The Inner City: Stay or Leave?

Dr. Samson Davis returns to his Newark classroom

Sampson Davis, author of “Living and Dying in Brick City: An ER Doctor Returns Home”

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a fine article by an inner city high school teacher about the desire of certain students to escape their surroundings. Clint Smith reflects upon James Baldwin’s decision to move to France and, while sympathetic, hopes his own students will stay at home.

In his most famous short story, Baldwin gives us a narrator who, unlike himself, returns to Harlem. More on that in a moment.

Clint thought of Baldwin’s decision after taking his students on a field trip to Paris. They left the day after the Charleston shooting so escape was on his mind:

When we arrived in Paris, I was reminded of the American writer James Baldwin. His departure from Harlem in 1948, aged 24, with only $40 (£25) in his pocket was an attempt to escape the pernicious racism of the US. This decision, he claims, saved his life. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America,” he said in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail; I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”

Smith has taught high school English just outside of Washington, D.C. and now teaches art in the Boston City Schools. He has seen close up how his student live in communities “that have been subjected to generations of underinvestment and discrimination.” He understands why Baldwin saw the choice as one between leaving and dying:

For my entire life, I have watched the realities of racism slowly kill those around me. I have watched food insecurity and unequal access to healthy meals saturate black communities with diabetes and heart disease at disproportionate rates. I have watched the residue of federally-sanctioned redlining create small apartheids in cities for decades, generating breeding grounds for crime and poverty. In Baltimore, for example, local policies have existed since 1910 to isolate the city’s black population. To the present day federal housing subsidy policies still result in low-income black families being segregated from richer neighborhoods.

Given this reality, many teachers and school administrators convey a “do well so you can leave this place” narrative to their best students. Smith himself internalized this message and left New Orleans to be educated elsewhere. But he has returned to the inner city and wants the exodus to stop, asking, “How will our communities ever grow into their true potential if we continue to tell our most successful students to leave?”

Here’s his conclusion:

While systemic injustice is suffocating and can often seem immutable, things can change. But we must engage our students honestly, and remind them that we are the architects of the world we live in. That is what I would have wanted my teachers to tell me. That is what I try to tell my students. Perhaps then we can collectively re-create our reality so that one day no one is forced to “escape.”

So what does Smith teach his students so that they can collectively recreate their reality? He introduces them to texts and conversations about racism:

We, as educators, must directly address the realities that cause them to want to leave in the first place. That, in part, means we must discuss racism candidly – both the interpersonal and the systemic.

This does not mean adding a perfunctory Martin Luther King Jr speech to be skimmed over during Black History Month. It does not mean reading the only writer of color in the curriculum and analyzing their work devoid of any historical context. This means holistically broadening the range of texts we expose our students to and having them interrogate why certain voices have been, and continue to be, left out of the literary and historical canons.

And further on:

As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students to provide a more holistic and honest definition of what racism is in this country, so that we might better push back against it as we move forward.

“Sonny’s Blues” would help in this endeavor. Baldwin may have escaped Harlem, but in his story he gives us two characters who return after leaving. Sonny’s brother returns to the city to teach and Sonny comes back after running away to join the army. Here’s the narrator explaining his ambivalence about Harlem after picking up Sonny following a stint in prison for heroine possession:

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It’s always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.

Describing the inner city as a death trap, of course, might not encourage people to stay. But the story goes on to capture the vibrancy of Harlem. In fact, by trying to build a “good, clean, faceless life” for himself, the narrator has cut himself off from his community–the missing limb–even though he has come back to live there. Through Sonny’s music he is reminded that only in Harlem can he truly be alive.

I like to think that this epiphany will lead him to become a better teacher. He has already begun to open himself in new ways to a former student in the story’s opening, and one imagines that the process will continue on. For instance, while he initially wonders whether his students get more from shooting up in the bathrooms than taking his math classes, he might think otherwise if he saw himself out to convince them that they are “the architects of the world we live in.”

Baldwin may have had to leave, but he recognized the price he paid for doing so. He felt keenly the ache of the amputated limb. Clint Smith wants to spare his students from having to gnaw off their connection with a community than can nourish them more than any other.

We should all be giving the inner cities the support they need to hold on to their best and their brightest.

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A Weed’s Zen Acceptance of Fate

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer

The other day, to help out a friend undergoing surgery for ovarian cancer, I joined supporters weeding her garden. I was feeling fairly antagonistic towards weeds by the time we were done, even while knowing that certain poets have sung their praises.

So I turned to these poets to get a more positive perspective.

Walt Whitman, of course, praises leaves of grass in Song of Myself, seeing them as a quintessentially democratic life form. Mary Oliver, meanwhile, marvels at “the reckless blossom of weeds” in a poem about a stillborn kitten with a single eye. The weeds for Oliver stand for nature’s extravagant way of throwing infinite variety our way.

Less positively, Carl Sandburg describes grass as oblivion, covering over humanity’s greatest atrocities as though they had never happened.

Here’s a very Zen Scott Bates poem about a “Contented Weed.” This particular plant has found a way to accommodate herself to whatever happens. Like a Sartrean existentialist, she asserts that she always has the freedom to choose.

Maybe she is exhibiting a higher wisdom, consciously and deliberately giving herself over to a higher power. Or maybe she’s just rationalizing, convincing herself that she has power when really she doesn’t. Knowing my father, I think he would see the poem as more about self deception than genuine inner peace. But because both interpretations are possible, we as readers may choose based on our own particular life outlooks. Where do you come down?

The Contented Weed

By Scott Bates

A Weed next door
Lives happily
Persuaded of
Her liberty

Each morning
When the Sun is low
She says to herself
I choose to grow

Each evening
When the Moon is bright
She says to herself
I choose the night

Each time she bows
Before the Wind
She says to herself
I choose to bend

And when at last
She wilts and dies
I’m sure she’ll choose
To fertilize

So all the weeds I pulled went on to fulfill a higher purpose.

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Read Poems for Life w/o Boundaries

Ignat Bednarik, "Young Man Reading"

Ignat Bednarik, “Young Man Reading”

Here’s a poem by America’s current poet laureate about what poetry contributes to our lives. Among other things, it beats shopping malls.

I’m not entirely sure who the poem is addressed to. Maybe Herrera, who has been described as “a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth,” is thinking of gang members, what with his references to razors and leather jackets. Perhaps his audience has been taught that they must aspire to consumer society’s fashion mall, even as they feel themselves continually judged and found wanting.

If so, then Herrera is here to tell them that this life offers them nothing of substance. It is a world of hostile waters, a storm. You think that you are being entertained but instead “your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold standing still.”

With poetry, on the other hand, “you can bathe, you can play, you can even join in on the gossip”–which is to say, you are accepted by the community. If you have dreams of freedom, well, poetry provides you with a genuine vision of “a life without boundaries.” Poems may seem as insubstantial as mist, yet you will discover that this mist is “central to your existence.”

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings

By Juan Felipe Herrera

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

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Mood Swings: Inside Out, Rape of the Lock

Joy and Sadness in "Inside Out"

Joy and Sadness in “Inside Out”

I saw Insight Out over the weekend and heartily join the chorus of praise. It’s a smart look at the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s brain.

As imaginative as the film was, however, it wasn’t the first time that someone has created a dramatized version of a young woman’s mind. While I doubt that Pixar had Rape of the Lock in mind when it made the film, Pope’s mock epic has influenced other Disney films. The ice fairies in Fantasia, the blue birds in Cinderella, and the animal chorus in The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl” scene can all be traced back to the sylphs in Rape of the Lock.

At first we appear to have a sylph-like helper in the movie: Joy, Riley’s upbeat emotion, tries to make everything wonderful. But Riley’s family has moved to San Francisco and eventually she can’t hold on to Joy and Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over. According to Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, two neuropsychologists who were consulted for the film, it is common for positive emotions to “drop precipitously in frequency and intensity” once one turns 11.

Pope’s Belinda is older than 11—I’m guessing 16 or 17—but we see her undergo a similar drop. At first she is under the protection of the sylph Ariel, who helps her maintain her poise as a gay coquette. When she is humiliated in public by “the Baron,” however, she plunges into depression. It’s at that point that Pope takes us inside her mind.

Here’s Pope’s description of her fall into depression after the Baron cuts off one of her locks with a pair of scissors:

But anxious Cares the pensive Nymph oppressed,
And secret Passions labored in her Breast.
Not youthful Kings in Battle seized alive,
Not scornful Virgins who their Charms survive,
Not ardent Lovers robbed of all their Bliss,
Not ancient Ladies when refused a Kiss,
Not Tyrants fierce that unrepenting die,
Not Cynthia when her Manteau’s pinned awry, 
E’er felt such Rage, Resentment and Despair,
As Thou, sad Virgin! for thy ravished Hair.

Just as Riley loses Joy, so Belinda loses Ariel, who is replaced by the gnome Umbriel.

For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs withdrew,
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,
Umbriel, a dusky melancholy Spright,
As ever sully’d the fair face of Light,
Down to the Central Earth, his proper Scene,
Repairs to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.

The spleen was seen as the anatomical cause of female depression in the 18th century, and in Pope’s poem the goddess Spleen is portrayed as an ill-tempered old maid who has lost joy. Instead, she lounges around in self pity making life miserable for everyone. She represents a possible future for Belinda:

Here, in a Grotto, sheltered close from Air,
And screened in Shades from Day’s detested Glare,
She sighs for ever on her pensive Bed,
Pain at her side, and Megrim [migraine] at her Head.

   Two Handmaids wait the Throne: Alike in Place,
But diff’ring far in Figure and in Face.
Here stood Ill-nature like an ancient Maid,
Her wrinkled Form in Black and White arrayed;
With store of Prayers, for Mornings, Nights, and Noons,
Her Hand is filled; her Bosom with Lampoons.

Just as we get a surreal interior landscape in Inside Out, so do we get one in Rape of the Lock. Pope’s images, many of them drawn from the stage, suggest madness and/or sexual repression. I’ve never understood all of them but, as with Inside Out, sometimes it’s best just to give yourself over to the wild phantasmagoria:

   A constant Vapor o’er the Palace flies;
Strange Phantoms rising as the Mists arise; 
Dreadful, as Hermit’s Dreams in haunted Shades,
Or bright as Visions of expiring Maids.
Now glaring Fiends, and Snakes on rolling Spires,
Pale Spectres, gaping Tombs, and Purple Fires:
Now Lakes of liquid Gold, Elysian Scenes,
And Crystal Domes, and Angels in Machines.

   Unnumbered Throngs on ev’ry side are seen
Of Bodies changed to various Forms by Spleen.
Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,
One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout: 
A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose Pie talks;
Men prove with Child, as powerful Fancy works,
And Maids turned Bottles, call aloud for Corks.

Umbriel asks the queen to “touch Belinda with chagrin,” explaining that “that single Act gives half the World the Spleen.” The goddess complies, presenting him with two gifts guaranteed to ensure a major temper tantrum:

A wondrous Bag with both her Hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the Winds;
There she collects the Force of Female Lungs,
Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues.
A Vial next she fills with fainting Fears,
Soft Sorrows, melting Griefs, and flowing Tears.
The Gnome rejoicing bears her Gift away,
Spreads his black Wings, and slowly mounts to Day.

Just as, in Inside Out, we cut between the inside of Riley’s head and what other people see, so Pope too moves between interior and exterior. Following the assault, Belinda is in the arms of her best friend, the fiery Thalestris:

Sunk in Thalestris’ Arms the Nymph he [Umbriel] found,
Her Eyes dejected and her Hair unbound.
Full o’er their Heads the swelling Bag he rent,
And all the Furies issued at the Vent.
Belinda burns with more than mortal Ire,
And fierce Thalestris fans the rising Fire.

After Umbriel breaks the bag of wind, Belinda goes and screams at the Baron, demanding that he return her lock. Then she breaks down in tears after Umbriel delivers the vial of tears:

   But Umbriel, hateful Gnome! forbears not so;
He breaks the Vial whence the Sorrows flow.
Then see! the Nymph in beauteous Grief appears,
Her Eyes half languishing, half drowned in Tears;
On her heaved Bosom hung her drooping Head,
Which, with a Sigh, she raised; and thus she said.
For ever curs’d be this detested Day,

Which snatched my best, my fav’rite Curl away!

There’s a significant difference between poem and film, however. In the poem, Belinda is urged by another character to laugh the whole thing off and to emerge with a more mature view of life:

What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, Dear! good Humor can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

I can report that my women students generally have violent objections to responding thus to what is, after all, a case of sexual harassment.

Inside Out, by contrast, doesn’t advise pushing the hurt under. Instead, Riley needs to acknowledge her sadness to her parents, who then can commiserate. As the psychologist consultants explain,

Toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.

Inside Out offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

The difference between poem and film may expose a weakness in Pope’s poem. By essentially telling Belinda to “suck it up,” he doesn’t acknowledge her sense of loss. Then again, we are much more sensitive to the child’s feelings than they were in the 18th century.

At least Pope knows enough not to show Belinda following such advice, which would be utterly unrealistic. The character of Rationality shows up in neither Rape of the lock nor Inside Out. Belinda instead, pushed past endurance by the Baron’s smugness, throws snuff in his face:

But this bold Lord, with manly Strength indued,
She with one Finger and a Thumb subdued,
Just where the Breath of Life his Nostrils drew,
A Charge of Snuff the wily Virgin threw;
The Gnomes direct, to ev’ry Atom just,
The pungent Grains of titillating Dust.
Sudden, with starting Tears each Eye o’erflows,
And the high Dome re-echoes to his Nose.

Riley’s consolation is a reunion with her parents and the fabrication of new core memories that will help her survive hard times in her future. Belinda’s consolation, Pope tells her, is that his poem will make her famous for all eternity. And indeed we still know about Arabella Fermor, the real life Belinda upon whom the poem was based.

I like Inside Out’s resolution better, in large part because it seeks to understand rather than satirize the heroine. Perhaps Pope could have found ways to get Ariel and Umbriel to work as a tandem rather than seeing Belinda only in the grip of one or the other. Her society, on the other hand, seems to have less forgiveness for screw-ups.

Further thought: Of course, one reason Inside Out has a more comfortable resolution is that Riley hasn’t yet turned 13. There’s a big button labeled “Puberty” on the console and the characters wonder what it does. To quote Al Jolson, Riley and her parents “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Belinda reminds me of a character in a May 18 New Yorker short story I just read by Justin Taylor. Charity, a teenager, exchanges a single sex text with a much older man she sits next to on a plane and suddenly finds herself overwhelmed by his flood of desire (all expressed via text). Out of her depth, she cuts off correspondence with him and the story’s title–“So You’re Just What, Gone?–is his last text. The following passage from the story describes Belinda to a “t” and may soon apply to Riley:

The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of “What were you thinking” and “Why did you do that?” Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge–someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.

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Look Down on Us Who Journey by Night

Van Gogh, "Starry Night over the Rhone"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone”

Spiritual Sunday

Alfred Noyes, most famous for his poem “The Highwayman,” wrote a number of religious poems as well. I particularly like this one which, like “The Highwayman,” has a nighttime setting:

Night Journey

Thou who never canst err, for Thyself art the Way, 
Thou whose infinite kingdom is flooded with day; 
Thou whose eyes behold all, for Thyself art the Light, 
Look down on us gently who journey by night. 

By the pity revealed in Thy loneliest hour 
Forsaken, self-bound and self emptied of power, 
Thou who even in death hadst all heaven in sight, 
Look down on us gently who journey by night. 

On the road to Emmaus they thought Thou wast dead, 
Yet they saw Thee and knew in the breaking of bread. 
Though the day was far spent, in Thy face there was light. 
Look down on us gently who journey by night.

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Obama’s Eulogy & Beloved’s Baby Suggs

Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in "Beloved"

Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in “Beloved”

This past weekend one of my favorite talk show hosts, the African American political science professor Melissa Harris Perry of MSNBC, quoted a long passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in response to Barack Obama’s Charleston eulogy. A close look at the passage explains why she made the connection, which is not immediately apparent. It also explains why the president’s words struck such a deep chord amongst African Americans.

I’ll share the passage in a moment but first let me set the scene. The words are those of Baby Suggs, a former slave who functions as a healing earth mother for the black residents of Cincinnati. She is also the mother-in-law of Sethe, who escapes to join Baby Suggs after being raped and then brutally beaten by her Kentucky master.

Harris-Perry may have thought of Baby Suggs in part because she operates as an “unchurched preacher” bringing comfort, which is the role that Obama assumed as he stood before the assembled mourners. Here’s Morrison describing Baby Suggs’s “ministry”:

Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart— which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beating their presence.

Baby Suggs conducts her services in a “Clearing” in the woods. Like Obama in his eulogy, she gets everyone involved:

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the tree. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted. “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringling trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. 

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

Obama too talked of grace, how we have been blind to it but that it is there for us to see if we only we open our hearts. It is up to us to receive it:

We don’t earn grace.  We’re all sinners.  We don’t deserve it.  (Applause.)  But God gives it to us anyway.  (Applause.)  And we choose how to receive it.  It’s our decision how to honor it.  

Baby Suggs shares with her “congregation” what it means to live with an open heart. This is the passage cited, at least in part, by Harris-Perry:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.

Note how Baby Suggs mentions both African Americans suffering and how, if they love their big hearts, they can stand strong against oppression. Obama maintained a similar balancing act.

On the one hand, he pointed to the hurt that the African American community has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of whites:

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens.  (Applause.)  It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — (applause) — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.  (Applause.)  For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.  We see that now.  

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.  (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.

On the other hand, he talked about the large heart of the victimized community:

A roadway toward a better world.  [Rev. Pinckney] knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.  

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible.  (Applause.)  If we can tap that grace, everything can change.  (Applause.)  

When you have been living long years in a country where those who have power wish you ill, it is almost inevitable that you will come to feel worthless, as though black lives don’t matter. Obama acknowledged the full force of white oppression, including endemic poverty, underfunded education, a warped criminal justice system, gun violence that disproportionately harms blacks, and systemic racism—ills so entrenched that even the most powerful man in the world can’t bring an end to them.

But if one stops there, one sinks into passive victimhood. Obama also reminded the black community that they are a big hearted people that can rise to these occasions and turn them into something good. He also invited the rest of America to enter into generous vision of Reverend Pinckney and the others souls at Emanuel AME Church:

Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.  The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.  (Applause.)  

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — (applause) — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

No wonder Harris-Perry thought of Beloved.

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

Plato Anxious about Lit’s Pyschic Impact

Rafael Sanzio, "School of Athens"

Rafael Sanzio, “School of Athens”

This is a follow-up to last week’s essay about Plato, where I didn’t dwell enough on Plato’s anxieties about the danger of people imitating literary characters. I’ve been thinking about this issue in terms of recent brain research, both on mirror neurons and on the psychological impact of literature. Once one sees just how deeply literature can reach into the psyche, one can understand Plato’s worries.

A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia,

is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

The research into how mirror neurons work is still in its infancy, but the evidence seems to indicate that (speaking of infancy) new born babies imitate at far deeper levels than we were previously aware. They appear to pick up on everything that the people around them are doing, including how we move our facial muscles to form words. They miss almost nothing.

Now let’s take a step away from actual people to representations of people in literature, what Plato would denigrate as third order imitation. Recent brain research reaffirms what every avid reader has always known: the characters seem like actual beings. Here’s from a report on the research in The New York Times:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. 

And now take a step beyond. There are currently neuroscientists who argue that the greater the literature, the greater the impact. Thus Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park will stimulate more regions of the brain that a bestselling potboiler. I wrote about this in a past blog but here again are some of the highlights, including this note from a New School newsletter:

[P]sychology Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor Emanuele Castano have found that those who read great literature do better on various psychological tests than do those who read either popular fiction or non-fiction.

New York Times blog essay summarizes Kidd and Castano’s findings. It opens with an engaging paragraph that I urge you to take seriously as job hunting advice, even though it sounds flip:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

The article elaborates:

The researchers…found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction. This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.

In explaining the results, the researchers sound like English teachers:

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM [the Theory of Mind test] is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.” (Science Now)

Most of these researchers seem to focus on fiction but I would extend their observations to literature in general. After all, every work of literature plunges us into imagined life, what philosopher of art Susanne Langer refers to as “virtual life.” (Langer, incidentally, is examining all the arts, not just literature.) To cite three random examples, in “To His Coy Mistress,” we put ourselves in the position of a lover longing for a woman, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to a man observing and then reflecting upon daffodils, in The Wasteland to someone experiencing existential despair.

Now back to Plato. After asserting that the ideal republic will need reliable warriors to function as “guardians,” he then says that the guardians themselves need to be protected from fiction, where they could get the wrong ideas. In his mind, this fiction includes Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and countless others. Too often in those works, he complains, we see the gods setting bad examples:

Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the basest, should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven, and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, for they are not true. No, we shall never mention the battles of the giants, or let them be embroidered on garments; and we shall be silent about the innumerable other quarrels of gods and heroes with their friends and relatives. If they would only believe us we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Hera his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

This sounds like a prescription for dull, didactic morality tales, not for great art. Plato, however, is interested only in the smooth functioning of his republic, not our aesthetic sensibilities. And he’s only getting started in bashing the poets:

And if any one asserts that the violation of oaths and treaties, which was really the work of Pandarus, was brought about by Athena and Zeus, or that the strife and contention of the gods was instigated by Themis and Zeus, he shall not have our approval; neither will we allow our young men to hear the words of Aeschylus, that God plants guilt among men when he desires utterly to destroy a house. And if a poet writes of the sufferings of Niobe–the subject of the tragedy in which these iambic verses occur–or of the house of Pelops, or of the Trojan war or on any similar theme, either we must not permit him to say that these are the works of God, or if they are of God, he must devise some explanation of them such as we are seeking; he must say that God did what was just and right, and they were the better for being punished; but that those who are punished are miserable, and that God is the author of their misery–the poet is not to be permitted to say; though he may say that the wicked are miserable because they require to be punished, and are benefited by receiving punishment from God; but that God being good is the author of evil to any one is to be strenuously denied, and not to be said or sung or heard in verse or prose by any one whether old or young in any well-ordered commonwealth. Such a fiction is suicidal, ruinous, impious. 

And finally:

These are the kind of sentiments about the gods which will arouse our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them in the instruction of the young, meaning, as we do, that our guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshippers of the gods and like them. 

As I noted last week, Plato must be given credit for acknowledging the power of literature. Of course, those of us who think that the guardians would be better served by learning to think for themselves rather than being mindless rule followers have no problem with them reading the great Greek poets.

The fear of readers imitating bad actions remains to this day. We still have people voicing Plato’s objections to works like Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I plan to return to this issue again in an upcoming post, this time checking out what Plato’s most famous pupil had to say on the subject.

Advance notice: Aristotle is far more positive about the effects of literature.

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The Wicked Witch, Disillusioned Dreamer


This past semester while teaching my American Fantasy class, I wrote several posts describing The Wizard of Oz as a quintessentially American fairy tale. Dorothy Gale is raised in the drought stricken years of the late 19th century’s “long depression” but refuses to give up hope, as Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have done. Combining a childhood idealism with a pioneer woman’s can-do spirit, she manages to restore self-belief in her traveling companions. Thanks to her, they find the wisdom, the heart, and the courage that was always within them. American can be strong again.

Baum’s book was an instant success, as was the 1939 MGM film, which tapped into the same American dreaming. Both book and film have achieved archetypal status and consequently have merged in the popular imagination, just as different versions of Cinderella have merged. We are no longer dealing with specific texts but an American myth.

Because it is a myth, it provides contemporary authors with a rich reservoir of images. My student Abby Doyle alerted me to how Gregory Maguire uses the Oz story in his novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995).

The novel speaks to the existential crisis that America has been undergoing for several decades now with the hollowing out of the middle class. In other words, the myth appears to resurface when the American dream clashes with the economic facts on the ground.

Maguire’s Oz has many of the same problems as contemporary America. Whereas the Munchkins for Baum were idyllic Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, for Maguire they are narrow-minded people who are torn between religious fundamentalism and a pornographic longing for the pleasures they have repressed. Meanwhile the country as a whole is socially stratified, with discrimination directed against both Animals (which can talk) and animals (which can’t). The Wizard of Oz is a manipulating autocrat.

Elphaba, who will become the Wicked Witch of the West, is initially an idealistic college student who believes that Animals should have equal rights and animals as well. Ultimately she goes crazy over the unfairness that she witnesses and that she herself experiences as a result of her green skin. Her clash with Dorothy is almost accidental.

Maguire’s Dorothy is not the confident little girl of the Baum novel and MGM movie. Guilt-ridden over what she has done to Elphaba’s sister, she is seeking to make amends. The people of Oz, however, do not see her this way. Rather, they project their hopes on to her, regarding her as a savior for her victory over the witch. They call her self-delusional when she describes it as an accident.

In other words, Maguire sees the Oz fantasy as denial about the real character of America. He is critiquing the willful self-blindness that has arisen in a country that wants to see itself as exceptional, his bitter vision counteracting the sugary sweet fantasy that we as a country feed on.

Meanwhile, those social reformers who see reality for what it is become disillusioned and go mad. The rest of the country condemns them for their lack of faith and regards them as witches.

Previous posts on the Oz story

Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

If Oz Became Modern Day America

Sarah Palin as Dorothy

Dreaming about Ozma of Oz

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Justice Scalia, Blind Like Pentheus

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia has been outdoing himself in recent days with his over-the-top dissents to recent rulings. He reminds me of Pentheus in The Bacchae.

To bring you up to date: On Thursday, the outspoken justice blasted his fellow justices for saving Obamacare, asserting it should be renamed SCOTUScare as a result. Then on Friday, in response to the Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage, he wrote,

Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.

And further on:

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

As The Hill reported, Scalia was particularly upset that the justices didn’t represent a cross-section of America:

He notes that all the justices graduated from Harvard or Yale Law School, eight grew up on the coasts, and that not one is an evangelical Christian or a Protestant, religions that make up significant chunks of the American population.

Here’s Scalia again:

To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.

What bothers me about Scalia is less his strongly held views than his blindness to his own inconsistencies. He self-righteously attacks his fellow justices others for usurping legislative power but has no problem with gutting Congress’s Voting Rights Act or overruling its limits on campaign contributions (in Citizens United). He insists on a narrow textual reading of what is essentially a typo when he wants to gut Obamacare, but he has had no trouble looking behind the words to determine legislative intent in the past (say, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency). And he didn’t mind stopping the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore to assure that a Republican president would be elected. This Supreme Court has been more activist than any we have seen in decades, but Scalia objects only when the vote doesn’t go his way.

At least he wasn’t as intemperate this session as he was ten years ago when he attacked the Court for throwing out Texas’s sodomy laws. At that time he wrote,

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity … every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision.

Of course, “significant chunks of the American population” now are fine with same sex marriage—recent Gallup polling puts approval at 60% and rising –just as, ten years ago, they found sodomy laws outdated and absurd. At such moments Scalia sounds more like the ranting uncle who watches too much Fox News than a Supreme Court justice.

Which brings me to Pentheus. When he returns to Thebes and finds that all the women are out dancing in the woods in honor of Dionysus, he goes ballistic. Then, when he discovers that wiser heads—Teiresias and his grandfather—approve, he directs his fury against them. He sounds a lot like Scalia excoriating his fellow justices:

I am ashamed, sir! How can a man so old
be so devoid of sense!
Take off that ivy, will you?
And drop that thyrsus [wand]. Now! Do you hear?
This is all your doing, Teiresias! Using him,
to launch this new God to the masses.
Convenient, isn’t it? Give religion a boost
and prophets grow fat, raking in the profits
from reading the stars and fire-magic.
You can thank your white hairs for being here and not in prison,
chained with those raving females; just the place for frauds
who encourage their obnoxious rituals.

Teiresias and Cadmus bowing to the new god are like Americans, including Supreme Court justices, evolving on the subject of same sex marriage. Acceptance of homosexuality is the new order of the day, and it is particularly impressive when old people come around. Pentheus attacking the city’s seer and the city’s founder is like Scalia sneering at at Justice Kennedy for authoring an option “couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.”

Unlike Kennedy, Teiresias hits back. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to see someone deliver a version of the following speech to Scalia?

When a sensible man
has a good cause to defend, to be eloquent
is no great feat. Your tongue is so nimble
one might think you had some sense, but your words
contain none at all. The powerful man
who matches insolence with glibness is worse than a fool.
He is a public danger.

And further on:

Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are…
And nothing you can ever say will make me
turn against the Gods. For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure
no madness can undo.

Eventually in the play, Pentheus is exposed as a hypocrite and is torn apart for his failure to honor the new force that has entered his world. Sadly, Supreme Court justices, with their lifelong tenure, seem immune to any such comeuppance.

Added note – Looking back at Scalia’s dissent in the sodomy case, another couple of Pentheus rants seem appropriate. Like this one:

The rest of you,
scour the city, find this effeminate stranger

who afflicts our women with this new disease
and who befouls our beds. And when you catch him,
drag him here in chains.
He’ll taste the people’s justice when he’s stoned to death,
regretting every bitter moment of his fun in Thebes.

Scalia might add “afflicts our men.” Incidentally, I am citing from the wonderful Michael Cacoyannis translation, now sadly out of print.

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The Bard Endorsed Same Sex Marriage

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, "Oliva wooing Viola"

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, “Oliva wooing Viola”

If he were alive today, Shakespeare would be in the streets celebrating the Supreme Court’s Friday ruling in favor of same sex marriage. In Twelfth Night he all but gives us two same sex marriages.

I say “all but” because, of course, Shakespeare couldn’t outwardly advocate such marriages. He was writing 400 years too early and he had to resolve the play with a series of socially acceptable couplings. While the comedy is still unfolding, however, we can imagine other possibilities. Not for nothing is the play subtitled “What You Will.”

First, we encouraged to imagine a marriage between Count Orsino and Cesario. Yes, of course Cesario is really Viola disguised as a man. When we’re watching the scene where Orsino instructs Cesario/Viola to woo Olivia on his behalf, however, we see someone who looks like a man–and who, in Elizabethan times, would actually have been played by a man–expressing desires for another man:

Viola: I’ll do my best
To woo your lady:
yet, a barful strife!
Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.

At the end of the play, we have a scene reminiscent of those marriage proposals we have been watching on television ever since courts and state legislatures began allowing same sex marriage: a man proposing to (someone who looks like) a man:

Orsino: Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Viola: And all those sayings will I overswear;
And those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Give me thy hand…

And further on:

Here is my hand: you shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.

Or course, Orsino doesn’t have the Supreme Court to step in and tell him that it would actually be permissible for him to marry a man. He’s stuck with heterosexual marriage. As long as Viola wears male clothing, however, he can dream a little longer, pretending that she is still Cesario:

We will not part from hence. Cesario, come;
For so you shall be, while you are a man…

Television has been showing us women proposing to women as well as men proposing to men. Here’s Olivia doing the same:

Olivia to Viola:
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honor, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre [despite] all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Of course, technically Olivia thinks Viola is a man so she’s within the letter of the law. One can make a strong argument, however, that Oliva falls in love, not with a man, but with a strong woman. Viola is the kind of woman that Olivia dreams of being so it makes sense that she would be drawn to her. Marrying Sebastian is like settling for a consolation prize, necessitated because the Supreme Court has not yet changed what is permissible. Olivia can’t have Viola so she settles for her twin.

I’ve written in the past that Twelfth Night’s magic lies in the way it allows us to dream of relationships that were not allowed by the society of the time. Shakespeare, who understood human beings as well as anyone ever has, knew that conventional definitions don’t capture the full complexity of who we are. Orsino at times feels like a woman trapped inside a man’s body and Viola embraces the chance to dress up like a man. Antonio is definitely gay and Sebastian, who is “near the manners of my mother,” may swing both ways. Biologist Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii, noting that “biology loves diversity, society hates it,” has documented many of the different ways that x and y chromosomes have lined up in the human body, and that doesn’t even bring in social influences. Through the chaos of his comedy, Shakespeare acknowledges that complexity.

Sadly, in 1602 humans couldn’t express their full multidimensionality. The play may seem to end happily with a string of heterosexual weddings, but the fool’s final song is filled with grim visions of marriage. In one, a man realizes that he can’t find happiness by swaggering like a man: “But when I came, alas! to wive, By swaggering could I never thrive.” In another, it sounds like someone–he or the wife–must get drunk to handle the marriage bed: “But when I came unto my beds,/With toss-pots still had drunken heads.”

As the fool puts it, once one grows up and gets married–comes into “man’s estate”–the reality of life is “the wind and the rain.” Feste punctuates the grimness of this reality with his refrain, “And the rain it raineth everyday.”

On Friday, the sun came out.

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No Room in This House for Two “I”s

Gustav Adolph Hensel, "Painting of a Mosque"

Gustav Adolph Hensel, “Mosque”

Spiritual Sunday

Although Ramadan is a holy month meant to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, it seems increasingly to be a time when Muslims kill other Muslims. The most recent instance is Friday’s suicide bombing in a Kuwait City Shiite mosque that killed 27 and injured 227. ISIS claims responsibility.

Meanwhile, America was mourning the nine people who also died in a place of worship. Barack Obama’s moving eulogy of Reverend Clem Pinckney brought to mind a parable by the Sufi mystic Rumi that touches upon some of the same themes. Sufism is the inner mystical dimension of Islam.

Obama’s remarks were an extended meditation upon grace. Acknowledging that we are sinful beings caught up in petty hatreds, he asked for God’s grace to descend upon America so that we can embrace others who are different from us. He quoted Pinckney, moved on to words by novelist and essayist Marilyn Robinson, and then led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace”:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history—we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past—how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind—but, more importantly, an open heart.  

That’s what I’ve felt this week—an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think—what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

Amazing grace.  Amazing grace. 

(Begins to sing) –

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
Was blind but now I see.  

After naming each of the victims and noting that each had “found that grace,” the president concluded,

Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.

In Rumi’s poem, there is also an image of homecoming. The man, however, can only come home to his beloved, to God, after he sees beyond himself:

A man knocked at the door of his beloved.
“Who are you, trusted one?” thus asked the friend.
He answered: “I!” The friend said: “Go away,
Here is no place for people raw and crude!”
What, then, could cook the raw and rescue him
But separation’s fire and exile’s flame?
The poor man went to travel a whole year
And burned in separation from his friend,
And he matured, was cooked and burnt, returned
And carefully approached the friend’s abode.
He walked around it now in cautious fear
Lest from his lips unfitting words appear.
His friend called out: “Who is there at my door?”
The answer: “You, dear you are at the door!”
He said: “Come in, now, that you are all I—
There is no room in this house for two ‘I’s!”

I am struck by the misery of living in separation. Dylan Roof and the Isis bomber were rawer and cruder than most, but all who shut themselves against divine love experience suffering. It is particularly ironic when people do so in the name of God.

Fortunately, the man in the parable learns from his suffering. His maturation as he is “cooked and burnt” may involve a spiritual discipline, including Ramadan fasting and prayer. His salvation lies in the realization that he will enter into communion with God once he releases his attachment to Self.

The sectarian hatreds in the Muslim world and the racial hatreds in our own country block entry into the presence of God. Sometimes it seems like we will be always be lost inside our individual fears.  In the face of that despair, however, the president assured us that, with grace, “anything is possible.” Or to borrow from another president speaking at an even darker time, we will enter the house of the beloved once we stop warring against “the better angels of our nature.”

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Poetry Enlarges the Moral Imagination

Joseph Severn, "Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing 'Prometheus Unbound'"

Joseph Severn, “Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing ‘Prometheus Unbound'”

It’s often said that everything of importance has already been said, perhaps by Plato and Aristotle. As I look back at what thinkers of the past have written about literature’s power to change lives, I’m finding that there is some truth this. Rereading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, for instance, I’ve discovered that ideas I thought were my own I actually borrowed from his famous 1821 essay 35 years ago.

I’ll share these in a moment. But first, I want to qualify my opening statement. Even if nothing is new under the sun, ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They must constantly be reframed for the world we live in now. This is true of literature as well, which must be reinterpreted by each new generation. Our needs change, as do the obstacles we must surmount, and texts and ideas that were once timely can go in and out of relevance depending on the circumstances.

In other words, it doesn’t matter that no idea is entirely new. What matters is that we are on a ceaseless quest to make sense of the world, and thinkers of the past help us find our place in it.

I had forgotten that Shelley’s essay directly takes on the project that is at the center of this blog. As he sees it, the great authors change the way we see the world. Ethics may give us rules to live by but poetry enlarges the moral imagination:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. 

It’s hard to sum up all that Shelley is saying here, but I take away that poetry puts us in touch with what is noblest in humanity, even as it also shows us where we fall short. Love for humankind, imagining ourselves in the place of others, is what elevates us. Through reading literature we move beyond our narrow prejudices and are inspired to achieve our potential as a species. In his concluding paragraph Shelley writes,

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.

And in his final lines:

It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants [interpreters of sacred mysteries] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.


I know that my own project doesn’t sound quite so elevated. And yet, even in my small and everyday examples, I see literature enlarging us in the ways that Shelley talks about. Our daily chores and interactions, our workplace frustrations and our political disagreements, our joys and our tragedies take on a larger dimension when they are viewed through literature’s lens. Or rather, literature opens us up to see their deeper significance.

Shelley describes what this world would look like without literature. He is describing “the dark ages” here, which doesn’t do full justice to that time in history. Think of it rather as any society which can’t think beyond its own smallness:

Whatever of evil their agencies [ medieval institutions] may have contained sprang from the extinction of the poetical principle, connected with the progress of despotism and superstition. Men, from causes too intricate to be here discussed, had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.

Shelley makes another point that particularly intrigues me—the poetic vision is bigger than the poet, who can be just as prejudiced and narrow as the rest of us. Just as I become smarter and more sensitive when I am reading literature—so do poets when they are composing it:

The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. 

The best poets, Shelley says, are those that rise above their local prejudices and give themselves over entirely to artistic vision, which he compares to participation in a cause. Poets like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare have entirely joined this cause whereas some others fall short:

A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal poets should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose.

In other words, we need to keep reading and writing with courage and integrity to stay in touch with our deep nobility. Otherwise, we become slaves to the wills of others and our own base appetites.

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Plato’s Warning: Beware of Poets

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, "Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Grasp of Sensual Pleasure"

Regnault, “Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Grasp of Sensual Pleasure”

For years I’ve heard about Plato wanting to kick poets—and artists in general—out of his ideal republic, but I’ve never scrutinized the particular passages. Today I do so.

My first impression upon rereading The Ion and the final book of The Republic is that Socrates loves Homer. He quotes a number of specific passages in his conversation with Ion, a “rhapsode” who is famed for his dramatic readings of Homer.

As a result, I wonder about Socrates’s seriousness.  Is he just undertaking a thought experiment, positing a deliberately perverse argument to see what ideas will emerge?

Michael Taber, a colleague in our Philosophy Department who teaches Plato and Aristotle, helps me out. Apparently The Republic is indeed a thought experiment in which Plato tries to imagine an ideal state. He is not being perverse, however. Rather, he is so worried about the destructive potential of passionate people that he argues that passion must be tightly controlled, if not outright banned. Literature and music are among those things that sway our passions.

If nothing else, The Republic is an indirect testimony to literature’s power. Plato sees poetry as a force that must be corralled.

Before I continue on, it is useful to provide some background on Plato’s argument. Using Socrates as his vehicle, he makes the case that literature is a third order imitation. First there are the eternal forms—say, the idea of a chair. Then there is the manifestation of the form in the world, so that one has a carpenter making a chair. Then the artist comes along and imitates what the carpenter has made.

I worry that Socrates sounds a bit like Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times in that the Greek philosopher doesn’t regard poets as people who actually do anything useful. Along with carpenters, Socrates mentions charioteers, captains, and doctors, who are all mentioned in Homer’s epics. Homer may dazzle us with all that he knows about these professions, but Socrates uses his descriptions to take him down a peg. We don’t want Homer managing our horses, sailing our ships, or performing surgery, do we? For that matter, wouldn’t we rather have politicians rather than poets running the country?

Then, I said, we must put a question to Homer; not about medicine, or any of the arts to which his poems only incidentally refer: we are not going to ask him, or any other poet, whether he has cured patients like Asclepius, or left behind him a school of medicine such as the Asclepiads were, or whether he only talks about medicine and other arts at secondhand; but we have a right to know respecting military tactics, politics, education, which are the chiefest and noblest subjects of his poems, and we may fairly ask him about them. ‘Friend Homer,’ then we say to him, …’if you are able to discern what pursuits make men better or worse in private or public life, tell us what State was ever better governed by your help? The good order of Lacedaemon is due to Lycurgus, and many other cities great and small have been similarly benefited by others; but who says that you have been a good legislator to them and have done them any good? Italy and Sicily boast of Charondas, and there is Solon who is renowned among us; but what city has anything to say about you?’ Is there any city which he might name? 

Socrates then pushes his argument even further. If poets can’t be called upon to rule, how about at least making people more virtuous? Since this is one area where some of us see artists playing a role—Sir Philip Sidney, Matthew Arnold, Wayne Booth, Robin Bates—it’s interesting to see Socrates taking even this claim apart:

But can you imagine, Glaucon, that if Homer had really been able to educate and improve mankind –if he had possessed knowledge and not been a mere imitator –can you imagine, I say, that he would not have had many followers, and been honored and loved by them? Protagoras of Abdera, and Prodicus of Ceos, and a host of others, have only to whisper to their contemporaries: ‘You will never be able to manage either your own house or your own State until you appoint us to be your ministers of education’ –and this ingenious device of theirs has such an effect in making them love them that their companions all but carry them about on their shoulders. And is it conceivable that the contemporaries of Homer, or again of Hesiod, would have allowed either of them to go about as rhapsodists, if they had really been able to make mankind virtuous? Would they not have been as unwilling to part with them as with gold, and have compelled them to stay at home with them? Or, if the master would not stay, then the disciples would have followed him about everywhere, until they had got education enough? 

Socrates is right about one thing. There are any number of authors who I would not want to see as ministers of education or, for that matter, classroom teachers. I don’t like how Socrates resorts to a utilitarian argument, however, which reminds me of those state legislators who rail against the liberal arts. Some of them would even be willing to cut philosophy.

So what does Socrates say about what authors do better than the other professions, which is immerse us in the beauties of language and story? Socrates does not merely see this skill as less useful than others but actually as damaging. Literature, as he sees it, prompts us to act irrationally, and the ideal state must be guided by Reason. Poets, unfortunately, target “an inferior part of the soul,” indulging “the irrational nature”:

[T]herefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth. 

As I understand this, Socrates is suspicious of the way that literature immerses us in its fictions rather than allowing us a place to stand outside of reality. We might counter that passionless Reason doesn’t exactly have a stellar record. Pure reason, even if it were possible (and it’s not), would not be a good thing. Here is Socrates setting Reason at war with Emotion and seeing literature as being on the wrong side:

But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation: –the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is surely an awful thing? 

Yes, certainly, if the effect is what you say.

Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast –the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most. 

Yes, of course I know.

But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality –we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other which delighted us in the recitation is now deemed to be the part of a woman.

Very true, he said.

Now can we be right in praising and admiring another who is doing that which any one of us would abominate and be ashamed of in his own person? 

No, he said, that is certainly not reasonable.

Nay, I said, quite reasonable from one point of view.

What point of view?

If you consider, I said, that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;–the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too? Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own. 

Ah, so now we’re getting down to the nub of it. Real men, including philosophers, don’t cry. (To riff off of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in philosophy.) Crying is for inferior souls and for women.

Although we as a society have become more open to crying men, I’m struck that literature itself still carries some of these old associations. Women are more likely to major in the English (and the other arts) than men. In my book discussion group, it’s been years since we’ve had a man other than myself attend. Fiction to many men seems impractical and indulgent, not concerned enough with shaping the world.

In defense of the emotions, I note that we don’t have hard evidence that “rational” men have been better at running our republics than “irrational women” would. In fact, I would argue that those who know and honor the emotions, those who dance to Pan pipes and light up at a dramatic reading of Homer, would be better philosopher kings than those steeped only in macho philosophy. And 100 times better than soulless technocrats.

Turning to The Ion, Socrates is a little more subtle in his critique of poetry but makes similar points. The question is whether Ion, as a dramatic reader, owes more to artistic inspiration or to calculated artifice. Socrates gets Ion to admit that his powers stem from inspiration–which is to say, when he is performing, he is in the grip of a divine passion. His power lies in the way he passes that passion along to his auditors.

This seems harmless enough in The Ion, which doesn’t make clear why inspiration is inferior to artifice. It is in The Republic where Socrates discusses the danger of the passions.

In sum, Plato regards literature as a powerful emotional force, and he worries that people will make bad use of that force. Therefore poets need not apply for jobs in the ideal republic.

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The Fear of Not Reading All We Should

Albert Ranney Chewett, "Young Man Reading"

Albert Ranney Chewett, “Young Man Reading”

In yesterday’s post I discussed the pros and cons of bibliotherapy as described by New Yorker writer Celedwin Dovey. I appreciated how bibliotherapists believe that literature can change our lives but worried about them being narrowly prescriptive. I didn’t mention one anxiety where bibliotherapists might indeed prove useful: that there are so many books in the world that we won’t be able to read all that we should.

How do you handle this fear? I myself choose books the way that Dovey does:

 I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying).

Bibliotherapist Ella Bethoud, however, points out that the books we read aren’t always chosen as haphazardly as we think. As someone who helps choose the books for my book club, I can testify that Bethoud accurately describes the process:

[T]hough more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press.

Then she ratchets up an anxiety that has been with capitalist society ever since the days of Robinson Crusoe: are you making the best use of your time?

If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.

I don’t entirely agree with Berthoud here. Once you start applying efficiency criteria to reading—and to art in general—you threaten art at its very core. We should surrender to a work of literature, not tailor it to external parameters.

Dovey all but says as much when she compares literature to religion–which is to say, another experience that doesn’t lend itself to efficiency metrics:

The insights [that Dovey gained from a bibliotherapist’s list of recommendations] themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

There’s no mention of making the best use of one’s time in that formulation.

That being acknowledged, however, there’s still a place for good book recommendations. And if a well-read bibliotherapist gets to know you and then makes suggestions, that sounds better than, say, relying on The New York Times bestseller list. Or even word of mouth.

But as far as addressing your anxiety about there being too many unread masterpieces in your life—even a more deliberate reading program won’t banish that fear.

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Prescribing Lit for What Ails Us

Auguste Macke, "Blue Girl Reading"

Auguste Macke, “Blue Girl Reading”

The New Yorker recently published an article right up my alley: “Can Reading Make You Happier.” In case you were wondering, Ceridwen Dovey’s answer is yes.

The article touches on a number of issues that I’ve covered in this blog over the years, including those scientific studies that show great literature increasing brain activity and enhancing empathy and social perception. New to me, however, is what it had to say about bibliotherapy.

Dovey reports on having once received, as a gift, a remote session with bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud. Previous to this, she says, she always felt like reading should have an element of serendipity to it (she quotes Virginia Woolf on this), and she resisted reading books that had been prescribed. She didn’t even know that bibliotherapy was a thing.

Her experience with Berthoud, however, proved to be very positive. First of all, the initial questions were very thought provoking:

In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

There was some further back-and-forth and then the bibliotherapist made her recommendations:

[The final reading prescription…was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was The Guide, by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong, and Sum, by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

Dovey says that she read the books over the following two years and, while she didn’t need them to help her cope with a loss, she said they helped with a bout of acute physical pain. This raises certain questions about bibliotherapy (more about this in a moment), but she herself came away satisfied.

Researching the history of bibliotherapy, she discovered that the phrase was first used in a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, “A Literary Clinic.” The article described a “bibliopathic institute” run by someone named Bagster, who asserted that,

A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.

I’m struck by Bagster’s advice for “a middle-aged client with ‘opinions partially ossified’”:

You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.

Bagster’s top recommendation for this client was George Bernard Shaw, who didn’t write novels but who is certainly stinging and relentles). Then, making Bagster sound like Anne Elliot counseling Benwick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Atlantic article reports that he is

called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

As an aside, I note that Anne actually counsels Benwick to read less fiction. She recommends the salutary prose by Samuel Johnson over the narrative poetry of Byron and Scott. But that’s a subject for a different day.

Looking into the history of her own bibliotherapist, Dovey reports that Berthoud and her friend Susan Elderkin used fiction to bolster each other prior to beginning their practice. They chose literature rather than self-help books because they regarded the former as providing “a transformational experience”:

As their friendship developed, they began prescribing novels to cure each other’s ailments, such as a broken heart or career uncertainty. “When Suse was having a crisis about her profession—she wanted to be a writer, but was wondering if she could cope with the inevitable rejection—I gave her Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel poems,” Berthoud told me. “If Archy the cockroach could be so dedicated to his art as to jump on the typewriter keys in order to write his free-verse poems every night in the New York offices of the Evening Sun, then surely she should be prepared to suffer for her art, too.” Years later, Elderkin gave Berthoud,who wanted to figure out how to balance being a painter and a mother, Patrick Gale’s novel Notes from an Exhibition, about a successful but troubled female artist.

Berthoud and Elderkin are authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, which Dovey says “is written in the style of a medical dictionary and matches ailments (“failure, feeling like a”) with suggested reading cures (“The History of Mr. Polly,” by H. G. Wells).” They have also set up a network of bibliotherapists. Here’s what they have concluded from the experiences:

The most common ailments people tend to bring to them are the life-juncture transitions, Berthoud says: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement. The bibliotherapists see a lot of retirees, too, who know that they have twenty years of reading ahead of them but perhaps have only previously read crime thrillers, and want to find something new to sustain them. Many seek help adjusting to becoming a parent. “I had a client in New York, a man who was having his first child, and was worried about being responsible for another tiny being,” Berthoud says. “I recommended Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker, which is about a man feeding his baby a bottle and having these meditative thoughts about being a father. And of course To Kill a Mockingbird, because Atticus Finch is the ideal father in literature.”

One last note on bibliotherapy: Doves says that it needs to be culture specific. Apparently, there are different versions of The Novel Cure for the 18 different countries in which it has appeared:

[I]n an interesting twist, the contract allows for a local editor and reading specialist to adapt up to twenty-five per cent of the ailments and reading recommendations to fit each particular country’s readership and include more native writers. The new, adapted ailments are culturally revealing. In the Dutch edition, one of the adapted ailments is “having too high an opinion of your own child”; in the Indian edition, “public urination” and “cricket, obsession with” are included; the Italians introduced “impotence,” “fear of motorways,” and “desire to embalm”; and the Germans added “hating the world” and “hating parties.” Berthoud and Elderkin are now working on a children’s-literature version, A Spoonful of Stories, due out in 2016.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about bibliotherapy. Perhaps readers will find this curious since my entire blog is dedicated to showing how literature enhances lives.

I worry, however, about literature coming to seen as purely utilitarian, someone that gets prescribed. While Better Living through Beowulf was set up to counter those who see literature as having no social utility at all—Stanley Fish, for instance—I don’t like to go all the way in the other direction.

My experience with literature is that we don’t know in advance how it is going to effect us and that different people will be impacted in widely diverse ways. One of the delights of literature is this element of surprise. While I can sometimes predict how students will respond to certain works, this is not always the case and they are constantly surprising me in what they take away.

I myself, meanwhile, could never have foreseen that, when I lost my oldest son, I would find deep solace from Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother. It was particularly powerful because it was unexpected. If someone had sent me to Beowulf work for grief counseling, I suspect it would have had less of an impact.

Maybe I just bristle at works with an agenda attached, which I feel negates the free play that is one of literature’s glories. I remember, as a child, reacting strongly against the questions that followed stories in our English textbooks, which seemed designed to preempt my own experience. To this day I refuse to teach literature textbooks that have such questions.

So while I’m all for getting reading suggestions from people and see the value in getting recommendations from people who have read a lot and who have asked me special questions about myself, ultimately I believe that above all we should just read a lot. Like Woolf, I’m all for serendipity. That’s because we can’t ultimately predict the work that will provide just the life saver we need when life hits us between the eyes.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Woolf (Virginia) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Puck’s Summer Magic

Tucci & Everett as Puck and Oberon

Tucci & Everett as Puck and Oberon

This past Saturday having been Midsummer Night’s Eve, I found myself returning to Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a book from my childhood. It’s a time travel fantasy in which a group of children have encounters with medieval England. The children are acting out Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer Night’s Eve when suddenly this happens:

The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:

‘What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of the fairy Queen?’

He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:

‘What, a play toward? I’ll be an auditor;
An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause.’

The children looked and gasped. The small thing—he was no taller than Dan’s shoulder—stepped quietly into the Ring.

‘I’m rather out of practice,’ said he; ‘but that’s the way my part ought to be played.’

Still the children stared at him—from his dark-blue cap, like a big columbine flower, to his bare, hairy feet. At last he laughed.

‘Please don’t look like that. It isn’t my fault. What else could you expect?’ he said.

‘We didn’t expect any one,’ Dan answered slowly. ‘This is our field.’

‘Is it?’ said their visitor, sitting down. ‘Then what on Human Earth made you act Midsummer Night’s Dream three times over, on Midsummer Eve, in the middle of a Ring, and under—right under one of my oldest hills in Old England? Pook’s Hill—Puck’s Hill—Puck’s Hill—Pook’s Hill! It’s as plain as the nose on my face.’

He pointed to the bare, fern-covered slope of Pook’s Hill that runs up from the far side of the mill-stream to a dark wood. Beyond that wood the ground rises and rises for five hundred feet, till at last you climb out on the bare top of Beacon Hill, to look over the Pevensey Levels and the Channel and half the naked South Downs.

‘By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!’ he cried, still laughing. ‘If this had happened a few hundred years ago you’d have had all the People of the Hills out like bees in June!’

Puck proceeds to put the children in contact with various figures from long ago, with the novel operating as an early British literature history lesson.

Midsummer Night’s Eve has long been associated with fairies, witches, and other supernatural beings. Three years ago I wrote the following post about Midsummer Night’s Eve. Here it is again (slightly edited) in case you missed it:

“Don’t Underestimate Midsummer Madness,” from June 20, 2012

Today being Midsummer Night’s Eve, I have an excuse to write about Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve been thinking a lot about the play recently as I’m putting together a British fantasy literature course for the fall and am considering teaching it..

Midsummer Night’s Eve, seen by the pagans as a time when the world was particularly susceptible to supernatural visitations, still captured the imagination centuries after Christianity was established. Governed by the natural calendar, it spoke to beliefs and needs that Christianity failed to. One sees a clash between the two cultures in a number of medieval works.

For instance, in Sir Gawan and the Green Knight, a natural green man is pitted against Christian Camelot. In the Wife of Bath’s tale, meanwhile, Alison attacks begging friars or “limitours” (one such friar, the lecherous Huberd, having just insulted her) for banishing fairies, elves, and incubi from the world:

NOW IN THE OLDEN days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
But now no man can see the elves, you know.
For now the so-great charity and prayers
Of limitours and other holy friars
That do infest each land and every stream
As thick as motes are in a bright sunbeam,
Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, ladies’ bowers,
Cities and towns and castles and high towers,
Villages, barns, cowsheds and dairies—
This causes it that there are now no fairies.
For where was wont to walk full many an elf,
Right there walks now the limitour himself
In both the later and early mornings,
Saying his matins and such holy things,
As he goes round his district in his gown.
Women may now go safely up and down,
In every copse or under every tree;
There is no other incubus than he,
And would do them naught but dishonour.

Shakespeare tapped into this rich tradition in Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), and his play itself was wildly popular in Victorian and Edwardian times. In Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), for instance, Puck is all that is left of  “the people of the hills,” but he is called forth by children reciting passages from the play in a fairy circle, and he introduces them to figures from pre-Christian England. In her recent novel The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt shows members of the Bohemian set celebrating the summer solstice with an annual reenactment of the play.

The novel is loosely based on the children’s novelist E. Nesbit, whose children’s books like The Treasure Seekers and Five Children and It both influenced and were influenced by Kipling. In the novel, Nesbit and her husband are attracted to the pagan rituals and to Shakespeare’s play because of their dissatisfaction with dull bourgeois pragmatism, sterile science, and the nature-destroying aspects of industrialization. But although the late Victorians and the Edwardians were in love with supernatural beings, their fairies, unlike Shakespeare’s, were cute and fairly harmless. Children, seen as emissaries of Wordsworth’s innocent nature, often played the attendant fairies in theatrical versions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and still do today. When we think of the play, Mendelssohn’s music may play in the background.

Elizabethan England would have seen fairies as darker forces. After all, being less technologically advanced, the Elizabethans couldn’t be as enthusiastic about untamed nature as Lord Byron and other Romantics. Floods like those caused by Titania’s and Oberon’s domestic quarrel would have been no laughing matter:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Nor it it only non-human nature that is out of control in the play. Human nature also has descended into midsummer madness. For instance, we watch as natural desire

–propels Helena to abase herself before Demetrius: “Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me./ Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,/ Unworthy as I am, to follow you”;

–causes Lysander to make moves on Hermia and then to abandon her in the woods: “What, should I hurt her, strike her, kill her dead? Although I hate her, I’ll not harm her so”;

–pits Lysander and Demetrius in a deadly battle against each other for the affections of Helena;

–pushes Titania (as Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott has pointed out) towards bestiality;

–results in babies deformed by moles, harelips, scars, and other “prodigious” marks.

Fortunately, this being a comedy, nature prove benign in the end. Oberon reconciles the lovers, sorts things out with his wife, and promises good births.

But reading the play today or thinking about pagan solstice rituals, we may overlook their power. When one seems to be in control of nature and regards fairies as nothing but quaint superstition, one can afford to be sentimental.

Posted in Kipling (Rudyard), Nesbitt (E.), Shakespeare (William), Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Milton’s Satan Invades Charleston

Gustave Doré, "Satan in the Garden of Eden"

Gustave Doré, “Satan in the Garden of Eden”

Spiritual Sunday

Ramadan commenced this past Wednesday and I will post an essay next Sunday in commemoration of the month-long Muslim observance. Today, however, as America still reels in shock over the church killings in Charleston, I repost an essay I wrote following the Tucson killings and which I’ve already reposted once following the Aurora killings. Like President Obama, I feel like there’s nothing new to be said. We just keep repeating our old sorrow.

This particular post, however, is even more apropos today because the killer participated in a Bible study before killing members of the congregation. In my post I talk about how light often attracts darkness, and on Friday we saw just how much light there is in the AME congregation when family members who had lost loved ones forgave the killer during his bond hearing. This response, reminiscent of Christ’s “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do,” reminds me of a comparable moment in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, from which I quoted in Friday’s essay about the shootings. I talk about Silko’s insight following the reposted essay.

One other note: The darkness in Dylann Roof is not limited to one crazed mind but grew out of the darkness that is American racism. He found validation through various symbols, narrative frameworks, and a tradition of racist hatred. In other words, the killings did not happen in a vacuum. The Grendelian resentment that I described in Friday’s post has been a part of our national psyche ever since slavery was fueling American prosperity and it continues on today.

As I wrote in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, virulent racism often resurfaces when Americans feel that they are not achieving the promise of the American dream. They look for scapegoats, and I remember how poor whites scapegoated African Americans in the southern Tennessee county where I was raised. We no longer have segregation but racism, after going underground for a couple of decades, has become more brazen since we elected an African American president. These nine parishioners are the latest scapegoats sacrificed in this long and bloody history.

Of course, the greatest of all sacrificial scapegoats was a Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel, and members of Charleston’s AME Church are doing all they can to follow in his footsteps. They have faith that God’s love can perform miracles, including move this country past racism. I pray with all my soul that their faith is justified.

“Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson,” reprinted from Jan. 23, 2011

As I teach Beowulf for the umpteenth time, I am struck once again by its beautiful rendition of the Genesis creation story. I’m also struck by how the invocation of that beauty calls forth human horror. Exploring the linkage provides some insight into the mass killings we have come to expect.

The passage I have in mind all but says that that the song of creation unleashes Grendel’s murderous rampage. Here it is in Seamus Heaney’s incomparable translation:

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
 the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendor He set the sun and the moon
to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.

This reminds me of a similar passage in Paradise Lost. Satan, having journeyed from Hell on his quest to corrupt God’s new creation, is awed by the beauty of the Garden of Eden and curses the sun for revealing it to him:

O sun, [I] tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere . . .

Milton describes Satan as existing within a perpetual mental hell. What eats away at him, more than anything else, is “the bitter memory of what he was, what is, and what must be worse.” Milton writes,

. . . horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place . . .

I am no psychologist but this strikes me as a fairly accurate description of the inner states of Tucson killer Jared Loughner and Virginia Tech killer Seung-hui Cho and the Columbine killers and any other number of Grendel/Satans. [We can now add Dylann Roof to that list.] In other words, they may suffer from paradise lost syndrome. Faced with innocence and joy, they feel their own inner darkness—their distance from that light—all the more intensely.  At some level, they realize that their own beautiful souls have become buried deep and they attempt to blot out that awareness.  Their means for doing so is destroying those who trigger the memories.

Here’s is Satan’s reaction after watching Adam and Eve exchanging “kisses pure”:

[A]side the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines . . .

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s upbeat personality, which attracted idealistic nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green to her town hall event, also drew in Loughner. The sight of Cho’s college classmates living normal happy lives seemed to send the Virginia Tech student into a fury. Light has a way of calling out darkness.

Jesus understood this phenomenon as well as anyone ever has. He also knew that the darkness wins only when we ourselves become fearful and lash out in return.

Immediately before sending Adam out of the Garden of Eden, archangel Michael counsels him, and us, about what our response to Satanic darkness should be:

                                                                      . . . add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shall possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.

Believe it.

Added note: By the conclusion of Silko’s novel Ceremony, the protagonist Tayo has found a new inner peace, but this peace stirs the dark hatred of his fellow Indian veterans, who are seething with resentment and regard it as an affront. When they cannot find him, they turn on each other. Because Tayo resists his own urge to respond to violence with violence, the darkness, at least temporarily subsides. I’m hoping that America will respond the same way to Dylan Roof’s violence. Here’s the key moment in the novel:

It had been a close call. The witchery had almost ended the story according to its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him. He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud…

I admit to having my own dark revenge fantasies every time we have another mass killing. In her closing invocation, Silko urges us instead to turn to the light:

accept this offering,

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Grendel Violence Never Ends

Our latest Grendel? Alleged killer Dylann Roof

Our latest Grendel? Alleged killer Dylann Roof

I am losing count of all the blog posts I have written about mass shootings since starting this blog six years ago. (Some of them are listed at the end of today’s post.) Today I write about the nine parishioners gunned down in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a gunman shouting racist speech,

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

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

I too go back to a familiar story. Few works of literature capture the social violence that strikes from within as powerfully as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. Our latest Grendel, the alleged killer 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, sounds very much like a white supremacist: apparently he “talked about black people taking over the country, and raping women, and how they had to ‘go.’” and in the Facebook picture above he is wearing insignia from apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Like Grendel, it appears he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.

Meanwhile, we are like King Hrothgar, helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that we are the most powerful country on earth, just as Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia. One hears President Obama’s despair when he says, “at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to get a grip on [gun violence].” He has been saying this after each mass killing for the past six years.

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

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

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

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

Previous Posts on Mass Shootings

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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Detecting the Person behind the Poetry

George Landow, "Dickens among His Characters"

George Landow, “Dickens among His Characters”

I stumbled across an interesting article recently in The New York Review of Books about the sense we get of the author from reading his or her work. Tim Parks writes,

It seems impossible, at least for me, to read almost anything without being aware of the person behind it and without putting that person in relation to what he or she has written and indeed to readers of the book, to the point that I sometimes wonder, in the teeth of a literary critical tradition that has always told us the writer’s personality is irrelevant to any appraisal of the work, whether one of the pleasures of literature isn’t precisely this contemplation of the enigma of the person creating it. 

Literary critical tradition is not quite as vociferous on this subject as it was in the heyday of New Criticism, when W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley famously wrote their essay on “the intentional fallacy.” Seeking to banish the author from the conversation about literature, they asserted that the text was all that mattered. Later they would write a complementary article on “the affective fallacy,” seeking to also banish the reader.

Structuralism sought to banish the author in a different way, with Roland Barthes declaring “the death of the author.” It was literature’s version of no accident history: the forces that propel history or literature are so insistent, such theorists argue, that they can work through practically any individual. Great works are not dependent on great individuals but a fortuitous set of circumstances.

As with the intentional fallacy, the small amount of truth in this theory quickly appeared ridiculous once the idea was pushed to its limits. While it’s certainly true that authors don’t have complete control over their creations—people have been asserting this since Socrates got Ion to admit this in Plato’s dialogue by that name—it is also true that literary works owe a lot to the individuals who wrote them down.

Theorist Wayne Booth came up with a term that describes what Parks is getting at: “the implied author.” When we read a work, we sense an author who is guiding our steps. Sometimes this author intrudes into the text—think of Dickens interjecting commentary—but sometimes we just sense him or her.

Booth notes that the implied author might be a better person than the actual author. The implied Jane Austen, for instance, comes across as someone who frowns at idle gossip whereas the living, breathing Austen supposedly loved gossip. It’s as though she put on her best self, kind of like dressing for church, when she wrote her novels.

One could debate which is the real Jane Austen. Are we really our lesser selves? What’s to say that we can’t be considered our best selves as well? Anyway, Parks in his article loves the sense of meeting the person behind the words as he reads.

Here he is describing his approach:

It is difficult to pin down where and how this awareness of the writer starts. Like so much of what happens when we read, it has an elusive, shadowy existence. However, over the last year or two, I have found it clarifying to play this game: I try to identify a kind of conversation, encounter, or transaction in a novel that seems to be characteristic of its author, something that recurs frequently; when I’ve established that, I try to think of the reader’s relationship with the writer in the same terms.

The article then goes on to contrast two very different authors, James Joyce and Dickens. With Joyce, one comes across numerous instances of exchanges while with Dickens there is a heavy emphasis on “powerful figures befriending weaker ones”:

First the recurrent encounter, or exchange. An easy example might be the question of loans in Ulysses. An awful lot of the book is about characters asking each other for loans, or favors, errands, and chores, and every request is a little power game. People make demands—Stephen on Buck Mulligan, Buck on Stephen, the Englishman Hine on both and both on him, and others define themselves in the way they respond.

In Dickens, we frequently have powerful figures befriending weaker ones, or appearing to befriend them, offering them help, inviting them to be part of a group that may or may not be welcoming or beneficent. Likewise the person befriended may or may not be worthy and loyal. He may, like Uriah Heep, accept another’s patronage in order to manipulate him and steal from him.

Parks has only gotten started, however. In the second part of his exercise, he asks,

Can I think of my reaction to the book, the emotions brought into play by its story and style, as in some way analogous to that recurrent transaction? Is the author beginning to form with me this kind of relationship that recurs so frequently in his novels?

Joyce, Parks says, asks immense favors of us: he wants us to give considerable time and effort to understand what he’s saying. Many readers think that he demands too much.

Dickens is trickier. On the one hand, he appears to want to befriend us, and one reason we read Dickens is to enter the warm friendships we encounter, whether it be the Pickwick Club, David Copperfield’s circle of friends, or others. On the other hand, Parks picks up sudden lapses, as though Dickens is ultimately worried that friendships we so long for will let us down:

[Unlike Joyce], Dickens befriends us. That’s evident at once. He reaches out his paternal hand. He writes inviting prefaces. He talks about both characters and readers as his family. His seductive prose is brilliant but never really difficult, witty but never abstruse, always warm. We feel an attraction to the man that reinforces or perhaps even exceeds our appreciation of the writing. We would like to be part of his world, his club. Dickens loved clubs and of course his first novel is about a club. The Pickwick Club. Even today there are Dickens clubs in countries round the globe. Readers love to aggregate around the man. And we notice that happiness in Dickens is almost always a happiness with a group of people, a small community, not with passionate couples.

All the same, Dickens’s plots encourage us to be alert to friendships that seem attractive and easy. David Copperfield is mistaken when he allows the older and more charismatic Steerforth to take him over. Anyone who befriends the Micawbers will be let down. Perhaps this anxiety that one can get it wrong when befriending others explains those sudden odd lapses in Dickens when rather than lavishing attention on his readers he suddenly seems determined to be rid of us as quickly as possible, to wrap up his story and be away. The last part of Dombey and Son is emblematic. But even David Copperfield ends in a hurried, unconvincing fashion, as if Dickens felt it might have been a mistake to befriend us, and we too feel disappointed; the relationship we hurried into is not quite as rewarding as we hoped. Or is it that relationships in general can never sustain that Dickensian festivity for long?

What Parks says about Dickens can also be said about two authors I have long admired, Henry Fielding and Lucille Clifton. With each of them, I feel that I am being offered a special friendship and brought into special intimacy. And yet, with each, I find that I am allowed in only so far before being given the cold shoulder. It’s as though, while they acknowledge and wish to honor our longing for connection, they worry that our emotional needs will devour them if they allow us to get too close.

Fielding seems to establish an easy familiarity with the reader by his genial insults in Tom Jones. Then one realizes that he’s very defensive and actually means to insult us. His sense of privilege as a member of the gentry both seeks out and resents the rising middle class who are reading his books.

Clifton, on the other hand, makes a show of sharing with us things that people don’t normally talk about and, in so doing doing, made it acceptable to talk about such things as a woman’s hips, menstruation, menopause, and child abuse. She must really trust us to let us in this far, we feel. At a certain point, however, we discover that her very openness operates as a shield.

It’s as though she has developed a trick for dealing with her anxieties: she talks openly about whatever makes her feel defensive. Self-conscious about your large hips? Swing them extra freely. Torn apart by your father’ abuse of you when you were a child? Come out dancing.

Maybe I’m cheating when I talk about Lucille since she was my colleague for 15 years. I can indeed say that I got close but no closer. I came to realize that, whatever I knew about her, I knew on her terms.

I didn’t resent her for this since it made sense that someone with her biography would hold the world at arm’s length. But given how warm her poetry seems, it did startle me.

Parks, like literary biographers in general, offers us characters as complex as any in the books that we read: the authors themselves.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Dickens (Charles), Fielding (Henry), Joyce (James) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bloodless Criticism Undermines Lit

Eliza Joinville, "Leda and the Swan"

Eliza Joinville, “Leda and the Swan”

I promise that today will be my last post on Lily King’s The English Teacher. In it, I explore an issue that that I’ve addressed in the past: how literature can function as an evasion as well as a guide.

Several great works deal with this issue directly, such as Don Quixote, Northanger Abbey, and Madame Bovary. These are all concerned with the dangers of popular fiction, however, whereas the protagonist of Lily King’s novel sometimes finds great literature itself getting in her way.

Or more accurately, she approaches such literature in a way that undermines its potential.

Note, for instance, the moment when Vida summons up all her courage to tell her son about how he was conceived by way of rape. Instead of telling him straight out, she resorts to bloodless literary criticism:

“I lived with my mother then.” Her voice was so faint he had to lean toward her, but imperceptibly; too much interest and he’d scare the words away… “She was a true matriarch. She was the imperious blend of insecurity and strength that Faulkner and Lawrence capture—

“I don’t care about Faulkner and Lawrence right now, Ma.”

Then she resorts to Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and other rape stories from Greek mythology:

“Sometimes it helps to think of Leda and the Swan.” She was whispering now. “To think of Io, Persephone, and Europa.”

Maybe there was a part of him, a cluster of cells somewhere in his small brain that knew, that was trying to tell the other parts that would not listen, but he needed her to say it, not in code, not in references to people that were only real to her. He didn’t need this shit. This was the shit he’d gotten all his life. Leda and the fucking swan

When Peter starts to leave, his mother surrenders and informs him directly. In the subsequent scene I particularly like how, although Vida must step away from literature to communicate, Peter then resorts to that same literature to process what she’s telling him. Here’s Vida:

“Whenever I thought about telling this to you I always thought I’d find in that moment some beautiful way of constructing it so that it would seem somehow magical to you. I know that’s crazy but it happens. It can happen. The right words can transform even the grossets brutality. But they’re not…” She dragged her fingernails across the inside of her wrist. “They’re not coming to me now. A man came in. A stranger to me. He came into that bathroom while I was washing my hands.” Her face twisted and she looked at Peter helplessly, as if she herself could not believe what she was about to say. “And he raped me.”

And here’s Peter:

The crumpled paper [of an illustration that Vida did of the man] rocked in the sand near her bare foot. Leda and the Swan. He remembered it now. The Swan was Zeus, swooping down to rape a mortal girl. He’d gotten an erection in class when they’d discussed the poem last year: the loosening thighs, the shudder in the loins.

For the record, I too was riveted by Yeats’s sexual imagery upon first reading Yeats’s poem in college.

But back to Vida and literature. For much of her life, she has turned to books to keep the ugliness out. In fact, as a girl with an abusive father, she would use it as a refuge, as we learn from one of her memories:

She is on her stomach reading. It is a Saturday and no one is home but her and there is a big bowl of peanuts on the table beside her. She eats them one by one, sucking off the salt first, then biting gently so it splits, then letting the halves nestle in either side of her mouth before chewing. It is morning and she can stay up here all day.

This memory is from King’s nightmarish chapter 9, which functions as a classic literary night scene, and it’s not entirely clear what happens next. It sounds as though Vida is assaulted by her father:

Downstairs a door slams. He is on her before she registers his feet on the stairs, his weight pressing the air out of her chest, his arms knocking the book from her fingers. She has no air to scream with. She is overwhelmed by the familiarity of the act, the belt, the grunts, the blood in her mouth, as if it has happened not once before but hundreds of times. It is not anger or sadness or fear that she feels, just a habitual acquiescence. Yes, this is what happens to me, her body seems to be saying.

If this is an actual memory, then it is the first of two times that she is assaulted by a man, the second time when she is a young teacher. (It’s possible that she’s assaulted a third time, by her school’s theater teacher, although it may be that she is just identifying with the students he sleeps with.) Reading didn’t save her that first time and literature can’t soften what she must tell her son.

It’s not literature that avoids the truth, however, but the way she talks about literature, seeking to separate it from her pain. In Monday’s post I noted Vida’s evasiveness—she wants to talk about “the ache of modernism” while her students want to talk about Tess’s rape. And while her students want to talk about whether Tess should or should not hide her secret from Angel, Vida wants to talk about

the ill-chosen location of the honeymoon, the crumbling d’Urberville mansion, and how Hardy plants his Darwinian theories of social determinism in the faces of Tess’s two ancestors on the wall (paintings built into the wall that cannot be removed), one representing treachery, the other arrogance.

Veering away from pressing issues extends to her stepmothering. When she thinks about her new charges, she thinks only about their intellectual development, ignoring the fact that they lost their mother in the not too distant past:

Stepmothering, she realized, was not all that different from teaching. It was essential to keep their intellectual development in mind at all times. You couldn’t get all wrapped up in their needs and whims. Stuart and his mysticism. Fran reading The Thorn Birds. They were too old now for that kind of material. A young man needed a hearty Byronic outlook, not this boneless Taoism. And if Fran began to believe in the characters in novels like that, real people were going to be a sore and sorry disappointment. She would have to, once again, urge Fran to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles; that would teach her exactly how far she could trust a man, even a seemingly well-intentioned man like Angel Clare.

Byron, with all his sexual escapades, is hardly the model one wants for a young man. Vida is replicating her own trauma, thinking that a young man should become a sexual predator and that a young woman should adopt her own defensive crouch.

But though Vida seeks to defuse literature’s tough lessons, it’s also true that she can’t stay away from a book like Tess. She insists upon approaching this fictional version of her own story, even as she shies away from it. Although she doesn’t acknowledge it, she instinctively knows that only when she faces up to her hurt will she be able to transcend it.

Her ambivalence is not unusual. There are many literature teachers who don’t acknowledge the real reasons why they teach certain works, choosing to hide out instead in their intellects. While I’m not demanding that everyone engage in self-analysis with every work (although admittedly this is something that I myself do), we blow a precious opportunity when we limit interpretation to aspects of the work that feel safe to us. Literature can be so much more.

Vida senses literature’s promise of healing. She just needs to talk about it in a less impersonal way to release this potential.

Back to popular literature. Vida looks down on works such as The Thorn Birds as overly emotional. When her husband tries to forestall her increasing dependence on booze by telling her how he lost his father to alcohol, she thinks, “Oh Lord. She couldn’t bear the cliché of it. Had he plucked it directly from one of Fran’s books?”

It’s true that lesser lit does indeed traffic in clichés, often simply indulging in human emotions rather than exploring them (great literature does both). Nevertheless, sometimes just getting in touch with those emotions is a step forward. By the end of the book, we know that Vida is going to be all right because she is crying over The Thorn Birds.

As long as she insisted on talking about the classics in bloodless ways, they had little more to offer her than a New York Times bestseller. If she can learn to cry for Tess, on the other hand, she will (to borrow from the Yeats poem) take on Hardy’s knowledge as well as his power.

Posted in Byron (Lord Gordon), Hardy (Thomas), King (Lily), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Complex Inner Life of Teachers

Norman Rockwell, "Teacher's Birthday"

Norman Rockwell, “Teacher’s Birthday”

Yesterday I wrote about how Lilly King in The English Teacher draws on Tess of the d’Urbervilles to explore the interior life of a teacher struggling to come to terms with trauma. Today I look at the other literary works that the novel references.

First of all, however, here’s an observation that many teachers will relate to (I certainly did). The principal is coming to report that a fellow teacher has had a bathtub accident, meaning that Vida will have to double the size of her class:

“In the tub? She broke her leg in the tub?”

“There may be some head injury as well,” he said, as if to preempt further ridicule. He didn’t like ridicule, probably having suffered, like most teachers, so much of it in school as a child.”

Ah yes, the permanent defensive reflex of those of us who were nerds.

And now for the literary allusions.

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Eliot shows up when Vida, who has never been married, receives a proposal:

The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers. Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S. Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis.

The Prufrock allusion is apt and an instance of ominous foreshadowing. The marriage will force Vida’s traumatic past, which she has repressed for years, out of the shadows. She needs this crisis if she is to grow but it will prove painful for her and her loved ones. Prufrock, it’s worth noting, concludes that it’s not worth forcing the moment to its crisis. The English Teacher proves him wrong.

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”

This short story is regularly taught in English classes. Vida is newly married and lying in bed after her husband has left:

She stretched her limbs in the enormous bed, her left arm and leg venturing across to Tom’s side, still slightly warm. She rolled over into his impression, and put her head just beside where his had lain. She thought of the grisly iron-gray hair at the end of “A Rose for Emily.” She would learn how to do this properly. “I promise,” she said into Tom’s absent ear.

We see more ominous foreshadowing here. Vida is imagining herself as a desperate spinster, lying like Faulkner’s character on the corpse of the man that she has had to poison to get him to stay. Vida loves Tom deeply but fears that, as a result, she will be exposed and destroyed should he ever leave—which is why she begins pushing him away. Until Vida can accept that she is lovable and that Tom wants to stay with her, her self-doubts will tear her apart and ruin her marriage.

Thomas Hardy,”The Voice”

Vida at one point murmurs the last lines of Hardy’s poem, which are overheard by her husband. The poem is about a fairy who has taken the place of a new bride. Here’s the second half:

The sprite resumed: “Thou hast transferred
To her dull form awhile
My beauty, fame, and deed, and word,
My gestures and my smile.

“O fatuous man, this truth infer,
Brides are not what they seem;
Thou lovest what thou dreamest her;
I am thy very dream!”

“O then,” I answered miserably,
Speaking as scarce I knew,
“My loved one, I must wed with thee
If what thou say’st be true!”

She, proudly, thinning in the gloom:
“Though, since troth-plight began,
I’ve ever stood as bride to groom,
I wed no mortal man!”

Thereat she vanished by the Cross
That, entering Kingsbere town,
The two long lanes form, near the fosse
Below the faneless Down.

When I arrived and met my bride,
Her look was pinched and thin,
As if her soul had shrunk and died,
And left a waste within.

The poem captures how Vida sees herself in their marriage. King explains the significance, drawing a connection with Tess in the process:

She didn’t want to explain. She wanted to think about this idea of love’s being cast onto someone like a spotlight, making her shimmer and glow for a little while, lending her qualities that she doesn’t possess. Is this really what we do to each other, find a victim and shine the light of all our dreams on them? Angel Clare places all his fantasies of the pure innocent country girl onto Tess, and when she finally forces him to listen to her story of Alec and the baby, she becomes vile to him and he banishes her. As if her soul had shrunk and died,/And left a waste within. She could hear Tom saying her name again, but he seemed so much less important, so much more immaterial than this theory of Hardy’s, which she’d always taught to her students, but had never suspected would ever apply to her own life.

William Shakespeare, Othello

Vida is very upset when her school spends half a million dollars on a computer center and then forces all the teachers to use it (the time is the early 1980s). To make matters worse, the school raids the scholarship fund to do so . She is asked to type something, and an early Othello speech to Desdemona comes to mind:

It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. Oh, my soul’s joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Perhaps she surfaces this passage because, while she has married a man she loves, she knows what happens to Desdemona. “Unknown fate” lies ahead. The computer expert’s prediction that authors will become obsolete (“These babies are going to be writing better books.”) reenforces her fear that she’s expendable.

Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee”

This allusion doesn’t appear to have thematic significance but one can understand why the young Caleb would respond to Poe’s poem. Caleb is probably drawn to the poem’s hypnotic rhythm and, in addition, he recently lost his mother. She presumably is buried on the island where they live, not far from “the sounding sea.”

I also include the passage because it reminds me of how my father ritually read a poem to my brothers and me—one for each of us—every night before we went to bed:

[Her new stepchildren] enjoyed, in fact, all rituals. They were like some prehistoric tribe, the way they found meaning in the repetition of acts. Once Vida had read “Annabel Lee” to Caleb before bed and now he wanted a poem read to him every night.

James Joyce, Ulysses

At one point Vida finds herself channeling stately, plump Buck Mulligan from Ulysses but she can’t figure out why:

When I makes tea I makes tea and when I makes water I makes water. Buck Mulligan imitating that old lady—Old Mother Gowan? Grisby?—and she couldn’t get it out of her head. It was a habit from childhood, letting a senseless cluster of words get lodged like that.

Later, as she frolics in the Pacific Ocean, she speculates that her recollection of Joyce signaled her desire for the water:

“It’s freezing!” Peter cried and leapt away.

“It’s the ‘scrotum-tightening sea!” she screamed and waded in farther, lifting her dress up over her knees.

“What!” Peter said, laughing.

Perhaps it was for this moment that she’d been remembering Joyce all week.

In the scene that follows, Peter thinks he’s lost her in the waves for a moment but then he sees her as Leopold Bloom sees Gerty sporting on the Sandymount Strand, an image of sudden beauty. Like Bloom, Peter feels restored:

Then he saw her, bobbing in the chaos, her hair pressed down around her face, her mouth open, laughing, saying something to him that the noise of the sea carried off. She was young, he saw now, with freckles across her cheeks. In all his imaginings he’d never guessed that his mother had gotten hurt. Always in in his mind there had been love on his father’s die, and sadness when she could not love him back. There had always been that man in his yard, raking leaves and waiting. Peter saw now that maybe that man was himself. Maybe he was the one who’d been waiting.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

I read The Waves too long ago to figure out how King is using Woolf’s novel, which provides her with her epigraph:

Life is beginning. I now break into my hoard of life.

I can say that The English Teachers end, with what feels like a very Woolfian “moment of being,” stepping through the wave-like flux of existence to achieve a transcendent moment. She need not worry about the future–her fear of being abandoned–but can just accept what she has now:

But Vida had not had near enough [happiness]. Oh God, she thought, nearly unable to reckon with the vastness of the moment. This is it and I am right here. This is what there is.

Odyssey, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn

After his own epic journey across the country, when he drives his ailing mother from New Jersey to California without a driver’s license, Peter sees these three epics in a new light:

It was all about courage. To live even a day on this earth required courage. All these things they read in school—The Odyssey, Beowulf Huckleberry Finn—were all about courage, but the teacher never said, You may not have to kill a Cyclops or a dragon but you will need just as much courage to get through each day.

Given how Peter and his mother fight with inner demons throughout the novel, I find it interesting that the first two works may be the two foremost works of literature dealing with monsters—and that, seen symbolically, the monsters are interior states of mind. The Odyssey is about a man fighting to maintain his identity as a Greek king in the face of various threats and temptations that threaten to derail him. This helps explain why so many of the monsters threaten to swallow him up, either literally (the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Laestrygonians, the Sirens) or metaphorically (the Lotus Eaters, Circe, Calypso). Beowulf, meanwhile, deals with the monstrous rage that threatens us from within.

Huckleberry Finn is ultimately about remaining integrous. All three dramas speak to the heart of adolescent rites of passage.

HardyTess of the d’Urbervilles

Finally, here’s a Tess allusion I missed in yesterday’s post. Vida’s Angel Clare, it turns out, is not Tom. It is Peter, who she worries will leave her once he discovers the truth about his father. When she tells him, however, the result is much different than what it is in the novel:

She was terrified he’d take his arms away. Stay stay stay. He was the only skin she had. Everything else was gone. Stay. She had no more words, no more energy left to push them out. This was the last time he would ever come near her, she was sure of it. He’d never truly forgive. He was Angel, she saw now, like in her dream. He would leave her. Stay, she cried. The sun rose higher and hotter and the waves grew even larger, rising to thin tremulous ridges before smacking the rocks. And Peter stayed.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he whispered. I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

Posted in Beowulf Poet, Eliot (T.S.), Faulkner (William), Hardy (Thomas), Homer, Joyce (James), King (Lily), Poe (Edgar Allan), Shakespeare, Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An English Teacher as Tess

Gemma Arterton as Tess

Gemma Arterton as Tess

It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel in which I encounter myself as directly as I did in Lily King’s The English Teacher (2005). I’ll be writing on it for the next two or three days and, as I will be including spoilers, I suggest that you skip the blog posts if there’s any chance that you’ll read it. You can always return to my essays later. Middle and high school English teachers will especially love this book.

I identify deeply with Vida Avery Belou, the English teacher of the title, because of the way that she lives her life through literature. She regularly teaches Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892), and as English Teacher unfolds, we come to realize that her own life lines up with that of Tess. This explains her ambivalent feelings about the novel. In today’s post, I lay out the ways in which their lives run parallel.

We learn early on that Vida has come to resent teaching Tess but feels wedded to it because her classes on it have become legendary:

She hated teaching Tess, though for years she had been told it was her signature book. The expectations of reading Tess with Mrs. Avery sophomore year was reenacted in skits and referred to in yearbooks. It lived on in countless mentions by reminiscing alumni in the tri-annual bulletin. But for Vida, the book was a torture. She had never cared about that overly naïve, peony-mouthed girl who is buffeted by a series of impossible coincidences from one gloomy town to another and across four hundred and sixteen pages before she gets her just deserts at the scaffold.

That last sentence stopped me in my tracks and not just because I had to check whether King spells “deserts” correctly (she does). Few readers see Tess’s end as in any way deserved.

Vida’s students certainly don’t. In fact, many are drawn to the book because they feel the need to defend Tess against their teacher. The passage continues on:

She did have an appreciation for Hardy’s descriptions and his worries about the effects of the Industrial Age on the land and its people. She used to believe it was her discussions of this “ache of modernism” that made the book meaningful to her students, but she had come to realize that it was her own lack of sympathy for the girl that galvanized them. By the end their attachment to Tess herself was fierce, and their devastation at her demise profound.

Kudos to Vida for figuring out why her students respond as they do. Even with this understanding, however, she continues to attack Tess, especially for getting pregnant. This, of course, was what made the book controversial to Victorian readers. Or rather, those readers were scandalized that Hardy subtitled his novel A Pure Woman after having such a scene occur. The problem is whether the sex is consensual and, even if it is not, why Tess stays with Alex for “some few weeks subsequent.” If you don’t know the book or if you need reminding, here’s the relevant passage:

“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.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm. 

On a humorous note, King has the teacher’s son entirely miss that sexual intercourse has occurred:

He hated Tess of the d’Urbervilles. There were so many words and so few of them were interesting. He wished for once they could read something pertinent to the life of a teenager in the twentieth century. He quickly fell behind in the assignments, and on the third day of class with his mother, he learned that Tess had had a baby. He searched for the scene of conception but found nothing. A kid next to him told him it happened with Alec d’Urberville in the woods at the end of chapter eleven. He read the pages, but all he could find was that they were lost in the dark, and Alec made a pile of leaves for her to sit on while he went to look for a landmark. Birds were roosting and rabbits hopping, and Tess was asleep when he returned. Peter waited for someone braver, someone whose mother was not teaching the class, whose crush of four years was not two seats diagonally to the left, to ask exactly what had happened. But no one did.

Other students argue with his mother, however. I quote at length because these are the kinds of classroom discussions I dream of:

“What name does he give the baby?” his mother asked. She looked around for other hands, then called on Helen, who had all the answers. She always did; even back in first grade [Peter] remembered her lone arm in the air.

“Sorrow,” Helen said. And without waiting for his mother to ask why, she continued, “Because he was the result of her rape.”

His mother narrowed her eyes and tipped her head. He knew the gesture well, and so did Helen.

“She was raped. Alec raped her that night in the woods,” Helen insisted.

“A statement like that is insulting to my intelligence.”

From the four corners of the classroom the girls piped up in defense of Helen’s theory. “But she loathed Alec d’Urberville.”

“And she was asleep.”

“She wasn’t even conscious.”

“She never even wanted him to kiss her.”

“But she let him,” his mother said.

“That was only because he was making the horse go so fast and only said he’d stop if he could kiss her. And she wiped it off after.”

“She let him kiss her, regardless of the reason.”

“But Mrs. Belou,” Helen began, and Peter could hear in her voice how determined she was to make her point. She’d underlined practically a whole page and was holding it close to her face, her left fingers marking three different spots. “Listen to what it says here: ‘But, some might say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the Providence of her simple faith?’ and then he says she was ‘doomed,’ that it was a ‘catastrophe,’ that her ancestors had probably ‘dealt the same measure’ toward some peasant girls.”

“And if you look two pages later you will find Tess herself admitting to Alec that she loathes herself for her ‘weakness.’ She says, ‘My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all.’ And then, a few pages further on, the narrator says that she had been “stirred to confused surrender awhile.’” His mother hadn’t even taken her book out of her bag yet. She knew it all by heart.

Helen retaliated. “Then why does he say, ‘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.’ He’s calling what Alec did a sin, the sin of rape.”

“Don’t you have to say no out loud for it to be rape?” Kristina asked. Her boyfriend, Brian Rossi, gave her a nudge and a proud smirk.

“She’s been saying no to Alec d’Urberville from the moment she met him!” Helen slammed the book on her desk.

“But she was just doing that thing that girls do,” the new kid, Kevin, said.

What thing?” several of the girls asked in the same indignant tone.

“You know,” Kevin continued, loving the sudden attention. “Saying no to get you to really want it from them.” Peter stole a glance at his mother, thinking she’d be ready to blow. But instead of getting ready to stop him, instead of even looking at Kevin, she was looking at Peter, as if he were the one who was talking. “I mean, how hard is it to avoid getting raped?” Kevin continued. “All you have to do is keep your clothes on. Any girl who gets raped secretly wanted it. She might think afterwards she didn’t, but at the time she did.”

Vica then does blow but not for the reasons that Peter and we think she will. Instead she sounds like Camille Paglia and others who blame young women for their own rapes:

“I don’t want to hear another word on this subject,” she said. “Not another word. I am sick to death of you people coming here year after year and whining about what happens to Tess. A senseless nitwit of a girl in the woods at night with a proven lecher is not rape. It’s stupidity.”

Lindsey put up her hand. “But—“

“Goddammit. I don’t want to hear your buts. Get out of here. All of you. Right now.”

This is not recommended pedagogical practice but at least a couple of things go very well. First of all, the students engage in close textual reading, combing through the text to make their arguments. Second, the students have an investment in the discussion. It’s not like the class Vida imagines having on Hemingway with her senior class:

Her seniors came in, the boys with their size 12 feet, the girls in their mothers’ expensive blouses, slapping down their copies of The Sun also Rises on their desks. She was grateful for the shift to Hemingway, to Spain, to characters who would remain characters, silly drunken characters who mattered nothing to her.

Even if she has succeeded in generating a real discussion, however, Vida is not being the adult her students need. In fact, we come to learn that she is in the early stages of a major mental breakdown, prompted by years of repressing memories of her own rape. She herself is Tess.

Her desire to see Tess as responsible for her rape, then, is her need to believe that she herself was not powerless when she was raped, even though she was. She attacks Tess for embodying what she believes was her own weakness.

The breakdown is triggered by her marriage to a good man. The hardness that she has cultivated her entire life, including her hardness against Tess, is threatened by her new feelings of vulnerability. She senses this vulnerability in her new reading of Tess:

Her students rattled her in a way they didn’t used to. And the material, once so easily intellectualized, seemed to writhe under her inspection of it. Even Hardy, whose theories of Darwinism, religion, and social codes were as cold and straightforward as mathematics, was becoming a sensualist, with all those disgusting passages she’d never noticed before about the oozing fatness and rushing juices of summer, the dripping cheeses in the dairy where Tess takes refuge after her baby dies and meets Angel Clare.

There is something almost comforting in Hardy’s determinism, which absolves individuals of responsibility. Such fatalism, it’s worth noting, aids Tess’s family in absorbing life’s shocks, including the death of their horse and Tess’s pregnancy. But Vida appears to have learned a bad lesson from Tess: If her husband learns about her secret—her rape—some part of her fears that he will respond as Angel responds. After all, how could he love someone so unlovable?

Consequently, she begins to push him away the moment they are married. That way she won’t be so hurt when he leaves her.

If psychological projection were Vida’s only response to Tess, then Hardy’s novel wouldn’t be anything more than a mirror. While holding the mirror up to nature is something that literature does very well and we can gain important self-insight in viewing it as such, Tess has something else to impart. We learn about this in another class debate, this one about whether Tess should keep her rape a secret.

At one point, Vida acknowledges that one can grow in powerful ways from tragedy, and it is significant that she tells this to her son, the product of the rape. Again I quote at length from the discussion, which hits Vida at her core:

“I think she was so stupid to have told him. They could have gone to a different part of England and he never would have found out,” Kristina said.

“But it would always be there in her heart, eating away at her,” Helen said.

“I think it was selfish of her. She like ruined this guy’s wedding night.”

“He ruined it. He couldn’t forgive her.”

Vida interrupted the two girls. “You have to understand Angel’s point of view. Tess was a poor, uneducated, unreligious girl. Purity was her only asset, the only way he could justify her to his parents.”

“She wanted to start the marriage honestly, no secrets.”

Vida was sick of Helen’s whining. She looked to the back, careful to avoid Peter in the corner, who actually seemed to be paying attention…Caroline was beside him and hadn’t spoken in several days. She caught the girl’s eye. “What are your thoughts, Peter?” Peter? Had she truly said Peter?

Caroline, whose mouth had opened slightly in preparation, turned in relief to her left.

“I don’t think you can have a real relationship with someone without being truthful.”

“But Tess’s ‘truth’ isn’t true, Peter,” Vida said calmly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He glared at her, defiant.

“The subtitle of this book is A Pure Woman. Tess is no less pure in her encounter with Alex d’Urberville. In fact, it is what she learns from her experience with Alec and losing her baby that makes her so intriguing to Angel. He doesn’t love her for her innocence. He loves her for her depth of feeling and knowledge, which comes from her experiences. ‘Tess’s corporal blight was her mental harvest,’ Hardy writes.”

The rest of the discussion doesn’t go as well but Vida has hit on something. She too has picked up depth of feeling and knowledge from her experience. This depth is what makes her a great teacher and it is what draws her husband to her.

Vida is not home free yet, however. She cannot have a “real relationship” with either her husband or her son until she faces up to her rape. To do that, she must step outside of literature.

But in part because she has read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Vida, unlike Tess, can see other options for herself. She visits a therapist and acknowledges her fears of losing her son over anger at his father. She begins to acknowledge that women can be victims and informs the school authorities that a predatory theatre teacher has been sleeping with students. (Earlier she had essentially decided that it was their fault and “none of her business.”) And she begins writing her husband, whom she has left.

Ultimately, she is able to tell Peter the story of his conception and she writes to Tom asking her to join her. (Her letters are healthier than the ones Tess writes to Angel.) The secret is out and, rather than costing her the relationships she longs for, acknowledging it saves them. Her reward is a non-Hardy ending:

She pressed her mouth to the warm stubble on the back of Tom’s neck. Desire rose easily. He’d waited, and had come when she asked. And yet she did not feel as Tess had felt when Angel finally came. Unlike Tess, her urge was not to die. This happiness was too much, Tess said. I have had enough. But Vida had not had near enough. Oh God, she thought, nearly unable to reckon with the vastness of the moment. This is it and I am right here. This is what there is.

Think of The English Teacher as Tess’s do-over.

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The Spirit Moves in Continual Creation

Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings

Spiritual Sunday 

Dana Greene, a former colleague and author of a book on Denise Levertov, has now embarked on a biography of Elizabeth Jennings, a British religious poet popular in the 1930s. Jennings was a friend of J. R. R. Tolkien—both were Catholics—and Dana says that she had a wonderful talk with Tolkien’s daughter about her.

As Jennings was unfamiliar to me, I went in search of her poems. I came across the following lyric about the creator spirit:

A Chorus

By Elizabeth Jennings

Over the surging tides and the mountain kingdoms,
Over the pastoral valleys and the meadows,
Over the cities with their factory darkness,
Over the lands where peace is still a power,
Over all these and all this planet carries
A power broods, invisible monarch, a stranger
To some, but by many trusted. Man’s a believer
Until corrupted. This huge trusted power
Is spirit. He moves in the muscle of the world,
In continual creation. He burns the tides, he shines
From the matchless skies. He is the day’s surrender.
Recognize him in the eye of the angry tiger,
In the sign of a child stepping at last into sleep,
In whatever touches, graces and confesses,
In hopes fulfilled or forgotten, in promises

Kept, in the resignation of old men—
This spirit, this power, this holder together of space
Is about, is aware, is working in your breathing.
But most he is the need that shows in hunger
And in the tears shed in the lonely fastness.
And in sorrow after anger.

Jennings appears to focus more on the small aspects of existence than the large. While God may be an “invisible monarch,” unknown to some but trusted by others, Jennings is most interested in how God shows up in tiny moments–the quiet close of a day, the eye of a tiger, a child falling to sleep, a promise kept. The tiger and the child may be allusions to Blake, who also saw in them the hand of God.

The poem ends with images of “tears shed in the lonely fastness./And in sorrow after anger.” Jennings suffered from severe depression, so the hunger she mentions may allude to the human heart, which longs for but finds it difficult to open itself to love and forgiveness. God is in that longing and in the renewal that comes through the shedding of tears and through feelings of remorse.

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Worshipping the Gods of Fermented Fruit


Among the many benefits of my recent trip to Peru were new insights into the literature I teach. For instance, my encounter with Peru’s locally brewed corn beer, known as chica, has given me an appreciation for Teiresias’ encomium on wine in The Bacchae.

We visited a small bar in Urubamba (in the Sacred Valley of the Incas) to learn how chica is made. We sampled both plain and strawberry chica, the latter known as frutillada. Plain chica costs about 33 cents a glass while frutillada is twice that.

While the alcohol content isn’t high, from what I can tell the Andean farmers drink it non-stop. This is understandable given how hard they work. Much of the sowing and reaping is done manually, and pack animals are often used to transport the crops.

With this in mind, I looked up Euripides’ play when I returned. Here is Teiresias chastising King Pentheus for disrespecting Dionysus:

This new God whom you dismiss,
no words of mine can attain
the greatness of his coming power in Greece. Young man,
two are the forces most precious to mankind.
The first is Demeter, the Goddess.
She is the Earth—or any name you wish to call her—
and she sustains humanity with solid food.
Next came the son of the virgin, Dionysus,
bringing the counterpart to bread, wine
and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
His blood, the blood of the grape,
lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
When, after their daily toils, men drink their fill,
sleep comes to them, bringing release from troubles.
there is no other cure for sorrow.

As far as I could tell, the Peruvian farmers don’t wait until after their daily toils are done to drink their fill, and I suspect they have other cures than chica for their sorrows. In fact, people generally seemed cheerful. But they certainly regard chica as a blessing and maybe chica helps explain their attitude.

I also saw a version in Peru of Teiresias’ praise of Demeter. Our guide spoke frequently of his reverence for “the Mother”—the male sun and the female moon were paired in Incan religion—and the Virgin Mary appears to have merged with the Incan fertility goddess Pachamama in Peruvian Catholicism.

Perhaps one can compare Pentheus to the Spaniards, insisting on their sky god at the expense of fertility earth gods. On the other hand, while I know very little about Peru’s religious history, I sense that the Spanish were less rigid than Pentheus. For instance, unlike Pentheus they allowed raucous dancing to continue. The Feast of Corpus Christi resembles the old celebrations of the 14 Incan emperors only the Spanish smartly substituted 14 Christian saints while keeping everything else the same. Maybe it’s because the Peruvians were allowed to hold on to many of their Incan religious symbols and traditions that the Spaniards didn’t suffer Pentheus’ fate.

But I began this post with beer so let me end it there. My students are always very intrigued by the idea of worshipping a god of fermented fruit.

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The Color Purple and a Texas Pool Party

Oprah as Sophia mouthing off to the mayor's wife

Oprah as Sophia standing up to the mayor in “Color Purple”

The disturbing instance of an out-of-control cop at a McKinney, Texas teenage pool party has even conservative columnist Katherine Parker of the Washington Post asking, “What in God’s name is wrong with our cops?” Meanwhile, the incident got me thinking about a scene from The Color Purple. Doing so has revealed a silver lining to the whole affair.

First we must acknowledge the seriousness of what happened, however. Apparently there was a graduation party and black residents of the neighborhood invited their friends to the pool. According to them, they used guest passes to allow others in. Nevertheless, it disturbed some of the white residents, and two white women set off a commotion by shouting racist slurs. To quote Parker,

What has been reported is that the original melee, which had ended by the time police arrived, may have been prompted by two white women hurling racial slurs when a crowd of teens, mostly black, arrived for a cookout at the private, planned-community pool.

“Go back to [your] Section 8 home,” one of them reportedly said, according to the party’s host, a teenager who lives in the pool’s neighborhood.

When the police showed up, things got worse. According to The Washington Post, video footage shows Officer Casebolt “manhandling, arresting and drawing his gun on a group of black children outside a pool party.”


Casebolt can be seen running through the confused crowd of teenagers while swearing and appearing to randomly handcuff teenagers, who protested that they’d just arrived at the scene to attend the pool party.

Eventually Casebolt’s fellow officers calmed him down.

As the Daily Show wryly commented, the incident represented progress in that no one was shot.

I too think there are positives that one can take away but I say so from a historical perspective. Walker shows us only too vividly what might well have happened in the past when blacks didn’t show whites the respect that the latter felt was their due. Sophia, Harpo’s ex-wife, tries to hold her tongue when the mayor’s wife patronizes her and her children but eventually finds herself pushed past her limits. Celie, the novel’s narrator, describes what happens next:

She [the mayor’s wife] say to Sofia, All your children so clean, she say, would you like to work for me, be my maid?

Sophia say, Hell no.

She say, What you say?

Sofia say, hell no.

Mayor look at Sofia, push his wife out the way. Stick out his chest. Girl, what you say to Miss Millie.

Sofia say, I say, Hell no.

He slap her.

And then:

Sofia knock the man down.

The polices come, start slinging the children off the mayor, bang they heads together. Sofia really start to fight. They drag her to the ground

This far as I can go with it, look like. My eyes git full of water and my throat close.

We can thank God and Martin Luther King that what happens to Sophia did not happen to anyone at the pool party:

When I see Sofia I don’t know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot. Her tongue the size of my arm. It stick out tween her teef like a piece of rubber. She can’t talk. And she just about the color of a eggplant.

The incident stands out in The Color Purple because most of the novel deals with relations within the black community, not between blacks and whites. Walker is taking lessons from her model Zora Neale Hurston in this regard. Nevertheless, she inserts Sophie’s mauling to remind us that racism backed by force still rules the day.

Now note the contrasts. As reprehensible as the Texas incident was, at least the police did not operate with the same sense of impunity. Yes, Casebolt handled the situation much differently than he would have had all the participants been white. Yes, the police probably would not have been called in at all if everyone had been white. Yes, there were people hurling racist slurs, and yes, the police might have gotten away with their unnecessary violence had there been no cell phone video.

But Office Casebolt has resigned, and enough of the country has expressed repugnance that few are defending the police.

With all the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of cops, it has become fashionable to say that the Civil Rights movement changed little. To refute that, one only need recall what would have happened in the old days.

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Neruda on Machu Picchu’s Healing Powers

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

One of my tour companions during a trip to Peru alerted me to a long Pablo Neruda poem about visiting Machu Picchu in 1943. Experiencing a world-weary angst, Neruda describes how he was revitalized by the visit. “Heights of Macchu Picchu” (Neruda spells it with an extra “c”) is a difficult high modernist poem but reading it enhanced my own visit.

First of all, a confession. High modernism—the highly allusive and experimental literature written between the two world wars—is the literary period that eludes me the most. I’ve tried really hard but have failed to fully engage with such works as the late poems of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce’s Ulysses (I’ve read it twice), Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Neruda owes a lot to Eliot and there is much about “Heights of Macchu Picchu” that I do not understand.

The poem begins with a spiritually drained Neruda seeking to locate humanity’s nobility and coming up short. He sadly concludes that urban life and industrial society have diminished us. At one point he notes that

not one death but many come to each,
each day a little death: dust, maggot, lamp,
drenched in the mire of suburbs, a little death with fat wings
entered into each man like a short blade
and siege was laid on him by bread or knife…
all of them ominous dwindling each day
was like a black cup they trembled while they drained.

Neruda would like to experience humanity in its bigness, not in its smallness:

I wished to swim in the most ample lives,
the widest estuaries…

Unfortunately, he instead finds that “Man” has closed himself off to the poet:

little by little…denying me,
closing his paths and doors so that I could not touch
his wounded inexistence with my divining fingers…

The first five cantos all proceed along this line. Neruda describes himself, in his despair, reduced to a hovel-like existence.

The mood changes in Canto VI, however, as a result of Neruda’s vision to Machu Picchu. The “ladder of the earth” is the extraordinary terraces one encounters at the site and throughout the Andes. The “two lineages that had run parallel” are nature’s cycle of life and humanity:

Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you Macchu Picchu.

Tall city of stepped stone
home at long last of whatever earth
had never hidden in her sleeping clothes.
In you two lineages that had run parallel
met when the cradle both of man and light
rocked in a wind of thorns.

Mother of stone and sperm of condors.

High reef of the human dawn.

Spade lost in the primordial sand.

Neruda’s birth images point to new hope. I learned on my trip that condors were revered by the Incas as symbols of freedom while the image of the city as an emerging reef in a sea of clouds signals a new revelation. The Temple of the Sun looks out upon the human dawn, a cradle where man and light, the two lineages, are “rocked in a wind of thorns.” (In the Whitmanesque image of the rocking cradle, Neruda acknowledges, like Whitman, that the winds can blow cold and that the new dawn is not without pain and hardship.) The rest of the earth may have been sleeping but Machu Picchu is not asleep. The sands of time may have buried everything else but a lost spade is digging out the city. Neruda’s faith in human beings has returned.

Machu Picchu for Neruda is the magnificence of nature joined with the magnificence of human endeavor, and I too was awed by both the architectural marvels and the mountains that soar on either side of them. Machu Picchu is not so much about humans conquering nature, despite the mind-boggling feat of cutting away the mountain and carting up large boulders to construct seamless temples. Machu Picchu feels more as if humans are mirroring nature’s grandeur.

Neruda sees all the stages of human life wound up in the ancient city. The Incas, focused like the Egyptians on life after death, looked to touch the earth in profound ways so that they might recognize it after they died:

The fleece of the vicuna was carded here
to clothe men’s loves in gold, the tombs and mothers,
the king, the prayers, the warriors.

Up here men’s feet found rest at night
near eagle’s talons in the high
meat-stuffed eyries. And in the dawn
with thunder steps they trod the thinning mists
touching the earth and stones that they might recognize
that touch come night, come death.

The civilization did not last, of course, and Neruda, a socialist whose heart is with collective humankind, sees the Incas as having died a big death, hurled from the ramparts into an abyss whose depth matched their greatness. (In point of fact, the Incas were not hurled from Machu Picchu, but such executions did in fact happen elsewhere.) Though the Incas no longer exist as a civilization, their greatness continues on:

You no longer exist: spider fingers, final
threads, tangled cloth—everything you were
dropped away: customs and tattered
syllables, the dazzling masks of light.

And yet a permanence of stone and language
upheld the city raised like a chalice
in all those hands: live, dead and stilled,
aloft with so much death, a well, with so much life,
struck with flint petals: the everlasting rose, our home,
this reef on Andes, its glacial territories.

The chalice, which contrasts with the black cup tremblingly drunk by little people earlier in the poem, points towards the Last Supper and the promise of resurrection. It is lifted high in death–the blood of the crucifixion–yet it is deep, a life-promising well. We have reason to believe in humankind after all.

Neruda has one last major idea. He is a poet of the common man and the Incas who receive credit for Machu Picchu are the Incan emperors, beginning with the great Pachacuti, the man who conceived of Machu Picchu and began the construction. But what about all those “little” lives who dragged the stones and set them upon one another? The workers who suffered hardship to build Machu Picchu have had their stories erased:

Macchu Picchu, did you lift
stone upon stone on a groundwork of rags?
coal upon coal and, at the bottom, tears?
fire-crested gold, and in that gold, the bloat
dispenser of this blood?

Let me have back the slave you buried here!

Neruda lets us know that he is here to speak for these forgotten men and women:

I come to speak for your dead mouths.

Speak through my speech and through my blood.

Forgotten though they are, Neruda sees the silent ones as big because they were involved in this great enterprise. In other words, the pessimism about humanity that drags him down at the beginning of the poem has given way to new confidence. It was weak in him to lose sight of humanity’s greatness and, feeling renewed, he knows he can step up and be a spokesperson for the workers of the world. In other words, Machu Picchu has given him back his mojo.

Last week I learned that the lost Incan city has that effect on people.

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A Guide’s Conradian Revenge Fantasy


I have just returned from a 10-day trip to Peru and have several posts planned about the excursion, one of the great experiences of my life. Today I am writing about an incident recounted by our guide Ronaldo Quispe that reminded me of a scene in Heart of Darkness. I wonder if the scene could function as a revenge fantasy for all guides who find themselves tormented by their charges.

As I tell Ronaldo’s story, see if those of you familiar with Conrad’s novella can identify the scene I have in mind.

Ronaldo, who is from the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco, said that in his youth he would take visitors along the Incan trail on a four-day three-night excursion to the lost city of Machu Picchu, one of the “New7Wonders of the World.” The second day of that trip is the hardest, involving a steep descent followed by an even steeper ascent. Ronaldo said that he had one member of the group so intent on “being first” that she would run on ahead every time.

Her hurry cost her, however, as she sprained her ankle. Ronaldo wanted her to return to Cuzco rather than attempt the daunting journey ahead. She said that she paid her money, however, and so insisted that she see Machu Picchu. Always the problem solver (as I discovered), Ronaldo persuaded the porters to carry her, which they did. Ronaldo said that the lady rode into Machu Picchu like a queen while the porters were absolutely shot.

Here’s the corresponding story in Heart of Darkness. The narrator is relating his journey into the Belgian Congo: 

I had a white companion, too, not a bad chap, but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like a parasol over a man’s head while he is coming to. I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. ‘To make money, of course. What do you think?’ he said, scornfully. Then he got fever, and had to be carried in a hammock slung under a pole. As he weighed sixteen stone I had no end of rows with the carriers. They jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night—quite a mutiny. So, one evening, I made a speech in English with gestures, not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me, and the next morning I started the hammock off in front all right. An hour afterwards I came upon the whole concern wrecked in a bush—man, hammock, groans, blankets, horrors. The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of a carrier near. 

While our group did not cause problems of this magnitude, nevertheless there were times when we must have tried the patience of our guides. I myself raised anxieties when I got separated from the group during Cuzco’s raucous Corpus Christi celebration, where the towering statues of 14 saints are paraded through town and then presented to the statue of Christ in the Cathedral. The festival also involves a lot of corn beer and grilled guinea pig. I had stepped into the street to photograph St. Christopher, struck that he has not been stripped of his saint status here as he has been elsewhere, and I couldn’t find my group’s sign when I looked back. I finally bumbled my way back to the hotel—no small feat as I didn’t know its name, didn’t know the city, and don’t speak Spanish—and learned that our assistant guide Alexandra had been frantic with worry.

(For the record, St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, got me out of trouble after first getting me into it: he reminded me that my hotel key card had the hotel’s name and address on it, and I showed that to a taxi driver.)

I wasn’t the only one who caused problems. Others got sick, left coats and backpacks behind, retained keys that needed to be returned, etc. etc.

Our guides were unfailingly polite, no doubt operating under the principle that the tips we gave would be larger if they never appeared to judge us. I wondered, however, whether,they secretly fantasized about dumping the whole lot of us into the Andean wilderness and running off.

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Pound’s Description of a Long Marriage

Mary Wallace, "The River Merchant's Wife"

Mary Wallace, “The River Merchant’s Wife”

I am returning from Peru today on my wedding anniversary so here’s a poem for Julia. We have been married for 42 years.

Ezra Pound’s “River-Merchant’s Wife,” which I first encountered in high school, has become ever more meaningful as my own marriage has evolved and matured. In the early years, as in the poem, we were as children. I identify with those tiny moments that make up a marriage, such as when the wife imagines her dust being mingled with her husband’s (which is to say, accepting that they are in the relationship for the long haul) and when she notes him dragging his feet when he leaves her. My own feet dragged as I left on this Peru trip and metaphorical monkeys made sorrowful noise overhead.

Julia and I are growing older—the paired butterflies are yellow with August—and in our case the grass, not the moss, is growing. But Julia promises that she will come out to meet me. As far as Dulles Airport. 

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

After Li Po

By Ezra Pound

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.   
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.   
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
                       As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

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Opening of Eyes Long Closed

Domenico Fetti, "Moses before the Burning Bush"

Domenico Fetti, “Moses before the Burning Bush”

Spiritual Sunday

I recently discovered the poetry of David Whyte and love “The Opening of the Eyes.” In Whyte’s vision, the world is not some Platonic shadow of the divine. Rather God is all around us, now, and we have but to open our eyes. If we pay attention, we will see that the bush is burning and that God is speaking to us. We think that God is elsewhere but, when we take off our shoes to enter heaven, we find that God is the ground on which we are already standing.

The Opening of Eyes

David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds 
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

From Songs for Coming Home (Many Rivers Press, 1984).

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The Explosion of Summer

Matisse, "Landscape"

Matisse, “Landscape”

Here’s a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem to usher us into summer. Note how all the world awaits breathlessly—and then the sun shines and everything explodes. Enjoy:

Summer in the South

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Oriole sings in the greening grove 
As if he were half-way waiting, 
The rosebuds peep from their hoods of green, 
Timid, and hesitating. 
The rain comes down in a torrent sweep 
And the nights smell warm and pinety, 
The garden thrives, but the tender shoots 
Are yellow-green and tiny. 
Then a flash of sun on a waiting hill, 
Streams laugh that erst were quiet, 
The sky smiles down with a dazzling blue 
And the woods run mad with riot. 

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Satan: Freedom Fighter Turned Dictator

Gustave Dore, Satan addresses the Council of Hell

Gustave Dore, Satan addresses the Council of Hell

One of my students, while serving an internship in Maryland’s state capitol, discovered in my British Literature survey that Milton has something important to say about politicians. Satan, Michael Adams argued in his essay for the course, is a perfect example of someone who spouts populist rhetoric but is really only out for himself.

Recipient of a scholarship set up by former Maryland governor Donald Schaefer, Michael was in Annapolis a lot this past semester. It therefore made sense for him to examine Satan’s leadership style.

Many students admire Satan, of course. But they admire him for the same reasons that people admire demagogues: he is bold and charismatic and he speaks a language that mixes liberation and grievance. Think of him as a Mussolini, a Mao or a Castro.

Or a Cromwell. Milton admired Cromwell as long as he was espousing republican ideals. When, however, he began assuming dictatorial powers, the poet became disillusioned. The poem, written after Cromwell had died and Charles II had been restored to the throne, tries to figure out what went wrong.

Michael noted that Satan is very good at speaking about liberty and freedom:

Characterized by lofty, grandiose rhetoric and frequent use of rhetorical questions, the speech is clearly reminiscent of political rhetoric. Milton’s visually rich poetry makes it easy to imagine Satan at a lectern before his followers, gesturing wildly and delivering this rousing speech.

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power,
Who from the terror of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal
War Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heaven.

Michael noted how the speech is indeed impressive:

Here, like any political leader must after a heavy loss, Satan is rallying his troops and insisting that the fight is not yet over. “All is not lost,” Satan tells his followers, insisting that he has not lost his will, his desire for revenge, his hatred, or his courage. “And what is else not to be overcome?” he asks, as in, “If we still have this, then God has not won at all.” The real shame, Satan insists, would be “to bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee.” This loss is less shameful than that would be, and Satan and his followers can wage “eternal war” against one who now sits above “in th’ excess of joy” and exerting “the Tyranny of Heaven.”

Of course, God-as-tyrant is Satan’s spin. Satan reveals his true colors when he sets himself up as a monarch:

Till at last
Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais’d
Above his fellows, with Monarchal pride:
Conscious of highest worth, unmov’d thus spake…

About which Michael wrote,

While in Book I Satan is portrayed as an authentic leader, now his power comes from a throne and “transcendent glory,” which sets him above his former equals. He exhibits “Monarchal pride,” perhaps the most damaging of all possible descriptors for a political leader in Milton’s eyes, since it implies that Satan now believes himself to be divinely sovereign, imposing himself on what is reserved for God alone. Satan is then referred to as “The Monarch” throughout the rest of the work, for instance when he calls a war council.

Michael demonstrated how Satan carefully engineers this supposedly open meeting of war lords:

After various figures have stood and offered their opinions, Satan goes last and offers his plan of taking heaven through the corruption of Man. Milton writes,

Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, lest from his resolution rais’d
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refus’d) what erst they fear’d;
And so refus’d might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn. But they
Dreaded not more th’ adventure then his voice
Forbidding; and at once with him they rose…

While Satan initially presents himself as an advocate for fairer, more republican discourse, now he rules like a tyrant, forbidding any response or criticism after he has spoken. Not only does he disallow feedback, but also his potential rivals hold back, unwilling to offer any because they “dreaded his voice forbidding.” With his rise to the kingship of Hell, Satan…now mirrors the very “tyranny of Heav’n” that he wishes to overthrow.

Lest we have doubts, Michael pointed out that Satan all but confesses his true aims in his moment of doubt in Book IV:

The disparity between Satan’s private misgivings and his radical public certainty is typical of disingenuous politicians who use inflated rhetoric and charisma to manipulate others to their own advantage. Satan, in a moment of honesty, acknowledges that his cause is not motivated by genuine ideals but only by blind ambition, hubris, and thirst for more power.

After showing how politicians can go bad, Michael then set forth what Milton says they should do instead. Michael, incidentally, is Jewish, so when he talks about following the Holy Spirit and espousing “Christian faith,” he is using Milton’s framework. To articulate the idea in non-religious language, one might say that a politician’s primary allegiance is to the public and that he or she must function, above all, as a servant of the people. Here’s Michael:

Paradise Lost can therefore be understood as Milton’s educational guide to the dangers [faced by] political leaders when put in positions of power. In the final Book XII, the Archangel tells Adam how God will send a holy intercessor to protect mankind, saying,

But from Heav’n
He to his own a Comforter [the Holy Spirit] will send,
The promise of the Father, who shall dwell
His Spirit within them, and the Law of Faith
Working through love, upon their hearts shall write,
To guide them in all truth, and also armed
With spiritual Armor, able to resist
Satan’s assaults…

Michael concluded,

Through the perspective of Paradise Lost as a teaching tool, this quote is the ultimate takeaway that Milton wishes students to receive from the lesson. “Law of Faith” and “working through love” is what will “guide them in all truth.” In other words, adherence to Christian doctrine and striving to be Christ-like is what a true political system and political leader should strive for. “Spiritual Armor” is the only protection from “Satan’s assaults.” If Satan is symbolic of political leaders who use their abilities for manipulation rather than public service, then “Spiritual Armor” is symbolic of what Milton believed government was missing: true adherence to Christian faith…

Are you as excited as I am that such a student is planning a life of public service? I like to think that when Satan beckons—as he invariably will whenever power and money are involved—Michael will think back on Milton and will do the right thing.

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

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