Lit Encourages World Citizenship

Lawrence Jacobs


 On Friday I warned about the dangers of leftwing purists who believe that only members of a particular demographic group should write about that group. In her 1997 book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes a similar argument. To reduce literature to political identity, she says, is to ignore its greatest asset, which is the ability “to cross group boundaries in imagination.”

Nusbaum differentiates between world citizenship and identity politics. To become a world citizen, one must journey outside one’s own group, and Nussbaum believes that literature is the ideal vehicle. Identity politics, on the other hand, is “antihumanist” because it celebrates difference “in an uncritical way,” denying “the very possibility of common interests and understanding”:

In the world-citizen version of multiculturalism, the ethical argument for adding a work such as Invisible Man to the curriculum will be Ellison’s own argument that our nation has a history of racial obtuseness and that this work helps all citizens to perceive racial issues with great clarity. In the identity-politics version of multiculturalism, by contrast, the argument in favor of Invisible Man will be that it affirms the experience of African-American students. This view denies the possibility of the task Ellison set himself: “of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.”

Nussbaum doesn’t entirely deny the significance of one’s group identity. “If we want to understand the situation of a group,” she writes at one point, “we do well to begin with the best that has been written by members of that group.” She also says we must take identity seriously rather than facilely asserting that “we are all alike under the skin”:

Experience and culture shape many aspects of what is “under the skin,” as we can easily see if we reflect and read.

She is concerned, however, that identity politics in the end traps us within our separate identities. Literature is vital, she argues, because it “expands sympathies that real life cannot cultivate sufficiently”:

 It is the political promise of literature that it can transport us, while remaining ourselves, into the life of another, revealing similarities but also profound differences between the life and thought of that other and myself and making them comprehensible, or at least more nearly comprehensible. Any stance toward criticism that denies that possibility seems to deny the very possibility of literary experience as a human social good.


[T]he great contribution literature has to make to the life of the citizen is its ability to wrest from our frequently obtuse and blunted imaginations an acknowledgement of those who are other than ourselves, both in concrete circumstances and even in thought and emotion. As Ellison put it, a work of fiction may contribute “to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience.” This contribution makes it a key element in higher education.

Though those practicing separatist identity politics in literature departments often claim to be of the left, Nussbaum sees them as ultimately conservative, retreating into cloistered selves. Literature, she says, should be used to advance a far more radical vision:

[I]t is always radical, in any society, to insist on the equal worth of all human beings, and people find all sorts of ways to avoid the claim of that ideal, much though they may pay it lip service. The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love one’s neighbor was and is radical, in a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven.

As I said in Friday’s post, the key is to establish truly diverse communities so that writers and readers, scholars and students, both share their different perspectives and find commonalities. This is more vital than ever at a moment when we are experiencing identity politics in the virulent form of white nationalism. Those in the resistance must form alliances, not insist on separateness. Literature will help us do so.

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The Blue Guitar vs. Facebook

Picasso, “The Old Guitarist”


The news about Russians exploiting Facebook to influence the America’s 2016 election keeps getting worse, making a recent CNBC column about the social media giant appear particularly hollow. I mention Matt Rossoff’s defense of Facebook since someone has quoted Wallace Stevens’s poem The Blue Guitar in refutation. It’s not every day that the difficult modernist poet makes it into the public eye.

First, here’s the relevant passage from Matt Rossoff’s Oct. 15 defense:

Facebook was built to make the spread of ideas as frictionless as possible. If those ideas are angry, polarizing, ill-informed, ignorant (call them whatever you want) it reflects the people who are spreading them, not the platform on which they’re spread.

In other words, social media is holding a mirror up to ourselves, and we don’t like what we see.

A forum that exposes users to 3000 ads from Russian troll farms, however, is not an accurate mirror.  Facebook now estimates that 150 million people saw these ads in the course of the 2016 election. This led Joe Weisenthal, co-Host of What’d You Miss, to quote Stevens’s poem after first responding to Rosoff,

I don’t think social media is just a mirror of society. Observing and sharing can change the underlying things.

The blue guitarist in Stevens’s poem is the artist, “a shearsman [tailor] of sorts,” who changes “things as they are.” Stevens said that he didn’t have Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” particularly in mind when he wrote the poem, but he was a fan of modernist painting so it works. Are you can substitute Paul Cezanne or Paul Klée, Stevens’s two favorite painters, if you prefer:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman [tailor] of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And upon social media as well, as we have learned to our sorrow.

To be sure, that we can be manipulated by electronic advertising dates back at least to Vance Packard’s bestselling The Hidden Persuaders (1957). The Russians, headed by a former KGB officer, just did it on an unprecedented scale and with spectacular results.

Since Wallace Stevens has entered the conversation, today’s post explores his ideas to figure out whether actual art—not Facebook—offers any possible solutions to our quagmire where truth itself seems up for grabs. If Donald Trump can fabricate any reality he wants while undermining institutions responsible for determining truth (the press, universities, science, the courts, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Labor Statistics, various governmental agencies), can we turn to art for assistance?

Rossoff’s use of a mirror analogy in his Facebook defense traces back to Shakespeare.  To capture the truth of a character, Hamlet tells the players, an actor must “hold a mirror up to nature”:

[L]et your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure

Samuel Johnson, in his “Preface to Shakespeare,” wrote that the Bard followed his own advice:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.

The relationship of art to reality obsessed Stevens, with Blue Guitar being an extensive meditation on the subject. While sometimes glorying in art’s ability to create its own reality, Stevens also worries about that power. After all, are there any checks and what happens to objective truth? Given what happened with Facebook, this is not an academic question.

As a modernist writing at a time (1937) when people were losing faith in institutions like religion and the government, Stevens wondered whether beauty could be the ultimate arbiter. In “A High Toned Old Christian Woman,” after playfully and provocatively arguing that poetry and religion are equally fictitious, he asks why not make poetry our religion?

Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.

In the end, however, Stevens concluded that poetry can’t be utterly fanciful. If it is not grounded in truth and reality, it will lose its vitality:

 The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.

In short, even when the blue guitar changes things as they are, it must do so in the service of what is real. Great literature speaks what is true and thus can help us fight against unscrupulous leaders who attempt to bend us to their fabricated reality.

Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum says that great literature turns us into better voters. Given social media’s growing ability to disseminate fog, we need the blue guitar now more than ever.

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How Can I Focus My Flickering Mind?

Spiritual Sunday

Many great Christian poems lament the inability to feel God’s presence. “When my devotions could not pierce Thy silent ears,” George Herbert writes in “Denial,” “then was my heart broken, as was my verse.” Denise Levertov expresses similar sentiment in “Flickering Mind” but takes the responsibility entirely on herself, crying out, “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent.”

Levertov seems to be describing what Buddha called “the monkey mind”:

Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention.

In this poem, however, the mind is not a monkey but a minnow, which

darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.

Levertov concludes the poem with a very Herbert-like request, asking God for assistance. In her imagery, the stream of life has become a fountain emanating from a sapphire:

How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

With Levertov, connection with God is always indirect. Here’s the poem:

Flickering Mind

By Denise Levertov

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away—and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop
to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

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Beware of Literature’s Purity Police

Woodcut from Swift’s “Battle of the Books”


In a recent New York Review of Books article, novelist Francine Prose weighs in on the furor caused by a Kirkus review of Laura Moriarty’s young adult novel American Heart. Although originally receiving a star, the book had the star removed after the first Amazon reviewer, and then many others, attacked it for being a white savior narrative.

Prose summarizes the plot as follows:

Moriarty’s dystopian novel imagines a future in which Muslims are being herded into internment camps, a fact of minor importance to the novel’s white heroine, Sarah Mary, until she befriends an endangered Iranian Muslim, a professor named Sadaf. 

The Amazon reviewer, who appears to be a white woman going by the name of Leah, minced no words in her attack:

fuck your white savior narratives
fuck using marginalized characters as a plot device to teach the white mc how to be a decent person
fuck you for perpetuating the idea that marginalized people need to suffer in order to be worthy of “humanity”
fuck this book and everyone who thought it would be a good fucking idea…
to my Muslim friends, i’m sorry this book and this mindset exists

Now, if “my Muslim friends” is a sign that Leah is not herself Muslim, then she too is engaging in a savior narrative, a self-appointed spokesperson riding in to speak up for oppressed Muslims. Self righteousness mixed with paternalism is a heady brew. So, should we listen to Leah or to the reviewer who wrote the original starred review, described by Kirkus as “an observant Muslim person of color”?

But I want to put that aside for the moment and look at the white savior genre. It’s true that many works fall into this category–and even more if one expands it to “white observer” narrative. If we banished such stories from the canon, we would have to drop Othello, Oroonoko, “Modest Proposal,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Passage to India, and Heart of Darkness, to name just a few off the top of my head. Prose mentions some of these, adds a few more, and then points to how much poorer the world would be without them:

I can still remember how pained I was, the first time I read The House of Mirth, to stumble on Edith Wharton’s portrayal of the sleazy Jewish banker, Simon Rosedale, who “had his race’s accuracy in the appraisal of values,” whose “idea of showing himself to be at home in society was to display an inconvenient familiarity with the habits of those with whom he wished to be thought intimate”—and whose ambitions are dashed by a society matron who recognizes him “as the same little Jew who had been served up and rejected at the social board a dozen times within her memory.” Though I would have preferred that a thoughtful editor had advised Wharton that her flat, biased, and stereotypical portrait of Rosedale was a serious flaw in her novel, I have never wished that her book had gone unpublished because of a furious online outpouring of rage. Moby-Dick might not exist if a sensitivity reader had objected to Melville’s depiction of the indigenous Queequeg, silent, telling fortunes. It’s painful to imagine someone reading Huckleberry Finn and having only one thought: fuck your white savior narrative.

If authors never moved beyond their own race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual preference, then fiction would be monochromatic. In fact, we wouldn’t have fiction. As Prose points out,

Isn’t reading an experience that the writer allows us to “live”? Doesn’t fiction let the reader imagine what it might be like to be someone else? Or to enable us to consider what it means to be a human being—of another race, ethnicity, or gender? Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked “lived experience” of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife? Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?

Those who look for purity soon find themselves on a slippery slope. Should, for instance, Lucille Clifton and Alice Walker, hailing from a developed nation, be excoriated for how they characterize Africans? (A Nigerian colleague at St. Mary’s told Lucille Clifton that her depiction of Dahomey women was a sentimental fiction.) For that matter, should we allow middle class members of an ethnicity write about lower class members of an ethnicity?

A version of this debate used to convulse leftist politics. What did it mean, for instance, that many of the spokespeople for the working class were themselves middle class, including Karl Marx and Frederick Engels? Wasn’t there some “savior-ism” going on here? And yet many of the world’s liberation movements have been spearheaded by people from privileged backgrounds.

I’m not against critiquing works for their various blindnesses. I myself have criticized To Kill a Mockingbird, and indeed Prose makes exactly the mistake that I warned against in Monday’s post when she defends the book for making people uncomfortable. (I said there’s no virtue in making black students in a Mississippi school system uncomfortable in the way that it does.) I argued, however, that rather than banning To Kill a Mockingbird, which might indeed open some white eyes, teachers should add other works to complete the picture, say, poetry by Clifton and Langston Hughes.

While I agree with Prose for the most part, she fails to acknowledge a real concern with the publishing industry:

“The fear,” one literary agent told me, “is that if a publisher takes on a book written by a successful white male writer about a disabled Native American lesbian, a real disabled Native American lesbian might have trouble placing a book about the same subject at the same house; the publisher already has one.”

Prose’s response is unsatisfactory. First of all, she doesn’t call out this facile agent for piling up adjectives to convey a sense of political correctness run amuck. Also, she assumes that the white writer has written a better book that this hypothetical disabled Native American lesbian—and if he/she had not, then of course the DNAL author would be the one that gets published. Literary merit would prevail:

What this suggests is that books are being categorized—and judged—less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors.

In other words, Prose is arguing against literary affirmative action. The problem, however, is that editors have unconscious biases, as W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out many years ago in “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). That’s what the furor is about in the first place. It’s why a white teacher trying to do the right thing gets blindsided by black objections to To Kill a Mockingbird.

 The solution is to have as much diversity as possible in every field and to have open conversations about our differing perspectives. Only when this is the case can we really be confident that merit will be the final criteria.

Critiques of Moriarty’s book may well be warranted (I haven’t read it so can’t say), but I am against self-righteous purity police wielding shame as a weapon. I agree with Prose that this is a form of bullying, not to mention a cowardly and ineffective way to address our very real problems:

Literature will survive online social media bullying just as it has survived book burning and state censorship. One of the ugliest aspects of bullying is the way the aggressor finds easy targets and avoids the bigger, tougher challenges. But these attacks—and capitulations—may make it harder for us to champion the importance of the imagination at a time when we so urgently need to imagine a way to solve the larger crises that face us.

If nothing else, it sounds like Moriarty wants to engage with people unlike herself. Leah is not interested in engagement.

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Bone-Crushing Prince of Dark Days

Special Counsel Robert Mueller


A recent Washington Post article contrasting Donald Trump and Robert Mueller brought to mind the Mary Oliver poem “In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl.” Reading it gives me some sense of how the president feels when he sees Mueller at work. In this drama, Trump is the crows while Mueller is the owl.

Greg Miller contrasts the two men as follows:

Trump has often treated the probe as a political assault to be met with counterattacks in both public and private, rather than a legal minefield to be navigated carefully. He has fired his former FBI director, lashed out frequently on social media, shuffled teams of lawyers and called for the prosecution of Democrats — all part of a highly public but so far unsuccessful attempt to derail the investigation.

Mueller, by contrast, has been silently methodical. He has not uttered a single word in public, works from an undisclosed location in Southwest Washington and demonstrated the same discipline and disdain for theatrics that defined his 12-year tenure as FBI director. Submarine-like in approach, Mueller has remained entirely below the surface except when delivering legal strikes that have included the raid of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home and the indictments this week.

I knew for sure that Trump was panicking when I saw the following three-part tweet the Sunday night, in anticipation of Monday’s announcement of indictments:

Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?), the Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more. Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia ​”collusion,” which doesn’t exist. The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics, but the R’s ​are now fighting back like never before. There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING! 

Trump’s distraction tactics, successful in the past, are not working this time, and his final imperative is a desperate call for help. “DO SOMETHING!”

“Crows and Owl” is a poem about humans’ fixation with death, symbolized by the owl. For our purposes, however, it captures how Trump is fixated on the Mueller investigation. He dreams of destroying Mueller as the crows dream of destroying the owl, who may appear a “great bumble” but is in reality a “sleek slicer.” Because the special counsel works in silence, he takes on a mythical aura. He is Trump’s “dream,” his “waking,” his “quarry,” his “demon,” the “pine god who never speaks but holds the keys to everything.” Like the crows, Trump can’t stop thinking about him:

[W]hen one of them spies you out, all stream
straight toward violence and confrontation.
As though it helped to see the living proof.

The president has reason to fear: it appears that Mueller, like the owl, is preparing to pick off Trump’s associates in crime “one by one.” He has already nailed George Papadopolous and is hissing and snapping around Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.

In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl

By Mary Oliver

Great bumble. Sleek
slicer. How the crows
dream of you, caught at last
in their black beaks. Dream of you
leaking your life away. Your wings
crumbling like old bark. Feathers
falling from your breast like leaves,
and your eyes two bolts
of lightning gone to sleep.
Eight of them
fly over the pinewoods looking down
into the branches. they know you are
there somewhere, fat and drowsy
from your night of rabbits and rats. Once
this month you caught a crow. Scraps of him
flew far and wide, the news
rang all day through the woods. The cold
river of their hatred roils
day and night: you are their dream, their waking,
their quarry, their demon. You
are the pine god who never speaks but holds
the keys to everything while they fly
morning after morning against the shut doors. You
will have a slow life, and eat them, one by one.
They know it. They hate you. Still
when one of them spies you out, all stream
straight toward violence and confrontation.
As though it helped to see the living proof.
The bone-crushing prince of the dark days, gloomy
at the interruption of his rest. Hissing
and snapping, grabbing about him, dreadful
as death’s drum; mournful, unalterable fact.

Interviewed by Rachel Maddow Monday night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews predicted that Trump will ultimately be brought down by what brought Richard Nixon down: the truth of the matter. Or as Oliver puts it, “mournful, unalterable fact.” Pray that his optimism is warranted.

To Trump, Robert Mueller is Oliver’s “bone-crushing prince of the dark days.” The more the special counsel goes about his business, the louder the crows scream.

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Guinevere over the Centuries

John Collier, “Queen Guinevere’s Maying”


I am currently supervising a two-semester senior project with Sara Hirshon (we call them St. Mary’s Projects or SMPs) and am using today’s post to get my head around it. In addition to assisting both me and my student, it could well interest you.

Sara Hirshon is an English-Political Science double major who is using feminist political theory to chart evolving depictions of Guinevere. She is focusing on three literary moments—Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in 12th century France, the first appearance of Guinevere as we have come to know her; Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in Victorian England; and two contemporary works, Mercedes Lackey’s Gwenhwyfar: The White Spirit and Alice Borchadt’s Tales of Guinevere.

Sara is also drawing on three political theories: Simone de Beauvoir’s process of “othering”; Carole Pateman’s “sexual contract”; and Judith Butler, Wendy Brown and Linda Zerilli’s “social constructions of women.” It’s an ambitious project but Sara has convinced me and her political science mentor (Diana Boros) that she can hold it altogether.

De Beauvoir pointed out that women have traditionally been defined, not as beings in and of themselves, but as whatever men are not. Therefore, even when they are doing the same jobs as men—Chrétien’s patron Marie de France presided over the court and would go on to twice serve as regent—they are seen as Other. Women have been Other-ed throughout Western history.

Othering has taken different forms at different times, however. In the court of Marie de France, the “sexual contract” took the form of courtly love, with femininity constructed as a lady who issues commands to her knight. In bourgeois England, romantic marriage became the ideal, with the woman constructed as “the angel on the hearth.” For third wave feminists in 21st century America, the sexual contract is partnership, with the ideal being the super woman who can balance a successful career with a romantic relationship and a nurturing household.

Sara notes that Guinevere shifted from public figure in the 12th century to private in the 19th and back to public in the 21st.

I look forward to what Sara will discover about how these different literary works use Guinevere to negotiate issues of female power and female autonomy. Already she notes that, at least in the 12th and 19th centuries, the works simultaneously granted and circumscribed female power. In Marie de France’s court, courtly ladies were seen as commanding their knights but within carefully defined constraints. In Victorian times, Guinevere was both an ideal lady and a seductive temptress whose sexuality could bring down Camelot.

I hope Sara addresses what is achieved by resorting to the Guinevere story. Why are modern women still drawn to it, even though they must drastically alter the story or dip into her Celtic matriarchal roots to make her acceptable to modern readers. The modern versions are ingenious but why hold on to Guinevere at all?

I’ll provide Sara’s answers in April.

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Putin as Murakami’s Boris the Manskinner

Vladimir Putin


To understand why the Russians intervened to help Donald Trump, experts consistently advise us to “follow the money.” More than anything, Vladimir Putin hates the Magnitsky sanctions, which prevent corrupt Russian officials from taking money stolen from Russia out of Russia. Their hope has been that Donald Trump will suspend the sanctions, thereby reopening the escape routes.

I’ve been teaching Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and finding unsettling parallels between Putin and “Boris the Manskinner,” a truly frightening character. My only consolation is that Putin is not quite the mastermind that Boris is. More on Boris in a moment.

First to the Magnitsky Act, which is named after a Russian tax accountant who was murdered after he began investigating tax fraud by Russian officials. According to an Atlantic article last July, there are understandable reasons why Russian officials responded so violently:

What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?

As far as I can tell, here’s the simplest explanation for what has happened. The Russians were apparently willing to forgive Paul Manafort his $60 million debt to them if he could get them inside access to the Trump campaign. That’s why he offered to run Trump’s campaign for free. The Russians wanted Manafort to set up the Russian meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kusner, and others in order so that they could trade their “dirt” on Hillary Clinton (the stolen e-mails) in exchange for promises to lift the sanctions if Trump were to win the election. The Russians delivered on their promise of assistance and now Trump would like to lift the sanctions. It appears a fairly simple case of quid pro quo, albeit one involving a lot of actors.

Experts consider the Magnitsky Act to be brilliant because it targets, not the people of Russia, but the kleptocrats. Canada has passed its own Magnitsky Act, as has Estonia, and there’s a chance that Europe will follow suit. One has only to follow the money to see why Putin is furious.

Boris the Manskinner is a Stalinist who finds himself imprisoned in Siberia after a misstep. He turns the situation to his advantage, however, in ways that Putin would envy. Lieutenant Mamiya, a Japanese prisoner and Boris’s accountant, describes how he operates:

Boris had been helping himself to a good forty percent of the foodstuffs, clothing, and medical supplies being sent to the camp by Moscow and the International Red Cross, stashing them in secret storehouses, and selling them to various takers. He had also been sending off whole trainloads of coal through the black market. There was a chronic shortage of fuel, the demand for it endless. He would bribe railroad workers and the stationmaster, moving trains almost at will for his own profit. Food and money could make the soldiers guarding the trains shut their eyes to what he was doing. Thanks to such “business” methods, Boris had amassed an amazing fortune. He explained to me that it was ultimately intended as operating capital for the secret police. “Our activity,” as he called it, required huge sums off the public record, and he was now engaged in “procuring” those secret funds. But this was a lie. Some of the money may have been finding its way to Moscow, but I was certain that well over half was being transformed into Boris’s own personal fortune. As far as I could tell, he was sending the money to foreign bank accounts and buying gold.

Putin is purportedly the richest man in the world, his $200 billion fortune more than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos’s fortunes combined. If his political fortunes change, however, Russia could claw the money back, which is why he must squirrel it away.

We never learn what happens to Boris the Manskinner although we can imagine him riding out the various changes in government, just as the former KGB agent Putin has managed to do. Boris’s secret is his ruthless and relentless focus on power and money:

My own country is hopeless. It was almost better under the czars. At least the czar didn’t have to strain his empty head over a lot of theory. Lenin took whatever he could understand of Marx’s theory and used it to his own advantage, and Stalin took whatever he could understand of Lenin’s theory (which wasn’t much) and used it to his own advantage. The narrower a man’s intellectual grasp, the more power he is able to grab in this country.

Could that be the key to Trump’s success, that he doesn’t care about anything other than grabbing power? Does he hold Paul Ryan in thrall because the Speaker of the House doesn’t have a sound system of values that can stand up to him? If the Ayn Rand-loving Ryan believes in nothing higher than Randian self interest and tax cuts for the wealthy, then no wonder he is being exposed as an empty suit. The same goes for Mitch McConnell, the win-at-any-cost Senate Majority Leader.

In the novel Mamiya, a man without a vision, finds himself unable to take down Boris when he has the chance. A representative of Japan’s World War II generation, he is judged to be not “qualified.” Are we qualified to stand up to Trump and Putin?

Happy Halloween.

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Mockingbird Discomfits the Wrong People

Peck and Peters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”


On Friday I sympathized with the black mother who complained that her daughter had been rendered “uncomfortable” by classroom discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird. Around the country, however, many opined that literature’s ability to discomfit is actually a good thing. To cite one essay chosen at random, teacher Christina Torres at Education Week writes,

Books like To Kill a Mockingbird make us uncomfortable because it shows things that not only upset us, but it shows us things about ourselves that may upset us. 

So isn’t Harper Lee just doing what great authors do, which is shake us out of our complacency?

It’s true that great literature often jolts us into self questioning, so much so that we might argue that doing so is a defining characteristic of great literature. In this case, however, we need to look at who exactly is being discomfited.

To set up my case that To Kill a Mockingbird fails in this department, I turn to something that Lucille Clifton used to say regularly at her poetry readings. “I want to afflict the comfortable,” she would declare, “and comfort the afflicted.” Her own poetry does both. “Poem in praise of menstruation,” for instance, affirms suffering women while “wishes for sons” afflicts men who don’t sufficiently sympathize.

It would be one thing if To Kill a Mockingbird discomfited Biloxi’s white students, but there have been no reports of that. Rather, it appears to have afflicted one of the afflicted. And to what end? To make her realize that racist language can emerge out of the mouths of sympathetic white girls? She may already know this.

I admit I need more facts to ensure that I’m doing justice to all parties. It may well be that the teacher sees To Kill a Mockingbird as an ideal vehicle for teaching students the evils of prejudice, not only against African Americans but also against those with neurological disabilities (Boo Radley). Given Mississippi’s racial history, one can sympathize with the teacher, especially at a time when white supremacists are on the rise. Better to teach Lee’s novel than to avoid the question of race altogether.

It may also be that the white students in the class will benefit from seeing the evils of prejudice presented in black and white terms. If some of them are discomfited at seeing racism’s ugliness, then a small victory has been gained. I’m all for opening minds with whatever tools are available.

But to put this discomfort in a broader perspective, I think white Biloxi students would have been more discomfited by Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, books that have been banned by numerous school systems. Somehow white discomfort counts for more than black. I saw up close what happened when a former student paired Huckleberry Finn with Morrison’s Song of Solomon at Leonardtown High School. Both liberally use the n-word but guess which one got banned.

Lee’s novel would be greater if it discomfited more. Flannery O’Connor, who excoriates overly comfortable whites in stories like “The Artificial Nigger” and “Revelation,” accused Lee of writing a fairy tale, and I suspect she regarded it as a white liberal fantasy. To Kill a Mockingbird is a relatively safe book to teach because it jostles only certain boats. Indications are that Lee wanted it to discomfit more—Go Set a Watchman shows what she could have done—but that editors persuaded her to pull some of her punches. She became a wealthy woman, but I wonder if she ever felt trapped by the adulation.

When, in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar, I ask my students to analyze a literary work that caused a stir, they are to look at the controversy through the eyes of everyone involved. To study the Biloxi incident, one would look at the school system, the students (white as well as black), the parents, the local newspaper, and those outsiders who took an interest. I suspect a fairly good picture of the current state of American race relations would emerge.

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Rightwing Evangelicals Bind with Briars

Blake’s “Garden of Love” (note the binding briars)

Spiritual Sunday

I wrote last Sunday about how colleges are not as hostile to religion as rightwing evangelicals charge, and a recent 538 article by Daniel Cox backs this up. Today, I’m going to make an even stronger claim: college can actually strengthen religious faith. If you want your children to have strong and robust religious beliefs, advise them to attend a liberal arts college and to take humanities courses.

Right now, many students associate religion with conservative evangelicals, who come across as shrill and intolerant. They particularly dislike rightwing attempts to control female sexuality. This was clear to me Friday when my Intro to Lit class discussed Lucille Clifton’s menstruation poems, a discussion that veered into religion and the poetry of William Blake.

I’ll elaborate in a moment. First, here’s Cox summarizing some of the attacks on colleges:

In a speech last week at an Alabama university, Donald Trump Jr. alternately mocked and ridiculed the culture of college campuses that teach students to “hate their religion” and “hate their country” — places where the moral teachings of the Bible are held up as “hate speech.” Trump Jr.’s impassioned condemnation of campus politics and college professors has become an increasingly common refrain in conservative politics, particularly among the conservative Christian wing. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum railed against the indoctrination occurring on college campuses (and used an errant statistic to buttress his claim). A year earlier, Newt Gingrich similarly accused college professors of undermining the Christian values of the Founding Fathers.

The research, Cox observes, does not bear out these claims. The studies he cites confirm what I too have witnessed, especially the third study:

A pair of University of Texas sociologists argue that “the religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education.” They suggest that, instead, students’ religious lives lie dormant, “waiting to be awakened” upon graduation. Another study found that while education did seem to have a negative impact on religiosity at one point, this is no longer the case. Still other research suggests that religious values neither increase nor decrease so much as they are “reexamined, refined and incorporated” with other beliefs.

Since we push our students to “always question why”—they are at an age where this comes naturally to them—it makes sense that they would be reexamining, refining, and incorporating. They want to know what gives life meaning, and they will occasionally turn their increasing conceptual ability to this question. My church (Episcopalian) likes to say that we don’t check our brains at the door, and I am confident that God can handle any intellectual gauntlets thrown down. Faith only grows stronger when it joins with Reason.

Those who think that Reason is about replacing God have a myopic view of the matter. They see Reason as a sterile tool used to impose human control on the world while banishing mystery, a Dr. Frankenstein-type arrogance, and it is true that such types do exist in the Academy. Many more, however, see reason as a wonderful gift (the religious among us call it a gift from God) for exploring creation in its many manifestations.

In politics we often see a narrow view of Faith battling a narrow view of Reason, with (predictably) narrow conclusions merging. Intellectual inquiry is not politics.

Our class conversation about Lucille Clifton was not narrow. People often love Clifton because she chooses to celebrate subjects that people find shameful, like black skin, large hips, sexuality (especially shameful for abuse victims), and menstruation. In our discussion of “poem in praise of menstruation,” we talked about the origins of the shame that some women still feel about their periods. Students mentioned religions that regard women as “unclean” when they menstruate.

Since my Intro to Lit course has nature as its theme (nature includes biological bodies), we looked at how controlling nature and controlling women’s bodies have often been associated. Pentheus in Euripides’s Bacchae both refuses to worship Dionysus and insists the women remain indoors at their looms. Dionysus, who will not be denied, drives the women into the mountains and upends patriarchal control. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan Le Fay, essentially a Celtic mother goddess, has the Green Knight humiliate prideful Camelot, proving to Gawain that he is more attached to his body than he admits. In the Green Knight’s eyes, Gawain’s real sin is that he’s ashamed of this attachment.

The best poet for our purposes was William Blake, who excoriates the establishment church for the way that it wields shame. In our discussion, we revisited “The Garden of Love”:

I went to the Garden of Love, 
And saw what I never had seen: 
A Chapel was built in the midst, 
Where I used to play on the green. 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut, 
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door; 
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love, 
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves, 
And tomb-stones where flowers should be: 
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, 
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Habiscus, which my library group discussed two weeks ago, has a horrific example of a church briar binding a child’s desire. The novel features a Christian businessman who is so rigid that he severs ties with his father, a traditional animist, and beats his wife and children whenever he sees them straying. We gain some sympathy, however, once we learn that, when he was a child, a Catholic priest forced him to dip his hands into near boiling water after catching him masturbating. The father relayed that abuse along to his own family.

Presumably even the most doctrinaire of American rightwing evangelicals don’t go to this length. They are not providing my students with positive or effective ways of negotiating the challenges of the modern world, however. Instead, their Christianity appears myopic and reactionary. And it’s not as though my students lack a spiritual hunger. Many turn to our literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and religious studies classes to make sense of  life’s spiritual dimensions.

When our students leave us, they take what they have learned and construct their own vision of God and the world. Those who follow a Christian path become deep and soulful Christians.

Rightwing evangelicals don’t trust them to find their own way. It’s as though they have a hothouse image of their faith, believing that it can’t withstand robust questioning. When I recall the many students I’ve had whose parents didn’t allow them to read the Harry Potter books, I think of a conversation in Pride and Prejudice about the difference between “a slight, thin sort of inclination” and “a fine, stout, healthy love.” The first, Elizabeth says, can be destroyed by contact with literature while the second is nourished. Mrs. Bennet begins the conversation:

“When [Jane] was only fifteen, there was a man at my brother Gardiner’s in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.”

“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

Are rightwing evangelicals more interested in driving people from Christianity than welcoming them to it? I’m coming to think their faith isn’t very deep. Just angry and loud.

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Foes of Mockingbird Have a Point


When I first heard that To Kill a Mockingbird had been pulled from a Biloxi, Mississippi school room last week, I initially assumed that resurgent white nationalism was involved. Upon further digging, however, I learned that black parents were complaining that the novel made their child uncomfortable, not white. That launches an entirely different conversation than the one I anticipated.

Opposed to censorship though I am, in this instance I support those attacking the book. At least to a point.

The Biloxi Sun Herald has the story:

Biloxi School District became the focus of a national public outcry earlier this month when it pulled To Kill A Mockingbird from the classroom lesson plan because a parent and grandparent complained it made their child uncomfortable…

 The parents complaining…told the Biloxi School Board that the teacher allowed students to laugh at the use of the N-word in the text and discussions and disagreed with the need for such a racist word in a classroom setting for 13- to 14-year-olds.

Here’s the complaint in the mother’s own words:

“Students were laughing out loud at the teacher’s response. That’s unacceptable to me,” she told the board. “Is there not a better way to teach about that era and the horrors of that era, other than having kids laughing in class when the N-word is said? It should not be required reading for all students. My child shouldn’t have to sit in that class like that.

“It’s not a conducive environment,” Yolanda Williams said. “It’s not just the book, but supplemental material that had the N-word.

 “We have to get to the point where we have zero tolerance for that,” she said. “The school board needs to take a real look at the curriculum as a whole. I think something has gone amiss. There’s a serious issue and it’s not uncomfortable, it’s outrageous.”

Jessica Williams [the grandmother] said they are a military family that came to Biloxi more than 20 years ago, and her grandchild was raised not to see herself as black.

“Is there no better way to teach?” she asked the school board. “My (grand)child should not have to sit in a classroom like that.”

Similar complaints have led certain schools to ban Huckleberry Finn, either officially or in practice. One can understand why, especially these days. If outward expressions of racism are becoming increasingly common, then seeing the n-word casually used in a novel can appear to legitimize the practice.

It doesn’t help that the likable Scout uses the word numerous times. Here’s a random example, taken from when the children are trying to build a snowman from very little snow:

Jem scooped up an armful of dirt, patted it into a mound on which he added another load, and another until he had constructed a torso.  

“Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a nigger snowman,” I said.

I’ve written several post on why white readers love the novel more than black readers. After all, the hero is a white liberal who comes in and saves the day while the virtuous blacks serve as one-dimensional foils. They are virtuous because they know their place, standing up to honor Atticus in the courtroom. This helps explain why the book did as well as it did, even in the south.

I find Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, far more honest for the way it exposes the earlier fantasy. Atticus can be a benign savior only as long as the blacks don’t demand equal rights. Once they do, he joins the White Citizens Counsel, prompting Calpurnia to quit in disgust. Now that’s a discomforting vision.

In Mockingbird, the n-word is not problematized the way it is in, say, Huckleberry Finn. Huck is clearly an ignorant white kid, an unreliable narrator, and the drama is whether he will rise above his prejudices. His trashy language battles with his love for Jim, and love wins out. The crude language is exposed for what it is.

We don’t get the full humanity of African Americans in Mockingbird, however. Even when Atticus chastises Scout for using the n-word, it’s not because it dehumanizes people of color. Rather, it’s because it’s a class marker. The book is classist as well as racist, as seen in its contempt for the Ewells. Only “common” people use the n-word:

“Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” I asked him that evening.

“Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.”

I was raised in segregated Tennessee and remember once, in third grade, using the n-word. I remember this because I was told in no uncertain terms not to use it anymore, and I didn’t. Why hasn’t Atticus done the same with Jem and Scout? To be sure, this was in 1950’s Tennessee, not in 1930s Alabama, but Lee’s sequel suggests that Atticus doesn’t come down harder because it’s not a big deal for him. By contrast, it’s a very big deal to Twain how Jim is treated.

The mother and grandmother in Biloxi probably didn’t undertake an in-depth textual analysis of Mockingbird, but they sensed that their child was undergoing a version of the dehumanizing that occurs in the book. They focused on casual use of the n-word as an indication of deeper problems.

I’m interested in how the teacher handled the class’s laughter. How sensitively was the racism in the novel addressed, and did he or she supplement Mockingbird with works by black authors, say Langston Hughes or Lucille Clifton? (Both write short and powerful poems that eighth graders can grasp.)  A school system that truly respected its children of color would not, I suspect, get such parental complaints.

So no, don’t ban To Kill a Mockingbird. But take the concerns of these parents seriously and know that, if you don’t teach the novel well, it will bolster existent racism (and classism). Literature packs an explosive punch and, like dynamite, can be used for bad as well as for good.

Further thought – While I’ve critiqued Mockingbird in past posts, I’ve also discussed how important it was to my own development. Like Scout, I too was called an n-lover growing up, and seeing how she fought back inspired me. I also drew strength from this exchange with Atticus when the expression is directed at him:

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything — like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain — ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”  

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”  

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody. . . I’m hard put, sometimes — baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t let Mrs. Dubose get you down. She has enough troubles of her own.”

I now realize that Atticus’s large mind here is partly a sign of his privilege: he knows he’s above these other people. Nevertheless, the scene supported me in the face of similar attacks and made me resolve to be a bigger person, a good desire to have fostered in the battle against racism.

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Wild Accusations of Witch Hunts

1876 illustration of Salem witch trial


Recently there have been dubious instances of people accusing others of witch hunts. Donald Trump has called the Robert Mueller collusion investigation “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history,” and Woody Allen, speaking of the sexual harassment charges against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, has warned, “You also don’t want it to lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

As someone interested in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, I read Steve Hendrix’s Washington Post article about when and how the expression became common usage. Others applied the expression to politics before the play, but Miller cemented it in our minds.

First, however, a note on Woody Allen’s anxiety. From the training that everyone at my college undergoes every year, I can report that Allen here is being hysterical: winking, even if it does occur, does not lead to harassment charges. In organizations where there is a process (which apparently included neither The Weinstein Company nor Fox News), conversations are held and people are warned before action is taken (unless their actions are much severe than winking). The Hendrix article notes the irony of Allen pointing to women as witch hunters when traditionally they have been the victims.

Allen, in other words, is seeking to cast doubt on legitimate charges, not get at the truth.

According to Hendrix, “witch hunt” as a political expression has its origins in American hysteria about communism, going all the way back to the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution. Raymond Robbins, a Red Cross officer who witnessed the revolution up close, requested that a Congressional Investigatory Committee “deal with suspected Bolshevik sympathizers with intelligent action instead of in a ‘witch hunt’”:

Sen. Lee Overman (R-N.C.): “What do you mean by ‘witch hunt’?”

Mr. Robbins: “I mean this, Senator. You are familiar with the old witch-hunt attitude, that when people get frightened at things and see bogies, then they get out witch proclamations, and mob action and all kinds of hysteria take place.”

However, it would be a later investigation that, in conjunction with Miller’s play, would “forever weld ‘witch hunt’ into the political lexicon.” The phrase, Hendrix notes,

would become synonymous with McCarthyism, named for the Wisconsin senator who accused civil servants, soldiers and writers of traitorous communist ties with no proof.

One of those he would accuse, playwright Arthur Miller, would finally draw the circle from Sen. Joseph McCarthy all the way back to zealot judges of Salem with his acclaimed parable drama, The Crucible.

Trump’s practice of accusing his enemies of whatever he himself is guilty of—note his trumped-up charge about Barack Obama’s illegitimacy—means that the devil can turn even powerful indictments to his purpose. Unlike the judges in Miller’s play, however, special counsel Mueller appears to be investigating Trump in a sober and and grounded manner. It’sTrump who is rolling around on the ground screaming and pointing fingers in all directions.

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Ishiguro Anticipated Brexit, Trump

Kazuo Ishiguro


Here’s an overdue congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro, the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve posted on Ishiguro’s Buried Giant  and thought long and hard about Remains of the Day since reading it in the 1990s. A recent article in Electric Lit by Alexandra d’Abbadabie picks up on a theme that I’ve identified as well: Ishiguro is good at detecting darkness beneath surface civility.

Or as the Nobel committee put it, he “uncover[s] the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

Observing that the novel was written during the Margaret Thatcher era, d’Abbadabie observes that Remains of the Day helps us understand why people hitch themselves to authoritarian figures who screw them over. Mostly set in the years prior to World War II, the novel is narrated by Stevens, an exemplary butler who slavishly follows his master. His low point comes when he fails to question Lord Darlington, a fascist sympathizer, for sending a Jewish servant back to Germany.  As Stevens explains to the head of housekeeping,

The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

Darlington agrees, explaining to him at one point,

Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place for universal suffrage and the like.

What does Stevens get out of this arrangement? By aligning himself with the legendary British tradition of butlers, he is able to hold on to his dignity. As d’Abbadabie puts it,

He knows he’s being played, a small cog in the greater machine of things, and comforts himself in the mythology of The Great English Tradition.

In America, it’s useful to see white nationalists, especially as related to the Confederate statues, in this same light. It doesn’t matter whether Trump is taking away healthcare, enriching the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, and stripping consumer protections. Many of his followers never thought they had control over those issues anyway. What matters is that he affirms the proud tradition of white heritage, along with such patron saints as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In return, they will slavishly believe anything he tells them.

D’Abbadabie says that last year she saw such thinking everywhere:

Reading this novel after the Brexit vote, after “President Trump” became reality, is incredible…I could see him, in the middle-aged white men openly talking about English cultural supremacy, English pride in June 2016“we call this land of ours Great Britain,” Stevens says early on in the novel. 

In my own post on Ishiguro, I too saw him anticipating, not only Brexit, but the rise of the extreme right in Europe and the United States. Buried Giant shows Merlin enchanting a dragon’s breath so that the entire nation will forget the civil strife between the Britons and the Saxons. Unfortunately, the dragon is getting old and the forgetfulness charm is fading. It’s only a matter of time before tribal memories will return and war again will break out. A Saxon warrior predicts the end of the Britons:

“[W]ho knows what old hatred will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what old hatreds will loosen across the land now? We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

“How right to fear it, sir,” Wistan said. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbors’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance. For you Britons, it’ll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you. You’ll flee or perish. And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace of your people’s time.

The difference between Remains of the Day and Buried Giant is that Ishiguro’s vision has gotten darker. At the end of the earlier novel, fascism is a thing of the past and Stevens is trying to figure out how to respond to his new and much more informal American master. We reflect upon the irony of his ending up here after selling his soul and giving up love to preserve the Great British Tradition.

In Buried Giant, by contrast, bloody tribalism looms. After a remarkably long period of peace, which includes the Pax Americana and the founding of the European Union, are we about to sink once again into nationalist hatreds? The signs are worrisome.

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Kelly as Coriolanus? Dear God, No!

Fiennes as Coriolanus


Last week witnessed four memorable speeches, including excellent ones by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Atlantic’s Eliot Cohen says, however, that the two that stood out were the ones by “wounded warriors.” In a fine article, Cohen compares Sen. John McCain to Richard II’s John of Gaunt and Chief of Staff John Kelly to the grieving father Talbot in Henry VI, Part I.

Where McCain’s remarks soared, however, Kelly’s suddenly veered off into Trumpian darkness, which Cohen attributes to projection. That is, everything Kelly said about Trump’s critics actually applies more to Trump himself. Cohen speculates that Kelly is becoming frustrated and bitter at what he has been forced to sacrifice for Trump and so is lashing out. Once again, the president’s incessant lying is contaminating someone who works for him.

Rather than Talbot, I would compare Kelly to Coriolanus, whose bitterness against republican rule leads him to betray his country. We can only hope that, like Coriolanus, Kelly finds his way back to the light.

McCain is in that light. Here’s Cohen making the comparison:

Senator John McCain, bearing the wounds of years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison, with an incurable cancer in his future, spoke while receiving a medal. John Kelly, grieving for his son lost in battle and for others like him, surprised and stunned reporters in a White House press conference. Their contrasting visions of this country, of military service, and of our future bear reflection.

It was Shakespearean. John McCain, like old John of Gaunt, might truly say, “O, but they say the tongues of dying men, Enforce attention like deep harmony: Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.” John Kelly, like the grim warrior Talbot looking at his son’s corpse, might say “Triumphant death, smear’d with captivity; Young Talbot’s valour makes me smile at thee.” But the two could not be more different.

McCain’s was a speech of fire but also of light: “What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country.” As he, like Bush, denounced blood-and-soil nationalism, he told his listeners, “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” But staring into the shade as he is, McCain sang of others: “I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me.” He celebrated America, “this wondrous land,” and if he paid tribute to those who fell, he spoke chiefly of an America that makes “the future better than the past.”

Kelly’s speech too started out movingly as he described “the care with which American soldiers treat their dead comrades, the impossibility of saying the right thing to bereaved parents, his solitary walk among the graves at Arlington.” Then, however, it became

a meditation on the difference between “the 1 percent” and the rest of us, between those who bear the sting of battle and burden of grief at young lives lost, and those who watch from the sidelines. He lashed out (inaccurately, as it turned out) at the politician who overheard the call because she was a friend of the family. He lurched into images of the past in which women were regarded as sacred. He pointedly discriminated among those asking questions, suggesting that only those who were Gold Star relatives or knew a stricken family had the right to ask him questions. Indeed, the White House press secretary later declared that it is improper for anyone to question a Marine four star—a statement worthy of Wilhelmine Germany at its worst.

Kelly’s speech ended with disdain for those who are not military:

He told those in the audience that he did not look down on them for not having served; rather people like him—again, the 1 percent—merely feel sorry for civilians. But his final shot—“So just think of that”—undercut the previous sentence. The contempt was unmistakable.

I’ll compare Kelly’s contempt for civilians with Coriolanus’s contempt for the mob in a moment. Let’s look first at the McCain-Gaunt comparison.

The elderly Gaunt regards with dismay the irresponsible Richard II, whose dissolute behavior is running England into the ground. He hopes that his words, coming from a dying man, might have a salutary effect on the young monarch:

John of Gaunt
Will the king come, that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?

Duke of York
Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;

For all in vain comes counsel to his ear.

John of Gaunt
O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen’d more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,
My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.

York knows the king too well to hold out any hope, however. Richard’s ears, he says, are “stopp’d with other flattering sounds.” And so it proves the case as Richard calls Gaunt “a lunatic lean-witted fool” when offered advice. “Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,” he says, “This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head/Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.”

We see the full weight of the tragedy in Gaunt’s loving description of England. One’s country never looks so beautiful as when bad leaders damage “her reputation to the world.” England, Gaunt says, is “now bound in with shame” and “hath made a shameful conquest of itself”:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

And finally:

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

Kelly too talked nobly for a while, moving everyone with talk of his dead son. So does Talbot:

Come, come and lay him in his father’s arms:
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.

To switch suddenly from Talbot’s heartbreaking grief to Coriolanus’s contempt for the mob is to experience the confusion of those that were listening to Kelly. Here’s the Roman general heaping scorn upon those who do not fight, which is also scorn for fickle politics:

What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun…
                                        He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. 

Unlike his fellow general Menenius, who knows that he has to work in concert with the people, Coriolanus becomes more and more dictatorial. Frustrated with republican politics, he complains that “crows…peck the eagles.” He could be Trump and Kelly complaining about the press and vocal women of color.

When Coriolanus is banished, he claims (sounding a bit like Ayn Rand’s John Galt) that it is actually he who is banishing Rome:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts!

This attack by a military man against republican rule is so powerful that Coriolanus, according to Wikipedia, was banned in late 1930s France and then again in post-World War II Germany for being too popular with fascists.

Although Coriolanus joins the enemy and attacks Rome, ultimately he redeems himself by striking a peace deal rather than conquering the city. He pays the ultimate price for doing so as his allies kill him as a traitor, but at least he proves faithful in the end.

If Kelly truly believes that the military are superior to civilians, then he represents a Coriolanus-type threat. Democracies are messy even in the best of times and don’t run like a military hierarchy. On the other hand, if he can find his way back to American ideals as Coriolanus finds his way back to Rome, then redemption is possible.

Might Kelly rediscover honor and, like John of Gaunt, speak truth to his powerful boss, whatever the cost? Sen. McCain stands as a model.

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How Owen Meany Comforts the Bereaved

Myeshia Johnson mourns the death of her husband


A number of tragedies are being overlooked in the quarrel between Donald Trump and the friends and family of slain Green Beret Sgt. La David Johnson. First, we should focus on those who are grieving, not anyone else. Then we should turn our attention to how Sgt. Johnson and the others got killed and why his body was initially left behind.

It will take time to figure out what happened in Niger. Trump can take immediate lessons from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, on comforting grieving families.

Rule #1: it’s never about you, only about the mourners. During the Iraq War, one grieving sister said that George Bush “listened while I screamed at him & then held me as I sobbed, you fat f***ing liar.” Bush understood that his first responsibility was to the family and friends, not to his ego.

In the recent case, however, we saw first Trump and then chief of staff John Kelly drag Congresswoman Frederica Wilson through the mud while implicitly criticizing the Johnsons for letting her listen in on Trump’s phone call. Under normal circumstances, I agree that Wilson should have stayed quiet about the interaction, but I am willing to grant her some slack because she, as a mentor to Sgt. Johnson and a family friend, was thrashing around in her own grief. She was appalled by how Trump’s insensitivity hurt Mrs. Johnson and told the world.

Owen Meany’s military job is comforting the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam. Once, when he is delivering a body on an airport tarmac, he encounters a family that is tearing itself apart in its grief. I quote from the novel at length so that you will see how emotionally volatile such situations can be. The “boy” is a teenager with weapons who is playing at being a soldier. Owen speaks in a high-pitched voice because of a damaged larynx:

“Don’t you speak to your sister that way,” the man said.

The boy, not moving, said: “Fuck you—she’s not my sister, she’s just my half sister!”

The mother said: “Don’t speak to your father that way.”

“He’s not my father—you asshole,” the boy said.

“Don’t you call your mother an ‘asshole’!” the man said; but when he stepped closer to the boy on the tarmac—as if he were positioning himself near enough to kick the boy—the boy rose unsteadily to his feet. He held the machete in one hand, the bayonet in the other.

“You’re both assholes,” the boy told the man and woman—and when his half sister commenced to cry again, he once more tipped back his head and spat the tobacco juice; he did not spit on her, but he spat in her general direction.

It was Owen Meany who spoke to him. “I LIKE THAT SHEATH—FOR THE BAYONET,” Owen said. “DID YOU MAKE IT YOURSELF?”

As I had seen it happen before—with strangers—the whole, terrible family was frozen by Owen Meany’s voice. The pregnant girl stopped crying; the father—who was not the tall boy’s father—backed away from Owen, as if he were more afraid of The Voice than of either a bayonet or a machete, or both; the mother nervously patted her sticky hair, as if Owen had caused her to worry about her appearance. The top of Owen Meany’s cap reached only as high as the tall boy’s chest.

The boy said to him: “Who are you? You little twit.”

“This is the casualty assistance officer,” the major said. “This is Lieutenant Meany.”

“I want to hear him say it,” the boy said, not taking his eyes off Owen.

“I’M LIEUTENANT MEANY,” Owen said; he offered to shake hands with the boy. “WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” But in order to shake hands with Owen, the boy would have had to sheathe at least one of his weapons; he appeared unwilling. He also didn’t bother to tell Owen his name.

“What’s the matter with your voice?” he asked Owen.


As a natural bully, the boy respected being bullied. “Yes, sir,” he said snidely to Owen.


“Yes, sir,” the boy said.


“Yes, sir,” the boy said quietly; he looked at a loss about how to PAY SOME ATTENTION to his dead brother, and so he stared forlornly at the corner of the flag that was near enough to the open tailgate of the hearse to be occasionally moved by the wind.

Then Owen Meany circulated through the family, shaking hands, saying he was sorry…

When someone has died, we must PAY SOME ATTENTION to him/her and to family and friends. Everything else is a distraction.

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Religion in Class? Teach It, Don’t Preach It

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby,’ “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”


After a year and a half, I’m finally writing my long-intended response to Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column about academe’s bias against Christians. A liberal not afraid to reflect on liberal bias, Kristof quotes a sociologist who says, “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”

Okay, let’s give some credit to academia that more isn’t made of this man’s since that’s not true of  society at large. I get his point, however. I only wish that I had had him in my classes because I talk about Christianity fairly frequently. After all, how can one teach Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as I did Friday, without discussing the mariner’s confession to the hermit upon reaching land? In fact, I called upon the Catholics in the class (I myself am Episcopalian) to walk us through how their faith regards confession and penance.

But here’s the thing. I have to talk about Christianity in ways that don’t exclude the non-Christians in the room. If professors are to talk about their faith, it must be a tolerant faith, one that is open to the claims of other religions. Can you be accepting of your non-Christian students if you think they’re all going to hell?

My own view of religion is my view of literature. That is to say, I see both as elaborate symbol systems designed to put us in touch with things that are beyond us. Although religious rituals can only get us so far–an observation that applies also to language–we turn to ritual and to language because they are what we have. Any final articulation will always be beyond us because God is always beyond us.

Many of my students—not all of them—are in spiritual search. In Wednesday’s class, many of them grappled with Wordsworth’s notion of a universal soul in Intimations of Immortality, which got Wordsworth himself in trouble with orthodox Christians of his day. Before Wordsworth, we discussed how Blake could be anti-church but pro-Jesus. (Being college students, many are questioning the faiths they were raised in—many will return eventually—and drew a distinction between religion and spirituality.) Before that, we talked about Christian Camelot’s encounter with Celtic earth religion in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And before that we discussed a religion that, because no one practices it anymore, we now call mythology (Dionysus worship in The Bacchae). Given that most English-language literature before the 20th century emerges out of a Christian context, it would be malpractice on our part to ignore it.

Discussing religion is not the same as preaching it, however. That’s where I draw the line. And for the record, I am against preaching secular materialism as well. Above all, our first duty is to respect our students.

This respect must extend to conservatives and evangelical Christians. Kristof is absolutely right there. It should also extend to people of color, to LBGTQ students, to women who believe in their right to control their reproductive decisions, to people with neurological and physical challenges, and to DACA kids. We try not to hire people for whom ideology is more important than the complex beings that are their students.

Kristof observes that universities are more welcoming to liberals than to conservatives and there are reasons for that. Western academe has been most influenced by the empirical and non-Christian Aristotle and then by the deist Enlightenment (hello, Thomas Jefferson). How could it not have a liberal bias, defining liberal in its most expansive sense? Academics must be committed to the truth, even when it challenges traditions and shakes up old certainties. In that way, it’s not a natural fit for conservatives. Maybe that one reason most faculty are liberal.

I’ll agree with Kristof, however, that when liberals become orthodox and rigid, they cease to honor the academic ideal. In such instances, they cannot truly call themselves liberal. I will admit that, being human, sometimes we academic liberals fall prey to our biases. But we have an ideal that informs us that this is not good, which makes us more likely to self-correct when people call us out. Many of us take Kristof’s column seriously.

For all our faults, the faculty that I know strive to respect their conservative students no less than their liberal students. They are also more open to, say, Nazis speaking on campus (as long as they don’t threaten violence) than certain conservatives are to black athletes kneeling at football games. Unlike our president, we don’t believe that people should be fired and that newspapers should lose their licenses for disagreeing with him.

The one thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance. Take away free and open dialogue and the university dies.

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How Moliere Is Saving France


Few writers are able to apply literary lessons to contemporary politics as well as The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. In a very smart article, he says that French president Emmanuel Macron is drawing upon Moliere to chart a wise course for France. Gopnik observes that the 17th century writer’s social comedy provides Macron a model for walking the fine line between idealism and pragmatism.

According to Gopnik, Macron is a Moliere fanatic. In a televised interview last Sunday, he

engaged in an exchange of the proto-romantic Alceste’s opening lines from The Misanthrope with a journalist, who took up the accompanying role of Philinte, Alceste’s best friend, who represents simple common sense.

Once can see why Macron would relate to the play. Alceste, after all, is objecting to customary political behavior:

Am I so very wicked, do you think?

Go to, you ought to die for very shame!
Such conduct can have no excuse; it must
Arouse abhorrence in all men of honor.
I see you load a man with your caresses,
Profess for him the utmost tenderness,
And overcharge the zeal of your embracings
With protestations, promises, and oaths;
And when I come to ask you who he is
You hardly can remember even his name!
Your ardour cools the moment he is gone,
And you inform me you care nothing for him!
Good God! ’tis shameful, abject, infamous,
So basely to play traitor to your soul;
And if, by evil chance, I’d done as much,
I should go straight and hang myself for spite.

It doesn’t seem to me a hanging matter,
And I’ll petition for your gracious leave
A little to commute your rigorous sentence,
And not go hang myself for that, an’t please you.

How unbecoming is your pleasantry!

But seriously, what would you have me do?

Be genuine; and like a man of honour
Let no word pass unless it’s from the heart.

But when a man salutes you joyfully,
You have to pay him back in his own coin,
Make what response you can to his politeness,
And render pledge for pledge, and oath for oath.

In the interview, Gopnik said, Macron spoke in Alceste’s voice but with Philinte’s views. Here’s Philinte’s defense:

There’s many a time and place when utter frankness
Would be ridiculous, or even worse;
And sometimes, no offence to your high honour,
‘Tis well to hide the feelings in our hearts.
Would it be proper, decent, in good taste,
To tell a thousand people your opinion
About themselves? When you detest a man,
Must you declare it to him, to his face?

Rousseau, it’s worth noting, hated Moliere for (as he saw it) making fun of Alceste. That’s because Rousseau was an earnest idealist who identified with the misanthrope. Macron, by contrast, is a centrist politician who united the center left and the center right against Marine Le Pen’s fascism. Politically speaking, he has to join a high-minded idealism (Alceste) with a down-to-earth pragmatism (Philinte). Macron’s knowledge of Moliere, Gopnik says, helps him see his challenge clearly.

The problem is this: pragmatism is not very inspiring, and middle-of-the road moderates are often targets of derision. Social comedy, however, is suspicious of ideological purism of any kind and thus gives moderates more credibility. By invoking Moliere, Gopnik says, Macron

was cautioning against dogmatic answers to practical problems. He was, in short, speaking on behalf of Molière’s great theme: the folly of fanaticism of every kind, whether it be the religious fanaticism in Tartuffe, in which a self-seeking pseudo-holy man warps a family’s life, or the social fanaticism in The Misanthrope, in which the proudly plainspoken Alceste has to be instructed by his mistress and his friends that too much candor is egocentric and vain, and not admirable. In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Molière makes fun of the aspirational fanaticism of the moneyed middle-class man who discovers, thanks to an expensive tutor, that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, and in The Imaginary Invalid he makes fun of the hypochondriac’s desperate desire to be cured by some systematic, if entirely fake, doctoring. In The Learned Ladies, Molière’s proto-feminist point is not that the ladies should not be learned but that their natural wit—all that they know already from their own experience—is more profound than what their lecherous tutors, with their extravagant poetic pretensions, wish to teach them.

Social comedy has a social policy wisdom that more elevated genres, such as epic, tragedy, and lyric poetry, lack. This makes Moliere the perfect model for Macron:

That French lesson—about the madness of finding a one-size-fits-all solution to a many-shaped and many-sized humanity—though delightfully convincing when presented as social comedy, is hard to make glow as social policy. So, on Sunday night, Macron was in the strange and contradictory position—one that made his performance on the whole as disconcerting as it was effective—of trying to stare down fanaticism fanatically. He held that the leftist belief in a kind of organized social revenge against the wealthy élite is just as destructive as the right-wing nationalist belief in an orgy of revenge against the educated élite. He spoke for the fierce urgency of not always being too urgent, for the glamour of moderation, for the eloquence of small-bore social engineering.

Macron sounds a lot like the left-of-center Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom disappointed the left, and Gopnik admits that comedy can appear to give short shrift to our emotional hunger. Obamaesque calls for Hope and Change, after all, sound more epic or lyrical than comic. What comedy can do, however, is “make[ ] sanity look appealing and alive to our dramatic imagination.” Gopnik concludes,

It is the rare leader—America not very long ago had one—who can make small sanities resonate as inspiring ideas. France should be, and may be, so lucky.

So let’s hear it for social comedy. In America, unfortunately, the genre that is currently serving us best appears to be comic satire, which helps us keep our sanity in the face of absurdity. When the GOP controls all branches of government and rightwing fanaticism dominates the GOP, then other genres have a hard time gaining traction.

Luckily, we have a patron writer of our own that we can turn to. Our Moliere is Mark Twain.

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Atwood’s Year of the Flood–Our Future?

The aftereffects of Hurricane Maria


Increasingly, Trump’s Maria is making Bush’s Katrina look like a day at the beach, what with continued breakdowns in communication, logistics, and distribution. Many still can’t get clean drinking water, and most of the island is still without electricity.

I find myself wondering if, American citizens or no, Puerto Ricans will one day be denied access to the mainland. After all, a million pissed-off residents moving to Florida could tilt the state blue in future elections. The idea came to my mind as I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood (2008), which imagines a wall between Texas and the rest of the United States after similar environmental disasters.

Atwood’s deep understanding of socio-economic, environmental and technological issues gives credibility to her dystopian literature. In Year of the Flood, conditions have become so bad that a mad scientist finally decides to wipe out the human race with a super-destructive virus. Before he does so, however, we see the effect of extreme class inequality and unregulated capitalism. Texas, we learn, suffers alternately from (sound familiar?) extreme droughts and super-intense hurricanes.

We get this account from a Texas immigrant:

Amanda told me about the droughts in Texas—how her parents had lost their Happicuppa coffee franchise and couldn’t sell their house because no one would buy it, and how there were no jobs and they’d ended up in a refugee camp with old trailers and a lot of Tex-Mexicans. Then their trailer was demolished in one of the hurricanes and her father was killed by a piece of flying metal. A lot of people drowned, but she and her mother held on to a tree and got rescued by some men in a rowboat. They were thieves, said Amanda, looking for stuff they could lift, but they said they’d take Amanda and her mother to dry land and a shelter if they’d do a trade.
“What kind of trade?” I said.
“Just a trade,” said Amanda.

The trade probably involves sex although Amanda never confirms this.

At first Amanda and her mother are put in a football stadium with tents. After her mother dies from contaminated drinking water, Amanda escapes because

the refugees were supposed to be farmed out to work in whatever job they were told to. “No free lunch,” people were saying: you had to pay for everything, one way or another.

Atwood captures here the paternalism we are also seeing from some who lecture Puerto Rico, starting with the president. Those who have had bad luck are expected to pay back any aid with interest, the assumption being that they want this free lunch.

Amanda walks north with thousands of others. The one time she hitches, she has to fend off a sexual assault. And then:

“Then I had to get past the Wall,” she said.
“What wall?”
“Don’t you watch the news? The Wall they’re building to keep the Tex refugees out, because just the fence wasn’t enough. There’s men with sprayguns—it’s a CorpSeCorps wall. But they can’t patrol every inch—the Tex-Mex kids know all the tunnels, they helped me get through.”
“You could’ve been shot,” I said.

Amanda lays out two different ways that people respond to the catastrophes:

In her place I would have just laid down in a ditch and cried myself to death. But Amanda says if there’s something you really want, you can figure out a way to get it. She says being discouraged is a waste of time.

All power to those who refuse to be discouraged, but not all have Amanda’s power. In any event, America hasn’t arrived at Atwood’s dystopia yet. Our president seems determined to get us there, however.

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Trump, 4 Dead Soldiers, & Col. Cathcart

Balsam as Colonel Cathcart in “Catch-22”


Few novels understand the military mindset better than Catch-22. Nevertheless, I imagine that even Joseph Heller would gape at Donald Trump’s latest claim that he has been far more caring than his predecessors towards Gold Star families. After all, Trump made this claim after admitting that he had not yet contacted the families of the four Green Berets who died in Niger two weeks ago

When asked about them, Trump sounded like a student caught out for not having done his homework. He first said that the letters were on the way, or would be soon, and then tried to change the subject by contrasting himself with Barack Obama with what everyone agrees was a vile calumny. Here’s ABC’s account:

Almost two weeks after four Green Berets were killed in an attack in Niger, the Trump administration has faced criticism over its response. On Monday, Trump said he plans to call the families of the fallen soldiers to offer his condolences. But he also falsely claimed that Barack Obama and other presidents did not make personal calls to bereaved military families.

“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. Lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call,” Trump said.

He said he plans to call and send letters to the families “either today or tomorrow.”

When challenged by a reporter, Trump walked back his response.

“I was told that he didn’t often. Lot of presidents don’t,” Trump said. “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes. Maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. Some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like the combination.”

As many noted, while Obama and George W. Bush would have been at the airport when the bodies were flown back, Trump was playing golf.

During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came in for a storm of criticism when people figured out he was auto-signing letters to the families of soldiers who were killed. Trump, however, makes Rumsfeld sound like Mr. Rogers. I’d say that the president was on a par with the execrable Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22 only Cathcart at least feels he must make an effort to console families. Trump reaches out only after he is exposed.

Cathcart’s outreach involves “sincere” form letters, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Here’s his order to the chaplain:

“Starting tomorrow,” he said, “I want you and Corporal Whitcomb to write a letter of condolence for me to the next of kin of every man in the group who’s killed, wounded or taken prisoner. I want those letters to be sincere letters. I want them filled up with lots of personal details so there’ll be no doubt I mean every word you say. Is that clear?”

The chaplain stepped forward impulsively to remonstrate. “But, sir, that’s impossible,” he blurted out. “We don’t even know all the men that well.”

“What difference does that make?” Colonel Cathcart demanded, and then smiled amicably. “Corporal Whitcomb brought me this basic form letter that takes care of just about every situation. Listen: ‘Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs.: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.’ And so on. I think that opening sentence sums up my sentiments exactly.”

Sure enough, Cathcart means every word the letters say. After Doctor Daneeka supposedly gets killed, his supposed widow hears from the colonel:

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka:
Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.

It’s one thing for Trump to disrespect Gold Star families. Far more worrisome is that such lack of empathy might lead him to underestimate war’s human toll, including the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war with North Korea. (“If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?” then-candidate Trump once reportedly asked in a foreign intel briefing.) What if people dying are no more real to him than people getting fired on The Apprentice.

For a leader who takes matters of life and death seriously, I offer you Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. When a deserter must be executed, Ned himself does the deed. He explains why to his son Bran:

[W]e hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.

We have a president who refuses to take responsibility for anything, including the servicemen and women who are fighting and dying under his command. He is a man afraid to look others in the eye. He doesn’t know what death is and he is uninterested in finding out.

Further developments

The stories keep coming, such as this one from a father whose son died last June, as reported by Washington Post:

President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

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Three Poems for Surviving Trump


Nancy LeTourneau of Washington Monthly had a very timely article yesterday about emotionally surviving the Trump presidency. Keeping abreast of the news these days, she observed, is “toxic and exhausting,” leading to fatalism and burnout. She shared a David Whyte poem to lift the spirits, however, and I have added two others in the same vein, by Lucille Clifton and Emily Dickinson.

LeTourneau quotes Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen as someone who sums up her state of mind

For millions of Americans, Trump has become an unbearable, infuriating, enraging, and draining presence in our national life…

I’m the ultimate optimist. I’ve written countless articles about how the world is getting safer, freer, wealthier, and healthier — and it is. But the collective effect of Trump’s presidency has caused me — and many I’ve spoken with — to question our belief in and hopefulness about America. Reactionary forces that we all know existed, but many of us believed were on the decline, have been unleashed on the country. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, which of course have always existed, have become normalized and part of the political discourse in ways that are completely alien to our experience of American politics. Public corruption, the shredding of political norms, and a deficit of public compassion now seems to define our body politic.

LeTourneau’s spirits picked up, however, after she returned to a community organizer’s article on handling one’s emotions in dark times. Marshall Ganz identifies the danger of negative feedback loops and then provides an antidote:

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

After quoting Ganz, LeTourneau said she stopped enumerating all of Trump’s outrages with a friend and then turned to a Whyte poem about finding faith in dark times. (I once shared it during Advent.) For the purposes of her column, LeTourneau changes the word “faith” to “hope,” but I have restored the original wording. Faith works just as well here if you see it as faith that the best in humans will prevail:


I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

The darkness that we witness appears final only if we allow it to gain ascendency. The key is to hold on to the light, which is what Clifton does in her own poem about the moon.

The moon has bad associations for Clifton—she experienced it as the eye that witnessed and did nothing when her father abused her—but after he died (he is “the man who killed the bear,” the “coalminer’s son”), she rethought her relationship with it. The moon, she observes, knows how to borrow light even when all around is dark. In other words, it doesn’t need a lot in order to shine:

only after the death
of the man who killed the bear,
after the death of the coalminer’s son,
did i remember that the moon
also rises, coming heavy or thin
over the living fields, over
the cities of the dead;
only then did i remember how she
catches the sun and keeps most of him
for the evening that surely will come;
and it comes.
only then did i know that to live
in the world all that i needed was
some small light and know that indeed
i would rise again and rise again to dance.

When she was a colleague, Lucille once mentioned to me that she would read this poem at conventions for abuse survivors. It assured them that, even when one feels like a city of the dead, one can rise again to dance. All one needs is “some small light.”

Dickinson would agree. A tough-minded explorer of human psychology—no maudlin sentimentalist she—the poet tells us that hope can sing without stopping even during the sorest gale, in the chillest land, or on the strangest sea:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Right now our “Extremity” is Trump and the political party that enables him. As depressing as that is, don’t forget that Hope is near at hand. It will sing to us, caress us with its feathers, and keep us warm.

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GOP Releases Catch-22 on Gun Control

House Speaker Paul Ryan


America’s gun politics after the Las Vegas shootings are playing out just as they did after the Tucson, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, Fort Meade and all those other shootings. Which is to say, Republicans in Congress refuse to do anything. The Speaker of the House is following the protocol laid out in Joseph Heller’s classic.

Here’s the situation. While Democrats want, at a minimum, to ban the bump stock that allowed Stephen Paddock to turn convert his semi-automatic rifle into an automatic one, Paul Ryan prefers a regulatory solution:

House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a regulatory fix for bump fire stocks Wednesday rather than passing legislation that was proposed in the House and Senate.

“We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix,” he said during his weekly news conference at Capitol Hill when asked about how to address the devices, also known as bump stocks.

The problem? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) says it doesn’t have the regulatory authority to regulate bump stocks:

“The stock has no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and performs no automatic mechanical function when installed,” John Spencer, the chief of the ATF’s Firearms Technology Branch, wrote to Slide Fire in a 2010 letter. “We find that the “bump-stock” is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act [GCA] or the National Firearms Act [NFA].”

In other words, new regulations would have to be passed for the ATF to act. Guess who is responsible for passing new regulations.

Catch-22, you will recall, prevents airmen from pleading mental distress to get out of flying the ever increasing number of missions that are demanded of them. Dr. Daneeka explains the catch to Yossarian:

 There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

We learn later in the book that Catch-22’s power lies in part from the fact that it does not exist, which makes it immune to attack:

Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.

Ryan knows this. To avoid doing anything, he has but to engage in a little Catch-22 jiu-jitsu and, voila, problem solved. Until the next mass shooting.

Do I hear a respectful whistle?

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A Positive Spin on the Golden Calf

Filippino Lippi, “Worship of the Golden Calf”

Spiritual Sunday

I so much enjoy Rabbi Jacob J. Staub’s thought-provoking poem about the golden calf, which I shared when the Exodus story appeared in the lectionary three years ago, that I am reposting the essay I wrote about it. To set up the poem, here’s the Biblical account (Exodus 32:1-14):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Reprinted from Oct. 12, 2014

 I stumbled across an interesting interpretation of the story of the golden calf, which is one of today’s Episcopalian lectionary readings. The story itself is open to multiple readings, but in the midrash or interpretation of Reconstructionist Rabbi Jacob J. Staub, it represents a rebellion by the people of Israel against an overly doctrinaire and grim version of Judaism.

In this reading, Moses is a psychologically wounded man who wants to impose his narrow vision of Jahweh on the Israelites, which he does by licensing the priestly class to slaughter all those who disagree. (The book of Exodus says that 3000 people were killed.) Straub’s Moses sounds like Freud’s repressive patriarch in Moses and Monotheism, whom Freud imagines as a dictatorial leader that the Israelites rebelled against and killed—and then, experiencing Oedipal guilt, internalized as a stern and judgmental superego. (Freud’s account is more of a thought experiment than a convincing history.)

In Staub’s poem, I don’t recognize all the names in the third stanza but they seem to refer to a historical time when the Israelites worshipped multiple gods, some of whom were later explained away as different names for the One God (for instance, Adonai). “Ashira” may be Asherah, once believed to be the female consort of Jahweh. Apparently Judaism was not a strictly monotheistic religion until after the Babylonian exile, which was when the Book of Exodus was written. Historians place the historical Moses around 700 years earlier, which means the Exodus account may not be any closer to truth than Freud’s.

In any event, Straub imagines a free-flowing spirit that is chillingly repressed by priests. Moses himself ignores his wife Tzipporah and his sons. Straub wants Judaism to return to what he imagines are its more celebratory and less patriarchal roots. Our problem is not that we worship the golden calf, he says. It’s that we worship orthodoxy.

The Golden Calf

By Jacob J. Staub

From the valley below, the ebullient notes of celebrants, 
the beat of tambourines liberated after four hundred years of abuse.

Sing unto the One, 
Who smites the tyrant, 
Who hears the cries of the oppressed,
Who parts the Sea and plants the seeds for generations yet unborn.

Ana, pool your gold. Adonai, give it to God.
Hoshi’a, smelt it down. Na, cast the throne.
Ashira, link your arms. Ladonai, circle the fire.
Ki, spin into oblivion.
Ga’oh, let go, let go, let go.
Ga’ah, God is One, we are one.
With broken bodies of former slaves, we undulate, 
following the Source enthroned into the wilderness of promise.

And up over the ridge, the Levites wait, in formation,
swords on thighs, servants of the Lord, privileged 
to follow orders, to do as they are told.
A martial clan descended from the heroes of the Battle of Shechem,
they wear their forebears’ medals proudly.
They have been instructed in the proper use of herbs and oils,
in the dire consequences of disobedience, of initiative, of openheartedness.
In formation, they await the signal from Moses, down from the mountain,
to charge, to slay three thousand defenseless, spent from a night of celebration.

Moses claims that You love only him, 
that we were spared because he intervened,
that You do not like our offering.
Moses, who has never seen Your face—
not in the silent, steamy eyes of Tzipporah,
from whom he stays cloistered,
not in the bloody foreskins of his sons,
whom he ignores in the name of his holy work. 
Moses, who doesn’t touch.
Moses, who doesn’t dance.
Moses, the bridegroom of blood.

Guide him please, Holy One of Compassion.
We don’t need another Pharaoh to lead us into freedom.
Love him doubly, forgive him his wrath.
He was taken as an infant from his mother.
Only You know what befell the lad in the palace,
but below, all we see is his sweltering rage.
Otherwise, as You surely can foresee,
generations will mistake
fervent worship for idolatry.

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How Nazis Used Art’s Soft Power

Nazi art by Josef Thorak (1937)


In my Theories of the Reader course, I have been teaching how Matthew Arnold believed the middle class could use literature to consolidate their power while keeping the working class in their place, what we now call soft power or hegemony. As Terry Eagleton memorably sums up the view, “If the masses are not thrown a few novels, they may react by throwing up a few barricades.”

New York Review of Books just reviewed a new book describing how Hitler and Mussolini also sought to weaponize the arts. Benjamin Martin’s The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture looks at their use of cinema, literature, music, art and sculpture to bend the rest of Europe to their will. Reviewer Roger Paxton sums up Martin’s project as follows:

[C]ultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.

The German project can be traced back to World War I propaganda and it lasted well into World War II:

During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.

Italy, according to Martin, was less successful than Germany as it tried to convince Hitler that it was Greece to Germany’s Rome. The Italian effort foundered upon German contempt.

Hitler advocated aggressive governmental intervention into cultural matters. Art was to be the expression of “the hereditary racial bloodstock,” and the artist’s job was to defend the German Volk. When PEN International objected to Hitler expelling “leftists” and Jews from the German chapter, Hitler closed down the chapter altogether.

Paxton’s review talks more about cinema and music than literature, but it does mention the European Writers’ Union, founded in 1941, which attracted one Nobel prize laureate and a bunch of minor writers. They were drawn in part by the Nazis’ rejection of modernism:

As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape.

In the end, however, the fascists’ arts project was doomed to fail as art cannot operate within such narrow constraints:

A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.

In my class, we have been discussing theorists who argue that literature can work as a form of social indoctrination. Bertolt Brecht and Antonio Gramsci see this occurring with class, Frantz Fanon and Chinua Achebe with colonialism, W.E.B. Du Bois with race, and various feminists and queer theorists with gender. While they have some reason to worry, the fascist failure shows that literature also has a way of slipping its leash whenever those in authority try to control it. Governments may turn to art because it is cheaper than a heavy police presence, but they soon learn that they can never control artists as much as they want to.

In other words, warnings about the arts brainwashing us may exaggerate the danger.

Previous posts on Nazis and literature

Nazis and the Classics

The Burning of the Books

Freikorps Fantasies and Trump’s Policies

Christian Nazis Seeking To Be Cleansed

Could Beowulf Have Saved the Jews?

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Will Warm Days Never Cease?

Vincent Van Gogh, “Siesta” (1890)


Here in Maryland, as elsewhere in the United States, we are undergoing the longest summer I have ever seen. And this is after last year’s “hottest-summer-on-record.”

Aside from this being more worrisome evidence of climate change, it also puts a new spin on John Keats’s masterful “To Autumn.” I’ll explain how in a moment.

First, however, let’s note that this isn’t the first instance of a poem looking different to us because of a major shift in climate. The “rough winds” that “do shake the darling buds of May” in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 make more sense once one realizes that Europe at the time was undergoing a mini ice age. That is why “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”  Usually one is safe comparing one’s love to a morning in May.

In “To Autumn” we have the opposite situation, with the summer extending out. Fall is generally a season of mists, but in this case it is conspiring with “the maturing sun” to yield a rich plenitude. Flowers continue to bud, causing the bees to think “warm days will never cease,/For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.”

There is a drowsy summer feel to this autumn poem, with images of sleeping in the fields or watching, for hours and hours, the “last oozings” of the cider press.

The signs indicates that this will not last, however. The poem takes on increasing urgency as one realizes that Keats is imagining his approaching death—he would die less than a year and a half after composing it—as signaled by the ominous flocks of swallows. However blissful life appears at the moment, winter will come.

In the meantime, however, life has never appeared as beautiful or as precious. An Indian summer has granted the poet a temporary reprieve.

In other words, part of the poem’s power lies in the summer going on and on. If all falls were like this, it wouldn’t seem so miraculous. And indeed, English falls are more likely to be like the one described in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

But harvest with harsher winds follows hard after,
Warns him to ripen well ere winter comes:
Drives forth the dust in the droughty season,
Wroth winds in the welkin wrestle with the sun,
The leaves launch from the linden and light on the ground,
And the grass turns to gray, that once grew green.
Then all ripens and rots that rose up at first,
And so the year moves on in yesterday’s many,
And winter once more, by the world’s law,
                                                            draws nigh.

This is the perspective of a man, Gawain, who also has a rendezvous with death. Yet though the imagery is grimmer, the vividness of the imagery testifies to how a season looks to us when we sense we are seeing it for the last time. We take notice of very falling leaf.

Here’s Keats’s poem:

To Autumn 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find 
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; 
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook 
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: 
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
   Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, 
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours. 

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? 
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— 
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; 
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft 
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft 
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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Brother Fire Ravages California

California wildfires


The poem I chose today to honor the victims of the California wildfires also provides insight into a perverse reason why some Americans are refusing to do anything about climate change. Some people take a certain delight in seeing everything burn down—at least if it is someone else’s house.

I know that this sounds like a strange explanation for climate denial, but there’s a lot of strangeness going on in American politics these days. Take, for instance, the fact that EPA head Scott Pruitt is aggressively rolling back Obama’s measures regulating carbon emissions at just the moment when we have been hit by both wildfires, exacerbated by an unusually hot summer, and a string of catastrophic hurricanes, exacerbated by warming Gulf waters. Pruitt has said that immediately following a hurricane is no time to talk about climate change, but apparently it is the right time to undo efforts to combat it.

But okay, maybe Pruitt is just a garden variety political hypocrite who is carrying water (or rather, coal and oil) for the fossil fuel industry. More disturbing are those who seem to delight in destruction. I’m thinking especially of those who revel in the chaos that Donald Trump is causing, or at least in how he is upsetting “establishment elites.” Among these, of course, is white nationalist Steve Bannon, who purportedly once described himself as a Lenin admirer:

[W]e had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.

Shocked, I asked him what he meant.

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

You get some of this from leftists like Susan Sarandon as well, as reported in CNN during last year’s election:

“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode,” Sarandon said, referring to the political “revolution” [Bernie] Sanders preaches about on the trail.

See if you can’t see some of this destructive impulse in Louis MacNeice’s “Brother Fire.” He is describing the London blitzkrieg, and although he is horrified (as one would expect), he also discovers within himself a certain delight:

Brother Fire

By Louis MacNeice

When our brother fire was having his dog’s day
Jumping the London streets with millions of tin cans
Clanking at this tail, we heard some shadow say,
“Give the dog a bone”–and so we gave him ours;
Night after night we watched him slaver and crunch away
The beams of human life, the tops of topless towers.

Which gluttony of his for us was Lenten fare
Who Mother-naked, suckled with sparks, were chill
Though dandled on a grill of sizzling air
Striped like a convict–black, yellow and red;
Thus were we weaned to knowledge of the Will
That wills the natural world but wills us dead.

O delicate walker, babbler, dialectician Fire,
O enemy and image of ourselves,
Did we not on those mornings after the All Clear,
When you were looting shops in elemental joy
And singing as you swarmed up city blocks and spire,
Echo your thought in ours? Destroy! Destroy!

In the first two stanzas, the speaker, like someone on a Lenten diet, watches horrified as the gluttonous fire devours London. This must what it must be like for California homeowners as they watch a “natural world [that] wills us dead.”

And yet, even in MacNeice’s horror, there is envy. To be “suckled with sparks” sounds enticing. “O enemy and image of ourselves,” the poet asks, “did we not…echo your thought in ours?” In other words, did not a part of us find ourselves rooting for you?

Is it a sign of decadence that we live in a country where many get a kick out of someone who comes in and kicks the hell out of long established norms and protocols, who every day has us wondering what outrageous thing he will say or do next? Looking back in time for a precedent, maybe that’s why Edwardian England, stable and prosperous, embarked upon World War I. Maybe powerful countries get bored and start upsetting apple carts just for the hell of it.

I myself am not such a person, which is why I sometimes consider myself a conservative in the old-fashioned sense. I was fine with “no drama Obama,” and I was looking forward to a dull but extremely competent Hillary Clinton in the White House. Many, however, appear to be opting instead for a made-for-television spectacle.

They are certainly getting one. Unless we take serious measures to counter climate change, the wildfires and hurricanes will be only the first year of a long running series. Perhaps we should call it, “Destroy! Destroy!”

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Literature’s Revolutionary Power

Fritz Eichenberg, illus. from  “Jane Eyre”


I’ve discovered a new concept, used by political scientists, that helps me better understand literature’s revolutionary potential. It’s called “unleashing.”

I read about unleashing in an Ezra Klein Vox article about Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, whose idea it is. Klein observes that unleashing has had both negative and positive effects: it has led to the resurgence of white nationalism but also to women standing up against sexual harassers like Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and, most recently, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Sunstein explains unleashing as follows:

Under the pressure of social norms, people sometimes falsify their preferences. They do not feel free to say or do as they wish. Once norms are weakened or revised, through private efforts or law, it becomes possible to discover preexisting preferences. Because those preferences existed but were concealed, large-scale movements are both possible and exceedingly difficult to predict; they are often startling.

Klein, noting that “we are living through an era of unleashing,” provides examples:

Over the past 24 hours, the New York Times published an explosive story detailing decades of sexual harassment by Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, and BuzzFeed published a blockbuster story detailing the way Breitbart built itself into a bridge between the white nationalist alt-right community and the Republican Party. Both of these stories, in their own ways, are examples of unleashing, and the way sudden expansions of what people are willing to say and do in public are rocking American society, for better and for worse. And that’s to say nothing of President Donald Trump: the unleasher-in-chief.

In my Theories of the Reader class, we’ve been exploring how exactly works influence people, and the theory of unleashing should prove helpful. The norms seem much less solid when a powerfully realized literary character violates them.

While one can name countless literary classics that have given aid and comfort to forbidden behaviors, my favorite example is always Jane Eyre. If conservative reviewer Elizabeth Rigby lashed out against the novel, it is because she could imagine it unleashing little girls to speak back to elders, orphans to murmur against their “benefactors,” governesses to aspire above their station, women to undercut men, and people generally to doubt the church. It doesn’t matter that the book concludes with Jane becoming a socially acceptable angel on the hearth. What matters is Bronte’s gripping images of girls and women standing up for themselves.

And indeed, over the following century and a quarter the book would be a lodestar for Victorian governesses organizing unions, suffragettes agitating for the vote, and second wave feminists calling for equality in the work place.

No wonder there has been such suspicion of fiction over the centuries, from Plato on. When authors tell a powerful story, there’s no telling what it will unleash.

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Las Vegas: Our Killers, Ourselves

Cover art for John Gardner’s “Grendel”


The Las Vegas shootings demonstrate once again a grim reality that Donald Trump, with his Muslim ban, refuses to acknowledge: Americans are more likely to be killed by “white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners” (Vox).  Projecting our fears onto monstrous foreigners when the real threat is closer to hand is a fact that Beowulf, my go-to poem for mass killings, understands very well.

Tom Friedman’s New York Times column last week vividly captures the disconnect:

If only Stephen Paddock had been a Muslim … If only he had shouted “Allahu akbar” before he opened fire on all those concertgoers in Las Vegas … If only he had been a member of ISIS … If only we had a picture of him posing with a Quran in one hand and his semiautomatic rifle in another …

If all of that had happened, no one would be telling us not to dishonor the victims and “politicize” Paddock’s mass murder by talking about preventive remedies.

No, no, no. Then we know what we’d be doing. We’d be scheduling immediate hearings in Congress about the worst domestic terrorism event since 9/11. Then Donald Trump would be tweeting every hour “I told you so,” as he does minutes after every terror attack in Europe, precisely to immediately politicize them.

Vox, meanwhile, provides specifics and statistics:

Here are just a few of the attacks that have occurred in 2017:

  • Sunday night, a 64-year-old white man from Nevada opened fire on a crowd of more than 22,000 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing more than 50 and wounding more than 200.
  • In August, a 20-year-old white Nazi sympathizer from Ohio sped his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a woman and injuring at least 19 others.
  • In June, a 66-year-old white man from Illinois shot at Republican Congress members during an early morning baseball practice, severely wounding several people including Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House of Representatives Majority Whip.
  • In March 2017, a 28-year-old white man from Baltimore traveled to New York City with the explicit aim of killing black men. He stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death and was charged with terrorism by New York state authorities.
  • In May, a 35-year-old white man from Oregon named Jeremy Joseph Christian began harassing Muslim teenagers on a train in Portland, telling them “We need Americans here!” Two men interceded; Christian then stabbed and killed them both.

In fact, between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists, according to a study by New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC.

When I teach Beowulf, I always tell my students to look for the familiar form that the monsters take. We may think the poem is about trolls and dragons, but it is really about warriors and kings.

In today’s post I go through almost every name mentioned in Beowulf and show how he or she is related to the poem’s focus on destructive anger. Although the poem may seem to digress, one can see its thematic unity once one surveys all of the characters.

The destructive anger that Beowulf explores has three different aspects, each of which threatens to plunge society into chaos. I’ve divided the characters associated with each anger into those that are part of the problem and those that attempt to solve it. Of course, Beowulf usually models the best solution although occasionally he is part of the problem as well.

Grendel – Murderous resentment

Grendel’s resentful rage is the rage that we see in many of our mass killers. See the links at the end of last week’s post on Las Vegas for the many times I’ve compared these killers to Grendel.

Part of the problem

Unferth is the warrior who first challenges Beowulf. Reported to have killed kinsmen, he fears that Beowulf will take away his privileged position at the feet of the king and insults him. To his credit, he later makes peace with Beowulf, giving him his sword.
–Hrothgar’s nephew Hrothulf is designated as regent to Hrothgar’s sons but, dissatisfied with that role, kills one and attempts to kill the other after Hrothgar dies. The infighting, which will tear apart the heretofore stable Danish kingdom, is symbolized by the destruction of the great hall of Heorot.
–Cain is Grendel’s ancestor. His anger over God preferring Abel’s gift, leading him to murder, makes him the archetype of resentful rage.
–Modthryth, the shrewish princess who visits death on any man who gazes at her, is the one character that doesn’t fit neatly into my framework. Perhaps she is a form of female resentment, taking out her frustrations against men as the contrasting figure of Queen Hygd (see below) does not. Modthryth cleans up her act after she marries the brave Offa.

Attempts at a solution

–Wealththeow, Hrothgar’s queen, who lobbies for Hrothulf when she fears that Hrothgar will disinherit their sons in favor of Beowulf, will pay for her decision when Hrothful, as regent, goes after those sons. Diplomacy is good but you can’t close your eyes to the real nature of the people you’re dealing with.
–Hygd, queen of the Geats, disperses treasure generously, thereby assuring that warriors will not become resentful.
–Hygelac, king of the Geats, is like his wife in his generosity and so deserves a place here. But he also shows up in the next section as one who participates in, and is killed by, a continuing blood feud.
–Time and again Beowulf refuses to become a resentful warrior. He gives the wealth won for killing Grendel to Hygelac (who, as a good king should, redistributes it back), and he turns down an offer of the throne when Hygelac dies (from Hygd), vowing instead to support next-in-the-line-of-succession  Heardred. The poem reassures us (if you are reassured by something that someone does not do) that Beowulf “never cut down a comrade who was drunk.”

Grendel’s Mother – Grief that lashes out (hot rage)

We have but to see how the United States responded to 9-11 with two wars, one still hot, to understand the destabilizing power of grief that is determined to make someone pay. In Beowulf’s time, hot grieving led to interminable blood feuds.

Part of the problem

–Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow involves the Danes in a possible blood feud by fleeing to Hrothgar after killing a man.
–Hengest fights to a draw in a battle with Finn but loses his brother Hnaef. Despite their truce, the thoughts of revenge that he stores up all winter prove too powerful and he rises up to slay Finn the following spring.
–Aeschere, Hrothgar’s best friend who is killed by Grendel’s mother, is the victim of the blood feud started by Beowulf killing Grendel.
–Geat King Hrethel starts a blood feud with the Swedes. His son Hygelac will kill the Swedish king Ongentheow. In turn, the Swedes, led by Onela will eventually kill Hygelac and then his son Heardred, leaving the throne to Beowulf—who will then send aid to one Eadgils, a friendless Swede, who overthrows and kills Onela.

Attempts at a solution

–Women are sometimes used to patch up quarrels, such as Hildeburh, who is married to Frisian Finn to bring peace between him and the Danes. It doesn’t work and she loses both her son (a Frisian) and her brother Hnaef (a Dane) in the subsequent fighting.
Freawaru is another of these doomed peace offerings, intended to patch up a quarrel between the Danes and the Heatho-Bards. Beowulf predicts that her marriage to Heatho-Bard king Ingeld will not solve the problem. (“A passionate hate will build up in Ingeld, and love for his bride will falter in him as the feud rankles.”)
–Onela is briefly mentioned as one who forgives Weohstan, an ancestor of Wiglaf, for killing his nephew Eanmund. Healthy though this forgiveness seems, it loses some of his luster once we learn that Onela wanted Eanmund dead.
–Beowulf is such a strong king that he is able to deter the Swedes and the Franks from continuing blood feuds against the Geats. Think of it as peace through strength. The solution is temporary, however: after Beowulf dies, his kinsman Wiglaf predicts that they will be overrun by one of these kingdoms, probably the Swedes, who haven’t forgotten Beowulf’s role in killing Swedish king Onela.

The Dragon – Grief that shuts down, depression (frozen rage)

Dragon depression is the coin side of Grendel’s Mother’s rage, the depression into which people retreat when they are grieving, whether over a friend or the disappointments of life. Like dragons, they hunker down and scale over. Poison runs in their veins.

Frozen rage turns into hot fire when they are prodded, and they can emerge from their caves and burn down everything around them. To reach out to such people means risking their flames.

Part of the problem

–Danish king Hrothgar is at risk of sinking into depression after Grendel’s mother kills Aeschere. Beowulf, a young foreign warrior, has to tell him, “Bear up and be the man I expect you to be.”
Heremod is a legendarily bad king who becomes bitter and avaricious as he grows old, so that he is a burden to his people. He may be the king that Hrothgar has in mind when he describes how “an element of overweening enters him and takes hold while the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses.”
The Last Veteran loses all of his friends and finally retreats into a funeral barrow with all his riches. That barrow is his heart, which is where the dragon will makes its home.
–Geat king Hrethel, in addition to his role in the blood feud with the Swedes that claims the lives of two sons and a grandson, retreats to his bed and dies of grief after a third son is accidentally killed by one of the others.
Beowulf is part of the problem. While he doesn’t hoard riches, as other kings do, one can see that he hoards fame, thereby disempowering his men. The dragon burns down his house, a sign that he has been consumed by dragon depression, and we see him summing up his life as one meaningless death after another. He also has been irresponsible in failing to insure a competent successor for the Geats. In this way, he is guilty of dragon-like self absorption.

Attempts at a solution

–Kings who put the good of their nation over their own personal disappointments, who don’t let the bitterness that can come with aging distract them, all fall into this category. These include the four kings responsible for Danish greatness: Shield Sheafson, Beow, Halfdane, and Hrothgar. As noted above, however, Hrothgar initially falls into depressed inactivity following the death of Aeschere.
Sigemund, a legendary king and “fence round his fighters,” is contrasted with Heremod, an archetype of a bad king (see above). Sigemund is described as a dragon slayer.
Offa, who marries Modthryth, is another exemplary king and gives birth to exemplary offspring, including Eomer.
Beowulf is also part of the solution. One can think of him as fighting the dragon within and, more significantly, of opening himself to the help of another—Wiglaf—in that battle. As a result, the king triumphs over the dragon.

To return to Thomas Friedman’s point, if Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had been a Muslim, many Americans would have seen him as a monstrous troll. Because he was a white man, however, he instead is an Unferth or a Hrothulf, someone we see around the work place.

“We have met the enemy,” Walt Kelly famously wrote, “and he is us.” Heroes listen to the needs of society, not to their own fears.

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Visit Puerto Rico with Wings of Healing

A Puerto Rican hill ravaged by the hurricane

Spiritual Sunday

 If you get a chance, check out “It’s Almost Like Praying,” the powerful Lin-Manuel Miranda song performed by Puerto Rican artists (and others) designed to uplift the spirits of the storm-ravaged island and to raise money for the relief effort. It brought tears to my eyes and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection Ode” to my mind.

That’s because the poem, which describes a storm, turns hopeful at the end, asking, “May this storm be but a mountain-birth.” Though the poem is about a lady loved by the unhappily married Coleridge, it speaks to all who have been through a hellish night but sense the prospect of a new dawn before them. Miranda too started with a love affair–that of Tony and Maria in West Side Story–and built his song from there. By the end, Maria the destructive storm has become the healing Santa Maria.

Miranda has discussed how the hurricane burdened the name with conflicting associations. He quickly got permission to use the Leonard Bernstein song “Maria” (“it’s almost like praying, Maria”) and wrote lyrics that listed all the different sections of Puerto Rico to let them know they hadn’t been forgotten. Then he gathered together noteworthy Puerto Rican and other Latino/a singers in a display of unity and support.

“Dejection” opens by quoting the tragic ballad of Sir Patrick Spence, who knows that his king has essentially ordered his death by sending him out into a storm:

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

Puerto Rico also knew that a deadly storm was forecast, and while Coleridge’s storm is far weaker, it captures some of the fierceness that the island experienced. The “lute” mentioned is a wind harp, a favorite instrument of the Romantic poets since they saw it as a metaphor for their own relationship with nature:

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, 
                Reality’s dark dream! 
I turn from you, and listen to the wind, 
         Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream 
Of agony by torture lengthened out 
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without, 
         Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree, 
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb, 
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home, 
         Methinks were fitter instruments for thee, 
Mad Lutanist! 

Coleridge makes a point that might comfort the people of Puerto Rico: our souls, not Nature, define us. I won’t go into how the poem is a response to Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality but only admire the image of our luminous soul shining forth to envelope the earth. This is of “higher worth” than what the “inanimate cold world” offers “the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd”:

O Lady! we receive but what we give, 
And in our life alone does Nature live: 
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud! 
         And would we aught behold, of higher worth, 
Than that inanimate cold world allowed 
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, 
         Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth 
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud 
                Enveloping the Earth— 
And from the soul itself must there be sent 
         A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth, 
Of all sweet sounds the life and element! 

In other words, if Nature, with its cycle of life and death, are to infused with sweet sounds, it is up to the “sweet and potent voice” of the human soul. From his earlier dejection, Coleridge has talked himself into a more peaceful state, and he wishes this state upon his lady friend. Let’s say that he is all of us worrying about Puerto Rico and wishing her peace:

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep: 
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep! 
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing, 
         And may this storm be but a mountain-birth, 
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling, 
         Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth! 
                With light heart may she rise, 
                Gay fancy, cheerful eyes, 
         Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice; 
To her may all things live, from pole to pole, 
Their life the eddying of her living soul! 
         O simple spirit, guided from above, 
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice, 
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.

It’s almost like praying.

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If Fielding Had Written about Trump

Henry Fielding


I’ve been combing through Henry Fielding works and have concluded that he would have had a field day with Donald Trump. Hang on to your hats.

One of my favorite Tom Jones quotations explains how villain Blifil succeeds as long as he does. Since Trump has gone further than anyone expected, it’s worth checking out Fielding’s explanation, which invokes the Faustus story:

I look upon the vulgar observation, ‘That the devil often deserts his friends, and leaves them in the lurch,’ to be a great abuse on that gentleman’s character. Perhaps he may sometimes desert those who are only his cup acquaintance; or who, at most, are but half his; but he generally stands by those who are thoroughly his servants, and helps them off in all extremities, till their bargain expires.

Not one of Trump’s opponents, either in the primaries or in the general election, went as far as he did. Having gone all in on lying, boasting, threatening, intimidating, stealing, suing, and possibly colluding with a foreign adversary—no mere cup acquaintance he–Trump continues to profit handsomely. There’s no telling when his devil’s bargain will expire.

In “Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” Fielding discusses how a good politician can “impose upon” his constituents to sacrifice their own interests to his own. By this measure, Trump is a superb politician:

[A]s it is impossible that any man endowed with rational faculties, and being in a state of freedom, should willingly agree, without some motive of love or friendship, absolutely to sacrifice his own interest to that of another; it becomes necessary to impose upon him, to persuade him, that his own good is designed, and that he will be a gainer by coming into those schemes, which are, in reality, calculated for his destruction. And this, if I mistake not, is the very essence of that excellent art, called the art of politics. 

We should therefore, Fielding tells us, regard politics as a vast masquerade:

Thus while the crafty and designing part of mankind, consulting only their own separate advantage, endeavor to maintain one constant imposition on others, the whole world becomes a vast masquerade, where the greatest part appear disguised under false visors and habits…

The rest of Fielding’s essay instructs people on how not to get conned by such types.

Fielding’s most extensive look at a Trump-like character occurs in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. Fielding claims that the work is about a notorious criminal, but it is really about Whig prime minister Robert Walpole, whom Fielding despised. The similarities between Wild/Walpole and Trump are unsettling. For instance, Fielding describes a boldness unhampered by honesty in carrying out cunning enterprises:

He was extremely ingenious in inventing designs, artful in contriving the means to accomplish his purposes, and resolute in executing them: for as the most exquisite cunning and most undaunted boldness qualified him for any undertaking, so was he not restrained by any of those weaknesses which disappoint the views of mean and vulgar souls, and which are comprehended in one general term of honesty, which is a corruption of HONOSTY, a word derived from what the Greeks call an ass.

The narrator notes that Wild/Walpole is also free of modesty and good-nature. Instead lust, ambition, and greed drive him:

He was entirely free from those low vices of modesty and good-nature, which, as he said, implied a total negation of human greatness, and were the only qualities which absolutely rendered a man incapable of making a considerable figure in the world. His lust was inferior only to his ambition; but, as for what simple people call love, he knew not what it was. His avarice was immense, but it was of the rapacious, not of the tenacious kind…

The narrator goes on to say that his “rapaciousness was indeed so violent” that he squeezes every penny, not only out of his victims, but out of his allies. Keep in mind that the Republican National Committee is currently paying the legal bills of Trump and Trump, Jr.:

Above all, Wild/Walpole values hypocrisy. Without it, he could not have accomplished so much or been the prig (rhymes with Whig, used to mean coxcomb) that he is:

The character which he most valued himself upon, and which he principally honored in others, was that of hypocrisy. His opinion was, that no one could carry priggism very far without it; for which reason, he said, there was little greatness to be expected in a man who acknowledged his vices, but always much to be hoped from him who professed great virtues.

The narrator then lists the rules by which Wild/Walpole operates. The following seem particularly applicable to our own president:

–To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
–Never to communicate more of an affair than was necessary to the person who was to execute it.
–To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
–To foment eternal jealousies in his gang, one of another.
–Never to reward any one equal to his merit; but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
–That all men were knaves or fools, and much the greater number a composition of both.
–That a good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring the owner any advantage.
–That many men were undone by not going deep enough in roguery; as in gaming any man may be a loser who doth not play the whole game.
–That men proclaim their own virtues, as shopkeepers expose their goods, in order to profit by them.

One other Trump-like resemblance comes to mind. In Fielding’s play The Historical Register for the Year 1736, a fiddler, once again a stand-in for Walpole, bribes his fellows so that they will dance to his tune. The author within the play explains what happens next.

Sir, every one of these patriots has a hole in his pocket, as Mr. Quidam, the fiddler, there knows; so that he intends to make them dance till all the money is fallen through, which he will pick up again, and so not lose one halfpenny by his generosity.

Time and again, the GOP has allowed itself to be bought off by Trump, only to find itself with empty pockets.

The history of Fielding’s play, however, carries a sobering lesson. It so upset Walpole that he enacted the Licensing Act of 1737, thereby blacklisting Fielding and effectively ending political commentary in the theater. Trump too dreams of having such power, as indicated by yesterday’s tweet that Senate’s investigatory committee should turn its attention to the media for reporting bad things about him,

The licensing act, though it wouldn’t be entirely repealed until 1968, failed to silence Fielding, who (fortunately for literature) turned to fiction. I suspect the American news media won’t back down either. Nevertheless, it’s worrisome to hear a president talk this way.

One other Walpole-Trump resemblance is worth mentioning. Like the prime minister, who was roasted by Pope and Swift as well as Fielding, our president is the unceasing target of the major comic writers of his day.

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Wordsworth and a Depressed Philosopher

John Stuart Mill


Julia alerted me to an interesting New York Times philosophy column by Adam Etinson that asks the question, “Is a life without struggle worth living.” The column reflects upon the career of utilitarian philospher John Stuart Mill and notes that William Wordsworth’s poetry helped pull him out of a philosophic cul-de-sac, along with an accompanying mental breakdown.

In my mind, the piece should have been entitled, “Is a life without poetry worth living.” Or perhaps, “Poetry makes life worthwhile.”

Mill was a follower of Jeremy Bentham, who believed that “all human action should aim to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The article observes that Mill

devoted much of his youthful energies to the advancement of this principle: by founding the Utilitarian Society (a fringe group of fewer than 10 members), publishing articles in popular reviews and editing Bentham’s laborious manuscripts.

Utilitarianism, Mill thought, called for various social reforms: improvements in gender relations, working wages, the greater protection of free speech and a substantial broadening of the British electorate (including women’s suffrage).

I remember reading Bentham and Mill in a sophomore ethics class at Carleton College and my soul freezing. I was all for their progressive agenda, but the algebraic way that Bentham went about determining the greatest good seemed to deprive life of color. I’ve been teaching Shelley’s Defence of Poetry this week, and he pretty much says the same thing about utilitarianism.

Mill’s mental breakdown therefore does not surprise me. Mill explains that his depression stemmed from his fear that, if a perfect society were ever achieved, he wouldn’t experience great happiness and joy. In other words, he sensed that his life-long goal wouldn’t result in the end that he wanted. We might say that he needn’t have worried—odds are we will never achieve a perfect society—but his doubts about his project plunged him into despair.

Mill says that he was saved by Wordsworth’s poetry:

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed… I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this…

In other words, it is not only material conditions that give our life joy and meaning. To be sure, it is important that we work to improve our physical and social conditions, but that’s not all there is to life. I imagine Mill being moved by such passages as this one from Tintern Abbey:

                                               And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit, that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things.

In Defence of Poetry, Shelley puts his finger on Mill’s malaise, saying that utilitarians are mere reasoners or mechanics, confining themselves to our animal and social needs. While they have an important role to play, they miss an important dimension of what it means to be human. For this, we must turn to poetry:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. 

William Blake makes a similar point when he attacks what he sees as the secular and sterile Enlightenment:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

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

Blake wasn’t against science and he certainly wasn’t against the social causes to which Mill devoted his life. We miss out on something essential, however, when we break reality down into component parts (the atoms of Democritus) and see the universe as an intricate machine, even a machine chugging towards justice and equality for all. No wonder a philosopher thinking that way would descend into depression.

Mill’s flattened view of life came about from imagining a world that authors of dystopias have also imagined in works such as Brave New World, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and The Giver. Missing from such worlds is beauty and higher spiritual purpose.

It appears that Mill found these in Wordsworth and was saved.

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Assertive Women Drive Lear, Trump Mad

William Holmes Sullivan, “King Lear”


Last week I wrote about Shakespeare’s use of the insult that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un hurled at Donald Trump. Today I turn once again to King Lear for another loaded term, this one hurled by Trump himself. The word is “ingrate.”

In his continuing battle with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who refused to tell him what a great job he is doing, Trump tweeted,

We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military. All buildings now inspected for safety.

This was a follow-up to a previous tweet storm, where he made clear who this “politically motivated ingrate” was:

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

Puerto Rico’s buildings have not, in fact, been inspected, and while FEMA and the U.S. military are indeed working hard, the rescue effort is still a mess, in large part because of the White House’s delayed response. But forget about the facts on the ground. As revealed again in his Puerto Rico remarks yesterday, Trump really wants everyone to tell him what a good job he is doing. The Washington Post had the story:

President Trump arrived in Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the territory struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria, which has left nearly all the island without power and most residents without water nearly two weeks later.

But Trump’s focus was on the “unbelievable” and “incredible” job that his administration has done so far. He repeatedly played down the destruction to the island, telling local officials they should feel “very proud” they ­haven’t lost hundreds of lives like in “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005. But he also complained that the small territory’s disaster threw the nation’s budget “a little out of whack.”


Soon after arriving, he turned what was supposed to be a private briefing on relief efforts into a televised pep talk, praising members of his administration and the military for their long hours responding to several hurricanes over the past 43 days. He uttered “great” 10 times and used “incredible” and “amazing” seven times each.

At one point, Trump asked the island’s representative to Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, to repeat some of the “nice things” she had said in televised interviews.

Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, commenting on “ingrate,” observed:

Next Trump will be quoting King Lear: “All the stor’d vengeances of heaven fall On her ingrateful top!” –Act 2, Scene 4, 134

Responding to another tweet, Kristol pointed out Trump’s image of himself as a ruler bestowing favors. Here’s Trump’s original tweet:

Because of #FakeNews my people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job. As seen here, they are ALL doing a GREAT JOB!

Of course, Trump is really saying, “I am not getting the credit I deserve.” Kristol replied,

“My people?” They are not your people. This is not a third-world personal dictatorship.

Kristol is smart to invoke King Lear, who is guilty of similar narcissism. Lear gives away his kingdom, not because he is generous, but because he wants his daughters to make extravagant avowals of love. Like Trump, he is desperate for their words, insincere though they are. He is a small, insecure man.

After the power transfer, he is horrified that they no longer suck up to him. His anger knows no bounds, and he accuses Goneril of ingratitude in the speech Kristol references:

She hath abated me of half my train;
Look’d black upon me; struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart:
All the stored vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top! Strike her young bones,
You taking airs, with lameness!

The attack sounds a lot like that directed against Cruz and against other women who have stood up to him, like Hillary Clinton, Megan Kelly, and Elizabeth Warren. Have they, like Goneril and Regan, sent him into genuine madness? The Lear parallels grow stronger every day.

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The NRA, Preying on Anxious White Men


Throughout the years, following a mass killing, I have often turned to works that capture evil at work in the world, most notably Beowulf and Paradise Lost. The links I have posted at the end of today’s essay are only too relevant to Sunday night’s mass killing in Las Vegas.

I want to turn today’s focus in a different direction. As a number of people have noted, the shooter who killed 59 and wounded 520+ did not act alone. He had an accomplice: the National Rifle Association.

I share today the angriest poem my genial father ever wrote, which takes the organization to task. I ran it seven years ago after the Tucson killings and it seems even more appropriate today, given the arsenal of assault weapons the killer managed to assemble.

Because of NRA pressure, states have criminally permissive gun laws. Here is what is allowed in Nevada:

Concealed weapon permits (CCW) are-shall issue and open carry is legal without a permit. Nevada does not ban ‘assault weapons’ and there is no magazine capacity limit. There are no purchase permits, gun registration, or gun-owner licensing. Blue cards are no longer required. There is no waiting period mandated for firearm purchases and private gun sales are okay. Local gun laws are prohibited. You do not have to “register” a gun to someone else.

Add to that the fact that Nevada’s Republicans were refusing to implement a background check law that voters endorsed last year.

In “Ballad of the National Rifle Association,” my father unloads on the gun group for the ways that it exploits white male anxieties. The poem was “triggered” by a gun ad in Gun World that guaranteed “shooting satisfaction.”

“Ballad” is a complex mixture of fantasies and fears, combining macho displays of supremacy, erotic dreams of manly sexual performance, and various emasculation fears. Stanza two is filled with power rape fantasies (“Whang her bang her get your action”).

At one point Bates imagines Hollywood scenarios of protecting virginal daughters while cleansing the world of urban “putrefaction.” In this drama, which one sees in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the virginal daughters are the longing for a lost innocence while putrefaction is the black Other that makes anxious whites feel small and fearful. Donald Trump, of course, plays on fears of threatening African Americans (for instance, his description of urban neighborhoods as “hell holes”), and, right on cue, after the Las Vegas shooting Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders mentioned Chicago violence as a reason not to enact gun control measures.

The poem’s deep dive into the psychology of gun fanatics also examines revenge fantasies against chaotic nature and against parents—which is to say, against the fathers who mock their sons’ sensitivity and the mothers whose sensitivity they both long for and hate (because it makes them feel vulnerable). “Pistol Pentheus” is Euripides’s uptight control freak in The Bacchae, who tries to assert his manhood and is torn apart by his Dionysus-crazed mother. There is also an Oedipal reference to shooting the castrating father before he shoots you and adds your “skin” to his collection.

The utopian vision of a new Jerusalem is a power fantasy designed to override anxieties: a militarized America is very good at “winging rockets,” whether at enemies or at the moon. (“It’s natural the boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” W. H. Auden wrote about the moon landing.) The poem was written in the 1990’s but is impressively prescient given how commonplace apocalyptic language has become among many Christian gun-toting enthusiasts.

My father writes the poem in a southern accent. Having spent most of his life in southern Tennessee, he saw up close how susceptible poor Appalachian whites were to NRA fear mongering. The poem appeared in his collection The ZYX of Political Sex (Highlander Research and Education Center, 1999) so expect the language to be explicit.

Incidentally, Lucille Thornburgh, to whom the poem is dedicated, was a longtime union activist.

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

In memory of Lucille Thornburgh, dedicated worker for social justice, who liked this poem.

“For your shooting satisfaction . . .”–from an ad in Gun World

Pistol small arm handgun gun
Trooper Trailsman Frontier Scout
Smith & Wesson Remington
Combat Cobra Knockabout
Browning Sheridan Colt Snap-Out
Single-six and Double-action
Give you shooting satisfaction.

Pistol short arm peter prick
Rod avenger redmeat dong
Johnnie joystick reamer dick
Dummy fixer hicky prong
Swinging sirloin two feet long
Have a similar attraction
Every boy can be King Kong
With a shooting satisfaction.

Pistol-heist her hunt her down
Line her up and ream her right
Ride her home get off your gun
Shag her shoot her up tonight
Jump her hump her out of sight
Whang her bang her get your action
Fill her full of dynamite
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Po-lice save your pity
For the dirty rotten hood
Gun him down in Inner City
Like they do in Hollywood
Save your daughter’s maidenhood

And pulverize the putrefaction
Trash him baby trash him good
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Pentheus git yer maw
Afore she tears you limb from limb
Beat yer pappy to the draw
And incidentally get him
The sonavabitch who wants yer skin
To add it to his rug collection
Blast yer pappy Jungle Jim
Fer yer shootin’ satisfaction.

Pistol Patriot shoot your wad
The world the moon your mouth your brother
Build Jerusalem by God
Winging rockets at each other
Love your country like a mother
Love your enemy dog-fashion
Love your neighbor till he smother
In your shooting satisfaction.


Pistol pirate cool tycoon
Do us all a benefaction
Go take a flying fuck at the moon
For our shooting satisfaction!

Previous Posts on Mass Killings

Manchester Suicide Bombing: Grendel Evil vs. Beowulf Strength of Mind

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

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

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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