Rubio vs. Bush: The Unkindest Cut

Camuccini, "The Death of Julius Caesar"

Camuccini, “The Death of Julius Caesar”


We are less than a month away from the Iowa caucuses (February 1), which will be the first time we see voting in what has already felt like an interminable presidential election. As of this moment, Donald Trump continues to soak up most of the oxygen , but there are other dramas underway, one of which has been called Shakespearean.

That was the adjective that Chris Hayes of MSNBC applied to the Jeb Bush-Marco Rubio relationship last October. Bush and Rubio, both Florida politicians, are vying to be the “establishment candidate” that will square off with the outsider candidates (Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson). At one point in their history Bush was Rubio’s political mentor, and upon Rubio’s ascension to Florida Speaker of the House, Jeb bestowed upon his protégé “the sword of Chang.” Rubio, when he needed direction, at times would ask himself “what would Jeb do?” It stands to reason, then, that Bush was hurt that Rubio decided to run against him for president rather that awaiting his turn. Increasingly they have been trading barbs.

So which Shakespearean drama fits the relationship? The ones that come to mind are Caesar-Brutus, Duncan-Macbeth, and Henry IV-Hal. Let’s examine each one.


Brutus, of course, delivers the “unkindest cut of all,” stabbing the man who thought that he was a friend. Caesar is on the verge of ascending to supreme authority when Brutus and the other senators assassinate him. I suspect that, when Hayes calls the conflict Shakespearean, this is the moment he has in mind.

When Rubio, in the first debate, put down Bush with devastating effect–“Someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you”–it was as though he was wielding the sword of Chang against the person who gave it to him.

Caesar’s description of another of the assassins could also apply to Rubio:

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.


Duncan is already king, not running for the position, when Macbeth murders him–but Bush, at the time that Rubio declared his candidacy, had all but been “crowned” as the eventual nominee by the Republican establishment.

I can well imagine a witch of ambition standing upon a “blasted heath” and whispering into Rubio’s head,

All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

Rubio, like Macbeth, for a while promised loyalty to Jeb:

The service and the loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part
Is to receive our duties; and our duties
Are to your throne and state children and servants,
Which do but what they should, by doing every thing
Safe toward your love and honour.

We learn very quickly how much Macbeth’s promises are worth.

Henry IV-Hal

In a very painful scene, Henry finds his son trying on his crown before he is dead. (In all fairness to Hal, he thinks his father is dead.) It’s not hard for me to imagine Jeb delivering a modern version of the following speech to Rubio:

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.

And further on:

Thou hidest a thousand daggers in thy thoughts,
Which thou hast whetted on thy stony heart,
To stab at half an hour of my life.
What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself,
And bid the merry bells ring to thine ear
That thou art crowned, not that I am dead.
Let all the tears that should bedew my hearse
Be drops of balm to sanctify thy head…

Hal is properly apologetic but there’s another line he uses, this time to his companion Falstaff, that I can imagine Rubio directing against his fellow Floridian:

I know thee not, old man.

Power struggles and the politics of succession can be harsh.

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The V-Word: Casting Hillary as Duessa

Hans-Burgkmair, "Whore of Babylon"

Hans-Burgkmair, “Whore of Babylon”  (fair face, hideous nether parts)


It’s not every day that you see a reference to Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale—or for that matter, to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene—so imagine my delight when I saw both of them quoted in a December Slate article about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during the most recent Democratic debate.

For those of you that don’t know the scandalous details, Hillary took longer to use the bathroom than did male candidates and so was not on stage when the debate resumed. Of course, Donald Trump had to weigh in, calling the entire episode “disgusting.”

Actually, the article goes beyond the bathroom break. Nora Caplan-Bricker argues that “vagina” has become the v-word for Republican politicians:

A quick scan of the historical record suggests that a mind unsullied by the details of female anatomy is a prerequisite for running on the GOP ticket. An Idaho legislator made headlines last winter when he asked in a hearing whether women could swallow tiny cameras to facilitate gynecological exams. “Fascinating. That makes sense,” he said, when the testifying physician explained that, no, ingested objects do not land in the vagina. (The lawmaker still considered himself sufficiently expert in lady-parts to declare abortions too unsafe for telemedicine.) Conservative politicians are also longtime boosters of the absurd idea that women can’t get pregnant from rape. As then-Rep. Todd Akin famously explained it in 2012, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” These displays provide a window into the mythos of the vagina that so haunts Republicans, and men, and maybe humankind in general. Witness the strange synthesis between the fear of a bottomless hole and the fear of a portcullis that could snap shut at any time.

Until recently, there was the active Twitter thread #Vagina2016, on which Clinton-haters summarized the likely Democratic nominee’s message to America as Vote for my vagina! To the participants, the joke needs no further elaboration: Vaginas are not good retail politicians; they are the stuff of nightmare.

Caplan-Bricker then launches into a history of western misogyny, starting with Rome’s Pliny the Elder and culminating in early British literature. Here’s what she has to say about Chaucer and Spenser:

In literature and folklore, the vagina is punished for refusing to be thusly confined. Tales from many cultures include the figure of the vagina dentata, which lures men in before baring its fangs. See, for example, its sinister aspect in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale,” where the sexuality of a deceitful young wife named May is compared to “the scorpion” whose “tayl is deeth.”* “Paired with swete and venym, May’s vagina becomes both pleasing and poisonous,” writes the scholar Tory Vandeventer Pearman, ready to both “sting” her husband and “suck” the life out of him. Similarly, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the dragon antagonist is a beautiful woman from the waist up, a monster below. This creature’s name is Error, which is exactly what being seduced by her entails.

In his prologue and tale, Chaucer’s Merchant laments his awful marriage and tells the story of January, a 60-year-old knight who decides to settle down and marry 20-something May. (Chaucer is why we refer to such unions as “January-May marriages.”) Of course, the marriage is a disaster and May starts a liaison with young X when January goes blind. Here’s the scorpion passage in full with alternating middle and modern English:

O sodeyn hap! O thou Fortune unstable!
O sudden chance! O thou Fortune unstable!
Lyk to the scorpion so deceyvable,
Similar to the scorpion so deceitful,
That flaterest with thyn heed whan thou wolt stynge;
That flatter with thy head when thou wilt sting;
Thy tayl is deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge.
Thy tail is death, through thy poisoning.
O brotil joye! O sweete venym queynte!
O brittle joy! O sweet venom deceitful!
O monstre, that so subtilly kanst peynte
O monster, that so subtly can disguise
Thy yiftes under hewe of stidefastnesse,
Thy gifts under appearance of steadfastness,
That thou deceyvest bothe moore and lesse!
That thou deceivest both high and low (everyone)!

Here, meanwhile, is Spenser describing the nether parts of the otherwise beautiful Duessa:

Her neather parts misshapen, monstruous,
Were hidd in water, that I could not see.
But they did seeme more foule and hideous,
Then womans shape man would beleeve to bee.

To the list, one could also add Milton, who applies Spenser’s description to Satan’s daughter Sin in Paradise Lost. And there was St. Augustine, who described prostitutes as a palace built above a sewer.

One doesn’t need to be a Freudian to see a connection between white middle class male anxieties, increasing gun sales, and increasing attacks on female reproductive rights. President Obama has been seen as an emasculating figure by many of his detractors, and a President Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly exacerbate these anxieties further.

At one point in her career, Clinton baked cookies to reassure Americans that they would not get a feminazi as their First Lady. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Clinton and Obama years, her opponents are not going to be won over by such strategies. I therefore suggest that she instead go full Wife of Bath:

In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument
As frely as my Makere hath it sent.

As Chaucer’s most memorable character understands only too well, sometimes offense is the only good defense. I’m not suggesting that Hillary become a dominatrix, with spurs and a riding whip. But she should push hard and unapologetically for women’s issues.

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With Stories We Defeat Our Inner Moriarty

Sidney Paget, Holmes and Moriarty wrestle at Reichenbach Falls

Sidney Paget, Holmes and Moriarty wrestle at Reichenbach Falls


CumberbatchEnthusiasts of the BBC series Sherlock finally got the next installment that we’ve been awaiting for years, and I, for one, was fully satisfied. The following essay has a spoiler but not for the mystery that we are presented with. Rather, I’ll be talking about the choice to frame the episode in Victorian garb. Doing so opens up some smart insights into Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.

In the previous episode, Sherlock is called back from exile following the apparent return of supposedly dead Moriarty. To understand what Moriarty is (or was) up to, Sherlock casts his mind back to a similar mystery, unsolved, from late Victorian times. A bride committed suicide and then returned from the dead to kill first her own abusive husband and then a series of other harsh spouses.

Sherlock takes an overdose of his “seven percent solution” to aid him, and so everything we see is a hallucinogenic trip. It so happens that this trip takes the form of a Doyle story set during Doyle’s time period.

If a number of familiar characters appear to be a little off base, it’s because they are Sherlock’s version of them, not the actual characters. Furthermore, Sherlock has reinvented them as they might have behaved in the 19th century. (Watson comments on his ridiculous mustache.) Finally, Sherlock reinvents them as they might have been depicted in Watson’s account of them had Watson in fact been a 19th century storyteller.

In Sherlock, of course, Watson is a 21st century blogger. Sherlock is just transposing him into another century and imagining how he would have behaved and written in that century.

In other words, Sherlock is a 21st century figure imagining Watson and himself as Doyle imagined them. Of course, the scriptwriters of Sherlock are doing the reverse, recasting Doyle’s 19th century characters as 21st century characters.

Why is Sherlock imagining himself participating in a 19th century story featuring himself and Watson and written by Watson? He thinks that, by picturing the crime in its original setting with himself on the case, he can solve it.

While working on the mystery, he also engages in a metafictional analysis of Watson’s literary style—or rather, what Watson’s style would be if he were a 19th century writer rather than a 21st century blogger. In addition to being the world’s foremost detective, Sherlock also proves himself a skilled literary critic.

One can see why the show’s creators created this metafictional device. To produce their modern adaptations, they must delve deeply into Doyle’s stories, and this way they can comment on the stories’ features. Perhaps they even see this as a chance to vent, albeit with fondness, about the limitations of Doyle’s creations.

In the process, they discover that Mrs. Hudson is an overly flat character. That Sherlock’s dialogue sometimes sounds like it was written for a story rather than delivered by an actual human being. That Holmes uses Watson as a rhetorical foil. (At one point he discovers that Watson has left the room and that he is in fact talking to a chair–“I thought he’d improved,” Holmes says.) And that the stories themselves are contrived: sometimes they are overly Gothic, sometimes they are shaped more as mini-dramas than as accounts of actual crime solving.

Of course, we as readers don’t care. We just want good stories. Still, it’s fun to see their inner workings exposed.

There is a very tender twist towards the end of Sherlock’s hallucination. He has descended into his mind in order to solve the crime—remember, everything we see in 19th century garb is his imagination, not the actual Watson and Moriarty–and the mind can become a trap. Sherlock’s brother at one point says something to the effect that the most dangerous place for Sherlock is solitude. What if he were to get lost in his mind and never emerge?

This observation arises logically out of Sherlock’s description of Moriarty in the original Doyle story. Sherlock sounds like a paranoid madman or a conspiracy nutcase who has lost all touch with reality:

For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts—forgery cases, robberies, murders—I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught—never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up.

The Moriarty in Sherlock knows about Holmes’s obsessiveness, and his design is to use Sherlock’s mind against him. Perhaps his fiendish plot is to drive Sherlock mad, even though, being dead, he won’t be there to enjoy it. But maybe he doesn’t need to be. Maybe he’s so confident that he has already enjoyed the moment, knowing that he has set in motion a trap from which Holmes cannot escape.

It almost works. That’s why we suddenly see Sherlock and Moriarty wrestling at the Reichenbach Falls in a scene that is modeled directly on the original Sidney Paget illustration (see above). Remember, this Moriarty is all in Sherlock’s head and he is on the verge of casting Sherlock into the abyss. The real Moriarty knew all along that he would triumph.

There’s one thing he didn’t count on, however: Sherlock has Watson to ground him. Sherlock has used Watson’s storytelling to get out of his own mind and see the situation from another vantage point. It helps him solve the crime of the abominable bride and it allows him to defeat his inner Moriarty. That’s the meaning of Watson showing up in the hallucination and pushing Moriarty over the cliff.

In other words, for all that he makes fun of Watson’s stories about him, Sherlock knows that he needs them for the narrative that connects him to the world. That’s what stories do: they give our lives meaning. Even stories with literary limitations.

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Harper Lee’s Book Became Less Honest

Go Set a Watchman


I recently completed Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not as polished as Mockingbird but I think it is more ambitious and more honest.

I must first share some personal information that is influencing my reaction. I was raised in the deep south—Sewanee, Tennessee is only a few miles from the Alabama border—and at 64 I am contemplating retiring there. I therefore relate to the grown-up Jean Louise (Scout) Finch as she considers returning to Maycomb, Alabama.

The first part of the book hit very close to home as Jean Louise recollects the virtues of Maycomb, just as I am rediscovering the charms of Sewanee. Then, when she vomits after discovering her father and her potential fiancé at a White Citizens’ Council meeting, I recollected the racism from my childhood. In her case, she hears her father delivering such racist claptrap as the following:

Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?…

Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. You should know it, you’ve seen it all your life. They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. There were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘’em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government—can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?

I remember hearing such ideas when I was a child. Luckily, they were not from my father, who was a civil rights activist and a member of the NAACP. Southern racism, including Atticus Finch’s brand of paternalistic racism, prompted me to flee from the south when I reached college age. (I attended Carleton College in Minnesota.)

When I returned to Sewanee for a year after college (in 1974-75), I heard the n-word virtually every day as a reporter for the Winchester Herald Chronicle. While things are obviously much better today, I still see Confederate flags on an almost daily basis when I return there—not in Sewanee itself, which is a college town and perched on top of a mountain, but down in the valley.

In fact, the following passage from Jean Louise’s uncle, supposedly one of the touchstones of sanity in the book, sounds like it could have come from GOP extremists today, where social safety net programs are regarded as the government taking away our freedom. Note especially Dr. Finch’s reference to Huxley’s dystopian novel to characterize the government:

“Look at the rest of the country. It’s long since gone by the South in its thinking. The time-honored, common-law concept of property—a man’s interest in and duties to that property—has become almost extinct. People’s attitudes toward the duties of a government have changed. The have-nots have risen and demanded and received their due—sometimes more than their due. The haves are restricted from getting more. You are protected from the winter winds of old age, not by yourself voluntarily, but by a government that says we do not trust you to provide for yourself, therefore we will make you save. All kinds of strange little things like that have become part and parcel of this country’s government. America’s a brave new Atomic world and the South’s just beginning its Industrial Revolution. Have you looked around you in the past seven or eight years and seen a new class of people down here?”

“New class?”

“Good grief, child. Where are your tenant farmers? In factories. Where are your field hands? Same place. Have you ever noticed who are in those little white houses on the other side of town? Maycomb’s new class. The same boys and girls who went to school with you and grew up on tiny farms. Your own generation.”

Dr. Finch pulled his nose. “Those people are the apples of the Federal Government’s eye. It lends them money to build their houses, it gives them a free education for serving in its armies, it provides for their old age and assures them of several weeks’ support if they lose their jobs—“

And later:

The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that it government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it won’t be worth living in. The only thing in America that is still unique in this tired world is that a man can go as far as his brains will take him or he can go to hell if he wants to, but it won’t be that way much longer.

Atticus and his doctor brother think alike. They used to be the paternal fathers of the town and now Blacks are demanding the right to vote and the “white trash”—as various characters in the book call them—are benefiting from the G. I. bill, federal housing loans, Social Security, and unemployment insurance. These “have-nots” are getting “more than their due.”

Dr. Finch doesn’t explain how providing people with benefits will result in them being trampled. But that aside, we now know that his contempt for “the apples of the Federal Government’s eye” will come back to haunt town fathers like him. After all, these are future Tea Party Republicans, who will start expressing their rage at establishment leaders by supporting figures like Donald Trump. Trump expresses their sense of resentment while understanding that they also want to hold on to Social Security and Medicare.

Harper Lee is not unaware that the Finches are classist as well as racist. Henry Clinton, Atticus Finch’s former clerk who has raised himself up from dirt poverty to become a lawyer and who has always wanted to marry Jean Louise, points out to her just how privileged she is. She gets away with things as a Finch that he never can as former “trash.”

Lee is also perceptive about Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Jean Louise. When Jean Louise looks her up—the caretaker is retired now—she realizes that Calpurnia was always aware that she was raising privileged white children. In Watchman, Calpurnia knows that Atticus is attending Citizens’ Council meetings and she gives Jean Louise the cold shoulder, prompting a hysterical reaction:

Jean Louise sat down again in front of her. “Cal,” she cried, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”

Calpurnia, making no distinction between the privileged Jean Louise and her racist father, turns the question around:

“What are you all doing to us?” she said.


“Yessum. Us.”

I respect Lee for including such scenes in her book. She understands that the Finches can’t understand what either the Blacks or the poor whites are experiencing. The old world that Dr. Finch longs for is the one where the Finches were in charge. That world is rapidly changing.

I think what has happened is this: Harper Lee went north and, when she returned, she realized just how racist and classist her people were. She loved Alabama and she was horrified by Alabama and she used her book to sort it all out. Go Set a Watchman is filled with long, rambling debates as Jean Louise—a stand-in for Lee—tries to figure out what can be saved and what must be rejected.

Unfortunately, Lee/Jean Louise is blinded by her privilege and refuses to face up to certain biases. This in turn prevents her from understanding the African American perspective. For instance, she seems to accept that (1) the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but over states’ rights; (2) that the Reconstruction period following the war was a bad thing; and (3) Brown vs. Board of Education was an egregious infringement upon the Tenth Amendment and state sovereignty.

Also, despite disagreeing with Atticus about the benefits of white paternalism, she seems to agree with him that African Americans are like children and unfit to govern. Furthermore, in her vision of the south, there is no threat of violence, whereas we know now that force—sometimes official, sometimes unofficial—was used to keep African Americans in subjection. As Lee sees it in both of her books, the KKK are a bunch of inept clowns who can be laughed off and a little girl can wander into the middle of a lynch mob and defuse it. One can’t get very deep into the truth about race relations if one starts with those assumptions.

But give Lee credit for at least wrestling. To Kill a Mockingbird, by contrast, evades many of the tough questions. Over and over, it indicates that “trash” (a word I find as offensive as “nigger”) are the real source of racism. For instance:

–it turns Atticus Finch into a benign liberal patriarch without looking at the darker side of such paternalism;

–it divides poor whites into two categories: good poor whites like the Cunninghams (who can be shamed into leaving a lynch mob) and bad poor whites like the Ewells (who rape their daughters). The bad whites inoculate the good whites from the worst charges of racism;

–it gives us sentimental images of African Americans, who are good because they know their place and are deferential to the patriarchal whites. Lee’s vision seems to be that of D. W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation, who presents such figures as “faithful souls.” Watchman shows us how Lee might have depicted discontented Blacks–it regards the NAACP as extremist and out of touch–but Mockingbird just avoids the issue.

 Flannery O’Connor, a southern author who handles race and class issues in a far more sophisticated way, once remarked about Mockingbird fans, “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are buying a children’s book.”

She’s right. Mockingbird is a children’s book whereas Watchman attempts to be an adult book. Mockingbird feeds white fantasies of the good hearted white man who, while he can’t save an innocent black man, at least must be given credit for trying. Watchman, by contrast, wrestles with the fact that even the best patrician whites are racist and classist and that they turn to unsavory groups when they feel their power slipping away.

Watchman may not know what should come next, but it at least states that Jean Louise must travel a different road than her father. And that Alabama needs liberals like her if they are to make any progress.

I wonder if Lee felt trapped by Mockingbird. Watchman shows that she once tried to grapple with real problems but that an editor then talked her into writing a different book. She must have come to see her editor as right given that the book went on to become a spectacular bestseller and movie. Something important got lost in the process, however.

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The Holy Family as Refugees

Anthony van Dyck, "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" (1630)

Anthony van Dyck, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1630)

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s Gospel readings, about the holy family’s flight into Egypt, is only too relevant given the various refugee crises we are currently witnessing. If we close our doors and our hearts to those who are fleeing persecution, we shut out the messiah. As William Blake puts it in “Holy Thursday,”

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

Joseph Brodsky has an account of a moment during the flight. First, here’s Matthew’s account (2:13-15):

After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Brodsky depicts Joseph, Mary, and Jesus huddled in a cave with “blizzard, sandstorm, howling air” outside. Mary prays, the fire moans, and Joseph contemplates the difficulties ahead, complicated by the presence of an infant.

But then there’s a shift. The worries of the past day are behind them (they’ve slipped out the door like smoke), a sigh is heard, and the star gazes in on them. Call it a presentiment of hope, even though only the baby fully understands the gaze and he’s not talking.

Flight into Egypt (2)

By Joseph Brodsky
Translated by Seamus Heaney

In the cave—it sheltered them, at least,
safer than four square-set right angles—
in the cave the threesome felt secure
in the reek of straw and old clobber.

Straw for bedding. Outside the door,
blizzard, sandstorm, howling air,
Mule rubbed ox; they stirred and groaned
like sand and snowflake scourged in wind.

Mary prays; the fire soughs;
Joseph frowns into the blaze.
Too small to be fit to do a thing
but sleep, the infant is just sleeping.

Another day behind them now,
its worries past. And the “ho, ho, ho!”
of Herod who had sent the troops.
And the centuries a day closer too.

That night, as three, they were at peace.
Smoke like a retiring guest
slipped out the door. There was one far-off
heavy sigh from the mule. Or the ox.

The star looked in across the threshold.
The only one of them who could
know the meaning of that look
was the infant. But He did not speak.

The peace represented by the star may be centuries off but the momentary lulls gives us a sense of the Christmas promise. The “far-off heavy sigh” is the world exhaling after the unbearable tension.

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Each Sunrise Sees a New Year Born

Robert Henri, "Snow in New York" (1902)

Robert Henri, “Snow in New York” (1902)

New Year’s Day

Here’s a wonderful poem by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) to usher in 2016. Jackson begins by imagining the Old Year looking to the New Year with hope, but these hopes do not come with any real desire to change. “The Old Year’s heart was full of greed,” we are told, and what it wants from the New Year sounds suspiciously like more of the same: “But to the New Year’s generous hand/All gifts in plenty shall return.”

In fact, Old Year sounds like an addict making promises. We’ll learn from our failures and finally understand true love?  We’ll finally be “quiet and calm and pure of life”? Riight.

We know from the first that the resolutions we make on January 1 we will break on January 2. That’s why, in the short second stanza, Jackson mocks the idea that everything can change in the course of one miraculous night.

The final stanza presents us with a surprising twist, however. Why not see every night as December 31? If we have the idea that miracles can occur as one year passes into the next, why not devote all evenings to “confession and resolve and prayer” and regard all mornings as “sacred days to wake new gladness in the sunny air”?

Honor the “healing balm of sleep” and live as though every day is a new year. Or as Jackson puts it, “Each sunrise sees a new year born.” That is the key to genuine transformation.

Happy New Year.

New Year’s Morning

By Helen Hunt Jackson

Only a night from old to new!
Only a night, and so much wrought!
The Old Year’s heart all weary grew,
But said: “The New Year rest has brought.”
The Old Year’s hopes its heart laid down,
As in a grave; but trusting, said:
“The blossoms of the New Year’s crown
Bloom from the ashes of the dead.”
The Old Year’s heart was full of greed;
With selfishness it longed and ached,
And cried: “I have not half I need.
My thirst is bitter and unslaked.
But to the New Year’s generous hand
All gifts in plenty shall return;
True love it shall understand;
By all my failures it shall learn.
I have been reckless; it shall be
Quiet and calm and pure of life.
I was a slave; it shall go free,
And find sweet peace where I leave strife.”

Only a night from old to new!
Never a night such changes brought.
The Old Year had its work to do;
No New Year miracles are wrought.

Always a night from old to new!
Night and the healing balm of sleep!
Each morn is New Year’s morn come true,
Morn of a festival to keep.
All nights are sacred nights to make
Confession and resolve and prayer;
All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new; 
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.

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Conservative Extremists as King Lear

Ian McKellen as King Lear

Ian McKellen as King Lear


Of the major stories from this past year, one of the most remarkable is the supposedly lame duck Barack Obama carrying out some of the most promising initiatives of his presidency. We don’t know for sure, of course, how the international climate change accord or the agreement to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon will pan out. If they do, however, it will mean that Obama has been one of America’s most consequential presidents—and this in the face of unrelenting opposition from a GOP in charge of the legislative branch.

The hijacking of the GOP by its right wing shows no sign of abating. I could have chosen any one of innumerable posts about Donald Trump, but I’m reprinting instead an essay discussing how Republican members of Congress actively appealed to the Iranian mullahs to sabotage the deal Obama and Russia, China, Germany, France, and England were trying to strike with Iranian moderates. The parallels with King Lear jump off the page.

Lear’s Lesson: Dividing Leads to War, reprinted from March 12, 2015

Teaching King Lear while watching GOP members of Congress attempt to sabotage negotiations with Iran is prompting me to make some unexpected connections. It’s certainly got me focused on the politics of the play.

Those politics were problematic from the first. When France invades English shores, who were British audiences supposed to root for? Shakespeare couldn’t let France win, but having it lose leads to the death of Cordelia and Lear. For that matter, theatergoers must have felt somewhat queasy that both Kent and Gloucester are collaborating with an invading army.

Here’s Kent behaving a bit like Senator Tom Cotton and the other members of the Senate by making contact with the enemy:

But, true it is, from France there comes a power
Into this scatter’d kingdom; who already,
Wise in our negligence, have secret feet
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To show their open banner. Now to you:
If on my credit you dare build so far
To make your speed to Dover, you shall find
Some that will thank you, making just report
Of how unnatural and bemadding sorrow
The king hath cause to plain.
I am a gentleman of blood and breeding;
And, from some knowledge and assurance, offer
This office to you.

And here’s Gloucester confiding to his son Edmund (who will betray him) that he is secretly dealing with “a power already footed” (the French). The vision that “these injuries the king now bears will be revenged home” sounds as though he’s hoping that the French will make his current king pay for Lear’s mistreatment.

I have locked the letter in my closet: these injuries the king now bears will be revenged home; there’s part of a power already footed: we must incline to the king. I will seek him, and privily relieve him: go you and maintain talk with the duke, that my charity be not of him perceived: if he ask for me. I am ill, and gone to bed. Though I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved. 

To be sure, the GOP may not mind being compared to Kent and Gloucester. Shakespeare’s two lords are dealing secretly with the enemy for a noble cause while the GOP senators are similarly claiming the moral high ground. If Cornwall, Regan and Goneril are perturbed by their behavior, just as Obama doesn’t want the GOP appealing to Iran’s rightwing mullahs to blow up his deal, well, that means that Obama is like these awful characters and doesn’t deserve to be followed.

But let me suggest a different parallel. In working actively against the president as he tries to hammer out a deal with Iran, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, the GOP resembles Lear, who divides a country that should remain united. Lear’s wildly irresponsible action ensures that a civil war will break out, which in turn sets up a scenario where a foreign country will invade. Governing is hard and Lear would rather carouse in his daughters’ houses with his hundred knights. He’d rather (to put it in terms of current GOP right wingers) vent like a talk show host about how he’s being mistreated by those who are trying to run the kingdom. It feels good but it’s not what grown-ups should do.

The United States isn’t in danger of being invaded, but these divisive politics—I include John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu in this—threaten to involve the United States in a disastrous war. If the talks break down and Iran goes full steam ahead on a nuclear bomb, then the United States might choose to attack. The resulting conflagration would be far, far worse than anything we have seen in Afghanistan or Iraq.

But why should I strive to describe a world in chaos when Shakespeare does it so much better. Here’s Gloucester:

[L]ove cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there’s son against father: the king falls from bias of nature; there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves. 

There are two paths we can follow. Like the egotistical Lear, we can act out of our insecurities and petty resentments and set the world on fire. Or we can transcend self and work together for the good of all. The choice is between an uneasy peace and a stage strewn with bodies.

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Donne’s Warning about Climate Change

Extinction Protocol


As 2015 winds down, I am reposting essays (today’s is slightly amended) that I wrote this past year about how literature can help address the most urgent challenges we face. In June, as Texas was experiencing violent flooding and California continued to endure its cataclysmic drought and equally cataclysmic wild fires, I applied John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” to climate change denial.

Since then, weather conditions have only gotten worse, and (as many have noted) the weather outside is indeed frightful. 2015 was the warmest year on record and we’re seeing the results as tornadoes ravage huge swathes of America, record rainfalls pound the United Kingdom and much of South America, and killer droughts ravage Australia, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.

Fortunately, the world has finally begun to take preliminary steps to address what is occurring. Or at least all the world except for America’s conservative party, which continues to hide its head in the sand. Some of its presidential candidates are even promising to withdraw from the international climate change accord if they are elected.

 If you want a summary of how climate change + El Nino is behind the extreme weather that has been hammering virtually every part of the globe this past year, this Slate article is must reading. The future has arrived and it will only get worse if we don’t take drastic action.

Donne and Climate Change Denial, reprinted from June 2, 2015

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

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

The song cheerfully adds that humans are on the verge of nuclear armageddon:

And we know for certain
That some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the poem is not applicable is in Donne’s admonition to be calm. This might be good advice if there were indeed nothing we could do. As it turns out, however, we can influence the “trepidation of the spheres.” Or at least we can slow down climate change by reducing our carbon emissions.

A second poem  tells us what we should be striving for. In “The Good Morrow” Donne describes a balanced earth. Asserting that “whatever dies was not mixed equally,” he imagines two lovers as a planet “without sharp north, without declining west.” Invoking the alchemists’ search for perfection, he says that a balanced relationship will endure.

Balance will also ensure that humans can continue to live on this earth. We either strive for that balance or we perish.

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“Emma” as Aid to Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Gambon and Garai as Mr Woodhouse and Emma

Gambon and Garai as Mr Woodhouse and Emma


 The New York Times recently ran a beautiful article by a woman who turned to Jane Austen’s Emma while taking care of a mother with Alzheimer’s. An enthusiastic reader wrote in, “[T]his essay reminds us all of the importance of fiction in helping us cope with real, everyday problems.”

While taking care of her 92-year-old cognitively impaired mother, Carol Adams returned to Emma over and over. She couldn’t stop thinking about Emma’s relationship with her infirm father:

The novel asserts that Emma had little to distress or vex her, yet describes many distressing and vexing events. Emma is parenting her parent and has been doing so for quite some time.

Mr. Woodhouse is normally regarded as a comic figure, a hypochondriac, but for Adams he became much more: a dependent who takes over his caretaker’s life:

[H]ow [Emma] behaves toward her father confirms, to my reading at least, Mr. Woodhouse’s cognitive impairment. Deciding what to send as a gift is only one of the many activities that Emma does to assist her father. She helps him stay oriented, does the conversational work for him, and plays a simple game with him rather than the more complicated ones she prefers.

When a slight dusting of snow alarms her father, he asks: “What is to be done, my dear Emma? — What is to be done?”

The novel gave Adams a framework for processing her own situation:

[Psychologist] Dr. Scileppi provides a formula for understanding Mr. Woodhouse’s agitation:

Memory loss + anxiety = search for reassurance.

This was Emma’s vocation as well as mine: To fill in the blanks in our parents’ abstract reasoning, to offer reassurance in the face of anxiety and confusion, and to help orient them when they felt disoriented. I began a dialogue in my mind in which I used what I learned about Alzheimer’s to deepen my understanding of the novel, and Emma’s behavior to instruct me on caregiving.

One interchange in the novel particularly hit home:

Emma’s brother-in-law remarked on all of Emma’s social engagements. Indignant, she protested, “how very, very seldom I am ever two hours from Hartfield,” her father’s home.

Emma’s apparent freedom consists instead of constrained activities and parceled-out time. Mr. Woodhouse is always at home, waiting for her. In one survey, a third of caregivers reported being responsible around the clock for someone with Alzheimer’s. Like Emma, they are lucky if they have two hours to get out.

When I told a friend about listening to Emma and hearing “two hours” just as I was deliberating about my own two hours off, she was concerned that my life was too closely echoing the novel and exclaimed, “You better give up reading Austen!” As if. I needed Emma as an example, to inspire me to be more patient, less judgmental. Caregiving books tell us how to behave; Emma showed me.

Adams is particularly impressed by how Emma does what is currently recommended by caregiving experts:

In Emma’s case, rather than arguing with Mr. Woodhouse, she redirects him. It is as though she had read the books. With Emma’s help, I could give more and not feel I was losing myself in caregiving, because she was always there, in my mind.

Most of those who read Emma do not see it as Adams does, of course. For instance, Adams regards the Box Hall disaster as Emma blowing up over the the non-stop pressure, not as her unarticulated longing for Knightley. But that’s okay. We enter works of literature through the door that we have, and as often as not special insights arise from this vantage point. I enjoy teaching literature in senior centers because I get perspectives on works not afforded to me by 18-22-year-old college students.

In this case, I certainly feel I have a valuable new perspective on the character. It could well be that Emma’s need to control everyone around her stems from her need to be a major caregiver while she is still an adolescent. If she’s had to do thinking for two people from an early age, no wonder she thinks that it’s her responsibility to run Harriet’s life. Similarly, we gain a new respect for Knightley, who readjusts his life to accommodate Mr. Woodhouse. Real love is when your partner is willing to make your burdens his burdens.

I love teaching because I am continually adding new reading stories to my collection. Carol Adams has given me one more.

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Dostoevsky Explains Trump’s Appeal

Donald Trump


Many Democrats and moderate Republicans have the same diagnosis for Donald Trump’s continuing popularity amongst white middle class men: he is speaking to economic frustration, not to racism and xenophobia. The belief has electoral ramifications since, if it is true, then this constituency can be reached by addressing economic stagnation and class inequality. It is a version of Marx’s theory that the economic base shapes ideological superstructure.

Liberals like Jamelle Bouie have begun challenging this view, however, and they could turn to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor for support. Last week I wrote about how Ivan Karamazov’s parable challenges President Obama’s contention that “freedom is stronger fear.” Today I contend that the Grand Inquisitor would also disagree with the president over his explanation of white middle class rage.

In a recent interview with NPR, Obama had this to say:

But I do think that when you combine that demographic change with all the economic stresses that people have been going through because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flatlining for some time, and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck, you combine those things and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it justified but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.

When NPR brought up the issue of race, Obama acknowledged that it plays a factor but then steered the conversation back to economics:

If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I’m different, I’m Muslim, I’m disloyal to the country, etc., which unfortunately is pretty far out there and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials, what I’d say there is that that’s probably pretty specific to me and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them.

But that’s not to suggest that everybody who objects to my policies may not have perfectly good reasons for it. If you are living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you probably are going to be more susceptible to the argument that I’ve been wiping out the economy in your area.

Bernie Sanders has been making a similar case that white middle class anger is about economics, not race and ethnicity:

“[S]omebody like a Trump comes along and says, ‘I know the answers. The answer is that all of the Mexicans, they’re criminals and rapists, we’ve got to hate the Mexicans. Those are your enemies. We hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We’ve got to hate the Muslims.’ Meanwhile, the rich get richer.”

And here’s David Frum, a moderate Republican, making a version of the same argument:

The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.

You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.

Frum proposes an economic solution to steer the GOP back to the center:

[P]arty elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself. Recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago.

Such a party would cut health-care costs by squeezing providers, not young beneficiaries. It would boost productivity by investing in hard infrastructure—bridges, airports, water-treatment plants. It would restore Dwight Eisenhower to the Republican pantheon alongside Ronald Reagan and emphasize the center in center-right.

Many Democrats argue for a similar approach, according to Bouie of Slate:

If this is true—and Trump is capitalizing on the economic anxieties of working-class Americans—then the response is straightforward: Address the anxieties, and you neutralize his appeal. Building economic security for working- and middle-class Americans is—and has been—a long-term project, undermined by a constellation of forces from globalization and the rise of Wall Street to the collapse of unions and the move toward a smaller, less-durable safety net. But if Sanders and Obama are right, then all liberals and Democrats have to do to beat Trump—or more broadly, diminish Trumpism—is continue being liberals and Democrats, with continued calls for more social insurance, more programs for families, more rights for workers, and a greater role for the public in our politics.

It’s certainly the case that, if both parties started fighting for the economic betterment of this demographic, then life for the middle class probably would improve.

But would it lead to the hoped-for change of attitude? Bouie is skeptical because he believes that, rather than being a symptom of the problem, racism and xenophobia are the problem itself:

But there’s another possibility that challenges this sense that Trump feeds—and feeds off of—false consciousness. What if Trump’s racism attracts supporters? What if his bigotry is the point?

Bouie points out that America has long been susceptible to racial demagoguery:

What’s key is that there’s always been a portion of voters who are activated by racist appeals. And in an erstwhile herrenvolk democracy, this shouldn’t be a surprise. They show up in surveys, polling, and research data as Americans who rank high on racial resentment or hold strong anti-black views. They respond favorably to racial demagoguery—whether from candidates or media or both—and exist throughout American politics, in the far-right margins as well as a voting group in the Republican Party.

The Grand Inquisitor would agree. True, he first seems to agree with Obama, Sanders, and Frum that economic factors are primary. Lecturing a returned Jesus on why he erred when he rejected the three temptations in the desert, the churchman says that the people would accept, in an instant, the devil’s offer of turning stones into bread. Jesus’s assertion that we can rise above our bodily needs is an illusion:

Dost Thou see these stones in the desolate and glaring wilderness? Command that these stones be made bread—and mankind will run after Thee, obedient and grateful like a herd of cattle.

Maybe they would also return to the Democratic fold or vote for Frum’s reformed Republican platform.

However, the Grand Inquisitor then points to a force that is even more powerful than bread—which, for our purposes, could be called tribal identity. The multitudes need to believe in what everyone else believes.

The Inquisitor’s reasoning gets a little intricate here so bear with me. According to Matthew and Luke, Satan urges Jesus to cast himself from the temple in Jerusalem to prove that he is the son of God. If Jesus were to perform such a miracle, the Grand Inquisitor says, he would create a cult of personality and ensure the devotion of the large numbers. They would have a concrete foundation for absolute belief.

Jesus, however, wants people to believe without the aid of miracles, and the Grand Inquisitor says that this imposes too heavy a burden of freedom on humankind. What the multitude wants—and what Trump’s personality cult offers his followers—is certainty:

But man seeks to bow before that only which is recognized by the greater majority, if not by all his fellowmen, as having a right to be worshipped; whose rights are so unquestionable that men agree unanimously to bow down to it. For the chief concern of these miserable creatures is not to find and worship the idol of their own choice, but to discover that which all others will believe in, and consent to bow down to in a mass. It is that instinctive need of having a worship in common that is the chief suffering of every man, the chief concern of mankind from the beginning of times. It is for that universality of religious worship that people destroyed each other by sword. Creating gods unto themselves, they forthwith began appealing to each other: “Abandon your deities, come and bow down to ours, or death to ye and your idols!” And so will they do till the end of this world; they will do so even then, when all the gods themselves have disappeared, for then men will prostrate themselves before and worship some idea.

Trump’s followers are prostrating themselves before a version of America that looks like them. To those who hold a different version of America, they come close to saying “death to ye and your idols.” Their desiring, the Grand Inquisitor makes clear, goes far deeper than economics.

The man who can possess himself of the multitude’s conscience, he then tells Jesus, will triumph over those who can merely offer people bread:

With “daily bread” an irresistible power was offered Thee: show a man “bread” and he will follow Thee, for what can he resist less than the attraction of bread? But if, at the same time, another succeed in possessing himself of his conscience—oh! then even Thy bread will be forgotten, and man will follow him who seduced his conscience. So far Thou wert right. For the mystery of human being does not solely rest in the desire to live, but in the problem—for what should one live at all? Without a clear perception of his reasons for living, man will never consent to live, and will rather destroy himself than tarry on earth, though he be surrounded with bread. 

Trump and, to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have currently succeeded in seducing the conscience of a significant portion of GOP primary voters, and they’re not doing it with economic appeals. Issues of identity are, at the moment, trumping bread.

Before panicking, however, let’s remember that the supporters of the GOP’s outsider candidates represent only a small portion of the entire American electorate. Most Americans, I believe, don’t fit the Grand Inquisitor’s profile.

But it is also true that we are probably deluding ourselves if we think that sound economic policies will, in and of themselves, save us. Tribalism is continually rearing its ugly head, especially (as the president reminds us) when times are difficult, and we must hold true of the ideals of our founding fathers and mothers. The Grand Inquisitor no doubt would say this is an impossible ideal, just as he says that Jesus was promoting an impossible idea, but that’s all the more reason to strive for it. Freedom is hard, as the president also tells us, but it’s either that or give ourselves over to the mercy of cynical Grand Inquisitors.

Trump may relieve his supporters of the burden of independent thought, but they’re making a bad bargain if they accept his deal. If they really thought about it, they would realize he does not have their best interests at heart.

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The Constellated Sounds of Bells

Breslin Tower, Sewanee, Tennessee

Breslin Tower, Sewanee, Tennessee

First Sunday after Christmas

Sewanee, Tennessee, where I spend each Christmas, is a great place for bells and chimes. There is the 56-bell carillon in All Saints’ Chapel—once one of the largest in the world although probably no more—and the single Otey Parish bell. There are also the bells in Breslin Tower, which strike the time every quarter hour.

Sewanee spends much of the winter locked in fog, giving the bells a special mystical quality. One peers through the mists and sees the sandstone gothic bell towers looming tall. This Robert Bridges poem takes me back to these bells.

If the title of the poem indicates when it was written, then Bridges is writing about the last Christmas before all hell broke lose. The following four Christmases would be celebrated in the World War I trenches, and references to chimes will take the form of Wilfred Owen’s savage irony: “What passing bells for these who die like cattle?”

Still, even with foreboding, we must hold on to the angel hope voiced in Bridges’s epigraph: Peace and good will to humankind.

Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913

By Robert Seymour Bridges

Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis

A frosty Christmas Eve 
when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone 
where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village 
in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me 
peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds 
ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above 
with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep 
that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching 
by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields 
and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels 
or the bright stars singing.

Now blessed be the tow’rs 
that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer 
unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders 
(said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ 
in the belfries to-night
With arms lifted to clutch 
the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above 
and the mad romping din.

But to me heard afar 
it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting 
as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly 
to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me 
by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured 
as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect 
of th’ eternal silence. 

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A Season for Miraculous Breakthroughs

In 1988, Operation Breakthrough would free three ice-bound gray whales

In 1988, Operation Breakthrough would free three ice-bound gray whales


Christmas is that time of year when, despite both the literal and the metaphorical darkness, we acknowledge the possibility of miracles. The Paris climate accord may be 2015’s candidate for miraculous breakthrough, a moment when every country in the world came together to talk about solving a menace threatening us all.

My father, who loved Christmas and composed a Christmas poem every year for the family Christmas card, wrote about a comparable moment. The year was 1988 and three gray whales were trapped in arctic ice. Two inveterate enemies, the United States and the Soviet Union, collaborated to rescue them in what was known as Operation Breakthrough.

“The Great Whale Rap” is supposedly written by Aurora Borealis—a.k.a., Mrs. Santa Claus—as are many of my father’s environmentally-themed Christmas poems. In her version, she and Nick intervened to help the whales after the initial breakthrough. (It is not not known what happened to them after they were liberated.)

The poem includes a stanza from a song by Pete Seeger, who was a friend of my father. It concludes with a (slightly-altered) popular Christmas carol.

I’m very sorry my father was not around to witness the recent Paris accord. It might well have appeared in this year’s Christmas poem.

The Great Whale Rap

By Scott Bates

(To be accompanied by drums spoons pencils hands finger thumbs flutes you name it)

Remember back in nineteen
when the whole world went
   on a big whale date
with some Great Gray Whales
   in a northern clime
well now is the time
now is the time
now is the time
   to get it straight
what really took place
   on that great whale date

It was late October
   when Nick and I
we suddenly decided
   we should give it a try
to help those Inupiat
(and Canadians
   and Commissars
      and G. I. Joes)
to rescue those whales
   from the freezing floes

”I heard the song
   of the world’s last whale
as I rocked in the moonlight
   and furled the sail
it’ll happen to you
   also without fail
if it happened to me
   sang the world’s last whale”

So we flew down one night
   by the light of the moon
and arrived at Barrow
   not a moment too soon
for Crossbeak and Bonnet
   who had been set free
were stuck in a channel
   in the Beaufort Sea

(in the thick polar ice
   they had gone astray)
So we turned them around
   and set them on their way
and hurried back
   to airlift Bone
who was failing fast
   in a hole alone
and hauled him up
   in a sling on the sleigh
and dropped him off
   down in Bristol Bay

We three whales we traverse afar
   Bering Strait to California
Southward speeding still proceeding
   On to the Bay of Baja

a wonderful time
   was had by all
when the Capitalists and Communists
   had a ball
and forgot about the Libyans
   and the Cubans and the Poles
and saved three whales
   from the cold ice holes

It was a holey time
   They leaped and flowed
Like liberated dolphins
   Down the great whale road

So I’m sending you this rap
   with a maritime rhyme
to celebrate their freedom
   and the special time
when the nations found
   they could work together
and do something useful
   in the Cold War Weather
when they learned that a little bit of
might save us all from

That’s the maritime message
   that I’m here to stress
let’s work together
   for the wilderness
let’s clean up the ocean
   for the Gray Whale Fleet
and rock the world
   with a Big Whale Beat
let’s beat pollution
   and the ozone rap
let’s shake the smog
   and the garbage trap
Let’s get out of this hole
   (say I and Alice)
      and save the world
       A. Borealis

I saw three whales come sailing in
   On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three whales come sailing in
   On Christmas Day in the morning.


Other Christmas Poems by Scott Bates

The Divine Enters through Imagination’s Holes 

The Quest of the Marvelous Tree 

Christmas Bird Count from Santa’s Sleigh

Where are the Games of Yesteryear 

Moving towards Death’s Doorway 

No Room for Them in the (Holiday) Inn 

A Solution to Nativity Scene Battles

Holly & Ivy Dance to the Music of the Moon

Night before Christmas on the Moon

Move with the Wind, Sleep under the Snow

Midwinter Transformation: A Poem

An ABC of Children’s Books

The Divine Comedy, Doggerel Version

Books Unleashed in Christmas Carrels

Epiphany Sunday and the Arabian Nights

Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

A Roc for Christmas (Annual Bird Count) 

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Our Christmas Owes Much to Walter Scott

A Medieval Christmas banquet

A Medieval Christmas banquet

Christmas Eve

Much of the way we celebrate Christmas dates back to Charles Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” (1843). If you want the full story, check out this Tom Pold essay on how the Victorians resurrected Christmas, which “had shrunk almost beyond recognition” by the 1800s.

Pold tells us that, according to G. K. Chesterton, Dickens interest in Christmas stems from his enduring interest in romanticizing the past:

In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday.

While Dickens was vital in giving us the Christmas we know, however, previous authors had set the stage. Among these was Sir Walter Scott, famous for his historical romances. In Marmion (1808), Scott imagines the Vikings celebrating an antecedent of Christmas and then shows how it might have been celebrated in the middle ages. In other words, when Dickens looked back, he may have been looking back through Scott’s eyes.

Here’s Scott:

Heap on more wood! – the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deem’d the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer:
Even, heathen yet, the savage Dane
At Iol more deep the mead did drain;
High on the beach his galleys drew,
And feasted all his pirate crew;
Then in his low and pine-built hall
Where shields and axes deck’d the wall
They gorged upon the half-dress’d steer;
Caroused in seas of sable beer;
While round, in brutal jest, were thrown
The half-gnaw’d rib, and marrow-bone:
Or listen’d all, in grim delight,
While Scalds yell’d out the joys of fight.
Then forth, in frenzy, would they hie,
While wildly loose their red locks fly,
And dancing round the blazing pile,
They make such barbarous mirth the while,
As best might to the mind recall
The boisterous joys of Odin’s hall.

And well our Christian sires of old
Loved when the year its course had roll’d,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honor to the holy night;
On Christmas Eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas Eve the mass was sung:
That only night in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donn’d her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dress’d with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then open’d wide the Baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside
And Ceremony doff’d his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose;
The Lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of ‘post and pair’.
All hail’d, with uncontroll’d delight,
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.

The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hall-table’s oaken face,
Scrubb’d till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s head frown’d on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garb’d ranger tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death to tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie;
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry makers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.

Scott then reflects on how, though Christmas may be fading down south in England, he in Scotland will continue to celebrate in the old traditional way:

Still linger, in our northern clime,
Some remnants of the good old time;
And still, within our valleys here,
We hold the kindred title dear,
Even when, perchance, its far-fetch’d claim                
To Southron ear sounds empty name;
For course of blood, our proverbs deem,
Is warmer than the mountain-stream.
And thus, my Christmas still I hold
Where my great-grandsire came of old,
With amber beard, and flaxen hair,
And reverend apostolic air–
The feast and holy-tide to share,
And mix sobriety with wine,
And honest mirth with thought divine…

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Beauty Amidst the Refugee Heartbreak

Syrian refugees pulling up on Lesbos

Syrian refugees pulling up on Lesbos


A recent New Yorker podcast has alerted me to a timely poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Poet Ellen Bass, who discusses the poem with New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, says that her family always reads the poem during their Passover seder, but I post the poem today because of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Although the poem appeared in the 1990s, it now seems to refer to ISIS and Assad slaughtering their enemies and to refugees venturing aboard boats that face “a salty oblivion.” Zagajewski mentions “the nettles that methodically overgrow/the abandoned homesteads of exiles,” and he chillingly observes,

You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

Bass says that the second line brings to mind Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, about murderer Gary Gilmore.

Zagajewski struggles to find something to praise in this veil of tears. If the world is horrifically mutilated, can we find something in it to praise?

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

By Adam Zagajewski 

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

I love the way that the poem veers between tragedy and beauty, revealing how thin is the line that separates the two. I think of how, after my son died, I looked out at the cat briar bordering the yard (our nettles) and marveled at how they kept growing. They were simultaneously barbed and green, life pulsing forth in a season of death.

I am also put in mind of the tribal medicine man’s healing words in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as he seeks to cure Tayo of his war scars:

“But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.” 

The word he chose to express “fragile” was filled with the intricacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs woven across paths through sand hills where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filament of web. It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, and the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a story about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku’oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love. 

In “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” Zagajewski chooses each word carefully and, in doing so, reminds us of the beauty that surrounds us, however fragile and evanescent. We must praise this beauty if we want to hold on to our humanity.

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When the Police Target Black Women

Oprah as Sofia in "The Color Purple"

Oprah as Sofia in “The Color Purple”


Last year’s “post of the year” for Better Living through Beowulf (in my opinion) was the one I wrote about the many unarmed black men killed by police and vigilantes, which in turn led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, I wrote, focuses on young black men claiming their identity and standing with pride.

This past year we’ve seen that it is not just black men who have been victimized. Sandra Bland, stopped for no reason at all, spent three days in jail, where she hanged herself. More recently, in an extraordinary-because-unusual case, Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma cop who had been raping the black women he stopped, was found guilty and may be sentenced to a life in prison.

Alice Walker long ago alerted us to the fact that black women could be just as much the target of white authority as black men. I’m thinking of Sofia’s arrest in the The Color Purple (1982). The scene reminds me of the moment in Flannery O’Connor’s “All that Rises Must Converge” where a white woman patronizes a little African American boy, only to be told angrily by his mother, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!”

In Walker’s novel, the mayor’s wife Millie patronizes Sofia and her children with words that could have been uttered at a slave auction. Here’s the scene, told in the narrator Celie’s dialectical spelling:

Sofia and the prizefighter and all the children got in the prizefighter car and went to town. Clam out on the street looking like somebody. Just then the mayor and his wife come by.    

All these children, say the mayor’s wife, digging in her pocketbook. Cute as little buttons though, she say. She stop, put her hand on one of the children head. Say, and such strong white teef.    

Unlike the mother in the O’Connor story, Sofia and her boyfriend initially remain silent. Millie then changes her tone. Realizing suddenly that the prizefighter appears to have more money than she does, what with his car and the wristwatch that he has given Sofia, she decides to put Sofia in her place:

Sofia and the prizefighter don’t say nothing. Wait for her to pass. Mayor wait too, stand back and tap his foot, watch her with a little smile. Now Millie, he say. Always going on over colored. Miss Millie finger the children some more, finally look at Sofia and the prizefighter. She look at the prizefighter car. She eye Sofia wristwatch. She say to Sofia, All your children so clean, she say, would you like to work for me, be my maid?

We hear a lot these days about microagressions—from Claudia Rankine, for instance —but the aggression here goes beyond the micro level. It’s a deliberate power move to put Sofia in her place. Unfortunately for her well-being, Sofia snaps:

Sofia say, Hell no.

She say, What you say?

Sofia say, Hell no.  

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

Sofia say, I say, Hell no.  

He slap her.

In the tragic case of both Bland and the raped women, there seemed to be no one to turn to. The responses were different. Until one woman finally reported Holtzclaw, his previous women remained silent. Bland, meanwhile, copped an attitude, refusing to put out her cigarette after she was stopped. Both those who pushed back and those who didn’t suffered consequences. Sofia, living in pre-World War II south, has even fewer options. Her boyfriend will be shot if he intervenes, and she feels the full wrath of the affronted white society:

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

 Scare me so bad I near bout drop my grip. But I don’t. I put it on the floor of the cell, take out comb and brush, nightgown, witch hazel and alcohol and I start to work on her. The colored tendant bring me water to wash her with, and I start at her two little slits for eyes.

Fortunately, we have made some progress since the time in which The Color Purple is set and even since it was written. Mayors and police can no longer act with quite such disregard for individual rights.

But since innocent black women are still being stopped, sometimes raped, and frequently jailed, we can see just how necessary it is that we have dash cam videos and cell phone photographs and advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter and public prosecutors that hold people responsible.

Sofia continues to need our vigilance and our support.

News update: A grand jury has just declined to hold anyone responsible for Sandra Bland’s death.

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Trump as Yeats’s Rough Beast

Artist unknown

Artist unknown


When President Obama, in a speech earlier this month, reminded us that “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes,” Donald Trump responded, “What sport is he talking about, and who?” One of those sports heroes responded with a Time column asserting that Trump is hastening the apocalypse described in W. B. Yeats’s best-known poem.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose scoring totals will probably never be equalled, opens his article with a description of a terrorist threat to the United States. Then, in an unexpected twist, he reveals that he’s talking about Trump:

The terrorist campaign against American ideals is winning. Fear is rampant. Gun sales are soaring. Hate crimes are increasing. Bearded hipsters are being mistaken for Muslims. And 83 percent of voters believe a large-scale terrorist attack is likely here in the near future. Some Americans are now so afraid that they are willing to trade in the sacred beliefs that define America for some vague promises of security from the very people who are spreading the terror. “Go ahead and burn the Constitution — just don’t hurt me at the mall.” That’s how effective this terrorism is.

Trump’s “hate speech,” Abdul-Jabbar says, fits the dictionary definition of terrorism:

Webster defines terrorism as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal; the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”

Abdul-Jabbar concludes,

Trump is ISIS’s greatest triumph: the perfect Manchurian Candidate who, instead of offering specific and realistic policies, preys on the fears of the public, doing ISIS’s job for them. Even fellow Republican Jeb Bush acknowledged Trump’s goal is “to manipulate people’s angst and fears.”

A few months ago, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne named “The Second Coming” as the poem most cited by political columnists (I write about that here). Abdul-Jabbar is therefore not breaking new ground. He applies the poem well, however:

One of my favorite poems is “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, in which he describes, in a chillingly obtuse and mystical way, a second coming — not of Christ, but of something much darker and sinister:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

When I read the description of the beast, it’s “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” I can’t help but think of Trump and his cynical strategy of using misinformation, half-truths and deception in order to gain access to a position that should only be held by those who would be repulsed by that strategy.

Indeed, what rough beast slouches toward Washington to be born?

Had he been interested in further applying the poem, there are other lines that Abdul-Jabbar could have mentioned. Yeats pictures a falcon that has lost connection with the falconer and says, “the center cannot hold.” When the credibility of all potential judges is systematically undermined—the media, scientists, academics, religious figures—then one can say anything and get away with it. When Trump sweeps aside the social norms that a society needs to operate, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

It is certainly the case that the Republican center cannot hold as the GOP has been pulled increasingly to the extreme right. Republican moderates have been swamped in what feels like a blood-dimmed tide. Their lack of conviction cannot match Trump’s passionate intensity.

Yeats’s use of the adjective “mere” is important, however, because it undercuts anarchy’s pretensions to grandiosity. My one objection to Abdul-Jabbar’s article is that, by comparing Trump to Yeats’s man-lion, he is making Trump bigger than he is. Trump would be flattered more than insulted. “The power, the devastation [of nuclear weapons] is very important to me,” he boasted in the last debate (while showing his ignorance of the nuclear triad). While Trump’s GOP contenders do indeed resemble Yeats’s “indignant desert birds,” that’s different than seeing Trump as the antichrist.

Then again, as a Muslim Abdul-Jabbar is particularly attuned to the damage Trump is causing and to the danger he represents. In other words, he can’t be laughed off. Trump himself may be no rough beast, but the streak of intolerance that he is tapping into is indeed a threat to the world.

Merry anti-Christmas. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

The Second Coming

By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Follow-up note: Paul Krugman in his New York Times column today makes a similar point about why the center is not holding in the GOP. About why voters don’t care when Trump, Cruz and Carson deliver outrageous falsehoods, Krugman says,

Well, part of the answer has to be that the party taught them not to care. Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the “liberal media” didn’t suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand. So how are voters supposed to know where to draw the line?

Krugman traces the problem back to the 2000 election when Al Gore was faulted for his wonky but substantial policy prescription whereas George Bush, who accused Gore of “fuzzy math,” was seen as the more desirable man to have a beer with. Krugman points out that the current Democratic debates are full of substance, the GOP debates–well, not so much.

Making a similar point about conservative disregard for empirical evidence, Jon Chait of New York Magazine writes,

Conservative economic thought is structurally different from liberal thought. Liberal support for expanded government is based entirely in practical expectation that new programs can deliver concrete results — cleaner air, healthier children, higher wages for low-income workers, and so on. Conservative antipathy to expanded government is based ultimately on philosophical opposition. For that reason, data can change liberal economic thinking in a way it can’t change conservative economic thinking. Liberals would abandon, say, new environmental regulations if evidence persuaded them the program was not actually improving the environment, because bigger government is merely the means to an end. No evidence could persuade conservatives to support new environmental regulations, because conservatives consider small government a worthy end for itself. (As Milton Friedman once put it, “Freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.”)

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The Stable Is Our Heart

Master of Vyšší Brod (1305)

Master of Vyšší Brod (1305)

Spiritual Sunday

Reader William McKeachie alerted me to this Advent poem Madeleine L’Engle which, like the one I posted last Sunday, remains as relevant as it was 45 years ago. It contains an allusion to Yeats’s “Second Coming,” and I particularly like the pun in the final line. The Christmas promise is a reminder that we have always had access to ultimate stability.

Into the Darkest Hour

By Madeleine L’Engle

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss —
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight —
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart

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The Utterly Amazing William Blake

Thomas Phillips, "William Blake" (1807)

Thomas Phillips, “William Blake” (1807)


Richard Holmes in The New York Review of Books recently wrote about “The Greatness of William Blake,” including an account of how he was saved from utter obscurity in the mid-19th century by a fan. While we like to think that the test of time will save the great authors and bury the not-so-great, Blake is one of those cases that makes you wonder. Then again, his sweep was so great that he probably would have survived.

Holmes notes that there are many doors into Blake. His own Blake is not far from my own: a radical visionary who protested against various forms of oppression, especially that of the Church, the State, and industrial capitalism. Holmes and I both encountered Blake in the 1960s, when he was seen as the quintessential protest poet. Holmes remembers thrilling to one of Blake’s “Proverbs from Hell” painted on a London wall:

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. 

He also remembers bonding with two soldiers, on leave from Vietnam, over the terrifying stanza from “London”:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals;
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

If I had been British, I would probably have encountered Blake first from the hymn “Jerusalem,” which practically functions as a British national anthem. (See my essay on it here.)

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and
pleasant land.

As it was, I was introduced to the song in high school while watching the 1962 British New Wave film Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. In one scene, the camera crosscuts between boys in a reform school angelically singing “Jerusalem” while another kid gets beat up by the school authorities. Given that Blake always stands up for children, he would have appreciated the irony, even though he probably wouldn’t have liked how his revolutionary verse was being used to stoke patriotic passions.

I also encountered Songs of Innocence and Experience in high school English and found “The Lamb” to be infantile. I was captivated by the dark energy of “Tyger, Tyger,” however, even though I didn’t entirely understand it. I’m more impressed with “The Lamb” now.

It made sense that Blake would appeal to college students in the 1960s and early 1970s. After all, he manages to combine protests against social injustice—say, in the chimney sweeper poems—with protests against sexual repression and guilt. He covers all bases.

Today I teach Blake in my “Nature in Literature” class. We talk about his “dark satanic mills” and appreciate his insight that our fear of nature underlies our compulsion to dominate it.

Holmes notes that there are many other Blakes as well, however:

My Blake, the radical visionary poet of the 1960s, seems almost old-fashioned now. I realize how many other Blakes there have been, both before and since. They include the bardic mystic popularized by the poets Algernon Charles Swinburne (1868) and W.B. Yeats (1893); the Marxist protester championed by the scientist Jacob Bronowski (1944); the inspired London dreamer summoned up by the biographers Mona Wilson (1927) and especially Peter Ackroyd (1995); the great psychological mythmaker analyzed by the critics Northrop Frye (1947) and Harold Bloom (1963); the agitator and revolutionary of the political historians E.P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1995) and David Erdman (Blake: Prophet Against Empire, 1974); and the man of “minute particulars” slowly and meticulously assembled by the inexhaustible scholar-researcher G.E. Bentley Jr., the author of two editions of Blake Records (1969, 1988) and A Stranger from Paradise (2001), a monumental compilation- biography, aimed to subdue “the factual Laocoön” of the life.

Add to these Blake as the protagonist of innumerable Freudian, Swedenborgian, Neoplatonist, Zen Buddhist, and, more recently, excellent feminist studies (Women Reading William Blake, 2007, including essays by Germaine Greer, Tracy Chevalier, and Helen Bruder). Nor can we overlook Marsha Keith Schuchard, the author of Why Mrs. Blake Cried (2006), with her detailed explorations (and illustrations) of Blake’s supposed excursions into ecstatic tantric sex.

If you want to get a better sense of Blake’s amazing scope, check out the essay.

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Star Wars & Thousand-Faced Heroes

John Boyega in "The Force Awakens"

John Boyega in “The Force Awakens”


If you have children, you probably know that today is the release of the new Star Wars movie. To mark the moment, here’s a poem by Katy Giebenhain that appeared recently in The Glasgow Review.

Surrounded by Star Wars action figures as she is falling asleep, the poet thinks of some of the limitations of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell was a major influence on George Lucas, who says that he probably couldn’t have finished the script without the aid of the myth anthropologist:

Falling Asleep in a 300 Year-old Industrial Cottage in Derbyshire Surrounded by Star Wars Action Figures

By Katy Giebenhain

Did you know a Storm Trooper Red Eye
has higher mechanical skills
than battle skills?
Did you know an Imperial Storm Trooper
has higher leadership skills
than intelligence?
Flanked by shelves of Jedi
a weekend houseguest
channels Joseph Campbell, says
out loud, in the snug dark
What about the Non-Hero’s journey?
Alongside the call to adventure
are the other calls.
And someone appears at the right time.
The enemy with a thousand faces.
The mentor with a thousand faces.
The waitress with a thousand faces.
The Hero doesn’t get
through anything alone.

All creators worth their salt know this.

Campbell claims that “the journey of the hero” is a monomyth that shows up in all cultures (thus “the hero with a thousand faces”). In the story, the solitary protagonist receives a call that launches him or her (generally him) upon an adventure. The hero must overcome a series of obstacles in order to obtain the “elixir” that will save civilization. Giebenhain’s insight, a version of which I encountered recently in a Salon article, is that the hero is never as solitary as he or she seems. Others in the story, while vital participants in the journey, don’t receive hero credit.

The poem points to two problems with the monomyth. If even the bucket-headed storm troopers have individual skills, then peripheral characters can’t be lumped into a single, undifferentiated mass. On the other hand, overemphasis on the hero gives us a distorted view of the journey. It’s like how the sun erases all the stars in the sky. Giebenhain restores individuality where it has been overlooked while complicating the heroic journey.

In his Salon article, John Higgs makes this second point. Campbell’s monomyth, he says, is an indication of how the 20th century (and, I would add, the 19th century) elevated the individual above the collective. Increasingly, however, we are beginning to see multiple heroes. Individual protagonists are becoming a thing of the past:

[I]n the early twenty-first century, there are signs that this magic formula may be waning. The truly absorbing and successful narratives of our age are moving beyond the limited, individual perspective of The Hero’s Journey. Critically applauded series like The Wire and mainstream commercial hit series such as Game of Thrones are loved for the complexity of their politics and group relationships. These are stories told not from the point of view of one person, but from many interrelated perspectives, and the relationships between a complex network of different characters can engage us more than the story of a single man being brave.

In the twenty-first century audiences are drawn to complicated, lengthy engagements with characters, from their own long-term avatar in World of Warcraft and other online game worlds to characters like Doctor Who who have a fifty-years-plus history. The superhero films in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” are all connected, because Marvel understands that the sum is greater than the parts.

Higgs makes the nice point that even Bilbo, who fits Campbell’s template, must share the stage with others when The Hobbit is made into a series of films.

A simple Hero’s Journey story such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit becomes, when adapted for a twenty-first-century cinema audience, a lengthy trilogy of films far more complex than the original book. We now seem to look for stories of greater complexity than can be offered by a single perspective.

Higgs would agree with Giebenhain that “all creators worth their salt know this.”

Added note: Slate also has a fine article on the original Star Wars, which Forrest Wickman calls “the epitome of a postmodernist film.” The article lays out the collaboration between Campbell and Lucas and shows how it follows the model:

“About the time I was doing the third draft I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” [Lucas] later said, “and I started to realize I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I’ll make it fit more into that classic mold.” He became convinced that “There’s a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales,” he said, “and kids need fairy tales.” So he strove to make Star Wars follow each of the steps of “the hero’s journey” as laid out by Campbell: “The call to adventure” (R2-D2 shows Luke Princess Leia’s plea for help); “the refusal of the call” (Luke thinks he should stay home with his family); “supernatural aid” (the Jedi Obi-Wan); “crossing the threshold” (Luke escapes Tatooine); “the belly of the whale” (the trash compactor inside the Death Star); “the meeting with the goddess” (Leia); and so on.

Here’s Wickman describing how the first Star Wars is postmodern:

Star Wars is a WesternStar Wars is a samurai movieStar Wars is a space operaStar Wars is a war filmStar Wars is a fairy tale.

A Jedi craves not such narrow interpretations. In fact, Star Wars­­­—the original 1977 film that started it all—is all these things. It’s a pastiche, as mashed-up and hyper-referential as any movie from Quentin Tarantino. It takes the blasters of Flash Gordon and puts them in the low-slung holsters of John Ford’s gunslingers. It takes Kurosawa’s samurai masters and sends them to Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca. It takes the plot of The Hidden Fortress, pours it into Joseph Campbell’s mythological mold, and tops it all off with the climax from The Dam Busters. Blending the high with the low, all while wearing its influences on its sleeve, Star Wars is pretty much the epitome of a postmodernist film.

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The Odyssey Speaks to Today’s Refugees

Detlev Conrad Blunck, "Odysseus on Calypso's Island"

Detlev Conrad Blunck, “Odysseus on Calypso’s Island”


My daughter-in-law Betsy alerted me to an account by a Fulbright professor in Jordan about teaching The Odyssey to a class filled with refugees. Suddenly Dr. Richmond Eustis saw Homer’s epic in an entirely new light. After all, Odysseus is literature’s most famous refugee.

Eustis also says that those Americans who are reacting hysterically to Syrian refugees would do well to revisit the poem.

Before he taught his class, Eustis had an entirely different idea of how he would proceed. Here is what he anticipated:

In teaching the work, I like to focus on depictions of terrain: lush Ogygia, rocky Ithaka, the perilous wilderness of the wine-dark sea. And still smoldering on the shore behind them, the ruins of Troy. There are nymphs and witches, seduction and intrigues, gruesome violence and angry gods. There is an awkward adolescent becoming a man, a clever hero taking vengeance on his enemies, and a crafty wife thwarting the designs of boorish suitors. There is the joyful reunion of a loving, long-parted couple, and the restoration of order to a troubled oikos. The Odyssey is romance and comedy.

And here he is after encountering his students’ responses:

But that’s not how my students in Jordan read it at all. Many of them are Syrian, or Iraqi, or Palestinian refugees. In their written responses to the first three books, much of the class wrote some variation of: “We know this story. We know what it is to be unable to go home, to show up with nothing at the door of strangers and hope they greet us with kindness instead of anger. We know what it’s like to wonder about the fate of family members, caught up in wars that seem to go on forever, and to hope that one day we will see them again.” 

Eustis notes that, in a population of eight million, Jordan has one million registered refugees or asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, along with another two million Palestinian refugees. And the figures don’t include the many who are in the country without official refugee status.

Eustis became newly appreciative of The Odyssey’s handling of hospitality to strangers:

In its depiction of Odysseus’s journey, The Odyssey is a survey of the Ancient Greek practice of xenia—reciprocal hospitality. But for my students, it depicts the exile’s anxiety in a world in which the principle of xenia is threatened, in which the stranger’s welcome is in doubt. Odysseus asks himself many times about the inhabitants of the unknown islands: “Savages are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk who know and fear the gods?”

The students, Eustis says,

grasped the principles of xenia quickly. They are simple: when strangers arrive at the door, the host is to offer them food and drink, and perhaps a wash, before even asking who they are. Only after their needs are met may the host ask questions. In turn, the guest is to behave respectfully, show appreciation and not make demands that cannot be met. These rules, my students said, are a lot like the rules their grandparents follow about guests. The Odyssey presents an array of examples of the treatment of strangers. There is windy Nestor, humble Eumaios, graceful Nausikaa, and anthropophagous [cannibalistic] Polyphêmos. The expansive (if slightly tacky) Menelaus gives a retainer a tongue-lashing for being too slow to offer hospitality to Telémakhos and his companions. In The Odyssey, generous hospitality marks the greatness of a ruler.

Polyphêmos the cyclops is, needless to say, a negative example of hospitality. Not everyone welcomes strangers. In fact, there’s a chance that Nausikaa’s father might choose to kill Odysseus, prompting her advice that he approach her mother first. Even in this instance, he must abase himself, covering himself in ashes, to assure everyone he is not a threat. Being a stranger in a strange land can be a dangerous business.

Which is why the epic is relevant to our current handling of the Syrian refugees, which many Republican governors are trying to bar from their states. Eustis makes the connection:

Today, this set of questions from an ancient work has surfaced again in the political debates in the U.S. and the rest of the world: What is the morally appropriate way to respond to a stranger in need, a person from a distant land who arrives on your shore in need of aid and shelter? What obligations do civilized people owe to the destitute stranger in a world aflame with slaughter and destruction? And how are we to think about those who refuse to acknowledge any such obligations?

Eustis obviously doesn’t think much of those who turn their backs. He asks us therefore to put ourselves in the refugees’ shoes:

I can understand why so many of [my students] took special note of Odysseus’ plea to the Phaiákian queen Arêtê in Book VII: “[G]rant me passage to my father land. My home and friends are far. My life is pain.” For many of them the ruins of Troy are still smoldering behind them, their oikos in utter disarray with little hope of putting it right. And now the hope of safe haven vanishes too. There may be no solace for them across the wine-dark sea, which continues to claim victims in many of the same places it did in Homer’s time.

In a CBC radio interview with Eustis and a Syrian refugee who is one of his students (you can listen to it here), we see how important The Odyssey is. Discussing what it is like not to be able to return home, she states that education and literature are her “only salvation.”

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Gaskell Novel Explains Trump’s Appeal

Donald Trump


My wife, while reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 Manchester novel Mary Barton, alerted me to a passage that helps explain Donald Trump’s continuing popularity. John Barton, whose working class anger at the rich-poor divide is rendered inchoate by his lack of education, is not unlike the discontented members of the middle class who are thrilling to the New York billionaire’s demagogic rhetoric.

Barton is a good man who has been brought low by tragedy, poverty, and humiliation. Like many in our own country, he is baffled by large wealth gaps:

John Barton’s overpowering thought, which was to work out his fate on earth, was rich and poor; why are they so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all? It is not His will that their interests are so far apart. Whose doing is it?

Dwelling on the unfairness, Barton develops a deep hatred for the upper class:

And so on into the problems and mysteries of life, until, bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering, the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other.

The “keen sympathy” for his fellow workers could take the form of calm and rational collective action. Unfortunately, because Barton lacks understanding, he turns to communism—an extreme measure in Gaskell’s eyes, something akin to people today turning to Trump. In fact, Barton’s allusion to Frankenstein’s monster in her discussion is an analogy that we hear frequently to explain Trump’s success: by catering to the Republican base’s racism and xenophobia, the GOP created a phenomenon it can no longer control. Here’s Gaskell:

But what availed his sympathy? No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgement, but it was a widely erring judgement.

The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.

Gaskell then describes how the monster we have created turns on us, so that “we become their enemies.” It’s a good description of what the GOP establishment is currently experiencing with Trumpism:

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?

If the parties worked together to advance policies that would bring about middle class peace and happiness, our country could again find a solid footing.  Unfortunately, the Trumps of the world benefit far more from stoking John Barton’s anger.

Further thought: In emphasizing the similarities between John Barton and Trump supporters, I overlooked some significant differences. As a member of the working class, Barton feels a sense of solidarity with fellow workers and so doesn’t fall for a cult of personality. While Gaskell sees communist class struggle as misguided, she at least believes that it arises out of a concern for one’s fellow human beings:

John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist; all that is commonly called wild and visionary. Aye! but being visionary is something. It shows a soul, a being not altogether sensual; a creature who looks forward for others, if not for himself.

There is not the same kind of communal feeling amongst Trump supporters. Rather, as members of the middle class, they believe they are supposed to succeed on their own and lash out against forces (the government, Obama, Republican elites) that they see obstructing them from achieving the American dream. They are not looking “forward for others” and therefore turn not to a collective movement but to a narcissistic billionaire.

Gaskell herself has a dilemma. She sees how the working class is ruthlessly exploited by callous capitalists but, suspicious as she is of collective action, doesn’t know how the situation can be rectified. She emphasizes the need for education and individual initiative, but these do no more than help individual characters. Dickens in Hard Times shares Gaskell’s concern for the working class and is similarly unable to imagine a solution that will enable them to hold their own. Historically, it would be England’s trade union movement that finally gave the workers real power.

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Is Freedom More Powerful than Fear?

Obama addressing the country on Jihadist terrorism

Obama addressing the country on Jihadist terrorism


In addressing the country’s anxieties about terrorism following the San Benardino massacre, President Obama assured the country that “freedom is more powerful than fear.” He was, of course, attempting to counter the Trumpian fear mongering and resistance to Syrian refugees. Obama’s assertion was powerful but is it in fact true? In one of literature’s most powerful counter arguments, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor states that people like Obama demand too much of people.

Obama was deliberately echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 assertion that  “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Note that Roosevelt was speaking at a time when the world was locked in a Great Depression and when fascism was on the rise in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan. Our current fears are paltry compared to that.

Blogger Paul Waldman of The Washington Post makes this point, noting that, with increased vigilance following 9-11, 45 Americans have been killed in jihadist terrorist attacks. (Compare this with 48 killed in right-wing terrorist attacks.) The deaths are unfortunate but not of a magnitude that should prompt us to start abandoning our values and trashing our Constitution. As Waldman concludes, “[R]ight now we’re acting like a bunch of cowards. It’s long past time we got a hold of ourselves.”

Part of the problem is that people have worked themselves into a state of hysteria. Obama, recognizing this, said something fairly close to what Auden writes in a poem I discussed two weeks ago. Obama talked about how, in the past, we have always risen to meet such challenges as war, depression, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. Auden, who sets his 1942 poem in the year of Jesus’s birth but aims it at the present, similarly writes:

Flood, fire,  
The desiccation of grasslands, restraint of princes,  
Piracy on the high seas, physical pain and fiscal grief,  
These after all are our familiar tribulations,  
And we have been through them all before, many, many times.

And further on:

To practice one’s peculiar civic virtue was not
So impossible after all; to cut our losses
And bury our dead was really quite easy:That was why
We were always able to say: “We are children of God,
And our Father has never forsaken His people.”

But if Americans in the past thought they were children of destiny, they have begun to have doubts now. Auden detects a new “Horror” creeping into the public consciousness, which he refers to as “It.” We see something comparable creeping into the American psyche today, especially on the Right:

But this Horror starting already to scratch
Its way in? Just how, just when It succeeded we shall never know:
We can only say that now It is there and that nothing
We learnt before It was there is now of the slightest use,
For nothing like It has happened before.

Obama, knowing that he was dealing with a rising panic, essentially said a secular version of “We are children of God, and our Father has never forsaken His people”:

I am confident America will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history. Even as we debate our differences, let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional: We were founded upon a belief in human dignity — the idea that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.

And then his conclusion:

Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear. That we have always met challenges — whether war or depression; natural disasters or terrorist attacks — by coming together around our common ideals. As long as we stay true to who we are, then I have no doubt that America will prevail.

I would like to believe that Obama is right but feel compelled to imagine how the Grand Inquisitor would respond. The episode is a parable set forth by Ivan Karamazov, the reasoning brother who is, at the same time, Reason’s greatest skeptic. Jesus has returned during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and has been imprisoned by the Grand Inquisitor. The man tells him that he was wrong to reject Satan’s three temptations in the desert. The Church, the Inquisitor says, has accepted those temptations and, as a result, the world is much happier than it would have been had it followed Jesus’s lead.

The issue is human freedom. Human beings don’t want freedom, the Grand Inquisitor says, and Jesus’s big mistake was thinking that they did. Rather than giving people bread, dazzling them with miracles, or asserting worldly power over them, Jesus said that people should consult their hearts and freely follow him only on that basis. To which the Grand Inquisitor asserts,

Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.

And further on:

Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling Thee, “Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.” Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle. Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before the might that has overawed him for ever. But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature. Look round and judge; fifteen centuries have passed, look upon them. Whom hast Thou raised up to Thyself? I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him! Can he, can he do what Thou didst? By showing him so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much from him- Thou who hast loved him more than Thyself! Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter. 

The Grand Inquisitor would say that Obama is making Jesus’s mistake of believing that people will embrace freedom rather than their baser instincts. Freedom is very hard work, and it’s much easier to run to versions of the Grand Inquisitor’s church, which claims the authority to lead people and to think for them. In our case, to some it seems easier to follow politicians who claim that the world is black and white and who tell us to put all our trust in them. Donald Trump promises to save us from our free-floating anxiety with his confident claim that he will defeat ISIS.

Is this what separates liberals from conservatives? Do liberals overestimate the ability of people to rise to high ideals while conservatives have a more realistic vision of human capacities? While I realize that, in light of Ivan’s parable, this makes liberals Jesus and conservatives the Spanish Inquisition, the Inquisitor actually gets the better of the argument. Jesus is seen as a naïve idealist, not to mention an elitist, whose faith in humans’ ability to transcend their frailties and prejudices does more harm than good. Better, the Inquisitor says, to take people as they are and proceed from there.

While I can’t abandon my faith that people will rise to the occasion and use their freedom to overcome prejudice and fear, I can see why Burkean conservatives think differently. Ideally what we want is a continuing dialogue between idealism and realism where each reins in the excesses of the other.

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Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times

Eiffel Tower during climate talks. The energy efficient bulbs are powered in part by wind and sun.

The Eiffel Tower’s energy efficient bulbs are powered in part by wind & sun.

Spiritual Sunday

Madeleine L’Engle channels John the Baptist’s prophetic voice in this Advent poem, written while the Vietnam War was still underway. Unfortunately, it’s as relevant now as it was then—perhaps more relevant as human-caused climate change is increasingly making its presence felt. We still have fires, especially in the drought-ravaged west, and drownings, especially in countries with low-lying coastal areas. The song birds are still falling, the sea birds and fish are still dying (overharvesting and increasingly acidic oceans will do that), and children are still choking (especially in China’s polluted air).

But at least there’s a glimmer of light, what with the world’s 195 countries miraculously coming together to sign yesterday’s landmark climate accords (after 20+ years negotiation!). Yes, I know it’s not all that environmentalists wanted. The plans put forward will not prevent a disastrous two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, and there’s much in the agreement that is voluntary. The Marshall Islands may not survive.

Nevertheless, acknowledging the problem is an important first step, and there will be five year follow-ups. With the world focused on the problem, we may see dramatic technological breakthroughs that will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. There may be momentum towards something even better.

Advent is a time of despair and a time of hope, which pretty much captures how many feel about the new accord. But contra the poem, at least the world has “wakened.” Maybe the Eiffel Tower, blazing in all its glory to signal the deal’s signing, can stand in for Bethlehem’s star.

Advent, 1971
by Madeleine L’Engle

When will he come
and how will he come
and will there be warnings
and will there be thunders
and rumbles of armies
coming before him
and banners and trumpets
When will he come
and how will he come
and will we be ready

O woe to you people
you sleep through the thunder
you heed not the warnings
the fires and the drownings
the earthquakes and stormings
and ignorant armies
and dark closing on you
the song birds are falling
the sea birds are dying
no fish now are leaping
the children are choking
in air not for breathing
the aged are gasping
with no one to tend them

a bright star has blazed forth
and no one has seen it
and no one has wakened

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Two Exam Poems To Lift Your Spirits

Mathias Stomer, "Young Man Reading by Candlelight"

Matthias Stomer, “Young Man Reading by Candlelight”


Today is the last day of classes for St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the first day of exams for Sewanee-University of the South, where I’m spending my sabbatical. My mother, who writes a weekly poetry column for the Sewanee Messenger, alerted me to a couple of humorous exam poems. If you are a student, hopefully they will help you laugh in the face of what I know are intense pressures.

I should warn you, however, that Helen Bevington’s “Professors Like Minutiae” does not describe accurately how literature is taught these days, perhaps because Bevington was born in 1906. True, there was a time when literature teachers free associated about poems they liked and would mention authorial trivia. Formalism in the 1950s, however, pretty much brought an end to that approach, focusing instead on the text. Indeed, Robert Scholes in The Crafty Reader thinks that we can rekindle an interest in literature amongst students by returning to our old approach in biography. Maybe there’s something to be said for mentioning Walpole’s cat and Byron’s dog.

Anyway, here’s the poem:

Professors Like Minutiae

By Helen Bevington

Professors taught me by the learnèd hour
That Keats was tiny, Burns a hefty man,
Geraniums were Dickens’ favorite flower
And Shelley was a vegetarian.
I have met Walpole’s cat and Byron’s dog
In pious company of pedagogue.

With whom how friskily did I pass by
The literature for the minutiae.

Regarding professors’ love for minutiae—well, once one delves into any field of learning, one starts making fine distinctions. That is what Aristotle is all about. But okay, pointing out that some teachers focus on minutiae rather than the literature itself is a valid point, a version of Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect.” I have a colleague who polled his entering Introduction to Literature students and discovered that, while they all knew the difference between a metaphor and a simile, almost none of them could name ten poems that they had read. Some “passing by” had evidently occurred in their high school English classes.

And now, for extra credit, here’s a lyric that parodies literature exams. The allusion is to Wordsworth’s “To the Cuckoo”:

To the Cuckoo

By F. H. Townsend

O,Cuckoo, Shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering voice?
     State the alternative preferred

     With reasons for your choice.

Townsend’s punchy little poem gives me ideas for other possible exam questions that take advantage of poetry’s penchant for asking rhetorical questions and hypophoras (where one asks a question and then immediately answers it). For instance:

If winter comes, can spring be far behind? Answer yes or no. In explaining your answer, factor in how climate change has affected weather patterns since Shelley’s time.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Explain why or why not. Why might you, as the loved one, be just as happy if Shakespeare didn’t make the comparison? Keep in mind that the poet wrote during a mini-ice age and that rough winds and summer’s lease might be different today. (See previous question.)

When the nightingale was singing, was Keats awake or asleep? Elaborate.

How do I love thee? Are there any ways that Elizabeth Barrett Browning forgets to count?

How can we know the dancer from the dance? Stand up at your desk and do a demonstration. (You will be graded on style points.)

For those students worried that you may not survive, keep reminding yourself that, although winter comes, winter vacation is not far behind.

Posted in Bevington (Helen), Browning (Elizabeth Barrett), Keats (John), Shelley (Percy), Townshend (F. H.), Wordsworth (William), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Wild Turkey Sighting in Tennessee

Audubon, "Wild Turkey Cock, Hen, and Young"

Audubon, “Wild Turkey Cock, Hen, and Young”


I saw a remarkable sight yesterday as I was driving along an Appalachian road in southern Tennessee: a flock of six or so wild turkeys crossed the road ahead of me. In commemoration of the occasion, I’ve found three poems about wild turkeys. Together, they make not a bad argument for why the wild turkey should have been our national bird.

I start off with this prose poem by Mark Seth Lender, which captures their fierceness:

Field Note

By Mark Seth Lender

Late in the day Wild Turkeys call from the near woods.  An unearthly sound and a warning. A boney spur mounted on the back of each leg is like a driven nail through the end of a length of oak.  Angered, they fly up, rake down.  Then there will be blood – yours – and likely stitches. Benjamin Franklin wanted Wild Turkey, not Bald Eagle for the national bird. Draw close – but not too close – and carefully observe Wild Turkey’s magnificence, their feathered iridescence, their fearlessness and strength of form, and see for yourself if the man who braved the wrath of lightning was wrong or right. 

This Tim Poland poem, meanwhile, speaks to their aristocratic self-possession and their seeming sense of entitlement. I wonder if, as such, they stand in for Americans in general, how we take for granted our many benefits (Social Security, Medicare, home deductions, infrastructure, etc.) while looking down on the government that makes them possible. Maybe they should indeed be the national bird:

these wild turkeys
November 17, 2009

By Tim Poland

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen
the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral
Character. He does not get his Living honestly… For the Truth
the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird,
and withal a true original Native of America… His is besides,
though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not
hesitate to attack…
—Benjamin Franklin, 1784

we’ve taken to feeding these wild turkeys
and they hate us for it, hold us in contempt,
lured from the burden of forage,
baited into ease and dependence,
it’s our fault and they know it, so they
turn on us, demand we continue what we’ve
started now that the damage is done, their
wildness revised to fistfuls of grain on the ground

a hen wanders in from another flock
on the far side of the ridge, saunters in
from the wild to peck the easy corn
with her angry and sated cousins,
the ancient grain a new delight to her,
until a delegation of other hens arrives from
over the ridge, cuts her from this indolent flock,
and nudges her back to the wild fold

see the tom by the fallen poplar, wing feathers
chestnut and buff, eyes like polished pebbles,
he does not condescend to display for us,
we do not merit his vanity,
no threat to him, we are pathetic and
worthy of no more than his disdain,
servants to be pecked and prodded if
we are too slow to deliver up the corn

Finally, Max Reif observes how ancient they seem. Encountering them as I did, he says that they appear to predate Reason, which suddenly strikes him as a “Johnny-come-lately”:

Wild Turkeys on the Road Near Home

By Max Reif

Tribal elders in their feathered garb
pow-wow in the middle of the road.
Bright red wattles shake
from bright blue faces

(reminding me of 
rabid football fans) .

Smiling drivers stop, 
though with a slight discomfort

to see something so ancient
that Johnny-come-lately, reason, 
makes no sense of it at all. 

So if the wild turkey was our national bird, it would capture our tendency to lash out fiercely and to our sense of entitlement. But it also points to deep roots that go beyond reason. Benjamin Franklin had a point.


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Lit Is Aristotelian Road to Happiness

Charles Edward Perugini, "Girl Reading"

Charles Edward Perugini, “Girl Reading”


Knowing of my interest in narrative, my librarian brother Jonathan recently sent me a 2006 scholarly article from The Journal of Happiness Studies arguing that our “narrative identity” is essential to our happiness—or as the article puts it, to our “eudaimonic well-being.” Unfortunately the essay, which is half psychology, half philosophy, doesn’t mention literature. It could have noted that reading great works further broadens that path to happiness.

Eudaimonia is a Greek word meaning “a state of having a good indwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous.” In order to set up the importance of stories, author Jack Bauer and his collaborators turn first to Aristotle’s discussion of living the good life:

[E]udaimonia for Aristotle was not simply a matter of feeling that one was a good and virtuous person; it was also a matter of cultivating high degrees of virtue. Similarly, psychologists have recently portrayed the good life not merely as a matter of feeling that one’s life has meaning (e.g., satisfaction with meaningful relationships or meaningful work) but also as a matter of cultivating higher degrees of richness, complexity, or integration in that meaning.

Later on, contrasting eudaimonic forms of happiness with hedonistic or hedonic forms, Bauer writes,

The tendency of psychologists to exclude ego development (and related concepts like moral reasoning and cognitive complexity) from definitions of well-being reflects the historical tendency of research on well-being to focus on hedonic forms of happiness. We think that a more comprehensive appraisal of a human’s being well — consonant with eudaimonic well-being — should extend beyond just how good one feels about the self in a world of others to incorporate how integratively one thinks about the self and others.

So how does one cultivate “higher degrees of richness, complexity, or integration” or incorporate into one’s life greater integrative understanding about “the self and others”? Bauer says that the key is developing stories about oneself:

People make sense of their lives by creating life stories. People use narratives to try to derive some measure of unity and purpose out of what may otherwise seem to be an incomprehensible array of life events and experiences

As Jonathan Gottshall notes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2013), virtually all humans use stories to make sense of their lives. Bauer, however, says that there are certain kinds of stories that are more likely to lead to happiness. Drawing on Abraham Maslow’s emphasis on self actualization, he says that the growth story is particularly effective in promoting happiness:

Growth stories have implications for eudaimonic well-being as well as a variety of phenomena in personality and developmental psychology. Growth itself plays a central role in eudaimonic wellbeing. For example, personal growth is one of six dimensions in a prominent measure of eudaimonic well-being. Growth is also central to the eudaimonic definition of health in humanistic psychology. For Maslow (1968), the self-actualizing person is motivated by growth, valuing personal growth (or self-actualization) to the point of believing that it is among the very greatest goods. For [Carl] Rogers (1961), the fully functioning person strives to gain an increasingly deeper understanding of his or her inner life. In a developmental model of the good life, high levels of both well-being and meaning complexity represent the endpoints of two theoretical branches of personality development (social-emotional and social-cognitive development, respectively). Given the close tie between growth and eudaimonic well-being, growth stories reveal one process of interpreting life in a way conducive to eudaimonic well-being.

Bauer then breaks growth stories down into four subgenres:

–Intrinsic growth: This is personal growth, which includes relations with friends, relatives, and partners.

–Agentic and communal growth: This is the growth comes from a deeper relationship with the broader community. Later in the article Bauer mentions “generativity,” which involves “an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations” and which would seem to fit under this category.

–Integrative growth: This growth emphasizes “learning, exploring, coming to deeper understandings, and integrating new and old perspectives on one’s life.”

–The growth that can arise out of suffering

To these growth stories, Bauer adds a cultural dimension. There are a number of growth stories that are particularly American:

In contemporary American society, narratives about heroic protagonists who defy convention in order to follow their true (intrinsic) longings, or who suffer through life’s harshest tribulations only to emerge enhanced or integrated in the end, enjoy considerable cachet and admiration. While American society is repeatedly taken to task for its crass materialism and its preoccupations with wealth and celebrity, Americans deeply value stories of personal redemption. Sometimes these stories suggest religious meanings, but more often they adopt images and ideas from secular life. In popular fiction, Hollywood movies, television shows from reality TV to the Oprah Winfrey Show, and in many other venues, American protagonists continue to distinguish themselves as rugged and resilient individualists who delight in their nonconformity and who continue to grow and develop, especially in response to failure and setbacks. Indeed, these kinds of redemptive narratives have always held a privileged status in American society, going back to the spiritual autobiographies written by the New England Puritans in the 17th century. (Among the most popular forms for redemptive life narratives in American society today are stories of upward social mobility, liberation, recovery, atonement, and self-actualization. In each of these forms, the intrinsically motivated protagonist overcomes intense suffering to experience an enhanced status or state — moving from rags to riches, slavery to freedom, sickness (or addiction) to health, sin to salvation, or immaturity to the full expression of the good inner self. In some of these stories, the protagonist may feel that there is something wrong or bad about the self and, as a result, may work hard to try to redeem life in some way. In many others, however, what is wrong is the suffering that comes to people through no fault of their own — through sickness, for example, loss, pov- erty, and so on. Redemptive narratives typically chart the protagonist’s movement over time from suffering to an enhanced status or state. Redemptive life narratives in contemporary American society seem to suggest that if the road is not hard, the life cannot be good…

I must say that the mentions of Oprah and, even more, reality television was enough to have me questioning the entire article. Surely facile redemption stories, which pervade our culture, are not the key to true happiness. In fact, as I have argued in past posts, we are drawn to the powerful gothic strain in American literature (Poe, Hawthorne, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates) because we are dissatisfied with feel-good, morning-in-America success stories. America’s fabled optimism sometimes is a cover for deep insecurities.

So this is what I would add to Bauer’s article. Yes, stories may be the key to finding happiness, but we need great literature if we are to find stories that will truly sustain us. Perhaps Bauer would agree—he cites Maslow and Rogers calling for a rich complexity—but he needs to say so.

Ready literary examples come to mind for each of his categories:

–Intrinsic growth: The bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel focuses on the develop of the individual protagonist. The 19th century specialized in the growth stories of individual characters, and one thinks particularly of such Dickens figures as Pip and David Copperfield.

–Agentic and communal growth: I have to bring up my favorite novel here, The Brothers Karamazov, where Alyosha, the youngest brother, is constantly seeking for a greater cause to which he can dedicate himself.

–Integrative growth: I think of Jane Austen’s Emma as a character who comes to a deeper understanding of herself and the world.

–Growth through suffering: Any number of the world’s great tragedies could be cited here, but I’ll just mention King Lear, who can discover love only when his world is falling apart around him.

One other thought: as we watch crowds cheer for Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim demagoguery, we can identify another quintessentially American narrative at work, one described by Richard Slotkin in his trilogy of works about frontier narratives and westerns. Slotkin notes that America has often believed that redemption can be achieved through the violent suppression of other races.

It is a less benign narrative than the classic growth story, and Aristotle would not see it leading to a sense of eudaimonic wellbeing. But as we can see Trump adulation, it can provide a euphoric high.


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Criminal Case: Turkish Prez & Gollum

A tweet comparing Turkish president Erdogan with Gollum

Tweet of Turkish president Erdogan with Gollum


Here’s a small news item that has an interesting literary, or at least a cinematic, dimension: a Turkish doctor could be imprisoned for tweeted images comparing the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Gollum (see above). Apparently it is against the law in Turkey to insult its head of state, and a judge has convened a panel to determine whether the comparison is in fact an insult.

According to a New York Times article, the doctor lost his job with Turkey’s Public Institute of Health and faces up to two years in jail. The panel will consist of two academicians, two psychologists and a movie expert–which means that a man’s fate depends on a literary character analysis.

Charging the doctor for what appears a harmless tweet appears to be business as usual for the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan, the Times article reports:

The society that Mr. Erdogan helps lead is developing a reputation for not tolerating name-calling on social media. The debate over Gollum might seem silly if Mr. Erdogan was not the president of a country and the outcome did not involve prosecution and possible jail time.

In another case, Mr. Erdogan took Merve Buyuksarac, the former Miss Turkey, to court after she was accused of violating a law against criticizing public servants by posting a poem on her Instagram account in January. In March, Bahadir Baruter and Ozer Aydogan, two cartoonists who work for a Turkish satire magazine, were fined $2,700 for publishing a cartoon that showed Mr. Erdogan joking about killing a journalist. Their original sentence, converted to a fine by a judge, had been 11 months and 20 days in jail, according to Al Jazeera.

Journalists are facing a wave of similar crackdowns. In November, after Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party regained its parliamentary majority in elections, thousands protested because they saw the arrest of two prominent reporters as evidence of growing hostility to oppositional news media.

Consulting its own expert, the New York Times interviewed Wheaton English professor Michael D. C. Drout, who edits the annual review of Tolkien’s works. Drout notes Gollum’s ambiguous status:

“I don’t think there’s any consensus that Gollum is evil,” Mr. Drout said in an interview. “He is the most tragic character in The Lord of the Rings.”

Pointing out that Gollum is instrumental in destroying the ring, Drout added,

“The context is this: Gollum accidentally, not intentionally, saves the entire world.”

And further:

Mr. Drout said that no one would’ve appreciated the existential debate over Gollum more than the author who created him. Painfully and pitifully, Sméagol almost succeeds in overcoming his evil side, but fails. It is a scene that is said to have upset Mr. Tolkien to the point of tears as he wrote it, Mr. Drout said.

“He didn’t see him as irredeemably evil,” he said of Mr. Tolkien. “He saw him as someone who had been destroyed by this evil ring.”

In that sense, the comparison to Erdogan may well be apt. To the extent that the ring stands for the potential of power to corrupt, Erdogan seems to be ever more falling under its spell. Because of power’s dark temptations, figures like Gandalf and Galadriel refuse to take the ring while others, beginning with Isildur and culminating with Frodo, are contaminated by it.

I wonder if the convened panel would conclude that the comparison indicates that Erdogan is being corrupted by power and needs to stop abusing his power if he is to regain his soul. Great literature can provide us with the healing medicine we need. Unfortunately, such a conclusion would probably not lead Erdogan’s government to drop the charges.

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Atwood’s Dystopias & the Gun Business

New Yorker cover 12-14-15


I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, and while it doesn’t deal with terrorism—other Atwood novels take up that subject, including Cat’s Eye, Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood—I can’t help but apply it to recent events. That’s because the Canadian author’s last four novels, all dystopias, show us what happens when under-regulated capitalism goes berserk. We in the United States are currently experiencing the full effects of an under-regulated gun industry.

Atwood has been imagining various grim futures since Handmaid’s Tale, but in Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAdam, and The Heart Goes Last, she shows technological breakthroughs spiraling out of control. The reason is always the profit motive, and Atwood has been showing it at work in an increasingly inegalitarian society. In Oryx and Crake, for instance, companies unleash diseases and then sell the antidotes at extravagant prices. In The Heart Goes Last, we see for-profit prisons becoming super profitable when they start trafficking in body parts. Atwood is particularly good at showing how companies exploit our society’s addictions, whether sex, drugs, self-gratification, or fear.

I find it interesting that many of today’s rightwing conservatives have embraced unbridled capitalism because there is little conservative about its behavior. In fact, unregulated capitalism threatens to blow apart many of our most hallowed traditions. (I recommend this excellent essay on true conservatism, which calls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz CINOs or Conservatives in Name Only.)

Along these lines, I have a confession. When I was in college during the early 1970s, many of us in the counterculture movement turned our back on traditional practices, to the horror of our elders. We didn’t realize, as Gerald Graff was to point out in Literature against Itself (1979), that the more we remove social checks on people’s behavior, the fewer checks there are on capitalist behavior. The sexual revolution, which was designed to remove hang-ups and guilt, delivered into the hands of corporate America full permission to use sex to sell things.

We see sex given full rein in The Heart Goes Last, with finely engineered sexbots and then, the next logical step, special operations that get a partner to fixate on only you. But since today I want to talk about America’s “gun epidemic” (as The New York Times calls it), I’ll focus on addiction to fear.

Fear allows the for-profit prison in the novel to do whatever it wants with the prisoners that are assigned there. When the secret dealings of the prison are revealed, social media is filled with responses from people who approve. Even those who are appalled concede that perhaps it’s okay to kill prisoners if they are bad:

Some say those who got their organs harvested and may subsequently have been converted into chicken feed were criminals anyway, and they should have been gassed, and this was a real way for them to pay their debt to society and make reparation for the harm they’d caused, and anyway it wasn’t as wasteful as just throwing them out once dead. Others said that that was all very well in the early stages of Positron, but it was clear that after Management had gone through their stash of criminals and also realized what the going price was for livers and kidneys, they’d started in on the shoplifters and pot-smokers, and then they’d been snatching people off the street because money talks, and once it had started talking as Positron it wouldn’t shut up.

Yes, money doesn’t shut up, and the amount that the gun industry is making today, and that it is spending on politicians, is staggering. When I see how easy it is to purchase battle-grade firepower in this country, I feel like I am in the middle of an Atwood novel. The very fact that Al Qaeda and ISIS have been pointing out to lone wolf sympathizers how easy it is to get assault weapons and armor piercing bullets in America—no need to set up an intricate weapons smuggling operation such as occurred in Belgium and France—should wake everyone up. Republicans in Congress, however, are more afraid of the NRA than they are of the public and are willing to allow even people on terrorism watch lists to continue to buy weapons rather than pass new regulations. Nor can we get good data on gun violence since Congress has prevented the Center for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the problem for the past 20 years.

Following the Umpqua massacre, President Obama observed that America is the only developed nation on earth that experiences so many people killed from gun violence. A Washington Monthly article yesterday makes the point well:

The simple truth is that the same terrorist impulse is far less deadly when guns are less accessible. Yesterday an ISIS-inspired terrorist in London shouted about revenge for Syria and tried to go on a murder spree. But the death toll was zero—not because of a lack of motivation, but because the perpetrator wasn’t able to gain access to a firearm.

Similarly, on the same day that the Sandy Hook gun massacre claimed the lives of 28 people in addition to the many wounded, a disturbed individual in China went on a knife spree at a school in Chenpeng Village, using his weapon on 24 people. Very similar incidents halfway across the world. The difference? The American had a gun and killed 28. The Chinese man had a knife and killed none of his victims because he had no access to a firearm.

Atwood would particularly find interesting the fact that gun sales skyrocket whenever there is a mass shooting. It would be a very Atwoodian plot twist to have gun companies actually stage mass shootings in order to increase sales. Indeed, there are figures on the rightwing fringe who contend that massacres like the one at Newtown are actually staged so that the government will have an excuse to confiscate firearms. Their conclusion: stock up to prevent it from happening.

In many ways, Donald Trump seems to be the perfect embodiment of Atwood’s fears, an unabashed capitalist who judges everything by the bottom line and is willing to dispense with anything that stands in his way, including constitutional protections and basic morality. Increasingly people are worrying that Trump–or at least Trumpism–has taken over the GOP, all but silencing the true conservatives.

In the upcoming year, we’ll learn whether we are in fact inside an Atwood novel.

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Once in Royal David’s City…

Stephen Alvarez, Sewanee Festival of Lessons and Carols (shot from above)

Stephen Alvarez, Sewanee Festival of Lessons and Carols (shot from above)

Spiritual Sunday 

Lessons_CarolsI was wafted back to my childhood yesterday as I went to Sewanee’s popular Festival of Lessons and Carols with my mother. The last time I attended was, I believe, in 1962 when, as a member of the children’s choir, I actually participated. I remember going down the aisle singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” and the hymn is still part of the service—although I recall it being sung as the opening processional whereas yesterday it served as the closing recessional.

The hymn’s lyrics were originally a children’s poem by Irish poet Cecil Frances Alexander, published in 1848. This helps explain why I loved the hymn so much as a child. It begins with images of magnificence—“Once in royal David’s city”—but quickly moves into contrast—“Stood a lowly cattle shed.” The major contrast is between the adult world and the world of children, and I remember feeling empowered as I sang it—all the more so because the setting was All Saints’ Chapel, which looks like a mini-cathedral. The poem/hymn may begin with a reference to King David but, by the end, it is the children who are wearing crowns:

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

For he is our childhood’s pattern;1
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

There’s a nice Victorian bit about in the poem about honoring and obeying your mom. Be dear and gentle and you’ll end up in a good place. And while I know it sounds smarmy, I was a well-behaved child who totally bought into this aspiration.

As we walked out of All Saints’, the fabulous carillon were playing, taking me back to another work from my childhood. Come to think of it, I probably loved “Why the Chimes Rang” because we lived next to All Saints when I was growing up so we heard the bells all the time. (See my post on Raymond Alden’s Christmas classic here.) Like the jester in Twelfth Night, I could honestly say,

 I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.

In an Advent season that has been invaded by mass shootings and in which families are being wrenched by hideous grief, we need rituals like this to stave off utter despair. “Once in Royal David’s City” puts us back in touch with a spiritual innocence that helps us through.

A note on the photographer: Stephen Alvarez, son of my long-time tennis partner and now a famous photographer, explains here how he was able to photographs the Festival of Lessons and Carols from above.

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Conrad: Terrorism Not as Clear as It Looks

Oskar Homolka as Verloc in Hitchcock's "Sabotage" ("The Secret Agent")

Oskar Homolka as Verloc in “Sabotage” (“The Secret Agent”)


Yesterday I read my son’s dissertation, which he will be submitting today (!). In my admittedly biased opinion, it’s a brilliant exploration of Victorian time travel literature, which means that Toby must also look at how conceptions of time were changing in the course of the century. Enmeshed as I was in discussions of The Time Machine, Frankenstein, The Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, News from Nowhere, and The Water Babies, I did not expect to come across ideas that would bear directly on the recent mass shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. But so it has turned out.

The relevant work is Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, which appears to be about an anarchist attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory In other words, it seems to be about a terrorist reacting against governmental attempts to impose the Prime Meridian—universal time—on the world. It therefore appears to correspond well with today’s terrorists, who perform symbolic acts of violence against those who represent something they hate.

There’s a problem with this account, however—both in the novel and in our shootings. Let’s start with Conrad’s work. My son notes that there’s no clear story about the bomb that goes off, killing a young boy. First of all, the book was based on a real life incident where a man accidentally blew himself up in a park close to the observatory. But it’s not clear that he was targeting the observatory and it’s not clear that he was an anarchist, even although that is what everyone assumed. The anarchists disavowed any connection with him and the case was never solved.

Being a novel, The Secret Agent can give us more information. Verloc pretends to be an anarchist but he is actually a secret agent with a foreign government. A diplomat for this government is worried that England’s lax laws regarding anarchists are hurting his own country and wants England to come down hard on them. Verloc, therefore, is supposed to bomb the observatory so as to implicate the anarchists—at which point they will face reprisals. Verloc uses his wife’s younger brother Stevie, who is mentally disabled, to plant the bomb, but Stevie accidentally triggers the bomb early and is killed.

One of Toby’s great insights is how, over and over, readers get the plot of Secret Agent wrong, concluding that the novel is about anarchy against established institutions. The quick summary I have just made doesn’t bear out such a reading, but, because our minds are drawn to expect certain things, we don’t (as cynical journalists say) let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Conrad knew this is how we would respond because he had seen people react in this way to the original explosion. His novel, therefore, is a subtle exposé of the way people invariably jump to conclusions, even though the real story is often both more complicated and more banal. We want a clash of ideologies, religions, or civilizations, but instead we get a man of no real convictions trying to justify his salary and setting off an explosion that he really doesn’t want to set off.

As I think about it, Conrad may be doing something similar to what Robert Frost does in “The Road Not Taken.” We read the poem and assume, at first glance, that it is about making the unconventional choice, taking “the road less traveled.” And yet, as I have written, the “obvious” reading proceeds to disintegrate before our eyes as we probe it further, becoming far more ambiguous than we originally thought. So it is with The Secret Agent.

And so it is with the mass killings. We want them to fit preexisting narratives—white supremacists attacking black churches, Christian terrorists targeting Planned Parenthood, Muslim terrorists targeting random Americans—and can’t hear anything else.

Of course, if these killers didn’t have easy access to guns, they would be less likely to kill, regardless of their motivations. But that’s a post for a different day.

For the moment, the lesson we can take is to resist calls to demonize all Muslims after San Bernardino and to demonize all abortion opponents after Colorado Springs. Ignore those who trot out the easy narratives. There’s a good chance they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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Climate Inaction Will Lead to a Dystopia

Peacock, Clevver in "Riddley Walker"

Poppy Alexander Peacock, Clevver in “Riddley Walker”


Representatives from most of the world’s countries are currently meeting in Paris to face what they all acknowledge to be one of the greatest crises ever to confront humankind. The challenges of working together are daunting but at least everyone is admitting that climate change is a problem. Everyone, that is, except for the GOP.

Actually, according to conservative New York Times David Brooks, even many Republicans think that humans are causing the planet to warm up. But because the rightwing has hijacked their party, they feel they can’t admit it. As Brooks puts it,

on this issue the G.O.P. has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship — a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.

I’ve written on climate change denialism a number of times (see the links at the end of this essay) because I find it appalling. How can anyone be willing to sacrifice our children and grandchildren on the altar of political expediency.

The U.S. military is among many declaring that, because of a warming earth, we face the prospect of a dystopian future, which makes Russell Hoban’s science fiction classic Riddley Walker a good work to turn to. To be sure, Hoban’s novel is about world that has been been devastated by nuclear war, not by climate change. The passage that catches my eye, however, is the story of a couple who sacrifice their child for their present convenience. This is what anyone who stands in the way of reducing carbon emissions is doing.

Riddley Walker is a challenging novel because of the way it engages in language play similar to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange. One can understand what is being said with a little patience, however, and then the novel’s nightmare vision becomes clear.

The time is 2000 years into the future. Because of an atomic Armageddon, the world has descended into a new iron age. (Riddley Walker is like Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this regard.) Riddley becomes a wanderer and seer (hence his name) who learns that the authorities are seeking to rediscover the secret of gun powder and the atom bomb. The passage I have in mind is one of the origin stories that has arisen in the centuries since the nuclear cataclysm. The fable, which seeks to explain why the world is as it is, demonstrates how selfishness led to disaster. It applies to our own circumstances only too well:

There come a man and a woman and a child out of a berning town they shelter in the woodlings and foraging the bes they cud. Starveling were what they were doing. Dint have no weapons nor dint know how to make a snare not nothing. Snow on the groun and a grey sky overing and the black trees rubbing ther branches in the wind. Crows calling 1 to a nother waiting for the 3 of them to drop…

The child said, “O Im so col Im afeart Im going to dy. If only we had a little fire to get warm at.”

The man dint have no way to making a fire he dint have no flint and steal nor nothing. Wood all roun them only there weren’t no way he knowit of getting warm from it.

The 3 of them ready for Aunty [Death] they wer ready to total and done when there come thru the woodlings a clever looking bloak and singing a little song to his self.

“Cleverness” is looked upon with suspicion in this world since it has led to the atom bomb. (The same suspicion exists in Canticle for Leibowitz and, for that matter, existed amongst Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who executed people who wore glasses.) For our purposes, Clevver stands for the technological prowess that had led to climate change. He offers the family fire but demands something in return:

The clever looking bloak said, “That for you and what for me?”

The man and the woman said, “What do we have for whatfers?” They lookit 1 to the other and boath at the child.

The clever looking bloak said, “Iwl tel you what Iwl do Iwl share you my fire and my cook pot of youwl share me what to put in the pot.” He wer looking at the child.

The man and the woman thot: 2 out of 3 a live is bettern 3 dead. They said, ‘Done.’

They kilt the child and drunk its blood and cut up the meat for cooking.

The clever looking bloak said, “Iwl show you how to make fire plus Iwl give you flint and steal and makings nor you don’t have to share me nothing of the meat only the hart.

The clever man then predicts that, essentially, the old technology will one day return. The man and woman, meanwhile, pay a price for their decision:

The man and the woman then eating ther child it wer black nite all roun them they made ther fire bigger and bigger trying to keap the black from moving in on them. They fel a sleap by ther fire and the fire biggering on it et them up they bernt to death.

We’re not living in a post-apocalyptic world yet, but we’re on the way there. Are we willing to eat our children—or at least the resources they will need to live on—just so we can hold on to our accustomed life style? If we do so, the shadows of black night will move in on us and any number of people will be “bernt to death.”

A note on the artist: Poppy Alexander Peacock has illustrated a number of scenes from Riddley Walker. His artwork can be found at


Past posts on climate change and climate change denialism

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Donne and Climate Change Denial

Leslie Marmon Silko: Climate Change, a Sign of Witchery

Scott Bates: An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

Scott Bates and the California Drought: The Rivers of Blood Turned to Stone

Melville and Climate Change Denial

Scott Bates: The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Haiyan Typhoon, Climate Change Denial, and King Lear

Scott Bates on the Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Order and Ordure

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry Dionysus

Ibsen’s Enemy of the People: Being Right on Climate Change Is Not Enough

Barbara Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet

Richard Shelton: Mass Extinctions Followed by Life

MaddAdam: Atwood’s Vision of Unregulated Capitalism

Alexander Pope: Reflecting on “A Little Learning”

Gulliver’s Travels: The GOP Denies a Giant Problem

Frost’s Fire and Ice: This Is the Way the World Ends

All the King’s Men: Out of Denialism and into Responsibility

Scott Bates: Letters from Mrs. Santa Claus

Pope’s Dunciad: A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

Scott Bates: Everyperson’s Environmental E-Car

Scott Bates: An Environmentalist’s Revenge Fantasy

Scott Bates: Mama Grizzly (Sarah Palin) vs. the Real Grizzlies

GOP Denialism in General (not just on climate)

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: When American Fantasies Are Dangerous

The GOP Descends into Poe’s Maelstrom

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