No Miss Havisham for Hillary

Charles Green, “Miss Havisham”


I haven’t read Hillary Clinton’s account of the 2016 election, but New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister points out a literary allusion she uses that reflects well on her. Traister’s article is about the pressure on women to hide their anger:

So internalized is women’s impulse to paper over their ire that Clinton writes about how, in the weeks after her loss, she prayed “to stay hopeful and openhearted rather than becoming cynical and bitter … so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham … rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.”

Traister observes,

This is what women have been taught that rage might do to us: We are so sure that our resentments — especially any resentments toward men — are corrosive, and make us appear pathetic and vengeful, that we ask for divine help to simply stop feeling them.

Because of our double standard, Traister observes, Clinton

never could have turned around and screamed at Trump, never could have slashed her finger through the air and called for revolution in the style of Bernie Sanders, at least not if she had any hope of winning the presidency. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and there is almost nothing that Americans view as more repellent in women than anger…

Traister names other women who have been targeted for their anger:

When California senator Kamala Harris and Jeff Sessions tussled during his Senate Intelligence hearings in the spring, Trump adviser Jason Miller described Sessions as full of “vinegar and fire in his belly,” while he deemed Harris “hysterical.” (Black women, with perhaps more to be mad about in America than anyone else, are often regarded as militant monsters when they so much as raise a disapproving eyebrow, or just as often, when someone imagines that they have. Recall the treatment of Michelle Obama in 2008.) After Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dressed down a commandant for failing to address sexual harassment in the military earlier this year, Tucker Carlson called her “positively unglued.” And in response to a righteous post-election rant from Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mika Brzezinski declared, “There’s an anger there that’s shrill … unmeasured and almost unhinged.” 

I agree with Traister about the double standard, but I also commend Clinton for drawing on literature to not becoming consumed by her anger. Miss Havisham, of course, is the jilted bride in Dickens’s Great Expectations who is rendered perpetually bitter by her disappointment. Pip describes his first view of her as follows:

But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Nor does Miss Havisham confine the bitterness to herself but corrupts a child, turning her into an instrument of revenge. Esther will break hearts just as Miss Havisham’s heart was broken.

That Clinton imagines that she herself has Miss Havisham potential indicates that she never lost touch with her soul. Clinton really, really wanted to be president, just as Miss Havisham really, really wanted to be married. Yet somewhere along the line, Clinton got in touch with a healing perspective. Thank the lord that novels provide us such guidance.

In contrast to Clinton, I have written a blog post on someone who did in fact become Miss Havisham. For Donald Trump, the clocks stopped the moment he won the election. Like Havisham, the remaining bloom went out of his life. Because nothing could ever match election night euphoria, he became an empty husk, always hearkening back to it. Just yesterday he retweeted a GIF of him swinging a golf club and hitting Clinton.

The fact that Clinton was able to make such a shift indicates that she has an inner compass that would have served her well as president. Her Havisham reference shows that she was never the soulless caricature people believed her to be.

Another literary allusion: This was to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

I saw a man off to the side who I thought was Reince Priebus…. We shook hands and exchanged small talk. Later I realized it hadn’t been Priebus at all. It was Jason Chaffetz, the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert who made endless political hay out of my emails and the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi.

Later Chaffetz posted a picture of our handshake with the caption, “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.” What a class act! I came this close to tweeting back, “To be honest, I thought you were Reince.”

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Rosh Hashanah: How To Make It New

Isidor Kaufmann “The New Year”

Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah begins on Tuesday, giving me an excuse to share this stimulating poem by Rachel Barenblat, keeper of the wonderfully named Velveteen Rabbi blog. The Jewish New Year, as you probably know, celebrates the day of creation, and people take the opportunity to examine their lives over the past year and repent.

In her poem, Barenblat asks what we are to make of the fact that lists this year will look pretty much the same as last year. The view of the Creation “that gleams before us” may not have changed, she writes. But we have.


By Rachel Barenblat

How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
and apologies.

We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.

But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its  magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.

We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year’s list
looks just like last.

The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.

By the time we reach the top
we’ve forgotten 
how nervous  we were
that repeating the climb
wasn’t worth the work.

Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it’s different 
from last year
but because we are

and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.

Previous posts on Rosh Hoshanah

Muriel Ruykeyser and Denise Levertov: Rosh Hashanah – A Stirring of Wonder

Marge Piercy: Rosh Hashanah – Weave Real Connections

Enid Shomer: How Rosh Hashanah Is Like Swimming

Amichai Yehuda: Theoretically, a Season for Everything

Emma Lazarus: High above Fire and Flood Ye Held the Scroll

Lucille Clifton: On 9-11 Firemen Ascended Jacob’s Ladder

Rashani: Blowing for Hope in the Face of Darkness

Alicia Ostriker: Enter the Days of Awe

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Murakami Explains Lure of Fascism

White supremacists march in Charlottesville


I’ve just finished teaching The Wild Sheep Chase in my Haruki Murakami first year seminar, and it feels like a different book following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that led to the murder of Heather Heyer.  Murakami helps us understand why some young men are drawn to fascism.

As the title indicates, the novel involves haphazard wandering. The narrator, often referred to as Boku by critics (“boku” is the informal Japanese “I”), must find his friend Rat, who has made contact with a nefarious sheep god. This god has the potential, when it finds a promising host, to take over his mind, turning him into a charismatic authoritarian. In response, society follows his lead as so many sheep.

Genghis Khan, we are told, was taken over by the sheep god, and so was “the Boss,” a character in the book that controls Japan’s advertising industry and many of its politicians but who is now dying. The sheep god sees potential in Rat, Boku’s drinking buddy, and in a very circuitous way Rat has contacted Boku in an attempt to keep from being taken over.

To capture the lure of fascism, Murakami does two things. First, he shows the sterile life that Boku and Rat are living, a life tat consists of soul-sucking office jobs, a series of meaningless relationships, and a lot of drinking in bars. Rat describes the inner weakness that the sheep god feeds on:

Weakness is something that rots in the body. Like gangrene. I’ve felt that ever since I was a teenager. That’s why I was always on edige. There’s this something inside you that’s rotting away and you feel it all along. Can you understand what that’s like?

Rat goes on to describe this weakness as moral weakness, weakness of consciousness, and “weakness of existence itself.”

Extreme ideology takes advantage of this weakness, Rat tells Boku:

“What did the sheep want of you?”

Everything. The whole lock, stock, and barrel. My body, my memory, my weakness, my contradictions…That’s the sort of stuff the sheep really goes for. The bastard’s got all sorts of feelers. It sticks them down your ears and nose like straws and sucks you dry.”

Rat doesn’t say exactly what vision the sheep uses as bait—perhaps the same vision that prompted Hitler’s followers to attend Nuremberg rallies—but he describes what if feels like:

Ând it was enough to draw me in. More than I’d care to confess. It’s not something I can explain in words. It’s like, well, like a blast furnace that smelts down everything it touches. A thing of such beauty, it drives you out of your mind. But it’s hair-raising evil. Give your body over to it and everything goes. Consciousness, values, emotions, pain, everything. Gone. What it comes closest to is a dynamo manifesting the vital force at the root of all life in one solitary point of the universe.

In other words, if you’re tormented by an aimless existence devoid of purpose, then a fascistic cleansing of the mind can resemble a blast furnace that smelts down all complexity into a single dynamo.

What saves Rat is, essentially, his acceptance of his flawed humanity. He knows he must reject fascism’s rush if he is to hold on to his soul:

“So why did you reject it?”…

“I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas—if I like these things, why should I apologize? The same with having a beer with you…”

By the end of the novel, Boku too has turned down offer to work for the shadowy corporation. Instead, he enters into Rat’s plan to make sure the corporation falls apart and then gives his earnings to help establish a communal bar. (Murakami too ran a bar/jazz club before finding success as a novelist.) Boku gets back in touch with his feelings and, like a classic existential hero, faces the future bruised but free.  Murakami concludes the novel,

I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go.

The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk.

It beats chanting “blood and soil” as you carry torches in support of Confederate statues.

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What Our Favorite Books Reveal about Us

Charlotte Weeks, “A Young Girl Reading”


In my Theories of the Reader class, I’m currently having my students write their personal reading histories. This comes after their having read two articles by Freud and an article by Freudian psychologist Norman Holland. Today I explain how these works help the students delve deeper into the meaning of their reading experiences.

In the assignment, the students are to choose three intense encounters that they have had with works of literature and figure out who they were at the time that explains why they had the experience that they did. The works are to come at different stages of their lives—I encourage them to start with a childhood reading encounter—and, in addition to explaining the reading dynamics, they must also figure out a theme that connects that three works. Drawing on Holland’s article “Unity  Identity  Text  Self,” I call this their “identity theme.”

Holland says that, just as works of literature have a unifying theme, so do people. We call this theme our “identity,” which Holland defines by quoting psychologist Heinz Lichtenstein:

When we describe the “character” or “personality” of another person, Lichtenstein shows, we abstract an invariant from “the infinite sequence of bodily and behavioral transformations during the whole life of an individual.” That is, we can be precise about individuality by conceiving of the individual as living out variations on an identity theme much as a musician might play out an infinity of variations on a single melody. We discover that underlying theme by abstracting it from its variations.

Holland wrote his essay in 1975, before the heyday of deconstruction, and we don’t make textual unity the holy grail of literary criticism anymore–just as, perhaps, psychologists don’t still look for a single identity within an individual. Still, even deconstructionists look for an attempted unity, even if only to then blow it up. (Deconstruction’s characteristic move is to show how a seemingly unified text unravels or contains fault lines that have been “sutured.”) In the assignment, I find it useful to have the students look for a central drama to their lives, one which has continued from their childhood to the present day. They often find it clarifying to realize that a childhood struggle is still playing itself out in their lives 15 or 20 years later. At the very least, this is one of their identities.

Holland says that readers replicate their identity in the act of reading:

As readers, each of us will bring different kinds of external information to bear. Each will seek out the particular themes that concern him. Each will have different ways of making the text into an experience with a coherence and significance that satisfies.

Much of Holland’s work has been to explore how this act of replication works. In Poems in Persons, for instance, he shows how different interpretations of a single work can be traced back to the different identities of the readers. In my own assignment, I have the students choose different works—ones with which they have had a strong encounter, whether positive or negative—and then, in the final analysis, find a connecting theme in the reactions they had to those works.

I can report that a theme always emerges. Sometimes it is very clear, as when, say, people uncomfortable with the tradition expectations assigned to their gender find themselves drawn to characters who transgress gender norms. This can be such a painful struggle that the stories and poems they find are immensely reassuring. Likewise, it is not uncommon to find women students identifying a longing to be strong as their identity theme after they have examined their works and reactions. Other identity themes are harder to ferret out, sometimes because the student hasn’t provided enough biographical background or enough detail about the reading experiences. Sometimes it takes a revision to find clarity.

Freud’s essay “The Poet and Daydreaming” proves useful in helping the students understand the meaning of childhood stories. Freud says that, when they play, children are essentially creative writers:

Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it.

One way children to play is by listening to stories. When children demand that their parents read them a particular book 25 or 50 times, they are looking for answers to life’s critical problems as they experience them. Once the issue no longer seems so critical, children will suddenly lose all interest in the story.

While the issues may change as we grow older, our underlying identities don’t. What we find pleasurable remains constant, Freud say. Instead of abandoning our childhood pleasures, we find find adult substitutes or surrogates:

But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams. I believe that most people construct phantasies at times in their lives.

Extending this observation to the act of reading, we can say that, having once enjoyed reading as children, we never give it up but seek for the same pleasure in adult substitutes. One reason my students can find themes through works read at different points in time is because the later books bear some relationship to the earlier ones. It’s just that, having bigger minds now, they demand more complex literary experiences.

In “Poets and Daydreaming,” Freud boils our daydreams—and I would add, our reading wishes—down to two: ambitious wishes and erotic wishes. These, he believes, are gendered male and female, and before we reject his bifurcation too quickly as a 19th century holdover, it’s worth noting that men still lean toward action adventure and women toward romance (although this is gradually changing).

The more important point for my students is that they search out the wishes within their reading experiences.

But wishes aren’t the whole story, as Freud himself came to realize. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he grappled with the fact that we don’t only fantasize wishes but also anxieties. He discovered this from studying the PTSD nightmares of World War I veterans, in which they revisited their trench experiences.

Bringing the fantasy closer to home, Freud tells the story of a child, otherwise well behaved, who was obsessed with throwing toys. In doing so, Freud says, he was replaying the story of abandonment by the mother. Since no fear goes deeper, why would a child replay it, shouting “fort” (gone) as the toy disappeared? Freud also witnessed a variant: the child had a reel attached to a string, which he would first disappear (“fort”) and then retrieve (“da” or “there”). The child would replay the fort/da story and over.

Freud proffers several explanations, but one is that, by articulating his anxiety with the “fort” game, the boy reassured himself that he had control over the situation. He, rather than the mother, determined when the disappearance occurred.

With the fort/da variant, meanwhile, anxieties are followed by reassurance of a happy ending. We visit the fear but then console ourselves that a satisfactory resolution is possible. When we grow up, we never tire of this story, although we do insist on more complexity.

I therefore tell my students to look for the anxieties in their reading experiences as well as the wishes. If we are reading to survive the natural shocks that flesh is heir to, we must revisit those shocks to fully appreciate literature’s power.

When the assignment succeeds, the students come away with a deeper appreciation for the gift of literature. After all, time and again it stepped up to support them in their times of direst need.

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Anger in Ancient Greek Works

Charles-Antoine Coypel, “Fury of Achilles” (1737)


A new book has been released with a subject that is very close to my heart: literature about anger. I have argued that few works deal with anger better than Beowulf, which shows both a range of angers and what it takes to counter their destructive effects. In her recently released Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, however, Emily Katz Anhalt points out that Homer also does a pretty good job in The Iliad, as does Sophocles in Ajax and Euripides in Hecuba.

According to Mary Beard’s New York Times review, Anhalt

offers an engaging and sometimes inspiring guide to the rich complexities of the Iliad. Her underlying point is that, from its earliest origins, Western literature questioned the values of the society that produced it. The Iliad is no jingoistic Greek anthem, proudly celebrating the achievements of its warrior heroes and their struggles for military, political and personal glory (their struggles, as she sums it up, to be “best”). The poem both encapsulates and simultaneously challenges that worldview, by asking what “bestness” is and what the costs of such a competitive culture are.

Anhalt shows that The Iliad is radical in the way that it humanizes the enemy. Beard observes,

As Anhalt rightly insists, by setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families — from the ruminations of the sadly regretful Helen to the encounters between Hector, the Trojan super-warrior, and his young son — Homer destabilizes the traditional “them-and-us” culture of the ancient Greek world, and its conventional polarization between civilization and barbarity. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. In short, as Anhalt writes, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “fully human.”

Then the author applies the lesson to our own times:

Anhalt, however, has bigger points to make. She wants to show that the Iliad and other works of Greek literature (she also examines in detail two fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragedies set in the last days and aftermath of the Trojan War) have direct lessons for the modern world. You can see why. As she makes very clear, dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of North Korea do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do.

In her chapter on Sophocles’s Ajax, meanwhile, Anhalt lays out some of the limitations of group decision making. The awarding of Achilles’s armor to Odysseus, even though Ajax has been the greater warrior, drives Ajax mad with anger:

After his death, the armor of Achilles was unfairly awarded as a prize to Odysseus, not to his rival Ajax — and bloody mayhem came from Ajax’s rage at the decision. Anhalt urges us to look harder, as Sophocles did, at the way democracy works, to face the uncomfortable fact that democratic decisions can be wrong and can sometimes serve the ends of tyranny and ignorance rather than of justice and equality. Her implication that it is the job of a democracy to debate and to deal with democracy’s mistakes as well as to celebrate its successes is important…

In my book How Beowulf Can Save America, I argue that each of the three monsters that Beowulf kills represents a different kind of anger and that Beowulf, in marked contrast to other characters, models an effective response to dealing with each anger. Anhalt doesn’t appear to search within her three texts for antidotes, or at least Beard doesn’t mention any. They do exist, however.

For instance, when Achilles uses revenge therapy to deal with the death of Patroclus, it brings him no peace and even the gods are horrified by his brutality. He then, however, moves to a softer place upon witnessing the grief of Priam, whose son Hector he has killed. By allowing Priam to take Hector’s body, Achilles appears a bigger man than he was when slaughtering Trojans. This is a very human lesson that Homer teaches us.

Beard is disappointed that Anhalt doesn’t offer us better solutions to the problem of violence other than the vapid dictum “it is better to talk about things than fight.” I’m thinking that maybe Anhalt didn’t dig deep enough. When great literature introduces us to a problem, it generally offers up constructive responses.

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Worshipping Our Lord, the Dollar

Fritz Eichenberg, the prisoners at church in “Resurrection”


When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Joel Osteen, a prosperity televangelist who refused to offer his megachurch to storm victims, came in for fierce criticism. He eventually capitulated, but his lack of immediate sympathy points to prosperity theology’s inability to adequately address the problem of human suffering. If you preach that one’s fate is tied to one’s faith, then how do you account for a storm that ravages believers and nonbelievers alike?

I found myself wishing that Leo Tolstoy had gotten a shot at Osteen. In his final novel Resurrection, the author shows what he thinks of those who equate the love of Christ with the love of mammon.

Osteen preaches “prosperity theology,” which a recent Newsweek article defines as

the theological equivalent to the American Dream. The essence of the prosperity gospel is simple: Faith brings rewards, not only in the afterlife—as taught in all mainstream forms of Christianity—but also in the earthly life. These rewards can take the form of health, career success, and, most controversially, wealth.

Newsweek’s Conor Gaffey reports that the most noteworthy adherent of the prosperity gospel is Donald Trump:

The Trump family attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, where the pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a 1952 book that sold millions and was translated into more than a dozen languages. Trump has cited Peale as a mentor, telling the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in 2015 that he could listen to Peale “all day long. And when you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.”

This may help explain some of Trump’s otherwise baffling support from certain evangelicals. Gaffey reports how prosperity preachers are amongst Trump’s close advisers:

The presidential board of evangelical advisers, convened by Trump in 2016 to help him (successfully) court the religious right vote, also comprises of several high-profile prosperity preachers. Trump’s closest spiritual adviser, Paula White, the pastor of a Florida megachurch and popular Christian commentator, is one. White told an audience at a 2007 event: “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan.”

Kenneth Copeland, another Texas televangelist, teaches that “financial prosperity is God’s will for you” and that believers should pray for financial provision from God. (Osteen is not on the board and never officially endorsed Trump’s presidential bid, though he did describe Trump as a “friend of our ministry” and “a good man.”)

While Tolstoy goes after the Russian Orthodox Church rather than a Protestant spinoff, his critique of those who profit from religion still applies. After straightforwardly describing a church service for mistreated Russian prisoners, the novelist unloads:

And none of those present, from the inspector down to Maslova, seemed conscious of the fact that this Jesus, whose name the priest repeated such a great number of times, and whom he praised with all these curious expressions, had forbidden the very things that were being done there; that He had prohibited not only this meaningless much-speaking and the blasphemous incantation over the bread and wine, but had also, in the clearest words, forbidden men to call other men their master, and to pray in temples; and had ordered that everyone should pray in solitude, had forbidden to erect temples, saying that He had come to destroy them, and that one should worship, not in a  temple, but in spirit and in truth; and, above all, that He had forbidden not only to judge, to imprison, to torment, to execute men, as was being done here, but had prohibited any kind of violence, saying that He had come to give freedom to the captives.

No one present seemed conscious that all that was going on here was the greatest blasphemy and a supreme mockery of that same Christ in whose name it was being done. No one seemed to realize that the gilt cross with the enamel medallions at the ends, which the priest held out to the people to be kissed, was nothing but the emblem of that gallows on which Christ had been executed for denouncing just what was going on here. That these priests, who imagined they were eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, did in reality eat and drink His flesh and His blood, but not as wine and bits of bread, but by ensnaring “these little ones” with whom He identified Himself, by depriving them of the greatest blessings and submitting them to most cruel torments, and by hiding from men the tidings of great joy which He had brought. That thought did not enter into the mind of any one present.

Tolstoy then lays out what the various parties gain from religious practice:

The priest did his part with a quiet conscience, because he was brought up from childhood to consider that the only true faith was the faith which had been held by all the holy men of olden times and was still held by the Church, and demanded by the State authorities. He did not believe that the bread turned into flesh, that it was useful for the soul to repeat so many words, or that he had actually swallowed a bit of God. No one could believe this, but he believed that one ought to hold this faith. What strengthened him most in this faith was the fact that, for fulfilling the demands of this faith, he had for the last 15 years been able to draw an income, which enabled him to keep his family, send his son to a gymnasium and his daughter to a school for the daughters of the clergy. The deacon believed in the same manner, and even more firmly than the priest, for he had forgotten the substance of the dogmas of this faith, and knew only that the prayers for the dead, the masses, with and without the acathistus, all had a definite price, which real Christians readily paid, and, therefore, he called out his “have mercy, have mercy,” very willingly, and read and said what was appointed, with the same quiet certainty of its being necessary to do so with which other men sell faggots, flour, or potatoes. The prison inspector and the warders, though they had never understood or gone into the meaning of these dogmas and of all that went on in church, believed that they must believe, because the higher authorities and the Tsar himself believed in it. Besides, though faintly (and themselves unable to explain why), they felt that this faith defended their cruel occupations. If this faith did not exist it would have been more difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to use all their powers to torment people, as they were now doing, with a quiet conscience. The inspector was such a kind-hearted man that he could not have lived as he was now living unsupported by his faith. Therefore, he stood motionless, bowed and crossed himself zealously, tried to feel touched when the song about the cherubims was being sung, and when the children received communion he lifted one of them, and held him up to the priest with his own hands.

In Flight Behavior, which I’ve just finished teaching, Barbara Kingsolver’s protagonist sees the church as “a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.” Osteen’s and Trump’s pyramid schemes are not just metaphysical. Actual money changes hands.

For further reading:

A powerful early exposé of prosperity theology is Howard Nemerov’s poem “Boom” (1957). Check it out in my post, “When Christianity Becomes a Money Cult.”

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Irma as Milton’s & Dante’s Infernos

The eye of Hurricane Irma


Someone tweeted recently that, from above, the “eye” of a hurricane doesn’t look so much like an eye as it does an anus—and that it behaves like one as well, spreading s— everywhere. This sent my own scatological mind into action, and I began associating Irma’s winds from hell with the Satanic winds described by Milton in Paradise Lost and by Dante in The Inferno.

In an article entitled “Scatology and the Sacred in Milton ‘s Paradise Lost,” Kent Lehnhof observes that Milton’s winds have scatological associations:

Milton repeatedly connects his epic demons to digestive waste. The infernal environment in which they are confined, for instance, is an unmistakably flatulential realm. Reeking of “ever-burning Sulphur,” Milton’s hell is a windy wasteland where Satan and the fallen angels are eternally buffeted by “Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire” (I, 69, 77). Hell’s excremental features are foregrounded from the very beginning of Book I, where the narrator describes the landscape to be the work of subterranean winds erupting from the earth’s “combustible / And fewel’d entrals” in such a way as to leave behind “a singed bottom all involv’d / With stench and smoak” (I, 233-34, 236-37).

Lehnhof also observes scatological wind imagery in the weapons that the bad angels aim at the good ones in the battle over Heaven:

Sudden all at once thir Reeds
[They] put forth, and to a narrow vent appli’d
With nicest touch. Immediate in a flame,
But soon obscur’d with smoak, all Heav’n appeerd,
From those deep-throated Engins belcht, whose roar
Emboweld with outragious noise the Air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foule
Thir devilish glut. (VI, 582-89)

By contrast, Dante’s Inferno is cold, not hot, but like Milton’s it is a windy place. The winds here are not flatulence—they are caused by the ice-entrapped Satan beating his wings in an endeavor to escape—but the very center of hell is the devil’s anus. Dante and Virgil must travel through this in order to begin making their way to Purgatorio.

First, here’s the wind scene:

As, when a thick mist breathes, or when the rim
  Of night creeps up across our hemisphere,
  A turning windmill looms in the distance dim,

I thought I saw a shadowy mass appear;
  Then shrank behind my leader from the blast,
  Because there was no other cabin here.

Virgil and Dante must go right up to Satan to come out the other side, just as Florida, to get to calmer weather, must first endure the eye of the hurricane. This is such a fearsome journey, however, that Virgil must carry Dante. Taking advantage of a momentary lull in the beating of the wings (again, like a hurricane’s eye), they first climb down the devil and then, the center of the earth being as it is, begin climbing upward. The transition from down to up occurs in the vicinity of Satan’s thigh-bone, which scholars like Norman O. Brown see as a euphemism for the anus:

Then, as he bade, about his neck I curled
My arms and clasped him. And he spied the time
And place; and when the wings were wide unfurled

Set him upon the shaggy flanks to climb
And thus from shag to shag descended down
‘Twixt matted hair and crusts of frozen rime.

And when we had come to where the huge thigh0bone
Rides in its socket at the haunch’s swell,
My guide, with labour and great exertion,

Turned head to where the feet had been, and fell
To hoisting himself up upon the hair,
So that I thought us mounting back to Hell.

Florida and those decimated Caribbean islands have gone through the nine levels of hell and are only beginning to clamber painfully back. Dante concludes Inferno with encouraging words, however:

He first, I following; till my straining sense
Glimpsed the bright burden of the heavenly cars
Through a round hole; by this we climbed, and thence

Came forth, to look once more upon the stars.

Hang in their, Irma sufferers. You will look once again upon the stars.

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Prayer for My Granddaughters

Hurricane Irma pounds Puerto Rico

Spiritual Sunday

As I was thinking about Hurricane Irma and the people it has hit and is about to hit, W.B. Yeats’s “Prayer for My Daughter” came to mind. It too features fierce winds, which feel all the more threatening given the vulnerability of his child:

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on.  There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

The poem goes on to describe the kind of woman Yeats hopes his daughter will grow up to be, but I want to send my prayers in a different direction. The scientific evidence is now irrefutable that climate change is causing increasingly frequent and intense EWEs (extreme weather events), and we are on the verge of leaving these events as our legacy to subsequent generations. These include my granddaughters, who are sleeping peacefully in Georgia as I write this.

How can people be so selfish and insensitive, caught up as they are in denial, hatred and greed, not to do everything possible to avert the oncoming catastrophes? How many more Hurricane Harveys, Irmas, and Josés are needed before climate denialists wake up and work together with the rest of us. We need all hands on deck to fight rising temperatures.

The image of angry winds runs throughout Yeats’s poem, but it ends on a note of “innocence and beauty.” Julia and I used this passage for our wedding invitation, and it is the future that I pray awaits my granddaughters:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Americans are great at coming together when the disaster is upon us. May we create the kind of society, filled with custom and ceremony, that addresses future threats as well. The lives of our grandchildren are at stake.

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Reasons to Read

Alexander Serebryakov, “Reading a Book” (1946)


Check out this essay by Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club. I particularly like its list of reasons to read:

When I can’t stand to look at one more hateful tweet from the president, I read a book.

When I turn on the television to hear the news and all I hear is people shouting and talking over one another, I read a book.

When I realize that I have 1,200 unread emails, I read a book.

When the apartment is a mess and friends are on their way over, I read a book.

You get the point. When I’m stressed, I grab a book. I also read when I’m not stressed. I like to read. And that’s a good thing because I work in publishing and I write books. You can’t (or shouldn’t) do either unless you like to read them.

When it’s a beautiful day, I read in the park.

When it’s raining, I read under the covers.

When I’m on a plane, I read on the plane.

When the plane is stuck on the tarmac, I have more time to read on the plane.

Schwalbe talks about the guidance that books provide in his recent Books for Living:

On the last page, I wrote that books remain one of the few defenses we have against narrowness, domination, and mind control. But only if we read them – and then only if we spring into action based on what we’ve learned and discovered. Books can’t do anything by themselves. They need us.

 Today we need to read more than ever. And we need to act now more than ever.

I especially like that final injunction. As I tell my students, there are three steps to get the most out of a work of literature: immerse yourself in it, reflect upon it, change your life.

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DACA Kids, Back to the Shadows?

DACA supporters protest in front of Trump Tower


When Barack Obama attempted to protect that immigrant parents of American citizens in November 2014, I thought of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who contemplates emerging into the sunlight after having hibernated into the shadows. We were optimistic back then.

I alluded to that blog post following the election of Donald Trump while adding some follow-up. I chose a different passage from Invisible Man to end on, this one far more pessimistic:

Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

I ended the post,

Yes, the “old eagle” is rocking very dangerously. Pray for strength, courage, and wise guidance in the months and years ahead.

The rocking is getting worse. Rather than end today’s contribution on so dark a note, however, I am posting the original essay to remind us what hope looks like. Congress still has the power to protect the Dreamers and, who knows, maybe they’ll do the right thing. Polls show that practically everyone outside of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the far right want the Dreamers to stay. Here’s my earlier essay:

Reprinted from November 24, 2014

With President Obama’s recent use of prosecutorial discretion to stop deporting immigrants who are parents of American citizens, we’re hearing a lot the phrase “out of the shadows.” The words got me thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who retreats to the shadows but then, in the epilogue, reports that he will be returning to the light.  While the situations aren’t identical, of course, there’s a fair degree of overlap.

IM (he doesn’t have a name) “hibernates” into the shadows after trying fruitlessly to prove that he is a three-dimensional human being. After he has been beaten down repeatedly, he surrenders and resigns himself to his invisibility. Our undocumented immigrants, who are all around us and yet are officially invisible, experience something similar:

So there you have all of it that’s important. Or at least you almost have it. I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in, if you will—and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint.

IM talks about shedding his naïveté but not his idealism, an evolution I could imagine with our current immigrants. It sounds like a contradiction but IM feels liberated once he stops worrying about what others think of him. Since he couldn’t change their minds anyway, he can focus on the possibilities at hand. In America, there are still many possibilities:

[L]ike almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being “for” society and then “against” it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase—still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.

To be sure, politicians like Ted Cruzes, Steve King, and Jeff Sessions are trying to put America in a traditionally white strait jacket. The danger posed by such figures explains why IM remains in hibernation for as long as he does:

Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

IM realizes that hibernation, however, is what has kept the status quo in place. Indeed, it was the so-called undocumented “dreamers” coming out of the shadows and holding dangerous protests that helped push Obama to his executive decisions. IM invokes one of America’s founding visions: e pluribus unum, out of many one. He holds to this even though the world remains “just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before.” What has changed, he says, is a clearer understanding of the struggle such a vision calls for:

[O]nly now I better understand my relation to it and it to me. I’ve come a long way from those days when, full of illusion, I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health.

And further on:

Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s “winner take nothing” that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many.—This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.

The book concludes with an observation that no nativist will acknowledge and yet which has a deep truth:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Just as immigrants defined our past, so will they define our future. The question is whether we will face the changes openly with smart legislation or whether we will continue to avert our eyes and melodramatically posture. Be prepared for a lot of posturing.

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Kingsolver Explains Climate Denial

Hurricane Irma threatens Florida coast


I see that Rush Limbaugh is declaring Hurricane Irma, predicted to hit the Florida coast by the end of the week, to be a liberal conspiracy. Normally I don’t pay a lot of attention to Limbaugh. In her novel Flight Behavior, however, Barbara Kingsolver shows how dangerous such radio pronouncements can be.

First, here’s an excerpt of Limbaugh’s recent blast:

When a hurricane pops up — and we can’t forget Hurricane Harvey because Hurricane Harvey and the TV pictures that accompany that go a long way to helping further and create the panic.

Now, in the official meteorological circles, you have an abundance of people who believe that man-made climate change is real, and they believe that Al Gore is correct when he has written, and he couldn’t be more wrong, that climate change is creating more hurricanes and stronger hurricanes. And, of course, when Harvey hit, it was the first hurricane that had hit in 12 years. There haven’t been more hurricanes and they’re no more dangerous than any others in previous years.

But it doesn’t matter because the bias is built in. So there is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it. You can accomplish a lot just by creating fear and panic. You don’t even need a hurricane to hit anywhere. All you need is to create the fear and panic accompanied by talk that climate change is causing hurricanes to become more frequent, and bigger, and more dangerous, and you create the panic, and it’s mission accomplished, agenda advanced.

Limbaugh, of course, is an expert on how to use fear to drive human behavior. He is not, however, a scientist. The consensus among the scientific community is that, between warming waters and sea level rise, we are getting stronger and more destructive hurricanes.

In a scene where she is mending fences with her husband (literally) of their Appalachian sheep farm, Kingsolver’s Dellarobia explains to a skeptical Cub the reason why the Tennessee mountains are experiencing record amounts of rainfall and why the monarch butterfly population has suddenly decided to move north and winter there:

“What persuaded the butterflies off their track?” Cub asked.

“Well, see, that’s what they’re wanting to figure out,” she said…”There’s more to it than just these butterflies, a lot of things are messed up. [Dr. Byron] says it’s due to climate change, basically.”

“What’s that?”

She hesitated. “global warming.”

Cub snorted. He kicked up a cloud of dusty frost. “Al Gore can come toast his buns on this.” It was Johnny Midgeon’s line on the radio, every time a winter storm came through.

“But what about all the rain we had last year? All those trees falling out of the ground, after they’d stood a hundred years. The weather’s turned weird, Cub. Did you ever see a year like we’ve had?”

…Cub said, “They don’t call it global weirding.”

“I know. But I think that’s actually the idea.”

Cub shook his head. “Weather is the Lord’s business.”

She felt an exasperation that she knew would be of no use to this debate. She let it rise and fall inside her, along with wishful thoughts. Every loss she’d ever borne had been declared the Lord’s business. A stillborn child, a father dead in his prime.

“So we just take what comes?” she asked. “People used to say the same thing whenever some disease came along and killed all the children. ‘It’s part of God’s plan.’ Now we give them vaccinations. Is that defying God?”

Cub made no reply.

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?”

“Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report,” Cub maintained, and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic. All knowledge measured, first and last, by one’s allegiance to the teacher.

If you put your faith in Rush Limbaugh, climate change is a hoax. End of story.

Update – It turns out that Rush Limbaugh decided to listen to the scientists after all. The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Days after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called official pronouncements about the threat of Hurricane Irma a way to further the “climate change agenda,” the conservative firebrand announced Thursday on his radio program that he would evacuate his home in Palm Beach in advance of the storm.

Pray for those Floridians who took him seriously.

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What Tennis Meant to Tolstoy

Tolstoy playing tennis (1896)


My son Toby alerted me to this New Yorker article on Tolstoy and tennis. As I’m currently listening to Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection while fervently hoping that Roger Federer will win the U.S. Open, all the pieces came together for today’s blog post.

Gerald Marzorati sets out to solve a puzzle. On the one hand, photographs exist of Tolstoy with a racquet in his hand and appearing to enjoy the game. On the other hand, Tolstoy at one point in his life had contempt for tennis. Marzorati figures this out from reading Anna Karenina:

When he was in his forties, he thought tennis was a faddish luxury, a pastime of the new rich, something imported, inauthentic—a child’s game enthused about by well-to-do grownups who refused to grow up. We know this from Part 6, Chapter 22, of Anna Karenina, which he was writing in the eighteen-seventies, when the modern game of “lawn tennis” was developed and patented by Major Walter Clapton Wingfield, a British Army officer. [A set of Wingfield’s tennis equipment]—imaginatively—winds up on the “carefully leveled and rolled croquet-ground” of the house where Tolstoy’s Anna, having left her husband and son and shocked Moscow society, has gone to live with her lover, Vronsky, and where, at this juncture late in the novel, she is being visited by her sister-in-law, Dolly, her last real defender in the world that she has abandoned—and that has abandoned her.

Dolly, embodying Tolstoy’s point of view, is appalled by what she sees:

Before long, it is mostly the men who are playing: running, laughing, shouting, perspiring in their frock coats…Watching them, Dolly senses her mood darkening. The “unnaturalness of grown-ups when they play at a children’s game by themselves, without children,” has made her unhappy. And the tennis gets her to thinking that the players she’s watching are players off the court, too—that Vronsky and his friends are new types, modern bourgeois strivers who are in all aspects of their lives “actors,” and for whom all settings are essentially “theatre.”

Marzorati reflects,

You’d think, from all this, that Tolstoy despised tennis and all he thought it represented. If he did, wouldn’t his scorn deepen as he aged, withdrew, and lost himself in deep-going ethical ponderings?

By the end of his life, however, Tolstoy took up tennis. He also took up bicycling, which some of his friends and followers found to be

silly and even un-Christian: How did it square with all the renouncing of the material world that he was doing? And he a spiritual leader, a sage: What was he doing peddling around like a child? One can only imagine what they thought of his tennis.

Here’s Marzorati’s explanation:

Tolstoy addressed these concerns in his diaries. Reading them, it struck me that Tolstoy was now justifying himself as Vronsky, writing in a diary after his post-dinner tennis match, might have done twenty years earlier, if Vronsky had been a self-conscious sort wrestling with himself before sleep, which he wasn’t. Tolstoy wanted to work his body. He wanted to try new things. He saw the possibility of pleasures and satisfactions in physical activity. “There is nothing wrong,” he wrote to himself, “with enjoying oneself simply, like a boy.” Tolstoy, the old, earnest essayist, the death-haunted contemplator of Big Things, still wanted to play.

In Resurrection, written around the time of the above photograph, protagonist Nekhlyudov turns his back on his rakish ways when he realizes that he has led a young woman into a life of sin. His new seriousness means that he now shuns his former companions—versions of Vronsky—who attend horse races, drink freely, and run up debt. Instead, he thinks of ways he can reform the prisons and empower the peasants on his estate. He is appalled that he once lived a frivolous life.

Nekhlyudov wants to return to a time when he played innocent games with Katusha, the woman he ruined, as described in the following passage:

But on Ascension Day that summer, a neighbour of his aunts’, and her family, consisting of two young daughters, a schoolboy, and a young artist of peasant origin who was staying with them, came to spend the day. After tea they all went to play in the meadow in front of the house, where the grass had already been mown. They played at the game of gorelki, and Katusha joined them. Running about and changing partners several times, Nekhludoff caught Katusha, and she became his partner. Up to this time he had liked Katusha’s looks, but the possibility of any nearer relations with her had never entered his mind.

“Impossible to catch those two,” said the merry young artist, whose turn it was to catch, and who could run very fast with his short, muscular legs.

“You! And not catch us?” said Katusha.

“One, two, three,” and the artist clapped his hands. Katusha, hardly restraining her laughter, changed places with Nekhludoff, behind the artist’s back, and pressing his large hand with her little rough one, and rustling with her starched petticoat, ran to the left. Nekhludoff ran fast to the right, trying to escape from the artist, but when he looked round he saw the artist running after Katusha, who kept well ahead, her firm young legs moving rapidly. There was a lilac bush in front of them, and Katusha made a sign with her head to Nekhludoff to join her behind it, for if they once clasped hands again they were safe from their pursuer, that being a rule of the game. 

So Marzorati is right. Tennis taps into the spirit of innocent youth, which Tolstoy saw as the foundation of what is best in us.

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“Find Work,” an Answer to Every Grief?

Jean Francois Millet, “A Farmer’s Wife Sweeping” (1867)

Monday – Labor Day

I love posting this Rhina Espaillat poem for Labor Day because it captures our ambivalent feelings about work. On the one hand, it shows how work is almost a religion with us: the speaker’s grandmother responds, “Find work” whenever one is grieving. We are given the context we need for why the grandmother would resort to this tough “dictum” time and again. When she was a farm child, hard work anesthetized and muted her “country heart,” and when she was a widow with children, her faith in work was key to her survival. This may sound laudable.

Only the final two lines show that a price that has been paid. When the speaker talks about floors scrubbed “white as bone” and dishes that shine “painfully,” she points to the toll. “Life’s little duties” may seem infinite to the grandmother, but they cover over a very real pain. One senses no peace, no sense of a job well done, in that kitchen. Only “a truce with time/ spent in the lifelong practice of despair.”

Work can ennoble, but not when we sacrifice our humanity to it. 

Find Work

By Rhina P. Espaillat

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
—Emily Dickinson, #443

My mother’s mother, widowed very young
of her first love, and of that love’s first fruit,
moved through her father’s farm, her country tongue
and country heart anaesthetized and mute
with labor. So her kind was taught to do—
“Find work,” she would reply to every grief—
and her one dictum, whether false or true,
tolled heavy with her passionate belief.
Widowed again, with children, in her prime,
she spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time
spent in the lifelong practice of despair.
But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,
her dishes, and how painfully they shone.

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A Blessing We Cannot Begin To Fathom

Edvard Munch, “Comfort”

Spiritual Sunday

Knowing that I am in mourning for my friend Rachel Kranz, Sue Schmidt contributed the following essay and poem to today’s blog. Poet Jan Richardson advises those who grieve not to turn to facile rationalizations but to trust to the heart’s “stubborn and persistent pulse.” As she notes in her essay, Sue knew and admired Rachel.

By Sue Schmidt

I offer this post to those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. In the past seven months, our family has unexpectedly lost both of my husband’s parents. This morning I attended the funeral of a good friend’s mother, who died from ovarian cancer, as did Robin’s friend Rachel Kranz. Both women were strong, compassionate and courageous. I met Rachel several years ago while responding to one of Robin’s blog posts. Her comments, full of passion and insight, both intrigued and impressed and so I bought her novel, Leaps of Faith, and followed her blogging adventures in poker whenever they were available.

There is no getting around the pain and senselessness of death. At his mother’s memorial dinner, my husband said, “Death makes us realize that things are not as they should be. We say, unequivocally, something is wrong.” And yet, somehow, death is a part of what it means to be human. The joy at a new birth, the deep sorrow at its conclusion – these emotions cannot be separated.

Jan Richardson, a poet and artist who blogs at, lost her husband suddenly two years ago. As is the case with many artists, the grieving process has woven itself through her art. I hope this gentle blessing finds a home in the hearts of those of us who find our own hearts broken, grieving those whose lives have been intertwined with ours.

A Blessing for the Brokenhearted

By Jan Richardson

There is no remedy for love but to love more.
– Henry David Thoreau

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if it trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us

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Great Lit Changes Expectations Horizons

Hans Robert Jauss, reception theorist


I’m exhausted this week, what with classes beginning and, even more draining, the death of my best friend. I’m therefore taking the easy way out for today’s post and just sharing a section from my book project on Literature and Life: How Books Change Our Lives (for Better and for Worse). This section is on reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, whose work assured me in graduate school that I wasn’t crazy to think that literature changed lives, even though none of those around me considered this a valid question. When I taught Jauss in my Theories of the Reader class last fall, he proved to be the most popular theorist we studied.

The Academy is empirical, which means that scholars who believe in literature’s impact would like proof. Is there some way of measuring if literature changes behavior and, if so, by how much? In the 1970s Hans Robert Jauss of the University of Constanz came up with a model for assessing literature’s ability to change history.

Jauss argues that a work never appears in a vacuum but is always in dialogue with its readers’ “horizon of expectations.” To gauge a work’s impact, one should look at how the horizon changes.

The horizon that mainly interests Jauss is the public’s expectation with regard to form. An author knows generally what readers are expecting when they approach a work and so can either give them what they want or give them something new. Lesser works—Jauss calls such works “culinary”—will merely satisfy what people expect and will not stretch their vision of what the genre could accomplish. It’s as though one goes into a fast food restaurant and gets exactly what one expects. Great works, by contrast, open up a new set of possibilities.

Jauss sees a work’s distance from expectations as a sign of its quality:

The distance between the horizon of expectations and the work, between the familiarity of previous aesthetic experiences and the “horizon change” demanded by the response to new works, determines the artistic nature of a literary work along the lines of the aesthetics of reception: the smaller this distance, which means that no demands are made upon the receiving consciousness to make a change on the horizon of unknown experience, the closer the work comes to the realm of “culinary” or light reading. This last phrase can be characterized from the point of view of the aesthetics of reception in this way: it demands no horizon change but actually fulfills expectations, which are prescribed by a predominant taste, by satisfying the demand for the reproduction of familiar beauty, confirming familiar sentiments, encouraging dreams, making unusual experiences palatable as “sensations” or even raising moral problems, but only to be able to “solve” them in an edifying manner when the solution is already obvious…

For an example, Jauss contrasts the reception of two novels that appeared in 1857, the all-but-forgotten Fanny by Feydeau and Madame Bovary. The first was a huge success, going through 13 editions, whereas the second was brought up on trial for obscenity. Yet for all that, the two works have similar themes:

They treated a trivial subject—adultery—the one in a bourgeois and the other in a provincial milieu. Both authors understood how to give a sensational twist to the conventional, rigid triangle which in the erotic scenes surpassed the customary details. They presented the worn-out theme of jealousy in a new light by reversing the expected relationship of the three classic roles. Feydeau has the youthful lover of the “femme de trente ans” [30-year-old woman] becoming jealous of his lover’s husband, although he has already reached the goal of his desires, and perishing over this tormenting situation.

Accounting for their very different receptions, Jauss says, is differences in form. Fanny had “the personable tone of a confessional novel” whereas Flaubert pioneered a new style called “impersonal telling” or “free indirect style” (style indirect libre).  Even though Fanny depicts immoral actions in a titillating way, the readers are aware of the prevailing social values (and are aware that the author knows them) whereas those values don’t appear present in Madame Bovary. Instead, readers must figure out the moral foundation on their own. In Flaubert’s censorship trial, the prosecution took exception with the following passage:

But when she saw herself in the glass she wondered at her face. Never had her eyes been so large, so black, of so profound a depth. Something subtle about her being transfigured her. She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. 

Jauss observes,

The prosecuting attorney regarded the last sentences as an objective description which included the judgement of the narrator and was upset over this “glorification of adultery,” which he considered to be even more dangerous and immoral than the misstep itself. In this Flaubert’s accuser fell victim to an error as the defense immediately pointed out. The incriminating sentences are not an objective determination of a person characterized by her feelings that are formed from novels. The scientific device consists in revealing the inner thoughts of this person without the signals of direct statement…The effect is that the reader must decide for himself whether he should accept this sentence as a true statement or as an opinion characteristic of this person.

Jauss’s point is that, before Flaubert helped innovate this new form of storytelling, the horizon of expectations instructed readers to find moral signals within the text. They expected the work to signal what they should approve and what disapprove. When the signals disappeared, readers were outraged—or were until they learned to make a horizon change.

Jauss appears at first to limit his discussion to formal innovations, but his idea that horizons of expectations determine how we see reality opens the door for more ambitious discussions of how literature can impact lives. His formulation brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s landmark work Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which Kuhn introduces the idea of paradigm shifts. People see reality a certain way, Kuhn said—say, that the sun revolves around the earth—until great minds come along (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo) and get us to see reality in a new way, which then becomes the new norm. Brecht, as we have seen, saw art playing such a role (he even wrote a play about Galileo), disturbing what had until that point just been seen as “the way things are” or “common sense.” Not surprisingly, Jauss acknowledges a debt to Brecht.

One can see Flaubert involved in such a paradigm shift in the example that Jauss gives. In making moral judgment the responsibility of the reader rather than some higher authority, impersonal telling is pushing against authoritarian tendencies and towards democratic ones. Indeed, it was this aspect of Madame Bovary that drew that loudest complaints from the prosecution:

The consternating effect of the formal innovation in Flaubert’s narrative style was obvious in the trial: the impersonal narrative form forces his readers not only to perceive things differently—“photographically exact” according to the judgement of the time—but it also forced them into an alienating insecurity about their judgment. Since the new stylistic device broke with an old novelistic convention—unequivocal description and well-founded moral judgment about the characters—Madame Bovary could radicalize or raise questions of life, which during the trial caused the original motive for the accusation, alleged lasciviousness, to recede into the background.

Before Flaubert (although to be fair, Jane Austen uses impersonal telling in Emma), readers relied on authors to provide a formal set of rules, either through omniscient narration or through other textual hints. With these guides gone, readers felt as though there were wandering in an amoral world. The prosecution’s summation of the case against Flaubert makes this clear:

Who can condemn the woman in the book? No one. Such is the conclusion. There isn’t in the novel one person who can condemn her. If you can find one virtuous person, if you can find one moral principle that stigmatizes adultery as a sin, then I’ll admit that I have been wrong.

Jauss sympathizes with the prosecution’s unease:

If no character presented in the novel could condemn Emma Bovary and if no moral principle is asserted in whose name she could be condemned, is not general “Public opinion” and its basis in “religious feeling” questioned along with the principle of “marital fidelity”? To what authority should the case of Madame Bovary be presented if the previously valid standards of society, “public opinion, religious beliefs, public morals, good manners,” are no longer sufficient for judging this case? These open and implicit questions do not by any means indicate an aesthetic lack of understanding or moral philistinism on the part of the prosecuting attorney. Rather, there is expressed in them the unsuspected influence of a new art form which can by means of a new way of seeing things jolt the reader of Madame Bovary out of the belief that his moral judgment is self-evident and reopen the long-closed question of public morals.

The court agreed with the prosecution and, while it acquitted Flaubert, it condemned “the literary school which they supposed him to represent.” Jauss observes that this school was, in reality, “his stylistic device, as yet not recognized.”

The Flaubert example is a tidy example of an audience’s changing response signaling the impact of a work, but the question is whether Jauss’s model can handle other kinds of responses. For instance, can it handle a work that is only recognized as a masterpiece centuries after it was written (for instance, King Lear and Shakespeare’s sonnets)? How about authors whose reputations go up and down (Rudyard Kipling, who was up, then down, and is now back up)? Or works that, when they appear, are appreciated by some and hated by others (Jane Eyre)?

Jauss addresses the first in ways similar to how Shelley does. Shelley, you will recall, talked about great literature that has a vision that isn’t understood for centuries. Jauss too says it can take that long before the horizon catches up with the work, allowing us to appreciate it:

The distance between the actual first perception of work and its virtual significance, or, put another way, the resistance that the new work poses to the expectations of its first audience, can be so great that it requires a long process of reception to gather in that which was unexpected and unusable within the first horizon. It can thereby happen that a virtual significance of the work remains long unrecognized until the “literary evolution,” through the actualization of a newer form, reaches the horizon that now for the first time allows one to find access to the understanding of the misunderstood older form…One can line up the examples of how a new literary form can reopen access to forgotten literature. These include the so-called “renaissances”—so-called, because the word’s meaning gives rise to the appearance of an automatic return, and often prevents one from recognizing that literary tradition cannot transmit itself alone. That is, a literary past can return only when a new reception draws it back into the present, whether an altered aesthetic attitude willfully reaches back to reappropriate the past, or an unexpected light falls back on forgotten literature from the new moment of literary evolution, allowing something to be found that one previously could not have sought in it.

To repeat the example I used with Shelley, Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, most notably Twelfth Night and As You Like It, present the idea that gender is far more fluid than previous societies, including his own, were willing to acknowledge. In his depictions of women with a male side and women with a female side, of women who desire other women and men who desire other men, he was capturing what we now openly acknowledge to be human realities, even though neither his own society nor many societies thereafter were as tolerant. It took us centuries before we could find within those plays what “one previously could not have sought in it.”

Jauss’s theory shares affinity with avant garde art of the 1920s, whose goal was to shock the bourgeoisie (thinking of Duchamp labeling a urinal “Fountain”). For the Dadaists, the mark of a work’s effectiveness lay in its shock effect. The assumption here is that artistic truth will be unpleasant. Jauss’s framework is often the most fruitful, then, when looking at works like Madame Bovary that created controversy. In my own classes, I encourage my students to use a Jaussian framework when they examine works that have been banned or caused a furor, like, say, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, Lolita and the like.

But a work need not necessarily shock to be horizon changing. Or it may shock some people but not others, as Alice in Wonderland did. Rigid moralists objected to Lewis Carroll’s work, but people who felt constrained by a suffocating morality and an educational system found that it allowed them to vent in an amusing way, and they felt superior to that stuffy moralists who condemned it.

The case of Jane Eyre is particularly interesting in this light. It attracted one of the most brutal reviews in the history of English letters—an attack by one Elizabeth Rigby—but it also was a bestseller. Looking back, one can see that Rigby understood the novel better than many of its fans, who chose to turn a blind eye to its radical call for female autonomy and focus instead on the romance. The fact that the novel would go on to speak to unionizing governesses, suffragettes, and 1970s feminists makes the case that Rigby was on to something. Only recently, with the 20XX BBC television series, are we seeing a rendition of the novel that focuses more on Jane’s self-assertion than—as with movies throughout the 20th century—the marriage plot. In other words, maybe it took 150 years for our horizon to catch up with the novel.

It may be that Jauss’s horizon of expectations theory, as originally conceived, was too rigid. There is not a fixed stair step set of expectations or a single horizon that holds true for an entire society but a variety of horizons that can fluctuate. This leads to horizon changes that are less spectacular than a whole society undergoing a reality change but probably closer to how belief systems actually evolve. To gauge a work’s impact on readers using Jauss’s framework, then, requires that we identity the particular set of expectations that a work is engaging and then look for evidence about whether as to whether those expectations have shifted.

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Still Falls the Rain

Hurricane Harvey floods Houston


Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain” is not about actual rain but about the London blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, it is a poem that comes to mind as Hurricane Harvey pounds Houston and the Gulf coast. Sitwell captures the kind of despair that residents are currently feeling as the downpour goes on and on.

Sitwell’s poem is notable because it doesn’t single out the Germans but finds fault in all humankind, invoking images of Christ dying for our collective sins. Her references to the human brain nurturing its greed could apply to the greed that has contributed to the Harvey catastrophe. Scientists estimate that climate change has added 30% moisture to the hurricane, and they point out that lax housing regulations have also contributed to Houston’s flooding problems: much of the ground that could be absorbing the rain has been paved or built over. Much of Houston is built on flood plain.

Given the human contributions to the cataclysm, it’s significant that Sitwell quotes Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in her poem. Faustus, after all, is a man who sold his soul to the devil so that he could (among other things)

Be…on earth as Jove is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.

Faustus thinks that he will be able to bend nature to his will. In one soliloquy, he has an Army Corps of Engineers fantasy:

I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass, 
And make swift Rhine circle fair Wertenberg… 

Sitwell quotes Faustus when he is dying and realizing that all his ambitions are for naught. Yet even at this extreme moment, he is unwilling to relinquish his desire for control. When he says,”O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune,” it is his will to control that is pulling him down. He cannot, as the saying has it, “Let go, let God,” but wants to dictate even the terms of his death.

Whether we learn humility from Harvey remains to be seen. I suspect that, once the storm subsides, we will return to pouring hydrocarbons into the atmosphere as though nothing happened. We’ve done so since Hurricane Sandy and why should this be any different?

Writing in England’s direst moment, Sitwell offers us one consolation. Though we may have abandoned God, God hasn’t abandoned us. In a line that sounds as though it were written by George Herbert, we are assured, “Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”

Still Falls the Rain
(The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn)

By Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet

On the Tomb:

Still falls the Rain

In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us—
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.

Still falls the Rain—
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds,—those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear—
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh… the tears of the hunted hare.

Still falls the Rain—
Then— O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune—
See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree

Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world,—dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar’s laurel crown.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain—
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.” 

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Clean Rooms, Despair of the Mind


I’ve turned to Mary Oliver’s “University Hospital, Boston” several times when I’ve had friends in hospitals, and I did so again last week when my dear friend Rachel Kranz was in the Bronx’s Einstein Hospital. The poem notices what I noticed.

For instance, I saw up close the contrast between “intricate machines” that “chart with cool devotion/that murmur of the blood” and “the despair of the mind.” The technology was remarkable, with the nurses wheeling in computer stations, going through various electronic protocols to make sure Rachel received the proper medications, and taking note of every variation in blood pressure and temperature. In contrast, there was the very human patient, fighting against hopelessness as the cancer ravaged her body.

Despite the sophistication of the technology, it wasn’t, in the end, enough. Like the suffering union soldiers who once suffered and died under the front yard’s sycamore tree, I too found myself longing for “tools still unimagined, medicines still unfound,/wisdoms still unguessed at.”

And when Rachel was moved from the oncology ward to the intensive care unit, I could imagine how the room I emptied out would look to a stranger:

Later walking the corridors down to the street,
I turn and step inside an empty room.
Yesterday someone was here with a gasping face.
Now the bed is made all new,
the machines have been rolled away.

Like the poet’s friend, Rachel was high above the city—you could see the Manhattan skyline from her 11th floor room—and like the friend, Rachel too was getting the best of care. Like the poet, I sat holding Rachel’s hand as we assured ourselves that she was getting better. Like the patient, Rachel’s eyes were often grey and missing her customary humor.

Trees function in the poem as images of fertility. With Rachel gone, the world does indeed feel like “a place of parched and broken trees.”

University Hospital, Boston

By Mary Oliver

The trees on the hospital lawn
are lush and thriving. They too
are getting the best of care,
like you, and the anonymous many,
in the clean rooms high above this city,
where day and night the doctors keep
arriving, where intricate machines
chart with cool devotion
the murmur of the blood,
the slow patching-up of bone,
the despair of the mind.

When I come to visit and we walk out
into the light of a summer day,
we sit under the trees —
buckeyes, a sycamore, and one
black walnut brooding
high over a hedge of lilacs
as old as the red-brick building
behind them, the original
hospital built before the Civil War.
We sit on the lawn together, holding hands
while you tell me: you are better.

How many young men, I wonder,
came here, wheeled on cots off the slow trains
from the red and hideous battlefields
to lie all summer in the small and stuffy chambers
while doctors did what they could, longing
for tools still unimagined, medicines still unfound,
wisdoms still unguessed at, and how many died
staring at the leaves of the trees, blind
to the terrible effort around them to keep them alive?

I look into your eyes
which are sometimes green and sometimes gray,
and sometimes full of humor, but often not,
and tell myself, you are better,
because my life without you would be
a place of parched and broken trees.
Later walking the corridors down to the street,
I turn and step inside an empty room.
Yesterday someone was here with a gasping face.
Now the bed is made all new,
the machines have been rolled away. The silence
continues, deep and neutral,
as I stand there, loving you.

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Rachel Kranz, R. I. P.

Rachel Kranz


Rachel Kranz, my best friend outside of my family, died of ovarian cancer yesterday at 1 am. I will write more on her, especially on her unfinished novel, over this upcoming weekend. Right now all I can do is turn to Percy Shelley’s transcendent elegy about John Keats.

I set up the passage I am sharing by noting that Rachel was a passionate advocate for social justice and the rights of the downtrodden. She was dispirited by Donald Trump’s actions, and I’m thinking that now she is above all that. Unlike the rest of us that she left behind.

Which is Shelley’s point in these two stanzas from Adonais:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep, 
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life; 
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep 
With phantoms an unprofitable strife, 
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife 
Invulnerable nothings. We decay 
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief 
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay. 

He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night; 
Envy and calumny and hate and pain, 
And that unrest which men miscall delight, 
Can touch him not and torture not again; 
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain 
He is secure… 

Not that Rachel wanted to be secure. She concludes her unfinished novel by giving her ultra-sensitive protagonist a choice. Warren’s psychic powers give him a special identity but they also mean that he feels the suffering of America’s slave past. Either he can give up those powers, finding a kind of peace in oblivion and denial, or he can face up to the inhumanity. Willful forgetfulness of the historical horror that provided his family’s and America’s wealth would be easier, but it comes at a price.

Without elaborating other than to say that the protagonist is watching mysterious dancers at Senegal’s Gorée Island from where slaves are shipped, here’s how the novel was to end:

…The rotting bodies, the swamp, the stench.  The surging voices, the broken lives.  And knowing that I’m part of it.  No matter what I do, no matter what I ever do, the best and the worst of me have come from here.

            It’s not your fault, I can hear him say.  And it isn’t.  But it is. 

            Just give me your name.  Will you give me your name? 

            The drumming is louder, the dancers wilder.  What can that body do?

            It’s not your fault, he says again, and it isn’t.  But it is.  How did Jimmy put it?  One big body all flowin with money.  No matter what I do, I keep it going.  The only choice is whether I’ll also help it stop. 

            I look at the dancers, white shadows in the darkness.   And I know, watching them, that I’ll never know what they know.  I’ll never have their memories, their meaning, their pain.  Not unless they tell me. 

            No, I say, feeling the stench, the weight.  Not my name, no.  You can’t have that.  And it comes so suddenly, it’s like the crack of a whip, that surge of energy that almost knocks me down.  The machines that made their dresses, and the men who made the machines.  The trees cut down to make the drums, and the axe that swung against each tree.  The blood that flows like money, the money that dazzles like light.  You’ll never be free of it, he says, and I say, I know.  And piece by piece the world comes to life around me—It burns, it burns, this living world—useless, amputated, angry, bereft, joyous, pulsing, here—

“The only choice is whether I’ll also help it stop.” That was always Rachel’s question.

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Memorizing Poetry Is Good for You

John Tenniel, Alice dutifully heeding an elder


Molly Worthen of the  New York Times just wrote a great article on the value of memorizing poetry. Although I don’t ask my own students to memorize poems (with the exception of the opening lines of Canterbury Tales), I agree that it is of immense value. To this day I carry around poems that I memorized as a child.

I know that schools used to do this from my interactions with residents of a retirement center where I was teaching a 19th century British poetry class. Many of the occupants could still recite poems they had learned 70 or 80 years earlier, poems by Kipling, Tennyson, Dickinson, Longfellow, and others. Their jobs, for the most part, hadn’t been poetry related, yet they still remembered their memorizing experiences with fondness.

My own intensive experience occurred in another country. I spent eighth grade in a French school in Paris and came out of it able to recite poems by Apollinaire, Verlaine, La Fontaine, and others. That’s because the final half hour of the morning session (9-12) and the final half hour of the afternoon session (2-5) was spent memorizing and reciting poetry.

I can still reel off La Fontaine’s “The Crow and the Fox,” a fairly lengthy piece. My two favorite poems, however, were Paul Verlaine’s “Song of Autumn” and Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Sprig of Heather.”

When I returned to the States, I continued to memorize poetry on my own. After college, while commuting to a newspaper job, I memorized as I drove, which was about as safe as texting while driving.

I was midway through Rime of the Ancient Mariner when I hit a dog. I looked up in time and honked, but that only served to freeze the dog. I am still haunted by that moment, as the mariner is haunted by the albatross. I stopped that practice immediately and can only recite the first half of the poem.

I have most of Alice in Wonderland memorized, which is somewhat ironic since one of the tiresome things Alice must do throughout  the book is recite poems when adults demand it. The Victorians thought that memorizing would inculcate good moral lessons in children, and Alice, good little girl that she is, dutifully recites Isaac Watts’s “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” when called upon to do so:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

If you are put off by the idea of children grappling with Satan while heaven hangs in the balance, well, so was Lewis Carroll. Alice’s revenge is to (very innocently) mangle every poem she is forced to recite:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Meanwhile, “You Are Old Father William,” one of the most hilarious poems in Alice, is a parody of a sententious Robert Southey poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.”

I don’t think Carroll was against memorizing poetry, however. Rather, he was satirizing poetry with heavy, moralistic messages that one must recite to adults to prove that one is a good Christian child. He would have been on the side of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey:

She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the “Beggar’s Petition”; and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of “The Hare and Many Friends” as quickly as any girl in England. 

My own years of memorizing poetry are of inestimable value in my teaching. I constantly find myself needing a line from this poem or that one. Unfortunately, I don’t know as many poems as I would like, which means I am often reciting half lines before doing prose descriptions of the rest. I do not have the photographic memory of former colleague Donna Richardson, who had only to teach a poem once to have it memorized. Donna also could recite large swatches of 19th century narrative poetry like Curfew Will Not Ring Tonight and The Wreck of the Hesperus. She even memorized certain memorable prose passages.

But back to the article. Here’s a passage I particularly like:

Memorizing a poem is just as valuable as an exercise in close reading, a chance to observe the exertions of our own brains. “When you memorize, you start to notice the things that you notice, your own habits of attention, your habits of reading,” said Mr. Jones, who is now the director of educational technology at Trinity College in Hartford.

THAT has been my experience. Ordinarily, I am a terrible reader of poetry. I am impatient; I prefer straightforward prose that tells me what it means. But this summer, I started devoting about 10 minutes a day to memorizing a few poems — one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, some Gerard Manley Hopkins, some Longfellow.

Every time I bumbled through a stanza, I ruminated on each word a little more. I played with tone and emphasis. “Poetry needs to be chewed over multiple times before you can begin to get what it is,” Justin Snider, the subway Shakespearean, told me.

I occasionally had a glimmer of consolation, too. After a day when my latest writing project felt pointless, I was running a fever and found myself kneeling on the kitchen floor at 9 p.m., scraping at ossified bits of my toddler’s morning oatmeal with the edge of a spoon. I was ready to “trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.” Shakespeare just gets me.

Memorize poetry and the lines you need at moments of crisis will come to you, helping to carry  you through.

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A Cradle Yet Shall Save the Earth

Poussin, “Baby Moses Saved from the River”

Spiritual Sunday

Whenever I encounter today’s Old Testament reading, about the baby Moses saved from the river, I always think of Huck’s version. There’s also a charming Victor Hugo poem about the incident.

Here’s an excerpt of the original version from Exodus:

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

It’s a good story but it doesn’t go over well with Huck. The Widow Douglas reads to him from the Bible in her campaign to “sivilize” him:

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me.  But she wouldn’t.  She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try to not do it any more.  That is just the way with some people.  They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.  Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it.  And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

Hugo is a bit more serious. Here’s his poem, which is mostly narrative although it presents its lesson in the final two stanzas. Hugo starts with the pharaoh’s daughter leaving the pomp and circumstance of the court for a healthier venue: “Sweeter these zephyrs float than all the showers/Of costly odors in our royal bowers.” In doing so, she is able to undo a justice, and her act of kindness will have major ramifications, helping save “the widespread earth.” Moses’s cradle, of course, anticipates Jesus’s cradle.

Moses on the Nile

By Victor Hugo

Sisters! the wave is freshest in the ray
Of the young morning; the reapers are asleep;
The river bank is lonely: come away!
The early murmurs of old Memphis creep
Faint on my ear; and here unseen we stray,–
Deep in the covert of the grove withdrawn,
Save by the dewy eye-glance of the dawn.

‘Within my father’s palace, fair to see,
Shine all the Arts, but oh! this river side,
Pranked with gay flowers, is dearer far to me
Than gold and porphyry vases bright and wide;
How glad in heaven the song-bird carols free!
Sweeter these zephyrs float than all the showers
Of costly odors in our royal bowers.

‘The sky is pure, the sparkling stream is clear:
Unloose your zones, my maidens! and fling down
To float awhile upon these bushes near
Your blue transparent robes: take off my crown,
And take away my jealous veil; for here
To-day we shall be joyous while we lave
Our limbs amid the murmur of the wave.

‘Hasten; but through the fleecy mists of morn,
What do I see? Look ye along the stream!
Nay, timid maidens–we must not return!
Coursing along the current, it would seem
An ancient palm-tree to the deep sea borne,
That from the distant wilderness proceeds,
Downwards, to view our wondrous Pyramids.

‘But stay! if I may surely trust mine eye,–
It is the bark of Hermes, or the shell
Of Iris, wafted gently to the sighs
Of the light breeze along the rippling swell;
But no: it is a skiff where sweetly lies
An infant slumbering, and his peaceful rest
Looks as if pillowed on his mother’s breast.

‘He sleeps–oh, see! his little floating bed
Swims on the mighty river’s fickle flow,
A white dove’s nest; and there at hazard led
By the faint winds, and wandering to and fro,
The cot comes down; beneath his quiet head
The gulfs are moving, and each threatening wave
Appears to rock the child upon a grave.

‘He wakes–ah, maids of Memphis! haste, oh, haste!
He cries! alas!–What mother could confide
Her offspring to the wild and watery waste?
He stretches out his arms, the rippling tide
Murmurs around him, where all rudely placed,
He rests but with a few frail reeds beneath,
Between such helpless innocence and death.

‘Oh! take him up! Perchance he is of those
Dark sons of Israel whom my sire proscribes;
Ah! cruel was the mandate that arose
Against most guiltless of the stranger tribes!
Poor child! my heart is yearning for his woes,
I would I were his mother; but I’ll give
If not his birth, at least the claim to live.’

Thus Iphis spoke; the royal hope and pride
Of a great monarch; while her damsels nigh,
Wandered along the Nile’s meandering side;
And these diminished beauties, standing by
The trembling mother; watching with eyes wide
Their graceful mistress, admired her as stood,
More lovely than the genius of the flood!

The waters broken by her delicate feet
Receive the eager wader, as alone
By gentlest pity led, she strives to meet
The wakened babe; and, see, the prize is won!
She holds the weeping burden with a sweet
And virgin glow of pride upon her brow,
That knew no flush save modesty’s till now.

Opening with cautious hands the reedy couch,
She brought the rescued infant slowly out
Beyond the humid sands; at her approach
Her curious maidens hurried round about
To kiss the new-born brow with gentlest touch;
Greeting the child with smiles, and bending nigh
Their faces o’er his large, astonished eye!

Haste thou who, from afar, in doubt and fear,
Dost watch, with straining eyes, the fated boy–
The loved of heaven! come like a stranger near,
And clasp young Moses with maternal joy;
Nor fear the speechless transport and the tear
Will e’er betray thy fond and hidden claim,
For Iphis knows not yet a mother’s name!

With a glad heart, and a triumphal face,
The princess to the haughty Pharaoh led
The humble infant of a hated race,
Bathed with the bitter tears a parent shed;
While loudly pealing round the holy place
Of Heaven’s white Throne, the voice of angel choirs
Intoned the theme of their undying lyres!

‘No longer mourn thy pilgrimage below–
O Jacob! let thy tears no longer swell
The torrent of the Egyptian river: Lo!
Soon on the Jordan’s banks thy tents shall dwell;
And Goshen shall behold thy people go
Despite the power of Egypt’s law and brand,
From their sad thrall to Canaan’s promised land.

‘The King of Plagues, the Chosen of Sinai,
Is he that, o’er the rushing waters driven,
A vigorous hand hath rescued for the sky;
Ye whose proud hearts disown the ways of heaven!
Attend, be humble! for its power is nigh
Israel! a cradle shall redeem thy worth–
A Cradle yet shall save the widespread earth!’ 

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Do You Believe in the Great White Race?

Lynching scene from D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”


The nobility bestowed on the Confederate statues and monuments—Donald Trump recently called them “beautiful”—stands in marked contrast with the young men who swam around them with their assault weapons and Nazi-KKK-white supremacist slogans. It’s a contrast that Langston Hughes plays on in his poem “Ku Klux.”

The speaker is an African American in fear for his life. Note, however, that he maintains some of his dignity by “a-sassin’” the KKK member who has captured him. The savage humor of the final stanza punctures white pretensions of superiority as thoroughly as it’s possible to do so.

They took me out
To some lonesome place.
They said, “Do you believe
In the great white race?”

I said, “Mister,
To tell you the truth,
I’d believe in anything
If you’d just turn me loose.”

The white man said, “Boy,
Can it be
You’re a-standin’ there
A-sassin’ me?”

They hit me in the head
And knocked me down.
And then they kicked me
On the ground.

A klansman said, “Nigger,
Look me in the face — 
And tell me you believe in
The great white race.”

Recall that, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson points out, the “beautiful” statues “were symbols of defiance, intended to let African Americans and the federal government know who was back in charge.” That’s how cultural symbols work. Robinson reminds us that, after 1877 when the last federal troops were withdrawn from Southern capitals, it didn’t take long for whites to re-subjugate African Americans. The KKK played a crucial role in that process, and their present-day incarnations are trying to use to statues as their predecessors did.

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Seeing the Beauty in an Invalid

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child”


I’m currently spending the week in the Bronx with my sick friend Rachel Kranz, who has yet to be released from the hospital that we entered together over a month ago. She’s had some rough episodes since that time, including a six-minute cardiac arrest, and is now trying to clamber back to enough health that she can be released into rehab, at which point she can resume chemo for her ovarian cancer.

On Monday and Tuesday she went through a particularly rough spell. By Tuesday evening, however, she had managed to empty out some of what was wracking her body and found relief. She wanted to talk but kept falling asleep so I sat by her bedside and held her hand. As I did so, the opening lines of W. H. Auden’s “Lullaby” went through my head.

There was good reason why it did so. In unsettling ways, the much beloved lyric joins avowals of love with images of frailty and death. The poem opens with a sleeping lover lying on the arm of the speaker after the two have made love, which seems conventionally romantic. But the speaker’s arm is proving faithless—it can only stay in its position for so long—and that faithlessness leads him to meditate on all else that will pass away:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral…

Yet in spite of this realization, which I sensed as well in the precariousness of Rachel’s health, the speaker finds “the living creature” beautiful. The sleeper may be subject to human illness and sin (“mortal, guilty”), but at this moment all the speaker sees is the beauty:

But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

The poem maintains the tension between love and frailty throughout. Everything passes, including love and fidelity, and “fashionable madmen”—think of them as know-it-all cynics who don’t believe in transcendence—say that we will suffer when we give our hearts over to the temporary. Auden describes their warnings as a “pedantic boring cry”:

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid…

And indeed we can shut down our hearts to escape suffering. I could harden myself to Rachel’s plight. But as I sat by her, all I could think was how precious this moment was:

…but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Auden’s final stanza opens with the oracular power of Ecclesiastes, declaiming, “Beauty, midnight, vision dies.” In spite of this reality, however, the poem ends with a lullaby prayer. May you be welcomed by “the winds of dawn that blow/Softly round your dreaming head,” the speaker whispers. And if “noons of dryness” and “nights of insult” are ahead, as surely they are, maybe the sufferer will be sustained by “involuntary powers” (powers beyond us?) and by those who watch with “every human love.”

My prayer for Rachel wasn’t worked out in such detail as I sat with her. But Auden helped me understand my conflicted feelings.


By W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Further thought – Increasingly I see the applicability of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which an ALS patient, also an English teacher, used to articulate her experience. Rachel feels that she has undergone a metamorphosis that isn’t allowing her to perform actions that she once took for granted.

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What Kind of Con Man Do You Want?

Chichikov, from “Dead Souls”


A couple of weeks ago, when I was in the early stages of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, I compared Donald Trump to the flamboyant liar Nozdrez, who loves making deals, and reflected that I’d rather have the novel’s  “cautious and frigid” Chichikov running my government than Nozdrev. I didn’t know then that Chichikov too is a scoundrel and someone far more to be feared that Nozdrev, whose lies are at least apparent to everyone.

So now the novel helps me to build on the insights that Gogol gave me into Trump’s popularity among certain voters. Given a choice, who would you rather have running things: a blowhard that everyone knows to be a blowhard or a secretive conman who says all the right things but, as a result, is able to fleece you all the more effectively?  At least when you get taken in by a Nozdrev or a Trump, you can’t say you weren’t warned. With establishment Chichikovs, whether Republican or Democrat, it’s a different matter.

Which helps explain why many Trump supporters despise the Paul Ryans and the Mitch McConnells almost as much—perhaps as much—as the Hillary Clintons. Like Chichikov, our politicians carefully take the measure of every person in the system, add up their strengths and weaknesses, and act accordingly. If such types are assuring you that you will keep your healthcare in the very act of taking it away, why not just vote in a Trump to blow everything up?

To emphasize the contrast, Nozdrev trying to make deals is like Trump selling “Trump steaks” that have someone else’s sticker on them. He is so transparently fraudulent that you can’t help but enjoy the show. Here Nosdrev is trying to sell some worthless dogs and then a worthless barrel organ to Chichikov:

“Then buy a few dogs,” said Nozdrev. “I can sell you a couple of hides a-quiver, ears well pricked, coats like quills, ribs barrel-shaped, and paws so tucked up as scarcely to graze the ground when they run.”

“Of what use would those dogs be to me? I am not a sportsman.”

“But I WANT you to have the dogs. Listen. If you won’t have the dogs, then buy my barrel-organ. ‘Tis a splendid instrument. As a man of honour I can tell you that, when new, it cost me fifteen hundred roubles. Well, you shall have it for nine hundred.”

“Come, come! What should I want with a barrel-organ? I am not a German, to go hauling it about the roads and begging for coppers.”

“But this is quite a different kind of organ from the one which Germans take about with them. You see, it is a REAL organ. Look at it for yourself. It is made of the best wood. I will take you to have another view of it.”

And seizing Chichikov by the hand, Nozdrev drew him towards the other room, where, in spite of the fact that Chichikov, with his feet planted firmly on the floor, assured his host, again and again, that he knew exactly what the organ was like, he was forced once more to hear how Marlborough went to the war.

“Then, since you don’t care to give me any money for it,” persisted Nozdrev, “listen to the following proposal. I will give you the barrel-organ and all the dead souls which I possess, and in return you shall give me your britchka, and another three hundred roubles into the bargain.”

For Nozdrev, deal making is a form of play. He is a bad dealmaker, as apparently Trump is as well, but one can’t help but admire his enthusiasm.

Chichikov, by contrast, is cold-blooded and calculating. When he figures that one can make millions by working in customs, he first figures out the lay of the land before cashing in. His initial step is to establish himself as an exemplary employee:

But now he decided that, come what might, into the Customs he must make his way. And that way he made, and then applied himself to his new duties with a zeal born of the fact that he realised that fortune had specially marked him out for a Customs officer. Indeed, such activity, perspicuity, and ubiquity as his had never been seen or thought of. Within four weeks at the most he had so thoroughly got his hand in that he was conversant with Customs procedure in every detail. Not only could he weigh and measure, but also he could divine from an invoice how many arshins of cloth or other material a given piece contained, and then, taking a roll of the latter in his hand, could specify at once the number of pounds at which it would tip the scale. As for searchings, well, even his colleagues had to admit that he possessed the nose of a veritable bloodhound, and that it was impossible not to marvel at the patience wherewith he would try every button of the suspected person, yet preserve, throughout, a deadly politeness and an icy sang-froid which surpass belief.

Then, when the moment is ripe, he makes the job pay off through bribes from smugglers:

It happened that previously there had been formed a well-found association for smuggling on regular, carefully prepared lines, and that this daring scheme seemed to promise profit to the extent of some millions of money: yet, though he had long had knowledge of it, Chichikov had said to the association’s emissaries, when sent to buy him over, “The time is not yet.” But now that he had got all the reins into his hands, he sent word of the fact to the gang, and with it the remark, “The time is NOW.” Nor was he wrong in his calculations, for, within the space of a year, he had acquired what he could not have made during twenty years of non-fraudulent service.

The result is that Chichikov grows rich whereas Nozdrev bankrupts himself and his estate.

So which is Trump? I suspect that, if he hadn’t been bailed out by Russian oligarchs laundering money, Trump would be as broke as Nozdrev by now. I also admit a spot of fondness for Nozdrev whereas, by the end of the novel, I thoroughly loathe Chichikov.

The one advantage of having Nozdrev as president is that, with all his bumbling, he may do less damage. Chichikov would loot the treasury far more systematically.

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The Eclipse Brought 2 Poems to Mind

2017 solar eclipse over New York


I hope you had a good eclipse experience. I spent mine on the front steps of a Bronx hospital, where my friend Rachel Kranz is very sick. It became an informal party as I shared my special glasses with 15 or so doctors, nurses, and patients. We were all impressed.

As I watched, I conflated an image from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner with an image from an old Scottish ballad. One mentions the sun, the other the moon.

Coleridge’s poem is filled with celestial movement. When things are going well, the sun does just fine:

The Sun came up upon the left, 
Out of the sea came he! 
And he shone bright, and on the right 
Went down into the sea. 

The moon has grimmer associations:

From the sails the dew did drip— 
Till clomb above the eastern bar 
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star 
Within the nether tip. 

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon, 
Too quick for groan or sigh, 
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, 
And cursed me with his eye. 

Anyway, when the action stops and the mariner’s ship is becalmed, Coleridge gives us a size comparison that we had a chance to check out yesterday:

All in a hot and copper sky, 
The bloody Sun, at noon, 
Right up above the mast did stand, 
No bigger than the Moon.

And true enough, the two heavenly bodies looked pretty much the same size.

The other passage, which Coleridge actually alludes to in “Dejection Ode,” is from “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence”:

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon, 
With the old Moon in her arms; 
And I fear, I fear, my Master dear! 
We shall have a deadly storm. 

This time, it appeared that the moon was in the sun’s arm, but otherwise the cradling image workeed.

And everyone who put on the glasses said, “Wow!”

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Eclipses in Fiction

Hergé, “Prisoners of the Sun”


Today, of course, is the day that America has been waiting for. It so turns out that, unlike much of the country, I am traveling away from where there will be a total eclipse (my mother lives 80 miles south of Nashville, the only North American urban epicenter). I’m visiting a sick friend in New York, where the eclipse will be less spectacular.

When I was growing up, I was fond of two stories where people use their knowledge of eclipses to engineer miraculous escapes. One was Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the other Hergé’s Prisoners of the Sun, a Tintin adventure that I originally knew only in French. In both works, the knowledge proves the superiority of Western science over primitive peoples. It also saves the protagonists from being burned at the stake.

Claims of superiority are problematic in Tintin’s case because the Incas studied the sun and the moon closely and knew all about eclipses. To his credit, Hergé came to realize this later in life and regretted his stereotyping.

It may well be, however, that King Arthur’s court would not have understood eclipses. While Stonehenge, which works as an eclipse predictor, would have been available to them, they may not have been able to read it. Therefore Hank is able to convince Camelot that he has great powers.

Like the accomplished con man that he is, he does the necessary groundwork to insure that the event transpires with maximum effect. He relays a message to the court via the page Clarence:

“Now then, I will tell you what to say.” I paused, and stood over that cowering lad a whole minute in awful silence; then, in a voice deep, measured, charged with doom, I began, and rose by dramatically graded stages to my colossal climax, which I delivered in as sublime and noble a way as ever I did such a thing in my life:  “Go back and tell the king that at that hour I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the earth shall famish and die, to the last man!”

Despite his foreknowledge, Hank has a couple of anxious moments before the eclipse occurs and he is freed. When the moment comes, however, he knows how to milk it:

I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning!  The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man!  The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless.  I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next.  When it was, I was ready.  I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun.  It was a noble effect.  You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave.

To Mark Twain’s credit, he doesn’t allow the supposed superiority of Western science and technology to go unchallenged. True, between Hank’s astronomical knowledge and his grasp of technology, he is able to become a virtual dictator (he has people call him “the Boss”).  Rather than successfully create the utopia that he dreams of, however, he discovers that rapid change backfires. The Enlightenment ultimately proves powerless in the face of custom and religion (superstition, as Hank sees it), and by the end Hank is engaging ins mass slaughter. His killing then rebounds on him as his own men die from the rotting corpses that surround and trap them. This is what technological hopes for the future come to, the cynical Twain indicates.

But back to our eclipse. Cataclysmic or prophetic though the event might have appeared to other times and places, we have a rational explanation for its appearance. Furthermore, we are beneficiaries of the science that warns us not to look directly at the eclipse, which would lead to cell damage.  Those out there who are questioning evolution and climate change and yet are still buying eclipse glasses and traveling long distances—why are you so selective about when you believe scientists and when you don’t?

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Trump’s Pastor Endorses Worldly Power

Spiritual Sunday

Charlottesville and Barcelona have replaced North Korea in the headlines these days, but, as a Christian, I want to go back and discuss a North Korean story that has been bothering me for a while. As threats of nuclear annihilation were being haphazardly tossed back and forth by Kim Jong-on and Donald Trump, evangelical pastor and presidential advisor Robert Jeffress was informing Trump of God’s position.

When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.

I’m not the only one horrified by someone telling the American president that God gives him full permission to unleash “fire and fury” (Trump’s phrasing) upon an enemy. In an eloquent rebuttal, Steven Paulikas, Episcopal rector of All Saints’ Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, reminded us of Christianity’s core beliefs. As he did so, passages from John Milton’s Paradise Regained came to my mind.

Jeffress says that Jeffress interprets Paul’s letter to the Romans wrong and that “there is no possible Christian justification for provoking such a conflict”:

In an interview with The Washington Post, Jeffress backs up his argument by citing Paul, in Romans 13, a famous passage on the relationship between earthly and divine authority. Yet even the casual reader of the Bible will be hard-pressed to recreate this interpretation of Romans. In order to reach his desired conclusion, the pastor rips this passage from its context; Paul is telling Christians to obey the Roman authorities in temporal matters such as taxation, not justifying the authority of one ruler over another.

What’s more, Jeffress seemingly fetishizes his own message of violence over the clarion call to love of Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Jeffress predicts that “pacifist Christians” will turn to Romans 12:17, “do not repay anyone evil for evil,” to refute him. Beyond his curious citation of this obvious contradiction to his own argument, it is hardly necessary to invoke it given his grossly negligent treatment of the scripture he himself has chosen.

Paulikas goes on to cite theologian Karl Barth, a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Germany, who predicted that this passage in Romans would be misused. In so doing, Paulikas mentions one of Jesus’s temptations in the desert:

In Matthew 4, Jesus rejects the Devil’s offer of authority over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will worship him. In this context, the urge to control the global order is malevolent, not divine.

In Paradise Regained, Milton dramatizes this temptation by having Satan show Jesus the capital of the Roman Empire. First, he sets up the prize in ways that one could imagine hitting home with Trump:

The city which thou seest no other deem
Than great and glorious Rome, Queen of the Earth
So far renowned, and with the spoils enriched
Of nations. There the Capitol thou seest,
Above the rest lifting his stately head
On the Tarpeian rock, her citadel
Impregnable; and there Mount Palatine,
The imperial palace, compass huge, and high
The structure, skill of noblest architects,
With gilded battlements, conspicuous far,
Turrets, and terraces, and glittering spires.

Then he explains how, by expelling a “monster from his throne,” Jesus can obtain absolute power:

This Emperor hath no son, and now is old,
Old and lascivious, and from Rome retired
To Capreae, an island small but strong
On the Campanian shore, with purpose there
His horrid lusts in private to enjoy;
Committing to a wicked favourite
All public cares, and yet of him suspicious;
Hated of all, and hating. With what ease,
Endued with regal virtues as thou art,
Appearing, and beginning noble deeds,
Might’st thou expel this monster from his throne,
Now made a sty, and, in his place ascending,
A victor-people free from servile yoke!
And with my help thou may’st; to me the power
Is given, and by that right I give it thee.
Aim, therefore, at no less than all the world;
Aim at the highest; without the highest attained,
Will be for thee no sitting, or not long,
On David’s throne, be prophesied what will.”

 Jesus, as Pastor Jeffress should know, does not think in these terms. Jesus’s business is not with the Roman emperor (or Korean dictator) but with the “Devil who first made him such.” His job is not to free people who have become inward slaves (so he describes the Roman people) but to bring peace and justice to all humankind.

How he will do so, he’s not saying. I doubt that he’s let Pastor Jeffress into his confidence:

Know, therefore, when my season comes to sit
On David’s throne, it shall be like a tree
Spreading and overshadowing all the earth,
Or as a stone that shall to pieces dash
All monarchies besides throughout the world;
And of my Kingdom there shall be no end.
Means there shall be to this; but what the means
Is not for thee to know, nor me to tell.”

Jeffress, who has the ear of someone who could literally unleash holy hell upon the world, sounds as though he is equating this power with God’s. Perhaps he’s intoxicated by his close proximity to such power. By so doing, as Paulikas points out, he has lost sight of Jesus’s vision of love.  He has encountered Satan’s temptation in the desert and succumbed.

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Gogol’s Guide to Traveling

Rowlandson, “Coach Travel”


I’m driving back to Maryland from Tennessee today and so have chosen a passage on traveling from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, which I’m listening to at the moment.

I myself won’t have the same experience as Gogol’s traveler since I can’t lean back and fall asleep. Nevertheless, the passages reminds me of traveling by train when I was a child, especially “the rumbling of the wheels” and the enchantment of new sights. Visiting my grandmother in Evanston after Christmas, we would catch the train in Cowan, Tennessee when it was dark, fall asleep in our overnight berth, and then be greeted by the sight of Indiana snow when we awoke in the morning.

I will have one advantage over the traveler in Dead Souls, however. I will be listening to Dead Souls as I drive.

What a curious and attractive, yet also what an unreal, fascination the term “highway” connotes! And how interesting for its own sake is a highway! Should the day be a fine one (though chilly) in mellowing autumn, press closer your traveling cloak, and draw down your cap over your ears, and snuggle cosily, comfortably into a corner of the britchka [carriage] before a last shiver shall course through your limbs, and the ensuing warmth shall put to flight the autumnal cold and damp. As the horses gallop on their way, how delightfully will drowsiness come stealing upon you, and make your eyelids droop! For a while, through your somnolence, you will continue to hear the hard breathing of the team and the rumbling of the wheels; but at length, sinking back into your corner, you will relapse into the stage of snoring. And when you awake—behold! you will find that five stages have slipped away, and that the moon is shining, and that you have reached a strange town of churches and old wooden cupolas and blackened spires and white, half-timbered houses! And as the moonlight glints hither and thither, almost you will believe that the walls and the streets and the pavements of the place are spread with sheets—sheets shot with coal-black shadows which make the wooden roofs look all the brighter under the slanting beams of the pale luminary. Nowhere is a soul to be seen, for every one is plunged in slumber. Yet no. In a solitary window a light is flickering where some good burgher is mending his boots, or a baker drawing a batch of dough. O night and powers of heaven, how perfect is the blackness of your infinite vault—how lofty, how remote its inaccessible depths where it lies spread in an intangible, yet audible, silence! Freshly does the lulling breath of night blow in your face, until once more you relapse into snoring oblivion, and your poor neighbour turns angrily in his corner as he begins to be conscious of your weight. Then again you awake, but this time to find yourself confronted with only fields and steppes. Everywhere in the ascendant is the desolation of space. But suddenly the ciphers on a verst stone leap to the eye! Morning is rising, and on the chill, gradually paling line of the horizon you can see gleaming a faint gold streak. The wind freshens and grows keener, and you snuggle closer in your cloak; yet how glorious is that freshness, and how marvellous the sleep in which once again you become enfolded! A jolt!—and for the last time you return to consciousness. By now the sun is high in the heavens, and you hear a voice cry “gently, gently!” as a farm wagon issues from a by-road. Below, enclosed within an ample dike, stretches a sheet of water which glistens like copper in the sunlight. Beyond, on the side of a slope, lie some scattered peasants’ huts, a manor house, and, flanking the latter, a village church with its cross flashing like a star. There also comes wafted to your ear the sound of peasants’ laughter, while in your inner man you are becoming conscious of an appetite which is not to be withstood.

Oh long-drawn highway, how excellent you are! How often have I in weariness and despondency set forth upon your length, and found in you salvation and rest! How often, as I followed your leading, have I been visited with wonderful thoughts and poetic dreams and curious, wild impressions!

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Tolstoy on Resisting a Narcissist

Napoleon retreats before Russian resistance


 Last week the Washington Post’s editorial page editor wrote Better Living through Beowulf-type column about War and Peace. Tolstoy’s novel, Fred Hiatt says, gives us a way of understanding Donald Trump and what it will take to defeat him.

First he quotes the following passage and asks who it reminds us of:

“A man of no convictions, no habits, no traditions. ... The incompetence of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of the deception, and the dazzling and self-confident limitation of the man raise him to the head ... and without attaching himself to any one of them, advances to a prominent position,” Tolstoy writes.

Eerie, right? The dazzling and self-confident limitation of the man.

Okay, I dropped a couple of words from the passage. Tolstoy actually wrote “the seething parties of France,” and “the head of the army.” He was in fact describing not our president but Napoleon, for whom the Russian author harbored a magnificent contempt.

If Trump is Napoleon, then what can we learn from Napoleon’s defeat? Hiatt points out that, according to Tolstoy, the acts of great men are far less consequential than “the separate decisions of thousands of individuals: soldiers, peasants, shopkeepers, lords,” whose “actions flow together into a force that czars and generals can only pretend to control.”

Hiatt sees Trump, like Napoleon, as a clear and present danger to the nation–in our case, to our identity as a country “that welcomes newcomers and outsiders and allows them, in their turn, to become American.” Without this dimension, we are no longer an exceptional nation. While acknowledging that some of the battles must be fought in the courts and in Congress, Hiatt, like Tolstoy, says that our fate ultimately lies in the hands of we the people:

[T]he essential battle for the nation’s soul will be fought by every one of us, every day.

It is a battle we will win by embracing each other’s humanity: by welcoming the mosque down the street, helping a “dreamer” stay in school, translating a form for the parent at the next desk at back-to-school night. It is a battle, as Tolstoy would have understood, that will be won or lost by the nation’s soldiers, farmers and shopkeepers, and by its nurses and factory workers and teachers and office workers, too; by each of us, day by day, encounter by encounter.

Hiatt concludes with one caveat, however. Tolstoy, he writes,

wasn’t totally right about history. Even the mountebanks, the leaders of no convictions, can shift the course of events. But the rest of us, impelled by the generosity that has made America a great country, may have more power than we think.

This isn’t a real disagreement. After all, Trump, like Napoleon, can do a lot of damage before he is driven out. I only pray that Hiatt is right that we will be saved by our better angels.

Other applications of War and Peace

Trump, Prince Vasili, and Pure Cynicism

Great Pro-War Lit Doesn’t Exist

Tolstoy Calls Us To Aid Syrian Refugees

Tolstoy and the Forerunners of Twitter

On Sickness and the Power of Prayer

Hillary before Judges Like Tolstoy’s Pierre

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Panicked by Trump? Turn to Lit

Tolstoyan Therapy for Mental Illness

Tolstoy, the Novelist vs. the Activist

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Obama Was Invisible to White America

Elizabeth Catlett, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man


I suggested in Monday’s blog that some of white supremacism’s resurgence can be traced to hysteria over having had a black president for eight years. Birtherism played no small role in Donald Trump’s success. David Masciotra of Salon turns to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to make such a case.

Masciotra observes that Obama was a perfect example of Ellison’s invisible man:

Barack Obama was the invisible president. He was invisible simply because people refused to see him. Just as Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator explained about his curious existence of permanent placement in the optical shadows, paranoiacs see him as a “figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

Obama proved indeed to be a nightmare for a certain segment of white America:

The election of Barack Obama — a black man with an Arabic-rooted name after slavery and segregation, and at the height of cultural anxiety over Islam — collided with the consciousness of many white Americans. Among the wreckage and in the casualty count, was the vision of the American public, and the capacity to rationally observe, absorb and interpret the president…

The blindfold over the inner eyes is much too thick for the outer eyes to function properly. For millions of voluntarily blind Americans, the act of witnessing Barack Obama deliver his victory speech on November 4, 2008, shortly after the concession of an elderly, white war hero, caused post-traumatic stress disorder. They could no longer function as adults with clear eyes and clear thoughts. They would spend the next eight years speaking and acting as if they were habitual users of hallucinatory drugs — seeing the ominous signs of conspiracy, destruction, and subversion in every wink, grin, and gesture of the alien occupying the Oval Office. They believed and propagated the idea that Obama was an agent acting to undermine America…

The article notes how, time and again, the right tried to fit Obama into its stereotype of black people, regardless of the facts:

An interesting and revealing criticism of President Obama grew increasingly popular among conservative commentators at around the midway point of the presidency. National Review, Fox News, and other familiar sources of right wing reportage began to brand and bash Obama as “lazy” and “absentee” for his reportedly “unprecedented” and “excessive” vacation and golf getaways. Those same outlets soon issued a similar indictment of Obama’s “refusal” to host press conferences. Eventually, the mainstream media channeled the same story through their own, much louder amplifier, and the idea of Obama as a reclusive president has shaped public perception of his performance, with many Americans often commenting how they “never saw him.”

It turns out that Obama had taken fewer vacation days than any president since Jimmy Carter, and that he averaged two press conferences a month — more than Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon, the same as Clinton, and slightly less than both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The attack on Obama’s absenteeism read like much more than mere partisan insult. In addition to playing on old stereotypes against black men, it also demonstrated the blindness of those who say it and believe it. They actually could not see Barack Obama. He was in the White House — not on vacation — and he was speaking to the press, but millions of Americans believed otherwise. They do not see him, because they cannot see him. They see only what their imaginations allow them to see, and from the vantage point of that odd and obstructed view, a postmodern mystery of politics emerges to haunt America in the 21st century: Does President Barack Obama exist?

Against white supremacism’s version of America, Masciotra counterpoises that of Walt Whitman, which Obama knew and consciously invoked:

One of the few things that is certain is that the election of a living and breathing monument of multiculturalism, and a man who makes cheap puffery about diversity into magnificent reality — a black, white, African, American — is a triumph of the American story Walt Whitman put to poetry long before many others could develop the maturity and imagination to understand its wisdom. 

Masciotra notes that, at times, Obama deliberately echoed Whitman, especially Song of Myself. Note, for instance, this Whitmanian passage in Dreams of My Father:

We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country’s borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life… In the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

Walt Whitman, Masciotra says, proved to be prescient in his essay “Democratic Vistas,” where the poet worried that “genuine belief” in America was giving way to a materialist vision. Masciotra observes,

Over a century later, America has transitioned from Barack Obama — a learned, aspirational leader — to a man who presents America as nothing more than career advancement and material advantage. It is important, now more than ever, to consider the possibility that the idea of America is too radical even for most Americans.

The article concludes with a return to Invisible Man, observing that America is bigger and more confusing than any of us can figure out—and that Obama forced the issue:

President Obama, not always politically, but culturally, more thoroughly captured the idea of America than any other modern president. Of all the unanswerable and intractable questions that surround the Obama presidency and legacy, one conclusion is unavoidable for anyone with the intellectual honesty to look into the dark corridors of a personal and political belonging to a nation with an identity in constant flux and turmoil. It is the same conclusion Ellison’s narrator reached when he wrote, “Our fate is to become one, and yet many – This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.”

Masciotra concludes that we must move beyond projection and see what is actually there:

Barack Obama is invisible, because to see him would require that we all see ourselves. It would demand that we finally unmask the face we wear that is at once full of breathtaking beauty, but also irredeemably ugly.

Grown-ups balance their ideals with practical wisdom, following their dreams but also finding ways to compromise with a reality that has its own imperatives. As readers of this blog are well aware, I believe that literature provides one of the best pathways to attaining the necessary wisdom.

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Poetry Helped Feed Robert E. Lee Myth

New Orleans removes a statue of Robert E. Lee


As white supremacist groups rally around Robert E. Lee statues, people are taking a close look at the mythology surrounding the Confederate general. Unfortunately, some respectable poets contributed to that mythology.

The elevation of Lee to virtual sainthood was an established fact in southern Tennessee when I was growing up in the 1950s. I only recently learned that his early canonization owes a debt to various poets, some with good anti-slavery credentials. I’m also learning that Lee was not the benevolent patriarch that they depict but a harsh slave master, a war criminal when it came to African American prisoners, and, after the war, an outspoken opponent of African American rights who hinted that renewed white violence might be necessary. The poems, unfortunately, help whitewash this reality.

A recent Adam Serwer article in Atlantic Monthly lays out the case against Lee. After describing his record as a slave master, Serwer looks at his wartime record:

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. [Historian Elizabeth Brown] Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As the historian Richard Slotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

The intolerance continued after the war when Lee was president of Washington College. Serwer notes,

Publicly, Lee argued against the enfranchisement of blacks, and raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South. Lee told Congress that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity of whites and “could not vote intelligently,” and that granting them suffrage would “excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.” Lee explained that “the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.” To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate.

Serwer also reports that Lee turned a blind eye to Washington students when they formed a chapter of the K.K.K. and when they attempted two lynchings and were involved in attempts to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from nearby black schools. As Serwer puts it, “Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.”

Julia Ward Howe didn’t focus on Lee’s racial attitudes, however. After the war, the poet whose “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had bolstered Union soldiers was just grateful that Lee wanted an end to the hostilities. For that she honored him:

A gallant foeman in the fight,
A brother when the fight was o’er,
The hand that led the host with might
The blessed torch of learning bore.

No shriek of shells nor roll of drums,
No challenge fierce, resounding far,
When reconciling Wisdom comes
To heal the cruel wounds of war.

Thought may the minds of men divide,
Love makes the heart of nations one,
And so, the soldier grave beside,
We honor thee, Virginia’s son.

Herman Melville seems to have had the same feelings, depicting Lee as a gracious loser in “Lee in the Capitol.” The poem is based on an actual incident where Lee testified before a Congressional committee. Although Lee didn’t say much, Melville entered his mind and imagined what he might have said had he felt able to speak freely.

Melville’s Lee is an uncomplaining man who faces the triumphalist northern senators with quiet dignity. “Who looks at Lee must think of Washington,” the poet writes at one point. The stoic Lee wants no more, Melville indicates, than to contribute to the south’s healing as an educator:

The captain who fierce armies led
Becomes a quiet seminary’s head–
Poor as his privates, earns his bread.
In studious cares and aims engrossed,
  Strives to forget Stuart and Stonewall dead–
Comrades and cause, station and riches lost,
  And all the ills that flock when fortune’s fled.
No word he breathes of vain lament,
  Mute to reproach, nor hears applause–
His doom accepts, perforce content,
  And acquiesces in asserted laws;
Secluded now would pass his life,
And leave to time the sequel of the strife.

Melville paints the north as bad winners who want to stick it to the South, which is certainly the image I was fed in my Tennessee history classes and elsewhere. Given how the South would go on to re-subjugate African Americans, the senators in the poem have good reason for the questions they ask Lee:

Their thoughts their questions well express:
“Does the sad South still cherish hate?
Freely will Southern men with Northern mate?
The blacks–should we our arm withdraw,
Would that betray them? some distrust your law.
And how if foreign fleets should come–
Would the South then drive her wedges home”
And more hereof. The Virginian sees–
Replies to such anxieties.
Discreet his answers run—appear
Briefly straightforward, coldly clear.

Melville doesn’t tell us how Lee answered these questions, just that he is short and discreet. Given Lee’s racism, one can understand why he would have been “coldly clear” in response to the interracial questions. Melville, however, is more interested in the second set of questions, and here Lee’s answers are more satisfactory.

As Melville sees it, if the North treats the South well, the South will graciously return to the fold. Meville’s imagined Lee, after promising to never strive in arms again, asks for magnanimity from the victors:

My word is given–it ties my sword;
Even were banners still abroad,
Never could I strive in arms again
While you, as fit, that pledge retain.
Our cause I followed, stood in field and gate–
All’s over now, and now I follow Fate.


How shall I speak? The South would fain
Feel peace, have quiet law again–
Replant the trees for homestead-shade.
  You ask if she recants: she yields.
Nay, and would more; would blend anew,
As the bones of the slain in her forests do,
Bewailed alike by us and you.
  A voice comes out from these charnel-fields,
A plaintive yet unheeded one:
‘Died all in vain? both sides undone’
Push not your triumph; do not urge
Submissiveness beyond the verge.
Intestine rancor would you bide,
Nursing eleven sliding daggers in your side?

Far from my thought to school or threat;
I speak the things which hard beset.
Where various hazards meet the eyes,
To elect in magnanimity is wise.
Reap victory’s fruit while sound the core;
What sounder fruit than re-established law?

Melville’s Lee then proceeds to tell a story about a Moorish woman, kidnapped by Christians, whose conversion was not enough—they wanted her as well to “hate your kin.” Don’t ask me go this far, the maid requests, as does Lee. Isn’t enough that he return to being a dutiful citizen?

In Moorish lands there lived a maid
  Brought to confess by vow the creed
  Of Christians. Fain would priests persuade
That now she must approve by deed
  The faith she kept. “What dead?” she asked.
“Your old sire leave, nor deem it sin,
  And come with us.” Still more they tasked
The sad one: “If heaven you’d win–
  Far from the burning pit withdraw,
Then must you learn to hate your kin,
  Yea, side against them–such the law,
For Moor and Christian are at war”
“Then will I never quit my sire,
But here with him through every trial go,
Nor leave him though in flames below–
God help me in his fire!”
So in the South; vain every plea
‘Gainst Nature’s strong fidelity;
  True to the home and to the heart,
Throngs cast their lot with kith and kin,
  Foreboding, cleaved to the natural part–
Was this the unforgivable sin?

In other words, Lee loyalty to the South is compared to love for family, not to the continuation of a brutal institution. It is up to the North to win the South over, Melville’s imagined Lee goes on to say. If it does, all will be well. If not, there will be perpetual enmity, and it will be the North’s fault:

These noble spirits are yet yours to win.
Shall the great North go Sylla’s way?
Proscribe? prolong the evil day?
Confirm the curse? infix the hate?
In Unions name forever alienate?

From reason who can urge the plea–
Freemen conquerors of the free?
When blood returns to the shrunken vein,
Shall the wound of the Nation bleed again?
Well may the wars wan thought supply,
And kill the kindling of the hopeful eye,
Unless you do what even kings have done
In leniency–unless you shun
To copy Europe in her worst estate–
Avoid the tyranny you reprobate.”

In other words, unless you are lenient, you will infix hate.

This is pretty much a view of the matter as I was taught it. It was also the view that appears in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, where a Lincoln who would have been a forgiving father is replaced by rapacious senators who want to crush the south. The film, of course, was instrumental is the resurgence of the K.K.K., who were reaffirmed in their sense of thmselves as victims whose violence was justified. White supremacists continue to see themselves this way.

Julia Howe and Melville do not acknowledge the depth of the animus against African Americans. Melville had disagreements with Frederick Douglass on this matter, with Douglass in a far better position to know. Unfortunately, this meant that Howe and Melville helped sow the seeds for a pernicious myth that helped absolve the South of treason and therefore made it less likely that the federal government would intervene to protect the rights of African Americans.

Melville is a great artist but, in this case, he allowed his wish fulfillment to win out over an accurate depiction of southern sentiments. Thinking all would be well if anti-slavery people like himself were gracious in victory, he sorely underestimated the intensity of southern resentment.

As a result, his poetry helped turn a racist into a hero. We are only now beginning to undo some of the damage.

Update: Wow, I can’t believe that Trump, in today’s press conference, just did what Melville did: compare Lee to Washington: “George Washington was a slave owner… Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”

Those who balk at the comparison might appreciate Alexandra Petri’s twitter comment: “george washington owned slaves. but he also freed them in his will, favored ending slavery & didn’t fight a war to preserve the institution.”

Not surprisingly, Melville’s comparison is more complex than Trump’s. He observes that Lee was actually related to Washington (through Martha’s side) and  that there is indeed a disturbing connection between the two, which must be that they were both slave owners. This is so painful that Melville wants to “hide the thought.” He doesn’t say this to absolve Lee but to show that the sin of slavery runs back through the founding fathers:

Awhile, with curious eyes they [the Senators] scan
The Chief who led invasion’s van–
Allied by family to one,

Founder of the Arch the Invader warred upon:
Who looks at Lee must think of Washington;
In pain must think, and hide the thought,
So deep with grievous meaning it is fraught. 

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Baldwin Explains White Supremacists

White supremacists in Charlottesville


To understand the psychology of the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville over the weekend, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others, James Baldwin’s short story “Going To Meet the Man” (1965) is a good place to start. One begins to understand their irrational hatred and their attraction to violence.

The protagonist in the story is a white police chief who has come close to killing a non-violent protester—the man refused to stop singing Civil Rights songs—and who now finds himself unable to fall asleep. He is also unable to “get it up” and is experiencing severe self-doubts.

As he replays the events of the day, he thinks of other African Americans, some of them children, who have not been according him the respect he is accustomed to. As a result, he senses that the entire world is falling apart.

His memories then take him back to a moment of absolute certainty. When he was a little boy, his parents took him to a brutal lynching that involved castration and burning as well as hanging. He remembers the cathartic joy his family and the community experienced at the event. The memory brings his manhood back and he is finally able to make love to his wife.

The story makes clear how many white Americans have relied, for their self worth, on the belief that they were superior to African Americans. It’s as though that dependency has been baked into their DNA. Many of these people felt emasculated by the election of Barack Obama, just as the police chief feels emasculated by the marchers who will no longer show him the deference he once received. The chief rages at these marchers and at the government that backs them up. He feels alone and isolated.

To be sure, he is aware of others out there who think as he does, but at the moment they have retreated into silence, as though they are conspirators in a crime who must keep their mouths shut. Here’s how Baldwin describes the community:

They rarely mentioned anything not directly related to the [race] war that they were fighting, but this had failed to establish between them the unspoken communication of soldiers during a war. Each man, in the thrilling silence which sped outward from their exchanges, their laughter, and their anecdotes, seemed wrestling in various degrees of darkness, with a secret which he could not articulate to himself, and which however directly it related to the war, related yet surely to his privacy and his past. … They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people—while here they were, outnumbered, fighting to save the civilized world. They had thought that people would care—people didn’t care; not enough, anyway, to help them. It would have been a help, really, or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender. Thus they had lost, probably forever, their old and easy connection with each other.

Donald Trump has given such people a born again feeling, the relief that comes when you can openly step once again into your old hatreds. Having felt solitary for so long (although Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have provided some comfort), they are now discovering “their old and easy connection with each other.” No longer must they waste away in silence.

Last September I compared Trump’s extremist followers to Sin and Death in Paradise Loss. Although they are a universe apart from Satan, at the moment when he succeeds in corrupting Adam and Eve they feel a thrill. Sin knows that their moment has come:

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on, 
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.

As I wrote at the time, just as the fascist right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:

Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn
By this new felt attraction and instinct.

Trump has given these people a new confidence. They no longer feel bottled up within themselves and are journeying back to relevance.

In Baldwin’s story, the key moment in the lynching occurs when a man reaches up and castrates the corpse of the victim. It’s one of those scapegoat moments that brings the entire community together. To understand the resurgence of the far right, think about the exhilaration people felt, first at Trump rallies and now in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Barack Obama is no longer there to humiliate them, the hated Other is being exorcised, and their moment has arrived.

As Baldwin puts it, “Something bubbled up in him, his nature again returned to him.”

What we are witnessing is not rational. It operates at a primal level.

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

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