Grendel Violence Never Ends

Our latest Grendel? Alleged killer Dylann Roof

Our latest Grendel? Alleged killer Dylann Roof

I am losing count of all the blog posts I have written about mass shootings since starting this blog six years ago. (Some of them are listed at the end of today’s post.) Today I write about the nine parishioners gunned down in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a gunman shouting racist speech,

I feel like the grandmother at the end of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony following another eruption of violence on the reservation. “I guess I must be getting old,” she says,

“because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited any more.” She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”

I too go back to a familiar story. Few works of literature capture the social violence that strikes from within as powerfully as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. Our latest Grendel, the alleged killer 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, sounds very much like a white supremacist: apparently he “talked about black people taking over the country, and raping women, and how they had to ‘go.’” and in the Facebook picture above he is wearing insignia from apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Like Grendel, it appears he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.

Meanwhile, we are like King Hrothgar, helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that we are the most powerful country on earth, just as Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia. One hears President Obama’s despair when he says, “at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to get a grip on [gun violence].” He has been saying this after each mass killing for the past six years.

In Beowulf, the spirit of resentful violence has been operating for twelve years. Here’s how the poet describes Grendel’s reign and the king’s sorrow.

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right,
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old
were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

In his remarks, Obama spoke of his “deep sorrow,” and of “the heartbreak, and the sadness, and the anger.” The poet says that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”

None of us knows when and where the next reaver of hell will strike. We only know that he will.

Previous Posts on Mass Shootings

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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Detecting the Person behind the Poetry

George Landow, "Dickens among His Characters"

George Landow, “Dickens among His Characters”

I stumbled across an interesting article recently in The New York Review of Books about the sense we get of the author from reading his or her work. Tim Parks writes,

It seems impossible, at least for me, to read almost anything without being aware of the person behind it and without putting that person in relation to what he or she has written and indeed to readers of the book, to the point that I sometimes wonder, in the teeth of a literary critical tradition that has always told us the writer’s personality is irrelevant to any appraisal of the work, whether one of the pleasures of literature isn’t precisely this contemplation of the enigma of the person creating it. 

Literary critical tradition is not quite as vociferous on this subject as it was in the heyday of New Criticism, when W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley famously wrote their essay on “the intentional fallacy.” Seeking to banish the author from the conversation about literature, they asserted that the text was all that mattered. Later they would write a complementary article on “the affective fallacy,” seeking to also banish the reader.

Structuralism sought to banish the author in a different way, with Roland Barthes declaring “the death of the author.” It was literature’s version of no accident history: the forces that propel history or literature are so insistent, such theorists argue, that they can work through practically any individual. Great works are not dependent on great individuals but a fortuitous set of circumstances.

As with the intentional fallacy, the small amount of truth in this theory quickly appeared ridiculous once the idea was pushed to its limits. While it’s certainly true that authors don’t have complete control over their creations—people have been asserting this since Socrates got Ion to admit this in Plato’s dialogue by that name—it is also true that literary works owe a lot to the individuals who wrote them down.

Theorist Wayne Booth came up with a term that describes what Parks is getting at: “the implied author.” When we read a work, we sense an author who is guiding our steps. Sometimes this author intrudes into the text—think of Dickens interjecting commentary—but sometimes we just sense him or her.

Booth notes that the implied author might be a better person than the actual author. The implied Jane Austen, for instance, comes across as someone who frowns at idle gossip whereas the living, breathing Austen supposedly loved gossip. It’s as though she put on her best self, kind of like dressing for church, when she wrote her novels.

One could debate which is the real Jane Austen. Are we really our lesser selves? What’s to say that we can’t be considered our best selves as well? Anyway, Parks in his article loves the sense of meeting the person behind the words as he reads.

Here he is describing his approach:

It is difficult to pin down where and how this awareness of the writer starts. Like so much of what happens when we read, it has an elusive, shadowy existence. However, over the last year or two, I have found it clarifying to play this game: I try to identify a kind of conversation, encounter, or transaction in a novel that seems to be characteristic of its author, something that recurs frequently; when I’ve established that, I try to think of the reader’s relationship with the writer in the same terms.

The article then goes on to contrast two very different authors, James Joyce and Dickens. With Joyce, one comes across numerous instances of exchanges while with Dickens there is a heavy emphasis on “powerful figures befriending weaker ones”:

First the recurrent encounter, or exchange. An easy example might be the question of loans in Ulysses. An awful lot of the book is about characters asking each other for loans, or favors, errands, and chores, and every request is a little power game. People make demands—Stephen on Buck Mulligan, Buck on Stephen, the Englishman Hine on both and both on him, and others define themselves in the way they respond.

In Dickens, we frequently have powerful figures befriending weaker ones, or appearing to befriend them, offering them help, inviting them to be part of a group that may or may not be welcoming or beneficent. Likewise the person befriended may or may not be worthy and loyal. He may, like Uriah Heep, accept another’s patronage in order to manipulate him and steal from him.

Parks has only gotten started, however. In the second part of his exercise, he asks,

Can I think of my reaction to the book, the emotions brought into play by its story and style, as in some way analogous to that recurrent transaction? Is the author beginning to form with me this kind of relationship that recurs so frequently in his novels?

Joyce, Parks says, asks immense favors of us: he wants us to give considerable time and effort to understand what he’s saying. Many readers think that he demands too much.

Dickens is trickier. On the one hand, he appears to want to befriend us, and one reason we read Dickens is to enter the warm friendships we encounter, whether it be the Pickwick Club, David Copperfield’s circle of friends, or others. On the other hand, Parks picks up sudden lapses, as though Dickens is ultimately worried that friendships we so long for will let us down:

[Unlike Joyce], Dickens befriends us. That’s evident at once. He reaches out his paternal hand. He writes inviting prefaces. He talks about both characters and readers as his family. His seductive prose is brilliant but never really difficult, witty but never abstruse, always warm. We feel an attraction to the man that reinforces or perhaps even exceeds our appreciation of the writing. We would like to be part of his world, his club. Dickens loved clubs and of course his first novel is about a club. The Pickwick Club. Even today there are Dickens clubs in countries round the globe. Readers love to aggregate around the man. And we notice that happiness in Dickens is almost always a happiness with a group of people, a small community, not with passionate couples.

All the same, Dickens’s plots encourage us to be alert to friendships that seem attractive and easy. David Copperfield is mistaken when he allows the older and more charismatic Steerforth to take him over. Anyone who befriends the Micawbers will be let down. Perhaps this anxiety that one can get it wrong when befriending others explains those sudden odd lapses in Dickens when rather than lavishing attention on his readers he suddenly seems determined to be rid of us as quickly as possible, to wrap up his story and be away. The last part of Dombey and Son is emblematic. But even David Copperfield ends in a hurried, unconvincing fashion, as if Dickens felt it might have been a mistake to befriend us, and we too feel disappointed; the relationship we hurried into is not quite as rewarding as we hoped. Or is it that relationships in general can never sustain that Dickensian festivity for long?

What Parks says about Dickens can also be said about two authors I have long admired, Henry Fielding and Lucille Clifton. With each of them, I feel that I am being offered a special friendship and brought into special intimacy. And yet, with each, I find that I am allowed in only so far before being given the cold shoulder. It’s as though, while they acknowledge and wish to honor our longing for connection, they worry that our emotional needs will devour them if they allow us to get too close.

Fielding seems to establish an easy familiarity with the reader by his genial insults in Tom Jones. Then one realizes that he’s very defensive and actually means to insult us. His sense of privilege as a member of the gentry both seeks out and resents the rising middle class who are reading his books.

Clifton, on the other hand, makes a show of sharing with us things that people don’t normally talk about and, in so doing doing, made it acceptable to talk about such things as a woman’s hips, menstruation, menopause, and child abuse. She must really trust us to let us in this far, we feel. At a certain point, however, we discover that her very openness operates as a shield.

It’s as though she has developed a trick for dealing with her anxieties: she talks openly about whatever makes her feel defensive. Self-conscious about your large hips? Swing them extra freely. Torn apart by your father’ abuse of you when you were a child? Come out dancing.

Maybe I’m cheating when I talk about Lucille since she was my colleague for 15 years. I can indeed say that I got close but no closer. I came to realize that, whatever I knew about her, I knew on her terms.

I didn’t resent her for this since it made sense that someone with her biography would hold the world at arm’s length. But given how warm her poetry seems, it did startle me.

Parks, like literary biographers in general, offers us characters as complex as any in the books that we read: the authors themselves.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille), Dickens (Charles), Fielding (Henry), Joyce (James) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bloodless Criticism Undermines Lit

Eliza Joinville, "Leda and the Swan"

Eliza Joinville, “Leda and the Swan”

I promise that today will be my last post on Lily King’s The English Teacher. In it, I explore an issue that that I’ve addressed in the past: how literature can function as an evasion as well as a guide.

Several great works deal with this issue directly, such as Don Quixote, Northanger Abbey, and Madame Bovary. These are all concerned with the dangers of popular fiction, however, whereas the protagonist of Lily King’s novel sometimes finds great literature itself getting in her way.

Or more accurately, she approaches such literature in a way that undermines its potential.

Note, for instance, the moment when Vida summons up all her courage to tell her son about how he was conceived by way of rape. Instead of telling him straight out, she resorts to bloodless literary criticism:

“I lived with my mother then.” Her voice was so faint he had to lean toward her, but imperceptibly; too much interest and he’d scare the words away… “She was a true matriarch. She was the imperious blend of insecurity and strength that Faulkner and Lawrence capture—

“I don’t care about Faulkner and Lawrence right now, Ma.”

Then she resorts to Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and other rape stories from Greek mythology:

“Sometimes it helps to think of Leda and the Swan.” She was whispering now. “To think of Io, Persephone, and Europa.”

Maybe there was a part of him, a cluster of cells somewhere in his small brain that knew, that was trying to tell the other parts that would not listen, but he needed her to say it, not in code, not in references to people that were only real to her. He didn’t need this shit. This was the shit he’d gotten all his life. Leda and the fucking swan

When Peter starts to leave, his mother surrenders and informs him directly. In the subsequent scene I particularly like how, although Vida must step away from literature to communicate, Peter then resorts to that same literature to process what she’s telling him. Here’s Vida:

“Whenever I thought about telling this to you I always thought I’d find in that moment some beautiful way of constructing it so that it would seem somehow magical to you. I know that’s crazy but it happens. It can happen. The right words can transform even the grossets brutality. But they’re not…” She dragged her fingernails across the inside of her wrist. “They’re not coming to me now. A man came in. A stranger to me. He came into that bathroom while I was washing my hands.” Her face twisted and she looked at Peter helplessly, as if she herself could not believe what she was about to say. “And he raped me.”

And here’s Peter:

The crumpled paper [of an illustration that Vida did of the man] rocked in the sand near her bare foot. Leda and the Swan. He remembered it now. The Swan was Zeus, swooping down to rape a mortal girl. He’d gotten an erection in class when they’d discussed the poem last year: the loosening thighs, the shudder in the loins.

For the record, I too was riveted by Yeats’s sexual imagery upon first reading Yeats’s poem in college.

But back to Vida and literature. For much of her life, she has turned to books to keep the ugliness out. In fact, as a girl with an abusive father, she would use it as a refuge, as we learn from one of her memories:

She is on her stomach reading. It is a Saturday and no one is home but her and there is a big bowl of peanuts on the table beside her. She eats them one by one, sucking off the salt first, then biting gently so it splits, then letting the halves nestle in either side of her mouth before chewing. It is morning and she can stay up here all day.

This memory is from King’s nightmarish chapter 9, which functions as a classic literary night scene, and it’s not entirely clear what happens next. It sounds as though Vida is assaulted by her father:

Downstairs a door slams. He is on her before she registers his feet on the stairs, his weight pressing the air out of her chest, his arms knocking the book from her fingers. She has no air to scream with. She is overwhelmed by the familiarity of the act, the belt, the grunts, the blood in her mouth, as if it has happened not once before but hundreds of times. It is not anger or sadness or fear that she feels, just a habitual acquiescence. Yes, this is what happens to me, her body seems to be saying.

If this is an actual memory, then it is the first of two times that she is assaulted by a man, the second time when she is a young teacher. (It’s possible that she’s assaulted a third time, by her school’s theater teacher, although it may be that she is just identifying with the students he sleeps with.) Reading didn’t save her that first time and literature can’t soften what she must tell her son.

It’s not literature that avoids the truth, however, but the way she talks about literature, seeking to separate it from her pain. In Monday’s post I noted Vida’s evasiveness—she wants to talk about “the ache of modernism” while her students want to talk about Tess’s rape. And while her students want to talk about whether Tess should or should not hide her secret from Angel, Vida wants to talk about

the ill-chosen location of the honeymoon, the crumbling d’Urberville mansion, and how Hardy plants his Darwinian theories of social determinism in the faces of Tess’s two ancestors on the wall (paintings built into the wall that cannot be removed), one representing treachery, the other arrogance.

Veering away from pressing issues extends to her stepmothering. When she thinks about her new charges, she thinks only about their intellectual development, ignoring the fact that they lost their mother in the not too distant past:

Stepmothering, she realized, was not all that different from teaching. It was essential to keep their intellectual development in mind at all times. You couldn’t get all wrapped up in their needs and whims. Stuart and his mysticism. Fran reading The Thorn Birds. They were too old now for that kind of material. A young man needed a hearty Byronic outlook, not this boneless Taoism. And if Fran began to believe in the characters in novels like that, real people were going to be a sore and sorry disappointment. She would have to, once again, urge Fran to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles; that would teach her exactly how far she could trust a man, even a seemingly well-intentioned man like Angel Clare.

Byron, with all his sexual escapades, is hardly the model one wants for a young man. Vida is replicating her own trauma, thinking that a young man should become a sexual predator and that a young woman should adopt her own defensive crouch.

But though Vida seeks to defuse literature’s tough lessons, it’s also true that she can’t stay away from a book like Tess. She insists upon approaching this fictional version of her own story, even as she shies away from it. Although she doesn’t acknowledge it, she instinctively knows that only when she faces up to her hurt will she be able to transcend it.

Her ambivalence is not unusual. There are many literature teachers who don’t acknowledge the real reasons why they teach certain works, choosing to hide out instead in their intellects. While I’m not demanding that everyone engage in self-analysis with every work (although admittedly this is something that I myself do), we blow a precious opportunity when we limit interpretation to aspects of the work that feel safe to us. Literature can be so much more.

Vida senses literature’s promise of healing. She just needs to talk about it in a less impersonal way to release this potential.

Back to popular literature. Vida looks down on works such as The Thorn Birds as overly emotional. When her husband tries to forestall her increasing dependence on booze by telling her how he lost his father to alcohol, she thinks, “Oh Lord. She couldn’t bear the cliché of it. Had he plucked it directly from one of Fran’s books?”

It’s true that lesser lit does indeed traffic in clichés, often simply indulging in human emotions rather than exploring them (great literature does both). Nevertheless, sometimes just getting in touch with those emotions is a step forward. By the end of the book, we know that Vida is going to be all right because she is crying over The Thorn Birds.

As long as she insisted on talking about the classics in bloodless ways, they had little more to offer her than a New York Times bestseller. If she can learn to cry for Tess, on the other hand, she will (to borrow from the Yeats poem) take on Hardy’s knowledge as well as his power.

Posted in Byron (Lord Gordon), Hardy (Thomas), King (Lily), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Complex Inner Life of Teachers

Norman Rockwell, "Teacher's Birthday"

Norman Rockwell, “Teacher’s Birthday”

Yesterday I wrote about how Lilly King in The English Teacher draws on Tess of the d’Urbervilles to explore the interior life of a teacher struggling to come to terms with trauma. Today I look at the other literary works that the novel references.

First of all, however, here’s an observation that many teachers will relate to (I certainly did). The principal is coming to report that a fellow teacher has had a bathtub accident, meaning that Vida will have to double the size of her class:

“In the tub? She broke her leg in the tub?”

“There may be some head injury as well,” he said, as if to preempt further ridicule. He didn’t like ridicule, probably having suffered, like most teachers, so much of it in school as a child.”

Ah yes, the permanent defensive reflex of those of us who were nerds.

And now for the literary allusions.

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Eliot shows up when Vida, who has never been married, receives a proposal:

The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers. Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S. Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis.

The Prufrock allusion is apt and an instance of ominous foreshadowing. The marriage will force Vida’s traumatic past, which she has repressed for years, out of the shadows. She needs this crisis if she is to grow but it will prove painful for her and her loved ones. Prufrock, it’s worth noting, concludes that it’s not worth forcing the moment to its crisis. The English Teacher proves him wrong.

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”

This short story is regularly taught in English classes. Vida is newly married and lying in bed after her husband has left:

She stretched her limbs in the enormous bed, her left arm and leg venturing across to Tom’s side, still slightly warm. She rolled over into his impression, and put her head just beside where his had lain. She thought of the grisly iron-gray hair at the end of “A Rose for Emily.” She would learn how to do this properly. “I promise,” she said into Tom’s absent ear.

We see more ominous foreshadowing here. Vida is imagining herself as a desperate spinster, lying like Faulkner’s character on the corpse of the man that she has had to poison to get him to stay. Vida loves Tom deeply but fears that, as a result, she will be exposed and destroyed should he ever leave—which is why she begins pushing him away. Until Vida can accept that she is lovable and that Tom wants to stay with her, her self-doubts will tear her apart and ruin her marriage.

Thomas Hardy,”The Voice”

Vida at one point murmurs the last lines of Hardy’s poem, which are overheard by her husband. The poem is about a fairy who has taken the place of a new bride. Here’s the second half:

The sprite resumed: “Thou hast transferred
To her dull form awhile
My beauty, fame, and deed, and word,
My gestures and my smile.

“O fatuous man, this truth infer,
Brides are not what they seem;
Thou lovest what thou dreamest her;
I am thy very dream!”

“O then,” I answered miserably,
Speaking as scarce I knew,
“My loved one, I must wed with thee
If what thou say’st be true!”

She, proudly, thinning in the gloom:
“Though, since troth-plight began,
I’ve ever stood as bride to groom,
I wed no mortal man!”

Thereat she vanished by the Cross
That, entering Kingsbere town,
The two long lanes form, near the fosse
Below the faneless Down.

When I arrived and met my bride,
Her look was pinched and thin,
As if her soul had shrunk and died,
And left a waste within.

The poem captures how Vida sees herself in their marriage. King explains the significance, drawing a connection with Tess in the process:

She didn’t want to explain. She wanted to think about this idea of love’s being cast onto someone like a spotlight, making her shimmer and glow for a little while, lending her qualities that she doesn’t possess. Is this really what we do to each other, find a victim and shine the light of all our dreams on them? Angel Clare places all his fantasies of the pure innocent country girl onto Tess, and when she finally forces him to listen to her story of Alec and the baby, she becomes vile to him and he banishes her. As if her soul had shrunk and died,/And left a waste within. She could hear Tom saying her name again, but he seemed so much less important, so much more immaterial than this theory of Hardy’s, which she’d always taught to her students, but had never suspected would ever apply to her own life.

William Shakespeare, Othello

Vida is very upset when her school spends half a million dollars on a computer center and then forces all the teachers to use it (the time is the early 1980s). To make matters worse, the school raids the scholarship fund to do so . She is asked to type something, and an early Othello speech to Desdemona comes to mind:

It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. Oh, my soul’s joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Perhaps she surfaces this passage because, while she has married a man she loves, she knows what happens to Desdemona. “Unknown fate” lies ahead. The computer expert’s prediction that authors will become obsolete (“These babies are going to be writing better books.”) reenforces her fear that she’s expendable.

Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee”

This allusion doesn’t appear to have thematic significance but one can understand why the young Caleb would respond to Poe’s poem. Caleb is probably drawn to the poem’s hypnotic rhythm and, in addition, he recently lost his mother. She presumably is buried on the island where they live, not far from “the sounding sea.”

I also include the passage because it reminds me of how my father ritually read a poem to my brothers and me—one for each of us—every night before we went to bed:

[Her new stepchildren] enjoyed, in fact, all rituals. They were like some prehistoric tribe, the way they found meaning in the repetition of acts. Once Vida had read “Annabel Lee” to Caleb before bed and now he wanted a poem read to him every night.

James Joyce, Ulysses

At one point Vida finds herself channeling stately, plump Buck Mulligan from Ulysses but she can’t figure out why:

When I makes tea I makes tea and when I makes water I makes water. Buck Mulligan imitating that old lady—Old Mother Gowan? Grisby?—and she couldn’t get it out of her head. It was a habit from childhood, letting a senseless cluster of words get lodged like that.

Later, as she frolics in the Pacific Ocean, she speculates that her recollection of Joyce signaled her desire for the water:

“It’s freezing!” Peter cried and leapt away.

“It’s the ‘scrotum-tightening sea!” she screamed and waded in farther, lifting her dress up over her knees.

“What!” Peter said, laughing.

Perhaps it was for this moment that she’d been remembering Joyce all week.

In the scene that follows, Peter thinks he’s lost her in the waves for a moment but then he sees her as Leopold Bloom sees Gerty sporting on the Sandymount Strand, an image of sudden beauty. Like Bloom, Peter feels restored:

Then he saw her, bobbing in the chaos, her hair pressed down around her face, her mouth open, laughing, saying something to him that the noise of the sea carried off. She was young, he saw now, with freckles across her cheeks. In all his imaginings he’d never guessed that his mother had gotten hurt. Always in in his mind there had been love on his father’s die, and sadness when she could not love him back. There had always been that man in his yard, raking leaves and waiting. Peter saw now that maybe that man was himself. Maybe he was the one who’d been waiting.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

I read The Waves too long ago to figure out how King is using Woolf’s novel, which provides her with her epigraph:

Life is beginning. I now break into my hoard of life.

I can say that The English Teachers end, with what feels like a very Woolfian “moment of being,” stepping through the wave-like flux of existence to achieve a transcendent moment. She need not worry about the future–her fear of being abandoned–but can just accept what she has now:

But Vida had not had near enough [happiness]. Oh God, she thought, nearly unable to reckon with the vastness of the moment. This is it and I am right here. This is what there is.

Odyssey, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn

After his own epic journey across the country, when he drives his ailing mother from New Jersey to California without a driver’s license, Peter sees these three epics in a new light:

It was all about courage. To live even a day on this earth required courage. All these things they read in school—The Odyssey, Beowulf Huckleberry Finn—were all about courage, but the teacher never said, You may not have to kill a Cyclops or a dragon but you will need just as much courage to get through each day.

Given how Peter and his mother fight with inner demons throughout the novel, I find it interesting that the first two works may be the two foremost works of literature dealing with monsters—and that, seen symbolically, the monsters are interior states of mind. The Odyssey is about a man fighting to maintain his identity as a Greek king in the face of various threats and temptations that threaten to derail him. This helps explain why so many of the monsters threaten to swallow him up, either literally (the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Laestrygonians, the Sirens) or metaphorically (the Lotus Eaters, Circe, Calypso). Beowulf, meanwhile, deals with the monstrous rage that threatens us from within.

Huckleberry Finn is ultimately about remaining integrous. All three dramas speak to the heart of adolescent rites of passage.

HardyTess of the d’Urbervilles

Finally, here’s a Tess allusion I missed in yesterday’s post. Vida’s Angel Clare, it turns out, is not Tom. It is Peter, who she worries will leave her once he discovers the truth about his father. When she tells him, however, the result is much different than what it is in the novel:

She was terrified he’d take his arms away. Stay stay stay. He was the only skin she had. Everything else was gone. Stay. She had no more words, no more energy left to push them out. This was the last time he would ever come near her, she was sure of it. He’d never truly forgive. He was Angel, she saw now, like in her dream. He would leave her. Stay, she cried. The sun rose higher and hotter and the waves grew even larger, rising to thin tremulous ridges before smacking the rocks. And Peter stayed.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he whispered. I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

Posted in Beowulf Poet, Eliot (T.S.), Faulkner (William), Hardy (Thomas), Homer, Joyce (James), King (Lily), Poe (Edgar Allan), Shakespeare, Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An English Teacher as Tess

Gemma Arterton as Tess

Gemma Arterton as Tess

It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel in which I encounter myself as directly as I did in Lily King’s The English Teacher (2005). I’ll be writing on it for the next two or three days and, as I will be including spoilers, I suggest that you skip the blog posts if there’s any chance that you’ll read it. You can always return to my essays later. Middle and high school English teachers will especially love this book.

I identify deeply with Vida Avery Belou, the English teacher of the title, because of the way that she lives her life through literature. She regularly teaches Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892), and as English Teacher unfolds, we come to realize that her own life lines up with that of Tess. This explains her ambivalent feelings about the novel. In today’s post, I lay out the ways in which their lives run parallel.

We learn early on that Vida has come to resent teaching Tess but feels wedded to it because her classes on it have become legendary:

She hated teaching Tess, though for years she had been told it was her signature book. The expectations of reading Tess with Mrs. Avery sophomore year was reenacted in skits and referred to in yearbooks. It lived on in countless mentions by reminiscing alumni in the tri-annual bulletin. But for Vida, the book was a torture. She had never cared about that overly naïve, peony-mouthed girl who is buffeted by a series of impossible coincidences from one gloomy town to another and across four hundred and sixteen pages before she gets her just deserts at the scaffold.

That last sentence stopped me in my tracks and not just because I had to check whether King spells “deserts” correctly (she does). Few readers see Tess’s end as in any way deserved.

Vida’s students certainly don’t. In fact, many are drawn to the book because they feel the need to defend Tess against their teacher. The passage continues on:

She did have an appreciation for Hardy’s descriptions and his worries about the effects of the Industrial Age on the land and its people. She used to believe it was her discussions of this “ache of modernism” that made the book meaningful to her students, but she had come to realize that it was her own lack of sympathy for the girl that galvanized them. By the end their attachment to Tess herself was fierce, and their devastation at her demise profound.

Kudos to Vida for figuring out why her students respond as they do. Even with this understanding, however, she continues to attack Tess, especially for getting pregnant. This, of course, was what made the book controversial to Victorian readers. Or rather, those readers were scandalized that Hardy subtitled his novel A Pure Woman after having such a scene occur. The problem is whether the sex is consensual and, even if it is not, why Tess stays with Alex for “some few weeks subsequent.” If you don’t know the book or if you need reminding, here’s the relevant passage:

“Tess!” said d’Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm. 

On a humorous note, King has the teacher’s son entirely miss that sexual intercourse has occurred:

He hated Tess of the d’Urbervilles. There were so many words and so few of them were interesting. He wished for once they could read something pertinent to the life of a teenager in the twentieth century. He quickly fell behind in the assignments, and on the third day of class with his mother, he learned that Tess had had a baby. He searched for the scene of conception but found nothing. A kid next to him told him it happened with Alec d’Urberville in the woods at the end of chapter eleven. He read the pages, but all he could find was that they were lost in the dark, and Alec made a pile of leaves for her to sit on while he went to look for a landmark. Birds were roosting and rabbits hopping, and Tess was asleep when he returned. Peter waited for someone braver, someone whose mother was not teaching the class, whose crush of four years was not two seats diagonally to the left, to ask exactly what had happened. But no one did.

Other students argue with his mother, however. I quote at length because these are the kinds of classroom discussions I dream of:

“What name does he give the baby?” his mother asked. She looked around for other hands, then called on Helen, who had all the answers. She always did; even back in first grade [Peter] remembered her lone arm in the air.

“Sorrow,” Helen said. And without waiting for his mother to ask why, she continued, “Because he was the result of her rape.”

His mother narrowed her eyes and tipped her head. He knew the gesture well, and so did Helen.

“She was raped. Alec raped her that night in the woods,” Helen insisted.

“A statement like that is insulting to my intelligence.”

From the four corners of the classroom the girls piped up in defense of Helen’s theory. “But she loathed Alec d’Urberville.”

“And she was asleep.”

“She wasn’t even conscious.”

“She never even wanted him to kiss her.”

“But she let him,” his mother said.

“That was only because he was making the horse go so fast and only said he’d stop if he could kiss her. And she wiped it off after.”

“She let him kiss her, regardless of the reason.”

“But Mrs. Belou,” Helen began, and Peter could hear in her voice how determined she was to make her point. She’d underlined practically a whole page and was holding it close to her face, her left fingers marking three different spots. “Listen to what it says here: ‘But, some might say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the Providence of her simple faith?’ and then he says she was ‘doomed,’ that it was a ‘catastrophe,’ that her ancestors had probably ‘dealt the same measure’ toward some peasant girls.”

“And if you look two pages later you will find Tess herself admitting to Alec that she loathes herself for her ‘weakness.’ She says, ‘My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all.’ And then, a few pages further on, the narrator says that she had been “stirred to confused surrender awhile.’” His mother hadn’t even taken her book out of her bag yet. She knew it all by heart.

Helen retaliated. “Then why does he say, ‘But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature, and it therefore does not mend the matter.’ He’s calling what Alec did a sin, the sin of rape.”

“Don’t you have to say no out loud for it to be rape?” Kristina asked. Her boyfriend, Brian Rossi, gave her a nudge and a proud smirk.

“She’s been saying no to Alec d’Urberville from the moment she met him!” Helen slammed the book on her desk.

“But she was just doing that thing that girls do,” the new kid, Kevin, said.

What thing?” several of the girls asked in the same indignant tone.

“You know,” Kevin continued, loving the sudden attention. “Saying no to get you to really want it from them.” Peter stole a glance at his mother, thinking she’d be ready to blow. But instead of getting ready to stop him, instead of even looking at Kevin, she was looking at Peter, as if he were the one who was talking. “I mean, how hard is it to avoid getting raped?” Kevin continued. “All you have to do is keep your clothes on. Any girl who gets raped secretly wanted it. She might think afterwards she didn’t, but at the time she did.”

Vica then does blow but not for the reasons that Peter and we think she will. Instead she sounds like Camille Paglia and others who blame young women for their own rapes:

“I don’t want to hear another word on this subject,” she said. “Not another word. I am sick to death of you people coming here year after year and whining about what happens to Tess. A senseless nitwit of a girl in the woods at night with a proven lecher is not rape. It’s stupidity.”

Lindsey put up her hand. “But—“

“Goddammit. I don’t want to hear your buts. Get out of here. All of you. Right now.”

This is not recommended pedagogical practice but at least a couple of things go very well. First of all, the students engage in close textual reading, combing through the text to make their arguments. Second, the students have an investment in the discussion. It’s not like the class Vida imagines having on Hemingway with her senior class:

Her seniors came in, the boys with their size 12 feet, the girls in their mothers’ expensive blouses, slapping down their copies of The Sun also Rises on their desks. She was grateful for the shift to Hemingway, to Spain, to characters who would remain characters, silly drunken characters who mattered nothing to her.

Even if she has succeeded in generating a real discussion, however, Vida is not being the adult her students need. In fact, we come to learn that she is in the early stages of a major mental breakdown, prompted by years of repressing memories of her own rape. She herself is Tess.

Her desire to see Tess as responsible for her rape, then, is her need to believe that she herself was not powerless when she was raped, even though she was. She attacks Tess for embodying what she believes was her own weakness.

The breakdown is triggered by her marriage to a good man. The hardness that she has cultivated her entire life, including her hardness against Tess, is threatened by her new feelings of vulnerability. She senses this vulnerability in her new reading of Tess:

Her students rattled her in a way they didn’t used to. And the material, once so easily intellectualized, seemed to writhe under her inspection of it. Even Hardy, whose theories of Darwinism, religion, and social codes were as cold and straightforward as mathematics, was becoming a sensualist, with all those disgusting passages she’d never noticed before about the oozing fatness and rushing juices of summer, the dripping cheeses in the dairy where Tess takes refuge after her baby dies and meets Angel Clare.

There is something almost comforting in Hardy’s determinism, which absolves individuals of responsibility. Such fatalism, it’s worth noting, aids Tess’s family in absorbing life’s shocks, including the death of their horse and Tess’s pregnancy. But Vida appears to have learned a bad lesson from Tess: If her husband learns about her secret—her rape—some part of her fears that he will respond as Angel responds. After all, how could he love someone so unlovable?

Consequently, she begins to push him away the moment they are married. That way she won’t be so hurt when he leaves her.

If psychological projection were Vida’s only response to Tess, then Hardy’s novel wouldn’t be anything more than a mirror. While holding the mirror up to nature is something that literature does very well and we can gain important self-insight in viewing it as such, Tess has something else to impart. We learn about this in another class debate, this one about whether Tess should keep her rape a secret.

At one point, Vida acknowledges that one can grow in powerful ways from tragedy, and it is significant that she tells this to her son, the product of the rape. Again I quote at length from the discussion, which hits Vida at her core:

“I think she was so stupid to have told him. They could have gone to a different part of England and he never would have found out,” Kristina said.

“But it would always be there in her heart, eating away at her,” Helen said.

“I think it was selfish of her. She like ruined this guy’s wedding night.”

“He ruined it. He couldn’t forgive her.”

Vida interrupted the two girls. “You have to understand Angel’s point of view. Tess was a poor, uneducated, unreligious girl. Purity was her only asset, the only way he could justify her to his parents.”

“She wanted to start the marriage honestly, no secrets.”

Vida was sick of Helen’s whining. She looked to the back, careful to avoid Peter in the corner, who actually seemed to be paying attention…Caroline was beside him and hadn’t spoken in several days. She caught the girl’s eye. “What are your thoughts, Peter?” Peter? Had she truly said Peter?

Caroline, whose mouth had opened slightly in preparation, turned in relief to her left.

“I don’t think you can have a real relationship with someone without being truthful.”

“But Tess’s ‘truth’ isn’t true, Peter,” Vida said calmly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He glared at her, defiant.

“The subtitle of this book is A Pure Woman. Tess is no less pure in her encounter with Alex d’Urberville. In fact, it is what she learns from her experience with Alec and losing her baby that makes her so intriguing to Angel. He doesn’t love her for her innocence. He loves her for her depth of feeling and knowledge, which comes from her experiences. ‘Tess’s corporal blight was her mental harvest,’ Hardy writes.”

The rest of the discussion doesn’t go as well but Vida has hit on something. She too has picked up depth of feeling and knowledge from her experience. This depth is what makes her a great teacher and it is what draws her husband to her.

Vida is not home free yet, however. She cannot have a “real relationship” with either her husband or her son until she faces up to her rape. To do that, she must step outside of literature.

But in part because she has read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Vida, unlike Tess, can see other options for herself. She visits a therapist and acknowledges her fears of losing her son over anger at his father. She begins to acknowledge that women can be victims and informs the school authorities that a predatory theatre teacher has been sleeping with students. (Earlier she had essentially decided that it was their fault and “none of her business.”) And she begins writing her husband, whom she has left.

Ultimately, she is able to tell Peter the story of his conception and she writes to Tom asking her to join her. (Her letters are healthier than the ones Tess writes to Angel.) The secret is out and, rather than costing her the relationships she longs for, acknowledging it saves them. Her reward is a non-Hardy ending:

She pressed her mouth to the warm stubble on the back of Tom’s neck. Desire rose easily. He’d waited, and had come when she asked. And yet she did not feel as Tess had felt when Angel finally came. Unlike Tess, her urge was not to die. This happiness was too much, Tess said. I have had enough. But Vida had not had near enough. Oh God, she thought, nearly unable to reckon with the vastness of the moment. This is it and I am right here. This is what there is.

Think of The English Teacher as Tess’s do-over.

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The Spirit Moves in Continual Creation

Elizabeth Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings

Spiritual Sunday 

Dana Greene, a former colleague and author of a book on Denise Levertov, has now embarked on a biography of Elizabeth Jennings, a British religious poet popular in the 1930s. Jennings was a friend of J. R. R. Tolkien—both were Catholics—and Dana says that she had a wonderful talk with Tolkien’s daughter about her.

As Jennings was unfamiliar to me, I went in search of her poems. I came across the following lyric about the creator spirit:

A Chorus

By Elizabeth Jennings

Over the surging tides and the mountain kingdoms,
Over the pastoral valleys and the meadows,
Over the cities with their factory darkness,
Over the lands where peace is still a power,
Over all these and all this planet carries
A power broods, invisible monarch, a stranger
To some, but by many trusted. Man’s a believer
Until corrupted. This huge trusted power
Is spirit. He moves in the muscle of the world,
In continual creation. He burns the tides, he shines
From the matchless skies. He is the day’s surrender.
Recognize him in the eye of the angry tiger,
In the sign of a child stepping at last into sleep,
In whatever touches, graces and confesses,
In hopes fulfilled or forgotten, in promises

Kept, in the resignation of old men—
This spirit, this power, this holder together of space
Is about, is aware, is working in your breathing.
But most he is the need that shows in hunger
And in the tears shed in the lonely fastness.
And in sorrow after anger.

Jennings appears to focus more on the small aspects of existence than the large. While God may be an “invisible monarch,” unknown to some but trusted by others, Jennings is most interested in how God shows up in tiny moments–the quiet close of a day, the eye of a tiger, a child falling to sleep, a promise kept. The tiger and the child may be allusions to Blake, who also saw in them the hand of God.

The poem ends with images of “tears shed in the lonely fastness./And in sorrow after anger.” Jennings suffered from severe depression, so the hunger she mentions may allude to the human heart, which longs for but finds it difficult to open itself to love and forgiveness. God is in that longing and in the renewal that comes through the shedding of tears and through feelings of remorse.

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Worshipping the Gods of Fermented Fruit


Among the many benefits of my recent trip to Peru were new insights into the literature I teach. For instance, my encounter with Peru’s locally brewed corn beer, known as chica, has given me an appreciation for Teiresias’ encomium on wine in The Bacchae.

We visited a small bar in Urubamba (in the Sacred Valley of the Incas) to learn how chica is made. We sampled both plain and strawberry chica, the latter known as frutillada. Plain chica costs about 33 cents a glass while frutillada is twice that.

While the alcohol content isn’t high, from what I can tell the Andean farmers drink it non-stop. This is understandable given how hard they work. Much of the sowing and reaping is done manually, and pack animals are often used to transport the crops.

With this in mind, I looked up Euripides’ play when I returned. Here is Teiresias chastising King Pentheus for disrespecting Dionysus:

This new God whom you dismiss,
no words of mine can attain
the greatness of his coming power in Greece. Young man,
two are the forces most precious to mankind.
The first is Demeter, the Goddess.
She is the Earth—or any name you wish to call her—
and she sustains humanity with solid food.
Next came the son of the virgin, Dionysus,
bringing the counterpart to bread, wine
and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
His blood, the blood of the grape,
lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
When, after their daily toils, men drink their fill,
sleep comes to them, bringing release from troubles.
there is no other cure for sorrow.

As far as I could tell, the Peruvian farmers don’t wait until after their daily toils are done to drink their fill, and I suspect they have other cures than chica for their sorrows. In fact, people generally seemed cheerful. But they certainly regard chica as a blessing and maybe chica helps explain their attitude.

I also saw a version in Peru of Teiresias’ praise of Demeter. Our guide spoke frequently of his reverence for “the Mother”—the male sun and the female moon were paired in Incan religion—and the Virgin Mary appears to have merged with the Incan fertility goddess Pachamama in Peruvian Catholicism.

Perhaps one can compare Pentheus to the Spaniards, insisting on their sky god at the expense of fertility earth gods. On the other hand, while I know very little about Peru’s religious history, I sense that the Spanish were less rigid than Pentheus. For instance, unlike Pentheus they allowed raucous dancing to continue. The Feast of Corpus Christi resembles the old celebrations of the 14 Incan emperors only the Spanish smartly substituted 14 Christian saints while keeping everything else the same. Maybe it’s because the Peruvians were allowed to hold on to many of their Incan religious symbols and traditions that the Spaniards didn’t suffer Pentheus’ fate.

But I began this post with beer so let me end it there. My students are always very intrigued by the idea of worshipping a god of fermented fruit.

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The Color Purple and a Texas Pool Party

Oprah as Sophia mouthing off to the mayor's wife

Oprah as Sophia standing up to the mayor in “Color Purple”

The disturbing instance of an out-of-control cop at a McKinney, Texas teenage pool party has even conservative columnist Katherine Parker of the Washington Post asking, “What in God’s name is wrong with our cops?” Meanwhile, the incident got me thinking about a scene from The Color Purple. Doing so has revealed a silver lining to the whole affair.

First we must acknowledge the seriousness of what happened, however. Apparently there was a graduation party and black residents of the neighborhood invited their friends to the pool. According to them, they used guest passes to allow others in. Nevertheless, it disturbed some of the white residents, and two white women set off a commotion by shouting racist slurs. To quote Parker,

What has been reported is that the original melee, which had ended by the time police arrived, may have been prompted by two white women hurling racial slurs when a crowd of teens, mostly black, arrived for a cookout at the private, planned-community pool.

“Go back to [your] Section 8 home,” one of them reportedly said, according to the party’s host, a teenager who lives in the pool’s neighborhood.

When the police showed up, things got worse. According to The Washington Post, video footage shows Officer Casebolt “manhandling, arresting and drawing his gun on a group of black children outside a pool party.”


Casebolt can be seen running through the confused crowd of teenagers while swearing and appearing to randomly handcuff teenagers, who protested that they’d just arrived at the scene to attend the pool party.

Eventually Casebolt’s fellow officers calmed him down.

As the Daily Show wryly commented, the incident represented progress in that no one was shot.

I too think there are positives that one can take away but I say so from a historical perspective. Walker shows us only too vividly what might well have happened in the past when blacks didn’t show whites the respect that the latter felt was their due. Sophia, Harpo’s ex-wife, tries to hold her tongue when the mayor’s wife patronizes her and her children but eventually finds herself pushed past her limits. Celie, the novel’s narrator, describes what happens next:

She [the mayor’s wife] say to Sofia, All your children so clean, she say, would you like to work for me, be my maid?

Sophia say, Hell no.

She say, What you say?

Sofia say, hell no.

Mayor look at Sofia, push his wife out the way. Stick out his chest. Girl, what you say to Miss Millie.

Sofia say, I say, Hell no.

He slap her.

And then:

Sofia knock the man down.

The polices come, start slinging the children off the mayor, bang they heads together. Sofia really start to fight. They drag her to the ground

This far as I can go with it, look like. My eyes git full of water and my throat close.

We can thank God and Martin Luther King that what happens to Sophia did not happen to anyone at the pool party:

When I see Sofia I don’t know why she still alive. They crack her skull, they crack her ribs. They tear her nose loose on one side. They blind her in one eye. She swole from head to foot. Her tongue the size of my arm. It stick out tween her teef like a piece of rubber. She can’t talk. And she just about the color of a eggplant.

The incident stands out in The Color Purple because most of the novel deals with relations within the black community, not between blacks and whites. Walker is taking lessons from her model Zora Neale Hurston in this regard. Nevertheless, she inserts Sophie’s mauling to remind us that racism backed by force still rules the day.

Now note the contrasts. As reprehensible as the Texas incident was, at least the police did not operate with the same sense of impunity. Yes, Casebolt handled the situation much differently than he would have had all the participants been white. Yes, the police probably would not have been called in at all if everyone had been white. Yes, there were people hurling racist slurs, and yes, the police might have gotten away with their unnecessary violence had there been no cell phone video.

But Office Casebolt has resigned, and enough of the country has expressed repugnance that few are defending the police.

With all the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of cops, it has become fashionable to say that the Civil Rights movement changed little. To refute that, one only need recall what would have happened in the old days.

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Neruda on Machu Picchu’s Healing Powers

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

One of my tour companions during a trip to Peru alerted me to a long Pablo Neruda poem about visiting Machu Picchu in 1943. Experiencing a world-weary angst, Neruda describes how he was revitalized by the visit. “Heights of Macchu Picchu” (Neruda spells it with an extra “c”) is a difficult high modernist poem but reading it enhanced my own visit.

First of all, a confession. High modernism—the highly allusive and experimental literature written between the two world wars—is the literary period that eludes me the most. I’ve tried really hard but have failed to fully engage with such works as the late poems of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce’s Ulysses (I’ve read it twice), Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Neruda owes a lot to Eliot and there is much about “Heights of Macchu Picchu” that I do not understand.

The poem begins with a spiritually drained Neruda seeking to locate humanity’s nobility and coming up short. He sadly concludes that urban life and industrial society have diminished us. At one point he notes that

not one death but many come to each,
each day a little death: dust, maggot, lamp,
drenched in the mire of suburbs, a little death with fat wings
entered into each man like a short blade
and siege was laid on him by bread or knife…
all of them ominous dwindling each day
was like a black cup they trembled while they drained.

Neruda would like to experience humanity in its bigness, not in its smallness:

I wished to swim in the most ample lives,
the widest estuaries…

Unfortunately, he instead finds that “Man” has closed himself off to the poet:

little by little…denying me,
closing his paths and doors so that I could not touch
his wounded inexistence with my divining fingers…

The first five cantos all proceed along this line. Neruda describes himself, in his despair, reduced to a hovel-like existence.

The mood changes in Canto VI, however, as a result of Neruda’s vision to Machu Picchu. The “ladder of the earth” is the extraordinary terraces one encounters at the site and throughout the Andes. The “two lineages that had run parallel” are nature’s cycle of life and humanity:

Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you Macchu Picchu.

Tall city of stepped stone
home at long last of whatever earth
had never hidden in her sleeping clothes.
In you two lineages that had run parallel
met when the cradle both of man and light
rocked in a wind of thorns.

Mother of stone and sperm of condors.

High reef of the human dawn.

Spade lost in the primordial sand.

Neruda’s birth images point to new hope. I learned on my trip that condors were revered by the Incas as symbols of freedom while the image of the city as an emerging reef in a sea of clouds signals a new revelation. The Temple of the Sun looks out upon the human dawn, a cradle where man and light, the two lineages, are “rocked in a wind of thorns.” (In the Whitmanesque image of the rocking cradle, Neruda acknowledges, like Whitman, that the winds can blow cold and that the new dawn is not without pain and hardship.) The rest of the earth may have been sleeping but Machu Picchu is not asleep. The sands of time may have buried everything else but a lost spade is digging out the city. Neruda’s faith in human beings has returned.

Machu Picchu for Neruda is the magnificence of nature joined with the magnificence of human endeavor, and I too was awed by both the architectural marvels and the mountains that soar on either side of them. Machu Picchu is not so much about humans conquering nature, despite the mind-boggling feat of cutting away the mountain and carting up large boulders to construct seamless temples. Machu Picchu feels more as if humans are mirroring nature’s grandeur.

Neruda sees all the stages of human life wound up in the ancient city. The Incas, focused like the Egyptians on life after death, looked to touch the earth in profound ways so that they might recognize it after they died:

The fleece of the vicuna was carded here
to clothe men’s loves in gold, the tombs and mothers,
the king, the prayers, the warriors.

Up here men’s feet found rest at night
near eagle’s talons in the high
meat-stuffed eyries. And in the dawn
with thunder steps they trod the thinning mists
touching the earth and stones that they might recognize
that touch come night, come death.

The civilization did not last, of course, and Neruda, a socialist whose heart is with collective humankind, sees the Incas as having died a big death, hurled from the ramparts into an abyss whose depth matched their greatness. (In point of fact, the Incas were not hurled from Machu Picchu, but such executions did in fact happen elsewhere.) Though the Incas no longer exist as a civilization, their greatness continues on:

You no longer exist: spider fingers, final
threads, tangled cloth—everything you were
dropped away: customs and tattered
syllables, the dazzling masks of light.

And yet a permanence of stone and language
upheld the city raised like a chalice
in all those hands: live, dead and stilled,
aloft with so much death, a well, with so much life,
struck with flint petals: the everlasting rose, our home,
this reef on Andes, its glacial territories.

The chalice, which contrasts with the black cup tremblingly drunk by little people earlier in the poem, points towards the Last Supper and the promise of resurrection. It is lifted high in death–the blood of the crucifixion–yet it is deep, a life-promising well. We have reason to believe in humankind after all.

Neruda has one last major idea. He is a poet of the common man and the Incas who receive credit for Machu Picchu are the Incan emperors, beginning with the great Pachacuti, the man who conceived of Machu Picchu and began the construction. But what about all those “little” lives who dragged the stones and set them upon one another? The workers who suffered hardship to build Machu Picchu have had their stories erased:

Macchu Picchu, did you lift
stone upon stone on a groundwork of rags?
coal upon coal and, at the bottom, tears?
fire-crested gold, and in that gold, the bloat
dispenser of this blood?

Let me have back the slave you buried here!

Neruda lets us know that he is here to speak for these forgotten men and women:

I come to speak for your dead mouths.

Speak through my speech and through my blood.

Forgotten though they are, Neruda sees the silent ones as big because they were involved in this great enterprise. In other words, the pessimism about humanity that drags him down at the beginning of the poem has given way to new confidence. It was weak in him to lose sight of humanity’s greatness and, feeling renewed, he knows he can step up and be a spokesperson for the workers of the world. In other words, Machu Picchu has given him back his mojo.

Last week I learned that the lost Incan city has that effect on people.

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A Guide’s Conradian Revenge Fantasy


I have just returned from a 10-day trip to Peru and have several posts planned about the excursion, one of the great experiences of my life. Today I am writing about an incident recounted by our guide Ronaldo Quispe that reminded me of a scene in Heart of Darkness. I wonder if the scene could function as a revenge fantasy for all guides who find themselves tormented by their charges.

As I tell Ronaldo’s story, see if those of you familiar with Conrad’s novella can identify the scene I have in mind.

Ronaldo, who is from the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco, said that in his youth he would take visitors along the Incan trail on a four-day three-night excursion to the lost city of Machu Picchu, one of the “New7Wonders of the World.” The second day of that trip is the hardest, involving a steep descent followed by an even steeper ascent. Ronaldo said that he had one member of the group so intent on “being first” that she would run on ahead every time.

Her hurry cost her, however, as she sprained her ankle. Ronaldo wanted her to return to Cuzco rather than attempt the daunting journey ahead. She said that she paid her money, however, and so insisted that she see Machu Picchu. Always the problem solver (as I discovered), Ronaldo persuaded the porters to carry her, which they did. Ronaldo said that the lady rode into Machu Picchu like a queen while the porters were absolutely shot.

Here’s the corresponding story in Heart of Darkness. The narrator is relating his journey into the Belgian Congo: 

I had a white companion, too, not a bad chap, but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like a parasol over a man’s head while he is coming to. I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. ‘To make money, of course. What do you think?’ he said, scornfully. Then he got fever, and had to be carried in a hammock slung under a pole. As he weighed sixteen stone I had no end of rows with the carriers. They jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night—quite a mutiny. So, one evening, I made a speech in English with gestures, not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me, and the next morning I started the hammock off in front all right. An hour afterwards I came upon the whole concern wrecked in a bush—man, hammock, groans, blankets, horrors. The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of a carrier near. 

While our group did not cause problems of this magnitude, nevertheless there were times when we must have tried the patience of our guides. I myself raised anxieties when I got separated from the group during Cuzco’s raucous Corpus Christi celebration, where the towering statues of 14 saints are paraded through town and then presented to the statue of Christ in the Cathedral. The festival also involves a lot of corn beer and grilled guinea pig. I had stepped into the street to photograph St. Christopher, struck that he has not been stripped of his saint status here as he has been elsewhere, and I couldn’t find my group’s sign when I looked back. I finally bumbled my way back to the hotel—no small feat as I didn’t know its name, didn’t know the city, and don’t speak Spanish—and learned that our assistant guide Alexandra had been frantic with worry.

(For the record, St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, got me out of trouble after first getting me into it: he reminded me that my hotel key card had the hotel’s name and address on it, and I showed that to a taxi driver.)

I wasn’t the only one who caused problems. Others got sick, left coats and backpacks behind, retained keys that needed to be returned, etc. etc.

Our guides were unfailingly polite, no doubt operating under the principle that the tips we gave would be larger if they never appeared to judge us. I wondered, however, whether,they secretly fantasized about dumping the whole lot of us into the Andean wilderness and running off.

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Pound’s Description of a Long Marriage

Mary Wallace, "The River Merchant's Wife"

Mary Wallace, “The River Merchant’s Wife”

I am returning from Peru today on my wedding anniversary so here’s a poem for Julia. We have been married for 42 years.

Ezra Pound’s “River-Merchant’s Wife,” which I first encountered in high school, has become ever more meaningful as my own marriage has evolved and matured. In the early years, as in the poem, we were as children. I identify with those tiny moments that make up a marriage, such as when the wife imagines her dust being mingled with her husband’s (which is to say, accepting that they are in the relationship for the long haul) and when she notes him dragging his feet when he leaves her. My own feet dragged as I left on this Peru trip and metaphorical monkeys made sorrowful noise overhead.

Julia and I are growing older—the paired butterflies are yellow with August—and in our case the grass, not the moss, is growing. But Julia promises that she will come out to meet me. As far as Dulles Airport. 

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

After Li Po

By Ezra Pound

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.   
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.   
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
                       As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

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Opening of Eyes Long Closed

Domenico Fetti, "Moses before the Burning Bush"

Domenico Fetti, “Moses before the Burning Bush”

Spiritual Sunday

I recently discovered the poetry of David Whyte and love “The Opening of the Eyes.” In Whyte’s vision, the world is not some Platonic shadow of the divine. Rather God is all around us, now, and we have but to open our eyes. If we pay attention, we will see that the bush is burning and that God is speaking to us. We think that God is elsewhere but, when we take off our shoes to enter heaven, we find that God is the ground on which we are already standing.

The Opening of Eyes

David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds 
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

From Songs for Coming Home (Many Rivers Press, 1984).

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The Explosion of Summer

Matisse, "Landscape"

Matisse, “Landscape”

Here’s a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem to usher us into summer. Note how all the world awaits breathlessly—and then the sun shines and everything explodes. Enjoy:

Summer in the South

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Oriole sings in the greening grove 
As if he were half-way waiting, 
The rosebuds peep from their hoods of green, 
Timid, and hesitating. 
The rain comes down in a torrent sweep 
And the nights smell warm and pinety, 
The garden thrives, but the tender shoots 
Are yellow-green and tiny. 
Then a flash of sun on a waiting hill, 
Streams laugh that erst were quiet, 
The sky smiles down with a dazzling blue 
And the woods run mad with riot. 

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Satan: Freedom Fighter Turned Dictator

Gustave Dore, Satan addresses the Council of Hell

Gustave Dore, Satan addresses the Council of Hell

One of my students, while serving an internship in Maryland’s state capitol, discovered in my British Literature survey that Milton has something important to say about politicians. Satan, Michael Adams argued in his essay for the course, is a perfect example of someone who spouts populist rhetoric but is really only out for himself.

Recipient of a scholarship set up by former Maryland governor Donald Schaefer, Michael was in Annapolis a lot this past semester. It therefore made sense for him to examine Satan’s leadership style.

Many students admire Satan, of course. But they admire him for the same reasons that people admire demagogues: he is bold and charismatic and he speaks a language that mixes liberation and grievance. Think of him as a Mussolini, a Mao or a Castro.

Or a Cromwell. Milton admired Cromwell as long as he was espousing republican ideals. When, however, he began assuming dictatorial powers, the poet became disillusioned. The poem, written after Cromwell had died and Charles II had been restored to the throne, tries to figure out what went wrong.

Michael noted that Satan is very good at speaking about liberty and freedom:

Characterized by lofty, grandiose rhetoric and frequent use of rhetorical questions, the speech is clearly reminiscent of political rhetoric. Milton’s visually rich poetry makes it easy to imagine Satan at a lectern before his followers, gesturing wildly and delivering this rousing speech.

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power,
Who from the terror of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal
War Irreconcilable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heaven.

Michael noted how the speech is indeed impressive:

Here, like any political leader must after a heavy loss, Satan is rallying his troops and insisting that the fight is not yet over. “All is not lost,” Satan tells his followers, insisting that he has not lost his will, his desire for revenge, his hatred, or his courage. “And what is else not to be overcome?” he asks, as in, “If we still have this, then God has not won at all.” The real shame, Satan insists, would be “to bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee.” This loss is less shameful than that would be, and Satan and his followers can wage “eternal war” against one who now sits above “in th’ excess of joy” and exerting “the Tyranny of Heaven.”

Of course, God-as-tyrant is Satan’s spin. Satan reveals his true colors when he sets himself up as a monarch:

Till at last
Satan, whom now transcendent glory rais’d
Above his fellows, with Monarchal pride:
Conscious of highest worth, unmov’d thus spake…

About which Michael wrote,

While in Book I Satan is portrayed as an authentic leader, now his power comes from a throne and “transcendent glory,” which sets him above his former equals. He exhibits “Monarchal pride,” perhaps the most damaging of all possible descriptors for a political leader in Milton’s eyes, since it implies that Satan now believes himself to be divinely sovereign, imposing himself on what is reserved for God alone. Satan is then referred to as “The Monarch” throughout the rest of the work, for instance when he calls a war council.

Michael demonstrated how Satan carefully engineers this supposedly open meeting of war lords:

After various figures have stood and offered their opinions, Satan goes last and offers his plan of taking heaven through the corruption of Man. Milton writes,

Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, lest from his resolution rais’d
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refus’d) what erst they fear’d;
And so refus’d might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn. But they
Dreaded not more th’ adventure then his voice
Forbidding; and at once with him they rose…

While Satan initially presents himself as an advocate for fairer, more republican discourse, now he rules like a tyrant, forbidding any response or criticism after he has spoken. Not only does he disallow feedback, but also his potential rivals hold back, unwilling to offer any because they “dreaded his voice forbidding.” With his rise to the kingship of Hell, Satan…now mirrors the very “tyranny of Heav’n” that he wishes to overthrow.

Lest we have doubts, Michael pointed out that Satan all but confesses his true aims in his moment of doubt in Book IV:

The disparity between Satan’s private misgivings and his radical public certainty is typical of disingenuous politicians who use inflated rhetoric and charisma to manipulate others to their own advantage. Satan, in a moment of honesty, acknowledges that his cause is not motivated by genuine ideals but only by blind ambition, hubris, and thirst for more power.

After showing how politicians can go bad, Michael then set forth what Milton says they should do instead. Michael, incidentally, is Jewish, so when he talks about following the Holy Spirit and espousing “Christian faith,” he is using Milton’s framework. To articulate the idea in non-religious language, one might say that a politician’s primary allegiance is to the public and that he or she must function, above all, as a servant of the people. Here’s Michael:

Paradise Lost can therefore be understood as Milton’s educational guide to the dangers [faced by] political leaders when put in positions of power. In the final Book XII, the Archangel tells Adam how God will send a holy intercessor to protect mankind, saying,

But from Heav’n
He to his own a Comforter [the Holy Spirit] will send,
The promise of the Father, who shall dwell
His Spirit within them, and the Law of Faith
Working through love, upon their hearts shall write,
To guide them in all truth, and also armed
With spiritual Armor, able to resist
Satan’s assaults…

Michael concluded,

Through the perspective of Paradise Lost as a teaching tool, this quote is the ultimate takeaway that Milton wishes students to receive from the lesson. “Law of Faith” and “working through love” is what will “guide them in all truth.” In other words, adherence to Christian doctrine and striving to be Christ-like is what a true political system and political leader should strive for. “Spiritual Armor” is the only protection from “Satan’s assaults.” If Satan is symbolic of political leaders who use their abilities for manipulation rather than public service, then “Spiritual Armor” is symbolic of what Milton believed government was missing: true adherence to Christian faith…

Are you as excited as I am that such a student is planning a life of public service? I like to think that when Satan beckons—as he invariably will whenever power and money are involved—Michael will think back on Milton and will do the right thing.

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Swimming with the Water Babies

Jessie Willcox-Smith, "Water Babies"

Jessie Willcox-Smith, “Water Babies”

Last week I played the doting grandfather and recounted how I took my grandson Alban to the zoo. Today you must hear how I went swimming with my granddaughters Esmé and Etta on a Memorial Day family reunion. A. A. Milne provided the framing poem for Alban while Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies has supplied me with images for my time in the pool with the girls.

Kingsley’s 1863 children’s novel tells the story of Tom the chimneysweep, a figure lifted from William Blake. Mistreated by his master and then falsely accused of a theft, Tom becomes a fugitive. Eventually he falls into a river and drowns, at which point he becomes a water baby, complete with “a pretty little lace-collar of gills about his neck, as lively as a grig, and as clean as a fresh-run salmon.” Life becomes much better at this point:

Tom was quite alive; and cleaner, and merrier, than he ever had been. The fairies had washed him, you see, in the swift river, so thoroughly, that not only his dirt, but his whole husk and shell had been washed quite off him, and the pretty little real Tom was washed out of the inside of it, and swam away, as a caddis does when its case of stones and silk is bored through, and away it goes on its back, paddling to the shore, there to split its skin, and fly away as a caperer, on four fawn-coloured wings, with long legs and horns. They are foolish fellows, the caperers, and fly into the candle at night, if you leave the door open. We will hope Tom will be wiser, now he has got safe out of his sooty old shell.

The pure joy of my granddaughters in the water is captured in Water Babies, leading me to conclude that Kingsley is remembering his own childhood swimming:

Tom was very happy in the water. He had been sadly overworked in the land-world; and so now, to make up for that, he had nothing but holidays in the water-world for a long, long time to come. He had nothing to do now but enjoy himself, and look at all the pretty things which are to be seen in the cool clear water-world, where the sun is never too hot, and the frost is never too cold.

Kingsley was a fan of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and his waterworld is filled with biological marvels:

Tom used to play with [the trout] at hare and hounds, and great fun they had; and he used to try to leap out of the water, head over heels, as they did before a shower came on; but somehow he never could manage it. He liked most, though, to see them rising at the flies, as they sailed round and round under the shadow of the great oak, where the beetles fell flop into the water, and the green caterpillars let themselves down from the boughs by silk ropes for no reason at all; and then changed their foolish minds for no reason at all either; and hauled themselves up again into the tree, rolling up the rope in a ball between their paws; which is a very clever rope-dancer’s trick…

It is fairly clear that The Water Babies influenced James Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Kingsley has choice words for those Grandgrindians who have lost touch with a child’s imagination:

Now if you don’t like my story, then go to the schoolroom and learn your multiplication table, and see if you like that better. Some people, no doubt, would do so. So much the better for us, if not for them. It takes all sorts, they say, to make a world.

Once of these people, standing in for one-dimensional positivist science, refuses to acknowledge Tom when he catches him in a bucket. His granddaughter instantly recognizes him as a water baby but the professor, in thrall to his theories, can’t admit what he’s seeing. Note that, while a Darwin fan, Kingsley would not approve of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist and materialist. Kingsley sees both God and the imagination as an integral part of the world:

Now, if the professor had said to Ellie, “Yes, my darling, it is a water-baby, and a very wonderful thing it is; and it shows how little I know of the wonders of nature, in spite of forty years’ honest labor. I was just telling you that there could be no such creatures; and, behold! here is one come to confound my conceit and show me that Nature can do, and has done, beyond all that man’s poor fancy can imagine. So, let us thank the Maker, and Inspirer, and Lord of Nature for all His wonderful and glorious works, and try and find out something about this one;” – I think that, if the professor had said that, little Ellie would have believed him more firmly, and respected him more deeply, and loved him better, than ever she had done before. But he was of a different opinion. He hesitated a moment. He longed to keep Tom, and yet he half wished he never had caught him; and at last he quite longed to get rid of him. So he turned away and poked Tom with his finger, for want of anything better to do; and said carelessly, “My dear little maid, you must have dreamt of water-babies last night, your head is so full of them.”…

And this is why they say that no one has ever yet seen a water-baby. For my part, I believe that the naturalists get dozens of them when they are out dredging; but they say nothing about them, and throw them overboard again, for fear of spoiling their theories. 

Even if you believe in water babies, Kingsley has a good explanation why you might never have seen one:

Only where men are wasteful and dirty, and let sewers run into the sea instead of putting the stuff upon the fields like thrifty reasonable souls; or throw herrings’ heads and dead dog-fish, or any other refuse, into the water; or in any way make a mess upon the clean shore –there the water-babies will not come, sometimes not for hundreds of years (for they cannot abide anything smelly or foul), but leave the sea-anemones and the crabs to clear away everything, till the good tidy sea has covered up all the dirt in soft mud and clean sand, where the water-babies can plant live cockles and whelks and razor-shells and sea-cucumbers and golden-combs, and make a pretty live garden again, after man’s dirt is cleared away. And that, I suppose, is the reason why there are no water-babies at any watering-place which I have ever seen.

I think it appropriate that Esmé and Etta should remind me of Water Babies since their father’s first academic publication, appearing in Victorian Studies, analyzes the work. In a side note, I add that it’s possible that my great-grandmother was once in close proximity to Kingsley. That’s because her father, before immigrating to the United States, was estate caretaker for a Lord Bunberry (believe it or not, he is not just an Oscar Wilde invention) and Kingsley visited the estate when Eliza Scott (later Fulcher) was a little girl.

Toby argues in his article that amongst Kingsley’s many targets is mechanized education. The author wanted children’s imaginations to roam wild and free. Thanks to his own imagination and the imaginations of contemporaries such as Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George MacDonald, Christine Rossetti, and Edward Lear, Toby and I are better able to enter into Esmé and Etta’s rich interior worlds.

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Donne and Climate Change Denial

Flooding in Houston

Flooding in Houston

As I watch the extreme weather occurring in Texas and California, I am reminded of a blackly humorous Kingston Trio song from my childhood:

They’re rioting in Africa,
They’re starving in Spain,
There are hurricanes in Florida,
And Texas needs rain.

The song cheerfully adds that humans are on the verge of blowing themselves up: “Someone will set the spark off/And we will all be blown away.”

Who could have predicted then that (1) we were creating hurricanes and droughts just as we had created the atom bomb, albeit not deliberately, and (2) by the early 21st century more humans would have been killed by human-caused climate change than by nuclear weapons. Climate scientists are pretty sure that Texas’ rainstorms are attributable to the warming Gulf of Mexico waters, which are putting far more moisture into the air than normal. At least Texas no longer needs rain.

Of course, try telling this to the political right and to those fossil fuel barons like the Koch brothers, who would rather attack climate scientists than save the planet. When I think of climate denialism, I am put in mind of John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Given that Donne’s tender poem is about his spiritual connection with his wife when he is traveling, I know this sounds far-fetched so allow me to explain.

As the poem begins, Donne talks about two kinds of people. There are those who focus on immediate cataclysm and there are those who take a longer or more elevated view. Most of us, when we are dying or when we face a long separation, engage in “tear-floods” and “sigh-tempests.” We emotionally react when we encounter a “moving of th’ earth,” whether figurative or literal.

In terms of climate change, we as a country react to such extreme climate events like the Texas floods and Hurricane Sandy. We don’t react, however, to global warming, which in the poem is comparable to Donne’s “trepidation of the spheres” or movement of the stars. The 17th century saw such movement as having a profound effect on worldly events but it seemed “innocent” because it didn’t have immediate ramifications. Here are Donne’s opening stanzas:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
   The breath goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
   Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
   Though greater far, is innocent.

“Virtuous men,” in other words, see the deep workings of the universe and make connections. One image of connection in the poem is a fine golden thread joining the separated couple, metaphor of their spiritual union. Most eyes can’t see this thread.

Although that being said, one no longer needs sensitive eyes to detect climate change. The evidence is now there for all to see.

One more note on Donne vision of the universe: in his poem “The Good Morrow” he describes a balanced earth. Asserting that “whatever dies was not mixed equally,” he imagines two lovers as a planet “without sharp north, without declining west.” This is a relationship that is built for the long haul.

We should have the same vision for our actual planet.

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Poetry Comforts the Mentally Disabled

Paul Cezanne, "The Kiss of the Poetic Muse"

Paul Cezanne, “The Kiss of the Poetic Muse”


The New York Times last week ran a fascinating article on how “poetry kept my patient alive.” Steve (not his real name) was suffering from schizoaffective disorder, which therapist Ruth Livingston describes as “a condition somewhere between schizophrenia and bipolar.” Livingston says that Steve

used his writing to keep himself alive, to soothe himself when spinning out of control, and even to fuel his psychosis when he drifted into madness. Most of all, however, poetry kept him connected to others.

Because Livingston took Steve’s poetry seriously, it also enhanced their therapy session.

Steve had had a long history of hospitalizations and various treatments, including electroshock. He was 65 when Livingston inherited him from another therapist and it took her a while to adjust to his poetry obsession:

We settled into a strange dynamic: Try as I might to get Steve off the subject (and believe me, I tried), Steve was most interested in exploring poetry. His mission was to train me to be his eager and attentive apprentice first, and then to be an admiring audience. Steve was the professor, I the student. Aware that I sometimes wrote professionally, he badgered me to write poetry while acknowledging it was no easy task:

A poet waits for the light
Waits for the night,
Waits for the night’s lights (the stars).
A poet waits for divine madness.

He lugged poetry books to his sessions and regaled me with his favorites: Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millay, among others. As if teaching a graduate level seminar, he’d take each line and offer his perception of the poet’s intent. Then it was my turn.

Unfortunately for my purposes, Livingston doesn’t mention the specific poems that Steve cited. I’m not at all surprised, however, that the conversations gave her special insights into her patient:

We often disagreed. Steve’s analyses were usually lustier than mine, less intellectualized, always refreshing and unique — a window into his soul. We’d explore his interpretations, looking at associations, considering why certain lines spoke to him and why other lines did not. In fact, poetry quickly became the medium of his therapy, a medium I can liken only to dream analysis.

And further on:

Steve’s poems were full of his pathos, a sorrow that spilled into my office. Poetry — his own and others’ — could make him weep and, in these moments, we plunged into his internal world in depths that eluded my “healthier” patients. In time, I came to know him intimately and to treasure him.

Throughout the therapy, Livingston writes, Steve would say, “I think I’m dying,” prompting her to once impatiently reply, “Steve, we are all dying.” He expressed this fear in a line of his own: “The roses are down-petaled, so they meet their end.” Then, one day, he proved to be right as he was found dead in his apartment.

I love the way that Livingston’s article ends. Just as poetry helped Steve sustain his life, so it came to her aid in this moment of grief:

So, on that day when Steve died, I sat weeping in my office, uncertain how to console myself. I thought of our work together, of the poetry we created in our connection. I thought of what I had given him, what he had given me. I conjured up his warm, sonorous voice and his poems …

With the setting sun, past the rising moon
Beyond the spinning earth, April, May, June
We are tomorrow on its way …

I wondered how to pay him tribute.

What did I do?

I wrote a poem.

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Though Thou Art in Thy Blood, Live

Rafael, "Ezekiel's Vision"

Rafael, “Ezekiel’s Vision” (note Ezekiel in left hand corner)

Spiritual Sunday

A couple of weeks ago my library reading group discussed Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third novel in what one member described as a triptych. I love Robinson’s depiction of the Congregationalist minister John Ames in Gilead, and Lila gives us the backstory of the woman that Ames marries as an old man. (Home, the second novel, takes us into the household of Ames’ best friend, Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton.)

In today’s post I look at how the Bible helps Lila find meaning in her life. Two of the books that sustain her are Ezekiel and The Book of Job, which at first glance don’t come to mind as texts that one would turn to for comfort.

Lila is raised by Doll, an illiterate and scarred migrant worker who kidnaps her to save her from death by neglect. Lila only gets one full year of school—she and Doll are always on the run so a year in a single place is risky—but she is hungry to understand her life. When, as an adult, she stumbles into the little town of Gilead, Iowa, she falls in love with Ames, marries him, and bears him a child.

Lila is amazed to find her life described in the pages of the Bible. For instance, there is this passage from Ezekiel, which also inspires her with its concluding imperative:

And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither was thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou was born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.

Ames is puzzled by her choice of Ezekiel, which he describes as “a pretty sad book” and “a difficult place to begin.” He’s worried that she will not understand that God loves those go astray, even when he punishes them.

Lila must indeed learn that she can be loved and that there are people she can trust. Before she gets to that stage, however, she first needs stories that acknowledge what she has been through. Not only is the Bible up to the challenge, but it assures her that, insignificant though she believes herself to be, her pain has meaning:

Moreover I will make thee a desolation and a reproach among the nations that are round about thee, in the sight of all that pass by. So it shall be a reproach and a taunt, an instruction and an astonishment, unto the nations that are round about thee, when I shall execute judgments on thee in anger and in wrath, and in wrathful rebukes….

She was mainly just interested in reading that people were a desolation and a reproach. She knew what those words meant without asking. In the sight of all that pass by. She hated those people, the ones that look at you as if they want to say, Why don’t you get your raggedy self out of my sight. Ain’t one thing going right for you. Existence don’t want you.

Given how shrouded in mystery her own origin is, we can understand why Lila would also be drawn to the Book of Genesis:

As soon as there was light enough, she sat at the door with the tablet on her knee and wrote. She copied words, because she wasn’t sure how to spell them, and this was a way to learn. Who would ever know if she spelled them wrong? Nobody ever came around. Still it shamed her to think how ignorant it might look to her if she weren’t too ignorant to know any better. So she wrote, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Waste and void. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. She would like to ask [Ames] about that.

Later on, again understandably, she finds her way to The Book of Job (she pronounces it “job”), leading Ames to observe, “You really do have a way of finding the very hardest parts—for somebody starting out. For anybody.” Job, however, provides her with a number of familiar situations:

Here she was thinking again. Well, this Job was a good man and he had a good life and then he lost it all. And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead. She’d heard of that happening, plenty of times. A wind could hit a town like Gilead and leave nothing behind but sticks and stumps.

After she recalls her own experience with a cyclone that swept away farms and families (Ezekiel 1:14 mentions “and the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning”), she thinks that she had “never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book.”

Along the same lines, the image of Job covered with sores brings back one of Lila’s most traumatic memories, the day that Doll showing up all bloody after the attack that she has been anticipating for years finally occurs.

One more powerful example: Recalling her days in a whorehouse, Lila imagines that she has her entire history written all over her and that she has married

the one man on earth who didn’t see it. Or maybe he saw it the way he did because he had read that parable, or poem, or whatever it was. Ezekiel. The Bible was truer than life for him, so it was natural enough that his thinking would be taken from it.

Meditating upon that, she imagines that she came upon Ames in his cloistered existence as the madam and her whores came upon the St. Louis house where they maintained a brothel. That sudden intrusion, Lila imagines, is like a cyclone hitting a town or like the stormy wind described by Ezekiel:

It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth… These women in St. Louis, they stepped into a place that looked like any old house and there was Mrs. and the damn credenza and the dress-up clothes that smelled like sweat and old perfume. And all you had to do was pierce your ears and rouge your cheeks and pretend not to hate the gentlemen more than they would stand for. It was as if that house had been picked up by a black cloud and turned around and dropped down again in the very same spot. Everything in it was still there, but it was changed, wrong, and from then on everybody in it knew too much about the worst that could possibly happen, even if they couldn’t say what it was. Then it might be that she seemed to him as if she came straight out of the Bible, knowing about all those things that can happen and nobody has the words to tell you. And I looked, and behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire infolding itself, and a brightness round about it, and out of the midst therefore as it were glowing metal, out of the midst of the fire. It says right there that even fire isn’t hot enough to give you any idea.

Knowing that she will once again be abandoned—her husband is much older than she is and in Gilead he is in fact dying—Lila learns to drop some of her defenses and to open herself to love. There is nothing easy about this process. Fortunately, the Bible’s images acknowledge just how difficult it is.

Lila is not a facile in its handling of the good book. Robinson understands as well as any author today the complex workings of the spirit. But because that Ezekiel has given Lila a powerful way to process her past, she is able to reach a tentative truce with her anxieties:

Lila had borne a child into a world where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all. Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us. That peace could only be amazement, too.

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A Sense of Wonder at the Zoo

Ernest Shepard, "At the Zoo"

Ernest Shepard, “At the Zoo”

Julia and I took our three-year-old grandson to the National Zoo this past Tuesday and, like Christopher Robin, he wanted to see elephants. Given changing zoo regulations since A. A. Milne’s time, however, he was not allowed to feed them buns.

Reading Milne’s poem from a grandparent’s point of view, I recognize the pure delight that the poet experiences as he watches Christopher Robin interact with the animals. These “expotitions” (to use another Christopher Robin word) are invaluable. Alban may always remember watching the African elephant spray dirt on itself and the Asian elephant catch water in its trunk from a hose. I myself was taken back to a visit I made at 11 to the Paris zoo where I fed the elephants peanuts (again, no longer allowed).

This is a benefit of having children and then grandchildren. You get to return to your own childhood sense of wonder.

Here’s Milne’s poem:

At the Zoo

There are lions and roaring tigers,
and enormous camels and things,
There are biffalo-buffalo-bisons,
and a great big bear with wings.
There’s a sort of a tiny potamus,
and a tiny nosserus too –
But I gave buns to the elephant
when I went down to the Zoo!

There are badgers and bidgers and bodgers,
and a Super-in-tendent’s House,
There are masses of goats, and a Polar,
and different kinds of mouse,
And I think there’s a sort of a something
which is called a wallaboo –
But I gave buns to the elephant
when I went down to the Zoo!

If you try to talk to the bison,
he never quite understands;
You can’t shake hands with a mingo –
he doesn’t like shaking hands.
And lions and roaring tigers
hate saying, “How do you do?” –
But I give buns to the elephant
when I go down to the Zoo!

I’ll add that Alban, like Christopher Robin, was similarly unimpressed with the bison. The seals, otters, and gorillas were more to his liking. The elephants, however, carried the day.

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Milton Cautions vs. Scientific Arrogance

William Blake, "Eve Tempted by the Serpent"

William Blake, “Eve Tempted by the Serpent”

I love having science majors in my literature classes. Few things dramatize the value of a liberal arts education more than seeing students use literature to sort through issues raised by evolutionary biology or particle physics. This past semester Amanda Rankin used Paradise Lost to grapple with questions prompted by her biology major.

Amanda began her essay with an eye-catching assertion:

If there were a fruit that would give me all the knowledge in the world upon tasting it, I would eat it in a heartbeat.

That at any rate is what she initially thought. As she explored Milton’s epic further, however, she began to accept that there were questions she would never be able to answer.

Amanda explained her desire for the forbidden fruit by discussing her frustrations with not being omniscient:

While I recognize [that I can’t know everything], I nevertheless find it frustrating. Throughout my life, I have struggled with the awareness that I cannot be certain of anything: that we know the truth about the distant past, that our understanding of the natural world is correct, or even that I am giving someone correct advice. I am obsessed with correctness. Uncertainty has a tendency to unnerve me since I want to always be able to do what is best and not accidentally make things worse… I want to utilize this knowledge to better the whole world, as I believe such knowledge should be used. In a way that relates more to the everyday, I often find myself wishing I could be omniscient just so I could tell people whether they are making the right decisions to achieve their happiness. I wish I could direct friends and family members toward what they truly need to be happy, without any sort of guesswork.

Paradise Lost alerted her that desires she thought were innocent were in fact motivated by pride:

[M]any pursue knowledge for ulterior motives, normally ones perceived at the time as good reasons. My desire for total knowledge is a wish to escape my inner doubts and to also act as a savior to the world. These motives reflect a lack of true faith in God as well as in myself. By asking for omniscience, I inherently believe that, with such knowledge, I could do something with it that God does not or even could not. Such a desire is deeply prideful…

Amanda made an important distinction in her discussion. There is nothing wrong with pursuing knowledge to appreciate the world more. In fact, the angel Raphael, sent to instruct Adam (but not, given 17th century sexism, Eve), points out that knowledge can be used “the more to magnify [God’s] works.” That knowledge must, however, be “within bounds”:

[S]uch commission from above
I have received, to answer thy desire
Of knowledge within bounds…

The problem occurs when humans attempt to usurp God’s place—which is to say, when we use knowledge to become God-like ourselves, thereby cutting ourselves off from God’s wisdom and goodness. Continuing his instructions, Raphael cautions Adam to abstain from inquiring further. Do not, he says, “let thine own inventions hope things not revealed.”

God is not hoarding knowledge in order to keep humans in subjection, Amanda noted, although this is what Satan claims and what Eve comes to believe. Rather, God, being God, knows what humans need to find deepest fulfillment, which is to be in harmony with God (or to be in harmony with the universe if you don’t like the word “God”). When humans seek to elevate themselves above creation, they bring destruction upon it.

Amanda was struck by Milton’s comparison of ego-motivated knowledge to gluttony:

But knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

About which Amanda wrote:

[G]luttony…is not being satisfied with the food the body needs and overindulging for the sake of temporary pleasure. Knowing too much will turn any wisdom seemingly acquired into foolishness, just as eating too much can cause indigestion.

Amanda noted that, even before encountering the fruit, Eve can be seen as egotistical, as in her expressed desire to show her mettle by standing up to Satan:

Though she is right in saying they would gain honor from withstanding such temptation, she clearly wants this glory for herself individually. If she felt content with shared glory for them both, she would feel content to remain by Adam’s side. Instead, she desires to be tested and to prove true, perhaps to prove to herself that she does not need to rely fully on Adam. These ambitions get played on by Satan, disguised as a serpent with the gift of human speech, when he tells her to look on his example and see that he has eaten of the fruit and has not only lived but also gained human qualities.

Satan’s speech in praise of the forbidden fruit captures the arrogance of any number of scientists:

O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of Science, Now I feel thy Power
Within me clear, not only to discern
Things in their Causes, but to trace the way
Of highest Agents, deemed however wise.

Eve, upon tasting the fruit, likewise turns her attention from God to her own growing wisdom:

O Sovran, virtuous, precious of all Trees 
In Paradise, of operation blest
To Sapience, hitherto obscured, infamed
And thy fair Fruit let hang, as to no end
Created; but henceforth my early care,
Not without Song, each Morning, and due praise
Shall tend thee, and the fertil burden ease
Of thy full branches offer’d free to all;
Till dieted by thee I grow mature
In knowledge, as the Gods who all things know…

At one point in her essay, Amanda mentioned human restlessness, a concept she picked up from her favorite George Herbert poem, “The Pulley.” I mentioned to her that this was also the favorite poem of Robert Oppenheimer, who famously pushed scientific knowledge in a Satanic direction through his work on the atomic bomb. For Amanda to associate such restlessness with human pride means that she is undertaking a self-examination that we should wish for from all our scientists.

In our quest for knowledge, we can’t always be certain whether we are honoring the universe or simply seeking to elevate ourselves. What we can do, however, is what Amanda does: probe our own motivations and, out of that probing, make the best decisions that we can. When we do so, we are less likely to do harm. Amanda lets us know that literature in an invaluable resource in the process.

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Kafka’s K Would Feel at Home with FISA

The Trial

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a smart but very depressing Washington Post quiz in which respondents are invited to compare the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a.k.a. the FISA Court) with the court in Kafka’s The Trial. Nightmarish though Kafka’s court is, sometimes FISA is even worse.

According to Wikipedia, the FISA Court oversees “requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal law enforcement agencies.” The agencies that make the most requests are the National Security Agency (the NSA, sometimes known as No Such Agency) and the FBI. According to the Wikipedia article, the court’s powers “have evolved and expanded to the point that it has been called ‘almost a parallel Supreme Court.'” Sen. Ron Wyden has described the FISC warrant process as “the most one-sided legal process in the United States” and has observed, “I don’t know of any other legal system or court that really doesn’t highlight anything except one point of view.”

It’s clear why The Washington Post turned to Kafka’s Trial. In that novel, K never learns what he is accused of and goes through months of agonizing uncertainty. In the end, he finds it almost a relief when he is killed by two officials/thugs who show up and take him away.

If you don’t want me to spoil the quiz, take it yourself before you read on. Here, according to the quiz’s creators Alvaro Bedoya and Ben Sobel, are some instances where the FISA court is worse than Kafka’s court:

–Recipients of orders from the FISA court are typically prohibited from speaking about them in public. These orders are so secret that some recipients report actually having to return the copy of the order they received after reading it. 

Most proceedings before the FISA court are “ex parte,” meaning that judges hear from only one party, e.g. the FBI.

Bedoya and Sobel find some instances where the courts have things in common:

–Lawyers [in both courts] are barred from reading secret government filings about their clients. Lawyers who have practiced before the FISA court do report not being able to read all of the classified filings against their clients. Lawyers in The Trial are also frequently unable to read the charges filed against their clients. 

— Lawyers have to respond to secret government filings – without reading them.

Citing four quotations, Bedoya and Sobel challenge us to figure out which are from The Trial and which from people commenting on FISA. When I took the quiz, my only wrong answers occurred here:

–“…proceedings are generally kept secret not only from the public but also from the accused.” – Kafka

–“The public cannot argue that the… opinion should be released until it has seen the opinion, and it cannot see the opinion until it has been released.” –Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn

–“The targets of their proceedings are ordinarily not represented by counsel. Indeed it seems likely that targets are usually unaware of the existence of the proceedings…” – Judge Robert D. Sack, Second Circuit

–“The courts don’t make their final conclusions public, not even the judges are allowed to know about them, so that all we know about these earlier cases are just legends.” – Kafka

In one respect, FISA is better than Kafka’s Court, but only in the sense that 0.03 is better than 0.00. An expert in The Trial admits that “I never saw a single actual acquittal.” Bedoya and Sobel, meanwhile, quote a Wall Street Journal report that, “from 1979 to 2012, the FISC rejected 11 of the more than 33,900 government surveillance applications, a rejection rate of 0.03%.”

Sometimes when we throw around the descriptor “Kafkaesque,” we are being hyperbolic. Not in this case.

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Vacations Must Be More than Photographs

La Plaza de Armas de Cusco

La Plaza de Armas de Cusco

Friday I leave for Cusco and Machu Picchu to fulfill a life-long dream. Ever since I read Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations by Robert Silverberg. in seventh grade (I ordered it through Junior Scholastic Book Club), I have dreamed of visiting the legendary Incan sites. I’ll report on the trip when I get back. (I have posted in advance a series of essays for this blog so there won’t be any gaps.)

Although I was once a newspaper reporter and photographer, I don’t plan to let my camera define the experience. In other words, I am taking to heart Wendell Berry’s caution in “The Vacation”:

The Vacation

By Wendell Berry

He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

As I understand the poem, Berry is concerned that, by letting our cameras mediate our experiences, we lose an intimate connection with them. We don’t so much live as see ourselves living. Or put another way, we imagine others looking at our life—essentially taking photos of us—and judging by those images whether we are living it correctly. We use photos to validate the experience.

I read somewhere, maybe in Susan Sontag’s On Photography, that there is a spot at the Grand Canyon where people are advised to stand if they want to take the “perfect” Grand Canyon shot. Later they can look back at that photo and reassure themselves they have had “the Grand Canyon experience” that people are meant to have. Given that so many of the Machu Picchu photos look similar, I wonder whether there is a similar spot there.

So should we stop taking pictures? Should we just rely on memory, which Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest tells Cecily “is the diary that we all carry about with us”? (Cecily replies that memory “usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened.”) I don’t think this is Berry’s point.

I think he is advising us to open ourselves to the experience rather than reduce it to preset expectations. Take what is offered, even if it doesn’t resemble some perfect postcard with the requisite river, trees, sky, light, and rushing boat. This experience will far surpass vacation travel posters.

I will keep that in mind while visiting Peru. I admit that I have my own preset ideas, but ultimately I find people to be more interesting that photogenic ruins and am particularly interested in how modern-day Peruvians interact with their Inca heritage. I see the tour as a classroom experience, with everyone I meet as a potential teacher.

Because fully taking in an experience requires that we process it as well as immerse ourselves in it, I will keep a writing journal. As Cecily says of her diary, “If I didn’t write [the wonderful secrets of my life] down, I should probably forget all about them.” And as her apparent rival Gwendolen reports, “I never travel without my diary.  One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

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Soldier, Rest, Thy Warfare O’er

James Archer, "The Death of King Arthur"

James Archer, “The Death of King Arthur”

Memorial Day

“Let us sleep now,” writes Wilfred Owen at the conclusion of one of the greatest anti-war poems ever written. The wasted promise of human life described in “A Strange Meeting” is so heartrending that death seems a kind of relief, a devoutly wished consummation that ends the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The thousands of vets who have committed suicide after returning from war have arrived at that conclusion.

Sir Walter Scott captures death’s attraction in “Soldier Rest,” a ballad that is sung by the mysterious Lady of the Lake in the poem by that name. The battered James Fitz-James (actually King James V) finds his way to a strange castle in the wilderness and there he hears the following enchanting song:

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking:
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
In our isle’s enchanted hall,
Hands unseen thy couch are strewing,
Fairy strains of music fall,
Every sense in slumber dewing.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Dream of fighting fields no more:
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.

No rude sound shall reach thine ear,
Armor’s clang, or war-steed champing,
Trump nor pibroch summon here
Mustering clan, or squadron tramping.
Yet the lark’s shrill fife may come
At the day-break from the fallow,
And the bittern sound his drum,
Booming from the sedgy shallow.
Ruder sounds shall none be near,
Guards nor warders challenge here,
Here’s no war-steed’s neigh and champing,
Shouting clans or squadrons stamping.

Huntsman, rest! thy chase is done,
While our slumbrous spells assail ye,
Dream not, with the rising sun,
Bugles here shall sound reveillé.
Sleep! the deer is in his den;
Sleep! thy hounds are by thee lying;
Sleep! nor dream in yonder glen,
How thy gallant steed lay dying.
Huntsman, rest; thy chase is done,
Think not of the rising sun,
For at dawning to assail ye,
Here no bugles sound reveillé. 

It is scant comfort to those who have lost loved ones to war-related death, but perhaps they can console themselves with the idea that, for those men and women, war’s clamor has subsided and they are now at peace.

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To See God, the Eye Must Catch Fire

Linda Schmidt, "Pentecost Quilt"

Linda Schmidt, “Pentecost Quilt”

Spiritual Sunday

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the moment when the disciples experienced the Holy Spirit and realized that they no longer needed the physical presence of Jesus. Each of them had his own inner conduit to God. The Pentecost spirit is captured in a powerful poem by William Blake:

Here’s how Luke (Acts 2:1-6) describes the moment:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

I haven’t been able to track down the origin of Blake’s poem, which I’m assuming appears in one of his long mystical poems. Note the strategic use of the word “unless.” Blake is pushing against conventionality and one-dimensional reason, which in Blake’s cosmology is represented by the figure of Urizen and is contrasted with Los, who represents imagination:

Unless the eye catch fire,
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
The God will not be known.

About his poetic visions, Blake wrote,

I rest not from my great task! To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

A note on the artist: Linda Schmidt’s quilts may be seen at

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Stephen King & the War for America’s Soul

John Cayea, cover illus. for Stephen King, "The Stand"

John Cayea, cover illus. for Stephen King, “The Stand”

In my American Fantasy course this past semester one of my students, Steven Cook, helped me appreciate Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel The Stand. King wrote the novel to wrestle with nasty truths about America that were exposed by the Vietnam War. After reading Steven’s essay (the students could choose their own fantasy novel for their final project), I can see it as an important tool for examining the legacy of the Iraq War as well.

I’ve noted in the past how King, like Poe before him, dreams America’s nightmares. Steven writes that The Stand captures two sides of America: the America of “hatred and slights” and the America “that learns from the sins of the past and attempts to rebuild.” He quotes the following passage from the novel as his essay’s epigraph:

But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some awful tussle for the souls of those few people—for their souls, their bodies, their way of thinking. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that was what was on for us.

Those doing the tussling in the novel are the few survivors of a killer flu that has been generated by the U.S. military. Due to human error, the flu escapes the research facility and kills 99.9% of the world’s population. The good survivors are led by a saintly African American grandmother who sees visions, and they congregate in Boulder, Colorado, a place associated with the pristine West, hippy communes, and flower power. They dream of starting over and getting America right this time:

[Harold] sensed, more clearly than any of the others, that that was what the Boulder Free Zone was all about… Boulder itself was a cloned society, a tabula so rasa that it could not sense its own novel beauty.

King here is hearkening back to the early American settlers’ dream that, in the New World, they could leave history behind and build a city upon a hill. In the novel, it’s as though Noah’s flood has given the world a second chance to get things right. I mention in passing that the settlers who founded the 1634 English settlement where I live–St. Mary’s City, Maryland—came over in two ships named the Ark and the Dove.

Boomers like King and myself (King is 67, I’m 63) were raised on John F. Kennedy’s idealism– “Ask not what American can do for you, ask what you can do for America”–which was decimated by the Vietnam War. We saw the country that had founded the Peace Corps unleashing horrific fire power upon a tiny country. When we witnessed the defoliation of the Vietnamese jungles and when we learned about the My Lai massacre, we began wondering about ourselves. Maybe we weren’t as good as we thought.

The Iraq War has raised similar issues. Somehow the justified anger over 9-11 got twisted into a preemptive strike against a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks and that posed no real threat to us. Suddenly our leaders were manufacturing and selling us phony intelligence reports and ordering the torture of suspects. Once again Americans of conscience were filled with self doubt.

In King’s novel we see America’s dark side in the diabolic flag-waving Randall Flagg, a figure who comes to realize that he is the devil. He sets up his center of power in Las Vegas and begins assembling military hardware. A battle for the soul of America is in the offing.

In his essay, Steven smartly focuses on characters that wrestle with which side to join. Will they honor the light within or will they follow the darkness? Steven rightly observes that the real drama of the novel lies within their internal struggles. He looks at two characters who were bullied as children and notes how Nick, who is deaf and dumb, manages to rise above his past grievances while Harold, who was overweight, does not.

In an allusion to Satan tempting Jesus in the desert, King shows Nick considering but rejecting Flagg’s dark call. Here’s how Steven’s essay describes it:

Nick’s temptation is not so much that of gaining power, prestige, and avenging old slights, but rather having abilities that he had been robbed of from birth…. Rather than spending a long time trying to reach a decision, Nick rejects the offer immediately and from then on sticks to it: “He wanted all the things the black manshape had shown him from this desert high place…. But most of all he wanted to hear… [B]ut the word he said was No.” Despite all the things that Nick is offered, he still refuses, sensing that, despite what the creature in his dreams is offering, it comes at a price that is too steep. If we assume that the worship the dark man in his dreams demands is basically paying homage to the old destructive ways of society, then his refusal specifically marks a rejection of the principles of the darker side.

Harold, by contrast, in unable to  rise above “his inner demons and the relics of the old world,” which he has come to see as integral to his identity. He thinks that accepting the new opportunity that Boulder offers would be “to murder himself”:

[H]e himself, when faced with the knowledge that he was free to accept what was, had rejected the new opportunity. To seize it would have been to murder himself. The ghost of every humiliation he had ever suffered cried out against it. His murdered dreams and ambitions came back to eldritch (unholy/otherworldy/strange) life and asked if he could forget them so easily. In the new Free Zone he could only be Harold Lauder. Over there [in Last Vegas] he could be a prince.

In the novel, the darkness ultimately turns in on itself, accidentally blowing itself up with its own nuclear bomb. The citizens of the Boulder Free Zone, who would have been decimated in a war, are given a chance to build the world of their dreams.

Steven points out that the reprieve is only temporary, however, as Randall Flagg survives the blast. In the book’s conclusion, he is plotting his comeback.

Americans need to know that our dark side is always with us and always has been. Hawthorne, for instance, describes it at work in colonial times in his story “Young Goodman Brown.” There we see a devil figure, a literary forerunner of Randall Flagg, informing Brown,

I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem; and it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s war. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you for their sake.

We will revisit the decision to invade Iraq in the upcoming presidential election, in part because of its ongoing consequences (the rise of ISIS), in part because of the insight it gives us into candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. After all, Clinton voted for the war (although she now describes that vote as a “mistake”) while Bush has reassembled, as his foreign policy advisors, the very men who led us into the Iraq War.

In other words, we must recall that Randall Flagg is alive and well, only too ready to lead us to war with Iran. He will tempt up with our fears and with false promises (“we will be greeted as liberators”). Can we learn from our mistakes and do things right this time or will we be pushed, by our “hatred and slights,” into another Armageddon? Can we be the everyday heroes that King describes in his book, those who choose the light, or will we be seduced by dark incentives? Few writers today ask that question more compellingly than Stephen King.

Posted in Hawthorne (Nathaniel), King (Stephen) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Liberals Must Reclaim Harrison Bergeron

Astin as Harrison Bergeron

Astin as Harrison Bergeron

As income gaps grow ever wider in the United States, conservatives regularly turn to a Kurt Vonnegut short story to defend inequality. But does “Harrison Bergeron” really say what they claim it does?

I begin with a nod to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, who notes how the right has been using the story:

[T]he impulse to justify existing patterns of income distribution is powerful. Kevin Williamson reiterates the hoary case in National Review. Much of Williamson’s essay is dedicated to the straw man argument that liberals propose “eradicating” inequality, as opposed to the actual liberal position, which is to ameliorate it slightly while still accepting not only significant inequality but more of it than nearly any other advanced economy. Still, Williamson hits the familiar pro-inequality points. There’s the ritual mention of “Harrison Bergeron,” the Vonnegut short story about a dystopian society in which a “Handicapper General” levels down the smart, beautiful, and otherwise fortunate. There’s the likewise mandatory reduction of inequality to the fact that very short people can’t become basketball stars. And of course there are the paeans to the inescapable natural sources of inequality.

Here’s Chait’s conclusion:

[W]hen conservative intellectuals do make inequality the text (as opposed to the subtext), they have a taste for framing the question in absolutist terms. The work of Ayn Rand is of course their favorite, but “Harrison Bergeron” runs a distant second. (Previous right-wing references to this story include thisthisthisthisthis, and innumerable others.) Yet this story tells us nothing about actually existing liberal policies on inequality. The story describes an anti-inequality crusade so extreme it bears not the slightest resemblance to the actual United States. Vonnegut himself was a socialist, which might clue you in to the fact that he did not see this particular story as evidence that rampant egalitarianism had overtaken American government. If conservatives want to construct a persuasive defense of inequality, they need to locate their egalitarian dystopia not in old novels but in the world around them.

I disagree only with Chait’s complaint about people turning to “old novels.” Literature provides explanatory insight and emotional wisdom, and one can choose both nuanced argument and powerful stories. In fact, to examine “Harrison Bergeron” closely is to liberate it from rightwing ideology.

The story is set in 2081 and the “all men are created equal” clause in The Declaration of Independence has been interpreted to mean that no one can stand out:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

When George and Hazel’s extraordinary son, Harrison, is taken away from them, their governmentally-imposed handicaps prevent them from mourning their loss:

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

Their mediocre lives are suddenly interrupted, however, when Harrison appears on a televised dance show that they are watching. He is weighted down so that he can’t outsoar the other dancers, but that doesn’t stop him. His first step is to divest himself of all that is holding him down:

Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood – in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die.

“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.

“Even as I stand here” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”

Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.

After one of the female dancers accepts his invitation to dance, they put on a performance for the ages:

Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.

And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.

It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.

And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

What follows is a scene that today’s right wing interprets as an allegory of excessive governmental regulation:

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.

It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.

Several things are worth noting.

First of all, this is a more complex story than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. Entrepreneur John Gault and radical architect Howard Roark are presented without irony—so much so that they function as unintentional self-parodies. Vonnegut, by contrast, has some reservations about Harrison. As a rebellious artist himself, he recognizes certain megalomaniac tendencies. Would we really want our self-righteous artists becoming emperors and taking over the world? Unlike Rand, Vonnegut is not writing a simplistic parable.

But more significantly, does the rightwing really embrace paradigm-busting artists? Vonnegut is going after group-think, with physical constraints functioning as metaphors for what Blake called “mind-forged manacles,” and conservatives are not immune to such groupthink. Indeed, writing his story in 1961, Vonnegut was going after the very 1950s conformity that many current conservatives want to return to. That’s why “Harrison Bergeron” was embraced by the 1960s counter-culture movement, who were rebelling against what they saw as America’s sheep-like corporate culture. (Bergeron is derived from the French word for shepherd.)

Business conservatives like to see themselves as daring entrepreneurs, but in fact they almost always hedge their bets. The “risky” financial behavior that brought down the world economic system in 2008 technically wasn’t all that risky, at least for Wall Street financiers. After all, they had the government there to bail them out. Even in main street businesses, slow and steady is valued more than daring and innovative.

When it comes down to it, who is more supportive of daring artistic exploration like Harrison’s, liberals or conservatives? Who wants to levy taxes so that schools can offer music, art and drama? Who are the real champions of a liberal arts education that prods students to think outside the box and to question authority?

Those who loudly oppose “big gummint” are not really against government intervention—they just want government to support them and not other people.

Attacks on government safety net programs ignore how people work. In his famous hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow argues that we cannot self actualize until we have addressed our fundamental needs. In other words, if you really want people to soar, you first make sure they have access to basic necessities, such as food, shelter and medicine. Poverty shackles people far more than government regulation.

To use “Harrison Bergeron” as an argument for lower taxes, fewer business regulations, and elimination of basic social services is to ignore the foundation of truly creative thinking. Harrison can touch the sky because he lives in a world that supports orchestras and dance troupes and art for the masses (via television). If, in the story, his art is neutered the moment it starts causing people to start thinking for themselves—well, that sounds more like something that the Reagan-era National Endowment for the Arts would do, not liberals.

So here’s a way to read “Harrison Bergeron” in a way that does justice to Harrison’s liberating dance: ask yourself what it would take, not to bring everyone down to the same level, but to release their true potential. Insuring that everyone has access to health care is a good start.

Added note: Jason Blake in the University of Ljubljana English Department sent me the following quotation about John Ralston Saul, along with a link. Jason says that Saul has been going on about “real capitalists” since the mid-90s:

Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”

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Is Don Draper a Modern Faustus?

Jon Hamm as a New Faustus

Jon Hamm as a New Faustus

Everyone is debating the Mad Men finale, where we see Don Draper meditating at a New Age facility in Northern California. Is he, after years of soulless living in a soulless profession, on the verge of regaining authenticity and true interpersonal connection? Or is this hope undercut by the final moment when he figures out how to monetize all this good feeling, coming up with a commercial that insures his place in advertising’s hall of fame: Coca-Cola’s iconic “I’d like to buy the world a coke.” Is this apparent tradeoff of inner peace for fame and fortune the show’s last cynical twist?

I’m not familiar enough with the series to offer an informed opinion, but I know what Christopher Marlowe would say. In the final two scenes of Doctor Faustus, Faustus has a chance to regain his soul as his life comes to an end. Instead, he finds the lure of materialism too strong and dies despairing and alone. Draper could end up in a similar place.

To be sure, he’s not dying. Like Faustus, however, he is looking back over his life and taking stock. Just as Faustus has Old Man assure him that redemption is still possible, so Draper has his niece Stephanie guiding him. Stephanie tells her uncle, “Be open to this. You might feel better.” The Old Man, for his part, tells Faustus,

I see an angel hovers o’er they head
And with a vial full of precious grace
Offers to pour the same into they soul!
Then call for mercy and avoid despair.

Faustus doesn’t listen to Old Man—Draper has a step on him here—and in the next scene he is behaving very much like the advertising executive in earlier episodes: he engages in an empty relationship with a beautiful woman, provided by Mephistopheles’s special escort service:

One thing, good servant, let me crave of thee,
To glut the longing of my heart’s desire:
That I might have unto my paramour
that heavenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose sweet embracings may extinguish clean
these thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow:
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

Put in Draper terms, Faustus, rather than abandon a life that has been dedicated to material things, thinks that he just needs one more woman to fend off the despair that lurks at the edges.

Faustus gets one final chance on his deathbed as he glimpses God’s infinite mercy:

O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.
One drop would save my soul half a drop: ah my Christ—

Even here, however, he can’t maintain the soul connection. Instead, he panics and instead clutches at the few seconds that remain in the material world. As the clock strikes twelve, the hour of his appointed death, he begs,

O soul, be changed into little water drops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found.

Draper can either build on the new peace that he has experienced or he can use his glimpse of heaven to sell sugared little water drops that rot our stomachs and our teeth. Heaven or damnation.

Further thoughts: Renaissance scholars debate whether Faustus can in fact save himself or whether he is inexorably damned. I see this as less a theological issue than a psychological one: can one really turn one’s life around after spending a lifetime developing certain habits? Draper has been lured by the fraudulent promises of consumer capitalism for so long that perhaps there is no hope for him. If the danger he is in doesn’t bother us–if we think he’d be a fool to pass up on that Coca-Cola ad–then we are in trouble as well.

Along these lines my son, when he worked in advertising, told me that some of his colleagues wanted to be Don Draper and have his beautiful women, his gorgeous clothes, and his heavy drinking, high-end life style. I am reminded of the scene in Marlowe’s play where Lucifer rolls out the seven deadly sins. They were willing to make a Faustian bargain in a heartbeat.

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10 Memorable Poetic Pick-Up Lines

 Felix Friedrich Von Ende,  "Courtship"

Felix Friedrich Von Ende, “Courtship”

I submitted my final grades yesterday, which means that I can finally plunge full time into my next book project. Since my students’ essays are still dancing in my head, however, over the next few weeks you will be introduced to some of the many ways that they have incorporated literature into their lives.

One of my students, currently head over heels in love with another of my students (they make a lovely couple), has taken the love poetry of John Donne to heart. There’s nothing like discovering that a famous poet understands what it’s like to wake up in bed with your loved one.

Jacob particularly likes Donne’s “Good Morrow” and “Sun Rising.” He too has seen the Sun as a “busy old fool” interrupting the perfect world he was experiencing–a world that, among other things, demanded that, like Donne’s “late school boys,” he attend my class.

Jacob got me thinking about poems that can be used as pick-up lines. A lot of poetry has been written with that in mind. Tell me if the following passages would work on you.

First, there’s the straightforward carpe diem, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” approach:

Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
   You may forever tarry.

                          Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Andrew Marvell also uses carpe diem reasoning but goes for a more power-packed metaphor than gathering flowers:

      Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

                                       “To His Coy Mistress”

Then there is carpe diem reasoning that concludes with a disturbing threat, this by England’s most notorious rake:

Phillis, be gentler, I advise;
     Make up for Time mis-spent,
When Beauty on its Death-bed lyes,
     ‘Tis high time to repent.

Such is the Malice of your Fate,
     That makes you old so soon;
Your Pleasure ever comes too late,
     How early e’er begun.

Think what a wretched Thing is she,
     Whose Stars contrive, in spight,
The Morning of her Love should be
     Her fading Beauty’s Night.

Then if, to make your Ruin more,
     You’ll peevishly be coy,
Die with the Scandal of a Whore,
     And never know the Joy.

                              John Wilmot, “Song”

Ugh, I hear you say. Unless you like bad boys.

Donne uses intricate wit to woo women but one is not sure whether he thinks his logic will work or whether he’s trying to convince the lady that he’s got a great sense of humor. Maybe you’re half way home if you at least capture her attention, which surely he would have done with “The Flea”:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be…

                                   Donne, “The Flea” 

And then there’s Donne making a bad pun:

   To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

                                       “Elegy 19: On His Mistress Going to Bed”

Aphra Behn imagines “the rover” in her play by that name persuading a high-priced courtesan to waive her fees:

Yes, I am poor—but I’m a Gentleman,
And one that scorns this Baseness which you practise.
Poor as I am, I would not sell my self,
No, not to gain your charming high-priz’d Person.
Tho I admire you strangely for your Beauty,
Yet I contemn your Mind.
—And yet I wou’d at any rate enjoy you;
At your own rate—but cannot—See here
The only Sum I can command on Earth;
I know not where to eat when this is gone:
Yet such a Slave I am to Love and Beauty,
This last reserve I’ll sacrifice to enjoy you.

To the horror of Angellica’s handler, the rover is successful. Then, like a bee (his simile), he leaves her and flies off to taste another flower.

Here’s a pick-up speech that is meant as a hypothetical but that wins the heart of the lady, to Viola’s great distress:

[I would] Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house.
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night.
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.

                                         Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

And here’s a passage that achieves its aim, but unfortunately not to the advantage of the man who is delivering it:

Cyrano: Each look of yours excites a new virtue,
a new courage in me! Now at last do you,
begin to see? For you yourself, do you allow?
Can you feel my soul, at all, rise through the shadow…
Oh! But truly this night’s too beautiful, too sweet!
I saying all this to you, you listening, you, to me!
Too sweet! In my dreams, even the least humble
I never hoped for such! There’s nothing else
to do but die now! It’s through words alone, I know,
that I say you tremble in the blue branches, though.
For you do tremble, like a leaf among the leaves!
For you do tremble! Whether you wish it so, I feel
your hand’s adorable trembling as it plays,
down the whole net of the jasmine sprays!

                                        Edmond de Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac

On the other hand, here is a pick-up line that definitely does not work:

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

Even if this had any chance of success, Darcy immediately undercuts it with what follows:

He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority — of its being a degradation — of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

Austen’s concluding remark is classic understatement.

In fact, once women start answering back, we see the limitations of some of the other lines as well. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu makes this clear in “The Lover: A Ballad”:

This stupid indiff’rence so often you blame,
Is not owing to nature, to fear, or to shame:
I am not as cold as a virgin in lead,
Nor is Sunday’s sermon so strong in my head:
I know but too well how time flies along,
That we live but few years, and yet fewer are young.

But I hate to be cheated, and never will buy
Long years of repentance for moments of joy…

And what would work with Lady Mary? It’s simple: just be the perfect man:

And that my delight may be solidly fix’d,
Let the friend and the lover be handsomely mix’d;
In whose tender bosom my soul may confide,
Whose kindness can soothe me, whose counsel can guide.
From such a dear lover as here I describe,
No danger should fright me, no millions should bribe;
But till this astonishing creature I know,
As I long have liv’d chaste, I will keep myself so.

Although that being said, Lady Mary later fell for Franceso Algarotti, who then dumped her. Who knows what line he used on her.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Behn (Aphra), Donne (John), Herrick (Robert), Marvell (Andrew), Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley), Rostand (Edmond de), Shakespeare (William), Wilmot (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hamlet Instructs the Class of 2015

Czachórski, "Actors before Hamlet"

Czachórski, “Actors before Hamlet”

We had our commencement Saturday and heard, along with a heartfelt valedictory speech by a biology major and an inspiring commencement address by ColorOfChange director Rashad Robinson, a passage from Hamlet.

We generally have someone read a poem at our commencements, and this year Michael Ellis-Tolaydo, a prominent Shakespearean actor and director in the Washington, D. C. area, was chosen. Michael is retiring from St. Mary’s after 29 years and has been altogether remarkable. I was concerned after hearing his opening remarks, however.

He told the graduates that, as they go out into the world and apply for jobs, they should heed the advice he always gives his actors: stay true to who you are. My immediate reaction was, “Uh oh, here’s comes Polonius’s speech.”

You know the one I’m talking about. Polonius is counseling Laertes before he journeys abroad, and the joke is that Polonius doesn’t practice what he preaches—something which is true of many commencement speakers, come to think of it. He may tell his son, “To thine own self be true,” but he himself is a panderer and a conniver who is obsessed with appearance. I braced myself for the well-known speech.

I should have known my man better. Although Michael did indeed proceed to read a passage from Hamlet, he chose something else. The graduates got to hear Hamlet’s advice to the players.

Michael did a little editing, dropping topical allusions and the reference to Christians (which I’ve kept in). To the best of my remembrance, here’s what he read:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rages…

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theater of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed, that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

And then, with the quiet power of an actor who has taken Hamlet’s advice to heart, Michael delivered to the assembled graduates the final line of the instructions:

Go, make you ready.

Exeunt players.

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Scorn No Vision That a Dewdrop Holds

Photographer Sharon Johnsone

Photographer Sharon Johnstone

This past semester in my American Fantasy course I taught Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume which, among other things, sees Christianity at war with nature. In the whacky story of a medieval tribal king who determines not to give in to death, we watch his centuries-long relationship with the Greek god Pan, who declines with the rise of first Christianity and then Cartesian science. As Robbins sees it, Christianity devalues the body and the Age of Reason (“I think, therefore I am”) seeks to subjugate the natural world.

Christianity doesn’t have to turn its back on nature, however, and there is a tradition of Christian poetry that finds natural beauty to be an expression of God’s love for the world. One sees this in Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost and in the verse of Henry Vaughan, William Blake, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Irish poetry is particularly rich in nature imagery, perhaps because Christianity in Ireland didn’t entirely displace the Celtic connection with nature but rather drew on its deep vein of spiritual power. Here’s a beautiful poem by Eva Gore-Booth, Irish nationalist and suffragette from the time of Yeats. While it’s not overtly Christian, Christian mystics will embrace its vision of divinity making itself known in a dewdrop here, a glimmer of light there.

The Quest

By Eva Gore-Booth

For years I sought the Many in the One,
I thought to find lost waves and broken rays,
The rainbow’s faded colors in the sun–
The dawns and twilights of forgotten days.

But now I seek the One in every form,
Scorning no vision that a dewdrop holds,
The gentle Light that shines behind the storm,
The Dream that many a twilight hour enfolds.


A note on the photographer: Sharon Johnstone‘s amazing photos of dewdrops can be found at

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Obama Tells Black Graduates to Soar

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee commencement

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee commencement

’Tis the season of commencement addresses and Michelle Obama gave a speech last week at Tuskegee University that reminded me of the talks I heard regularly at Morehouse College as a first-year professor (1980-81). It also reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, one of the favorite novels of Michelle’s husband. Like Morrison, the First Lady talked a lot about flight.

In words that outraged the usual suspects on the right, Obama first acknowledged the reality faced by African Americans in this country:

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns.  They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser.  They don’t know that part of you.

Rather than be discouraged, however, Obama told Tuskegee graduates to rise to the challenge. She illustrated her point by alluding to the fabled Tuskegee airmen, the first African American military pilots. After mentioning the discrimination they faced, she described what they accomplished:

Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely — surely — they could eat at a lunch counter together.  Surely their kids could go to school together.

You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a “double duty” — one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans. 

One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way.  He said that a takeoff was — in his words — “a never-failing miracle” where all “the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.” 

And when he was up in the sky, Charles sometimes looked down to see black folks out in the cotton fields not far from here — the same fields where decades before, their ancestors as slaves. And he knew that he was taking to the skies for them — to give them and their children something more to hope for, something to aspire to.

Flight is Song of Solomon’s central metaphor as well. The protagonist Milkman feels stuck in his middle class life, where he collects rent checks for his avaricious father. The book begins with the image of a failed flight, with Milkman born on the day that a Mr. Smith leaps from a tower in an attempt to fly. We are told that

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

Milkman begins to step into his potential, however, when he undertakes a roots quest and learns that he had a slave ancestor who, according to local legend, was one of the mythical flying slaves who flew back to Africa and to freedom.

The discovery of his history is as liberating to Milkman as I hope college has been to the Tuskegee graduates. At the very end of the novel, in what may be a moment of magical realism, Milkman launches into the air.

Before I note what happens, however, I return to Obama’s speech. She instructed the graduates not to give up and become angry:

I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.

At the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman is pitted against Guitar, his former friend, who has succumbed to race anger and is killing innocent whites in reprisal for the murder of innocent blacks. In a shift that is characteristic of terrorists, however, Guitar does not stop there but begins going after members of his own race. Thematically the book is asking whether African Americans will soar above race hatred or be pulled down by it.

Here’s the book’s final scene, located on two adjacent mountain ledges. Guitar has just shot Milkman’s aunt Pilate and is about to shoot him. Note that we aren’t told what the future will be, just as Tuskegee’s graduates don’t know what’s ahead for them. “Shalimar” is Milkman’s flying slave ancestor:

Even as [Milkman] knelt over her, he knew there wouldn’t be another mistake; that the minute he stood up Guitar would try to blow his head off. He stood up.

“Guitar!” he shouted.

Tar tar tar, said the hills.

“Over here, brother man! Can you see me?” Milkman cupped his mouth with one hand and waved the other over his head. “Here I am!”

Am am am am, said the rocks.

“You want me? Huh? You want my life?”

Life life life life.

Squatting on the edge of the other flat-headed rock with only the night to cover him, Guitar smiled over the barrel of his rifle. “My man,” he murmured to himself. “My main man.” He put the rifle on the ground and stood up.

Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Or as Obama put it to the Tuskegee graduates, if they hold on to their hopes and refuse “to succumb to feelings of despair and anger,” they will fly “through the air, out of this world — free.”

Posted in Morrison (Toni) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


  • 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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