If Fielding Had Written about Trump

Henry Fielding


I’ve been combing through Henry Fielding works and have concluded that he would have had a field day with Donald Trump. Hang on to your hats.

One of my favorite Tom Jones quotations explains how villain Blifil succeeds as long as he does. Since Trump has gone further than anyone expected, it’s worth checking out Fielding’s explanation, which invokes the Faustus story:

I look upon the vulgar observation, ‘That the devil often deserts his friends, and leaves them in the lurch,’ to be a great abuse on that gentleman’s character. Perhaps he may sometimes desert those who are only his cup acquaintance; or who, at most, are but half his; but he generally stands by those who are thoroughly his servants, and helps them off in all extremities, till their bargain expires.

Not one of Trump’s opponents, either in the primaries or in the general election, went as far as he did. Having gone all in on lying, boasting, threatening, intimidating, stealing, suing, and possibly colluding with a foreign adversary—no mere cup acquaintance he–Trump continues to profit handsomely. There’s no telling when his devil’s bargain will expire.

In “Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” Fielding discusses how a good politician can “impose upon” his constituents to sacrifice their own interests to his own. By this measure, Trump is a superb politician:

[A]s it is impossible that any man endowed with rational faculties, and being in a state of freedom, should willingly agree, without some motive of love or friendship, absolutely to sacrifice his own interest to that of another; it becomes necessary to impose upon him, to persuade him, that his own good is designed, and that he will be a gainer by coming into those schemes, which are, in reality, calculated for his destruction. And this, if I mistake not, is the very essence of that excellent art, called the art of politics. 

We should therefore, Fielding tells us, regard politics as a vast masquerade:

Thus while the crafty and designing part of mankind, consulting only their own separate advantage, endeavor to maintain one constant imposition on others, the whole world becomes a vast masquerade, where the greatest part appear disguised under false visors and habits…

The rest of Fielding’s essay instructs people on how not to get conned by such types.

Fielding’s most extensive look at a Trump-like character occurs in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great. Fielding claims that the work is about a notorious criminal, but it is really about Whig prime minister Robert Walpole, whom Fielding despised. The similarities between Wild/Walpole and Trump are unsettling. For instance, Fielding describes a boldness unhampered by honesty in carrying out cunning enterprises:

He was extremely ingenious in inventing designs, artful in contriving the means to accomplish his purposes, and resolute in executing them: for as the most exquisite cunning and most undaunted boldness qualified him for any undertaking, so was he not restrained by any of those weaknesses which disappoint the views of mean and vulgar souls, and which are comprehended in one general term of honesty, which is a corruption of HONOSTY, a word derived from what the Greeks call an ass.

The narrator notes that Wild/Walpole is also free of modesty and good-nature. Instead lust, ambition, and greed drive him:

He was entirely free from those low vices of modesty and good-nature, which, as he said, implied a total negation of human greatness, and were the only qualities which absolutely rendered a man incapable of making a considerable figure in the world. His lust was inferior only to his ambition; but, as for what simple people call love, he knew not what it was. His avarice was immense, but it was of the rapacious, not of the tenacious kind…

The narrator goes on to say that his “rapaciousness was indeed so violent” that he squeezes every penny, not only out of his victims, but out of his allies. Keep in mind that the Republican National Committee is currently paying the legal bills of Trump and Trump, Jr.:

Above all, Wild/Walpole values hypocrisy. Without it, he could not have accomplished so much or been the prig (rhymes with Whig, used to mean coxcomb) that he is:

The character which he most valued himself upon, and which he principally honored in others, was that of hypocrisy. His opinion was, that no one could carry priggism very far without it; for which reason, he said, there was little greatness to be expected in a man who acknowledged his vices, but always much to be hoped from him who professed great virtues.

The narrator then lists the rules by which Wild/Walpole operates. The following seem particularly applicable to our own president:

–To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
–Never to communicate more of an affair than was necessary to the person who was to execute it.
–To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
–To foment eternal jealousies in his gang, one of another.
–Never to reward any one equal to his merit; but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
–That all men were knaves or fools, and much the greater number a composition of both.
–That a good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring the owner any advantage.
–That many men were undone by not going deep enough in roguery; as in gaming any man may be a loser who doth not play the whole game.
–That men proclaim their own virtues, as shopkeepers expose their goods, in order to profit by them.

One other Trump-like resemblance comes to mind. In Fielding’s play The Historical Register for the Year 1736, a fiddler, once again a stand-in for Walpole, bribes his fellows so that they will dance to his tune. The author within the play explains what happens next.

Sir, every one of these patriots has a hole in his pocket, as Mr. Quidam, the fiddler, there knows; so that he intends to make them dance till all the money is fallen through, which he will pick up again, and so not lose one halfpenny by his generosity.

Time and again, the GOP has allowed itself to be bought off by Trump, only to find itself with empty pockets.

The history of Fielding’s play, however, carries a sobering lesson. It so upset Walpole that he enacted the Licensing Act of 1737, thereby blacklisting Fielding and effectively ending political commentary in the theater. Trump too dreams of having such power, as indicated by yesterday’s tweet that Senate’s investigatory committee should turn its attention to the media for reporting bad things about him,

The licensing act, though it wouldn’t be entirely repealed until 1968, failed to silence Fielding, who (fortunately for literature) turned to fiction. I suspect the American news media won’t back down either. Nevertheless, it’s worrisome to hear a president talk this way.

One other Walpole-Trump resemblance is worth mentioning. Like the prime minister, who was roasted by Pope and Swift as well as Fielding, our president is the unceasing target of the major comic writers of his day.

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Wordsworth and a Depressed Philosopher

John Stuart Mill


Julia alerted me to an interesting New York Times philosophy column by Adam Etinson that asks the question, “Is a life without struggle worth living.” The column reflects upon the career of utilitarian philospher John Stuart Mill and notes that William Wordsworth’s poetry helped pull him out of a philosophic cul-de-sac, along with an accompanying mental breakdown.

In my mind, the piece should have been entitled, “Is a life without poetry worth living.” Or perhaps, “Poetry makes life worthwhile.”

Mill was a follower of Jeremy Bentham, who believed that “all human action should aim to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The article observes that Mill

devoted much of his youthful energies to the advancement of this principle: by founding the Utilitarian Society (a fringe group of fewer than 10 members), publishing articles in popular reviews and editing Bentham’s laborious manuscripts.

Utilitarianism, Mill thought, called for various social reforms: improvements in gender relations, working wages, the greater protection of free speech and a substantial broadening of the British electorate (including women’s suffrage).

I remember reading Bentham and Mill in a sophomore ethics class at Carleton College and my soul freezing. I was all for their progressive agenda, but the algebraic way that Bentham went about determining the greatest good seemed to deprive life of color. I’ve been teaching Shelley’s Defence of Poetry this week, and he pretty much says the same thing about utilitarianism.

Mill’s mental breakdown therefore does not surprise me. Mill explains that his depression stemmed from his fear that, if a perfect society were ever achieved, he wouldn’t experience great happiness and joy. In other words, he sensed that his life-long goal wouldn’t result in the end that he wanted. We might say that he needn’t have worried—odds are we will never achieve a perfect society—but his doubts about his project plunged him into despair.

Mill says that he was saved by Wordsworth’s poetry:

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed… I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this…

In other words, it is not only material conditions that give our life joy and meaning. To be sure, it is important that we work to improve our physical and social conditions, but that’s not all there is to life. I imagine Mill being moved by such passages as this one from Tintern Abbey:

                                               And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: 
A motion and a spirit, that impels 
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, 
And rolls through all things.

In Defence of Poetry, Shelley puts his finger on Mill’s malaise, saying that utilitarians are mere reasoners or mechanics, confining themselves to our animal and social needs. While they have an important role to play, they miss an important dimension of what it means to be human. For this, we must turn to poetry:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. 

William Blake makes a similar point when he attacks what he sees as the secular and sterile Enlightenment:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Blake wasn’t against science and he certainly wasn’t against the social causes to which Mill devoted his life. We miss out on something essential, however, when we break reality down into component parts (the atoms of Democritus) and see the universe as an intricate machine, even a machine chugging towards justice and equality for all. No wonder a philosopher thinking that way would descend into depression.

Mill’s flattened view of life came about from imagining a world that authors of dystopias have also imagined in works such as Brave New World, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and The Giver. Missing from such worlds is beauty and higher spiritual purpose.

It appears that Mill found these in Wordsworth and was saved.

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Assertive Women Drive Lear, Trump Mad

William Holmes Sullivan, “King Lear”


Last week I wrote about Shakespeare’s use of the insult that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un hurled at Donald Trump. Today I turn once again to King Lear for another loaded term, this one hurled by Trump himself. The word is “ingrate.”

In his continuing battle with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who refused to tell him what a great job he is doing, Trump tweeted,

We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military. All buildings now inspected for safety.

This was a follow-up to a previous tweet storm, where he made clear who this “politically motivated ingrate” was:

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump. Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

Puerto Rico’s buildings have not, in fact, been inspected, and while FEMA and the U.S. military are indeed working hard, the rescue effort is still a mess, in large part because of the White House’s delayed response. But forget about the facts on the ground. As revealed again in his Puerto Rico remarks yesterday, Trump really wants everyone to tell him what a good job he is doing. The Washington Post had the story:

President Trump arrived in Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the territory struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria, which has left nearly all the island without power and most residents without water nearly two weeks later.

But Trump’s focus was on the “unbelievable” and “incredible” job that his administration has done so far. He repeatedly played down the destruction to the island, telling local officials they should feel “very proud” they ­haven’t lost hundreds of lives like in “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005. But he also complained that the small territory’s disaster threw the nation’s budget “a little out of whack.”


Soon after arriving, he turned what was supposed to be a private briefing on relief efforts into a televised pep talk, praising members of his administration and the military for their long hours responding to several hurricanes over the past 43 days. He uttered “great” 10 times and used “incredible” and “amazing” seven times each.

At one point, Trump asked the island’s representative to Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, to repeat some of the “nice things” she had said in televised interviews.

Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, commenting on “ingrate,” observed:

Next Trump will be quoting King Lear: “All the stor’d vengeances of heaven fall On her ingrateful top!” –Act 2, Scene 4, 134

Responding to another tweet, Kristol pointed out Trump’s image of himself as a ruler bestowing favors. Here’s Trump’s original tweet:

Because of #FakeNews my people are not getting the credit they deserve for doing a great job. As seen here, they are ALL doing a GREAT JOB!

Of course, Trump is really saying, “I am not getting the credit I deserve.” Kristol replied,

“My people?” They are not your people. This is not a third-world personal dictatorship.

Kristol is smart to invoke King Lear, who is guilty of similar narcissism. Lear gives away his kingdom, not because he is generous, but because he wants his daughters to make extravagant avowals of love. Like Trump, he is desperate for their words, insincere though they are. He is a small, insecure man.

After the power transfer, he is horrified that they no longer suck up to him. His anger knows no bounds, and he accuses Goneril of ingratitude in the speech Kristol references:

She hath abated me of half my train;
Look’d black upon me; struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart:
All the stored vengeances of heaven fall
On her ingrateful top! Strike her young bones,
You taking airs, with lameness!

The attack sounds a lot like that directed against Cruz and against other women who have stood up to him, like Hillary Clinton, Megan Kelly, and Elizabeth Warren. Have they, like Goneril and Regan, sent him into genuine madness? The Lear parallels grow stronger every day.

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The NRA, Preying on Anxious White Men


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

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

I share today the angriest poem my genial father ever wrote, which takes the organization to task. I ran it seven years ago after the Tucson killings and it seems even more appropriate today, given the arsenal of assault weapons the killer managed to assemble.

Because of NRA pressure, states have criminally permissive gun laws. Here is what is allowed in Nevada:

Concealed weapon permits (CCW) are-shall issue and open carry is legal without a permit. Nevada does not ban ‘assault weapons’ and there is no magazine capacity limit. There are no purchase permits, gun registration, or gun-owner licensing. Blue cards are no longer required. There is no waiting period mandated for firearm purchases and private gun sales are okay. Local gun laws are prohibited. You do not have to “register” a gun to someone else.

Add to that the fact that Nevada’s Republicans were refusing to implement a background check law that voters endorsed last year.

In “Ballad of the National Rifle Association,” my father unloads on the gun group for the ways that it exploits white male anxieties. The poem was “triggered” by a gun ad in Gun World that guaranteed “shooting satisfaction.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Previous Posts on Mass Killings

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

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

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While the President Golfed…


The Washington Post’s headline was blistering: “Lost Weekend: How Trump’s time at his golf club hurt the response to Maria.” The juxtaposition of golf and human suffering brings to mind Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn’s most famous poem, “The Golf Links.”

To be clear, I’m not against presidents golfing (or cutting brush or riding horses). The weight of the world is so heavy that they must find occasions to relax and blow off steam. Furthermore, in our internet age, a president doesn’t have to be in the White House to respond to critical events. Trump, however, didn’t use his golf weekend to respond to the crisis in Puerto Rico:

Trump jetted to New Jersey that Thursday night to spend a long weekend at his private golf club there, save for a quick trip to Alabama for a political rally. Neither Trump nor any of his senior White House aides said a word publicly about the unfolding crisis.

 Trump did hold a meeting at his golf club that Friday with half a dozen Cabinet officials — including acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response — but the gathering was to discuss his new travel ban, not the hurricane. Duke and Trump spoke briefly about Puerto Rico but did not talk again until Tuesday, an administration official said.

The administration only began to pay attention when people turned up the heat:

Even though local officials had said publicly as early as Sept. 20, the day of the storm, that the island was “destroyed,” the sense of urgency didn’t begin to penetrate the White House until Monday, when images of the utter destruction and desperation — and criticism of the administration’s response — began to appear on television, one senior administration official said.

“The Trump administration was slow off the mark,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D), the first Florida lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected to Congress. “... We’ve invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”

Trump at first resorted to his customary responses, blaming others while praising himself:

After the dinner, Trump lashed out on social media. He blamed the island’s financial woes and ailing infrastructure for the difficult recovery process. He also declared that efforts to provide food, water and medical care were “doing well.”

This “fake news,” however, couldn’t be talked away:

On the ground in Puerto Rico, nothing could be further from the truth. It had taken until Monday — five days after Maria made landfall — for the first senior administration officials from Washington to touch down to survey the damage firsthand. And only after White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert and FEMA Director Brock Long returned to Washington did the administration leap into action. 

The power of Cleghorn’s simple four-line poem lies in the contrast between a callous upper class and children who should be outside playing:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day 
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

The deadpan tone leaves it to the reader to provide the outrage.

Cleghorn’s poem, tapping into national shame, helped usher in child labor laws. I’m honestly not sure, however, whether Republicans are still capable of being shamed. It’s not just Trump.

After all, Congress just missed its deadline for renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which services 9 million children. While the states still have some money left, are we sure that Congress will renew the funding? The Washington Post explains what is at risk:

If action is not taken soon to restore the funding, the effects will become obvious in schools across the country, with many of the children in the program unable to see a doctor for routine checkups, immunizations, visits when sick and other services.

I’m worried because Speaker Paul Ryan for years has been railing against the social safety net and seems fully capable of cutting this strand. Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, after all, just informed a group of high school students (this according to WISN) “that they don’t have a right to health care, food and shelter.” Said Johnson, “I think it’s probably more of a privilege.”

So in addition to its war against Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, women and the poor, the GOP has added children to the list?

Update: I haven’t mentioned all the news that got made on Trump’s golf course. Apparently, while in the limousine on the way to his golf tournament, Trump decided to undermine his Secretary of State’s delicate negotiations with North Korea, tweeting, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Then, to make everything better for the people of Puerto Rico, he dedicated the golf trophy to them.

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May We Sail without Giving into Our Fears

Flooding in Puerto Rico

Spiritual Sunday

The catastrophic devastation of Puerto Rico, into which our president has injected race politics, has me thinking of Noah’s flood and a poem by the great Syrian poet Adonis. As Adonis sees it, there is something wrong with a god who orders a flood, sparing only a few while drowning the rest of humanity. His poem can be read as a critique of religious tribalism and of tribalism generally. We cannot allow such thinking to enter into the Puerto Rican rescue and rebuilding effort.

We lucky survivors, the poet says, have “fasten[ed]/Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.” If we believe in a sky god that angrily metes out death to others, then we are defining our lives by “a fear of the Sun” and can only be pessimistic about the future:

In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun. 
We despair of the Light, 
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow 
In which to start Life anew.

Even though this God might protect us, such a future is no more than “an appointment with death.” Landing safely on Mount Ararat would be no more than seeing “this World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”

Adonis is not rejecting God altogether. Rather, he is rejecting our reduced image of God, how we have shrunk Him to an angry sky god that smites our enemies. Adonis then goes about imagining a bigger god. He’s going to think of God as “something in between” earthly Clay and spiritual Ember, neither entirely of earth nor entirely of heaven. Rather than read cataclysmic disaster as divine retribution upon people who are not like us, the poet will go in search of “a different, a new, lord.”

In his search, the poet will not cling to the “familiar and pleasing despair” of the shores, which describes our current fatalistic existence. Rather, he will steer his ark into freezing waters and “remov[e]/clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead.” We must leave behind comforting tribal certainties and “sail without giving in to our fears.” If our God is more that a compilation of our grievances–if our God is truly big–then we can return from the wilderness, emerge from the false reassurance of dark caves, and open the depths of our being to the timeless flood waters.

In the poem’s images of nautical exploration, I hear Lucille Clifton’s “blessing of the boats“:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Adonis’s elusive poem lends itself to multiple interpretations, including leaving behind religious habits that have become calcified while opening ourselves to new vision. The poet will awaken the spiritually dead, whose eye sockets are clogged by clay and pebbles. (“I had not thought death had undone so many,” writes T. S. Eliot in his own poem about a spiritual wasteland.) In the context of Puerto Rico, however, I think of the poem as white America emerging from its insularity and sailing over the waters to embrace inclusivity. We can refuse to be walled in by fears of the Other.

Today’s Old Testament reading is about Moses finding water in the wilderness, a passage only too relevant to the many Puerto Ricans who still lack clean drinking water. When we “open the depths of [our] being to the flood” and listen to the voice that whispers in our veins, we override what frightens us and step into a fuller vision of what is possible. The god of that vision, not the god of fearful Trump evangelicals, is the one I sail in search of.

A New Noah

By Adonis

Translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain, 
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening 
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies. 
But between Heaven and us is an opening, 
A porthole for a supplication. 

“Why, Lord, have you saved us alone 
From among all the people and creatures? 
And where are you casting us now? 
To your other Land, to our First Home? 
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life? 
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun. 
We despair of the Light, 
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow 
In which to start Life anew. 

If only we were not that seedling of Creation, 
Of Earth and its generations, 
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember, 
Or something in between, 
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”


If time started anew, 
and waters submerged the face of life, 
and the earth convulsed, and that god 
rushed to me, beseeching, “Noah, save the living!” 
I would not concern myself with his request. 
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead. 
I would open the depths of their being to the flood, 
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,   
that we have emerged from the cave, 
that we have changed the sky of years, 
that we sail without giving in to our fears— 
that we do not heed the word of that god. 
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair, 
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred, 
heedless of that god and his word, 
longing for a different, a new, lord.

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A Ninth Century Prayer for Yom Kippur

Leopold Pilichowski, “Yom Kippur”

Saturday – Yom Kippur

As today is Yom Kippur, I’m posting last year’s post on the Jewish holiday, along with links to previous Yom Kippur posts. G’mar Hatima Tova (which is to say, “May you be sealed in the Book of Life”).

Reprinted from October 8, 2016

I have been reading up on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews gather to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. Yesterday I came across Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur. “Avodah” is the name of the Yom Kippur service.

According to editors and translators Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, the Avodah service, which dates back to the centuries following the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., has always featured a rich and complex poetry. They say that though this poetry was “suppressed by generations of rabbis,”

its ornamental beauty and its deep exploration of sacred stories ensured its popularity for centuries. This literature, which produced dozens of poets and thousands of compositions before the rise of Islam, was barely known to us until the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a treasury of discarded medieval Jewish manuscripts, at the end of the nineteenth century. It could be argued that the discovery of this literature is in fact second only in importance among discoveries of Hebrew literary texts to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for our understanding of ancient Judaism, for it preserves linguistic forms, myths, and ways of thinking that we would not have known from Talmudic literature.

Here’s one ninth-century poem in which we see the poet asking the congregation’s permission “to entreat God on their behalf.” The poem would have preceded a key prayer. I like how it asks for the courage to speak without fear or treachery.

I implore the Rock of eternity,
Who has knowledge of the life of the innocent;
As I cast my eyes to the heavens,
I ask permission from the Merciful One.
And so too when I stand before the wise,
Who hear words from the truthful,
Who understand words of law:
I ask permission from the wise.
I look out at the congregation of the noble
And am fearful of the One who humbles and raises,
And of those standing behind me and before me as a fence.
I ask permission from the righteous,
The seed of the faithful,
Believers, sons of believers,
Who explore the law and understand.
I ask permission from priests,
Those who [ ] goodness on my behalf,
Who are satiated with good teaching and instruction.
I open my mouth with the permission of Levites,
Those who honor this day and fast,
and respond, “Holy, holy, holy”
And teach scripture and Mishnah diligently.
I open my mouth with permission of azanim [the listeners],
Those who are skilled in the subtleties of books,
Abiding in the shade of the One who dwells in mystery,
Who sing sweet, pleasant words.
I open my mouth with permission of scribes,
Those who eternally elevate the Living One,
Who say prayer before Him,
Who stand before the One who makes mountains.
I open my mouth with permission of those who recite liturgy,
Those who recite the specific and general,
Who sweep behind like water,
Who recite righteousness and justice.
I open my mouth with permission of singers,
Those who lend strong voices in melody,
Let their cry before You be pleasing.
May You consider the melody of my tongue,
I open my mouth with permission of the whole people.
O Almighty, as You forgive treachery,
Listen to my entreaties from above;
Grant me a pure heart that I may speak without fear or treachery.
I open my mouth with permission of the entire congregation.

Previous Yom Kippur posts

Adrienne Rich’s Yom Kippur Thoughts about Conflict 

Jane Kenyon: Thirsting of Disordered Souls

Rashani: Out of Darkness, Sanctified into Being 

Stanley Kunitz: Live in the Layers, Not on the Litter 

Philip Schultz: Believe in the Utter Sweetness of Your Life  

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Update on My Heart Condition

Enrique Simonet y Lombardo, “The Autopsy” (1890)


Readers, friends, and relatives have been asking for an update on last week’s pericarditis episode so here goes, along with a Henry Fielding diagnosis.

 At present, every doctor I’ve talked to sees this as a one-off event. Apparently a virus inflamed my heart’s membrane, causing it to rub up against the heart (thus the chest pains). In severe cases, this can stop the heart, but with me, anti-inflammatory medication went to work almost immediately so that I was pain-free by the following day. I am back to teaching my classes but I return straight home afterwards as I wait for the virus to leave my body.

The viruses that lead to pericarditis are often a mystery, but I’ve got a theory about mine. I think the week I spent with my dying friend Rachel in a Bronx hospital took an emotional toll that decimated my immune system.  A recent Washington Post article about “empathy fatigue” lays out the dangers. At one point, it cites a study of parents and depressed adolescents:

The more empathic the parent, the researchers found, the more likely that person was to be experiencing chronic low-grade inflammation. The researchers speculate, “Parents who readily engage with the struggles and perspectives of others may leave themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to better help others.”

The article goes on to advise “compassionate empathy” over “emotional empathy”:

With emotional empathy, you actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotion. This is the type of response that, left unchecked, can lead to caretaker burnout, says [psychology professor Jamil] Zaki.

And then there’s compassionate empathy, where you feel concern about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to help the person in need.

Looking back, I didn’t protect myself with a compassionate approach but felt wrenched by Rachel’s pain. I returned to Maryland exhausted and had to drag myself through the first week of classes. My respect for professional caregivers, already high, skyrocketed.

In Fielding’s example from Tom Jones, Dr. Blifil is betrayed by his brother and leaves Squire Allworthy’s house a shattered man. Fielding offers the following explanation for his subsequent death:

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

Blifil is emotionally battered in part because of his brother’s ingratitude—Blifil aided in his mercenary marriage to Bridget Allworthy—in part because of his own guilt over the affair. Guilt combined with sorrow proves to be a lethal combination:

He once intended to acquaint Allworthy with the whole; but he could not bring himself to submit to the confession, by which he must take to his share so great a portion of guilt.

Guilt that I could not do more entered into my own interactions with Rachel. I underestimated the overall impact.

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Facebook Escapes Its Creator

Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster (1931)


Facebook is finally admitting that Russia used it as a conduit for targeted advertising that influenced the 2016 election. A New York Times article cites Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to comment on the significance..

No doubt you will make the connection right away. Kevin Roose writes,

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, nobody could have imagined its becoming a censorship tool for repressive regimes, an arbiter of global speech standards or a vehicle for foreign propagandists…

 “They still see themselves as a technology middleman,” said Mr. García Martínez. “Facebook is not supposed to be an element of a propaganda war. They’re completely not equipped to deal with that.”

Roose thought of Frankenstein after Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, responding to how advertisers targeted users with offensive terms like “Jew hater,” wrote, “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way.”

Here’s Dr. Frankenstein’s parallel confession in the 1818 novel:

I had been the author of unalterable evils, and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.

Frankenstein goes to engages in the same denial that we have been witnessing with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, running away when he sees the dark side of his creation. Eventually he must face up to the consequences, however, as the monster goes on to kill his brother, his best friend, and his young bride. Zuckerberg should take up a version of Frankenstein’s final mission, which is to contain the damage he has unleashed upon the world. It won’t be easy as the monster has the ability to leap from ice flow to ice flow–or in the case of Facebook, from continent to continent and from targeted demographic to targeted demographic.

One further thought on Shelley’s novel: I’ve been writing this blog for over eight years and am struck by the number of times Frankenstein has been cited by columnists and other public figures. Often the GOP is seen as the inventor and its extremists (including Donald Trump) as the monster. Other works that show up in the public forum time and again are the Faust story, Alice in Wonderland, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“the best lack all conviction…”), The Crucible, and 1984.

Consider it our common literary heritage. As E.D. Hirsch observes in his book Cultural Literacy, shared literary works allow us to communicate powerfully and effectively. Roose’s Frankenstein allusion succinctly captures Facebook’s naiveté, its arrogance, and the scope of its (and our) dilemma. All who are aware of the Frankenstein story understand immediately.

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Free Speech on College Campuses


I see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has added his voice to those attacking universities as enemies of free speech. In today’s column, I don’t want to discuss which side of the political spectrum is most hypocritical in this regard—Washington Post’s Sarah Posner notes that the Trump administration wouldn’t fare well if Sessions’s “political correctness” were changed to “ethno-nationalistic conformity”–but rather look at what is going on with college students. Polls indicate that there is indeed less tolerance for free speech, and I believe this arises from the fact that the issues have become more personal. By this I mean that students are less likely to be tolerant when they themselves and their friends are the targets of offensive speech. I’ll elaborate in a moment.

In a recent New York Times column, conservative columnist Bret Stevens doesn’t understand this as he mourns “the dying art of disagreement.” He invokes his old teacher Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind (1987) was a key work in the culture wars of the late 1980s. Since the book went after multiculturalism’s supposed attacks on dead white male authors, Stevens’s use of Bloom is relevant to this blog. I argue here that neither Stevens nor Bloom appreciate the pressures on today’s students.

Pew reports that intolerance is on the rise, not only amongst college students but amongst millennials generally:

American Millennials are far more likely than older generations to say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups…

Pew observes,

Four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups, while 58% said such speech is OK.

By contrast, only 27% of Gen Xers, 24% of Boomers, and 12% of Silents say that “the government should be able to prevent such speech.”

It is important that high school and college teachers address the issue but, to do so, we must first figure out the why. As someone who sees 18-22-year-olds up close, my own theory is two-fold. I believe that (1) during the Obama years, any number of formerly unrepresented groups felt affirmed in their identities in ways that they never had before; and (2) this meant that rightwing disrespect hurts in a new way, especially when some of that speech is directed against newly won rights (as in the case of same-sex marriage). Just as people are much more upset at having medical care taken away from them than not having it in the first place, so people react more vigorously at the withdrawal of newly acquired social acceptance.

To get specific, it now hurts more than it would have 15 years ago for LBGTQ persons to be told that they are abominations in the eyes of God and should be denied service. Now that there has been an African American president, it hurts more for African Americans to be humiliated by police. When young people encounter bigoted speech—speech, furthermore, that can lead to policy changes—then they feel far more threatened. I think this is why many want to police speech.

Just because I sympathize, however, doesn’t mean that I agree with these millennials. As unpleasant as it is, they must allow even Nazis to voice their ideas (as long as it’s not hate speech that incites people to violence, which is a crime). The First Amendment is sacrosanct and, if that’s not enough, there are practical reasons. If you try to shut other people up, they will try to shut you up—and right now those others have the president and people with guns in their corner.

When Stevens calls for college students to engage in the art of disagreement, he doesn’t look at these identity issues. For him, the prospect of black student drivers getting shot by police or LBGTQ students being fired are just abstract arguments. That’s why he can so cavalierly say that college debates should be above politics. Here’s how he describes his University of Chicago “great books” education:

What was it that one learned through a great books curriculum? Certainly not “conservatism” in any contemporary American sense of the term. We were not taught to become American patriots, or religious pietists, or to worship what Rudyard Kipling called “the Gods of the Market Place.” We were not instructed in the evils of Marxism, or the glories of capitalism, or even the superiority of Western civilization.

As I think about it, I’m not sure we were taught anything at all. What we did was read books that raised serious questions about the human condition, and which invited us to attempt to ask serious questions of our own. Education, in this sense, wasn’t a “teaching” with any fixed lesson. It was an exercise in interrogation.

To listen and understand; to question and disagree; to treat no proposition as sacred and no objection as impious; to be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the habits of an open mind — this is what I was encouraged to do by my teachers at the University of Chicago.

As this blog makes abundantly clear, I’m all in favor of teaching the great books. I’ve just finished teaching Plato, Aristotle, and Horace in my Senior Seminar, and I have a partially sympathetic section in my upcoming book on Bloom, Stevens’s Chicago mentor. As a white student, however, Stevens could focus on pure philosophy and pure literature and didn’t have to worry about the messy business of living in a prejudiced society. Not having to worry is what entitlement looks like.

Let’s look at what this supposedly politics-free study looks like to Bloom. In Closing of the American Mind he writes,

Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives. The fact that this kind of humanity exists or existed, and that we can somehow still touch it with the tips of our outstretched fingers, makes our imperfect humanity, which we can no longer bear, tolerable. The books in their objective beauty are still there, and we must help protect and cultivate the delicate tendrils reaching out toward them through the unfriendly soil of students’ souls.

Part of me is lifted up by the passage and part of me focuses on those “accidental lives.” When students come to college, they certainly want to believe that it doesn’t matter what class, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality they are. That’s why they are so hurt when suddenly they find themselves stereotyped and treated differently. Many would love it if everyone saw these dimensions of them as peripheral rather than defining. They just don’t have that luxury.

So they notice if Joseph Conrad characterizes Africans as a howling mob or if Richard Sheridan gives us a stereotyped Jewish moneylender in School for Scandal or if Shakespeare leaves the homosexual Antonio bereft and alone at the end of Twelfth Night. Once they’ve noticed that, my job is show them that, rather than dismissing these writers as dead white men, they can use the works to arrive at complex understandings of how people use literature to negotiate their lives—how, for instance, Shakespeare subversively gives voice to hidden and forbidden LBGTQ longings.

Actually, let me amend that. My job is to introduce the work, provide historical context, and then let them debate the issues that arise. Disagreements make for lively class discussion. In the end, like Stevens and Bloom, I want them to think for themselves.

I can understand why Stevens went to Chicago to study with Bloom. Bloom seemed to promise membership in a special meritocratic elite who use the great books as springboards. Consider the following:

The real community of man is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent that they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it…This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found.  

Bloom says that the students who take up the challenge should be our country’s leaders. Those “who are most likely to take advantage of a liberal education,” he believes, are those who will have “the greatest moral and intellectual effect on the nation.”

I wanted to be part of such a group when I went off to college, and it is my goal as a teacher to turn out leaders. I also know, however, that many of my students—I teach at a public liberal arts college where 20% of the students are first generation and 20% of them are minority—have to be shown why the authors in an early British literature survey are worth reading. Their “accidental lives” sometimes mean that they don’t initially see the relevance.

Once they understand what’s at stake, however, wonderful growth occurs. But our starting point must be respect–I must respect them and they must respect each other–and this respect can only arise if we acknowledge each others’ realities. It is lack of respect that rubs them wrong, and instinctively they want to ban it. A key job for us teachers is to help them handle disrespect in more productive ways.

Further thought: Georgetown professors and students showed one way to productively practice free speech as they protested Sessions’s speech, revealing a telling instance of hypocrisy. Huffington Post reports,

“The American university was once the center of academic freedom ― a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” Sessions told an invite-only audience at Georgetown University’s law school. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Sessions delivered his speech as the Justice Department prepares to retry a woman who laughed at him during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. The department’s continued prosecution of Desiree Fairooz was mentioned in an open letter signed by several members of the Georgetown law school faculty that said Sessions was a poor spokesman for the values of free speech.

Meanwhile New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a liberal whose free speech advocacy periodically gets him in trouble with the left, observed that the Trump administration wants free speech only on college campuses:

The theme of Sessions’s address is that universities have become an “echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” The charge is not altogether false, but Sessions would have at least some chance to maintain his dignity if not for his boss’s decision to publicly and repeatedly demand the firing of professional athletes who offend his own fragile ego.

Chait further points out that Trump

has devoted his life to the use of power to quash expressions of speech he disapproves of. Trump sued reporter Tim O’Brien for accurately reporting on his inflated claims of wealth. He sued architecture critic George Gapp for criticizing the aesthetic of a proposed Trump building. He and his organization have done this thousands of times


Far from discarding this practice, Trump has made it a lodestar of his political career. He has declared the mainstream news media “the enemy of the American people” and worked assiduously behind the scenes to lock down the support of the quasi-state media at Fox News. He has repeatedly threatened to revise libel laws so that the threats he used so effectively in business could become even more effective.

Our students must realize that, above all, the first amendment is a bulwark against abuse of power. Underrepresented groups stand most to gain from protecting it.

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Will Ships Be Sent to Puerto Rico?

The Iwo Jima sailed to Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake


The devastation that category 4 Hurricane Maria has visited upon Puerto Rico is beyond imagining, but it’s not as though we lack resources to help. After all, when an earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, the United States responded in force, treating the country (so Time reported) as its 51st state:

Within two hours of the quake, one of the globe’s biggest warships, the carrier USS Carl Vinson, was ordered from off the Virginia coast toward Haiti, swapping its jet fighters for heavy-lift helicopters as it steamed south at top speed. Three ships, including the Vinson and the hospital ship USNS Comfort, boast state-of-the-art medical facilities that will care for injured Haitians. Thousands of troops are on their way to Haiti or already there, running the airport and clearing ports for many more to follow. Up to 10,000 troops will be in Haiti or floating just offshore by Monday.

 We should do at least this much for Puerto Rico, which essentially is our 51st state and whose people are all American citizens. To date, however, Donald Trump appears to be doing nothing.

But it’s not too late. I imagine ships sailing to the rescue as they do during the siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. The moment is dramatic, as Trump suddenly ordering the Navy to Puerto Rico would be, because it comes at a moment when hope seems lost.

Gondor is fighting a desperate battle against Mordor’s allies and then is dealt a final blow when the black sails of the Corsairs of Umbar appear on the river. Éomer, realizing that the end is nigh, prepares to die bravely:

Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.

Unbeknownst to Éomer, however, Aragorn and his men, elves and dwarfs have captured the ships, which are consequently filled with allies, not enemies. In a sudden turnaround, despair is replaced by joy:

And then wonder took [Éomer], and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.

Tolkien shifts into full epic mode as he announces that help is on the way:

Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor; and the mirth of the Rohirrim was a torrent of laughter and a flashing of swords, and the joy and wonder of the City was a music of trumpets and a ringing of bells. But the hosts of Mordor were seized with bewilderment, and a great wizardry it seemed to them that their own ships should be filled with their foes; and a black dread fell on them, knowing that the tides of fate had turned against them and their doom was at hand.

Unfortunately, even if ships arrive, Puerto Rico faces daunting obstacles. Towns have been wiped out, 80% of its crops and livestock have been destroyed, the power grid may not be up and running for another six months, and the island still faces mudslides and flooding. With help, however, the Puerto Ricans should be able to clamber back

The ships have got to show up first, however.

Update: Things are starting to change: This from Trump yesterday:

Puerto Ricans are American citizens just like the rest of us, and their home has been devastated beyond comprehension by Hurricane Maria. Tomorrow I will ask Congress to pass an emergency $10 billion bill to provide temporary housing throughout the island and to rebuild following the devastation. I expect this to have bipartisan support and to pass by the end of the week. It will take time to ramp up this effort, so in the meantime I have ordered the military to begin rescue and resupply missions as its top priority. This is what Americans expect from their government, and we won’t rest until the job is done.

Of course, Trump had to add some snide comments via Twitter:

Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble…

…It’s old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….

…owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities – and doing well. 

So the good news is that boats are on the way. The bad news is that Trump implies that unworthy Puerto Rico (unlike Texas and Florida) deserves the disaster.

Oh, and with 40% of the population lacking access to drinkable water, no one thinks that Puerto Rico is “doing well.”

Further updates: Not-so-good news: for some reason, the Navy so far has not sent the UNS Comfort, which has been used for previous hurricanes. According to The Miami Herald,

The Navy ship is, in the simplest terms, a hospital at sea.

The website calls the Comfort a “medical treatment facility,” whose primary mission is to “provide rapid, flexible and mobile acute health service support to Marine Corps, Army and Air Force units deployed ashore, and naval amphibious task and battle forces afloat.” The 1,000-bed ship’s secondary mission is for disaster and/or humanitarian relief.

It was at the ready last year for victims of Hurricane Matthew.

And then this:

On Tuesday, Nathan Potter, of the Naval public affairs office, told The Miami Herald that the vessel was currently docked in Norfolk and had “no plans to deploy.”

Update: The Comfort is now on the way.

Yet another shipping update, this one not so good: According to The Hillthe Trump administration is refusing “to waive shipping restrictions to help get gasoline and other supplies to Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria,” even though it did so with previous hurricanes. According to John McCain, who is advocating for the waiver, this means that “the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.” Trump tweeted that he didn’t want to do so because it was objectionable to shipping companies.

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Trump in Chaucer, Shakespeare & Conrad


I have two Trump items today. First, at the risk of taking too lightly what is a very, very serious situation, I have some thoughts on the epithet  that Kim Jong-un hurled at Donald Trump in their escalating exchange. The Wife of Bath applies the word “dotard” to her three old husbands and Goneril speaks of the dotage of her father in King Lear. There are so many resemblances between those old men and Donald Trump that my respect for the North Korean leader’s perspicacity goes up considerably.

Jong-un apparently called Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.” According to Webster’s, “dotage” means “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” A dotard is one who is in such a state.

The Wife of Bath blasts her dotard husbands because they are full of misogynist bluster, even though they don’t have the courage to voice their attacks directly to her. Weak and toothless complaining, therefore, is one characteristic of a dotard.

The other literary use of the word is more disturbing. Goneril is refusing to house her father’s 100 knights. In his dotage, she says, there’s a chance that he will turn those knights against her. She’s being sarcastic when she says “politic and safe.” She’s genuinely worried that a rumor (“buzz”) or complaint could unleash the knights:

This man hath had good counsel:–a hundred knights!
‘Tis politic and safe to let him keep
At point a hundred knights: yes, that, on every dream,
Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,
He may enguard his dotage with their powers,
And hold our lives in mercy. 

Trump has many more than 100 knights at his command, and who knows what buzz, fancy, complaint or dislike might not set him off. In the play, Lear sends his country down the road to civil war, and his American equivalent is doing his best to divide America against itself. An unbridled narcissist with a lot of power can do immense damage. Pray that Trump isn’t setting a Lear-like tragedy in motion.

My second Trump note has to do with his appalling comment to African leaders at the United Nations, which makes him sound like Willy’s fantasy in Death of a Salesman or one of the colonialists in Heart of Darkness. Here’s what Trump said:

I’ve so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.

Willy fantasizes about his brother Ben, who supposedly went to Africa and came out with a fortune. Nothing is said of the blood spilled by the colonial powers to obtain Africa’s mineral resources:

The jungle is dark but full of diamonds, Willy.

Conrad’s Europeans think the same way, of course. Marlow must do all in his power to stay free of their money obsession:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. 

The worship of money corrupts Kurtz and it is corrupting Trump and all who come within his orbit, including GOP legislators and rightwing evangelicals. He has revealed the taint of capitalism’s imbecilic rapacity for all to see.

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Dissolving into the Glories of the Sun

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s Old Testament readings is the story of the manna in the wilderness. Jesus references the story when preaching about spiritual sustenance, and Andrew Marvell does the same in his poem “On a Drop of Dew.”

First, here is God taking care of the starving Israelites:

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.”

Jesus pushes the lesson further when talking to the crowds that have witnessed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes:

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

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

In Marvell’s poem, the drop of dew is the soul entering the world and living in uneasy relationship with it. Though the rose upon which it sits is beautiful, the dewdrop still never entirely accommodates itself (“careless of its mansion new”) but longs to return to its celestial home:

But gazing back upon the skies,
Shines with a mournful light,
Like its own tear,
Because so long divided from the sphere.
   Restless it rolls and unsecure,
      Trembling lest it grow impure,
   Till the warm sun pity its pain,   
And to the skies exhale it back again.

The poem resembles Henry Vaughan’s “The Waterfall,” in which the water that goes over the falls (comes to earth) evaporates back to heaven. Both poems, meanwhile, anticipate Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, where the soul enters the world “trailing clouds of glory” and longs to reconnect with the great soul from whence it flows. Beautiful though our earthly existence may be, death loses it sting when we think of our souls dissolving “into the glories of th’ almighty sun”:

How loose and easy hence to go,
   How girt and ready to ascend,
   Moving but on a point below,
   It all about does upwards bend.

The manna image appears in the final quatrain of Marvell’s poem. The heaven-sent food, like the dewdrop, mysteriously appeared on earth to feed the Israelites and then just as mysteriously vanished the following day. Our own souls follow a similar path. Here’s the poem:

On a Drop of Dew

By Andrew Marvell

See how the orient dew,
Shed from the bosom of the morn   
   Into the blowing roses,
Yet careless of its mansion new,
For the clear region where ’twas born   
   Round in itself incloses:
   And in its little globe’s extent,
Frames as it can its native element.
How it the purple flow’r does slight,   
      Scarce touching where it lies,
But gazing back upon the skies,   
      Shines with a mournful light,
         Like its own tear,
Because so long divided from the sphere.
   Restless it rolls and unsecure,
      Trembling lest it grow impure,
   Till the warm sun pity its pain,   
And to the skies exhale it back again.
      So the soul, that drop, that ray   
Of the clear fountain of eternal day,   
Could it within the human flow’r be seen,
      Remembering still its former height,
     Shuns the sweet leaves and blossoms green,
      And recollecting its own light,
Does, in its pure and circling thoughts, express
The greater heaven in an heaven less.   
      In how coy a figure wound,   
      Every way it turns away:   
      So the world excluding round,   
      Yet receiving in the day,
      Dark beneath, but bright above,
      Here disdaining, there in love.
   How loose and easy hence to go,
   How girt and ready to ascend,
   Moving but on a point below,
   It all about does upwards bend.
Such did the manna’s sacred dew distill,   
White and entire, though congealed and chill,   
Congealed on earth: but does, dissolving, run   
Into the glories of th’ almighty sun.

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How Tolstoy Would Judge Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions goes after DACA kids


America is very understandably focusing on the actions of Donald Trump as he heightens the chances of nuclear conflagration with North Korea, but there are plenty of other Trump officials and Republican legislators who are threatening metaphorical blow-ups. As I listen to Tolstoy’s magnificent final novel Resurrection, I think of Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, who wants to deport the DACA kids, ramp up the failed war on drugs, increase prison sentences (at the same time that he owns stock in private prisons), crack down on legalized marijuana, and undo restrictions on police brutality.

Not one to mince words, Tolstoy would regard Sessions as a self-satisfied and corrupt perpetrator of evil.

Tolstoy’s protagonist, a nobleman named Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, finds himself fighting for prison reform after witnessing a gross miscarriage of justice. Like Sessions, Nekhlyudov is a Christian, but unlike the attorney general he takes his Christianity seriously. Drawing on the Book of Matthew, he has harsh words for people like Sessions:

The thought that seemed strange at first and paradoxical or even to be only a joke, being confirmed more and more often by life’s experience, suddenly appeared as the simplest, truest certainty. In this way the idea that the only certain means of salvation from the terrible evil from which men were suffering was that they should always acknowledge themselves to be sinning against God, and therefore unable to punish or correct others, because they were dear to Him. It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails and the quiet self-satisfaction of the perpetrators of this evil were the consequences of men trying to do what was impossible; trying to correct evil while being evil themselves; vicious men were trying to correct other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means, and the only consequence of all this was that the needs and the cupidity of some men induced them to take up this so-called punishment and correction as a profession, and have themselves become utterly corrupt, and go on unceasingly depraving those whom they torment. Now he saw clearly what all the terrors he had seen came from, and what ought to be done to put a stop to them. The answer he could not find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was that we should forgive always an infinite number of times because there are no men who have not sinned themselves, and therefore none can punish or correct others.

And what of genuine evildoers? Tolstoy points out that our punishments don’t prevent crime. “Pity and love,” not law and order, sustain society:

For many centuries people who were considered criminals have been tortured. Well, and have they ceased to exist? No; their numbers have been increased not alone by the criminals corrupted by punishment but also by those lawful criminals, the judges, procurers, magistrates and jailers, who judge and punish men. Nekhludoff now understood that society and order in general exist not because of these lawful criminals who judge and punish others, but because in spite of men being thus depraved, they still pity and love one another.

Tolstoy’s final comments in Resurrection have to do with serving the greater good. Citing Luke’s parable of the wicked husbandmen (20:9-19), he describes public duties as a sacred trust. The duty of our elected and appointed officials should be to the people, not to themselves. Only by honoring that duty can people be truly happy:

The husbandman imagined that the vineyard in which they were sent to work for their master was their own, that all that was in was made for them, and that their business was to enjoy life in this vineyard, forgetting the Master and killing all those who reminded them of his existence. “Are we do not doing the same,” Nekhludoff thought, “when we imagine ourselves to be masters of our lives, and that life is given us for enjoyment? This evidently is an incongruity. We were sent here by some one’s will and for some reason. And we have concluded that we live only for our own joy, and of course we feel unhappy as laborers do when not fulfilling their Master’s orders. The Master’s will is expressed in these commandments. If men will only fulfill these laws, the Kingdom of Heaven will be established on earth, and men will receive the greatest good that they can attain to.

Our previous president understood this. On his first day on the job, President Obama announced,

Public service is a privilege. It’s not about advantaging yourself. It’s not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It’s not about advancing an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization. Public service is simply and absolutely about advancing the interests of Americans.

There are legitimate debates, of course, about what advances the interests of Americans. We can all agree, however, that corrupt husbandmen who think they own the vineyard should not be running things.

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Famous Physicians to the Rescue

E. H. Shepard, “Wheezles and Sneezles”


I’m back home after a scare. As I reported yesterday, I was flown to the MedStar Washington Hospital Tuesday afternoon because the doctors feared I was having a heart attack. Once there, however, I learned that I had pericarditis, which they treated and then sent me home 24 hours later. I am tired but otherwise feel normal.

The doctors are mystified by what triggered the attack, which puts them in the same category as the doctors in the poem I share with you today.

The experience had two very different phases. The first one was agonizingly slow. First I was awakened by intense pain in the middle of a night that never seemed to end. This was followed by a 10 am doctor’s appointment that involved a 30 minute wait; a slow 10-mile drive up the road (so I wouldn’t have an accident); and an EKG exam that involved a 90 minute wait.

Then, once the nurse saw the test results, everything speeded up. I was hurried to the emergency room, strapped onto a stretcher while they shouted questions at me (including how I would rate my pain), put in a helicopter, and rushed to the hospital. There I was greeted by three doctors who shouted more questions as they inserted a catheter. I had the experience that Christopher Robin, for whom I was named, has when he comes down with wheezles and sneezles:

Christopher Robin 
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him 
His bed.
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head.
They wondered
If wheezles
Could turn
Into measles,
If sneezles 
Would turn
Into mumps;
They examined his chest
For a rash,
And the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
In sneezles
And wheezles
To tell them what ought
To be done.

All sorts and conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.
They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
Came first.
They said, “If you teazle
A sneezle
Or wheezle,
A measle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
The wheezle
Or sneezle,
The measle 
Will certainly go.”
They expounded the reazles 
For sneezles
And wheezles,
The manner of measles
When new.
They said “If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
May even ensue.”

I was one of the lucky patients in that I duplicated Christopher Robin’s subsequent experience. The anti-inflammatories did their miraculous work, and I am back at home now, thinking of the past 36 hours as a bad dream:

Christopher Robin
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them to-day?”

My thanks to all of you who wished me well–to my wife Julia, who flew up from Tennessee; to my colleagues who covered my classes; to my friends Chris and Jean, who picked us up at the hospital; and to all who sent notes and put me in their prayers. The sneezles have in fact vanished away.

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The Crushing Pain of a Heart Episode


I write a short blog post today as I am in MedStar Washington Hospital Center after suffering what first appeared to be a heart attack. The urgency was such that they transported me by helicopter to the cardiac ward, but now they’re thinking it’s something else. Pericardial disease mimics heart attacks.

In retrospect, I should have called 9-1-1 when what felt like iron bands started squeezing my chest.  Instead I gutted it out, surviving the long dark night with visions of Giles Corey from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. 

Elizabeth tells the story:

Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead aye or nay. (With a tender smile for the old man): They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.

I myself called for less weight, not more. Nevertheless, I could feel noble when I thought of Giles’s suffering. When we are looking for consolation, we will take what we can get.

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Handmaid’s Emmy, A Sign of Its Urgency

Both Moss (right) and “Handmaid’s Tale” won Emmys this past Sunday


The Handmaid’s Tale winning an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series gives me an excuse to reprint this post from this past spring, when the series began.

To win such an award often requires timeliness as well as quality. Teaching Euripides’s The Bacchae this past week reaffirmed for me my sense that unapologetic feminism is making a comeback as I’ve never seen so many of my women students focus on Pentheus’s misogyny. (See a past post on The Bacchae here.) Thanks to the alt-right, grandstanding GOP legislators, and Donald Trump, these students see Pentheus’s ravings as the projections of a repressed control freak. How else to explain the following hysteria?

No sooner does one venture on a journey
than rumor plagues the town and things get out of hand.
Our women, I am told, have left their homes,
in a religious trance—what travesty!–

and scamper up and down the wooded mountains, dancing…

[Their] performance reeks more of Aphrodite than of Bacchus…

I’ll put a stop this orgiastic filth!


Take my word
when women are allowed to feast on wine, there is no telling
to what lengths their filthy minds will go!

Here’s last April’s post on Handmaid’s Tale:

Reprinted from April 26, 2017

With Hulu set to release The Handmaid’s Tale tomorrow, I have gathered together all the posts I’ve written on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic. As several observers have pointed out, the series, which would have seemed merely interesting had Hillary Clinton been elected president, seems urgent now that we have a “pussy grabber” in the White House and learn more daily about the toxic misogynist culture at Fox News.

Nor would things be much better if Donald Trump were impeached. Mike Pence not only is a firm opponent of abortion, Planned Parenthood, and various forms of birth control, but he even fears being alone with women. The religious right salivates over the prospect of either Trump or Pence replacing the aging Ginsburg and Breyer with rightwing justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. Atwood reminds us that the desire to control women’s bodies never entirely leaves political conversations.

Those rightwing women who have signed up for the campaign should be wary, however. Sarah Jones’s recent New Republic article advises women like Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway to read Handmaid’s Tale as it has lessons for them as well. If they lash their wagons to misogynist men, they may end up like the frustrated Serena Joy, a powerful woman who helps bring the fundamentalists to power and then finds herself confined to her husband’s home.

Jones describes how reading Handmaid’s Tale while attending a religious college prompted her to leave the church. She was struck by how, at her school, rightwing women used feminism’s tools to advance measures designed to oppress women. This is exactly what happens in Atwood’s novel:

My alma mater capitalized on the “pro-woman” claims established by Schlafly and her ilk. Their greatest achievement was to take a language of female empowerment from the women’s movement and turn it to their own purposes. No one has noted this inversion more ruefully than Atwood. Offred’s mother, we are told, was a second-wave feminist. She envisioned a porn-free society that would largely exclude men. “You wanted a women’s culture,” Offred imagines telling her. “Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

In the Tale, this paradox is exemplified not just by Serena Joy but by Aunt Lydia. Cruder and lower-ranked, Aunt Lydia is the hand that wields the cattle prod. She’s charged with the re-education of future Handmaids, and she accomplishes this by emphasizing both the high value of women and the necessity of their oppression. “A thing is valued,” she teaches, “only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls…. Think of yourselves as pearls.” Serena Joy chose her life. Lydia is empowered to attack other women with a cattle prod. Both are proof that women are represented in Gilead’s power structure. If feminism is only about representation, choice, or some vaguely sketched notion of empowerment, it is difficult to say our Serena Joys and our Aunt Lydias are not feminists.

Feminism has to stand up for the freedom of all women, not just some women, Jones says:

The Handmaid’s Tale does more than present a possible future: It asks us to consider how we’d end up there. A form of feminism that celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed, will usher us into fascism. Feminism means something. Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too. Allow an antichoice woman to call herself a feminist, and you have ceded political territory that you cannot afford to lose. Stripped of political meaning, “feminist” becomes an entirely subjective term that anyone with any agenda can use.

Fortunately we’re not in Atwood’s world yet, perhaps because we haven’t had the environmental or nuclear cataclysm that Atwood sees as a necessary precondition. But like many liberals since the election, I have taken to periodically reminding myself, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Atwood’s masterpiece helps us remain vigilant.

Previous posts on The Handmaid’s Tale

GOP Christians Send Readers to Atwood (Feb. 2017)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is topping bestseller lists at the moment. The reason is probably because of the GOP’s prospect of success in curbing reproductive freedom.

Schlafly, Model for Atwood’s Serena Joy (Sept. 2016)

Recently deceased Phyllis Schlafly served as the model for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “Handmaid’s Tale.” Because Serena Joy gets the society she says she wants, however, her life turns bitter. Schlafly was lucky to live in a society that allowed women to have their own careers.

Teaching Gender Sensitivity at West Point (Feb. 2015)

Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is required reading for entering West Point cadets. Good things could happen.

Is Atwood’s Dystopia Coming True (July 2013)

With the rise in state legislatures passing anti-abortion legislation, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” seems more relevant than ever.

Threatened by Female Empowerment (Oct. 2012)

Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” addresses issues raised by the Taliban shooting of a Pakistani school girl and also speaks to our abortion fights.


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No Miss Havisham for Hillary

Charles Green, “Miss Havisham”


I haven’t read Hillary Clinton’s account of the 2016 election, but New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister points out a literary allusion she uses that reflects well on her. Traister’s article is about the pressure on women to hide their anger:

So internalized is women’s impulse to paper over their ire that Clinton writes about how, in the weeks after her loss, she prayed “to stay hopeful and openhearted rather than becoming cynical and bitter … so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham … rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.”

Traister observes,

This is what women have been taught that rage might do to us: We are so sure that our resentments — especially any resentments toward men — are corrosive, and make us appear pathetic and vengeful, that we ask for divine help to simply stop feeling them.

Because of our double standard, Traister observes, Clinton

never could have turned around and screamed at Trump, never could have slashed her finger through the air and called for revolution in the style of Bernie Sanders, at least not if she had any hope of winning the presidency. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and there is almost nothing that Americans view as more repellent in women than anger…

Traister names other women who have been targeted for their anger:

When California senator Kamala Harris and Jeff Sessions tussled during his Senate Intelligence hearings in the spring, Trump adviser Jason Miller described Sessions as full of “vinegar and fire in his belly,” while he deemed Harris “hysterical.” (Black women, with perhaps more to be mad about in America than anyone else, are often regarded as militant monsters when they so much as raise a disapproving eyebrow, or just as often, when someone imagines that they have. Recall the treatment of Michelle Obama in 2008.) After Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dressed down a commandant for failing to address sexual harassment in the military earlier this year, Tucker Carlson called her “positively unglued.” And in response to a righteous post-election rant from Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mika Brzezinski declared, “There’s an anger there that’s shrill … unmeasured and almost unhinged.” 

I agree with Traister about the double standard, but I also commend Clinton for drawing on literature to not becoming consumed by her anger. Miss Havisham, of course, is the jilted bride in Dickens’s Great Expectations who is rendered perpetually bitter by her disappointment. Pip describes his first view of her as follows:

But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

Nor does Miss Havisham confine the bitterness to herself but corrupts a child, turning her into an instrument of revenge. Esther will break hearts just as Miss Havisham’s heart was broken.

That Clinton imagines that she herself has Miss Havisham potential indicates that she never lost touch with her soul. Clinton really, really wanted to be president, just as Miss Havisham really, really wanted to be married. Yet somewhere along the line, Clinton got in touch with a healing perspective. Thank the lord that novels provide us such guidance.

In contrast to Clinton, I have written a blog post on someone who did in fact become Miss Havisham. For Donald Trump, the clocks stopped the moment he won the election. Like Havisham, the remaining bloom went out of his life. Because nothing could ever match election night euphoria, he became an empty husk, always hearkening back to it. Just yesterday he retweeted a GIF of him swinging a golf club and hitting Clinton.

The fact that Clinton was able to make such a shift indicates that she has an inner compass that would have served her well as president. Her Havisham reference shows that she was never the soulless caricature people believed her to be.

Another literary allusion: This was to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

I saw a man off to the side who I thought was Reince Priebus…. We shook hands and exchanged small talk. Later I realized it hadn’t been Priebus at all. It was Jason Chaffetz, the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert who made endless political hay out of my emails and the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi.

Later Chaffetz posted a picture of our handshake with the caption, “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.” What a class act! I came this close to tweeting back, “To be honest, I thought you were Reince.”

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Rosh Hashanah: How To Make It New

Isidor Kaufmann “The New Year”

Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah begins on Tuesday, giving me an excuse to share this stimulating poem by Rachel Barenblat, keeper of the wonderfully named Velveteen Rabbi blog. The Jewish New Year, as you probably know, celebrates the day of creation, and people take the opportunity to examine their lives over the past year and repent.

In her poem, Barenblat asks what we are to make of the fact that lists this year will look pretty much the same as last year. The view of the Creation “that gleams before us” may not have changed, she writes. But we have.


By Rachel Barenblat

How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
and apologies.

We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.

But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its  magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.

We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year’s list
looks just like last.

The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.

By the time we reach the top
we’ve forgotten 
how nervous  we were
that repeating the climb
wasn’t worth the work.

Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it’s different 
from last year
but because we are

and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.

Previous posts on Rosh Hoshanah

Muriel Ruykeyser and Denise Levertov: Rosh Hashanah – A Stirring of Wonder

Marge Piercy: Rosh Hashanah – Weave Real Connections

Enid Shomer: How Rosh Hashanah Is Like Swimming

Amichai Yehuda: Theoretically, a Season for Everything

Emma Lazarus: High above Fire and Flood Ye Held the Scroll

Lucille Clifton: On 9-11 Firemen Ascended Jacob’s Ladder

Rashani: Blowing for Hope in the Face of Darkness

Alicia Ostriker: Enter the Days of Awe

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Murakami Explains Lure of Fascism

White supremacists march in Charlottesville


I’ve just finished teaching The Wild Sheep Chase in my Haruki Murakami first year seminar, and it feels like a different book following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that led to the murder of Heather Heyer.  Murakami helps us understand why some young men are drawn to fascism.

As the title indicates, the novel involves haphazard wandering. The narrator, often referred to as Boku by critics (“boku” is the informal Japanese “I”), must find his friend Rat, who has made contact with a nefarious sheep god. This god has the potential, when it finds a promising host, to take over his mind, turning him into a charismatic authoritarian. In response, society follows his lead as so many sheep.

Genghis Khan, we are told, was taken over by the sheep god, and so was “the Boss,” a character in the book that controls Japan’s advertising industry and many of its politicians but who is now dying. The sheep god sees potential in Rat, Boku’s drinking buddy, and in a very circuitous way Rat has contacted Boku in an attempt to keep from being taken over.

To capture the lure of fascism, Murakami does two things. First, he shows the sterile life that Boku and Rat are living, a life tat consists of soul-sucking office jobs, a series of meaningless relationships, and a lot of drinking in bars. Rat describes the inner weakness that the sheep god feeds on:

Weakness is something that rots in the body. Like gangrene. I’ve felt that ever since I was a teenager. That’s why I was always on edige. There’s this something inside you that’s rotting away and you feel it all along. Can you understand what that’s like?

Rat goes on to describe this weakness as moral weakness, weakness of consciousness, and “weakness of existence itself.”

Extreme ideology takes advantage of this weakness, Rat tells Boku:

“What did the sheep want of you?”

Everything. The whole lock, stock, and barrel. My body, my memory, my weakness, my contradictions…That’s the sort of stuff the sheep really goes for. The bastard’s got all sorts of feelers. It sticks them down your ears and nose like straws and sucks you dry.”

Rat doesn’t say exactly what vision the sheep uses as bait—perhaps the same vision that prompted Hitler’s followers to attend Nuremberg rallies—but he describes what if feels like:

Ând it was enough to draw me in. More than I’d care to confess. It’s not something I can explain in words. It’s like, well, like a blast furnace that smelts down everything it touches. A thing of such beauty, it drives you out of your mind. But it’s hair-raising evil. Give your body over to it and everything goes. Consciousness, values, emotions, pain, everything. Gone. What it comes closest to is a dynamo manifesting the vital force at the root of all life in one solitary point of the universe.

In other words, if you’re tormented by an aimless existence devoid of purpose, then a fascistic cleansing of the mind can resemble a blast furnace that smelts down all complexity into a single dynamo.

What saves Rat is, essentially, his acceptance of his flawed humanity. He knows he must reject fascism’s rush if he is to hold on to his soul:

“So why did you reject it?”…

“I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the smell of a breeze, the sound of cicadas—if I like these things, why should I apologize? The same with having a beer with you…”

By the end of the novel, Boku too has turned down offer to work for the shadowy corporation. Instead, he enters into Rat’s plan to make sure the corporation falls apart and then gives his earnings to help establish a communal bar. (Murakami too ran a bar/jazz club before finding success as a novelist.) Boku gets back in touch with his feelings and, like a classic existential hero, faces the future bruised but free.  Murakami concludes the novel,

I brushed the sand from my trousers and got up, as if I had somewhere to go.

The day had all but ended. I could hear the sound of waves as I started to walk.

It beats chanting “blood and soil” as you carry torches in support of Confederate statues.

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What Our Favorite Books Reveal about Us

Charlotte Weeks, “A Young Girl Reading”


In my Theories of the Reader class, I’m currently having my students write their personal reading histories. This comes after their having read two articles by Freud and an article by Freudian psychologist Norman Holland. Today I explain how these works help the students delve deeper into the meaning of their reading experiences.

In the assignment, the students are to choose three intense encounters that they have had with works of literature and figure out who they were at the time that explains why they had the experience that they did. The works are to come at different stages of their lives—I encourage them to start with a childhood reading encounter—and, in addition to explaining the reading dynamics, they must also figure out a theme that connects that three works. Drawing on Holland’s article “Unity  Identity  Text  Self,” I call this their “identity theme.”

Holland says that, just as works of literature have a unifying theme, so do people. We call this theme our “identity,” which Holland defines by quoting psychologist Heinz Lichtenstein:

When we describe the “character” or “personality” of another person, Lichtenstein shows, we abstract an invariant from “the infinite sequence of bodily and behavioral transformations during the whole life of an individual.” That is, we can be precise about individuality by conceiving of the individual as living out variations on an identity theme much as a musician might play out an infinity of variations on a single melody. We discover that underlying theme by abstracting it from its variations.

Holland wrote his essay in 1975, before the heyday of deconstruction, and we don’t make textual unity the holy grail of literary criticism anymore–just as, perhaps, psychologists don’t still look for a single identity within an individual. Still, even deconstructionists look for an attempted unity, even if only to then blow it up. (Deconstruction’s characteristic move is to show how a seemingly unified text unravels or contains fault lines that have been “sutured.”) In the assignment, I find it useful to have the students look for a central drama to their lives, one which has continued from their childhood to the present day. They often find it clarifying to realize that a childhood struggle is still playing itself out in their lives 15 or 20 years later. At the very least, this is one of their identities.

Holland says that readers replicate their identity in the act of reading:

As readers, each of us will bring different kinds of external information to bear. Each will seek out the particular themes that concern him. Each will have different ways of making the text into an experience with a coherence and significance that satisfies.

Much of Holland’s work has been to explore how this act of replication works. In Poems in Persons, for instance, he shows how different interpretations of a single work can be traced back to the different identities of the readers. In my own assignment, I have the students choose different works—ones with which they have had a strong encounter, whether positive or negative—and then, in the final analysis, find a connecting theme in the reactions they had to those works.

I can report that a theme always emerges. Sometimes it is very clear, as when, say, people uncomfortable with the tradition expectations assigned to their gender find themselves drawn to characters who transgress gender norms. This can be such a painful struggle that the stories and poems they find are immensely reassuring. Likewise, it is not uncommon to find women students identifying a longing to be strong as their identity theme after they have examined their works and reactions. Other identity themes are harder to ferret out, sometimes because the student hasn’t provided enough biographical background or enough detail about the reading experiences. Sometimes it takes a revision to find clarity.

Freud’s essay “The Poet and Daydreaming” proves useful in helping the students understand the meaning of childhood stories. Freud says that, when they play, children are essentially creative writers:

Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it.

One way children to play is by listening to stories. When children demand that their parents read them a particular book 25 or 50 times, they are looking for answers to life’s critical problems as they experience them. Once the issue no longer seems so critical, children will suddenly lose all interest in the story.

While the issues may change as we grow older, our underlying identities don’t. What we find pleasurable remains constant, Freud say. Instead of abandoning our childhood pleasures, we find find adult substitutes or surrogates:

But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams. I believe that most people construct phantasies at times in their lives.

Extending this observation to the act of reading, we can say that, having once enjoyed reading as children, we never give it up but seek for the same pleasure in adult substitutes. One reason my students can find themes through works read at different points in time is because the later books bear some relationship to the earlier ones. It’s just that, having bigger minds now, they demand more complex literary experiences.

In “Poets and Daydreaming,” Freud boils our daydreams—and I would add, our reading wishes—down to two: ambitious wishes and erotic wishes. These, he believes, are gendered male and female, and before we reject his bifurcation too quickly as a 19th century holdover, it’s worth noting that men still lean toward action adventure and women toward romance (although this is gradually changing).

The more important point for my students is that they search out the wishes within their reading experiences.

But wishes aren’t the whole story, as Freud himself came to realize. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he grappled with the fact that we don’t only fantasize wishes but also anxieties. He discovered this from studying the PTSD nightmares of World War I veterans, in which they revisited their trench experiences.

Bringing the fantasy closer to home, Freud tells the story of a child, otherwise well behaved, who was obsessed with throwing toys. In doing so, Freud says, he was replaying the story of abandonment by the mother. Since no fear goes deeper, why would a child replay it, shouting “fort” (gone) as the toy disappeared? Freud also witnessed a variant: the child had a reel attached to a string, which he would first disappear (“fort”) and then retrieve (“da” or “there”). The child would replay the fort/da story and over.

Freud proffers several explanations, but one is that, by articulating his anxiety with the “fort” game, the boy reassured himself that he had control over the situation. He, rather than the mother, determined when the disappearance occurred.

With the fort/da variant, meanwhile, anxieties are followed by reassurance of a happy ending. We visit the fear but then console ourselves that a satisfactory resolution is possible. When we grow up, we never tire of this story, although we do insist on more complexity.

I therefore tell my students to look for the anxieties in their reading experiences as well as the wishes. If we are reading to survive the natural shocks that flesh is heir to, we must revisit those shocks to fully appreciate literature’s power.

When the assignment succeeds, the students come away with a deeper appreciation for the gift of literature. After all, time and again it stepped up to support them in their times of direst need.

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Anger in Ancient Greek Works

Charles-Antoine Coypel, “Fury of Achilles” (1737)


A new book has been released with a subject that is very close to my heart: literature about anger. I have argued that few works deal with anger better than Beowulf, which shows both a range of angers and what it takes to counter their destructive effects. In her recently released Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, however, Emily Katz Anhalt points out that Homer also does a pretty good job in The Iliad, as does Sophocles in Ajax and Euripides in Hecuba.

According to Mary Beard’s New York Times review, Anhalt

offers an engaging and sometimes inspiring guide to the rich complexities of the Iliad. Her underlying point is that, from its earliest origins, Western literature questioned the values of the society that produced it. The Iliad is no jingoistic Greek anthem, proudly celebrating the achievements of its warrior heroes and their struggles for military, political and personal glory (their struggles, as she sums it up, to be “best”). The poem both encapsulates and simultaneously challenges that worldview, by asking what “bestness” is and what the costs of such a competitive culture are.

Anhalt shows that The Iliad is radical in the way that it humanizes the enemy. Beard observes,

As Anhalt rightly insists, by setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families — from the ruminations of the sadly regretful Helen to the encounters between Hector, the Trojan super-warrior, and his young son — Homer destabilizes the traditional “them-and-us” culture of the ancient Greek world, and its conventional polarization between civilization and barbarity. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. In short, as Anhalt writes, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “fully human.”

Then the author applies the lesson to our own times:

Anhalt, however, has bigger points to make. She wants to show that the Iliad and other works of Greek literature (she also examines in detail two fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragedies set in the last days and aftermath of the Trojan War) have direct lessons for the modern world. You can see why. As she makes very clear, dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of North Korea do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do.

In her chapter on Sophocles’s Ajax, meanwhile, Anhalt lays out some of the limitations of group decision making. The awarding of Achilles’s armor to Odysseus, even though Ajax has been the greater warrior, drives Ajax mad with anger:

After his death, the armor of Achilles was unfairly awarded as a prize to Odysseus, not to his rival Ajax — and bloody mayhem came from Ajax’s rage at the decision. Anhalt urges us to look harder, as Sophocles did, at the way democracy works, to face the uncomfortable fact that democratic decisions can be wrong and can sometimes serve the ends of tyranny and ignorance rather than of justice and equality. Her implication that it is the job of a democracy to debate and to deal with democracy’s mistakes as well as to celebrate its successes is important…

In my book How Beowulf Can Save America, I argue that each of the three monsters that Beowulf kills represents a different kind of anger and that Beowulf, in marked contrast to other characters, models an effective response to dealing with each anger. Anhalt doesn’t appear to search within her three texts for antidotes, or at least Beard doesn’t mention any. They do exist, however.

For instance, when Achilles uses revenge therapy to deal with the death of Patroclus, it brings him no peace and even the gods are horrified by his brutality. He then, however, moves to a softer place upon witnessing the grief of Priam, whose son Hector he has killed. By allowing Priam to take Hector’s body, Achilles appears a bigger man than he was when slaughtering Trojans. This is a very human lesson that Homer teaches us.

Beard is disappointed that Anhalt doesn’t offer us better solutions to the problem of violence other than the vapid dictum “it is better to talk about things than fight.” I’m thinking that maybe Anhalt didn’t dig deep enough. When great literature introduces us to a problem, it generally offers up constructive responses.

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Worshipping Our Lord, the Dollar

Fritz Eichenberg, the prisoners at church in “Resurrection”


When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Joel Osteen, a prosperity televangelist who refused to offer his megachurch to storm victims, came in for fierce criticism. He eventually capitulated, but his lack of immediate sympathy points to prosperity theology’s inability to adequately address the problem of human suffering. If you preach that one’s fate is tied to one’s faith, then how do you account for a storm that ravages believers and nonbelievers alike?

I found myself wishing that Leo Tolstoy had gotten a shot at Osteen. In his final novel Resurrection, the author shows what he thinks of those who equate the love of Christ with the love of mammon.

Osteen preaches “prosperity theology,” which a recent Newsweek article defines as

the theological equivalent to the American Dream. The essence of the prosperity gospel is simple: Faith brings rewards, not only in the afterlife—as taught in all mainstream forms of Christianity—but also in the earthly life. These rewards can take the form of health, career success, and, most controversially, wealth.

Newsweek’s Conor Gaffey reports that the most noteworthy adherent of the prosperity gospel is Donald Trump:

The Trump family attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, where the pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a 1952 book that sold millions and was translated into more than a dozen languages. Trump has cited Peale as a mentor, telling the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in 2015 that he could listen to Peale “all day long. And when you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.”

This may help explain some of Trump’s otherwise baffling support from certain evangelicals. Gaffey reports how prosperity preachers are amongst Trump’s close advisers:

The presidential board of evangelical advisers, convened by Trump in 2016 to help him (successfully) court the religious right vote, also comprises of several high-profile prosperity preachers. Trump’s closest spiritual adviser, Paula White, the pastor of a Florida megachurch and popular Christian commentator, is one. White told an audience at a 2007 event: “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan.”

Kenneth Copeland, another Texas televangelist, teaches that “financial prosperity is God’s will for you” and that believers should pray for financial provision from God. (Osteen is not on the board and never officially endorsed Trump’s presidential bid, though he did describe Trump as a “friend of our ministry” and “a good man.”)

While Tolstoy goes after the Russian Orthodox Church rather than a Protestant spinoff, his critique of those who profit from religion still applies. After straightforwardly describing a church service for mistreated Russian prisoners, the novelist unloads:

And none of those present, from the inspector down to Maslova, seemed conscious of the fact that this Jesus, whose name the priest repeated such a great number of times, and whom he praised with all these curious expressions, had forbidden the very things that were being done there; that He had prohibited not only this meaningless much-speaking and the blasphemous incantation over the bread and wine, but had also, in the clearest words, forbidden men to call other men their master, and to pray in temples; and had ordered that everyone should pray in solitude, had forbidden to erect temples, saying that He had come to destroy them, and that one should worship, not in a  temple, but in spirit and in truth; and, above all, that He had forbidden not only to judge, to imprison, to torment, to execute men, as was being done here, but had prohibited any kind of violence, saying that He had come to give freedom to the captives.

No one present seemed conscious that all that was going on here was the greatest blasphemy and a supreme mockery of that same Christ in whose name it was being done. No one seemed to realize that the gilt cross with the enamel medallions at the ends, which the priest held out to the people to be kissed, was nothing but the emblem of that gallows on which Christ had been executed for denouncing just what was going on here. That these priests, who imagined they were eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, did in reality eat and drink His flesh and His blood, but not as wine and bits of bread, but by ensnaring “these little ones” with whom He identified Himself, by depriving them of the greatest blessings and submitting them to most cruel torments, and by hiding from men the tidings of great joy which He had brought. That thought did not enter into the mind of any one present.

Tolstoy then lays out what the various parties gain from religious practice:

The priest did his part with a quiet conscience, because he was brought up from childhood to consider that the only true faith was the faith which had been held by all the holy men of olden times and was still held by the Church, and demanded by the State authorities. He did not believe that the bread turned into flesh, that it was useful for the soul to repeat so many words, or that he had actually swallowed a bit of God. No one could believe this, but he believed that one ought to hold this faith. What strengthened him most in this faith was the fact that, for fulfilling the demands of this faith, he had for the last 15 years been able to draw an income, which enabled him to keep his family, send his son to a gymnasium and his daughter to a school for the daughters of the clergy. The deacon believed in the same manner, and even more firmly than the priest, for he had forgotten the substance of the dogmas of this faith, and knew only that the prayers for the dead, the masses, with and without the acathistus, all had a definite price, which real Christians readily paid, and, therefore, he called out his “have mercy, have mercy,” very willingly, and read and said what was appointed, with the same quiet certainty of its being necessary to do so with which other men sell faggots, flour, or potatoes. The prison inspector and the warders, though they had never understood or gone into the meaning of these dogmas and of all that went on in church, believed that they must believe, because the higher authorities and the Tsar himself believed in it. Besides, though faintly (and themselves unable to explain why), they felt that this faith defended their cruel occupations. If this faith did not exist it would have been more difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to use all their powers to torment people, as they were now doing, with a quiet conscience. The inspector was such a kind-hearted man that he could not have lived as he was now living unsupported by his faith. Therefore, he stood motionless, bowed and crossed himself zealously, tried to feel touched when the song about the cherubims was being sung, and when the children received communion he lifted one of them, and held him up to the priest with his own hands.

In Flight Behavior, which I’ve just finished teaching, Barbara Kingsolver’s protagonist sees the church as “a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.” Osteen’s and Trump’s pyramid schemes are not just metaphysical. Actual money changes hands.

For further reading:

A powerful early exposé of prosperity theology is Howard Nemerov’s poem “Boom” (1957). Check it out in my post, “When Christianity Becomes a Money Cult.”

Posted in Kingsolver (Barbara), Tolstoy (Leo) | Leave a comment

Irma as Milton’s & Dante’s Infernos

The eye of Hurricane Irma


Someone tweeted recently that, from above, the “eye” of a hurricane doesn’t look so much like an eye as it does an anus—and that it behaves like one as well, spreading s— everywhere. This sent my own scatological mind into action, and I began associating Irma’s winds from hell with the Satanic winds described by Milton in Paradise Lost and by Dante in The Inferno.

In an article entitled “Scatology and the Sacred in Milton ‘s Paradise Lost,” Kent Lehnhof observes that Milton’s winds have scatological associations:

Milton repeatedly connects his epic demons to digestive waste. The infernal environment in which they are confined, for instance, is an unmistakably flatulential realm. Reeking of “ever-burning Sulphur,” Milton’s hell is a windy wasteland where Satan and the fallen angels are eternally buffeted by “Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire” (I, 69, 77). Hell’s excremental features are foregrounded from the very beginning of Book I, where the narrator describes the landscape to be the work of subterranean winds erupting from the earth’s “combustible / And fewel’d entrals” in such a way as to leave behind “a singed bottom all involv’d / With stench and smoak” (I, 233-34, 236-37).

Lehnhof also observes scatological wind imagery in the weapons that the bad angels aim at the good ones in the battle over Heaven:

Sudden all at once thir Reeds
[They] put forth, and to a narrow vent appli’d
With nicest touch. Immediate in a flame,
But soon obscur’d with smoak, all Heav’n appeerd,
From those deep-throated Engins belcht, whose roar
Emboweld with outragious noise the Air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foule
Thir devilish glut. (VI, 582-89)

By contrast, Dante’s Inferno is cold, not hot, but like Milton’s it is a windy place. The winds here are not flatulence—they are caused by the ice-entrapped Satan beating his wings in an endeavor to escape—but the very center of hell is the devil’s anus. Dante and Virgil must travel through this in order to begin making their way to Purgatorio.

First, here’s the wind scene:

As, when a thick mist breathes, or when the rim
  Of night creeps up across our hemisphere,
  A turning windmill looms in the distance dim,

I thought I saw a shadowy mass appear;
  Then shrank behind my leader from the blast,
  Because there was no other cabin here.

Virgil and Dante must go right up to Satan to come out the other side, just as Florida, to get to calmer weather, must first endure the eye of the hurricane. This is such a fearsome journey, however, that Virgil must carry Dante. Taking advantage of a momentary lull in the beating of the wings (again, like a hurricane’s eye), they first climb down the devil and then, the center of the earth being as it is, begin climbing upward. The transition from down to up occurs in the vicinity of Satan’s thigh-bone, which scholars like Norman O. Brown see as a euphemism for the anus:

Then, as he bade, about his neck I curled
My arms and clasped him. And he spied the time
And place; and when the wings were wide unfurled

Set him upon the shaggy flanks to climb
And thus from shag to shag descended down
‘Twixt matted hair and crusts of frozen rime.

And when we had come to where the huge thigh0bone
Rides in its socket at the haunch’s swell,
My guide, with labour and great exertion,

Turned head to where the feet had been, and fell
To hoisting himself up upon the hair,
So that I thought us mounting back to Hell.

Florida and those decimated Caribbean islands have gone through the nine levels of hell and are only beginning to clamber painfully back. Dante concludes Inferno with encouraging words, however:

He first, I following; till my straining sense
Glimpsed the bright burden of the heavenly cars
Through a round hole; by this we climbed, and thence

Came forth, to look once more upon the stars.

Hang in their, Irma sufferers. You will look once again upon the stars.

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Prayer for My Granddaughters

Hurricane Irma pounds Puerto Rico

Spiritual Sunday

As I was thinking about Hurricane Irma and the people it has hit and is about to hit, W.B. Yeats’s “Prayer for My Daughter” came to mind. It too features fierce winds, which feel all the more threatening given the vulnerability of his child:

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on.  There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

The poem goes on to describe the kind of woman Yeats hopes his daughter will grow up to be, but I want to send my prayers in a different direction. The scientific evidence is now irrefutable that climate change is causing increasingly frequent and intense EWEs (extreme weather events), and we are on the verge of leaving these events as our legacy to subsequent generations. These include my granddaughters, who are sleeping peacefully in Georgia as I write this.

How can people be so selfish and insensitive, caught up as they are in denial, hatred and greed, not to do everything possible to avert the oncoming catastrophes? How many more Hurricane Harveys, Irmas, and Josés are needed before climate denialists wake up and work together with the rest of us. We need all hands on deck to fight rising temperatures.

The image of angry winds runs throughout Yeats’s poem, but it ends on a note of “innocence and beauty.” Julia and I used this passage for our wedding invitation, and it is the future that I pray awaits my granddaughters:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Americans are great at coming together when the disaster is upon us. May we create the kind of society, filled with custom and ceremony, that addresses future threats as well. The lives of our grandchildren are at stake.

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Reasons to Read

Alexander Serebryakov, “Reading a Book” (1946)


Check out this essay by Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club. I particularly like its list of reasons to read:

When I can’t stand to look at one more hateful tweet from the president, I read a book.

When I turn on the television to hear the news and all I hear is people shouting and talking over one another, I read a book.

When I realize that I have 1,200 unread emails, I read a book.

When the apartment is a mess and friends are on their way over, I read a book.

You get the point. When I’m stressed, I grab a book. I also read when I’m not stressed. I like to read. And that’s a good thing because I work in publishing and I write books. You can’t (or shouldn’t) do either unless you like to read them.

When it’s a beautiful day, I read in the park.

When it’s raining, I read under the covers.

When I’m on a plane, I read on the plane.

When the plane is stuck on the tarmac, I have more time to read on the plane.

Schwalbe talks about the guidance that books provide in his recent Books for Living:

On the last page, I wrote that books remain one of the few defenses we have against narrowness, domination, and mind control. But only if we read them – and then only if we spring into action based on what we’ve learned and discovered. Books can’t do anything by themselves. They need us.

 Today we need to read more than ever. And we need to act now more than ever.

I especially like that final injunction. As I tell my students, there are three steps to get the most out of a work of literature: immerse yourself in it, reflect upon it, change your life.

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DACA Kids, Back to the Shadows?

DACA supporters protest in front of Trump Tower


When Barack Obama attempted to protect that immigrant parents of American citizens in November 2014, I thought of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who contemplates emerging into the sunlight after having hibernated into the shadows. We were optimistic back then.

I alluded to that blog post following the election of Donald Trump while adding some follow-up. I chose a different passage from Invisible Man to end on, this one far more pessimistic:

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

I ended the post,

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

The rocking is getting worse. Rather than end today’s contribution on so dark a note, however, I am posting the original essay to remind us what hope looks like. Congress still has the power to protect the Dreamers and, who knows, maybe they’ll do the right thing. Polls show that practically everyone outside of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the far right want the Dreamers to stay. Here’s my earlier essay:

Reprinted from November 24, 2014

With President Obama’s recent use of prosecutorial discretion to stop deporting immigrants who are parents of American citizens, we’re hearing a lot the phrase “out of the shadows.” The words got me thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who retreats to the shadows but then, in the epilogue, reports that he will be returning to the light.  While the situations aren’t identical, of course, there’s a fair degree of overlap.

IM (he doesn’t have a name) “hibernates” into the shadows after trying fruitlessly to prove that he is a three-dimensional human being. After he has been beaten down repeatedly, he surrenders and resigns himself to his invisibility. Our undocumented immigrants, who are all around us and yet are officially invisible, experience something similar:

So there you have all of it that’s important. Or at least you almost have it. I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in, if you will—and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint.

IM talks about shedding his naïveté but not his idealism, an evolution I could imagine with our current immigrants. It sounds like a contradiction but IM feels liberated once he stops worrying about what others think of him. Since he couldn’t change their minds anyway, he can focus on the possibilities at hand. In America, there are still many possibilities:

[L]ike almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being “for” society and then “against” it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase—still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.

To be sure, politicians like Ted Cruzes, Steve King, and Jeff Sessions are trying to put America in a traditionally white strait jacket. The danger posed by such figures explains why IM remains in hibernation for as long as he does:

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

IM realizes that hibernation, however, is what has kept the status quo in place. Indeed, it was the so-called undocumented “dreamers” coming out of the shadows and holding dangerous protests that helped push Obama to his executive decisions. IM invokes one of America’s founding visions: e pluribus unum, out of many one. He holds to this even though the world remains “just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before.” What has changed, he says, is a clearer understanding of the struggle such a vision calls for:

[O]nly now I better understand my relation to it and it to me. I’ve come a long way from those days when, full of illusion, I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health.

And further on:

Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s “winner take nothing” that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many.—This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.

The book concludes with an observation that no nativist will acknowledge and yet which has a deep truth:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Just as immigrants defined our past, so will they define our future. The question is whether we will face the changes openly with smart legislation or whether we will continue to avert our eyes and melodramatically posture. Be prepared for a lot of posturing.

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Kingsolver Explains Climate Denial

Hurricane Irma threatens Florida coast


I see that Rush Limbaugh is declaring Hurricane Irma, predicted to hit the Florida coast by the end of the week, to be a liberal conspiracy. Normally I don’t pay a lot of attention to Limbaugh. In her novel Flight Behavior, however, Barbara Kingsolver shows how dangerous such radio pronouncements can be.

First, here’s an excerpt of Limbaugh’s recent blast:

When a hurricane pops up — and we can’t forget Hurricane Harvey because Hurricane Harvey and the TV pictures that accompany that go a long way to helping further and create the panic.

Now, in the official meteorological circles, you have an abundance of people who believe that man-made climate change is real, and they believe that Al Gore is correct when he has written, and he couldn’t be more wrong, that climate change is creating more hurricanes and stronger hurricanes. And, of course, when Harvey hit, it was the first hurricane that had hit in 12 years. There haven’t been more hurricanes and they’re no more dangerous than any others in previous years.

But it doesn’t matter because the bias is built in. So there is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it. You can accomplish a lot just by creating fear and panic. You don’t even need a hurricane to hit anywhere. All you need is to create the fear and panic accompanied by talk that climate change is causing hurricanes to become more frequent, and bigger, and more dangerous, and you create the panic, and it’s mission accomplished, agenda advanced.

Limbaugh, of course, is an expert on how to use fear to drive human behavior. He is not, however, a scientist. The consensus among the scientific community is that, between warming waters and sea level rise, we are getting stronger and more destructive hurricanes.

In a scene where she is mending fences with her husband (literally) of their Appalachian sheep farm, Kingsolver’s Dellarobia explains to a skeptical Cub the reason why the Tennessee mountains are experiencing record amounts of rainfall and why the monarch butterfly population has suddenly decided to move north and winter there:

“What persuaded the butterflies off their track?” Cub asked.

“Well, see, that’s what they’re wanting to figure out,” she said…”There’s more to it than just these butterflies, a lot of things are messed up. [Dr. Byron] says it’s due to climate change, basically.”

“What’s that?”

She hesitated. “global warming.”

Cub snorted. He kicked up a cloud of dusty frost. “Al Gore can come toast his buns on this.” It was Johnny Midgeon’s line on the radio, every time a winter storm came through.

“But what about all the rain we had last year? All those trees falling out of the ground, after they’d stood a hundred years. The weather’s turned weird, Cub. Did you ever see a year like we’ve had?”

…Cub said, “They don’t call it global weirding.”

“I know. But I think that’s actually the idea.”

Cub shook his head. “Weather is the Lord’s business.”

She felt an exasperation that she knew would be of no use to this debate. She let it rise and fall inside her, along with wishful thoughts. Every loss she’d ever borne had been declared the Lord’s business. A stillborn child, a father dead in his prime.

“So we just take what comes?” she asked. “People used to say the same thing whenever some disease came along and killed all the children. ‘It’s part of God’s plan.’ Now we give them vaccinations. Is that defying God?”

Cub made no reply.

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “Why would we believe Johnny Midgeon about something scientific, and not the scientists?”

“Johnny Midgeon gives the weather report,” Cub maintained, and Dellarobia saw her life pass before her eyes, contained in the small enclosure of this logic. All knowledge measured, first and last, by one’s allegiance to the teacher.

If you put your faith in Rush Limbaugh, climate change is a hoax. End of story.

Update – It turns out that Rush Limbaugh decided to listen to the scientists after all. The Tampa Bay Times reports:

Days after conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called official pronouncements about the threat of Hurricane Irma a way to further the “climate change agenda,” the conservative firebrand announced Thursday on his radio program that he would evacuate his home in Palm Beach in advance of the storm.

Pray for those Floridians who took him seriously.

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What Tennis Meant to Tolstoy

Tolstoy playing tennis (1896)


My son Toby alerted me to this New Yorker article on Tolstoy and tennis. As I’m currently listening to Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection while fervently hoping that Roger Federer will win the U.S. Open, all the pieces came together for today’s blog post.

Gerald Marzorati sets out to solve a puzzle. On the one hand, photographs exist of Tolstoy with a racquet in his hand and appearing to enjoy the game. On the other hand, Tolstoy at one point in his life had contempt for tennis. Marzorati figures this out from reading Anna Karenina:

When he was in his forties, he thought tennis was a faddish luxury, a pastime of the new rich, something imported, inauthentic—a child’s game enthused about by well-to-do grownups who refused to grow up. We know this from Part 6, Chapter 22, of Anna Karenina, which he was writing in the eighteen-seventies, when the modern game of “lawn tennis” was developed and patented by Major Walter Clapton Wingfield, a British Army officer. [A set of Wingfield’s tennis equipment]—imaginatively—winds up on the “carefully leveled and rolled croquet-ground” of the house where Tolstoy’s Anna, having left her husband and son and shocked Moscow society, has gone to live with her lover, Vronsky, and where, at this juncture late in the novel, she is being visited by her sister-in-law, Dolly, her last real defender in the world that she has abandoned—and that has abandoned her.

Dolly, embodying Tolstoy’s point of view, is appalled by what she sees:

Before long, it is mostly the men who are playing: running, laughing, shouting, perspiring in their frock coats…Watching them, Dolly senses her mood darkening. The “unnaturalness of grown-ups when they play at a children’s game by themselves, without children,” has made her unhappy. And the tennis gets her to thinking that the players she’s watching are players off the court, too—that Vronsky and his friends are new types, modern bourgeois strivers who are in all aspects of their lives “actors,” and for whom all settings are essentially “theatre.”

Marzorati reflects,

You’d think, from all this, that Tolstoy despised tennis and all he thought it represented. If he did, wouldn’t his scorn deepen as he aged, withdrew, and lost himself in deep-going ethical ponderings?

By the end of his life, however, Tolstoy took up tennis. He also took up bicycling, which some of his friends and followers found to be

silly and even un-Christian: How did it square with all the renouncing of the material world that he was doing? And he a spiritual leader, a sage: What was he doing peddling around like a child? One can only imagine what they thought of his tennis.

Here’s Marzorati’s explanation:

Tolstoy addressed these concerns in his diaries. Reading them, it struck me that Tolstoy was now justifying himself as Vronsky, writing in a diary after his post-dinner tennis match, might have done twenty years earlier, if Vronsky had been a self-conscious sort wrestling with himself before sleep, which he wasn’t. Tolstoy wanted to work his body. He wanted to try new things. He saw the possibility of pleasures and satisfactions in physical activity. “There is nothing wrong,” he wrote to himself, “with enjoying oneself simply, like a boy.” Tolstoy, the old, earnest essayist, the death-haunted contemplator of Big Things, still wanted to play.

In Resurrection, written around the time of the above photograph, protagonist Nekhlyudov turns his back on his rakish ways when he realizes that he has led a young woman into a life of sin. His new seriousness means that he now shuns his former companions—versions of Vronsky—who attend horse races, drink freely, and run up debt. Instead, he thinks of ways he can reform the prisons and empower the peasants on his estate. He is appalled that he once lived a frivolous life.

Nekhlyudov wants to return to a time when he played innocent games with Katusha, the woman he ruined, as described in the following passage:

But on Ascension Day that summer, a neighbour of his aunts’, and her family, consisting of two young daughters, a schoolboy, and a young artist of peasant origin who was staying with them, came to spend the day. After tea they all went to play in the meadow in front of the house, where the grass had already been mown. They played at the game of gorelki, and Katusha joined them. Running about and changing partners several times, Nekhludoff caught Katusha, and she became his partner. Up to this time he had liked Katusha’s looks, but the possibility of any nearer relations with her had never entered his mind.

“Impossible to catch those two,” said the merry young artist, whose turn it was to catch, and who could run very fast with his short, muscular legs.

“You! And not catch us?” said Katusha.

“One, two, three,” and the artist clapped his hands. Katusha, hardly restraining her laughter, changed places with Nekhludoff, behind the artist’s back, and pressing his large hand with her little rough one, and rustling with her starched petticoat, ran to the left. Nekhludoff ran fast to the right, trying to escape from the artist, but when he looked round he saw the artist running after Katusha, who kept well ahead, her firm young legs moving rapidly. There was a lilac bush in front of them, and Katusha made a sign with her head to Nekhludoff to join her behind it, for if they once clasped hands again they were safe from their pursuer, that being a rule of the game. 

So Marzorati is right. Tennis taps into the spirit of innocent youth, which Tolstoy saw as the foundation of what is best in us.

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“Find Work,” an Answer to Every Grief?

Jean Francois Millet, “A Farmer’s Wife Sweeping” (1867)

Monday – Labor Day

I love posting this Rhina Espaillat poem for Labor Day because it captures our ambivalent feelings about work. On the one hand, it shows how work is almost a religion with us: the speaker’s grandmother responds, “Find work” whenever one is grieving. We are given the context we need for why the grandmother would resort to this tough “dictum” time and again. When she was a farm child, hard work anesthetized and muted her “country heart,” and when she was a widow with children, her faith in work was key to her survival. This may sound laudable.

Only the final two lines show that a price that has been paid. When the speaker talks about floors scrubbed “white as bone” and dishes that shine “painfully,” she points to the toll. “Life’s little duties” may seem infinite to the grandmother, but they cover over a very real pain. One senses no peace, no sense of a job well done, in that kitchen. Only “a truce with time/ spent in the lifelong practice of despair.”

Work can ennoble, but not when we sacrifice our humanity to it. 

Find Work

By Rhina P. Espaillat

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
—Emily Dickinson, #443

My mother’s mother, widowed very young
of her first love, and of that love’s first fruit,
moved through her father’s farm, her country tongue
and country heart anaesthetized and mute
with labor. So her kind was taught to do—
“Find work,” she would reply to every grief—
and her one dictum, whether false or true,
tolled heavy with her passionate belief.
Widowed again, with children, in her prime,
she spoke so little it was hard to bear
so much composure, such a truce with time
spent in the lifelong practice of despair.
But I recall her floors, scrubbed white as bone,
her dishes, and how painfully they shone.

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A Blessing We Cannot Begin To Fathom

Edvard Munch, “Comfort”

Spiritual Sunday

Knowing that I am in mourning for my friend Rachel Kranz, Sue Schmidt contributed the following essay and poem to today’s blog. Poet Jan Richardson advises those who grieve not to turn to facile rationalizations but to trust to the heart’s “stubborn and persistent pulse.” As she notes in her essay, Sue knew and admired Rachel.

By Sue Schmidt

I offer this post to those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. In the past seven months, our family has unexpectedly lost both of my husband’s parents. This morning I attended the funeral of a good friend’s mother, who died from ovarian cancer, as did Robin’s friend Rachel Kranz. Both women were strong, compassionate and courageous. I met Rachel several years ago while responding to one of Robin’s blog posts. Her comments, full of passion and insight, both intrigued and impressed and so I bought her novel, Leaps of Faith, and followed her blogging adventures in poker whenever they were available.

There is no getting around the pain and senselessness of death. At his mother’s memorial dinner, my husband said, “Death makes us realize that things are not as they should be. We say, unequivocally, something is wrong.” And yet, somehow, death is a part of what it means to be human. The joy at a new birth, the deep sorrow at its conclusion – these emotions cannot be separated.

Jan Richardson, a poet and artist who blogs at janrichardson.com, lost her husband suddenly two years ago. As is the case with many artists, the grieving process has woven itself through her art. I hope this gentle blessing finds a home in the hearts of those of us who find our own hearts broken, grieving those whose lives have been intertwined with ours.

A Blessing for the Brokenhearted

By Jan Richardson

There is no remedy for love but to love more.
– Henry David Thoreau

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if it trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us

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

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