Waiting for Biden, Paul Ryan, & Reagan

Scene from "Waiting for Godot"

Scene from “Waiting for Godot”


So Democrats are waiting to find out if Joe Biden will enter the race, and Republicans are waiting to find out in Paul Ryan will run for Speaker of the House. Which calls to mind that great play about waiting.

Doesn’t the following dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon seem particularly relevant right now?

Estagon: Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.

Not all Democrats are waiting for Biden, however. In fact, most seem ready to move on with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and even Martin O’Malley after their strong debate performances the other night. If Estragon and Vladimir were Democrats, I suspect they would have left the stage by now.

The political media, on the other hand, keeps quoting “a source close to the Vice-President” and speculating on what Biden will do. Some jokester tweeted that Biden has locked up the “journalists in search of a dramatic campaign narrative demographic.” Their “source” sounds like the boy messenger who shows up late in the play:

Vladimir: Words words. (Pause.) Speak
Boy (in a rush): Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.
Vladimir: Is that all?
Boy: Yes Sir.

 When they hear the boy’s ambiguous assurance, Vladimir and Estragon decide to stick around indefinitely. Here’s how the play ends:

Vladimir: We can still part, if you think it would be better.
Estragon: It’s not worthwhile now.
Vladimir: No, it’s not worthwhile now.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?

Vladimir: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move

The play may apply even more to the GOP than it does to the political media. Even if Paul Ryan were to run for the Speakership and even if he were to be elected, it’s not clear that he would represent the arrival of Godot. Just as Vladimir and Estragon are longing for a savior, what Republicans want right now is a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, one who can heal the split between moderates and extremists and lead the GOP to the Promised Land. Godot appears to be a projected hope rather than an actual possibility.

Are miracles possible? I suppose so. At one point Vladimir mentions the two thieves who died alongside Jesus and wonders if the one who called out to him was saved. In the desolate wasteland that is the play’s setting, maybe water will flow again, the tree will blossom, and the two men will regain the sexual vigor of youth.

Then again, Vladimir acknowledges that the story of the thief shows up in only one of the Gospels so it may be unreliable. The only prospect for sexual arousal they can imagine, meanwhile, is hanging themselves, a nice symbol of the Freedom Caucus’s self destructive behavior.

For the good of the country, Republicans need to adjust to reality and stop waiting for Godot.

Tweets that Beckett would love: This from Brian Beutler of The New Republic:

Someone who knows Biden insisting that within 24 to 48 hours it’ll be Wednesday or possibly early Thursday.

David Corn of Mother Jones, meanwhile, has a whole string of tweets capturing how Biden Longing is becoming theater of the absurd:

Sources: Joe Biden would like to become president.

Sources: Biden sources don’t know what he’s going to do.

Sources: Joe Biden could be eating Chinese tonight.

Sources: Joe Biden is wearing his lucky underwear today.

Sources: Biden slept well and had a restful night.

Sources: Joe Biden and Paul Ryan Meet at Soul Cycle and Chat.

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The Rich Complain about Shaming

Hieronymus Bosch, detail from "Death and the Miser"

Hieronymus Bosch, detail from “Death and the Miser”


The Guardian recently quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote about the rich in an article that sounds like it came from The Onion. Or perhaps it’s an April-Fool-in-October joke. Anyway, it’s about the psychological problems that the 1% are experiencing from having too much money.

First, a quick note on the Fitzgerald quote, which appeared in his short story “The Rich Boy,”not in a conversation with Ernest Hemingway. In fact, Fitzgerald was just as critical of the rich as Hemingway was. Here’s the passage:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

 I won’t go into “The Rich Boy” here as I’ve explored its insights into the wealthy in an earlier post. But as to the article, the quotations from therapists administering to the 1% sound like they could have been delivered by Lemuel Gulliver when he gets his sense of proportion spectacularly wrong. Or maybe by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest when she worries about the bad effects of education on the upper classes (it may “lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square”). For instance, here’s Clay Cockrell, a one-time Wall Street worker turned therapist:

There is guilt over being rich in the first place, he said. There is the feeling that they have to hide the fact that they are rich. And then there is the isolation – being in the 1%, it turns out, can be lonely.

Here’s Jaimie Traeger-Muney, whose name sounds as though it has been taken from an 18th century comedy:

“The Occupy Wall Street movement was a good one and had some important things to say about income inequality, but it singled out the 1% and painted them globally as something negative. It’s an -ism,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, a wealth psychologist and founder of the Wealth Legacy Group. “I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but … it really is making value judgment about a particular group of people as a whole.”

The media, she said, is partly to blame for making the rich “feel like they need to hide or feel ashamed.”

And further on:

“You can come up with lot of words and sayings about inheritors, not one of them is positive: spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in their mouth, trust fund babies, all these things,” she said, adding that it’s “easy to scapegoat the rich.”

“Sometimes I am shocked by things that people say. If you substitute in the word Jewish or black, you would never say something like that. You’d never say – spoiled rotten or you would never refer to another group of people in the way that it seems perfectly normal to refer to wealth holders.”

So the real victims are not those whose lives are blighted by systemic racism, who grow up in crime-riddled neighborhoods, who attend bad schools, and who have few promising job opportunities. Oh, and who are accused of wanting “free stuff.” No, the real victims are those who suffer from wealth prejudice. Or at any rate, they are victimized the way that minorities are victimized.

Maybe I’d feel more sympathetic if these wealthy Americans were leaning on Congress to strengthen the social safety net and to raise their own taxes. In fact, I think using their wealth to help society would be far healthier than getting therapeutic reassurance that they are worthy people.

It sounds, however, like they want the perks of wealth while depriving those beneath them of their one consolation. In “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband,” about an egregious instance of a woman victimized by the double standard, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu explains what this consolation is:

But this last privilege I still retain;
Th’oppressed and injured always may complain.

If you have been born privileged, you can either put that privilege to good use—in which case all will praise you—or you can buy yachts and mansions with it. Dante (and Jesus too for that matter) would say your problems are your punishment, but that’s a topic for a future post. In the meantime, we don’t want to hear about your hurt feelings.

Posted in Fitzgerald (F. Scott), Montagu (Lady Mary Wortley), Swift (Jonathan) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Sickness and the Power of Prayer

David Wilkie, "Young Woman Kneeling at Her Prayer Desk"

David Wilkie, “Young Woman Kneeling at Her Prayer Desk”

Spiritual Sunday

 As I am currently besotted with War and Peace, here’s a passage on the power of prayer. Natasha Rostova has been seduced by the irresponsible rake Anatole Kuragin when she is bethrothed to Prince Andrey Bolkonsky and barely escapes ruin. She is thrown in a serious illness as a result, but church attendance and prayer help bring about her recovery. I particularly like Tolstoy’s observation that unexplained ritual plays an important role:

Before the end of the fast of St. Peter, Agrafena Ivanovna Belova, a country neighbor of the Rostovs, came to Moscow to pay her devotions at the shrines of the Moscow saints. She suggested that Natasha should fast and prepare for Holy Communion, and Natasha gladly welcomed the idea. Despite the doctor’s orders that she should not go out early in the morning, Natasha insisted on fasting and preparing for the sacrament, not as they generally prepared for it in the Rostov family by attending three services in their own house, but as Agrafena Ivanovna did, by going to church every day for a week and not once missing Vespers, Matins, or Mass.

The countess [Natasha’s mother] was pleased with Natasha’s zeal; after the poor results of the medical treatment, in the depths of her heart she hoped that prayer might help her daughter more than medicines and, though not without fear and concealing it from the doctor, she agreed to Natasha’s wish and entrusted her to Belova. Agrafena Ivanovna used to come to wake Natasha at three in the morning, but generally found her already awake. She was afraid of being late for Matins. Hastily washing, and meekly putting on her shabbiest dress and an old mantilla, Natasha, shivering in the fresh air, went out into the deserted streets lit by the clear light of dawn. By Agrafena Ivanovna’s advice Natasha prepared herself not in their own parish, but at a church where, according to the devout Agrafena Ivanovna, the priest was a man of very severe and lofty life. There were never many people in the church; Natasha always stood beside Belova in the customary place before an icon of the Blessed Virgin, let into the screen before the choir on the left side, and a feeling, new to her, of humility before something great and incomprehensible, seized her when at that unusual morning hour, gazing at the dark face of the Virgin illuminated by the candles burning before it and by the morning light falling from the window, she listened to the words of the service which she tried to follow with understanding. When she understood them her personal feeling became interwoven in the prayers with shades of its own. When she did not understand, it was sweeter still to think that the wish to understand everything is pride, that it is impossible to understand all, that it is only necessary to believe and to commit oneself to God, whom she felt guiding her soul at those moments. She crossed herself, bowed low, and when she did not understand, in horror at her own vileness, simply asked God to forgive her everything, everything, to have mercy upon her. The prayers to which she surrendered herself most of all were those of repentance. On her way home at an early hour when she met no one but bricklayers going to work or men sweeping the street, and everybody within the houses was still asleep, Natasha experienced a feeling new to her, a sense of the possibility of correcting her faults, the possibility of a new, clean life, and of happiness.

During the whole week she spent in this way, that feeling grew every day. And the happiness of taking communion, or “communing” as Agrafena Ivanovna, joyously playing with the word, called it, seemed to Natasha so great that she felt she should never live till that blessed Sunday.

But the happy day came, and on that memorable Sunday, when, dressed in white muslin, she returned home after communion, for the first time for many months she felt calm and not oppressed by the thought of the life that lay before her.

While the doctor assumes that his medicines have done the work, Natasha’s mother knows better:

The doctor who came to see her that day ordered her to continue the powders he had prescribed a fortnight previously.

“She must certainly go on taking them morning and evening,” said he, evidently sincerely satisfied with his success. “Only, please be particular about it.

“Be quite easy,” he continued playfully, as he adroitly took the gold coin in his palm. “She will soon be singing and frolicking about. The last medicine has done her a very great deal of good. She has freshened up very much.”

The countess, with a cheerful expression on her face, looked down at her nails and spat a little for luck as she returned to the drawing room.

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Children Lit’s Changing Racial Landscape



I visited my two granddaughters in Atlanta yesterday—my son Toby has a post-doctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech this year—and spent the day reading books, engaging in imaginary games, and playing at a wonderful “toy park” in Decatur. Atlanta has changed considerably since the late 1970s when I was earning my Ph.D at Emory University, mostly for the better.

I’m thinking of attitudes towards race, which now have an extra importance for me as my granddaughters are mixed race. It was wonderful to see the casual intermingling of white and black children in the park. Although Atlanta was calling itself “the city too busy too hate” when I lived there, that was more an aspiration than a reality. Atlanta appears to have made real progress.

Big Hair Don't CareI’m also discovering that, since my younger days, my granddaughters have available to them many more children’s books with protagonists of color. Crystal Swain-Bates’s Big Hair, Don’t Care is especially popular with Esmé, who likes how Lola revels in her kinky hair. We also read Spike Lee’s Please, Baby, Please, Anna McQuinn’s Lola at the Library, and Elizabeth Winthrop’s Squashed in the Middle.

So far, my granddaughters haven’t run up against America’s continuing racism. When they do, it will be new experience for all of us as neither their parents nor their grandparents have been victims of racism. (My daughter-in-law grew up in Trinidad, where most people look like her.)

Reading the books took me back to the moment in my childhood when I first realized that children of color were excluded from children’s lit. In 1961 when I was ten, my father and the local NAACP purchased special books for St. Mark’s School, Sewanee’s “separate but equal” African American school (ha!). I remember reading biographies of George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman before my father took them over. On our visit, I also remember looking at the Dick, Jane and Sally books that were in the St. Mark’s two-room school house and getting how alien they must seem to the children. It was an important moment in my growing race awareness.

Because of this, I experienced a shock of recognition upon reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye years later. It’s a heartbreaking tale about how eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove thinks that all her problems would vanish if she only had the blue eyes of Shirley Temple. By the end of the novel, she has gone mad. The book begin with an homage to Dick and Jane:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play.

The sterile middle class life of the reading primers stands in marked contrast with Pecola’s life, where her mother doesn’t laugh, her father isn’t big and strong, and she doesn’t have friends.

My granddaughters won’t have Pecola’s lower class life but I’m afraid they will learn, the hard way, that America is not yet a post-racial society. Remember that, whenever you take a stand against racism, you are helping bring about the world they deserve.

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Trump, Prince Vasili, and Pure Cynicism

Donald Trump

Donald Trump


Today’s post is about politicians who change their positions to please constituencies and how, distressful though we may find it, it’s been a part of politics for a long, long time. In fact, when in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) Jonathan Swift describes Lilliputian court battles between the High Heels and the Low Heels (Tories and Whigs), he has one politician—based on the Prince of Wales, the future George II—wearing one high heel and one low heel, so that he totters when he walks. Supposedly George’s wife Caroline found the depiction accurate and funny.

Few literary characters totter quite so spectacularly as Prince Vasili in War and Peace, who may surpass all but one of our current candidates. In fact, I believe examining Vasili helps us understand Donald Trump’s success. More on that in a moment.

First let’s look at the other candidates, however. There’s Marco Rubio, who proposed comprehensive immigration reform three years ago and then has been rapidly running from his bill ever since the ferocious rightwing blowback. In the debate the other night, Hillary Clinton was dinged for her opposition to a Trans Pacific Partnership bill (TPP) that she had a role in negotiating. If people like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Scott Walker have run into problems over reversals, it’s in part because, like Mitt Romney before them, they don’t put enough conviction into their flipflops. Only Donald Trump approaches Prince Vasili’s flexibility.

Look at his record. He can be in favor of single payer healthcare at one point and utterly against it at another. He can praise Hillary Clinton, then bash her. The secret, as Prince Vasili demonstrates, lies in effrontery. Neither man shows any hint of shame.

I have in mind the disagreement in War in Peace over whether Prince Kutuzov should lead the Russian armies against Napoleon. We get a foreshadowing of Prince Vasili’s constantly changing assessment of Kutuzov in the two conflicting salons to which he belongs. One, run by Anna Palovna, is fiercely anti-French while the other, run by Vasili’s daughter, regrets Russia’s rupture with Napoleon. Vasili is “a connecting link” between the two:

He visited his “good friend Anna Pavlovna” as well as his daughter’s “diplomatic salon,” and often in his constant comings and goings between the two camps became confused and said at Helene’s what he should have said at Anna Pavlovna’s and vice versa.

The elasticity required here is nothing compared to his mercurial pronouncements about Kutuzov. When the Tsar hesitates about choosing a commander, Vasili opposes the aged general:

Now, is it suitable that Count Kutuzov, the oldest general in Russia, should preside at that tribunal? He will get nothing for his pains! How could they make a man commander-in-chief who cannot mount a horse, who drops asleep at a council, and has the very worst morals! A good reputation he made for himself at Bucharest! I don’t speak of his capacity as a general, but at a time like this how they appoint a decrepit, blind old man, positively blind? A fine idea to have a blind general! He can’t see anything. To play blindman’s bluff? He can’t see at all!

This opinion, Tolstoy tells us, made sense on July 24. But by July 29 there is uncertainty, and we are told that “Prince Vasili’s opinion continued to be correct though he was not now in any hurry to express it.” Then, in early August, Kutuzov is appointed “commander-in-chief with full powers over the armies and over the whole region occupied by them.” Can you imagine how Prince Vasili responds?

Prince Vasili entered the room with the air of a happy conqueror who has attained the object of his desires.

“Well, have you heard the great news? Prince Kutuzov is field marshal! All dissensions are at an end! I am so glad, so delighted! At last we have a man!” said he, glancing sternly and significantly round at everyone in the drawing room.

One guest learns that pointing out Vasili’s previous position is as useless as doing the same with Trump:

[He] could not refrain from reminding Prince Vasili of his former opinion. Though this was impolite to Prince Vasili in Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and also to Anna Pavlovna herself who had received the news with delight, he could not resist the temptation.

“But, Prince, they say he is blind!” said he, reminding Prince Vasili of his own words.

“Eh? Nonsense! He sees well enough,” said Prince Vasili rapidly, in a deep voice and with a slight cough—the voice and cough with which he was wont to dispose of all difficulties.

“He sees well enough,” he added. “And what I am so pleased about,” he went on, “is that our sovereign has given him full powers over all the armies and the whole region—powers no commander-in-chief ever had before. He is a second autocrat,” he concluded with a victorious smile.

When it appears that Kutuzov has won the Battle of Borodino, Vasili is in “I told you so” mode:

“What did I tell about Kutuzov?” Prince Vasili now said with a prophet’s pride. “I always said he was the only man capable of defeating Napoleon.”

It then becomes unclear who won the battle, however, given that both sides have suffered immense losses. Vasili isn’t the only one doing pirouettes:

But next day no news arrived from the army and the public mood grew anxious. The courtiers suffered because of the suffering the suspense occasioned the Emperor.

“Fancy the Emperor’s position!” said they, and instead of extolling Kutuzov as they had done the day before, they condemned him as the cause of the Emperor’s anxiety. That day Prince Vasili no longer boasted of his protege Kutuzov, but remained silent when the commander-in-chief was mentioned.

Then there is a new development and a new reversal. It occurs right after Vasili’s daughter dies, probably of a botched abortion. I love Tolstoy’s parenthetical comment:

On the third day after Kutuzov’s report a country gentleman arrived from Moscow, and news of the surrender of Moscow to the French spread through the whole town. This was terrible! What a position for the Emperor to be in! Kutuzov was a traitor, and Prince Vasili during the visits of condolence paid to him on the occasion of his daughter’s death said of Kutuzov, whom he had formerly praised (it was excusable for him in his grief to forget what he had said), that it was impossible to expect anything else from a blind and depraved old man.

“I only wonder that the fate of Russia could have been entrusted to such a man.”

I’m not entirely unsympathetic with politicians shifting positions. They have to balance competing pressures, and idealism must be mixed with pragmatism if one is to be effective. Even Abraham Lincoln finessed issues. But if one is guided by no core other than self interest, then the public is at the mercy of egotists. I find no core in either Prince Vasili or Donald Trump.

I haven’t finished the novel yet and so don’t know how Prince Vasili responds after Kutuzov finally defeats Napoleon. I’m waiting to see if he gets his comeuppance and I’m wondering the same about Trump. Surely there’s a limit.

Or can one escape consequences indefinitely?

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Satanic Fury from the Freedom Caucus

Gustave Dore, Satan in "Paradise Lost"

Gustave Dore, Satan in “Paradise Lost”


Any day that I see Paradise Lost get mentioned with regard to contemporary politics is a good day. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon recently mentioned Milton’s Satan in a passage about how the Freedom Caucus (a.k.a. the Shutdown Caucus) is creating havoc in the House of Representatives. The allusion was perfect:

In the great tradition of doomed revolutionaries, the Freedom Caucus prefers death, or at least political annihilation – which will be theirs one day, and sooner than they think – to the dishonor of compromise. It’s easy to make fun of the vainglory and self-importance embodied in the group’s name, but it strikes me as accurate enough. They have declared themselves free of all the responsibilities of government, free from the need to discuss or negotiate or pass any legislation that has the slightest chance of being enacted. They represent freedom in precisely the same sense that death represents freedom from being alive. They could just as well be called the Suicide Caucus – or the Satanic Caucus, in the grandiose spirit of Milton’s fallen angel,who fights on with no hope of victory: “To do ought good never will be our task,/ But ever to do ill our sole delight.”

O’Hehir is right that Satan knows that he has no chance of winning. He is so angry, however, that it is more important for him to vent his fury and spoil what he can than, say, figure out how to live in the world as it is–which in his case is Hell.

The House of Representatives is hardly Hell and the Democratic president is hardly God. In other words, the separation of powers is not as absolute as it is in Milton’s poem. Nevertheless, the Freedom Caucus is still furious at not getting everything it wants.

They would be advised to look at Satan’s ultimate fate. When he returns to the fallen angels to announce his victory over Adam and Eve–let’s say, he shuts down the government or defaults on the national debt–he expects applause. His public responds with something else altogether:

So having said, a while he stood, expecting
Their universal shout and high applause
To fill his ear, when contrary he hears
On all sides, from innumerable tongues
A dismal universal hiss, the sound
Of public scorn…

The hiss arises from everyone having been turned into a snake. Still, hisses are what the Freedom Caucus can expect if they get their way.

Posted in Milton (John) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ellison’s Elegy for Innocent Police Victims

12-year-old Tamir Rice

12-year-old Tamir Rice


Two outside experts have concluded that police officers acted reasonably in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, and the city of Cleveland is arguing that the 12-year-old was guilty of “failure…to exercise due care to avoid injury.” I’m going to quote Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man about another racially motivated shooting but first let’s hear the outrage of Washington Post blogger Jonathan Capehart:

Right. It’s Tamir’s fault that the 911 caller’s admonition that the gun he was playing with was “probably fake” never made it to the officers.

It’s Tamir’s fault that he was shot and killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann just “1½ to 2 seconds” after his car arrived on the scene.

It’s Tamir’s fault that Loehmann quit his previous police job before he was dismissed for “deficiencies” only to be hired by a police department now under federal investigation for “allegations that CPD officers use excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force.”

It’s Tamir’s fault that first aid was administered, not by Loehmann or his partner, but by an FBI agent who happened to be in the area — four minutes after Tamir was shot.

And it’s Tamir’s fault that he was not seen as a child. “Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” one of the officers said when calling in the shooting. Or as Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association president Steve Loomis told Politico magazine, “He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” Given everything we know now about his case, the rest of Loomis’s quote is literally and figuratively unbelievable.

I hear some of the same outrage in IM’s powerful funeral oration for his friend Tod Clifton, formerly a fellow organizer for “the Brotherhood.” As I wrote yesterday, Clifton is selling Sambo dolls on the street when he gets pushed by a policeman. Rather than simply accept the shove as he has accepted it many times in the past, he swings at the cop, who proceeds to shoot him.

As you read it, think about Tamir and about all those unarmed black men who have been shot in recent years—the New Orleans residents fleeing the flood, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and all the others. The dynamic tension in the speech lies in how much Clifton’s death means to IM and his fellow black citizens and how little it means to white America. IM is ironic in his use of matter-of-fact language, and a sense that black lives don’t matter is what has led to the current movement named after a contrary belief.

One other note. Americans may be less prone to use the n-word than they were in 1946 when Invisible Man was written, but the racism that IM detects in the cop is still very much with us. Unconscious racism shows up in that “peculiar disposition of the eyes” (IM’s phrase) that prompts whites to see a 12-year-old black boy as a 20-year old man, that prompts Ferguson cops to circulate racist e-mails, that sees people fleeing from Hurricane Katrina as marauders, and, while we’re at it, that sees the president of the United States as an alien from a different country and Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. Ellison wrote IM’s speech just under 70 years ago but it still resonates:

His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome. And though he didn’t belilve it, I think he was. His name was Clifton and his face was black and his hair was thick with tight-rolled curls — or call them naps or kinks. He’s dead, uninterested, and, except to a few young girls, it doesn’t matter . . . Have you got it? Can you see him? Think of your brother or your cousin John. His lips were thick with an upward curve at the corners. He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart. He thought about things and he felt deeply. I won’t call him noble because what’s such a word to do with one of us? His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute. His name was Clifton and for a while he lived among us and aroused a few hopes in the young manhood of man, and we who knew him loved him and he died. So why are you waiting? You’ve heard it all. Why wait for more, when all I can do is repeat it?”

They stood; they listened. They gave no sign.

“Very well, so I’ll tell you. His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home to sleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

“Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He fell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror — and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That’s the story and that’s how it ended. It’s an old story and there’s been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it’s only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren’t you tired of such stories? Aren’t you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don’t you go? It’s hot out here. There’s the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there’ll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There’s not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There’s nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

“All right, all right,” I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, it wasn’t political. Brother Jack probably wouldn’t approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

“Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!” I shouted. “Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

“Tod Clifton’s one with the ages. But what’s that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis, the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

“Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton. Now he’s in this box with the bolts tightened down. He’s in the box and we’re in there with him, and when I’ve told you this you can go. It’s dark in this box and it’s crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it’s far, far too expensive a dwelling. The air is bad and it’ll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room. ‘Tell them to get out of the box,’ that’s what he would say if you could hear him. ‘Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.’

“So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don’t know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don’t know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled. So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers; go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that’s dead? So there’s only one thing left to tell and I’ve already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.”

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Boehner’s Monkey and Ellison’s Sambo

John Boehner and friend

John Boehner and friend


What commotion the GOP is experiencing in the House of Representatives! First Speaker John Boehner resigns, perhaps out of frustration with the fractious rightwing Freedom Caucus, and then his appointed successor withdraws after determining that he too would not be able to deal with what has been called “the shutdown caucus.” It remains to be seen if Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan will accept Washington’s second most powerful job and, in the event that he does, if he will do any better.

Opinion is divided over whether Boehner was a weak Speaker who allowed right-wingers to get out of control or a victim of circumstance. During his leadership, we regularly saw legislators threatening to shut down the government (one time they succeeded) and default on the nation’s debt if they didn’t get their way. While Boehner is generally diplomatic, a toy in his office may have revealed how he really felt about his relationship with the Freedom Caucus.

The toy is a little monkey that claps together the cymbals it is holding whenever one winds it up. It has no autonomy but performs at the behest of another. The monkey reminds me of a similar toy in Ralph Allison’s Invisible Man, sold on the street by Tod Clifton.

Clifton is initially Invisible Man’s lieutenant as they work for “the Brotherhood” in Harlem. Because the party officials don’t acknowledge the individual personhood of Tod and IM, especially their black identities, Clifton comes to feel like a mere puppet. Disillusioned, he breaks with the Brotherhood and begins selling actual puppets.

IM is appalled but comes to understand. Here’s Clifton’s sales pitch:

What makes him happy, what makes him dance,
This Sambo, this jambo, this high-stepping joy boy?
He’s more than a toy, ladies and gentlemen, he’s Sambo, the dancing doll, the twentieth-century miracle.
Look at that rumba, that suzy-q, he’s Sambo-Boogie,
Sambo-Woogie, you don’t have to feed him, he sleeps collapsed, he’ll kill your depression
And your dispossession, he lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile
And only twenty-five cents, the brotherly two bits of a dollar because he wants me to eat.
It gives him pleasure to see me eat.
You simply take him and shake him . . . and he does the rest.

Clifton is acting out his feelings of humiliation. Then, in one last display of manhood,he lashes out at a cop that is pushing him. I’ll write about his death tomorrow in a post on recent developments in the lawsuit concerning Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot by a Cleveland police officer.

I don’t know if Boehner will lash out after he leaves Congress, but he certainly felt taken and shaken until he couldn’t bear it any longer. I find it significant that, after announcing his decision, he sang Uncle Remus’s “Zippity Doo Dah” from Song of the South. Like Sambo, Disney’s Remus is another figure of debased masculinity.

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My Cries Cannot Pierce Thy Silent Ears

Léon Bonnat, “Job” (1880)

Spiritual Sunday

After reading today’s Old Testament reading, I received a new insight into George Herbert, my favorite religious poet. The 17th century Anglican rector draws heavily on the Book of Job.

I admire Herbert because of the very open way that he wrestles with his doubts. Although his poems generally have a Christian happy ending, one is never sure how they are going to twist and turn before he gets there. In Herbert’s agonizing, I hear Job asking where he can find God, as the Biblical figure does in the following passage (Job 23:1-9, 16-17):

Today also my complaint is bitter;
          his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
         that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
          and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
          and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
          No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
          and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

If I go forward, he is not there;
          or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
          I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
          the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
          and thick darkness would cover my face!

Compare this with Herbert’s poem “Denial,” where the poet describes God as having “silent ears”:

    When my devotions could not pierce
                              Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
         My breast was full of fears
                              And disorder.

    My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
                               Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
          Some to the wars and thunder
                              Of alarms.

    “As good go anywhere,” they say,
                               “As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
         Come, come, my God, O come!
                               But no hearing.”

    O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
                               To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
          My heart was in my knee,
                               But no hearing.

    Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
                               Untuned, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
          Like a nipped blossom, hung

    O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
                               Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
          They and my mind may chime,
                               And mend my rhyme.

I think also of the Ancient Mariner’s attempt to pray after killing the albatross:

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gushed,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.

The fact that Herbert concludes his poem with a rhyme after previously ending each stanza on a discordant note suggests that he senses some hope of connecting with God. Before then, however, he moves in torment. “All day long/My heart was in my knee,/But no hearing.”

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John Lennon’s Utopian Vision

John Lennon


John Lennon was born 75 years ago today. In his most famous song, he engages in utopian imagining that, like all utopian works, is more about the present than the future. By this I mean that it challenges us to scrutinize current day arrangements and institutions and think of other possibilities.

The opening directive—“Imagine there’s no heaven”—is not necessarily unreligious or unchristian, even through religious groups have sometimes complained that it is. Religion that avoids responsibility for the present by gesturing towards an indefinite future is indeed a block to positive engagement with the world. Jesus was not guilty of this, calling for us to find God in our here-and-now selves.

Of course, making our dreams real is a job for grown-ups. Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum that “we campaign in poetry but govern in prose” is directed at those who become disillusioned when our efforts to build a “brotherhood of man” prove difficult. That’s why the greatest utopian works always have an element of self-satire, questioning the very act of dreaming even as they dream. Lennon’s “Imagine” does not have this dimension.

Nevertheless, it has provided solace for people around the world when the forces of war and violence were ascendent. It became a kind of protest anthem for American protesters during the Iraq War when much of the country was seized with war fever. As a spur to peacemaking efforts, it has proved to be valuable.

So dare to dream. But then prepare to work long and hard to make that dream a reality.


By John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

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Hillary before Judges Like Tolstoy’s Pierre

Hillary Clinton at an earlier Benghazi hearing

Hillary Clinton at an earlier Benghazi hearing


Congress is supposed to use its investigative authority to discover the truth about urgent matters. After seven investigations, 13 hearings, and 50 briefings into the Obama administration’s response to the death of four Americans in Benghazi, however, it is clear that the latest committee has no more integrity than the French military tribunal in War and Peace that wants to sentence Pierre to death. The admission by soon-to-be Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy that the GOP’s real aim has been to bring down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers has confirmed people’s suspicions. (Update: McCarthy has just withdrawn the race for Speaker, in part because of blowback for his frankness.)

Let’s remind ourselves that the investigations have revealed no evidence of a stand down order from the administration and no wrong doing. Yet still they continue.

When Clinton comes to testify before the current committee on October 22, I imagine her having a version of Pierre’s experience. Tolstoy notes that the French judges can only hear answers that flow in a channel leading to conviction. The “essence of the matter” is irrelevant.

Here’s the situation. Pierre, who has been vaguely wandering around a burning Moscow, is arrested after saving a woman from assault by a French soldier. He is accused of setting fires and brought before a court that questions “who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on”:

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.

Yet the charade must be maintained if the verdict is to have general legitimacy. That is why McCarthy’s admission has been such a big deal. Without the aura of legitimacy, the investigation is seen by everyone as a power ploy by the GOP to bring down an opponent. Force alone gives them the right to demand answers to their questions.

But then, you already knew that.

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Misusing Metaphor in the Abortion Debates



A reader recently chided me for my use of the phrase “war on women” in my recent article about GOP attacks on Planned Parenthood, and I plead guilty to using a lazy, hackneyed and inaccurate metaphor. While I think that the current GOP is indeed advocating policies that will make life harder for lower income women, describing those policies as a “war” closes down conversation rather than opens it up. Good literature employs figurative language to explore reality in all its complexity, and a literary blog should be written in the same spirit.

Imagine if we took seriously the political metaphors that we fling around so casually in the abortion debates. Let’s start with “war on women.” A war calls for a marshaling of resources and a use of violence. Nuanced positions and moral sensitivities are overridden in the heat of a battle because it’s either win or lose. While engaging in a political “campaign” to “fight” for a cause may be part of our political process, it simplifies to a dangerous decree a vexed question such as abortion.

The same goes for the other side. Describing a fetus as “a baby” certainly adds an emotional punch to the debate, but if people took the metaphor literally, then they would need to apply the same laws to abortion that they do to infanticide—including imprisoning and in some states executing the hundreds of thousands of American women who have abortions every year, along with the medical people involved and all others who are accessories (parents, boyfriends, etc.). Some push the “baby” metaphor back so early in the birth process that, applying the same logic, women who use IUDs should be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Now, such things do occur in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fantasy Handmaid’s Tale. They also occur in El Salvador, where even a spontaneous miscarriage or a stillbirth can land a woman in prison. The closest we’ve gotten to such measures in this country is a new Tennessee law under which Mallory Loyola was arrested for fetal abuse after using meth. The assault charges were dismissed after she completed a drug rehabilitation program, which means that the authorities didn’t read the metaphor entirely literally. Had Loyola damaged her actual baby, the law wouldn’t have been as lenient.

I bring up this example, not to pursue the current debate over abortion, but to talk about the power of metaphor and how we must be careful around figurative language. A work does not live up to its literary potential if it uses cheap metaphors (what I was guilty of) to circumvent thought and elicit primal responses. To repeat my earlier point, literature at its best acknowledges reality’s complexity.

That’s why I praised Lucille Clifton’s “lost baby poem” in last week’s post, where a poor woman’s abortion is given both a context and a set of psychological consequences. If we let such literary explorations inform our sensibilities, we can arrive at far wiser public policy than by hurling simplistic metaphors. I will strive to do better.

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Bernie, Black Lives Matter, & Invisible Man

Black Lives Matter activists disrupt a Sanders speech

Black Lives Matter activists disrupt a Sanders speech


Bernie Sanders has been surpassing all expectations as we move towards the presidential primaries, but he has stumbled in one area. Apparently he is having difficulty connecting with minority voters, who make up a significant portion of the Democratic Party base.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man may give us insight into why.

Early signs of Sanders’s blind spot occurred when members of the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted a couple of his rallies. This made no sense to either him or his followers. Since BLM agitates strongly for members of the black underclass, didn’t they realize that no candidate is proposing higher taxes on the wealthy or more downward wealth redistribution than the socialist Sanders? In some ways, his frustration was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s frustration following the implementation of Obamacare. Though poorer Americans were the major beneficiaries, the president was still attacked by people like black activist Cornell West for not focusing sufficiently on African American issues.

The conflict resembles the tension between the Invisible Man and “the Brotherhood” in Ellison’s novel. The Brotherhood is essentially the American Communist Party, with whom Ellison was briefly affiliated during the 1930s. At first the narrator, accustomed to southern racism, is enthusiastic about the Brotherhood. As the book unfolds, however, he discovers that the party is blind to specific race issues. The blindness is symbolically captured through party leader Brother Jack’s glass eye.

The shock is great because Invisible Man (IM) initially thinks that he has found an organization that honors his humanity. As he says in the Brotherhood speech that launches him to prominence,

I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity! No, wait, let me confess . . . I feel the urge to affirm my feelings . . . I feel that here, after a long and desperate and uncommonly blind journey, I have come home . . . Home! With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. I feel that here tonight, in this old arena, the new is being born and the vital old revived. In each of you, in me, in us all.




IM becomes the Brotherhood’s most effective organizer because he understands Harlem far better than the white members do. He focuses on the issue of evictions, creates a rainbow poster of different races (anticipating Jessie Jackson), and draws large crowds with his “People’s Hot Foot Squad,” a drill team that does elaborate formations while striking sparks with their hobnailed boots. After a friend is shot by the police for being black, he gives an impassioned eulogy.

But IM is essentially accused of focusing on African American concerns rather than general class concerns. During a key confrontation with Brother Jack, IM is horrified when a glass eye drops from his face. The horror arises in part from the fact that Jack cannot see his identity as a black man. Given the novel’s theme of identity and invisibility, this is no small thing. Here’s the scene:

I stared at the glass, seeing how the light shone through, throwing a transparent, precisely fluted shadow against the dark grain of the table, and there on the bottom of the glass lay an eye. A glass eye. A buttermilk white eye distorted by the light rays. An eye staring fixedly at me as from the dark waters of a well. Then I was looking at him standing above me, outlined by the light against the darkened half of the hall.

“. . . You must accept discipline. Either you accept decisions or you get out . . .”

I stared into his face, feeling a sense of outrage. His left eye had collapsed, a line of raw redness showing where the lid refused to close, and his gaze had lost its command. I looked from his face to the glass, thinking, he’s disemboweled himself just in order to confound me . . . And the others had known it all along. They aren’t even surprised.

Now, Bernie Sanders is no Jack nor, for that matter, a communist. He has made admirable strides since his first missteps and now has Cornell West as an advisor. Still, Ellison helps us understand why the misunderstanding arose in the first place.

The challenge is one that confronts the Democratic Party as a whole. Can they acknowledge the specific identities of certain constituencies without alienating others? In politics as it is practiced, this can seem a zero sum game. Some trace the rise of Donald Trump, with his birther attacks on the president and his anti-immigrant rhetoric, to America’s “angry middle class,” who perceive the country’s wealth going both upward to the 1% and downward to the Black and Latino underclass.

That’s why Democrat candidates cannot afford a glass eye. Black Lives Matter is about no long being invisible men and women, and the eventual nominee will need to acknowledge both class AND race.

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Tolstoy Calls Us to Aid Syrian Refugees

Hepburn as Natasa in "War and Peace" (1956)

Hepburn as Natasa in “War and Peace” (1956)


This is an overdue post on the Syrian refugee crisis, which is directly impacting Europe and adding more fuel to nativist politics around the world, including in the United States. While the Obama administration has agreed to accept 10,000 refugees for the upcoming fiscal year and has raised the ceiling to 85,000 overall, good Christians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson are against accepting anyone, with the Donald promising to send everyone back if he becomes president.

I thought about their hardness of heart this past week as I was reading the scene in War and Peace where the Rostov family is packing up their belongings to flee Moscow. The Rostovs have money problems because of the count’s generosity, but they are still well off and own a lot of carpets, paintings, furniture, and the like. The question is whether they should leave some of this behind and instead offer wounded soldiers a place in the wagons.

These soldiers are already in their house because of an invitation from the tenderhearted Natasha. The subsequent struggle is between, on the one hand, the count and Natasha and, on the other, the countess.

Generosity wins the first round. The count can’t say no to an appeal for help from one of the wounded officers:

“Count, be so good as to allow me… for God’s sake, to get into some corner of one of your carts! I have nothing here with me…. I shall be all right on a loaded cart…”

Before the officer had finished speaking the orderly made the same request on behalf of his master.

“Oh, yes, yes, yes!” said the count hastily. “I shall be very pleased, very pleased. Vasilich, you’ll see to it. Just unload one or two carts. Well, what of it… do what’s necessary…” said the count, muttering some indefinite order.

But at the same moment an expression of warm gratitude on the officer’s face had already sealed the order. The count looked around him. In the yard, at the gates, at the window of the wings, wounded officers and their orderlies were to be seen. They were all looking at the count and moving toward the porch.

“Please step into the gallery, your excellency,” said the major-domo. “What are your orders about the pictures?”

The count went into the house with him, repeating his order not to refuse the wounded who asked for a lift.

“Well, never mind, some of the things can be unloaded,” he added in a soft, confidential voice, as though afraid of being overheard.

The second round goes to the countess, who is not entirely wrong to be wary of her husband’s generosity. Then again, the Rostofs are hardly poor:

“What is this, my dear? I hear that the luggage is being unloaded.”

“You know, love, I wanted to tell you… Countess dear… an officer came to me to ask for a few carts for the wounded. After all, ours are things that can be bought but think what being left behind means to them!… Really now, in our own yard—we asked them in ourselves and there are officers among them…. You know, I think, my dear… let them be taken… where’s the hurry?”

The count spoke timidly, as he always did when talking of money matters. The countess was accustomed to this tone as a precursor of news of something detrimental to the children’s interests…

She assumed her dolefully submissive manner and said to her husband: “Listen to me, Count, you have managed matters so that we are getting nothing for the house, and now you wish to throw away all our—all the children’s property! You said yourself that we have a hundred thousand rubles’ worth of things in the house. I don’t consent, my dear, I don’t! Do as you please! It’s the government’s business to look after the wounded; they know that. Look at the Lopukhins opposite, they cleared out everything two days ago. That’s what other people do. It’s only we who are such fools. If you have no pity on me, have some for the children.”

It appears as though the countess will prevail until Natasha intervenes. Notice how shame works as a force in Tolstoy’s world whereas Trump and Carson seem impervious to it:

“Mamma, it’s impossible: see what is going on in the yard!” she cried. “They will be left!…”

“What’s the matter with you? Who are ‘they’? What do you want?”

“Why, the wounded! It’s impossible, Mamma. It’s monstrous!… No, Mamma darling, it’s not the thing. Please forgive me, darling…. Mamma, what does it matter what we take away? Only look what is going on in the yard… Mamma!… It’s impossible!”

The count stood by the window and listened without turning round. Suddenly he sniffed and put his face closer to the window.

The countess glanced at her daughter, saw her face full of shame for her mother, saw her agitation, and understood why her husband did not turn to look at her now, and she glanced round quite disconcerted.

“Oh, do as you like! Am I hindering anyone?” she said, not surrendering at once.

“Mamma, darling, forgive me!”

But the countess pushed her daughter away and went up to her husband.

“My dear, you order what is right…. You know I don’t understand about it,” said she, dropping her eyes shamefacedly.

“The eggs… the eggs are teaching the hen,” muttered the count through tears of joy, and he embraced his wife who was glad to hide her look of shame on his breast.

Once the decisions has been made to help the soldiers, the Rostovs are rewarded with the fullness of heart that comes with doing good:

The whole household, as if to atone for not having done it sooner, set eagerly to work at the new task of placing the wounded in the carts. The wounded dragged themselves out of their rooms and stood with pale but happy faces round the carts. The news that carts were to be had spread to the neighboring houses, from which wounded men began to come into the Rostovs’ yard. Many of the wounded asked them not to unload the carts but only to let them sit on the top of the things. But the work of unloading, once started, could not be arrested. It seemed not to matter whether all or only half the things were left behind. Cases full of china, bronzes, pictures, and mirrors that had been so carefully packed the night before now lay about the yard, and still they went on searching for and finding possibilities of unloading this or that and letting the wounded have another and yet another cart.

“We can take four more men,” said the steward. “They can have my trap, or else what is to become of them?”

“Let them have my wardrobe cart,” said the countess. “Dunyasha can go with me in the carriage.”

They unloaded the wardrobe cart and sent it to take wounded men from a house two doors off. The whole household, servants included, was bright and animated. Natasha was in a state of rapturous excitement such as she had not known for a long time.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from our political discourse.

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Thee Thyself We Cannot Lose

Job and his three friends, 9th century Byzantine manuscript

Job and his three friends, 9th century Byzantine manuscript

Spiritual Sunday

Dan Clendenin of the blog Journey for Jesus has an excellent essay on The Book of Job, one of today’s Old Testament readings. He concludes it with a simple but powerful poem by the 19th century author Mary Elizabeth Coleridge.

Job has done nothing to deserve the suffering he undergoes, but his so-called friends can’t admit this. They feel compelled to find a causal relationship between Job’s misery and his behavior. If he is suffering what appears to be God’s wrath, he must have done something to bring it upon himself—just as, when life was good, he must have done something to deserve that as well.

Seeking to find reasons for such suffering can be a defense against the seeming senselessness of life. We tell ourselves that there’s something we can do to avoid suffering because we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge our powerlessness. Job’s friends may seem to care for him but they are in actuality voicing their own need to be reassured.

Clendenin uses Job to warn against, amongst other things, prosperity theology, and I think he’s right. I’ve long wondered how certain American Christians can be fans of the control freak Ayn Rand, and seeing them as Job’s friends makes sense. Rand herself may have been an atheist but she has numerous Christian followers in the United States, who want the control that she promises, even as they also want to abandon themselves to God. Here’s Clendenin:

[T]he central lesson of this ancient story includes a most contemporary application. Many television preachers and books teach that God wants us healthy, wealthy, and wise (if you send them your money). Job exposes that lie.  In his book Forty Acres and a Goat, Will Campbell derides such teachers as “electronic soul molesters.”

Genuine faith doesn’t manipulate God for material gain, fear of punishment, or avoidance of unjust suffering.

To accentuate his point, Clendenin then quotes Coleridge’s poem:

After Saint Augustine

By Mary Elizabeth Coleridge

Sunshine let it be or frost,
Storm or calm, as Thou shalt choose;
Though Thine every gift were lost,
Thee Thyself we could not lose.

The poem functions as a prayer. God’s peace awaits us as soon as we stop thrashing around in our fears.

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This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Umpqua College shooting victim

Umpqua College shooting victim


Today I run a slightly amended version of the post that I wrote after Dylan Roof gunned down nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, which in turn was a repetition of posts I’ve written on previous mass shootings.. All I’ve changed is Charles Harper Mercer for Roof, Umpqua College for the Charleston church, and President Obama’s response.

The response didn’t need much updating since President Obama feels acutely that he is repeating himself. Each time he sounds more like desperate King Hrothgar in Beowulf, who is flummoxed by the fact that Grendelian violence continues unabated. As I understand Grendel, he is the blood feuds instigated by Denmark’s own resentful warriors that ravaged Anglo-Saxon society. In other words, the violence comes from within, not from without. Here’s The New York Times reporting on Obama venting his rage and sense of impotence at our continuing refusal to take concrete steps against our Grendels:

President Obama’s rage about gun massacres, building for years, spilled out Thursday night as he acknowledged his own powerlessness to prevent another tragedy and pleaded with voters to force change themselves.

“So tonight, as those of us who are lucky enough to hug our kids a little closer are thinking about the families who aren’t so fortunate,” the president said in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, named for a man severely wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet, “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.”

Mr. Obama admitted that he was unable to do anything to prevent such tragedies by himself. And he did little to try to hide the anger and frustration that have deepened as he returns again and again to the White House lectern in the wake of a deadly mass shooting.

And now for the amended version of the post I wrote just three and a half months ago:

Revised post from June 19, 2015

I am losing count of all the blog posts I have written about mass shootings since starting this blog six years ago. (Some of them are listed at the end of today’s post.) Today I write about the ten people killed and seven wounded at Umpqua College by a lone gunman.

I feel like the grandmother at the end of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony following another eruption of violence on the reservation. “I guess I must be getting old,” she says,

“because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited any more.” She sighed, and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”

I too go back to a familiar story. Few works of literature capture the social violence that strikes from within as powerfully as Beowulf, especially in its depiction of the resentment-crazed Grendel. If Charles Harper Mercer follows the pattern of previous Grendels, it will emerge that he nursed “a hard grievance” and saw others partying in the Great Hall while he felt left out.

Meanwhile, we are like King Hrothgar, helplessly surveying the devastation and feeling incapable of doing anything about it. It doesn’t matter that we are the most powerful country on earth, just as Denmark was the reigning power in medieval Scandinavia. One hears President Obama’s despair in his remarks:

On Thursday night, Mr. Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people have “become numb to this.”

“And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation,” Mr. Obama said. “Right now I can imagine the press releases being cranked out. ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. ‘Fewer gun-safety laws.’ ”

“Does anybody really believe that?” he asked, his voice rising.

He has been saying versions of this after each mass killing for the past six years.

In Beowulf, the spirit of resentful violence has been operating for twelve years. Here’s how the poet describes Grendel’s reign and the king’s sorrow.

So Grendel ruled in defiance of right, 
one against all, until the greatest house
in the world stood empty, a deserted wallstead.
For twelve winters, seasons of woe,
the lord of the Shieldings suffered under
his load of sorrow; and so, before long,
the news was known over the whole world.
Sad lays were sung about the beset king,
the vicious raids and ravages of Grendel,
his long and unrelenting feud,
nothing but war…
All were endangered, young and old

were hunted down by that dark death-shadow
who lurked and swooped in the long nights
on the misty moors; nobody knows
where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

In his remarks last June after the Charleston shooting, Obama spoke of his “deep sorrow,” and of “the heartbreak, and the sadness, and the anger.” The poet says that “these were hard times, heartbreaking for the prince of the Shieldings.”

None of us knows when and where the next reaver of hell will strike. We only know that he will.

Previous Posts on Mass Shootings

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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Clifton, Abortion, & Respecting Women

Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards testifies before Congress

Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards testifies before Congress


The GOP has been claiming for a long time that it is not conducting a “war on women,” but its attempts to defund Planned Parenthood belie that. In their hatred of abortion, they are prepared to deny poor women access to all reproductive health services.

It doesn’t matter that 2.7 million men and women visit Planned Parenthood annually and that one in five women have used its services in the course of their lives. It doesn’t matter that, as The Huffington Post reportsin addition to abortions (which are legal and for which PP does not use federal funds), in 2013 PP affiliates provided 865,721 Pap tests and breast exams; conducted 704,079 tests for HIV; and provided 1,440,495 emergency contraception kits.

The latest strategy of anti-abortion activists has been to use graphic (and doctored) images to stampede people into opposition. (The so-called beating heart baby in the sting video was actually stillborn—not aborted—and for that matter wasn’t delivered in a PP clinic.) Yesterday a Congressional committee badgered the head of Planned Parenthood for five hours although thankfully Congress, with the help of the Democrats, will not be shutting down the government over PP funding.

Shock may not work, however, as a very smart article in New York Magazine argues. Written by Rebecca Traister, it got me thinking about the body poetry of Lucille Clifton, including one poem about an abortion.

Traister thinks that male politicians, squeamish themselves, assume that women share their disgust. They forget that women have a different relationship with their bodies. Here’s Traister:

But as a broader strategy, the notion that educating women in the grotesqueries of termination will be a game-changer is absurd. As [PP director Cecile] Richards could tell [sting video director David] Daleiden if he asked her his question, women already know what abortion is. We know more about blood, innards, fetuses, and the babies they may become — in short, about life in reproductive bodies — than anti-abortion activists seem to understand.

The average age of menarche in the United States is 12; the average age of menopause, 51. During the intervening decades, most women bleed regularly, and if you think we emit that chlorinated blue water in the maxi-pad ads, you are incorrect. I was in high school the first time a friend joked about a “period chunk.” I was also in high school when I first heard that an acquaintance had had a grapefruit-size dermoid cyst removed from an ovary; as is not uncommon with those cysts, it contained teeth, hair, and skin.

The act of controlling or preventing pregnancy for a heterosexually active woman is filled with corporeal maneuvering. It can entail the daily, timed consumption of pills; implantation of a subdermal device; the obsessive monitoring of temperature and vaginal secretions; fiddling in unseen recesses with caps and diaphragms. Even the in-vogue set-it-and-forget-it IUD is not always as easy as it seems. Getting mine involved a snapped wire, retrieval, reinsertion, and the manual dilation of my cervix, which was the most exquisitely terrible pain of my life — and I am the veteran of three uterine surgeries, two of which resulted in babies and one in the removal of 20 fibroid tumors from my uterine wall.

Women do not need real talk about bodies; our adult days brim with the effluvia, the discomforts, the weirdness and emotional intensity and magnitude of our medical choices. Then there is pregnancy itself, wanted or not, and its attendant risks. Women pass early pregnancies into toilet bowls and sadly collect the remains of later ones in Tupperware containers to bring to their doctors. Most of us know of someone who has suffered the excruciating pain of stillbirth. One friend, bleeding 13 weeks into a deeply desired pregnancy, was told by her doctor not to worry unless she passed a clot bigger than her fist.

And further on:

Women know about blood. We know about discharge. We know about babies, and many of us also love them, their little feet and hands and eyelashes. And, yes, we know that those bitty features develop while the fetus is inside us. We also know the physical, economic, and emotional costs of raising those children outside our wombs.

Sixty-one percent of women who seek abortions already have at least one child. More than a third already have at least two children. Women know what pregnancy is and what abortion does. Perhaps it’s this common calculation that keeps so many women (and men) grateful to an organization dedicated to the maintenance of women’s bodies.

Many of Lucille Clifton’s poems bear Traister out, such as “homage to my hips,” “poem in praise of menstruation,” “poem to my uterus,” “to my last period,” and “wishes for sons.” Clifton ventured where previous poets dared not tread, and women have embraced her because they feel loved and respected, not judged. In “wishes for sons,” as I’ve mentioned in the past, they also recognize the arrogance of men who think they know best what women need.

It is in this light that “the lost baby poem” should be read. Although the speaker is expressing her regrets about her abortion, the poem doesn’t condemn her for what she did. In fact, we learn that she was going through a rough patch at the time. It does acknowledge, however, that there can be a psychological cost:

the lost baby poem

By Lucille Clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car       we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas        let black men call me stranger
always        for your never named sake

Lucille doesn’t turn her subject into a political abstraction but makes her a three-dimensional woman wrestling with life and vowing to be strong. Perhaps she would make a different decision now but, at the time, it seemed the best option open to her. When people argue that an abortion should be up to the woman, they are according her the respect that Lucille has for her.

And who knows, perhaps if the woman had had access to Planned Parenthood and had not been mired in poverty, there would have been no abortion and no regrets. But rightwing politicians aren’t interested in that.


Abortion Statistics: For the record, the Center for Disease Control reports that, in 2011 (the latest figures I could find), there were 730,322 legal induced abortions in America with a ratio of 219 abortions per 1,000 live births. In other words, hundreds of thousands of women chose to end pregnancies for countless reasons. According to CDC,

Most abortions (91.4%) were performed at ≤13 weeks’ gestation; a smaller number of abortions (7.3%) were performed at 14–20 weeks’ gestation, and even fewer (1.4%) were performed at ≥21 weeks’ gestation. In 2011, 19.1% of all abortions were medical abortions. Source: MMWR 2014;63(11).

Past posts on literature and abortion

The Abortion Debate & Doll’s House 

Tom Sawyer, PP, & Medical Research

Female Freedom Drives Right Crazy

No-Name Woman vs. Anti-Abortionists

John Irving’s Defense of Abortion 

Ryan, Abortion, and Hardy’s Angel Clare 

Imagine Austen vs. War on Women 

SCOTUS Traps Women in Doll’s House 

Threatened by Female Empowerment 

Pentheus vs. Dionysus=GOP vs. Women 

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True? 

A 17th Century Comedy Addressing Rape 

How Rightwing Would Respond to Tess 

Unruly Women Playing Cards 


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Trump & GOP Tax Plans: All Humbug

Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz

Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz


Why were we shocked when Donald Trump once again “played us all for suckers” (as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it)? Word was that, in the spirit of his “populist campaign,” the Donald would break with Republican orthodoxy and deliver a tax plan that would help lower and middle class families while soaking the rich.

So what did we get? Well, we got what Dorothy got when the screen came down: a conman behaving like any other conman.

To set the scene, here’s Sargent explaining why we may have thought that, this time, things would be  different:

Not long ago, Donald Trump claimed that his rivals would allow “Wall Street” and the “hedge fund guys” to continue to “rip off the people by paying no or very little in taxes.” The implication was that Trump would raise the tax burden on top earners, which he seemed to underscore at the most recent GOP debate, when he ridiculed an opponent’s suggestion that raising taxes on the wealthy would constitute “socialism,” adding: “I know people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no tax, and I think it’s unfair.”

As I had argued, if Trump’s plan really did raise the overall tax burden on top taxpayers — which very much remained to be seen — it would have made him a real outlier in the GOP field.

So what does Trump’s plan call for? As Jon Chait of New York Magazine observes,

Trump’s proposal is extremely similar to all the other Republican plans. He would cut the top tax rate to 25 percent, even lower than the 28 percent rate proposed by Jeb Bush. While Trump would not eliminate taxes on investment income, as Marco Rubio proposes, he likewise plans to eliminate the estate tax, which currently applies only to inheritances over $10 million. Trump says he will pay for all this by eliminating “loopholes,” but fails to identify these loopholes. Even if he cleaned out every deduction in the tax code, there is not enough revenue to make up for the enormous tax cuts he would supply to the rich.

The conservative Tax Foundation predicts that the plan would add somewhere between 10 and 12 trillion dollars to the deficit. That’s trillion with a “t.”

In case you’re keeping score, here’s what we have so far regarding deficit-funded tax plans, as Kevin Jones of Mother Jones tabulates it:

Marco Rubio has a tax plan with a top rate of 35 percent that promises to boost our economic growth rate to 3.5 percent per year. Jeb Bush then came out with his plan, which has a top rate of 28 percent and a growth rate percent of 4 percent a year. Then Donald Trump announced his plan, which has a top rate of 25 percent and a growth rate of 6 percent per year.

To which Drum sarcastically asks,

Who’s next? Carly? I advise her to announce a plan that has a top rate of 20 percent and promises growth of 8 percent per year. Ridiculous? Sure, but who’s going to call her on it? I mean, what’s Bush going to do? Get into an argument about whose supply-side growth assumptions are the most out of touch with reality?

Apparently, all one needs to do in the GOP presidential primary race is don a populist mantle, claim that your tax plan helps the middle class, and ignore those who add up the figures. Once politics becomes a fact-free affair where whoever sounds most convincing wins, then reality television hosts like Trump and P.R. savvy CEOs like Carla Fiorina (and Trump again) will prosper. No wonder the Republican base is so angry with the Republican establishment and is current enthralled with people who have never held office.

The irony is that Trump, who has been profiting from their anger, is pulling the same stunt as the other faux populists.

L. Frank Baum was well acquainted with populist politicians, and I have written about how both the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard may symbolize politicians of the 1890s during the period of the Long Depression. The resemblances between the Wizard of Oz and Trump are therefore no accident.

When Dorothy and her companions first encounter Oz, we see him using the Trumpian strategy of proclaiming his awesomeness: “I am the great and terrible Oz.” Then, like Trump in a debate, he becomes a moving target so that no one can pin him down. He is a talking head with Dorothy, a beautiful woman with the Scarecrow, a hideous monster with the Tin Woodman, and a ball of fire with the Cowardly Lion. Later, after they have killed the witch, he is invisible, allowing everyone to project whatever they want upon him.

The Wizard even sounds like Trump-the-realtor. Here’s how he came to build the Emerald City—or shall we say, Trump Tower in Manhattan:

[The balloon] came down gradually, and I was not hurt a bit. But I found myself in the midst of a strange people, who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.

Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; and they did it all willingly and well. Then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.

Think of green as greenbacks—that’s part of Baum’s economic parable—and as Trump’s assurance that everyone can be rich. This is especially true of those who attend Trump University or sign on with ACN. If Trump is elected president, money will shower down upon us all. Or at least, upon those of us who aren’t losers.

Baum, of course, gives us the very satisfying scene of the conman exposed. May Trump and all those who make phony populist claims be similarly exposed:

Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”

“And aren’t you?” she asked.

“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”

“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”

“Exactly so!” declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. “I am a humbug.”

Someday, I suspect, Trump will proudly take us behind the scenes, as the Wizard does, and show off how he pulled his scam.

Someone once said of P.T. Barnum’s success, “There’s a sucker born  every minute.” Pray that enough of us wake up by election day.

Further thought: Here’s the New Yorker’s John Cassidy summing up Trump’s tax plan and exposing his self-proclaimed concern for the lower classes:

According to an analysis by the liberal group Citizens for Tax Justice, [under Trump’s plan] households in the bottom twenty per cent of the income distribution would save about two hundred and fifty dollars a year. Households in the top one per cent would save, on average, nearly a hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars. So much for Donald Trump as the tribune of the masses.

Why did I refer to this cop-out as predictable? Because I doubted all along that Trump had the depth and gumption to be a genuine American populist—a Huey Long for the Internet age. Such a figure, if he had channeled worries about immigration, ISIS, and national decline, then combined these with some seriously populist proposals designed to exploit resentment of corrupt financial and political élites, could perhaps have emerged as a genuinely potent and dangerous force. But Trump isn’t that guy. A self-satisfied showman and self-promoter rather than a real insurrectionary, he ultimately hasn’t got much to offer. This tax plan makes it painfully clear.

And here’s Paul Krugman:

But I do want to weigh in for a minute on Donald Trump’s tax plan — which would, surprise, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit. That’s in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.


At this point there are no Republican candidates deviating at all from the usual pattern. Why, it’s almost as if nobody in the party ever cared about deficits except as an excuse to slash social spending, and is totally committed to redistributing income upward.

And there is, of course, no evidence — zero, nada, zilch — that cutting taxes on the rich will yield large economic benefits.

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Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Napoleon and Moscow on fire, artist unknown

Napoleon views Moscow on fire, artist unknown


I’m in the process of reading War and Peace for the first time—what breathtaking range!—and just came across a passage that helps explain climate change denialism. It occurs when the citizens of Moscow hear about Napoleon bearing down on the city.

First, let’s take note of how unhinged our rightwing denialists are. It’s not just Pope Francis, President Obama, and left-leaning political parties that are calling for action. According to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, even the world’s major conservative parties—all, that is, with the exception of the GOP—acknowledge the danger and recommend that proactive steps be taken:

new paper by Sondre Båtstrand studies the climate-change positions of electoral manifestos for the conservative parties in nine democracies, and finds the GOP truly stands apart. Opposition to any mitigation of greenhouse-gas emissions, he finds, “is only the case with the U.S. Republican Party, and hence not representative of conservative parties as a party family.” For instance, the Swedish conservative party “stresses the necessity of international cooperation and binding treaties to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, with the European Union and emissions trading as essentials.”

Okay, you might say, that’s just Sweden. But all of the other non-American conservative platforms follow similar themes. Germany’s conservative platform declares, “[C]limate change threatens the very foundations of our existence and the chances of development of the next generations.” Canada’s, writes Båtstrand, “presents both past and future measures on climate change. The past measures are regulations on electricity production, research and development on clean energy (including carbon capture and storage), and international cooperation and agreements including support for adaptation in developing countries.” Even coal-rich Australia has a conservative party that endorses action to limit climate change. 

Commenting on Jeb Bush’s stated plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions on carbon pollution, Chait writes,

In any other democracy in the world, a Jeb Bush would be an isolated loon, operating outside the major parties, perhaps carrying on at conferences with fellow cranks, but having no prospects of seeing his vision carried out in government. But the United States is different. Here in America, ideas like Bush’s fit comfortably within one of the two major political parties. Indeed, the greatest barrier to Bush claiming his party’s nomination is the quite possibly justified sense that he is too sober and moderate to suit the GOP.

The GOP, in other words, is opting for the second option of the two described by Tolstoy:

As the enemy closed in on Moscow the attitude of the inhabitants to their situation, far from becoming all serious-minded, actually became more frivolous, as always happens with people who can see a terrible danger bearing down on them. At the first approach of danger two voices always speak out with equal force in a man’s heart: one tells him very sensibly to consider the exact extent of the danger and any means of avoiding it; the other says even more sensibly that it’s too wearisome and agonizing to contemplate the danger, since it is not in a man’s power to anticipate future events and avoid the general run of things, so you might as well turn away from the nastiness until it hits you, and dwell on things that are pleasant. Left to himself a man will usually listen to the first voice; out in society he listens to the second one. This is what was now happening to the good people of Moscow. It was years since there had been so much fun in the city.

Tolstoy’s passage reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” which may have influenced him. Although plague is stalking the land, the guests of Prince Prospero are madly partying. Or rather, they are partying because the pestilence is getting nearer.

Listening to the second voice while in the company of others is what today we call an information bubble. The GOP may not be having fun railing at environmentalists, scientists, the president and the pope, but it is certainly indulging in frivolous and irresponsible behavior. After all, rising seas, killer droughts, and storms of increasing severity represent a “nastiness” that is “too wearisome and agonizing to contemplate.”

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Germany vs. Greece, a Greek Tragedy

Bernardino Mei, "Orestes Slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra"

Bernardino Mei, “Orestes Slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra”


Novelist Tom McCarthy has written an intriguing article for yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Magazine arguing that the current economic struggle between Germany and Greece is captured in the great Greek tragedies and perhaps even anticipated by them. It’s a complex piece but I’ll try to make sense of it.

In the article’s introduction, McCarthy asserts,

It is rare that a contemporary political state of affairs perfectly corresponds with a classical literary one — when the contours of the two align so entirely that not only does the latter help explain the former, but the new situation, with all its messy contingencies, seems to follow the carefully wrought logic of its aesthetic predecessor with such precision as to appear like a manifestation, or symptom, of it.

I don’t entirely follow McCarthy’s reasoning here. I like the idea that Greece’s financial collapse might unfold according to the logic of a classic Greek tragedy since art often captures deep patterns of human and social behavior. As this blog demonstrates daily, I obviously believe that literature of the past can cast light on current events. I’m just not sure what McCarthy means by Greece’s current problems being a “manifestation” or a “symptom” of classic Greek drama.

But set that aside. McCarthy makes the nice point that both economics and Greek tragedies involve dramas of the home:

Economics, etymologically speaking, is a Greek invention. The word comes from the Greek oikos, which means “house” or “dwelling.” At the basis of all economics is the practice of keeping one’s house in order. This is what virtually all Greek drama is about: the attempt to manage domestic affairs, whether “domestic” be understood at the scale of one household, or of a family spanning several generations (the house of Oedipus or Atreus, for instance), or of the literal stones and mortar of a home — the attempt to quell its rebellions from within, fend off attacks from without, keep it self-contained, autonomous, intact. What lends the drama to the equation is the fact that this attempt invariably fails. Take Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy. The patriarch Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, and the ensuing household struggle escalates into affairs of state and even conflict between gods. One oikos opens up into another — Greek oikoi are never closed. If it’s not present violence blowing them wide open, it’s past acts (as she approaches Agamemnon’s house, Cassandra shrieks that its very walls are spilling dreadful histories, “Remnants of bodies hacked / And murdered children’s bones”), private intimacies unfolding into public knowledge — the whole process driven by an inexpungeable reserve of guilt.

McCarthy, a fan of James Joyce and Joycean word play, then goes on to note connections between the words “guilt” and “debt,” especially in German (“schuld”). “To be guilty, schuldig, is to be in debt, and vice versa,” he writes and then adds that, while Greece owes a crippling debt to Germany, Germany hasn’t faced up to the ways that it also is guilty and in debt:

Greece is schuldig by definition, since it owes. But its debt, crippling though it is to the Hellenic household, is miniature compared with that of a nation that, within living memory, first (during occupation) plundered Greece’s gold, then (after armistice) received monumental sums of unearned credit.

And further on:

The great lesson of Greek literature (as Oedipus learns to his cost) is simply: You are guilty. Before you’ve even done anything, guilt is the precondition of your being. The house of Germany is indebted, more than most; it takes no Cassandra to spot the murdered children’s bones spilling from its walls. Its leaders, having profited from an open economy, are imposing upon Greece a spurious closed one tailored to suit their own ends. 

McCarthy observes that the incessant blood debts haunting the House of Atreus are finally resolved by the Athena’s intervention. Through her mediation, Aeschylus shows how democracy solves the problem of  blood feuds:

In the Oresteian trilogy, the inexorable guilt (of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter; of Clytemnestra, who murdered him in revenge; of Orestes, who killed her as a riposte to that; and so on, backward and forward for generations) gives rise to a series of claims and counterclaims that get resolved in what is effectively the West’s first civic trial, presided over by Athena. The task, for her and the citizen-jury she appoints, is not to work out who is right (all parties’ arguments are good), but rather to come up with an arrangement that can set all these contesting demands in some kind of balance that accommodates all sides. In so doing, she founds democracy. The groundbreaking event takes place in Athens.

So can the current economic standoff have a happy ending? Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman, who have argued against austerity economics, think that there must be some kind of accommodation if the euro and the Europe Union are to survive. Greece, as even the European bank has admitted, will never be able to pay off its debt. To insist that it continue trying to do so will lead to social upheaval and the rise of rightwing violence. Reasonable people, with or without the help of a goddess, should be able to see this.

McCarthy, unfortunately, foresees no goddess bringing the contending parties to an arena where all can be worked out. By playing hardball, Germany is threatening Greek democracy:

That the current Athenian parliament’s own resolutions are being struck down by Berlin-mandated bureaucrats makes the Greek citizenry’s long-running slogan “Error 404 — Democracy Not Found” even truer than they might realize.

Further note: In this morning’s New York Times column, Roger Cohen mentions Volkswagen’s immense cheating scandal (finding ways to fool emissions tests) as undercutting the country’s claims of moral rectitude. Dramatic irony, as every student of Oedipus knows, involves looking elsewhere for the culprit when at least some of the fault lies with you:

Germany has been pretty relentless about Greek cheating on its public accounts, tax evasion, nepotism, lax work habits and the rest. It had a case. Greece did all the above to get itself and the eurozone into their current hole. But its prescription — be more like hardworking, honest, reliable, virtuous Germany and get there through austerity alone — was far too rigid, and now all those lessons about cheating smack of gross hypocrisy. Leadership from the new Germany will fail if the temptation to hand out lessons is not resisted.

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Jane Eyre: 1st Discipline, Then Love

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel passage is one that Jane Eyre turns to unwillingly at a major crisis point in her life. Jesus, playing the tough coach, gives his disciples difficult advice that they too don’t want to hear. Both the disciples and Jane need Jesus’s tough language, however, if they are to move past self and into love.

In the passage from Mark (9:38-50), Jesus catches his disciples behaving territorially. A stranger has been casting out devils in Jesus’s name, and the disciples think he is claiming spoils that they regard as rightfully theirs:

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

Concerned that his disciples won’t hear what he is saying, Jesus resorts to violent images:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

The disciples focus more on their own egos than on the love of God, and abandoning such pride can seem comparable to cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye. Our narcissism plunges us into an internal hell because it separates us from the divine. Jesus feels that he can’t make this point strongly enough.

Jane recalls the passage at a moment when she is in shock. She has just discovered that Rochester is already married and that she is about to experience once again her life of solitude and self doubt:

Some time in the afternoon I raised my head, and looking round and seeing the western sun gilding the sign of its decline on the wall, I asked, “What am I to do?”

But the answer my mind gave—“Leave Thornfield at once”—was so prompt, so dread, that I stopped my ears.  I said I could not bear such words now.  “That I am not Edward Rochester’s bride is the least part of my woe,” I alleged: “that I have wakened out of most glorious dreams, and found them all void and vain, is a horror I could bear and master; but that I must leave him decidedly, instantly, entirely, is intolerable.  I cannot do it.”

But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it and foretold that I should do it.  I wrestled with my own resolution: I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the awful passage of further suffering I saw laid out for me; and Conscience, turned tyrant, held Passion by the throat, told her tauntingly, she had yet but dipped her dainty foot in the slough, and swore that with that arm of iron he would thrust her down to unsounded depths of agony.

“Let me be torn away,” then I cried.  “Let another help me!”

“No; you shall tear yourself away, none shall help you: you shall yourself pluck out your right eye; yourself cut off your right hand: your heart shall be the victim, and you the priest to transfix it.”

I rose up suddenly, terror-struck at the solitude which so ruthless a judge haunted,—at the silence which so awful a voice filled.

Perhaps such tough coaching is what Jane needs if she is to be strong. She has all but turned Rochester into her idol and is in danger of succumbing to his seductive temptation, which is to become his mistress in France. If she were to give in, she would be tormented for the rest of her life.

Jesus is about much more than renouncing, however. Above all, he wants us to love. Later, when Jane is wrestling with an equally difficult decision, she again hears a voice calling out to her. This time, however, she is told to follow a sweeter path than the austere duty that St. John Rivers insists on. The moment occurs when she is on the verge of agreeing to become his wife and travel with him to India:

“Show me, show me the path!” I entreated of Heaven.  I was excited more than I had ever been; and whether what followed was the effect of excitement the reader shall judge.

All the house was still; for I believe all, except St. John and myself, were now retired to rest.  The one candle was dying out: the room was full of moonlight.  My heart beat fast and thick: I heard its throb.  Suddenly it stood still to an inexpressible feeling that thrilled it through, and passed at once to my head and extremities.  The feeling was not like an electric shock, but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling: it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor, from which they were now summoned and forced to wake.  They rose expectant: eye and ear waited while the flesh quivered on my bones.

“What have you heard?  What do you see?” asked St. John.  I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry—

“Jane!  Jane!  Jane!”—nothing more.

“O God! what is it?” I gasped.

I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room—nor in the house—nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air—nor from under the earth—nor from overhead.  I had heard it—where, or whence, for ever impossible to know!  And it was the voice of a human being—a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.

“I am coming!” I cried.  “Wait for me!  Oh, I will come!”

If the first call demands that Jane break with Rochester, the second urges her to return to him. She has developed a much stronger sense of self—her self-discipline helped her get there—and now she can follow her heart:

I broke from St. John, who had followed, and would have detained me.  It was my time to assume ascendency.  My powers were in play and in force.  I told him to forbear question or remark; I desired him to leave me: I must and would be alone.  He obeyed at once.  Where there is energy to command well enough, obedience never fails.  I mounted to my chamber; locked myself in; fell on my knees; and prayed in my way—a different way to St. John’s, but effective in its own fashion.  I seemed to penetrate very near a Mighty Spirit; and my soul rushed out in gratitude at His feet.  I rose from the thanksgiving—took a resolve—and lay down, unscared, enlightened—eager but for the daylight.

Jesus doesn’t demand discipline from us merely for the sake of discipline. If we see that discipline as an end in itself, as St. John appears to do, we become dry and brittle. Sometimes it is equally difficult to open ourselves to the love that Jesus wants us to experience. That is the Mighty Spirit that calls Jane and to which she responds.


Previous posts on spiritual questing in Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre as Lenten Meditation 

Herbert and Bronte on Spiritual Restlessness

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Yogi’s Yogi-isms: “Sheer Poetry”

Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra


A great baseball player who invented a new rhetorical device died this past week. Of course I’m talking about Yankee catcher Yogi Berra and the yogi-ism (or yogism).

A rhetorical device uses words in a certain way to convey meaning or to persuade. Other rhetorical devices include paradox, circumlocution, allusion, innuendo, and understatement. A yogi-ism is a statement that appears on the surface to be illogical or redundant but upon reflection makes some sort of sense. Yogi-isms are sometimes associated with “idiot savants,” which is to say, people who don’t seem very bright but who nevertheless deliver profundities.

In a fine Slate article Ben Zimmer, executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, analyzes Yogi Berra’s yogi-isms and finds them to be “sheer poetry.”

Before explaining why, here is a sampling. Not all of them were composed by Berra but all of them have been attributed to him at one time or other, prompting another yogi-ism from him: “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

–When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
–It ain’t over till it’s over.
–Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
–A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
–It’s deja vu all over again!
–If people don’t come to the ballpark, how are you gonna stop them?
–Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
–Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t go to yours.
–You can observe a lot by watching.

Some yogi-isms have been called malapropisms or dogberryisms after the characters of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals and Office Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. It would be more accurate to say that they are the reverse, however. When Mrs. Malaprop says, “If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs,” she is trying to show off but her misuse of words reveals her ignorance. The same is true of Dogberry when he says, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”

A yogi-ism, by contrast, sounds more like someone utterly unpretentious uttering a commonplace. Rather than exposing the speaker for trying to show off, a yogi-ism shows him or her to be unconsciously wise.

Zimmer says that yogi-isms are apparent tautologies (redundancies or examples of circular reasoning) that, upon further inspection, prove to be much more:

Yogi-isms were often tautological on the surface, but not so self-evident when you stopped to think about them. Take his dictum “It ain’t over till it’s over,” purportedly delivered to a reporter in the summer of ’73 when the Mets seemed out of the pennant race. “Taken as propositional logic, this is informationless,” wrote Lane Greene in the Economist. But in Berra’s higher logic, it makes perfect sense: the “over-ness” of a baseball game or season cannot be calculated ahead of time. Assumed conclusions do not necessarily equate to actual ones.

The same can be said of “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” which plays on two definitions of “nobody” (the other being “nobody of note”).

I’ve always been drawn to “It’s deja vu all over again,” which seems to be a tautological redundancy (yes, I did that deliberately). Sometimes we may feel, when describing a strong sense of having seen or experienced something in the past, that we are being overly dramatic or portentous. To say, “It was déjà vu all over again” is a way to deflate ourselves, a gentle form of self mockery.

In its obituary The New York Times makes a case for Yogi Berra being the greatest catcher in the history of baseball, and certainly he is in the top five. While he doesn’t reach so high in the field of rhetoric, he at least finds himself in the company of others who excelled at the short form, including

–La Rochefoucauld, who perfected the pithy maxim;
–Alexander Pope, who excelled in zeugma (ironic juxtaposition);
–Oscar Wilde, who delivered exquisite reversals;
–Dorothy Parker, who sliced you up with devastating put-downs.

Some would argue that Yogi Berra’s Hall of Fame baseball career was only his second greatest accomplishment.

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Pope Francis as Shaw’s St. Joan

St. Joan on horseback (from 1505 manuscript)

St. Joan on horseback (from 1505 manuscript)


 Kudos to Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post for linking the visit of Pope Francis to a scene from George Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan. It’s a perfect fit.

Meyerson is discussing how uncomfortable the GOP must be—at least those in the party who want to cut food stamps, healthcare, and other programs for the poor—over the visit of a man who excoriates capitalism and the prioritizing of money over people. While acknowledging that Benedict and John Paul II also issued encyclicals criticizing capitalism, Meyerson notes that Francis has gone even further:

Where Francis has departed from his predecessors is that he has moved from talking the talk to walking the walk. The simplicity of his lifestyle, his emphasis on spending time among the poor and giving workers more control of economies where the deck, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has said, is stacked against them, are all radical departures from past papal practice. So, too, is the tolerance he has shown to gays, lesbians and divorcees — a tolerance that has roused the ire of church conservatives, for whom intolerance to these and kindred groups seems to express the essence of their Catholicism.

Then Meyerson brings in Shaw:

A pope infused by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and Jesus poses a threat to the current economic order. Conservatives are right to fear and despise him, as they would be right to fear and despise his role models. The final scene of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan” places Joan of Arc in a dream sequence in which all her persecutors, once she’s safely dead and canonized, praise her and acknowledge her sainthood. When she asks them if she should return to Earth and live again, however, they answer with fear, loathing and a resounding “no.” That, in essence, is the conservatives’ response to Pope Francis, and to the spirit and faith he embodies. 

Here’s the passage from St. Joan. Charles, the Dauphin that Joan crowned, is dreaming 25 years after her execution. Suddenly he is given a vision of what will happen, including Joan’s canonization 400 years later. He is also visited by recently vindicated Joan and sees her former persecutors honoring her:

JOAN. My sword shall conquer yet: the sword that never struck a blow. Though men destroyed my body, yet in my soul I have seen God.

CAUCHON [kneeling to her] The girls in the field praise thee; for thou hast raised their eyes; and they see that there is nothing between them and heaven.

DUNOIS. [kneeling to her] The dying soldiers praise thee, because thou art a shield of glory between them and the judgment.

THE ARCHBISHOP [kneeling to her] The princes of the Church praise thee, because thou hast redeemed the faith their worldlinesses have dragged through the mire.

WARWICK [kneeling to her] The cunning counsellors praise thee, because thou hast cut the knots in which they have tied their own souls.

DE STOGUMBER [kneeling to her] The foolish old men on their deathbeds praise thee, because their sins against thee are turned into blessings.

THE INQUISITOR [kneeling to her] The judges in the blindness and bondage of the law praise thee, because thou hast vindicated the vision and the freedom of the living soul.

THE SOLDIER [kneeling to her] The wicked out of hell praise thee, because thou hast shewn them that the fire that is not quenched is a holy fire.

THE EXECUTIONER [kneeling to her] The tormentors and executioners praise thee, because thou hast shewn that their hands are guiltless of the death of the soul.

CHARLES [kneeling to her] The unpretending praise thee, because thou hast taken upon thyself the heroic burdens that are too heavy for them.

And here’s the response to Joan offering to return in a scene that may have been inspired by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor:

JOAN. Woe unto me when all men praise me! I bid you remember that I am a saint, and that saints can work miracles. And now tell me: shall I rise from the dead, and come back to you a living woman?

A sudden darkness blots out the walls of the room as they all spring to their feet in consternation.

JOAN. What! Must I burn again? Are none of you ready to receive me?

CAUCHON. The heretic is always better dead. And mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic. Spare them. [He goes out as he came].

DUNOIS. Forgive us, Joan: we are not yet good enough for you. I shall go back to my bed. [He also goes].

WARWICK. We sincerely regret our little mistake; but political necessities, though occasionally erroneous, are still imperative; so if you will be good enough to excuse me–[He steals discreetly away].

THE ARCHBISHOP. Your return would not make me the man you once thought me. The utmost I can say is that though I dare not bless you, I hope I may one day enter into your blessedness. Meanwhile, however–[He goes].

THE INQUISITOR. I who am of the dead, testified that day that you were innocent. But I do not see how The Inquisition could possibly be dispensed with under existing circumstances. Therefore–[He goes].

DE STOGUMBER. Oh, do not come back: you must not come back. I must die in peace. Give us peace in our time, O Lord! [He goes].

THE GENTLEMAN. The possibility of your resurrection was not contemplated in the recent proceedings for your canonization. I must return to Rome for fresh instructions. [He bows formally, and withdraws].

Yes, we have our own churchmen and politicians who have made peace with our unequal power distribution and our gross income disparities. Joan’s final words could be ours as well:

JOAN. O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?

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Lit Classics, Our Most Valuable Friends

Florence Fuller, "Inseparables" (circa 1900)

Florence Fuller, “Inseparables” (circa 1900)


I’ve been rereading my favorite work by my favorite literary theorist as I continue to work on my “how literature has changed history” book. My memories of first reading Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction are so vivid that I can still remember where I was. Finally, I thought, someone is discussing, in a reasonable and humane way, how literature can change human behavior.

“Humane” is an adjective that very much describes Booth, who accords respect to everyone he encounters, even those he disagrees with. In The Company We Keep, he talks about the considerable difficulties with assessing a literary work’s impact. It’s very difficult to generalize, he admits, because different people can have widely different reactions to the same book. This doesn’t prevent some from attempting to censor works that they think will lead readers astray, however. In contrast with censors are liberals, who sometimes go to the other extreme and avoid talking about impact at all except in the vaguest way.

I’ve been noticing these two perspectives as I survey what theorists through the ages have said about literary influence. It appears that conservatives often see literature as having more of an impact—at least when they see the impact as negative—than do liberals. It’s a roundabout compliment to the power of literature.

Booth makes the good point that, if literature can do us good, then we must be open to the possibility that it also can do us harm. Or if we want to argue, as some have, that good literature is beneficial and bad literature is harmful, then we have to have a way of distinguishing between what is good and what is bad. Who gets to decide literary merit and, for that matter, who gets to decide whether an outcome is good or bad? For instance, Matthew Arnold thought that great literature could keep the workers from becoming dissatisfied with their lot in life whereas Bertolt Brecht wrote literature designed to alert workers to capitalism’s contradictions so that they would rebel against measures designed to placate them.

In short, Booth, as he openly acknowledges, wanders into very vexed territory. The Company We Keep tracks the movement of his mind as he sorts through these complex issues.

One of his best ideas is seeing our relationship with literature as similar to our relationship with friends. Figuring out whether a book is good for us or not is like figuring out whether a friendship is good for us or not. We have different kinds of friends for different purposes and the same can be said of books.

By thinking of literature in this way, Booth gives us a way to make judgments. After all, don’t we assess the impact of our friendships? It is true of books as it is with friends that we may not arrive at an absolute answer and that sometimes the answer will change over time.

I conclude today’s post with Booth’s description of those friendships that are unquestionably the best, which are literary classics. I find this to be a beautiful summing up:

The fullest friendships, the “friendships of virtue” that the tradition hails as best, are likely to be with the works that the world has called classics. When I “perform” for myself or attend a performance of King Lear, The Misanthrope, or The Cherry Orchard, when I read Don Quixote, Persuasion, Bleak House, or War and Peace, I meet in their authors friends who demonstrate their friendship not only in range and depth and intensity of pleasure they offer, not only in the promise they fulfill of proving useful to me, but finally in the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.

I might say to any one of these in reply: if I choose to ignore you, I lose something more precious than any one point I could make about you and your kind; your company is in some ways superior even to the best company I can hope to discover among the real people I live with. Certainly it is superior to what is usually provided by those “inner resources” we are all advised to fall back on when bored. Unlike “real” people, you are an idealized version of the writer who created you, the disorganized, flawed creature who in a sense discovered you by expunging his or her duller times and weaker moments. To dwell with you is to share the improvements you have managed to make in your “self” by perfecting your narrative world. You lead me first to practice ways of living that are more profound, more sensitive, more intense, and in a curious way more fully generous than I am likely to meet anywhere else in the world. You correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mold me into patterns of longing and fulfillment that make my ordinary dreams seem petty and absurd. You finally show what life can be, not just to a coterie, a saved and saving remnant looking down on the fools, slobs, and knaves, but to anyone who is willing to work to earn the title of equal and true friend.


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The Abortion Debate & Doll’s House

Jane Fonda as Nora in "Doll's House"

Jane Fonda as Nora in “Doll’s House”


Just when I thought things couldn’t get crazier, it looks like there is a very good chance we’ll have another government shutdown, this one over continued funding for Planned Parenthood. This in spite of the fact that PP has done nothing illegal and doesn’t receive federal funds for performing abortions. PP is mainly used by poor women for cancer screenings, pap smears and birth control.

I recently reread Ibsen’s Doll’s House to see if I could gain insight into what is going on and have made some connections. Let’s first review what’s going on, however.

There have been steady attacks on abortion providers in many states, and it is considerably more difficult for women in these states to get abortions than it was five years ago, even though abortion is technically still legal in this country. Now those attacks have been taken up by the GOP nominees for president, with the result that abortion could well be the main issue in the upcoming GOP primaries. Here’s Paul Waldman in American Prospect:

Abortion has become the dominant issue of the Republican contest, even of Republican politics more generally. Carly Fiorina just shot into second place in the race in at least one poll, based in part on her fervent condemnation of something that wasn’t actually on those Planned Parenthood “sting” videos. Republicans in Congress are getting very close to shutting down the government in order to prevent women from getting non-abortion services like cancer screenings and gynecological exams at Planned Parenthood clinics. A whole series of bills to restrict abortion rights are now getting a prominent hearing in Congress. John Kasich told CNN this weekend that he will sign a bill currently in the Ohio legislature that would outlaw abortions if they are performed because the fetus tests positive for the genetic anomaly that causes Down syndrome, meaning that any woman in Ohio—and wherever else Republicans manage to pass copycat laws—will only be allowed an abortion if the government decides she’s doing it for the right reason.

We could also note that Marco Rubio is against all abortions, even those caused by rape or incest  and Jeb Bush boasts that he cut off funding to Planned Parenthood when he was governor of Florida. (He also doesn’t think we need “half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”)

Let’s now bring in a real person to make the ongoing debate less of an abstraction. The Washington Post recently ran a woman’s account of her abortion at 21 weeks—which is after the 20-week-limit that Republicans in Congress are calling for. Rebecca Cohen, a health researcher in Washington, discovered that her fetus had two leaks in its brain, destroying it almost entirely. Her choices was either to have an abortion or carry the fetus to term and deliver a dead baby. Here’s what she decided:

I had a choice. I could try to live with the husk of a child inside of me for more than 100 days, swallowing tears at every cheery inquiry as I grew bigger. Or I could have an abortion. And the choice wasn’t just about me. I have young children who would have had to see their mother endure this torture and give birth to someone they would never meet. So we made the painful, but I believe merciful, decision to terminate.

Even after we made that decision, it was difficult to find an available provider, even in an area with as many medical providers as the District. The hospitals had weeks-long waits. In the end, we were able to schedule an appointment at a surgical clinic for the following week.

My pregnancy was 21 weeks on the day of my abortion.

I mourn the loss of my baby every day. But I have no doubt that I made the right decision for myself and my family, and I am grateful that it was my choice to make. I am indebted to my medical providers for their compassion and care. They answered my questions, spent hours on the phone to give me as many options as possible and followed my lead.

Cohen then puts her abortion in a larger perspective:

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, just more than 1 percent of abortions take place at week 21 or later, many because of devastating medical situations like ours. Each of these mothers must battle through her own hell to decide on and find the medical care she needs, gather her friends and family to lean on, and grieve.

Congress should not take this decision away from any woman — any family — who is in need. Banning abortions after 20 weeks would be arbitrary, and its consequences would place an unimaginable burden on women like me.

Medical need is only one reason why women have abortions. Add in all those other decisions, often arrived after similar struggle, and then ask yourself whether rigid laws can do justice to the complexity.

Now to Ibsen. While Doll’s House isn’t about abortion, it is about a man who infantilizes his wife and thinks that she doesn’t have the intelligence to grapple with tough moral decisions. Because he sees her this way, and because she plays along with him out of fear of undermining his masculinity, they have a marriage that can’t face up to the problems confronting them.

If he were not so self righteous and not so worried about being in control, Torvald Helmer would be able to allow Nora to help finance the trip to Italy he needs to regain his health. Instead, knowing that he won’t accept the life-saving measures from her, his wife borrows money behind his back, forges her father’s signature, and then saves money out of her house allowance to pay back the loan. Torvald thinks she’s an irresponsible spendthrift and she allows him to think that of her. After all, she has more important things to worry about.

The GOP, with their legislated ultrasounds, two week waiting periods (for “reflection”), doctor gag orders, and all the rest are infantilizing women, assuming that they are incapable of doing the right thing if the decision is left up to them. There is no acknowledgement of the agonizing that often accompanies a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

In the end, Nora realizes that living under such a regime is no life for her and she leaves her husband. As women have been leaving the GOP.

But the play does hold out one hope, that Torvald and Nora could come back together if he could see her as something other than, to use Nora’s words, “your little skylark, your doll, which you would in future treat with doubly gentle care, because it was so brittle and fragile.”

Imagine if America went at the abortion question in a way that truly looked for solutions. This would have to include truly effective sex education (not abstinence only), full access to free contraceptives, and full social support for children born into poverty. Perhaps pro-choice women could come to understand the sensibilities of those who see the fetus as sacred if they felt that that their own concerns were sufficiently acknowledged. I always thought that Hillary Clinton was trying to find some common ground in her call for abortions to be “safe, legal and rare.” Too many of those against abortion, however, are like Torvald and think only in absolutes.

Will we continue to have non-stop political warfare on this issue? I’m pessimistic but the play ends with a tiny ray of hope. Torvald seems willing to imagine a new way of relating to his wife:

Helmer. Let me help you if you are in want.
Nora. No. I can receive nothing from a stranger.
Helmer. Nora–can I never be anything more than a stranger to you?
Nora [taking her bag]. Ah, Torvald, the most wonderful thing of all would have to happen.
Helmer. Tell me what that would be!
Nora. Both you and I would have to be so changed that–. Oh, Torvald, I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening.
Helmer. But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that–?
Nora. That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye. [She goes out through the hall.]
Helmer [sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in his hands]. Nora! Nora! [Looks round, and rises.]Empty. She is gone. [A hope flashes across his mind.] The most wonderful thing of all–?

So maybe we could have a real social dialogue about women’s reproductive issues where people truly listened to each other. Maybe the most wonderful thing of all could happen. Know hope.

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The GOP Descends into the Maelstrom

Descent into the Maelstrom


How many times do observers have to say that the current GOP is crazy or that it has lost its collective mind before such assessments become white noise and we just accept its unhinged behavior as the new normal? It’s as though we’re all developing Stockholm syndrome.

Normally reasonable people—I can imagine Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in another setting being capable of mature behavior—feel that they can only compete if they join the crazy. As a result we have a debate in which candidates compete for who will most vociferously

–argue for doing nothing on climate change;
–advocate deporting 11 million people;
–threaten to shut down the government over funding to Planned Parenthood;
–find links between vaccinations and autism;
–beat the drums of war (not only with ISIS and Iran but also with Russia);
–etc., etc.

And of course, what we’re seeing in the race is little different than what we’ve been seeing from the GOP over the past seven years. I’d like to say it all began when Mitch McConnell decided upon scorched earth opposition to Barack Obama on the even of his first inauguration, including to measures Republicans had once themselves supported (cap and trade, for instance), but he himself was responding to the GOP fringe. I suspect it all comes down to hysteria over the radically changing nature of both this country and to globalization generally.

In any event, it’s as though the party extremists are a huge whirlpool sucking everyone, even moderates, into their vortex. Which prompts me to turn to Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”

In the story, the narrator meets an old man—or at least he seems old—who has survived a descent into a giant Scandinavian whirlpool. There are several things to be noted about his journey.

First of all, the maelstrom sucks very large objects into its maw, which we can imagine as being respected governors, senators, and one very remarkable surgeon:

Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees… 

The maelstrom brings out the worst in people, just as the debates have been doing. For instance, the mariner’s brother pushes him away from the ring he is grasping. So much for the eleventh commandment of not speaking ill about fellow Republicans:

As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon this [water casket], and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of his terror, he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act –although I knew he was a madman when he did it –a raving maniac through sheer fright. 

While everything seems confused at first, after a while the mariner adjusts to the new reality, just as the candidates are adjusting to the craziness of the race. The mariner sees the commotion from a detached point of view and tries to predict which floating object–in our case, which candidate–will go down first. Like the pundits, he is almost always wrong:

I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,’ I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,’ –and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all –this fact –the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.

To survive, the mariner’s strategy is to float lightly and he lashes himself to the water casket. I noticed that Rubio and John Kasich tried a similar strategy in Wednesday’s debate: while others engaged directly with the heart of the whirlpool (Donald Trump), they tried to avoid direct confrontation.

How will the candidates emerge from the turmoil? For that matter, how will the country emerge from a situation where one of the parties has gone off the rails? Well, here’s what happens to the narrator:

Those who drew me on board were my old mates and daily companions –but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveler from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. I told them my story –they did not believe it.

Yes, the story of the GOP as it is currently behaving would be hard for anyone to believe. The party has been journeying in some spirit-land and it’s turning all of our hair white.

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Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter

William West, "Israelites Passing through the Wilderness"

William West, “Israelites Passing through the Wilderness”

Spiritual Sunday

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat in the wonderfully named Velveteen Rabbi blog alerts me to this poem by Stanley Kunitz as we look ahead to Yom Kippur (Tuesday and Wednesday).

Kunitz, who lived to be 100, looks back at his life and those lives that have intersected with his and wonders whether there has been any continuity. Throughout it, he detects “some principle of being” “from which I struggle not to stray.”

Also looking back at his “feast of losses” and at “the manic dust of my friends,/ those who fell along the way,” he wonders how his heart has ever been able to be reconciled. Yet again, rather than being overwhelmed, he speaks of his determination to move forward:

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Turning to the Bible for imagery, Kunitz describes himself as a scattered tribe. Like the Israelites in the desert, however, he finds assurance in the voice that comes out of the guiding cloud (Exodus 13:21):

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Yom Kippur is a day to focus on our layered lives and not simply on the wreckage that presents itself to us on first glance. If we do so, we will be able to step confidently into the future, even if we don’t understand the new transformations we are undergoing. 

The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned campsites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

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Can Lit Help Build an Egalitarian World?

Terry Eagleton


I’ve been rereading, for the first time in years, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, and my head is swimming. That’s in part because, as a Marxist, Eagleton looks at each theory from a double perspective: he tries to engage with it on its own terms and he strives to show how arose in response to the historical pressures of the age.

This is not alien turf for me as I have been heavily influenced by Marxist criticism and take seriously the injunction of another Marxist theorist (Frederic Jameson) to “always historicize.” Eagleton, however, covers so many different theories and so many different historical periods that after a while everything begins to blur together. I therefore am using today’s post to reflect upon my current relationship with Eagleton, Jameson, and neo-Marxist theories about if and how literature impacts history.

First, a clarification. Eagleton and Jameson have always been highly critical of Soviet-style literary theory, which judged literature to be good or bad depending on its class politics. They have derided this such practices as “vulgar Marxism.” Literature is more complex than that, involved as it is in a complicated dance with the economic pressures of the period. (Or as Marxists would say, literature is part of the ideological superstructure and is heavily influenced by but not entirely subordinate to the economic base.)

My own interest in Marxism began when I studied under history professor Carl Wiener at Carleton College, who was interested in Marxist thought. I was drawn to Marx’s vision of all people being free of “the realm of necessity” so that they could fulfill their potential, something that is difficult to do if you are hungry and oppressed.

It’s a vision that, say, Martin Luther King also had, and I have always been much more interested in non-violent protest than in violent revolution, given that I see violence as always resulting in unintended consequences. (William Blake observes, “The iron hand crushed the tyrant’s head/And became a tyrant in his stead.”) But King sees divine justice working through human events and, while I am a Christian, I need more secular reasons for believing that the arc of history bends towards justice.

When I read literature, therefore, I not only look at how it opens up the human spirit but how that open spirit might lead to a society where all are respected and the needs of all are acknowledged. What good if I myself am transported into aesthetic realms if others are not as well? What good if my mind is opened to new possibilities if I don’t act on this knowledge for the good of others? I look to literature to help me see beyond my own narrow confines and to open the eyes of my students.

This means that, at my core, I have an optimistic rather than a fatalistic view of reality. I believe that all men (and women) are created equal, that all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that this goal is achievable in this world, although assuredly not in our lifetime. I also believe that even small acts can contribute towards these goals, and the sense that I am part of a larger narrative gives my life meaning. It doesn’t matter that I myself can make no more than a tiny contribution.

Eagleton notes that many literary theorists are conservative because they are disappointed with the world as it is and long for some earlier state. If those people don’t share my particular hope—perhaps they see it as something akin to an article of faith, not an empirically grounded belief—then it makes sense that they would see literature differently, perhaps as a personal refuge or a medieval monastery trying to hold its own amidst barbarian hoards. If they are fatalistic, then they might see literature in individual terms, a spark of warmth where they at least can find warmth, even if everything else is out of their control.

Eagleton sums up such views better than I do in the final paragraph of the second edition of Literary Theory:

[S]ome traditional humanist doctrines die hard, not least the assumption of universal value. If literature matters today, it is chiefly because it seems to many conventional critics one of the few remaining places where, in a divided, fragmented world, a sense of universal value may still be incarnate; and where, in a sordidly material world, a rare glimpse of transcendence can still be attained.

Eagleton believes that if these people could see that such universal values could exist in a future society and not only in literature, then they wouldn’t be so pessimistic and, in some instances, reactionary. But he speaks with Marxist optimism and I acknowledge that the world’s darkness will cause many to be skeptical.

I can’t with full assurance say that those many are wrong. Indeed, some of my favorite authors–Jonathan Swift, for instance–challenge my belief that human society can progress. I count on these authors to counter any naive notions that I have.

But the moment one starts looking to literature for only individual solace and ignores those outside one’s community, one has condemned oneself to hopelessness (unless one opts for some kind of religious or mystical vision). It’s also worth noting that, as regards Swift, he spent much of his life seeking to improve the conditions of the people of Ireland. He grumbled but he did it, and he is just as hard on fatalists as he is on gullible idealists.

So while I think it’s wonderful that literature can help us deal with our private sorrows and concerns, we are selling it short if we don’t also see it as a call to join in a collective struggle for a world in which no one benefits unduly at the expense of another. If we think of literature as merely a private affair, that’s because we live a privileged existence.

For a counter perspective, think of Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, who secretly taught English and American classics in her home after the Iranian Revolution. There was nothing purely literary about the way her students saw Elizabeth Bennet (who gave them strength) or Humbert Humbert (who stood in for their oppressors). When Mandela embraced Shakespeare in his Robben Island confinement, he wasn’t doing it merely to be cultured.

In short, I see literature as a boon to the oppressed and a wake-up call to the privileged.

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The GOP Debate & the Ox-Frog Fable

Trump and Bush go at it in last night's GOP debate

Trump and Bush go at it in last night’s GOP debate


Last night’s GOP debate reminded me a lot of the Aesop and La Fontaine fable of the frog and the ox, with many of the contestants candidates vying to see who could be as big as the ox in the room—which is to say, as big as current frontrunner Donald Trump. Apparently Republicans these days feel they have to convince us that they’ll be the toughest of the tough on any issue that comes up, whether it be the Iran Deal, Planned Parenthood, immigration, ISIS, same sex marriage, unions, you name it. As Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 campaign advisor, recently said on the Rachel Maddow show,

The test of conservatism is increasingly rhetorical. It’s an emotional sentiment. Who is a conservative now is the person who has the hottest rhetoric.

Come to think of it, maybe the ox is really Barack Obama, who stands calmly chewing his cud (No Drama Obama) as the candidates, led by blowhard Trump (“bloviator”, blow themselves up around him. But that’s just how it looks from my political vantage point and you are free to substitute your own political figures.

Let’s say that each attempt by the frog to make himself bigger represents one hour of the debate’s interminable three hours. Here’s my father’s version of the fable:

F Is the Fable of the Frog and the Ox
(after La Fontaine)

By Scott Bates

A Frog saw an Ox
and was impressed

He thought he was a creature of stature
worthy of emulation

He turned on

He got so excited in fact that he swelled up
and puffed up
and turgesced
in an attempt to approximate the dimensions of the beast


Hey look at this Charlie just
feast your eyes on Big Fred
Is this big enough
Have I made it yet


How about this

Not at all!

NOW I’ve made it I bet

You haven’t even made it to first

The little flop
Blew up so big he burst

The world is full of people who are just about as dumb
Every used-car salesman thinks he should run General Motors
Every two-bit politician wants 100% of the voters
Every two-bit general wants the Bomb

From An ABC of Radical Ecology (New Market, TN: Highlander Research and Education Center, 1982).

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Trump as the Duke of Bilgewater

Duke in Huckleberry Finn


Always alert to mentions of literary classics in the news, I recently came across two articles comparing Donald Trump to a character in Huckleberry Finn. They did not focus on the character I would have chosen, however.

Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker piece and Michael Winship in a Salon article, focusing on Trump’s appeal to white resentment, both compare “the Donald” to Pap Finn. I believe that Pap is indeed American literature’s most memorable example of such resentment, and I’ve invoked him myself when discussing the racism of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson. But I think he bears more resemblance to “the Dauphin” and “the Duke of Bridgewater/Bilgewater” in Twain’s novel.

Before I explain, here’s what Gopnik and Winship have to say. Gopnik regards “Trumpism” to be

a permanent part of American life—in one form or another, with one voice or another blaring it out. At any moment in our modern history, some form of populist nationalism has always held some significant share—whether five or ten per cent – of the population. Among embittered white men, Trump’s “base,” it has often held a share much larger than that. Trump is not offering anything that was not offered before him, often in identical language and with a similarly incoherent political program, by Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot, by George Wallace or Barry Goldwater, or way back when by Father Coughlin or Huey Long. Populist nationalism is not an eruptive response to a new condition of 2015—it is a perennial ideological position, deeply rooted in the nature of modernity: a social class sees its perceived displacement as the result of a double conspiracy of outsiders and élitists. The outsiders are swamping us, and the insiders are mocking us—this ideology alters its local color as circumstances change, but the essential core is always there. They look down on us and they have no right to look down on us. Indeed, the politics of Trump, far from being in any way new, are exactly the politics of Huck Finn’s drunken father in “Huckleberry Finn”: “Call this a govment! Just look at it and see what it’s like . . . . A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this.” Widespread dissatisfaction with all professional politicians, a certainty of having been “sold out,” a feeling of complete alienation from both political parties—“Not a dime’s worth of difference between them” was George Wallace’s formulation, a half century ago—these are permanent intuitions of the American aggrieved. 

Winship sets up his comparison by first quoting Garry Wills:

In fact, years ago, historian and author Garry Wills wrote, “To understand America, read Mark Twain…. No matter what new craziness pops up in America, I find it described beforehand by him…

“What made Twain so prescient?” Wills continued. “Our own persistence in folly, no doubt. But more than that he understood the peculiarly American brand of folly as no one before or after.”

Winship initially examines Twain’s novel The Gilded Age for Trump forerunners and wonders about Colonel Sellers, a “get-rich-quick schemer” who declares,

There is no country in the world, Sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do. There is no country in the world whose representatives try each other as much as ours do, or stick to it as long on a stretch. I think there is something great in being a model for the whole civilized world, Washington.

Ultimately Winship settles on Pap, however, because he stands in for our baser instincts:

Even though Pap lusts mostly for liquor and Huck’s loot, a treasure trove back then of $6,000 that today wouldn’t cover Trump’s barber bills, he shares the billionaire’s braggadocio, the propensity for noise, surly resentments and irrational lashings out, especially at minorities.

A good substance-free rant is just Pap and Trump’s style: “Then the old man got to cussing,” Huck recounts, “and cussed everything and everybody he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn’t skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of a general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so called them what’s-his-name when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing.”

Derisively, Pap says, “Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment [sic], wonderful,” and then explodes at the notion of an educated, free black man. “They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.  And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home.  Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? …I says I’ll never vote agin.  Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me — I’ll never vote agin as long as I live.”

Winship notes that the GOP establishment is indeed worried that Trump supporters may sit out the election if someone like Jeb Bush is the nominee.

The problem with comparing Trump with Pap is that Trump is not from Pap’s class and probably looks down on the Paps of the world. After hearing how Trump has bilked people of thousands of dollars with his Trump University and how he shilled for a get-rich-quick pyramid scheme (the company’s name was ACN), I see him more as the Duke and the Dauphin. Like them, he is an ace huckster who takes advantage of people that he regards as rubes and then calls them losers after they give him their life savings. (Update: Just last night, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC reported on another scam: apparently “Veterans for a Strong America,” for whom Trump was raising money last night, may just have a single member–whose “organization” came to Trump’s defense after he impugned the war record of John McCain.)

Here are the Duke and the Dauphin describing themselves upon first acquaintance after Huck and Jim save them from their respective mobs. Like Trump, they gain prominence through promising miracle solutions:

The Duke:

Well, I’d been selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth—and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it—but I stayed about one night longer than I ought to, and was just in the act of sliding out when I ran across you on the trail this side of town, and you told me they were coming, and begged me to help you to get off.  

The Dauphin:

Well, I’d ben a-running’ a little temperance revival thar ’bout a week, and was the pet of the women folks, big and little, for I was makin’ it mighty warm for the rummies, I tell you, and takin’ as much as five or six dollars a night—ten cents a head, children and niggers free—and business a-growin’ all the time, when somehow or another a little report got around last night that I had a way of puttin’ in my time with a private jug on the sly.  

The Duke:

Jour printer by trade; do a little in patent medicines; theater-actor—tragedy, you know; take a turn to mesmerism and phrenology when there’s a chance; teach singing-geography school for a change; sling a lecture sometimes—oh, I do lots of things—most anything that comes handy, so it ain’t work.  What’s your lay?

The Dauphin:

I’ve done considerble in the doctoring way in my time.  Layin’ on o’ hands is my best holt—for cancer and paralysis, and sich things; and I k’n tell a fortune pretty good when I’ve got somebody along to find out the facts for me.  Preachin’s my line, too, and workin’ camp-meetin’s, and missionaryin’ around.

 Of course, we watch them run their scams until Jim—this after they’ve sold him back into slavery—informs on them and they are tarred and feathered. Before that, however, they toy shamelessly with people’s gullibility. Like Trump, they know how to seize every occasion and play the role required. They provide good theater and they are good at shifting gears at a moment’s notice.

I heard Chris Matthews of Hardball say last night that we can’t help watching Trump because we want to see the moment when he falls—essentially, when he gets a modern version of tarring and feathering. Given his noxious influence on the rest of the GOP field—he even has Jeb Bush talking about anchor babies—that moment can’t come soon enough.


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Does Studying Lit Truly Change Things?

A Scholar In His Study Reading - (after) Willem Van Drielenburg

A Scholar In His Study Reading – (after) Willem Van Drielenburg


 At the moment I am reading all the theorists I can find who have discussed literature’s impact on history. As I venture into F. R. Leavis and the Scrutiny school, I am discovering why I think about literature the way I do. I rely heavily on Terry Eagleton’s description and critique of them in Literary Theory: An Introduction. 

According to Eagleton,

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation. Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence—what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values—were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

 If this your vision of literature, as it is mine, Eagleton explains why we have this view of it:

English students in England today are “Leavisites” whether they know it or not…There is no more need to be a card-carrying Leavisite today than there is to be a card-carrying Copernican: that current has entered the bloodstream of English studies in England as Copernicus reshaped our astronomical beliefs, has become a form of spontaneous critical wisdom as deep-seated as our conviction that the earth moves round the sun.

I add that Leavis has bestowed the same legacy on American English departments.

One reason we are Leavisites is because of our emphasis on close textual reading. Under Leavis, literary criticism, which had once been regarded as a mere matter of taste, became “rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to the ‘words on the page.’” Channeling Leavis’s view Eagleton notes,

Literature was important not only in itself, but because it encapsulated creative energies which were everywhere on the defensive in modern “commercial” society. In literature, and perhaps in literature alone, a vital feel for the creative uses of language was still manifest, in contrast to the philistine devaluing of language and traditional culture blatantly apparent in “mass society.” The quality of a society’s language was the most telling index of the quality of its personal and social life: a society which had ceased to value literature was one lethally closed to the impulses which had created and sustained the best of human civilization. 

As Eagleton describes the Leavisites, they sound very much in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, the subject of a post last week.

After having acknowledged their contribution, Eagleton then proceeds to take them apart, especially for their grandiose claims about literature. Since I too argue for literature’s foundational importance, it’s important for me to grapple with Eagleton’s criticisms.

He mocks, for instance, the idea that literature can truly change society. What is needed for social transformation, he observes, goes far beyond “a sensitive reading of King Lear”:

The whole Scrutiny project was at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd. As one commentator [Iain Wright] has shrewdly put it, the Decline of the West was felt to be avertible by close reading.

A skeptical and sarcastic Eagleton goes on to ask,

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James. The Scrutiny case was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College.

Eagleton then adds another wrinkle. What about abhorrent people who have actually read the classics:

For if not all of those who could not recognize an enjambement were nasty and brutish, not all of those who could were morally pure. Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer…to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had wiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.

Eagleton’s questions present me with some real challenges. While I don’t share the Leavisites’ longing for a preindustrial organic society nor their aversion (which they share with Arnold) for the working class, I do believe that literature can put us in touch with deep and liberating energies. When we are in the presence of great literature, I believe that we sense the potential for self-actualization that resides within human beings.

Because my politics are progressive, like Shelley’s and Eagleton’s, I think that literature points to a fully egalitarian world (although I don’t have Shelley’s or Marx’s full confidence that we will one day achieve it). I also think that close textual reading—paying attention to the words on the page—is a profitable exercise that helps unleash literature’s power. When I teach my literature classes, I listen carefully to my students’ responses and urge them to undertake a disciplined exploration of life-affirming issues that the work raises for them. Over the past six years in this blog, I have described many instances of students using literature to grapple with vexing questions and overcome internal blockages.

What about those concentration camp commandants reading Goethe? Of course I think they are misreading him, using him as a symbol of German greatness to affirm their sense of their own superiority. (Apparently some listened to Beethoven for the same reason.) There is no doubt that Goethe prompts the spirit to swell, but in their case the swelling led to actions that violated everything the great Enlightenment thinker believed in.

Goethe is far from the only author whose work has been misinterpreted. The great Serbian epic poem The Battle of Kosovo was used centuries later to justify the massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Pride and Prejudice has prompted some women to conclude that they can be happy only if they marry a Darcy.

Maybe literature is like religion, a powerful energy that, because it is powerful, can be used for good or bad. The words of Jesus Christ have been used to end slavery and they have been used to justify the burning of heretics (“If a man abides not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”). I feel confident that I am more in touch with the true spirit of Jesus and Goethe than are the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis but I know that I need more than religion and literature to make my case. Which leads me to Eagleton’s other point.

Yes, there is more to life than literature and one doesn’t have to be a reader to be a decent person. Nor does one need a liberal arts education or, for that matter, a college degree. If the Leavisites overestimate the importance of literature—and if I do as well—it’s because we can’t imagine life without it. Eagleton is right to puncture overly inflated claims.

But that being acknowledged, literature is also a huge boon to humankind, and people who don’t have it are missing something that would nourish and enlighten them, that would make their world bigger. The same is true of all the liberal arts and I won’t argue here for the primacy of any one of them. But it seems to me undeniably the case that, when our worlds are smaller, we are more likely to be preyed upon by our fears and to lash out in anger, with all the mayhem and destruction that that entails.

So yes, literature doesn’t automatically make us better people; yes, literature can be misused; and yes, literature is not the saving grace for all our troubles. But a world without literature would be a desolate place.

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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.

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

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