Food Is More Than Food for Esquivel


I’ve been teaching Like Water for Chocolate in my Magical Realism course and suddenly have a new insight into the whiskey cake that I have been serving to my students since the early 1980s. Laura Esquivel makes it clear that food is never just food.

One of my mother’s prized recipes has been her whiskey cake, and at the end of every class I serve it to my students. I figure that, by now, over 3000 students have eaten it. My mother gave me the recipe on condition that I not share it, but I now have permission to give it out and am doing so left and right. Most of the hundred copies I made up for my “last lecture” were taken, and I include it at the end of today’s post.

The college filmed me making the cake so, if you want, you can see the video here.

In Like Water for Chocolate, food has magical properties. When Tita, under her mother’s tyrannical orders, gives up Pedro to her sister, she cries into the wedding cake batter, ruining the wedding everyone eating it begins to cry. When she cooks quails in the petals from roses that Pedro gives her, the meal so inflames her other sister that erotic consequences follow, beginning with a shower that Gertrudis takes to cool down:

…the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body: they evaporated before they reached her. Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame. Terrified, she thought she would be burn to death, and she ran out of the little enclosure just as she was, completely naked.

By then the scent of roses given off by her body had traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in a fierce battle. …A pink cloud floated toward [the rebel commander], wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch.

And then:

Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away….The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies as they made love for the first time, at a gallop and with a great deal of difficulty.

On the other hand, when Tita is deprived of her beloved nephew, worms invade sausages that the farm has made. Later, ox-tail soup pulls Tita out of the deep depression into which she has fallen. And so on.

All literature uses figurative language, and in magical realism, the central symbols involve magic It’s as though realistic metaphors don’t give the authors the “oomph” they want so they turn to the supernatural. Food defines Tita, who is the family cook, and to capture her larger-than-life emotions Esquivel makes the food magical.

The other magical realist works I taught this past semester operate the same way. For instance:

–Toni Morrison sees African Americans haunted by their slave past, which wreaks havoc upon their relationships. Therefore, in Beloved the former slaves have their family destroyed by a literal ghost;

–Salman Rushdie believes that India was seized by magical thinking once it gained its independence from Britain. He captures its unrealistic hoping through magical children with special powers who never live up to their potential and who are neutered in the end;

–Gabriel Garcia Marquez feels that Columbia’s historical past has a mythical quality and so, in 100 Years of Solitude, he creates a magical town that is living out a destiny predicted by mystical gypsies;

–Haruki Murakami, seeing that Japan’s repression of its violent past is damaging the psychic lives of the current generation, has his protagonist go down a well and into a mysterious underground hotel, where he confronts a shadow version of Japan’s buried anger.

Esquivel’s novel got me to examine the symbolism of my whiskey cake. I bake it is partly to celebrate the works we have been reading, partly to thank my students for all they have taught me, partly to nourish their bodies as (I hope) I have nourished their minds and their souls.

Since most of my students are under drinking age, the cake has a transgressive dimension, as all great literature does,while its sweetness/tartness echoes the sweetness and light tension that (according to Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, and Jonathan Swift) also characterizes literature.

I can’t say that the cake has a magical dimension except insofar as it has assumed mythical dimensions in the mind of some alumni, the way that St. Mary’s itself has. I imagine my former students eating it as Proust eats his madeleine and being wafted back to what some describe as the happiest period of their lives:

[My mother] sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

For that reason, I am sharing it, even as I think of an experience with a song fragment that Rousseau describes in Confessions. Rousseau couldn’t remember the entire verse but deliberately didn’t track it down because he figured it was far sweeter as a partial memory. Likewise, Proust discovers a second bite doesn’t live up to the first.

So perhaps alums should make the cake, take a single bite, and then give away the rest. In remembrance of times past.

Recipe for Phoebe Bates’s Whiskey Cake

Dirty secret: I cheat by using a cake mix although you of course can make it from scratch if you so desire.


1 yellow cake mix
4 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup whiskey (almost any brand works; I go cheap)
1 cup of chopped walnuts
1 cup of coconut flakes

For the glaze:

1 cup of sugar
1 stick of butter
½ cup of whiskey

–Mix together the mix, the eggs, the oil and the whiskey
–Add the chopped walnuts and mix
–Add the coconut flakes and mix
–Pour into a greased Bundt pan
–Bake at 350 for around 45 minutes
–Melt together the butter, sugar and whiskey
–Spoon over the cake, either while it’s still in the pan or (my preference) after removing it
–Refrigerate (ideally for 2-3 days but it’s good anytime)

Posted in Esquivel (Laura), Proust (Marcel), Rouseau (Jean Jacques) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Public Liberal Arts Education

My Early Brit Lit survey class


I’m not sure whether it’s common to give multiple presentations when one is on the verge of retirement, but such has been the case with me. I blogged Monday about my “last lecture,” and earlier this semester I spoke at our Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. I share the PBK talk below.

 A couple of explanations are in order. As a public liberal arts college and Maryland’s “public honors college,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland is an unusual institution. (Similar colleges include Evergreen in Washington and New College in Florida.) To explain to the inductees the unique vision they will carry with them into the world, I looked at the significance of combining “liberal arts” and “public.” How is St. Mary’s different from private liberal arts colleges such as Carleton, which I attended, and Sewanee, where my father taught?

My remarks, therefore, reach beyond college education to public education in general. The American Dream relies on even poor students having access to high quality education. With state appropriations declining, student college debt rising, income gaps growing, the Dream is under siege.

Phi Beta Kappa speech before the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Zeta Chapter, March 30, 2018

I explore today what it means to go out into the world with a degree from Maryland’s public honors college—its public liberal arts college–because I think that the education you have received here is special. Indeed, I will contend even more: your St. Mary’s College of Maryland education positions you well to fulfill the foundational ideals upon which our republic is based.

Looking at what you have received from your public liberal arts education requires looking at the public part and the liberal arts part. I turn to the liberal arts part first.

Those who study educational systems generally agree that the best undergraduate education in the world occurs at small liberal arts colleges. The liberal arts have long been championed by educators, going back to the trivium and quadrivium taught in medieval universities. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and in those disciplines we see the roots of our Core Curriculum’s four fundamental skills and our arts, humanities, social sciences, science, foreign language, and mathematics requirements.

For Phi Beta Kappa membership, furthermore, you must have demonstrated breadth of study as well as earned good grades. Looking at your records, I see that almost all of you have majored and minored in multiple areas, indicating your interdisciplinary interests.

Studies of America’s community, state, and national leaders, meanwhile, have discovered that disproportionately high numbers of them graduated from small liberal arts colleges. Given that, in any given year, the students attending these colleges could all fit into a large university’s football stadium, these results are astounding. Although books have been written about this subject, I will single out a recent study that Google conducted of its work force, as reported in The Washington Post. According to Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, Google’s founders originally targeted top computer science majors from elite universities as their ideal employees. An internal study, however, caused them to see things differently:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

You are well aware that liberal arts colleges specialize in these skills. Furthermore, your education makes you not only work-ready but world-ready. You have learned how to be a good person, a good partner, a good parent, a good community member, a good citizen and voter, and a good contributor to the global village. Your liberal arts courses and your campus activities will help you cope with adversity, prompt you to reach out to others, and generally guide you towards a more fulfilling life. After all, the faculty and staff have been listening to your passions and your concerns, teaching you how to solve problems, and coaching you to step into the strengths that we see in you.

Speaking as one who has mentored dozens of senior projects, I can say that every one of those projects has been a spiritual as well as an intellectual journey as you have grappled with the issues that you cared most about. The same has been true in my assigned essays: time after time I have seen you embrace the challenges presented by literature and find something meaningful in it. Your other professors report similar stories.

Now for the bad news. While small liberal arts colleges provide the best education, they are also the most expensive education. This should come as no surprise given how labor intensive it all is. I now turn my attention to the public subsidies that make the St. Mary’s vision possible.

When we became a four-year liberal arts college in 1970, our dream was that this superior education should be accessible to all Americans, not just those with economic advantages. The idea didn’t come from nowhere. According to the College’s website, in the very founding of the school as a high school women’s seminary in 1846, tuition and living costs were to be lower than they were at other such schools. After 1868, “the seminary frequently educated up to half of its students—representing every county of the state and each legislative district of Baltimore City—free of charge.”

It therefore makes sense that, when St. Mary’s became a four-year college in 1970, affordability would be key. St. Mary’s would be, as President Renwick Jackson said at the time, “a poor man’s Swarthmore.” Such a vision tapped into the ideal that all men and women are created equal—which is to say, all must have equal opportunity to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before I look at the challenges faced by such a model, let’s look at what you have learned at a school with this vision. First of all, you have attended a school that has a far greater range of economic, racial and ethnic diversity than even the wealthiest private liberal arts college can afford. Around 20% of our student are first generation college students and a slightly lower percentage are historically disadvantaged minority students. By way of contrast, I can report that when I attended Carleton College, a well-regarded small liberal arts school in Minnesota, it had only two farm kids, one of whom I married.

Such diversity brings with it special challenges. For instance, it’s easier to get along if everyone comes from the same demographic. St. Mary’s, however, has stepped up to that challenge. The St. Mary’s Way, our ethos of “St. Mary’s nice,” and the classes, workshops, and visiting speakers devoted to understanding and negotiating diversity, are key to our identity.

The process hasn’t always been easy as there has been racism, sexism, and homophobia, as you all well know. What has been hard, however, has also led to growth. Imagine taking your newly acquired life skills into workplaces where people feel overwhelmed by sex, race, class or ethnic tensions. You have the liberal arts education to understand what is going on and the real-life experiences to rise to the occasion.

As a result—and I can tell you this based on 37 years of watching St. Mary’s students go out into the world—someone will one day thank heaven that they hired you. And not only employers. Partners and community organizations will thank St. Mary’s as well.

Here’s one area where I have witnessed a St. Mary’s education in action. When St. Mary’s students undertake community service, it’s not as though they are issuing forth from gated communities to do charity work before retreating back into a walled existence. You undertake service because you know from firsthand experience how these communities have nourished you, and you want to return the favor. That’s why St. Mary’s turns out many of the best teachers in the state, many of the most idealistic political figures in Annapolis, and many of the most dedicated government workers in Washington, D.C. Having had your education partially paid for by the taxpayers, you repay with interest.

I conclude with a warning and a request. The public sector, including public education, has been under sustained attack since Ronald Reagan said, “The most terrifying nine words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” (That’s actually eleven words since contractions count as two but set that aside.) Public education will be slighted as the income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of society grows. State legislators will want to cut taxes rather than support students.

This doesn’t automatically mean a St. Mary’s education is inferior. It may look that way, however, since large endowments make private college look more attractive. As Jean Giraudoux writes satirically in his play The Madwoman of Chaillot,

Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.

Don’t be fooled. You have received here an invaluable education, even if sometimes everyone has had to work twice as hard to deliver it. If I had more time, I’d share many of the examples I have collected over the years of St. Mary’s students who have proved themselves just as good as those with private school educations, and you have a social conscience to boot. Never confuse the glitz of private wealth with quality while dismissing what is gained in the public sphere.

As you go out into the world, we are counting on you to advocate for the public liberal arts ideal. In doing so, you will honor what you yourselves have achieved while, at the same time, making this country a better place.

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The Dark Jinn Invade America


A while back, while writing about 100 Years of Solitude, I speculated that electing Donald Trump may have been a case of America choosing spectacle over technocratic reason. Who wants “no drama Obama” when we can get reality television every night?

I’m currently teaching Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and see that he has the same idea. In his fantasy novel, dark jinn have invaded earth and America’s rational president is at a loss. The president clearly is Obama:

In those days, the days of the strangenesses and the War of the Worlds that followed them, the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man,eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in aowrd and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who also thought of himself as a reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon), and color-blind. He was practical pragmatic, and had his feet firmly planted on the ground.

Then comes the kicker:

Consequently he was utterly incapable of responding appropriately to the challenge flung down by Zumurrud the Great, which was surreal, whimsical and monstrous.

Rushdie’s novel appeared in 2015, which was before the last election but not before Trump had become a hero in some quarters for his birth certificate conspiracies. Fan though he may be of Obama, Rushdie sees him out of his depth when confronted with rightwing fantasizing.

Rusdie’s novel is a reflection upon fantasizing, both good and bad. On the one hand, fantasies provide humans the colorful stories that we feed off of. But fantasies, in the hands of fanatics, can be destructive, and the invasion of the jinn resembles the excesses of the Muslim fanatics that Rushdie knows only too well. Consider the following passage, in which the narrator describes

cannibal jinn eating people’s faces in Miami, Florida; and executioner jinn parasites stoning women to death in desert places and suicide bomber jinn parasites allowing their host bodies to explode on army bases and then immediately possessing the nearest soldier and murdering more of his fellows in what was called an insider attack, which it was, but not in the conventional sense of the term; and crazed paramilitary jinn parasites in charge of tanks in eastern Europe, shooting passenger aircraft out of the sky…

In this last reference, Rushdie moves from Al-Qaeda and ISIS to to the Russian-backed Crimean insurgents who shot down a Malaysian airliner.

As Rushdie sees it, there are two strains of Islam. One emanates from the 13th century enlightenment philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who introduced the West to Aristotle and mathematics, and one traces back to Al-Ghazali, the 11th-century mystic philosopher who saw God as the cause of all things.. These two philosophers show up in the novel, locked in a centuries-long battle. Whereas Ibn Rushd thinks that Reason and love will ultimately prevail, Ghazali relies on fear. Having once trapped Zumurrud in a bottle, his one wish is that the jinn “instill fear” in humankind:

Only fear will move sinful Man towards God. Fear is a part of God, in the sense that it is that feeble creature Man’s appropriate response to the infinite power and punitive nature of the Almighty. One may say that fear is the echo of God, and wherever that echo is heard men fall to their knees and cry mercy. In some parts of the earth, God is already feared. Don’t bother about these regions. Go where Man’s pride is swollen, where Man believes himself to be godlike, lay waste his arsenals and fleshpots, his temples of technology, knowledge and wealth. Go also to those sentimental locations where it is said that God is love. Go and show them the truth.

While Rusdie’s jinn are not religious, they become entranced with theology and philosophy, which gives their power a certain shape. Dunia, a benevolent female jinn, falls in love with Ibn Rushd and spawns a race that, in the end, fight for Reason and love. Zumurrud, as we have seen, is entranced by Ghazali’s fear-inducing God and goes beyond what Ghazli intended, raining down chaos.

In Rushdie’s fantasy, the jinn are puppeteers manipulating humans. But they can do so only because there is already a dark craziness within humans:

Looking back, we tell ourselves this: the craziness unleashed upon our ancestors by the jinn was the craziness that also waited inside every human heart. We can blame the jinn, and we do, we do. But if we are honest we must blame human failings too.

The novel becomes an Avengers-type drama, where humans discover that they are the descendants of Ibn Rushd and Dunia and have the power, when they join forces, to fight back against the fear and hatred as the dark jinn. Zummurud is captured inside a bottle and deposited somewhere, maybe under Mount Everest or in the Marianna Trench. His defeat leads to a world “ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge, and restraint”:

Fear did not, finally, drive people into the arms of God. Instead, fear was overcome, and with its defeat men and women were able to set God aside, as boys and girls put down their childhood toys, or as young men and women leave their parents’ home to make new homes for themselves, elsewhere in the sun. For hundreds of years now this has been our good fortune, to inhabit…a peaceful, civilized world, or hard work and respect for the land. A gardener’s world, in which we all must cultivate our garden,  understanding that to do so is not a defeat, as it was for Voltaire’s poor Candide, but the victory of our better natures over the darkness within.

This peace, however, is achieved at the cost of dreaming. Obama and Hillary’s preference for reason-based reigns supreme once the wormholes between fairyland and earth are closed, but the narrator doesn’t sound altogether happy:

Mostly we are glad. Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.

Since the novel was published, that particular longing has been more than fulfilled. It’s as though Zummurud has escaped from his bottle and the dark jinn are once again wreaking havoc on the world. Be careful what you wish for.

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My “Last Lecture”

Peter O’Toole in “Goodbye Mr Chips”


On Friday my English colleagues staged a retirement ceremony for me that drew many students and former students, as well as other friends, faculty, staff, and (this was a complete surprise) my two sons and my grandson. I also received many wonderful notes from those who could not attend. I felt affirmed to the depths of my being and spent much of the night in tears.

My colleagues also indulged me by letting me deliver a “last lecture,” even though my chair Christine Wooley observed that I was known more for listening to people than lecturing.  It was a lovely thing to say—indeed, I am endlessly fascinated by other people’s experiences with literature—but before I retired I wanted to share what I have been discovering about literature’s impact on readers. The talk was entitled “Unacknowledged Legislators: How Poets Change History.”

Regular readers of this blog have heard much of this before, but I post the lecture here for those who were unable to come.

When my colleagues asked me what I wanted by way of a send-off, I told them I wanted to give a last lecture. I don’t know how this appears to you, but it reminded me of a joke that a professor from the German University of Konstanz told against himself. It goes like this:

A plane full of literature professors is hijacked and, to show that they mean business, the hijackers decide to throw three of the professors out of the plane. They choose a Brit, a German, and an American. Before they throw them out, they grant each of them one last wish.

The Brit says he wants a spot of tea. The German says he wants to deliver one last lecture. The American says, “I want to be thrown out of the plane before the German delivers his lecture!”

So perhaps this desire to deliver a last lecture can be traced back to my mother’s Strehlow and Jobst heritage. But rest assured: unlike the lecturer in the plane, I’m going to make it short.

The phrase “Unacknowledged Legislators” is from Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in which he argues that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Shelley believes that poets have been far more instrumental in world history than people who have been given far more credit. Thus the “unacknowledged.” Shelley writes,

[I]t exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.

Let’s look for a moment at what Shelley includes amongst poetry’s achievements. As he sees it, poetry played a major role in what he sees as history’s two most important developments—the liberation of women and the ending of slavery. In the case of female liberation, Shelley mentions Dante’s depiction of Beatrice, which he credits for helping change the way that women are viewed.

 Whether you agree with this particular example or not, it is the case that people have been crediting literature with a great deal of power for a long time. Sometimes they have celebrated this power and sometimes, as in the case of Plato, they have feared it and wished to see it corralled. My life’s quest—one that I had even before I knew that it was a quest—has been to figure out whether literature really does possess such power. Does literature have a significant impact on human events? I share today a little window into my research.

First of all, it’s useful to specify what I mean by literature and by poetry. The aspect of literature which has both enthralled and frightened thinkers throughout the ages is its ability to pull us into its world. Think of when you have been so immersed in a novel that it seemed more real to you than the world around you.  That’s the dimension of literature that convinced Plato that The Odyssey should not be allowed into his ideal republic. Plato himself was so freaked out by the vivid scenes of Odysseus in the underworld that he feared young men would turn cowards on the battlefield for fear of ending up in this such a place. He also found Odysseus’s praise of banqueting so vivid that he feared that young men would be seduced into banqueting themselves rather than subject themselves to stern discipline. So no Homer in Plato’s perfect society.

If poetry’s emotional power terrified Plato, it enthralled Aristotle. He was amazed at the catharsis that a well-constructed drama could induce in spectators. Aristotle didn’t go much beyond individual reactions to literature, but he gave future thinkers the grounds to argue that poetry has an impact.

For instance, the Roman thinker Horace believed that poetry could be a powerful force for moral good. Great poetry, he said, both delights and instructs, and we are more likely to follow poetry’s moral advice if we are entertained in the process. Sir Philip Sidney would later compare this to taking medicine with cherries.

Sidney, who as a warrior, courtier and poet was the living embodiment of the Renaissance man, made very strong claims for poetry. He said that poetry causes us to be more virtuous people. Then he broke poetry down into its different genres, with each kind of poetry teaching virtue in a different way. For instance, comic satire makes us ashamed of certain behaviors while heroic poetry lifts us up and makes us—well—more heroic. For instance, he talks glowingly of Virgil’s describing Aeneas carrying his father out of burning Troy.

Look at the discussion so far: everyone I’ve mentioned agrees that literature is so powerful that it can move people to action. The disagreement is whether it necessarily leads people to good action (Horace, Sidney, and perhaps Aristotle) or whether it leads people to bad action (Plato). This split has continued ever since.  Samuel Johnson, sounding like Plato, was worried that novels like Tom Jones would turn young men into libertines. He therefore saw the need for critic educators, who would intervene and steer young people to beneficial reading and away from improper reading. The German parents of teenagers reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther agreed, fearing that the novel would lead them to become overly emotional and even to commit suicide, as Werther does. Jane Austen may have loved the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe but, in Northanger Abbey, she also sees them having a harmful effect.

Today there are parents, churches and school systems today who still fear the impact that novels will have on young people. Works that have been banned include Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s books, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Harry Potter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Golden Compass, and, in the St. Mary’s County school system, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In those cases, as with Tom Jones, Sorrows of Werther, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, parents are afraid that immersion will lead to changed behavior.

In the 19th century, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold thought that this power could be harnessed for what he saw as social good. Worried about the rise of the working class, Arnold believed that religion had lost its ability to keep the lower classes in their place, and he turned to literature as a replacement, arguing that English literature should be taught in worker schools. As Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton puts it, by throwing the working class a few novels, Arnold hoped that they wouldn’t throw up any barricades.

A poet with the opposite politics was Bertolt Brecht, who agreed with Trostsky that art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to change it. Brecht’s plays were designed to challenge people’s middle-class assumptions and have them think in revolutionary ways.

Arnold and Brecht began the practice of analyzing art from a political point of view. Arnold would not, for instance, have wanted the working class reading Shelley’s revolutionary poem “Men of England,” and Brecht had a lot of nasty things to say about 19th century bourgeois melodrama.

Political discussions of art became even more heated when taken up groups that have been oppressed. African American thinker W. E. B. Du Bois, for instance, argued that “all art is propaganda,” by which he meant that literature is full of demeaning images of people of color. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe provided a powerful example in his attack on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, pointing out that Conrad portrays Africans as no more than a howling mob. Conrad’s work perpetuates stereotypes, Achebe said, and is more dangerous for being a great work.

Feminists like Rachel Blau DuPlessis, meanwhile, pointed out how dangerous the marriage plot is, even in the hands of geniuses like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Such novels threaten to convince women that their only future lies in marriage. In her book on the subject, DuPlessis wants contemporary novelists to write new kinds of novels that will present women with other options.

Finally, bringing my discussion up to the present, there are thinkers like philosopher Martha Nussbaum and literary scholar Wayne Booth who believe that literature has the power to make us better citizens and better voters because they teach us to enter into the experiences of people unlike ourselves and to empathize with them. Literature does this better than practically any other activity, Nussbaum believes.

So what do I believe? I’m certainly with Nussbaum and Booth in believing that literature opens our minds and that an open mind is critical is negotiating an increasingly complex world. But my favorite theorist is Shelley, perhaps because he thinks in such a wide arc. Shelley believes that literature taps into humans’ deepest longing, which is to fulfill their potential. The great artistic works have been doing this from the beginning, giving us characters, narratives and images that go deep into what it means to be human. The writers themselves may be time-bound people with local prejudices but their work transcends them. For instance, while Chaucer probably had medieval prejudices about women, in the Wife of Bath he created a woman that we can identify with today. Or to cite another example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night anticipated, by over 400 years, truths about trans men and women that we are only now arriving at. Once a literary work puts the full truth of human complexity into the world, it has an impact.

But perhaps not right away. Shelley said that sometimes history takes hundreds of years to catch up with artistic insights. The good news, however, is that, ultimately, the arc of history bends towards human liberation.

Here’s a specific example, although one with a shorter time line. When Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre first appeared in 1847, many read it as a traditional romance, what with its “Reader, I married him” conclusion. But certain readers also noticed Jane’s fierce desire for freedom and independence. It was an important novel for unionizing governesses in the 19th century as they fought against low pay and sexual harassment. Then the suffragette movement adopted it at the turn of the century. Then it provided the key image—the madwoman in the attic—for 1970s feminism.

So think of yourselves as part of this march of history. It doesn’t matter that you are an individual reader. Literature has always changed history one reader at a time. If Shelley is right that Dante set us on the road to women’s liberation, then it occurred by one person reading the Divine Comedy and then another and then another.

To bring the process close to home, let me conclude by sharing one reading experience that made a difference in my life, one which hopefully will get you reflecting upon your own reading experiences.

I was raised in segregated Tennessee in the 1950s and, in 1961, was the plaintiff in a landmark civil rights case where four black families and four white families sued the Franklin County Board of Education on behalf of their children. We were being denied our right to attend integrated schools under Brown v. Education, the suit contended. I can report that it was difficult for me going through that—not as difficult as it was for the African American children but it’s still not easy being called an n—lover—but I had a work of literature that sustained me.

My father had read me and my brothers Huckleberry Finn and I went straight to the most famous scene in the novel, the one where Huck declares that he will save his friend Jim even if it means going to hell. Although I was only in sixth grade, I got what it meant to make a principled stand, even when everyone around is believing and saying something different. It meant that, when we won the suit and had Ronnie Staten in class the next year, I made a special effort to reach out to him. Those experiences are at the foundation of my lifelong commitment to social justice. That was Huckleberry Finn working on this reader.

I know many of you have comparable stories, and one of the blessings of my being an English teacher is that many of you have shared reading experiences with me over the past 37 years. I see myself as a collector of reader stories, some of which I share on my blog and most of which I remember. Hearing your stories never gets old and has kept my teaching fresh. I’m going to miss you all very, very much.

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When Science Clips an Angel’s Wings

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

Spiritual Sunday

I received a superb essay on science, religion and poetry from one of the applicants for our Slovenian exchange program and got her permission to cite it in my blog. Zarja Gošnik (pronounced Zaria Goshnik) is fascinated by how John Keats and Edgar Allan Poe saw the practice of science as leeching wonder from the world and draws on scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins to argue back. I’m less convinced by Dawkins than Zarja is, but it’s a discussion worth having.

Zarja begins her essay with Poe’s sonnet “To Science” and follows it up with an excerpt from Keats’s Lamia. Poe compares science to a vulture “whose wings are dull realities” and accuses it of having dragged “Diana from her car”—which is to say, the moon from her mysterious journey:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.

Meanwhile, Keats accuses science of unweaving the rainbow. Or as he says elsewhere, Isaac Newton reduced it “to the prismatic colors”:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Zarja counters these attacks on science by turning to Dawkins, who alludes to Keats’s observation in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. That Keats has Dawkins feeling defensive shows up as well in the title of his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder. Here is Zarja’s summation of Dawkins’s argument:

[Dawkins] attempts to show that mysteries don’t lose their poetry when solved, but rather that the solution is even more beautiful than the puzzle itself and that solving one mystery leads to uncovering others.

I’ll express my reservations about Dawkins in a moment after noting that I agree with Zarja’s conclusion that poetry and science should complement each other:

The appetite for wonder in itself is probably one of the more poetic aspects of human life, if not the most poetic. Today, many poets explore theories of physics, astronomy and nature, which are the most popular scientific fields for poets. The idea of scientists as poets has become common.


[Science and poetry] both address the big questions of life. Because they both focus on detail, neither of them can afford to be vague. In poetry, the attention may be on particular characteristics of people and feelings, while in science, the details may pertain to characteristics of objects and theories. It is reasonable to think that the two working together would account for a deeper understanding of the world. Keats’ rainbow is far more enchanting and poetic when “unweaved.”

One Romantic poet who agrees with Zarja is Percy Shelley, who kept abreast of the latest scientific developments and regarded Francis Bacon as a poet. Shelley used his scientific eye when poetically describing such natural phenomena as glacier creep:

But a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing 
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shattered stand: the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed.

Where Shelley differs from Dawkins, however, is that he is interested in more than intellectual problem solving. Shelley would say that, while Dawkins is good at analytical reasoning, he lacks imagination.”Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known,” Shelley writes in Defence of Poetry, while “imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole.”

A mere reasoner cannot experience true wonder, which has a spiritual dimension, because he/she reduces everything to the scientific method. As Dawkins sees humans, we are nothing more than “survival machines.”

Science owes much of its power to its practice of bracketing off the natural world from, say, soul, religion, art, consciousness, and other such intangibles. Having bracketed, they make amazing discoveries—Dawkins is right to be excited–but their discoveries are confined to that which has been bracketed. Humble scientists like Newton, Darwin and Einstein recognize this whereas the Dawkinses of the world think they possess the final key to the universe and make magisterial pronouncements. As John Gray writes in a devastating takedown of Dawkins, he is not engaged in restless searching but writes with the certainty of someone who thinks he is on the way to figuring everything out.

Put another way, when Dawkins speaks of wonder, it is less genuine wonder and more self-applause that he is so good at solving scientific puzzles. He thinks that, given enough time, the scientific method can solve all puzzles and that “God” is mere superstition of the ignorant.  Somewhere—I haven’t been able to locate the quotation—William Blake says something to the effect that a machine, even one as large as the universe, is nothing more than a clanking contraption. Those who think that all questions can ultimately be encompassed by science have a clanking view of creation.

Poe and Keats, I believe, were writing about the arrogance of Dawkins-like scientists, not science as a whole. Among such individuals, life indeed risks being reduced to “dull realities,” undermining the capacity for true wonder. As so often, perhaps Blake has the best response to narrow scientism. Voltaire and Rousseau here stand in for the European enlightenment, Israel for spirituality:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright. 

While beneficial when it knows its limits, science is blinded when it sees the universe as nothing more than atoms, cells, and genes. “You throw the sand against the wind,/And the wind blows it back again.”

Posted in Blake (William), Keats (John), Poe (Edgar Allan), Shelley (Percy) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Senior Projects and Alice’s Rabbit Hole


When those of my seniors writing senior projects are assigned 10-page essays in other classes, they now shrug as though it were nothing. That’s what happens when you’re on the verge of completing a 60-page thesis.

This has me thinking of Lewis Carroll’s heroine as she is falling down the rabbit hole:

‘Well!’ thought Alice to herself, ‘after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!’ (Which was very likely true.)

Once a student has written a senior project, the base line is forever changed.

Also, once I finish reading the projects, you’ll starting getting longer posts from me again. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

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Literature Has Paul Ryan’s Number


With news that Paul Ryan will be leaving the House of Representatives (leaving a neo-Nazi as the leading Republican candidate for his seat), I repost an essay I wrote in November, 2015 when he ascended to the speakership. Since, like Vox’s Matt Yglesias, I regard Ryan as “the biggest fraud in American politics,” I was pessimistic about the good he would for the country. Basically Ryan has one idea and one idea only: the wealthy get taxed too much and it’s Congress’s job to fix that. As a result, other than enabling Donald Trump, his major accomplishment has been to add a trillion dollars to the national debt with his tax cuts.  It’s hard to imagine a worse Speaker of the House. 

Literature understands people like Ryan.

Reposted from November 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferreting Out White House Corruption

Salman Rushdie


For a while now, various columnists (including ones from Newsweek, Vox and Washington Post) have been describing the Trump administration as the most corrupt in history. Recently it’s been Scott Pruitt grabbing the headlines and before him it was Mike Flynn, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, Ben Carson, Jared Kushner, and of course the president.  And then there’s Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, whose shady practices are finally drawing the attention of the FBI.

We need Salman Rushdie’s Storm Baby to save us.

Storm Baby is an abandoned child who is found by a progressive New York mayor in Salman Rushdie’s fantasy work Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. The mayor explains that “Storm Doe” has very special powers:

This miracle baby can identity corruption, and the corrupt, once she has fingered them, literally begin to show the signs of their moral decay on their bodies.

This leads to satisfying scenes such as the following:

Baby Storm reentered City Hall like a tiny human minesweeper or drug-sniffing Alsatian. The mayor enfolded her in a big Brooklyn-Ukrainian hug, and whispered, “Let’s go to work, baby of truth.” What followed instantly became the stuff of legend, as in room after room, department after department, marks of corruption and decay appeared on the faces of the corrupt and decaying, the expenses cheats, the receivers of backhand payments in return for civic contracts, the accepters of Rolex watches and private airplane flights and Hermes bugs stuffed with banknotes, and all the secret beneficiaries of bureaucratic power. The crooked began to confess before the miracle baby came within range, or fled the building to be hunted down by the law.

Even a white lie, we learn, will cause one’s face to itch. Trump wouldn’t last five minutes.

In real life, of course, polygraph tests, human or otherwise, are dangerously unreliable. That’s the difference between fantasy and real life. There would also be the risk, as the #MeToo Movement is learning, of failing to distinguish between egregious crimes and lesser ones.

If Pruitt were subjected to the Baby Storm test, however, an old Danny Kaye line would be appropriate: “Order flowers for the widow.”

It so turns out that Washington is currently experiencing its own Storm Baby. Former Trump fling Stormy Daniels is insisting on full disclosure of the her liaison with the president and the hush money paid to her. Like Rushdie’s bureaucrats, Trump’s lawyers are panicking.

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The Stories We Tell Our Robots


I invoke a father’s privilege today to alert you to a weekly (sometimes biweekly) podcast called The Stories Our Robots Tell Us, hosted by my two sons. The podcast, which is about “how we make technology and how our technology makes us,” deals with such subjects as bitcoin, chatbots, credit ratings, airline pricing, tech start-ups and the like. I write about it here because the episodes often start off with a literary reference, Dr. Toby Wilson-Bates (a.k.a. Toby) being a lecturer in Georgia Tech’s English Department.

Toby brings a fascinating perspective to the current conversation about technology and its evolution. (His dissertation, which I’ve posted on here and here, studied how Victorian literature was born out of the industrial revolution, while also informing the direction of technological advancement during that period.) He brings that same conceptual perspective to this latest period of technological evolution and how our stories and narratives continue to define our technology.

Darien, meanwhile, recently left a financial technology firm in D.C. to start a company that uses data and machine learning (i.e. “Artificial Intelligence”) to enable small businesses and organizations to communicate with their customers and audiences in better ways. On a side note: Darien was also the propelling force behind Better Living through Beowulf, which he designed and helped me set in motion.

To give you a taste of the podcast, Darien and Toby begin the most recent episode on tech start-ups—“Two Guys and a Garage: The Myth of Failure”—with the story of Daedalus and Icarus. In this case, a spectacular achievement (human flight) is coupled with a spectacular failure (Icarus’s death).(Hmm, sounds like Facebook.) In each episode, they ponder whether the development under discussion will lead to utopia or apocalypse, with each offering a numerical rating between 1 (apocalypse) and 10 (utopia).

I found myself particularly interested in the episode on predictive analytics, maybe because they cite Oedipus while assuring their listeners that they do not anticipate killing their father (whew!). Toby focused on the paradox of the oracle, wondering whether we invariably become Oedipus. That is to say, even accurately forecasting future disaster doesn’t mean that we will necessarily escape it. Needless to say, things don’t work out well for Oedipus. (“Spoiler alert!” Darien cries at this point in the podcast.) In other words, Greek fatalism would dictate an apocalyptic rating for predictive analytics.

The subsequent discussion ranges from predicting–but not preventing–climate change to following one’s favorite sports team, and without spoiling the climax, I can report that Darien’s final rating leans towards the utopian (he believes our predictive capabilities can help us change the future for the better) whereas Tobias is more ambivalent.

Darien traces predictive analytics back to shipping insurance in the late 17th century, which strikes me as right. The birth of modern science dates back to this period as well (Newton, Descartes, Francis Bacon), and the Right’s current suspicion of science and expertise—certainly concerning climate change but economics and social research as well—may represent a return to a kind of Greek fatalism when our future lay in the hands of supernatural deities. Some call this faith in God, others magical thinking.

As far as the podcast goes, I love watching the chemistry between Darien and Toby, especially their sense of humor. Watching them grow into smart, thoughtful adults and becoming best friends is all I could have dreamed of. Even when they talk about killing fathers.

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Reading, Better than Juvie

Moise Kisling, “Young Boy Reading”


A former student alerted me to a New York Times article about five vandals who were ordered to read various books after defacing a historical black schoolhouse. Since then, the sentence has been repeated for a 14-year-old who threatened a black schoolmate with a noose.

The vandalism involved swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power.” That last detail is confusing until one learns that three of the vandals were minorities.

The idea of books was the brainchild of deputy commonwealth attorney Alejandra Rueda, who included some of the following works as options:

Elie Wiesel, Night
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Arthur Miller, The Crucible
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I. C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain,
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave
Marilyn Nelson, A Wreath for Emmitt Till

 As few activities arouse empathy as much as immersion in the lives of others, I applaud the sentence. We know how at least one defendant responded because The New York Times got permission to report on his court-ordered essay. The student said that, after reading Night, the swastika meant much more than it had originally:

“I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair.”

Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of “oppression” and “white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case.”…

He wrote that he feels “especially awful” that he made anyone feel bad.

“Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” he wrote in his essay. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”

The author of a book of poetry, A Wreath for Emmett Till, worried that being made to read poetry would turn kids off of poetry. Setting aside the fact that some kids see poetry as punishment even when it’s assigned by teachers rather than by judges, I really don’t think she needs to worry. Once readers immerse themselves in compelling stories, anything can happen.

Kite Runner author Hosseini imagined what a reader who chose his novel might have taken away:

“Engaging with characters that differ from us in race, religion or culture, helps us feel our immutable connections as a species,” Mr. Hosseini said. “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading The Kite Runner was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”

There may be times when other punishments are called for, but one would have difficulty arriving at such insights in a juvenile detention center.

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A Vast Unfolding Design Lit by a Risen Sun

Hendrick ter Brugghen, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”

Spiritual Sunday

As I am currently busy with student essays, I repost an essay I wrote four years ago on Denise Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus,” the subject of today’s lectionary reading.

Reposted from April 27, 2014

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of Doubting Thomas, about which I’ve blogged a couple of times in the past. Once I posted a fine poem by Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman R. S. Thomas and twice (here and here) I’ve turned to my former colleague Dana Greene, whose biography on Denise Levertov discusses the importance of the Thomas story to a poet wrestling with her own doubts.

Dana quotes that part of Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus” that describes the disciple’s moving breakthrough but not where the poet examines Thomas’s previous history of doubt. Levertov first traces his doubts back to an incident where a father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus for healing (Mark 9:17-29). Here’s the story:

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit.“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

According to Daniel Clendenin, who posts today on Levertov’s poem in his superb blog “Journey with Jesus,” Levertov takes full advantage of the fact that Thomas’s names mean “the twin,” both the Greek Didymus and the Aramaic T’omas.  The Thomas in the poem says that he feels closer to the father of the boy than to “the twin of my birth.” He is responding to the fact that this father is confronted by the unfairness of the world—the suffering of an innocent child—so that his

entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,

No wonder he finds it hard to believe. No wonder he asks Jesus to “help me overcome my unbelief!”

Despite the healing of the child, Levertov’s Thomas still has his doubt as the father’s words linger:

What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough

This magnificent lead-up makes Thomas’s ultimate revelation all the more powerful. The tight knot of doubt miraculously unravels so that he experiences

light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling…

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

St. Thomas Didymus

By Denise Levertov

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teethgnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

The Son is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!

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Weather Report: Death’s Untimely Frost


I have only a short post today as I was at a “salon” of St . Mary’s College faculty and former faculty last night. I’ll write a longer essay next week on the focus of the discussion, which was transition. Most of us being older, we spent much of the evening talking about retirement.

Here’s a seasonal transition that is not progressing smoothly at the moment. Parts of the country are experiencing a return to winter. If you’re suddenly seeing your flowering dogwoods and cherry blossoms beset by freezing temperatures, this Robert Burns passage is for you:

But Oh! fell Death’s untimely frost, 
         That nipt my Flower sae early! 
Now green’s the sod, and cauld’s the clay, 
         That wraps my Highland Mary! 

And then there’s the couplet from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, written at a time when Europe was undergoing a mini ice age:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Quoting poetry doesn’t change the weather, of course. But it’s comforting to see the condition named.

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Can a Dream Hold Us Together?


When I was a Fulbright lecturer in 1988 Yugoslavia, an old Melville scholar named Janez Stanonek once said to me, “I don’t understand how America works.” I could, to be sure, have turned the question back on him—how does Yugoslavia work?—and in fact Yugoslavia began falling apart three years later.  He considered himself Slovenian rather than Yugoslav, however, and it’s clear how Slovenia works: a common language, culture, and history hold the people together, even if Slovenia officially became a country only in 1991. The 19th century poet Francis Prešeren is revered because he showed the inhabitants of this tiny region within the Austro-Hungarian empire that their language was capable of great poetry. But what holds America together?

That question has become increasingly pressing in recent years, and it’s one that Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece Midnight’s Children addresses as well. Rushdie, unfortunately, doesn’t offer up many reassuring answers, but at least he helps Americans articulate their dilemma.

In my conversation with Stanonik, I mentioned the Constitution, a legal document, and the American Dream, an aspiration. I didn’t realize until recently, however, that the Constitution is less a set of laws than a set of norms, which are operative only as long as people agree to abide by them. We have a checks and balances system only when the legislative branch is willing to serve as a legitimate check on the executive and when the judiciary operates as an impartial check on both of them. Compromise any of these and the whole begins to crumble.

The American Dream is an even shakier foundation since it has never been a single dream but a crazy quilt of differing and sometimes clashing desires. The same is true of Rushdie’s India. In the chapter “Tick Tock,” the narrator ticks down to the moment when India’s dream of being its own nation will be achieved:

Rumors in the city: “The statue galloped last night!”…”And the stars are unfavorable!”…But despite these signs of ill-omen, the city was poised, with a new myth glinting in the corners of its eyes. August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna’s birthday and Coconut Day; and this year—fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve—there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will—except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth—India, the new myth—a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.

A little later, narrator Saleem tells us what goes wrong. While the collective dream is one thing, individual dreams are something altogether different. Although theoretically India is a nation that, a la Walt Whitman, embraces multitudes, people continue to think of themselves as Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, as Bengali or Punjabi or Madrasi, as Brahmin or untouchable Rushdie makes this point dramatically by having two children, a Muslim and a Hindu, born at the stroke of midnight when India becomes a country and then switching them. Each is raised in the other’s religion and class so that the child born of a Hindu mother becomes Saleem and the child born of a Muslim mother becomes Shiva. Although they are indistinguishable without labels, the labels determine who they are:

In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts…if you had asked my father (even him, despite all that happened!) who his son was, nothing on earth would have induced him to point in the direction of the accordionist’s knock-kneed, unwashed boy.

Another way of putting this is that, despite dreams of national unity, the children are born into time and history:

[A]ll over the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents—the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.

Although the dream is shattered first by bloody factionalism and then authoritarian dictate, Rushdie says that the seeds of unity never entirely disappear. After all, the same switching that happened at Saleem and Shiva’s birth occurs with the next generation as well: Saleem raises, as his own child, Shiva’s offspring. The situation reminds me of my favorite scene in the 1982 film Gandhi:

Nahari: I’m going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi: Why?
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy’s height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

Republicans and Democrats are not smashing each other’s children against walls, but stepping out of their silos and acknowledging their common humanity is not a bad place to start.

One other point. Saleem’s observation that “the sanctification and renewal” of the collective fantasy of India “can only be provided by rituals of blood” reminds me of Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier. As one reviewer describes Slotkin’s thesis, “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.”

In Midnight’s Children we see India thinking of itself as a unified nation when it goes to war with China, and the last time that America truly felt united was following 9-11. But if blood is what it takes, then bloody factionalism and national unity both reduce us to tribalism. For me America starts and ends with a more positive affirmation: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Can we, through “the efforts of a phenomenal collective will,” pull that off? That’s a dream worth devoting one’s life to.

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Inspired by MLK and Lucille Clifton

Alyssa Hawkins, English major and Lucille Clifton admirer


I can think of no better way to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death than to share a Lucille Clifton essay I received last fall from an African American first-year student. After reading poems from quilting, Alyssa Hawkins felt empowered to stand tall and speak out. In other words, she is fulfilling King’s dream for America.

The poems Alyssa chose all feature whites who are blind to issues that African Americans know intimately. In a particularly egregious letter sent to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1905, a university psychologist clearly did not regard “the Negro” as fully human. Clifton’s response, powerful in its dignified simplicity, puts the questioner to shame:

From a Letter Written to Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois by Alvin Borgquest of Clark University in Massachusetts and Dated April 3, 1905.

“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears…”


he do
she do
they live
they love
they try
they tire
they flee
they fight
they bleed
they break
they moan
they mourn
they weep
they die
they do
they do
they do

“The Negro” knows only too much about shedding tears. Alyssa writes,

White people can’t seem to understand the idea that even though someone has darker pigmentation of melanin, they are just as human as they are. Clifton reveals that America’s very roots are deeply set with racism and dehumanization, and in not viewing Black people as human, many of the privileged within America are in denial of this fact or are simply unaware. She ends her poem almost mournfully and angrily, hoping to convey the depth of severity within her words: “they do/ they do/ they do.” Black people are human too: why is that so hard to understand?

It’s one thing for whites in 1905 to think this way. In the next poem that Alyssa chose, however, Clifton discovers defensiveness in her white acquaintances whenever she brings up painful moments in America’s racial history, accusing her of obsessing about the past or making things up. Only those who do not feel the effects of history, she could point out, can afford to ignore it. Alyssa, writing out of her own experience as well as Clifton’s, observes,

[W]hen African Americans speak of past maltreatment, they are accused of “not letting things go” when in reality the events that revolve around their race, such as police brutality and mass incarceration, do not allow this group of people to just abandon the past in hopes of a better future.

Of “i am accused of tending to the past,” Alyssa notes, “When Black people stand strong in their past and in their future, many white people view that action as a threat to their standard of living”:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will. 

Alyssa’s last poem hits the closest to home since, as I told the class, Clifton had me in mind when she wrote it (see the story here). Alyssa has moved from the obtuse white to the angrily defensive white to the sympathetic white who still doesn’t totally get it (“even the best”). Clifton, tired to being constantly misunderstood, is understandably irritated:

amira baraka—I refuse to be judged by white men.

or defined. and i see
that even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live,
as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them,
as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one
and will again…

Alyssa writes,

Clifton feels the history of black people on her as she battles this invisible racism that is highly prevalent in the world currently. This racism consists of whitewashing the pain and hurt of black men and women who have struggled and travailed all throughout history, just to end up with their descendants being told that their struggle “wasn’t real” or is “overdramatized” or “wasn’t that bad” or “it ended 500 years ago”… Clifton feels this pain and loathes it—it seems [that] Black people can never be human, can never convey their thoughts and feelings without being stigmatized or dehumanized…

In a poem that Alyssa does not cite but which I include here because I think it speaks to the hope that she represents, Clifton looks back at King’s assassination and writes of the shock of no longer having an external savior. The job is now up to them:

the meeting after the savior gone

what we decided is
you save your own self.
everybody so quiet
not so much sorry as
we was going to try and save you but
now i guess you got to save yourselves
(even if you don’t know
who you are
where you been
where you headed)

Because of Clifton, Alyssa realizes that she has a role to play in “sav[ing] yourselves.” Her conclusion reveals that she at least has a clear sense of who she is, where she’s been, and where she’s headed:

Despite the dehumanization and stifling of my people, I stand as a Black woman proud to be graced with her sun-kissed skin. I stand as a whole human being, with skin the color of the good earth and a history behind my name. Though I daily hear and see the lack of understanding in my environment here at St. Mary’s College, reading Clifton’s poetry reminds me that my struggle as a Black woman is not uncommon, and I am a part of a shared experience. Lucille Clifton…reveals that, through it all, we, as a people, stand strong in our past, our present, and our future…Though living while Black may be an uphill battle, there’s no other race or color I’d rather be.

Both King and Clifton would be proud. And hopeful.

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Happiness Based on Another’s Oppression

Luigi Nono, “Abandoned”


When I was composing my talk on “The Cultural Foundation of American Economics” for Slovenian university students, I finally understood what African American intellectuals like Ta Nehisi Coates have been saying for some time. Rightwing politicians can always play the race card because every white immigrant group in America has “non-black” as part of its foundational identity.

I also realized that Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” describes the phenomenon.

Let me explain. Often one hears immigrant descendants claim that they can’t be held responsible for America’s slave past because their ancestors came to America after the Civil War. Others point out that, even if they arrived during slave times—say, the Irish during the 1848 potato famine—they were treated as badly as slaves. In truth, they were treated horrendously.

But every immigrant group, whether during slave times or after, had a valuable piece of cultural capital that it could draw on: no matter how poor or badly treated, its members could say, “At least I am above them.” White racism gave these immigrants a way to salvage their dignity, and many became dependent on that distinction.

I have been struck, for instance, that some cheering Trump’s attacks on immigrants from “shithole countries” have names like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Ireland when their ancestors immigrated to the States met all the criteria for such a country.

I add that Hispanics served a similar function in the American southwest, as did, in certain locales, Native Americans and Asians.

This helps explain why poor whites joined wealthy slave owners in the Civil War, even though they had nothing to gain and everything to lose. It helps explain why poor whites will sometimes vote for white millionaires that don’t have their best interests at heart while President Obama had difficulty selling Obamacare to communities that sorely need it (and who accept it, as Appalachian Kentucky did, under another name). Trump supporters may not benefit economically from his presidency but that doesn’t seem as important as his nativist appeals. Racism runs so deep in white America’s DNA that even the most populist Democratic proposals fail to sway voters.

In her fictional thought experiment, Le Guin asks us to imagine a happy society. We could think of it as a country that has achieved the American Dream since every dreamer is allowed to fill in the blanks:

Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however–that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.–they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.

The one necessary ingredient to making this society work, however, is not so pleasant. At the heart of the country is an imprisoned child:

It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops….The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. 

Young people, when they first see the child, are horrified. Eventually, however, they learn to accept it because their happiness is dependent upon the child’s misery:

[T]here is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement

Now do you believe in my society, LeGuin asks those skeptics who think that utopians are unattainable. And while America may not be a utopia, if it seemed to be a gleaming beacon of endless opportunity to immigrants, it was partly because it offered them a country where they would not start off at the bottom of the heap. If you’ve made that one step, who knows what you might not accomplish?

Le Guin then delivers her masterstroke, however. If you want to imagine a truly unbelievable society, she says, think of one composed of people who refuse to base their happiness on the subjugation of another. Instead, to quote Lucille Clifton, they sail out “beyond the face of fear”:

[T]here is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

If you want a true description of the American Dream, this is it.

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Roy Cohn, Trump’s Mentor

Robbins as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America”


When he was elected president, Donald Trump looked forward to having the protection of the country’s most powerful lawyer. “Where’s my Roy Cohn,” he reportedly lamented when Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign surrogate during the presidential campaign, recused himself (or semi-recused himself) from any matters regarding the campaign. Trump wanted Sessions to protect him as Cohn had once protected him and as he believed Eric Holder had protected Barack Obama.

Cohn is the vicious win-at-all-costs attorney featured in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The play is currently being revived, perhaps because we are witnessing Cohn-style ruthlessness in the White House at the moment. And although Sessions won’t accommodate Trump, we are seeing other Trump lawyers adopting the Cohn practice of issuing over-the-top threats to serve their client.

Stormy Daniels, for instance, reports that she received a Roy Cohn type threat prior to the election, which she says prompted her to settle for a $130,000 hush payment:

I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T– taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin’ all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, ‘Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.’ And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’ And then he was gone.”

While Daniels says that the man wasn’t Trump’s current lawyer Michael Cohen, Cohen has imitated Cohn in the past. For instance, here he is in 1993 threatening a Daily Beast reporter asking about Ivana’s Trump’s marital rape accusation:

I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know. So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?

You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word rape, and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.

Though there’s many literal senses to the word, if you distort it, and you put Mr. Trump’s name there onto it, rest assured, you will suffer the consequences. So you do whatever you want. You want to ruin your life at the age of 20? You do that, and I’ll be happy to serve it right up to you.

One wonders whether he learned the style from watching Kushner’s play. For instance, here’s Cohn making sure that Ethel Rosenberg gets the death penalty for relaying the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union:

I would have fucking pulled the switch if they’d have let me. Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was I legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice.

Cohn, as portrayed in Kushner’s play and probably in real life, was a closeted homosexual and a self-hating Jew who channeled his fury at the world through his take-no-prisoners approach to the law.  Trump said of him, “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me. He’s a genius. He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.” Another lawyer who knew Cohn said, “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.”

Yet the reviewers of the revival observe that the play, when it first appeared, wasn’t only dark but altered history for the good. It did so by first describing reality as it was and then finding “seeds of change”:

It had bright humor and a wild need to entertain. Beyond that, it was hopeful. “Angels,” Kushner told us, “describes a time of great terror, beneath the surface of which the seeds of change are beginning to push upwards and through.” The play’s hope doesn’t come from self-delusion or from hiding the truth from the audience. In “Angels,” AIDS is portrayed in all its horrors, and its characters’ actions are far from ideal. Yet by portraying gay men as fully, complicatedly human — and central to the story of American history — “Angels” redefined how gay characters could be presented to mainstream audiences. “Before that, homosexuality was depicted as either some psycho perversion . . . or a cheap punch line,” the actor Karl Miller, who portrayed Prior in a 2009 production in Silver Spring, Md., told us. “Then Kushner comes along and lays down nothing less than a new book of the Bible with five titanic gay leading roles at its center.” 

Consider the following reactions:

“I’d walk through the West Village,” said Marcia Gay Harden, who played the character of Harper, “and people would come up to me and say, ‘I took my parents to see the play and then I told them I was gay.’ Or ‘I took my parents to see it and then I told them I was dying.’ And we would cry on the street. That happened once every couple of weeks.”

The reviewers note that the play’s prediction of progress has actually come to pass:

Part 2 ends with Prior Walter — having survived, for the moment, both his illness and his dramatic ordeal — addressing the audience directly, combining theater and activism in a thrilling and touching final speech. Spinella played Prior for the show’s entire run, and for 217 performances, he delivered that speech to New York City audiences: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

A quarter-century later, gay people are citizens, more rapidly and more completely than many activists of the AIDS era could ever have expected. And the invention of triple cocktails and preventative drugs such as PrEP has transformed — though not ended — the AIDS crisis in America. In hindsight, these advances seem inevitable, but they’re due in large part to those activists who cut their teeth on direct action in the play’s time — learning to be a movement and fighting together, no matter how hopeless the outcome looked.

While Angels in America shows us the gripping spectacle of a destructive man lashing out, it also assures us that decency and human compassion get the last word. We are seeing a version of this drama as the Parkland massacre survivors restore a humane perspective to the gun debate.

As the reviewers put it, the play

serves as a much-needed reminder that change for the better is possible and that hope, no matter how hard-won or embattled, can be a powerful political force. 

Further note: My mother informs me that I am one degree of separation from Roy Cohn as my parents encountered him when they were in Paris on a Fulbright in 1952-3. She says that he and David Schine “routed out the staff of the USIS on a Sunday so that they could supposedly clean the library of Communist books.  They found ONE, by Howard Fast.  I don’t know the title. I’m sure they had a lovely time on the federal dime for a glorious vacation.  Those were frightening times.”

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Love, the Lesson which the Lord Us Taught

Mikhail Nesterov, “The Resurrection Triptych” (1922)

Easter Sunday

Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, deliberately spells archaically in his joyous celebration of the Easter resurrection. All the familiar paradoxes appear in the poem—death has died, captivity has been made captive—and it concludes with the confident assertion, “Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.” Therefore, “let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought.”

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day, 
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin; 
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away 
Captivity thence captive, us to win: 
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin; 
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye, 
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin, 
May live for ever in felicity! 

And that Thy love we weighing worthily, 
May likewise love Thee for the same againe; 
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy, 
With love may one another entertayne! 
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought, 
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Happy Easter!

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The Bloody Flesh Our Only Food

Da Vinci, “The Last Supper”

Passover and Good Friday

As today is both Passover and Good Friday, I am sharing two poems. The first, for Good Friday, is from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker.” The other, by my friend Norman Finkelstein, is a Passover poem that I wrote about two years ago.

In “East Coker” (1940), which contains World War II imagery, Eliot imagines Jesus as a wounded surgeon administering to us. Demonstrating tough love (“sharp compassion”), Jesus reminds us of our sinful selves. If we wish to be healed, we must humble ourselves as this “dying nurse” has, but it may be that “our sickness must grow worse” for us to recognize the urgency of our situation.

Doing well, mentioned in the third stanza, will not do the trick, because then we focus on material advancement, not spiritual growth. I’m reading “the ruined millionaire” as God, who has bequeathed the earth to us but is hemorrhaging followers. Eliot tells us that we must undergo further suffering (freeze/And quake in frigid purgatorial fires) to achieve final healing.

In the end, the body and blood of Christ will save us. Even though we cling to substantial but unreliable flesh and blood, we sense that there is something more than this flesh. That’s why we “call this Friday good.”

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

  Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

  The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

  The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

  The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Passover – Reprinted from April 23, 2016

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

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

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

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

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

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

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

refers to blood

as it is said

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

The Telling

By Norman Finkelstein

goes forward
circling back on itself

narration digressing
into explanation

explanation unfolding
into narration

and there
he became a nation–

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

death and miracles
and stars without number

the land filled with them

Pithom and Ramses
lash and staff
signs and wonders

as it is said

a politics of exegesis
crossing the years

sojourners in the land
sojourning in the word

the sons who die
the daughters who live

until we cried out
until we cry out

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

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

refers to blood

as it is said

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The Origins of Crazy U.S. Work Ethic

Robinson Crusoe at work


During my recent visit to Slovenia, I lectured to an American culture class on “The Cultural Foundations of American Economics: Fanatical Puritans, Rapacious Slave Owners, Crazy Pioneers, and Star-Struck Immigrants.” The teacher who will replace me after I retire has prompted me to modify one of my ideas, however. Daniel Yu of Emory University (coincidentally where I earned by own PhD) writes that Robinson Crusoe’s takeover of the island, often held up as an archetype of Puritan capitalism, is more complicated than scholars realize.

In my talk, I wanted the students to understand the American work ethic, which many cultures consider insane. (In some professions,, 60-hour work weeks with one week of vacation are the norm.) Drawing on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, I contended that our insanity traces back to John Calvin’s belief in predestination and was brought to this country by the Mayflower pilgrims.

Calvinists reasoned that, if God is omniscient, then He knows even before we are born whether we will be “elect” souls designed for heaven or damned souls headed in the other direction. We ourselves don’t have any choice in the matter. Though this might seem a prescription for sitting back—after all, if there’s nothing we can do, why sweat it?—the belief had just the opposite effect. The possibility of hellfire so terrified Calvinists that they combed through their lives looking for indications that they were among the elect. Then, being human, they tried to tilt the playing field through worldly achievement. For instance, in a number of Puritan journals one finds people castigating themselves for having slept more than six hours. After all, as Weber puts it, “every hour not spent at work is an hour lost in service to God’s greater glory.”

Benjamin Franklin’s work schedule and, later, Jay Gatsby’s reflect the mentality.

According to J. Paul Hunter, my dissertation director and author of a seminal book about Daniel Defoe (The Reluctant Pilgrim), the Calvinists’ anxiety led to their meticulous journals. If a positive pattern appeared, then they had reason to hope. This journaling evolved into novel writing, where the lives of commoners like Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones and Roderick Random suddenly proved of interest. Pilgrim’s Progress functioned as a bridge from journal to novel.

Puritan Crusoe doesn’t colonize his island simply because he desires material possessions. Rather, he is wracked with guilt for having disobeyed his father (by running off to sea) and fears damnation. Therefore he works frantically to prove that he is worthy, and the result is worldly achievement. If Crusoe is Marx’s archetypal capitalist, the reasons lie in spiritual unrest.

In my talk, I acknowledged that few Americans believe in predestination anymore. But the vague sense that we are virtuous if we work hard and sinful if we don’t is a deep part of American culture. Furthermore, there is widespread belief that the poor deserve their misfortune while success is a sign of God’s favor. Many Trump supporters and even Trump himself ascribe to prosperity theology, which has its origins in  Calvinism.

Or so I argued in my presentation. Daniel, however, writes in his dissertation that Crusoe isn’t quite the doctrinaire Puritan that I make him out to be, which complicates my argument.

Among other things, Daniel points out that Crusoe has an interesting relationship with tobacco. If Crusoe were really an austere capitalist who pushes aside pleasure, he wouldn’t go for the intoxication associated with the drug. Daniel points out, however, Crusoe believes that self-medicating with rum-soaked tobacco helps him pray authentically, which in turn leads to his recovery. His tobacco intake, in other words, is an integral part of his worship service.

I did what I never had done in all my Life, I kneel’d down and pray’d to God to fulfil the Promise to me, that if I call’d upon him in the Day of Trouble, he would deliver me; after my broken and imperfect Prayer was over, I drunk the Rum in which I had steep’d the Tobacco, which was so strong and rank of the Tobacco, that indeed I could scarce get it down; immediately upon this I went to Bed . . .

Daniel notes 16th century fears that tobacco might supplant the Eucharist and lead to counterfeit religion:

[Some] sixteenth-century writers associated tobacco with idolatry, thereby affirming the legitimacy of Christian conquest. The use of tobacco in ritual to induce a trance state marked native religion as counterfeit since it relied on this indispensable external and material aid. In seventeenth-century England, Anglican authorities continued to decry the use of tobacco as “barbarous and beastly” while also implicating their religious opponents in Europe. In his “Counterblaste to Tobacco,” King James I satirizes Catholic superstition and Puritan self-righteousness in the same breath: “O omnipotent power of Tobacco! And if it could by the smoke thereof chace out devils, as the smoke of Tobias did (which I am sure could smel no stronglier) it would serve for a precious Relicke, both for the superstitious Priests, and the insolent Puritanes, to cast out devils withall.”

Despite these attacks, Crusoe embraces smoking and is particularly proud of the pipe he makes. Nor is this his only pleasure. Daniel points out that he spends long hours, and even days, in non-productive contemplation. In other words, he falls short of the capitalist ideal.

Now, were he to castigate himself up for his inactivity, he would fit my picture of Americans beating themselves up for relaxing rather than working. Daniel, however, believes that people like Crusoe had more investment in non-work than they are given credit for. If that is the case, maybe we can’t blame them entirely for our brutal work ethic.

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Battered by a Raging Stormy

Johann Ramberg, “King Lear”


I’ve compared Donald Trump to King Lear in the past (see the links at the end of this post) so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he has encountered a storm that he can’t control. Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress to whom he paid hush money just before the election, is outmaneuvering him and rendering him uncharacteristically silent. At least in public.

Reports are that he is storming privately, and in that way he is like Lear, whose raging in the face of the storm is witnessed only by those closest to him. Like Lear, Trump feels unmanned by assertive women (including Daniels), and like Lear his rage masks a desperate longing for love, which is denied him because he demands love on his own terms. Lear takes credit for the fury of the elements to persuade himself that his commands still count for something: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” His fury, however, reveals his vulnerability and his loneliness.

Since I’ve embarked on storm images, I’ll borrow a couple from poems by women, Mary Oliver’s “Lightning” and Hilda Doolittle’s “Storm.” Oliver alludes to Lear’s howling at the end of the play, but she could also be referring to loneliness such as Trump’s:

 the wind rose, 
the shapeless mouth
opened and began
its five-hour howl; 
the lights 
went out fast, branches
sidled over
the pitch of the roof, bounced
into the year
that grew black
within minutes…

H.D., meanwhile, helps us imagine Daniels crashing over Trump, rending every leaf “like split wood.”

You crash over the trees,
you crack the live branch—
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

You burden the trees
with black drops,
you swirl and crash—
you have broken off a weighted leaf
in the wind,
it is hurled out,
whirls up and sinks,
a green stone.

H.D., using the imagistic style for which she is famous, may be describing a depressive episode, and it is a state that Trump surely knows well. Perhaps he feels himself hurled out, whirled up, and sinking like a stone. While he characteristically blusters that he is in charge, the storm has him on the run this time.

One other thought: Given that I’ve compared Trump to Herman Melville’s Maldive shark, I find it fascinating that he insisted that Daniels watch a television documentary on shark attacks with him. Trump was reportedly both fascinated and repulsed. As a Jungian archetype, sharks (like lions and bears) represent the devouring unconscious. When we insist that we control the world and repress fears of inadequacy, our shadow turns malevolent and grows in power. “I hope all the sharks die,” Trump reportedly said to Daniels.

Previous posts comparing Trump to Lear

Assertive Women Drive Lear, Trump Mad

Trump’s Cabinet as Goneril and Regan

Lear, Trump, & the Hell of Loneliness

Trump as Lear Howling in the Storm

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Bolton’s Preventive War, Greek Style

Edouard-Théophile Blanchard, “Death of Astyanax”


When even American hawks describe incoming national security advisor John Bolton as too hawkish, it’s time to be really frightened. Listening to them decry Bolton’s love of preventive warfare, one of literature’s most shocking instances of the practice comes to mind: the Greeks killing Hector’s child in Euripides’s The Trojan Woman.

Political scientists distinguish between preemptive war and preventive war. The first is a response to a direct threat—like punching someone just before he or she punches you—whereas preventive war is attacking even though the threat isn’t imminent. Otto von Bismarck famously said that “preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.” According to Michael Lind,

In his memoirs, Bismarck considered “the question whether it was desirable, as regards a war which we should probably have to face sooner or later, to bring it on anticipation before the adversary could improve his preparations.” Bismarck argued that the uncertainties were too great—“one cannot see the cards of Providence far enough ahead.”

Instances of preventive war include Japan’s Pearl Harbor bombing and America’s Iraq invasion. Max Boot, one time hawk, writes of Bolton,

The failure of the Iraq intervention has soured me on preventative wars in general. Not so Bolton: He remains an advocate of bombing Iran and North Korea. Anyone who favors a “war of choice” against a nuclear-armed state belongs in a psychiatric ward, not the White House —  although, admittedly, the difference between the two may no longer be consequential. Bolton has also become notorious for bashing the European Union and Islam. He has been chairman since 2013 of the Gatestone Institute, an Islamophobic think tank that has propagated the myth that parts of Europe and North America are “no-go zones” for non-Muslims.

In Trojan Women Odysseus, whose slippery tongue Euripides frequently attacks, is the John Bolton character. Priam’s wife Hecuba has just persuaded Hector’s wife Andromache to accept her slavery, but that is before Andromache learns her son Astyanax is to be killed. The Greek messenger Talthybius reluctantly delivers the news:

Talthybius: The news is bad. I don’t know how to find the words.
Andromache: At least you show some scruple, if you bring no joy.
Talthybius: Then know the worst: the Greeks are going to kill your son.
Andromache: Oh, no, no! This is worse than what they do to me.
Talthybius: Odysseus in a full assembly made his point–
Andromache: But this is horrible beyond all measure! Oh!
Talthybius: That such a great man’s son must not be allowed to live–
Andromache: By such a sentence may his own son be condemned!
Talthybius: But should be thrown down from the battlements of Troy.
Now accept this decision, and be sensible.
don’t cling to him, or tell yourself you have some strength,
When you have none; but bear what must be like a queen.
You have no possible source of help.

All experts agree that a strike against North Korea would instantly result in millions of deaths in Seoul. Through his depiction of Hecuba receiving the corpse of her grandson, Euripides helps us imagine the plight of the survivors:

   You Achaeans are fine fighters; but where is your pride?
Did you so dread this young boy that you must invent
A new death for him? Were you afraid that he one day
Would raise Troy from the dust? When Hector held the field,
With thousands fighting at his side, even then we fell
Before your swords; today, with Troy a ruined heap,
And every Trojan dead, did you so shake with fear
Before this babe? Are you not cowards? Fear is bad;
But fear lacking all ground or reason is far worse.

And further on:

Poor little head, your soft curls were a garden where
Your mother planted kisses; oh, how cruelly they
Were shorn by your own city’s god-built bastions!
Now through the shattered skull the blood smiles, tempting me
To unseemly words. Your little hands—how like your father’s!
But when I lift them they hang limp. Dear, lifeless lips,
You made me a promise once, nestled against my dress:
“Grandmother, when you die,” you said, “I will cut off
A long curl of my hair for you, and bring my friends
With me to grace your tomb with gifts and holy words.”
You broke your promise, son; instead, I bury you;
I, an old, homeless, childless woman, bury you.
All my fond kisses, anxious care, and wakeful nights–
All end in this. What would a poet write for you
As epitaph? “This child the Argives killed because
They feared him” An inscription to make Hellas blush.

Americans were goaded by their dread of Saddam Hussein to support preventive war in Iraq, and now Bolton is goading them—and worse yet, will be goading the president—to do the same elsewhere. Half a million people died as a result of the Iraq War, and those figures would be dwarfed by war with North Korea or Iran.

Euripides wrote Trojan Women after the Athenians perpetrated a 5th century May Lai massacre. The island of Melos wanted to remain neutral in Athens’s long war with Sparta, but democratic Athens, demanding loyalty, massacred all the men while enslaving the women and the children, horrifying Athenian citizens such as Euripides.

In Trojan Women, Greek carnage so appalls Greek-supporting Athena that she gives the Troy-supporting Poseidon full permission to wreak vengeance upon her favorites. Her priestess Cassandra, a Trojan princess whom the Greek’s violate within Athena’s holy sanctuary, predicts the wretched future that lies is store for Agamemnon, Odysseus, and other Greek warriors—and in doing so, all but predicts the future of the Athenian war against Sparta. A year after Euripides’s play, Athens’s Sicily expedition would end catastrophically, and ten years later (after Euripides had died) Athens would become a Spartan slave state.

The United States is too strong a military power to suffer such defeats if it embarks upon preventive wars, but, along with the mayhem that it visits on other countries, it will suffer a blow to its standard of living. The decline set in motion by the Vietnam War and accelerated by the Iraq War will continue. Meanwhile silver-tongued orators, in the tradition of Odysseus, will call for the slaughter of more innocents.

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Children Leading the Way on Gun Control

Father Archibald Craven (Lynch) discovers new hope in his son (Prowse)


As I watched the March for Our Lives young people, in all their idealism, cut through America’s clogged debate on guns, I felt hopeful for the first time in years. Casting my mind around for some work that captures their potential breakthrough, I thought of The Secret Garden, that most luminescent of all children’s classics.

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, former Republican and now anti-Trumper, captured the occasion as well as anyone:

By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do  this? 

The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.

 In Secret Garden, the jaded adult is Archibald Craven, who has been in a ten-year funk over the death of his beloved wife:

[T]here was a man wandering about certain far-away beautiful places in the Norwegian fiords and the valleys and mountains of Switzerland and he was a man who for ten years had kept his mind filled with dark and heart-broken thinking. He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in the place of the dark ones. He had wandered by blue lakes and thought them; he had lain on mountain-sides with sheets of deep blue gentians blooming all about him and flower breaths filling all the air and he had thought them. A terrible sorrow had fallen upon him when he had been happy and he had let his soul fill itself with blackness and had refused obstinately to allow any rift of light to pierce through. He had forgotten and deserted his home and his duties. When he traveled about, darkness so brooded over him that the sight of him was a wrong done to other people because it was as if he poisoned the air about him with gloom…

Craven returns to his estate expecting to find the sickly son he abandoned. Just as rightwing America has countenanced the death of its children rather than stand up to a rapacious gun industry, so Craven has eschewed his adult responsibilities. Fortunately for him, the children know what is important.

Imagine that the garden to which Craven returns is the Washington Mall this past Saturday:

The ivy hung thick over the door, the key was buried under the shrubs, no human being had passed that portal for ten lonely years—and yet inside the garden there were sounds. They were the sounds of running scuffling feet seeming to chase round and round under the trees, they were strange sounds of lowered suppressed voices—exclamations and smothered joyous cries. It seemed actually like the laughter of young things, the uncontrollable laughter of children who were trying not to be heard but who in a moment or so—as their excitement mounted—would burst forth. What in heaven’s name was he dreaming of—what in heaven’s name did he hear? Was he losing his reason and thinking he heard things which were not for human ears?…

And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster—they were nearing the garden door—there was quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shows which could not be contained—and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.

In Burnett’s novel, the children lead the way, helping the older generation rediscover their values:

Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his, side with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire—Master Colin.

When it comes to guns, America’s garden has been shut up for a long time. Maybe these children are the key to unlocking it.

Further thought: The novel’s one flaw–the patriarchal sidelining of Mary and Dickon at the conclusion–was not replicated in the March for Life. A wide diversity of young people took center stage.

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Harry’s Lenten Message: Love over Death

Harry (Radcliffe) “crucified” by Voldemort

Spiritual Sunday

Having just taught Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in my British Fantasy class, I am more puzzled than ever by Christian parents who forbid their children to read the book. Rowling all but bludgeons readers with the theme that love conquers death. Consider rereading Deathly Hallows as a prelude to Holy Week.

I know that parents have banned Harry Potter because multiple students have reported their experiences to me. Interestingly, many of them were encouraged to read C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which is ironic given that Rowling borrows Harry’s death scene directly from Aslan’s crucifixion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

 In Lewis’s novel, Christ-figure Aslan chooses to sacrifice himself, shouldering Edmund’s sin in order to cleanse the world. In a dramatic scene, captured memorably by illustrator Pauline Baynes, he gives himself up to the White Witch and her followers:

A great crowd of people were standing all round the Stone Table and though the moon was shining many of them carried torches which burned with evil-looking red flames and black smoke. But such people! Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book — Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. In fact here were all those who were on the Witch’s side and whom the Wolf had summoned at her command. And right in the middle, standing by the Table, was the Witch herself.

A howl and a gibber of dismay went up from the creatures when they first saw the great Lion pacing towards them, and for a moment even the Witch seemed to be struck with fear. Then she recovered herself and gave a wild fierce laugh.

“The fool!” she cried. “The fool has come. Bind him fast.”

Here’s the echoing scene in Deathly Hallows:

A fire burned in the middle of the clearing, and its flickering light fell over a crowd of completely silent, watchful Death Eaters. Some of them were still masked and hooded, others showed their faces. Two giants sat on the outskirts of the group, casting massive shadows over the scene, their faces cruel, rough-hewn like rock. Harry saw Fenrir, skulking, chewing his long nails; the great, blond Rowle was dabbing at his bleeding lip. He saw Lucius Malfoy, who looked defeated and terrified, and Narcissa, whose eyes were sunken and full of apprehension.

Every eye was fixed upon Voldemort, who stood with his head bowed, and his white hands folded over the Elder Wand in front of him. He might have been praying, or else counting silently in his mind, and Harry, standing still on the edge of the scene, thought absurdly of a child counting in a game of hide-and-seek. Behind his head, still swirling and coiling, the great snake Nagini floated in her glittering, charmed cage, like a monstrous halo.

Rowling signals her Christian message early on through the epitaph on the tombstone of Harry ‘s parents, which Harry visits when seeking to understand his mission:

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

Harry then undergoes a version of Jesus’s temptations in the desert. Although his spiritual guide Dumbledore has instructed him to destroy the horcruxes in which Voldemort has deposited his soul (thereby rendering himself immortal), Harry has doubts and thinks it might be better to opt for earthly power to defeat him. Voldemort means “flight from death,” and the dark wizard thinks that reassembling the three “deathly hallows”—especially the all-powerful Elder Wand—will save him. When Harry wants the wand for himself, he is thinking of death in Voldemort’s terms.

The deathly hallows appear in a story of three brothers who set out to defy death. The first two demand totems that will preserve them, the wand and a “resurrection stone” that can bring people back from the dead. Although Death presents them with these items, the brothers still die early. The third brother asks for an invisibility cloak that allows him to evade death’s notice, which he does until he has lived to a ripe old age.

The deathly hallows don’t match up exactly with Satan’s temptations, but the wand is a version of Satan’s offer of earthly power and the stone is like Satan’s promise of Jesus miraculously defying death. (Regarding Satan’s other temptation of turning stones into bread, it’s noteworthy that the food conjured up by magic in Potter World cannot sustain life.) Like Jesus, who abandons earthly power (thereby displeasing Peter), Harry opts for what Aslan calls “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” He articulates the choice as “horcruxes, not hallows.”

Like Jesus, Harry also has a Garden of Gethsemane moment of doubt as he walks towards his death in the Forbidden Forest. Because Harry knows his end is near, life appears especially precious:

Slowly, very slowly, he sat up and as he did so he felt more alive and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone… or at least, he would be gone from it.

Nevertheless, he now understands what is called for and essentially decides, “Thy will be done”:

Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes.

In other words, he must save humankind, who in their fear of death violate their souls.

I should mention here the resurrection stone that Harry carries. It has been hidden in an object that, until this moment, Harry cannot open. With his expanding awareness, however, he has a glimpse of true resurrection, and the opening spell anticipates Jesus’s empty tomb: “I open at the close.” Although previous owners have interpreted the stone through their fears—bringing people back from the dead is a literal way to overcome death—Harry uses it in a healthy way: he touches base with those who have loved him and who give him the strength to carry on. True resurrection is love, which can never die:

“You’ll stay with me?”
“Until the very end,” said James.
“They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.
“We are part of you,” said Sirius. “Invisible to anyone else.”
Harry looked at his mother.
“Stay close to me,” he said quietly.

I would not want to bring my oldest son, who died at 21, back from the dead. My love for him is eternal. That’s what Jesus means by heaven on earth.

Harry also undergoes a version of Jesus’s descent into death, noted in the Nicene Creed. There he encounters Dumbledore, who affirms his choices. In this shadow world we see Voldemort’s inner suffering, represented by a miserable “flayed” baby. When we sell our souls and commit atrocities in order to “flee from death,” we condemn ourselves to perpetual unhappiness. Dumbledore has such misery in mind when he says,

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love. By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present.”

Harry nodded and sighed. Leaving this place would not be nearly as hard as walking into the forest had been, but it was warm and light and peaceful here, and he knew that he was heading back to pain and fear of more loss. 

In his final encounter with Voldemort, Harry remembers the suffering baby, calls Voldemort by his human name (Tom Riddle), and gives him a chance to repent. This is the crucified Jesus pitying those whose suffering causes them to be cruel: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Harry says,

“[B]efore you try to kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done .. think, and try for some remorse, Riddle …”
“What is this?”
Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this.
Harry saw his pupils contract to thin slits, saw the skin around his eyes whiten.
“It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “it’s all you’ve got left … I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise … be a man … try … try for some remorse…”

Voldemort, however, cannot hear the appeal—which is to say, he cannot step beyond his angry suffering:

“Is it love again?” said Voldemort, his snake’s face jeering. “Dumbledore’s favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me from stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter – and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you from dying now when I strike?” 

Death dies as Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds upon himself. Harry’s compassion and love triumph o’er the grave.

We live in a world where fear talks big and seems to have love on the run. Yet millions marched yesterday against the fear that fuel gun purchases–teachers prefer Harry’s disarmament spell (“Expelliarmus!”) to Voldemort’s imperius curse–and millions are resisting Donald Trump’s bellicosity, even as he names war monger John Bolton to be national security advisor. While love in the face of fear has always been a tough sell (as Jesus well knew), we return to it time after time.

To cite Michelle Obama, when Voldemort goes low, Harry goes high.

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In Support of Today’s Anti-NRA Marchers


Here’s a poem I have taken to reposting every time there is another mass shooting. I run it today in support of all those marching in favor of sensible gun control in our blood-stained nation. To those young people who are leading the way, don’t be discouraged. During the Vietnam War, many of those marching felt that our efforts weren’t having any effect. We learned in retrospect that we had had an impact after all.

One additional note on the poem. My father, who saw the horrors of war close up in World War II, focuses on male insecurities. If he were writing the poem today, I’m pretty sure he would add in white insecurities to it as well.

Reprinted from Oct. 3, 2017

Throughout the years, following a mass killing I have often turned to works that capture evil at work in the world, most notably Beowulf and Paradise Lost. The links I have posted at the end of today’s essay are only too relevant to Sunday night’s mass killing in Las Vegas.

I want to turn today’s focus in a different direction. As a number of people have noted, the shooter who killed 59 and wounded 520+ did not act alone. He had an accomplice: the National Rifle Association.

I share today the angriest poem my genial father ever wrote, which takes the organization to task….In “Ballad of the National Rifle Association,” he unloads on the gun group for the ways that it exploits white male anxieties. The poem was “triggered” by a gun ad in Gun World that guaranteed “shooting satisfaction.”

“Ballad” is a complex mixture of fantasies and fears, combining macho displays of supremacy, erotic dreams of manly sexual performance, and various emasculation fears. Stanza two is filled with power rape fantasies (“Whang her bang her get your action”).

At one point Bates imagines Hollywood scenarios of protecting virginal daughters while cleansing the world of urban “putrefaction.” In this drama, which one sees in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the virginal daughters are the longing for a lost innocence while putrefaction is the black Other that makes anxious whites feel small and fearful. Donald Trump, of course, plays on fears of threatening African Americans (for instance, his description of urban neighborhoods as “hell holes”), and, right on cue, after the Las Vegas shooting Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned Chicago violence as a reason not to enact gun control measures.

The poem’s deep dive into the psychology of gun fanatics also examines revenge fantasies against chaotic nature and against parents—which is to say, against the fathers who mock their sons’ sensitivity and the mothers whose sensitivity they both long for and hate (because it makes them feel vulnerable). “Pistol Pentheus” is Euripides’s uptight control freak in The Bacchae, who tries to assert his manhood and is torn apart by his Dionysus-crazed mother. There is also an Oedipal reference to shooting the castrating father before he shoots you and adds your “skin” to his collection.

The utopian vision of a new Jerusalem is a power fantasy designed to override anxieties: a militarized America is very good at “winging rockets,” whether at enemies or at the moon. (“It’s natural the boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” W. H. Auden wrote about the moon landing.) The poem was written in the 1990’s but is impressively prescient given how commonplace apocalyptic language has become among many Christian gun-toting enthusiasts.

My father writes the poem in a southern accent. Having spent most of his life in southern Tennessee, he saw up close how susceptible poor Appalachian whites were to NRA fear mongering. The poem appeared in his collection The ZYX of Political Sex (Highlander Research and Education Center, 1999) so expect the language to be explicit.

Incidentally, Lucille Thornburgh, to whom the poem is dedicated, was a longtime union activist.

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

In memory of Lucille Thornburgh, dedicated worker for social justice, who liked this poem.

“For your shooting satisfaction . . .”–from an ad in Gun World

Pistol small arm handgun gun
Trooper Trailsman Frontier Scout
Smith & Wesson Remington
Combat Cobra Knockabout
Browning Sheridan Colt Snap-Out
Single-six and Double-action
Give you shooting satisfaction.

Pistol short arm peter prick
Rod avenger redmeat dong
Johnnie joystick reamer dick
Dummy fixer hicky prong
Swinging sirloin two feet long
Have a similar attraction
Every boy can be King Kong
With a shooting satisfaction.

Pistol-heist her hunt her down
Line her up and ream her right
Ride her home get off your gun
Shag her shoot her up tonight
Jump her hump her out of sight
Whang her bang her get your action
Fill her full of dynamite
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Po-lice save your pity
For the dirty rotten hood
Gun him down in Inner City
Like they do in Hollywood
Save your daughter’s maidenhood

And pulverize the putrefaction
Trash him baby trash him good
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Pentheus git yer maw
Afore she tears you limb from limb
Beat yer pappy to the draw
And incidentally get him
The sonavabitch who wants yer skin
To add it to his rug collection
Blast yer pappy Jungle Jim
Fer yer shootin’ satisfaction.

Pistol Patriot shoot your wad
The world the moon your mouth your brother
Build Jerusalem by God
Winging rockets at each other
Love your country like a mother
Love your enemy dog-fashion
Love your neighbor till he smother
In your shooting satisfaction.


Pistol pirate cool tycoon
Do us all a benefaction
Go take a flying fuck at the moon
For our shooting satisfaction!

Previous Posts on Mass Killings

The NRA Preying on Anxious Men

Manchester Suicide Bombing: Grendel Evil vs. Beowulf Strength of Mind

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

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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Read Your Children Poetry

Seymour Joseph Guy, “The Bed Time Story” (1878)


Before sharing my planned essay today—a positive one about teaching poetry in a middle school classroom—I post once again an anti-NRA poem by my father, this time to honor the victims of the recent school shooting at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland. Such shootings always occur at other people’s schools until suddenly they take place at one seven miles away. My three sons attended Great Mills and three former St. Mary’s English majors were teachers there when the shooting occurred. Our county is currently in a state of shock.

The execrable NRA is celebrating the fact that a security guard shot and killed the shooter, as though that outweighs his two victims. The NRA’s assurance that armed guards will deter shootings proved as empty as their assurances always are. (Update: Apparently the shooter committed suicide and was not shot by the guard. So double my last point.)

The NRA also failed to mention that Maryland’s tight gun regulations—tighter than Florida’s anyway—make it illegal to purchase or own an assault weapon. If the association had had its way, the student would have had access to something far worse than a handgun.

Changing the subject to a lighter topic, I would have loved to have had Brett Vogelsinger as a middle school English teacher. In Edutopia he describes how he starts out every class day with a poem.

My own middle school teachers gave us hardly any poetry. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely deprived as my father read poems to me and my three brothers every night, one for each of us. The practice continued up through middle school, and I still remember thrilling to “The Highwayman” (Alfred Noyes), “Little Orphant Annie” (James Whitcombe Riley), and “The Listeners” (Walter de la Mare).

When Vogelsinger first came up with the idea three years ago, he wasn’t sure he could find enough poems, but that hasn’t proved a problem:

Each year, I get a few sideways glances and furrowed brows when I explain our daily opening routine for class.

But before long, students are starting class with Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and Robert Pinsky, Rumi and Basho and Shakespeare. These voices, contemporary and classic, have helped define my classroom culture to such an extent that on the rare occasion when I postpone the Poem of the Day until later in the class period, my students interrogate me about it.

Time is a teacher’s “most valuable currency,” Vogelsinger says, so short poems are ideal:

After we read a short poem twice, I invite the students to engage in what I call microanalysis through an interpretive sentence frame. They fill in the blanks in my sentence: “When the poem says _______, it suggests that _______.” Students can find plentiful interpretations in just a few lines of verse. And the best part is that a short poem can be read, dissected, and discussed in just a few minutes, providing an excellent warmup in a lesson on close reading.

Vogelsinger says that Bly’s “Keeping Quiet,” Yeats’s  “Balloon of the Mind,” and Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” generate particularly rich discussions.

He also notes that poems establish emotional connections much quicker than novels and plays. I like his idea of “Shock Week—More Intense than Shark Week,” for which he serves up such poems as Michelle Boisseau’s “Tariff” (“a short, blistering poem about guilt”) and Wislawa Szymborska’s “The Terrorist, He Watches” (“a poem chilling in both subject and tone, giving us pause about the dark ramifications of being a bystander when others suffer”).

 A third advantage of poetry, Vogelsinger reports, is that it

can open a door to discussing those meatier, longer works of fiction and nonfiction that often define our curriculum.

Try using Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic poem “We Real Cool” to introduce an underlying conflict in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, has written some poetry that beautifully echoes specific lines in Romeo and Juliet, that standard freshman introduction to Shakespeare. Incorporating writing from a completely different culture that speaks to the same aspect of the human condition sends a powerful message about inclusion and diversity.

Finally, poetry inspires the students’ own creative writing efforts. Vogelsinger mentions Anis Mojgani’s “Shake the Dust,” noting that “[i]ts message of kindness and its welcoming cadence provide an invitation to write about the people in our world who are not given a voice. In so doing, your students can find their own.”

The world is hungry for poetry but often doesn’t realize it. School teachers kindle the flames and fan them.

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Dead or Alive? Bureaucracy Decides

Doc Daneeka (Gilford) tries to convince a fellow officer he’s still alive


Sometimes truth is, if not stranger than fiction, then at least anticipated by fiction. Take, for instance, this recent Associated Press story that which repeats an episode from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. It was entitled “Romanian Court Rejects Man’s Claim That He’s Alive”:

A Romanian court has rejected a man’s claim that he is alive after his wife officially registered him as dead, saying that the decision cannot be reversed.

A spokeswoman for the court told local news outlets on Friday that the man, Constantin Reliu, 63, lost his case in the northeast city of Vasului because he had appealed too late.

The ruling is final.

Local news reports on the case said that Mr. Reliu had lost contact with his wife and family when he traveled to Turkey in 1992 for work.

Hearing no news from her husband for years, his wife got a death certificate for him in 2016.

The authorities in Turkey found Mr. Reliu this year with expired papers and deported him. But when he arrived in Romania, he discovered he had been declared dead.

Dr. Daneeka in Catch 22 is a flight squadron surgeon who is afraid of flying and so gets friends to sign him into flight logs. Unfortunately, this means that, when his plane crashes, he is assumed dead. Given the military’s bureaucratic mindset that Heller mocks ceaselessly, Daneeka can’t convince anyone that he’s still alive:

The first person in the squadron to find out that Doc Daneeka was dead was Sergeant Towser, who had been informed earlier by the man in the control tower that Doc Daneeka’s name was down as a passenger on the pilot’s manifest McWatt had filed before taking off. Sergeant Towser brushed away a tear and struck Doc Daneeka’s name from the roster of squadron personnel. With lips still quivering, he rose and trudged outside reluctantly to break the bad news to Gus and Wes, discreetly avoiding any conversation with Doc Daneeka himself as he moved by the flight surgeon’s slight sepulchral figure…

Daneeka’s orderlies also refuse to believe he’s alive:

“You’re dead sir,” of of his two enlisted men explained. Doc Daneeka jerked his head up quickly with resentful distrust.
“What’s that?”
“You’re dead, sir,” repreated the other. “That probably the reason you always feel so cold.”
“That’s right, sir. You’ve probably been dead all this time and we just didn’t detect it.”
“What the hell are you both talking about?” Doc Daneeka cried shrilly with a surging, petrifying sensation of some onrushing unavoidable disaster.
“It’s true, sir,” said one of the enlisted men. “The records do show that you went up in McWatt’s plane to collect some flight time. You didn’t come down in a parachute, so you must have been killed in the crash.”
“That’s right, sir,” said the other. “You ought to be glad you’ve got any temperature at all.”

Daneeka’s wife, officially believing a widow, receives financial compensation. When her husband writes to her, she assumes it’s a crank letter and moves away, leaving no forwarding address. The doctor becomes a virtual shadow:

Alarm changed to resignation, and more and more Doc Daneeka acquired the look of an ailing rodent. The sacks under his eyes turned hollow and black, and he padded through the shadows fruitlessly like a ubiquitous sppk.

The same appears to be the case with the Romanian man:

“I am officially dead, although I’m alive,” Mr. Reliu was quoted as saying in local news reports. “I have no income and because I am listed dead, I can’t do anything.”

And so the world turns.

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When the World Is Mud-Luscious

E. H. Shepard, “Christopher Robin”


To welcome in spring—and to feel better about the miserable rainy day that we had yesterday—here’s one of my favorite seasonal poems. In his characteristic way, e. e. cummings plays with spacing, punctuation, and word placement to give a sense of the season exploding like joyous children. The goat-footed balloon man is a Pan figure, spring-like in the way that he ushers in bright colors.

No too many children were running around outside yesterday, the first day of spring. But mud-luscious was definitely the order of the day.

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles

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Trump on a Hot Tin Roof

Newman, Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”


With all the craziness in the White House, it makes a certain kind of sense that Tennessee Williams would make an entrance. For the defense, no less.

Trump lawyer Matthew Dowd channeled Cat on a Hot Tin Roof over the weekend as he unloaded on the FBI. Regarding his client as the innocent victim of a corrupt Bureau that covered up for Hillary Clinton while targeting his boss, he quoted one of Big Daddy’s speeches. In Dowd’s version of events, former director Jim Comey refused to smell the mendacity around him. Lest we miss the parallels, the lawyer thoughtfully annotated the passage:

“What’s that smell in this room [Bureau]? Didn’t you notice it, Brick [Jim]? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room [Bureau]?… There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity [corruption]… You can smell it. It smells like death.” Tennessee Williams — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

By contrast, the Trump administration is a shining beacon of integrity:

I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.

Dowd claims to speak for the president, who is now making similar comments, and he appears to be following a well-worn Trump strategy: project your guilt onto your rivals and attack them for it. Trump, not the FBI, is the anxious cat on the hot tin roof, hiding from accountability under an incessant stream of lies. “Odor of mendacity” indeed!

Some see Dowd and Trump testing whether the president can get away with ordering Rosenstein to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and end the Russia investigation. We can expect Dowd to find Rosenstein brilliant and courageous if he does so, smelling like death if he doesn’t.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, like most of Williams’s plays, is about repressed secrets that taint everyone involved. The play opens with the family of cotton magnate Big Daddy hiding his terminal illness from him, but we soon learn that much more is being hidden. Goober, Big Daddy’s corporate lawyer son, is unscrupulously plotting to inherit the plantation while Brick, the favored son, is in alcoholic mourning for a male friend who committed suicide to hide his homosexuality.

Tired of the mendacity, Brick finally chooses transparency and speaks openly with Big Daddy, who delivers the passage quoted by Dowd. That speech, which appears in the film, combines several passages from the play, including:

Brick: Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’?
Big Daddy: Sure. Mendacity is one of them five-dollar words that cheap politicians throw back and forth at each other.
Brick: You know what it means?
Big Daddy: Don’t it mean lying and liars?
Brick: Yes, sir, lying and liars.


Big Daddy: What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! Don’t you know that? I could write a book on it and still not cover the subject? Well, I could, I could write a goddam book on it and still not cover the subject anywhere near enough!!– Think of all the lies I got to put up with!–Pretenses! Ain’t that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have any idea of?

Worried about the sensitive son who loves him, Big Daddy urges him tolerate mendacity since, after all, we live in an imperfect world. Trump’s enablers in the GOP appear all too willing to tolerate his mendacity in order to get what they want.

Rather than the flawed but humane Big Daddy or the decent Brick, however, Dowd resembles Goober, who engages in lawyerly shenanigans while blackening Brick’s name. At one point Brick’s wife Maggie justifiably calls him out:

This is a deliberate campaign of vilification for the most disgusting and sordid reason on earth, and I know what it is! It’s avarice, avarice, greed, greed.

The play’s drama reflects our current political uncertainty: who will inherit the estate, Brick or Goober? In the play’s somewhat happy ending, Brick appears to prevail—especially if Maggie becomes pregnant—but Goober threatens that high-powered lawyers know how to get their way.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid said Sunday that the Trump administration does indeed resemble a Tennessee Williams melodrama and mentioned The Glass Menagerie. She could have added a warning about lawyers throwing stones.

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Female Intimacy in Virginia Woolf

Pietro Marussig, “Women in a Cafe,” c. 1924


While visiting the University of Ljubljana last week, I interviewed two applicants for the exchange program that Julia and I set up in memory of our oldest son Justin. Both students submitted superb essays, one of which I share today. Nadja Jukic, looking for ways that an older and a younger woman can have a relationship that doesn’t follow traditional lines (say, filial or lesbian), examined the relation between Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Nadja believes that the two women long for genuine intimacy but finds such intimacy hard to define: 

Was there ever a more ambiguous word in regard to human relationships than intimacy? Intimacy is a word that is in between: in between the unknown and familiar, limitations and openness, friendship and sex.

 As Nadja sees it, Woolf is charting new ground through Briscoe’s and Ramsay’s relationship. To make her case, Nadja has to argue against scholars like Ferhat Ordu and Murat Karakaş, who believe that the two women simply represent a historical passing of the torch, from Mrs. Ramsay’s Victorian angel in the house to Lily Briscoe’s “new woman.”  Those making such arguments sometimes believe that Woolf bases Mrs. Ramsay on her mother while seeing herself in the struggling artist Briscoe, but Nadja believes the relationship is more than that.

Because female intimacy is so elusive, Nadja first looks at what the Briscoe-Ramsay relationship is not. Disagreeing with Ordu and Karakas, Nadja argues that Ramsay

is not simply “an archetypal imag[e] of domesticity.” In fact, throughout the novel, Mrs. Ramsay doubts her love for her husband, feels used by him, and sees her own life as “something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.” Similarly, Lily is not just “a symbol for the modern woman,” and the relationship between the two characters, therefore, is not just a clash between an old-fashioned customs and new ideology.

Nadja says that Lily, while she disagrees with Mrs. Ramsay’s matchmaking, still loves being in her presence. In return, Mrs. Ramsay

likes Lily’s independence, even if she doesn’t share the trait. In one passage, Mrs. Ramsay thinks how “[t]here was in Lily a thread of something; a flare of something; something of her own which Mrs. Ramsay liked very much,” even though she adds “but no man would, she feared.”

As Nadja reads it, such passages point to a special kind of female intimacy. Nadja observes that “women in the novel see each other differently from how men see them.”

For example, Mr. Bankes worships Mrs. Ramsay from afar, prompting Lily to observe,

No woman could worship another woman in the way he worshipped; they could only seek shelter under the shade which Mr. Bankes extended over them both.

Lily, by contrast, looks behind Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty to “the perfect shape which one saw there,” and asks, “What was the spirit in her, the essential thing?”

A key passage for Nadja depicts Briscoe leaning on Ramsay’s knee and asking herself about the nature of their relationship. Why does she want “to somehow penetrate the beautiful, often deceptive exterior to get to the secrets she believes are within Mrs Ramsay?” Is it for wisdom? For knowledge? Nadja quotes scholar Laura Collins as she examines the scene:

“Sitting on the floor with her arms around Mrs Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay will never know the reason of that pressure,” she wants to understand, decipher Mrs. Ramsay. She is “seeking to absorb and know the older, admired woman” (Collins) as she “imagine[s] how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything.”

Nadja observes,

Already we can see a contrast between the physical touch that is present and a deeper connection that Lily yearns for, but does not know how to achieve. This is why she asks herself: “What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored?”


Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.

Nadja believes that what Lily ultimately desires is

 intimacy itself. This intimacy is not knowledge as an abstract concept, but rather knowledge of the other person. Importantly, it is also unknown to men, which means that it exists only between women. For Lily, intimacy is unity. But she does not yet know how to reach it: “Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head on Mrs Ramsay’s knee.”

Nadja is driven by her own desire to understand her desires and finds in literature the most powerful means for doing so. I regret that, by retiring in June, I won’t see what further insights Nadja gets while attending St. Mary’s.

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Filled with Some Other Power

Jacob van Oost II,” Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” (1688)

Spiritual Sunday

Denise Levertov’s poem “The Well,” while not specifically about today’s liturgy account of the Samaritan woman at the well, nevertheless works as commentary. I don’t know whether Levertov had converted to Christianity when she wrote this poem, but one sees within it her spiritual longing.

In the story, the Samaritan woman may think she wants the things of this world. Jesus, however, knows that she thirsts for something more:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

The speaker in the poem, when young, calls upon the moon to give her what he thinks she wants: beauty, a thin body, a pale complexion. To attain these things, “I moonbathed/diligently, as others sunbathe.”

However, she achieves only dissatisfaction:

But the moon’s unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

Only when she opens herself to her deeper longings does she discover true power. Rather than orienting herself by a material light source, she sinks into “dark nights of deep sleep.” What she finds is something more powerful than physical beauty.

Or as Jesus puts it,

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

The Well

By Denise Levertov

At sixteen I believed the moonlight 
could change me if it would.
          I moved my head
on the pillow, even moved my bed
as the moon slowly
crossed the open lattice.

I wanted beauty, a dangerous
gleam of steel, my body thinner,
my pale face paler.
          I moonbathed
diligently, as others sunbathe.
But the moon’s unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep
that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,
and woke rested, and if not beautiful,
filled with some other power.

Further thought: Levertov’s poem has me thinking about the spiritual and psychological symbolism of wells. In Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I’m currently teaching, Toru Okada descends into a dry well to examine why his marriage is disintegrating. Essentially, he does a deep dive within himself as he relives critical moments in the relationship.

At one point, someone pulls up the robe ladder and closes the well lid so that he can no longer see the moon. As in the poem, this is when he must truly go deep, and he enters a dream world in which he grapples with his shadow side. Once he comes to terms with it, the well begins to fill with water, a sign that he may be able to save his marriage.

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Believing in the Great White Race

The KKK in 1977 (including current Trump supporter David Duke, left)


 Teaching Langston Hughes in Europe, as I did yesterday at the University of Ljubljana, is to discover that many of his issues are readily transferrable. For instance, when Hughes talks about “Ku Klux,” the students thought of the European neo-fascists who are beginning to assert themselves. So far, Slovenia is resisting them, but they are on the rise in the surrounding countries (Hungary, Italy, Austria, and Croatia).

“Ku Klux” brilliantly exposes claims of white superiority through Hughes’s dark humor. One can’t see these tough thugs as they wish to be seen after their victim sasses them. By drawing on the tradition of Br’er Rabbit, the speaker exposes his tormenters as insecure bullies rather than members of a master race.

Unfortunately, the sassing that allows him to salvage his dignity doesn’t save him from a beating. One takes one’s victories where one can.

Ku Klux

By Langston Hughes

They took me out
To some lonesome place.
They said, “Do you believe
In the great white race?”

I said, “Mister,
To tell you the truth,
I’d believe in anything
If you’d just turn me loose.”

The white man said, “Boy,
Can it be
You’re a-standin’ there
A-sassin’ me?”

They hit me in the head
And knocked me down.
And then they kicked me
On the ground.

A klansman said, “Nigger,
Look me in the face —
And tell me you believe in
The great white race.”

Further thought: Because I’ve been out of the country, I missed the news of the Austin, Texas bombings, which appear to be targeting prominent black families. We don’t know for sure whether these are white terrorists, of course, but white nationalists have been behind most of the terrorism-caused deaths in the United States since 9-11 so that possibility must be considered. Hughes was well aware that klansmen do more than just beat people up, but he captures how such people are losers rather than heroic figures in a grand struggle.

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

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

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