Let Our Teachers Teach

Claude Lefebvre, "A Teacher and his Pupil"

Claude Lefebvre, “A Teacher and his Pupil”


When I wrote last week about a Virginia legislator attacking teachers for assigning Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I didn’t realize that there was a mother in an adjoining county also going after the book. And unlike the Virginia legislator she gives reasons.

Here’s from The Post’s article about Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County mother whose son was assigned to read Beloved and who has since been lobbying the school system to ban the Nobel Prize winning novel:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading Beloved for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.

Let’s acknowledge that, once one starts plucking scenes out of literature, everything sounds bad. Paradise Lost could be described of having scenes of incest, horrific rape, and a gruesomely described birth. (I’ve posted the passage I have in mind below.) Medea, meanwhile, has child murder, as does Macbeth and Richard III. Brothers Karamazov has disturbing images of child abuse, Crime and Punishment has a graphic axe murder of an old lady, Oedipus of course is about patricide and incest (Oedipus’s children are his siblings), boys are tortured and killed in Lord of the Flies, and a particularly gruesome slaughter concludes The Odyssey. (To cite just one victim of Odysseus’s rage, Melanthius the goatherd has his nose and ears chopped off with a sword, after which his genitals are fed to the dogs and then his hands and feet are chopped off.)

But when one talks of The Odyssey, gruesome slaughter doesn’t come to mind, just as bestiality doesn’t come to mind when we talk of Beloved. (I could barely remember the scene that Murphy was talking about.) On the other hand, Sethe’s rape by whites and her subsequent killing of her daughter is central to the book, so let’s look at that.

Yes, these are disturbing scenes. They also capture some of the realities of slavery, the murder having been based on a real life instance of a woman who was about to be dragged back to slavery with her children. When you have people owning other people, horrific things happen.

High school is where students start learning about these things. In fact, even the Fairfax mother admits the the Holocaust and slavery are fit subjects for adolescents to study. Literature provides a particularly potent forum for taking them on, which is why English classes regularly teach murderous dramas. Millions of students every year study Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear (which incidentally has a scene where a man’s eyes are gouged out).

I suspect, though I can’t be absolutely sure, that some of the upset over Beloved stems from white readers’ discomfort at seeing whites victimizing blacks. I know that race was behind my own county’s decision to ban Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the objectionable scene being two pages of trash talk between African American men. It’s the kind of talk that you will hear on virtually every basketball court in America, white and black alike, but because the characters were African American, there was an added jot to the scene.

Murphy’s son claims that he had nightmares over reading one of these two scenes in Beloved (he doesn’t say which one):

Now a freshman at the University of Florida, Blake Murphy, 19, recalled reading the book before bed and having night terrors after he fell asleep.

“It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

I’ll grant that teachers need to be sensitive when they teach sensitive scenes, although it’s almost impossible to anticipate every reaction. But discomfort is an integral part of the education process.

If we let students opt out of assignments whenever they feel uncomfortable, we can just imagine how many would start complaining. On the other hand, if we decided to play it safe and taught only anodyne literature, students would get the impression that literature is about nothing important. (Some already think this.) High school is a time when students want to tackle the big issues. Their brains and their social awareness are growing and they long to put them to use. They get excited about dramatically presented big ideas. High school teachers—which is to say, the professionals to whom we entrust our children—know this about their students and step up to the occasion.

Let me offer a personal example from a different era, even though it may seem a bit dated now. When I was a sophomore in high school (in 1967), English teacher Bill Goldfinch assigned Catcher in the Rye. I was a fairly repressed adolescent and I hated the book. One scene in particular struck me as inexpressibly dirty, Holden’s run-in with the pimp and the prostitute in New York City. I felt like I had been thrown into a world that I didn’t want to know about.

I now understand why I hated Catcher in the Rye. It struck me as too real and I was in rebellion against reality. I wanted to hide out in the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings. I felt as though I was being forced to grow up faster than I wanted to. The book felt like the punch in the gut that Holden gets from the pimp.

I didn’t realize at the time that Holden has the same anxiety. He is haunted by the thought of little children falling off the cliff of childhood into experience, and he fantasizes about being “the catcher” who softens their fall. The book understood me better than I understood myself.

In other words, my teacher knew what he was doing when he assigned the novel. To this day, I refer back to it as a key point in my education. It didn’t scar me. It toughened me.

I can’t make the argument better than does Jessica Berg, the teacher who engaged with the Virginia legislator, so I conclude with the The Washington Post’s account of her interchange:

Berg, who lives and teaches in Black’s Loudoun district, said she was particularly offended that lawmakers would judge a seminal work of fiction about a former slave after the Civil War based on excerpts and without reading the entire novel.

She offered to go to Black’s office and “personally teach you the novel and many others.”

“It’s ridiculous that you are trying to control education when you have no idea what it entails,” she wrote. “You do not want free thinkers. You want people to adhere to your particular version of morality which does not encompass everyone.”

She also suggested that lawmakers defer to professional educators when it comes to what is taught in the classroom.

“Being in classrooms with these students that you think are going to be poisoned by these texts shows that you do not really know the demographic you are trying to ‘protect,’” she wrote. “You are not giving them the credit that is due. Students are often more mature than we think, and as teachers we guide them through these novels in a mature manner in an academic setting so that we can discuss them in a fitting manner because that is our job, not yours.”


Paradise Lost‘s description of Sin and Death

Sin springs, Athena-like, from the head of Satan, who then rapes her. She explains later to Satan that she gave birth to Sin, who burst through her entrails and raped her himself, giving birth to ceaselessly barking dogs who live in her womb and continue propagating with each other. The symbolism is that out of sin grows more sin. The imagery involves an act of rape and incest, followed by a hideous birth, followed by another incestuous rape, followed by non-stop sibling incest.

I haven’t heard of any calls to ban Paradise Lost in high school English classes. Here’s the passage:

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee [Satan], and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy 
Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cry’d out Death;
Hell trembled at the hideous Name, and sigh’d
From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.
I fled, but he pursued (though more, it seems, 
Inflamed with lust then rage) and swifter far,
Mee overtook his mother all dismayed,
And in embraces forcible and foul
Ingendring with me, of that rape begot
These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceived
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My wowels, their repast; then bursting forth 
A fresh with conscious terrors vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.

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Passover: Blood on the Door Posts

Passover, Angel of Death

Spiritual Sunday

The poet Norman Finkelstein, my best friend in graduate school, has a series of powerful poems about Passover (from his book Passing Over), which begins on Thursday. Today I share one where he wrestles heroically with the heavy weight of his Jewish legacy.

I suspect there are different ways that people approach the Passover seder, from triumphal to reflective. I remember growing up listening to songs of triumphant Zionism, such as the Limelighters singing

In the land they call Galilee,
A new kind of breeze is blowin’.
From Jerusalem to the sea,
An ancient dream is a-growin’.
From Jerusalem to the sea,
An ancient dream is a-growin’.

Come and lend a hand, there’s a land to be won
By every hand, every day, every hour.
Work the fields with the plow and the gun
Plant the seed ’til the plain is in flower.

Of course, I know now that when one people were gaining a homeland, another were losing one. The reference to working the field with the gun suddenly sounds ominous. I say this not to beat up on the Israelis, however—world history is filled with continuous invasions and few cultures have clean hands—but to honor Norman’s poem for reflecting upon our mixed relationship with history. Even when we are ashamed of it or feel dragged down by it, we can’t escape it. It is who we are.

Norman knows that the event that frees the Hebrews deprives the Egyptians of their firstborn. The angel wings of liberation are also the wings of death. The Hebrews themselves are like refugees, and hard though their lot has been, they still find themselves “thrust from their homes/ their bitter homes.” Are they bowing their heads in prayer or in sorrow as they prepare to face a desert existence? Is the “mighty hand,” the “outstretched arm,” a visionary and caring leader or a narcissistic tyrant?

Sound of Wind

By Norman Finkelstein

Sound of wind
of wings over the houses

Blood on the door posts
in the temple courtyard

Bone forearm the people
bowed their heads

Could not look
at what was passing over

Knowing only
they were spared

Heard the wailing
before the word came to leave

Thrust from their homes
before the bread could rise

Thrust from their homes
their bitter homes

For which they never
had provisions

Into the unknown
the desert places

A mighty hand
an outstretched arm

So that Gamliel summarizes
conflating assigning

Rabbi I ask you
when can I stop remembering

When can I acknowledge
it was me it was not me

it is mine it is not mine

When have I fulfilled
my Passover duty?

According to Wikipedia, Gamliel is a name meaning, “God is my reward or recompense” and is bestowed upon a child by parents who have lost previous sons. That would fit the trade-offs mentioned in the poem, the way that gains and losses are bound up with each other. The consolatory naming rewrites history, seeming to summarize it but, in the process, conflating events and assigning new meaning.

Looking over a long history of suffering and loss, the poet asks, “When can I stop remembering?” He wants relief from this tradition, which seems both familiar and alien: “It was me it was not me/it is mine it is not mine.”

When will he have fulfilled the poet’s heavy Passover duty of remembering and witnessing? One suspects that the answer is “Never.”

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The Tax Man Cometh

Breughel, Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem to pay their taxes

Breughel, Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem to pay their taxes


As today is tax day, I looked around for a good tax poem and stumbled across one from the much mocked Edgar Guest, once known as “the people’s poet.” The poem isn’t great but, in an age when various irresponsible politicians have declared a war on taxes, it usefully reminds us what our money is for.

These days the poem almost seems quaint as it harkens back to a time when civic responsibility was regarded as a good thing. Remember when we saw paying taxes as a patriotic duty? How in the world did we allow Grover Norquist to take over our politics?


By Edward Guest

When they become due I don’t like them at all.
Taxes look large be they ever so small
Taxes are debts which I venture to say,
No man or no woman is happy to pay.
I grumble about them, as most of us do.
For it seems that with taxes I never am through.

But when I reflect on the city I love,
With its sewers below and its pavements above,
And its schools and its parks where children may play
I can see what I get for the money I pay.
And I say to myself: “Little joy would we know
If we kept all our money and spent it alone.”

I couldn’t build streets and I couldn’t fight fire
Policemen to guard us I never could hire.
A water department I couldn’t maintain.
Instead of a city we’d still have a plain
Then I look at the bill for the taxes they charge,
And I say to myself: “Well, that isn’t so large.”

I walk through a hospital thronged with the ill 
And I find that it shrivels the size of my bill. 
As in beauty and splendor my home city grows, 
It is easy to see where my tax money goes
And I say to myself: “if we lived hit and miss
And gave up our taxes, we couldn’t do this.”

If Guest’s poem makes you feel any better about paying your taxes today—well then, that’s further proof that poetry is capable of heavy lifting.

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A Virginia Legislator Attacks Beloved




For me, it was déja vu all over again. Some 20 years ago I visited the office of the Superintendent of Schools in St. Mary’s County, Maryland to protest the banning of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in classrooms. (You can read my account here.) Now a Virginia legislator is going after Morrison’s Beloved.

In a case of journalistic malpractice, Washington Post Jenna Portnoy never asked the legislator what exactly he found objectionable about Beloved. Reading between the lines, however, I think I have a pretty good idea. He believes men should have control over women’s bodies, and the novel graphically shows the ugliness of such a stance.

In addition to missing a key question, the article also has a spectacularly stupid opening (I don’t use that adjective often). Here’s how it starts:

Sen. Richard H. Black doesn’t think of himself as squeamish. When he was a young Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, his aircraft took ground fire four times, he was wounded in combat, and he received the Purple Heart.

But the Northern Virginia Republican said he was so stunned by the “moral sewage” in Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved that he did something he professes to never have done in nearly two decades in office.

He abandoned all diplomacy and told a constituent exactly what he thought.

Just because you are a decorated veteran doesn’t make you an expert on what constitutes “moral sewage.” I thank Sen. Black for his heroic service but he doesn’t get to determine what we should be squeamish about. Currently there are legislators throughout the south, perhaps a few of them ex-servicemen, who are declaring themselves squeamish about transgender people, same sex marriages, and gay adoption. For the sake of a punchy opening, Portnoy sacrifices logic.

But back to Black’s attacks. Apparently they grew out of an interchange that he had with an English teacher about a proposed law

that would have required teachers to give parents advance notice if they planned to assign material with sexually explicit content in class. Parents would then have had the right to “opt out” their children from reading the offending books in favor of an alternative.

In response to the teacher’s defense of Beloved, Black described the novel as

“profoundly filthy” and “smut” and derided the teaching of “such vile things,” even though Beloved is routinely part of the curriculum in Advanced Placement English courses.

Black elaborates:

I want teachers who won’t teach such vile things to our students. Slavery was a terrible stain on this nation but to teach it does not mean you have to expose children to smut. The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents.

And upon further questioning by Portnoy:

If you scar the minds of children when they’re young, you’re going to have problems later in life,” he said. “It’s no wonder we’ve got the problems we do with kids today, when we’re exposing them to this type of thing in the public schools.

Here’s my theory about why Black detests Beloved. First of all, the book’s depiction of slave owners’ brutality makes him uncomfortable. What I think transforms his discomfort into hysteria, however, is their assault on the pregnant Sethe.

Sethe is a slave on the Garner farm, which initially is a relatively benign place. When Mr. Garner dies, however, his sick widow must turn to her sadistic “school teacher” brother-in-law to run things. In a powerful scene, the school teacher’s two sons hold Sethe down and suck milk from her breasts as he takes notes. Sethe’s husband, who witnesses the scene, goes mad, and when Sethe informs Mrs. Garner, the school teacher whips her mercilessly, causing a “tree” to appear on her back.

Sethe escapes to Ohio but then, when the school teacher comes to retrieve her and her children (thanks to the Dred Scott decision), she tries to kill her children and succeeds with her two-year-old daughter. She goes to jail rather than back to slavery and, after she is released, her dead daughter proceeds to haunt the house.

According to the Washington Post article, in 2002 Black wanted to lift a ban on spousal rape, arguing that it was a legal impossibility. (So spousal rape is one thing he’s not squeamish about.) Also, when Virginia legislators were considering an abortion bill, he sent to them “tiny pink plastic models of a fetus.” In other words, he believes that the state should come down on the side of husbands who are accused by their wives and that it should take away women’s ability to control their own bodies.

It makes sense, then, that he would object to the novel’s attack on tyrannical whites who are asserting their control over black women. It’s uncomfortably close to Black’s sense of his white patriarchal prerogatives.

Add to that the long history of white racists’ fascination/repulsion with black female sexuality (repulsed because fascinated), from slave masters who raped their slaves to politicians like Ronald Reagan who attacked the fertility of black welfare mothers. In recent years, the anti-abortion movement has focused particularly on shaming black women. Mix it all together and Black’s reaction appears overdetermined. No wonder he uses phrases like “moral sewage,” “profoundly filthy,” and “vile things.”

Now ask yourself who you would rather have teaching your child. Do you want a bloviating representative or an English teacher who understands adolescents and cares about their growth?

Elaboration: The fascination/repulsion dynamic works as follows: Racists are drawn to black female sexuality because it is exotic and speaks to repressed longings within them. But they are ashamed and therefore revolted by these longings and therefore lash out against black women. The dynamnic operates in the case of Morrison’s school teacher. He vicariously enjoys watching his sons assault Sethe and then is ashamed when she reveals the violation to his sister and lashes out (literally in this case) against Sethe. The Virginia representative recognizes himself in the school teacher and lashes out against Toni Morrison for exposing his shame.

He’d be a much happier man if he grappled with the difficult truths offered by the novelist. And a better legislator as well.

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Stories Have Always Opened Up the Future

 Sir John Everett Millais, "The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870)

Sir John Everett Millais, “The Boyhood of Raleigh” (1870)


I recently encountered a fascinating theory in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperCollins 2015). According to the author, humans owe their success as the planet’s dominant species to their ability to compose stories.

I periodically say that stories are as vital to us as food and shelter. Now I have an anthropologist backing me up.

Harari first argues that humans won out over all other mammal species, including Neanderthals, because of their unique language. This language allows humans to construct detailed plans of action (say, to hunt lions) and to gossip, which ensures social cohesion. But that’s not all that human language makes possible:

[T]he truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

The ability to invent fictions, Harari believes, is what ushered in the Cognitive Revolution:

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Harari elaborates:

[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Collective stories, Harari says, not only enable large numbers of people to work together but also to rapidly adapt to whatever reality throws at them. Change the story, change your behavior. This is not the way other species evolve:

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths—by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.

The Cognitive Revolution, Harari concludes, is

the point when history declared its independence from biology. From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens.

If Harari’s theory is true, what new insights do we gain into literary fiction? Literature, of course, is more than stories, and there are many bad stories capable of widespread destruction—for example, those propagated by Adolph Hitler. Fiction has a lot to answer for.

But the greatest literature reaches deep within us, showing us who we are and giving us a sense of our potential. Just as primitive human beings used stories to bring about worlds not yet realized, so literature can point to transcendent ways of being. The tremendous potential that, from the first, lay in the fictional imagination still resides within well-crafted stories.

My blog posts over the years have given multiple examples of authors pointing beyond their historical moment and imagining new lives—for instance, Chaucer anticipates women demanding genuine respect from men in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, and Shakespeare looks ahead to same sex relationships and transgendered selves in Twelfth Night. These were humans who employed stories to unlock unrealized possibilities within the human mind, even though their time period could only dimly conceive of such radical change. It would take centuries for Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s visions to become social reality.

Literature taps into our vital core. We see the future in the novels that we read.

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My New Granddaughter, Glorious Eden

Roelandt Jacobsz Savery, "The Garden of Eden"

Roelandt Jacobsz Savery, “The Garden of Eden”


I am a grandfather again! First I had Alban with Darien and Betsy and now I have my third granddaughter with Toby and Candice. First there was Esmé, then there was Etta, and now there is Eden, born yesterday.

Of course I had to check out Milton’s description of Eden. Here’s our first glimpse of the garden, which captures all the glory and the dream of God’s new creation. Pan dances with the Graces (Brightness, Joyfulness and Bloom) and the Horae ( Good Order, Justice and Peace) in the “Eternal Spring”:

Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;
Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm,
Others whose fruit burnished with golden rind
Hung amiable, Hesperian fables true, 
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betwixt them lawns, or level downs, and flocks
Grazing the tender herb, were interposed,
Or palmy hillock, or the flowery lap
Of some irriguous valley spread her store, 
Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose:
Another side, umbrageous grots and caves
Of cool recess, o’er which the mantling vine
Lays forth her purple grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant; meanwhile murmuring waters fall 
Down the slope hills, dispersed, or in a lake,
That to the fringed bank with myrtle crowned,
Her crystal mirror holds, unite their streams.
The birds their choir apply; airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune 
The trembling leaves, while universal Pan
Knit with the Graces and the Hours in dance
Led on th’ Eternal Spring. 

As beautiful as Milton’s description is, however, the passage that first leapt to mind when I heard my granddaughter’s name was a passage from one of Lucille Clifton’s Garden of Eden poems (“the story thus far”). In this instance, Eve discovers Eden as she leaves Eden:

as she walked past
the cherubim
turning their fiery swords
past the winged gate

into the unborn world
chaos fell away
before her like a cloud
and everywhere seemed light

seemed glorious
seemed very eden

Yes, the world is all before little Eden, to borrow from Milton’s final lines. May providence guide her.


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Robinson Ran Against Walls, Never Broke

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson


Tonight at 8 ET, PBS is running the first of a two-part Ken Burns documentary about Jackie Robinson. This gives me an excuse to repost an essay, slightly modified, that I wrote six years ago about a Lucille Clifton poem honoring the legendary ball player.

Apparently Clifton had three special heroes: Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, and Robinson. Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, doing so with a combination of grace and talent. Despite non-stop heckling from fans and opposing players, he went on to become an all-star second baseman and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I love Lucille’s description of him as “brave as a hit” and running “against walls without breaking,” which gets at his hitting prowess, his speed on the base paths, and his propensity to play with reckless abandon. In one of the great plays in World Series history, Robinson stole home against the New York Yankees in 1955, something that is almost never done.

“Walls” and “fences” stand in for the obstacles that Robinson had to overcome, and “night games” points to the hostile terrain that he entered with his black skin.

I fully expect Burns to vividly depict the racism, along with all the death threats, that Robinson faced. In the end, however, he himself became “the conquering dark,” inspiring other African Americans like Clifton as he did so.

jackie robinson

By Lucille Clifton

ran against walls
without breaking.
in night games
was not foul
but, brave as a hit
over whitestone fences,
entered the conquering dark.

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Beauty Breaks Like a Flash from Heaven

Lepicie, "Conversion of St. Paul"

Nicolas Bernard Lepicie, “Conversion of St. Paul”

Spiritual Sunday

In  an allusion to one of today’s Gospel readings, William Cowper in Part V of The Task (“The Winter Morning Walk,” 1785) uses Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus to capture the spiritual power of natural beauty. Given how rough winds and even snow are shaking parts of the United States at the moment, Cowper’s poem is unexpectedly seasonal.

After describing the beauties of a winter’s walk, Cowper a contrast between merely observing nature vs. detecting God’s hand in it. If we don’t acknowledge a divine presence, he says, we are as blind as the animals that do no more than “ruminate heedless of the scene outspread”:

Acquaint thyself with God, if thou wouldst taste 
His works. Admitted once to his embrace, 
Thou shalt perceive that thou wast blind before; 
Thine eye shall be instructed; and thine heart, 
Made pure, shall relish, with divine delight 
Till then unfelt, what hands divine have wrought. 

Brutes graze the mountain-top, with faces prone, 
And eyes intent upon the scanty herb 
It yields them; or, recumbent on its brow, 
Ruminate heedless of the scene outspread 
Beneath, beyond, and stretching far away 
From inland regions to the distant main. 
Man views it, and admires; but rests content 
With what he views. The landscape has his praise, 
But not its Author…

Cowper invokes Paul to describe what the intense joy he suddenly experiences:

Then liberty, like day, 
Breaks on the soul, and by a flash from heaven 
Fires all the faculties with glorious joy. 
A voice is heard that mortal ears hear not, 
Till thou hast touch’d them; ‘tis the voice of song, 
A loud Hosanna sent from all thy works; 
Which he that hears it with a shout repeats, 
And adds his rapture to the general praise. 
In that blest moment Nature, throwing wide 
Her veil opaque, discloses with a smile 
The Author of her beauties…

I suspect that you too have sent up loud Hosannas in the presence of a gorgeous day. Or something comparable.

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Immigrants Touched by Grace

Chaplin, Purviance in "The Immigrant"

Chaplin, Purviance in “The Immigrant”


One of my joys in life is listening to New Yorker fiction and poetry podcasts. It’s worth subscribing to the magazine just to get unlimited access to them, but I believe that you can get 10 articles and podcasts a month even without a subscription. In the latest poetry podcast, poet Andrea Cohen joins poetry editor Paul Muldoon to read and discuss Philip Levine’s “The Mercy.”

By giving a face to immigrants, the poem is a good corrective to those GOP politicians who are stripping such people of their humanity. In the Scottish seaman, we see empathy at work as he gives Levine’s mother a gift that she will stay with her for the rest of her life.

Cohen and Muldoon note that the greatness of the poem is due in part to the way that Levine skirts sentimentality without ever falling into it. There are dark times as well as moments of grace, such as the small pox deaths and the Italian miners who “rediscover the same nightmare they left at home.” The magnificent final line, however, propels the poem to a transcendent level.

The Mercy

By Philip Levine

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.” 
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word, 
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over. 
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on, 
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners 
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom. 
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,” 
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore. 
Italian miners from Piemonte dig 
under towns in western Pennsylvania 
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. 
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

Posted in Levine (Philip) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Lit for Handling a College’s Race Problems

Perdido Street Station


It’s seldom good when your college ends up on the front page of The Washington Post. A series of arson incidents (admittedly fairly small—a bulletin board here, a basket of laundry there); some racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic messages painted on beer cans; and a student wearing a Confederate shirt to a basketball game have come together in a perfect storm that caught the eye of a reporter.

Yesterday morning’s classes were canceled for an all-campus meeting in the gym, where people talked about the concerns and discussed steps we could take. The place was packed, and many students voiced their anger and disappointment at how we have strayed from “the St. Mary’s Way,” a code of conduct designed to promote mutual respect amongst all members of the community.

There were also positive moments as people made concrete suggestions for steps forward. Many expressed their love for St. Mary’s and expressed their appreciation for the forum.

Today’s post describes how I have folded the incidents into my teaching. Applying literature to urgent issues is one way of affirming its value.

The forum ended right before my Early British Literature survey and I knew, as I listened to the speakers, that George Herbert would not resonate with my students that day. I therefore scrambled the syllabus, pulling up Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and pushing everything else back. Oroonoko examines how an attempted friendship between a colonialist white woman and a male slave is undermined by what today we would call systemic racism.

I didn’t have to shift anything around in my British Fantasy class, where on Tuesday we discussed China Miéville’s Victorian steampunk novel Perdido Street Station. The novel features a multicultural city in which various subgroups interact and sometimes clash. The subgroups include regular humans, beetle-headed half-humans, walking cactus plants, giant slake moths, angels, and the city’s mob boss, named Mr. Motley, who is a “remade” combination of pretty much everything.

Easiest to apply to our situation was the poetry of Lucille Clifton, whose poetry we were reading last week when the offensive beer cans were found. Clifton taught for 18 years at St. Mary’s and wrote several poems specifically about race tensions here. How often does a major writer speak that directly to you?

Here’s a small sampling of what we talked about.

I’ve described in past posts (here  and here) how Oroonoko can seem to confirm Aristotle’s assertion that friendship is impossible between people when the power differential is substantial. Time and again in the novella, a character will betray a friend when the inducements are there to do so. Narrator Behn and African prince Oroonoko are friends but she then takes advantage of their intimacy to spy on him at the behest of the plantation owners. Plantation overseer Trefry and Oroonoko are friends but Trefry manages to be absent when the plantation owners break their word and torture Oroonoko following a failed slave revolt. Oroonoko and the lower class African slaves are friends but he then promises Trefry to obtain more slaves for him in exchange for his own freedom.

What threatens friendships across race lines at St. Mary’s, I asked. While some of the students, all white, argued that there weren’t obstacles, the students of color weren’t so sure. The differences lay in life experiences, which led to different students looking at a Confederate flag and seeing two entirely different things. And where students from black inner city neighborhoods saw threats all around them, students from white suburbia saw only a benign campus. Those different perspectives sabotage potential friendships.

Fortunately, slavery is not dividing us. These differences can be surmounted, we agreed, if people make a sustained effort to talk to each other and listen to each other. Since a major aspect of privilege is not having to think about certain things, those who are privileged have a special obligation to listen closely.

In Monday’s Introduction to Literature class, we had the opportunity to approach privilege from an angle that half the class understood immediately. In “Wishes for Sons” (which I’ve written about here), my women students noted that the men in the class had the privilege of not having to think about menstruation. They told stories of insensitive fathers, brothers, and boyfriends.

Clifton, I pointed out, is always sensitive to those whose voices are not being heard. It could be African Americans in one poem, women in another, children with disabilities in another (as in “grandma, we are poets,” about Lucille’s autistic grandson).

In British Fantasy we talked about how, in a post-modern society, the old established norms are no longer operative. Miéville offers a nice example of this early in Perdido Street Station where Isaac, a human, is dating Lin, who is a khepri—someone with a human body but a beetle’s head. Or at least, that is how he describes her. But she points out that his articulation reveals his anthrocentrism and that it is equally valid to describe him as having a khepri body with a head that looks somewhat like a gibbon.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric, which I think has raised race tensions on our campus and around the country, appeals to white voters who are panicking over losing their accustomed dominance and becoming just another of America’s minorities, albeit the major minority. In other words, with the browning of America, they can no longer confidently posit themselves as the norm and everyone else as the deviation. Such identity anxiety goes a long way towards explaining the political temper tantrum we are witnessing.

Literature can’t end racial tension, but it can gives us a framework for understanding and talking about it.

Posted in Behn (Aphra), Clifton (Lucille), Miéville (China) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Children Will Reproach Us

Antarctic ice shelves in danger

Antarctic ice shelves in danger


 For people with children and grandchildren, the latest predictions about rapidly melting Antarctic ice make climate change real in a whole new way. Suddenly people we know and love could well be alive when, according to a new study, ocean levels will have risen by five or six feet. Or they will do so if we cannot keep atmospheric temperatures below a 2 °C increase.

Rising ocean levels, of course, will unleash holy havoc upon coastal populations around the world. For instance, Miami will disappear. And that’s in addition to the projected increase in extreme weather events.

.Lucille Clifton has a poem that imagines how the next generation, along with their own children and grandchildren, will hold us accountable.. To be sure, Clifton may have nuclear Armageddon in mind rather than another civilization-ending event. The poem is titled “the last day.” Nevertheless, with the GOP resisting and preparing to turn back any progress on limiting greenhouse gases, we can imagine offering up weak defenses as “our kind” reproach us with reproachful eyes.

Clifton’s poem echoes “The Hollow Men” with its drama of the eyes. In Eliot’s poem, however, it is those who have gone before who reproach us, not those who come after:

Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us–if at all–not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

Between Eliot and Clifton, we get accused from both directions. Here’s the poem:

the last day

By Lucille Clifton

we will find ourselves surrounded
by our kind   all of them now
wearing the eyes they had
only imagined possible
and they will reproach us
with those eyes
in a language more actual
than speech
asking why we allowed this
to happen   asking why
for the love of God
we did this to ourselves
and we will answer
in our feeble voices   because
because   because

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

Mixed Feelings after Winning a Drawing

Mondrian (some rectangles blank, others lit up)


Today I share a story about mixed feelings after winning decent money in a drawing. I am reminded of how Pilate’s daughter Reba in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon wins a ring from Sears, to the great disappointment of store managers. There was similar disappointment when Julia and I won our own prize.

I’ll start with Reba’s story. She’s very good at winning things except for when—as occurs later in the novel—she tries to win things. But when protagonist Milkman and his friend Guitar first meet her, she is someone that others turn to when they are in search of luck:

“Sure I’m lucky.” Reba grinned. “People come from everywhere to get me to stand in for ’em at drawings and give them numbers to play. It works pretty well for them, and it always works for me. I win everything I try to win and lots of things I don’t even try to win.”

“Go to where wont nobody sell her a raffle ticket,” [Pilate said]. “They just want her to hold theirs.”

Reba wins the diamond ring because she is the five hundred thousandth person to walk into the store. The managers are irritated because (1) Reba is black and (2)—well, I’ll let Reba explain:

“Tell ‘’em why you was in Sears, Reba.”
“Look for a toilet.” Reba threw her head back to let the laughter escape…
“Ain’t but two toilets downtown they let colored in: Mayflower Restaurant and Sears. Sears was closer. Good thing nature wasn’t in a hurry. They kept me there fifteen minutes gettin my name and address to send the diamond over to me. But I wouldn’t let ’em send it to me. I kept asking them, Is this a real contest? I don’t believe you.”

Julia and I weren’t quite as unwelcome as Reba but there was some tension. We own a timeshare that we wish we’d never bought but now feel stuck with, along with the monthly maintenance costs. The resort we visited during spring break had a drawing so we entered, knowing that we would win something—from $50 to $1000—at the price of having to sit through a sales pitch.

A digression on sales pitches: Having a PhD doesn’t necessarily protect you from them. In fact, I’m particularly vulnerable because I’m always three steps behind. I try to parse the details of the deal while the salespeople keep changing the subject to keep me off balance. A doctorate indicates that you are very smart in one thing while, in all probability, fairly dumb in others.

Julia and I now know that we should just say “no” to all questions. Or call one of our smart sons before we sign anything.

So anyway, we picked an envelope, which we weren’t allowed to open until after we went through the pitch. We got a very high-powered young woman who became increasingly frustrated with us when we wouldn’t budge. We patiently explained to her that we wouldn’t be buying anything, but that only served to make her defensive and huffy. Finally, because we were having brunch with some friends and had been there for over an hour, we insisted on leaving. I felt like I had been slimed.

When we opened up our envelope, we discovered that we had won $1000.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone as irritated as our saleswoman. Half-jokingly—well, actually less than half—she said that we had to come back to her table and reconsider. But we had friends to meet and fled the building.

Talk about conflicting emotions! During the car ride to the restaurant, I was torn between trying to recover from the pitch and rejoicing at winning the money. I finally calmed myself down by remembering how furious the saleswoman had been, just as Reba’s family enjoys how distressed Sears is at having to give the diamond to an African American woman who just stopped by to use the bathroom.

I wish I could report that we did something romantic with the money, but it all went to a root canal (for me) and a pulled tooth (for Julia). Still, we made better use of it than Reba does with her windfalls. Everything she wins, she gives to undeserving lovers, who then beat her when she doesn’t give them more.

Still, Reba is a positive figure in that she refuses to hold on to things. Whether she wins or loses is immaterial to her. Both she and her mother Pilate are figures of bounty, set against the material world of acquisitiveness that characterizes the rest of the world. The bounty stops flowing, however–Reba stops winning things–when her materialistic daughter Hagar starts demanding things. The magic goes when greed starts.

The important thing about winning a drawing, in other words, is to thank the world for being bountiful but don’t demand more of it.   We were going to pile up some credit card debt to pay for our dental work and now we don’t have to. Life is sometimes wonderful that way.

Posted in Morrison (Toni) | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Shelley Predicted Microsoft’s AI Problems

Scene from "Frankenstein" (1931)

Scene from “Frankenstein” (1931)


My son Tobias Wilson-Bates, currently a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech, recently published a short essay about robotics and literature in a school newsletter. Sign me up immediately for the Proud Fathers Club.

The relationship between machines and literature has long fascinated Tobias, which makes Georgia Tech a good place for him at the moment. As he points out, Mary Shelley anticipated almost 200 years ago problems that we are currently encountering with artificial intelligence.

Tobias is currently teaching a course that “challenges students to engage with the topic of robotics as existing in a cultural network of information.” Among the problems he addresses is whether our artificial creations will reflect our social failures. In the article, which I’ve shared below, he alludes to the following passage, where Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” explains how he began his war against humankind:

Here I paused, not exactly knowing what path to pursue, when I heard the sound of voices, that induced me to conceal myself under the shade of a cypress. I was scarcely hid when a young girl came running towards the spot where I was concealed, laughing, as if she ran from someone in sport. She continued her course along the precipitous sides of the river, when suddenly her foot slipped, and she fell into the rapid stream. I rushed from my hiding-place and with extreme labor, from the force of the current, saved her and dragged her to shore. She was senseless, and I endeavored by every means in my power to restore animation, when I was suddenly interrupted by the approach of a rustic, who was probably the person from whom she had playfully fled. On seeing me, he darted towards me, and tearing the girl from my arms, hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood. I followed speedily, I hardly knew why; but when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body and fired. I sank to the ground, and my injurer, with increased swiftness, escaped into the wood.

This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone. The feelings of kindness and gentleness which I had entertained but a few moments before gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.

Here’s the article:

FrankenBot: The Inevitable Monstrosity of Artificial Life

By Tobias Wilson-Bates, Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech

It has been quite a year for artificial intelligence. Google has continued its rapid movement toward integrating neural networks into the heart of its information empire; in March, its A.I., AlphaGo, defeated world champion Lee Se-dol in the complex game of Go. The excitement seems to lend credibility to Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that machines will attain consciousness by 2029.

Given all the recent success, it came as quite a shock this week when Microsoft’s artificially intelligent chatbot, Tay, failed about as remarkably as possible at enacting the part of a “chill millennial.”

Within 24 hours she was posting an embarrassing slew of racist, sexist, incestuous and genocidal messages that were gleefully harvested by both social media users and news media alike.

Journalists have posed a number of arguments about the meaning of Tay’s corruption, but whatever the motives were, they are likely more complex than the theory of Microsoft’s vice president of research Peter Lee, who wrote off the incident as “malicious intent that conflicts with our values and principles.” In fact, the likelihood of an attack was so strong that Microsoft had already produced extensive firewalls (which proved ultimately ineffective) for just such a circumstance.

In other words, everyone involved knew beforehand that new life is prone to attacks. Indeed, the scenario goes back at least as far as the first work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In the novel, the creature is abandoned by its maker and wanders aimlessly until it is attacked for saving a child from drowning. The creature is rejected by human society and does monstrous things in return. Of course, one could argue that its revenge is merely its adaptation to the very forms of violence it experiences from the humans it meets.

Tay, as an artificial being subjected to the group politics of social media, occupies the same position as a sort of “human” existing to both reestablish the humanity of her peers while also bringing the category into question. Whether they mean to or not, Microsoft is deconstructing what it means to be human and, as such, creating a monster.

As intelligent machines are increasingly woven into the fabric of the modern world, areas of knowledge associated with the humanities are becoming structurally necessary for producing and integrating new technologies. Tay was not a technological failure but a sociological one. It is to be hoped that in turning toward increasingly autonomous social machines, we draw upon the ethics discovered in the careful examination of narrative and social patterns.

Added note: Just as Mary Shelley offers an alternative educational model for how Frankenstein’s monster could have been raised, so Tobias cites his colleague Mark Riedl for his attempts to align robots with our ethical ideals. You can go to “Quixote” to see how Riedl is “programming robots to read stories that may act as a user manual for ethical human behavior in real-life scenarios.”

Posted in Shelley (Mary) | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A Debate about Sex, Pullman vs. Milton

Subtle Knife

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve just learned from a Constance Grady Vox article that Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass turned twenty this year. I’ve written a couple of posts about Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and I’ve been critical of what I consider to be its simplistic and somewhat muddled view of religion. (You can read those previous posts here, here, and here.) Nevertheless, I still enjoy Pullman’s fantasy vision and I appreciate the Vox article for outlining the author’s philosophy.

Even better from my perspective, Grady alerts me to a revival I never could have predicted: England Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has adapted the 15th century medieval morality play Everyman. Grady mentions it in the Dark Materials article because Duffy’s changed ending reminds her of  Pullman’s insistence that we should let our focus on the afterlife lessen our appreciation of our earthly existence.

Here’s Grady summing up Pullman’s vision:

 In the universe of His Dark Materials, the Church and the Authority stand for conformity, for the suppression of self-knowledge and sexuality. In contrast, the fallen angels are the side of goodness and right in the moral universe of this trilogy, and they stand for the arts and sciences, for secular humanism, and for the pleasures of the body.

His Dark Materials, in fact, insists on the pleasures of the body. It imagines a kind of tripartite human nature, one that consists of a body, a ghost or spirit, and a daemon or soul — “but the best part is the body,” the books conclude. “Angels wish they had bodies.”

The body is what makes Pullman’s wicked authoritarian angels envy and hate humans so; fear of the body and of sexuality is what makes the Church castrate children and cut away their daemons. And in the end, our heroine Lyra is able to save all of the worlds by reenacting Eve’s fall and learning the pleasures of the body — by, in other words, kissing a boy. It is only after Lyra and Will kiss that they become “the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.”

The morality of His Dark Materials is an inversion of the traditional morality of the Christian fall, one that privileges knowledge and experience and the body above innocence and ignorance and the soul. It posits that true self-knowledge and true spirituality can only be experienced through the body.

Contra Pullman and Grady, I would argue that inverting the value system doesn’t solve the problem. Focusing only on enjoyment of the body while waving away the problem of sin ignores how we defile creation. If we have distorted views of sex, it’s not all the church’s fault. To come to Milton’s defense, he is no stodgy Puritan who has problems with sex. Adam and Eve, after all, engage in “the rites mysterious of connubial love” in the poem. Nor, for that matter, does he believe that humans should be kept in ignorance, and we see the angels Raphael and Michael lecturing Adam extensively about history, theology, and other matters. (We could wish that they also lecture Eve, but 17th century sexism is a different issue.)

What Milton understands far deeper than Pullman is that human pride corrupts the goodness of God’s creation. Adam and Eve, like Satan and the other fallen angels, let their self-absorption blind them to God’s bounty.

To be sure, there are many churches that equate sex with sin and maybe Pullman’s book is good for counteracting those voices. A few weeks ago I wrote about how D. H. Lawrence also provides a useful corrective for such narrowness in The Man Who Died. I acknowledge that the tradition is strong in Christianity. It’s just not the only tradition in Christianity.

And now to Duffy’s new adaptation of Everyman. Here’s Grady again:

In the original play, Everyman (guess who he represents!) is told by God that he will soon die and be judged. Everyman asks various figures to accompany him to judgment — his friends and family, his worldly goods — but one by one, they all refuse. In the end, Everyman is only able to achieve absolution and be cleansed of his sins by repenting before God and flagellating himself. This is traditional medieval Christian morality at work: It is only by scourging his body that Everyman is able to achieve a soul clean enough to be welcomed into heaven.

But in Duffy’s adaptation, first performed at London’s National Theatre in 2015, salvation by self-flagellation proves to be a false track. Instead, Everyman is only able to accept his death and find spiritual transcendence by repeating the prayer, “For the gifts of my body I give thanks / At the hour of my death.” Everyman’s ecstatic gratitude for his body climaxes in a moment reminiscent of the climax of His Dark Materials: “Praise to my tongue for snowflakes, tequila, / marzipan, mint, cheese and honey, every kiss. / Every kiss.” (Marzipan, coincidentally, features prominently in Will and Lyra’s kiss.)

Like His Dark Materials, Duffy’s Everyman cannot find the sense in a theology that punishes the body. Instead, theology must be experienced through the body, and it is only through celebrating our bodies that we can experience true spiritual transcendence.

I’m no religious historian but I’ve sometimes wondered whether the tradition of self-flagellation and contempt for the body (and sexuality) grew out of the 14th century Black Plague, when the body proved to be so unreliable that people focused on life-after-death as a coping mechanism. (Experiencing the death of one in three people (!) can scar a society.) In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which appeared at the end of the 14th century, Nature is peeved at being disrespected by Christian Camelot and gets Gawain to admit that he loves his body.

But maybe I can’t blame it all on the Black Plague. St. Paul, after all, was suspicious of human sexuality, as was St. Augustine. Anyway, there are some Christians who associate sex with sin and others of us who see ts as a wondrous gift.

Grady, doing her own wondering, speculates that modern technology has made it easier to love our bodies and therefore to stop celebrating self-flagellation. It’s an idea worth considering although it sounds suspiciously like the position that Howard Nemerov takes to pieces in his poem “Boom!” Looking at the tradition that produced Everyman and Paradise Lost, Grady observes,

At that point in history, bodies were uncomfortable and disgusting; they were filthy and riddled with disease. To get closer to God, you had to transcend the body itself. You had to punish and reject it. Relatively speaking, we’ve only recently figured out how to comfortably live in a body, with medicine and indoor plumbing and upholstered furniture. So it’s really only now that this idea of a theology of the body is finding widespread acceptance in beloved YA fantasy trilogies and in celebrated plays by Britain’s poet laureate.

Allow me to offer an amendment. When religion is used only as an insurance policy against suffering and death, then it will fail to do justice to our deepest selves, which have been made in the image of God. People’s suspicion of sex arises out of fear of our fragile bodies and out of our prideful desire to be invulnerable. Pullman may blame the church but I suspect that the church just reflects generalized fears on this matter.

Milton’s God, however knows that, when we truly open ourselves to the wonders of His creation—wonders that include both sex and intellectual exploration—then we will experience joy beyond anything we can imagine. Our tragedy is that our egotism prompts us to reenact the Fall. In our pride, we turn our backs on joy.

Confession: I’ve probably beaten this topic to death given that this is my fourth blog post on this topic.  The reason, I now realize, is that I once was where Pullman is–which is to say a secular humanist who didn’t like talking about sin. I now see his vision as a bit facile, a version of my 1970s sexual liberation philosophy. I’m arguing with the author because I’m still questioning my own conversion. Milton has been a big help in understanding what’s at stake.

Posted in Everyman poet, Milton (John), Nemerov (Howard), Pullman (Philip) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh the Ice Will Split and the Cities Be Hit

Antarctic ice


There’s more bad news on the climate change front. According to the most recent on-line issue of Nature, the Antarctic ice sheet is much less stable than scientists once thought. This means that

continued growth in greenhouse-gas emissions over the next several decades could trigger an unstoppable collapse of Antarctica’s ice — raising sea levels by more than a metre by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500.

Yesterday I taught Perdido Street Station, China Miéville’s remarkable Victorian steampunk fantasy-sci-fi novel. What with the environmental news, I couldn’t help but focus on his description of the hydrocarbons being poured into the air. The narrator, an angel who has been stripped of his wings, is horrified when he turns a river bend and suddenly comes upon the polluted city of New Corbuzon:

The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped on the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirty into the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us but the city itself, its weight sucks us in.

The description sounds as though it has been inspired by Dickens’s description of Coketown in Hard Times. We see in the angel’s reaction some of the fatalism that GOP politicians have succumbed to: they believe that nothing can be done and so we should do nothing. We are being sucked inexorably into our doom. The angel asks a topographical question that functions as a metaphor for this future:

How could we not see this approaching? What trick of topography is this, that lets the sprawling monster hide behind corners to leap out at the traveler?

It is too late to flee.

Luckily, in our case it’s not yet too late to flee. According to one of the co-authors of the study, there’s room for hope:

The good news, he says, is that [the study] projects little or no sea-level rise from Antarctic melt if greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced quickly enough to limit the average global temperature rise to about 2 °C.

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine says that this goal is within reach. He adds, however, that we will keep the temperature rise down only if the next administration doesn’t undo President Obama’s climate change progress. Chait sums up what has been accomplished so far:

[The] rise could be mitigated if the political response under way worldwide continues. And things are happening. China is reducing the carbon intensity of its economy very rapidly. Innovators in the private sector, responding to signals from political leaders who have committed to carbon reductions, have brought down the cost of clean energy nearly to parity already, and the cost curve is continuing to head downward.

Surveying the political landscape, Chait concludes,

It sounds partisan to say, but it remains true: The fate of humanity rests to a very large degree on keeping the Republican Party out of power for as long as possible.

Previous Posts on Climate Change:

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne mentions the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but they are distant, and he makes the important point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet Henry Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. His most trustworthy counselor advises him to “See better, Lear,” thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno refusing to see the rebellion going on right before his eyes..

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard and contempt for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature responds when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

 The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance that the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviordirectly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions in the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

I’ve also written a couple of articles on the emerging genre of eco-lit:

Literature and Climate Change

A Talk with a Cli-Fi Activist

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment, here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

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Limbaugh’s Clinton-Ratched Comparison

Bancroft as Nurse Ratched, Hillary Clinton

Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, Hillary Clinton


I have just caught a glimpse of what a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump presidential race could look like and it’s not pretty. I had the insight after I came across a Rush Limbaugh reference to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Apparently Limbaugh, who claims that Clinton is in possession of a “testicle lockbox,” regularly compares her to Nurse Ratched. During the 2008 primaries when Hillary was running against Barack Obama, Limbaugh described her as

totally controlling, not soft and cuddly. Not sympathetic. Not patient. Not understanding. Demanding, domineering, Nurse Ratched kind of thing.

More recently, Limbaugh has turned the comparison into a condition, accusing Clinton of “Nurse Rachedism.”

The logical corollary, in Limbaugh’s mind, is that Clinton’s supporters are “new castrati.”

I’ll dig further into Limbaugh’s obsession with Nurse Ratched in a moment, but let’s look first at the Limbaugh-Trump connection. Moderate conservative Michael Gerson of The Washington Post recently blasted Limbaugh for having paved the way for Trump, and Heather Digby Parton of Salon did the same. Parton surmises that Limbaugh has always wanted to be Trump and says that if Gerson has been caught off guard by the radio host’s corrosive influence, he has:

not been listening to Rush Limbaugh over the past 25 years or he would know that the millions of conservatives who listen to his show every day are positively enthusiastic about casual misogyny, racial stereotyping, religious bigotry, cruelty and dehumanization. Those are Rush Limbaugh’s stock in trade.

Trump’s own brand of misogyny isn’t quite as crude as Limbaugh’s but, as Franklin Foers explains in Slate, it comes close. Foers makes a good case that, above all, Trump’s core philosophy is misogyny:

Women labor under a cloud of Trump’s distrust. “I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part,” he wrote in Trump: The Art of the Comeback. Working moms are particularly lacking in loyalty, he believes, and thus do not make for good employees. “She’s not giving me 100 percent. She’s giving me 84 percent, and 16 percent is going towards taking care of children,” he told Mika Brzezinski. (Further evidence of his dim view of working moms: Trump once notoriously blurted that the pumping of breast milk in the office is “disgusting.”)

Foers explains how Trump’s misogyny boosts his popularity:

This is one reason that evangelicals, both men and women, gravitate to Trump, despite his obvious lack of interest in religion and blatantly loose morals. He represents the possibility of a return to patriarchy, to a time when men were men, and didn’t have to apologize for it. While he celebrates his own sexuality, he believes that female sexuality has spun out of control and needs to be contained. The best example of this view is a reality show called Lady or a Tramp, which Trump developed for Fox but never aired. The premise of the show was that Trump would take “girls in love with the party life” and send them off for a “stern course” on manners. “We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women,” he told Variety, “so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it.”

It makes sense that Limbaugh would see himself in Randle P. McMurphy, the irreverent protagonist of Ken Kesey’s novel. The patients, as McMurphy and Kesey see them, are America’s emasculated white male middle class, brought to their knees by the welfare nanny state (or nurse state). The novel is racist as well as sexist—it shows the African American orderlies humiliating the patients and it romanticizes Native Americans—but its major target is Nurse Ratched.

Narrator Chief Bromden sees Ratched as Limbaugh sees Clinton—which is to say, unfeminine, power obsessed, and calculated:

Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh colored enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils—everything working together except the color on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what would of otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.

Ratched desires above all to assert mastery over men, and Kesey appears to have borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle’s description of Moriarty as he describes how she controls the hospital:

Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hair-like wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get the results she wants…

What she dreams of there in the center of those wires is world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedience under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubs that run direct from every pant leg to the sewer under the floor.

The novel is a battle for supremacy between Ratched and McMurphy. Just as Limbaugh’s aim is to get his listeners to “grow a pair,” so McMurphy aims to restore the manliness of the patients. His greatest triumph is helping sensitive Billy Bibbit break from his mother’s influence and sleep with a nurse. We see that Billy has stepped into his manhood by the fact that he no longer stutters.

Of course, it doesn’t last as Big Nurse returns and reasserts her authority, wielding maternal shame and driving Billy to cut his own throat. In response, McMurphy flies at her in a scene that has all the appearance of a rape. Rape, as we now know, is more about power than sex:

[Other doctors intervened only] after he’d smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror forever ruining any other look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light…

This is the angry revenge fantasy of men who feel that they have been emasculated. It doesn’t ultimately matter, in Limbaugh’s view of things, that Big Nurse wins. In his self-pitying drama of victimhood, he has vented his fury, which is what he really wants:

[McMurphy] gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out:

A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes at the dogs get him, when he finally doesn’t care any more about anything but himself and his dying.

Chief informs us that McMurphy is not just an individual but a spokesperson for emasculated men everywhere—which is how both Limbaugh and Trump see themselves:

We couldn’t stop him [from assaulting Ratched] because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-pictures zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.

So what will the fall election look like if it’s Clinton vs. Trump? Trump and rightwing radio will tap into this male anger and we will have a collective venting. Just as Americans directed their race hatred against Obama, they will direct their gender hatred against Clinton. Luckily there are many who are appalled by misogyny and I think they will carry the day, but we’ll see a lot of ugliness first.

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The Terrible Beauty of Political Fanatics

Walter Paget, "Birth of the Irish Republic"

Walter Paget, “Birth of the Irish Republic”


It’s not everyday that we see a television personality quoting a Yeats poem at length, but that’s what Chris Matthews of MSNBC did Wednesday night. The poem was  “Easter, 1916,” and the occasion was the hundredth anniversary of Ireland’s Easter week uprising.

Many regard the Easter uprising and the subsequent execution of its leaders as a glorious defeat that paved the way to Irish independence. Yeats, however, had mixed feelings. Romantic though he was, he was uncertain what to make of a flashy martyrdom that turned mediocre men into mythic heroes and that may have been unnecessary.

I wrote about “Easter, 1916” four years ago, applying it to the Egyptian protesters who attacked the American embassy in Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and that post is no less relevant today. It’s hard to read the poem without thinking of ISIS terrorists.

To be sure, it will seem heretical to Irish nationalists to compare Irish freedom fighters to these terrorists, and Pearse and company did not target innocent civilians as ISIS does. But the Irish Republican Army that came afterward would do so, and there’s a slippery slope that leads from one to the other. The poem provides insight into how people are drawn to the deadly romanticism of political martyrs. Why do so many young people choose to blow themselves up for a cause?

Yeats is both appalled by and attracted to the martyrs. We, of course, are in the position of the British to Yeats’s Irish—we simply see ISIS as simply terrorists, not as heroes. But we forget that the suicide bombers are people as well.

Why is this important? Well, if we really want to deal effectively with ISIS, we must understand the enemy. Yeats helps us see some of what is going through their minds.

The Easter 1916 Irish uprising, which occurred while England fought in World War I, was supposed to have been supported by German-supplied armaments. Although the shipment was intercepted, the uprising went ahead anyway and was doomed from the start. In the end, thousands were imprisoned (not all of them guilty) and 15 were executed by firing squad. Yeats, though not in favor of violent uprisings, was stunned by the executions and wrote, “A terrible beauty has been born.”

What puzzles him is that the terrible beauty has grown out of unpromising material. Three of the victims he knew—two he liked but didn’t find extraordinary and the third, John MacBride, he despised for marrying and then abusing Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse—and he is amazed at how all of them, including MacBride, have gone on to achieve heroic status. (The woman he mentions, Constance Markiewicz, was sentenced to death but later released.)

Yeats compares the rebels to a stone disturbing the natural running of a stream, and that’s a good way to describe political rebels and fanatics. On the one hand, one can admire them for their steadfast sense of purpose and devotion to a cause. They interrupt the humdrum running of life. But at the same time, Yeats points out that “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Activists can become inhuman in this way. Later he is more sympathetic but still somewhat critical: “What if excess of love bewildered them till they died.” After all, their sacrifice may have been in vain given that England might well keep its promise of Irish home rule after the war.

In the end, Yeats isn’t sure where to come down. He commemorates the executed rebels—he ascribes to their dream of a free Ireland and is willing to put the martyrs’ names into verse and pass it along to children—but at the same time he acknowledges that the sacrifice is not an unmixed blessing. To quote from his most famous poem, “the worst are filled with passionate intensity,” and these passionately intense men and women may have unleashed a rough beast. The “terrible” in “terrible beauty” should give pause to all those who are prepared to condone political fanaticism, even for a cause they believe in.

If we see ISIS is an unadulterated horror, we should not be prepared to give the Easter uprising a complete pass.

Easter, 1916

By William Butler Yeats

I have met them at close of day   
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey   
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head   
Or polite meaningless words,   
Or have lingered awhile and said   
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done   
Of a mocking tale or a gibe   
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,   
Being certain that they and I   
But lived where motley is worn:   
All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent   
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers   
When, young and beautiful,   
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school   
And rode our wingèd horse;   
This other his helper and friend   
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,   
So sensitive his nature seemed,   
So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,   
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,   
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone   
Through summer and winter seem   
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,   
The rider, the birds that range   
From cloud to tumbling cloud,   
Minute by minute they change;   
A shadow of cloud on the stream   
Changes minute by minute;   
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,   
And a horse plashes within it;   
The long-legged moor-hens dive,   
And hens to moor-cocks call;   
Minute by minute they live:   
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.   
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part   
To murmur name upon name,   
As a mother names her child   
When sleep at last has come   
On limbs that had run wild.   
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;   
Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith   
For all that is done and said.   
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;   
And what if excess of love   
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born. 

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Praise that Would Undermine Trump

Ledent Pol, "Gossip"

Ledent Pol, “Gossip”


Here’s a brief election note. People have been debating the worth of endorsements in the GOP primary, with some wondering whether being endorsed by members of the “Republican Establishment” hurts more than it helps.

After all, the candidates with the most endorsements, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have dropped out. Meanwhile, the remaining three contenders have racked up hardly any endorsements.

So maybe, if people really want to stop Donald Trump, they should use their endorsements strategically. Ben Jonson explains the approach I have in mind in his famous poem in praise of Shakespeare.

Jonson is talking about the different false ways to praise. After discarding ignorant praise and blind affection, he mentions praise that arises out of malice.

This praise knows that it can do damage. Perhaps Establishment Republicans could undermine Trump by endorsing him:

Here’s Jonson explaining how it works:

Or crafty malice might pretend this praise,
And think to ruin, where it seem’d to raise.
These are, as some infamous bawd or whore
Should praise a matron; what could hurt her more?

Many Republican leaders these days are regarded by the GOP base as the equivalent of bawds and whores. Jonson offers them a way to use their reputation to their advantage.

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Why Literary Psychopaths Fascinate Us

Dexter, from Season 4

Dexter, from Season 4


It’s that time of year when my seniors are completing their St. Mary’s Projects, an optional two-semester senior thesis. I require a full rough draft prior to spring break, which gives them a month for revising.

I also ask for their permission to describe their project for this blog. That way they can see how their ideas appear to outside eyes. This is important for the revision process as it helps them move from a writer-based to a reader-based perspective.

Kate Hedrick is an English-psychology double major who is examining the growing respectability of crime fiction that features psychopathic killers. The slasher genre used to be viewed with disdain, but that has changed markedly over the past 30 years or so. Now scholars write extensively about the works that Kate has chosen.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, once regarded as drive-in movie fare, is now applauded for having changed the direction of the horror genre. Silence of the Lambs, meanwhile, is the first horror film to win the Oscar for Best Film while Dexter is a much praised television drama with high production values.

As a psychology major, Kate wants to know how accurate is psychopathy as portrayed in these dramas. As an English major, she wants to understand what fascinates us about psychopath protagonists.

The answer to the first question is “not very.” You won’t to be surprised to hear that the dramas take a lot of liberties. Kate begins her project with a definition of psychopathy and sociopathy, both of which are “antisocial personality disorders”:

In order for individuals to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, they must demonstrate that they fail to conform to social norms in following lawful behavior, are deceitful, impulsive or cannot plan ahead, irritable and aggressive, recklessly disregard the safety of themselves or others, consistent irresponsibility such as problems sustaining work behavior or financial obligations, or have a lack of remorse. At least three of these above symptoms must be present in order to be diagnosed.

 Psychopathy is generally associated with nature, sociopathy with nurture:

Psychopathy is believed to be related to physical brain abnormality to the impulse control and emotion areas of the brain whereas sociopathy is linked to childhood trauma and abuse.

Most of the psychopathic or sociopathic killers in novels, films, and television dramas go back to two killers: Ed Gein and Ted Bundy. Gein skinned the corpses of women that he dug up to make various items. Then, in 1957, he shot a shopkeeper and was caught soon after skinning her. He died in a mental asylum.

Bundy, who was considerably cleverer, confessed to killing over 30 women between 1974-78. He tricked women into trusting him and then had sex with their corpses. He was executed in 1989.

Norman Bates in Psycho is loosely based on Gein while Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs is a conflation of Gein and Bundy. Dexter, a sociopath with a code of conduct that allows him to only kill other serial killers, comes up against killers with a number of psychopathic traits. One of the episodes mentions Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer responsible for the death of 17 men and boys.

But while the depictions of psychopathic slashers are inspired by real people, the resemblance to reality ends there. Most people who suffer from antisocial personality disorders, Kate says, do not kill people. Rather, authors have borrowed certain traits from psychopathy and sociopathy and molded them into their own fictional creations. Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter, and Dexter’s various foils tell us more about ourselves than they do about people suffering from antisocial personality disorder.

So what do they tell us? Kate’s thesis is that they articulate various male insecurities that have arisen during confusing social transitions.

Kate historically situates each of her dramas. Robert Bloch wrote Psycho in 1959 (Alfred Hitchocock turned it into a film the following year), a time when many men were moving from the factory and the farm to corporate offices. One became, say, an IBM man, with assured benefits that extended from hiring to dying. Many feared becoming a sensitive mother’s boy such as that portrayed by Tony Perkins in the film, which is why the western was also popular during the 1950. Some blamed women for their new domestication. Their anger, which became toxic as they repressed it, found an outlet in the shower stabbing scene.

The 1980s saw men adjusting to a new set of shocks. As they lost their earning power following stagflation and recession and as they found themselves competing with newly empowered women in the workplace, they discovered in Buffalo Bill their own mixed feelings. Bill is making a dress out of women’s skin, and while the act itself is horrifying, the desire to join the gender that seems to be succeeding is not. Of course, wanting to be a woman is shameful, which is why the desire is repressed. Uncanny horror, Freud tells us, occurs when we can’t admit what we secretly desire.

The fact that a father figure like Hannibal ultimately prevails offers a kind of satisfaction. Although a woman defeats Buffalo Bill, it is under the mentorship of a man. Besides, Jodie Foster does not come across as a “ball-busting woman.”

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first of the Dexter series, appeared in 2004, another time when American men felt under assault. 9-11 had cast serious doubts upon America’s sense of itself as invulnerable, leading men to feel that they had failed in protecting their loved ones. To make matters worse, Americans appeared to be descending to the level of their attackers, waterboarding at Guantanamo and abusing prisoners at Abu Garib. Through Dexter one can both acknowledge one’s panic and salvage some self respect—after all Dexter, unlike those he hunts, has a kind of code, one seemingly necessitated by the violent world in which he exists.

So that she isn’t exploring only male anxieties, Kate is also studying Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, first a 2012 novel and then a film. Kate is still working out the psychological dynamics of the book but her idea appears to have something to do with women’s resentment of anxious men and their own anxieties about being dependent on such men.

Because the horror genre makes its home in our fears, reading and watching horror makes us feel less alone. Kate demonstrates that we are not obsessed with actual psychopathic slashers but with our own fears and shameful desires.

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A White Cross Streaming across the Sky

White swan in flight

White swan in flight

Easter Sunday

For a number of years I have shared a Mary Oliver poem each Easter. I have noted that, although Oliver is not an overtly religious poet, many of her poems reenact the drama of earthly suffering redeemed by moments of grace.

Today I share Oliver’s “The Swan,” however, which concludes with a glorious epiphany. First, however, I quote from Darcia Navarez’s Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, recommended to me by my wife. In a later post I will be exploring what Navarez has to say about literature’s role in that development, but today I note her emphasis on nature.

To fully develop a sense of morality and “foster a good life for self and others,” Navaez says that one should, among other things, “nurture ecological attachment.” She recommends a “nature bath” as “restorative and rejuvenating”:

Reentering nature can dislodge an I-ego focus, or even depression and anxiety, in which people become caught. In the indigenous view, Nature is a companion, a friend, who needs respectful attention and encouragement through song, dance, and awareness, but who also responds with what is needed. The natural world will attend to the traumatized if they prepare themselves for the signs. Gazing at the vastness of a night sky full of visible stars (away from light pollution), taking in the ocean, or camping in winter snow can shift one to a more holistic perspective (P. Houston, “A Blizzard under Blue Sky”). Even for the traumatized, Nature can provide the bridge to healing (D. Jensen, A Language Older than Words). Bill Plotkin (Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche) describes how one can craft the soul in response to the universal spirit by letting go into Nature.

All of this Oliver understands at her core, and Navaez not surprisingly quotes her at one point. The last line of “Swan” is probably an allusion to Rilke’s remarkable poem “Arachaic Torso of Apollo” in which the poet, after gazing entranced at the statue, concludes, “You must change your life.”

Which sums up the Easter message. Seeing the swan is like the women suddenly beholding Jesus in the garden. After such a moment, nothing can ever be the same again.

Happy Easter.

The Swan

By Mary Oliver 

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
an armful of white blossoms,
a perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
a shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees,
like a waterfall

knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
a white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light
of the river?

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

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How Kipling’s Kaa Would Fight ISIS


Mowgli and Kaa in “The Jungle Book”


 Following the Brussels attacks, President Obama observed that ISIS is “not an existential threat to the United States.” He was roundly attacked by the usual suspects for his remarks, but I understand why he said this. He was resisting our all-too-common penchant for hysteria.

Indeed, some believe that the attacks are a sign of ISIS’s weakness, not of its strength. As ISIS continues to lose large swatches of its “caliphate” (40% of its Iraq territory and 20% of its Syria territory since its peak in 2014), it is turning its attention to soft targets in Europe to rebuild its image.

In this way, ISIS makes me think of the Bandar-Log in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. The Bandar-Log are the monkey people, a parasitical race that wants attention Here’s how Baloo, Mowgli’s bear teacher, describes them:

“The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads.”

He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.

To inflate their sense of importance, Kipling writes, the Bandar-log have a saying– “What the Bandar-log think now the jungle will think later.”

The Bandar-Log, like ISIS, find a way to get noticed, however: they do something dramatic, stealing Mowgli. At that point, the Jungle People must respond:

Baloo woke the jungle with his deep cries and Bagheera bounded up the trunk with every tooth bared. The Bandar-log howled with triumph and scuffled away to the upper branches where Bagheera dared not follow, shouting: “He has noticed us! Bagheera has noticed us. All the Jungle-People admire us for our skill and our cunning.”

The parallel between the Bandar-log and ISIS is not perfect since ISIS is more hierarchical whereas the monkey people are modeled on 19th century anarchists. I considered comparing ISIS with the Red Dogs in a later Mowgli episode, who have the top-down organization of the European communists. But the Red Dogs don’t crave publicity the way that the Bandar-log and ISIS do.

Kipling provides us some necessary cautions about fighting the Bandar-log. Baloo and Bagheera enlist the aid of Kaa, the great python, but unfortunately this is comparable to hiring an authoritarian fascist to solve your social problems. Kaa turns the monkeys into an undifferentiated mass and then slaughters them.

The problem with failing to differentiate, of course, is that the innocent are swept up with the guilty. Donald Trump wants to kill the families of terrorists and ban all Muslims from coming to the United States. Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” the Middle East, civilians be damned, and to indiscriminately patrol American Muslim neighborhoods:

“Begins now the dance—the Dance of the Hunger of Kaa. Sit still and watch.”

He turned twice or thrice in a big circle, weaving his head from right to left. Then he began making loops and figures of eight with his body, and soft, oozy triangles that melted into squares and five-sided figures, and coiled mounds, never resting, never hurrying, and never stopping his low humming song. It grew darker and darker, till at last the dragging, shifting coils disappeared, but they could hear the rustle of the scales.

Baloo and Bagheera stood still as stone, growling in their throats, their neck hair bristling, and Mowgli watched and wondered.

“Bandar-log,” said the voice of Kaa at last, “can ye stir foot or hand without my order? Speak!”

“Without thy order we cannot stir foot or hand, O Kaa!”

“Good! Come all one pace nearer to me.”

The lines of the monkeys swayed forward helplessly, and Baloo and Bagheera took one stiff step forward with them.

“Nearer!” hissed Kaa, and they all moved again.

Mowgli laid his hands on Baloo and Bagheera to get them away, and the two great beasts started as though they had been waked from a dream.

“Keep thy hand on my shoulder,” Bagheera whispered. “Keep it there, or I must go back—must go back to Kaa. Aah!”

“It is only old Kaa making circles on the dust,” said Mowgli. “Let us go.” And the three slipped off through a gap in the walls to the jungle.

“Whoof!” said Baloo, when he stood under the still trees again. “Never more will I make an ally of Kaa,” and he shook himself all over.

“He knows more than we,” said Bagheera, trembling. “In a little time, had I stayed, I should have walked down his throat.”

Once you see the enemy as an undifferentiated mass, you become the same. Rightwing parties are on the rise in response to ISIS, with unthinking followers prepared to blindly endorse whatever their demagogic leaders propose (walk down their throat). As Trump boasts and some of his followers confirm, he could “shoot someone and not lose voters.”

Think of Obama as Mowgli, putting his hand on our shoulders to keep us from an unthinking mass reaction.

Will we heed him?

Further thoughts – In an article today, Amanda Taub of Vox makes similar observations as she examines how Cruz is ramping up his anti-Muslim rhetoric:

But in making these statements, Cruz isn’t just revealing his own bias. The truth is that there’s something much bigger going on, and it’s actually much more disturbing than one politician’s personal animus.

The real issue here is why this strategy works for Cruz and other politicians like him — why it resonates with voters. And the answer, at least in part, is that this is a perfect example of the kind of authoritarian leadership that a large constituency of American voters craves.

That’s frightening, because it speaks to a much scarier truth behind Cruz’s scary statement: that this kind of demonizing of American Muslims isn’t just a problem with specific American politicians like Cruz or Trump. Rather, it’s a problem with American politics — and that means that it will stay with us long after this election is over.

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Obama Is to Trump as Albany Is to Goneril

Harries, and Barber of Royal Shakespeare Company as Albany, Goneril

Harries, Barber of Royal Shakespeare Company as Albany, Goneril


 Following the Paris terrorist attacks, I warned about how fear could lead to the rise of Grendel’s Mothers. Following the Brussels attacks, right on cue, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz advocated monstrous retaliation while attacking President Obama as weak and inept. I am reminded of the arguments between Goneril and her husband Albany in King Lear. Goneril advocates extreme measures while Albany is a principled man who believes one should take the moral high road.

Trump, Goneril-like, has openly called for the torture of Salah Abdeslam, the Paris terrorist who was recently captured:

“He may be talking, but he’ll talk faster with the torture,” Trump said, suggesting torture could have prevented Tuesday attacks which have left at least 30 people dead.

“I would be willing to bet that he knew about this bombing that took place today,” Trump said. “We have to be smart. It’s hard to believe we can’t waterboard which is — look, nothing’s nice about it but, it’s your minimal form of torture. We can’t waterboard and they can chop off heads. ”

Trump said he would “go further” than waterboarding and would listen to the “military people” about how to do it.

Cruz, meanwhile, has advocated carpet bombing of ISIS in the past, and in response to Brussels he advocates such unconstitutional measures as singling out American Muslim communities for domestic surveillance.

The president, Albany-like, has responded that that’s “not who we are.” Here’s the Crooks and Liars blog summing up his remarks:

The president explained that we have to be smart how we go after ISIS and not be reactionaries. “[B]ut what we don’t do and what we should not do is take approaches that are going to be counterproductive.”

He then focused his ire on Ted Cruz.

“So when I hear somebody saying we should carpet bomb Iraq or Syria, not only is that inhumane, not only is that contrary to our values, but that would likely be an extraordinary mechanism for ISIL to recruit people willing to die and explode bombs in an airport. That’s not a smart strategy.”

Obama then said that the reason we haven’t had more attacks on U.S. soil is because we have integrated and very patriotic Muslim communities in America. Obama then lowered the boom on Cruz’ statements about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods.

“…they do not feel ghettoized, they do not feel isolated. Their children are our children’s friends. Any approach that would single them out or target them for discrimination is not only wrong and un-American, it would also be counterproductive. .

Here’s the debate between Albany and Goneril after Goneril has sent her father out into the wilderness. (Albany doesn’t even know she wants him dead.). While he is sermonizing her, she is pointing out that France and Cordelia are invading their shores:

Albany: What have you done?
Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform’d?
A father, and a gracious aged man,
Whose reverence even the head-lugg’d bear would lick,
Most barbarous, most degenerate! …
If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offences,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

Goneril: Milk-liver’d man!
…Where’s thy drum?
France spreads his banners in our noiseless land;
With plumed helm thy slayer begins threats;
Whiles thou, a moral fool, sit’st still, and criest
‘Alack, why does he so?’

Albany: See thyself, devil!
Proper deformity seems not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.

Their conversation continues on in this vein, with Albany calling Goneril a monster and Goneril calling Albany a wimp. Which pretty much sums up the current interchange between the GOP presidential frontrunners and the president.

In my survey class yesterday as we discussed King Lear, I asked my students whether they would side with Cordelia, Kent, and Lear, even though they are ground down by the unscrupulous Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. Naïve little idealists, they said it was more important to be principled than to win. I can imagine Goneril saying to them what she says to Albany:

Oh vain fool.

Further thought: Significantly, the Albany-Goneril exchange comes two scenes after a particularly horrific instance of state-sanctioned torture: the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes by Goneril’s sister and brother-in-law. King Lear in general is about the anarchy that takes over a country once all moral restraint is abandoned. It begins with Lear’s narcissistic abdication of his kingly duties and Gloucester’s adultery boast. It concludes with the death of Cordelia.

The play was so dark that, after its initial production, it wasn’t performed again in its original version until the 19th century. We should all be disturbed by its continuing relevance.

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Invoking Tintin to Mourn the Killings

Tintin in Tibet

Tintin crying for his lost friend Chang


After yesterday’s bombings in Belgium, images of the country’s most beloved creation are circulating on twitter and other social media. The picture above is from Tintin in Tibet, a particularly lovely story where Tintin hikes into the Himalayas to find his Chinese friend Chang, whom he believes to be still alive following a plane crash.

Tintin, reluctantly accompanied by his skeptical but loyal friend Captain Haddock, holds on to his faith and is rewarded. Chang has been saved by the Yeti, and the two friends rescue him and return home.

Think of the above picture, therefore, as emblematic of the sorrow we are all feeling for the families and friends of the victims. May our support and friendship approach that of Tintin for Chang.

Another picture circulating is, I believe, from The Black Island, which is set in Scotland (see below). It’s a large poster in Brussels and seems to be currently capturing the determination to soldier on.

All the world is rooting for you, citizens of Belgium. Stand strong.

Further thought: I want to take strong exception to the Salon article that alerted me to how Tintin was being invoked in the current mourning. According to Scott Timberg, “Tintin’s creator was often associated with a reactionary and racist tradition.” There is some truth to this, but all of the examples that Timberg cites are from Herge’s first three works, written between 1929-1932 (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo [which was so racist that Hergé later withdrew it from circulation], and Tintin in America.) While there is a certain western patrician perspective in Tintin that is open to criticism, it is also true that Tintin constantly fights for the downtrodden in his adventures and attacks western exploiters. One could do worse than be raised on the series, as I was.
Tintin in Brussels

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Clifton & America’s Eviction Epidemic

Ara Sparkman of Milwaukee evicted (2010)

Ara Sparkman of Milwaukee evicted (2010)


I thought of a Lucille Clifton poem the other day after reading a very dispiriting Slate article about evictions. Apparently America right now is going through an eviction epidemic, even as the economy slowly improves. According to Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond,

we are evicting hundreds of thousands of people, probably in the millions, every year. There’s this divergence between what low-income families are making and what they have to pay to keep a roof over their heads and heat in their house. Between 1995 and today, median rent increased by over 70 percent. In the 2000s the cost of fuel jumped by 53 percent.

Desmond, whose book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City has just been released, says that the consequences of an eviction ripple outward:

The consequences of eviction are so much greater than I was fully aware of when I started the work. Families not only lose their homes. Kids lose their schools. They also lose their things, which are piled on the sidewalk. It’s a lot of time and money to establish a home, and eviction erases all that. It comes with a record, which affects your chances of moving into stable housing because a lot of landlords will turn you away. Even in public housing an eviction record is counted as a strike.

So we see families move from poor neighborhoods to poorer ones and neighborhoods with high violence rates to even more dangerous neighborhoods. When I started I thought that job loss would lead to an eviction, but we found better evidence of the opposite. Then there’s the effect eviction has on your mental health. There are higher rates of depression even two years later, and we know that suicides attributed to eviction have doubled [between 2005 and 2010].

“the 1st” owes its title to the fact that the rent comes due on the first of the month–and when you can’t pay it, you’re out. Its power lies in the contrast between the carefree neighborhood children and the “emptied family.” The poet doesn’t need to say anything more.

On the one hand, there are all the images of rising: stacked boxes, “couch springs curling through the air,” drawers and tables on a curb tightrope, children “leaping up and around.” On the other, there are the empty feelings, mirroring the empty rooms, of a family whose life has just been upended.

In that regard, the poem resembles W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: even as Icarus is dying and people are suffering, there are children “skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.”

Here’s the poem:

the 1st

By Lucille Clifton

what i remember about that day
is boxes stacked across the walk
and couch springs curling through the air
and drawers and tables balanced on the curb
and us, hollering,
leaping up and around
happy to have a playground;

nothing about the emptied rooms
nothing about the emptied family

Desmond, by the way, has a solution: a universal housing voucher for low income renters—which is to say, an expansion of the Section 8 program:

Do we believe housing is a right and that affordable housing is part of what it should mean to be an American? I say yes. Then the question becomes how do we deliver on that obligation? I think taking this program that works pretty darn well and expanding it to all families below the poverty line is the best way to do that. These families spending 80 percent of income on rent would be paying 30 percent. They’d be saving and spending money on their kids. We know from previous research that when families get a housing voucher after years on the waiting list, they buy more food, they go to the grocery store, and their kids become stronger. The book goes into how much that would cost and how to do that. But first we have to recognize how essential housing is to driving down poverty and recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.

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Fantasy Lit Changes How We Behave

Julie Dillon, "The Archivist" {cover art for program of 37th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts)

Julie Dillon, “The Archivist” {cover art for 2016 IAFA conference)


Last week I attended the conference on International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) and came back buzzing with ideas that I want to share with my British Fantasy students. Sociologist James Holmes gave a particularly useful talk on “The Fantasy Reader: An Empirical Sociological Approach.”

Holmes began his talk by summarizing many of the reasons that readers turn to fantasy literature. Amongst these are:

–to escape life, imagine a world beyond capitalist possessiveness, deal with sorrow and failure, recover joy, and get in touch with the numinous;

–to develop a spiritual vocabulary for a secular world;

–to learn moral lessons and develop ethical capabilities;

–to reassure themselves that their lives and actions have meaning in an alien world; and

–to subvert social institutions that inhibit human possibility.

As a sociologist, Knowles was interested in how readers use fantasy to negotiate social challenges. How, he wondered, do readers concretize possibilities opened up by the imagination? He talked about the way that, when we read fantasy, we imagine other possibilities for ourselves and essentially rehearse them. If we are stuck inside certain constricting narratives about how society operates, a good fantasy work can help us break free from those narratives.

Knowles wants to develop ways of measuring (1) how readers use fantasy to reimagine different paths their lives could take and (2) how they translate that reimagining into action. He acknowledged these areas are  difficult to study since different readers will have different experiences with works.

He mentioned two studies that have grappled with the impact of fiction. One is Janice Radway’s 1984 Reading the Romance, which studied how women use romance novels in their lives. The other is Henry and I, which is an ethnographic account of a literary society dedicated to Henry Williamson, a World War I veteran who wrote social novels. This 2002 study, to quote from an abstract, studied how

the activity of solitary reading is linked to … conceptions of self and masculinity. In particular, [Williamson readers’] accounts of the passions or rapture of reading are understood through a theory of possession. Members of the literary society regard the event of fiction reading as crucial to their life development, allowing them to experience a self that is not their own while at the same time gaining self-recognition.

In the question and answer session afterwards, audience members suggested a couple of other ways of studying the social impact of fantasy, including using the tools of “cognitive narratology” and “symbolic interactionism.” Both of these are new to me so I looked into them. For cognitive narratology, I came across Maria Nikolajeva’s book Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature. The book has been summarized as follows:

It explores how fiction stimulates perception, attention, imagination and other cognitive activity, and opens radically new ways of thinking about literature for young readers. Examining a wide range of texts for a young audience, from picturebooks to young adult novels, the combination of cognitive criticism and children’s literature theory also offers significant insights for literary studies beyond the scope of children’s fiction. An important milestone in cognitive criticism, the book provides convincing evidence that reading fiction is indispensable for young people’s intellectual, emotional and social maturation.

Someone else mentioned the work of Shelby Heath and Sidney Wolf about how children use stories to work through their issues.

Symbolic interactionism, meanwhile, asserts (I quote from Wikipedia here) that people do not respond to reality directly but “rather to the social understanding of reality; i.e., they respond to this reality indirectly through a kind of filter which consists of individuals’ different perspectives.” If one of those filters is fantasy literature, then according to symbolic interactionism, an author like J. K. Rowling can have a tangible influence on how readers behave.

In a final question, a woman asked why Knowles focuses on fantasy literature since his observations could extend to literature in general. Knowles answered that fantasy, by making a dramatic break with reality, offers a particularly powerful spur for imagining other life possibilities.

While academic literary conferences can appear fairly abstruse to outsiders, they open up rich lines of inquiry for those of us who teach these works. I see many ways that my Theories of the Reader class as well as my fantasy literature courses will be enhanced.

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Dear Feast of Palms, of Flowers and Dew


Spiritual Sunday – Palm Sunday

How wonderful that Palm Sunday, the commencement of Holy Week, falls on the same day as the spring equinox this year. Easter is often associated with the regeneration of spring, and the 2016 calendar is cooperating.

To celebrate, I share a lovely Palm Sunday poem by Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, Britain’s preeminent 17th century nature poet and a forerunner of William Wordsworth. Labeling himself “the king of grief, the man of sorrow,” Vaughan calls upon palm trees to lend him their shades and freshness, just as Jesus’s followers turned to palms to express their joy upon his entry into Jerusalem.

It is clear that the poet is really addressing himself as he addresses the “trees, flowers & herbs; birds, beasts & stones” that have been groaning since man’s fall. After all, it is only humans that groan. Seeing himself as a “humble flower,” he says that today is the day for such flowers to leave their fields and secret groves to come and join in the joyful celebration.

Incidentally, the unexpected inclusion of “stones” in his list refers to how Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, who objected to Jesus being celebrated as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40) As Vaughan sees it, he is called upon to cry out in joy with the rest of creation.

Still struggling to be joyous, however, he then he tells the plants/himself to take inspiration from the children who cried “Hosannah” as they strewed the palms. I have no doubt that Wordsworth had this stanza in mind when he wrote about the shepherd boy in Intimations of Immortality, and the comparison is clarifying. Just as Vaughan is fighting against gloom, a depressed Wordsworth feels himself rebuked by the happy shouts of the boy:

                              Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
                    Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
     My heart is at your festival,
          My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
               Oh evil day! if  I were sullen
               While Earth herself is adorning,
                    This sweet May-morning,
               And the Children are culling
                    On every side,
               In a thousand valleys far and wide,
               Fresh flowers…

An image of joy is not enough to entirely lift Vaughan out of his dark thoughts, however. He also needs an image of sacrifice. His attention therefore turns from the children to the ass that bore Jesus, and he wishes that he were that derided beast of burden. He resolves to be as meek as the ass, as the children, and as the palm fronds over which Jesus rides. Then it will not matter whether he bears the sorrows of Job.

In the lovely final line, he combines an image of life with an image of purity. All that matters, he says, is that he secure “but one green branch and a white robe.” 

Palm Sunday

By Henry Vaughan

Come, drop your branches, strew the way
                              Plants of the day!
Whom sufferings make most green and gay.
The king of grief, the man of sorrow
Weeping still, like the wet morrow,
Your shades and freshness comes to borrow.

Put on, put on your best array;
Let the joy’d road make holiday,
And flowers that into fields do stray,
Or secret groves, keep the highway.

Trees, flowers & herbs; birds, beasts & stones,
That since man fell, expect with groans
To see the lamb, which all at once,
Lift up your heads and leave your moans!
                              For here comes he
                              Whose death will be
Man’s life, and your full liberty.

Hark! how the children shrill and high
                              “Hosanna” cry,
Their joys provoke the distant sky,
Where thrones and Seraphim reply,
And their own Angels shine and sing
                             In a bright ring:
                              Such young, sweet mirth
                              Makes heaven and earth
Join in a joyful symphony,

The harmless, young and happy ass,
     Seen long before this came to pass,
Is in these joys a high partaker
     Ordained, and made to bear his Maker.

Dear feast of palms, of flowers and dew!
     Whose fruitful dawn sheds hopes and lights;
Thy bright solemnities did show,
     The third glad day through two sad nights.

I’ll get me up before the sun,
     I’ll cut me boughs off many a tree,
And all alone full early run
     To gather flowers to welcome thee.

Then like the palm, though wrong, I’ll bear,
     I will be still a child, still meek
As the poor ass, which the proud jeer,
     And only my dear Jesus seek.

If I lose all, and must endure.
     The proverb’d griefs of holy Job,
I care not, so I may secure
     But one green branch and a white robe.

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If Trump Tweeted Classic Lit Reviews…

Donald Trump


Among the many reasons for Donald Trump’s success this year is his mastery of social media. His twitter feed has almost seven million followers, and many of his tweets are widely circulated.

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a Jack Shepherd essay in BuzzFeed that does a stylistic analysis of Trump’s tweets. Shepherd points out that they tweets generally feature two short declarative sentences followed by a “short derisive blast.” For example:

Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush—spent $100 million and is at the bottom of the pack. A pathetic figure.

Shepherd then imagines writing classic book reviews using the formula. Some of them are real gems. Here’s a sampling:

James Joyce, UlyssesLeopold Bloom is wandering all over Dublin. At one point the guy pleasures himself on the beach. Confusing and bad!

Hamlet—Loser Hamlet can’t even avenge his father’s death. The problem is, he is a choker, and once a choker, always a choker. Mr. Meltdown.

Lord of the Rings—Everybody is laughing at Gandalf the Grey. Can’t even organize 9 people to destroy one ring without dying. A pathetic figure!

The Sun Also Rises—No one’s ever going to love the worthless Jake Barnes no matter how much wine he drinks. He can’t even get it up—a total loser!

Tristram Shandy—Halfway through this biography and the main character isn’t even born yet. Bad writing and a very weak way to tell a story. Hard to read!

The Stranger—Pathetic Meursault can’t take the heat. He killed someone because the sun was in his eyes. Existence is meaningless.

Feel free to write your own and send them along. I’ll add any good ones to this list.

Posted in Hemingway (Ernest), Joyce (James), Shakespeare (William), Sterne (Lawrence), Tolkien (J.R.R.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Plots vs. Trump Succeed?

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Death of Julius Caesar"

Vincenzo Camuccini, “Death of Julius Caesar”


 Ever since I realized that Marco Rubio would be facing a win-or-drop-out Florida vote on the Ides of March, I planned to use the soothsayer’s famous warning from Julius Caesar. I think I’ve come up with an even better application, however.

While Florida did indeed inflict “the unkindest cut” on its junior senator by handing Donald Trump a resounding victory, the real Ides of March may not have happened yet. The soothsayer should be warning about the GOP convention in July.

Before I explain, let’s look at the Rubio parallel. The GOP Establishment, like Marc Antony, attempted to prematurely crown their leader (first Jeb Bush, then Rubio). The Republican base, like the Roman Senate, rose up in defense of “small r” republican ideals and asserted itself through the ballot box.

But in some ways, the popular insurrection that Marc Antony whips up to route the conspirators seems more like a Trump strategy. So think of Trump as Julius Caesar, not Rubio. After all, he is the mob favorite whose unconventional behavior–he has already crossed many Rubicons–has been sending the GOP Establishment into conniption fits.

If the crowd continues to hand Caesar primary victories, then lean-and-hungry Cassius and Brutus need to pull off something spectacular on the floor of the convention hall to stop him. Already there have been multiple meetings, and experts are poring over nomination rules.

The main difference is that they’re openly talking about it. There will be nothing secret about this stabbing.

Unfortunately for the GOP Establishment, the play demonstrates that things could go badly for plotters. Since Trump would only be metaphorically stabbed, he would be around to play Marc Antony and stir up mob passions to enact payback. He’s already said, “I think you’d have riots” if the nomination were handed to someone who got far fewer votes.

Trump has Marc Antony’s instinct for inciting crowds. In setting off the mob rots, Antony knows how to fan the flames, blowing the fire, then suspending it, then blowing again. Here are the his final words prior to the rampage. He has just read aloud Caesar’s final will, which bequeathes to Rome’s citizens his private land:

Anthony [to the mob]: Moreover, [Caesar] hath left you all his walks,
His private arbors and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever, common pleasures,
To walk abroad, and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?

First Citizen: Never, never. Come, away, away!
We’ll burn his body in the holy place,
And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses.
Take up the body.

Second Citizen: Go fetch fire.

Third Citizen: Pluck down benches.

Fourth Citizen: Pluck down forms, windows, anything.

When it comes to a battle between Brutus and the wily Antony, bet on Antony. After all, he can turn even a funeral oration into an attack ad.

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Savaging the Poor Left and Right

Cruikshank, "Oliver Twist"

Cruikshank, “Oliver Twist”


Although Donald Trump, the big winner in last night’s GOP primaries, has been captivating certain audiences with his inflammatory rhetoric and his carny shtick, he really is no different than the other GOP candidates when it comes to his economic plans. Along with everyone else, he is calling for large tax cuts for the rich, to be paid for by unspecified cuts from he doesn’t say where. These are supposed to bring back the boom times.

Meanwhile states like Kansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin, which have tried out this approach, are currently slashing education budgets as they grapple with crippling debt. In Kansas it got so bad that the State Supreme Court had to step in to protect the schools, which in turn has led to impeachment talk. One columnist has invoked Oliver Twist to describe what is going on.

Republicans are miffed that the Supreme Court insists that, however intent they are on slashing taxes and budgets in their T-party tantrum, the state’s constitution requires them to fund public education, not starve it like Oliver Twist. 

The governor and legislature do indeed sound like Dickens’s Board of Directors: squeeze the poor on the grounds that they are all freeloaders. Dickens’s sarcasm is scathing:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. ‘Oho!’ said the board, looking very knowing; ‘we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.’ So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors’ Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

Interestingly, the contempt that Dickens’s directors have for the poor resembles the contempt that some GOP elites have for Trump supporters. Here’s the conservative National Review’s Kevin Williamson unloading on the rural poor in a diatribe that could have been delivered by a Dickens plutocrat:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.


The alliance between Wall Street and poor white racists that has sustained the GOP in the past appears to be flying apart. Trump may not have much of an economic plan, but he at least is not threatening to dismantle our contemporary workhouses—which is to say, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This may explain why he did so well in yesterday’s primaries.

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Drama Shows Us a Way Out of Violence

The Eumenides


Yesterday “The Stone,” a philosophy forum in The New York Times, had a fabulous interview on the role of theater and the arts in addressing violence. Philosophy professor Simon Critchley of The New School told forum moderator Brad Evans that the arts are essential in getting societies to address and move beyond the violence that is endemic to them.

Critchley first expands our understanding of violence. It is best understood, not as a single act but

as a historical cycle of violence and counterviolence. In other words, violence is not one but two. It is a double act that traps human beings in a repetitive pattern from which it is very hard to escape.

We make a mistake, therefore, when we tell ourselves, say, that the U.S. was at peace when it was attacked on 9-11:

Violence, especially political violence, is usually a pattern of aggression and counteraggression that has a history and which stretches back deep into time.

Critchley says that we should see 9-11 from the point of view of Osama Ben Laden, who got the idea for the attack from watching Israel attack Beiruit in 1982. And as the attack was itself a reaction to violence, Critchley can observe,

We live in a world framed by violence, where justice seems to be endlessly divided between claim and counterclaim, right and left, freedom fighter and terrorist, believer and nonbeliever, and so on. Each side appears to believe unswervingly in the rightness of its position and the wrongness, or indeed “evil,” of the opposition. Such belief legitimates violence and unleashes counterviolence in return. We seem to be trapped in deep historical cycles of violence where justice is usually simply understood as vengeance or revenge.

Fortunately, art provides a means for escaping the trap. Critchley says that the great Greek tragedies of 5th century Athens not only understood violence in a profound way but had a vision of how to move beyond it.

These tragedies understand violence in part because they were written in response to violent conflicts, like the Battle of Salamis and the Peloponnesian War. Aeschylus himself had fought against the Persians, and his actors were often war veterans, as were many audience members:

Greek tragedy, particularly with its obsessive focus on the aftermath of the Trojan War, is largely about combat veterans. But it was also performed by combat veterans. Actors were not flimsy thespians or the Athenian version of Hollywood stars, but soldiers who had seen combat, like Aeschylus himself. They knew firsthand what violence was. Tragedy was played before an audience that either participated directly in war or who were indirectly implicated in war. All were traumatized by it and everyone felt its effects. War was the life of the city and its pride, as Pericles argued. But war was also the city’s fall and undoing.

It is meaningless to speak of peace, Critchley says, unless we first make a deep attempt to “understand the deep history and tragic complexity of political situations.” This understanding is provided to us by great theatre and also, he adds, by great cinema, great television drama, and even great rap music. These dramas teach us that we ourselves are thoroughly implicated in the cycle of violence.

Aeschylus’s understanding of our complicity, Critchley says, led to the violence-ending trial in The Eumenides [The Furies], the final play in the Oresteia trilogy. The violence that led from Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter to Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon to Orestes and Electra killing Clytemnestra to the Furies chasing Orestes is finally brought to an end when Athena intervenes. The Furies of vengeance are transformed into revered goddesses of justice, and mercy takes precedence over harshness:

Athena: You see now how these Furies seek their way
with well-intentioned words? I can predict
these terrifying faces will provide
my citizens all sorts of benefits.
So treat them kindly, just as they are kind.
Worship them forever. Then you’ll keep
your land and city on the path of justice,
in everything you do attaining glory.

In Critchley’s view,

The great virtue of ancient tragedy is that it allowed the Greeks to see their role in a history of violence and war that was to some extent of their own making. It also allowed them to imagine a suspension of that cycle of violence. 

The final scene of The Eumenides, he adds, is

not based on a fanciful idealism, but on a realistic and concrete grasp of a historical situation, which was something the Greeks did by focusing history through the lens of myth.

Critchley draws the following insight from this:

To see the bloody events of the contemporary world in a tragic light exposes us to a disorder which is not just someone else’s disorder. It is our disorder, and theater at its best asks us to take the time to reflect on this and to imagine what a world where violence is suspended might look like.

Critchley sees this dynamic also at work in Shakespeare’s tragedies. If the Greeks were responding to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, Shakespeare was responding to the Wars of the Roses and to the later fighting between Anglicans and Catholics. Critchley again notes that drama captures our own investment in violence, thereby giving us a chance to meditate upon it. Shakespeare brilliantly gets us to experience psychologically the effects of political upheaval:

From the beginning to the end, Shakespeare’s drama is a meditation on political violence. Whether one thinks of the wild excesses of Titus Andronicus, the vast majestic sweep of the history plays, or the great tragedies, Shakespeare had a tight and commanding grip on the nature of political power and its relation to violence and the claims and counterclaims of justice. What is most powerful about Shakespeare is the way in which his historically coded reflections on the politics of his time are combined with intense and immense psychological intimacy. Shakespeare, like no one before or since, binds together the political and the psychological.

We see this binding together especially vividly in Hamlet:

[I]t is not just that this play is a drama of violence in a surveillance state where power is constituted through acts of murder (the Castle of Elsinore and the state of Denmark is clearly some kind of allegory for the late Elizabethan court and police state), but also that we feel an awful proximity to the effects of violence on the mind of the young Danish prince, and the way in which it drives his feigned madness into something more real and frightening, as when he confronts his mother with terrifying psychical violence (Act 3, Scene iv).

Critchley then applies the lesson of the play to the violence that has been breaking out around Donald Trump rallies and to GOP’s calls to enact vengeance against ISIS and to torture terrorists:

What answer does Hamlet give that helps us understand our current political situation? Simply put, the play counsels us that time is out of joint. What people often forget is that Hamlet’s father, before he was himself murdered, killed Fortinbras’s father. And therefore it is fitting that Hamlet ends not just with the prince’s death, but with the military occupation of Denmark by the forces of young Fortinbras, who is Hamlet’s twin, insofar as they are both the sons of murdered fathers, one by the other.

Critchley concludes,

So the point of Shakespeare is not to give us simple answers or reassuring humanistic moral responses to violence, but to get us to confront the violence of our own histories. Hamlet gives us many warnings, but perhaps the most salient is the following: If we imagine that justice is based on vengeance against others, then we are truly undone.

There are another couple of interchanges in the forum worth noting. After discussing the importance of sports in directing and moderating a society’s urge to violence, Evans asks how we might

develop the necessary intellectual tools adequate to these deeply violent and politically fraught times?

Critchley answers,

My response is very simple: Art. I think that art at its most resonant and powerful can give us an account of the history of violence from which we emerge and can also offer us the possibility of a suspension of that violence. Art can provide an image for our age.

He proceeds to give a rap music example—Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which deals with the history of racialized violence—and concludes,

Great music can give us a picture of the violence of our time more powerfully than any news report. It can also offer, for the time that we listen, a momentary respite from the seemingly unending cycles of violence and imagine some other way of being, something less violent, less vengeful and less stupid.

So don’t cut music and literature out of our school curriculums. The health of our society depends upon them.

Posted in Aeschylus, Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fantasy as a Shield against Growing up

Peter Pan


Teaching James Barrie’s Peter and Wendy last week in my British Fantasy class proved to be an emotional experience for me. That’s because I gained a new perspective on how my father raised me and my brothers. Like Barrie, he turned to fantasy to hold off the darkness that he saw in the world.

Scott Bates held on to a child’s playfulness up until he died two years ago at 90. When we were children, he regularly supplied us with games. We had Frisbees (when they first became popular), French boules, bocce balls, diabolos, and yo-yos, and he always carried marbles and tops in his pocket to amuse children. When he built his house, he installed a flat roof where we played badminton and ring toss, and he laid out a concrete slab for shuffleboard. He also installed a horseshoe pit in the yard, while inside we had a foosball table, a Ping-Pong table, caroms, and skittles. We never got a billiard table but he always dreamed of one.

Above all, he read stories and poems to us (including Peter and Wendy) until we were well into middle school. He reveled in our childhood as Barrie did with Peter Davies, the model for Pan.

But Peter and Wendy is not all flying and fairy dust, and my students were struck by the violence. Tinker Bell persuades the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy, there’s a battle where the pirates massacre many of the Indians, and Captain Hook makes regular use of his hook. We even learn that Peter may kill other boys, as in the following passage. It occurs when everyone is circling the island at the same pace, with the wild beasts stalking the Indians who are stalking the pirates who are stalking the Lost Boys:

All wanted blood except the boys, who liked it as a rule, but tonight were out to greet their captain. The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.

And here’s a description of Captain Hook:

His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly. In manner, something of the grand seigneur still clung to him, so that he even ripped you up with an air, and I have been told that he was a raconteur of repute….

Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

Such violence is not uncommon in children’s books, from Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts to the grisly fates meted out to various children in the Roald Dahl books to the torture and killing in Harry Potter. This may at first seem surprising until one realizes that people, adult authors and children alike, turn to fantasy as a shield against a reality that they find intolerable. Great fantasy owes its power to the struggle, with a version of that reality always showing up in the story.

Barrie certainly used fantasy this way. When he was six, his older brother died in an ice skating accident and his mother never recovered. To console her, James would read books to her. His love of stories and playacting became so rooted that he resisted family plans for him to become a minister. He dutifully went to college but worked out a compromise where he could major in literature. Then he followed his own path and became a writer. Many of his best friends were children.

One sees his longing to hold onto his childhood in Peter and Wendy. In addition to Peter, there is Hook, who is angry that he is growing up and losing the “good form” that comes naturally to children. Hook is haunted by the ticking clock in the crocodile, a sign of time passing. Like Peter, he wants Wendy to mother him. Meanwhile, in the Darling household Mr. Darling doesn’t like being an adult and can be just as childish as Michael, the youngest.

My father wasn’t childish in this way but he definitely tried to hold on to a sense of innocence. Most of the books he read to us were fantasy, and I remember him sometimes skipping endings where the characters return to the real world. For instance, he hated the final chapter of The House on Pooh Corner, and I don’t believe he read us the ending of Peter and Wendy. He did read us the tragic ending of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but I think was disturbed by how badly we took it.

One sees some of the playfulness in his light verse, much of which I’ve shared over the life of this blog. Although poet Karl Shapiro, his poetry teacher at the University of Wisconsin, once told him that he couldn’t be a great poet if he wrote light verse, light verse is pretty much all that he wrote.

I vividly remember my father’s cardinal rule for us: we were not allowed to “burst someone’s bubble.” If one of us was feeling good about an accomplishment, we weren’t to go undercutting it. When I was older, my father talked to me about “the desecration of innocence.” In his eyes, few things worse than that.

The more I researched Barrie’s life, the more parallels I found. Barrie was the second youngest of nine children and, like my father, had two older brothers who were the family’s pride and joy. As with Barrie, fewer hopes were invested in my father, who was regarded as effeminate. After all, he wrote poetry, loved books, watched birds, wore glasses, was sickly at one point in his life, and didn’t play sports. While my grandfather looked down on him, however, my grandmother (“Granny”) found him sweet and dressed him as Little Lord Fauntleroy, complete with velvet and lace collarsm when he was young. He bonded with her as Barrie did with his own mother.

Imagine someone with this childhood landing in German-occupied France a week after turning 21. I think my father tried to hold on to his childhood innocence to cushion himself against the shock of World War II. While he didn’t engage in any fighting, he witnessed German bombing in the Battle of the Falaise Gap and he saw Dachau three days after it was liberated. In fact, he was assigned to take Germans to the camp to persuade them that the Holocaust was not just American propaganda.

He came back from the war an atheist and a material determinist who saw the world slated for destruction. His poetry, humorous though it is, often has an undercurrent of pessimism. His children, however, gave him a chance to return to the innocence of childhood, and he returned the favor by being our generous playmate.

He was a wonderful father to have although we, or at least I, imbibed some of his fears about the world. To please him I tried to hold on to my own innocence for as long as I could. I buried myself in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and I lashed out against Catcher in the Rye, which was assigned in high school and dramatizes the fall from innocence. Holden may fantasize about catching children before they run off the cliff into adolescence, but it’s a losing battle.

“All children, except one, grow up,” Barrie memorably writes. That doesn’t mean we accept it..

Posted in Barrie (James) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment


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

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

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