Grieving for a Loved One

James Barry, “Lear and Cordelia”


I have been asked not to reveal his name, but someone I love very, very dearly has just been diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer, which has a 9% survival rate. I am still trying to absorb the news.  I think I’ve used the opening paragraph of “Sonny Blues” in the past to register shock, but here it is again:

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.

The paragraph captures my current feeling that we are all hurtling through a roaring darkness, swaying crazily with only momentary flashes of light to guide us. As I noted last week, inner and outer darkness is a continuing theme in Baldwin’s story, and the author offers no ready way to deal with it. Although the narrator feels his darkness lift in the story’s musically transcendent conclusion, he knows that the moment is but a moment:

And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

I heard the news a few hours after teaching King Lear, and suddenly the bleak passages in that most existential of Shakespeare’s plays felt personal. For instance, at one point Lear essentially laments, “Why me?” Life seems utterly absurd when we witness or undergo undeserved suffering:

I am a man more sinned against than sinning.

Watching my friend, I identified with Edgar when he encounters his blinded father stumbling on the heath. Edgar realizes that, as horrible as it all is, it may be the prelude to even worse horrors:

O gods! Who is’t can say ‘I am at the worst’?
I am worse than e’er I was.

And then:

And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

Gloucester, meanwhile, sums up my current feeling that we are the playthings of malevolent forces:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

And then there’s Kent’s despair as he witnesses a man howling in animal pain after having lost his daughter:

Is this the promised end?

Since my friend is one of the most stoic people I know, I wonder whether he will take refuge in the stoicism that Edgar at one point recommends to his father:

What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all.

In other words, we are not to give up until we drop from the tree. Until then we must endure.

But right now I am not feeling stoic, nor moved to offer such advice. I want, rather, to believe in what both Lear and Sonny’s brother discover: that there will be moments of transcendent beauty and love in this most desperate of situations. Despite all the darkness in Lear, for me the play is about the power of love, with Lear’s final few hours with Cordelia meaning more to him than all of his other years combined. If all we have left are a few years–or even months–I want my friend and those of us who love him to experience such moments.

Love is all we have to push back against the fact that we are but tiny blips in the endless flux of matter. Lear’s heart may break, but at least he has a heart to break. He is fortunate to rediscover it before it is too late.

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Corruption Starts at the Top

Oswald (Heffernan) is swayed by his boss in “King Lear”


Yesterday I taught King Lear in a University of Ljubljana Shakespeare class and noticed parallels with White House behavior. Observing Donald Trump’s corrupting influence on underlings and supporters, historian Robert Dallek talks of the fish rotting from the head, and we can see the process at work in the Lear and Gloucester households as well.

Dallek describes the problem as follows:

Like Nixon, Trump has created a culture in his administration in which people feel comfortable with corruption. Trump himself has shown a complete indifference to democratic norms, to rule of law, and that sends a pretty clear signal to the people beneath him.

A Center on American Progress article makes a similar point, noting,

The corruption is broader than just the President and his family. President Trump has assembled the wealthiest and least experienced Cabinet in recent memory. Unsurprisingly, the president’s senior leadership has taken cues from their boss: While arguing for devastating cuts to services that millions of Americans depend on, several Cabinet members have engaged in extravagant—and at times legally questionable—spending on themselves at the taxpayer’s expense. Public service requires a respect for and responsible stewardship of public resources. But, based on public information to date, the Cabinet has spent nearly $2 million on questionable flights and private office upgrades. For scale, these expenditures are more than 33 times what the average American family earned in 2016.

In King Lear, the rotten heads are Lear and Gloucester. The rot then seeps down to Goneril, Regan, and Edmund and, in Goneril’s case, to her servant Oswald. Think of the three children as Trump’s family and cabinet officials and of Oswald as those in the population at large who now feel empowered to let their racist and sexist flags fly.

Shakespeare’s play shows how the process operates. From the first we encounter Gloucester boasting about the adulterous escapade that gave birth to Edmund and then Lear putting his selfish desires above the good of his kingdom.  Their children take the hint. Declaring nature—which is to say, his individual desires—to be “my goddess,” Edmund flouts moral law and overthrows both brother and father. Goneril and Regan, meanwhile, reject their father and (in Goneril’s case) poison her sister to get what they desire.

Oswald interests me because I see in him those Trump supporters who suddenly feel they have license to openly insult people of color, abuse positions of authority (I think particularly of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials), and otherwise act as jerks. The rotting head has gotten to them.

Oswald is someone who has been deliberately instructed to insult others. Goneril has Oswald insult her father’s knights in order to initiate a quarrel with him:

And let his knights have colder looks among you;
What grows of it, no matter; advise your fellows so:
I would breed from hence occasions…

Oswald then takes his insults to the next level, disrespecting the king himself. When he deliberately ignores Lear, Lear calls him out:

Lear: O, you sir, you, come you hither, sir: who am I, sir?
Oswald: My lady’s father.
Lear: “My lady’s father!” my lord’s knave: you whoreson dog! you slave! you cur!
Oswald: I am none of these, my lord; I beseech your pardon.
Lear: Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?
Striking him

As a sycophantic follower looking out for himself, Oswald is the antithesis of Kent, who loyally follows the king even when it goes against his own self-interest. Kent does not hold back when expressing his contempt for the Oswalds of the world:

Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
Kent: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

The assessment may seem over the top, but we later learn that Oswald is only too ready to kill a blind man if he thinks it will profit him. At Regan’s behest, he prepares to slay Gloucester, not realizing that the “peasant” who accompanies him is actually Edgar, an accomplished fighter. As a result, he himself dies an “untimely death.”

King Lear shows what happens when those in authority violate norms, conventions, and basic morals. By the end of the play, the nation is in ruins.

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Theories about Lit’s Impact

Auguste Macke, “Blue Girl Reading”


Below is a transcript of the talk I delivered last night in Ljubljana that I promised the students.  I titled it “Unacknowledged Legislators: How Poets Change History.”

I present today a summation of my life’s work, which is to explore how literature changes the lives of readers. As you will see, many theorists have had strong opinions on this matter over the years, going all the way back to Plato, and this will of necessity be a quick tour.

For the second part of the talk, I will describe how you can examine your own responses to literature to determine how works have impacted you. While you may not see yourself as participating in history when you read a book, literature is always read/watched/listened to one book or one poem or one play at a time. When Plato worries that Homer will turn young Greek men into cowards with his frightening underworld scene or corrupt them with Odysseus’s enjoyment of feasting, he is imagining people like you listening to a skilled recite The Odyssey. When Percy Shelley asserts that poets helped end slavery and liberate women, he sees the process beginning when someone picks up a book and starts reading.

In short, I begin by summarizing the centuries-long conversation about how poets have changed history and then move to how you, yourself, are part of this changing history.

What do I mean by poetry? Over the ages, people have defined poets and poetry in many different ways, with Shelley even calling Sir Francis Bacon a poet. I will limit myself to what has traditionally been considered literature, which is to say poems, plays, and fiction. What has fascinated and threatened audiences from the beginning is literature’s power to pull one out of one world and into another, so I focus on that aspect.

The title of my talk comes from Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which makes one of the most sweeping and audacious claims for poetry ever:

Poets are the hierophants [interpreters of sacred mysteries, maybe prophets] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Note that, as Shelley sees it, poets don’t set out to change the world. They just write their works. If they are truly in touch with the spirit of the age, however–if they apprehend at some deep level humanity’s potential–then they can help bring about a better future.

Here’s my quick overview of the history of the conversation:

Plato wanted to keep poets out of his ideal republic because he thought that they would arouse passions that would disrupt his philosophers’ paradise. As one point, in The Ion, he compares inspired poets to maddened followers of Dionysus. One can’t expect from such people the reasoned discourse he sees as essential to his utopian society.

Although Aristotle doesn’t agree with Plato about literature’s negative effects, he does agree that people imitate what they encounter in literature and that this imitation has a powerful impact. Aristotle states, “Man is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.”

Rather than fearing that audiences will imitate the bad behavior of literary characters, however, Aristotle believes that they will gain a special insight into truth. Indeed, the penetrating truth provided by literature goes deeper than, say, the truth we get from philosophy or history.

In other words, rather than seeing Homer as a corrupter of youth, Aristotle believes he has a special handle on reality. Artistotle argues that poetry grasps truths that a purely factual approach misses. For instance, a statesman could learn a lot from reading The Iliad—say, on the advantages of keeping . your best warrior happy and not attacking people you depend on.

The difference between Plato and Aristotle here is one that we encounter regularly in our own censorship battles. Plato’s successors fear that young people reading, say, Catcher in the Rye will behave like Holden Caulfield, perhaps using bad language, disrespecting authority, running away from school, and employing the services of a prostitute. Aristotle’s successors, by contrast, might argue that adolescents will gain new insight into themselves as they interact with Holden, finding a language and a narrative for their confusion, their fears, and their longings. Platonists fear that such stories will ruin people for the world whereas Aristotelians figure stories help people better negotiate that world.

Put another way, Aristotle trusts audiences more than Plato does.

Predictably, subsequent theorists agree more with Aristotle than Plato. They love literature and want to believe that what literature does is good.

The Roman thinker Horace, for instance, says that the best literature both delights and instructs It’s as though, when there’s something we need to know to become better people, literature is the best way to get it. It’s like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

Sir Philip Sidney, who liked Horace’s idea, got even more specific about the good that literature can do for us.  Poetry’s primary function, he believed, is to promote virtue, and each poetic form helps us become virtuous in a different way. Therefore, to cite a couple of examples, heroic poetry helps us become better warriors while comedy and satire make us ashamed of our faults, prodding us to do better through laughter and shame. I should mention that Sidney was the ultimate Renaissance man—a warrior, a poet, a courtier, a lover—so when he says that poetry helps us become better people, who are we to argue?

Note that, when Aristotle, Horace, and Sidney talk about literature making us better people, they mean making us into gentlemen and ladies of the time. Sidney, for instance, believed that literature would make people into better Elizabethan courtiers.

Percy Shelley, writing in revolutionary times, expanded the options. He believed that great literatures touches the arc of history, which bends towards justice, and therefore pushes against the forces that hold us back. Literature wants us to grow into our full potential.

This is even true of literature written in unfree times. If poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” it is because they grasp our essence as human beings. They sense what we are capable of and sow seeds that grow to fruition, albeit sometimes centuries later. For instance, the respect accorded to women in 12th century chivalric romances and by Dante to Beatrice set in motion developments that would lead to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

 If Sidney believes that literature makes us virtuous, Shelley believes that it makes us free.

Aristotle’s heirs didn’t have the literary stage all to themselves, however. A number of theorists thought that literature could actually be bad for you. Conservative Samuel Johnson, for instance, thought that novels like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones would turn young people into licentious rakes. Johnson seems to be following Plato’s line of reasoning here.

Johnson hated social disruption and wouldn’t have agreed with Bertolt Brecht that art should be a hammer to change society rather than a mirror to reflect it. Brecht was in favor of literature that causes us to question class oppression, and he criticized literature that reinforced existing class society. Some of the works that we consider great he would regard as reactionary.

And what about literature that makes us feel that blacks are inferior to whites? When we read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe argued, we see Africans as a howling mob. Achebe therefore saw literature as good only if it gave black characters full personhood. As he saw it, bad characterizations perpetuated racism. The great African American thinker W. E. B. DuBois thought the same way.

What about literature that tells women their place is in the home? Feminist Rachel Blau du Plessis argues that women writers in the 19th century were trapped by the marriage plot and so helped to perpetuate women’s second-class status. She even criticizes novels like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre for that reason. She wants women to write narratives desiring personal growth rather than marriage to a man, the quest plot rather than the marriage plot.

Do you see what happened with these activists? The ancient writers assumed that there was only one set of values and that the literature they loved should uphold these values. Shelley, on the other hand, believed that literature could overthrow traditional values and usher in a new society. Figures in the various human rights movements are Shelley’s heirs.

To be sure, not all progressives demand that literature follow a progressive agenda. Karl Marx famously said that he learned more about capitalism from the reactionary author Honoré de Balzac than he did from economists. Frederick Engels chided an author for writing a novel that read like propaganda rather than literature. They believed that literature’s first obligation is to truth, not to politics. But since they believed that history moves in a progressive direction (albeit in dialectical fashion), they could afford to believe that truth and freedom are on the same side. Later Marxists like Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson have argued the same.

Turning from liberals and radicals to conservatives, British poet and critic Matthew Arnold believed that literature civilizes us. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by cultural barbarians—Arnold called them philistines—and so argued that literature would keep this from happening. Since he was particularly worried about the working class, he believed that literature should be taught to workers. As Terry Eagleton later described his program, throw the workers a few books and they won’t throw up any barricades.

A line of conservative educators has grown out of Matthew Arnold’s ideas. When American English Departments went through the culture wars in the late 1980’s, conservatives quoting Arnold called for “Jane Austen, not Alice Walker,” Walker being the author of the Color Purple and a radical black feminist.

For all their differences, however, the thinkers I’ve mentioned agree that literature changes lives. Some believed that it changes lives for the better, some for the worse, but they all pay it respect.

Because many of my students become English teachers so that they can change the lives of future generations, I’ve identified three different sets of ideals at play. Conservative teachers, like Arnold, use literature to affirm traditional values and uphold existing class, gender, ethnic, and other norms. Liberal teachers, like University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum and theorist Wayne Booth, use literature to instill humanist values and foster responsible citizens within the existing system. Radical teachers, tracing their thinking back to Shelley and Brecht, want to change the system altogether and see literature as a means to fight against inequality and in favor of social justice. All committed teachers may see it as their mission to use literature to produce good citizens and good people, but their criteria for “good” varies.

Now, of course, there are people who see literature as irrelevant to their lives and will wonder what these centuries-old fights are about. Perhaps you know Slovenians who don’t see the point of literature, much less fighting about it. But as some of Slovenia is seeing in the recent attacks against novelist Jiri Bezlaj, literature continues to stir people up.

I want to mention one last issue before I shift to the second part of my talk. Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno examined what Slovenians call “trivialna literatura.” While on the one hand they believed, with Shelley and Marx, that great literature supports human progress, on the other they saw popular literature as an opiate of the masses, distracting workers from the real struggle. Some feminists make the same argument about romance literature, fearing that it prompts women to focus on finding Mr. Right rather than developing themselves.

Other feminist scholars, however, argue that even bad romance literature will often contain a struggle for female dignity and female agency. Otherwise women wouldn’t read it.


In the second part of the talk, I described the reading histories that I have assigned students and what has emerged. What I said can be found, stated more succinctly, in the following posts:

What Personal Reading Histories Tell Us

Literature That Caused a Commotion

An Afghan Vet’s Green Knight Encounter

Jane Eyre Still Challenges Us

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A Moving Foster Home Story

Andrei Zadorine, “Mother and Son”


Today I recount a remarkable story I have encountered during my visit to Slovenia. A recent radio drama by Polona Ramsak, the foster mother of a Slovenian exchange student who lived with me last semester, moved listeners with its “raw” account of their relationship. Polona and Jonathan invited me to their home in Celje over the weekend.

Incidentally, Julia and I set up the exchange program in the memory of our oldest son. We bring Slovenian English majors to St. Mary’s College for one semester and sends St. Mary’s MAT students to Slovenia for student teaching. To make the program affordable, we have the Slovenian students stay with us.

Jonathan told me last semester about how, when he was 14, Slovenian social services came to his school and informed him that he would be placed in a foster home because of his mother’s serious mental difficulties. Although he had been abused, he took the news badly, so much so that he asked his favorite teacher whether he could live with her. Although she was a single woman with no children, Polona instantly said yes.

The doubts showed up later, and these she recorded in a journal. When asked to participate in a radio interview about foster situations, she shared the journal and, on the basis of that, was urged to compose a radio drama. Recently she was asked to translate it and submit it it to international competitions. I read the translation this past weekend in one breathless sitting.

Readers have described the drama as raw because Polona straightforwardly describes her feelings of inadequacy.  She wonders what makes her qualified to become the sudden mother of a teenager. Much of the drama contrasts what she’s thinking and what is being said, as in the following:

Polona (voiceover): He is terribly sweet and very obedient, he never talks back, he is satisfied with everything. But every time he holds me, I can’t help but ask myself if he is actually hugging his mother, not me. I have been in a situation before when I hugged one person and thought about another.

 Jan: In many ways you are a better mum to me than my real mum.

 Polona (voiceover): I wanted to ask him in which ways I was worse. But I didn’t. Of course not. You are not supposed to ask things like this.

Another powerful moment occurs when she is interviewed by a psychologist to determine whether she will be a satisfactory foster mother. Because of her insecurities, she worries about giving the wrong answers:

Polona (voiceover): Yesterday I had to take a psychological test. It was awful. A woman who had never seen me before set her mind to professionally find out if I was suitable to take Jan, to let him stay with me. I was terrified. What if she finds out I’m bad for him? What then? She asked me the most annoying things.

Psychologist: What drew you to Jan in the first place?

Polona (voiceover): That he was so very different from other children.

Polona: I can’t remember.

Psychologist: How do you two solve arguments?

Polona (voiceover): I hug him.

Poona: We talk it through.

Psychologist: Why did he choose you among all the school faculty?

Polona (voiceover): Because I was the only one who felt his horrendous sadness and let him close.

Polona: I don’t really know.

Psychologist: Describe a conflict that you two had and describe how you solved it.

Polona: He got terribly drunk and I almost died of sadness.

Polona: We haven’t really had a serious conflict yet.

Psychologist: Which words of affection do you use with him? Specify them.

Polona (voiceover): I will never ever leave you, as long as you need me. I love you to the moon and back.

Polona: I am very proud of you because you are such a good boy.

Polona (voiceover): How do you tell someone who is sitting on the other side of the desk, staring at you, waiting for you to slip, how do you tell them that you are not important anymore? That the only thing that is important is the child. It’s only important that he will be prepared for life, that he will know how to make himself happy, that he will have faith in himself, that he will love himself, that he won’t succumb.

Psychologist: What are you going to do in case you notice his father’s schizophrenia in him? [Jan’s father, an artist, committed suicide shortly after he was born.]

Polona: Nothing.

Psychologist: What do you mean, nothing?

Polona: Would you ask me the same question if he was my biological child?

Psychologist: Well, there is a difference…

Polona: No, there isn’t. Not for me.

The play grips us because, while we want everything to work out, real difficulties must be surmounted at first. Jan pulls into himself and Polona initially has difficulty establishing and maintaining ground rules. At one point, after a drinking episode with friends, she almost sends him away. There are moments of despair and hopelessness as well as moment of joy.

I can testify that, six years after they began living together, they have come to love and trust each other. Jonathan turned down an extension to the exchange program because he had to return to Polona. It helps that both are voracious readers, which gives them a deep understanding of how human beings work, and that both have a sense of humor. One doesn’t develop a deep relationship without a struggle, however, and the radio drama does full justice to the difficulties.

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Act in All Things as Love Will Prompt

Franz Dietrich, “Oedipus and Antigone”

Spiritual Sunday

Perhaps it is because we are in Lent, but the lectures I am giving in Ljubljana all lead back to suffering and transcendence. This has been true of my Flannery O’Connor and James Baldwin lectures (here and here), and currently I am exploring my friend Mladen Dolar’s idea that Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus works as a sequel to King Lear,

In “Sonny’s Blues,” I see Sonny as a Christ figure, taking upon himself the world’s suffering and offering us a road to transcendence. Note, first of all, how the agony he goes through echoes Jesus’s struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane:

He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

But because Sonny undertakes the challenge, he offers us a vision of freedom:

I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. 

After I gave the lecture, one student, dissatisfied with the story’s ending, asked whether it wasn’t possible that Sonny would return to drugs. I agreed this could happen and that indeed (as the story notes) the jazz performance “was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.” Yet perhaps this is what Jesus means by the kingdom of God: transcendent moments where we break through the darkness and experience the divine face to face.

That is O’Connor’s vision in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” She “would of been a good woman. if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” because in her encounter with a serial killer she experiences a selfless love. In her death we see her having achieved peace, with

her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

The alternative is The Misfit’s mental box, symbolically captured by his description of life in a prison cell:

“Turn to the right, it was a wall,” The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. “Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain’t recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come.”

Imagine King Lear’s life had Cordelia offered up an empty declarations of love rather than insisting on the real thing. Lear would have partied with his knights in the King of France’s father-in-law apartment and died the same self-absorbed man that he had lived. Instead, through love, he rose to a transcendent state, his suffering of no account.The few hours that he spends with Cordelia are worth more than his entire life. Contrast his prison experience to The Misfit’s:

Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

At the end of Colonus, Oedipus emerges after years of wandering blind in the wilderness to offer up a message of love to daughters Antigone and Ismene:

My children, from this day
You have no father. All is passed away
That once was mine or me, and all the sore
Toils of my tendance shall be yours no more;
Hard toils, I know well; yet one word there is
That maketh light your heaviest services.
Love I have given you, such as none beside
Could give.

He delivers the same message in his final moments:

Deep silence fell; then on the silence brake
A great voice calling. All our hearts did shake
With fear and our hair stiffened, for all round
Like many divine voices, rose that sound:
“Ho Thou! Thou Oedipus! Why do we stay
Our goings? All too long is thy delay.”
He heard, and, hearing, knew God’s summons clear.
Straightway he called that Theseus be brought near,
And when he came, “O friend,” he cried, “in troth
Give me thy right hand—man’s most ancient oath—
Clasp it, my daughters!—never to forsake
These twain but act in all things for their sake
As love will prompt.”

Sophocles wrote Colonus when he was 90 years old. He had seen Athens at its height and also on the verge of its final catastrophe. “Love” was the message he left us with.

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Atwood: Flawed Activist, Genius Author


Yesterday I delivered a trifecta of lectures at the University of Ljubljana—the busiest day of my visit—and I have today off, which I will spend visiting with friends and dining with the English department. Today’s post summarizes the third of those lectures: “Margaret Atwood’s Ambiguous Relationship with Feminism.”

I’ve always been struck by Atwood’s rocky relationship with feminism given that some of her novels, particularly Handmaid’s Tale, have played important roles in the movement. Indeed, few literary works have had more of an impact, as demonstrated by the way that activists will routinely don the red robes and white bonnets of the handmaid to protest anti-woman policies.

Yet Atwood has always been reluctant to call herself a feminist, and more recently she has offended certain activists for her cautions about the #MeToo movement and her critique of the process that fired accused sexual harasser Steve Galloway from his post at the University of British Columbia’s prestigious creative writing program.

As I see it, literary authors and political activists have different agendas, which sometimes clash. Activists try to effect change in the world while authors try to do justice to the full complexity of the world. To change policy or influence people, activists may simplify the issues, focusing on broad outlines rather than teasing out nuance. Authors make their home in nuance.

One can see this in the way that Atwood talks about why she resists the feminist label:

We have to realise it’s become one of those general terms that can mean a whole bunch of different things,” Atwood replied. “So I usually say, ‘Tell me what you mean by that word and then we can talk.

“If people can’t tell me what they mean, then they don’t really have an idea in their heads of what they’re talking about. So do we mean equal legal rights? 

“Do we mean women are better than men? Do we mean all men should be pushed off a cliff? What do we mean? Because that word has meant all of those different things,” says author.

“So, if we mean, should women as citizens have equal rights, I’m all for it and a number of advances have been made in my lifetime regarding property rights and divorce and custody of children and all of those things,” Atwood said. “But do we mean, are women always right? Give me a break! I’m sorry, but no! Theresa May is a woman, for heaven’s sakes!”

Vox notes Atwood’s reservations about the #MeToo movement:

Atwood fears the worst: “In times of extremes, extremists win,” she writes. “Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.” If the #MeToo movement is not properly channeled, she suggests, it will end in a system of kangaroo courts and excommunications.

Atwood is not above criticism just because she is a great author. In fact, we should distinguish between her novels and her political pronouncements. I agree with some of the criticisms of Atwood mentioned by Grady:

For many of those active in the #MeToo movement, Atwood’s argument felt like a betrayal. She seemed to be trashing a movement for hypothetical crimes it might perhaps commit in the future while ignoring what it was doing in the present — and in the same piece, she failed to engage in good faith with the criticism against her for her support of UBC Accountable.

Atwood’s comments appear different, however, if they are seen as an author laying out the conditions she needs for fictional creation. Sir Philip Sidney famously writes, “the Poet, he nothing affirms,” and Percy Shelley cautions against authors weighing in on current issues, observing,

A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.

While Atwood is not embodying her comments in her poetical creations but in an editorial, that just emphasizes Shelley’s point. Her political work is not the same as her creative work, and, while brilliant as a novelist, she is a flawed activist. Indeed, we could predict that this would be the case.

Some of Atwood’s critics haven’t been content to attack her political pronouncements but have gone after her novels as well. I’m thinking particularly of an article in The Root, referred to me by reader Lauren Davis, which accuses The Handmaid’s Tale of appropriating images of black suffering for a white woman’s drama.

Just as authors may come up short as activists, however, activists come up short as literary critics when they view works as political tracts. In her fiction, Atwood is not focused on furthering a cause. She wants to capture the truth of humans’ experience in the world. Now, activists can take advantage of the truths that Atwood reveals so that their politics rest on a firm foundation. But when they do so, they are engaged in a different process than poetical creation.

In yesterday’s talk I surveyed several of Atwood novels to show some of the truths that she offers up.

Edible Woman, which came out at the height of the sexual revolution in 1969, grappled with issues that women were only beginning to think about. Women were breaking with past traditions, and young women could relate to how Marian has her own job, an on-going sexual relationship with a man to whom she is not married, and no particular desire to get married. They could also relate to the forces that tear her apart.

Although Marian sees herself as a thoroughly modern woman, she still feels pressured become a wife. Perhaps she could better resist that pressure if she had a clearer sense of who she is or what she wants. But that’s the whole issue: questions of identity are necessarily confused, especially at turning points in history, and the 1970s were a turning point.

Marian’s fiancé experiences a man’s version of this drama: while he doesn’t particularly want to get married, he feels that he must do so to be taken seriously. Both Peter and Marian are trapped, and only when Marian presents him with an unforgettable symbol—a cake of herself that she invites him to eat—do their plans for marriage end.

Note that Marian hasn’t made Peter a villain nor Marian a shining hero. They are two people trying to figure out a confusing world.

In novel after novel Atwood does versions of this drama. In Surfacing, for instance, the major character learns that she must dive into her past to locate the source of her unhappiness. This points to how some feminists would morph as the 1970’s progressed, turning from external political work to internal spiritual exploration.

In Lady Oracle (1976), Atwood  anticipated those 1980s feminist scholars who would examine how popular women’s fiction influenced female identity. The major character, who writes popular gothic novels to sort through her mixed feelings about relationships, finds herself increasingly identifying with her female villains and concludes by subverting the genre.

The Handmaid’s Tale, written during a period of backlash against feminist advances and the rise of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, seems the most polemical of Atwood’s novels and therefore the one that lends itself most to political agendas. Yet even this novel, as Atwood has pointed out, features men who are victims and women who participate in the oppression of other women.

Cat’s Eye (1988), coming after Handmaid’s Tale, shocked some feminists for its depiction of female bullies. For anyone who wants to uncritically sentimentalize or celebrate women, the narrator has this to say:

Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.

And this:

I’m a fool, to confuse this with goodness. I am not good.
I know too much to be good. I know myself.
I know myself to be vengeful, greedy, secretive and sly.

For women fighting Reagan-era sexism or the Iranian Ayatollah’s policies, such observations may not seem helpful. They capture female complexity, however.

This same deep dive into the darker side of women continues on in Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin (2000). In Robber Bride, it takes a nasty woman, Zenia, to shake the three female protagonists out of their doormat relationship with men and stand up for themselves. In Alias Grace, we discover that the major character can be reduced to neither an angel in the house nor a cold-blooded murderess. The world may have agendas in seeing women as one way or another, but their complexity always defies easy labeling.

When Atwood speaks out as an activist, she isn’t any better than other activists. In fact, because she is defending the conditions of her novel writing, she has a different agenda and therefore is less effective. A #MeToo activist would be slowed down by Atwood’s cautions, and a novelist would be stifled by #MeToo’s generalizing. Atwood has been given a political platform as a “feminist novelist,” but she’s not the best person to have up there.

To really see Atwood’s feminism at work, check out my student who is currently writing her senior project on the author. Ashley says that Atwood saved her life, and when I look at the powerful exploration that the author triggered through Edible Woman, Surfacing and Robber Bride, I can testify that this is no exaggeration. Atwood’s diagnosis of women’s insecurities–the forces that women must fight against–has given Ashley a framework for understanding certain things that have happened to her, certain decisions she has made, and the destructive patterns that she is determined to break.

These complex interactions between reader and novel go deeper than the sometimes arid political discussions that Atwood and her detractors sometimes engage in.

One further thought: The difference between Atwood’s novels and political debates over her feminism remind me of the contrast set forth in e. e. cummings’s “O sweet spontaneous”:

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched


thou answerest

them only with


Not that art is either sweet or spontaneous. Still, you get the point that art operates in a different register than philosophic–or political–discourse.

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“Sonny’s Blues,” Transcendent Moments

Romare Bearden, “Out Chorus”


I am lecturing at the University of Ljubljana today on James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which ranks among my favorite short stories. I will be lecturing for an American Ethnic Literature class, which takes me back to 1987-88, when I taught just such a class (including this story) in the same building as a Fulbright lecturer. Perhaps I will teach in the same classroom.

I’m focusing on “The Blues as African-American Resistance,” which means that I will focus on how music wars with entrapment and darkness. The blues appear to be engaging in a rearguard action as Baldwin explores art’s liberating potential.

The story begins with news of Sonny’s imprisonment for a heroine-related crime. The narrator, his older brother, is a high school algebra teacher who thinks that one advances by will power and hard work. Baldwin makes clear he has much to learn.

Throughout the story, we hear Harlem described as a trap from which one never entirely escapes:

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea…[H]ouses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It’s always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches. 

The narrator talks about the darkness without and the darkness within. One can do only so much about the darkness without, especially if one is African American. When the uncle of the narrator and Sonny is mowed down by white boys messing around, the two darknesses become one and the same. As the mother reports,

Your Daddy was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter. He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away. 

Sonny describes his heroine-world as a dark cage in which he is locked:

I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink, and I thought I’d die if I couldn’t get away from it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking me in with it. 

Another image of entrapment, this one particularly painful, is the narrator’s two-year-old daughter trapped in a polio-stricken body:

[Isabel] heard Grace fall down in the living room. When you have a lot of children you don’t always start running when one of them falls, unless they start screaming or something. And, this time, Gracie was quiet. Yet, Isabel says that when she heard that thump and then that silence, something happened to her to make her afraid. And she ran to the living room and there was little Grace on the floor, all twisted up, and the reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangling sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound.

The scream represents our need, within the depth of our pain, for some kind of expression. The story, then, is how to turn that scream into music. This is the meaning of Sonny’s blues.

Only after his daughter dies does the narrator reach out to his imprisoned younger brother. Locked in his own suffering, he finally understands what Sonny endures. At the end of the story, he learns that Sonny has a special gift for those who suffer.

Throughout the story, we see people converting their suffering into music. For instance, at one point we watch a group of Christian street musicians performing:

“‘Tis the old ship of Zion,” they sang, and the sister with the tambourine kept a steady, jangling beat, “it has rescued many a thousand!” Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them. Neither did they especially believe in the holiness of the three sisters and the brother, they knew too much about them, knew where they lived, and how. The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister. As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last. 

Looking down on the performing musicians, Sonny remarks,

All that hatred down there, all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.

When the narrator finally hears his brother perform, he learns that one can escape, if only for a moment, from the darknesses:

I seemed to hear with what burning he had made [the music] his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. 

The narrator finds himself reliving his parents’ suffering, his wife’s suffering, and his own:

Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Sonny is a Christ figure who takes the world’s suffering upon his shoulders, and the story ends with a fabulous image from the Book of Isaiah. The narrator orders Sonny a scotch and milk, and as he plays it sits above him on the piano, glowing and shaking “like the very cup of trembling.” This is the cup of suffering that God promises he will remove from the people of Israel.

For at least a moment, the cup has been lifted.

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My Dinner with Mladen

Adolf von Becker, “Two Finnish Pilots”


I write this post after having returned from a dinner with my old Slovenian friend Mladen Dolar, who I got to know when first visiting Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) in 1987 and have stayed friends with ever since. Since we hadn’t seen each other for ten years or so, we talked for seven hours, the last three hours in a restaurant featuring traditional Slovenian cuisine. Although trained as a philosopher, Mladen regularly teaches literature, so we did a version of Yeats’s conversation in “Adam’s Curse”:

We sat together at one summer’s end, 
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,   
And you and I, and talked of poetry. 

For instance, Mladen described the course he taught recently about Modernism to University of Chicago graduate students in the German department. The course focused on Kafka, Freud, and Samuel Beckett. Mladen sees Kafka representing the beginning of modernism and Beckett the end and believes that Beckett is more complex than people think.

Mladen describing his course grew out of a discussion we had been having about American politics. With each of the past three Republican presidents, he said (excluding H.W. Bush), we thought that things couldn’t get any worse, and in each case they did. I responded with Edgar’s quotation in King Lear upon encountering his recently blinded father: “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.” Mladen replied that he had just taught Beckett’s Worstward Ho, which draws its title from the line.

At another point in the evening, Mladen told me a fascinating story about his father’s run-in with an old Stalinist in the early 1950’s, a few years after Tito had broken with the Soviet Union. Mladen’s father was heading the theater in Maribor and had somehow gotten away with staging works by the French existentialists Camus and Sartre. So far, so good. He got into trouble, however, when he staged a play by 18th century French playwright Marivaux, who the French had rediscovered. Suddenly Dolar was challenged about why the workers should pay for a play written during the ancien regime. Uninterested in fighting such a fight, especially with a man who had been imprisoned horribly by Tito, Dolar left the theater for the national library.

While the attacks on his father’s artistic choices were unfortunate, Mladen and I both agreed that there is something positive about people finding a work so powerful that they feel the need to ban it. At least they take such works seriously. Mladen, who has written important books on “the voice” and on opera, is fascinated by those instances when riots have broken out over dramatic moments in music history, as they did when Stravinsky introduced Rite of Spring and Schoenberg the 12-tone scale. Regular readers of this blog know that I light up whenever I encounter such moments in literary history.

This led to a conversation about Plato banning poets from his ideal republic. Since I am writing about this in my current book project, I jumped at the chance to query an actual philosopher on my reading of Plato. Did Plato really believe, for instance, that Hesiod’s account of quarreling gods and Homer’s description of the underworld (also of Odysseus feasting) would corrupt young men?

Mladen agreed that Plato’s attacks on Greek myths and Homer are startling but noted that, unlike the reasonable Aristotle, Plato periodically tries out over-the top-ideas. For all of Plato’s suspicion of passion, Mladen said that deep passions often drive his work.

I said this makes a lot of sense when one looks at his interactions with Homer. Plato’s Socrates may decry the influence of Homer, but he himself knows Homer so intimately that he can quote long passages. I was reminded of Wayne Booth’s observation that, to truly understand a work, we must surrender to it—but that once we do, we are vulnerable to whatever influence it can wield. What if Plato is suspicious of Homer because, when engaging with Iliad or Odyssey, he feels himself not in control

Mladen detected a certain “panic” in Plato, and that struck me as right, especially when I think of how, in Ion, Plato compares people caught up in artistic inspiration to mad Dionysian revelers. The word panic stems from the great god Pan, the Roman version of Dionysus. Mladen noted that Plato prefers the sedate lyre of Apollo to the maddening pan pipes of Dionysus.

I shared my own observation that, throughout the ages, literature’s power to immerse us in its world has both enthralled and frightened people. Christian parents might not attack Harry Potter were young people less passionate about it.

At another point, we talked about Shakespeare’s problem plays, and Mladen alerted me to Peter Gross’s Shylock, which looks at how Merchant of Venice has been staged through the ages, including by German Nazis. This after I described a staging of the play that made me sick to my stomach (but in a good way) over the mob hounding of Shylock.

And then we talked about important work that Mladen is doing on Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, which he convincingly said works as a sequel to King Lear.

 And so we talked on into the evening. Of course, we had to bring each other up to date on our families and our careers. But the deep dive into ideas is lifeblood to intellectuals, and I realized how starved I have been for a kindred soul with whom to have such a talk.

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Tearful at Prospero’s Farewell

William James Linton, “Prospero”


I didn’t see it coming. I was reading aloud Prospero’s final speech to my British Fantasy class when suddenly I broke down in tears. As I struggled to gather myself, I realized that I was seeing Prospero through the lens of my own approaching retirement. I explained the response to my class and told them how much I would miss them.

Many scholars read The Tempest as Shakespeare announcing his retirement. Prospero looks back over his life, admits faults (he sees some of himself in Caliban) and forgives his enemies. Meanwhile, he has set up a peaceful future in which the next generation, Ferdinand and Miranda, will replace nefarious plots and usurpations with good governance. He himself will get out of their way, vowing to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.”

The “rough magic” that gave him his powers he will now “abjure.” He promises that he will break his staff and “drown” his magic books.

Here’s the passage that caused me to break down:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own…

Which is to say, he is asking the audience to no longer see him as a magician but as a simple man. Knowing that he has made mistakes, he asks his audience to be indulgent and forgive him, sending him on his way with one final round of applause. Speaking now as Shakespeare, he makes himself entirely vulnerable to those who he has dazzled with his artistry:

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want [lack]
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

I find wonderful the idea of asking the community for permission to retire. One shouldn’t just walk away as others are impacted by the decision. There needs to be a ceremonious leave-taking.

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Trouble Recovering My French

Joshua Reynolds, “Self-Portrait as a Deaf Man”


I’m fighting fierce jet lag in Paris at the moment so only have energy for a brief post. I’m speaking French for the first time since 1995, and while the language is coming back, the process is occurring slower than I would like. Every hour, however, I remember a few more words. For instance, at 4:30 yesterday afternoon I couldn’t remember the French word for sidewalk and and hour later I did (“trottoir”).

To describe the experience, I’ve turned to a Lucille Clifton poem, albeit I’m taking it out of context. In “i am accused of tending to the past,” Clifton describes how “History” is learning the pasts of oppressed peoples. I’m using the poem to  give me confidence that I will recover my French and, with it, my confidence. Here are the lines that I’m currently leaning on:

she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.  

No need for people to beware in my case. They’ll just be glad that they can understand what I’m trying to say.

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Sorrow, Tears, Emptiness Are Necessary

Possibly John Bertels in Rembrandt circle, “Old Man in Prayer”

Spiritual Sunday

Here’s a wondrous Rob Suarez poem for Lent, which I post from Paris. It gives us a positive way to look at suffering, heartbreak, and depression.

But for Sorrow

By Rob Suarez

I might never have asked
      what could be

      but for sorrow.

I might never have opened
to the terrible
vulnerability of love

      but for tears.

I might never have begun
this treacherous path to

      but for emptiness.

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Time Flows On, Paris Remains

Mirabeau Bridge in Paris


Today I arrive in Paris for a wedding and then will journey to Ljubljana to deliver a series of lectures. I have deep associations with Paris, having spent time here as a baby (1952-53), as a child (1955 and 1962), as a young teenager (1964-65), as a college student (1971), as a graduate student (1977), and as a father (1995). This time it will be as a professor about to retire.

In the Apollinaire poem that I share today, a man recalls a past love and refuses to move on, even as time and the Seine do. I wonder it will be the same with me and my Paris past. Will I feel that I have been left behind?

I certainly have wonderful memories. Like a youthful Wordworth bounding through the hills near Tintern Abbey, I bounded through Paris as a 13-year-old when my family spent a sabbatical year there. I attended a French school and, four times a day, walked under the Eiffel Tower to get there and back. Two of my younger brothers and I went everywhere together—we had the metro system memorized, attended a movie every weekend (including silent classics unavailable in the United States at the time), collected Roman soldiers and barbarian warriors, plowed through the children’s collection at the American Library, watched French television (including a dubbed version of Monsieur Ed, the talking horse), and learned magic tricks. It was the best year of my childhood.

Paris was magical in another way when I was there as a college sophomore in the spring of 1971 studying the student-worker uprising of 1968. I remember the vibrancy of the Latin Quarter and how, periodically, students would march through chanting slogans, only to be quickly followed by riot police and canisters of tear gas. I was there to study history and was thrilled that history was happening all around me.

In 1977 I visited Paris as a recently married graduate student so Paris became associated with young love. Julia and I, erotically aroused by Rodin’s sculptures and Gustave Moreau’s “Leda and the Swan” paintings, threw away her diaphragm and conceived Justin.

In 1995, trying to recreate the Paris of my childhood for my three children, I took them to a film. We wanted to see Casablanca but it was sold out (!), so instead we watched Bogart and Bacall’s To Have or Have Not, which was even better because I hadn’t seen it before. We also reveled in the Stravinsky Fountain by the modern art museum, which has the surrealist sensibility of a child. I could glimpse my childhood love of Paris in my kids.

The poetry of Apollinaire is another way to remember the past since my French professor father, the occasion for my childhood Paris trips, was a world authority on the poet. I recently described how I agonized over throwing away all of his Apollinaire research notes when preparing to move into his study. I may be a version of the poem’s ever-flowing river. but going back will bring back memories of him.

Will I be disappointed at the contrast between the Paris in my mind and present-day Paris? An old Kingston Trio song warns me of what I might encounter:

An old man returns to Paris
As every old man must
He finds the winter winds blow cold
His dreams have turned to dust.

Really grim, right? Yet I can take comfort from “Mirabeau Bridge.” Though night comes on and bells end the day, Apollinaire assures me that beautiful memories remain. “Still I stay.”

Besides, this wedding will occur on one of the “bateaux mouches” that ply their way up and down the Seine. Rather than standing separate from the ever-flowing river, we’ll dance along with it. As Andrew Marvell would observe, “though we cannot make the sun stand still/Yet we can make him run.”

We’re sure to pass under the Mirabeau Bridge. Nothing dusty about that.

Mirabeau Bridge

By Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Richard Wilbur

Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
          Must I recall
     Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

Hands joined and face to face let’s stay just so
          While underneath
     The bridge of our arms shall go
Weary of endless looks the river’s flow

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

All love goes by as water to the sea
          All love goes by
     How slow life seems to me
How violent the hope of love can be

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken
          Neither time past
     Nor love comes back again
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine

Let night come on bells end the day
The days go by me still I stay

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Facebook Didn’t Know Its Own Strength

Malkovich, Fenn in “Of Mice and Men”


What John Steinbeck character does Facebook remind you of? By the above picture, you may have arrived at the answer I have in mind, but the question still remains why.

According to Wired, an employee made the comparison after Facebook was weaponized by Trump and hijacked by the Russians in the 2016 election:

For the first time, insiders really began to question whether they had too much power. One employee told WIRED that, watching Zuckerberg, he was reminded of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the farm-worker with no understanding of his own strength.

Wired provides a detailed account of how the Trump campaign and the Russians used Facebook to spread fake stories. While many thought that Hillary Clinton had the more sophisticated network operation, they didn’t count on the Trump’s use of existing social media:

Over the course of the summer, Trump’s team turned the platform into one of its primary vehicles for fund-­raising. The campaign uploaded its voter files—the names, addresses, voting history, and any other information it had on potential voters—to Facebook. Then, using a tool called Look­alike Audiences, Facebook identified the broad characteristics of, say, people who had signed up for Trump newsletters or bought Trump hats. That allowed the campaign to send ads to people with similar traits. Trump would post simple messages like “This election is being rigged by the media pushing false and unsubstantiated charges, and outright lies, in order to elect Crooked Hillary!” that got hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, and shares. The money rolled in. Clinton’s wonkier messages, meanwhile, resonated less on the platform. Inside Facebook, almost everyone on the executive team wanted Clinton to win; but they knew that Trump was using the platform better. If he was the candidate for Facebook, she was the candidate for LinkedIn.

“By the end of the campaign,” Wired’s authors point out, “the top fake stories on the platform were generating more engagement than the top real ones.”

Now to Lennie. In the following scene, feel free to think of Curley’s wife as Hillary:

She struggled violently under his hands. Her feet battered on the hay and she writhed to be free; and from under Lennie’s hand came a muffled screaming. Lennie began to cry with fright. “Oh! Please don’t do none of that,” he begged. “George gonna say I done a bad thing. He ain’t gonna let me tend no rabbits.” He moved his hand a little and her hoarse cry came out. Then Lennie grew angry. “Now don’t,” he said. “I don’t want you to yell. You gonna get me in trouble jus’ like George says you will. Now don’t you do that.” And she continued to struggle, and her eyes were wild with terror. He shook her then, and he was angry with her. “Don’t you go yellin’,” he said, and he shook her; and her body flopped like a fish. And then she was still, for Lennie had broken her neck.

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg may not be as clueless as Lennie, but for the longest time he couldn’t face up to reality, at one point saying,

The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea.

Fortunately, Zuckerberg now acknowledges his strength and wants to clean up the mess. Unlike George, he will not shoot Lennie for his own good—he still wants Facebook to build “a global community”—but he wants to “knock out false news and clickbait.” To that end, he is searching for ways to monitor posted articles. Wired observes,

Of course it’s a platform, and always will be. But the company also realizes now that it bears some of the responsibilities that a publisher does: for the care of its readers, and for the care of the truth. You can’t make the world more open and connected if you’re breaking it apart. So what is it: publisher or platform? Facebook seems to have finally recognized that it is quite clearly both.

Are better days ahead? Here’s George’s assuring Lennie of a beautiful future:

Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place.

I’m willing to believe that Zuckerberg wants what is best for the country. Like George, however, he has some very hard choices ahead of him. Some of the killing would include ad revenue.

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What Would Lord Jim Do?

Peter O’Toole as Lord Jim and the ship he abandoned


Exam question: How would Donald Trump respond if confronted with an actual school shooting? To answer, refer to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Jim imagining himself in a crisis:

 On the lower deck in the babel of two hundred voices he would forget himself, and beforehand live in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies on the high seas, and in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men—always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book.

 Trump imagining himself in a crisis (after calling the Douglas Stoneman officer on duty a coward for not intervening):

I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon…

Jim when he thinks his ship is sinking and the captain, already having abandoned the ship and its 800 Muslim pilgrims, urges him to join him in the lifeboat:

“It had come over pitch dark. You could see neither sky nor sea. I heard the boat alongside go bump, bump, and not another sound down there for a while, but the ship under me was full of talking noises. Suddenly the skipper howled ‘Mein Gott! The squall! The squall! Shove off!’ With the first hiss of rain, and the first gust of wind, they screamed, ‘Jump, George! We’ll catch you! Jump!’ The ship began a slow plunge; the rain swept over her like a broken sea; my cap flew off my head; my breath was driven back into my throat. I heard as if I had been on the top of a tower another wild screech, ‘Geo-o-o-orge! Oh, jump!’ She was going down, down, head first under me….”

‘He raised his hand deliberately to his face, and made picking motions with his fingers as though he had been bothered with cobwebs, and afterwards he looked into the open palm for quite half a second before he blurted out—

‘“I had jumped . . .” He checked himself, averted his gaze. . . . “It seems,” he added.

 Trump when confronted with an actual crisis:


Extra credit: After the pilgrims are rescued by another ship, Jim is shunned by society and carries the guilt with him for the rest of his life. How would Trump respond?


Additional thought: Our first prayers must go out to the victims, their families, and the student and teacher survivors. After that, however, we should pray for the officer who did not rush in. As narrator Marlow notes more than once in Conrad’s novel, we none of us know how we would respond to a catastrophe.

America is in a bad way if relying on heroes is the only way to save people from mass shootings. The NRA’s solution of “a good guy with a gun” is a fantasy deriving from contemporary versions of Jim’s “light literature.”

Related post: 

Mass Killings, Our Most Dangerous Game

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On Labeling Survivors as “Crisis Actors”

Stoneman Douglas survivors at a CNN town hall


We once believed, before the Sandy Hook shootings, that rightwing indecency had its limits. Even the most cynical of us never imagined that anyone would accuse grieving parents of being “crisis actors.” Yet this has now become the go-to formula whenever friends and relatives of mass shooting victims complain about the proliferation of guns. Someone throws out an inflammatory charge, it gets disseminated through certain outlets, and suddenly the rightwing echo chamber is overflowing with the sound, as the students of Stoneman Douglas High School have been discovering this past week.

If you want a memorable image for this infernal feedback loop, Haruki Murakami provides one in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

 First, here’s Think Progress describing how fringe ideas make their way into the mainstream:

From afar, these repeated cries of “crisis actor” might seem like an absurd fringe conspiracy, but they actually serve a wider purpose in enabling the far-right to sow disinformation and plant seeds of doubt that are later picked up by more mainstream right-wing news outlets.

What’s especially worrying is that it’s proven to be an incredibly effective technique, as a November study by researchers at the University of Alabama, Cyprus University of Technology, University College London, and Telefonica Research discovered. The researchers found that there was a direct path from rumors that originated on 4chan, The_Donald subreddit, and other right-wing echo chambers to mainstream news and social media sites, and concluded that “‘fringe’ communities often succeed in spreading alternative news to mainstream social networks and the greater Web.”

An example of this percolation could be seen on Fox News’ The Five Tuesday, when Greg Gutfeld suggested students protesting in the wake of the Parkland tragedy had been “co-opted.” It was a toned-down version of the Gateway Pundit’s smear, which suggested that student David Hogg was a FBI puppet and that students were being used as “marionettes by the far left and deep state.”

The process propels other ridiculous stories as well, from Obama’s Kenyon birth to Hillary Clinton’s pizza parlor sex ring to massive Democratic voter fraud that cost Trump the popular vote to the FBI being in the tank for Clinton. The charges never end, and they become so woven into GOP lore, feeding on themselves, that CPAC becomes worse every year. This past weekend attendees barely batted an eye—in fact they often cheered–when NRA head Wayne LaPierre hinted at armed rebellion, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch claimed that the media loves mass killings for the ratings, and French neo-fascist Marion LePen proclaimed solidarity with Trump and Putin.

In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami has a villain that I have compared to Trump, an empty but effective political figure who feeds on people’s insecurities. Protagonist Toru Okada, his brother-in-law, confronts him at one point with “the story of the monkeys of the shitty island.” Think of the island as the GOP ecosystem:

“Somewhere, far, far away, there’s a shitty island. An island without a name. An island not worth giving a name. A shitty island with a shitty shape. On this shitty island grow palm trees that also have shitty shapes. And the palm trees produce coconuts that give off a shitty smell. Shitty monkeys live in the trees, and they love to eat those shitty-smelling coconuts, after which they shit the world’s foulest shit. The shit falls on the ground and builds up shitty mounds, making the shitty palm trees that grow on them even shittier. It’s an endless cycle.”

 In Murakami’s novel, the villain can be defeated only if people first do a deep inner dive to figure out how they lost their way. Then they must courageously stand up for what is right, as Toru and Kumiko stand up for their marriage. Republicans who want to save their party should take note.

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Snakes, Ladders, and National Disunity

Snakes and Ladders


When I was teaching Midnight’s Children recently, I challenged my students to set Salman’s Rushdie’s characters in the United States. Although post-colonial India is, of course, nothing like America, the author provides a useful framework for understanding some of our political mysteries, including our vertigo-inducing shift from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Rushdie has insights into how societies normalize authoritarian behavior and (I say this thinking of the Parkland, Florida activists) points to the hopeful future that reality-hardened young people can help bring about.

Midnight’s Children imagines that the children born between midnight and one on India’s independence day (August 15, 1947) have special powers. Saleem Sinai, the book’s narrator, can telepathically link all the other children, which he proceeds to do when they all reach ten.

Some background on India is useful. To function as a nation, India must juggle over 2000 ethnicities and 22 different languages. When Great Britain ruled the country, it provided an illusory unity, if only by giving Indians a common enemy. (As Saleem writes of his grandfather, he started off as a Kashmiri but became Indian after a British massacre.) Once the English departed, however, the country immediately split into India and Pakistan, and it has periodically experienced language riots, attacks on others ethnicities by Hindu militants (Hindus comprise 80% of the population, Muslims 14%), and other internal difficulties.

Saleem dreams that, by talking to each other (through him), the midnight children will be able to create a loose federalism that will save the nation. He believes this mission has been given to him by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharial Nehru, who writes him a letter upon his birth:

Dear Baby Saleem,

My belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.

Saleem inherits his multicultural vision from his grandfather Aadam Aziz, who once dreamed of keeping Pakistan and India together. Inspired by a charismatic federalist advocate known as “the Hummingbird,” Aziz catches what Saleem calls “the optimism disease”—a disease because it naively relies on the better angels of our nature. Islamic fundamentalists soon put an end to the disease by assassinating Hummingbird.

Saleem’s vision has affinities with Obama’s “not red states or blue states but the United States” (itself a version of “e pluribus unum” that is foundational to our nation). Saleem quickly discovers the same problems that Obama did:

Children, however magical, are not immune to their parents; and as the prejudices and world-views of adults began to take over their minds, I found children from Maharashtra loathing Gujaratis, and fair-skinned northerners reviling Dravidian ‘blackies’; there were religious rivalries; and class entered our councils. The rich children turned up their noses at being in such lowly company; Brahmins began to feel uneasy at permitting even their thoughts to touch the thoughts of untouchables; while, among the low-born, the pressures of poverty and Communism were becoming evident… and, on top of all this, there were clashes of personality, and the hundred squalling rows which are unavoidable in a parliament composed entirely of half-grown brats.

In this way the Midnight Children’s Conference fulfilled the prophecy of the Prime Minister and became, in truth, a mirror of the nation

One child resists the Midnight’s Children Conference from the first, and he is important to understand in the contrast that I draw between Obama and Trump. Shiva, like Saleem, is born on the stroke of midnight, and, through a set of circumstances, is switched at birth with him. So Shiva, who should grow up in wealthy Islamic family, instead is raised in an impoverished Hindu one, and vice versa for Saleem. Rushdie plays with the mix-up throughout the novel, essentially seeing Shiva and Saleem as two sides of India. Saleem is the dream of a generous, multicultural nation, Shiva of an angry and divided one. Here’s Shiva pooh-poohing Saleem’s vision in one of their nightly conferences:

‘Brothers, sisters!’ I broadcast, with a mental voice as uncontrollable as its physical counterpart, ‘Do not let this happen! Do not permit the endless duality of masses-and-classes, capital-and-labour, them-and-us to come between us! We,’ I cried passionately, ‘must be a third principle, we must be the force which drives between the horns of the dilemma; for only by being other, by being new, can we fulfil the promise of our birth!’… But I could hear, behind my anxious broadcast, the amused laughter of my greatest rival; and there was Shiva in all our heads, saying scornfully, ‘No, little rich boy; there is no third principle; there is only money-and-poverty, and have-and-lack, and right-and-left; there is only me-against-the-world! The world is not ideas, rich boy; the world is no place for dreamers or their dreams; the world, little Snotnose, is things. Things and their makers rule the world…

Shiva will go on to dismiss Saleem’s idealism as “mush, like overcooked rice. Sentimental as a grandmother.”

America has learned these truths about itself over the past 10 years. We are both a country that welcomes the diversity of immigrants and a parochial one that lashes out against people not like ourselves. Saleem/Shiva represents the duality that we see in Obama/Trump.

Shiva, named for the Hindu god of destruction (also of creation but hold that thought for a moment), goes on to become a terrifying military figure who ultimately rounds up the midnight children and deprives them of their special powers, thereby ending Saleem’s federalist dream. Shiva works for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose authoritarian seizure of power in 1976 spelled the end (in Rushdie’s mind) of India’s hopes. Rushdie uses Gandhi’s program of sterilization (8.3 million people were sterilized, most of them unwillingly) as a metaphor for the death of a hope.

The horror of Gandhi’s “emergency measures” become quickly normalized, an unsettling indication of how a nation can accept the once unthinkable. When Saleem returns to a reconstituted magicians’ ghetto after Shiva has broken it up and sterilized its members, he discovers that people can’t remember how they used to be:

[I]t rapidly became clear that the magicians, too, were losing their memories. Somewhere in the many moves of the peripatetic slum, they had mislaid their powers of retention, so that now they had become incapable of judgment, having forgotten everything to which they could compare anything that happened. Even the Emergency was rapidly being consigned to the oblivion of the past, and the magicians concentrated upon the present with the monomania of snails. Nor did they notice that they had changed; they had forgotten that they had ever been otherwise, Communism had seeped out of them and been gulped down by the thirsty, lizard-quick earth; they were beginning to forget their skills in the confusion of hunger, disease, thirst and police harassment which constituted (as usual) the present.

And yet, somehow, Saleem’s federalist vision survives and in ways from which Trump-discouraged Americans can draw hope. Although Saleem is sterilized, he has a son (actually he’s Shiva’s son but raised by Saleem in another one of the novel’s reversals), and young Aadam represents new possibility. Think of him as one of the Parkland, Florida teens:

I understood once again that Aadam was a member of a second generation of magical children who would grow up far tougher than the first, not looking for their fate in prophecy or the stars, but forging it in the implacable furnaces of their wills. Looking into the eyes of the child who was simultaneously not-my-son and also more my heir than any child of my flesh could have been, I found in his empty, limpid pupils a second mirror of humility, which showed me that, from now on, mine would be as peripheral a role as that of any redundant oldster: the traditional function, perhaps, of reminiscer, of teller-of-tales… I wondered if all over the country the bastard sons of Shiva were exerting similar tyrannies upon hapless adults, and envisaged for the second time that tribe of fearsomely potent kiddies, growing waiting listening, rehearsing the moment when the world would become their plaything.

Shiva, in spite of himself, has fathered young people throughout the land (Aadam is not the only one) who may save India from Ghandi’s authoritarian rule. Perhaps Trump, also in spite of himself, has given rise to the young people who will finally bring about sensible gun control, universal healthcare, protections against sexual harassment, and other progressive developments.

This would be in a line with a game that Saleem loves as a child called “Snakes and Ladders.” The game captures reversals of fortune, both in the novel and in our politics, and to it Saleem adds one crucial dimension: sometimes a snake can function as a ladder and a ladder as a snake:

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega…[B]ut I found, very early in my life, that the game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity–because, as events are about to show, it is also possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake…

Right now, Trump strikes many of us as a snake. In Saleem’s world, however, snakes don’t always get the last laugh.

Additional note: In a recent post I reported on Rusdie’s Golden House, which my book discussion group read. Rushdie brings his novelist’s eye to the 2016 American election. My group agreed that the book doesn’t really work, however. The explosive imagination that gave us Saleem and Shiva is missing and we don’t learn much we didn’t already know.

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Flannery O’Connor on Lenten Despair

Spiritual Sunday

Next week I will travel to the University of Ljubljana to deliver a series of lectures as part of a professor exchange program that a former Slovenian student of mine (now a faculty member) set up. I will discuss Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in an American short story class, and as O’Connor is always good for Lenten meditation, I use today’s post to sort through some of what I will say.

Although O’Connor was Catholic, she was raised in the midst of America’s southern Bible Belt (Georgia), and many of her God-obsessed characters are Christian evangelicals, with all the focus on hellfire and damnation that we expect from them. I can’t do a deep dive into the relationship between her Catholicism and her community’s Calvinism, but she appears to use fundamentalist beliefs to accentuate spiritual desolation and Catholicism to remind us that, when we recognize our pride and repent, we will find God. That is what occurs in “Good Man.”

The prideful character is the grandmother, a manipulative woman who behaves as a child. O’Connor does not find children to be innocent, and the two older grandchildren are rude and nasty, Jone Star (7) and John Wesley (8) reminding us that kids aren’t Wordsworthian shepherd boys and “best philosophers.” Nevertheless, the grandmother’s behavior is less excusable as she is old enough to know better.

When she fails to have her way on a family trip to Florida, she manages to screw things up, first getting the family lost and then precipitating a car crash. An escaped serial killer (“The Misfit”) witnesses the accident, and the grandmother’s final mistake is to admit that she recognizes him from wanted posters. This seals her doom and that of her family.

The rural Georgia landscape gives off the aura of a spiritual wasteland or Jesus’s desert:

They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day’s journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.

This desolation is mirrored in The Misfit’s vision of an absurd world filled with meaningless suffering. The Misfit identifies with Jesus since he himself (or so he says) has been unjustly imprisoned:

“It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”

If there is no final arbiter of good and bad, then every action is pretty much the same:

I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.

An actual resurrection changes the moral calculus, however. If love did indeed triumph over death and the grave, then nothing makes sense other than casting aside one’s nets and following Jesus. The possibility of God undermines the Misfit’s confidence that what he is doing makes no difference, which is why Jesus “thown everything off balance”:

Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

Throughout the discussion, the grandmother has been trotting out religious platitudes that lack conviction. She may never in her life have wrestled with the dark night of the soul or regarded Christianity as more than empty convention and a way to feel superior to others:

“Pray, pray,” the grandmother began, “pray, pray . . .”
“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
“That’s when you should have started to pray,” she said.

By the end, it is the grandmother, under the force of the Misfit’s words and the murder of her family, who enters the realm of doubt, and she commits Peter’s betrayal:

“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

The Misfit, meanwhile, agonizes over his uncertainty and wants solid proof:

“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.”

As Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor would say, he is one of those who require miracles if they are to believe.

The story’s turning point occurs at this moment. For perhaps the first time in her life, the grandmother steps out of her narcissist’s cocoon and responds with genuine compassion to the Misfit’s existential misery. The subsequent action happens in a flash, a sign of just how small a crack it takes for God’s grace to enter in. We see the grandmother’s version of Jesus forgiving His tormentors from the cross:

His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

His tear-befogged glasses show that he too has had the opportunity, in this moment, to experience grace. But because love is so painful, he recoils as though bitten by a snake. The grandmother pays for having penetrated his defenses.

He has enough insight, however, to understand that she has found salvation. She has experienced God’s love and dies with a child’s innocent smile on her face, her vision for the first time unclouded:

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. “Take her off and thow her where you thown the others,” he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Her moment of grace, meanwhile, has thrown his own life choices into doubt. Whereas before he talked about “no pleasure but meanness,” now he realizes that he is doomed to walk forever in a hell he has created for himself:

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Lent is a time to acknowledge and grapple with our doubts. This is not a season for Sunday school platitudes.

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Mass Killings, Our Most Dangerous Game

McCrae, Banks in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932)


In the wake of the Parkland, Florida shootings, one word in particular stood out. One survivor declared to NRA fan Marco Rubio that “guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week,” and the father of a dead child emphasized that his daughter had not been shot so much as “hunted.” Former John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt used the same disturbing verb on MSNBC but extended it to high school kids around the country: “They feel hunted.” The word brought to mind Richard Connell’s well-known short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924).

I thought of the story again when Donald Trump fantasized the following day about armed teachers taking out killers with concealed handguns.  Since he’s no reader, Trump may not have read “Dangerous Game,” but he’s certainly seen many of the hunted-turned-hunter movies that Connell’s influential story has inspired.

In case you missed it, here’s what Trump had to say while meeting with survivors, parents and others in the White House:

“If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said, stating that schools could arm up to 20% of their teachers to stop “maniacs” who may try and attack them.

“This would be obviously only for people who were very adept at handling a gun, and it would be, it’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone,” Trump said. “Gun-free zone to a maniac — because they’re all cowards — a gun-free zone is ‘let’s go in and let’s attack because bullets aren’t coming back at us.'”

Among the many, many problems with this scenario—Lawrence O’Donnell finds all the holes in what he calls Trump’s “fantasy war game”–the president doesn’t acknowledge that handguns would be pitted against AK-47s. This is pretty much the situation in “Dangerous Game.”

Big game hunter Rainsford is (improbably) washed ashore on the island of the Russian Count Zarroff, who has become tired of hunting animals and now only hunts human beings. He gives Rainsford a knife, a few hours head start, and three days to stay alive. In addition to rifles and a brutish attendant, the count also has a pack of dogs.

So much for giving the prey a sporting chance!

The story conveys the panic of being hunted with lines such as “It was flight now, a desperate, hopeless flight, that carried him on for some hours.” Nevertheless, being a man who has fought in World War I and also hunted large predators—in other words, not a teacher—Rainsford outfoxes the Russian, leaping off a cliff into the sea (so that Zaroff thinks he has died) and then swimming back to the count’s estate to finish him off.

Somehow Rainsford does this without being detected by Zaroff’s pack of hounds but, hey, that’s only a minor plot hiccup, one that the reader is willing to let slide. More important is Rainsford enacting Trump’s NRA fantasy of a good man with a gun (knife in this case) taking out a bad man with a gun.

There was a time when governing parties didn’t turn to action adventure fiction to address the nation’s problems. I never thought we’d see as hopeful the maxim that candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose—hopeful because we can only wish we had a president interested in governing. Instead, Trump sees all of life as drama and is no more interested in fixing America’s gun problem than he is in fixing its DACA problem, its healthcare problem, its infrastructure problem, or its opioid addiction problem. Fixing problems is not cinematic.

The GOP as a whole faces this challenge at the moment, but Republicans try to be more restrained about desiring Wyatt Earp gunfights at the O.K. corral. As usual, Trump rushes in where more cautious souls fear to tread, thereby reinforcing his reputation as a man who tells it like it is. Those who govern in prose, however, know the pure and simple truth is that more guns mean more deaths. Anything else is NRA spin.

For our purposes, it is appropriate that Count Zaroff is Russian given that Russian bots flooded twitter with pro-gun tweets following the Florida shooting and that (although this has yet to be definitively proved) Russia may have funneled campaign funds to 2016 Republican candidates through the NRA. Think of the 90% percent of Americans who favor universal background checks as Rainsfords, fighting for our lives in a rigged game where we only have our wits and determination to fall back on.

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Magical Realism’s Special Powers

Frida Kahlo


My magical realism class has been exploring how people use the genre to negotiate important issues in their lives. We’re still figuring it out but are starting to arrive at some interesting insights.

Magical realism, as the label indicates, is a genre that lives on the border between realist fiction and fantasy. This border is porous, with magic emerging organically out of a reality that we recognize, sometimes with actual historical figures and events. Like realist fiction, it presents us with pressing social issues but, like fantasy, it cloaks them in a special aura that makes them more bearable.

This is important because historical catastrophes threaten to overwhelm us. As scholar Wendy Faris observes, the magic in magical realism counteracts the overwhelming power of death and depersonalization that history visits upon humankind. Small and vulnerable though we may feel, the magic gives us a sense that there is power in the universe that can push back–or at least encapsulate and thereby contain great tragedies.

Thus, we don’t feel entirely wrung out when 100 Years of Solitude presents us with an American-engineered massacre of banana workers; Midnight’s Children with the Pakistani atrocities in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh); Tin Drum with the rise of Hitler; Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with Japanese atrocities in Manchuria; Beloved with the horrors of slavery; and The White Hotel with the holocaust. Magical realism is like a colorful balloon, tethered to history but finding ways to rise above it.

In a similar way, magical realism is not as emotionally searing as the social realist melodramas of an Emile Zola, an Upton Sinclair, or a John Steinbeck. It doesn’t threaten to overload the empathy circuits in quite the same way. While this may lessen our engagement with pressing social issues (this is magical realism’s downside), it also ensures that we will not turn away.

Magical realism also is able to capture just how dislocating these events are. In a conventional historical novel—say, in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels—we view history through the lens of an omniscient author, or we get the account of a first-person narrator or the vantage point of one or more characters. This gives us some sense of control over reality. In magical realism, however, time, space and identity are all up for grabs, refusing to behave as we expect them to. As a result, a magical treatment of history may do more justice to history’s insanity than linear narratives and stable characters.

In magical realism recounted by jester-like narrators, such as Oskar in Tin Drum and Saleem in Midnight’s Children, historical craziness is further emphasized. Often their sense of proportion is off, leading to a black humor becomes another way of cushioning the blows of history. For a non-magical instance of such black humor, think of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Finally, magical realism seems particularly adept at capturing the momentousness of the events described. Magic bestows grandeur in a way that realist fiction does not (War and Peace and Grapes of Wrath being notable exceptions). In the distant past, works have relied on gods and goddesses to endow significance, as in The Iliad, The Bhagavad Gita, The Hebrew Chronicles, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. While Midnight’s Children contains references to Hindu deities—Saleem has affinities with the elephant god Ganesh and his mistress with the river goddess Lakshmi—the other works I have mentioned rely exclusively on magic and the supernatural to elevate their subject matter. Thus in Solitude there are foundational mothers who live deep into their hundreds, in Beloved an inexorable ghost who feeds on mother guilt.

A quick survey of reviews shows how grand the works appear to readers:

— Garcia Marquez “gives a voice to South America.” – Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman
— “Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.”–New York Times
–“The Tin Drum will become one of the enduring literary works of the twentieth century.” – Nobel committee
–[about Beloved] “A masterpiece. . . . Magnificent. . . . Astounding. . . . Overpowering.”  —Newsweek
–[about Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] “Mesmerizing. . . . Murakami’s most ambitious attempt yet to stuff all of modern Japan into a single fictional edifice.” —The Washington Post Book World

I’ll share more insights as the class comes up with them. At the moment, however, our major takeaway is that magical realism (to use a Lisa Simpson neologism) embiggens us.

Posted in Garcia Marquez (Gabriel), Morrison (Toni), Murakami (Haruki), Rushdie (Salman) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Foodie Lit, an Antidote to Anorexia?

Edwin Abbey, the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner


Once again my friend Sue Schmidt has alerted me to a book about literature and life, this one about how literature helped save a life. In The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, formerly anorexic Laura Freeman describes how books helped her to begin eating again.

Many of the books were memoirs, but I focus here on the novels that she mentions. According to Guardian reviewer Sarah Hughes, Charles Dickens’s “lavish shared meals” helped her start thinking of food as an adventure. To put yourself in Freeman’s place, imagine how this passage from Christmas Carol might get you interested in eating again:

The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.

The Grocers’! oh, the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.

Not all food novels worked for Freeman. At first, one might think that a passage such as the following in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat would be enticing:

The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the white powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisù, a smoky, burned flavor that enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. There is a silver jug of the stuff on the counter, from which a vapor rises. I recall that I have not breakfasted this morning. 

Because Harris’s protagonist uses chocolate to rebel against a repressive Catholicism, however, Freeman says that the novel triggers the very anxieties she is trying to overcome. It makes sense that one who stopped eating because she was trying to become “smaller, quieter, less conspicuous” would shy away from Harris’s all-out battles between an indulgent chocolate store owner and a repressed village curate. Here’s Freeman describing her relationship with chocolate:

Chocolate is a strange, stubborn thing. It’s sold as a representation of ultimate sin and temptation, and unfortunately I think it’s rather knotted in my mind with all those ideas of badness and naughtiness. Like anyone, I have better days and worse days.

Dickens’s feasts, by contrast, come with less psychological baggage.

Freeman mentions one final novel that, while not about food, nevertheless played an important role in her recovery:

The unashamed gluttony of Laurie Lee may have altered her attitude to food – her description of a trip to Spain, during which she was finally able to try meals she would previously have rejected, are almost transcendent – but it was the advice of a very different author that lingered longest. “I really loved T.H. White’s The Once and Future King,” she says, “in particular, Merlin’s advice to his young apprentice, Wart, that when you’re low or sad, the thing that never fails, the thing you have absolute control of, is to teach yourself something, learn something new. It made me realize that when I am having a bad day – and they do come around – I can go to a museum, read a book, or go for a walk. I can fill my brain with something that isn’t my own nitty-gritty unhappiness.”

White’s novel is a quest narrative, and it sounds as though Freeman’s book is as well. As she tells the reviewer,

 I think for people who have had anorexia or battled through depression there is a little undercurrent of it their whole lives. I hope that what my book is about is finding ways to be happy and love life. To make a future for yourself that isn’t bound by the various restrictions the illness puts on you.

Posted in Christmas Carol, Dickens (Charles), Harris (Joanne), White (T.H.) | Leave a comment

Satan and Trump, Gifted Demagogues

Gustave Doré, Satan as a gifted demagogue


A Weekly Standard article recently pointed out that 2017 was the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost’s publication, which I should have noted given how often I teach it. Milton’s first-hand encounter with tumultuous times may help explain why his epic remains relevant and why it “has been translated more frequently in the last 30 years than it was in the preceding 300, mostly into non-Western languages.”

Among other things, Paradise Lost captures how a charismatic and unscrupulous leader can bend people to his will. Like America’s president, Satan speaks to his followers’ sense of loss, exacerbates their feelings of grievance, and feeds them fantasies of revenge. Milton scholar Michael Mattix explains Satan’s effectiveness:

Notwithstanding Milton’s famous promise in the opening section of the poem to “assert eternal providence / And justify the ways of God to men,” it is Satan’s poem from beginning to end. He is the first character to speak, and he is eloquent, bold, full of feeling for others. His first words are ones of consolation for his fellow fallen angel Beelzebub: “O how fall’n! how changed / From him who in the happy realms of light / Clothed with transcendent brightness didst outshine / Myriads, though bright!” He follows this with a word of encouragement: “All is not lost: th’unconquerable will / And study of revenge, immortal hate / And courage never to submit or yield— / And what is else not to be overcome?” He promises the other demons that he will never yield to God’s tyranny and tells Sin, with whom he had relations after she burst from his head Athena-like, that he will set her and her son free from “this dark and dismal house of pain” and, like a loving husband and father (at least until the mask slips), provide a home where “ye shall be fed and filled / Immeasurably: all things shall be your prey!”

Citing another scholar’s observation that Satan is “the first literary terrorist,” Mattix describes how he strokes a crowd to further his own interests:

In short, Satan says all the rightly compassionate things only to the “right” people, who are, of course, his people, and only when his own interests are at stake. He is unflappable only in front of a crowd, courageous only when it is personally advantageous. He acts like a good leader, father, and husband—and even argues with nearly perfect reasoning that he is more morally upright than God himself—all while serving only himself. He is a god of unchecked liberty, and, therefore, in Milton’s view, a god of chaos and destruction.

In my own posts comparing Donald Trump to Satan (see below), I have labeled them both consummate narcissists. We saw further proof this past weekend when, confronted with incontrovertible evidence of Russian election meddling, our president could only focus on himself. Taking steps to protect the nation never crossed his mind. Mattix shows Satan craftily engineering the council in Hell so that he will get all the glory:

But like everything else that Satan does, the offer [for a volunteer to journey to Eden] is a façade. Unsurprisingly, no one volunteers after Satan’s bleak description of the “perilous attempt” and he quickly chooses to do it himself, thus showing himself of “highest worth” and solidifying his authority over his peers…

What happens next demonstrates Satan’s political savvy: he makes sure that no one can speak after he himself has stepped forward. Satan understands that potential rivals might go for cheap glory by volunteering late:

Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, least from his resolution raised
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refused) what erst they fear’d;
And so refused might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn…

Mannix also quotes archangel Michael warning Adam about the Tower of Babel, where people put themselves above God rather than submitting to His authority. In a democracy, presidents must submit to the authority of the American people, and they become usurpers if they set themselves up as rulers. In the following, think of “inordinate desires and upstart passions” as a thirst for power, “Reason” as the higher faculty that calls us to serve:

In book 12, after the archangel Michael tells Adam about the Tower of Babel, Adam laments that his progeny, following Satan’s example, will desire to raise themselves above their peers and assume “Authority usurped from God not giv’n.” Michael responds that political tyranny is the direct result of men neglecting to rule their own liberty with reason and using that liberty instead to pursue “upstart passions”:

Reason in man obscured or not obeyed
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the government
From reason and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.

Satan is ultimately defeated, but boy does he make people’s lives miserable before that happens.

Posted in Milton (John) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Sexist Lit Gaslighting Women?

Rose Mead, “Molly Reading” (1920)


Reader and friend Sue Schmidt alerted me to a combative article in The Guardian about the misogyny of many of America’s most applauded 20th century authors, including John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Ernest Hemingway. Interestingly enough, the author gives Vladimir Nabokov a pass.

Egregious instances of sexism are to be found in all of them, Sarah Churchwell writes, and the critical world, by applauding them, causes women readers to doubt their own experiences. After all, how can women quarrel with a Nobel-prize winning author like Bellow. As a result, women are “gaslighted,” their experienced reality contradicted by powerful men. The concept originates in the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play and the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie where a husband engineers the surroundings to make his wife think she’s crazy.

I appreciate Churchwell mentioning that Jane Eyre pushes against gaslighting. There is good good reason why Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece has been the go-to novel for unionizing governesses, suffragettes, and 1970s feminists over the years. Unfortunately, Churchwell doesn’t mention the many powerful female authors making their presences felt today. In my college’s English courses, students are more likely to encounter Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan than Updike, Roth, Bellow, and even Ernest Hemingway. Meanwhile Norman Mailer, whom Churchwell takes to task, has all but faded from view. These male voices may have contributed to patriarchy at one time, but they no longer rule the roost.

The article feels like a throwback to the 1980s, when Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) still felt like a revelation. Then again, as Donald Trump brings back 1950’s sexism, it’s true that the optimism of third-wave, “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” feminists sounds suspect. Perhaps we really do need Churchwell’s refresher course in second-wave feminism. She’s especially attuned to literary dismissals of strong women, as in this critique of Bellow’s Herzog:

Some of the worst culprits are not the misogynists of old, however, but men telling stories in the very decades that women were making real political and professional gains. Second-wave feminism spurred a backlash among certain men, including influential storytellers whose perceptions framed the cultural moment and helped create an ambient contempt for women’s perspectives. “Please, Ramona,” Saul Bellow’s Herzog thinks, “you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch – everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.” Her body is “everything”; her voice positively objectionable. Bellow won the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 for “the human understanding” in his work.

Churchwell is similarly critical of Roth (and also delivers a sarcastic dig at Jonathan Franzen):

The more feminists tried to call all this out [authors beating up on feminists], the more they were lampooned by the same male artists as overwrought and idiotic. Take Roth’s multiple prize-winning, often brilliant The Human Stain (2000), deemed by many to be a masterpiece. Most of its plot and all of its comedy rely on the farcical stupidity of an academic feminist named Delphine, who hysterically overreacts to the revelation that her colleague Coleman Silk is having an affair with a woman who works at the college as a janitor. “She understood that Coleman Silk had managed to unearth no less than a misogynist’s heart’s desire … the perfect woman to crush.” Delphine freaks out not because of her feminism, however, but rather because of her unreciprocated crush on Coleman. That’s right: women only object to sexual harassment when they feel sexually rejected. Times have changed, of course: three years ago brought us Annabel, in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (2015), a self-righteous feminist who makes men urinate sitting down as a gesture of equality.

What would happen if any of these books had ever hinted that feminism might just have a point? The problem is not an author choosing to mock a feminist; they aren’t sacred. The problem is that these stories, granted so much cultural authority, have for half a century and more been subjecting the very concept of feminists to near-universal derision, gaslighting the entire feminist perspective.

Interestingly, Churchwell defends Lolita:

Perhaps the most controversial of all is Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Humbert Humbert is a monster and paedophile – he admits as much, regularly. But he can’t be trusted; so the question is where the book’s sympathies lie, whether Humbert or Nabokov is the misogynist. And Nabokov demonstrably embeds Lolita’s despair, powerlessness and insistent assertion of agency into the tale. The novel almost locks you into the perspective of a charming sociopath, for many readers all too closely – but it never undermines Lolita, never suggests she likes being abducted and raped, or deserves it. Indeed it makes clear how desperate she is to get away from Humbert – that he is the mad one. Nabokov doesn’t gaslight Lolita: he gaslights Humbert.

As Humbert reveals, in what may (or may not) be his moral epiphany, the great tragedy of Lolita is “the absence of her voice” – an absence that bothers many readers, as it is clearly intended to. 

Lolita is Churchwell’s exception, however. What concerns her most is that critical praise has brainwashed many women readers:

Even more frustrating, however, is that many women readily assert the importance or greatness of these books. Male readers by comparison rarely use the compliment “universal” to describe a book written by a woman: in fact, it’s difficult to recall a single instance. Women don’t have that option: if we read, we must read about men; if we think, we must think about what men think.

The power of such thinking has had dire political ramifications:

It has been much remarked that some of the most influential US male media figures who dismissed the allegations of sexual harassment against Donald Trump were themselves fired shortly thereafter for serially committing the same offense. These men’s vested interest in whether our culture takes sexual assault seriously was allowed to shape the political outcome, to put a confessed sexual assaulter in the White House, and not coincidentally to sabotage the reputation of his opponent, who just happened to be a woman. The media campaign against Hillary Clinton was nothing if not gaslighting on an epic scale.

Meanwhile the White House has just been forced, with notable reluctance, to remove not one but two senior advisers credibly accused of domestic violence. 

Churchwell concludes,

Patriarchy works unseen to valorize men’s perspective, and invalidate women’s. When we don’t recognize the way it shapes the world, then we do not understand that world properly: our perspective becomes unreliable. In other words, patriarchy continues to gaslight us all.

Since I mostly teaching older literature, I can’t say for sure which authors dominate contemporary literature syllabi. What Churchwell describes, however, sounds like the courses from my college years (1969-73) and perhaps a decade after, not what people are teaching now. Key has been the increasing diversity of faculty, who focus on the cultural and political forces at work in the literature they teach. Churchwell doesn’t mention this development.

In other words, the patriarchal narrative no longer holds unquestioned sway in college classrooms. That’s one reason why colleges are currently under attack.

Posted in Bronte (Charlotte), Nabokov (Vladimir), Roth (Philip K.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Mine It Was To Call

Juan Fernández de Navarrete, “St. John the Baptist in Prison”

Spiritual Sunday

I was thumbing through A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry (ed. James H. Trott) and came across a lovely poem about John the Baptist, who is mentioned in today’s liturgy reading. I make special mention of my source because it provides the only biographical information I can unearth about Sydney E. Jerrold (1895- c. 1940), a nun in the Order of the Assumption. I was able to google her brother, Tory newspaper editor and fascist sympathizer Douglas Francis Jerrold, who published his sister’s poems after her early death.

“John in Prison” is told from the vantage point of the evangelist. Jerrold speaks up for those who prepare the way for others, as John did Jesus. Since that’s how I see my role as teacher, I identify with the sentiment.

If you need a John refresher, here are some of the Biblical passages that the poem alludes to:

–There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

–Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)

–Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?
Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Matthew 11:2-6)

John in Prison

By Sydney E. Jerrold

I hardly saw His Face.
I knew Him not till Heaven had given sign.
He passed, yet never did His eyes meet mine
For one short perfect space.

Yet mine it was to call
“Behold the Lamb of God”—and they who heard
Went from my side, sought Him, and at a word
Followed Him, leaving all.

I scarcely heard His voice–
Not me He called to Him from Jordan’s side—
Yet to the Bridegroom have I led the Bride,
And I, His friend, rejoice.

And now—“What things you see
Relate to John,” He saith—“The prophecies
Are all fulfilled, and blessed be he who is
Not scandalized in Me.”

 Not blessed who baptized,
Watched, prayed and thundered to prepare His way,
Bore witness to the Light—but blessed they
Who are not scandalized.

Lord, be it ever so–
Before Thy Face to show the way of peace
I go, a passing voice that must decrease
Whilst Thou, the Lord, must grow.

The ways of peace are mine–
Though sharp and shining be the sword’s way home
The Spirit and the Bride shall whisper “Come”:
Then shall my eyes meet Thine.

 I wonder if Jerrold wrote the poem when she was dying since it sounds as though she is assessing her life and worrying that she came up short. She reminds me of Denise Levertov in the way she laments barely experiencing God’s presence—“I hardly saw His Face.” She grumbles that she is not one of the disciples, who were called to greater things, but consoles herself that she has introduced the Lord to others: “Yet to the Bridegroom have I led the Bride.”

As she sees it, the one who came to bear witness to the Light does not receive a blessing. Fighting resentment, at one point she sounds almost sarcastic: “Not blessed who baptized, watched, prayed and thundered to prepare His way.” Perhaps she is trying to write herself into acceptance: “Lord, be it ever so–.”

In some ways, she sounds like John Milton “On His Blindness,” another poet that kicks against the role God has assigned him. Complaining that his blindness limits his contributions, Milton hears Patience assuring him that “who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” and “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

I think Jerrold wrote this while dying because of the reference to decreasing “whilst Thou, the Lord, must grow” and the lines “the ways of peace are mine–/Though sharp and shining be the sword’s way home.” Sharp thought her disappointment may be, however, her consolation will be that, at last, she will be Christ’s bride herself.

Then, at last, she will see God face to face.

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NRA Uber Alles


Mass shootings are occurring with such demoralizing regularity that I’ve almost ceased blogging about them. Here’s the post I wrote following the Nevada killing, which just needs a few tweaks to apply to the Parkland Florida shooting. For instance, Florida “doesn’t require a permit or a license for someone to own a gun, allows purchasers to buy as many guns as they want at one time, and does not regulate assault weapons.”

Reprinted from Oct. 3, 2017

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….

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

The NRA Preying on Anxious Men

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

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The Joker (Trump) Takes Over America

Heath Ledger as The Joker


In a recent 100 Years of Solitude post, I talked about the presence of carnival in magical realism and wondered whether American politics has become carnivalesque. Following up on this notion, I asked the students in my Magical Realism class to imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children transported to an American setting. It so happens that, in his latest book, Rushdie does the transporting himself.

The Golden House (2017) is not magical realist, nor is it anywhere near the quality of Midnight’s Children, but it is characteristic Rushdie. I find interesting how a recently naturalized American, as Rushdie is, tries to make sense of his new country. Here’s his account of the 2016 election, during which America “left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.” “D.C.,” he writes, was under attack by DC” [as in DC Comics, if you need the allusion explained]:

It was the year of the Joker in Gotham and beyond. The Caped Crusader was nowhere to be seen—it was not an age of heroes—but his archrival in the purple frock coat and striped pantaloons was ubiquitous, clearly delighted to have the stage to himself and hogging the limelight with evident delight. He had seen off the Suicide Squad, his feeble competition, but he permitted a few of his inferiors to think of themselves as future members of a Joker administration. The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy lined up behind the Joker in packed arenas, swaying like doo-wop backing singers while their leader spoke of the unrivaled beauty of white skin and red lips to adoring audiences wearing green fright wigs and chanting in unison, Ha! Ha! Ha!

 The green fright wigs would be red baseball caps, the chant “Trump, Trump, Trump.” The candidate’s supporters back him, the narrator says, “because he was insane, not in spite of it”:

The origins of the Joker were disputed, the man himself seemed to enjoy allowing contradictory versions to fight for air space, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing, what made this an election year like no other, was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero. Sikh taxi drivers and rodeo cowboys, rabid alt-right blondes and black brain surgeons agreed, we love his craziness, no milquetoast euphemisms from him, he shoots straight from the hip, says whatever he fucking wants to say, robs whatever bank he’s in the mood to rob, kills whoever he feels like killing, he’s our guy. The black bat-knight has flown! It’s a new day, and it’s hoping to be a scream! All hail the United States of Joker! U.S.J.! U.S.J.! U.S.J.!

 What comes next is simply a listing of what happened during the election. I was disappointed when I first read it since I expected Rushdie’s colorful hyperbole. As satirists such as John Stewart and The Onion have observed, however, when truth is over-the-top, satire struggles to keep pace. Rushdie’s list reminds us just how abnormal these past two years have been:

It was a year of two bubbles. In one of those bubbles, the Joker shrieked and the laugh-track crowds laughed right on cue. In that bubble the climate was not changing and the end of the Arctic icecap was just a new real estate opportunity. In that bubble, gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American.  [Emphasized to honor Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students and staff.] In that bubble, if its inhabitants were victorious, the president of the neighboring country to the south which was sending rapists and killers to America would be forced to pay for a wall dividing the two nations to keep the killers and rapists south of the border where they belonged; and crime would end; and the country’s enemies would be defeated instantly and overwhelmingly; and mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers; and the parents of dead war heroes would be revealed to be working for radical Islam; and international treaties would not have to be honored; and Russia would be friend and that would have nothing whatsoever to do with the Russian oligarchs propping up the Joker’s shady enterprises; and the meanings of things would change; multiple bankruptcies would be understood to prove great business enterprise; and three and a half thousand lawsuits against you would be understood to prove great business acumen; and stiffing your contractors would prove your tough-guy business attitude; and a crooked university would prove your commitment to education; and while the Second Amendment would be sacred the First would not be; so those who criticized the leader would suffer consequences; and African Americans would go along with it all because what the hell did they have to lose. In that bubble knowledge was ignorance, up was down, and the right person to hold the nuclear codes in his hand was the green-haired white-skinned red-slash-mouth giggler who asked a military briefing team four times why nuclear weapons was so bad. In that bubble, razor-tipped playing cards were funny, and lapel flowers that sprayed acid into people’s faces were funny, and wishing you could have sex with your daughter was funny, and sarcasm was funny even when what was called sarcasm was not sarcastic, and lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny, and bullying was funny, and the date was, or almost was, or might soon be, if the jokes worked out as they should, nineteen eight-four.

It’s worth noting that not all of this craziness is Trump’s doing. Some of it has become Republican orthodoxy, especially with regard to climate change, immigrants, and guns.

In the other bubble, the narrator writes, were New Yorkers, who “could identify a conman when they saw one.” The chapter ends with the contest in doubt, perhaps because Rushdie completed the novel before November, 2016:

It was the year of the great battle between deranged fantasy and gray reality, between, on the one hand, la chose en soi, the possibly unknowable but probably existing thing in itself, the world as it was independently of what was said about it or how it was seen, the Ding an sich, to use the Kantian term—and, on the other, this cartoon character who had crossed the line between the page and the stage—a sort of illegal immigrant, I thought—whose plan was to turn the whole country, faux-hilariously, into a lurid graphic novel, the modern kind, full of black crime and renegade Jews and cocksuckers and cunts, which were words he liked to use sometimes just to give the liberal elite conniptions; a comic book in which elections were rigged and the media were crooked and everything you hated was a conspiracy against you, but in the end! Yay! You won, the fright wig turned into a crown, and the Joker became the King.

It remained to be seen if, come November, the country would turn out to be in a New York state of mind, or if it would prefer to put on the green fright wigs and laugh. Ha! Ha! Ha!

 We now know how the electoral college chose. The joker jiggered reality.

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Leaders Who Make Their Own Reality


I’ve been thinking a lot about how a president’s non-stop lying can change a country. It’s no secret that most politicians lie from time to time, but Donald Trump’s wholesale assault on the truth is another matter altogether. With the help of enablers at Fox News and the Republican Party, Trump is changing reality itself.

Salman Rushdie shows how such a process works in Midnight’s Children. Through strong arm tactics and voter fraud, the President’s Muslim League in 1958 Pakistan triumphs over the Combined Opposition Party. The newspapers then report “a crushing victory,” leading the narrator to conclude that

 in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case.

The narrator contrasts this top-down reality with his own vision, a loose federation where multiple perspectives exist. As he observes,

maybe this was the difference between my Indian childhood and Pakistani adolescence—that in the first I was beset by an infinity of alternative realities, while in the second I was adrift, disorientated, amid an equally infinite number of falsenesses, unrealities and lies.

Saleem concludes the meditation by distinguishing between “what-had-been-sanctified as truth” and what we know to be so. The former has an unfair advantage because we become worn down “by Time, by habit, by…pronouncement, by lack of imagination, by…acquiescence.”

Marlow in Heart of Darkness talks about the rot that sets in when people lie:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. 

By “flavor of mortality,” I think Marlow means the lack of anything enduring. Without the possibility of truth or higher principle, existence becomes no more than a meaningless flux.

If Trump’s lying works, should Democrats follow suit? Only if we truly want to surrender to the heart of darkness. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Jesus asks. There are worse things than losing to Trump.

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Chaucer Invented St. Valentine’s Day


Among poetry’s many gifts to the world is St. Valentine’s Day. In Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer took marriage, which in the Middle Ages was a business affair, and joined it with the courtly love tradition, giving the holiday the aura that continues to this day. Write for the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Parliament of Fowls describes the goddess Nature pairing up all the birds:

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every fowl comes there to choose his mate
Of every kind…
And that so huge a noise the birds do make
That earth and sea and tree and every lake
So full it was that there was hardly space
For me to stand so full was all the place

The poem is a dream vision, with the poet at first loathe to enter the garden because of the second of two signs posted on the gates. While the first promises the pleasures of love, the second points to love’s torments:

Sign 1

Through  me men go into that blissful place
Where hearts are healed and deadly wounds are cured;
Through me men go into the well of Grace
There green and lusty May shall ever endure;
This is the way to all good adventure
Be glad, thou reader, and thy sorrow off-cast
All open am I; pass in, and speed thee fast.

Sign 2

“Through me men go,” thus spoke the other side,
“Unto the mortal wounding of the spear,
Of which Disdain and Danger is the guide,
There tree shall never fruit nor leave e‘er bear.
The stream shall take you to the sorrowful weir
Where as the fish in prison is all dry;
Escaping is the only remedy.”

Chaucer is fearful until his guide assures him that, because he himself is not in love, he has nothing to fear. He can simply watch other people experiencing love’s highs and lows.

Upon entering he encounters a beautiful garden:

A garden saw I, full of blossomy boughs
Upon a river, in a bright green mead,
There as sweetness evermore enough is,
With flowers white, blue, yellow, and red,
And cold well-streams, nothing dead,
Filled with fishes swimming small and light,
Their fins were red, and scales were silver bright.

On every bough the birds heard I to sing,
With voice of angels in their harmony;
Some busied themselves with more birds forth to bring;
The little coneys to here play did hie,
And further all about me I could see
The dread-filled roe, the buck, the hart and hind,
Squirrels and gentle beasts of every kind.

Of instruments of strings all in accord
Heard I so play such a ravishing sweetness,
That God, that creator is of all and lord,
Had heard never better, I must here confess.
Therewith a wind, it could be nothing less,
Made in the green leave a nose so telling soft
As to the ears the fowls’ song came.

In this garden he sees many of the mythological gods, including Cupid, Venus, Bacchus, and Priapus, a male fertility god marked by oversized genitalia. There are also ladies dancing, one lady without any clothes, and youths disporting on the green. The real drama of the poem, however, involves the birds.

The goddess Nature is there to make sure that everyone pairs up, but the other birds have to wait as three royal hawks argue over who should marry the lady hawk. Since a royal wedding must precede all others, the birds begin to get restless and start complaining. To break the impasse, Nature hands the decision over to the lady, who decides to wait a year. Thankfully, Nature doesn’t force the other birds to wait but allows them to get on with it:

And when this work was brought unto an end,
To every fowl Dame Nature gave his mate
By even accord, and on their way they went.
Ah! lord! the bliss and joy that they did make!
And with their necks each gave the other wynde [embrace],
Thanking always the noble goddess kynde [nature].

The poem concludes by invoking St. Valentine and promising that winter will end:

Saint Valentine that has been set on high
Thus sing the many birds all for thy sake —
Now welcome summer with the sun in sky
That hast this wintry weather over-shake.

Joy to you as you celebrate or search for your own bird.

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Swift Predicted Trump’s Lies

Gustave Doré, Satan rallies his troops


Washington Post satirist Dana Milbank has alerted me to a Jonathan Swift essay on “Political Lying” that is only too relevant. Political lying took some of its modern forms in the 18th century with the rise of political parties, and the great satirist, ever alert to change, captured some of its characteristics. Even Swift, however, could not imagine a liar as blatant and shameless as Donald Trump.

Milbank turned to Swift while describing a lie that Trump propagated about a dead border patrol agent. Rogelio Martinez died after his car ran into a culvert—it may have been sideswiped by a tractor trailer truck—but that’s not what Trump and Trump wannabes said:

President Trump and his allies saw an opportunity to whip up anti-immigrant fervor. At a Cabinet meeting Nov.20, Trump announced, with cameras rolling, that “we lost a Border Patrol officer just yesterday, and another one was brutally beaten and badly, badly hurt.... We’re going to have the wall.” He also issued a similar tweet.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, offered a reward “to help solve this murder” and to “help us catch this killer.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) declared the incident “a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses.

And then there was Fox News, reporting that “a border patrol agent was brutally murdered” and going with the headline “Border Patrol agent appeared to be ambushed by illegal immigrants, bashed with rocks before death.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson reported that Martinez was “attacked at the border in the most gruesome possible way.”

The FBI determined, however, that no murder had been committed. When no one issued a retraction, Milbank turned to Swift:

It has been more than 300 years since Jonathan Swift wrote about the utility of falsehood: “If a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect... like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

This is pretty much how Trump does business, and he has inspired other Republicans to follow suit. After all, in a world where there is no accountability, what’s the downside? This helps explain the GOP assault on institutions tasked with fact-finding, such as the media, universities, research institutions, and governmental agencies. Meanwhile rightwing evangelicals, who should value truth, have become Trump idolaters.

Noting that Satan is the follower of lies, Swift describes him in a way that we will find familiar. After all, the percentage of angels that Satan seduced to his side is roughly the same as Trump’s loyal base:

We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first essay of it was purely political, employed in undermining the authority of his prince, and seducing a third part of the subjects from their obedience: for which he was driven down from Heaven, where (as Milton expresses it) he had been viceroy of a great western province; and forced to exercise his talent in inferior regions among other fallen spirits, poor or deluded men, whom he still daily tempts to his own sin, and will ever do so, till he be chained in the bottomless pit.

Swift then observes that those who came later surpassed the father:

But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like other great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation, by the continual improvements that have been made upon him.

Political lying, Swift says, can be used both to gain power (think of the 2016 election) and to revenge oneself after having lost it (which we are sure to see if the GOP loses the House in 2018 or the presidency in 2020):

But here the moderns have made great additions, applying this art to the gaining of power and preserving it, as well as revenging themselves after they have lost it; as the same instruments are made use of by animals to feed themselves when they are hungry, and to bite those that tread upon them.

Swift very much captures Trump with regard to consistency. Although the president claims to have a great memory, Swift notes that great liars easily forget what they said previously:

There is one essential point wherein a political liar differs from others of the faculty, that he ought to have but a short memory, which is necessary, according to the various occasions he meets with every hour of differing from himself, and swearing to both sides of a contradiction, as he finds the persons disposed with whom he hath to deal. 

Swift’s subsequent comments concern Prime Minister Robert Walpole, but he could just as easily be talking about Trump:

The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts, the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it; so that if you think fit to refine upon him, by interpreting everything he says, as we do dreams, by the contrary, you are still to seek, and will find yourself equally deceived whether you believe or not: the only remedy is to suppose, that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all; and besides, that will take off the horror you might be apt to conceive at the oaths, wherewith he perpetually tags both ends of every proposition; although, at the same time, I think he cannot with any justice be taxed with perjury, when he invokes God and Christ, because he hath often fairly given public notice to the world that he believes in neither.

I don’t think Trump invokes God or Christ in his lying—he is much more likely to introduce his lies with “Believe me”—but otherwise Swift’s description applies only too well. In response, many Americans do indeed regard the president’s pronouncements as “inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all.”

Swift only misses the mark in thinking that a liar is beyond being shamed or, as he puts it, rendered “notorious.” He seems to think that, if a liar is exposed, there will be consequences. Even Swift could not imagine a man openly telling falsehoods that can easily be checked.

But then, he did observe that liars surpass Satan with their “continual improvements,” so Trump might not surprise him. Swift would conclude that he has made his master proud.

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White House Assaulters & Goblin Market

John Bolton, “Goblin Maret”


Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1859) felt particularly urgent when I taught it this past week given the spousal abuse stories emerging from the White House. Rossetti’s poem vividly captures the dynamics of male entitlement and how authoritarian personalities are infuriated when women stand up to them.

Misogyny and authoritarianism go hand and hand, which helps explain the high number of instances. Chief of Staff John Kelly, who “has a history of believing men over women,” was prepared to defend staffer Rob Portman to the hilt until a photograph of a black eye emerged. (Never mind the credible complaints of two ex-wives.) Vox lists others in the Trump orbit who have been accused of abuse or violence:

  • Steve Bannon, CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign and White House chief strategist until August 2017, was charged in 1996 with domestic violence, battery, and dissuading a witness. According to a 1996 police report quoted in Politico, Bannon’s then-wife said he grabbed her neck, then threw the phone across the room when she tried to call 911. The charges were eventually dismissed when Bannon’s wife was “unable to be located,” according to court records — she filed for divorce a few months later.
  • Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, was charged with battery in March 2016 after a Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, reported that he had forcibly grabbed her. The incident was captured on video, but a prosecutor declined to proceed with the case.
  • Andrew Puzder, Trump’s initial nominee for Secretary of Labor, was accused of assault and battery by his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein. In documents that were part of their 1988 divorce proceedings, Fierstein said that Puzder had struck her “violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck, without provocation or cause.” And in 1990, Fierstein spoke of her experience on The Oprah Winfrey Show, saying Puzder had told her, “I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this.” Fierstein retracted the abuse claims in a letter to Puzder after his nomination for labor secretary; he ultimately withdrew from consideration.
  • President Trump, meanwhile, has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 17 women. One of them is his ex-wife, Ivana, who reportedly stated in a 1990 divorce deposition that Trump had pulled out a fistful of her hair and raped her. In 2015, after Trump announced his candidacy for president, she issued a statement saying that a Daily Beast story about the alleged rape was “without merit.”

To Vox’s list we can now add speechwriter David Sorensen:

[Sorensen’s former wife Jessica] Corbett first contacted The Post a week before Porter’s case became public. She said that during her marriage to Sorensen, he ran a car over her foot, put out a cigarette on her hand, threw her into a wall and grasped her menacingly by her hair while they were alone on their boat in remote waters off Maine’s coast, an incident she said left her fearing for her life. During part of their marriage, he was a top policy adviser to Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

She said she did not report her abuse allegations to police because of Sorensen’s connections to law enforcement officials.

The goblins in Rossetti’s poem appear to offer women what they want. Seen in terms of our drama, Laura is enticed by the promise of fulfilling her heart’s desire. What woman would not want to marry the successful and charming Portman, who according to ex-wife Jennie Willoughby outwardly appears a perfect gentleman. (“Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out.”) Think of him as selling women goblin fruit:

Come buy, come buy: 
Our grapes fresh from the vine, 
Pomegranates full and fine, 
Dates and sharp bullaces, 
Rare pears and greengages, 
Damsons and bilberries, 
Taste them and try: 
Currants and gooseberries, 
Bright-fire-like barberries, 
Figs to fill your mouth, 
Citrons from the South, 
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye; 
Come buy, come buy.

Unfortunately, the fragile egos of authoritarian types such as Trump, Porter, etc. rely on the submission of women. Without that, they feel they are nothing. For a woman to resist, therefore, represents an existential crisis that can trigger blows. The women who give in (Laura) function as momentary reassurance whereas those who refuse to play the game (Lizzie) elicit just such violence as Trump and Trump staffers meted out to their wives:

They began to scratch their pates, 
No longer wagging, purring, 
But visibly demurring, 
Grunting and snarling. 
One call’d her proud, 
Cross-grain’d, uncivil; 
Their tones wax’d loud, 
Their looks were evil. 
Lashing their tails 
They trod and hustled her, 
Elbow’d and jostled her, 
Claw’d with their nails, 
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking, 
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking, 
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots, 
Stamp’d upon her tender feet, 
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits 
Against her mouth to make her eat. 

To a degree, Rossetti bought into the Victorian angel-in-the-house ideal. In Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem by that name, women are especially to be commended for their submission if the man does not deserve it. Therefore, the goblins’ assault becomes an occasion for Lizzie to exhibit Christian fortitude and endurance:

Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her, 
Coax’d and fought her, 
Bullied and besought her, 
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink, 
Kick’d and knock’d her, 
Maul’d and mock’d her, 
Lizzie utter’d not a word… 

Heroic martyrdom is problematic because it strips women of other responses, but we can still look to Lizzie as a model because she holds fast to her sense of self worth. This allows her to maintain her dignity against men who are “mad to tug her standard down”:

White and golden Lizzie stood, 
Like a lily in a flood,— 
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone 
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,— 
Like a beacon left alone 
In a hoary roaring sea, 
Sending up a golden fire,— 
Like a fruit-crown’d orange-tree 
White with blossoms honey-sweet 
Sore beset by wasp and bee,— 
Like a royal virgin town 
Topp’d with gilded dome and spire 
Close beleaguer’d by a fleet 
Mad to tug her standard down. 

Lizzie’s strength saves the abused Laura, a wonderful instance of female solidarity. (Perhaps Laura is who we too often are, Lizzie who we aspire to be.) The sisterhood lauded by the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement is captured in the closing lines of the poem, where Laura recalls Lizzie’s aid:

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.

Men can develop such friendships with women but they must surrender their sense of entitlement to do so. At the moment, it is very difficult to find useful models amongst Trump Republicans.

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The Wind Is Awake (But Will You Stir?)

Adolf Kosarek, “Night Wind,” ca. 1855

Spiritual Sunday

As Christians look ahead to Lent, which begins Wednesday, here’s a haunting John Burt to poem that clarifies the meaning of the season.  Lent is the time to get down and get real, cutting through distractions and focusing on what is important. That is why some people engage in various forms of abstinence: they reason that indulgence takes our mind away from spiritual search. As Sir Gawain and the Green Knight puts it,

After Christmas there came the cold cheer of Lent,
When with fish and plainer fate our flesh we reprove.

Perhaps reproving their flesh gets some people closer to God, but I find that poetry works better for me. Last year I gave myself over to Milton’s Paradise Regained. This year I’ve chosen Wordsworth’s Prelude.

Poems like Burt’s “On the Will to Believe” are also useful, especially as I wrestle with the parts that elude me.

The opening line points towards spiritual awakening—the Holy Spirit is often described as a wind—but isn’t certain if something within us will stir in response. Will our souls awake? Will we have the will to believe?

Who is awake? The wind is awake.
But will you stir? Her wakefulness is part of yours.

The remainder of the first stanza gives us discouraging images, suggestions of a dark night of the soul that may cause us to lose faith. To be sure, the wind offers us a guiding star that “she stole for you alone,” which sounds comforting—even more so because the wind is female—but the remaining lines offer no guarantees. As we gaze into the night sky, we see nothing but crucifixion, empty hands, broken relationships, and emptiness:

Will you walk with her in the darkness?
Here is the star she stole for you alone.
She will show to you a tree of thorns,
Her empty hands, that broken bridge.
You will read in the book of faces
But you will not find your own.

The second stanza provides some relief. After all, don’t we sometimes need to be brought up short to find God? Only when we stop and lie down do we begin to pay attention:

And you will remember then to stop, to lie
Down still, to say that if there were a mark
It would be there, and there would demonstrate
The love, the will, the calm necessity.

We’re not home free yet, however. After all, we’ve been given an “if”–if there is an indicator marking God’s presence in the dark sky above us–and upon that “if” hangs our belief in love and purpose. Once again, the final lines offer us no guarantees as we wander through a cold world, watched over by an unresponsive moon:

The clouds will scud among the glaciers of the mountain.
The idiot moon will watch in the cold.

Or as a discouraged Yeats puts it:

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:   
That you were beautiful, and that I strove   
To love you in the old high way of love; 
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown   
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Will be push ourselves past despair and will ourselves to believe? The poet leaves the final choice up to us.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

On the Will to Believe

By John Burt

Who is awake? The wind is awake.
But will you stir? Her wakefulness is part of yours.
Will you walk with her in the darkness?
Here is the star she stole for you alone.
She will show to you a tree of thorns,
Her empty hands, that broken bridge.
You will read in the book of faces
But you will not find your own.

And you will remember then to stop, to lie
Down still, to say that if there were a mark
It would be there, and there would demonstrate
The love, the will, the calm necessity.
The clouds will scud among the glaciers of the mountain.
The idiot moon will watch in the cold.

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Like Sula, Trump Unites Old Opponents


One of the many surprises during Donald Trump’s first year has been the way that the left and the non-Trump right have learned to talk to each other. People with whom I have disagreed strenuously in the past I now take seriously, figures like Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, Max Boot, Michael Steele, Nicolle Wallace, Rick Wilson, and others. Trump has brought us together in ways that, during the Obama years, would have seemed impossible.

These figures have moved to the left and I have moved to the right. They are calling out Trump Republicans for their racism and sexism and I am seeing the need for a strong FBI and patriotic rituals to preserve democracy. In the past, we focused on our differences, but those differences seem self-indulgent in light of Trump’s authoritarian threat. We are like Toni Morrison’s black community when confronted with Sula.

Sula is the mean girl in Morrison’s novel by that name. She casually watches her mother burn, kicks her grandmother out of the house she built, sleeps with her best friend’s husband, and manages to alienate virtually everyone she encounters. Yet in an unexpected reversal, she has a beneficial effect. Because of Sula, the town focuses on what is most important:

Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. 

To cite one instance, an abusive mother who believes Sula has attacked her child suddenly changes her ways:

She became the most devoted mother: sober, clean and industrious. No more nickels for Teapot to go to Dick’s for a breakfast of Mr. Goodbars and soda pop: no more long hours of him alone or wandering the roads while she was otherwise engaged. Her change was a distinct improvement…

The improvement lasts only as long as Sula is alive, however. Once she dies, the situation reverts to normal:

Hard on the heels of the general relief that Sula’s death brought a restless irritability took hold. Teapot, for example, went into the kitchen and asked his mother for some sugar-butter-bread. She got up to fix it and found that she had no butter, only oleomargarine. Too tired to mix the saffron-colored powder into the hard cake of oleo, she simply smeared the white stuff on the bread and sprinkled the sugar over it. Teapot tasted the difference and refused to eat it. This keenest of insults that a mother can feel, the rejection by a child of her food, bent her into fury and she beat him as she had not done since Sula knocked him down the steps. She was not alone. Other mothers who had defended their children from Sula’s malevolence (or who had defended their positions as mothers from Sula’s scorn for the role) now had nothing to rub up against. The tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made. Without her mockery, affection for others sank into flaccid disrepair. Daughters who had complained bitterly about the responsibilities of taking care of their aged mothers-in-law had altered when Sula locked Eva away, and they began cleaning those old women’s spittoons without a murmur. Now that Sula was dead and done with, they returned to a steeping resentment of the burdens of old people. Wives uncoddled their husbands; there seemed no further need to reinforce their vanity. And even those Negroes who had moved down from Canada to Medallion, who remarked every chance they got that they had never been slaves, felt a loosening of the reactionary compassion for Southern-born blacks Sula had inspired in them. They returned to their original claims of superiority.

I’ve heard more than one pair of left-right commentators long for a post-Trump future when they can return to their old debates, which would be a sign that both parties are operating as they should. In that event, will we forget, as the Medallion townsfolk do, the mutual love and respect that is possible? Perhaps. I like to think, however, that Morrison’s community never entirely forgets the love they discovered when Sula was commanding center stage.

To riff off of Queen Elizabeth I’s observation about Catholics, Protestants, and “one Christ, Jesus, one faith,” perhaps Democrats and Republican moderates can embrace the idea that there is only one United States of America and that “all else is a dispute over trifles.”

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

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

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