Hidden in the Dust: Clusters of Roses

Ramadan illustrations

Spiritual Sunday – Ramadan

Ramadan, when Islam celebrates Muhammad’s first Quran revelation with a month of fasting, begins Tuesday evening. Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, sometimes known as American Islam’s Poet Laureate, wrote a fascinating series of “Ramadan Sonnets” while fasting, a couple of which I share today.  As a non-Muslim, I have difficulty imagining undergoing Ramadam fasting, but Moore gives us a glimpse into its power.

“Ramadan House Guest” begins as follows:

Ramadan has come to live with us.
It is God’s private apartments
moved into our house
and taking over.

Where the doors were
are now entranceways into His Garden.
Where windows were are
continuous waterfalls. Abundance in the

dryness. Hidden in the dust:
clusters of roses. Sprung from our
footsteps: ascents.

In “Jealousy,” meanwhile, worshippers are jealous lovers who are so in love with God that they forget to eat:

The fast is also like
being so wracked with love
you can’t eat. Tossed and
wrenched and high and dry with
single-minded devotion and expectation that no single

bite or sip can pass our lips, our
eyes are parched, throat dry,
head gone elsewhere almost entirely, and

only with extreme concentration can we
perform our usual tasks with anything
like normality.

It sweeps us off our feet. It’s
bigger than we are. It goes
off with all our thoughts.

It’s a jealous lover.

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In Lit, Who Best Represents Each Job?

Ford Madox Brown, “Work” (1865)


I’ve set myself the challenge in today’s post to name the best literary depictions of different professions. It’s one of those exercises that’s more useful for spurring conversations than providing definite answers, but what else is this blog for? Feel free to add more professions to the list as well as weigh in with alternatives to my choices.

College Professor – William Stoner in John Williams’s Stoner (runner-up: Vivian Bearing in W;t)

Teacher – Lucy Snowe in Villette

Intellectual – Dr. Faustus

Scientist – Victor Frankenstein

Author – David Copperfield

Farmer – The Joad Family in Grapes of Wrath

Farmhand – George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men

Cowboy – Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove

Governess – Jane Eyre

Doctor – Doc Daneeka in Catch-22

Veterinarian – Doctor Doolittle

Nurse – Nurse Ratched

Lawyer – Tulkinghorn in Bleak House

Legal clerk – Bartleby

Ship captain – Marlow in Heart of Darkness

Sailor – Billy Budd

Whale harpooner – Queequeg

Fisherman – Hemingway’s Old Man

Carpenter – Adam Bede

Politician – Marc Antony in Julius Caesar

Dairymaid – Tess Durbeyfield

Military Commander – Othello (runner-up: Macbeth)

Enlisted Man –  Rat Kiley in The Things They Carried

Enlisted Woman – Mary Anne Bell (a.k.a. Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong)

Warrior – Homer’s Achilles

Private Eye – toss-up between Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe

Detective – Sherlock Holmes, of course

Gentleman Detective – Sir Peter Whimsey

Banker – Scrooge

Thief – Moll Flanders

Prostitute – Sonia in Crime and Punishment

Courtesan – Madame de Merteuil in Liaisons Dangereuses

Fence – Peachum in Beggar’s Opera (runner-up: Fagan)

Highwayman – Mac the Knife (runner-up: Alfred Noyes’s highwayman)

Housewife – Emma Bovary (runner-up: Mrs. Dalloway)

Factory owner – Bounderby

Factory worker – Boxer in Animal Farm

Landlady – Mistress Quickly (runner-up: Mrs. Hudson)

Squire – Darcy

Minister – Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews

Nun – Mother Superior in Doubt

Salvation Army missionary – Major Barbara

Realtor – the entire office of Glengarry Glen Ross

Salesman – Willie Loman

Send in your own favorites.

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How Fantasy Keeps Us Human

The bad and good angel in “Good Omens”


I understand better why Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett are so beloved after teaching them in my British fantasy course. The two have found their way into millennials’ hearts partly because they use fantasy and humor to critique ideological extremism.

They do this very effectively in the collaboratively written Good Omens, which my student Sara Hirshon wrote about. The novel is about an apocalypse that doesn’t quite come off. Two angels that have been around since the Garden of Eden—good angel Aziraphale and bad angel Crowley–are instructed to prepare for battle as their bosses have declared that the end times are nigh. The angel and the demon, however, have come to understand each other over the millennia—one might say that they have reached across the aisle—and are enjoying earth too much to desire its destruction.

Meanwhile, a mix-up at a local hospital means that the antichrist has accidentally been placed with a normal family and the other child given over to the demons that are supposed to train him.  Other subplots involves the four horsepersons of the apocalypse (War is a woman) and a time-serving clerk that falls in love with a witch. In the end, the antichrist figures that he prefers hanging out with his friends rather than ending life on earth as we know it. In passages quoted by Sara, the teenage antichrist declares that, because the world “is full of all sorts of brilliant stuff,” he “doesn’t want anyone messing it about or endin’ it before I’ve had a chance to find out about it.”

The combined forces of Az, Crowley, the clerk, the witch, the antichrist, and the other kids on the block defeat the four horsepersons and also the devil.

Sara, an English-political science double major (see a description of her Guinevere senior project here), interprets Good Omens as a critique of ideology-driven politics:

Pratchett and Gaiman show how extremism easily overwhelms us so that we lose our humanity. Because of their fascination with humans, Az and Crowley no longer represent two extreme ideologies but instead become two flawed human figures that fight for the populace…Pratchett and Gaiman are warning us against extremism and politicians who lose touch with the people that elected them.

Looking at the period in which the novel was written (1990), Sarah speculates that it reflects the bitter ideological battles between Labor and Thatcherism. She then expresses her longing that the Aziraphales and Crowleys in today’s America would find common cause. Democrats and Republicans, she notes, “often hate each other as soon as they are alerted to each other’s political stance”:

If an angel and a demon can sit down over lunch…despite having conflicting ideologies, then who says humans can’t. In fact, I know of a case where a Republican and Democrat took a road trip together and ended up…with a better understanding of each other…Perhaps the world is not as black and white as Heaven and Hell claim and perhaps we all can have conversations with people with opposing views. If we do, you may discover he’s not so bad, even if he is a demon and you’re an angel.         

Pratchett explores similar themes in Thief of Time, which I taught in the fantasy course. There, the auditors of the universe—those who want things to function in a predictable matter—are upset that unpredictable humans are messing up their mechanistic order with imagination, free will, pleasure, and other traits that characterize us. (Think of the auditors as the agents in The Matrix, which may have influenced the novel.)  Among other things, humans play around with time, sometimes wasting it, sometimes making the most of it, sometimes slowing it down or speeding it up. The auditors therefore make arrangements to stop time, at which point human activity—which always interacts with time—will end. (The novel gets fairly philosophical on this point but Pratchett is both smart and witty about it.)

The four horsemen of the apocalypse show up again, along with a fifth horseman (Chaos). Rather than decimate people, however, they fight against the auditors. After all, they owe a lot to the human imagination, beginning with the human forms they have been endowed with:

To be human was to change, Death realized. The Horsemen…were horsemen. Men had wished upon them a certain shape, a certain form. And, just like the gods, and the Tooth Fairy, and the Hogfather [Santa Claus], their shape had changed them. They would never be human, but they had caught aspects of humanity as though they were some kind of disease.

As a result, Death has trouble getting the other horsemen to ride again. They’ve got other projects more interesting than wiping out humanity:

Because the point was that nothing, nothing had one aspect and one aspect alone. Men would envision a being called Famine, but once they gave him arms and legs and eyes, that meant he had to have a brain. That meant he’d think. And a brain can’t think about plagues of locusts all the time.

It’s worth noting that, when the novel was written, the world was relatively peaceful, what with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the independence movements in Eastern Europe. Today, Death might have an easier time recruiting Famine, War, and Pollution (replacing Pestilence, who has been sidelined by modern medication).

Pratchett’s point is that, while humans are undeniably flawed, they are a lot more interesting that the alternative. After all, how can you not love the species that invented boredom?

No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them up the evolutionary ladder.

Pratchett dramatically emphasizes our wonderful complexity by having the auditors try to imitate humans and become hopelessly confused in the process. Above all, their circuits are blown by chocolate, which causes them to experience ecstasy when having feelings goes against their very nature. Chocolate, as a result, becomes a major weapon in the battle to save humanity.

Many Gaiman and Pratchett fans fall in love with them because their novels are in love with our comic, bumbling, often silly, often trivial, but invariably interesting selves. In the face of that, ideology, extremism, and unthinking conformity don’t stand a chance.

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Will “The Fat Man” Sell Out Jared?

Greetstreet, Bogart, Cook in “Maltese Falcon”


Given that Donald Trump yesterday began violating the Iran Accord, Rudy Giuliani’s wild gyrations on behalf of the president are small potatoes. Nevertheless, I can’t pass up how much he sounds like a character in The Maltese Falcon.

Interviewed by Fox’s Sean Hannity, Giuliani predicted ferocious pushback should special counsel Robert Mueller search Ivanka Trump’s offices. Ivanka’s husband, by contrast, appeared to be another matter:

Giuliani: Ivanka Trump? I think I would get on my charger and go right into – run into their offices with a lance if they go after her. … If they do do Ivanka, which I doubt they will, the whole country will turn on him. They are going after his daughter?
Hannity: What about his son-in-law? You talked about him. 
Giuliani: I guess, Jared is a fine man. You know that. But men are, you know, disposable. But a fine woman like Ivanka? Come on. 

Jared has been in trouble for a while, from attempting to set up a back channel to Russia to extorting Qatar for real estate investments to lying on security forms. Might Trump jettison his son-in-law as readily as he has cut off others he regarded as impediments?

That’s what happens to Wilmer, the not-too-bright heavy in Maltese Falcon. Wilmer works for Casper Gutman (a.k.a. the Fat Man), who ultimately sells him out. The idea to do so is Sam Spade’s:

“Listen, Gutman, we’ve absolutely got to give them a victim. There’s no way out of it. Let’s give them the punk.” He nodded pleasantly at the boy in the doorway. “He actually did shoot both of them–Thursby and Jacobi–didn’t he? Anyway, he’s made to order for the part. Let’s pin the necessary evidence on him and turn him over to them.”

In the end Wilmer, perhaps like Jared, is deemed disposable:

The boy looked at Gutman.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but–well, by Gad!–if you lose a son it’s possible to get another–and there’s only one Maltese falcon.”

In our case, the Maltese falcon would be the Trump presidency. Jared makes a good fall guy, having been at the Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-affiliated lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, Jr. was there as well, so the president could even drop the “if.” A son-in-law and a son could both take a bullet for Trump, claiming that the meeting was entirely their own idea and that the president knew nothing about it.

So maybe Trump escapes free and clear. After all, there is only one presidency. And by Gad! he’s already got other children.

Dashiell Hammet’s novel may also serve as a warning, however. The police report that Wilmer doesn’t take the betrayal well:

“Gutman’s dead. The kid had just finished shooting him up when we got there.”

Spade nodded. “He ought to have expected that,” he said.

Men like Gutman and Trump expect loyalty from everyone but themselves, but even the most devoted follower can flip and take you down.

Further thought: The Wilmer comparison applies even better to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who has been skirting the law for a while but may be nearing the end of his road. Trump allies have been alternately attacking Cohen (The New York Post) and placating him (Giuliani) in an apparent attempt to cover all possibilities. (The Post wants to undermine him in case he flips, Giuliani wants to reassure him that Trump has his back so that he wont flip.) Everyone assumes that Cohen will do real damage if he flips, which says a lot about the man who is president.

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Are Blogging Scholars a Step Forward?


Making use of a father’s prerogative, I write once again to tout the podcast The Stories We Tell Our Robots, hosted by my businessman son Darien Bates and my English professor son Tobias Wilson-Bates. In their most recent episode (#17), they use the story of Scheherazade to explore “tech paternalism” or “techsplaining.” Apparently computer engineers selling apps often use apocalyptic language (they “boil the oceans,” in business parlance) to persuade the public (as in, “The world will fall apart if you don’t buy the latest one”).

I write here, however, about whether internet platforms such as blogs have been good or bad for scholars disseminating their ideas (episode #16) As Darien interviewed me about Better Living through Beowulf, I figured you all would be interested.

Positively, blogging scholars can reach wide audiences and can do so quickly. Negatively, blogs do not undergo the rigorous vetting process that academic scholarship undergoes.

In my interview, I expressed my gratitude for the hard work undertaken by scholars, which I make use of daily. In the podcast, I said that scholars that become bloggers are like reporters that become pundits: they make use of their hard-earned expertise but may no longer be involved in the hard work of tracking down leads and cross-checking sources.

Although I didn’t mention it at the time, I could also have said that bloggers are like popularizers, people who use their communication skills to share the intricate interpretations (in the case of literary scholarship) with a wider public.

Darien and Toby end each of their podcasts with a “utopia or apocalypse” grade. I gave academic blogging a 7, deducting points for the lack of rigor. Tobias, a young scholar building his resume, awarded a 5 while Darien, one of the readers that the blog aims to reach, gave an 8.

Check out their podcast, which is filled with humor and wit as well as intelligence. You can even meet one of my daughters-in-law, who has a fascinating take on Black Panther (episode #10).

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Trump, Like Macbeth, Does Murder Sleep

Romney, “Macbeth and the Witches” (1785)


In my British Fantasy class, student Haley Bullis chose to write about the witches in Macbeth and at one point found herself comparing him to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.  I, meanwhile, had just read a Washington Post review (by Eliot A. Cohen) of Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant, a study of Shakespearean tyrants that finds parallels between Trump and Macbeth.

As Haley interprets them, the witches are a symbolic representation of Macbeth’s tyrant mind. Their escalating pronouncements track an ambitious man’s move to the dark side. First, they point the evolution from healthy to unhealthy ambition, from current position (thane of Glamis) to legitimate promotion (thane of Cawdor) to regicide:

First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

As Haley sees it, the witches are the devil who whispers into the ear of cartoon characters (also Doctor Faustus).

Although the witches subsequently address Banquo, this too can be seen as reflecting Macbeth’s interior thoughts since tyrants are prone to paranoia, as evidenced by Macbeth later turning on his best friend. After all, if they themselves have broken God’s rules, then why wouldn’t everyone else, even people close to them. Think of how Kim Jong-un and Saddam Hussein went after family members.

Thus, the witches addressing Banquo can be seen, not as external causes of his paranoia, but as internal seeds that simply await the right conditions to blossom. Think then, of the witches’ words to Banquo as Macbeth’s thoughts:

First Witch: Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Second Witch: Not so happy, yet much happier.
Third Witch: Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!

But if the witches reflect the tyrant’s dark ambitions and his murderous paranoia, what are we to make of their false assurances later on in the play? After all, they tell Macbeth that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” and that

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

Haley had an answer for this too. Tyrants can be simulataneously paranoid and cocky. Therefore, while the witches represent Macbeth’s paranoia with their mentions of Banquo’s heirs and of Macduff (“Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff;/Beware the thane of Fife”), with their other predictions they represent his belief he is invulnerable  As a result, we get a figure not unlike any number of dictators we could name.

And how about Trump? In certain ways, he shares this mixture of paranoia and cockiness. His desire to have the powers of a Kim Jong-un or a Vladimir Putin is his internal witch talking.

It’s probably a stretch, however, to think that his constant twitter mentions of witches—as in “WITCH HUNT!”—is him using Macbeth-type symbolism.

Whether or not Haley has Trump in mind, Washington Post reviewer Cohen thinks that Greenblatt does, although he feels that this is a flaw in the book:

[I]t is the truly great tyrants of Shakespeare’s work, Macbeth and Richard III, who are most in the spotlight. Here, [Greenblatt’s] analysis of the characters is masterly if slightly less sympathetic than they might otherwise be if he did not have the weight of the 45th president on his shoulders. Macbeth’s transition from more or less honorable and loyal servant of King Duncan to his murderer — and to the murderer of many others — is a tale of psychological development. So too is Richard III’s astounding soliloquy in “Henry VI, Part 3,” in which he describes himself as “like one lost in a thorny wood,/ That rents the thorns and is rent with the thorns,/ Seeking a way and straying from the way,/ Not knowing how to find the open air.” It is Shakespeare’s genius that in both cases we can see a complex if terrifying trajectory of a kind that would elude Trump, a considerably more static figure.

As Cohen sees it, Trump “is no Macbeth or Richard III” but

a triumphant (but teetotaling) Caliban with a Twitter account — full of all kinds of ambitions and fantastic conceits, who secretly craves the approval of the establishment he hates. Or, more likely Cloten, stepson of King Cymbeline, a brutal, spoiled, self-absorbed, misogynistic oaf who for his attempted trickery (which includes a wild murder-rape fantasy) comes to a very sticky end, indeed.

I like these other parallels but I’m not ready to drop the Macbeth altogether. Trump has at least talked of being willing to duplicate Macbeth’s assassination order of Macduff’s family, asking the CIA why it didn’t kill a terrorist’s family. True, I don’t find Trump to be as interesting as Macbeth, but that’s because he appears to lack Macbeth’s capacity for self-reflection and remorse. In other words, Trump may be more of a sociopath than Macbeth. It may only be our constitutional safeguards that prevent him from committing Macbeth type atrocities.

Rather than Greenblatt’s comparisons being undermined by his anxieties about Trump, it may be that having Trump as president makes the play all the more urgent.

Incidentally, Cohen is more appreciative of how Greenblatt handles those who enable tyrants, who do indeed have counterparts in the current GOP:

Greenblatt is powerful and more convincing, though, in his discussion of those who aid and support tyrants. He is particularly acute on the ways in which they deceive themselves about the end that awaits them, when, like so many Shakespearean characters, they become wise too late. Indeed, a chapter titled “Enablers” is the best in the book. This is a canny guide to contemporary Washington, for Shakespeare gives us all kinds of dupes, careerists, connivers and bullies who yield to the strange magnetism of power, no matter how unappealing he who wields it is. Here “Richard III” really does work as an instructive play on the dynamics of power…

And Cohen has one more on-target observation, which gets at the way that Trump (unlike Obama on occasions) doesn’t seem to be having fun being president:

[P]ower, once acquired, yields few satisfactions. As Greenblatt points out, the witty, even charming Richard of the first half of the play becomes increasingly dull, vicious and unimaginative toward the end. His head may be “impaled with a glorious crown,” but there is no real joy for him in it, and before long other parts of him will be impaled at Bosworth field.

We need every tool that literature can provide us for understanding our current political situation. Thank goodness we have Shakespeare in our toolkit.

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Authentic Awareness vs. Reason

Spiritual Sunday

Years ago, when I was skeptical of Christianity, Episcopalian rector Bill Pregnall invited me to an on-going conversation. Every two weeks or so we got together and discussed ethical issues, the meaning of life, and various other matters. Not once did he push me to convert, choosing instead to listen to my reservations about religion and my questions about the Bible. At one point, when I was complaining about the sterility of modern society, he said, “Perhaps you are hungry for mystery.”

I knew, at some deep level, he was right and I began joining Julia at church. The luminescent author Nicole Krause describes this hunger in Forest Dark, our current book group selection.

The novel alternates between a Jewish billionaire and his daughter Maya. At one point we learn about an unusual bat mitzvah request:

Long ago, at Maya’s bat mitzvah party, they’d had a palm reader. Never mind the unkosher presence of the occult: it was what she had wanted. (“What do you love most, Mayashka?” he’d once asked her as a little child. “Magic and mystery,” she replied without pause.”)

Now a novelist, Maya still hungers for magic and mystery. As a result, she is disturbed when a physicist propounds a multiverse theory:

[I]f there is not one but an infinite or nearly infinite set of worlds, each with its own physical laws, then no condition can any longer be considered the result of extraordinary mathematical improbabilities.

In Maya’s eyes, the theory robs the universe of wonder:

I’d never allowed myself to believe in God, but I could see why theories of a multiverse could get under a certain kind of person’s skin—if nothing else, to say that everything might be true somewhere not only carried the whiff of evasion but also rendered any searching useless, since all conclusions become equally valid. Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown come from understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered? In our view of the stars, we find a measure of our own incompleteness, our still-yet unfinishedness, which is to say, our potential for change, even transformation. That our species is distinguished from others by our hunger and capacity for change has everything to do with our ability to recognize the limits of our understanding, and to contemplate the unfathomable.

In a multiverse, on the other hand,

the concepts of known and unknown are rendered useless, for everything is equally known and unknown. If there are infinite worlds and infinite sets of laws, then nothing is essential, and we are relieved from straining past the limits of our immediate reality and comprehension, since not only does what lies beyond not apply to us, there is also no hope of gaining anything more than infinitesimally small understanding. In that sense, the multiverse theory only encourages us to know our backs even further on the unknowable, which we’re more than happy to do, having become drunk on our powers of knowing—having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it.

As a young professor, I was drunk on literary theory, but I also sensed that such knowing, in and of itself, was empty. That is why I sought out Bill’s conversations. I recognize my younger self in Maya’s continuing reflection:

Just as religion evolved as a way to contemplate and live before the unknowable, so now we have converted to the opposite practice, to which we are no less devoted: the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect. Since Descartes, knowledge has been empowered to a nearly unimaginable degree. But in the end it didn’t lead to the mastery and possession of nature he imagined, only to the illusion of its mastery and possession. In the end, we have made ourselves ill with knowledge. I frankly hate Descartes, and have never understood why his axiom should be trusted as an unshakable foundation for anything. The more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where once we lived in wonder, and understood it to be a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of being and the world. Now we have little choice but to live in the arid fields of reasons, and as for the unknown, which once lay glittering at the farthest edge of our gaze, channeling our fear but also our hope and longing, we can only regard it with aversion.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment led to the rise of the gothic novel as people found refuge from the blinding light of Reason in supernatural shadows. As I met with my British fantasy class for one last time yesterday, we talked about the hunger that leads them to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Diane Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett. I told them to take their attraction seriously.

I don’t reject Reason, but I no longer see it as the ultimate key to understanding the universe. Instead, I look for meaning through a combination of intellectual probing, religious worship, engaging with the arts (especially literature), and fostering relationships with loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. Oh, and playing tennis.

I’ve only begun Krauss’s novel so I can’t report on Maya’s endpoint. But I identify with her search.

Further thought: “Forest Dark” may echo Dante’s dark wood but, in a reversal, Krauss says that being “lost in that forest” promises a return to wonder and “authentic awareness.”

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Which Fictional Death Still Haunts You?

James Barry, “King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia”


After someone on Twitter threw out the question, “Which fictional death are you still not over?” I found myself ransacking my reading memories. I set out to think of 10.

First on my list would be an author rather than a character: I can’t get over Jane Austen dying before completing Sanditon. Or writing more novels generally.

Tess Durbeyfield has got to be #1.

I so much wanted the Othello-Desdemona marriage to work out.

Antigone gets to me as well.

As does Cordelia.

I understand the artistic reasons why Laura Esquivel kills off Tita at the end of Like Water for Chocolate but I’m not happy about it.

When I was a child, the deaths of Fili and Kili in The Hobbit hit me hard, even more than Thorin’s death.

I remember that my brothers and I sobbed when my father read us the endings of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s The Birds’ Christmas Carol. I still hear Hank crying out “Sandy” just before the death rattle. The death of the Carol Bird, meanwhile, tapped into the Victorian dying children cult that also includes Little Nell and Beth March. Looking back, I now realize it is pathos so thick you can cut it with a knife. I used to love fizzies and sugar in a straw at that age.

Few people read George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel anymore, but I remember being so traumatized by what happens to the hopeful young couple that I threw the book across the room after finishing it.

I came along too late for Leslie Burke (in Bridge to Terabithia), not to mention all those Harry Potter characters who die.

I can’t include Catherine Earnshaw Linton, Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. Their deaths just don’t tear me up that much. Wordsworth’s Lucy and Robert Burns’s Highland Mary, meanwhile, are too much idealized projections for me to mourn.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important ones. Feel free to send them in.

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Browning Describes Incel’s Misogyny

Daniel Gabriel Rosetti, “Lady Lilith”


Like many who have been following the horrific Toronto van attack and its aftermath, I am learning about “incels” for the first time. The more I learn, the more the killer sounds like the speaker in Robert Browning’s deeply creepy poem “Porphyria’s Lover.”

Alek Minassian proclaimed the arrival of “the incel rebellion” on Facebook directly before plowing his vehicle into Toronto pedestrians. Terrorism expert Simon Cottee explains that “incel,” short for “involuntarily celibate,” is “a badge of honor among a fringe online subculture of misogynists who say they hate women for depriving them of sex.”

Cottee says that the resemblance between the van attack and attacks by ISIS-inspired fundamentalists is not accidental because both incels and ISIS have a similar relationship to sex and to women.  Here’s Cottee’s description of incel psychology:

Among those who identify with the “incel” movement, there is a pathological fixation on sex and women, and there is a self-pitying perception that everyone else, except the community of “incels,” is having sex. Women are craved, but they are also reviled for what the incels believe is their selective promiscuity: They seem to be having sex with everyone but them. This is internalized as a grave personal insult. The function of the “incel” movement is to transform that personal grievance into an ideology that casts women as despicable sexual objects.

The core emotion that animates “incels” is sexual shame. It’s not just that these men are sexually frustrated; it’s that they are ashamed of their sexual failure. At the same time, they are resentful of the sexual success of others, which amplifies their own sense of inadequacy. This explains why they gravitate toward an online subculture that strives to rationalize their shame and redirect the blame for their failure onto women.

Cottee identifies a similar psychology at play amongst jihadists:

Like incels, jihadists similarly crave sex, but the circumstances surrounding its consummation are closely regulated by their religious norms, which prohibit sex outside of marriage and same-sex couplings. Among jihadists, even masturbation is frowned upon, although Osama bin Laden famously issued a masturbation fatwa, permitting it in times of urgent need.

These men simultaneously want women to have sex with them and hate them for being sexual beings. Cottee provides a couple of examples:

Sayyid Qutb, the grandfather of jihadist ideology, was disgusted by Americans’ sexual license during the 1950s, yet he was clearly viscerally excited by its spectacle. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, instructed in his will that his body be prepared for burial by “good Muslims” and that no woman was to go near it, presumably because he found them dirty and spiritually contaminating. This aversion to women didn’t stop him from visiting a strip club just before the attack, but it did prevent him from shaking women’s hands. One extremist reportedly told the terrorism scholar Jessica Stern that he was “vaginally defeated.”

We see a similar dynamic amongst those Christian fundamentalist pastors and politicians who rail on behalf of “family values” and are then discovered to have had illicit affairs.

The speaker in “Porphria’s Lover” has a sexual assignation with Porphryia in a remote cabin. When she “glides” through the door, she appears to be an embodiment of his fantasy woman. In this way he differs from incels since, after all, he has a woman who wants to make love with him.

Seen another way, however, the progression is exactly what one sees in incels. At first, the woman is a fantasy, but when the fantasy changes into a real flesh and blood woman with sexual desires, the speaker shifts from adulation to disgust. Projecting his sense of sexual shame onto her, he notices her “soiled gloves” and her “damp hair”:

[S]he rose, and from her form 
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl, 
       And laid her soiled gloves by, untied 
Her hat and let the damp hair fall…

As the woman becomes amorous, the speaker is frozen in place. Nor can the woman get him to stir, no matter how hard she tries, leaving him feeingl all the more emasculated:

And, last, she sat down by my side 
       And called me. When no voice replied, 
She put my arm about her waist, 
       And made her smooth white shoulder bare, 
And all her yellow hair displaced, 
       And, stooping, made my cheek lie there, 
       And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair, 
Murmuring how she loved me…

It is after Porphyria leans her head against the speaker that he realizes his way out of his conflicted feelings. If she could just stay passive like this forever, he would no longer feel unmanned. Like the Toronto killer, he does what he feels is necessary:

That moment she was mine, mine, fair, 
       Perfectly pure and good: I found 
A thing to do, and all her hair 
       In one long yellow string I wound 
       Three times her little throat around, 
And strangled her.

The result is the perfect woman. Because death has obliterated her sexual desires, she once again resembles the woman of his dreams:

I warily oped her lids: again 
       Laughed the blue eyes without a stain. 
And I untightened next the tress 
       About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss: 
       I propped her head up as before, 
       Only, this time my shoulder bore 
Her head, which droops upon it still: 
       The smiling rosy little head, 
So glad it has its utmost will, 
       That all it scorned at once is fled, 
       And I, its love, am gained instead! 

Although we have never seen Porphyria scorn him, in the speaker’s head this has been the case. Such scorn is now at an end.

Supposedly virgins in paradise await ISIS members who sacrifice themselves for the cause. This of course is an impossible contradiction given that the women would no longer be virgins if they pleasured the men and would therefore be subject to the same disillusion voiced by Porphyria’s lover. The misogyny exhibited by terrorists, whether fundamentalist or incel, is terrifying in its circularity.

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Once More into a War, Dear Friends

Battle of Agincourt


It appears that, by appointing John Bolton as National Security Adviser, Donald Trump has added recklessness to incompetence in the management of foreign affairs. Over the weekend, we learned that members of the Trump administration want to attack Iran, as seen in their claim that “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” (Following the resulting furor, they changed “has” to “had” and blamed “a clerical error.”) Bolton was one of the neocons who urged the United States to wage a two front-war following 9-11, bringing to mind the figure of Canterbury in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Canterbury wants Henry to attack France, and trots out bellicose rhetoric to persuade him:

Gracious lord,
Stand for your own; unwind your bloody flag;
Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play’d a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France…

The king, however, worries that the Scots will take advantage of his absence. One of his advisors articulates his concern:

For once the eagle England being in prey,
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs,
Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat.

Canterbury, like Bolton, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, thinks that his country is so powerful that it can fight on multiple fronts. Take a fourth of your force to France, he advises the king, and leave the rest at home. In a sequence of analogies, he notes that England can achieve multiple victories “without defeat.” If fact, England deserves to “lose the name of hardiness and policy if it cannot “defend our own doors from the dog”:

As many arrows, loosed several ways,
Come to one mark; as many ways meet in one town;
As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea;
As many lines close in the dial’s centre;
So may a thousand actions, once afoot.
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat. Therefore to France, my liege.
Divide your happy England into four;
Whereof take you one quarter into France,
And you withal shall make all Gallia shake.
If we, with thrice such powers left at home,
Cannot defend our own doors from the dog,
Let us be worried and our nation lose
The name of hardiness and policy.

Canterbury and Bolton both seem justified in the short run. Canterbury can point to a great British victory and Bolton to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Fifteen years after Agincourt, however, the English were on the run, and the psychological and economic costs led to the War of the Roses and the end of Henry’s line.

If Trump adds Iran to Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans can expect a similar future.

Further Note: My Shakespearean colleague Beth Charlebois points out to me that Shakespeare points to this very outcome in the play’s epilogue:

Fortune made his [Henry V’s] sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed…

George W. Bush made both America and the Middle East bleed, and now it appears that Trump wants to do so as well.

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Inducting Students into an Honor Society

Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Scholar”


Yesterday, right before the St. Mary’s English Department kicked off a full day of senior project presentations, we inducted students into Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. Members of the department alternated reading passages from a script, which I share with you here because it’s got some great literary passages.

STD (what an unfortunate acronym!) was founded in 1924, which accounts for the quaint language in the ceremony. It also reflects the missionary view of literature propounded by such literary critics as F. R. Leavis. It is a view that got lost and that this blog is trying to resurrect, although I can’t pull off the ceremony’s grand tone and see the process as a bit more complicated. My colleagues often delivered their lines with a wry smile, as if to say, “This may sound over the top but, sure, why not?”

After setting forth the mission of the society, which includes promoting interest in literature and serving society by fostering literacy, we launched into the heart of the ceremony. I’m particularly struck by the emphasis on “sincerity” in addition to “truth.” The one speaks to the heart, the other to the head.

There is also mention of “design,” which I read as an emphasis on text and how words are put together on the page. When all is said and done, this is where we in literature departments take our final stand.

Department Chair:  Willa Cather once wrote, “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”  Likewise, the history of Sigma Tau Delta, begins in the hearts of its members—in their willingness to put thought into action.  The foundation of any organization lies in the sincerity of its members.  Without your willingness to stand, to be recognized, and to join with others, there would not be any Sigma Tau Delta.  Inductees, we recognize your commitment and your sincerity.  Together we can strengthen the foundation of our society and look forward in unity and purpose.

Faculty Advisor:  Sincerity in all things is vital to the creation of Sigma Tau Delta, as is our commitment to the truth that is vital to our shared vision.

 Third Reader:  Henry David Thoreau once said, “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to listen.” As members of Sigma Tau Delta, you understand the importance of communication, the value of listening, and the significance of expression.  You have proven yourselves capable of comprehending the English language and of pursuing the truth in works of literature.  Being a member of Sigma Tau Delta, and the English community as a whole requires that you continue these efforts and prepare yourselves to take the truths you have found here into the world, sharing with others your joy and appreciation of our discipline.  Truth cannot exist in a vacuum.  Like any art form, it must be shared to be understood.

Faculty Advisor:  As you prepare yourselves to discover truth, rest assured that the structure and traditions of Sigma Tau Delta will aid you.  The last element of our motto— design—exemplifies this point.

Fourth Reader:  William Shakespeare wrote, “As many arrows, loosed several ways, / Fly to one mark; as many ways meet in one small town; / As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea . . . So may a thousand actions, once afoot, / End in one purpose, and be all well borne / Without defeat.” We are like these many arrows, each coming from a different source, each with unique talents and varied interest; but as members of Sigma Tau Delta, we all promise to support one another and focus our energies to the Society’s goals.  We follow the design laid out before us, assured that our strength of intent and clarity of purpose will assist us in our aims.

Faculty Advisor:  Sincerity, Truth, and Design embody the basis, the purpose, and the structure of Sigma Tau Delta.  Without an understanding and an appreciation of these elements, our society would crumble.  Inductees, if you comprehend and accept our society motto as stated—Sincerity, Truth, and Design—please say “I do.”

[I do]

Faculty Advisor:  Then will you please repeat after me the pledge and the motto of our society:

“I shall endeavor to advance the study. . . . of the chief literary masterpieces. . . .[and also the literature of traditionally under-represented groups]. . . . and also to encourage worthwhile reading . . . to promote the mastery of written expression . . . and to foster a spirit of fellowship. . . among those who specialize in the study of the English language and English literature. . . ever keeping in mind our international motto. . . Sincerity, Truth, Design.”

We, as the faculty representatives of Sigma Tau Delta, are honored to recognize you as esteemed members.

Following the awarding of the certificate, the faculty advisor brought the ceremony to a close:

 Faculty Advisor:  Inductees, you have fulfilled your obligations necessary to join Sigma Tau Delta.  You have expressed your commitment to Sincerity, your devotion to Truth, and your dedication to Design.

And now, we will leave you, as newly inducted members of Sigma Tau Delta, with words by Emily Dickinson.  Please carry them with you as you grow with our organization:

We never know how high we are
Til we are called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies.

For the record, the Willa Cather passage is from O Pioneers!, the Shakespeare passage from Henry V. There’s a lot of striving imagery (with Agincourt on the horizon), maybe reflective of 1920’s American confidence. I’m only surprised that STD’s founders didn’t include Robert Browning’s “A man’s grasp should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”

Oh, and our chapter added the phrase “the literature of traditionally under-represented groups.” If we’re calling on students to go out and preach the word, we need to make a least that update.

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A River Poem in Memory of My Son

Danielle (Hersey) da Silva, “Church Point, St. Mary’s River”


Poet Jeanne Vote, whose children grew up with ours, several years ago penned this gorgeous poem about my son Justin. Justin died 19 years ago today in the St. Mary’s River.

Jeanne says she had a vision of Justin while looking out at a sailboat one evening.

I have received several poems about Justin over the years but never one as beautiful as this. Justin was a joyous soul, always singing and smiling, and many reported that their hearts lifted and their souls opened when they met him. Jeanne’s nature imagery captures this.

The art work too calls for explanation. Danielle (Hersey) da Silva was one of Justin’s closest friends. A first-year art major at the time of his death, she would go on to execute a remarkable series of four water colors three years later. The first showed a dark tangle of trees, to which Danielle appended Dante’s Inferno passage describing himself lost in a “dark wood.” In each subsequent painting, the woods begin to open up.

In the final painting (above), the trees part to show a view of the river, and a light shimmers in the place where Justin went under. The sequence captures Danielle’s spiritual journey from despair to hope. The final painting won the “Senior Purchase Award”–the college purchases an outstanding student work each year–and it now sits in my office. The college and Danielle are allowing me to take it with me when I retire.

Although Danielle’s painting depicts the river during the day, like Jeanne’s nighttime poem it captures the “sparkling light path [that] cuts across dark water.” “He is made one with nature” reads the tombstone that we placed in the cemetery that looks down upon the the scene in Danielle’s painting. Herons and egrets throng the shore.

Oh my beloved Justin, my luminous sailor, may you be embraced by the long arms of the moon.

river night

By Jeanne Vote

a small red boat
sits offshore, alone

one full moon
a sparkling light path cuts
across dark water

iridescent sails lift
music of a million wings
warm, golden unfamiliar sounds
random as fireflies

oysters slowly open
hidden crabs surface
great blues and snowy white egrets
line the beach

the sailor appears
skin luminous, moving
with perfect precision
the heart visible

soft scent breathing
winter jasmine, spring honeysuckle
summer lavender
autumn forget-me-nots

calm winds and following seas
my love, embrace
the long arms of the moon

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Islamic Philosophy vs. Muslim Fanatics

Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes)

Spiritual Sunday

Today I go into a debate in Salman Rushdie’s fantasy novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights between  two medieval Islamic theologians. The imagined debate between Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes) and al-Ghazali illuminates much of the religious infighting we are witnessing, and not only amongst Muslims.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ibn Rushd was a 12th century philosopher who believed that God gave us Reason to understand creation. The 11th century philosopher Ghazali, on the other hand (this according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) saw God rather than natural laws as the basis of reality. In other words, the debate was set within Islam between Reason and what Rushdie regards as blind faith.

Like Rushdie, I’m in the Ibn Rushd camp. In the Episcopal Church we sometimes say that, when we enter a church, we don’t check our brain at the door. God gave us this great gift to use it. Or as the Internet Encyclopedia puts it,

Ibn Rushd strived to demonstrate that without engaging religion critically and philosophically, deeper meanings of the tradition can be lost, ultimately leading to deviant and incorrect understandings of the divine.

Of course, we must guard against the sin of pride, as John Wilmot warns us in Satyr against Reason and Mankind. We can too full of ourselves if we don’t let God guide us. (See Frankenstein.)

In his novel, jinn awaken the corpses of Ibn Rushd and Ghazli, who debate from their crypts:

“Let us think of the human race as if it were a single human being,” Ibn Rushd proposed. “A child understands nothing, and clings to faith because it lacks knowledge. The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind’s long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age. It is not that God does not exist but that like any proud parent he awaits the day when his child can stand on its own two feet, make its own way in the world, and be free of its dependence upon him.”

“As long as you argue from God,” Ghazali replied, “as long as you feebly try to reconcile the rational and the scred, you will never defeat me. Why don’t you just admit you’re an unbeliever and we can take if from there. Observe who your descendants are, the godless scum of the West and East. Your words resonate only in the minds of kafirs [African blacks]. The followers of truth have forgotten you. The followers of truth know that it is reason and science that are the true juvenilia of the human mind. Faith is our gift from God and reason is our adolescent rebellion against it. When we are a;dult we will turn wholly to faith as we were born to do.”

“You will see, as time goes by,” said Ibn Rushd, “that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand one one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.”

“There,” said Ghazali,. “Good. Now, father of many bastards, you begin to speak like the blasphemer you are.” Then he turned to matters of eschatology, which, he said, was now his preferred topic, and he spoke for a long time about the end of days, with a kind of relish that puzzled and distressed Ibn Rushd.

And further on:

For what the living call life is a worthless triviality when compared to the life to come.

There are fundamentalist Christians who also believe this, making Ibn Rushd’s puzzlement relevant to more than just Muslim. As Ibn Rushd complains to the good jinn Dunia, Ghazali

believes that God has set out to destroy his creation, slowly, enigmatically, without explanation; to confuse Man into destroying himself. Ghazali faces that prospect with equanimity, and not only because he himself is already dead. For him, life on earth is just an anteroom, or a doorway. Eternity is the real world.

It so happens that Ghazali has released a dark jinn from a bottle and told him to instill fear in humans, thereby bringing them to God:

“Teach them,” Ghazali said, “Teach them the tongue of the divine Just-Is. The instruction should be intensive, severe, even, one could say, fearsome. Remember what I told you about fear. Fear is man’s fate. Man is born afraid, of the dark, of the unknown, of strangers of failure, and of women. Fear leads him towards faith, not as a cure for fear, but as an acceptance that the fear of God is the natural and proper condition of man’s lot. Teach them to fear the improper use of words. There is no crime the Almighty finds more unforgivable.”

“I can do that,” said Zummurud the Great. “They’ll be speaking my way soon enough.”

“Not yours,” Ghazali corrected him, but only mildly. When one was dealing with a Grand Ifrit one had to make certain allowances for his vast egotism.

Zummurud will not be the last Ghazali descendant to set himself up in place of God. In fact, the terror he, in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups, would horrify Ghazali:

As Ghazali would soon discover, however, sending the most potent of the dark jinn down the path of extreme violence could have results that alarmed the sender. The student soon surpassed the master.

Ibn Rushd is given one last chance for a counterargument:

The enemy is stupid. That is ground for hope. There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.

Philosophy does not get the last word in this novel, however. Though the good jinn Dunia (“the World”) once loved Ibn Rushd, in the end she opts for Geronimo the gardener, who resists the human urge to go flying off into abstractions and ideologies and finds a way to keep his feet planted on the ground. This is a metaphor that becomes literal in Rushdie’s fantasy, as, under the onslaught of the dark jinn, much of the human race suddenly find themselves floating upward.

Geronimo (originally Hieronymus in India but it becomes Americanized) helps Dunia thwart the forces of fanaticism. The jinn who fell in love with Ibn Rushd’s mind also finds that she loves humans’ love for the earth.

When I think of the earth vs. abstraction battle, I am reminded of Robert Frost’s poem about climbing birches:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

With her grounded forces, Dunia leads the charge against jinn fanatics and wins the day for humanity. This is the battle that Rushdie himself has been fighting in book after book, earning a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for writing Satanic Verses. With his earthy, carnivalesque fiction, the Indian author refuses to fit neatly into any ideology. We read him to keep ourselves grounded.

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Remembering Rachel: Joyous, Pulsing

Author Rachel Kranz


Tomorrow my son Darien and I will drive up to New York to attend the memorial service of my dear friend Rachel Kranz, whom Darien grew up thinking of as an aunt. I have been asked to deliver remarks at the occasion and decided to talk about Rachel’s two novels, one published and one unfinished. Here is what I plan to say.

While I have many, many memories of Rachel, going all the way back to when she walked into the Carleton College newspaper office in September, 1971, I will use my time to honor her the way that I honor the writers I teach in my literature classes—which is to say, using their works as windows into the soul.

Of all the identities that Rachel claimed for herself, first and foremost she thought of herself as a novelist. This may seem strange to outsiders since, of the scores of books that have her name attached to them, only three were novels. One went unpublished, one was Leaps of Faith, and one was the unfinished Mastery. Some of us who were reading early versions of Mastery thought it would be a masterpiece.

I first look back at Leaps of Faith, published by Farrar Straus in 2000. If every character in a novel represents some dimension of the author, then Rachel is the psychic reader Warren, the actor Flip, the experimental theater director Ellen, and the union organizer Rosie. Flip and Warren are trying to make a relationship work at the same time that Flip is pursuing an acting career and Warren is fathering a biracial niece that his mentally unstable sister has dumped on him. Ellen, meanwhile, fights insecurities as she deals with temperamental actors, and Rosie strives to do the impossible, which is unionize workers at a Manhattan university—which we know, from Rachel’s own unionizing work, to be Columbia. In other words, they are juggling multiple balls and trying to do so with integrity, even as the world confronts them with work demands, social, racial, and economic inequities, and relationship challenges.

The novel is alternately brilliant and rambling as Rachel strives to do justice to life’s complications, including her own complicated balancing act of writing, ghostwriting, activism, theater, poker playing, health maintenance, and family and friends. Of all literary genres, the novel is best suited for such variety. In Leaps of Faith, no character receives anything less than her full attention, her full intelligence, and her full honesty, which is how she always was with those gathered here. The “leaps of faith” in the title reflect her abiding belief that, even when all the odds seem stacked against you, we must keep fighting because the unexpected can happen. Flip finds acting jobs, Flip and Warren get married, Warren bonds with his niece, Ellen pulls off her play, and Rosie, like the Columbia unionizers, improbably succeeds.

I find Mastery to be an even more personal work, partly because Rachel wrestles so earnestly with what it means to care deeply for a world that perpetuates oppression and cruelty. At one point Rachel realized she was following Hamlet’s plot and his lament, “The time is out of joint. Oh cursèd spite/That ever I was born to set it right.” Both Hamlet and Warren are guided by ghosts.

Although Mastery would probably have been as lengthy as Leaps of Faith, if not longer, it has a tighter structure. Warren, the character with whom Rachel most identifies, finds himself visited by figures from America’s slave past. He figures out that the visitations are somehow connected with his family’s wealth, and the novel becomes a mystery, with Warren embarking on a journey to discover the source of the inheritance.

The mystery structure allows Rachel to explore the legacy of slavery and the way that we continue to be impacted by it, whether as black victims or white beneficiaries. In certain respects, the novel resembles Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which Rachel considered one of America’s greatest novels.

Warren’s research takes him back to a particularly dark time, the year 1859, when anti-slavery efforts were splintering and it appeared that human bondage would never end. In other words, it was a year when Rachel’s faith in social activism would have been tested to the max. We meet a wide variety of characters, including a northern abolitionist who goes south to investigate slavery; two homosexual slave traders; an Irish clerk who has a feel for money; a black slave owner and his mulatto slave; and others. Some of these figures reach through time to speak to Warren.

Rachel had almost completed the first three parts of her novel, which conclude with Warren figuring out the crime that has led to the visitations. Or perhaps he hasn’t, Warren doesn’t know for sure. He does, however, have a much better understanding of how slavery operated and how this history continues to impact us.

If Mastery were only a mystery, then it could end there. But Rachel insisted that it have a fourth part, in which Warren explores what to do with all the knowledge he has gathered. Historical mysteries involve people observing the past, and Rachel was not content to observe. She wanted to know how we can enter history.

Part IV, which runs to 46 singled-spaced type pages, doesn’t yield ready answers, which frustrated Rachel no end. By tracing the slave trade backward—from New Orleans to Jamaica to Senegal—Warren wants to learn how people resisted. Perhaps they can tell him what he himself should do. Unfortunately, the answers are indefinite.

Through it all, Warren feels the pain of the past. Or at least he does so until he decides to wash his hands of history. This is where I feel most in touch with the essential Rachel. Warren’s pain was Rachel’s pain. She was so distressed by injustice, felt it so deep in her bones, that it weighed her down. When Warren fantasizes about being free of these responsibilities, even if it means giving up his psychic powers, I imagine Rachel thinking the same. Indeed, we viscerally experience Warren’s relief when he loses his power and is freed from the painful visitations. As he sees it, he has gained mastery over his emotions.

But that freedom and that mastery represent an existential death. If Warren were to cut himself off from history, he would betray his best self. Therefore, in the concluding paragraphs, he acknowledges his link to history. Once he does so, the psychic connection comes back, as does all of humanity’s suffering. For Rachel, there was no other choice.

The novel’s ending dazzles me the way that The Great Gatsby’s ending dazzles me. When Warren is invited to give up his name in these final lines, he is being asked to deny history and his connection to it. This he cannot do any more that Rachel could do it:

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—

Rachel insisted on experiencing that living world in all its many guises. However hot it burned, she needed to be in the flames. We loved her for her passionate engagement and find that, with her gone, the fire burns less bright.

We owe it to her to keep the fire going.

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D. H. Lawrence: People in Thrall to Things

Wilson as 1920s American expat in”Midnight in Paris”


My colleague Ben Click alerted me to the D. H. Lawrence short story “Things” recently when I was talking about what to take into retirement. The 1928 story is a somewhat nasty account of two American idealists who romantically venture off to Europe and then, disillusioned, return to America with less money but a whole lot of stuff. As I try to figure out what to do with our own stuff, the story struck a chord.

Lawrence sets European culture against American materialism, and no one comes out very well. As their stay in Italy lengthens, Erasmus and Valerie Melville discover that their acquisitions undergo a diminishment:

[I]n the long hours after lunch; and in the long, usually very cold and oppressive evenings in the ancient palazzo: then the halo died from around the furniture, and the things became things, lumps of matter that just stood there or hung there, ad infinitum, and said nothing; and Valerie and Erasmus almost hated them. The glow of beauty, like every other glow, dies down unless it is fed. The idealists still dearly loved their things. But they had got them. And the sad fact is, things that glow vividly while you’re getting them go almost quite cold after a year or two.

Nevertheless, they can’t bear to part with a single item when they return to New York. After all, these “things” are a sign of cultural sophistication, a distant echo of the rich interior life they envisioned for themselves. Self-doubt creeps in, as does the practical matter of storage:

 The chunk of Europe which they had bitten off went into a warehouse, at fifty dollars a month. And they sat in two small rooms and a kitchenette, and wondered why they’d done it.

Occasionally, for two dollars, they spend “a brief, bitter hour [looking] at their “things.” Burdensome though their possessions have become, the couple can’t bear to part with them:

[Valerie] could have sold her furniture for a substantial sum. But nothing would have induced her to. Whatever else passed away — religions, cultures, continents, and hopes — Valerie would NEVER part from the “things” which she and Erasmus had collected with such passion. To these she was nailed.

The story ends on a sardonic note that we can see coming from the very first sentence. Erasmus settles for a job teaching Spanish, Italian and French literature at Cleveland University, and Valerie is able to restore the halo their “things” by showing them off to smitten Americans. It’s a bit like Humbert Humbert impressing Charlotte Haze and her small New England town with his European ways, and the couple ups the snobbery ante by pretending to be above snobbery:

And when they were in their up-to-date little house on the college lot of Cleveland University, and that woe-begone débris of Europe — Bologna cupboard, Venice book-shelves, Ravenna bishop’s chair, Louis Quinze side-tables, “Chartres” curtains, Siena bronze lamps — all were arrayed, and all looked perfectly out of keeping, and therefore very impressive; and when the idealists had had a bunch of gaping people in, and Erasmus had showed off in his best European manner, but still quite cordial and American, and Valerie had been most ladylike, but for all that “we prefer America”; then Erasmus said, looking at her with the queer sharp eyes of a rat:—

“Europe’s the mayonnaise all right, but America supplies the good old lobster — what?”

“Every time!” she said, with satisfaction.

The “what” gives away Erasmus, whom I would not want for a professor. Literature for him, I suspect, is just another possession to show off and feel superior about, which is why he takes on “a queer, evil, scholastic look, of pure skepticism.” This would not be occurring if he were guiding his students into the rich pathways that literature opens up.

But returning to the subject of my own things, should I be more ruthless as I cull through them. Should I apply a halo test, where an item either glows or it goes? How much do we need “things” to anchor cherished memories?

I’m still trying to figure this one out.

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Jane Austen Explains Mansplaining

Feild, Jones in “Northanger Abbey”


Literary Hub‘s Kelly Coyne recently had a useful article about Jane Austen’s criticism of mansplaining that reminded me of a senior project that student Carolyn Zerhusen wrote under my guidance several years ago. Carolyn described Austen’s fury at inferior male authors who looked down on her. Coyne holds up Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney as Exhibit A.

She examines the scene where Tilney scolds Catherine Morland for suspecting that his father murdered his mother:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

Coyne notes that

Henry’s lecture fits within a tradition of Austen criticism that Eve Sedgwick calls the spectacle of “Girl Being Taught a Lesson,” in which a heroine is put in her place by the male lecturer. 

Coyne then quotes one of the women who introduced the concept of mansplaining. In her essay “Men Explain It to Me,” Rebecca Solnit recounts a parallel incident:

When [Solnit] was young, she had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One family event, the physicist recounted, “as though it were a light and amusing” story, “how a neighbor’s wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her.” Solnit asks the physicist how he knew that the husband wasn’t trying to kill his wife. Of course, his explanation is just like Henry’s. The husband wouldn’t kill her, he explains gently, because “they were respectable middle-class people.” Thus “it was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her.” It’s a frightening story, but one that repeats itself again and again.

Mansplaining, Coyne explains, can undermine a woman’s instincts and cause her to doubt her intuition. In Catherine’s case, she is right that something is amiss, even though the general hasn’t in fact killed his wife. He has been a tyrannical husband, however, and he shows his true character when he unceremoniously kicks Catherine out of Northanger Abbey upon learnining that she has less of a fortune than he thought.. Catherine’s familiarity with gothic villains hasn’t entirely led her astray.

We have early indications that Henry Tilney is a mansplainer. At one point, for instance, we learn that he is attracted to Catherine because he can explain things to her: Austen wryly explains how this works:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Austen goes on to say that “to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms,” and she shows how Catherine’s naiveté feeds Henry’s vanity:

But Catherine did not know her own advantages—did not know that a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. 

I’d like to mount a partial defense of Tilney, however, who after all is the most sensitive of all Austen’s leading men. For one thing, he allows his sister to chastise him after he calls out Catherine for using the word “nice”:

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

In other words, although guilty of mansplaining, Tilney is also open to correction. With this in mind, we should revisit his later scolding of Catherine. I pick up uncharacteristic defensiveness in his reference to “every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.” Perhaps the general’s harsh treatment of his mother became a subject for neighborhood gossip and Tilney felt ashamed, especially since he felt powerless to protect her. Thus, when Catherine sees to the core of the general, he feels once again exposed and lashes out. His father more than Catherine is the real subject of his anger. In any event, he makes it up to her by braving his father’s wrath and coming to see her after she is kicked out of the house.

Mansplaining has its roots in male insecurity, which is why feminism, in this as in so many areas, liberates men as well as women. If men don’t feel pressured to come across as superior know-it-alls, they can have genuine conversations with women. Everyone benefits.

Further thoughts: In her article, Coyne fails to distinguish between sensitive and insensitive mansplainers. Austen’s novels are filled with egregious examples of the latter: John Thorpe, for instance, and Mr. Collins. For a counter example, Captain Harville in Persuasion catches himself in the act of mansplaining, which in turn leads to a powerful feminist insight. He and Anne Elliot are arguing about women’s constancy:

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

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

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Caught in a Town’s Suffocating Embrace

One Hundred Years of Solitude


I recently received a fascinating 100 Years of Solitude essay from a student in my Magical Realism class. When Faith Wallace, who grew up in rural Maryland, read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, she recognized a familiar dilemma. Picturesque though the town of Macondo may be, it becomes a trap for those raised in it.

To explain her response to the novel, Faith talked about having had a fiancé who had their whole life planned for them. They would never leave the southern part of the state where they grew up but would have a family there and be content. Attending St. Mary’s College opened Faith’s eyes to the larger world. Ultimately, she chose to break off the engagement and explore that world and her own potential within it.

When discussing her essay with her, I recommended that Faith also read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where the protagonist, who like Faith has recently lost a mother, turns to marriage for its comfort and security.  Her best friend describes the house into which Dellarobia moves as a roach motel: once one enters, one never leaves. College, however, provides an escape route for Dellarobia, as it has for Faith.

In 100 Years, the fear of being locked in a community’s suffocating embrace appears in the matriarch’s fears of incest. When Ursula marries her cousin Jose Arcadio Buendia. she fears that they will have a child with a pig’s tail and resists having sex with him until he kills a neighbor for questioning his manhood. They flee together into the Amazon rain forest and found the town of Macondo.

Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss says the incest taboo is universal, not so much because of potential genetic deformities as because of the very real danger that the community will fragment into individual families. The fact that 100 Years ends with a pig-tailed baby and the collapse of the Buendia house graphically makes the point. “Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude,” Garcia Marquez solemnly intones in the novel’s final sentence, “[do] not have a second opportunity on earth.”

In her essay, Faith reported on an insulting southern Maryland slur that captures this symbolism. Those who confine themselves to St. Mary’s County are sometimes called SMIBs, an acronym for “Southern Maryland Inbred.” Whether or not actual instances of incest occur in our area, the acronym certainly signals the isolation–the solitude–that Faith feared for herself.

In her essay, Faith notes when the Buendias reach out beyond themselves and when they collapse inward. Ursula’s adopted daughter Rebeca, for instance, is set to marry dance instructor Pietro but marries instead Usula’s world-traveling son Jose Arcadio when he returns to Macondo. A horrified Ursula throws them out of the house, and when Jose Arcadio dies, Rebeca retreats into solitude.

Likewise, Ursula’s daughter Amaranta, next set to marry Pietro, instead falls in love with her nephew. Although she ultimately pulls away from him, she too retreats into solitude. In the Buendia household, those attracted to other Buendias up isolated from the rest of the world.

The drama repeats itself in the novel’s apocalyptic ending. Ursula Amaranta, Ursula’s great-great granddaughter, initially appears to have successfully left Macondo as she marries an interesting man and travels the world. Yet she obsesses about her childhood home and returns to restore it. Her husband, who has broad interests, finally becomes bored and leaves, after which Amaranta Ursula pairs up with her cousin. She thereupon gives birth to a child with a pig’s tale, who is eaten by red ants, while she herself dies of a hemorrhage. Her cousin is buried by a hurricane that the book describes as biblical.

I couldn’t very well counsel Faith to leave St. Mary’s County forever given that I myself am retiring to the town where I grew up. Ursula Amaranta’s mistake, however, is attempting to recreate her own childhood instead of finding a new life for herself. I don’t have that ambition, nor does Faith. Instead, she wants to discover the new woman who resides within her.

She couldn’t have chosen a better essay to end her college career, I told her.

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Filling Our Houses with Stuff

John R. Neill, Ozma about to be turned into bric-a-brac


We’re packing up our house to move and I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff we have accumulated over the years. We are disposing of boxes and boxes of bric-a-brac, a word I first encountered when reading Ozma of Oz as a child. L. Frank Baun’s third book in the Oz series captures how we become entrapped by “small articles commonly of ornamental or sentimental value” (Webster’s Dictionary).

In the novel, Oz’s new queen sets off to rescue the princess of Ev and her ten children, who have been sold to the Nome King by Ev’s king in exchange for a long life. The underground monarch turns them all into bric-a-brac and gives Ozma a choice: with eleven guesses she can either identify them or become bric-a-brac herself.

Ozma and her followers proceed to be added to the Nome king’s collection. Fortunately, Billina the hen overhears the king’s color coding system (purple for the Ev family, green for the Oz characters, etc.) and is able to free everyone.

Thematically, Baum may be criticizing early 20th century materialism. The Nome King runs an industrial empire that produces immense wealth, and the end result is rooms filled with bric-a-brac:

[Ozma] found herself in a splendid hall that was more beautiful and grand than anything she had ever beheld. The ceilings were composed of great arches that rose far above her head, and all the walls and floors were of polished marble exquisitely tinted in many colors. Thick velvet carpets were on the floor and heavy silken draperies covered the arches leading to the various rooms of the palace. The furniture was made of rare old woods richly carved and covered with delicate satins, and the entire palace was lighted by a mysterious rosy glow that seemed to come from no particular place but flooded each apartment with its soft and pleasing radiance.

Ozma passed from one room to another, greatly delighted by all she saw. The lovely palace had no other occupant, for the Nome King had left her at the entrance, which closed behind her, and in all the magnificent rooms there appeared to be no other person.

Upon the mantels, and on many shelves and brackets and tables, were clustered ornaments of every description, seemingly made out of all sorts of metals, glass, china, stones and marbles. There were vases, and figures of men and animals, and graven platters and bowls, and mosaics of precious gems, and many other things. Pictures, too, were on the walls, and the underground palace was quite a museum of rare and curious and costly objects.

For all his magnificence, the Nome King lacks taste. In their 1897 book The Decoration of Houses, which appeared ten years before Ozma of Oz, Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman, Jr. discussed the need to limit one’s bric-a-brac for fear that it will cover up the elegant lines of a house. Questioning whether beauty can be achieved by “the indiscriminate amassing of “ornaments,’” the authors go on to conclude,

Decorators know how much the simplicity and dignity of a good room are diminished by crowding it with useless trifles. Their absence improves even bad rooms, or makes them at least less multitudinously bad. It is surprising to note how the removal of an accumulation of knick-knacks will free the architectural lines and restore the furniture to its rightful relation with the walls.

I am here to testify that removing bric-a-brac from a house does indeed restore architectural lines. Not that the architectural lines in our cookie cutter house are all that interesting. Nevertheless, I’m realizing the degree to which bric-a-brac, even bric-a-brac that has personal meaning, clutter up our spaces.

In Wharton’s and Codman’s eyes, accumulating bric-a-brac indicates vulgarity. Especially bad is when the bric-a-brac is expensive:

The one-dollar china pug is less harmful than an expensive onyx lamp-stand with moulded bronze mountings dipped in liquid gilding. It is one of the misfortunes of the present time that the most preposterously bad things often possess the powerful allurement of being expensive. One might think it an advantage that they are not within every one’s reach; but, as a matter of fact, it is their very unattainableness which, by making them more desirable, leads to the production of that worst curse of modern civilization—cheap copies of costly horrors.

Wharton wrote her book at the same time that Thorstein Veblen was writing The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” America was well on its way to becoming a modern consumer society, and people used bric-a-brac to persuade themselves they had achieved middle class status.

As I sort through our worldly possession, I am reminded how enmeshed I am in consumer society. How much more money would Julia and I have had for, say, travel or charity had we not spent it on all this stuff?

Recall that, in Ozma of Oz, Ev’s royal family becomes bric-a-brac because the king fails to value what is most important. Ultimately, he experiences remorse and leaps into the sea. Ozma, by contrast, prioritizes people over things. It’s a lesson we must keep teaching ourselves.

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You Must Sit Down, Says Love

Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet”

Spiritual Sunday

Like many people, I love the 23rd psalm above all other psalms, and it has inspired some of the most gorgeous hymns in the Episcopalian hymnal. As the psalm is part of today’s liturgy, I am eager to learn which of those hymns we will be singing.

The 23rd psalm also provides the foundational image for one of George Herbert’s most beloved poems. In Psalmist confidently declares, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” and although Herbert’s anxiious speaker is far less assured, the table is prepared for him all the same:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

In church today, I will attempt to open myself up and allow myself to be served.

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Comey vs. Trump, Two Alpha Dogs


I must confess to having very mixed feelings about former FBI head James Comey as he goes around country promoting his book. On the one hand, I agree with Vox’s Matt Yglesias that we are in desperate need of public officials standing up for the rule of law. It takes courage to argue against the president for institutional independence and autonomy, and Comey got fired when he did so. On the other hand, Comey flouting FBI protocol is a big reason why Donald Trump is president.

Comey’s battle with Trump reminds me of Milkman’s battle with his father in Song of Solomon. Toni Morrison’s protagonist has right on his side when he defends his mother, but he also operates out of a male sense of entitlement.

The scene occurs when Macon Dead hits his wife. For the first time in his life, Milkman pushes back:

Macon didn’t wait to put his fork down. He dropped it on the table while his hand was on its way across the bread plate becoming the fist he smashed into her jaw.

…Before his father could draw his hand back, Milkman had yanked him by the back of his coat collar, up out of his chair, and knocked him into the radiator. The window shade flapped and rolled itself up.

“You touch her again, one more time, and I’ll kill you.”

The moment marks a turning point in their relationship. Milkman later learns, however, that his much put-upon sister Lena is not impressed. For years she has resented how her brother receives preferential treatment while she and the other Dead daughter must live narrow lives. Pointing out that Milkman accepts female caretaking as his due, she unleashes a bitter tirade:

“Where do you get the right to decide our lives?”

“Lena, cool it. I don’t want to hear it.”

“I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs. Well, let me tell you something, baby brother. You will need more than that….You are exactly like [our father]. Exactly. I didn’t go to college because of him. Because I was afraid of what he might do to Mama. You think because you hit him once that we all believe you were protecting her. Taking her side. It’s a lie. You were taking over, letting us know you had the right to tell her and all of us what to do.”

When Comey determined that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server didn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense (“no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case”), he should have let the Attorney General handle the matter. Instead, ignoring the direction of Loretta Lynch, he publicly scolded Clinton, even while absolving her. Then, a month before the election, he publicly mentioned finding new e-mails, which turned out to be old-e-mails. Nate Silver of 538, among others, believes the FBI raising new doubts about Clinton was the difference maker in a close election.

In other words, Comey used Clinton as a foil, beating up on her to establish himself as a noble warrior for truth. I can’t imagine him having done the same with, say, Colin Powell, Clinton’s predecessor, who also used a private e-mail server. As Huffington Post explains,

Here’s the thing: the Clinton investigation wasn’t an ordinary investigation, and that’s precisely why Comey should have shut up about it. He’s admitting that his July 2016 decision to publicly criticize Clinton was against FBI protocol. There’s policy in place to prevent FBI directors from doing things like making public statements or taking action that could directly affect an election, because the FBI director could have undue influence. Comey apparently felt that those rules didn’t apply to him.

As it turns out, he did follow protocol in the FBI’s investigation of Russian influence—set in motion by George Papadopoulos’s big mouth—which we heard about only after the election. The FBI investigations are supposed to be quiet until there’s a report, at which point the attorney general decides what to do. We know now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened to accuse President Obama of election interference if he informed America of Russia’s attacks.

I think Comey is genuinely concerned about Trump’s assault on the rule of law and that, as Yglesias observes, anything else is secondary—just as Milkman’s defense of his mother takes priority over all else. And of course Trump, who believes the DOJ should function as his personal enforcers, is male entitlement personified.

But look at Comey through Lena’s eyes. He thought he knew better than a female attorney general how to handle a report on a female candidate. His comeuppance occurred after Trump was elected and he learned he was expected to be one of the president’s loyal flunkies. His male pride was offended as much as his sense of justice.

Further note: Jennifer Palmieri in a Politico article sums up James Comey’s intervention as succinctly as anyone:

His July 5th press conference, in which he appointed himself Hillary Clinton’s investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, was his original sin. 

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Food Is More Than Food for Esquivel


I’ve been teaching Like Water for Chocolate in my Magical Realism course and suddenly have a new insight into the whiskey cake that I have been serving to my students since the early 1980s. Laura Esquivel makes it clear that food is never just food.

One of my mother’s prized recipes has been her whiskey cake, and at the end of every class I serve it to my students. I figure that, by now, over 3000 students have eaten it. My mother gave me the recipe on condition that I not share it, but I now have permission to give it out and am doing so left and right. Most of the hundred copies I made up for my “last lecture” were taken, and I include it at the end of today’s post.

The college filmed me making the cake so, if you want, you can see the video here.

In Like Water for Chocolate, food has magical properties. When Tita, under her mother’s tyrannical orders, gives up Pedro to her sister, she cries into the wedding cake batter, ruining the wedding everyone eating it begins to cry. When she cooks quails in the petals from roses that Pedro gives her, the meal so inflames her other sister that erotic consequences follow, beginning with a shower that Gertrudis takes to cool down:

…the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body: they evaporated before they reached her. Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame. Terrified, she thought she would be burn to death, and she ran out of the little enclosure just as she was, completely naked.

By then the scent of roses given off by her body had traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in a fierce battle. …A pink cloud floated toward [the rebel commander], wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch.

And then:

Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away….The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies as they made love for the first time, at a gallop and with a great deal of difficulty.

On the other hand, when Tita is deprived of her beloved nephew, worms invade sausages that the farm has made. Later, ox-tail soup pulls Tita out of the deep depression into which she has fallen. And so on.

All literature uses figurative language, and in magical realism, the central symbols involve magic It’s as though realistic metaphors don’t give the authors the “oomph” they want so they turn to the supernatural. Food defines Tita, who is the family cook, and to capture her larger-than-life emotions Esquivel makes the food magical.

The other magical realist works I taught this past semester operate the same way. For instance:

–Toni Morrison sees African Americans haunted by their slave past, which wreaks havoc upon their relationships. Therefore, in Beloved the former slaves have their family destroyed by a literal ghost;

–Salman Rushdie believes that India was seized by magical thinking once it gained its independence from Britain. He captures its unrealistic hoping through magical children with special powers who never live up to their potential and who are neutered in the end;

–Gabriel Garcia Marquez feels that Columbia’s historical past has a mythical quality and so, in 100 Years of Solitude, he creates a magical town that is living out a destiny predicted by mystical gypsies;

–Haruki Murakami, seeing that Japan’s repression of its violent past is damaging the psychic lives of the current generation, has his protagonist go down a well and into a mysterious underground hotel, where he confronts a shadow version of Japan’s buried anger.

Esquivel’s novel got me to examine the symbolism of my whiskey cake. I bake it is partly to celebrate the works we have been reading, partly to thank my students for all they have taught me, partly to nourish their bodies as (I hope) I have nourished their minds and their souls.

Since most of my students are under drinking age, the cake has a transgressive dimension, as all great literature does,while its sweetness/tartness echoes the sweetness and light tension that (according to Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, and Jonathan Swift) also characterizes literature.

I can’t say that the cake has a magical dimension except insofar as it has assumed mythical dimensions in the mind of some alumni, the way that St. Mary’s itself has. I imagine my former students eating it as Proust eats his madeleine and being wafted back to what some describe as the happiest period of their lives:

[My mother] sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?

For that reason, I am sharing it, even as I think of an experience with a song fragment that Rousseau describes in Confessions. Rousseau couldn’t remember the entire verse but deliberately didn’t track it down because he figured it was far sweeter as a partial memory. Likewise, Proust discovers a second bite doesn’t live up to the first.

So perhaps alums should make the cake, take a single bite, and then give away the rest. In remembrance of times past.

Recipe for Phoebe Bates’s Whiskey Cake

Dirty secret: I cheat by using a cake mix although you of course can make it from scratch if you so desire.


1 yellow cake mix
4 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup whiskey (almost any brand works; I go cheap)
1 cup of chopped walnuts
1 cup of coconut flakes

For the glaze:

1 cup of sugar
1 stick of butter
½ cup of whiskey

–Mix together the mix, the eggs, the oil and the whiskey
–Add the chopped walnuts and mix
–Add the coconut flakes and mix
–Pour into a greased Bundt pan
–Bake at 350 for around 45 minutes
–Melt together the butter, sugar and whiskey
–Spoon over the cake, either while it’s still in the pan or (my preference) after removing it
–Refrigerate (ideally for 2-3 days but it’s good anytime)

Posted in Esquivel (Laura), Proust (Marcel), Rouseau (Jean Jacques) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Public Liberal Arts Education

My Early Brit Lit survey class


I’m not sure whether it’s common to give multiple presentations when one is on the verge of retirement, but such has been the case with me. I blogged Monday about my “last lecture,” and earlier this semester I spoke at our Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. I share the PBK talk below.

 A couple of explanations are in order. As a public liberal arts college and Maryland’s “public honors college,” St. Mary’s College of Maryland is an unusual institution. (Similar colleges include Evergreen in Washington and New College in Florida.) To explain to the inductees the unique vision they will carry with them into the world, I looked at the significance of combining “liberal arts” and “public.” How is St. Mary’s different from private liberal arts colleges such as Carleton, which I attended, and Sewanee, where my father taught?

My remarks, therefore, reach beyond college education to public education in general. The American Dream relies on even poor students having access to high quality education. With state appropriations declining, student college debt rising, income gaps growing, the Dream is under siege.

Phi Beta Kappa speech before the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Zeta Chapter, March 30, 2018

I explore today what it means to go out into the world with a degree from Maryland’s public honors college—its public liberal arts college–because I think that the education you have received here is special. Indeed, I will contend even more: your St. Mary’s College of Maryland education positions you well to fulfill the foundational ideals upon which our republic is based.

Looking at what you have received from your public liberal arts education requires looking at the public part and the liberal arts part. I turn to the liberal arts part first.

Those who study educational systems generally agree that the best undergraduate education in the world occurs at small liberal arts colleges. The liberal arts have long been championed by educators, going back to the trivium and quadrivium taught in medieval universities. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and in those disciplines we see the roots of our Core Curriculum’s four fundamental skills and our arts, humanities, social sciences, science, foreign language, and mathematics requirements.

For Phi Beta Kappa membership, furthermore, you must have demonstrated breadth of study as well as earned good grades. Looking at your records, I see that almost all of you have majored and minored in multiple areas, indicating your interdisciplinary interests.

Studies of America’s community, state, and national leaders, meanwhile, have discovered that disproportionately high numbers of them graduated from small liberal arts colleges. Given that, in any given year, the students attending these colleges could all fit into a large university’s football stadium, these results are astounding. Although books have been written about this subject, I will single out a recent study that Google conducted of its work force, as reported in The Washington Post. According to Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, Google’s founders originally targeted top computer science majors from elite universities as their ideal employees. An internal study, however, caused them to see things differently:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

You are well aware that liberal arts colleges specialize in these skills. Furthermore, your education makes you not only work-ready but world-ready. You have learned how to be a good person, a good partner, a good parent, a good community member, a good citizen and voter, and a good contributor to the global village. Your liberal arts courses and your campus activities will help you cope with adversity, prompt you to reach out to others, and generally guide you towards a more fulfilling life. After all, the faculty and staff have been listening to your passions and your concerns, teaching you how to solve problems, and coaching you to step into the strengths that we see in you.

Speaking as one who has mentored dozens of senior projects, I can say that every one of those projects has been a spiritual as well as an intellectual journey as you have grappled with the issues that you cared most about. The same has been true in my assigned essays: time after time I have seen you embrace the challenges presented by literature and find something meaningful in it. Your other professors report similar stories.

Now for the bad news. While small liberal arts colleges provide the best education, they are also the most expensive education. This should come as no surprise given how labor intensive it all is. I now turn my attention to the public subsidies that make the St. Mary’s vision possible.

When we became a four-year liberal arts college in 1970, our dream was that this superior education should be accessible to all Americans, not just those with economic advantages. The idea didn’t come from nowhere. According to the College’s website, in the very founding of the school as a high school women’s seminary in 1846, tuition and living costs were to be lower than they were at other such schools. After 1868, “the seminary frequently educated up to half of its students—representing every county of the state and each legislative district of Baltimore City—free of charge.”

It therefore makes sense that, when St. Mary’s became a four-year college in 1970, affordability would be key. St. Mary’s would be, as President Renwick Jackson said at the time, “a poor man’s Swarthmore.” Such a vision tapped into the ideal that all men and women are created equal—which is to say, all must have equal opportunity to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before I look at the challenges faced by such a model, let’s look at what you have learned at a school with this vision. First of all, you have attended a school that has a far greater range of economic, racial and ethnic diversity than even the wealthiest private liberal arts college can afford. Around 20% of our student are first generation college students and a slightly lower percentage are historically disadvantaged minority students. By way of contrast, I can report that when I attended Carleton College, a well-regarded small liberal arts school in Minnesota, it had only two farm kids, one of whom I married.

Such diversity brings with it special challenges. For instance, it’s easier to get along if everyone comes from the same demographic. St. Mary’s, however, has stepped up to that challenge. The St. Mary’s Way, our ethos of “St. Mary’s nice,” and the classes, workshops, and visiting speakers devoted to understanding and negotiating diversity, are key to our identity.

The process hasn’t always been easy as there has been racism, sexism, and homophobia, as you all well know. What has been hard, however, has also led to growth. Imagine taking your newly acquired life skills into workplaces where people feel overwhelmed by sex, race, class or ethnic tensions. You have the liberal arts education to understand what is going on and the real-life experiences to rise to the occasion.

As a result—and I can tell you this based on 37 years of watching St. Mary’s students go out into the world—someone will one day thank heaven that they hired you. And not only employers. Partners and community organizations will thank St. Mary’s as well.

Here’s one area where I have witnessed a St. Mary’s education in action. When St. Mary’s students undertake community service, it’s not as though they are issuing forth from gated communities to do charity work before retreating back into a walled existence. You undertake service because you know from firsthand experience how these communities have nourished you, and you want to return the favor. That’s why St. Mary’s turns out many of the best teachers in the state, many of the most idealistic political figures in Annapolis, and many of the most dedicated government workers in Washington, D.C. Having had your education partially paid for by the taxpayers, you repay with interest.

I conclude with a warning and a request. The public sector, including public education, has been under sustained attack since Ronald Reagan said, “The most terrifying nine words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” (That’s actually eleven words since contractions count as two but set that aside.) Public education will be slighted as the income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of society grows. State legislators will want to cut taxes rather than support students.

This doesn’t automatically mean a St. Mary’s education is inferior. It may look that way, however, since large endowments make private college look more attractive. As Jean Giraudoux writes satirically in his play The Madwoman of Chaillot,

Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.

Don’t be fooled. You have received here an invaluable education, even if sometimes everyone has had to work twice as hard to deliver it. If I had more time, I’d share many of the examples I have collected over the years of St. Mary’s students who have proved themselves just as good as those with private school educations, and you have a social conscience to boot. Never confuse the glitz of private wealth with quality while dismissing what is gained in the public sphere.

As you go out into the world, we are counting on you to advocate for the public liberal arts ideal. In doing so, you will honor what you yourselves have achieved while, at the same time, making this country a better place.

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The Dark Jinn Invade America


A while back, while writing about 100 Years of Solitude, I speculated that electing Donald Trump may have been a case of America choosing spectacle over technocratic reason. Who wants “no drama Obama” when we can get reality television every night?

I’m currently teaching Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and see that he has the same idea. In his fantasy novel, dark jinn have invaded earth and America’s rational president is at a loss. The president clearly is Obama:

In those days, the days of the strangenesses and the War of the Worlds that followed them, the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man,eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in aowrd and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who also thought of himself as a reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon), and color-blind. He was practical pragmatic, and had his feet firmly planted on the ground.

Then comes the kicker:

Consequently he was utterly incapable of responding appropriately to the challenge flung down by Zumurrud the Great, which was surreal, whimsical and monstrous.

Rushdie’s novel appeared in 2015, which was before the last election but not before Trump had become a hero in some quarters for his birth certificate conspiracies. Fan though he may be of Obama, Rushdie sees him out of his depth when confronted with rightwing fantasizing.

Rusdie’s novel is a reflection upon fantasizing, both good and bad. On the one hand, fantasies provide humans the colorful stories that we feed off of. But fantasies, in the hands of fanatics, can be destructive, and the invasion of the jinn resembles the excesses of the Muslim fanatics that Rushdie knows only too well. Consider the following passage, in which the narrator describes

cannibal jinn eating people’s faces in Miami, Florida; and executioner jinn parasites stoning women to death in desert places and suicide bomber jinn parasites allowing their host bodies to explode on army bases and then immediately possessing the nearest soldier and murdering more of his fellows in what was called an insider attack, which it was, but not in the conventional sense of the term; and crazed paramilitary jinn parasites in charge of tanks in eastern Europe, shooting passenger aircraft out of the sky…

In this last reference, Rushdie moves from Al-Qaeda and ISIS to to the Russian-backed Crimean insurgents who shot down a Malaysian airliner.

As Rushdie sees it, there are two strains of Islam. One emanates from the 13th century enlightenment philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who introduced the West to Aristotle and mathematics, and one traces back to Al-Ghazali, the 11th-century mystic philosopher who saw God as the cause of all things.. These two philosophers show up in the novel, locked in a centuries-long battle. Whereas Ibn Rushd thinks that Reason and love will ultimately prevail, Ghazali relies on fear. Having once trapped Zumurrud in a bottle, his one wish is that the jinn “instill fear” in humankind:

Only fear will move sinful Man towards God. Fear is a part of God, in the sense that it is that feeble creature Man’s appropriate response to the infinite power and punitive nature of the Almighty. One may say that fear is the echo of God, and wherever that echo is heard men fall to their knees and cry mercy. In some parts of the earth, God is already feared. Don’t bother about these regions. Go where Man’s pride is swollen, where Man believes himself to be godlike, lay waste his arsenals and fleshpots, his temples of technology, knowledge and wealth. Go also to those sentimental locations where it is said that God is love. Go and show them the truth.

While Rusdie’s jinn are not religious, they become entranced with theology and philosophy, which gives their power a certain shape. Dunia, a benevolent female jinn, falls in love with Ibn Rushd and spawns a race that, in the end, fight for Reason and love. Zumurrud, as we have seen, is entranced by Ghazali’s fear-inducing God and goes beyond what Ghazli intended, raining down chaos.

In Rushdie’s fantasy, the jinn are puppeteers manipulating humans. But they can do so only because there is already a dark craziness within humans:

Looking back, we tell ourselves this: the craziness unleashed upon our ancestors by the jinn was the craziness that also waited inside every human heart. We can blame the jinn, and we do, we do. But if we are honest we must blame human failings too.

The novel becomes an Avengers-type drama, where humans discover that they are the descendants of Ibn Rushd and Dunia and have the power, when they join forces, to fight back against the fear and hatred as the dark jinn. Zummurud is captured inside a bottle and deposited somewhere, maybe under Mount Everest or in the Marianna Trench. His defeat leads to a world “ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge, and restraint”:

Fear did not, finally, drive people into the arms of God. Instead, fear was overcome, and with its defeat men and women were able to set God aside, as boys and girls put down their childhood toys, or as young men and women leave their parents’ home to make new homes for themselves, elsewhere in the sun. For hundreds of years now this has been our good fortune, to inhabit…a peaceful, civilized world, or hard work and respect for the land. A gardener’s world, in which we all must cultivate our garden,  understanding that to do so is not a defeat, as it was for Voltaire’s poor Candide, but the victory of our better natures over the darkness within.

This peace, however, is achieved at the cost of dreaming. Obama and Hillary’s preference for reason-based reigns supreme once the wormholes between fairyland and earth are closed, but the narrator doesn’t sound altogether happy:

Mostly we are glad. Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.

Since the novel was published, that particular longing has been more than fulfilled. It’s as though Zummurud has escaped from his bottle and the dark jinn are once again wreaking havoc on the world. Be careful what you wish for.

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My “Last Lecture”

Peter O’Toole in “Goodbye Mr Chips”


On Friday my English colleagues staged a retirement ceremony for me that drew many students and former students, as well as other friends, faculty, staff, and (this was a complete surprise) my two sons and my grandson. I also received many wonderful notes from those who could not attend. I felt affirmed to the depths of my being and spent much of the night in tears.

My colleagues also indulged me by letting me deliver a “last lecture,” even though my chair Christine Wooley observed that I was known more for listening to people than lecturing.  It was a lovely thing to say—indeed, I am endlessly fascinated by other people’s experiences with literature—but before I retired I wanted to share what I have been discovering about literature’s impact on readers. The talk was entitled “Unacknowledged Legislators: How Poets Change History.”

Regular readers of this blog have heard much of this before, but I post the lecture here for those who were unable to come.

When my colleagues asked me what I wanted by way of a send-off, I told them I wanted to give a last lecture. I don’t know how this appears to you, but it reminded me of a joke that a professor from the German University of Konstanz told against himself. It goes like this:

A plane full of literature professors is hijacked and, to show that they mean business, the hijackers decide to throw three of the professors out of the plane. They choose a Brit, a German, and an American. Before they throw them out, they grant each of them one last wish.

The Brit says he wants a spot of tea. The German says he wants to deliver one last lecture. The American says, “I want to be thrown out of the plane before the German delivers his lecture!”

So perhaps this desire to deliver a last lecture can be traced back to my mother’s Strehlow and Jobst heritage. But rest assured: unlike the lecturer in the plane, I’m going to make it short.

The phrase “Unacknowledged Legislators” is from Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in which he argues that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Shelley believes that poets have been far more instrumental in world history than people who have been given far more credit. Thus the “unacknowledged.” Shelley writes,

[I]t exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.

Let’s look for a moment at what Shelley includes amongst poetry’s achievements. As he sees it, poetry played a major role in what he sees as history’s two most important developments—the liberation of women and the ending of slavery. In the case of female liberation, Shelley mentions Dante’s depiction of Beatrice, which he credits for helping change the way that women are viewed.

 Whether you agree with this particular example or not, it is the case that people have been crediting literature with a great deal of power for a long time. Sometimes they have celebrated this power and sometimes, as in the case of Plato, they have feared it and wished to see it corralled. My life’s quest—one that I had even before I knew that it was a quest—has been to figure out whether literature really does possess such power. Does literature have a significant impact on human events? I share today a little window into my research.

First of all, it’s useful to specify what I mean by literature and by poetry. The aspect of literature which has both enthralled and frightened thinkers throughout the ages is its ability to pull us into its world. Think of when you have been so immersed in a novel that it seemed more real to you than the world around you.  That’s the dimension of literature that convinced Plato that The Odyssey should not be allowed into his ideal republic. Plato himself was so freaked out by the vivid scenes of Odysseus in the underworld that he feared young men would turn cowards on the battlefield for fear of ending up in this such a place. He also found Odysseus’s praise of banqueting so vivid that he feared that young men would be seduced into banqueting themselves rather than subject themselves to stern discipline. So no Homer in Plato’s perfect society.

If poetry’s emotional power terrified Plato, it enthralled Aristotle. He was amazed at the catharsis that a well-constructed drama could induce in spectators. Aristotle didn’t go much beyond individual reactions to literature, but he gave future thinkers the grounds to argue that poetry has an impact.

For instance, the Roman thinker Horace believed that poetry could be a powerful force for moral good. Great poetry, he said, both delights and instructs, and we are more likely to follow poetry’s moral advice if we are entertained in the process. Sir Philip Sidney would later compare this to taking medicine with cherries.

Sidney, who as a warrior, courtier and poet was the living embodiment of the Renaissance man, made very strong claims for poetry. He said that poetry causes us to be more virtuous people. Then he broke poetry down into its different genres, with each kind of poetry teaching virtue in a different way. For instance, comic satire makes us ashamed of certain behaviors while heroic poetry lifts us up and makes us—well—more heroic. For instance, he talks glowingly of Virgil’s describing Aeneas carrying his father out of burning Troy.

Look at the discussion so far: everyone I’ve mentioned agrees that literature is so powerful that it can move people to action. The disagreement is whether it necessarily leads people to good action (Horace, Sidney, and perhaps Aristotle) or whether it leads people to bad action (Plato). This split has continued ever since.  Samuel Johnson, sounding like Plato, was worried that novels like Tom Jones would turn young men into libertines. He therefore saw the need for critic educators, who would intervene and steer young people to beneficial reading and away from improper reading. The German parents of teenagers reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther agreed, fearing that the novel would lead them to become overly emotional and even to commit suicide, as Werther does. Jane Austen may have loved the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe but, in Northanger Abbey, she also sees them having a harmful effect.

Today there are parents, churches and school systems today who still fear the impact that novels will have on young people. Works that have been banned include Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s books, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Harry Potter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Golden Compass, and, in the St. Mary’s County school system, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In those cases, as with Tom Jones, Sorrows of Werther, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, parents are afraid that immersion will lead to changed behavior.

In the 19th century, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold thought that this power could be harnessed for what he saw as social good. Worried about the rise of the working class, Arnold believed that religion had lost its ability to keep the lower classes in their place, and he turned to literature as a replacement, arguing that English literature should be taught in worker schools. As Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton puts it, by throwing the working class a few novels, Arnold hoped that they wouldn’t throw up any barricades.

A poet with the opposite politics was Bertolt Brecht, who agreed with Trostsky that art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to change it. Brecht’s plays were designed to challenge people’s middle-class assumptions and have them think in revolutionary ways.

Arnold and Brecht began the practice of analyzing art from a political point of view. Arnold would not, for instance, have wanted the working class reading Shelley’s revolutionary poem “Men of England,” and Brecht had a lot of nasty things to say about 19th century bourgeois melodrama.

Political discussions of art became even more heated when taken up groups that have been oppressed. African American thinker W. E. B. Du Bois, for instance, argued that “all art is propaganda,” by which he meant that literature is full of demeaning images of people of color. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe provided a powerful example in his attack on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, pointing out that Conrad portrays Africans as no more than a howling mob. Conrad’s work perpetuates stereotypes, Achebe said, and is more dangerous for being a great work.

Feminists like Rachel Blau DuPlessis, meanwhile, pointed out how dangerous the marriage plot is, even in the hands of geniuses like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Such novels threaten to convince women that their only future lies in marriage. In her book on the subject, DuPlessis wants contemporary novelists to write new kinds of novels that will present women with other options.

Finally, bringing my discussion up to the present, there are thinkers like philosopher Martha Nussbaum and literary scholar Wayne Booth who believe that literature has the power to make us better citizens and better voters because they teach us to enter into the experiences of people unlike ourselves and to empathize with them. Literature does this better than practically any other activity, Nussbaum believes.

So what do I believe? I’m certainly with Nussbaum and Booth in believing that literature opens our minds and that an open mind is critical is negotiating an increasingly complex world. But my favorite theorist is Shelley, perhaps because he thinks in such a wide arc. Shelley believes that literature taps into humans’ deepest longing, which is to fulfill their potential. The great artistic works have been doing this from the beginning, giving us characters, narratives and images that go deep into what it means to be human. The writers themselves may be time-bound people with local prejudices but their work transcends them. For instance, while Chaucer probably had medieval prejudices about women, in the Wife of Bath he created a woman that we can identify with today. Or to cite another example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night anticipated, by over 400 years, truths about trans men and women that we are only now arriving at. Once a literary work puts the full truth of human complexity into the world, it has an impact.

But perhaps not right away. Shelley said that sometimes history takes hundreds of years to catch up with artistic insights. The good news, however, is that, ultimately, the arc of history bends towards human liberation.

Here’s a specific example, although one with a shorter time line. When Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre first appeared in 1847, many read it as a traditional romance, what with its “Reader, I married him” conclusion. But certain readers also noticed Jane’s fierce desire for freedom and independence. It was an important novel for unionizing governesses in the 19th century as they fought against low pay and sexual harassment. Then the suffragette movement adopted it at the turn of the century. Then it provided the key image—the madwoman in the attic—for 1970s feminism.

So think of yourselves as part of this march of history. It doesn’t matter that you are an individual reader. Literature has always changed history one reader at a time. If Shelley is right that Dante set us on the road to women’s liberation, then it occurred by one person reading the Divine Comedy and then another and then another.

To bring the process close to home, let me conclude by sharing one reading experience that made a difference in my life, one which hopefully will get you reflecting upon your own reading experiences.

I was raised in segregated Tennessee in the 1950s and, in 1961, was the plaintiff in a landmark civil rights case where four black families and four white families sued the Franklin County Board of Education on behalf of their children. We were being denied our right to attend integrated schools under Brown v. Education, the suit contended. I can report that it was difficult for me going through that—not as difficult as it was for the African American children but it’s still not easy being called an n—lover—but I had a work of literature that sustained me.

My father had read me and my brothers Huckleberry Finn and I went straight to the most famous scene in the novel, the one where Huck declares that he will save his friend Jim even if it means going to hell. Although I was only in sixth grade, I got what it meant to make a principled stand, even when everyone around is believing and saying something different. It meant that, when we won the suit and had Ronnie Staten in class the next year, I made a special effort to reach out to him. Those experiences are at the foundation of my lifelong commitment to social justice. That was Huckleberry Finn working on this reader.

I know many of you have comparable stories, and one of the blessings of my being an English teacher is that many of you have shared reading experiences with me over the past 37 years. I see myself as a collector of reader stories, some of which I share on my blog and most of which I remember. Hearing your stories never gets old and has kept my teaching fresh. I’m going to miss you all very, very much.

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When Science Clips an Angel’s Wings

Joseph Wright of Derby, “Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”

Spiritual Sunday

I received a superb essay on science, religion and poetry from one of the applicants for our Slovenian exchange program and got her permission to cite it in my blog. Zarja Gošnik (pronounced Zaria Goshnik) is fascinated by how John Keats and Edgar Allan Poe saw the practice of science as leeching wonder from the world and draws on scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins to argue back. I’m less convinced by Dawkins than Zarja is, but it’s a discussion worth having.

Zarja begins her essay with Poe’s sonnet “To Science” and follows it up with an excerpt from Keats’s Lamia. Poe compares science to a vulture “whose wings are dull realities” and accuses it of having dragged “Diana from her car”—which is to say, the moon from her mysterious journey:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.

Meanwhile, Keats accuses science of unweaving the rainbow. Or as he says elsewhere, Isaac Newton reduced it “to the prismatic colors”:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Zarja counters these attacks on science by turning to Dawkins, who alludes to Keats’s observation in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. That Keats has Dawkins feeling defensive shows up as well in the title of his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder. Here is Zarja’s summation of Dawkins’s argument:

[Dawkins] attempts to show that mysteries don’t lose their poetry when solved, but rather that the solution is even more beautiful than the puzzle itself and that solving one mystery leads to uncovering others.

I’ll express my reservations about Dawkins in a moment after noting that I agree with Zarja’s conclusion that poetry and science should complement each other:

The appetite for wonder in itself is probably one of the more poetic aspects of human life, if not the most poetic. Today, many poets explore theories of physics, astronomy and nature, which are the most popular scientific fields for poets. The idea of scientists as poets has become common.


[Science and poetry] both address the big questions of life. Because they both focus on detail, neither of them can afford to be vague. In poetry, the attention may be on particular characteristics of people and feelings, while in science, the details may pertain to characteristics of objects and theories. It is reasonable to think that the two working together would account for a deeper understanding of the world. Keats’ rainbow is far more enchanting and poetic when “unweaved.”

One Romantic poet who agrees with Zarja is Percy Shelley, who kept abreast of the latest scientific developments and regarded Francis Bacon as a poet. Shelley used his scientific eye when poetically describing such natural phenomena as glacier creep:

But a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing 
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shattered stand: the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed.

Where Shelley differs from Dawkins, however, is that he is interested in more than intellectual problem solving. Shelley would say that, while Dawkins is good at analytical reasoning, he lacks imagination.”Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known,” Shelley writes in Defence of Poetry, while “imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole.”

A mere reasoner cannot experience true wonder, which has a spiritual dimension, because he/she reduces everything to the scientific method. As Dawkins sees humans, we are nothing more than “survival machines.”

Science owes much of its power to its practice of bracketing off the natural world from, say, soul, religion, art, consciousness, and other such intangibles. Having bracketed, they make amazing discoveries—Dawkins is right to be excited–but their discoveries are confined to that which has been bracketed. Humble scientists like Newton, Darwin and Einstein recognize this whereas the Dawkinses of the world think they possess the final key to the universe and make magisterial pronouncements. As John Gray writes in a devastating takedown of Dawkins, he is not engaged in restless searching but writes with the certainty of someone who thinks he is on the way to figuring everything out.

Put another way, when Dawkins speaks of wonder, it is less genuine wonder and more self-applause that he is so good at solving scientific puzzles. He thinks that, given enough time, the scientific method can solve all puzzles and that “God” is mere superstition of the ignorant.  Somewhere—I haven’t been able to locate the quotation—William Blake says something to the effect that a machine, even one as large as the universe, is nothing more than a clanking contraption. Those who think that all questions can ultimately be encompassed by science have a clanking view of creation.

Poe and Keats, I believe, were writing about the arrogance of Dawkins-like scientists, not science as a whole. Among such individuals, life indeed risks being reduced to “dull realities,” undermining the capacity for true wonder. As so often, perhaps Blake has the best response to narrow scientism. Voltaire and Rousseau here stand in for the European enlightenment, Israel for spirituality:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright. 

While beneficial when it knows its limits, science is blinded when it sees the universe as nothing more than atoms, cells, and genes. “You throw the sand against the wind,/And the wind blows it back again.”

Posted in Blake (William), Keats (John), Poe (Edgar Allan), Shelley (Percy) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Senior Projects and Alice’s Rabbit Hole


When those of my seniors writing senior projects are assigned 10-page essays in other classes, they now shrug as though it were nothing. That’s what happens when you’re on the verge of completing a 60-page thesis.

This has me thinking of Lewis Carroll’s heroine as she is falling down the rabbit hole:

‘Well!’ thought Alice to herself, ‘after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!’ (Which was very likely true.)

Once a student has written a senior project, the base line is forever changed.

Also, once I finish reading the projects, you’ll starting getting longer posts from me again. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

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Literature Has Paul Ryan’s Number


With news that Paul Ryan will be leaving the House of Representatives (leaving a neo-Nazi as the leading Republican candidate for his seat), I repost an essay I wrote in November, 2015 when he ascended to the speakership. Since, like Vox’s Matt Yglesias, I regard Ryan as “the biggest fraud in American politics,” I was pessimistic about the good he would for the country. Basically Ryan has one idea and one idea only: the wealthy get taxed too much and it’s Congress’s job to fix that. As a result, other than enabling Donald Trump, his major accomplishment has been to add a trillion dollars to the national debt with his tax cuts.  It’s hard to imagine a worse Speaker of the House. 

Literature understands people like Ryan.

Reposted from November 4, 2015

Last week Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was elected Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in Washington and therefore the world. I’ve long been concerned about Ryan because of his devotion to the ideas and novels of Ayn Rand, which I view as threatening the United States in potentially disastrous ways. For today’s post I go back and survey some of the essays I’ve written about Ryan.

At one point I noted that Ayn Rand appeared an integral part of Ryan’s budget balancing plan, which involves

privatizing Medicare and slashing Medicaid, Pell grants, food stamps and low-income housing.  It also involves extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and, in fact, increasing them.  Ryan says we must make sure “that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”  The implication here is that many of those struggling economically are just not sucking it up.

When Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, I quoted The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who  posted on all the ways that Ryan has been guided by Rand.  Mayer joked that the Republicans had a woman on the ticket after all.

At first glance, however, Ryan doesn’t appear to be a Rand acolyte. His choirboy exterior and his purported concern for the poor seem at odds with his heartless economic proposals. But that concern, which Ryan showed off that year, was only for show, as Jon Chait of New York Magazine explained. I therefore alluded to John Milton’s description of such politicians as wolves in sheep’s clothing. First, here’s Chait:

Ryan’s budget absolutely slays the budget for anti-poverty programs –the vast majority of his spending cuts come from the minority of federal programs aimed at the poor. That fact has led to his current predicament: Democrats have painted him as a cruel social Darwinist, causing him to become concerned about his image as an “Ayn Rand miser,” causing him to re-brand himself as a poverty wonk, causing him to dive into scholarly literature. But scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.

And now here’s what Milton has to say about such leaders:

Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition…
Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…

Take off the façade and Ryan is revealed to be someone more like the workhouse board of directors in Oliver Twist, as I wrote in another post. Here’s how the Board economizes:

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

When Paul Ryan stigmatized urban black men as addicted to dependency, I saidthat he was projecting onto them as Joseph Conrad projects onto the citizens of the Congo in Heart of Darkness (as Chinua Achebe famously pointed out)In another post I wished Ryan would realize that most of America’s poor resemble Jane Eyre when, fleeing from Thornfield, she suddenly finds herself destitute and starving. She’s more than willing to work for bread and shelter. She just can’t find an opportunity.

Above all, I noted that Ryan resembled Mr. Bounderby of Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times, berating his workers for desiring “to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.” Only Ryan doesn’t mention turtle soup. Instead (as he did over the weekend) he talks about how paying for access to family leave would be an imposition on  “hardworking taxpayers.”

Of course, generous tax benefits for the wealthiest Americans, also paid for by “hardworking taxpayers,” are another matter.

Yet, as I say, Ryan has hidden all his hardness well. So in addition to comparing him to Milton’s wolf, I’ve also likened him to Lewis Carroll’s crocodile:

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! 

In one effort to understand Ryan and people like him, I turned to Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, who creates a similar character in Okonkwo. Okonkwo too believes in pulling himself up by dint of his own efforts and is ashamed of his moocher father. Could it be, I wondered, that Ryan shares some of Okonkwo’s fears. Certainly there is something amiss in the rigidity of both men. Here’s what I wrote:

There is something too reactionary about Okonkwo’s ambitions, and as a result he starts getting into trouble. While individual initiative should be celebrated, it must come from a clean space. Just as Republicans like Ryan often talk about success as a way of berating the 47% of Americans that they claim are moochers, so Okonkwo sees success mostly as a way of contrasting himself with his father:

“[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.”

Maybe Ryan speaks not from confidence but from anxiety—that his success is as much due to his privileged upbringing and to the government support both his family and he received as to his own efforts Perhaps he’s haunted for not having done everything on his own.

One other note: Paul Ryan is a hardline anti-abortionist who believes ending a pregnancy should be illegal even when it results from rape or incest, or if a woman’s health is in danger. At one point, noting his resemblance to Thomas Hardy’s youthful Angel Claire in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, asked how he would respond to Tess’s pregnancy as a result of what is probably a rape. Tess is a good woman but Angel, who regards her as tainted, can see nothing but his own sense of violation.

I pray that Ryan will mellow as speaker. At the moment, however, I see him as a man filled with a sense of self-righteousness and confident in his superiority over the takers of the world. That does not bode well.

Posted in Achebe (Chinua), Carroll (Lewis), Dickens (Charles), Hardy (Thomas), Milton (John), Rand (Ayn) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ferreting Out White House Corruption

Salman Rushdie


For a while now, various columnists (including ones from Newsweek, Vox and Washington Post) have been describing the Trump administration as the most corrupt in history. Recently it’s been Scott Pruitt grabbing the headlines and before him it was Mike Flynn, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, Ben Carson, Jared Kushner, and of course the president.  And then there’s Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, whose shady practices are finally drawing the attention of the FBI.

We need Salman Rushdie’s Storm Baby to save us.

Storm Baby is an abandoned child who is found by a progressive New York mayor in Salman Rushdie’s fantasy work Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. The mayor explains that “Storm Doe” has very special powers:

This miracle baby can identity corruption, and the corrupt, once she has fingered them, literally begin to show the signs of their moral decay on their bodies.

This leads to satisfying scenes such as the following:

Baby Storm reentered City Hall like a tiny human minesweeper or drug-sniffing Alsatian. The mayor enfolded her in a big Brooklyn-Ukrainian hug, and whispered, “Let’s go to work, baby of truth.” What followed instantly became the stuff of legend, as in room after room, department after department, marks of corruption and decay appeared on the faces of the corrupt and decaying, the expenses cheats, the receivers of backhand payments in return for civic contracts, the accepters of Rolex watches and private airplane flights and Hermes bugs stuffed with banknotes, and all the secret beneficiaries of bureaucratic power. The crooked began to confess before the miracle baby came within range, or fled the building to be hunted down by the law.

Even a white lie, we learn, will cause one’s face to itch. Trump wouldn’t last five minutes.

In real life, of course, polygraph tests, human or otherwise, are dangerously unreliable. That’s the difference between fantasy and real life. There would also be the risk, as the #MeToo Movement is learning, of failing to distinguish between egregious crimes and lesser ones.

If Pruitt were subjected to the Baby Storm test, however, an old Danny Kaye line would be appropriate: “Order flowers for the widow.”

It so turns out that Washington is currently experiencing its own Storm Baby. Former Trump fling Stormy Daniels is insisting on full disclosure of the her liaison with the president and the hush money paid to her. Like Rushdie’s bureaucrats, Trump’s lawyers are panicking.

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The Stories We Tell Our Robots


I invoke a father’s privilege today to alert you to a weekly (sometimes biweekly) podcast called The Stories Our Robots Tell Us, hosted by my two sons. The podcast, which is about “how we make technology and how our technology makes us,” deals with such subjects as bitcoin, chatbots, credit ratings, airline pricing, tech start-ups and the like. I write about it here because the episodes often start off with a literary reference, Dr. Toby Wilson-Bates (a.k.a. Toby) being a lecturer in Georgia Tech’s English Department.

Toby brings a fascinating perspective to the current conversation about technology and its evolution. (His dissertation, which I’ve posted on here and here, studied how Victorian literature was born out of the industrial revolution, while also informing the direction of technological advancement during that period.) He brings that same conceptual perspective to this latest period of technological evolution and how our stories and narratives continue to define our technology.

Darien, meanwhile, recently left a financial technology firm in D.C. to start a company that uses data and machine learning (i.e. “Artificial Intelligence”) to enable small businesses and organizations to communicate with their customers and audiences in better ways. On a side note: Darien was also the propelling force behind Better Living through Beowulf, which he designed and helped me set in motion.

To give you a taste of the podcast, Darien and Toby begin the most recent episode on tech start-ups—“Two Guys and a Garage: The Myth of Failure”—with the story of Daedalus and Icarus. In this case, a spectacular achievement (human flight) is coupled with a spectacular failure (Icarus’s death).(Hmm, sounds like Facebook.) In each episode, they ponder whether the development under discussion will lead to utopia or apocalypse, with each offering a numerical rating between 1 (apocalypse) and 10 (utopia).

I found myself particularly interested in the episode on predictive analytics, maybe because they cite Oedipus while assuring their listeners that they do not anticipate killing their father (whew!). Toby focused on the paradox of the oracle, wondering whether we invariably become Oedipus. That is to say, even accurately forecasting future disaster doesn’t mean that we will necessarily escape it. Needless to say, things don’t work out well for Oedipus. (“Spoiler alert!” Darien cries at this point in the podcast.) In other words, Greek fatalism would dictate an apocalyptic rating for predictive analytics.

The subsequent discussion ranges from predicting–but not preventing–climate change to following one’s favorite sports team, and without spoiling the climax, I can report that Darien’s final rating leans towards the utopian (he believes our predictive capabilities can help us change the future for the better) whereas Tobias is more ambivalent.

Darien traces predictive analytics back to shipping insurance in the late 17th century, which strikes me as right. The birth of modern science dates back to this period as well (Newton, Descartes, Francis Bacon), and the Right’s current suspicion of science and expertise—certainly concerning climate change but economics and social research as well—may represent a return to a kind of Greek fatalism when our future lay in the hands of supernatural deities. Some call this faith in God, others magical thinking.

As far as the podcast goes, I love watching the chemistry between Darien and Toby, especially their sense of humor. Watching them grow into smart, thoughtful adults and becoming best friends is all I could have dreamed of. Even when they talk about killing fathers.

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Reading, Better than Juvie

Moise Kisling, “Young Boy Reading”


A former student alerted me to a New York Times article about five vandals who were ordered to read various books after defacing a historical black schoolhouse. Since then, the sentence has been repeated for a 14-year-old who threatened a black schoolmate with a noose.

The vandalism involved swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power.” That last detail is confusing until one learns that three of the vandals were minorities.

The idea of books was the brainchild of deputy commonwealth attorney Alejandra Rueda, who included some of the following works as options:

Elie Wiesel, Night
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Arthur Miller, The Crucible
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I. C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain,
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave
Marilyn Nelson, A Wreath for Emmitt Till

 As few activities arouse empathy as much as immersion in the lives of others, I applaud the sentence. We know how at least one defendant responded because The New York Times got permission to report on his court-ordered essay. The student said that, after reading Night, the swastika meant much more than it had originally:

“I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair.”

Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of “oppression” and “white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case.”…

He wrote that he feels “especially awful” that he made anyone feel bad.

“Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” he wrote in his essay. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”

The author of a book of poetry, A Wreath for Emmett Till, worried that being made to read poetry would turn kids off of poetry. Setting aside the fact that some kids see poetry as punishment even when it’s assigned by teachers rather than by judges, I really don’t think she needs to worry. Once readers immerse themselves in compelling stories, anything can happen.

Kite Runner author Hosseini imagined what a reader who chose his novel might have taken away:

“Engaging with characters that differ from us in race, religion or culture, helps us feel our immutable connections as a species,” Mr. Hosseini said. “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading The Kite Runner was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”

There may be times when other punishments are called for, but one would have difficulty arriving at such insights in a juvenile detention center.

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A Vast Unfolding Design Lit by a Risen Sun

Hendrick ter Brugghen, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”

Spiritual Sunday

As I am currently busy with student essays, I repost an essay I wrote four years ago on Denise Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus,” the subject of today’s lectionary reading.

Reposted from April 27, 2014

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of Doubting Thomas, about which I’ve blogged a couple of times in the past. Once I posted a fine poem by Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman R. S. Thomas and twice (here and here) I’ve turned to my former colleague Dana Greene, whose biography on Denise Levertov discusses the importance of the Thomas story to a poet wrestling with her own doubts.

Dana quotes that part of Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus” that describes the disciple’s moving breakthrough but not where the poet examines Thomas’s previous history of doubt. Levertov first traces his doubts back to an incident where a father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus for healing (Mark 9:17-29). Here’s the story:

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit.“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

According to Daniel Clendenin, who posts today on Levertov’s poem in his superb blog “Journey with Jesus,” Levertov takes full advantage of the fact that Thomas’s names mean “the twin,” both the Greek Didymus and the Aramaic T’omas.  The Thomas in the poem says that he feels closer to the father of the boy than to “the twin of my birth.” He is responding to the fact that this father is confronted by the unfairness of the world—the suffering of an innocent child—so that his

entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,

No wonder he finds it hard to believe. No wonder he asks Jesus to “help me overcome my unbelief!”

Despite the healing of the child, Levertov’s Thomas still has his doubt as the father’s words linger:

What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough

This magnificent lead-up makes Thomas’s ultimate revelation all the more powerful. The tight knot of doubt miraculously unravels so that he experiences

light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling…

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

St. Thomas Didymus

By Denise Levertov

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teethgnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

The Son is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!

Posted in Levertov (Denise) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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