Pope Foresaw GOP Capitulation to Trump

by William Hoare, pastel, circa 1739-1784

William Hoare, “Alexander Pope”


If Donald Trump becomes America’s next president, it may be because the electorate has come to see the abhorrent as normal. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, warning against such normalization, has turned to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man to spell out how it happens.

Essay on Man is Pope’s ambitious attempt to make sense of humanity in all its contradictions. It was written for a more optimistic age, and Voltaire would satirize in Candide its assertion that “whatever is, is right.” However, as Harvard’s Helen Vendler notes in Poets Thinking, Pope is not setting forth a systematic philosophy but rather exploring ideas, and among his concerns is how we rationalize vice.

In the moments leading up to the passage quoted by Gopnik, Pope has been talking about how all of us are a blend of vice and virtue. In fact, the seven deadly sins, when practiced in moderation, are actually virtues. For instance:

See anger, zeal and fortitude supply;
Even avarice, prudence; sloth, philosophy;
Lust, through some certain strainers well refined,
Is gentle love, and charms all womankind;
Envy, to which th’ ignoble mind’s a slave,
Is emulation in the learned or brave

It thus can be difficult to determine that point at which virtue slides into vice:

As, in some well-wrought picture, light and shade,
And oft so mix, the difference is too nice
Where ends the virtue or begins the vice.

While conceding that it is sometimes difficult to determine where virtue leaves off and vice begins, however, Pope says it is still possible to distinguish between the two. In other words, he warns against moral relativism. Pope’s warning is timely since we see many asserting a false equivalence, arguing that Trump is no worse than the conventional Democrat Hillary Clinton. Gopnik quotes the passage to conclude his article:

Fools! who from hence into the notion fall,
That vice or virtue there is none at all.
If white and black blend, soften, and unite
A thousand ways, is there no black or white?
Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain;
’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.

In other words, if you consult your heart you will know the difference between white and black, between right and wrong—and, I would add, between Clinton and Trump. It’s when you take time and effort (pain) to confuse or mistake them that you get into trouble.

Pope goes on to complicate the argument further. While your heart may know the difference, confusion can still occur for those who become overly familiar with vice. Gopnik opens his article with the following psychological description:

   Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

To sum it up, we know at first glance, by consulting our heart, what is right and what is wrong. But that first glance can be overridden by familiarity.

Endure-Pity-Embrace, Gopnik points out, is exactly what is going on with many who once opposed Trump:

The three-part process by which the gross becomes the taken for granted has been on matchlessly grim view this past week in the ascent of Donald Trump. First merely endured by those in the Republican Party, with pained grimaces and faint bleats of reluctance, bare toleration passed quickly over into blind, partisan allegiance—he’s going to be the nominee, after all, and so is our boy. Then a weird kind of pity arose, directed not so much at him (he supplies his own self-pity) as at his supporters, on the premise that their existence somehow makes him a champion for the dispossessed, although the evidence indicates that his followers are mostly stirred by familiar racial and cultural resentments, of which Trump has been a single-minded spokesperson.

Now for the embrace. One by one, people who had not merely resisted him before but called him by his proper name—who, until a month ago, were determined to oppose a man they rightly described as a con artist and a pathological liar—are suddenly getting on board. Columnists and magazines that a month ago were saying #NeverTrump are now vibrating with the frisson of his audacity, fawning over him or at least thrilling to his rising poll numbers and telling one another, “We can control him.”

To cite just one example of someone who has turned 180 degrees, former Texas Governor Rick Perry now wants to be Trump’s vice president. This after, last July, calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism” and accusing him of being a “sower of discord” who

foments agitation, thrives on division, scapegoats certain elements of society, and offers empty platitudes and promises. He is without substance when one scratches below the surface.

He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.

To those who think they can control Trump, Gopnik has a definitive answer:

No, you can’t. One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is. He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day. It is articulated in his insistence on the rightness of torture and the acceptable murder of noncombatants. It is self-evident in the threats he makes daily to destroy his political enemies, made only worse by the frivolity and transience of the tone of those threats. He makes his enmity to American values clear when he suggests that the Presidency holds absolute power, through which he will be able to end opposition—whether by questioning the ownership of newspapers or talking about changing libel laws or threatening to take away F.C.C. licenses. To say “Well, he would not really have the power to accomplish that” is to misunderstand the nature of thin-skinned authoritarians in power. They do not arrive in office and discover, as constitutionalists do, that their capabilities are more limited than they imagined. They arrive, and then make their power as large as they can.

And further on:

The American Republic stands threatened by the first overtly anti-democratic leader of a large party in its modern history—an authoritarian with no grasp of history, no impulse control, and no apparent barriers on his will to power. The right thing to do, for everyone who believes in liberal democracy, is to gather around and work to defeat him on Election Day. Instead, we seem to be either engaged in parochial feuding or caught by habits of tribal hatred so ingrained that they have become impossible to escape even at moments of maximum danger. 

Gopnik concludes by describing the long-term damage that Trump can do and the pain we will undergo if we don’t stop him:

The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate. Before those famous schoolroom lines, Pope made another observation, which was that even as you recognize that the world is a mixed-up place, you still can’t fool yourself about the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable: “Fools! who from hence into the notion fall/That vice or virtue there is none at all,” he wrote. “Is there no black or white? / Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain; / ’Tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.” The pain of not seeing that black is black soon enough will be ours, and the time to recognize this is now.

I have been a Democrat all my life, but if Trump were a Democrat running against Romney or McCain or one of the Bushes, I would vote Republican. There is no excuse for voting for Trump. Ask your own heart and nothing is so plain.

Further thought:

A Mary Oliver passage from “An Old Whorehouse” came to mind as I read Gopnik’s concerns about voters coming to accept Trump as normal. It’s about children exploring an abandoned brothel and excitedly imagining what occurred there. Perhaps they’re not unlike those who are titillated by Trump’s unconventional prescriptions and his political incorrectness. The poem concludes,

It would be years before
we’d learn how effortlessly

sin blooms, then softens,
like any bed of flowers.

Posted in Oliver (Mary), Pope (Alexander) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hillary Clinton as Emma Woodhouse

Gramola Garai as Emma Woodhouse

Gramola Garai as Emma Woodhouse


Are Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorability ratings due to 25 years of nonstop GOP criticism? A wonderful New York Times article about how some women are endorsing her in part because she has been relentlessly attacked has me thinking of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Hold on a moment and I’ll explain.

In the article, Elizabeth Word Gutting relates all that her mother had to go through when her husband died in 1973, leaving her without an income even as she had a child to support. In the years that followed, she experienced many of the indignities that single mothers often suffered at the time, including hiring discrimination, sexual harassment, and problems with credit card, insurance, and finance companies. Here’s what this woman sees in Clinton:

For the first time in her life, my mom sees someone who can directly relate to her own experiences in a strong position to become president. Mrs. Clinton has led so many charges during her political career that have supported women, including fighting relentlessly for reproductive rights and speaking up for women and girls worldwide when she was secretary of state.

The author then reflects upon the moment during the Iowa primary when a young Bernie supporter asked Clinton a patronizing question about her unpopularity:

At a town hall a few months ago, a young man asked Mrs. Clinton why young people lacked enthusiasm for her.

She sounded a bit wounded, but she tried to explain what she’d been up against for so many years. Despite all the criticisms, she said, over the course of several decades in the public eye, all she could do was continue to stand her ground.

Hillary’s ability to stand her ground is why both mother and daughter are enthusiastically supporting her. The article concludes,

I also love that she is always the last woman standing. She has survived ceaseless attacks. It must get very tiring, and yet she never flags. She has been called a bitch and a witch and characterized as Lady Macbeth. She’s shrill, she shouts, she barks. She’s uninspiring, she’s unlikable and she’s not exciting the base. Sometimes I think that many people in this country are still scared to see a powerful woman. But I am more ready for her than ever.

In the years when my mom was a single mother, people commented on her lifestyle with alarming frequency. Why wasn’t she living with her parents, they wanted to know. Wasn’t she worried that if she didn’t marry again soon, her son would grow up to be gay? Her landlord came over after her husband died, hemming and hawing, saying how sorry she was, but also that she was hoping my mom might move out to be closer to family, which would probably be better for everyone.

Well. My mother persevered. She smiled politely and bit her tongue and did what she had to do to survive those rough years.

Remind you of anyone?

Now imagine America quoting from George Knightley’s apologetic marriage proposal to Emma next November:

I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.

Like Knightley, we’ll be lucky that she is willing to say yes.

To be sure, many of Knightley’s criticisms have been just. Handsome, clever, and rich Emma, like Hillary, is a flawed woman who is overly fond of getting her own way. She’s a snob and she has an irritating penchant for interfering in other people’s lives, sometimes to their detriment. Austen knew that she was taking a chance in creating the character and worried that readers would not warm up to her. (“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”)

Even though Emma rubs many people the wrong way, however, she also wants to do what is right. Like Hillary, she spends hours patiently listening to people talk about their problems, and, like Hillary, she is committed to helping indigent women in her community. She wouldn’t win any popularity contexts in Highbury, but the most exemplary man in the area sees her true worth and honors her.

So enough with the cheap shots. It’s fine to have policy differences with Hillary, but stop beating up on her for being a strong woman.

Further thoughts: If people are indeed linking Hillary with Lady Macbeth, it’s worth looking into the comparison. The strongest charge against Lady Macbeth (well, besides goading her husband to murder his king) is that she “unsexes” herself in order to achieve power. I suspect much of the animosity against Hillary is that she is not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave.

Here’s Lady Macbeth’s famous speech about choosing power over femininity:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! 

Yet, like Hillary, Lady Macbeth must hide her ambitions. Her version of the “chocolate chip cookie bakeoff” with Barbara Bush is playing nice when Macbeth wants to disguise his murderous intentions towards Banquo:

Lady Macbeth:
Come on;

Gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks;
Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night.

So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you:
Let your remembrance apply to Banquo;
Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue:
Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards [masks] to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

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Using Lit to Discover Purpose in Science

Joseph Wright of Derby, "An Experiment upon a Bird in an Air Pump"

Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment upon a Bird in an Air Pump”


“Introduction to Literature” has a special place in my heart. Most of my students are non-English majors fulfilling their Arts requirement, and, as the course has a nature theme and counts towards the Environmental Studies major, I tend to get a lot of biology, biochemistry, and chemistry majors.

I love the moment when literature becomes more than a requirement for them as they realize that it speaks to some of their greatest concerns. Today, with permission, I share two essays from this past semester.

Stephen Trimnell, an African American biology major who hopes one day to be a doctor, was inspired by Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. A graduating senior, Stephen used his essay to look back over his career in the sciences and found himself relating to how the “celestial light” of Wordsworth’s childhood fades into “the light of common day” as he grows up.

Stephen looks back to the excitement that prompted him to embark upon a career in the sciences:

I remember as a child watching the National Geographic channel with my father. From bugs to birds, I was in awe of how these creatures move, breathe and live, how complex and intricate their bodies were inside and out, and how the synergy of every organ made the sum of their parts greater than the whole. I experienced a shift in my paradigm when I considered my own species. I thought to myself, if the intricacies of these lesser creatures evokes my intellectual curiosity, how much more the intricacies of the human body? From that moment on, I set out to learn how the human body works. I had so many questions.

Stephen then describes a Wordsworthian descent:

School, however, has given me a mixed relationship with science. Amidst the hectic regurgitation of textbook information on exams to the long readings of dense material, I tend to forget my original inspiration. When this happens, the wonder that is the flame dims. As the dark shroud of self-doubt looms over me, I get discouraged and wonder if I am even on the right path.

Or as Wordsworth puts it,

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. 

And further on:

The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? 

At this point in the essay, Stephen turns to another Wordsworth poem. The following (lightly edited) excerpt indicates a senior who is ready to move on from college:

But what caused him to lose his flame in the first place? In “The Tables Turned,” Wordsworth reveals the source of this phenomenon:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

Books only equip you with information; they do not exactly show how to use it. Wordsworth tells us that if we toil too much in getting our information out of books, we will age faster—or as Wordsworth says, “grow double.”

Part of the problem lies in our preference for receiving information out of our textbooks instead of from real world experience. When the poet tells us to “Come forth into the light of things, /Let Nature be your teacher,” he is beckoning us to actually experience the knowledge we are learning and to apply it, not just read it. He states this clearly when he asserts,

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Stephen hasn’t entirely lost his childhood sense of wonder, however. Intimations helps him connect his current research with his early excitement:

Fortunately, adults do not entirely lose their sense of wonder. Whether that sense of wonder be in math, history or whatever, we adults have “embers,” and we will never lose our connection with the light. For this light,         

Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

So I will “grieve not, rather find, strength in what remains behind.” Wordsworth tells me to sing and give thanks for the pieces of flame I am able to salvage. If I become lost in textbook readings and exams and my focus strays from the wonder that led me this far, I will look towards my embers. I will not underestimate their power. When I look back at the remains of our flame, I too can be empowered. I too can tell the shroud of self-doubt looming over our head “no more.” Whenever I get discouraged with self-pity or self-doubt, Wordsworth encourages me to look to the embers of my flame. To look to why I embarked on my path in the first place. Then I will remember that I am where I am for a reason. This is when the light from my embers will cast away any dark debilitating thoughts of incompetence and guide me to my destination.  

A related self-discovery occurred with chemistry major Emma Skekel when she wrote about Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior. Dellarobia, an Appalachian sheep farmer’s wife, is on her way to have a sordid affair with “Jimmy the telephone guy” when she is stopped in her tracks by a climate change disaster: she discovers millions of monarch butterflies in the Tennessee mountains. Dellarobia returns home and later begins working with scientists who are studying why the insects have relocated there from Mexico. She also resists her father-in-law, who wants to clearcut the forest to pay off debts. By the end of the novel, Dellarobia has amicably separated from her husband and is preparing to attend college to study etymology.

Emma wanted to understand the reasons for Dellarobia’s turnaround but initially couldn’t identify a compelling theme driving the change. She was a bit like an actor who has memorized all her lines but can’t bring the character to life.

In the revision conference, I pushed Emma to figure out what was a stake. Why did she care about what happened to Dellarobia? That’s when she began to expand upon her summer job at a national park.

Emma figured out that Dellarobia needs to find a cause beyond herself to devote her energies to. Her life is reinvigorated once she shifts from her own misery to the plight of the planet and once she realizes she is not altogether powerless. She is elated when she discovers she can play a role, albeit a small one, in saving it.

Figuring this out about Dellarobia helped Emma figure it out about herself. She began to see her work at the park in a new light:

During my national park job, I worked to restore the park, maintain its services and local environment, and preserve its history. I began my time there by trimming trees along the hiking trails, replanting new native species in place of invasive species, and doing ordinary jobs, just like Dellarobia started out with a basic task of counting the fallen Monarchs within a certain area. I worked my way up in the job, I gradually started interacting with guests, setting up activities for children, creating advertisements for the park, and recording and transcribing oral histories of the park’s former glory as a camp for middle-schoolers.

Emma caught a glimpse of what it means to live a life of service, and because she was most interested in the “whys” and “hows” of nature, she decided to become an environmental chemist. While her life doesn’t match up exactly with Dellarobia’s, they share a common interest in doing something that counts. Emma thought she was reading about a fictional character and discovered that she was reading about herself.

Literature does this time and again. Yesterday I wrote about how Peter Erdos, a student with Crohn’s disease, discovered a purpose beyond his sick self in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then we see Stephen using literature to rekindle his youthful enthusiasm and Emma using it to clarify her own life journey. Our students are hungry for a sense of purpose, and literature helps them search for it in ways they can find nowhere else.

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Crohn’s Disease and the Mariner’s Agony

Gustave Doré, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Gustave Doré, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Spiritual Sunday

The final six weeks of a semester are always nuts. At the end of tumultuous grading storms, I find myself, like Robinson Crusoe, washed up on the beach and barely alive. I am compensated, however, by reassuring evidence that literature continues to work its magic on my students.

To continue this nautical theme, I share today an account of a Rime of the Ancient Mariner essay that I received from history major Peter Erdos in my Introduction to Literature class. (Peter gave me permission to use his name.) The poem, I learned, can have special meaning for someone with Crohn’s disease.

The essay wasn’t originally about the illness, however. Peter mentioned it in passing in an early draft that was confused about its intent. Peter knew the poem had moved him deeply but he wasn’t sure why. In a revision conference, we came to realize that Peter had undergone his own version of the mariner’s journey.

Peter was 11 when he learned that he had Crohn’s disease. As his father is a Lutheran pastor, Peter looked for a religious explanation, and he concluded that either God didn’t care about him or that He was actively punishing him. As Peter entered his high school years, he became increasingly depressed and cynical to the point that his father finally confronted him.

Although Peter says that his father never talks about religion at home, he did this time, collaring his son and saying, “Pete I’m tired of this crap! You feel like God doesn’t love you? Well you’re thinking like an idiot, and I know you’re not an idiot.”

He then told Peter to start paying more attention to the Bible, especially to Paul’s epistles.

I’ll get to the outcome in a moment, but let’s first look at why the poem hit Peter as it did. Peter said the albatross made him think of the Holy Spirit, which Matthew 3:16 compares to a dove. Peter’s own version of shooting the albatross was closing his heart to God. For a child who had been raised a Christian, this left Peter feeling terribly alone:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony. 

I’ll let Peter take it from here (I’ve edited his essay slightly):

By this point of the poem the Mariner is severely depressed about what he has done, and he wears the albatross as a constant reminder. Like Paul after God struck him blind for his persecution of Christians, the Mariner is feeling lost, but he cannot pull himself out of his self-pity. He feels alone and in a desolate place, which mirrors his spiritual desolation:

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye…

 He tries to make amends and apologize for what he has done, but, like me as a child, he has forgotten how to talk to God:

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust. 

The mariner’s epiphany comes, Peter says, when he blesses the water snakes, which formerly he has regarded as loathsome. Here’s Peter again:

The Mariner has finally reached what he was meant to reach. He reaches a spiritual epiphany where even what may seem as lowly and slimy monsters are truly beautiful creations of God. He doesn’t even know it when he blesses them. He has found the love that was always there for him. The weight of the Albatross finally leaves him.

When I found God again I finally stopped caring that I was perpetually sick. It did not matter to me. I finally felt as free as the Mariner when the weight of the Albatross leaves him:

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell off and sank
Like lead into the sea.

Peter particularly thrills to the passage where the mariner returns home—or, as Peter sees it, returns to God:

We drifted o’er the harbor-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway. 

As we talked about Peter’s evolution, he said that his father had essentially “fixed him with his glittering eye,” causing him, like the wedding guest, to become “a sober and a wiser man.” That explains Peter’s conclusion, where he looks towards his future. It’s not enough that he himself was reconciled to God. He now has the responsibility to help others. Here’s Peter concluding his essay (again, lightly edited):

It would be easy to assume that the Mariner’s story ends on the boat. That he has had an intense emotional epiphany and that is it. But he doesn’t feel that this is enough. Like me, the Mariner feels the need to go and teach others the path that has led him to this place of spiritual fulfillment. He, like the apostles Peter and Paul, must teach the lessons that he has been taught so that others who are in similar positions can avoid making the same mistakes—so that they don’t have to undergo the pain of long years of doubt and suffering.

St. Paul writes, “When I became a man I put away childish things.” I went through a phase of life where I was like the Mariner. Early on, I thought nothing could hurt me. I was self-confident, and after a point I forgot about God. When I got sick and scared, I needed something to believe in but I had forgotten how to pray. I became depressed and eventually thought, like the Mariner, that I was being punished for something that I had done. After a period where I didn’t believe that God cared about me and that I was suffering with a chronic illness for the rest of my life for no reason, I realized that God did this to mature me and to help me grow. I learned, through the Mariner’s penance, that God is teaching him about the sacredness of his creation in nature.

God has not forgotten the Mariner, and I know now that he has not forgotten me. God spoke to both of us through an intense spiritual epiphany that we both needed in order to feel like we had a purpose—like we both had a future.

Peter had already done a lot of spiritual wrestling before he came to Coleridge’s poem. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, however, has provided him with images and a narrative with which to further explore his life’s path.

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Trollope & Trump’s Willing Enablers

The Way We Live Now


I’ve been listening to The Way We Live Now (1875) and am impressed with how Trollope depicts people rationalizing their friendship with scoundrels. Given the way many in the GOP are coming around to Donald Trump, the novel seems specially relevant.

Credit must be given to those Republicans who are refusing to support Trump. In an important Washington Post column headlined “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” neoconservative Robert Kagan is calling out the party that he has served in the past.

First of all, because the danger represented by Trump can’t be emphasized enough, here’s Kagan’s explanation of why Trump is a fascist:

We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

Kagan has special contempt for those people who have talked themselves into supporting Trump:

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

Kagan concludes,

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

Trollope’s novel is about the relentless pursuit of money by people with titles but little else. They dream of tapping into the wealth of Melmotte, a shadowy and vulgar figure rumored to have unlimited funds. Watching them dance to his tune brings to mind various Republican flirtations with Trump.

The passage I share today, however, involves a Melmotte associate, a young gentleman who has started cheating at the men’s club. Sir Felix, another wastrel, sees him palming aces and tells his friend Dolly about it. Although Dolly is one of the victims, he responds as far too many in the GOP are responding to Trump: he would rather be cheated than undergo the ugliness that would come with a blow-up. Here’s Dolly doing a version of New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte’s  “I support but don’t endorse”:

On their way to the city Felix told his dreadful story about Miles Grendall. “By George!” said Dolly. “And you think you saw him do it!”

“It’s not thinking at all. I’m sure I saw him do it three times. I believe he always had an ace somewhere about him.” Dolly sat quite silent thinking of it. “What had I better do?” asked Sir Felix.

“By George;—I don’t know.”

“What should you do?”

“Nothing at all. I shouldn’t believe my own eyes. Or if I did, should take care not to look at him.”

“You wouldn’t go on playing with him?”

“Yes I should. It’d be such a bore breaking up.”

“But Dolly,—if you think of it!”

“That’s all very fine, my dear fellow, but I shouldn’t think of it.”

“And you won’t give me your advice.”

“Well;—no; I think I’d rather not. I wish you hadn’t told me. Why did you pick me out to tell me? Why didn’t you tell Nidderdale?”

“He might have said, why didn’t you tell Longestaffe?”

“No, he wouldn’t. Nobody would suppose that anybody would pick me out for this kind of thing. If I’d known that you were going to tell me such a story as this I wouldn’t have come with you.”

“That’s nonsense, Dolly.”

“Very well. I can’t bear these kind of things. I feel all in a twitter already.”

“You mean to go on playing just the same?”

“Of course I do. If he won anything very heavy I should begin to think about it, I suppose.

So the GOP has decided to go on playing with Trump just the same. Better not to believe your own eyes than to feel all in a twitter. And if your eyes start seeing the truth, look away.

Now, if Trump does win anything “very heavy,” well, maybe you’ll begin to think about it. At least you suppose you will.

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Lily, Achilles, Bertha & Ishmael on Vacation

Queequeg and Ishmael

Queequeg and Ishmael


I’ve been traveling for the last couple of days so today you get a quick post about travel—specifically, about the vacations that humorist Makaelia Clements thinks that different characters deserve: Thanks to Brian Joseph for alerting me to the article in The Toast. 

I chose the four I like the best and provide possible explanations:

Lily Bart, House of Mirth

A villa on the Amalfi Coast, and a envelope full of pocket money, and no company. Give Lily Bart days and weeks to spend to herself, riding a bicycle from tiny seaside town to tiny seaside town, up and down the rolling coastline, spending her days finding deserted beaches where she’d swim with nobody looking. She would find a restaurant that she liked best and every night she would go and get a table for one and sit there with a carafe of wine and eat a different item off the menu. The waiters would flirt with her, and she would flirt back, delighted, but she would never bring company, and she would have an unending supply of good books to prop up against her plate of spaghetti while she ate.

The cash-strapped Lily Bart lives an impossibly complicated life and deserves some quiet away from society. Clements appears to think that what Lily really needs is a quiet vacation spot, good food, and an unending supply of books

Achilles, The Iliad

A trip to the 21st century. Prague, maybe, or London, some big city where he can wander around being a bored tourist, snapping his gum, picking his nose in cathedrals, snapback on crooked and hopping from foot to foot, looking for a basketball court.

The joke here, I guess, is that Achilles is a spoiled jock who deserves the hellish experience (for him) of visiting a cultural center.

Bertha Mason, Jane Eyre

She goes home. On the ship crossing she stands at the prow and the wind feels like it’s ripping all the cobwebs and cold and ash out of her mind. She doesn’t sleep very much; instead she wanders the ship at night feeling out all the doorways, checking which ones open for her.

This is my favorite. Yes, the madwoman in the attic needs to return to the West Indies. Not that doing so will entirely restore her sanity.

Ishmael and Queequeg, Moby Dick

A fancy resort somewhere in Thailand. The faker the better. Give them an ocean so flat the idea of sailing is ludicrous, so clear you can see right to the bottom, and populated only with shining – and small – fish. Give them a clean, white-washed room, with a little shelf for Queeqeug’s altar and a king-size bed for the both of them.

Ah yes, Moby Dick’s homosexual subtext, initially signaled by the book’s title and followed up by passages such as this one:

Queequeg…politely motioned me to get into bed–rolling over to one side as much as to say–“I won’t touch a leg of ye.” “Good night, landlord,” said I, “you may go.” I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

And the following morning:

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte), Homer, Melville (Herman) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trump’s Use of the Homeric Epithet

François Gérard, "Blind Homer"

François Gérard, “Blind Homer”


Whenever Homer shows up in a New York Times headline, I’ve got to post on it. The piece was on Donald Trump’s use of the Homeric epithet:

Donald Trump’s repertoire of insulting nicknames for his opponents keeps expanding.

First came “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.” Then Mr. Trump added “Crooked Hillary” to the mix. Now he’s hit upon “Crazy Bernie Sanders” and “Goofy Elizabeth Warren.” Mr. Trump is so enamored of the latter invention that he used it in eight tweets last Wednesday alone.

 Reporter Anna North talked to a classicist to understand the rhetorical device:

Every character in the Iliad and the Odyssey has an epithet, or “a distinctive adjective that sums up that character,” explained Bruce Louden, a professor of languages and linguistics at the University of Texas at El Paso who specializes in Homer’s epics. Odysseus is “much-devising” or “much-enduring”; Achilles is “swift-footed”; Athena is “gray-eyed.”

Since the epics were long and typically performed orally, Professor Louden said, the epithets helped to remind listeners of the characters’ key traits. “Crooked,” “crazy” and “goofy” might serve a similar function. “They’re instant handles; they’re clearly designed for repetition,” he said.

And then there are the ways that Trump is no Homer:

One difference between Donald Trump and Homer (well, one of many) is that Homeric epithets are almost always positive. Mr. Trump is “not observing any of the traditional rules of decorum in which epithets would normally be passed around.” Besides, “Homeric epithets are accurate. Trump’s are not necessarily so,” Professor Louden added.

Literature’s aim, after all, is truth. And then there’s politics.

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Nature and “My Babe So Beautiful”

Young Eden

Young Eden


I got to hold my latest granddaughter for the first time yesterday as we visited my son and his family in Atlanta. Although it was a beautiful spring day, I thought of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” as I gazed at the sleeping child.

That’s because Coleridge meditates on how God will speak to his own infant child as he grows up. The “great universal teacher” works through nature—“the Frost performs its secret ministry”—and will communicate to young Hartley through the mountains, lakes, and clouds of the Lake District: “So shalt thou see and hear/ The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible/ Of that eternal language.”

This teacher teaches the spirit of inquiry and spiritual exploration. Or as Coleridge puts it, “he shall mold/Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.” This is exactly what I want for young Eden:

Here’s the second half of the poem:

        Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side, 
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm, 
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies 
And momentary pauses of the thought! 
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart 
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee, 
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore, 
And in far other scenes! For I was reared 
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, 
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. 
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze 
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags 
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, 
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores 
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear 
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible 
Of that eternal language, which thy God 
Utters, who from eternity doth teach 
Himself in all, and all things in himself. 
Great universal Teacher! he shall mold 
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask. 

         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee, 
Whether the summer clothe the general earth 
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing 
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch 
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch 
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall 
Heard only in the trances of the blast, 
Or if the secret ministry of frost 
Shall hang them up in silent icicles, 
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

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How To Pin Down Protean Donald Trump

Sebastien Slodtz, "Aristaeus and Proteus"

Sebastien Slodtz, “Aristaeus and Proteus”


The Democrats now must do what Donald Trump’s Republican opponents never managed: figure out how to hold him responsible for what he says and what he proposes.

A sea nymph (or Nereid) from Homer’s Odyssey reveals how to do it. Before looking at her instructions, however, let’s first survey the problem. 

 Blogger Paul Waldman of The Washington Post says he’s only starting to realize “how comprehensive Trump’s assault on the fundamentals of American politics truly is.”

This in turn poses special challenges for the press:

[T]hat has left the media — whose job it is to report what’s happening and describe it to the citizenry in a coherent way that enables them to make a reasonable decision — at loose ends. We simply don’t know how to cover a candidate like this. We need to figure it out, and quickly.

 Waldman elaborates:

The foundation of democratic debate is policy, issues, the choices we make about what we as a nation should do. That’s what the government we create does on our behalf: it confronts problems, decides between alternatives, and pursues them. That’s also the foundation of how we in the press report on politics. Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about the personalities involved, but underneath that are competing ideas about what should be done. Should we raise taxes or lower them? Spend more or spend less? Make abortions easier or harder to get? Give more people health coverage or fewer? How do we combat ISIS? How should we address climate change? How can we improve the economy? How can we reduce crime? What sort of transportation system do we want? Which areas should government involve itself in, and which should it stay out of?

Donald Trump, Waldman says,

has taken these presumptions and torn them to pieces, then spat on them and laughed. And so far we seem to have no idea what to do about it.

He provides the following example:

On the question of the minimum wage, Trump has previously said he would not raise it. Then Sunday he said he did want to raise it. Then in a separate interview on the very same day he said there should be no federal minimum wage at all, that instead we should “Let the states decide.” Then yesterday he said he does want to increase the federal minimum wage.

So when you ask the question, “Where does Donald Trump stand on the minimum wage?”, the answer is: everywhere and nowhere. He has nothing resembling a position, because what he said today has no relationship to what he said yesterday or what he’ll say tomorrow. And we’re seeing it again and again.

Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin agrees and says that Trump has “cracked the campaign reporters’ code”:

In those debates, and in interviews, Trump regularly runs circles around interviewers because they pare their follow-up questions down to a minimum, or none at all. After 30-plus years in the media spotlight, he knows how to wait out an interviewer, offering noncommittal sound bites and incoherent rejoinders until he hears the phrase, “let’s move on.” He takes advantage of the slipshod, shallow techniques journalism has made routine, particularly on TV — techniques that, in the past, were sufficient to trip up less-media-savvy candidates — but that Trump knows how to sidestep.

Trump is a master of darting from slogan to slogan.

In other words, he resembles Proteus. And to pin down Proteus, one needs guidance from one of Proteus’s daughters. (So we need inside information from Ivanka Trump?)

A Nereid helps Menelaus when contrary winds are preventing him from returning home and he doesn’t know why.  She informs him that her father knows the answer but that getting information out of him will be as difficult as getting Trump to reveal his income tax records. Step #1 involves getting down and dirty—Menelaus and his men will need to hide amongst some very smelly seals:

There flippered seals, brine children, shining come
from silvery foam in crowds to lie around him,
exhaling rankness from the deep sea floor.
Tomorrow dawn I’ll take you to those caves
and bed you down there. Choose three officers
for company—brave men they had better be—
the old one has strange powers, I must tell you.
He goes amid the seals to check their number,
and when he sees them all, and counts them all,
he lies down like a shepherd with his flock.

Feel free to draw comparisons with how reporters must wade through all the name-calling, fabrications, and conspiracy theories that comprise the Trump Show. Menelaus is lucky in that the Nereid comes to his olfactory rescue:

Meanwhile the Nereid swam from the lap of Ocean
laden with four sealskins, new flayed
for the hoax she thought of playing on her father.
In the sand she scooped out hollows for our bodies
and sat down, waiting. We came close to touch her,
and, bedding us, she threw the sealskins over us—
a strong disguise; oh, yes, terribly strong
as I recall the stench of those damned seals.
Would any man lie snug with a sea monster?
But here the nymph, again, came to our rescue,
dabbing ambrosia under each man’s nose—
a perfume drowning out the bestial odor.

The hard work has only begun, however. The Nereid has laid out what must be done next:

Here is your opportunity: at this point
gather yourselves, with all your heart and strength,
and tackle him before he bursts away.
He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks the silence. When he does,
he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:

Compare this now with Gitlin’s advice to campaign reporters:

[I]nterviewers must do their homework and be prepared to go at least 2-3 questions deep on any issue.

When Trump makes a blunt, sweeping statement like saying he’d “get along very well” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, journalists have to follow up by asking how, specifically, he thinks Putin would respond to increased economic sanctions. If he won’t answer, they should do what conservative Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes did back in March. Interviewers should say, flatly, “You’re not answering my question.”

Reporters at major news outlets need to inquire more deeply into Trump’s alleged business relationships with mafia-controlled construction companies, and about the way he cut corners to get lavish taxpayer subsidies and government approvals for his hotels and casinos — questions that still lack complete answers since they were raised in Wayne Barrett’s 1992 book, Trump: The Deals and The Downfall, and further developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston.

Journalists need to remind Trump, and voters, of the many times he’s claimed as fact something demonstrated to be false — that on 9/11, for example, “thousands and thousands of people” in New Jersey Arab American communities cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers. If Trump says he can’t remember, remind him he claimed to have “the world’s greatest memory.”

Will it work? Perhaps we can draw some hope from the success of Menelaus’s efforts:

When at last he slept
we gave a battle cry and plunged for him,
locking our hands behind him. But the old one’s
tricks were not knocked out of him; far from it.
First he took on a whiskered lion’s shape,
a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar;
then sousing water; then a tall green tree.
Still we hung on, by hook or crook, through everything,
until the Ancient saw defeat, and grimly
opened his lips to ask me:
‘Son of Atreus, who counseled you to this? A god:
what god? Set a trap for me, overpower me—why?’

Imagine Trump bellowing, “Sons and daughters of the Fourth Estate, who counseled you in setting this trap for me?”

We can always dream.

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All Around Me Crimson Petals


Spiritual Sunday

I share today a wonderful poem by one of my students, Clare Hogan, who will be attending the University of Michigan’s MFA Creative Writing program in the fall. Clare took my Jane Austen class four years ago, and I also vividly recall teaching her Emily Dickinson the following year in a 19th century survey class.

I mention Dickinson because Clare was riveted by her passionate poetry, which may have inspired Clare’s senior project: “The work they did with sweat and light”: An Analysis of Ecstatic Narrative in the Poetry of Graham, Doty, and Szybist and a Collection of Poems.”

Clare describes the ecstasy story as follows:

The narrators of early Christian stories of ecstasy discuss their experiences in terms that are, more often than not, elliptical at best: the ecstatic moment is gestured at with descriptions of visions “appearing,” or else a light shining from nowhere in particular, of voices and stigmatas, of experiencing Christ’s crucifixion. Evelyn Underhill, in her book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, discusses the Catholic standard for a supernatural ecstasy: often, she says, “mystics declare that the self is ‘in God and God is in her.’

One of Clare’s poems is about Joan of Arc, whose name Clare took when she was confirmed. In it, Clare borrows heavily from the various examinations of Joan. The “Fairy Tree” is where Joan had her visions, “body for body” is a reference she made to throwing the English out of France,” and the rusty sword is the one she discovered, aided by her voices, behind an altar.

Clare’s dazzling final couplet, which references the sword, sums up the ecstatic experience.

Last Private Examination: Joan

By Clare Hogan

Bishop, your lips seem ones to reverence.
I thought the Fairy Tree’s storm-riffled

limbs could do no harm if I did not name it
God. Yes, I draped wreaths on those gnarled

branches for Our Lady (I heard her hands
or those of spirits swim at night through

the petals) and yes, when young, I danced.
I’m always misbehaving. There a Voice first

taught me of trench wounds, healing time, lengths
of red on metal. I wish to become that, rising

from irons to my fear of fire: new dress in flames,
all around me crimson petals. Speak, then, Bishop,

the sentence: I die by you. I never said body for body
though I want, like Our Lady, quickening, crowning,

and arms to pull that blossoming thing from my own
numb form—branched out and become, by me,

a commonwealth. I name now what spoke to me
beneath the Fairy Tree’s leaves. I say body for God.

I wear my armor. I misbehave. Watch: with no effort,
the rust is falling from the blade of my sword.

Posted in Hogan (Clare) | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

How Trump Is Changing the Discourse

It Can't Happen Here


I fear that this blog is becoming All Trump All the Time. In my defense, I think it is vital that we figure this man out and how to stop him. I believe Donald Trump to be the greatest threat to American democracy and to world stability that I have seen in my 64+ years on this earth. If literature can at all assist in the fight, then it is this literature teacher’s responsibility to cite literature. See it as my modest contribution to #StopTrump.

The indispensable Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker recently turned to Tom Stoppard to show how quickly someone with Trump’s views can become normalized:

“How the hell do I know what I find incredible?” a bemused philosopher asks in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers. “Credibility is an expanding field … and sheer disbelief hardly registers on the face before the head is nodding with all the wisdom of instant hindsight.” This is a now familiar emotion, a recognizable expansion. The unimaginable happens—Donald Trump, fool, oaf, and sociopathic liar, becomes the nominee of a major American political party—and within minutes what ought to be a shock beyond understanding becomes an event to savor, accept, and analyze. The desperate efforts to normalize the aberrant begin: he’s actually a Rockefeller Republican with orange hair; he wasn’t humiliated by President Obama’s mockery at that dinner in 2011 but responded as a lovable, gregarious good guy; even his birtherism wasn’t the vile racist sewage anyone could see it to be—he was genuinely unsure about where exactly it was the President was born. Trump tells one wild ranting lie after another on Sunday-morning television—we are the most heavily taxed nation in the world; he always opposed the Iraq war—and Chuck Todd can’t do much more than nod and say “Gotcha!”

Gopnik includes a reference to Pap Finn as he describes what could happen next:

This is the kind of desperate response to the rise of fascism one might expect to find in a decadent media culture. Neocons have made a fetish of 1938; in retrospect they would have done better looking hard at 1933. There is a simple formula for descriptions of Donald Trump: add together a qualification, a hyphen, and the word “fascist.” The sum may be crypto-fascist, neo-fascist, latent fascist, proto-fascist, or American-variety fascist—one of that kind, all the same. Future political scientists will analyze (let us hope in amused retrospect, rather than in exile in New Zealand or Alberta) the precise elements of Poujadisme, Peronism and Huck Finn’s Pap that compound in Trump’s “ideology.” But his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack Obama’s, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and “success.” It is always alike, and always leads inexorably to the same place: failure, met not by self-correction but by an inflation of the original program of grievances, and so then on to catastrophe. The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history.

Gopnik also describes Trump as a cross “between Sauron and Bozo the Clown.”

No less concerned, Burkean conservative Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic Monthly turns for guidance to a novel written while Hitler was consolidating power.

In his 1935 novelIt Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis wrote a counterfactual about what would happen if fascism as it was then spreading across Europe were to triumph in America. It’s not a good novel, but it remains a resonant one. The imagined American fascist leader — a senator called Buzz Windrip — is a “Professional Common Man … But he was the Common Man ­twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

He “was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.” “ ‘I know the Press only too well,’ ” Windrip opines at one point. “ ‘Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest … plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks.’ ”

He is obsessed with the balance of trade and promises instant economic success: “ ‘I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need … We shall have such a balance of trade as will go far to carry out my often-criticized yet completely sound idea of from $3000 to $5000 per year for every single family.’ ” However fantastical and empty his promises, he nonetheless mesmerizes the party faithful at the nominating convention (held in Cleveland!): “Something in the intensity with which Windrip looked at his audience, looked at all of them, his glance slowly taking them in from the highest-perched seat to the nearest, convinced them that he was talking to each individual, directly and solely; that he wanted to take each of them into his heart; that he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.”

And all the elites who stood in his way? Crippled by their own failures, demoralized by their crumbling stature, they first mock and then cave. As one lone journalist laments before the election (he finds himself in a concentration camp afterward): “I’ve got to keep remembering … that Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy — oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another … We had it coming, we Respectables.”

Sullivan, as a traditional conservative, agrees with the journalist that the elites/Respectables have to step up their game. Because they have failed in their responsibilities (I’d include Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the RNC’s toleration of Obama birtherism in this), a populist demagogue has filled the vacuum. Sullivan turns to Plato to describe what we’re up against:

[L]ike all tyrants, [Trump] is utterly lacking in self-control. Sleeping a handful of hours a night, impulsively tweeting in the early hours, improvising madly on subjects he knows nothing about, Trump rants and raves as he surfs an entirely reactive media landscape. Once again, Plato had his temperament down: A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life … is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.” Sound familiar? Trump is as mercurial and as unpredictable and as emotional as the daily Twitter stream. And we are contemplating giving him access to the nuclear codes.

Sullivan, like Gopnik, believes that Trump has a chance because he is transforming the terms of the debate:

Those who believe that Trump’s ugly, thuggish populism has no chance of ever making it to the White House seem to me to be missing this dynamic. Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events. And so current poll numbers are only reassuring if you ignore the potential impact of sudden, external events — an economic downturn or a terror attack in a major city in the months before November. I have no doubt, for example, that Trump is sincere in his desire to “cut the head off” ISIS, whatever that can possibly mean. But it remains a fact that the interests of ISIS and the Trump campaign are now perfectly aligned. Fear is always the would-be tyrant’s greatest ally.

Though a longtime critic of the Clintons—Sullivan excoriated the president in the 1990s–he currently sees Hillary as our only hope. That’s how scared he is.

Posted in Lewis (Sinclair), Stoppard (Tom), Tolkien (J.R.R.), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Crown My Head with Ample Square-Cap

Christopher Smart

Christopher Smart


I dedicate today’s post to my seniors, who will graduate on Saturday. My mother alerted me to Christopher Smart’s “On Taking a Bachelor’s Degree,” which is perfect for the occasion.

Smart, who attended Cambridge in the 1740s, writes his poem in imitation of a Horatian ode (Book iii, Ode 30). Horace is beating his own drum in the lyric but is doing so, I think, with his tongue firmly in cheek. Smart writes his imitation in the same manner as he talks about the glories of his own graduation.

An imitation, like a parody, is enhanced if you know the original. Smart’s readers would have known Horace’s ode and appreciated Smart’s witty allusions to it. In the original, Horace’s “monument” is his collection of odes:

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze
and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids,
that which neither devouring rain, nor the unrestrained North Wind
may be able to destroy nor the immeasurable
succession of years and the flight of time.
I shall not wholly die and a greater part of me
will evade Libitina [Goddess of Death]; continually I,
newly arisen, may be strengthened with ensuing praise so long
as the high priest climbs the Capitoline with the silent maiden [a vestal virgin].
It may be said that where the raging Aufidus roars
and where, short of water, Daunus ruled his rustic people,
powerful from a humble birth, I first brought Aeolian verse
to Italian measures.  Assume the arrogance
sought for by those who have a claim to recognition,
and with the Delphian laurel,
Melpomene [Muse of Poetry], willingly crown my head.

Horace hides, through hyperbolic self-praise, the fact that he’s actually serious. In his defense, I think it may well be the case that his magnificent odes will outlast the pyramids.

And now here’s Smart similarly patting himself on the back for having graduated (he feels higher than King’s Chapel). If Horace’s name will outlast the pyramids, so his own name will remain recorded forever in the matriculation lists—or at least will do so if envious mice don’t devour those lists. I don’t know the identity of Smart’s friend Banks, but I like to think that Smart is demanding congratulations for having risen to a Banks challenge:

On Taking a Bachelor’s Degree

By Christopher Smart

In allusion to Horace, Book iii, Ode 30

Exegi monumentum aere perennius, &c.
[I have created a monument more lasting than bronze, etc.]  

‘Tis done: — I tow’r to that degree,
And catch such heav’nly fire,
That HORACE ne’er could rant like me,
Nor is King’s-chapel higher.
My name in sure recording page
Shall time itself o’erpow’r,
If no rude mice with envious rage
The buttery books devour.
A title too, with added grace,
My name shall now attend,
Till to the church with silent pace
A nymph and priest ascend.
Ev’n in the schools I now rejoice,
Where late I shook with fear,
Nor heed the Moderator’s voice
Loud thund’ring in my ear.
Then with Æolian flute I blow
A soft Italian lay,
Or where Cam’s scanty waters flow,
Releas’d from lectures, stray.
Meanwhile, friend Banks, my merits claim
Their just reward from you,
For HORACE bids us challenge fame,
When once that fame’s our due.
Invest me with a graduate’s gown,
Midst shouts of all beholders,
My head with ample square-cap crown,
And deck with hood my shoulders.

I like the image of Smart released from lectures and playing a flute on the banks of the Cam river since my own students spend “senior week” lounging on the banks of the St. Mary’s River. And yes, there will be a lot of shouting Saturday as they process across the stage with their graduate gowns, their hoods, and their square-capped crowns.

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#NeverTrump! Never! Never! Never! Never?

Feore, Farb as Lear, Cordelia

Lear (Feore) crying over Cordelia (Farb)? Or #NeverTrump crying over GOP?


Okay, one last post (for this week anyway) where I apply King Lear to  the problems that Donald Trump poses for the GOP and for the country at large. A word that Trump opponents have been using repeatedly is also a word that gets repeated in one of Shakespeare’s bleakest lines. That word is “never.”

The #NeverTrump forces spent millions of dollars trying to stop the presumptive Republican nominee and have still not entirely given up the fight. Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, it is hard to beat someone with no one, and Trump’s opponents were never able to coalesce around a viable alternative. It now appears that cracks are appearing in the opposition, and various Republicans are frantically backpedaling from “never.”

Marco Rubio is one of these. Here is Jonathan Chait’s account:

For a brief period of time, “#NeverTrump” was practically Marco Rubio’s presidential-campaign slogan. Rubio made slashing attacks on Trump as a “con artist.” Rubio’s campaign website sold anti-Trump swag, like a “#Never Trump” bumper sticker. “#NeverTrump,” of course, is the hashtag slogan of a movement of Republicans who have vowed to withhold their support from Trump even if he wins the party nomination (which is the straightforward and, in fact, only understood meaning of the word never). But last month, Rubio conceded that “#NeverTrump” merely meant that he wouldn’t vote for Trump in the Republican primary.

Rubio isn’t the only one hedging his former implacable opposition. Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post notes that former Trump haters are now referring to Trump as they might to Voldemort (a.k.a. he who must not be named). For them, Trump is “the Nominee”:

He has a 65 percent unfavorable rating. He is prone to firing off unexpectedly at the mouth. He either doesn’t understand or actively wants to destroy the credit of the United States. If you’re a senator running for reelection and his name shows up at the top of the ticket, you might as well tie an albatross around your neck and head out to sea.

So what to do? Speaking Trump’s name gives him power. He is like Voldemort in that regard. (Also, he is immortal and cannot die as long as his Towers survive. His buildings are his horcruxes and contain fragments of his soul.)

The trick is not to speak his name.

But fortunately for senators in tough, competitive seats, there is another option. You don’t have to endorse Trump. You can just support the Nominee of the Party.

Petri goes on to give several examples, including New Hampshire’s Republican senator, who is up for reelection this year:

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) won’t endorse Trump. In February, she said, “There’s no place in our society for racism and bigotry, and I found Mr. Trump’s response to David Duke and the KKK disgusting and offensive.” But she will support the nominee. Her communications director, Liz Johnson, confirmed as much to the New Hampshire Union Leader. “As she’s said from the beginning, Kelly plans to support the nominee.”

Petri observes,

It is good that there is this third option. The Nominee sounds wonderful.

He seems to have a strong base of support. Senators who have nothing positive to say about Trump at all speak glowingly of the mysterious Nominee.

Very little is known about him, apart from the fact that he is probably statesmanlike and definitely not embarrassing to have at the top of the ticket, and probably Reagan would have liked to have a beer with him, or something, but what more do you need to know?

And further on:

This “nominee” character sounds almost as good as that Never Trump fellow. (Whatever happened to him, by the way?)

King Lear, in the depths of mental hell, engages in no such equivocating:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

I’m not unsympathetic with politicians who, because they must find ways to cobble together diverse and often contending constituencies, back away from previous statements. Democracy is a difficult business.

In the case of Donald Trump’s GOP opponents, however, I wish “never” really did mean “never.”

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Time for GOP Moderates To Go to Ground?

Edgar in "King Lear"

Edgar in “King Lear”


Yesterday I opined that King Lear was all too relevant today, given how it shows chaos unleashed when social institutions are delegitimized. I forgot to mention, however, that the student who was exploring Shakespeare’s nihilistic vision (Trevor O’Connor) was examined different options for responding. Trevel was particularly drawn to Edgar. Trevor was particularly intrigued with the figure of Edgar.

Trevor prefers Edgar’s proactive response to Kent and Albany’s fatalism. By the end of the play, Kent and Albany appear ready to give up: Albany wants to hand his kingdom over to Kent and Edgar, and Kent wants to follow Lear into the grave (“My master calls me, I must not say no”).

I think Trevor is unnerved by how out of touch both men seem to be. Kent may be doggedly loyal to Lear but otherwise he is helpless. Meanwhile, although the stage is strewn with bodies, Albany laughably reassures everyone that justice will prevail. He sounds a bit like Republican Chairman Reince Priebus acting like everything is normal::

 All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.

Shortly thereafter he abdicates. Trevor understandably wants a bit more spine.

He gets it in Edgar. Initially Edgar is caught off guard by his bastard brother’s plot against him and must flee for his life. He disguises himself as a madman and uses the occasion to survey the landscape. Eventually he supports his blind and penitent father and then challenges Edmund to a duel. By the end of the play, he’s the last man standing.

As I say, GOP moderates could take Edgar as a model. If they too feel unexpectedly driven out of their party by a usurper (yesterday I compared Trump to Edmund), they may well choose to lie low for a while. They may feel, like Gloucester, that Trump has gouged out their eyes, an image of emasculation. They may believe that

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

If so, then Edgar provides them with some good lines with which they can articulate their depression, such as:

And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

And, to console those whom Trump has mowed down:

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all: come on.

But then–maybe after the convention, maybe after a Trump defeat–they can imagine riding heroically back to reclaim their party. Here’s Edgar challenging Edmund to mortal combat:

I protest,
Maugre thy strength, youth, place, and eminence,
Despite thy victor sword and fire-new fortune,
Thy valor and thy heart, thou art a traitor;
False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father;
Conspirant ‘gainst this high-illustrious prince;
And, from the extremest upward of thy head
To the descent and dust below thy foot,
A most toad-spotted traitor. Say thou ‘No,’
This sword, this arm, and my best spirits, are bent
To prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak,
Thou liest.

When Edgar triumphs, he tells Edmund that “the gods are just,” and the dying Edmund acknowledges that Edgar “hast spoken right” and that “the wheel is come full circle.” Edgar is the logical choice to reunite the three kingdoms and restore order. He is in the tradition of Fortinbras, Macduff, and Augustus, the figure at the end of Shakespeare tragedies who comes in and picks up the pieces.

In other words, if the GOP is on the verge of saying, “This is the worst,” then there is nowhere to go after that but up.

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Now, Gods, Stand Up for Trump!

Michael Kitchen as Edmund in BBC "King Lear"

Michael Kitchen as Edmund in BBC’s “King Lear”


A student essay about King Lear has me thinking that it might be one of the most important works of literature that Americans these days can read. Trevor O’Connor, a math-English double major, wrote about the bleakness of Shakespeare’s nihilistic vision and how different characters respond to the fact that “anything goes” in the divided kingdom. As I read it, I found myself thinking of a recent Washington Post article by Orin Kerr, a research professor at George Washington University’s law school, on how  right wing “delegitimization” of traditional institutions has led to the rise of Donald Trump.

Kerr holds up Ilya Shapiro at The Federalist as an example of what he has in mind. Shapiro belives that when Chief Justice Robert refused to find Obamacare unconstitutional, he was showing “contempt for the rule of law” and acting extra-legally. He acted deceitfully and he broke his judicial oath. Because GOP voters were so disgusted, Shaprio contends, they

concluded that the way to “beat Obama” is to jettison constitutional government and instead turn to a “strongman” who wouldn’t “bother with the Constitution.”

As a consequence, Trump.

In response, Kerr says that, rather than identifying the problem, Shapiro and people like him are the problem. By concluding that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is corrupt and illegitimate, they undermine faith in all of America’s institutions:

[Shapiro’s attack on the Roberts court] is just one example of a broader rhetorical strategy of delegitimizing those on the other side that has found a lot of currency on the political right since Obama was elected. You can sometimes find the same narrative on the left, of course. But you don’t find it nearly as often or as prominently as you find it on the right. You can see the strategy at work if you follow popular conservative news or commentary programs. Too often, people who are barriers to good results (whether they are Democrats or the GOP “establishment”) aren’t described as simply disagreeing in good faith. Instead, you’ll often hear that they are illegitimate. They are acting in bad faith. Their motives are corrupt. Some are criminals. You hear that all the time.

Trump, Kerr observes, is the master of such talk:

What does this have to do with Donald Trump? A lot, I think. Donald Trump is the King of Delegitimization. It’s his trademark move. And he’s the master at it. As Trump tells it, the country is going down the tubes because everyone in power is corrupt. The President isn’t trying to stop ISIS. The politicians only care about fat cat donors. No one will enforce the border laws. Political correctness forces leaders to lie about our problems and to ignore solutions. In Trumpland, no one in power is actually trying to help. They’re all corrupt.

An extreme but telling version can be found in Trump’s active period as a “birther,” which he has toned down but never disavowed.

And further on:

According to Trump, everyone in government is running a con. Some run small cons and others run big ones. But they’re all corrupt.

Kerr concludes,

The politics of delegitimization are hard to cabin once unleashed…With the pump primed, the King of Delegitimization Donald Trump capitalized on the dynamic and used it for very different ends [than the GOP establishment rallying the troops] with masterful effect. When a large audience is inclined to believe that everyone in government is corrupt, an outsider who excels at the politics of delegitimization can become a powerful political force regardless of his own politics. If everyone in power is corrupt, after all, politics no longer matters.

Now to King Lear. The play begins with two old men undermining kingship and family, institutions upon which social stability depends. First, a self-indulgent king decides to break up his kingdom in order to elicit psychological reassurance from his children. In doing so, he sets the stage for a civil war, which in fact breaks out.

Meanwhile another father, Gloucester, openly boasts of fathering a bastard child, introducing Edmund as follows:

[T]hough this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged. 

Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, refuses to play along with her father, noting that duty rather than narcissistic love games should be at the basis of both kingdom and family. Kent too incurs banishment when he calls out his king. Both are affirming the legitimacy of the social institutions, even though it costs them dearly.

They prove to be the exceptions, however. Once the old men start breaking the rules, the children follow suit. For instance, Edmund sees no reason why he shouldn’t usurp his legitimate brother’s place. If people have stopped following the rules, then there’s no reason why an enterprising fellow like himself shouldn’t do whatever he wants. Being a natural child himself, he violates tradition (he calls it “plague of custom”) and regards legitimacy as an empty word. He follows not God’s law but natural law and refers to the sacred institution of marriage as “a dull, stale, tired bed”:

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

Americans who believe in meritocracy and entrepreneurial initiative may sympathize with Edmund. By the standards of Shakespearean society, however, he is stepping outside the entire belief system. It is as though someone today referred to the Constitution as an old, tired, stale document and proceeded to trample on it.

Lear’s elder daughters prove just as bad. They throw to the winds the fifth commandment (honor thy father and thy mother) and, in Goneril’s case, also the seventh (adultery) and the sixth (she poisons her sister).

In other words, two selfish old men have signaled to their children that self gratification takes precedence over social law. They therefore shouldn’t be surprised that their children behave accordingly.

In America, for short term political gain people have been attacking any number of institutions tasked with the responsibility of dispensing or determining justice, truth, and order. The payoff is that they get away with stuff that would otherwise be condemned. Unfortunately for them and for all of us, they therefore cede the field to whoever lies the best.

I can hear Trump in Edmund’s “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

Further thought: As this Washington Monthly blog post outlines, the delegitimization process can be traced back to New Gingrich in the 1990’s. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, quoted extensively in the piece, brings the results of Gingrich’s work up to date:

Over many years, [GOP leaders have] adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government. They were willing to play to a nativist element. And they tried to use, instead of stand up to, the apocalyptic visions and extremism of some cable television, talk radio, and other media outlets on the right.

And add to that, they’ve delegitimized President Obama, but they’ve failed to succeed with any of the promises they’ve made to their rank and file voters, or Tea Party adherents. So when I looked at that, my view was, “what makes you think, after all of these failures, that you’re going to have a group of compliant people who are just going to fall in line behind an establishment figure?”…

And Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, were complicit in this. I think when Republicans had their stunning victory in 2010, Cantor et al thought they could now co-opt these people. Instead, they were co-opted themselves.


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Offer Healing to Every House You Enter

Vermeer, "the Milkmaid"

Vermeer, “the Milkmaid”

Mother’s Day

Yesterday, on the eve of Mother’s Day, my 94-year-old mother-in-law Jeanette Miksch passed away. When Julia and I went searching for poems, we found this one by Julia Kasdorf that hit my own Julia particularly hard.

Her mother, a teacher and a farmer’s wife, was the foundation of the family and the community,and she passed that commitment along to her daughter. Julia remembers the ants on the peonies that Kasdorf mentions. The family would take the flowers to the family graves on Memorial Day.

What I Learned from My Mother

By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love 
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand 
in case you have to rush to the hospital 
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants 
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars 
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole 
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears 
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins 
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point. 
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know 
the deceased, to press the moist hands 
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer 
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then. 
I learned that whatever we say means nothing, 
what anyone will remember is that we came. 
I learned to believe I had the power to ease 
awful pains materially like an angel. 
Like a doctor, I learned to create 
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once 
you know how to do this, you can never refuse. 
To every house you enter, you must offer 
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself, 
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Donald Trump

Donald Trump


Here’s a must-read article by Charlie Pierce of Rolling Stone on the importance of memory and what happens to us when we forget. Donald Trump, Pierce says, “will rise, and keep rising, until we remember what came before.”

Pierce’s point is a variant of George Santayana’s well-known observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I reflect on Pierce’s article for this blog because he references Milan Kundera’s novel Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

The 1977 novel, set in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, examines a number of different situations where people attempt to airbrush away things from their past that might incriminate them, an understandable response to changing autocratic regimes. Early on, Kundera relates an incident from the Stalinist purges that poignantly sets up his theme:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section make hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

Pierce uses as a running theme for his article the following Kundera observation from the novel:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

While remembering is important in dictatorships, Pierce says that it is even more important in democracies. That is because citizens in dictatorships at least “see the effects of forgetting and unknowing in every transaction in their daily lives.” This is not the case for citizens in liberal democracies:

In liberal democracies, and especially in this one, there are so many distractions and so many options and so much media that the corrosive effects of the loss of the power of memory can elude anyone’s notice until something important comes apart all at once.

In recent decades, Americans have become experts at forgetting:

The 2016 presidential campaign—and the success of Donald Trump on the Republican side—has been a triumph of how easily memory can lose the struggle against forgetting and, therefore, how easily society can lose the struggle against power. There is so much that we have forgotten in this country. We’ve forgotten, over and over again, how easily we can be stampeded into action that is contrary to the national interest and to our own individual self-interest. We have forgotten McCarthy and Nixon. We have forgotten how easily we can be lied to. We have forgotten the U-2 incident and the Bay of Pigs and the sale of missiles to the mullahs. And along comes someone like Trump, and he tells us that forgetting is our actual power and that memory is the enemy.

The first decade of the twenty-first century gave us a great deal to forget. It began with an extended mess of a presidential election that ended with the unprecedented interference of a politicized Supreme Court. It was marked early on by an unthinkable attack on the American mainland. At this point, we forgot everything we already knew. We knew from our long involvement in the Middle East where the sources of the rage were. We forgot. We knew from Vietnam the perils of involving the country in a land war in Asia. We forgot. We knew from Nuremberg and from Tokyo what were war crimes and what were not. We forgot that we had virtually invented the concept of a war crime. We forgot.

Then Pierce hits us with our complicity in the process. We don’t forget because we are worried that Stalinist authorities will rifle through our past and imprison or execute us. We forget because we think that memory makes us weak:

In all cases, we forgot because we chose to forget. We chose to believe that forgetting gave us real power and that memory made us weak. We even forgot how well we knew that was a lie.

Pierce doesn’t go into detail about how Trump, through the power of distraction, is able to make us forget whatever he says that gets him into trouble. Just think of how many times he has gotten us to chase a new bone he has thrown out. We’ve become an ADHD society. When reality is this malleable, no one ever needs to be held accountable.

Among the most important things that Trump is calling upon us to forget is our identity as a nation that owes its strength and vitality to immigrants. Pierce quotes historian Kammen who quotes Hamlet as he identifies this source of America’s greatness:

The late historian Michael Kammen likened even the newest Americans to Fortinbras in Hamlet, who declares that he has “some rights of memory in this kingdom.” Even the immigrants most lately arrived can, Kammen argued, “have an imaginative and meaningful relationship to the determinative aspects of American history.”

This is what Trump wants us to forget when he calls for building a wall and banning all Muslim immigrants. Pierce concludes,

When Trump chants his mantra—”Make America Great Again”—the rest of the slogan is unsaid but obvious. The implied conclusion is “…Before All of Them Wrecked It.” And that is what has been selling, all year long, because while the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, there is no guarantee that either struggle will end in triumph.

A couple of other notes about Kundera: In addition to describing how dictatorships attempt to erase history, Kundera in his novels shows us how intoxicatingly light we can fell when we forget. That helps explain the title of Kundera’s best known novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and it is the point of an extended parable in Book of Laughter and Forgetting where a character thinks that she has escaped her history by reaching an island inhabited by children. No longer, she thinks, will her memories weigh her down.

Children are innocent because they have no history. At first Tamina is joyous as she engages in ring dances with the children.  When they later rape her, however, Tamina  realizes that children also lack morals and a sense of responsibility. They are capable of anything.

At the moment, too many voters are acting like children. As a result, we now see a racist, misogynistic, narcissistic, xenophobic quasi-fascist as the presidential candidate of one of our two major parties.

We’d better start remembering fast.

Added note: I see that Timothy Egan of The New York Times this morning sees Trump already beginning to erase the past few months:

[If]f you were disliked by two-thirds of American women, 73 percent of nonwhites, 70 percent of voters under age 35 and 67 percent of college graduates, you’d feel some urgency to dial back his inner Sarah Palin.

So we saw the man who killed the Party of Lincoln in all his babelicious-loving glory Tuesday night, the first of 188 days until the general election. He can’t possibly take back everything. How do you replace xenophobia, racism, misogyny and factual malpractice with “we’re going to love each other,” as he said after winning Indiana?

Simple. Count on American amnesia, our opioid.

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Hillary & the Pressure To Be a Cool Girl

Pike and Affleck in "Gone Girl"

Pike and Affleck in “Gone Girl”


Thanks to my student’s senior project on psychopathic slasher fiction, I have been introduced to a female slasher who is wildly popular amongst my female students: Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Recently I came across a Salon article from a young Hillary Clinton fan who compares Hillary Clinton to this slasher, but she does so as a compliment. Hang on for a topsy-turvy discussion of a popular culture reference that could well play a role in an election that pits Clinton against Donald Trump.

I’ve reported in the past on Kate Hedrick’s project. A psychology-English double major, Kate argues that, while crime fiction and slasher films misrepresent psychopathy, they do so for understandable reasons: men worried about their manhood are sometimes drawn to slasher fiction like (depending on the decade) Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Darkly Dreaming Dexter. That’s because the slashers allow them to vicariously act out their deep anger against women they experience as emasculating. In these particular novels, the slashed women are, respectively, Mary Crane (“Marion” in the Hitchcock film), a female senator and her sexually forward daughter, and Dexter’s incompetent boss, who is an affirmative action hire:

[Migdia DeGuerta] got into Homicide because she’s Cuban, plays politics, and knows how to kiss ass.

Kate notes that, in contrast, there are also non-threatening women in all three works who emerge intact: Mary Crane’s sister Lila in Psycho, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (she’s her own woman but takes proper direction from various male figures), and Dexter’s sister.

In the 1950s, Kate notes, men feared becoming mommy-coddled corporate drones. In the 1980s, male confidence was undermined by the end of “the great prosperity,” along with the rise of feminism, the loss of the Vietnam War, and the trauma of the Iran hostage crisis. In the 2000s, following 9-11, men worried that they couldn’t protect their loved ones against international terrorism.

Dexter is an understandable stand-in for this frightened and angry male reader/viewer. He doesn’t slash women himself because he follows a code. But he’s secretly glad when his dark double, his brother, does so. (Also, as with the Bush administration against suspected terrorists, fans of Dexter are willing to grant him permission to use extreme measures against serial killers.)

While men may be threatened by certain kinds of women, there’s another type of female that is no problem. This is the “cool girl,” and it is men’s insistence that women be cool girls that helps explain Gone Girl’s popularity amongst young women. Feeling pressure from such men, Amy Dunne finds ways to avenge herself against them, murdering a lover and cunningly blackmailing her husband. Here she is explaining her anger:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)

To sum it up so far: men fantasize about psychopaths slashing emasculating women and demand that women behave in ways that don’t trigger their fears. In reaction, women who are tired of insecure men fantasize about a woman turning the tables on them.

Sarah Palin is a cool girl, which helps explain why she was chosen as a vice presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton most definitely is not, as Elizabeth Hogg, author of the article, makes clear:

I am so tired of adopting an apologetic tone and a lack of eye-contact when I tell people my age that I’m with her. When my body and tone radiate defensiveness, I know, deep down and guiltily, that I am not apologizing for Bill or Benghazi — I am apologizing because Hillary Clinton is not a Cool Girl, and it is not cool that I like her. Hillary is not a Cool Girl, apparently, because she is cold, disaffected, a creepy robot, a feminist, a bitch.

The idea of the “Cool Girl” originated in Gillian Flynn’s bestselling 2012 novel Gone Girl, which gave a name to the idea of a woman who has been socially conditioned to please men by acting in such a way that combines masculinity and femininity. The Cool Girl does not rock the boat; she is not a threat to male authority. She is pretty, funny, and even smart, but she is not a serious challenge to the patriarchy.

Just as we saw a resurgence of overt racism in the 2008 election, we are going to see a resurgence of sexism in this one. In fact, it may be even worse than 2008. Barack Obama had a way of defusing race fears amongst moderates. Clinton does not have his touch.

Hogg has a suggestion for her: follow the example of Liz Lemon in 30 Rock and use humor:

Feminist scholar, poet, and all-around badass Audre Lorde tells us that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” We can try to redefine what’s cool, but sometimes the best way to do that is with a sense of humor.  The Clinton Campaign picked the third option in giving out “Woman Cards” to its donors—Clinton took Trump’s attempts to make working for the rights of women uncool and completely turned it on its head. And according to her campaign, it’s working: $2.4 million raised from the initiative, with 40 percent coming from new donors. Maybe Hillary Clinton is a bitch, and maybe I am a bitch too. But as Tina Fey once said in another spectacular subversion of the patriarchy: “Bitches get stuff done.”

Or as Clinton recently put it, ““Well, if fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!”

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Trump and Gazing into the Abyss

Gustave Doré, Satan in the Abyss

Gustave Doré, Satan in the Abyss


So (God help us!) Donald Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee following last night’s blowout primary win in Indiana. Earlier in the day, before he suspended his campaign, Ted Cruz warned that the country would plunge into “the abyss” if it did not stop the GOP frontrunner. In his concession speech, Cruz told his followers that only if they rallied around him in the future could they slow our descent into this abyss.

For an expert on abysses, I turn to John Milton, who gives us vivid depictions of Chaos and Night in Book II of Paradise Lost. While I likened Cruz to Satan in Monday’s post, today I tag Trump with the comparison. The Republican Establishment, meanwhile, I cast in the role of Milton’s God, who watches as Satan laboriously journeys through the abyss on his way to seduce his future constituents.

The parallel is imperfect, in part because God has absolute foreknowledge whereas the GOP Establishment was blindsided by Trump’s rise. Now, however, they may be more justified in thinking they know what will happen. Many GOP experts tell us, with certainty, that the GOP will lose the presidency in November and may be massacred in down ballot races as well.

Here’s Milton’s God speaking with similar certainty about what Satan is about to do to the creatures that were His joy. Think of them as GOP voters who, in the past, reliably went along with the Establishment’s choice but now are turning away from their best interest.

God is gazing down from his “prospect high” at a Satan who has just reached the atmosphere surrounding earth. The devil is headed for Eden, Trump is on his way to Cleveland:

[God] then surveyed
Hell and the gulf between, and Satan there
Coasting the wall of Heaven on 
this side Night
In the dun air sublime, and ready now
To stoop with wearied wings, and willing feet
On the bare outside of this world that seemed
Firm land embosomed without firmament,
Uncertain which, in ocean or in air.

Speaking to Jesus, God proceeds to castigate not only Satan but also Adam, for heeding the devil’s “glozing lies”:

Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our adversariy, whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desperate revenge, that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not far off Heaven, in the precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World,
And Man there placed, with purpose to assay 
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will hearken to his glozing lies,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall, [ 95 ]
He and his faithless progeny: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

Yes, the GOP voters have been given freedom to choose whoever they want—the party bosses don’t control things as they once did—and they have used their free will to seal their doom. That, at any rate, is how certain of the GOP’s godlike authorities see it. A similar drama, albeit less intense, is going on in the Democratic race.

And what has Satanic Trump promised his followers if they do his bidding? That they thereby will prove that they are smarter than any “inside experts.” Satan convinces Eve that the fruit will make her as smart as Adam and even God:

O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving plant,
Mother of Science, now I feel thy power
Within me clear, not only to discern
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest Agents, deemed however wise.

The GOP Establishment, of course, is not God. God, for instance, really does have the best interests of Adam and Eve in mind whereas the Establishment, in thrall to the party’s donor class, has cynically used GOP voters for its own selfish ends. Now Satan has been unleashed and there’s no telling how much damage he will do.

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In Memory of Daniel Berrigan

Daniel Berrigan


Daniel Berrigan, the activist Jesuit priest who inspired many of us in the anti-Vietnam War movement, died on Saturday. Berrigan was also a poet so it seems fitting to post his “Dark Word” to mark his passing.

As the poet sees it, poetry allows him to express dark parts of himself which he might not otherwise admit to. These poems are “blind” and “dumb” in that they are fumbling around in the dark without a rational language to express themselves. But they are also “agile” because they can go where the conscious mind cannot. Therefore they must be acknowledged as kin (“my own shadow”). Perhaps the poet was once terrified by what might come out (“the mind’s dark overflow, the spill of vein”) but he has come to embrace this side of himself, this “dark word” (“we thought red once but know now, no”).

Our darkest fears concern our own death, which Berrigan calls our “violent last line.” But what initially seems to be oppressive starts seeming less so—death may be a “bird of omen” but Berrigan does not call it a bird of ill omen. Death may “snatch me for its ghost,” but the snatching action is followed by a contrasting gesture, that of a purposeful hand gently closing the speaker’s eyes.

In the end, the poet, whose shadow side once composed poems, has become an entire book. Shadow side and light side are all bound up together. I feel fairly certain that Berrigan’s final image is an allusion to John Donne’s famous Meditation 17, the one that contains “no man is an island” and “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In the meditation Donne also compares death to a translation and says that our fates are so bound up with one another that

when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

I imagine Berrigan loved the image of God as a bookbinder gathering up humankind’s scattered pages, with “bind” also suggesting a healer binding up a wound. Here’s the poem:

A Dark Word

By Daniel Berrigan

As I walk patiently through life
poems follow close –
blind, dumb, agile, my own shadow;
the mind’s dark overflow, the spill of vein
we thought red once but know now, no.

The poem called death
is unwritten yet.  Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise, 
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.

Berrigan’s poem called death has now been written. God has gently closed the book.

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Ted Cruz as Lucifer, “Squat Like a Toad”

Gustave Doré, Satan plots how to ruin Adam and Eve

Gustave Doré, Satan plots how to ruin Adam and Eve


Have you noticed how many people absolutely loathe Texas Sen. Ted Cruz? John Boehner, whose life Cruz made miserable when Boehner was Speaker of the House, recently described the GOP presidential candidate as “Lucifer in the flesh.” Elaborating, Boehner said, “I have Democrat friends and Republican friends. I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.”

New York Rep. Peter King, also a Republican, one-upped Boehner’s comparison, observing that Boehner “gave Lucifer a bad name by comparing him to Ted Cruz.”

As I was teaching Paradise Lost last week, I thought I’d check out Milton’s descriptions to see if any of them particularly apply to Cruz. I found many passages describing Satan’s big ego, but Cruz doesn’t have a monopoly on big egos. Self absorption may even be a prerequisite to running for president.

More apt was the passage where Satan whispers into Eve’s ear when she is sleeping. By appealing to “the organs of her fancy,” he softens her up for his next day’s temptation.

The scene reminds me of how Cruz met with 15-20 House members to persuade them to shut down the government unless President Obama rescinded Obamacare. It’s unclear whether they would have defied Boehner, who was undertaking delicate negotiations with the Democrats, had not Cruz met with them secretly at Tortilla Coast restaurant and fed their delusions. In Rep. King’s mind, the intervention was a “hoax,” designed to do nothing other than elevate Cruz. Here’s the passage:

Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve; 
Assaying by his Devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, Phantasms and Dreams…

The idea that Congress could have forced Obama to abandon his signature achievement was never anything more than an illusion or dream. The extreme right has had a number of unrealistic expectations about could be accomplished with a Democrat in the White House, some of them fed by the whispers of toad-squatting Cruz.

Cruz has also been the butt of other unfavorable literary comparisons by his colleagues. There may be a Julius Caesar reference, for instance, in South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham’s observation that “[i]f you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota (D), meanwhile, invoked Bram Stoker, describing Cruz as “the lovechild of Joe McCarthy and Dracula.”

The character that comes most to my mind, however, is Blifil, Tom Jones’s nemesis in Henry Fielding’s great novel. Blifil, whom Fielding occasionally links with Lucifer, combines outward sanctimoniousness with cold and calculated self-interest. Furthermore Blifil, like Cruz, has one of “those grinning sneers with which the devil marks his best beloved.”

The devil gets mentioned again towards the end of the novel when Blifil is on the verge of being exposed for his underhanded dealings. Fielding tells us how his special friend comes to his aid:

[I]n this particular instance he had imposed upon [Tom’s friend Mrs. Miller] as well as upon the rest; so entirely had the devil stood his friend. And, indeed, I look upon the vulgar observation, “That the devil often deserts his friends, and leaves them in the lurch,” to be a great abuse on that gentleman’s character. Perhaps he may sometimes desert those who are only his cup acquaintance; or who, at most, are but half his; but he generally stands by those who are thoroughly his servants, and helps them off in all extremities, till their bargain expires.

It’s worth noting that, after Blifil’s crimes become known and he is cast from Allworthy’s favor, we see him eyeing a second career.

He plans to run for a seat in Parliament.

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I Am the Dance and the Dance Goes On

Shiva, Lord of the Dance

Shiva, Lord of the Dance

Spiritual Sunday

Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the death of my son Justin, who died in a freak drowning accident when he was 21. Justin was, among other things, a joyous dancer, so one of the hymns we sang at his funeral service was the hymn “The Lord of the Dance.”

Whenever I hear the hymn, I see Justin dancing. Justin was passionate about dance and would lose himself in the movement. In fact, once in a Slovenian night club he sustained a serious knee injury when someone lurched against him. In the end-of-semester performance of an African dance class, he threw himself around the stage with reckless abandon. On the day of his death, he danced up to the cross at Church Point on the St. Mary’s River and threw himself into the water, not knowing that a freak current was awaiting him. (The spot is almost always a safe place, and he used to swim there as a child.)

In my heart of hearts I know that somewhere, in some state, Justin is dancing.

I looked up the Wikipedia entry on “Lord of the Dance” and discovered several interesting things. It was written in 1963 by Sydney Carter, who was inspired by both the English carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” (“To call my true love to the dance”) and the Shaker hymn “Tis a Gift to Be Simple,” which provides the music (“To turn, turn, shall be our delight/’Til by turning, turning we come round right.”)

Since I’ve always sensed a Hindu aspect to the hymn, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Carter also drew on the Hindu god Shiva, who “performs his divine dance (called Tandavam) to destroy a weary universe and prepare for its renewal, by the god Brahma who starts the process of creation.”

 In Carter’s view of Jesus, he is

the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.

Carter adds,

Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.

As Christianity has loosened up, the idea of a dancing Christ and of dancing in church has become more acceptable. At any rate, “The Lord of the Dance” is regularly sung by many congregations.

The Lord of the Dance

By Sydney Carter

I danced in the morning when the world was young
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun
I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth
At Bethlehem I had my birth

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees
They wouldn’t dance, they wouldn’t follow me
I danced for the fishermen James and John
They came with me so the dance went on

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame
They ripped, they stripped, they hung me high
Left me there on the cross to die

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body, they thought I was gone
But I am the dance, and the dance goes on

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

They cut me down and I leapt up high
I am the life that will never, never die
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me
I am the Lord of the dance, said he

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he


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Fencing People Out & Spiritual Desolation

New Mexico cattle fences


I’ve been teaching Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977) in my Introduction to Literature class, and although our focus is on humans’ relationship with nature, a political science major couldn’t resist pointing out an application to our presidential primaries. It has to do with fencing people out.

He was thinking, of course, of Donald Trump’s wall. From the point of view of a Native American, of course, any walls built are just to protect land that has already been stolen from someone else. In the passage below, Tayo is searching for cattle that have been stolen by a white rancher:

He rode miles across dry lake flats and over cerros [hills] until he came to a high fence of heavy-gauge steel mesh with three strands of barbed wire across the top. It was a fence that could hold the spotted cattle. The white man, Floyd Lee, called it a wolf-proof fence; but he had poisoned and shot all the wolves in the hills, and the people knew what the fence was for: a thousand dollars a mile to keep Indians and Mexicans out; a thousand dollars a mile to lock the mountain in steel wire, to make the land his.

Silko believes that, when one grasps tightly to land like this, one lives a life of desperation. Drawing on Laguna Pueblo legends, she says that such people become possessed by “witchery” and experience an essential “hollowness,” which they fill with “patriotic wars and with great technology and the wealth it brought.” It’s not a bad explanation for the dysfunction we are currently witnessing in the GOP primaries:

If the white people never looked beyond the lie [that people of color are thieves], to see that theirs was a nation built on stolen land, then they would never be able to understand how they had been used by the witchery; they would never know that they were still being manipulated by those who knew how to stir the ingredients together: white thievery and injustice boiling up the anger and hatred that would finally destroy the world: the starving against the fat, the colored against the white. The destroyers [the witches] had only to set it into motion, and sit back to count the casualties. But it was more than a body count; the lies devoured white hearts, and for more than two hundred years white people had worked to fill their emptiness; they tried to glut the hollowness with patriotic wars and with great technology and the wealth it brought. And always they had been fooling themselves, and they knew it.

Incidentally, the way that the white ranchers in the story obtain the land originally is not unlike the way that militant ranchers like the Bundys have been operating in southeast Nevada and in Oregon:

All but a small part of the mountain had been taken [from the Pueblo]. The reservation boundary included only a canyon above Encinal and a few miles of timber on the plateau. The rest of the land was taken by the National Forest and by the state which later sold it to white ranchers who came from Texas in the early 1900s.

Silko believes that seizing the land makes us spiritually poorer. Her vision in Ceremony is that only by moving into a different relationship with the land will we be able to achieve psychic and spiritual health. When Donald Trump’s supporters chant, “Build that wall,” do they really believe that doing so will bring them peace and happiness? Will having their xenophobic and racist wishes granted quell their fears? Silko would say that they are being played by witches who do not have their best interests at heart.

Further thought: 

Here’s another passage that makes the point:

[Tayo] wanted to scream at Indians like Harley and Helen Jean and Emo that the white things they admired and desired so much–the bright city lights and loud music, the soft sweet food and the cars–all these things had been stolen, torn out of Indian land: raw living materials for their ck’o’yo [con man] manipulation. The people had been taught to despise themselves because they were left with barren land and dry rivers. But they were wrong. It was the white people who had nothing; it was the white people who were suffering as thieves do, never able to forget that their pride was wrapped in something stolen, something that had never been, and could never be, theirs. The destroyers had tricked the white people as completely as they had fooled the Indians, and now only a few people understood how the filthy deception worked; only a few people knew that the lie was destroying the white people faster than it was destroying Indian people. But the effects were hidden, evident only in the sterility of their art, which continued to feed off the vitality of other cultures, and in the dissolution of their consciousness into dead objects: the plastic and neon, the concrete and steel. Hollow and lifeless as a witchery clay figure. And what little still remained to white people was shriveled like a seed hoarded too long, shrunken past its time, and split open now, to expose a fragile, pale leaf stem, perfectly formed and dead.

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Fantasy To Cope with Adult Pressures

Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in "Peter Pan"

Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in “Peter Pan”


I’m learning a lot from my end-of-the-semester British Fantasy student presentations. I’ve written before about the violence in Peter and Wendy, and through one student’s engagement with the book, I now have an even better understanding of why there is so much slashing and killing.

Natalie Bellanton is an African American student who described the pressure on her to grow up and be a successful professional. While she wanted to read fantasy and watch anime, her mother insisted that she put away childish things and focus on STEM subjects. Only recently did Natalie finally decide to drop her chemistry major and focus on English, her real love.

Thus, she found herself identifying with the six-year-old Barrie when he found himself having to take care of his mother after his 14-year-old brother died. Barrie’s mother wanted him both to be his brother and see to her needs. We can see in that family drama the reasons for Barrie’s love/hate relationship with mothers.

In the novel, Natalie said, Barrie expresses his resentment at growing up through both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Mr. Darling is never comfortable at having to make adult decisions, such as budgeting for children:

For a week or two after Wendy came it was doubtful whether they would be able to keep her, as she was another mouth to feed. Mr. Darling was frightfully proud of her, but he was very honorable, and he sat on the edge of Mrs. Darling’s bed, holding her hand and calculating expenses, while she looked at him imploringly. She wanted to risk it, come what might, but that was not his way; his way was with a pencil and a piece of paper, and if she confused him with suggestions he had to begin at the beginning again.

‘Now don’t interrupt,’ he would beg of her. ‘I have one pound seventeen here, and two and six at the office; I can cut off my coffee at the office, say ten shillings, making two nine and six, with your eighteen and three makes three nine seven, with five naught naught in my cheque-book makes eight nine seven,—who is that moving?—eight nine seven, dot and carry seven—don’t speak, my own—and the pound you lent to that man who came to the door—quiet, child—dot and carry child—there, you’ve done it!—did I say nine nine seven? yes, I said nine nine seven; the question is, can we try it for a year on nine nine seven?’

‘Of course we can, George,’ she cried. But she was prejudiced in Wendy’s favour, and he was really the grander character of the two.

Barrie’s version of what it means to be an adult may seem comic but one can sense the resentment that underlies it. This particularly becomes clear in the scene where he resists taking his medicine. He is all too ready to regress to childhood.

For Hook, being an adult means ascribing to social expectation of “good form.” His fear of not living up to those expectations haunts his dreams and leads to his angry hook slashing:

But above all he retained the passion for good form.

Good form! However much he may have degenerated, he still knew that this is all that really matters.

From far within him he heard a creaking as of rusty portals, and through them came a stern tap-tap-tap, like hammering in the night when one cannot sleep. ‘Have you been good form to-day?’ was their eternal question.

And further on, right before he is eaten by the crocodile:

What sort of form was Hook himself showing? Misguided man though he was, we may be glad, without sympathizing with him, that in the end he was true to the traditions of his race. The other boys were flying around him now, flouting, scornful; and as he staggered about the deck striking up at them impotently, his mind was no longer with them; it was slouching in the playing fields of long ago, or being sent up for good, or watching the wall-game from a famous wall. And his shoes were right, and his waistcoat was right, and his tie was right, and his socks were right.

Hook envies Peter, who is the wish fulfillment of not having to grow up. Peter, because he doesn’t worry about social expectations, has instinctive good form.

The difference between Hook and Mr. Darling (who were played by the same actor in the theatrical version) is that Hook is never able to get in touch with his inner child whereas Mr. Darling, in the end, finds a way to do so. Notice the difference between his early pragmatism about children and the carefree way that he adopts the lost boys:

[He] said he would find space for them all in the drawing-room if they fitted in.

‘We’ll fit in, sir,’ they assured him.

‘Then follow the leader,’ he cried gaily. ‘Mind you, I am not sure that we have a drawing-room, but we pretend we have, and it’s all the same. Hoop la!’

He went off dancing through the house, and they all cried ‘Hoop la!’ and danced after him, searching for the drawing-room; and I forget whether they found it, but at any rate they found corners, and they all fitted in.

Barrie too found a way, as an adult, to reconnect with his childhood through his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, the youngest of whom became the inspiration for Peter.

Fantasy, Natalie concluded, provides us a healthy refuge from the pressures of the adult world. Through it we can vent our frustrations at having to grow up.

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Euripides Explains Anti-LGBTQ Votes

Cross-dressing Pentheus torn apart by his mother & aunt

Cross-dressing Pentheus torn apart by mother & aunt


A number of my “Literature and Nature” students are choosing to write their final essay about Euripides’s The Bacchae. As this is unusual, I am wondering if it’s because of what has been going on in North Carolina.

You may be aware that the North Carolina state legislature recently called a special session in order to pass the most sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation in the country. Here’s Vox’s account of what happened:

The measure came in response to the government of Charlotte, North Carolina, in February attempting to ban businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ people, much in the same way businesses can’t discriminate against people based on their race or religion today…

[O]n March 23, the North Carolina legislature held a special, $42,000-a-day session to pass a sweeping anti-LGBTQ bill that not only repeals Charlotte’s ordinance, but bans future local laws that protect LGBTQ people. And on the exact same day, the governor signed the bill into law.

The item that particularly caught people’s attention—certainly Ted Cruz has been applauding it on the campaign trail—is a law forbidding transgender people to use the bathrooms of their chosen gender:

[The new law] prohibits transgender people from using bathrooms or locker rooms in schools and government agencies based solely on their gender identity. Instead, they’re forced to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender noted on their birth certificate, which can be changed in North Carolina through an arduous process after gender-affirming surgery but not before then. 

When we discussed The Bacche in class, my students focused on the scene where previously macho King Pentheus dresses up as a woman so that he can spy on the Dionysus’s female followers, who include his mother and his aunts. If Dionysus represents a facet of human nature, I asked them, then what does this mean?

We talked about how sometimes legislators who are the most ardent advocates of traditional family values sometimes are caught with a mistress or a secret gay lover. Their fanaticism, we noted, arises out of an attempt to override their inner Dionysus, wild urges that they are ashamed of and keep hidden.

Pentheus early in the play stands in for patriarchal law and order. Here he is mocking the effeminate Dionaysus, whom he refuses to acknowledge as a powerful force [translation by Ian Johnston]:

Well, stranger, I see this body of yours
is not unsuitable for women’s pleasure—
that’s why you’ve come to Thebes. As for your hair,
it’s long, which suggests that you’re no wrestler.
It flows across your cheeks   That’s most seductive.
You’ve a white skin, too. You’ve looked after it,
avoiding the sun’s rays by staying in the shade,
while with your beauty you chase Aphrodite.

Pentheus locks the god up in prison but soon learns that one can repress one’s forbidden longings for only so long. An earthquake erupts, toppling the prison and serving as a nice metaphor for how sex scandals have erupted in the lives of such “family values” candidates as Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, Louisiana Rep. David Vitter, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, and Tennessee Rep. Scott Desjarlais. Here’s Euripides’s description:

DIONYSUS [from inside]
Sacred lord of earthquakes, shake this ground.

[The earthquake tremors resume]

Ai!  Soon Pentheus’ palace
will be shaken into rubble.

Dionysus is in the house—revere him.

We revere him, we revere him.

You see those stone lintels on the pillars—
they’re splitting up. It’s Bromius calling,
shouting to us from inside the walls.

DIONYSUS [from inside the palace]  
Let fiery lightning strike right now—
burn Pentheus’ palace—consume it all!…

[Enter Dionysus, bursting through the palace front doors, free of all chains, smiling and supremely confident.]

And now look at how Pentheus suddenly flips:

In that case, [to see the Bacchae] you must clothe your body
in a dress—one made of eastern linen.

What! I’m not going up there as a man?
I’ve got to change myself into a woman?

If they see you as a man, they’ll kill you.

Right again. You always have the answer.

Dionysus taught me all these things.

How can I best follow your suggestion?

I’ll go inside your house and dress you up.

What? Dress up in a female outfit?
I can’t do that—I’d be ashamed to.

You’re still keen to see the Maenads, aren’t you?

What sort of clothing do you recommend? 
How should I cover up my body?

Pentheus is ultimately ripped apart by his own out-of-control mother, who has undergone her own conversion. Once a staid matriarch who ostracized her sister for becoming pregnant, now she’s joined the Bacchae and dances naked in the woods. Her fury at her patriarchal son, whom she mistakes for a lion, knows no bounds as she tears him to shreds.

What is the lesson for our own political battles? Maybe a political party that allows itself to be led by people obsessed with bathrooms will sooner or later tear itself apart.

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A Kind of Light Spread Out from Her

Eden Wilson-Bates (oh, and her dad Toby)

Eden Wilson-Bates (oh, and her dad Toby)


When I posted on literary associations with Eden–the name of my latest granddaughter—I missed one of the obvious ones. Luckily my son, who currently teaches English as a post-doc at  Georgia Tech, was more alert than I. He posted the following passage from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to accompany the picture above:

A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything.

Meanwhile, I want to say, with Miranda in The Tempest, “Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!”

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Harriet Tubman Didn’t Take No Stuff

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman


Two of my money wishes came true last week. Harriet Tubman was chosen to appear on U. S. paper currency, and she will be replacing Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson on the $20 bill rather than Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.

I first became aware of the greatest figure in the history of the underground railroad when my father brought home a biography about her. He had obtained the book for the black school’s library in segregated Sewanee, Tennessee as part of a program designed to help nurture black pride. I remember visiting the school one weekend and realizing, even at ten years of age, that the “Dick, Jane, and Sally” readers I saw gave the students no children of color to relate to. Biographies of Tubman and George Washington Carver, which I also read, were designed to rectify that.

To this day I remember tiny details from Tubman’s biography, such as a description of her great strength and an account of how she had to drug slave babies to keep them from alerting pursuers.

I’m sharing two poems about Tubman. First, however, here are two Tubman pronouncements, both of which have a poetic quality:

I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.


Dead niggers tell no tales; you go on or die!

Don’t mess with this lady.

Eloise Greenfield’s tribute slips into dialect to capture Tubman’s no nonsense approach to life:

Harriet Tubman

By Eloise Greenfield

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either

“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ‘em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom

She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods
With the slave catchers right behind her
And she kept on going till she got to the North
Where those mean men couldn’t find her

Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save Black sisters and brothers

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one either

       And didn’t stay one either

Lucille Clifton mentions Tubman as one of her female role models, along with Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) and her grandmother. Tubman stands in for a steely determination to do the right thing, even if you have to be crazy to do it.

Meanwhile Soujourner Truth, abolitionist and women’s rights activist, is noted for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” which she delivered in 1851 to an Ohio Women’s Rights convention that was wrestling with race issues. Clifton’s grandmother, finally, gave her the patience and faith to carry on.


By Lucille Clifton

if i be you
let me not forget
to be the pistol
to be the madwoman
at the rivers edge
be free or die
and isabell
if i be you
let me in my
not forget
to ask my brothers
ain’t i a woman too
if i be you
let me not forget
to work hard
trust the Gods
love my children and


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Death & Miracles & Stars without Number

Passing Over

Spiritual Sunday

Last week I shared a powerful Passover poem by my friend Norman Finkelstein. Here’s another one, entitled “The Telling,” which also appears in his collection Passing Over (2007).

The title is a reference to the recounting of flight from Egypt at the Passover Seder, known as the Haggadah. The phrase “as it is said” appears regularly, referencing the long tradition of telling. I love Norman’s description of how the Haggadah digresses into explanations of the story’s meaning and then the explanations unfold back into the story. Furthermore, the “politics of exegesis”—the debates over the significance of the Exodus story—are at the heart of Judaism and Israel. As Norman puts it, Jews are “sojourners in the land/sojourning in the word.”

Since then they have seen “death and miracles,” and since then they have multiplied (as God promised Abraham) into “stars without number.” The child that hears the story becomes a nation, although perhaps this child comes away with different impressions of that nation at different points in his or her life:

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

“Pithom and Ramses” are the cities that the enslaved Israelites were to build for the pharaoh. The lash probably belongs to the Egyptians, the staff to Moses (“signs and wonders”). The “sons who die” were to have included the infant Moses. There was much crying out then and there has been much crying out since.

Given that Passover is an occasion to focus on the oppressed everywhere, the poem notes that Jews can be victimizers as well as victims. The Egyptians deserve life no less than the Israelites, the Palestinians no less than the Israelis:

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

In one of the most disturbing passages in the Haggadah, referenced in Norman’s poem, God says that he himself will be slaughtering the children of the Egyptians:

“And God pulled us out of Egypt.” The Holy One Himself brought us out of Egypt, not by an angel, not by an angel of fire, not even by the hands of a messenger. He himself, He the glorious One, He the blessed One, brought us out of Egypt. As the Bible says: “And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will strike down all the firstborn men and beasts in the land of Egypt; and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.”

“And I will pass through the land of Egypt,” I, and not an angel. “And I will strike down the firstborn in the land of Egypt,” I, and not an angel of fire. “And I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt,” I, and not a messenger. “I the Lord, I, and not another.”

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has problems with this part of the Haggadah. His status as a concentration camp survivor gives him special credibility when he asks,

Why does God boast of killing innocent children, be they Egyptian? Why does He mention it so often? Is He proud of it? One may study Midrashic and Talmudic sources in search of an explanation. In vain.

It is problematic when we invoke God to justify enemy deaths. In the end Wiesel speculates that maybe God is teaching us that He alone may kill and that no one has the right to imitate Him. Norman, on the other hand, doesn’t try to explain. He just tells:

I and not an angel
I and not a seraph
I and not an emissary

refers to blood

as it is said

Committed as they must be to truth, poets sometimes they tell us things we don’t want to hear.

The Telling

By Norman Finkelstein

goes forward
circling back on itself

narration digressing
into explanation

explanation unfolding
into narration

and there
he became a nation–

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

death and miracles
and stars without number

the land filled with them

Pithom and Ramses
lash and staff
signs and wonders

as it is said

a politics of exegesis
crossing the years

sojourners in the land
sojourning in the word

the sons who die
the daughters who live

until we cried out
until we cry out

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

I and not an angel
I and not a seraph
I and not an emissary

refers to blood

as it is said

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In One of the Stars, Prince Will Be Living

Little PrinceFriday

I don’t know the source of this picture, but I can understand why someone would have turned to Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince upon learning that rock musician Prince is dead at 57. The passage below says all that needs to be said:

All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems… But all these stars are silent. You-You alone will have stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night. You, only you, will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me… You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh.

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Finding Beauty in Ravaged Landscapes



As I was teaching Wendell Berry’s Collected Poems earlier this week, Amanda Mainello, a biology major, wondered whether “The Gift of Gravity” could make us feel better about the environmental devastation being caused by climate change. (There is more bad news this week.) Although the poem was written in 1982 before we knew about global warming, it was still a good question.

Berry is critical of those who damage the environment and he’s not afraid to call himself out. In “The Dream,” for instance, he fantasizes about removing

the bridges and roads, the fences, the strung wires,
ourselves, all we have built and dug and hollowed out
our flocks and herds, our droves of machines.

“The Dream,” however, is an early poem from the late 1960s. In “The Gift of Gravity,” written in the 1980s, he appears to be looking for ways to live with land the humans have spoiled. As he writes,

And if our wickedness
destroys the watershed,
dissolves the beautiful field,
then I must grieve and learn
that I possess by loss
the earth I live upon
and stand in and am.

What does Berry mean when he says “possess by loss”? Perhaps that we need to adjust the way that nature adjusts. A key image in the poem is the river, which takes its shape through destruction. It “carves as it moves” so that “the river’s injury is its shape.” The river may shear away a riverbank, as Berry notes later in the poem, but he says that he must learn love the changed landscape no less than he did the original one.

To do so, he must take guidance from the young cottonwoods that flourish in “the river’s wound,” and from the kingfisher, who is already nesting in a hole in the sheared bank. As Berry observes,

I am newborn of pain
to love the new-shaped shore

Berry takes his positive attitude from his vision of nature as cyclical. Perhaps borrowing from Henry Vaughan’s “The Waterfall,” he notes that “all that passes descends,/and ascends again unseen/into the light.” Rain falls, swelling rivers, and then the waters evaporate to fall again. We have cataclysmic weather and then nature resets:

The shore
turns green under the songs
of the fires of the world’s end…

And further on:

The dark returns to light
in the kingfisher’s blue and white
richly laid together.
He falls into flight
from the broken ground,
with strident outcry gathers
air under his wings.

If gravity, sometimes taking the form of “broken ground” or the “sheared bank,” leads to the kingfisher’s “strident outcry” and “air under his wings,” then the poet will respond to damaged nature in similar fashion:

In work of love, the body
forgets its weight. And once
again with love and singing
in my mind, I come to what
must come to me, carried
as a dancer by a song.

All of which sounds good in theory. But what if the result of “our wickedness” is a drastic sea level rise and catastrophic coral destruction. What if the banks that are getting sheared are the entire eastern seaboard, not to mention all the other low-lying areas in the world. What if the “fires of the world’s end” are killer weather events, mass migrations, wars, and whatever else follows from high carbon emissions?

Maybe Berry could even find a song in that dark display of gravity, but I worry this my stymie even him. At the very least I’d like to see him address the issue.

Here’s the poem:

The Gift of Gravity

By Wendell Berry

All that passes descends,
and ascends again unseen
into the light: the river
coming down from the sky
to hills, from hills to sea,
and carving as it moves,
to rise invisible,
gathered to light, to return
again. “The river’s injury
is its shape.” I’ve learned no more.
We are what we are given
and what is taken away;
blessed be the name
of the giver and taker.
For everything that comes
is a gift, the meaning always
carried out of sight
to renew our whereabouts,
always a starting place.
And every gift is perfect 
in its beginning, for it
is “from above, and cometh down
from the Father of lights.”
Gravity is grace.
All that has come to us
has come as the river comes
given in passing away.
And if our wickedness
destroys the watershed,
dissolves the beautiful field,
then I must grieve and learn
that I possess by loss
the earth I live upon
and stand in and am. The dark
and then the light will have it.
I am newborn of pain
to love the new-shaped shore
where young cottonwoods
take hold and thrive in the wound,
kingfishers already nesting
in a hole in the sheared bank.
“What is left is what is”—
have learned no more. The shore
turns green under the songs
of the fires of the world’s end,
and what is there to do?
Imagine what exists
so that it may shine
in thought light and day light
lifted up in the mind.
The dark returns to light
in the kingfisher’s blue and white
richly laid together.
He falls into flight
from the broken ground,
with strident outcry gathers
air under his wings.
In work of love, the body
forgets its weight. And once
again with love and singing
in my mind, I come to what
must come to me, carried
as a dancer by a song.
This grace is gravity.

Added note: I am so focused on climate change that I neglected to note that the poem is also about aging and learning to celebrate one’s deteriorating body. I suppose the climate change version of that change would be an aggressive tumor that ravages the body. Berry’s vision of aging is more gentle.

So my challenge to him would be the same. Can he find the same grace, and the same Christian message with which he commences the poem, in more catastrophic circumstances?

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Diana Wynne Jones’s Feminist Fantasy

Fire and Hemlock


This past semester, for the first time, I taught Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1985) in my British Fantasy class. I have fallen in love with the book and a number of my students (but not all of them) have as well. I have taught mostly male fantasy in the past so this is an important addition.

In an essay appended at the end of the book entitled “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,” Jones herself talks about her frustrations with there not being female heroes in the fantasy she grew up with. While much fantasy literature demotes women to minor figures, she did find an exception in the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, which provides a structure for Fire and Hemlock. My student Sophie Kessler, a math major, wrote a fine essay exploring how the old Scottish ballad helps the author break free from those narratives that confine women to a passive role.

You can go here to read the version of Tam Lin that Jones references but here’s a quick summary. Janet is forbidden to visit Carterhaugh because Tam Lin is there and those maids who encounter him do not return as maids. Nevertheless, Janet goes (of course) and meets Tam Lin. Sure enough, he gets her pregnant:

He’s ta’en her by the milk-white hand,
And by the grass-green sleeve,
He’s led her to the fairy ground
At her he askd nae leave.

At this point, however, the story takes an interesting twist. Instead of experiencing shame when she returns home, Janet instead stands up to her detractors. She does, however, appear to listen to her brother when he recommends an herbal abortifacient. When she goes in search of it, however, Tam Lin intervenes:

‘How dar’ ye pu’ a leaf he says,
‘How dar’ ye break the tree,
How dar’ ye scathe [harm] my babe,’ he says,
That’s between you and me?’

He then reveals that he would marry her only he’s currently a captive of the queen of the fairies. At the end of seven years, she will send him to hell:

And pleasant is the fairy land
For those that in it dwell,
But ay at end of seven years
They pay a teind [tax] to hell;
I am sae fair and fu’ o’ flesh
I’m fear’d ’twill be mysell.

If she follows a set of instructions, however, she can save him. This includes locating him on Halloween when the fairies gather and holding him tight, even as the fairies put him through a Protean series of transformations. Janet manages to hang on, to the fairy queen’s great disappointment:

Out then spak’ the Queen o’ Fairies,
And an angry woman was she,
She’s ta’en awa’ the bonniest knight
In a’ my companie!

At this point we assume that Tam Lin and Janet return home, marry, and live happily ever after.

In the novel, Polly is a college student who seems on track to marry a lawyer who doesn’t particularly excite her. In a return to her childhood home, however, she starts recalling forgotten events from when she was 11. On the one hand, she recalls the break-up of her needy mother and her irresponsible father. She also remembers magical encounters with Tom Lynn, a man in his twenties.

Tom and Polly’s interactions echo the ballad. They determine to be heroes together, and he gives her childhood fantasy classics, which are designed to function as instructional manuals. (They include Wizard of Oz, Nesbit’s Five Children and It and The Treasure Seekers, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Box of Delights, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Sword and the Stone.) She meanwhile gives him the confidence to break free of his ex-wife, who proves to be the queen of the fairies.

The books of fantasy are necessary if she is to escape the conventional romance narrative, to which adolescents are prone. When Polly develops a crush for Tom and fantasizes nursing him back to health after he is wounded, he calls her out for sentimental rubbish.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of their relationship. I’ll only note that he, an older man, unhealthily relies on a young girl to save him. (Unlike the ballad, however, he does not get her pregnant, nor does he do anything sexually inappropriate.) She, meanwhile, is in danger of becoming like her mother, who is needy and so dependent on men that she drives them away.

Polly must escape her mother’s pattern if she is to find happiness, which is why Jones changes the end of the ballad. Holding Tom as Janet holds Tam Lin (and as Polly’s mother holds her men) is to lose him. Here are Tam Lin’s instruction to Janet in the ballad:

They’ll turn me in your arms, ladye,
An aske but and a snake;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
To be your warldis make.

‘They’ll turn me in your arms, ladye,
But and a deer so wild ;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
The father o’ your child.

They’ll shape me in your arms, ladye,
A hot iron at the fire ;
But hauld me fast, let me na go,
To be your heart’s desire.

‘They’ll shape me last in your arms, Janet,
A mother-naked man;
Cast your green mantle over me,
And sae will I be won.’

By contrast, Polly realizes that she must reject Tom. Only in doing so can she break the unhealthy dependency that they have upon each other. (In the process, she also realizes that she must break up with her fiancé.) The book hints but does not ascertain that there will be a later relationship between Polly and Tom. If there is, it will be healthier than the one that was developing.

My students and I talked about how fantasy can both entrap and liberate. On the one hand, Polly risks becoming trapped, like her mother, by conventional fairy tales that promise the arrival of a prince to save the damsel in distress. Fire and Hemlock, therefore, turns to a more egalitarian folk tale for an alternative narrative, although even this one Jones must rewrite to serve her purposes.

We also discussed how fantasy helps us process traumatic childhood events in a safe way. It is significant that fantasy in this case allows Polly to explore a dysfunctional upbringing that she has repressed but that is steering her life towards an unhappy marriage. Fantasy, in other words, allows us to go places we dread to visit.

In doing so, it gives us the tools to save ourselves.

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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.

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