Great Pro-War Literature Doesn’t Exist

Battle of Borodino, featured in “War and Peace”


With scary military prospects in Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea, not to mention Donald Trump greenlighting Saudi aggression against Yemen and Qatar while downsizing the diplomacy-focused State Department, it’s time for a post on a Garrison Keillor article that I’ve been saving. Keillor wonders why most great war literature is hostile to war.

Keillor concludes that it’s a question of salary: governments don’t pay poets enough for them to become war-mongering shills. He’s writing tongue in cheek, of course, but let’s hear him out:

When was the last time a great poet wrote an ode to the importance of following orders? 1854, that’s when. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” immortalizing Lord Cardigan’s botched mission in the Battle of Balaclava — “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Tennyson was England’s poet laureate at the time and felt obliged to turn a military disaster into something heroic. [Read my criticism of Tennyson’s poem here.] No American poet laureate ever wrote anything similar, and maybe that’s because they’re paid $35,000 a year. Make that $350,000 and give the laureate the rank of major general and a cap with a plume and see if the tune doesn’t change.

Keillor imagines that the lack of positive literature has led to recruiting problems:

It’s no wonder that wealthy New York real estate heirs shopped around for physicians to diagnose heel spurs to exempt them from the draft. For a century, nobody has written a great work of literature celebrating America’s military — Slaughterhouse Five? Catch-22? The Naked and the Dead? The Things They Carried? I don’t think so. Nobody read For Whom the Bell Tolls and went down to the recruiting office to sign up.

A quick aside on the Hemingway novel. My father, a private stationed outside Coventry, England, was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls one night when he was on guard duty. He said he heard the sound of motors, looked up, and saw the entire sky filled with planes. It was the night before D Day.

Returning to Keillor’s article, I disagree with his depiction of certain texts as pro-war:

It was not always thus. Look at what Homer did for the Greeks with his Iliad. It’s an action epic, one hero after another, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax — no introspective nonconformist in the ranks, wondering, “Why are we brutalizing each other? Why can’t we sit down and talk through our differences?” Because we are us and they are them, and it’s one for all and all for one, so grab your spear and go puncture those Trojans, son.

What we need to make America great again is American literature about greatness. Look at Leo Tolstoy. He could’ve just written Peace but he wrote War too, both of them, glorifying General Mikhail Kutuzov, who engineered the defeat of Napoleon. Spending some of that $54 billion on the arts would be an excellent investment. 

It’s true that the ancient Athenians used Iliad to fire up young men, but one could also make the argument that it is one of the world’s great anti-war works. Some of the scenes are so gory, and the slaughter so senseless, that the reader is indeed left wondering why men brutalize each other. To cite one scene, a nature god is horrified at the slaughter that Achilles unleashes. In other words, Nature recoils at what humans are up to. Here’s what the River Scamander is reacting to:

                                          A forest fire will rage
through deep glens of a mountain, crackling dry
from summer heat, and coppices blaze up
in every quarter as wind whips the flame:
So Akhilleus flashed to right and left
like a wild god, trampling the men he killed,
and black earth ran with blood. As when a countryman
yokes oxen with broad brows to tread out barley
on a well-bedded threshing floor, and quickly
the grain is husked under the bellowing beasts:
the sharp-hooved horses of Akhilleus just so
crushed dead men and shields. His axle-tree
was splashed with blood, so was his chariot rail,
with drops thrown up by wheels and horses’ hooves.
And Peleus’ son kept riding for his glory,
staining his powerful arms with mire and blood.

Scamander protests because his waters are being clogged with dead men:

But if Zeus allows you to kill off all the Trojans,
drive them out of my depths at least, I ask you,
out on the plain and do your butchery there.
All my lovely rapids are crammed with corpses now,
no channel in sight to sweep my currents out to sacred sea—
I’m choked with corpses and still you slaughter more,
you blot out more! Leave me alone, have done—
captain of armies, I am filled with horror!”

I also don’t buy Keillor’s characterization of War and Peace. Rather than show war as glorious, Tolstoy describes it as a confused affair that is won or lost pretty much by accident. War and Peace has a lot in common with Catch-22 in this regard, and Kutuzov’s genius, if it can be called that, lies pretty much in not doing very much.

I suspect Keillor, if he were to move out of ironic mode, would agree with me that great literature does not glamorize war because great literature is about truth, not glamor. Put bluntly, the greatest war literature, beginning with The Iliad, has always had a large anti-war component.

Don’t expect any great pro-Trump literature in the near future, regardless of what wars he gets us into.

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Watching McConnell Destroy Healthcare

Fuseli, God observes Satan in “Paradise Lost”


It’s so strange watching Mitch McConnell crafting a healthcare bill under a cloud of secrecy at the same time that everybody pretty much knows about the consequent disasters, beginning with the 20+ million who will lose healthcare. I feel like I’m in the position of the God and Jesus in Paradise Lost as they watch Satan wend his way through Chaos and Night on his way to corrupt Adam and Eve. Satan may think he is one sneaky devil but God knows exactly what is happening.

In Book Three God explains to Satan’s plans to Jesus and the good angels and all the damage he will do. Despite being omnipotent, God can’t save Adam (“die he or Justice must”), and it may be that Democrats can’t save healthcare.

Oh, and another parallel is that McConnell, like Satan, is driven by spite. (See my post on how this is Trump’s motivating principle as well.) Having been thwarted by Barack Obama, McConnell is determined to take revenge by making innocent people pay.

Here’s God discussing with Jesus what is about to happen:

Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our adversary, whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desperate revenge, that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not far off Heav’n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World…

And now imagine McConnell himself looking down upon Obamacare’s beneficiaries, as Satan does upon Adam and Eve, and excusing his actions. Satan essentially says that it’s basically God’s fault what is about to happen to humankind, just as McConnell says that it’s Obama’s. Neither has anything personal against vulnerable humans (in our case, the poor, the sick and those with pre-existing conditions). They may even be telling the truth when they say they are loath to bring about their destruction.

Satan says he must behave as he does, however, because of “public reason” (reasons of state), honor, and his responsibilities to his empire. For McConnell, “public reason” would be the Republican imperative to end a new safety net program, “honor” would be the GOP promise to repeal Obamacare, and “Empire” would be the GOP.

This is the “tyrant’s plea” because it’s a way of rationalizing the harm that is planned. Those who will suffer and those who will die after losing Paradise/healthcare are collateral damage:

Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wronged.
And should I at your harmless innocence
Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just,
Honor and Empire with revenge enlarged, 
By conquering this new World, compels me now
To do what else though damned I should abhor.

So spake the Fiend, and with necessity,
The tyrant’s plea, excused his devilish deeds.

Who would you say is more like Satan, Trump or McConnell? In that Satan is a savvy operator who figures out how to circumvent defenses, I say the Senate Majority Leader.

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A Dreamy Day and Tranquilly I Lie

Winslow Homer, “The New Novel”

Tuesday – Summer Solstice

Here’s a  poem by “hoosier poet” James Whitcomb Riley to welcome in the official beginning of summer. Riley wrote at a time when a popular poet could become wealthy from publishing poems in newspapers and giving public readings, and Riley did both. “A Summer Afternoon” is not a particularly taxing poem and that’s okay. Relax and enjoy.

A Summer Afternoon

By James Whitcomb Riley

A languid atmosphere, a lazy breeze,
With labored respiration, moves the wheat
From distant reaches, till the golden seas
Break in crisp whispers at my feet.

My book, neglected of an idle mind,
Hides for a moment from the eyes of men;
Or lightly opened by a critic wind,
Affrightedly reviews itself again.

Off through the haze that dances in the shine
The warm sun showers in the open glade,
The forest lies, a silhouette design
Dimmed through and through with shade.

A dreamy day; and tranquilly I lie
At anchor from all storms of mental strain;
With absent vision, gazing at the sky,
“Like one that hears it rain.”

The Katydid, so boisterous last night,
Clinging, inverted, in uneasy poise,
Beneath a wheat-blade, has forgotten quite
If “Katy DID or DIDN’T” make a noise.

The twitter, sometimes, of a wayward bird
That checks the song abruptly at the sound,
And mildly, chiding echoes that have stirred,
Sink into silence, all the more profound.

And drowsily I hear the plaintive strain
Of some poor dove . . . Why, I can scarcely keep
My heavy eyelids–there it is again–
“Coo-coo!”–I mustn’t–“Coo-coo!”–fall asleep!

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Lit Can Both Enslave and Liberate


As many of you know, for the past two years I have been working on a book about literature’s impact on life. The first half of the book, which focuses on what thinkers over the centuries have said on the subject, will be the textbook my upcoming Senior Seminar (on Theories of the Reader). This has given me a hard deadline, always a good thing.

I share today a summation of the section on Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary whose Wretched of the Earth (1961) helped colonies struggling for independence see themselves in a new light. I focus particularly on what Fanon says about literature, both written and oral, but he also has observations on pottery, dance, and other art forms.

Fanon saw literature as a double-edged sword, a force so powerful that it could be used both to enslave and to liberate a people. The colonial powers used their own culture as a means of disempowering the people they had conquered and silencing native authors. It was a form of soft power that served to consolidate the military victories:

Every effort is made to bring the colonized person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behavior, to recognize the unreality of his “nation,” and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure.

Fanon further says that such measures work. Native artists are sidelined and native culture becomes “more and more shriveled up, inert, and empty”:

It becomes a set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress, and a few broken-down institutions. Little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture; there is no real creativity and no overflowing life.

Fanon appears to say that culture/literature can’t do much as long as the colonial powers are firmly in place. It becomes a vital ally, however, once their hold begins to loosen. Fanon even suggests that different literary genres will predominate at different stages of the revolt.

Initially, when active resistance begins, literature may “confine itself to the tragic and poetic style” although Fanon acknowledges that novels, shorts stories and essays may also be attempted. While in the early stages, these literary efforts may be characterized by “bitter, hopeless recrimination” and also by “violent, resounding, florid writing.” This is writing that recognizes the problem but thrashes around in it. It complains a lot, often featuring victimization, but it doesn’t necessarily put forth a positive vision.

Eventually, however, the writing starts drawing strength from the new nation that is emerging. Fanon describes a growing confidence:

The continued cohesion of the people constitutes for the intellectual an invitation to go further than his cry of protest. The lament first makes the indictment, and then it makes an appeal. In the period that follows, the words of command are heard.

An emerging literature is now partnering up with an emerging national consciousness. This new focus, Fanon says, “will both disrupt literary styles and themes and also create a completely new public.” No longer fixated on the colonizer, the writer takes on the habit of addressing his or her own people.

“It is only from that moment,” Fanon says, “that we can speak of a national literature.”

Fanon calls this new literature, which takes up and clarifies nationalist themes, a “literature of combat”:

This may be properly called a literature of combat, in the sense that it calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation. It is a literature of combat, because it molds the national consciousness, giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons; it is a literature of combat because it assumes responsibility, and because it is the will to liberty expressed in terms of time and space.

I particularly like what Fanon says about the new literature is driven by “the will to liberty” and how it opens up “new and boundless horizons.” One can’t build something new unless one has first imagined it, and imagining has always been literature’s specialty.

Fanon sees a similar process going on with the colonized country’s oral tradition. What were once “set pieces” and “inert episodes” come alive as conflicts are brought up. “The formula ‘This all happened long ago,’” Fanon writes, “is substituted with that of ‘What we are going to speak of happened somewhere else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow’”:

The storytellers, who were before that time stereotyped and tedious to listen to, completely overturned their traditional methods of storytelling and the contents of their tales. Their public, which was formerly scattered, became compact. The epic, with its typified categories, reappeared; it became an authentic form of entertainment which took on once more a cultural value. Colonialism made no mistake when from 1955 on it proceeded to arrest these storytellers systematically.

What Fanon says about oral literature can also be extended to written literature. He declares that it “gives rise to a new rhythm of life and to forgotten muscular tensions [wonderful phrase!], and develops the imagination.” As a result, “the existence of a new type of man is revealed to the public”:

The present is no longer turned in upon itself but spread out for all to see. The storyteller once more gives free rein to his imagination; he makes innovations and he creates a work of art. It even happens that the characters, which are barely ready for such a transformation—highway robbers or more or less anti-social vagabonds—are taken up and remodeled. The emergence of the imagination and of the creative urge in the songs and epic stories of a colonized country is worth following. The storyteller replies to the expectant people by successive approximations, and makes his way, apparently alone but in fact helped on by his public, toward the seeking out of new patterns, that is to say national patterns. Comedy and farce disappear, or lose their attraction. As for dramatization, it is no longer placed on the plane of the troubled intellectual and his tormented conscience. By losing its characteristics of despair and revolt, the drama becomes part of the common lot of the people and forms part of an action in preparation or already in progress.

Literature then (and culture is general) plays a critical role in helping people transition from their identities as “colonized man” to “a new humanism.” Fanon insists that literature not be suspended or “put into cold storage” during a conflict. It is an integral part of the struggle.

Fanon wrote Wretched of the Earth during a time a time of revolutionary upheaval as independence movements were pushing out colonial powers around the world. (His own major work occurred in French-owned Algeria.) It makes sense, then, that he would applaud the epic, which specializes in national themes and nation building (Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Aeneid). He downplays those literary forms that have other concerns.

For instance, he mentions the disappearance or irrelevance of comedy and farce and also talks about how “the tragic and poetic” styles must be superseded. Comedy and farce, however, can provide important emotional outlets to the oppressed, and tragedy and lyric poetry provide ways of holding on to something precious in the face of hostile forces. Maybe epic is the most appropriate form in the early days of the new nation, but there is a time and place for every genre.

Fanon died in 1961 and so did not live to see both the successes and the failures of the post-colonial world. Different literary forms will predominate at different points in the arc of history.

Fanon’s work reminds those of us in developed nations that literature is not just a frill or an add-on. Once we see how it plays an important role elsewhere in resisting oppression and in envisioning new social possibilities, we can look at our own literature with a fresh eye. We may discover that it is doing more than we thought.

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On a Father’s Unspoken Love

Georges de La Tour, “Joseph the Carpenter”

Spiritual Sunday – Father’s Day

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is one of the great poems about fathers. Told as a memory, it is about a father whose selfless love is only recognized by his son years later.

One can read “Those Winter Sundays” as a religious poem, with the speaker’s Jesus-like parent working selflessly for his child without demanding anything in return. We may be beset by a splintering cold, but when this man brings a reviving warmth into our lives, we don’t properly appreciate it.

Hayden’s “father” was in fact his foster father, his parents having split up before he was born so that the neighbors had to take him in. According to Wikipedia, Hayden’s household was fraught with “chronic angers,” and Hayden, a short-sighted and bookish child, may well have walked carefully for fear of triggering them. After all, he had been abandoned by his parents. His caution, however, blinded him to the genuine affection that his father had for him.

In the poem, the emotionally reticent father does not communicate his love directly, but he reveals it in tiny ways. He is presumably polishing his son’s shoes for church, an act of tenderness that stands in contrast to the manual labor that generally defines him.

What does a child  know of love’s austere and lonely duties? Yet when we think back, our banked fires blaze as we realize what a gift we were given.

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he’d call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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WaPo’s Petri Plays Shakespearean Fool

Alexandra Petri


Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri, intrigued by Trump supporters attacking a Julius Caesar production, recently imagined other plays they might object to. Her riff was spurred by the Fox News tweet,

NYC Play Appears To Depict Assassination of @POTUS.

 To which she responded,

This is only correct, as most of Shakespeare — and, indeed, the Western canon — was written as a mean referendum on the Trump administration and ought to be banned accordingly. 

Here is her rationale for some of the plays that should be banned:

Hamlet: NYC play erroneously suggests that a man’s son-in-law might not be fully supportive of the job he is doing in charge of a country.

As You Like It: Woman wandering in the woods to get away from the current regime is portrayed as some sort of hero.

Death of a Salesman: NYC play shows an old man who is no longer very good at his job and has placed too much confidence in his incompetent sons.

The Lion in Winter: Same, but the man also has a much younger wife.

Becket: Play erroneously implies that “hoping” something will happen during a private meeting could be viewed as a threat.

A Raisin in the Sun: NYC play appears to criticize bias in housing.

Doctor Faustus: NYC play appears to depict man who gets everything he wanted but is so, so unhappy, all the time, and nothing can fill that void within him, and also he employs Satan.

Corporate sponsorship of Julius Caesar also tickled Petri’s funny bone so she started a twitter thread imagining appropriate sponsors for different classics. The first two are hers, the following those of respondents:

Petri: Oedipus Rex, brought to you by

Petri: Clorox Presents Macbeth (Nothing gets damned spots out  like Clorox bleach!)

A Doll’s House, presented by Mattel

A Raisin in the Sun, brought to you by California Raisins

Master Builder, a Lego Production

Rent, produced in partnership with Century 21

A Long Day’s Journey into Night, present by Ambien

LeCreuset presents The Crucible

The ICE Man Cometh, brought to you by the Department of Homeland Security

Here’s one last very clever Petri-ism. She read the following Newt Gingrich tweet in support of Trump and connected all the dots:

Gingrich: Mueller is now clearly the tip of the deep state spear aimed at destroying or at a minimum undermining and crippling the Trump presidency.


deep state spear

deep shake spear


Petri would make a great Shakespearean fool–which, as anyone who knows Shakespeare will tell you, is a compliment of the highest order.

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Only Wimps Complain about Shakespeare

Francis Wheatley. “The Death of Richard II,” c. 1792-93


Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s preeminent Shakespearean, has weighed in on the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar and basically called the complainers wimps. After all, Queen Elizabeth I once faced a similar situation–only in her case someone tried to use a Shakespeare play to actually overthrow her–and shrugged it off.

I posted about the complainers yesterday, but here’s a reminder of what happened. The production has a Donald Trump lookalike playing the role of Caesar and, of course, getting graphically stabbed. The usual suspects raised a hue and cry, and Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their sponsorship. Yesterday, after members of the Congressional Republican baseball team were fired upon, the always classy Donald Trump, Jr. retweeted the message,

Events like today are EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President.

Like others, Greenblatt first points out that the play doesn’t glorify assassination:

And then there is the fact that Julius Caesar is a powerful, sustained demonstration of the risks and consequences of attempting to protect the republic through violence. Brutus and his fellow conspirators assassinate the vulgar, swaggering would-be tyrant to save their country’s freedom, but they wind up paving the way for the tyranny of the cool, uncharismatic, methodical politician Octavius.

Then Greenblatt offers some very useful historical context:

Robust cultures, including corporate cultures, do not panic in the face of theatrical free expression but welcome it. Shakespeare’s contemporaries were wise enough to take heed. Even in a time of intense anxiety and repression, they generally left the theater alone.  After all, they understood, the stage is a place where leaders and the public can think through their political conflicts and the ramifications of risky impulses to take action, heroic or otherwise. When one eliminates that space, it isn’t as though the conflicts and impulses disappear — there is simply less opportunity to consider them together in a serious, considered way.

The Elizabethans let plays go on even even though there was a law on the books declaring it high treason, punishable by being drawn and quartered,  “to compass or imagine” the ruler’s death. (Think how Trump might make use of that law.) And even though, as Greenblatt points out,

almost all of the tragedies by Shakespeare are precisely about imagining the ruler’s death.  “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” says his Richard II, shortly before he is himself murdered; “How some have been deposed; some slain in war, …/Some poisoned by their wives; some sleeping killed;/All murdered.” 

Greenblatt cites Richard II because the play was in fact used in an attempt to overthrow the monarch (!). On the afternoon before his attempted coup against Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex paid for a special production of Richard II in order to sway potential supporters. Elizabeth even knew that the play was being used for this purpose:

I am Richard II; know ye not?” asked the exasperated Elizabeth. “This tragedy,” she added hyperbolically, “was forty times played in open streets and houses.”

But here’s the amazing thing. While Elizabeth executed Essex and several of his supporters, she

did nothing to punish Shakespeare or his company. On the contrary, she continued her key support for the theater — more substantial than anything that Delta Air Lines or the Bank of America provide to the Public.

Greenblatt’s advice to our modern day complainers is wise:

Perhaps Elizabeth actually listened to Shakespeare’s play and understood that it was not an incitement to violence but a deeply thoughtful exploration of the tragic dilemmas of political life. And perhaps she understood that the theater is one of those places where it is far more dangerous to police the imagination than to allow it to flourish.

Literature will make you smarter if you truly listen to it. First, however, you have to want to be smart.

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Sly Marc Antony Resembles McConnell

Sir John Soanes, “Marc Antony Reading the Will of Julius Caesar”


In the controversy about New York’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar, I think the two sides are missing one of the most relevant aspects of the play. While we’re focusing on the battle between Caesar/Trump vs. Brutus/Democrats, an opportunistic Marc Antony slyly steals in and wins the day.

Although last summer I compared Marc Antony to Donald Trump, today I see him as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. At the very moment when the nation is riveted by whether the Democrats can prevent Trump from sabotaging the Russia investigation, McConnell is secretly preparing to throw 23 million Americans off their healthcare plans. Oh, and give the savings to the wealthiest 1%. It’s something Antony would do.

Let’s review the Shakespeare controversy. The theater production, following in the footsteps of Orson Welles’s famous 1937 Mussolini Black Shirt production, casts Caesar as a wannabe dictator Donald Trump. Apparently Delta Airlines and Bank of America were so unnerved at the idea of Trump being assassinated that they pulled their sponsorships.

Many pointed out that Shakespeare, who always comes down on the side of social order, does not endorse the assassination. As Director Oskar Eustis put it,

Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means. To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.

Indeed, by resorting to violence, Brutus does not save the Roman Republic but hastens its demise. If anything, the play is an endorsement for, “When they go low, we go high.” Who can object to that message?

Not that such an approach entirely works. Brutus, after having sacrificed his friendship with Caesar for what he thinks is the good of the republic, doesn’t understand that assassination changes the game. Violence heightens the emotions, allowing a cynical politician like Marc Antony to take full advantage.

Which is exactly what Mitch McConnell is doing. And what the Republicans have been doing for a while.

I recently listened to a podcast that The New Republic’s Brian Beutler had with Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to the vice president in the Obama and Clinton administrations and a key figure during the 2000 Florida debacle. Klain said that, while the Democrats thought resolving Gore vs. Bush would be a legal matter, the Republicans realized it was about politics and outflanked them, starting with the Brooks Brothers riot in which Senate interns and others interrupted vote recounts. As in the play, one side thought it could appeal to reason and invoke institutional integrity while the other played power politics.

McConnell has been applying that lesson ever since, from his scorched earth resistance to Barack Obama to his unprecedented refusal to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Now, with Trump shredding one governing norm after another, McConnell is once again using the chaos as cover for what he really wants. He may pull it off.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, activist Naomi Klein argues that capitalism uses crises to push its inegalitarian agenda because people “are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance.” The Iraq War, one of her major examples, was used to push through tax cuts, increased surveillance, and almost (although this didn’t succeed) the privatization of Social Security. McConnell may be using the Trump presidency in a similar way.

Cassius, a cynical plotter himself, understands Antony well and wants him to take him down with Caesar. The principled Brutus will not allow it:

Cassius: Decius, well urged: I think it is not meet,
Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
Should outlive Caesar: we shall find of him
A shrewd contriver; and, you know, his means,
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all: which to prevent,
Let Antony and Caesar fall together.

Brutus: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,
To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,
Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;
For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:
Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

That humane decision will spell the doom of both of them. Antony, a brilliant orator, knows how to weasel out of a promise and how to play with language. McConnell does not have Antony’s speaking gifts, but he knows how to exploit a situation.

Don’t be fooled when, at the end of the play, Antony calls Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all.” It’s easy to be magnanimous when your opponent lies dead before you.

Previous Posts on the GOP and Julius Caesar

March 7, 2017: Julius Caesar, Only Too Relevant  

 Dec. 21, 2016: The Decline and Fall of the American Republic

August 29, 2016: How Trump Echoes Marc Antony

March 16, 2016: Will Plots vs. Trump Succeed?

January6, 2016: Rubio vs. Bush: The Unkindest Cut 

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Trump’s Cabinet as Goneril and Regan

John Rogers Herbert, Lear administering the love test to his daughters


While New York City’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar has come under fire (I’ll post on the controversy later this week), many are observing that the play we should be talking about is King Lear. I’ve been making the case for a while, but the president exceeded even my expectations when a televised Cabinet meeting yesterday reenacted the play’s love contest.

As Brian Beutler of The New Republic described the event,

Trump assembled his entire cabinet at the White House on Monday, and, in a display of dominance and humiliation like none I’ve seen in an advanced democracy, invited everyone in attendance to go around the table praising Dear Leader before the press corps. The whole creepy-bordering-on-obscene spectacle lasted about 11 minutes.

Here’s a partial account of what people said:

Vice President Mike Pence spoke first: “This is the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people.”

Next up was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has caught Trump’s ire of late for his recusal from Russia-related matters: “It’s an honor to be able to serve you in that regard and to send the exact right message, and the response is fabulous around the country.”

And on it went, with each official describing in glowing terms their admiration for Trump’s work.

“I want to thank you for getting this country moving again, and working again,” said Elaine Chao, the secretary of Transportation.

“It’s a new day at the United Nations. We now have a very strong voice,” said Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN. “People know what the United States is for. They know what we’re against. They see us leading across the board.”

“Mr. President, what an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this time under your leadership,” glowed the agency’s head Tom Price.

Chief of staff Reince Priebus was perhaps the most effusive in his praise.

“On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people,” he said.

For comparative purposes, here’s what Goneril tells Lear:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Here’s Regan:

Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness’ love.

Not one Cabinet member chose Cordelia’s decision to “be silent,” although CIA Director Mike Pompeo came closest: “[I]n the finest tradition of the CIA, I’m not going to say a damn thing in front of the media.” But Pompeo did so to avoid confrontation, skillfully playing on Trump’s hatred for the media, whereas Cordelia knows that she will incur her father’s wrath.

Beutler wonders whether Trump went through the exercise because “he worries the end is near.” After all, the vice-president and half the cabinet could trigger the 25th amendment by finding him unfit for office, thereby activating his removal. Maybe he was making sure of them.

That may be a more elaborate explanation than is required, however. Trump needs perpetual reassurance, and he has appointed cabinet members who will give it to him.

If the entire episode makes you want to gag, there’s a character who speaks for you. Here’s the noble Kent calling out Goneril’s sycophantic steward Oswald:

Kent: Fellow, I know thee.

Oswald: What dost thou know me for?

Kent: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in one way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

For Kent, Oswald represents all those who sacrifice the good of the commonwealth for their own private advantage. He ends up in the stocks for the assault, but it’s worth it.

Previous posts comparing Trump and/or the GOP to King Lear

May 31, 2017: Lear, Trump, and the Tyrant’s Loneliness

May 30, 2017: Will Trump, Like Lear, Take Us All Down?

March 21, 2017: Trump as Lear, Howling in the Storm

March 10, 2016: #NeverTrump! Never! Never! Never! Never?

May 9, 2016: Time for GOP Moderates To Go to Ground?

May 8, 2016: Now, Gods, Stand Up for Trump!

Dec. 30, 2015: Conservative Extremists as King Lear

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A Birthday Poem by the Numbers

Esther Johnson (“Stella”)


I turn 66 today and a numerical quirk gives me an excuse for posting the first of Jonathan Swift’s birthday poems to “Stella” (Esther Johnson), his closest friend who got a birthday poem from him almost every year until she died.

The numerical quirk involves my anniversary as well as my birthday. I got married to Julia on June 8, 1973, when she was 22 and I was four days shy (so let’s say I was 22 as well). Double that and you have the anniversary we just celebrated (our 44th). Now triple that and you have our current age.

Okay, so it doesn’t mean much. But it’s just the kind of playfulness that shows up in the first of the birthday poems. And don’t be fooled by Swift mentioning Stella’s advancing years and her weight gain: Swift banters with Johnson like this in all of the poems and he doesn’t let himself off the hook, with self-deprecating comments about his own deteriorating mental faculties. See it as bantering that covers a deep affection.

The truth of the matter is the worship that he mentions at the end of the poem, which would be sizable even if it too were halved.

Others agreed that Johnson had a large mind, and she was at the center of a Dublin intellectual circle. Swift wrote that she was “the truest, most virtuous and valuable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, was ever blessed with.”

Swift, who was 14 years older, had been Stella’s tutor at one point. Some speculate that they secretly married but this is dubious. In any event, Swift was inconsolable when Johnson died at 46 and is buried next to her.

Stella’s Birthday, March 13, 1718-19

By Jonathan Swift

Stella this day is thirty-four,
(We shan’t dispute a year or more:)
However, Stella, be not troubled,
Although thy size and years are doubled
Since first I saw thee at sixteen,
The brightest virgin on the green;
So little is thy form declined;
Made up so largely in thy mind.

O, would it please the gods to split
Thy beauty, size, and years, and wit!
No age could furnish out a pair
Of nymphs so graceful, wise, and fair;
With half the luster of your eyes,
With half your wit, your years, and size.
And then, before it grew too late,
How should I beg of gentle fate,
(That either nymph might have her swain,)
To split my worship too in twain.

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Genesis: Story Truth, Not Happening Truth

Raphael, “The Creation of Animals” (1515)

Spiritual Sunday

As today’s lectionary reading is the opening verses from the Bible, I’m reposting a past essay that discusses the kind of truth that one finds there. Poetry is needed to capture the wondrousness of creation, and the Book of Genesis delivers. Here’s an excerpt:

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Attempts to wrest from the Bible a scientific account of the Earth’s origins diminish the story and violate our reasoning faculties. The magnificence of the Genesis account resists petty attempts to shoehorn it into a narrow agenda.

It’s important to make this point repeatedly as once again we have a Congressman, this time from Wisconsin, blithely contending that the Earth is only 6000 years old. (It’s a scientific fact that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old.)

Religious fundamentalists are not the only narrow thinkers, however, and have their counterpart in scientific fundamentalists. Interestingly, both insist on taking the Bible literally, one to praise, the other to attack. Both, as I note below, appear deaf to its poetry.

Reposted from June 16, 2013

A recent review of Curtis White’s book The Science Delusion: Asking the Big questions in a Culture of Easy Answers in Slate Magazine makes a point that I have made many times to my students: the truth that is to be found in the Book of Genesis contains a deeper truth than literal truth. To use a Tim O’Brien distinction that I cited recently, it represents story truth, not happening truth.

Reviewer Mark O’Connell notes with horror that a poll in Prospect Magazine found atheist Richard Dawkins to be the world’s “top thinker,” even though Dawkins’ has made a living of creating religious straw men and then knocking them down. True thinkers, I would add, don’t know the answers ahead of time, which Dawkins always does. Even worse, the scientist fails to grasp the deep wisdom to be found in stories.

Here’s O’Connell going after scientism, which he correctly identifies as a faith::

Scientism is essentially the belief, the faith, that all problems and questions are potentially soluble by empirical investigation (and that if they’re not, they’re somehow not real questions, not real problems). But there are large areas of human experience for which science has no convincing or compelling means of accounting. I am, I suppose, more or less an atheist, but when I read the Book of Genesis, I find that there is something profoundly true about the picture of human nature in those verses—a picture of our perversity and self-alienation that neuroscience, for instance, has no way of getting at or talking about. Schopenhauer, Freud, and Heidegger all give us comparable forms of truth—truths that aren’t verifiable or measurable in the same way as those of science, but that are no less valuable. The most important truths are often untranslatable into the language of fact.

I see religion much as I see poetry, a use of symbols (words in the case of poetry, words, music and ritual in the case of religion) to express the inexpressible. In a review of Harold Bloom’s Anthology of American Religious Poetry (2006), novelist Marilynne Robinson says something comparable:

There is every reason to turn to poetry in order to acquire a sense of the nature of religion. The two seem always to have been intimately linked. This deep and ancient affinity cannot be accidental. One does not “understand” what Aeschylus or Isaiah wrote, because poetry is not, in the ordinary sense, “understood.” If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be “understood.”

I wonder if Dawkins, with his desire to reduce everything to science, would have any idea what Robinson is talking about.

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Will No One Rid Me of This Russia Probe?

Peter O’Toole as Henry II mourning Becket (whom he had killed) in “Becket”


In his testimony yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI Director James Comey at one point made a reference to Henry II all but ordering the murder of Thomas a Becket. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” the king supposedly asked, and his knights took the hint and did the ridding. Becket was later canonized as (to quote Chaucer) a “holy blisful matir.” The 1964 film Becket substituted “meddlesome” for “turbulent.”

In Comey’s view, Donald Trump expected him to play the role of Henry II’s knights, in this case taking his leader’s hint to stop investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn:

During Thursday’s testimony, Senator Angus King (I-Maine) asked Comey questions about what he assumed when Trump said to “hold back” on Flynn.

“You said [Trump] said, ‘I hope you will hold back on that.’” “But when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a directive?”

Comey replied, “Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

In the past I’ve applied T.S. Eliot’s version of the scene (in Murder in the Cathedral) and Shakespeare’s use of it (in Richard II) to Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal. In fits here as well. In Richard II, the usurping Henry IV plays the role of Henry II, wishing that the king he has overthrown were dead. Some of his knights take the hint and, voila, Richard turns up a corpse. We learn about Henry IV’s wishes from his knights:

Exton Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake,
‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’
Was it not so?
Servant These were his very words.
Exton ‘Have I no friend?’ quoth he: he spake it twice,
And urged it twice together, did he not?
Servant He did.
Exton And speaking it, he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man
That would divorce this terror from my heart’;
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe.

How close is Trump’s “I hope you will hold back on that” to Henry’s “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” If one goes by either Eliot’s or Shakespeare’s play, Comey made a wise decision not to act on the hint. What happens to those who do their king’s dirty work is not promising.

Let’s start first with the killers in Eliot’s play, who at least are aware that the king will disavow them:

King Henry–God bless him–will have to say, for reasons of state, that he never meant this to happen; and at the best we shall have to spend the rest of our lives abroad.

The killers of Richard, by contrast, are taken by surprise:

Exton Great king, within this coffin I present
Thy buried fear: herein all breathless lies
The mightiest of thy greatest enemies,
Richard of Bordeaux, by me hither brought.
Henry Bolingbroke Exton, I thank thee not; for thou hast wrought
A deed of slander with thy fatal hand
Upon my head and all this famous land.
Exton From your own mouth, my lord, did I this deed.
Henry They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
But neither my good word nor princely favor:
With Cain go wander through shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.

“They love not poison that do poison need” and “I hate the murderer, love him murdered” are masterful instances of a politician weaseling out of responsibility. We now call it “plausible deniability.” Like Henry, Trump has shown that he is fully prepared to throw his subordinates under the bus when it serves his ends (Carter Page, Paul Manafort).

Only Trump doesn’t have the impulse control that Eliot’s Henry II and Shakespeare’s Henry IV have. He hints to Comey and then, after firing him, admits in an interview that he did so because of the Russia investigation. That’s like first hinting, “Will no man rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then later saying, “I fired him because he wouldn’t rid me of this meddlesome priest.”

Comey refused to play the fall guy and the Russia investigation, unlike Becket and Richard II, is still alive and kicking. The king is not happy.

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Bob Dylan, Gifted Storyteller


Most of the debates over whether Bob Dylan should have received the Nobel Award for Literature have been about whether songs count as literature. In his acceptance speech, which he finally delivered yesterday, Dylan indirectly answered the question by observing that literature no less than music has influenced his song writing. He especially singled out Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey.

His speech began by listing the music that inspired him but then moved on to say similar things about books. His musical influences included Buddy Holly, Leadbelly, and a host of folk singers, each of whom taught him something important:

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

The remarks set the stage for Dylan’s assertion that his literary education was just as important:

But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote,  IvanhoeRobinson CrusoeGulliver’s TravelsTale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.

Dylan’s detail in talking about these works signals the degree to which they captivated him. The common theme seems to be that crazy men have taken over the world and the rest of us are paying for it. The mission of Ishmael, Paul Bäumer, and Odysseus is to report back what they have seen. Dylan regards this as his own mission as well.

With Moby Dick, for instance, Dylan is fascinated that a mad Ahab is taking his multicolored crew, emblematic of America’s diversity, on a doomed voyage. It’s up to Ishmael to serve as witness:

Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.

With All Quiet on the Western Front, one sees the basis for many of Dylan’s anti-war songs, especially “Masters of War.” As he talked about Paul Bäumer, Dylan used the second person, as though he was right down there in the trenches with him:

Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

Dylan dwelt on the novel’s vision of war’s absurdity:

All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – what happened to it?  It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.

Then you notice the cherry blossoms, and you see that nature is unaffected by all this. Poplar trees, the red butterflies, the fragile beauty of flowers, the sun – you see how nature is indifferent to it all. All the violence and suffering of all mankind. Nature doesn’t even notice it.

You’re so alone. Then a piece of shrapnel hits the side of your head and you’re dead. You’ve been ruled out, crossed out. You’ve been exterminated. I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did.

Now think of the anger in “Masters of War”:

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

When Dylan turned to The Odyssey, he at first appeared to focus on a different theme than the victimized little man. His observation that the poem has a “homeward bound” focus brings the opening stanza of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to mind:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Just as the song moves from images of wandering to images of war, however, so did Dylan’s discussion of Homer’s poem. He went on to mention Odysseus lauding Achilles in the Underworld  for his war glory and Achilles having none of it. Here’s the passage:

But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
we Argives did, and here your power is royal
among the dead men’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus:
you need not be so pained by death.”

                                                            To this
he answered swiftly:

                                    “Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

Dylan appeared to be thinking of All Quiet when he commented on the passage:

When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory –  tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.

That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living.

When Dylan describes Odysseus, he’s more of a witness outsider, more of an Ishmael or a Bäumer, than a returning king:

All these stragglers will have to pay for desecrating his palace. He’ll disguise himself as a filthy beggar, and a lowly servant kicks him down the steps with arrogance and stupidity. The servant’s arrogance revolts him, but he controls his anger. He’s one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest. He was nobody. And when it’s all said and done, when he’s home at last, he sits with his wife, and he tells her the stories.

Alan Ginsberg, dazzled by Dylan’s immense creativity, once described him as a shaman, channeling creative energies that can only have come down from above. I’m not surprised, therefore, that Dylan would relate to how Homer invokes a higher power: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.” Dylan tells of those who are down and out.

The Nobel committee gave this year’s award to a consummate storyteller, just one who entwines his stories with music. But then, Homer had his harp.

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Life Is Delight When June Is Come

Fragonard, “Happy Lovers”


This Robert Bridges poem about June has a touch of the medieval lyric “Summer is icumen in”–why else use the archaism “singeth”? It also seems to invoke the book of verses and “Thou beside me singing in the Wilderness” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Such poetry reminds even those of us who aren’t lovers to lie back, watch the clouds, and dip into poetry from time to time.

Leave your phone at home.

When June Is Come

By Robert Bridges

When June is come, then all the day
I’ll sit with my love in the scented hay:
And watch the sunshot palaces high,
That the white clouds build in the breezy sky.

She singeth, and I do make her a song,
And read sweet poems the whole day long:
Unseen as we lie in our haybuilt home,
O, life is delight when June is come.

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Be Afraid of Trump’s Fear of Being Mocked


Several reasons have been given for Donald Trump disavowing the Paris Climate Agreement, but one in particular stands out: he wanted to get back at those European leaders that he thought were laughing at him, especially newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron (who came prepared for Trump’s aggressive handshake and one-upped him).

Add that to the fact that “Paris” shows up in the Agreement’s name. It’s like throwing raw meat–or rather, an overdone steak–to America’s president:

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — along with many, many other locations within our great country — before Paris, France. 


At what point does America get demeaned?  At what point do they start laughing at us as a country?   We want fair treatment for its citizens, and we want fair treatment for our taxpayers.  We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.  And they won’t be.  They won’t be.

This fear of being laughed at, perhaps more then any other aspect of Trump, should scare us all. As Cormac McCarthy makes clear in his novel All the Pretty Horses, people this insecure about mockery are capable of unimaginable cruelty.

Paul Waldman of The Week observes that Trump has long been obsessed with getting laughed at:

If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last couple of years, you know this is a topic he returns to again and again. Search Trump’s Twitter feed and you’ll find that who’s laughing at whom is an obsession for him, with the United States usually the target of the laughter. “The world is laughing at us.” China is “laughing at USA!” Iran is “laughing at Kerry & Obama!” “ISIS & all others laughing!” “Mexican leadership has been laughing at us for many years.” “Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush.” “Putin is laughing at Obama.” “OPEC is laughing at how stupid we are.” “Dopey, nobody is laughing at me!” I could go on (and on, and on), but I’ll spare you.

In All the Pretty Horses, an evil Mexican police captain personally executes a 13-year-old boy so that he won’t lose face. The boy himself has shot a man as he sought to retrieve his stolen horse, and the captain has arranged to let the victim’s relatives carry out a revenge shooting. When they blanch at the prospect of killing a child, however, the captain does it himself. After all, he has a reputation to uphold.

In his explanation to the novel’s protagonist, whom he has arrested under false pretenses, he tells a horrifying story. It is even worse when you realize that it could apply to Trump:

I will tell you a story, he said. Because I like you. I was young man like you. You see. And this time I tell you I was always with these older boys because I want to learn every thing. So on this night at the fiesta of San Pedro in the town of Linares in Nuevo León I was with these boys and they have some mescal and everything—you know what is mescal?—and there was this woman and all these boys is go out to this woman and they is have this woman. And I am the last one. And I go out to the place where is this woman and she is refuse me because she say I am too young or something like that.

What does a man do? You see. I can no go back because they will all see that I don’t go with this woman. Because the truth is always plain. You see. A man cannot go out to do some thing and then he go back. Why he go back? Because he change his mind? A man does not change his mind.

The captain made a fist and held it up.

Maybe they tell her to refuse to me. So they can laugh. They give her some money or something like that. But I don’t let whores make trouble for me. When I come back there is no laughing. No one is laughing. You see. That has always been my way in this world. I am the one when I go someplace then there is no laughing. When I go there then they stop laughing.

The episode is chilling because McCarthy has forced us to imagine the violence it would take to silence the laughter of tough Mexican kids high on mescal. “I am the one when I go someplace then there is no laughing” is Trump’s dream. What won’t he do to get there?

Recall that he has unlimited fire power at his disposal.

Further thought: John Grady, even when in the captain’s custody, doesn’t hesitate to call him out. We need people to stand up to our own captain, especially members of the GOP.

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Shakespeare for a Midsummer Wedding

John Simmons, “Hermia and Lysander” (1870)


A couple of years ago a former student informed me that she was going to have a Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed wedding in June. Danie was a political science major who took an Introduction to Literature course where I taught the play. I asked her to send me pictures and got her permission to blog about it.

She couldn’t have chosen a better literary work for the occasion. Midsummer perfectly balances social ritual with our natural urges.

Along with my congratulations, I sent Danie several questions after hearing about her plans. Here’s my e-mail message:

I want to hear a full account of your MND-themed wedding! If you send me a photo, I’ll even write a post about it since I’m in love with the idea. Certain questions come up, however. Are you marrying an ass? Will the bridegroom wear a donkey head? Or are you Hippolyta and did he woo you by his sword, doing you injury? (But now presumably he will he be wedding you in a different key, with pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.) Will you have really bad theatrical entertainment after the wedding? Will there be children dressed as fairies strewing rose petals? Will it be outside and will you go barefoot?

To which Danie replied,

I joke that I am marrying an ass! I love the idea of dressing up as a fairy queen, so my fiancé and I are going as Oberon and Titania. Our officiant is a Shakespeare enthusiast so she’ll be adding a lot of Shakespeare quotes to the ceremony. And yes, I plan to have two lovely flower girls dressed as fairies. It will be outside and I do plan to go barefoot! Ha ha! You know me too well.

I have asked my friends about putting on the play within a play, so I am hoping to pull that together in time for the wedding. Not sure if they can, so fingers crossed!

Danie never informed me how it turned out—other things on her mind?—but I can use my imagination. First of all, I hope that the two did not quarrel before the wedding, since it would have been rained out. I wonder if, like Lysander, Danie’s fiancé made moves the night before, then chased after the maid of honor, then had a fight with a groomsman, and only then returned to her. I hope that her fiancé didn’t make imperious demands as Oberon does with Titania: “Am not I thy lord?”

Danie married an Englishman so they spent many months apart while she finished up college. Midsummer Night’s Dream, appropriately enough, addresses the issue of delayed gratification:

O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.

In my note, I told Danie about my deep belief in marriage and weddings. Midsummer Night’s Dream honors both the urgent desires of the young lovers and society’s insistence on ritual. When balance is lacking, unhappiness ensues: we see an oppressive society in Act I and sexual desire running unchecked in Acts II and III. Shakespeare honors both tradition and nature in the play’s happy resolution.

This being the twenty-first century, I suspect that Danie and her husband aren’t planning to have children right away, but they might still take seriously the blessing that Oberon bestows upon the newly married couples after they have gone to bed. He promises that they will have healthy and blemish-free babies:

Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blest
Ever shall in safety rest.

One other note: Theseus chooses Bottom’s play, awful though it is, because the couples have to fill up the hours between the marriage ceremony and bedtime. Some are undoubtedly anxious, others impatient. Only a play that they can laugh at will relieve tensions and pass the time. This may no longer be relevant given that most couples these days are sexually active before getting married.

For that matter, the play may seem dated because most don’t have to rebel against tyrannical fathers, and there’s no longer a stigma about cavorting in the woods.

But that being said, there still is something magical—something fairy-like—about the wedding ritual, which acknowledges the spiritual bond that accompanies physical coupling. That part of the play is as powerful as ever, reason enough to opt for a themed wedding.

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Pulled into the Ring of the Dance

Arthur Hughes, “Caedmon’s Awakening”

Pentecost Sunday

Christians today celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the “advocate” with God that Christ promised would be sent to his followers after he himself departed. Many poets, most notably John Milton, have seen the Holy Spirit as a poetic muse, which is how Denise Levertov regards it in her poem about the early British poet Caedmon. St. Bede’s account of Caedmon learning the gift of song goes as follows (I quote from Wikipedia):

Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

In her poem, Levertov draws on imagery from Luke’s account of Pentecost, especially the disciples speaking in tongues and a tongue of fire resting on each of them:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

As a poet, Levertov identifies with the moment where Caedmon has his voice pulled from him. Initially he feels awkward and retreats to the dumb world of animals. The light from his rush torch, however, anticipates the inspiration that is to come:

I’d see by a twist 
of lit rush the motes 
of gold moving 
from shadow to shadow 
slow in the wake 
of deep untroubled sighs. 

Then suddenly the spirit moves within him, sending down holy fire that touches his lips and scorches his tongue. Levertov could be talking here of her own poetry and also her conversion to Christianity. Although the animals around don’t react to this burning moment–it can be invisible to all those around–Caedmon himself suddenly feels pulled into “the ring of the dance.”


By Denise Levertov

All others talked as if 
talk were a dance. 
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet 
would break the gliding ring. 
Early I learned to 
hunch myself 
close by the door: 
then when the talk began 
I’d wipe my 
mouth and wend 
unnoticed back to the barn 
to be with the warm beasts, 
dumb among body sounds 
of the simple ones. 
I’d see by a twist 
of lit rush the motes 
of gold moving 
from shadow to shadow 
slow in the wake 
of deep untroubled sighs. 
The cows 
munched or stirred or were still. I 
was at home and lonely, 
both in good measure. Until 
the sudden angel affrighted me—light effacing 
my feeble beam, 
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:   
but the cows as before 
were calm, and nothing was burning, 
             nothing but I, as that hand of fire   
touched my lips and scorched my tongue   
and pulled my voice 
                            into the ring of the dance.

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Trump, GOP Sacrifice Our Climate Future


With Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the international climate agreement, I’m reposting an essay I wrote on Russell Hoban’s brilliant dystopian work Riddley Walker when the talks were underway. I discussed then how the greed of the present generation threatens to condemn our descendants to climate hell. Thanks to Trump and the GOP—including those so-called moderates who aren’t willing to stand up to the rightwing fringe—the likelihood of a dismal future has just gone up.

At the end of the essay I provide an annotated list of all the essays I’ve posted about climate change and climate change denialism over the past eight years.

Climate Inaction Will Lead to Dystopia
Reprinted from December 2, 2015

Representatives from most of the world’s countries are currently meeting in Paris to face what they all acknowledge to be one of the greatest crises ever to confront humankind. The challenges of working together are daunting but at least everyone is admitting that climate change is a problem. Everyone, that is, except for the GOP.

Actually, according to conservative New York Times David Brooks, even many Republicans think that humans are causing the planet to warm up. But because the rightwing has hijacked their party, they feel they can’t admit it. As Brooks puts it,

[O]n this issue the G.O.P. has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship — a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.

I’ve written on climate change denialism a number of times (see the links at the end of this essay) because I find it appalling. How can anyone be willing to sacrifice our children and grandchildren on the altar of political expediency.

The U.S. military is among many declaring that, because of a warming earth, we face the prospect of a dystopian future, which makes Russell Hoban’s science fiction classic Riddley Walker a good work to turn to. To be sure, Hoban’s novel is about world that has been been devastated by nuclear war, not by climate change. The passage that catches my eye, however, is the story of a couple who sacrifice their child for their present convenience. This is what anyone who stands in the way of reducing carbon emissions is doing.

Riddley Walker is a challenging novel because it engages in language play similar to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange. With a little patience, however, one can understand what is being said with a little patience, and then the novel’s nightmare vision becomes clear.

The time is 2000 years into the future. Because of an atomic Armageddon, the world has descended into a new iron age. (Riddley Walker is like Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this regard.) Riddley becomes a wanderer and seer (hence his name) who learns that the authorities are seeking to rediscover the secret of gun powder and the atom bomb. The passage I have in mind is one of the origin stories that has arisen in the centuries since the nuclear cataclysm. The fable, which seeks to explain why the world is as it is, demonstrates how selfishness led to disaster. It applies to our own circumstances only too well:

There come a man and a woman and a child out of a berning town they shelter in the woodlings and foraging the bes they cud. Starveling were what they were doing. Dint have no weapons nor dint know how to make a snare not nothing. Snow on the groun and a grey sky overing and the black trees rubbing ther branches in the wind. Crows calling 1 to a nother waiting for the 3 of them to drop…

The child said, “O Im so col Im afeart Im going to dy. If only we had a little fire to get warm at.”

The man dint have no way to making a fire he dint have no flint and steal nor nothing. Wood all roun them only there weren’t no way he knowit of getting warm from it.

The 3 of them ready for Aunty [Death] they wer ready to total and done when there come thru the woodlings a clever looking bloak and singing a little song to his self.

“Cleverness” is looked upon with suspicion in this world since it has led to the atom bomb. (The same suspicion exists in Canticle for Leibowitz and, for that matter, existed amongst Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who executed people who wore glasses.) For our purposes, Clevver stands for the technological prowess that had led to climate change. He offers the family fire but demands something in return:

The clever looking bloak said, “That for you and what for me?”

The man and the woman said, “What do we have for whatfers?” They lookit 1 to the other and boath at the child.

The clever looking bloak said, “Iwl tel you what Iwl do Iwl share you my fire and my cook pot of youwl share me what to put in the pot.” He wer looking at the child.

The man and the woman thot: 2 out of 3 a live is bettern 3 dead. They said, ‘Done.’

They kilt the child and drunk its blood and cut up the meat for cooking.

The clever looking bloak said, “Iwl show you how to make fire plus Iwl give you flint and steal and makings nor you don’t have to share me nothing of the meat only the hart.

The clever man then predicts that, essentially, the old technology will one day return. The man and woman, meanwhile, pay a price for their decision:

The man and the woman then eating ther child it wer black nite all roun them they made ther fire bigger and bigger trying to keap the black from moving in on them. They fel a sleap by ther fire and the fire biggering on it et them up they bernt to death.

We’re not living in a post-apocalyptic world yet, but we’re on the way there. Are we willing to eat our children—or at least the resources they will need to live on—just so we can hold on to our accustomed life style? If we do so, the shadows of black night will move in on us and any number of people will be “bernt to death.”


Past posts on climate change and climate change denialism

In January 2016, I compiled a list of posts I’ve written over the years about literature that casts light upon issues raised by climate change. Here they are, along with a number of additions written since then:

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

Climate Change, Fairies Fighting  – Shakespeare saw England undergo an extreme weather event in the 1590s with the mini-ice age and in Midsummer Night’s Dream let’s us know what we can expect—which is to say, the extreme weather events that we are beginning to experience with increasing frequency.

Civil War Battle, Image of Climate Change Denial  – Ambrose Bierce’s haunting story “Chickamauga” works as a perfect parable for climate change denialism.

Climate Scientists, Our Cassandras  – Aeschylus and Robinson Jeffers, in their depictions of the prophetess Cassandra, help us understand why people aren’t willing to undertake measures to stave off future disasters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Atwood vs. Unregulated Capitalism – in MaddAam, the third novel of her dystopian trilogy, Margaret Atwood shows us the dangers of unregulated capitalism.

Atwood Predicts the Fire Next Time – In her short story “Torch the Dusties,” Margaret Awood predicts generational anger against those currently squandering our resources.

Our Children Will Reproach Us  – T.S. Eliot and Lucille Clifton imagine how the future will blame us for inaction.

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

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

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

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

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

The GOP Descend into Poe’s Maelstrom – The GOP these days is taking us into a version of Poe’s nightmarish whirlpool.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Calling Out Trump’s Assault on Nature – Few works of literature are more relevant to climate activists than Euripides’s The Bacchae. We are reminded that, when we respect Nature, Nature responds in kind.

Despite Trump, “The Land Holds Us Still” – Terry Tempest Williams and Zadie Smith remind us of the spiritual resources we have to battle Trumpism.

“Enemy of the People,” Badge of Honor – Ibsen’s principled doctor is a model for those resisting Trump’s and the GOP’s determination to trash the planet.

How the Future Will Judge Us for Trump – A Jane Hirshfield poem calls us to resist.

To Save the Planet, Scientists Must Protest – This essay on Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, the second of two, looks at what keeps scientists from getting politically involved. Kingsolver makes it clear that they no longer have that luxury.

 Neil Gaiman and the Pipeline Protests – Gaiman’s American Gods show us that our spiritual heritage lies with the Native Americans and shows the protagonist tapping into their gods to defeat the forces of modernity.

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

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

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

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

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

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The California Drought: The Rivers of Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Order and Ordure

Letters from Mrs. Santa Claus

Everyperson’s Environmental E-Car

An Environmentalist’s Revenge Fantasy

Mama Grizzly (Sarah Palin) vs. the Real Grizzlies


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On Reading Pride & Prejudice 100 Times

Jacques-Emile Blanche “Portrait of Lucie Reading”


To unwind from the semester, I’ve been treating myself to a leisurely read of Pride and Prejudice. I used to read Austen’s novel ritually at the end of each semester, perhaps for the same reason that Kipling’s World War I soldiers become “Janeites” in the short story by that name: the novel is a healing place of repose after the mad scramble of the school year’s final weeks. (Okay, so the semester is not quite trench warfare, but you get the point.) Then, however, I added P&P to my Early British Literature survey and it lost some of its magic.

That can happen when you teach something regularly. There are ways around this danger, which I’ll explore in a moment, but let’s look first at how the narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes describes the problem. The Dr. Starkie in the passage is a Flaubert scholar:

Does Dr Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain all the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell you one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronizing tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. Of course, it’s her house, and everybody’s living in it rent free; but even so, surely it is, well, you know…time?

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense.

The concern here is legitimate. I’ll never forget my delighted surprise when, reading P&P for the first time as a high school student, I was blindsided by Darcy’s marriage proposal. I’ll never have that experience again, and each year tell my class I envy those who are new to the novel.

Of course, there are surprises that come with multiple readings, so that’s one consolation. For instance, this time through I’m discovering that Austen rides Mr. Collins far more relentlessly than I previously realized. His hilarious attempts to be a passionate lover so tickle her that she jokes about it over and over. First there’s this lead-up to his marriage proposal:

“Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it would be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying—and, moreover, for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as I certainly did.”

The idea of Mr. Collins, with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings, made Elizabeth so near laughing, that she could not use the short pause he allowed in any attempt to stop him further…

Then there’s the moment when Charlotte, having wooed Collins, sees him coming to propose. Austen leaves it up to the reader to detect the contrast between “love and eloquence” and “long speeches.” Charlotte clearly wants the courtship to be over as fast as possible:

But little had she dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her there.

In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waived for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favored by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

Collins goes on to inform the Bennet family of his rapturous feelings:

[H]e proceeded to inform them, with many rapturous expressions, of his happiness in having obtained the affection of their amiable neighbor, Miss Lucas…

Then there’s talk of the wedding:

After a week spent in professions of love and schemes of felicity, Mr. Collins was called from his amiable Charlotte by the arrival of Saturday. The pain of separation, however, might be alleviated on his side, by preparations for the reception of his bride; as he had reason to hope, that shortly after his return into Hertfordshire, the day would be fixed that was to make him the happiest of men. 

I haven’t included every passage in which “happiest of men” appears, but the constant repetition of an inane cliché pretty much sums up Collins. Austen, like Mr. Bennet, finds Collins to be an infinite source of satiric amusement.

So reading with special care is one way of keeping the classics fresh. Another is to observe how each wave of students brings in fresh perspectives.

I’ve long contended that the classics must constantly be interpreted anew as each generation has its own frame of reference. Here’s a new take on P&P I just received from student Melodie Shanks.

Class dynamics are as central to the novel as the marriage plot, and, while one can pick up the class cues in various ways, it’s hard for Americans to experience the urgency of the issue. It therefore helped Melodie to think of the novel in terms of our immigration debates.

On the one hand, there are the gentry who, like Americans with birthright citizenship, feel themselves entitled to their privileges. Then there are the middle class who, like the immigrants, are hungry to join this privileged class.

The gentry have grown complacent and arrogant and, in any event, don’t have a lot of spark. They are not a source of new energy, as can be seen in the pale and sickly Miss de Bourgh, her rigid mother, and the diffident Miss Darcy.

The middle class characters, by contrast, have a tremendous amount of energy, as do many American immigrants. They aren’t always principled—think of Wickham, Caroline Bingley, Miss Bennet—but at least they don’t stand languidly at the edge of dance floors. No wonder Miss Darcy runs off with Wickham.

If Darcy were to marry Miss de Bourgh, the gentry class would fold in on itself, retreat to Pemberley, and become irrelevant:

Miss de Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice, to Mrs. Jenkinson, in whose appearance there was nothing remarkable, and who was entirely engaged in listening to what she said, and placing a screen in the proper direction before her eyes.

One reason for America’s success is the constant new waves of immigration, which keep the melting pot bubbling. In Austen’s world, the middle class offer this kind of fresh energy to Austen’s gentry class. That’s why Darcy is smitten with Elizabeth: she is the vital life force that will save him and rejuvenate society. There will be no French Revolution if these two can get along.

Seen through this lens, P&P warns us that cracking down on immigration will not make America great again but rather cause it to stagnate. Melodie helps make the book relevant for a new generation of readers and gives the old generation a new way to think about it.

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Lear, Trump & the Tyrant’s Loneliness

James Pittendrigh McGillivray, “King Lear”


This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post comparing Donald Trump to King Lear. The more I think about it, the more disturbing the parallels appear.

To set up my further thoughts, I quote from a remarkable Rebecca Solnit article that pulls from Pushkin’s story of the golden fish, The Great Gatsby, and The Picture of Dorian Gray to capture the horror that is Trump. In her description one sees Lear as well:

Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more. He was a pair of ragged orange claws [Alert: J. Alfred Prufrock reference] upon the ocean floor, forever scuttling, pinching, reaching for more, a carrion crab, a lobster and a boiling lobster pot in one, a termite, a tyrant over his own little empires. He got a boost at the beginning from the wealth handed him and then moved among grifters and mobsters who cut him slack as long as he was useful, or maybe there’s slack in arenas where people live by personal loyalty until they betray, and not by rules, and certainly not by the law or the book. So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin.

Lear too is possessed by “bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting.” Shakespeare’s tragedy gives us a picture of the damage Trump could do to America while also showing what it would take for Trump to find his soul again. (For Lear it requires imprisonment and the love of an estranged daughter.)

First of all, if you have any remaining hopes that Trump can grow into the role of president—that he can become presidential—look at Lear and forget about it. Lear’s narcissism is so profound that he is willing to plunge his country into civil war to deal with his insecurities.

Underlying all of Lear’s bluster is the fear that he is insignificant. He plays his “love” game because he suddenly realizes that all the power in the world won’t save him from aging and death. He knows deep down that he needs love but, since he is used to having everything his own way, he tries to get love on his own terms (to quote from Trump’s favorite movie Citizen Kane).

What he gets instead, of course, is people telling him what he wants to hear. Then, when he no longer has power, he discovers that all their words were empty. At that point, he can no longer evade his loneliness.

Solnit explains why tyrants are invariably lonely:

I have often run across men (and rarely, but not never, women) who have become so powerful in their lives that there is no one to tell them when they are cruel, wrong, foolish, absurd, repugnant. In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures…

Some use their power to silence that and live in the void of their own increasingly deteriorating, off-course sense of self and meaning. It’s like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service. It’s like having a compliant compass that agrees north is whatever you want it to be. The tyrant of a family, the tyrant of a little business or a huge enterprise, the tyrant of a nation. Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it. Or reduces it: narcissists, sociopaths, and egomaniacs are people for whom others don’t exist.

This is why Cordelia refuses to go along with Lear’s game. She knows that true love involves give and take and she won’t participate in a charade. Give and take, as Solnit points out, is also how democracy works:

We keep each other honest, we keep each other good with our feedback, our intolerance of meanness and falsehood, our demands that the people we are with listen, respect, respond—if we are allowed to, if we are free and valued ourselves. There is a democracy of social discourse, in which we are reminded that as we are beset with desires and fears and feelings, so are others; there was an old woman in Occupy Wall Street I always go back to who said, “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important.” That’s what a democracy of mind and heart, as well as economy and polity, would look like.

Once Lear divides his kingdom into two, civil war is inevitable, and tensions between Cornwall and Albany arise immediately. We can note that Trump too has ridden divisiveness to the presidency, and has made no attempt—as all previous presidents have done—to reach out to the other side. Incidentally, nothing terrified Shakespeare more than civil strife, which is present in practically all of his history plays and in a fair number of his tragedies. The horrors of recent history, the War of the Roses and the Catholic-Protestant clashes, loomed large in his mind.

The good news for Trump is that even Lear gets his humanity and his soul back. It takes real adversity for it to happen, however, with his darkest moment proving to be his salvation. Only when he suffers does he learn what love is.

If Lear were given a choice between all his years as king and his last day, he would choose those final moments with Cordelia. Everything else seems trivial in comparison.

It seems strange to think that impeachment or imprisonment might be the best thing that could happen to Trump, but I think it might be true. Solnit talks about the deep yearning for limits that she saw with her fellow college students who came from wealthy famlies:

The rich kids I met in college were flailing as though they wanted to find walls around them, leapt as though they wanted there to be gravity and to hit ground, even bottom, but parents and privilege kept throwing out safety nets and buffers, kept padding the walls and picking up the pieces, so that all their acts were meaningless, literally inconsequential. They floated like astronauts in outer space.

Maybe disgraced and rejected, Trump could find a genuine relationship with one of his children, laughing together at things they used to take seriously:

                                Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

As long as he continues to be buoyed by his enablers, however, Trump will remain in the hell of loneliness. One could feel sorry for him only, like Lear, he makes everyone around him pay for his unhappiness and, like Lear, he has the power to do a lot of damage.


Previous Posts on Trump, the GOP, and King Lear

March 30, 2017: Will Trump, Like Lear, Take Us All Down?

March 21, 2017: Trump as Lear, Howling in the Storm

March 10, 2016: #NeverTrump! Never! Never! Never! Never?

May 9, 2016: Time for GOP Moderates To Go to Ground?

May 8, 2016: Now, Gods, Stand Up for Trump!

Dec. 30, 2015: Conservative Extremists as King Lear

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Will Trump, Like Lear, Take Us All Down?

Benjamin West, “King Lear”


For years I’ve been applying King Lear to American politics, and yesterday The Washington Post followed suit. Forget dystopian novels like 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale, Ron Charles advises us. The work that fits Donald Trump best is Shakespeare’s most disturbing tragedy.

Charles gives us a teaser before springing on us the name of the play (although we know it already from the headline):

The most prominent characteristic of our era is not the monolithic power of one party, but the erratic personality of one man. Every morning, all sides of the political establishment — his family and friends, along with “the haters and losers” — must contend with Trump’s zigzagging proclamations, his grandiose promises, his spasmodic attachments.

Charles finds many comparisons. First, Lear like Trump is unpredictable:

In Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, composed around 1605, we see a kingdom entirely in thrall to the fitful mentality of its leader with his “unconstant starts.” As one of Lear’s daughters says, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash.” Or, as Politico observed 400 years later about our president: ­“Unpredictability . . . is not a quirk but a hallmark.”

Then, in parallel that is so apt that I’m kicking myself for having missed it, each insists on absolutely loyalty from all followers:

[T]he old king of Britain and the new president of the United States are rulers obsessed with personal devotion. Trump is, as he once noted in his typically Shakespearean way, “like, this great loyalty freak.”

Trump’s language may not pass muster in ninth-grade English, but that’s a pretty fair description of King Lear. In fact, the great crisis of Shakespeare’s tragedy hinges on the fact that Lear is, like, this great loyalty freak, too. How eerily familiar that opening scene must feel to the Cabinet members and advisers currying favor at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.:

“Which of you,” Lear demands, “shall we say doth love us most?”

Goneril and Regan dutifully deliver their unctuous praise, but principled Cordelia — played for us with touching poignancy by FBI Director James B. Comey — refuses to take the loyalty pledge and is summarily disinherited. (Lear doesn’t even wait for the Earl of Kent to compose a memo justifying the move.)

Several times I have made Charles’s next point, which is that removing society’s traditional governing norms unleashes chaos. In Shakespeare’s playLear’s self-indulgent abdication and Gloucester’s whoring (and then boasting about it) are instances of irresponsible old men reaping the whirlwind. That’s why Trump’s assaults on empirical reality, journalism, the courts, and democratic traditions generally are so disturbing. We realize, as we watch Lear’s kingdom descend into civil war, that our own institutions are more fragile than we thought. Charles sets forth the consequences:

Now, like Lear’s subjects, we find ourselves experiencing the chaos that reigns “when majesty falls to folly.” As the Russian inquiry melds with the Michael Flynn scandal and the Comey investigation, the ludicrous denials and confusing qualifications keep spewing from the White House. Each day’s revelations are more disturbing than the last. We can take bitter comfort in Edgar’s gallows humor: “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ ”

Finally, there’s the spectacle of the leader who, at times, seems to be losing it:

How many of the president’s supporters have begged him — as Lear’s supporters implored him — “Check this hideous rashness”? But to no avail. Again and again, often at the most ill-timed moments, the president rages into the Twitterstorm on the barren plain of the Web.

“Fake news!” “When does it end?” “This is a disgrace!”

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”

And despite boundless advantages and allowances, Trump echoes Lear’s whiny complaint: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.”

Who doesn’t feel a prick of pity for this grandiose character wandering alone in his bathrobe in the dark, early-morning hours?

Charles notes one difference between Lear and Trump: Lear at least has a fool to keep him anchored in reality, even though he doesn’t listen to him. Trump, by contrast, is surrounded by yes-men and yes-women:

Who will speak sharp sense to the president in a way he can hear? Who will quell his Twitter raging? Surely not Vice President Pence; he prefers the part of Goneril, proficient in flattery, “that glib and oily art.” And Stephen K. Bannon is committed to playing Lady Macbeth in a competing production in the White House basement.

One could point to one other major difference: Lear at least is no longer in office.

We should be so lucky.

One other thought: Let’s take a moment to honor those brave men and women, our Kents and Cordelias, who stand firmly in support of our country’s founding principles, regardless of the cost. Unfortunately, at the moment this includes very few GOP members of Congress.


Previous Posts on Trump, the GOP, and King Lear

March 21, 2017: Trump as Lear, Howling in the Storm

March 10, 2016: #NeverTrump! Never! Never! Never! Never?

May 9, 2016: Time for GOP Moderates To Go to Ground?

May 8, 2016: Now, Gods, Stand Up for Trump!

Dec. 30, 2015: Conservative Extremists as King Lear

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Memorial Day: Anthem for Doomed Youth

Monday – Memorial Day

When on Memorial Day we lift up the memories of those who have died, we must be very careful that we do not also romanticize war. Because we don’t want to see the deaths as meaningless, we sometimes rationalize the conflicts that killed them.

Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” (1914) is guilty of the romanticizing I have in mind. Excerpts of the poem are often read at military funerals and many have found comfort in it, so I don’t want to dismiss it altogether. As I read it, however, I also imagine how Wilfred Owen would have responded:

For the Fallen

By Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labor of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Binyon is writing about World War I, which he watched from the sidelines as he was in his forties. I find it a dangerous poem. I can see young men reading it and feeling a tragic pride that they may well have to give up their lives “in the cause of the free.” They are certain that they will be “staunch to the end” and that they will fall “with their faces to the foe.” They are comforted with the thought that their deaths will be “august and royal,” that the tragedy of their dying will mingle with the music of the spheres, and that they themselves will be “stars that shall be bright” when all the rest of us are dust.

I wonder if Wilfred Owen is talking directly to Binyon as he attacks people for romanticizing war. For instance, to Binyon’s talk of drums, music, and august funeral ceremonies, here’s what Owen has to say in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? 
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. 
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle 
Can patter out their hasty orisons. 
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— 
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; 
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 

What candles may be held to speed them all? 
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes 
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. 
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; 
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, 
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

To Binyon’s talk of “a glory that shines upon our tears,” I hear the final line of Owen’s “Greater Love”: “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.” In other words, “Save me your sentimental tears. You don’t know the half of what we have been through.” Owen knows better than to judge soldiers on whether they stood staunch or not.

In Binyon’s defense, there were a number of people who thought as he did in 1914, including Owen himself. So did Rupert Brooke, when he penned the sentimental,

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. 

And Alan Seeger, when he belted out,

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath…

Before concluding,

And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Seeger personalizes death as a dark mistress to whom he must be heroically and fatalistically true, the highwayman in Alfred Noyes’s ultra-romantic poem by that name. Death in Seeger’s vision is accompanied by apple blossoms. Owen’s answer in “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a soldier dying of mustard gas:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Brooke and Seeger both died before they saw the full extent of World War I’s horrors (in April 1915 and July 1916). Owen’s poetry took its dark turn in 1917 and he would live almost to the end, dying a week before the Armistice. Perhaps one could be romantic in the early years but not after the war entered its third year.

So when you honor our fallen soldiers today, perhaps this is the best way to memorialize them: shut your ears to war rhetoric and dedicate your efforts to making sure that future young people won’t follow in their footsteps. And that future parents, siblings, relatives, and children won’t have to mourn.

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Ramadan Came to the Heart’s Temple

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque

Spiritual Sunday – Ramadan

Just as I have been posting a Mary Oliver poem each Easter, I have been posting a Rumi poem to commemorate Ramadan, which commenced this past week. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sundown for a month to commemorate God revealing the first verses of the Koran to Mohammed.

In the following poem, Rumi makes a distinction between the external and the internal, between the external injunction to abstain from food and drink and “the invisible treasure of the heart.” The poem simply but powerfully captures how the stress that “comes from fasting” cleanses the spirit and reveals the brilliance within. “Bairam” is the feast that concludes Ramadan while Salahuddin is one of Rumi’s spiritual companions, who keeps alive the spirit of ancient Sufi mystics Mansur and Beyazid.

Ramadan came, but Bairam is with us.
The lock came, but the key is with us.

Mouth is closed. Eyes are opened.
That brilliance that the eyes see is with us.

We have cleaned soul and heart with fasting.
The dirt which has been with us is cleansed now.

Some stress comes from fasting,
But the invisible treasure of heart is with us.

Ramadan came to the heart’s temple;
The one who created heart is with us.

Since Salahuddin is among this crowd,
Mansur and Beyazid are with us.


Previously posted Ramadan poems by Rumi

Celebrate! The Month of Fasting Has Come

No Room in This House for Two I’s

Break Your Fast with Joy

A New Song Comes Out of the Fire

Overrichness Is a Subtle Disease

The Spirit’s Table Has Arrived

Like a Reed, Open Yourself to God’s Breath

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Surrendering to the Air

Ziplining in the Smokies


I ticked off another item on my bucket list this past week, zip-lining in the Smokies with Julia. As I soared through the air, I thought of the ending of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

Flight is a major theme in the novel. Early on, after seeing a man attempt to fly and fall to his death, protagonist Milkman feels boxed in by life. It symbolizes how African Americans feel that this society has clipped their wings:

Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier—that only birds and airplanes could fly—he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull…

In the course of the novel, however, Milkman discovers that (so legend has it) he had a slave ancestor who could fly. Morrison captures how freeing it can be for African Americans to uncover their history, especially if they uncover resistance in the process.

In the novel’s magic realist ending, there’s a chance that Milkman can fly as well:

Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Anything is possible for a young man of color who has found himself. There’s a reason why Song of Solomon is Barack Obama’s favorite novel.

I can’t say that I entirely surrendered to the air after leaping, even though I was safely snapped into a harness. As you may see in the photo above, I’m somewhat tentative in letting myself go. (Or as Langston Hughes would put it, I’m not exactly “fling[ing] my arms wide in some place in the sun.”) Still, I was thrilled.

A glider ride is next.

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Grendel Evil vs. Beowulf’s Strength of Mind

Manchester rally


In what has become a grim tradition for this blog, I run the same post, slightly amended, whenever we have another major mass killing in the world. Today we mourn the victims of the Manchester suicide bombing.

I have had to add the qualifier “major” since if I included those mass killings where the victims number “only” in the single digits, I would run this post continually. The same would be true if I included mass killings in war zones, such as Syria.

My major go-to work on these occasions is Beowulf. Few works of literature capture so powerfully the social violence that strikes from within, especially in the poem’s depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. If Salman Abedi fits the profile of previous Grendels, it will emerge that he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.

Invoking Beowulf for a Manchester tragedy may be particularly appropriate in this case as the poem was composed in northern England. (Beowulf has traces of various northern Anglo-Saxon dialects.) Here’s the passage of King Hrothgar helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that Denmark, like the United Kingdom, is a powerful nation. The inability to prevent such violence can give rise to crippling self doubts:

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, 
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old

were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

The Bewulf poet writes that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”

Fortunately, the people of Manchester, at least so far, are standing together, determined not to let such monstrosity sow internal divisions. The way to confront terrorism is with fierce resolve, symbolized by Beowulf’s iron grip:

The captain of evil discovered himself
in a handgrip harder than anything
he had ever encountered in any man
on the face of the earth. Every bone in his body
quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
with the devil’s litter, or in all his days
he had never been clamped or cornered like this.

Beowulf doesn’t kill Grendel because Grendel is the archetype of a hatred that can’t be killed. Murderous resentment seethes continually within societies, and Abedi is just the latest vessel that the hatred has possessed. When the community stands strong against the hatred, however, it panics and falls apart: faced with Beowulf’s strength of will, Grendel rips himself free of his arm and flees to a dark place.

Our hearts are with you, Manchester. Be Beowulf strong.


Previous Posts on Mass Killings

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage


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The Book Apothecary Has What You Need

Tavik Frantisek Simon, “The Old Bibliophile”


Nina George’s Little Paris Bookshop (2015) has a great premise: a “book apothecary” sizes up customers and presents them with the books that they need. Sometimes he refuses to sell them a book that will be bad for them.

Jean Perdu—“Perdu” means lost—owns a boat bookstore that is parked at a Paris quay. While he’s good at prescribing books for other people, he himself is an emotional mess, his mistress having left him without explanation 20 years previously. When he finally discovers that she left because she had terminal cancer and wanted to spare him, he unmoors his boat for the first time in decades and sets off for the south of France, recommended by the French for spiritual healing.

Little Paris Bookshop presents us with an idealized France, one mediated through Marcel Pagnol, Jean Gabin, Monsieur Hulot, and The Red Balloon. At times it verges on the overly precious and sentimental, and the Washington Post pans it, finding it lightweight:

As Perdu comments to his sidekick: “Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues. And some . . . well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful void.” He should know.

I wouldn’t go this far. The line separating delicate and poetic from pink candy floss can be a fine one, and Little Paris Bookstore has its moments. I want to focus here, however, on George’s exploration of literature’s curative powers.

The maladies that Perdu cures resemble the “Heavenly hurt” and “imperial affliction/Sent us of the air” that Emily Dickinson describes in “There’s a certain slant of light,” psychic woundings of a sensitive Proustian soul. Perdu sets them forth as follows:

“I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues.         Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.” He recalled his mother once confiding in him that she suffered from a pain for which there was no antidote…

It was precisely to relieve such inexplicable yet real suffering that he had bought the boat, which was a working barge then and originally called Lulu; he had converted it with his own hands and filled it with books, the only remedy for countless, undefined afflictions of the soul.

 Perdu describes how he selects his books:

“Books are like people, and people are like books. I’ll tell you how I go about it. I ask myself: Is he or she the main character in his or her life? What is her motive? Or is she a secondary character in her own tale? Is she in the process of editing herself out of her story, because her husband, her career, her children or her job are consuming her entire text?”

Max Jordan’s eyes widened.

“I’ve got about thirty thousand stories in my head, which isn’t very many, you know, given that there are over a million titles available in France alone. I’ve got the most useful eight thousand works here, as a first-aid kit, but I also compile courses of treatment. I prepare a medicine made of letters: a cookbook with recipes that read like a wonderful family Sunday. A novel whose hero resembles the reader; poetry to make tears flow that would otherwise be poisonous if swallowed.”

We watch Perdu’s method at work as he interacts with a television advertising saleswoman:

Perdu asked the customer, whose name was Anna, a few questions. Job, morning routine, her favorite animal as a child, nightmares she’d had in the past few years, the most recent books she’d read…and whether her mother had told her how to dress.

Personal questions, but not too personal. He had to ask these questions and then remain absolutely silent. Listening in silence was essential to making a comprehensive scan of a person’s soul.

Perdu determines that Anna is concealing “pains and longings” behind “a fog of words”:

Monsieur fished out these words. Anna often said: “That wasn’t the plan” and “I didn’t count on that.” She talked about “countless” attempts and “a sequence of nightmares.” She lived in a world of mathematics, an elaborate device for ordering the irrational and personal. She wouldn’t allow herself to follow her intuition or consider the impossible possible.

Yet that was only one part of what Perdu listened out for and recorded: what was making the soul unhappy. Then there was the second part: what made the soul happy. Monsieur knew that the texture of things a person loves rubs off on his or her language too.

After listening, Perdu chooses a number of books from what he refers to as his “Library of Emotions”:

“Here you go, my dear. Novels for willpower, nonfiction for rethinking one’s life, poems for dignity.” Books about dreaming, about dying, about love and about life as a woman artist. He laid out mystical ballads, hard-edged old stories about chasms, falls, peril and betrayal at her feet. Soon Anna was surrounded by piles of books as a woman in a shoe shop might be surrounded by boxes.

Perdu wanted Anna to feel that she was in a nest. He wanted her to sense the boundless possibilities offered by books. They would always be enough. They would never stop loving their readers. They were a fixed point in an otherwise unpredictable world. In life. In love. After death.

The prescription proves successful:

Her tense shoulders slackened, her thumbs unfurled from her clenched fists. Her face relaxed.]

She read.

Monsieur Perdu observed how the words she was reading gave shape to her from within. He saw that Anna was discovering inside herself a sounding board that reacted to words. She was a violin learning to play itself.

The interaction between Perdu and his customers catches my eye because I listen to my students in a similar way. I’m skeptical of his super observation powers, however, because, in my experience, finding matches is more of a trial and error affair. I am constantly surprised at which works will strike home, as in the case of the Afghan vet who used Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to deal with traumatic war experiences.

I’ll also add that literature can do more than handle “little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in.” Many of my students have big issues—death of loved ones, broken homes, debilitating illnesses—and literature proves up to the challenge time and again. Why settle for a vague ennui when you can be fixing broken bones?

It’s worth noting that books aren’t what save the various characters in Little Paris Bookshop, starting with Perdu. It’s almost as if, for George, books are a  nice frill, fun to vacation in but not capable of heavy lifting. It’s revealing that Perdu prescribes nonfiction,  not novels or poems, for “rethinking one’s life.” Literature may be good for emotional expression, in other words, but leave it to discursive prose for action.

Despite her enthusiasm for literature, Nina George sells it short.

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Something Rotten in the States of America

Fuseli, “Hamlet and the Ghost” (1789)


What happens when you detect something rotten in the state of Denmark? Well, if you are of the same party family as the usurping king, you dither around, insist upon having irrefutable evidence, and generally hope that everything is okay so that you won’t have to take drastic action. By the time you realize you must do something, you have been outflanked and the rest of your drama is a steady slog downward. In your floundering, you get a lot of innocent people hurt (including yourself), and final justice comes too late.

Let’s line up our modern equivalents. We have a ruler who has risen to power through dubious means (Russian intervention, FBI Director intervention, voter suppression in Wisconsin and maybe Michigan). But forget about the Democrats for a moment. Think of Hamlet, Sr. as the Establishment Republicans, who have lost out to someone who pours poison into people’s ears.

Past crimes are forgotten once the new leader is nominated and then elected, however. Republican Gertrudes embrace him, and there are any number of patsies willing to do his bidding. (Let’s say that Priebus is Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.) He also manipulates hotheaded Laertes-types to do his dirty work.

In this scenario, think of young Hamlet as a vanishing breed—the principled Republican—who can’t bring himself to believe what his leader has done. His hesitant opposition is no match for his king’s ruthless survival instincts, and he quickly finds himself outmatched. The aphorism “if you aim at the king, make sure you kill the king,” could not be more relevant, both to the play and to Anti-Trumpism.

Neo-Aristotelian drama theory, which sees a play as the inexorable unfolding of a central action, identifies rottenness as central to Hamlet. Everything stems from the crime of Claudius’s usurpation. So what is the rottenness that has set our own tragedy in motion?

When he describes Denmark’s decline, Old Hamlet could be describing the descent of the GOP and of America generally. After eight years of a principled and scandal-free president, we have turned to a glib impostor who is “no more like my father/Than I to Hercules.” Like Gertrude, where once the country was moved by high-minded “Virtue” (hope and change), now it is driven by lust (racism and resentment). To use the Ghost’s word, we have bedded down with “garbage”:

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.

Old Hamlet captures our feelings:

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

And then calls us to action:

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not…

Hamlet’s mission is to expose the rottenness and exorcise it. That’s our job as well.

Further thought: I am tempted to push the parallels even further, imagining that what the various investigations will discover about Trump’s Russian finances and electoral collusion will be comparable to the secrets that the Ghost refuses to divulge about Purgatory:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine…

Okay, maybe Trump isn’t hiding secrets this bad. His panic about the investigations, however, suggests that something he’s hiding something unsavory.

And another thought: I’d forgotten that the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, whose twice-a-day blog posts I check out every day, has been using the word “rot” for a while with regard to the Trump administration. For instance:

[T]he Trump White House has been infected from the outset with a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a contempt for legitimate process, fact-based debate and reality-based governing — that has bordered on all-corrosive.

Former Republican Jennifer Rubin, whose Washington Post blog used to be the conservative counterpoint to Sargent’s liberal blog, also has taken to using the word:

President Trump has had more-scandalous weeks. He has had weeks with more bombshell bad-news stories. But no week has matched this one in revealing the moral and intellectual rot at the center of the GOP. Pandemic intellectual dishonesty and celebration of uncivilized conduct now permeate the party and its support in the conservative ecosystem.

Which, as I say, leaves us all either in the position of Hamlet–no easy options–or of those enablers who go along. In the play, everyone ends up dead.

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My Teaching Mission: Keeping It Real

Umair Badar Saleem, “The Book Man”


As I look ahead to my final year of full-time college teaching, I also find myself looking back at how I developed as a teacher over the past 37 years. Above all, I have wanted my students to keep literary interpretation real. By this I mean that I want my students to have “something at stake” when they read literature and write their essays.

In retrospect, I realize that I try to get them to avoid my own mistakes. Many of my college and graduate school essays meant little to me. I still remember my first English essay, on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, where I combed through the play to figure out why Faustus doesn’t repent. I toted up the various reasons on index cards, sorted through them, and arrived at an answer that received an A. I can’t remember the answer I came up with, however. The entire project seemed little more than an empty academic exercise.

This happened over and over as I was more focused on writing academic-sounding essays than exploring issues that resonated. Occasionally I would stumble upon topics that I cared about—they invariably were about whether literature could impact lives—and those are the essays I remember fondly to this day. One was an essay in Medieval History about how Anglo-Saxon warriors might have responded to Beowulf. My college thesis, on whether the French Enlightenment caused the French Revolution, was another.

But for the most part, I just did the assignments. I still regret that I wrote my PhD on Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett, a writer that I have never particularly liked, rather than on how 18th century readers were responding to a “novel” form of prose fiction that was emerging. In that topic I would have invested all my heart and soul, not just my brain.

As a young teacher, I gained important perspective from an on-going 1980s debate about college writing between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow. Bartholomae argued that college students should be taught to “master the discourse” of their discipline. In other words, they should learn to talk as the experts talked. Peter Elbow, on the other hand, contended that students should connect the discipline to their personal concerns.

Both are right to a degree but, as one who once tried too hard to join the club of experts, I came to embrace Elbow. Literature, philosophy, and the other disciplines, I concluded, would be no more than intellectual finger exercises unless they spoke to deep concerns. For much of my career, therefore, I have required my students to figure out how their chosen work addresses those concerns.

It may sound coercive—forcing students to write essays that they are invested in—but I can do no other. When I receive an essay where a student appears simply to be going through the motions, something within me shrivels. I feel a vast emptiness and can barely read the paper through to its conclusion.

My students, bless their hearts, are almost always willing to take up the challenge, perhaps because I spend a lot of time and energy listening closely to them to figure out what moves them. I have them write essay proposals and also have a generous revision policy, which comes with an individual conference and the opportunity to replace a lower grade with the final grade. With many I have on-going e-mail exchanges.

Regular readers of this blog have seen the results as I have shared many penetrating student insights into challenging authors. To be sure, I require the students to engage in traditional  “close reading”—Bartholomae is correct in that regard—but because they are personally invested in the topics, they learn how to make that discourse their own. Like Elbow, I encourage first-person exploring.

I gleaned another way to talk about this from an article my wife alerted me to years ago. L. S. Finlay and V. Faith’s “Illiteracy and Alienation in American Colleges” uses Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to explain why smart and privileged students at elite colleges do little more than parrot empty jargon. Shockingly, they compared American students with illiterate peasants from undeveloped nations, arguing that both engage in magical thinking rather than cultural thinking.

Freire, a key figure in combatting illiteracy in Cuba and elsewhere, believes that peasants who can’t read at first regard the world of print as alien, almost magical. To teach them how to read and write, a teacher must relate print to their experience, perhaps by teaching them how to read words and stories that they themselves have generated. Once they realize that writing is something that humans create, not something that descends from on high, they are empowered and learning happens.

Finlay and Faith argue that college students experience some of the same sense of alienation. For them, too, disciplinary discourse appears to descend from on high, and they use jargon to mimic how they think they are supposed to sound. When, however, they relate disciplinary subject matter to their own concerns, the path is cleared for authentic learning. All my efforts have been towards encouraging such authenticity.

I think back to how my Doctor Faustus essay would have been different had I been my own teacher. First of all, that teacher would have searched for the reason why young Robin Bates chose to write on Doctor Faustus. He would have helped me figure out that I was torn just as Faustus is: even while Faustus is exhilarated by the powers of the mind, he senses that somehow the mind isn’t enough. Even as I thought that Reason would allow me to accomplish whatever I wanted, at the same time I instinctively knew that Reason alone is a one-dimensional trap.

I have grappled with this issue for much of my life and, of course, I couldn’t have had my current understanding back then. But I wish my teacher had been primed to help me understand why the issues were important to me.

That’s what I try to do with every student that I have. The effort it takes leaves me exhausted at the end of every semester—the mental fatigue has gotten to the point that I have decided to retire next year—but going about my job any other way would have felt inauthentic and a betrayal.

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A Comforter to Guide Us in All Truth

Bernini, “Holy Dove”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading is Jesus’s reassurance to his disciples that, after he leaves, he will ask God to send “another Advocate, to be with you forever.” The Holy Spirit is available to all who open themselves to receive it. Jesus’s reassurance was very important to Milton as he was writing Paradise Lost.

Here’s the promise (John 14: 15-21):

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Milton certainly felt orphaned: his stated purpose, “to justify God’s ways to man,” is in large part a desire to justify God to himself. After all, his selfless dedication to the Puritan revolution, which he saw as an attempt to establish God’s kingdom on earth, had resulted in imprisonment and blindness. You see his doubts in Adam’s questions to the Archangel Michael, who has been telling him about Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Adam is concerned about the good people left behind:

But say, if our deliverer up to Heav’n
Must reascend, what will betide the few
His faithful, left among th’ unfaithful herd,
The enemies of truth; who then shall guide
His people, who defend? will they not deal
Worse with his followers then with him they dealt?

Michael’s initial words are not reassuring: yes, Jesus’s followers will suffer much. Fortunately, they will be sent a “Comforter” to help them deal with their circumstances:

Be sure they will, said th’ Angel; but from Heav’n
He to his own a Comforter will send,
The promise of the Father, who shall dwell
His Spirit within them, and the Law of Faith
Working through love, upon their hearts shall write,
To guide them in all truth, and also arm
With spiritual Armor, able to resist
Satan’s assaults, and quench his fiery darts,
What Man can do against them, not afraid,
Though to the death, against such cruelties
With inward consolations recompensed,
And oft supported so as shall amaze
Their proudest persecutors…

Michael goes on to list the wonders the apostles will perform when lifted up by the Holy Spirit:

                                                    [F]or the Spirit
Powered first on his Apostles, whom he sends
To evangelize the Nations, then on all
Baptized, shall them with wondrous gifts endue
To speak all Tongues, and do all Miracles,
As did their Lord before them. Thus they win
Great numbers of each Nation to receive
With joy the tidings brought from Heav’n…

Milton then takes a shot at those who, while claiming to follow in the apostles’ steps, instead prove to be hypocrites, putting their own greed and ambition above the love of God:

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous Wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heav’n
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition, and the truth
With superstitions and traditions taint…

One imagines that all this would have been difficult for Adam to absorb, but of course Milton is really directing the words to us. We still have far too many false apostles who invoke Jesus’s name for nefarious purposes. It’s important that we do not let them blind us to the true miracle: that we have, within each of us, a direct conduit to God.

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Pratchett’s Strong Case for Diversity


For a while now my fantasy literature students have been badgering me to read Terry Pratchett, so I finally checked out Raising Steam (2014) on disk, and Julia and I listened to it on our 12-hour trip down to Tennessee. I now understand why millennials respond to Pratchett as they do: his fiction captures the excitement and the energy of our post-modern, multicultural world.

What with the rise of ISIS, Brexit, Donald Trump, and various authoritarian regimes, it sometimes appears that liberal values are on the defense. It is indeed the case that reactionary forces have gained traction in recent years. Raising Steam reminds us, however, that the future has far more to offer than the past.

Discworld, the setting for Pratchett’s 40 novels, is a fantasy world inhabited by witches, trolls, goblins, gnomes, dwarfs, wizards, golems, vampires, werewolves, pixies, humans, and others. Instead of battling it out a la Tolkien, however, they are gradually learning to live together. This is no mean feat since they live on different planes of reality, but the world is a much more interesting place because of them. Furthermore, privileged species gradually discover that others have hidden talents. Goblins, once regarded as vermin, prove to be geniuses around machinery.

Not everyone is tolerant of diversity, however, and fundamentalist dwarfs are trying to rekindle their race’s traditional hatred of trolls. Clearly a stand-in for ISIS ideologues and the like, they target fellow dwarfs that collaborate with other species, thereby (so the radicals contend) violating the tenets of their god Tak. The fundamentalists also oppose modernity, seeking to sabotage and destroy the new telegraph and railway systems.

For those accustomed to sword and sorcery fantasies, the introduction of a steam engine may seem discordant, but Pratchett knows what he’s doing. Fantasy, I regularly tell my students, is always oppositional, defined against something rather than a thing in itself. When Tolkien created his fantasy as an escape from the horrors of World War I, he imagined a pre-gunpowder, pre-engine civilization. His dream of an idyllic rural England, however, has plenty of technology (swords, elaborate fortresses, water mills). It’s just 12th century technology.

Since Tolkien’s day, the world has gone cyber, which means that 19th-century technology–technology that one can touch and see–now has some of the same oppositional glamor that swords once had. This accounts for the popularity of Victorian steam punk fantasy.

Pratchett has fun imagining the excitement that the railway once generated, and then he merges that excitement with the civil rights movements. Intolerance of emerging technology and intolerance of other species are retrograde positions. Pratchett makes clear that the world is a far more interesting place when all the races intermingle and when human inventiveness–or rather human, goblin, troll, pixie, etc. inventiveness–are allowed full throttle. Immigration and diversity rejuvenate moribund societies.

This is the message that gets preached towards the end of the novel after level-headed dwarfs thwart an attempted fundamentalist coup. One of them says that the purists, in their hatred of stone-manufactured trolls, have misunderstood the injunction of the dwarf god Tak:

Tak did not expect the stone to have life, but when it did, he smiled upon it, saying “All Things Strive.” Time and time again the last testament of Tak has been stolen in a pathetic attempt to kill the nascent future at birth, and this is not only an untruth. It  is a blasphemy! 

In addition to including Victorian-era technology, Pratchett also violates another tenet of traditional fantasy: his stories are comic.  Contrast this with Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and all those others who take fantasy very seriously. (I can think of only a few exceptions outside of Pratchett but some of them are classics, like The Princess Bride and Howl’s Moving Castle.) I attended a session at the recent International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts conference on “Fantasy and Comedy,” and one panelist observed that Pratchett received far fewer literary awards than he deserved. After all, if fantasy lit awards committees are already defensive about elevating a “children’s genre,” then adding comedy seems like another black mark. The speaker noted that Douglas Adams of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series has also been underrated.

Pratchett counters such naysayers by investing comic word play with the same creative  energy that he does his fantasy world, with language seeming no less magical than mail-carrier werewolves (effective since they can switch from four legs to two and back) and golem horses that never get tired. For a sample of Pratchett’s humor, check out his handling of old codgers who grumble about “new-fangled ideas” like the railway:

[Moist Von Lipwig] ventured to wonder if they ever thought back to when things were just old-fangled or not fangled at all as against the modern day when fangled had reached its apogee. Fangling was indeed, he thought, here to stay. Then he wondered: “had anyone ever thought of themselves as a fangler?” 

Pratchett’s joyous inventiveness carries all before him, making it clear that embracing change and diversity is hip. Why attempt to make America white again or restore the medieval caliphate or break England away from Europe when you could have Discworld instead? Pratchett’s millennial fans know what they’re about.

Further thought: The reason why comedy seems at odds with fantasy is because, when we enter a fantasy world, we often sense that we are treading upon hallowed ground. Mysterious parts of ourselves are put into play–we touch dream states–just as we do in religious ceremonies. Comedy, which seems to come from the head more than from the heart, can seem out of place. But laughter is holy in its own special way.

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The Fires and the Black River of Loss

Dr. Kate Chandler


We recently held a memorial service for my dear friend and colleague Kate Chandler, gathering by the campus garden that she founded to hear testimonials and share stories. Kate was our eco-lit specialist, and Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry poems were there in abundance.

I was one of those reading an Oliver poem. Before I did so, however, I talked about the “Nature Notes” column that Kate penned monthly for The River Gazette, a college publication. She called her column “In the Wind,” borrowing the expression from Thoreau’s Walden: “So many days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind.”

Kate was one of those firm foundations upon which society relies. She seldom called attention to herself, which you can tell by what she says about moss. I chose to read excerpts from this essay because Kate has found a version of what, in her conclusion, she says she longs for: “quiet in action”:

Moss, in all of its qualities, is quiet. With its carpet-like pliability, it softens footfalls and forest sounds. Between bricks in walkways and courthouse walls, moss diminishes or absorbs noise, its yielding pile helping to deaden the racket of passing traffic. Not only for warmth and cushioning do birds and squirrels weave mosses into their nests; they know its insulating properties for sound as well. What we find in moss is gentleness. Unlike a male cardinal, who catches our eye with his flame of red against the dark mass of a cedar, nothing thrilling or provocative catches our attention when we encounter moss. While new growth is brighter, the deeper more peaceful green of older growth prevails…

Since moss does not publicize itself, we could also make a case for it quieting the mind. Consider its calm demeanor, and we can understand its ability to soothe. Passing a mossy hummock the other day, I found myself slowing, stopping, stooping, and sliding a hand across its surface. When I take my friend’s five-year-old on a “let’s see what we can find in the woods” walk, we never pass a patch of moss without lightly brushing a finger over it. Almost like the spell my little dog’s fur holds over me when I stroke her head, moss emanates serenity. Even its name, spoken aloud, is soft and breathy. The word cannot be verbalized raucously; the “m’s” and the “s’s” blend with the “awh” vowel sound, soothing as effectively as when we find a shaded creek bank on a hot, summer day.

With its low profile and lack of perceptible movement, moss’s continuity is part of its allure as well as part of its lack of stardom. As in human experience, there is a settling-in with moss; it spends a long time establishing its residence, and once there, it’s there to stay. It does not migrate or commute; it works at home. It also does not grow well under leaf litter, which is why in forests we often find it thriving on vertical surfaces like rock ledges. Robin Kimmerer describes moss’s terrain as “finding a refuge from the drifting leaves on logs and stumps which rise above the forest floor like buttes above the plain.” To our eye, moss sits as still as Buddha under the Bo tree…

One of these days, I want to go out for a walk expressly to listen to moss soften my footfall. I want to lie on the ground for a lengthy face-to-moss encounter and peer through a magnifying glass into its internal organs. I want to watch its nap unfold from the pressure of my finger and contemplate its silent ways.

But, what I really want—and this is the enchantment—is to witness quiet in action.

After reading the excerpt, I observed that Kate knew only too well that nature is not always serene. Setting the stage for the Oliver poem I was about to read, I noted that Kate had also experienced what Oliver calls “the black river of loss.” Both she and I lost loved ones to strong undertows, she a beloved little brother, me my oldest son. Given how Kate almost always kept her emotions private, writing about Kenny getting pulled into an overflow pipe from which his brothers were unable to extract him took extraordinary courage. This column appeared in an interdisciplinary River Gazette issue devoted to violence:

Most commonly, “happy and serene” is the perspective from which my “Nature Notes” are written. If we are to be honest, however, the natural world is violent. In nature, though, violence is not accompanied by the emotion-driven brutality that concerns the rest of this issue. In our physical environment, we find uncontrolled energy of an inanimate force such as a tornado or hurricane, or, among the animate, a means of survival when obtaining food or protecting self or offspring. Violence of this sort is natural. Nature’s violence, however, does not feel natural when your brother dies at its hand.

Kate concludes her essay by addressing Kenny directly:

When I am brave I can think of you under the water, dragged by the current. Were you, as they say, gasping for breath, or is that something one cannot do under water? Did you hold your breath, or did you gulp? Could you feel the water overfill your lungs? Were you afraid? Were you trying to swim to the top? Were you yelling? Were you flailing your arms? Were you being brave? Did the water pound in your ears, or was it silent underneath? Did you feel the water pull you down? Did you feel their arms grasp you, pulling and pulling and pulling, trying to pull you up? What did you feel when you shot out onto the rocks below?

Or could the rocks no longer hurt?

Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” is becoming a go-to poem for people grappling with death. One reason, I think, is because it pares everything down to the essentials: to life (“the fires”) and to death (“the black river of loss”). The autumn foliage bursts into one last defiant assertion before yielding to the nameless black water ponds. (John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” expresses a similar idea.) In the face of uncertainty (“whose meaning none of us will ever know”), Oliver jolts us with her unexpected certainty (“To live in this world you must be able to do three things”). Her advice rings true:

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,


the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

We loved you for how you loved the world, Kate. We’re trying to let you go but it’s so hard.


A Kate Chandler essay on Beatrix Potter

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

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