Donne’s Lovers, Spooky at a Distance

Frederic Burton, Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs"

Frederic Burton, “Hellelil and Hildebrand, Meeting on the Turret Stairs”


Adam Gopnik makes a couple of wonderful literary allusions in an essay review of George Musser’s Spooky at a Distance, which is about the history of quantum entanglement theory. Entanglement, also known as non-locality and described by Einstein as “spooky at a distance,” is the ideas that two particles of a single wave function can influence each other, even though they are separated by millions of light years. Gopnik uses Musser’s book to reflect on the strange roundabout ways that scientists come to believe the theories they believe.

Once one starts to see how ideas ridiculed in one era become articles of belief in another, science appears more fluid than one would have thought. Gopnik draws on Musser’s account to think about the thin line between magic and science, and his article leads me to reflect upon the difference between fantasy and science fiction. I also have new ideas about how to use Shakespeare’s The Tempest in my upcoming British Fantasy course.

The idea that science is somehow the work of dispassionate truth seekers guided by the scientific method is a myth, Gopnik says. Instead, what we see is

a social activity…vulnerable to all the comedy inherent in any social activity: group thinking, self-pleasing, and running down the competition in order to get the customer’s (or, in this case, the government’s) cash. Books about the history of science should therefore be about both science and scientists, about the things they found and the way they found them. A good science writer has to show us the fallible men and women who made the theory, and then show us why, after the human foibles are boiled off, the theory remains reliable.

This isn’t news. In fact, the human dimensions of science were made dramatically clear in 1968 with the publication of Watson and Crick’s The Double Helix. The book created a sensation in part because it upended the stereotype of white-coated, no-nonsense, “just the facts, mam” individuals, giving us instead jealous, egotistical, Nobel Prize-obsessed men. (It maintained the stereotype of scientists as male, however, as the authors didn’t acknowledge the vital contributions of Rosalind Franklin.)

But Gopnik’s article then does something interesting with scientific discovery. How is it that theories that are sometimes on the mystical fringe in one age become accepted fact in another? Galileo may have upended the Ptolemaic solar system, but he himself was skeptical of the idea that the moon influenced the tides. (As Gopnik describes his opinion, “the moon working an occult influence on the oceans was obviously magical nonsense.”) Newton’s theories of gravity turned the mystical nonsense into fact.

Up until recently, non-locality has seemed to be similarly mystical. In fact, Einstein’s phrase “spooky at a distance” was not a theory but a question and a challenge directed to younger physicists. No one, however, took non-locality seriously, and Musser notes that the reasons why have little to do with science. As Gopnik observes,

The reasons, unfolding through generations of physicists, have several notable social aspects, worthy of Trollope’s studies of how private feuds affect public decisions.

Musser quotes Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads to explain why we are only now coming around to accepting entanglement. Wordsworth description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” is exemplified most famously in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” when Wordsworth recalls, while sitting in his living room, an earlier encounter with daffodils:

Indeed, Musser, though committed to empirical explanation, suggests that the revival of “non-locality” as a topic in physics may be due to our finding the metaphor of non-locality ever more palatable: “Modern communications technology may not technically be non-local but it sure feels that it is.” Living among distant connections, where what happens in Bangalore happens in Boston, we are more receptive to the idea of such a strange order in the universe. Musser sums it up in an enviable aphorism: “If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, then science is tranquility recollected in emotion.” The seemingly neutral order of the natural world becomes the sounding board for every passionate feeling the physicist possesses.

In other words, scientists are, like the rest of us, passionate humans. And speaking of passion, Gopnik alludes to one of literature’s great love poems when explaining entanglement theory. Just as two photons influence each other even though far apart, so John Donne, in “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” describes having a spiritual connection with his wife when he is traveling. Gopnik writes,

John Donne, thou shouldst be living at this hour!* One can only imagine what the science-loving Metaphysical poet would have made of a metaphor that had two lovers spinning in unison no matter how far apart they were. But Musser has a nice, if less exalted, analogy for the event: it is as if two magic coins, flipped at different corners of the cosmos, always came up heads or tails together. (The spooky action takes place only in the context of simultaneous measurement. The particles share states, but they don’t send signals.)

In “Valediction,” Donne uses two concrete analogies to capture his connection to his wife. One is a golden thread, beaten so finely that it can’t be seen by the naked eye:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.

The other is a compass used to draw circles:

If they be two, they are two so
   As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home.

Gopnik is right that Donne would have loved notions of entanglement, which would provided an even better analogy for his spiritual connection with his wife.

In my British Fantasy class, I talk about the thin line between science and magic that we see in The Tempest. If science fiction emphasizes the natural and fantasy the supernatural—well, the 17th century didn’t make a clear distinction between the two. Prospero consults his books and manipulates nature, but the age didn’t distinguish between whether he was doing science or magic. (It was, however, fascinated by the distinction between white magic and black magic.)

Gopnik quotes from David Wooton’s The Invention of Science to explain how our current distinction between magic and science arose:

What killed alchemy was the insistence that experiments must be openly reported in publications which presented a clear account of what had happened, and they must then be replicated, preferably before independent witnesses. The alchemists had pursued a secret learning, convinced that only a few were fit to have knowledge of divine secrets and that the social order would collapse if gold ceased to be in short supply. . . . Esoteric knowledge was replaced by a new form of knowledge, which depended both on publication and on public or semi-public performance. A closed society was replaced by an open one.

Modern fantasy came into its own with the scientific revolution of the 18th century. Although much of what people had once believed were now regarded as superstition, those fantasies expressed dimensions of the Real that science cannot do justice to, including the emotional and the spiritual realms. Science, for instance, comes up short when it comes to Love.

As Donne will testify, however, it can provide useful analogies.


*The allusion here is to Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, which opens, “Milton! Thou should’st be living at this hour.”

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Reading Poems to Protest Donald Trump

Student Johari Osayi Idusuyi as a Trump rally

Student Johari Osayi Idusuyi as a Trump rally


Here’s a small news item about how poetry was used in silent protest at a Donald Trump rally. Although the protest wasn’t planned, the poems were perfect for the occasion.

Johari Osayi Idusuyi, a student at Lincoln Land Community College (in Springfield, Illinois), was offered tickets to a Donald Trump event and decided to check it out. Probably because she and her three friends were persons of color, they were seated in the VIP section directly behind Trump, thereby giving the appearance of diversity in what was a mostly white gathering. At a certain point, Idusuyi started reading (to herself) Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Twitter exploded, as Twitter is wont to do, and Jezebel’s Kara Brown tracked the student down. Idusuyi explains what happened:

[W]e went with an open mind and then it all started. There were some “Dump Trump” protesters. The way the supporters treated the protestors was really unbelievable and that’s what made me mad…The way Donald Trump said, “Get them out of here”—when you say those words, that activates your supporters to be able to be the same way. Then there was a man who snatched a lady’s Obama hat. She was one of the protesters and was leaving and her hair just went with the hat. Then he threw it into crowd and everybody cheered. I thought, “That’s bullying. That’s aggressive.” I don’t think Trump handled it with grace. I thought, “Oh, you’re really not empathetic at all.” That’s when the shift happened.

Interviewer: You saw his reaction and you decided to react?

Exactly. And there was also another incident. There was one protester left and the crowd started pointing at her and booing. First of all, she’s a young woman. She doesn’t have her friends anymore. If she’s the only one left, just let her be. There was just a lot of bullying going on and I didn’t like that. And some people were cheering. To hear 10,000 people cheer for something so disrespectful is what made me so mad. And that’s when I was like, I am now genuinely not interested in your speech. I wanted to leave, but I came, I’m in the middle, I’m on camera, so I might as well read because I don’t have anything else to do. I’m not going to waste my time listening to somebody who I can’t respect anymore, so I started to read.

Nothing else transpired other than a couple telling Idusuyi to close her book. Lovers of poetry, however, will appreciate how appropriate Citizen was for the occasion.

Rankine focuses on the everyday racism and tiny microagressions that are constantly being directed at people of color. As a New York Times review characterizes the book, “At best these monologues capture the liminal quality of being black and American — what Du Bois called double consciousness…”

Most whites, by contrast, are oblivious to the slights, which is why the book was so well chosen: one African American is nodding to Rankine’s observations while the thousands around her are fired up by Trump’s racism.

Not that there’s anything subtle about that racism. Trump doesn’t hold back as he goes after Hispanics, African Americans, and Muslim Americans. Rankine’s poetry fights back by validating minority experiences, and white readers as a result to see the world from a perspective not their own.

Here’s a tiny sampling of her prose poems courtesy of Poetry Foundation:

When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers. Hey, I am standing right here, you responded, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you.

He is holding the lidded paper cup in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say.

Now there you go, he responds.

The people around you have turned away from their screens. The teenagers are on pause. There I go? you ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile.


A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet and be brushed off, not brushed off  by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.

The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of  bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers.


The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

I have been writing recently that literature can open up our capacity to care for others (here and here). As America becomes increasingly diverse, we need it more than ever to cross ethnic and racial divides. Poetry like Rankine’s is not a luxury but vital to our survival as a nation.

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And the Light Shineth in the Darkness…


Spiritual Sunday

 For this Advent season, which begins today, I will be reading W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. A long narrative poem written during the dark days of World War II, For the Time Being recounts the Christmas story in ways that simultaneously allude to the past and the present.

We can also say that it alludes to the future given how well it captures our current state of mind.. In today’s post I examine passages from the opening “Advent” section.

Yesterday I talked to my friend Sue Schmidt about the meaning of Advent, a season that has always eluded me. She pointed me to the world’s suffering and our sense that times are grim. Our Christmas and Hanukkah lights, symbolic of hope in the face of darkness, can seem like a false hope when we gaze into the violence that besets the world. Conversely, our pessimism makes God’s Christmas entry into our lives appear all the more miraculous.

Auden begins his poem with a sense that all has been beaten into a dreary sameness. He may be echoing T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” as he talks about the absence of nobility, leadership and genuine emotions. It’s as though the snow dampens everything.

That the opening stanza begins and ends with the same line—a number of stanzas in the Advent section do this—suggests that we are in a period of dull repetition with no movement forward:

Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantelpiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.
Huge crowds mumble “Alas,
Our angers do not increase,
Love is not what she used to be”;
Portly Caesar yawns “I know”;
He falls asleep on his throne,
They shuffle off through the snow:
Darkness and snow descend.

Some of the passages are particularly unsettling given the recent terrorist bombings in Beirut, Paris and Mali and the shootings in Colorado Springs. Imagine that, in the following passage, Auden’s “great Hercules” is the United States, unsure of what to do in the face of rising violence.

In this instance, however, it is not even a question of responding to an attack: Auden will later say that we know how to manage disasters. Far more corrosive is our sense of malaise, captured by the work of the spider, which itself recalls the “wind in dry grass/Or rats’ feet over broken glass/ In our dry cellar” (“The Hollow Men”):

Can great Hercules keep his
Extraordinary promise
To reinvigorate the Empire?
Utterly lost, he cannot
Even locate his task but
Stands in some decaying orchard
Or the irregular shadow
Of a ruined temple, aware of
Being watched from the horrid mountains
By fanatical eyes yet
Seeing no one at all, only hearing
The silence softly broken
By the poisonous rustle
Of famishing Arachne.

Another stanza that seems depressingly relevant occurs a little later. It recalls how, in response to the Paris bombings, American demagogues are stoking public fear about the Syrian refugees:

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear;
Death has opened his white eye
And the black hole calls the thief
As the evil and armed draw near.

Towards the end of “Advent,” Auden talks about an unnamable dread that takes hold of our minds, an “It” that is more terrible than any “nightmare of hostile objects.” Perhaps we can see “It” as the loss of belief that is besetting many Americans and that helps explain the rise of Donald Trump and hate-filled political rhetoric. Auden describes “It” as “an outrageous novelty had been introduced/Into our lives”:

     Why were we never warned? Perhaps we were.  
Perhaps that mysterious noise at the back of the brain
We noticed on certain occasions sitting alone
In the waiting room of the country junction, looking
Up at the toilet window was not indigestion
But this Horror starting already to scratch Its way in?
Just how, just when It succeeded we shall never know:
We can only say that now It is there and that nothing
We learnt before It was there is now of the slightest use,
For nothing like It has happened before.

Grim as this is, we must recall that it’s the Advent section of the poem. I’ll describe in a later post how Auden describes the arrival of God’s love in the world. For the moment, we can turn to Jesus’s promise in today’s gospel reading (Luke 21:25-28):

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

We may sense that, today, we are experiencing some version of the roaring of the sea and the waves. Jesus promises, however, that love can enter and transform our lives. The meaning of Advent is acknowledging the darkness while believing in the light.

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To Strengthen Your Caring, Read Lit

Sir John Lavery, "Miss Auras, The Red Book"

Sir John Lavery, “Miss Auras, The Red Book”


Last week I wrote about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s contention that the mass media “dulls” us to the world’s horrors while literature can restore contact. Tuesday’s Los Angeles Review of Books made similar observations as it addressed the issue of compassion fatigue and becoming numb. Like Knausgaard, history professor Robert Karetsky regards the way we flit from one news item to another as a form of escapism. Citing Emily Dickinson, Plato, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch, Karetsky says that numbing is not the problem. Rather, we must learn to pay attention.

To make his point, Karetsky looks at the origins of the word “numb” and cites Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” to illustrate the condition:

Rooted in Middle English, numb derives from “nim” — a word that, for Chaucer’s contemporaries, meant to take or pilfer. We are numbed when something essential — our sensations and thoughts, say, or our capacity to care and pity — has been taken away from us. It is numbness that fills Emily Dickinson’s “hour of lead,” the moment that “Freezing persons recollect the Snow — / First—Chill—then Stupor—then letting go.”

Dickinson’s sonnet [sic] — to her chagrin, perhaps — offers the clinical criteria for compassion fatigue. This term, much in the news, describes the state of emotional stupor that can affect those who work closely with traumatized individuals. Over time, caregivers find they have no more care to give; they lose the capacity for compassion; they let go. Harrowed by others’ pain, they are overcome by a “formal feeling” and on whom “the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”

Karetsky cites Dickinson only to say that she is not applicable in this case, however. We should consider ourselves lucky if we are numbed, he asserts, because that would mean that we have been paying attention. Only a break from the endless whirl of images will allow us to exert this attention.

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ main goal is to focus our attention. He doesn’t worry about compassion fatigue but about awakening the mind:

We might pose the question to the ancient Greeks — or, at least, to those who bumped into Socrates and experienced the sort of shock that we now lack. Comparing himself to a horsefly, Socrates spent his life stinging, through questioning, his fellow Athenians into awareness. Even less becoming comparisons came to the minds of those he stung; one unhappy victim likened Socrates to a cuttlefish whose questions had numbed him. But this is the raison d’être of Socratic dialogue: to shock the interlocutor to attention. Attention is key, for it is by attending to others and the world that we see the import — and importance — of the question at hand. For some, like the slave boy in the Meno, the shock is welcomed; for others, like Anytus in the same dialogue — who turns his back on Socrates — the shock instead is wasted. (Or worse than wasted: biding his time, Anytus stepped up at Socrates’ trial as one of his principal accusers.)

It was as important in 4th century Athens as it is today to have our minds awakened, Karetsky says. We, however, have many more distractions than did the Greeks:

Of course, in 399 BCE, Athenians had much on their minds: military defeat, foreign occupation, and a reign of terror among other things. What they didn’t have were our omnipresent screens — big and small, strapped to wrists and embedded in walls in our private and public spaces — and the ramifying web of social media inoculating us, for better and worse, against the potentially beneficial results of shock. It is less that the medium has become the message than that the medium no longer allows us to dwell on the message. Not having stood still long enough to be numbed, we suffer not from compassion fatigue but instead from a kind of attention deficit disorder — one that cannot be treated with Ritalin. Instead, we must allow ourselves to be shocked and open what Dickinson called “the Valves of attention.”

Our goal, then, should not be to throw up defenses for fear of becoming numb. Rather, we should enter more fully into the issues that we deem important. Before looking at Karetsky’s citation of Weil and Murdoch to make this point, however, I first pass along a piece of advice I once received from Igal Roodenko, an anarchist and long-time member of the War Resisters League.

Igal noted that activists too often spread their energies, thereby undermining their effectiveness. He advised instead to focus on a single issue that is close to one’s heart, knowing that there are others who will attend to other concerns. The role of activist organizations, meanwhile, can be to coordinate efforts.

Back to Karetsky, who quotes Weil and Murdoch on the value of “seeing” the world:

Iris Murdoch, whose work was deeply influenced by Weil, argued that seeing the world justly was the condition sine qua non for acting justly in that world. At the end of the day, virtue is the “attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” In her novels no less than her philosophical essays, Murdoch showed how our moral character grows only when the valves of attention are open, allowing us to see the world — and ourselves — clearly. “Where virtue is concerned,” she affirmed, “we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by looking.”

This emphasis on seeing sounds very much like Knausgaard. To aid the process, he, Murdoch and Weil all regard literature as playing a crucial role. Here’s Karetsky again:

From seeing rightly flows the stuff with which we weave webs of value. When human conversation and inner reflection, dialogues with others and dialogues with one’s own self shape our lives, these webs of value grow more complex and varied. Tellingly, for both Murdoch and Weil, reading also deepens and sharpens our capacity to attend to others. Weil suggested that reading books is akin to reading the world. It is not just that reading literature is a training ground for moral and emotional judgment, but that it also reminds us how we ought to be in the world. Just as a book grips us when we give ourselves over to it, so too does the world seize us when we open ourselves to it. Reading well, Weil believed, meant nothing less than seeing well.

In her remarkable book The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch echoed Weil’s conviction. “The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature,” she declared, “since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.”

For scientific confirmation of this observation, Karetsky mentions a study that I’ve discussed about how literature sharpens our emotional intelligence. While admitting that the study would probably not impress Murdoch, he concludes that reading provides an important to engaging and to becoming productively numb:

Murdoch, who insisted it would “always be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist,” would have smiled at these findings. But for those of us less certain about the uses of literature and demands of attention, they might serve as, well, a salutary shock. And not, it is to be hoped, the last one. As we attend and read, other shocks will ineluctably follow — how could they not? — and perhaps even momentary numbness.

In other words, read a novel and you may overcome compassion fatigue and care about Syrian refugees. Or whatever other pressing issue you commit yourself to.

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We Come to Pay Our Thanks to Thee

Norman Rockwell, "Refugee Thanksgiving"

Norman Rockwell, “Refugee Thanksgiving” (1943)


Here’s a lovely Thanksgiving poem by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I am celebrating Thanksgiving this year with my mother for the first time in decades and I fully expected to be wafted into the past. That’s because friends who have been celebrating Thanksgiving with our family for close to sixty years will be gathering at our table.

When my parents moved to Sewanee in 1954, they began celebrating Thanksgiving with two other University of the South families, the Goodsteins (Marvin taught Economics, Nita History) and the Degans (Bob taught Economics). Marvin died last year and Eileen Degan died this past year, leaving only my mother. But the two “Degan girls” will be coming over for the dinner, as will Eban and Sarah Goodstein. The tradition continues on.

Sadly, my son Toby and his daughters will have to skip the occasion, even though he is only three hours away in Atlanta. But his dissertation must be submitted next week and every minute counts. We consider this a sufficient excuse.

Among the things I am thankful for is that my other son, Darien, was not badly hurt when he was run off the road by a car as he was bicycling to work. When he was a child I used to caution him about where he could ride his bicycle so, again, I am having feelings of déjà vu.

Julia is in Iowa with her mother but will be joining us down here in 10 days. And there’s always Skype. So Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

A Thanksgiving Poem

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

The sun hath shed its kindly light,
Our harvesting is gladly o’er,
Our fields have felt no killing blight,
Our bins are filled with goodly store.

From pestilence, fire, flood, and sword
We have been spared by thy decree,
And now with humble hearts, O Lord,
We come to pay our thanks to thee.

We feel that had our merits been
The measure of thy gifts to us,
We erring children, born of sin,
Might not now be rejoicing thus.

No deed of ours hath brought us grace;
When thou wert nigh our sight was dull,
We hid in trembling from thy face,
But thou, O God, wert merciful.

Thy mighty hand o’er all the land
Hath still been open to bestow
Those blessings which our wants demand
From heaven, whence all blessings flow.

Thou hast, with ever watchful eye,
Looked down on us with holy care,
And from thy storehouse in the sky
Hast scattered plenty everywhere.

Then lift we up our songs of praise
To thee, O Father, good and kind;
To thee we consecrate our days;
Be thine the temple of each mind.

With incense sweet our thanks ascend;
Before thy works our powers pall;
Though we should strive years without end,
We could not thank thee for them all.

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Milton: “A Good Book Is the Precious Life-Blood of a Master Spirit”



Until yesterday I’d never read John Milton’s Areopagitica, even though I was once a newspaper reporter and even though I have focused on censorship issues in my Theories of the Reader course. In addition to being a dazzling defense of the freedom to publish, Milton has a couple of nice observations about literature’s impact upon audiences.

First of all, he has a great description of literature’s power. I’ve recently been writing about literature’s potential for ill as well as for good (here and here), and even though Milton acknowledges that books can do harm (he compares them to the dragon’s teeth sowed by Cadmus), he is still against censorship:

For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a viol the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

Arguing against Parliament’s passage of new licensing laws, Milton notes that the Spartans, while generally adverse to books, were nevertheless improved by their great lawgiver Lycurgus introducing Homer and Thales to them. In other words, look at what you’ll be missing if you follow your censoring impulses:

That other leading city of Greece, Lacedæmon, considering that Lycurgus their Law-giver was so addicted to elegant learning, as to have been the first that brought out of Ionia the scattered works of Homer, and sent the poet Thales from Crete to prepare and mollify the Spartan surliness with his smooth songs and odes, the better to plant among them law and civility, it is to be wondered how museless and unbookish they were, minding nought but the feats of war. 

Rather than follow Plato’s lead in The Republic and protect citizens from bad examples (say, Homer’s misbehaving gods), Milton says that there are advantages to be gained even from reading objectionable passages. For instance, we cannot know what virtue is until we see it contrasted with vice.

Furthermore, Milron believes that vice has been put before us to test us. He draws an example from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene to make his point. In Book II Guyon enters the Cave of Mammon but resists temptation:

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness; Which was the reason why our sage and serious Poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher then Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guyon, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss that he might see and know, and yet abstain.

 To give you a taste of the trials that Guyon encounters, here’s what he sees in Mammon’s cave:

And round about him lay on euery side
  Great heapes of gold, that neuer could be spent:
  Of which some were rude owre, not purifide
  Of Mulcibers deuouring element;
  Some others were new driuen, and distent
  Into great Ingoes, and to wedges square;
  Some in round plates withouten moniment;
  But most were stampt, and in their metall bare
The antique shapes of kings and kesars straunge & rare.

Better to wrestle with temptation first in a book, Milton goes on to say, so that we can safely scout “the regions of sin and falsity”:

Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity then by reading all manner of tracts, and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.

Milton goes on to make elaborate arguments, some practical, some spiritual, for the free circulation of printed material. It’s a rather amazing document to be found in the 17th century.

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Conspiracy Theories Explained

Obama as muslim


A couple of weeks ago, I read an interesting theory about conspiracy theories that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s poem “Hap.” It all starts with feelings of powerlessness.

In the article, Tom Sullivan of the Hullabaloo blog points to interesting political crossovers that former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been reporting from his book tour. Although a liberal, Reich has been finding many areas of common agreement with political opponents, even from Trump supporters. Here’s Sullivan:

They see they are being screwed and they don’t like it. They oppose crony capitalism, too-big-to-fail banks, factory farms, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and the Trans Pacific Partnership. Basically, “they see government as the vehicle for big corporations and Wall Street to exert their power in ways that hurt the little guy,” writes Reich at Salon. They want that power back.

Unfortunately for progressives, these political areas of agreement are not leading to a resurgence of leftist populism. Rather, people are embracing whacko rightwing candidates and far flung conspiracies. Sullivan explains why:

Posessing secret “truths” gives conspiracy theorists a false sense of power in a world beyond their control. When life feels as if you have awakened locked in the trunk of a car careening down a rutted mountain road, you want to believe – you need to believe – that someone, anyone, is sitting behind the wheel. Even a diabolical someone is better than no one at all.

For Hardy, this “diabolical someone” is a vengeful god that we would prefer to no god at all. What drives us crazy, he writes, is the idea that “Crass Casualty” and “dicing Time”–in other words, accidental happenstance and time–dictate our lives.  They are the reasons why joy lies slain and why our best hopes fail to come to fruition. Here’s the poem:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain. 

Hardy’s poem gets at the current rightwing temper tantrum, with the second stanza describing well the tiresome cries of victimization that never seem to go away. If a “Powerfuller” force—the Media?—is putting a Kenyan socialist in the White House and ripping apart traditional values, then one at least has a moving narrative. Whereas if s**t just happens without rhyme or reason—well, there’s no way of psychologically fighting back.

Who knew that the Left could dictate people’s lives to this extent? Of course, it’s news to the Left.

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Unwanted Pregnancies, Desperate Women

John Collier, "Hetty Sorrel" (from "Adam Bede")

John Collier, “Hetty Sorrel” (from “Adam Bede”)


How do those wishing to deny reproductive services to women, including access to birth control and abortions, deal with the fact that millions of women desire them? Even as abortion opponents argue a religious belief in “life,” they ignore the complexities of individual lives and minimize the hundred of thousands of women each year (I’m just talking about the United States here) who want to end pregnancies.

Authors such as George Eliot  provide a human face to the issue. Adam Bede seems particularly relevant at a time when conservative state legislatures are aggressively targeting clinics offering reproductive services.

The consequences of the attacks have been predictable. A recent Texas study reports that, in 2012, between 100,00-240,000 women attempted to self-abort. The numbers will go up if the Supreme Court in the upcoming session does not rule against so-called TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), which aim to shut down clinics.

An article in Slate describes the situation:

A new paper from the University of Texas’ Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) predicts that the law will escalate the incidence of self-induced abortions across the state, too. TxPEP’s 2012 study on the subject revealed that 7 percent of abortion-seeking patients in Texas had attempted to end their own pregnancies before coming to the clinic, compared to less than 2 percent in the country at large in 2008. The study released today shows that between 1.7 and 4.1 percent of all Texas women aged 18 to 49 have tried to induce an abortion at home. In other words, between 100,000 and 240,000 women in Texas have attempted to terminate a pregnancy by using herbs, teas, vitamins, caffeine, alcohol, drugs, abdominal trauma, or a medical abortion pill (misoprostol) obtained on the black market or from a Mexican pharmacy.

Through interviews with patients who’ve tried to induce their own abortions, TxPEP found that most would have preferred a clinical abortion, but found it inaccessible because of financial barriers or lack of nearby facilities. Latina women living near the Mexican border and women who, due to cost or clinic proximity, had a hard time getting any reproductive health care at all, including Pap smears and contraception, reported abortion self-induction at significantly higher rates.

In Eliot’s novel, written in 1859 and set in 1799, Hetty is a gorgeous woman who catches the eye of the squire-to-be Arthur Donnithorne. Hetty dreams of becoming his wife, even though this is socially impossible, and she becomes pregnant. Never one to face up to facts, Hetty doesn’t admit that she is pregnant until the baby is born, and even then she has the notion that she can wish the child away. The baby dies after she buries it under a pile of wood chips and she is condemned to be hanged. She doesn’t acknowledge what she has done until the evening before she is to be hanged:

I came to a place where there was lots of chips and turf, and I sat down on the trunk of a tree to think what I should do. And all of a sudden I saw a hole under the nut-tree, like a little grave. And it darted into me like lightning—I’d lay the baby there and cover it with the grass and the chips. I couldn’t kill it any other way. And I’d done it in a minute; and, oh, it cried so, Dinah—I couldn’t cover it quite up—I thought perhaps somebody ‘ud come and take care of it, and then it wouldn’t die. And I made haste out of the wood, but I could hear it crying all the while; and when I got out into the fields, it was as if I was held fast—I couldn’t go away, for all I wanted so to go. And I sat against the haystack to watch if anybody ‘ud come. I was very hungry, and I’d only a bit of bread left, but I couldn’t go away. And after ever such a while—hours and hours—the man came—him in a smock-frock, and he looked at me so, I was frightened, and I made haste and went on. I thought he was going to the wood and would perhaps find the baby. And I went right on, till I came to a village, a long way off from the wood, and I was very sick, and faint, and hungry. I got something to eat there, and bought a loaf. But I was frightened to stay. I heard the baby crying, and thought the other folks heard it too—and I went on. But I was so tired, and it was getting towards dark. And at last, by the roadside there was a barn—ever such a way off any house—like the barn in Abbot’s Close, and I thought I could go in there and hide myself among the hay and straw, and nobody ‘ud be likely to come. I went in, and it was half full o’ trusses of straw, and there was some hay too. And I made myself a bed, ever so far behind, where nobody could find me; and I was so tired and weak, I went to sleep….But oh, the baby’s crying kept waking me, and I thought that man as looked at me so was come and laying hold of me. But I must have slept a long while at last, though I didn’t know, for when I got up and went out of the barn, I didn’t know whether it was night or morning. But it was morning, for it kept getting lighter, and I turned back the way I’d come. I couldn’t help it, Dinah; it was the baby’s crying made me go—and yet I was frightened to death. I thought that man in the smock-frock ‘ud see me and know I put the baby there. But I went on, for all that. I’d left off thinking about going home—it had gone out o’ my mind. I saw nothing but that place in the wood where I’d buried the baby…I see it now. Oh Dinah! shall I allays see it?

One can only wish that Hetty had had access to a Planned Parenthood clinic. But I bring up Hetty, not to imagine what could have been had she lived in modern times, but to make a point about unwanted pregnancies. There are millions of Hetty Sorrels every year, each with a similarly complex story (although few, thank God, commit infanticide). Women who are desperate need support, and conservative legislatures are systematically stripping women of that support.

Hetty narrowly escapes execution. At the last moment, Donnithorne arrives with a commutation of her sentence. She is to be transported to Australia instead:

“Close your eyes, Hetty,” Dinah said, “and let us pray without ceasing to God.”

And in a low voice, as the cart went slowly along through the midst of the gazing crowd, she poured forth her soul with the wrestling intensity of a last pleading, for the trembling creature that clung to her and clutched her as the only visible sign of love and pity.

Dinah did not know that the crowd was silent, gazing at her with a sort of awe—she did not even know how near they were to the fatal spot, when the cart stopped, and she shrank appalled at a loud shout hideous to her ear, like a vast yell of demons. Hetty’s shriek mingled with the sound, and they clasped each other in mutual horror.

But it was not a shout of execration—not a yell of exultant cruelty.

It was a shout of sudden excitement at the appearance of a horseman cleaving the crowd at full gallop. The horse is hot and distressed, but answers to the desperate spurring; the rider looks as if his eyes were glazed by madness, and he saw nothing but what was unseen by others. See, he has something in his hand—he is holding it up as if it were a signal.

The Sheriff knows him: it is Arthur Donnithorne, carrying in his hand a hard-won release from death.

Hetty is fortunate to have a powerful advocate, one with money and influence. Today, women with money also have options.

Those who don’t have such friends or such resources, however, are increasingly feeling compelled to resort to drastic measures. No amount of moralizing is going to change that fact.

Added note: I hope it is clear that I am not in any way defending Hetty’s crime. My point is that people who are desperate sometimes do desperate things, and we are increasing desperation by closing down Planned Parenthood clinics.

On the subject of infanticide, I should add that there are anti-abortion protesters who regard abortion as infanticide. Once one engages in the irresponsible rhetoric of describing fetuses as babies, it becomes just a matter of times before certain individuals, such as the Colorado Springs shooter, starts committing acts of violence. After all, if babies really are being killed, then violence can seem like a justifiable response.

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Daniel’s Vision of Indestructible Kingship

Michelangel, "The Prophet Daniel" (detail from Sistine Chapel"

Michelangel, “The Prophet Daniel” (detail from Sistine Chapel)

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s Old Testament readings is from the mystical Book of Daniel, which itself reads as poetry. I share two poems about Daniel, one by the 19th century religious poet Richard Wilton and the other by Lucille Clifton.

First, here’s an excerpt from today’s liturgy (Daniel 7:13-14):

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being
                coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
                and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
                and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
                should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
                that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
                that shall never be destroyed.

Wilton picks up on this vision of a kingship that shall never be destroyed:


By Richard Wilton

Imperial Persia bowed to his wise sway–
A hundred provinces his daily care;
A queenly city with its gardens fair
Smiled round him—but his heart was far away,
Forsaking pomp and power “three times a day.”
For chamber lone, he seeks his solace there;
Through windows opening westward floats his prayer
Towards the dear distance where Jerusalem lay,
So let me morn, noon, evening, steal aside
And shutting my heart’s door to earth’s vain pleasure
And manifold solicitudes, find leisure
The windows of my soul to open wide
Towards the blest city and that heavenly treasure
Which past these visible horizons hide.

Clifton, meanwhile, talks about something else that is indestructible and no less spiritual–the dignity of one who walks tall, even in a racist society. The poem is from her book some jesus:


By Lucille Clifton

i have
learned some few things
when a man walk manly
he don’t stumble
even in the lion’s den

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Lit, an Antidote to Dehumanizing Media

Brigit Ganley (1909-2002), is called The Dramatist

Brigit Ganley, “The Dramatist”


A recent issue of The New Yorker published an acceptance speech by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norwegian author of the monumental six volume memoir My Struggle, about how literature restores our humanity to us. As Knausgaard sees it, modern media strips away our individuality, but literature counteracts this process. Given that he specifically mentions how we become deadened to the plight of refugees, the essay is particularly relevant at the moment.

Knausgaard points out that our very ability to witness what is going on in any part of the world has a deadening effect:

Perhaps the foremost characteristic of our age, what sets it apart from all others before it, is that the sheer volume of images of the world—not just the world of the past, but also, and perhaps especially, that of the present, the world of which we are a part—is so massive. Any event, anywhere on the planet—an earthquake, a plane crash, an act of terrorism—will be available for us to view only moments later, in on-the-scene images we see and consider as we go about our day-to-day lives, stuck in our tailbacks of traffic, as we make our coffee, visit the bathroom, wash our clothes, prepare our meals, set our tables. Usually, we keep these different levels of reality apart, or at least I do. Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner. At the same time, and more profoundly, such images provide a release insofar as they allow me the freedom of never having to be entirely present in my actual surroundings, in the routine state of boredom they constantly threaten to dull me with, since one’s attention is continuously being directed toward something else, to what is happening right now: the occurrence, the event, the news item. 

Knausgaard says that the sight of a drowned refugee child alerted him tohow much he had been dulled by a media narrative that renders “every event equal, every occurrence identical.” Our reality is fictionalized because “the particular, the singular, the unique” are all dissolved. We think we are seeing reality—after all, these are news images—but instead we are experiencing just the opposite, a remoteness from reality.

This leads Knausgaard to conclude that our humanity has a “vanishing point”: 

In our humanity, there is a vanishing point. We step in and out of it; it’s a kind of zone in which we shift in each other’s perspective from definite to indefinite, and vice versa. This vanishing point has to do with remoteness and is inevitable. The indefinite human, faceless and devoid of character, the mass human, lives its life in patterns by which it is bound and is the material of statistics. 

Later in the essay Knausgaard talks about how “we” can become “they” and then “it.” 

The problem with becoming “the mass human” is that we become capable to great cruelty, capable of participating in the Holocaust or bombing Dresden or Hiroshima. In the current climate Knausgaard might also mention the calls to indiscriminately bomb large sections of the Middle East or to elide all differences in large refugee populations.

Having set up the problem, Knausgaard then holds up literature as the antidote. Whereas the mass media prompts us to move from the definite to the indefinite, literature moves us from the all to the one: 

[I]f there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind.

Overcoming remoteness is key to Knausgaard’s aesthetic and is the emphasis of his own writing, where he invites us into his life in a way that makes him fully present to us. But the subject matter doesn’t matter. All great literature, Knausgaard says, creates a special intimacy between author and reader:

This establishing of proximity to another self is characteristic of the novel. And the way in which the outer work of art is created, within the reader—the reader’s own sense of color and form, his or her understanding of landscapes and languages, people and thoughts, being decisive to how well the novel works—is special to the form. The novel is an oddly intimate genre: at root, it is always a matter between two individuals, writer and reader, whose first encounter occurs when the writer writes—for in writing, the very act of it, there is always an appeal to a you, redeemed only by the insertion of a reader. This you may be inserted at any time, even hundreds of years after the event of writing, the way, for instance, we might read a novel written in seventeenth-century Spain, or eighteenth-century Russia, or early-twentieth-century Germany, and yet still induce the voice of the self to rise anew within us, remoteness dissolving. And that self may also reveal itself to us in the reading of novels from places geographically remote to us, such as China, Kenya, Colombia. 

At this point, Knausgaard notes how reading even creates a level of intimacy that we don’t get when we interact with a neighbor. For whereas such interactions are bound by various rules and practical constraints, the novel moves beyond all such boundaries. As a result,

we are able to see the concept of the social and see exactly what it is. And only there, in that encounter, are we able to see what a human being is outside of that concept, in itself and on its own terms. This space—that is, the novel’s—is idiosyncratic, particular, and singular: in other words, it represents the exact opposite of the media, which strives toward the universal and general. 

At this point, Knausgaard turns to a passage from Hannah Arendt:

When the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind, wrote, “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality,” she was writing about Adolf Eichmann, but the sentence is valid far beyond that one case, and far beyond the time to which he belonged. For the need to protect oneself against reality is constant, and the remoteness established by standardized language and a standardized form is something all communities strive toward, even if they may not be aware of it.

As Knausgaard’s speech was delivered in Berlin, he mentions that many German writers have focused on “the idiosyncratic, the particular and the singular” in striving to “overcome our protections against” the world and “keep open our path of access”:

The writers I have mentioned—Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Paul Celan—make up only the tiniest part of my own German-language canon, which numbers many, many authors, from Hölderlin to Goethe, from Thomas Mann to Judith Herman, from Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard to Christian Kracht and Durs Grünbein, a list too extensive to even embark upon here. Common to them all is the idiosyncratic, the particular and the singular, and that all are part of the same struggle to keep open our path of access to the world, so that our protections against it may fall and its individual character, its here and now, its you and I, may emerge and become salient. 

In other words, when we read literature, we are reading as though our humanity depended on it—because it does

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When It Comes to Culture, Bet on France

John Oliver of HBO

John Oliver of HBO


In a brilliant tirade against the Paris bombers, John Oliver of HBO gave a partially literary explanation as to why France will endure. ISIS may create temporary mayhem but Sartre, Camus and Proust will last. In today’s essay I share my own personal experience with how France bestows esteem upon the poets and writers that define its national identity.

Here’s The New Yorker’s account of Oliver taking full advantage of HBO’s freedom from profanity restrictions:

“France is going to endure. And I’ll tell you why. If you are in a war of culture and life style with France, good fucking luck!” More cheering. “Go ahead, go ahead. Bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloises cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons”—images of these appeared behind him as he spoke—“Marcel Proust, and the fucking croquembouche!” An image of what looked like a glazed-cream-puff Christmas tree popped up. He waved his hands and pointed at it. “Thecroquembouche! You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friends. You are fucked! That is a French freedom tower!” The crowd howled with delight.

Note that Oliver adds Gauloises cigarettes and the croquenbouche to his list of French cultural achievements. Otherwise, he’d sound like a cultural snob. But there’s no doubt that France prides itself on its literature.

I grew up surrounded by French literature. My father was a French professor and a world authority on the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. French was my first language–I spent the first two years of my life in France when he was researching his dissertation—and later, when I was 13 and he was on sabbatical, I attended a French school.

In that school I most remember, and treasure, all the hours we spent with French poetry. The school day went from 9-12 and 2-5, with no class on Thursday and only morning class on Saturday. Every day, from 11:30-12 and 4:30-5, we memorized and recited poems. (And then my brothers and I walked home under the Eiffel Tower.)

To this day I can still recite lyrics by Apollinaire, Paul Verlaine, Jean de La Fontaine, Jacques Prévert, and others. I had encountered nothing comparable in my Tennessee grade school.

In college I minored in French literature and was impressed by the immense respect that the French accord their writers. Every age, it seemed, produced literary giants who weren’t afraid to go toe to toe with the powers of the age: Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire battled the 18th century monarchy, Victor Hugo belittled Napoleon III (“the small”),  and Sartre clashed with Charles De Gaulle (who refused to retaliate on the grounds that “you don’t imprison Voltaire”). In other words, literature was seen as having an impact on the world.

Even when a French author satirized the French literary tradition, as Alfred Jarry did in a play we performed at Carleton (Ubu Roi), France responded by inducting him into the French Academy. To be sure, they were scandalized at first, just as they were when Victor Hugo chose not to end-stop the opening couplet in his play Hernani. In that case, riots broke out in the theater, a sign that the French take their literature very seriously. Eventually, however, the disputes are superseded by a general reverence for literature.

So when Oliver cited Sartre, Camus, and Proust among the reasons why France will endure, he was picking up on a respect for culture, art, and ideas that has been deliberately cultivated for centuries.

There’s a reward for this strong belief in the life of the mind: when one receives a blow to the body, one has something to fall back on.

Added note: I don’t like how Roger Cohen of The New York Times in his column today is beating the drums of war, but here’s an observation which dovetails with my observations on French intellectual culture:

We may not know who exactly the killers are but we know what they want to destroy. They spit at Montaigne, Voltaire and De Tocqueville. They loathe reason. They detest freedom. They cannot bear the West’s sexual mores. They would enslave the world, particularly its women, to the cruel god of their medievalist reading of Islam.

Posted in Apollinaire (Guillaume), Camus (Albert), Hugo (Victor), Jarry (Alfred), Proust (Marcel), Sartre (Jean Paul) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ISIS Mastermind Like Mystery Cat Macavity

Macavity in "Cats"

Macavity in “Cats”


Among the many stories emerging from the Paris massacres is the role that one man, the Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, played in these attacks and a number of earlier ones. Although always implicated, he is never caught. When I learned about Abaaoud, I thought of T. S Eliot’s “Macavity: The Mystery Cat.”

If it seems inappropriate to connect a piece of light verse to a mastermind murderer, let me explain. The poetic parallel helps us understand the baffling popularity of ISIS among young people around the world. Its recruitment success has been one of its most distinctive and troubling features.

A New Yorker article lays out Abaaoud’s escapades:

In early 2015, Abaaoud turned his attention back to Europe, and he has since been linked to a number of foiled attacks in France and Belgium. In August, a young Moroccan living part time in Molenbeek boarded a Paris-bound train in Brussels armed with a Kalashnikov, a pistol, and several razor blades. The gun jammed, and passengers leaped on him. French officials say that Abaaoud was also involved in a plot against Parisian churches this April, which was foiled after the gunman accidentally shot himself in the leg and called for an ambulance. His car was filled with automatic weapons, bulletproof vests, and fake police armbands. And, in January, after a terror bust ended in a shootout in Verviers, in eastern Belgium, federal police found a laptop belonging to Abaaoud. Two suspects were killed in that raid, both of whom lived in Molenbeek. Abaaoud was not found, but soon afterward he boasted, in an ISIS publication, that he had slipped into Belgium to guide the attack before returning to Syria. He wrote, “I was even stopped by an officer who contemplated me so as to compare me to the picture, but he let me go, as he did not see the resemblance!”

Two nights ago I heard an expert on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show discuss how impressive Abaaoud has been. Not only would it have taken months to assemble expertly constructed suicide bomb vests without alerting the authorities, but during that time Abaaoud would have had to keep engaged young men prepare to commit suicide for the cause.

Abaaoud’s penchant for slipping through the clutches of the police adds to his allure. Young people are drawn to romance, and watching Abaaoud’s escapes may invoke a thrill similar to what we experience watching Macavity dodge the law. Why sympathize with the poor Pekinese that is “stifled” when the “Napoleon of crime” (allusion to Moriarty) does it with such effrontery?

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air—
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
It must have been Macavity!’—but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumb;
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE !
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

We romanticize outlaws until we see the bloody corpses of their victims. And for too many young Muslims, sometimes even that doesn’t end their love affair.

Update: As you’ve probably heard, Abaaoud was killed in a shootout yesterday. Macavity, in other words, wasn’t invincible. Unfortunately, it will take more than this death to dim the romance of ISIS.

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We Risk Becoming Grendel’s Mother

Grendel's Mother


Last February, when fury against ISIS was burning hot following the beheading of American prisoners, I cautioned against becoming Grendel’s Mother. That caution is even more necessary today following the terrorist massacres in Beirut and Paris.

We become Grendel’s Mother when our grieving turns vengeful and becomes monstrous. We are still paying for how, following 9-11, our grief led us to invade Iraq. We wanted someone else to feel our pain and Saddam Hussein became our target. Unfortunately, we made the situation even worse since the invasion led to the rise of ISIS.

But that’s how blood feuds work, as Anglo-Saxon society well knew. Its poet created Grendel and his mother because it understood that, once warriors acted on their vengeful feelings, the violence never ended. Along with the monsters, Beowulf records a long list of vengeful vendettas.

Significantly, when Grendel’s Mother attacks she doesn’t even pick the right target: she slays Aeschere, not Beowulf, for the death of her son. Similarly the Republican presidential candidates, starting with Donald Trump, are targeting a number of innocent parties, according to Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

[T]he GOP presidential candidates have responded by calling for a new military strategy against ISIS, with some of them also sounding the alarm about what the attacks portend for the American homeland. Ted Cruz has warned that “ISIS plans to bring these acts of terror to America,” and he has called for Muslim Syrian refugees to be barred from entering the United States. Jeb Bush has similarly said that our focus should be on Christian refugees. This drew a very sharp response today from President Obama, who decried the notion of a “religious test for which person who’s fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted,” adding that “we don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio now claims that “we won’t be able to take more refugees,” and Ohio governor John Kasich is now calling for an end to their admission, too…However, to my knowledge, none of the other candidates has gone quite as far as Donald Trump has now done in suggesting we may need to close down some mosques in the United States.

Beowulf, under severe duress, doesn’t lose his head when confronted by Grendel’s Mother. He leaps into her dark waters and engages with the monster–which is another way of saying that he doesn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by his emotions. He actually acts somewhat like Barack Obama, who has been taking his own resolute steps while chastising those that who would allow emotion to trump principle. Kevin Jones of Mother Jones sums up what the United States has been doing:

There’s a lot we can do to defeat ISIS, and most of it we’re already doing. Airstrikes? Check. Broad coalition? Check. Working with Arab allies? Check. Engage with Sunni tribal leaders? Check. Embed with the Iraqi military? Check. There’s more we could do, but often it’s contradictory. You want to arm the Kurds and create a partnership with the Iraqi government? Good luck. You want to defeat Assad and ISIS? You better pick one. You want to avoid a large American ground force and you want to win the war fast? Not gonna happen. Everyone needs to face reality: This is going to be a long effort, and there are no magic slogans that are going to win it. Unfortunately, they can make things worse.

Zack Beauchamp of Vox argues that the Paris attacks may actually be a sign that ISIS is becoming desperate from having lost 25% of its territory since last summer. Beauchamp believes that we are witnessing

a slow but steady process of chipping away at the group’s holdings, taking advantage of its structural weaknesses — too many strong enemies, vulnerability to airpower, no real ability to hide — to put it on the path toward defeat.

Unfortunately, Beauchamp predicts that, as it becomes more desperate, ISIS will focus more on soft targets like Paris. We are therefore playing into the hands of ISIS when we inflate them at the very point when they are on the defensive. When Rubio says that this is a “clash of civilizations,” he awards ISIS the status they want.

Few American presidents have been wiser than Franklin D. Roosevelt when he said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If we can’t stand up and be Beowulf strong, we will be consumed by the vengeful emotions of Grendel’s Mother.

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Can Poetry Respond Adequately to Evil?

Outside one of Paris's terrorist explosions

Outside one of Paris’s terrorist explosions


Seeking to articulate a response to the horrors in Paris while knowing that words will invariably come up short, I turned to a W. H. Auden poem that many quoted following the 9-11 attacks. Although Auden later disavowed “September 1, 1939” as “trash”—more on that later—it shows us a great poet grappling with evil unleashed upon the world. In that struggle we may find a model for our own wrestling.

September 1, 1939 saw Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which propelled France and England into World War II. Auden examines how America engaged in self deception, and we in 2015 can look at our own “clever hopes” about the Middle East, especially the hope that we could turn Iraq into a stable democracy by overthrowing Saddam. Instead, we enabled the rise of ISIS.

To say that the past 12 years have functioned as a “low dishonest decade” is an understatement. We can relate to Auden’s “waves of anger and fear/ Circulat[ing] over the bright and darkened lands of the earth” and to “the unmentionable odor of death.” The poem begins with the poet surveying the situation from a seedy bar in Manhattan:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade: 
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death 
Offends the September night.

Auden then proffers various theories, both sophisticated and popular, that account for the rise of Linz-born Hitler, and he quotes Thucydides about the way that dictators can triumph over democracy. He notes that what happened in ancient Greece is happening again in 1939, and we ourselves in 2015 need to be on the lookout for hysterical media personalities and politicians who will drive us us to irrational responses (“the enlightenment driven away”):

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analyzed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

In the next stanzas, Auden refers to American isolationism and America’s belief that it is exceptional (“blind skyscrapers use/ Their full height to proclaim/ The strength of Collective man”). Americans also resort to light and music to keep from facing up to their underlying feelings of dread (“The lights must never go out,/The music must always play”). In our present case, I think we also deal with dread by scapegoating our political enemies, lashing out angrily, rather than facing up to our own contributions to the problem, from which we could learn something important (“imperialism’s face/ And the international wrong” stare at us “out of the mirror”):

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use 
Their full height to proclaim 
The strength of Collective Man, 
Each language pours its vain 
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare, 
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are, 
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

While Auden goes on to decry the “windiest militant trash” that our “Important Persons” shout, he then notes that such rhetoric, bad as it is, is not as “crude as our wish.” That wish is our narcissistic desire to be loved alone. We don’t truly care for others—“universal love”–but only for ourselves. That is the “error bred in the bone/Of each woman and each man” and what led to the bitter break-up between two famous ballet dancers. Politicians must cater to our narcissism if they wish to remain in power:

The windiest militant trash 
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish: 
What mad Nijinsky wrote 
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart; 
For the error bred in the bone 
Of each woman and each man 
Craves what it cannot have, 
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Who is to awaken us? We can’t rely on the common people, who have their daily routines, and we can’t rely on our leaders, who play out their customary roles. We must therefore look to our poets:

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game: 
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

Poets can reach the dead and speak for the dumb because they call us out for our evasions (“the folded lie). Poets can remind us of the monumental choice before us: “We must love one another or die.”

Although Auden would later disavow this line because of how easily it can be turned into a truism, I find myself agreeing with it. Our only hope lies is reaching out to others:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street 
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky: 
There is no such thing as the State 
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden’s last image is of poems dotting the night like flashes of Morse code. Even if we lie in stupor—and certainly we can feel stupefied by the wild political harangues we hear constantly—the “Just” everywhere are sending out “ironic points of light.” (I assume Auden calls them ironic because they sometimes seem to do no more than accentuate the darkness.) The poet, although composed like all people of desire and body—“of Eros and of dust”—and “beleaguered” like them by “negation and despair,” sends out his own poem as “an affirming flame.”

By the same token, we can turn to that poem for affirmation.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Did Auden disavow this poem because he felt he was posturing, offering up a romantic hope that would be belied by the horrors of World War II. I can see why the poem might seem trite following the worst war the world has ever seen.

The ultimate sin in the face of evil, however, is yielding to despair. If Auden’s poem helps us recognize and fight against our own stupor, then it will have achieved some of its purpose. I am not yet clear what course of action we, as citizens, should recommend to our leaders about ISIS, but we should inform ourselves as thoroughly as we can and support and resist different proposed responses. We may not be able to do much, but we can at least hang on to the “enlightenment” and resist the “elderly rubbish” that we are sure to hear from political con artists.

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Love & the Red Fool-Fury of the Seine

Terror Strikes Paris

Spiritual Sunday

When I heard the horrific news of the Paris massacres, a stanza from Tennyson’s In Memoriam shot through my head:

Proclaiming social truth shall spread,
And justice, ev’n tho’ thrice again
The red fool-fury of the Seine
Should pile her barricades with dead.

The reference is to the 1848 Paris revolutionaries, not to bloody-minded terrorists, but I wanted to see the source of Tennyson’s optimism that social truth shall prevail, even as the dead are piled high and probably will be again.

The stanza comes fairly late in the poem. Tennyson’s faith has been thrown into doubt by the death of Arthur Hallam but he is finding his way back to belief.

To believe in divine love at moments like this may seem crazy. Then again, it’s at moments like this when we most need reminding. “All is well” is whispered to the poet as though by a sentinel, and it is a deeper voice than the roar of the storm. The times may seem apocalyptic—there’s even a line that anticipates the melting of the ice caps—but Tennyson is reassuring.

To be sure, such reassurance can seem facile if seen in isolation. Tennyson has gotten there honestly, however, wrestling profoundly with his grief over a 17 year period. He now believes, more deeply than ever that Love is “my Lord and King.”

Love is and was my Lord and King,
And in his presence I attend
To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.

Love is and was my King and Lord,
And will be, tho’ as yet I keep
Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompass’d by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
Who moves about from place to place,
And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.

And all is well, tho’ faith and form
Be sunder’d in the night of fear;
Well roars the storm to those that hear
A deeper voice across the storm,

Proclaiming social truth shall spread,
And justice, ev’n tho’ thrice again
The red fool-fury of the Seine
Should pile her barricades with dead.

But ill for him that wears a crown,
And him, the lazar, in his rags:
They tremble, the sustaining crags;
The spires of ice are toppled down,

And molten up, and roar in flood;
The fortress crashes from on high,
The brute earth lightens to the sky,
And the great Æon sinks in blood,

And compass’d by the fires of Hell;
While thou, dear spirit, happy star,
O’erlook’st the tumult from afar,
And smilest, knowing all is well.

As I say, it took 17 years for Tennyson to arrive at this assurance. At the moment France cannot overlook this tumult from afar. It is a time for immediate, heartrending grief. But that “dear spirit, happy star” is there to turn to.

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Dorothy and the Oklahoma Earthquakes

John R. Neill, illus. from "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz"

John R. Neill, illus. from “Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz”


Headlines we thought we would never see include this one from Wednesday’s on-line New York Magazine: 

Oklahoma Now No. 1 in Earthquakes.

Only for me, the news seemed vaguely familiar. That’s because, as a child, I read L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the fourth book in the Oz series.

To be sure, when I returned to the book I discovered that Dorothy must contend with earthquakes that are occurring in California, not in Kansas, so it’s not quite as appropriate as I thought. Still, watching a Midwesterner contending with earthquakes for the first time in her life must be what it was like for Oklahomans up until recently.

Of course, in Oklahoma the earthquakes are caused by humans. Here’s what’s happening and what’s causing them:

A spokesperson for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission — a regulatory body tasked with ensuring the safety of oil and gas exploration in the state — told the Enid Rotary Club that Oklahoma now experiences more earthquakes than anywhere else on planet Earth.

“We have had 15 [earthquakes] in Medford since 5 o’clock Saturday morning,” spokesman Matt Skinner said Monday, according to the EnidNews. “We’ve got an earthquake issue.”

That won’t be news to most Okies. Before the fracking boom kicked off in 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher per year. In 2014, the state was rattled by 585. As Rivka Galchen noted in The New Yorker in April, man-made earthquakes have become so common in the state, local weathermen often report the day’s seismic events along with the temperature.

The largest earthquakes are predominately caused by disposal wells, where the brackish water brought to the surface by oil and gas drilling is injected back into the earth, often by the billions of gallons.

In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Dorothy and her Uncle Henry are returning to Kansas from Australia, which he has visited for health reasons. They stop over in California to visit with cousins, who regard earthquakes as routine:

“We had a lot of earthquakes,” said Dorothy. “Didn’t you feel the ground shake?”

“Yes; but we’re used to such things in California,” he replied. “They don’t scare us much.”

This particular set of earthquakes, however, sends Dorothy and Zeb into a underground world filled with vegetable people living in a glass city, invisible bears, dragons, and wooden gargoyles with detachable wings. The first quake they witness gives them a premonition of what’s to come:

The boy flicked the big, boney horse with his whip and looked thoughtful. Then he started to say something to his little companion, but before he could speak the buggy began to sway dangerously from side to side and the earth seemed to rise up before them. Next minute there was a roar and a sharp crash, and at her side Dorothy saw the ground open in a wide crack and then come together again.

“Goodness!” she cried, grasping the iron rail of the seat. “What was that?”

“That was an awful big quake,” replied Zeb, with a white face. “It almost got us that time, Dorothy.”

The next quake gets them:

Suddenly there was a rending, tearing sound, and the earth split into another great crack just beneath the spot where the horse was standing. With a wild neigh of terror the animal fell bodily into the pit, drawing the buggy and its occupants after him.

Dorothy grabbed fast hold of the buggy top and the boy did the same. The sudden rush into space confused them so that they could not think.

Blackness engulfed them on every side, and in breathless silence they waited for the fall to end and crush them against jagged rocks or for the earth to close in on them again and bury them forever in its dreadful depths.

For years I thought this is what an earthquake is like.

In a scene reminiscent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Dorothy and company drift slowly through thick air and find themselves in a glass city—whereupon they are held responsible for the damage wrought by falling stones.

They of course plead their innocence. For a while, fracking companies did the same:

“Tell me, intruder, was it you who caused the Rain of Stones?”

For a moment the boy did not know what he meant by this question. Then, remembering the stones that had fallen with them and passed them long before they had reached this place, he answered:

“No, sir; we didn’t cause anything. It was the earthquake.”

The man with the star stood for a time quietly thinking over this speech. Then he asked:

“What is an earthquake?”

“I don’t know,” said Zeb, who was still confused. But Dorothy, seeing his perplexity, answered:

“It’s a shaking of the earth. In this quake a big crack opened and we fell through—horse and buggy, and all—and the stones got loose and came down with us.”

The man with the star regarded her with his calm, expressionless eyes.

“The Rain of Stones has done much damage to our city,” he said; “and we shall hold you responsible for it unless you can prove your innocence.”

There’s no longer any doubt who’s responsible for Oklahoma’s “rain of stones.”

Oklahoma house hit by successive earthquakes this past weekend

Oklahoma house hit by successive earthquakes this past weekend

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A Cosmic Theory of Literature

Mary Ferris Kelly, "Woman Reading in a Study"

Mary Ferris Kelly, “Woman Reading in a Study”


A couple of weeks ago I promised a follow-up post on a topic that elicited thoughtful responses from friends. The question was whether literature can be a force for evil as well as for good. And by literature I mean high quality literature since I have no doubt that bad literature can have very bad effects (e.g. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged inspiring certain rightwing lawmakers to attack the social safety net).

I asked the question hoping for a negative answer. If a work is truly great, I want to believe, it can be used for ill only if perverse readers twist it to their own ends. (Say, Nazi concentration camp commandants reading Goethe to reaffirm their sense of German superiority, even though nothing in Goethe would sanction the Holocaust.) So I have to qualify my defense of quality literature with the stipulation that it be correctly read.

I’ll touch on the question of correct reading in a future post. Today I want to speculate about literature’s underlying impulse. Two possibilities seem before us: either (1) great literature is intrinsically a force for good or (2) such literature is simply a force that, like any powerful force, is good when it is used well and bad when it is used badly. If the latter, then my friend Rachel Kranz has a powerful case when she argues that even classic works of literature like Pride and Prejudice and Twelfth Night, are instances of the force being used badly.

As Rachel wrote in response to my post, both works are predicated on what we today would consider oppression. Elizabeth Bennet’s pride and prejudice are her female assertiveness, which must be tamed if she is achieve the end that we the readers desire: marriage to Darcy. Twelfth Night’s message, meanwhile, is that people must push under their homosexual desires, even though it may be painful to do so.

In other words, rather than seeing the works as centuries ahead of their time in the way that they open up new possibilities (strong women, same sex desire), they must be seen as quelling those very possibilities.

My own argument was that, simply by acknowledging new possibilities, the works have set new forces into play, even if they can’t—for historical reasons—outwardly endorse them. I don’t know who is right but, in defense of my position, I’m going to sketch out my vision of literature generally.

As I see it, all great literature honors the human. As Terence puts it,  “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” I don’t know Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, which Carl Rosen mentions in his response to my post, but if it genuinely honors the humans engaged in the “immoral acts” (rather than, say, sensationalizing them for prurient purposes), then the respect will shine through.

There’s another element of this respect. Because literature strives to give a full account of creation, it is also deeply aware of those forces that stand in the way of humanity fulfilling its potential. In a powerful work of literature, we see both the striving and the resistance. Sometimes these take the form of the protagonist and the antagonist.

I combine this vision of literature with my view of human progress. I believe that the arc of history bends towards justice—towards a world in which all will have the support and encouragement to develop their inner gifts—and so have come to see literature as a guide to the world we yearn for. Even our earliest poets had a sense of this world, although they could articulate it only through poetry, fiction and drama. They could not imagine it literally.

Truth to say, we still find it hard to do so.

I sometimes turn to spiritual language to express humankind’s yearning. Literature sings our higher self, which is why we may feel in the presence of transcendence. Literature seeks to unlock the mysteries of creation, and the greatest literature is that which gives us the fullest account.

I understand why Rachel feels suffocated rather than uplifted by much of literature, however. As a practicing novelist, she feels frustrated by a tradition that doesn’t provide her the forms that can do justice to her vision. As a result, she is driven to invent new forms. Her impatience with unsatisfactory articulations propels her art.

I cannot deny my own very different experience, however, where I feel lifted up, not suffocated, by virtually every work of time-tested literature that I encounter. I give myself over to whatever I am reading and almost always feel richer because of it. No work has everything I need—I agree with Wayne Booth when he says that we need many works so that they can dialogue with each other—but every work has a gift for me.

I am like Sir Philip Sidney who, talking about how great literature promotes virtue, sees tragedy doing it in one way, comedy in another, satire in another, epic verse in yet another, and so on through all the genres. All literature seems to be on my side, including (especially) the literature that calls me out.

Is my satisfaction a sign that I am privileged?  Maybe I don’t feel threatened by the marriage plot because I happen to be Darcy. This means I need to listen very closely to those who have different encounters with literature.

But even after striving to do that, one can’t be other than one is. Many of my moments of greatest pleasure, of deepest thought, of most impassioned feeling, of intensest spiritual uplift, have occurred when I was reading a poem, play, or novel. These moments have included the works of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. So when I construct an understanding of the world, that is where I start.

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Soldier, I Wish You Well

E. H. Shepard, "Buckingham Palace"

E. H. Shepard, “Buckingham Palace”

Wednesday – Veterans Day

In honor of our men and women in uniform, here’s an A. E. Housman poem that mentions the distance between the military and the civilian worlds. In the United States, this distance has only become more pronounced since the ending of the draft in the 1970s. While we may tell soldiers we appreciate the service, politicians now appear to have fewer qualms about sending them into battle. After all, they no longer have to fear 1960s style protest movements.

In the poem, however, the gap is overcome in a single moment of contact between a soldier and an observer. Although they know nothing of each other, the momentary connection allows the speaker to genuinely wish the soldier well.

Send your heart out to our veterans today.

The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread

By A. E. Housman 

The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread, 
And out we troop to see: 
A single redcoat turns his head, 
He turns and looks at me. 

My man, from sky to sky’s so far, 
We never crossed before; 
Such leagues apart the world’s ends are, 
We’re like to meet no more; 

What thoughts at heart have you and I 
We cannot stop to tell; 
But dead or living, drunk or dry, 
Soldier, I wish you well.

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Deaths in the White Middle Class

Willy Loman, "Death of a Salesman"

Willy Loman, “Death of a Salesman”


There’s been a lot of discussion recently about a rise in death rates amongst white middle class Americans. The report by the most recent Nobel-winning economist is airing at the same time as the rich continue to get richer while middle class stagnate, middle class wages continue to stagnate, and angry voters rebel against the GOP establishment by applauding Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Pundits like Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat, both of The New York Times, are trying to connect the dots.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) would help them come to an understanding.

Let’s first look at the report. According to economist Angus Deaton and his co-author Anne Case, mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans has been rising since 1999, even as death rates are declining in other countries and, even more significantly, in other American groups. Krugman lays out the findings:

Americans are, in increasing numbers, killing themselves, directly or indirectly. Suicide is way up, and so are deaths from drug poisoning and the chronic liver disease that excessive drinking can cause. We’ve seen this kind of thing in other times and places – for example, in the plunging life expectancy that afflicted Russia after the fall of Communism. But it’s a shock to see it, even in an attenuated form, in America.

Yet the Deaton-Case findings fit into a well-established pattern. There have been a number of studies showing that life expectancy for less-educated whites is falling across much of the nation. Rising suicides and overuse of opioids are known problems. And while popular culture may focus more on meth than on prescription painkillers or good old alcohol, it’s not really news that there’s a drug problem in the heartland.

To their credit, neither the liberal Krugman nor the conservative Douthat come up with partisan answers. Krugman does not blame the development only on wage stagnation and holes in the safety net and Douthat does not blame it only on cultural factors like a more permissive society or the decline of religion and the family.

Krugman even points to a cultural explanation offered up by Deaton himself:

So what is going on? In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.

 Cue Death of a Salesman, in which a salesman who can no longer handle his job commits suicide. Miller’s subject is the death of the American dream, a theme that has been with us practically since the founding of the republic. I sometimes think that American history is just an eternal careening between hope and disillusion.

Anyway, Death of a Salesman is all about people who are experiencing an existential crisis over what it means to be American. The more sensitive characters, like Biff, wander aimlessly, always feeling guilty that they’re not fulfilling their promise. The less sensitive ones, like Happy, hide their dissatisfaction from themselves and indulge in shallow gratifications and bullshit conversations. Willy Loman is one of the sensitive ones.

The tension is made clear by Willy’s incredulous response to Linda’s observation about their son:

Linda: I think he’s still lost, Willy. I think he’s very lost.
Willy: Biff Loman is lost. In the greatest country in the world a young man with such — personal attractiveness, gets lost. And such a hard worker.

As we learn about Willy’s past, he comes to seem more and more pathetic. Glorifying in Biff’s football prowess, he makes fun of his neighbor’s geeky kid, who will go on to achieve the success that Biff never does. Willy, meanwhile, engages in a sordid affair, grovels before his employer, and begins to blank out while driving. Finally he deliberately drives his car into a tree, attempting to make his death look like an accident so that he can defraud the insurance company.

Yet what Biff sees as a wasted life, their neighbor sees a man who is redeemed by his faith in the American dream. It’s up to the audience about whom to believe:

Linda: He was so wonderful with his hands.
Biff: He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.
Happy (almost ready to fight Biff): Don’t say that!
Biff: He never knew who he was.
Charley: (stopping Happy’s movement and reply. To Biff): Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a Shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
Biff: Charley, the man didn’t know who he was.

There’s no sign that the Lomans are intolerant nativists but I can imagine Willy today listening to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin as he drives around New England. Would he find, in political scapegoats, an explanation for his frustrations?

That would certainly provide him with a narrative, even though (as we are seeing) that narrative won’t necessarily keep him alive. One may, for instance, have a story about why Barack Obama is not a legitimate president, but such a belief won’t necessarily keep one away from alcohol or drugs.

Nancy Tourneau of The Washington Monthly comments on one interesting contrast in the recent reports. While white mortality may be up, Blacks and Hispanics are living longer, even though many are undergoing similar hardships. She quotes one Tim Wise for an explanation:

Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it’s worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it.

To which Tourneau adds,

None of that is meant to disparage white people or suggest that people of color are all heroes. It simply means that we have different stories of America that influence what we’ve come to expect. If, instead of fearing the changes that are taking place in our country, we could look to each other as sources of strength and wisdom, we might be able work together to challenge the forces that affect us all.

Willie Loman doesn’t have access to these communally supportive stories, however. In his world, you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and, if you fail, the blame is all on you. The shame of failure leads up to take his anger out on himself and on his wife and kids.

We have a lot of Willy Lomans in America today.

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Studying the Psychology of the Thriller

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter


I report today on the second senior project that I am mentoring this year, this one undertaken by an English-psychology double major. (Here’s a description of my other project.) Kate Hedrick has long been interested in crime fiction and chose a project where she could draw on both her majors. Kate is studying psychopaths like Ted Bundy and Ed Gein and looking at how they have inspired “psychological thrillers” like Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs.

 Kate is teaching me about antisocial personality disorders (APD) and the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, someone with three or more of the following traits has an APD:

–Regularly breaks or flouts the law
–Constantly lies and deceives others
–Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
–Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
–Has little regard for the safety of others
–Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
–Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt

Psychopathy is associated more with genetic abnormalities, sociopathy with upbringing.

Kate’s project has three major sections. First of all, she is examining what psychologists have to say about APD, including their theories about figures like Gein and Bundy who have inspired psychological thrillers.

Kate will then look at how APD gets transmuted into literature. Do crime authors give us special insights into APD, including the special feel for it that can be literature’s contribution to psychology. Or do the authors traffic in superficial stereotypes, distorting the disorder in order to make a sensational plot. My sense is that the truest psychological thrillers would be those that have the plot grow out of a deep knowledge of the disorder.

Finally, the question arises as to why we as readers are so drawn to psychological thrillers in general and to the works that Kate will be looking at in particular.

I’ll note that there has always been a psychological component to crime fiction. Poe’s Dupin talks about figuring out the psychology of the criminal in “The Purloined Letter,” and scholars of the crime novel have found parallels between classical Freudian talk therapy and the Sherlock Holmes stories. (A client visits an expert, who descends into the streets/subconscious to make sense of it all and who then returns with a satisfying explanation.) Often in the work of the French mystery writer Georges Simenon, we know “who done it” from the very first pages and the mystery lies instead in why he or she did it.

I’ll report next May on what Kate discovers.

Posted in Bloch (Robert), Doyle (Arthur Conan), Harris (Thomas), Simenon (Georges) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

She Stood in Tears amid the Alien Corn

Marle Hugues, "Ruth in the Field" (1876)

Marle Hugues, “Ruth in the Field” (1876)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s liturgy readings include the story of Ruth, one of my favorite Biblical stories. Of course, as a child I didn’t understand exactly what exactly Ruth was doing when she crawled into bed with Boaz, but I loved her friendship with her mother-in-law and her journeying to a strange land.

John Keats’s mention of Ruth in “Ode to a Nightingale” enriches the poem for me and the poem, in turn, enriches the story. The allusion occurs when Keats is trying to escape from his mortal sickness into the song of the nightingale, which comes to represent the world of art. Unfortunately, as he realizes in the subsequent stanza, the world of art cannot save him as he is brought back to this world.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
        No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                        The same that oft-times hath
         Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
                Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

As sad as the image of the homesick Ruth is, it is more sweet than sad. (“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts,” Keats’s admirer Percy Shelley wrote.) We are enchanted with the image of Ruth, into which we pour our own memories of loneliness. Ruth takes on a new dimension for us.

But as sweet as it is to lose oneself in such sad stories, unfortunately the poet can’t close out the world in which he lives:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
         To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
         As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

The one positive in the poem’s famous ending is that Keats finds himself caught somewhere between the dream and the reality. Reality isn’t the only reality:

         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
               Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Ruth’s story ended happily as she married Boaz and gave birth to Obed, King David’s grandfather. Keats died of his tuberculosis.

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Happy Families Are All Alike?

Hepburn and Fonda in "War and Peace"

Hepburn and Fonda in “War and Peace”


I spent yesterday in Atlanta with my two granddaughters, providing a little relief for my son and daughter-in-law as they apply for jobs in academia while he, in addition, teaches a full course load of composition classes at Georgia Tech and puts the finishing touches on his dissertation. Yet despite how crazy their lives are at present—did I mention that one-year-old Etta is making sure that her parents never get a full night’s rest?—they are a very happy family.

Would Tolstoy say that they are happy like every other happy family? I don’t think so and, now that I’ve read War and Peace, I’m not sure that Tolstoy himself agrees with his famous opening for Anna Karenina.

In case you need a reminder, here it is:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It’s certainly true that Anna’s unhappy life is full of drama. But I was struck, as I completed War and Peace last week, that (1) the first epilogue concludes with depictions of happy families, (2) each of the happy families is happy in its own way, and (3) I found the happy families more interesting than Anna’s unhappy one. Indeed, I wanted the family scenes to go on and on, even though I had already read a thousand pages.

I wondered about this afterwards and have a couple of theories why the family scenes are compelling. First, one gets very acquainted with individuals over the course of so long a book and therefore wants details of how their lives continue on. Furthermore, after so many vividly described war scenes, which also take up hundreds of pages, one yearns for life-affirming images of healing and normalcy. These Tolstoy provides through vivid images of family life. Having watched the characters as they experience some of the worst that war has to offer, we are hungry for even the smallest details of spouses interacting with each other and with their children.

I also have a personal reason for being drawn to these scenes of family life that goes beyond good times with my granddaughters. My wife and I are spending this sabbatical semester apart, I working on my book while I live with my mother in Tennessee and she teaching childbirth classes and doing “granny care” with our grandson in Maryland. Thus I am living in fiction what I am missing in real life.

I leave you with two passages that hit particularly close to home. I love Tolstoy’s description of the special kind of communication that can develop between a husband and a wife. This doesn’t entirely describe my interchanges with Julia but I see resemblances:

Natasha and Pierre, left alone, also began to talk as only a husband and wife can talk, that is, with extraordinary clearness and rapidity, understanding and expressing each other’s thoughts in ways contrary to all rules of logic, without premises, deductions, or conclusions, and in a quite peculiar way….

From the moment they were alone and Natasha came up to him with wide-open happy eyes, and quickly seizing his head pressed it to her bosom, saying: “Now you are all mine, mine! You won’t escape!”—from that moment this conversation began, contrary to all the laws of logic and contrary to them because quite different subjects were talked about at one and the same time. This simultaneous discussion of many topics did not prevent a clear understanding but on the contrary was the surest sign that they fully understood one another.

Just as in a dream when all is uncertain, unreasoning, and contradictory, except the feeling that guides the dream, so in this intercourse contrary to all laws of reason, the words themselves were not consecutive and clear but only the feeling that prompted them.

And then there’s how spouses can bring out the best in each other:

After seven years of marriage Pierre had the joyous and firm consciousness that he was not a bad man, and he felt this because he saw himself reflected in his wife. He felt the good and bad within himself inextricably mingled and overlapping. But only what was really good in him was reflected in his wife, all that was not quite good was rejected. And this was not the result of logical reasoning but was a direct and mysterious reflection.

If happy families operate anything like this, then it’s good that they’re all alike.

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Speaker Paul Ryan in Literature

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan


Last week Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was elected Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in Washington and therefore the world. I’ve long been concerned about Ryan because of his devotion to the ideas and novels of Ayn Rand, which I view as threatening the United States in potentially disastrous ways. For today’s post I go back and survey some of the essays I’ve written about Ryan.

At one point I noted that Ayn Rand appeared an integral part of Ryan’s budget balancing plan, which involves

privatizing Medicare and slashing Medicaid, Pell grants, food stamps and low-income housing.  It also involves extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and, in fact, increasing them.  Ryan says we must make sure “that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”  The implication here is that many of those struggling economically are just not sucking it up.

When Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, I quoted The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who  posted on all the ways that Ryan has been guided by Rand.  Mayer joked that the Republicans had a woman on the ticket after all.

At first glance, however, Ryan doesn’t appear to be a Rand acolyte. His choirboy exterior and his purported concern for the poor seem at odds with his heartless economic proposals. But that concern, which Ryan showed off that year, was only for show, as Jon Chait of New York Magazine explained. I therefore alluded to John Milton’s description of such politicians as wolves in sheep’s clothing. First, here’s Chait:

Ryan’s budget absolutely slays the budget for anti-poverty programs –the vast majority of his spending cuts come from the minority of federal programs aimed at the poor. That fact has led to his current predicament: Democrats have painted him as a cruel social Darwinist, causing him to become concerned about his image as an “Ayn Rand miser,” causing him to re-brand himself as a poverty wonk, causing him to dive into scholarly literature. But scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.

And now here’s what Milton has to say about such leaders:

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition…
Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…

Take off the façade and Ryan is revealed to be someone more like the workhouse board of directors in Oliver Twist, as I wrote in another post. Here’s how the Board economizes:

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies. 

When Paul Ryan stigmatized urban black men as addicted to dependency, I said that he was projecting onto them as Joseph Conrad projects onto the citizens of the Congo in Heart of Darkness (as Chinua Achebe famously pointed out). In another post I wished Ryan would realize that most of America’s poor resemble Jane Eyre when, fleeing from Thornfield, she suddenly finds herself destitute and starving. She’s more than willing to work for bread and shelter. She just can’t find an opportunity.

Above all, I noted that Ryan resembled Mr. Bounderby of Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times, berating his workers for desiring “to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.” Only Ryan doesn’t mention turtle soup. Instead (as he did over the weekend) he talks about how paying for access to family leave would be an imposition on  “hardworking taxpayers.”

Of course, generous tax benefits for the wealthiest Americans, also paid for by “hardworking taxpayers,” are another matter.

Yet, as I say, Ryan has hidden all his hardness well. So in addition to comparing him to Milton’s wolf, I’ve also likened him to Lewis Carroll’s crocodile:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws! 

In one effort to understand Ryan and people like him, I turned to Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, who creates a similar character in Okonkwo. Okonkwo too believes in pulling himself up by dint of his own efforts and is ashamed of his moocher father. Could it be, I wondered, that Ryan shares some of Okonkwo’s fears. Certainly there is something amiss in the rigidity of both men. Here’s what I wrote:

There is something too reactionary about Okonkwo’s ambitions, and as a result he starts getting into trouble. While individual initiative should be celebrated, it must come from a clean space. Just as Republicans like Ryan often talk about success as a way of berating the 47% of Americans that they claim are moochers, so Okonkwo sees success mostly as a way of contrasting himself with his father:

“[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.”

Maybe Ryan speaks not from confidence but from anxiety—that his success is as much due to his privileged upbringing and to the government support both his family and he received as to his own efforts Perhaps he’s haunted for not having done everything on his own.

One other note: Paul Ryan is a hardline anti-abortionist who believes ending a pregnancy should be illegal even when it results from rape or incest, or if a woman’s health is in danger. At one point, noting his resemblance to Thomas Hardy’s youthful Angel Claire in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I asked how he would respond to Tess’s pregnancy as a result of what is probably a rape. Tess is a good woman but Angel, who regards her as tainted, can see nothing but his own sense of violation.

I pray that Ryan will mellow as speaker. At the moment, however, I see him as a man filled with a sense of self-righteousness and confident in his superiority over the takers of the world. That does not bode well.

Posted in Achebe (Chinua), Carroll (Lewis), Conrad (Joseph), Dickens (Charles), Hardy (Thomas), Milton (John), Rand (Ayn) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Johnson: The Bard Instructs by Delighting

Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Samuel Johnson"

Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Samuel Johnson”


Yesterday, while reading Samuel Johnson’s preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), I was reminded that the 18th century would not have objected to the premise of my blog. It is later schools of criticism that have bristled over the notion that literature is supposed to help us lead better lives. 

Romantic poets and 19th century novelists worried at how utility was becoming the measure of all things (see Dickens, Hard Times). Often they regarded literature as a refuge from the values of money-grubbing industrial capitalism. Horrified at how workers were being reduced to instruments, poetry elevated the imagination to counter the descent into materialism.

The same was true of the 1950s when literary scholars, reacting against consumer capitalism, approvingly quoted Sidney’s “the poet, he nothing affirmeth,” W. H. Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen,” and William Carlos Williams’s

                                             It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                       yet men die miserably every day
                                               for lack
of what is found there.

Poetry, in other words, is not narrowly pragmatic.

Samuel Johnson didn’t have these worries. For him, Shakespeare was a blessing to humankind because he made our everyday lives better. His plays are full of news about people.

Shakespeare was able to do this, Johnson believes, because he understood human nature better than any modern writer:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life…His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

This in turn means that “much instruction” is to be gained from encounters with the Bard:

It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence.

Later in the preface Johnson repeats the idea, noting,

From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected.

Johnson goes on to say that individual passages from Shakespeare don’t accomplish this as much as what is communicated through the unfolding of the stories and through dialogue:

Yet his real power is not shown in the splendor of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and, the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.

In other words, don’t quote Polonius’s “to thine own self be true” advice to Laertes if you want to honor Shakespeare’s guiding wisdom. Rather, watch how characters respond to the pressures of the moment and how they talk to others. Or as Johnson explains further on,

Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life…Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shown human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.

According to Johnson, by reading Shakespeare’s “human sentiments in human language,” a hermit would be able to figure out what is going on in the world and a confessor would be able to predict where the human passions will lead.

Johnson has some blindnesses. Most notoriously, he saw nothing of use in King Lear’s  bleak conclusion, which he found unbearably nihilistic. He was so traumatized by the death of Cordelia that he actually approved of Nahum Tate’s replacement ending where Cordelia survives and marries Edgar.

But we today can gain insights from the bleak ending and, for that matter, from how traumatized Johnson was by it. To acknowledge that the world can at times be this dark provides us with a truth that challenges us.

It’s not the only truth, however. Shakespeare may offer us no reassurance in King Lear, but luckily one play and one author don’t get the final word, as I argued last week. Other works and other writers can come to our aid.

One last point: in his preface Johnson courageously went against some of the prevailing assumptions about drama, including the ideas that comedy and tragedy cannot be mixed and that drama must follow the three unities of action, place and time. Shakespeare violates all these “rules” (except for unity of action), and Johnson argues that the wisdom in his plays brings those very rules into question.

As Johnson sees it, Shakespeare mingling tragedy and comedy is another instance of him being true to human nature. Johnson cites Horace’s maxim that literature instructs by pleasing and believes we find Shakespeare delightful because he understands us so well:

That [mingling tragedy and comedy] is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, because it includes both in its alterations of exhibition, and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life, by showing how great machinations and slender designs may promote or obviate one another, and the high and the low co-operate in the general system by unavoidable concatenation.

Or put another way, we are complex mixtures of the tragic and the comic and of high and low. Shakespeare understood this far better than many of his critics. His plays teach us the truth.

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Child Heroines Who Die for Our Sins

Ryder, Danes in "Little Women" (1994)

Ryder, Danes in “Little Women” (1994)


 Today I report on a St. Mary’s Project that I am mentoring about child deaths in literature. Allison Riehl began her project concentrating on recent Young Adult Fiction, zeroing in on Bridge to Tarabithia and The Fault Is in Our Stars. It became clear, however, that there is a literary tradition at work, and Allison has added to her study The Old Curiosity Shop (Little Nell), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Little Eva), “Annabel Lee,” Jane Eyre (Helen Burns), Little Women (Beth), and The Birds’ Christmas Carol (by Kate Douglass Williams).

Allison is interested in how the image, which may have arisen in response to high 19th century child mortality, became symbolic of much more. For instance, sometimes children are depicted as innocents in a fallen world, and their deaths function as a form of Christian redemption. Little Nell and Little Eva die for our sins, and in our tears we have a chance to be cleansed and to begin life anew.

For Dickens our sins involve urban poverty, for Stowe slavery, for Bronte inhuman and puritanical schooling, for Poe an overemphasis on Enlightenment Reason.

Allison is discovering, however, that the deaths can also function as critical elements in coming-of-age stories. For instance, when Beth dies in Little Women, each of her sisters steps into her powers. It is as though she represents their own childhood, which must die if they are to become fully functioning adults. Likewise, when Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia, Jess is forced to grow up. He can no longer lean on her and must embark on his own quest.

Allison is examining whether the dying children are three-dimensional characters in their own right or simply instruments to help others move forward. She also wonders whether the answer is gendered since Dickens and Poe’s dying girls are fairly flat.

With women authors, the dying children appear to have a greater chance of becoming fleshed out, although perhaps not in the case of Stowe’s Eva. Eva appears to be the angelic voice challenging the defenders of slavery, and we watch as her far more complex father wrestles with his complicity in the institution.

It’s not simple with Bronte, Alcott, and Paterson (Terabithia), who created more nuanced dying children, especially Bronte with Helen Burns. Allison notes, however, that Beth and Leslie are reduced to instruments to a degree. For instance, Beth becomes increasingly saint-like, and Leslie’s primary function appears to be helping Jess grow up.

What are we to make of this? While Alcott can perhaps be given somewhat of a pass, writing as she was in the shadow of the 19th century “angel on the hearth” ideology, Paterson wrote Terabithia in 1977 at the height of the feminist revolution. Paterson is not alone in having difficulty imagining women having their own quest stories. I mentioned recently Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Even in contemporary fiction, Allison notes, girls rather than boys have to be the ones to die.*

I have just recommended Nancy Miller’s 1981 article “Emphasis Added: Plots and possibilities in Women’s Fiction” to help Allison sort this out. Miller argues that the power of literary tradition can be so overwhelming that women writers can’t imagine a different story, even when their own lives don’t correspond to it. Miller mentions the independent woman writer George Eliot, who doesn’t have any George Eliot-type characters in her novels.

All is not entirely lost, however. Though certain stories threaten to brainwash even powerful women writers, one can still pick up an underlying dissatisfaction in their fictions. Allison is finding uneasiness, showing up as subtle disturbances, in Little Women and Terabithia.

I wondered aloud recently whether the movie Titanic departs from the formula. In James Cameron’s film the boy must die for the girl is to step into her powers. To be sure, Leo DiCaprio is boyish rather than a boy, but he functions somewhat like Leslie in Terabithia. Because he slips off into the Atlantic, Kate Winslet must figure out how to save herself, and this in turn leads to a remarkable life where (we are told) she rides horses, flies airplanes, is a feminist, and has multiple careers. It makes sense that middle school girls flooded into the movie, making it the top box office success of all time.

That being said, however, I also have to admit that we don’t see Winslet living this full life whereas we do see her still mourning, as an octogenarian,  for the man who died.

Anyway, these are the issues that Allison is wrestling with. I’ll report next spring on what emerges.


* Dickens occasionally has boy children die, such as Jo in Bleak House and Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son, but they may be the exceptions that prove the rule. They certainly didn’t stir reader emotions the way that Little Nell and Little Eva did.

Posted in Alcott (Louisa May), Bronte (Charlotte), Dickens (Charles), Paterson (Katherine), Poe (Edgar Allan), Stowe (Harriet Beecher) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Jeb! Agonistes: An Unsettling Parallel

Gregor Smukovic, "Samson"

Gregor Smukovic, “Samson”


Kudos to blogger Andrew O’Hehir for once against invoking Milton in a Salon article about contemporary politics. Two weeks ago I commended O’Hehir for comparing the disruptions of the rightwing Freedom Caucus to Satan waging self-destructive war against Heaven. (If the Freedom Caucus and Satan suffered alone it would be one thing, but they take the rest of us down with them.) Over the weekend O’Hehir conjured up an even more impressive Milton reference: the sight of Jeb Bush disintegrating right before our eyes is like the protagonist of Samson Agonistes.

Milton wrote his closet drama towards the end of his life. Blind himself, he identified with Samson, whom we see during his captivity. The play brings to mind Milton’s famous sonnet “On His Blindness,” composed many years earlier, where Milton complains, “Doth God exact day labor, light denied?” His consolation was that “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

Although blind, Milton never really waited and he would go on to compose Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. His Samson wrestles with his wasted potential until realizing that he can become an early version of a suicide bomber. Brought into the Philistine palace to be mocked during a great feast, he pulls down the pillars, killing far more of Israel’s enemies than he ever did when he could see.

Referring to the older Bush brother as “Jeb! Agonistes,” O’Hehir says that Bush resembles

the enfeebled and self-pitying Samson, at least as depicted in John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, after he’s had his hair cut off and his eyes gouged out. His God-given strength has turned out to be an illusion, and the supposedly indomitable warrior finds himself “Blind among enemies, O worse than chains.” Milton’s chorus intones, “Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)/ The Dungeon of thy self,” subjected “to th’unjust tribunals, under change of times,/ And condemnation of the ungrateful multitude.”

I don’t know if Bush in fact feels a dungeon to himself, but he certainly doesn’t look as though he’s having fun. He seems peeved that people aren’t more grateful that he is running and only vaguely aware that the times have changed since he last ran for office. As far as his Delilah—who is it that gains his confidence only to steal his strength?—some are pointing at his protégé Marco Rubio.

Viewers saw Rubio eviscerate Jeb in Wednesday’s debate, prompting Jason Linkins of Huffington Post to wonder, only partly in jest, if Bush gave away his powers in a strange ceremony in the Florida state house when he was governor. Apparently Bush bestowed upon Rubio “the sword of Chang” when the latter ascended to Speaker of the House. Linkins cites Joseph Campbell in arguing his case but, before I get to that, let me pause to note Linkins’s use of Oedipus:

Something has gone wrong with Jeb Bush. You’ve seen it: The uncertain posture. The way he seems to want to just die in this Vine where he is made, by off-screen tormentors, to don a hoodie. And the look in his eyes! An uncanny combination of longing, fear and resignation — it’s the look you imagine Oedipus had when he realized that Tiresias was right and that he’d screwed the pooch (a pooch that was his mom). Only Oedipus, he got to rip out those jellies and just get on with it. Bush’s downcast visage is now permanently locked in place as each dreary day passes, seemingly without end.

If one is going to invoke Oedipus, I think Bush may have more in common with Oedipus’s father, who claims precedence on the road and is killed by a young and arrogant Oedipus refusing to give way. But back to the sword. Linkins asks,

What if Jeb’s warrior essence in fact came to the erstwhile governor by magic, through a powerful weapon, handed down through the ages, known as the “Sword of Chang”? And what if Jeb — thoughtful, sensitive Jeb — foolishly, impulsively gave it away?

And further on:

Look — a magic sword, a classic Joseph Campbell monomyth, the melodramatic tensions between teacher and scion — I know this seems fanciful. I know it sounds ridiculous. But when you consider how hollowed-out Jeb Bush looks right now, after a lifetime of accomplishment, and how adrift he’s been on the trail, failing to connect words and actions and strategy, his having relinquished the Sword of Chang all those years ago is the only plausible explanation.

Linkins also sees a hint of King Lear in the drama—think Goneril, Regan, and Edmund—and he’s not the only one to pick up Shakespearean echoes. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, for instance, recently described the relationship between Bush and Marco Rubio as a “Shakespearean drama.”

The pairings that come to mind are Henry-Hal, Othello-Iago, Julius-Brutus, and, above all, Duncan-Macbeth. But that’s a post for another day.

Jim Newell of Slate thinks the Bush-Rubio rivalry is a real worry for the GOP establishment: will Bush, even if he loses, take Rubio down in the process. Newell imagines Bush and his advisors, figuring that Bush and Rubio are the only serious options remaining for the GOP, contemplating whether “they want to do everything in their power to destroy the figure who’s viewed by more and more of the Republican intelligentsia as the party’s best hope against Clinton?” Newell thinks that the GOP establishment will put too much pressure on Bush to let that happen.

It’s worth remembering, however, how the Samson story ends. He does not die alone.

A note on the artist: More work by Slovenian artist Gregor Smukovic can be found at

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Sir Gawain and Celtic Spirituality

Celtic cross in Knock, Ireland

Celtic cross in Knock, Ireland

Spiritual Sunday

My mother, who heads the Sewanee Women’s Club (at 90!), alerted me to a recent presentation on “Celtic Spirituality” by Rev. Stephen Eichler. The talk has me thinking how one of my favorite narrative poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, negotiates between two conflicting strains of Christianity.

Since the two strains remain very much alive, both Eichler’s talk and the poem are still relevant.

The Arthurian tale was composed in the late 14th century, only a few decades after the Black Plague. I’ve always interpreted it as challenging traditional Christian views about mortality and see it as deeply suspicious of nature. Sir Gawain, as a good Christian knight, thinks that he shouldn’t care about his life because he has the promise of life eternal. A magical green man shows up in his life, however, and proves that he is more attached to the natural world—and to his natural desires—than he is willing to acknowledge.

If the poem was written in reaction to a body-denying strain of Christianity, the question arises as to how that strain arose. I think that, following the Black Plague, people felt betrayed by life and were very wary. After all, in the years 1348-50, roughly a third (!) of Europe’s population died. Many coped by cultivating contempt for life while focusing exclusively on heaven.

The human spirit rebels against an overly austere and life-denying vision, however. My theory used to be that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is lighthearted and comic, looks back to Celtic nature religions for an alternative. Rev. Eichler has convinced me that there was another alternative more readily available.

In his talk Rev. Eichler explained that Celtic Christianity flourished in ancient Britain in the later years of the Roman occupation but was driven into the fringes, into Wales and Cornwall, by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. There it spread, however, and it was doing quite well when Pope Gregory sent missionaries to Great Britain in 597. Although there were tensions between the Roman and Celtic churches, Eichler notes that “the unique faith and perspective of the Celts continued to exist among the common folk and has survived to this day.”

Some of the distinctive features of Celtic spirituality mentioned by Eichler speak directly to themes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For instance,

–Celtic Christianity sees the Trinity as “a real, living presence” composed of a loving father, a nurturing mother, and a caring brother. In other words, it is not a “paternal Godhead, removed and remote from a sinful and corrupt humanity.”

In the poem, an earth mother figure—Morgan Le Fay—and a brother figure—the Green Knight—worry that Christian Camelot has become too removed from the world (they see this as a form of “pride”). They therefore seek to guide the court, through Gawain, to a healthier relationship with nature.

–Pre-Christian Celts had no difficulty believing in Jesus’s incarnation in the world because, as Eichler explains, “they already had a strong sense of the divine presence in the material world.” In other words, they did not see, as Sir Gawain does, a split between the spiritual world and the material world.

In certain ways, the Green Knight can be seen as a nature religion’s version of Christ. Although his head is chopped off, he is confident about his return, knowing that new life follows the winter season of death. This Green Knight, however, doesn’t appear to be pagan as he celebrates mass in his castle and admires Gawain’s knightly qualities. It makes more sense to see him as a Celtic Christian.

–According to Eichler, the Celtic Christians didn’t believe in original sin. Rather, sin arises from humans violating or turning their backs on God’s creation. In terms of the poem, Gawain may think he is being virtuous by not caring for his life, but in Celtic Christian terms he is committing a sin by spurning the gift that God has given humanity. The Green Knight is there to change his mind, which Gawain does when he has his head on the chopping block and the Knight spares his life.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear in the poem’s ambiguous ending whether Gawain has altogether learned the lesson. Audiences had a chance to arrive at Celtic enlightenment, however, and perhaps Arthur and the Camelot knights do by donning green ribbons.

–Just as Celtic Christianity doesn’t believe in original sin, so it doesn’t regard the material world as infused with sin. Rather, creation is sacred. The poem acknowledges this by giving us gorgeous descriptions of nature, and throughout the poem celebrates the five senses, especially in the banqueting scenes in the Green Knight’s castle.

While the poem doesn’t go so far as to say that sexuality is also a sacred gift from God (I don’t know what Celtic Christians believe), it has fun laughing at Gawain for the elaborate ways that he evades the advances of the beautiful lady of the castle. She certainly makes sex very appealing.

Audiences listening to the poem in the 1380s wouldn’t necessarily have sorted all of this out. But they could well have felt, through their enjoyment and their laughter, that it offered them a healthier vision of life and death than they sometimes got from the pulpit. Literature rushed in where religion feared to tread.

Today’s environmental battles sometimes see “Dominionist” Christians squaring off with Green Christians—those who stress God giving humankind “dominion” over the earth (think Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly) vs. those who believe that God appointed humans as stewards (Pope Francis). The first emphasize Genesis 1:26:

Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

The second emphasize Genesis 2:15:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to be solidly in the second camp, and it is certainly where I stand.


Previous Posts on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The Green Knight’s Lessons on Death and Dying 

An Afghan Vet’s Green Knight Encounter 

Sir Gawain and the ISIS Beheadings 

The Meaning of Soldiers and Sex 

Sir Gawain and a Friend’s Cancer 

Living a Balanced Life, Gawain Style 

On Accepting Death and Living Life 

Gawain’s Castle of Life and Death 

A Camelot Knight with One Year to Live 

Hoping against Hope in the Face of Death 

In a Fairy Castle, an Invitation to Life 

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The Bard Does Halloween

Théodore Chassériau, "The Ghost of Banquo"

Théodore Chassériau, “The Ghost of Banquo”

Saturday – Halloween

I reprint today a post on how Shakespeare can enhance your Halloween. May your doorways be filled with shrieking and squealing ghosts.

Today, as you certainly know if you are an American with children, is Halloween, the holiday that has evolved out of All Hallow’s Eve.  If you are a child, it is a day when you have special license to eat all the candy that you can gather from neighbors.  If you are older, you get to tap into your alter ego (or eggo).

To honor the holiday, I went rummaging through Shakespeare to find appropriate passages in Shakespeare.

Warning: they are very scary.

There’s a great one in Julius Caesar, where Caesar’s wife Calpurnia warns him of danger signs:

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.

These particular ghosts made such an impression on Shakespeare that he refers to them again in Hamlet. The passage occurs after Horatio has seen old Hamlet’s ghost:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen—

Macbeth has a reaction to Banquo’s ghost that many a child hopes for when he or she dons a scary mask:

Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation [eyeballs] in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

And then there are those ghosts that Puck mentions:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone;
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They willfully themselves exile from light
And must for aye consort with black-brow’d night.

These passages probably hit Renaissance audiences hard since Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to provide reassurance following each one. Oberon reminds Puck that “we are spirits of a different sort,” and Caesar replies to Calpurnia with the memorable passage,

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Lady Macbeth tries to use common sense:

Why do you make such faces? When all’s done,
You look but on a stool.

Marcellus, meanwhile, consoles Horatio with the belief note that, on Easter, cocks crow all night long so that the dead dare not show their faces:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Happy Halloween.

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Style, Not Truth, the Important Thing

Rubio and Cruz, perhaps the winners of Wednesday's debate

Rubio and Cruz, perhaps the winners of Wednesday’s debate


Liberal political commentators who have been asserting that the Republican Party has become a post-policy and a post-truth party can point to Wednesday night’s debate for confirmation. The winners, everyone seemed to agree, were not those with the soundest arguments or the most promising policies but those who were best at denying facts, dodging questions, and eviscerating opponents.

Oscar Wilde and John Gay would have understood the dynamics. More on these brilliant satirists in a moment.

But first a look at the contest. Carla Fiorina won the last debate, according to many, because of her compelling attack on Planned Parenthood, even though her description of a “selling body parts” sting video was fabricated. In Wednesday’s debate, there was more of the same.

The candidates had every reason to duck and dodge, as the very smart Ezra Klein of Vox explains:

The questions in the CNBC debate, though relentlessly tough, were easily the most substantive of the debates so far. And the problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that’s because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.

The Republican primary has thus far been a festival of outlandish policy. The candidates seem to be competing to craft the tax plan that gives the largest tax cut to the rich while blowing the biggest hole in the deficit (a competition that, as of tonight, Ted Cruz appears to be winning). And the problem is when you ask about those plans, simply stating the facts of the policies sounds like you’re leveling a devastating attack.

Cruz, when asked about his opposition to raising the debt ceiling to prevent a financial meltdown, got the biggest cheers of the night when he went after the “gotcha” moderators. Marco Rubio, asked about the fact that his debt plan disproportionately favors America’s top earners, asserted, “you’re wrong,” even though the figures come from a conservative think tank. Donald Trump denied statements that appear on his website, and Ben Carson claimed that he hasn’t been associated with a fradulent nutritional supplements company, which even the conservative National Review called “a bald-faced lie.”

But they did it so well! In the plaudits received by Cruz and Rubio and in  the instant opinion polls among GOP observers that declared Trump the winner, I am reminded of Mrs. Peachum’s response to Mac the Knife in Beggars’ Opera after he passes bad banknotes:

Peachum: Was Captain Macheath here this morning, for the banknotes he left with you last week?
Mrs. Peachum: Yes, my dear; and though the Bank hath stopped payment, he was so cheerful and so agreeable!

Apparently the party faithful don’t mind if they are fed bulls**t. Perhaps they are like Cecily and Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest when confronted with the persistent lying of Algernon and John:

Cecily: That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?
Gwendolen:  Yes, dear, if you can believe him.
Cecily:  I don’t.  But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.
Gwendolen:  True.  In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing. 

If one substitutes the word “voter” for “girl” and “woman” in one of John’s declarations, one gets a pretty good summation of this election season:

John: My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl [voter].  What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman [voter]!

Every once in a while, however, truth has broken out in spite of itself, such as when John Kasich described Trump’s proposal to depart 11 million immigrants as crazy or when Trump observed that George W. Bush did not in fact keep us safe. Lest we be worried, however, Wilde assures us that such outbursts of veracity will probably not last:

John: Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.  Can you forgive me?

Gwendolen: I can.  For I feel that you are sure to change.

Just think–we have 12 more months of this.

Follow-up thought: Kevin Jones of Mother Jones explains why the CNBC moderators was caught off-guard by the GOP candidates. He’s not surprised that Becky Quick wasn’t able to cite her source for the Donald Trump quote that she cited. (It came from his website.):

The real problem is that Quick was unprepared for bald-faced lying. She expected Trump to spin or tap dance or try to explain away what he said. She didn’t expect him to just flatly deny ever saying it. That’s the only circumstance that would require her to know exactly where the quote came from.

This was a real epidemic on Wednesday night. Candidates have apparently figured out that they don’t need to tap dance. They can just baldly lie. Trump did it. Rubio did it. Carson did it. Fiorina did it. They know that time is short and they probably won’t get called on it. The worst that will happen is that fact checkers will correct them in the morning, but only a tiny fraction of the viewing audience will ever see it. So what’s the downside of lying?

Future moderators are going to have to be aware of this sea change. Modern candidates understand that they don’t need to bother with spin and exaggeration any more. They can just lie, and etiquette limits how much debate moderators can push back. I don’t think debate etiquette is going to change, so this probably means that moderators are going to have to learn to ask questions a little differently. We live in a new era.

Wilde could make a joke of people lying because he assumed that his audiences considered lying to be wrong. When it becomes the new normal, however, it’s no longer a  joking matter.

And another observation:

This observation by Rick Perlstein of the conservative Washington Spectator about the lies is the debate is rather profound:

It takes a lot of energy to sustain a lie. When enough people do it together, over a sustained period of time, it wears on them. It also produces a certain kind of culture: one cut loose from the norms of fair conduct and trust that any organization requires in order to survive as something more than a daily, no-holds-barred war of all against all. A battle royale. A circus, if you prefer.

“War of all against all,” of course, is taken from Thomas Hobbes’s description of “man in a state of nature.”

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Cruz as Beowulf? Try Grendel

Chris Smith, "Grendel"

Chris Kalb, “Grendel”


Normally I would be delighted with a New York Times article that matched up presidential candidates with works of literature, such as Ted Cruz with Beowulf, Hillary Clinton with Persuasion, and Bernie Sanders with Around the World in 80 Days. This piece, however, strikes me as so uninformative that it’s all but useless.

I’ve tried to salvage it, however, by imagining other connections between the candidates and the works they are paired with. Think of it as a parlor game.

First to the article, which is entitled Ted Cruz as Beowulf: Match Candidates with the Books They Sound Like. The piece gives us a Cartesian plane, with the x axis as negative-positive and the y axis as complex-simple. To carry out his “study,” Josh Katz employed

the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook, or SMOG for short, developed by the psychologist G. Harry McLaughlin in the 1960s, and measured each candidate’s language in this year’s presidential debates. The formula is based on the number of words of three syllables or more you use per sentence. This means you’ll tend to get a higher score if your sentences run longer, or for if you use a lot of very big words.

The books used, meanwhile, were ones commonly downloaded from Project Gutenberg, as well as “selections from our personal libraries.”

As it turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders define the extremes:

Mr. Trump stands out as the simplest speaker by far and also one of the more positive. Though he is highly critical of his opponents and often rails against how terrible the world is today, he spends more time talking about how great America will be under a Trump administration. In the opposite corner of the matrix is Bernie Sanders, who prefers both complex language and dire descriptions.

Katz claims that the analysis is “based on a widely used academic approach,” and while I have never encountered it before, I admit that I am not well versed in linguistics. How the candidates line up on the graph seems at least plausible.

I can’t say the same about the books, however. The extremes in this case are Beowulf and Don Quixote (most complex), Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn (most simple), Les Miserables, Ulysses, and The Importance of Being Earnest (most negative) and Dante’s Paradiso (most positive)with everything else somewhere in between.

I’ll buy Paradiso as most positive. But under what measure could Pride and Prejudice be judged more negative than Mansfield Park? How is a lark like Around the World in 80 Days more negative than Huckleberry Finn? And while I agree that Beowulf is a complex work, I wouldn’t say it is more complex than the supposedly simple Huckleberry Finn, even if it does feature more three-syllable words and longer sentences than are uttered by Twain’s 13-year-old narrator. Nor does it achieve the high level of irony of the seemingly simple Dubliners. I could go on and on.

But okay, let’s at least have some fun with this. Unfortunately I’ve had to leave out Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich because the article didn’t find literary equivalents for them.

Ted Cruz and Beowulf: I’ll go with this one but not because Cruz’s debate rhetoric “has a complexity similar to Beowulf.” Rather, I see Cruz as the living embodiment of Grendel, the resentment-crazed troll who rampages through the halls of government, savoring the ripped bodies of his enemies. My book How Beowulf Can Save America:An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage focuses on Cruz-type anger.

Hillary Clinton and Persuasion: Clinton is hardly the unassuming Anne Elliot, but like Anne she hitched her star to an unpredictable mate that has taken her into rough waters: “His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less, the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine.”

Bernie Sanders and Around the World in 80 Days: Sanders is no well-mannered and aristocratic Phileas Fogg, so let’s say that he’s Passepartout, hair flying as he embarks on a wild adventure.

Mike Huckabee and Mansfield Park: The mind reels but, since I’m obligated to answer, maybe we can see him as the honey-tongued seducer Henry Crawford. Only Crawford is a smooth aristocratic seducer whereas Huckabee comes across as a hick snake-oil salesman.

Donald Trump and Huckleberry Finn: No doubt about this one. I’ve already compared him to the Duke and the Dauphin. 

Chris Christie and Tess of the d’Urbervilles: In the past I’ve compared Paul Ryan to Angel Claire. I guess that leaves the crude but entitled Alex D’Urberville for Christie.

Marco Rubio and Journey to the Center of the Earth: We know how Rubio would like this comparison to work out—while remaining low profile (underground) for the first part of the campaign, he then comes erupting out volcanically in a climactic finish. (I’m predicting that Rubio will be the Republican nominee.)

Rand Paul and Oliver Twist: Mr. Bumble, of course. Handing out too much thin gruel to the poor is an affront to his libertarian principles.

Carla Fiorina and Tale of Two Cities: Let them eat cake.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Beowulf Poet, Dickens (Charles), Hardy (Thomas), Twain (Mark), Verne (Jules) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For a Rich Life, Read Widely and Freely

"Girl with Books"

“Girl with Books”


When assessing literature’s impact upon human lives, literary scholars have a problem with generalizing. Different books, after all, impact lives in different ways and even the same book may have varying effects. In some ways, a blog like this one gets closer to the reality than an essay or book that proposes a single overarching theory of literary influence. After all, in the past seven years I have offered up hundreds of examples while inviting you the reader to compile your own list of reading stories.

Wayne Booth, however, has written a single book that acknowledges the kind of variety I have in mind. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction cites hundreds of instances where reading can be seen to have influenced behavior. Furthermore, Booth believes that the shaping influence of books is healthiest if we read a wide range of books. Noting that literary works are like friends, Booth points out that, as with friends, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just a few.

Some friends, for instance, help us through immediate difficulties and others tell us things that we may find useful years from now. We go to some friends for comfort and reassurance, others for tough love. And while some friends are good for us, we also have to acknowledge that some are bad. It’s dangerous, for instance, to have friends who are less interested in our welfare than in simply telling us what we want to know.

You probably can plug in various books for each of the above situations.

Booth also compares books to different world views that we try out for size. When we inhabit a certain literary universe, we arrive at certain insights from the experience. Even the greatest work, however, represents only one truth. As Booth puts it,

[E]very narrative, even one as comprehensive as Remembrance of Things Past, can claim to present no more than one of many possible worlds.

Booth therefore cautions us not to narrow ourselves to a single friend, even if that friend is Shakespeare or Tolstoy:

The serious ethical disasters produced by narratives occur when people sink themselves into an unrelieved hot bath of one kind of narrative. No single work is likely to do us much good or harm, except when we are very young. But a steady immersion at any age in any one author’s norms is likely to be stultifying—even if they happen to be as broad and conventional as those of a Shakespeare or Tolstoy. Just as anyone who limits all friendship to one person risks becoming a partner in a folie-a-deux, a reader who becomes wholly absorbed with one author or one kind of narrative risks becoming grossly misshapen or, at best, frozen in one spot….

Each of us will have a different list of possible stultifications. For me the most interesting ones are the idolators of authors I myself admire: the “gentle Jane-ite” who re-reads all of Austen’s novels every year and thus risks living a narrower life than Austen herself ever led; the total Lawrentian who still in the 1980s tries to enact in dress and behavior the roles that for Lawrence were genuinely exploratory in the 1920s; the devotees of nihilist fiction who, like the “hero” in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, enact at one remove the avant-garde beliefs that their originators paid for in blood.

Some scholars respond to literature’s variety by claiming that literature does not assert anything and should be treated only as metaphorical exploration. Booth points out, however, that this would upset any number of authors:

If we had to take poems either as literal statements or as empty figurations, our choice would be clear: to save our story-tellers from talking nonsense, most of us would no doubt sacrifice the “literal” for the “literary.” But doing so would right upset all the authors who made those assertions of truth: they did not want us to approach their narratives with sterilized, gloved hands, for fear of real contact. No doubt some of them hoped we would even take them literally: “I’ve thought the whole thing over, just like the philosophers, and I’ve decided that what life really is, is a heroic poem.” Some of them even offer titles that trumpet such claims: “Intimations of Immortality”; Comment c’est (How It [All] Is [Beckett]); The Way We Live Now (Trollope); even “Wisdom” (Sara Teasdale).

Booth notes that, by reading many works and many authors, we can both accept the partial truths of individual authors and round out their truths with others. Plurality gets closer to the truth than any single perspective:

[A]ll statements of truth are partial…, [and we should embrace] the very plurality that from other perspectives may seem threatening. We not only recognize that there are many true narratives; we celebrate the multiplicity, recognizing that to be bound to any one story would be to surrender most of what we care for. Each example in our ever-expanding collection of metaphoric worlds will be at best a half-truth; some of them may be downright falsehoods—“fictions” in the pejorative sense of the world used by positivists. But some of them will be, as fictions, the most precious truths we ever know. We try them on for size…, and we thus compare each new one that comes our way with the other worlds we have tried to live in. At any one moment we have a relatively small collection of worlds that we take together as a pretty good summary of the “real.” But each new encounter with a powerful narrative throws a critical light on our previous collection. We can embrace its additions and negations vigorously, so long as we remember that, like all the others, this is a metaphoric construction: a partial structure that stands in place of, or “is carried over from,” whatever Reality might be.

And further on:

The great narratives, including lyric poems, “say” almost everything we know. Each successful effort at story becomes in this view either a decisive rival to or a reinforcement of the world in which we have previously led our lives.

In short, real widely and freely and make sure you choose books that challenge you as well as books that comfort you. Cultivate a varied group of book friends and they will bolster you throughout your life.

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

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

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