Trump as Browning’s Pied Piper

George John Pinwell, “Study for ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin”


Here’s something I didn’t see coming in these turbulent political times: someone applying Robert Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin to Donald Trump.

Kudos to Charlie Pierce of Esquire for doing so. At one point he describes Trump as the Pied Piper and the children as the voters he has conned. Then he reverses course and the piper becomes one of the subcontractors that Trump has cheated.

If you don’t know the poem, it begins with a description of Hamelin’s rat problem. This sounds a bit like the hellscape that, as Trump sees it, America has become under Barack Obama’s presidency:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Enter the man who claims he can fix Hamelin’s problems. Like Trump, the Pied Piper is good at blowing hot air although, unlike Trump, he can actually follow through on his promises:

Into the street the Piper stept, 
Smiling first a little smile, 
As if he knew what magic slept 
In his quiet pipe the while; 
Then, like a musical adept, 
To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled, 
And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled, 
Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled; 
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered, 
You heard as if an army muttered; 
And the muttering grew to a grumbling; 
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling; 
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling. 
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, 
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats, 
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers, 
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, 
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers, 
Families by tens and dozens, 
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives — 
Followed the Piper for their lives. 
From street to street he piped advancing, 
And step for step they followed dancing, 
Until they came to the river Weser 
Wherein all plunged and perished! 

As Pierce sees it, Trump will not be anywhere near as effective. Rather, his hot air serves only to lead his followers either into a river or a hole in a mountain. The one child who, because he is lame, escapes the fate of the others, describes the wonderful sounds he heard. It’s his version of the return of coal and manufacturing jobs, universal health care with no deductibles (“We’re going to have insurance for everybody”), and an America that looks like Mayfield in Leave it to Beaver:

I can’t forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new.

He sounds like a soon-to-be disaffected Trump voter. Or a previous enrollee in Trump University.

Pierce imagines how the children will respond once they awake from their trance:

And all the children of Hamelin looked around and thought to themselves, “Jesus H. Christ on a four-day bender, how in the everloving fck did we ever get inside this big-ass rock.”

The Esquire columnist then shifts gears, however, and imagines that Trump is Hamelin’s mayor rather than the piper—which is to say, a man who promises good money and then defaults. Here is the mayor applying what he thinks is leverage so as to pay only a fraction of what he owes, which is a thousand guilders:

A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue; 
So did the Corporation too. 
For council dinners made rare havoc 
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock; 
And half the money would replenish 
Their cellar’s biggest butt with Rhenish. 
To pay this sum to a wandering fellow 
With a gipsy coat of red and yellow! 
“Beside,” quoth the Mayor with a knowing wink, 
“Our business was done at the river’s brink; 
“We saw with our eyes the vermin sink, 
“And what’s dead can’t come to life, I think. 
“So, friend, we’re not the folks to shrink 
“From the duty of giving you something to drink, 
“And a matter of money to put in your poke; 
“But as for the guilders, what we spoke 
“Of them, as you very well know, was in joke. 
“Beside, our losses have made us thrifty. 
“A thousand guilders! Come, take fifty!”

See, it was all a joke: the piper should have looked at what was in the mayor’s heart rather than what came out of his mouth.

The piper, however, can fight back, as the townspeople learn to their sorrow. Pierce indulges in a revenge fantasy:

You will recall that the story of Hamelin really is nothing more than the story of a subcontractor who got stiffed and took his revenge. There are modern parallels to that, I’m thinking, and if, one day, a flautist dressed in motley shows up at the White House, we may all survive this yet.

With him I proved no bargain-driver,
With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!
And folks who put me in a passion
May find me pipe to another fashion.

What punishment would be appropriate for our PEOTUS conman? If we turned off the spotlight so that he had to be alone with his own emptiness, would he would feel as bereft as the Hamelin citizenry?

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The President Who Loved Literature

Barack Obama in Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, Iowa


Not the least of the things I will miss about Barack Obama will be his literary reflections. Since I believe, along with Jonathan Chait, that Obama has been one of America’s greatest presidents, it’s nice to think that we can give literature some of the credit for that. Even if you think, as some of my conservative readers do, that Obama’s presidency has been a disaster, you must admit that he has handled the office with class. So maybe literature at least encourages good behavior, even if Obama also pushed policies that you don’t like.

Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times, recently interviewed the president about his favorite books. His answers confirm his thoughtfulness and his depth.

Some of the titles I have not seen him mention before. For instance, talking about certain books that he has recommended to Malia, he is concerned that tastes have changed so that she might not encounter them in college. The books are

–Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead;
–Garcia Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude;
–Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
–Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Warrior Woman

All four of the novels show large historical forces at work: World War II, colonialism, leftist politics and the rise of feminism, immigration and the clash of cultures. I suspect that Woman Warrior (which includes the story of Mulan) would resonate most with Malia. At one time Kingston’s book was the most commonly taught novel on college campuses.

Obama noted that Malia has been drawn to one book that he didn’t recommend.She sounds like her father’s daughter:

A Moveable Feast. I hadn’t included that, and she was just captivated by the idea that Hemingway described his goal of writing one true thing every day.

Obama discussed how reading became important to him when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University:

I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But [reading fiction] reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

The president also talked about literature he is not drawn to. Mentioning that he once wrote short stories, he noted that they were not Jack Kerouac-style, open-road, self-discovery dramas:

And so a bunch of the short stories I wrote had to do with that sense, that atmosphere. One story is about an old black pastor who seems to be about to lose his church, his lease is running out and he’s got this loyal woman deacon who is trying to buck him up. Another is about an elderly couple — a white couple in L.A., — and he’s like in advertising, wrote jingles. And he’s just retired and has gotten cranky. And his wife is trying to convince him that his life is not over.

So when I think back on what’s interesting to me, there is not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.

Social realism, in other words, rather than expressive fiction.

Novels, Obama said, have been very important in helping him maintain his bearings over the past eight years:

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.

For example:

[T]he last novel I read was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. And the reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes minds and hearts.

The interviewer brought up Obama’s mention of Atticus Finch in his farewell address, which led to this interchange:

It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where Gilead and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Later in the interview Obama returns to this theme of using fiction to learn other perspectives, which philosopher Martha Nussbaum says is one of literature’s greatest gifts:

And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.

Then, appearing to talk about escapist fiction, Obama mentioned times when

I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

The works he mentions in this context, however, are not cheap spy novels but well crafted genre fiction, such as:

Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award winning sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem
Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl
Lauren Goff’s similarly structured domestic tour-de-force Fates and Furies

Kakutani astutely points out to Obama that Flynn and Goff’s books both feature wildly different accounts of the same reality. The reader is forced to be skeptical of the first person narrators, stepping into each character’s shoes to figure out the truth.

Obama talked about the importance of Shakespeare and, while it doesn’t sound like he ever warmed to The Tempest, the tragedies hit home. This isn’t surprising given his other reading choices. As always with Obama, he is interested in seeing how people’s lives are caught up in the movement of large forces. Earnest as Obama is, it makes sense that Prospero’s game playing would not appeal to him:

I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, The Tempest or something, I thought, “My God, this is boring.” And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

I’ve written before about Obama’s love for Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and it’s interesting that he mentions “going through hardship” when he discusses it. The hardship in the novel isn’t that acute: Milkman has been living an aimless middle class life (just as Obama once experimented with drugs) but then goes on a roots quest (as Obama went in search of his Kenyan father). He ultimately finds a greater purpose in his life, just as Obama did with community organizing:

[Literature] gives me a sense of perspective. I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly Song of Solomon is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.

Then there are authors that Obama reads even though he does not agree with them politically. For instance, he describes Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul as someone he uses as a foil. Given his faith in the American voter, expressed especially in his 2008 campaign and his farewell address, he feels challenged by Naipaul’s dismissal of weak people:

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His A Bend in the River, which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.

So in that sense, I’m using writing like that as a foil or something to debate against.

Finally, there are those authors who capture the immigrant and the outsider experiences, thereby helping establish America’s its special identity and mission:

I know you like Junot Díaz’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s books, and they speak to immigration or the American Dream.

I think Lahiri’s books, I think Díaz’s books, do speak to a very particular contemporary immigration experience. But also this combination of — that I think is universal — longing for this better place, but also feeling displaced and looking backwards at the same time. I think in that sense, their novels are directly connected to a lot of American literature.

Some of the great books by Jewish authors like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, they are steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up — what you’re willing to give up and what you’re not willing to give up. So that particular aspect of American fiction I think is still of great relevance today.

Because of the novel’s ability to speak to our deepest issues, Obama is not worried that it will be replaced by social media:

Look, I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species.

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

Get ready for four years of a president who doesn’t read.

Posted in Bellow (Saul), Cixin (Liu), Diaz (Junot), Flynn (Gillian), Goff (Lauren), Hemingway (Ernest), Jack Kerouac, Kerouac (Jack), Kingston (Maxine Hong), Lahiri (Jhumpa), Lee (Harper), Lessing (Doris), Mailer (Norman), Marquez (Gabriel Garcia), Morrison (Toni), Naipaul (V.S.), Robinson (Marilynne), Roth (Philip K.), Shakespeare (William), Whitehead (Colson) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Benefit When We Check Our Privilege

Martin Luther King at the march on Washington

Monday – Martin Luther King Day

Last week an article in The New York Times said that disagreements about “white privilege” are deterring at least some women from traveling to Washington to participate in the post-inaugural women’s march to protest Donald Trump. This is as good a day as any to discuss white privilege. I turn to Ralph Ellison and Lucille Clifton for clarity.

The article started off as follows:

Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.

The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.

“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.”

 That one Facebook post would deter someone from protesting Trump makes me wonder how committed the woman was in the first place. But it’s also true that organizers want people to wrestle with issues of privilege:

In some ways, the discord is by design. Even as they are working to ensure a smooth and unified march next week, the national organizers said they made a deliberate decision to highlight the plight of minority and undocumented immigrant women and provoke uncomfortable discussions about race.


A debate then ensued about whether white women were just now experiencing what minority women experience daily, or were having a hard time yielding control. A young white woman from Baltimore wrote with bitterness that white women who might have been victims of rape and abuse were being “asked to check their privilege,” a catchphrase that refers to people acknowledging their advantages, but which even some liberal women find unduly confrontational.

No one involved with the march fears that the rancor will dampen turnout; even many of those who expressed dismay at the tone of the discussion said they still intended to join what is sure to be the largest demonstration yet against the Trump presidency.

“I will march,” one wrote on the march’s Facebook page, “Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.”

But these debates over race also reflect deeper questions about the future of progressivism in the age of Trump. Should the march highlight what divides women, or what unites them? Is there room for women who have never heard of “white privilege”?

As an aside, I note that versions of this debate have been going on for over 150 years. In fact, pre-Civil War feminists and abolitionists found that their attempts at solidarity fractured over the debate between race vs. gender

It’s worth looking at some background here and for that, as so often, Ralph Ellison proves useful. What grates oppressed groups—and this can also include women, as I’ll be discussing shortly in my Lucille Clifton example—is when privileged people refuse to acknowledge that others may be struggling because they lack their advantages. Privilege can carry with it a kind of blindness, which is where Ellison’s novel comes in. At first the narrator sounds resigned:

I am not complaining [that people don’t see me], nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.

Invisible Man then talks about the indifference mutating into something else:

It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

A friend noted that this is why young black men (and sometimes women) stopped by the police sometimes push back. They are tired of being seen only as black faces—as phantoms of police minds—and refuse to abase themelves. And not only men: Sandra Bland was locked up for refusing to put out her cigarette when she was stopped for a busted taillight. Unfortunately, such little acts of protest can have outsized consequences, as we know only too well. The person of color is seen as uppity or threatening and suddenly shots are fired.

I’ve talked about how, following the election, many of my students of color felt rendered invisible by the outcome. They couldn’t believe that their fellow Americans were willing to overlook how Donald Trump, through his slurs, erased people of color and Muslims. My LBGTQ students felt the same, as did a number of women students.

In darker times, oppressed groups assumed racism and misogyny were simply facts that could not be changed. During the Obama years, however, they came to feel visible and, in this new atmosphere, began to take their individual personhood for granted. They felt aggrieved when even sympathetic souls proved to have blindnesses. No longer worried about macroaggressions, they started focusing on microaggressions. They expected more from those of us who are privileged.

Everyone benefits when we open our eyes. Speaking as a white straight middle class male, life is far richer when those around me are no longer phantoms. I become a deeper person when I don’t sightlessly bump into others but instead engage with them.

From my teaching, however, I also know that my white students become defensive or tune out as soon as I mention “white privilege.” What I do, therefore, is shift the grounds. People who are privileged in one context may be invisible in another.

For instance, even white women like Ms. Willis are erased when their ultimate worth is determined by a ten point scale. They are rendered invisible men think it is a matter of course to pinch them, make sexist slurs, or grab their private parts. I also know how liberating it can be for women to have their invisibility acknowledged because I have seen whole rooms of women stand and cheer when Lucille Clifton used to read “wishes for sons.”

I’ve written about the poem elsewhere so I’ll look only at the final stanza here. After pointing out that men can feel that they are in control because they don’t menstruate and then, later in life, experience hot flashes, Clifton writes that they might feel different if they were subjected to the power of people “not unlike themselves”:

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

The image is of someone in a vulnerable position negotiating with an authority figure. One wonders what Lucille’s own gynecological visits were like.

In his farewell speech, Obama quoted Atticus Finch saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As a mixed race child, Obama had no choice but to engage in this exercise. After all, the white grandparents who raised him had no idea what, as a child of color, he was going through. They probably came into their parenting duties with certain prejudices. They and their grandson had to learn a different way of seeing.

Once you open your eyes, your marriage will benefit, your work relationships will benefit, your communities will benefit, and your country will benefit. What more could we desire?

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

Martin Luther King delivering his April 3, 1968 “Mountaintop” speech

Spiritual Sunday

As today is Martin Luther King’s actual birthday and as he was a preacher, I examine the religious imagery that runs through James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which functions as the African American anthem. It is included in the Episcopal hymnal and doubtless that of other denominations.

The poem begins with thanking God for having granted freedom to former slaves. Singing rises to God like the incense from burnt sacrifices, the “rolling sea” may be the Red Sea that Moses parted, and the stony road is the 40 years in the desert. The “wine of the world” that distracts us, meanwhile, refers to the golden calf, and the chastening rod, an image that appears multiple times in the Bible, is a sign of God’s love: as Proverbs notes (13:24) “he that loves his son chastens him early.” We may disagree with this as good childrearing practice, but it helps Johnson make sense of the horrors of slavery.

Johnson, writing in 1899, couldn’t have seen how much more traveling and dying lay ahead. Yet the story uplifts because it provides hope and reassurance. King pulled the same lesson out of Exodus, as can be seen in the speech he delivered the day before he was killed. Knowing that there was a good chance that he would die—he was receiving hundreds of death threats every day—he conjures up the image of Moses, gazing down upon the Promised Land he was never to enter:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Here’s Johnson’s poem, which was set to music six years later by his brother:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand, True to our God,
True to our native land.

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Obama’s Problematic Allusion to Atticus

Atticus leaves the courtroom


In Barack Obama’s farewell speech Tuesday night, he quoted one of America’s most beloved characters: the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird.  While I appreciated the allusion, I also found myself thinking of the other Atticus Finch, the one who shows up as a segregationist and member of the White Citizens Council in the 2015 sequel Go Set a Watchman.

That’s because a fair number of white Americans underwent a comparable transformation in the course of the Obama presidency. As long as Obama resembled the docile Tom Robinson, then they were okay with him. When he started complaining about white injustice, however, he wasn’t quite so cool.

First of all, here’s what the president said:

But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction — Atticus Finch — (applause) — who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I’ve written several times (here for instance) about how To Kill a Mockingbird,  important though it was to me as a child, is a white liberal fantasy. One gets to stand up for what is right—for an innocent black man who has been falsely accused by “white trash”—and receive the adulation of the black community. One gets to be a white savior:

“Miss Jean Louise?”

I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

As Flannery O’Connor famously observed about the novel, “”It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

The childhood innocence has disappeared in the much maligned but, in my view, more realistic sequel. Atticus is disgruntled that African Americans no longer know their place and complains that the NAACP is messing up his world. Calpurnia, meanwhile, has quit his employ and doesn’t have nice things to say about him. When I read what the former housekeeper has to say about Atticus, the words of Jed Leland chastising Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane came to me:

You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered… Remember the working man?…You used to write an awful lot about the workingman…He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something is his right, not as your gift!

There were some key moments in Obama’s presidency where he began to fall out of favor with some of the white Americans who had voted for him. The first was when he let his anger show after Cambridge police arrested African American scholar William Henry Gates, who was trying to break into his own house. Obama’s popularity with these voters fell further when he said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” even though the sentiment endeared him to large segments of the African American community. Obama won the presidency, the indispensable James Bouie of Slate points out, only because he reassured whites that he wasn’t an angry black man. That he wasn’t Jeremiah Wright or Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. If he hadn’t done that, Bouie argues, he would have lost.

Understanding this dynamic helps us make sense of a rightwing accusation that otherwise seems unfathomable, that Obama stoked race hatred. In a country where race is as foundational as it is in America, to show even a little anger is like waving a red flag before a bull.

Obama quoting Atticus Finch, therefore, was a hearkening back to his 2008 campaign, when everything seemed possible. As much as I agreed with the ideas of the farewell speech (as I explain here), it also seemed like weak tea in the face of the looming threat of an authoritarian president. Optimism that isn’t grounded in reality becomes mere sentimentality.

Understanding how racism works, however, at least gives us a chance of combatting it. By studying the dynamic between Obama and a certain segment of the white population, progressives have a clearer sense of what we are up against. Besides, a black man winning the presidency is not nothing. We have a concrete instance of what can be accomplished, even if we are about to take a few steps back.

Further thought: To Obama’s credit, he himself has gone out of his way to follow Atticus’s credo and inhabit the skin of whites who hate him. Although it showed up as a gaffe in his 2008 campaign, that’s what he was trying to do when he talked about racists in rural Pennsylvania clinging “to guns and religion.” He saw this as a byproduct of economic bad times, and one of his great regrets was that he wasn’t able to do more for the middle class. (That being said, he did a fair amount.)

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Aristotle Changed the Way Europe Thought

Michelangelo, Plato, Aristotle, detail from “School of Athens”


 A few weeks ago I became totally absorbed in a book about medieval scholasticism. Before you stop reading, hear me out. Richard Rubenstein Aristotle’s Children is a compelling drama about how a set of ideas can remake the world: Europe’s rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th and 13th centuries dramatically changed the political, social, and religious landscape and even today continues to have an impact.

The book is also giving me a better understanding of the intersection of reason, religion, science, and magic as they surface in works that I teach, such as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Tempest, and John Donne’s poetry.

Aristotle’s systematic description of, well, everything was vital in the explosion of learning in medieval Europe. Nothing escapes Aristotle’s categorizing, from politics to literature to psychology to friendship to the soul. Rubinstein says that our beliefs about the medieval church’s relationship with science and reason have to be radically rethought once we examine how its leading thinkers responded to Aristotle:

The historical materials [about Aristotle’s reception] seemed to contradict much of what I had been taught to believe about the emergence of the modern world from medieval backwardness. I knew—or thought I knew—that the High Middle Ages in Europe was an era of passionate religious faith and the bloody Crusades, inquisitorial terror, and fierce doctrinal dogmatism. I knew—or thought I knew—that Aristotle was the Father of Science, a thinker who believed that human reason, not tradition, revelation, or sentiment, could uncover objective truths about the universe. Naturally, in bringing these volatile extremes together, I expected an explosion. The Aristotelian Revolution would no doubt be a drama like Galileo versus the Inquisition or Charles Darwin versus the Creationists: an earlier version of the modern morality play in which brave Reason suffers at the hands of villainous Superstition before triumphing in the sunny dawn of Science.

Wrong! The story I found myself telling was far more complex and interesting than this stock scenario. Yes, scientific thinking in the West did begin in the intellectual explosion that followed the rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings. But European Christians did not split into “rationalist” and “fundamentalist” camps, as I had expected. In a way that violated all my modernist preconceptions, the leading force for transformative change in Western thinking turned out to be the leadership of the Catholic Church—the very same leadership that was also conducting anti-Muslim Crusades and burning Christian heretics.

Rather than choose between the new learning and the old religion, the popes and scholars of the high Middle Ages tried to modernize the Church by reconciling faith and reason. This Herculean task generated one of the richest, most searching debates in Western history—a battle of innovative thinkers whose discussions ranged over a vast spectrum of disputed issues, from the nature of scientific knowledge and the basic structures of mind and matter to the hope of immortality, the problem of evil, the sources of moral value, and the basic criteria for living a good life.

Rubinstein admits that the relationship was an uneasy one. That uneasy relationship, however, proved to be productive rather than otherwise. Instability itself acted as a spur to innovation:

The great changes in European society that were intensifying people’s this-worldly interests and inclining them to value the pleasures of life on earth brought the two worldviews closer together. But instead of fusing, or one perspective eliminating the other, they existed from the twelfth century onward in a state of creative tension. Close enough to permit each worldview to “read” the other with understanding and to accept some of its ideas, they were far enough apart to generate continual dialogue and self-reflection. The Aristotelian tendency was always to emphasize the autonomy of nature and human history, while the Christian tendency was to insist on God’s personality and providential activity in the world. But both tendencies were present in the minds of the same individuals—men like Bonaventure and Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme. The great scholastics did not see this as an either/or choice. Their passionate preference was for both/and.

Christian thinkers of the medieval renaissance could not rest content with the idea either that the world was a puppet show with God pulling the strings or that it was a godless machine. Nor could they accept the choice between a human nature totally depraved and entirely dependent upon God’s arbitrary will or one totally free and self-determining.

Rubinstein talks about how, in early Christianity, Plato was the more influential philosopher, with Aristotle all but forgotten. St. Augustine, distraught over the fall of Rome, was drawn to Plato’s vision that our reality is just a shadow of a world of ideal forms, which for Augustine was “the city of God.” Augustine wasn’t interested in Aristotle’s meticulous exploration of the empirical world.

Jewish and Islamic scholars, however, kept Aristotle alive, and his writings hit Europe with seismic force in the 12th century. Rubinstein provides a fascinating explanation for why certain eras prefer Plato and others Aristotle:

In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society. The natural world seems to them vast and harmonious, populated by highly individualized people and things, but integrated, purposeful, and beautiful. Aristotelian thinkers know that they will die as all nature’s creatures do, but the environment that nurtures them seems immortal, and this gives meaning to their lives. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their more common vices.

Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatized by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves—not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be—far, indeed, from what, in some other dimension, it truly is. Latter-day Platonists are haunted by a sense that the world people call real is, at least in part, illusory…and this is also the source of their longing. They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) are self-hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.

While Rubinstein talks about eras, his contrast also suggests different psychological types. In terms of our current political battles, Obama followers sound more like Aristotelians, Trump followers—certainly those of his Christian supporters who reject science and focus on life after death—more like Platonists. Or Augustinians, if you prefer.

In his conclusion Rubinstein notes that both science and religion suffered when the Aristotelian era came to an end. He doesn’t say exactly when this occurred, but by the 17th and 18th centuries religion and science, faith and reason, were starting to go their own ways. Life was diminished as a result:

Science, deprived of its connection with religious faith, has become increasingly technical and “value-free,” while religious commitments, cut loose from their naturalistic moorings, seem increasingly a matter of arbitrary “instincts” or tastes. Worse yet, with global economic and military power concentrating at an unprecedented rate in the hands of a few powerful elites, both faith and reason tend to become tools in the hands of raw, self-aggrandizing power.

I won’t go into detail how my new understanding of these intellectual currents and tensions help me make sense of the works I teach. Suffice it to say that the way that magic and science are mixed up together in Doctor Faustus; the ambiguous status of the wizard figure in The Tempest (does Shakespeare approve of Prospero being a wizard or is he glad to see him drown his book?); and Donne sliding easily between the physical and the metaphysical worlds; make more sense to me now. I’ve taught these tensions but didn’t fully appreciate how the authors reflected their times rather than representing radical departures.

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Obama Calls Upon Us To Be Wiglaf


Listening to Barack Obama’s teary farewell speech last night, I heard him calling upon us to become Wiglafs. I write about Beowulf’s nephew–how he steps up when his king is reaching his end–in my book How Beowulf Can Save America, and I quote some of the appropriate passages below.

In the book I talk about the danger of leaders who, because they claim to have all the answers, fail to empower their followers. Beowulf is one such leader, which is why he finds himself wrestling with a dragon at the end of his life. He disempowers his men by hoarding glory, just as the dragon hoards gold. His society falls apart after he dies.

We the people also bear some responsibility in this. We turn leaders, or the memory of leaders, into glory-hoarding dragons when we fetishize them, as people have done with Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan and may be tempted to with Obama. To his credit, the president was warning us against this when he said that we, not he, were most responsible for the achievements that occurred during his presidency.

Just as it is a leader’s responsibility to empower his or her successors, so it is ours to step up to the challenge. This is what Obama was calling upon us to do near the end of his speech: 

But remember, none of this happens [rebuilding our democratic institutions] on its own. All of this depends on our participation, on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power.

We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms, whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.


It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. To embrace the joyous task we’ve been given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy — citizen.


So you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself.

Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes, you’ll win. Sometimes you lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that could be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this work and to see up close, let me tell you — it can energize and inspire.

And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed.

In the poem, Beowulf initially wants to fight the dragon all by himself, which is itself a dragon trait. “The fight is not yours,” he tells his men, and, “I shall win the gold/ by my courage, or else mortal combat,
doom of battle,/ will bear your lord away.” Disobeying orders, Wiglaf goes to his aid and together they defeat the monster.

Wiglaf is the poem’s version of the “young people”–America’s future–that Obama mentioned time and again in his speech. At one point, he called them “unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic” and said, “You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.” Because, like Obama, I fear that many of them may lose faith in America with the election of Donald Trump, here’s an excerpt from my book:

It seems appropriate to end this chapter with Wiglaf, who represents the next generation. Looking around him, he sees disheartened followers who relied on Beowulf to provide them with comfortable lives and who then, at the first hint of trouble, fled the scene. While there’s a hint of criticism for Beowulf in Wiglaf’s words, the emphasis falls on his gratitude for what the king and the nation have done for him. He therefore resolves to risk everything in their service. As he says to his fellow warriors:

 And now, although
He [Beowulf] wanted this challenge to be one he’d face
by himself alone—the shepherd of our land,
a man unequaled in the quest for glory
and a name for daring—now the day has come
when this lord we serve needs sound men
to give him their support. Let us go to him,
help our leader through the hot flame
and dread of the fire. As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robed in the same
burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body
than go back home bearing arms.

Dragon cynicism saps our fortitude, challenges our ideals, and sends us running for cover. In our fear and anger, we put our own selfish needs over everything else. Wiglaf reminds us how heroes respond and what they can accomplish. Working together, we can free up “a treasure-trove of astonishing richness.”

Looking ahead to a Trump presidency without once mentioning it, Obama warned us that democracies cannot be taken for granted. During the Obama years, many liberals and many young people came to believe that America had evolved to a tolerant, pluralistic society. They experienced a rude awakening on election night. Like Beowulf’s men, we became complacent and now may find ourselves panicking in his final days.

Democracy demands that we be warriors. Time to step up and wade into the flames.

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Lit As a Framework for Exploring Death

A dying Paul Kalinithi and his daughter Cady


 Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is an account by an English major-turned-neurosurgeon who looked to both literature and science to find meaning in life and then in his own death. Kalanithi wrote the book when he was dying of terminal cancer at 37.

I’ve written about how Kalanithi moved from literature to science and then back to literature as he grappled with his questions. At one point he saw language

as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.

When literature didn’t seem experiential enough, he turned to hands-on medicine to get closer to these brains, only to turn again to literature again in his dying months when science itself came up short. In today’s post I look at the various works of literature he mentions to see the role that they play.

Here he is turning back to literature, specifically to those writers who focus on mortality:

Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again. Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients—anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality. I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language. Hemingway described his process in similar terms: acquiring rich experiences, then retreating to cogitate and write about them. I needed words to go forward.

Baron Brook Fulke Greville, an Elizabethan poet, gave Kalanithi the title of his book. “Caelica 83” focuses on the moment when breath becomes air—which is to say, when bodies with souls becomes mere materiality:

You that seek what life is in death, 
Now find it air that once was breath. 
New names unknown, old names gone: 
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
          Reader! then make time, while you be,
            But steps to your eternity.

Kalanithi several times quotes T. S. Eliot, who is also drawn to this fateful moment. In “Whisper of Immorality” Eliot cites Jacobean playwright John Webster as sharing his own obsession:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Eliot’s articulates the same contrast in The Wasteland with his allusion to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:

But at my back in a cold blast I hear
the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

Although he talks at one point about his Christian faith, Kalanithi never uses the spiritual language that shows up in, say, Death of Ivan Ilych. For much of the book, he turns to existential questioning and sometimes to the theater of the absurd. For instance, Kalanithi is comforted that someone like Samuel Beckett voices his sense of being lost. Here’s a passage from Waiting for Godot that comes to his mind when he hears about a pair of twins dying soon after being born prematurely:

One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second….Birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Meanwhile Krapp’s Last Tape, also by Beckett, helps him with his own dying:

And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day—no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over. “I can’t go on, “I’ll go on.”

At one point he quotes one of the great absurdist quotations from King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport. 

This, however, takes him to a nobler framing of his situation. He comes to see us as heroes in a Greek tragedy rather than Beckett’s theater of the absurd. This is to say that, while we don’t have control over our fates—a modern notion—we can choose how we respond. Kalanithi arrives at this conclusion after his oncologist says something that seems oracular:

From the Enlightenment onward, the individual occupied center stage. But now I lived in a different world, a more ancient one, where human action paled against superhuman forces, a world that was more Greek tragedy than Shakespeare. No amount of effort can help Oedipus and his parents escape their fates; their only access to the forces controlling their lives is through the oracles and seers, those given divine vision. What I had come for was not a treatment plan—I had read enough to know the medical ways forward—but the comfort of oracular wisdom.

“This is not the end,” she [his oncologist] said, a line she must have used a thousand times—after all, did I not use similar speeches to my own patients?—to those seeking impossible answers. “Or even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning.”

And I felt better.

This broader acceptance–the sense that we don’t have to be in control–helps explain why Kalanithi is no longer quoting absurdist passages by the end of the book. Though he has earlier turned to the dark passages from Eliot’s Waste Land, now he is quoting the sense of peace that Eliot achieves by the end. This peace comes with giving oneself over to a higher power. “Damyata” means to have self control:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

It is in this spirit of acceptance that the final passage in the book can be read. Upon hearing that he had terminal cancer, Kalanithi and his wife decided to have a child, and in his final weeks Kalanithi gives himself over to the love of this child. He concludes When Breath Becomes Air with a note to Cady:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Literature doesn’t provide Kalanithi with an answer, as he thought it would when he wrote a Master’s thesis about Walt Whitman trying to resolve the “Physiological-Spiritual split.” Rather, it provides him with a language and a framework for the line between breath and air. Because of that language and that framework, even as he is dying of cancer he is able to experience a deep joy.

Added note: I very much identify with Kalinthi’s obsessive reading after he learned he was going to die. After I lost my eldest son, I couldn’t stop reading elegies, including Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais, and, above all, Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Every day when I would get back from work, I would dip randomly into Tennyson’s poem and see what it had to teach me that day.

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Reading Lit To Find the Meaning of Life

Matthias Stomer, “Young Man Reading by Candlelight”


I spent all day yesterday driving from Tennessee to Maryland so today’s post is just a teaser. I finally got around to reading neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and it is as good as I hoped it would be. Kalanithi draws on both his knowledge of literature (he has a Master’s degree in English) and his knowledge of medicine to make sense of the fact that he is dying. Tomorrow I will delve into the use he makes of specific works. This passage gives you a taste:

A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees [as an undergraduate at Stanford] in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand in earnest. What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land resonated profoundly relating meaninglessness and isolation, and the desperate quest for human connection. I found Eliot’s metaphors leaking into my own language. Other authors resonated as well. Nabokov, for his awareness of how our suffering can make us callous to the obvious suffering of another. Conrad, for his hypertuned sense of how miscommunication between people can so profoundly impact their lives. Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.

Kalanithi sounds very much like Sir Philip Sidney in expressing his dissatisfaction with philosophy although one philosopher he would probably like very much is Martha Nussbaum, who talks about the power of literature to help us enter the mind of another. But I’ll talk more about this tomorrow.

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The Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

Sassetta, “Journey of the Magi” (c. 1425)

Spiritual Sunday – First Sunday in Epiphany

I repost today an Epiphany poem by my father that I shared five years ago. Epiphany is when Christians celebrate the entry into the world of the radical new idea that love is more powerful than death.  To call the idea counterintuitive is a spectacular understatement.  Fear can rule our lives, which is why we need constant prayer and worship to rekindle our faith.  The notion that love can trump death didn’t originate with Jesus, but he embodied it so powerfully that it caught on.

Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, the three wise men, stand in for the greater world.   They also represent mystical wisdom.  Perhaps we could say that the shepherds who came to see the infant Jesus have the simple faith of the heart whereas the magi have the higher wisdom of the head. (This is how Auden sees it in the poem I posted last week.) Neither is complete without the other.

In the past I have written about T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” where one of the kings recalls the moment, years ago, when he saw the Christ child.  He remembers that the journey to Bethlehem was hard but worth the suffering.  Since that time the vision has clouded over, and he is “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/With an alien people clutching their gods.”

Today’s poem, considerably lighter, takes the vantage point of one of the camels.  Rather than lamenting the loss of belief (a nonstop Eliot theme that eventually becomes tiresome), the poem tells us to be good community citizens.  Regardless of where we live and what we do, we can live in love and service.  That, the camel tells us, is how Christ’s love manifests itself in the world.

There is an implied criticism in the poem of the kings for not having stuck it out with the Christ child–that’s why the camel has to slip away–so perhaps the poem does echo Eliot’s.  We once were in touch with divinity before returning to our normal lives.

Then again, as I said, we all of us lose the vision and must rediscover it.  Again and again.

You’ll probably recognize the Biblical allusion in the final stanza but, in case you don’t, it’s Jesus’ assertion (Matthew 19:24) that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” “Effendi” is Arabic for “Master.”

Here’s the poem:

Fable of the Third Christmas Camel

By Scott Bates

(Editor’s note: The following poetic fragment, evidently an overlooked scrap of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was recently discovered near Jerusalem, stuck to the bottom of an empty bagel can. We offer here an approximate translation into modern English of this invaluable historical document.)

I went all the way
But on the return trip
I gave the caravan
The slip

One desert night
Quit Balthazar
With all his frankincense
And myrrh

And headed out
Across the sand
It was dawn when I came
To this strange land

And found this family
Living here
Without a camel
Because they were poor

So I stayed with them
Carried their hides
Gave all the kids
Free camel rides

Sat with the baby
Worked with the man
Sang them ballads
Of Ispahan

Carried the water
Pulled the plow
Loved my neighbor
Who was a cow

I like it here
I’m staying with them
As I wanted to stay
In Bethlehem

With that other
Family I knew
Which proves Effendi
That passing through

The eye of a needle
Is an easier thing
For a camel
Than a king

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Personal News: A 2018 Retirement

Dumbledore portrait


 Okay, I’ve officially done it: I’ve notified St. Mary’s College of Maryland that I will be retiring in June 2018, which is when I turn 67. That means that I will teach eight or nine more courses (depending on how many senior projects I supervise) and then call it quits.

I have mixed feelings about the decision. I love teaching and have learned much more about literature from interacting with my students than I ever could have done on my own. Even after almost 40 years in the profession, new perspectives open up for me every time I teach a course. I wonder how I am going to compensate for that.

On the other hand, ends of semesters have become increasingly difficult. I spent practically every moment of this past Thanksgiving vacation reading student essays—after all these years, a 5-7 page essay still takes me 30-40 minutes to grade–and then the following two weeks were filled with individual student conferences. Everything that wasn’t related to teaching got put on hold. No time for reading, for meeting with friends, for tennis, for anything, really.

This, of course, is what insures the quality of small liberal arts colleges and also make them expensive. The attention we pay to individual students requires small classes (my average class size is 15-18) and can never be automated. In every essay I receive, I look for the special connection between work and student. It’s not always clear—the essays are often a mess because writing is hard—but once I figure it out, I can provide the feedback the student needs to write a good revision. The revision conferences are among the most profound interactions I have with students.

I don’t begrudge the time. I couldn’t have asked for a better job. It’s just that it’s time to do something else. And time to open up a slot for a newly minted Ph.D.

Of course, I bring some of the time pressures on myself by writing daily essays for Better Living through Beowulf. Given that the essay writing makes me a better teacher and gives me a chance to acknowledge my students’ ideas, however, the blog essays seem essential. Furthermore, they will give me something to do once I retire.

The time spent reading student essays is not the only reason to retire. I miss Julia, who has been spending half her time supporting my mother in Sewanee, Tennessee and half her time in Suwanee, Georgia doing “granny care” with our three grandchildren. I’m ready to spend much more time with her.

With a retirement date in my sights, I am looking almost nostalgically at the final courses I will teach at St. Mary’s. I will teach my beloved “Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy” course once more and also my “Theories of the Reader” senior seminar. I plan one new course, “Five Masterpieces of Magical Realism,” in which I will probably teach Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’ll also teach British Fantasy, Introduction to Literature (with an Environmental Studies focus), British Literature I, a first year seminar (either Murakami or Jane Austen), and one or two others. Each of these courses is precious to me.

I’m still don’t know what I think about retirement. I’m not quite at the stage of William Savage Landor’s dying philosopher: “The fire is low and I am ready to depart.” I don’t quite see myself, to borrow from Longfellow, folding my tent like the Arabs and quietly stealing away.

But I’m also not going to be pulling a Tennysonian Ulysses and start complaining about an aged wife and a stale domestic life. I don’t see myself smiting sounding furrows and getting washed down by gulfs.

I’m envisioning something in between. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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The “Buried Giant” of Fascism Stirs

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of “The Buried Giant”


 My book discussion group is reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015) this month. While some see the novel as a meditation on repressed trauma—and they’re not wrong—for me that novel works as a fairy tale parable about the tensions that led to Brexit. Or if that’s too specific, the novel captures that shakiness of the European Union and modern liberalism generally, which is being threatened by far right parties. For that reason it captures the American experience as well.

The novel is set in early medieval Britain when the Britons and the Saxons are maintaining an uneasy truce. King Arthur, a Briton, has departed, but Sir Gawain is still alive, and his job (spoiler alert) is to protect a dragon whose breath spreads forgetfulness throughout the land. As it turns out, the dragon is Merlin’s project. Britain has experienced much savagery during the Briton-Saxon wars, including the slaughter of civilians, and Arthur believes that peace can be restored only if everyone forgets the past. Gawain explains how the forgetfulness was engineered:

Even before that [Briton-Saxon] battle was properly won, I rode out with four good comrades to tame this same creature, in those days both mighty and angry, so Merlin could place this great spell on her breath. A dark man he may have been, but in this he did God’s will, not only Arthur’s. Without this she-dragon’s breath, would peace ever have come? Look how we live now, sir! Old foes as cousins, village by village.

Doesn’t this sound like the European peace that has reigned since the end of World War II and that was solidified with the EU? Now, however, ancient grievances are being revisited, the UK has withdrawn, and rightwing nationalists are on the rise in France, Poland, Germany, and elsewhere.

In the novel, it so happens that peace is on its last legs, even with Merlin’s machinations. The dragon has lost his original vigor and proves easy to kill. A Briton who witnesses the slaying hopes for the best but is brought back to earth by the Saxon warrior who delivers the blow:

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

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

While Wistan himself can’t entirely commit himself to this new cause—he has lived too long with Britons to be totally committed to vengeance—he has trained a young warrior who will be fanatical in the Saxon cause. The future does not look good.

Like many readers, I first became aware of the Anglo-Japanese Ishiguro from his Remains of the Day (1989), which describes creeping fascism in an upper class British household in the 1930s. The butler refuses to question his master and averts his eyes when a Jewish servant is sent back to Germany, probably to die. Here he may be writing about fascism again. In contemporary Europe and the United States, quick-tongued men make ancient grievance and the giant of tribal hatreds, once well buried, stirs.

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Morrison: Where America Went Wrong


In recent months I’ve been on a Toni Morrison binge—I’ve now read everything except for Jazz and God Help the Child—and I never cease to be amazed at how timely her fiction is. In A Mercy (2008) Morrison takes a trip back into America’s origins to understand our race, ethnic and class conflicts. The novel is set in late 17th century Maryland, Virginia and New York, and we see both the promise of America and what will go wrong.

Morrison concludes that race and class prejudices will overwhelm even good faith efforts to get along. The novel was written in 2008 but it reads more as though it were written in 2016. Or rather, it seems to reflect the hope and change of the Obama 2008 campaign and then to predict Trump’s rightwing backlash.

Jacob Vaark is a New York farmer and trader who sets up a humane establishment. Included in his farm community are his wife Rebekka, rescued from a life of horror in London; an Indian slave (Messalina, a.k.a. Lina); a black slave (Florens); a multiracial slave rescued from a shipwreck (Sorrow); and two indentured—essentially enslaved—white servants (Willard and Scully). Despite the slavery, Jacob is a humane man who thinks he can buck his society and treat these people as individuals. This means keeping his bigoted Anabaptist neighbors at arm’s length and also looking down upon the extravagance of a man who owes him money, a Portuguese aristocrat who strives to recreate a European-style class system in Catholic Maryland. In other words, Jacob is a liberal facing pressure from Christian fundamentalists and sparring with Establishment types.

In the 17th century, no one knew how America would turn out. I can’t sum up Morrison’s vision of the new world better than John Updike does in his New Yorker review:

A Mercy takes us deeper into the bygone than any of Morrison’s previous novels, into a Southern seaboard still up for grabs: “1682 and Virginia was still a mess.” Indian tribes haunt the endless forest; the colonial claims of the Swedes and the Dutch have been recently repelled, and “from one year to another any stretch might be claimed by a church, controlled by a Company or become the private property of a royal’s gift to a son or a favorite.” Jacob Vaark, coming from England to take possession of a hundred and twenty acres bequeathed to him by an uncle he never met, rides from Chesapeake Bay into “Mary’s land which, at the moment, belonged to the king. Entirely.” The advantage of this private ownership is that the province allows trade with foreign markets, and Vaark is more trader than farmer at heart. The disadvantage is that “the palatinate was Romish to the core. Priests strode openly in its towns; their temples menaced its squares; their sinister missions cropped up at the edge of native villages.” His claim lies in Protestant Virginia, “seven miles from a hamlet founded by Separatists” who “had bolted from their brethren over the question of the Chosen versus the universal nature of salvation.”

Morrison’s project reminds me of Wayne Karlin’s 1998 novel Wished For Country (written about here), in which 17th century settlers, as well as indentured servants and slaves, project their desires onto a very violent new world. Both Karlin and Morrison have come up with versions of America’s heart of darkness.

For a while, however, Jacob’s arrangement works. Messalina develops a close friendship with her mistress and also with African American Florens. The two white indentured servants get along well with the people of color and also develop a homosexual relationship. Jacobs, meanwhile, becomes a slave owner almost by accident: the women have been cast off by people less tolerant or, in Florens’s case, sold to him to pay off a debt (he accepts her only to console his wife for the loss of a child). Jacob allows Lina, the one survivor from a disease-stricken Indian village, to practice various tribal customs (such as sleeping in a hammock). His wife Rebekka, meanwhile, turns away from the Anabaptists because of how they consign her unbaptized children to hell. It appears that the Vaark household will be able to escape dogma and oppression.

One of the novel’s most beautiful passages describes Rebekka’s love of the new world, a scene that reminds me of the community picnic in Beloved. The new country seems to offer a chance to begin anew:

The absence of city and shipboard stench rocked her into a kind of drunkenness that it took years to sober up from and take sweet air for granted. Rain itself became a brand-new thing: clean, sootless water falling from the sky. She clasped her hands under her chin gazing at trees taller than a cathedral, wood for warmth so plentiful it made her laugh, then weep, for her brothers and the children freezing in the city she had left behind. She had never seen birds like these, or tasted fresh water that ran over visible white stones. There was adventure in learning to cook game she’d never heard of and acquiring a taste for roast swan.

Sadly, it cannot last, and the corruption seems to stem from the moment Jacob starts yearning for the style of life lived by the Portuguese aristocrat. In modern terms, he wants to become part of the Establishment. Jacob begins speculating in the Barbados slave-sugar-rum trade (known as the triangle trade) and uses the considerable profits to build an extravagant house. America’s original sin, Morrison suggests, is greed for wealth and the means used to get it:

Killing trees in that number, without asking their permission, of course his efforts would stir up malfortune. Sure enough, when the house was close to completion he fell sick with nothing else on his mind.

 Jacob dies and Rebekka almost does. When she recovers, attempting to find some meaning in a life that has gone off the rails, she turns to the Anabaptists. From a promising multicultural project, the farm falls into rigidity. Here is Florens reporting on what happens:

Mistress has cure but she is not well. Her heart is infidel. All smiles are gone. Each time she returns from the meetinghouse her eyes are nowhere and have no inside…Mistress’ eyes only look out and what she is seeing is not to her liking. Her dress is dark and quiet. She prays much. She makes us all, Lina, Sorrow, Sorrow’s daughter and me, no matter the weather, sleep either in the cowshed or the storeroom where bricks rope tools all manner of building waste are. Outside sleeping is for savages she says, so no more hammocks under trees for Lina and me even in fine weather…She does not know I am here [in the house] every night else she will whip me too as she believes her piety demands. Her churchgoing alters her but I don’t believe they tell her to behave that way. These rules are her own and she is not the same. Scully and Willard say she is putting me up for sale. But not Lina…Worse is how Mistress is to Lina. She requires her company on the way to church but sits her by the road in all weather because she cannot enter. Lina can no longer bathe in the river and must cultivate alone. I am never hearing how they once talk and laugh together while tending garden.

Morrison’s fiction seems to have gotten darker since the inspiring Song of Solomon, Obama’s favorite novel. At the moment I’m having difficulty disagreeing with her pessimism about a polarized America.

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My Next Project: How Lit Changed History


My major New Year’s resolution is to make substantive progress on my book. To kick off the process, I lay out today a tentative table of contents. I’ve written about many of the subjects over the years.

The book is tentatively entitled How Literature Changed Western History. I will have two sections, one devoted to what great minds have said about literature’s impact on readers and one devoted to specific examples. At the advice of a publisher who visited our campus, I envision 40 or so short chapters averaging 2-4 pages each. The book will be directed at a general audience but will have to hold its own before the judgment of the scholarly community. I’m not entirely committed to every work on the list but it will give you a sense of the book’s scope.

I’ll note that, in describing impact, I’ll sometimes be talking about works that led to specific events (Uncle Tom Cabin’s connection with the Civil War) and sometimes ways that the works got us to think about reality differently. Sometimes I focus on the impact of the work when it came out, sometimes centuries later, sometimes both. (As an example of the latter, Jane Eyre influenced the rise of governess unions in the 19th century and later played a role in both the suffragette movement and 1970s feminism.) In all instances, as I do daily on this blog, I will focus on concrete examples.

Part I – Theories of Literature’s Impact
–Sir Philip Sidney
–Samuel Johnson
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
–Matthew Arnold
–Bertolt Brecht
–Terry Eagleton
–Franz Fanon
–Hans Robert Jauss
–Tania Modleski
–Martha Nussbaum

Part II – Examples
–Homer, The Iliad
–Sophocles, Antigone
Virgil, The Aeneid
–Dante, The Divine Comedy
–Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
–Marlowe, The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus
–Shakespeare, Hamlet
–John Milton, Paradise Lost
–Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
–Goethe, Sorrows of Young Werther
–Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
–Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
–Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
–Tolstoy, War and Peace
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
–Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness & Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
–Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray
–Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
–Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
–Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

You’ll be hearing much more about this in the months to come.

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Dying of a Broken Heart

Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher


Today I offer up a couple of 18th century British items. First, regarding actress Debbie Reynolds’s death the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died, I know what Henry Fielding’s diagnosis would have been. Recent research bolsters what Field declared in Tom Jones: people can die of a broken heart.

Also, thanks to The Atlantic, I have a list of Jonathan Swift’s new year’s resolutions, written when he was 32 but discovered amongst his personal papers after he died decades later.

Regarding death by broken heart, following Reynolds’s death The Washington Post reported that people can die when “the left ventricle of the heart, which has the main responsibility for pumping, [is] weakened and mimick[s] the symptoms of a heart attack”:

[Japanese physician Hikaru] Sato dubbed the condition Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a name derived from an octopus trap because of the left ventricle’s shape, which has been described as similar to a kind of fishing pot in Japan that has a round bottom with a narrow neck that makes it difficult for a catch to escape. But since then, the illness has become more popularly known by a different name: “broken-heart syndrome.”

Researchers now accept that this condition is a real one and not just one of soap operas and myths. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine published in 2005 is among those that confirmed that a flood of stress hormones may be able to “stun” the heart to produce heart spasms in otherwise healthy people.

Here is Fielding describing the death of Dr. Blifil, the man who convinces Squire Allworthy to let his sister marry Blifil’s mercenary brother Captain Blifil. Once possessed of Bridget’s hand, the captain coldly cuts off his brother, leading to a case of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy:

The doctor went directly to London, where he died soon after of a broken heart; a distemper which kills many more than is generally imagined, and would have a fair title to a place in the bill of mortality, did it not differ in one instance from all other diseases—viz., that no physician can cure it.

That last comment is a dig at 18th century doctors, who only categorize illnesses that they can profit from. I should add that Dr. Blifil’s broken heart arises from a complicated mixture of emotions: bitterness at his brother is combined with his own sense that he has done wrong.

Famous for his pranks, Swift compiling his list of resolutions is totally in character. Make sure you read all the way to the end:

When I come to be old. 1699. 

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare [and to hate and to avoid those who strive to catch an inheritance]
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none. 

So there you have it–if you don’t make any resolutions, you won’t break any.

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Joy of Life Revealed in Love’s Creation

Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Spiritual Sunday – New Year’s Day

Celebrate the New Year by remembering God’s new creation! As today’s Gospel reading involves the shepherds, I have pulled out the shepherd sections from W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Standing in for the lower classes and for body rather than intellect, the shepherds find in Christ’s birth the meaning and full personhood they have been longing for.

The Gospel reading involving shepherds is Luke 2:15-20:

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 

Auden, who had leftist sympathies, sees the shepherds as striving to hold their own in a world where the wealthy want them to remain poor and leftist parties want them to donate their lives to the revolution. The shepherds, reframed as industrial workers, know they are seen as cogs and sometimes feel so beaten down by the machinery that they contemplate suicide. But they consider themselves to be worthy of respect and rejoice at the Angels’ declaration that God’s Love has taken human form:

The First Shepherd: The winter night requires our constant attention,
   Watching that water and good-will,
Warmth and well-being, may still be there in the morning.  
The Second Shepherd: For behind the spontaneous joy of life
There is always a mechanism to keep going,  
The Third Shepherd: And someone like us is always there.
The First Shepherd: We observe that those who assure us their education
   And money would do us such harm,
How real we are just as we are, and how they envy us,  
   For it is the centerless tree
And the uncivilized robin who are the truly happy,  
   Have done pretty well for themselves:  
The Second Shepherd: Nor can we help noticing how those who insist that  
   We ought to stand up for our rights,
And how important we are, keep insisting also  
   That it doesn’t matter a bit
If one of us gets arrested or injured, for  
   It is only our numbers that count.  
The Third Shepherd: In a way they are right,
The First Shepherd: But to behave like a cogwheel
   When one knows one is no such thing,  
The Second Shepherd: Merely to add to a crowd with one’s passionate body,
   Is not a virtue.  
The Third Shepherd: What is real
About us all is that each of us is waiting.  
The First Shepherd: That is why we are able to bear
Ready-made clothes, second-hand art and opinions
And being washed and ordered about;  
The Second Shepherd: That is why you should not take our conversation
   Too seriously, nor read too much
Into our songs;    
The Third Shepherd: Their purpose is mainly to keep us
   From watching the clock all the time.  
The First Shepherd: For, though we cannot say why, we know that something
   Will happen:  
The Second Shepherd: What we cannot say,  
The Third Shepherd: Except that it will not be a reporter’s item
   Of unusual human interest;  
The First Shepherd: That always means something unpleasant.  
The Second Shepherd: But one day or
   The next we shall hear the Good News,   


Levers nudge the aching wrist;  
   “Thou are free  
   Not to be,  
   Why exist?”
Wheels a thousand times a minute  
   Mutter, stutter,  
“End the self you cannot mend,
Did you, friend, begin it?”  
   And the streets
   Sniff at our defeats.
Then who is the Unknown
Who answers for our fear
As if it were His own,
So that we reply
Till the day we die;
“No, I don’t know why,
But I’m glad I’m here”? 


Chorus of Angels:  
Unto you a Child,
A Son is given.
Praising, proclaiming
The ingression of Love,
Earth’s darkness invents
The blaze of Heaven,
And frigid silence
Meditates a song;
For great joy has filled
The narrow and the sad,
While the emphasis
Of the rough and big,
The abiding crag
And wandering wave,
Is on forgiveness:
Sing Glory to God
And good-will to men,
All, all, all of them.
Run to Bethlehem.    
Let us run to learn
How to love and run;
Let us run to Love.
Now all things living,  
Domestic or wild,  
With whom you must share  
Light, water, and air,  
And suffer and shake  
In physical need,  
The sullen limpet,  
The exuberant weed,  
The mischievous cat,  
And the timid bird,  
Are glad for your sake  
As the new-born Word  
Declares that the old  
Constraint is replaced  
By His Covenant,  
And a city based  
On love and consent  
Suggested to men,  
All, all, all of them.  
Run to Bethlehem.
Let us run to learn
How to love and run;
Let us run to Love.
The primitive dead
Progress in your blood,
And generations
Of the unborn, all
Are leaping for joy
In your veins today
When the Many shall,
Once in your common
Certainty of this    
Child’s lovableness,
Resemble the One,
That after today
The children of men
May be certain that
The Father Abyss
Is affectionate
To all Its creatures,
All, all, all of them.
Run to Bethlehem.

Later in the oratorio, the shepherds arrive at the manger along with the wise men. The two groups alternate in a dialogue between intellect and body. Each men in each group need Love in their own way and each, in humility, ask forgiveness. The Wise Men regret the arrogance that sets them apart, the shepherds the resentment that eats away at their hearts:

First Shepherd: We never left the place where we were born,  
Second Shepherd: Have only lived one day, but every day,  
Third Shepherd:  Have walked a thousand miles yet only worn
The grass between our work and home away.  
First Shepherd: Lonely we were though never left alone.  
Second Shepherd: The solitude familiar to the poor  
Is feeling that the family next door,  
The way it talks, eats, dresses, loves, and hates,  
Is indistinguishable from one’s own.  
Third Shepherd: Tonight for the first time the prison gates
Have opened.  

First Shepherd: Music and sudden light  
Second Shepherd: Have interrupted our routine tonight,  
Third Shepherd: And swept the filth of habit from our hearts.  
Shepherds: O here and now our endless journey starts.  
Wise Men: Our arrogant longing to attain the tomb,
Shepherds: Our sullen wish to go back to the womb,  
Wise Men: To have no past.  
Shepherds: No future,  
All:  Is refused.  
And yet, without our knowledge,
Love has used
Our weakness as a guard and guide.  
                                                     We bless  
Wise Men: Our lives’ impatience.  
Shepherds: Our lives’ laziness,  
All: And bless each other’s sin, exchanging here  
Wise Men: Exceptional conceit  
Shepherds: With average fear.    
All: Released by Love from isolating wrong,
Let us for Love unite our various song,
Each with his gift according to his kind
Bringing this child his body and his mind.


Wise Men: Child, at whose birth we would do obsequy
For our tall errors of imagination,
Redeem our talents with your little cry.  
Shepherds: Clinging like sheep to the earth for protection,
We have not ventured far in any direction:  
   Wean, Child, our ageing flesh away  
   From its childish way.  
Wise Men: Love is more serious than Philosophy
Who sees no humor in her observation
That Truth is knowing that we know we lie.  
Shepherds: When, to escape what our memories are thinking,
We go out at nights and stay up drinking,  
   Stay then with our sick pride and mind  
   The forgetful mind.  
Wise Men: Love does not will enraptured apathy;  
Fate plays the passive role of dumb temptation  
To wills where Love can doubt, affirm, deny.  
Shepherds: When, chafing at the rule of old offenses,
We run away to the sea of the senses,  
   On strange beds then O welcome home  
   Our horror of home.  
Wise Men:   Love knows of no somatic tyranny;
For homes are built for Love’s accommodation
By bodies from the void they occupy.  
Shepherds: When, exhausting our wills with our evil courses,
We demand the good-will of cards and horses,
   Be then our lucky certainty
   Of uncertainty.  
Wise Men:   Love does not fear substantial anarchy,
But vividly expresses obligation
With movement and in spontaneity.  
Shepherds: When, feeling the great boots of the rich on our faces,
We live in the hope of one day changing places,  
   Be then the truth of our abuse  
   That we abuse.  
Wise Men:   The singular is not Love’s enemy;
Love’s possibilities of realization
Require an Otherness that can say I  
Shepherds: When in dreams the beasts and cripples of resentment
Rampage and revel to our hearts’ contentment,  
   Be then the poetry of hate  
   That replaces hate.  
Wise Men:   Not In but With our time Love’s energy
Exhibits Love’s immediate operation;
The choice to love is open till we die.  
Shepherds: O Living Love, by your birth we are able
Not only, like the ox and ass of the stable,
   To love with our live wills, but love,
   Knowing we love.  
All:   O Living Love replacing phantasy,  
O Joy of life revealed in Love’s creation;  
Our mood of longing turns to indication:  
Space is the Whom our loves are needed by,  
Time is our choice of How to love and Why.

May we open our hearts to the Space and Time that comprise the new year. The choice is ours to love.

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2016’s Top Story–Trump, Trump, Trump


At the end of each year I look over the past year’s posts and choose one that I find particularly important. This year I found three that stand out to me, all dealing (of course) with the most significant news story of the year.

I won’t repost my favorite since I’ve already reposted it once. It was about how Donald Trump galvanizing the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other members of the so-called alt-right is like Satan inspiring Sin and Death in Paradise Lost. The two demons intuitively sense when Satan has succeeded in Eden and immediately pave a road over chaos so that all the devils can invade Earth. As I wrote at the time, “whatever happens in November, Trump has opened the gates of hell, and we will be dealing with the consequences for years to come.”

I’ve chosen to print both of the other two posts. The first uses Raymond Carver’s short story “Why, Honey?” to explore the GOP’s complicity in Trump’s rise. The second looks at Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man to better understand how Trump has pulled off his con. The second uses the:

Raymond Carver and Trump’s Enablers
Reprinted from Feb. 24, 2016

Yesterday Ruth Arseneault, a teacher who occasionally comments on this blog, tweeted, “Terrified of Trump? Read Raymond Carver’s story ‘Why, Honey?’” So I did and now Trump has become even more nightmarish to me than he already was. Thank you very much, Ruth.

“Why, Honey” is a letter written by a mother responding to a stranger’s letter asking her about her son, now a governor and celebrity.(You can read the short story here.) We know something bad has happened because she reveals that she is currently hiding from him:

I was so surprised to receive your letter asking about my son, how did you know I was here? I moved here years ago right after it started to happen. No one knows who I am here but I’m afraid all the same. Who I’m afraid of is him. When I look at the paper I shake my head and wonder. I read what they write about him and I ask myself is that man really my son, is he really doing these things? 

The paranoia proves to be justified. The mother recounts various disturbing incidents, including blowing up the family cat, possibly robbing stores, and maybe even killing someone (although that’s not entirely clear). Veering between denial and enabling, she finally loses touch with him when he becomes, in an unexpected development, a politician.

The letter concludes with a deep sense of dread:

I began to see his name in the paper. I found out his address and wrote to him, I wrote a letter every few months, there never was an answer. He ran for Governor and was elected, and was famous now. That’s when I began to worry.

I built up all these fears. I became afraid. I stopped writing to him, of course, and then I hoped he would think I was dead. I moved here. I had them give me an unlisted number. And then I had to change my name. If you are a powerful man and want to find somebody, you can find them, it wouldn’t be that hard.

I should be so proud but I am afraid. Last week I saw a car on the street with a man inside I know was watching me, I came straight back and locked the door. A few days ago the phone rang and rang, I was lying down. I picked up the receiver but there was nothing there.

The dread experienced by the mother merges with my own growing dread as I contemplate the prospect of a Trump presidency. As Ezra Klein of Vox observes, this is a man who seems impervious to shame and so would not be reined in by the normal internal checks that govern political behavior. (Klein’s video explanation at the conclusion of this article is worth watching.) What would such a man be capable of if he had the power of the presidency behind him? Given the vindictive joy with which he takes down his Republican rivals, would he be another Nixon? Mainstream conservatives are already imagining an enemy’s list.

One chilling scene in particular seems to capture Trump’s determination to humiliate others, especially Jeb Bush. When her son is about to graduate from high school, for the first time in her life the mother confronts him about his lifetime of lies. Why do you do it, she asks. Here’s his response:

He didn’t say anything, he kept staring, then he moved over alongside me and said I’ll show you. Kneel, is what I say, kneel down is what I say, he said, that’s the first reason why. 

The story applies just as much to the party that enabled Trump as it does to Trump himself. Like the mother in the story, for the longest while the GOP found ways to overlook or excuse Trump’s behavior. They didn’t call him out for his birther attacks against the president or even his depiction of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murders. To be sure, they are outraged now, but it’s a bit late in the game for that. After all, he has left his mother’s house and is on his own.

His supporters, meanwhile, are sitting in a car across the street taking notes. Occasionally they make phone calls.

Trump as Melville’s Confidence Man
Reprinted from August 15, 2016

One of the most memorable lines for me from the National Democratic Convention was New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg saying about Donald Trump, “I am from New York and I know a con when I see one.” Since then, I’ve been reading Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man to see if it will give me insights into the nature of Trump’s con.

I’ll be turning to the novel a number of times during this election season, but let me start with this. Melville helps explain why, as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times puts it, “One persistent narrative in American politics is that Hillary Clinton is a slippery, compulsive liar while Donald Trump is a gutsy truth-teller.” In a recent NBC poll, only 11% of voters chose to describe Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” (as opposed to 16% for Trump).

Even the idea that Clinton and Trump are in the same category Kristof finds to be preposterous. “If deception were a sport,” he writes, “Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.”

A study by Politifact of presidential candidates since 2007 bears Kristof out. Clinton is second only to Obama in truthfulness, finishing ahead of Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders. Trump, on the other hand, leads everyone in lying, even Michele Bachman and Ted Cruz. One of the characters in The Confidence Man explains why we may find ourselves surprised by Hillary’s high rating.

Melville’s novel is about a flimflam artist who boards a steamboat and dons a series of disguises to bamboozle the passengers. At one point he goes to work on the ship’s barber, who has put a “No Trust” sign—meaning no credit—in his window. The confidence man convinces him to start trusting people, after which he wriggles out of paying for his shave.

The barber helps us understand how Trump makes his lies compelling, even getting at the way the Trump’s flamboyant hair gives him confidence. (The barber also gets at Trump’s underlying insecurity–without such hair, the barber says, a man is shamefaced and fearful.) We also learn why Clinton’s careful word choices damage her as much as Trump’s “pants on fire” “four Pinocchios” fabrications. Responding to the question, “how does the mere handling of the outside of men’s heads lead you to distrust the inside of their hearts?”, the barber replies,

[C]an one be forever dealing in macassar oil, hair dyes, cosmetics, false moustaches, wigs, and toupees, and still believe that men are wholly what they look to be? What think you, sir, are a thoughtful barber’s reflections, when, behind a careful curtain, he shaves the thin, dead stubble off a head, and then dismisses it to the world, radiant in curling auburn? To contrast the shamefaced air behind the curtain, the fearful looking forward to being possibly discovered there by a prying acquaintance, with the cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps forth again, a gay deception, into the street, while some honest, shock-headed fellow humbly gives him the wall!

And then the passage that explains Clinton’s problem:

 Ah, sir, they may talk of the courage of truth, but my trade teaches me that truth sometimes is sheepish. Lies, lies, sir, brave lies are the lions!”

So there you have it: Trump tells brave lies whereas Hillary engages in sheepish equivocations.

The follow-up passage has relevance to the Trump campaign as well. When the confidence man accuses the barber of participating in a fraud, the man replies, “”Ah, sir, I must live.”

This sounds very much like the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal and now, according to Jane Mayer’s remarkable New Yorker article, is wracked with guilt. Like the barber, he says that he did it because he had bills to pay:

Around the time Trump made his offer, [Tony] Schwartz’s wife, Deborah Pines, became pregnant with their second daughter, and he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high. “I was overly worried about money,” Schwartz said. “I thought money would keep me safe and secure—or that was my rationalization.”

What happens when we dance with a professional confidence man? We get conned. Why are we surprised?

Posted in Carver (Raymond), Melville (Herman), Milton (John) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Aloud Enhances Relationships


A year ago The Washington Post ran a heartwarming article about the marital possibilities in reading aloud. Jennifer Acker, an editor suffering from a brain disease that made it almost impossible for her to read, had to acquaint herself with several works for a panel she was moderating. In desperation, she asked her husband to read the works to her, sometimes over the phone from his work place. In the process, she fell in love with him all over again:

I’d never thought much about my husband’s voice. I knew its Minnesota flatness in the o’s and a’s, and I could recall, instantly, the influence of his immigrant parents: Indian-British formulations like taking exercise and mangled Gujarati phrases. But knowing these things did not equal the spell cast by his cadence and timbre as he read to me.

For the first time, it seemed, I noticed these qualities. A warmth that was never sticky or soft. His voice had range but did not jar with sharp peaks or scraping valleys. The Midwestern vowels came through, but were not distracting. At the end of the day’s story, I did not want to hang up the phone.

His voice was not one ripe for performance; I wouldn’t urge him to take up the stage or occupy a recording booth. It was simply a wonderful voice that allured me. Something I had known but could not have articulated, even after 14 years together. Reading to me, reading stories I had chosen because I needed to hear them, was an intimate act of devotion. It not only helped me with my work, but also allowed me to revel in a side of him I rarely observed. Here were moments both vulnerable and so revealing they proved with a force beyond all reason that I wanted him, all of him, and to be near him always.

The article got me thinking about reading aloud as a conjugal act, an activity that was common in the 19th century. George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, for instance, read Jane Austen’s Emma together while sitting under a tree, and there are reports of them reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s long poem Aurora Leigh to each other. I can imagine them reading many such works together in the evening before the fire.

This sounds far more meaningful than watching television together.

While Julia and I never read to each other, we used to read to our children every night and on long car rides. I associate Hatchet, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird with the twelve-hour trek to Tennessee. Now, of course, we would probably be listening to books on disk, or perhaps the kids would be watching movies or playing video games, just as families began listening to the radio and then watching television. Something precious has been lost.

When I mentioned Acker’s article to my brothers, David noted that the same can be said of piano playing. If the piano looms so large in Jane Austen novels, it’s because that would have been the only music readily available. The victrola would later change that situation.

There’s no reason we can’t start reading to each other again. My brother Sam read the Harry Potter books to his wife Elizabeth, who still has vivid memories of the experience. My friends Jackie and Alan Paskow, without television in their British Columbia summer cottage, would read long novels like War and Peace to each other and found that it enhanced their marriage.

Of course, it is no longer a novelty to hear books read aloud, what with books on disk. But Acker says that reading with a spouse is more intense:

[A]s he gave voice to the words, the architecture of the story fell into place. I felt bewildered when the narrator felt bewildered. I anticipated actions and enjoyed my expectations being subverted. Again the ending threw a subtle curveball, and we returned to earlier events and revelations. I was surprised by how firmly the story secured itself in my mind. Partly this is editorial training, but such deep impressions were not made by audiobooks, which entertained but were ephemeral.  The impact came from the reading. His reading. His voice that had drawn me in, embraced me.

So if you want to spice up your relationship, try it out.

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Can Art Thwart Trump? A Debate

Image from “Fahrenheit 451”


I’ve been meaning to disagree for a while with a December 6 Slate article on the impotence of art in the face of Trumpism. Looking back at the 2016 election, Adam Kirsch contends,

One illusion that will be particularly painful to part with is the idea that high culture and the arts have any effective power in American life.

 I think Kirsch conjures up a straw man in his article and, in the process, denigrates certain artistic masterpieces, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Grapes of Wrath. But let’s look at the case he puts forward.

First of all, he talks about a time when it could be imagined that artists had power. In the 1950s, he notes, James Baldwin and Robert Lowell appeared on the front of Time Magazine and Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman made regular appearances on talk shows. Significantly, he doesn’t comment on whether these writers had any impact on the politics of their time (like, say, the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War) and seems to be more interested in their celebrity status. That’s how he looks at artists today as well. He notes that contemporary figures in the art world don’t command the same kind of attention and says that their irrelevance was exposed by the ineffectiveness of their anti-Trump letters and exhibitions:

During the 2016 campaign, a long list of prominent writers, including Junot Díaz, Amy Tan, and Dave Eggers, signed an “Open Letter to the American People” imploring them not to vote for Trump. There were entire gallery exhibitions devoted to protest art against Trump. But the response from outside the “coastal elite” was mostly silence. The emperor of culture turned out to have no clothes.

This ineffectiveness leads Kirsch to the arrogant contention that these artists don’t understand the “real purpose” of art. He’s confused by what he means by “real purpose,” however:

The central role that writers and artists have played in public debate and popular culture is a thing of the past, but that role was always secondary to their real purpose, which is to create works that help readers and viewers to shape their lives. Art is supposed to be a tool for interpreting our experience and determining our values.

So does that mean that an author like Amy Tan, who in The Joy Luck Club captures the complex dramas of Chinese women immigrants, is forgetting her “real purpose” by writing a letter opposing a bigoted, misogynist candidate like Trump? (Can’t she write letters and novels?) Furthermore, I would argue that Tan’s rich depictions of mother-daughter conflict and immigrant struggles are an implicit rebuke to Trump, whose modus operandi is to scapegoat people of other races and genders.

Kirsch seems to be saying that, because we used to give more prominence to poets and novelists, and because poets and novelists regained some of this prominence thanks to our cultured president, we got lulled into false optimism. Naïve fools that we were, we came to think that “a passionate poem or a rousing play has the power to change the world.” Kirsch, donning the mantle of courageous truth teller, declares, “They don’t,” and then goes on quote the Auden line, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”

Kirsch misunderstands Auden’s poem, and he caricatures artists and art lovers. Few believe that works of art lead to instantaneous changes. But that’s not the same as saying that art is powerless.

In fact, even Kirsch has to admit that some works have had profound political influence. To salvage his argument, however, he then says that these works are not great art:

Even the rare works that do have a political effect in their day—such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was said to contribute to the coming of the Civil War—usually lose their power and interest when that moment is past. In the 1930s, when the world was in worse shape than it is today, artists and intellectuals felt an all-consuming pressure to make their work serve the cause of progress—which meant, usually, the cause of the left, of communism and socialism. The result, at its very best, were works like Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, both about the perseverance of the American spirit during the Great Depression—and both unimpeachably democratic, but also simplistic, monochromatic, manipulative.

Kirsch is wrong about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Grapes of Wrath (I can’t answer for Sandburg’s work). They are not “simplistic, monochromatic, manipulative” but profound explorations of race relations in the first instance and of class relations in the second. Kirsch seems to be coming out of a 1950s belief that art that wants to have an impact is suspect, one step shy of Soviet-style socialist realism. Real art for him is concerned only with private feelings, not about political action:

But art works most productively at the point where politics becomes a personal, even private experience. Art speaks most honestly and effectively of the plight of the individual at the mercy of historical events. That is why great political art is so often about the experience of dread and loss, and why it takes such difficult and unpopular forms. Indeed, the political art of the 1930s that remains most vital is often positively hermetic.

I honestly don’t know what Kirsch is talking about here. Is he saying that art’s only relationship to politics is that it confirms our sense that we are powerless? And that art that seeks to rouse us to action is lesser art? I’ll agree that some great art is hermetic, which is to say a kind of hermit’s shrine that one visits for meditation and renewal. But saying that hermetic art is the only legitimate art is reductive. There is plenty of great art that leads to effective political action.

Take, to pick a random example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, whose modernist style broke with Richard Wright’s social realism but which has provided generations of activists with a powerful articulation of their situation. The narrator doesn’t tell people exactly what they should do, but he helps them develop a strong sense of self, which is an integral component of effective political action. Nor is the experience of invisibility a private one–members of oppressed groups feel this way all the time.

Kirsch writes that the “function of engaged art is not to change the world but to offer other people, now and in the future, a kind of testimony. Artists are not legislators but witnesses.” I respond that this is a false dichotomy. The Barack Obama that is inspired by Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is the same Barack Obama who engages in delicate negotiations to make sure that 25 million more Americans have health care. Sure, it takes different parts of the brain to read a novel and to negotiate. But ideas, images and narratives move history as much as guns and armies do, and the arts specialize in the former.

Oh, and just because art doesn’t have an immediate impact doesn’t mean that it is fails to change history. British exploitation of Ireland continued for almost two hundred years after Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” and yet that work is integrally tied up with the history of Ireland’s freedom movements.

Kirsch seems to say that either art creates a private space or it is political propaganda, and I’ll grant him that texts that function as political commercials are not true art. But few people see art functioning that way, and even Frederick Engels once chastised a novelist for making her working class heroes dry embodiments of class struggle as opposed to three dimensional figures in their own right. Art can change the world, only it does it in its own way. By changing the way we see reality, art gives us an expanded sense of what our choices are.

In the end, I always turn to Percy Shelley, who asserted that artists are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Poetry, Shelley argued, opens us up to the potential within human beings, and, furthermore, it does so in such powerful ways that readers may be inspired to work for equal rights and social justice. This is why art is antithetical to Trumpism.

America’s next president is pulling a con on America and thinks he can redefine reality to serve his purposes. Literature, which specializes in exposing bullshit, by its very nature will oppose him. In most cases it won’t mention his name –it will appear to be about entirely different subjects–but the expanded consciousness that it engenders is the very thing that Trump opposes.

Further thought: Some elaboration on the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is useful in this discussion as it shows the roundabout way that literature operates. Lincoln may or may not have referred to Stowe as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” but it undoubtedly played a role. That being said, Stowe does not advocate for a war in her novel. Rather, she invests her characters with full humanity–something all great novels do–and after she did so, one couldn’t continue to close one’s eyes to the travesty of slavery. And it’s not only black complexity that she captures. For instances, she brilliantly captures the contradictions into which a sensitive slave owner like Augustine St. Clare is driven. Tom, meanwhile, is more complex than he was seen by Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who may have been responding to his depiction in the Tom shows than in the novel.

In short, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an abolitionist version of Soviet-style propaganda, as Kirsch hints, but an exploration of how slavery distorts society. And rather than being dated, as Kirsch contends, it remains relevant in a society that still wrestles with racism. I’ve posted in the past on how two of my African American students find continuing value in the novel.

Posted in Steinbeck (John), Stowe (Harriet Beecher) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Did Western Liberalism Give Us Trump?

French novelist Michel Houellebecq


 I seldom agree with Ross Douthat, “reformicon” columnist for the New York Times, but I do respect him. Because Douthat is intelligent and thoughtful, I took seriously his column about books that will help us understand the rise of Donald Trump. I focus here on the novels that he mentions.

Douthat advises us not to turn to those “what if” novels like Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Philip Roth’s Plot against America (2004). Both lay out 1930s scenarios in which fascists capture the presidency. Douthat complains that the novels focus on the wrong things:

The Trump-era reading lists I’ve seen include many worthy titles, but they also tend to focus heavily on the dark forces lurking out there, somewhere outside enlightened circles — in the hills of Appalachia, in the postindustrial heartland, in the souls of racists and chauvinists and crypto-fascists. They are anthropologies of populism, cautionary tales from history, blueprints for blunting revanchism’s appeal. But they do not generally subject Western liberalism itself to rigorous critique.

In Douthat’s mind, Trump’s rise actually reflects a failure of Western liberalism, which can’t acknowledge its “limits, blind spots, blunders and internal contradictions.” Reading Lewis or Roth, in other words, only confirms existing prejudices rather than challenging them. Western liberal elites, Douthat charges, have

burned the candle of solidarity at both ends — welcoming migration that transforms society from below even as the upper class floats up into a post-national utopia, which remains an undiscovered country for the people left behind.

For fiction that challenges such utopian thinking, Douthat recommends Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novels The Elementary Particles (1998) and Submission (2015):

Submission (2015), Michel Houellebecq’s seemingly dystopian novel` about an exhausted near-future France that ends up choosing between Islamism and fascism (it picks the veil), and then one of Houellebecq’s earlier novels, The Elementary Particles, whose portrait of a loveless, sex-fixated and disposable modern masculinity reveals that its author believes the real dystopia is already here — that the end of history is actually a materially comfortable desert, from which the political and religious extremisms of “Submission” offer a welcome and rehumanizing form of escape.

To my mind, Houellebecq’s vision of a spiritually exhausted France doesn’t capture the vibrancy of Obama’s multicultural America (or, for that matter, of multicultural France). As a white straight male, I love how my world has been opened up by feminists and black, Latino/a, and LBGTQ activists. I’m not interested in making America monochrome again, returning it to the Jim Crow 1950s or (as billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel wants) to the pre-women’s suffrage 1920s.

I do acknowledge, however, that I underestimated the fury of white male backlash in the recent election. Houellebecq provides useful insight into the mindset of certain angry and despairing voters. But as Hillary’s 2.8 million popular vote margin indicates, those voters aren’t yet our country’s center of gravity.

Posted in Houellebecq (Michel), Roth (Philip K.), Sinclair (Upton) | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Irving’s Xmas Essays Influenced Dickens

David Wilkie, “Blind Man’s Buff” (1812-13)


After reading my post about Charles Dickens returning Christmas to its medieval roots, a reader alerted me to an article declaring that an American author deserves some of the credit. Apparently Dickens was enchanted by Washington Irving’s essays about Squire Bracebridge’s English Christmas. According to the article,

Dickens was just eight years old when The Sketchbook [of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1819-20] was published, but twenty years later he would send Irving a letter expressing his admiration for the Bracebridge stories.

“I wish to travel with you… down to Bracebridge Hall,” he wrote to Irving in 1841. Such a trip was never made, but that didn’t stop Dickens from using Irving’s holiday tales as his inspiration: A Christmas Carol was published just two years later, and brought the young English author lasting fame. A careful reader doesn’t need to know about Irving’s celebrity fan mail to see the influence that Crayon’s account had on the more famous, Dickensian Christmas. In Irving’s early sketch, readers can find the foundations of Dickens’ beloved scene from “Christmas Past,” a scene that authors, artists, filmmakers and merchandisers have since seized upon as the quintessence of the English holiday. If we look harder, we can also find the ancestors of Dickens’ jolly Fezziwig family in Squire Bracebridge and his hospitable clan.

You can read Irving’s essays here—check out the chapters that mention Christmas—but the one that strikes me the most is one describing Christmas games. That’s because my most prized possession is a 19th century print of David Wilkie’s “Blind Man’s Buff” (see above) that used to hang above my grandmother’s mantle. We inherited our Christmas rituals from Eleanor Fulcher Bates, and it is from her that our Christmas rituals descended. Here’s Irving:

After the dinner-table was removed the hall was given up to the younger members of the family, who, prompted to all kind of noisy mirth by the Oxonian and Master Simon, made its old walls ring with their merriment as they played at romping games. I delight in witnessing the gambols of children, and particularly at this happy holiday season, and could not help stealing out of the drawing-room on hearing one of their peals of laughter. I found them at the game of blindman’s-buff. Master Simon, who was the leader of their revels, and seemed on all occasions to fulfill the office of that ancient potentate, the Lord of Misrule, was blinded in the midst of the hall. The little beings were as busy about him as the mock fairies about Falstaff, pinching him, plucking at the skirts of his coat, and tickling him with straws. One fine blue-eyed girl of about thirteen, with her flaxen hair all in beautiful confusion, her frolic face in a glow, her frock half torn off her shoulders, a complete picture of a romp, was the chief tormentor; and, from the slyness with which Master Simon avoided the smaller game and hemmed this wild little nymph in corners, and obliged her to jump shrieking over chairs, I suspected the rogue of being not a whit more blinded than was convenient. 

I find myself wondering whether the 1813 painting, which was quite famous, influenced what Irving thought he saw.

To give you one more taste of Irving’s Christmas essays, here’s a passage from “Christmas Eve”:

Supper was announced shortly after our arrival. It was served up in a spacious oaken chamber, the panels of which shone with wax, and around which were several family portraits decorated with holly and ivy. Besides the accustomed lights, two great wax tapers, called Christmas candles, wreathed with greens, were placed on a highly polished beaufet among the family plate. The table was abundantly spread with substantial fare; but the squire made his supper of frumenty, a dish made of wheat cakes boiled in milk with rich spices, being a standing dish in old times for Christmas Eve. I was happy to find my old friend, minced pie, in the retinue of the feast and, finding him to be perfectly orthodox, and that I need not be ashamed of my predilection, I greeted him with all the warmth wherewith we usually greet an old and very genteel acquaintance.

The mirth of the company was greatly promoted by the humors of an eccentric personage whom Mr. Bracebridge always addressed with the quaint appellation of Master Simon. He was a tight brisk little man, with the air of an arrant old bachelor. His nose was shaped like the bill of a parrot; his face slightly pitted with the small-pox, with a dry perpetual bloom on it, like a frostbitten leaf in autumn. He had an eye of great quickness and vivacity, with a drollery and lurking waggery of expression that was irresistible. He was evidently the wit of the family, dealing very much in sly jokes and innuendoes with the ladies, and making infinite merriment by harping upon old themes, which, unfortunately, my ignorance of the family chronicles did not permit me to enjoy. It seemed to be his great delight during supper to keep a young girl next to him in a continual agony of stifled laughter, in spite of her awe of the reproving looks of her mother, who sat opposite. Indeed, he was the idol of the younger part of the company, who laughed at everything he said or did and at every turn of his countenance. I could not wonder at it; for be must have been a miracle of accomplishments in their eyes. He could imitate Punch and Judy; make an old woman of his hand, with the assistance of a burnt cork and pocket-handkerchief; and cut an orange into such a ludicrous caricature that the young folks were ready to die with laughing.

We had 17 people at our own Christmas Eve dinner: my mother, two of my three brothers and their wives, my two sons and four grandchildren, and a niece and her companion. I played the Squire Bracebridge role with four-year-old Esmé and Alban and two-year-old Etta and experienced a deep contentment that I have been missing since the election. At least for that evening and throughout Christmas day, all seemed right with the world.

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Christmas During Life’s Storms

Rembrandt, “Christ in the Storm in the Lake on Galilee”

Spiritual Sunday – Christmas

The Guardian alerted me to a Kiplingesque poem by Robert Louis Stevenson about “Christmas at Sea.” As the ship struggles to avoid foundering, one of the sailors finds himself thinking back to the Christmases of his youth. There’s even a possibility that he’s literally looking at the home of his parents from the ship’s deck.

Whether he’s actually seeing it or just dreaming of it, the poem captures the way that Christmas is bound up with childhood memories of home. We grow up and leave this home, at first unthinking because our eyes are necessarily focused on the future. The memories can buoy us up, however, when we find ourselves beset by life’s storms.

I am reminded of Robinson Crusoe since, every time Crusoe encounters a storm, he wishes he had never left home. In Crusoe’s case, however, he shrugs off the memories as soon as he is out of danger. Stevenson’s sailor, by contrast, cannot regain Crusoe’s equanimity. Even after the situation stabilizes, he thinks of his aging parents.. As The Guardian article observes, “Now he is really leaving home.”

Christmas at Sea

By Robert Louis Stevenson

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
‘All hands to loose top gallant sails,’ I heard the captain call.
‘By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,’ our first mate, Jackson, cried.
… ‘It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,’ he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

I hope you are able to spend this Christmas with loved ones. If not, let them know you are thinking of them. Merry Christmas.

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Dickens Returned Xmas to Medieval Roots

John Leech, from “Christmas Carol”


Today I rerun one post and alert you to a couple more about literary works that helped establish Christmas as we celebrate it today. Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is, of course, the most important text, but the earlier Pickwick Papers also played a role, as did Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion. Here’s the post on Christmas Carol:

I’ve always heard that Dickens invented Christmas as we know it so I appreciated an article in The Daily Beast providing some of the details. The key work was Christmas Carol although I’ve blogged in the past about how Pickwick Papers also played a role. According to Clive Irving, Dickens didn’t so much invent our Christmas as return it to its medieval roots:

When A Christmas Carol was published just in time for the Christmas of 1843, the holiday had been in a long decline in England. The habit of celebrating Christmas had flourished there in medieval times as a wanton combination of marking Christ’s birth, the Roman orgy of Saturnalia, and the German winter festival, Yule.

Irving attributes the decline to the Anglican church and the industrial revolution:

Although the Anglican Church still held considerable power over the customs of Victorian England the observation of Christmas was, by then, more doctrinal than hedonistic. The folk memory of medieval community life had been wiped out by the industrial revolution. Large swathes of the countryside were depopulated. Rural churches were deserted, and the connection between the land and the bounty of harvests was gone.

What Dickens gave England was an alternative to urban squalor.

In the large cities the urbanized working class were slaves to a plutocracy. Dickens grew up in a London where child labor was ruthlessly exploited. In 1839 nearly half the funerals in London were for children under the age of 10. What would later become familiar as Dickensian London was one vast, grinding machine that simultaneously generated enormous wealth and widespread public squalor, replete with public hangings, thieving lawyers, and a merciless judiciary.

Irving says that passages from Christmas Carol like the following spoke to longings that grew out of this reality:

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….

Irving notes,

The story’s subliminal narrative is all about the creation and management of appetites. And what is the great lure toward which all efforts are ultimately directed? A table creaking under the weight of a Christmas banquet, a classic celebration of binge eating and drinking. But it’s more than that as the ritual has a social significance. Dickens’s observation is acute to the moment: in a society that spends most of its days in bleak deprivation there is always a latent and irrepressible desire to have a communal fling.

We see this hunger in other Dickens novels as well. In Hard Times, for instance, a society browbeaten by Grandgrind longs for the extravagant imagination of the circus. The students at David Copperfield’s grim school feast upon his stories. But no work has had the impact of Christmas Carol.

Other literary works that played a role:

Pickwick Papers Helped Establish Christmas 

Our Christmas Owes Much to Walter Scott 

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Decline & Fall of the American Republic?

Julius Caesar


Paul Krugman of The New York Times wrote a dispiriting column the other day that has me revisiting Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar. Krugman points out that the conditions that led to Donald Trump’s electoral victory resemble the conditions that led to the fall of the Roman republic and the rise of the emperors:

Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s In the Name of Rome says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”

America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.

For further proof, Krugman points to the GOP legislature’s shenanigans in North Carolina and the various voter suppression efforts around the country. The suppression efforts don’t even pretend to be about maintaining the integrity of the vote anymore.

Julius Caesar is about the Roman republic on its last legs. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all,” realizes it is only a matter of time before Caesar declares himself emperor. He sees the general playing the mob, and even though Caesar appears to decline the crown, this is only for the sake of appearance. Casca describes the moment as follows::

BRUTUS: Was the crown offered him thrice?
CASCA: Ay, marry, was’t, and he put it by thrice, every
time gentler than other, and at every putting-by
mine honest neighbours shouted.
CASSIUS: Who offered him the crown?
CASCA: Why, Antony.
BRUTUS: Tell us the manner of it, gentle Casca.
CASCA: I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown;–yet ’twas not a crown neither, ’twas one of these coronets;–and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by: and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it…

In our current political situation, Trump is playing to the mob as Caesar does, pretending to be a populist even though he is out only for himself. Just as Caesar and then Antony play this game far better than Brutus, so the Republicans appear better able to play the power game than the Democrats. As Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote, the Democrats have brought knives, the Republicans guns.

Ironically, Brutus’s non-metaphorical knife only succeeds in paving the way for emperor rule. After the senators stab Caesar, Antony riles up the mob to put them on the defensive and then Augustus steps in to take advantage of the chaos. The Roman republic continues on in name only.

Trump believes that America wants to be ruled by a Putin-like strong man. To stop him, we need to become Brutuses—which is to say, people who put country over ego.  But no literal stabbing, which only enables the forces of darkness.

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Murakami: Don’t Be a Sheep


This past semester, somewhat on impulse, I taught “The Existential Fantasies of Haruki Murakami” for my first year seminar course. (For years I have been teaching Jane Austen’s novels in the seminar but feared that I was becoming stale.) I didn’t know how my students would respond to Murakami but figured that there were two things in the course’s favor.

First, since the Japanese author is attracting readers all over the world, he might also attract Maryland students. Second, late adolescence is a time when young people wrestle with life’s big questions so a course on existential fantasies might hit them where they live.

Both assumptions proved correct, as I will demonstrate in a series of posts. Today I share two students’ responses to Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Murakami’s third novel and the first one we read. The novel spoke to the ideals of an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, and it helped another student come out of the closet, which he did in his class presentation (!).

The novel is well titled. The narrator protagonist, whom critics refer to as Boku since we never learn his actual name (Boku is the informal Japanese “I”), is living a dull life producing advertising fliers when suddenly he finds himself embarking upon a strange quest. A shadowy organization that controls Japan’s marketing industry, mass media, and government contacts him about a pastoral illustration of a strange sheep that has appeared on one of his brochures. A shadowy figure—the class called him “Mr. Big”—gives Boku a month to track down the sheep. If he fails, he will lose his business and be blackballed for the rest of his life.

It turns out (spoiler alert) that there is a strange sheep spirit on the loose looking for a capable host. Genghis Khan was a beneficiary of this sheep spirit in the past and, in the 1930s it entered a Japanese fascist, who went on to found the shadowy organization. Now, however, the man is dying, and his second-in-command, Mr. Big, wants to inherit the sheep spirit to keep the organization going. For tangled plot reasons, he needs Boku to set up the necessary contact.

The novel functions as a parable of life in contemporary Japan. Murakami sees the Japanese as sheep-like, all too ready to follow an authoritarian head ram wherever he leads them. Boku is an every man, going through a series of empty relationships and generally leading a life (to borrow from Thoreau) of quiet desperation. My Bernie supporter quoted the following passage to characterize his existence:

I was twenty-one at the time, about to turn twenty-two. No prospect of graduating soon, and yet no reason to quit school. Caught in the most curiously depressing circumstances. For months I’d been stuck, unable to take one step in any new direction. The world kept moving on; I alone was at a standstill. In the autumn, everything took on a desolate cast, the colors swiftly fading before my eyes. The sunlight, the smell of the grass, the faintest patter of rain, everything got on my nerves.

The quest to find the sheep jolts Boku out of this existence, and suddenly he is reading up on Japanese history and interacting with nature in a rural Japanese setting. Color begins to return to his life. By the end of the novel, he is able to thwart the shadowy corporation, and he begins to live life deliberately. He is no longer a placid sheep but is marching to the beat of his own drummer.

You can see why the novel would appeal to a Bernie enthusiast and, for that matter, anyone worried about leaders with authoritarian tendencies. The fact that Donald Trump is turning a lot of people into sheep means that Americans need to join Boku and push back.

My closeted student, meanwhile, learned that, to claim one’s essential identity, one must be willing to stand strong against the shadowy corporations that set the rules and appear to define reality. It took courage for him to come out, and Murakami provided him a useful narrative.

Literature can do heavy lifting, I tell my students. These two students took advantage of that potential.

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There’s More to Christmas Than We Think

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, “Adoration of the Shepherds”


’Tis the season for rightwing politicians to gin up Christian resentment against cultural elites for (so they claim) engaging in a war against Christmas. So ’tis the season to share once again a poem by my father, along with my commentary, which attempt to bring some sanity to the issue. Scott Bates observes that many of Christmas’s most iconic symbols have actually been imported from other religions.

In the past there has been furor over a scene placed in front of a courthouse in Henderson County, Texas and a lawsuit filed in Santa Monica, California. But let’s hear from the latest entry into this phony controversy. Here’s our president-elect:

When I started 18 months ago, I told my first crowd in Wisconsin that we are going to come back here some day and we are going to say, “Merry Christmas: again. Merry Christmas. So, Merry Christmas everyone. Happy New Year, but Merry Christmas.

My father starts with the fact that Christianity, like all religions, is syncretistic—which is to say, it is an amalgamation of rituals and symbols, some articulated by inspired individuals (Jesus and his followers), some taken from earlier religions.  Another way of putting this is that every religion is a symbol system that human beings employ to come as near as they can to the (ultimately unknowable) mind of God. The universe will always have mysteries that we cannot penetrate, and humans use whatever materials—whatever symbols—are at hand to do what they can.

Devout followers may deny the affinities between the crucifixion of Jesus and the dismemberment of the Egyptian god Horus or overlook the fact that Jesus was probably not born in December, the time of the winter solstice and the Roman feast of Saturnalia. After all, they like to believe their religious symbols are “pure.” Examined carefully, however, Christmas proves to be more inclusive than they think.

Christmas at the Courthouse

By Scott Bates

The wise-men are Egyptian,
The virgin birth, Antique;
The evergreen is Roman
The manger scene is Greek;

T’is the Saturnalian Season
When solar gifts are cool,
So Happy Birthday, Horus!
From our Multiculture School.

If Bill O’Reilly at Fox News and Donald Trump were to embrace such an open version of the Christmas story, maybe we wouldn’t be having all these battles. Then again, maybe they want people of other faiths to feel excluded.

Fa la la la la.

Other Christmas Poems by Scott Bates

Christmas Bird Count from Santa’s Sleigh

Where are the Games of Yesteryear 

Moving towards Death’s Doorway 

No Room for Them in the (Holiday) Inn 

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

Holly & Ivy Dance to the Music of the Moon

Night before Christmas on the Moon

Move with the Wind, Sleep under the Snow

Midwinter Transformation: A Poem

An ABC of Children’s Books

The Divine Comedy, Doggerel Version

Books Unleashed in Christmas Carrels

Epiphany Sunday and the Arabian Nights

Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

A Roc for Christmas (Annual Bird Count)

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Must Dreamers “Hibernate” Again?

Ralph Ellison statue (or invisible statue)


After President Obama used prosecutorial discretion to stop chasing the undocumented-but-otherwise-law-abiding parents of American citizens, I wrote a column about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man entitled “Invisible Men (and Women) No Longer.” I was also talking also about the “Dreamers,” undocumented young men and women who had grown up in this country and were now in high school, college, the military, or pursuing careers. Just as Invisible Man declares that one day he will emerge from his “hibernation,” so, I said, they can now come out of the shadows.

I’m not the only one who applied Ellison’s novel to this situation. A recent New Yorker article by a high school teacher says that, upon reading the novel, he was reminded of essays he had received years before from immigrant kids living in the shadows:

The students were asked to write their own short memoirs, and many of them used the exercise as an opportunity to write about what it meant to be an undocumented person in the United States. Their stories narrated the weeks-long journeys they had taken as young children to escape violence and poverty in their home countries, crossing the border in the back of pickup trucks, walking across deserts, and wading through rivers in the middle of the night. Others discussed how they did not know that they were undocumented until they attempted to get a driver’s license or to apply to college, only to be told by their parents that they did not have Social Security numbers.

One student stood up in front of the class to read his memoir and said that, every day, coming home from school, he feared that he might find that his parents had disappeared. After that, many students revealed their status, and that of their families, to their classmates for the first time. The essays told of parents who would not drive for fear that being pulled over for a broken taillight would result in deportation; who had never been on an airplane; who were working jobs for below minimum wage in abhorrent conditions, unable to report their employers for fear of being arrested themselves. It was a remarkable scene, to witness young people collectively shatter one another’s sense of social isolation.

After Donald Trump was elected, Smith received a note from one of his former students expressing her fears. She was responding to Trump’s declaration, on Sixty Minutes, about deporting and incarcerating two to three million undocumented immigrants once he took office. We will also, he said, “make a determination” on the rest “after everything gets normalized.” What would she do if she were deported, the student wondered, since the United States is the only country she knows.

Smith, who now teaches Invisible Man in his classes, wonders how it would go over if these former students were to read the novel:

I imagine that if I were to read this book with my students now, our conversation would be different. I wonder if any of my students would ever stand up in class to read their own stories, or if they would instead remain silent. I think of all the young people who, because of daca, had emerged to be seen by their country as human, as deserving of grace, as deserving of a chance. I think of how they turned over their names, birth dates, addresses to the government in anticipation of a pathway out of the shadows. I revisit the final pages of Invisible Man and think of how many things that once existed above ground in our country might now become trapped beneath the surface.

One of the relevant passages is the following:

Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

Yes, the “old eagle” is rocking very dangerously. Pray for strength, courage, and wise guidance in the months and years ahead.

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The New Moon, A Prayer Opening to Faith

Spiritual Sunday

As I understand it, the Advent season is symbolic of those times when we find ourselves questioning God’s justice and love. Those times when our faith is tested and prayer seems pointless.

This wonderful David Whyte poem offers us a powerful image of waning faith in the waning of the moon. He reminds himself that, although the moon goes dark, it is followed by a new moon. The poem reminds me of John Keats’s “Bright Star” and also of Lucille Clifton’s “the man who killed the bear.” More on that in a moment. First, here’s Whyte’s poem:


By David Whyte

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

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

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

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

Keats too envies the moon for its faithfulness, writing, “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” and imagining himself watching his love “with eternal lids apart,/Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite.” Clifton’s poem is even closer to Whyte’s poem because she is talking about recover for her father molesting her when she was a child.

In her “shapeshifter poems,” she blames the moon for watching but not doing anything as the abuse happened. The moon in those poems could stand in for her mother or the world in general or perhaps even God. In “the man who killed the bear,” however, written after her father died, she rethinks the moon. Now, she says, all she needs is one small sliver of the moon—one small sliver of light—to find hope.

Lucille used to read the poem at gatherings of abuse survivors. Many were astounded, and inspired, that she found a way to keep dancing. “The man who killed the bear,” “the coalminer’s son,” is Lucille’s father:

the man who killed the bear

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

The first Advent poem I posted this season was by Lucille. This poem, which moves from images of dead cities to dancing, is also an Advent poem.

Posted in Keats (John), Whyte (David) | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

For the Final, We Shall Be Tested on Love

Edmund Blair Leighton, "Abelard and his Pupil Heloise"

Edmund Blair Leighton, “Abelard and his Pupil Heloise”


Now that my students have completed their exams, they can turn their attention to life’s other tests. Here is Thomas Centolella applying the language of testing–ironically of course–to that which gives life meaning. How do you think you will score?

In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love

By Thomas Centolella

And it won’t be multiple choice,
Though some of us would prefer it that way.
Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on
When we should be sticking to the point, if not together.
In the evening, there shall be implications
Our fear will change to complications. “No cheating,”
We’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true
To ourselves. In the evening, when the sky has turned
That certain blue, the blue of exam books, books of no more
Daily evasion, we shall climb the hill as the light empties
And park our tired bodies on a bench above the city
And try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested
Like defendants on trial, cross-examined
Till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,
In the evening, after the day has refused to testify,
We shall be examined on love like students
Who don’t even recall signing up for the course
And now must take their orals, forced to speak for once
From the heart and not off the top of their heads.
And when the evening is over and it’s late
The student body asleep, even the great teachers
Retired for the night, we shall stay up
And run back over the questions, each in our own way:
What’s true and what’s false, what unknown quantity
Will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now
To look back and know
We did not fail.


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Harry Potter Stole My Child




Today I focus on my Theories of the Reader senior seminar students who examined attacks on young adult fiction (YAF). Becca LaMora wrote about a planned burning of Harry Potter in Lewiston, Maine, and Taryn Timko, Ally Szymanski and Mairin Rivett looked at parent protests against Perks of Being a Wall Flower, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret respectively.

While some of the controversies are old, they continue to be relevant. After all, the fears of the rightwing evangelical Christians who attacked Harry Potter also helped elect Donald Trump. The culture wars that have raged around these YAF novels are far from over.

Because of how literature can inflame passions, studying attacks provides valuable insight into people’s anxieties. When I ask my students to analyze literature “that functioned as an event,” I insist that they suspend judgment, at least until they reach their conclusion. They are to respect every response, even if they disagree with it. In other words, they are to be historians, sociologists, and psychologists as well as literary scholars.

The events these students studied were similar. In 1998 an administrative hearing of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education (in Maryland) was debated whether Caged Bird should be taught to high school students. (In the book Angelou describes how she was molested as a child.) A Wallingford, Connecticut parent argued that Perks of a Wallflower should be banned because it is “a glorification of alcohol use and drugs.” Judy Blume’s novels overall have been challenged over 57 times, with Margaret, where girls discuss menstruation, comprising eight of those challenges. The Maine Christian group was one of many that have attacked Harry Potter for its positive depiction of wizards. (Check out this video clip to get a taste.)

In each case, my students concluded, parents worried that they were losing their children to a secular society, with novels being seen as a gateway drug. Since even liberal parents can worry about their children growing away from them, adding cultural anxieties to the mix prompted people to lash out in fear. Sometimes the lashing out occurred at school board meetings.

Some of my students, drawing on thinkers we had read, said the attacks resembled Plato’s criticisms of Homer. In The Republic the philosopher worries that young people will quarrel if they read about gods quarreling; will drink because Odysseus praises drinking; and will refuse to fight because Achilles in Hades tells Odysseus that he would rather “break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man on iron rations” than be a dead hero. My students also cited Samuel Johnson’s concern that, when young people fall for attractive but misbehaving protagonists, they “lose abhorrence for their faults.”

Becca was one arguing that the fears about Harry Potter are more than just fears of a secular world–that they are also fears of their children growing up into autonomous individuals able to make their own decisions. She concluded this after analyzing an attack on Harry’s use of magic:

In “Is the Harry Potter Series… Truly Harmless?”, published by, Ken James begins by speaking about how critically acclaimed the book series is and how some characters practice what would be considered “white magic” while others practice the dark arts or “black magic.” James believes that though white witchcraft is portrayed as innocent and good, he states that the Bible makes no discrimination—and that “any practice of magic is an abomination…God doesn’t distinguish between “white” and “dark” magic since they both originate from the same source.”

It’s hard to take this seriously if one doesn’t believe in magic. If one sees such attacks as masking other anxieties, however, then it makes more sense. After all, children really are using Harry Potter to break free of their parents. They imagine themselves wielding their own individual wand (which reflects their own individual self), defying teachers, operating without parents, and hanging out with their best friends. All institutions and authority figures (except for Dumbledore) are suspect. Furthermore, to an anxious parent Harry Potterism looks like a cult, with children disappearing into the books (say, staying up all night to read the latest release), dressing up as characters, and having intense Harry Potter conversations with friends.

I note, as an illuminating parallel, that men in the mid-1740s were tremendously threatened by Samuel Richardson’s million-word novel Clarissa. They saw their wives and daughters disappearing into the work for days at a time, abandoning their household duties, and felt as though they were losing control.

Margaret and Perks have faced their own attacks, which Mairin and Taryn attribute to anxieties about sexuality. Margaret is about menstruation, a sure sign that one’s children are moving on. Blume speaks so deeply to teens that, even when her books are banned, they get passed from student to student. Mairin studied various blog responses as she analyzed the book’s impact:

“Being a girl between the ages of 11 and 14 is pretty much the worst thing ever,” one blogger says, recalling her first experience of reading Are You There God? in middle school. “You’re awkward and developing…or not developing. It’s horrendous. This around the age where girls get mean (They’re awful to each other. And I’m not even speaking as someone chronically bullied or anything. We were all really neurotic and hormonal and impulsive…)”


Blume does not turn Margaret into an ideal girl, a person who automatically knows right from wrong and acts accordingly; instead she is just as insecure and unsure about herself as everyone else and in this moment, when her compliment to Laura gets torn apart by her group of friends, Margaret is as relatable as ever. “I’m literally shuddering right now remembering middle school,” blogger Katie writes. “Incidentally, this is how I know my BFF is indeed Forever [a controversial Blume novel about teen sexuality]. Anybody who can love you when you’re at your worst and weirdest is someone worth keeping in your life.” Middle school is a time of so much change and turmoil for young girls that if Margaret had been confident enough to stand by her opinion when her peers acted otherwise, Blume’s character would have lost her believability.

Taryn and Ally, who are planning to be teachers, stressed how much their students will need such books to cope with the overwhelming pressures of adolescence. My assignment, therefore, forced them to wrestle with how they will respond to parents who challenge their teaching materials? How will they speak to such parents to assure them that they have the children’s best interests at heart? Will fear and ideology destroy trust? Will they as teachers self-censor to avoid controversy, thereby depriving their students of invaluable resources?

Literature is like dynamite. We need it to power through the obstacles we face, but sometimes we forget just how explosive it is. By studying those times when it blows up, we at least can understand why people are fearful.

Posted in Angelou (Maya), Blume (Judy), Chbosky (Stephen), Rowling (J. K.) | 5 Comments

Invisible Man & Lolita Changed the ’50s

Lyon and Mason in Kubrick's "Lolita"

Lyon and Mason in Kubrick’s “Lolita”


In my Theories of the Reader senior seminar this past semester, I received two interesting essays about novels that shook up 1950s readers. Alex Bussman reported on how Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) changed what people thought it meant to be black, and Frank DeRose showed how Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955, published in the U.S. in 1959) violated a tacit agreement not to go digging under neatly manicured lawns bordered by white picket fences.

Both students drew on the theories of German reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, and the class as a whole identified him as their favorite theorist of the course. This did my heart good as Jauss was central to my own evolution as a literary scholar. You’ll see why after I explain his ideas.

Jauss talks of a work of literature interacting with a society’s “horizon of expectations.” Readers open a book expecting certain things, and the work may meet, disappoint, or challenge those expectations. The text does its important work in that interchange. Jauss believes that, while lesser works simply meet and confirm existing expectations, great works change them. After reading a literary masterpiece, we no longer see the world in the same way.

While I entered graduate school believing that literature had the power to influence history, I didn’t know how to prove it. For all I knew, I believed it because I wanted to believe it. Jauss gave me a way to chart literature’s impact.

Having one’s expectations challenged isn’t always a pleasant experience, which is why great new works are often controversial. People aren’t sure what to make of them and may respond with confusion or even anger. Such was the case with Invisible Man and Lolita.

Invisible Man confused because Ellison wrote with a cutting edge modernist style. Reviewers assumed that African Americans only wrote realistic social protest novels and didn’t know what to make of the departure. On the one hand, Irving Howe was “astonished.” My student writes,

Ellison has broken almost too far away from the traditional black literature of the 30s and 40s, as epitomized by Richard Wright. Howe writes,“what astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country.” From this quote it is clear that Howe has a certain set of expectations for black literature and feels “astonished” or shocked at the fact that Ellison has moved beyond the traditional depiction of black identity revolving around violence and Uncle Tom characterization.

Alex also analyzed the interview with Ellison where the author was asked, “But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?” The assumption here is that you have to write about whites to be universal—which means that those who write about African Americans are by definition provincial.

There were critics who praised Invisible Man for being more than just a Negro novel, but they were operating out of the same horizon of expectations. Orville Prescott of The New York Times, for instance, praised Ellison for breaking free of the Negro novel but found it flawed when it touched upon race issues. Alex writes,

[Prescott’s] first sentence is that the book “is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” At first glance this seems like quite a compliment from a top reviewer of the New York Times, and the reviewer even goes on to say that Ellison has “great skill, who writes with poetic intensity and immense narrative drive” (Prescott). However, in the following sentence he says the novel has “many flaws” because it is a “sensational and feverishly emotional book.”

That an African writer could write a modernist (and therefore universal) work—and for this universal work, furthermore, to be about the African American experience—well, one had to expand one’s horizon to allow for such an apparently impossible contradiction. A comparable thing happened in 1850 when people discovered that Wuthering Heights was written by a woman.

My student Frank described a similar drama with Lolita. The only category that 1950s America had for a protagonist who is a self-confessed pedophile was pornography, and initially the only publisher Nabokov could find was one noted for such content. People may have condemned dirty books (while reading them secretly), but at least they thought they knew what they were.

But just as Invisible Man didn’t fit neatly into Negro protest literature, so Lolita didn’t fit neatly into pornography. A number of reviewers remarked that those who purchased Lolita to tickle their pleasure centers would be disappointed.

The way to praise Lolita, then, was to pretend that what preoccupied everybody about the book was irrelevant. If you just focused on style, you didn’t have to talk about pedophilia. Maybe you liked the style (Charles Rolo of The Atlantic) or maybe you didn’t (Kingsley Amis, Prescott), but in either case you could review Lolita without discussing the elephant in the room.

Formalism was the reigning way to look at literature at the time, and by focusing only on form, you didn’t have to acknowledge what appeared to be a contradiction: Lolita is a dazzling work of art and it is written from the point of view of a child molester. Humbert Humbert is a cosmopolitan sophisticate and he is a monster.

Just as American readers couldn’t look at African Americans the same way after they encountered Invisible Man, so they couldn’t look at civilized exteriors the same way after they encountered Lolita. Frank talks about how the 1950s, with its focus on clean family living and social conformity, couldn’t face up to its darker side. Lolita was a scandal because it didn’t allow people to ignore twisted interiors. It challenged their horizon of what could be admitted and, in so doing, prepared the way for baby boomers in the next decade to storm realms their parents tried to keep secret.

Most Americans, to be sure, read neither Invisible Man nor Lolita. These remarkable novels, however, signaled to cultural leaders that the times they were a-changin’, and the news got out to the general public. The response was sometimes acute distress, sometimes open-mouthed astonishment, but the result was the same: people no longer saw the world as they had before.

Further thoughts

It’s interesting that the reviewers who understood how Ellison and Nabokov were challenging expectations were themselves members of disenfranchised groups. Alex pointed out how Saul Bellow, who was working to move beyond “the Jewish novel,” saw Invisible Man consciously breaking with the protest style (or “minority tone”):

I was keenly aware…of a very significant kind of independence in the writing. For there is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems…Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone.

Frank, meanwhile, noted that it was a woman reviewer, Elizabeth Janeway, who appeared to best grasp Nabokov’s project. Humbert Humbert’s crime is not that he desecrates innocence. Janeway cound understand, as a 1950s man could not, that women are not the nymphettes, not the mantelpiece china objects, that patriarchal society sees them as. If we are horrified mainly because HH violates Dolores Haze’s virginal innocence, we have made HH’s mistake of turning her into a one-dimensional object. Dolores is not a virginally pure Lolita, and by insisting that girls and women be so, we are guilty of sacrificing them to our own desires. Janeway wrote that Lolita exposes

the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed—of all urges, whatever they may be, that insist on being satisfied without regard to the effect their satisfaction has upon the outside world. Humbert is all of us.

HH’s powerful realization at the end of the book is that Dolores Haze is a far more interesting person than Lolita. He gets his own humanity back with that realization.

Posted in Ellison (Ralph), Nabokov (Vladimir) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

    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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