The Fires and the Black River of Loss

Dr. Kate Chandler


We recently held a memorial service for my dear friend and colleague Kate Chandler, gathering by the campus garden that she founded to hear testimonials and share stories. Kate was our eco-lit specialist, and Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry poems were there in abundance.

I was one of those reading an Oliver poem. Before I did so, however, I talked about the “Nature Notes” column that Kate penned monthly for The River Gazette, a college publication. She called her column “In the Wind,” borrowing the expression from Thoreau’s Walden: “So many days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind.”

Kate was one of those firm foundations upon which society relies. She seldom called attention to herself, which you can tell by what she says about moss. I chose to read excerpts from this essay because Kate has found a version of what, in her conclusion, she says she longs for: “quiet in action”:

Moss, in all of its qualities, is quiet. With its carpet-like pliability, it softens footfalls and forest sounds. Between bricks in walkways and courthouse walls, moss diminishes or absorbs noise, its yielding pile helping to deaden the racket of passing traffic. Not only for warmth and cushioning do birds and squirrels weave mosses into their nests; they know its insulating properties for sound as well. What we find in moss is gentleness. Unlike a male cardinal, who catches our eye with his flame of red against the dark mass of a cedar, nothing thrilling or provocative catches our attention when we encounter moss. While new growth is brighter, the deeper more peaceful green of older growth prevails…

Since moss does not publicize itself, we could also make a case for it quieting the mind. Consider its calm demeanor, and we can understand its ability to soothe. Passing a mossy hummock the other day, I found myself slowing, stopping, stooping, and sliding a hand across its surface. When I take my friend’s five-year-old on a “let’s see what we can find in the woods” walk, we never pass a patch of moss without lightly brushing a finger over it. Almost like the spell my little dog’s fur holds over me when I stroke her head, moss emanates serenity. Even its name, spoken aloud, is soft and breathy. The word cannot be verbalized raucously; the “m’s” and the “s’s” blend with the “awh” vowel sound, soothing as effectively as when we find a shaded creek bank on a hot, summer day.

With its low profile and lack of perceptible movement, moss’s continuity is part of its allure as well as part of its lack of stardom. As in human experience, there is a settling-in with moss; it spends a long time establishing its residence, and once there, it’s there to stay. It does not migrate or commute; it works at home. It also does not grow well under leaf litter, which is why in forests we often find it thriving on vertical surfaces like rock ledges. Robin Kimmerer describes moss’s terrain as “finding a refuge from the drifting leaves on logs and stumps which rise above the forest floor like buttes above the plain.” To our eye, moss sits as still as Buddha under the Bo tree…

One of these days, I want to go out for a walk expressly to listen to moss soften my footfall. I want to lie on the ground for a lengthy face-to-moss encounter and peer through a magnifying glass into its internal organs. I want to watch its nap unfold from the pressure of my finger and contemplate its silent ways.

But, what I really want—and this is the enchantment—is to witness quiet in action.

After reading the excerpt, I observed that Kate knew only too well that nature is not always serene. Setting the stage for the Oliver poem I was about to read, I noted that Kate had also experienced what Oliver calls “the black river of loss.” Both she and I lost loved ones to strong undertows, she a beloved little brother, me my oldest son. Given how Kate almost always kept her emotions private, writing about Kenny getting pulled into an overflow pipe from which his brothers were unable to extract him took extraordinary courage. This column appeared in an interdisciplinary River Gazette issue devoted to violence:

Most commonly, “happy and serene” is the perspective from which my “Nature Notes” are written. If we are to be honest, however, the natural world is violent. In nature, though, violence is not accompanied by the emotion-driven brutality that concerns the rest of this issue. In our physical environment, we find uncontrolled energy of an inanimate force such as a tornado or hurricane, or, among the animate, a means of survival when obtaining food or protecting self or offspring. Violence of this sort is natural. Nature’s violence, however, does not feel natural when your brother dies at its hand.

Kate concludes her essay by addressing Kenny directly:

When I am brave I can think of you under the water, dragged by the current. Were you, as they say, gasping for breath, or is that something one cannot do under water? Did you hold your breath, or did you gulp? Could you feel the water overfill your lungs? Were you afraid? Were you trying to swim to the top? Were you yelling? Were you flailing your arms? Were you being brave? Did the water pound in your ears, or was it silent underneath? Did you feel the water pull you down? Did you feel their arms grasp you, pulling and pulling and pulling, trying to pull you up? What did you feel when you shot out onto the rocks below?

Or could the rocks no longer hurt?

Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” is becoming a go-to poem for people grappling with death. One reason, I think, is because it pares everything down to the essentials: to life (“the fires”) and to death (“the black river of loss”). The autumn foliage bursts into one last defiant assertion before yielding to the nameless black water ponds. (John Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” expresses a similar idea.) In the face of uncertainty (“whose meaning none of us will ever know”), Oliver jolts us with her unexpected certainty (“To live in this world you must be able to do three things”). Her advice rings true:

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,


the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

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

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

We loved you for how you loved the world, Kate. We’re trying to let you go but it’s so hard.


A Kate Chandler essay on Beatrix Potter

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T. S. Eliot, Hope for the Suicidal

Evelyn De Morgan, “Hope in a Prison of Despair”


Novelist Lauren B. Davis, who sometimes comments on this blog, gave me permission to reprint an essay she wrote on suicide, including the suicides of her two brothers. Lauren draws on the poetry of T. S. Eliot to frame the piece, beginning with the dark opening lines of The Waste Land but circling around to a more hopeful passage from “East Coker,” the second of The Four Quartets in which Eliot finds his way back to faith.

Although addiction led to her brothers’ deaths and “left those of us who loved them in agony,” Lauren goes on to talk about how “they planted a seed of salvation in me.” That resonated with me because something similar happened after my oldest son drowned. I remember thinking that it was up to me to determine whether Justin’s death was a meaningless accident or, conversely, a beacon that could sustain others. Although emotionally reserved, I began to open myself up in new ways to the suffering of troubled students. Lauren hopes that her essay will be read by those in danger of suicide, inspiring them to ask for help.

“East Coker” is a great poem for Lauren to conclude with. At a time when he has lost touch with poetry, Eliot returns to a place with ties to his ancestral home and reestablishes connection with his spiritual roots. To the passage Lauren selects from “East Coker,” I add the concluding lines, which get at the love she had for her brothers and the deeper communion she discovered after she lost them:

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

April Is the Cruelest Month
November 24, 2009

 By Lauren B. Davis

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
                                 T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land

Eliot was right, at least as far as my family is concerned.

On Easter Sunday, April 6, 1996, my brother Bernie went to dinner at the home of family friends. By all accounts he ate well and laughed and left saying he’d see everyone later. Then he went home and hanged himself.

On April 10, 2008, my brother Ronnie got up, had breakfast with his mother, kissed her and went for a walk. They found his body a week later. He’d gone down by the river and hanged himself from a tree on the shore, behind the Anglican Church, where the steep bank would ensure he wouldn’t be seen. He’d taken the rope from our parents’ garage.

Since 1995, getting through April’s been pretty rough. This year, the thirteenth anniversary of Bernie’s death and the first anniversary of Ronnie’s, well, let’s just say there’s a bumper crop of lilacs breeding out of the dead land this year, mixing memory and desire.

There have been other suicides this year. Novelist David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12. Nick Hughes, son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, hanged himself on March 16. His mother, of course, famously gassed herself in the kitchen of her north London home in February 1963 while her one-year-old son and his two-year-old sister, Frieda, slept in their cots in a nearby room. She stuffed towels around the kitchen door to make sure the fumes didn’t reach her children. Thanks, Mum.

And there have been others, Thierry de la Villehuchet and William Foxton, both victims of the sociopath Bernie Madoff, killed themselves, as did thousands of other, people who aren’t, even in the rictus of their despair, famous enough to warrant widespread attention.

We tend to think of suicide as something that happens to other people, but it’s far more common than we like to admit. I was talking with a friend the other day, and I told her I couldn’t count the number of people I’ve known over the years who’ve killed themselves. I get past the fingers of both hands and I stop. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2004, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 32,439 deaths. The overall rate was 10.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.  According to NIMH, an estimated eight to 25 attempted suicides occur per every suicide death.

Expect that figure to jump. According to CNN, the Army reported 24 soldiers committed suicide in January alone — six times as many as killed themselves in January 2008, according to statistics released February 5. I expect the economic situation isn’t going to help either.

Many of the people I know, including both my brothers, have committed suicide as a direct result of alcohol and drug addiction. Mercifully, I’m one of those folks who sit around in church basements, learning how to live without booze or drugs and giving thanks to what I’ve learned there, I’ve managed to do without alcohol or “dry goods” for 22 years.

As long as I keep going, I have faith that the quicksand of despair that sucked them under won’t also devour me. But I hear a lot of stories from people in those church basements about their own suicide attempts, including one girl who came out of a blackout to find a cop sitting on the edge of her bed. Apparently, while drinking, she’d called an emergency hot line and said she’d downed a bottle of pills and a couple of bottles of Jack Daniels. She just wanted the pain to stop, she cried. She didn’t remember calling, and didn’t remember taking the pills, but as they wheeled her to the waiting ambulance, the cop took her hand and said, “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I was once where you are now. I promise you, if you get into recovery and stay sober, you’re never going to feel this much pain again.”  That was eight years ago. She’s sober and doing great. Not everyone is so lucky.

At my brother’s funeral, my father asked me to give the eulogy, and requested I speak specifically about addiction. I agreed, and afterwards the eulogy was published in the newspaper in my family’s home town, and after that people asked me to put it up on my website, which I did. Even after a year, I still get emails from people reaching out for help. Some check back in later and tell me how it’s going, in those church basements. Some I never hear from again. I pray for them all.

Often people look at me with horror when I tell them both my brothers killed themselves. I even had a therapist tell me once that, if I ever approached her for therapy, she’d turn me down. “Since it’s so much more likely you’ll kill yourself, too.”  Gee, thanks. Okay, fair enough. The rate of suicide in families of suicide victims is twice as high as normal.[i] In fact, multiple suicides in families aren’t that uncommon. Think of Ernest Hemingway – his father, Ed, sister Ursula, brother Leicester and grand-daughter Margaux all committed suicide. That’s five suicides over three generations. In one study of Amish families, (Egeland & Sussex, 1985) almost three-quarters of 26 suicides bunched in just four families.[ii] Genetics? Maybe. I’m sure that’s part of it since genetics is also a factor in depression and addiction, but there’s something else. The taboo has been broken. Suicide as a valid solution (albeit a decidedly permanent solution to what may well be a temporary problem) now exists as a real possibility.  “Suicide contagion”“has rocked more than one school, and Jeffery Eugenides wrote about the family cluster syndrome in his book, The Virgin Suicides. Ross Maracle, a Mohawk elder, has written poignantly about the suicide epidemics among Canadian First Nations children.

So, what does all this mean to us? What does it mean to my family, and to me, and to you, who probably know somebody who’s been affected by suicide?  How do those of us who have lost loved ones go on? How do we cope with the grief, the anger, the guilt, the fear and, yes, the shame?

I remember being at my father and stepmother’s house after Bernie died in 1995. It was the day after the funeral and my husband Ron and I sat on one side of their tidy, sunny, living room, and my father sat on the other side. We were talking about how many people had been in the church, how they’d filled the aisles and the narthex and spilled out into the street. My father looked up, toward the kitchen, and my gaze followed his. There stood my stepmother, her eyes red from crying, her hands pressed up to her mouth.

“Are you okay?” my father asked.

“No,” she managed to squeak out.

My father opened his arms and she ran into them and buried her face in his shoulder and he held her and she held him, and they found comfort and strength with each other.

I thought, they’re going to be all right if they have that kind of love, the kind that reaches toward each other, that understands where grace and hope live, they’ll be all right. Not unscarred, but all right. And they were. Addiction and depression run like a dark and bloody river through our family, and none of us have been unharmed by it, and none of us have avoided, in turn, harming others, and they might have chosen to blame themselves or each other, but they didn’t.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have that kind of relationship, of course. So you do what you must – find a therapist, a support group, a clergy person, all of the above.

Turning toward the love which was symbolized in my father and stepmother’s embrace meant doing certain things, for love is, after all, a verb, and an active one at that. My father, who had stopped drinking three years before, stayed stopped, and I, who had stopped thirteen months before, stayed stopped too. And the longer we stayed sober, the more our gaze turned away from selfish things, and we started to repair the damage we’d done, to create more healing in the world than harm.

And then, last year, it happened again. Even though my stepmother spent nearly every waking hour of every day for the past decade trying to save Ronnie’s life, it wasn’t possible. He was so far into his addiction that his body and mind were broken, I believe, beyond repair. So there was another funeral, and more people spilling out onto the church’s lawn, and enormous amounts of kindness and love along with the indescribable anguish, and the wounds that will never fully heal. You learn to limp, and turn toward the light, and your faith, if you haven’t lost it altogether, grows a little deeper, and you look for meaning in the lives of the one’s you’ve lost, and the pain you feel.

When people ask me why I write about these things, I tell them that it’s partly because the pain lives inside me every day, as it does in my parents, and as a writer I can’t help but write about those things which obsess me. But also, although I know not everyone commits suicide because of addiction, for an enormous number of people, it’s a huge contributing factor, and I hope that maybe, just maybe, someone who is struggling will read this, and reach out for the help they so desperately need. That is, after all, why my father asked me to deliver Ronnie’s eulogy, in which I told this story:

It was in 1991 and Ronnie had come to visit my husband and me in Toronto. He had been nearly a year sober at the time – yes, he did get sober now and again, he just couldn’t stay sober. We had a little bungalow with a big backyard with a hammock and a pool. Ronnie loved to lie out, all that long and lanky length of him, in the hammock and listen to the birds in the trees, and wait for the baby raccoons to come out and play from under the deck where their mother had built a nest. He was working hard to stay sober, and it can’t have been easy for him, since I wasn’t sober yet myself and didn’t hesitate to drink around him; all the while – in that terrible, blind, self-centered way of alcoholics – talking about how great it was he was sober. One afternoon I asked if he wanted to go to an AA or NA meeting. Ronnie said yes, and so off we went into the projects of Toronto, the toughest of the tough neighborhoods. We found the meeting in the community room of a rundown apartment building. It was a good meeting and people were kind and thoughtful and encouraging as Ronnie talked about his commitment to getting and staying sober. Then a man turned to me.

“How you doing?” he said.

“Me? Oh, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m very careful.”

“Keep coming back,” someone said and people laughed.

We came out of the meeting and a gauntlet of drug dealers stood right outside the door.

“What do you want?” they said. “We got what you want.”

That’s the way it is. That’s how hard it can be. Ronnie didn’t manage to stay clean and sober. But a few years later, I walked into my second AA meeting. Even though Ronnie didn’t keep coming back, I did. Sadly, I don’t think Bernie even understood there was a connection between his depression and his drinking.

Addiction robbed both my brothers of everything, and left those of us who loved them in agony. Nevertheless, even though they died, I believe they planted a seed of salvation in me. So that’s why I write about this. I honor my brothers’ memory, and I know that if someone reads this and asks for help because of it, if someone turns from despair to hope, then their lives had meaning.

Although April may be the cruelest month, it is also the month of renewal and rebirth, during which death is overcome and life returns. And here I circle round again to T.S. Eliot, who also said:

So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.


[i] Runeson B, Asberg M: Family history of suicide among suicide victims. Am J Psychiatry 2003, 160(8):1525-1526
[ii] Comprehensive textbook of Suicidology,  Ronald W. Maris, Alan Lee Berman, Morton M. Silverman, Bruce. The Guilford Press; (August, 2000)

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Maybe Ryan Sees Trump as John Galt

Donald Trump, Paul Ryan


As Donald Trump’s transgressions continue to mount—the latest is sharing intelligence secrets with visiting Russian diplomats—we look to the two men who have the ability to stop him: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell. I’ve pretty much given up on Ryan, however, in part because he is an Ayn Rand enthusiast. I thought of the novelist after reading a Ryan-authored homage to Trump in Time.

First, some background. Ryan has long been a fan of Atlas Shrugged, which he used to give out to Congressional staffers. (I think he stopped after being informed that Rand was a virulent anti-Christian.) Ryan’s determination to cut the social safety net, which he once described as a disempowering hammock, is straight out of Rand.

There were times in last year’s election when Ryan mildly chastised Trump, but those days are over. Now he says things like this about the president:

He always finds a way to get it done. When so many, including me at times, didn’t see how he could pull it off, Donald Trump won a historic victory. And in becoming the 45th President of the United States, he completely rewrote the rules of politics and reset the course of this country. A businessman always willing to challenge convention, he has shaken up Washington and laid out an agenda of generational proportions. Never afraid of a battle, he has made it his mission to fight for those who feel forgotten. Where others would pivot, he stays true to who he is. Where others would turn back, he forges ahead. Up close, I have found a driven, hands-on leader, with the potential to become a truly transformational American figure. I have little doubt that he will, once again, find a way to defy the odds and get it done.

Notice how Ryan essentially sees Trump as John Galt, an Übermensch businessman who ignores the petty rules that bind the rest of us. Secretly ashamed for having lived off the public purse his entire life, Ryan makes up for it by worshiping an unscrupulous entrepreneur.

As Ryan sees it, the fact that Trump has frequently expressed contempt for him only confirms Trump’s greatness. After all, Ryan shares that contempt for himself. He sees himself as having had to play political games to get where he is, whereas Trump appears effortlessly to rise above it all. What would be death for any other politician simply boosts Trump. No wonder Ryan is enthralled.

This is what Ryan means by “challenge convention,” “shaken up Washington,” “stays true to who he is,” “forges ahead,” and “truly transformational American figure.” Trump somehow pays no political price for engaging in ethnic and racial slurs, sexually harassing women, putting the White House up for sale, hiring white nationalists, openly praising dictators, fraternizing with the enemy, and lying continuously. What are morals and principles in the face of such success?

As Ryan sees it, you don’t tug on John Galt’s cape.

Further thought: Here’s the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz imagining Ryan’s response to Trump sharing sensitive information with the Russians–or what Borowitz describes as “three Russian spies in the White House”:

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan called the meeting of the three Russian spies at the White House “a tempest in a teapot” and “much ado about nothing,” before adding, off-microphone, “I am screwed. I am so screwed.”

More Borowitz: Oh, and then there was this last January:

Calling it a “medical mystery of the first order,” scientists are baffled by the ability of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to stand upright without the benefit of spines.

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GOP Plays the Sap for Trump

Astor, Bogard in “The Maltese Falcon”


A recent Brett Stephens column in the New York Times on Donald Trump’s Russia ties was written in such a way as to bring a passage from the Maltese Falcon to mind. Once I began to think along these lines, I saw many parallels between Donald Trump and femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

Speculating on the reasons for Trump firing FBI Director James Comey, Stephens lists various shady dealings with Russia:

In all this, the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is Russia.

Golf courses: RussiaMike Flynn’s lies to the vice president: Russia. Jeff Sessions’s lies to the Senate: Russia. Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone: Russia. WikiLeaks: Russia. Donald Trump Jr.: Russia. The Bayrock Group: Russia. Erik Prince’s diplomatic back channel: Russia.

And then Stephens acknowledges,

No one piece in this (partial) list is incriminating.

This reminded me of the scene where Sam Spade has gotten O’Shaugnessy to confess to killing his partner and is listing the reasons why he’s going to turn her in. I pick up his monologue towards the end:

Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you’d played me for a sucker. And eighth–but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them arc unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.

The sentences I remembered were, “All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them.”

Yes, look at the number of Russia connections. How many do there have to be before the GOP fully commits itself to an investigation?

Back to O’ Shaugnessy. I’m struck by how many lies she tells and how many accomplices she sacrifices in order to get her way. She’s a black hole, luring in men, getting them to “play the sap” for her, and then spitting them out when she no longer needs them. As a result of her machinations, men die left and right while she rides high. She may well be setting up Spade as her next victim.

Notice how practically all those who work with Donald Trump get pulled into his entanglements. These include Devin Nunes, who used to head the House Intelligence Committee until his contacts with the White House had him removed; Speaker Paul Ryan, who is supporting the firing of FBI Director James Comey; Vice President Mike Pence, who seems to get compromised on a weekly basis; and on and on. The most recent example is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a once respected career prosecutor who was designed to take the fall for the Comey firing. All of Trump’s surrogates, from Pence and Mitch McConnell on down, were telling the official story–that Comey was fired because Rosenstein criticized him for his inappropriate handling of  Hillary Clinton’s e-mails—until Rosenstein balked. Then Trump himself exploded the story by admitting to NBC’s Lester Holt that he would have fired Comey regardless of what the Justice Department recommended. And that he did so because “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”

The GOP must stand up to Trump as Spade, in the end, stands up to O’Shaughnessy:

I don’t care who loves who I’m not going to play the sap for you. I won’t walk in Thursby’s and Christ knows who else’s footsteps. You killed Miles and you’re going over for it. I could have helped you by letting the others go and standing off the police the best way I could. It’s too late for that now. I can’t help you now. And I wouldn’t if I could.

Those who don’t stand up to O’Shaughnessy end up dead. How’s that for a life lesson?

Further thought: In an earlier scene, Spade knows that O’Shaughnessy is lying but is so entranced with her that he can’t break free. After all, she makes him feel manly. Is that what Trump provides the GOP at the moment: they get to walk tall, even though they know he is lying through his teeth? Here’s Spade calling O’Shaughnessy on her lies before agreeing to help her anyway:

Spade, who had held his breath through much of this speech, now emptied his lungs with a long sighing exhalation between pursed lips and said: “You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.'”

She jumped up on her feet. Her face crimsoned painfully, but she held her head erect and she looked Spade straight in the eyes. “I deserve that,” she said. “I deserve it, but–oh!–I did want your help so much. I do want it, and need it, so much. And the lie was in the way I said it, and not at all in what I said.” She turned away, no longer holding herself erect. “It is my own fault that you can’t believe me now.”

Spade’s face reddened and he looked down at the floor, muttering: “Now you are dangerous.”

The only difference with Trump is that he would never admit to having lied.

Yet another thought: In a world where truth is fluid and where people will lie, cheat and kill to obtain what they want, Spade has a bedrock principle that keeps him grounded. It’s how he finds meaning in a seemingly absurd universe:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around–bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.

Our own bedrock principle should be the Constitution. When politicians put expediency above our basic values, it’s bad all around.

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Only after Pain Comes Life

Michelangelo, “Pieta”

Mother’s Day

When one becomes a parent, one takes on the joy and the heartbreak that accompany unconditional love. Madeleine L’Engle captures it all in “Three Days.” On Good Friday Mary cries out in agony, “My God, I didn’t know it would be like this,” and on Saturday her heart falters: “What is this darkness over the face of the earth?”

Mary then experiences the Easter resurrection as a second birth, remembering the tumult of the birthing process. “For every birth follows a kind of death,” she thinks, “and only after pain comes life.” Birthing contains a secret that Mary recalls only after Jesus is born again.

Three Days

By Madeleine L’Engle

When you agree to be the mother of God
you make no conditions, no stipulations.
You flinch before neither cruel thorn nor rod.
You accept the tears; you endure the tribulations.

But, my God, I didn’t know it would be like this.
I didn’t ask for a child so different from others.
I wanted only the ordinary bliss,
to be the most mundane of mothers.

When I first saw the mystery of the Word
made flesh I never thought that in his side
I’d see the callous wound of Roman sword
piercing my heart on the hill where he died.

How can the Word be silenced? Where has it gone?
Where are the angel voices that sang at his birth?
My frail heart falters. I need the light of the Son.
What is this darkness over the face of the earth?

Dear God, He has come, the Word has come again.
There is no terror left in silence, in clouds, in gloom.
He has conquered the hate; he has overcome the pain.
Where, days ago, was death lies only an empty tomb.

The secret should have come to me with his birth,
when glory shone through darkness, peace through strife.
For every birth follows a kind of death, and only after pain comes life.

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Commencement à la Wordsworth

Looking down on St. Mary’s College of Maryland


Tomorrow my seniors graduate and, in the course of the ceremony, we will sing the school song. The lyrics borrow a line from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, and at one point during our singing the students will all laugh. It happens every year and it will happen tomorrow. Today’s post explains why.

My colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black, who composed the lyrics, makes much of our pastoral setting. (My music colleague David Froom wrote the soaring music.) Can you pick up the passage from the Wordsworth poem that the students respond to? (It’s in the chorus so don’t point to the daffodils.)

A blue and gentle river flows toward the Chesapeake
And fastened to its golden shore the school our spirits seek.
Its lush and lovely woodlands enfold a tranquil bay
That feeds and cools this fruitful earth sustaining day by day.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland, green to the very door—
In Maryland we strive and seek and find our heart’s own shore.

Bright daffodils and flaxen fields beneath a quiet sky
Inspires us to see anew and always question why.
The moving water mirrors all that stirs within our souls
Its harmony of wind and wave enlivens and consoles.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland, green to the very door–
In Maryland we strive and seek and find our heart’s own shore.

Here’s the source (in more ways than one):

                                                           Once again I see 
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines 
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms, 
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke 
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees! 

The full title of the poem is “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” That Wordsworth is looking down at the Wye River may be one reason why Jennifer thought of the poem as we too are located on a river: the St. Mary’s River flows into the Potomac which, after a few miles, flows into the Chesapeake. Other factors may have entered in as well. For instance, the poem functions as a five-year reunion, with Wordsworth returning to a place he visited as a younger man. Also, St. Mary’s has lots of of trees and greenery, which sportively run up to the very doors of the residence halls and academic buildings.

I can’t imagine a better poet for Jennifer to cite in a St. Mary’s song. We have our own “Daffodil Gulch,” where the flowers gleefully compete with the sparkling waves of the river, and years later the students recall many “setting suns” from the vantage of Church Point. At alumni reunions they have told me that sometimes, when they are sitting in “lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities,” they think back to their time here. Wordsworth captures what they strive to express:

                                             These beauteous forms, 
Through a long absence, have not been to me 
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: 
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din 
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, 
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, 
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; 
And passing even into my purer mind 
With tranquil restoration… (Tintern Abbey)

All this is well and good. The students don’t laugh at our school song because they pick up Wordsworth allusions, however. They laugh because the favorite local student hangout is a tavern named “the Green Door.”

Jennifer swears that she didn’t have this Green Door in mind when she wrote the lyrics, and I believe her. As English professors, however, we are well versed in the intentional fallacy and the elusive ways of language. Who knows what transpired in the nether regions of Jennifer’s mind?

I actually love the laugh of recognition that the song elicits. The Green Door has functioned as a rite of passage no less than the College.

For instance, when students turn 21, the Green Door is where they go to buy their first drink. Sometimes they go earlier with fake ids, which is its own rite of passage. The symbolism of the door, suggesting a passage from childhood to adulthood, could not be better chosen.

And then there is the color. When I teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I note that, all over Great Britain, one finds “Green Man” taverns, homage to the rambunctious fertility god that Christianity was never able to stamp out. It is the same god that defeats the rigid Pentheus in The Bacchae, and as Puck he unleashes sexual chaos in Midsummer Night’s Dream. College students instinctively bond with this god as they seek to develop their own identities apart from their parents. They are testing boundaries, and alcohol, sex, and other stimulants are one way they do this. Schools work hard to get the right balance between freedom and prohibition.

So tomorrow, when we sing our romantic-in-every-sense-of-the-word school song, the students will think back to their time by the river and in the woods, to the teachers that challenged them “to see anew and always question why,” and to the ways that they have changed. They came as innocent adolescents and now they are passing through a green door to adulthood. Jennifer’s lyrics acknowledge all of this.

Previous Commencement posts
Robert Creeley: Rituals of Commencement
Martin Espada: Imagine the Angels of Bread
Steve Kowit: A Poem for Commencement
Hamlet Instructs the Class of 2015
Toni Morrison: Obama Tells Black Graduates to Soar
Derek Walcott: No Calendar Except for This Bountiful Day
Theodore Roethke: A Villanelle for Graduating Seniors
Emily Dickinson: Brains Deeper Than the Sea
Lucille Clifton: Children Commence, Parents Let Go
Christopher Smart: Crown My Head with Ample Square Cap

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Trump’s Latest Queen of Hearts Beheading

John Tenniel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”


I’ve been trying to think of a literary passage that applies to the extraordinary firing of FBI Director James Comey, and an Atlantic Monthly article on Richard Nixon has given me an idea. John Aloysius Farrell, noting how both Comey’s dismissal and Nixon’s Saturday Night massacre were intended to stop investigations, mentions Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts.

The Queen, of course, is famous for ordering beheadings at a moment’s notice, and Donald Trump appears to be on a beheading tear of his own, firing anyone who threatens to investigate him. First he fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, probably because she warned the White House about Mike Flynn’s Russia ties (although that wasn’t the reason given). Then he fired New York attorney Preet Bharara, who was looking into sexual harassment allegations against Fox News and who may have been preparing to review “a range of potential improper activity emanating from Trump Tower and the Trump campaign, as well as entities with financial ties to the president or the Trump organization” (although that wasn’t the reason given). And finally, he fired Comey because he seemed determined to pursue Trump’s Russia ties (although that wasn’t the reason given).

In Alice in Wonderland, all the ordered beheadings wreak havoc with the game of croquet that the court is playing, which sounds a bit like the Trump administration at the moment:

The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarreling all the while, and fighting for the hedgehogs; and in a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.

Alice began to feel very uneasy: to be sure, she had not as yet had any dispute with the Queen, but she knew that it might happen any minute, ‘and then,’ thought she, ‘what would become of me? They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here; the great wonder is, that there’s any one left alive!’


All the time they were playing the Queen never left off quarreling with the other players, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ Those whom she sentenced were taken into custody by the soldiers, who of course had to leave off being arches to do this, so that by the end of half an hour or so there were no arches left, and all the players, except the King, the Queen, and Alice, were in custody and under sentence of execution.

The Atlantic’s Alice reference is courtesy of Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman, who saw himself handling Nixon the way that various characters handle the Queen. To accentuate the parallels between Nixon and Trump, I look first at a recent Bloomberg article by Eli Lake about why NSA head General McMaster is currently in trouble with Trump:

Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president’s threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.

Now here’s Ehrlichman:

John Ehrlichman, an aide to Nixon, used to compare his boss to the Queen of Hearts (“Off with their heads!”) from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Nixon was always spouting orders—foreign lands to be bombed, aides to be fired, universities and newspapers to be punished—as a form of restorative, beneficial venting. Aides like Ehrlichman knew when to take him seriously—or when to let the matter simmer for a day or two, and determine if Nixon was really serious. Nixon, in a 1969 memo, explicitly delegated that responsibility to his top advisers: Trump may be wise to do so as well.

Then Farrell adds what may be an allusion to the Jack of Hearts trial in Alice: “The Comey firing reeked of “punishment first—rationale later.”

Here’s Carroll:

‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

It seems pretty clear that Comey was fired because Trump saw him as not sufficiently loyal and so (as he had with Yates and Bharara) backfilled an explanation to justify his decision.

The country needs the GOP to stand up to Trump the way that Alice stands up to the Queen. Although Trump threatens them with tweets and angry base supporters, they may discover that his threats are no more dangerous than a pack of cards. Here’s what happens with Alice when she grows a spine (and a body to go along with it):

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

‘Wake up, Alice dear!’ said her sister; ‘Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!’

I’m not the only one who desperately wishes that the past 100 days have just been a dream from which we can awake. Would that it were that easy.

Elaboration: Here’s Nancy LeTourneau of Washington Monthly laying out the case for “punishment first–rationale afterwards”:

[T]he letters/memos from Rosenstein, Sessions and Trump are all dated yesterday (May 9, 2017), the same day Comey was fired. That indicates that Rosenstein’s letter didn’t go through any kind of process for consideration and lends credence to the idea that Trump decided to do this a week ago and merely asked Sessions to come up with a rationale.

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Ivanka Doesn’t Understand “Beloved”

Oprah as Sethe in “Beloved”


Ivanka Trump is currently under attack for her use of a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in her recent book. While I agree that the passage is misapplied, I want to address another concern, the issue of subjective interpretation.

The passage, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” occurs after Sethe has barely escaped slavery with her life. After being raped by the nephews of “the schoolteacher,” who suckle the milk meant for her newborn baby, and then being beaten so severely that she has a permanent “chokecherry tree” on her back, she heads for Ohio. Carrying her baby, Sethe barely makes it to the Ohio River but, once across, starts putting her life together. This is what the book means by “claiming ownership of that freed self”:

Sethe had had twenty-eight days—the travel of one whole moon—of unslaved life. From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days. Days of healing, ease and real-talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day. That’s how she got through the waiting for Halle [her husband]. Bit by bit, at 124 and in the Clearing, along with the others, she had claimed herself. Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

Her trials have only begun, however, as her master, making use of the fugitive slave law, comes to reclaim her. She escapes only by killing her baby, at which point she becomes such an object of horror that her master gives her up. The “beloved” of the title is this baby, who returns to haunt her throughout the novel.

Ivanka Trump uses the passage to advise women in leadership roles who are “enslaved” by their belief that they have to please everybody. Reviewer Annalisa Quinn of National Public Radio describes the book and is not impressed:

Trump’s new book shares a name and a mission with her company’s marketing campaign: Women Who Work. Organized into sections with titles like “Dream Big” and “Make Your Mark,” Women Who Work is a sea of blandities, an extension of that 2014 commercial seeded with ideas lifted (“curated,” she calls it) from various well-known self-help authors. Reading it feels like eating scented cotton balls.

Trump’s lack of awareness, plus a habit of skimming from her sources, often results in spectacularly misapplied quotations — like one from Toni Morrison’s Beloved about the brutal psychological scars of slavery. “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” is positioned in cute faux-handwritten capitals (and tagged #itwisewords) before a chapter on “working smarter.” In it, she asks: “Are you a slave to your time or the master of it? Despite your best intentions, it’s easy to be reactive and get caught up in returning calls, attending meetings, answering e-mails …”

If we want to be generous, we could say that women bear scars from patriarchy just as African Americans bear scars from slavery, even while acknowledging that the scars are of a different order. Trump, however, is no battling feminist and is following a different line of reasoning. Enslavement for her is focusing on busy work when you should be doing something bigger. No excruciating life choices, no dead babies, haunt her book. For her to invoke Toni Morrison, is definitely inappropriate.

I want to make another point, however. Since I’m all in favor of using literature to guide one’s life, I’m prepared to give Trump some leeway. If she had actually read Beloved, I could imagine her using it to grapple with father issues, which can’t be minor. After all, her father is a man who once said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” I can imagine Ivanka experiencing a thrill of recognition as the schoolteacher, while holding back himself, vicariously indulges his forbidden desires by watching his nephews rape Sethe.

I suspect, however, that Ivanka picked up the quotation from some website and appropriated it for her own use. If so, she uses literature in exactly the way that I tell my students not to. Yes, apply the literature to your life, I tell them, but don’t reduce it to your life. Otherwise, you only learn what you already know. While we initially relate to literature from where we are, we must then let it can take us outside ourselves and push us deeper than we thought possible. Above all, we must listen to what the work has to tell us.

Ivanka doesn’t listen much in Women Who Work, either to Toni Morrison or to the descendants of slaves or to any other women. She recirculates platitudes from a position of entitlement and uses her celebrity to sell the book. In short, Women Who Work is everything that literature is not.

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Using Doublethink To Sell Trumpcare

Still from “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984)


How do you sell a healthcare bill that has a 17% approval rating and may throw as many as 24 million people off their healthcare plans? According to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, you use Doublethink:

What really stands out…is the Orwell-level dishonesty of the whole effort. As far as I can tell, every word Republicans, from Trump on down, have said about their bill — about why they want to replace Obamacare, about what their replacement would do, and about how it would work — is a lie, including “a,” “and” and “the.”

Brian Beutler of The New Republic sets forth the four major lies that the GOP is using to sell the bill. They are:

Claim: We’re not kicking millions off of Medicaid.
Fact: The Congressional Budget Office estimate of an earlier and less severe version of the bill estimated that AHCA “would reduce Medicaid rolls by five million people within a year, and 14 million people over 10 years.” 

Claim: We’re not screwing over sick people.
Fact: Insurance companies will be allowed to raise rates on sick people to such an extent that many with preexisting conditions will not be able to afford health insurance, returning them to the pre-Obamacare days.

Claim: We didn’t end-run the Congressional Budget Office at all!
Fact: The GOP rushed the vote so that they would not have to face the estimates, which are expected next week and will probably be brutal.

Claim: Health insurance doesn’t save lives anyhow.
Fact: As Beutler points out, “People without insurance put off doctor’s visits and stop taking expensive medicines all the time. In some of these cases, such as undiagnosed cancer or worsening heart disease, the consequence of the delay is death.”

So what’s going on here? Krugman suspects, and I agree, that Trump’s fabricating has proved so successful that the party as a whole is adopting the approach. After all, why not use what works?

Orwell called the approach Doublethink, which involves upending people’s sense of reality. Winston Smith learns from a party document that Doublethink is “a vast system of mental cheating”:

If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the Power to learn from past mistakes.

It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of DOUBLETHINK are those who invented DOUBLETHINK and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating…This peculiar linking-together of opposites–knowledge with ignorance, cynicism with fanaticism–is one of the chief distinguishing marks of Oceanic society. The official ideology abounds with contradictions even when there is no practical reason for them. Thus, the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism. It preaches a contempt for the working class unexampled for centuries past, and it dresses its members in a uniform which was at one time peculiar to manual workers and was adopted for that reason. It systematically undermines the solidarity of the family, and it calls its leader by a name which is a direct appeal to the sentiment of family loyalty. Even the names of the four Ministries by which we are governed exhibit a sort of impudence in their deliberate reversal of the facts. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy; they are deliberate exercises in DOUBLETHINK. For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely. In no other way could the ancient cycle be broken. If human equality is to be for ever averted–if the High, as we have called them, are to keep their places permanently–then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.

“Populist” Donald Trump has clear contempt for the working class Americans who supported him—“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he memorably boasted last year—and his cabinet selection process seems to follow a Doublethink template: he chose an enemy of environmental protection to head the EPA, an opponent of contraception to head the family planning section of Health and Human Services, an opponent of public education to head the Department of Education, and someone who wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy to head the agency (although the agency was the one that Rick Perry couldn’t remember during his famous “oops” moment). Promising to drain the Washington swamp of donors and special interests, Trump has filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs billionaires and multimillionaires.

So why shouldn’t Republicans reasonably conclude that Doublethink will allow them to claim they are lowering premiums and making healthcare more affordable when in fact their proposal (this according to the earlier CBO estimate) “would take more than $1 trillion away from programs targeting poor and middle-class families, to fund an $883 billion tax cut targeted at the wealthy.” As Vox puts it, this is “upward income redistribution of a truly massive scale.”

Trump may be retaining GOP loyalty at the moment because he appears to have found a magical way to bypass reality. So far, he has defied political gravity so why not see how far you can fly? As Krugman says of the healthcare effort,

This was a Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength moment. And it may be the shape of things to come.

If we let the GOP get away with this, they may be able to get away with anything.

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From Wycherley to Crazy, Stupid, Love


A successful assignment in recent years has been asking my “British Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th Century” class to compare an older work with a contemporary film. As one student observed, suddenly they relate to comedies of manners on a much deeper level.

Some of the films mentioned in the essays I received recently are 10 Things I Hate about You, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Friends with Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love, He’s Just Not That into You, Don Jon, Say Anything, Austenland, and Something Borrowed.

The comparisons bring out the enduring popularity of the genre. Relationships are always anxiety producing, and by applying Freud’s theory that laughter is a response to anxiety, we see how comedy makes the inevitable painful moments more bearable. In that respect, couples comedies are a real gift to humankind.

We decided that the humor in contemporary films is more often Shaftesburian than Hobbesian, getting us to laugh with more than laugh at (although there are exceptions). Ultimately, I think the course achieved its goals of introducing the students to wonderful older works while helping them appreciate the power of an underestimated genre. They also got to explore their own own relationship histories. There are good reasons why rom-coms are as popular now as they ever were.

Here are the essays I received:

William Wycherley’s Country Wife and Crazy, Stupid, Love
Kayla Bird found herself fascinated by male masculinity anxieties and the fear of being cuckolded, which show up in Wycherley’s play and the 2011 Steve Carell comedy. The lesson of both dramas: real men trust women, cuckolds either ignore or attempt to control them.

Aphra Behn’s The Rover and Friends with Benefits
Alaina Wall sees the philandering Wilmore in Aphra Behn’s Rover as a man afraid of emotional commitment, which of course is the situation of Jamie and Dylan in the 2011 Will Gluck film. In their case, past trauma has led them to avoid marriage. Such a past is not posited for Wilmore, however, and Helena doesn’t have the option of sex outside of marriage. Settling for second best, she entices him with the prospect of an unpredictable and exciting marriage where he is never sure of her.  This doesn’t resemble traditional marriage, but it’s also more interesting than mere sexual interchange.

The Rover and Brave
In both Behn’s play and the 2012 Pixar film, the heroines do not want to be defined by marriage. Helena, whose default option is the convent, doesn’t have a choice, and Meridel’s mother tells her that she doesn’t have one either. Jenn Norris notes that we watch two heroines pushing against social expectations and finding imaginative ways of breaking free. Helena’s eventual marriage to Wilmore looks more like she’s joining his fraternity of rakes while Meridel rejects her mother’s domestication and holds on to her boyish ways.

Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Austenland
Liz Bailey argues that She Stoops and Austenland are direct complements. In Goldsmith’s play, Marlow feels stifled by his formal society and longs for the freer discourse he finds with an apparent barmaid. Jane, by contrast, finds nothing romantic about our freer society and longs for the more formal constraints of the Regency period. While both long for a society different than their own, they learn that love is about more than social guidelines or the lack thereof.

She Stoops to Conquer and Say Anything
Dani Bowes was interested in the parent-child relationships in Goldsmith’s play and Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film. Mr. Hardcastle and Kate provide a positive model of childrearing—they negotiate together the rules that the daughter should follow—whereas Mrs. Hardcastle spoils Toby, leading to conflict. Yet even good fathers like Hardcastle may not realize that they must eventually let go and trust their child to make the right decision, despite doubts. Their reward is that well-raised sons and daughters prove responsible.

The stifling father in Say Anything doesn’t allow Diane to make her own relationship decisions, leading to a painful rupture.

Rape of the Lock and Mean Girls
Although those writing on Pope’s mock epic were exempted from finding a film equivalent (after we kept on coming up empty), Alli Szymanski and I thought of Mean Girls once she started talking about the toxicity of beauty culture. The perfectly nice Cady Heron is seduced by “the Plastics” as the film, like the poem, sees society’s beauty obsession corrupting a young woman. Both works conclude with lectures on priorities, one from Clarissa, the other from the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes upon which the film was based:

And trust me, Dear! good Humor can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals and Don Jon
Josh Cheseman grappled with the role of fantasizing in relationships. Sheridan’s Lydia Languish refuses to enter into any relationship that doesn’t resemble a storybook romance while, in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 film, Jon is addicted to pornography and Barbara to romance. The protagonists must learn that a real relationship is more fulfilling than a fantasy one. Lydia comes to this realization when Jack Absolute goes out to fight a duel, Jon when he meets the sympathetic Esther, who weens him off of his addiction. Barbara, unfortunately, never breaks free and winds up alone.

Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem and How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days
In Cowley’s play, Laetitia determines that the best way to win over her indifferent fiancé is to get him to hate her. Hate, after all, is easier to convert to love than indifference. In Donald Petrie’s 2003 film, meanwhile, Andie’s project to lose a guy by deliberately committing classic relationship mistakes ends up making her a more interesting person in Ben’s eyes (as Laetitia’s does in Doricourt’s). Eventually the two male leads realize they don’t want fantasy women but women with imagination. As Doricourt tells Letitia in the play’s conclusion,

You shall be nothing but yourself; nothing can be captivating that you are not. I will not wrong your penetration by pretending that you won my heart at the first interview, but you have now my whole soul. Your person, your face, your mind, I would not exchange for those of any other woman breathing.

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and He’s Not That into You
Becca Forrester makes a compelling case that Austen could have written the 2004 self-help bestseller-turned-movie about how women often misread men’s intentions. Marianne makes such mistakes, failing to register that Willoughby never actually proposes marriage but only hints at it. Elinor, on the other hand, reads the data accurately and knows that there’s something up with Edward, even though she doesn’t know what. The need to read men accurately is a basic Austen theme, especially in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma.

Sense and Sensibility and Something Borrowed
Mairin Rivett focused on the contrast between women who ruthlessly go for what they want and those who don’t. The latter sometimes allow themselves to be exploited, which is the case in the 2011 Luke Greenfield rom-com, where the pushy Darcy steals her best friend’s man, without much pushback from the enabling Rachel. While the situation isn’t exactly that of Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele, applying the comparison prompts us to wonder what might have happened if Elinor had been more assertive with Edward Ferrars and less tolerant of Lucy. As it is, she only gets the man she loves by luck. By contrast, Rachel, no longer a doormat, tells Dex not to marry Darcy and he doesn’t.

Sense and Sensibility and 10 Things I Hate about You
Although Gil Junger’s 1999 film is a teen-pic adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, Sabrina Wood successfully parallels it with Austen’s novel, seeing Bianca as a Marianne and Kate as an Elinor. As such, she sees both works as cautionary relationship tales: if you leap into a relationship, you may fall for the wrong guy, but if you hold back, using your reserve as a shield, you may not get the one who is right for you. In the film as in the novel, the younger daughter eventually learns to be more prudent, the elder to step into her passions.

We think that we read and watch these works for mere entertainment. In fact, we are grappling with as big an issue as there is.

Further thought: While examining the psychological dynamics of romantic comedies, I suggested the following genre spectrum:

–rom-coms render painful relationship moments comically
–melodramas take painful relationship moments seriously
–action adventure movies address relationships through male identity dramas
–horror movies push the anxieties into the realm of nightmare, the return of the repressed

Which you like best may indicate how you prefer to handle your anxieties.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Behn (Aphra), Cowley (Hannah), Goldsmith (Oliver), Sheridan (Richard), Wycherley (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Third Who Walks Always Beside You

Wildens, “Landscape with Christ and His Disciples on the Road to Emmaus”

Spiritual Sunday

Today I share a powerful poetic meditation by former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams about the two disciples who unknowingly encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus (last week’s Gospel reading). Williams makes use of the elusive quality of Jesus’s presence, how at first the disciples don’t recognize him and then, once they do, he vanishes. “Emmaus” veers between images of the tangible and intangible, interpreting the story as a metaphorical expression of how Jesus enters our lives.

Here’s Luke’s account of the encounter (24:13-35):

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

As he does in other poems, Williams strives to capture the way that Jesus can be a solid or physical-like presence in our lives without actually being physical. In the first stanza, the speaker sees something different about his friend’s face and senses that something has changed in the space between them. The sun (or “the Son”) should allow us to see clearly, but everything else is evanescent, including the shadow, the hot air shaking with a voice, and the “rising white dust” in which “feet tread a shape.”  There is a “flat sound, stamped between voice/and ears, dancing in the gaps, and dodging/ where words and feet do not fall”:

First the sun, then the shadow,
so that I screw my eyes to see
my friend’s face, and its lines seem
different, and the voice shakes in the hot air.
Out of the rising white dust, feet
tread a shape, and, out of step,
another flat sound, stamped between voice
and ears, dancing in the gaps, and dodging
where words and feet do not fall.

After picking up on this absent presence, the speaker shows us the two friends trying to absorb what is happening. They sense a new rhythm to which they are being asked to walk and a new meaning in their conversation. In Luke, Jesus is there explaining to them the meaning of the resurrection, and Jesus has entered into this modern day conversation as well. The two hear something that “is not each other.” The silence between them is filled up as that which was vague and amorphous begins to take shape. Normal conversation has been disrupted:

When our eyes meet, I see bewilderment
(like mine); we cannot learn
this rhythm we are asked to walk,
and what we hear is not each other.
Between us is filled up, the silence
is filled up, lines of our hands
and faces pushed into shape
by the solid stranger, and the static
breaks up our waves like dropped stones.

In the third and final stanza, Williams says we must carry this absent presence with us. Once again we have images of solidity: shifting now to the three sitting down to supper, Williams observes that Jesus is tangibly present in the way that he is present every time we celebrate the Eucharistic feast (“a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous/grey bread.” Although the world may be turning cold and grey (or black), Jesus has released our voices so that they “shine with water.”

So it is necessary to carry him with us,
cupped between hands and profiles,
so that the table is filled up, and as
the food is set and the first wine splashes,
a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous
grey bread. Now it is cold, even indoors;
and the light falls sharply on our bones;
the rain breathes out hard, dust blackens,
and our released voices shine with water.

The hard rain has been transformed into living water.

I’m fairly certain that Williams here is dialoguing with poetry’s most famous use of the Emmaus Road episode, which is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Eliot too focuses on the elusive presence of Jesus:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

In an earlier post on the passage, I wrote,

By choosing to focus on the lack of recognition rather than on the later discovery, Eliot is pointing out the spiritual blindness of our age. “But who is that on the other side of you?” he asks, signaling ignorance. And yet we the readers may feel that the poet is a prophetic voice and that revelation is at hand. After all, in the stanzas that follow, there is a promise of rain, bringing the hope of life to the Waste Land.

Williams would agree.

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Most Impactful Books for Every Country


For a change of pace, here’s a link to a fascinating map that supposedly shows “every country’s favorite book” (thanks to Rachel Kranz for the alert). I say “supposedly” because there are some dubious selections, as I’ll discuss in a moment. Still, any exercise that gets people talking about literature—and that introduces readers to good literature they haven’t heard about—has some value.

First, however, the map slides almost immediately from “favorite books” to “books that impacted a country’s population the most.” Needless to say, “impact,” the central concern of this blog, is not the same as “favorite.”Maybe Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is America’s favorite book—I can’t tell for sure—but there are a number of other books that have been far more influential.

I personally would vote for Huckleberry Finn, with The Great Gatsby and Leaves of Grass as runners-up . By naming To Kill a Mockingbird as most impactful, the map’s creator reveals a certain colonialist predilection (or in this case, preference for a novel with a white savior). This becomes increasingly evident when we look at other works on the list:

Algeria – Albert Camus (a Frenchman writing in Algeria), The Stranger
Cuba – Martin Cruz Smith (an American writing about Cuba), Havana Bay. One respondent wrote, “By far the most read author in Cuba is José Martí, though he was more a poet than a novelist. “Versos Sencillos” gave the world classics like “Guantanamera” and can be recited cover to cover by virtually any Cuban.” [Note: The map’s creator didn’t specify novels and the list includes poets Homer and Dante.]
Botswana – Alexander McCall Smith (a Scotsman writing about Botswana), The #1 Ladies Detective Agency
French Guiana – Henry Charriere (a Frenchman imprisoned in French Guiana), Papillon

Some of the selections are indisputable. Among these are:

Russia – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Spain – Cervantes, Don Quixote
Italy – Dante, The Divine Comedy
Argentina – Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
Columbia – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Greece – Homer, Iliad
China – Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber
Nigeria – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Some switches I would make:

England – Works of Shakespeare for Great Expectations (and what about Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre?)
India – Mahabharata/Ramayana for Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things
Japan – Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji for Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro
Germany – Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther for Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks
Ireland – Joyce’s Dubliners for Joyce’s Ulysses (a personal preference)
Canada – Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

It’s particularly enjoyable to watch readers weigh in from all over the world in the comments section. Crowd sourcing may be the only way to aid someone in creating a truly credible map. Still, I’m not going to quarrel overly with something done for fun.

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Disability: Assemble Me Piece by Piece

Frida Kahlo, “Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill”

This week our seniors have been sharing their St. Mary’s Projects with the campus community. In today’s post I share an edited version of Allison Barrett’s presentation, which uses poetry and creative non-fiction to capture the experience of living with a disability. Allison is an English-psychology double major and also winner of the English Department’s prestigious poetry award. I can only share excerpts of her powerful poems as they have been submitted for publication at various journals.

Allison says that she suffers from the following:
–Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (a connective tissue disorder)
–Chiari Malformation (a cerebellar herniation and spine cord compression)
–Spinal Arthritis
–Enchondroma (benign bone tumor that predisposes bones to break; recently removed)
She says that she may also have Tethered Cord Syndrome, but the only way to know is by means of another neurosurgery, something she is hoping to put off for another few months.

Assemble Me Piece by Piece: Femininity, Visibility, and Disability

By Allison Barrett ’17

My St. Mary’s Project represents the intersections of femininity, disability, and visibility in the written form. The overall project contains nine poems and four essays arranged within a manuscript that is divided into three parts: Illumination, Naming, and Challenging. Each section contains works that represent the intersections of these topics.

“Illumination” highlights the stigmatizing and marginalizing that disabled women face while “Naming” articulates the social assumptions imposed upon disabled women through the process of naming. In “Challenging,” finally, poems and essays address the issues and invert expectations in an attempt to subvert the social constructs marginalizing the disabled female.

The poetry in the project details both my own experiences and that of other disabled persons. The creative nonfiction, meanwhile, conveys what I go through in the medical and social communities. I explore whether disability is actually a part of my identity or if that notion has been imposed upon me by a society that cannot accept non-neurotypical states. My identity as a woman, of course, is also important.

My project was informed by reading critical theory on the disabled experience within Western society, including Rosemary Garland-Thompson’s Extraordinary Bodies. Virginia Woolf also proved useful because of how her stream-of-consciousness depictions of each character’s thoughts in Mrs. Dalloway normalizes people who might otherwise appear mentally unstable or mentally disordered. In other words, the novel implies that a potential disability doesn’t matter: all the characters think through matters in the same way.

Meanwhile psychologist Kay Jameson, well known for her research on bipolar disorder, gave me a model for joining clinical language with lyrical depiction. I strive to normalize the clinical terminology (which removes the often intimidating power from the medical process) and introduce lyrical prose and poetry to capture the disabled experience.

In undertaking this project, I have discovered that there is no agreed upon definition of “disability.” One of my essays, “Labeled,” explores the existing confusion over definitions of the condition. For instance, consider the following:

The U.S. Department of Labor claims that “the term ‘disability’ is defined by the federal government in various ways, depending on the context. For the purposes of federal disability nondiscrimination laws … the definition of a person with a disability is typically defined as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

Clearly, the term “disability” resounds in many different ways for different people. This holds true for me. I use the technique of juxtaposing the lyric experience with excerpted materials from medical and government-based texts to showcase the discrepancies between what society deems as “disabled” and how I experience life as a “disabled” individual.

Ultimately, I have a very hard time with that term. “Disability” implies that there is some ideal “ableness” standard to which individuals with conditions such as mine chronically fail to meet. Western society has perpetuated the healthy white male physique as the body to which all should aspire. Women and minorities all immediately start below this bar. Individuals disabled through situational, developmental, or genetic means also fail to meet this standard.

As mentioned before, the first phase of my project explores the effects on the disabled individual’s identity or feelings of self-worth. In the poem “Scar,” I wanted to deliver that information in as concise and illustrative way as possible when describing my feelings as well as the feelings of those I know who have also undergone multiple surgeries. As a carmina figurata, it is a shaped poem, a poem that visually depicts what it means—a scar is split down the center of the text—so as to provide a visual in addition to the words, emphasizing how even the language is split by social perceptions of appearances. It opens as follows:

A scandal puckered   across my skin
     A scabbed split,       a crater carved into the carapace.
Scan me: read between      the lines in my body.

Other pieces are dedicated to naming that experience. “Mirror” attempts to name the positives and negatives of my experiences as a disabled woman as well as the societal stare that we are subjected to, not to mention the male gaze that women suffer through. In the following excerpt, a student I am mentoring fixates on my back brace:

We began going through his paper, and while I was explaining how some Germanic-based words are irregularly conjugated as opposed to the stringently conformist, Latin-based words, I noticed that he was not making eye contact. Instead, his stare was focused on my belt. It was not a steady stare, either; it was actively following the lines of the adjustment ropes, mapping the teeth of the velcro. He didn’t even stop staring when I stopped talking, letting my, “Does that make sense?” break into silence. Instead, my back straightened as much as it could. I wheeled my chair back fractionally, resisted crossing my arms over the belt. I was always told to take pride in my differences, to own them, but that is difficult to do when people freeze the progress in favor of staring at my abdomen. Finally, after a few seconds passed, I leaned down slightly, forcing eye contact, and repeated myself: “Do you understand?” The young man nodded, and then his gaze was directed at the opening in the collar of my shirt. I sighed and leaned back, rolling the chair this time and folding my arms. “Okay,” I said, returned to my computer and work. “Good.”

Every non-neurotypical woman I know has gone through similar unsettling experiences. It is important that we share these stories to challenge what society deems to be socially acceptable. That’s how we begin to initiate change.

In the project’s third section, this challenging takes the form of poems and essays that acknowledge the issues, sometimes inverting expectations completely. The poem “Skin Revision,” for instance, inverts what is considered “treatment” and what “poison.” It also takes the form of a ghazal, an Eastern-originated form of poetry that challenges the more common Western structures and contains a complex structure of a series of couplets that utilize repetition at the end of ending lines in order to emphasize both unity and independence. Additionally, this poem is one of the few that breaks from the “outside diagnosis perspective” in that the speaker takes on a first-person narration.

This first-person narration was cultivated by the voices of individuals close to me who have been diagnosed with cancer. The poem opens as follows

Hospital blinds slant the light of night, a dark collection on my skin
While the antiseptic poisons the infection underneath my skin.

The venom spreads through the veins, branching blood, chasing away disease.
A cellular snake paralyzing, destroying: a viral reduction under my skin.

The final section, “Labeled,” sifts through the terminology that is available currently for disabled individuals and attempts to create a new kind of naming of that experience that is less stigmatized. It concludes as follows:

While the labels are not clear, it is apparent that there needs to be a new understanding. As the language of American society exists now, many of us feel marginalized or stigmatized, made to feel responsible for a physiological difference often unforeseen and uncontrollable. There needs to be a change, not only in the lexicon but also in how people perceive the state of being “chronically ill” or “disabled.” My brain will never learn not to swell when I cough or sing, my tissues will not “cure” themselves of their genetic mutation. While medication and surgery do allay some of the symptoms, my way of being is drastically altered from the typical human experience.

In thinking of new ways in which to address those whose physiology is not typical of the average population, I cannot help but return to the phrase “human being.” When we fixate on the state of the body as if it has been “robbed” of a “typical experience of life,” we eternally fetter that individual to a nonexistent, unfair comparison or to a negative condition that is subtracting from the experience that person is able to obtain as a non-neurotypical being. We become human wereings, human iffings. So I ask that anyone who goes to no great lengths to order their bodies, to grant those who do the deserved acknowledgement as creatures that exist in the here-and-now, to be with us as you are with yourself.

Thank you.

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Swift’s Popularity with Today’s Students


Recently Scott Dickers, publisher of The Onion, visited St. Mary’s as part of our annual Mark Twain series, run by my colleague Ben Click. Not surprisingly, he talked about fake news, including instances where people have believed Onion articles to be real. Chinese media, for instance, took seriously its designation of Kim Jung Un as “the sexiest man alive.”

Asked about the effectiveness of political satire, Dickers acknowledged that it doesn’t accomplish much substantively but is great at rejuvenating political activists. Democracies require constant vigilance, he noted, and the The Onion plays a role in alerting us to issues.

In the question and answer period, I asked whether members of the The Onion read Jonathan Swift and was gratified to learn that the satirist is admired there, especially his attention to detail in his own fake items.

Given how my students packed the gym to hear Dickers, I haven’t been surprised by their enthusiasm for Swift. To provide insight into what the Augustan satirist means to millennials, I report here on three end-of-semester essays I received on Gulliver’s Travels.

Alex Weber discussed the dangers that insecure men pose to the world, which is no small issue these days (although to be fair to Donald Trump, he’s far from the first). Swift’s use of size in the first two books captures the difference between small and large-minded individuals.

In the Lilliputians episode, inflated egos are more humorous than dangerous. That’s because, at least by our standards, there’s only so much damage that a three-inch Lilliputian can do. Therefore we laugh at the Lilliputian king’s claims of greatness.

In the preamble to the articles that Gulliver must sign, for instance, the Lilliputian king sounds like a leader who has boasted about having the largest inauguration and the most successful first 100 days ever. Note the wonderfully understated parenthetical expression, which reads like one of those chyrons that cable news sometimes runs when reporting a Trump falsehood:

Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand blustrugs (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the center, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter: his most sublime majesty proposes to the man-mountain, lately arrived at our celestial dominions, the following articles, which, by a solemn oath, he shall be obliged to perform.

The satire turns grim when Gulliver is amongst the Brobdingnagian giants, however, and we see how small people can turn to murderous force when trying to prove that they are big. To impress the king, Gulliver offers him the secrets of gun powder:

In hopes to ingratiate myself further into his majesty’s favor, I told him of “an invention, discovered between three and four hundred years ago, to make a certain powder, into a heap of which, the smallest spark of fire falling, would kindle the whole in a moment, although it were as big as a mountain, and make it all fly up in the air together, with a noise and agitation greater than thunder.  That a proper quantity of this powder rammed into a hollow tube of brass or iron, according to its bigness, would drive a ball of iron or lead, with such violence and speed, as nothing was able to sustain its force.  That the largest balls thus discharged, would not only destroy whole ranks of an army at once, but batter the strongest walls to the ground, sink down ships, with a thousand men in each, to the bottom of the sea, and when linked together by a chain, would cut through masts and rigging, divide hundreds of bodies in the middle, and lay all waste before them.  That we often put this powder into large hollow balls of iron, and discharged them by an engine into some city we were besieging, which would rip up the pavements, tear the houses to pieces, burst and throw splinters on every side, dashing out the brains of all who came near.  That I knew the ingredients very well, which were cheap and common; I understood the manner of compounding them, and could direct his workmen how to make those tubes, of a size proportionable to all other things in his majesty’s kingdom, and the largest need not be above a hundred feet long; twenty or thirty of which tubes, charged with the proper quantity of powder and balls, would batter down the walls of the strongest town in his dominions in a few hours, or destroy the whole metropolis, if ever it should pretend to dispute his absolute commands.”  This I humbly offered to his majesty, as a small tribute of acknowledgment, in turn for so many marks that I had received, of his royal favor and protection.

When Alex and I discussed the scene, Trump’s bombing of Syria came immediately to mind. Unfortunately, the fact that pundits and much of the media swooned over the attack indicates that they are not as “big” as the Brobdingnagian ruler, who is horrified:

The king was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made.  “He was amazed, how so impotent and groveling an insect as I” (these were his expressions) “could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner, as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines; whereof,” he said, “some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver.” 

Alex wondered whether the insecurities Swift describes grow out of despair over “man’s relative unimportance in stark contrast to the vastness of the cosmos.” Upon reflection, I recalled some dark Swift poems where identity splinters and disintegrates into an amorphous mass (“A Description of a City Shower,” “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed”). A fear of being nothing–emptiness at the core–may help explain Trump’s bombast.

Michael Barrett had another interesting take, arguing that Gulliver learns what it’s like to move from an entitled member of society to an oppressed minority. As long as Gulliver is a giant in the land of the Lilliputians, he can see himself above politics and shrug off slights. When he is a Lilliputian in a land of giants, on the other hand, he must be hyperaware of everything around him. It’s the difference between driving while white and driving while black.

Only Gulliver, having once been privileged, can’t make the adjustment. Instead, he insists on seeing himself as a giant in Book II and then as a houyhnhnm in Book IV. In addition to his efforts to impress the Brobdingnagian king with gun powder, he returns to England thinking he is big:

As I was on the road, observing the littleness of the houses, the trees, the cattle, and the people, I began to think myself in Lilliput.  I was afraid of trampling on every traveler I met, and often called aloud to have them stand out of the way, so that I had like to have gotten one or two broken heads for my impertinence.

In Book IV, meanwhile, he is so intent on distinguishing himself from the yahoos that he approves of the houyhnhnm plan to exterminate them and he himself uses their skin for sails on his ship. In other words, his identification with the powerful prompts him to commit atrocities against his own kind.

Michael and I talked about the cognitive dissonance that arises when formerly privileged people find themselves to be powerless. They will sometimes do anything to keep from admitting that they are small or yahoo. This may help explain why unemployed coal miners and factory workers voted for Trump: they imagine they are up there with him lambasting The Establishment.

In a third essay, political science major Sam Baker was excited that the yahoo-houyhnhnm divide essentially pits Hobbes’s “man in a state of nature” against Plato’s philosopher kings. Political theorists, Sam realized, often mistakenly think that a system exists that can overcome human fallibility. Those totalitarians, fundamentalists, and ideologues who demand a pure and total way of organizing society may, out of frustration, ultimately endorse yahoo genocide. The houyhnhnms banish Gulliver as Plato banishes poets, and Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, and ISIS enacted more extreme measures.

Sam actually found some relief in Swift’s observation that no system can be perfect and that we must always live with flaws. Acknowledging this could open our politics to compromise.

In short, one of history’s greatest satirists is getting my students to grapple with foundational issues.

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Jane Eyre, Still Groundbreaking

Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (2006 miniseries version)


I spent yesterday listening to our seniors present their St. Mary’s Projects, a two-semester independent study that English majors can opt to undertake. Kayla Waring, an English-Film double major whose project I mentored, explained why most film versions of Jane Eyre (1847)are disappointing, at least in her eyes.

As Kayla sees is, Jane Eyre has a quest plot that masquerades as a marriage plot. Her reading relies on the formulation of feminist theorist Rachael Blau DuPlessis, who argues that one couldn’t have both in the 19th century. If Bronte had not included a marriage romance, Kayla believes, her novel wouldn’t have been published, so one shouldn’t take “Reader, I married him” seriously. Instead, one should see the novel as a woman’s struggle for autonomy. Jane doesn’t seek marriage to be fulfilled.

Kayla also leans on Jody Bower’s argument that Jane Eyre has an “Aletis” or “wandering heroine” plot. This is in contrast with male quest plots, which have more clearly defined forward-trajectories.

In writing such a novel, Kayla argues that Bronte was courageously challenging the “horizon of expectations” of her time, which expected women to be docile and submissive hearth angels. According to reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, whose ideas Kayla used, great works of literature challenge their age’s horizon while “culinary” works conform to them. Ultimately great works like Jane Eyre can change the horizon, but it sometimes takes a while.

Kayla notes that only a few of Bronte’s contemporaries understood how radical Jane Eyre was. Conservative Elizabeth Rigby did and accordingly hated the novel, calling it unfeminine, unchristian, and chartist (which is to say, communist). Kayla believes that Rigby, a successful journalist, feared that Jane Eyre would expose her own unfeminine ambitions and perhaps her own repressed anger.

While a number of men loved Jane Eyre, Kayla points out that they ignored Jane’s anger, most fully expressed through her alter ego Bertha Mason. Instead, like George Henry Lewes, they focused on angelic Helen Burns and on the marriage plot. Kayla believes it is necessary to adjust Jauss’s theory slightly: one may choose to misread a work to bring it in line with existing social expectations. That’s the downside of “Reader, I married him”: while it may have provided Bronte with cover, it also gave readers an escape hatch.

It was an escape hatch that most of the 20th century adaptations would take. In the 1943 Orson Welles version, for instance, Kayla notes that the job of Joan Fontaine’s Jane is to redeem the tormented Rochester. The 1943 Jane Eyre has a film noir aesthetic, which focuses on men fearful for their masculinity, and Fontaine must be a healing presence. Otherwise she would be a dangerous femme fatale.

Kayla believes that the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli version fails because, following the feminist revolution of the 1970s, it can no long fully commit to the marriage plot but it can’t fully commit to the quest plot either. Without a strong female protagonist or a strong love story, it has nothing to offer anyone and becomes gray mush.

Kayla’s favorite adaptation is the 2006 BBC television series, which focuses on Jane’s development as an individual and takes seriously her career as a teacher and school mistress. These plot aspects outweigh the fact that Jane gets married. Kayla notes that it’s the only version directed by a woman.

Kayla says that we’re not home free yet, however. In the 2011 Cary Fukunaga version, the film schizophrenically shifts from a strong independent Jane back to the marriage plot, testimony to the continuing box office demand for the latter. Fukunaga’s version is different from Zeffirelli’s only in that it tries to commit to both plots instead of neither.

Kayla, who does not herself want to be defined by marriage, says that Bronte was at least 160 years ahead of her time. And perhaps still counting.

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Berry Chooses Hope over Despair

Environmental March, April 29, 2017


You know that conservatives have strayed from their core ideals when they can’t embrace conservation. Teddy Roosevelt would be horrified by Trumpism’s attacks on clean water, clean skies, and our National Parks. Fortunately, millions of Americans care deeply about the environment and are pushing back.

Wendell Berry’s “The Vision” could serve as the guiding star for the environmental movement. In it, the poet dreams a “paradisal dream” where old growth forests return, rivers run clear, springs are liberated, and the world is canopied over with bird song. The word “if” does heavy lifting in the poem, however. Berry says that this vision can happen “if we will have the wisdom to survive” and “if we make our seasons welcome here,/asking not too much of earth and heaven.”

The poem can be paired with another Berry poem, “The Dream,” in the way that several of Blake’s Songs of Experience pair up with Songs of Innocence. Both poems start similarly in that “Dream” also dreams of a world in which the damage inflicted by human beings has been removed:

I dream an inescapable dream
in which I take away from the country
the bridges and roads, the fences, the strung wires,
ourselves, all we have built and dug and hollowed out,
our flocks and herds, our droves of machines.

“Dream” is a do-over fantasy, and Berry imagines getting it right this time, using his foreknowledge to guide him:

                             I must end, always, by replacing
our beginning there, ourselves and our blades,
the flowing in of history, putting back what I took away,
trying always with the same pain of foreknowledge
to build all that we have built, but destroy nothing.

He soon discovers, however, that there is something intrinsic within human beings that suggests history will repeat itself. Blindness seizes the mind as old habits of mind reassert themselves:

My hands weakening, I feel on all sides blindness
growing in the land on its peering bulbous stalks.
I see that my mind is not good enough.
I see that I am eager to own the earth and to own men.
I find in my mouth a bitter taste of money,
a gaping syllable I can neither swallow nor spit out.
I see all that we have ruined in order to have, all
that was owned for a lifetime to be destroyed forever.

The poem ends in despair:

Where are the sleeps that escape such dreams?

In one of those fortuitous teaching accidents, I taught “A Dream” right after Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which also contains a do-over fantasy. In Atwood’s novel, however, the man engineering the do-over is an eco-terrorist, the brilliant genetic scientist Crake, who releases a killer virus on the world. He is a Jahweh destroying Earth with a genetic flood.

Unlike Jahweh, however, he tinkers with the original creation. Crake replaces homo sapiens with a new race of humans genetically engineered so that they will not damage the planet: they are herbivores, they have non-lethal ways of fending off predators, and their mating is communal so that males don’t fight over females.

We aren’t told about the long-term results of Crake’s engineering although there are signs that, in spite of his efforts, the “Crakers” are beginning to develop art and religion. Since Crake saw these as human traits that contributed to human evil, the future is in doubt.

In other words, humans are probably going to mess up the planet regardless. We can’t (this is something Blake understood very well) remain within a perpetual state of innocence but must grapple with the fact that humans are fallen creatures and operate out of sin. Blake’s Songs of Experience come after Songs of Innocence. We can only make progress if we acknowledge this about ourselves.

With Berry, however, “Vision” (1977)  was written after “Dream” (1968), the hopeful poem after the despairing one. Before turning (at long last) to the poem, it’s useful to look at what Berry says elsewhere about improbable hope.

In “The Testament,” a poem where Berry tells his friends how to respond to his death, he warns them “not to say/Anything too final. Whatever/ Is unsure is possible.” He is talking about his individual death—how things might happen to us after we die that are beyond all comprehension–but his observations can extend to our survival as a species. He reminds us that “life is bigger than flesh” and instructs us,

       Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure

Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves.

So when, at the end of “Vision,” he says that the hardship of restoring the world “is its possibility,” he is asking us to step into our imaginations. If we have a life-affirming belief that something is possible, hardship will be no obstacle.

As Berry puts it in “Testament, “Why settle/For some know-it-all’s despair.” Those who marched Saturday are not settling.

A Vision

By Wendell Berry

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened..
Families will be singing in their fields.
In the voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into a legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

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‘Tis Holy To Love What Death Has Touched

Justin carrying the cross at the National Cathedral

Spiritual Sunday

Seventeen years ago today—it was the first rather than the second Sunday after Easter—my eldest son drowned in the St. Mary’s River. Justin’s death no longer tears at my heart every day, but there is a hole there. I treasure that hole because it keeps me in touch with him.

My friend Dana Greene recently sent me the following poem when we were both in mourning for our dear friend Kate Chandler. Judah Halevi, the great 12 century Jewish poet and philosopher, captures the powerful paradox of loving what is mortal in “‘Tis a Fearful Thing.” Seen logically, doing so is “a thing for fools.” That is why it is holy.

‘Tis a Fearful Thing

By Judah Halevi

’Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

’Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

Justin had a wonderful laugh and was full of life. To remember this brings painful joy.

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Lit, An Antidote to Authoritarianism

Eastman Johnson, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” (1863)


Last month in The New York Times, Libyan novelist Hisham Matar touted literature as a powerful response to authoritarianism. The ideas will not be new to readers of this blog, but it’s always good to see literature reaffirmed in a public forum.

While Matar begins by talking about how we may read literature to “know the world” (or as Emily Dickinson puts it, “to take us lands away”), he then reverses course and talks about the shock of recognition when the foreign becomes familiar:

But the most magical moments in reading occur not when I encounter something unknown but when I happen upon myself, when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along. I am reminded then that I am really no different from anyone else.

Perhaps that is the secret motive behind every library: to stumble upon ourselves in the lives and lands and tongues of others. And the more foreign the setting, the more poignant the event seems. For a strange thing occurs then: A distance widens and then it is crossed.

How many times, and in ways that did not seem to require my consent, have I suddenly and in my own bed found myself to be Russian or French or Japanese? How many times have I been a peasant or an aristocrat? How many times have I been a woman? I have been free and without liberty, gay, disabled, old, loved and loathed.

Matar is taking a universalist position here, asserting that “great literature has always flowed to the universal.” He sets up this universalism against the “narrow visions of right-wing populists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage.” Books, he says, can

develop our emotional, psychological and intellectual life, and, by doing so, show us how and to what extent we are connected.

This is why literature is the greatest argument for the universalist instinct, and this is why literature is intransigent about its liberty. It refuses to be enrolled, regardless of how noble or urgent the project. It cannot be governed or dictated to. It is by instinct interested in conflicting empathies, in men and women who are running into their own hearts, in doubt and contradictions. Which is why, without even intending to, and like a moon to the night, it disrupts the totalitarian narrative. What it reveals about our human nature is central to the conversation today.

In arguing for literature’s universalism, Matar takes issue with identitarianism, which argues that we can’t truly enter into the mindset of a different gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc. For identitarians, Matar says, “individual life is, first and foremost, representative of a racial, religious or cultural category.” In opposing this view, Matar aligns himself with Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, who sees as narrowly provincial those who write “for a specific nation or a specific race.”

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum takes a similar view in“Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.” Believing that literature is essential for creating “world citizens,” she writes,

The world-citizen view insists on the need for all citizens to understand differences with which they need to live; it sees citizens as striving to deliberate and to understand across these divisions. It is connected with a conception of democratic debate as deliberation about the common good. The identity-politics view, by contrast, depicts the citizen body as a marketplace of identity-based interest groups jockeying for power, and views difference as something to be affirmed rather than understood.

And further on:

An especially damaging consequence of identity-politics in the literary academy is the belief, which one encounters in both students and scholars, that only a member of a particular oppressed group can write well or, perhaps, even read well about that group’s experiences. Only female writers understand the experience of women; only African-American writers understand black experience. This claim has a superficial air of plausibility, since it is hard to deny that members of oppressed groups frequently do know things about their lives that other people do not know…But in general, if we want to understand the situation of a group, we do well to begin with the best that has been written by members of that group…We could learn nothing from such works if it were impossible to cross group boundaries in imagination.

Given that white identitarian politics have taken over the White House at the moment, universalism must be the left’s focus. I appreciate their concerns about universalism, and so does Nussbaum, who agrees that literary interpretation “is indeed superficial if it preaches the simplistic message that we are all alike under the skin.” We don’t have to see our choice as either-or, however.

When I read, I note both the points where I connect with characters and the points where I feel I’m missing something. That’s why we need diversity in college faculties. Those of us who teach older works negotiate the sameness-difference divide all the time, as I pointed out yesterday when my 18th century Couples Comedy class discussed Sense and Sensibility. While we relate to Elinor and Marianne in many ways, we also have to factor in their far more formal society and their rigid rules. Are our cultural differences with Austen or Shakespeare or the Beowulf poet greater than differences between various American ethnicities?

Negotiating sameness and difference in literature is not unlike what different activist groups must go through if they are to make common cause.

So think of literature’s universalism as an antidote to Trump’s exclusionary politics. Matar believes that Trump excludes because he does not understand, and therefore fears, multicultural complexity:

What false vigor then must demonizing and excluding millions of innocent people based on their race and religion inspire. And just like the censor who underestimates the common reader, Mr. Trump too has a limited interpretation of himself and therefore of humanity. And just like the censor, his actions will damage the fiber of his society because, in the long run, the more lasting damage falls on the one doing the excluding more than those being excluded.

If only Trump’s parents had read to him when he was a child.

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House of Spirits, Authoritarians on the Rise

Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueba in “House of Spirits”


What with Donald Trump ascending to the White House, Vladimir Putin throwing his weight around, Turkish President Erdogan claiming dictatorial powers, and French fascist Marine LePen making it to the second round of France’s presidential election, authoritarianism appears to be having a moment. Suddenly there are dire warnings about the future of multicultural democracies, as Adam Gopnik recently noted in a New Yorker article entitled, “Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?”

As it happens, Gopnik actually thinks doomsayers are overreacting and warns of the dangerous allure of “presentism”:

Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. 

So don’t be too sure that ethnic nationalism is about to sweep through all developed countries. Yet while I take some comfort from  Gopnik’s article, I also find myself paying a lot more attention to literary descriptions of authority figures.

Here, for instance, is Isabel Allende’s description in House of Spirits of landowner Esteban Trueba. Whether Trueba is providing his peasants with schools or deflowering their daughters, building them houses or busting unions, there is one constant: he is the boss and may not be questioned.

I find it unsettling that many of his tendencies can be found in our current President, with only a few checks and balances preventing Trump from following Trueba’s path. I have no doubt that Trump dreams of possessing such unchallenged power:

In the course of the next ten years, Esteban Trueba became the most respected patron in the region. He built brick houses for his workers, hired a teacher for the school, and raised the standard of living of everyone on his lands. Tres Marias was a good business that required no help from the seam of gold [in his mine]; on the contrary, it served as collateral for an extension on his concession to the mine. Trueba’s bad temper became legend, and grew so exaggerated that it even made him uncomfortable. He forbade anyone to talk back to him and could tolerate no opposition; he viewed the slightest disagreement as a provocation His concupiscence also intensified. Not a girl passed from puberty to adulthood that he did not subject to the woods, the riverbank, or the wrought-iron bed. When there were no more available women in Tres Marias, he began to chase after those from the neighboring haciendas, taking them in the wink of an eye, anywhere he could find a place in the fields, usually at dusk. He did not bother to hide, because he was afraid of no one. On a few occasions, a brother, father, husband, or employer showed up at Tres Marias to call him to account, but faced with his uncontrolled violence, these visits in the name of justice or revenge became less frequent. Word of his cruelty spread throughout the region, provoking jealous admiration among the men of his class. The peasants hid their daughters and clenched their fists helplessly because they could not confront him. Esteban Trueba was stronger, and he had impunity. Twice the bullet-riddled bodies of peasants from other haciendas were discovered. There was not the shadow of a doubt in anybody’s mind that the guilty one was from Tres Marias, but the rural police simply recorded that bit of information in their record book with the tortured hand of the semi-literate, adding that the victims had been caught committing a theft. The matter never went any further. Trueba continued polishing his reputation as a rake, sowing the entire region with his bastard offspring, reaping hatred, and storing up sins that barely nicked him because he had hardened his soul and silenced his conscience with the excuse of progress. In vain, Pedro Segundo Garcia and the old priest from the nuns’ hospital tried to suggest to him that it was not little brick houses or pints of milk that made a man a good employer or an honest Christian, but rather giving his workers a decent salary instead of slips of pink paper, a workload that did not grind their bones to dust, and a little respect and dignity. Trueba would not listen to this sort of thing: it smacked, he said, of Communism.

“They’re degenerate ideas,” he muttered. “Bolshevik ideas designed to turn the tenants against me. What they don’t realize is that these poor people are completely ignorant and uneducated. They’re like children, they can’t handle responsibility. How could they know what’s best for them. Without me they’d be lost—if you don’t believe me, just look what happens every time I turn my back. Everything goes to pieces and they start acting like a bunch of donkeys. They’re very ignorant. My people have it fine now, what more do they need? They have everything they want. If they complain, it’s out of sheer ingratitude.

Trump contends that he’s a populist who cares about coal miners, industrial workers, and other members of the white working class. Don’t be fooled. Trump has Trueba’s contempt for his followers. He wants grateful subjects, not citizens.

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Handmaid’s Tale, More Relevant Than Ever

Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale”


With Hulu set to release The Handmaid’s Tale tomorrow, I have gathered together all the posts I’ve written on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic. As several observers have pointed out, the series, which would have seemed merely interesting had Hillary Clinton been elected president, seems urgent now that we have a “pussy grabber” in the White House and learn more daily about the toxic misogynist culture at Fox News.

Nor would things be much better if Donald Trump were impeached. Mike Pence not only is a firm opponent of abortion, Planned Parenthood, and various forms of birth control, but he even fears being alone with women. The religious right salivates over the prospect of either Trump or Pence replacing the aging Ginsburg and Breyer with rightwing justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. Atwood reminds us that the desire to control women’s bodies never entirely leaves political conversations.

Those rightwing women who have signed up for the campaign should be wary, however. Sarah Jones’s recent New Republic article advises women like Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway to read Handmaid’s Tale as it has lessons for them as well. If they lash their wagons to misogynist men, they may end up like the frustrated Serena Joy, a powerful woman who helps bring the fundamentalists to power and then finds herself confined to her husband’s home.

Jones describes how reading Handmaid’s Tale while attending a religious college prompted her to leave the church. She was struck by how, at her school, rightwing women used feminism’s tools to advance measures designed to oppress women. This is exactly what happens in Atwood’s novel:

My alma mater capitalized on the “pro-woman” claims established by Schlafly and her ilk. Their greatest achievement was to take a language of female empowerment from the women’s movement and turn it to their own purposes. No one has noted this inversion more ruefully than Atwood. Offred’s mother, we are told, was a second-wave feminist. She envisioned a porn-free society that would largely exclude men. “You wanted a women’s culture,” Offred imagines telling her. “Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

In the Tale, this paradox is exemplified not just by Serena Joy but by Aunt Lydia. Cruder and lower-ranked, Aunt Lydia is the hand that wields the cattle prod. She’s charged with the re-education of future Handmaids, and she accomplishes this by emphasizing both the high value of women and the necessity of their oppression. “A thing is valued,” she teaches, “only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls…. Think of yourselves as pearls.” Serena Joy chose her life. Lydia is empowered to attack other women with a cattle prod. Both are proof that women are represented in Gilead’s power structure. If feminism is only about representation, choice, or some vaguely sketched notion of empowerment, it is difficult to say our Serena Joys and our Aunt Lydias are not feminists.

Feminism has to stand up for the freedom of all women, not just some women, Jones says:

The Handmaid’s Tale does more than present a possible future: It asks us to consider how we’d end up there. A form of feminism that celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed, will usher us into fascism. Feminism means something. Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too. Allow an antichoice woman to call herself a feminist, and you have ceded political territory that you cannot afford to lose. Stripped of political meaning, “feminist” becomes an entirely subjective term that anyone with any agenda can use.

Fortunately we’re not in Atwood’s world yet, perhaps because we haven’t had the environmental or nuclear cataclysm that Atwood sees as a necessary precondition. But like many liberals since the election, I have taken to periodically reminding myself, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Atwood’s masterpiece helps us remain vigilant.

Previous posts on The Handmaid’s Tale

GOP Christians Send Readers to Atwood (Feb. 2017)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is topping bestseller lists at the moment. The reason is probably because of the GOP’s prospect of success in curbing reproductive freedom.

Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy (Sept. 2016)

Recently deceased Phyllis Schlafly served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “Handmaid’s Tale.” Because Serena Joy gets the society she says she wants, however, her life turns bitter. Schlafly was lucky to live in a society that allowed women to have their own careers.

Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point (Feb. 2015)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is required reading for entering West Point cadets. Good things could happen.

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True (July 2013)

With the rise in state legislatures passing anti-abortion legislation, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” seems more relevant than ever.

Threatened by Female Empowerment (Oct. 2012)

Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” addresses issues raised by the Taliban shooting of a Pakistani school girl and also speaks to our abortion fights.

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To Save Planet, Scientists Must Protest

March for Science, April 22, 2017


My favorite sign from the various marches for science that occurred this past weekend read, “So bad even introverts are here.” In my experience with scientists, most would rather be in their labs than out protesting. They believe that seeking out truth should be above politics.

The sense of being above others can invite charges of elitism that are sometimes warranted. I think of the special friendship between two Victorian scientists in The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

He eyed Charles more kindly.

“A Darwinian?”


Grogan then seized his hand and gripped it; as if he were Crusoe, and Charles Man Friday….They knew they were like two grains of yeast in a sea of lethargic dough—two grains of salt in a vast tureen of insipid broth.

Our two carbonari of the mind—has not the boy in man always adored playing at secret societies?—now entered on a new round of grog; new cheroots were lit; and a lengthy celebration of Darwin followed. They ought, one may think to have been humbled by the great new truths they were discussing; but I am afraid the mood in both of them—and in Charles especially, when he finally walked home in the small hours of the morning—was one of exalted superiority, intellectual distance above the rest of their fellow creatures.

Elitist or not, Charles and Grogan would have seen politics as necessary in Victorian England to give science its proper due. Since then, however, science has largely won out over theology, allowing scientists to bask in the illusion that they can keep their hands clean. With the religious right having put their candidate in the White House, those days have come to an end.

The need for scientists to enter the political arena is made clear in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Entomologist Ovid Byron, studying a climate-induced crisis within the monarch butterfly population, tries to limit the scope of his responsibilities. Protagonist Dellarobia is not so sure:

“We cannot jump to conclusions. All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science.”

It seemed to Dellarobia that the task of science was a good deal larger than that. Someone had to explain things. If men like Ovid Byron were holding back, the [television reporter] Tina Ultners of this world were going to take their shots.

Byron is right that the measuring and counting have to be accurate and peer reviewed. The necessary support for their work will not be forthcoming, however, if they don’t convince people of its value.

With climate change, they have an uphill battle. Byron understands that scientists can’t always deliver what the public wants:

He avoided meeting her eye. “We should be physicians, or some kind of superheroes saving the patient with special powers. That’s what people want.”

She didn’t reply, wondering if he was right about that. Probably it was true. People resisted hearing the details of a problem, even when it was something personal, like their own cancer. What they wanted was a fix.

By the same token, scientists can’t deliver what television wants, as the following confrontation between Byron and Ultner makes clear:

“The station has gotten about five hundred e-mails about these butterflies, almost all favorable. Is this really where you want to go with this segment? Because I think you’re going to lose your audience.”

Ovid looked genuinely startled. “I am a scientist. Are you suggesting I change my answer to improve your ratings?”

When Ultner complains that she can’t get a good “visual” for a story about climate change, Byron explodes:

“You have a job to do, woman, and you are not doing it.” Ovid’s head dropped forward and his eyes narrowed, a posture that stunned Dellarobia. She’d never figured him for a schoolyard fighter. He took a step forward, leveling his finger like a blade toward her chest, inciting in Tina an equal and opposite step backward. “Fire is an excellent visual, Tina. So are hurricanes, and floods. The whole damn melting Arctic.” They edged into the part of the lab where the stuff was piled from the portion they’d cleaned up. “How will you feel ten years from now, when a serious lot of the farms in the world don’t have a damn rainy season anymore? And you were party to that?”

Byron’s speech, of course, doesn’t make it onto the television news, but someone records it, puts it on YouTube, and it goes viral. Byron becomes political in spite of himself.

Dellarobia, who herself may some day become a bridge between the science community and rural America, also persuades Byron to talk to school children, another way of getting the word out.

I teach Flight Behavior in Introduction to Literature, where it is not uncommon for half the class to be biology, biochemistry, and environmental studies majors. We talk about the need for scientists to step outside of their silos and regard their work in a larger context. They see how it may be necessary for them to talk to people with very different views of the world, including potentially conservative evangelicals in Appalachian Tennessee. We discuss how a liberal arts education will aid them.

According to the novel, extreme weather events can create an opening for scientists to make their voices heard. They just have to take advantage. Introverts must leave their labs.

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Kosinski Foresaw Our Television President

Peter Sellers in “Being There”


America is gradually coming to the realization that it has elected Chance the Gardener as president. If we want to understand Donald Trump’s unexpected success, we can find some answers in the  protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novella.

Being There is about a retarded man who suddenly finds himself adrift in the world after spending his entire life cared for by a wealthy man. Gardening and television are Chance’s only two activities, yet somehow they take him as far as the White House.

The book’s satiric joke is that Chance functions as a mirror in which everyone sees what he or she wants to see. We are such a narcissistic society, Kosinski indicates, that a person can go far by simply parroting back to others what they desire. For instance, when Chance spouts gardening truisms, people in high places see him delivering metaphors that validate their policy positions. The President asks Chance what he thinks about “the bad season in The Street” and approves of his response:

“In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” He raised his eyes. Rand [his host] was looking at him, nodding. The President seemed quite pleased.

“I must admit, Mr. Gardiner,” the President said, “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.”

The president goes on to quote Chance in a speech, which draws the attention of Washington insiders. When Chance makes another horticultural observation, people are impressed:

“Hear, hear!” the woman sitting on Chance’s right cried out. “He’s marvelous!” she whispered to the companion on her right in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. To the others, she said: “Mr. Gardiner has the uncanny ability of reducing complex matters to the simplest of human terms. But by bringing this down to earth, to our own home,” the woman continued, “I can see the priority and urgency which Mr. Gardiner and the influential men like him, including our President, who quotes him so often, give to this matter.” Several of the others smiled.

Recall that many people thought Trump was being metaphorical when he promised to deport millions of immigrants and build a wall.

The idea that voters project is nothing new. It is how our leaders manage to stitch together diverse constituencies. Where Chance and Trump are unusual, however, is that confusing television and reality is the very key to their success.

Let’s look first at television’s effect on each man. Here’s Chance venturing out into the world for the first time:

He was surprised: the street, the cars, the buildings, the people, the faint sounds were images already burned into his memory. So far, everything outside the gate resembled what he had seen on TV; if anything, objects and people were bigger, yet slower, simpler and more cumbersome. He had the feeling that he had seen it all.

And here’s Trump, as described by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine:

“Trump is an avid television viewer. He’s a product of television. He loves television. It’s his first source of interest,” former CNN host Larry King, a longtime Trump friend, recently told BuzzFeed. During the campaign, Trump once claimed in complete earnestness that he would not require policy advisers because he could get his information from “the shows.” He has reportedly selected his Cabinet officials in part based on whether they “look the part” for television — which sounds implausible until you remember that Trump’s candidacy was launched in large degree by turning the character he played on a reality show into a viable political persona. 

Indeed, Trump appears to have reversed his previous opposition to intervening in Syria based on televised images of children gassed by Bashar al-Assad:

“That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” Trump saw something on television that upset him, so he cast aside his position and formulated a new one, which neither Trump nor his advisers could articulate, driven by his newfound, apparently sincere, but diffuse outrage at the brutality of the dictator he had once touted as a potential partner against ISIS. The televised images of suffering overrode everything he had said about the issue for years.

Because of their familiarity with television’s conventions, both Chance and Trump are able to manipulate people. For instance, when a woman starts conversing with Chance, he appears to understand her:

Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encouraged her to continue and elaborate. Each time Chance repeated EE’s words, she brightened and looked more confident. In fact, she became so at ease that she began to punctuate her speech by touching, now his shoulder, now his arm. Her words seemed to float inside his head; he observed her as if she were on television.

Chance performs just as well in a televised interview, even though it is on a subject he knows nothing about:

Upstairs, Chance was met by Rand’s secretary: “That was a truly remarkable performance, sir,” the woman said. “I have never seen anyone more at ease, or truer to himself. Thank goodness, we still have people like you in this country.”

A fair number of people see Trump this way as well. Even though he lies with virtually every breath he takes, they regard him as more trustworthy than those who carefully parse their words. He knows how to perform confidence and sincerity.

Nor could anyone accuse either man of hiding who he is. Chance never pretends to be anything but a gardener, and Trump during the election forthrightly invited the Russians to hack the Clinton campaign. We perhaps think that Trump cannot have colluded with the Russians because he has so obviously refrained from criticizing Vladimir Putin while, at the same time, doing things that the Russian head wants (attacking NATO, changing the GOP platform on Ukraine). Wouldn’t he try to hide these things if he were guilty?

By the end of Being There, Chance appears to be Vice-President or maybe even President. We’re so apt to project that we overlook what stares us in the face. Until it’s too late.

Further thought: Although I’ve been comparing Donald Trump to Chance, in some ways Vice-President Mike Pence seems an even better candidate. He shows a face of granite resolve to the cameras yet it’s not clear that there is much behind the look. I remember the election debate when he only shook his head sadly when Tim Kaine detailed Trump’s many lies and contradictions, as though he was disappointed that his opponent had stooped so low. It worked for a while when he was Governor of Indiana, but then people caught on and his approval ratings were plummeting by the time he was chosen by Trump.

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Little Flower, If I Could Understand


Spiritual Sunday

Yesterday, for Earth Day, a number of my science colleagues marched in Washington protesting the administration’s attacks on empirical science. Donald Trump’s contempt for the scientific method and established scientific fact has galvanized people who have never before engaged in political action.

In an unholy alliance, Donald Trump has allied himself with rightwing Christians and large corporations as he goes after climate science, air and water standards, pesticide regulations, and the academy generally. It is therefore good to remind the public that not all of us who call ourselves Christian see a conflict between science and religion. Many of us are like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose poetry explores both the material and the spiritual realms.

Tennyson kept up with the latest scientific discoveries of his age. In Memoriam, where he struggles with his faith following the death of his best friend, alludes to recent geological discoveries. Idylls of the King, as the Victorian Web observes, sees God working through evolution:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world…

In “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” today’s poem, Tennyson uproots a flower in order to study it. It’s not enough to simply gaze and gaze, as Wordsworth does with daffodils, the pansy at his feet, and the meanest flower that blows. Like a scientist, Tennyson wants to scrutinize the root as well as the petals:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

While he may study the flower like a scientist, however, Tennyson is not a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking, striving to find scientific explanations for what we call God. He wants to understand “all in all” in addition to “root and all”—which is to say, the place of this fragile thing in the overall scheme of things. The poet, attuned to both beauty and botany, is so amazed at this tiny life form that he compares it to the complexities of divinity and humanity. He may hold the flower in his hands but it is beyond him.

Put another way, he’s not saying, “Through scientific observation I will figure out God and humanity,” but rather, “Truly understanding this flower is as far beyond me as understanding God and human beings is.” The poem does not signal arrogance but amazement.

The scientists I admire most are those that operate out of reverence and awe. While they seek to uncover the secrets of the universe, they do so out of divine curiosity. They search not for mastery but enlightenment.

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Sports Injuries, Declining Magical Powers


By the end of last year, my tennis game—a passion second only to reading—had reached a new level of excellence. Then, however, I developed a case of plantar fasciitis, and that was followed by cataract surgery in my left eye. When I finally returned to the courts two months ago, it was as though I was playing the game for the first time. My eyes refused to coordinate and balls bounced off my racket frame when I tried to serve. I ran gingerly and couldn’t reach balls that had once been routine.

Luckily I had literary precedents to comfort me, episodes in Lloyd Alexander’s Black Cauldron and Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea in which the protagonists lose their powers. That’s one thing that a lifetime of reading gives you: whatever happens, you can find a narrative where something similar has happened.

In Black Cauldron, Taran inherits “the brooch of Adaon,” a magical talisman that enhances his senses and awareness and gives him special prophetic powers. Wearing it, he feels a sense of mastery:

As Melynlas cantered over the frosty ground, Taran caught sight of a glittering, dew-covered web on a hawthorn branch and of the spider busily repairing it. Taran was aware, strangely, of vast activities along the forest trail. Squirrels prepared their winter hoard; ants labored in their earthen castles. He could see them clearly, not so much with his eyes but in a way he had never known before.

The air itself bore special scents. There was a ripple, sharp and clear, like cold wine. Taran knew, without stopping to think, that a north wind had just begun to rise.

Taran describes the experience thus:

“All I know is that I feel differently somehow. I can see things I never saw before—or smell or taste them. I can’t say exactly what it is. It’s strange, and awesome in a way. And very beautiful sometimes. There are things that I know…” Taran shook his head. “And I don’t even know how I know them.”

With these powers, he is able to guide his friends through treacherous marches and save them from the Death Lord’s murderous followers. He must surrender it to acquire the black cauldron, however, and finds himself stumbling through a reality that once he negotiated easily. That’s how I felt out on the tennis courts.

In Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is the most talented student at the magicians college, effortlessly performing feats of magic that others must labor to learn.

At all these studies Ged was apt and within a month was bettering lads who had been a year at Roke before him. Especially the tricks of illusion came to him so easily that it seemed he had been born knowing them and needed only to reminded.

I cite the passage, not because I’ve ever been a gifted tennis player, but to capture the distance between before and after. Ged loses his powers after his magic opens up a forbidden doorway and he is nearly killed by a dark shadowy figure. When he recovers, he discovers that he has lost his instinctive feel and must learn magic the hard way, just as everyone else does:

The boys he had led and lorded over were all ahead of him now, because of the months he had lost, and that spring and summer he studied with lads younger than himself. Nor did he shine among them, for the words of any spell, even the simplest illusion-charm, came halting from his tongue, and his hands faltered at their craft.

What I am describing is the experience of all injured athletes, and some never fully regain their abilities. Seeing these powers through the lens of fantasy fiction captures how precious their skills appear and how tragic it is when they are lost forever. To borrow a line from Robert Frost’s “Oven Bird,” we must grapple with what to make of a diminished thing.

Yesterday I hit some of my first good ground strokes in months, and my foot wasn’t too sore afterwards. Taran and Ged also recover. Hope springs eternal.

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Calling Out Trump’s War Enablers


I wrote yesterday about my distress over the applause Donald Trump is receiving for his aggressive moves towards Syria (which we bombed in violation of international law), Afghanistan (where we dropped the largest non-nuclear warhead ever delivered), and North Korea (which Trump appears to be deliberately trying to antagonize). An accolade that characterizes much of the response was MSNBC’s Brian Williams quoting a Leonard Cohen lyric while watching the bombing of a Syrian airfield:

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Let’s take a close look at the quotation which, like many of Cohen’s images, is surreal and enigmatic. Here are the first four stanzas of “First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin”:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’d really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those

Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Perhaps, as some have suggested, Cohen is writing about breaking free of musical obscurity and storming two venues where musicians become famous. I suspect, however, that the MSNBC commentator recalls the lyrics because of the contrast between boredom and weapons, between working within a system and taking one’s cues from oneself, between dutifully standing in line and breaking ranks, between losing and winning (“you’re worried that I just might win”). Only suckers play by the rules.

Williams, after all, was a news anchor who himself bent the rules, inventing a story about being in a helicopter that was fired upon in Iraq. If the truth is drab, spice it up with an account of missiles. (CBS fired Williams for the fabrication.) So if Trump rushes in where the past president trod warily, well, that makes Trump all the more edgy.

Does America feel that it was deprived of adrenaline rushes under no-drama Obama and so is demanding them now? I think of James Carville’s 2004 reply to Republican accusations that John Kerry and the Democrats lacked a vision to counter George Bush’s wars:

I have no idea what they’re talking about. Under Bill Clinton, we had peace and prosperity. I don’t know which one of the two so offended them.

Are we a culture so decadent that stability is no longer a positive good? If we’re not sufficiently entertained, do we demand wars?

Whatever the cause, we now have people singing the praises of a president who is so unpredictable that he has the entire world on edge. Here is the very angry song that Brian Williams should have quoted:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

In a whacky Salon article, Anis Shivan argues that Dylan is our Rimbaud, a prophetic poet in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Yeats. “Masters of War” isn’t in their league but I’ll acknowledge that Dylan is a prophet. I quote from Shivan’s piece, preposterous though it is, because its accentuates the urgency of Dylan’s message:

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

Dylan’s song is no Waste Land. More to the point, it is no “Strange Meeting,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” or “Dulce et Decorum Est,” to cite poems by the greatest anti-war poet of the 20th century. But the song calls out war mongers in a powerful way, which is something that our media should be doing with Trump.

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Milton’s Jesus vs. Trump’s Bombs

William Blake, “The Second Temptation from ‘Paradise Regained'”


I have been disheartened by the accolades that Donald Trump has received from centrists and even liberals for dropping bombs, including the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan. Apparently all you need to appear presidential is to send in the U.S. air force. As someone sarcastically tweeted, since Trump craves adulation and is getting it for his belligerence, “what could possibly go wrong?”

For my Lenten observance, I read Milton’s Paradise Regained for the first time and can’t help but apply the four-book poem to our situation. The narrative focuses on Satan tempting Jesus in the desert and, since his major temptations concern military glory and conquest, it seems only too applicable.

Paradise Regained has pretty much the same plot as Paradise Lost. Just as Satan goes after Adam and Eve in the first work, so he goes after Jesus in the sequel. The council of hellish angels is still around, agreeing to whatever Satan proposes, and we see Satan once again using all of his rhetorical powers of persuasion to corrupt someone. Unfortunately, as in Paradise Lost, there’s not much drama when Satan’s adversary is perfect, so Jesus isn’t any more interesting than God is in the first work. Jesus knows exactly who Satan is when he shows up disguised, he knows exactly why he should reject each of the temptations, and he never exhibits any doubts.

We can ask ourselves, however, whether Satan’s offers would tempt us. Unfortunately, by falling for Trump’s bellicosity, a number of Washington insiders, mainstream media outlets, and others are demonstrating that they would not pass the test.

 I’ll get to Satan’s offers in just a moment, but first a word on the temptations episode. More than any other, it brought me to the Episcopalian church when I was in my forties. I was in spiritual search but wasn’t interested in stories of perfection. Once I saw Jesus as genuinely uncertain and conflicted, however, I realized that I could relate to him. He could help me with my own journey because he too had moments of doubt.

My Jesus, in other words, is not someone who started off with all the answers. In that respect, he’s more like the Jesus of Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ than of Paradise Regained. As I interpreted the desert episode, Satan’s temptations were actually Jesus’s own inner thoughts, which he wrestled with and then overcame. In that way, he became a model for me.

As we watching the uptick in military posturing, we would do well to follow the lead of Milton’s Jesus, even if we can’t do so in quite so serene a fashion. The two temptations that are currently the most relevant are wealth and power. When he sets out to tempt Jesus, Satan rejects Belial’s notion that he employ a beautiful woman and instead opts for “manlier objects”:

Therefore with manlier objects we must try
His constancy, with such as have more show
Of worth, of honor, glory, and popular praise;
Rocks whereon greatest men have oftest wrecked…

If Jesus is to be “king of kings,” Satan says, he will need money, and that he can supply:

Therefore, if at great things thou wouldst arrive,
Get Riches first, get Wealth, and Treasure heap,
Not difficult, if thou hearken to me,
Riches are mine, Fortune is in my hand;
They whom I favor thrive in wealth amain,
While Virtue, Valor, Wisdom sit in want.

Given our society’s obsession with wealth and the increasing influence of money in our politics, we must admit Satan’s offer to be potent. But Jesus doesn’t fall for it, prompting Satan to switch to an offer of glory. If you inspire people by appearing glorious, he points out to Jesus, won’t you inspire them to praise God?

                       [W]herefore deprive
All Earth her wonder at thy acts, thyself
The fame and glory, glory the reward
That sole excites to high attempts the flame
Of most erected Spirits…?

When glory is rejected, Satan offers Jesus positions of power, first to “sit upon thy Father David’s Throne” and then to succeed Augustus Caesar and take over the Roman Empire. With such power, he would be able to fulfill God’s promise to his people and to establish the kingdom of God in the world.

When we worry that the U.S. is not respected enough in the world (glory) and believe that our power resides in our wealth and our military might, we are following a Satanic road that leads to bloodshed. As Milton’s Jesus puts it, we are relying on the “cumbersome luggage of war,” which is

Of human weakness rather than of strength.

What should we really look for in a leader? When Satan claims that virtue, valor, and wisdom are irrelevant, Jesus counters that a great leader “governs the inner man, the nobler part,” unlike the leader who “o’er the body only reigns,/ And oft by force…” The great leader does not “subject himself to Anarchy within,/Or lawless passion” but rather is guided by honor, virtue and merit. On his shoulders, Jesus says,

                         each man’s burden lies;
For therein stands the office of a King,
His Honor, Virtue, Merit and chief Praise,
That for the Public all this weight he bears. 
Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King;
Which every wise and virtuous man attains:
And who attains not, ill aspires to rule
Cities of men, or head-strong Multitudes, 
Subject himself to Anarchy within,
Or lawless passions in him, which he serves.

Unfortunately, Trump follows his lawless passions, and for the moment that’s what we’re stuck with. We can, however, strive to rule our own passions, desires and fears. This means not falling in love with grandiose shows of military might where America struts its stuff.

Imagine if we were guided by Honor, Virtue, and Merit as we strove to serve the public. Sign me up.

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Masters of Spite: Satan and Trump

Gustave Doré, Satan observing Adam and Eve


Is it just me or does much of Donald Trump’s presidency seem driven by spite against the former occupant of the White House? There are theories that Trump ran for president in the first place to spite President Obama for mocking him at the 2016 Correspondents Dinner, and, true or not, a personal element seems to enter into a number of his presidential decisions. If so, it’s worth looking at a character who is defined by spite: Satan in Paradise Lost.

Merriam-Webster defines spite as “petty ill will or hatred with the disposition to irritate, annoy, or thwart.” In politics, it’s important to distinguish between honest policy differences and spiteful retribution. Many have seen the latter at work with Trump.

For instance, when Trump fired all of America’s ambassadors all at once rather than waiting for replacements to be found, former ambassador to Finland Derek Shearer said, “It feels like there’s an element just of spite and payback in it. I don’t see a higher policy motive.” Same with federal district attorneys.

New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz, meanwhile, thinks that spite is at work in Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act. The 24 million newly insured may have to pay for the fact that they have been helped by Obama. Similarly, the earth will have to pay for Obama’s focus on renewables, regulation, and conservation.

Milton’s narcissistic villain believes that everything is about him. God made Adam and Eve, he is convinced, just to spite him:

                             [T]o spite us more,
[God] Determin’d to advance into our room
A Creature formed of Earth, and him endow,
Exalted from so base original,
With Heavenly spoils, our spoils…

If spite motivated God, Satan says, then his own spite is justified:

Whom us the more to spite his Maker raised
From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.

Satan’s follower, like Trump’s, are fully on board. In their council of war, the fallen angels approve Satan’s plan to stick it to God:

But from the Author of all ill could Spring
So deep a malice, to confound the race
Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great Creator? But their spite still serves 
His glory to augment. The bold design
Pleased highly those infernal States, and joy
Sparkled in all their eyes; with full assent
They vote…

Satan takes a sadistic relish in imagining the suffering that Adam and Eve will undergo, even while pretending to be sympathetic. Gazing at them, he purrs,

Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy…

They will have God to thank for this suffering, he tells them:

                                             Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring; if no better place, 
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wronged…

Milton notes that Satan’s is utilizing “the tyrant’s plea” here, pretending that Adam and Eve will be victims of political necessity rather than pure spite. But don’t be fooled. As with Trump, this is not about policy. He wants to make the Big Guy suffer.

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A Trans Activist and a Poetic Judge


The New York Review of Books recently had an article about a judge who used a Naomi Shahib Nye poem to protest a Trump Education Department attack against transgender students. As the judge anticipated, the poem made his point more powerfully than legal language could have done.

In May, 2016, the Obama administration invoked Title IX and ordered America’s schools to allow trans students to use the bathroom corresponding to their chosen gender. Here’s what happened when Gavin Grimm started using the boys’ room in a Gloucester Country, Virginia high school:

None of the other students objected, but when some adults in the community learned that Gavin was using the boys’ room, they demanded that the school board step in. At a school board meeting, Gavin, still only fifteen, told the board that, “all I want is to be a normal child and use the restroom in peace and I have had no problems from students to do that—only from adults…. I did not ask to be this way, and it’s one of the most difficult things anyone can face.” He insisted, “I am just a human being. I am just a boy.”

The school board rejected his plea, and barred him from using the boys’ room, relegating him to a stigmatizing single-stall restroom that no one else used. Gavin sued and, represented by the ACLU (where I [David Cole] am the National Legal Director), won. The Fourth Circuit, relying on a guidance document issued by the Department of Education under President Obama, ruled that excluding Gavin from the boys’ restroom because he was transgender was sex discrimination in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which covers all schools that receive federal assistance. The court ordered the school board to allow Gavin to resume using the boys’ restroom. But the school board appealed. The Supreme Court stayed the order pending the appeal, and Gavin continued to be barred from the boys’ bathroom. After taking office, the Trump administration revoked the Department of Education guidance document calling for equal treatment of transgender students, upon which the court of appeals had relied, and in light of the revocation of the guidance, on March 6, the Supreme Court vacated the decision and returned the case to the court of appeals.

Cole points out Gavin’s courage throughout the affair:

The mere decision to come out to one’s parents as transgender requires tremendous bravery in a world that still too often dismisses individuals who are transgender as somehow alien. To come out to one’s principal, as Gavin did as a sophomore, demands still greater courage. To speak up in a public school board hearing, and then to file a federal lawsuit, calls for yet greater reserves. Gavin not only pursued his rights to the end, but did so with the utmost grace. Simply by doing so, he has educated a generation about the plight, and the dignity, of those who are transgender.

Judge Andre Davis recognized the courage and, while forced to join the court’s decision to lift the injunction, nevertheless felt that Gavin’s courage should be recognized. Cole quotes from his opinion:

The brief but eloquent opinion deserves to be read in full. Judge Davis compared Gavin to Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Jim Obergefell, and others who had “refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them.”

Gavin’s case, Judge Davis maintained, “is about much more than bathrooms… It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins. It’s about …  the simple recognition of their humanity.” By standing up for that principle, Judge Davis continued, Gavin “takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail.”

 At the opinion’s close, Judge Davis turned to poetry to capture Gavin’s bravery. Borrowing from Nye’s poem, “Famous,” he explained that Gavin is “famous,” not in the Hollywood sense of celebrity, but in Nye’s sense, because “[he] never forgot what [he] could do.”

“Famous” operates through a series of contrasts, and one has to think through each of them in applying them to Gavin. Here it is:


By Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

The poem quietly but insistently gets at the core of Gavin’s heroism. In the first stanza Gavin would be the fish, necessarily aware of his environment as others are not. In the second he is the loud voice that disturbs the silence of a status quo that is confident it will prevail.

The situation becomes more precarious in the third stanza. While cisgender people, like the cat, can afford to sleep comfortably on the fence, potential victims must always be on the lookout. Privilege means that you don’t have to worry about getting eaten.

It makes sense, therefore, that the next two images are of suffering and secrets: even though invisible to others, Gavin’s tears would be known to his cheek and his bosom secrets to his bosom. The bent photograph also fits in this category, a longing carried around but hidden.

It becomes increasingly clear that Nye is talking about the poor and the oppressed in the subsequent stanzas, and we move from potential conflict to support. The working class boot may not be a dress shoe but it finds a home in the earth. Nye wants to be such a home, smiling a smile of comradeship to shuffling men and to children that others find irritating. Maybe that’s why she invokes two unglamorous models for herself in the final stanza.

With a pulley, as poet George Herbert knew, one goes low to pull others up. The poet accomplishes this by smiling at people that others ignore. Button holes, meanwhile, don’t insist on themselves but accommodate themselves to the needs of others. The pulley is famous to that which is pulled up and the button hole to the button. Both are essential but unnoticed, the first an indirect support (the rope gets all the publicity), the second an absent presence.

Gavin, a fish noticing a river invisible to others, became a loud voice, disturbing the silence. He thereby woke up the cats, with all the potential danger they represent. Yet by going low, revealing himself as “deviant,” he lifted up others. Their unbuttoned clothing could find closure.

Gavin knew what he could do and he did it.

As a result, he may well become famous as the other civil rights cases mentioned by the Judge Davis became famous: fugitive slave Dred Scott, Japanese-American interned activist Fred Korematsu, segregation opponent Linda Brown (v Board of Education), and gay marriage’s Jim Obergefell. Those who become known as law cases usually do not set out to call attention to themselves. They just want live like everyone else.

Previous Posts on Naomi Shihab Nye

How the Dead Talk to Us

What Does a True Arab Do Now?

Finding a Place Where Hate Won’t Grow

Hear the Words under the Words

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Absent from This World, Alive in Another

Illus. Tenniel, Alice with the faun in the no names wood

Easter Sunday

It has become a tradition here at Better Living through Beowulf to share a Mary Oliver poem on Easter. Even though Oliver seldom talks overtly about religion, many of her poems have an Easter drama in which a world of darkness is touched by grace and redeemed. One sees this clearly in “Egrets,” which I wrote about on Easter 2010.

Today’s poem features a moment, occurring 30 years earlier, where Oliver believes she came face to face with the divine. The moment reminds me of the miraculous moment when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

The divine awakens Oliver from slumber while she is out picking blueberries. It is a moment that she remembers for the rest of her life and treasures in her heart. Seeing Mary Magdalene through Oliver’s poem, we can say that she too never saw the world the same again as she rose out of the rough weeds of her grief, sleepy and amazed, to listen and look. The beautiful apparition, “so wide and so deep it has lasted to this day,” infused her life with meaning.

Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957

By Mary Oliver

Once, in summer
in the blueberries, 
I fell asleep, and woke
when a deer stumbled against me.

I guess
she was so busy with her own happiness
she had grown careless
and was just wandering along

to the wind as she leaned down
to lip up the sweetness.
So, there we were

with nothing between us
but a few leaves, and wind’s
glossy voice
shouting instructions.

The deer
backed away finally
and flung up her white tail
and went floating off toward the trees –

but the moment she did that
was so wide and so deep
it has lasted to this day; 
I have only to think of her – 

the flower of her amazement
and the stalled breath of her curiosity, 
and even the damp touch of her solicitude
before she took flight –

to be absent again from this world
and alive, again, in another
for thirty years
sleepy and amazed, 

rising out of the rough weeds
listening and looking.
Beautiful girl, 
where are you?

“Come, Lord Jesus,” we call out in our longing. Or “Beautiful girl, where are you?”

Further thought: I’ve been listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Father Richard Rohr and now have another way to understand what Oliver means by her two worlds. Rohr talks about the difference between chronological time and deep time:

To be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time. Because what you’ve learned, especially by my age, is that all of it passes away. The things that you’re so impassioned about when you’re 22 or 42 don’t even mean anything anymore, and yet, you got so angry about it or so invested in it. So, this word “contemplation,” it’s a different form of consciousness. It’s a different form of time.

Other Mary Oliver Easter poems

A White Cross Streaming across the Sky

Out of the Blackness Every Morning

Far off the Bells Rang through the Morning

A Breathing Palace of Leaves

The Silver Water Crushes Like Silk 

Dazzled by Dreams of the Body

Stepping Over Every Dark Thing

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A Poem in Favor of Taxation

Breughel, Joseph and and an expecting Mary in town to pay their taxes

Sometimes Saturday

Reprinted from April 15, 2016

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

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


By Edward Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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O Christ Who Drives the Furrow Straight

Thomas Hart Benton, “Plowing It Under” (1934)

Good Friday

John Masefield, best known for his poem beginning “I must to down to the sea again,” first came to the public’s attention with The Everlasting Mercy (1911), a long narrative poem about a problematic rural character who has a religious awakening. In observance of Good Friday, I cite several passages from the ending of the poem.

According to blogger Arthur Kay, Everlasting Mercy 

shocked many with its frankness of language and subject, with its use of the vernacular and a depiction of English country life that sometimes strayed far from the charming scenes we associate with, say, the paintings of Arnold Constable. The poem begins with a grueling boxing bout, a grudge match that fits its rural background and setting quite realistically.

 Saul Kane’s redemption begins when a barmaid speaks to him about Christ:

“Saul Kane,” she said, “when next you drink,
Do me the gentleness to think
That every drop of drink accursed
Makes Christ within you die of thirst,
That every dirty word you say
Is one more flint upon his way,
Another thorn about His head,
Another mock by where He tread,
Another nail, another cross.
All that you are is that Christ’s loss.”
The clock run down and struck a chime
And Mrs. Si said, “Closing time.”

The closing of the tavern door brings to Saul’s mind the image of Christ knocking at our door—think of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting “The Light of the World”–and he suddenly feels the urge to open his heart:

The wet was pelting on the pane
And something broke inside my brain,
I heard the rain drip from the gutters
And Silas putting up the shutters,
While one by one the drinkers went;
I got a glimpse of what it meant,
How she and I had stood before
In some old town by some old door
Waiting intent while someone knocked
Before the door for ever locked…


I did not think, I did not strive,
The deep peace burnt my me alive;
The bolted door had broken in,
I knew that I had done with sin.
I knew that Christ had given me birth
To brother all the souls on earth,
And every bird and every beast
Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.

The next day, when Saul is out plowing, he kneel down to God and offers up a magnificent prayer. The fertility imagery reminds me of other writers writing at the time, such as Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence:

I kneeled there in the muddy fallow,
I knew that Christ was there with Callow,
That Christ was standing there with me,
That Christ had taught me what to be,
That I should plough, and as I ploughed
My Savior Christ would sing aloud,
And as I drove the clods apart
Christ would be ploughing in my heart,
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots,
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the holden harvests’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.

May Christ plough our hearts so that young green corn springs forth.

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

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