Sacks & the Bard’s Midsummer Madness

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist who explored the outer reaches of the mind, once said something in a TED talk that sounds very much like a couple of passages from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Given that Shakespeare also explored the full breadth of our humanity, perhaps that’s no coincidence. Here’s Sacks:

We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well, and seeing with the brain is often called “imagination,” and we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our “inscapes,” we’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different…they seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.

In Midsummer, Helena comes up with a theory about why Demetrius prefers Hermia, even though Helena is just as beautiful. Blind Cupid provides her with the image she needs:

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne,
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine.
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

Sacks is best known for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and he was fascinated by how our brains play tricks on us. In his TED talk he explains how the brain is particularly apt to mess with those who are seeing impaired. You can read about the science here but this is the result:

It is only if one is visually impaired or blind that the process is interrupted. And instead of getting normal perception, you’re getting an anarchic, convulsive stimulation, or release, of all of these visual cells in the inferotemporal cortex. So, suddenly you see a face. Suddenly you see a car. Suddenly this, and suddenly that. The mind does its best to organize and to give some sort of coherence to this, but not terribly successfully.

Sacks distinguishes between imagination and hallucination whereas Theseus in Midsummer conflates fantasizing lovers, imagining poets, and hallucinating madmen. In the king’s defense, he is not a neurologist. Here he is talking with Hippolyta about the lovers’ account of their night in the woods:

‘Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt [a gypsy]:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Like Sacks, Shakespeare was fascinated by puckish tricks of the mind, and I could imagine Sacks seeing the mind as a “merry wanderer of the night” who misleads wanderers. Later in Midsummer, Theseus notes that that the audience and the players are not seeing the same production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Hipployta here is the voice of common sense, which the mind can turn upside down in an instant: 

This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them.
It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.
If we imagine no worse of them than they of
themselves, they may pass for excellent men.

The particular phenomenon that Sacks discusses in his talk was discovered in the 18th century by Charles Bonnet when observing his grandfather following cataract surgery. The phenomenon became known as Charles Bonnet syndrome:

The first thing he [the grandfather] said was he saw a handkerchief in midair. It was a large blue handkerchief with four orange circles. And he knew it was a hallucination. You don’t have handkerchiefs in midair. And then he saw a big wheel in midair. But sometimes he wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating or not, because the hallucinations would fit in the context of the visions. So on one occasion, when his granddaughters were visiting them, he said, “And who are these handsome young men with you?” And they said, “Alas, Grandpapa, there are no handsome young men.” And then the handsome young men disappeared. It’s typical of these hallucinations that they may come in a flash and disappear in a flash. They don’t usually fade in and out. They are rather sudden, and they change suddenly.

Now compare this with Prospero’s famous speech in the Tempest. He’s talking about illusion he has created but he can be seen as Shakespeare describing theater’s ability to take over our minds:

           These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-cap’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Both Shakespeare and Sacks realized that our reality, because it is mediated by our minds, is far more fragile, but also far more wondrous, than we think. Or as Prospero puts it,

                                    We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Sacks would agree with this summation. May he sleep in peace.


Previous post on Oliver Sacks

Dying and a Night Powdered with Stars

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He Doth Sit By Us and Moan

Daniel Bonnell, "Jesus Wept"

Daniel Bonnell, “Jesus Wept”

Last week I was honored by my friend Jean Yeatman when she asked me to sit with her at her mother’s deathbed. We talked about childhood excursions that our families took together and also about the importance of ritual in our lives. Today’s William Blake poem is for her and her brother Clay.

Blake finds something heavenly in the sorrow we feel for another. We know God grieves for us because we see something holy within the sadness we ourselves feel in the presence of human suffering. Blake’s poem reminds me of a line from “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” a 19th century hymn and one of my favorites: 

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven…

In the shortest sentence in The New Testament, we are told that “Jesus wept” over the death of Lazarus. Blake’s poem reminds us that we are not alone:

On Another’s Sorrow

By William Blake

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the next,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

I like the reference to the wren as both Jean’s mother and father were biologists and bird lovers and wrote a weekly nature column for the local newspaper. They would not, however, approve of Blake eliding wrens with sparrows (or so I believe). Blake surely has in mind Jesus’s assurance of Matthew 10:29-30:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

A note on the artist: Daniel Bonnelli’s art can be found in two books: The Road Home by Garth Hewitt and The Christian Vision of God by Alister McGrath and can be seen on his website More information can be found at


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All the Devils of Hell Unleashed by Katrina

Stranded family rescued during Hurricane Katrina

Stranded family rescued during Hurricane Katrina

Tomorrow being the 10th anniversary of New Orleans and the Hurricane Katrina disaster, I share a passage from another tempest (thanks for the idea, mom). With Ferdinand’s cry–“Hell is empty and all the devils are here”–Shakespeare captures the panic felt by Lower 9th Ward residents as the sea poured into their houses.

Oh, if only Katrina could have been the illusory tempest we encounter in the play. Here’s Prospero talking to Ariel about their handiwork:

Hast thou, spirit,

Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?
To every article.

I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement: sometime I’ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. Jove’s lightnings, the precursors
O’ the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege and make his bold waves tremble,
Yea, his dread trident shake.
My brave spirit!

Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
Not a soul

But felt a fever of the mad and played
Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners
Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel,
Then all afire with me: the king’s son, Ferdinand,
With hair up-staring,–then like reeds, not hair,–
Was the first man that leaped; cried, “Hell is empty
And all the devils are here.”

Shakespeare shows us class division and breakdown of social order that is also reminiscent of New Orleans—and by breakdown, I have in mind the police who started firing on residents fleeing the flood. (Since then, it is striking how much more aware we as a society have become of police shooting unarmed black men.) In the play, the lower class boatswain pleads with the upper class passengers to return to their quarters and is insulted for his pains. Maybe those upper class passengers are like Michael “heckuva job Brownie,” director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who all but ignored the crisis until it was well underway.

Granted, Brown didn’t quite use Sebastian’s salty language against those trying to alert him to the dangers:

A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!

Or Antonio’s language either:

Hang, cur! hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!
We are less afraid to be drowned than thou art.

Order is restored by the end of the play and order has been restored to New Orleans. In both, however, social rifts are exposed.

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Trump as Frankenstein’s Monster

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster

What is it about Donald Trump that brings out the literary analogies? First a Salon columnist compared him to Odysseus’s Cyclops, then the New Yorker’s John Cassidy saw him as Gulliver, and most recently Rachel Maddow of MSNBC and others have compared him to Frankenstein’s monster.

I’ve written about the Cyclops parallel here, but let’s take a look at the other two. A week ago Cassidy wrote that

Trump looms over everything, with the other candidates snapping around his ankles. It’s bit like Gulliver and the Lilliputians.

He also predicted that the G.O.P will turn on Trump as the Lilliputians turn on Gulliver:

[I]f his campaign goes on like this for much longer, the G.O.P. could be forced to resort to the same tactic that the Lilliputians used on a visitor who had outstayed his welcome, and put him on trial for treasonous acts. That’s impractical, sure, but Republican leaders would be overwhelmed with delight if Trump, like Gulliver, decided to return from whence he came.

Cassidy doesn’t get the book entirely right but his point still holds. Gulliver isn’t put on trial because he overstays his welcome but because he won’t fall in with the Lilliputian schemes. Gulliver singlehandedly defeats the navy of Blefescu (France), Lilliput’s major rival, but instead of being grateful, Lilliput wants him to wipe out Blefescu altogether. When Gulliver refuses to do so on principled grounds, he is charged with treason and condemned to have his eyes shot out so that he will blindly follow orders.

Trump likewise refuses to become a blind tool of the Republican powerbrokers. His refusal to promise to endorse the eventual G.O.P nominee in the first Fox debate was seen as treasonous. We’ll see if Trump bolts the Republican Party as Gulliver bolts Lilliput.

Here’s one difference: Trump is far more savvy that the gullible Gulliver, who is unaware of all the political machinations going on around him. Trump seems very aware.

Cassidy is right that everyone is relieved when Gulliver decides to leave, not only Lilliput but Blefescu as well. I suspect both Republicans and Democrats would like to see Trump out of the picture so that we can finally escape the reality television show in which we find ourselves.

As for the comparison with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, many have pointed out that Trump attacking Fox News is like the monster turning on his creator. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC specifically mentioned Shelley’s work two days ago, pointing out that Trump has appeared on Fox News many more times than any of the other candidates.

Their current horror as Trump attacks them may be little different than Frankenstein’s horror upon first seeing his monster in action:

I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.

Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.

Fox’s horror, of course, is over fear that its monster will hand the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton, which is why the network tried to kneecap Trump at the first debate. It had no more success than the scientist dispensing of his creation. But that isn’t the end of the parallels with the novel.

After Frankenstein destroys the bride that he is making for his monster, the monster doesn’t go after Frankenstein but his wife. In like manner, Fox’s monster has been going after Fox star Megyn Kelly. Amanda Marcotte of Talking Points Memor, savoring the delicious irony of Fox accusing someone of sexism, points out how it has no one to blame but itself:

Conservative media and Fox News in particular have spent years – decades, if you count talk radio – training their audiences to believe that exhortations against sexism and racism are nothing but the “political correctness” police trying to kill your good time. Indeed, one reason that Trump was able to get so much attention for his presidential run in the first place is that Fox has spent years building him up, knowing that their audience enjoys vicariously needling imagined liberals and feminists with his loud-mouthed insult comic act.

Marcotte then uses the Frankenstein analogy:

[T]his is the monster they created. They should know what it wants and what it’s capable of. But instead, they seem to think that if you just shake your finger at the right wing base and tell them to be nice to the lady who dared talk back to their hero, Donald Trump, they will somehow realize that they’re not actually courageous warriors holding back the forces of political correctness, but that they are instead just a bunch of jerks. But it doesn’t work that way.

Frankenstein ends in the desolate wastes of the Arctic with the monster in mad pursuit of his creator. The scientist can only shake loose of his creation by dying. Similarly, moderate Republican Bruce Bartlett believes that the GOP in its current incarnation must die, shaking free of its Southern Strategy and its reactionary white voters. Maybe that’s what it will take for the current horror story to end and for the GOP to become a centrist party once again.

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The Pleasure of a Pathless Wood


One of the joys of spending a few sabbatical months with my mother in Appalachian Tennessee is walking around the 17 acres of forest that she owns. We were out strolling yesterday and, in the contrast between our lot and that of our neighbor, I saw the difference between European and American Romanticism.

Our neighbor is from Belgium and she has the smaller trees and brush cleared out (for the most part) so that only tall stately trees remain. Any that fall are cut up and stacked for firewood. It is wilderness but carefully cultivated wilderness.

My mother’s forest is more unkempt. Whatever grows grows and when trees go down, they remain where they are. There are many such trees since the mountaintop soil is not deep, and the occasional strong wind will bring down heavy branches and sometimes even uproot trees that are 30 or 40 feet high.

For a description of our neighbor’s forest, I turn to Alexander Pope “Windsor Forest.” It was written in 1704 but it anticipated the cult of nature that was to sweep through Europe Like Pople’s heroic couplets, natural wilderness coexists with human cultivation in a harmonious balance:

Here hills and vales, the woodland and the plain,
Here earth and water, seem to strive again;
Not Chaos like together crushed and bruised,
But as the world, harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, tho’ all things differ, all agree.

Chaos became more acceptable to the British romantics and, even more, to the American romantics. First, here’s Byron in Childe Harold:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more…

And now Longfellow in Evangeline:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

One has more encounters with chiggers and ticks when the underbrush is thicker, and years ago my mother was even bitten by a copperhead that our Scottish terrier stirred up. Still, I prefer American wilderness.

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Trollope and Patriarchal Marriage

George Elgar Hicks, "Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood" (1863)

George Elgar Hicks, “Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood” (1863)

I have written recently of my growing fondness of Anthony Trollope’s novels, but there is one aspect of them that is hard to stomach: their unquestioning acceptance of female subservience. As I was reading Prime Minister (1876), one of the Palliser novels, I found myself deeply grateful for 1970s feminism and for modern divorce laws. Patriarchal marriage as portrayed by Trollope is suffocating.

The topic is somewhat relevant today as various fundamentalisms seek to roll back the social gains that women have made. When men and sometimes women find their traditional identities questioned, they may long for old style marriages with the hope that they can regain their self-esteem. Of course, men relying on submission in women and women relying on mastery in men just make each even more vulnerable.

I remember how my fundamentalist brother-in-law shortly after my wedding instructed me to exert more authority in my marriage. (Julia and I had not included “to honor and obey” in our wedding vows.) But I was drawn to Julia’s strength and independence and know now, after 42 years, that I was right in being so attracted.

In Trollope’s defense, he doesn’t so much endorse the power imbalance as paint the world as it is. Because he does so, he reveals the pathologies associated with traditional marriage. In Prime Minister, the women are either resentful and manipulative, like the Duchess of Omnium, or masochististic, like Emily Lopez. Here are some instances of the latter.

Emily discovers early on that her marriage to Ferdinand Lopez is a great blunder. We watch as she tries to reconcile her marriage ideals with a growing awareness of his unworthiness:

She was beginning to learn that the god of her idolatry was but a little human creature, and that she should not have worshipped at so poor a shrine. But nevertheless the love should be continued, and, if possible, the worship, though the idol had been already found to have feet of clay. He was her husband, and she would be true to him. As morning after morning he left her, still with that harsh, unmanly frown upon his face, she would look up at him with entreating eyes, and when he returned would receive him with her fondest smile.

Emily continues to be faithful even when Lopez tries to use her as a pawn, threatening her father to take her to Guatemala unless he is given her eventual inheritance. Yet when her father urges her to separate from him, she invokes the marriage ideal, effectively silencing the old man:

I am bound to do as he tells me. I know what I have done. When some poor wretch has got himself into perpetual prison by his misdeeds, no advice can serve him then. So it is with me.”

“You can at any rate escape from your prison.”

“No;—no. I have a feeling of pride which tells me that as I chose to become the wife of my husband,—as I insisted on it in opposition to all my friends,—as I would judge for myself,—I am bound to put up with my choice. If this had come upon me through the authority of others, if I had been constrained to marry him, I think I could have reconciled myself to deserting him. But I did it myself, and I will abide by it. When he bids me go, I shall go.” 

She also resists the entreaties of her old lover to resist going to Guatemala:

“I cannot stay,” she said. “He has told me that I am to go, and I am in his hands. When you have a wife, Arthur, you will wish her to do your bidding. I hope she will do it for your sake, without the pain I have in doing his.

One gets, from reading Tollope, that women in traditional marriages are not without resources. They can resort to passive resistance or strategic temper tantrums to get their way, even as they appear to honor the marriage ideal. But it’s not a healthy way to live, and Emily so internalizes a sense of unworthiness that she is incapable of accepting her old lover’s renewed proposals after her husband commits suicide.

Much better to have marriage be a continuous negotiation between two acknowledged equals. Of course, at first this may appear more difficult than simply conforming to predefined roles. I can testify that it pays off in the long run, however.

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Please Go Gentle into That Good Night

Edvard Munch, "Dead Mother and Child"

Edvard Munch, “Dead Mother and Child”

I’m at that stage in life where I and a number of my childhood friends are losing our parents. Classmates who attended Sewanee Public School and then Sewanee Academy are returning to Sewanee to help their parents move into retirement homes, support them as they lose a spouse, and be with them as they die.

I have witnessed the death of two friends’ mothers—these women were also my friends—over the past three weeks and, perhaps like countless others in the presence of the dying, have found myself repeating lines from Dylan Thomas’s best-known poem. One of them went fairly gently into that good night and the other did not, but I now think that Thomas gives terrible advice. In fact, eloquent though the poem is, it is currently pissing me off.

Its one virtue is that it gave me something to push against. Here it is:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is a “should” in the first stanza, as though the speaker is prescribing how one is to die:  since “old age should burn and rave at close of day,” therefore you should “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But what of those instances where old age isn’t burning and raving and where it doesn’t want to rage? Isn’t it at least acceptable, and probably even preferable, to go gently? Certainly I found myself wishing for gentle acceptance as I watched one old friend struggle against her daughter trying to help her and then, when she finally became oblivious to her surroundings, hang on day after day.

If one adds a “should” to the subsequent stanzas, then it’s almost as though the poet is angry that people aren’t struggling as much as he would like them to. Isn’t he saying, in stanza two, that those who haven’t said or written memorable things—whose words have “forked no lightning”—should be filled with regret and rage? And, in stanza three, that those whose “frail deeds” haven’t danced as brightly as they might have should feel the same? As should the wild men (stanza four) who lived for the moment and the grave men (stanza five) who are resigned to death?

In short, it sounds like Thomas is agonizing over his own regrets and wants the dying to suffer as he is suffering. I suppose this is an honest description of his feelings and maybe he’s using the presence of death to add new urgency to his own life. Still, he sounds narcissistic as hell. Why should others behave a certain way just so he can deal better with his own anxieties?

Does he want, out of his psychological neediness, for the dying to suffer the regrets of Doctor Faustus, who dies in one of literature’s most excruciating death bed scenes? Hell is redundant for Marlowe’s protagonist since he suffers hell when he (appearing to follow Dylan Thomas’s advice) looks back at his wasted potential, his missed opportunities and his misspent life.

So no, Dylan, don’t wish those regrets on anyone. Here’s what you should wish for instead, from a Tolstoy character whose words haven’t exactly forked lightning and whose deeds haven’t danced in a green bay:

“Yes, I am making them wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter. “Besides, why speak? I must act,” he thought. With a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: “Take him away…sorry for him…sorry for you too….” He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Why wouldn’t you wish for those you love to experience Ivan Ilych’s last moments? Enough with demanding fierce tears.

Posted in Marlowe (Christopher), Thomas (Dylan), Tolstoy (Leo) | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

ISIS and the Grand Inquisitor

John Gielgud as the Grand Inquisitor

John Gielgud as the Grand Inquisitor

There is much about the sudden rise of ISIS that we do not understand. Today, following the lead of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, I am offering a Dostoevskyan explanation, but that’s because nothing else seems to make any sense.

Before turning to it, however, we must acknowledge what a strange phenomenon ISIS is. A superb article in The New York Review of Books, authored anonymously, systematically shows the limitations of every conventional explanation. After surveying recent books on ISIS, it observes

Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

The author adds that we arrive at theories and concepts to convince ourselves that we have a grasp on the situation but that “we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

Cohen too is baffled by ISIS, especially its recruiting success. “What leads young European Muslims in the thousands,” he asks,

to give up lives in France, Britain or Germany, enlist in the ranks of the movement calling itself the Islamic State, and dedicate themselves to the unlikely aim of establishing a caliphate backed by digital propaganda?

Cohen could add the United States to that list after the news that a couple from Mississippi State were arrested three days ago for planning to join ISIS.

The Times writer has a theory, however. After noting that ISIS offers “to give meaning, whether in this life or the next,” to disaffected young people, Cohen then mentions that these youths may yearn “to be released from the burden of freedom.”

Back in the 1939, German psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm wrote a book called Escape from Freedom to explain the rise of Nazism. His idea that freedom may be experienced as a burden can be traced back to French existentialists like Camus and Sartre and, before them, to the Grand Inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov. I’ll touch on that in a moment but first here’s Cohen:

Western societies have been going ever further in freeing their citizens’ choices — in releasing them from ties of tradition or religion, in allowing people to marry whom they want and divorce as often as they want, have sex with whom they want, die when they want and generally do what they want. There are few, if any, moral boundaries left.

In this context, radical Islam offers salvation, or at least purpose, in the form of a life whose moral parameters are strictly set, whose daily habits are prescribed, whose satisfaction of everyday needs is assured and whose rejection of freedom is unequivocal. By taking away freedom, the Islamic State lifts a psychological weight on its young followers adrift on the margins of European society.

Cohen illustrates his point by pointing to the French novel Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, which is about a literature professor who becomes disaffected with Western values and converts to Islam. Quoting reviewer Mark Lilla, Cohen writes,

Houellebecq sees France in the grip of “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God.”

This sounds straight out of Nicholas Karamazov’s story of the Grand Inquisitor’s diatribe to Jesus, who has returned during to earth during the Spanish Inquisition.

The Inquisitor informs Christ that his aspirations for humanity were too high. When he rejected Satan’s temptations in the desert, he deprived people of what they really want. While Christ desired people to find God within themselves, what people really want is for someone to direct them. They crave “miracle, mystery, and authority.” People may be “more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom,” the Grand Inquisitor says, “yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.” 

The Inquisitor claims that the Inquisition and the Church “have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. He explains,

“[F]or the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned…“Thou hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings; Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou hast promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?”

And further on:

Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all—Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings forever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.

There is much more—I urge you to go read the entire chapter—but here’s one last passage that seems to get at how ISIS seduces people:

 Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!”

In the tale’s shocking conclusion, the Grand Inquisitor prepares to crucify Christ a second time:

Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if any one has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. To-morrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.

ISIS’s own mass executions make this the Grand Inquisitor passage chillingly relevant.

If Cohen is right, then ISIS is a challenge to liberalism generally, not just to the Middle East or to the West. When we who are progressives advocate for more freedom, we assume that it will liberate the human spirit and lead to more justice and equality. Dostoevsky, however, warns of a backlash and, essentially, the rise of a new authoritarianism to which many will willingly submit.

Posted in Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Houellebecq (Michel) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Herbert & Bronte on Spiritual Restlessness

Gustave Courbet, "The Desperate Man"

Gustave Courbet, “The Desperate Man”

Spiritual Sunday

A couple of Sundays ago I heard a sensitive sermon about restlessness. Reflecting upon the crowds that follow Jesus after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (John 6:24-35), Rev. John Runkle quoted St. Augustine’s prayer about a restless heart.

Two authors who write about restlessness instantly came to mind: George Herbert in his poem “The Pulley” and Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre. Associating St. John, Augustine, Herbert and Bronte leads to some interesting insights into this spiritual condition.

In the passage from John, Jesus tells the crowds that have followed him,

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

And further on:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Rev. Runkle detected a spiritual restlessness in the crowds, prompted by a longing for contact with the divine. St. Augustine, he noted, captures that hunger in his well-known short prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Rev. Runkle’s sermon examined how, to address that restlessness, we sometimes turn to superficial remedies.

In “The Pulley,” which I’ve written about here and mentioned here, Herbert describes restlessness as intrinsic to the human condition, and it certainly shows up in many, perhaps most, of his poems. He also comes up with a novel explanation for it. God made us restless, he says, in order that we will find our way back to Him. If we weren’t restless but were perfectly content, we would remain satisfied with our lives as they are. Our restlessness prods us to reach beyond ourselves and find God.

   When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
   Contract into a span.”

   So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
   Rest in the bottom lay.

   “For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
   So both should losers be.

   “Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
   May toss him to my breast.”

In my post on the poem, I talk about how “The Pulley” was Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer’s favorite poem. Oppenheimer, brilliant and ambitious, was very familiar with restlessness. As a mathematician and physicist, he probably also appreciated the metaphor: as we are pulled down, we are in the same action pulled up.

I’ve written about Jane’s restlessness in the past but I want to take a slightly different tack here. Jane is not only restless because she envies male freedom, although that’s certainly one reason. She also wants spiritual sustenance.

She realizes that she would be spiritually sustained by living with Rochester in what she regards a life of sin. She quotes the terrifying passage from Matthew 5:29-30 to bolster her decision to leave, saying

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

The original passage is,

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

For a while, Jane thinks that she will overcome her restlessness and fulfill her spiritual destiny by going to India as a missionary. If Rochester stands in for her sensual side, then St. John is her austere disciplined side.

What she comes to realize, however, is that throwing herself into a cold, self-denying religion is no more a cure for spiritual restlessness than sensual gratification that ignores religion. By the end of the novel, she is able to honor both her earthly and her heavenly longings. She no longer worships Rochester as an idol but has entered into spiritual communion with him.

Thoreau famously wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Healthy religion provides guidance for how to nourish our deep hunger.

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Trump, Lucille Clifton, & Menstruation

Donald Trump, Megyn Kelly

Donald Trump, Megyn Kelly

The secret to success, every good carnival barker knows, is always keeping your audience off balance. By these standards, Donald Trump is putting on the performance of his life. Who could have predicted that we would suddenly be awash in conversations about menstruating women?

Part of me would like Trump to read a Lucille Clifton poem that would teach him a few things about menstruation. Unfortunately, I know only too well he wouldn’t read it and that it wouldn’t change his mind anyway.

In case you’ve managed to stay away from all things Trump (and if you have, let the rest of us know how you did it), Trump went after moderator Megyn Kelly for plying him with tough questions in the first Republican debate. Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon sums up all that happened:


In the days since [Megyn Kelly] dared to ask Donald Trump — the apparently not just a bad dream serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — about his public record of referring to women as fat pigs, Kelly has [been?] the target of some of the most vile slime the Internet has to offer. Naturally, it was Trump himself who helped get the ball rolling, excoriating her on Twitter for not being “professional” enough for his liking, and calling her a “bimbo” while insisting she only has a job because she’s “sexy.” And then just to bring it all home, he made a not so veiled insinuation that that Kelly was uppity because she [was?] probably on the rag, explaining, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever. You could see she was off-base.” (Trump says he meant her nose.)

Everyone was immediately convinced that Trump had committed a gaffe, and his comments were predictably labeled “wherever-gate.” Trump was promptly disinvited from a conference hosted by Red State’s Eric Erickson, who himself has a history of misogynist comments, and everyone thought that Trump had finally gone too far. After all, he had attacked the darling anchor of Fox News.

Instead, Trump somehow managed to upend once against the conventional wisdom as his rabid fans came to his defense:

This promptly led to — as Web developer Izzy Galvez has helpfully quantified for you in easy to read chart form — an astonishing spike in online abuse toward Kelly. If you’re a woman who’s ever expressed an opinion out loud or just didn’t give enough attention to some random jackass who demanded it of you, you can probably guess the terminology and the tone. You’ve probably experienced it! Trump, meanwhile, has been rewarded with a continued lead in the polls. 

By early the following week, Trump, not Fox, appeared to have won. Fox president Roger Ailes brokered a truce with Trump, promising him fair coverage from here on out.

Trump, however, appears to be just the tip of a larger misognyst iceberg. In another Salon article, Joan Walsh puts “wherever-gate” in a larger context by citing numerous instances of people on the right attacking her and other liberal women for their biology. Walsh concludes,

Trump reminded Megyn Kelly, and all of us, of the primitive fear of women at the heart of the conservative backlash, when he smeared her with one of the oldest reasons women can’t be trusted to play a role in public life. For days now, we’ve been marinating in ancient primal male prejudices against women. It’s progress, of a sort, that most of the world recoiled in horror at Trump’s insult. But the fact that Trump would suggest it at all shows we’ve got a lot more progress to make.

I want to take a step beyond men who assume that an aggressive women must be menstruating, however, and turn the argument upside down. According to Lucille Clifton, arrogant men have the illusion that they control the universe because they don’t menstruate.

Earlier this week I discussed a Tolstoyan fantasy of a tyrant suddenly experiencing what it is like to be one of his victims. Lucille has a comparable woman’s fantasy. I heard Lucille read “wishes for sons” many times when she taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and it was always the audience’s favorite. At times, practically all the women would spontaneously rise up and give it a standing ovation:

wishes for sons

By Lucille Clifton

i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.

i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.

later i wish them hot flashes
and clots like you
wouldn’t believe.    let the
flashes come when they
meet someone special.
let the clots come
when they want to.

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

I think the audience appreciated someone finally acknowledging the secret desire that insensitive men go through the same experience. Even worse that putting up with your period is dealing with arrogant men who think they rise above biology.

I’ve taught this poem a number of times in my Literature and Nature class, and I often break the students into groups, making sure that there is a mixture of men and women in each group. It proves an immensely enlightening experience for the men, especially when they discover how much their response to the poem differs from the women’s. Some are glad to learn what women go through, some become defensive.

When we discuss it afterwards, however, I point out that the poem is titled “wishes for sons,” not “wishes for men.” Clifton sees herself in relationship with men, not set against them. The poem starts a dialogue that, pretty clearly, our society needs to have.

I tell the men in my class that their female partners and female co-workers will very much appreciate that they’ve had these conversations.

Maybe next time the Republican Party has an autopsy on why female voters keep deserting the party, they can read and discuss “wishes for sons.” Think of poetry as a path to enlightenment.

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A Tolstoy Fable about Radical Empathy


For years I have been searching for a Tolstoy short story I vaguely remembered from my childhood where a tyrannical king finds himself transported into the mind of one of his victims. It’s a fantasy wish fulfillment many of us experience when we witness tyrants and bullies oppressing people. Last week, while rummaging through my parents’ library, I found it in a collection of Tolstoy stories that I read as an adolescent.

Here’s the fantasy: what if those who advocate for policies that hurt vulnerable people suddenly found themselves amongst those people? What if those who want to cut food stamps suddenly found themselves living on food stamps? What if those who rail against undocumented immigrants in this country suddenly found themselves running from the immigration authorities? What if those advocating for more Israeli settlement of West Bank land suddenly found themselves to be displaced Palestinians? What if those blind to their white privilege awoke to find themselves people of color?

The Tolstoy story is entitled “Esarhaddon” and, while it does indeed contain the fantasy I remembered, it also has a lot more. You can read an on-line version of it here.

Assyrian king Esarhaddon has captured Laillie, a rival king, and is contemplating modes of execution. Esarhaddon has goaded Laillie into war through a series of unjust demands and then killed thousands of his warriors, sent his women into slavery, and gruesomely tortured his close associates. As the story opens, he is planning to impale Laillie on a stake the next day.

In the middle of the night, however, an old man wakes him up, informs him that he “cannot destroy life,” and says that “this Lailie you speak of is you, yourself.” To Esarhaddon’s demand that he explain, the old man takes him to a fountain and submerges his head. Suddenly Esarhatton discovers that he is Lailie.

As Lailie he relives the days before the battle, experiencing all that the king did to prevent war from happening. He experiences Lailie’s defeat, feels what it is like to be imprisoned in a cage, and watches through Lailie’s eyes as his friends are tortured and killed. Finally he himself is about to be executed:

Finally, two executioners unlocked the cage, strapped his arms behind his back and took him to the blood-soaked place of execution. Lailie saw the sharp, blood-stained stake from which they had just torn the body of a friend of his, and he guessed that they had cleared the stake for his own execution.

They took off his clothes. Lailie was horrified at the sight of the thinness of his once strong, handsome body. The two executioners raised him by his scrawny thighs, lifted him up and were about to impale him on the stake.

“Now death, destruction,” Lailie thought, and forgetting his resolution to preserve a courageous calm until the end, he sobbed and implored mercy. But no one heard him.

“But this can’t be,” he thought. “I’m certainly asleep. It’s a dream.” And he tried to awake. “But I’m not Lailie, I am Esarhaddon,” he thought to himself.

“You are Lailie and you are Esarhaddon,” he heard some voice, and felt the execution begin. He screamed and at that moment pulled his head from the fountain. The old man was standing over him, pouring on his head the rest of the water from the jug.

As a result of his experience, Esarhaddon releases Lailie and he himself resigns his kingship and becomes an itinerant monk, pondering what he has learned and “preaching to the people that life is all one and that in wishing harm on other beings, they only hurt themselves.”

This is a profound message if we could only learn it, one that Christ also taught. When we define ourselves against other people, we are tortured inside and can never achieve genuine peace. The only road to salvation lies is truly opening ourselves to the Other, truly loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Here’s how the old man puts it to Esarhaddon:

“You thought that you alone had life within you, but I tore away the veil of deception, and you saw that in doing evil to others you did it against yourself. One and the same life is in everything, and you are revealed in yourself only a part of this single life. Only in this one part of life that is in you can you improve or worsen, increase or decrease life; and you can improve life in yourself only by demolishing the barriers separating your life from other living beings, by regarding these other beings as you regard yourself, by loving them. It is not in your power to destroy life in other beings. The life that was in these beings you killed only disappeared from your eyes; it was not destroyed. You wish to prolong your own life and shorten the lives of others, but you cannot do this. Life has neither time nor place. A moment of life and thousands of years of life, your own life and the lives of all creatures seen and unseen in this world—it is all one and the same. Life can neither be destroyed nor altered for it alone really exists, all other things are but appearances.”

Having said this, the old man disappeared.

If one is perpetually convulsed by hatred of others, one is punished by being perpetually convulsed. Life is given to us as a precious gift and we waste it in our lashing out.


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Attn: English Majors–Business Needs You

Matthias Stom, "Young Man Reading by Candlelight"

Matthias Stom, “Young Man Reading by Candlelight”

A recent Salon article will have English majors cheering. Apparently American businesses desperately need people with a humanities education.

The article is excerpted from Geoff Colvin’s book Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. Colvin writes that Google, Apple, Avon, Lowe’s, and many other companies have discovered that hiring only engineering, business, and computer science majors leads to problems. That’s because such people often lack social interaction skills and the ability to work in groups. What is needed are people who are empathetic and can understand other points of view. Therefore businesses increasingly want employees who have been trained in literary interpretation, philosophic reasoning, historical thinking, and the like.

The article mostly talks about literary training. For instance, Colin references recent neurological and social science studies (I’ve written about them here) about how literary training makes us smarter and more empathetic:

Dozens of medical schools around the world encourage or even require the reading of fiction, because it helps build skills of social interaction. It “helps to  develop and nurture skills of observation, analysis, empathy, and self­ reflection–skills that  are essential for   human medical care,” says a statement from New York University Medical School’s medical humanities program. Of course, it isn’t just med students who can benefit. Research has shown that reading literary fiction improves the empathy of people generally. Reading nonfiction or so-called genre fiction–the kind churned out very profitably by the Danielle Steeles and James Pattersons of the world–doesn’t do it. But reading fiction in which the characters are more complex and the action is often driven by their inner lives seems to make us more sensitive to what’s going on in the minds of others. It’s a rare way in which we can improve our interpersonal abilities by doing some­thing all by ourselves.

Colvin’s article also mentions David Foster Wallace’s challenging prose and the special virtues of close reading:

Far more than engineering or computer science, the humanities strengthen the deep human abilities that will be critical to the success of most people, regardless of  whether they work directly in technology. Consultants Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen, arguing that “we need more humanities majors,” observe that “when you study the writings of, say, David Foster Wallace, you learn how to step into and feel empathy for a different world than your own. His world of intricate, neurotic detail and societal critique says more about living as a young man in the 1990s than most market research graphs.” The benefits in real-world pursuits are direct, they argue: “The same skills involved in being a subtle reader of a text are involved in deeply understanding Chinese or Argentinian consumers of cars, soap or computers. They are hard skills of understanding other people, their practices and context.” Skills that employers badly want—critical thinking, clear communicating, complex problem solving—“are skills taught at the highest levels in the humanities.”

This, of course, is not news to regular readers of this blog. But isn’t it nice that people who pay good salaries are also realizing it?

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Fox, Like Odysseus, Tries to Gouge Trump

Odysseus and Cyclops vase painting

Odysseus and Cyclops vase painting

Here’s an analogy I didn’t see coming: a columnist for Salon has compared Donald Trump to Polyphemus, the Cyclops in The Odyssey. I don’t otherwise care for the article, which sees President Obama as a corporate stooge, but the Homer comparison is interesting.

As Andrew O’Hehir sees it, Trump is getting in the way of the GOP’s attempt to brand itself as humane, even though its policy proposals are anything but. Therefore the GOP and the Koch Brothers, through Fox, attempted to use Thursday night’s candidate debate to bring down Trump while raising the profile of the more electable candidates (Bush, Rubio, Walker, Kasich). O’Hehir thinks they successfully pulled off their plan:

When seen in person, the candidates largely resemble human beings rather than cannibals or ogres, which tends to “tighten the race,” as we political insiders say… We must exempt the current GOP front-runner from this group hug, of course, since Donald Trump actually is an ogre, which is the source of his immense and alarming public appeal. We’re not talking about the lovable ogre from Shrek, either; Trump is more like Polyphemus, the Cyclops who eats several of Odysseus’ men and then passes out drunk on the floor, trapping everybody in the cave.

That brings us to the next Mission Accomplished of the GOP debate, which was to begin the process of blinding the Cyclops without enraging him too much. You can take this irresistible analogy as far as you want: In Homer’s epic, Odysseus blows his getaway at the last minute by telling Polyphemus his real name, and the Cyclops calls down a devastating third-party campaign of vengeance from his dad Poseidon, god of the sea. That’s precisely the outcome that Fox News and the Republican leadership hope to avoid, and the first stage of their plan was executed pretty well on Thursday. Kelly and Chris Wallace kept Trump on the defensive throughout the evening. In fact, it was Wallace who pushed Trump hardest on his lack of GOP convictions and credentials, even if Kelly penetrated further beneath his hard yellow hide, provoking a series of misogynistic outbursts that may even make an ogre look ugly. Meanwhile Jeb Bush stayed lashed to the mast – that’s a different episode, I know – declaring himself to be both for and against his brother’s war in Iraq, for and against amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and mystified as to why anybody would think he disliked the leering monstrosity standing to his right

And further on:

One aspect of the conventional wisdom is clearly correct: Polyphemus has dashed out the brains of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the two most dangerous and least controllable Bush alternatives, and left them broken and whimpering. From the point of view of the big-money donors who orchestrate the Wrepublican Wrestlemania, that is mostly a good thing.

Here’s accepting O’Hehir’s invitation to take the analogy as far as possible. First of all, some reports say that Trump was blindsided by Fox’s ambush, given that the network had been pumping him up for months (to the immense benefit of its ratings). So maybe this was comparable to Polyphemus taking Odysseus’s offer of wine, which contains a sleeping potion. From Trump’s perspective, the seemingly friendly network suddenly was gouging him in the eye.

O’Hehir sees the GOP as wolves trying to pass themselves off as sheep, which would parallel Odysseus’s method of escape: he and his men escape death by hanging on to the undersides of the Cyclops’ sheep as he lets them out of the cave. O’Hehir is also right that the GOP, like Odysseus, needs to disable Polyphemus Trump rather than kill him. If Trump is killed—killed as a Republican so that he runs as a third party candidate—then the party bosses have blundered into a cave from which they can’t escape.

Whether the GOP can keep Trump from playing his trump card of a third party run—Polyphemus’s trump card is Poseiden, who messes up Odysseus’s voyage—remains to be seen. A third party run would assuredly lead to a GOP defeat, keeping them from reaching what they see as their home (the White House) for possibly another nine years. Nine years, incidentally, is exactly the number of years that Odysseus has left before he gets back to Ithaka.

In hindsight, Odysseus had no business entering into Polyphemus’s cave in the first place, just as the GOP should have steered clear of the ogres and crazies in their own party. We would all be better off with a moderate Republican party and a moderate Democratic party fighting it out for the center. The GOP thought they could fraternize with a monster, but recently that monster has been calling the shots and devouring its own.

One other thought: I like the image of Jeb Bush tied to the mast. What if the Siren call is the extreme right promising the seductive lure of off-year election wins, when mostly the base turns out. Unfortunately, this could lead to a shipwreck in a presidential year. To avoid the sirens, the rowers must stop their ears with wax, and, looking at the extreme positions that many of the candidates took Thursday night, it’s not clear that the GOP boat will be able to avoid veering from the center and into the rocks.

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Queasy about Bodies Used for Medicine

Peter Hurd, "Tom Sawyer"

Peter Hurd, “Tom Sawyer”

The war on Planned Parenthood, underway since the early 1980s, has taken a new turn with the recent sting video purporting to show (in the words of rightwing Senator Joni Ernst), that the organization “is harvesting the body parts of unborn babies.” In today’s post I turn to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to provide a different way of seeing the issue.

With regard to the latest “revelations,” it makes no difference that Congress has allowed the use of fetal tissue in medical research since 1993. It also makes no difference that the video was edited to give the misleading impression that Planned Parenthood makes money from the recovered tissue. A Washington Post editorial sets the record straight:

None of the videos released shows anything illegal and, in fact, the full footage of Planned Parenthood executives meeting with people presumed to be buyers for a human biologics company include repeated assertions that clinics are not selling tissue but only seeking permitted reimbursement costs for expenses. Indeed, the Colorado clinic featured in the videos refused to enter into a contract with the phony company because of its failure to meet its legal and ethical standards.

All of this is irrelevant to those who want to take Planned Parenthood down. They’re counting on the fact that people feel queasy when they hear talk of fetal tissue.

Something else that used to make people queasy (and perhaps still does) is using dead bodies for anatomical purposes. Today, every medical student in “gross anatomy” gets his or her own body to learn from but, in times past, it was against the law to use any bodies but those of people who had been executed. As a consequence, doctors had to hire grave robbers to obtain the bodies they needed to hone their craft. Here is the grave robbing scene in Tom Sawyer, witnessed by Tom and Huck:

The whisper died wholly out, now, for the three men had reached the grave and stood within a few feet of the boys’ hiding-place.

“Here it is,” said the third voice; and the owner of it held the lantern up and revealed the face of young Doctor Robinson.

Potter and Injun Joe were carrying a handbarrow with a rope and a couple of shovels on it. They cast down their load and began to open the grave. The doctor put the lantern at the head of the grave and came and sat down with his back against one of the elm trees. He was so close the boys could have touched him.

“Hurry, men!” he said, in a low voice; “the moon might come out at any moment.”

They growled a response and went on digging. For some time there was no noise but the grating sound of the spades discharging their freight of mold and gravel. It was very monotonous. Finally a spade struck upon the coffin with a dull woody accent, and within another minute or two the men had hoisted it out on the ground. They pried off the lid with their shovels, got out the body and dumped it rudely on the ground. The moon drifted from behind the clouds and exposed the pallid face. The barrow was got ready and the corpse placed on it, covered with a blanket, and bound to its place with the rope. Potter took out a large spring-knife and cut off the dangling end of the rope and then said:

“Now the cussed thing’s ready, Sawbones, and you’ll just out with another five, or here she stays.”

“That’s the talk!” said Injun Joe.

“Look here, what does this mean?” said the doctor. “You required your pay in advance, and I’ve paid you.”

In the dispute that follows, there’s a struggle, the doctor is killed, and Joe frames Potter for the murder.

Presumably all of us, when we undergo surgery, are reassured that our Doctor Robinsons have practiced on inanimate bodies before turning their scalpels upon us, even though we might prefer not to hear all the gory details of their training. We’ve progressed a long way since then and there are not clear guidelines, approved by Congress, about how doctors can obtain and use what they need for their research.

A recent article in Slate Magazine lays out what is at stake. Author Mark Joseph Stern recently lost a good friend to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the excruciating illness also know as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Fetal stem cells in medical research, he notes, offer the promise of a cure:

The graphic images of aborted fetuses are meant to disgust me, to convince me that abortion is a barbaric act of killing. But I don’t see death in these videos. I see hope.

ALS kills people by causing their motor neurons to degenerate. These neurons go from the brain to the spinal cord, then travel from the spinal cord to muscles throughout the body. When they degenerate, you lose the ability to control voluntary muscle movement. Eating, talking, swallowing, breathing: All of these functions rely, to some extent, on healthy motor neurons. When you can no longer move a muscle, it atrophies. Eventually, your respiratory muscles can no longer contract, and you suffocate.

Stem cells hold terrific promise for the treatment—and, eventually, the defeat—of ALS. The most useful stem cells are found in fertilized embryos and fetuses, where they haven’t yet developed into specialized cells.

And further on:

Any treatment derived from fetal tissue is many years away at best, but the early research has been a success. Stem cells injected into ALS patients’ spinal cords have survived for years and have caused few side effects. The cells seem to protect diseased motor neurons, stimulating their survival. With motor neurons restored to health, muscle atrophy slows or ceases. The experimental treatment slowed or reversed the progression of the disease in several patients in a small Phase I clinical trial.

One patient, whose muscles had degenerated to the point that he couldn’t walk without a cane, abandoned his cane months after the trial began. He later participated in a 2.5-mile walkathon. That was in 2011. He remains alive and well today. The treatment also effectively halted disease progression in the other five patients still in the early stages of ALS. It was a stunning leap forward in ALS treatment. A Phase 2 trial, with new patients, further demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of the therapy; symptoms improved in seven of 15 patients.

Of course, whenever human bodies are used for medical research, there must be rules in place. At present, we do have rules, including those which allow mothers to donate their aborted fetuses to medical research. (Of course, abortion itself is also legal and each year 1,500,000 American women have abortions.) Perhaps, for those women who are traumatized, donating the fetal tissue to medicine is healing. In such situations, Planned Parenthood does a service by making it possible.

In Tom Sawyer, Tom’s truth telling about what he witnesses rights an injustice. There’s little truth-telling in these sting videos, nor is there much in the posturing of rightwing Congressional Republicans.

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Dying and a Night Powdered with Stars

Van Gogh, "Starry Night over the Rhone"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone”

Spiritual Sunday

Neurologist Oliver Sacks, famous for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other works, is dying of a metastasized ocular melanoma. In a beautiful New York Times essay he quotes Milton as he talks about how he has rediscovered an early fascination with the physical sciences. Exploring Milton’s passage enhances the poignancy of Sacks’s observations.

First, a personal note. My father too, in his final years, became fascinated by physics and was excited about the Lucerne centrifuge and the discovery of the Higgs Bosun. He had planned to major in physics before he was drafted into World War II, but upon his return he opted instead for French literature. Sacks helps me understand why he returned to the inert world at the end of his life:

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss — losing people dear to me — by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of 6, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at 10, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,”a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month. Here, too, is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive — hence the lead casket.

The Milton allusion occurs after Sacks has been lamenting that he will never see the revolution, predicted by Nobel-prize winning Frank Wilczek, where nuclear physics will reach “the level of precision and versatility that atomic physics has already achieved.” The thought leads him to describe a recent encounter with a night sky:

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

The Milton passage occurs when Raphael is explaining to Adam how God made the heavens. There are several references to stars in his account. Raphael mentions how God

sowed with stars the Heaven thick as a field

and how one can see a

thousand thousand stars…spangling the hemisphere.

Raphael goes on to describe the rest of creation but then returns to the stars. The departure and return is a bit like the way that both Sacks and my father left their early fascination with the physical sciences to enter the mysteries of the human brain and heart, only to return to the impersonal heavens at the end. In Book VII we see God involved in the intricate work of creating animals and humans, after which he returns to heaven. Close-up gives way to long shot as God is welcomed back to heaven by ten thousand angel harps. Henceforth, Raphael tells Adam, God will visit humankind traveling a road paved with stars:

A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold
And pavement stars, as stars to thee appear,
Seen in the galaxy, that milky way,
Which nightly, as a circling zone, thou seest
Powdered with stars.

Sacks does not speak in religious terms and my father was a professed atheist. Yet in the wonders of the cosmos, poetically described by Milton and scientifically charted by our great physicists and astronomers, they get a sense that they are part of some great process. “God” is the image that Milton uses while Sacks talks of a “sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity.” As we approach death, the little things fall away and we confront the unknowable heavens.

Or as Sacks puts it, none of his early accomplishments or the plaudits from his fellow humans hit him as hard as “that night sky full of stars.”

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The Inner City: Stay or Leave?

Dr. Samson Davis returns to his Newark classroom

Sampson Davis, author of “Living and Dying in Brick City: An ER Doctor Returns Home”

My novelist friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a fine article by an inner city high school teacher about the desire of certain students to escape their surroundings. Clint Smith reflects upon James Baldwin’s decision to move to France and, while sympathetic, hopes his own students will stay at home.

In his most famous short story, Baldwin gives us a narrator who, unlike himself, returns to Harlem. More on that in a moment.

Clint thought of Baldwin’s decision after taking his students on a field trip to Paris. They left the day after the Charleston shooting so escape was on his mind:

When we arrived in Paris, I was reminded of the American writer James Baldwin. His departure from Harlem in 1948, aged 24, with only $40 (£25) in his pocket was an attempt to escape the pernicious racism of the US. This decision, he claims, saved his life. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America,” he said in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail; I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”

Smith has taught high school English just outside of Washington, D.C. and now teaches art in the Boston City Schools. He has seen close up how his student live in communities “that have been subjected to generations of underinvestment and discrimination.” He understands why Baldwin saw the choice as one between leaving and dying:

For my entire life, I have watched the realities of racism slowly kill those around me. I have watched food insecurity and unequal access to healthy meals saturate black communities with diabetes and heart disease at disproportionate rates. I have watched the residue of federally-sanctioned redlining create small apartheids in cities for decades, generating breeding grounds for crime and poverty. In Baltimore, for example, local policies have existed since 1910 to isolate the city’s black population. To the present day federal housing subsidy policies still result in low-income black families being segregated from richer neighborhoods.

Given this reality, many teachers and school administrators convey a “do well so you can leave this place” narrative to their best students. Smith himself internalized this message and left New Orleans to be educated elsewhere. But he has returned to the inner city and wants the exodus to stop, asking, “How will our communities ever grow into their true potential if we continue to tell our most successful students to leave?”

Here’s his conclusion:

While systemic injustice is suffocating and can often seem immutable, things can change. But we must engage our students honestly, and remind them that we are the architects of the world we live in. That is what I would have wanted my teachers to tell me. That is what I try to tell my students. Perhaps then we can collectively re-create our reality so that one day no one is forced to “escape.”

So what does Smith teach his students so that they can collectively recreate their reality? He introduces them to texts and conversations about racism:

We, as educators, must directly address the realities that cause them to want to leave in the first place. That, in part, means we must discuss racism candidly – both the interpersonal and the systemic.

This does not mean adding a perfunctory Martin Luther King Jr speech to be skimmed over during Black History Month. It does not mean reading the only writer of color in the curriculum and analyzing their work devoid of any historical context. This means holistically broadening the range of texts we expose our students to and having them interrogate why certain voices have been, and continue to be, left out of the literary and historical canons.

And further on:

As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students to provide a more holistic and honest definition of what racism is in this country, so that we might better push back against it as we move forward.

“Sonny’s Blues” would help in this endeavor. Baldwin may have escaped Harlem, but in his story he gives us two characters who return after leaving. Sonny’s brother returns to the city to teach and Sonny comes back after running away to join the army. Here’s the narrator explaining his ambivalence about Harlem after picking up Sonny following a stint in prison for heroine possession:

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

Describing the inner city as a death trap, of course, might not encourage people to stay. But the story goes on to capture the vibrancy of Harlem. In fact, by trying to build a “good, clean, faceless life” for himself, the narrator has cut himself off from his community–the missing limb–even though he has come back to live there. Through Sonny’s music he is reminded that only in Harlem can he truly be alive.

I like to think that this epiphany will lead him to become a better teacher. He has already begun to open himself in new ways to a former student in the story’s opening, and one imagines that the process will continue on. For instance, while he initially wonders whether his students get more from shooting up in the bathrooms than taking his math classes, he might think otherwise if he saw himself out to convince them that they are “the architects of the world we live in.”

Baldwin may have had to leave, but he recognized the price he paid for doing so. He felt keenly the ache of the amputated limb. Clint Smith wants to spare his students from having to gnaw off their connection with a community than can nourish them more than any other.

We should all be giving the inner cities the support they need to hold on to their best and their brightest.

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A Weed’s Zen Acceptance of Fate

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer

The other day, to help out a friend undergoing surgery for ovarian cancer, I joined supporters weeding her garden. I was feeling fairly antagonistic towards weeds by the time we were done, even while knowing that certain poets have sung their praises.

So I turned to these poets to get a more positive perspective.

Walt Whitman, of course, praises leaves of grass in Song of Myself, seeing them as a quintessentially democratic life form. Mary Oliver, meanwhile, marvels at “the reckless blossom of weeds” in a poem about a stillborn kitten with a single eye. The weeds for Oliver stand for nature’s extravagant way of throwing infinite variety our way.

Less positively, Carl Sandburg describes grass as oblivion, covering over humanity’s greatest atrocities as though they had never happened.

Here’s a very Zen Scott Bates poem about a “Contented Weed.” This particular plant has found a way to accommodate herself to whatever happens. Like a Sartrean existentialist, she asserts that she always has the freedom to choose.

Maybe she is exhibiting a higher wisdom, consciously and deliberately giving herself over to a higher power. Or maybe she’s just rationalizing, convincing herself that she has power when really she doesn’t. Knowing my father, I think he would see the poem as more about self deception than genuine inner peace. But because both interpretations are possible, we as readers may choose based on our own particular life outlooks. Where do you come down?

The Contented Weed

By Scott Bates

A Weed next door
Lives happily
Persuaded of
Her liberty

Each morning
When the Sun is low
She says to herself
I choose to grow

Each evening
When the Moon is bright
She says to herself
I choose the night

Each time she bows
Before the Wind
She says to herself
I choose to bend

And when at last
She wilts and dies
I’m sure she’ll choose
To fertilize

So all the weeds I pulled went on to fulfill a higher purpose.

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Read Poems for Life w/o Boundaries

Ignat Bednarik, "Young Man Reading"

Ignat Bednarik, “Young Man Reading”

Here’s a poem by America’s current poet laureate about what poetry contributes to our lives. Among other things, it beats shopping malls.

I’m not entirely sure who the poem is addressed to. Maybe Herrera, who has been described as “a performance artist and activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous communities and at-risk youth,” is thinking of gang members, what with his references to razors and leather jackets. Perhaps his audience has been taught that they must aspire to consumer society’s fashion mall, even as they feel themselves continually judged and found wanting.

If so, then Herrera is here to tell them that this life offers them nothing of substance. It is a world of hostile waters, a storm. You think that you are being entertained but instead “your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold standing still.”

With poetry, on the other hand, “you can bathe, you can play, you can even join in on the gossip”–which is to say, you are accepted by the community. If you have dreams of freedom, well, poetry provides you with a genuine vision of “a life without boundaries.” Poems may seem as insubstantial as mist, yet you will discover that this mist is “central to your existence.”

Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings

By Juan Felipe Herrera

for Charles Fishman

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

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Mood Swings: Inside Out, Rape of the Lock

Joy and Sadness in "Inside Out"

Joy and Sadness in “Inside Out”

I saw Insight Out over the weekend and heartily join the chorus of praise. It’s a smart look at the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s brain.

As imaginative as the film was, however, it wasn’t the first time that someone has created a dramatized version of a young woman’s mind. While I doubt that Pixar had Rape of the Lock in mind when it made the film, Pope’s mock epic has influenced other Disney films. The ice fairies in Fantasia, the blue birds in Cinderella, and the animal chorus in The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl” scene can all be traced back to the sylphs in Rape of the Lock.

At first we appear to have a sylph-like helper in the movie: Joy, Riley’s upbeat emotion, tries to make everything wonderful. But Riley’s family has moved to San Francisco and eventually she can’t hold on to Joy and Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over. According to Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, two neuropsychologists who were consulted for the film, it is common for positive emotions to “drop precipitously in frequency and intensity” once one turns 11.

Pope’s Belinda is older than 11—I’m guessing 16 or 17—but we see her undergo a similar drop. At first she is under the protection of the sylph Ariel, who helps her maintain her poise as a gay coquette. When she is humiliated in public by “the Baron,” however, she plunges into depression. It’s at that point that Pope takes us inside her mind.

Here’s Pope’s description of her fall into depression after the Baron cuts off one of her locks with a pair of scissors:

But anxious Cares the pensive Nymph oppressed,
And secret Passions labored in her Breast.
Not youthful Kings in Battle seized alive,
Not scornful Virgins who their Charms survive,
Not ardent Lovers robbed of all their Bliss,
Not ancient Ladies when refused a Kiss,
Not Tyrants fierce that unrepenting die,
Not Cynthia when her Manteau’s pinned awry, 
E’er felt such Rage, Resentment and Despair,
As Thou, sad Virgin! for thy ravished Hair.

Just as Riley loses Joy, so Belinda loses Ariel, who is replaced by the gnome Umbriel.

For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs withdrew,
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,
Umbriel, a dusky melancholy Spright,
As ever sully’d the fair face of Light,
Down to the Central Earth, his proper Scene,
Repairs to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.

The spleen was seen as the anatomical cause of female depression in the 18th century, and in Pope’s poem the goddess Spleen is portrayed as an ill-tempered old maid who has lost joy. Instead, she lounges around in self pity making life miserable for everyone. She represents a possible future for Belinda:

Here, in a Grotto, sheltered close from Air,
And screened in Shades from Day’s detested Glare,
She sighs for ever on her pensive Bed,
Pain at her side, and Megrim [migraine] at her Head.

   Two Handmaids wait the Throne: Alike in Place,
But diff’ring far in Figure and in Face.
Here stood Ill-nature like an ancient Maid,
Her wrinkled Form in Black and White arrayed;
With store of Prayers, for Mornings, Nights, and Noons,
Her Hand is filled; her Bosom with Lampoons.

Just as we get a surreal interior landscape in Inside Out, so do we get one in Rape of the Lock. Pope’s images, many of them drawn from the stage, suggest madness and/or sexual repression. I’ve never understood all of them but, as with Inside Out, sometimes it’s best just to give yourself over to the wild phantasmagoria:

   A constant Vapor o’er the Palace flies;
Strange Phantoms rising as the Mists arise; 
Dreadful, as Hermit’s Dreams in haunted Shades,
Or bright as Visions of expiring Maids.
Now glaring Fiends, and Snakes on rolling Spires,
Pale Spectres, gaping Tombs, and Purple Fires:
Now Lakes of liquid Gold, Elysian Scenes,
And Crystal Domes, and Angels in Machines.

   Unnumbered Throngs on ev’ry side are seen
Of Bodies changed to various Forms by Spleen.
Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,
One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout: 
A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose Pie talks;
Men prove with Child, as powerful Fancy works,
And Maids turned Bottles, call aloud for Corks.

Umbriel asks the queen to “touch Belinda with chagrin,” explaining that “that single Act gives half the World the Spleen.” The goddess complies, presenting him with two gifts guaranteed to ensure a major temper tantrum:

A wondrous Bag with both her Hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the Winds;
There she collects the Force of Female Lungs,
Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues.
A Vial next she fills with fainting Fears,
Soft Sorrows, melting Griefs, and flowing Tears.
The Gnome rejoicing bears her Gift away,
Spreads his black Wings, and slowly mounts to Day.

Just as, in Inside Out, we cut between the inside of Riley’s head and what other people see, so Pope too moves between interior and exterior. Following the assault, Belinda is in the arms of her best friend, the fiery Thalestris:

Sunk in Thalestris’ Arms the Nymph he [Umbriel] found,
Her Eyes dejected and her Hair unbound.
Full o’er their Heads the swelling Bag he rent,
And all the Furies issued at the Vent.
Belinda burns with more than mortal Ire,
And fierce Thalestris fans the rising Fire.

After Umbriel breaks the bag of wind, Belinda goes and screams at the Baron, demanding that he return her lock. Then she breaks down in tears after Umbriel delivers the vial of tears:

   But Umbriel, hateful Gnome! forbears not so;
He breaks the Vial whence the Sorrows flow.
Then see! the Nymph in beauteous Grief appears,
Her Eyes half languishing, half drowned in Tears;
On her heaved Bosom hung her drooping Head,
Which, with a Sigh, she raised; and thus she said.
For ever curs’d be this detested Day,

Which snatched my best, my fav’rite Curl away!

There’s a significant difference between poem and film, however. In the poem, Belinda is urged by another character to laugh the whole thing off and to emerge with a more mature view of life:

What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, Dear! good Humor can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

I can report that my women students generally have violent objections to responding thus to what is, after all, a case of sexual harassment.

Inside Out, by contrast, doesn’t advise pushing the hurt under. Instead, Riley needs to acknowledge her sadness to her parents, who then can commiserate. As the psychologist consultants explain,

Toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.

Inside Out offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

The difference between poem and film may expose a weakness in Pope’s poem. By essentially telling Belinda to “suck it up,” he doesn’t acknowledge her sense of loss. Then again, we are much more sensitive to the child’s feelings than they were in the 18th century.

At least Pope knows enough not to show Belinda following such advice, which would be utterly unrealistic. The character of Rationality shows up in neither Rape of the lock nor Inside Out. Belinda instead, pushed past endurance by the Baron’s smugness, throws snuff in his face:

But this bold Lord, with manly Strength indued,
She with one Finger and a Thumb subdued,
Just where the Breath of Life his Nostrils drew,
A Charge of Snuff the wily Virgin threw;
The Gnomes direct, to ev’ry Atom just,
The pungent Grains of titillating Dust.
Sudden, with starting Tears each Eye o’erflows,
And the high Dome re-echoes to his Nose.

Riley’s consolation is a reunion with her parents and the fabrication of new core memories that will help her survive hard times in her future. Belinda’s consolation, Pope tells her, is that his poem will make her famous for all eternity. And indeed we still know about Arabella Fermor, the real life Belinda upon whom the poem was based.

I like Inside Out’s resolution better, in large part because it seeks to understand rather than satirize the heroine. Perhaps Pope could have found ways to get Ariel and Umbriel to work as a tandem rather than seeing Belinda only in the grip of one or the other. Her society, on the other hand, seems to have less forgiveness for screw-ups.

Further thought: Of course, one reason Inside Out has a more comfortable resolution is that Riley hasn’t yet turned 13. There’s a big button labeled “Puberty” on the console and the characters wonder what it does. To quote Al Jolson, Riley and her parents “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Belinda reminds me of a character in a May 18 New Yorker short story I just read by Justin Taylor. Charity, a teenager, exchanges a single sex text with a much older man she sits next to on a plane and suddenly finds herself overwhelmed by his flood of desire (all expressed via text). Out of her depth, she cuts off correspondence with him and the story’s title–“So You’re Just What, Gone?–is his last text. The following passage from the story describes Belinda to a “t” and may soon apply to Riley:

The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of “What were you thinking” and “Why did you do that?” Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge–someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.

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Look Down on Us Who Journey by Night

Van Gogh, "Starry Night over the Rhone"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone”

Spiritual Sunday

Alfred Noyes, most famous for his poem “The Highwayman,” wrote a number of religious poems as well. I particularly like this one which, like “The Highwayman,” has a nighttime setting:

Night Journey

Thou who never canst err, for Thyself art the Way, 
Thou whose infinite kingdom is flooded with day; 
Thou whose eyes behold all, for Thyself art the Light, 
Look down on us gently who journey by night. 

By the pity revealed in Thy loneliest hour 
Forsaken, self-bound and self emptied of power, 
Thou who even in death hadst all heaven in sight, 
Look down on us gently who journey by night. 

On the road to Emmaus they thought Thou wast dead, 
Yet they saw Thee and knew in the breaking of bread. 
Though the day was far spent, in Thy face there was light. 
Look down on us gently who journey by night.

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Obama’s Eulogy & Beloved’s Baby Suggs

Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in "Beloved"

Beah Richards as Baby Suggs in “Beloved”

This past weekend one of my favorite talk show hosts, the African American political science professor Melissa Harris Perry of MSNBC, quoted a long passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in response to Barack Obama’s Charleston eulogy. A close look at the passage explains why she made the connection, which is not immediately apparent. It also explains why the president’s words struck such a deep chord amongst African Americans.

I’ll share the passage in a moment but first let me set the scene. The words are those of Baby Suggs, a former slave who functions as a healing earth mother for the black residents of Cincinnati. She is also the mother-in-law of Sethe, who escapes to join Baby Suggs after being raped and then brutally beaten by her Kentucky master.

Harris-Perry may have thought of Baby Suggs in part because she operates as an “unchurched preacher” bringing comfort, which is the role that Obama assumed as he stood before the assembled mourners. Here’s Morrison describing Baby Suggs’s “ministry”:

Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart— which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beating their presence.

Baby Suggs conducts her services in a “Clearing” in the woods. Like Obama in his eulogy, she gets everyone involved:

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the tree. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted. “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringling trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. 

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

Obama too talked of grace, how we have been blind to it but that it is there for us to see if we only we open our hearts. It is up to us to receive it:

We don’t earn grace.  We’re all sinners.  We don’t deserve it.  (Applause.)  But God gives it to us anyway.  (Applause.)  And we choose how to receive it.  It’s our decision how to honor it.  

Baby Suggs shares with her “congregation” what it means to live with an open heart. This is the passage cited, at least in part, by Harris-Perry:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.

Note how Baby Suggs mentions both African Americans suffering and how, if they love their big hearts, they can stand strong against oppression. Obama maintained a similar balancing act.

On the one hand, he pointed to the hurt that the African American community has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of whites:

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens.  (Applause.)  It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — (applause) — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.  (Applause.)  For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.  We see that now.  

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.  (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.

On the other hand, he talked about the large heart of the victimized community:

A roadway toward a better world.  [Rev. Pinckney] knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.  

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible.  (Applause.)  If we can tap that grace, everything can change.  (Applause.)  

When you have been living long years in a country where those who have power wish you ill, it is almost inevitable that you will come to feel worthless, as though black lives don’t matter. Obama acknowledged the full force of white oppression, including endemic poverty, underfunded education, a warped criminal justice system, gun violence that disproportionately harms blacks, and systemic racism—ills so entrenched that even the most powerful man in the world can’t bring an end to them.

But if one stops there, one sinks into passive victimhood. Obama also reminded the black community that they are a big hearted people that can rise to these occasions and turn them into something good. He also invited the rest of America to enter into generous vision of Reverend Pinckney and the others souls at Emanuel AME Church:

Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.  The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.  (Applause.)  

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — (applause) — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

No wonder Harris-Perry thought of Beloved.

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Plato Anxious about Lit’s Pyschic Impact

Rafael Sanzio, "School of Athens"

Rafael Sanzio, “School of Athens”

This is a follow-up to last week’s essay about Plato, where I didn’t dwell enough on Plato’s anxieties about the danger of people imitating literary characters. I’ve been thinking about this issue in terms of recent brain research, both on mirror neurons and on the psychological impact of literature. Once one sees just how deeply literature can reach into the psyche, one can understand Plato’s worries.

A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia,

is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

The research into how mirror neurons work is still in its infancy, but the evidence seems to indicate that (speaking of infancy) new born babies imitate at far deeper levels than we were previously aware. They appear to pick up on everything that the people around them are doing, including how we move our facial muscles to form words. They miss almost nothing.

Now let’s take a step away from actual people to representations of people in literature, what Plato would denigrate as third order imitation. Recent brain research reaffirms what every avid reader has always known: the characters seem like actual beings. Here’s from a report on the research in The New York Times:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. 

And now take a step beyond. There are currently neuroscientists who argue that the greater the literature, the greater the impact. Thus Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park will stimulate more regions of the brain that a bestselling potboiler. I wrote about this in a past blog but here again are some of the highlights, including this note from a New School newsletter:

[P]sychology Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor Emanuele Castano have found that those who read great literature do better on various psychological tests than do those who read either popular fiction or non-fiction.

New York Times blog essay summarizes Kidd and Castano’s findings. It opens with an engaging paragraph that I urge you to take seriously as job hunting advice, even though it sounds flip:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

The article elaborates:

The researchers…found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction. This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.

In explaining the results, the researchers sound like English teachers:

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM [the Theory of Mind test] is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.” (Science Now)

Most of these researchers seem to focus on fiction but I would extend their observations to literature in general. After all, every work of literature plunges us into imagined life, what philosopher of art Susanne Langer refers to as “virtual life.” (Langer, incidentally, is examining all the arts, not just literature.) To cite three random examples, in “To His Coy Mistress,” we put ourselves in the position of a lover longing for a woman, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to a man observing and then reflecting upon daffodils, in The Wasteland to someone experiencing existential despair.

Now back to Plato. After asserting that the ideal republic will need reliable warriors to function as “guardians,” he then says that the guardians themselves need to be protected from fiction, where they could get the wrong ideas. In his mind, this fiction includes Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and countless others. Too often in those works, he complains, we see the gods setting bad examples:

Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarreling among themselves as of all things the basest, should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven, and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, for they are not true. No, we shall never mention the battles of the giants, or let them be embroidered on garments; and we shall be silent about the innumerable other quarrels of gods and heroes with their friends and relatives. If they would only believe us we would tell them that quarreling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Hera his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

This sounds like a prescription for dull, didactic morality tales, not for great art. Plato, however, is interested only in the smooth functioning of his republic, not our aesthetic sensibilities. And he’s only getting started in bashing the poets:

And if any one asserts that the violation of oaths and treaties, which was really the work of Pandarus, was brought about by Athena and Zeus, or that the strife and contention of the gods was instigated by Themis and Zeus, he shall not have our approval; neither will we allow our young men to hear the words of Aeschylus, that God plants guilt among men when he desires utterly to destroy a house. And if a poet writes of the sufferings of Niobe–the subject of the tragedy in which these iambic verses occur–or of the house of Pelops, or of the Trojan war or on any similar theme, either we must not permit him to say that these are the works of God, or if they are of God, he must devise some explanation of them such as we are seeking; he must say that God did what was just and right, and they were the better for being punished; but that those who are punished are miserable, and that God is the author of their misery–the poet is not to be permitted to say; though he may say that the wicked are miserable because they require to be punished, and are benefited by receiving punishment from God; but that God being good is the author of evil to any one is to be strenuously denied, and not to be said or sung or heard in verse or prose by any one whether old or young in any well-ordered commonwealth. Such a fiction is suicidal, ruinous, impious. 

And finally:

These are the kind of sentiments about the gods which will arouse our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them in the instruction of the young, meaning, as we do, that our guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshippers of the gods and like them. 

As I noted last week, Plato must be given credit for acknowledging the power of literature. Of course, those of us who think that the guardians would be better served by learning to think for themselves rather than being mindless rule followers have no problem with them reading the great Greek poets.

The fear of readers imitating bad actions remains to this day. We still have people voicing Plato’s objections to works like Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I plan to return to this issue again in an upcoming post, this time checking out what Plato’s most famous pupil had to say on the subject.

Advance notice: Aristotle is far more positive about the effects of literature.

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The Wicked Witch, Disillusioned Dreamer


This past semester while teaching my American Fantasy class, I wrote several posts describing The Wizard of Oz as a quintessentially American fairy tale. Dorothy Gale is raised in the drought stricken years of the late 19th century’s “long depression” but refuses to give up hope, as Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have done. Combining a childhood idealism with a pioneer woman’s can-do spirit, she manages to restore self-belief in her traveling companions. Thanks to her, they find the wisdom, the heart, and the courage that was always within them. American can be strong again.

Baum’s book was an instant success, as was the 1939 MGM film, which tapped into the same American dreaming. Both book and film have achieved archetypal status and consequently have merged in the popular imagination, just as different versions of Cinderella have merged. We are no longer dealing with specific texts but an American myth.

Because it is a myth, it provides contemporary authors with a rich reservoir of images. My student Abby Doyle alerted me to how Gregory Maguire uses the Oz story in his novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995).

The novel speaks to the existential crisis that America has been undergoing for several decades now with the hollowing out of the middle class. In other words, the myth appears to resurface when the American dream clashes with the economic facts on the ground.

Maguire’s Oz has many of the same problems as contemporary America. Whereas the Munchkins for Baum were idyllic Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, for Maguire they are narrow-minded people who are torn between religious fundamentalism and a pornographic longing for the pleasures they have repressed. Meanwhile the country as a whole is socially stratified, with discrimination directed against both Animals (which can talk) and animals (which can’t). The Wizard of Oz is a manipulating autocrat.

Elphaba, who will become the Wicked Witch of the West, is initially an idealistic college student who believes that Animals should have equal rights and animals as well. Ultimately she goes crazy over the unfairness that she witnesses and that she herself experiences as a result of her green skin. Her clash with Dorothy is almost accidental.

Maguire’s Dorothy is not the confident little girl of the Baum novel and MGM movie. Guilt-ridden over what she has done to Elphaba’s sister, she is seeking to make amends. The people of Oz, however, do not see her this way. Rather, they project their hopes on to her, regarding her as a savior for her victory over the witch. They call her self-delusional when she describes it as an accident.

In other words, Maguire sees the Oz fantasy as denial about the real character of America. He is critiquing the willful self-blindness that has arisen in a country that wants to see itself as exceptional, his bitter vision counteracting the sugary sweet fantasy that we as a country feed on.

Meanwhile, those social reformers who see reality for what it is become disillusioned and go mad. The rest of the country condemns them for their lack of faith and regards them as witches.

Previous posts on the Oz story

Wizard of Oz, America’s Greatest Fairy Tale

If Oz Became Modern Day America

Sarah Palin as Dorothy

Dreaming about Ozma of Oz

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Justice Scalia, Blind Like Pentheus

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia has been outdoing himself in recent days with his over-the-top dissents to recent rulings. He reminds me of Pentheus in The Bacchae.

To bring you up to date: On Thursday, the outspoken justice blasted his fellow justices for saving Obamacare, asserting it should be renamed SCOTUScare as a result. Then on Friday, in response to the Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage, he wrote,

Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.

And further on:

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

As The Hill reported, Scalia was particularly upset that the justices didn’t represent a cross-section of America:

He notes that all the justices graduated from Harvard or Yale Law School, eight grew up on the coasts, and that not one is an evangelical Christian or a Protestant, religions that make up significant chunks of the American population.

Here’s Scalia again:

To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.

What bothers me about Scalia is less his strongly held views than his blindness to his own inconsistencies. He self-righteously attacks his fellow justices others for usurping legislative power but has no problem with gutting Congress’s Voting Rights Act or overruling its limits on campaign contributions (in Citizens United). He insists on a narrow textual reading of what is essentially a typo when he wants to gut Obamacare, but he has had no trouble looking behind the words to determine legislative intent in the past (say, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency). And he didn’t mind stopping the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore to assure that a Republican president would be elected. This Supreme Court has been more activist than any we have seen in decades, but Scalia objects only when the vote doesn’t go his way.

At least he wasn’t as intemperate this session as he was ten years ago when he attacked the Court for throwing out Texas’s sodomy laws. At that time he wrote,

State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity … every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision.

Of course, “significant chunks of the American population” now are fine with same sex marriage—recent Gallup polling puts approval at 60% and rising –just as, ten years ago, they found sodomy laws outdated and absurd. At such moments Scalia sounds more like the ranting uncle who watches too much Fox News than a Supreme Court justice.

Which brings me to Pentheus. When he returns to Thebes and finds that all the women are out dancing in the woods in honor of Dionysus, he goes ballistic. Then, when he discovers that wiser heads—Teiresias and his grandfather—approve, he directs his fury against them. He sounds a lot like Scalia excoriating his fellow justices:

I am ashamed, sir! How can a man so old
be so devoid of sense!
Take off that ivy, will you?
And drop that thyrsus [wand]. Now! Do you hear?
This is all your doing, Teiresias! Using him,
to launch this new God to the masses.
Convenient, isn’t it? Give religion a boost
and prophets grow fat, raking in the profits
from reading the stars and fire-magic.
You can thank your white hairs for being here and not in prison,
chained with those raving females; just the place for frauds
who encourage their obnoxious rituals.

Teiresias and Cadmus bowing to the new god are like Americans, including Supreme Court justices, evolving on the subject of same sex marriage. Acceptance of homosexuality is the new order of the day, and it is particularly impressive when old people come around. Pentheus attacking the city’s seer and the city’s founder is like Scalia sneering at at Justice Kennedy for authoring an option “couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.”

Unlike Kennedy, Teiresias hits back. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to see someone deliver a version of the following speech to Scalia?

When a sensible man
has a good cause to defend, to be eloquent
is no great feat. Your tongue is so nimble
one might think you had some sense, but your words
contain none at all. The powerful man
who matches insolence with glibness is worse than a fool.
He is a public danger.

And further on:

Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are…
And nothing you can ever say will make me
turn against the Gods. For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure
no madness can undo.

Eventually in the play, Pentheus is exposed as a hypocrite and is torn apart for his failure to honor the new force that has entered his world. Sadly, Supreme Court justices, with their lifelong tenure, seem immune to any such comeuppance.

Added note – Looking back at Scalia’s dissent in the sodomy case, another couple of Pentheus rants seem appropriate. Like this one:

The rest of you,
scour the city, find this effeminate stranger

who afflicts our women with this new disease
and who befouls our beds. And when you catch him,
drag him here in chains.
He’ll taste the people’s justice when he’s stoned to death,
regretting every bitter moment of his fun in Thebes.

Scalia might add “afflicts our men.” Incidentally, I am citing from the wonderful Michael Cacoyannis translation, now sadly out of print.

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The Bard Endorsed Same Sex Marriage

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, "Oliva wooing Viola"

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, “Oliva wooing Viola”

If he were alive today, Shakespeare would be in the streets celebrating the Supreme Court’s Friday ruling in favor of same sex marriage. In Twelfth Night he all but gives us two same sex marriages.

I say “all but” because, of course, Shakespeare couldn’t outwardly advocate such marriages. He was writing 400 years too early and he had to resolve the play with a series of socially acceptable couplings. While the comedy is still unfolding, however, we can imagine other possibilities. Not for nothing is the play subtitled “What You Will.”

First, we encouraged to imagine a marriage between Count Orsino and Cesario. Yes, of course Cesario is really Viola disguised as a man. When we’re watching the scene where Orsino instructs Cesario/Viola to woo Olivia on his behalf, however, we see someone who looks like a man–and who, in Elizabethan times, would actually have been played by a man–expressing desires for another man:

Viola: I’ll do my best
To woo your lady:
yet, a barful strife!
Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.

At the end of the play, we have a scene reminiscent of those marriage proposals we have been watching on television ever since courts and state legislatures began allowing same sex marriage: a man proposing to (someone who looks like) a man:

Orsino: Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Viola: And all those sayings will I overswear;
And those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Give me thy hand…

And further on:

Here is my hand: you shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.

Or course, Orsino doesn’t have the Supreme Court to step in and tell him that it would actually be permissible for him to marry a man. He’s stuck with heterosexual marriage. As long as Viola wears male clothing, however, he can dream a little longer, pretending that she is still Cesario:

We will not part from hence. Cesario, come;
For so you shall be, while you are a man…

Television has been showing us women proposing to women as well as men proposing to men. Here’s Olivia doing the same:

Olivia to Viola:
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honor, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre [despite] all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Of course, technically Olivia thinks Viola is a man so she’s within the letter of the law. One can make a strong argument, however, that Oliva falls in love, not with a man, but with a strong woman. Viola is the kind of woman that Olivia dreams of being so it makes sense that she would be drawn to her. Marrying Sebastian is like settling for a consolation prize, necessitated because the Supreme Court has not yet changed what is permissible. Olivia can’t have Viola so she settles for her twin.

I’ve written in the past that Twelfth Night’s magic lies in the way it allows us to dream of relationships that were not allowed by the society of the time. Shakespeare, who understood human beings as well as anyone ever has, knew that conventional definitions don’t capture the full complexity of who we are. Orsino at times feels like a woman trapped inside a man’s body and Viola embraces the chance to dress up like a man. Antonio is definitely gay and Sebastian, who is “near the manners of my mother,” may swing both ways. Biologist Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii, noting that “biology loves diversity, society hates it,” has documented many of the different ways that x and y chromosomes have lined up in the human body, and that doesn’t even bring in social influences. Through the chaos of his comedy, Shakespeare acknowledges that complexity.

Sadly, in 1602 humans couldn’t express their full multidimensionality. The play may seem to end happily with a string of heterosexual weddings, but the fool’s final song is filled with grim visions of marriage. In one, a man realizes that he can’t find happiness by swaggering like a man: “But when I came, alas! to wive, By swaggering could I never thrive.” In another, it sounds like someone–he or the wife–must get drunk to handle the marriage bed: “But when I came unto my beds,/With toss-pots still had drunken heads.”

As the fool puts it, once one grows up and gets married–comes into “man’s estate”–the reality of life is “the wind and the rain.” Feste punctuates the grimness of this reality with his refrain, “And the rain it raineth everyday.”

On Friday, the sun came out.

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No Room in This House for Two “I”s

Gustav Adolph Hensel, "Painting of a Mosque"

Gustav Adolph Hensel, “Mosque”

Spiritual Sunday

Although Ramadan is a holy month meant to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, it seems increasingly to be a time when Muslims kill other Muslims. The most recent instance is Friday’s suicide bombing in a Kuwait City Shiite mosque that killed 27 and injured 227. ISIS claims responsibility.

Meanwhile, America was mourning the nine people who also died in a place of worship. Barack Obama’s moving eulogy of Reverend Clem Pinckney brought to mind a parable by the Sufi mystic Rumi that touches upon some of the same themes. Sufism is the inner mystical dimension of Islam.

Obama’s remarks were an extended meditation upon grace. Acknowledging that we are sinful beings caught up in petty hatreds, he asked for God’s grace to descend upon America so that we can embrace others who are different from us. He quoted Pinckney, moved on to words by novelist and essayist Marilyn Robinson, and then led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace”:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history—we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past—how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind—but, more importantly, an open heart.  

That’s what I’ve felt this week—an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think—what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

Amazing grace.  Amazing grace. 

(Begins to sing) –

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
Was blind but now I see.  

After naming each of the victims and noting that each had “found that grace,” the president concluded,

Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.

In Rumi’s poem, there is also an image of homecoming. The man, however, can only come home to his beloved, to God, after he sees beyond himself:

A man knocked at the door of his beloved.
“Who are you, trusted one?” thus asked the friend.
He answered: “I!” The friend said: “Go away,
Here is no place for people raw and crude!”
What, then, could cook the raw and rescue him
But separation’s fire and exile’s flame?
The poor man went to travel a whole year
And burned in separation from his friend,
And he matured, was cooked and burnt, returned
And carefully approached the friend’s abode.
He walked around it now in cautious fear
Lest from his lips unfitting words appear.
His friend called out: “Who is there at my door?”
The answer: “You, dear you are at the door!”
He said: “Come in, now, that you are all I—
There is no room in this house for two ‘I’s!”

I am struck by the misery of living in separation. Dylan Roof and the Isis bomber were rawer and cruder than most, but all who shut themselves against divine love experience suffering. It is particularly ironic when people do so in the name of God.

Fortunately, the man in the parable learns from his suffering. His maturation as he is “cooked and burnt” may involve a spiritual discipline, including Ramadan fasting and prayer. His salvation lies in the realization that he will enter into communion with God once he releases his attachment to Self.

The sectarian hatreds in the Muslim world and the racial hatreds in our own country block entry into the presence of God. Sometimes it seems like we will be always be lost inside our individual fears.  In the face of that despair, however, the president assured us that, with grace, “anything is possible.” Or to borrow from another president speaking at an even darker time, we will enter the house of the beloved once we stop warring against “the better angels of our nature.”

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Poetry Enlarges the Moral Imagination

Joseph Severn, "Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing 'Prometheus Unbound'"

Joseph Severn, “Posthumous portrait of Shelley writing ‘Prometheus Unbound'”

It’s often said that everything of importance has already been said, perhaps by Plato and Aristotle. As I look back at what thinkers of the past have written about literature’s power to change lives, I’m finding that there is some truth this. Rereading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, for instance, I’ve discovered that ideas I thought were my own I actually borrowed from his famous 1821 essay 35 years ago.

I’ll share these in a moment. But first, I want to qualify my opening statement. Even if nothing is new under the sun, ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They must constantly be reframed for the world we live in now. This is true of literature as well, which must be reinterpreted by each new generation. Our needs change, as do the obstacles we must surmount, and texts and ideas that were once timely can go in and out of relevance depending on the circumstances.

In other words, it doesn’t matter that no idea is entirely new. What matters is that we are on a ceaseless quest to make sense of the world, and thinkers of the past help us find our place in it.

I had forgotten that Shelley’s essay directly takes on the project that is at the center of this blog. As he sees it, the great authors change the way we see the world. Ethics may give us rules to live by but poetry enlarges the moral imagination:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. 

It’s hard to sum up all that Shelley is saying here, but I take away that poetry puts us in touch with what is noblest in humanity, even as it also shows us where we fall short. Love for humankind, imagining ourselves in the place of others, is what elevates us. Through reading literature we move beyond our narrow prejudices and are inspired to achieve our potential as a species. In his concluding paragraph Shelley writes,

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.

And in his final lines:

It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants [interpreters of sacred mysteries] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.


I know that my own project doesn’t sound quite so elevated. And yet, even in my small and everyday examples, I see literature enlarging us in the ways that Shelley talks about. Our daily chores and interactions, our workplace frustrations and our political disagreements, our joys and our tragedies take on a larger dimension when they are viewed through literature’s lens. Or rather, literature opens us up to see their deeper significance.

Shelley describes what this world would look like without literature. He is describing “the dark ages” here, which doesn’t do full justice to that time in history. Think of it rather as any society which can’t think beyond its own smallness:

Whatever of evil their agencies [ medieval institutions] may have contained sprang from the extinction of the poetical principle, connected with the progress of despotism and superstition. Men, from causes too intricate to be here discussed, had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.

Shelley makes another point that particularly intrigues me—the poetic vision is bigger than the poet, who can be just as prejudiced and narrow as the rest of us. Just as I become smarter and more sensitive when I am reading literature—so do poets when they are composing it:

The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. 

The best poets, Shelley says, are those that rise above their local prejudices and give themselves over entirely to artistic vision, which he compares to participation in a cause. Poets like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare have entirely joined this cause whereas some others fall short:

A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal poets should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose.

In other words, we need to keep reading and writing with courage and integrity to stay in touch with our deep nobility. Otherwise, we become slaves to the wills of others and our own base appetites.

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Plato’s Warning: Beware of Poets

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, "Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Grasp of Sensual Pleasure"

Regnault, “Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Grasp of Sensual Pleasure”

For years I’ve heard about Plato wanting to kick poets—and artists in general—out of his ideal republic, but I’ve never scrutinized the particular passages. Today I do so.

My first impression upon rereading The Ion and the final book of The Republic is that Socrates loves Homer. He quotes a number of specific passages in his conversation with Ion, a “rhapsode” who is famed for his dramatic readings of Homer.

As a result, I wonder about Socrates’s seriousness.  Is he just undertaking a thought experiment, positing a deliberately perverse argument to see what ideas will emerge?

Michael Taber, a colleague in our Philosophy Department who teaches Plato and Aristotle, helps me out. Apparently The Republic is indeed a thought experiment in which Plato tries to imagine an ideal state. He is not being perverse, however. Rather, he is so worried about the destructive potential of passionate people that he argues that passion must be tightly controlled, if not outright banned. Literature and music are among those things that sway our passions.

If nothing else, The Republic is an indirect testimony to literature’s power. Plato sees poetry as a force that must be corralled.

Before I continue on, it is useful to provide some background on Plato’s argument. Using Socrates as his vehicle, he makes the case that literature is a third order imitation. First there are the eternal forms—say, the idea of a chair. Then there is the manifestation of the form in the world, so that one has a carpenter making a chair. Then the artist comes along and imitates what the carpenter has made.

I worry that Socrates sounds a bit like Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times in that the Greek philosopher doesn’t regard poets as people who actually do anything useful. Along with carpenters, Socrates mentions charioteers, captains, and doctors, who are all mentioned in Homer’s epics. Homer may dazzle us with all that he knows about these professions, but Socrates uses his descriptions to take him down a peg. We don’t want Homer managing our horses, sailing our ships, or performing surgery, do we? For that matter, wouldn’t we rather have politicians rather than poets running the country?

Then, I said, we must put a question to Homer; not about medicine, or any of the arts to which his poems only incidentally refer: we are not going to ask him, or any other poet, whether he has cured patients like Asclepius, or left behind him a school of medicine such as the Asclepiads were, or whether he only talks about medicine and other arts at secondhand; but we have a right to know respecting military tactics, politics, education, which are the chiefest and noblest subjects of his poems, and we may fairly ask him about them. ‘Friend Homer,’ then we say to him, …’if you are able to discern what pursuits make men better or worse in private or public life, tell us what State was ever better governed by your help? The good order of Lacedaemon is due to Lycurgus, and many other cities great and small have been similarly benefited by others; but who says that you have been a good legislator to them and have done them any good? Italy and Sicily boast of Charondas, and there is Solon who is renowned among us; but what city has anything to say about you?’ Is there any city which he might name? 

Socrates then pushes his argument even further. If poets can’t be called upon to rule, how about at least making people more virtuous? Since this is one area where some of us see artists playing a role—Sir Philip Sidney, Matthew Arnold, Wayne Booth, Robin Bates—it’s interesting to see Socrates taking even this claim apart:

But can you imagine, Glaucon, that if Homer had really been able to educate and improve mankind –if he had possessed knowledge and not been a mere imitator –can you imagine, I say, that he would not have had many followers, and been honored and loved by them? Protagoras of Abdera, and Prodicus of Ceos, and a host of others, have only to whisper to their contemporaries: ‘You will never be able to manage either your own house or your own State until you appoint us to be your ministers of education’ –and this ingenious device of theirs has such an effect in making them love them that their companions all but carry them about on their shoulders. And is it conceivable that the contemporaries of Homer, or again of Hesiod, would have allowed either of them to go about as rhapsodists, if they had really been able to make mankind virtuous? Would they not have been as unwilling to part with them as with gold, and have compelled them to stay at home with them? Or, if the master would not stay, then the disciples would have followed him about everywhere, until they had got education enough? 

Socrates is right about one thing. There are any number of authors who I would not want to see as ministers of education or, for that matter, classroom teachers. I don’t like how Socrates resorts to a utilitarian argument, however, which reminds me of those state legislators who rail against the liberal arts. Some of them would even be willing to cut philosophy.

So what does Socrates say about what authors do better than the other professions, which is immerse us in the beauties of language and story? Socrates does not merely see this skill as less useful than others but actually as damaging. Literature, as he sees it, prompts us to act irrationally, and the ideal state must be guided by Reason. Poets, unfortunately, target “an inferior part of the soul,” indulging “the irrational nature”:

[T]herefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth. 

As I understand this, Socrates is suspicious of the way that literature immerses us in its fictions rather than allowing us a place to stand outside of reality. We might counter that passionless Reason doesn’t exactly have a stellar record. Pure reason, even if it were possible (and it’s not), would not be a good thing. Here is Socrates setting Reason at war with Emotion and seeing literature as being on the wrong side:

But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation: –the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is surely an awful thing? 

Yes, certainly, if the effect is what you say.

Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast –the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most. 

Yes, of course I know.

But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality –we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other which delighted us in the recitation is now deemed to be the part of a woman.

Very true, he said.

Now can we be right in praising and admiring another who is doing that which any one of us would abominate and be ashamed of in his own person? 

No, he said, that is certainly not reasonable.

Nay, I said, quite reasonable from one point of view.

What point of view?

If you consider, I said, that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;–the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too? Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own. 

Ah, so now we’re getting down to the nub of it. Real men, including philosophers, don’t cry. (To riff off of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in philosophy.) Crying is for inferior souls and for women.

Although we as a society have become more open to crying men, I’m struck that literature itself still carries some of these old associations. Women are more likely to major in the English (and the other arts) than men. In my book discussion group, it’s been years since we’ve had a man other than myself attend. Fiction to many men seems impractical and indulgent, not concerned enough with shaping the world.

In defense of the emotions, I note that we don’t have hard evidence that “rational” men have been better at running our republics than “irrational women” would. In fact, I would argue that those who know and honor the emotions, those who dance to Pan pipes and light up at a dramatic reading of Homer, would be better philosopher kings than those steeped only in macho philosophy. And 100 times better than soulless technocrats.

Turning to The Ion, Socrates is a little more subtle in his critique of poetry but makes similar points. The question is whether Ion, as a dramatic reader, owes more to artistic inspiration or to calculated artifice. Socrates gets Ion to admit that his powers stem from inspiration–which is to say, when he is performing, he is in the grip of a divine passion. His power lies in the way he passes that passion along to his auditors.

This seems harmless enough in The Ion, which doesn’t make clear why inspiration is inferior to artifice. It is in The Republic where Socrates discusses the danger of the passions.

In sum, Plato regards literature as a powerful emotional force, and he worries that people will make bad use of that force. Therefore poets need not apply for jobs in the ideal republic.

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The Fear of Not Reading All We Should

Albert Ranney Chewett, "Young Man Reading"

Albert Ranney Chewett, “Young Man Reading”

In yesterday’s post I discussed the pros and cons of bibliotherapy as described by New Yorker writer Celedwin Dovey. I appreciated how bibliotherapists believe that literature can change our lives but worried about them being narrowly prescriptive. I didn’t mention one anxiety where bibliotherapists might indeed prove useful: that there are so many books in the world that we won’t be able to read all that we should.

How do you handle this fear? I myself choose books the way that Dovey does:

 I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying).

Bibliotherapist Ella Bethoud, however, points out that the books we read aren’t always chosen as haphazardly as we think. As someone who helps choose the books for my book club, I can testify that Bethoud accurately describes the process:

[T]hough more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press.

Then she ratchets up an anxiety that has been with capitalist society ever since the days of Robinson Crusoe: are you making the best use of your time?

If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.

I don’t entirely agree with Berthoud here. Once you start applying efficiency criteria to reading—and to art in general—you threaten art at its very core. We should surrender to a work of literature, not tailor it to external parameters.

Dovey all but says as much when she compares literature to religion–which is to say, another experience that doesn’t lend itself to efficiency metrics:

The insights [that Dovey gained from a bibliotherapist’s list of recommendations] themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

There’s no mention of making the best use of one’s time in that formulation.

That being acknowledged, however, there’s still a place for good book recommendations. And if a well-read bibliotherapist gets to know you and then makes suggestions, that sounds better than, say, relying on The New York Times bestseller list. Or even word of mouth.

But as far as addressing your anxiety about there being too many unread masterpieces in your life—even a more deliberate reading program won’t banish that fear.

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Prescribing Lit for What Ails Us

Auguste Macke, "Blue Girl Reading"

Auguste Macke, “Blue Girl Reading”

The New Yorker recently published an article right up my alley: “Can Reading Make You Happier.” In case you were wondering, Ceridwen Dovey’s answer is yes.

The article touches on a number of issues that I’ve covered in this blog over the years, including those scientific studies that show great literature increasing brain activity and enhancing empathy and social perception. New to me, however, is what it had to say about bibliotherapy.

Dovey reports on having once received, as a gift, a remote session with bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud. Previous to this, she says, she always felt like reading should have an element of serendipity to it (she quotes Virginia Woolf on this), and she resisted reading books that had been prescribed. She didn’t even know that bibliotherapy was a thing.

Her experience with Berthoud, however, proved to be very positive. First of all, the initial questions were very thought provoking:

In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

There was some further back-and-forth and then the bibliotherapist made her recommendations:

[The final reading prescription…was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was The Guide, by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong, and Sum, by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

Dovey says that she read the books over the following two years and, while she didn’t need them to help her cope with a loss, she said they helped with a bout of acute physical pain. This raises certain questions about bibliotherapy (more about this in a moment), but she herself came away satisfied.

Researching the history of bibliotherapy, she discovered that the phrase was first used in a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, “A Literary Clinic.” The article described a “bibliopathic institute” run by someone named Bagster, who asserted that,

A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.

I’m struck by Bagster’s advice for “a middle-aged client with ‘opinions partially ossified’”:

You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.

Bagster’s top recommendation for this client was George Bernard Shaw, who didn’t write novels but who is certainly stinging and relentles). Then, making Bagster sound like Anne Elliot counseling Benwick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Atlantic article reports that he is

called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

As an aside, I note that Anne actually counsels Benwick to read less fiction. She recommends the salutary prose by Samuel Johnson over the narrative poetry of Byron and Scott. But that’s a subject for a different day.

Looking into the history of her own bibliotherapist, Dovey reports that Berthoud and her friend Susan Elderkin used fiction to bolster each other prior to beginning their practice. They chose literature rather than self-help books because they regarded the former as providing “a transformational experience”:

As their friendship developed, they began prescribing novels to cure each other’s ailments, such as a broken heart or career uncertainty. “When Suse was having a crisis about her profession—she wanted to be a writer, but was wondering if she could cope with the inevitable rejection—I gave her Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel poems,” Berthoud told me. “If Archy the cockroach could be so dedicated to his art as to jump on the typewriter keys in order to write his free-verse poems every night in the New York offices of the Evening Sun, then surely she should be prepared to suffer for her art, too.” Years later, Elderkin gave Berthoud,who wanted to figure out how to balance being a painter and a mother, Patrick Gale’s novel Notes from an Exhibition, about a successful but troubled female artist.

Berthoud and Elderkin are authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, which Dovey says “is written in the style of a medical dictionary and matches ailments (“failure, feeling like a”) with suggested reading cures (“The History of Mr. Polly,” by H. G. Wells).” They have also set up a network of bibliotherapists. Here’s what they have concluded from the experiences:

The most common ailments people tend to bring to them are the life-juncture transitions, Berthoud says: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement. The bibliotherapists see a lot of retirees, too, who know that they have twenty years of reading ahead of them but perhaps have only previously read crime thrillers, and want to find something new to sustain them. Many seek help adjusting to becoming a parent. “I had a client in New York, a man who was having his first child, and was worried about being responsible for another tiny being,” Berthoud says. “I recommended Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker, which is about a man feeding his baby a bottle and having these meditative thoughts about being a father. And of course To Kill a Mockingbird, because Atticus Finch is the ideal father in literature.”

One last note on bibliotherapy: Doves says that it needs to be culture specific. Apparently, there are different versions of The Novel Cure for the 18 different countries in which it has appeared:

[I]n an interesting twist, the contract allows for a local editor and reading specialist to adapt up to twenty-five per cent of the ailments and reading recommendations to fit each particular country’s readership and include more native writers. The new, adapted ailments are culturally revealing. In the Dutch edition, one of the adapted ailments is “having too high an opinion of your own child”; in the Indian edition, “public urination” and “cricket, obsession with” are included; the Italians introduced “impotence,” “fear of motorways,” and “desire to embalm”; and the Germans added “hating the world” and “hating parties.” Berthoud and Elderkin are now working on a children’s-literature version, A Spoonful of Stories, due out in 2016.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about bibliotherapy. Perhaps readers will find this curious since my entire blog is dedicated to showing how literature enhances lives.

I worry, however, about literature coming to seen as purely utilitarian, someone that gets prescribed. While Better Living through Beowulf was set up to counter those who see literature as having no social utility at all—Stanley Fish, for instance—I don’t like to go all the way in the other direction.

My experience with literature is that we don’t know in advance how it is going to effect us and that different people will be impacted in widely diverse ways. One of the delights of literature is this element of surprise. While I can sometimes predict how students will respond to certain works, this is not always the case and they are constantly surprising me in what they take away.

I myself, meanwhile, could never have foreseen that, when I lost my oldest son, I would find deep solace from Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother. It was particularly powerful because it was unexpected. If someone had sent me to Beowulf work for grief counseling, I suspect it would have had less of an impact.

Maybe I just bristle at works with an agenda attached, which I feel negates the free play that is one of literature’s glories. I remember, as a child, reacting strongly against the questions that followed stories in our English textbooks, which seemed designed to preempt my own experience. To this day I refuse to teach literature textbooks that have such questions.

So while I’m all for getting reading suggestions from people and see the value in getting recommendations from people who have read a lot and who have asked me special questions about myself, ultimately I believe that above all we should just read a lot. Like Woolf, I’m all for serendipity. That’s because we can’t ultimately predict the work that will provide just the life saver we need when life hits us between the eyes.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Woolf (Virginia) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Puck’s Summer Magic

Tucci & Everett as Puck and Oberon

Tucci & Everett as Puck and Oberon

This past Saturday having been Midsummer Night’s Eve, I found myself returning to Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a book from my childhood. It’s a time travel fantasy in which a group of children have encounters with medieval England. The children are acting out Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer Night’s Eve when suddenly this happens:

The bushes parted. In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face. He shaded his forehead as though he were watching Quince, Snout, Bottom, and the others rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe, and, in a voice as deep as Three Cows asking to be milked, he began:

‘What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of the fairy Queen?’

He stopped, hollowed one hand round his ear, and, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, went on:

‘What, a play toward? I’ll be an auditor;
An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause.’

The children looked and gasped. The small thing—he was no taller than Dan’s shoulder—stepped quietly into the Ring.

‘I’m rather out of practice,’ said he; ‘but that’s the way my part ought to be played.’

Still the children stared at him—from his dark-blue cap, like a big columbine flower, to his bare, hairy feet. At last he laughed.

‘Please don’t look like that. It isn’t my fault. What else could you expect?’ he said.

‘We didn’t expect any one,’ Dan answered slowly. ‘This is our field.’

‘Is it?’ said their visitor, sitting down. ‘Then what on Human Earth made you act Midsummer Night’s Dream three times over, on Midsummer Eve, in the middle of a Ring, and under—right under one of my oldest hills in Old England? Pook’s Hill—Puck’s Hill—Puck’s Hill—Pook’s Hill! It’s as plain as the nose on my face.’

He pointed to the bare, fern-covered slope of Pook’s Hill that runs up from the far side of the mill-stream to a dark wood. Beyond that wood the ground rises and rises for five hundred feet, till at last you climb out on the bare top of Beacon Hill, to look over the Pevensey Levels and the Channel and half the naked South Downs.

‘By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!’ he cried, still laughing. ‘If this had happened a few hundred years ago you’d have had all the People of the Hills out like bees in June!’

Puck proceeds to put the children in contact with various figures from long ago, with the novel operating as an early British literature history lesson.

Midsummer Night’s Eve has long been associated with fairies, witches, and other supernatural beings. Three years ago I wrote the following post about Midsummer Night’s Eve. Here it is again (slightly edited) in case you missed it:

“Don’t Underestimate Midsummer Madness,” from June 20, 2012

Today being Midsummer Night’s Eve, I have an excuse to write about Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve been thinking a lot about the play recently as I’m putting together a British fantasy literature course for the fall and am considering teaching it..

Midsummer Night’s Eve, seen by the pagans as a time when the world was particularly susceptible to supernatural visitations, still captured the imagination centuries after Christianity was established. Governed by the natural calendar, it spoke to beliefs and needs that Christianity failed to. One sees a clash between the two cultures in a number of medieval works.

For instance, in Sir Gawan and the Green Knight, a natural green man is pitted against Christian Camelot. In the Wife of Bath’s tale, meanwhile, Alison attacks begging friars or “limitours” (one such friar, the lecherous Huberd, having just insulted her) for banishing fairies, elves, and incubi from the world:

NOW IN THE OLDEN days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
But now no man can see the elves, you know.
For now the so-great charity and prayers
Of limitours and other holy friars
That do infest each land and every stream
As thick as motes are in a bright sunbeam,
Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, ladies’ bowers,
Cities and towns and castles and high towers,
Villages, barns, cowsheds and dairies—
This causes it that there are now no fairies.
For where was wont to walk full many an elf,
Right there walks now the limitour himself
In both the later and early mornings,
Saying his matins and such holy things,
As he goes round his district in his gown.
Women may now go safely up and down,
In every copse or under every tree;
There is no other incubus than he,
And would do them naught but dishonour.

Shakespeare tapped into this rich tradition in Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), and his play itself was wildly popular in Victorian and Edwardian times. In Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), for instance, Puck is all that is left of  “the people of the hills,” but he is called forth by children reciting passages from the play in a fairy circle, and he introduces them to figures from pre-Christian England. In her recent novel The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt shows members of the Bohemian set celebrating the summer solstice with an annual reenactment of the play.

The novel is loosely based on the children’s novelist E. Nesbit, whose children’s books like The Treasure Seekers and Five Children and It both influenced and were influenced by Kipling. In the novel, Nesbit and her husband are attracted to the pagan rituals and to Shakespeare’s play because of their dissatisfaction with dull bourgeois pragmatism, sterile science, and the nature-destroying aspects of industrialization. But although the late Victorians and the Edwardians were in love with supernatural beings, their fairies, unlike Shakespeare’s, were cute and fairly harmless. Children, seen as emissaries of Wordsworth’s innocent nature, often played the attendant fairies in theatrical versions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and still do today. When we think of the play, Mendelssohn’s music may play in the background.

Elizabethan England would have seen fairies as darker forces. After all, being less technologically advanced, the Elizabethans couldn’t be as enthusiastic about untamed nature as Lord Byron and other Romantics. Floods like those caused by Titania’s and Oberon’s domestic quarrel would have been no laughing matter:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Nor it it only non-human nature that is out of control in the play. Human nature also has descended into midsummer madness. For instance, we watch as natural desire

–propels Helena to abase herself before Demetrius: “Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me./ Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,/ Unworthy as I am, to follow you”;

–causes Lysander to make moves on Hermia and then to abandon her in the woods: “What, should I hurt her, strike her, kill her dead? Although I hate her, I’ll not harm her so”;

–pits Lysander and Demetrius in a deadly battle against each other for the affections of Helena;

–pushes Titania (as Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott has pointed out) towards bestiality;

–results in babies deformed by moles, harelips, scars, and other “prodigious” marks.

Fortunately, this being a comedy, nature prove benign in the end. Oberon reconciles the lovers, sorts things out with his wife, and promises good births.

But reading the play today or thinking about pagan solstice rituals, we may overlook their power. When one seems to be in control of nature and regards fairies as nothing but quaint superstition, one can afford to be sentimental.

Posted in Kipling (Rudyard), Nesbitt (E.), Shakespeare (William), Sir Gawain Poet | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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

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