Chaucer’s Wife, an Early Gaslighter


When I was teaching The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale last week, a student made a Trumpian reference that has me rethinking Chaucer’s work. When Shannon Russ observed that the Wife of Bath “gaslights” her first three husbands, I realized that many of her strategic tactics resemble Donald Trump’s “deliberate chaos.” Her use of chaos, however, is far more defensible.

“Gaslighting,” a reference to a 1944 Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer film, occurs when someone deliberately attempts to undermine someone else’s sanity. In the film, the husband attempts to rid himself of his sensitive wife by claiming that what she sees is not real. Critics of Donald Trump have accused him of gaslighting the American public with his steady stream of falsehoods, such as that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered as they watched 9-11, that millions of non-citizens voted for Hillary Clinton, and that his inauguration outdrew Barack Obama’s. The list, of course, goes on and on.

In the past, drawing on Orwell’s 1984, I’ve suggested that such falsehoods may be intended more to test loyalty than to deceive: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Or, “Who are you going to believe, your authoritarian president or the press?” Gaslighting calls upon people to surrender their judgment to another.

The Wife of Bath is married off as a 12-year-old child to an old husband, but somewhere along the line she finds a way to exert a fair amount of power. Among her tactics is accusing her husbands, after a night of drinking, of misogynist slurs. Her list, drawn from the rich strain of anti-woman literature that the monasteries were pumping out, includes everything from comparing women to spaniels to tree caterpillars to houses fires (one of the best ways for getting a man out of the house). There’s one problem, however: she’s making it all up. Her husbands never said any of these things:

You wise wives, that can understand.
Thus should you speak and accuse them wrongfully,
For half so boldly can there no man

Swear and lie, as a woman can.               
I do not say this concerning wives that are wise,
Unless it be when they are ill advised.               
A wise wife, if she knows what is good for her,
Shall deceive him by swearing the bird is crazy,
And prove it by taking witness of her own maid
Who is in league with her.

And later on:

Gentlemen, right thus, as you have heard,
I firmly swore to my old husbands
That thus they said in their drunkenness;
And all was false, but I took witness
On [apprentice] Janekin, and on my niece also.               
O Lord! The pain I did them and the woe,
Entirely guiltless (they were), by God’s sweet pain!               
For like a horse I could bite and whinny.               
I could complain, and yet was in the wrong…

Her reason for gaslighting, she then explains, is to cover up her own faults. The best defense is to go on the attack. Or as she puts it, “Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt”:

Or else many times had I been ruined.               
Whoever first comes to the mill, first grinds;
I complained first, so was our war ended.               
They were very glad to excuse themselves quickly
Of things of which they were never guilty in their lives.

Gaslighting for the Wife, in other words, is a tactic of distraction, which is what it is for Trump as well. One becomes so focused on his falsehoods that one ignores the rest.

The tactic is more defensible for an assertive woman in a patriarchal society than it is for a patriarch. The Wife doesn’t have much leverage. It is clear, from her defensiveness, that she feels keenly the attacks of misogynist monks. I have little doubt that many of the sermons in her local church are delivered with her in mind, which is why she is so conversant with how scholars have twisted the Bible to condemn her multiple marriages. I can also imagine a mocking reception from the 28 male pilgrims: some interrupt and insult her (the pardoner, the friar) and many of the others, I’m sure, are smirking or rolling their eyes.

Her defense is to throw everyone off continually, sometimes by gaslighting, sometimes by wild and incoherent arguments, sometimes by blatant contradictions. Eventually, every man who meets her gives gives up.

As I interpret her tale, what she most wants out of life is mutual respect between men and women. She’s never going to get respect in a patriarchal society that worships the quiet and submissive Virgin Mary, however. Therefore, in her tale she claims that women most desire sovereignty. Enforced respect is not as good as respect freely given, but you go for what you can get. One really can’t blame her.

Trump too thrives on misdirection and chaos. In addition to gaslighting, he too constantly attacks, he too contradicts himself regularly, he too is sometimes so incoherent that people stop holding him accountable. His flurry of badly executed executive orders are not unlike the Wife’s wild arguments against medieval scholastics.

What’s different is that Trump heads the most power country in the world. He’s not fighting guerrilla warfare to achieve what little power he can as an oppressed gender. He’s in charge of venerable institutions and holds the fate of millions in his hands.

In his case, gaslighting is criminally irresponsible.

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Trump’s Faustian Emptiness


A couple of weeks ago I took a close look at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in light of the GOP’s “Faustian bargain” with Donald Trump. In return for tax cuts for the rich and shredding the social safety net, Republicans appear willing to turn a blind eye to collusion with a hostile foreign power, conflicts of interest, bigotry and misogyny, erratic behavior, and a host of other things. Today, however, I turn the Faustian light on Trump himself. The play gives us such insight into the man that it is essential reading for our time.

That’s because Marlowe brilliantly lays out the working of a narcissist, especially the emptiness that propels such individuals. Nothing narcissists achieve can ever be enough, which helps explains their frenetic activity. They are so focused on self that this self becomes the measurement of everything. Faustus only cares that he cannot live forever, not that his gifts can save whole cities from the plague. “Populist” Trump doesn’t care about about his fans, only that they worship him.

Both Faustus and Trump initially promise that, if they are given special powers, they will accomplish great things. Among both sets of promises, interestingly enough, is a wall:

I’ll have them [the devil spirits] wall all Germany with brass,
And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg;
I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk,
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad;
I’ll levy soldiers with the coin they bring,
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And reign sole king of all the provinces;
Yea, stranger engines for the brunt of war,
Than was the fiery keel at Antwerp-bridge,
I’ll make my servile spirits to invent.

We have yet to see which promises Trump will deliver on but, if Faustus is any indication, bet the under. We don’t see any walls or great military victories but, rather, pranks played on the pope, magic tricks performed for various luminaries, a pair of antlers placed on a rival, and a deal involving a horse that sounds a lot like Trump stiffing his subcontractors.

Trump boasts to various foreign heads about his election results, sends out angry tweets about Saturday Night Live, entertains guests by turning Mar-a-Lago into a public Situation Room, and figures out ways to monetize the presidency.

Both men are prey to the seven deadly sins, especially pride. In Trump’s case we also see envy in his competitive boasting, wrath in his attacks on all detractors, covetousness in his business dealings, sloth in his disinterest in briefings, and lechery everywhere. I can’t answer for gluttony but I suspect it’s there.

Look also at the kind of relationships each man gets. Mephosophilis can’t fulfill Faustus’s demand for a wife because, when one defines oneself by power and domination, a soul-filled relationship is impossible. You can’t love another if you are only focused on yourself.

Instead, Faustus must settle for a “hot whore” and then, at the end of his life, a simulacrum of Helen of Troy. Faustus thinks that this beautiful woman will hold off death (“Helen, make me immortal with a kiss”), but all she can do is distract him from the emptiness at his core.

I don’t know anything about Trump’s relationship with Melania but they don’t appear to be soul mates. A trophy wife cannot touch a man who is hollow.

Neither Faustus nor Trump ever seem to be happy with their power, which is why they are so hungry for adulation from others. Faustus, the foremost scholar of his day, dwindles into an after dinner act, living for the applause of emperors and dukes. Trump can’t get over the fact that he lost the popular vote and began his presidency by embarking on an ego-stoking victory tour of states that he won.

Narcissists pay a price for their self-absorption but sometimes not (unfortunately for the rest of us) until they are on their death bed. Faustus dies in agony because Reality finally lets him know, definitively, that he’s not in control. Death can’t be replaced with alternative facts.

The major difference between the two men (other than Faustus’s massive intelligence) is that Marlowe’s character at least has some self awareness. He realizes that something is missing and, in his angst, contemplates suicide. His search for distractions is a way to take his mind off that abyss that looms before him.

I haven’t seen signs that Trump is self aware. Instead, he thrashes around in vindictive anger and insecurity. Like Faustus, he is in a private hell (“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it”). He cannot grow into the presidency because there is no seed to grow.

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Teaching Euripides in the Age of Title IX

Henryk Hector Siemiradzk, “Bacchanalia”


Recently, something happened to me for the first time in my 35 years of college teaching: a student reported me to our Title IX officer for using sexist language.

I explained the context of the remarks to the officer, and he will relay my explanation to the student. If the student is satisfied, that will be the official extent of it. The affair, however, has alerted me to how changes in the political landscape may require changes in the classroom. I now realize that I need to be more sensitive about the use of certain words, even if (as was the case) I was using them to characterize views that I abhor. In today’s post I sort through the issues.

Here’s the note I received from the officer:

I’m writing because I have received a report from someone who is concerned about comments you’ve allegedly made in your ENGL 106 course:

  • In a conversation about a scene in Flight Behavior, in which a man and a woman are fighting, you referred to the woman as “bitching” at the man, and asked a student if there are any psychological theories on “women bitching at their husbands.” 
  • In a discussion of The Bacchae, you described a woman who was raped by Zeus and then later said that everyone in the village thought the woman was sleeping around and was a slut. A student asked you not to use degrading language like that, and you said you would, although you later referred to women going into the mountains to dance with Dionysus as sluts. 

I recognize “bitch” and “slut” to be two ugly words, ones that show up far to often in our daily discourse (not to mention at 2016 Donald Trump rallies). In Flight Behavior, the B- word is not actually used, but the protagonist realizes that, as she scolds her husband in a dollar store, that he sees her as one. Even worse, she feels that she herself is one. Her frustration and self-loathing grow out of her feelings of entrapment, and she needs to change her life if she is to move into healthier relationships, both with others and with herself.

In short, the B-word is a symptom of social and familial dysfunction. It is a word used to demean, and I should have been more careful about using it, perhaps using air quotes or not using it at all. Furthermore, it was insensitive of me to ask a woman why the phrase is used in social discourse. This was probably my biggest error, and I apologize.

It is only in the past ten years or so that I have started encountering “slut” on a regular basis. Previously I associated it with 18th century plays: Mac the Knife casually uses it with every woman he encounters, especially Jenny Diver (“Ah Jenny, thou art a dear slut”).  In the 1990s, however, I had students telling me that it is common middle school and high school usage. We concluded that the label is used cloak sexual anxieties: if you label someone else a slut, it’s a way of distancing yourself from your confusion about your own sexual feelings.

I used the word while teaching The Bacchae because it’s somewhat difficult to explain why Dionysus is punishing Agave and her sisters. We are only told that they disrespected Dionysus’s mother—Semele, their sister—but the full emotional impact of that disrespect can elude students. Dionysus, son of Semele and Zeus, explains how they discounted his mother’s story:

                                                             Now Thebes
is my choice to be the first place I have filled
with cries of ecstasy, clothed with fawnskin, but thyrsus
in hand—the ivy-covered spear—because my mother’s
sisters—of all people, they should have known better—
said Dionysus was no son of Zeus. They said
Semele was seduced by some man or other and
put the blame on Zeus (as Cadmus runningly advised her)
for her mistake in bed, and Zeus killed her—they yawped
everywhere—because she pretended to be his wife.

“Yawping everywhere” is their “slut shaming.” When Agave and her sisters later head for the mountains, King Pentheus sees them acting no differently than Semele. He doesn’t use the word “slut”—that was my attempt to use the students’ language to characterize his views—but “priestesses of Aphrodite” is pretty much the same thing:

These women of ours have left their homes
and run away to the dark mountains, pretending
to be Bacchants. It’s this brand-new god,
Dionysus, whoever that is; they’re dancing for him!
They gather in throngs around full bowls
of wine; then one by one they sneak away
to lonely places where they sleep with men.
Priestesses they call themselves! Maenads!
It’s Aphrodite they put first, not Bacchus.

In point of fact, the women are not sneaking away to sleep with men. That’s just Pentheus’s dirty mind at work. Rather remarkably for fifth century Greece, a far healthier description is provided by the seer Teiresias. To celebrate one’s body is to honor Dionysus, he tells the king:

It is not Dionysus who will force virtue on women
in matters of sex. You must look for this in their natures.
Even in a Bacchic revel, a woman who is really virtuous
will not be corrupted.

There is nothing dirty in the Bacchae’s beautiful hymn to Dionysus:

When the ebony flute, melodious
and sacred, plays the holy song
and thunderously incites the rush of women
to mountain, to mountain
then, in delight, like a colt with its mother
at pasture, she frolics, a light-footed Bacchant.

Pentheus and his mother and aunts, not the Bacchae, are the corrupt ones. They are forerunners of Rush Limbaugh, who called Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” when she argued that birth control should be a mandated part of the Affordable Care Act. If you think that way, Teiresias tells Pentheus, “you are as sick as if you had been drugged.”

This sickness shows up in those politicians (the current Alabama governor comes to mind) who preach family values but have secret mistresses. Dionysus, a nature god who understands how we degrade the gift of sex, uses his knowledge of Pentheus’s repressed longings to bring him down:

Dionysus: Wait.
Would you like to see the women gathered on the mountains?
Pentheus: Of course. I’d give a pot of money for that.
Dionysus: Really? Isn’t this great passion of yours rather sudden?
Pentheus: Well, it would hurt me to see them if they’re drunk, but…
Dionysus: Still, while you hated it, you’d enjoy the spectacle.
Pentheus: Yes, of course, and I’d be quiet and sit under a pine tree.

In the past, I’ve assumed that the students could see that I was on Dionysus’s side in this conflict—that I am against men who deal with their sexual repression by degrading liberated women–but I can see now that I must spell out what is wrong with using such language. After all, my students have just seen fellow voters turn their country over to a man who demeans and sexually harasses women. Why should they give a male teacher the benefit of the doubt?

On the other item mentioned in the complaint: I was called out for moving too easily from saying that Semele slept with Zeus to Semele was raped by Zeus. I wondered afterwards why I had insensitively conflated an act of sex and an act of power domination and realized that I had fallen into the mythic tradition, which often treats the two as the same: Hades carries off Persephone (the Latin word “rapere” means “to take away by force”), Zeus has some kind of intercourse with Leda (it certainly seems like a rape in Yeats’s version), and Apollo tries to rape Daphne.

I also had in the back of my mind that Semele was like Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman,” for whom “consent” is a meaningless concept. Kingston is wondering why her aunt in China would have had an improbable adulterous affair, which led to the villagers tearing apart her family’s house and to her aunt committing suicide:

My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex. Women in the old China did not choose. Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.

Perhaps she had encountered him in the fields or on the mountain where the daughters-in-law collected fuel. Or perhaps he first noticed her in the marketplace. He was not a stranger because the village housed no strangers. She had to have dealings with him other than sex. Perhaps he worked an adjoining field, or he sold her the cloth for the dress she sewed and wore. His demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told.

In short, power imbalances between men and women can eradicate the distinction between rape and consensual sex. Language must be handled with care if it is to do the situation justice. To have this pointed out can lead to fruitful conversations.

I don’t know who reported my language use—it could have been anyone, including a roommate not in the class—but I am glad that he or she did. It will make me a more sensitive teacher, and sensitivity will be called for next week when I teach Rape of the Lock in my Couples Comedy class. The Baron’s sexual harassment of Belinda may look different to students who, during the election, saw their current president boasting, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything … grab them by the pussy.”

Today we know that Clarissa’s advice to laugh the affair off is not enough. We can no longer tell a harassment victim, “And trust me, dear, good humor can prevail,/When airs, and flight, and screams, and scolding fail.” Today, thankfully, we can refer the matter to our Title IX officer.

Posted in Euripides, Gay (John), Kingsolver (Barbara), Kingston (Maxine Hong), Pope (Alexander) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make All Your Fantasies Come True

René Magritte, “The Lovers”

Tuesday – Valentine’s Day

When I was in high school, I learned how to make all my sexual fantasies come true. My teacher was Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman, which I listened to over and over. (I was fluent in French.) To be sure, knowing the secret and incorporating it into my life are not the same, and it took me several decades of married life to fully embrace the opera’s insight. It never left my mind, however, and now serves as a guide.

Tales of Hoffman pulls from the uncanny fantasies of 19th century Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffman is regaling his friends in a tavern with stories of his three fantasy women: a wind-up doll that he initially thinks is real, a courtesan for whom he sacrifices his reflection, and an opera soprano who dies tragically but beautifully when she sings against her doctor’s orders.

The lesson I learned from the opera is that, while no real person can ever match the fantasy in your head, the head has a way of compensating. Hoffmann realizes this at the end of the opera.

Up to that point, every one of Hoffman’s fantasy mistresses comes up short, thanks to the machinations of villainous men who always seems to be the same man. Hoffman’s mechanical doll is smashed, his courtesan betrays him, and his singer dies. We then learn that Stella, the opera singer that Hoffman awaits, is a combination of all three women: she has doll-like innocence, courtesan sensuality, and artistic soulfulness. She appears to be the ideal made incarnate in the flesh.

Yet this woman Hoffmann loses as well, and not just because he falls into a drunken stupor at the wrong moment. The man who escorts Stella away, like all the other men who have intervened in his love affairs, is Reality. No woman can live up to the fantasy in Hoffman’s mind.

With one exception. Hoffmann’s poetic muse appears to him in his dream and promises to be the one woman who never lets him down:

And I?
I, the faithful friend
whose hand wiped dry your tears?
Through whom sorrow, numbed,
escapes in dreams into the skies?
Am I nothing?
May the tempest of your passions be stilled!
The man is no more; poet, be thou reborn!
Je t’aime.
Hoffman! Be mine.

Hoffman’s avowal of love to Poetry occurs in a soaring aria, made all the more poignant by Stella being reluctantly escorted away by Count Lindorf immediately thereafter:

O God! With what ecstasy you fire my soul!
Like heavenly music your voice has pierced me.
My whole being is consumed with gentle, glowing fire!
Your glances into mine have poured their flame
like radiant stars!
And, o my beloved Muse, I feel
your perfumed breath pass
over my lips and eyes!
Beloved Muse, I am thine!

I met the love of my life 44 years ago, and while my bond with Julia goes deeper than any fantasy, it is also true that she didn’t resemble my fantasy woman. (Nor, for that matter, did I resemble her fantasy man.) Now, she was much better than any fantasy, and we have grown together in ways that no fantasy couple could have. That didn’t mean that the fantasy dissolved, however.

Sometimes Julia has indulged me and made gestures towards my fantasy, wearing certain clothes and shoes. I have appreciated her generous spirit for doing so and have held those moments forever in my memory. At other times, I have felt frustrated that she didn’t conform to my fantasy, she felt suffocated, and tensions arose. That’s part of the work of marriage.

Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that, even if Julia were to resemble my fantasy exactly, it would not be enough. In fact, the closer she got, the more my fantasy would be exposed as unreal. It would become too evident that Reality, like Count Lindorf, would inexorably show up and escort this fantasy Julia away.

So I took my lesson from Offenbach and now live and go to bed with two women. One is infirm flesh but is warm and loving and possesses a beautiful soul. The other brings in a special luminescence but, like Doctor Faustus’s Helen of Troy, is vaporous and empty. If I had to choose, I would choose the first, but I don’t have to choose. I touch the one and imagine the other.

This ideal arrangement I imagine lasting for the remainder of my married life. All my sexual fantasies have come true.

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Hughes Dreams the Real American Dream

Norman Rockwell, “Spirit of America”


I have found few articles about the new Trump administration more chilling than one by Slate columnist James Bouie. It’s about the white nationalism that is driving the president and those around him. I predict I’ll be turning to Langston Hughes a lot over the next four years.

Apparently Trumpism has an articulate defender in one Michael Anton, a former George W. Bush administration speechwriter whom New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait describes as America’s “leading authoritarian intellectual.” Anton has now joined the Trump administration. Here’s what he believes:

To Anton, the rising share of the nonwhite population is a foreign invasion: “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle,” he writes. He describes the children of immigrants as “ringers to form a permanent electoral majority.” The racial and political implications of this argument are both clear and extreme: Anton believes the white Republican base is the only legitimate governing coalition. Democratic governments are inherently illegitimate by dint of their racial cast.

Bouie points out that Anton is not the only one in the new Trump administration with these views:

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, his former aide Stephen Miller, and right-wing media mogul Stephen Bannon occupy prominent positions in the present administration. Like Anton, they hold deep antagonism to immigrants and immigration, opposition to their equality within American society, and nostalgia for a time when prosperity was the province of the native-born and a select few “assimilated” immigrants. But these aren’t just ideologues with jobs in a friendly administration. They are the architects of Trump’s policy, the executors of a frighteningly coherent political ideology.


Now we’re faced with the extraordinary: A White House whose chief thinkers and architects are white nationalists, keepers of a dangerous tradition in our history, with an unprecedented opportunity to pull the United States back a century to an era of unvarnished nativism and prejudice. The past three weeks are likely just the beginning; we are sure to see even more action against immigrants and Muslims, even more tolerance for the worst forces in American life.

In this usage, white nationalist isn’t a pejorative; it’s the best term we have for the ideology of the Trump administration, one that gives coherence to its actions and approach. White nationalist helps us see how the expansive refugee ban is tied to the efforts to deny government benefits to legal residents and is tied to the promise by Trump to protect entitlements for those who receive them. It helps us see how his “populism” excludes tens of millions of Americans, and why he seems more interested in narrow enthusiasm versus broad popularity. And it gives a sense of what might follow in a Trump administration: not just demonization of disfavored minorities but possible attempts to expand the welfare state for the “deserving,” defined by race—a kind of welfare chauvinism. As he did during the campaign, Trump may adopt slogans and ideas from the left and right, not because he’s really a conservative or really a liberal, but because white nationalism exists outside the familiar divide. It confounds the left-right spectrum as we understand it in the United States. Trumpish policy won’t fall neatly into our old categories of liberal and conservative. Instead, it will turn on the question of what strengthens this basic notion that ours is a white nation.

We may see an all-out assault on voting rights in the upcoming months, what with first Trump and now Stephen Miller talking repeatedly about non-existent voter fraud. As we’ve seen in any number of states, “voter fraud” is just an excuse to suppress the vote of traditional Democratic constituencies, such as African Americans and the poor. I don’t think the administration will take us all the way back to Jim Crow, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

Poetry can’t hold back an aggressive president or Congress, of course, but it can help sustain us as we resist. I came across this Hughes poem in a wonderful Salon article by Isaac Rosenberg that reminds us what we are fighting for.

Poetic reminders are no small thing. “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1935 during the Great Depression, is a powerful counterargument to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It identifies American diversity, not American whiteness, as the key to America’s greatness.

As Rosenberg points out, in the poem

Hughes masterfully constructs a platform on which the parenthetical voice takes center stage, speaking for all the forgotten ones from all over the world who have come to America to make its promise real.

When, in his inauguration speech, Trump talked about “the forgotten men and women,” he was specifically talking about the forgotten white men and women. Hughes talks about all men and women and, unlike Trump–who is one of the leeches mentioned in the poem–he really means what he says:

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—
O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

We’re already beginning to see the “rot of graft, and stealth, and lies.” I can’t do better than Rosenberg in applying the poem to our current situation:

People around the world today look to America, trembling in fear at the sight of President Trump and trembling in hope at the sight of the resistance against him. Because America — as Langston Hughes understood it — really is the collective hope and promise of the world.

Americans of all descriptions increasingly are standing up to fight for that hope and promise. Donald Trump’s notion of America is weak and puny in comparison. His notion, in a word, is a loser.

Want to make America great again? Make it reflect the vision of Langston Hughes. Make it a product of our daily collective struggle. Make it great for the least among us, for the most despised. Make it great for whomever Donald Trump would attack the most viciously, would torture, spit on, mock and ridicule. Only then will it be America for all of us. Only then will it be America at all.


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Suffering and God’s Apparent Silence

Cover art for Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”

Spiritual Sunday

I have been profoundly moved by Shusaku Endo’s Silence, recommended to me by Sarah Fisher in my book discussion group. The novel is about Christian missionaries traveling to 17th century Japan at a time when Christians were tortured and killed if they were discovered. The “silence” in the title is the seeming silence of God, at least as experienced by Father Rodriguez, the young and idealistic Portuguese missionary.

Rodriguez sneaks into Japan thrilled by tales of heroic martyrdom. As he witnesses the suffering of the Christian converts, however, he begins to doubt God’s existence. For instance, we see these doubts after he watches three peasants get tied to stakes in the ocean and battered to death by the waves:

The sound of those waves that echoed in the dark like a muffled drum; the sound of those waves all night long, as they broke meaninglessly, receded, and then broke again on the shore. This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued.

No, no! I shook my head. If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion? (But supposing…of course, supposing, I mean.) From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist….

This was a frightening fancy. If he does not exist, how absurd the whole thing becomes. What an absurd drama become the lives of Mokichi and Ichizo, bound to the stake and washed by the waves. And the missionaries who spent three years crossing the sea to arrive at this country—what an illusion was theirs. Myself, too, wandering here over the desolate mountains—what an absurd situation! Plucking the grass as I went along I chewed it with my teeth, suppressing these thoughts that rose nauseatingly in my throat. I knew well, of course, that the greatest sin against God was despair; but the silence of God was something I could not fathom. “The Lord preserved the just man when godless folk were perishing all around him. Escape he should when fire came down upon the Cities of the Plain.” Yet now, when the barren land was already emitting smoke while the fruit on the trees was still unripe, surely he should speak but a word for the Christians.

I ran, slipping down the slope. Whenever I slowed down, the ugly thought would come bubbling up into consciousness bringing an awful dread. If I consented to this thought, then my whole past to this very day was washed away in silence.

Rodriguez becomes particularly disturbed when he hears that his model, Father Ferreira, has “apostatized,” which is to say, publicly renounced his faith. To be sure, he might have done so because of the various tortures that are meted out, including being doused with boiling water or getting hung upside down over a pit. When Rodriguez finally meets Ferreira, however, he learns that he has apostatized of his own free will.

Except not entirely. The Japanese authorities have set it up so that Japanese Christians, even if they have apostatized, will continue to be tortured if the missionaries refuse to do so themselves. Neither Ferreira nor Rodriguez can bear that responsibility. Rodriguez even recognizes that he has been guilty of a kind of pride in his feelings of superiority. He finally agrees to trample upon the cross or “fumie”—the action the symbolizes apostatizing—because he hears his savior calling upon him to do so:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

The cock crowing, of course, is a reference to Peter’s betrayal. Rodriguez has previously failed to acknowledge that we are all Peters at one time or another. This realization leads him to forgive a Judas figure, the lapsed Christian who has betrayed him. His revulsion for this character throughout the novel finally has to give way to recognition of their common humanity.

The priest knows that he will be condemned by the Catholic Church for his apostasy. Nor is he ever entirely sure if his actions were selfless or selfish. For instance, here he is imagining himself defending himself before the church authorities:

“What do you understand? You Superiors in Macao, you in Europe!” He wanted to stand face to face with them in the darkness and speak in his own defense. “You live a carefree life in tranquility and security, in a place where there is no storm and no torture—it is there that you carry on your apostolate. There you are esteemed as great ministers of God. You send out soldiers into the raging turmoil of the battlefield. But generals who warm themselves by the fire in a tent should not reproach the soldiers that are taken prisoner…” (But no, this is only my self-justification. I’m deceiving myself.) The priest shook his head weakly. (Why even now am I attempting this ugly self-defense?)

I fell. But, Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith. The clergy will ask themselves why I fell. Was it because the torture of the pit was unendurable? Yes. I could not endure that moaning of those peasants suspended in the pit. As Ferreira spoke to me his tempting words, I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved. Yes, that was it. And yet, in the last analysis, I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness.

I acknowledge this. I am not concealing my weakness. I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro [the Judas figure] and myself. And yet, rather than this I know that my Lord is different from the God that is preached in the churches.

Endo doesn’t allow for any tidy conclusions. His novel captures the full complexity of our suffering humanity.

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Humiliation, a Lit Department Game

Yue Minjun


To end the week in a light-hearted fashion, I share the rules of “Humiliation,” a game that appears in David Lodge’s campus novel Changing Places (1975). Later in the post I humiliate myself.

The game is introduced to Euphoric State University’s English Department by British exchange professor Philip Swallow. One of the characters describes it as follows:

The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.

All literature professors have works they feel secretly guilty for not having read, so this self-outing is a chance to come clean. Or to humiliate oneself publicly, depending on how one sees it. In the novel, the game presents one faculty member with an intolerable contradiction, ultimately costing him his job:

You know Howard [Ringbaum], he has a pathological urge to succeed and a pathological fear of being thought uncultured, and this game set his two obsessions at war with each other, because he could succeed in the game only by exposing a gap in his culture. At first his psyche just couldn’t absorb the paradox and he named some eighteenth-century book so obscure I can’t even remember the name of it. Of course, he came last in the final score, and sulked. It was a stupid game, he said, and refused to play the next round. “I pass, I pass,” he said sneeringly, like Mrs. Elton on Box Hill…But I could see he was following the play attentively, knitting his brows and twisting his napkin in his fingers as the point of the game began to dawn on him. It’s quite a groovy game, actually, a kind of intellectual strip poker. For instance, it came out that Luke Hogan has never read Paradise Regained. I mean, I know it isn’t his field, but to think you can get to be Chairman of the English Department at Euphoric State without ever having read Paradise Regained makes you think, right? I could see Howard taking this in, going a bit pale when he realized that Luke was telling the truth. Well, on the third round, Sy was leading the field with Hiawatha, Mr. Swallow being the only other person who hadn’t read it, when suddenly Howard slammed his fist on the table, jutted his jaw about six feet over the table and said:


Well, of course, we all laughed, not very much because it didn’t seem much of a joke. In fact, it wasn’t a joke at all. Howard admitted to having seen the Lawrence Olivier movie, but insisted that he had never read the text of Hamlet. Nobody believed him of course, and this made him sore as hell. He said did we think he was lying and Sy more or less implied that we did. Upon which Howard flew into a great rage and insisted on swearing a solemn oath that he had never read the play. Sy apologized through tight lip for having doubted his word. By this time, of course, we were all cold sober with embarrassment. Howard left, and the rest of us stood around for a while trying to pretend nothing had happened.

And then the consequences:

A piquant incident, you must admit—but wait till I tell you the sequel. Howard Ringbaum unexpectedly flunked his review three days later and it’s generally supposed that this was because the English Department dared not give tenure to a man who publicly admitted to not having read Hamlet.

Humiliation wouldn’t have the same bite today. Lodge’s novel was written in 1975, when the traditional canon still prevailed. I began graduate school that year and the following summer spent all my time studying for a Masters exam that covered all periods.

Speaking for myself, I’ll admit to not having read Paradise Regained and indeed feel a little shame at not having done so given that it’s in my period (the Restoration and 18th Century). Nowadays, however, I suspect that over 50% of English profs have not read it. Similarly, I suspect few have read Hiawatha. I have but for a quirky reason: as a child, I went in for long, dramatic 19th century narrative poems, like The Wreck of the Hesperus (also by Longfellow) and Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight.

So where might I score points?

Well, I haven’t ever had the courage to read Richard Wright’s Native Son. Nor (as a pun reminds me) have I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I haven’t read Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Jonson’s Alchemist, Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, Gaskell’s North and South, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, or Kerouac’s On the Road. Turning to Shakespeare, I haven’t read Titus Andronicus or Troilus and Cressida. There are authors whose entire corpus I’ve neglected, such as William Godwin, Frank Norris, George Gissing, and V. S. Naipaul. These are just the tip of my unread iceberg.

Sometimes I play internal games with myself. For instance, if I’ve read a single work by a novelist, I give myself a guilt pass. Such is the case with Theodor Dreiser (I’ve only read Sister Carrie), George Meredith (The Ordeal of Richard Feverel), and Nadine Gordimer (Burger’s Daughter).

My guilt has sometimes served as my friend. For a long time, I was haunted by the fact that I hadn’t read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or The Brothers Karamazov. Now that I have, they are among my most cherished friends.

If I were playing Humiliation with my English department, I’d probably start off with Native Son, The Sun Also Rises, North and South, and Frank Norris’s McTeague (picking up points from all our Americanists). Given how English curriculums having changed, I suspect I wouldn’t get more than one or, at most, two points from Paradise Regained.

I’m now determined to read it, however. Maybe as my Lenten observance. Not for fear of humiliation but because I want to.

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Poetry & the Sea Liberate the Imprisoned

Thomas Moran, “The Angry Sea”


I have been writing recently about how poetry pushes back against authoritarianism (here and here), a necessary reminder as the current administration challenges a free press, an independent judiciary, the separation of church and state, and other democratic norms. Today I share a Pablo Neruda poem that directly describes poetry’s power and “the poet’s obligation.” As I read it, I think of a quotation by Rita Dove in Tuesday’s post:

What a poem does is open something up inside…A poem is an experience, because when you experience, it allows you to become larger. It is not something that is quantifiable, and it is not something that you can encapsulate with the closure that you seek. That frightens some people.

“Some people” are those who collaborate with our imprisonment, whatever form it takes. The freedom of the poem and the freedom of the sea liberate “the shuttered heart”:

The Poet’s Obligation

By Pablo Neruda

Translated by Alastair Reid

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell;
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying, “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.

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Our Version of Plague Maddened Villagers

Trump supporters assault black protester at April 2016 rally


A recent New Yorker podcast interview with an Iraqi doctor in rural Georgia revealed an irony that may soon be blowing up in the face of Donald Trump supporters: the president’s attacks on immigrants and his attacks on the Affordable Care Act could strip rural areas of both doctors and access to affordable healthcare. The situation reminded me of a plot development in Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, a novel about the 1666 plague.

Dr. Ali Fadhil, a former translator for American troops and, until recently, an internist in Suwanee, Georgia told executive editor Dorothy Wickenden that his patients failed to see how Trump’s policies would adversely affect their lives. Many rural physicians, he noted, are immigrants, while repeal of the Affordable Care Act would lead to many deaths. Fadhil talked to his patients about how, while his own salary would rise with the ending of the ACA, so would patient costs. Few took him seriously.

Fadhil also told of his children being harassed on the school bus, especially following Trump’s election, prompting the family to relocate to California. He is taking a significant financial hit to do so.

In Year of Wonders, villagers who are maddened by the plague turn on two midwives that they believe are responsible. Although these women have expertly delivered their children, the townspeople have become hysterical. I cite the scene to show mob psychology at work:

There were ten or twelve people in a rough circle, jostling and staggering, their loud voices slurring as if they’d come straight from the Miner’s Tavern. Lib Hancock was among them, stumbling from the effects of drink, which I knew well she was not used to. In the center, upon the ground, was Mem Gowdie, her frail old arms bound before her with a length of fraying rope. Brad Hamilton knelt across her chest as his daughter, Faith, grasped a fistful of the old woman’s sparse silver hair and raked her cheek with a hawthorn prick. “I’ll have it yet, witch!” she cried, as Mem moaned and tried to raise her bound hands to her face to fend off the blows. “Your blood will drive this sickness from my mother’s body.” In the circle, Hamilton’s oldest boy, Jude, held his mother in his arms. Rubbing her hand over Mem’s scratched and bleeding cheek, Faith stood up unsteadily and smeared the blood on her mother’s neck, where the Plague sore rose throbbing.

I was running toward them, skidding and sliding down the steep side of the clough, the loose stones clattering around me, when Mary Hadfield broke from the throng and flung herself down beside poor Mem, pushing her face, all twisted with rage, within inches of the old woman’s. “You killed my family, hag!” Mem writhed, trying to shake her head in denial. “I heard you curse us for bringing the physician to Edward! I heard you as you left my door! Your malice has brought Plague on my man and my mother and my boys!”

Without midwives, village births become far less safe and fatalities begin to climb. The villagers don’t realize what they had until it’s gone.

Not facing a plague, Trump supporters have far less excuse. They have allowed themselves to be whipped into hysteria by a conman, unscrupulous politicians, and a feckless rightwing media. Only now are people beginning to realize what repealing Obamacare will entail, and if Trump begins carrying through on his deportation pledges, their standard of living will take a further hit.

They sure had a lot of fun venting, however.

Further note: The interview with Dr. Fadhil had a personal aspect as my youngest son and his family currently live in Suwanee, Georgia. If they stay there, my three granddaughters, girls of color (their mother is Trinidadian), will be riding those school buses. They will have to deal with America’s continuing racism and ethnocentrism.

And yet a further note: One of my colleagues, reference librarian Pamela Mann, pointed out an even closer parallel with the novel: when Texas managed to close down many rural Planned Parenthood centers, infant mortality rates, already unacceptably high in the United States, spiked. Ideology trumps life.

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Poetry as a Check against Tyranny

Former National Poet Laureate Rita Dove


I find it fascinating that African American poets, descendants of people whose suffering in American history rivals only that of Native Americans, write some of the most upbeat poems about America. If you are looking for a poetic uplift these days, check out Rita Dove’s “American Smooth,” from her collection by that name. She discusses her poetry in a recent Salon article.

The collection, as one review has it,

pay[s] homage to our kaleidoscopic cultural heritage; from the glorious shimmer of an operatic soprano to Bessie Smith’s mournful wail; from paradise lost to angel food cake; from hotshots at the local shooting range to the Negro jazz band in World War I whose music conquered Europe before the Allied advance. Like the ballroom-dancing couple of the title poem, smiling and making the difficult seem effortless, Dove explores the shifting surfaces between perception and intimation.

Here’s that ball-room dancing couple:

American Smooth

By Rita Dove

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.  

Responding to interviewer David Masciotra about the collection, Dove replies,

What it is that I love about this country is that it is a very strange democracy. This country, for better or worse, has managed to subsume many different cultures, and make something uniquely America. In American Smooth, I tried to bring forth how so many different music trends have resulted in American music – music from the ’40s and ’50s, blues, jazz, the African, the British. Everything comes together to give us a remarkable, vibrant, malleable form of expression, and it is truly unique. That opportunity has always been present.

The dance calls for us to put on a good face (“ecstatic mimicry,” “always smiling, smiling”) as we work through the agony. The payoff is moments of “achieved flight” before earthly reality reasserts itself. Hope lies in those moments:

When I was a child there were limitations. I’m a black woman. Yet, I still thought there was a way to be me. There was hope. There was a way to make it. It sounds silly to call it the pioneer spirit, but in a way it is: “Let’s just go out there, and see if we can make a new town.” The history of immigrants coming into this country, and their hopes being made part of the American fabric. It takes time, but these things are eventually considered American. Driving from Virginia to Chicago recently, I thought about how all these geographically diverse, disparate climates and terrains could maintain togetherness as a country. Despite all the bloodshed, up until recently, this story was very successful.

And then, thinking of the recent election,

Now, I’m not so sure.

What worries Dove is Donald Trump’s attacks on language. Dove contrasts his articulation with Barack Obama’s:

I agree with the assessment that language is being reduced, especially in comparison with Barack Obama, who was quite eloquent and understood the value and effectiveness of language in all of its registers. He could not only be eloquent, as a leader, in a high, classical speech manner, but he also knew how to get down. That is how you reach people, and make them realize that a leader speaks their language — to demonstrate an understanding of the intimations and syncopations of a common, but elevated language.

Human beings have the language we can write down, which means it can be communicated to other human beings who do not even see the original author. Now, we have this gift, and for it to be reduced, also reduces our capacity to progress and develop. Language is now being reduced to the level of an undeveloped 2-year-old. Everything is “tremendous” or “disastrous.” This drives me mad, because once you have a limited vocabulary for articulation, it blinds your vision. You are no longer able to describe that which exists outside the borders of that cage of language you have put yourself into. What the arts do, especially literature, is to try to push those borders, so that we can always say more, and therefore do more. That expands your consciousness. It sounds hippie to say that, but it is true. If we don’t have a language to describe an experience, it is almost as if we cannot really experience it.

Responding to reported plans to cut or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Dove observes,

The first thing that goes when a government becomes a tyranny are words. You take the power for people to communicate, because then it becomes easier to manipulate them. If it gets to the point where there is no more funding for the arts or humanities, we are headed to a dark place. I never thought that I would see this country that I really love turn so rapidly into a frightening place.

To push against this tyranny, Dove says that poetry doesn’t have to be political. It can, for instance, be about dance. Simply by doing justice to complexity, by containing multitudes (an allusion to Whitman), poetry strikes a blow for human freedom. We become larger, not smaller:

I love that comment: “Poetry is not a bumper sticker.” In certain ways it is the exact opposite of a bumper sticker, even though they may share something like conciseness. What a bumper sticker does is encapsulates a certain sentiment that makes you feel very safe. You can look at it, and go, “oh, well that clicks.” You feel like now you know something. Whether it is a political bumper sticker or a joke, it makes you feel like you are on top of things, you can feel good about it, ourselves, and move on.

What a poem does is open something up inside. This is also a good feeling. A poem is an experience, because when you experience, it allows you to become larger. It is not something that is quantifiable, and it is not something that you can encapsulate with the closure that you seek. That frightens some people.

But I contend that we are born curious. We are born naked in front of the world, and we want to enlarge ourselves and discover more. We lose that curiosity as we grow older, and become afraid. If we would open ourselves to poetry, it would teach us about ourselves, and other people, and enable us to feel more. There are poems that I love that, over the years, have grown in meaning to me, or suddenly I see a different side of them. So, poetry is a living, breathing entity.

Even poetry about horrors, Dove concludes, can give us hope. Asked whether poetry is “an optimistic enterprise,” Dove replies,

I think that ultimately it is. I know that when I write, even if I’m writing about a massacre — something horrific and sad — whenever I write and I get to the point that I feel it is working, I am deliriously happy. When I read poems that are about something horrific, sometimes something in me lifts, because if we, as human beings, can take that which is most ugly and find creative ways to describe it, that tells us that we have a power to manage the chaos.

Poetry is a resource to keep the light burning in dark times. Keep reminding yourself of that.

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My Cataract Surgery Recalls Oedipus, Lear

Scene from Bunuel’s “Andalusian Dog”


Last week I had cataract surgery and was startled to discover that I had mixed feelings afterwards. Although I liked going around without glasses, I also felt naked, as though I had lost an essential part of myself.

I started wearing glasses when I was 12. At the time I desired glasses because my father wore glasses. I idolized him and wanted to be like him in every way, even down to an inner ear disorder he had.

The glasses worked just fine until last year, when reading suddenly became a challenge. Sometimes I could read better with my glasses on, sometimes when they were off, but in any event it was never easy. When I started discussing cataract surgery with doctors, disturbing literary images kept popping up. From Oedipus for instance:

He tore the brooches—
the gold chased brooches fastening her robe—
away from her and lifting them up high
dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out
such things as: they will never see the crime
I have committed or had done upon me!
Dark eyes, now in the days to come look on
forbidden faces, do not recognize those
whom you long for—with such imprecations
he struck his eyes again and yet again 1
with the brooches. And the bleeding eyeballs gushed
and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops
but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.

Or Gloucester blinded by Cornwall and Regan in King Lear:

Out, vile jelly.

And then there were all those movies. I thought of the woman blinded by a cossack’s sweeping saber in Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence, a horrific moment that would go on to influence one of the iconic scenes in European surrealism—the slit eyeball in Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog—and also the baptism-day Mo-Green-shot-in-the-eye scene in The Godfather.

Okay, I exaggerate. I wasn’t really concerned about my eyes being butchered. The passages that had been coming to mind had more to do with my declining eyesight. For instance, Teiresias telling Oedipus,

You have your eyes but see not…

And Kent’s words to Lear, a powerful moment where a loyal follower speaks truth to power:

See better, Lear; and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.

So anyway, I had my surgery and began to see better, yet found myself depressed and experiencing a sense of loss. No one warned me that this would follow, perhaps because people adjust quickly enough.

I’m wondering now if I used my glasses symbolically as a buffer against the world, which would explain why I now feel unprotected. Or maybe I associated my glasses with being a professor (my father was a professor), so my anxieties about my forthcoming retirement are compounded by the surgery.

I’m sure I’ll be fine. I share the story here, minor though it is, because my reactions caught me by surprise.

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Curling Up with a Good Book

Philippe Mercier, “Young Girl Reading by Candlelight”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading inspired one of my favorite Scott Bates poems. Jesus’s instruction to his followers (Matthew 5:14-16) not to hide their lamps under a bushel basket triggered a contrarian impulse within my father. Here’s the passage:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

My father imagines himself as an introverted candle focusing on his own spiritual nourishment. And surely Jesus wouldn’t disapprove. Furthermore, although my father loved disappearing into books, he also didn’t hide his light but shared his poetry and ideas with anyone who would listen.

So maybe his poem can be read to balance out Jesus’s message: there is a time to focus on the inner life and a time to share one’s gifts with the world.

I’m open to anyone who can find a pattern in the books mentioned in the poem Maybe the connecting thread is that all, with the exception of the Elizabethan sonnets, are contrarian. Russian poet Yevtushenko and social theorist Thorstein Veblen challenge the State; fairy tale author Charles Perrault, nonsense author Lewis Carroll, and utopian author Samuel Butler challenge conventional reality; and La Rochefoucauld, through his maxims, challenges conventional wisdom. Maybe the sonnets are thrown in because they seem irrelevant to a modern world obsessed with practicality.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves and for the world is curl up with a good book.

The Retiring Candle

by Scott Bates

A Candle
Burned under
A bushel

He did not let his light shine forth
Among Men
He did not even let his light shine forth
Among Potatoes
The bushel was empty
(Being upside down)
And somewhat stuffy besides

They all called down to him
To come up on deck
And get some air
They wanted him to be the life of the party
To shine
Illuminate eternal verities
Set the world on fire

But no
He politely declined
He didn’t want to set the world on fire
All he wanted to do was stay down in the hold
And smoke
And curl up with a good book

Which he did

He smoked and curled up with
The poems of Yevtushenko
The Theory of the Leisure Class
Perrault the Duc de la Rochefoucauld
Erewhon and Through the Looking Glass
Also assorted Elizabethan sonnets

When he had finished
He put himself out
And went to sleep

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Ollie the Bobcat, Whirlwind of Light

Ollie, the National Zoo bobcat


And now for some good news: Ollie, the National Zoo’s escapee bobcat, has returned and is once again in captivity. I can thank a novel—namely Yann Martel’s Life of Pi—for my prediction that she would actually return to the zoo on her own.

So for those of you who dreamed of her roaming wild and free—well, the zookeeper in Martel’s novel has your number:

Well-meaning but misinformed people think that animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free.” These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for callisthenic runs to stay slim after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its “happiness” is dashed. It yearns mightily for “freedom” and does all it can to escape. Being denied its “freedom” for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

Here’s what animals really want, which helps explain Ollie’s return:

Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home”? That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure—whether cave, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium—is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with our houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. Whereas before for us the cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds a mile that way, the lookout next to it, the berries somewhere else—all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants, leeches and poison ivy—now the river flows through taps at hand’s reach and we can wash next to where we sleep, we can eat where we have cooked, and we can surround the whole with a protective wall and keep it clean and warm. A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal (with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace or the like, present in every human habitation). Finding within it all the places it needs—a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.—and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in-ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal’s needs, a territory, natural or constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second.

I’m trying to figure out if this understanding diminishes the power of a wonderful bobcat poem by Mary Oliver. She certainly is far more excited by the glimpse she gets of a bobcat in the wild than she would be seeing one in a zoo.

In Oliver’s vision, we are on a long road to depression and death. Or to choose another image from her bobcat poem, we are lost in the cold Canadian wilderness, where trees are as thick as castles and as cold as iron. Is the truth of life, she wonders, “miles alone in the pinched dark”?

Or is the truth rather those fleeting but ecstatic moments when we catch a glimpse of a bobcat in our car headlights? After seeing the bobcat and feeling “the wound of delight”—wound because beauty undermines our defenses and makes us vulnerable—suddenly the whole world seems white, not black. The “blazing” lynx in the cruel snow towards which we are driving is our reactivated heart, daring us to feel again. We push forward into that promise:


By Mary Oliver

One night
 long ago,
   in Ohio,
     a bobcat leaped
like a quick
   whirlwind of light
     from the pines
beside the road
 and our hearts
   thudded and
those lightning eyes!
 that dappled jaw!
   those plush paws!
     In the north,
we’ve heard,
 the lynx
   wanders like silk
     on the deep
hillsides of snow–
   it lounges in trees
    as thick as castles,
as cold as iron.
 What should we say
   is the truth of the world?
    The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
 or the push of the promise?
   or the wound of delight?
    As though in a dream
we drive
 toward the white forest
   all day,
     all night.

Ollie is waiting.

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Read Poetry To Keep Hope Alive

Dion Pollard, “Tree of Knowledge”


My friend Sue Schmidt recently urged me to find more positive literary responses to the dark times in which we are living. Her request came after a series of depressing posts about Donald Trump, and I get her point. If literature just confirms us in our pessimism, what’s the use of it?

A lovely New Yorker article by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat captures the necessary balance between unflinching realism and hopeful outlook. In the poems that he cites, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Audre Lorde acknowledge the evils of racist society but also signal constructive responses. Their commitment to truth means that we must take seriously their hopefulness.

In thinking about truth-tellers, I am reminded of Marx’s famous remarks in his preface to Hegel where he criticizes attacks on religion. While he himself believes that religion is “the opiate of the masses,” he believes that it is not enough to strip people of their illusions—or as his metaphor has it, to strip the garlands off our shackles so that we must face up totthe cold, hard iron. His observation also applies to those who see literature’s task as unmasking terrible conditions and no more. Genuine criticism, Marx writes, must push towards hope:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

If criticism takes the form of joyless political science, this can be difficult. Literature, on the other hand, can combine truth with hope, framing reality in such a way that we can imagine changing it. Danticat has a great Lorde quotation to this effect:

Poetry, she said, is how we name the nameless. “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

I advise my students to follow a similar progression: immerse yourself in the work, reflect upon the work, act upon the insights that emerge.

Danticat introduces me to one Brooks poem that I did not know but which wonderfully shows how optimistic striving can overcome harsh reality. It’s a good poem to kick off African American History month. Appropriately, it addresses the young:

Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward

By Gwendolyn Brooks

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

I see the down-keepers, sun-slappers, self-soilers, and harmony-hushers as those people who nip optimism in the bud so that young people won’t get their hopes up. They try to ward off the cruel disappointment of battles lost. Brooks responds that, when the going gets tough and doubts arise, “live in the along,” in the “progress-toward.” Poetry reminds us that “it cannot always be night.”

Further thought: I suspect that Brooks is alluding to Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the sabbath going to church” in her final line. Here’s the last stanza of Dickinson’s poem, where a bobolink serves as her clergyman in the great church of the outdoors. Note that Dickinson, like Brooks, is focused on the process of living, not on some static final result:

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
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The GOP’s Faustian Bargain with Trump


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Equal Temper of Heroic Hearts


 As I reflect upon the out-of-nowhere Australian Open victory by my favorite athlete ever, I am struck by how many times I’ve written premature obituaries. Roger Federer did the impossible by simply reaching the finals, not to mention winning them. He played a gambling, attacking, nothing-to-lose brand of tennis that was breathtaking. Nadal, meanwhile, refused to go down and at one point delivered what announcer Darren Cahill says is the greatest shot he’s ever seen, an angled squash shot that appeared out of reach. Federer is ancient by tennis standards at 35 and Nadal, who has always played a brutal style of tennis, is an old 30. They had no business facing each other.

I’ve written about them both over the years. I’ve always rooted for Federer over Nadal because I preferred the boxer over the yokel (to borrow from Ralph Ellison), Gustave Flaubert over James Patterson, the dancer over the bull. But I also know that the two of them together are greater than the sum of their parts. Many agreed with Chris Evert’s tweet as the Melbourne match entered its fifth set: “Ok… Give the title to the both of them, for heaven’s sake…” When Federer himself said after the match that he would have settled for a draw, he sounded serious.

To honor them both, I turn to a poem that in the past I’ve only applied to Federer. The two men have become good friends, and I imagine Federer asking Nadal to join him in the journey that Tennyson’s Ulysses proposes to his former shipmates.

It may be that our two warriors never get this far again in a major tournament but are washed down dark gulfs, maybe in early rounds. It may also be that, improbably, they achieve the tennis equivalent of touching the Happy Isles and meeting the great Achilles. Perhaps Nadal wins the French Open and Federer wins Wimbledon. Win or lose, however, they have been the twin suns that have lit up “the Golden Age of Tennis,” producing its most memorable matches.

So here is to the two of you, Roger and Rafa. With gratitude:

Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: 
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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Trump’s Crusoe Wall Goes Up in Airports

Baron de Myrbach-Rheinfeld, “Robinson Crusoe Building his First Dwelling”


I’m so concerned about President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigrants—or rather, President Steve Bannon’s orders—that I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about my joy at Roger Federer’s Australian Open victory. Since Federer is my favorite athlete of all time (well, along with Peyton Manning), his sublime match with Rafa Nadal provided momentary relief from our Trumpian horror show.

My go-to literary work when dealing with Trump’s wall—a metonym for his desire to wall out anyone who doesn’t look “American”–has been Robinson Crusoe. I have written about how Crusoe’s fence works as an instructive parable: while Crusoe builds it to protect himself from external threats, it can’t save him from internal ones. At one point, an earthquake buries him in his cave, and a torrential downpour nearly drowns him because his impregnable fence keeps the water from escaping. Walls can create havoc.

We are getting our Trump wall faster than anyone anticipated, thanks to an executive order inaccurately entitled, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” Here’s Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:

Yesterday President Trump made good on his campaign promise to halt immigration of Muslims into the United States “until we know what’s going on.” An explicit ban on Muslims would be illegal, of course, even considering the president’s broad authority over immigration, so instead he picked seven Muslim countries and banned their citizens from entering the US for 90 days—by which time, presumably, Trump will have figured out what’s going on. He also banned refugees from everywhere for 120 days. The result has been rampant chaos and pointless suffering because no one knows precisely who this applies to or how it’s supposed to work.

You’ve probably seen pictures of some of this chaos. Here’s Drum again:

The refugee ban is heartbreaking, especially for folks who have sold everything and were literally in the airport waiting to board a plane when they were turned back. But the order also applies to green card holders. These are legal residents. If they were overseas at the time the ban went into effect, they can’t return home.

There’s no excuse for this. The EO could have exempted green card holders. At the very least, it could have gone into effect for them after a warning period. But nobody in the White House gave a damn. So now airports are jammed with legal residents who are trying to return home to their families but are being denied entry.

Defoe speaks to the hysteria behind the ban in Crusoe’s response to the footprint in the sand. He is so freaked out that he considers destroying all the structures he has built. Think of it as an instance of how people in the grip of panic are willing to destroy institutional foundations, which in our case is the Constitution. That’s what we saw over the weekend as the Trump administration engaged in illegal targeting, even after a judge intervened with a temporary restraining order declaring the orders to be unconstitutional. Here’s Crusoe:

Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear! It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief. The first thing I proposed to myself [after encountering the footprint] was, to throw down my enclosures, and turn all my tame cattle wild into the woods, lest the enemy should find them, and then frequent the island in prospect of the same or the like booty: then the simple thing of digging up my two corn-fields, lest they should find such a grain there, and still be prompted to frequent the island: then to demolish my bower and tent, that they might not see any vestiges of habitation, and be prompted to look farther, in order to find out the persons inhabiting. These were the subject of the first night’s cogitations after I was come home again, while the apprehensions which had so overrun my mind were fresh upon me, and my head was full of vapors. Thus, fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…

The other passage that comes to mind occurs late in the book when the island is visited by mutineers preparing to kill or maroon their captain. Crusoe can’t bring himself to believe that they are fellow Englishmen, but so they turn out to be. Our own version of this is the Right refusing to believe that most of our terrorists are domestically homegrown.  In fact, mass shootings are as likely to be the work of Christian terrorists as Muslim. As Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald reported a year ago, rightwing extremists are the major terrorist danger we face:

These Americans thrive on hate and conspiracy theories, many fed to them by politicians and commentators who blithely blather about government concentration camps and impending martial law and plans to seize guns and other dystopian gibberish, apparently unaware there are people listening who don’t know it’s all lies. These extremists turn to violence—against minorities, non-Christians, abortion providers, government officials—in what they believe is a fight to save America. And that potential for violence is escalating every day.

Bannon & Co. won’t acknowledge this, however, making them more extreme than Crusoe. He at least learns to make distinctions, as in the following passage where he finally admits that the European sailors he is witnessing are bad people:

I cannot express the confusion I was in, though the joy of seeing a ship, and one that I had reason to believe was manned by my own countrymen, and consequently friends, was such as I cannot describe; but yet I had some secret doubts hung about me–I cannot tell from whence they came–bidding me keep upon my guard. In the first place, it occurred to me to consider what business an English ship could have in that part of the world, since it was not the way to or from any part of the world where the English had any traffic; and I knew there had been no storms to drive them in there in distress; and that if they were really English it was most probable that they were here upon no good design; and that I had better continue as I was than fall into the hands of thieves and murderers.

His doubts appear to be well-founded although it’s still a wrench for him to admit that all the men are English:

When they were on shore I was fully satisfied they were Englishmen, at least most of them; one or two I thought were Dutch, but it did not prove so… 

As he and Friday watch the mutineers handle their captives, it is Friday who notes that they appear no better than the cannibals Crusoe has been fighting:

Friday called out to me in English, as well as he could, “O master! you see English mans eat prisoner as well as savage mans.” “Why, Friday,” says I, “do you think they are going to eat them, then?” “Yes,” says Friday, “they will eat them.” “No no,” says I, “Friday; I am afraid they will murder them, indeed; but you may be sure they will not eat them.” 

Religious-based bans see people of color as cannibals and miss the white Christian threats. White nationalist Bannon doesn’t care that he is actually making America less safe.

Update: Two days after I posted this essay, Reuters reported the following:

The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The program, “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, would be changed to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.

Chauncey DeVega of Salon connects the dots:

The Trump administration’s decision to shift resources away from investigating white supremacist hate groups and focus exclusively on “radical Islam” leaves America less safe and less secure. As president of the United States, Trump is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He is supposed to ensure that the Constitution’s promise of “equal protection under the law” is properly fulfilled.

For Trump, those obligations do not appear to apply to African-Americans, Arab or Muslim immigrants and other people of color. As he suggested he would do all along, Trump is targeting Muslims and African-Americans. Now he appears to be rewarding his white supremacist supporters by extending them special protection.

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The World’s One Hope: Compassion

Jan Wynants, “Parable of the Good Samaritan”


When the world turns grim, my novelist friend Rachel Kranz tells me, turn to the poetry of Bertolt Brecht. The other day she sent me “The World’s One Hope,” a poem written sometime during 1938-41–which is to say, when an egotistical dictator had hijacked Germany’s democracy and was leading his country and the world into unimaginable ruin.

At first Brecht doesn’t seem very hopeful, even as he shows how much he understands situations like ours. As Trump and many in the GOP strive to harden people’s hearts to torture victims, refugees, same sex couples, transsexuals, Planned Parenthood clients, beneficiaries of our social safety nets, and recipients of Obamacare, a general callousness emerges. Brecht observes that people who are normally kind become callous towards others and, tellingly, callous towards themselves. In our case, that self-callousness can take the form of people writhing in guilt for needing governmental assistance and voting for Donald Trump to assure themselves that they don’t really need it.

Brecht reminds us, however, that if we are oppressed ourselves, we are more likely to feel compassion for others. The world’s “one hope” is not a flashy hope, but it has substance. Those under attack by Trump and the GOP can rally around this compassion.

It may not sound like much, but it was the basis of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays. Our next task is to take it nationwide.

The World’s One Hope

By Bertolt Brecht

Is oppression as old as the moss around ponds?
The moss around ponds is not avoidable.
Perhaps everything I see is natural, and I am sick and want to remove what cannot be removed?
I have read songs of the Egyptians, of their men who built the pyramids. They complained of their loads and asked when oppression would cease. That’s four thousand years ago.
Oppression, it would seem, is like the moss and unavoidable.

When a child is about to be run down by a car one pulls it on to the pavement.
Not the kindly man does that, to whom they put up monuments.
Anyone pulls the child away from the car. But here many have been run down, and many pass by and do nothing of the sort.
Is that because it’s so many who are suffering? Should one not help them all the more because they are many? One helps them less. Even the kindly walk past and after that are as kindly as ever they were before walking past.

The more there are suffering, then, the more natural their sufferings appear. Who wants to prevent the fishes in the sea from getting wet?
And the suffering themselves share this callousness towards themselves and are lacking in kindness towards themselves.
It is terrible that human beings so easily put up with existing conditions, not only with the sufferings of strangers but also with their own.
All those who have thought about the bad state of things refuse to appeal to the compassion of one group of people for another. But the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable.
It is the world’s one hope.

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Interpreting Lit by Computer

Tracy and Hepburn in “Desk Set”


The political news these days is so grim that I’m taking a break and turning my attention to a Washington Post article I saw a couple of months ago about how “researchers have quantified what makes us love Harry Potter.” My negative reaction upon encountering the headline didn’t dissipate as I read the article, but it gives me the opportunity to share a very funny episode in David Lodge’s campus novel Small World (1984).

According to the researchers, our emotional journey through a novel can be “analyzed, quantified and graphed”:

In a fascinating new study, researchers use machine-learning techniques to analyze 1,327 literary works — including Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein and Harry Potter — and reveal what exactly it is about popular stories that makes us love them most.

The researchers appear to have been inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, who used to diagram our emotional ride through “Cinderella,” Hamlet, the Bible, and other such stories. He didn’t have the advantage of computers, however:

The research draws on a kind of glossary of emotion they created by crowdsourcing emotional ratings for 10,000 of the most common words in the English language. Words such as “death,” “rape,” “cancer” and “die” rank at the bottom of the scale, while words like “love,” “laugh” and “happiness” are at the top. 

The researchers use the glossary to create a snapshot of more than a thousand literary works, mostly fiction, available from the free digital library Project Gutenberg. The result is thousands of graphs of what Andrew Reagan, one of the researchers, calls “the emotional experience of the reader.”

While they discovered that “individual stories may have very complex emotional arcs,” looking at the data from a broader angle revealed that

there were six types that fit 85 percent of the books they had analyzed…

Roughly one-third of the stories were either rags-to-riches stories, in which the emotional arc rises through the bulk of the story, or the opposite, riches-to-rags stories, in which it broadly falls. Romeo and Juliet and many of Shakespeare’s tragedies show up in this second category.

The researchers also graphed

–“man-in-a-hole” stories (Vonnegut’s phrase), “where the emotional arc of a story falls, then rises.” The Sherlock Holmes stories fit this pattern;
–Icarus stories “in which the emotional arc rises, then falls”;
–Cinderella stories, “where emotions rise, then fall, then rise again”; and
–Oedipus stories, a “fall-rise-fall pattern.”

The article concludes with the researchers saying, “there is much more work to be done” (now there’s a familiar story arc) and envisioning future projects that will examine

the popularity of story arcs across cultures and time. But to investigate whether certain story types are more popular than others, they analyze how often stories with certain emotional arcs are downloaded from Project Gutenberg, and find that stories with the Icarus, Oedipus and Man-in-a-hole arcs are downloaded most.

This research project is a successor, not only to Vonnegut, but also to the structuralism of the 1970s and 1980s. But while Vonnegut at least had a whimsical sense of humor about what he was up to, structuralism was a dry-as-dust endeavor that generally led people to that overwhelming reaction, “Who cares?” (a.k.a. “so what!”). Reducing literature to story arcs is like reducing love to evolutionary biology or God to a special gene: there may be smidgeon of insight but the most important part of the endeavor gets lost in the process.

Vonnegut at least was tickled by jolting juxtapositions, which are of a piece with his surreal fiction. Once turned into an academic science, however, such pattern finding becomes Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect.”

Which leads me to the murder in Lodge’s 1984 novel. The perpetrators are two “computational stylistics” English professors at a fictional English University, the victim an author from the “angry young men” school who is no longer young. I quote at length to give you the full flavor. The author describes being introduced to Robin Dempsey’s research:

“Anyway,” [Dempsey] went on, “when we heard that the University was going to give you an honorary degree, we decided to make yours the first complete corpus in our tape archive.” “What does that mean?” I said. “It means,” he said, holding up a flat metal canister rather like the sort you keep film spools in, “It means that every word you’ve ever published is in here.” His eyes gleamed with a kind of manic glee, like he was Frankenstein, or some kind of wizard, as if he had me locked up in that flat metal box. Which, in a way, he had.”

Thanks to Dempsey, the author learns that the most common word in his fiction (other than articles, conjunctions, etc.) is “grease” and its various forms and applications:

“I didn’t believe him at first. I laughed in his face. Then he pressed a button and the machine began listing all the phrases in my works in which the word grease appears in one form or another. There they were, streaming across the screen in front of me, faster than I could read them, with page references and line numbers. The greasy gloom, the roads greasy with rain, the grease-stained cuff, the greasy jam butty, his greasy smile, the grease-smeared table, the greasy small change of their conversation, even, would you believe it, his body moved in hers like a well-greased piston. I was flabbergasted, I can tell you. My entire oeuvre seemed saturated in grease. I’d never realized I was so obsessed with the stuff. Dempsey was chortling with glee, pressing buttons to show what my other favorite words were. Grey and grime were high on the list, I seem to remember. I seemed to have a penchant for depressing words beginning with a hard ‘g.’ Also sink, smoke, feel, struggle, run and sensual.

Now the murderous effect. The author becomes so self-conscious about his predictability that he can’t write anymore:

Robin Dempsey gave me a printout of the whole thing, popped it into folder and gave it to me to take home. “A little souvenir of the day,” he was pleased to call it. Well, I took it home, read it on the train, and the next morning, when I sat down at my desk and tried to get on with my novel, I found I couldn’t. Every time I wanted an adjective, greasy would spring into my mind. Every time I wrote he said, I would scratch it out and write he groaned or he laughed, but it didn’t seem right—but when I went back to he said, that didn’t seem right either, it seemed predictable and mechanical. Robin and [co-researcher] Josh had really fucked me up between them. I’m never been to write fiction since.

Literary interpretation for me is a human endeavor, a way to simultaneously find meaning in the work and in the world. Diagramming emotional journeys doesn’t begin to do justice to the complex relationships we develop with Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, and all the others.

So much for “fascinating new studies” that “reveal what exactly it is about popular stories that makes us love them most.”

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Trump to Torture’s Opponents: Drop Dead


The news continues to get darker and darker, the latest being that Donald Trump wants to reinstitute torture in the form of waterboarding. It is becoming increasingly clear that we must start revisiting literature about dictators and other authoritarian figures.

According to CNN,

President Donald Trump said he wants to “fight fire with fire” when it comes to stopping terrorism, suggesting that he could be open to bringing back torture because he “absolutely” believes it works.

By reinstating enhanced interrogation, Trump would violate a US law ratified by the Senate in 2015 and go against the view of Defense Secretary James Mattis. CIA Director Mike Pompeo told senators earlier this month that he wouldn’t sanction the use of torture, though he later said he would consider bringing back waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation measures under certain circumstances.

How might Trump respond to people telling him that torture is illegal? Perhaps the same way that the colonel in a Carolyn Forché poem responds to her horrified response to his atrocities.

Forché traveled to El Salvador in the late 1970s to witness the brutality of the military regime for herself. Her prose poem “The Colonel” was one of the most memorable works to come out of the journey. Much of the poem’s power lies in its juxtaposition of gentility and barbarism. In that context, a phrase like “rack of lamb” takes on ominous overtones:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. 

The colonel, like Trump, is a showman who knows how to dramatically signal who’s in charge. Perhaps, in the end, a desire to intimidate is all there is to Trump. I suspect I’m not the only one who can imagine our president saying to anyone protesting torture, “As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves.”

Trump has started out his presidency by doing–or trying to do–everything he said he would. Are those who rationalized voting for him willing to start listening now?

That starts with you, Speaker Paul Ryan.

News update: From yesterday’s New York Times:

The Trump administration is preparing a sweeping executive order that would clear the way for the C.I.A. to reopen overseas “black site” prisons, like those where it detained and tortured terrorism suspects before former President Barack Obama shut them down.

President Trump’s three-page draft order, titled “Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants” and obtained by The New York Times, would also undo many of the other restrictions on handling detainees that Mr. Obama put in place in response to policies of the George W. Bush administration.

If Mr. Trump signs the draft order, he would also revoke Mr. Obama’s directive to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees in American custody. That would be another step toward reopening secret prisons outside of the normal wartime rules established by the Geneva Conventions, although statutory obstacles would remain.

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1984 Explains Why Trump Keeps Lying


A few months ago I would not have predicted that George Orwell’s 1984 would become essential reading. I remember downplaying the novel on a college panel in 1984 as a “paranoid scream.” While I thought it described Stalin’s Soviet Union, I didn’t think it applied to western democracies.

Now I find myself returning to parts of the novel, especially the passage,

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

This has been circulating on twitter and elsewhere because it helps people understand what Donald Trump is up to with his incessant lying.

Take the recent case of Trump ordering press secretary Sean Spicer to insist that Trump’s inauguration crowds were larger than Barack Obama’s.

This reminded Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen of how Stalin would humiliate his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, one time even making him vote on the imprisonment of his own wife. Cohen writes,

The humiliation of Spicer, apparently ordered to babble lies about crowd size, was highly significant. He chastised the media for “deliberately false reporting” on the size of the inaugural throng. It did not matter that photographs showed that Barack Obama’s inaugurations outdrew Trump’s. Spicer maintained otherwise. He denied the undeniable and insisted on the farcical — and then fled without taking questions.

The following day, Kellyanne Conway pulled another Spicer, saying on Meet the Press that the Trump administration has “alternative facts.”

We’re starting to see a pattern here: for Trump, loyalty is more important than truth. In fact, getting those under him to propagate obvious falsehoods—to see the world as he wants them to see it—is a way of testing their loyalty. So far it’s working as the Republican Party, awed by the power he commands, falls in line.

People have accused Trump of “gaslighting,” after the 1944 Charles Boyer-Ingrid Bergman movie about a husband who deliberately drives his wife mad by denying apparitions that he secretly sets her up to see. In this case, however, Trump isn’t trying to make us crazy. Rather, he wants us to feel his power. Martin Lofgren of The Washington Monthly explains:  

Aside from reinforcing the Trump base, the next four years of non-stop gaslighting could erode the basic standards of discourse in a healthy civil society. The truly horrible thing about propaganda in authoritarian regimes is not that it convinces the true believers, but that it demoralizes opponents by saying in effect: “Yes, we know that you know we are lying, but we don’t care! We do it because we can and you can’t stop us!”

While journalists go through the laborious process of ferreting out truth, Trump exudes power by simply not caring. In fact, it becomes a sign of loyalty to believe him rather than “your lying eyes.” The more bullshit you swallow, the more you show that you’re a believer.

This is also how it works in 1984, why the ministry loudly trumpets that


Boldly flaunting an absurdity is proof of your power. Critical thinking and logic are irrelevant, and those who insist on them seem destined for the dustbin of history.

As always, Orwell says it best. Here is Big Brother explaining to Winston Smith why he does what he does what he does:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.

Those members of the GOP who feel this urge towards power are intoxicated by Trump. He appears to have discovered a magical key and, as long as he can impose his will, they will go along. Those who have wavering principles feel uncertain and fear the consequences of standing up to him. Consequently, they rationalize and offer up only token resistance. Never Trumpers are small in number and are being driven from the party.

That’s why literature is so important at this moment. Because all great poets, novelists, and dramatists demand truth, they will help build the spines of the opposition.

Further note: After writing today’s post, I came across this Associated Press article:

Sales are soaring for George Orwell’s 1984.

Orwell’s classic dystopian tale of a society in which facts are distorted and suppressed in a cloud of “newspeak” was in the top 5 on as of midday Tuesday. The sales bump comes after the administration’s assertions that Trump’s inaugural had record attendance and Trump’s unfounded allegation that millions of illegal votes were cast against him last fall.

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway coined an instant catchphrase Sunday when she called Trump’s claims about crowd size “alternative facts,” bringing comparisons by some on social media to “1984.” Orwell’s book has long been standard classroom reading.

One other note: Last May, before I came to my current understanding about Trump’s lying, I followed the lead of Charlie Pierce of Esquire and applied Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting to Trump. The book opens with a photographic airbrush of history:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section make hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

With my new understanding, I see that such actions are not primarily about deceiving people. It’s more to signal to them what it’s in their interest to believe.

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Holding to Higher Principles

Gustave Doré, Don Quixote, lonely visionary


Yesterday I discussed how poets like Tennyson, Yeats and Auden urge us not to abandon a higher vision in tough times. In a recent New York Review of Books article entitled “The Threat of Moral Authority,” Masha Gessen discusses why authoritarians like Donald Trump are threatened by such a vision. Reflecting on Trump’s twitter barrage against civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Gessen reminded us, through a Václav Havel quotation, that standing up for what is right can leave us feeling like Don Quixote.

Lewis drew Trump’s wrath by stating that the Russian intervention in our election undermined its legitimacy. He was skipping the inauguration, he said, because “You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong.” While Trump could have chosen to ignore the remarks, he instead lambasted a man severely beaten at the Selma voting rights march. Gessen says that Trump instinctively understands the threat of people who affirm moral principles:

Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.

Gessen then quotes Czech dissident Havel on cynicism about principles. In a 1975 letter to the communist leaders of his country, Havel alluded to Cervantes’s masterpiece as he talked about the challenge of standing up for what is right:

[E]veryone who still tries to resist by, for instance, refusing to adopt the principle of dissimulation as the key to survival, doubting the value of any self-fulfillment purchased at the cost of self-alienation—such a person appears to his ever more indifferent neighbors as an eccentric, a fool, a Don Quixote, and in the end is regarded inevitably with some aversion, like everyone who behaves differently from the rest and in a way which, moreover, threatens to hold up a critical mirror before their eyes.

 Gessen then mentions the rhetorical history of Lewis’s protest, which includes the higher notes sounded by Russian Nobel laureate Andrej Sakharov (peace prize) and Belarussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich (literature prize):

That higher note is a necessary condition of vision. Sakharov, who spoke of greater change than most of his countrymen could have imagined, was quickly proven right by history. Havel, who conceptualized the “power of the powerless” as an entirely novel form of resistance, lived to lead his country. Raw power can overtake moral authority, and perhaps today it is easier than ever before, but a determined effort to preserve ideals when they are under attack can serve as a bridge to the future.

Gessen concludes by mentioning a protest reading staged on January 15 by New York writers on the steps of the city’s public library. Think of it as working to keep the flame of morality alive:

They read a variety of texts, and a high proportion of them, ranging from the preamble to the US Constitution to Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” belonged to that same unabashedly high-moral register. This is precisely the right choice for protesting the looming threat of autocracy: an assertion of principles and an insistence that, in the words of Langston Hughes, “America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”

For other poems that people have turned to in recent days to reconnect with higher principles, check out this Atlantic article, which mentions poems by Eliot, Tennyson, and others.

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Can Poetry Stop This Man?

Trump delivers his “American carnage” address


Some are saying that Donald Trump’s inauguration address will hereafter be called “the American Carnage” speech for its most memorable (although factually inaccurate) image. When I heard the words, a stanza from Tennyson’s In Memoriam came to mind. Thinking of the 1848 French Revolution, the poet speaks of “the red fool fury of the Seine”:

And all is well, tho’ faith and form
Be sunder’d in the night of fear;
Well roars the storm to those that hear
A deeper voice across the storm,
Proclaiming social truth shall spread,
And justice, even tho’ thrice again
The red fool fury of the Seine
Should pile her barricades with dead.

No one has died in our own case, but Trump aroused an emotional fury that carried him to the White House. It is therefore comforting to hear Tennyson tell us that all will be well if we listen to “the deeper voice” of social truth and justice:

Will we hear this deeper voice? Does the arc of history bend towards justice? Poetry is encouraging in this regard.

I say this even as I acknowledge that poetry seems powerless to stop Trump. Auden says as much in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” when he writes, “poetry makes nothing happen.” But that doesn’t make poetry any the less essential at times like these. Auden goes on to say that poetry survives because, in our “ranches of isolation” and our “busy griefs,” in the “raw towns that we believe and die in,” poetry grounds us and gives us a language:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

In other words, poetry works slowly and under the radar so that it may well appear as “nothing” to those in power. It certainly appears as nothing to our current chief executive, who doesn’t plan to tamper in poetry’s valley. (Note the absence of a poet at this year’s inauguration.) But don’t underestimate the power of a mouth. When we articulate our condition, we are on the way to making things happen. It is an important first step towards action.

The need to find a voice accounts for the many allusions to poetry that have been popping up in response to the inauguration. Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, tweeted out the final lines of a very relevant Yeats poem, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” The poem’s mention of one who, despite his “lies,” is “neither shamed in his own/Nor in his neighbors’ eyes” seems particularly apt given Trump’s penchant for non-stop lying and for the GOP’s refusal to call him out:

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

What is this “harder thing than Triumph” that we are honor bred to? I would say, a commitment to Tennyson’s “social truth and justice.” We may, at present, be living “amid a place of stone”—which is to say, in hard times—but we can still exult in that commitment, difficult though it may be.

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Empty but for Pain: How Faith Is Perverted

Trump and Pastor Robert Jeffress

Spiritual Sunday

We saw the worst and the best of Christianity on Inauguration Day. On the one hand, there was the bigoted pastor Robert Jeffress assuring the new president in a pre-inauguration service that it was scriptural to build his wall. After all, King Nehemiah built a wall around the Jerusalem.

Then there was the evangelical Latino pastor Samuel Rodriguez who read, without commentary, the Sermon on the Mount. For those of you who need reminding, here it is:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

As Ed Kilgore of New York Magazine observed, “I’m sure I wasn’t the only listener who thought the entire recitation was a rebuke of Donald Trump.”

By contrast, the Southern Baptist Jeffress has called Catholics Satanic, compared Obama to the antichrist, described gays as “filthy,” and dismissed Mormonism as a cult. In his sermon, he claimed that God had ordained Trump president and that those who stand against him are versions of the ungodly heathens Sanballat and Tobiah:

Nehemiah, Jeffress said, had two antagonists named Sanballat and Tobiah. “They were the mainstream media of their day,” he said. “They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.”

He noted that Nehemiah answered his critics by saying: “I’m doing a great work. . . . Why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Trump’s work, he said, “is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.”

Nehemiah faced setbacks, Jeffress noted, including an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies and discouragement among the citizens. “The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him,” he said. “And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.”

In other words, one pastor sought to erect walls and the other to tear them down. Which one will Donald Trump will listen to?

Like all religions, Christianity can be twisted to correspond with our own inner wishes. As I see it, Christianity shows its best side if we approach it with love and humility rather than with fear and hate. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since teaching Louise Erdrich’s Tracks last semester, with the figure of Pauline providing a good object lesson. Because she is a tormented soul, she develops a frightening version of Christianity.

In this novel about Chippewa Indians in the early 20th century, Pauline chooses to become a Christian because she wants to be on the winning side. The nature spirits of the Chippewas, after all, can’t save them from being wiped out by small pox, nor do they save her cousin Fleur from being raped. Pauline envies Fleur’s sexual power and also feels guilty because she failed to come to her aid during the rape. Fleur is closely associated with the spirit of the lake, and Pauline turns to an angry Christianity to carve out her own separate identity.

Christianity seems powerful to Pauline because it is the religion of the victorious whites. As she sees it, Jesus

had obviously made the whites more shrewd, as they grew in number, all around, some even owning automobiles, while the Indians receded and coughed to death and drank. It was clear that Indians were not protected by the thing in the lake or by the other Manitous who lived in trees, the bush, or spirits of animals that were hunted so scarce they became discouraged and did not mate.

But while Pauline would like to join the whites, racism stands in her way. At one point, the local convent receives word that no Indian girls should be admitted. The martyred saints, however, provide Pauline a model for proving herself to the nuns. She can engage in acts of extreme self-mortification that prove to them that there has never been “a novice so serious and devoted, or so humble.” Among her actions are the following:

At the convent, I arise before the rest of them each morning. In that cold dark hour, the air stiff as iron, I made the fire, broke the crusts of ice off the buckets of water, then set them boiling for laundry, for the breakfast soup, for washing, for all else that would take place once we’d finished morning prayer.

…All winter, my blood never thawed. My stomach never filled. My hands were chafed raw. And yet I grew strong. My shoulders hardened and I gained in height. I could kneel hour upon hour. It was no punishment to me.

“Accept this,” I asked Him when night after night the cold ripped me in tight claws and I shook so hard I could not sleep. “And this,” every time I sat to eat and halved my bread. When my stomach pinched, “This also, my Lord.” When the blood rushed back into my frozen hands after taking the sheets off the line, “This too. This. And this.”

And He did. I grew in knowledge. Skins were stripped from my eyes. Every day I saw more clearly and I marveled at what He showed me.”

Out of her self-punishment comes a vision of Christ that confirms that she has chosen the right side:

One night of deepest cold He at in the moonlight, on the stove, and looked down at me and smiled in the spill of His radiance and explained. He said that I was not whom I had supposed. I was an orphan and my parents had died in grace, and also, despite my deceptive features, I was not one speck of Indian but wholly white. He Himself had dark hair although His eyes were blue as bottleglass, so I believed. I wept. When He came off the stove, his breath was warm against my cheeks. He pressed the tears away and told me I was chosen to serve.

In a classic case of the return of the repressed, however, the more Pauline tries to deny the power of the nature spirits, the more powerful they seem. In one horrific scene, she tries to impress fellow Chippewas with the power of her Christian faith by plunging her hands into boiling water. Instead of emerging unharmed, she experiences excruciating pain, leading to doubts about which god is stronger:

Christ was weak, I saw now, a tame newcomer in this country that has its own devils in the waters of boiling-over kettles…That night in the convent bed, I knew God had no foothold or sway in this land, or no mercy for the just, or that perhaps, for all my suffering and faith, I was still insignificant. Which seemed impossible.

I knew there never was a martyr like me.

I was hollow unless pain filled me, empty but for pain, and yet the unceasing trail of my boiled hands was terrible.

Pastor Jeffress is not as unhinged as Pauline but I do sense a hollowness within him. “Empty but for pain.” Perhaps the fear of confronting this hollowness prompts him to lash out at others. The result, unfortunately, is a perverted version of Christianity that only other angry souls can embrace.

Further thought: Just as Pauline finds Jesus to be weak, so Jeffress finds the traditional view of Jesus to be insufficient. According to Wikipedia, Jeffress once  talked on Fox about the perception of Jesus as

this little, wimpy guy who walked around plucking daisies and eating birdseed and saying nice things, but never doing anything controversial. The fact is, Jesus did confront his culture with truth – and he ended up being crucified because of it…. Wimpy pastors produce wimpy Christians – and that is why we are losing this culture war. I believe it’s time for pastors to say, You know, I don’t care about controversy, I don’t care whether I’m going to lose church members, I don’t care about building a big church. I’m going to stand for truth regardless of what happens.

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How Will the Future Judge Us for Trump?


Yesterday, in conjunction with Donald Trump’s inauguration, the American Academy of Poets reprinted, and then shared with Salon, a 2015 Jane Hirshfield poem. In a statement to Salon, Hirshfield noted, “This poem was written well before today’s Presidential inauguration and without this event in mind. But it seems a day worth remembering the fate of our shared planet and all its beings, human and beyond.”

It’s one of those poems that, like many written by Robert Frost, becomes more elusive the more you look at it. It starts out with a familiar sentiment, that people close their eyes to warning signs–which in our case could be climate change, growing income inequality, or the rise of an authoritarian like Trump. You are invited to replace “it” with the looming catastrophe of your choice.

The speaker is defending her generation. We didn’t close our eyes and we can’t be accused of doing nothing. She does admit, however, that we did “not-enough.”

So what can we be accused of in the present situation? I’m willing to think of Trump as a kerosene fire, giving off a smelly odor but lighting up the landscape. Is that how we have been guilty? There certainly have been Republicans who warmed themselves at Trump’s fire, read reality by his crowds, and praised him (“I’m a fan,” said Ted Cruz about candidate Trump before Trump turned on him). Meanwhile liberals like me were fascinated by the flames and perhaps paid Trump a kind of homage in our obsession with him.

Meanwhile, feeding on our attention like fire upon oxygen, Trump burned until he consumed us all. That’s what future generations will see. It’s a more damning sin than willful blindness.

Let Them Not Say

By Jane Hirshfield

Let them not say: we did not see it.
We saw.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
We heard.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
It burned.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.

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The Good Ol’ Boy That Conned America


After today, I’ll stop writing posts about how Donald Trump conned his way into the American presidency. From here on out, we’ll be dealing with a man who is president and so will be able to focus on his actual body of work. The reality show is about to end as reality itself walks through the door.

Today’s literary parallel was suggested to me by my colleague Ben Click and it’s a good one: Donald Trump is the Bible salesman in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”

In the story, an intellectual snob with a wooden leg—her name is Joy but she has renamed herself Hulga—is sure that the salesman is just a Christian hick (a.k.a. a good ol’ country boy) and she looks down on him.

Like the American media with Trump in the early days, she thinks she can amuse herself with him and takes him to a hayloft. He knows how to play her and her superiority complex, however. While making love to her, he gets her to open up to him and reveal how she attaches her wooden leg.

This startling request makes her think they are reaching new levels of intimacy, and she dreams of a future together: “She was thinking that she would run away with him and that every night he would take the leg off and every morning put it back on again.”

What happens to her next is what, I predict, is about to happen to those who think they can bend Trump to their will. The Bible salesman is actually someone who has fun spitting in the faces of people who feel superior to him. With Hulga, he first reveals that his carrying case contains whiskey and pornographic playing cards, not Bibles. Then he steals her leg:

Her voice when she spoke had an almost pleading sound. “Aren’t you,” she murmured, “aren’t you just good country people?”

The boy cocked his head. He looked as if he were just beginning to understand that she might be trying to insult him. “Yeah,” he said, curling his lip slightly, “but it ain’t held me back none. I’m as good as you any day in the week.”

“Give me my leg,” she said.

He pushed it farther away with his foot. “Come on now, let’s begin to have us a good time,” he said coaxingly. “We ain’t got to know one another good yet.”

As he leaves through the trap door, she learns that she’s not the first person he has conned:

When all of him had passed but his head, he turned and regarded her with a look that no longer had any admiration in it. “I’ve gotten a lot of interesting things,” he said. “One time I got a woman’s glass eye this way. And you needn’t to think you’ll catch me because Pointer ain’t really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don’t stay nowhere long. And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga,” he said, using the name as if he didn’t think much of it, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” and then the toast-colored hat disappeared down the hole and the girl was left, sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight.

Pointer operates out a deep well of resentment. He cons simply to show people up, and he loves to rub his victims’ face in their defeat. He believes in nothing but that.

Establishment Republicans, the media, and liberals all underestimated Trump. Republicans thought they could use him to deliver certain voters to the GOP; the media used him to deliver readers and viewers; and liberals thought that he was so outrageous that he would ensure the election of a Democrat. They’re all hobbling around on one leg down. O’Connor’s lesson appears to be that, whenever you think you have the upper hand with a con man, that’s the very moment when you’re about to get taken for a ride.

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Jonathan Swift, Master of Fake News

Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice in the cart on the way to the gallows


Fake news has been getting a lot of attention recently, and The New York Times recently had an article about a particularly effective instance. Apparently a report about thousands of fraudulent Hillary ballots in an Ohio warehouse was concocted by a young Davidson alum and Trump supporter. To add credibility, Cameron Harris included a fake photograph, and the story was was seen by six million people. Apparently a liberal arts education, while it’s great at turning out creative problem solvers, doesn’t automatically make one a moral person.

If further proof is needed, consider Charles Taylor, the genocidal dictator of Liberia who attended Grinnell College.

But back to fake news. All this talk about stories that helped sway the election has me thinking about Jonathan Swift, the greatest fake news writer in history. Everyone knows about “The Modest Proposal,” of course, but that masterful essay was far from his only trick. In his day, Swift was most famous for his “Predictions for the Year 1708,” by “Isaac Bickerstaff.” Swift so hated astrologers that he set himself up as a rival to the leading astrologer of his day, John Partridge. Bickerstaff said that Partridge was a fraud because he couldn’t predict his own death date, which Bickerstaff named. You can read the entire story here.

I want to look at another piece that Swift wrote, however, as it is more troubling. Whereas most people get that “Modest Proposal” and “Predictions” are jokes, apparently some thought that “The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston” was authentic and adjusted their behavior accordingly. When that happens, there is cause for concern.

Here’s the background. It was sometimes the practice, when criminals were on the way to being hanged, that penny publications of their last confession would be hawked along the parade route (see Hogarth’s picture above). Swift’s Ebenezer Elliston explains the practice:

I know it is the constant custom, that those who come to this place should have speeches made for them, and cried about in their own hearing, as they are carried to execution; and truly they are such speeches that although our fraternity be an ignorant illiterate people, they would make a man ashamed to have such nonsense and false English charged upon him even when he is going to the gallows:  They contain a pretended account of our birth and family; of the fact for which we are to die; of our sincere repentance; and a declaration of our religion.

Swift, ever suspicious of people claiming to be virtuous or penitent, found the practice to be bogus. In his parody, therefore, Elliston is not at all sorry for his crimes. He’s just sorry that he got caught:

And first, I cannot say from the bottom of my heart, that I am truly sorry for the offense I have given to God and the world; but I am very much so, for the bad success of my villainies in bringing me to this untimely end… [A]lthough in compliance with my friends, I resolve to go to the gallows after the usual manner, kneeling, with a book in my hand, and my eyes lift up; yet I shall feel no more devotion in my heart than I have observed in some of my comrades, who have been drunk among common whores the very night before their execution.  I can say further from my own knowledge, that two of my fraternity after they had been hanged, and wonderfully came to life, and made their escapes, as it sometimes happens, proved afterwards the wickedest rogues I ever knew, and so continued until they were hanged again for good and all; and yet they had the impudence at both times they went to the gallows, to smite their breasts, and lift up their eyes to Heaven all the way.

Now comes the disturbing part. In an attempt at social engineering, Swift has his speaker threaten to reveal the names of his accomplices if they don’t stop committing crimes:

Now, as I am a dying man, I have done something which may be of good use to the public.  I have left with an honest man (and indeed the only honest man I was ever acquainted with) the names of all my wicked brethren, the present places of their abode, with a short account of the chief crimes they have committed; in many of which I have been their accomplice, and heard the rest from their own mouths:  I have likewise set down the names of those we call our setters, of the wicked houses we frequent, and of those who receive and buy our stolen goods.  I have solemnly charged this honest man, and have received his promise upon oath, that whenever he hears of any rogue to be tried for robbing, or house-breaking, he will look into his list, and if he finds the name there of the thief concerned, to send the whole paper to the government.  Of this I here give my companions fair and public warning, and hope they will take it.

According to Swift’s friend and editor Thomas Sheridan, the threat had an impact:

Swift, in composing Elliston’s pretended dying speech, gave it the flavour and character of authenticity in order to impose on the members of other gangs, and so successful was he in his intention, that the speech was accepted as the real expression of their late companion by the rest and had a most salutary effect.  Scott says it was “received as genuine by the banditti who had been companions of his depredations, who were the more easily persuaded of its authenticity as it contained none of the cant usual in the dying speeches composed for malefactors by the Ordinary or the ballad-makers.  The threat which it held out of a list deposited with a secure hand, containing their names, crimes, and place of rendezvous, operated for a long time in preventing a repetition of their villanies, which had previously been so common.”

If the piece did indeed decrease the crime rate—and how can we know for sure?—then what’s wrong with the trick? Well, once starts, the process has no end and, furthermore, who is to determine what is a virtuous end? What one person sees as a good—a Trump’s victory—another will not.Then it’s just a matter of who can spin the most convincing story.

Swift should know this. After all, his satire only works by appealing to norms that everyone holds. When he depicts departures from this norm—for instance, a proposal to eat babies—he’s counting on us to recoil in horror. If the essay’s cold pragmatism seems compelling, then that’s a warning against cold pragmatism, which is as much a target of “Modest Proposal” as English exploitation of the Irish.

Now consider what happens if we become so disoriented that we no longer have a moral standard. The Nazis, while they did not eat babies, nevertheless treated Jews as  natural resources to be mined. There are instances of Jewish hair being used for mattress stuffing, Jewish fat for soap, and Jewish skin for lampshades. If one loses one’s moral compass, traditional satire no longer works.

I’m actually skeptical of claims that crime went down after the publication of “The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston.” There are enough clues in the work for a discriminating reader to recognize the satire. So we probably can give Swift a pass, just as we give The Onion or John Stewart a pass.

I no longer say this with confidence, however. After all, I once would have thought that everyone would see through reports of Hillary stashing thousands of fraudulent votes in an Ohio warehouse or of Hillary operating a child sex ring in a pizza parlor.

Satire is threatened when people fail to be discriminating, making it another potential victim—along with the mainstream press, science, and rational discourse—of politicians who make their own reality.

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Trump as Browning’s Pied Piper

George John Pinwell, “Study for ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin”


Here’s something I didn’t see coming in these turbulent political times: someone applying Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin to Donald Trump.

Kudos to Charlie Pierce of Esquire for doing so. At one point he describes Trump as the Pied Piper and the children as the voters he has conned. Then he reverses course and the piper becomes one of the subcontractors that Trump has cheated.

If you don’t know the poem, it begins with a description of Hamelin’s rat problem. This sounds a bit like the hellscape that, as Trump sees it, America has become under Barack Obama’s presidency:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Enter the man who claims he can fix Hamelin’s problems. Like Trump, the Pied Piper is good at blowing hot air although, unlike Trump, he can actually follow through on his promises:

Into the street the Piper stept, 
Smiling first a little smile, 
As if he knew what magic slept 
In his quiet pipe the while; 
Then, like a musical adept, 
To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled, 
And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled, 
Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled; 
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered, 
You heard as if an army muttered; 
And the muttering grew to a grumbling; 
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling; 
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling. 
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, 
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats, 
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers, 
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, 
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers, 
Families by tens and dozens, 
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives — 
Followed the Piper for their lives. 
From street to street he piped advancing, 
And step for step they followed dancing, 
Until they came to the river Weser 
Wherein all plunged and perished! 

As Pierce sees it, Trump will not be anywhere near as effective. Rather, his hot air serves only to lead his followers either into a river or a hole in a mountain. The one child who, because he is lame, escapes the fate of the others, describes the wonderful sounds he heard. It’s his version of the return of coal and manufacturing jobs, universal health care with no deductibles (“We’re going to have insurance for everybody”), and an America that looks like Mayfield in Leave it to Beaver:

I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new.

He sounds like a soon-to-be disaffected Trump voter. Or a previous enrollee in Trump University.

Pierce imagines how the children will respond once they awake from their trance:

And all the children of Hamelin looked around and thought to themselves, “Jesus H. Christ on a four-day bender, how in the everloving fck did we ever get inside this big-ass rock.”

The Esquire columnist then shifts gears, however, and imagines that Trump is Hamelin’s mayor rather than the piper—which is to say, a man who promises good money and then defaults. Here is the mayor applying what he thinks is leverage so as to pay only a fraction of what he owes, which is a thousand guilders:

A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue; 
So did the Corporation too. 
For council dinners made rare havoc 
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock; 
And half the money would replenish 
Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish. 
To pay this sum to a wandering fellow 
With a gipsy coat of red and yellow! 
“Beside,” quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink, 
“Our business was done at the river’s brink; 
“We saw with our eyes the vermin sink, 
“And what’s dead can’t come to life, I think. 
“So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink 
“From the duty of giving you something to drink, 
“And a matter of money to put in your poke; 
“But as for the guilders, what we spoke 
“Of them, as you very well know, was in joke. 
“Beside, our losses have made us thrifty. 
“A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!”

See, it was all a joke: the piper should have looked at what was in the mayor’s heart rather than what came out of his mouth.

The piper, however, can fight back, as the townspeople learn to their sorrow. Pierce indulges in a revenge fantasy:

You will recall that the story of Hamelin really is nothing more than the story of a subcontractor who got stiffed and took his revenge. There are modern parallels to that, I’m thinking, and if, one day, a flautist dressed in motley shows up at the White House, we may all survive this yet.

With him I proved no bargain-driver,
With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!
And folks who put me in a passion
May find me pipe to another fashion.

What punishment would be appropriate for our PEOTUS conman? If we turned off the spotlight so that he had to be alone with his own emptiness, would he would feel as bereft as the Hamelin citizenry?

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The President Who Loved Literature

Barack Obama in Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, Iowa


Not the least of the things I will miss about Barack Obama will be his literary reflections. Since I believe, along with Jonathan Chait, that Obama has been one of America’s greatest presidents, it’s nice to think that we can give literature some of the credit for that. Even if you think, as some of my conservative readers do, that Obama’s presidency has been a disaster, you must admit that he has handled the office with class. So maybe literature at least encourages good behavior, even if Obama also pushed policies that you don’t like.

Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times, recently interviewed the president about his favorite books. His answers confirm his thoughtfulness and his depth.

Some of the titles I have not seen him mention before. For instance, talking about certain books that he has recommended to Malia, he is concerned that tastes have changed so that she might not encounter them in college. The books are

–Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead;
–Garcia Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude;
–Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
–Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Warrior Woman

All four of the novels show large historical forces at work: World War II, colonialism, leftist politics and the rise of feminism, immigration and the clash of cultures. I suspect that Woman Warrior (which includes the story of Mulan) would resonate most with Malia. At one time Kingston’s book was the most commonly taught novel on college campuses.

Obama noted that Malia has been drawn to one book that he didn’t recommend.She sounds like her father’s daughter:

A Moveable Feast. I hadn’t included that, and she was just captivated by the idea that Hemingway described his goal of writing one true thing every day.

Obama discussed how reading became important to him when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University:

I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But [reading fiction] reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

The president also talked about literature he is not drawn to. Mentioning that he once wrote short stories, he noted that they were not Jack Kerouac-style, open-road, self-discovery dramas:

And so a bunch of the short stories I wrote had to do with that sense, that atmosphere. One story is about an old black pastor who seems to be about to lose his church, his lease is running out and he’s got this loyal woman deacon who is trying to buck him up. Another is about an elderly couple — a white couple in L.A., — and he’s like in advertising, wrote jingles. And he’s just retired and has gotten cranky. And his wife is trying to convince him that his life is not over.

So when I think back on what’s interesting to me, there is not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.

Social realism, in other words, rather than expressive fiction.

Novels, Obama said, have been very important in helping him maintain his bearings over the past eight years:

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.

For example:

[T]he last novel I read was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. And the reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes minds and hearts.

The interviewer brought up Obama’s mention of Atticus Finch in his farewell address, which led to this interchange:

It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where Gilead and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Later in the interview Obama returns to this theme of using fiction to learn other perspectives, which philosopher Martha Nussbaum says is one of literature’s greatest gifts:

And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.

Then, appearing to talk about escapist fiction, Obama mentioned times when

I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

The works he mentions in this context, however, are not cheap spy novels but well crafted genre fiction, such as:

Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award winning sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem
Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl
Lauren Goff’s similarly structured domestic tour-de-force Fates and Furies

Kakutani astutely points out to Obama that Flynn and Goff’s books both feature wildly different accounts of the same reality. The reader is forced to be skeptical of the first person narrators, stepping into each character’s shoes to figure out the truth.

Obama talked about the importance of Shakespeare and, while it doesn’t sound like he ever warmed to The Tempest, the tragedies hit home. This isn’t surprising given his other reading choices. As always with Obama, he is interested in seeing how people’s lives are caught up in the movement of large forces. Earnest as Obama is, it makes sense that Prospero’s game playing would not appeal to him:

I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, The Tempest or something, I thought, “My God, this is boring.” And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

I’ve written before about Obama’s love for Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and it’s interesting that he mentions “going through hardship” when he discusses it. The hardship in the novel isn’t that acute: Milkman has been living an aimless middle class life (just as Obama once experimented with drugs) but then goes on a roots quest (as Obama went in search of his Kenyan father). He ultimately finds a greater purpose in his life, just as Obama did with community organizing:

[Literature] gives me a sense of perspective. I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly Song of Solomon is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.

Then there are authors that Obama reads even though he does not agree with them politically. For instance, he describes Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul as someone he uses as a foil. Given his faith in the American voter, expressed especially in his 2008 campaign and his farewell address, he feels challenged by Naipaul’s dismissal of weak people:

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His A Bend in the River, which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.

So in that sense, I’m using writing like that as a foil or something to debate against.

Finally, there are those authors who capture the immigrant and the outsider experiences, thereby helping establish America’s its special identity and mission:

I know you like Junot Díaz’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s books, and they speak to immigration or the American Dream.

I think Lahiri’s books, I think Díaz’s books, do speak to a very particular contemporary immigration experience. But also this combination of — that I think is universal — longing for this better place, but also feeling displaced and looking backwards at the same time. I think in that sense, their novels are directly connected to a lot of American literature.

Some of the great books by Jewish authors like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, they are steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up — what you’re willing to give up and what you’re not willing to give up. So that particular aspect of American fiction I think is still of great relevance today.

Because of the novel’s ability to speak to our deepest issues, Obama is not worried that it will be replaced by social media:

Look, I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species.

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

Get ready for four years of a president who doesn’t read.

Posted in Bellow (Saul), Cixin (Liu), Diaz (Junot), Flynn (Gillian), Goff (Lauren), Hemingway (Ernest), Jack Kerouac, Kerouac (Jack), Kingston (Maxine Hong), Lahiri (Jhumpa), Lee (Harper), Lessing (Doris), Mailer (Norman), Marquez (Gabriel Garcia), Morrison (Toni), Naipaul (V.S.), Robinson (Marilynne), Roth (Philip K.), Shakespeare (William), Whitehead (Colson) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Benefit When We Check Our Privilege

Martin Luther King at the march on Washington

Monday – Martin Luther King Day

Last week an article in The New York Times said that disagreements about “white privilege” are deterring at least some women from traveling to Washington to participate in the post-inaugural women’s march to protest Donald Trump. This is as good a day as any to discuss white privilege. I turn to Ralph Ellison and Lucille Clifton for clarity.

The article started off as follows:

Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.

The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.

“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.”

 That one Facebook post would deter someone from protesting Trump makes me wonder how committed the woman was in the first place. But it’s also true that organizers want people to wrestle with issues of privilege:

In some ways, the discord is by design. Even as they are working to ensure a smooth and unified march next week, the national organizers said they made a deliberate decision to highlight the plight of minority and undocumented immigrant women and provoke uncomfortable discussions about race.


A debate then ensued about whether white women were just now experiencing what minority women experience daily, or were having a hard time yielding control. A young white woman from Baltimore wrote with bitterness that white women who might have been victims of rape and abuse were being “asked to check their privilege,” a catchphrase that refers to people acknowledging their advantages, but which even some liberal women find unduly confrontational.

No one involved with the march fears that the rancor will dampen turnout; even many of those who expressed dismay at the tone of the discussion said they still intended to join what is sure to be the largest demonstration yet against the Trump presidency.

“I will march,” one wrote on the march’s Facebook page, “Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.”

But these debates over race also reflect deeper questions about the future of progressivism in the age of Trump. Should the march highlight what divides women, or what unites them? Is there room for women who have never heard of “white privilege”?

As an aside, I note that versions of this debate have been going on for over 150 years. In fact, pre-Civil War feminists and abolitionists found that their attempts at solidarity fractured over the debate between race vs. gender

It’s worth looking at some background here and for that, as so often, Ralph Ellison proves useful. What grates oppressed groups—and this can also include women, as I’ll be discussing shortly in my Lucille Clifton example—is when privileged people refuse to acknowledge that others may be struggling because they lack their advantages. Privilege can carry with it a kind of blindness, which is where Ellison’s novel comes in. At first the narrator sounds resigned:

I am not complaining [that people don’t see me], nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.

Invisible Man then talks about the indifference mutating into something else:

It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

A friend noted that this is why young black men (and sometimes women) stopped by the police sometimes push back. They are tired of being seen only as black faces—as phantoms of police minds—and refuse to abase themelves. And not only men: Sandra Bland was locked up for refusing to put out her cigarette when she was stopped for a busted taillight. Unfortunately, such little acts of protest can have outsized consequences, as we know only too well. The person of color is seen as uppity or threatening and suddenly shots are fired.

I’ve talked about how, following the election, many of my students of color felt rendered invisible by the outcome. They couldn’t believe that their fellow Americans were willing to overlook how Donald Trump, through his slurs, erased people of color and Muslims. My LBGTQ students felt the same, as did a number of women students.

In darker times, oppressed groups assumed racism and misogyny were simply facts that could not be changed. During the Obama years, however, they came to feel visible and, in this new atmosphere, began to take their individual personhood for granted. They felt aggrieved when even sympathetic souls proved to have blindnesses. No longer worried about macroaggressions, they started focusing on microaggressions. They expected more from those of us who are privileged.

Everyone benefits when we open our eyes. Speaking as a white straight middle class male, life is far richer when those around me are no longer phantoms. I become a deeper person when I don’t sightlessly bump into others but instead engage with them.

From my teaching, however, I also know that my white students become defensive or tune out as soon as I mention “white privilege.” What I do, therefore, is shift the grounds. People who are privileged in one context may be invisible in another.

For instance, even white women like Ms. Willis are erased when their ultimate worth is determined by a ten point scale. They are rendered invisible men think it is a matter of course to pinch them, make sexist slurs, or grab their private parts. I also know how liberating it can be for women to have their invisibility acknowledged because I have seen whole rooms of women stand and cheer when Lucille Clifton used to read “wishes for sons.”

I’ve written about the poem elsewhere so I’ll look only at the final stanza here. After pointing out that men can feel that they are in control because they don’t menstruate and then, later in life, experience hot flashes, Clifton writes that they might feel different if they were subjected to the power of people “not unlike themselves”:

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

The image is of someone in a vulnerable position negotiating with an authority figure. One wonders what Lucille’s own gynecological visits were like.

In his farewell speech, Obama quoted Atticus Finch saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As a mixed race child, Obama had no choice but to engage in this exercise. After all, the white grandparents who raised him had no idea what, as a child of color, he was going through. They probably came into their parenting duties with certain prejudices. They and their grandson had to learn a different way of seeing.

Once you open your eyes, your marriage will benefit, your work relationships will benefit, your communities will benefit, and your country will benefit. What more could we desire?

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Ellison (Ralph) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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

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