true of books as it is with friends that we may not arrive at an absolute answer and that sometimes the answer will change over time.

I conclude today’s post with Booth’s description of those friendships that are unquestionably the best, which are literary classics. I find this to be a beautiful summing up:

The fullest friendships, the “friendships of virtue” that the tradition hails as best, are likely to be with the works that the world has called classics. When I “perform” for myself or attend a performance of King Lear, The Misanthrope, or The Cherry Orchard, when I read Don Quixote, Persuasion, Bleak House, or War and Peace, I meet in their authors friends who demonstrate their friendship not only in range and depth and intensity of pleasure they offer, not only in the promise they fulfill of proving useful to me, but finally in the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.

I might say to any one of these in reply: if I choose to ignore you, I lose something more precious than any one point I could make about you and your kind; your company is in some ways superior even to the best company I can hope to discover among the real people I live with. Certainly it is superior to what is usually provided by those “inner resources” we are all advised to fall back on when bored. Unlike “real” people, you are an idealized version of the writer who created you, the disorganized, flawed creature who in a sense discovered you by expunging his or her duller times and weaker moments. To dwell with you is to share the improvements you have managed to make in your “self” by perfecting your narrative world. You lead me first to practice ways of living that are more profound, more sensitive, more intense, and in a curious way more fully generous than I am likely to meet anywhere else in the world. You correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mold me into patterns of longing and fulfillment that make my ordinary dreams seem petty and absurd. You finally show what life can be, not just to a coterie, a saved and saving remnant looking down on the fools, slobs, and knaves, but to anyone who is willing to work to earn the title of equal and true friend.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Abortion Debate & Doll’s House

Jane Fonda as Nora in "Doll's House"

Jane Fonda as Nora in “Doll’s House”


Just when I thought things couldn’t get crazier, it looks like there is a very good chance we’ll have another government shutdown, this one over continued funding for Planned Parenthood. This in spite of the fact that PP has done nothing illegal and doesn’t receive federal funds for performing abortions. PP is mainly used by poor women for cancer screenings, pap smears and birth control.

I recently reread Ibsen’s Doll’s House to see if I could gain insight into what is going on and have made some connections. Let’s first review what’s going on, however.

There have been steady attacks on abortion providers in many states, and it is considerably more difficult for women in these states to get abortions than it was five years ago, even though abortion is technically still legal in this country. Now those attacks have been taken up by the GOP nominees for president, with the result that abortion could well be the main issue in the upcoming GOP primaries. Here’s Paul Waldman in American Prospect:

Abortion has become the dominant issue of the Republican contest, even of Republican politics more generally. Carly Fiorina just shot into second place in the race in at least one poll, based in part on her fervent condemnation of something that wasn’t actually on those Planned Parenthood “sting” videos. Republicans in Congress are getting very close to shutting down the government in order to prevent women from getting non-abortion services like cancer screenings and gynecological exams at Planned Parenthood clinics. A whole series of bills to restrict abortion rights are now getting a prominent hearing in Congress. John Kasich told CNN this weekend that he will sign a bill currently in the Ohio legislature that would outlaw abortions if they are performed because the fetus tests positive for the genetic anomaly that causes Down syndrome, meaning that any woman in Ohio—and wherever else Republicans manage to pass copycat laws—will only be allowed an abortion if the government decides she’s doing it for the right reason.

We could also note that Marco Rubio is against all abortions, even those caused by rape or incest  and Jeb Bush boasts that he cut off funding to Planned Parenthood when he was governor of Florida. (He also doesn’t think we need “half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”)

Let’s now bring in a real person to make the ongoing debate less of an abstraction. The Washington Post recently ran a woman’s account of her abortion at 21 weeks—which is after the 20-week-limit that Republicans in Congress are calling for. Rebecca Cohen, a health researcher in Washington, discovered that her fetus had two leaks in its brain, destroying it almost entirely. Her choices was either to have an abortion or carry the fetus to term and deliver a dead baby. Here’s what she decided:

I had a choice. I could try to live with the husk of a child inside of me for more than 100 days, swallowing tears at every cheery inquiry as I grew bigger. Or I could have an abortion. And the choice wasn’t just about me. I have young children who would have had to see their mother endure this torture and give birth to someone they would never meet. So we made the painful, but I believe merciful, decision to terminate.

Even after we made that decision, it was difficult to find an available provider, even in an area with as many medical providers as the District. The hospitals had weeks-long waits. In the end, we were able to schedule an appointment at a surgical clinic for the following week.

My pregnancy was 21 weeks on the day of my abortion.

I mourn the loss of my baby every day. But I have no doubt that I made the right decision for myself and my family, and I am grateful that it was my choice to make. I am indebted to my medical providers for their compassion and care. They answered my questions, spent hours on the phone to give me as many options as possible and followed my lead.

Cohen then puts her abortion in a larger perspective:

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, just more than 1 percent of abortions take place at week 21 or later, many because of devastating medical situations like ours. Each of these mothers must battle through her own hell to decide on and find the medical care she needs, gather her friends and family to lean on, and grieve.

Congress should not take this decision away from any woman — any family — who is in need. Banning abortions after 20 weeks would be arbitrary, and its consequences would place an unimaginable burden on women like me.

Medical need is only one reason why women have abortions. Add in all those other decisions, often arrived after similar struggle, and then ask yourself whether rigid laws can do justice to the complexity.

Now to Ibsen. While Doll’s House isn’t about abortion, it is about a man who infantilizes his wife and thinks that she doesn’t have the intelligence to grapple with tough moral decisions. Because he sees her this way, and because she plays along with him out of fear of undermining his masculinity, they have a marriage that can’t face up to the problems confronting them.

If he were not so self righteous and not so worried about being in control, Torvald Helmer would be able to allow Nora to help finance the trip to Italy he needs to regain his health. Instead, knowing that he won’t accept the life-saving measures from her, his wife borrows money behind his back, forges her father’s signature, and then saves money out of her house allowance to pay back the loan. Torvald thinks she’s an irresponsible spendthrift and she allows him to think that of her. After all, she has more important things to worry about.

The GOP, with their legislated ultrasounds, two week waiting periods (for “reflection”), doctor gag orders, and all the rest are infantilizing women, assuming that they are incapable of doing the right thing if the decision is left up to them. There is no acknowledgement of the agonizing that often accompanies a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

In the end, Nora realizes that living under such a regime is no life for her and she leaves her husband. As women have been leaving the GOP.

But the play does hold out one hope, that Torvald and Nora could come back together if he could see her as something other than, to use Nora’s words, “your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile.”

Imagine if America went at the abortion question in a way that truly looked for solutions. This would have to include truly effective sex education (not abstinence only), full access to free contraceptives, and full social support for children born into poverty. Perhaps pro-choice women could come to understand the sensibilities of those who see the fetus as sacred if they felt that that their own concerns were sufficiently acknowledged. I always thought that Hillary Clinton was trying to find some common ground in her call for abortions to be “safe, legal and rare.” Too many of those against abortion, however, are like Torvald and think only in absolutes.

Will we continue to have non-stop political warfare on this issue? I’m pessimistic but the play ends with a tiny ray of hope. Torvald seems willing to imagine a new way of relating to his wife:

Helmer. Let me help you if you are in want.
Nora. No. I can receive nothing from a stranger.
Helmer. Nora–can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
Nora [taking her bag]. Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.
Helmer. Tell me what that would be!
Nora. Both you and I would have to be so changed that–. Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.
Helmer. But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that–?
Nora. That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye. [She goes out through the hall.]
Helmer [sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in his hands]. Nora! Nora! [Looks round, and rises.]Empty. She is gone. [A hope flashes across his mind.] The most wonderful thing of all–?

So maybe we could have a real social dialogue about women’s reproductive issues where people truly listened to each other. Maybe the most wonderful thing of all could happen. Know hope.

Posted in Ibsen (Henrik) | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The GOP Descends into the Maelstrom

Descent into the Maelstrom


How many times do observers have to say that the current GOP is crazy or that it has lost its collective mind before such assessments become white noise and we just accept its unhinged behavior as the new normal? It’s as though we’re all developing Stockholm syndrome.

Normally reasonable people—I can imagine Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in another setting being capable of mature behavior—feel that they can only compete if they join the crazy. As a result we have a debate in which candidates compete for who will most vociferously

–argue for doing nothing on climate change;
–advocate deporting 11 million people;
–threaten to shut down the government over funding to Planned Parenthood;
–find links between vaccinations and autism;
–beat the drums of war (not only with ISIS and Iran but also with Russia);
–etc., etc.

And of course, what we’re seeing in the race is little different than what we’ve been seeing from the GOP over the past seven years. I’d like to say it all began when Mitch McConnell decided upon scorched earth opposition to Barack Obama on the even of his first inauguration, including to measures Republicans had once themselves supported (cap and trade, for instance), but he himself was responding to the GOP fringe. I suspect it all comes down to hysteria over the radically changing nature of both this country and to globalization generally.

In any event, it’s as though the party extremists are a huge whirlpool sucking everyone, even moderates, into their vortex. Which prompts me to turn to Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”

In the story, the narrator meets an old man—or at least he seems old—who has survived a descent into a giant Scandinavian whirlpool. There are several things to be noted about his journey.

First of all, the maelstrom sucks very large objects into its maw, which we can imagine as being respected governors, senators, and one very remarkable surgeon:

Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees… 

The maelstrom brings out the worst in people, just as the debates have been doing. For instance, the mariner’s brother pushes him away from the ring he is grasping. So much for the eleventh commandment of not speaking ill about fellow Republicans:

As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon this [water casket], and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of his terror, he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act –although I knew he was a madman when he did it –a raving maniac through sheer fright. 

While everything seems confused at first, after a while the mariner adjusts to the new reality, just as the candidates are adjusting to the craziness of the race. The mariner sees the commotion from a detached point of view and tries to predict which floating object–in our case, which candidate–will go down first. Like the pundits, he is almost always wrong:

I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,’ I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,’ –and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all –this fact –the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.

To survive, the mariner’s strategy is to float lightly and he lashes himself to the water casket. I noticed that Rubio and John Kasich tried a similar strategy in Wednesday’s debate: while others engaged directly with the heart of the whirlpool (Donald Trump), they tried to avoid direct confrontation.

How will the candidates emerge from the turmoil? For that matter, how will the country emerge from a situation where one of the parties has gone off the rails? Well, here’s what happens to the narrator:

Those who drew me on board were my old mates and daily companions –but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveler from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. I told them my story –they did not believe it.

Yes, the story of the GOP as it is currently behaving would be hard for anyone to believe. The party has been journeying in some spirit-land and it’s turning all of our hair white.

Posted in Poe (Edgar Allan) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter

William West, "Israelites Passing through the Wilderness"

William West, “Israelites Passing through the Wilderness”

Spiritual Sunday

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat in the wonderfully named Velveteen Rabbi blog alerts me to this poem by Stanley Kunitz as we look ahead to Yom Kippur (Tuesday and Wednesday).

Kunitz, who lived to be 100, looks back at his life and those lives that have intersected with his and wonders whether there has been any continuity. Throughout it, he detects “some principle of being” “from which I struggle not to stray.”

Also looking back at his “feast of losses” and at “the manic dust of my friends,/ those who fell along the way,” he wonders how his heart has ever been able to be reconciled. Yet again, rather than being overwhelmed, he speaks of his determination to move forward:

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Turning to the Bible for imagery, Kunitz describes himself as a scattered tribe. Like the Israelites in the desert, however, he finds assurance in the voice that comes out of the guiding cloud (Exodus 13:21):

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Yom Kippur is a day to focus on our layered lives and not simply on the wreckage that presents itself to us on first glance. If we do so, we will be able to step confidently into the future, even if we don’t understand the new transformations we are undergoing. 

The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned campsites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Posted in Kunitz (Stanley) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Lit Help Build an Egalitarian World?

Terry Eagleton


I’ve been rereading, for the first time in years, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, and my head is swimming. That’s in part because, as a Marxist, Eagleton looks at each theory from a double perspective: he tries to engage with it on its own terms and he strives to show how arose in response to the historical pressures of the age.

This is not alien turf for me as I have been heavily influenced by Marxist criticism and take seriously the injunction of another Marxist theorist (Frederic Jameson) to “always historicize.” Eagleton, however, covers so many different theories and so many different historical periods that after a while everything begins to blur together. I therefore am using today’s post to reflect upon my current relationship with Eagleton, Jameson, and neo-Marxist theories about if and how literature impacts history.

First, a clarification. Eagleton and Jameson have always been highly critical of Soviet-style literary theory, which judged literature to be good or bad depending on its class politics. They have derided this such practices as “vulgar Marxism.” Literature is more complex than that, involved as it is in a complicated dance with the economic pressures of the period. (Or as Marxists would say, literature is part of the ideological superstructure and is heavily influenced by but not entirely subordinate to the economic base.)

My own interest in Marxism began when I studied under history professor Carl Wiener at Carleton College, who was interested in Marxist thought. I was drawn to Marx’s vision of all people being free of “the realm of necessity” so that they could fulfill their potential, something that is difficult to do if you are hungry and oppressed.

It’s a vision that, say, Martin Luther King also had, and I have always been much more interested in non-violent protest than in violent revolution, given that I see violence as always resulting in unintended consequences. (William Blake observes, “The iron hand crushed the tyrant’s head/And became a tyrant in his stead.”) But King sees divine justice working through human events and, while I am a Christian, I need more secular reasons for believing that the arc of history bends towards justice.

When I read literature, therefore, I not only look at how it opens up the human spirit but how that open spirit might lead to a society where all are respected and the needs of all are acknowledged. What good if I myself am transported into aesthetic realms if others are not as well? What good if my mind is opened to new possibilities if I don’t act on this knowledge for the good of others? I look to literature to help me see beyond my own narrow confines and to open the eyes of my students.

This means that, at my core, I have an optimistic rather than a fatalistic view of reality. I believe that all men (and women) are created equal, that all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that this goal is achievable in this world, although assuredly not in our lifetime. I also believe that even small acts can contribute towards these goals, and the sense that I am part of a larger narrative gives my life meaning. It doesn’t matter that I myself can make no more than a tiny contribution.

Eagleton notes that many literary theorists are conservative because they are disappointed with the world as it is and long for some earlier state. If those people don’t share my particular hope—perhaps they see it as something akin to an article of faith, not an empirically grounded belief—then it makes sense that they would see literature differently, perhaps as a personal refuge or a medieval monastery trying to hold its own amidst barbarian hoards. If they are fatalistic, then they might see literature in individual terms, a spark of warmth where they at least can find warmth, even if everything else is out of their control.

Eagleton sums up such views better than I do in the final paragraph of the second edition of Literary Theory:

[S]ome traditional humanist doctrines die hard, not least the assumption of universal value. If literature matters today, it is chiefly because it seems to many conventional critics one of the few remaining places where, in a divided, fragmented world, a sense of universal value may still be incarnate; and where, in a sordidly material world, a rare glimpse of transcendence can still be attained.

Eagleton believes that if these people could see that such universal values could exist in a future society and not only in literature, then they wouldn’t be so pessimistic and, in some instances, reactionary. But he speaks with Marxist optimism and I acknowledge that the world’s darkness will cause many to be skeptical.

I can’t with full assurance say that those many are wrong. Indeed, some of my favorite authors–Jonathan Swift, for instance–challenge my belief that human society can progress. I count on these authors to counter any naive notions that I have.

But the moment one starts looking to literature for only individual solace and ignores those outside one’s community, one has condemned oneself to hopelessness (unless one opts for some kind of religious or mystical vision). It’s also worth noting that, as regards Swift, he spent much of his life seeking to improve the conditions of the people of Ireland. He grumbled but he did it, and he is just as hard on fatalists as he is on gullible idealists.

So while I think it’s wonderful that literature can help us deal with our private sorrows and concerns, we are selling it short if we don’t also see it as a call to join in a collective struggle for a world in which no one benefits unduly at the expense of another. If we think of literature as merely a private affair, that’s because we live a privileged existence.

For a counter perspective, think of Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, who secretly taught English and American classics in her home after the Iranian Revolution. There was nothing purely literary about the way her students saw Elizabeth Bennet (who gave them strength) or Humbert Humbert (who stood in for their oppressors). When Mandela embraced Shakespeare in his Robben Island confinement, he wasn’t doing it merely to be cultured.

In short, I see literature as a boon to the oppressed and a wake-up call to the privileged.

Posted in Swift (Jonathan) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The GOP Debate & the Ox-Frog Fable

Trump and Bush go at it in last night's GOP debate

Trump and Bush go at it in last night’s GOP debate


Last night’s GOP debate reminded me a lot of the Aesop and La Fontaine fable of the frog and the ox, with many of the contestants candidates vying to see who could be as big as the ox in the room—which is to say, as big as current frontrunner Donald Trump. Apparently Republicans these days feel they have to convince us that they’ll be the toughest of the tough on any issue that comes up, whether it be the Iran Deal, Planned Parenthood, immigration, ISIS, same sex marriage, unions, you name it. As Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 campaign advisor, recently said on the Rachel Maddow show,

The test of conservatism is increasingly rhetorical. It’s an emotional sentiment. Who is a conservative now is the person who has the hottest rhetoric.

Come to think of it, maybe the ox is really Barack Obama, who stands calmly chewing his cud (No Drama Obama) as the candidates, led by blowhard Trump (“bloviator”, blow themselves up around him. But that’s just how it looks from my political vantage point and you are free to substitute your own political figures.

Let’s say that each attempt by the frog to make himself bigger represents one hour of the debate’s interminable three hours. Here’s my father’s version of the fable:

F Is the Fable of the Frog and the Ox
(after La Fontaine)

By Scott Bates

A Frog saw an Ox
and was impressed

He thought he was a creature of stature
worthy of emulation

He turned on

He got so excited in fact that he swelled up
and puffed up
and turgesced
in an attempt to approximate the dimensions of the beast


Hey look at this Charlie just
feast your eyes on Big Fred
Is this big enough
Have I made it yet


How about this

Not at all!

NOW I’ve made it I bet

You haven’t even made it to first

The little flop
Blew up so big he burst

The world is full of people who are just about as dumb
Every used-car salesman thinks he should run General Motors
Every two-bit politician wants 100% of the voters
Every two-bit general wants the Bomb

From An ABC of Radical Ecology (New Market, TN: Highlander Research and Education Center, 1982).

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump as the Duke of Bilgewater

Duke in Huckleberry Finn


Always alert to mentions of literary classics in the news, I recently came across two articles comparing Donald Trump to a character in Huckleberry Finn. They did not focus on the character I would have chosen, however.

Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker piece and Michael Winship in a Salon article, focusing on Trump’s appeal to white resentment, both compare “the Donald” to Pap Finn. I believe that Pap is indeed American literature’s most memorable example of such resentment, and I’ve invoked him myself when discussing the racism of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson. But I think he bears more resemblance to “the Dauphin” and “the Duke of Bridgewater/Bilgewater” in Twain’s novel.

Before I explain, here’s what Gopnik and Winship have to say. Gopnik regards “Trumpism” to be

a permanent part of American life—in one form or another, with one voice or another blaring it out. At any moment in our modern history, some form of populist nationalism has always held some significant share—whether five or ten per cent – of the population. Among embittered white men, Trump’s “base,” it has often held a share much larger than that. Trump is not offering anything that was not offered before him, often in identical language and with a similarly incoherent political program, by Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot, by George Wallace or Barry Goldwater, or way back when by Father Coughlin or Huey Long. Populist nationalism is not an eruptive response to a new condition of 2015—it is a perennial ideological position, deeply rooted in the nature of modernity: a social class sees its perceived displacement as the result of a double conspiracy of outsiders and élitists. The outsiders are swamping us, and the insiders are mocking us—this ideology alters its local color as circumstances change, but the essential core is always there. They look down on us and they have no right to look down on us. Indeed, the politics of Trump, far from being in any way new, are exactly the politics of Huck Finn’s drunken father in “Huckleberry Finn”: “Call this a govment! Just look at it and see what it’s like . . . . A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this.” Widespread dissatisfaction with all professional politicians, a certainty of having been “sold out,” a feeling of complete alienation from both political parties—“Not a dime’s worth of difference between them” was George Wallace’s formulation, a half century ago—these are permanent intuitions of the American aggrieved. 

Winship sets up his comparison by first quoting Garry Wills:

In fact, years ago, historian and author Garry Wills wrote, “To understand America, read Mark Twain…. No matter what new craziness pops up in America, I find it described beforehand by him…

“What made Twain so prescient?” Wills continued. “Our own persistence in folly, no doubt. But more than that he understood the peculiarly American brand of folly as no one before or after.”

Winship initially examines Twain’s novel The Gilded Age for Trump forerunners and wonders about Colonel Sellers, a “get-rich-quick schemer” who declares,

There is no country in the world, Sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do. There is no country in the world whose representatives try each other as much as ours do, or stick to it as long on a stretch. I think there is something great in being a model for the whole civilized world, Washington.

Ultimately Winship settles on Pap, however, because he stands in for our baser instincts:

Even though Pap lusts mostly for liquor and Huck’s loot, a treasure trove back then of $6,000 that today wouldn’t cover Trump’s barber bills, he shares the billionaire’s braggadocio, the propensity for noise, surly resentments and irrational lashings out, especially at minorities.

A good substance-free rant is just Pap and Trump’s style: “Then the old man got to cussing,” Huck recounts, “and cussed everything and everybody he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn’t skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of a general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so called them what’s-his-name when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing.”

Derisively, Pap says, “Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment [sic], wonderful,” and then explodes at the notion of an educated, free black man. “They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.  And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home.  Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? …I says I’ll never vote agin.  Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me — I’ll never vote agin as long as I live.”

Winship notes that the GOP establishment is indeed worried that Trump supporters may sit out the election if someone like Jeb Bush is the nominee.

The problem with comparing Trump with Pap is that Trump is not from Pap’s class and probably looks down on the Paps of the world. After hearing how Trump has bilked people of thousands of dollars with his Trump University and how he shilled for a get-rich-quick pyramid scheme (the company’s name was ACN), I see him more as the Duke and the Dauphin. Like them, he is an ace huckster who takes advantage of people that he regards as rubes and then calls them losers after they give him their life savings. (Update: Just last night, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC reported on another scam: apparently “Veterans for a Strong America,” for whom Trump was raising money last night, may just have a single member–whose “organization” came to Trump’s defense after he impugned the war record of John McCain.)

Here are the Duke and the Dauphin describing themselves upon first acquaintance after Huck and Jim save them from their respective mobs. Like Trump, they gain prominence through promising miracle solutions:

The Duke:

Well, I’d been selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth—and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it—but I stayed about one night longer than I ought to, and was just in the act of sliding out when I ran across you on the trail this side of town, and you told me they were coming, and begged me to help you to get off.  

The Dauphin:

Well, I’d ben a-running’ a little temperance revival thar ’bout a week, and was the pet of the women folks, big and little, for I was makin’ it mighty warm for the rummies, I tell you, and takin’ as much as five or six dollars a night—ten cents a head, children and niggers free—and business a-growin’ all the time, when somehow or another a little report got around last night that I had a way of puttin’ in my time with a private jug on the sly.  

The Duke:

Jour printer by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theater-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn to mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture sometimes—oh, I do lots of things—most anything that comes handy, so it ain’t work.  What’s your lay?

The Dauphin:

I’ve done considerble in the doctoring way in my time.  Layin’ on o’ hands is my best holt—for cancer and paralysis, and sich things; and I k’n tell a fortune pretty good when I’ve got somebody along to find out the facts for me.  Preachin’s my line, too, and workin’ camp-meetin’s, and missionaryin’ around.

 Of course, we watch them run their scams until Jim—this after they’ve sold him back into slavery—informs on them and they are tarred and feathered. Before that, however, they toy shamelessly with people’s gullibility. Like Trump, they know how to seize every occasion and play the role required. They provide good theater and they are good at shifting gears at a moment’s notice.

I heard Chris Matthews of Hardball say last night that we can’t help watching Trump because we want to see the moment when he falls—essentially, when he gets a modern version of tarring and feathering. Given his noxious influence on the rest of the GOP field—he even has Jeb Bush talking about anchor babies—that moment can’t come soon enough.


Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Does Studying Lit Truly Change Things?

A Scholar In His Study Reading - (after) Willem Van Drielenburg

A Scholar In His Study Reading – (after) Willem Van Drielenburg


 At the moment I am reading all the theorists I can find who have discussed literature’s impact on history. As I venture into F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny school, I am discovering why I think about literature the way I do. I rely heavily on Terry Eagleton’s description and critique of them in Literary Theory: An Introduction. 

According to Eagleton,

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation. Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence—what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values—were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

 If this your vision of literature, as it is mine, Eagleton explains why we have this view of it:

English students in England today are “Leavisites” whether they know it or not…There is no more need to be a card-carrying Leavisite today than there is to be a card-carrying Copernican: that current has entered the bloodstream of English studies in England as Copernicus reshaped our astronomical beliefs, has become a form of spontaneous critical wisdom as deep-seated as our conviction that the earth moves round the sun.

I add that Leavis has bestowed the same legacy on American English departments.

One reason we are Leavisites is because of our emphasis on close textual reading. Under Leavis, literary criticism, which had once been regarded as a mere matter of taste, became “rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to the ‘words on the page.’” Channeling Leavis’s view Eagleton notes,

Literature was important not only in itself, but because it encapsulated creative energies which were everywhere on the defensive in modern “commercial” society. In literature, and perhaps in literature alone, a vital feel for the creative uses of language was still manifest, in contrast to the philistine devaluing of language and traditional culture blatantly apparent in “mass society.” The quality of a society’s language was the most telling index of the quality of its personal and social life: a society which had ceased to value literature was one lethally closed to the impulses which had created and sustained the best of human civilization. 

As Eagleton describes the Leavisites, they sound very much in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, the subject of a post last week.

After having acknowledged their contribution, Eagleton then proceeds to take them apart, especially for their grandiose claims about literature. Since I too argue for literature’s foundational importance, it’s important for me to grapple with Eagleton’s criticisms.

He mocks, for instance, the idea that literature can truly change society. What is needed for social transformation, he observes, goes far beyond “a sensitive reading of King Lear”:

The whole Scrutiny project was at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd. As one commentator [Iain Wright] has shrewdly put it, the Decline of the West was felt to be avertible by close reading.

A skeptical and sarcastic Eagleton goes on to ask,

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James. The Scrutiny case was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College.

Eagleton then adds another wrinkle. What about abhorrent people who have actually read the classics:

For if not all of those who could not recognize an enjambement were nasty and brutish, not all of those who could were morally pure. Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer…to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had wiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.

Eagleton’s questions present me with some real challenges. While I don’t share the Leavisites’ longing for a preindustrial organic society nor their aversion (which they share with Arnold) for the working class, I do believe that literature can put us in touch with deep and liberating energies. When we are in the presence of great literature, I believe that we sense the potential for self-actualization that resides within human beings.

Because my politics are progressive, like Shelley’s and Eagleton’s, I think that literature points to a fully egalitarian world (although I don’t have Shelley’s or Marx’s full confidence that we will one day achieve it). I also think that close textual reading—paying attention to the words on the page—is a profitable exercise that helps unleash literature’s power. When I teach my literature classes, I listen carefully to my students’ responses and urge them to undertake a disciplined exploration of life-affirming issues that the work raises for them. Over the past six years in this blog, I have described many instances of students using literature to grapple with vexing questions and overcome internal blockages.

What about those concentration camp commandants reading Goethe? Of course I think they are misreading him, using him as a symbol of German greatness to affirm their sense of their own superiority. (Apparently some listened to Beethoven for the same reason.) There is no doubt that Goethe prompts the spirit to swell, but in their case the swelling led to actions that violated everything the great Enlightenment thinker believed in.

Goethe is far from the only author whose work has been misinterpreted. The great Serbian epic poem The Battle of Kosovo was used centuries later to justify the massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Pride and Prejudice has prompted some women to conclude that they can be happy only if they marry a Darcy.

Maybe literature is like religion, a powerful energy that, because it is powerful, can be used for good or bad. The words of Jesus Christ have been used to end slavery and they have been used to justify the burning of heretics (“If a man abides not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”). I feel confident that I am more in touch with the true spirit of Jesus and Goethe than are the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis but I know that I need more than religion and literature to make my case. Which leads me to Eagleton’s other point.

Yes, there is more to life than literature and one doesn’t have to be a reader to be a decent person. Nor does one need a liberal arts education or, for that matter, a college degree. If the Leavisites overestimate the importance of literature—and if I do as well—it’s because we can’t imagine life without it. Eagleton is right to puncture overly inflated claims.

But that being acknowledged, literature is also a huge boon to humankind, and people who don’t have it are missing something that would nourish and enlighten them, that would make their world bigger. The same is true of all the liberal arts and I won’t argue here for the primacy of any one of them. But it seems to me undeniably the case that, when our worlds are smaller, we are more likely to be preyed upon by our fears and to lash out in anger, with all the mayhem and destruction that that entails.

So yes, literature doesn’t automatically make us better people; yes, literature can be misused; and yes, literature is not the saving grace for all our troubles. But a world without literature would be a desolate place.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Why We Love the Cat in the Hat

Cat in the Hat

This weekend I had a very special experience: I got to introduce The Cat in the Hat to my two granddaughters. I’m here to report that it’s a really, really good book.

Of course, you already knew that. Still, I hadn’t looked at Seuss’s breakthrough classic for so long that I’d forgotten how gripping it is. And at times, how disturbing.

Basically, the drama is about the alter egos or shadow projections of the narrator and his sister running wild when parental authority steps out. The cat is an anarchistic fantasy and then he doubles the intensity by bringing in Thing One and Thing Two. The three of them trash the house. Then, however–in a concluding wish fulfillment–order is miraculously restored. There are no bad consequences.

Actually, parental authority doesn’t entirely step out. The mother’s internal voice remains within the room in the figure of the fish. “He should not be here when your mother is out,” the fish insists. After the narrator manages to net Thing One and Thing Two, the fish orders a sad and bedraggled cat from the house. It’s an uncomfortable scene.

But the cat returns with a bright and sunny disposition. I suspect that bouncing back from his scolding is as comforting to child audiences as his miraculous pick-up-the-mess machine.

To explain the story’s power, I turn to a theory by film scholar Rick Altman about why Hollywood genre movies engage us. Altman says that we are drawn to transgression, and each popular genre specializes in a special type of transgression. In gangster movies we root for the gangsters, in monster movies we root for mayhem and destruction, in comedies we root for confusion.

Or at least we do at first. Then, however, our inner fish begins complaining. We start feeling guilty at having our dark desires satisfied. As the mayhem grows more intense, our titillation at transgression is countered by painful anxieties at seeing authority overthrown. The pain finally tilts the scales and we want to return to our initial static state—which in the case of the narrator and his sister involves sitting at the window and looking out at the rain.

Put another way, we’ve had fun vacationing in Vegas but start longing for a restoration of order. We want the criminal to be apprehended, the monster to be defeated, the slacker to grow up and get married.

The Cat in the Hat indulges the child’s rebellion against the well-ordered house before offering comfort with the return of parental order. It does so with memorable images and punchy rhymes. My granddaughters loved it.

Posted in Dr. Seuss | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Theoretically, a Season for Everything

John August Swanson, "Ecclesiastes 3:1-8"

John August Swanson, “Ecclesiastes 3:1-8”

Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

As Rosh Hashanah begins today, calling upon us to reflect on our lives, I share a meditative poem by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. To set it up, here’s the well-know passage from Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) that it references:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

As Amichai sees it, the wise author shows us the perspective we should have but not the perspective we actually do have. Perhaps our soul knows that there is a season for everything, even a season for dying. If we were as wise as our soul, we would embrace the bad times as well as the good. Our body, however, is

an amateur. It tries and it misses, 
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing, 
drunk and blind in its pleasures 
and its pains.

In the spirit of the High Holy Days, however, the poem points, like a bare branch, to the mystery that is beyond us. where “there’s a time for everything.”

A Man in His Life

By Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life 
to have time for everything. 
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have 
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes 
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, 
to laugh and cry with the same eyes, 
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, 
to make love in war and war in love. 
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget, 
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest 
what history 
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time. 
When he loses he seeks, when he finds 
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves 
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul 
is very professional. 
Only his body remains forever 
an amateur. It tries and it misses, 
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing, 
drunk and blind in its pleasures 
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn, 
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet, 
the leaves growing dry on the ground, 
the bare branches pointing to the place 
where there’s time for everything.

A note on the artist: More information can be found on John August Swanson’s painting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 at

Posted in Amichai (Yehuda) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Indispensable Matriarchs

Tenniel's Queen of Hearts

Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts

In the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up in Sewanee, Tennessee, home of the University of the South, I was always struck by the town matriarchs. Although all of the administrators, all of the students, and almost all of the professors were men, women seemed to run the town. (Sewanee may be the only college that owns its town.) The indomitable Mrs. Myers was a force of nature, two of the four doctors were women, and the aged Daughters of the Confederacy made their presence known.

Now that I’m back in Sewanee for my sabbatical, the elderly women still seem to cast a large shadow. I include my mother, who has been faithfully serving the community since 1954 and who, even though she is about to turn 90, heads the Sewanee Women’s Club. That’s why I was struck by a passage from a 1970 May Sarton novel that my wife is currently reading.

Kinds of Love is set in a small town in New Hampshire. The story revolves around two elderly women, an old Bostonian and a farmer’s daughter. In the following passage, Old Pete watches the women as they return from a hike and reflects on the power they exude:

They had been gone about an hour, Pete reckoned, but they did not look like gazelles now. Old Pete, who had his own aches and pains to contend with, looked shrewdly at Christina’s limp. But to his admiring eyes the tall woman still held herself like a queen. It’s the way she holds her head, he said to himself—as if nothing on earth could get her down. And Old Pete, his feet bound up in rags inside his boots, his old jacket more like the skin of an animal than a piece of clothing, enjoyed the sight of good clothes on a woman. Christina’s flame-colored suede jacket and gray skirt, the white chiffon scarf round her throat, looked just right to him.

Beside her, Ellen all in brown, looked like a frail autumn leaf, but of the two he reckoned Ellen might last the longer. She was nothing but a wiry little engine now, no flesh to wear away—well the village would be a different place when those two went, they and maybe four or five more. Miss Tuttle—he had not seen her for years out with her basket and trowel, botanizing. She was ninety, and no one saw her often any more. But Ed, the road agent, had told Old Pete not so long ago that he had seen her sitting out on the porch only the other day. When these three women died, the village would lose some quality, some configuration it had had for fifty years. But Pet’s long quiet pause on the stone wall had not led his wandering mind to any great conclusions about why the village had been dominated by womenfolk. Maybe that’s just the way things are, he thought. Maybe the Lord made them stronger in spirit and gave men the wits.

“Eh, Flicker?”

Flicker pricked his ears.

“As far as I can see, women don’t invent things. They just hold together and keep going what men have invented.”

Two Sewanee stalwarts have died in the past two months and Sewanee’s configuration is changing. That’s in part because there is no longer the old division of labor, with wives no longer devoting themselves to holding the community together while their husbands teach. For some reason, they insist upon having careers of their own.

I regard this as a healthy development. Still, something has been lost.

Posted in Sarton (May) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Arnold’s Benign/Reactionary Legacy

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

I use today’s essay to sort further sort through my feelings about Matthew Arnold. In last week’s essay about Shelley I talked about two strains, one benign and the other reactionary, that I see arising out of Arnold’s thinking. The benign version is the one we’re all familiar with: literature humanizes us by opening our minds to the humanity of others, thereby helping foster a tolerant society. The reactionary we saw gain ascendency in the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan and H. W. Bush administrations: literature can be used to enshrine middle class privilege and discourage various out groups from ascending to power.

In the benign version, literature—along with the other liberal arts disciplines—encourages the open-mindedness that is necessary if a multicultural and multi-class society is to function. There is certainly this dimension in Arnold’s thinking.

Arnold is concerned that the aristocracy, the middle class, and the working class are having trouble getting along because each is selfishly concerned about its own special needs. If each could only focus on something higher than itself—that something higher being what is best in ourselves—then we could live in harmony and avoid anarchy. Culture expresses the human goal of perfectibility and should (in Arnold’s mind) be the foundation of the State. In Culture and Anarchy (1869) he writes,

People of the aristocratic class want to affirm their ordinary selves, their likings and dislikings; people of the middle-class the same, people of the working-class the same. By our everyday selves, however, we are separate, personal, at war; we are only safe from one another’s tyranny when no one has any power; and this safety, in its turn, cannot save us from anarchy. And when, therefore, anarchy presents itself as a danger to us, we know not where to turn.

But by our best self we are united, impersonal, at harmony. We are in no peril from giving authority to this, because it is the truest friend we all of us can have; and when anarchy is a danger to us, to this authority we may turn with sure trust.

Arnold believes that if culture is the basis of the State, then the aristocracy will act responsibly, giving up its ancient but now out-of-date privileges. The populace, meanwhile, will refrain from “rowdy” behavior. In other words, all classes together will follow the path of truth and light to create a more equitable and accepting society.

It must be noted, however, that Arnold’s vision is motivated in part by fear. He wants the middle class, of which he is a member, to command the authority that the aristocracy did of old but is worried that they won’t be able to pull it off. If they fail, the working class won’t respect them or stay in their place. In Democratic Education Arnold has a dire warning for his class, which he accuses of philistinism:

With their narrow, harsh, unintelligent, and unattractive spirit and culture, [the middle classes] will almost certainly fail to mould or assimilate the masses below them, whose sympathies are at the present moment actually wider and more liberal than theirs. They arrive, these masses, eager to enter into possession of the world, to gain a more vivid sense of their own life and activity. In this their irrepressible development, their natural educators and initiators are those immediately above them, the middle classes. If these classes cannot win their sympathy or give them their direction, society is in danger of falling into anarchy.

The middle class has two options. On the one hand, embrace culture themselves and impress this culture on the lower classes, in which case there will be social harmony. On the other, use force to keep the lower classes down. Arnold prefers the first but he is not above advocating for the second if necessary. Note how, in the following passage from Culture and Anarchy, he attacks liberals for their tolerance:

I remember my father, in one of his unpublished letters written more than forty years ago, when the political and social state of the country was gloomy and troubled, and there were riots in many places, goes on, after strongly insisting on the badness and foolishness of the government, and on the harm and dangerousness of our feudal and aristocratical constitution of society, and ends thus: “As for rioting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ringleaders from the Tarpeian Rock!” And this opinion we can never forsake, however our Liberal friends may think a little rioting, and what they call popular demonstrations, useful sometimes to their own interests and to the interests of the valuable practical operations they have in hand, and however they may preach the right of an Englishman to be left to do as far as possible what he likes, and the duty of his government to indulge him and connive as much as possible and abstain from all harshness of repression. …. [T]hat monster processions in the streets and forcible irruptions into the parks…ought to be unflinchingly forbidden and repressed; and that far more is lost than is gained by permitting them. Because a State in which law is authoritative and sovereign, a firm and settled course of public order, is requisite if man is to bring to maturity anything precious and lasting now, or to found anything precious and lasting for the future.

So Culture (of which literature is a major part) is supposed to help us all get along and Culture is supposed to help the middle class maintain superiority over the lower class.

When put this way, one better understands the attacks against feminism and multiculturalism by NEH directors William Bennett and Lynne Cheney in the 1980s and early 1990s.  The “dead white men” of western lit were declared superior to all other authors, and attempts to introduce women and minority writers into the pantheon were derided as political correctness. Seen politically, it was a reaction to the demands by African Americans, women, and other minorities for more say in governing. “Jane Austen, not Alice Walker”—as one slogan had it—was a way of delegitimizing the newcomers, reminding them that they didn’t belong.

My own work has been largely in reaction to the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, and I have been vociferous in advocating for Austen AND Alice Walker (although I would replace the latter with Toni Morrison, whom I consider more on a par with Austen). I guess that makes me a benign Arnoldian, believing as I do that literature can help foster conversations that will lead to an egalitarian and just society. But perhaps I should call myself a Shelleyite rather than an Arnoldian as I believe that significant social transformation is necessary if the potential of all is to be realized. Unlike Arnold, I’m not content with keeping class relations as they currently are.

Posted in Arnold (Matthew) | 1 Comment

Donald Trump as Willie Stark

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark

Political experts trying to understand the phenomenon that is Donald Trump have been scouring American history for precedents. Some have pointed to Huey Long, the populist demagogue who all but ruled Louisiana as a dictator in the 1930’s. I can’t answer to this particular parallel, but I know that Robert Penn Warren’s fictional account of Long gives us some insight into Trump’s popularity.

I’m thinking of All the King’s Men, of course, and the moment that comes to mind is when, running for governor, Willie Stark realizes that he’s being played for a sap by the party establishment. He therefore decides to circumvent the party bosses and go straight to the people. Suddenly a man that was thought to be controllable is running the show.

Here’s the situation in the novel. The party bosses want Joe Harrison to be governor but figure that they have to split the “hick” vote. So they persuade Stark to enter the race, hoping that he and MacMurfee, the other candidate running, will take each other out.

The situation isn’t the same with today’s GOP but it has similarities. Rile up the base (the “hick” vote) with inflammatory rhetoric to gain their votes but then give the Wall Street wing what it wants (deregulation, corporate tax cuts, lax environmental regulation). Over and over again.

Trump has revealed just how much the Republican base loathes the party establishment. They feel they’ve been taken for a ride and therefore are not upset when Trump refuses to swear loyalty to this establishment. In fact, when Fox News tried to take Trump out in the first debate, his poll numbers soared.

In All the King’s Men, when Stark learns that he is being used, he turns the tables on the establishment. First, he pulls out of the race and throws his support to the other “hick.” Ultimately he wins the governorship and makes the party dance to his tune. As Michael Tomasky points out in a New York Review of Books article, the GOP establishment is worried Trump is on the way to doing something similar:

Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus is clearly terrified of him. Even Fox News head Roger Ailes—the effective cochairman of the Republican Party for a number of years now—treats him gingerly. Karl Rove wants desperately for the party establishment to block him. They all wish he would go away, even while they must know that they are responsible for Trump because they have spent many years creating an audience that was just waiting for someone like him to come along.

Here’s an excerpt from the speech where Stark describes how the party establishment has played him for a sap:

“Those fellows in the striped pants saw the hick and they took him in. They said how MacMurfee was a limber-back and a dead-head and how Joe Harrison was the tool of the city machine, and how they wanted that hick to step in and try to give some honest government. They told him that. But—” Willie stopped and lifted his right hand clutching the manuscript [the speech he was going to give] to high heaven—“do you know who they were. They were Joe Harrison’s hired hands and lickspittles and they wanted to get a hick to run to split MacMurfee’s hick vote. Did I guess this? I did not. No, for I heard their sweet talk. And I wouldn’t know the truth this minute if that women right there—” and he pointed down at Sadie—“if that woman right there—“

I nudged Sadie and said, “Sister, you are out of a job.”

“—if that fine woman right there hadn’t been honest enough and decent enough to tell the foul truth which stinks in the nostrils of the Most High!”

What happens next is not a bad description of how the GOP establishment has been stumbling since Trump’s rise. Tiny Duffy, the establishment lackey monitoring Stark, suddenly realizes that the situation has gotten out of hand and tries to put an end to the speech. Instead, this happens:

Duffy was on his feet, edging uncertainly toward the front of the platform. He kept looking desperately toward the band as though he might signal them to burst into music and then at the crowd as though he were trying to think of something to say. Then he edged toward Willie and said something to him.

But the words, whatever they were, were scarcely out of his mouth before Willie had turned on him. “There!” Willie roared. “There!” And he waved his right hand, the hand clutching the manuscript of his speech. “There is the Judas Iscariot, the lick-spittle, the nose-wiper!”

As the scene unfolds, I think of Trump calling out the way that Fox News tried to stage manage him either out of the race. Duffy stands in for Megyn Kelly or Roger Ailes:

And just then as Duffy turned back to Willie, Willie made a more than usually energetic pass of the fluttering manuscript under Duffy’s nose and shouted, “Look at him, Joe Harrison’s dummy!”

Duffy shouted, “It’s a lie!” and stepped back from the accusing arm.

I don’t know whether Willie meant to do it. But anyway, he did it. He didn’t exactly shove Dufy off the platform. He just started Duffy doing a dance along the edge, a kind of delicate feather-toed, bemused slow-motion adagio accompanied by arms pinwheeling around a face which was like a surprised custard pie with a hole scooped in the middle of the meringue, and the hole was Duffy’s mouth but no sound came out of it. There wasn’t a sound over that five-acre tract of sweating humanity. They just watched Duffy do his dance.

Then he danced right off the platform. He broke his fall and half lay, half sat, propped against the bottom of the platform with his mouth still open. No sound came out of it now, for there wasn’t any breath to make a sound.

All of that, and me without a camera.

Willie hadn’t even bothered to look over the edge. “Let the hog lie!” he shouted. “Let the hog lie, and listen to me you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks, too, and they fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool.”

The crowd is tired of being fooled and Trump keeps channeling their disgust. What happens next is anyone’s guess but, in the book, Stark goes on to become governor.

Posted in Warren (Robert Penn) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Liberal Arts–Only for Elites?

Gustave Caillebotte, "Paris Street, Rainy Day"

Gustave Caillebotte, “Paris Street, Rainy Day”

Reader William McKeachie recently sent me an interesting article critiquing two recent books written in defense of a liberal arts education. I realized that the same criticism could be made of Matthew Arnold, whose Culture and Anarchy I read recently as part of my book project on “literature that has changed history.”

Joshua Hochschild, dean at Mount St. Mary’s University, is apologetic for criticizing Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of Liberal Education and Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. After all, shouldn’t the liberal arts accept any friends it can find? Both Zakaria and Bruni think that a liberal arts education offers practical training for those who want to achieve power in the world.

While Hochschild says we should never forget that the liberal arts help us find a meaningful life, he agrees that the liberal arts also provide us with practical skills. He doesn’t like, however, how Bruni and Zakaria are focused on the pragmatic agenda of America’s elite:

Neither Bruni nor Zakaria are concerned with the role that education can play in finding a meaningful life. They take for granted that their audience is not seeking meaning. Nor are they writing for parents worried about their children getting a job. They’re writing for parents worried about their children getting the right job. Their concern is more than financial stability and less than a noble life: it is, plain and simple, social standing. The audience for these books is not the wider consumers of college education as a whole, but cosmopolitan elites, anxious about success among their peers. Bruni’s book aims to assuage guilt and temper mania about the role of status in education. Zakaria’s book aims to remind the power elite of the undervalued mojo of liberal education.

Like Bruni and Zakaria, Matthew Arnold appears to be mainly interested in the liberal arts, not in power. As with them, however, his real concerns surface soon enough.

He seems to be worried about the decline of “Hellenism,” which is the search for beauty and higher wisdom. These, he fears, are being overshadowed by “Hebraism,” which he associates with the self-discipline and solid work ethic of the Jews and the Puritans. Arnold is not against Hebraism, to which he attributes Britain’s ascendency in the world. He just wants a balance.

If Britain is out of balance, 19th century America is even more so, Arnold says, elevating the Puritan work ethic over everything else. And indeed, Henry James and T. S. Eliot fled America for England looking for more culture.

So how does Arnold’s desire for culture connect with the elevation of power elites?

In Arnold’s view, the gentry class—he calls them “barbarians”—are more Hellenistic but they lack the drive and discipline of the middle class. Meanwhile the middle class, which he calls “philistines,” lack upper class culture. If they could only take on the culture of the upper class, however, then they would have the best of all possible worlds. Even better, with this combination they would be able to keep the working class—“the populace”—in check.

In the end, then, culture is as much about maintaining middle class dominance as it is a search for truth. And now back to Hochschild:

What is missing from both authors is any genuinely inspiring rhetoric for higher education, particularly liberal education. Rather than reorder the soul to point toward higher things, we take for granted that education is to help us get the things we already want. 


What disappoints me most is that Bruni and Zakaria are both so sharply attuned to, and uninterested in challenging, the tastes and values of the ruling class. From the evidence of these books, that class is not interested in asking the question of the purpose of education, and—what is more depressing—their tastes and values are shallow. Such tastes do not need to be confirmed and made more effective; they need to be chastised and redirected.

What does Hochschild mean by “chastised and redirected”? He wants us to rethink our very definition of success. And for that, we should truly be Hellenistic, looking to Plato’s search for the good life. Which may mean being content even if you’re not a CEO. Here’s his conclusion:

Bruni and Zakaria are writing for an audience of elites. Ironically, a book that aimed at a wider audience might be more truly “aristocratic” in the Platonic sense. Such a book would assume that there is such a thing as a noble life, and it would suggest that nobility might not perfectly conform to worldly success. The mother who misunderstood the opportunities of a history major is under no illusion that her son will become part of the ruling class. But in addition to hoping he finds a job, she certainly wants him to live well. In that sense, the Platonic aristocratic approach is more truly democratic, acknowledging the potential of any person to live a noble life. Truly helpful books about college and liberal education would speak to the deeply human desire for this kind of life. They would thereby challenge the prevailing idea of success.

As one who teaches at a public liberal arts college (St. Mary’s College of Maryland is sometimes mistaken for Hochschild’s Mount St. Mary’s), I am daily faced with this challenge of redefining success. My students do not come from America’s upper class (for the most part), with many the first in their family to attend college. Most will find jobs in America’s middle tiers. My goal, like Hochschild’s, is to help them develop a foundation for a life filled with soulful reflection and activity, regardless of the income attached.

Posted in Arnold (Matthew) | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Fearing that the Men Will Break

 Alfred Eisenstaedt, "John Barnett and his family, Oklahoma (1942)

Alfred Eisenstaedt, “John Barnett and his family, Oklahoma (1942)

Labor Day

To commemorate Labor Day, I share a passage from Grapes of Wrath that captures how significant work is to people’s identities. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s did more than wipe out people’s livelihoods. It threatened their sense of dignity.

I encountered a story a few years back about Maasai cattle farmers in East Africa committing suicide when they no longer could hold on to their cattle. Without that anchor, life lost all meaning.

In this instance, the men survive. But only barely:

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust. After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land. The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.

Posted in Steinbeck (John) | 2 Comments

A Guest Worthy To Be Here

James Tissot, "Jesus and the Canaanite Woman"

James Tissot, “Jesus and the Canaanite Woman”

Spiritual Sunday

Today I bring together one of my favorite Jesus stories and one of my favorite George Herbert poems. Both feature the image of a table.

First, today’s liturgy reading shows Jesus undergoing what appears to be a sudden and very fast learning curve. Initially reluctant to help a woman because she is not Jewish, he changes his mind after she provides a compelling analogy:

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The Jesus in Herbert’s “Love (3)” has no reservations about welcoming people to his table. Now it is the supplicant who is hesitant to be there. Perhaps the speaker would be bolder if he were a desperate mother with a sick child but, in any event, he longs for but feels unworthy of the spiritual sustenance that Jesus offers.

He must accept that God looks past our thrashing around in guilt and sees our best selves. Here’s the poem:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                           If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

The image of people coming to the Lord’s table seems particularly appropriate in this day and age when so many refugees and immigrants are trying to find their way to the safe and heaped-up tables of the developed nations. The real solution, as Pope Francis keeps telling us, is to open our heart and wallets to these nations. Jesus learned to open his heart to the Canaanite woman and Herbert learns to open his own heart to accept God’s love. Both should function as models for all of us.

Added note: Regular reader Sue Schmidt sent me a very thoughtful set of reflections by a pastor that reads the Gospel story differently Rather than seeing Jesus as ascribing to the tribalist prejudices of his day–and then quickly evolving to a more inclusive view–the pastor believes that Jesus was using the incident as a teaching moment for his disciples. He is already fully prepared to grant the woman’s request–indeed, he tells her that he has already healed her child–but he wants her to make a case in a way that will open his disciples’ prejudiced minds, which she does. His use of the word “dog,” in other words, is not racist but ironic, gesturing toward the racism of others.Here’s the conclusion of pastor’s reflections, which very much touches on the theme of opening ourselves to refugees and immigrants:

A Greek-speaking Syrian immigrant, a single mother with a chronically ill child, reached out to a man who wasn’t her people. Wasn’t her religion. Didn’t speak her language. Whose people hated the region where she lived. In a culture where a woman who wasn’t your mother, wife, or your sister talking to you in public was considered shameful. And she did it all for the sake of her daughter. She refused to stay in the place her culture assigned her. If she had, her daughter would not have been healed.

She was so brave. She’s the hero of this story. Maybe the miracle we should pay attention to in this story wasn’t Jesus healing her daughter. Maybe the miracle Mark wants us to notice is this woman crossing all those scary and painful boundaries so that her daughter could have a fulfilling life. Maybe Jesus’ role in all this was a facilitator. He created the space for the miracle to occur. He made it possible by being there and being willing. By seeing her full humanity, and responding as a human being. She told him about someone in need. Jesus responded to the need….Responding humanly to the needs of another almost always requires crossing some boundary. Some barrier. Going to some uncomfortable place. That’s what we learn from Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.

She crossed all these borders she wasn’t supposed to cross. And because she did, her daughter was healed.

Maybe the most profound and enduring and miraculous healing in our lives takes place when we don’t stay in our place. When we cross the boundaries our world has always told us not to cross.

I was drawn to the theory of Jesus evolving to a new position because he become more real for me if I see him as figuring things out in the course of his ministry. That being said, this other vision of him squares more with the open and accepting figure we expect. It also grants him an ironic sense of humor, gesturing towards the stereotype but fully prepared, from the first, to move past it.

Posted in Herbert (George) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Poets Are the Legislators of the World


I discuss today how Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that literature could change the world, the subject of my current book project. I am seeing two strains of thought on the subject, Shelley’s progressive vision and Matthew Arnold’s conservative vision. I’ll be writing on Arnold next week.

The progressive strain sees literature challenging the existing order while the conservative strain sees literature as upholding it. In the progressive tradition are Marxists, feminists, race and ethnicity theorists, post-colonialists, and queer theory practitioners. All see literature giving voice to the previously voiceless.

The conservative strain, meanwhile, has benign and reactionary sub-strains. The benign features literature professors who believe that literature is above politics and can get us to behave better (rouse us to virtue, as Sir Philip Sidney puts it). The reactionary side (think of the NEH under Bill Bennett and Liz Cheney) sees reading the classics as a way to stave off the invading hoards represented by a multiculturalism and postmodernism.

Shelley argues in Defence of Poetry (1821) that, although social institutions impede humans from reaching their greatest potential, literature has always understood what we are capable of. The greater the literature, the greater the understanding.

We feel elevated in the presence of great literature, Shelley believes, because we encounter there our best selves. But because we are time-bound beings, we cannot grasp everything that this literature is telling us. We only discover it over hundreds or even thousands of years:

All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed. A great poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight.

History may even regress, in which case the great literature of the past serves to keep the vision of human potential alive. But Shelley, writing in an age of revolutions, appears to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice and mentions two great advances that were aided by literature, the ending of slavery and the liberation of women.

Literature has long had visions of equality and liberation, Shelley says, even the works written when slavery and female submission were seen as the natural order of things. Literature has subtly sent out its message to the world, ultimately making possible the great breakthroughs of civilization. In this way, to quote the most well-known phrase from Shelley’s essay, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Here’s an example to illustrate Shelley’s point, one that I’ve explored in past posts. Today we can read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a remarkable exploration of gender identity, a play within which there are men who discover they have an inner woman, women who discover they have an inner man, men who are attracted to other men, and women who are attracted to other women. We are only now, in the 21st century, beginning to affirm and sanction these multiple identities and to appreciate how far ahead of his time Shakespeare was. Understanding humans as well as anyone ever has, the Bard found a vehicle to acknowledge our complexity.

But he had to couch the whole drama is a comedy of misunderstanding and he had to tack on a “happy ending” that has everyone returning to his or her socially sanctioned identity. Shakespeare sends out subtle signals that this ending is not as happy as it seems—the play ends with the fool singing of “the wind and the rain—but Shakespeare doesn’t blatantly challenge the orthodoxy of his day. It may even be that, as a 17th century man, he himself shared many of his age’s prejudices. His imagination, however, was in touch with a deeper truth, and the play would help shape the thinking that has culminated in recent developments.

Or to provide another example, here’s Shelley seeing the seeds of women’s liberation in the late medieval love poetry of Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Dante, Petrach, and Chaucer:

The freedom of women produced the poetry of sexual love. Love became a religion, the idols of whose worship were ever present. It was as if the statues of Apollo and the Muses had been endowed with life and motion, and had walked forth among their worshippers; so that earth became peopled with the inhabitants of a diviner world. The familiar appearance and proceedings of life became wonderful and heavenly, and a paradise was created as out of the wrecks of Eden. And as this creation itself is poetry, so its creators were poets; and language was the instrument of their art…

One problem with Shelley’s articulation is that he focuses only on literature’s longterm impact. For instance, it took over 400 years for society as a whole to support (back to Twelfth Night) Sebastian marrying Antonio, Olivia marrying Viola, and Orsino marrying a Cesario who is actually a man. Shelley doesn’t see his longterm emphasis as a problem, but he sounds a bit heartless as he contrasts the great poets with those thinkers that he sees as mere reasoners:

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, and their disciples, in favor of oppressed and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women, and children burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief. The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.

Now, if I were one of those heretics, I would feel very grateful if the withering satire of Voltaire’s Candide shamed my executioners into thinking twice about burning me. For that matter, if I were living the miserable life as an exploited Manchester factory worker in the early 19th century, I might appreciate feeling bolstered by Shelley’s own “Song to the Men of England.” I know that Shelley is being dramatic in his defense so as to make his point—he’s distinguishing between the truly great and the not-so-great—but the elevated air of the revolutionary can be hard to breathe by people trying to get through the day.

Literature, in other words, can impact history on a variety of levels. My current book project involves honoring them all.

Posted in Shelley (Percy) | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

President Barack Obama looks over melting glacier

President Barack Obama looks over melting glacier

 Pointing to melting glaciers and rising sea levels, President Obama in his recent trip to Alaska accentuated just how dire a problem climate change is becoming for the planet. His acceptance of responsibility for what is happening reminded me of a poem my father wrote about America’s contributions to the global crisis.

Here’s Obama describing what’s going on in our largest state:

[T]he Arctic is the leading edge of climate change — our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces.  Arctic temperatures are rising about twice as fast as the global average.  Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the United States.  Last year was Alaska’s warmest year on record — just as it was for the rest of the world.  And the impacts here are very real.  

Thawing permafrost destabilizes the earth on which 100,000 Alaskans live, threatening homes, damaging transportation and energy infrastructure, which could cost billions of dollars to fix.

Warmer, more acidic oceans and rivers, and the migration of entire species, threatens the livelihoods of indigenous peoples, and local economies dependent on fishing and tourism.  Reduced sea levels leaves villages unprotected from floods and storm surges.  Some are in imminent danger; some will have to relocate entirely.  In fact, Alaska has some of the swiftest shoreline erosion rates in the world. 

After his grim words, however, the president said there is hope. If America acknowledges its role in creating the problem, it can then begin to take concrete steps to fix it:

I’ve come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating this problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.  And I believe we can solve it.  That’s the good news.  Even if we cannot reverse the damage that we’ve already caused, we have the means — the scientific imagination and technological innovation — to avoid irreparable harm.  

Here is Scott Bates setting forth various environment-destroying actions we have been engaged in. Like Obama’s speech, the poem is intended as a wakeup call. It is the opening poem in Bates’s An ABC of Radical Ecology:  

Prologue: A Was America

By Scott Bates

A was America
B Billboarded it
C CheapForded it
D Disneylanded it
E Exxonbranded it
F Factorysmoked it
G Garbagechoked it
H Hippyhated it
I Interstated it
J Junkmailjammed it
K K-martkrammed it
L Litterlined it
M Mafiamined it
N Nuclearspoiled it
O Offshoreoiled it
P Pizzaplated it
Q quotequated it
R Realestated it
S Smogthrottled it
T. Throwawaybottled it
U Usedcarstacked it
V Vaccuumpacked it
W overWeighted it
X X-rated it
Y Youthpopped it
Z Ziptopped it

Z Ziptopped it
and sold it in a can

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The End of Summer

Dorothea Sharp, "A Summer's Day"

Dorothea Sharp, “A Summer’s Day”

What with Labor Day beginning so late this year, school has started for many and summer is rapidly becoming a distant memory. Here’s a fine Rachel Hadas poem about the end of summer.

As I interpret the poem, Hadas is imagining that we can experience summer in two ways—either taking it slow (as perhaps we did as children) or hanging on with a sense of urgency, knowing that the special time we had set out for “season, project, and vacation” is going fast.

In the first instance, we are the cow from our childhood summer days, who seems to “pace[ ] through her days in massive innocence.” In the second, we are constantly being tested, the way we ourselves test an old hunting knife for its sharpness. And like that hunting knife, we grow duller with each year.

In truth, we can’t be that cow. Our anxieties harangue us with clamorous voice. We are prisoners from the start and imagine disaster “looming above the nervous watch we keep.”

But at least the poem allows us to dream of another way of being.

End of Summer

By Rachel Hadas

Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.

Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.

Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,

we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,

redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).

In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.

Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.

Posted in Hadas (Rachel) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why It’s Good To Offend Students

Alison Bechdel, scene from "Fun Home"

Alison Bechdel, scene from “Fun Home”

Do yourself a favor and read this stimulating Salon article by a Brooklyn political science professor about a swirling controversy around Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The graphic novel was assigned to all entering students at Duke University this fall, and one self-described Christian is refusing to read it on the grounds that it is, well, unchristian.

Corey Robin believes that the assignment is valuable because it is creating a stir. What better way to stimulate thinking, he asks. He explains what the controversy is about:

The latest bomb in the campus wars was set off by Duke University freshman David Grasso’s announcement on Facebook that he would not read Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” which the university had recommended incoming students read over the summer. Bechdel’s graphic memoir narrates her relationship with her closeted gay father; she, too, is gay. The book visually depicts a scene in which the narrator masturbates and another in which she gives oral sex to another woman. Grasso thinks the book is pornographic; reading it, he says, would violate his Christian beliefs.

In his article, Robin includes a great quotation by Kafka about difficult books:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Robin says that he would rather have students attacking the books he assigns than remaining indifferent to them. He cites the wonderful Bertolt Brecht poem “The Burning of the Books” (I’ve posted on it here) in which the poet is outraged to find his work missing from the list of condemned books:

Burn me! He wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!

Robin goes on to defend the protesting student:

In this age of the neoliberal university, these students may be our best allies, for they seem to be among the few who understand that what we do matters. The administrator and the politician, the trustee and the pundit, think that we professors are worse than subversive; we’re useless. These students, by contrast, think we’re dangerous. Rather than dismissing them, maybe we should say: Thank you, we thought no one was listening, we thought no one cared. And then turn around and figure out how to use this as, ahem, a teachable moment — about the radioactivity of books and the fact that radiation has its uses.

Robin is careful about being flip since he’s witnessed instances where a book was so controversial that it tore a campus apart. But he is right that there are few things harder to fight than indifference.

In my current research on how literature shapes history, I’ve noticed that those who attack books often see more power in them than those who defend them. I don’t automatically see them as correct since sometimes they are just paranoid. (Robin mentions Stalin, for instance.) On the other hand, sometimes defenders downplay their impact in order to escape controversy. While Plato banned poets from his perfect republic because he worried about their pernicious influence, Aristotle, more positive, narrowed their influence and just talked about audience members having a personal catharsis.

I don’t know what Daniel Grasso’s current beliefs are but, if he currently demonizes the LBGTQ community, then it’s true that reading and discussing Bechdel might challenge his worldview. Not because it paints an entirely positive picture of LBGTQ people because it doesn’t. After all, Allison’s father is a jerk and he might be a jerk even if he weren’t a closeted gay man. But once one starts to discuss literary characters in a college setting, the world become three dimensional and nuanced. A good college challenges black and white thinking.

Grasso’s vision of the world could really be turned upside down if it turns out that he himself is a gay man in denial. Fun House could help him come out. At the very least, it could make him feel better about the fact that he masturbates (assuming he does).

Part of me wonders why Grasso is attending Duke. If he wanted a closed education, why not go to Liberty University or Bob Jones. Bechdel won’t be the only controversial book he encounters.

Incifentally, I am spending my sabbatical at a college that was set up by people worried about the impact of college. Plantation slave owners, unhappy that their sons were being exposed to abolitionist ideas at Harvard and other northern universities, set up the University of the Sewanee  in 1857 to preserve southern values. That may be why union troops marched up the mountain and burned the college down before it ever had a chance to open.

And speaking of exposing people to dangerous ideas, the novel itself, from the beginning, has always been viewed with suspicion by moralists because of its ability to create sympathy for even shady characters (Moll Flanders and Tom Jones, for instance). If Grasso were to get his way, we’d have to stop teaching much of what we teach.

But I’ve learned to stop guessing how the books I teach impact my students because the responses vary so widely. The liberal hope is that we will create independent thinkers who can make sound moral judgments. The rightwing fear is that we are indoctrinating students with our narrow agendas.

Previous posts on Bechdel’s Fun House

Bechdel Uses Lit to Understand Her Life

Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Artist

Posted in Bechdel (Alison), Brecht (Bertolt), Kafka (Franz) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sacks & the Bard’s Midsummer Madness

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist who explored the outer reaches of the mind, once said something in a TED talk that sounds very much like a couple of passages from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Given that Shakespeare also explored the full breadth of our humanity, perhaps that’s no coincidence. Here’s Sacks:

We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well, and seeing with the brain is often called “imagination,” and we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our “inscapes,” we’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different…they seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.

In Midsummer, Helena comes up with a theory about why Demetrius prefers Hermia, even though Helena is just as beautiful. Blind Cupid provides her with the image she needs:

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne,
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine.
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

Sacks is best known for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and he was fascinated by how our brains play tricks on us. In his TED talk he explains how the brain is particularly apt to mess with those who are seeing impaired. You can read about the science here but this is the result:

It is only if one is visually impaired or blind that the process is interrupted. And instead of getting normal perception, you’re getting an anarchic, convulsive stimulation, or release, of all of these visual cells in the inferotemporal cortex. So, suddenly you see a face. Suddenly you see a car. Suddenly this, and suddenly that. The mind does its best to organize and to give some sort of coherence to this, but not terribly successfully.

Sacks distinguishes between imagination and hallucination whereas Theseus in Midsummer conflates fantasizing lovers, imagining poets, and hallucinating madmen. In the king’s defense, he is not a neurologist. Here he is talking with Hippolyta about the lovers’ account of their night in the woods:

‘Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt [a gypsy]:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Like Sacks, Shakespeare was fascinated by puckish tricks of the mind, and I could imagine Sacks seeing the mind as a “merry wanderer of the night” who misleads wanderers. Later in Midsummer, Theseus notes that that the audience and the players are not seeing the same production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Hipployta here is the voice of common sense, which the mind can turn upside down in an instant: 

This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them.
It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.
If we imagine no worse of them than they of
themselves, they may pass for excellent men.

The particular phenomenon that Sacks discusses in his talk was discovered in the 18th century by Charles Bonnet when observing his grandfather following cataract surgery. The phenomenon became known as Charles Bonnet syndrome:

The first thing he [the grandfather] said was he saw a handkerchief in midair. It was a large blue handkerchief with four orange circles. And he knew it was a hallucination. You don’t have handkerchiefs in midair. And then he saw a big wheel in midair. But sometimes he wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating or not, because the hallucinations would fit in the context of the visions. So on one occasion, when his granddaughters were visiting them, he said, “And who are these handsome young men with you?” And they said, “Alas, Grandpapa, there are no handsome young men.” And then the handsome young men disappeared. It’s typical of these hallucinations that they may come in a flash and disappear in a flash. They don’t usually fade in and out. They are rather sudden, and they change suddenly.

Now compare this with Prospero’s famous speech in the Tempest. He’s talking about illusion he has created but he can be seen as Shakespeare describing theater’s ability to take over our minds:

           These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-cap’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Both Shakespeare and Sacks realized that our reality, because it is mediated by our minds, is far more fragile, but also far more wondrous, than we think. Or as Prospero puts it,

                                    We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Sacks would agree with this summation. May he sleep in peace.


Previous post on Oliver Sacks

Dying and a Night Powdered with Stars

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

He Doth Sit By Us and Moan

Daniel Bonnell, "Jesus Wept"

Daniel Bonnell, “Jesus Wept”

Last week I was honored by my friend Jean Yeatman when she asked me to sit with her at her mother’s deathbed. We talked about childhood excursions that our families took together and also about the importance of ritual in our lives. Today’s William Blake poem is for her and her brother Clay.

Blake finds something heavenly in the sorrow we feel for another. We know God grieves for us because we see something holy within the sadness we ourselves feel in the presence of human suffering. Blake’s poem reminds me of a line from “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” a 19th century hymn and one of my favorites: 

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven…

In the shortest sentence in The New Testament, we are told that “Jesus wept” over the death of Lazarus. Blake’s poem reminds us that we are not alone:

On Another’s Sorrow

By William Blake

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the next,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

I like the reference to the wren as both Jean’s mother and father were biologists and bird lovers and wrote a weekly nature column for the local newspaper. They would not, however, approve of Blake eliding wrens with sparrows (or so I believe). Blake surely has in mind Jesus’s assurance of Matthew 10:29-30:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

A note on the artist: Daniel Bonnelli’s art can be found in two books: The Road Home by Garth Hewitt and The Christian Vision of God by Alister McGrath and can be seen on his website More information can be found at


Posted in Blake (William) | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

All the Devils of Hell Unleashed by Katrina

Stranded family rescued during Hurricane Katrina

Stranded family rescued during Hurricane Katrina

Tomorrow being the 10th anniversary of New Orleans and the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I share a passage from another tempest (thanks for the idea, mom). With Ferdinand’s cry–“Hell is empty and all the devils are here”–Shakespeare captures the panic felt by Lower 9th Ward residents as the sea poured into their houses.

Oh, if only Katrina could have been the illusory tempest we encounter in the play. Here’s Prospero talking to Ariel about their handiwork:

Hast thou, spirit,

Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?
To every article.

I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I’ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove’s lightnings, the precursors
O’ the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.
My brave spirit!

Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
Not a soul

But felt a fever of the mad and played
Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me: the king’s son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring,–then like reeds, not hair,–
Was the first man that leaped; cried, “Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.”

Shakespeare shows us class division and breakdown of social order that is also reminiscent of New Orleans—and by breakdown, I have in mind the police who started firing on residents fleeing the flood. (Since then, it is striking how much more aware we as a society have become of police shooting unarmed black men.) In the play, the lower class boatswain pleads with the upper class passengers to return to their quarters and is insulted for his pains. Maybe those upper class passengers are like Michael “heckuva job Brownie,” director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who all but ignored the crisis until it was well underway.

Granted, Brown didn’t quite use Sebastian’s salty language against those trying to alert him to the dangers:

A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!

Or Antonio’s language either:

Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!
We are less afraid to be drowned than thou art.

Order is restored by the end of the play and order has been restored to New Orleans. In both, however, social rifts are exposed.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete