Mourning Jane Austen’s Early Death


Today is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, which should be a designated day of mourning since Jane was at the height of her powers when she died of Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 41. If forced to choose, I would live in a world (reluctantly) that was missing the final works of Charles Dickens (Our Mutual Friend, the unfinished Edwin Drood), George Eliot (Daniel Deronda), Virginia Woolf (Between the Acts), even Shakespeare (although The Tempest), although I love all of them. At any rate, I don’t feel the need for these authors to have written more. I find it intolerable, however, that Austen didn’t finish Sanditon, and I fantasize obsessively about other works she would have written.

Emma and Persuasion, after all, were going in fascinating directions, the first in terms of character development and formal innovation (Austen anticipated Madame Bovary’s free indirect speech by several decades), the second in terms of feminist exploration. I would give a lot to see where she would have ended up. I know for sure that I would have relished more of her comic satire and her razor wit.

The New York Times had an article Sunday talking about how Austen was a much more ambitious author than history has reported. I supervised a senior project a few years ago which made exactly this point and filled in the details. You can read the posts I wrote on Carolyn Zerhusen’s project here and here but, to summarize them, Carolyn found Austen to be intensely ambitious. She wanted to make as much money as Anne Radcliffe and Sir Walter Scott, considered herself a better writer than either of them (which she was), and was irritated that her worth wasn’t appreciated.

This was beginning to change by the end of her six years in the public eye. While Mansfield Park and Emma weren’t as popular as Pride and Prejudice, in part because the heroines aren’t as attractive or the marriages as glamorous, I can imagine Persuasion—Austen’s most romantic work—bringing in the larger audience she longed for.

Carolyn sees Austen, who didn’t suffer fools lightly, taking shots at Radcliffe in Northanger Abbey and at Scott and Lord Byron in Persuasion and Sanditon. The mild-mannered but wonderfully strong Anne Elliot in Persuasion delivers a powerful feminist message in Persuasion. Here’s Captain Haville’s argument about woman’s constancy and Anne’s reply:

“But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

 For Carolyn, the image of Austen as a woman disinterested in a writing career is disempowering, and she observes that “it hasn’t helped that the 2007 Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane portrays the author as ‘a wildly romantic woman whose stories are only the result of disappointed love.’” The same type of men whom Captain Harville quotes also provided descriptions of Jane Austen. It’s time to move past them.

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Caves of Ice, Prophecies of War

Greenland’s melting glaciers


With so many things in the news to worry about these days, it’s hard to keep in mind the most serious threat facing us, which is climate change. Scientists are now discovering that the Greenland glaciers are melting faster than predicted, which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise by the end of the century. A technical description of the melting process brings to mind Coleridge’s haunting poem “Kubla Khan.”

A  March Washington Post article reported on a new study of Greenland’s glaciers, entitled Oceans Are Melting Greenland in order to give it the eye-catching acronym OMG:

Greenland is, in fact, the largest global contributor to rising seas — adding about a millimeter per year to the global ocean, NASA says — and it has 7.36 potential meters (over 24 feet) to give. The question is how fast it could lose that ice, and over five years, OMG plans to pull in enough data to give the best answer yet.

“We’ve never observed Greenland disappearing before, and that’s what OMG is about,” says Josh Willis, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the principal investigator on the mission. “We want to watch how it shrinks over the next five years, and see how we can use that information to better predict the future.”

According to the Post article, while the results are not yet it, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

said in 2013 that Greenland’s melting might at most contribute 21 centimeters to sea-level rise by 2100, with some possible addition from rapid ice collapse (this is the high-end number for what scientists call the “likely” range in a worst-case global warming scenario, to be precise).

One reason for the accelerated melting involves caves of ice into which rivers are pouring, which is what made me think of Coleridge’s poem. Here’s the technical description of a process known as “dynamic thinning”:

Dynamic thinning is, in a way, a positive feedback loop. When it gets warm enough, the surface snow and ice begin to thaw. The melt water either pools or flows in rivers along the surface, or begins flowing under the snow that covers the ice of the sheet. In the process, it flows into small cracks, enlarging them as it moves towards the bottom of the ice sheet. The amount of melt water traveling through these fissures varies greatly. Waleed Abdalati, head of NASA Goddard Space Flight Centers Cryospheric Sciences Branch, mentioned that “for the first few weeks, the melt water sounds like a peaceful stream. Soon it takes on the menacing roar of a rushing river.”

As surface melt increases, it collects into rivers that carry it to turquoise blue pools or plunge into crevasses or ice tunnels called moulins or glacier mills. Moulin…can extend downwards hundreds of meters, reaching the base of the glacier, or can flow within the glacier. Wherever the water ends up, moulins can affect both the melting rate and also the velocity of a glacier. The streams bring surface heat in the form of water down through the glacier to the bottom of the ice sheet. Once the water reaches the bottom of the glacier, it acts as lubrication for the glacier, which then gains speed as it flows downhill towards the sea. Thus, a little melting can have a large effect.

In “Kubla Khan,” the sacred river Alph springs out of a chasm, meanders five miles, and then reaches “caverns measureless to man”—at which point, the prophecies become dire:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion 
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, 
Then reached the caverns measureless to man, 
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean; 
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far 
Ancestral voices prophesying war! 
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
   Floated midway on the waves; 
   Where was heard the mingled measure 
   From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! 

Or as Abdalati puts it, “for the first few weeks, the melt water sounds like a peaceful stream. Soon it takes on the menacing roar of a rushing river.”

Like the poet in the poem, one expects him to add, “Beware! Beware!”

The prophecies of war, meanwhile, are not coming only from climate scientists but also from the U.S. military, which predicts that world conflicts will rise as climate change disrupts the world order. Scientific American, for instance, has pointed out that a climate change-caused drought in Syria—the worst in its history—led to the war there as farmers flooded into the cities.

Meanwhile climate deniers block environmental legislation and focus on tax cuts for the wealthy, which would allow them to build more stately pleasure domes and gardens bright with sinuous rills.

Beware! Beware!

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Please God, Prepare a Fruitful Place

Vincent Van Gogh, “The Sower”

Spiritual Sunday

William Cowper has a lovely version of the parable of the sower and the seed, today’s lectionary reading. Cowper wrestled with crippling depression, which makes his final George Herbert-like plea especially moving: he asks God to make his heart, which he experiences too often as stony, to be receptive to divine grace.

The Sower

By William Cowper

Ye sons of earth prepare the plough,
Break up your fallow ground;
The sower is gone forth to sow,
And scatter blessings round.

The seed that finds a stony soil
Shoots forth a hasty blade;
But ill repays the sower’s toil,
Soon wither’d, scorch’d, and dead.

The thorny ground is sure to balk
All hopes of harvest there;
We find a tall and sickly stalk,
But not the fruitful ear.

The beaten path and highway side,
Receive the trust in vain;
The watchful birds the spoil divide,
And pick up all the grain.

But where the Lord of grace and power
Has bless’d the happy field,
How plenteous is the golden store
The deep-wrought furrows yield!

Father of mercies, we have need
Of thy preparing grace;
Let the same Hand that give me seed
Provide a fruitful place!

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Trump’s Unseen Playmate Jim

Playing with the unseen playmate in “Child’s Garden of Verses”


The news is so universally grim with our current president that I find myself looking for light notes. An Associated Press article provided one the other day when it set out to solve the “curious case of Trump’s friend Jim.”

Little does AP know that Robert Louis Stevenson solved the case years ago in A Child’s Garden of Verses.

First, here’s the AP’s report:

For all things Paris, President Donald Trump’s go-to guy is Jim.

The way Trump tells it — Jim is a friend who loves Paris and used to visit every year. Yet when Trump travels to the city Thursday for his first time as president, it’s unlikely that Jim will tag along. Jim doesn’t go to Paris anymore. Trump says that’s because the city has been infiltrated by foreign extremists.

While Trump “repeatedly talked about the enigmatic Jim while on the campaign trail,” he “didn’t receive widespread attention until Trump became president.” The story observes that, for Trump,

Jim’s story serves as a cautionary tale – a warning that even a place as lovely as Paris can be ruined if leaders are complacent about terrorism.

Jim’s biggest moment in the spotlight was during a high-profile Trump speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Trump explained that Jim “loves the City of Lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris. It was automatic, with his wife and his family.”

Trump one day asked Jim: “How’s Paris doing?”

“’Paris?” Jim replied, as relayed by Trump. “‘I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.’”

Reporters have been trying to track down Jim but with no success. Stevenson knows where he is, however:

The Unseen Playmate

By Robert Louis Stevenson

When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him, and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
‘Tis he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
‘Tis he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

‘Tis he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
‘Tis he will take care of your playthings himself!

Of course, now that he’s disenchanted with Paris, Trump’s unseen friend may no longer take the side of the French.

As if we needed further proof that our president is little more than a child.

Further thought: People also refer to the president’s eldest son as a child. The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri quotes Peter Pan in a column pointing out that people have been referring to the 39-year-old Donald Trump, Jr. as “a kid” and therefore not responsible for colluding with the Russians.

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Federer, Unlike Ulysses, a Family Man Hero

Roger and Mirka Federer and daughters


I’ve applied Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to Roger Federer in the past and it’s time to do so again. The 36-year-old, after all, is once again sailing beyond the sunset while the younger members of “the Big Four” fall by the wayside with injury and fatigue.

And while I’m praising Roger, let me do the same for Venus Williams, also doing the impossible at age 37. Both are in the Wimbledon semi-finals.

Roger is different than Tennyson’s Ulysses, however, because he sees family as a boost, not as an impediment.

Ulysses complains about being an idle king with “an aged wife.” He want to taste adventure again and all but claims that those who want to live differently (i.e., Telemachus) are unimaginative bureaucrats. He has better things to do with his time and is prepared to sacrifice his fellow mariners for one last adventure:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. 

Federer, by contrast, has figured out a way to take both his wife and his kids on his adventure with him. In fact, many are attributing Federer’s continuing gusto for the game to the fact that he turns his tournaments into family outings. To be sure, it’s easier to do so when you have his money, his private jets, his ability to hire nannies, etc. Still, he’s not battling his family as Ulysses is:

        This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. 

Roger says he’ll quit when Mirka asks him to and I believe him for the simple fact that they seem to have the same goals at heart and will make their decisions together. Notice how, in one interview, he talks about “our” dream. And then, as proof that the “our” is sincere, he looks at the tennis through Mirka’s perspective, acknowledging that she doesn’t see the sport exactly as he does, given her disappointment at having to retire from professional tennis following a foot injury:

If she said, you know, I don’t want to travel no more, I’ll say, Okay, my career is over. It’s as simple as that.

So she’s the key to a lot of this. But she’s happy to be doing it, not on a weekly basis just because the traveling gets too much with the four. But, you know, I went to Stuttgart and Halle on my own. Now here we’re together. We’re having a great time.

So she’s been amazing support for me. She’s the best.

I’m happy she allows me to chase our dreams really, because she’s in it as much as I am, even though she’s more on a different side right now. She’s not as invested in the whole tennis bit like she used to be.’

I’ve criticized Ulysses in the past for being self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. Federer is certainly driven—one has to be to accomplish all he has—but he has a collective perspective. His victories aren’t only about himself, and he’s probably not going to sacrifice others in some doomed adventure.

Besides which, so far at least, he doesn’t seem to have been made weak by time and fate. Maybe things will change in the near future and I’ll have to revisit this post. At the moment, however, he seems to be playing as well as he ever has. Better in fact.

True, he is weak in comparison with the remaining men in the draw. He will have to be as crafty as Ulysses to prevail. As he notes,

They (Thomas Berdych, Sam Querrey, and Marin Cilic) will have their word to say of the outcome of the matches. They’ve got big serves, big forehands — big hitters, really. All three guys are taller and stronger than I am. I’ve got to figure out a different way — carve my way through the draw somehow with my slice, my spins, my consistency, maybe. I’m looking forward to doing that.

But there’s not the desperation in his words that there’s is in Ulysses’s. He’s far less dramatic—family men usually are—but that makes him no less the hero.

Here the poem in its entirety:

It little profits that an idle king, 
By this still hearth, among these barren crags, 
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole 
Unequal laws unto a savage race, 
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. 
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink 
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d 
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when 
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades 
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name; 
For always roaming with a hungry heart 
Much have I seen and known; cities of men 
And manners, climates, councils, governments, 
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all; 
And drunk delight of battle with my peers, 
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. 
I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move. 
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life 
Were all too little, and of one to me 
Little remains: but every hour is saved 
From that eternal silence, something more, 
A bringer of new things; and vile it were 
For some three suns to store and hoard myself, 
And this gray spirit yearning in desire 
To follow knowledge like a sinking star, 
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. 

         This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. 

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: 
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, 
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me— 
That ever with a frolic welcome took 
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed 
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old; 
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; 
Death closes all: but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done, 
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. 
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: 
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. 
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: 
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Another literary parallel: James Gray of The Express has another literary parallel I wish I’d thought of. Declaring (prematurely?) that Federer will win Wimbledon, Gray writes,

His lifting the trophy will mark the complete regeneration of the legendary Swiss – like Gandalf the Grey he has returned as Federer the White, more powerful and more wise than ever before.

The wisdom, Gray say, lies in his decision to dial back his tournaments, and he suggests that Murray and Djokovic should listen:

Federer the White has returned and he brings with him sage advice. Those who should listen closest will only be able to watch as he lifts the trophy on Sunday.

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Sustaining Narratives Can Become Traps


I am currently mentoring a single mother of two as she writes a Margaret Atwood senior project and am seeing up close how powerfully the Canadian author speaks to certain women. With Ashley’s permission, I will be sharing some of her work in the upcoming year. In today’s post, I look at an incident in Life before Man where a child uses The Wizard of Oz to make sense of a confusing life.

Elizabeth’s mother has abandoned Elizabeth and her sister, and prickly Aunt Muriel has taken over. Elizabeth has no framework for understanding what has happened except for certain books she has read. One of them is Baum’s classic: 

For months, Elizabeth put herself to sleep with a scene from The Wizard of Oz. The book itself had been left behind, it was part of the old life before Auntie Muriel’s, but she could remember it. It was the part where Dorothy throws a bucket of water over the Wicked Witch of the West and melts her. Auntie Muriel was the witch, of course. Elizabeth’s mother was Glinda the Good. One day she would reappear and kneel down to kiss Elizabeth on the forehead.

It makes sense that a girl who has lost her mother would think of the Glinda passage. Here’s Baum:

Dorothy told the Witch all her story: how the cyclone had brought her to the Land of Oz, how she had found her companions, and of the wonderful adventures they had met with.

“My greatest wish now,” she added, “is to get back to Kansas, for Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than they were last, I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it.”

Glinda leaned forward and kissed the sweet, upturned face of the loving little girl.

“Bless your dear heart,” she said, “I am sure I can tell you of a way to get back to Kansas.”

The real truth, of course, is more complex. Elizabeth’s mother was a drug addict that Muriel supported until she finally died. Never knowing this, Elizabeth has grown up to hate Muriel and finally breaks with her. The Baum imagery comes back to her when she discovers that Muriel is dying of cancer:

Elizabeth hates Auntie Muriel. She has always hated her and she always will hate her. She will not forgive her. This is an old vow, an axiom. Nevertheless.

Nevertheless, this is not Auntie Muriel. The Auntie Muriel of Elizabeth’s childhood has melted, leaving in her place this husk, this old woman who now drops her blockish embroidery and with eyes closed and weeping gropes with her hands across the hospital covers.

Sometimes we discover that we must abandon the narratives that have sustained us if we are to move forward. Muriel may still be a witch in Elizabeth’s eyes, but something else is melting:

Elizabeth wants to get up out of the visitor’s chair and walk, run from the room, leaving her there alone. She deserves it.

Nevertheless, she leans forward and takes Auntie Muriel’s blinded hands. Desperately the stubby fingers clutch her. Elizabeth is no priest: she cannot give absolution. What can she offer? Nothing sincerely. Beside her own burning mother she has sat, not saying anything, holding the one good hand. The one good fine-boned hand. The ruined hand, still beautiful, unlike the veined and mottled stumps she now cradles in hers, soothing them with her thumbs as in illness she has soothed the hands of her children.

Sickness grips her. Nevertheless, nevertheless, she whispers: It’s all right. It’s all right.

The scene is not exactly a reconciliation. Atwood is too honest for that. But the human connection is all the more powerful because it is not sentimental. Sometimes, in the end, humans transcend their pain, their grievances.

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Is Chick Lit Bad for You?


Yesterday I discussed how some feminists have argued that even great novels like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Jane Eyre support patriarchal marriage. Austen and Bronte, however, at least have the excuse that they were writing in the 19th century. What are we to make of the “chick lit” romances written today?

Tania Modleski, in Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, examines the charge that novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary do active harm. Modleski’s book, which originally appeared in 1982, broke new ground when she took Harlequins, gothic romances, and soap operas seriously. While she didn’t exactly see them as progressive, she defended them as helping women cope with the prospect of male violence. Even though the heroines always end with Mr. Right, the books acknowledge the pain of female powerlessness before they get to that point. In other words, they do more than propose a good man as the answer to all your problems.

In her introduction to the second edition (2008), Modleski attacks those who think that great literature will counteract the reactionary seductions of chick lit. Since I myself think that great literature is more effective than such romances in handling our problems, I examine Modleski’s arguments closely here.

First, a description of Bridget Jones gives us a sense of what chick lit involves. Modleski points out that the novel is modeled loosely on Pride and Prejudice:

The author, Helen Fielding, created a ditzy character who is hilariously skeptical of marriage but hoping against hope to evade the fate of “singletons”—dying alone at the end of their lives and, not being immediately missed by anyone, are finally discovered half eated by their Alsatian dog. Bridget is obsessed with controlling her weight and limiting her alcohol and tobacco intake, and throughout much of the novel she is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with her boss, an attractive cad.

In 2001, many were horrified by the world-wide popularity of Bridget Jones and of chick lit in general. Modleski sarcastically writes,

Will it come as a surprise to anyone that the condemners of the “damned mobs of scribbling women” (to use Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notorious label) are bemoaning the success of chick lit, which seems to have taken by storm not only England and America but many other countries as well? In fact the worldwide popularity of chick lit has led one writer to refer to the phenomenon as a “pandemic”—the avian flu, if you will, of the literary world—that is felling those portions of the female population not fortunate enough to have been immunized by adequate doses of the Great Books.

One critic was Dorris Lessing, who wrote,

It would be better, perhaps, if [young chick lit authors] wrote books about their lives as they really saw them, and not these helpless girls, drunken, worrying about their weight and so on.

Modleski doesn’t tangle with Lessing but she does heap scorn on one Lauren Baratz-Logsted, who complains,

Chick lit’s formula numbs our senses. Literature by contrast, grants us access to countless new cultures, places, and inner lives. Where chick lit reduces the complexity of the human experience, literature increases our awareness of other perspectives and paths. Literature employs carefully crafted language to expand our reality, instead of beating us over the head with clichés that promote a narrow worldview. Chick lit shuts down our consciousness. Literature expands our imaginations.

Modleski accuses Baratz-Logsted of “mind-numbing humanist platitudes,” but that’s not really an argument. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes a more sophisticated version of Baratz-Logsted’s argument. Modleski, while taking high culture elitists to tasks, herself engages in a complicated dance about whether she should judge negatively the popular literature that she studies.

She identifies two ways of studying mass-produced fantasies, the ethnographic approach and the psychoanalytic approach. The first seeks to suspend judgement altogether, putting feminist politics aside and treating Harlequin fans or soap fans the way one would treat any culture.

The psychoanalytic approach, by contrast, sees women as oppressed and believes that they turn to literary fantasies as an unconscious way to resist and fight back, or at least to cope, with patriarchy. Is Modleski, when she sees Harlequin reader trapped by patriarchy, any the less elitist than Baratz-Logsted, who says they would be better served by great literature. Note how slippery Modleski gets, beginning her self-defense by seeming to agree before she disagrees:

One cannot quarrel with the notion that feminist critics ought not to engage in attacking or presuming to direct other women. But are there no limits to the actual support a feminist critic ought to extend to their struggles and their terms. To take an example, if romance writers and readers were to defend their genre or other forms of popular culture on the grounds of man’s natural superiority to women, should feminist critics simly go along with these “terms?” Do we not have an obligation as feminists to contest such notions? How can criticism call itself feminist if it is not first and foremost an engaged criticism.

Modleski, in other words, wants to have it both ways. She wants to take seriously women who read mass produced fantasies (which is good, everyone should be taken seriously) and she thinks that women should not be pinning all their hopes on romantic fantasies. In other words, she thinks she knows better than they do what’s good for them. When she calls other people elitist, she may be doing so to deflect such charges against herself.

I’m all for seeing mass produced fantasies as more complex that they’ve been given credit for. Modleski’s book is very useful in that regard. But I also see “Great Books” as even more complex and as far better for readers.

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Trapped in the Marriage Plot?

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, “Lady Reading by a Window”


I’m currently writing the feminism section of my book about literature impacting lives and am examining Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s idea that the marriage plot prevents women from imagining alternative lives for themselves. While DuPlessis doesn’t say so explicitly, this means that she regards novels like Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and The Mill on the Floss as complicit with the existing order. Powerful though they may be, they don’t help readers break out of the idea that the only worthwhile life for a woman is as wife.

DuPlessis’s book Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985) explores how later women writers struggled with the legacy handed down to them by society and by (among others) Austen, Bronte, and George Eliot. Raymond Williams, author of Marxism and Literature (1977), helps her frame her argument.

Williams says that imagining a new kind of consciousness “can be the long and difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practical consciousness.” This remaking requires “confronting a hegemony in the fibers of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships.” Put in terms of the marriage drama, the lives that women have been culturally taught to imagine for themselves are so imbedded in “the fibers of the self” that fighting against them seems impossible.

Those authors who want to create a new narrative, Williams says, must embody and perform “latent, momentary, and newly  possible consciousness.” Which is to say, imagine characters living radically different lives.

Until authors do so, however, readers will be stuck in the romance or marriage plot. Such stories, DuPlessis says, contain such elements as “yearning, pleasing, choosing, slipping, falling, and failing,” which are “some of the deep, shared structures of our culture.” Even when authors pushed against these plots, as Austen, Bronte, and Eliot all did in the middles of their novels, ultimately they surrendered. One might find women protagonists as “heroes” for a while, but by the endings DuPlessis says that they have dwindled to heroines. Women were denied the hero’s quest or the Bildungsroman (the growth story) because they had to end up married.

In Jane Austen’s Emma, for instance, Emma at first thinks that she herself can resist the marriage plot but, in the end, she succumbs:

[T]he problem and charm of the main character lie in the same traits: her resolute and aggressive assurance, making matches as if she were a thoroughly disinterested party, misreading the marital hopes of those she considers her entourage, and interfering with the rational self-interest of many people, but especially of the man in search of a wife. The engagement of Emma’s strong will and desire to dominate occurs each time Austen proffers an eligible person; the author graduates the interest of each man and of Emma’s involvement until, with Mr. Knightley’s apparent attentions to Harriet Smith, Emma is shocked that her impetuous scheming may have hurt her own best interests. At the point when she is sincerely repentant for her assumed powers, she is marriageable, and is therefore proposed to. Her proper negotiation with class and gender makes the heroine from an improper hero.

Something comparable occurs in Pride and Prejudice. DuPlessis writes that, because of the novel’s concentration on Elizabeth’s “force and her growing capacity for insight, her potential as a hero develops throughout the narrative.” Unfortunately, this means that, when Elizabeth does opt for marriage, she validates the institution all the more. After all, who can say that one of literature’s most popular heroines is wrong.

For those who don’t mind seeing traditional marriage affirmed in their literature, this is not a problem. For those who believe that women should have other narratives than marriage available to them, however, the marriage plot can feel suffocating. The fact that some of the characters—one thinks especially of Jane Eyre as a teacher and school mistress—succumb to marriage after struggling so mightily to establish their separate identities can dishearten those trying to expand the female imagination.

Or perhaps DuPlessis is wrong and heroine marriage endings don’t entirely drown out hero quest middles. After all, Jane Eyre played a significant role in the unionization of governesses, in the suffragette movement, and in 1970s feminism. It may be an open question whether the final message a reader gets from the novel is “Reader, I married him.” More on this subject in the near future.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte) | Leave a comment

Once There Was Light

Edward Munch, “The Sick Child” (1925)

Spiritual Sunday

My dear friend Rachel Kranz, whom I spent several days with last week in a Bronx hospital, has had a heart attack on top of her ovarian cancer—cardiac arrest for six minutes—and is currently on a ventilator. The news has upended me as we had both thought she was getting better. Now we are getting varied reports from different doctors, some positive (there is eye contact and the heart suffered no damage), some negative (treating one problem leads to others). Please pray for her.

Looking for poetic comfort, I came across a Jane Kenyon poem written while she herself was suffering from cancer. It reminded me of the many talks I had with Rachel as we tried to make sense of what was happening to her.

The figures in the poem that anger me the most are the voice who squelched her childhood optimism (1); the smug religious voice contending that belief in God will dispel her depression (3); and the orthodox religious voice (I think) who disrupts a beautiful dream about mingling with souls both alive and dead (5).

The first voice she describes as a “mutilator of souls.” She lets the second pass without comment, and the third voice “arrives like a crow that smells hot blood.” By telling her that “I never let my dear ones drown,” this last voice—which claims to be supportive–asserts the conventional division between the living and the dead, thereby depriving her of a more vibrant understanding.

Along this line, I am currently reading the Booker Award winning Famished Road, by Nigerian author Ben Okri, which describes a far more fluid relationship between living and dead souls. The book has been described as “magical realist,” but Okri objects to the label because, for him, this intermingling is reality, not magic at all.

By the end of the poem, Kenyon has found transcendent moments that temporarily drown out these negative voices: listening to her dog breathe; experiencing short pain-free interludes when she can focus on marriage, friends, “pink fringed hollyhocks,” “my desk, books, and chair”; and hearing a wood thrush at four in the morning.

At such times, life has never seemed so holy.

Having It Out with Melancholy

By Jane Kenyon

If many remedies are prescribed
          for an illness, you may be certain
          that the illness has no cure.
                              A. P. CHEKHOV
                             The Cherry Orchard

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad—even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours—the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors—those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born.

For a few moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life—in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

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Lit Frees Us from Our Mental Ghettos

Maurycy Gottlieb, “Shylock and Jessica” (1887)


Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, has a fascinating article in the recent New Yorker exploring what Shakespeare taught him when he was growing up Jewish in America in the 1940s and 50s. Believe it or not, he has positive things to say about The Merchant of Venice.

Greenblatt encountered blatant anti-Semitism as a freshman at Yale in 1961 and, when he began to take literature courses, was further shocked to discover anti-immigrant sentiments in Henry James and anti-Semitic sentiments in the revered T. S. Eliot. For instance, in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Eliot “conjured up the primal ooze” from which he saw Jews emerging:

A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.

From Eliot’s mention of Venice’s Rialto, Greenblatt segues to Merchant of Venice, the most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays, which is set there. Greenblatt notes the confusion we feel as we watch the play:

What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? “Art thou contented, Jew?” she prods. “What dost thou say?” And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, “I am content”?

Greenblatt says that, when he was a college student, he decided he would grapple with “the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright.” Doing so meant that, while he wouldn’t allowed himself to be crushed by anti-Semitism, he also wouldn’t adopt the defensive posture of his parents. He was determined to confront what was toxic in the culture as well as what was nurturing. As a teacher, he tries to get his students to do the same:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueller strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents….I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

What he learned is that this culture is a mixed bag. It must be studied, the bad as well as the good, because it shapes who we are:

What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.

The task derives from the kind of creatures that we are. We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. 

Greenblatt admits that Shakespeare absorbed some of the anti-Semitism of his day, which accounts for the problematic aspects to Merchant of Venice. Where Shakespeare surprises, however, is giving unexpected touches of humanity to even his villains. Greenblatt says that, although making Shylock three-dimensional threatens to disrupt the plot, Shakespeare couldn’t help himself:

The life that sweeps across the stage here includes, as well, sudden glimpses into parts of an existence that the plot by itself did not demand. When Shylock learns that his daughter exchanged a turquoise ring for a monkey—a turquoise ring that she stole from him, and that had been a gift from his dead wife, Leah, his anguish is unmistakable. “Thou torturest me,” he tells the friend who brought him the news. “It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Greenblatt acknowledges that, while such touches don’t offset the play’s anti-Semitism, they do unsettle it:

Are such glimpses enough to do away with hatred of the other? Not at all. But they begin an unsettling from within. Even now, more than four centuries later, the unsettling that the play provokes remains a beautiful and disturbing experience.

Shakespeare himself may have found it disturbing. He set out, it seems, to write a straightforward comedy, borrowed from Giovanni Fiorentino’s novella “Il Pecorone” (“The Big Sheep”), only to find himself increasingly drawn into the soul of the despised other. Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.

Greenblatt observes that this occurs in other plays as well:

It wasn’t the only time in his work that this excess of life had occurred. The playwright is said to have remarked that in “Romeo and Juliet” he had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play, and he ran a similar risk with characters like Jack Cade, Aaron the Moor, Malvolio, and Caliban. Indeed, the ability to enter deeply—too deeply, for the purposes of the plot—into almost every character he deployed was a signature. It accounts for the startling vividness of Adriana, the neglected wife in “The Comedy of Errors”; Bottom the Weaver, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in “Hamlet”; Cornwall’s brave servant, in “King Lear”; and many others. It helps explain the strange illusion that certain of his characters have lives independent of the play in which they appear. And it contributes to the moral and aesthetic complexity that characterizes so many of his plays. Consider, for example, the fact that for centuries critics have debated whether Brutus is the hero or the villain of “Julius Caesar.” In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production of the play last month, in Central Park, audiences chortled at a Trump-like despot—but were then brought up short by the horror of what befalls him, the carnage born of self-steeling righteousness. What leads to disaster is Brutus’s ideological decision to think of Caesar not as a human being at all but, rather, as “a serpent’s egg,” and therefore to “kill him in the shell.”

How did Shakespeare achieve such three-dimensionality? Greenblatt says that the Bard was constitutionally incapable of settling for anything less. Like Martin Luther, he could do no other:

Even after a lifetime of studying Shakespeare, I cannot always tell you precisely how he achieved this extraordinary life-making. I sometimes picture him attaching his characters like leeches to his arms and allowing them to suck his lifeblood.

Percy Shelley, in his brilliant Defense of Poetry, sees great literature as ultimately liberating because it captures the complexity of individuals in a way that political systems cannot. Greenblatt says something along those lines when he discusses how Shakespeare releases the imagination to see the humanity in even those we would demonize and marginalize:

The conferral of life is one of the essential qualities of the human imagination. Since very few of us are endowed with great genius, it is important to understand that the quality of which I am speaking is to some degree democratically shared. Ideologies of various kinds contrive to limit our ability to enter into the experience of another, and there are works of art that are complicit in these ideologies. More generous works of art serve to arouse, organize, and enhance that ability. Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.

This is why literature generally and Shakespeare specifically should be required reading for all of us. As Greenblatt eloquently puts it,

What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.

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Brecht Explains Castile Shooting

The gun that is about to shoot Philando Castile


Of the many things we can predict with absolute certainty, one appears to be that juries will acquit police officers charged with shooting innocent people of color. Most recently, a Minnesota jury acquitted an officer for shooting Philando Castile, who tried to follow proper procedure when stopped for a broken taillight and still ended up dead.

Before then, it was a Tulsa officer shooting a stranded motorist, a Pennsylvania police officer shooting an unarmed motorist in the back as he lay face down in the snow, a Cleveland officer shooting a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun, and so on.

To understand what is going on, there’s no better explanation than one offered up by Bertolt Brecht in his play The Exception and the Rule (1957).

Before examining the play, let’s take a quick walk through recent history. The New York Times provides a list of what happened to the officer in 15 of the latest cases where innocent blacks were killed by the police or died in police custody:

Fired – 5 cases
Indicted or charged – 8 cases
Settlement reached – 8 cases
Officer convicted/pleaded guilty – 2 cases

In Brecht’s play, an entrepreneur is racing across a desert to be the first to lay claim to a valuable oil concession. He drives his coolie very hard and then, when the coolie offers him some of his water, shoots him because he thinks the canteen is a rock and that his life is in danger. The play concludes with a judge acquitting him of the killing and offering the following explanation:

The court finds proved that the coolie approached his master not with a stone but with a water-bottle. This fact established, however, the court takes as more reasonable the view that the coolie was about to attack his master with the bottle, and not that he was offering him water. The porter belonged to a class of men which has, after all, grounds for supposing itself exploited. For such a man it would be a matter of common wit to defend himself in face of an inequitable distribution of the water. Indeed it might even seem a matter of justice to such people as the coolie, limited and prejudiced as their outlook is by its dependence on mere reality, to revenge themselves against their tormentor. It must be said that, in the last analysis, they have nothing to lose. The merchant belongs to a different class from that of the porter. He could only anticipate the worst. He could not credit that the porter whom he had ill-treated, as he himself has said, would offer him an act of friendship. His common wit told him that he was in the greatest danger. The isolated nature of the area must have caused him great anxiety. The distance from the police and the restraint of the law would encourage his servant to demand his share of the water. The accused therefore acted in justifiable self-defense regardless of whether he was actually threatened or merely believed himself to be threatened. In the circumstances as established it was inevitable that he should believe himself threatened. The case is therefore dismissed and the widow’s claim fails.

The situation parallels the Castile shooting. When Castile was stopped, he tried to be cooperative and informed the officer that he had a licensed firearm in the car.He then reached into his glove compartment to get the demanded registration papers.

Perhaps the officer was like the businessman in Brecht’s play and figured that a black man felt towards him like he felt towards black men. Or perhaps he sensed that, because Castile was a victim of racism, Castile must be itching to shoot him, requiring him to shoot first. (“The porter belonged to a class of men which has, after all, grounds for supposing itself exploited.”) The jury may well have reached the same conclusion as the judge: “In the circumstances as established it was inevitable that he should believe himself threatened.”

“The circumstances as established” is what people today mean by “systemic racism.” Individuals are caught up in a larger system of paranoia and projection, making it practically inevitable that these shootings will occur. Brecht’s parable style makes the point that individual personalities don’t matter that much.

At the end of the play, the actors form a chorus and plead for us not to normalize such behavior. We can imagine a Black Lives Matter member delivering the speech:

You have heard and you have seen.
You saw the normal, that which happens every day.
But please, we say to you now:
Even when ordinary, find it strange
Even when familiar, find it inexplicable
Even when quite normal, it must astound you
Even when the rule, recognize it as an abuse
And whenever you have recognized abuse
Put it right!

In other words, do everything you can to keep from taking such shootings for granted. Continue to be astounded, even though such killings and acquittals happen again and again. Act collectively in an attempt to change the reality.

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Lucille Clifton’s Cancer Poems

Vincent van Gogh, “Ward of Arles Hospital”


Lucille Clifton’s cancer poems mean a lot more to me since I spent several days in a Bronx oncology ward with my friend Rachel Kranz, who is battling ovarian cancer. I promised Joyce Asante, her wonderfully supportive nurse, that I would write a post on those poems.

Clifton became acquainted with the illness when her husband Fred, who didn’t smoke, came down with lung cancer and died at 49. In Next (1987), Clifton writes both about Fred’s cancer and that of other patients she met in the cancer ward. The book gets its title from a two-line poem that reminds us that the bell tolls for all of us:

the one in the next bed is dying.
mother we are all next. or next.

Clifton is struck by how cancer cells appear to “bloom,” normally a positive, life-affirming process. Not in this instance, however:

something is growing in the strong man.
it is blooming, they say, but not a flower.
he has planted so much in me, so much.
I am not willing, gardener, to give you up to this.

The cancer treatment process seems to violate the natural order in numerous ways, most notably by injecting poisonous medicines into the body. Instead of mothers with nurturing remedies, Clifton sees cold God-like doctors administering chemicals to cure the disease. In “chemotherapy,” she cries out that none of it makes sense:

my hair is pain.
my mouth is a cave of cries.
my room is filled with white coats
shaped like God.
they are moving their fingers along
their stethoscopes.
they are testing their chemical faith.
chemicals    chemicals    oh mother mary
where is your living child? 

In a poem dedicated to 21-year-old “joanne c.,” probably a patient that Clifton met in the ward, Clifton gets at another confusing aspect of cancer: the body is at war with itself. (The Gettysburg reference signals that it’s a civil war.) Also contradictory is cancer’s “murderous cure”:

the death of joanne c.
aged 21

i am the battleground that
shrieks like a girl.
to myself i call myself
gettysburg. Laughing,
twisting the i.v.,
laughing or crying, i can’t tell
which anymore,
i host the furious battling of
a suicidal body and
a murderous cure.

Clifton is struck by how the very word “cancer” can reduce us to a helpless state. In “incantation,” she imagines that an evil magician has transformed the patient into a puppet. Unlike my friend Rachel, who is an exemplary and therefore difficult patient because she demands that every procedure be explained and justified, the patient in Clifton’s poem has surrendered her autonomy:

overheard in hospital

pluck the hairs
from the head
of a virgin.
sweep them into the hall.
take a needle
thin as a lash,
puncture the doorway
to her blood.
here is the magic word:
repeat it, she will
become her own ghost.
repeat it, she will
follow you she will
do whatever you say.

Rachel and I were both struck by how many of the hospital’s doctors engage in power struggles and prefer docile patients to questioning patients. Clifton is never one who will do “whatever you say,” however, and she insists that we own our own emotions. In “leukemia as white rabbit,” she draws on Alice in Wonderland to show a patient acknowledging just how “furious” she is.

Alice encounters the White Rabbit and his pocket watch at the start of her adventures and is struck by his obsession with time–time, of course, being of paramount importance to one who is dying. To set up the poem, here are a couple of the relevant passages from Alice:

[The White Rabbit] came trotting along in a great hurry, muttering to himself as he came, ‘Oh! the Duchess, the Duchess! Oh! won’t she be savage if I’ve kept her waiting!’


[I]n a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.

leukemia as white rabbit

running always running murmuring
she will be furious    she will be
furious, following a great
cabbage of a watch that ells only
terminal time, down deep into a
rabbit hole of diagnosticians shouting
off with her hair    off with her skin and
i am    i am    i am    furious.

I can testify, from watching Rachel go through the medical system, that “rabbit hole of diagnosticians” is a perfect description. Each department had its own theory of what was wrong with Rachel and what needed to be treated first—after the Emergency Room, she went first to the cardiac ward and then to the oncology ward, which is probably where she should have been from the first.

In the face of institutional anonymity, Clifton has a fantasy of a powerful and positive incantation, unlike the disempowering “cancer” incantation of the doctors. She imagines her mother, clad as a powerful witch, incanting the words she most needs to hear:

enter my mother
wearing a peaked hat.
her cape billows,
her broom sweeps the nurses away,
she is flying, the witch of the ward, my mother
pulls me up by the scruff of the spine
incanting   Live   Live   Live!

Living, to be sure, may not be an option, as it wasn’t with joanne c. In that instance, a dignified surrender will do. The blood as a white flag may be a reference to declining white blood count:

the message of jo

my body is a war
nobody is winning
my birthdays are tired.
my blood is a white flag,
my mother darling,
death is life.

Clifton may, in this acceptance of death, have in mind a poem by Mary Oliver, who was a friend. The influence goes back and forth as Oliver herself borrows Clifton’s image of bones, which appear throughout her poetry as a metaphor for that which is foundational. In “In Blackwater Woods,” Oliver tells us how we should live and how we should die:

To live in this world

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

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

To sum up the trajectory of this post, Clifton moves from confusion to anger to acceptance. The acceptance extends not only to the patient but to those left behind. As she imagines Fred sending her messages, she picks up one that is particularly important:

the message of fred clifton

i rise up from the dead before you
a nimbus of dark light
to say that the only mercy
is memory,
to say that the only hell
is regret

Regret grows out of anger, memory out of love. Only one is healthy.

Additional note: Clifton explores her own breast cancer in a series of poems in The Terrible Stories (1996)comparing herself to an Amazon after she lost a breast. (The Amazons supposedly cut off the breast that got in the way of shooting bows and arrows.) The breast cancer finally killed Clifton at 74.

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Dear Trump: America Contains Multitudes

Theresa Bernstein, “The Immigrants” (1923)

Tuesday – Independence Day

If you really want to celebrate America, do not listen to Donald Trump’s July 4 speech, which is all about paranoia and exclusion. Instead, read Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

In Trump’s world, there is “us” and “them,” with “us” being Christians descended from Europeans and “them” being everyone else. “Terrorism” for Trump is code for anyone who has sees the world differently than he does:

President Trump vowed to support and defend religious liberty, telling a gathering of evangelical Christians that the threat of terrorism is “one of the most grave and dire threats to religious freedom in the world today.” 

“We cannot allow this terrorism and extremism to spread in our country, or to find sanctuary on our shores or in our cities,” Mr. Trump said Saturday night at a “Celebrate Freedom” concert honoring veterans. “We want to make sure that anyone who seeks to join our country shares our values and has the capacity to love our people.”

Trump’s vision of “love,” of course, has nothing to real love. To really “love our people” means acknowledging that America contains multitudes. In Whitman’s vision, we are an “indescribable crowd” that gathers together on “the fourth of Seventh-month” to celebrate e pluribus unum.

Whitman tries to leave no one out and it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to modernize the dated references. For instance, we have our own “opium-eaters,” even though they no longer hang out in special dens. Whitman reminds us that there is no one “real America” and that in our difference lies our strength.

So take a moment this fourth of July to read through Whitman’s list and honor the great American experiment. If we ever became mono-cultural—not that this is in any way possible—we would cease to be exceptional.

Oh, and note, as Trump trashes the media, that Whitman mentions both the reporter, whose “lead flies swiftly over the notebook,” and “the President holding a cabinet council.” Song of Myself could also be titled Song of America. That’s the song we should all be singing today.

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft, 
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp, 
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner, 
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm, 
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready, 

The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches, 
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar, 
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel, 
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and looks at the oats and rye, 
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case, 
(He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bed-room;) 
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case, 
He turns his quid of tobacco while his eyes blurr with the manuscript; 
The malform’d limbs are tied to the surgeon’s table, 
What is removed drops horribly in a pail; 
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand, the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove, 
The machinist rolls up his sleeves, the policeman travels his beat, the gate-keeper marks who pass, 
The young fellow drives the express-wagon, (I love him, though I do not know him;) 
The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race, 
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their rifles, some sit on logs, 
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece; 
The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee, 
As the woolly-pates hoe in the sugar-field, the overseer views them from his saddle, 
The bugle calls in the ball-room, the gentlemen run for their partners, the dancers bow to each other, 
The youth lies awake in the cedar-roof’d garret and harks to the musical rain, 
The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron, 
The squaw wrapt in her yellow-hemm’d cloth is offering moccasins and bead-bags for sale, 
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with half-shut eyes bent sideways, 
As the deck-hands make fast the steamboat the plank is thrown for the shore-going passengers, 
The young sister holds out the skein while the elder sister winds it off in a ball, and stops now and then for the knots, 
The one-year wife is recovering and happy having a week ago borne her first child, 
The clean-hair’d Yankee girl works with her sewing-machine or in the factory or mill, 
The paving-man leans on his two-handed rammer, the reporter’s lead flies swiftly over the note-book, the sign-painter is lettering with blue and gold, 
The canal boy trots on the tow-path, the book-keeper counts at his desk, the shoemaker waxes his thread, 
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him, 
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions, 
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!) 
The drover watching his drove sings out to them that would stray, 
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;) 
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly, 
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips, 
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck, 
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other, 
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;) 
The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great Secretaries, 
On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms, 
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold, 
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle, 
As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the jingling of loose change, 
The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the roof, the masons are calling for mortar, 
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers; 
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gather’d, it is the fourth of Seventh-month, (what salutes of cannon and small arms!) 
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground; 
Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface, 
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe, 
Flatboatmen make fast towards dusk near the cotton-wood or pecan-trees, 
Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river or through those drain’d by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas, 
Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahooche or Altamahaw, 

Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
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The Meadow-Scented Month July

James Dickson Innes, “South of France, Bozouls Near Rodez”


My mother alerted me to this “July” poem by Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago. I gather from it that, in the part of Russia where Pasternak lived, the summer winds blow with considerable force.

Like the month of July generally, the winds get in the way of efficiency. Like a summer lodger, July has its own agenda and we can’t really complain if it interrupts our carefully regulated life. After all, July dances so enchantingly and it smells so lovely.


By Boris Pasternak

A ghost is roaming through the building, 
And shadows in the attic browse; 
Persistently intent on mischief 
A goblin roams about the house. 

He gets into your way, he fusses, 
You hear his footsteps overhead, 
He tears the napkin off the table 
And creeps in slippers to the bed. 

With feet unwiped he rushes headlong 
On gusts of draught into the hall 
And whirls the curtain, like a dancer, 
Towards the ceiling, up the wall. 

Who is this silly mischief-maker, 
This phantom and this double-face? 
He is our guest, our summer lodger, 
Who spends with us his holidays. 

Our house is taken in possession 
By him, while he enjoys a rest. 
July, with summer air and thunder— 
He is our temporary guest. 

July, who scatters from his pockets 
The fluff of blow-balls in a cloud, 
Who enters through the open window, 
Who chatters to himself aloud, 

Unkempt, untidy, absent-minded, 
Soaked through with smell of dill and rye, 
With linden-blossom, grass and beet-leaves, 
The meadow-scented month July.

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Born with a Knife in the Heart

Rembrandt, “Abraham and Isaac”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary reading, one of the most troubling in the Bible, is the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Issac. Haim Gouri uses the story to reflect upon the legacy of violence.

Gouri witnessed violence himself. Born in Israel in 1923, he fought against the British prior to Israel’s independence as a member of an elite fighting force. His experience, however, made him aware that those who suffer persecution “are born with a knife in their hearts.” If they don’t break free of this “heritage,” they will become oppressors in their turn.

First, here’s the conclusion of the Biblical account:

So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Here’s Gouri’s poem:


By Haim Gouri

The ram came last of all. And Abraham
did not know that it came to answer the
boy’s question – first of his strength

when his day was on the wane.

The old man raised his head. Seeing
that it was no dream and that the angel
stood there – the knife slipped from his hand.

The boy, released from his bonds,
saw his father’s back.

Isaac, as the story goes, was not
sacrificed. He lived for many years,
saw what pleasure had to offer,
until his eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring.
They are born with a knife in their hearts.

I’ve always been struck by how Isaac, unlike father Abraham and sons Esau and Jacob, is a passive figure. His father chooses his wife and his wife and Jacob trick him into bestowing his blessing on the wrong son. How deep did the emotional scars go and what lessons did he pass down to subsequent generations?

Previous Posts on the Abraham and Isaac story

Wilfred Owen and Rumi: Sacrifice Ram of Pride, Not Isaac

Anthony Trollope: Reveling in Isaac’s Self Sacrifice

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Green Knight’s Lessons for Doctors


This post is coming to you from the cardiac unit, 8th floor, of the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. My three days here have me thinking about the literature I teach to future doctors, especially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The poem comes to mind because it was the subject of an essay written by a pre-med student in last semester’s Introduction to Literature class. I just wrote a medical school letter of recommendation for graduating senior Kyle Reichard, which got me thinking about how the medieval romance could make him a better doctor. Here’s what I came up with.

In his essay, Kyle wrote of the dangers of perfectionism. Gawain thinks he must be a perfect Christian knight at all times, which means shrugging off fears of death and overriding sexual desires. He thinks that he must not care about his impending fate, that he must resist sexual invitations, and that he must not flinch when the executioner’s axe is descending. He is deeply ashamed when he comes up short.

Kyle is attuned to perfectionism’s problems. As a child, he put tremendous pressure upon himself to be perfect because he thought doing so would keep his parents from separating. Such magical thinking allowed him to believe he wasn’t powerless, even though he was. His perfectionism led to a certain degree of success, in his studies and on the soccer field, although ultimately self-pressure became an impediment. You can’t play creative soccer if you’re constantly afraid of making a mistake, and the same goes for life in general.

If we think of the Green Knight as symbolic of Gawain’s inner nature, then it is the part of us that reminds us that we are inhuman when we attempt to override our natural impulses. Not being a robot, Gawain gives way in the end, underhandedly accepting the green girdle that he is told will save his life and shrinking when his head is on the block. The Green Knight doesn’t fault him for being afraid of death. He just chastises him for denying rather than openly acknowledging his fears.

If Kyle gets into medical school, he will find himself in a place where perfection is the norm and is even rewarded. Too many doctors feel that they must push their humanity under and become diagnostic machines. Afraid of being overwhelmed by all the swirling emotions that accompany sickness, too many develop steely exteriors.

And indeed, like knights going off to battle, a certain amount of hardening is necessary. The Green Knight doesn’t dispute that. He just knows Gawain has pushed himself too far, denying his nature to a dangerous degree. His goal is to put Gawain back in touch with his humanity.

It’s interesting to think of Gawain as a patient, perhaps as a man who has learned that is terminally ill and will die in a year’s time. At first he downplays the news (“good men can but try”) and goes about his daily business. His journey through the forest symbolizes his psychological process, with death and live becoming ever more vivid that closer he gets to his rendezvous with the Green Knight.

At first he goes about doing the normal things that knights do, such as fighting wild animals and savage men. He’s trying to live as though nothing has changed. Suddenly, however, there seems no point in his accomplishments, and the poet doesn’t even bother to describe them. In the castle, meanwhile, Gawain can’t admit how he is repulsed by the vivid images of animal slaughter or enticed by the lady’s seduction attempts. He shuts down his feelings because they remind him too much of the death that is impending and the life that he will lose. The Lord and Lady’s “tests” can be seen as efforts to put Gawain in touch with his biology.

Unfortunately, Gawain believes that a perfect knight must rise above his feelings and can’t admit how frightened and angry he is. We catch a glimpse of those feelings in his tormented dreams, however.

Only when the Lady presents Gawain with her life-saving girdle and when the Lord presents him with the immanence of death (the descending axe) does Gawain realize that he has feelings after all. For a moment, he is in touch with his humanity. Unfortunately, he then draws the wrong lesson from his slip-up—he thinks he should have been harder—and beats himself up. This is classic perfectionist behavior.

If Gawain doesn’t learn these vital lessons, however, can Kyle? The first lesson, of course, is that he’s human. He must push himself to excel, of course—this is what it means to be a professional, whether doctor or knight—but at the same time he must remember that he has all the limitations that humans have. If Kyle learns this, he will avoid the hardening that threatens all health care professionals. Gawain may beat himself up for his mistakes but Kyle doesn’t have to.

In Gawain, Kyle also sees different ways that people respond to death, a useful thing for a doctor. I’ve written about how the three hunted animals in Part III represent three different responses: the deer are those who refuse to think about it, the boar thrashes around, and the fox takes evasive maneuvers. At different times, Gawain is each of these animals.

Note how all these lessons are available through a story, an insight which might be the most valuable lesson of all for Kyle. Doctors who listen to their patients’ stories—really listen—gain invaluable knowledge. One would not know, from viewing Gawain’s exterior, that he is a tormented man. He doesn’t even let himself know. But if he were to tell of his encounter with the Green Knight, a committed listener would learn much.

In Intro to Lit, Kyle learned how to “read between the lines.” He discovered that there is much more to stories, much more to people, and much more to himself than he initially realized. Interpreting stories is good training for interpreting human beings, and therefore a good skill for doctors to have.

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Women Who Refuse To Be Broken

Lucille Clifton


I am posting a Lucille Clifton poem in support of my novelist friend Rachel, who is currently suffering from stage 3 or 4 ovarian cancer. Rachel is convinced that she is going to beat it, as she has beaten breast cancer and a thyroid problem, and I believe her. After all, Rachel has a similar energy to Lucille, who I watched survive some of her numerous illnesses and tragedies when she was a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Perhaps you know a Lucille or a Rachel. There are certain people who have a passion for life and won’t hold back for anything. This is combined with a deep integrity so that they aren’t afraid to say what they think. Also, while they are hypersensitive to the operations of human injustice, their belief in human possibility seems unshakable.

In “questions and answers,” for instance, when asked about how she is able “to stand so firm, so sure,” Clifton says the answer is strong belief. “The surest failure,” she writes, mentioning Jesus stepping out on the water, “is the unattempted walk.” Rachel is asked the same question and has some of that same faith.

Come to think of it, so does Julia, the woman I am married to.

In “won’t you celebrate with me,” Clifton talks about how she shaped her life. She had no clear models for the person she became, being “both nonwhite and a woman,” and so she “made it up.” She was “born in Babylon,” which I think is a way of saying that, as a descendant of African slaves, she is like the ancient Israelites, living in a strange land that is not her own. In other words, she is pointing to the unpromising foundations upon which she constructed her self.

“Starshine and clay,” meanwhile, speaks to the way that Lucille fused a sensuous enjoyment of life (clay) with high ideals (starshine). She also has two oppositional hands: one is her dark power, for with such strength comes the possibility of abuse. Clifton understands that she herself is capable of oppression. (She mentions this hand in “The Killing of the Trees.”) But she controls this hand with her other hand, the power that speaks is on the side of the powerless.

The “something” that every day has threatened to kill her includes her father’s sexual abuse, her husband’s death, multiple cancers and kidney failures, and the death of two of her children.

Yet she refused to be broken. Rachel too is refusing to go down.

won’t you celebrate with me

By Lucille Clifton 

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

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Trapped in an Emergency Room


I wasn’t able to post last night because I accompanied my friend Rachel Kranz to a hospital emergency room in the Bronx after fluid build-up from her ovarian cancer suddenly incapacitated her. After spending hours watching a frequently dysfunctional system at work, I crawled into a hotel room at 12:30 last night, only to crawl back out of bed at 5 a.m. this morning because Rachel needed me.

I was struck by how, once you’re in the system, a different logic can take over from which it seems impossible to escape. It reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Cloud, Castle, Lake.”

Rachel went into the emergency room knowing what she needed: the fluid needed to be drained so that it would stop pressing on her heart, lungs, and abdomen, causing breathing difficulties and swelling her feet. The process is known as paracentesis.

A week before, doctors as a different hospital had drained 16 pounds of fluid and she needed to have it happen again. This hospital, however, had other plans and detected other problems. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a short visit extended over at least one night and we’re hoping not to spend a second night here. While Rachel’s doctors are convinced that all of symptoms trace back to the cancer, others were suddenly talking about possibilities of heart attack, brain tumor, lung embolism, and blood clots in the legs. As a result, Rachel was suddenly subjected to a series of tests which may well be totally unnecessary. (I’ll update you.) Many of the tests required multiple drawing of blood, a particularly excruciating process as Rachel has tiny veins.

Combine with being deafened by the incessant beeping of monitors, sleeping all night under bright lights, and being awakened at multiple intervals, Rachel felt like Lizzy assaulted by the goblin men in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market:

…the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,

Maul’d and mock’d her

Unlike Lizzy, however, Rachel doesn’t accept such treatment passively, demanding explanations and expressing her displeasure. There were multiple battles.

It was as though we thought we were entering a house of healing and instead found ourselves as members of Vasili Ivanovich’s travel tour in the Nabokov short story.

Vasili has won a lottery ticket for the tour and, although he doesn’t really want to go, discovers that there is too much paperwork involved to pull out. He goes and finds himself forced into unwanted comradery with his fellow travelers. Unpleasant though this is, the trip seems worth it when he finds a perfect spot with a castle, a lake, and a beautiful sky. He decides he will drop out of the tour and spend the rest of his life there.

Unfortunately, this proves not be be an option:

‘If necessary we shall carry you,’ said the leader grimly, ‘but that is not likely to be pleasant for you. I am responsible for each of you, and shall bring back each of you, alive or dead.’

Swept along a forest road as in a hideous fairy tale, squeezed, twisted, Vasili Ivanovich could not even turn around, and only felt how the radiance behind his back receded, fractured by trees, and then it was no longer there, and all around the dark firs fretted but could not interfere. As soon as everyone had got into the car and the train had pulled off, they began to beat him—they beat him a long time, and with a good deal of inventiveness. It occurred to them, among other things, to use a corkscrew on his palms; then on his feet. The post-office clerk, who had been to Russia, fashioned a knout out of a stick and a belt, and began to use it with devilish dexterity. Atta boy! The other men relied more on their iron heels, whereas the women were satisfied to pinch and to slap. All had a wonderful time.

Rachel’s doctors, nurses, and orderlies were not necessarily having a wonderful time, but she felt like Vasili. We’ll discover in a few hours whether she can leave the tour.

Update: It turns out that both Rachel and the hospital were right. Rachel was right that the parencentesis should have been performed first (it wasn’t) because everything got much better the instant they performed it, with her strength returning. The hospital was right because Rachel had blood and lung clots as well fluid build-up. These can be treated, however, and it looks as though she will be released tomorrow (Thursday).

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Lincoln Transformed Depression thru Lit


I’m currently reading a fascinating study about Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, recommended by my novelist friend Rachel Kranz. Among other things, author Joshua Wolf Shenk explores how Lincoln turned to literature to handle his mental illness and turn it into a source of strength.

Lincoln suffered unipolar depression for the entirety of his adult life. Shenk breaks his life into three stages: fear, engagement, and transcendence. While there were moments early on where the illness paralyzed him—“I am the most miserable man alive,” he wrote at one point—he figured out how to work with it when he entered politics. As Shenk puts it, whereas the first stage saw him trapped in a private hell,

the second stage has him turning to the world around him. From whether he could live, he turned to how he would live.

Lincoln’s greatness, Shenk believes, lay in how he was able to use his depression to his advantage. A man who hadn’t suffered as much and reflected as much might have been overwhelmed by the immensity of the Civil War. Suspicious of optimism, Lincoln had concluded that one should soldier on and do one’s duty, regardless of the hell one is experiencing:

In the first stage, he asked the big questions. Why am I here? What is the point? Without the sense of essential purpose he learned by asking these questions, he may not have had the bedrock vision that governed his great work. In the second stage, he developed diligence and discipline, working for the sake of work, learning how to survive and engage. Without the discipline of his middle years, he would not have had the fortitude to endure the disappointments that his great work entailed. In the third stage, he was not just working but doing the work he felt made to do, not only surviving but living for a vital purpose. Yet he constantly faced the same essential challenges that had been presented to him throughout. All through his career fighting the extension of slavery, and all through his presidency, he faced painful fear and doubt—indeed, he faced it on an awful scale. But he repeatedly returned to a sense of purpose; from this purpose he put his head down to work at the mundane tasks of his job; and with his head down, he glanced up, often enough, at the chance to effect something meaningful and lasting. We justly look upon the transcendence of his final days with admiration, noticing the amazing balance between earthly works and self-dissolution.

Literature was a vital part of this process, helping Lincoln cope with his depression and draw important lessons from it. Shenk says that Lincoln

gave voice to his melancholy, reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. These strategies offered him relief, sustenance, and a movement toward wisdom.

Somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to maintain their lives without eliminating the underlying problem, humor and poetry gave Lincoln succor without taking away his need for it. Rather than quash his conflicts, his therapies may actually have heightened them, for these were not medical strategies but moral and existential ones. Faced with questions about the meaning of life, Lincoln chose responses that engaged many of the same questions. Thus did “therapy” and “malady” come together in Lincoln’s journey toward wholeness.

 Among the key authors were Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shakespeare. In Byron’s depression, Shenk writes, Lincoln recognized his own:

[Byron’s] verse play Manfred began with a soliloquy that instructed: 

Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth.

In Byron’s poem “The Dream,” a favorite of Lincoln’s, melancholy is described as “a fearful gift”: 

What is it but the telescope of truth?
Which strips the distance of its fantasies,
And brings life near in utter nakedness,
Making cold reality too real!

Lincoln recognized his melancholy as well in “The Raven.” His friend John Stuart said that he “repeated it over and over”:

“He never read poetry as a thing of pleasure, except Shakespeare,” Stuart said. “He read Poe because it was gloomy.”

The raven in the poem is an emblem of Poe’s own melancholy. Sitting above the speaker’s determination to be rational (signified by the goddess Pallas Athena) is the prospect of a never-to-leave madness:

      And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting 
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; 
       And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, 
       And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; 
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor 
               Shall be lifted—nevermore!

According to Shenk, Lincoln was especially drawn to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Among his favorites, Lincoln listed King Lear, Richard III, Henry VIII, Hamlet, “and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.”

It makes sense that Lincoln would be drawn to Macbeth. Although he never engaged in Macbeth’s lawless behavior, like Macbeth he was ambitious and like Macbeth he saw himself forced to wade through blood to engage his objectives. Above all, he wrestled with Macbeth’s existential doubts. In his melancholy, one can imagine him resonating to

To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.


Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Literature gave Lincoln a framework for understanding the full complexity of human beings. It kept him from being shallowly optimistic about human goodness, and it kept him from falling into despair over human perversity. Shakespearean wisdom is behind the memorable concluding image of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln knew, from reading the Bard, that angels and devils war within each and every one of us. He knew, from painful personal experience, how difficult it is to follow one’s better angels. Lincoln’s call is thrilling because he believes that we, as a nation, are up to the challenge.

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Candide & the GOP’s Tax Obsession

Candide expelled for having insufficient quarterings


As far as I can tell, the GOP has become a party with only one real agenda: pass more tax cuts for wealthy Americans. Or put more broadly, redistribute income upward from the lower class to the upper class. If this means taking healthcare away from 23 million Americans; if this means gutting Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps; if this means closing their eyes to other pressing matters, such as climate change and a president who is consorting with a hostile nation and putting the White House up for sale, well, so be it. They remind me a lot of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Voltaire’s Candide.

The Baron and his son care about one thing and one thing only: their noble lineage. Voltaire shows the absurd degree to which it obsesses them.

We first hear of the Thunder-ten-Tronckhs’ obsession with lineage in the opening paragraph. Candide is rumored to be the illegitimate son of the elder Baron’s sister, who was in love with his father but would not marry him because he could lay claim to no more than 71 quarterings, “the rest of his genealogical tree having been lost through the injuries of time.” Because she has 72 quarterings, he is deficient in noble blood.

The Baron expels Candide from his castle when he catches him kissing his daughter Cunegonde. From that moment on, Candide finds himself enmeshed in a turbulent and cruel world, one which, moreover, descends also upon the Baron and his family.

The plot is too entangled to summarize and, in any event, Voltaire uses it mainly to make satiric points. One of these is that, despite  the Leibnizian optimism of Candide’s tutor Pangloss, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds and all is not for the best. (“Whatever is, is right,” as Alexander Pope put it.) Another is that, regardless of what happens, the Thunder-ten-Tronckhs never cease to insist upon their lineage.

Take, for instance, Candide’s chance encounter in South America with the Baron’s son, now a Jesuit friar. The reunion appears happy until Candide mentions his desire to marry Cunegonde:

“You insolent!” replied the Baron, “would you have the impudence to marry my sister who has seventy-two quarterings! I find thou hast the most consummate effrontery to dare to mention so presumptuous a design!”

Candide, petrified at this speech, made answer:

“Reverend Father, all the quarterings in the world signify nothing; I rescued your sister from the arms of a Jew and of an Inquisitor; she has great obligations to me, she wishes to marry me; Master Pangloss always told me that all men are equal, and certainly I will marry her.”

“We shall see that, thou scoundrel!” said the Jesuit Baron de Thunder-ten-Tronckh, and that instant struck him across the face with the flat of his sword. Candide in an instant drew his rapier, and plunged it up to the hilt in the Jesuit’s belly…

The story continues on in the same vein, with Candide eventually rescuing  Cunegonde from one set of captors and the Baron’s son (who survived the sword thrust) from another. It should be enough to earn the man’s gratitude, but there’s the issue of tax cuts—or rather, lineage:

Cunegonde did not know she had grown ugly, for nobody had told her of it; and she reminded Candide of his promise in so positive a tone that the good man durst not refuse her. He therefore intimated to the Baron that he intended marrying his sister.

“I will not suffer,” said the Baron, “such meanness on her part, and such insolence on yours; I will never be reproached with this scandalous thing; my sister’s children would never be able to enter the church in Germany. No; my sister shall only marry a baron of the empire.”

Cunegonde flung herself at his feet, and bathed them with her tears; still he was inflexible.

“Thou foolish fellow,” said Candide; “I have delivered thee out of the galleys, I have paid thy ransom, and thy sister’s also; she was a scullion, and is very ugly, yet I am so condescending as to marry her; and dost thou pretend to oppose the match? I should kill thee again, were I only to consult my anger.”

“Thou mayest kill me again,” said the Baron, “but thou shalt not marry my sister, at least whilst I am living.”

The Baron is not the only one who refuses to change his views in the face of reality. The eternally optimistic Pangloss is no less inflexible:

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” said Candide to him, “when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?”

“I am still of my first opinion,” answered Pangloss, “for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract…

I remember how President George W. Bush also couldn’t retract. When the economy was booming and the United States had a budget surplus, he advocated tax cuts. When the economy sunk into recession and retirement savings were wiped out, he advocated tax cuts. Now the GOP is willing to advance a healthcare plan that has a 17% approval rating and that slashes safety net spending so that they can give the trillion dollars in savings to the wealthy. Various French terms for such an obsession are “idée fixe,” “grande folie,” and “manie.”

I thought Voltaire creates exaggerated characters when I read Candide in high school. Now I think he is only describing reality.

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Be Wide as the Air To Learn a Secret

al-Azhar Mosque

Spiritual Sunday – Eid Mubarak

Today is the last day of Ramadan, a time of joyous feasting after a month-long fast. Rumi’s “Bismallah,” which means “In the Name of God,” was written for the occasion.

The poem begins with images of walking heavily on the earth, weighed down with grudges and resentment. It is as though we’re “thick mud,” Rumi says. Ramadan is an opportunity to let go of the heaviness of grudges. “With such attachments,” the poet asks, “do you expect to arrive anywhere?”

To capture the lightness that is available to us, Rumi becomes expansive. “Be wide as the air to learn a secret,” he writes, and then, “Abraham learned how the sun and moon and the stars all set.” From their example he concludes, “No longer will I try to assign partners for God.” In other words, I will not judge who God loves and who God doesn’t.” Fervent believers, abandoning modesty, are all too ready to engage in such assigning.

From the expanses of interstellar space, Rumi moves to the ocean. “Give up to grace,” he writes, assuring us that the ocean, like God, “takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.”

As it is when we hold on to grudges, we are heavy when we think we’ve got everything under control. “You need more help than you know,” Rumi informs us and then, in an image I don’t entirely understand, “You’re trying to live your life in open scaffolding.” It this like not realizing that we have God’s net should we fall?

In any event, we should give our lives up to God as a sacrifice. When we do so, we discover our true name.


By Rumi

It’s a habit of yours to walk slowly.
You hold a grudge for years.
With such heaviness, how can you be modest?
With such attachments, do you expect to arrive anywhere?

Be wide as the air to learn a secret.
Right now you’re equal portions clay
and water, thick mud.

Abraham learned how the sun and moon and the stars all set.
He said, No longer will I try to assign partners for God.

You are so weak. Give up to grace.
The ocean takes care of each wave
till it gets to shore.

You need more help than you know.
You’re trying to live your life in open scaffolding.

Say Bismillah, In the name God,
As the priest does with knife when he offers an animal.

Bismillah your old self
to find your real name.

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Lit Comforts an ALS Sufferer

Lynette Williamson


This past March Salon ran a deeply moving article by an English teacher who turned to literature when she was dying of ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Literature couldn’t save her, of course, but it gave her images to hold on to, no small thing when your body is abandoning you. Or as Williamson put it, “I hadn’t expected that the classic literature I’d been teaching for 30 years would define how I coped with my illness.”

The closest I’ve gotten to Williamson’s experience occurred the night after my oldest son died. Two lines from Mary Oliver’s “The Lost Children” came to me in the small hours of the night as I lay in my bed frozen in horror, and I hung on to them as though to a life raft in a hurricane.  When I examined them afterwards, I realized that their saving power lay in how much meaning was packed into a few words and a single image. I hadn’t realized until returning to the poem that it is about parents who have lost children. Deep survival instincts had taken over and given me the words that I needed.

We see those deep survival instincts at work with Williamson. First she turned to a passage from Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech:

After losing the use of my hands, it became difficult to find meaningful ways to spend my time. I despaired having no control over my life. I strove to focus on the moments of the day when I was warmed by a kind word or an image of natural beauty. When I did pause to appreciate these instances, I’d hear the words “This one is warmed . . .”

At first I was at a loss for the source of the line. I was certain it was from a Toni Morrison novel, but when I consulted Google, I was reminded that the phrase harkened from Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Near the conclusion of her lecture, she tells a brief story about a wagon filled with slaves journeying to a plantation where their lives will end. The driver stops at an inn for a meal, leaving the slaves shivering in the back of the wagon. Two children tend to the slaves, giving them food and sips of warm cider. Morrison sums up this respite from pain and impending hopelessness: “The next stop would be their last, but this one was warmed.” I too was nearly at my last stop — death — but pausing to appreciate the moments that were warmed by small gestures and glimpses of natural beauty dulled the pangs of despair, and I had Morrison to thank for expressing the ineffable emotions that I may have missed had it not been for her words echoing in my mind.

Her next passage was from Oedipus:

With my mobility limited and my voice diminished, I would often lie in bed and find myself bothered by ridiculous things: a shriveled leaf on a house plant or a crooked lampshade. When someone entered the room to visit, I would seek a way to ask them to correct the irritant. But if they plucked the wrong leaf or didn’t understand me at all, I would usually realize the foolishness of wasting energy on getting my way and somewhere from the recesses of my memory be reminded, “Do not seek to be master of all . . . ”

Williamson notes that the words are Creon’s, who admonishes Oedipus

for failing to learn that fate cannot be circumvented. Oedipus and I both had to learn acceptance. Although acceptance sounds like a passive stance, it would become the hardest work of my life.

I understand why Williamson would remember Creon’s words this way—she herself was in the grip of an inexorable destiny—but passage is a bit more complicated and even more appropriate. Oedipus, accustomed to command, is trying to organize his own punishment, and Creon is pushing back. Even in the depths of our crisis, we try to console ourselves that we still have some power, and in the interchange we see even this consolation taken away. The only option is to surrender entirely, and Oedipus isn’t there yet:

OEDIPUS: Do you know on what conditions I obey?
CREON: You tell me them, and I shall know them when I hear.
OEDIPUS: That you shall send me out to live away from Thebes.
CREON: That gift you must ask of the God.
OEDIPUS: But I’m now hated by the Gods.
CREON: So quickly you’ll obtain your prayer.
OEDIPUS: You consent then?
CREON: What I do not mean, I do not use to say.
OEDIPUS: Now lead me away from here.
CREON: Let go the children, then, and come.
OEDIPUS: Do not take them from me.
CREON: Do not seek to be master in everything for the things you mastered did not follow you throughout your life.

Williamson’s citation of Metamorphosis has changed the way that I see the Franz Kafka story. I now realize that it brilliantly captures what it feels like to be an invalid and a burden to others. Here’s Williamson:

Acquiescing to my fate and allowing others to do what they deemed best for my unfamiliar and uncooperative body took patience. But when my confinement to a wheelchair required dismantling my office into a bedroom, replacing my desk with a ramp and my bookcase with a portable commode, I balked. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who awakened to find himself a giant cockroach, I felt alien in appearance and among unfamiliar surroundings.

Passages such as the following take on particular power when you read them through the eyes of an ALS sufferer. Samsa is trying to get out of bed:

It was a simple matter to throw off the covers; he only had to blow himself up a little and they fell off by themselves. But it became difficult after that, especially as he was so exceptionally broad. He would have used his arms and his hands to push himself up; but instead of them he only had all those little legs continuously moving in different directions, and which he was moreover unable to control. If he wanted to bend one of them, then that was the first one that would stretch itself out; and if he finally managed to do what he wanted with that leg, all the others seemed to be set free and would move about painfully. “This is something that can’t be done in bed”, Gregor said to himself, “so don’t keep trying to do it”.

The first thing he wanted to do was get the lower part of his body out of the bed, but he had never seen this lower part, and could not imagine what it looked like; it turned out to be too hard to move; it went so slowly; and finally, almost in a frenzy, when he carelessly shoved himself forwards with all the force he could gather, he chose the wrong direction, hit hard against the lower bedpost, and learned from the burning pain he felt that the lower part of his body might well, at present, be the most sensitive.

Sophocles and Kafka may give Williamson images for her suffering, but Shakespeare comes through with what she needs at the end. From Hamlet she get a noble vision of letting go. Here’s her account:

Eventually all my inner turmoil will have to give way to complete surrender. I’m not quite there yet. But I do hear one of Hamlet’s less-famous lines spoken after most of the chaos in the play subsidies: “Let be.” Resonating in those two words is Hamlet’s acceptance: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I pray that I may soon die accepting this lesson that’s taken a lifetime to learn.

The sparrow passage occurs immediately before the final duel. Horatio offers to forestall the fight but Hamlet is resigned to letting happen what will happen and alludes to Matthew 10:29: “But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” Hamlet is leaving his fate in God’s hands:

Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

The other passage—“Let be”–occurs when Hamlet is dying. He could tell the world so much if he had more time, he informs Horatio, but “this fell sergeant, death, is strict in his arrest”:

I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time–as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest–O, I could tell you–
But let it be. 

A lifetime of reading provided Williamson with invaluable resources for her tragedy. She died a week after the Salon article appeared, and I pray that, at the last, she was able to let it be.

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Great Pro-War Literature Doesn’t Exist

Battle of Borodino, featured in “War and Peace”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watching McConnell Destroy Healthcare

Fuseli, God observes Satan in “Paradise Lost”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Dreamy Day and Tranquilly I Lie

Winslow Homer, “The New Novel”

Tuesday – Summer Solstice

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

A Summer Afternoon

By James Whitcomb Riley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lit Can Both Enslave and Liberate


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On a Father’s Unspoken Love

Georges de La Tour, “Joseph the Carpenter”

Spiritual Sunday – Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden

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

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

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

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WaPo’s Petri Plays Shakespearean Fool

Alexandra Petri


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

NYC Play Appears To Depict Assassination of @POTUS.

 To which she responded,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petri: Oedipus Rex, brought to you by

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

A Doll’s House, presented by Mattel

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

Master Builder, a Lego Production

Rent, produced in partnership with Century 21

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

LeCreuset presents The Crucible

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

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

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


deep state spear

deep shake spear


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

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Only Wimps Complain about Shakespeare

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


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

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

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

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

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

Then Greenblatt offers some very useful historical context:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sly Marc Antony Resembles McConnell

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Posts on the GOP and Julius Caesar

March 7, 2017: Julius Caesar, Only Too Relevant  

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

August 29, 2016: How Trump Echoes Marc Antony

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

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

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Trump’s Cabinet as Goneril and Regan

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


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

As Brian Beutler of The New Republic described the event,

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

Here’s a partial account of what people said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Regan:

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

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

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

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

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

Kent: Fellow, I know thee.

Oswald: What dost thou know me for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec. 30, 2015: Conservative Extremists as King Lear

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

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