Reading, Better than Juvie

Moise Kisling, “Young Boy Reading”


A former student alerted me to a New York Times article about five vandals who were ordered to read various books after defacing a historical black schoolhouse. Since then, the sentence has been repeated for a 14-year-old who threatened a black schoolmate with a noose.

The vandalism involved swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power.” That last detail is confusing until one learns that three of the vandals were minorities.

The idea of books was the brainchild of deputy commonwealth attorney Alejandra Rueda, who included some of the following works as options:

Elie Wiesel, Night
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Arthur Miller, The Crucible
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I. C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain,
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave
Marilyn Nelson, A Wreath for Emmitt Till

 As few activities arouse empathy as much as immersion in the lives of others, I applaud the sentence. We know how at least one defendant responded because The New York Times got permission to report on his court-ordered essay. The student said that, after reading Night, the swastika meant much more than it had originally:

“I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair.”

Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of “oppression” and “white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case.”…

He wrote that he feels “especially awful” that he made anyone feel bad.

“Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” he wrote in his essay. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”

The author of a book of poetry, A Wreath for Emmett Till, worried that being made to read poetry would turn kids off of poetry. Setting aside the fact that some kids see poetry as punishment even when it’s assigned by teachers rather than by judges, I really don’t think she needs to worry. Once readers immerse themselves in compelling stories, anything can happen.

Kite Runner author Hosseini imagined what a reader who chose his novel might have taken away:

“Engaging with characters that differ from us in race, religion or culture, helps us feel our immutable connections as a species,” Mr. Hosseini said. “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading The Kite Runner was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”

There may be times when other punishments are called for, but one would have difficulty arriving at such insights in a juvenile detention center.

Posted in Hosseini (Khaled), Nelson (Marilyn) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Vast Unfolding Design Lit by a Risen Sun

Hendrick ter Brugghen, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas”

Spiritual Sunday

As I am currently busy with student essays, I repost an essay I wrote four years ago on Denise Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus,” the subject of today’s lectionary reading.

Reposted from April 27, 2014

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of Doubting Thomas, about which I’ve blogged a couple of times in the past. Once I posted a fine poem by Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman R. S. Thomas and twice (here and here) I’ve turned to my former colleague Dana Greene, whose biography on Denise Levertov discusses the importance of the Thomas story to a poet wrestling with her own doubts.

Dana quotes that part of Levertov’s “St. Thomas Didymus” that describes the disciple’s moving breakthrough but not where the poet examines Thomas’s previous history of doubt. Levertov first traces his doubts back to an incident where a father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus for healing (Mark 9:17-29). Here’s the story:

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit.“You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

According to Daniel Clendenin, who posts today on Levertov’s poem in his superb blog “Journey with Jesus,” Levertov takes full advantage of the fact that Thomas’s names mean “the twin,” both the Greek Didymus and the Aramaic T’omas.  The Thomas in the poem says that he feels closer to the father of the boy than to “the twin of my birth.” He is responding to the fact that this father is confronted by the unfairness of the world—the suffering of an innocent child—so that his

entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,

No wonder he finds it hard to believe. No wonder he asks Jesus to “help me overcome my unbelief!”

Despite the healing of the child, Levertov’s Thomas still has his doubt as the father’s words linger:

What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough

This magnificent lead-up makes Thomas’s ultimate revelation all the more powerful. The tight knot of doubt miraculously unravels so that he experiences

light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling…

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

St. Thomas Didymus

By Denise Levertov

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teethgnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

The Son is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!

Posted in Levertov (Denise) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weather Report: Death’s Untimely Frost


I have only a short post today as I was at a “salon” of St . Mary’s College faculty and former faculty last night. I’ll write a longer essay next week on the focus of the discussion, which was transition. Most of us being older, we spent much of the evening talking about retirement.

Here’s a seasonal transition that is not progressing smoothly at the moment. Parts of the country are experiencing a return to winter. If you’re suddenly seeing your flowering dogwoods and cherry blossoms beset by freezing temperatures, this Robert Burns passage is for you:

But Oh! fell Death’s untimely frost, 
         That nipt my Flower sae early! 
Now green’s the sod, and cauld’s the clay, 
         That wraps my Highland Mary! 

And then there’s the couplet from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, written at a time when Europe was undergoing a mini ice age:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Quoting poetry doesn’t change the weather, of course. But it’s comforting to see the condition named.

Posted in Burns (Robert), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can a Dream Hold Us Together?


When I was a Fulbright lecturer in 1988 Yugoslavia, an old Melville scholar named Janez Stanonek once said to me, “I don’t understand how America works.” I could, to be sure, have turned the question back on him—how does Yugoslavia work?—and in fact Yugoslavia began falling apart three years later.  He considered himself Slovenian rather than Yugoslav, however, and it’s clear how Slovenia works: a common language, culture, and history hold the people together, even if Slovenia officially became a country only in 1991. The 19th century poet Francis Prešeren is revered because he showed the inhabitants of this tiny region within the Austro-Hungarian empire that their language was capable of great poetry. But what holds America together?

That question has become increasingly pressing in recent years, and it’s one that Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece Midnight’s Children addresses as well. Rushdie, unfortunately, doesn’t offer up many reassuring answers, but at least he helps Americans articulate their dilemma.

In my conversation with Stanonik, I mentioned the Constitution, a legal document, and the American Dream, an aspiration. I didn’t realize until recently, however, that the Constitution is less a set of laws than a set of norms, which are operative only as long as people agree to abide by them. We have a checks and balances system only when the legislative branch is willing to serve as a legitimate check on the executive and when the judiciary operates as an impartial check on both of them. Compromise any of these and the whole begins to crumble.

The American Dream is an even shakier foundation since it has never been a single dream but a crazy quilt of differing and sometimes clashing desires. The same is true of Rushdie’s India. In the chapter “Tick Tock,” the narrator ticks down to the moment when India’s dream of being its own nation will be achieved:

Rumors in the city: “The statue galloped last night!”…”And the stars are unfavorable!”…But despite these signs of ill-omen, the city was poised, with a new myth glinting in the corners of its eyes. August in Bombay: a month of festivals, the month of Krishna’s birthday and Coconut Day; and this year—fourteen hours to go, thirteen, twelve—there was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will—except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood. India, the new myth—India, the new myth—a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.

A little later, narrator Saleem tells us what goes wrong. While the collective dream is one thing, individual dreams are something altogether different. Although theoretically India is a nation that, a la Walt Whitman, embraces multitudes, people continue to think of themselves as Hindu or Muslim or Sikh, as Bengali or Punjabi or Madrasi, as Brahmin or untouchable Rushdie makes this point dramatically by having two children, a Muslim and a Hindu, born at the stroke of midnight when India becomes a country and then switching them. Each is raised in the other’s religion and class so that the child born of a Hindu mother becomes Saleem and the child born of a Muslim mother becomes Shiva. Although they are indistinguishable without labels, the labels determine who they are:

In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts…if you had asked my father (even him, despite all that happened!) who his son was, nothing on earth would have induced him to point in the direction of the accordionist’s knock-kneed, unwashed boy.

Another way of putting this is that, despite dreams of national unity, the children are born into time and history:

[A]ll over the new India, the dream we all shared, children were being born who were only partially the offspring of their parents—the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.

Although the dream is shattered first by bloody factionalism and then authoritarian dictate, Rushdie says that the seeds of unity never entirely disappear. After all, the same switching that happened at Saleem and Shiva’s birth occurs with the next generation as well: Saleem raises, as his own child, Shiva’s offspring. The situation reminds me of my favorite scene in the 1982 film Gandhi:

Nahari: I’m going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi: Why?
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy’s height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

Republicans and Democrats are not smashing each other’s children against walls, but stepping out of their silos and acknowledging their common humanity is not a bad place to start.

One other point. Saleem’s observation that “the sanctification and renewal” of the collective fantasy of India “can only be provided by rituals of blood” reminds me of Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier. As one reviewer describes Slotkin’s thesis, “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.”

In Midnight’s Children we see India thinking of itself as a unified nation when it goes to war with China, and the last time that America truly felt united was following 9-11. But if blood is what it takes, then bloody factionalism and national unity both reduce us to tribalism. For me America starts and ends with a more positive affirmation: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Can we, through “the efforts of a phenomenal collective will,” pull that off? That’s a dream worth devoting one’s life to.

Posted in Rushdie (Salman) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspired by MLK and Lucille Clifton

Alyssa Hawkins, English major and Lucille Clifton admirer


I can think of no better way to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death than to share a Lucille Clifton essay I received last fall from an African American first-year student. After reading poems from quilting, Alyssa Hawkins felt empowered to stand tall and speak out. In other words, she is fulfilling King’s dream for America.

The poems Alyssa chose all feature whites who are blind to issues that African Americans know intimately. In a particularly egregious letter sent to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1905, a university psychologist clearly did not regard “the Negro” as fully human. Clifton’s response, powerful in its dignified simplicity, puts the questioner to shame:

From a Letter Written to Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois by Alvin Borgquest of Clark University in Massachusetts and Dated April 3, 1905.

“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears…”


he do
she do
they live
they love
they try
they tire
they flee
they fight
they bleed
they break
they moan
they mourn
they weep
they die
they do
they do
they do

“The Negro” knows only too much about shedding tears. Alyssa writes,

White people can’t seem to understand the idea that even though someone has darker pigmentation of melanin, they are just as human as they are. Clifton reveals that America’s very roots are deeply set with racism and dehumanization, and in not viewing Black people as human, many of the privileged within America are in denial of this fact or are simply unaware. She ends her poem almost mournfully and angrily, hoping to convey the depth of severity within her words: “they do/ they do/ they do.” Black people are human too: why is that so hard to understand?

It’s one thing for whites in 1905 to think this way. In the next poem that Alyssa chose, however, Clifton discovers defensiveness in her white acquaintances whenever she brings up painful moments in America’s racial history, accusing her of obsessing about the past or making things up. Only those who do not feel the effects of history, she could point out, can afford to ignore it. Alyssa, writing out of her own experience as well as Clifton’s, observes,

[W]hen African Americans speak of past maltreatment, they are accused of “not letting things go” when in reality the events that revolve around their race, such as police brutality and mass incarceration, do not allow this group of people to just abandon the past in hopes of a better future.

Of “i am accused of tending to the past,” Alyssa notes, “When Black people stand strong in their past and in their future, many white people view that action as a threat to their standard of living”:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will. 

Alyssa’s last poem hits the closest to home since, as I told the class, Clifton had me in mind when she wrote it (see the story here). Alyssa has moved from the obtuse white to the angrily defensive white to the sympathetic white who still doesn’t totally get it (“even the best”). Clifton, tired to being constantly misunderstood, is understandably irritated:

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

or defined. and i see
that even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live,
as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them,
as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one
and will again…

Alyssa writes,

Clifton feels the history of black people on her as she battles this invisible racism that is highly prevalent in the world currently. This racism consists of whitewashing the pain and hurt of black men and women who have struggled and travailed all throughout history, just to end up with their descendants being told that their struggle “wasn’t real” or is “overdramatized” or “wasn’t that bad” or “it ended 500 years ago”… Clifton feels this pain and loathes it—it seems [that] Black people can never be human, can never convey their thoughts and feelings without being stigmatized or dehumanized…

In a poem that Alyssa does not cite but which I include here because I think it speaks to the hope that she represents, Clifton looks back at King’s assassination and writes of the shock of no longer having an external savior. The job is now up to them:

the meeting after the savior gone

what we decided is
you save your own self.
everybody so quiet
not so much sorry as
we was going to try and save you but
now i guess you got to save yourselves
(even if you don’t know
who you are
where you been
where you headed)

Because of Clifton, Alyssa realizes that she has a role to play in “sav[ing] yourselves.” Her conclusion reveals that she at least has a clear sense of who she is, where she’s been, and where she’s headed:

Despite the dehumanization and stifling of my people, I stand as a Black woman proud to be graced with her sun-kissed skin. I stand as a whole human being, with skin the color of the good earth and a history behind my name. Though I daily hear and see the lack of understanding in my environment here at St. Mary’s College, reading Clifton’s poetry reminds me that my struggle as a Black woman is not uncommon, and I am a part of a shared experience. Lucille Clifton…reveals that, through it all, we, as a people, stand strong in our past, our present, and our future…Though living while Black may be an uphill battle, there’s no other race or color I’d rather be.

Both King and Clifton would be proud. And hopeful.

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happiness Based on Another’s Oppression

Luigi Nono, “Abandoned”


When I was composing my talk on “The Cultural Foundation of American Economics” for Slovenian university students, I finally understood what African American intellectuals like Ta Nehisi Coates have been saying for some time. Rightwing politicians can always play the race card because every white immigrant group in America has “non-black” as part of its foundational identity.

I also realized that Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” describes the phenomenon.

Let me explain. Often one hears immigrant descendants claim that they can’t be held responsible for America’s slave past because their ancestors came to America after the Civil War. Others point out that, even if they arrived during slave times—say, the Irish during the 1848 potato famine—they were treated as badly as slaves. In truth, they were treated horrendously.

But every immigrant group, whether during slave times or after, had a valuable piece of cultural capital that it could draw on: no matter how poor or badly treated, its members could say, “At least I am above them.” White racism gave these immigrants a way to salvage their dignity, and many became dependent on that distinction.

I have been struck, for instance, that some cheering Trump’s attacks on immigrants from “shithole countries” have names like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Ireland when their ancestors immigrated to the States met all the criteria for such a country.

I add that Hispanics served a similar function in the American southwest, as did, in certain locales, Native Americans and Asians.

This helps explain why poor whites joined wealthy slave owners in the Civil War, even though they had nothing to gain and everything to lose. It helps explain why poor whites will sometimes vote for white millionaires that don’t have their best interests at heart while President Obama had difficulty selling Obamacare to communities that sorely need it (and who accept it, as Appalachian Kentucky did, under another name). Trump supporters may not benefit economically from his presidency but that doesn’t seem as important as his nativist appeals. Racism runs so deep in white America’s DNA that even the most populist Democratic proposals fail to sway voters.

In her fictional thought experiment, Le Guin asks us to imagine a happy society. We could think of it as a country that has achieved the American Dream since every dreamer is allowed to fill in the blanks:

Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however–that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.–they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.

The one necessary ingredient to making this society work, however, is not so pleasant. At the heart of the country is an imprisoned child:

It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops….The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. 

Young people, when they first see the child, are horrified. Eventually, however, they learn to accept it because their happiness is dependent upon the child’s misery:

[T]here is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement

Now do you believe in my society, LeGuin asks those skeptics who think that utopians are unattainable. And while America may not be a utopia, if it seemed to be a gleaming beacon of endless opportunity to immigrants, it was partly because it offered them a country where they would not start off at the bottom of the heap. If you’ve made that one step, who knows what you might not accomplish?

Le Guin then delivers her masterstroke, however. If you want to imagine a truly unbelievable society, she says, think of one composed of people who refuse to base their happiness on the subjugation of another. Instead, to quote Lucille Clifton, they sail out “beyond the face of fear”:

[T]here is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

If you want a true description of the American Dream, this is it.

Posted in LeGuin (Ursula K.) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roy Cohn, Trump’s Mentor

Robbins as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America”


When he was elected president, Donald Trump looked forward to having the protection of the country’s most powerful lawyer. “Where’s my Roy Cohn,” he reportedly lamented when Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign surrogate during the presidential campaign, recused himself (or semi-recused himself) from any matters regarding the campaign. Trump wanted Sessions to protect him as Cohn had once protected him and as he believed Eric Holder had protected Barack Obama.

Cohn is the vicious win-at-all-costs attorney featured in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. The play is currently being revived, perhaps because we are witnessing Cohn-style ruthlessness in the White House at the moment. And although Sessions won’t accommodate Trump, we are seeing other Trump lawyers adopting the Cohn practice of issuing over-the-top threats to serve their client.

Stormy Daniels, for instance, reports that she received a Roy Cohn type threat prior to the election, which she says prompted her to settle for a $130,000 hush payment:

I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T– taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin’ all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, ‘Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.’ And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’ And then he was gone.”

While Daniels says that the man wasn’t Trump’s current lawyer Michael Cohen, Cohen has imitated Cohn in the past. For instance, here he is in 1993 threatening a Daily Beast reporter asking about Ivana’s Trump’s marital rape accusation:

I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know. So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?

You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word rape, and I’m going to mess your life up … for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet … you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.

Though there’s many literal senses to the word, if you distort it, and you put Mr. Trump’s name there onto it, rest assured, you will suffer the consequences. So you do whatever you want. You want to ruin your life at the age of 20? You do that, and I’ll be happy to serve it right up to you.

One wonders whether he learned the style from watching Kushner’s play. For instance, here’s Cohn making sure that Ethel Rosenberg gets the death penalty for relaying the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union:

I would have fucking pulled the switch if they’d have let me. Why? Because I fucking hate traitors. Because I fucking hate communists. Was I legal? Fuck legal. Am I a nice man? Fuck nice.

Cohn, as portrayed in Kushner’s play and probably in real life, was a closeted homosexual and a self-hating Jew who channeled his fury at the world through his take-no-prisoners approach to the law.  Trump said of him, “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me. He’s a genius. He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.” Another lawyer who knew Cohn said, “You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil.”

Yet the reviewers of the revival observe that the play, when it first appeared, wasn’t only dark but altered history for the good. It did so by first describing reality as it was and then finding “seeds of change”:

It had bright humor and a wild need to entertain. Beyond that, it was hopeful. “Angels,” Kushner told us, “describes a time of great terror, beneath the surface of which the seeds of change are beginning to push upwards and through.” The play’s hope doesn’t come from self-delusion or from hiding the truth from the audience. In “Angels,” AIDS is portrayed in all its horrors, and its characters’ actions are far from ideal. Yet by portraying gay men as fully, complicatedly human — and central to the story of American history — “Angels” redefined how gay characters could be presented to mainstream audiences. “Before that, homosexuality was depicted as either some psycho perversion . . . or a cheap punch line,” the actor Karl Miller, who portrayed Prior in a 2009 production in Silver Spring, Md., told us. “Then Kushner comes along and lays down nothing less than a new book of the Bible with five titanic gay leading roles at its center.” 

Consider the following reactions:

“I’d walk through the West Village,” said Marcia Gay Harden, who played the character of Harper, “and people would come up to me and say, ‘I took my parents to see the play and then I told them I was gay.’ Or ‘I took my parents to see it and then I told them I was dying.’ And we would cry on the street. That happened once every couple of weeks.”

The reviewers note that the play’s prediction of progress has actually come to pass:

Part 2 ends with Prior Walter — having survived, for the moment, both his illness and his dramatic ordeal — addressing the audience directly, combining theater and activism in a thrilling and touching final speech. Spinella played Prior for the show’s entire run, and for 217 performances, he delivered that speech to New York City audiences: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

A quarter-century later, gay people are citizens, more rapidly and more completely than many activists of the AIDS era could ever have expected. And the invention of triple cocktails and preventative drugs such as PrEP has transformed — though not ended — the AIDS crisis in America. In hindsight, these advances seem inevitable, but they’re due in large part to those activists who cut their teeth on direct action in the play’s time — learning to be a movement and fighting together, no matter how hopeless the outcome looked.

While Angels in America shows us the gripping spectacle of a destructive man lashing out, it also assures us that decency and human compassion get the last word. We are seeing a version of this drama as the Parkland massacre survivors restore a humane perspective to the gun debate.

As the reviewers put it, the play

serves as a much-needed reminder that change for the better is possible and that hope, no matter how hard-won or embattled, can be a powerful political force. 

Further note: My mother informs me that I am one degree of separation from Roy Cohn as my parents encountered him when they were in Paris on a Fulbright in 1952-3. She says that he and David Schine “routed out the staff of the USIS on a Sunday so that they could supposedly clean the library of Communist books.  They found ONE, by Howard Fast.  I don’t know the title. I’m sure they had a lovely time on the federal dime for a glorious vacation.  Those were frightening times.”

Posted in Kushner (Tony) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love, the Lesson which the Lord Us Taught

Mikhail Nesterov, “The Resurrection Triptych” (1922)

Easter Sunday

Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, deliberately spells archaically in his joyous celebration of the Easter resurrection. All the familiar paradoxes appear in the poem—death has died, captivity has been made captive—and it concludes with the confident assertion, “Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.” Therefore, “let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought.”

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day, 
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin; 
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away 
Captivity thence captive, us to win: 
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin; 
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye, 
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin, 
May live for ever in felicity! 

And that Thy love we weighing worthily, 
May likewise love Thee for the same againe; 
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy, 
With love may one another entertayne! 
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought, 
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Happy Easter!

Posted in Spenser (Edmund) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Bloody Flesh Our Only Food

Da Vinci, “The Last Supper”

Passover and Good Friday

As today is both Passover and Good Friday, I am sharing two poems. The first, for Good Friday, is from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker.” The other, by my friend Norman Finkelstein, is a Passover poem that I wrote about two years ago.

In “East Coker” (1940), which contains World War II imagery, Eliot imagines Jesus as a wounded surgeon administering to us. Demonstrating tough love (“sharp compassion”), Jesus reminds us of our sinful selves. If we wish to be healed, we must humble ourselves as this “dying nurse” has, but it may be that “our sickness must grow worse” for us to recognize the urgency of our situation.

Doing well, mentioned in the third stanza, will not do the trick, because then we focus on material advancement, not spiritual growth. I’m reading “the ruined millionaire” as God, who has bequeathed the earth to us but is hemorrhaging followers. Eliot tells us that we must undergo further suffering (freeze/And quake in frigid purgatorial fires) to achieve final healing.

In the end, the body and blood of Christ will save us. Even though we cling to substantial but unreliable flesh and blood, we sense that there is something more than this flesh. That’s why we “call this Friday good.”

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

  Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

  The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

  The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

  The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Passover – Reprinted from April 23, 2016

Last week I shared a powerful Passover poem by my friend Norman Finkelstein. Here’s another one, entitled “The Telling,” which also appears in his collection Passing Over (2007).

The title is a reference to the recounting of flight from Egypt at the Passover Seder, known as the Haggadah. The phrase “as it is said” appears regularly, referencing the long tradition of telling. I love Norman’s description of how the Haggadah digresses into explanations of the story’s meaning and then the explanations unfold back into the story. Furthermore, the “politics of exegesis”—the debates over the significance of the Exodus story—are at the heart of Judaism and Israel. As Norman puts it, Jews are “sojourners in the land/sojourning in the word.”

Since then they have seen “death and miracles,” and since then they have multiplied (as God promised Abraham) into “stars without number.” The child that hears the story becomes a nation, although perhaps this child comes away with different impressions of that nation at different points in his or her life:

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

“Pithom and Ramses” are the cities that the enslaved Israelites were to build for the pharaoh. The lash probably belongs to the Egyptians, the staff to Moses (“signs and wonders”). The “sons who die” were to have included the infant Moses. There was much crying out then and there has been much crying out since.

Given that Passover is an occasion to focus on the oppressed everywhere, the poem notes that Jews can be victimizers as well as victims. The Egyptians deserve life no less than the Israelites, the Palestinians no less than the Israelis:

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

In one of the most disturbing passages in the Haggadah, referenced in Norman’s poem, God says that he himself will be slaughtering the children of the Egyptians:

“And God pulled us out of Egypt.” The Holy One Himself brought us out of Egypt, not by an angel, not by an angel of fire, not even by the hands of a messenger. He himself, He the glorious One, He the blessed One, brought us out of Egypt. As the Bible says: “And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will strike down all the firstborn men and beasts in the land of Egypt; and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.”

“And I will pass through the land of Egypt,” I, and not an angel. “And I will strike down the firstborn in the land of Egypt,” I, and not an angel of fire. “And I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt,” I, and not a messenger. “I the Lord, I, and not another.”

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has problems with this part of the Haggadah. His status as a concentration camp survivor gives him special credibility when he asks,

Why does God boast of killing innocent children, be they Egyptian? Why does He mention it so often? Is He proud of it? One may study Midrashic and Talmudic sources in search of an explanation. In vain.

It is problematic when we invoke God to justify enemy deaths. In the end Wiesel speculates that maybe God is teaching us that He alone may kill and that no one has the right to imitate Him. Norman, on the other hand, doesn’t try to explain. He just tells:

I and not an angel
I and not a seraph
I and not an emissary

refers to blood

as it is said

Committed as they must be to truth, poets sometimes they tell us things we don’t want to hear.

The Telling

By Norman Finkelstein

goes forward
circling back on itself

narration digressing
into explanation

explanation unfolding
into narration

and there
he became a nation–

great, mighty and numerous

quiet studious obedient
hypnotic bold triumphant

death and miracles
and stars without number

the land filled with them

Pithom and Ramses
lash and staff
signs and wonders

as it is said

a politics of exegesis
crossing the years

sojourners in the land
sojourning in the word

the sons who die
the daughters who live

until we cried out
until we cry out

go and learn
what they did to us

go and learn
what we did to them

I and not an angel
I and not a seraph
I and not an emissary

refers to blood

as it is said

Posted in Eliot (T.S.), Finkelstein (Norman) | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Origins of Crazy U.S. Work Ethic

Robinson Crusoe at work


During my recent visit to Slovenia, I lectured to an American culture class on “The Cultural Foundations of American Economics: Fanatical Puritans, Rapacious Slave Owners, Crazy Pioneers, and Star-Struck Immigrants.” The teacher who will replace me after I retire has prompted me to modify one of my ideas, however. Daniel Yu of Emory University (coincidentally where I earned by own PhD) writes that Robinson Crusoe’s takeover of the island, often held up as an archetype of Puritan capitalism, is more complicated than scholars realize.

In my talk, I wanted the students to understand the American work ethic, which many cultures consider insane. (In some professions,, 60-hour work weeks with one week of vacation are the norm.) Drawing on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, I contended that our insanity traces back to John Calvin’s belief in predestination and was brought to this country by the Mayflower pilgrims.

Calvinists reasoned that, if God is omniscient, then He knows even before we are born whether we will be “elect” souls designed for heaven or damned souls headed in the other direction. We ourselves don’t have any choice in the matter. Though this might seem a prescription for sitting back—after all, if there’s nothing we can do, why sweat it?—the belief had just the opposite effect. The possibility of hellfire so terrified Calvinists that they combed through their lives looking for indications that they were among the elect. Then, being human, they tried to tilt the playing field through worldly achievement. For instance, in a number of Puritan journals one finds people castigating themselves for having slept more than six hours. After all, as Weber puts it, “every hour not spent at work is an hour lost in service to God’s greater glory.”

Benjamin Franklin’s work schedule and, later, Jay Gatsby’s reflect the mentality.

According to J. Paul Hunter, my dissertation director and author of a seminal book about Daniel Defoe (The Reluctant Pilgrim), the Calvinists’ anxiety led to their meticulous journals. If a positive pattern appeared, then they had reason to hope. This journaling evolved into novel writing, where the lives of commoners like Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones and Roderick Random suddenly proved of interest. Pilgrim’s Progress functioned as a bridge from journal to novel.

Puritan Crusoe doesn’t colonize his island simply because he desires material possessions. Rather, he is wracked with guilt for having disobeyed his father (by running off to sea) and fears damnation. Therefore he works frantically to prove that he is worthy, and the result is worldly achievement. If Crusoe is Marx’s archetypal capitalist, the reasons lie in spiritual unrest.

In my talk, I acknowledged that few Americans believe in predestination anymore. But the vague sense that we are virtuous if we work hard and sinful if we don’t is a deep part of American culture. Furthermore, there is widespread belief that the poor deserve their misfortune while success is a sign of God’s favor. Many Trump supporters and even Trump himself ascribe to prosperity theology, which has its origins in  Calvinism.

Or so I argued in my presentation. Daniel, however, writes in his dissertation that Crusoe isn’t quite the doctrinaire Puritan that I make him out to be, which complicates my argument.

Among other things, Daniel points out that Crusoe has an interesting relationship with tobacco. If Crusoe were really an austere capitalist who pushes aside pleasure, he wouldn’t go for the intoxication associated with the drug. Daniel points out, however, Crusoe believes that self-medicating with rum-soaked tobacco helps him pray authentically, which in turn leads to his recovery. His tobacco intake, in other words, is an integral part of his worship service.

I did what I never had done in all my Life, I kneel’d down and pray’d to God to fulfil the Promise to me, that if I call’d upon him in the Day of Trouble, he would deliver me; after my broken and imperfect Prayer was over, I drunk the Rum in which I had steep’d the Tobacco, which was so strong and rank of the Tobacco, that indeed I could scarce get it down; immediately upon this I went to Bed . . .

Daniel notes 16th century fears that tobacco might supplant the Eucharist and lead to counterfeit religion:

[Some] sixteenth-century writers associated tobacco with idolatry, thereby affirming the legitimacy of Christian conquest. The use of tobacco in ritual to induce a trance state marked native religion as counterfeit since it relied on this indispensable external and material aid. In seventeenth-century England, Anglican authorities continued to decry the use of tobacco as “barbarous and beastly” while also implicating their religious opponents in Europe. In his “Counterblaste to Tobacco,” King James I satirizes Catholic superstition and Puritan self-righteousness in the same breath: “O omnipotent power of Tobacco! And if it could by the smoke thereof chace out devils, as the smoke of Tobias did (which I am sure could smel no stronglier) it would serve for a precious Relicke, both for the superstitious Priests, and the insolent Puritanes, to cast out devils withall.”

Despite these attacks, Crusoe embraces smoking and is particularly proud of the pipe he makes. Nor is this his only pleasure. Daniel points out that he spends long hours, and even days, in non-productive contemplation. In other words, he falls short of the capitalist ideal.

Now, were he to castigate himself up for his inactivity, he would fit my picture of Americans beating themselves up for relaxing rather than working. Daniel, however, believes that people like Crusoe had more investment in non-work than they are given credit for. If that is the case, maybe we can’t blame them entirely for our brutal work ethic.

Posted in Defoe (Daniel) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Battered by a Raging Stormy

Johann Ramberg, “King Lear”


I’ve compared Donald Trump to King Lear in the past (see the links at the end of this post) so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he has encountered a storm that he can’t control. Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress to whom he paid hush money just before the election, is outmaneuvering him and rendering him uncharacteristically silent. At least in public.

Reports are that he is storming privately, and in that way he is like Lear, whose raging in the face of the storm is witnessed only by those closest to him. Like Lear, Trump feels unmanned by assertive women (including Daniels), and like Lear his rage masks a desperate longing for love, which is denied him because he demands love on his own terms. Lear takes credit for the fury of the elements to persuade himself that his commands still count for something: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” His fury, however, reveals his vulnerability and his loneliness.

Since I’ve embarked on storm images, I’ll borrow a couple from poems by women, Mary Oliver’s “Lightning” and Hilda Doolittle’s “Storm.” Oliver alludes to Lear’s howling at the end of the play, but she could also be referring to loneliness such as Trump’s:

 the wind rose, 
the shapeless mouth
opened and began
its five-hour howl; 
the lights 
went out fast, branches
sidled over
the pitch of the roof, bounced
into the year
that grew black
within minutes…

H.D., meanwhile, helps us imagine Daniels crashing over Trump, rending every leaf “like split wood.”

You crash over the trees,
you crack the live branch—
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

You burden the trees
with black drops,
you swirl and crash—
you have broken off a weighted leaf
in the wind,
it is hurled out,
whirls up and sinks,
a green stone.

H.D., using the imagistic style for which she is famous, may be describing a depressive episode, and it is a state that Trump surely knows well. Perhaps he feels himself hurled out, whirled up, and sinking like a stone. While he characteristically blusters that he is in charge, the storm has him on the run this time.

One other thought: Given that I’ve compared Trump to Herman Melville’s Maldive shark, I find it fascinating that he insisted that Daniels watch a television documentary on shark attacks with him. Trump was reportedly both fascinated and repulsed. As a Jungian archetype, sharks (like lions and bears) represent the devouring unconscious. When we insist that we control the world and repress fears of inadequacy, our shadow turns malevolent and grows in power. “I hope all the sharks die,” Trump reportedly said to Daniels.

Previous posts comparing Trump to Lear

Assertive Women Drive Lear, Trump Mad

Trump’s Cabinet as Goneril and Regan

Lear, Trump, & the Hell of Loneliness

Trump as Lear Howling in the Storm

Posted in Doolittle (Hilda), Oliver (Mary), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bolton’s Preventive War, Greek Style

Edouard-Théophile Blanchard, “Death of Astyanax”


When even American hawks describe incoming national security advisor John Bolton as too hawkish, it’s time to be really frightened. Listening to them decry Bolton’s love of preventive warfare, one of literature’s most shocking instances of the practice comes to mind: the Greeks killing Hector’s child in Euripides’s The Trojan Woman.

Political scientists distinguish between preemptive war and preventive war. The first is a response to a direct threat—like punching someone just before he or she punches you—whereas preventive war is attacking even though the threat isn’t imminent. Otto von Bismarck famously said that “preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.” According to Michael Lind,

In his memoirs, Bismarck considered “the question whether it was desirable, as regards a war which we should probably have to face sooner or later, to bring it on anticipation before the adversary could improve his preparations.” Bismarck argued that the uncertainties were too great—“one cannot see the cards of Providence far enough ahead.”

Instances of preventive war include Japan’s Pearl Harbor bombing and America’s Iraq invasion. Max Boot, one time hawk, writes of Bolton,

The failure of the Iraq intervention has soured me on preventative wars in general. Not so Bolton: He remains an advocate of bombing Iran and North Korea. Anyone who favors a “war of choice” against a nuclear-armed state belongs in a psychiatric ward, not the White House —  although, admittedly, the difference between the two may no longer be consequential. Bolton has also become notorious for bashing the European Union and Islam. He has been chairman since 2013 of the Gatestone Institute, an Islamophobic think tank that has propagated the myth that parts of Europe and North America are “no-go zones” for non-Muslims.

In Trojan Women Odysseus, whose slippery tongue Euripides frequently attacks, is the John Bolton character. Priam’s wife Hecuba has just persuaded Hector’s wife Andromache to accept her slavery, but that is before Andromache learns her son Astyanax is to be killed. The Greek messenger Talthybius reluctantly delivers the news:

Talthybius: The news is bad. I don’t know how to find the words.
Andromache: At least you show some scruple, if you bring no joy.
Talthybius: Then know the worst: the Greeks are going to kill your son.
Andromache: Oh, no, no! This is worse than what they do to me.
Talthybius: Odysseus in a full assembly made his point–
Andromache: But this is horrible beyond all measure! Oh!
Talthybius: That such a great man’s son must not be allowed to live–
Andromache: By such a sentence may his own son be condemned!
Talthybius: But should be thrown down from the battlements of Troy.
Now accept this decision, and be sensible.
don’t cling to him, or tell yourself you have some strength,
When you have none; but bear what must be like a queen.
You have no possible source of help.

All experts agree that a strike against North Korea would instantly result in millions of deaths in Seoul. Through his depiction of Hecuba receiving the corpse of her grandson, Euripides helps us imagine the plight of the survivors:

   You Achaeans are fine fighters; but where is your pride?
Did you so dread this young boy that you must invent
A new death for him? Were you afraid that he one day
Would raise Troy from the dust? When Hector held the field,
With thousands fighting at his side, even then we fell
Before your swords; today, with Troy a ruined heap,
And every Trojan dead, did you so shake with fear
Before this babe? Are you not cowards? Fear is bad;
But fear lacking all ground or reason is far worse.

And further on:

Poor little head, your soft curls were a garden where
Your mother planted kisses; oh, how cruelly they
Were shorn by your own city’s god-built bastions!
Now through the shattered skull the blood smiles, tempting me
To unseemly words. Your little hands—how like your father’s!
But when I lift them they hang limp. Dear, lifeless lips,
You made me a promise once, nestled against my dress:
“Grandmother, when you die,” you said, “I will cut off
A long curl of my hair for you, and bring my friends
With me to grace your tomb with gifts and holy words.”
You broke your promise, son; instead, I bury you;
I, an old, homeless, childless woman, bury you.
All my fond kisses, anxious care, and wakeful nights–
All end in this. What would a poet write for you
As epitaph? “This child the Argives killed because
They feared him” An inscription to make Hellas blush.

Americans were goaded by their dread of Saddam Hussein to support preventive war in Iraq, and now Bolton is goading them—and worse yet, will be goading the president—to do the same elsewhere. Half a million people died as a result of the Iraq War, and those figures would be dwarfed by war with North Korea or Iran.

Euripides wrote Trojan Women after the Athenians perpetrated a 5th century May Lai massacre. The island of Melos wanted to remain neutral in Athens’s long war with Sparta, but democratic Athens, demanding loyalty, massacred all the men while enslaving the women and the children, horrifying Athenian citizens such as Euripides.

In Trojan Women, Greek carnage so appalls Greek-supporting Athena that she gives the Troy-supporting Poseidon full permission to wreak vengeance upon her favorites. Her priestess Cassandra, a Trojan princess whom the Greek’s violate within Athena’s holy sanctuary, predicts the wretched future that lies is store for Agamemnon, Odysseus, and other Greek warriors—and in doing so, all but predicts the future of the Athenian war against Sparta. A year after Euripides’s play, Athens’s Sicily expedition would end catastrophically, and ten years later (after Euripides had died) Athens would become a Spartan slave state.

The United States is too strong a military power to suffer such defeats if it embarks upon preventive wars, but, along with the mayhem that it visits on other countries, it will suffer a blow to its standard of living. The decline set in motion by the Vietnam War and accelerated by the Iraq War will continue. Meanwhile silver-tongued orators, in the tradition of Odysseus, will call for the slaughter of more innocents.

Posted in Euripides | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Children Leading the Way on Gun Control

Father Archibald Craven (Lynch) discovers new hope in his son (Prowse)


As I watched the March for Our Lives young people, in all their idealism, cut through America’s clogged debate on guns, I felt hopeful for the first time in years. Casting my mind around for some work that captures their potential breakthrough, I thought of The Secret Garden, that most luminescent of all children’s classics.

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, former Republican and now anti-Trumper, captured the occasion as well as anyone:

By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do  this? 

The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.

 In Secret Garden, the jaded adult is Archibald Craven, who has been in a ten-year funk over the death of his beloved wife:

[T]here was a man wandering about certain far-away beautiful places in the Norwegian fiords and the valleys and mountains of Switzerland and he was a man who for ten years had kept his mind filled with dark and heart-broken thinking. He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in the place of the dark ones. He had wandered by blue lakes and thought them; he had lain on mountain-sides with sheets of deep blue gentians blooming all about him and flower breaths filling all the air and he had thought them. A terrible sorrow had fallen upon him when he had been happy and he had let his soul fill itself with blackness and had refused obstinately to allow any rift of light to pierce through. He had forgotten and deserted his home and his duties. When he traveled about, darkness so brooded over him that the sight of him was a wrong done to other people because it was as if he poisoned the air about him with gloom…

Craven returns to his estate expecting to find the sickly son he abandoned. Just as rightwing America has countenanced the death of its children rather than stand up to a rapacious gun industry, so Craven has eschewed his adult responsibilities. Fortunately for him, the children know what is important.

Imagine that the garden to which Craven returns is the Washington Mall this past Saturday:

The ivy hung thick over the door, the key was buried under the shrubs, no human being had passed that portal for ten lonely years—and yet inside the garden there were sounds. They were the sounds of running scuffling feet seeming to chase round and round under the trees, they were strange sounds of lowered suppressed voices—exclamations and smothered joyous cries. It seemed actually like the laughter of young things, the uncontrollable laughter of children who were trying not to be heard but who in a moment or so—as their excitement mounted—would burst forth. What in heaven’s name was he dreaming of—what in heaven’s name did he hear? Was he losing his reason and thinking he heard things which were not for human ears?…

And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster—they were nearing the garden door—there was quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shows which could not be contained—and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.

In Burnett’s novel, the children lead the way, helping the older generation rediscover their values:

Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his, side with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire—Master Colin.

When it comes to guns, America’s garden has been shut up for a long time. Maybe these children are the key to unlocking it.

Further thought: The novel’s one flaw–the patriarchal sidelining of Mary and Dickon at the conclusion–was not replicated in the March for Life. A wide diversity of young people took center stage.

Posted in Burnett (Francis Hodgson) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Harry’s Lenten Message: Love over Death

Harry (Radcliffe) “crucified” by Voldemort

Spiritual Sunday

Having just taught Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in my British Fantasy class, I am more puzzled than ever by Christian parents who forbid their children to read the book. Rowling all but bludgeons readers with the theme that love conquers death. Consider rereading Deathly Hallows as a prelude to Holy Week.

I know that parents have banned Harry Potter because multiple students have reported their experiences to me. Interestingly, many of them were encouraged to read C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which is ironic given that Rowling borrows Harry’s death scene directly from Aslan’s crucifixion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

 In Lewis’s novel, Christ-figure Aslan chooses to sacrifice himself, shouldering Edmund’s sin in order to cleanse the world. In a dramatic scene, captured memorably by illustrator Pauline Baynes, he gives himself up to the White Witch and her followers:

A great crowd of people were standing all round the Stone Table and though the moon was shining many of them carried torches which burned with evil-looking red flames and black smoke. But such people! Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men; spirits of evil trees and poisonous plants; and other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book — Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins. In fact here were all those who were on the Witch’s side and whom the Wolf had summoned at her command. And right in the middle, standing by the Table, was the Witch herself.

A howl and a gibber of dismay went up from the creatures when they first saw the great Lion pacing towards them, and for a moment even the Witch seemed to be struck with fear. Then she recovered herself and gave a wild fierce laugh.

“The fool!” she cried. “The fool has come. Bind him fast.”

Here’s the echoing scene in Deathly Hallows:

A fire burned in the middle of the clearing, and its flickering light fell over a crowd of completely silent, watchful Death Eaters. Some of them were still masked and hooded, others showed their faces. Two giants sat on the outskirts of the group, casting massive shadows over the scene, their faces cruel, rough-hewn like rock. Harry saw Fenrir, skulking, chewing his long nails; the great, blond Rowle was dabbing at his bleeding lip. He saw Lucius Malfoy, who looked defeated and terrified, and Narcissa, whose eyes were sunken and full of apprehension.

Every eye was fixed upon Voldemort, who stood with his head bowed, and his white hands folded over the Elder Wand in front of him. He might have been praying, or else counting silently in his mind, and Harry, standing still on the edge of the scene, thought absurdly of a child counting in a game of hide-and-seek. Behind his head, still swirling and coiling, the great snake Nagini floated in her glittering, charmed cage, like a monstrous halo.

Rowling signals her Christian message early on through the epitaph on the tombstone of Harry ‘s parents, which Harry visits when seeking to understand his mission:

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

Harry then undergoes a version of Jesus’s temptations in the desert. Although his spiritual guide Dumbledore has instructed him to destroy the horcruxes in which Voldemort has deposited his soul (thereby rendering himself immortal), Harry has doubts and thinks it might be better to opt for earthly power to defeat him. Voldemort means “flight from death,” and the dark wizard thinks that reassembling the three “deathly hallows”—especially the all-powerful Elder Wand—will save him. When Harry wants the wand for himself, he is thinking of death in Voldemort’s terms.

The deathly hallows appear in a story of three brothers who set out to defy death. The first two demand totems that will preserve them, the wand and a “resurrection stone” that can bring people back from the dead. Although Death presents them with these items, the brothers still die early. The third brother asks for an invisibility cloak that allows him to evade death’s notice, which he does until he has lived to a ripe old age.

The deathly hallows don’t match up exactly with Satan’s temptations, but the wand is a version of Satan’s offer of earthly power and the stone is like Satan’s promise of Jesus miraculously defying death. (Regarding Satan’s other temptation of turning stones into bread, it’s noteworthy that the food conjured up by magic in Potter World cannot sustain life.) Like Jesus, who abandons earthly power (thereby displeasing Peter), Harry opts for what Aslan calls “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” He articulates the choice as “horcruxes, not hallows.”

Like Jesus, Harry also has a Garden of Gethsemane moment of doubt as he walks towards his death in the Forbidden Forest. Because Harry knows his end is near, life appears especially precious:

Slowly, very slowly, he sat up and as he did so he felt more alive and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone… or at least, he would be gone from it.

Nevertheless, he now understands what is called for and essentially decides, “Thy will be done”:

Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes.

In other words, he must save humankind, who in their fear of death violate their souls.

I should mention here the resurrection stone that Harry carries. It has been hidden in an object that, until this moment, Harry cannot open. With his expanding awareness, however, he has a glimpse of true resurrection, and the opening spell anticipates Jesus’s empty tomb: “I open at the close.” Although previous owners have interpreted the stone through their fears—bringing people back from the dead is a literal way to overcome death—Harry uses it in a healthy way: he touches base with those who have loved him and who give him the strength to carry on. True resurrection is love, which can never die:

“You’ll stay with me?”
“Until the very end,” said James.
“They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.
“We are part of you,” said Sirius. “Invisible to anyone else.”
Harry looked at his mother.
“Stay close to me,” he said quietly.

I would not want to bring my oldest son, who died at 21, back from the dead. My love for him is eternal. That’s what Jesus means by heaven on earth.

Harry also undergoes a version of Jesus’s descent into death, noted in the Nicene Creed. There he encounters Dumbledore, who affirms his choices. In this shadow world we see Voldemort’s inner suffering, represented by a miserable “flayed” baby. When we sell our souls and commit atrocities in order to “flee from death,” we condemn ourselves to perpetual unhappiness. Dumbledore has such misery in mind when he says,

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love. By returning, you may ensure that fewer souls are maimed, fewer families are torn apart. If that seems to you a worthy goal, then we say good-bye for the present.”

Harry nodded and sighed. Leaving this place would not be nearly as hard as walking into the forest had been, but it was warm and light and peaceful here, and he knew that he was heading back to pain and fear of more loss. 

In his final encounter with Voldemort, Harry remembers the suffering baby, calls Voldemort by his human name (Tom Riddle), and gives him a chance to repent. This is the crucified Jesus pitying those whose suffering causes them to be cruel: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Harry says,

“[B]efore you try to kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done .. think, and try for some remorse, Riddle …”
“What is this?”
Of all the things that Harry had said to him, beyond any revelation or taunt, nothing had shocked Voldemort like this.
Harry saw his pupils contract to thin slits, saw the skin around his eyes whiten.
“It’s your one last chance,” said Harry, “it’s all you’ve got left … I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise … be a man … try … try for some remorse…”

Voldemort, however, cannot hear the appeal—which is to say, he cannot step beyond his angry suffering:

“Is it love again?” said Voldemort, his snake’s face jeering. “Dumbledore’s favorite solution, love, which he claimed conquered death, though love did not stop him falling from the tower and breaking like an old waxwork? Love, which did not prevent me from stamping out your Mudblood mother like a cockroach, Potter – and nobody seems to love you enough to run forward this time and take my curse. So what will stop you from dying now when I strike?” 

Death dies as Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds upon himself. Harry’s compassion and love triumph o’er the grave.

We live in a world where fear talks big and seems to have love on the run. Yet millions marched yesterday against the fear that fuel gun purchases–teachers prefer Harry’s disarmament spell (“Expelliarmus!”) to Voldemort’s imperius curse–and millions are resisting Donald Trump’s bellicosity, even as he names war monger John Bolton to be national security advisor. While love in the face of fear has always been a tough sell (as Jesus well knew), we return to it time after time.

To cite Michelle Obama, when Voldemort goes low, Harry goes high.

Posted in Rowling (J. K.) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

In Support of Today’s Anti-NRA Marchers


Here’s a poem I have taken to reposting every time there is another mass shooting. I run it today in support of all those marching in favor of sensible gun control in our blood-stained nation. To those young people who are leading the way, don’t be discouraged. During the Vietnam War, many of those marching felt that our efforts weren’t having any effect. We learned in retrospect that we had had an impact after all.

One additional note on the poem. My father, who saw the horrors of war close up in World War II, focuses on male insecurities. If he were writing the poem today, I’m pretty sure he would add in white insecurities to it as well.

Reprinted from Oct. 3, 2017

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

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

I share today the angriest poem my genial father ever wrote, which takes the organization to task….In “Ballad of the National Rifle Association,” he unloads on the gun group for the ways that it exploits white male anxieties. The poem was “triggered” by a gun ad in Gun World that guaranteed “shooting satisfaction.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Previous Posts on Mass Killings

The NRA Preying on Anxious Men

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

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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

Read Your Children Poetry

Seymour Joseph Guy, “The Bed Time Story” (1878)


Before sharing my planned essay today—a positive one about teaching poetry in a middle school classroom—I post once again an anti-NRA poem by my father, this time to honor the victims of the recent school shooting at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland. Such shootings always occur at other people’s schools until suddenly they take place at one seven miles away. My three sons attended Great Mills and three former St. Mary’s English majors were teachers there when the shooting occurred. Our county is currently in a state of shock.

The execrable NRA is celebrating the fact that a security guard shot and killed the shooter, as though that outweighs his two victims. The NRA’s assurance that armed guards will deter shootings proved as empty as their assurances always are. (Update: Apparently the shooter committed suicide and was not shot by the guard. So double my last point.)

The NRA also failed to mention that Maryland’s tight gun regulations—tighter than Florida’s anyway—make it illegal to purchase or own an assault weapon. If the association had had its way, the student would have had access to something far worse than a handgun.

Changing the subject to a lighter topic, I would have loved to have had Brett Vogelsinger as a middle school English teacher. In Edutopia he describes how he starts out every class day with a poem.

My own middle school teachers gave us hardly any poetry. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely deprived as my father read poems to me and my three brothers every night, one for each of us. The practice continued up through middle school, and I still remember thrilling to “The Highwayman” (Alfred Noyes), “Little Orphant Annie” (James Whitcombe Riley), and “The Listeners” (Walter de la Mare).

When Vogelsinger first came up with the idea three years ago, he wasn’t sure he could find enough poems, but that hasn’t proved a problem:

Each year, I get a few sideways glances and furrowed brows when I explain our daily opening routine for class.

But before long, students are starting class with Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and Robert Pinsky, Rumi and Basho and Shakespeare. These voices, contemporary and classic, have helped define my classroom culture to such an extent that on the rare occasion when I postpone the Poem of the Day until later in the class period, my students interrogate me about it.

Time is a teacher’s “most valuable currency,” Vogelsinger says, so short poems are ideal:

After we read a short poem twice, I invite the students to engage in what I call microanalysis through an interpretive sentence frame. They fill in the blanks in my sentence: “When the poem says _______, it suggests that _______.” Students can find plentiful interpretations in just a few lines of verse. And the best part is that a short poem can be read, dissected, and discussed in just a few minutes, providing an excellent warmup in a lesson on close reading.

Vogelsinger says that Bly’s “Keeping Quiet,” Yeats’s  “Balloon of the Mind,” and Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” generate particularly rich discussions.

He also notes that poems establish emotional connections much quicker than novels and plays. I like his idea of “Shock Week—More Intense than Shark Week,” for which he serves up such poems as Michelle Boisseau’s “Tariff” (“a short, blistering poem about guilt”) and Wislawa Szymborska’s “The Terrorist, He Watches” (“a poem chilling in both subject and tone, giving us pause about the dark ramifications of being a bystander when others suffer”).

 A third advantage of poetry, Vogelsinger reports, is that it

can open a door to discussing those meatier, longer works of fiction and nonfiction that often define our curriculum.

Try using Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic poem “We Real Cool” to introduce an underlying conflict in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, has written some poetry that beautifully echoes specific lines in Romeo and Juliet, that standard freshman introduction to Shakespeare. Incorporating writing from a completely different culture that speaks to the same aspect of the human condition sends a powerful message about inclusion and diversity.

Finally, poetry inspires the students’ own creative writing efforts. Vogelsinger mentions Anis Mojgani’s “Shake the Dust,” noting that “[i]ts message of kindness and its welcoming cadence provide an invitation to write about the people in our world who are not given a voice. In so doing, your students can find their own.”

The world is hungry for poetry but often doesn’t realize it. School teachers kindle the flames and fan them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dead or Alive? Bureaucracy Decides

Doc Daneeka (Gilford) tries to convince a fellow officer he’s still alive


Sometimes truth is, if not stranger than fiction, then at least anticipated by fiction. Take, for instance, this recent Associated Press story that which repeats an episode from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. It was entitled “Romanian Court Rejects Man’s Claim That He’s Alive”:

A Romanian court has rejected a man’s claim that he is alive after his wife officially registered him as dead, saying that the decision cannot be reversed.

A spokeswoman for the court told local news outlets on Friday that the man, Constantin Reliu, 63, lost his case in the northeast city of Vasului because he had appealed too late.

The ruling is final.

Local news reports on the case said that Mr. Reliu had lost contact with his wife and family when he traveled to Turkey in 1992 for work.

Hearing no news from her husband for years, his wife got a death certificate for him in 2016.

The authorities in Turkey found Mr. Reliu this year with expired papers and deported him. But when he arrived in Romania, he discovered he had been declared dead.

Dr. Daneeka in Catch 22 is a flight squadron surgeon who is afraid of flying and so gets friends to sign him into flight logs. Unfortunately, this means that, when his plane crashes, he is assumed dead. Given the military’s bureaucratic mindset that Heller mocks ceaselessly, Daneeka can’t convince anyone that he’s still alive:

The first person in the squadron to find out that Doc Daneeka was dead was Sergeant Towser, who had been informed earlier by the man in the control tower that Doc Daneeka’s name was down as a passenger on the pilot’s manifest McWatt had filed before taking off. Sergeant Towser brushed away a tear and struck Doc Daneeka’s name from the roster of squadron personnel. With lips still quivering, he rose and trudged outside reluctantly to break the bad news to Gus and Wes, discreetly avoiding any conversation with Doc Daneeka himself as he moved by the flight surgeon’s slight sepulchral figure…

Daneeka’s orderlies also refuse to believe he’s alive:

“You’re dead sir,” of of his two enlisted men explained. Doc Daneeka jerked his head up quickly with resentful distrust.
“What’s that?”
“You’re dead, sir,” repreated the other. “That probably the reason you always feel so cold.”
“That’s right, sir. You’ve probably been dead all this time and we just didn’t detect it.”
“What the hell are you both talking about?” Doc Daneeka cried shrilly with a surging, petrifying sensation of some onrushing unavoidable disaster.
“It’s true, sir,” said one of the enlisted men. “The records do show that you went up in McWatt’s plane to collect some flight time. You didn’t come down in a parachute, so you must have been killed in the crash.”
“That’s right, sir,” said the other. “You ought to be glad you’ve got any temperature at all.”

Daneeka’s wife, officially believing a widow, receives financial compensation. When her husband writes to her, she assumes it’s a crank letter and moves away, leaving no forwarding address. The doctor becomes a virtual shadow:

Alarm changed to resignation, and more and more Doc Daneeka acquired the look of an ailing rodent. The sacks under his eyes turned hollow and black, and he padded through the shadows fruitlessly like a ubiquitous sppk.

The same appears to be the case with the Romanian man:

“I am officially dead, although I’m alive,” Mr. Reliu was quoted as saying in local news reports. “I have no income and because I am listed dead, I can’t do anything.”

And so the world turns.

Posted in Heller (Joseph) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

When the World Is Mud-Luscious

E. H. Shepard, “Christopher Robin”


To welcome in spring—and to feel better about the miserable rainy day that we had yesterday—here’s one of my favorite seasonal poems. In his characteristic way, e. e. cummings plays with spacing, punctuation, and word placement to give a sense of the season exploding like joyous children. The goat-footed balloon man is a Pan figure, spring-like in the way that he ushers in bright colors.

No too many children were running around outside yesterday, the first day of spring. But mud-luscious was definitely the order of the day.

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles

Posted in cummings (e.e.) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump on a Hot Tin Roof

Newman, Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”


With all the craziness in the White House, it makes a certain kind of sense that Tennessee Williams would make an entrance. For the defense, no less.

Trump lawyer Matthew Dowd channeled Cat on a Hot Tin Roof over the weekend as he unloaded on the FBI. Regarding his client as the innocent victim of a corrupt Bureau that covered up for Hillary Clinton while targeting his boss, he quoted one of Big Daddy’s speeches. In Dowd’s version of events, former director Jim Comey refused to smell the mendacity around him. Lest we miss the parallels, the lawyer thoughtfully annotated the passage:

“What’s that smell in this room [Bureau]? Didn’t you notice it, Brick [Jim]? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room [Bureau]?… There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity [corruption]… You can smell it. It smells like death.” Tennessee Williams — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

By contrast, the Trump administration is a shining beacon of integrity:

I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier.

Dowd claims to speak for the president, who is now making similar comments, and he appears to be following a well-worn Trump strategy: project your guilt onto your rivals and attack them for it. Trump, not the FBI, is the anxious cat on the hot tin roof, hiding from accountability under an incessant stream of lies. “Odor of mendacity” indeed!

Some see Dowd and Trump testing whether the president can get away with ordering Rosenstein to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and end the Russia investigation. We can expect Dowd to find Rosenstein brilliant and courageous if he does so, smelling like death if he doesn’t.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, like most of Williams’s plays, is about repressed secrets that taint everyone involved. The play opens with the family of cotton magnate Big Daddy hiding his terminal illness from him, but we soon learn that much more is being hidden. Goober, Big Daddy’s corporate lawyer son, is unscrupulously plotting to inherit the plantation while Brick, the favored son, is in alcoholic mourning for a male friend who committed suicide to hide his homosexuality.

Tired of the mendacity, Brick finally chooses transparency and speaks openly with Big Daddy, who delivers the passage quoted by Dowd. That speech, which appears in the film, combines several passages from the play, including:

Brick: Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’?
Big Daddy: Sure. Mendacity is one of them five-dollar words that cheap politicians throw back and forth at each other.
Brick: You know what it means?
Big Daddy: Don’t it mean lying and liars?
Brick: Yes, sir, lying and liars.


Big Daddy: What do you know about this mendacity thing? Hell! I could write a book on it! Don’t you know that? I could write a book on it and still not cover the subject? Well, I could, I could write a goddam book on it and still not cover the subject anywhere near enough!!– Think of all the lies I got to put up with!–Pretenses! Ain’t that mendacity? Having to pretend stuff you don’t think or feel or have any idea of?

Worried about the sensitive son who loves him, Big Daddy urges him tolerate mendacity since, after all, we live in an imperfect world. Trump’s enablers in the GOP appear all too willing to tolerate his mendacity in order to get what they want.

Rather than the flawed but humane Big Daddy or the decent Brick, however, Dowd resembles Goober, who engages in lawyerly shenanigans while blackening Brick’s name. At one point Brick’s wife Maggie justifiably calls him out:

This is a deliberate campaign of vilification for the most disgusting and sordid reason on earth, and I know what it is! It’s avarice, avarice, greed, greed.

The play’s drama reflects our current political uncertainty: who will inherit the estate, Brick or Goober? In the play’s somewhat happy ending, Brick appears to prevail—especially if Maggie becomes pregnant—but Goober threatens that high-powered lawyers know how to get their way.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid said Sunday that the Trump administration does indeed resemble a Tennessee Williams melodrama and mentioned The Glass Menagerie. She could have added a warning about lawyers throwing stones.

Posted in Williams (Tennessee) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Female Intimacy in Virginia Woolf

Pietro Marussig, “Women in a Cafe,” c. 1924


While visiting the University of Ljubljana last week, I interviewed two applicants for the exchange program that Julia and I set up in memory of our oldest son Justin. Both students submitted superb essays, one of which I share today. Nadja Jukic, looking for ways that an older and a younger woman can have a relationship that doesn’t follow traditional lines (say, filial or lesbian), examined the relation between Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Nadja believes that the two women long for genuine intimacy but finds such intimacy hard to define: 

Was there ever a more ambiguous word in regard to human relationships than intimacy? Intimacy is a word that is in between: in between the unknown and familiar, limitations and openness, friendship and sex.

 As Nadja sees it, Woolf is charting new ground through Briscoe’s and Ramsay’s relationship. To make her case, Nadja has to argue against scholars like Ferhat Ordu and Murat Karakaş, who believe that the two women simply represent a historical passing of the torch, from Mrs. Ramsay’s Victorian angel in the house to Lily Briscoe’s “new woman.”  Those making such arguments sometimes believe that Woolf bases Mrs. Ramsay on her mother while seeing herself in the struggling artist Briscoe, but Nadja believes the relationship is more than that.

Because female intimacy is so elusive, Nadja first looks at what the Briscoe-Ramsay relationship is not. Disagreeing with Ordu and Karakas, Nadja argues that Ramsay

is not simply “an archetypal imag[e] of domesticity.” In fact, throughout the novel, Mrs. Ramsay doubts her love for her husband, feels used by him, and sees her own life as “something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.” Similarly, Lily is not just “a symbol for the modern woman,” and the relationship between the two characters, therefore, is not just a clash between an old-fashioned customs and new ideology.

Nadja says that Lily, while she disagrees with Mrs. Ramsay’s matchmaking, still loves being in her presence. In return, Mrs. Ramsay

likes Lily’s independence, even if she doesn’t share the trait. In one passage, Mrs. Ramsay thinks how “[t]here was in Lily a thread of something; a flare of something; something of her own which Mrs. Ramsay liked very much,” even though she adds “but no man would, she feared.”

As Nadja reads it, such passages point to a special kind of female intimacy. Nadja observes that “women in the novel see each other differently from how men see them.”

For example, Mr. Bankes worships Mrs. Ramsay from afar, prompting Lily to observe,

No woman could worship another woman in the way he worshipped; they could only seek shelter under the shade which Mr. Bankes extended over them both.

Lily, by contrast, looks behind Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty to “the perfect shape which one saw there,” and asks, “What was the spirit in her, the essential thing?”

A key passage for Nadja depicts Briscoe leaning on Ramsay’s knee and asking herself about the nature of their relationship. Why does she want “to somehow penetrate the beautiful, often deceptive exterior to get to the secrets she believes are within Mrs Ramsay?” Is it for wisdom? For knowledge? Nadja quotes scholar Laura Collins as she examines the scene:

“Sitting on the floor with her arms around Mrs Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsay will never know the reason of that pressure,” she wants to understand, decipher Mrs. Ramsay. She is “seeking to absorb and know the older, admired woman” (Collins) as she “imagine[s] how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything.”

Nadja observes,

Already we can see a contrast between the physical touch that is present and a deeper connection that Lily yearns for, but does not know how to achieve. This is why she asks herself: “What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored?”


Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay’s knee.

Nadja believes that what Lily ultimately desires is

 intimacy itself. This intimacy is not knowledge as an abstract concept, but rather knowledge of the other person. Importantly, it is also unknown to men, which means that it exists only between women. For Lily, intimacy is unity. But she does not yet know how to reach it: “Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head on Mrs Ramsay’s knee.”

Nadja is driven by her own desire to understand her desires and finds in literature the most powerful means for doing so. I regret that, by retiring in June, I won’t see what further insights Nadja gets while attending St. Mary’s.

Posted in Woolf (Virginia) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Filled with Some Other Power

Jacob van Oost II,” Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” (1688)

Spiritual Sunday

Denise Levertov’s poem “The Well,” while not specifically about today’s liturgy account of the Samaritan woman at the well, nevertheless works as commentary. I don’t know whether Levertov had converted to Christianity when she wrote this poem, but one sees within it her spiritual longing.

In the story, the Samaritan woman may think she wants the things of this world. Jesus, however, knows that she thirsts for something more:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

The speaker in the poem, when young, calls upon the moon to give her what he thinks she wants: beauty, a thin body, a pale complexion. To attain these things, “I moonbathed/diligently, as others sunbathe.”

However, she achieves only dissatisfaction:

But the moon’s unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

Only when she opens herself to her deeper longings does she discover true power. Rather than orienting herself by a material light source, she sinks into “dark nights of deep sleep.” What she finds is something more powerful than physical beauty.

Or as Jesus puts it,

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

The Well

By Denise Levertov

At sixteen I believed the moonlight 
could change me if it would.
          I moved my head
on the pillow, even moved my bed
as the moon slowly
crossed the open lattice.

I wanted beauty, a dangerous
gleam of steel, my body thinner,
my pale face paler.
          I moonbathed
diligently, as others sunbathe.
But the moon’s unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep
that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,
and woke rested, and if not beautiful,
filled with some other power.

Further thought: Levertov’s poem has me thinking about the spiritual and psychological symbolism of wells. In Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I’m currently teaching, Toru Okada descends into a dry well to examine why his marriage is disintegrating. Essentially, he does a deep dive within himself as he relives critical moments in the relationship.

At one point, someone pulls up the robe ladder and closes the well lid so that he can no longer see the moon. As in the poem, this is when he must truly go deep, and he enters a dream world in which he grapples with his shadow side. Once he comes to terms with it, the well begins to fill with water, a sign that he may be able to save his marriage.

Posted in Levertov (Denise) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Believing in the Great White Race

The KKK in 1977 (including current Trump supporter David Duke, left)


 Teaching Langston Hughes in Europe, as I did yesterday at the University of Ljubljana, is to discover that many of his issues are readily transferrable. For instance, when Hughes talks about “Ku Klux,” the students thought of the European neo-fascists who are beginning to assert themselves. So far, Slovenia is resisting them, but they are on the rise in the surrounding countries (Hungary, Italy, Austria, and Croatia).

“Ku Klux” brilliantly exposes claims of white superiority through Hughes’s dark humor. One can’t see these tough thugs as they wish to be seen after their victim sasses them. By drawing on the tradition of Br’er Rabbit, the speaker exposes his tormenters as insecure bullies rather than members of a master race.

Unfortunately, the sassing that allows him to salvage his dignity doesn’t save him from a beating. One takes one’s victories where one can.

Ku Klux

By Langston Hughes

They took me out
To some lonesome place.
They said, “Do you believe
In the great white race?”

I said, “Mister,
To tell you the truth,
I’d believe in anything
If you’d just turn me loose.”

The white man said, “Boy,
Can it be
You’re a-standin’ there
A-sassin’ me?”

They hit me in the head
And knocked me down.
And then they kicked me
On the ground.

A klansman said, “Nigger,
Look me in the face —
And tell me you believe in
The great white race.”

Further thought: Because I’ve been out of the country, I missed the news of the Austin, Texas bombings, which appear to be targeting prominent black families. We don’t know for sure whether these are white terrorists, of course, but white nationalists have been behind most of the terrorism-caused deaths in the United States since 9-11 so that possibility must be considered. Hughes was well aware that klansmen do more than just beat people up, but he captures how such people are losers rather than heroic figures in a grand struggle.

Posted in Hughes (Langston) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Grieving for a Loved One

James Barry, “Lear and Cordelia”


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

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

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

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

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

I am a man more sinned against than sinning.

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

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

And then:

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

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

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

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

Is this the promised end?

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Baldwin (James), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Corruption Starts at the Top

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


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

Dallek describes the problem as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Theories about Lit’s Impact

Auguste Macke, “Blue Girl Reading”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What Personal Reading Histories Tell Us

Literature That Caused a Commotion

An Afghan Vet’s Green Knight Encounter

Jane Eyre Still Challenges Us

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Moving Foster Home Story

Andrei Zadorine, “Mother and Son”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polona: I can’t remember.

Psychologist: How do you two solve arguments?

Polona (voiceover): I hug him.

Poona: We talk it through.

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

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

Polona: I don’t really know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polona: Nothing.

Psychologist: What do you mean, nothing?

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

Psychologist: Well, there is a difference…

Polona: No, there isn’t. Not for me.

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

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

Posted in Ramshak (Polona) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Act in All Things as Love Will Prompt

Franz Dietrich, “Oedipus and Antigone”

Spiritual Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He delivers the same message in his final moments:

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

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

Posted in Baldwin (James), O'Connor (Flannery), Shakespeare (William), Sophocles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Atwood: Flawed Activist, Genius Author


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched


thou answerest

them only with


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

Posted in Atwood (Margaret) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sonny’s Blues,” Transcendent Moments

Romare Bearden, “Out Chorus”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking down on the performing musicians, Sonny remarks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Baldwin (James) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Dinner with Mladen

Adolf von Becker, “Two Finnish Pilots”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Beckett (Samuel), Marivaux (Pierre de), Plato, Shakespeare (William), Sophocles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tearful at Prospero’s Farewell

William James Linton, “Prospero”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | 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.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete