Frodo as Newly Minted PhD

Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins


I’m teaching Fellowship of the Ring at the moment and was amused by this humorous comparison of Frodo’s journey to the PhD process. Much of it is spot on.

Applied mathematician David Pritchard describes Gandalf as a tutor and mentor who persuades Frodo to undertake what at first glance appears to be a very doable project (carry the Ring to Rivendell). Things go downhill from there:

Frodo very quickly encounters the shadowy forces of fear and despair which will haunt the rest of his journey and leave permanent scars on his psyche, but he also makes some useful friends. In particular, he spends an evening down at the pub with Aragorn, who has been wandering the world for many years as Gandalf’s postdoc and becomes his adviser when Gandalf isn’t around.

After Frodo has completed his first project, Gandalf (along with head of department Elrond) proposes that the work should be extended. He assembles a large research group, including visiting students Gimli and Legolas, the foreign postdoc Boromir, and several of Frodo’s own friends from his undergraduate days. Frodo agrees to tackle this larger project, though he has mixed feelings about it. (“‘I will take the Ring,” he said, “although I do not know the way.”)

Very rapidly, things go wrong. First, Gandalf disappears and has no more interaction with Frodo until everything is over. (Frodo assumes his supervisor is dead: in fact, he’s simply found a more interesting topic and is working on that instead.) At his first international conference in Lorien, Frodo is cross-questioned terrifyingly by Galadriel, and betrayed by Boromir, who is anxious to get the credit for the work himself. Frodo cuts himself off from the rest of his team: from now on, he will only discuss his work with Sam, an old friend who doesn’t really understand what it’s all about, but in any case is prepared to give Frodo credit for being rather cleverer than he is. Then he sets out towards Mordor.

The closer Frodo gets to completion, the harder it gets—a very accurate description of the latter stages of dissertation writing:

The last and darkest period of Frodo’s journey clearly represents the writing-up stage, as he struggles towards Mount Doom (submission), finding his burden growing heavier and heavier yet more and more a part of himself; more and more terrified of failure; plagued by the figure of Gollum, the student who carried the Ring before him but never wrote up and still hangs around as a burnt-out, jealous shadow…

The ending of the novel also captures only too well what can happen with newly minted PhDs. Having accomplished his mission—which is to say, having deposited his work in a place where no one will ever see it again (Mt. Doom as dissertation archives)–Frodo stumbles away and discovers that

victory has no value left for him. While his friends return to settling down and finding jobs and starting families, Frodo remains in limbo; finally, along with Gandalf, Elrond and many others, he joins the brain drain across the Western ocean to the new land beyond.

Okay, so that’s a bleak account of the process. I like to think of it rather as a journey of the hero, where young scholars, battling formidable obstacles and inner demons, gain the precious elixir of newfound knowledge and return with it to benefit their society. But I’m more idealist than satirist.

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Pope Anticipated the Ansari Affair

C. R. Leslie, arguments break out after Belinda’s lock is “raped”


Yesterday I suggested that Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock can illuminate the Aziz Ansari date-gone-bad that many are discussing. The situations don’t match up exactly given that, in the poem, the fan harasses the star rather than the other way around. As in the Ansari case, however, skewed social values contribute to the bad encounter.

To review what happened, 22-year-old “Grace” met up with Ansari at a party and was excited when later he asked her out on a date. As the date proceeded, however, she felt increasingly uncomfortable. Here’s a sampling of what she says happened:

Throughout the course of her short time in the apartment, she says she used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”

Whether Ansari didn’t notice Grace’s reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. “I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored.”

Ansari wanted to have sex. She said she remembers him asking again and again, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” while she was still seated on the countertop. She says she found the question tough to answer because she says she didn’t want to fuck him at all.

Eventually she brought the evening to a close by calling a car and leaving, crying all the way home.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the matter, from those who believe that Grace should have been more forceful and communicative to those who fault Ansari for not understanding her “verbal and non-verbal cues.” Some who believe that Ansari was out of line nevertheless want to separate the episode out from the #MeToo movement, which they feel should be reserved for criminal acts. Others, especially young women, recognize in the episode their own bad dates and want more of the #MeToo spotlight turned on bad male behavior, even when it isn’t criminal.

In Pope’s mock epic, the “rape” is what we would call sexual harassment and involves a pair of scissors (Pope uses the Latin word “forfex”). A rakish aristocrat, having flirted with and then been rebuffed by Belinda, goes after a lock of her hair:

The Peer now spreads the glitt’ring Forfex wide,
T’inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide…
The meeting Points that sacred Hair dissever
From the fair Head, forever and forever!

Pope addresses the poetic muse in an effort to figure out what has gone wrong:

   Say what strange Motive, Goddess! cou’d compel
A well-bred Lord t’assault a gentle Belle?
Oh say what stranger Cause, yet unexplor’d,
Cou’d make a gentle Belle reject a Lord?
And dwells such Rage in softest Bosoms then?
And lodge such daring Souls in Little Men?

He concludes that society has lost all sense of proportion. Celebrity culture causes certain people to see themselves as gods and others to worship them as such. So obsessed is “the Baron” with Belinda that, in mock imitation of the Homeric Greeks, he offers up a sacrifice to the goddess Love to win her:

   For this, e’re Phoebus rose, he had implor’d
Propitious Heav’n, and ev’ry Pow’r ador’d,
But chiefly Love — to Love an Altar built,
Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt.
There lay three Garters, half a Pair of Gloves;
And all the Trophies of his former Loves.
With tender Billet-doux he lights the Pyre,
And breathes three am’rous Sighs to raise the Fire.
Then prostrate falls, and begs with ardent Eyes
Soon to obtain, and long possess the Prize:
The Pow’rs gave Ear, and granted half his Pray’r,
The rest, the Winds dispers’d in empty Air.

Belinda, meanwhile, is having her ego stroked by everyone about her:

Fair Nymphs, and well-drest Youths around her shone,
But ev’ry Eye was fix’d on her alone.
On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.
Her lively Looks a sprightly Mind disclose,
Quick as her Eyes, and as unfix’d as those: 
Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends,
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the Sun, her Eyes the Gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.
Yet graceful Ease, and Sweetness void of Pride,
Might hide her Faults, if Belles had faults to hide:
If to her share some Female Errors fall,
Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all.

Belinda is not responsible for the assault, but she is guilty of toying with the Baron, if for no other reason than to vaunt her power over him. He believes that he will be lifted up if he wins her, and she uses his adulation to confirm her self-worth. Neither one is very deep.

Nor is anyone around them. The rest of society is an 18th-century version of Access Hollywood glamor culture, easily distractible and having no sense of what matters. No wonder the two young people behave as they do:

   Hither the Heroes and the Nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the Pleasures of a Court;
In various Talk th’ instructive hours they past,
Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last:
One speaks the Glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian Screen.
A third interprets Motions, Looks, and Eyes;
At ev’ry Word a Reputation dies.

The unfortunate result is a public scandal and, as in our own case, everyone has his or her own take on the matter:

All side in Parties, and begin th’ Attack;
Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack;
Heroes and Heroines Shouts confus’dly rise,
And base, and treble Voices strike the Skies.

I think that, as in Pope’s poem, celebrity culture blinded both Grace and Ansari. Grace was thrilled to be dating a star, perhaps so much so that she wasn’t as forceful as she should have been about setting boundaries (made more challenging by the power imbalance). Ansari, meanwhile, appears to have thought his stardom gave him special license to push things fast.  Maybe he took for granted that a fan would want to go along with whatever he wanted.

Perhaps Grace fell in love with the star’s sensitive persona in Master of None, assumed he would be that way in real life, and felt betrayed when he wasn’t. Ansari, meanwhile, didn’t acknowledge his star’s sense of entitlement. Everyone was projecting and nothing was real. No wonder everything went downhill.

In the poem, Pope presents us with a character who tries to wake everyone up to what really matters in life. Clarissa tells Belinda to focus on merit, not on appearance:

Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

You won’t be surprised that the advice goes unheeded:

   So spake the Dame, but no Applause ensu’d;
Belinda frown’d, Thalestris call’d her Prude.

Instead, the Baron is unrepentant while Belinda cries and then throws a temper tantrum. No one learns anything.

Pope wrote Rape of the Lock in response to a real life blow-up. Satire’s moral purpose is to bring us to our senses. We need it now as much as ever.

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Atwood and the Aziz Ansari Affair

Is the woman complicit (Alias Grace) or innocent (Handmaid’s Tale)?


Margaret Atwood is apparently under attack from certain radical feminists for raising questions about the #MeToo movement’s use of vigilante justice. In a related controversy, certain radical feminists want actor Aziz Ansari taken down for his gross insensitivity on a date, as reported by an anonymous woman in Babe magazine. I’m with Atwood in the first controversy and her novels can help us negotiate the second.

Atwood argued point in a Globe and Mail article that the legal system rather than twitter must settle issues of sexual assault. Not that she blames people for turning to social media. After all, if the legal system fails to protect victims, then they must use what resources they have. As the victimized Mrs. Yonge says in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s 18th century poem, “But this last privilege I still retain; /Th’ oppressed and injured always may complain.” In the case of #MeToo, complaining can actually have an impact.

Unfortunately, Atwood warns, vigilantism cuts both ways, with victimizers employing it as well as victims. And yes, women can be victimizers.

Atwood has gotten in trouble with feminists on this issue in the past. After The Handmaid’s Tale all but became the Bible of the feminist movement in the 1980’s, Atwood shocked fans with her depiction of Cordelia in Cat’s Eye (1988). This relentless bully showed that not every woman is a benign Offred or a heroic Ofglen. To feminists fearing that Atwood’s negative depiction of a woman hurt the feminist movement, the author replied that women have agency–they are not just pedestal objects—and must be shown in all their complexity. As she wrote in her Globe and Mail article,

My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviors this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.

Nor do I believe that women are children, incapable of agency or of making moral decisions. If they were, we’re back to the 19th century, and women should not own property, have credit cards, have access to higher education, control their own reproduction or vote. There are powerful groups in North America pushing this agenda, but they are not usually considered feminists.

Atwood’s novel Alias Grace explores this dynamic. Is Grace a foul murderess or is she the innocent accomplice of a murdering man? He goes to his death claiming that she instigated the murder and one is never sure. Atwood makes it clear, however, that the age’s double standard means that many insist on seeing her as an angel. They may seem to be on her side but, in the process, they reduce her to a stereotype.

Some challenging the woman’s account of her date with Aziz Ansari say that she portrays herself as a victim as opposed to a person with agency and that she could have ended the encounter at any point along the way. After all, this was more consensual than the Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Trump situations. Ansari should have been more alert to certain signals, but no one is claiming that his insensitivity was criminal. Had the woman been more forceful, the date would have ended much earlier.

True, there was a power imbalance insofar as he is a celebrity and she a star-struck fan. He appears to have been unaware that with star power come certain responsibilities. For that particular dynamic, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock has insights that I’ll share in a future post.

My point today is that women’s rights and better dates will come about only if we acknowledge the full complexity of women, men, and their interactions. Literature specializes in this complexity.

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Patmore’s “Angel,” a Dangerous Poem

George Elgar Hicks, “Woman’s Mission: Companion to Manhood”


A poem that shaped history but that no one reads anymore is Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House (1854). Allison Barrett, one of last semester’s senior seminar students, learned about the poem when studying Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and made it the subject of her final project.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, the students in “Theories of the Reader” were to choose a work of literature that created a stir and figure out why it did so. While Patmore’s description of his wife, whom he considered perfect, did not at first attract much notice, Nathaniel Hawthorne liked it and spread the word. Once Queen Victoria read and recommended it, it came to define how wives were supposed to behave. The poem contains such passages as

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.

Victoria was entirely on board, describing marriage at one point as

great happiness…in devoting oneself to another who is worthy of one’s affection; still, men are very selfish and the woman’s devotion is always one of submission which makes our poor sex so very unenviable… it cannot be otherwise as God has willed it so.

Allison’s survey of contemporary criticism found that the reviewer agreed with the Queen that women belonged in the home:

Of the line, “Her pleasure in her power to charm,” one critic wrote, “This is an excellent line…for which the author deserves to be presented with a service of plate from the ladies of the empire. Who would have believed that the ugly and often unjust word vanity could ever be melted down into so true and pretty and flattering a periphrasis!” Additionally, that same reviewer went on to claim that all women should be grateful to Patmore for his admirable “profound respect, delicate politeness, and religious chivalry, which are there molded into a fair poetic form, to the special honor of womanhood.” The reviewers of the time clearly held the popular belief that women should be “grateful” to Patmore for providing such a righteous and “flattering” manual of how to behave as a wife. Patmore’s friend, Alfred Lord Tennyson, would go on to state that, despite some problematic issues with form, the poem would “do our age good” and that “women ought to subscribe a statue for” Patmore’s instruction on how to live. Tennyson, at one time the Poet Laureate of England, [liked] the message of domestic idealization. Even Patmore’s harsher critics, who condemned Patmore’s obvious classism and prejudice, still praised his work in its portrayal of proper domestic roles for women. [Another critic wrote that Patmore’s theme] “is a noble one; comparable, indeed, to Dante’s. He has his Florence and his Beatrice; his degenerate countrymen; his earthly love foreshadowing a love celestial and ideal…The worship of the Virgin Mother will have, let us admit it freely, a fascination for the human spirit as long as gentleness, compassion, purity, and all the other graces that contribute to form the ideal of perfect womanhood can thus be enshrined and hallowed.” Clearly, at the time of the poem’s publishing, critics agreed that the role of the woman was in the home, and that woman must uphold a certain set of characteristics in order to be viewed as a proper wife, characteristics which Patmore promotes ad nauseum in his work.

If a work proves this popular, Allison posited, it must be responding to certain anxieties, and she found two historical factors at work. On the one hand, women were flooding into the cities with the rise of the industrial revolution and, as many were unable to find husbands, they began working in the textile mills. Harsh though the conditions were, women still found more independence from men than they had experienced in the country.

Men found this new independence to be doubly threatening when, during the American North’s cotton blockade, England experienced a sharp economic downturn, which undermined masculine self-respect. Allison imagined that men sought reassurance from Patmore’s poem, telling themselves that domestic angels feared “too much liberty” and therefore craved submission to a lord:

When blest with that release desired [from parents],
First doubts if truly she is free,
Then pauses, restlessly retired,
Alarm’d at too much liberty;
But after that, habitual faith,
Divorced from self, where late ‘twas due,

Her will’s indomitably bent
On mere submissiveness to him;
To him she’ll cleave, for him forsake
Father’s and mother’s fond command!
He is her lord, for he can take
Hold of her faint heart with his hand…

It wasn’t only men who ascribed to the fantasy. One can see even in a novel like Jane Eyre that the author is torn between a heroine who is independent and a heroine who is submissive to her husband. In the following century, Virginia Woolf said she had to kill the angel in the house to save herself:

I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing …Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.

For the theoretical framework that I required of the project, Allison chose the reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss, who argues that great works of literature challenge the age’s “horizon of expectations” while lesser works merely reenforce them. Angel in the House, a lesser work, was popular because it articulated what people already believed while Woolf’s To the Lighthouse set out to redefine women. Whereas Mrs. Ramsay is a traditional angel, the artist Lily Briscoe represents something new:

Lily Briscoe is Woolf’s attempt to “kill” the Angel by providing a new kind of role toward which women can aspire. Woolf’s writing pushes back against the horizon of expectations promoted by works like Patmore’s and systems such as the English Monarchy and Church. By having Lily end unmarried and painting, Woolf challenges the traditional ending for female characters, offering a new kind of horizon of expectations for readers. 

Allison, who is applying to graduate school to study neuropsychology, concludes,

Work such as Woolf’s paved the way for future writers, such as Sylvia Plath, whose work would go on to dismantle not only the restrictive domestic roles for women, but also the stigmatizing and oppressive horizon of expectations associated with the role of motherhood. As we continue to move forward, hopefully toward a more egalitarian society in which gender does not determine social status, it is important to review works that promoted the constraining, dehumanizing ideals as well as responses to those works so that we might better address public perceptions and better inform future writing and reading experiences.

To this I add that, when it comes to redefining expectations, Allison herself must be taken seriously. If you want to be inspired, read the excerpt I posted last spring about how she used poetry to grapple with her considerable neurological challenges. It is entitled “Assemble Me Piece by Piece: Femininity, Visibility, and Disability.”

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America, Racist and Revolutionary Both

Martin Luther King Day

For those who were lulled to sleep during the Obama presidency, our current Racist-in-Chief has been a shock. We shouldn’t have let our guard down since Donald Trump didn’t come from nowhere. He is the product of race hatreds that go back a long way.

We can choose to be demoralized by his rise or we can choose, like Claude McKay in “America,” to be stimulated to greatness. A Jamaican immigrant, McKay saw clearly America’s contradictions. The same country that proclaims that “all men are created equal” also works hard to ensure that they are treated differently. This was true in the last century and it will probably be true in the next.

However, like the preacher who came after him and whom we honor today, McKay didn’t give up on America. He loved its vigor and its bigness, which called upon him to stand like a proud rebel before a king. The contradictions he identified are like those that Martin Luther King too spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves [Audience:] (Yeah) who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. (Hmm)

But one hundred years later (All right), the Negro still is not free. (My Lord, Yeah) One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. (Hmm) One hundred years later (All right), the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later (My Lord) [applause], the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. (Yes, yes) And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men (My Lord), would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. (My Lord) Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

In McKay’s poem, America’s wealth is like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s sonnet, “priceless treasures” that will sink into the sand unless we can recognize them and turn them to good account.

America has always been about potential, with immigrants from “shithole countries” breathing new life into its founding ideals. Walling out dreamers is akin to sacrificing one’s children. The result is stagnation and death.

Or sinking into the sand.


By Claude McKay (1889-1948)

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

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I Have Heard You Calling in the Night

Joshua Reynolds “The Infant Samuel”

Spiritual Sunday

 One of my favorite hymns is inspired by today’s Old Testament reading about God awakening the child Samuel in the night. Poet Rita Hawkins imagines an interchange between God and someone who has opened his or her heart to listen:

Here I Am, Lord

By Rita Hawkins

I, the Lord of sea and sky, 
I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin, 
My hand will save.

I, who made the stars of night, 
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? 
Whom shall I send? 

Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? 
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of snow and rain, 
I have borne my people’s pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn away.

I will break their hearts of stone, 
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak my words to them.
Whom shall I send? 

Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? 
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I, the Lord of wind and flame, 
I will send the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them.
My hand will save.

Finest bread I will provide, 
‘Til their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them.
Whom shall I send? 

Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? 
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart. 

Catherine Ann Lombard also alludes to the passage although her respondent, perhaps more realistically, at first resists the call. The change that God offers may be what we want and need but that doesn’t mean we open ourselves to it as readily as Samuel does. It’s easier to stay with what is familiar, however unhappy we may be:

Here I Am Lord

By Catherine Ann Lombard

Here I am Lord.
In your fire again.
Under the weight of
your golden hammer.
As you once again
try to forge me into
a full human being.

Here I am Lord.
Frightened and weeping again.
Under the weight of
your awesome Love.
As you once again
try to embrace me into
the beauty of
who I am.

Here I am Lord.
Raging resistant again.
Under the fierce Light of
your omnipresence.
As you once again
try to bathe me in
your mercy,
shadows redeemed.

I am here Lord.
Inching closer to Joy.
Under the guidance of
your mysterious hand.
As you once again
try to nudge me towards
and my place
in this world.

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Is Bannon a Thomas Cromwell?

Thomas Cromwell


After it emerged that former advisor and now former Breitbart Network News head Steve Bannon thinks of himself as Henry VIII’s Thomas Cromwell, I got to thinking that British historical dramas have provided powerful frameworks for people who get fired. Bannon appears to have seen himself starring in a Hillary Mantel novel, and James Comey, after Donald Trump fired him, invoked John Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, starring Cromwell’s historical rival Thomas More.

Mantel’s trilogy about Henry VIII’s consiglieri, the first two volumes of which won Bookers, sympathetically follows Cromwell’s trajectory from humble beginnings to Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council to disgrace and execution (this last development in the yet unpublished third volume). Cromwell engineered many of Henry’s major policies, including his break with Roman Catholicism and the ending of his first two marriages.

Cromwell also ushered More to the chopping block although here the Bannon parallel fails. Supposedly Bannon saw the firing of Comey as a mistake.

If Bannon consoled himself by seeing himself as Mantel’s protagonist, however, he ignored one of Cromwell’s observations:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

Comparing himself to Cromwell actually reveals Bannon’s inflated sense of self since he cannot lay claim to any policies as momentous as those accomplished by Henry’s privy secretary. Nor did Cromwell ever forget who was boss.

Further thought: Here’s another Mantel quote, this from Wolf Hall, which captures the intoxication of power that overtook Bannon as he found himself buoyed up by Trump popularity and Mercer money:

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

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Black vs. White Responses to “Raisin”

Dee, Poitier in “Raisin in the Sun”


In my Theories of the Reader senior seminar last semester, I received a fascinating essay from student Mindy Grant about the different receptions that Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun received when it played on Broadway in 1959. Black and white audiences both liked it but for very different reasons. Mindy set out to find the reasons.

For her theoretical framework, Mindy drew on W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “Criteria for Negro Art,” in which he controversially asserts that “all art is propaganda.” (See my post on Du Bois’s essay here.) Du Bois overstates his case somewhat since he actually believes that the artist’s first obligation is to truth, not to some agenda. In that way he doesn’t disagree with, say, Sir Philip Sidney or Percy Shelley. But he’s well aware that many white authors are biased when they portray people of color. To cite Chinua Achebe’s famous example, the howling Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are a white European’s projection and have nothing to do with real Africans. Conrad may tell a deep truth about Europe’s spiritual crisis but, when it comes to people of color, he writes propaganda.

Raisin in the Sun was a hit amongst African Americans because, for the first time on Broadway, they felt they were witnessing complex depictions of themselves rather than stereotypes. Mindy writes,

Civil rights activists and leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin all spoke highly of Lorraine Hansberry and her work, and black audiences would mob her for her autograph following early performances. The response of black audiences can be understood when it is understood that until this time, Broadway had only ever shown flat and stereotyped caricatures of black people on the stage. For black audiences, they applauded the truthfulness of the play. Baldwin commented that “never before in American theater history had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on stage.” The play was one of the first to draw a large black audience to Broadway theater, and it did so because it gave them something of what they needed during this time of rising tension in race relations: an honest depiction of their own lives and experiences. Hansberry’s work allowed black audiences to, for once, see their own lives and experiences reflected on stage. This is the ideal that Du Bois encourages artists to strive for – truth in which beauty and freedom are inherent.

It’s worth noting, for contrast purposes, how Raisin in the Sun differs from Richard Wright’s Native Son, a theatrical version of which Orson Welles directed in 1941. Wright’s work captured the truth of black anger but it also (as James Baldwin would later complain) confirmed certain white stereotypes about black men. Raisin in the Sun, by contrast, depicted African Americans with middle class aspirations. The dream of owning one’s own home gripped America in the 1950s so everyone could relate. Mindy writes,

In Raisin black audiences were able to recognize the house, the family, and the streets outside it. Compared to many white authors’ depictions of black people, the full-bodied and seemingly real people that populated the stage inspired black audiences. They saw, to use Du Bois’s framing, beauty in truth well-represented. Critic A. Alvarez at the New Statesmen stated, “Miss Hansberry’s characters continually talk about the subjects which concern all Negroes: the jobs they can get, the areas they can live in, the strategies by which pride is preserved or undermined, assimilation…” For many people this reaffirmed that they were not alone, that their experiences were real, or gave them a way to understand and articulate their own lived experiences. King himself described Hansberry as “an inspiration” for “generations to come.” Playwright and actor Ossie Davis in Freedomways said the play sold because people of all color could identify with it.

White audiences, while they too liked the play, had a different take:

White audiences primarily applauded A Raisin in the Sun as “universal.” After watching the initial tours in the early 60s, they repeatedly made such observations as “This is not a Negro play, but a human play!”… [Many white spectators] found in the play something inherently American. White audiences held up and lauded the play as a token work of black culture to which they, too, could relate.

The assumption here is that white reality is universal reality, and the surprise behind the white response was that African Americans are “just like us.” White audiences were thus given a window they previously had lacked into increasing civil rights agitation, such as the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) and the Little Rock Nine (1957).

They were also given a picture that wasn’t as strident as, say, Bigger Thomas haranguing white society. This meant, however, that white audiences could also avoid the play’s political message about housing discrimination. Mindy notes that even the race-obsessed FBI didn’t find the play objectionable:

[T]his argument for the universality of the play allowed them to ignore the play’s criticism of the class and race relations in America and the so-called American dream. By seeing Hansberry’s play as similar to their own experiences, they did not feel that their world view was significantly challenged or that they would need to change their own behavior. John McClain in The New York Journal American wrote that there was “no abnormal exploitation of the current racial problems.” In many ways, Raisin was something of a relief. It did not call for violence nor lay heavy blame on white people as a whole. The story’s focus could be seen as a domestic drama about something which all middle and working-class Americans could relate to. Any political message which may have been embedded in the play was swallowed by the fullness and the richness of the characters, and the play was even deemed “not propagandistic” by the FBI, despite Hansberry’s somewhat radical past.

Although Mindy didn’t explore this, the issues raise the evolution vs. revolution debate. A quieter drama allowed white audiences an easier entry into racial conflict but, by doing so, also let them off the hook. Consciousness was raised gradually and indeed they wouldn’t have attended a more confrontational play. Only in the 1960’s did the benefits of this evolution pay off: their new awareness opened them up to, say, the more violent plays of Amiri Baraka (Dutchman, The Toilet).

In short, in 1959 black audiences were grateful that their reality was being acknowledged on stage and white audiences were pleased that relating to African Americans didn’t prove to be too uncomfortable.

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Murakami and Millennials’ Identity Quests

Haruki Murakami


People are constantly making generalization about millennials, which is to say those born between 1982 and 2004. As a contribution to the discussion, I describe today my first year seminar “Haruki Murakami’s Existential Fantasies.” Don’t worry if you don’t know Murakami’s work as I’ll provide sufficient context. What’s important is how the students responded.

I can report that millennials aren’t much different than we were as boomers fifty years ago. They are fascinated by existentialism, as many of us were, because they are wrestling with life’s big issues, especially identity and purpose. Because of student debt and a less forgiving economic environment, they may feel more pressured about life after college than we were, but the same kinds of literary quests engage them. They find kindred souls in Murakami’s stressed-out protagonists.

Murakami’s novels work as existential parables. His protagonists begin as functionaries within a system but then break free—sometimes willingly, sometimes because they are pushed—to find more meaningful existences. Thoreau’s observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” summarizes the plight of many Murakami characters while his determination to “live life deliberately” becomes their quest as well. Murakami’s literary forebears are key figures in existentialism: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Raymond Carver, and hard-boiled detective novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Murakami once said in an interview, “So for me it’s the same thing, Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler. Even now, my ideal for writing fiction is to put Dostoevsky and Chandler together in one book.”

To these western influences Murakami adds an element of Japanese fantasy, and his novels can be characterized as magical realist. To summarize the four novels we studied,

–in Wild Sheep Chase the protagonist must be jolted out of his soul-sucking job to defeat an authoritarian sheep god who wants to turn all Japanese into metaphorical sheep;

–in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a soulless “calcutec” must find refuge in an internal fantasy world to fight against his programming;

–in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist confronts the forces that are stupefying Japanese society and destroying the possibility of authentic relationships; and

–in Kafka on the Shore a 15-year-old runs away from home to escape the Oedipal destiny his emotionally abusive father has predicted for him.

In her essay on Wild Sheep Chase, Val quoted Thoreau as she talked about how the protagonist must be jolted out of his empty existence (he designs fliers advertising such items as margarine) in order to find a life that is meaningful. The protagonist must be stripped of everything familiar before he can confront his inner self. He learns at the end that he doesn’t want to live a sheep-like existence.

Genevieve took a similar approach with the novel, only in her view the protagonist is emotionally numb and must learn how to feel, which he learns how to do by connecting with nature. It’s as though the pressures of high-stress living have closed him down. Genevieve compared the novel to the movie Moonlight, where a tough environment has beaten the sensitivity out of the Chiron, who must find his way back to his humanity.

Writing about Hard Boiled Wonderland, Danielle, Cam2, and Andrew (an English, philosophy and physics major respectively) talked about how the nameless protagonist must get in touch with his shadow side (who is literally his shadow) in order to break from a life that consists entirely of work and meaningless hook-ups. Cam2 talked of his need for an authentic existence. When, in the protagonist’s fantasy world, his shadow instructs him to map the walled city in which he lives so that they can escape, his life suddenly becomes filled with potential meaning and he embarks on an adventure. Ultimately he discovers that genuine relationships, music, and writing are what make life worth living.

Seth, Olivia, and Lily all tackled Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, each from a different angle. For Seth, the novel is about how Japanese men suppress their feelings and, in the process, destroy their lives. (There is a gruesome image in the novel of a man skinned alive, which Seth said captures the fear of exposure.) The protagonist Toru tries to close his eyes to his inner anger but saves himself when he confronts it.

Olivia was interested in protagonist Toru’s marriage to Kumiko and how the forces of Japanese society are pulling them apart. Only by facing up to these forces do they salvage their relationship.

Lily was interested in a side character, a teenage girl who goes on her own identity quest. Living an aimless existence where she obsesses over death, she finally breaks with convention and goes on to live her own life.

Kafka on the Shore drew the most interest. For Rachel, the novel is about the need to leave home in order to find oneself (a classic college drama) whereas for Alexandra, a diplomat’s daughter, the drama was about 15-year-old Kafka never feeling he has a stable identity and having to forge one for himself. Eliana, an adopted Chinese orphan, was riveted by Kafka’s mother abandoning him and related to his need to construct a plausible explanation for why she did so (and to forgive her as well). Briana, an out lesbian with a trans girlfriend, was pleased to see a trans character undergoing his own identity quest. For Maia, Julia, and Cam1, the novel is about dealing with and moving past emotional childhood trauma.

As you can see, Murakami’s existential parables meant something special to each student. It helps explain why, world-wide, few authors have a bigger following amongst young people.

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Pope Describes Triumph of Stupidity

Frontispiece to Pope’s “Dunciad”


In 1742, convinced that his country was falling prey to universal stupidity (or dullness), Alexander Pope composed the fourth book of The Dunciad.  I wrote about Pope’s poem eight years ago, but then it was in reference to rightwing media pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Little did I know that the dunces would take over the White House and eventually infect most Congressional Republicans.

In other words, The Dunciad is more relevant than ever.

In the poem, Pope satirizes the hack writers of his day, whom he regards as evidence that culture has lost its way. In Book IV he imagines Chaos and Night, two of Satan’s friends in Paradise Lost, preparing to take over the world. (I’ve myself have compared Trump’s followers to Satan’s friends in a past post.) The result will be “Saturnian days of lead and gold,” Saturn being an astrological sign associated with depression and limitation:

Then rose the Seed of Chaos, and of Night,
To blot out Order, and extinguish Light,
Of dull and venal a new World to mold,
And bring Saturnian days of Lead and Gold.

Pope imagines the Goddess Dullness mounting her throne in triumph. The poet on her lap is Colley Cibber, England’s poet laureate whom Pope considered (with good reason) to be a fraud. For our purposes, replace Cibber with our reality television president, who claims to be “like, really smart” and “a stable genius.” Or better yet, think of Dullness as Trump and Cibber as formerly respectable Republicans like Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham, and Chuck Grassley, who have fallen under his spell:

She mounts the Throne: her head a Cloud concealed,
In broad Effulgence [brightness] all below revealed,
(‘Tis thus aspiring Dullness ever shines)
Soft on her lap her Laureate son reclines.

Dullness’s court, like Trump’s, persecutes intelligence. “Science” is in chains and those who would use their wit to speak truth to power face punishment. Logic, meanwhile, is gagged and bound, and noble rhetoric has been stripped and blunted. In rhetoric’s place we have sophistry and billingsgate (obscenity):

Beneath her foot-stool, Science groans in Chains,
And Wit dreads Exile, Penalties and Pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic, gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground;
His blunted Arms by Sophistry are born,
And shameless Billingsgate her Robes adorn

I can’t even begin to list all the ways that the Trump administration and Trump supporters fit this description, engaging in attacks on science, wit (intelligence), logic, and the high art of rhetoric (we get demagoguery instead). Pope observes that morality is now being strangled by lawyers and church officials—in our case Trump’s spokespeople and rightwing Christians:

Morality, by her false Guardians drawn,
Chicane [trickery] in Furs, and Casuistry in Lawn [church linen],
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dullness gives her Page the word.

The higher principles represented the arts are also under attack. High-minded tragedy, Pope imagines, is about ready to kill herself. Good natured comedy (Thalia) too is threatened but is being sustained by satire, just as many Americans today are sustained by our own satirists. History, meanwhile, isn’t willing to back off. She will be back to tell the sorry story of the age:

But held in ten-fold bonds the Muses lie,
Watched both by Envy’s and by Flattery’s eye:
There to her heart sad Tragedy addressed
The dagger wont to pierce the Tyrant’s breast;
But sober History restrained her rage,
And promised Vengeance on a barbarous age.
There sunk Thalia, nerveless, cold, and dead,
Had not her Sister Satyr held her head:

As the poem comes to an end, Pope imagines the goddess yawning and the yawn spreading to the entire world. (As he puts it, “More she had spoke, but yawn’d — All Nature nods:/ What Mortal can resist the Yawn of Gods?”). With that, all the lights of wit and culture begin to go out, just like the 100 eyes of Argus, the mythological giant, under the spell of Hermes. And just like the GOP succumbing to Trumpism:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sickening stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest . . .

In this dreadful scenario, art flees and truth finds itself buried under casuistry—which today could be seen as the word salads and whataboutism regularly served up by Trump supporters to defend the president:

Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heaped o’er her head!

Trump and his rightwing Christian followers, meanwhile, preach a gospel that looks nothing like the actual teachings of Jesus:

Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

All of this leads to a great crescendo:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

I like the notion of “uncreating word” applied to Trump and the current GOP. They aren’t building anything of substance, just “uncreating” what great people before them have created. They are anarchists who hope to profit from the chaos by rewarding  wealthy donors and themselves.

Like all great satire, Pope’s poem is designed to stir up resistance so that “universal darkness” doesn’t ultimately prevail. How will the American people respond?

Further thought:

 David Brooks makes a couple of relevant points in his New York Times column today, one critical of Trump supporters and one of Trump critics. The supporters, like Pope’s hack writers, are guilty of “lowbrowism,” whose intent is to make everyone more stupid:

Fox News pioneered modern lowbrowism. The modern lowbrow (think Sean Hannity or Dinesh D’Souza) ignores normal journalistic or intellectual standards. He creates a style of communication that doesn’t make you think more; it makes you think and notice less. He offers a steady diet of affirmation, focuses on simple topics that require little background information, and gets viewers addicted to daily doses of righteous contempt and delicious vindication.

Brooks adds, however, that there is a corresponding danger of overreacting, and Pope might himself be accused of doing so with his warning of “universal darkness.” After all, the world did not end in 1742.

Yes, we should avoid hysteria. And indeed, I think that Pope himself is subtly mocking his own anxieties by overstating his case. Perhaps he’s mocking Dunce Derangement Syndrome, just as Trump Derangement Syndrome could be argued to follow in the tradition of Obama Derangement Syndrome and Bush Derangement Syndrome.

The important thing is to focus on policy rather than Michael Wolff-style scandal narratives. If you want to talk to people who have genuine concerns about Trump, talk to Dreamers, Haitian and El Salvadoran refugees, people living on the coasts (who will see increased offshore oil drilling with rolled back regulations), national park lovers, transgender people, the prison population, those living on the Korean peninsula, and all who stand to be impacted by climate change. After all, dismissing critics as hysterical can also mean ignoring legitimate criticism: Jonathan Chait notes that Brooks also criticized attacks of George W. Bush, who was responsible for the biggest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam and the melting down of the financial markets, leading to the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Maybe Brooks is sees hysteria in what is actually urgency.

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A President Who Hates Books

A private book collection and owner are destroyed in “Fahrenheit 451”


Everyone seems to agree that Fire and Fury, the new Michael Wolff account of the Trump White House, doesn’t so much break new ground as confirm what people have suspected or known for quite some time. In June 2015, for instance, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked Donald Trump if he was able to read and didn’t get a very convincing “yes” in reply.  Wolff’s book confirms that we may be in Fahrenheit 451 territory.

Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker summarizes Wolff’s book on this topic:

The president doesn’t read and instead watches a lot of TV, preferably on one of the three screens in his bedroom, where he often retires by 6:30 p.m. to eat his dinner and make calls. He doesn’t listen, easily becomes bored and seems unable to pay attention. He repeats the same three stories within minutes of having just told them, and his memory loss is apparently becoming more pronounced.

Even during the campaign, when some say Trump was sharper, he was easily distracted and bored. Wolff tells of campaign adviser Sam Nunberg trying to teach Trump about the U.S. Constitution. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment, before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head,” says Nunberg in the book. (That amendment is the one about people being safe from unreasonable search and seizure. Perhaps Trump, rather than being disinterested in the presentation, was expressing his opinion of the amendment.)

I owe the Ray Bradbury connection to author David Williams, who wrote an article describing how the mother of a 13-year-old, offended by Fahrenheit 451, demanded that a school system replace it with his own dystopian novel When the English Fall. The story itself is worth examining—the mother objected to the word “bastard”—but I turn here to Williams’s observation that the novel is uncomfortably close to Trump’s vision of how the world should be.

Bradbury imagined a world where corporate-authoritarian politics maintain the shallow mask of democracy as a gullible populace is spoonfed candidates. He visualized insurgents and criminals being hunted and killed by the “hound,” an unstoppable drone. He cast a vision of callow selfish brutalism as an endless war burns, far away from a populace willingly subjugated by distractions and banality.

Information, in the society of Fahrenheit 451, is an endless cavalcade of trivia, tightened and shortened until every mind is filled with a blinding, churning nothing. At a key point in the narrative, Montag’s boss Beatty visits him, and in a monologue gives the reader a vision of the way information was presented in this strange and nightmarish future:

…speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending […] classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. [….] Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

Bradbury may not have actually used the word “Twitter,” but this 1953 description of the low-attention-span “future” cuts rather too close to home.

Print culture allows us to hold multiple ideas in suspension as we negotiate a complex world. Think of how voracious readers like Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln were able to understand the complexity of the world and respond by constructing a great nation. Trump leeches off what they built, achieving short-term victories by jettisoning truth, reason, science, morality, and social norms.

With con men like the president, however, we at least know what to expect. More discouraging is that most of the Republicans in Congress have signed up for his program. After all, if you can sell Americans anything simply by whirling their minds around while flinging off time-wasting thought, who needs the genuine wisdom offered up by authors?

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A Pause in Time and the Soul’s Awareness

“Adoration of the Magi,” painted by Benedictine monks, Conception Abbey

Epiphany Sunday

While searching for a good Epiphany poem, I came across the poetry of one John Thorkild Ellison and find myself enchanted. In “The Failed Mystic,” Ellison expresses his frustration that he cannot “freeze Eternity into one single Moment.” He is desperate for transcendence and would like to say that he hears Jesus knocking at his door but says his experience is instead“fumbling about in the darkness.” When he asks, at the end, whether there is “no cure” for his frustrated longing, I am reminded of Denise Levertov, whose own awareness of spirit always comes to her indirectly, through absence rather than presence:

The Failed Mystic

By John Thorkild Ellison 

When I was young, the wind in the trees
Brought intimations of the Great Spirit.
Later, I suffered from a grey disease
And my soul was like an apple, rotten to the core.

I used to try to freeze Eternity
Into one single Moment, 
Stand on a hill-top and try to transfix
The Beauty of Nature like a
Final Butterfly captured Forever.
It was a hopeless task.

Later, I wrote down my Vision
In poems of no merit
And dreamed of Immortality.

Now I cannot say You were always there, 
Knocking at my door, 
Beckoning me to a life of Love through Action.

It isn’t true.

I was fumbling about in the darkness, 
Trying to be sure, 
To find my Vocation in the dullest chore, 
Like saints do.

I always wanted to be special, 
The centre, not on the periphery, 
To be loved……. 

But tell me, Great Spirit, is there no cure? 

In Ellison’s poem “Epiphany,” the poet appears to be slightly more successful. God appears in a silence that contrasts with the restless noises all around him. As in “The Failed Mystic,” we encounter the grayness of hopeless longing—“desolate is the heart’s desire/And the loving knows no end”—and the sighing of the wind in the treetops could be his own. The epiphany will not show up for the poet in the form of a brilliant star announced by angels and three kings.

Instead, the town’s noises fade, there is a pause in time, and the soul becomes aware of itself. That awareness is the divine entering our lives, and it is all the more powerful because it occurs so quietly.


By John Thorkild Ellison

Outside the surge of the wind, the wind in the trees, 
The rush of leaves, and the sighing in the pine-needles, 
Outside the sound of the sea-shore, distant, remembered, 
The waves breaking on the gray rocks, and the evening approaching, 
The restlessness, and the interminable noise.

Silence in the room, and solitude, 
A sense of spaces, remoteness and nearness, and the soul’s awareness, 

Desolate is the heart’s desire
And the loving knows no end, 
When the morning in the clouds breaks across the sky, 
And the forests sway and bend.

Outside the wind, the wind in the trees, 
And the sighing in the tree-tops.

Noises from the town, heedless, unthinking, indistinct, 
Recurring, fading, 
And silence in the room, and solitude, 
The shadowy dimness, the darkness of evening, 
A pause in time, and the soul’s awareness. 

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How to Celebrate a Winter Storm

Serbian naive painter Zuzana Chalupova, “Russian Village in Winter”


For those of you getting pounded by winter storms, here’s a Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem to cheer you up. Getting snowed in is a time for “free fellowship”:


By Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For January I give you vests of skins,
And mighty fires in hall, and torches lit;
Chambers and happy beds with all things fit;
Smooth silken sheets, rough furry counterpanes;
And sweetmeats baked; and one that deftly spins
Warm arras; and Douay cloth, and store of it;
And on this merry manner still to twit
The wind, when most his mastery the wind wins.
Or issuing forth at seasons in the day,
Ye’ll fling soft handfuls of the fair white snow
Among the damsels standing round, in play:
And when you all are tired and all aglow,
Indoors again the court shall hold its sway,
And the free Fellowship continue so.

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A Herculean Task: Purging Old Files

Heracles prepares to clean out the Augean stables


My last few days have been emotionally tumultuous. That’s because, in preparation to moving into my mother’s cabin when I retire in June, I must clear out all my father’s files. As far as I can tell, he never threw anything away, including all the letters he received and sent. (There are carbon copies of the latter.) I feel like I’m going through the files of Moses E. Herzog.

Actually, Saul Bellow’s protagonist in Herzog doesn’t actually send the hundreds of letters he imagines writing. My father did, however. Whenever he saw a scholarly article he liked, he would send a letter that engaged with the ideas. Often he received letters in return.

I have found some gems among the correspondence. Robert Penn Warren liked my father’s poetry collection ZYX of Biblical Sex. (“You are a funny man, Scott Bates,” he wrote.) There are a number of interchanges with poets Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy, Philip Appleman, Elizabeth Alexander, and Reed Whittemore. These were all scattered around so I just stumbled on them.

And then there is material from my father’s civil rights days. For instance, I came across a letter where he was censured by the dean for opening up contacts with Howard, Morehouse, and Fisk colleges (this when Sewanee was still segregated). I found letters he wrote to various newspapers fighting the good fight.

Perhaps I should have prayed to the goddess Athena, which is what Heracles did when tasked with cleaning out 30 years of muck from the Augean stables. Here’s Seamus Heaney’s account of the myth:

My favourite bas-relief: Athene showing 
Heracles where to broach the river bank 
With a nod of her high helmet, her staff sunk 
In the exact spot, the Alpheus flowing 
Out of its course into the deep dung strata 
Of King Augeas’ reeking yard and stables.
Sweet dissolutions from the water tables,
Blocked doors and packed floors deluging like gutters…

Hopefully Athena’s wisdom has been present in what I have thrown away, because throw away I have. I have recycled grade books going back to the 1950s, tenure committee files, reports of old Board of Trustee meetings (the faculty wanted my combative father as the faculty representative), notices of film series, minutes of the college’s lease committee. And letters to editors, publishers, and scholars. And documentation of the controversy that erupted over an erotic film that my father made with his students. And old protest signs carried at civil rights rallies, LBGTQ rallies, July 4th parades. And on and on.

Above all, there’s his research—cartons and cartons of it. I tell myself that most of it has published, especially the material on French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, so that it won’t matter if I throw it away. In some ways, I’m feeling like a parricide.

Making it a little easier is the fact that I’m doing the same with my own files at the moment as I prepare to move. My own sons won’t have to go through this.  Still, it’s different when it’s someone who you’ve admired and emulated.

So much work, reflecting creative energy, intellectual excitement, and communal commitment, is being consigned to oblivion. It’s a sobering experience.

Another poem: My mania for cleansing the apartment also brings to mind the Lucille Clifton poem “at last we killed the roaches.” It’s not an exact fit since I salvaged a few precious documents. Still, I felt like an exterminator as I threw away entire boxes:

at last we killed the roaches.
mama and me. she sprayed,
i swept the ceiling and they fell
dying onto our shoulders, in our hair
covering us with red. the tribe was broken,
the cooking pots were ours again
and we were glad, such cleanliness was grace
when i was twelve. only for a few nights,
and then not much, my dreams were blood
my hands were blades and it was murder murder
all over the place.

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Austen: Standing Up to Harassers


Two friends, both conservative, alerted me recently to articles in conservative publications about how reading Jane Austen can help women push back against sexual harassment. While we disagree about many political issues, in this instance we are all on the same page.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s WSJ  article is the more straightforward of the articles. What should a lady do when harassed? Behave as Elizabeth does when Mr. Collins refuses to take a hint, which is to be clear and decisive:

“I am very sensible of the honor of your proposals,” pronounces Elizabeth, “but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.” Her refusal might serve as a guide to women on how to answer an unwanted proposition: politely but firmly. In some cases harassment can be stopped by a forceful “no” or a decisive pushing away of a hand.

Cohen also notes how Elizabeth further deters Collins by exuding a sense of power. When her mother calls Elizabeth  “a headstrong foolish girl,” it is enough to send Collins into the arms of the more compliant Charlotte. Cohen writes,

Figuring out how to relay to someone in power that you have the capacity to make his life miserable may be an effective way to stop him in his tracks.

Unfortunately, Cohen doesn’t explore how one develops Elizabeth’s strong sense of self. M. D. Aeschliman’s National Review article takes up this issue, however, in a piece that contrasts Austen with a contemporary, Madame de Stael.

Aeschliman’s article is more elliptical than it need be, but her argument is essentially that Austen can stand strong against systemic sexism because she has a strong religious and moral base. She points to Austen’s debt to Samuel Johnson (whom Anne Elliot recommends to a weepy Captain Benwick in Persuasion), noting that Austen

helps us, and her characters, to “undeceive” ourselves of self-serving and self-flattering illusions, in the interest of real, unostentatious Christian self-understanding and virtue. 

To read Jane Austen, Aeschliman says, is to engage in “moral hygiene,” a process that is perhaps most dramatically seen in Mansfield Park. It’s easy for the reader to say “no” to Collins but how about to Henry Crawford? If one allows oneself to be seduced by this attractive but glib man, if one roots for Fanny to marry him, then one has failed a moral test. That Fanny passes the tests shows that she is strong, both as a Christian and as a woman.

In Austen’s world, the danger is always narcissism. All the villains are self-absorbed (Thorpe, Willoughby, Wickham, Crawford, Mr. Elliot), and the weak women are self-indulgent (Isabel, Lydia, Maria, Anne’s sisters). The most interesting characters are those that feel the pull but have principles that help them self-correct (Marianne, Emma).

Aeschliman believes that Austen is superior to de Stael, who can be guilty of being too soft (“to understand everything is to pardon everything”) and opening the door to a “liberal, relativistic, and desiccated rationalism.” Better to regard the use of one’s “reason, conscience, will, and language” within a framework that acknowledges a higher power and higher principles. Aeschliman cites a Goethe passage that she applies to Austen: “Everything that liberates our minds without at the same time adding to our resources of self-mastery is pernicious.”

Cohen and Aeschliman are right that Austen has an important message for the #MeToo movement: strength of character is key to fighting sexual oppression. Put me down as one liberal who applauds the development of discipline, self-mastery, strong moral values, and service to higher ideals in our young people.

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Black Women as Saviors? Clifton Objects

Doug Jones captured 98% of the black female vote in Alabama


A New Yorker article on “How the Alabama Senate Election Sanctified Black Women Voters” reminded me of a Lucille Clifton poem where the poet makes a similar point. Black women don’t want to be turned into saints.

As the most loyal Democratic voting bloc, with percentages regularly hitting the 90+ percentile, black women have been seen as saving America from itself. Doreen St. Felix writes,

The hosannas accumulated on social media and in the news, a multiplicity of brief ecstasies for the citizen who has been, as bell hooks wrote in “Ain’t I a Woman,” “socialized out of existence”: “It’s really nice of black people to save America—after slavery, Jim Crow, and everything else.” “What if we just let black women run everything” and, in response, “I’m definitely ready for that. I said a prayer the other day and when God answered me back she was a Black Woman.” “Black voters, in particular black women, save America again.” “Dear America, We will always save your ass, because at the end of the day, we live here and love this country, even if you don’t always love us back.” The proven adage is that black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. That black women themselves trade in such phrases only stresses the obstinacy of the idea that “black women will save America from itself.”

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, when black women are regarded as saviors, their particular needs aren’t acknowledged. They are seen as selflessly working for the good of the nation as a whole, idealized nanny figures, rather than as people with agendas of their own–agendas that might not be identical with those of the white liberal class. St. Felix points out,

Critical nuances—aspects of class and region, especially—are lost when black women become icons, forever trapped in a cycle of ennoblement, flattening, and dehumanization.

Clifton makes her version of the complaint in “note to self,” which I’ve previously written about here. The poem complains about being suffocated by whites who insist on blacks using only “language that they can live with”:

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live…

At the end, the poem takes an unexpected turn. The problem doesn’t change, Clifton notes, when blacks are put on a pedestal rather than demonized. She complains of how

the merely human
is denied me still
and i am now no longer beast
but saint

I have mentioned how Clifton had me specifically in mind, referencing my participation in a race panel discussion when she writes,

even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean

And indeed I had been guilty, coaching a black student to express herself differently rather than focusing on the white community’s responsibility to recognize the source of her hurt.

I also was guilty, when we had another racist incident a few years later, of thinking that Clifton could step in and make everything okay. I didn’t realize that she too was floundering around trying to figure out an appropriate response. I treated her as a saint, not as merely human.

As Clifton writes  in a poem about the death of Martin Luther King, we can’t depend on individuals to save us. We can’t turn to black saviors any more than we can turn to white saviors. Rather, we must recognize that we are all “merely human” and work together to handle our challenges.

St. Felix points out that there was nothing magical about black women in the Alabama election. They did what any group must do if it hopes to prevail:

A canvasser for Jones, Carissa Crayton, told HuffPost, “We did put in a lot of hard work. We hit the ground running and we did the work that it took to get Doug elected. People shouldn’t disregard that and just think . . . we saved the day without doing any hard work, that we just magically went out and voted and that that’s all we did.” The grassroots organizing done by black women in Alabama in the run-up to Jones’s election shows the work of a political class.

To which St. Felix adds,

Their interests deserve to be known and reported on.

This is what Clifton requests as well. The added bonus is that it makes for more effective politics.

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Riding with Chaucer into the New Year

Monday – New Year’s Day

If you’re looking for a novel take on New Year’s resolutions, check out Charlotte Ahlin’s delightful suggestion that we plumb our favorite literary characters for ideas. The characters she proposes have some characteristics to emulate and others to avoid. Here’s a sampling:

Jay Gatsby – Move On

Jay. Buddy. Pal. It’s time to move the heck on. If you’re going into the new year with a broken heart, or a list of petty resentments against all your old money neighbors, don’t be a Gatsby about it. Find a way to let it go. Stop creeping on your ex’s new girlfriend’s Instagram. Don’t throw parties just to impress a cutie who is now married to a racist. Taking time to recover from a break-up or a disappointment is fine, but at a certain point, you can’t repeat the past, no matter how big your mansion.

Jane Eyre – Spend some quality time with yourself

On the one hand, Jane Eyre is a torrid romance between Jane and a gross imperialist dude who keeps his mentally ill first wife locked in an attic. But on the other hand, Jane Eyre is one of the first novels by a woman to have the resounding message: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anybody else?” Jane only marries Rochester once she’s mentally, emotionally, and financially independent and equal to him. So spend some quality time getting to know yourself this year (and avoid guys with attic wives).

Hermione Granger – Keep Resisting

It’s easy to feel burnt out about politics right now. But Hermione Granger wouldn’t let you give up. Hermione Granger would tell you to keep calling your representatives. Hermione Granger would drag you to the library to read up on your rights as a private citizen, then knit a couple of hats for house-elves, and then top it all off by punching a Death Eater in the face. Follow Hermione’s lead, and don’t let yourself become complacent in the face of evil.

What does it say about me that my favorite characters include Tom Jones and the Wife of Bath? Both live life with a full heart, and as I enter my retirement year, I can take inspiration from the Wife’s declaration that she will make the most of what resources remain to her. She is not about to let age keep her from being merry:

But age, allas, that al wole envenyme,
But age, alas, that all will poison,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
Has deprived me of my beauty and my vigor.
Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!
Let it go. Farewell! The devil go with it!
The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;
The flour is gone; there is no more to tell;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
The bran, as I best can, now I must sell;
But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.
But yet I will try to be right merry.

So my resolution is to enjoy to the fullest the colleagues, friends and students that I will be leaving in June and then to enter fully into my new life in Sewanee, Tennessee. Happy New Year.

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God’s Word, the Ultimate Poetry

The Big Bang imagined

Spiritual Sunday – New Year’s Eve

As we look ahead to a new year, how appropriate that today’s lectionary reading is the magnificent passage that opens the Book of John. Delaware poet Jeanne Murray Walker takes inspiration from the Biblical passage in “In the Beginning Was the Word,” associating the birth of language and poetry with the birth of creation. As she sees it, the same divinity runs through all of them.

For Walker, creation is chaos, and the earth, once a “ball of white hot gasses,” is like the poetic impulse. Anything is possible until the poem finally settles into an orbit amidst stars, planets and moons into which we project our human emotions:

It was your hunch, this world. On the heyday
of creation, you called, Okay, go! and a ball
of white hot gasses spun its lonely way
for a million years, all spill and dangerous fall
until it settled into orbit. And a tough
neighborhood, it was, too. Irate Mars,
and sexually explicit Venus, the kerfluff
of a moody moon, and self-important stars.

The poetic process is as crazy as biological proliferation, with the arrival of blossoms representing new vulnerabilities. While flowering may appear to be “barely regulated damage”–the splitting invites invasions by insects–it instead leads to wondrous new creations that ferns can only dream of. Same for animals and for people:

And trees. Think of their endless rummaging
for light, their reckless greening, how flowering
is barely regulated damage. Then birds,
mice, sheep. Soon people, bursting into language.
Creation thinking about itself: our words soaring
like yours through time, dangerous, ordinary words.

I like the combination of “dangerous” and “ordinary” since ordinary words, used poetically, open up new truths. Julia alerted me to the following passage about words in radio interviewer Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living:

I know it is possible to speak about our deepest passions and convictions in a way that opens imaginations rather than shuts them down….The world needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander tells Tippett in an interview,

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth.

Poet Marie Howe, meanwhile, remembers,

As a child I would read the old Harvard Classics. We had them in our living room. I would pore through these dusty books and try to find language that was adequate in experience, or try to find language that could somehow hold the unsayable.

Walker’s poem asserts that, when Creation thinks about itself, its simple but dangerous words soar through time. Can you imagine a more soaring and transformative use of words than John 1:1-18? Think of John the Baptist and Jesus as poets, channeling the powers of the original creation to transcend what everyone assumes is solid reality. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him,” John writes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Don’t underestimate the life force that flows through the universe.

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The Year in GOP Soul Selling

Doctor Faustus woodcut (1620)


To conclude each year, I review all the posts from the previous twelve months and reprint one that seems particularly important. Last January, puzzled by the Republican Party’s passivity in the face of Donald Trump’s excesses, I (and others) observed that the GOP appeared to be making a deal with the devil. We were, of course, referring to the Faust or Faustus story.

Christopher Marlowe’s brilliant play shows the inexorable journey downward, the hollowing out, of those who turn their back on principle. The parallels have become increasingly clear as, led by the cynical Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the GOP appears prepared to sacrifice anything for power. Unlike Faustus, who at least makes spasmodic gestures towards regret, Republicans appear to have adopted Trump’s tactic of unscrupulous counterattacks against any who question them. Because the country needs two responsible parties if it is to operate well, we can only pray that Republicans find some way to reconnect with their soul.

Reprinted from January 31, 2017

 In his New York Times column yesterday, moderate Republican David Brooks said that GOP lawmakers are making a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump that “will cost them their soul.” “It’s becoming clear,” he writes at one point, “that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation, and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench.”

I think Brooks is right and it’s worth revisiting Christopher’s Marlowe Doctor Faustus to gauge the price of Faustian bargains and also to figure out how Trump supporters can reconnect with their souls.

In his warning, Brooks quotes a rather remarkable Atlantic article by former George W. Brush official Eliott Cohen. Cohen was initially prepared to work with Trump but then saw the writing on the wall and has since been advising fellow Republicans to shun him:

Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity — substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment.”

Before I parallel Republicans with Faustus, it’s worth noting that Trump himself is already well along the Faustus path. At the beginning of Marlowe’s play, Faustus is a talented scholar who dreams of unlocking the powers of the natural world. He’s been doing well so far, curing whole cities of the plague and easing a “thousand desperate maladies.” Just as winning the presidency was not enough for Trump’s immense ego, however, so Faustus wants yet more acclaim. He dreams of imposing his will in unheard of fashion:

All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a mighty god…

As the play progresses, however, Faustus senses that, in the intoxicating pursuit of power, he is losing something important. One sees this in his moments of doubt—when he considers repenting—and also in some of the requests he makes of his devil spirits. For instance, at one point he asks the devil for a wife, which is to say, for a meaningful relationship. To have a soul mate, however, would mean giving up ego and power and making oneself vulnerable to another human being. Faustus refuses such a sacrifice, settling instead for “a hot whore” and then, at the end of his life, a simulacrum of Helen of Troy. His former grandiose schemes forgotten, he becomes more and more trivial and he dies with agonizing regrets.

Trump sounds like a Faustus without the regrets, which means that he is only a black hole. He spends all his energy trying to fill that hole.

Let’s turn now to those formerly principled Republicans who are supporting him. If they give up their values in return for power—if winning comes to mean more to them than country or Constitution—then their lives will feel increasingly trivial. By the end of his life, Faustus is performing magic tricks for emperors, playing a prank on a man who calls him out, and stiffing a horse dealer for $40. This already sounds like Trump’s post-election tweeting, and Republicans may find themselves doing similar things. One only has to see what has happened to figures like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich—people who squandered their considerable political gifts and have now essentially become scam artists—to see what awaits soul sellers.

When Congressional Democrats were swamped in the 2010 elections, they could at least point to measures that they believed made the country better, like the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus. They worked to improve the lives of their fellow Americans and can carry that with them for the rest of their lives. Losing was a small price to pay.

By contrast, Republicans who go along with Trump’s attacks on Muslims, close their eyes to his misogyny, and find ways to rationalize his constant lying, will be left with his emptiness. That’s the price of selling your soul.

It’s possible to get your soul back, as the Good Angel and later the Old Man tell Faustus. For the GOP at the moment, a good first step would involve standing up to Trump and President Steve Bannon as they sow divisiveness and hate. It takes courage to win your soul back—things worth doing can be hard—but the payoff is immense.

Further thought: Here’s another parallel: Trump won the primary by being willing to say directly what his rivals danced around. Trump speaks directly to American racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. whereas other politicians deliver dog whistles. In other words, they are like Faustus not wanting to face up to the real ugliness of evil. Here he is addressing Mephisophilis, with a jab thrown in at Franciscan friars:

I charge thee to return, and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend on me:
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.

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Poems for Resisting Trump


New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is suggesting two poems for surviving the upcoming year of Donald Trump: Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Langston Hughes’s “Harlem.” Both poems are about getting battered although they have different takes on the matter. “If” calls for us to stand up and fight back, “Harlem” warns us what will happen if we don’t.

In his December 22 column, the Cohen weaves Kipling’s poem into a list of Trump’s excesses. I’d like to quote the entire column because it is a perfect illustration of how, by systematically applying a poem to an urgent issue, one can penetrate to its core. By the time you’ve finished reading the column, you’re convinced that Kipling had someone very much like Trump in mind when he wrote it. Here are some examples, with the Kipling lines appearing in quotation marks:

If this is America, with a cabinet of terrorized toadies genuflecting to the Great Leader, a vice president offering a compliment every 12 seconds to Mussolini’s understudy, and a White House that believes in “alternative facts,” then it is time to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”

If this is America, where the Great Leader threatens allies who do not fall in lineretweets the anti-Muslim racism of British fascistsinsults the Muslim mayor of Londondreams up a terror attack in Swedeninvents a call from the Mexican presidentclaims the Russia story is a “total fabrication,” then you will have to “bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”


If, beyond every abuse, this is yet America, where the Great Leader’s administration recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not use the words “fetus,” “transgender,” “science-based” or “diversity” (but it may still, according to a New Yorker cartoon, be able to use the word “moron”), and climate change is no longer a strategic threat (or even an admissible term in government circles), then it is time to heed the poet’s admonition: “Being lied about, don’t deal in lies.”

And my favorite, as it calls for us to fight for this land we love:

If this is America, where the Great Leader wants you to believe that 2+2=5, and would usher you down his rabbit hole, and struggles to find in himself unequivocal condemnation of neo-Nazis, and you recall perhaps the words of Hannah Arendt, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist” — if all this you have lived and felt and thought across this beautiful and spacious land, then you must be prepared to “watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

Cohen ends on an upbeat note: we will save our country if we heed the poet’s advice about risking everything for what is important. It is particularly good advice for those on the left who can’t let go of Bernie Sanders losing in the primary or Hillary Clinton in the general:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss.

As a new year approaches, stoicism will prevail, decency will prevail, contestation will prevail, over the Great Leader’s plundering of truth and thought. This is not America. It must be fought for and won back.

If Cohen is feisty and combative in his first end-of-the-year column, he is lyrical in his December 26 piece. Looking down upon the Staten Island ferry, he thinks about all the immigrants who have crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York in pursuit of the American dream. America’s greatness has always lain in its ability to attract dreamers:

[The ferry’s] brief passage evokes the centuries of American hope invested in this city, seen by so many immigrants for the first time from this expanse of water. Here, suffering, famine and the endless gyre of Old-World conflict were set aside, or at least cushioned by New-World possibility.

At this low point for the United States, when truth itself is mocked from on high, that liberating message is worth recalling. Certainly, no naturalized American, as I am, who has witnessed the rites of passage of people drawn by hope from every corner of the earth to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, can be indifferent to it.

Langston Hughes wrote poem after poem about the American dream. “Harlem” is his best-known one:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

To which Cohen adds,

In 2018, take the time, dear reader, to gaze at the familiar, board the ferry to nowhere — and do not, at risk of an explosion, defer your dreams.

So there you have it—stand strong with the rugged Brit in the cause of justice and truth and stand firm with the sensitive African American to keep the faith. Those are New Year’s resolutions worth making.

Further thought: Cohen, blinded somewhat by his privilege, doesn’t entirely understand Hughes’s poem as he assumes one can choose to defer or not. As the poet sees it, the powerless have only one good choice and that is to explode. He is warning white society what will happen once people of color stop colluding in their oppression.

Entire text of “If”:

If you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
   Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
   And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise; 
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
   If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
   And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
   Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
   And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools; 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
   And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
   And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
   To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
   Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”; 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
   Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
   If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
   Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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#MeToo: A New Day for Cassandra

E. de Morgan, “Cassandra”


Other than the cataclysm that is Donald Trump, 2017’s most significant development may have been the #MeToo movement. People are finally believing Cassandra.

I owe the allusion to Lauren Davis, who notes that the Trojan prophetess was cursed by Apollo when she spurned his advances.  Condemned to see the future without being believed, she was unable to save the city of Troy from the wooden horse stratagem and Agamemnon and herself from being murdered by Clytemnestra. Applying the myth to sexual assault victims is not perfect since Cassandra was disbelieved about the future, not the past, but Lauren draws a couple of instructive lessons from the story:

First, I have enormous admiration for a woman (or anyone) who understands they will not be believed, but who chooses to speak the truth regardless. What strength of will, what a core of integrity such a woman must have. It is a hard and lonely place to be… but such a person understands it is the right thing to do, and so does it. Ignore me, she says, deride me and scoff at me, but the truth will still be told.

Second, ignoring truth-speakers is something we do at our peril. Not only does it harm the prophetess, it harms society. It harms us all.

From an archetypal point of view, Cassandra’s relationship with Apollo can be seen as the enigmatic subconscious set against the forces of order and reason. While the patriarchal norm that has condemned women to silent victimhood isn’t reasonable, it has been the prevailing order of things. This order meant that Ajax the Lesser could tear Cassandra away from the temple of Athena and rape her while the Greeks were sacking Troy (although not without incurring divine wrath) and that Agamemnon could bring her home as booty.

That Clytemnestra took out some of her marital rage on Cassandra shows that women as well as men can blame sexual assault victims.

In Aeschylus’s play, Cassandra blames herself for having resisted Apollo’s advances:

Cassandra: Apollo was like a mighty wrestler, 
panting all over me, in love.

Chorus Member: Did you go through with it—
bear him a child?

Cassandra: I promised to,
but then I broke my word.

Chorus Member: Did you already have prophetic skill,
inspired by the god?

Cassandra: At that time
I used to prophesy to all my countrymen.                                        
I’d foretell disasters.

Chorus Member: How did you escape Apollo’s anger?                             

Cassandra: Since I resisted him, no one believes me.

Assault victims may relate to how a powerful male who has been spurned finds ever new ways to punish the woman:

Look how Apollo now in person strips me,
rips my prophetic robes, the god who watched,
as my friends in their hatred turned on me,
mocked me so savagely in these very clothes—
they thought they knew what they were doing.
But they were wrong. I heard them call me names,
“beggar,” “starving wretch”—I endured them all.
And now the prophet god is done with me.
He’s led his prophet to her place of death.

Meanwhile, those around Cassandra can’t hear what she’s trying to tell them:

Chorus member: We’ve heard about your fame in prophecy.
But here in Argos no one wants a prophet.

And later:

Poor girl, calm yourself. Tone down those words.

Cassandra’s final cry for revenge may resonate with anyone who has been jerked around with impunity:

One last time 
I feel the urge to speak, not sing a dirge
about my death. I pray to the sun,
here in the light of his most recent day,
that those who carry out revenge for me
will make my enemies pay with their blood
for butchering a slave, an easy victim.

By the end of the play, the Chorus believes the woman, as are increasing numbers of Americans. Trump may still be dodging accountability, but others are being brought down by those who have historically been silenced.

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Does the GOP Love Big Brother?

GOP Republicans and Trump after House votes down Obamacare


Last week, while comparing Donald Trump with Herman Melville’s Maldive shark, I realized that the poem is more about the pilot fish than the shark. While we certainly must take into account Trump’s insatiable appetite for power and praise, that hunger is not complicated. More interesting is how he is pulls Republican fish into his orbit.

To understand the dynamics, The Brothers Karamazov and 1984 prove useful.

Many of us were appalled by the North Korean-style adulation that people poured on Trump last week after the GOP passed its tax plan. Respected Utah senator Orrin Hatch surprised pretty much everyone with his hyperbole:

Mr. President, I have to say that you’re living up to everything I thought you would. You’re a heck of a leader. And we’re all benefiting from it. This president hasn’t even been in office for a year and look at all the things that he’s been able to get done — by sheer will, in many ways … I came from very humble roots. And I have to say that this is one of the great privileges of my life to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States who I love and appreciate so much … We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.

New York Magazine reported on Tennessee’s Congresswoman Marcia Black and the two GOP leaders in Congress:

Tennessee congresswoman Diane Black opted to debase herself with a bit more concision, saying “Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our President.”

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan praised Trump’s “exquisite leadership,” and thanked him for “getting us over the finish line.” Mitch McConnell declared Trump’s entire first year in office to be an “extraordinary accomplishment.”

And then there was the vice president. I provide only a snippets since it goes on and on:

–Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that truly is restoring this country.
–You’ve restored American credibility on the world stage.
–You’ve signed more bills rolling back federal red tape than any president in American history.
–You’ve unleashed American energy.
–You’ve spurred an optimism in this country that’s setting records.
–You promised the American people in that campaign a year ago that you would deliver historic tax cuts, and it would be a ‘middle-class miracle.’ And in just a short period of time, that promise will be fulfilled.
–I’m deeply humbled, as your vice president, to be able to be here.”
–Because of your leadership, Mr. President, and because of the strong support of the leadership in the Congress of the United States, you’re delivering on that middle-class miracle.

Blogger Glenda Funk heard Goneril behind Mike Pence’s sycophancy, and that’s one way to explain it—that people, knowing of Trump’s susceptibility to flattery, will ladle it on thick whenever they want to get something out of him. Perhaps the Congressional flattery of the tax plan should be seen in that light, as well as in South Carolina Lindsey Graham’s 180-degree turn from calling Trump a kook unfit to be president to “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president.”

If Graham becomes secretary of state, maybe he will conclude that “Paris is worth a mass,” to quote French king Henry IV’s rationale for converting to Catholicism.

But what if there’s something more insidious going on? This is the subject of a fine New York Times Michelle Goldberg column last week, where she wondered whether

a critical mass of Republicans like being in thrall to a man who seems strong enough to will his own reality, and bold enough to voice their atavistic hatreds. Maybe Trump is changing Republicans, or maybe he’s just giving men like Pence permission to be who they already were.

Goldberg observed that “the relationship between Trump and many Republicans increasingly looks less like a marriage of convenience than a sadomasochistic affair.”

In other words, GOP Goneril may respect power and authority so much that she actually believes her flattery. The concluding paragraph of 1984 has been going through my head on this matter:

[Winston Smith] gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Time and again, Trump has trampled conventional political wisdom underfoot and survived, appearing to defy the laws of political gravity. The GOP was already starting to move in this direction—refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee was an instance—but Trump has gone far beyond what even McConnell thought was possible. Who knew that someone could openly insult women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and the disabled and get away with it? Who knew that you could shout “fake news” to erase disagreeable facts? Or denigrate any institutions (science, the courts, universities, the FBI) that get in your way. Maybe that’s why a respected senator like Hatch would say, “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.” Skeptical at first, he now sees the light.

The GOP may be discovering freedom from constraint, as I discussed recently when comparing the current GOP with H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man. I remember how, when attending college in the early 1970‘s, we were amazed at what we could get away with. We could shout profanity in marches, smoke pot, and engage in guilt-free sex. I think Republicans currently are experiencing some of that freedom.

I use the word “freedom” but actually it’s a heady belief in authoritarianism, which seems currently able to override our system of normal checks and balances. Goldberg quotes German-Jewish psychoanalyst and Hitler refugee Erich Fromm, who described authoritarian personalities as “simultaneously craving power and submission”:

The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom; he loves being submitted to fate,” he wrote. Fate, in his formulation, can be the laws of the market, the will of God, or the whims of a leader. According to Fromm, authoritarians might make a show of valuing freedom and independence — watchwords of the American right — but long to be ruled by a stronger force.

Fromm owes a debt to Ivan Karamazov’s’s thought experiment about the limitations of Christianity, and those limitations could extend also to democracy. Confronting a Christ who has returned, the Grand Inquisitor tells him that he asked too much of people. They can’t live up to his high standards—“Blessed are those who believe without seeing,” Jesus tells Thomas—and prefer that people tell them what to do and to believe:

And thus, after all Thou has suffered for mankind and its freedom, the present fate of men may be summed up in three words: Unrest, Confusion, Misery! [To be sure, a few have] shared Thy Cross for long years, suffered scores of years’ hunger and thirst in dreary wildernesses and deserts, feeding upon locusts and roots—and of these children of free love for Thee, and self-sacrifice in Thy name, Thou mayest well feel proud. But remember that these are but a few thousands—of gods, not men; and how about all others? And why should the weakest be held guilty for not being able to endure what the strongest have endured? 

Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor would not be impressed with the argument made by Ruth Marcus, a center-left Washington Post columnist who recently challenged citizens to defend democracy as Jesus called for his followers to take up the cross:

[Trump] unleashed my inner patriot. I love my country, for all its flaws and for all its flawed leader.

It is worth the fighting for. I knew this, always, on an intellectual level. The Trump presidency has made me feel it, viscerally and passionately. The ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and implemented through the careful structures and capacious phrases of the Constitution do not merely compel our respect. In the Trump era, they require our passionate defense.

 Once we took for granted, as a given of American democracy, such fundamental values as freedom of the press, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary. Now we have a president who veers between failure to understand their importance and deliberate efforts to undermine them.

Stirring words, but I imagine Congressional Republicans thinking, why worry about the Gordian knot of all these subtleties, all the difficult challenges of existing as a multicultural and pluralist society, when with one swipe of the authoritarian blade, we can get all that we want? Trump is persuading them that their monochromatic view of the world is achievable and they love him for it.

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Love Was with Me in the Night

Gentile da Fabriano, “Nativity” (1423)

Christmas Day

My dear friends Dana Greene and Richard Roesel alerted me to this May Sarton Christmas poem. I particularly like the fact that it is set within the family library.

Christmas Light

By May Sarton

When everyone had gone
I sat in the library
With the small silent tree,
She and I alone.
How softly she shone!

And for the first time then
For the first time this year,
I felt reborn again,
I knew love’s presence near.

Love distant, love detached
And strangely without weight,
Was with me in the night
When everyone had gone
And the garland of pure light
Stayed on, stayed on.

 The garland of pure light reminds me of Henry Vaughan’s opening lines in “The World” except that Sarton’s poem is quieter:

I saw Eternity the other night, 
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
All calm, as it was bright…

There is also a George Herbert simplicity to some of the lines—“I knew love’s presence near,” for instance—although the poem lacks Herbert’s agonized struggle (and Vaughan’s as well). For Sarton, love’s visitation arrives without fuss or fanfare.

Think of it as a Christmas prayer.

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Love Came Down at Christmas

Thomas Cole, “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”

Christmas Eve

Throughout Jesus’s ministry, people asked him to produce signs or miracles to authenticate that he was truly from God. Matthew (12:30) reports Pharisees and teachers of the law testing him–“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you”—and the multitudes who witnessed the loaves and fishes miracle demanded yet more: “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30). Frustrated that people didn’t get his transformational message, Jesus at one point observed, “Why does this generation demand a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).

For Christina Rossetti, the sign that Jesus gave us was love, which is more powerful than any physical miracle or magical trick. In this simple but moving Christmas poem, she goes to the heart of Jesus’s message:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign. 

When we plead for a sign, we are given love, which proves that God is amongst us and in us.

Merry Christmas!

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Fantasy: GOP Tax Plan in a People’s Court

Plutocrats sample oil found under Paris in “Madwoman of Chaillot”


MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell didn’t mince words about the recently passed GOP tax bills, calling it, “the ugliest display of pigs at the trough that I have ever seen.” Not far behind, Bernie Sanders said that “what we are seeing today, in an unprecedented way, is the looting of the federal Treasury.” How else explain giving tax breaks worth billions to billionaires while allowing the the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire and throwing 13 million people off of their healthcare? It’s as though Republicans were auditioning for the role of Mr. Monopoly.

The event has me thinking of a play by Jean Giraudoux that I read when a 13-year-old attending school in Paris. The Madwoman of Chaillot is about a group of street people who learn about millionaires plotting to dig up Paris to access its oil reserves. I loved the play at the time but wondered about it later when I saw the dreadful 1969 Catherine Hepburn version. Being a tame Hollywood production, the film pulled its punches—the villains were too cartoonish to be taken seriously—but my 18-year-old self wondered whether part of the problem lay in the play itself. How interesting is a drama where the good are only good and the bad only bad?

The fact that it accurately captures the current GOP Congress shows just how much Republicans have bought into Donald Trump’s “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get, I’m so greedy.” To truly conform to the stereotype, they would have to sell our National Parks for natural resources. And get rid of the Consumer Protection Bureau while rewarding Wells Fargo. And gut the public school system to give tuition tax breaks to wealthy parents sending their children to private schools. Oh wait, they really are doing all those things.

Toward the end of the play, the street people hold a mock trial of the plutocrats. Ragpicker plays the defendants:

The trial began. Josephine presided as Judge, with the Countess beside her.

“Just how rich am I?” the Ragpicker wanted to know. “Millions? Billions? And how did I get that way? By murder, theft, embezzlement, what?” He assumed a position as though he stood in the dock. “I am ready. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth–no, I swear to lie, conceal, distort everything and slander everybody.

“May it please this honorable court, my life is an open book, I am a pillar of the church. I support all organized charities that are tax deductible.”

The Countess stepped in as Prosecutor. “You are charged with a total lack of feeling for others. Disgusting grossness. The abuse of power. And worship of money.”

“Worship money? Me?” The Ragpicker was piously indignant. “I plead not guilty! I don’t worship money. It’s the other way around. Money worships me. It won’t let me alone. The first time money came to me, I was a mere boy. Untouched. Untainted. It came quite suddenly when I innocently picked a bar of gold bullion out of a garbage can while playing. As you can imagine I was horrified. I tried swapping it for a little, rundown one-track railroad. To my childish amazement this immediately sold itself for a hundred times its value. I made desperate efforts to get rid of this unwanted wealth.”

The gathering stared at him in undisguised fascination as he continued.

“I bought refineries, department stores, every munitions factory I could lay hands on. The rest is history. They stuck to me. They multiplied. And now I am powerless. Everyone knows the poor have no one but themselves to blame for their poverty. But how is it the fault of the rich if they’re rich? Oh, I don’t ask for your pity. All I ask for is a little human understanding.”

An instant chorus of accusations burst from the ranks of his listeners.

“You think you should have your money for nothing”….”You never part with a franc”…

“Slanders!” cried the Ragpicker indignantly! “I spend in order that you may live. If I have tan shoes, I buy black ones. Who benefits? If I have a Fiat, I buy a Mercedes. If I have a wife, I pay alimony. But no matter what I do, I rid myself of my money. I bet a hundred-to-one shot, the horse comes in by twenty lengths. I cannot help myself, ladies and gentlemen. That money sticks like glue, although I buy twelve chateaux, twenty villas, endow the opera and keep fourteen ballerinas.”

He was really getting his back into the speech by now. They were spellbound.

“Yes, ballerinas. How can women deny me anything? I mix morals with sable. I drip pearls into protest. I adorn resistance with rubies. I can have all women. 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.

The Countess confronted him. “One last question. Suppose you find this oil you’re looking for? What will you do with it?”

“I’ll make war! I’ll destroy what remains of the world!”

“You’ve heard the Defense.” Now she faced the jury. “I demand a verdict of guilty!”

“Guilty!” they shouted, all together. “Guilty as charged!”

It takes America’s exploding wealth gap, which is about to get much worse, to make Giraudoux’s caricature of rich people seem so relevant. I particularly like the point that “to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty.” Wealth corrodes everything.

Note also that the defendant is arguing a version of trickle down economics.

The play has a fantasy ending in which the wealthy are lured into a dark stairwell with the promise of oil, at which point the madwoman locks the door behind them. The GOP has descended the staircase, and the rest of us must make sure that the 2018 and 2020 elections turn the key.

Update: Two recent Trump quotes succinctly make Giraudoux’s point:

“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump told his billionaire friends celebrating at Mar-a-Lago, hours after signing tax overhaul into law….

Regarding the repeal of the individual mandate, which will throw 13 million off of health care and spike premiums: “Obamacare has been repealed…I told people specifically to be quiet about it.”

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The Novel that Upended the USSR

Still from Christopher Wrede’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”


My senior seminar students have given me permission of share some of their essays about literary works that “created a stir.” Sabrina Wood explored why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich hit the Soviet Union with seismic force in 1963, first accelerating Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization push and then helping trigger a conservative backlash that brought Leonid Brezhnev to power.

A simple account of a day in Stalin’s Gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s novel grew out of his own experiences in Siberia. A Day in the Life isn’t politically didactic but it works as an implicit critique of Stalin’s cult of personality, as in the following passage:

“A tub was brought in to melt snow for mortar. They heard somebody saying it was twelve o’clock already. 
“It’s sure to be twelve,” Shukhov announced. “The sun’s over the top already.”
“If it is,” the captain retorted, “it’s one o’clock, not twelve.”
“How do you make that out?” Shukhov asked in surprise. “The old folk say the sun is highest at dinnertime.”
“Maybe it was in their day!” the captain snapped back. “Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.”
“Who decreed that?”
“The Soviet government.”
The captain took off with the handbarrow, but Shukhov wasn’t going to argue anyway. As if the sun would obey their decrees!” 

During the Stalin years 14 million people were imprisoned in the Gulag labor camps, and another 15 million experienced some form of deportation and exile. In Stalin’s final year, there were more than 2.4 million prisoners, 465,000 of whom were political. (Wikipedia)

Khrushchev sought to reverse Stalin’s excesses. In 1962 he addressed the Party Congress with the words, “The time will come when we will all die, for we are all mortal. Until then we must do our work, and we can and must tell the party and the people the truth. We need to do this so that nothing like this can ever be repeated.” Sabrina writes that the premier

hoped to deconstruct Stalin’s “monoparty” by allowing “enemies of the state” to reenter society and promote political discussion.” As Khrushchev administered mass releases from the forced-labor camps, the population imprisoned in the gulag plummeted to 550,000 by 1960–the lowest it had been since 1935. Khrushchev implemented a new policy to recast the former enemies of the state into respectable citizens of the Soviet. He promoted the re-education and correction of their morals and behavior. Khrushchev’s goal was to return to the “true revolutionary path,” “the communist creed,” and in announcing such a goal upon the release of former political prisoners, he allowed those prisoners “to think of themselves as shining examples of the Bolshevik spirit.”

Believing that A Day in the Life would aid his liberalization efforts, Khrushchev overrode objections from the Communist Central Committee and allowed the journal Novy Mir to publish the novel. Sabrina writes that, as “a powerful example of the humanity that exists in the confines of the gulag,” Day in the Life was seen by  Khrushchev as an ideal symbol in his risky campaign “to expunge Stalin’s lasting impact on political and cultural life.”

The novel was an instant hit and letters poured into Novy Mir. At one point Soviet propaganda boss Leonid F. Illyiehev felt the need to plead with up-and-coming Soviet authors to write about subjects other than forced-labor camps.

In my essay requirements, the students were required to apply the ideas of at least one of the theorists we studied during the semester. Sabrina chose Bertolt Brecht’s theory of how art can “denaturalize social norms and incite societal and political change.” In this case, the norm undermined was unquestioning acceptance of Soviet dictates.

The novel proved so powerful in denaturalizing that Khrushchev, sensing a reaction, backed off of his previous endorsement, declaring the topic of prison camps to be “dangerous for society” and acknowledging that Stalin had successes as well as mistakes. This did not save him, however, and Sabrina observes that the following year he was replaced by Brezhnev,

a stricter conservative who recognized the moral strength of the novel and banned its publication in book form. Brezhnev’s government seized Solzhenitsyn’s manuscripts, halted the publication of his future works, and exiled him from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Sabrina shares some of the attacks:

The conservative response to Solzhenitsyn’s work largely focused on the fear [that] former zeks returning to society…would disrupt the peace. E.A. Ignatovich, a worker in a chemical lab who had escaped the German captivity, criticized Solzhenitsyn’s characters: “Why? Why did you write in the introduction to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that it was about 1937 people? No, there wasn’t even one 1937 person here. From my point of view they were wartime deserters, criminals, and cowards. To my mind, the story was well written but the heroes are trash.” Ignatovich argued that Solzhenitsyn’s characters could not be acceptable heroes to the Soviet collective because of their vulgar and indecent nature. Other conservative reviews rejected the lack of “organization, ideas, culture, and humanity” of the imprisoned characters as well as the use of “convict slang” that could threaten Soviet morals. Conservative responses merged to suggest policy change that would restrict Khrushchev’s readmission policy only to “party members victimized at the height of the Terror.”

When Sabrina presented her essay to the class, I compared it to fellow student Abby Messaris’s essay on Tartuffe, which the establishment church opposed for its implied assumption that the church could be subject to rational judgment. (Read a description of Abby’s project here.) In both instances, works of literature pointed to a liberalization process that authorities feared.

Nor were they wrong to fear them. We condemn such institutions for their censorship, but their attacks are an acknowledgement of literature’s power. Plays and novels can change reality itself, opening up new possibilities.

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Graded Essays Are Like Chopped Wood


One doesn’t have to teach for long to learn a valuable lesson about end-of-the-semester comments: few students read them.

Early in my career I learned this lesson the hard way. I had left a stack of carefully marked essays outside my door—this was decades ago when professors still did this—and returned in January to discover that no more than three or four of them had been picked up. I remember toting up in my head all the fruitless hours I had spent.

Robert Frost goes through similar calculations in “The Woodpile.” Walking through the woods on a snowy afternoon, he comes across a carefully cut and stacked pile of wood. It’s a neat “four by four by eight” and the farmer Clematis “had wound string round and round it like a bundle.” Unfortunately, he then forgot about it, and the wood is now rotten and no longer suitable for burning:

It was a cord of maple, cut and split 
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. 
And not another like it could I see. 
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. 
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, 
Or even last year’s or the year’s before. 
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it 
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis 
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. 
What held it though on one side was a tree 
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, 
These latter about to fall. I thought that only 
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks 
Could so forget his handiwork on which 
He spent himself, the labor of his ax, 
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace 
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could 
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

Now I put all my energy into earlier drafts since these comments contribute to intellectual fire. I generally provide comments on the final draft only to students who ask for them.

So if are a young teacher just confronting this issue, imagine all your comments warming a frozen swamp with the slow smokeless burning of decay. Then go off and do something else.

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Recovering from the Semester

Daniel Maclise, “Morte d’Arthur”


When I turned in my final grades yesterday, I felt not so much triumphant as exhausted, as though I were a warrior gazing around at the smoking ruins of a conflict he had technically won but was in no position to appreciate. I’ve been intensely engaged with final essays for two months now—proposals, rough drafts, polished drafts, student conferences before and after, and optional revisions—and that doesn’t include the weekly reading journals that I assigned throughout the entire semester. All this while recovering from an episode of pericarditis and myocarditis.

I’m not complaining as I know how lucky I am. Even after 37 years of teaching, I remain in awe at how literature opens in my students rich avenues of thought and self-awareness. Still, the image that comes to mind at the moment is Arthur surveying the wreckage of his last battle in Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur”:

So all day long the noise of battle roll’d 
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full. 

When I was recovering from trips to the emergency room and an on-going fever, my wonderful case manager Susan Mann gently chided me for not taking more time away from my classes. I thought that it was sufficient to withdraw from committee work and faculty meetings, but in truth one expends a lot of energy teaching. Susan insists that I spend the upcoming weeks getting the rest I have been putting off.

I don’t have the three women from “the island-valley of Avilion” who care for Arthur, but I have Julia, whom I have joined after a long absence. She is living with my mother, and between them I am getting my version of the three queens:

Three Queens with crowns of gold—and from them rose 
A cry that shiver’d to the tingling stars, 
And, as it were one voice, an agony 
Of lamentation, like a wind, that shrills 
All night in a waste land, where no one comes, 

Or hath come, since the making of the world.


But she that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
And loosed the shatter’d casque, and chafed his hands,
And call’d him by his name, complaining loud
And dropping bitter tears against his brow
Striped with dark blood…

Okay, so it’s not quite this dramatic. Still Sewanee, Tennessee is as close as I need to Avalion,

Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.

I will bounce back—I’ve always done so in the past—but right now I need time to heal.

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Trump, Pale Ravener of Horrible Meat


What is it that draws people to Donald Trump, given his history of exploiting underlings when he needs them and casting them off at a moment’s notice? Most recently we have been watching South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham fall under Trump’s spell after being one of his most vocal GOP critics. It appears that former National Security head Michael Flynn was willing to lie to the FBI for Trump, and he may not be the only one who did so and who now feels betrayed. Do any of those who work for Trump seriously think he will thank them for it?

I don’t have a good explanation for why people work for Trump, but I have an image: these “advisors” are like the pilot fish in Herman Melville’s terrifying poem “The Maldive Shark.” They serve as Trump’s “eyes and brains,” guiding him to his prey. Yet like the fish in the poem, they “never partake of the treat.”

Following the poem’s imagery, Trump would be a “Gorgonian head,” a “dotard lethargic and dull,” and a “pale ravener [devourer] of horrible meat.” The images work for me, but I’ll give him a pass on “pale sot” as he avoids alcohol.

For the record, there is no “Maldive shark” but the Maldives, a string of islands and reefs in the South Pacific, are a haven for sharks. Melville may have encountered them there when he was a sailor.

Here’s the poem:

The Maldive Shark

By Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Further thought: I sometimes worry that I give Trump too much credit in posts like this. Might he not be trivial rather than horrible, small rather than big? I do, however, find something darkly grand in his insatiable need for praise and in his bottomless narcissism. Trump, like sharks, is noteworthy for his singular focus.

Attempts to control this appetite–pilot fish who think they can use their smarts to get the shark to do their will–bring to mind a Schopenhauer passage that Nietzsche cites in The Birth of Tragedy. Both philosophers compare humans to a man in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean boasting of the power of individual will. The fragile ego (eyes and brains) has the illusion that it can control the boundless realm of the id, but in the end it is swamped. Here’s the passage:

Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it.

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Walking Down the Saddest City Lane

city street

Spiritual Sunday

I’m never sure whether Advent’s emphasis should be on the darkness or the promised light. Focus on one and you underestimate the other. With that said, I find an Advent message in one of Robert Frost’s bleakest poems.

From one vantage point, the poem seems bereft of all light and having nothing to do with the Christmas promise, or even with religion generally:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rainand back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. 
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Could the watchman be the one mentioned in Ezekiel who watches for the messiah? If that’s the case, the narrator is like one of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men, so lost that he is ashamed to look him in the eyes. (Eliot’s poem was written four years earlier, in 1925). The cry he hears is not the prophet crying out in the wilderness but an ambiguous cry, neither calling him home nor sending him out. The light he sees is also ambiguous, proclaiming the hour to be neither wrong or right. Time is out of joint.

The wandering narrator reminds me of another poem that is explicitly about Advent, even though it too occurs in darkness. In For the Time Being, W. H. Auden writes,

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss,

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Frost’s speaker seems so beaten down that he doesn’t even demand a miracle. Perhaps he couldn’t face up to one if it happened. He wallows in his depression.

If the promise of new birth can break through this fog, it is indeed miraculous.

Posted in Auden (W. H.), Frost (Robert) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gawain, Trump and Shame

William Morris, “Failure of Sir Gawain”


Can Sir Gawain and the Green Knight be read as a commentary on Donald Trump’s lack of shame? So argues Seeta Chaganti, a medievalist at the University of California, Davis. While I interpret the romance differently than Chaganti, I like how she uses the poem to engage with her distress over the president.

As Chaganti reads the poem, Gawain momentarily abandons shame in order to save his life, accepting and hiding from the lord of the castle a life-saving green girdle from his wife. For the most part, Gawain has been an exemplary knight, but here he abandons his knightly code for a base motive. When he is later exposed by the Green Knight, he is filled with self loathing—so much so that he tries to shift some of the blame to women. He is still beating himself up when he returns to Camelot.

Chaganti believes Gawain’s sense of entitlement allows him to sidestep his shame. When he does this, the shame dissipates, although she gives a rather fuzzy and not very convincing explanation of how this happens. She also says that this dissipated shame becomes “a sharp point set loose to lodge collaterally in his watchers,” with the result that Gawain escapes scot free while observers shoulder it:

[W]hen an enfranchised protagonist (a knight, a politician) is coddled to cast off shame, that shame becomes a sharp point set loose to lodge collaterally in his watchers…

Here’s how shame shifts in the Trump era:

A year and some days since our presidential election, the Trump administration has driven that sharp point into me. I am pierced by the shame he refuses to feel. I see Trump as merely intensifying what are in fact longstanding injustices and evils; I see myself as accountable for my belatedness in resisting them. And I know that even as I try to do better, I am complicit still.

I find this intriguing although it’s not something I experience. I’d like to focus here, however, on whether Trump has in fact cast off shame.

I think that Trump is obsessed with shame, only he has found ways to hide from it. He is ashamed of his small hands, of not being the president that Barack Obama was, of failing to make the cover of Time Magazine. Whatever the cause—a cold mother and an emotionally abusive father are in there somewhere—it is hell being Trump. He copes by bullying women, boasting about his successes, undertaking grandiose projects, living a lavish lifestyle, and seeking the presidency.

In the process, he abandons normal decency and codes of ethical conduct. He handles shame, in other words, by acting shamelessly. He also attacks anyone who reminds him of his shame.

As a result, the chivalric code hasn’t looked this good for a long time. Sure, Gawain is wound rather tight, but isn’t suppressing one’s emotions preferable to a Trumpian acting out?  If the fear of being shamed keeps anarchic forces at bay, maybe we should give shame a second look.

Except that the Green Knight, as Gawain’s internal nature, is unimpressed. Gawain has so wrapped himself up in the ideological armor of his Christian knighthood that he can’t acknowledge to himself how much he fears dying. He’s so afraid of appearing afraid that he shuts down his emotions altogether. Nature bulls its way into Arthur’s court because it wants Camelot to acknowledge that it has feelings beneath its stoic exterior.

In the end, Gawain kind of acknowledges and kind of doesn’t. Nature gives him credit for showing that he cares for his life but dings him for being sneaky about it. It’s unclear whether Gawain learns the lesson Nature has been trying to teach him. Instead of writhing in embarrassment for revealing his fears, he should openly acknowledge his humanity. Real men are okay with flinching.

Trump and Gawain represent two opposite ways of dealing with shame, neither one healthy. Trump handles his anxieties by behaving like Prince Prospero in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” another rich man who parties wildly to drown out fears of death. Gawain, on the other hand, is emotionally paralyzed. Trump is the decadent 1970s, Gawain the repressed 1950s.

Shame is useful for keeping us in check, and Chaganti is right that we could use more of it at a time when lying and rudeness have become second nature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not the best advertisement for reviving it, however.

Posted in Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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