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 made it clear that we are now headed for 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 (obviously!), 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 have know what will happen. Many GOP experts tell us, with certainty, that the GOP will lose the presidency 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 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 as well.

And what has Satanic Trump promised his followers if they do his bidding? That they thereby prove that they are smarter than any “inside experts.” Here’s the Snake describing the effects of the forbidden fruit to Eve:

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.

Satan, of course, creates a lot of havoc through his temptations. And although he is ultimately defeated, that doesn’t happen until the Last Judgment. Pray that we don’t have to wait that long to undo whatever damage is caused by Trump.

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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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To Save the World, Know Your Habitat



I’ve been teaching Wendell Berry’s Collected Poems this past week and so returned to Darcia Narvaez’s Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, which I referred to in my Easter post on Mary Oliver.

A neurobiologist, Narvaez quotes Berry and Oliver as he talks about how, through cultivating an appreciation of nature, we can develop an eco-morality that is essential if we are to save the world. Or save it for human habitation since, as scientists point out, the earth itself will survive just fine.

Navaez brings together insights from history, anthropology, philosophy and ethics, poetry and creative non-fiction, the developmental and clinical sciences, neurobiology, and educational intervention and prevention. What has resulted is

a book about ethics—the ethics of caring for the natural world, for children, for self and for each other. The book is intended to contribute to the conversation about how to live more ethical lives that correspond to our human essence, where we fit within the larger context of Life.

Narvaez is ultimately optimistic about our chances, at least if we follow his lead:

When I try to take into account humanity’s fullest capacities, it leads me to an alternate view of the current human condition, and it reveals a pathway out of our predicament. We can learn to restore our balance when we find ourselves falling into a bracing self-protection yet again. We can re-enter a circle of inclusion with one another and with our companions in the natural world. Humanity’s telos or fulfillment is in companionship with the natural world. It is our nature to be engaged and communally imaginative with Life. How we set ourselves up to support our human essence is vital. How we transform ourselves is the story to tell.

I include a section from the book where Narvaez talks about how, to help with this transformation, we must learn to be in the world and must familiarize ourselves with our habitat:

From Darcia Narvaez, “Chapter 11: Common-Self Wisdom: Fostering a Good Life for Self and Others”

Prepare yourself to connect to the natural world by reading essays by those who revel in their natural world experiences. These can include classics like Walden Pond by Henry Thoreau, Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and more recently, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard…

You will notice that connecting to nature requires a slow-down of being—just as with a baby. The quick exchanges that form reptilian communications are unsuitable for wisdom (although they do provide some information). We can each learn to be (seated, standing, walking) and attend to the natural world. My students and I experience it like a “nature bath,” restorative and rejuvenating…

Know Your Habitat

Adopt your home. Make it your place. “Placelessness” may be part of the reason for the destructive “stripmining” of natural beauty and life. The restless wanderings of those who lack a commitment to any particular locale allow the natural world to be exploited or deteriorate because no one will take responsibility for it. “If you yourself are not placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see…local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge” (S. R. Sanders, Earthworks, emphasis added). Eco-mindfulness moves beyond attending to self and other humans to also encompass what is happening to all other entities and lifeforms in the vicinity, their uniqueness and Life’s biodiversity, the flora and fauna of the neighborhood. Wendell Berry gives us some guidance:

After more than thirty years I have at last arrived at the candor necessary to stand on this part of the earth that is so full of my own history and so much damaged by it, and ask: What is this place? What is in it? What is its nature? How should men live in it? In the final sense they have no answers…They are a part of the necessary enactment of humility, teaching a man what his importance is, what his responsibility is, and what his place is, both on the earth and in the order of things.

In other words, one does not need insightful moments or excursions to the wild to restore a connection to nature. Knowing one’s habitat, really living in it, living and being in one’s body in a place are ways to reconnect. In everyday life, one can get to know more intimately the natural habitat in which one lives. Study the trees, insects, or birds and learn about their lifestyles. Understanding and acknowledging a relationship is a way to connect to the larger Whole, to shift automatic framing from self to common self. Wendell Berry emphasizes the integration of imagination, engagement, and place:

I will say from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables a sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Mary Oliver wrote an ode to a tree she passed every day (“The oak tree at the entrance to Blackwater Pond”). Although she knew about the life cycle of death and resurrection in Nature, when the tree was brought down by lightning, she lamented that tree. It was a tree she had grown of know, just as de Saint-Exupéry’s “little prince” learned to love a particular rose and a particular fox. Specific relationships grow our roots into particular places, opening perceptions of the heart.

Further thought:

While I appreciate Navaez mentioning certain works of creative non-fiction that can help us connect with the natural world, I would add poetry to the list. Most of Berry’s poems operate this way, so here’s a representative lyric:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Let Our Teachers Teach

Claude Lefebvre, "A Teacher and his Pupil"

Claude Lefebvre, “A Teacher and his Pupil”


When I wrote last week about a Virginia legislator attacking teachers for assigning Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I didn’t realize that there was a mother in an adjoining county also going after the book. And unlike the Virginia legislator she gives reasons.

Here’s from The Post’s article about Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County mother whose son was assigned to read Beloved and who has since been lobbying the school system to ban the Nobel Prize winning novel:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading Beloved for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.

Let’s acknowledge that, once one starts plucking scenes out of literature, everything sounds bad. Paradise Lost could be described of having scenes of incest, horrific rape, and a gruesomely described birth. (I’ve posted the passage I have in mind below.) Medea, meanwhile, has child murder, as does Macbeth and Richard III. Brothers Karamazov has disturbing images of child abuse, Crime and Punishment has a graphic axe murder of an old lady, Oedipus of course is about patricide and incest (Oedipus’s children are his siblings), boys are tortured and killed in Lord of the Flies, and a particularly gruesome slaughter concludes The Odyssey. (To cite just one victim of Odysseus’s rage, Melanthius the goatherd has his nose and ears chopped off with a sword, after which his genitals are fed to the dogs and then his hands and feet are chopped off.)

But when one talks of The Odyssey, gruesome slaughter doesn’t come to mind, just as bestiality doesn’t come to mind when we talk of Beloved. (I could barely remember the scene that Murphy was talking about.) On the other hand, Sethe’s rape by whites and her subsequent killing of her daughter is central to the book, so let’s look at that.

Yes, these are disturbing scenes. They also capture some of the realities of slavery, the murder having been based on a real life instance of a woman who was about to be dragged back to slavery with her children. When you have people owning other people, horrific things happen.

High school is where students start learning about these things. In fact, even the Fairfax mother admits the the Holocaust and slavery are fit subjects for adolescents to study. Literature provides a particularly potent forum for taking them on, which is why English classes regularly teach murderous dramas. Millions of students every year study Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear (which incidentally has a scene where a man’s eyes are gouged out).

I suspect, though I can’t be absolutely sure, that some of the upset over Beloved stems from white readers’ discomfort at seeing whites victimizing blacks. I know that race was behind my own county’s decision to ban Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the objectionable scene being two pages of trash talk between African American men. It’s the kind of talk that you will hear on virtually every basketball court in America, white and black alike, but because the characters were African American, there was an added jot to the scene.

Murphy’s son claims that he had nightmares over reading one of these two scenes in Beloved (he doesn’t say which one):

Now a freshman at the University of Florida, Blake Murphy, 19, recalled reading the book before bed and having night terrors after he fell asleep.

“It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

I’ll grant that teachers need to be sensitive when they teach sensitive scenes, although it’s almost impossible to anticipate every reaction. But discomfort is an integral part of the education process.

If we let students opt out of assignments whenever they feel uncomfortable, we can just imagine how many would start complaining. On the other hand, if we decided to play it safe and taught only anodyne literature, students would get the impression that literature is about nothing important. (Some already think this.) High school is a time when students want to tackle the big issues. Their brains and their social awareness are growing and they long to put them to use. They get excited about dramatically presented big ideas. High school teachers—which is to say, the professionals to whom we entrust our children—know this about their students and step up to the occasion.

Let me offer a personal example from a different era, even though it may seem a bit dated now. When I was a sophomore in high school (in 1967), English teacher Bill Goldfinch assigned Catcher in the Rye. I was a fairly repressed adolescent and I hated the book. One scene in particular struck me as inexpressibly dirty, Holden’s run-in with the pimp and the prostitute in New York City. I felt like I had been thrown into a world that I didn’t want to know about.

I now understand why I hated Catcher in the Rye. It struck me as too real and I was in rebellion against reality. I wanted to hide out in the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings. I felt as though I was being forced to grow up faster than I wanted to. The book felt like the punch in the gut that Holden gets from the pimp.

I didn’t realize at the time that Holden has the same anxiety. He is haunted by the thought of little children falling off the cliff of childhood into experience, and he fantasizes about being “the catcher” who softens their fall. The book understood me better than I understood myself.

In other words, my teacher knew what he was doing when he assigned the novel. To this day, I refer back to it as a key point in my education. It didn’t scar me. It toughened me.

I can’t make the argument better than does Jessica Berg, the teacher who engaged with the Virginia legislator, so I conclude with the The Washington Post’s account of her interchange:

Berg, who lives and teaches in Black’s Loudoun district, said she was particularly offended that lawmakers would judge a seminal work of fiction about a former slave after the Civil War based on excerpts and without reading the entire novel.

She offered to go to Black’s office and “personally teach you the novel and many others.”

“It’s ridiculous that you are trying to control education when you have no idea what it entails,” she wrote. “You do not want free thinkers. You want people to adhere to your particular version of morality which does not encompass everyone.”

She also suggested that lawmakers defer to professional educators when it comes to what is taught in the classroom.

“Being in classrooms with these students that you think are going to be poisoned by these texts shows that you do not really know the demographic you are trying to ‘protect,’” she wrote. “You are not giving them the credit that is due. Students are often more mature than we think, and as teachers we guide them through these novels in a mature manner in an academic setting so that we can discuss them in a fitting manner because that is our job, not yours.”


Paradise Lost‘s description of Sin and Death

Sin springs, Athena-like, from the head of Satan, who then rapes her. She explains later to Satan that she gave birth to Sin, who burst through her entrails and raped her himself, giving birth to ceaselessly barking dogs who live in her womb and continue propagating with each other. The symbolism is that out of sin grows more sin. The imagery involves an act of rape and incest, followed by a hideous birth, followed by another incestuous rape, followed by non-stop sibling incest.

I haven’t heard of any calls to ban Paradise Lost in high school English classes. Here’s the passage:

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee [Satan], and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy 
Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cry’d out Death;
Hell trembled at the hideous Name, and sigh’d
From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.
I fled, but he pursued (though more, it seems, 
Inflamed with lust then rage) and swifter far,
Mee overtook his mother all dismayed,
And in embraces forcible and foul
Ingendring with me, of that rape begot
These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceived
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My wowels, their repast; then bursting forth 
A fresh with conscious terrors vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.

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Passover: Blood on the Door Posts

Passover, Angel of Death

Spiritual Sunday

The poet Norman Finkelstein, my best friend in graduate school, has a series of powerful poems about Passover (from his book Passing Over), which begins on Thursday. Today I share one where he wrestles heroically with the heavy weight of his Jewish legacy.

I suspect there are different ways that people approach the Passover seder, from triumphal to reflective. I remember growing up listening to songs of triumphant Zionism, such as the Limelighters singing

In the land they call Galilee,
A new kind of breeze is blowin’.
From Jerusalem to the sea,
An ancient dream is a-growin’.
From Jerusalem to the sea,
An ancient dream is a-growin’.

Come and lend a hand, there’s a land to be won
By every hand, every day, every hour.
Work the fields with the plow and the gun
Plant the seed ’til the plain is in flower.

Of course, I know now that when one people were gaining a homeland, another were losing one. The reference to working the field with the gun suddenly sounds ominous. I say this not to beat up on the Israelis, however—world history is filled with continuous invasions and few cultures have clean hands—but to honor Norman’s poem for reflecting upon our mixed relationship with history. Even when we are ashamed of it or feel dragged down by it, we can’t escape it. It is who we are.

Norman knows that the event that frees the Hebrews deprives the Egyptians of their firstborn. The angel wings of liberation are also the wings of death. The Hebrews themselves are like refugees, and hard though their lot has been, they still find themselves “thrust from their homes/ their bitter homes.” Are they bowing their heads in prayer or in sorrow as they prepare to face a desert existence? Is the “mighty hand,” the “outstretched arm,” a visionary and caring leader or a narcissistic tyrant?

Sound of Wind

By Norman Finkelstein

Sound of wind
of wings over the houses

Blood on the door posts
in the temple courtyard

Bone forearm the people
bowed their heads

Could not look
at what was passing over

Knowing only
they were spared

Heard the wailing
before the word came to leave

Thrust from their homes
before the bread could rise

Thrust from their homes
their bitter homes

For which they never
had provisions

Into the unknown
the desert places

A mighty hand
an outstretched arm

So that Gamliel summarizes
conflating assigning

Rabbi I ask you
when can I stop remembering

When can I acknowledge
it was me it was not me

it is mine it is not mine

When have I fulfilled
my Passover duty?

According to Wikipedia, Gamliel is a name meaning, “God is my reward or recompense” and is bestowed upon a child by parents who have lost previous sons. That would fit the trade-offs mentioned in the poem, the way that gains and losses are bound up with each other. The consolatory naming rewrites history, seeming to summarize it but, in the process, conflating events and assigning new meaning.

Looking over a long history of suffering and loss, the poet asks, “When can I stop remembering?” He wants relief from this tradition, which seems both familiar and alien: “It was me it was not me/it is mine it is not mine.”

When will he have fulfilled the poet’s heavy Passover duty of remembering and witnessing? One suspects that the answer is “Never.”

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The Tax Man Cometh

Breughel, Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem to pay their taxes

Breughel, Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem to pay their taxes


As today is tax day, I looked around for a good tax poem and stumbled across one from the much mocked Edgar Guest, once known as “the people’s poet.” The poem isn’t great but, in an age when various irresponsible politicians have declared a war on taxes, it usefully reminds us what our money is for.

These days the poem almost seems quaint as it harkens back to a time when civic responsibility was regarded as a good thing. Remember when we saw paying taxes as a patriotic duty? How in the world did we allow Grover Norquist to take over our politics?


By Edward Guest

When they become due I don’t like them at all.
Taxes look large be they ever so small
Taxes are debts which I venture to say,
No man or no woman is happy to pay.
I grumble about them, as most of us do.
For it seems that with taxes I never am through.

But when I reflect on the city I love,
With its sewers below and its pavements above,
And its schools and its parks where children may play
I can see what I get for the money I pay.
And I say to myself: “Little joy would we know
If we kept all our money and spent it alone.”

I couldn’t build streets and I couldn’t fight fire
Policemen to guard us I never could hire.
A water department I couldn’t maintain.
Instead of a city we’d still have a plain
Then I look at the bill for the taxes they charge,
And I say to myself: “Well, that isn’t so large.”

I walk through a hospital thronged with the ill 
And I find that it shrivels the size of my bill. 
As in beauty and splendor my home city grows, 
It is easy to see where my tax money goes
And I say to myself: “if we lived hit and miss
And gave up our taxes, we couldn’t do this.”

If Guest’s poem makes you feel any better about paying your taxes today—well then, that’s further proof that poetry is capable of heavy lifting.

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A Virginia Legislator Attacks Beloved




For me, it was déja vu all over again. Some 20 years ago I visited the office of the Superintendent of Schools in St. Mary’s County, Maryland to protest the banning of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in classrooms. (You can read my account here.) Now a Virginia legislator is going after Morrison’s Beloved.

In a case of journalistic malpractice, Washington Post Jenna Portnoy never asked the legislator what exactly he found objectionable about Beloved. Reading between the lines, however, I think I have a pretty good idea. He believes men should have control over women’s bodies, and the novel graphically shows the ugliness of such a stance.

In addition to missing a key question, the article also has a spectacularly stupid opening (I don’t use that adjective often). Here’s how it starts:

Sen. Richard H. Black doesn’t think of himself as squeamish. When he was a young Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, his aircraft took ground fire four times, he was wounded in combat, and he received the Purple Heart.

But the Northern Virginia Republican said he was so stunned by the “moral sewage” in Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved that he did something he professes to never have done in nearly two decades in office.

He abandoned all diplomacy and told a constituent exactly what he thought.

Just because you are a decorated veteran doesn’t make you an expert on what constitutes “moral sewage.” I thank Sen. Black for his heroic service but he doesn’t get to determine what we should be squeamish about. Currently there are legislators throughout the south, perhaps a few of them ex-servicemen, who are declaring themselves squeamish about transgender people, same sex marriages, and gay adoption. For the sake of a punchy opening, Portnoy sacrifices logic.

But back to Black’s attacks. Apparently they grew out of an interchange that he had with an English teacher about a proposed law

that would have required teachers to give parents advance notice if they planned to assign material with sexually explicit content in class. Parents would then have had the right to “opt out” their children from reading the offending books in favor of an alternative.

In response to the teacher’s defense of Beloved, Black described the novel as

“profoundly filthy” and “smut” and derided the teaching of “such vile things,” even though Beloved is routinely part of the curriculum in Advanced Placement English courses.

Black elaborates:

I want teachers who won’t teach such vile things to our students. Slavery was a terrible stain on this nation but to teach it does not mean you have to expose children to smut. The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents.

And upon further questioning by Portnoy:

If you scar the minds of children when they’re young, you’re going to have problems later in life,” he said. “It’s no wonder we’ve got the problems we do with kids today, when we’re exposing them to this type of thing in the public schools.

Here’s my theory about why Black detests Beloved. First of all, the book’s depiction of slave owners’ brutality makes him uncomfortable. What I think transforms his discomfort into hysteria, however, is their assault on the pregnant Sethe.

Sethe is a slave on the Garner farm, which initially is a relatively benign place. When Mr. Garner dies, however, his sick widow must turn to her sadistic “school teacher” brother-in-law to run things. In a powerful scene, the school teacher’s two sons hold Sethe down and suck milk from her breasts as he takes notes. Sethe’s husband, who witnesses the scene, goes mad, and when Sethe informs Mrs. Garner, the school teacher whips her mercilessly, causing a “tree” to appear on her back.

Sethe escapes to Ohio but then, when the school teacher comes to retrieve her and her children (thanks to the Dred Scott decision), she tries to kill her children and succeeds with her two-year-old daughter. She goes to jail rather than back to slavery and, after she is released, her dead daughter proceeds to haunt the house.

According to the Washington Post article, in 2002 Black wanted to lift a ban on spousal rape, arguing that it was a legal impossibility. (So spousal rape is one thing he’s not squeamish about.) Also, when Virginia legislators were considering an abortion bill, he sent to them “tiny pink plastic models of a fetus.” In other words, he believes that the state should come down on the side of husbands who are accused by their wives and that it should take away women’s ability to control their own bodies.

It makes sense, then, that he would object to the novel’s attack on tyrannical whites who are asserting their control over black women. It’s uncomfortably close to Black’s sense of his white patriarchal prerogatives.

Add to that the long history of white racists’ fascination/repulsion with black female sexuality (repulsed because fascinated), from slave masters who raped their slaves to politicians like Ronald Reagan who attacked the fertility of black welfare mothers. In recent years, the anti-abortion movement has focused particularly on shaming black women. Mix it all together and Black’s reaction appears overdetermined. No wonder he uses phrases like “moral sewage,” “profoundly filthy,” and “vile things.”

Now ask yourself who you would rather have teaching your child. Do you want a bloviating representative or an English teacher who understands adolescents and cares about their growth?

Elaboration: The fascination/repulsion dynamic works as follows: Racists are drawn to black female sexuality because it is exotic and speaks to repressed longings within them. But they are ashamed and therefore revolted by these longings and therefore lash out against black women. The dynamnic operates in the case of Morrison’s school teacher. He vicariously enjoys watching his sons assault Sethe and then is ashamed when she reveals the violation to his sister and lashes out (literally in this case) against Sethe. The Virginia representative recognizes himself in the school teacher and lashes out against Toni Morrison for exposing his shame.

He’d be a much happier man if he grappled with the difficult truths offered by the novelist. And a better legislator as well.

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Stories Have Always Opened Up the Future

 Sir John Everett Millais, "The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870)

Sir John Everett Millais, “The Boyhood of Raleigh” (1870)


I recently encountered a fascinating theory in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperCollins 2015). According to the author, humans owe their success as the planet’s dominant species to their ability to compose stories.

I periodically say that stories are as vital to us as food and shelter. Now I have an anthropologist backing me up.

Harari first argues that humans won out over all other mammal species, including Neanderthals, because of their unique language. This language allows humans to construct detailed plans of action (say, to hunt lions) and to gossip, which ensures social cohesion. But that’s not all that human language makes possible:

[T]he truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

The ability to invent fictions, Harari believes, is what ushered in the Cognitive Revolution:

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Harari elaborates:

[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Collective stories, Harari says, not only enable large numbers of people to work together but also to rapidly adapt to whatever reality throws at them. Change the story, change your behavior. This is not the way other species evolve:

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths—by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.

The Cognitive Revolution, Harari concludes, is

the point when history declared its independence from biology. From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens.

If Harari’s theory is true, what new insights do we gain into literary fiction? Literature, of course, is more than stories, and there are many bad stories capable of widespread destruction—for example, those propagated by Adolph Hitler. Fiction has a lot to answer for.

But the greatest literature reaches deep within us, showing us who we are and giving us a sense of our potential. Just as primitive human beings used stories to bring about worlds not yet realized, so literature can point to transcendent ways of being. The tremendous potential that, from the first, lay in the fictional imagination still resides within well-crafted stories.

My blog posts over the years have given multiple examples of authors pointing beyond their historical moment and imagining new lives—for instance, Chaucer anticipates women demanding genuine respect from men in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, and Shakespeare looks ahead to same sex relationships and transgendered selves in Twelfth Night. These were humans who employed stories to unlock unrealized possibilities within the human mind, even though their time period could only dimly conceive of such radical change. It would take centuries for Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s visions to become social reality.

Literature taps into our vital core. We see the future in the novels that we read.

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My New Granddaughter, Glorious Eden

Roelandt Jacobsz Savery, "The Garden of Eden"

Roelandt Jacobsz Savery, “The Garden of Eden”


I am a grandfather again! First I had Alban with Darien and Betsy and now I have my third granddaughter with Toby and Candice. First there was Esmé, then there was Etta, and now there is Eden, born yesterday.

Of course I had to check out Milton’s description of Eden. Here’s our first glimpse of the garden, which captures all the glory and the dream of God’s new creation. Pan dances with the Graces (Brightness, Joyfulness and Bloom) and the Horae ( Good Order, Justice and Peace) in the “Eternal Spring”:

Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;
Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm,
Others whose fruit burnished with golden rind
Hung amiable, Hesperian fables true, 
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock, or the flowery lap
Of some irriguous valley spread her store, 
Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose:
Another side, umbrageous grots and caves
Of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine
Lays forth her purple grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; meanwhile murmuring waters fall 
Down the slope hills, dispersed, or in a lake,
That to the fringed bank with myrtle crowned,
Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams.
The birds their choir apply; airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune 
The trembling leaves, while universal Pan
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance
Led on th’ Eternal Spring. 

As beautiful as Milton’s description is, however, the passage that first leapt to mind when I heard my granddaughter’s name was a passage from one of Lucille Clifton’s Garden of Eden poems (“the story thus far”). In this instance, Eve discovers Eden as she leaves Eden:

as she walked past
the cherubim
turning their fiery swords
past the winged gate

into the unborn world
chaos fell away
before her like a cloud
and everywhere seemed light

seemed glorious
seemed very eden

Yes, the world is all before little Eden, to borrow from Milton’s final lines. May providence guide her.


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Robinson Ran Against Walls, Never Broke

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson


Tonight at 8 ET, PBS is running the first of a two-part Ken Burns documentary about Jackie Robinson. This gives me an excuse to repost an essay, slightly modified, that I wrote six years ago about a Lucille Clifton poem honoring the legendary ball player.

Apparently Clifton had three special heroes: Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, and Robinson. Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, doing so with a combination of grace and talent. Despite non-stop heckling from fans and opposing players, he went on to become an all-star second baseman and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I love Lucille’s description of him as “brave as a hit” and running “against walls without breaking,” which gets at his hitting prowess, his speed on the base paths, and his propensity to play with reckless abandon. In one of the great plays in World Series history, Robinson stole home against the New York Yankees in 1955, something that is almost never done.

“Walls” and “fences” stand in for the obstacles that Robinson had to overcome, and “night games” points to the hostile terrain that he entered with his black skin.

I fully expect Burns to vividly depict the racism, along with all the death threats, that Robinson faced. In the end, however, he himself became “the conquering dark,” inspiring other African Americans like Clifton as he did so.

jackie robinson

By Lucille Clifton

ran against walls
without breaking.
in night games
was not foul
but, brave as a hit
over whitestone fences,
entered the conquering dark.

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Beauty Breaks Like a Flash from Heaven

Lepicie, "Conversion of St. Paul"

Nicolas Bernard Lepicie, “Conversion of St. Paul”

Spiritual Sunday

In  an allusion to one of today’s Gospel readings, William Cowper in Part V of The Task (“The Winter Morning Walk,” 1785) uses Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus to capture the spiritual power of natural beauty. Given how rough winds and even snow are shaking parts of the United States at the moment, Cowper’s poem is unexpectedly seasonal.

After describing the beauties of a winter’s walk, Cowper a contrast between merely observing nature vs. detecting God’s hand in it. If we don’t acknowledge a divine presence, he says, we are as blind as the animals that do no more than “ruminate heedless of the scene outspread”:

Acquaint thyself with God, if thou wouldst taste 
His works. Admitted once to his embrace, 
Thou shalt perceive that thou wast blind before; 
Thine eye shall be instructed; and thine heart, 
Made pure, shall relish, with divine delight 
Till then unfelt, what hands divine have wrought. 

Brutes graze the mountain-top, with faces prone, 
And eyes intent upon the scanty herb 
It yields them; or, recumbent on its brow, 
Ruminate heedless of the scene outspread 
Beneath, beyond, and stretching far away 
From inland regions to the distant main. 
Man views it, and admires; but rests content 
With what he views. The landscape has his praise, 
But not its Author…

Cowper invokes Paul to describe what the intense joy he suddenly experiences:

Then liberty, like day, 
Breaks on the soul, and by a flash from heaven 
Fires all the faculties with glorious joy. 
A voice is heard that mortal ears hear not, 
Till thou hast touch’d them; ‘tis the voice of song, 
A loud Hosanna sent from all thy works; 
Which he that hears it with a shout repeats, 
And adds his rapture to the general praise. 
In that blest moment Nature, throwing wide 
Her veil opaque, discloses with a smile 
The Author of her beauties…

I suspect that you too have sent up loud Hosannas in the presence of a gorgeous day. Or something comparable.

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Immigrants Touched by Grace

Chaplin, Purviance in "The Immigrant"

Chaplin, Purviance in “The Immigrant”


One of my joys in life is listening to New Yorker fiction and poetry podcasts. It’s worth subscribing to the magazine just to get unlimited access to them, but I believe that you can get 10 articles and podcasts a month even without a subscription. In the latest poetry podcast, poet Andrea Cohen joins poetry editor Paul Muldoon to read and discuss Philip Levine’s “The Mercy.”

By giving a face to immigrants, the poem is a good corrective to those GOP politicians who are stripping such people of their humanity. In the Scottish seaman, we see empathy at work as he gives Levine’s mother a gift that she will stay with her for the rest of her life.

Cohen and Muldoon note that the greatness of the poem is due in part to the way that Levine skirts sentimentality without ever falling into it. There are dark times as well as moments of grace, such as the small pox deaths and the Italian miners who “rediscover the same nightmare they left at home.” The magnificent final line, however, propels the poem to a transcendent level.

The Mercy

By Philip Levine

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.” 
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word, 
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over. 
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on, 
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners 
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom. 
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,” 
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore. 
Italian miners from Piemonte dig 
under towns in western Pennsylvania 
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. 
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

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Lit for Handling a College’s Race Problems

Perdido Street Station


It’s seldom good when your college ends up on the front page of The Washington Post. A series of arson incidents (admittedly fairly small—a bulletin board here, a basket of laundry there); some racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic messages painted on beer cans; and a student wearing a Confederate shirt to a basketball game have come together in a perfect storm that caught the eye of a reporter.

Yesterday morning’s classes were canceled for an all-campus meeting in the gym, where people talked about the concerns and discussed steps we could take. The place was packed, and many students voiced their anger and disappointment at how we have strayed from “the St. Mary’s Way,” a code of conduct designed to promote mutual respect amongst all members of the community.

There were also positive moments as people made concrete suggestions for steps forward. Many expressed their love for St. Mary’s and expressed their appreciation for the forum.

Today’s post describes how I have folded the incidents into my teaching. Applying literature to urgent issues is one way of affirming its value.

The forum ended right before my Early British Literature survey and I knew, as I listened to the speakers, that George Herbert would not resonate with my students that day. I therefore scrambled the syllabus, pulling up Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and pushing everything else back. Oroonoko examines how an attempted friendship between a colonialist white woman and a male slave is undermined by what today we would call systemic racism.

I didn’t have to shift anything around in my British Fantasy class, where on Tuesday we discussed China Miéville’s Victorian steampunk novel Perdido Street Station. The novel features a multicultural city in which various subgroups interact and sometimes clash. The subgroups include regular humans, beetle-headed half-humans, walking cactus plants, giant slake moths, angels, and the city’s mob boss, named Mr. Motley, who is a “remade” combination of pretty much everything.

Easiest to apply to our situation was the poetry of Lucille Clifton, whose poetry we were reading last week when the offensive beer cans were found. Clifton taught for 18 years at St. Mary’s and wrote several poems specifically about race tensions here. How often does a major writer speak that directly to you?

Here’s a small sampling of what we talked about.

I’ve described in past posts (here  and here) how Oroonoko can seem to confirm Aristotle’s assertion that friendship is impossible between people when the power differential is substantial. Time and again in the novella, a character will betray a friend when the inducements are there to do so. Narrator Behn and African prince Oroonoko are friends but she then takes advantage of their intimacy to spy on him at the behest of the plantation owners. Plantation overseer Trefry and Oroonoko are friends but Trefry manages to be absent when the plantation owners break their word and torture Oroonoko following a failed slave revolt. Oroonoko and the lower class African slaves are friends but he then promises Trefry to obtain more slaves for him in exchange for his own freedom.

What threatens friendships across race lines at St. Mary’s, I asked. While some of the students, all white, argued that there weren’t obstacles, the students of color weren’t so sure. The differences lay in life experiences, which led to different students looking at a Confederate flag and seeing two entirely different things. And where students from black inner city neighborhoods saw threats all around them, students from white suburbia saw only a benign campus. Those different perspectives sabotage potential friendships.

Fortunately, slavery is not dividing us. These differences can be surmounted, we agreed, if people make a sustained effort to talk to each other and listen to each other. Since a major aspect of privilege is not having to think about certain things, those who are privileged have a special obligation to listen closely.

In Monday’s Introduction to Literature class, we had the opportunity to approach privilege from an angle that half the class understood immediately. In “Wishes for Sons” (which I’ve written about here), my women students noted that the men in the class had the privilege of not having to think about menstruation. They told stories of insensitive fathers, brothers, and boyfriends.

Clifton, I pointed out, is always sensitive to those whose voices are not being heard. It could be African Americans in one poem, women in another, children with disabilities in another (as in “grandma, we are poets,” about Lucille’s autistic grandson).

In British Fantasy we talked about how, in a post-modern society, the old established norms are no longer operative. Miéville offers a nice example of this early in Perdido Street Station where Isaac, a human, is dating Lin, who is a khepri—someone with a human body but a beetle’s head. Or at least, that is how he describes her. But she points out that his articulation reveals his anthrocentrism and that it is equally valid to describe him as having a khepri body with a head that looks somewhat like a gibbon.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric, which I think has raised race tensions on our campus and around the country, appeals to white voters who are panicking over losing their accustomed dominance and becoming just another of America’s minorities, albeit the major minority. In other words, with the browning of America, they can no longer confidently posit themselves as the norm and everyone else as the deviation. Such identity anxiety goes a long way towards explaining the political temper tantrum we are witnessing.

Literature can’t end racial tension, but it can gives us a framework for understanding and talking about it.

Posted in Behn (Aphra), Clifton (Lucille), Miéville (China) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Children Will Reproach Us

Antarctic ice shelves in danger

Antarctic ice shelves in danger


 For people with children and grandchildren, the latest predictions about rapidly melting Antarctic ice make climate change real in a whole new way. Suddenly people we know and love could well be alive when, according to a new study, ocean levels will have risen by five or six feet. Or they will do so if we cannot keep atmospheric temperatures below a 2 °C increase.

Rising ocean levels, of course, will unleash holy havoc upon coastal populations around the world. For instance, Miami will disappear. And that’s in addition to the projected increase in extreme weather events.

.Lucille Clifton has a poem that imagines how the next generation, along with their own children and grandchildren, will hold us accountable.. To be sure, Clifton may have nuclear Armageddon in mind rather than another civilization-ending event. The poem is titled “the last day.” Nevertheless, with the GOP resisting and preparing to turn back any progress on limiting greenhouse gases, we can imagine offering up weak defenses as “our kind” reproach us with reproachful eyes.

Clifton’s poem echoes “The Hollow Men” with its drama of the eyes. In Eliot’s poem, however, it is those who have gone before who reproach us, not those who come after:

Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us–if at all–not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

Between Eliot and Clifton, we get accused from both directions. Here’s the poem:

the last day

By Lucille Clifton

we will find ourselves surrounded
by our kind   all of them now
wearing the eyes they had
only imagined possible
and they will reproach us
with those eyes
in a language more actual
than speech
asking why we allowed this
to happen   asking why
for the love of God
we did this to ourselves
and we will answer
in our feeble voices   because
because   because

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Mixed Feelings after Winning a Drawing

Mondrian (some rectangles blank, others lit up)


Today I share a story about mixed feelings after winning decent money in a drawing. I am reminded of how Pilate’s daughter Reba in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon wins a ring from Sears, to the great disappointment of store managers. There was similar disappointment when Julia and I won our own prize.

I’ll start with Reba’s story. She’s very good at winning things except for when—as occurs later in the novel—she tries to win things. But when protagonist Milkman and his friend Guitar first meet her, she is someone that others turn to when they are in search of luck:

“Sure I’m lucky.” Reba grinned. “People come from everywhere to get me to stand in for ’em at drawings and give them numbers to play. It works pretty well for them, and it always works for me. I win everything I try to win and lots of things I don’t even try to win.”

“Go to where wont nobody sell her a raffle ticket,” [Pilate said]. “They just want her to hold theirs.”

Reba wins the diamond ring because she is the five hundred thousandth person to walk into the store. The managers are irritated because (1) Reba is black and (2)—well, I’ll let Reba explain:

“Tell ‘’em why you was in Sears, Reba.”
“Look for a toilet.” Reba threw her head back to let the laughter escape…
“Ain’t but two toilets downtown they let colored in: Mayflower Restaurant and Sears. Sears was closer. Good thing nature wasn’t in a hurry. They kept me there fifteen minutes gettin my name and address to send the diamond over to me. But I wouldn’t let ’em send it to me. I kept asking them, Is this a real contest? I don’t believe you.”

Julia and I weren’t quite as unwelcome as Reba but there was some tension. We own a timeshare that we wish we’d never bought but now feel stuck with, along with the monthly maintenance costs. The resort we visited during spring break had a drawing so we entered, knowing that we would win something—from $50 to $1000—at the price of having to sit through a sales pitch.

A digression on sales pitches: Having a PhD doesn’t necessarily protect you from them. In fact, I’m particularly vulnerable because I’m always three steps behind. I try to parse the details of the deal while the salespeople keep changing the subject to keep me off balance. A doctorate indicates that you are very smart in one thing while, in all probability, fairly dumb in others.

Julia and I now know that we should just say “no” to all questions. Or call one of our smart sons before we sign anything.

So anyway, we picked an envelope, which we weren’t allowed to open until after we went through the pitch. We got a very high-powered young woman who became increasingly frustrated with us when we wouldn’t budge. We patiently explained to her that we wouldn’t be buying anything, but that only served to make her defensive and huffy. Finally, because we were having brunch with some friends and had been there for over an hour, we insisted on leaving. I felt like I had been slimed.

When we opened up our envelope, we discovered that we had won $1000.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone as irritated as our saleswoman. Half-jokingly—well, actually less than half—she said that we had to come back to her table and reconsider. But we had friends to meet and fled the building.

Talk about conflicting emotions! During the car ride to the restaurant, I was torn between trying to recover from the pitch and rejoicing at winning the money. I finally calmed myself down by remembering how furious the saleswoman had been, just as Reba’s family enjoys how distressed Sears is at having to give the diamond to an African American woman who just stopped by to use the bathroom.

I wish I could report that we did something romantic with the money, but it all went to a root canal (for me) and a pulled tooth (for Julia). Still, we made better use of it than Reba does with her windfalls. Everything she wins, she gives to undeserving lovers, who then beat her when she doesn’t give them more.

Still, Reba is a positive figure in that she refuses to hold on to things. Whether she wins or loses is immaterial to her. Both she and her mother Pilate are figures of bounty, set against the material world of acquisitiveness that characterizes the rest of the world. The bounty stops flowing, however–Reba stops winning things–when her materialistic daughter Hagar starts demanding things. The magic goes when greed starts.

The important thing about winning a drawing, in other words, is to thank the world for being bountiful but don’t demand more of it.   We were going to pile up some credit card debt to pay for our dental work and now we don’t have to. Life is sometimes wonderful that way.

Posted in Morrison (Toni) | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Shelley Predicted Microsoft’s AI Problems

Scene from "Frankenstein" (1931)

Scene from “Frankenstein” (1931)


My son Tobias Wilson-Bates, currently a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech, recently published a short essay about robotics and literature in a school newsletter. Sign me up immediately for the Proud Fathers Club.

The relationship between machines and literature has long fascinated Tobias, which makes Georgia Tech a good place for him at the moment. As he points out, Mary Shelley anticipated almost 200 years ago problems that we are currently encountering with artificial intelligence.

Tobias is currently teaching a course that “challenges students to engage with the topic of robotics as existing in a cultural network of information.” Among the problems he addresses is whether our artificial creations will reflect our social failures. In the article, which I’ve shared below, he alludes to the following passage, where Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” explains how he began his war against humankind:

Here I paused, not exactly knowing what path to pursue, when I heard the sound of voices, that induced me to conceal myself under the shade of a cypress. I was scarcely hid when a young girl came running towards the spot where I was concealed, laughing, as if she ran from someone in sport. She continued her course along the precipitous sides of the river, when suddenly her foot slipped, and she fell into the rapid stream. I rushed from my hiding-place and with extreme labor, from the force of the current, saved her and dragged her to shore. She was senseless, and I endeavored by every means in my power to restore animation, when I was suddenly interrupted by the approach of a rustic, who was probably the person from whom she had playfully fled. On seeing me, he darted towards me, and tearing the girl from my arms, hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood. I followed speedily, I hardly knew why; but when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body and fired. I sank to the ground, and my injurer, with increased swiftness, escaped into the wood.

This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.

Here’s the article:

FrankenBot: The Inevitable Monstrosity of Artificial Life

By Tobias Wilson-Bates, Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech

It has been quite a year for artificial intelligence. Google has continued its rapid movement toward integrating neural networks into the heart of its information empire; in March, its A.I., AlphaGo, defeated world champion Lee Se-dol in the complex game of Go. The excitement seems to lend credibility to Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that machines will attain consciousness by 2029.

Given all the recent success, it came as quite a shock this week when Microsoft’s artificially intelligent chatbot, Tay, failed about as remarkably as possible at enacting the part of a “chill millennial.”

Within 24 hours she was posting an embarrassing slew of racist, sexist, incestuous and genocidal messages that were gleefully harvested by both social media users and news media alike.

Journalists have posed a number of arguments about the meaning of Tay’s corruption, but whatever the motives were, they are likely more complex than the theory of Microsoft’s vice president of research Peter Lee, who wrote off the incident as “malicious intent that conflicts with our values and principles.” In fact, the likelihood of an attack was so strong that Microsoft had already produced extensive firewalls (which proved ultimately ineffective) for just such a circumstance.

In other words, everyone involved knew beforehand that new life is prone to attacks. Indeed, the scenario goes back at least as far as the first work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In the novel, the creature is abandoned by its maker and wanders aimlessly until it is attacked for saving a child from drowning. The creature is rejected by human society and does monstrous things in return. Of course, one could argue that its revenge is merely its adaptation to the very forms of violence it experiences from the humans it meets.

Tay, as an artificial being subjected to the group politics of social media, occupies the same position as a sort of “human” existing to both reestablish the humanity of her peers while also bringing the category into question. Whether they mean to or not, Microsoft is deconstructing what it means to be human and, as such, creating a monster.

As intelligent machines are increasingly woven into the fabric of the modern world, areas of knowledge associated with the humanities are becoming structurally necessary for producing and integrating new technologies. Tay was not a technological failure but a sociological one. It is to be hoped that in turning toward increasingly autonomous social machines, we draw upon the ethics discovered in the careful examination of narrative and social patterns.

Added note: Just as Mary Shelley offers an alternative educational model for how Frankenstein’s monster could have been raised, so Tobias cites his colleague Mark Riedl for his attempts to align robots with our ethical ideals. You can go to “Quixote” to see how Riedl is “programming robots to read stories that may act as a user manual for ethical human behavior in real-life scenarios.”

Posted in Shelley (Mary) | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A Debate about Sex, Pullman vs. Milton

Subtle Knife

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve just learned from a Constance Grady Vox article that Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass turned twenty this year. I’ve written a couple of posts about Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and I’ve been critical of what I consider to be its simplistic and somewhat muddled view of religion. (You can read those previous posts here, here, and here.) Nevertheless, I still enjoy Pullman’s fantasy vision and I appreciate the Vox article for outlining the author’s philosophy.

Even better from my perspective, Grady alerts me to a revival I never could have predicted: England Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has adapted the 15th century medieval morality play Everyman. Grady mentions it in the Dark Materials article because Duffy’s changed ending reminds her of  Pullman’s insistence that we should let our focus on the afterlife lessen our appreciation of our earthly existence.

Here’s Grady summing up Pullman’s vision:

 In the universe of His Dark Materials, the Church and the Authority stand for conformity, for the suppression of self-knowledge and sexuality. In contrast, the fallen angels are the side of goodness and right in the moral universe of this trilogy, and they stand for the arts and sciences, for secular humanism, and for the pleasures of the body.

His Dark Materials, in fact, insists on the pleasures of the body. It imagines a kind of tripartite human nature, one that consists of a body, a ghost or spirit, and a daemon or soul — “but the best part is the body,” the books conclude. “Angels wish they had bodies.”

The body is what makes Pullman’s wicked authoritarian angels envy and hate humans so; fear of the body and of sexuality is what makes the Church castrate children and cut away their daemons. And in the end, our heroine Lyra is able to save all of the worlds by reenacting Eve’s fall and learning the pleasures of the body — by, in other words, kissing a boy. It is only after Lyra and Will kiss that they become “the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.”

The morality of His Dark Materials is an inversion of the traditional morality of the Christian fall, one that privileges knowledge and experience and the body above innocence and ignorance and the soul. It posits that true self-knowledge and true spirituality can only be experienced through the body.

Contra Pullman and Grady, I would argue that inverting the value system doesn’t solve the problem. Focusing only on enjoyment of the body while waving away the problem of sin ignores how we defile creation. If we have distorted views of sex, it’s not all the church’s fault. To come to Milton’s defense, he is no stodgy Puritan who has problems with sex. Adam and Eve, after all, engage in “the rites mysterious of connubial love” in the poem. Nor, for that matter, does he believe that humans should be kept in ignorance, and we see the angels Raphael and Michael lecturing Adam extensively about history, theology, and other matters. (We could wish that they also lecture Eve, but 17th century sexism is a different issue.)

What Milton understands far deeper than Pullman is that human pride corrupts the goodness of God’s creation. Adam and Eve, like Satan and the other fallen angels, let their self-absorption blind them to God’s bounty.

To be sure, there are many churches that equate sex with sin and maybe Pullman’s book is good for counteracting those voices. A few weeks ago I wrote about how D. H. Lawrence also provides a useful corrective for such narrowness in The Man Who Died. I acknowledge that the tradition is strong in Christianity. It’s just not the only tradition in Christianity.

And now to Duffy’s new adaptation of Everyman. Here’s Grady again:

In the original play, Everyman (guess who he represents!) is told by God that he will soon die and be judged. Everyman asks various figures to accompany him to judgment — his friends and family, his worldly goods — but one by one, they all refuse. In the end, Everyman is only able to achieve absolution and be cleansed of his sins by repenting before God and flagellating himself. This is traditional medieval Christian morality at work: It is only by scourging his body that Everyman is able to achieve a soul clean enough to be welcomed into heaven.

But in Duffy’s adaptation, first performed at London’s National Theatre in 2015, salvation by self-flagellation proves to be a false track. Instead, Everyman is only able to accept his death and find spiritual transcendence by repeating the prayer, “For the gifts of my body I give thanks / At the hour of my death.” Everyman’s ecstatic gratitude for his body climaxes in a moment reminiscent of the climax of His Dark Materials: “Praise to my tongue for snowflakes, tequila, / marzipan, mint, cheese and honey, every kiss. / Every kiss.” (Marzipan, coincidentally, features prominently in Will and Lyra’s kiss.)

Like His Dark Materials, Duffy’s Everyman cannot find the sense in a theology that punishes the body. Instead, theology must be experienced through the body, and it is only through celebrating our bodies that we can experience true spiritual transcendence.

I’m no religious historian but I’ve sometimes wondered whether the tradition of self-flagellation and contempt for the body (and sexuality) grew out of the 14th century Black Plague, when the body proved to be so unreliable that people focused on life-after-death as a coping mechanism. (Experiencing the death of one in three people (!) can scar a society.) In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which appeared at the end of the 14th century, Nature is peeved at being disrespected by Christian Camelot and gets Gawain to admit that he loves his body.

But maybe I can’t blame it all on the Black Plague. St. Paul, after all, was suspicious of human sexuality, as was St. Augustine. Anyway, there are some Christians who associate sex with sin and others of us who see ts as a wondrous gift.

Grady, doing her own wondering, speculates that modern technology has made it easier to love our bodies and therefore to stop celebrating self-flagellation. It’s an idea worth considering although it sounds suspiciously like the position that Howard Nemerov takes to pieces in his poem “Boom!” Looking at the tradition that produced Everyman and Paradise Lost, Grady observes,

At that point in history, bodies were uncomfortable and disgusting; they were filthy and riddled with disease. To get closer to God, you had to transcend the body itself. You had to punish and reject it. Relatively speaking, we’ve only recently figured out how to comfortably live in a body, with medicine and indoor plumbing and upholstered furniture. So it’s really only now that this idea of a theology of the body is finding widespread acceptance in beloved YA fantasy trilogies and in celebrated plays by Britain’s poet laureate.

Allow me to offer an amendment. When religion is used only as an insurance policy against suffering and death, then it will fail to do justice to our deepest selves, which have been made in the image of God. People’s suspicion of sex arises out of fear of our fragile bodies and out of our prideful desire to be invulnerable. Pullman may blame the church but I suspect that the church just reflects generalized fears on this matter.

Milton’s God, however knows that, when we truly open ourselves to the wonders of His creation—wonders that include both sex and intellectual exploration—then we will experience joy beyond anything we can imagine. Our tragedy is that our egotism prompts us to reenact the Fall. In our pride, we turn our backs on joy.

Confession: I’ve probably beaten this topic to death given that this is my fourth blog post on this topic.  The reason, I now realize, is that I once was where Pullman is–which is to say a secular humanist who didn’t like talking about sin. I now see his vision as a bit facile, a version of my 1970s sexual liberation philosophy. I’m arguing with the author because I’m still questioning my own conversion. Milton has been a big help in understanding what’s at stake.

Posted in Everyman poet, Milton (John), Nemerov (Howard), Pullman (Philip) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh the Ice Will Split and the Cities Be Hit

Antarctic ice


There’s more bad news on the climate change front. According to the most recent on-line issue of Nature, the Antarctic ice sheet is much less stable than scientists once thought. This means that

continued growth in greenhouse-gas emissions over the next several decades could trigger an unstoppable collapse of Antarctica’s ice — raising sea levels by more than a metre by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500.

Yesterday I taught Perdido Street Station, China Miéville’s remarkable Victorian steampunk fantasy-sci-fi novel. What with the environmental news, I couldn’t help but focus on his description of the hydrocarbons being poured into the air. The narrator, an angel who has been stripped of his wings, is horrified when he turns a river bend and suddenly comes upon the polluted city of New Corbuzon:

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirty into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in.

The description sounds as though it has been inspired by Dickens’s description of Coketown in Hard Times. We see in the angel’s reaction some of the fatalism that GOP politicians have succumbed to: they believe that nothing can be done and so we should do nothing. We are being sucked inexorably into our doom. The angel asks a topographical question that functions as a metaphor for this future:

How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveler?

It is too late to flee.

Luckily, in our case it’s not yet too late to flee. According to one of the co-authors of the study, there’s room for hope:

The good news, he says, is that [the study] projects little or no sea-level rise from Antarctic melt if greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced quickly enough to limit the average global temperature rise to about 2 °C.

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine says that this goal is within reach. He adds, however, that we will keep the temperature rise down only if the next administration doesn’t undo President Obama’s climate change progress. Chait sums up what has been accomplished so far:

[The] rise could be mitigated if the political response under way worldwide continues. And things are happening. China is reducing the carbon intensity of its economy very rapidly. Innovators in the private sector, responding to signals from political leaders who have committed to carbon reductions, have brought down the cost of clean energy nearly to parity already, and the cost curve is continuing to head downward.

Surveying the political landscape, Chait concludes,

It sounds partisan to say, but it remains true: The fate of humanity rests to a very large degree on keeping the Republican Party out of power for as long as possible.

Previous Posts on Climate Change:

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne mentions the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but they are distant, and he makes the important point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet Henry Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. His most trustworthy counselor advises him to “See better, Lear,” thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno refusing to see the rebellion going on right before his eyes..

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard and contempt for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature responds when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

 The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance that the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviordirectly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions in the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

I’ve also written a couple of articles on the emerging genre of eco-lit:

Literature and Climate Change

A Talk with a Cli-Fi Activist

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment, here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

Posted in Miéville (China) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Limbaugh’s Clinton-Ratched Comparison

Bancroft as Nurse Ratched, Hillary Clinton

Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, Hillary Clinton


I have just caught a glimpse of what a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump presidential race could look like and it’s not pretty. I had the insight after I came across a Rush Limbaugh reference to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Apparently Limbaugh, who claims that Clinton is in possession of a “testicle lockbox,” regularly compares her to Nurse Ratched. During the 2008 primaries when Hillary was running against Barack Obama, Limbaugh described her as

totally controlling, not soft and cuddly. Not sympathetic. Not patient. Not understanding. Demanding, domineering, Nurse Ratched kind of thing.

More recently, Limbaugh has turned the comparison into a condition, accusing Clinton of “Nurse Rachedism.”

The logical corollary, in Limbaugh’s mind, is that Clinton’s supporters are “new castrati.”

I’ll dig further into Limbaugh’s obsession with Nurse Ratched in a moment, but let’s look first at the Limbaugh-Trump connection. Moderate conservative Michael Gerson of The Washington Post recently blasted Limbaugh for having paved the way for Trump, and Heather Digby Parton of Salon did the same. Parton surmises that Limbaugh has always wanted to be Trump and says that if Gerson has been caught off guard by the radio host’s corrosive influence, he has:

not been listening to Rush Limbaugh over the past 25 years or he would know that the millions of conservatives who listen to his show every day are positively enthusiastic about casual misogyny, racial stereotyping, religious bigotry, cruelty and dehumanization. Those are Rush Limbaugh’s stock in trade.

Trump’s own brand of misogyny isn’t quite as crude as Limbaugh’s but, as Franklin Foers explains in Slate, it comes close. Foers makes a good case that, above all, Trump’s core philosophy is misogyny:

Women labor under a cloud of Trump’s distrust. “I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part,” he wrote in Trump: The Art of the Comeback. Working moms are particularly lacking in loyalty, he believes, and thus do not make for good employees. “She’s not giving me 100 percent. She’s giving me 84 percent, and 16 percent is going towards taking care of children,” he told Mika Brzezinski. (Further evidence of his dim view of working moms: Trump once notoriously blurted that the pumping of breast milk in the office is “disgusting.”)

Foers explains how Trump’s misogyny boosts his popularity:

This is one reason that evangelicals, both men and women, gravitate to Trump, despite his obvious lack of interest in religion and blatantly loose morals. He represents the possibility of a return to patriarchy, to a time when men were men, and didn’t have to apologize for it. While he celebrates his own sexuality, he believes that female sexuality has spun out of control and needs to be contained. The best example of this view is a reality show called Lady or a Tramp, which Trump developed for Fox but never aired. The premise of the show was that Trump would take “girls in love with the party life” and send them off for a “stern course” on manners. “We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women,” he told Variety, “so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it.”

It makes sense that Limbaugh would see himself in Randle P. McMurphy, the irreverent protagonist of Ken Kesey’s novel. The patients, as McMurphy and Kesey see them, are America’s emasculated white male middle class, brought to their knees by the welfare nanny state (or nurse state). The novel is racist as well as sexist—it shows the African American orderlies humiliating the patients and it romanticizes Native Americans—but its major target is Nurse Ratched.

Narrator Chief Bromden sees Ratched as Limbaugh sees Clinton—which is to say, unfeminine, power obsessed, and calculated:

Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils—everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what would of otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.

Ratched desires above all to assert mastery over men, and Kesey appears to have borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle’s description of Moriarty as he describes how she controls the hospital:

Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hair-like wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants…

What she dreams of there in the center of those wires is world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedience under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubs that run direct from every pant leg to the sewer under the floor.

The novel is a battle for supremacy between Ratched and McMurphy. Just as Limbaugh’s aim is to get his listeners to “grow a pair,” so McMurphy aims to restore the manliness of the patients. His greatest triumph is helping sensitive Billy Bibbit break from his mother’s influence and sleep with a nurse. We see that Billy has stepped into his manhood by the fact that he no longer stutters.

Of course, it doesn’t last as Big Nurse returns and reasserts her authority, wielding maternal shame and driving Billy to cut his own throat. In response, McMurphy flies at her in a scene that has all the appearance of a rape. Rape, as we now know, is more about power than sex:

[Other doctors intervened only] after he’d smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror forever ruining any other look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light…

This is the angry revenge fantasy of men who feel that they have been emasculated. It doesn’t ultimately matter, in Limbaugh’s view of things, that Big Nurse wins. In his self-pitying drama of victimhood, he has vented his fury, which is what he really wants:

[McMurphy] gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out:

A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes at the dogs get him, when he finally doesn’t care any more about anything but himself and his dying.

Chief informs us that McMurphy is not just an individual but a spokesperson for emasculated men everywhere—which is how both Limbaugh and Trump see themselves:

We couldn’t stop him [from assaulting Ratched] because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-pictures zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.

So what will the fall election look like if it’s Clinton vs. Trump? Trump and rightwing radio will tap into this male anger and we will have a collective venting. Just as Americans directed their race hatred against Obama, they will direct their gender hatred against Clinton. Luckily there are many who are appalled by misogyny and I think they will carry the day, but we’ll see a lot of ugliness first.

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The Terrible Beauty of Political Fanatics

Walter Paget, "Birth of the Irish Republic"

Walter Paget, “Birth of the Irish Republic”


It’s not everyday that we see a television personality quoting a Yeats poem at length, but that’s what Chris Matthews of MSNBC did Wednesday night. The poem was  “Easter, 1916,” and the occasion was the hundredth anniversary of Ireland’s Easter week uprising.

Many regard the Easter uprising and the subsequent execution of its leaders as a glorious defeat that paved the way to Irish independence. Yeats, however, had mixed feelings. Romantic though he was, he was uncertain what to make of a flashy martyrdom that turned mediocre men into mythic heroes and that may have been unnecessary.

I wrote about “Easter, 1916” four years ago, applying it to the Egyptian protesters who attacked the American embassy in Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and that post is no less relevant today. It’s hard to read the poem without thinking of ISIS terrorists.

To be sure, it will seem heretical to Irish nationalists to compare Irish freedom fighters to these terrorists, and Pearse and company did not target innocent civilians as ISIS does. But the Irish Republican Army that came afterward would do so, and there’s a slippery slope that leads from one to the other. The poem provides insight into how people are drawn to the deadly romanticism of political martyrs. Why do so many young people choose to blow themselves up for a cause?

Yeats is both appalled by and attracted to the martyrs. We, of course, are in the position of the British to Yeats’s Irish—we simply see ISIS as simply terrorists, not as heroes. But we forget that the suicide bombers are people as well.

Why is this important? Well, if we really want to deal effectively with ISIS, we must understand the enemy. Yeats helps us see some of what is going through their minds.

The Easter 1916 Irish uprising, which occurred while England fought in World War I, was supposed to have been supported by German-supplied armaments. Although the shipment was intercepted, the uprising went ahead anyway and was doomed from the start. In the end, thousands were imprisoned (not all of them guilty) and 15 were executed by firing squad. Yeats, though not in favor of violent uprisings, was stunned by the executions and wrote, “A terrible beauty has been born.”

What puzzles him is that the terrible beauty has grown out of unpromising material. Three of the victims he knew—two he liked but didn’t find extraordinary and the third, John MacBride, he despised for marrying and then abusing Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse—and he is amazed at how all of them, including MacBride, have gone on to achieve heroic status. (The woman he mentions, Constance Markiewicz, was sentenced to death but later released.)

Yeats compares the rebels to a stone disturbing the natural running of a stream, and that’s a good way to describe political rebels and fanatics. On the one hand, one can admire them for their steadfast sense of purpose and devotion to a cause. They interrupt the humdrum running of life. But at the same time, Yeats points out that “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Activists can become inhuman in this way. Later he is more sympathetic but still somewhat critical: “What if excess of love bewildered them till they died.” After all, their sacrifice may have been in vain given that England might well keep its promise of Irish home rule after the war.

In the end, Yeats isn’t sure where to come down. He commemorates the executed rebels—he ascribes to their dream of a free Ireland and is willing to put the martyrs’ names into verse and pass it along to children—but at the same time he acknowledges that the sacrifice is not an unmixed blessing. To quote from his most famous poem, “the worst are filled with passionate intensity,” and these passionately intense men and women may have unleashed a rough beast. The “terrible” in “terrible beauty” should give pause to all those who are prepared to condone political fanaticism, even for a cause they believe in.

If we see ISIS is an unadulterated horror, we should not be prepared to give the Easter uprising a complete pass.

Easter, 1916

By William Butler Yeats

I have met them at close of day   
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey   
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head   
Or polite meaningless words,   
Or have lingered awhile and said   
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done   
Of a mocking tale or a gibe   
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,   
Being certain that they and I   
But lived where motley is worn:   
All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent   
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers   
When, young and beautiful,   
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school   
And rode our wingèd horse;   
This other his helper and friend   
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,   
So sensitive his nature seemed,   
So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,   
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,   
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone   
Through summer and winter seem   
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,   
The rider, the birds that range   
From cloud to tumbling cloud,   
Minute by minute they change;   
A shadow of cloud on the stream   
Changes minute by minute;   
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,   
And a horse plashes within it;   
The long-legged moor-hens dive,   
And hens to moor-cocks call;   
Minute by minute they live:   
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.   
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part   
To murmur name upon name,   
As a mother names her child   
When sleep at last has come   
On limbs that had run wild.   
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;   
Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith   
For all that is done and said.   
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;   
And what if excess of love   
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born. 

Posted in Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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