Trump, 4 Dead Soldiers, & Col. Cathcart

Balsam as Colonel Cathcart in “Catch-22”


Few novels understand the military mindset better than Catch-22. Nevertheless, I imagine that even Joseph Heller would gape at Donald Trump’s latest claim that he has been far more caring than his predecessors towards Gold Star families. After all, Trump made this claim after admitting that he had not yet contacted the families of the four Green Berets who died in Niger two weeks ago

When asked about them, Trump sounded like a student caught out for not having done his homework. He first said that the letters were on the way, or would be soon, and then tried to change the subject by contrasting himself with Barack Obama with what everyone agrees was a vile calumny. Here’s ABC’s account:

Almost two weeks after four Green Berets were killed in an attack in Niger, the Trump administration has faced criticism over its response. On Monday, Trump said he plans to call the families of the fallen soldiers to offer his condolences. But he also falsely claimed that Barack Obama and other presidents did not make personal calls to bereaved military families.

“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. Lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call,” Trump said.

He said he plans to call and send letters to the families “either today or tomorrow.”

When challenged by a reporter, Trump walked back his response.

“I was told that he didn’t often. Lot of presidents don’t,” Trump said. “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes. Maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. Some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like the combination.”

As many noted, while Obama and George W. Bush would have been at the airport when the bodies were flown back, Trump was playing golf.

During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came in for a storm of criticism when people figured out he was auto-signing letters to the families of soldiers who were killed. Trump, however, makes Rumsfeld sound like Mr. Rogers. I’d say that the president was on a par with the execrable Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22 only Cathcart at least feels he must make an effort to console families. Trump reaches out only after he is exposed.

Cathcart’s outreach involves “sincere” form letters, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Here’s his order to the chaplain:

“Starting tomorrow,” he said, “I want you and Corporal Whitcomb to write a letter of condolence for me to the next of kin of every man in the group who’s killed, wounded or taken prisoner. I want those letters to be sincere letters. I want them filled up with lots of personal details so there’ll be no doubt I mean every word you say. Is that clear?”

The chaplain stepped forward impulsively to remonstrate. “But, sir, that’s impossible,” he blurted out. “We don’t even know all the men that well.”

“What difference does that make?” Colonel Cathcart demanded, and then smiled amicably. “Corporal Whitcomb brought me this basic form letter that takes care of just about every situation. Listen: ‘Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs.: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.’ And so on. I think that opening sentence sums up my sentiments exactly.”

Sure enough, Cathcart means every word the letters say. After Doctor Daneeka supposedly gets killed, his supposed widow hears from the colonel:

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka:
Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.

It’s one thing for Trump to disrespect Gold Star families. Far more worrisome is that such lack of empathy might lead him to underestimate war’s human toll, including the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war with North Korea. (“If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?” then-candidate Trump once reportedly asked in a foreign intel briefing.) What if people dying are no more real to him than people getting fired on The Apprentice.

For a leader who takes matters of life and death seriously, I offer you Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. When a deserter must be executed, Ned himself does the deed. He explains why to his son Bran:

[W]e hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.

We have a president who refuses to take responsibility for anything, including the servicemen and women who are fighting and dying under his command. He is a man afraid to look others in the eye. He doesn’t know what death is and he is uninterested in finding out.

Further developments

The stories keep coming, such as this one from a father whose son died last June, as reported by Washington Post:

President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

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Three Poems for Surviving Trump


Nancy LeTourneau of Washington Monthly had a very timely article yesterday about emotionally surviving the Trump presidency. Keeping abreast of the news these days, she observed, is “toxic and exhausting,” leading to fatalism and burnout. She shared a David Whyte poem to lift the spirits, however, and I have added two others in the same vein, by Lucille Clifton and Emily Dickinson.

LeTourneau quotes Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen as someone who sums up her state of mind

For millions of Americans, Trump has become an unbearable, infuriating, enraging, and draining presence in our national life…

I’m the ultimate optimist. I’ve written countless articles about how the world is getting safer, freer, wealthier, and healthier — and it is. But the collective effect of Trump’s presidency has caused me — and many I’ve spoken with — to question our belief in and hopefulness about America. Reactionary forces that we all know existed, but many of us believed were on the decline, have been unleashed on the country. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, which of course have always existed, have become normalized and part of the political discourse in ways that are completely alien to our experience of American politics. Public corruption, the shredding of political norms, and a deficit of public compassion now seems to define our body politic.

LeTourneau’s spirits picked up, however, after she returned to a community organizer’s article on handling one’s emotions in dark times. Marshall Ganz identifies the danger of negative feedback loops and then provides an antidote:

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

After quoting Ganz, LeTourneau said she stopped enumerating all of Trump’s outrages with a friend and then turned to a Whyte poem about finding faith in dark times. (I once shared it during Advent.) For the purposes of her column, LeTourneau changes the word “faith” to “hope,” but I have restored the original wording. Faith works just as well here if you see it as faith that the best in humans will prevail:


I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

The darkness that we witness appears final only if we allow it to gain ascendency. The key is to hold on to the light, which is what Clifton does in her own poem about the moon.

The moon has bad associations for Clifton—she experienced it as the eye that witnessed and did nothing when her father abused her—but after he died (he is “the man who killed the bear,” the “coalminer’s son”), she rethought her relationship with it. The moon, she observes, knows how to borrow light even when all around is dark. In other words, it doesn’t need a lot in order to shine:

only after the death
of the man who killed the bear,
after the death of the coalminer’s son,
did i remember that the moon
also rises, coming heavy or thin
over the living fields, over
the cities of the dead;
only then did i remember how she
catches the sun and keeps most of him
for the evening that surely will come;
and it comes.
only then did i know that to live
in the world all that i needed was
some small light and know that indeed
i would rise again and rise again to dance.

When she was a colleague, Lucille once mentioned to me that she would read this poem at conventions for abuse survivors. It assured them that, even when one feels like a city of the dead, one can rise again to dance. All one needs is “some small light.”

Dickinson would agree. A tough-minded explorer of human psychology—no maudlin sentimentalist she—the poet tells us that hope can sing without stopping even during the sorest gale, in the chillest land, or on the strangest sea:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Right now our “Extremity” is Trump and the political party that enables him. As depressing as that is, don’t forget that Hope is near at hand. It will sing to us, caress us with its feathers, and keep us warm.

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GOP Releases Catch-22 on Gun Control

House Speaker Paul Ryan


America’s gun politics after the Las Vegas shootings are playing out just as they did after the Tucson, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, Fort Meade and all those other shootings. Which is to say, Republicans in Congress refuse to do anything. The Speaker of the House is following the protocol laid out in Joseph Heller’s classic.

Here’s the situation. While Democrats want, at a minimum, to ban the bump stock that allowed Stephen Paddock to turn convert his semi-automatic rifle into an automatic one, Paul Ryan prefers a regulatory solution:

House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a regulatory fix for bump fire stocks Wednesday rather than passing legislation that was proposed in the House and Senate.

“We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix,” he said during his weekly news conference at Capitol Hill when asked about how to address the devices, also known as bump stocks.

The problem? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) says it doesn’t have the regulatory authority to regulate bump stocks:

“The stock has no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and performs no automatic mechanical function when installed,” John Spencer, the chief of the ATF’s Firearms Technology Branch, wrote to Slide Fire in a 2010 letter. “We find that the “bump-stock” is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act [GCA] or the National Firearms Act [NFA].”

In other words, new regulations would have to be passed for the ATF to act. Guess who is responsible for passing new regulations.

Catch-22, you will recall, prevents airmen from pleading mental distress to get out of flying the ever increasing number of missions that are demanded of them. Dr. Daneeka explains the catch to Yossarian:

 There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

We learn later in the book that Catch-22’s power lies in part from the fact that it does not exist, which makes it immune to attack:

Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.

Ryan knows this. To avoid doing anything, he has but to engage in a little Catch-22 jiu-jitsu and, voila, problem solved. Until the next mass shooting.

Do I hear a respectful whistle?

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A Positive Spin on the Golden Calf

Filippino Lippi, “Worship of the Golden Calf”

Spiritual Sunday

I so much enjoy Rabbi Jacob J. Staub’s thought-provoking poem about the golden calf, which I shared when the Exodus story appeared in the lectionary three years ago, that I am reposting the essay I wrote about it. To set up the poem, here’s the Biblical account (Exodus 32:1-14):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Reprinted from Oct. 12, 2014

 I stumbled across an interesting interpretation of the story of the golden calf, which is one of today’s Episcopalian lectionary readings. The story itself is open to multiple readings, but in the midrash or interpretation of Reconstructionist Rabbi Jacob J. Staub, it represents a rebellion by the people of Israel against an overly doctrinaire and grim version of Judaism.

In this reading, Moses is a psychologically wounded man who wants to impose his narrow vision of Jahweh on the Israelites, which he does by licensing the priestly class to slaughter all those who disagree. (The book of Exodus says that 3000 people were killed.) Straub’s Moses sounds like Freud’s repressive patriarch in Moses and Monotheism, whom Freud imagines as a dictatorial leader that the Israelites rebelled against and killed—and then, experiencing Oedipal guilt, internalized as a stern and judgmental superego. (Freud’s account is more of a thought experiment than a convincing history.)

In Staub’s poem, I don’t recognize all the names in the third stanza but they seem to refer to a historical time when the Israelites worshipped multiple gods, some of whom were later explained away as different names for the One God (for instance, Adonai). “Ashira” may be Asherah, once believed to be the female consort of Jahweh. Apparently Judaism was not a strictly monotheistic religion until after the Babylonian exile, which was when the Book of Exodus was written. Historians place the historical Moses around 700 years earlier, which means the Exodus account may not be any closer to truth than Freud’s.

In any event, Straub imagines a free-flowing spirit that is chillingly repressed by priests. Moses himself ignores his wife Tzipporah and his sons. Straub wants Judaism to return to what he imagines are its more celebratory and less patriarchal roots. Our problem is not that we worship the golden calf, he says. It’s that we worship orthodoxy.

The Golden Calf

By Jacob J. Staub

From the valley below, the ebullient notes of celebrants, 
the beat of tambourines liberated after four hundred years of abuse.

Sing unto the One, 
Who smites the tyrant, 
Who hears the cries of the oppressed,
Who parts the Sea and plants the seeds for generations yet unborn.

Ana, pool your gold. Adonai, give it to God.
Hoshi’a, smelt it down. Na, cast the throne.
Ashira, link your arms. Ladonai, circle the fire.
Ki, spin into oblivion.
Ga’oh, let go, let go, let go.
Ga’ah, God is One, we are one.
With broken bodies of former slaves, we undulate, 
following the Source enthroned into the wilderness of promise.

And up over the ridge, the Levites wait, in formation,
swords on thighs, servants of the Lord, privileged 
to follow orders, to do as they are told.
A martial clan descended from the heroes of the Battle of Shechem,
they wear their forebears’ medals proudly.
They have been instructed in the proper use of herbs and oils,
in the dire consequences of disobedience, of initiative, of openheartedness.
In formation, they await the signal from Moses, down from the mountain,
to charge, to slay three thousand defenseless, spent from a night of celebration.

Moses claims that You love only him, 
that we were spared because he intervened,
that You do not like our offering.
Moses, who has never seen Your face—
not in the silent, steamy eyes of Tzipporah,
from whom he stays cloistered,
not in the bloody foreskins of his sons,
whom he ignores in the name of his holy work. 
Moses, who doesn’t touch.
Moses, who doesn’t dance.
Moses, the bridegroom of blood.

Guide him please, Holy One of Compassion.
We don’t need another Pharaoh to lead us into freedom.
Love him doubly, forgive him his wrath.
He was taken as an infant from his mother.
Only You know what befell the lad in the palace,
but below, all we see is his sweltering rage.
Otherwise, as You surely can foresee,
generations will mistake
fervent worship for idolatry.

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How Nazis Used Art’s Soft Power

Nazi art by Josef Thorak (1937)


In my Theories of the Reader course, I have been teaching how Matthew Arnold believed the middle class could use literature to consolidate their power while keeping the working class in their place, what we now call soft power or hegemony. As Terry Eagleton memorably sums up the view, “If the masses are not thrown a few novels, they may react by throwing up a few barricades.”

New York Review of Books just reviewed a new book describing how Hitler and Mussolini also sought to weaponize the arts. Benjamin Martin’s The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture looks at their use of cinema, literature, music, art and sculpture to bend the rest of Europe to their will. Reviewer Roger Paxton sums up Martin’s project as follows:

[C]ultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.

The German project can be traced back to World War I propaganda and it lasted well into World War II:

During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.

Italy, according to Martin, was less successful than Germany as it tried to convince Hitler that it was Greece to Germany’s Rome. The Italian effort foundered upon German contempt.

Hitler advocated aggressive governmental intervention into cultural matters. Art was to be the expression of “the hereditary racial bloodstock,” and the artist’s job was to defend the German Volk. When PEN International objected to Hitler expelling “leftists” and Jews from the German chapter, Hitler closed down the chapter altogether.

Paxton’s review talks more about cinema and music than literature, but it does mention the European Writers’ Union, founded in 1941, which attracted one Nobel prize laureate and a bunch of minor writers. They were drawn in part by the Nazis’ rejection of modernism:

As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape.

In the end, however, the fascists’ arts project was doomed to fail as art cannot operate within such narrow constraints:

A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.

In my class, we have been discussing theorists who argue that literature can work as a form of social indoctrination. Bertolt Brecht and Antonio Gramsci see this occurring with class, Frantz Fanon and Chinua Achebe with colonialism, W.E.B. Du Bois with race, and various feminists and queer theorists with gender. While they have some reason to worry, the fascist failure shows that literature also has a way of slipping its leash whenever those in authority try to control it. Governments may turn to art because it is cheaper than a heavy police presence, but they soon learn that they can never control artists as much as they want to.

In other words, warnings about the arts brainwashing us may exaggerate the danger.

Previous posts on Nazis and literature

Nazis and the Classics

The Burning of the Books

Freikorps Fantasies and Trump’s Policies

Christian Nazis Seeking To Be Cleansed

Could Beowulf Have Saved the Jews?

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Will Warm Days Never Cease?

Vincent Van Gogh, “Siesta” (1890)


Here in Maryland, as elsewhere in the United States, we are undergoing the longest summer I have ever seen. And this is after last year’s “hottest-summer-on-record.”

Aside from this being more worrisome evidence of climate change, it also puts a new spin on John Keats’s masterful “To Autumn.” I’ll explain how in a moment.

First, however, let’s note that this isn’t the first instance of a poem looking different to us because of a major shift in climate. The “rough winds” that “do shake the darling buds of May” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 make more sense once one realizes that Europe at the time was undergoing a mini ice age. That is why “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”  Usually one is safe comparing one’s love to a morning in May.

In “To Autumn” we have the opposite situation, with the summer extending out. Fall is generally a season of mists, but in this case it is conspiring with “the maturing sun” to yield a rich plenitude. Flowers continue to bud, causing the bees to think “warm days will never cease,/For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.”

There is a drowsy summer feel to this autumn poem, with images of sleeping in the fields or watching, for hours and hours, the “last oozings” of the cider press.

The signs indicates that this will not last, however. The poem takes on increasing urgency as one realizes that Keats is imagining his approaching death—he would die less than a year and a half after composing it—as signaled by the ominous flocks of swallows. However blissful life appears at the moment, winter will come.

In the meantime, however, life has never appeared as beautiful or as precious. An Indian summer has granted the poet a temporary reprieve.

In other words, part of the poem’s power lies in the summer going on and on. If all falls were like this, it wouldn’t seem so miraculous. And indeed, English falls are more likely to be like the one described in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

But harvest with harsher winds follows hard after,
Warns him to ripen well ere winter comes:
Drives forth the dust in the droughty season,
Wroth winds in the welkin wrestle with the sun,
The leaves launch from the linden and light on the ground,
And the grass turns to gray, that once grew green.
Then all ripens and rots that rose up at first,
And so the year moves on in yesterday’s many,
And winter once more, by the world’s law,
                                                            draws nigh.

This is the perspective of a man, Gawain, who also has a rendezvous with death. Yet though the imagery is grimmer, the vividness of the imagery testifies to how a season looks to us when we sense we are seeing it for the last time. We take notice of very falling leaf.

Here’s Keats’s poem:

To Autumn 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find 
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; 
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook 
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: 
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
   Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, 
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours. 

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? 
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— 
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; 
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft 
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft 
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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Brother Fire Ravages California

California wildfires


The poem I chose today to honor the victims of the California wildfires also provides insight into a perverse reason why some Americans are refusing to do anything about climate change. Some people take a certain delight in seeing everything burn down—at least if it is someone else’s house.

I know that this sounds like a strange explanation for climate denial, but there’s a lot of strangeness going on in American politics these days. Take, for instance, the fact that EPA head Scott Pruitt is aggressively rolling back Obama’s measures regulating carbon emissions at just the moment when we have been hit by both wildfires, exacerbated by an unusually hot summer, and a string of catastrophic hurricanes, exacerbated by warming Gulf waters. Pruitt has said that immediately following a hurricane is no time to talk about climate change, but apparently it is the right time to undo efforts to combat it.

But okay, maybe Pruitt is just a garden variety political hypocrite who is carrying water (or rather, coal and oil) for the fossil fuel industry. More disturbing are those who seem to delight in destruction. I’m thinking especially of those who revel in the chaos that Donald Trump is causing, or at least in how he is upsetting “establishment elites.” Among these, of course, is white nationalist Steve Bannon, who purportedly once described himself as a Lenin admirer:

[W]e had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.

Shocked, I asked him what he meant.

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

You get some of this from leftists like Susan Sarandon as well, as reported in CNN during last year’s election:

“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode,” Sarandon said, referring to the political “revolution” [Bernie] Sanders preaches about on the trail.

See if you can’t see some of this destructive impulse in Louis MacNeice’s “Brother Fire.” He is describing the London blitzkrieg, and although he is horrified (as one would expect), he also discovers within himself a certain delight:

Brother Fire

By Louis MacNeice

When our brother fire was having his dog’s day
Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans
Clanking at this tail, we heard some shadow say,
“Give the dog a bone”–and so we gave him ours;
Night after night we watched him slaver and crunch away
The beams of human life, the tops of topless towers.

Which gluttony of his for us was Lenten fare
Who Mother-naked, suckled with sparks, were chill
Though dandled on a grill of sizzling air
Striped like a convict–black, yellow and red;
Thus were we weaned to knowledge of the Will
That wills the natural world but wills us dead.

O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,
O enemy and image of ourselves,
Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up city blocks and spire,
Echo your thought in ours? Destroy! Destroy!

In the first two stanzas, the speaker, like someone on a Lenten diet, watches horrified as the gluttonous fire devours London. This must what it must be like for California homeowners as they watch a “natural world [that] wills us dead.”

And yet, even in MacNeice’s horror, there is envy. To be “suckled with sparks” sounds enticing. “O enemy and image of ourselves,” the poet asks, “did we not…echo your thought in ours?” In other words, did not a part of us find ourselves rooting for you?

Is it a sign of decadence that we live in a country where many get a kick out of someone who comes in and kicks the hell out of long established norms and protocols, who every day has us wondering what outrageous thing he will say or do next? Looking back in time for a precedent, maybe that’s why Edwardian England, stable and prosperous, embarked upon World War I. Maybe powerful countries get bored and start upsetting apple carts just for the hell of it.

I myself am not such a person, which is why I sometimes consider myself a conservative in the old-fashioned sense. I was fine with “no drama Obama,” and I was looking forward to a dull but extremely competent Hillary Clinton in the White House. Many, however, appear to be opting instead for a made-for-television spectacle.

They are certainly getting one. Unless we take serious measures to counter climate change, the wildfires and hurricanes will be only the first year of a long running series. Perhaps we should call it, “Destroy! Destroy!”

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Literature’s Revolutionary Power

Fritz Eichenberg, illus. from  “Jane Eyre”


I’ve discovered a new concept, used by political scientists, that helps me better understand literature’s revolutionary potential. It’s called “unleashing.”

I read about unleashing in an Ezra Klein Vox article about Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, whose idea it is. Klein observes that unleashing has had both negative and positive effects: it has led to the resurgence of white nationalism but also to women standing up against sexual harassers like Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and, most recently, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Sunstein explains unleashing as follows:

Under the pressure of social norms, people sometimes falsify their preferences. They do not feel free to say or do as they wish. Once norms are weakened or revised, through private efforts or law, it becomes possible to discover preexisting preferences. Because those preferences existed but were concealed, large-scale movements are both possible and exceedingly difficult to predict; they are often startling.

Klein, noting that “we are living through an era of unleashing,” provides examples:

Over the past 24 hours, the New York Times published an explosive story detailing decades of sexual harassment by Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, and BuzzFeed published a blockbuster story detailing the way Breitbart built itself into a bridge between the white nationalist alt-right community and the Republican Party. Both of these stories, in their own ways, are examples of unleashing, and the way sudden expansions of what people are willing to say and do in public are rocking American society, for better and for worse. And that’s to say nothing of President Donald Trump: the unleasher-in-chief.

In my Theories of the Reader class, we’ve been exploring how exactly works influence people, and the theory of unleashing should prove helpful. The norms seem much less solid when a powerfully realized literary character violates them.

While one can name countless literary classics that have given aid and comfort to forbidden behaviors, my favorite example is always Jane Eyre. If conservative reviewer Elizabeth Rigby lashed out against the novel, it is because she could imagine it unleashing little girls to speak back to elders, orphans to murmur against their “benefactors,” governesses to aspire above their station, women to undercut men, and people generally to doubt the church. It doesn’t matter that the book concludes with Jane becoming a socially acceptable angel on the hearth. What matters is Bronte’s gripping images of girls and women standing up for themselves.

And indeed, over the following century and a quarter the book would be a lodestar for Victorian governesses organizing unions, suffragettes agitating for the vote, and second wave feminists calling for equality in the work place.

No wonder there has been such suspicion of fiction over the centuries, from Plato on. When authors tell a powerful story, there’s no telling what it will unleash.

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Las Vegas: Our Killers, Ourselves

Cover art for John Gardner’s “Grendel”


The Las Vegas shootings demonstrate once again a grim reality that Donald Trump, with his Muslim ban, refuses to acknowledge: Americans are more likely to be killed by “white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners” (Vox).  Projecting our fears onto monstrous foreigners when the real threat is closer to hand is a fact that Beowulf, my go-to poem for mass killings, understands very well.

Tom Friedman’s New York Times column last week vividly captures the disconnect:

If only Stephen Paddock had been a Muslim … If only he had shouted “Allahu akbar” before he opened fire on all those concertgoers in Las Vegas … If only he had been a member of ISIS … If only we had a picture of him posing with a Quran in one hand and his semiautomatic rifle in another …

If all of that had happened, no one would be telling us not to dishonor the victims and “politicize” Paddock’s mass murder by talking about preventive remedies.

No, no, no. Then we know what we’d be doing. We’d be scheduling immediate hearings in Congress about the worst domestic terrorism event since 9/11. Then Donald Trump would be tweeting every hour “I told you so,” as he does minutes after every terror attack in Europe, precisely to immediately politicize them.

Vox, meanwhile, provides specifics and statistics:

Here are just a few of the attacks that have occurred in 2017:

  • Sunday night, a 64-year-old white man from Nevada opened fire on a crowd of more than 22,000 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing more than 50 and wounding more than 200.
  • In August, a 20-year-old white Nazi sympathizer from Ohio sped his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a woman and injuring at least 19 others.
  • In June, a 66-year-old white man from Illinois shot at Republican Congress members during an early morning baseball practice, severely wounding several people including Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House of Representatives Majority Whip.
  • In March 2017, a 28-year-old white man from Baltimore traveled to New York City with the explicit aim of killing black men. He stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death and was charged with terrorism by New York state authorities.
  • In May, a 35-year-old white man from Oregon named Jeremy Joseph Christian began harassing Muslim teenagers on a train in Portland, telling them “We need Americans here!” Two men interceded; Christian then stabbed and killed them both.

In fact, between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists, according to a study by New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC.

When I teach Beowulf, I always tell my students to look for the familiar form that the monsters take. We may think the poem is about trolls and dragons, but it is really about warriors and kings.

In today’s post I go through almost every name mentioned in Beowulf and show how he or she is related to the poem’s focus on destructive anger. Although the poem may seem to digress, one can see its thematic unity once one surveys all of the characters.

The destructive anger that Beowulf explores has three different aspects, each of which threatens to plunge society into chaos. I’ve divided the characters associated with each anger into those that are part of the problem and those that attempt to solve it. Of course, Beowulf usually models the best solution although occasionally he is part of the problem as well.

Grendel – Murderous resentment

Grendel’s resentful rage is the rage that we see in many of our mass killers. See the links at the end of last week’s post on Las Vegas for the many times I’ve compared these killers to Grendel.

Part of the problem

Unferth is the warrior who first challenges Beowulf. Reported to have killed kinsmen, he fears that Beowulf will take away his privileged position at the feet of the king and insults him. To his credit, he later makes peace with Beowulf, giving him his sword.
–Hrothgar’s nephew Hrothulf is designated as regent to Hrothgar’s sons but, dissatisfied with that role, kills one and attempts to kill the other after Hrothgar dies. The infighting, which will tear apart the heretofore stable Danish kingdom, is symbolized by the destruction of the great hall of Heorot.
–Cain is Grendel’s ancestor. His anger over God preferring Abel’s gift, leading him to murder, makes him the archetype of resentful rage.
–Modthryth, the shrewish princess who visits death on any men who gazes at her, is the one character that doesn’t fit neatly into my framework. Perhaps she is a form of female resentment, taking out her frustrations against men as the contrasting figure of Queen Hygd (see below) does not. Modthryth cleans up her act after she marries the brave Offa.

Attempts at a solution

–Wealththeow, Hrothgar’s queen, who lobbies for Hrothulf when she fears that Hrothgar will disinherit their sons in favor of Beowulf, will pay for her decision when Hrothful, as regent, goes after those sons. Diplomacy is good but you can’t close your eyes to the real nature of the people you’re dealing with.
–Hygd, queen of the Geats, disperses treasure generously, thereby assuring that warriors will not become resentful.
–Hygelac, king of the Geats, is like his wife in his generosity and so deserves a place here. But he also shows up in the next section as one who participates in, and is killed by, a continuing blood feud.
–Time and again Beowulf refuses to become a resentful warrior. He gives the wealth won for killing Grendel to Hygelac (who, as a good king should, redistributes it back), and he turns down an offer of the throne when Hygelac dies (from Hygd), vowing instead to support next-in-the-line-of-succession  Heardred. The poem reassures us (if you are reassured by something that someone does not do) that Beowulf “never cut down a comrade who was drunk.”

Grendel’s Mother – Grief that lashes out (hot rage)

We have but to see how the United States responded to 9-11 with two wars, one still hot, to understand the destabilizing power of grief that is determined to make someone pay. In Beowulf’s time, hot grieving led to interminable blood feuds.

Part of the problem

–Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow involves the Danes in a possible blood feud by fleeing to Hrothgar after killing a man.
–Hengest fights to a draw in a battle with Finn but loses his brother Hnaef. Despite their truce, the thoughts of revenge that he stores up all winter prove too powerful and he rises up to slay Finn the following spring.
–Aeschere, Hrothgar’s best friend who is killed by Grendel’s mother, is the victim of the blood feud started by Beowulf killing Grendel.
–Geat King Hrethel starts a blood feud with the Swedes. His son Hygelac will kill the Swedish king Ongentheow. In turn, the Swedes, led by Onela will eventually kill Hygelac and then his son Heardred, leaving the throne to Beowulf—who will then send aid to one Eadgils, a friendless Swede, who overthrow and kill Onela.

Attempts at a solution

–Women are sometimes used to patch up quarrels, such as Hildeburh, who is married to Frisian Finn to bring peace between him and the Danes. It doesn’t work and she loses both her son (a Frisian) and her brother Hnaef (a Dane) in the subsequent fighting.
Freawaru is another of these doomed peace offerings, intended to patch up a quarrel between the Danes and the Heatho-Bards. Beowulf predicts that her marriage to Heatho-Bard king Ingeld will not solve the problem. (“A passionate hate will build up in Ingeld, and love for his bride will falter in him as the feud rankles.”)
–Onela is briefly mentioned as one who forgives Weohstan, an ancestor of Wiglaf, for killing his nephew Eanmund. Healthy though this forgiveness seems, it loses some of his luster once we learn that Onela wanted Eanmund dead.
–Beowulf is such a strong king that he is able to deter the Swedes and the Franks from continuing blood feuds against the Geats. Think of it as peace through strength. The solution is temporary, however: after Beowulf dies, his kinsman Wiglaf predicts that they will be overrun by one of these kingdoms, probably the Swedes, who haven’t forgotten Beowulf’s role in killing Swedish king Onela.

The Dragon – Grief that shuts down, depression (frozen rage)

Dragon depression is the coin side of Grendel’s Mother’s rage, the depression into which people retreat when they are grieving, whether over a friend or the disappointments of life. Like dragons, they hunker down and scale over. Poison runs in their veins.

Frozen rage turns into hot fire when they are prodded, and they emerge from their caves and burn down everything around them. To reach out to such people means risking their flames.

Part of the problem

–Danish king Hrothgar is at risk of sinking into depression after Grendel’s mother kills Aeschere. Beowulf, a young foreign warrior, has to tell him, “Bear up and be the man I expect you to be.”
Heremod is a legendarily bad king who becomes bitter and avaricious as he grows old, so that he is a burden to his people. He may be the king that Hrothgar has in mind when he describes how “an element of overweening enters him and takes hold while the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses.”
The Last Veteran loses all of his friends and finally retreats into a funeral barrow with all his riches. That barrow is his heart, which is where the dragon will makes its home.
–Geat king Hrethel, in addition to his role in the blood feud with the Swedes that claims the lives of two sons and a grandson, retreats to his bed and dies of grief after a third son is accidentally killed by one of the others.
Beowulf is part of the problem. While he doesn’t hoard riches, as other kings do, one can see that he hoards fame, thereby disempowering his men. The dragon burns down his house, a sign that he has been consumed by dragon depression, and we see him summing up his life as one meaningless death after another. He also has been irresponsible in failing to insure a competent successor for the Geats. In this way, he is guilty of dragon-like self absorption.

Attempts at a solution

–Kings who put the good of their nation over their own personal disappointments, who don’t let the bitterness that can come with aging distract them, all fall into this category. These include the four kings responsible for Danish greatness: Shield Sheafson, Beow, Halfdane, and Hrothgar. As noted above, however, Hrothgar initially falls into depressed inactivity following the death of Aeschere.
Sigemund, a legendary king and “fence round his fighters,” is contrasted with Heremod, an archetype of a bad king (see above). Sigemund is described as a dragon slayer.
Offa, who marries Modthryth, is another exemplary king and gives birth to exemplary offspring, including Eomer.
Beowulf is also part of the solution. One can think of him as fighting the dragon within and, more significantly, of opening himself to the help of another—Wiglaf—in that battle. As a result, the king triumphs over the dragon.

To return to Thomas Friedman’s point, if Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had been a Muslim, many Americans would have seen him as a monstrous troll. Because he was a white man, however, he instead is an Unferth or a Hrothulf, someone we see around the work place.

“We have met the enemy,” Walt Kelly famously wrote, “and he is us.” Heroes listen to the needs of society, not to their fears.

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Visit Puerto Rico with Wings of Healing

A Puerto Rican hill ravaged by the hurricane

Spiritual Sunday

 If you get a chance, check out “It’s Almost Like Praying,” the powerful Lin-Manuel Miranda song performed by Puerto Rican artists (and others) designed to uplift the spirits of the storm-ravaged island and to raise money for the relief effort. It brought tears to my eyes and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection Ode” to my mind.

That’s because the poem, which describes a storm, turns hopeful at the end, asking, “May this storm be but a mountain-birth.” Though the poem is about a lady loved by the unhappily married Coleridge, it speaks to all who have been through a hellish night but sense the prospect of a new dawn before them. Miranda too started with a love affair–that of Tony and Maria in West Side Story–and built his song from there. By the end, Maria the destructive storm has become the healing Santa Maria.

Miranda has discussed how the hurricane burdened the name with conflicting associations. He quickly got permission to use the Leonard Bernstein song “Maria” (“it’s almost like praying, Maria”) and wrote lyrics that listed all the different sections of Puerto Rico to let them know they hadn’t been forgotten. Then he gathered together noteworthy Puerto Rican and other Latino/a singers in a display of unity and support.

“Dejection” opens by quoting the tragic ballad of Sir Patrick Spence, who knows that his king has essentially ordered his death by sending him out into a storm:

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon, 
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm. 

Puerto Rico also knew that a deadly storm was forecast, and while Coleridge’s storm is far weaker, it captures some of the fierceness that the island experienced. The “lute” mentioned is a wind harp, a favorite instrument of the Romantic poets since they saw it as a metaphor for their own relationship with nature:

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, 
                Reality’s dark dream! 
I turn from you, and listen to the wind, 
         Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream 
Of agony by torture lengthened out 
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without, 
         Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree, 
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb, 
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home, 
         Methinks were fitter instruments for thee, 
Mad Lutanist! 

Coleridge makes a point that might comfort the people of Puerto Rico: our souls, not Nature, define us. I won’t go into how the poem is a response to Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality but only admire the image of our luminous soul shining forth to envelope the earth. This is of “higher worth” than what the “inanimate cold world” offers “the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd”:

O Lady! we receive but what we give, 
And in our life alone does Nature live: 
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud! 
         And would we aught behold, of higher worth, 
Than that inanimate cold world allowed 
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, 
         Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth 
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud 
                Enveloping the Earth— 
And from the soul itself must there be sent 
         A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth, 
Of all sweet sounds the life and element! 

In other words, if Nature, with its cycle of life and death, are to infused with sweet sounds, it is up to the “sweet and potent voice” of the human soul. From his earlier dejection, Coleridge has talked himself into a more peaceful state, and he wishes this state upon his lady friend. Let’s say that he is all of us worrying about Puerto Rico and wishing her peace:

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep: 
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep! 
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing, 
         And may this storm be but a mountain-birth, 
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling, 
         Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth! 
                With light heart may she rise, 
                Gay fancy, cheerful eyes, 
         Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice; 
To her may all things live, from pole to pole, 
Their life the eddying of her living soul! 
         O simple spirit, guided from above, 
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice, 
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.

It’s almost like praying.

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If Fielding Had Written about Trump

Henry Fielding


I’ve been combing through Henry Fielding works and have concluded that he would have had a field day with Donald Trump. Hang on to your hats.

One of my favorite Tom Jones quotations explains how villain Blifil succeeds as long as he does. Since Trump has gone further than anyone expected, it’s worth checking out Fielding’s explanation, which invokes the Faustus story:

I look upon the vulgar observation, ‘That the devil often deserts his friends, and leaves them in the lurch,’ to be a great abuse on that gentleman’s character. Perhaps he may sometimes desert those who are only his cup acquaintance; or who, at most, are but half his; but he generally stands by those who are thoroughly his servants, and helps them off in all extremities, till their bargain expires.

Not one of Trump’s opponents, either in the primaries or in the general election, went as far as he did. Having gone all in on lying, boasting, threatening, intimidating, stealing, suing, and possibly colluding with a foreign adversary—no mere cup acquaintance he–Trump continues to profit handsomely. There’s no telling when his devil’s bargain will expire.

In “Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” Fielding discusses how a good politician can “impose upon” his constituents to sacrifice their own interests to his own. By this measure, Trump is a superb politician:

[A]s it is impossible that any man endowed with rational faculties, and being in a state of freedom, should willingly agree, without some motive of love or friendship, absolutely to sacrifice his own interest to that of another; it becomes necessary to impose upon him, to persuade him, that his own good is designed, and that he will be a gainer by coming into those schemes, which are, in reality, calculated for his destruction. And this, if I mistake not, is the very essence of that excellent art, called the art of politics. 

We should therefore, Fielding tells us, regard politics as a vast masquerade:

Thus while the crafty and designing part of mankind, consulting only their own separate advantage, endeavor to maintain one constant imposition on others, the whole world becomes a vast masquerade, where the greatest part appear disguised under false visors and habits…

The rest of Fielding’s essay instructs people on how not to get conned by such types.

Fielding’s most extensive look at a Trump-like character occurs in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. Fielding claims that the work is about a notorious criminal, but it is really about Whig prime minister Robert Walpole, whom Fielding despised. The similarities between Wild/Walpole and Trump are unsettling. For instance, Fielding describes a boldness unhampered by honesty in carrying out cunning enterprises:

He was extremely ingenious in inventing designs, artful in contriving the means to accomplish his purposes, and resolute in executing them: for as the most exquisite cunning and most undaunted boldness qualified him for any undertaking, so was he not restrained by any of those weaknesses which disappoint the views of mean and vulgar souls, and which are comprehended in one general term of honesty, which is a corruption of HONOSTY, a word derived from what the Greeks call an ass.

The narrator notes that Wild/Walpole is also free of modesty and good-nature. Instead lust, ambition, and greed drive him:

He was entirely free from those low vices of modesty and good-nature, which, as he said, implied a total negation of human greatness, and were the only qualities which absolutely rendered a man incapable of making a considerable figure in the world. His lust was inferior only to his ambition; but, as for what simple people call love, he knew not what it was. His avarice was immense, but it was of the rapacious, not of the tenacious kind…

The narrator goes on to say that his “rapaciousness was indeed so violent” that he squeezes every penny, not only out of his victims, but out of his allies. Keep in mind that the Republican National Committee is currently paying the legal bills of Trump and Trump, Jr.:

Above all, Wild/Walpole values hypocrisy. Without it, he could not have accomplished so much or been the prig (rhymes with Whig, used to mean coxcomb) that he is:

The character which he most valued himself upon, and which he principally honored in others, was that of hypocrisy. His opinion was, that no one could carry priggism very far without it; for which reason, he said, there was little greatness to be expected in a man who acknowledged his vices, but always much to be hoped from him who professed great virtues.

The narrator then lists the rules by which Wild/Walpole operates. The following seem particularly applicable to our own president:

–To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
–Never to communicate more of an affair than was necessary to the person who was to execute it.
–To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
–To foment eternal jealousies in his gang, one of another.
–Never to reward any one equal to his merit; but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
–That all men were knaves or fools, and much the greater number a composition of both.
–That a good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring the owner any advantage.
–That many men were undone by not going deep enough in roguery; as in gaming any man may be a loser who doth not play the whole game.
–That men proclaim their own virtues, as shopkeepers expose their goods, in order to profit by them.

One other Trump-like resemblance comes to mind. In Fielding’s play The Historical Register for the Year 1736, a fiddler, once again a stand-in for Walpole, bribes his fellows so that they will dance to his tune. The author within the play explains what happens next.

Sir, every one of these patriots has a hole in his pocket, as Mr. Quidam, the fiddler, there knows; so that he intends to make them dance till all the money is fallen through, which he will pick up again, and so not lose one halfpenny by his generosity.

Time and again, the GOP has allowed itself to be bought off by Trump, only to find itself with empty pockets.

The history of Fielding’s play, however, carries a sobering lesson. It so upset Walpole that he enacted the Licensing Act of 1737, thereby blacklisting Fielding and effectively ending political commentary in the theater. Trump too dreams of having such power, as indicated by yesterday’s tweet that Senate’s investigatory committee should turn its attention to the media for reporting bad things about him,

The licensing act, though it wouldn’t be entirely repealed until 1968, failed to silence Fielding, who (fortunately for literature) turned to fiction. I suspect the American news media won’t back down either. Nevertheless, it’s worrisome to hear a president talk this way.

One other Walpole-Trump resemblance is worth mentioning. Like the prime minister, who was roasted by Pope and Swift as well as Fielding, our president is the unceasing target of the major comic writers of his day.

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Wordsworth and a Depressed Philosopher

John Stuart Mill


Julia alerted me to an interesting New York Times philosophy column by Adam Etinson that asks the question, “Is a life without struggle worth living.” The column reflects upon the career of utilitarian philospher John Stuart Mill and notes that William Wordsworth’s poetry helped pull him out of a philosophic cul-de-sac, along with an accompanying mental breakdown.

In my mind, the piece should have been entitled, “Is a life without poetry worth living.” Or perhaps, “Poetry makes life worthwhile.”

Mill was a follower of Jeremy Bentham, who believed that “all human action should aim to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The article observes that Mill

devoted much of his youthful energies to the advancement of this principle: by founding the Utilitarian Society (a fringe group of fewer than 10 members), publishing articles in popular reviews and editing Bentham’s laborious manuscripts.

Utilitarianism, Mill thought, called for various social reforms: improvements in gender relations, working wages, the greater protection of free speech and a substantial broadening of the British electorate (including women’s suffrage).

I remember reading Bentham and Mill in a sophomore ethics class at Carleton College and my soul freezing. I was all for their progressive agenda, but the algebraic way that Bentham went about determining the greatest good seemed to deprive life of color. I’ve been teaching Shelley’s Defence of Poetry this week, and he pretty much says the same thing about utilitarianism.

Mill’s mental breakdown therefore does not surprise me. Mill explains that his depression stemmed from his fear that, if a perfect society were ever achieved, he wouldn’t experience great happiness and joy. In other words, he sensed that his life-long goal wouldn’t result in the end that he wanted. We might say that he needn’t have worried—odds are we will never achieve a perfect society—but his doubts about his project plunged him into despair.

Mill says that he was saved by Wordsworth’s poetry:

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed… I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this…

In other words, it is not only material conditions that give our life joy and meaning. To be sure, it is important that we work to improve our physical and social conditions, but that’s not all there is to life. I imagine Mill being moved by such passages as this one from Tintern Abbey:

                                               And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit, that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things.

In Defence of Poetry, Shelley puts his finger on Mill’s malaise, saying that utilitarians are mere reasoners or mechanics, confining themselves to our animal and social needs. While they have an important role to play, they miss an important dimension of what it means to be human. For this, we must turn to poetry:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. 

William Blake makes a similar point when he attacks what he sees as the secular and sterile Enlightenment:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

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

Blake wasn’t against science and he certainly wasn’t against the social causes to which Mill devoted his life. We miss out on something essential, however, when we break reality down into component parts (the atoms of Democritus) and see the universe as an intricate machine, even a machine chugging towards justice and equality for all. No wonder a philosopher thinking that way would descend into depression.

Mill’s flattened view of life came about from imagining a world that authors of dystopias have also imagined in works such as Brave New World, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and The Giver. Missing from such worlds is beauty and higher spiritual purpose.

It appears that Mill found these in Wordsworth and was saved.

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Assertive Women Drive Lear, Trump Mad

William Holmes Sullivan, “King Lear”


Last week I wrote about Shakespeare’s use of the insult that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un hurled at Donald Trump. Today I turn once again to King Lear for another loaded term, this one hurled by Trump himself. The word is “ingrate.”

In his continuing battle with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who refused to tell him what a great job he is doing, Trump tweeted,

We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military. All buildings now inspected for safety.

This was a follow-up to a previous tweet storm, where he made clear who this “politically motivated ingrate” was:

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

Puerto Rico’s buildings have not, in fact, been inspected, and while FEMA and the U.S. military are indeed working hard, the rescue effort is still a mess, in large part because of the White House’s delayed response. But forget about the facts on the ground. As revealed again in his Puerto Rico remarks yesterday, Trump really wants everyone to tell him what a good job he is doing. The Washington Post had the story:

President Trump arrived in Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the territory struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria, which has left nearly all the island without power and most residents without water nearly two weeks later.

But Trump’s focus was on the “unbelievable” and “incredible” job that his administration has done so far. He repeatedly played down the destruction to the island, telling local officials they should feel “very proud” they ­haven’t lost hundreds of lives like in “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005. But he also complained that the small territory’s disaster threw the nation’s budget “a little out of whack.”


Soon after arriving, he turned what was supposed to be a private briefing on relief efforts into a televised pep talk, praising members of his administration and the military for their long hours responding to several hurricanes over the past 43 days. He uttered “great” 10 times and used “incredible” and “amazing” seven times each.

At one point, Trump asked the island’s representative to Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, to repeat some of the “nice things” she had said in televised interviews.

Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, commenting on “ingrate,” observed:

Next Trump will be quoting King Lear: “All the stor’d vengeances of heaven fall On her ingrateful top!” –Act 2, Scene 4, 134

Responding to another tweet, Kristol pointed out Trump’s image of himself as a ruler bestowing favors. Here’s Trump’s original tweet:

Because of #FakeNews my people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job. As seen here, they are ALL doing a GREAT JOB!

Of course, Trump is really saying, “I am not getting the credit I deserve.” Kristol replied,

“My people?” They are not your people. This is not a third-world personal dictatorship.

Kristol is smart to invoke King Lear, who is guilty of similar narcissism. Lear gives away his kingdom, not because he is generous, but because he wants his daughters to make extravagant avowals of love. Like Trump, he is desperate for their words, insincere though they are. He is a small, insecure man.

After the power transfer, he is horrified that they no longer suck up to him. His anger knows no bounds, and he accuses Goneril of ingratitude in the speech Kristol references:

She hath abated me of half my train;
Look’d black upon me; struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart:
All the stored vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top! Strike her young bones,
You taking airs, with lameness!

The attack sounds a lot like that directed against Cruz and against other women who have stood up to him, like Hillary Clinton, Megan Kelly, and Elizabeth Warren. Have they, like Goneril and Regan, sent him into genuine madness? The Lear parallels grow stronger every day.

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The NRA, Preying on Anxious White Men


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

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

I share today the angriest poem my genial father ever wrote, which takes the organization to task. I ran it seven years ago after the Tucson killings and it seems even more appropriate today, given the arsenal of assault weapons the killer managed to assemble.

Because of NRA pressure, states have criminally permissive gun laws. Here is what is allowed in Nevada:

Concealed weapon permits (CCW) are-shall issue and open carry is legal without a permit. Nevada does not ban ‘assault weapons’ and there is no magazine capacity limit. There are no purchase permits, gun registration, or gun-owner licensing. Blue cards are no longer required. There is no waiting period mandated for firearm purchases and private gun sales are okay. Local gun laws are prohibited. You do not have to “register” a gun to someone else.

Add to that the fact that Nevada’s Republicans were refusing to implement a background check law that voters endorsed last year.

In “Ballad of the National Rifle Association,” my father unloads on the gun group for the ways that it exploits white male anxieties. The poem was “triggered” by a gun ad in Gun World that guaranteed “shooting satisfaction.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Previous Posts on Mass Killings

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

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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While the President Golfed…


The Washington Post’s headline was blistering: “Lost Weekend: How Trump’s time at his golf club hurt the response to Maria.” The juxtaposition of golf and human suffering brings to mind Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn’s most famous poem, “The Golf Links.”

To be clear, I’m not against presidents golfing (or cutting brush or riding horses). The weight of the world is so heavy that they must find occasions to relax and blow off steam. Furthermore, in our internet age, a president doesn’t have to be in the White House to respond to critical events. Trump, however, didn’t use his golf weekend to respond to the crisis in Puerto Rico:

Trump jetted to New Jersey that Thursday night to spend a long weekend at his private golf club there, save for a quick trip to Alabama for a political rally. Neither Trump nor any of his senior White House aides said a word publicly about the unfolding crisis.

 Trump did hold a meeting at his golf club that Friday with half a dozen Cabinet officials — including acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response — but the gathering was to discuss his new travel ban, not the hurricane. Duke and Trump spoke briefly about Puerto Rico but did not talk again until Tuesday, an administration official said.

The administration only began to pay attention when people turned up the heat:

Even though local officials had said publicly as early as Sept. 20, the day of the storm, that the island was “destroyed,” the sense of urgency didn’t begin to penetrate the White House until Monday, when images of the utter destruction and desperation — and criticism of the administration’s response — began to appear on television, one senior administration official said.

“The Trump administration was slow off the mark,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D), the first Florida lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress. “... We’ve invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”

Trump at first resorted to his customary responses, blaming others while praising himself:

After the dinner, Trump lashed out on social media. He blamed the island’s financial woes and ailing infrastructure for the difficult recovery process. He also declared that efforts to provide food, water and medical care were “doing well.”

This “fake news,” however, couldn’t be talked away:

On the ground in Puerto Rico, nothing could be further from the truth. It had taken until Monday — five days after Maria made landfall — for the first senior administration officials from Washington to touch down to survey the damage firsthand. And only after White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA Director Brock Long returned to Washington did the administration leap into action. 

The power of Cleghorn’s simple four-line poem lies in the contrast between a callous upper class and children who should be outside playing:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day 
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

The deadpan tone leaves it to the reader to provide the outrage.

Cleghorn’s poem, tapping into national shame, helped usher in child labor laws. I’m honestly not sure, however, whether Republicans are still capable of being shamed. It’s not just Trump.

After all, Congress just missed its deadline for renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which services 9 million children. While the states still have some money left, are we sure that Congress will renew the funding? The Washington Post explains what is at risk:

If action is not taken soon to restore the funding, the effects will become obvious in schools across the country, with many of the children in the program unable to see a doctor for routine checkups, immunizations, visits when sick and other services.

I’m worried because Speaker Paul Ryan for years has been railing against the social safety net and seems fully capable of cutting this strand. Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, after all, just informed a group of high school students (this according to WISN) “that they don’t have a right to health care, food and shelter.” Said Johnson, “I think it’s probably more of a privilege.”

So in addition to its war against Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, women and the poor, the GOP has added children to the list?

Update: I haven’t mentioned all the news that got made on Trump’s golf course. Apparently, while in the limousine on the way to his golf tournament, Trump decided to undermine his Secretary of State’s delicate negotiations with North Korea, tweeting, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Then, to make everything better for the people of Puerto Rico, he dedicated the golf trophy to them.

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May We Sail without Giving into Our Fears

Flooding in Puerto Rico

Spiritual Sunday

The catastrophic devastation of Puerto Rico, into which our president has injected race politics, has me thinking of Noah’s flood and a poem by the great Syrian poet Adonis. As Adonis sees it, there is something wrong with a god who orders a flood, sparing only a few while drowning the rest of humanity. His poem can be read as a critique of religious tribalism and of tribalism generally. We cannot allow such thinking to enter into the Puerto Rican rescue and rebuilding effort.

We lucky survivors, the poet says, have “fasten[ed]/Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.” If we believe in a sky god that angrily metes out death to others, then we are defining our lives by “a fear of the Sun” and can only be pessimistic about the future:

In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun. 
We despair of the Light, 
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow 
In which to start Life anew.

Even though this God might protect us, such a future is no more than “an appointment with death.” Landing safely on Mount Ararat would be no more than seeing “this World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”

Adonis is not rejecting God altogether. Rather, he is rejecting our reduced image of God, how we have shrunk Him to an angry sky god that smites our enemies. Adonis then goes about imagining a bigger god. He’s going to think of God as “something in between” earthly Clay and spiritual Ember, neither entirely of earth nor entirely of heaven. Rather than read cataclysmic disaster as divine retribution upon people who are not like us, the poet will go in search of “a different, a new, lord.”

In his search, the poet will not cling to the “familiar and pleasing despair” of the shores, which describes our current fatalistic existence. Rather, he will steer his ark into freezing waters and “remov[e]/clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead.” We must leave behind comforting tribal certainties and “sail without giving in to our fears.” If our God is more that a compilation of our grievances–if our God is truly big–then we can return from the wilderness, emerge from the false reassurance of dark caves, and open the depths of our being to the timeless flood waters.

In the poem’s images of nautical exploration, I hear Lucille Clifton’s “blessing of the boats“:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Adonis’s elusive poem lends itself to multiple interpretations, including leaving behind religious habits that have become calcified while opening ourselves to new vision. The poet will awaken the spiritually dead, whose eye sockets are clogged by clay and pebbles. (“I had not thought death had undone so many,” writes T. S. Eliot in his own poem about a spiritual wasteland.) In the context of Puerto Rico, however, I think of the poem as white America emerging from its insularity and sailing over the waters to embrace inclusivity. We can refuse to be walled in by fears of the Other.

Today’s Old Testament reading is about Moses finding water in the wilderness, a passage only too relevant to the many Puerto Ricans who still lack clean drinking water. When we “open the depths of [our] being to the flood” and listen to the voice that whispers in our veins, we override what frightens us and step into a fuller vision of what is possible. The god of that vision, not the god of fearful Trump evangelicals, is the one I sail in search of.

A New Noah

By Adonis

Translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain, 
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening 
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies. 
But between Heaven and us is an opening, 
A porthole for a supplication. 

“Why, Lord, have you saved us alone 
From among all the people and creatures? 
And where are you casting us now? 
To your other Land, to our First Home? 
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life? 
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun. 
We despair of the Light, 
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow 
In which to start Life anew. 

If only we were not that seedling of Creation, 
Of Earth and its generations, 
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember, 
Or something in between, 
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”


If time started anew, 
and waters submerged the face of life, 
and the earth convulsed, and that god 
rushed to me, beseeching, “Noah, save the living!” 
I would not concern myself with his request. 
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead. 
I would open the depths of their being to the flood, 
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,   
that we have emerged from the cave, 
that we have changed the sky of years, 
that we sail without giving in to our fears— 
that we do not heed the word of that god. 
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair, 
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred, 
heedless of that god and his word, 
longing for a different, a new, lord.

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A Ninth Century Prayer for Yom Kippur

Leopold Pilichowski, “Yom Kippur”

Saturday – Yom Kippur

As today is Yom Kippur, I’m posting last year’s post on the Jewish holiday, along with links to previous Yom Kippur posts. G’mar Hatima Tova (which is to say, “May you be sealed in the Book of Life”).

Reprinted from October 8, 2016

I have been reading up on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews gather to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. Yesterday I came across Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur. “Avodah” is the name of the Yom Kippur service.

According to editors and translators Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, the Avodah service, which dates back to the centuries following the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., has always featured a rich and complex poetry. They say that though this poetry was “suppressed by generations of rabbis,”

its ornamental beauty and its deep exploration of sacred stories ensured its popularity for centuries. This literature, which produced dozens of poets and thousands of compositions before the rise of Islam, was barely known to us until the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a treasury of discarded medieval Jewish manuscripts, at the end of the nineteenth century. It could be argued that the discovery of this literature is in fact second only in importance among discoveries of Hebrew literary texts to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for our understanding of ancient Judaism, for it preserves linguistic forms, myths, and ways of thinking that we would not have known from Talmudic literature.

Here’s one ninth-century poem in which we see the poet asking the congregation’s permission “to entreat God on their behalf.” The poem would have preceded a key prayer. I like how it asks for the courage to speak without fear or treachery.

I implore the Rock of eternity,
Who has knowledge of the life of the innocent;
As I cast my eyes to the heavens,
I ask permission from the Merciful One.
And so too when I stand before the wise,
Who hear words from the truthful,
Who understand words of law:
I ask permission from the wise.
I look out at the congregation of the noble
And am fearful of the One who humbles and raises,
And of those standing behind me and before me as a fence.
I ask permission from the righteous,
The seed of the faithful,
Believers, sons of believers,
Who explore the law and understand.
I ask permission from priests,
Those who [ ] goodness on my behalf,
Who are satiated with good teaching and instruction.
I open my mouth with the permission of Levites,
Those who honor this day and fast,
and respond, “Holy, holy, holy”
And teach scripture and Mishnah diligently.
I open my mouth with permission of azanim [the listeners],
Those who are skilled in the subtleties of books,
Abiding in the shade of the One who dwells in mystery,
Who sing sweet, pleasant words.
I open my mouth with permission of scribes,
Those who eternally elevate the Living One,
Who say prayer before Him,
Who stand before the One who makes mountains.
I open my mouth with permission of those who recite liturgy,
Those who recite the specific and general,
Who sweep behind like water,
Who recite righteousness and justice.
I open my mouth with permission of singers,
Those who lend strong voices in melody,
Let their cry before You be pleasing.
May You consider the melody of my tongue,
I open my mouth with permission of the whole people.
O Almighty, as You forgive treachery,
Listen to my entreaties from above;
Grant me a pure heart that I may speak without fear or treachery.
I open my mouth with permission of the entire congregation.

Previous Yom Kippur posts

Adrienne Rich’s Yom Kippur Thoughts about Conflict 

Jane Kenyon: Thirsting of Disordered Souls

Rashani: Out of Darkness, Sanctified into Being 

Stanley Kunitz: Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter 

Philip Schultz: Believe in the Utter Sweetness of Your Life  

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Update on My Heart Condition

Enrique Simonet y Lombardo, “The Autopsy” (1890)


Readers, friends, and relatives have been asking for an update on last week’s pericarditis episode so here goes, along with a Henry Fielding diagnosis.

 At present, every doctor I’ve talked to sees this as a one-off event. Apparently a virus inflamed my heart’s membrane, causing it to rub up against the heart (thus the chest pains). In severe cases, this can stop the heart, but with me, anti-inflammatory medication went to work almost immediately so that I was pain-free by the following day. I am back to teaching my classes but I return straight home afterwards as I wait for the virus to leave my body.

The viruses that lead to pericarditis are often a mystery, but I’ve got a theory about mine. I think the week I spent with my dying friend Rachel in a Bronx hospital took an emotional toll that decimated my immune system.  A recent Washington Post article about “empathy fatigue” lays out the dangers. At one point, it cites a study of parents and depressed adolescents:

The more empathic the parent, the researchers found, the more likely that person was to be experiencing chronic low-grade inflammation. The researchers speculate, “Parents who readily engage with the struggles and perspectives of others may leave themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to better help others.”

The article goes on to advise “compassionate empathy” over “emotional empathy”:

With emotional empathy, you actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotion. This is the type of response that, left unchecked, can lead to caretaker burnout, says [psychology professor Jamil] Zaki.

And then there’s compassionate empathy, where you feel concern about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to help the person in need.

Looking back, I didn’t protect myself with a compassionate approach but felt wrenched by Rachel’s pain. I returned to Maryland exhausted and had to drag myself through the first week of classes. My respect for professional caregivers, already high, skyrocketed.

In Fielding’s example from Tom Jones, Dr. Blifil is betrayed by his brother and leaves Squire Allworthy’s house a shattered man. Fielding offers the following explanation for his subsequent death:

The doctor went directly to London, where he died soon after of a broken heart; a distemper which kills many more than is generally imagined, and would have a fair title to a place in the bill of mortality, did it not differ in one instance from all other diseases—viz., that no physician can cure it.

Blifil is emotionally battered in part because of his brother’s ingratitude—Blifil aided in his mercenary marriage to Bridget Allworthy—in part because of his own guilt over the affair. Guilt combined with sorrow proves to be a lethal combination:

He once intended to acquaint Allworthy with the whole; but he could not bring himself to submit to the confession, by which he must take to his share so great a portion of guilt.

Guilt that I could not do more entered into my own interactions with Rachel. I underestimated the overall impact.

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Facebook Escapes Its Creator

Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (1931)


Facebook is finally admitting that Russia used it as a conduit for targeted advertising that influenced the 2016 election. A New York Times article cites Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to comment on the significance..

No doubt you will make the connection right away. Kevin Roose writes,

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, nobody could have imagined its becoming a censorship tool for repressive regimes, an arbiter of global speech standards or a vehicle for foreign propagandists…

 “They still see themselves as a technology middleman,” said Mr. García Martínez. “Facebook is not supposed to be an element of a propaganda war. They’re completely not equipped to deal with that.”

Roose thought of Frankenstein after Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, responding to how advertisers targeted users with offensive terms like “Jew hater,” wrote, “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way.”

Here’s Dr. Frankenstein’s parallel confession in the 1818 novel:

I had been the author of unalterable evils, and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.

Frankenstein goes to engages in the same denial that we have been witnessing with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, running away when he sees the dark side of his creation. Eventually he must face up to the consequences, however, as the monster goes on to kill his brother, his best friend, and his young bride. Zuckerberg should take up a version of Frankenstein’s final mission, which is to contain the damage he has unleashed upon the world. It won’t be easy as the monster has the ability to leap from ice flow to ice flow–or in the case of Facebook, from continent to continent and from targeted demographic to targeted demographic.

One further thought on Shelley’s novel: I’ve been writing this blog for over eight years and am struck by the number of times Frankenstein has been cited by columnists and other public figures. Often the GOP is seen as the inventor and its extremists (including Donald Trump) as the monster. Other works that show up in the public forum time and again are the Faust story, Alice in Wonderland, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“the best lack all conviction…”), The Crucible, and 1984.

Consider it our common literary heritage. As E.D. Hirsch observes in his book Cultural Literacy, shared literary works allow us to communicate powerfully and effectively. Roose’s Frankenstein allusion succinctly captures Facebook’s naiveté, its arrogance, and the scope of its (and our) dilemma. All who are aware of the Frankenstein story understand immediately.

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Free Speech on College Campuses


I see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has added his voice to those attacking universities as enemies of free speech. In today’s column, I don’t want to discuss which side of the political spectrum is most hypocritical in this regard—Washington Post’s Sarah Posner notes that the Trump administration wouldn’t fare well if Sessions’s “political correctness” were changed to “ethno-nationalistic conformity”–but rather look at what is going on with college students. Polls indicate that there is indeed less tolerance for free speech, and I believe this arises from the fact that the issues have become more personal. By this I mean that students are less likely to be tolerant when they themselves and their friends are the targets of offensive speech. I’ll elaborate in a moment.

In a recent New York Times column, conservative columnist Bret Stevens doesn’t understand this as he mourns “the dying art of disagreement.” He invokes his old teacher Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind (1987) was a key work in the culture wars of the late 1980s. Since the book went after multiculturalism’s supposed attacks on dead white male authors, Stevens’s use of Bloom is relevant to this blog. I argue here that neither Stevens nor Bloom appreciate the pressures on today’s students.

Pew reports that intolerance is on the rise, not only amongst college students but amongst millennials generally:

American Millennials are far more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups…

Pew observes,

Four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups, while 58% said such speech is OK.

By contrast, only 27% of Gen Xers, 24% of Boomers, and 12% of Silents say that “the government should be able to prevent such speech.”

It is important that high school and college teachers address the issue but, to do so, we must first figure out the why. As someone who sees 18-22-year-olds up close, my own theory is two-fold. I believe that (1) during the Obama years, any number of formerly unrepresented groups felt affirmed in their identities in ways that they never had before; and (2) this meant that rightwing disrespect hurts in a new way, especially when some of that speech is directed against newly won rights (as in the case of same-sex marriage). Just as people are much more upset at having medical care taken away from them than not having it in the first place, so people react more vigorously at the withdrawal of newly acquired social acceptance.

To get specific, it now hurts more than it would have 15 years ago for LBGTQ persons to be told that they are abominations in the eyes of God and should be denied service. Now that there has been an African American president, it hurts more for African Americans to be humiliated by police. When young people encounter bigoted speech—speech, furthermore, that can lead to policy changes—then they feel far more threatened. I think this is why many want to police speech.

Just because I sympathize, however, doesn’t mean that I agree with these millennials. As unpleasant as it is, they must allow even Nazis to voice their ideas (as long as it’s not hate speech that incites people to violence, which is a crime). The First Amendment is sacrosanct and, if that’s not enough, there are practical reasons. If you try to shut other people up, they will try to shut you up—and right now those others have the president and people with guns in their corner.

When Stevens calls for college students to engage in the art of disagreement, he doesn’t look at these identity issues. For him, the prospect of black student drivers getting shot by police or LBGTQ students being fired are just abstract arguments. That’s why he can so cavalierly say that college debates should be above politics. Here’s how he describes his University of Chicago “great books” education:

What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.

As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.

To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.

As this blog makes abundantly clear, I’m all in favor of teaching the great books. I’ve just finished teaching Plato, Aristotle, and Horace in my Senior Seminar, and I have a partially sympathetic section in my upcoming book on Bloom, Stevens’s Chicago mentor. As a white student, however, Stevens could focus on pure philosophy and pure literature and didn’t have to worry about the messy business of living in a prejudiced society. Not having to worry is what entitlement looks like.

Let’s look at what this supposedly politics-free study looks like to Bloom. In Closing of the American Mind he writes,

Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives. The fact that this kind of humanity exists or existed, and that we can somehow still touch it with the tips of our outstretched fingers, makes our imperfect humanity, which we can no longer bear, tolerable. The books in their objective beauty are still there, and we must help protect and cultivate the delicate tendrils reaching out toward them through the unfriendly soil of students’ souls.

Part of me is lifted up by the passage and part of me focuses on those “accidental lives.” When students come to college, they certainly want to believe that it doesn’t matter what class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality they are. That’s why they are so hurt when suddenly they find themselves stereotyped and treated differently. Many would love it if everyone saw these dimensions of them as peripheral rather than defining. They just don’t have that luxury.

So they notice if Joseph Conrad characterizes Africans as a howling mob or if Richard Sheridan gives us a stereotyped Jewish moneylender in School for Scandal or if Shakespeare leaves the homosexual Antonio bereft and alone at the end of Twelfth Night. Once they’ve noticed that, my job is show them that, rather than dismissing these writers as dead white men, they can use the works to arrive at complex understandings of how people use literature to negotiate their lives—how, for instance, Shakespeare subversively gives voice to hidden and forbidden LBGTQ longings.

Actually, let me amend that. My job is to introduce the work, provide historical context, and then let them debate the issues that arise. Disagreements make for lively class discussion. In the end, like Stevens and Bloom, I want them to think for themselves.

I can understand why Stevens went to Chicago to study with Bloom. Bloom seemed to promise membership in a special meritocratic elite who use the great books as springboards. Consider the following:

The real community of man is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent that they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it…This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.  

Bloom says that the students who take up the challenge should be our country’s leaders. Those “who are most likely to take advantage of a liberal education,” he believes, are those who will have “the greatest moral and intellectual effect on the nation.”

I wanted to be part of such a group when I went off to college, and it is my goal as a teacher to turn out leaders. I also know, however, that many of my students—I teach at a public liberal arts college where 20% of the students are first generation and 20% of them are minority—have to be shown why the authors in an early British literature survey are worth reading. Their “accidental lives” sometimes mean that they don’t initially see the relevance.

Once they understand what’s at stake, however, wonderful growth occurs. But our starting point must be respect–I must respect them and they must respect each other–and this respect can only arise if we acknowledge each others’ realities. It is lack of respect that rubs them wrong, and instinctively they want to ban it. A key job for us teachers is to help them handle disrespect in more productive ways.

Further thought: Georgetown professors and students showed one way to productively practice free speech as they protested Sessions’s speech, revealing a telling instance of hypocrisy. Huffington Post reports,

“The American university was once the center of academic freedom ― a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions told an invite-only audience at Georgetown University’s law school. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Sessions delivered his speech as the Justice Department prepares to retry a woman who laughed at him during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. The department’s continued prosecution of Desiree Fairooz was mentioned in an open letter signed by several members of the Georgetown law school faculty that said Sessions was a poor spokesman for the values of free speech.

Meanwhile New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a liberal whose free speech advocacy periodically gets him in trouble with the left, observed that the Trump administration wants free speech only on college campuses:

The theme of Sessions’s address is that universities have become an “echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” The charge is not altogether false, but Sessions would have at least some chance to maintain his dignity if not for his boss’s decision to publicly and repeatedly demand the firing of professional athletes who offend his own fragile ego.

Chait further points out that Trump

has devoted his life to the use of power to quash expressions of speech he disapproves of. Trump sued reporter Tim O’Brien for accurately reporting on his inflated claims of wealth. He sued architecture critic George Gapp for criticizing the aesthetic of a proposed Trump building. He and his organization have done this thousands of times


Far from discarding this practice, Trump has made it a lodestar of his political career. He has declared the mainstream news media “the enemy of the American people” and worked assiduously behind the scenes to lock down the support of the quasi-state media at Fox News. He has repeatedly threatened to revise libel laws so that the threats he used so effectively in business could become even more effective.

Our students must realize that, above all, the first amendment is a bulwark against abuse of power. Underrepresented groups stand most to gain from protecting it.

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Will Ships Be Sent to Puerto Rico?

The Iwo Jima sailed to Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake


The devastation that category 4 Hurricane Maria has visited upon Puerto Rico is beyond imagining, but it’s not as though we lack resources to help. After all, when an earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, the United States responded in force, treating the country (so Time reported) as its 51st state:

Within two hours of the quake, one of the globe’s biggest warships, the carrier USS Carl Vinson, was ordered from off the Virginia coast toward Haiti, swapping its jet fighters for heavy-lift helicopters as it steamed south at top speed. Three ships, including the Vinson and the hospital ship USNS Comfort, boast state-of-the-art medical facilities that will care for injured Haitians. Thousands of troops are on their way to Haiti or already there, running the airport and clearing ports for many more to follow. Up to 10,000 troops will be in Haiti or floating just offshore by Monday.

 We should do at least this much for Puerto Rico, which essentially is our 51st state and whose people are all American citizens. To date, however, Donald Trump appears to be doing nothing.

But it’s not too late. I imagine ships sailing to the rescue as they do during the siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. The moment is dramatic, as Trump suddenly ordering the Navy to Puerto Rico would be, because it comes at a moment when hope seems lost.

Gondor is fighting a desperate battle against Mordor’s allies and then is dealt a final blow when the black sails of the Corsairs of Umbar appear on the river. Éomer, realizing that the end is nigh, prepares to die bravely:

Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.

Unbeknownst to Éomer, however, Aragorn and his men, elves and dwarfs have captured the ships, which are consequently filled with allies, not enemies. In a sudden turnaround, despair is replaced by joy:

And then wonder took [Éomer], and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.

Tolkien shifts into full epic mode as he announces that help is on the way:

Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor; and the mirth of the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords, and the joy and wonder of the City was a music of trumpets and a ringing of bells. But the hosts of Mordor were seized with bewilderment, and a great wizardry it seemed to them that their own ships should be filled with their foes; and a black dread fell on them, knowing that the tides of fate had turned against them and their doom was at hand.

Unfortunately, even if ships arrive, Puerto Rico faces daunting obstacles. Towns have been wiped out, 80% of its crops and livestock have been destroyed, the power grid may not be up and running for another six months, and the island still faces mudslides and flooding. With help, however, the Puerto Ricans should be able to clamber back

The ships have got to show up first, however.

Update: Things are starting to change: This from Trump yesterday:

Puerto Ricans are American citizens just like the rest of us, and their home has been devastated beyond comprehension by Hurricane Maria. Tomorrow I will ask Congress to pass an emergency $10 billion bill to provide temporary housing throughout the island and to rebuild following the devastation. I expect this to have bipartisan support and to pass by the end of the week. It will take time to ramp up this effort, so in the meantime I have ordered the military to begin rescue and resupply missions as its top priority. This is what Americans expect from their government, and we won’t rest until the job is done.

Of course, Trump had to add some snide comments via Twitter:

Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble…

…It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….

…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well. 

So the good news is that boats are on the way. The bad news is that Trump implies that unworthy Puerto Rico (unlike Texas and Florida) deserves the disaster.

Oh, and with 40% of the population lacking access to drinkable water, no one thinks that Puerto Rico is “doing well.”

Further updates: Not-so-good news: for some reason, the Navy so far has not sent the UNS Comfort, which has been used for previous hurricanes. According to The Miami Herald,

The Navy ship is, in the simplest terms, a hospital at sea.

The website calls the Comfort a “medical treatment facility,” whose primary mission is to “provide rapid, flexible and mobile acute health service support to Marine Corps, Army and Air Force units deployed ashore, and naval amphibious task and battle forces afloat.” The 1,000-bed ship’s secondary mission is for disaster and/or humanitarian relief.

It was at the ready last year for victims of Hurricane Matthew.

And then this:

On Tuesday, Nathan Potter, of the Naval public affairs office, told The Miami Herald that the vessel was currently docked in Norfolk and had “no plans to deploy.”

Update: The Comfort is now on the way.

Yet another shipping update, this one not so good: According to The Hillthe Trump administration is refusing “to waive shipping restrictions to help get gasoline and other supplies to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria,” even though it did so with previous hurricanes. According to John McCain, who is advocating for the waiver, this means that “the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.” Trump tweeted that he didn’t want to do so because it was objectionable to shipping companies.

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Trump in Chaucer, Shakespeare & Conrad


I have two Trump items today. First, at the risk of taking too lightly what is a very, very serious situation, I have some thoughts on the epithet  that Kim Jong-un hurled at Donald Trump in their escalating exchange. The Wife of Bath applies the word “dotard” to her three old husbands and Goneril speaks of the dotage of her father in King Lear. There are so many resemblances between those old men and Donald Trump that my respect for the North Korean leader’s perspicacity goes up considerably.

Jong-un apparently called Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.” According to Webster’s, “dotage” means “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” A dotard is one who is in such a state.

The Wife of Bath blasts her dotard husbands because they are full of misogynist bluster, even though they don’t have the courage to voice their attacks directly to her. Weak and toothless complaining, therefore, is one characteristic of a dotard.

The other literary use of the word is more disturbing. Goneril is refusing to house her father’s 100 knights. In his dotage, she says, there’s a chance that he will turn those knights against her. She’s being sarcastic when she says “politic and safe.” She’s genuinely worried that a rumor (“buzz”) or complaint could unleash the knights:

This man hath had good counsel:–a hundred knights!
‘Tis politic and safe to let him keep
At point a hundred knights: yes, that, on every dream,
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,
He may enguard his dotage with their powers,
And hold our lives in mercy. 

Trump has many more than 100 knights at his command, and who knows what buzz, fancy, complaint or dislike might not set him off. In the play, Lear sends his country down the road to civil war, and his American equivalent is doing his best to divide America against itself. An unbridled narcissist with a lot of power can do immense damage. Pray that Trump isn’t setting a Lear-like tragedy in motion.

My second Trump note has to do with his appalling comment to African leaders at the United Nations, which makes him sound like Willy’s fantasy in Death of a Salesman or one of the colonialists in Heart of Darkness. Here’s what Trump said:

I’ve so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.

Willy fantasizes about his brother Ben, who supposedly went to Africa and came out with a fortune. Nothing is said of the blood spilled by the colonial powers to obtain Africa’s mineral resources:

The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.

Conrad’s Europeans think the same way, of course. Marlow must do all in his power to stay free of their money obsession:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. 

The worship of money corrupts Kurtz and it is corrupting Trump and all who come within his orbit, including GOP legislators and rightwing evangelicals. He has revealed the taint of capitalism’s imbecilic rapacity for all to see.

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Dissolving into the Glories of the Sun

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s Old Testament readings is the story of the manna in the wilderness. Jesus references the story when preaching about spiritual sustenance, and Andrew Marvell does the same in his poem “On a Drop of Dew.”

First, here is God taking care of the starving Israelites:

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”

Jesus pushes the lesson further when talking to the crowds that have witnessed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes:

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In Marvell’s poem, the drop of dew is the soul entering the world and living in uneasy relationship with it. Though the rose upon which it sits is beautiful, the dewdrop still never entirely accommodates itself (“careless of its mansion new”) but longs to return to its celestial home:

But gazing back upon the skies,
Shines with a mournful light,
Like its own tear,
Because so long divided from the sphere.
   Restless it rolls and unsecure,
      Trembling lest it grow impure,
   Till the warm sun pity its pain,   
And to the skies exhale it back again.

The poem resembles Henry Vaughan’s “The Waterfall,” in which the water that goes over the falls (comes to earth) evaporates back to heaven. Both poems, meanwhile, anticipate Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, where the soul enters the world “trailing clouds of glory” and longs to reconnect with the great soul from whence it flows. Beautiful though our earthly existence may be, death loses it sting when we think of our souls dissolving “into the glories of th’ almighty sun”:

How loose and easy hence to go,
   How girt and ready to ascend,
   Moving but on a point below,
   It all about does upwards bend.

The manna image appears in the final quatrain of Marvell’s poem. The heaven-sent food, like the dewdrop, mysteriously appeared on earth to feed the Israelites and then just as mysteriously vanished the following day. Our own souls follow a similar path. Here’s the poem:

On a Drop of Dew

By Andrew Marvell

See how the orient dew,
Shed from the bosom of the morn   
   Into the blowing roses,
Yet careless of its mansion new,
For the clear region where ’twas born   
   Round in itself incloses:
   And in its little globe’s extent,
Frames as it can its native element.
How it the purple flow’r does slight,   
      Scarce touching where it lies,
But gazing back upon the skies,   
      Shines with a mournful light,
         Like its own tear,
Because so long divided from the sphere.
   Restless it rolls and unsecure,
      Trembling lest it grow impure,
   Till the warm sun pity its pain,   
And to the skies exhale it back again.
      So the soul, that drop, that ray   
Of the clear fountain of eternal day,   
Could it within the human flow’r be seen,
      Remembering still its former height,
     Shuns the sweet leaves and blossoms green,
      And recollecting its own light,
Does, in its pure and circling thoughts, express
The greater heaven in an heaven less.   
      In how coy a figure wound,   
      Every way it turns away:   
      So the world excluding round,   
      Yet receiving in the day,
      Dark beneath, but bright above,
      Here disdaining, there in love.
   How loose and easy hence to go,
   How girt and ready to ascend,
   Moving but on a point below,
   It all about does upwards bend.
Such did the manna’s sacred dew distill,   
White and entire, though congealed and chill,   
Congealed on earth: but does, dissolving, run   
Into the glories of th’ almighty sun.

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How Tolstoy Would Judge Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions goes after DACA kids


America is very understandably focusing on the actions of Donald Trump as he heightens the chances of nuclear conflagration with North Korea, but there are plenty of other Trump officials and Republican legislators who are threatening metaphorical blow-ups. As I listen to Tolstoy’s magnificent final novel Resurrection, I think of Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, who wants to deport the DACA kids, ramp up the failed war on drugs, increase prison sentences (at the same time that he owns stock in private prisons), crack down on legalized marijuana, and undo restrictions on police brutality.

Not one to mince words, Tolstoy would regard Sessions as a self-satisfied and corrupt perpetrator of evil.

Tolstoy’s protagonist, a nobleman named Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, finds himself fighting for prison reform after witnessing a gross miscarriage of justice. Like Sessions, Nekhlyudov is a Christian, but unlike the attorney general he takes his Christianity seriously. Drawing on the Book of Matthew, he has harsh words for people like Sessions:

The thought that seemed strange at first and paradoxical or even to be only a joke, being confirmed more and more often by life’s experience, suddenly appeared as the simplest, truest certainty. In this way the idea that the only certain means of salvation from the terrible evil from which men were suffering was that they should always acknowledge themselves to be sinning against God, and therefore unable to punish or correct others, because they were dear to Him. It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails and the quiet self-satisfaction of the perpetrators of this evil were the consequences of men trying to do what was impossible; trying to correct evil while being evil themselves; vicious men were trying to correct other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means, and the only consequence of all this was that the needs and the cupidity of some men induced them to take up this so-called punishment and correction as a profession, and have themselves become utterly corrupt, and go on unceasingly depraving those whom they torment. Now he saw clearly what all the terrors he had seen came from, and what ought to be done to put a stop to them. The answer he could not find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was that we should forgive always an infinite number of times because there are no men who have not sinned themselves, and therefore none can punish or correct others.

And what of genuine evildoers? Tolstoy points out that our punishments don’t prevent crime. “Pity and love,” not law and order, sustain society:

For many centuries people who were considered criminals have been tortured. Well, and have they ceased to exist? No; their numbers have been increased not alone by the criminals corrupted by punishment but also by those lawful criminals, the judges, procurers, magistrates and jailers, who judge and punish men. Nekhludoff now understood that society and order in general exist not because of these lawful criminals who judge and punish others, but because in spite of men being thus depraved, they still pity and love one another.

Tolstoy’s final comments in Resurrection have to do with serving the greater good. Citing Luke’s parable of the wicked husbandmen (20:9-19), he describes public duties as a sacred trust. The duty of our elected and appointed officials should be to the people, not to themselves. Only by honoring that duty can people be truly happy:

The husbandman imagined that the vineyard in which they were sent to work for their master was their own, that all that was in was made for them, and that their business was to enjoy life in this vineyard, forgetting the Master and killing all those who reminded them of his existence. “Are we do not doing the same,” Nekhludoff thought, “when we imagine ourselves to be masters of our lives, and that life is given us for enjoyment? This evidently is an incongruity. We were sent here by some one’s will and for some reason. And we have concluded that we live only for our own joy, and of course we feel unhappy as laborers do when not fulfilling their Master’s orders. The Master’s will is expressed in these commandments. If men will only fulfill these laws, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth, and men will receive the greatest good that they can attain to.

Our previous president understood this. On his first day on the job, President Obama announced,

Public service is a privilege. It’s not about advantaging yourself. It’s not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It’s not about advancing an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization. Public service is simply and absolutely about advancing the interests of Americans.

There are legitimate debates, of course, about what advances the interests of Americans. We can all agree, however, that corrupt husbandmen who think they own the vineyard should not be running things.

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Famous Physicians to the Rescue

E. H. Shepard, “Wheezles and Sneezles”


I’m back home after a scare. As I reported yesterday, I was flown to the MedStar Washington Hospital Tuesday afternoon because the doctors feared I was having a heart attack. Once there, however, I learned that I had pericarditis, which they treated and then sent me home 24 hours later. I am tired but otherwise feel normal.

The doctors are mystified by what triggered the attack, which puts them in the same category as the doctors in the poem I share with you today.

The experience had two very different phases. The first one was agonizingly slow. First I was awakened by intense pain in the middle of a night that never seemed to end. This was followed by a 10 am doctor’s appointment that involved a 30 minute wait; a slow 10-mile drive up the road (so I wouldn’t have an accident); and an EKG exam that involved a 90 minute wait.

Then, once the nurse saw the test results, everything speeded up. I was hurried to the emergency room, strapped onto a stretcher while they shouted questions at me (including how I would rate my pain), put in a helicopter, and rushed to the hospital. There I was greeted by three doctors who shouted more questions as they inserted a catheter. I had the experience that Christopher Robin, for whom I was named, has when he comes down with wheezles and sneezles:

Christopher Robin 
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him 
His bed.
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head.
They wondered
If wheezles
Could turn
Into measles,
If sneezles 
Would turn
Into mumps;
They examined his chest
For a rash,
And the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
In sneezles
And wheezles
To tell them what ought
To be done.

All sorts and conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.
They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
Came first.
They said, “If you teazle
A sneezle
Or wheezle,
A measle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
The wheezle
Or sneezle,
The measle 
Will certainly go.”
They expounded the reazles 
For sneezles
And wheezles,
The manner of measles
When new.
They said “If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
May even ensue.”

I was one of the lucky patients in that I duplicated Christopher Robin’s subsequent experience. The anti-inflammatories did their miraculous work, and I am back at home now, thinking of the past 36 hours as a bad dream:

Christopher Robin
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them to-day?”

My thanks to all of you who wished me well–to my wife Julia, who flew up from Tennessee; to my colleagues who covered my classes; to my friends Chris and Jean, who picked us up at the hospital; and to all who sent notes and put me in their prayers. The sneezles have in fact vanished away.

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The Crushing Pain of a Heart Episode


I write a short blog post today as I am in MedStar Washington Hospital Center after suffering what first appeared to be a heart attack. The urgency was such that they transported me by helicopter to the cardiac ward, but now they’re thinking it’s something else. Pericardial disease mimics heart attacks.

In retrospect, I should have called 9-1-1 when what felt like iron bands started squeezing my chest.  Instead I gutted it out, surviving the long dark night with visions of Giles Corey from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. 

Elizabeth tells the story:

Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead aye or nay. (With a tender smile for the old man): They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.

I myself called for less weight, not more. Nevertheless, I could feel noble when I thought of Giles’s suffering. When we are looking for consolation, we will take what we can get.

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Handmaid’s Emmy, A Sign of Its Urgency

Both Moss (right) and “Handmaid’s Tale” won Emmys this past Sunday


The Handmaid’s Tale winning an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series gives me an excuse to reprint this post from this past spring, when the series began.

To win such an award often requires timeliness as well as quality. Teaching Euripides’s The Bacchae this past week reaffirmed for me my sense that unapologetic feminism is making a comeback as I’ve never seen so many of my women students focus on Pentheus’s misogyny. (See a past post on The Bacchae here.) Thanks to the alt-right, grandstanding GOP legislators, and Donald Trump, these students see Pentheus’s ravings as the projections of a repressed control freak. How else to explain the following hysteria?

No sooner does one venture on a journey
than rumor plagues the town and things get out of hand.
Our women, I am told, have left their homes,
in a religious trance—what travesty!–

and scamper up and down the wooded mountains, dancing…

[Their] performance reeks more of Aphrodite than of Bacchus…

I’ll put a stop this orgiastic filth!


Take my word
when women are allowed to feast on wine, there is no telling
to what lengths their filthy minds will go!

Here’s last April’s post on Handmaid’s Tale:

Reprinted from April 26, 2017

With Hulu set to release The Handmaid’s Tale tomorrow, I have gathered together all the posts I’ve written on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic. As several observers have pointed out, the series, which would have seemed merely interesting had Hillary Clinton been elected president, seems urgent now that we have a “pussy grabber” in the White House and learn more daily about the toxic misogynist culture at Fox News.

Nor would things be much better if Donald Trump were impeached. Mike Pence not only is a firm opponent of abortion, Planned Parenthood, and various forms of birth control, but he even fears being alone with women. The religious right salivates over the prospect of either Trump or Pence replacing the aging Ginsburg and Breyer with rightwing justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. Atwood reminds us that the desire to control women’s bodies never entirely leaves political conversations.

Those rightwing women who have signed up for the campaign should be wary, however. Sarah Jones’s recent New Republic article advises women like Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway to read Handmaid’s Tale as it has lessons for them as well. If they lash their wagons to misogynist men, they may end up like the frustrated Serena Joy, a powerful woman who helps bring the fundamentalists to power and then finds herself confined to her husband’s home.

Jones describes how reading Handmaid’s Tale while attending a religious college prompted her to leave the church. She was struck by how, at her school, rightwing women used feminism’s tools to advance measures designed to oppress women. This is exactly what happens in Atwood’s novel:

My alma mater capitalized on the “pro-woman” claims established by Schlafly and her ilk. Their greatest achievement was to take a language of female empowerment from the women’s movement and turn it to their own purposes. No one has noted this inversion more ruefully than Atwood. Offred’s mother, we are told, was a second-wave feminist. She envisioned a porn-free society that would largely exclude men. “You wanted a women’s culture,” Offred imagines telling her. “Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

In the Tale, this paradox is exemplified not just by Serena Joy but by Aunt Lydia. Cruder and lower-ranked, Aunt Lydia is the hand that wields the cattle prod. She’s charged with the re-education of future Handmaids, and she accomplishes this by emphasizing both the high value of women and the necessity of their oppression. “A thing is valued,” she teaches, “only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls…. Think of yourselves as pearls.” Serena Joy chose her life. Lydia is empowered to attack other women with a cattle prod. Both are proof that women are represented in Gilead’s power structure. If feminism is only about representation, choice, or some vaguely sketched notion of empowerment, it is difficult to say our Serena Joys and our Aunt Lydias are not feminists.

Feminism has to stand up for the freedom of all women, not just some women, Jones says:

The Handmaid’s Tale does more than present a possible future: It asks us to consider how we’d end up there. A form of feminism that celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed, will usher us into fascism. Feminism means something. Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too. Allow an antichoice woman to call herself a feminist, and you have ceded political territory that you cannot afford to lose. Stripped of political meaning, “feminist” becomes an entirely subjective term that anyone with any agenda can use.

Fortunately we’re not in Atwood’s world yet, perhaps because we haven’t had the environmental or nuclear cataclysm that Atwood sees as a necessary precondition. But like many liberals since the election, I have taken to periodically reminding myself, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Atwood’s masterpiece helps us remain vigilant.

Previous posts on The Handmaid’s Tale

GOP Christians Send Readers to Atwood (Feb. 2017)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is topping bestseller lists at the moment. The reason is probably because of the GOP’s prospect of success in curbing reproductive freedom.

Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy (Sept. 2016)

Recently deceased Phyllis Schlafly served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “Handmaid’s Tale.” Because Serena Joy gets the society she says she wants, however, her life turns bitter. Schlafly was lucky to live in a society that allowed women to have their own careers.

Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point (Feb. 2015)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is required reading for entering West Point cadets. Good things could happen.

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True (July 2013)

With the rise in state legislatures passing anti-abortion legislation, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” seems more relevant than ever.

Threatened by Female Empowerment (Oct. 2012)

Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” addresses issues raised by the Taliban shooting of a Pakistani school girl and also speaks to our abortion fights.


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No Miss Havisham for Hillary

Charles Green, “Miss Havisham”


I haven’t read Hillary Clinton’s account of the 2016 election, but New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister points out a literary allusion she uses that reflects well on her. Traister’s article is about the pressure on women to hide their anger:

So internalized is women’s impulse to paper over their ire that Clinton writes about how, in the weeks after her loss, she prayed “to stay hopeful and openhearted rather than becoming cynical and bitter … so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham … rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.”

Traister observes,

This is what women have been taught that rage might do to us: We are so sure that our resentments — especially any resentments toward men — are corrosive, and make us appear pathetic and vengeful, that we ask for divine help to simply stop feeling them.

Because of our double standard, Traister observes, Clinton

never could have turned around and screamed at Trump, never could have slashed her finger through the air and called for revolution in the style of Bernie Sanders, at least not if she had any hope of winning the presidency. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and there is almost nothing that Americans view as more repellent in women than anger…

Traister names other women who have been targeted for their anger:

When California senator Kamala Harris and Jeff Sessions tussled during his Senate Intelligence hearings in the spring, Trump adviser Jason Miller described Sessions as full of “vinegar and fire in his belly,” while he deemed Harris “hysterical.” (Black women, with perhaps more to be mad about in America than anyone else, are often regarded as militant monsters when they so much as raise a disapproving eyebrow, or just as often, when someone imagines that they have. Recall the treatment of Michelle Obama in 2008.) After Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dressed down a commandant for failing to address sexual harassment in the military earlier this year, Tucker Carlson called her “positively unglued.” And in response to a righteous post-election rant from Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mika Brzezinski declared, “There’s an anger there that’s shrill … unmeasured and almost unhinged.” 

I agree with Traister about the double standard, but I also commend Clinton for drawing on literature to not becoming consumed by her anger. Miss Havisham, of course, is the jilted bride in Dickens’s Great Expectations who is rendered perpetually bitter by her disappointment. Pip describes his first view of her as follows:

But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Nor does Miss Havisham confine the bitterness to herself but corrupts a child, turning her into an instrument of revenge. Esther will break hearts just as Miss Havisham’s heart was broken.

That Clinton imagines that she herself has Miss Havisham potential indicates that she never lost touch with her soul. Clinton really, really wanted to be president, just as Miss Havisham really, really wanted to be married. Yet somewhere along the line, Clinton got in touch with a healing perspective. Thank the lord that novels provide us such guidance.

In contrast to Clinton, I have written a blog post on someone who did in fact become Miss Havisham. For Donald Trump, the clocks stopped the moment he won the election. Like Havisham, the remaining bloom went out of his life. Because nothing could ever match election night euphoria, he became an empty husk, always hearkening back to it. Just yesterday he retweeted a GIF of him swinging a golf club and hitting Clinton.

The fact that Clinton was able to make such a shift indicates that she has an inner compass that would have served her well as president. Her Havisham reference shows that she was never the soulless caricature people believed her to be.

Another literary allusion: This was to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

I saw a man off to the side who I thought was Reince Priebus…. We shook hands and exchanged small talk. Later I realized it hadn’t been Priebus at all. It was Jason Chaffetz, the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert who made endless political hay out of my emails and the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi.

Later Chaffetz posted a picture of our handshake with the caption, “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.” What a class act! I came this close to tweeting back, “To be honest, I thought you were Reince.”

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Rosh Hashanah: How To Make It New

Isidor Kaufmann “The New Year”

Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah begins on Tuesday, giving me an excuse to share this stimulating poem by Rachel Barenblat, keeper of the wonderfully named Velveteen Rabbi blog. The Jewish New Year, as you probably know, celebrates the day of creation, and people take the opportunity to examine their lives over the past year and repent.

In her poem, Barenblat asks what we are to make of the fact that lists this year will look pretty much the same as last year. The view of the Creation “that gleams before us” may not have changed, she writes. But we have.


By Rachel Barenblat

How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
and apologies.

We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.

But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its  magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.

We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year’s list
looks just like last.

The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.

By the time we reach the top
we’ve forgotten 
how nervous  we were
that repeating the climb
wasn’t worth the work.

Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it’s different 
from last year
but because we are

and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.

Previous posts on Rosh Hoshanah

Muriel Ruykeyser and Denise Levertov: Rosh Hashanah – A Stirring of Wonder

Marge Piercy: Rosh Hashanah – Weave Real Connections

Enid Shomer: How Rosh Hashanah Is Like Swimming

Amichai Yehuda: Theoretically, a Season for Everything

Emma Lazarus: High above Fire and Flood Ye Held the Scroll

Lucille Clifton: On 9-11 Firemen Ascended Jacob’s Ladder

Rashani: Blowing for Hope in the Face of Darkness

Alicia Ostriker: Enter the Days of Awe

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Murakami Explains Lure of Fascism

White supremacists march in Charlottesville


I’ve just finished teaching The Wild Sheep Chase in my Haruki Murakami first year seminar, and it feels like a different book following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that led to the murder of Heather Heyer.  Murakami helps us understand why some young men are drawn to fascism.

As the title indicates, the novel involves haphazard wandering. The narrator, often referred to as Boku by critics (“boku” is the informal Japanese “I”), must find his friend Rat, who has made contact with a nefarious sheep god. This god has the potential, when it finds a promising host, to take over his mind, turning him into a charismatic authoritarian. In response, society follows his lead as so many sheep.

Genghis Khan, we are told, was taken over by the sheep god, and so was “the Boss,” a character in the book that controls Japan’s advertising industry and many of its politicians but who is now dying. The sheep god sees potential in Rat, Boku’s drinking buddy, and in a very circuitous way Rat has contacted Boku in an attempt to keep from being taken over.

To capture the lure of fascism, Murakami does two things. First, he shows the sterile life that Boku and Rat are living, a life tat consists of soul-sucking office jobs, a series of meaningless relationships, and a lot of drinking in bars. Rat describes the inner weakness that the sheep god feeds on:

Weakness is something that rots in the body. Like gangrene. I’ve felt that ever since I was a teenager. That’s why I was always on edige. There’s this something inside you that’s rotting away and you feel it all along. Can you understand what that’s like?

Rat goes on to describe this weakness as moral weakness, weakness of consciousness, and “weakness of existence itself.”

Extreme ideology takes advantage of this weakness, Rat tells Boku:

“What did the sheep want of you?”

Everything. The whole lock, stock, and barrel. My body, my memory, my weakness, my contradictions…That’s the sort of stuff the sheep really goes for. The bastard’s got all sorts of feelers. It sticks them down your ears and nose like straws and sucks you dry.”

Rat doesn’t say exactly what vision the sheep uses as bait—perhaps the same vision that prompted Hitler’s followers to attend Nuremberg rallies—but he describes what if feels like:

Ând it was enough to draw me in. More than I’d care to confess. It’s not something I can explain in words. It’s like, well, like a blast furnace that smelts down everything it touches. A thing of such beauty, it drives you out of your mind. But it’s hair-raising evil. Give your body over to it and everything goes. Consciousness, values, emotions, pain, everything. Gone. What it comes closest to is a dynamo manifesting the vital force at the root of all life in one solitary point of the universe.

In other words, if you’re tormented by an aimless existence devoid of purpose, then a fascistic cleansing of the mind can resemble a blast furnace that smelts down all complexity into a single dynamo.

What saves Rat is, essentially, his acceptance of his flawed humanity. He knows he must reject fascism’s rush if he is to hold on to his soul:

“So why did you reject it?”…

“I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas—if I like these things, why should I apologize? The same with having a beer with you…”

By the end of the novel, Boku too has turned down offer to work for the shadowy corporation. Instead, he enters into Rat’s plan to make sure the corporation falls apart and then gives his earnings to help establish a communal bar. (Murakami too ran a bar/jazz club before finding success as a novelist.) Boku gets back in touch with his feelings and, like a classic existential hero, faces the future bruised but free.  Murakami concludes the novel,

I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go.

The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk.

It beats chanting “blood and soil” as you carry torches in support of Confederate statues.

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What Our Favorite Books Reveal about Us

Charlotte Weeks, “A Young Girl Reading”


In my Theories of the Reader class, I’m currently having my students write their personal reading histories. This comes after their having read two articles by Freud and an article by Freudian psychologist Norman Holland. Today I explain how these works help the students delve deeper into the meaning of their reading experiences.

In the assignment, the students are to choose three intense encounters that they have had with works of literature and figure out who they were at the time that explains why they had the experience that they did. The works are to come at different stages of their lives—I encourage them to start with a childhood reading encounter—and, in addition to explaining the reading dynamics, they must also figure out a theme that connects that three works. Drawing on Holland’s article “Unity  Identity  Text  Self,” I call this their “identity theme.”

Holland says that, just as works of literature have a unifying theme, so do people. We call this theme our “identity,” which Holland defines by quoting psychologist Heinz Lichtenstein:

When we describe the “character” or “personality” of another person, Lichtenstein shows, we abstract an invariant from “the infinite sequence of bodily and behavioral transformations during the whole life of an individual.” That is, we can be precise about individuality by conceiving of the individual as living out variations on an identity theme much as a musician might play out an infinity of variations on a single melody. We discover that underlying theme by abstracting it from its variations.

Holland wrote his essay in 1975, before the heyday of deconstruction, and we don’t make textual unity the holy grail of literary criticism anymore–just as, perhaps, psychologists don’t still look for a single identity within an individual. Still, even deconstructionists look for an attempted unity, even if only to then blow it up. (Deconstruction’s characteristic move is to show how a seemingly unified text unravels or contains fault lines that have been “sutured.”) In the assignment, I find it useful to have the students look for a central drama to their lives, one which has continued from their childhood to the present day. They often find it clarifying to realize that a childhood struggle is still playing itself out in their lives 15 or 20 years later. At the very least, this is one of their identities.

Holland says that readers replicate their identity in the act of reading:

As readers, each of us will bring different kinds of external information to bear. Each will seek out the particular themes that concern him. Each will have different ways of making the text into an experience with a coherence and significance that satisfies.

Much of Holland’s work has been to explore how this act of replication works. In Poems in Persons, for instance, he shows how different interpretations of a single work can be traced back to the different identities of the readers. In my own assignment, I have the students choose different works—ones with which they have had a strong encounter, whether positive or negative—and then, in the final analysis, find a connecting theme in the reactions they had to those works.

I can report that a theme always emerges. Sometimes it is very clear, as when, say, people uncomfortable with the tradition expectations assigned to their gender find themselves drawn to characters who transgress gender norms. This can be such a painful struggle that the stories and poems they find are immensely reassuring. Likewise, it is not uncommon to find women students identifying a longing to be strong as their identity theme after they have examined their works and reactions. Other identity themes are harder to ferret out, sometimes because the student hasn’t provided enough biographical background or enough detail about the reading experiences. Sometimes it takes a revision to find clarity.

Freud’s essay “The Poet and Daydreaming” proves useful in helping the students understand the meaning of childhood stories. Freud says that, when they play, children are essentially creative writers:

Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it.

One way children to play is by listening to stories. When children demand that their parents read them a particular book 25 or 50 times, they are looking for answers to life’s critical problems as they experience them. Once the issue no longer seems so critical, children will suddenly lose all interest in the story.

While the issues may change as we grow older, our underlying identities don’t. What we find pleasurable remains constant, Freud say. Instead of abandoning our childhood pleasures, we find find adult substitutes or surrogates:

But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams. I believe that most people construct phantasies at times in their lives.

Extending this observation to the act of reading, we can say that, having once enjoyed reading as children, we never give it up but seek for the same pleasure in adult substitutes. One reason my students can find themes through works read at different points in time is because the later books bear some relationship to the earlier ones. It’s just that, having bigger minds now, they demand more complex literary experiences.

In “Poets and Daydreaming,” Freud boils our daydreams—and I would add, our reading wishes—down to two: ambitious wishes and erotic wishes. These, he believes, are gendered male and female, and before we reject his bifurcation too quickly as a 19th century holdover, it’s worth noting that men still lean toward action adventure and women toward romance (although this is gradually changing).

The more important point for my students is that they search out the wishes within their reading experiences.

But wishes aren’t the whole story, as Freud himself came to realize. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he grappled with the fact that we don’t only fantasize wishes but also anxieties. He discovered this from studying the PTSD nightmares of World War I veterans, in which they revisited their trench experiences.

Bringing the fantasy closer to home, Freud tells the story of a child, otherwise well behaved, who was obsessed with throwing toys. In doing so, Freud says, he was replaying the story of abandonment by the mother. Since no fear goes deeper, why would a child replay it, shouting “fort” (gone) as the toy disappeared? Freud also witnessed a variant: the child had a reel attached to a string, which he would first disappear (“fort”) and then retrieve (“da” or “there”). The child would replay the fort/da story and over.

Freud proffers several explanations, but one is that, by articulating his anxiety with the “fort” game, the boy reassured himself that he had control over the situation. He, rather than the mother, determined when the disappearance occurred.

With the fort/da variant, meanwhile, anxieties are followed by reassurance of a happy ending. We visit the fear but then console ourselves that a satisfactory resolution is possible. When we grow up, we never tire of this story, although we do insist on more complexity.

I therefore tell my students to look for the anxieties in their reading experiences as well as the wishes. If we are reading to survive the natural shocks that flesh is heir to, we must revisit those shocks to fully appreciate literature’s power.

When the assignment succeeds, the students come away with a deeper appreciation for the gift of literature. After all, time and again it stepped up to support them in their times of direst need.

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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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