Fantasy, a Portal to the Numinous

Stevens, Watson in “Beauty and the Beast”

Spiritual Sunday

I’m on my way back home today after attending the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, where I learned a lot. For one thing, I’m much clearer about how spiritual hunger is one thing that drives readers to fantasy.

A panel discussion on “What Makes Fantasy Epic” spoke to this, as did a paper on Philip Pullman. In the first, Christine Mains reported that her students believe that epic fantasy must have gods. This speaks to a desire for some kind of transcendental meaning. The stakes are always high in epic fantasy—the fate of the world hangs in the balance—so what individuals do makes a difference. There is a clear purpose to their lives.

Panelist and fantasy author Brian Steveley observed that, unlike novels such as Jude the Obscure and McCarthy’s The Road, fantasy epics never leave him questioning whether he should get up in the morning. One audience member noted that fantasy epics—at least the popular ones—don’t leave one with feelings of existential dread.

Existential dread is more the specialty of the gothic, about which I heard several presentations. But that’s a post for another day.

One knows that Odysseus’s journey is significant because Zeus declares it to be so at the beginning of the epic. While listening to the panel, I thought about Georg Lukacs’s Theory of the Novel, where he sees the novel as the form the epic takes in a world where God is no longer tangibly present. Sometimes we sense the presence of divine providence at work in early novels–this explains Charles Dickens’s love of coincidence–but we no longer see an Odysseus conversing with Athena. Or, to cite a later epic, Adam talking to the angels Raphael and Michael.

As the rise of the novel coincided with the Enlightenment and the various knowledge and technological revolutions, it’s worth turning here to another theorist mentioned by a presenter. Charles Taylor has traced an evolution from enchantment to disenchantment to re-enchantment in modern Europe. When science threw out the occult, superstition, and sometimes religion itself, we were left hungry for spiritual mystery. Fantasy stepped in to fill the void.

Presenter Franziska Burstyn argued that this is the trajectory of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In addition to quoting Taylor, Burstyn also mentioned Harmut Rosa, who talks about the movement from alienation to resonance. Taylor’s model is more linear, she noted, while Rosa’s is cyclical.

I have strongly criticized Pullman’s attacks on Christianity—I think he constructs a caricature of the religion—but I agree with Burstyn that he uses animal daemons and angels to capture what it would be like to have a tangible relationship with the supernatural. That’s in large part what draws us to the books. Eventually Lyra becomes a new Eve, and love and maturity are re-enchanted.

I appreciated Burstyn quoting C.S. Lewis (whom Pullman can’t stand) in articulating how fantasy gets at our spiritual longing. Lewis writes,

It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for [the child] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.

Speaking of fairyland and enchantment, Julia and I watched the latest Beauty and the Beast Friday night, and, although it doesn’t approach Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version—one of my all-time favorite films—there is sweet scene where poetry itself “makes all real woods a little enchanted.” The bookish Belle is reading 19th-century Scottish poet William Sharp’s “A Crystal Forest” to the Beast, which causes him to see the winter landscape as though for the first time. It’s a re-enchantment of his grey existence:

A Crystal Forest

By William Sharp

The air is blue and keen and cold,
With snow the roads and fields are white
But here the forest’s clothed with light
And in a shining sheath enrolled.
Each branch, each twig, each blade of grass,
Seems clad miraculously with glass:
Above the ice-bound streamlet bends
Each frozen fern with crystal ends.

So we read fantasy, we watch Beauty and the Beast, and we read poetry and literature to re-enchant our lives. Fantasy lit gives us intimations of the numinous.

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Women Battling the Marriage Plot

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


In my “Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy” class, we have been talking a lot about courtship and marriage. It’s been fascinating to see how the male and the female authors treat the subject differently.

Feminist scholars often talk about the marriage plot and the quest plot and how difficult it is for men and women to cross over. As one scholar puts it,

[In the 18th century one finds] a contradiction between love and quest, novel and fantasy, between what Du Plessis labels “bildung” and romance…What one quickly discovers is that one cannot have both love and quest, both selflessness and selfishness. The two texts—male and female—cannot exist simultaneously. The woman cannot be both selfless martyr to the man and true to herself. The quest that the female character wants to participate in is impossible and incompatible with the successful courtship and marriage that she must participate in. As Du Plessis concludes: “Quest for women was thus finite; we learn that any plot of self realization was at the service of the marriage plot and was subordinate to, or covered within, the magnet power of that ending.”

While the marriage plot may initially seem to affirm a woman’s worth—Cinderella is validated by the prince choosing her over all other women—it is at the price of her accepting the patriarchal agenda. Her ultimate fulfillment lies in her selflessly becoming his helpmeet. Whatever selfish desires she herself had—making her own choice of a mate—must end when she becomes a wife.

One sees a dramatic contrast in the male bildungsroman (formation story). David Copperfield pursues his ambition and then signals his worldly achievement by marrying the proper woman. She is the sign that he has matured and is prepared to become a pillar of society.

In the Restoration, however, marriage was seen with such suspicion that the male quest often took the form of seduction, not final marriage. Manhood was asserted by chasing after women and was validated by their surrender. The quintessential rake of the age, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, railed against anything that got in the way of this quest, including morality, convention, and vows of constancy. He was especially critical of marriage, which he regarded as a bankrupt institution that prevents men from following their natural desires.

William Wycherley puts a Wilmot figure at the heart of The Country Wife, with Horner declaring a war on marriage. His quest is to expose society’s hypocrisy, and he has found an ingenious way—he pretends that venereal disease has made him impotent—to penetrate the households of even the most jealous husbands. After “abusing the husbands,” he easily disabuses their frustrated wives. His name indicates that he plants invisible cuckold horns on husbands’ heads.

To John Wilmot’s credit, he thought that women had a right to follow their natural desires as much as men did. “But did you love your pleasure less,/ You were no match for me,” he says in “Epistle to a Lady,” before concluding,

Whilst I my pleasure to pursue,
Whole nights am taking in
The lusty juice of grapes, take you
The juice of lusty men.

A number of women writers were more than willing to take up Wilmot’s challenge. Aphra Behn’s Helena in The Rover is drawn to the rake Wilmore and rebels against her family’s plans to make her a nun, engaging in masquerade to track him down. She also realizes, however, that women face a special set of obstacles. While she knows that she will appear a prude if she insists upon the marriage plot with Wilmore, without it in she could end up with “a cradle full of mischief and a pack of repentance on my back.”

To resolve what appears to be an impossible dilemma, she works to redefine marriage itself: she envisions a marriage that resembles perpetual courtship, with all the excitement and uncertainty of a quest. If she is “Helena the Inconstant,” her husband will never be sure of her.

That’s one way that a woman imagines herself engaging in the quest plot. Eliza Heywood too refuses to dwindle into either wife or (if the genre is melodrama rather than comedy) victimized woman. In Fantomina, her heroine doesn’t chastise her lover for his inconstancy—his perpetual questing—but comes up instead with an ingenious plan. Every time her lover gets tired of her, she changes her identity and seduces him all over again. At one point she’s a courtesan, at another a maid, at another a widow, and finally a lady.

Unfortunately, she can’t solve the biology problem mentioned by Helena, becoming pregnant after the fourth seduction. Also, her mother returns to town so that she can no longer escape her chaperone. At this point we expect the story to revert to the marriage plot but, to Haywood’s credit, the story doesn’t end with the man making everything all right. Instead, Fantomina’s mother sends her to a convent.

This sounds like a tragedy, but Haywood scholars Anna Patchias and Margaret Case Croskery believe that Fantomina has just found another way to pursue her sexual quest, one less confining than marriage:

The heroine’s relocation to a monastery might seem to signal the end of her sexual adventures, but another early modern literary mode—titillating stories about nuns—complicates this assumption. For example, Barrin’s(?) Venus in the Cloister offers a risqué account of life in a convent. Haywood, like Barrin(?), Behn, and other predecessors, was not slow to exploit the topos of the attractive nun. The durability of stories about nuns may help explain why the nun’s habit was one of the most popular costumes at masquerade assemblies.

I particularly enjoy the lover’s confusion. If man assert their manhood through their conquests, then what kind of a man gets out-raked by a woman:

[H]e took his leave, full of cogitations, more confused than ever he had known in his whole life.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu also finds a way to own her own sexual desiring. In “The Lover,” she mentions male seduction arguments and then turns them on their head. If she doesn’t give into men, she says, it’s not because she is prude or “a virgin in lead.” It’s just that she hasn’t found a man yet who is up to her standards. The men are the problem, not her.

Should she ever find a worthy man, she promises not to hold back. In fact, she’s very explicit about how far she will go:

But when the long hours of public are past,
And we meet with champagne and a chicken at last,
May ev’ry fond pleasure that moment endear;
Be banished afar both discretion and fear!
Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud.
Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive. 

Montagu herself had lovers, so she attempted to live what she described. She was well aware of society’s double standards on this score, however, and she also has a poem, “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” which lays out what could happen to a wife who honored her own desires. Mrs. Yonge’s husband was notoriously unfaithful, but when she herself took a lover, he successfully sued for divorce and ended up with her dowery and a fair portion of her fortune. No comic ending there.

So there you have the first half of my course. I’ll share next week what playwrights Susan Centlivre and Hannah Cowley add to the conversation. Neither is entirely able to escape the marriage plot but they dance around it in some very interesting ways.

Give women the pen and they start poking holes in male certainties.

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Why the Alt-Right Austen Takeover Will Fail

Jane Austen


What are we to make of American fascists appropriating Jane Austen? That was the subject of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by University of Colorado English professor Nicole Wright, who has found multiple examples. The appropriations alternate between the horrifying and the hilarious, but they raise the legitimate question of who gets to define an author.

Here’s some of what Wright discovered when she started digging around:

To my surprise, invocations of Austen popped up in many alt-right online venues. Venturing into the mire, I found that there are several variations of alt-right Jane Austen: 1) symbol of sexual purity; 2) standard-bearer of a vanished white traditional culture; and 3) exception that proves the rule of female inferiority.

An instance of the first is a Daily Stormer blog post that associates singer Taylor Swift, who exudes “1950s purity, femininity, and innocence,” with Austen and then contrasts them both with Miley Cyrus:

[Swift] is the anti-Miley. While Miley is out having gang-bangs with colored gentlemen, she is at home with her cat reading Jane Austen.

Wright observes,

Here Austen’s fiction serves as an escape portal from today’s Babylonian sexual excess to a vaguely delineated (1800s through 1950s) mythical era when women were wholesome and chaste.

Wright found Austen doing similar symbolic work for another fascist blog:

This view of Austen as an avatar of a superior bygone era is linked not only with fantasies of female retreat from the sexual whirl, but also with calls for white separatism. On the popular blog of the alt-right publisher Counter-Currents, the world of Austen’s novels is extolled as a prototype for the “racial dictatorship” of tomorrow. One commenter wrote, “If, after the ethnostate is created, we revert back to an Austen-like world, we males ought to endure severe sacrifices as well. … If traditional marriage à la P&P [Pride and Prejudice] is going to be imposed, again, in an ethnostate, we must behave like gentlemen.”

Wright doesn’t take the alt-right appropriation of Austen lightly:

By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cozy England of Austen — a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following — the alt-right normalizes itself in the eyes of ordinary people. It also subtly panders to the nostalgia of the Brexiters, with their vision of a better, bygone Britain. Such references nudge readers who happen upon alt-right sites to think that perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folks.

I’m not surprised that the alt-right can cite Austen for its purpose. If the greatest literary works are those that approximate the complexity of life, then one can find all kinds of support for one’s political positions, just as one does with life in general. For instance, if you believe that a woman’s highest destiny is to marry, then Austen’s novels can be interpreted as lending support to that view of the world. An apparent message of Pride and Prejudice—if you are beautiful and intelligent enough you will become mistress of an estate—doesn’t gibe well with feminism.

On the other hand, you can also see Austen’s novels as stories of women struggling for autonomy and doing their best with a limited set of options. Austen clearly is upset with a society that supports Collins’s and Willoughby’s sense of male entitlement. Fanny Price empathizes with the slaves on Sir Bertram’s plantation because she sees herself as a kind of slave, and Anne Elliot makes a strong case for women writers. These are not views that would go down well with the alt-right.

While fascist readings of Austen are out of bounds, I can understand conservative interpretations of the author. Rudyard Kipling helps us sympathize with his short story “The Janeites.” Setting it in the World War I trenches, Kipling depicts soldiers turning to Jane Austen’s novels in a desperate nostalgia for an England that is being blasted away. Class society, as defined by Darcy, Knightley and even Sir Thomas Bertram, seems far preferable to the anarchy that has been unleashed by the guns of August. Jane Austen in such situations becomes a refuge from modernism.

I think the Austen revival of the 1990’s—which has continued unabated ever since—has a similar explanation. Now her novels have become a refuge, for some, from multiculturalism and globalization. During the Reagan and Bush presidencies, William Bennett and the National Endowment for the Humanities saw Austen as a bulwark to shore up Western Culture against barbarian hoards. “Austen, not Alice Walker,” they proclaimed as they attacked college English professors for surrendering the canon to new voices.

Of course, as one of those professors I didn’t agree. In my eyes, Bennet & Co. might just as well have proclaimed, “Sense, not Sensibility” or “Elinor, not Marianne” as they elevated decorum and stability above the struggles of the heroines. Sometimes they sounded a lot like Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, full of pretension but with little substance. Austen is a complex mixture of conservative and liberal beliefs and doesn’t march comfortably under anyone’s flag.

Since I personally prioritize individual expression over social order—people having the freedom and the support to step into their fullest selves—I believe great authors cannot be anything but progressive. The respect that our greatest authors have for truth means that a work cannot be reduced to a fascist slogan.

Within my framework, there is room for debate about how to achieve that freedom and support. Cases can be made for communism, socialism, liberal capitalism, and traditional conservatism. But not for coercive authoritarianism or fascism. Those political philosophies invariably fail to do justice to either human beings or to literature.

Which means that the alt-right will always be wrong about Jane Austen. Case closed.

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Desire Intensified by Separation

Irons, Streep in “French Lieutenant’s Woman”


I am in the final days of a two-week visit from Julia, who has been living with my mother in Sewanee, Tennessee and commuting to Suwanee, Georgia to take care of our three granddaughters. The visit comes after two months apart, and it will be another two months before we see each other again. Helping me get through our long separations is a literary passage I encountered when I was a sophomore in college.

I started reading John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) when I was in bed with a cold while studying abroad in Normandy. From the get-go, I was riveted. The year was 1971 and the sexual revolution was in full sway, which helps explain why the passage struck me so hard.

Pondering Victorian attitudes towards sexuality in one of his reflective chapters, Fowles aims to overturn various stereotypes. For instance:

I sometimes wonders [if we are not led] into the error of supposing the Victorians were not in fact highly sexed. But they were quite as highly sexed as our own century—and in spite of the fact that we have sex thrown at us night and day (as the Victorians had religion), far more preoccupied with it than we really are. They were certainly preoccupied by love, and devoted far more of their arts to it than we do ours.

In describing the encounter between Charles and “the French lieutenant’s woman,” Fowles notes that the sexual excitement is far more keen than it would be were it were not forbidden. He talks of “the interesting ratio…between the desire and the ability to fulfill it”:

Here again we may believe we come off much better than our great-grandparents. But the desire is conditioned by the frequency it is evoked: our world spends a vast amount of its time inviting us to copulate, while our reality is as busy in frustrating us. We are not so frustrated as the Victorians? Perhaps. But if you can only enjoy one apple a day, there’s a great deal to be said against living in an orchard of the wretched things; you might even find apples sweeter if you were allowed only one a week.

So it seems very far from sure that the Victorians did not experience a much keener, because less frequent, sexual pleasure than we do; and that they were not dimly aware of this, and so chose a convention of suppression, repression and silence to maintain the keenness of the pleasure.

I can see now why I would have been attracted to the passage in 1971: the sexual revolution may have been underway but I couldn’t figure out how to sign up. Fowles provided poetic consolation.

Now the passage speaks to the ways in which Julia’s absence makes my heart grow fonder. The scarcity of apples means that our sporadic forays into the orchard are all the more delicious.

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Trump as Lear, Howling in the Storm

Johann Ramberg, “King Lear”


Maureen Dowd of The New York Times recently made a comparison that has also come to my mind: Donald Trump as King Lear. The comparison has the virtue of providing insight into both Trump and the play.

First, here’s Dowd:

Consumed by his paranoia about the deep state, Donald Trump has disappeared into the fog of his own conspiracy theories. As he rages in the storm, Lear-like, howling about poisonous fake news, he is spewing poisonous fake news.

To capture the flavor, here’s Lear howling in the storm:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

So how are Lear and Trump similar? First, both are insecure narcissists (which is redundant), obsessed with how others see them. As a result, both do all they can to create their own realities.

Lear, an aging man afraid of dying, engineers it so that he people will tell him what he wants to hear. His elder daughters, like the GOP Congress, are only too willing to oblige. What’s wrong with a little “truthful hyperbole” if it gets you half of a kingdom? Or tax cuts for the rich?

Lear is able to control his reality as long as he holds onto power, and I suspect the same will be true of Trump. If he were to be impeached, I suspect he’d find himself alone in an inner storm. Perhaps he would go off the rails even more than he already has.

Lear can’t reconcile himself to his new powerlessness. Look at how he addresses the storm—it’s as though he has convinced himself that he can command the elements. A little while later, he imagines bringing his daughters to justice in a court he sets up. It’s not until he hits rock bottom and goes entirely mad that he is able to open himself to love.

I sometimes ask my students what Lear’s life would have been like had Cordelia told him what he wanted to hear. Possibly he would have spent his final days carousing with his knights in her basement and would have died without ever experiencing his moment of deep connection with her.

He is lucky because her integrity goes so deep that she refuses to feed him bullshit, regardless of the consequences. In the end, her sacrifice saves his soul, and his final hours with her are the happiest of his life. I suspect he wouldn’t trade those hours for anything in the world.

There appears to be no one in Trump’s bubble willing to make the same sacrifice, which means that he may end up spending his final days friendless and alone, perhaps at Mar-a-Lago. His favorite movie is Citizen Kane and that’s certainly how Kane ends up. Believe it or not, there are worse ways to go out than the way that Lear does.

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Democrats Have Dickens, GOP Ayn Rand

Tiny Tim


Donald Trump has released his proposed budget and it’s taking me back to the early days of the Reagan administration, when Budget Director David Stockman tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable (I suppose so that schools wouldn’t have to pay for peas or carrots). I blame Ayn Rand more than Trump, however, since it sounds like the GOP is still in her thrall. The slashing of governmental programs and benefits has long been high on the list of what Charlie Pierce of Esquire calls “the firm of Scrooge and Marley.”

Here’s Paul Waldman with a partial list of what the Trump administration “would like to scale back or end altogether“:

–Giving school lunches to hungry kids
–Providing after-school programs
–Feeding elderly people who can’t leave their homes
–Providing food assistance and support for low-income women with young children
–Supporting economic development in rural communities
–Cleaning up environmental damage
–Providing a national service program for young people to help communities around the country
–Working to stop climate change
–Conducting research to find cures for diseases
–Giving grants to libraries and museums
–Helping people afford housing
–Saving consumers money and helping the environment through the EnergyStar program
–Doing cutting-edge research on new sources of energy
–Helping to build roads and public transit systems
–Providing funds to local police departments to prevent terrorist attacks
–Conducting diplomacy to advance American interests around the world

In addition to these cuts is House Speaker Paul Ryan’s dream of slashing Medicaid:

Speaking to National Review editor Rich Lowry at an event hosted by the conservative magazine, House Speaker Paul Ryan made the case for the American Health Care Act by presenting it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cut Medicaid spending.

“We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around,” Ryan says, before interrupting himself to clarify exactly how big of an opportunity this is, “since you and I were drinking out of kegs.”

To which Vox’s Matt Yglesias responded,

Imagine having the chance to finally achieve your youthful dream of kicking poor people off health care.

Ryan is famously an Ayn Rand devotee and used to give all his staff copies of The Fountainhead  and Atlas Shrugged. Now, I can forgive Ryan for his Rand fixation when he was a college student attending keggers—young people fall in love with big ideas, especially those that challenge them to be tough and make it on their own. We expect adults to be more mature, however. In that light, it’s always worth quoting Canadian author John Rogers’s cutting observation about teenagers who fall in love with Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Although Ryan claims to care about the poor, his keg reminiscence fits a pattern of other emotionally-stunted comments he’s made over the years. Remember when he described free school lunches as offering kids “a full stomach and an empty soul”?  Or when he warned about the danger of turning the safety net into a hammock.

Some wonder whether Ryan is furious that he himself needed social security survivor benefits to attend college. Maybe he was so ashamed that he feels the continual need to lash out at such programs. Whatever the explanation, his and Trump’s program-cutting fervor calls for the author whose novels, more than any other, led policy makers to develop such programs. You know who I have in mind:

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again. “And the Union workhouses,” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

A version of Scrooge’s logic is at work in Ryan’s American Healthcare Act, which projects that premiums will go down–but that’s just because those between 50-65 will start dropping out because their premiums will skyrocket. Ryan doesn’t believe that the young and healthy should help pay for the old and sick, and he doesn’t believe that the government should help people. Including Tiny Tim.

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Our Second Self, the Woman at the Well

(after) C. C. Moeyaert, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”

Spiritual Sunday

“Healing water” is the focus of today’s liturgical readings, which include Moses finding water in the desert and Jesus encountering “the woman at the well.” Poet Carolyne Wright’s moving poem transforms the Samaritan woman into a composite figure of all women who are searching for the divine within our profane world.

In the Biblical story, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman spiritual water:

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:5-15)

In Wright’s poem, the woman at the well appears to be reflecting upon her “weed-choked” life, into which “brackish water” has been seeping for a long time. (The purifying “rains of bygone eras” are a distant childhood memory.) Yet she senses a deeper truth behind what passes for reality. Jesus points out cracks in that reality, “artesian fault lines,” so that she dreams of “Chaldean fountains, oases of date palms and minarets.” Jacob’s Well holds out the promise of something more.

In her vision she is both the Virgin Mary visited by Gabriel and Jacob witnessing angels ascending and descending. While her surface identity may be Samaritan, to pull aside the veil is to acknowledge a transcendental soul. This is the “second self” that the woman senses as she gazes into the well.

We whose wisdom cuts us off from the divine–Wright calls us “artisans of sorrow”–should be prepared to sit down with this flawed woman, who is thirsty for something more and who is a version of ourselves. Time and again in the gospels, Jesus reveals that God chooses unlikely but very specific vessels (fallen women, tax collectors) to point to the presence of the transcendent within the finite.  This is “mystery’s precision.”

Wright informs us that her poem is a “ghazal,” which (to quote Wikipedia) is “a poetic form with rhyming couplets and a refrain, each line sharing the same meter.” The Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, to whom this poem is dedicated, introduced the ghazal to English audiences.

Ghazal: Woman at the Well

By Carolyne Wright

In this late season, who is the woman at the well
drawing water, reflecting on the woman at the well?

Millennial fissures in the well-rim, weed-choked cracks
where brackish water rises for the woman at the well.

At the bottom of the well shaft, the sky’s reflective eye
opens, closes on the shadow of the woman at the well.

Where are the rains of bygone eras? Preterite weather
yields more rusted bucketsful for the woman at the well.

Ancestral well of Jacob, where a weary traveler rests,
where Jesus asks for water from the woman at the well.

Oh plane trees of Samaria, in whose shade a stranger
speaks of artesian fault lines to the woman at the well!

Chaldean fountains, oases of date palms and minarets—
how they flourish in the dreams of the woman at the well!

Mirages of marble, pomegranate flowers, cedars of Baalbek
shimmer in the sight of the woman at the well.

On the night of destiny, the angel Gabriel descends
and hovers by the footprints of the woman at the well.

Jacob’s ladder leans against the door of heaven—
on the bottom rung, the woman at the well.

Women of Sychar, women of Shechem! Draw aside your veils,
reveal the features of the woman at the well.

Wise ones, why do you weep? Do you fear your fate
tips a mirror toward the woman at the well?

Oh artisan of sorrow, mystery’s precision, sit down
beside your sister, second self, the woman at the well.

In memoriam Agha Shahid Ali

Further thought: The repeated phrase in the second line, a characteristic of many ghazal poems, has the effect of emphasizing the spiritual truth about herself that the woman senses but doesn’t at first own. To better understand the effect, I turn to to Lucille Clifton’s “the light that came to lucille clifton,” which concludes,

but the light insists on itself in the world;
a voice from the nondead past started talking,
she closed her ears and it spelled out in her hand
“you might as well answer the door, my child,
the truth is furiously knocking.”

The repetition in Wright’s poem is the truth knocking. Jesus is a prophet because he alerts the woman to a truth she has always known.

Previously published:

Chaucer’s Riff on the Woman at the Well

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RIP, GOP Insurance Plan

Paul Ryan introduces the GOP Obamacare replacement

Sometimes Saturday

My friend Rachel Kranz sent along a piece of doggerel about the GOP replacement plan for Obamacare, a.k.a. Ryancare. Or Trumpcare. Or, as the poem puts it, RIP.

We don’t know yet if reports of its death are exaggerated but, for the 24 million that may stand to lose health insurance, there are hopeful signs that the AHCA is going down. Rachel says she owes the first two lines to a Deborah May Newell Facebook post. She also notes that the predicted death toll from repealing Obamacare is 24,000 (one study puts the figure as high as 43,000), but the number wouldn’t scan. 20,000 get across the same point:

The Republican Insurance Plan

By Rachel Kranz

The Republican Insurance Plan
A.k.a. RIP
Will not protect the Rights of Man,
Nor fill the Boston Bay with Tea,
Nor help us in our swift Pursuit
Of Happiness, or Property
(Except the upper one percent
Whose tax breaks are emolument
For those whose gifts were not found meet
To justify a Cabinet seat)—

The Republican Insurance Plan 
Will serve the great god Than-
Atos with merriment and glee, 
As profits in a fever rise
(With 20,000 yearly deaths
Of those who with their dying breaths
Shall sing the praise of Fountainhead
And Ryan’s wish to have them dead.)

The Republican Insurance Plan
Will do the very best it can
To ever guarantee
The market’s health, Investors’ wealth
(While old and young compete to die
Before their premiums get too high, 
Concluding from the Congress’ strife:
Ah, no entitlement to life!)

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Resolving Shakespeare’s Shrew Problem

Synetic Theater version of “Taming of the Shrew”


St. Mary’s is currently on fall break and, to celebrate, Julia and I joined friends at a Taming of the Shrew production by Crystal City, Virginia’s Synetic Theater. Synetic is famous for producing non-verbal versions of Shakespeare plays—they resort to movement, acrobatics, dance, and special visual effects—and its version thoroughly energized us.

Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays (I wrote about another recently), so I was interested to see how the troupe would handle it. Just as we worry that Shakespeare endorses anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice, so we worry that he endorses misogyny in Shrew. To salvage the play, productions will sometimes contend that Kate only performs an ironic surrender at the end. Some even have her and Petrucchio exchanging knowing winks as she abases herself while chastising the other wives for not slavishly obeying their husbands’ frivolous demands:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you forward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

I must say that I see no way to read this passage against the grain. I find Kate a much less interesting character than, say, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who is thoroughly confused in how she should respond to a patriarchal society that condemns her for being a brash, independent woman. Sometimes the Wife strikes back directly, sometimes she rebels in subversive ways, and sometimes she tries to conform to the patriarchal program, only to erupt when she realizes that a woman can never surrender enough. The power of Chaucer’s portrayal lies in her thrashing around.

Kate, on the other hand, seems clearly to have signed on to a male fantasy of gender roles, as though she was just waiting for a suitor manly enough to put her in her place. Every woman loves a fascist, I imagine her saying.

This is a “problem” because, in most of his plays—certainly in his greatest plays—Shakespeare creates such three-dimensional characters that they resist ideological stereotyping. Normally, the Bard is not of an age but of all time. To cite one example, Twelfth Night is a dazzling exploration of the complexities of gender identity.

So to suddenly see Shakespeare indulging in a male fantasy while failing to acknowledge a woman’s full humanity is disturbing. Whatever his beliefs—in their daily lives Shakespeare and Chaucer were probably men of their times—his artistry usually takes him to a deeper place. But not, I think, in this case.

Synetic Theater solved the problem by adding a few softening touches and changing the ending. (It’s easier to pull this off if you’re not tied to Shakespeare’s actual words.) We are given an explanation for some of Kate’s hardness—she lost her mother—and for Petruchio’s as well—he’s an artist in a slump. Their back and forth, therefore, become a version of all the struggles a couple go through in adjusting to a marriage. The marital fireworks serve to lower inhibitions and make possible an exchange of vulnerabilities.

In the end, Petruchio is chastened when Kate walks out on him (not an option in Elizabethan England), and Kate is won over when she learns that she has reignited Petruchio’s creativity (she discovers he has painted large portraits of her.) Having watched them achieve an egalitarian balance, we can believe they will live happily ever after.

In a relationship, negotiations between people take crazy twists and turns as the couple grapples with social expectations, family histories, and the individuality of the other. The Syncretic production may not have had Shakespeare’s gorgeous language, but it did a better job with gender balance.

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Reading Aloud, Shared Intimacy

Reading to Alban, Esmé, and Etta


I recently came across a lovely article on the joys of reading aloud. As one who has long loved to be read to and who loves reading to others, I can testify to its observations.

Annie Hartnett records multiple instances where reading aloud enhanced her life. First, there was a woman who set up a reading group for the children of the neighborhood:

It…never felt like we were being babysat. I was keenly aware that Mrs. Cris was not being paid, and I felt she was not doing this as a favor for our parents (although, of course, I know my mother appreciated the time off); instead I was sure that Mrs. Cris was doing it because she wanted to spend time with us. She was not a teacher, not a relative; she was my first adult friend.

In her teenage years, Hartnett loved being read to in class:

Reading club fell apart somewhere in middle school, when soccer practice and clarinet lessons and trips to the mall took up all our after school time. But I still liked to be read to, and I liked to read aloud, even during the awkward, moody teenage years to come. I loved when we read plays in English class, because we’d do a read through of the whole thing. I was too shy to audition for the high school play, but I thought I was a very memorable Martha when our senior English class read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

In college, reading aloud created bonds with a roommate:

Often, before bed, I would read Jess poems from my Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Of course, it seems a little pretentious to me now, except that I wasn’t doing it as any kind of performance. It was just something I’d learned that friends do for one another, something that brings you closer.

Reading aloud also helped Hartnett to warm up to Jess’s boyfriend in later years. Harnett read them the George Saunders short story “Sea Oak” and got the following response:

“I didn’t really like your friend until she read us the story,” Jess’s boyfriend would tell her later, and she’d pass that on to me.

“I wasn’t sure if I liked him either,” I teased.

But I have a theory on why her boyfriend liked me by the end of “Sea Oak:” in order to understand a story that is read aloud, you must listen intently. Your mind cannot wander, you must concentrate on the words. Listening to someone read out loud is like that experiment where you stare into another person’s eyes for four minutes and by the end, you’re in love with that person. It’s too intimate an experience to share with someone you dislike.

Hartnett worked for a while in a bookstore and heard many authors give readings:

Most times, when authors left the store after a reading, I felt like they were a new friend, even if I’d barely spoken to them. Every time I hand-sold one of their books afterwards, I felt a sense of personal pride, as if my distant cousin had written the book I’d recommended, as if I was keeping the royalty checks in the family.

Reading aloud also helped her marriage when it was going through a rough patch:

My husband lay on the floor underneath the loveseat where I perched…and he listened as I read. He didn’t play around on his phone. When we went to bed that night, I felt like we’d solved something. I didn’t feel so sad, and somehow life didn’t feel as meaningless. It was a way to connect that I’d forgotten about. It launched something healing for me, like a heaping serving of a comfort food. It was a bonding tool I’d been taught when I was young…

When I’m with my grandchildren, reading aloud is also my own go-to activity (see photo above). Alban, Esmé, Etta and I are all on the same plane when we are immersed in the rhythms of Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak. The experience never gets old.

Recently I participated in a read-aloud day at a Spring Ridge Middle School class as part of their African American History Month activities and had a similar experience. I read poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Quincy Troupe, and Nikki Giovanni and, except for Troupe’s “Take It to the Hoop, Magic Johnson”–which they liked at first but then found too long–they were immersed. They especially enjoyed the mix-ups in Giovanni’s  “I Wrote a Good Omelet”:

I wrote a good omelet…and ate
a hot poem… after loving you

Buttoned my car…and drove my
coat home…in the rain…
after loving you

I goed on red…and stopped on
green…floating somewhere in between…
being here and being there…
after loving you

I rolled my bed…turned down
my hair…slightly
confused but…I don’t care…

Laid out my teeth…and gargled my
gown…then I stood
…and laid me down…
To sleep…
after loving you

Expect the same intense interactions when you read aloud in your adult relationships. Many Victorians, including George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, read to each other before the hearth. When Julia was going through a long labor with our oldest son, I recited to her long narrative poems, like Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Edward Lear’s The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. My colleagues Jackie and Alan Paskow, when Alan was still alive, would devote summers working through novels like War and Peace.

As I think about how reading aloud enhances intimacy, I would add “shared vulnerability” to Hartnett’s explanation. Reading literature opens up aspects of us that are normally hidden, and when we read aloud, we share that hidden side with another. Reading aloud, in other words, resembles an act of love: for a space of time, we abandon our customary defenses and make connections that are otherwise difficult to access.

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The Work of the World Is Common as Mud

Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nevernais (1849)


Washington Monthly columnist Nancy LeTourneau recently shared a wonderful Marge Piercy poem as she endorsed a slow and steady approach to political change. Real improvement, she says, involves long and grinding work—which means that Obamacare may survive GOP attacks. One bill, after all, was hammered out in a painstaking year-long process where every major health constituency was consulted. The other was thrown together quickly behind closed doors to convince the Republican base that their lawmakers would keep their promise to repeal-and-replace.

LeTourneau writes,

Years ago, I decided to adopt the tortoise as my totem. That was primarily based on an awareness that both my personal and professional life had taught me that “slow and steady wins the race.” I had come to be skeptical of anyone who promised that big gains could be achieved fast. Personally that was a result of believing and then being disappointed. Professionally I saw that anything short of slow sustained progress could be just as easily undone as it was accomplished in the first place.

The visionaries I worked with professionally would often see a lack of commitment in my attachment to slow and steady. But the opposite was actually true. I came to value the idea of digging into the trenches to understand what specific strategies could actually advance our goals, lay them out in logical order, and then maintain my commitment regardless of what it took to get there.

This vision of political change, LeTourneau says, it what draws her to Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use”:

To Be of Use

By Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

LeTourneau notes that this approach

is less valued in our culture that demands quick fixes. But it is what many of the people who have been responsible for the greatest changes in our political lives have always known. For example, most of this country’s original suffragettes didn’t live to see the 19th amendment passed in 1920 and Martin Luther King was assassinated before the Voting Rights Act was passed. 

Donald Trump, with his short attention span and his love of show, is not willing to harness himself like an ox to a heavy legislative cart or smear his hand with the dirt of policy. He’s not interested in “work that is real.” Barack Obama, by contrast, undertook the hard work required to bring in the food and put out the fires. That is why his legacy may survive.

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The Bigger Ego: Trump’s or Zaphod’s?

Rockwell as Beeblebrox in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”


Since many of us could use a shot of humor these days, here’s a passage from Douglas Adams’s comic sci-fi masterpiece Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that can be used to describe your favorite narcissist. Of course, I’m thinking of the man in the White House, but you may have your own favorite example.

Adams gives us a character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is full of himself. I focus on the scene where Beeblebrox has been captured by the fiendish Gargravarr, a Frogstar prison warden whose mind and body are undergoing “a trial separation likely to end in divorce.” Beeblebrox appears to have unlimited self-confidence, but “unlimited” only goes so far as a descriptor when one is subjected to Gargravaar’s “Total Perspective Vortex.”

Adams describes out the Vortex works:

The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

We have here the classic death-of-god existential horror show. If humans are merely a random biochemical event that occurred on an infinitesimally tiny pebble hurtling through the vast reaches of interstellar space, then our lives are meaningless. Some existentialists cushion themselves against this demoralizing truth by counseling us to live as though our lives have meaning, even if they don’t. This, however, can be seen as no more than a cowardly coping mechanism. The Total Perspective Vortex is designed to cut through such rationalizations and show us what we truly are.

This is in fact how the Vortex works with Mrs. Trin Tragula:

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a “sense of proportion.”

Mrs. Tragula would have survived, however, had she an ego the size of Beeblebrox’s. Think about it this way: if we see ourselves as more or less on a par with our immediate surroundings, then we feel neither too big nor too small. It is a perspective we are familiar with. If, on the other hand, we were suddenly shown the entire universe, the only way we could hold on to a sense of proportion would be (drumroll!) if we had an ego as big as the universe.

This proves to be the case with Zaphod Beeblebrox. Gargravarr is stunned to see what emerges from the Total Perspective Vortex:

He waited for him to flop forward out of the box, as they all did.

Instead, he stepped out.

“Hi!” he said.

“Beeblebrox…” gasped Gargravarr’s mind in amazement.

“Could I have a drink please?” said Zaphod.

“You…you…have been in the Vortex?” stammered Gargravarr.

“You saw me, kid.”
“And it was working?”

“Sure was.”

“And you saw the whole infinity of creation?”

“Sure. Really neat place, you know that?”

Gargravarr’s mind was reeling in astonishment. Had his body been with him it would have sat down heavily with its mouth hanging open.

“And you saw yourself,” said Gargravarr, “in relation to it all?”

“Oh, yeah yeah.”

“But…what did you experience?”

Zaphod shrugged smugly.

“It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby. I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”

So if you know someone with an inflated ego—inflated, that is, to the size of the universe—then think of him or her as a Beeblebrox. And pray that he/she never becomes president.

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Clifton Poems Make Connection Possible

Lucille Clifton


We recently had a special event honoring the memory of Lucille Clifton, who ended her teaching career at St. Mary’s. Her three daughters were there, as was her friend Toi Derricotte, who presented the first annual St. Mary’s College Lucille Clifton Legacy Award to poet Yona Harvey.

Derricotte also read a poem about establishing a telephone friendship with a woman by reading her Clifton poems. It reminds us that poetry can have many different impacts: 

Homage to Lucille Clifton  

By Toi Derricotte

When I call to change my reservations
so that I can go to Baltimore to honor Lucille,
the woman at US Air
doesn’t laugh easy.
I’m trying to communicate—
not only that I have to change
my reservation—but
that I have to change it quick and
for the most important reason!
(Maybe if US Air knows
it’s for Lucille, they’ll say,
Oh shucks, then just go free!).
I ask: Ever hear of Lucille Clifton?
 (I am always flabbergasted
by what people don’t know about the best
poets—I mean—in the universe!)
I go on and change the reservation,
getting charged the hundred bucks,
and, as she’s giving
dates, times, and numbers, we get
acquainted and a little warmer,
so, at the end I say, Want to hear
a poem by her?
  and she says—
an upsweep in her voice—Sure!
I run down with the phone like there’s
a new guest in my house—a real
woman coming to life close
to my mouth and ear—and I find it
alphabetical on the shelf, Good Woman
jumps into my hand, and I open to the first poem
and begin:
in the inner city
like we call
it home  
   to this
woman who sounds
tired of making
reservations and the people
who think theirs is most
I say—Want to hear another, and she says
Yes, even happier, that was really
 and I open to:
i was born with twelve fingers
like my mother and my daughter.
each of us
born wearing strange black gloves    
 which ends
and we connect
my dead mother       my live daughter       and me
through our terrible shadowy hands
That is wonderful,
 she says, and now she sounds as close
to me as love, and I say, Lucille doesn’t have an easy
life, she has breast cancer, she has to have
dialysis, a kidney transplant, and she lost her daughter
and her son.
If you saw her you’d know
how great, but you’d also see
how real.  You’d see she has some special
hook up to the center and all that
energy comes from there.
And the operator says,
I am really moved, and I will, I really will look her
up.  My name is Treesy and last week I found out that my
nine year old daughter has cancer, and I want to
get that book and read those poems
to her, she will really
like them.
 And I said isn’t that 
wonderful that we talked and that I got
to read you Lucille?  After I lost my mother, she told me
When you lose the flesh
you gain more power.
  And I said it’s like that, like 
the miracle of meeting you, you
meeting Lucille, and

just this—!

What about those two Clifton poems opened up the conversation with the mother of a sick child?. In the first, Clifton provides a voice for the marginalized. Their lives may be more challenging than those of more affluent people but they are also more vibrant:

in the inner city
like we call it
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as dead men
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
and in the inner city
like we call it

In the second poem, Clifton refers to a belief in some African tribes about the significance of a sixth finger. When we force people to conform to a socially acceptable image, we miss their special gifts.

I was born with twelve fingers
like my mother and my daughter
each of us
born wearing strange black gloves
extra baby fingers hanging over the sides of our cribs and
dipping into the milk
somebody was afraid we would learn to cast spells
and our wonders were cut off
but they didn’t understand
the powerful memory of ghosts   now
we take what we want
with invisible fingers
and we connect
my dead mother     my live daughter     and me
through our terrible shadowy hands

While we don’t know whether Derricotte’s interlocutor Treesy is a woman of color, she feels alone in the world because of her daughter’s illness. The idea that a poet out there understands her—and that an anonymous customer cares enough to read work from this poet to her—suddenly makes the world seem less impersonal. Or like we call it, home.

In the second poem, meanwhile, a medical condition that seems bad—having six fingers—suddenly becomes a source of strength. The condition also connects mother and daughter. This may prompt Treesy to talk about her own sick daughter, which in turn leads Derricotte to describe the way that Clifton struggled with tragedy and to recount her own mother’s empowering words.

Worry and fear have probably narrowed Treesy’s horizon. Clifton’s poetry makes her realize that the world is larger and full of possibilities.

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Trust in God, Argue For Justice

Jan Victors, “Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus”

Spiritual Sunday – Purim

This weekend Jews celebrate Purim, when Queen Esther risked her life to save her people. American poet Raymond Foss thought of Esther when he saw “some white New Hampshire parents…berating some Somali refugee parents for not speaking English while we were waiting outside our neighborhood elementary school.”

Foss says the following passages came to mind:

So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king. King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?” Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”…

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits[a] stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king. The king said, “Impale him on it!” So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.


Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor. 

Foss’s poem is even more urgent today as we witness Muslim bans, stepped-up immigrant roundups, and threats of increased “law and order.” Here it is:

 Standing Up, Like Esther

By Raymond A. Foss

We all can do our part, to stand up
in faith, trusting in God, and
do the right thing, argue for justice,
fight oppression, from whatever corner
lead good lives, following our beliefs
standing up and being counted, risking all
if need be, to speak truth, to denounce evil
to save our people, other peoples, marginalized
subjected peoples, some in our midst,
we too can be righteous, choosing to be
accountable, our neighbor’s keeper
even here, even now, why not us?
There has always been a strong tradition of social justice in both Judaism and Christianity. We need to tap into that tradition now.
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Trump Is Gatsby (But a Lot Meaner)

DiCaprio as Gatsby


The indispensable Charles Blow of The New York Times is doing all he can to prevent us from normalizing Trumpism. As I was reading his latest column, I gasped, “Oh my God, Trump is Jay Gatsby.”

Check out Blow’s description of what motivates Trump:

He was the outer-borough boy whose father’s “boxlike office” was on Avenue Z in Brooklyn; he always dreamed of making it to Manhattan and breaking into the big league.

With a hustler’s spirit and some sleight of hand, he made it, but not in total.

He made the move, made the money and made his mark on New York’s skyline, but he never quite made it into the inner sanctum of New York high society.

I’m convinced that this is part of his obsession with former President Barack Obama. Obama was quickly granted the thing Trump never had: upper-class acceptance and adulation.

For Trump’s part, his sin was even worse than being new-money: He was tacky rich.

No amount of money or success could completely rid him of the odiousness of being coarse and crass.

He upset social conventions.

For him, things had to be gilded to be glamorous. All modesty — either real or contrived to guard against exposure — was absent from the man. He was a glutton for attention and adoration. He chased the spotlight and pimped celebrity for profit. He valued flaunting over philanthropy.

In New York City’s elite social circles, Trump was persona non grata.

We could choose any number of scenes from Fitzgerald’s novel to back up the comparison: his lower class roots, his soaring ambition, his gaudy real estate, his incessant parties, his taste in flamboyant clothing, Tom Buchanan’s contempt for him, his ties to organized crime.  I wonder if people who have given him money have been attracted as underground boss Meyer Wolfshein is:

“I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter. I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was at Oggsford I knew I could use him good. I got him to join up in the American Legion and he used to stand high there. Right off he did some work for a client of mine up to Albany. We were so thick like that in everything.”— he held up two bulbous fingers ——” always together.”

There’s a significant difference between Gatsby and Trump, however: Gatsby doesn’t stiff employees, he doesn’t engage in constant lawsuits, he doesn’t harass women. Above all, Gatsby doesn’t have Trump’s mean streak and his hunger for payback. Gatsby is a more innocent Trump.

So I’m tempted to retract the comparison except that it helps me understand Trump’s success. Nick is drawn to Gatsby because he sees in him America’s naked longing for something more, and I think Trump has tapped into that longing has well. Americans identified so much with his dreaming that they enrolled in Trump University, invested in his enterprises, elected him president.

The Great Gatsby is one of the great American novels because it manages to capture the magic and the hollowness of America’s success and prosperity dream. For a fleeting moment, with Trump’s election, supporters could imagine that the dream was within reach, that they could “suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.”

Now the long and painful disillusionment is underway.

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Immigrants Face a Sophie’s Choice

Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”


Republicans have been outdoing themselves in the inhumanity department recently, joining some dubious literary company. I’m not the only one who thought of Sophie’s Choice upon encountering the following news item:

In an attempt to deter illegal immigration from Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is considering separating children from parents caught crossing the border, Secretary John Kelly said Monday on CNN.

The proposal would result in detention for the parent while any accompanying children would be placed in the care of the government or sent to live with any relatives in the United States.

Currently, women and children generally are held together in one of three detention centers — two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania — for a few days or weeks before being released to wait for an immigration judge to decide their cases.

Splitting up families is meant to serve as a deterrent to illegal border crossing.

Here’s the moment of crisis in Styron’s novel:

“You may keep one of your children.”
Bitte?” said Sophie.
“You may keep one of your children,” he repeated. “The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”
“You mean, I have to choose?”
“You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege—a choice.”
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. “I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium. “Ich kann nich wahlen!” she screamed.
The doctor was aware of unwanted attention. “Shut up!” he ordered. “Hurry now and choose. Choose, goddamnit, or I’ll send them both over there. Quick!”
She could not believe any of this. She could not believe that she was now kneeling on the hurtful, abrading concrete, drawing her children toward her so smotheringly tight that she felt that their flesh might be engrafted to her even through layers of clothes. Her disbelief was total, deranged. It was disbelief reflected in the eyes of the gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rotten-fuhrer, the doctor’s aide, to whom she inexplicably found herself looking upward in supplication. He appeared stunned, and he returned her gaze with a wide-eyed baffled expression, as if to say: I can’t understand this either.
“Don’t make me choose,” she heard herself plead in a whisper. “I can’t choose.”

Does DHS reassure themselves that they’re not Nazis because they’re not sending the children to gas chambers? This is true. Instead, the families’ Sophie’s Choice involves either (1) returning immediately to the violence they are fleeing with their children or (2) taking their chances in the immigration system separated from their children.

How hard must hearts become to carry out such tactics? What toll will this take upon us as a nation?

Item #2 calls for the lacerating irony of William Blake. The Republican Congressman Roger Marshall in the following story, believe it or not, is an obstetrician:

The health care website Stat highlighted Marshall’s role in Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in a profile published last week. Marshall’s comments about the poor in that article have gained national attention.

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ … There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves,” Marshall is quoted as saying when asked about Medicaid expansion, something which was made possible by the ACA.

“Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, (some people) just don’t want health care,” Marshall continued. “The Medicaid population, which is (on) a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising.

There’s nothing like invoking Christ–and misunderstanding his words–to justify refusing medical attention to the sick. Reverend William Barber had the best response when he said, “Jesus, if he did anything, he gave out free healthcare.”

Blake saw red whenever religion was used to keep the poor down. He was especially appalled at the Church of England’s silence about London chimney sweeps, whose occupation was a death sentence since the coal dust meant that they wouldn’t reach adolescence. For our parallel situation, a study by two public health professors has calculated that repeal of Obamacare will lead to 43,000 deaths annually.

In “The Chimney-Sweeper,” the child is so young that he can’t yet pronounce “sweep” as he advertises his services.

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! “weep! weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? Say!”—
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.”

As a Congressman in the world’s wealthiest country, Marshall would do better to quote Matthew 19:24: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

But let’s end instead with the final line of Blake’s “Holy Thursday,” which can apply to both the immigrants and the people in need of medical care:

Then cherish pity lest you drive an angel from your door.

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“Julius Caesar” Is Only Too Relevant

Mob scene from “Julius Caesar”


New York City has announced it will open this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park with Julius Caesar, and its description of the play makes clear why:

“Rome’s leader, Julius Caesar, is a force unlike any the city has seen,” the description reads. “Magnetic, populist, irreverent, he seems bent on absolute power. A small band of patriots, devoted to the country’s democratic traditions, must decide how to oppose him.

My question is whether black shirts will be worn.

My reference is to the famous 1937 Orson Welles production, which was staged with Mussolini’s black shirted followers in mind. The black shirts don’t save Caesar but they do get used by Marc Antony, who effectively applies demagogic rhetoric to rile them up and topple the senators who are trying to save the republic.

It won’t take much for New York audiences to apply the lessons. Donald Trump has proven effective at circumventing Republican senators by appealing directly to his base. Just as Antony promises the mob 75 drachmas per citizen, as well as public walks, private orchards, and new-planted orchards (all this in accordance with Caesar’s will), so Trump has promised a return of manufacturing and coal-mining jobs, affordable health care for all, and a return to white America.

In the play the mob goes wild and, next thing Brutus knows, he’s a Never-Trumper on the run.

Incidentally, I saw a smart reference to Antony’s speech in a recent Kevin Kruse tweet. Referring to a Paul Waldman column in The Week about the Trump administration’s Russia contacts, Kruse called it “the best benefit-of-the-doubt shade since Mark Antony’s eulogy.” I’m putting excerpts of them side by side to see if you agree:

Marc Antony:

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

Paul Waldman:

We should say that it’s possible that Sessions’ conversations with the ambassador were perfectly innocent, even if one has to wonder why he would deny that they had occurred if that were the case. And it’s possible that there was nothing wrong with Michael Flynn’s contacts with the ambassador, or the money he got from Russian state television. And there may be a reasonable explanation for why Trump campaign officials suddenly softened the Republican platform’s language about Russia during the GOP convention. And there may be nothing wrong with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s work for a pro-Russian strongman in Ukraine, or with Trump associate Roger Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks about hacked DNC emails, or with the Russian ties of Trump Cabinet members like Rex Tillerson and Wilbur Ross. And maybe Trump’s people had absolutely nothing to do with all the Russian hacking that was meant to help him get elected. And perhaps no Republicans were involved in the Russian hacking of Democratic congressional candidates, even though Republicans, including a PAC with ties to none other than Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, then used the information from the hacks to attack their opponents (bet you forgot about that one).

Might it even be possible that there’s nothing more to be learned about Trump and Russia, that there are no secrets lying within this web of denial and obfuscation, that it’s all above board and ethical? Sure — anything’s possible.

Yes, a great example of benefit-of-the-doubt shade.

And there’s yet another instance of Julius Caesar in the news. Apparently there is a movement underway to send the White House a million protest postcards on March 15. They’re calling it “The Ides of Trump.” Organizers of course stress that the cards should not contain any threats. The seer in the play, after all, does not threaten Caesar, just warns him of the gathering wrath.

If you wish to join, write to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.

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Climate Change, Fairies Fighting

Joseph Noel Paton, “Quarrel of Titania and Oberon”


This has been one of the craziest winters that I remember, with temperatures in southern Maryland ping ponging between 70 degrees and 25. There are two possible explanations: either climate change is real or Oberon and Titania are having a fight.

Before examining the second possibility, let’s start with the fact that the Trump administration is doing its best to accelerate climate change and, for that matter, to bring back pollution in all of its forms. Recent executive orders and proposed budget cuts include rolling back auto emissions standards, cutting the budget to the leading climate science agency, slashing the EPA budget generally, and allowing coal companies to once again dump toxic wastes into our waterways. A decision has not yet been made on withdrawing from the Paris climate dead, but senior presidential advisor Steve Bannon is pushing for it.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, a domestic spat between the king and the queen of the fairies has led to extreme weather events. First, there is excessive rainfall:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable…

That, in turn, leads to extreme temperature variation:

Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which…

I said either climate change or a battle of the fairies but the actual answer is both. In my Literature about Nature course we see that, whenever authors depict humans abusing Nature, they invariably show Nature fighting back. This includes human nature so that, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, lawless promiscuity occurs in response to tyrannical imposition of law: Egeus won’t let his daughter marry whom she desires—he will have her executed if she won’t obey him—so she runs off into the forest. The play is a comedy only because a benign Theseus ultimately listens to Nature and overrides Egeus’s will. Society and nature, law and natural inclination, come together in a peaceful accommodation.

When a leader does not listen to Nature, as in Euripides’s The Bacchae, tragedy ensues. Pentheus is literally ripped apart.

My students sometimes complain that Dionysus unfairly punishes Pentheus’s family as well as Pentheus. Unfortunately, this is reality. When our president defies Nature, he can take us all down with him. In fact, there may be more justice in our case since, as citizens, we bear some responsibility for the politicians we elect or don’t elect. If all who are now appalled by Trump’s environmental policies had voted for Hillary Clinton, she would be president.

But that’s past history. At the moment, we have to ally ourselves with Nature—with (to cite my reading list) Dionysus, the Green Knight, Puck, Wordsworth’s rainbow, Coleridge’s albatross, Shelley’s skylark, Keats’s nightingale, Dickinson’s bobolink, Whitman’s leaves of grass, Frost’s beeches, Clifton’s hip-swinging black woman, Mary Oliver’s bears, Silko’s mountain lion, Kingsolver’s monarch butterflies, Wendell Berry’s farmland, and Atwood’s Snowman. Each author is battling a version of Trumpism and each points the way to a more perfect union.

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Lit, a Heroic Bulwark against Trumpism

George Saunders


Author George Saunders recently explained why literature has a critical role to play in fighting Trumpism (thanks for the alert, Dana Huff), and he also came up with a pretty good satire of the president. I’ll give you his poem first but make sure you hang on to see what he says about the contrast between “the art mind” and “the media mind.”

My son Toby’s literature podcast (it’s well worth listening to) alerted me to Saunders’s excursion into doggerel, which appeared on his Facebook page. I absolutely love the title although it works only for people who think that Trump is different than he appears:

Trump L’Oeil

By George Saunders

A fragile egomaniac
Has taken up the reins,
Obsessed with size, defensive,
and unmoved by others’ pains.

He seems to think that saying A
While B is clearly true
Will cause the truth of B to wane
And make A true, to you.

He stomps his foot and with his hand
He does that little chopper,
Then calls all things “amazing”
As he tells another whopper.

What is it that he wants so much?
What wound must he assuage?
With all these lies and posturing
And all that pent-up rage?

When all is said and done, it seems,
The thing he wants is more.
Enough to finally satisfy
some raging inner war.

Everything’s unfair to him, 
So “sad,” so “overrated”;
Whatever gifts the world can give?
Insulting and belated.

If some of you who voted
For this vain and flailing man
Are noting now some meanness
In his attitude and plan:

It’s fine, it’s great, we welcome you!
Please come on back and aid us
In switching off the Kellyannes, 
Who nightly serenade us

With tricky sliding caveats
And puzzling odd denials,
With scary twisted Orwell riffs
And sunny prom queen smiles.

In other times and places
This dopey gong has sounded
To claim that truth’s negotiable
And that we’re all surrounded

By enemies! By enemies!
By horror and by hate,
By refugees who want us dead,
And liberals sleeping late.

But what if, in the end, my friends,
What seems most true is true—
The president is like himself,
And not like me and you?

A famous guy for all these years
An ego in a bubble,
Who learned that great attention
Could be got by causing trouble?

And craving said attention,
Scuttled out in its pursuit,
The working man’s defender,
In a fine Brioni suit.

Speak out, rise up, correct and shout,
Be stubborn and satirical;
Resist, rebuff, demand the truth,
Be positive and lyrical.

Your country needs you now, for sure
Your country needs your power.
It needs you like a fragile thing
In some uncertain hour.

For goodness, peace, and decency
Were never heaven-sent;
And each of us must now become
Our own alt-President.

When it comes to working for goodness, peace and decency, Saunders isn’t only thinking of light verse. In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, he focused on the importance of capital “L” Literature as well. Responding to a question about a New Yorker article about Trump rallies that he wrote last July, Saunders theorized about “what makes a Trump supporter”:

I think that, as a culture, we’ve been stupefied by years of reality TV language. You know it’s fake, but you buy into it anyway. Conditionally, ironically, sure, but at some level you are still buying into it, and endorsing it, and allowing it to degrade your way of thinking.

In contrast with what he calls the “media mind,” Saunders describes the “art mind”:

The other experience I’m having is the contrast between what we might call “art mind” and “daily mind.” When writing a book, in “art mind”. . . you become aware that there’s a mind operating beyond your daily mind that’s very powerful. It’s more empathetic. It’s wittier. It’s kinder. The artistic mind is real, and it’s better than the daily mind.

These days, our daily minds are really getting messed with by our news addiction and our devices and so on—it’s becoming “media mind.” So, going from writing the book into reporting on the Trump campaign (and, of necessity, going deep into “media mind”), it struck me how different those two mind states are.

Saunders isn’t entirely pessimistic, however. After all, we are seeing dramatic proof that literature is still vital. Before Trump, Saunders says, he had “acceded to the notion of literature, in our time, as a sort of noble lost cause.” He wondered whether artists still had a place at “the big table.”

His wondering has been answered:

Well, after coming back from the Trump thing, I’m like, wait a minute. We didn’t, as a culture, value art enough. We marginalized that beautiful, complex, supremely capable artistic mind. We put way too much stock in this second kind of mind, which is so much harsher and more aggressive.

We put a lot of faith in that and now I think we’re kind of reaping the bounty. But that made me feel strangely happy. Like, okay, so this thing I’ve spent my life doing is actually not a sideshow. It’s the essential show, and so maybe we can somehow move it back to a more central position. It’s essential that we do so.

Literature lovers of the world, unite! The American Republic needs you. Be positive and lyrical.

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Finding a Paradise Within Happier Far

William Blake

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Old Testament reading gives me an excuse to revisit Paradise Lost since, short though the reading is, it provides most of the material for Milton’s epic. The Genesis story seeks to explain consciousness–that which separates humans from animals–and also to account for the presence of evil in God’s beautiful creation. For Milton, the fruit is pride-driven knowledge, which causes us to view ourselves rather than God as the measure of the universe.

Here’s the original passage:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

In Satan’s pitch to Eve, the ever-curious Milton reveals what it would take to tempt him. As with Doctor Faustus, upon whom the character is modeled, it involves reason, science and theology:

O sacred, wise, and wisdom-giving plant,
Mother of Science, now I feel thy power
Within me clear, not only to discern
Things in their causes, but to trace the ways
Of highest agents, deemed however wise.

Also like Faustus, subsequent action does not live up to this soaring rhetoric. Reason that is not rooted in God degenerates into casuistry, just as science that is not rooted in God spawns ungodly horrors. In the poem, Lucifer and Eve go on to use their unholy Reason to make intricate but fallacious arguments.

To use one’s Reason in a godly way would be to affirm the goodness of creation, not to elevate oneself above it. At one point, the Angel Raphael describes creation as “the Book of God” that has been given us to study:

Is as the Book of God before thee set,
Wherein to read his wondrous works, and learn
His seasons, hours, or days, or months, or years…

Put another way, Milton would approve of the scientist whose aim is to appreciate the wonders of God’s creation but not the scientist who aims to set him/herself above them. As I read the poem, Milton is worried about those intellectuals that, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Hawking, become so puffed up with the power of scientific explanation that they confidently conclude that there is no God. In contrast to such arrogance, Raphael counsels for us to

                                                                be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition or degree,
Contented that thus far hath been revealed
Not of Earth only but of highest Heaven.

In short, never lose sight of your own fallibility. The forbidden fruit is not knowledge itself—Milton himself loves to exercise his reason and is fascinated by science—but the desire to use knowledge for egotistical ends. Do not strive to “be as gods.”

In Milton’s view, the desire to become godlike arises from within the organs of our fancy or imagination. In Satan’s initial attempt to corrupt Eve, he whispers into her ear while she is asleep, causing her to lust after knowledge:

                                            [H]im there they found
Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve;
Assaying by his devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams,
Or if, inspiring venom, he might taint
Th’ animal spirits that from pure blood arise…

When Eve tells Adam about her troubling dream, he provides a psychological explanation about how the mind is constructed. We need Reason, he says, to connect us to God. Otherwise, we will yield to Fancy’s wild images and desires. The process sounds like Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams:

But know that in the Soul
Are many lesser faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these Fancy next
Her office holds; of all external things,
Which the five watchful Senses represent,
She forms Imaginations, eerie shapes,
Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames
All what we affirm or what deny, and call
Our knowledge or opinion; then retires
Into her private cell when Nature rests.
Oft in her absence mimic Fancy wakes
To imitate her; but misjoining shapes,
Wild work produces oft, and most in dreams,
Ill matching words and deeds long past or late.

Episcopalians, our rector sometimes tells us, do not leave their brains at the door. Adam, after hearing the Archangel Michael’s extensive history lesson and his account of Christ’s future sacrifice for humankind, is able to draw the correct lesson:

Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good 
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful death the Gate of Life…

Michael confirms Adam’s observations and adds a few more. As he does so, he shows the emptiness of scientific knowledge without God:

This having learnt, thou hast attained the sum
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the stars
Thou knewst by name, and all th’ ethereal powers,
All secrets of the deep, all Nature’s works,
Or works of God in Heaven, Air, Earth, or Sea,
And all the riches of this World enjoyst, 
And all the rule, one Empire; only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love,
By name to come called charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath 
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.

Sin, then, is that within us that seeks to put ourselves above God’s creation. We all have this tendency. Thanks to Milton, we have a particularly vivid account of finding our way back to God after we have lost our way.

Further thought: I’d never realize until today how much Milton’s theory of fantasy draws on Midsummer Night’s Dream. Compare the following two passages:

She forms Imaginations, eerie shapes,
Which Reason joining or disjoining, frames
All what we affirm or what deny, and call
Our knowledge or opinion…

Here’s Theseus:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

And later:

Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Pragmatic Theseus, however, differentiates himself from lovers, poets and madmen whereas Milton would say that we all–including Theseus–are susceptible to the Satanic whisperings of the unconscious. That’s why promiscuity reigns supreme in Shakespeare’s green world.

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Brown & Gold & Blood vs. Trumpian White

Parkistani-American poet Fatima Asghar


Last week I wrote about Merchant of Venice in response to the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes since Donald Trump was elected president.  Since we’re also seeing a rise in anti-Muslim crimes—four mosques burned since the beginning of the year and the shooting of two Indians by a Kansas bigot—I share an inspiring poem by Pakistani (Kashmiri)-American Fatimah Asghar celebrating South Asian Americans. My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to it.

I had to google a number of the words, just as, years ago, English speakers would have had to look up kielbasa, vodka, chutzpah, barista, angst, chi, jiu-jitsu, salsa, and so on. I wonder if the reference to sewing a woman’s star on the breast is a reference to the yellow star of David that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. As then, so we are still hearing “the glass smashing the street.”

Asghar’s poem covers a wide swathe of people, even if they are all (I think) from the same general part of the world: the pious Muslim who leaves his car in the intersection at the azan (call to prayer) and the Muslim who has no objection to drinking whiskey during the Mahgrib (sunset) prayer; the Muslim teenager in hightops and the khala (auntie) who pairs her kurta (a loose collarless shirt) with crocs; the old woman in a sari with a bindi (mark) upon her forehead and the women with their dupattas (long scarfs) walking on the beach. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, Asghar embraces multitudes as she expresses solidarity. “Mashallah” means “Praise Allah”:

mashallah I claim them all
my country is made
in my people’s image
if they come for you they
come for me too

The poem reminds me of Lucille Clifton’s “whose side are you on,” where the poet declares, “i am on the dark side always.” For Asghar, the wondrous patchwork quilt that is America lights her way:

my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow

Here’s the poem:

If They Should Come for Us

By Fatimah Asghar

these are my people & I find
them on the street & shadow
through any wild all wild
my people my people
a dance of strangers in my blood
the old woman’s sari dissolving to wind
bindi a new moon on her forehead
I claim her my kin & sew
the star of her to my breast
the toddler dangling from stroller
hair a fountain of dandelion seed
at the bakery I claim them too
the sikh uncle at the airport
who apologizes for the pat
down the muslim man who abandons
his car at the traffic light drops
to his knees at the call of the azan
& the muslim man who sips
good whiskey at the start of maghrib
the lone khala at the park
pairing her kurta with crocs
my people my people I can’t be lost
when I see you my compass
is brown & gold & blood
my compass a muslim teenager
snapback & high-tops gracing
the subway platform
mashallah I claim them all
my country is made
in my people’s image
if they come for you they
come for me too in the dead
of winter a flock of
aunties step out on the sand
their dupattas turn to ocean
a colony of uncles grind their palms
& a thousand jasmines bell the air
my people I follow you like constellations
we hear the glass smashing the street
& the nights opening their dark
our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow 

Our country is so much more than the monochrome vision of the white nationalists, so much more than bloodless ideological rigidity. The American Dream, our compass and our constellation, has led us through dark times before, and it can do so again. Poems like this keep the lantern burning.

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Atwood Predicts the Fire Next Time

A fire at a Quebec nursing home


With Donald Trump’s election, futurist fiction is coming back into fashion, with such classics as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale climbing onto bestseller lists. Atwood at the moment is making a late career out of dystopias, and Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday brought one of them to mind.

“Torch the Dusties” appears in a collection of nine short stories entitled Stone Mattress (2015). Before I tell you what it’s about, see if you can interpret the title from my telling you which aspect of Trump’s agenda made me think of it.

Here’s the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein explaining where Trumpist policy appears to be heading:

“As the nation went through this very rapid demographic change, the question has been [whether] older white Americans would essentially withdraw from the public sphere and not fund a new generation who did not look like their kids,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic advocacy group. “You are going to see that basic dynamic play out in a very significant way under Trump. What Trump is doing is creating a wall around older white Americans: he is being an isolationist both within the country and without. He is trying to create walls between older white Americans and the new Americans who surround them.”

It’s not only Trump. Brownstein says the American economy has been moving this way for a while:

The repeated budget showdowns between Congressional Republicans and former President Obama tilted Washington’s fiscal priorities even further away from young people by largely exempting entitlement programs from reductions while imposing severe caps on discretionary spending. Though Congress and Obama repeatedly agreed to loosen the constraints, the weight of those caps has pushed down domestic discretionary spending to about 3 percent of gross domestic product, near its nadir since Washington began keeping such records in the early 1960s.

The Urban Institute has calculated that the federal government now spends about $6 per capita on seniors for every $1 it spends on kids. (Even including state and local spending, where most education dollars are committed, governments at all level spend about $2.3 per capita on seniors for every $1 they spend on kids.) Looking forward, the institute projects that programs aimed at kids will receive only 2 percent of the anticipated rise in federal spending over the next decade-and by the end of that period, in 2026, the portions of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that benefit adults will account for almost exactly half of the entire federal budget.

Atwood’s “dusties,” as you may have figured out by now, are the elderly. Envying their comfortable life, the stressed younger generation is becoming increasingly resentful. Only gradually as the story unfolds do we discover that they are torching retirement homes with the old people still inside them. An elderly patient explains to the story’s protagonist what’s up:

“What else did you learn?” Wilma asks. All around them is the clanking of spoons on china, the murmur of thinning voices, an insect vibration.
“They say it’s their turn,” says Tobias. “That’s why they put Our Turn on the signs.”
“Oh,” says Wilma. Lights dawns. Atern. Our Turn. She’d misheard. “Their turn at what?”
“At life, they say. I heard one of them on the television news; naturally they’re being interviewed all over the place. They say we’ve had our turn, those our age; they say we messed it up. Killing the planet with our own greed and so forth.”
“They have a point there,” says Wilma. “We did mess it up. Not on purpose, though.”

And later:

“What do they want from us?” she asks, trying not to sound peevish. “Those people with the signs. For heaven’s sakes. It’s not as if we can do anything.”
“They say they want us to make room. They want us to move over. Some of the signs say that: Move Over.”
“That means die, I suppose,” says Wilma. “Are there any rolls today?” Sometimes there are the most delicious Parker House rolls, fresh from the oven.

Atwood’s genius lies in the matter-of-fact way that her dystopias unfold. Life in the retirement center is so out of touch with the rest of the world that the crisis catches the residents unawares. It’s not unlike a number of the slow-burning crises that threaten us these days, most notably climate change.

Reality cannot be forestalled forever, and Wilma and Tobias, having had the foresight to escape through the basement, watch as activists block all the entrances and then torch the center and all of its residents. We are left wondering whether such a fate threatens any group–or for that matter, any nation–that retreats behind protective walls as it hogs a disproportionate percentage of available resources.

Further thought: I’ve been thinking about how angry certain young Bernie supporters continue to be, finding ways to tag even a progressive like new Democrat Central Committee chair Tom Perez as an establishment Democrat. And of course there is the burn-it-all-down support for Trump from many lower income voters on the right. If Atwood is correct, then this anger is only going to become more fiery as wealth is redistributed upward. Remember that our best authors are in touch with deep currents and that in science fiction, as Ursula LeGuin once noted, the future is a metaphor for the present.

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The Soldier Knew Someone Had Blundered

Navy Seal Ryan Owens, killed in Yemen raid


We now know how the candidate who promised us so much winning that we’d get tired of winning does when he loses. He blames it on someone else.

That’s how Donald Trump has been handling the failed raid in Yemen, in which (1) a Navy Seal was killed and six others were wounded; (2) 30 civilians, including nine children, were killed; (3) we lost a very expensive V-22 Osprey airplane; and (4) we didn’t gain any information of value, even though that was the purported purpose of the raid. Trump initially described the raid as “a very successful mission,” attacked anyone who questioned it, and then claimed, when the facts came out, that it was approved by others.

Meanwhile, military sources have said that Trump approved the raid “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”

The Yemen raid sounds like it was a miniature version of the charge of the Light Brigade, where soldiers in the midst of battle discovered that someone in the command structure had “blundered”:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” 
Was there a man dismayed? 
Not though the soldier knew 
   Someone had blundered. 
   Theirs not to make reply, 
   Theirs not to reason why, 
   Theirs but to do and die. 
   Into the valley of Death 
   Rode the six hundred. 

And now no one will fess up to the blundering. Here’s Buzzfeed’s account of the blame shifting currently underway:

In the days after the raid, the military said the president approved the raid. But President Donald Trump told Fox and Friends in an interview that aired Tuesday that the raid was conceived before he took office and brought to him by “the generals.” It was their raid, he said, not his.

“This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said during the interview. “This was something that they wanted to do,” he said, appearing to refer to the military.

Trump distanced himself from the decision, at one point saying: “They lost Ryan,” referring to Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, 36, the father of three who was killed in the raid. Six other troops were injured during the operation. Trump’s use of the word “they” in describing Owens’ death was an extraordinary statement to make in a military where some commanders carry the photo of everyone lost under their command.

To be sure, there are more contrasts with the Light Brigade’s charge than comparisons. While both the Seals and and the Light Brigade fought bravely once they encountered unexpected resistance, the calvary troops didn’t have air power to bail them out—air power that proceeded to kill 30 civilians. Other than Owens and the handful of casualties, there was no glorious martyrdom of American troops.

Our focus, then, can turn to the tawdriness of the administration’s response. For that, a better poem is Rudyard Kipling’s sequel, written 36 years later. Always ready to stand up for the common soldier, Kipling calls out England for its failure to take care of the survivors. Kipling has many poems where he describes the insensitivity and the hypocrisy of those in charge.

“The Last of the Light Brigade,” I suspect, would win the approval of Ryan Owens’s father, who accuses Trump of hiding behind his son’s death to forestall investigation. Here are the opening stanzas and the final stanza, which sardonically observe that Tennyson’s heroic rhetoric, his “deathless song,” functions as a cover-up:

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!


O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food tonight;
Our children’s children are lisping to “honor the charge they made—”
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade! 

Kipling’s point is similar to the one that Wilfred Owen makes in “Dulce et Decorum Est”: patriotic poetry distracts from grim reality. Is there any doubt that Donald Trump would be crowing had the Yemen raid been successful? He loves stirring martial images but isn’t man enough to face up to failure.

Kipling’s poem should be handed out to Congress whenever it is called upon to fund the V.A. Also to presidents who glibly talk of war without acknowledging the long-term human costs.

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“Enemy of the People,” Badge of Honor


When Donald Trump started attacking the media as “the enemy of the people,” I wasn’t the only one who thought immediately of Heinrich Ibsen’s 1882 play. Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast does a great job at drawing contemporary parallels, to which I add a few of my own.

Let’s first review the attacks. Business Insider notes Trump’s use of the phrase and then traces its infamous lineage:

Over the last two weeks, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to media outlets that he dubbed the “fake news media” as “the enemy of the American People.”

Trump repeated the attack at a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, saying, “They are the enemy of the people.”

The phrase “the enemy of the people” has a long history that Trump may or may not have known about. 

Over the couse of the last century, it has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize foreign governments, opposition parties, and dissenters. 

Though the phrase dates back to Roman times and the reign of Emperor Nero (who was declared “an enemy of the people” by the Roman Senate), it came into use in the modern period during the French Revolution. Ennemi du peuple was used to refer to those who disagreed with the new French government during the “Reign of Terror,” a period during which thousands of revolutionairies were executed by guillotine.

While it was featured as the name of a Henrik Ibsen play, its next prominent use was by the Nazis. During the Third Reich’s rule in Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels referred to Jews as “a sworn enemy of the German people” who posed a risk to Adolf Hitler’s vision for the country, according to The Washington Post.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen traces the same lineage and then lays out why Trump is using it:

A methodical attack on the institutions of Western democracies has one ultimate objective: their replacement with the “soft” autocracies of which President Vladimir Putin of Russia is the supreme exponent. The lifeblood of autocracies is the glorification of a mythical past and the designation of enemies who stand in the way of greatness.

There were people who viewed novelist Émile Zola as an enemy of the people as he helped expose the government for framingJewish Alfred Dreyfus, famously writing,

When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.

The town in Ibsen’s play is attempting to bury an inconvenient truth. The town’s doctor has discovered that the water used by the town’s spa is poisonous and, in a story line that Spielberg used for Jaws, he and everyone around is pressured to remain silent. He becomes an enemy of the people when he decides to speak out. Tomasky applies the lessons to our current situation:

He loses his job and his home. His wife stands beside him but his two young boys are beaten up at school, and his grown daughter, known about town before all this for her radical ideas, loses her job as a teacher. The schoolmistress received three anonymous letters denouncing her, she tells her father, and Thomas’s reaction to them could be said almost to the word today of abusive pro-Trump tweeters who hide behind their Twitter handles: “The big patriots with their anonymous indignation, scrawling out the darkness of their minds on dirty little strips of paper. That’s morality, and I’m the traitor!”

With Trump having declared the press the enemy, it would fit our exact circumstances today a little better if the newspaper had stood courageously with Stockmann. On the other hand, the portrait of media timidity is all too apt, is it not? I’m sure there were a lot of Americans who thought at any number of points over the past 18 months that surely the press would “stand up and do its duty.”

While the enemy of the people in the play is a scientist, not the press, today both scientists and journalists find themselves as embattled truth-tellers. Tomasky notes one important difference, however: our reverence for scientific truth has diminished. Stockmann, displaying the arrogance of 19th century science, believes that simply proclaiming the truth should be enough. Today’s scientists are rapidly having that illusion ripped from them as they watch the GOP’s all-out assaults on empirical data, especially with regard to human-caused climate change.

Other than Stockmann’s cocky self-assurance, however, the play could have been written yesterday. For instance, Stockmann’s brother, who is mayor of the town, attempts to muddy the scientific results very much like politicians try to muddy evidence about our warming earth:

Mayor Peter Stockmann: Your report has not convinced me that the condition of the water at the Baths is as bad as you represent it to be.
Dr. Stockmann. I tell you it is even worse!–or at all events it will be in summer, when the warm weather comes.
Peter Stockmann. As I said, I believe you exaggerate the matter considerably. A capable physician ought to know what measures to take–he ought to be capable of preventing injurious influences or of remedying them if they become obviously persistent.
Dr. Stockmann. Well? What more?
Peter Stockmann. The water supply for the Baths is now an established fact, and in consequence must be treated as such. But probably the Committee, at its discretion, will not be disinclined to consider the question of how far it might be possible to introduce certain improvements consistently with a reasonable expenditure.

And later:

The matter in hand is not simply a scientific one. It is a complicated matter, and has its economic as well as its technical side.

Today, the play should function as a wake-up call to both scientists and the journalists.. Dr. Stockmann’s poor people skills, which manage to antagonize virtually everyone in the town, are a luxury scientists can no longer afford. It is not enough to be right. They need to learn how to work with the press to communicate the scientific facts.

That being said, however, it may be that the truth is so inconvenient that you will be demonized regardless of how diplomatic you are.

There’s another lesson worth noting. If the press ever gets too comfortable with those in power, and if scientists ever become too comfortable with corporate business interests, the truth is endangered. As Tomasky notes, the press buckles in the play, and Dr. Stockmann himself is tempted when his father-in-law, owner of a tannery that is polluting the water, uses the money he was planning on leaving his daughter and grandchildren to buy up all the spa shares. If Dr. Stockmann exposes the tannery’s pollution, the shares will be worthless. If he doesn’t, he will be a rich man.

By the way, one of Trump’s earliest executive orders has been to overturn a rule that bans coal companies from dumping their waste into streams.

To his credit, Dr. Stockmann turns down this deal with the devil, even though it leaves his family destitute. His steadfastness should stiffen the spines of both our scientists and our journalists. They are not in the business to be liked but to seek out the truth, regardless of the consequences.

In the end, Dr. Stockmann is prepared to administer to the only patients who will use him, the poor, and to run his own school. In the process, he discovers a great secret: that he is “the strongest man in the world.”

How so? Because the strongest man is “he who stands most alone.”

Our own “enemies of the people” should carry this as a banner.

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Bannon: Deconstructionist or Con Man?

Steve Bannon


President Steve Bannon laid out his plans for America at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past Thursday. Since at one point he employed a term used in literary theory, I’m weighing in on what that says about him.

According to Bannon, there are three pillars to Donald Trump’s plan for America:

If you look at the lines of work, I would break it up into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty. … The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism. The third, broadly, line of work is deconstruction of the administrative state. … If you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.”

Deconstruction, a theory promulgated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, came to prominence in the 1970s, after which various literary theorists took it up. Although some today use “deconstruct” interchangeably with “analyze,” it’s a bit more complicated.

Literary deconstructionists were reacting to attempts by New Critics in the 1960s and by structuralists in the 1970s to find an underlying unity in every literary work. Searching for unity is still what many of us do. For instance, we might describe Pride and Prejudice as a systematic exploration of a woman’s different marriage options. Every female character represents a different take on marriage (Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, Caroline Bingley, Miss Darcy, Miss de Bourgh, Charlotte Lucas), with Elizabeth achieving the optimal outcome. Structuralists sometimes plotted out novel plots (pun intended) as schematic diagrams.

Deconstructionists looked at these constructions and uncovered a contradiction at the core of each one, showing how each work inevitably unravels or deconstructs itself. Essentially, they took other people’s interpretations and blew them up. Certain feminist, Marxist, Queer, and other social justice theorists were drawn to deconstruction in order to expose contradictions within prevailing ideologies—say, between the marriage plot and the quest plot for women and between different classes for Marxists.

For these social theorists, deconstruction was a temporary tool, used to clear away obstacles to envisioning more equitable societies and then abandoned. Mainstream deconstruction, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in reconstruction. It was, instead, a radical skepticism, intent on taking things apart without offering anything in return. In other words, it was parasitical, with the result that it eventually came to be seen as irrelevant. It gave way to New Historicism and other approaches in the 1990s.

I believe that Bannon’s version of deconstruction is parasitical. I say this even though he once claimed to be a Leninist who “wanted to destroy the state.” Ronald Radosh of The Daily Beast reported the comments:

“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.

Lenin was famous for locating contradictions, “heightening” them, and exploiting the chaos that ensued. That appears to be Bannon’s approach as well. Why else name an EPA head who is against environmental protection and an education secretary who is against public education?

It is certainly true that liberal democracies have contradictions, some very worrying. Perhaps the most acute contradiction is growing income inequality, which is distorting some of our most fundamental institutions. Liberal democracies, however, at least have as an ideal the good of the whole as they attempt to balance different interests. Bannon’s deconstruction project, by contrast, is only in the interests of a few. He wants to end regulations so that those in power can rip off society more thoroughly. He’s angling for a Putinesque kleptocracy, not a workers paradise.

I became clearer about this after reading a Matthew Yglesias article arguing that Bannon is basically a very good bullshit artist, not unlike his boss/puppet. Yglesias is responding to a post-election Bannon declaration that “Darkness is good … Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

Yglesias rather brilliantly compares Bannon to Hans Gruber, the villain in the first Die Hard movie.” Let’s take a look at it before moving on to Milton.

If for some reason you haven’t seen Die Hard, it’s a movie about a gang of thieves who hold an office building hostage to perpetrate a robbery. Except part of the plan to get away with it involves pretending to be ideologically motivated terrorists. At one point the ringleader, Hans Gruber, is speaking on the phone with an FBI negotiator and rattles off a list of political prisoners being held around the world whose release he is demanding.

It’s just a stalling tactic, designed to get the authorities spinning their wheels for no reason. After rattling off the list, Gruber confesses to a confederate that one of the groups of imprisoned terrorists he’s claiming allegiance to is something he read about in Time Magazine recently.

Yglesias thinks that Bannon, underneath his rhetoric, is just another Republican who favors less regulation. (As Sam Spade puts it,“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) The Vox writer finds nothing substantive in Bannon’s theories:

[F]rankly, I don’t think Bannon spends much time worrying about how he plans to implement an economic program of “America first” nationalism without an administrative state. Or why the Judeo-Christian West is good but Mexico is bad. And of course Bannon isn’t a Satanist. But he knows Satan gets the best lines in Paradise Lost and everyone knows that Darth Vader is a cool badass character and Luke is a lame weenie. But there’s no grand ideological vision here; it’s marketing and clickbait and sloganeering and self-puffery.

At one point, Holly McLane confronts Gruber, saying, “after all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.”

Gruber retorts, “I’m an exceptional thief.”

If Yglesias is right, Bannon provides the non-reading Trump with veneer of policy respectability, thereby obscuring the fact that they’re two well-matched con men out to make a buck. Like Gruber, however, Bannon and Trump can still hurt a lot of people.

Satan too is a bullshit artist. He claims to be a heroic rebel leading his troops to freedom against a tyrant, but he is never out for anyone but himself. His ego, as Douglas Adams writes of Zaphod Beeblebrox, is as big as the universe.

And Satan too hurts a lot of people. After all, if you’re the one who introduced Sin and Death into the world, every other tyrant has to compete for second place.

The GOP might take warning that those angels who are smitten by Satan’s rhetoric end up much worse off. First they are thrown out of Heaven and eventually they all end up as groveling snakes.

In Bannon’s case, however, I could imagine him ending up as a snake with a lot of money. Trump too.

One other thing: Often people use “deconstruct” pretentiously—it sounds more elevated than “analyze” or, for that matter, “destroy.” “Deconstruct” makes it sound like Bannon is doing something more systematic than throwing a wrench into the machinery to see what happens. Maybe deconstruction for him is another way of saying “gum up the works.”

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All Our Seeing Rinsed and Cleansed

Carl Heinrich Bloch, “The Transfiguration”

Transfiguration Sunday

Today in church we celebrate the time when Peter, James and John were granted a glimpse of heaven come to earth: Jesus is revealed to be divine as Moses and Elijah join him on a high mountain. Scottish poet Edwin Muir strives to capture the wonder and the beauty of the moment in “The Transfiguration.”

Here’s Matthew’s account (17:1-9):

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Muir invokes the garden of Eden before the fall to capture the freshness of the moment. A very earthy poet, Muir talks about how everything, even soiled clothing, shepherd huts, and dung heaps, are suddenly shown to be “grained with that fine dust that made the world.” After all, didn’t Jesus say, “To the pure all things are pure” and didn’t God see that the world He created was good? I am reminded of the hymn that we sang at our wedding, “Morning has broken like the first morning.”

Peter’s desire to build a shrine is his attempt to hold on to the moment, as though it is not real unless it leaves some tangible imprint. Muir gets at this human impulse when he has the speaker in his poem wish that the vision could last forever. He is, of course, disappointed:

Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred…

When the moment passes, we are once again lost in labyrinths and tangled in our own devices. We can only imagine this other world that is denied us:

                                            …no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.

Yet there is hope. The poem is filled with images of cleansing and renewal, and the speaker foresees time spiraling backward. In perhaps a reference to “The Dream of the Rood ,” Muir imagines the tormented wood of the cross being dismantled and growing again into a tree. Betrayals will be undone as Humankind and Nature together call out together to Christ to return. All, even Judas, will rediscover the innocence of childhood.

The Transfiguration

By Edwin Muir

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The Shepherds’ hovels shone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, “To the pure all things are pure.”
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those tangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.

But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.

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Not a Reader (and Proud of It)


My brother Jonathan recently alerted me to a Huffington Post article by Houston Barber about “What Happens When a President Doesn’t Like To Read?” The article gives me an excuse to revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s “Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.”

I wrote about Nussbaum’s essay this past election day because she believes that good readers make good voters. As she sees it, literary training is key to a stable democracy:

But the great contribution literature has to make to the life of the citizen is its ability to wrest from our frequently obtuse and blunted imaginations an acknowledgement of those who are other than ourselves, both in concrete circumstances and even in thought and emotion. As [Ralph] Ellison put it, a work of fiction may contribute “to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience.” This contribution makes it a key element in higher education.

Barber points out that Trump is not only uninterested in reading but he’s proud of his disinterest:

Donald Trump doesn’t read books, and it’s not something he’s embarrassed about. When Megyn Kelly asked him during the campaign what the last book he read was, Trump responded “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” The fact is, the words of other people don’t matter too much to him. In his 70-minute convention speech, Trump did not quote a single person other than himself, not even an out-of-context Bible verse or Reagan quip.

Echoing Nussbaum, Barber then lays out some of the specific benefits a president gets from reading, above all establishing “a connection to history and those who have held the office before him”:

There’s no better way to know America than being on the Mississippi River with Mark Twain, or in New York City with F. Scott Fitzgerald, or in Arkansas with Maya Angelou. To have a leader of the country not engaged with its literature betrays the vision of the country set out by the founders.

Barber quotes an English professor making a similar point:

“Books are part of the Great Conversation,” says David Kirby, poet and Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. “They’re the talks we have with those who are different from us and who show us how big and diverse the world is. Trump’s got an entirely different agenda.” Those like David Kirby who devote their life to writing and teaching literature know the dangers of refusing to engage in that Great Conversation. “He certainly acts like somebody who doesn’t read. He has no attention span to speak of, he isn’t reflective, and he is contemptuous of everyone except himself; he doesn’t seem to like even his friends very much, and these aren’t literary qualities.”

I wanted Barber to get a bit more specific about the ramifications of having a non-reader in the White House, but this blog will have many opportunities to do so in the years ahead. Today I’ll just note that the difference between Barack Obama’s vision of America and Trump’s is the difference between one who loves to read and one who doesn’t. For Obama, described by Barber as “one of the biggest book worms the Oval Office has ever seen,” America is a rich tapestry of people and traditions, “e pluribus unum.” Nussbaum says that emphasizing literature is helping turn the academy into such a place as well:

We are now trying to build an academy that will overcome defects of vision and receptivity that marred the humanities departments of earlier eras, an academy in which no group will be invisible in Ellison’s sense. That is in its way a radical political agenda; it is always radical, in any society, to insist on the equal worth of all human beings, and people find all sorts of ways to avoid the claim of that ideal, much though they may pay it lip service. The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love of one’s neighbor was and is radical. In a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven, we should defend that radical agenda as the only one worthy of our conception of democracy and worthy of guiding its future.

The alternative is a vision where entire segments of the American population are reduced to pernicious caricatures: Obama as an African outsider, Latinos as rapists and murderers, Muslims as terrorists, women as beauty ratings, inner cities as hellholes. Trump’s inner narrative is as shallow as it gets.

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Shakespeare Would Support Transgenders

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, “Viola and the Countess”


If good for nothing else, Donald Trump at least is providing teachable moments in my literature classes. This week, as I was teaching Twelfth Night, the president rolled back protections for transgender students. So while one man was centuries ahead of his time with regard to gender questions, the other wants to take us back to the 20th century. Which side are you on?

Yesterday’s Washington Post had the story:

The Trump administration on Wednesday revoked federal protections for transgender students who sought the right to use the public school restrooms that match their gender identity, taking a stand on a contentious issue that has become the central battle over LGBT rights.

Officials with the federal Education and Justice departments notified the U.S. Supreme Court that it was ordering the nation’s schools to disregard memos the Obama administration issued during the past two years that said prohibiting transgender students from using facilities that align with their gender identity violates federal anti-discrimination laws.

I guess it makes too much sense to allow people who identify with the sign on the door (and who dress that way) to use that door. Why suggest the logical thing when you can be rigidly ideological? Shakespeare would be delighted with the progress we have made and disgusted at the rollback.

That’s because he understood, in a profound way, that people can’t always be reduced to their anatomical gender. In Twelfth Night he wrote a play that has women who find they have an inner man and men who find they have an inner woman. In fact, the play features people who are deeply unhappy when they find themselves stuck in a single gender. Only the well-balanced Viola seems equally at home in both genders.

In the play’s opening, Count Orsino is enthralled to discover that he has a soft and sensitive female side, and he does nothing but sit around listening to sweet music (“the food of love”). His unnerved attendants suggest more manly pursuits in the hope that he will recover:

Curio: Will you go hunt, my lord?
Orsino: What, Curio?
Curio: The hart.
Orsino: Why, so I do, the noblest that I have:
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn’d into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me.

Olivia, meanwhile, at first feels like she has to play, to the hilt, the ultra-sensitive women. Then, after encountering Viola, she decides not to mourn her dead brother for seven year but instead become a female version of a courting male.

If Orsino is a once macho, hart-hunting man who has now turned into his stereotyped version of a woman and Olivia is a porcelain woman who has turned into her stereotyped version of a man, neither has achieved anything like a healthy balance. Rather, they are both careening between caricatures. They fall in love with Viola, I think, because she represents a healthy balance.

I’ve composed a horoscope for the Orsinos and Olivias of the world as they read the play. I send it out to all those legislators who are convinced that public order can only be maintained if we insist upon our anatomical genders:

Men with an Orsino complex
You feel stuck in the world’s expectations that you behave as a stereotypical male and appreciate how Viola, in her guise as a man, is able to respond to Orsino with womanly empathy and to Olivia with womanly understanding.  You know that you too have a woman hidden within your male exterior.

You also relate to Viola’s discomfort at being confronted by male aggression (Sir Toby’s duel challenge).  You’ve never felt right that men were supposed to behave this way. Perhaps Viola transforming into a woman at the end of the play captures your own secret fantasies of becoming a woman.

Women with an Olivia complex
You feel stuck in the world’s expectations that you behave as a stereotypical woman and are drawn to the scenes where Viola exercises “male” initiative, whether by dressing as a man, aggressively courting Olivia (on behalf of Orsino), or establishing comradeship with Orsino. Perhaps you relish her seeming transformation from a helpless woman (in the first duel encounter) to one who, tapping into her inner Sebastian, can hold her own (in the subsequent two).

By using the occasion of carnival time (Twelfth Night) as a cover, Shakespeare is able to do justice to our actual complexity. The Trump administration and various GOP legislators are not into human complexity.

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The Ugliness of Racial Resentment

Illus. from Merchant of Venice


This past weekend I saw a disturbing production of The Merchant of Venice at the recreated Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia. Or rather, I saw a production of Merchant of Venice and was therefore disturbed. The most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays cannot be otherwise than disturbing, but I was particularly vulnerable given the outbreaks of anti-Semitism we have been witnessing.

I also gained some new insights into the play that have lessons for us in today’s volatile political climate. People who are being victimized—or feel that they are being victimized—are capable of horrific resentment. Shylock isn’t the only example of this as Portia and Gratiano, as least as presented in the Blackfriars production, are also implacable in their thirst for payback. It’s not a pretty picture.

The play also helps us understand the anger of Trump voters. Many felt so violated at having an African American as their president–Shylock calling the shots–that they were willing to vote for a racist and a misogynist as his successor. Although Obama is no Shylock, they experienced him as one, imagining that he was exacting a pound of flesh for the way African Americans have been treated.

They projected in so doing since Obama, unlike Shylock, made a special effort to rise above grievance. In their desire to restore the old hierarchy, they overrode their doubts about Donald Trump, catching  the Clinton campaign off guard as it tried to peal away Republican voters. (Trump got as much of the traditional GOP vote as Romney did.) They yearned to make Venice great again.

White resentment in the play explodes into the open after Portia performs her legal magic and saves Antonio. In a scene that made me think of Nazi street gangs, Gratiano, a minor character, goes after Shylock, shouting,

Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself:
And yet, thy wealth being forfeit to the state,
Thou hast not left the value of a cord;
Therefore thou must be hanged at the state’s charge.

Gratiano is not the only character that wants to grind Shylock into the dust. My colleague Beth Charlebois, our Shakespearean, said that she has become increasingly disturbed by the figure of Portia, and during the production I could see why. Portia is relentless in her persecution of Shylock, pushing for his ruin and even death, even as the others willing to cut him some slack:

                                         Tarry, Jew:
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender’s life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.
In which predicament, I say, thou stand’st;
For it appears, by manifest proceeding,
That indirectly and directly too
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant; and thou hast incurr’d
The danger formerly by me rehearsed [execution].
Down therefore and beg mercy of the duke.

Again, the image that came to my mind—and that was deliberately invoked by the production—was of Nazi youths forcing Jews to prostrate themselves before them in the street.

Just as many Trump supporters felt that Obama was shoving executive orders down their throats and now revel in Trump playing turnabout with his Muslim bans and immigrant round-ups, so Gratiano takes pleasure in throwing back at Shylock Shylock’s own language. Because Shylock praised Portia as a veritable Daniel (this when the verdict appeared to be going his way), Gratiano takes up the allusion after the tide turns:

A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew!
Now, infidel, I have you on the hip.


A Daniel, still say I, a second Daniel!
I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.

Portia, meanwhile, whose dead father has not allowed her to choose her own husband, enjoys the new power she gains by crossdressing. She goes after Shylock much harder than her husband does, saying, “The Jew shall have all justice; soft! no haste:/ He shall have nothing but the penalty.” This after Bassanio offers to pay back the Shylock debt.

Bassanio and Antonio seem to be nicer than Shylock and Portia, but that’s just privilege speaking. Since their kind rules over others, including Jews and women, they don’t feel the need to assert themselves so forcefully. Shylock and Portia, by contrast, chafe under their second class status and mimic, when they have the chance, the ruling class. Think of Shylock as a Robespierre.

Shylock is put back in his place by the end of the play, but Portia manages to elevate herself, albeit at the expense of the Jew. She knows she has to fight for her power since she has learned from her husband that he would sacrifice her to save Antonio. (“But life itself, my wife, and all the world,/ Are not with me esteemed above thy life.”) She succeeds where Shylock fails, perhaps because she is white, rich, and beautiful. Think of her as any of those rightwing women who manage to grab power, say Phyllis Schlafly.

By obtaining, as lawyer, Bassanio’s wedding ring and then castigating him, as wife, for having lost it, she is able to maintain leverage. She even gets Antonio to agree to keep Bassanio in line:

I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.

Although we can’t ignore that Portia’s power grab comes at the expense of an oppressed group, we can understand why she does what she does. And at least she gets something for her pains. Those lower class Trump supporters who celebrate as Trump sticks it to Muslims and Latinos don’t realize that they too are Shylocks. At the end of the day, Antonio and Bassanio rule the world, and they look down on everyone else.

Resentment arises in part from the knowledge that you have been played. You rage against other oppressed people so that you don’t have to face up to that fact.

More anti-semitism from the Trump administration: In case you were wondering whether Presidential Senior Advisor Steve Bannon has abandoned the anti-semitism of his Breitbart days, the Chicago Tribune caught him in an anti-semitic dog whistle at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday:

[B]y Thursday, Bannon was smugly taunting the press at the Conservative Political Action Conference, saying: “They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.”

“Globalist media” is a loaded term that bubbled up out of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of a media controlled by Jewish elites, a concept akin to “international bankers,” cabals of wealthy Jews supposedly plotting to take over the world.

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After Surgery, World Is No Longer a Monet

Claude Monet, “Houses of Parliament, London”


I’ve been feeling unbalanced since having cataract surgery on my left eye three weeks ago. While that eye sees just fine, the other sees things hazy. After all, it no longer has the benefit of my glasses.

I’ve been reassured that the brain will adjust and that, after a while, I won’t notice anything. If true, a Helena passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream may apply: 

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Theseus too has things to say about how the mind takes precedence over the eye:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Granted, Helena and Theseus are talking about the mind, not the brain, but their observations about the unreliability of eyes still seem to apply.

Unfortunately, as a reader I am absolutely dependent on my eyes, which is why I opted for the surgery. I can’t take the route of Claude Monet in a wonderful Lisa Mueller poem that one of my friends sent me:

Monet Refuses the Operation

By Lisa Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

 Before my surgery, the world was beginning to look like an impressionist painting. Especially challenging was reading titles on bookstore and library shelves. What I have now is far superior, even though I no longer see blue vapor without end.

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Fundamentalists Send Readers to Atwood

Elisabeth Moss as handmaid Offred


First George Orwell’s 1984 found its way onto the New York Times best seller (I discuss the reasons here), and now it’s happening with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). I’ve written posts several times in the past (for instance, here and here) about Margaret Atwood’s account of an environmentally ravaged future society where the few remaining fertile women are enslaved as handmaids.

Back in 2013 I was somewhat complacent about such a thing ever happening. While I wrote that “Proponents of women’s reproductive rights will need to keep speaking out and applying political pressure,” I added, “I think we’re a long way from Gilead at the moment.”

I think we’re still a long way from Gilead, but suddenly you can see if from here. As rightwing fundamentalist Christians salivate over the prospect of overturning Roe v Wade and even banning certain forms of birth control (for some, all birth control), we are waking up to the need to fight to protect freedoms once taken for granted.

An Oklahoma lawman recently revealed what many of these people secretly think:

“I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant,” he explained. “So that’s where I’m at. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”

If seeing women as hosts sounds like an outlier, remember that not long ago many anti-abortion politicians were being defeated in elections if they didn’t make an exception for rape and incest. Now many embrace the extremist position without apparent penalty. In her novel, Atwood describes how extremism can become a new normal.

For instance, here’s Offred, the handmaid of the title, thinking back to her old life. She is incredulous at how much freedom she used to have:

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

I wrote the following in a previous post:

It all begins, in The Handmaid’s Tale, with an extreme instance here and an extreme instance there. The following passage reminds me of the murder of George Tiller, the Wichita, Kansas abortion doctor, following inflammatory statements by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly:

There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Will we ever get to the point where abortion doctors are hung and publicly displayed? Probably not. But did you predict that we’d reach a point where women are being prosecuted for performing self abortions? Under the Trump administration we are learning that, if you give certain people power, they will use it in ways that previously seemed inconceivable.

Dystopian novels are thought exercises, and right now Atwood’s novel is helping us imagine what Trump and the GOP are capable of. That’s why people are buying it.


Previous posts on women controlling their own bodies

A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape

Why Roe v. Wade? Read Cider House

Threatened by Female Empowerment

John Irving’s Defense of Abortion

How Right Wing Would Respond to Tess

Ryan, Abortion, and Hardy’s Angel Clare

King Lear’s Sexual Epithets vs. Women 

Things Fall Apart in Bishops vs. Nuns

Women Still Treated as Hysterical

Unruly Women Playing Cards

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