Trump & GOP as Shakespearean Drama

George Cattermole, “Macbeth Orders the Murder of Banquo”


Repentant conservative Charlie Sykes invoked Shakespeare and Marlowe in a recent New York Times column as he charted the descent of the GOP, which he describes as a tragedy in four acts. Today’s post shares his parallels and adds a few more.

Sykes actually begins with Feydeau rather than Shakespeare, noting that Donald Trump’s entry into the GOP primaries has the feel of a French farce, albeit one tinged with menace. The suspense lies in “whether Republicans will bring themselves to embrace the erratic usurper.” The farce turns tragic as Trump clinches the nomination. Trump dispatches his enemies as ruthlessly as Macbeth does, with Jeb Bush standing in for Duncan and Ted Cruz, once a self-described Trump “fan,” for Banquo.

Sykes’s Act II opens with the GOP dithering like Hamlet as Trump seizes power. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is cast in the lead role:

A solitary Hamlet-like Paul Ryan paces the stage in a torn doublet and laments the evil days that have fallen on his party; he is accompanied by a Joker (who looks a lot like Lindsey Graham) who tells him that Donald Trump is a “kook,” someone who is “not fit to run the country.” But after several long monologues, in which he rationalizes that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” the young Mr. Ryan decides that the election is a binary choice and he and other Republicans must go along. 

It’s Lear rather than Hamlet who ignores the advice of his fool, but otherwise the parallel works. It’s interesting that Hamlet, when finally goaded into action, stabs the wrong man. Ryan killed moderate Polonius Republicans rather than the usurper who had poured poison into the ears of the American public:

In Act III, which depicts Trump following the election, Sykes describes Trump’s advisors as a “motley court,” bringing to mind the parody of a court that Hal and Falstaff set up when they are carousing in the inn. Both lack seriousness:

Act III opens to a scene shortly after the inauguration. One after another, Republican leaders bow the knee to the newly enthroned Orange God King, who is surrounded by a motley court of misfits, sycophants and brigands.

Just as the milder Henry IV, Part I gets darker in Part II, so does the GOP. They thought they could bend Trump to their will but instead discover that they have been Trumpified.

Actually, there is an illustrative contrast between Trump and Hal. The GOP hoped the Trump would “imitate the sun” once he stepped into office. Hal informs us that such is his intent:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Well, so much for that hope. I see no glorious victory at Agincourt on Trump’s horizon.

At this point in the drama, Sykes says, the play shifts from Shakespeare to Marlowe:

By the end of Act III, though, it is increasingly clear that this drama is less Hamlet and more Faust. It has only begun to dawn on the protagonists that in a Faustian bargain, you often get your heart’s delight, only to find out that the price was far more than you expected. (Alarms and excursions offstage.)

In Act IV we see Falstaff running the show as Trump goes all-in on pedophile Roy Moore. In this version, Hal never grows up:

Act IV opens with a solitary, dark figure, a sort of infernal Falstaff (Steve Bannon), who, despite his banishment from the White House, remains an avatar of the forces that have been unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidency. Now Mr. Bannon presents the Republican Party with its future: Roy Moore.

Sykes doesn’t have an Act V, but I’m rooting for the ending of Macbeth. People who violate all principles for the sake of power should be thrown out of office. Maybe Moore’s defeat is a sign that the Great Dunsinane Wood has begun to move.

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Atwood’s Novels in the News

Planned Parenthood supporters


Margaret Atwood seems to be everywhere these days. Handmaid’s Tale, of course, made a splash as a television series, prompting women to regularly don the crimson robes and white bonnets to protest GOP attacks on abortions, birth control, universal healthcare, and Planned Parenthood. Now people are citing the novel as GOP Congressman Trent Franks resigns from Congress for pressuring female subordinates to act as surrogate mothers for his children.

In terms of the novel, that would make him “the General” while his aides would be handmaids. Or Oftrents, as people have been calling them, referring to the way surrogate mothers in the novel must take the first name of their master.

Here’s The New York Times reporting the story:

Representative Trent Franks announced Friday that he would resign from Congress immediately after accusations emerged that he had offered $5 million to a female employee to be a surrogate mother for his children, and that she and another female employee worried that the lawmaker wanted to have sex as a means of impregnating them.

It surprises no one that Franks is a socially conservative members of Congress. Sexual harassment may cross party lines but social conservatives take the prize for hypocrisy, loudly preaching a morality they often do not practice. According to the Times article, in 2013 Franks

came under harsh criticism for remarking that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low” during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. He also founded the Arizona Family Research Institute, a nonprofit associated with Focus on the Family, a socially conservative religious organization.

In Atwood’s dystopian society, women are forced to serve as breeders for impotent couples. Handmaid’s Tale offers protesters a narrative of resistance that stiffens the spine, and that stiffened spine may have played a major role in Democrat Doug Jones’s stunning electoral victory over pedophile Roy Moore last night. Among Moore’s many controversial positions was that women should not hold public office.


One of my students alerted me to another Atwood prediction that appears to be coming true. In her Oryx and Crake trilogy, the author describes a world in which scientists grow replacement human organs inside of pigs. People pay a lot of money to have their own personal “pigoons.”

According to Business Week, that future is getting closer:

A team of scientists announced in early June that they’re attempting to grow human organs inside of pigs for the purpose of — you guessed it — transplanting those tissues into humans.

According to the BBC, scientists at the University of California, Davis, want to create hybrid human-pig embryos known as “chimeras” by putting human stem cells in pig embryos. Their goal? Grow a functional human pancreas inside an otherwise normal pig.

“Our hope is that this pig embryo will develop normally but the pancreas will be made almost exclusively out of human cells and could be compatible with a patient for transplantation,” said Pablo Ross, a biologist leading the research, to the BBC.

The Business Week article notes that the idea has been around for a while so Atwood doesn’t get entire credit. But Atwood’s prediction of super intelligent pigs now appears to be a possible byproduct:

Atwood describes her pigoons as remarkably intelligent creatures. At one point they even glance up at a character “as if they saw him, really saw him, and might have plans for him later.” Elsewhere, they are thought to have left flowers and other offerings at the burial site of a fellow pigoon. Characters in the book speculate that this is all because the pigoons contain human neocortex tissue, making them more human.

And this is where our science-meets-fiction gets really bizarre.

This ability for real human organ-carrying pigs to become more human, with human cells somehow migrating to the pig’s brain, is actually a concern with the research conducted by the UC Davis scientists. “We think there is very low potential for a human brain to grow, but this is something we will be investigating,” Ross told the BBC.

For the record, Atwood imagines other genetically modified animals as well. These include rakunks, liobams, wolfogs (which seem as friendly as dogs but will tear your throat out), florescent green rabbits, and caterpillars with smiley faces (which makes them hard to kill).

Coming soon to a pet store near you.

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Left Behind Evangelicals and Jerusalem


If the Middle East blows up (more than it already has) following Donald Trump’s surprise recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, we may have a series of novels to thank for the mess. Trump’s decision can be traced directly to the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Some background is useful. First of all, the novels are about potential born-again Christians who have been left behind when the Rapture begins. A group calling itself “the Tribulation Force” grapples with the Antichrist, who runs the United Nations, in preparation for the time when the Messiah will return and separate the sheep from the goats. Here’s a member of the Force encountering Jesus:

“Again, Rayford slid to the ground, raising his arms. “My Lord and my God, I am so unworthy.”
“And you, Rayford, who once were alienated and an enemy in your mind by wicked works, yet now I have reconciled the body of My flesh through death to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in God’s sight.” 
“Unworthy! Unworthy!” Rayford cried.
“Justified by faith,” Jesus said, “Justified.” 

I doubt that Trump has read any of the novels since he’s neither a reader nor an observant Christian. He knows what gets him applause lines, however, and “Jerusalem” is one of them. His diehard Christian base, viewing Left Behind as an accurate description of the future, believe that the Rapture will quickly follow once the Jews have regained control of Jerusalem.

I owe some of my understanding to Ana Marie Cox’s excellent podcast interview of religious historian and former dispensationalist Diana Butler Bass. An article in Christianity Today is also useful as it traces the vision back to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a former priest in the Anglican Church of Ireland:

To Darby, the plan for God’s earthly people had been revealed through a series of covenants with Israel: the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant, the law-oriented Mosaic Covenant, the royal Davidic Covenant, and a new Messianic Covenant.

Until Messiah’s coming, however, God’s earthly people must suffer Gentile domination, prophesied by Daniel. This Gentile hegemony would end at the coming of Messiah, 70 weeks after one of the Gentile rulers issues a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to repair its broken walls. But when the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God suspended the prophetic timetable at the end of Daniel’s sixty-ninth week and began building a new and heavenly people—the church.

For dispensationalists, the end times are near at hand:

Earlier premillennialists believed the Rapture would occur at the end of the tribulation, at Christ’s second advent. But dispensationalists separated the Rapture (when Christ will come for his saints) from the Second Coming (when he will come with his saints).

Once the heavenly people of God have been raptured, Darby believed, the divine script can be played out to the end. The Antichrist will rise, Christ and his saints will break through the clouds and destroy him and his followers in battle (the Second Coming), the nations of the world will be judged, and Satan will be thrown into a bottomless pit. Then, with the conclusion of Daniel’s seventieth week, the victorious Messiah will restore the throne of David, and the millennial kingdom will begin, followed by the Last Judgment and a new heaven and earth. The seven dispensations then over, time shall be no more.

Some dispensationalists believed that Barack Obama was the Antichrist (perhaps they still do), and many regard Roy Moore’s and Trump’s sexual molesting as minor compared with the end times they are helping to bring about.

The dispensationalists may be kooks, but there are a lot of them. The Left Behind books have sold over 65 million copies and have been read by many more. According to Wikipedia,

multiple books in the series have been on the New York Times best-seller list. Starting in 2000, Books 7 and 8 reached number one on the list followed by book 10, which debuted at number one…. Seven titles in the adult series have reached #1 on the bestseller lists for the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.

The series has also inspired graphic novel versions, four films, and a computer game.

Generally I don’t write about works I haven’t read, but it sounds like Left Behind follows a strategy, common to formulaic bestsellers, of exploiting anxieties, revenge fantasies, and wish fulfillments. The anxieties have to do with modern uncertainties and people of color; the revenge fantasies imagine Jesus punishing the people you hate; and the wish fulfillment assures you that you are one of the fortunate ones. To read the Left Behind books is to become one with the heroes.

The dispensationalists voted for Trump in 2016 and will vote for Moore today because they appreciate people who speak their language and fit into their vision. In her podcast interview, Butlers says that Democrats cannot reach these people. After all, issues like health care, tax cuts, and climate change are for those benighted souls who think America has a future.

When Plato said that poets should be banned from his Republic, he would certainly have included the authors of the Left Behind books. We underestimate the emotional power of literature at our peril, and America is tottering from the blows of two sets of badly written but nevertheless effective novels. LaHaye/Jenkins punch for the Christian fundamentalists, Ayn Rand punches for Paul Ryan and the libertarian right, and suddenly we’re cross-eyed.

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Robert Mueller as a Savior Ent?

Treebeard, a primal force for justice


With every day that passes, we learn more about the different ways that Russia attacked and compromised the 2016 election. As The New York Times summed it up yesterday, their campaign involved

hacking and leaking Democratic emails, pushing false information on Russian media outlets, gaining access to state and local electoral boards, and using social media to disseminate misinformation.

Since “Russian trolls” played a role in that misinformation, I turn to another battle involving trolls. Strictly speaking, Tolkien’s Battle of Helm’s Deep involves goblin Orcs, not trolls, but that’s close enough for our purposes. Think of the garrison’s warriors as the embattled defenders of democracy while Vladimir Putin—with some inside help—sends wave after wave of troll bots to breach the wall.

The parallel even has a historical basis. Tolkien modeled Saruman on Stalin, whose non-aggression pact with Hitler shows up in Saruman’s arrangement with Sauron.

Those defending the bastion are a multicultural coalition of men, dwarfs, elves, wizards, and—at the last moment—walking trees. Let’s say their motto is “e pluribus unum.” The dwarf-elf coalition is particularly striking since the two races have traditionally been antagonistic.

At first glance, it appears that the forces of good don’t stand a chance. For one things, the Russians Orcs have insider friends who have colluded so the enemy knows where to strike:

‘Trust not to secret ways,’ said the king. ‘Saruman has long spied out this land.

But what Gimli says of Helm’s Deep could also be said of American democracy:

‘This is more to my liking,’ said the dwarf, stamping on the stones. ‘Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones.”

American democracy must have tough bones to resist what is being thrown against it. As noted by counterterrorism expert Malcom Nance, author of The Plot to Hack America, Russian intelligence carried off “nothing short of the most successful operation in their history.”

The assault on Helm’s Deep is similarly dramatic:

Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down upon the eastward hills. For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes. some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down.

Sadly, the Russian Orcs succeeded, installing their preferred candidate on the throne. Perhaps we can at least take heart from the fact that, in Lord of the Rings, Helm’s Deep stands strong. Decisive action and the appearance of the Ents preserve it:

Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king’s company. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down leaped Shadowfax, like a deer that runs surefooted in the mountains. The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.

We must now turn our attention to our own Orcs, which is to say Trump and his allies in Congress and the rightwing media. The situation looks as bad as it did to the wall’s defenders. Only the most optimistic amongst us thinks that the Resistance can stop their advance, at least before the 2018 election.

Instead, we must hope that our version of the Ents shows up–which is to say Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And indeed the trees do have similarities to the rule of law, representing “not wizardry, but a power far older”:

Ere iron was found or tree was hewn,
When young was mountain under moon;
Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe,
It walked the forests long ago.

Dare we think of the Ents here as the foundations of democracy, so ancient and revered that they can withstand authoritarian assaults?

Can you believe we are having this conversation?

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Like the Crocus Budding through the Snow

Spiritual Sunday

For Advent I have discovered Herman Melville’s Clarel (1876), which at 18,000 lines is America’s longest poem. I’ve only read the epilogue, but I now want to read more as it indicates spiritual wrestling at a deep level.

Melville uses the figure of Clarel to sort through a pilgrimage he undertook to the Holy Land. Like Tennyson in In Memoriam, the poet grapples with faith and doubt and examines attempts to reconcile religion with Darwinian science. According to Melville’s good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville could

neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Clarel is returning to Bethlehem after having undertaken an Eliotian Wasteland journey to the Dead Sea. He discovers that the woman he loves has died, which partially accounts for the despair mentioned in the poem’s final stanzas.

His despair also arises from his religious doubts as he wonders whether Darwinism, the culmination of Martin Luther questioning orthodoxy, renders concepts like heaven and hell irrelevant:

If Luther’s day expand to Darwin’s year,
Shall that exclude the hope–foreclose the fear?

The real hell for Melville, however, is not Satan’s realm but a materialistic universe, which he refers to variously as “dust,” “dreary gongs,” and “clod.” In answer to the ancient Sphinx’s eternal question, “What is man?” Despair, uncowed, coldly scrawls a bitter cartoon of death “on that adamantine brow.” Meanwhile bloodied Faith, indignant and defensive, responds by inscribing a cross on the shards of broken burial urns that have spilled their ashes:

  Unmoved by all the claims our times avow,
The ancient Sphinx still keeps the porch of shade;
And comes Despair, whom not her calm may cow,
And coldly on that adamantine brow
Scrawls undeterred his bitter pasquinade.
But Faith (who from the scrawl indignant turns)
With blood warm oozing from her wounded trust,
Inscribes even on her shards of broken urns
The sign o’ the cross–the spirit above the dust!

Many in the 19th century hoped that Reason would heal the rift between the material and the spiritual, ape and angel. Melville warns, however, that science attempting to do so will only “aggravate” the feud. He is making a point that Moliere discovered the hard way (see my post) when he attempted to placate Church censors of Tartuffe by adding a character who makes a rational defense of religion. Science can’t function as an umpire, Melville says, because it is party to the debate:

  Yea, ape and angel, strife and old debate–
The harps of heaven and dreary gongs of hell;
Science the feud can only aggravate–
No umpire she betwixt the chimes and knell:
The running battle of the star and clod
Shall run forever–if there be no God.

Melville then makes an observation that is also important to Edgar Allan Poe: the more we see the light of reason and science, the darker the shadows grow. If Man is “tantalized” over the prospect of becoming “the spokesman of dumb Nature’s train,” he is also “apprehensive” as the intellectual questioning “ripen[s] us to pain.” A simple faith would be so much easier for those “who in life’s pilgrimage have baffled striven”:

 Degrees we know, unknown in days before;
The light is greater, hence the shadow more;

And tantalized and apprehensive Man
Appealing–Wherefore ripen us to pain?
Seems there the spokesman of dumb Nature’s train.

But why should we conclude that materiality is the final reality? As Wendell Berry puts it in Testament,

Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle

Hereafter, for all anyone knows?

Berry instructs, “Let imagination figure your hope,” and Melville appears to have a similar idea:

   But through such strange illusions have they passed
Who in life’s pilgrimage have baffled striven–
Even death may prove unreal at the last, 
And stoics be astounded into heaven.

Because astounding surprises are possible, the poet tells the heart-broken Clarel to “keep thy heart,” even though he may not yet be resigned to his loss. While he may currently feel beaten by death’s “whelming sea,” he should think of “the crocus budding through the snow” and “a swimmer rising from the deep.” As much as he may want to “hoard and keep” the burning pain that resides within his bosom, he will eventually emerge from the depths, proving “that death but routs life into victory”:

  Then keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned–
Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
That like the crocus budding through the snow–
That like a swimmer rising from the deep–
That like a burning secret which doth go
Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep;
Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory.

I like the verb “routs,” which suggests a battle. In spite of our determination to stay stuck in our sorrow, the invading army of death drives life out of the shadows and into victory. Put another way, the fact of death gives meaning to life, which otherwise would be an interminable succession of events. The poem leaves us with the Advent message that heart triumphs over despair.

The crocus would not be half so miraculous if it did not force itself through the snow.

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Studying for Exams, Risks & Rewards


My heart goes out to my students as they madly cram for final exams, which begin on Monday. I myself do not torment them in this particular way, although many of my science students tell me that they would rather take take tests than write the essays I assign. In any event, I picture them as Tom Sawyer straining his mind to memorize Bible verses:

Then Tom girded up his loins, so to speak, and went to work to “get his verses”…. Tom bent all his energies to the memorizing of five verses, and he chose part of the Sermon on the Mount, because he could find no verses that were shorter. At the end of half an hour Tom had a vague general idea of his lesson, but no more, for his mind was traversing the whole field of human thought, and his hands were busy with distracting recreations. Mary took his book to hear him recite, and he tried to find his way through the fog:
“Blessed are the—a—a—”
“Yes—poor; blessed are the poor—a—a—”
“In spirit—”
“In spirit; blessed are the poor in spirit, for they—they—”
“For theirs. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they—they—”
“For they—a—”
“S, H, A—”
“For they S, H—Oh, I don’t know what it is!”
“Oh, shall! for they shall—for they shall—a—a—shall mourn—a—a—blessed are they that shall—they that—a—they that shall mourn, for they shall—a—shall what? Why don’t you tell me, Mary?—what do you want to be so mean for?”

Tom, as it turns out, is not much different from the other children:

When they came to recite their lessons, not one of them knew his verses perfectly, but had to be prompted all along. However, they worried through, and each got his reward—in small blue tickets, each with a passage of Scripture on it; each blue ticket was pay for two verses of the recitation. Ten blue tickets equalled a red one, and could be exchanged for it; ten red tickets equalled a yellow one; for ten yellow tickets the superintendent gave a very plainly bound Bible (worth forty cents in those easy times) to the pupil.

To be sure, there is the class prodigy, “a boy of German parentage,” who ruins the curve for everyone else. Twain makes sure he gets his just reward:

He once recited three thousand verses without stopping; but the strain upon his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forth—a grievous misfortune for the school, for on great occasions, before company, the superintendent (as Tom expressed it) had always made this boy come out and “spread himself.”

We also get a little lesson on cheating. Not thinking about consequences, Tom has traded in his gains from the whitewashing episode for other people’s tickets. Suddenly he has enough for a special Bible with Gustave Doré illustrations. Unfortunately, a visiting dignitary, prepared to be impressed, gives him a chance to display his knowledge:

“Two thousand verses is a great many—very, very great many. And you never can be sorry for the trouble you took to learn them; for knowledge is worth more than anything there is in the world; it’s what makes great men and good men; you’ll be a great man and a good man yourself, some day, Thomas, and then you’ll look back and say, It’s all owing to the precious Sunday-school privileges of my boyhood—it’s all owing to my dear teachers that taught me to learn—it’s all owing to the good superintendent, who encouraged me, and watched over me, and gave me a beautiful Bible—a splendid elegant Bible—to keep and have it all for my own, always—it’s all owing to right bringing up! That is what you will say, Thomas—and you wouldn’t take any money for those two thousand verses—no indeed you wouldn’t. And now you wouldn’t mind telling me and this lady some of the things you’ve learned—no, I know you wouldn’t—for we are proud of little boys that learn. Now, no doubt you know the names of all the twelve disciples. Won’t you tell us the names of the first two that were appointed?”
Tom was tugging at a button-hole and looking sheepish. He blushed, now, and his eyes fell. Mr. Walters’ heart sank within him. He said to himself, it is not possible that the boy can answer the simplest question—why did the Judge ask him? Yet he felt obliged to speak up and say:
“Answer the gentleman, Thomas—don’t be afraid.”
Tom still hung fire.
“Now I know you’ll tell me,” said the lady. “The names of the first two disciples were—”
“David And Goliath!”
Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.

Here’s sending out good wishes to all those taking exams over the next couple of weeks. To feel better, you can tell yourselves that “knowledge is worth more than anything there is in the world” and that one day you’ll thank your dear teachers who encouraged you and watched over you.

Or maybe, at the moment, you’d rather tell all sanctimonious souls to go stuff themselves.

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Derealized or Appareled in Celestial Light?

Claude Monet, “Springtime”


I report today on another new perspective I received from an Intro to Lit student. Abby Fisher has given me permission to write about her engagement with Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.

When I taught the poem this year, I mentioned that Wordsworth suffered from depression and asked the class to watch for mood swings. Intimations begins on a down note (“The things which I have seen I now can see no more”), after which the poet talks himself into a high note (“And I again am strong”). This is followed by another downswing, however (“Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”), after which Wordsworth feels compelled to figure out what is going on.

His metaphysical explanation is that (1) before we are born, we are part of a universal soul; (2) “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” which means that we lose sight of this soul (hence our depression); (3) the older we get, the more we lose sight of it (“At length the Man perceives it die away”); but (4) we never entirely lose touch but have intimations (“To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”). Beauty prevails in the end.

Abby had noticed Wordsworth’s depression even before I mentioned it since she herself wrestles with the illness. She understood the experience  of trying to talk oneself into a good mood and failing (“Oh evil day! if I were sullen…this sweet May-morning”).

It was striking to see Abby’s dialogue with Wordsworth. Since the poet doesn’t have our understanding of mental illness, we were impressed by how he used his metaphysical framework (separation from the universal soul) to describe and understand what was transpiring inside him.

Abby then said something which stopped me in my tracks. I mentioned how Wordsworth, in recounting the origins of his explanation, described how, as a child, he sometimes lost all sense of connection with the earth and would enter a mystical state. Abby said that something similar used to happen to her. She also said it has a psychological name: depersonalization-derealization disorder (DDD).

I juxtapose Wordsworth’s account with a definition that Abby provided so you can compare them. Wordsworth says that his difficulty of imagining death when he was a child

came as from a sense of the indomitableness of the Spirit within me. I used to brood over the stories of Enoch and Elijah, and almost to persuade myself that, whatever might become of others, I should be translated, in something of the same way, to heaven. With a feeling congenial to this, I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. 

Here’s the Mayo Clinic’s description of DDD:

Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. Feelings of depersonalization and derealization can be very disturbing and may feel like you’re living in a dream.

Many people have a passing experience of depersonalization or derealization at some point. But when these feelings keep occurring or never completely go away and interfere with your ability to function, it’s considered depersonalization-derealization disorder. This disorder is more common in people who’ve had traumatic experiences.

Does psychology trump Wordsworth’s mystical explanation? No more, I would say, than the “God gene” trumps religion.  We seek for images and narratives that help us make sense of the world, and Wordsworth, in his attempt to do so, wrote one of literature’s greatest poems. Perhaps we can say that the universal soul shone through his depression, an incandescent consolation for his suffering.

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Euripides’s Attack on Authoritarianism

Pentheus torn apart by his mother and aunt


How will this blog fare after I retire in June? Well, I’ll have more time to devote to these posts. That’s to the good. Unfortunately, I will lose the new insights that my students provide. I was reminded of that while reading the latest batch of student essays.

Take, for instance, how Nico Bonetta-Misteli’s Bacchae essay is opening my eyes to the playwright’s interactions with Athens . Nico, a history major, interprets the play as Euripides’s critiquing the autocrats who hijacked Athenian democracy and helped run the city state into the ground. Euripides, in exile at the time, wrote in bitterness.

Such a reading makes Bacchae particularly timely as we watch the rise of authoritarianism in American politics. Be careful of individuals who claim to have all the answers.

Arrogant and intolerant, Pentheus may be modeled on the brilliant but unstable general Alcibiades. The king insists on absolute control, even as older and wiser figures urge for more tolerance. Nico speculated that seer Teiresias and Pentheus’s grandfather Cadmus resemble Athens’ elder citizen, wise but ridiculous in their impotence. Teiresias speaks truth to power as he strives to save the state:

         Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men are not shaped by force.
Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are.


             For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo.

Cadmus is more conciliatory but neither man’s advice has any more effect than, say, such advice is having on America’s current president.

Nico sees the Bacchae as stand-ins for Athens’ male citizens and Dionysus as human nature. When autocrats tighten the screws too much, treating men like women, they invite rebellion. The suspense builds as Pentheus ignores one warning signal after another. In the end he is torn apart by his own family, whose nature has been driven to madness by the king’s oppressive measures. It is a fate that Euripides predicts for Athens.

The Bacchae was published posthumously, perhaps because it was too volatile to be staged while Euripides was still alive. Internal dissension helped insure Athens’ final defeat the following year.

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Nature Lit Has Healed for Centuries

Vincent Van Gogh, “Wheat Field with Cypresses”


Today I reflect upon the last Introduction to Literature class I may ever teach as I anticipate retirement. Years ago St. Mary’s received a Pugh grant for increasing environmental awareness in core courses, and I’ve been teaching Intro to Lit with a Nature focus ever since. In addition to fulfilling the college’s Arts requirement, the course also contributes to the Environmental Studies major.

I bookended this semester’s course with contemporary novels, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. Several of my students were inspired by how Kingsolver’s protagonist pulls out of a funk once she dedicates herself to a cause outside herself (spreading the word about climate change). Atwood’s dystopia, meanwhile, concludes the course by looking at environmental devastation from economic, sociological, political, and spiritual perspectives.

Between those two novels we toured literary classics stretching back to Euripides’s The Bacchae.

Euripides makes it clear that disregarding nature’s call has dire consequences. Arrogant Pentheus has his head torn from his body, and a beheading motif also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Because Gawain reconnects with his natural body, however, he survives the chopping block.

Dionysus and Green Knight are both nature spirits, and a spirit shows up as well in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Egeus, the tyrannical father, may think that he can impose his authoritarian will over his daughter’s desires, but Puck has other plans and wreaks havoc in Shakespeare’s green world. By the end, an accommodation has been reached between anarchistic sexual desire and social order. Balance makes for comedy, imbalance for tragedy.

We then launched into a quick tour of the English Romantic poets, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron. Only when the industrial, scientific, technological, and agricultural revolutions had tamed nature could nature become picturesque. Some of the poets romanticized soft nature (Wordsworth’s daffodils, Keats’s nightingale), some hard nature (Coleridge and Byron’s ocean, Blake’s tiger), but they could do so only because nature appeared susceptible to human control.

The deans of contemporary nature poetry, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, came next. Berry looks more at humans’ relationship with nature while Oliver uncovers parables for human struggle in animals and plant life. Both poets find spiritual sustenance in their interactions with the natural world.

Lucille Clifton is in a class by herself. With poems like “poem in praise of menstruation” and “to my last period,” we were reminded that history’s vexed relationship with female biology. Clifton speaks up for the downtrodden, including even cockroaches.

Finally we read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, a powerful exploration of how healing the planet and healing ourselves are inextricably intertwined.

From the beginning, authors have understood that a healthy relationship with nature is a key to social and personal health. Addvancing technology may have changed the dynamics, but the themes have remained the same.

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GOP Tax Plan and the Invisible Man


Like much of the country, I’ve been watching in horror as the GOP rushes to bestow billions of dollars upon the wealthy while exploding the deficit and endangering  our social safety net programs. They claim that this will stimulate the economy, but the whole affair is such a sham that one wonders how they get away with it. Won’t people notice when, to cite two small examples, teachers lose deductions for classroom expenses while the wealthy get special write-offs for their private jets?

Maybe the GOP believes that the rules of politics have changed. Maybe Donald Trump’s lesson is that reality can be whatever one wants and that normal political truisms no longer apply. When you’ve undermined all the gatekeeper institutions (science, academe, the courts, etc.) and can dismiss anything you don’t like as “fake news,” then it makes sense to loudly declare the tax bill is good for America while you loot America.

It’s as though Trump has bestowed the ring of Gyges on the GOP. Or to cite a novel that Plato’s parable inspired, H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man is exhilarated when he discovers that he is free of normal constraints. Unfortunately, his unchecked freedom turns him into a monster.

Plato mentions the story of the shepherd Gyges in Book 2 of The Republic. Asserting to Socrates that people behave justly only because they fear the consequences of not doing so, Glaucon tells how Gyges, after finding a ring that renders him invisible, proceeds to seduce the queen, murder the king, and become king himself. While people might publicly applaud a good man who didn’t take advantage of such a ring, Glaucon states that privately they would regard him as a fool.

Socrates eventually counters that the man who wields the ring will always be slave to his appetites and can therefore never be happy. This is of scant consolation to the dead king, however.

Invisible Man describes a “feeling of extraordinary elation” when he realizes that people can’t see him. Confiding his history to a college friend, he says he immediately burned down the house so that others wouldn’t discover his secrets:

“You fired the house!” exclaimed Kemp.

“Fired the house. It was the only way to cover my trail—and no doubt it was insured. I slipped the bolts of the front door quietly and went out into the street. I was invisible, and I was only just beginning to realize the extraordinary advantage my invisibility gave me. My head was already teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do.”

And a little later:

My mood, I say, was one of exaltation. I felt as a seeing man might do, with padded feet and noiseless clothes, in a city of the blind. I experienced a wild impulse to jest, to startle people, to clap men on the back, fling people’s hats astray, and generally revel in my extraordinary advantage.

When Kent asks about “the common conventions of humanity,” IM replies that they are “all very well for common people.”

As IM’s madness grows, so do his dark ambitions. Thinking he has successfully enlisted Kemp, he plots ways to wield total power:

“And it is killing we must do, Kemp.”

“It is killing we must do,” repeated Kemp. “I’m listening to your plan, Griffin, but I’m not agreeing, mind. Why killing?”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is, they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes; no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them.”

Kemp describes IM to the authorities as

mad, inhuman. He is pure selfishness. He thinks of nothing but his own advantage, his own safety. I have listened to such a story this morning of brutal self-seeking…. He has wounded men. He will kill them unless we can prevent him. He will create a panic. Nothing can stop him. He is going out now—furious!”

During the election, Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” On the Access Hollywood bus he was overheard saying, “And when you’re a star, they let you [kiss beautiful women]. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” When Trump learned that he had been elected president, did his head immediately begin “teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do”?

But why put all the blame for our new politics on Trump? During the Obama administration, Mitch McConnell flouted Senate convention time and again to stymie the president, wielding the filibuster as never before to block judges and other appointments. He defied the Constitution by refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and then, when in power with a GOP president, threw out the filibuster to get the GOP’s nominee confirmed. Senate norms have been under fire for a while now.

And what about Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who appears to regard Trump as the incarnation of John Galt, a man who doesn’t listen to “the common conventions of humanity” but makes up his own rules? The Speaker is like Billy Bush on that Hollywood Access bus, gaping in disbelieving wonder and admiration. No wonder Ryan doesn’t raise any objections to the president’s excesses. His college dreams of being an Ubermensch must seem near at hand.

Maybe that’s why these Congressional leaders are allowing Trump to act with impunity. In their arrangement, they all get to rise above the “common people.”  Unfortunately, the “extraordinary elation” they feel comes from shaking the pillars that support “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Further thought: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how, by crying, “Fake news!” Alabama’s Republican Senate candidate has disappeared a history of teen stalking and molestation. Just think what young district attorney Roy Moore could have done had he really been invisible. As Wells’s creation puts it,

Practically I thought I had impunity to do whatever I chose, everything—save to give away my secret. So I thought. Whatever I did, whatever the consequences might be, was nothing to me. I had merely to fling aside my garments and vanish. No person could hold me.

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Margaret Atwood’s Green Christians

Peter Wenzel, “Garden of Eden”

Spiritual Sunday

In her dystopian novel Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood imagines an underground cult of environmental Christians who are preparing for the apocalypse and, in fact, manage to survive when practically everyone else dies. Atwood is at her inventive best as she imagines how the Bible would be interpreted by nature-oriented fundamentalists.

Headed by one who calls himself Adam, the Gardeners exist on the margins of society, living in abandoned buildings and “gleaning” (like Ruth) amongst the refuse that wasteful capitalist society has thrown away. Society has become a libertarian capitalist fantasy, which is to say a nightmare, in which all the wealthy live in gated communities while everyone else lives in urban desolation. Climate change has rendered much of the earth uninhabitable, many species have gone extinct, and genetic engineering has created strange new creatures, such as florescent green rabbits, pigs that can be harvested for human organs, and strange hybrids. Thanks to another Christian cult, there is even a liobam:

They don’t look dangerous, although they are.The lion-sheep splice was commissioned by the Lion Isaiahists in order to force the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom. They’d reasoned that the only way to fulfill the lion/lamb friendship prophecy without the first eating the second would be to meld the two of them together. But the result hadn’t been strictly vegetarian.

Nor are the Lion Isaiahists all that peaceful as they fight regularly with the Wolf Isaiahists in a exegetical dispute over which predator is to lie down with the lamb.

The Gardeners, on the other hand, are non-violent. Dressing simply and refusing to eat meat, they aspire to restore the earth to the beautiful garden that it once was. As they are living an urban hellscape, at the moment they must settle for rooftop gardens.

Eventually they are targeted by the authorities as the early Christians were targeted by the Romans, but their life style allows them to prevail when the rest of society is eradicated by “the waterless flood” that they have predicted. This flood is a plague introduced by a mad scientist disgusted at how humans have despoiled the earth, but because the Gardeners avoid contact with the rest of humankind and have stored up supplies in “ararats,” they are able to survive.

The book periodically gives us Adam’s sermons, followed by simple hymns. Unlike our own rightwing evangelicals, Adam has found ways to reconcile the Bible with modern science. Note how he references evolution as he explains original sin:

God could have made Man out of pure Word, but He did not use this method. He could also have formed him from the dust of the Earth, which in a sense He did, for what else can be signified by “dust” but atoms and molecules, the building blocks of all material entities? In addition to this, He created us through the long and complex process of Natural and Sexual Selection, which is none other than His ingenious device for instilling humility in Man. He made us “a little lower than the Angels,” but in other ways—and Science bears this out—we are closely related to our fellow Primates, a fact that the haughty ones of this world do not find pleasant to their self-esteem. Our appetites, our desires, our more uncontrollable emotions—all are Primate! Our fall from the original Garden was a Fall from the innocent acting-out of such patterns and impulses to a conscious and shamed awareness of them; and from thence comes our sadness, our anxiety, our doubt, our rage against God….

What commandment did we disobey? The commandment to live the Animal life in all simplicity—without clothing, so to speak. But we craved the knowledge of good and evil, and we obtained that knowledge, and now we are reaping the whirlwind. In our efforts to rise above ourselves we have indeed fallen far, and are falling farther still; for, like the Creation, the Fall, too, is ongoing. Ours is a fall into greed: why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything? We have betrayed the trust of the Animals, and defiled our sacred task of stewardship. God’s commandment to “replenish the Earth” did not mean we should fill it to overflowing with ourselves, thus wiping out everything else. How many other Species have we already annihilated? Insofar as you do it unto the least of God’s Creatures, you do it unto Him. Please consider that, my Friends, the next time you crush a Worm underfoot or disparage a Beetle!

We pray that we may not fall into the error of pride by considering ourselves as exceptional, alone in all Creation in having Souls; and that we will not vainly imagine that we are set above all other life, and may destroy it at our pleasure, and with impunity.

We thank Thee, oh God, for having made us in such a way as to remind us, not only of our less than Angelic being, but also of the knots of DNA and RNA that tie us to our many fellow Creatures.

Adam’s sermons are followed by singing. The hymns, which have an Isaac Watt feel to them, seem versions of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” with a modern twist. For instance:

Oh let me not be proud, dear Lord,
Nor rank myself above
The other Primates, through whose genes
We grew into your Love.

A million million years, Your Days,
Your methods past discerning,
Yet through Your blend of DNAs
Came passion, mind, and learning.

We cannot always trace Your path
Through Monkey and Gorilla,
Yet all are sheltered underneath
Your Heavenly Umbrella.

And if we vaunt and puff ourselves
With vanity and pride,
Recall Australopithecus,
Our Animal inside.

So keep us far from worser traits,
Aggression, anger, greed;
Let us not scorn our lowly birth,
Nor yet our Primate seed.

Although Atwood at first seems to be mocking this simple faith, it gradually grows upon the reader, especially when set against the excesses of modern capitalism. By the end, we are more than ready to say, “Amen.”

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Why Streetcar Didn’t Impress Women

Leigh, Brando in “Streetcar Named Desire”


My student Courtney Fielders is writing an interesting essay on how audiences were blown away by Streetcar Named Desire, which debuted on Broadway in 1947. Or at least male audiences were blown away. The one female reviewer she found, Mary McCarthy, was less impressed, and Courtney thinks she knows why.

In Tennessee Williams’s battle of the sexes, it was clear who most of the critics were rooting against. Legendary New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson saw Blanche as a delusional snob who “buoys herself up with gaudy dreams, spends most of her time primping, covers things that are dingy with things that are bright and flees reality.” Male critics, Courtney points out, ignored the play’s rape scene and did not question for a moment Stanley’s right to assert his dominance. When Stanley sees Blanche as an “unforgivable liar” who is disposable, Courtney says, these reviewers barely protested.

Looking back decades later at Brando’s film performance—playgoers would have seen it first on the stage—Washington Post’s Lloyd Rose writes,

Brando…burns on the screen. Leigh is excellent, but as Kazan noted about the stage production with [Jessica] Tandy, “Hers seemed to be a performance; Marlon was living onstage.” Brando’s performance as Stanley is one of those rare screen legends that are all they’re cracked up to be: poetic, fearsome, so deeply felt you can barely take it in. In the hands of other actors, Stanley is like some nightmare feminist critique of maleness: brutish and infantile…and full of a pain he can hardly comprehend or express. The monster suffers like a man.

McCarthy doesn’t directly stand up for Blanche. Instead, she accuses Williams of trying to advance his career by piling on the woman. McCarthy sees Blanche as an over-the-top creation, sometimes a “refined pushover and perennial and frigid spinster,” sometimes a “notorious libertine.” On top of that, Williams makes her the widow of a gay man who shoots himself. In contrast to this outré concoction, Stanley is simply a brute force. McCarthy is less impressed with this force than are the male reviewers.

Courtney provides historical background to explain what is going on. The Rosie the Riveters who had heroically flooded into the factories during World War II were now seen as emasculating threats. It didn’t help that 75% of them didn’t want to return to domestic life. Male viewers wanted Stellas, which is to say, compliant stay-at-home wives. Blanche, on the other hand, must be put in her place. Courtney describes the situation:

The play embodied men’s shell shock when they returned home and found that women had taken over their jobs and their role as family provider. Stanley views Blanche as deceitful and does not appreciate her attempt to make him and his friends look like fools. He despises her idea that she is better than them and does everything he can to ruin any happiness she may have with his friend Mitch.  

Streetcar played to men’s resentment-fueled rage with Stanley’s domination, as did cinema’s hardboiled detectives who humiliated, tamed and sometimes shot femmes fatales.  No wonder McCarthy didn’t fall for Brando’s passion.

Given all the recently revelations about sexual harassment, millennials like Courtney aren’t falling it for it either.

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Dorian Gray Was Social Dynamite

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray


My Theories of the Reader class yesterday discussed how Picture of Dorian Gray was used to prosecute Oscar Wilde. Surprisingly, we found ourselves agreeing more with opposing attorney Edward Carson than with Wilde about the novel’s influence. Contra Wilde, we concluded that the novel had in fact impacted readers. We just thought that its influence was a good thing. 

I couldn’t have chosen a better case study to conclude the semester. In the course of our discussion we cited Plato, Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Shelley, Matthew Arnold, and Hans Robert Jauss.

The father of Oscar Wilde’s lover had all but forced the trial by calling out Wilde as a sodomite. Although technically the plaintiff, Wilde was essentially the defendant as Carson set out to prove that he was indeed a corrupting homosexual. If he was, then the Marquess of Queensberry had not falsely libeled him. Dorian Gray entered into the fray, in part because (so Carson contended) it endorses homosexuality, in part because the defense was attempting to cast Wilde as Sir Henry Wotton, who corrupts Dorian.

The endorsement was seen in artist Basil Hallward’s admiration for Dorian, which Carson read aloud to the court:

I turned half-way round and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. I did not want any external influence in my life. You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray. Then—but I don’t know how to explain it to you. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows. I grew afraid and turned to quit the room. It was not conscience that made me do so: it was a sort of cowardice. I take no credit to myself for trying to escape.

Later in the cross-examination, Carson read another Basil declaration:

[F]rom the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain, and power, by you. You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream. I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. When you were away from me, you were still present in my art…But, as I worked at [the portrait], every flake and film of colour seemed top me to reveal my secret, I grew afraid that the world would know of my idolatry. I felt, Dorian, that I had told too much.

Carson asked Wilde, “Do you mean to say that that passage describes the natural feeling of one man towards another?” If he had answered “no,” Wilde would have had to disavow the beauty of Basil’s passion. Instead he answered, “I think it is the most perfect description of what an artist would feel on meeting a beautiful personality that was in some way necessary to his art and life.”

In other words, homosexual love—if that is what Basil feels—can be beautiful. Imagine now that you are Lord Alfred Douglas encountering Dorian Gray as a 19-year-old Oxford student. One can understand why he read it over and over. Brought up to believe that the same sex desires he secretly harbored were sordid and shameful, he could now see them as something to cherish. At 21, he sought out Wilde and they became lovers.

In other words, the novel gave him artistic permission to embrace his sexual orientation. From Plato’s point of view, this is why guardians must censor the reading of young people, who can otherwise be led astray (although Plato certainly wouldn’t have had objections to this particular issue). From Matthew Arnold’s point of view, this was art failing to perform art’s function of keeping the barbarians from storming the gates. Or as an 1890 review in The Daily Chronicle put it,

Man is half angel and half ape, and Mr. Wilde’s book has no real use if it be not to inculcate the “moral” that when you feel yourself becoming too angelic you cannot do better than to rush out and make a beast of yourself. There is not a single good and holy impulse of human nature, scarcely a fine feeling or instance that civilization, art, and religion have developed throughout the ages as part of the barriers between Humanity and Animalism that is not held up to ridicule and contempt in Dorian Gray.

From Percy Shelley’s point of view, on the other hand, this is art speaking on behalf of human liberation, which Shelley sees as the essence of art. In Jauss’s framework, this is art challenging the prevailing horizon of expectations. People rejected it because it called for them to see reality differently.

In the trial, Wilde argued that he was just creating beauty, not putting forward views. (“Views belong to people who are not artists.”) Essentially, Wilde was taking a page out Sir Philip Sidney here, that “the Poet, he nothing affirms.”  Or as Wilde put it in his preface to Dorian Gray, which Carson quoted, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.”

Another version of the idea also appears in the preface: “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.”

And what if Dorian Gray were read as forwarding “a certain tendency,” as Carson contended? Wilde replied that he wasn’t responsible for what readers take away from his books. “I am concerned only with my view of art. I don’t care twopence what other people think of it.”

And yet he could not have been displeased that LBGTQ readers have been turning to Dorian Gray from Lord Douglas on. Carson certainly knew that they did, which is why he found the novel to be dangerous. He was wrong about homosexuality being bad, but he was right that Dorian Gray was social dynamite.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, Trump Supporter

Garth Williams, illus. from “Little House on the Prairie”


The reviewer of a new book on Laura Ingalls Wilders makes a provocative claim. If the author of the Little House books were alive today,  New Republic’s Vivian Gordnick writes,

 she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump, many of whose followers yet believe that he will restore to them the dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated in her books.

Gordnick is reviewing Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which she lauds as “an impressive piece of social history that uses the events of Wilder’s life to track, socially and politically, the development of the American continent and its people.”

Wilder and her family were incurable frontier romantics, and Gordnick observes that the Little House books vividly reflect first-hand experience of white America’s push westward. The Wilders began by settling land that had been promised to the Osage Indians. After the government forced them out, they began bouncing around the country:

Thus began the years-long wander that was to become the Ingalls family’s existence. First, it was back to Wisconsin, then on to Minnesota, after that to Iowa, then back to Minnesota, and at last on to the Dakota Territory, where, now on the brink of old age, the Ingalls parents lived out the rest of their days. Wherever they went, they had encountered the viscerally undreamt-of horrors that were routine on the frontier: Indians who threatened, locusts that devoured, blizzards that blinded, crops that failed. The Ingallses found none of this disheartening. Imbued with the adolescent conviction that every failure was a new beginning, each time they pulled up stakes and tried again. Laura sat in the back of the wagon looking up at a sky full of brilliant color (there are no skies like the skies in the Great Plains), smelling the sweet grass of the vast open prairie, and feeling the excitement of starting anew. Charles Ingalls was truly Huck Finn lighting out for the territory and Laura was, if nothing else, her father’s daughter.

According to Prairie Fires, the Wilders’ idealism made them susceptible to conmen:

When the Dakota Boom hit at the end of the 1870s, the Ingallses were among those who responded to the government’s call to settle the territory. This time it really was a scam. In 1877, Fraser tells us, the scientist John W. Powell gave a speech on “The Public Domain,” arguing that the government should not be urging the Dakota Territory as a destination for homesteaders. Less than 3 percent of that arid, bleached-white land, Powell said, was suitable for farming. Nonsense, replied the railroad owners and the government along with them. And again the pioneering spirit surged.

“Fundamentally,” Fraser writes, “the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science or by huckster fantasy. The outcome was immediately clear…. In a campaign comparable to modern-day corporate denial of climate change, big business and the legislators [they owned] brushed Powell’s analysis aside.” If the government had been willing to act on the advice of its own scientists, thousands could have been spared hardship and misery.

Innocent little girls can grow up to become bitter old ladies, and in the Wilders story we see today’s rightwing temper tantrum. Wilders and her daughter Rose absolutely hated the New Deal, a time when her vision of the west was giving way to that of John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath:

When the Depression hit, both Laura and Rose fell into a blinding rage over Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Each of them announced that she now considered the American republic at an end, its people having fallen into the hands of a socialist dictator. This state of affairs had come about, Laura concluded, because the country was full of “shirkers.” Her daughter went her one better: “The more I see,” Rose declared in a letter, “the more I’m reluctantly concluding that this country’s simply yellow. Our people are behaving like arrant cowards. And it’s absurd.” She saw nothing “fundamentally wrong” with the country. At the very time Rose was writing this, in the early 1930s, 13 million workers lost their jobs, leaving nearly one-quarter of the country unemployed. Ten thousand banks went under, and industrial stocks fell to nearly 20 percent of their value. For Rose Lane, these statistics amounted to fake news.

In a development that is sobering for us today as seek to understand climate change denialism, Gordnick writes that federal efforts to save marginal prairie land by returning it to grass was attacked by the Wilders. This after failure to rotate crops and engage in soil erosion prevention resulted in the loss of two to five inches of topsoil from more than 23 million acres. Wilder “lamented the arrival of the grasshoppers on her land but accepted it as divine retribution for the New Deal.”

Gordnick concludes,

The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency. The frontier mentality they still embody is less likely to shore up a potentially failing democracy than to wreck it altogether.

The history of America has been a perpetual cycle of dream and disillusion. What we are experiencing right now is not new.

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Literature That Caused a Commotion

Wilhelm Amberg, “Reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther”


I’m making a general report today on the final projects from my Theories of the Reader senior seminar.  I’ll be reporting in detail in upcoming posts, but since at the moment I’m still frantically grading them (along with essays from my other classes), today I can provide only brief descriptions.

The students were to describe the “stir” caused by a literary work, either when it first came out or later, and figure out what the commotion teaches us about literature’s impact on people’s lives. It’s a conceptually challenging assignment because, in addition to researching the event, students must historicize the responses.

That is to say, they can’t always take those responses at face value. Different historical pressures and circumstances lead to certain reactions, which sometimes can only be understood in retrospect. To cite an example, Victorians may have embraced Coventry Patmore’s “Angel on the Hearth” in the mid-19th century because they were disturbed by social unrest, including increasing numbers of unmarried women. The dream of submissive wives, in other words, may have been in reaction to independent wage-earning women.

Here are the projects:

–Courtney Fielders looks at gendered responses to Streetcar Named Desire when it was initially staged in 1948. Male reviewers loved it while Mary McCarthy hated it, and Courtney wonders whether this was because men and women reacted differently to Stanley Kowalski’s rape of a woman he found fascinating and threatening.

Raisin in the Sun was a hit amongst both black and white audiences when it was first staged in 1959, but Mindy Grant has discovered that it was popular for different reasons. She looks at those responses responses against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.

–Margaret Fletcher focuses on different generational responses to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, which was rumored to have triggered a suicide epidemic among young people. Margaret notes that there only three reported suicides, but that was still enough to panic parents, whom Margaret compares to parents of video game-playing teenagers.

–Dawn Coady examines discomfort amongst black parents about schools teaching Huckleberry Finn while Connor Campbell looks at Christian parents’ discomfort with Catcher in the Rye.

–Carly Wedding is interested in the fascination of youthful audiences in the early 1960’s for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Jessica Maddox, meanwhile, is looking at youthful audiences ten years later falling in love with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

–Allison Barrett wants to understand the popularity of Coventry Patmore’s Angel on the Hearth in the mid-19th century, and Zoe Smoeller looks at what about Wuthering Heights troubled readers around the same time, especially when they discovered it was written by a woman. 

–Sabrina Wood tracks the up and down history of Solzenhitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, which Soviet authorities first allowed to be published and then banned.

–Ami Oliver examines why Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale became the defining novel of feminism during the Ronald Reagan years.

–Noelle Gabelein sees to understand the popularity of Twilight  and why children and their parents often had diametrically opposite reactions to the series.

I reported this past Sunday on Abby Messaris’s exploration of the French church banning Moliere’s Tartuffe in the 17th century.

Consider these as previews of coming attractions.

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Robert Mueller, the Eye of Sauron

Special Counsel Robert Mueller


Comedy is one of the few things keeping me sane these days as Donald Trump continues to attack democratic norms. Seth Meyers’s “A Closer Look” is one of my must-sees, and recently the late-night comedian wondered how Donald Trump and associates are feeling as Special Counselor Robert Mueller bears down on them.  “Mueller is like the eye of Sauron,” Meyers said.

Frodo’s encounter with the eye in Gadriel’s mirror is terrifying:

But suddenly the Mirror went altogether dark, as dark as if a hole had opened in the world of sight, and Frodo looked into emptiness. In the black abyss there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew, until it filled nearly all the Mirror. So terrible was it that Frodo stood rooted, unable to cry out or to withdraw his gaze. The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing. Then the Eye began to rove, searching this way and that; and Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one. But he also knew that it could not see him—not yet, not unless he willed it. The Ring that hung upon its chain about his neck grew heavy, heavier than a great stone, and his head was dragged downwards. The Mirror seemed to be growing hot and curls of steam were rising from the water. He was slipping forward.

My worry is that Trump will panic under Mueller’s relentless gaze and do something epically destructive, like start a war with North Korea. In other words, that he will become Sauron.

Following this line of thought, the GOP leaders in Congress have become Nazgul, emptied out of principle and responsive only to the call of their leader. Middle Earth hangs in the balance.

The rest of us must be Frodo-strong. In the mirror scene, Frodo is recalled to his senses by Galdriel–think of her as our higher selves–and when he faces his greatest challenge on Mount Doom, the good that he has done saves him. The Resistance, like Tolkien’s fellowship, can take heart from that.

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Moliere and Religious Hypocrites

Orgon catches Tartuffe seducing his wife

Spiritual Sunday

I think I’ve been devoting too many posts in recent weeks to criticizing other Christians. Generally I’m more interested in looking for the mote in my own eye, and after today I promise to leave politics out of my Sunday postings for a while.

But I’ve just had a student in my Senior Seminar, Abby Messaris, write about Louis XIV censoring Moliere’s 1664 comedy about religious hypocrisy, and she is upset about the same things I am. Abby points out that we have plenty of Tartuffes today, starting with a president who is idolized by rightwing evangelicals, and that such hypocrisy drives her generation away from the church. How can people call themselves “pro-life,” she asks, when they oppose universal health care and immigration? Some of these same Christians, I would add, are justifying voting for a child molester in Alabama so that there will be enough GOP senators to pass a tax bill that delivers billions to the wealthiest Americans while throwing 13 million people off of healthcare.

Today’s Gospel reading could not be more relevant:

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now to Tartuffe, a play about a religious conman who bamboozles Orgon into giving him his estate and promising him his daughter. Not until Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife do the scales fall from his eyes. Because he has revealed certain compromising secrets to Tartuffe, however, the conman has him in his power and calls in the law. Only because the king understands the situation is Orgon saved and Tartuffe arrested, a true deus ex machina ending.

Abby says that church pressure caused the first two versions of Tartuffe to be banned. Although Moliere insisted that he was satirizing only hypocrites, not true believers (“vrais dévots”), his satire apparently cut too close to home. Moliere therefore added a character, Cléante, an authentic Christian who functions as a contrast to Tartuffe. Religious conmen, Cléante says,

cloak their spite in fair religion’s name,
Their private spleen and malice being made
To seem a high and virtuous crusade,
Until, to mankind’s reverent applause,
They crucify their foe in Heaven’s cause.

Rather than placating the Church, however, Cléante only made the situation worse. That’s because, in the words of one Moliere scholar, his “cool and reasonable piety” was “unappealing if not repugnant to the adorers of the hidden god of the Holy Sacrament.”

“Cool and reasonable piety” was a bigger threat than charges of hypocrisy. Authors, after all, had been satirizing church hypocrisy since Chaucer and before and the Church always survived. The reasonable Cléante, on the other hand, threatened institutional religion in a whole new way. If such views prevailed, Faith would be subject to Reason. This struck at the Church’s reliance on received authority and would represent a major paradigm shift.

Incidentally, in 1712 Jonathan Swift penned a comic satire that clarifies the Church’s concerns about Tartuffe. In his Argument against Abolishing Christianity, Swift has his narrator justify religion on rational grounds.

You can tell from the essay’s entire title– An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand Today, be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby—that it resembles “Modest Proposal.” In both cases, reasonable sounding men come up with preposterous solutions to social issues. With friendly advocates like these, who needs enemies?

Essentially, Swift was challenging those who think that Reason can dispel all doubt and that religious belief can be reduced to logic. Such figures became increasingly prominent as the century wore on.

Abby smartly uses two of the theorists we studied to explain the commotion caused by Tartuffe. Hans Robert Jauss describes how great works of art challenge a period’s “horizon of expectations,” which in this case included unquestioning faith in the Church’s sacraments. No wonder he caused an uproar.

Brecht, meanwhile, advocates for revolutionary art that denaturalizes a prevailing and oppressive world view. If audiences can see existing power relations as constructed rather than just the way things are, then they are more likely to take action. What is constructed can also be taken apart. Abby specifically mentions Brecht’s play about Galileo, who like Moliere shook the very pillars of the Church by elevating empirical observation over faith. Both men helped set the stage for the Age of Reason, which (if you want to take the long view) would pave the way for the French Revolution and the overthrow of all religious institutions.

Abby notes that, while a third version of Tartuffe finally made it to the stage in 1669, it was not because of Moliere’s changes. Rather, for reasons that I’d like to hear more about, the opposition had become weaker.

In my own view, faith that cannot stand up to reason is not true faith, just as reason that thinks it is the key to everything is not true reason. A bracing satire like Tartuffe is good for religion, then and today. Laughter is holy.

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Shakespeare & Sexual Assault Politics

Lewis Geraint, Riseborough & Dormer in “Measure for Measure”


Vox writer Tara Isabella Burton has a nuanced article applying Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to Harvey Weinstein and those other public figures recently exposed as sexual assaulters. I must confess that the play has always troubled me, but I am rethinking it thanks to Burton’s interpretation.

As she sees it, the very ambiguities that make the play problematic are also at work in a number of our own cases.

The play begins with a cowardly administrative decision. Duke Vincentio, worried that his leniency has led to laxity within his realm, pretends to leave town while appointing the rigid Angelo as temporary executive. Angelo immediately initiates harsh measures, including ordering the execution of one Claudio, who has broken laws against premarital sex by getting his fiancé pregnant. Claudio’s sister, soon-to-be-nun Isabella, pleading for his life, finds herself in Angelo’s lecherous crosshairs. The modern parallels begin here.

Angelo, resembling one of those hypocritical “family values” politicians (say, Roy Moore), promises to free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. When Isabella threatens to go public, she receives the same response that Moore delivered to one of his own victims:

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. 

Or as Moore reportedly said to 16-year-old Beverly Young Nelson after groping her breasts,

‘You’re just a child, and I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.

Angelo is modern in other ways as well. For instance, when he on the verge of being exposed, he goes step by step through the predator’s playbook. The real duke, watching Angelo from the shadows, has arranged an elaborate deception: Isabella will say yes, thereby winning a reprieve for her brother, but then be replaced in the darkness by Angelo’s former fiancé Marianna, whom he jilted. The plot succeeds, but when first Isabella and then Marianna come forth with their stories, Angelo (1) says they’re lying, (2) claims he dropped Marianna because she was promiscuous and (3) says that political schemers have put the women up to discredit him. Sound familiar?

Burton observes that the play is not just about lecherous old men and innocent victims, however. Above all, Isabella is a mixed bag. Although she is clearly a victim, Burton says she also stands as a warning to those who are too self-righteous in their condemnations. When, for instance, Isabella’s brother begs her to take up Angelo’s offer, she turns on him.  Purity and death are to be preferred over sin and life.

Burton finds herself simultaneously rejoicing in Isabella’s choice and sympathizing with Claudio, whose only fault is impregnating his fiancé:

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”

This scene — the exact midpoint of the play — is powerful because we are simultaneously proud of and repulsed by Isabella here. On the one hand, she has every right to be furious. Men’s very existence, it seems, is predicated on a system in which women are used and abused. On the other hand, Isabella’s anger punishes Claudio, who might be a bit weak, a bit of a coward, but who hardly deserves to have his sister celebrating the prospect of his death.

In other words, Burton uses the play to both validate female anger and warn against purity politics:

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place.

By the end of the article, Burton is sympathetic with pretty much everyone, even the sexual assaulter Angelo:

The play invites us to recognize that the world around us is full of Angelos who lie to themselves, and Claudios who are cowards, and Marianas who enable the abusive behavior of the men they love, and Isabellas who are blinded by their righteous rage and let it hurt those they love. It rightly condemns Angelo’s behavior, alongside the hypocritical society that lets him get away with it, even as it contends with the fact that, ultimately, Isabella’s harassment is part of a much wider issue: human beings constantly falling short of the standards they set for themselves, and those in power being able to fall short with impunity. The true sexual immorality of Vienna turns out to be rooted not in sensuality, but in hypocrisy.

Burton may want to temper her sympathies a little, at least with regard to Angelo. If Valentino had not reined him in, Claudio would be dead, Isabella dishonored, and Marianna left bereft.

I would add one more modern parallel: Duke Valentino resembles the GOP Establishment, claiming moderation while counting on Angelo to do his dirty work (in our case, win elections by attacking people of color, immigrants, assertive women and LBGTQ).Valentino thinks that, once Angelo has restored order, he can return and rule as before. He reclaims power in the play but not in 2016 America.

Everyone in this sexual assault drama gets full three-dimensional treatment. That’s why Shakespeare was not of an age but of all time.

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A Time for Laughter & Sharing of Pleasures

Doris Lee, “Thanksgiving” (1935)


This will be the last Thanksgiving that I spend apart from Julia, my wife and my best friend. I send out today’s Kahlil Gibran’s “Friendship” especially for her.

Julia lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, sharing her time between my mother and my son Toby’s family, while I am finishing up my last year at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I will join my son Darien and his family later today.

In his poem, Gibran conveys a truth that I have discovered as I have lived separate from Julia over the past three semesters: “That which you love most in [her] may be clearer in [her] absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.”

His final words, meanwhile can work as a prayer for a  Thanksgiving feast:

In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Happy Thanksgiving.


By Kahlil Gibran

And a youth said, “Speak to us of Friendship.” 

Your friend is your needs answered. 

He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving. 

And he is your board and your fireside. 

For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace. 

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.” 

And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart; 

For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed. 

When you part from your friend, you grieve not; 

For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain. 

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. 

For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught. 

And let your best be for your friend. 

If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also. 

For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill? 

Seek him always with hours to live. 

For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness. 

And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. 

For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

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Note to Men: Face Your Inner Violence

Lisito, “Kafka and Crow”


Yesterday I cited bell hooks’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, which sees male violence as a symptom of how we raise our sons. To seriously address the problem of sexual assault, hooks says, it’s not enough to go after individual men. We need to change patriarchy itself, which is to say, the emotionally abusive system that shames boys when they act soft.

To that end, it’s useful to have powerful literary explorations of the problem. Haruki Murakami grapples with the issue of emotionally abused men in his existential fantasies, especially the mesmerizing Kafka on the Shore. By focusing on the Oedipal and rape fantasies of a 15-year-old boy, the Japanese author shows the conditions that lead men to strive for dominance over women, as well as what they must do to transcend their conditioning.

I start with the most disturbing scene in the book and then work back to determine its meaning. Kafka has been having vivid dreams, and in one of them he visits a woman friend, who is also dreaming, and rapes her. Sakura, who is and is not Kafka’s sister, protests:

Suddenly she snaps awake and realizes what’s going on.
“Kafka, what are you doing?!”
“It would seem that I’m inside you,” I reply.
“But why? She asks in a dry, raspy voice. “Didn’t I tell you that’s off-limits?”
“I can’t help it.”
“Stop already. Get it out of me.”
“I can’t,” I say, shaking my head emphatically.
“Listen to me. First of all, I’ve got a steady boyfriend, okay? And second, you’ve come into my dream without my permission. That’s not right.”
“I know.”…
“Take it out,” she admonishes me. “And let’s pretend this never happened. I can forget it, and so should you. I’m your sister, and you’re my brother. Even if we’re not blood related, we’re most definitely brother and sister. You understand what I’m saying? We’re part of a family. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
“It’s too late,” I tell her
“Because I decided it is.”

 Avoiding responsibility (“I can’t help it”) while asserting domination (“Because I decided”) characterizes many of abusers in the headlines these days. Sakura calls Kafka out:

“I understand,” she says. “I won’t say any more. But I want you to remember something: You’re raping me. I like you, but this isn’t how I want it to be. We might never see each other again, no matter how much we want to meet later on. Are you okay with that?”

You don’t respond. Your mind’s switched off. You draw her close to you and start to move your hips. Carefully, cautiously, in the end violently….Sakura closes her eyes and gives herself up to the motion. She doesn’t say a word or resist. Her face is expressionless, turned away from you. But you feel the pleasure rising up in her like an extension of yourself.

More offensive even than the rape is Kafka imagining that Sakura is enjoying it, a classic male rationalization (“you know you want it”). Otherwise a very sympathetic character—my students fall in love with him—Kafka threatens to lose us here. Some plot background is necessary to understand Murakami’s purpose.

At a young age Kafka was abandoned by his mother, who took his sister with her, and he has been raised by his emotionally abusive father. (We learn from one graphic episode that his father engages in the emotional equivalent of tearing the hearts out of cats.) In a deliberate echo of the Oedipus story, Kafka hates his father and has mixed emotions about his mother, longing to be reunited with her while hating her for leaving him. Some of these same mixed emotions extend to his sister.

Kafka’s father terrifies him with the prediction that one day he will act out the Oedipus story, killing him and sleeping with the mother (and with the sister as well, the father adds). Kafka, like Oedipus, runs away from home to escape such a destiny, later explaining to a woman who is and is not his mother, “I felt like if I stayed there I’d be damaged beyond repair.” And a little later, “I’d change into something I shouldn’t.”

One can’t run away from the anger at one’s parents, however, and Kafka appears doomed like Oedipus to repeat the cycle of violence and violation. He inadvertently kill his father through astral projection, and the woman who is and is not his mother sleepwalks into his room and has sex with him (there’s that supposed helplessness again).

A thought about rape: while psychology tells us that it is about power, not sex, watching Kafka’s fantasies lead me to see it as both. The sexual aspect is the longing for intimacy while the power aspect is the anger over the feelings of vulnerability that accompany the longing. Kafka violates sister and mother because he simultaneously wants to join with them and to punish them. Therapists probably can find versions of this drama occurring within the various abusers we have been learning about.

Kafka is unlike Trump, Moore, and others, however, in that he is introspective and wants to do the right thing. His alter ego, an inner voice that he names Crow, confronts him with the stark realization that he will be doomed to kill and to violate for the rest of his life if he doesn’t change:

You killed the person who’s your father, violated your mother, and now your sister. You thought that would put an end to the curse your father laid on you, so you did everything that was prophesied about you. But nothing’s really over. You didn’t overcome anything. That curse is branded on your soul even deeper than before. You should realize that by now. That curse is part of your DNA. You breathe out the curse, the wind carries it to the four corners of the Earth, but the dark confusion inside you remains. Your fear, anger, unease—nothing’s disappeared. They’re all still inside you, still torturing you.

Return for a moment to our own national curse. It appears that a kind of existential emptiness has entered thousands of men, prompting them to dehumanize the women they encounter. The rot goes very deep.

There’s hope for Kafka, however, because he recognizes how untenable his present condition is. Entering a forest that symbolizes how lost he feels, he expresses his despair:

Alone in such a deep forest, the person called me feels empty, horribly empty. Oshima [a guide figure] once used the term hollow men. Well, that’s exactly what I’ve become. There’s a void inside me, a blank that’s slowly expanding, devouring what’s left of who I am. I can hear it happening, I’m totally lost, my identity dying.

For a moment, like many teenage boys, he considers suicide:

If only I could wipe out this me who’s here, right here and right now. I seriously consider it. In this thick wall of trees, on this path that’s not a path, if I stopped breathing, my consciousness would silently be buried in the darkness, every last drop of my dark violent blood dripping out, my DNA rotting among the weeds. Then my battle would be over. Otherwise, I’ll eternally be murdering my father, violating my mother, violating my sister, lashing out at the world forever.

Because he faces up to his feelings rather than running from them, this scene represents a turning point for him. He plunges deep into the forest and engaged with stand-ins for his father and mother. Holding on to father hatred, he realizes, leads only to a vast emptiness, so he must let it go. He also comes to understand his mother’s pain, why she left him, and forgives her. He has achieved the goal that Crow set up for him:

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about. Do that and you really will be the toughest fifteen-year-old on the planet.”

The book concludes with Kafka returning home, the curse broken. The final passage reminds me of the conclusion of Paradise Lost:

“You’d better get some sleep,” the boy named Crow says. “When you wake up, you’ll be part of a brand-new world.”
You finally fall asleep. And when you wake up, it’s true.
You are part of a brand-new world.

A brand new world awaits American men if they get their act together. Many women are doing their part, revisiting past interactions and sharing their experiences, often in courageous public ways. To escape the desolate cycles of insecurity and violence, it’s now up to men to take their own journeys into the forest.

Real men open themselves to the bright light that melts the heart’s coldness.

A note on the artist: “Lisito” has a series of enchanting illustrations of Kafka on the Shore at

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Chaucer’s Solution for Sexual Assault

Illuminated manuscript illus. of Wife of Bath


Writing about the sexual harassers in the news, the New Yorker’s Masha Geesen recently made a point that reminds me of the Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale. Chaucer has some useful advice for us as we struggle with how to respond to everyone from Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Bill Clinton to Louis C. K., Al Franken, and Charlie Rose.

Geesen identifies our problem when she writes that

it is not possible to hold to account every man who has ever behaved disrespectfully and disgustingly toward a woman. Nor even every senator, or every comedian. And, even if it were possible to punish every single one of them, what would be accomplished? Punishment, especially when it is delayed, is not a very effective deterrent.\

In the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer provides an answer with her story of a young knight who rapes a maiden and is brought before Queen Guinevere and her court. While the women could very easily condemn him death, they instead assign him a challenge: he must find out what women most desire. If he fails, he will be executed.

Let’s put aside the question about whether an actual rapist should go free—of course he shouldn’t—and bring the issue closer to the one at hand. What should we do to the thousands of men who harass and assault every year? I suspect that the Wife of Bath and Guinevere would agree with Geesen that we can’t punish them all. Guinevere’s sentence, therefore, has real wisdom.

To understand women, the knight must listen to them as though his life depends on it, because it does. He quickly learns about the difficulty of his task as every woman gives him a different answer. This means he must expend substantialeffort to hear the desire under the words. He must imagine what the world feels like to a woman.

Only when men start engaging in such efforts can real change begin to happen. In other words, assaulters should be given educational opportunities before we throw the book at them.

bell hooks makes a version of this point in her book The Will to Change: Man, Masculinity, and Love. As hooks sees it, many men have been shamed about being soft, undergoing a form of emotional abuse. To assert their manhood, they believe they must assert their dominance over women, who stand in for their soft side. Anger and revenge undergird these power plays.

This doesn’t absolve sexual assaulters of responsibility. In fact, the knight will be punished if he can’t evolve. But the story gives him that opportunity.

What passes for the right answer will not allay the anxieties of males fearful of “a war on men.” An old crone, in return for marriage, tells the knight that women most desire “sovereignty over men.” So how, you ask, does confirming the very fears that contribute to sexual assault solve our problem? Hold on, Chaucer’s not done with us yet.

Before sharing his further insights, here’s the dramatic scene where the knight reveals his answer:

When they are come to the court, this knight
Said he had held his day, as he had promised,
And his answer was ready, as he said.
Very many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, because they are wise,
The queen herself sitting as a justice,
And afterward this knight was commanded to appear.

Silence was commanded to every person,
And that the knight should tell in open court
What thing (it is) that worldly women love best.
This knight stood not silent as does a beast,
But to his question straightway answered
With manly voice, so that all the court heard it:

“My liege lady, without exception,” he said,
“Women desire to have sovereignty
As well over her husband as her love,
And to be in mastery above him.
This is your greatest desire, though you kill me.
Do as you please; I am here subject to your will.”
In all the court there was not wife, nor maid,
Nor widow that denied what he said,
But said that he was worthy to have his life.

Sovereignty is not the real answer, however. The Wife of Bath knows that simply reversing the power imbalance will not bring about peace between the sexes. Her tale arrives at a much more satisfactory answer.

The knight, understandably, is not happy about being married to an old crone. At first she tries to reason him into happiness. If he could only look past her looks and her low station, she tells him, he would see the beautiful person underneath and be content. Not being a very deep person, however—he is a rapist, after all—he’s not persuaded.

The crone then goes to Plan B: he can either have her as she is, which, while old and ugly is also faithful, or (being in actuality a fairy) she can transform herself into a beautiful and young but also unfaithful woman. The choice is up to him.

I love how the choice puts his manhood anxieties front and center. At first glance, there appears to be no satisfactory solution: either he will be laughed at for having an old wife or for being a cuckold.

His year spent listening to women has not entirely been in vain, however, and he responds with the following:

This knight deliberates and painfully sighs,                 
But at the last he said in this manner:                 
“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,                 
 I put me in your wise governance;                 
Choose yourself which may be most pleasure                 
And most honor to you and me also.                 
I do not care which of the two,                 
For as it pleases you, is enough for me.”

His wife approves:

“Then have I gotten mastery of you,” she said,                 
“Since I may choose and govern as I please?”

“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

“Kiss me,” she said, “we are no longer angry,                 
For, by my troth, I will be to you both —                 
This is to say, yes, both fair and good.                 
I pray to God that I may die insane                 
Unless I to you be as good and true                 
As ever was wife, since the world was new.

As I read the story, Chaucer is saying the women most desire respect, They’ll settle for sovereignty if that protects them from assault, but any power imbalance turns relationships into win-lose affairs. Men and women will be most happy if they share power and share responsibility. When that happens, men will no longer see women as castrating witches but as beautiful companions.

Unfortunately, being a fairy tale, the Wife’s tale is a vision to aspire to, and her actual life is less happy. She tries to engineer a power sharing marriage with husband #5, signing over her wealth to him so that they can live what looks like a conventional marriage. He, however, is young and insecure and feels he must dominate her to be a real man.

The result is constant strife. He insists she stay home, she insists on going out. He psychologically abuses her by reading her stories of wicked wives, she tears three pages out of the book and pushes him into the fire. He beats her, rendering her permanently deaf in one ear, and she, being the forceful woman that she is, grabs her wealth back and reasserts her dominance. Having failed to educate her husband, she figures that sovereignty is better than submission. Medieval patriarchy in the end proves too much for them.

We’ve made a lot of progress since then, however. Now many of us realize that we only subject ourselves to incessant anxieties when we define our self worth by our ability to dominate women. Our insecure president presents us daily with object lessons to this effect. As hooks points out, if we see men as capable of change, we may accomplish more than we can with draconian punishments. Even Chaucer’s rapist knight makes progress.

Of course, if men can’t and refuse to change, then we must look to the sovereignty of the law to control their behavior. But it’s worth giving at least some of them a second chance and see how they respond.

Further thought: Of course, the knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale is young and just starting out in life. Whether men who have been harassing women for a lifetime are capable to evolving is another question. At least those who fess up, like Franken and Louis C.K., have more promise than those who stonewall, like Trump, Weinstein, O’Reilly, Cosby, and Moore.

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The Assault on Rand Paul, a Theory

Still from Norman MacLaren’s “Neighbors”


Although not one of the bigger news items these days, the strange case of a neighbor assaulting Kentucky Republican senator Rand Paul is puzzling pretty much everybody. Although the neighbor is a Democrat, everyone insists that the set-to was not political. New Yorker columnist Jeffrey Frank turned to a novel by Thomas Berger to figure out what actually happened.

We know what the effects of the battle were. Rene Boucher tackled Paul, causing six broken ribs and a pleural effusion. Some theorize that the battle was over property rights and lawn trimmings:

Jim Skaggs, the developer of Rivergreen, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the two doctors, who have been neighbors for more than seventeen years, have a long and somewhat disagreeable history, much of it focussed on property rights. Although Skaggs was once the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, he seemed to side with Boucher, whom he called a “near-perfect” neighbor, as opposed to Paul, who, he said, was less willing to go along with the regulations of the homeowners association “because he has a strong belief in property rights.” Skaggs thought that the breaking point came when Paul allegedly blew lawn trimmings into Boucher’s yard. “I think this is something that has been festering,” Skaggs said, mentioning past disagreements over who should cut down a tree branch when it stretched over a property line. The Times reported that Paul grows pumpkins, and composts.

Pumpkins and compost may well be at the root of things. This fall has been unusually warm in Kentucky, and the heat may affect decomposing organic matter in unpleasant, olfactory ways. Paul, who leans toward libertarianism, could well have considered the compost of a private gardener, on private property, to be an inalienable right, and one can sympathize with that view.

To borrow from Alexander Pope, can mighty contests rise from such trivial things? According to Berger’s novel Neighbors, they certainly can. Frank says that the novelist “understood the weird rages that spring up between people in close proximity”:

 “I hope we can be friends,” Ramona, a new neighbor, tells the novel’s protagonist. “I’m sure we can,” he replies, to which Ramona says, “I didn’t mean that polite social kind of shit.” Berger’s characters seem less stable than the residents of Rivergreen, and the neighborliness-gone-bad is more ominous, as when he writes, “To have an outright enemy as one’s nearest neighbor, when one lived at the termination of a dead-end road, with only a wooded hollow beyond, a weed-field across the street, was unthinkable.”

Frank also unearths a lesson that Berger, when the novel came out in 1980, said that he learned from Kafka:

That at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial.

Maybe Frank is pushing things a bit when he extrapolates from the Paul-Boucher incident to America in general, but I’m willing to entertain the idea. Anyway, he thinks that such crankiness is spreading to a lot of Americans these days. A lot of neighbors seems to be squaring off these days:

The sinister banality of American life periodically moves into view, with a lot of it these days emanating from Donald J. Trump, the person who was elected President, a year ago. 

 Which neighbors, after all, is America not quarreling with these days—we can start with Mexico and Canada and then move on to old allies, such as Australia, Germany, and South Korea. Meanwhile, closer to home, many Alabamans say they would rather vote for a pedophile than for neighbors who are Democrats.

I’ve wondered for a while if electing Donald Trump was a sign of decadence more than anything else. Entertainment can take center stage when the economy is humming along and other people are fighting our wars. “Sinister banality” sounds like a wealthy nation problem.

As, for that matter, does a battle over lawn waste.

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The Evangelical Rose Is Sick

Spiritual Sunday

Of all this past year’s political surprises, few things have left me more open-mouthed than rightwing evangelicals hitching their wagons to sexual predators like Donald Trump and former Alabama judge Roy Moore. So grateful are they to these men that they countenance behavior they would instantly condemn in anyone else.

To regain their moral compass, they need the poetry of William Blake, and I am sharing several poems to get them started. Let’s look first, however, at the nature of the problem.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, one of the chief architects of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, believes that right-wing politics have become “untethered from morality and religion,” and he accuses churches that enable this divide of heresy at least, if not idolatry:

What institution, of all institutions, should be providing the leaven of principle to political life? What institution is specifically called on to oppose the oppression of children, women and minorities, to engage the world with civility and kindness, to prepare its members for honorable service to the common good?

A hint: It is the institution that is currently — in some visible expressions — overlooking, for political reasons, credible accusations of child molestation. Some religious leaders are willing to call good evil, and evil good, in service to a different faith — a faith defined by their political identity. This is heresy at best; idolatry at worst.

Gerson’s critique of Trump Christians concludes,

Many of the people who should be supplying the moral values required by self-government have corrupted themselves. The Trump administration will be remembered for many things. The widespread, infectious corruption of institutions and individuals may be its most damning legacy.

Radical Blake doesn’t share Gerson’s politics, but he would agree about religious institutions selling their souls for political and economic power. In Songs of Experience he goes after Anglicanism, England’s state religion.

“The Chimney-Sweeper,” for instance, calls out a church that rationalizes state oppression of children, refusing to condemn parents who sell their children to be chimney sweeps. “Weep! weep” is how children too young to pronounce their “s’s” advertise their services:

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother?  Say!’—
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’

Maybe this is a good place to mention that the party claiming it is for God and family values still has not renewed the Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is perilously close to running out of funds; and that if the Senate’s tax bill passes, 13 million people will lose their health insurance.

Blake also equates church complicity with state oppression in “London”:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

If you listen to Roy Moore invoke the name of Jesus as he goes after homosexuality, Muslims, immigrants, and women he has assaulted, you will understand Blake’s anger in “The Garden of Love”:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;

So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

Gerson’s warning may find its best articulation, however, in a poem that doesn’t specifically mention religion.  When a beautiful vision is corrupted by base desires, it resembles a sick rose:

O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Rightwing evangelicals’ dark secret love for Trump and Trumpism are destroying the Christian rose. As Gerson rhetorically asks, “[H]ow many Americans would identify evangelical Christianity as a prophetic voice for human dignity and moral character on the political right?”

No wonder church affiliation is plunging.

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Brecht Quatrains for Challenging Times

Bertolt Brecht


I have long been a fan of Bertolt Brecht’s poetry, and now a new translation of his War Primer, written in America during World War II, has just been published. Although the quatrains are paired with World War II photos, it doesn’t take much to apply them to current events, especially to Donald Trump and the Resistance.

Nation reviewer Noah Eisenberg notes that the collection is somewhat surprising given that, just before World War II, Brecht wrote, “A Bad Time for Poetry.” Eisenberg observes that Brecht anticipates Adorno’s famous dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” by writing

In my poetry a rhyme
Would seem to be almost insolent.

Yet write he did, sometimes with rhyme.

Here are some poems from War Primer that still ring powerfully. Trump is not Hitler, yet we can relate to the fear expressed in this poem, written as though by the Fuhrer:

Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep,
I know the way Fate has prescribed for us
That narrow way towards a precipice.
Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.

Or how about this one, which shows Hitler, like Trump, turning his back on his populist promises? Neither man drained the swamp, and Trump’s cannon is now aimed at Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, consumer protections, and other programs beneficial to the middle class:

Promising Socialism, there he stands.
Listen: a New Age will be proclaimed.
Behind him, see the work of your own hands:
Great cannon, silent. And at you they’re aimed

Here’s one, powerfully understated, for refugees who think that the United States is a safe haven from violence. Isenberg notes that it was written “in response to a photo in Life of a Jewish mother and her child, who had survived a shipwreck while en route to Palestine”:

And many of us drowned just off the beaches.
The long night passed, the sky began to clear.
If they but knew, we said, they’d come and seek us.
That they did know, we still were unaware.

One last one. This quatrain calls out to descendants of activists who have become complacent. It was originally written in response to a picture of young German university students following World War II:

Never forget that men like you got hurt
So you might sit there, not the other lot.
And now don’t hide your head and don’t desert
But learn to learn, and try to learn for what.

Hard-won rights can be reversed. Never forget as you push for social justice.

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A Teacher, Lit, & a Jailed Student

After J Barnett, “Elizabeth Fry reading Bible to Newgate prisoners”


The Atlantic has just reviewed a book that is now on my must-read list. Among other things, Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick explores the impact of literature upon poor students of color in a blighted rural Arkansas town.

The first part of the memoir describes Kuo’s experience as a Teach for America teacher in an eighth grade English classroom. When she returns as a lawyer a few years later to support a former student jailed for murder, she once again finds herself teaching him English. The reviewers praise the book for avoiding both the white savior narrative and the fatalistic narrative. We see literature making a difference but in unexpected ways.

As a beginning teacher, Kuo learns to let go of her expectations and listen to her students:

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Whatever hopes Kuo has when she leaves, however, are brought into question by what subsequently happens to many of these students, especially Patrick Browning. At one time, reading seems to open limitless possibilities for Patrick:

He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the school-wide award for “Most Improved” student. 

Yet Patrick eventually drops out of school and then is involved in a scuffle that ends in a death. The circumstances are such, Kuo says, that a white defendant might have been able to argue self-defense, but Patrick feels so guilty that he can’t stop confessing. Kuo wants him to change the narrative about himself:

[M]aybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

The connection is reading and writing:

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

Although he initially thinks that his English experiences are in the past, Patrick begins to shift:

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobefor instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s NarrativeHe reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

Patrick is also inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel in the form of a long letter that a dying father writes to his infant son. In his own letter to his infant daughter, Patrick

describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

Reading with Patrick appears to be a clear-eyed look at what a teacher can and cannot accomplish. If she had stayed at the school, Kuo admits, it still might not have made any difference. After all, our students go on to lead their own lives. But Kuo also avoids fatalism, exhibiting what the reviewers describe as “the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart.” Rather than asking herself, “why did you ever think you could make a difference in a person’s life?” Kuo concludes,

But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Patrick, who pleaded to manslaughter and was paroled two years later for good behavior, faces an uncertain future, despite his reading. Literature didn’t keep him out of trouble, and it may not land him a job. Literature doesn’t bring about miracles.

Then again, maybe we need to rethink miracles, which may not look like we think they’re supposed to look. Maybe literature has changed Patrick’s life in ways that aren’t measurable.

Teaching English is an act of faith.

Posted in Baum (L. Frank), Lewis (C. S.), Robinson (Marilynne), Whitman (Walt) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fall, Season for Beautiful Depression

John Lee Fitch, “Brook in Autumn”


Apparently autumn is a bad season for people who suffer from depression. The good news is that poets, who suffer from depression 30 times more than the general population, have a way of turning lead into gold.

Today I share a beautiful autumn poem by a depressed Edna St. Vincent Millay, but let’s glance at some other poems first. John Keats, in the greatest English language poem about autumn, encourages the season to get over its inferiority complex:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…

Paul Verlaine, in a poem that every French school child memorizes, writes,

The long sobs
of autumn’s
wound my heart
with a monotonous

Mary Oliver sees depression as an opportunity to get real. “Blue Heron” begins with a dismal image but ends with a comforting image. First, the opening:

Now the blue heron
wades the cold ponds
of November.

In the gray light his hunched shoulders
are also gray.

He finds scant food–a few
numbed breathers under
a rind of mud.

Several years ago a student of mine, who suffered from depression, wrote that the poem is about survival. When we are hunkered down in our misery, she said, we need to tend to whatever little fire we have:

In a house down the road,
as though I had never seen these things–
leaves, the loose tons of water,
a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all–
I sit out the long afternoons
drinking and talking;
I gather wood, kindling, paper; I make fire
after fire after fire.

In Millay’s “Autumn,” as in Verlaine’s poem, the poet captures the music of the heart breaking. The feathered pampas-grass, its ranks thinned, is like embattled Native American warriors. The dark creek, its customary defenses gone, suddenly finds itself exposed: “Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak,/ Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek.”

This speaker is not to be consoled by nature’s cyclical promise that Beauty will be born again after first ailing and dying. Such “consolation” is like clumsily reassuring mourners than their loved one is in a better place. In the depths of depression, the poet can only see Beauty stiffened like a corpse and staring up at the sky. “Oh, Autumn! Autumn!” she cries out in her agony, “What is the spring to me?”

And yet, out of that agony, arises beauty:


By Edna St. Vincent Millay

WHEN reeds are dead and a straw to thatch the marshes, 
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind 
Like agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned 
Of half their tribe, and over the flattened rushes,
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak, 
Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek, 
Then leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes 
My heart. I know that Beauty must ail and die, 
And will be born again,but ah, to see 
Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky! 
Oh, Autumn ! Autumn !What is the Spring to me?

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Tess, More Relevant Than Ever

Gemma Arterton as Tess


I didn’t foresee that having a sexual assaulter as president, followed by a wave of revelations about other sexual predators, would add special urgency to Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. The students in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar, however, are speaking about the novel with a passion and intelligence surpassing what I’ve seen when I’ve taught it in the past.

We are examining how literature impacts lives (what else?), and Tess certainly had an impact. A Lord Salisbury provides one account:

“The Duchess of Abercorn tells me that the novel has saved her all future trouble in the assortment of her friends. They have been almost fighting across her dinner-table over Tess’s character. What she now says to them is “Do you support her or not?” If they say “No indeed. She deserved hanging: a little harlot!” she puts them in one group. If they say “Poor wronged innocent!” and pity her, she puts them in the other group where she is herself.

“Pure woman” is what most set readers off, challenging as it did social expectations regarding female behavior. I share here snippets from some of the contemporary reviews I assigned and what my students gleaned from them.

A review from The Pall Mall Gazette (December 31, 1891), while positive, gives a sense of the jolt readers must have felt upon reading Tess. One normally expects “brighter fictions” from Hardy, the reviewer wrote, with “comedy and happy endings” softening tragedy and “a rustic geniality” leading to “a residuum of happiness when all is told.” In Tess, however, one encounters a drama “with all the modern significancy you please.”

That “significancy,” other reviews made clear, had to do with the issue of Tess’s purity. The Athenaeum (January 9, 1892), singling out the word “pure,” castigated the author for dabbling in “sexual ethics” and embroiling himself in “moral technicalities.” Such preaching, the reviewer declared, taints what is otherwise “a faultless piece of art built upon the great tragic model.”

My students argued that the reviewer wants to avoid looking too closely at Tess’s rape, as though he had his fingers in his ears and was saying “la la la la la la la.” To draw a modern parallel, it is the way that certain defenders of Roy Moore, Donald Trump,and Bill Clinton have avoided examining too closely what transpired. The reviewer is essentially asking for a picturesque rural story that doesn’t disturb our moral universe.

The class’s esteem for Hardy rose as we realized that he added “pure woman” precisely to prevent readers from avoiding the issues raised by the rape. He didn’t want a recurrence of what happened when the novel came out in serial form. There the editors forced him to make cuts so that readers wouldn’t have to wrestle with whether a woman could be good even if she failed to fit society’s narrow criteria.

Three changes in particular allowed audiences to see Tess as pure in the conventional sense. She is tricked into a sham marriage with Alec rather than staying with him three weeks after the rape; she doesn’t baptize her dying baby (in fact she doesn’t have a baby); and she isn’t living with Alec at the end of the book.

Hardy not only restored what he had written originally, but he added “pure” so that readers would feel the full dissonance between their value system and Tess’s actions.

Significantly, the one reviewer who understood Hardy’s purpose was a woman—which is to say, one who felt boxed in by the purity codes that Hardy was attacking. Clementine Black predicted that Hardy’s determination to grapple earnestly with “serious moral problems”

will assuredly cause this book to be reprobated by numbers of well-intentioned people who have read his previous novels with complacency. The conventional reader wishes to be excited, but not to be disturbed; he likes to have new pictures presented to his imagination, but not to have new ideas presented to his mind. He detests unhappy endings, mainly because an unhappy ending nearly always involves an indirect appeal to the conscience, and the conscience, when aroused, is always demanding a reorganization of that traditional pattern of right and wrong which it is the essence of conventionality to regard as immutable. Yet more, of course, does he detest an open challenge of that traditional pattern, and Tess of the D’urbervilles is precisely such a challenge.

Picking up on “excited but not disturbed,” students Courtney and Sabrina compared Black with reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, who says that great works of literature challenge the reader’s “horizon of expectations” whereas lesser “culinary” works merely confirm it. In retrospect, we could also have invoked Bertolt Brecht, who wanted art to upset world views that, while seemingly immutable, could actually be changed.

Other reviews show the expectations that Black faced. The Saturday Review (January 16, 1892) complained that Hardy made Tess too sexual for someone who is supposed to be pure, as if one can’t be both. Late 19th century readers apparently became hot and bothered at mention of a woman’s breasts:

The story gains nothing by the reader being let into the secret of the physical attributes which especially fascinated [Alec D’Urberville] in Tess. Most people can fill in blanks for themselves, without its being necessary to put the dots on the i’s so very plainly; but Mr. Hardly leaves little unsaid. “She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that caused Alec D’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect; a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from their mother without the quality it denotes.” It is these side suggestions that render Mr. Hardy’s story so very disagreeable, and Tess is full of them.

Perhaps for the same reason, Robert Louis Stevenson was offended by Tess as was Henry James (who called her “vile”). Student Margaret speculated that the author of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde was willing to see complexity in men but not in women. After all, pure women were supposed to save men from their savage side.

I asked my women students whether they still feel pressured to be pure and, for the most part, they said they didn’t. But they attributed this to the college bubble and noted that men’s longings for inexperienced “girls” is still out there. Any woman who accuses a man of assault can expect such standards to be applied, as we are seeing with the Trump and Moore victims who have come forward.

In other words, Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented remains only too relevant.

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Roy Moore’s Obsession with Lolitas

Mason, Lyon in Kubrick’s “Lolita”


To understand Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s predilection for adolescent girls, turn to Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece teaches us a lot about the mindset of a pedophile.

Not that Moore and Humbert Humbert are much alike. Moore is a fire and brimstone southern evangelical while HH is a cosmopolitan European who wows a small American town with his sophistication. HH is not at all religious, which means that his own inclinations don’t have a religious dimension. Nevertheless, both men are engaged in an obsessive search for purity, which they find in “nymphets.”

In case you haven’t been following, a meticulously sourced Washington Post story revealed that, 40 years ago, Moore strategically separated a 14-year-old girl from her mother and later went on to caress her and have her touch his penis. Moore denies the story.

He does not dispute, however, that, as a young district attorney in his thirties, he dated high school girls, including a 17-year-old he encountered in a high school civics class where he was brought in to lecture.  As one former colleague informed CNN,

It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls, everyone we knew thought it was weird…We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall…

Humbert Humbert describes what “nympholepts” long for:

But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child, “enfant charmante et fourbe,” dim eyes, bright lips, ten years in jail if you only show her you are looking at her. So life went. Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for. The bud-stage of breast development appears early (10.7 years) in the sequence of somatic changes accompanying pubescence. And the next maturational item available is the first appearance of pigmented pubic hair (11.2 years). My little cup brims with tiddles.

A shipwreck. An atoll. Alone with a drowned passenger’s shivering child. Darling, this is only a game! How marvelous were my fancied adventures as I sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book. Around the quiet scholar, nymphets played freely, as if he were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen. Once a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameloenic cheek. Another time a red-haired school girl hung over me in the metro, and a revelation of axillary russet I obtained remained in my blood for weeks.

Lolita’s power lies in the seductiveness of its prose. To keep from being drawn into HH’s mania, one must constantly remind oneself that he is an unreliable narrator putting his own spin on the events. One need but to take a step back, however, to realize he is a monster. As Dolores herself puts it at one point,

I was a daisyfresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me.

Just as Roy Moore found ways to win the trust of 14-year-old Leigh Corfman’s mother—the young attorney offered to look after Leigh as the mother went into the courthouse for a custody hearing—so HH insinuates himself into the Haze family. He marries Charlotte to stay close to 12-year-old Dolores and then finds all obstacles removed when Charlotte is hit by a truck. HH picks up Dolores from camp, takes her to a hotel, and has her take a sleeping pill as a prelude to sex. In his telling, however, it is Dolores who initiates sex with him.

In short, both HH and Moore sacrifice children to their own ends. Dolores is never anything more than Lolita to HH, and the same can be said of Moore’s victims.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, literature professor Azar Nafisi discusses how her students, secretly reading Lolita in revolutionary Iran, identified with Lolita while seeing in HH the mullahs imposing their vision upon women. Moore, meanwhile, is a white Christian fundamentalist with his own purity hang-ups. As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times reports,

For decades, one of the most sanctimonious moralizers in American politics has been Roy Moore, the longtime Bible-thumper in Alabama who crusaded against gays, transgender people, Islam and “sexual perversion.”

Moore suggested just this year that the 9/11 terror attacks were God’s punishment because “we legitimize sodomy.” He has said that homosexuality is “the same thing” as sex with a cow and should be criminalized, and argued that Representative Keith Ellison should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he is a Muslim.

Evangelicals like Moore are filled with self-loathing at their own sinful desires, which they project outward. Thus they seek to purify America of the contamination of LBGTQ, premarital sex, brown bodies, and other forms of desecration. They champion fetuses, which are still innocent, but lose interest once the fetuses become sinners in a sinful world (so no social welfare for children born in poverty). In their misery, they look to pure young girls for salvation.

Humbert Humbert draws audiences in with his gorgeous and impassioned prose, Moore with his self-righteous politics. When we don’t resist such narcissists, we drown in their sickness.

Posted in Nabokov (Vladimir) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

God’s Prayer to Us: Live Kindly, Live

Nikolai Astrup, “Spring Night in the Garden” (1909)

Spiritual Sunday

I very much enjoy James Richardson’s casual conversation with God in “Evening Prayer.” I imagine the speaker kneeling in a mostly empty church as he launches into a reasonable exploration of religious rules and rituals. By the poem’s conclusion, however, the speaker’s prayer has moved from logic into a mystical understanding which delivers, in return, a prayer from God.

The speaker begins by matter-of-factly excusing both God and humans for religion. We can’t blame God for religious wars, religious rulings made in panic (which almost always end badly), and religious purism (whose intolerance leads to violence). Nor can God blame us for being afraid of Time, “the only thing not yours.” The speaker then acknowledges, however, that any equivalence will be false since humans bear more of the blame than God. After all, we have a habit of adapting our belief systems to “what we wanted to hear.” We are obsessed above all with the commandment, “Thou shalt believe in religion’s rules”:

How can we blame you for what we have made of you,
war, panic rulings, desperate purity?
Who can blame us? Lord know, we are afraid of time,
terrible, wonderful time, the only thing not yours.
Granted, we heard what we wanted to hear,
were sentenced, therefore, to our own strange systems
whose main belief was that we should believe.

In the second stanza, the speaker reinforces the idea that religious rules are human constructs since God operates without them. Moreover, since only humans make choices, God gave us “Everything,” leaving the choosing up to us. “Everything” includes the imagination, which imagines “what isn’t”–namely, that God has come up with rules for us to live by and that we are God’s special people. What we do with our imagining, the speaker says, is “an error you leave uncorrected”:

You, of course, are not religious, don’t need any rules
that can be disobeyed, have no special people,
and since a god, choosing (this the myths got right),
becomes human, avoided choices
in general, which is why there is Everything,
even imagination, which thinks it imagines
what isn’t, an error you leave uncorrected.

The final stanza humorously imagines that God released (to Nietzsche among others) the rumor that God is dead, thereby throwing us out of clear rules and back on faith. Uncertain, we can only “Pray into what you have made.”

Once we leave behind the notion that God is a divine accountant tallying up who is orthodox and who is not, we are left with something greater. God is like a lake at night into which all are peacefully received—“the overhanging pine, the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men, weigh as they will.” Our pupils widen in wonder:

The rumor you were dead, you, I think,
suggested, letting us got with only Pray
into what you had made. By which you meant,
I know, nothing the divine accountants
could tote up on their abaci click, click,
but to widen like a pupil in the dark.
To be a lake, on which the overhanging pine,
the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men,
weigh as they will, are peacefully received,
to hear within the silence, not quite silence
your prayer to us, Live kindly, live.

In the not quite silence of this lake, our evening prayer is answered with a return prayer. What more foundational could God ask of us than that we live kindly and that we live?

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Twitter: Shorter Is Sweeter


To end this week on a light note, I’ve been enjoying adverse reactions to Twitter increasing its character limit from 140 to 280. J. K. Rowling, for instance, wrote,

Twitter’s destroyed its USP [unique selling point]. The whole point, for me, was how inventive people could be within that concise framework.

Stephen King, meanwhile, dramatized the power of concision in his characteristic way:

280 characters? Fuck that.

The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, speaking for Tolstoy, has her own very funny take:

can’t believe I only get 140 characters -Tolstoy

Is there a creative writing teacher anywhere who has not assigned the haiku form to make Rowling’s point? The intensity of imagery and expression in a great haiku poem would be diluted with more words. Take, for instance, this haiku by the great master Matsuo Basho:

Autumn darkness 
on this road I travel      alone 

Of course, most tweets aren’t poetic. Nevertheless, twitter has a punchiness that can pull one in for hours. The good news: if everyone opts for longer tweets, perhaps it won’t be quite so addictive.

Speaking of short verse forms, here’s a limerick tweeted out by @Limericking on the character increase:

The character count that we knew
Was decent and proper and true,
But nothing can last,
And changes come fast,
So one dark November it grew.

To which a reader responded:

My two-eighty dream has arrived
More lim’ricks can now be contrived
More rhyming creation
With less limitation
Increases the pleasure derived.

Whatever your feelings about 140 vs. 280, @Limericking is a joy to visit. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a serious limerick–the final rhyme often functions as a punch line–and in this dark age we need all the humor we can get. Here is @Limericking turning its attention to the Russia investigation:

Paul Manafort getting indicted
Has many Trump-watchers excited
They cannot but notice
It’s leaving the POTUS
Increasingly thickly beshited.

And on recently indicted White House aide George Papadopoulos, who thought he was dealing with Vladimir Putin’s niece to get Hillary Clinton’s stolen e-mails:

It typically looks a bit bad
When one of the staffers you had
Pursued stolen email
Supplied by a female
Who claimed a relation to Vlad.

One more:

Bob Mueller, the fellow inquiring,
Continued his efforts, untiring,
So in a short while
We may see a trial
Or else a Nixonian firing.

Previous posts about Twitter

Tolstoy and the Forerunners of Twitter

The Brave New World of Twitterature

#TrumpBookReports (in 140 characters)

If Trump Tweeted Classic Lit Reviews…

Posted in Basho (Matsuo) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hardy Understood Sexual Predators Well

Hans Matheson as Alec d’Uberville, sexual predator


After discussing Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman with my Senior Seminar students, I declare it to be the novel for the age of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all those other powerful men who have harassed, assaulted, and raped vulnerable women (and sometimes men). Hardy held sexual predators fully accountable for their actions by adding the inexorable word “pure” to victimized heroine.

The adjective is necessary because virtually every predator tries to impugn the victim. If the woman is not pure, predators say, then what happens is at least partly her fault. They were saying that in 1891 when the first serialized installment of Tess appeared and they’re saying it today.

As a result, discussing Hardy’s novel is like walking through a minefield. As soon as our class tried to figure out what exactly happens in the woods—Hardy has drawn a curtain over the actual assault—one student wanted to close down the discussion then and there. After all, once one begins distinguishing between a hard rape and a soft rape, one leaves enough daylight for predators to accuse the woman of consent.

Here’s the situation: Tess’s employer Alec d’Urberville, whose sexual advances she has been resisting for weeks, rescues her from an angry woman on a late-night journey home from a fair. As the novel puts it, however, Tess has only escaped the frying pan to fall into the fire. Alec deliberately gets them lost, Tess falls asleep, and “a coarse pattern” is “traced” upon “this beautiful feminine tissue”:

“Tess!” said d’Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

All we are explicitly told is that Tess’s rape is not as “ruthless” as rapes in the past have been. Then Hardy complicates the matter further by having Tess stay with Alec for “a few weeks” before leaving him. When she finally does, she talks about her “weakness” and being “dazed by you for a little.” A defense attorney today would jump on those facts in a heartbeat.

Nor is it only predators and their attorneys who do so. In a case of editorial malpractice, the editors of the Norton Critical Edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, 3rd edition (1990), thought that they would help out readers by adding titles to the chapters, which Hardy only numbered. This chapter they titled “Seduction or Rape,” thereby making the very distinction that Hardy challenges. Given that Tess has been under assault from her employer for weeks, to suggest that she might have been seduced shows that the 1990s editors aren’t much more enlightened that the novel’s first audience.

My students were much more clear, perhaps because they are third wave feminists, perhaps because we all participated in Maryland’s mandated sexual assault workshops. Those extra weeks, that accepting some of the blame, are irrelevant they said. First of all, Alec is employer, upper class, and male while Tess is an inexperienced farm girl, so the field has already been tilted. Furthermore, in addition to unwanted sexual advances, Alec also sets psychological traps for Tess, paying money to her family to foster within her a sense of indebtedness and gratitude–which in turn undermines the leverage she has to resist him. When Tess leaves him, he throws in her face the predator’s final justification, which is that the woman knew what she was getting into. In other words, she acted of her own volition:

“I didn’t understand your meaning till it was too late.”

“That’s what every woman says.”

“How can you dare to use such words!” she cried, turning impetuously upon him, her eyes flashing as the latent spirit (of which he was to see more some day) awoke in her. “My God! I could knock you out of the gig! Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?”

Later in the novel, when they meet up again and Tess again resists him, Alec makes clear that his intercourse with her has never been about sex. It has been about power:

“[R]emember one thing!” His voice hardened as his temper got the better of him with the recollection of his sincerity in asking her and her present ingratitude, and he stepped across to her side and held her by the shoulders, so that she shook under his grasp. “Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again.”

Had Tess left him the morning after the rape, many Victorian readers would have allowed Hardy to call his heroine pure. By making the situation more complex while still insisting on her innocence, he denied them such an easy out. As a result, audiences reacted in fury.

Two weeks ago, the White House reiterated claims that the 16 women who have publicly accused Trump of sexual assault are all lying. How will we respond when defense lawyers find defects in them, as they invariably will? Will we insist upon a narrow definition of purity or will we, like Hardy, look at the broader facts of the case? I like to think we’ve made progress, but we’ll see.

Posted in Hardy (Thomas) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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