Invoking Tintin to Mourn the Killings

Tintin in Tibet

Tintin crying for his lost friend Chang


After yesterday’s bombings in Belgium, images of the country’s most beloved creation are circulating on twitter and other social media. The picture above is from Tintin in Tibet, a particularly lovely story where Tintin hikes into the Himalayas to find his Chinese friend Chang, whom he believes to be still alive following a plane crash.

Tintin, reluctantly accompanied by his skeptical but loyal friend Captain Haddock, holds on to his faith and is rewarded. Chang has been saved by the Yeti, and the two friends rescue him and return home.

Think of the above picture, therefore, as emblematic of the sorrow we are all feeling for the families and friends of the victims. May our support and friendship approach that of Tintin for Chang.

Another picture circulating is, I believe, from The Black Island, which is set in Scotland (see below). It’s a large poster in Brussels and seems to be currently capturing the determination to soldier on.

All the world is rooting for you, citizens of Belgium. Stand strong.

Further thought: I want to take strong exception to the Salon article that alerted me to how Tintin was being invoked in the current mourning. According to Scott Timberg, “Tintin’s creator was often associated with a reactionary and racist tradition.” There is some truth to this, but all of the examples that Timberg cites are from Herge’s first three works, written between 1929-1932 (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo [which was so racist that Hergé later withdrew it from circulation], and Tintin in America.) While there is a certain western patrician perspective in Tintin that is open to criticism, it is also true that Tintin constantly fights for the downtrodden in his adventures and attacks western exploiters. One could do worse than be raised on the series, as I was.
Tintin in Brussels

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Clifton & America’s Eviction Epidemic

Ara Sparkman of Milwaukee evicted (2010)

Ara Sparkman of Milwaukee evicted (2010)


I thought of a Lucille Clifton poem the other day after reading a very dispiriting Slate article about evictions. Apparently America right now is going through an eviction epidemic, even as the economy slowly improves. According to Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond,

we are evicting hundreds of thousands of people, probably in the millions, every year. There’s this divergence between what low-income families are making and what they have to pay to keep a roof over their heads and heat in their house. Between 1995 and today, median rent increased by over 70 percent. In the 2000s the cost of fuel jumped by 53 percent.

Desmond, whose book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City has just been released, says that the consequences of an eviction ripple outward:

The consequences of eviction are so much greater than I was fully aware of when I started the work. Families not only lose their homes. Kids lose their schools. They also lose their things, which are piled on the sidewalk. It’s a lot of time and money to establish a home, and eviction erases all that. It comes with a record, which affects your chances of moving into stable housing because a lot of landlords will turn you away. Even in public housing an eviction record is counted as a strike.

So we see families move from poor neighborhoods to poorer ones and neighborhoods with high violence rates to even more dangerous neighborhoods. When I started I thought that job loss would lead to an eviction, but we found better evidence of the opposite. Then there’s the effect eviction has on your mental health. There are higher rates of depression even two years later, and we know that suicides attributed to eviction have doubled [between 2005 and 2010].

“the 1st” owes its title to the fact that the rent comes due on the first of the month–and when you can’t pay it, you’re out. Its power lies in the contrast between the carefree neighborhood children and the “emptied family.” The poet doesn’t need to say anything more.

On the one hand, there are all the images of rising: stacked boxes, “couch springs curling through the air,” drawers and tables on a curb tightrope, children “leaping up and around.” On the other, there are the empty feelings, mirroring the empty rooms, of a family whose life has just been upended.

In that regard, the poem resembles W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: even as Icarus is dying and people are suffering, there are children “skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.”

Here’s the poem:

the 1st

By Lucille Clifton

what i remember about that day
is boxes stacked across the walk
and couch springs curling through the air
and drawers and tables balanced on the curb
and us, hollering,
leaping up and around
happy to have a playground;

nothing about the emptied rooms
nothing about the emptied family

Desmond, by the way, has a solution: a universal housing voucher for low income renters—which is to say, an expansion of the Section 8 program:

Do we believe housing is a right and that affordable housing is part of what it should mean to be an American? I say yes. Then the question becomes how do we deliver on that obligation? I think taking this program that works pretty darn well and expanding it to all families below the poverty line is the best way to do that. These families spending 80 percent of income on rent would be paying 30 percent. They’d be saving and spending money on their kids. We know from previous research that when families get a housing voucher after years on the waiting list, they buy more food, they go to the grocery store, and their kids become stronger. The book goes into how much that would cost and how to do that. But first we have to recognize how essential housing is to driving down poverty and recognize that we can’t fix poverty without fixing housing.

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Fantasy Lit Changes How We Behave

Julie Dillon, "The Archivist" {cover art for program of 37th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts)

Julie Dillon, “The Archivist” {cover art for 2016 IAFA conference)


Last week I attended the conference on International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) and came back buzzing with ideas that I want to share with my British Fantasy students. Sociologist James Holmes gave a particularly useful talk on “The Fantasy Reader: An Empirical Sociological Approach.”

Holmes began his talk by summarizing many of the reasons that readers turn to fantasy literature. Amongst these are:

–to escape life, imagine a world beyond capitalist possessiveness, deal with sorrow and failure, recover joy, and get in touch with the numinous;

–to develop a spiritual vocabulary for a secular world;

–to learn moral lessons and develop ethical capabilities;

–to reassure themselves that their lives and actions have meaning in an alien world; and

–to subvert social institutions that inhibit human possibility.

As a sociologist, Knowles was interested in how readers use fantasy to negotiate social challenges. How, he wondered, do readers concretize possibilities opened up by the imagination? He talked about the way that, when we read fantasy, we imagine other possibilities for ourselves and essentially rehearse them. If we are stuck inside certain constricting narratives about how society operates, a good fantasy work can help us break free from those narratives.

Knowles wants to develop ways of measuring (1) how readers use fantasy to reimagine different paths their lives could take and (2) how they translate that reimagining into action. He acknowledged these areas are  difficult to study since different readers will have different experiences with works.

He mentioned two studies that have grappled with the impact of fiction. One is Janice Radway’s 1984 Reading the Romance, which studied how women use romance novels in their lives. The other is Henry and I, which is an ethnographic account of a literary society dedicated to Henry Williamson, a World War I veteran who wrote social novels. This 2002 study, to quote from an abstract, studied how

the activity of solitary reading is linked to … conceptions of self and masculinity. In particular, [Williamson readers’] accounts of the passions or rapture of reading are understood through a theory of possession. Members of the literary society regard the event of fiction reading as crucial to their life development, allowing them to experience a self that is not their own while at the same time gaining self-recognition.

In the question and answer session afterwards, audience members suggested a couple of other ways of studying the social impact of fantasy, including using the tools of “cognitive narratology” and “symbolic interactionism.” Both of these are new to me so I looked into them. For cognitive narratology, I came across Maria Nikolajeva’s book Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature. The book has been summarized as follows:

It explores how fiction stimulates perception, attention, imagination and other cognitive activity, and opens radically new ways of thinking about literature for young readers. Examining a wide range of texts for a young audience, from picturebooks to young adult novels, the combination of cognitive criticism and children’s literature theory also offers significant insights for literary studies beyond the scope of children’s fiction. An important milestone in cognitive criticism, the book provides convincing evidence that reading fiction is indispensable for young people’s intellectual, emotional and social maturation.

Someone else mentioned the work of Shelby Heath and Sidney Wolf about how children use stories to work through their issues.

Symbolic interactionism, meanwhile, asserts (I quote from Wikipedia here) that people do not respond to reality directly but “rather to the social understanding of reality; i.e., they respond to this reality indirectly through a kind of filter which consists of individuals’ different perspectives.” If one of those filters is fantasy literature, then according to symbolic interactionism, an author like J. K. Rowling can have a tangible influence on how readers behave.

In a final question, a woman asked why Knowles focuses on fantasy literature since his observations could extend to literature in general. Knowles answered that fantasy, by making a dramatic break with reality, offers a particularly powerful spur for imagining other life possibilities.

While academic literary conferences can appear fairly abstruse to outsiders, they open up rich lines of inquiry for those of us who teach these works. I see many ways that my Theories of the Reader class as well as my fantasy literature courses will be enhanced.

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Dear Feast of Palms, of Flowers and Dew


Spiritual Sunday – Palm Sunday

How wonderful that Palm Sunday, the commencement of Holy Week, falls on the same day as the spring equinox this year. Easter is often associated with the regeneration of spring, and the 2016 calendar is cooperating.

To celebrate, I share a lovely Palm Sunday poem by Welsh poet Henry Vaughan, Britain’s preeminent 17th century nature poet and a forerunner of William Wordsworth. Labeling himself “the king of grief, the man of sorrow,” Vaughan calls upon palm trees to lend him their shades and freshness, just as Jesus’s followers turned to palms to express their joy upon his entry into Jerusalem.

It is clear that the poet is really addressing himself as he addresses the “trees, flowers & herbs; birds, beasts & stones” that have been groaning since man’s fall. After all, it is only humans that groan. Seeing himself as a “humble flower,” he says that today is the day for such flowers to leave their fields and secret groves to come and join in the joyful celebration.

Incidentally, the unexpected inclusion of “stones” in his list refers to how Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, who objected to Jesus being celebrated as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40) As Vaughan sees it, he is called upon to cry out in joy with the rest of creation.

Still struggling to be joyous, however, he then he tells the plants/himself to take inspiration from the children who cried “Hosannah” as they strewed the palms. I have no doubt that Wordsworth had this stanza in mind when he wrote about the shepherd boy in Intimations of Immortality, and the comparison is clarifying. Just as Vaughan is fighting against gloom, a depressed Wordsworth feels himself rebuked by the happy shouts of the boy:

                              Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
                    Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
     My heart is at your festival,
          My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
               Oh evil day! if  I were sullen
               While Earth herself is adorning,
                    This sweet May-morning,
               And the Children are culling
                    On every side,
               In a thousand valleys far and wide,
               Fresh flowers…

An image of joy is not enough to entirely lift Vaughan out of his dark thoughts, however. He also needs an image of sacrifice. His attention therefore turns from the children to the ass that bore Jesus, and he wishes that he were that derided beast of burden. He resolves to be as meek as the ass, as the children, and as the palm fronds over which Jesus rides. Then it will not matter whether he bears the sorrows of Job.

In the lovely final line, he combines an image of life with an image of purity. All that matters, he says, is that he secure “but one green branch and a white robe.” 

Palm Sunday

By Henry Vaughan

Come, drop your branches, strew the way
                              Plants of the day!
Whom sufferings make most green and gay.
The king of grief, the man of sorrow
Weeping still, like the wet morrow,
Your shades and freshness comes to borrow.

Put on, put on your best array;
Let the joy’d road make holiday,
And flowers that into fields do stray,
Or secret groves, keep the highway.

Trees, flowers & herbs; birds, beasts & stones,
That since man fell, expect with groans
To see the lamb, which all at once,
Lift up your heads and leave your moans!
                              For here comes he
                              Whose death will be
Man’s life, and your full liberty.

Hark! how the children shrill and high
                              “Hosanna” cry,
Their joys provoke the distant sky,
Where thrones and Seraphim reply,
And their own Angels shine and sing
                             In a bright ring:
                              Such young, sweet mirth
                              Makes heaven and earth
Join in a joyful symphony,

The harmless, young and happy ass,
     Seen long before this came to pass,
Is in these joys a high partaker
     Ordained, and made to bear his Maker.

Dear feast of palms, of flowers and dew!
     Whose fruitful dawn sheds hopes and lights;
Thy bright solemnities did show,
     The third glad day through two sad nights.

I’ll get me up before the sun,
     I’ll cut me boughs off many a tree,
And all alone full early run
     To gather flowers to welcome thee.

Then like the palm, though wrong, I’ll bear,
     I will be still a child, still meek
As the poor ass, which the proud jeer,
     And only my dear Jesus seek.

If I lose all, and must endure.
     The proverb’d griefs of holy Job,
I care not, so I may secure
     But one green branch and a white robe.

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If Trump Tweeted Classic Lit Reviews…

Donald Trump


Among the many reasons for Donald Trump’s success this year is his mastery of social media. His twitter feed has almost seven million followers, and many of his tweets are widely circulated.

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a Jack Shepherd essay in BuzzFeed that does a stylistic analysis of Trump’s tweets. Shepherd points out that they tweets generally feature two short declarative sentences followed by a “short derisive blast.” For example:

Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush—spent $100 million and is at the bottom of the pack. A pathetic figure.

Shepherd then imagines writing classic book reviews using the formula. Some of them are real gems. Here’s a sampling:

James Joyce, UlyssesLeopold Bloom is wandering all over Dublin. At one point the guy pleasures himself on the beach. Confusing and bad!

Hamlet—Loser Hamlet can’t even avenge his father’s death. The problem is, he is a choker, and once a choker, always a choker. Mr. Meltdown.

Lord of the Rings—Everybody is laughing at Gandalf the Grey. Can’t even organize 9 people to destroy one ring without dying. A pathetic figure!

The Sun Also Rises—No one’s ever going to love the worthless Jake Barnes no matter how much wine he drinks. He can’t even get it up—a total loser!

Tristram Shandy—Halfway through this biography and the main character isn’t even born yet. Bad writing and a very weak way to tell a story. Hard to read!

The Stranger—Pathetic Meursault can’t take the heat. He killed someone because the sun was in his eyes. Existence is meaningless.

Feel free to write your own and send them along. I’ll add any good ones to this list.

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Will Plots vs. Trump Succeed?

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Death of Julius Caesar"

Vincenzo Camuccini, “Death of Julius Caesar”


 Ever since I realized that Marco Rubio would be facing a win-or-drop-out Florida vote on the Ides of March, I planned to use the soothsayer’s famous warning from Julius Caesar. I think I’ve come up with an even better application, however.

While Florida did indeed inflict “the unkindest cut” on its junior senator by handing Donald Trump a resounding victory, the real Ides of March may not have happened yet. The soothsayer should be warning about the GOP convention in July.

Before I explain, let’s look at the Rubio parallel. The GOP Establishment, like Marc Antony, attempted to prematurely crown their leader (first Jeb Bush, then Rubio). The Republican base, like the Roman Senate, rose up in defense of “small r” republican ideals and asserted itself through the ballot box.

But in some ways, the popular insurrection that Marc Antony whips up to route the conspirators seems more like a Trump strategy. So think of Trump as Julius Caesar, not Rubio. After all, he is the mob favorite whose unconventional behavior–he has already crossed many Rubicons–has been sending the GOP Establishment into conniption fits.

If the crowd continues to hand Caesar primary victories, then lean-and-hungry Cassius and Brutus need to pull off something spectacular on the floor of the convention hall to stop him. Already there have been multiple meetings, and experts are poring over nomination rules.

The main difference is that they’re openly talking about it. There will be nothing secret about this stabbing.

Unfortunately for the GOP Establishment, the play demonstrates that things could go badly for plotters. Since Trump would only be metaphorically stabbed, he would be around to play Marc Antony and stir up mob passions to enact payback. He’s already said, “I think you’d have riots” if the nomination were handed to someone who got far fewer votes.

Trump has Marc Antony’s instinct for inciting crowds. In setting off the mob rots, Antony knows how to fan the flames, blowing the fire, then suspending it, then blowing again. Here are the his final words prior to the rampage. He has just read aloud Caesar’s final will, which bequeathes to Rome’s citizens his private land:

Anthony [to the mob]: Moreover, [Caesar] hath left you all his walks,
His private arbors and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever, common pleasures,
To walk abroad, and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?

First Citizen: Never, never. Come, away, away!
We’ll burn his body in the holy place,
And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses.
Take up the body.

Second Citizen: Go fetch fire.

Third Citizen: Pluck down benches.

Fourth Citizen: Pluck down forms, windows, anything.

When it comes to a battle between Brutus and the wily Antony, bet on Antony. After all, he can turn even a funeral oration into an attack ad.

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Savaging the Poor Left and Right

Cruikshank, "Oliver Twist"

Cruikshank, “Oliver Twist”


Although Donald Trump, the big winner in last night’s GOP primaries, has been captivating certain audiences with his inflammatory rhetoric and his carny shtick, he really is no different than the other GOP candidates when it comes to his economic plans. Along with everyone else, he is calling for large tax cuts for the rich, to be paid for by unspecified cuts from he doesn’t say where. These are supposed to bring back the boom times.

Meanwhile states like Kansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin, which have tried out this approach, are currently slashing education budgets as they grapple with crippling debt. In Kansas it got so bad that the State Supreme Court had to step in to protect the schools, which in turn has led to impeachment talk. One columnist has invoked Oliver Twist to describe what is going on.

Republicans are miffed that the Supreme Court insists that, however intent they are on slashing taxes and budgets in their T-party tantrum, the state’s constitution requires them to fund public education, not starve it like Oliver Twist. 

The governor and legislature do indeed sound like Dickens’s Board of Directors: squeeze the poor on the grounds that they are all freeloaders. Dickens’s sarcasm is scathing:

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work. ‘Oho!’ said the board, looking very knowing; ‘we are the fellows to set this to rights; we’ll stop it all, in no time.’ So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors’ Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor! There is no saying how many applicants for relief, under these last two heads, might have started up in all classes of society, if it had not been coupled with the workhouse; but the board were long-headed men, and had provided for this difficulty. The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.

For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

Interestingly, the contempt that Dickens’s directors have for the poor resembles the contempt that some GOP elites have for Trump supporters. Here’s the conservative National Review’s Kevin Williamson unloading on the rural poor in a diatribe that could have been delivered by a Dickens plutocrat:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.


The alliance between Wall Street and poor white racists that has sustained the GOP in the past appears to be flying apart. Trump may not have much of an economic plan, but he at least is not threatening to dismantle our contemporary workhouses—which is to say, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This may explain why he did so well in yesterday’s primaries.

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Drama Shows Us a Way Out of Violence

The Eumenides


Yesterday “The Stone,” a philosophy forum in The New York Times, had a fabulous interview on the role of theater and the arts in addressing violence. Philosophy professor Simon Critchley of The New School told forum moderator Brad Evans that the arts are essential in getting societies to address and move beyond the violence that is endemic to them.

Critchley first expands our understanding of violence. It is best understood, not as a single act but

as a historical cycle of violence and counterviolence. In other words, violence is not one but two. It is a double act that traps human beings in a repetitive pattern from which it is very hard to escape.

We make a mistake, therefore, when we tell ourselves, say, that the U.S. was at peace when it was attacked on 9-11:

Violence, especially political violence, is usually a pattern of aggression and counteraggression that has a history and which stretches back deep into time.

Critchley says that we should see 9-11 from the point of view of Osama Ben Laden, who got the idea for the attack from watching Israel attack Beiruit in 1982. And as the attack was itself a reaction to violence, Critchley can observe,

We live in a world framed by violence, where justice seems to be endlessly divided between claim and counterclaim, right and left, freedom fighter and terrorist, believer and nonbeliever, and so on. Each side appears to believe unswervingly in the rightness of its position and the wrongness, or indeed “evil,” of the opposition. Such belief legitimates violence and unleashes counterviolence in return. We seem to be trapped in deep historical cycles of violence where justice is usually simply understood as vengeance or revenge.

Fortunately, art provides a means for escaping the trap. Critchley says that the great Greek tragedies of 5th century Athens not only understood violence in a profound way but had a vision of how to move beyond it.

These tragedies understand violence in part because they were written in response to violent conflicts, like the Battle of Salamis and the Peloponnesian War. Aeschylus himself had fought against the Persians, and his actors were often war veterans, as were many audience members:

Greek tragedy, particularly with its obsessive focus on the aftermath of the Trojan War, is largely about combat veterans. But it was also performed by combat veterans. Actors were not flimsy thespians or the Athenian version of Hollywood stars, but soldiers who had seen combat, like Aeschylus himself. They knew firsthand what violence was. Tragedy was played before an audience that either participated directly in war or who were indirectly implicated in war. All were traumatized by it and everyone felt its effects. War was the life of the city and its pride, as Pericles argued. But war was also the city’s fall and undoing.

It is meaningless to speak of peace, Critchley says, unless we first make a deep attempt to “understand the deep history and tragic complexity of political situations.” This understanding is provided to us by great theatre and also, he adds, by great cinema, great television drama, and even great rap music. These dramas teach us that we ourselves are thoroughly implicated in the cycle of violence.

Aeschylus’s understanding of our complicity, Critchley says, led to the violence-ending trial in The Eumenides [The Furies], the final play in the Oresteia trilogy. The violence that led from Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter to Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon to Orestes and Electra killing Clytemnestra to the Furies chasing Orestes is finally brought to an end when Athena intervenes. The Furies of vengeance are transformed into revered goddesses of justice, and mercy takes precedence over harshness:

Athena: You see now how these Furies seek their way
with well-intentioned words? I can predict
these terrifying faces will provide
my citizens all sorts of benefits.
So treat them kindly, just as they are kind.
Worship them forever. Then you’ll keep
your land and city on the path of justice,
in everything you do attaining glory.

In Critchley’s view,

The great virtue of ancient tragedy is that it allowed the Greeks to see their role in a history of violence and war that was to some extent of their own making. It also allowed them to imagine a suspension of that cycle of violence. 

The final scene of The Eumenides, he adds, is

not based on a fanciful idealism, but on a realistic and concrete grasp of a historical situation, which was something the Greeks did by focusing history through the lens of myth.

Critchley draws the following insight from this:

To see the bloody events of the contemporary world in a tragic light exposes us to a disorder which is not just someone else’s disorder. It is our disorder, and theater at its best asks us to take the time to reflect on this and to imagine what a world where violence is suspended might look like.

Critchley sees this dynamic also at work in Shakespeare’s tragedies. If the Greeks were responding to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, Shakespeare was responding to the Wars of the Roses and to the later fighting between Anglicans and Catholics. Critchley again notes that drama captures our own investment in violence, thereby giving us a chance to meditate upon it. Shakespeare brilliantly gets us to experience psychologically the effects of political upheaval:

From the beginning to the end, Shakespeare’s drama is a meditation on political violence. Whether one thinks of the wild excesses of Titus Andronicus, the vast majestic sweep of the history plays, or the great tragedies, Shakespeare had a tight and commanding grip on the nature of political power and its relation to violence and the claims and counterclaims of justice. What is most powerful about Shakespeare is the way in which his historically coded reflections on the politics of his time are combined with intense and immense psychological intimacy. Shakespeare, like no one before or since, binds together the political and the psychological.

We see this binding together especially vividly in Hamlet:

[I]t is not just that this play is a drama of violence in a surveillance state where power is constituted through acts of murder (the Castle of Elsinore and the state of Denmark is clearly some kind of allegory for the late Elizabethan court and police state), but also that we feel an awful proximity to the effects of violence on the mind of the young Danish prince, and the way in which it drives his feigned madness into something more real and frightening, as when he confronts his mother with terrifying psychical violence (Act 3, Scene iv).

Critchley then applies the lesson of the play to the violence that has been breaking out around Donald Trump rallies and to GOP’s calls to enact vengeance against ISIS and to torture terrorists:

What answer does Hamlet give that helps us understand our current political situation? Simply put, the play counsels us that time is out of joint. What people often forget is that Hamlet’s father, before he was himself murdered, killed Fortinbras’s father. And therefore it is fitting that Hamlet ends not just with the prince’s death, but with the military occupation of Denmark by the forces of young Fortinbras, who is Hamlet’s twin, insofar as they are both the sons of murdered fathers, one by the other.

Critchley concludes,

So the point of Shakespeare is not to give us simple answers or reassuring humanistic moral responses to violence, but to get us to confront the violence of our own histories. Hamlet gives us many warnings, but perhaps the most salient is the following: If we imagine that justice is based on vengeance against others, then we are truly undone.

There are another couple of interchanges in the forum worth noting. After discussing the importance of sports in directing and moderating a society’s urge to violence, Evans asks how we might

develop the necessary intellectual tools adequate to these deeply violent and politically fraught times?

Critchley answers,

My response is very simple: Art. I think that art at its most resonant and powerful can give us an account of the history of violence from which we emerge and can also offer us the possibility of a suspension of that violence. Art can provide an image for our age.

He proceeds to give a rap music example—Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which deals with the history of racialized violence—and concludes,

Great music can give us a picture of the violence of our time more powerfully than any news report. It can also offer, for the time that we listen, a momentary respite from the seemingly unending cycles of violence and imagine some other way of being, something less violent, less vengeful and less stupid.

So don’t cut music and literature out of our school curriculums. The health of our society depends upon them.

Posted in Aeschylus, Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fantasy as a Shield against Growing up

Peter Pan


Teaching James Barrie’s Peter and Wendy last week in my British Fantasy class proved to be an emotional experience for me. That’s because I gained a new perspective on how my father raised me and my brothers. Like Barrie, he turned to fantasy to hold off the darkness that he saw in the world.

Scott Bates held on to a child’s playfulness up until he died two years ago at 90. When we were children, he regularly supplied us with games. We had Frisbees (when they first became popular), French boules, bocce balls, diabolos, and yo-yos, and he always carried marbles and tops in his pocket to amuse children. When he built his house, he installed a flat roof where we played badminton and ring toss, and he laid out a concrete slab for shuffleboard. He also installed a horseshoe pit in the yard, while inside we had a foosball table, a Ping-Pong table, caroms, and skittles. We never got a billiard table but he always dreamed of one.

Above all, he read stories and poems to us (including Peter and Wendy) until we were well into middle school. He reveled in our childhood as Barrie did with Peter Davies, the model for Pan.

But Peter and Wendy is not all flying and fairy dust, and my students were struck by the violence. Tinker Bell persuades the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy, there’s a battle where the pirates massacre many of the Indians, and Captain Hook makes regular use of his hook. We even learn that Peter may kill other boys, as in the following passage. It occurs when everyone is circling the island at the same pace, with the wild beasts stalking the Indians who are stalking the pirates who are stalking the Lost Boys:

All wanted blood except the boys, who liked it as a rule, but tonight were out to greet their captain. The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.

And here’s a description of Captain Hook:

His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly. In manner, something of the grand seigneur still clung to him, so that he even ripped you up with an air, and I have been told that he was a raconteur of repute….

Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

Such violence is not uncommon in children’s books, from Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts to the grisly fates meted out to various children in the Roald Dahl books to the torture and killing in Harry Potter. This may at first seem surprising until one realizes that people, adult authors and children alike, turn to fantasy as a shield against a reality that they find intolerable. Great fantasy owes its power to the struggle, with a version of that reality always showing up in the story.

Barrie certainly used fantasy this way. When he was six, his older brother died in an ice skating accident and his mother never recovered. To console her, James would read books to her. His love of stories and playacting became so rooted that he resisted family plans for him to become a minister. He dutifully went to college but worked out a compromise where he could major in literature. Then he followed his own path and became a writer. Many of his best friends were children.

One sees his longing to hold onto his childhood in Peter and Wendy. In addition to Peter, there is Hook, who is angry that he is growing up and losing the “good form” that comes naturally to children. Hook is haunted by the ticking clock in the crocodile, a sign of time passing. Like Peter, he wants Wendy to mother him. Meanwhile, in the Darling household Mr. Darling doesn’t like being an adult and can be just as childish as Michael, the youngest.

My father wasn’t childish in this way but he definitely tried to hold on to a sense of innocence. Most of the books he read to us were fantasy, and I remember him sometimes skipping endings where the characters return to the real world. For instance, he hated the final chapter of The House on Pooh Corner, and I don’t believe he read us the ending of Peter and Wendy. He did read us the tragic ending of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but I think was disturbed by how badly we took it.

One sees some of the playfulness in his light verse, much of which I’ve shared over the life of this blog. Although poet Karl Shapiro, his poetry teacher at the University of Wisconsin, once told him that he couldn’t be a great poet if he wrote light verse, light verse is pretty much all that he wrote.

I vividly remember my father’s cardinal rule for us: we were not allowed to “burst someone’s bubble.” If one of us was feeling good about an accomplishment, we weren’t to go undercutting it. When I was older, my father talked to me about “the desecration of innocence.” In his eyes, few things worse than that.

The more I researched Barrie’s life, the more parallels I found. Barrie was the second youngest of nine children and, like my father, had two older brothers who were the family’s pride and joy. As with Barrie, fewer hopes were invested in my father, who was regarded as effeminate. After all, he wrote poetry, loved books, watched birds, wore glasses, was sickly at one point in his life, and didn’t play sports. While my grandfather looked down on him, however, my grandmother (“Granny”) found him sweet and dressed him as Little Lord Fauntleroy, complete with velvet and lace collarsm when he was young. He bonded with her as Barrie did with his own mother.

Imagine someone with this childhood landing in German-occupied France a week after turning 21. I think my father tried to hold on to his childhood innocence to cushion himself against the shock of World War II. While he didn’t engage in any fighting, he witnessed German bombing in the Battle of the Falaise Gap and he saw Dachau three days after it was liberated. In fact, he was assigned to take Germans to the camp to persuade them that the Holocaust was not just American propaganda.

He came back from the war an atheist and a material determinist who saw the world slated for destruction. His poetry, humorous though it is, often has an undercurrent of pessimism. His children, however, gave him a chance to return to the innocence of childhood, and he returned the favor by being our generous playmate.

He was a wonderful father to have although we, or at least I, imbibed some of his fears about the world. To please him I tried to hold on to my own innocence for as long as I could. I buried myself in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and I lashed out against Catcher in the Rye, which was assigned in high school and dramatizes the fall from innocence. Holden may fantasize about catching children before they run off the cliff into adolescence, but it’s a losing battle.

“All children, except one, grow up,” Barrie memorably writes. That doesn’t mean we accept it..

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Stop and Smell Mary’s Perfume

Painting from Church of St Mary Magdalene in Esplugues (Catalonia, Spain)

Painting from Church of St Mary Magdalene in Catalonia

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve long been puzzled by today’s Gospel reading in which Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with costly perfume, only to be chastised by Judas for wastefulness. There’s something sensual about her wiping the feet with her hair, but what role does the episode play in Jesus’s journey?

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)

My friend John Morrow, a retired Episcopal priest, tells me that Jesus is looking ahead to the crucifixion and essentially saying that the current focus must be on that. He is definitely not advocating a lackadaisical attitude towards poverty, although that is how his response to Judas has sometimes been interpreted. The time will come again when the disciples will be expected to minister to the poor.

Although this explanation sounds right, I nevertheless find myself focusing on another element. Judas in the account sounds like one of those earnest activists that take people to task when they pause for refreshment. Mary, who elsewhere gets criticized by Martha for listening to Jesus rather than helping out in the kitchen, here is criticized for not focusing at all times on the movement’s goals. Jesus, in such a reading, is telling Judas that there is a time to play as well as a time to work, a time to enjoy as well as a time to minister.

To hold this reading means that I must disagree with St. Luke’s explanation that Judas just wants a bigger pot that he can steal. This doesn’t sound plausible to me, especially if, as some scholars think, Judas was in fact a radical Zealot who wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans. In my alternate interpretation, Jesus is telling Judas to chill for a moment. If we don’t pause to honor an act of love and gratitude, what’s the point of the movement.

This is a lesson that Jesus himself must learn in D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Man Who Died. In Lawrence’s account, which some have found blasphemous, Jesus, upon returning from the dead, realizes that he has never truly lived. He has been so devoted to a life of self-denying service that he hasn’t opened himself up to the plenitude of life. When he meets Mary Magdalene in the garden after the resurrection,  he has the following interchange with her:

[Your lovers] were much to you, but you took more than you gave. Then you came to me for salvation from your own excess. And I, in my mission, I too ran to excess. I gave more than I took, and that also is woe and vanity. So Pilate and the high priests saved me from my own excessive salvation. Don’t run to excess now in living, Madeleine. It only means another death.”

She pondered bitterly, for the need for excessive giving was in her, and she could not bear to be denied.

“And will you not come back to us?” she said. “Have you risen for yourself alone?”

He heard the sarcasm in her voice, and looked at her beautiful face which still was dense with excessive need for salvation from the woman she had been, the female who had caught men at her will. The cloud of necessity was on her, to be saved from the old, wilful Eve, who had embraced many men and taken more than she gave. Now the other doom was on her. She wanted to give without taking. And that, too, is hard, and cruel to the warm body.

Put aside the fact that Mary Magdalene wasn’t actually a prostitute and also the very male misconception that prostitutes get more than they give. This is a work about moving beyond a life-denying austerity, and by the end of the novella Jesus has learned how to revel in the richness of the world. Crucial in his awakening is a priestess of Isis, with whom he makes love. He comes to the follow realization:

Suddenly it dawned on him: I asked them all to serve me with the corpse of their love. And in the end I offered them only the corpse of my love. This is my body–take and eat–my corpse–

A vivid shame went through him. ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘I wanted them to love with dead bodies. If I had kissed Judas with live love, perhaps he would never have kissed me with death. Perhaps he loved me in the flesh, and I willed that he should love me bodilessly, with the corpse of love–‘

There dawned on him the reality of the soft, warm love which is in touch, and which is full of delight. “And I told them, blessed are they that mourn,” he said to himself. “Alas, if I mourned even this woman here, now I am in death, I should have to remain dead, and I want so much to live. Life has brought me to this woman with warm hands. And her touch is more to me now than all my words. For I want to live–“

This story meant a lot to me when I read it in college because I, like Lawrence, was struggling against the Victorian notion that duty was everything and pleasure was a shameful indulgence. Lawrence helped me move into a fuller appreciation of life, which is one reason why I included a Lawrence poem in my wedding ceremony. Reading him led to my own awakening.

I am well aware that one can go too far and take more than one gives. Our society right now has a problem with selfish people who are not willing to sacrifice pleasure for duty. Lawrence himself believes that there must be a balance. But encountering the story when I did helped me find that balance, and the hair-anointing scene remains a useful reminder to stop and smell the perfume.

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Bernie Is Peter Pan, Hillary Is Wendy

"Peter Pan" (1953)

“Peter Pan” (1953)


I was teaching James Barrie’s Peter and Wendy yesterday in my British Fantasy class and, in spite of myself, found myself drawing connections with the presidential primaries. At one point, I came to the startling conclusion that Bernie Sanders is Peter Pan and Hillary Clinton is Wendy.

Peter goes charging into the fray, Wendy cautiously keeps the home fires burning. Peter grapples with pirate ships, Wendy reads stories to the boys and makes sure they take their naps. Peter wants never to grow up whereas Wendy knows that she and the boys must return to England and engage in the far less glamorous process of maturation. Peter is a charismatic leader, Wendy is a stay-at-home mom.

A version of this drama gets played out in the Darling household. Mr. Darling is loud and impetuous but the women—which is to say Mrs. Darling and Nana, the St. Bernard nanny—keep everything running on an even keel.

I read an article somewhere arguing that Hillary, as a woman, will always be at a disadvantage when competing against men because we expect women to be more grounded. They have less latitude than men to engage in soaring rhetoric about, say, the audacity of hope. Hillary acknowledged as much in Wednesday’s debate when she said, in a moment that gave many women viewers a thrill of recognition,

I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama. So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can…

The title of Barrie’s book indicates that there are two protagonists, and readers divide over which one they prefer. Speaking for myself, I am put off by Peter’s cockiness and am drawn to the more pragmatic Wendy. I am also rooting for Hillary.

This in spite of the fact that I once described myself as a Marxist and a socialist. I campaigned, many eons ago, for Eugene McCarthy (in 1968) and George McGovern (in 1972). I was shocked by how easily both candidates were buried, which helps explain my current caution.

Now I am content with small victories. While many Bernie supporters have been disappointed with Barack Obama, I am ecstatic that he has been able to accomplish as much as he has. All I ask of his successor is that she or he consolidate his advances in health care, climate change, bank regulation, immigration, Iran, Cuba, same sex marriage, and the Supreme Court. Anything more I will regard as gravy.

In short, I have become dubious of grand promises that can be fulfilled only with the aid of a sweeping revolution. From what I’ve read about Hillary’s African American supporters, many of them feel the same, as do the columnists I am drawn to: Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore of New York Magazine, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, Jonathan Capehart and E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly, Joan Walsh of Nation, Amanda Marcotte of Salon.

Barrie is very ambivalent about mothers, seeing them as holding children back, even though they are necessary. As he puts it, “All children know [that mothers will serve as a buffer for them] and despise them for it, but make constant use of it.” Many politicians, meanwhile, feel they can say anything, counting on someone else to clean up after them.

Kevin Drum says that Hillary, despite her reputation for being slippery, actually has trouble giving slippery answers. Indeed, her reputation being untrustworthy arises in part from her honesty. Here is Drum explaining her “tap dance” Wednesday night about whether she would stop the deportation of any illegal immigrant not charged with a criminal offense:

It’s pretty obvious that Hillary is doing her best to tap dance around this. If you were watching, you could almost hear the gears grinding in her head. She desperately doesn’t want to give a yes-or-no answer—probably because she knows perfectly well that this isn’t a yes-or-no question—but it’s obvious Ramos isn’t going to give up. So she’s making calculations in real time about whether she can afford to provide an ambiguous answer in front of a Latino crowd on national TV, or if she should just cave in and make a Shermanesque statement.

Part of this calculation, of course, is that Bernie Sanders is standing right next to her, and she knows that Bernie will have no trouble with a Shermanesque statement. He thrives on them. And that will appeal to Latino voters. Grind, grind, grind. So eventually she gives in and flatly promises never to deport anyone without a criminal record.

Which, as we all know, is almost certainly an impossible promise to keep. And Hillary hates that. She knows what the legal and political realities are, and she hates having to pretend they don’t exist. But this year, we’re running an election where reality doesn’t matter. A big chunk of both Democratic and Republicans voters flatly don’t care if policies are realistic. They just want to know what a candidate feels.

This is what I meant last night when I said Hillary tends to be honest to a fault when discussing policy. It’s ironic, given her reputation. In this case, I doubt that she wants to deport children. Her intentions are every bit as good as Bernie’s. But she can’t stand to pretend that that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately, this is not the year for policy honesty. If Hillary wins, it will be in spite of her honesty, not because of it.

It’s hard for policy wonks to be inspiring. Obama may be the exception that proves the rule.

But having said this, I will be thrilled to support Bernie if he is the nominee. Peter Pan, after all, successfully slays Captain Hook, despite his lethal slashes–which in the GOP’s case will come in the form of intense red-baiting. I know many of my students are very excited by Bernie and I admire their idealism. Perhaps they are right, perhaps this is a time to take a big chance.

I acknowledge the possibility, in other words, that I am a grown-up Wendy, cowering in the shadows as Peter calls upon her to return to Neverland. Here’s an excerpt from that painful scene:

And then one night came the tragedy. It was the spring of the year, and the story had been told for the night, and Jane was now asleep in her bed. Wendy was sitting on the floor, very close to the fire, so as to see to darn, for there was no other light in the nursery; and while she sat darning she heard a crow. Then the window blew open as of old, and Peter dropped on the floor.

He was exactly the same as ever, and Wendy saw at once that he still had all his first teeth.

He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.

‘Hullo, Wendy,’ he said, not noticing any difference, for he was thinking chiefly of himself; and in the dim light her white dress might have been the night-gown in which he had seen her first.

‘Hullo, Peter,’ she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. Something inside her was crying ‘Woman, woman, let go of me.’

I am no longer the carefree McGovern supporter I once was and no longer believe that we can fly. But for all my skepticism, I’ll keep my window open and I will trust my childhood self to Peter as Wendy trusts her daughter to him. If we cautiously kept our children forever cooped up in their bedrooms, there would be no adventures.

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“We the People,” Nourishing Words

Giovanni Lanfranco. "The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes"

Giovanni Lanfranco. “The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes”


Nancy LeTourneau of The Washington Monthly yesterday used a David Whyte poem to good effect in articulating a vision of America that can send our hearts soaring. Whyte concludes his poem with the assertion that “one good word is bread for a thousand,” and LeTourneau then quotes a President Obama speech that gives us a pretty good candidate for that one good word.

First of all, here’s the poem:

Loaves and Fishes

By David Whyte

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves 
and fishes.

People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

Among other things, Whyte’s poem is a plea for poetry, which cuts through the media’s barrage of language with carefully selected words. As I tell my students, poetry counters word inflation.

LeTourneau lets us know which word she would choose by citing three important speeches delivered by the president. He uses it liberally in the first two and then singles it out in his inspirational Selma speech:

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Jesus turned the five loaves and two fishes into enough to feed a multitude of 5000+, with twelve baskets left over. We the people, famished for a more perfect union, can perform our own miracles if we truly honor the “we.”

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I Will Survive…by Reading Novels

Jacquelyn Bischak - Woman reading by the window

Jacquelyn Bischak – Woman reading by the window


Yesterday my colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black alerted me to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about “The Novel as a Tool for Survival.” It’s a bit tangled as it gets bogged down in digressions and qualifications, but I’ve extracted its argument about survival.

Author Arthur Krystal notes that society must repress certain primitive desires in order to exist, and he points out that these primitive desires show up in literature. A balancing act is required if we are to honor both our own drives and society’s requirements, and the best literature captures and honors that tension. Here’s Krystal describing the tension:

For just as no society can survive if it allows the darker facets of our nature to surface, no society can truly function if it disowns the human impulses that helped establish it. By imposing order, we compensate for the impulse to create disorder….[T]he tension between individual freedom and the society that seeks to protect that freedom is embedded in the moral and legal restraints that, in effect, repress the energies that originally ushered them into existence. 

The novel excels above all other literary forms in capturing this internal conflict, Krystal says:

Fiction, speaking very generally, is about the individual in society, about the expectations and conflicts that color a life when an obdurate reality stands in the way of one’s self-image or desires.

And further on:

[L]iterature, when undertaken seriously, is a celebration not of life but of awareness, an awareness of the human condition, which is both communal and individual and inevitably strikes a balance, palpable or barely perceptible, between the two. Each of us, then, is a fulcrum where the private and the public meet, where inner and other-directed yearnings sometimes clash. Literature gets written because of this, and what we understand and love in it, as Erich Auerbach wrote, “is a human existence, a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves.”

As one who writes daily blog posts about “how great literature can change your life,” my ears perked up at the idea of literature leading to modification. Krystal, however, is vague and seems more interested in how literature lead us to awareness than in how it prompts us to act differently. Still, I find useful how he shows literature getting to show what else is possible in the world. It shows us not only where we are but what we could become:

By informing how we live and how we might live, the novel became the vehicle of our discontent. It allowed our suffering and suggested we had cause to suffer, and, if I may reach a bit, helped us survive. In its own formative way, literature is an adaptive tool that keeps pace with the small and gradual gestations of the human mind. Although a great novel can be a loose, baggy monster or as spare as a lama’s bedroom, its literary status rests on an ability to imagine the lives of men and women in light of the societal conditions that animate them. If it works, if it’s serious, the narrative — whatever form it takes — edges ineluctably toward a realism in which individual destiny has meaning (even when it’s represented to have none).

I don’t have Krystal’s hesitations about “reach[ing] a bit,” and I wish that he would spell out what he means about “small and gradual gestations of the human mind.” Does Krystal mean that great novels help us negotiate the relationship between changing ideas of self and changing social pressures? He seems to be getting at something along the lines when he writes,

Literature is where we go to identify ourselves, where we shake off outmoded attitudes and beliefs, where we pause to evaluate our progress.

I want to hear more. I see how shaking off old attitudes and beliefs and pausing to evaluate can potentially lead to our modifying our behavior. I’d just like more tangible examples. Instead, Krystal retreats back into the intellectual insights that literature offers.

Maybe he provides more concrete examples in his forthcoming book, This Thing Called Literature.

Aside from these objections, however, I agree with Krystal that great literature explores reality and gives us “an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity.” The best modification must proceed on the basis of truth:

The only mandate here is one of exploration. Writers have an obligation to interrogate reality, to make sure that our relation to the world is or is not what it appears to be. This sounds rather grand but can be accomplished in a number of ways: through layered Shakespearean rhetoric, nuanced Chekhovian observation, lengthy Proustian ruminations, collagist Joycean soliloquies, or minimalist Carveresque touches. What it boils down to is an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity, which, if we’re honest, contains a good dose of ignorance. What are we or the universe doing here? What is the meaning of existence? In this capacity, literature is, at bottom, a wondering, an attempt to get to the bottom of things, or, at least, a faithful, if oblique, portrayal of how things are. 

Sifting through Krystal’s digressions, I find a few more statements about how great literature helps us survive. For instance, he quotes Terry Eagleton about how literature can help us “live authentically”:

“To live in an awareness of our mortality is to live with realism, irony, truthfulness, and a chastening sense of our finitude and fragility. In this respect at least, to keep faith with what is most animal about us is to live authentically.”

Further on, Krystal writes,

[L]iterature could not in good conscience be seen as arbitrary but rather as something that answers a basic human need: It’s part of the civilizing process, it helps us to thrive.


[L]iterature makes life more manageable; …[I]t speaks to us in the way we speak to one another; it’s the self-conscious repository of consciousness. 

As I say, I’d like more concrete examples. But if you don’t mind wading through tangled prose, it’s worth reading.

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Lucille Clifton’s Song of Myself

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton


I wrote last week about how friends and fans of Lucille Clifton gathered at a special St. Mary’s College of Maryland commemoration of the poet, who taught at the college for 16 years. My friend Iris Ford, an African American Professor of Anthropology, read the Whitmanesque “won’t you celebrate with me” as she told how much Lucille supported and inspired her, especially when times got tough.

Lucille certainly went through a lot, enduring the early death of her husband, cancer, a kidney transplant, and the death of two of her children. And that’s in additition to the challenges encountered by a black woman born in 1936.

In “won’t you celebrate with me,” Lucille begins with a question but, after looking over how she shaped her life, concludes with a confident imperative. Although she was born in Babylon, a captive in a foreign land (nonwhite and a woman in America), she made up an identity for herself and grew into it. Composed of starshine and clay, something spiritual and something earthly, she carried herself into life (“My one hand carried my other hand”) and defied all that attempted to kill her.

Use the poem to get your day off on the right foot. A poetic caffeine jolt.

won’t you celebrate with me

By Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

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On the Pope, Walls, and Robinson Crusoe



A couple of weeks ago there was a dust-up between Donald Trump and Pope Francis when the pope labeled “not Christian” those who talk about building walls but not bridges. (The comment was in response to a question about the wall proposed by Trump.) I’ve written several blog posts about immigrants in the past (see the links at the end of the article) and today delve into what Robinson Crusoe has to contribute to the discussion. Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, I believe, helps us understand why such “not Christian” behavior is nevertheless attracting rightwing Christians to Trump and also to Ted Cruz, who is equally vociferous on the subject.

First of all, an observation on the pope’s comments. I don’t think he was intervening in American politics but making rather a theological comment. Jesus is unequivocal about what happens to those with stony hearts:

 I promise you that any of the sinful things you say or do can be forgiven, no matter how terrible those things are. But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can never be forgiven. That sin will be held against you forever.” (Mark 3:28-29)

I see this statement less as a judgment and more as a psychological description. If we turn away from the divine love that is within us, we create a hell for ourselves. Being a Christian means following Christ’s example and opening oneself to God, so the pope is merely stating what is in his mind a theological fact.

To bring Robinson Crusoe into the conversation requires some background explaining so bear with me. The key works here are Max Weber’s Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism and R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Both argue that Calvinist fears of damnation spurred capitalist achievement since Puritans felt they had to prove to themselves that they were amongst the elect—which is to say, that they were predestined for heaven rather than for hell. They came to think that worldly success was evidence that they were heading for the good place and therefore had extra incentive to attain that success. This isn’t logical since Calvinists don’t believe that you can increase your chances of being amongst the elect. It makes psychological sense, however, since you desperately want reassurance and therefore are apt to tilt what you see as the indicators.

One sees a fear of damnation driving Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe has disobeyed his father by running off to sea and he is haunted by guilt. To prove to this internal father that he is a good son, he works incessantly, trying to make every minute count. No matter how much Crusoe builds, however, it is never enough. He must always create more to quiet his internal doubts.

Our current Protestant work ethic is not as overt as the Calvinism of the 18th and 19th centuries—one doesn’t hear a lot of talk about predestination—but the sense that one is somehow deficient if one is a “loser” still resides. Prosperity theology argues that those who are right with God prosper economically, while those who are poor are somehow offensive to God. Thus you can have ardent capitalists like Trump and Cruz strutting their Christian credentials while advocating the building of various walls to shut out the less fortunate.

Walls are also Crusoe’s specialty. Building them, even when they don’t seem necessary, is a way to quiet his doubts. Rather than provide reassurance, however, the fences increase his sense of vulnerability. Here’s a passage from the earlier post, written in July, 2014:

There is a psychological price paid by those who insist upon absolute borders: the thicker the barrier, the thicker  the fear and paranoia. This helps explain why the hysteria of American nativists is swamping the efforts of moderate Republicans to work with Democrats to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Crusoe engages in incessant labor to build an impregnable fortress for himself—but in an ironic twist that I think shows how walling out the world actually increases feelings of vulnerability, his own security becomes trap.

The trap is symbolized by a cave-in, caused by an earthquake and storm that strike within 24 hours of Crusoe completing his fortress. Crusoe actually has to breach his barrier so that he will not be drowned by a torrential downpour.

Back to rightwing Christian support for Trump and Cruz. These are two politicians who are raising walls between Christians and others, telling their followers that they are victims of immigrant Muslims or repressive secularists and that the wealth that should be theirs is going to undeserving poor and minorities. The thicker the walls they propose, the more the paranoia grows.

It appears not to matter to Trump and Cruz supporters that Deuteronomy 10:18 insists that orphans and widows should receive justice and that we should “show[ ] love to the foreigners living among you and give[ ] them food and clothing,”

Robinson Crusoe is not only about walls, however, and there is an instance where he builds a bridge. Or rather, where he shares a ladder. Again I quote from my earlier post, which includes two contrasting passages from the novel. In the first, Crusoe is fearful of Friday and walls him out. In the second, he realizes he can drop the barriers:

The next day, after I came home to my hutch with him, I began to consider where I should lodge him: and that I might do well for him and yet be perfectly easy myself, I made a little tent for him in the vacant place between my two fortifications, in the inside of the last, and in the outside of the first.  As there was a door or entrance there into my cave, I made a formal framed door-case, and a door to it, of boards, and set it up in the passage, a little within the entrance; and, causing the door to open in the inside, I barred it up in the night, taking in my ladders, too; so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost wall, without making so much noise in getting over that it must needs awaken me; for my first wall had now a complete roof over it of long poles, covering all my tent, and leaning up to the side of the hill; which was again laid across with smaller sticks, instead of laths, and then thatched over a great thickness with the rice-straw, which was strong, like reeds; and at the hole or place which was left to go in or out by the ladder I had placed a kind of trap-door, which, if it had been attempted on the outside, would not have opened at all, but would have fallen down and made a great noise—as to weapons, I took them all into my side every night. 

Eventually he learns that his fears are groundless and he has nothing to worry about—which America might conclude as well if it were to stop obsessing over dark-skinned people:

But I needed none of all this precaution; for never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me: without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me, like those of a child to a father; and I daresay he would have sacrificed his life to save mine upon any occasion whatsoever—the many testimonies he gave me of this put it out of doubt, and soon convinced me that I needed to use no precautions for my safety on his account.

I concluded the earlier post as follows:

Okay, so this is paternalistic and I’m not holding it up as a model for white-non-white friendships. But I do find it interesting how Crusoe periodically has his cultural assumptions upended. At one point he discovers that Europeans—I have in mind the mutineers who find their way to the island—can be no less savage than the cannibals.

The bigger point is that, when we insist on fences, we become defined by our fears, which threaten to bury us like Crusoe’s earthquake. Whereas when we open ourselves up to the Other, we may find a friend. May all Americans be open to this truth as we deal with the latest Latin American immigrants.

I believe this is what the pope was trying to say.

Previous posts on immigrants

Robinson Crusoe: Walls Entrap Rather Than Protect

Adrienne Rich: The Immigrants Choice

Robert Frost: Fences, Good Neighbors, and Immigration

William Carlos Williams: Caution, Don’t Stereotype Immigrants

A Tolstoy Story about Radical Empathy

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Men (and Women) No Longer

Steinbeck Described Anti-Migrant Protests

America, an Immigrant Nation

Inauguration Poet, Classic Immigrant Story

Grapes of Wrath Fermenting in Alabama


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We Feel Closest to God in the Desert

Jacob Jordaens, "The Prodigal Son"

Jacob Jordaens, “The Prodigal Son”

Spiritual Sunday

I remember being stimulated by an André Gide version of the Prodigal Son parable when I was a French minor at Carleton College. As the story is today’s lectionary reading, I tracked down a Kindle version ($3 for the new Walter Ballenberger translation) to rediscover what drew me to it. I suspect I was excited by the way that Gide’s prodigal is searching for spiritual insight outside of conventional religion.

In Gide’s version, the son leaves his father’s home because he feels stifled by narrow versions of what God calls for us to do. In Gide’s version, the father at first seems to reprimand the prodigal on the day following the welcome home party. He then shows himself to be sympathetic with his son’s decision to leave. He accounts for his change with the excuse that he has been merely parroting the elder son, who has set himself up as the official interpreter of the father’s will.

Here’s the prodigal son explaining to his father why he left home. Note that it might not pass muster with those who are narrowly religious. God, as the prodigal sees him, does not call for austerity and self-denial:

I changed your gold into pleasures, your precepts into fantasies, my chastity into poetry, and my austerity into desires.

When the father further questions the prodigal, he is told that the son never stopped loving him. Indeed, the son’s love was all the more intense when he was hungry and suffering:

[Father:] “Think about the pure flame that Moses saw on the sacred bush. It was burning but did not consume.”

“I knew a love that consumed.”

“The love that I want to teach you refreshes. After a little time, what is left of it, my prodigal son?”

“The memory of these pleasures.”

“And the destitution that follows them.”

“In this destitution I felt closer to you, Father.”

“Was it necessary to experience misery to motivate you to return to me?”

“I do not know. I do not know. It was in the aridity of that desert that I loved my thirst the most.”

“Your misery made you better appreciate the price of riches.”

“No, not that! Do you not understand me, my father? My heart, emptied of everything, is filled with love. At the price of my possessions, I bought fervor.”

“Were you thus happy far away from me?”

“I never felt I was far from you.”

And further on:

Father, I told you, I never loved you so much as when I was in the desert.

While he ventured out to discover his full self, however, the prodigal returns feeling defeated. Privation and the pressure of rebelling against conventionality has eaten away at his searching, and now he now is prepared to surrender to life as most people live it. He wants his mother to comfort him and he is prepared to do whatever his parents think best. His elder brother tells him that, from now on, he must conform to the rules of the house—which is to say, the rules as he interprets them:

“Our father did not speak so harshly to me.”

“I know what the Father said to you. It was vague. He does not explain himself very clearly, and one can take away anything at all from what he says. But I know his thoughts well. Among the servants I am the unique interpreter, and anybody who wants to understand him must listen to me.”

In the course of talking to his mother, the prodigal learns that he has a younger brother who wants to set out on the same journey. This brother reminds the prodigal of his earlier desiring and, to articulate it, shows him a wild pomegranate:

[Brother:] “It has a horrible sourness. I feel, however, that if I had a strong enough thirst, I would bite into it.”

“Ah! I can tell you right now that it was that thirst I was searching for in the desert.”

“A thirst that only non-sweetened fruit can quench…”

“No, but one must love that thirst.”

The prodigal may no longer have the strength to rediscover that thirst, but he encourages his brother to search for it:

Leave me! Leave me! I will stay and console our mother. Without me you will be more courageous. Now is the time. The sky is getting pale. Leave without making any noise. Let’s go! Embrace me, my young brother. You carry all my hopes. Be strong. Forget us, forget me. May you not return. Go out softly, I will hold the lamp…

Among other things, Gide’s short story points to the difficulty of pursuing a genuine spiritual journey in the face of external pressures and conventional thinking. And speaking of such, this past Friday I led a discussion at Hope Lutheran Church (in College Park, MD) about the film Gods and Men (2011). In it, an order of Trappist monks in 1990s Algeria decides to remain in place, even though they are threatened by Islamic fundamentalists.

Gods and Men is a powerful Lenten film. The monks must undergo their own suffering as they wrestle with their fears. While everyone wants them to return to France, they find the Father in the desert.

We can’t all be Trappist monks but we can strive to honor our inner spiritual yearnings.

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Sans Scalia, a Happy Midsummer Ending?

Flockhart, Friell, Bale, West in "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Flockhart, Bale, Friel and West in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”


Hearings at the Supreme Court have been sounding very different with the absence of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the outspoken proponent of strict Constitutional textualism. There’s no question that, were he still alive, Scalia would be arguing vigorously in favor of a recent Texas law designed to deny thousands of Texas women ready access to abortion services. In his absence, the three women justices have been able to assert themselves more forcefully.

I’ve just been reading a Shakespeare play where another textualist invokes old laws in order to control women’s bodies. The play is Midsummer Night’s Dream and the man insisting on “the ancient Athenian law” is Egeus, Hermia’s father.

Hermia wants to marry Lysander but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. The law is on his side: 

Be it so she will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

Theseus, functioning as the court of last appeal, must honor the ancient law. He softens it somewhat, however, by offering Hermia a choice:

Hermia: But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Theseus: Either to die the death or to abjure
Forever the society of men.

There are problems with strict textualism, just as there were problems with the text-obsessed New Criticism of the 1950s and 1960s. Text without context doesn’t get you closer to the truth but rather allows you to slip in your own interpretation while asserting that you are being true to the Constitution. Justice Scalia may have claimed to be a strict textualist, but often his “strict interpretation” of the Constitution’s language conveniently coincided with his political leanings. Note, for instance, how he interpreted the right of a well-regulated militia to bear arms to mean the right of all individual citizens to bear arms, whether or not they were in a militia.

In the play, Theseus comes to see the ancient Athenian law as a living document, not a dead one. When, as a result of the night’s adventures, Demetrius decides he prefers Helena, a strict observance of an old man’s rigid will seems out of the question. Love proves more powerful that Law and ushers in a new dispensation.

First, here’s Egeus putting up one last struggle after Lysander and Hermia confess to having stolen away:

Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough:
I beg the law, the law, upon his head.
They would have stolen away; they would, Demetrius,
Thereby to have defeated you and me,
You of your wife and me of my consent,
Of my consent that she should be your wife.

And here’s Theseus after Demetrius announces his change of heart:

Fair lovers, you are fortunately met:
Of this discourse we more will hear anon.
Egeus, I will overbear your will;
For in the temple by and by with us
These couples shall eternally be knit

Men, of course, used to have far more control over women than we would accept today. Justices who believe in a living Constitution evolve with our changing attitudes. It is time for our  Egeuses to allow our Hermias to make their own choices. It helps that we have Hippolytas on the court as well as Theseuses.

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Christie as Prufrock & Other Lit Allusions

Christie and Trump

Christie and Trump


There were a number of literary citations in articles written about the Super Tuesday primaries this past week. I’m always glad to see that happen since it means that theorist E. D. Hirsch’s dream of literature as a common cultural referent is still alive.

For instance, there was Amanda Marcotte of Slate quoting Shakespeare as she predicted that Ted Cruz, following his devastating loss in South Carolina, was “about to fall on his face.” She wasn’t entirely correct—Cruz won three states—but it’s possible that Cruz’s failure to fare better in the southern states spells the beginning of the end for him.

As Marcotte sees Cruz, he wants to be Macbeth but is actually Malvolio. Speaking about Cruz’s sense of himself as divinely appointed, even as none of his colleagues can stand him, Marcotte wrote,

But alas, it appears God has changed his mind and Cruz is crashing back down to earth, where the number of people who are willing to catch him can’t put together a half-court basketball team.

Cruz himself is already shifting narratives, imagining himself the noble hero in the classical tragic style. He’s been referencing the Alamo a lot in his Texas campaigning. ““I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country,” he dramatically recited to a crowd in Houston last week. “Victory or death.”

Sadly for Cruz, however, there is no Alamo-style last stand possible here. It’s really victory or slinking back to the Senate with your tail between your legs, and after tonight, the latter will seem more certain than ever. His story is not tragic, but pathetic. It’s not the story of a great man brought low, but of a deluded man who has fallen on his face. He’s not Macbeth. He’s Malvolio from Twelfth Night, prancing around in his yellow stockings while public humiliation awaits. And like Malvolio, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

In some ways, I see Marco Rubio as more like Malvolio than Cruz. The son of a Miami bartender appears to be willing to do or say almost anything in order to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful. But okay, Cruz works as well. I can certainly imagine him exiting the political stage at some point vowing to be “revenged on the pack of you.”

Blogger John Scalzi, mentioning the failure of either Cruz or Rubio to seriously contest Trump until recently, sees the two of them as Tweedledee and Tweedledum from Alice through the Looking Class

Neither Cruz nor Rubio is going to drop out of the race — Rubio because the establishment’s assassins will murder his future if he does, Cruz because his monomaniacal sense of manifest destiny doesn’t allow for quittin’ — and neither of them is likely to poll substantially better than the other. They’re Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum all the way down the line. You want to choose between these two embarrassments to the name of Generation X? After you.

This allusion seems particularly appropriate given what happens to the brothers. After they square off in a battle that is more ridiculous than impressive, they are routed by a monstrous crow. Think of the rattle they fight over as the Republican nomination and the monstrous crow as Trump. Here’s the nursery rhyme:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.’

And here’s what happens in the book:

It was getting dark so suddenly that Alice thought there must be a thunderstorm coming on. `What a thick black cloud that is!’ she said. `And how fast it comes! Why, I do believe it’s got wings!’

`It’s the crow!’ Tweedledum cried out in a shrill voice of alarm: and the two brothers took to their heels and were out of sight in a moment.

In another literary citation, Charles Pierce of Esquire invokes Watership Down to explain how the GOP is responsible for having brought the Trump disaster down on itself. After all, it has been engaging in racist appeals since Nixon’s southern strategy, and we have seen Ronald Reagan’s attack of welfare mothers, George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads, and the GOP leadership remaining silent in the face of Obama birtherism. Noting that Trump will probably be the Republican presidential nominee,” Pierce, quoting Hamlet, opines,

It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, especially by those of us who see the Republicans as having been cruising for this particular bruising ever since it so greedily ate the monkeybrains in the 1980s. But, from the people who make their living at being Republicans, we are seeing the kind of existential panic that you only see once or twice in a century. It’s Watership Down, with Super PACs and Mitch McConnell.

I assume the Watership Down reference is to the Armageddon that comes down upon the rabbit warren early in the book. Fiver foresees it and encourages a few brave souls to leave, but almost every other rabbit dies. This Armageddon, appropriately enough given Trump’s profession, is brought about by a housing development company, which plugs up the rabbit holes and poisons the rabbits prior to clearing the land. What ensues is an apt analogy for the panic going on in the Republic establishment at the moment, with some defecting toTrump while others quarrel about who to support in opposition:

Very soon the runs were crammed with rabbits clawing and clambering over each other. They went up the runs they were accustomed to use and found them blocked. Some managed to turn round, but they couldn’t get back because of the rabbits coming up. And then the runs began to be blocked lower down with dead rabbits and the live rabbits tore them to pieces.

And further on:

There were all sorts of forgotten shafts and drops that led in from above, and down there were coming the most terrible sounds—cries for help, kittens squealing for their mothers, Owsla trying to give orders, rabbits cursing and fighting each other.

Yes, it sounds like this year’s GOP primaries.

The best literary allusion showed up in an article about Trump’s victory speech Tuesday night—or rather, about how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appeared to be a hostage on stage as Trump talked. Accustomed to wielding the microphone himself, Christie looked thoroughly uncomfortable, reminding The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri of J. Alfred Prufrock:

A man who had seen the moment of his greatness flicker, and seen the eternal footman hold his coat, and snicker.

And, in short, he looked afraid.

To be sure, Christie is not like Prufrock in most ways. He often charges in where Prufrock hangs back. Still, whatever dignity he once had has given way to this humiliation at the hands of the Donald. The eternal footman—Death—is not impressed with this man who once had the potential to be president.

Petri also may see Christie as Kurtz from Heart of Darkness:

His were the eyes of a man who has gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed back, and then he endorsed the abyss.

Ah, literature–ever ready to respond to the events of the day.

Posted in Adams (Richard), Carroll (Lewis), Eliot (T.S.), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Black Students Find Strength thru Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton


Last night, as part of our continuing celebration of our 175 anniversary, St. Mary’s College of Maryland commemorated Lucille Clifton, who taught at the college from 1989-2005. The theme of the night, which is also the theme of our African American president Tujuanda Jordan, was “Creating the Compassionate Community.”

Former students, colleagues, and friends read Clifton’s poems and reminisced. Two of the most powerful readings, however, were by current students who never met the poet. Black Student Union president Chrystal Worrel read “my dream about being white” after telling us about her own childhood dreams of being white. Noni Ford read “a dream of foxes.”

Crystal said that her dream of being white started when she was five. A fellow kindergartner told her that she couldn’t be a mommy because her skin was the wrong color, and Crystal went home and told her own mother that she needed to change her looks. Remnants of that fantasy stayed with her for years, but encountering Clifton’s poem at St. Mary’s helped her to finally let it go. Here’s the poem:

my dream about being white

By Lucille Clifton

hey music and
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i’m wearing
white history
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
wake up

This poem has become particularly meaningful to me now that I have granddaughters of color. Already the three-year-old is asking her parents about her skin tone. Esmé observed recently that her skin is closer in color to her father’s than her Trinidadian mother’s, even though that’s not the way that America will see it.

In other words, Esmé too will need Clifton’s poetry in her life.

The other student reader, Noni Ford, told about being awed by the natural beauty upon her first visit to St. Mary’s. Her poet mother, on the other hand, couldn’t get over the fact that Clifton’s poetry is scattered throughout the campus.

Noni observed that, while she still appreciates the beauty, she also has come to realize that the college has race issues. It’s not, in other words, the Garden of Eden. Noni read “a dream of foxes,” which captures the dichotomy. In this case, the dream is positive. Although the world continues to hunt foxes, in the dream there are safe and generous fields:

a dream of foxes

By Lucille Clifton

in the dream of foxes
there is a field
and a procession of women
clean as good children
no hollow in the world
surrounded by dogs
no fur clumped bloody
on the ground
only a lovely line
of honest women stepping
without fear or guilt or shame
safe through the generous fields

Part of that “lovely line” is the lineage which reaches back to the Clifton’s strong female ancestors (written about in Generations) and down through Clifton to Noni herself. Taking inspiration from Clifton’s poetry, Noni said that Clifton would want her to keep struggling for social justice.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Tolstoy and the Forerunners of Twitter

Rory Keenan & Tuppence Middleton as Bilibin and Halene Kuragin

Rory Keenan & Tuppence Middleton as Bilibin and Halene Kuragin


A couple of years ago Darien, my social media savvy son, introduced me to Twitter. Since then, I have concluded that, when it comes to important matters like today’s “Super Tuesday” primaries, Twitter can operate like the great 18th and 19th century salons. Commentators gather (virtually) to exchange observations, with certain of them receiving plaudits for their cleverly delivered snark. Twitter’s 140-character limit is a spur to their creativity, just as, say, the tight haiku form is a spur to evocative poetry.

The Russian ambassador Bilibin from War and Peace, assigned to Vienna, would have excelled at Twitter. Consider the following description:

 Bilibin liked conversation, as he liked work, only when it could be made elegantly witty. In society he always awaited an opportunity to say something striking and took part in a conversation only when that was possible. His conversation was always sprinkled with wittily original, finished phrases of general interest. These sayings were prepared in the inner laboratory of his mind in a portable form as if intentionally, so that in significant society people might carry them from drawing room to drawing room. And, in fact, Bilibin’s witticisms were hawked about in the Viennese drawing rooms and often had an influence on matters considered important.

Today, finished phrases are retweeted–that’s our version of being carried from drawing room to drawing room–but otherwise the process is the same. And like Bilibin, some tweeters appear to be more interested in their wit than in the actual events. At the same time that Bilibin is packing to flee Vienna, he is imagining ways to turn the French attack into salon fodder.

For example, note the scene where he is describing how the French tricked the Austrians into not blowing up an important bridge into the city. While they are telling the officer in charge that the war is over and that Napoleon wants to see him, their troops creep onto the bridge and throw the explosives into the water. He shifts from Russian to French to deliver his 19th century tweet:

“At length appears the lieutenant general, our dear Prince Auersperg von Mautern himself. ‘Dearest foe! Flower of the Austrian army, hero of the Turkish wars Hostilities are ended, we can shake one another’s hand…. The Emperor Napoleon burns with impatience to make Prince Auersperg’s acquaintance.’ In a word, those gentlemen, Gascons indeed, so bewildered him with fine words, and he is so flattered by his rapidly established intimacy with the French marshals, and so dazzled by the sight of Murat’s mantle and ostrich plumes, qu’il n’y voit que du feu, et oublie celui qu’il devait faire feu sur l’ennemi!” [“that he sees nothing but their fire and forgets that he is supposed to fire on the enemy”]. In spite of the animation of his speech, Bilibin did not forget to pause after this mot to give time for its due appreciation.

 When Prince Andrei wonders whether treachery has been involved, Bilibin replies that it is something else. The same Austrian pride that led to General Mack’s defeat at Ulm has led to the capture of Vienna:

“Not that either. That puts the court in too bad a light,” replied Bilibin. “It’s not treachery nor rascality nor stupidity: it is just as at Ulm… it is…”—he seemed to be trying to find the right expression. “C’est… c’est du Mack. Nous sommes mackés” [It is… it is a bit of Mack. We are Macked],” he concluded, feeling that he had produced a good epigram, a fresh one that would be repeated. His hitherto puckered brow became smooth as a sign of pleasure, and with a slight smile he began to examine his nails.

Shortly thereafter, he and Prince Andrei are fleeing the city.

Bilibin is still delivering aphorisms when he returns to the St. Petersburg drawing rooms. Since these members of Helene Kuragin’s salon are generally pro-French and skeptical of the nationalist fervor that the Russian emperor is drumming up in Moscow, the witticisms are at the Czar’s expense:

 In Helene’s circle the war in general was regarded as a series of formal demonstrations which would very soon end in peace, and the view prevailed expressed by Bilibin—who now in Petersburg was quite at home in Helene’s house, which every clever man was obliged to visit—that not by gunpowder but by those who invented it would matters be settled. In that circle the Moscow enthusiasm—news of which had reached Petersburg simultaneously with the Emperor’s return—was ridiculed sarcastically and very cleverly, though with much caution.

Of course, Bilibin proves to be wrong. Once Napoleon invades, their wit subsides and they become patriots. Like snarky tweeters after 9-11.

Here’s one more example of wit used to impress a salon audience. Bilibin tells how the Russian Field Marshal Wittgenstein subtly shames their allies the Austrians with a message that he himself wrote:

 Bilibin was talking about the Austrians: having wrinkled up his face, he was evidently preparing to smooth it out again and utter one of his mots.

“I think it is delightful,” he said, referring to a diplomatic note that had been sent to Vienna with some Austrian banners captured from the French by Wittgenstein, “the hero of Petropol” as he was then called in Petersburg.

“What? What’s that?” asked Anna Pavlovna, securing silence for the mot, which she had heard before.

And Bilibin repeated the actual words of the diplomatic dispatch, which he had himself composed.

“The Czar returns these Austrian banners,” said Bilibin, “friendly banners gone astray and found on a wrong path,” and his brow became smooth again.

Bilibin is Twitter before there was Twitter.

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Panicked by Trump? Turn to Lit

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow


Literature speaks to us at our moments of greatest need so it makes sense that various conservatives would be citing literature as they panic about the rise of Donald Trump. Neo-cons hawk Robert Kagan recently invoked Oedipus and Frankenstein while Ross Douthat of The New York Times pointed to War and Peace.

Meanwhile liberal commentator Tom Sullivan of the blog Hullabaloo made nice use of Slaughterhouse Five to capture how Trump supporters appear to have become unstuck in time.

My favorite of the lot is Kagan’s use of Oedipus:

When the plague descended on Thebes, Oedipus sent his brother-in-law to the Delphic oracle to discover the cause. Little did he realize that the crime for which Thebes was being punished was his own. Today’s Republican Party is our Oedipus. A plague has descended on the party in the form of the most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of U.S. politics. The party searches desperately for the cause and the remedy without realizing that, like Oedipus, it is the party itself that brought on this plague. The party’s own political crimes are being punished in a bit of cosmic justice fit for a Greek tragedy.

From Oedipus Kagan shifts to the more commonly invoked Frankenstein. I’ve written in the past about how many commentators are turning to Shelley’s novel—or at least to the James Whale movie—to describe what’s transpiring in the GOP. But Kagan is particularly detailed, and his argument carries extra weight as it comes from someone on the right:

Let’s be clear: Trump is no fluke. Nor is he hijacking the Republican Party or the conservative movement, if there is such a thing. He is, rather, the party’s creation, its Frankenstein monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker. Was it not the party’s wild obstructionism — the repeated threats to shut down the government over policy and legislative disagreements; the persistent call for nullification of Supreme Court decisions; the insistence that compromise was betrayal; the internal coups against party leaders who refused to join the general demolition — that taught Republican voters that government, institutions, political traditions, party leadership and even parties themselves were things to be overthrown, evaded, ignored, insulted, laughed at? Was it not Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), among many others, who set this tone and thereby cleared the way for someone even more irreverent, so that now, in a most unenjoyable irony, Cruz, along with the rest of the party, must fall to the purer version of himself, a less ideologically encumbered anarcho-revolutionary? This would not be the first revolution that devoured itself.

Kagan is just getting started, and he ends, unexpectedly, with the declaration that he will vote for Hillary Clinton if Trump is the nominee. The entire piece is well worth reading.

Ross Douthat, sorely distressed that Marco Rubio’s campaign hasn’t fought Trump more fiercely from the beginning, complains that their problem was following the lead of General Kutuzov when facing Napoleon’s invasion:

From their perspective, there’s no reason to play Churchill yet because Trump’s advance is less Hitler-in-France than Napoleon-in-Russia, and they’re like Marshal Kutuzov, the much-maligned Russian commander whose wait, wait, wait strategy was vindicated when winter overwhelmed the French. (With winter, in this case, being Trump’s relatively high unfavorable numbers relative to Rubio, his poor performance in general election polls, the ad campaigns that haven’t yet been unleashed against him but will be, etc.)

Maybe Douthat is referring just to history rather than to Tolstoy’s novel, however, since Tolstoy basically sees everyone just stumbling through events. If that’s the case, then War and Peace is particularly relevant. In Tolstoy’s eyes, tactics are overvalued, and whether a man is celebrated or excoriated depends solely on the outcome rather than on anything he actually does. Perhaps there’s nothing the Republican establishment or Rubio could have done to stop Trump’s advance.

And if Rubio does, miraculously, pull off a victory, then Tolstoy will have captured the situation perfectly. In the course of the novel, we see the conventional wisdom on Kutuzov turn 180 degrees and then 180 degrees again as Russia’s fortunes ebb and flow. Everyone is a Monday morning quarterback.

Which brings us to Sullivan’s Vonnegut reference. In Sullivan’s view, the United States is undergoing a major transition with people looking back to different historical referent points to get a sense of bearing. But people can’t agree on the particular historical referent, which means that we have become Slaughterhouse Five:

This is a very Vonnegut moment. America has come unstuck in time. At one moment, it is 2016. At another, Orwell’s 1984. The next, it is FDR’s 1934. Or 1862, before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Everybody thinks they get to have America their way. And, by God, they feel entitled to it.

In Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim, like the author, is inexorably returned to the devastation of Dresden in what could be regarded as PTSD flashbacks. Could middle class wage stagnation and the shocks of a changing world, including the browning of America, be inducing PTSD-like shocks amongst white Americans?

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The Joads & Steinbeck’s Lenten Message

Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath"

Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Spiritual Sunday 

In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses realizes his divine calling—he has his epiphany—when encountering a blazing bush that is “not consumed.” The voice of God instructs him to lead the Israelites out of their suffering and into “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Moses is a reluctant prophet, asking, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” In Joseph Campbell’s terms, he initially resists the call but eventually accepts the hero’s journey.

A reference to the burning bush also appears in The Grapes of Wrath, this one involving another reluctant prophet. Jim Casy can be seen as both a Moses and a Jesus Christ figure (his initials are JC), one who gradually come to understand and embrace his call.

Early in the book, we learn that Casy has lost his faith:

“I was a preacher,” said the man seriously. “Reverend Jim Casy—was a Burning Busher. Used to howl out the name of Jesus to glory. And used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin’ full of repented sinners half of ’em like to drowned. But not no more,” he sighed. “Jus Jim Casy now. Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible.”

Casy, like Moses, witnesses the suffering of God’s people, but at first he doesn’t know what to do. Here he is observing the devastation of the Joad farm:

Casy said, “If I was still a preacher I’d say the arm of the Lord had struck. But now I don’t know what happened. I been away. I didn’t hear nothin’.” They walked toward the concrete well-cap, walked through cotton plants to get to it, and the bolls were forming on the cotton, and the land was cultivated.

Americans, like Moses and the Israelites, are on the move. They have their own dream of a California of milk and honey but are currently lost in the wilderness:

Casy said, “I been walkin’ aroun’ in the country. Ever’body’s askin’ that. What we comin’ to? Seems to me we don’t never come to nothin’. Always on the way. Always goin’ and goin’. Why don’t folks think about that? They’s movement now. People moving. We know why, an’ we know how. Movin’ ’cause they got to. That’s why folks always move. Movin’ ’cause they want somepin better’n what they got. An’ that’s the on’y way they’ll ever git it. Wantin’ it an’ needin’ it, they’ll go out an’ git it. It’s bein’ hurt that makes folks mad to fightin’. I been walkin’ aroun’ the country, an’ hearin’ folks talk like you.”

Only after Casy lands in jail, having sacrificed himself to save Tom from arrest, does he begin to understand his mission. He compares his emerging understanding to Jesus meditating in the desert:

The preacher leaned forward and the yellow lantern light fell on his high pale forehead. “Jail house is a kinda funny place,” he said. “Here’s me, been a-goin’ into the wilderness like Jesus to try find out somepin. Almost got her sometimes, too. But it’s in the jail house I really got her.” His eyes were sharp and merry. “Great big ol’ cell, an’ she’s full all a time. New guys come in, and guys go out. An’ ‘course I talked to all of ’em.”

Casy learns that we are not discrete individuals but are part of something bigger. The ultimate goal is not a physical land of milk and honey but a union of all humankind. His death at the hands of worldly authorities, therefore, is not the end but a transformative beginning. Tom Joad is his Apostle Paul who will spread the gospel to all nations:

“Hm-m,” he said. “Lookie, Ma. I been all day an’ all night hidin’ alone. Guess who I been thinkin’ about? Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.”

“He was a good man,” Ma said.

Tom went on, “He spouted out some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hellfire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ I remember it. Says it’s from the Preacher.”

“How’s it go, Tom?”

“Goes, ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif’ up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.’ That’s part of her.”

“Go on,” Ma said. “Go on, Tom.”

“Jus’ a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.'”

“An’ that’s Scripture?”

“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.”

JC may have left the earthly building but he has left behind an advocate with the father within each one of us. Think of it as the social gospel:

They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”

Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one—an’ then—”

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

Preach it, brother. Preach the good news.

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Lewis Carroll Describes the Caucus Races

Tenniel, a Caucus race winner

Tenniel illus. of the Dodo presenting Alice with “an elegant thimble”


I was teaching Alice in Wonderland yesterday in my British Fantasy class and discovered that Lewis Carroll has a pretty good understanding of American electoral politics. Or at least, he manages to describe well some of the caucuses we have witnessed recently.

Here’s Vox describing what happened in Nevada’s GOP caucuses this past Tuesday:

Nevada’s GOP caucuses were a mess Tuesday night: long lines, loose ballots, voters directed to sites that didn’t exist, and volunteers taking ballots while wearing Donald Trump apparel.

At least it was better than four years ago:

In 2012, the Nevada Republican Party took three days to announce who actually won the caucus after only 33,000 people came to the polls.

In the Iowa caucuses, meanwhile, there were shenanigans from the Ted Cruz campaign. But again, it was better than four years ago when the wrong candidate was announced the winner. Mitt Romney was actually beaten by Rick Santorum but the count wasn’t corrected until it was too late for Santorum to take advantage of the fact:

And now here’s Carroll’s description of a caucus race. According to The Annotated Alice, he was describing what went on in America. The race is held so that the animals and Alice can dry off after having fallen in the pool of tears:

First [the Dodo] marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’

As it turns out, figuring out who won is sometimes no more easy in real life than in Carroll’s fantasy work. Marco Rubio declared himself a winner in Iowa, even though he came in third. He saw himself the winner in Nevada because he finished ahead of Ted Cruz, even while finishing well behind Trump.

And how about on the Democratic side, where Bernie Sanders was seen as having posted a significant victory by finishing a close second to Hillary in the Iowa caucuses?

All the spin is very much in the spirit of Carroll’s nonsense story:

This question [of who won] the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

With each second place victory, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see Rubio as a winner.

Maybe, like Alice, he should be presented with an “elegant thimble” as a consolation prize.

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Raymond Carver & Trump’s Enablers

Donald Trump

Donald Trump


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.

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History’s Zigzagging Narratives

Kirpal Singh, "Storming a Castle"

Kirpal Singh, “Storming a Castle”


The New Yorker offers a remarkable series of fiction and poetry podcasts where authors read and discuss previous works that have appeared in the magazine. Fiction writers choose a short story while poets pick two poems, one by someone else and one by themselves.. The conversations are thoughtful and very illuminating.

Poet Stephen Dunn recently selected a Richard Justice poem, “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” and then read his own “History.” Both poems are wonderful but I found myself focusing especially on “History” as it captures how history operates as a series of stories. It also applies to the various narratives that we are seeing played out in our presidential primaries.

The poem, which has the resonance of a fairy tale, features three narratives. In the first, the king marries a commoner, which “causes widespread dreaming and a general hopefulness.” “A strange democracy,” the poet tells us, “radiates throughout the land.”

The second narrative describes a conservative reaction: the queen is locked in a tower and the king “issues an edict that all things yours/are once again his.” This is how, we are told, history gets its “ziggy shape.”

And then there is another reaction and the pendulum swings again with a rebellion against tyranny. I particularly like Dunn’s description of the activist who leads it. Our heroes are often not ones we would pick, nor do they choose the best time for their rebellion. It’s never the right time because the right time “never arrives.” Nevertheless, they are what we have and sometimes they have an impact:

There’s only
that one person, not exactly brave,
but too unhappy to be reasonable,
who crosses the moat, scales the walls.

Here’s the poem:


By Stephen Dunn

It’s like this, the king marries
a commoner, and the populace cheers.
She doesn’t even know how to curtsy,
but he loves her manners in bed.
Why doesn’t the king do what his father did,
the king’s mother wonders—
those peasant girls brought in
through that secret entrance, that’s how
a kingdom works best. But marriage!
The king’s mother won’t come out
of her room, and a strange democracy
radiates throughout the land,
which causes widespread dreaming,
a general hopefulness. This is,
of course, how people get hurt,
how history gets its ziggy shape.
The king locks his wife in the tower
because she’s begun to ride
her horse far into the woods.
How unqueenly to come back
to the castle like that,
so sweaty and flushed. The only answer,
his mother decides, is stricter rules—
no whispering in the corridors,
no gaiety in the fields.
The king announces his wife is very tired
and has decided to lie down,
This is the kind of law
history loves, which contains
its own demise. The villagers conspire
for years, waiting for the right time,
which never arrives. There’s only
that one person, not exactly brave,
but too unhappy to be reasonable,
who crosses the moat, scales the walls.

Think of the first story as the dream of hope and change. Indeed, Obama’s election (and, on the right, Sarah Palin’s selection) inspired “widespread dreaming, a general hopefulness.” The second is a smashing of our hopes, which at some level we expected (“this is the kind of law history loves”). The third is another swing back as once again we experience hope.

In our current presidential primaries, maybe the first involves those dreaming that our candidates will lift us up into prosperity, the second the inevitable disillusion as the status quo reasserts itself as the laws of history decree it will, and the third the unlikely success of candidates who are too dissatisfied with America to be reasonable (Sanders, Trump).

Who know where our zigzagging history will take us next?

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Clifton, Ellison Help Explain Whitesplaining

Clinton listens to Black Lives Matter protesters

Clinton listens to Black Lives Matter protesters


Hillary Clinton said something in a speech recently which reminded me of a Lucille Clifton poem—a poem, I should add, which takes me personally to task. And when I say “me,” I don’t mean a general me. I mean me, Robin Bates. Clifton, who used to teach at our college, told me that I was the specific person she was referencing when she wrote it.

I don’t write this post to claim any sort of dubious honor, however. Rather, it is to help the supporters of Democratic candidates, especially Bernie Sanders admirers, to understand why they are having difficulty reaching black voters.

Here’s the Hillary quote, included in an excellent Vox article by Michelle Garcia:

“White Americans need to do a better job at listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face every day,” she said. “Practice humility rather than assume that our experience is everyone’s experiences.”

We’ve seen the word “whitesplaining” emerge in recent years, to go along with the term “mansplaining.” Each of the terms points to an annoying tendency by certain people of privilege to “explain” to others (Blacks, women) why they are mistaken. Those who whitesplain do not listen and they are not humble.

Hillary, who has been guilty herself of whitesplaining in the past, may be making progress. Garcia notes that

the speech…seemed to mark a turning point for Clinton, who used the opportunity to show black voters she’s heard the criticism directed at her, while also asking white voters to actively participate in dismantling racism.

Maybe Hillary’s sensitivity stems from being the target of mansplaining.

The Clifton poem is “note to self.” I’ve recounted the backstory in a previous post, where you can read the poem in its entirety, so I’ll only summarize here. Some white students had objected to a message on a shirt worn by an African American student (“it’s a black thing you wouldn’t understand”) so we got together as a community to discuss it. The student participated in the panel, along with me, a white student who had objected, and a black faculty member.

While my intentions were good (that’s why Lucille refers to me as “even the best”), I didn’t appreciate enough the source of the student’s anger. Clifton writes,

amira baraka—I refuse to be judged by white men.

or defined. and i see
that even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

Clifton worked as a kind of unofficial black student councilor while she was at St. Mary’s and so could see what I overlooked:

as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one

Her frustration, I’m sure, lay in the way whites at the school wanted to move too quickly past black grievances. It is why African Americans have been so frustrated when whites have responded to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”:

as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them

Sanders supporters often don’t understand why many African Americans fail to appreciate his candidacy. After all, his economic prescriptions would greatly benefit those in poverty, who are disproportionately people of color. But class and race, while intertwined, are not entirely the same.

Perhaps Sanders supporters have some of the blindness of Brother Jack in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Wedded to a communist party platform, he can’t appreciate the cultural dimensions of Invisible Man’s organizing efforts. His partial blindness is symbolized by his glass eye, which catches IM unawares.

No one who is white can know what it is like to encounter the endless stream of micro-aggressions (and sometimes macro-aggressions) directed against people of color in this country. We can at least, however, practice humility.

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Prospero and the Presidential Primaries

William Hamilton, "Prospero and Ariel"

William Hamilton, “Prospero and Ariel”


Sometimes the news of the hour bleeds imperceptibly into the works I am reading, prompting me to see them in a new light. This occurred with me this past weekend as I was reading The Tempest while keeping an eye on the Republican and Democratic presidential races. I thought of Prospero as “the Establishment” on his Caribbean island and noted that the Democratic Prosperos were more successful than the Republican Prosperos. That is to say that the Democratic Establishment succeeded in saving the day for Hillary Clinton in the Nevada Caucus while the Republican Establishment got smoked by Donald Trump in the South Carolina primary.

Prospero attempts to orchestrate everything on his island. He has learned that he must pay attention to the events of the day from having been overthrown by his brother Antonio after spending too much time with his books. Once he reaches his Caribbean island, however, he uses his magic to arrange things to his liking.

While Prospero is more successful than not, each of his victories must be qualified. For instance, he succeeds in vanquishing the witch Sycorax but is only able to subdue, not civilize, her son Caliban. He forestalls a plot against himself by Caliban and two other characters, but they create enough commotion to put him out of countenance and disrupt an elaborate wedding ceremony he has set up for Miranda and Ferdinand. He forestalls a murder attempt against the king of Naples by Sebastian and Antonio and reconciles himself with the ruler who once assisted in his overthrow—only he realizes that Antonio and the king’s brother remain a potential threat and he warns them that he is watching them.

We fantasize that a force with higher wisdom will step into our troubles and sort things out for us. We are given a version of a utopian fantasy by the good-hearted Gonzalo, who imagines that we can erase history and begin anew, constructing a perfect society upon the island. Think of it as John Winthrop’s “city on a hill.” I include in his description Antonio and Sebastian’s cynical commentary:

Gonzalo: Had I plantation of this isle, my lord—
Antonio: He’d sow ’t with nettle seed.
Sebastian: Or docks, or mallows.
Gonzalo: And were the king on ’t, what would I do?
Sebastian: Scape being drunk, for want of wine.
Gonzalo: I’ th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty—
Sebastian: Yet he would be king on ’t.
Antonio: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets
the beginning.
Gonzalo: All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor; treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Sebastian: No marrying ’mong his subjects?
Antonio: None, man, all idle: whores and knaves.
Gonzalo: I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the Golden Age.

The pageant that Prospero sets up is hardly less idealistic. Juno, goddess of the hearth and home, will collaborate with Ceres, the goddess of fertility—Iris, Juno’s messenger, is their intermiediary—so that the marriage will be a perfect one. Prospero wants to guarantee that his daughter will face no difficulties, just as he wants to make sure that order is restored to the state.

Who is who in these dramas may depend on your politics. If Bernie is Gonzalo, is he visionary or just naïve? If Hillary is Sebastian and Antonio, is she realistic or just cynical? I can see Sebastian and Antonio are stand-ins for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, contemptuous of political norms as they grasp for power. Caliban, meanwhile, could be our base human nature, prepared to undermine any elaborate pageants we try to set up,

Idealism invariably butts heads with reality and unfortunately we can’t, like Prospero, throw away our staff, drown our book, and withdraw from the world. Instead, we must do the best we can with the world in which we find ourselves.

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Pullman vs. C. S. Lewis on the Issue of Sin

Pauline Baynes, "The Magician's Nephew"

Pauline Baynes, “The Magician’s Nephew”

Spiritual Sunday

Two weeks ago I looked at the anti-church views of Philip Pullman in The Golden Compass, which I was teaching in my British Fantasy class. Today I look at Pullman’s well-known dislike of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Some of that dislike, I’m convinced, stems from Lewis’s handling of children and sin.

When I first started thinking about Pullman’s attacks against Lewis, I wondered whether it was a case of influence anxiety as described by Harold Bloom. Perhaps Pullman was angry with Lewis for writing his fantasy first. After all, their books have many similarities.

For instance, both involve plucky British girls who venture through a portal to have wondrous adventures with talking animals and who battle evil and powerful women. Both draw heavily on the Bible for their imagery.

Take their inclusion of the Book of Genesis, for instance. In The Golden Compass, Lyra’s father reads her a slightly modified version of the temptation in the Garden of Eden. The Magician’s Nephew, meanwhile, draws heavily on the creation story, with Digory introducing sin—in the form of the enchantress Jadis, a.k.a. the White Witch—into the new world. There’s also a temptation scene involving an apple although Digory, unlike Adam, resists taking a bite.

Pullman doesn’t merely dislike Lewis. He loathes him, He mentions various reasons for this, such as how Lewis has the children die in The Last Battle and how he bars Susan from Narnia heaven for growing into womanhood and putting away her childhood fantasies.

I too felt uncomfortable about these developments. I sense that Pullman’s intense dislike has a deeper cause, however. Here’s my theory.

A number of Lewis’s protagonists commit a sin for which a price must be paid. Edward consorts with the White Witch, requiring Aslan’s Christ-like sacrifice. Jill in The Silver Chair has a moment of pride that leads her to accidentally push Eustace off a cliff (Aslan saves him). Digory releases Queen Jadis and then introduces her into Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Eustace is a symbolic dragon and then a literal one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Pullman’s Lyra, by contrast, is not a sinner. She’s just a rambunctious child who needs to grow up. She doesn’t wrestle with her dark side but with how to let go of childhood and begin believing in herself. That seems fairly unobjectionable. But Pullman takes his story in a deliberately anti-religious direction. He essentially says that, rather than wrestling with sin, as Lewis’s children do, Lyra needs to embrace it.

Unfortunately, Pullman has a fairly narrow definition of sin. For him, sin is experience and knowledge. As Pullman sees it, the Church attaches the “sin” label to anything that involves people thinking for themselves. It therefore tries to lobotomize adults, turning them into unthinking believers, and it tries to keep children from growing out of innocence and into adulthood.

But sin is much more. At the very least, it is the way we turn against what is best in ourselves, opting instead for shallow, egotistical gratification. Children can’t be blamed for such turning as much as adults can, of course. They are still learning. But they still have interior battles.

We can see why Pullman might have shied away from the discourse of sin by looking at his religious experiences growing up.  As he notes in an interview, he was raised by his grandfather, an “old-fashioned” Anglican rector. While Pullman doesn’t saying anything bad about him, I find it interesting that he rebelled and became a narrow-minded atheist. By narrow-minded I mean that he came to define Christianity by his rebellion, making such jejune comments as the following:

But when you look at organized religion of whatever sort – whether it’s Christianity in all its variants, or whether it’s Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism – wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It’s almost a universal law. 

Yes, organized religion has a lot to answer for—but reducing all religion to the worst acts committed in its name fails to do justice to the full complexity of the institution. It fails to acknowledge, for instance, the power of congregating or the powerful framework religion gives to people for processing life’s deepest questions.

I don’t know for sure but here’s what I think happened. I think Pullman’s grandfather passed along to him his Victorian guilt, prompting Pullman, when he grew up, to angrily reject religion altogether. His loathing for the Narnia Chronicles lies in the fact that he sees his own struggles with guilt in Lewis’s children. He therefore determined to write a different kind of fiction.

For instance, I can imagine him finding the following scene very painful. It is where Digory tries to evade responsibility for Jadis but finally confesses his guilt:

“How came she to be in your world, Son of Adam?”
“By – by Magic.”
The Lion said nothing and Digory knew that he had not told enough.
“It was my Uncle, Aslan,” he said. “He sent us out of our own world by magic rings, at least I had to go because he sent Polly first, and then we met the Witch in a place called Charn and she just held on to us when -”
“You met the Witch?” said Asian in a low voice which had the threat of a growl in it.
“She woke up,” said Digory wretchedly. And then, turning very white, “I mean, I woke her. Because I wanted to know what would happen if I struck a bell. Polly didn’t want to. It wasn’t her fault. I – I fought her. I know I shouldn’t have. I think I was a bit enchanted by the writing under the bell.”
“Do you?” asked Asian; stil speaking very low and deep.
“No,” said Digory. “I see now I wasn’t. I was only pretending.”

I sense that Pullman might have had comparable conversations with his grandfather. There are reasons that “preacher’s kids” sometimes leave the church. But seek to pull away though he might, Pullman’s own fiction is defined by Narnia.

As one who had a Victorian grandmother and whose father went through a similar rebellion, I sympathize with Pullman. I too was deeply disturbed as a child by the presence of sin in The Narnia Chronicles. I had a different response, however. These sinning children gave me the sense that there were momentous issues at stake. It was as though Lewis was showing me respect in lieu of sugarcoating childhood.

I was also impressed by how the children work out their issues on their own. Aslan may show them the way, but they have to do what is required. Digory resists temptation, Edmund battles heroically against the White Witch, Eustace conquers his dragon nature, Lucy follows her vision against peer pressure (in Prince Caspian), and Jill rises to the demands of the quest. So although their stories bothered me, they also empowered me.

I’m holding Pullman to high standards because I enjoy the His Dark Materials trilogy a great deal. I’m not convinced that his vision goes deeper than Lewis’s, however.

Further thought: Here’s another indication that Pullman’s spiritual vision doesn’t go very deep. He parallels Lyra’s self-actualization quest with Satan’s rebellion against God in Paradise Lost. A passage about Satan’s epic journey across the abyss serves as the epigraph for The Golden Compass and provides Pullman with the title for his trilogy (His Dark Materials). The bridge that Satan builds to invade the Garden of Eden shows up in the conclusion of The Golden Compass. Lyra must pass over that bridge to grow up.

While college students often identify with Satan, as did Lord Byron, a mature reading of the Milton’s epic indicates that (1) Milton anticipated this identification and (2) he used it to expose how we are lured by shallow talkers. Pullman appears to have been taken in by Satan’s rebelliousness, perhaps because he felt it in himself. As I say, I’m sympathetic–I can imagine him having painful guilt trips as a child–but a healthier response is to turn one’s back on Satan’s narcissistic brand of heroism and appreciate the far more impressive fortitude exhibited by a repentant Adam and Eve.

Posted in Lewis (C. S.), Pullman (Philip) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

To Enjoy Reading Is To Enjoy Instruction

William Churchill, "Woman Reading on a Settee"

William Churchill, “Woman Reading on a Settee”


 I recently came across an old Charlie Rose interview with David Foster Wallace (May, 1996) where the author wrestles with the tension between reading a work for enjoyment and for instruction. I’ve been fascinated by this issue for a while and I’m far from alone. Plato, Horace, and Sir Philip Sidney all discussed the distinction, as have many others.

Here’s what Wallace had to say on the subject:

Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.

I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.

And further on:

There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world…”

And this:

The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I … want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading. A lot of it has to do with … really stretching myself … really having to think and process and feel in ways I don’t normally feel.

Even though people have been discussing the fun/instruction dichotomy since the beginning of literary criticism, I wonder if there isn’t something false about it. After all, many people find instruction to be fun.

An example: As I watch my grandchildren, I see how their play is also essential to their development. Their play is the work they must do to acquire a large range of necessary life skills. Isn’t it the same with reading literature, whether it involves “talking to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about” or thinking and processing and feeling “in ways [we] don’t normally feel”?

True, there are those people who claim that readers are wasting their time. To cite Yeats’s “Adams Curse,” readers are regarded as “idlers” by “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen” that are called “the world.” But why does this particular world get to define the terms?

I sense that Horace and Sidney would like to admit that they are just having fun but feel like they to mention “instruction” to get the world off their backs. They are like people at liberal arts colleges who feel they have to emphasize just how practical a liberal arts education is. To say that students must run up thousands of dollars of debt in order to have fun with learning—well, that’s a hard sell.

The cost of college is a sore subject but, that aside, I’d like to assure students that having fun with learning is a vital life skill, one of the most important they can develop. Fun and instruction don’t have to be at odds.

Posted in Wallace (David Foster), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Dickens Improved the Lives of the Poor

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens


 A friend alerted me to a BBC essay noting that Charles Dickens remains popular the world over almost 150 years after his death. Two paragraphs about how Dickens wanted his fiction to change the world caught my eye:

Of all the famous Victorian authors, Charles Dickens retains a place in public affections throughout the world, and Americans adore him as if he were their own. Perhaps this is because Dickens wrote from the heart; he wrote about emotions and situations that people still identify with today. Although the English language has changed since Dickens’ time, the essence of his storytelling remains as relevant as it was in the 19th Century. Dickens’ books were not only stories, they were social commentary intended to change the world. And they did just that. Oliver Twist helped bring about changes to the Factory Acts and other laws that kept children in poverty; Nicholas Nickleby was the reason brutal Yorkshire Schools – where unwanted children were sent and abused – were closed down; and A Christmas Carol remains famous around the world for its message of redemption and charity.

A Christmas Carol was written after Dickens witnessed terrible poverty on the streets of Manchester, in the north of England, and it was intended to make every reader stop and think about how they could make a difference to their society. Dickens wrote to a friend that the story would strike “a sledge-hammer blow on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” A Christmas Carol has never been out of print since it was published in 1843 and performances continue to take place all over the world: among the many productions this year is a musical in Mumbai, an outdoor reading by American actors in London’s Hyde Park and a hip hop version in Chicago.

Few novelists can boast such a record.

Posted in Dickens (Charles) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Wife of Bath & U.S. Race Wars

Wife of BathWednesday

Our college has been going through turmoil after a student walked into a basketball game wearing a Confederate flag. In my early British literature class today I plan to link the incident to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales. Can you figure out how?

First, here’s what happened. A sociology teacher wanted students to break some norm and write an essay about doing so. She cautioned them not to do anything that was dangerous or that would get them into trouble. I assume the assignment was designed to make her students aware of society’s unspoken rules.

The student took the assignment beyond what she anticipated, and African American students were outraged. Yik Yak went crazy (for a description of this anonymous, unfiltered discussion board, go here), our African American president weighed in, Yik Yak went even more crazy, and there was a forum. I’m not sure where we are now.

I can’t speak for other colleges, but when incidents like this occur at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, they wound deeply. That’s because we’re a small college that prides itself on making everyone feel welcome. Generally students feel safe here, with the result that such incidents come as a real shock. Many students of color feel betrayed.

There is an even smaller percentage of women amongst the Canterbury pilgrims than there are African American students at St. Mary’s. Only two are given a voice, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress, and the Prioress escapes general censure by her ultra-feminine demeanor. The Wife wants something more.

Like our minority students—in fact, like most human beings—she wants the community to accept her for who she is. Medieval misogyny went deep, however, fostered by celibate monks who equated women with the sins of the flesh. When the Wife tries to become one of the gang, the pilgrims make fun of her.

It’s not at first clear how sensitive she is. In fact, she seems to be supremely confident, opening her prologue with the blasphemous declaration that her experience as a wife gives her more insight into marriage than “authority.” Authority, for the record, includes the Bible, figures like St. Paul, and the Church. Yet it becomes clear how much the Wife wants to fit in by the way she attempts to sound like a Biblical scholar in her defense of her five marriages. She doesn’t succeed—in fact, she makes a hash out of the whole business—and the pilgrims begin laughing at her. Part of her feels very small.

When attacked, however, the Wife goes on the attack, and she begins to play out the stereotype of the sexually voracious widow. When she says at one point that she gave her husbands more sex than they could handle and the Pardoner responds that she has just convinced him never to get married, she essentially responds with a “You ain’t heard nothing yet”:

“Abyde,” quod she, “my tale is nat bigonne.
Nay, thou shalt drynken of another tonne
Er that I go, shal savoure wors than ale;
And when I have toold thee forth my tale
Of tribulacioun in marriage
Of which I am expert in al myn age,–
This is to seyn, my self have been the whippe…”

One suspects how desperately she wants to be accepted when, in her fifth marriage, she signs away all her wealth to her boy toy of a husband and attempts to be a submissive wife. All she gets is abuse, however, at which point she takes back the reins of the marriage.

And then there is her tale about a rapist knight who must spend a year figuring out what women most desire. (If he doesn’t discover the right answer, he will be beheaded.) As I interpret the story, it reveals what the Wife most desires: to have her feelings consulted and respected. Once that occurs, as it does in the tale’s conclusion, she will give her husband everything he wants.

My African American students want to be accepted along with everyone else. When they discover that they are seen through a different lens, many feel hurt and lash out. This intimidates white students even further and an impasse ensues.

As we discussed the incident in Friday’s class, a number of students wanted to argue that the offending student had a right to free speech and that the Confederate flag wasn’t that big a deal. I responded that a more useful approach is to try to understand why the black students feel hurt. Learn about the daily microaggressions they endure that led to their fury over the Confederate flag, I counseled. (Their anger over the flag did not occur in a vacuum but was overdetermined, the result of many racial slights.) Substantive human connection will lead to more healing than abstract debates by people who have never experienced prejudice.

The Wife of Bath reminds us how much progress can be made if we genuinely listen to each other. Under all the yelling, this is what people are often signaling that they “moost desiren.”

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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