Pope Describes Triumph of Stupidity

Frontispiece to Pope’s “Dunciad”


In 1742, convinced that his country was falling prey to universal stupidity (or dullness), Alexander Pope composed the fourth book of The Dunciad.  I wrote about Pope’s poem eight years ago, but then it was in reference to rightwing media pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Little did I know that the dunces would take over the White House and eventually infect most Congressional Republicans.

In other words, The Dunciad is more relevant than ever.

In the poem, Pope satirizes the hack writers of his day, whom he regards as evidence that culture has lost its way. In Book IV he imagines Chaos and Night, two of Satan’s friends in Paradise Lost, preparing to take over the world. (I’ve myself have compared Trump’s followers to Satan’s friends in a past post.) The result will be “Saturnian days of lead and gold,” Saturn being an astrological sign associated with depression and limitation:

Then rose the Seed of Chaos, and of Night,
To blot out Order, and extinguish Light,
Of dull and venal a new World to mold,
And bring Saturnian days of Lead and Gold.

Pope imagines the Goddess Dullness mounting her throne in triumph. The poet on her lap is Colley Cibber, England’s poet laureate whom Pope considered (with good reason) to be a fraud. For our purposes, replace Cibber with our reality television president, who claims to be “like, really smart” and “a stable genius.” Or better yet, think of Dullness as Trump and Cibber as formerly respectable Republicans like Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham, and Chuck Grassley, who have fallen under his spell:

She mounts the Throne: her head a Cloud concealed,
In broad Effulgence [brightness] all below revealed,
(‘Tis thus aspiring Dullness ever shines)
Soft on her lap her Laureate son reclines.

Dullness’s court, like Trump’s, persecutes intelligence. “Science” is in chains and those who would use their wit to speak truth to power face punishment. Logic, meanwhile, is gagged and bound, and noble rhetoric has been stripped and blunted. In rhetoric’s place we have sophistry and billingsgate (obscenity):

Beneath her foot-stool, Science groans in Chains,
And Wit dreads Exile, Penalties and Pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic, gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground;
His blunted Arms by Sophistry are born,
And shameless Billingsgate her Robes adorn

I can’t even begin to list all the ways that the Trump administration and Trump supporters fit this description, engaging in attacks on science, wit (intelligence), logic, and the high art of rhetoric (we get demagoguery instead). Pope observes that morality is now being strangled by lawyers and church officials—in our case Trump’s spokespeople and rightwing Christians:

Morality, by her false Guardians drawn,
Chicane [trickery] in Furs, and Casuistry in Lawn [church linen],
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dullness gives her Page the word.

The higher principles represented the arts are also under attack. High-minded tragedy, Pope imagines, is about ready to kill herself. Good natured comedy (Thalia) too is threatened but is being sustained by satire, just as many Americans today are sustained by our own satirists. History, meanwhile, isn’t willing to back off. She will be back to tell the sorry story of the age:

But held in ten-fold bonds the Muses lie,
Watched both by Envy’s and by Flattery’s eye:
There to her heart sad Tragedy addressed
The dagger wont to pierce the Tyrant’s breast;
But sober History restrained her rage,
And promised Vengeance on a barbarous age.
There sunk Thalia, nerveless, cold, and dead,
Had not her Sister Satyr held her head:

As the poem comes to an end, Pope imagines the goddess yawning and the yawn spreading to the entire world. (As he puts it, “More she had spoke, but yawn’d — All Nature nods:/ What Mortal can resist the Yawn of Gods?”). With that, all the lights of wit and culture begin to go out, just like the 100 eyes of Argus, the mythological giant, under the spell of Hermes. And just like the GOP succumbing to Trumpism:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sickening stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest . . .

In this dreadful scenario, art flees and truth finds itself buried under casuistry—which today could be seen as the word salads and whataboutism regularly served up by Trump supporters to defend the president:

Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heaped o’er her head!

Trump and his rightwing Christian followers, meanwhile, preach a gospel that looks nothing like the actual teachings of Jesus:

Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

All of this leads to a great crescendo:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

I like the notion of “uncreating word” applied to Trump and the current GOP. They aren’t building anything of substance, just “uncreating” what great people before them have created. They are anarchists who hope to profit from the chaos by rewarding  wealthy donors and themselves.

Like all great satire, Pope’s poem is designed to stir up resistance so that “universal darkness” doesn’t ultimately prevail. How will the American people respond?

Further thought:

 David Brooks makes a couple of relevant points in his New York Times column today, one critical of Trump supporters and one of Trump critics. The supporters, like Pope’s hack writers, are guilty of “lowbrowism,” whose intent is to make everyone more stupid:

Fox News pioneered modern lowbrowism. The modern lowbrow (think Sean Hannity or Dinesh D’Souza) ignores normal journalistic or intellectual standards. He creates a style of communication that doesn’t make you think more; it makes you think and notice less. He offers a steady diet of affirmation, focuses on simple topics that require little background information, and gets viewers addicted to daily doses of righteous contempt and delicious vindication.

Brooks adds, however, that there is a corresponding danger of overreacting, and Pope might himself be accused of doing so with his warning of “universal darkness.” After all, the world did not end in 1742.

Yes, we should avoid hysteria. And indeed, I think that Pope himself is subtly mocking his own anxieties by overstating his case. Perhaps he’s mocking Dunce Derangement Syndrome, just as Trump Derangement Syndrome could be argued to follow in the tradition of Obama Derangement Syndrome and Bush Derangement Syndrome.

The important thing is to focus on policy rather than Michael Wolff-style scandal narratives. If you want to talk to people who have genuine concerns about Trump, talk to Dreamers, Haitian and El Salvadoran refugees, people living on the coasts (who will see increased offshore oil drilling with rolled back regulations), national park lovers, transgender people, the prison population, those living on the Korean peninsula, and all who stand to be impacted by climate change. After all, dismissing critics as hysterical can also mean ignoring legitimate criticism: Jonathan Chait notes that Brooks also criticized attacks of George W. Bush, who was responsible for the biggest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam and the melting down of the financial markets, leading to the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Maybe Brooks is sees hysteria in what is actually urgency.

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A President Who Hates Books

A private book collection and owner are destroyed in “Fahrenheit 451”


Everyone seems to agree that Fire and Fury, the new Michael Wolff account of the Trump White House, doesn’t so much break new ground as confirm what people have suspected or known for quite some time. In June 2015, for instance, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked Donald Trump if he was able to read and didn’t get a very convincing “yes” in reply.  Wolff’s book confirms that we may be in Fahrenheit 451 territory.

Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker summarizes Wolff’s book on this topic:

The president doesn’t read and instead watches a lot of TV, preferably on one of the three screens in his bedroom, where he often retires by 6:30 p.m. to eat his dinner and make calls. He doesn’t listen, easily becomes bored and seems unable to pay attention. He repeats the same three stories within minutes of having just told them, and his memory loss is apparently becoming more pronounced.

Even during the campaign, when some say Trump was sharper, he was easily distracted and bored. Wolff tells of campaign adviser Sam Nunberg trying to teach Trump about the U.S. Constitution. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment, before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head,” says Nunberg in the book. (That amendment is the one about people being safe from unreasonable search and seizure. Perhaps Trump, rather than being disinterested in the presentation, was expressing his opinion of the amendment.)

I owe the Ray Bradbury connection to author David Williams, who wrote an article describing how the mother of a 13-year-old, offended by Fahrenheit 451, demanded that a school system replace it with his own dystopian novel When the English Fall. The story itself is worth examining—the mother objected to the word “bastard”—but I turn here to Williams’s observation that the novel is uncomfortably close to Trump’s vision of how the world should be.

Bradbury imagined a world where corporate-authoritarian politics maintain the shallow mask of democracy as a gullible populace is spoonfed candidates. He visualized insurgents and criminals being hunted and killed by the “hound,” an unstoppable drone. He cast a vision of callow selfish brutalism as an endless war burns, far away from a populace willingly subjugated by distractions and banality.

Information, in the society of Fahrenheit 451, is an endless cavalcade of trivia, tightened and shortened until every mind is filled with a blinding, churning nothing. At a key point in the narrative, Montag’s boss Beatty visits him, and in a monologue gives the reader a vision of the way information was presented in this strange and nightmarish future:

…speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending […] classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. [….] Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

Bradbury may not have actually used the word “Twitter,” but this 1953 description of the low-attention-span “future” cuts rather too close to home.

Print culture allows us to hold multiple ideas in suspension as we negotiate a complex world. Think of how voracious readers like Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln were able to understand the complexity of the world and respond by constructing a great nation. Trump leeches off what they built, achieving short-term victories by jettisoning truth, reason, science, morality, and social norms.

With con men like the president, however, we at least know what to expect. More discouraging is that most of the Republicans in Congress have signed up for his program. After all, if you can sell Americans anything simply by whirling their minds around while flinging off time-wasting thought, who needs the genuine wisdom offered up by authors?

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A Pause in Time and the Soul’s Awareness

“Adoration of the Magi,” painted by Benedictine monks, Conception Abbey

Epiphany Sunday

While searching for a good Epiphany poem, I came across the poetry of one John Thorkild Ellison and find myself enchanted. In “The Failed Mystic,” Ellison expresses his frustration that he cannot “freeze Eternity into one single Moment.” He is desperate for transcendence and would like to say that he hears Jesus knocking at his door but says his experience is instead“fumbling about in the darkness.” When he asks, at the end, whether there is “no cure” for his frustrated longing, I am reminded of Denise Levertov, whose own awareness of spirit always comes to her indirectly, through absence rather than presence:

The Failed Mystic

By John Thorkild Ellison 

When I was young, the wind in the trees
Brought intimations of the Great Spirit.
Later, I suffered from a grey disease
And my soul was like an apple, rotten to the core.

I used to try to freeze Eternity
Into one single Moment, 
Stand on a hill-top and try to transfix
The Beauty of Nature like a
Final Butterfly captured Forever.
It was a hopeless task.

Later, I wrote down my Vision
In poems of no merit
And dreamed of Immortality.

Now I cannot say You were always there, 
Knocking at my door, 
Beckoning me to a life of Love through Action.

It isn’t true.

I was fumbling about in the darkness, 
Trying to be sure, 
To find my Vocation in the dullest chore, 
Like saints do.

I always wanted to be special, 
The centre, not on the periphery, 
To be loved……. 

But tell me, Great Spirit, is there no cure? 

In Ellison’s poem “Epiphany,” the poet appears to be slightly more successful. God appears in a silence that contrasts with the restless noises all around him. As in “The Failed Mystic,” we encounter the grayness of hopeless longing—“desolate is the heart’s desire/And the loving knows no end”—and the sighing of the wind in the treetops could be his own. The epiphany will not show up for the poet in the form of a brilliant star announced by angels and three kings.

Instead, the town’s noises fade, there is a pause in time, and the soul becomes aware of itself. That awareness is the divine entering our lives, and it is all the more powerful because it occurs so quietly.


By John Thorkild Ellison

Outside the surge of the wind, the wind in the trees, 
The rush of leaves, and the sighing in the pine-needles, 
Outside the sound of the sea-shore, distant, remembered, 
The waves breaking on the gray rocks, and the evening approaching, 
The restlessness, and the interminable noise.

Silence in the room, and solitude, 
A sense of spaces, remoteness and nearness, and the soul’s awareness, 

Desolate is the heart’s desire
And the loving knows no end, 
When the morning in the clouds breaks across the sky, 
And the forests sway and bend.

Outside the wind, the wind in the trees, 
And the sighing in the tree-tops.

Noises from the town, heedless, unthinking, indistinct, 
Recurring, fading, 
And silence in the room, and solitude, 
The shadowy dimness, the darkness of evening, 
A pause in time, and the soul’s awareness. 

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How to Celebrate a Winter Storm

Serbian naive painter Zuzana Chalupova, “Russian Village in Winter”


For those of you getting pounded by winter storms, here’s a Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem to cheer you up. Getting snowed in is a time for “free fellowship”:


By Dante Gabriel Rossetti

For January I give you vests of skins,
And mighty fires in hall, and torches lit;
Chambers and happy beds with all things fit;
Smooth silken sheets, rough furry counterpanes;
And sweetmeats baked; and one that deftly spins
Warm arras; and Douay cloth, and store of it;
And on this merry manner still to twit
The wind, when most his mastery the wind wins.
Or issuing forth at seasons in the day,
Ye’ll fling soft handfuls of the fair white snow
Among the damsels standing round, in play:
And when you all are tired and all aglow,
Indoors again the court shall hold its sway,
And the free Fellowship continue so.

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A Herculean Task: Purging Old Files

Heracles prepares to clean out the Augean stables


My last few days have been emotionally tumultuous. That’s because, in preparation to moving into my mother’s cabin when I retire in June, I must clear out all my father’s files. As far as I can tell, he never threw anything away, including all the letters he received and sent. (There are carbon copies of the latter.) I feel like I’m going through the files of Moses E. Herzog.

Actually, Saul Bellow’s protagonist in Herzog doesn’t actually send the hundreds of letters he imagines writing. My father did, however. Whenever he saw a scholarly article he liked, he would send a letter that engaged with the ideas. Often he received letters in return.

I have found some gems among the correspondence. Robert Penn Warren liked my father’s poetry collection ZYX of Biblical Sex. (“You are a funny man, Scott Bates,” he wrote.) There are a number of interchanges with poets Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy, Philip Appleman, Elizabeth Alexander, and Reed Whittemore. These were all scattered around so I just stumbled on them.

And then there is material from my father’s civil rights days. For instance, I came across a letter where he was censured by the dean for opening up contacts with Howard, Morehouse, and Fisk colleges (this when Sewanee was still segregated). I found letters he wrote to various newspapers fighting the good fight.

Perhaps I should have prayed to the goddess Athena, which is what Heracles did when tasked with cleaning out 30 years of muck from the Augean stables. Here’s Seamus Heaney’s account of the myth:

My favourite bas-relief: Athene showing 
Heracles where to broach the river bank 
With a nod of her high helmet, her staff sunk 
In the exact spot, the Alpheus flowing 
Out of its course into the deep dung strata 
Of King Augeas’ reeking yard and stables.
Sweet dissolutions from the water tables,
Blocked doors and packed floors deluging like gutters…

Hopefully Athena’s wisdom has been present in what I have thrown away, because throw away I have. I have recycled grade books going back to the 1950s, tenure committee files, reports of old Board of Trustee meetings (the faculty wanted my combative father as the faculty representative), notices of film series, minutes of the college’s lease committee. And letters to editors, publishers, and scholars. And documentation of the controversy that erupted over an erotic film that my father made with his students. And old protest signs carried at civil rights rallies, LBGTQ rallies, July 4th parades. And on and on.

Above all, there’s his research—cartons and cartons of it. I tell myself that most of it has published, especially the material on French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, so that it won’t matter if I throw it away. In some ways, I’m feeling like a parricide.

Making it a little easier is the fact that I’m doing the same with my own files at the moment as I prepare to move. My own sons won’t have to go through this.  Still, it’s different when it’s someone who you’ve admired and emulated.

So much work, reflecting creative energy, intellectual excitement, and communal commitment, is being consigned to oblivion. It’s a sobering experience.

Another poem: My mania for cleansing the apartment also brings to mind the Lucille Clifton poem “at last we killed the roaches.” It’s not an exact fit since I salvaged a few precious documents. Still, I felt like an exterminator as I threw away entire boxes:

at last we killed the roaches.
mama and me. she sprayed,
i swept the ceiling and they fell
dying onto our shoulders, in our hair
covering us with red. the tribe was broken,
the cooking pots were ours again
and we were glad, such cleanliness was grace
when i was twelve. only for a few nights,
and then not much, my dreams were blood
my hands were blades and it was murder murder
all over the place.

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Austen: Standing Up to Harassers


Two friends, both conservative, alerted me recently to articles in conservative publications about how reading Jane Austen can help women push back against sexual harassment. While we disagree about many political issues, in this instance we are all on the same page.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s WSJ  article is the more straightforward of the articles. What should a lady do when harassed? Behave as Elizabeth does when Mr. Collins refuses to take a hint, which is to be clear and decisive:

“I am very sensible of the honor of your proposals,” pronounces Elizabeth, “but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.” Her refusal might serve as a guide to women on how to answer an unwanted proposition: politely but firmly. In some cases harassment can be stopped by a forceful “no” or a decisive pushing away of a hand.

Cohen also notes how Elizabeth further deters Collins by exuding a sense of power. When her mother calls Elizabeth  “a headstrong foolish girl,” it is enough to send Collins into the arms of the more compliant Charlotte. Cohen writes,

Figuring out how to relay to someone in power that you have the capacity to make his life miserable may be an effective way to stop him in his tracks.

Unfortunately, Cohen doesn’t explore how one develops Elizabeth’s strong sense of self. M. D. Aeschliman’s National Review article takes up this issue, however, in a piece that contrasts Austen with a contemporary, Madame de Stael.

Aeschliman’s article is more elliptical than it need be, but her argument is essentially that Austen can stand strong against systemic sexism because she has a strong religious and moral base. She points to Austen’s debt to Samuel Johnson (whom Anne Elliot recommends to a weepy Captain Benwick in Persuasion), noting that Austen

helps us, and her characters, to “undeceive” ourselves of self-serving and self-flattering illusions, in the interest of real, unostentatious Christian self-understanding and virtue. 

To read Jane Austen, Aeschliman says, is to engage in “moral hygiene,” a process that is perhaps most dramatically seen in Mansfield Park. It’s easy for the reader to say “no” to Collins but how about to Henry Crawford? If one allows oneself to be seduced by this attractive but glib man, if one roots for Fanny to marry him, then one has failed a moral test. That Fanny passes the tests shows that she is strong, both as a Christian and as a woman.

In Austen’s world, the danger is always narcissism. All the villains are self-absorbed (Thorpe, Willoughby, Wickham, Crawford, Mr. Elliot), and the weak women are self-indulgent (Isabel, Lydia, Maria, Anne’s sisters). The most interesting characters are those that feel the pull but have principles that help them self-correct (Marianne, Emma).

Aeschliman believes that Austen is superior to de Stael, who can be guilty of being too soft (“to understand everything is to pardon everything”) and opening the door to a “liberal, relativistic, and desiccated rationalism.” Better to regard the use of one’s “reason, conscience, will, and language” within a framework that acknowledges a higher power and higher principles. Aeschliman cites a Goethe passage that she applies to Austen: “Everything that liberates our minds without at the same time adding to our resources of self-mastery is pernicious.”

Cohen and Aeschliman are right that Austen has an important message for the #MeToo movement: strength of character is key to fighting sexual oppression. Put me down as one liberal who applauds the development of discipline, self-mastery, strong moral values, and service to higher ideals in our young people.

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Black Women as Saviors? Clifton Objects

Doug Jones captured 98% of the black female vote in Alabama


A New Yorker article on “How the Alabama Senate Election Sanctified Black Women Voters” reminded me of a Lucille Clifton poem where the poet makes a similar point. Black women don’t want to be turned into saints.

As the most loyal Democratic voting bloc, with percentages regularly hitting the 90+ percentile, black women have been seen as saving America from itself. Doreen St. Felix writes,

The hosannas accumulated on social media and in the news, a multiplicity of brief ecstasies for the citizen who has been, as bell hooks wrote in “Ain’t I a Woman,” “socialized out of existence”: “It’s really nice of black people to save America—after slavery, Jim Crow, and everything else.” “What if we just let black women run everything” and, in response, “I’m definitely ready for that. I said a prayer the other day and when God answered me back she was a Black Woman.” “Black voters, in particular black women, save America again.” “Dear America, We will always save your ass, because at the end of the day, we live here and love this country, even if you don’t always love us back.” The proven adage is that black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. That black women themselves trade in such phrases only stresses the obstinacy of the idea that “black women will save America from itself.”

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, when black women are regarded as saviors, their particular needs aren’t acknowledged. They are seen as selflessly working for the good of the nation as a whole, idealized nanny figures, rather than as people with agendas of their own–agendas that might not be identical with those of the white liberal class. St. Felix points out,

Critical nuances—aspects of class and region, especially—are lost when black women become icons, forever trapped in a cycle of ennoblement, flattening, and dehumanization.

Clifton makes her version of the complaint in “note to self,” which I’ve previously written about here. The poem complains about being suffocated by whites who insist on blacks using only “language that they can live with”:

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live…

At the end, the poem takes an unexpected turn. The problem doesn’t change, Clifton notes, when blacks are put on a pedestal rather than demonized. She complains of how

the merely human
is denied me still
and i am now no longer beast
but saint

I have mentioned how Clifton had me specifically in mind, referencing my participation in a race panel discussion when she writes,

even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean

And indeed I had been guilty, coaching a black student to express herself differently rather than focusing on the white community’s responsibility to recognize the source of her hurt.

I also was guilty, when we had another racist incident a few years later, of thinking that Clifton could step in and make everything okay. I didn’t realize that she too was floundering around trying to figure out an appropriate response. I treated her as a saint, not as merely human.

As Clifton writes  in a poem about the death of Martin Luther King, we can’t depend on individuals to save us. We can’t turn to black saviors any more than we can turn to white saviors. Rather, we must recognize that we are all “merely human” and work together to handle our challenges.

St. Felix points out that there was nothing magical about black women in the Alabama election. They did what any group must do if it hopes to prevail:

A canvasser for Jones, Carissa Crayton, told HuffPost, “We did put in a lot of hard work. We hit the ground running and we did the work that it took to get Doug elected. People shouldn’t disregard that and just think . . . we saved the day without doing any hard work, that we just magically went out and voted and that that’s all we did.” The grassroots organizing done by black women in Alabama in the run-up to Jones’s election shows the work of a political class.

To which St. Felix adds,

Their interests deserve to be known and reported on.

This is what Clifton requests as well. The added bonus is that it makes for more effective politics.

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Riding with Chaucer into the New Year

Monday – New Year’s Day

If you’re looking for a novel take on New Year’s resolutions, check out Charlotte Ahlin’s delightful suggestion that we plumb our favorite literary characters for ideas. The characters she proposes have some characteristics to emulate and others to avoid. Here’s a sampling:

Jay Gatsby – Move On

Jay. Buddy. Pal. It’s time to move the heck on. If you’re going into the new year with a broken heart, or a list of petty resentments against all your old money neighbors, don’t be a Gatsby about it. Find a way to let it go. Stop creeping on your ex’s new girlfriend’s Instagram. Don’t throw parties just to impress a cutie who is now married to a racist. Taking time to recover from a break-up or a disappointment is fine, but at a certain point, you can’t repeat the past, no matter how big your mansion.

Jane Eyre – Spend some quality time with yourself

On the one hand, Jane Eyre is a torrid romance between Jane and a gross imperialist dude who keeps his mentally ill first wife locked in an attic. But on the other hand, Jane Eyre is one of the first novels by a woman to have the resounding message: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anybody else?” Jane only marries Rochester once she’s mentally, emotionally, and financially independent and equal to him. So spend some quality time getting to know yourself this year (and avoid guys with attic wives).

Hermione Granger – Keep Resisting

It’s easy to feel burnt out about politics right now. But Hermione Granger wouldn’t let you give up. Hermione Granger would tell you to keep calling your representatives. Hermione Granger would drag you to the library to read up on your rights as a private citizen, then knit a couple of hats for house-elves, and then top it all off by punching a Death Eater in the face. Follow Hermione’s lead, and don’t let yourself become complacent in the face of evil.

What does it say about me that my favorite characters include Tom Jones and the Wife of Bath? Both live life with a full heart, and as I enter my retirement year, I can take inspiration from the Wife’s declaration that she will make the most of what resources remain to her. She is not about to let age keep her from being merry:

But age, allas, that al wole envenyme,
But age, alas, that all will poison,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
Has deprived me of my beauty and my vigor.
Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!
Let it go. Farewell! The devil go with it!
The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;
The flour is gone; there is no more to tell;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
The bran, as I best can, now I must sell;
But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.
But yet I will try to be right merry.

So my resolution is to enjoy to the fullest the colleagues, friends and students that I will be leaving in June and then to enter fully into my new life in Sewanee, Tennessee. Happy New Year.

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God’s Word, the Ultimate Poetry

The Big Bang imagined

Spiritual Sunday – New Year’s Eve

As we look ahead to a new year, how appropriate that today’s lectionary reading is the magnificent passage that opens the Book of John. Delaware poet Jeanne Murray Walker takes inspiration from the Biblical passage in “In the Beginning Was the Word,” associating the birth of language and poetry with the birth of creation. As she sees it, the same divinity runs through all of them.

For Walker, creation is chaos, and the earth, once a “ball of white hot gasses,” is like the poetic impulse. Anything is possible until the poem finally settles into an orbit amidst stars, planets and moons into which we project our human emotions:

It was your hunch, this world. On the heyday
of creation, you called, Okay, go! and a ball
of white hot gasses spun its lonely way
for a million years, all spill and dangerous fall
until it settled into orbit. And a tough
neighborhood, it was, too. Irate Mars,
and sexually explicit Venus, the kerfluff
of a moody moon, and self-important stars.

The poetic process is as crazy as biological proliferation, with the arrival of blossoms representing new vulnerabilities. While flowering may appear to be “barely regulated damage”–the splitting invites invasions by insects–it instead leads to wondrous new creations that ferns can only dream of. Same for animals and for people:

And trees. Think of their endless rummaging
for light, their reckless greening, how flowering
is barely regulated damage. Then birds,
mice, sheep. Soon people, bursting into language.
Creation thinking about itself: our words soaring
like yours through time, dangerous, ordinary words.

I like the combination of “dangerous” and “ordinary” since ordinary words, used poetically, open up new truths. Julia alerted me to the following passage about words in radio interviewer Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living:

I know it is possible to speak about our deepest passions and convictions in a way that opens imaginations rather than shuts them down….The world needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander tells Tippett in an interview,

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth.

Poet Marie Howe, meanwhile, remembers,

As a child I would read the old Harvard Classics. We had them in our living room. I would pore through these dusty books and try to find language that was adequate in experience, or try to find language that could somehow hold the unsayable.

Walker’s poem asserts that, when Creation thinks about itself, its simple but dangerous words soar through time. Can you imagine a more soaring and transformative use of words than John 1:1-18? Think of John the Baptist and Jesus as poets, channeling the powers of the original creation to transcend what everyone assumes is solid reality. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him,” John writes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Don’t underestimate the life force that flows through the universe.

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The Year in GOP Soul Selling

Doctor Faustus woodcut (1620)


To conclude each year, I review all the posts from the previous twelve months and reprint one that seems particularly important. Last January, puzzled by the Republican Party’s passivity in the face of Donald Trump’s excesses, I (and others) observed that the GOP appeared to be making a deal with the devil. We were, of course, referring to the Faust or Faustus story.

Christopher Marlowe’s brilliant play shows the inexorable journey downward, the hollowing out, of those who turn their back on principle. The parallels have become increasingly clear as, led by the cynical Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the GOP appears prepared to sacrifice anything for power. Unlike Faustus, who at least makes spasmodic gestures towards regret, Republicans appear to have adopted Trump’s tactic of unscrupulous counterattacks against any who question them. Because the country needs two responsible parties if it is to operate well, we can only pray that Republicans find some way to reconnect with their soul.

Reprinted from January 31, 2017

 In his New York Times column yesterday, moderate Republican David Brooks said that GOP lawmakers are making a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump that “will cost them their soul.” “It’s becoming clear,” he writes at one point, “that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation, and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench.”

I think Brooks is right and it’s worth revisiting Christopher’s Marlowe Doctor Faustus to gauge the price of Faustian bargains and also to figure out how Trump supporters can reconnect with their souls.

In his warning, Brooks quotes a rather remarkable Atlantic article by former George W. Brush official Eliott Cohen. Cohen was initially prepared to work with Trump but then saw the writing on the wall and has since been advising fellow Republicans to shun him:

Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity — substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment.”

Before I parallel Republicans with Faustus, it’s worth noting that Trump himself is already well along the Faustus path. At the beginning of Marlowe’s play, Faustus is a talented scholar who dreams of unlocking the powers of the natural world. He’s been doing well so far, curing whole cities of the plague and easing a “thousand desperate maladies.” Just as winning the presidency was not enough for Trump’s immense ego, however, so Faustus wants yet more acclaim. He dreams of imposing his will in unheard of fashion:

All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a mighty god…

As the play progresses, however, Faustus senses that, in the intoxicating pursuit of power, he is losing something important. One sees this in his moments of doubt—when he considers repenting—and also in some of the requests he makes of his devil spirits. For instance, at one point he asks the devil for a wife, which is to say, for a meaningful relationship. To have a soul mate, however, would mean giving up ego and power and making oneself vulnerable to another human being. Faustus refuses such a sacrifice, settling instead for “a hot whore” and then, at the end of his life, a simulacrum of Helen of Troy. His former grandiose schemes forgotten, he becomes more and more trivial and he dies with agonizing regrets.

Trump sounds like a Faustus without the regrets, which means that he is only a black hole. He spends all his energy trying to fill that hole.

Let’s turn now to those formerly principled Republicans who are supporting him. If they give up their values in return for power—if winning comes to mean more to them than country or Constitution—then their lives will feel increasingly trivial. By the end of his life, Faustus is performing magic tricks for emperors, playing a prank on a man who calls him out, and stiffing a horse dealer for $40. This already sounds like Trump’s post-election tweeting, and Republicans may find themselves doing similar things. One only has to see what has happened to figures like Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich—people who squandered their considerable political gifts and have now essentially become scam artists—to see what awaits soul sellers.

When Congressional Democrats were swamped in the 2010 elections, they could at least point to measures that they believed made the country better, like the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus. They worked to improve the lives of their fellow Americans and can carry that with them for the rest of their lives. Losing was a small price to pay.

By contrast, Republicans who go along with Trump’s attacks on Muslims, close their eyes to his misogyny, and find ways to rationalize his constant lying, will be left with his emptiness. That’s the price of selling your soul.

It’s possible to get your soul back, as the Good Angel and later the Old Man tell Faustus. For the GOP at the moment, a good first step would involve standing up to Trump and President Steve Bannon as they sow divisiveness and hate. It takes courage to win your soul back—things worth doing can be hard—but the payoff is immense.

Further thought: Here’s another parallel: Trump won the primary by being willing to say directly what his rivals danced around. Trump speaks directly to American racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. whereas other politicians deliver dog whistles. In other words, they are like Faustus not wanting to face up to the real ugliness of evil. Here he is addressing Mephisophilis, with a jab thrown in at Franciscan friars:

I charge thee to return, and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend on me:
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar;
That holy shape becomes a devil best.

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Poems for Resisting Trump


New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is suggesting two poems for surviving the upcoming year of Donald Trump: Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Langston Hughes’s “Harlem.” Both poems are about getting battered although they have different takes on the matter. “If” calls for us to stand up and fight back, “Harlem” warns us what will happen if we don’t.

In his December 22 column, the Cohen weaves Kipling’s poem into a list of Trump’s excesses. I’d like to quote the entire column because it is a perfect illustration of how, by systematically applying a poem to an urgent issue, one can penetrate to its core. By the time you’ve finished reading the column, you’re convinced that Kipling had someone very much like Trump in mind when he wrote it. Here are some examples, with the Kipling lines appearing in quotation marks:

If this is America, with a cabinet of terrorized toadies genuflecting to the Great Leader, a vice president offering a compliment every 12 seconds to Mussolini’s understudy, and a White House that believes in “alternative facts,” then it is time to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”

If this is America, where the Great Leader threatens allies who do not fall in lineretweets the anti-Muslim racism of British fascistsinsults the Muslim mayor of Londondreams up a terror attack in Swedeninvents a call from the Mexican presidentclaims the Russia story is a “total fabrication,” then you will have to “bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”


If, beyond every abuse, this is yet America, where the Great Leader’s administration recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not use the words “fetus,” “transgender,” “science-based” or “diversity” (but it may still, according to a New Yorker cartoon, be able to use the word “moron”), and climate change is no longer a strategic threat (or even an admissible term in government circles), then it is time to heed the poet’s admonition: “Being lied about, don’t deal in lies.”

And my favorite, as it calls for us to fight for this land we love:

If this is America, where the Great Leader wants you to believe that 2+2=5, and would usher you down his rabbit hole, and struggles to find in himself unequivocal condemnation of neo-Nazis, and you recall perhaps the words of Hannah Arendt, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist” — if all this you have lived and felt and thought across this beautiful and spacious land, then you must be prepared to “watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

Cohen ends on an upbeat note: we will save our country if we heed the poet’s advice about risking everything for what is important. It is particularly good advice for those on the left who can’t let go of Bernie Sanders losing in the primary or Hillary Clinton in the general:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss.

As a new year approaches, stoicism will prevail, decency will prevail, contestation will prevail, over the Great Leader’s plundering of truth and thought. This is not America. It must be fought for and won back.

If Cohen is feisty and combative in his first end-of-the-year column, he is lyrical in his December 26 piece. Looking down upon the Staten Island ferry, he thinks about all the immigrants who have crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York in pursuit of the American dream. America’s greatness has always lain in its ability to attract dreamers:

[The ferry’s] brief passage evokes the centuries of American hope invested in this city, seen by so many immigrants for the first time from this expanse of water. Here, suffering, famine and the endless gyre of Old-World conflict were set aside, or at least cushioned by New-World possibility.

At this low point for the United States, when truth itself is mocked from on high, that liberating message is worth recalling. Certainly, no naturalized American, as I am, who has witnessed the rites of passage of people drawn by hope from every corner of the earth to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, can be indifferent to it.

Langston Hughes wrote poem after poem about the American dream. “Harlem” is his best-known one:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

To which Cohen adds,

In 2018, take the time, dear reader, to gaze at the familiar, board the ferry to nowhere — and do not, at risk of an explosion, defer your dreams.

So there you have it—stand strong with the rugged Brit in the cause of justice and truth and stand firm with the sensitive African American to keep the faith. Those are New Year’s resolutions worth making.

Further thought: Cohen, blinded somewhat by his privilege, doesn’t entirely understand Hughes’s poem as he assumes one can choose to defer or not. As the poet sees it, the powerless have only one good choice and that is to explode. He is warning white society what will happen once people of color stop colluding in their oppression.

Entire text of “If”:

If you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
   Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
   And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise; 
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
   If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
   And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
   Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
   And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools; 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
   And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
   And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
   To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
   Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”; 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
   Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
   If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
   Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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#MeToo: A New Day for Cassandra

E. de Morgan, “Cassandra”


Other than the cataclysm that is Donald Trump, 2017’s most significant development may have been the #MeToo movement. People are finally believing Cassandra.

I owe the allusion to Lauren Davis, who notes that the Trojan prophetess was cursed by Apollo when she spurned his advances.  Condemned to see the future without being believed, she was unable to save the city of Troy from the wooden horse stratagem and Agamemnon and herself from being murdered by Clytemnestra. Applying the myth to sexual assault victims is not perfect since Cassandra was disbelieved about the future, not the past, but Lauren draws a couple of instructive lessons from the story:

First, I have enormous admiration for a woman (or anyone) who understands they will not be believed, but who chooses to speak the truth regardless. What strength of will, what a core of integrity such a woman must have. It is a hard and lonely place to be… but such a person understands it is the right thing to do, and so does it. Ignore me, she says, deride me and scoff at me, but the truth will still be told.

Second, ignoring truth-speakers is something we do at our peril. Not only does it harm the prophetess, it harms society. It harms us all.

From an archetypal point of view, Cassandra’s relationship with Apollo can be seen as the enigmatic subconscious set against the forces of order and reason. While the patriarchal norm that has condemned women to silent victimhood isn’t reasonable, it has been the prevailing order of things. This order meant that Ajax the Lesser could tear Cassandra away from the temple of Athena and rape her while the Greeks were sacking Troy (although not without incurring divine wrath) and that Agamemnon could bring her home as booty.

That Clytemnestra took out some of her marital rage on Cassandra shows that women as well as men can blame sexual assault victims.

In Aeschylus’s play, Cassandra blames herself for having resisted Apollo’s advances:

Cassandra: Apollo was like a mighty wrestler, 
panting all over me, in love.

Chorus Member: Did you go through with it—
bear him a child?

Cassandra: I promised to,
but then I broke my word.

Chorus Member: Did you already have prophetic skill,
inspired by the god?

Cassandra: At that time
I used to prophesy to all my countrymen.                                        
I’d foretell disasters.

Chorus Member: How did you escape Apollo’s anger?                             

Cassandra: Since I resisted him, no one believes me.

Assault victims may relate to how a powerful male who has been spurned finds ever new ways to punish the woman:

Look how Apollo now in person strips me,
rips my prophetic robes, the god who watched,
as my friends in their hatred turned on me,
mocked me so savagely in these very clothes—
they thought they knew what they were doing.
But they were wrong. I heard them call me names,
“beggar,” “starving wretch”—I endured them all.
And now the prophet god is done with me.
He’s led his prophet to her place of death.

Meanwhile, those around Cassandra can’t hear what she’s trying to tell them:

Chorus member: We’ve heard about your fame in prophecy.
But here in Argos no one wants a prophet.

And later:

Poor girl, calm yourself. Tone down those words.

Cassandra’s final cry for revenge may resonate with anyone who has been jerked around with impunity:

One last time 
I feel the urge to speak, not sing a dirge
about my death. I pray to the sun,
here in the light of his most recent day,
that those who carry out revenge for me
will make my enemies pay with their blood
for butchering a slave, an easy victim.

By the end of the play, the Chorus believes the woman, as are increasing numbers of Americans. Trump may still be dodging accountability, but others are being brought down by those who have historically been silenced.

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Does the GOP Love Big Brother?

GOP Republicans and Trump after House votes down Obamacare


Last week, while comparing Donald Trump with Herman Melville’s Maldive shark, I realized that the poem is more about the pilot fish than the shark. While we certainly must take into account Trump’s insatiable appetite for power and praise, that hunger is not complicated. More interesting is how he is pulls Republican fish into his orbit.

To understand the dynamics, The Brothers Karamazov and 1984 prove useful.

Many of us were appalled by the North Korean-style adulation that people poured on Trump last week after the GOP passed its tax plan. Respected Utah senator Orrin Hatch surprised pretty much everyone with his hyperbole:

Mr. President, I have to say that you’re living up to everything I thought you would. You’re a heck of a leader. And we’re all benefiting from it. This president hasn’t even been in office for a year and look at all the things that he’s been able to get done — by sheer will, in many ways … I came from very humble roots. And I have to say that this is one of the great privileges of my life to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States who I love and appreciate so much … We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.

New York Magazine reported on Tennessee’s Congresswoman Marcia Black and the two GOP leaders in Congress:

Tennessee congresswoman Diane Black opted to debase herself with a bit more concision, saying “Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our President.”

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan praised Trump’s “exquisite leadership,” and thanked him for “getting us over the finish line.” Mitch McConnell declared Trump’s entire first year in office to be an “extraordinary accomplishment.”

And then there was the vice president. I provide only a snippets since it goes on and on:

–Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that truly is restoring this country.
–You’ve restored American credibility on the world stage.
–You’ve signed more bills rolling back federal red tape than any president in American history.
–You’ve unleashed American energy.
–You’ve spurred an optimism in this country that’s setting records.
–You promised the American people in that campaign a year ago that you would deliver historic tax cuts, and it would be a ‘middle-class miracle.’ And in just a short period of time, that promise will be fulfilled.
–I’m deeply humbled, as your vice president, to be able to be here.”
–Because of your leadership, Mr. President, and because of the strong support of the leadership in the Congress of the United States, you’re delivering on that middle-class miracle.

Blogger Glenda Funk heard Goneril behind Mike Pence’s sycophancy, and that’s one way to explain it—that people, knowing of Trump’s susceptibility to flattery, will ladle it on thick whenever they want to get something out of him. Perhaps the Congressional flattery of the tax plan should be seen in that light, as well as in South Carolina Lindsey Graham’s 180-degree turn from calling Trump a kook unfit to be president to “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president.”

If Graham becomes secretary of state, maybe he will conclude that “Paris is worth a mass,” to quote French king Henry IV’s rationale for converting to Catholicism.

But what if there’s something more insidious going on? This is the subject of a fine New York Times Michelle Goldberg column last week, where she wondered whether

a critical mass of Republicans like being in thrall to a man who seems strong enough to will his own reality, and bold enough to voice their atavistic hatreds. Maybe Trump is changing Republicans, or maybe he’s just giving men like Pence permission to be who they already were.

Goldberg observed that “the relationship between Trump and many Republicans increasingly looks less like a marriage of convenience than a sadomasochistic affair.”

In other words, GOP Goneril may respect power and authority so much that she actually believes her flattery. The concluding paragraph of 1984 has been going through my head on this matter:

[Winston Smith] gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Time and again, Trump has trampled conventional political wisdom underfoot and survived, appearing to defy the laws of political gravity. The GOP was already starting to move in this direction—refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee was an instance—but Trump has gone far beyond what even McConnell thought was possible. Who knew that someone could openly insult women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and the disabled and get away with it? Who knew that you could shout “fake news” to erase disagreeable facts? Or denigrate any institutions (science, the courts, universities, the FBI) that get in your way. Maybe that’s why a respected senator like Hatch would say, “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.” Skeptical at first, he now sees the light.

The GOP may be discovering freedom from constraint, as I discussed recently when comparing the current GOP with H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man. I remember how, when attending college in the early 1970‘s, we were amazed at what we could get away with. We could shout profanity in marches, smoke pot, and engage in guilt-free sex. I think Republicans currently are experiencing some of that freedom.

I use the word “freedom” but actually it’s a heady belief in authoritarianism, which seems currently able to override our system of normal checks and balances. Goldberg quotes German-Jewish psychoanalyst and Hitler refugee Erich Fromm, who described authoritarian personalities as “simultaneously craving power and submission”:

The authoritarian character loves those conditions that limit human freedom; he loves being submitted to fate,” he wrote. Fate, in his formulation, can be the laws of the market, the will of God, or the whims of a leader. According to Fromm, authoritarians might make a show of valuing freedom and independence — watchwords of the American right — but long to be ruled by a stronger force.

Fromm owes a debt to Ivan Karamazov’s’s thought experiment about the limitations of Christianity, and those limitations could extend also to democracy. Confronting a Christ who has returned, the Grand Inquisitor tells him that he asked too much of people. They can’t live up to his high standards—“Blessed are those who believe without seeing,” Jesus tells Thomas—and prefer that people tell them what to do and to believe:

And thus, after all Thou has suffered for mankind and its freedom, the present fate of men may be summed up in three words: Unrest, Confusion, Misery! [To be sure, a few have] shared Thy Cross for long years, suffered scores of years’ hunger and thirst in dreary wildernesses and deserts, feeding upon locusts and roots—and of these children of free love for Thee, and self-sacrifice in Thy name, Thou mayest well feel proud. But remember that these are but a few thousands—of gods, not men; and how about all others? And why should the weakest be held guilty for not being able to endure what the strongest have endured? 

Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor would not be impressed with the argument made by Ruth Marcus, a center-left Washington Post columnist who recently challenged citizens to defend democracy as Jesus called for his followers to take up the cross:

[Trump] unleashed my inner patriot. I love my country, for all its flaws and for all its flawed leader.

It is worth the fighting for. I knew this, always, on an intellectual level. The Trump presidency has made me feel it, viscerally and passionately. The ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and implemented through the careful structures and capacious phrases of the Constitution do not merely compel our respect. In the Trump era, they require our passionate defense.

 Once we took for granted, as a given of American democracy, such fundamental values as freedom of the press, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary. Now we have a president who veers between failure to understand their importance and deliberate efforts to undermine them.

Stirring words, but I imagine Congressional Republicans thinking, why worry about the Gordian knot of all these subtleties, all the difficult challenges of existing as a multicultural and pluralist society, when with one swipe of the authoritarian blade, we can get all that we want? Trump is persuading them that their monochromatic view of the world is achievable and they love him for it.

Posted in Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Melville (Herman), Orwell (George), Wells (H. G.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love Was with Me in the Night

Gentile da Fabriano, “Nativity” (1423)

Christmas Day

My dear friends Dana Greene and Richard Roesel alerted me to this May Sarton Christmas poem. I particularly like the fact that it is set within the family library.

Christmas Light

By May Sarton

When everyone had gone
I sat in the library
With the small silent tree,
She and I alone.
How softly she shone!

And for the first time then
For the first time this year,
I felt reborn again,
I knew love’s presence near.

Love distant, love detached
And strangely without weight,
Was with me in the night
When everyone had gone
And the garland of pure light
Stayed on, stayed on.

 The garland of pure light reminds me of Henry Vaughan’s opening lines in “The World” except that Sarton’s poem is quieter:

I saw Eternity the other night, 
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
All calm, as it was bright…

There is also a George Herbert simplicity to some of the lines—“I knew love’s presence near,” for instance—although the poem lacks Herbert’s agonized struggle (and Vaughan’s as well). For Sarton, love’s visitation arrives without fuss or fanfare.

Think of it as a Christmas prayer.

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Love Came Down at Christmas

Thomas Cole, “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”

Christmas Eve

Throughout Jesus’s ministry, people asked him to produce signs or miracles to authenticate that he was truly from God. Matthew (12:30) reports Pharisees and teachers of the law testing him–“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you”—and the multitudes who witnessed the loaves and fishes miracle demanded yet more: “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30). Frustrated that people didn’t get his transformational message, Jesus at one point observed, “Why does this generation demand a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).

For Christina Rossetti, the sign that Jesus gave us was love, which is more powerful than any physical miracle or magical trick. In this simple but moving Christmas poem, she goes to the heart of Jesus’s message:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign. 

When we plead for a sign, we are given love, which proves that God is amongst us and in us.

Merry Christmas!

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Fantasy: GOP Tax Plan in a People’s Court

Plutocrats sample oil found under Paris in “Madwoman of Chaillot”


MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell didn’t mince words about the recently passed GOP tax bills, calling it, “the ugliest display of pigs at the trough that I have ever seen.” Not far behind, Bernie Sanders said that “what we are seeing today, in an unprecedented way, is the looting of the federal Treasury.” How else explain giving tax breaks worth billions to billionaires while allowing the the Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire and throwing 13 million people off of their healthcare? It’s as though Republicans were auditioning for the role of Mr. Monopoly.

The event has me thinking of a play by Jean Giraudoux that I read when a 13-year-old attending school in Paris. The Madwoman of Chaillot is about a group of street people who learn about millionaires plotting to dig up Paris to access its oil reserves. I loved the play at the time but wondered about it later when I saw the dreadful 1969 Catherine Hepburn version. Being a tame Hollywood production, the film pulled its punches—the villains were too cartoonish to be taken seriously—but my 18-year-old self wondered whether part of the problem lay in the play itself. How interesting is a drama where the good are only good and the bad only bad?

The fact that it accurately captures the current GOP Congress shows just how much Republicans have bought into Donald Trump’s “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get, I’m so greedy.” To truly conform to the stereotype, they would have to sell our National Parks for natural resources. And get rid of the Consumer Protection Bureau while rewarding Wells Fargo. And gut the public school system to give tuition tax breaks to wealthy parents sending their children to private schools. Oh wait, they really are doing all those things.

Toward the end of the play, the street people hold a mock trial of the plutocrats. Ragpicker plays the defendants:

The trial began. Josephine presided as Judge, with the Countess beside her.

“Just how rich am I?” the Ragpicker wanted to know. “Millions? Billions? And how did I get that way? By murder, theft, embezzlement, what?” He assumed a position as though he stood in the dock. “I am ready. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth–no, I swear to lie, conceal, distort everything and slander everybody.

“May it please this honorable court, my life is an open book, I am a pillar of the church. I support all organized charities that are tax deductible.”

The Countess stepped in as Prosecutor. “You are charged with a total lack of feeling for others. Disgusting grossness. The abuse of power. And worship of money.”

“Worship money? Me?” The Ragpicker was piously indignant. “I plead not guilty! I don’t worship money. It’s the other way around. Money worships me. It won’t let me alone. The first time money came to me, I was a mere boy. Untouched. Untainted. It came quite suddenly when I innocently picked a bar of gold bullion out of a garbage can while playing. As you can imagine I was horrified. I tried swapping it for a little, rundown one-track railroad. To my childish amazement this immediately sold itself for a hundred times its value. I made desperate efforts to get rid of this unwanted wealth.”

The gathering stared at him in undisguised fascination as he continued.

“I bought refineries, department stores, every munitions factory I could lay hands on. The rest is history. They stuck to me. They multiplied. And now I am powerless. Everyone knows the poor have no one but themselves to blame for their poverty. But how is it the fault of the rich if they’re rich? Oh, I don’t ask for your pity. All I ask for is a little human understanding.”

An instant chorus of accusations burst from the ranks of his listeners.

“You think you should have your money for nothing”….”You never part with a franc”…

“Slanders!” cried the Ragpicker indignantly! “I spend in order that you may live. If I have tan shoes, I buy black ones. Who benefits? If I have a Fiat, I buy a Mercedes. If I have a wife, I pay alimony. But no matter what I do, I rid myself of my money. I bet a hundred-to-one shot, the horse comes in by twenty lengths. I cannot help myself, ladies and gentlemen. That money sticks like glue, although I buy twelve chateaux, twenty villas, endow the opera and keep fourteen ballerinas.”

He was really getting his back into the speech by now. They were spellbound.

“Yes, ballerinas. How can women deny me anything? I mix morals with sable. I drip pearls into protest. I adorn resistance with rubies. I can have all women. Ah, without money nobody likes or trusts you. But to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty. To have none is to be ugly and boring and stupid and useless.

The Countess confronted him. “One last question. Suppose you find this oil you’re looking for? What will you do with it?”

“I’ll make war! I’ll destroy what remains of the world!”

“You’ve heard the Defense.” Now she faced the jury. “I demand a verdict of guilty!”

“Guilty!” they shouted, all together. “Guilty as charged!”

It takes America’s exploding wealth gap, which is about to get much worse, to make Giraudoux’s caricature of rich people seem so relevant. I particularly like the point that “to have money is to be virtuous, beautiful, honest and witty.” Wealth corrodes everything.

Note also that the defendant is arguing a version of trickle down economics.

The play has a fantasy ending in which the wealthy are lured into a dark stairwell with the promise of oil, at which point the madwoman locks the door behind them. The GOP has descended the staircase, and the rest of us must make sure that the 2018 and 2020 elections turn the key.

Update: Two recent Trump quotes succinctly make Giraudoux’s point:

“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump told his billionaire friends celebrating at Mar-a-Lago, hours after signing tax overhaul into law….

Regarding the repeal of the individual mandate, which will throw 13 million off of health care and spike premiums: “Obamacare has been repealed…I told people specifically to be quiet about it.”

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The Novel that Upended the USSR

Still from Christopher Wrede’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”


My senior seminar students have given me permission of share some of their essays about literary works that “created a stir.” Sabrina Wood explored why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich hit the Soviet Union with seismic force in 1963, first accelerating Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization push and then helping trigger a conservative backlash that brought Leonid Brezhnev to power.

A simple account of a day in Stalin’s Gulag, Solzhenitsyn’s novel grew out of his own experiences in Siberia. A Day in the Life isn’t politically didactic but it works as an implicit critique of Stalin’s cult of personality, as in the following passage:

“A tub was brought in to melt snow for mortar. They heard somebody saying it was twelve o’clock already. 
“It’s sure to be twelve,” Shukhov announced. “The sun’s over the top already.”
“If it is,” the captain retorted, “it’s one o’clock, not twelve.”
“How do you make that out?” Shukhov asked in surprise. “The old folk say the sun is highest at dinnertime.”
“Maybe it was in their day!” the captain snapped back. “Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.”
“Who decreed that?”
“The Soviet government.”
The captain took off with the handbarrow, but Shukhov wasn’t going to argue anyway. As if the sun would obey their decrees!” 

During the Stalin years 14 million people were imprisoned in the Gulag labor camps, and another 15 million experienced some form of deportation and exile. In Stalin’s final year, there were more than 2.4 million prisoners, 465,000 of whom were political. (Wikipedia)

Khrushchev sought to reverse Stalin’s excesses. In 1962 he addressed the Party Congress with the words, “The time will come when we will all die, for we are all mortal. Until then we must do our work, and we can and must tell the party and the people the truth. We need to do this so that nothing like this can ever be repeated.” Sabrina writes that the premier

hoped to deconstruct Stalin’s “monoparty” by allowing “enemies of the state” to reenter society and promote political discussion.” As Khrushchev administered mass releases from the forced-labor camps, the population imprisoned in the gulag plummeted to 550,000 by 1960–the lowest it had been since 1935. Khrushchev implemented a new policy to recast the former enemies of the state into respectable citizens of the Soviet. He promoted the re-education and correction of their morals and behavior. Khrushchev’s goal was to return to the “true revolutionary path,” “the communist creed,” and in announcing such a goal upon the release of former political prisoners, he allowed those prisoners “to think of themselves as shining examples of the Bolshevik spirit.”

Believing that A Day in the Life would aid his liberalization efforts, Khrushchev overrode objections from the Communist Central Committee and allowed the journal Novy Mir to publish the novel. Sabrina writes that, as “a powerful example of the humanity that exists in the confines of the gulag,” Day in the Life was seen by  Khrushchev as an ideal symbol in his risky campaign “to expunge Stalin’s lasting impact on political and cultural life.”

The novel was an instant hit and letters poured into Novy Mir. At one point Soviet propaganda boss Leonid F. Illyiehev felt the need to plead with up-and-coming Soviet authors to write about subjects other than forced-labor camps.

In my essay requirements, the students were required to apply the ideas of at least one of the theorists we studied during the semester. Sabrina chose Bertolt Brecht’s theory of how art can “denaturalize social norms and incite societal and political change.” In this case, the norm undermined was unquestioning acceptance of Soviet dictates.

The novel proved so powerful in denaturalizing that Khrushchev, sensing a reaction, backed off of his previous endorsement, declaring the topic of prison camps to be “dangerous for society” and acknowledging that Stalin had successes as well as mistakes. This did not save him, however, and Sabrina observes that the following year he was replaced by Brezhnev,

a stricter conservative who recognized the moral strength of the novel and banned its publication in book form. Brezhnev’s government seized Solzhenitsyn’s manuscripts, halted the publication of his future works, and exiled him from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Sabrina shares some of the attacks:

The conservative response to Solzhenitsyn’s work largely focused on the fear [that] former zeks returning to society…would disrupt the peace. E.A. Ignatovich, a worker in a chemical lab who had escaped the German captivity, criticized Solzhenitsyn’s characters: “Why? Why did you write in the introduction to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that it was about 1937 people? No, there wasn’t even one 1937 person here. From my point of view they were wartime deserters, criminals, and cowards. To my mind, the story was well written but the heroes are trash.” Ignatovich argued that Solzhenitsyn’s characters could not be acceptable heroes to the Soviet collective because of their vulgar and indecent nature. Other conservative reviews rejected the lack of “organization, ideas, culture, and humanity” of the imprisoned characters as well as the use of “convict slang” that could threaten Soviet morals. Conservative responses merged to suggest policy change that would restrict Khrushchev’s readmission policy only to “party members victimized at the height of the Terror.”

When Sabrina presented her essay to the class, I compared it to fellow student Abby Messaris’s essay on Tartuffe, which the establishment church opposed for its implied assumption that the church could be subject to rational judgment. (Read a description of Abby’s project here.) In both instances, works of literature pointed to a liberalization process that authorities feared.

Nor were they wrong to fear them. We condemn such institutions for their censorship, but their attacks are an acknowledgement of literature’s power. Plays and novels can change reality itself, opening up new possibilities.

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Graded Essays Are Like Chopped Wood


One doesn’t have to teach for long to learn a valuable lesson about end-of-the-semester comments: few students read them.

Early in my career I learned this lesson the hard way. I had left a stack of carefully marked essays outside my door—this was decades ago when professors still did this—and returned in January to discover that no more than three or four of them had been picked up. I remember toting up in my head all the fruitless hours I had spent.

Robert Frost goes through similar calculations in “The Woodpile.” Walking through the woods on a snowy afternoon, he comes across a carefully cut and stacked pile of wood. It’s a neat “four by four by eight” and the farmer Clematis “had wound string round and round it like a bundle.” Unfortunately, he then forgot about it, and the wood is now rotten and no longer suitable for burning:

It was a cord of maple, cut and split 
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. 
And not another like it could I see. 
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. 
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, 
Or even last year’s or the year’s before. 
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it 
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis 
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. 
What held it though on one side was a tree 
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, 
These latter about to fall. I thought that only 
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks 
Could so forget his handiwork on which 
He spent himself, the labor of his ax, 
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace 
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could 
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

Now I put all my energy into earlier drafts since these comments contribute to intellectual fire. I generally provide comments on the final draft only to students who ask for them.

So if are a young teacher just confronting this issue, imagine all your comments warming a frozen swamp with the slow smokeless burning of decay. Then go off and do something else.

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Recovering from the Semester

Daniel Maclise, “Morte d’Arthur”


When I turned in my final grades yesterday, I felt not so much triumphant as exhausted, as though I were a warrior gazing around at the smoking ruins of a conflict he had technically won but was in no position to appreciate. I’ve been intensely engaged with final essays for two months now—proposals, rough drafts, polished drafts, student conferences before and after, and optional revisions—and that doesn’t include the weekly reading journals that I assigned throughout the entire semester. All this while recovering from an episode of pericarditis and myocarditis.

I’m not complaining as I know how lucky I am. Even after 37 years of teaching, I remain in awe at how literature opens in my students rich avenues of thought and self-awareness. Still, the image that comes to mind at the moment is Arthur surveying the wreckage of his last battle in Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur”:

So all day long the noise of battle roll’d 
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full. 

When I was recovering from trips to the emergency room and an on-going fever, my wonderful case manager Susan Mann gently chided me for not taking more time away from my classes. I thought that it was sufficient to withdraw from committee work and faculty meetings, but in truth one expends a lot of energy teaching. Susan insists that I spend the upcoming weeks getting the rest I have been putting off.

I don’t have the three women from “the island-valley of Avilion” who care for Arthur, but I have Julia, whom I have joined after a long absence. She is living with my mother, and between them I am getting my version of the three queens:

Three Queens with crowns of gold—and from them rose 
A cry that shiver’d to the tingling stars, 
And, as it were one voice, an agony 
Of lamentation, like a wind, that shrills 
All night in a waste land, where no one comes, 

Or hath come, since the making of the world.


But she that rose the tallest of them all
And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
And loosed the shatter’d casque, and chafed his hands,
And call’d him by his name, complaining loud
And dropping bitter tears against his brow
Striped with dark blood…

Okay, so it’s not quite this dramatic. Still Sewanee, Tennessee is as close as I need to Avalion,

Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.

I will bounce back—I’ve always done so in the past—but right now I need time to heal.

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Trump, Pale Ravener of Horrible Meat


What is it that draws people to Donald Trump, given his history of exploiting underlings when he needs them and casting them off at a moment’s notice? Most recently we have been watching South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham fall under Trump’s spell after being one of his most vocal GOP critics. It appears that former National Security head Michael Flynn was willing to lie to the FBI for Trump, and he may not be the only one who did so and who now feels betrayed. Do any of those who work for Trump seriously think he will thank them for it?

I don’t have a good explanation for why people work for Trump, but I have an image: these “advisors” are like the pilot fish in Herman Melville’s terrifying poem “The Maldive Shark.” They serve as Trump’s “eyes and brains,” guiding him to his prey. Yet like the fish in the poem, they “never partake of the treat.”

Following the poem’s imagery, Trump would be a “Gorgonian head,” a “dotard lethargic and dull,” and a “pale ravener [devourer] of horrible meat.” The images work for me, but I’ll give him a pass on “pale sot” as he avoids alcohol.

For the record, there is no “Maldive shark” but the Maldives, a string of islands and reefs in the South Pacific, are a haven for sharks. Melville may have encountered them there when he was a sailor.

Here’s the poem:

The Maldive Shark

By Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Further thought: I sometimes worry that I give Trump too much credit in posts like this. Might he not be trivial rather than horrible, small rather than big? I do, however, find something darkly grand in his insatiable need for praise and in his bottomless narcissism. Trump, like sharks, is noteworthy for his singular focus.

Attempts to control this appetite–pilot fish who think they can use their smarts to get the shark to do their will–bring to mind a Schopenhauer passage that Nietzsche cites in The Birth of Tragedy. Both philosophers compare humans to a man in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean boasting of the power of individual will. The fragile ego (eyes and brains) has the illusion that it can control the boundless realm of the id, but in the end it is swamped. Here’s the passage:

Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it.

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Walking Down the Saddest City Lane

city street

Spiritual Sunday

I’m never sure whether Advent’s emphasis should be on the darkness or the promised light. Focus on one and you underestimate the other. With that said, I find an Advent message in one of Robert Frost’s bleakest poems.

From one vantage point, the poem seems bereft of all light and having nothing to do with the Christmas promise, or even with religion generally:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rainand back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. 
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Could the watchman be the one mentioned in Ezekiel who watches for the messiah? If that’s the case, the narrator is like one of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men, so lost that he is ashamed to look him in the eyes. (Eliot’s poem was written four years earlier, in 1925). The cry he hears is not the prophet crying out in the wilderness but an ambiguous cry, neither calling him home nor sending him out. The light he sees is also ambiguous, proclaiming the hour to be neither wrong or right. Time is out of joint.

The wandering narrator reminds me of another poem that is explicitly about Advent, even though it too occurs in darkness. In For the Time Being, W. H. Auden writes,

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss,

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Frost’s speaker seems so beaten down that he doesn’t even demand a miracle. Perhaps he couldn’t face up to one if it happened. He wallows in his depression.

If the promise of new birth can break through this fog, it is indeed miraculous.

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Gawain, Trump and Shame

William Morris, “Failure of Sir Gawain”


Can Sir Gawain and the Green Knight be read as a commentary on Donald Trump’s lack of shame? So argues Seeta Chaganti, a medievalist at the University of California, Davis. While I interpret the romance differently than Chaganti, I like how she uses the poem to engage with her distress over the president.

As Chaganti reads the poem, Gawain momentarily abandons shame in order to save his life, accepting and hiding from the lord of the castle a life-saving green girdle from his wife. For the most part, Gawain has been an exemplary knight, but here he abandons his knightly code for a base motive. When he is later exposed by the Green Knight, he is filled with self loathing—so much so that he tries to shift some of the blame to women. He is still beating himself up when he returns to Camelot.

Chaganti believes Gawain’s sense of entitlement allows him to sidestep his shame. When he does this, the shame dissipates, although she gives a rather fuzzy and not very convincing explanation of how this happens. She also says that this dissipated shame becomes “a sharp point set loose to lodge collaterally in his watchers,” with the result that Gawain escapes scot free while observers shoulder it:

[W]hen an enfranchised protagonist (a knight, a politician) is coddled to cast off shame, that shame becomes a sharp point set loose to lodge collaterally in his watchers…

Here’s how shame shifts in the Trump era:

A year and some days since our presidential election, the Trump administration has driven that sharp point into me. I am pierced by the shame he refuses to feel. I see Trump as merely intensifying what are in fact longstanding injustices and evils; I see myself as accountable for my belatedness in resisting them. And I know that even as I try to do better, I am complicit still.

I find this intriguing although it’s not something I experience. I’d like to focus here, however, on whether Trump has in fact cast off shame.

I think that Trump is obsessed with shame, only he has found ways to hide from it. He is ashamed of his small hands, of not being the president that Barack Obama was, of failing to make the cover of Time Magazine. Whatever the cause—a cold mother and an emotionally abusive father are in there somewhere—it is hell being Trump. He copes by bullying women, boasting about his successes, undertaking grandiose projects, living a lavish lifestyle, and seeking the presidency.

In the process, he abandons normal decency and codes of ethical conduct. He handles shame, in other words, by acting shamelessly. He also attacks anyone who reminds him of his shame.

As a result, the chivalric code hasn’t looked this good for a long time. Sure, Gawain is wound rather tight, but isn’t suppressing one’s emotions preferable to a Trumpian acting out?  If the fear of being shamed keeps anarchic forces at bay, maybe we should give shame a second look.

Except that the Green Knight, as Gawain’s internal nature, is unimpressed. Gawain has so wrapped himself up in the ideological armor of his Christian knighthood that he can’t acknowledge to himself how much he fears dying. He’s so afraid of appearing afraid that he shuts down his emotions altogether. Nature bulls its way into Arthur’s court because it wants Camelot to acknowledge that it has feelings beneath its stoic exterior.

In the end, Gawain kind of acknowledges and kind of doesn’t. Nature gives him credit for showing that he cares for his life but dings him for being sneaky about it. It’s unclear whether Gawain learns the lesson Nature has been trying to teach him. Instead of writhing in embarrassment for revealing his fears, he should openly acknowledge his humanity. Real men are okay with flinching.

Trump and Gawain represent two opposite ways of dealing with shame, neither one healthy. Trump handles his anxieties by behaving like Prince Prospero in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” another rich man who parties wildly to drown out fears of death. Gawain, on the other hand, is emotionally paralyzed. Trump is the decadent 1970s, Gawain the repressed 1950s.

Shame is useful for keeping us in check, and Chaganti is right that we could use more of it at a time when lying and rudeness have become second nature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not the best advertisement for reviving it, however.

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Trump & GOP as Shakespearean Drama

George Cattermole, “Macbeth Orders the Murder of Banquo”


Repentant conservative Charlie Sykes invoked Shakespeare and Marlowe in a recent New York Times column as he charted the descent of the GOP, which he describes as a tragedy in four acts. Today’s post shares his parallels and adds a few more.

Sykes actually begins with Feydeau rather than Shakespeare, noting that Donald Trump’s entry into the GOP primaries has the feel of a French farce, albeit one tinged with menace. The suspense lies in “whether Republicans will bring themselves to embrace the erratic usurper.” The farce turns tragic as Trump clinches the nomination. Trump dispatches his enemies as ruthlessly as Macbeth does, with Jeb Bush standing in for Duncan and Ted Cruz, once a self-described Trump “fan,” for Banquo.

Sykes’s Act II opens with the GOP dithering like Hamlet as Trump seizes power. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is cast in the lead role:

A solitary Hamlet-like Paul Ryan paces the stage in a torn doublet and laments the evil days that have fallen on his party; he is accompanied by a Joker (who looks a lot like Lindsey Graham) who tells him that Donald Trump is a “kook,” someone who is “not fit to run the country.” But after several long monologues, in which he rationalizes that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” the young Mr. Ryan decides that the election is a binary choice and he and other Republicans must go along. 

It’s Lear rather than Hamlet who ignores the advice of his fool, but otherwise the parallel works. It’s interesting that Hamlet, when finally goaded into action, stabs the wrong man. Ryan killed moderate Polonius Republicans rather than the usurper who had poured poison into the ears of the American public:

In Act III, which depicts Trump following the election, Sykes describes Trump’s advisors as a “motley court,” bringing to mind the parody of a court that Hal and Falstaff set up when they are carousing in the inn. Both lack seriousness:

Act III opens to a scene shortly after the inauguration. One after another, Republican leaders bow the knee to the newly enthroned Orange God King, who is surrounded by a motley court of misfits, sycophants and brigands.

Just as the milder Henry IV, Part I gets darker in Part II, so does the GOP. They thought they could bend Trump to their will but instead discover that they have been Trumpified.

Actually, there is an illustrative contrast between Trump and Hal. The GOP hoped the Trump would “imitate the sun” once he stepped into office. Hal informs us that such is his intent:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Well, so much for that hope. I see no glorious victory at Agincourt on Trump’s horizon.

At this point in the drama, Sykes says, the play shifts from Shakespeare to Marlowe:

By the end of Act III, though, it is increasingly clear that this drama is less Hamlet and more Faust. It has only begun to dawn on the protagonists that in a Faustian bargain, you often get your heart’s delight, only to find out that the price was far more than you expected. (Alarms and excursions offstage.)

In Act IV we see Falstaff running the show as Trump goes all-in on pedophile Roy Moore. In this version, Hal never grows up:

Act IV opens with a solitary, dark figure, a sort of infernal Falstaff (Steve Bannon), who, despite his banishment from the White House, remains an avatar of the forces that have been unleashed by Donald Trump’s presidency. Now Mr. Bannon presents the Republican Party with its future: Roy Moore.

Sykes doesn’t have an Act V, but I’m rooting for the ending of Macbeth. People who violate all principles for the sake of power should be thrown out of office. Maybe Moore’s defeat is a sign that the Great Dunsinane Wood has begun to move.

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Atwood’s Novels in the News

Planned Parenthood supporters


Margaret Atwood seems to be everywhere these days. Handmaid’s Tale, of course, made a splash as a television series, prompting women to regularly don the crimson robes and white bonnets to protest GOP attacks on abortions, birth control, universal healthcare, and Planned Parenthood. Now people are citing the novel as GOP Congressman Trent Franks resigns from Congress for pressuring female subordinates to act as surrogate mothers for his children.

In terms of the novel, that would make him “the General” while his aides would be handmaids. Or Oftrents, as people have been calling them, referring to the way surrogate mothers in the novel must take the first name of their master.

Here’s The New York Times reporting the story:

Representative Trent Franks announced Friday that he would resign from Congress immediately after accusations emerged that he had offered $5 million to a female employee to be a surrogate mother for his children, and that she and another female employee worried that the lawmaker wanted to have sex as a means of impregnating them.

It surprises no one that Franks is a socially conservative members of Congress. Sexual harassment may cross party lines but social conservatives take the prize for hypocrisy, loudly preaching a morality they often do not practice. According to the Times article, in 2013 Franks

came under harsh criticism for remarking that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low” during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. He also founded the Arizona Family Research Institute, a nonprofit associated with Focus on the Family, a socially conservative religious organization.

In Atwood’s dystopian society, women are forced to serve as breeders for impotent couples. Handmaid’s Tale offers protesters a narrative of resistance that stiffens the spine, and that stiffened spine may have played a major role in Democrat Doug Jones’s stunning electoral victory over pedophile Roy Moore last night. Among Moore’s many controversial positions was that women should not hold public office.


One of my students alerted me to another Atwood prediction that appears to be coming true. In her Oryx and Crake trilogy, the author describes a world in which scientists grow replacement human organs inside of pigs. People pay a lot of money to have their own personal “pigoons.”

According to Business Week, that future is getting closer:

A team of scientists announced in early June that they’re attempting to grow human organs inside of pigs for the purpose of — you guessed it — transplanting those tissues into humans.

According to the BBC, scientists at the University of California, Davis, want to create hybrid human-pig embryos known as “chimeras” by putting human stem cells in pig embryos. Their goal? Grow a functional human pancreas inside an otherwise normal pig.

“Our hope is that this pig embryo will develop normally but the pancreas will be made almost exclusively out of human cells and could be compatible with a patient for transplantation,” said Pablo Ross, a biologist leading the research, to the BBC.

The Business Week article notes that the idea has been around for a while so Atwood doesn’t get entire credit. But Atwood’s prediction of super intelligent pigs now appears to be a possible byproduct:

Atwood describes her pigoons as remarkably intelligent creatures. At one point they even glance up at a character “as if they saw him, really saw him, and might have plans for him later.” Elsewhere, they are thought to have left flowers and other offerings at the burial site of a fellow pigoon. Characters in the book speculate that this is all because the pigoons contain human neocortex tissue, making them more human.

And this is where our science-meets-fiction gets really bizarre.

This ability for real human organ-carrying pigs to become more human, with human cells somehow migrating to the pig’s brain, is actually a concern with the research conducted by the UC Davis scientists. “We think there is very low potential for a human brain to grow, but this is something we will be investigating,” Ross told the BBC.

For the record, Atwood imagines other genetically modified animals as well. These include rakunks, liobams, wolfogs (which seem as friendly as dogs but will tear your throat out), florescent green rabbits, and caterpillars with smiley faces (which makes them hard to kill).

Coming soon to a pet store near you.

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Left Behind Evangelicals and Jerusalem


If the Middle East blows up (more than it already has) following Donald Trump’s surprise recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, we may have a series of novels to thank for the mess. Trump’s decision can be traced directly to the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Some background is useful. First of all, the novels are about potential born-again Christians who have been left behind when the Rapture begins. A group calling itself “the Tribulation Force” grapples with the Antichrist, who runs the United Nations, in preparation for the time when the Messiah will return and separate the sheep from the goats. Here’s a member of the Force encountering Jesus:

“Again, Rayford slid to the ground, raising his arms. “My Lord and my God, I am so unworthy.”
“And you, Rayford, who once were alienated and an enemy in your mind by wicked works, yet now I have reconciled the body of My flesh through death to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in God’s sight.” 
“Unworthy! Unworthy!” Rayford cried.
“Justified by faith,” Jesus said, “Justified.” 

I doubt that Trump has read any of the novels since he’s neither a reader nor an observant Christian. He knows what gets him applause lines, however, and “Jerusalem” is one of them. His diehard Christian base, viewing Left Behind as an accurate description of the future, believe that the Rapture will quickly follow once the Jews have regained control of Jerusalem.

I owe some of my understanding to Ana Marie Cox’s excellent podcast interview of religious historian and former dispensationalist Diana Butler Bass. An article in Christianity Today is also useful as it traces the vision back to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a former priest in the Anglican Church of Ireland:

To Darby, the plan for God’s earthly people had been revealed through a series of covenants with Israel: the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant, the law-oriented Mosaic Covenant, the royal Davidic Covenant, and a new Messianic Covenant.

Until Messiah’s coming, however, God’s earthly people must suffer Gentile domination, prophesied by Daniel. This Gentile hegemony would end at the coming of Messiah, 70 weeks after one of the Gentile rulers issues a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to repair its broken walls. But when the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God suspended the prophetic timetable at the end of Daniel’s sixty-ninth week and began building a new and heavenly people—the church.

For dispensationalists, the end times are near at hand:

Earlier premillennialists believed the Rapture would occur at the end of the tribulation, at Christ’s second advent. But dispensationalists separated the Rapture (when Christ will come for his saints) from the Second Coming (when he will come with his saints).

Once the heavenly people of God have been raptured, Darby believed, the divine script can be played out to the end. The Antichrist will rise, Christ and his saints will break through the clouds and destroy him and his followers in battle (the Second Coming), the nations of the world will be judged, and Satan will be thrown into a bottomless pit. Then, with the conclusion of Daniel’s seventieth week, the victorious Messiah will restore the throne of David, and the millennial kingdom will begin, followed by the Last Judgment and a new heaven and earth. The seven dispensations then over, time shall be no more.

Some dispensationalists believed that Barack Obama was the Antichrist (perhaps they still do), and many regard Roy Moore’s and Trump’s sexual molesting as minor compared with the end times they are helping to bring about.

The dispensationalists may be kooks, but there are a lot of them. The Left Behind books have sold over 65 million copies and have been read by many more. According to Wikipedia,

multiple books in the series have been on the New York Times best-seller list. Starting in 2000, Books 7 and 8 reached number one on the list followed by book 10, which debuted at number one…. Seven titles in the adult series have reached #1 on the bestseller lists for the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.

The series has also inspired graphic novel versions, four films, and a computer game.

Generally I don’t write about works I haven’t read, but it sounds like Left Behind follows a strategy, common to formulaic bestsellers, of exploiting anxieties, revenge fantasies, and wish fulfillments. The anxieties have to do with modern uncertainties and people of color; the revenge fantasies imagine Jesus punishing the people you hate; and the wish fulfillment assures you that you are one of the fortunate ones. To read the Left Behind books is to become one with the heroes.

The dispensationalists voted for Trump in 2016 and will vote for Moore today because they appreciate people who speak their language and fit into their vision. In her podcast interview, Butlers says that Democrats cannot reach these people. After all, issues like health care, tax cuts, and climate change are for those benighted souls who think America has a future.

When Plato said that poets should be banned from his Republic, he would certainly have included the authors of the Left Behind books. We underestimate the emotional power of literature at our peril, and America is tottering from the blows of two sets of badly written but nevertheless effective novels. LaHaye/Jenkins punch for the Christian fundamentalists, Ayn Rand punches for Paul Ryan and the libertarian right, and suddenly we’re cross-eyed.

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Robert Mueller as a Savior Ent?

Treebeard, a primal force for justice


With every day that passes, we learn more about the different ways that Russia attacked and compromised the 2016 election. As The New York Times summed it up yesterday, their campaign involved

hacking and leaking Democratic emails, pushing false information on Russian media outlets, gaining access to state and local electoral boards, and using social media to disseminate misinformation.

Since “Russian trolls” played a role in that misinformation, I turn to another battle involving trolls. Strictly speaking, Tolkien’s Battle of Helm’s Deep involves goblin Orcs, not trolls, but that’s close enough for our purposes. Think of the garrison’s warriors as the embattled defenders of democracy while Vladimir Putin—with some inside help—sends wave after wave of troll bots to breach the wall.

The parallel even has a historical basis. Tolkien modeled Saruman on Stalin, whose non-aggression pact with Hitler shows up in Saruman’s arrangement with Sauron.

Those defending the bastion are a multicultural coalition of men, dwarfs, elves, wizards, and—at the last moment—walking trees. Let’s say their motto is “e pluribus unum.” The dwarf-elf coalition is particularly striking since the two races have traditionally been antagonistic.

At first glance, it appears that the forces of good don’t stand a chance. For one things, the Russians Orcs have insider friends who have colluded so the enemy knows where to strike:

‘Trust not to secret ways,’ said the king. ‘Saruman has long spied out this land.

But what Gimli says of Helm’s Deep could also be said of American democracy:

‘This is more to my liking,’ said the dwarf, stamping on the stones. ‘Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones.”

American democracy must have tough bones to resist what is being thrown against it. As noted by counterterrorism expert Malcom Nance, author of The Plot to Hack America, Russian intelligence carried off “nothing short of the most successful operation in their history.”

The assault on Helm’s Deep is similarly dramatic:

Suddenly the clouds were seared by a blinding flash. Branched lightning smote down upon the eastward hills. For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and the Dike lit with white light: it was boiling and crawling with black shapes. some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields. Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach. The dark tide flowed up to the walls from cliff to cliff. Thunder rolled in the valley. Rain came lashing down.

Sadly, the Russian Orcs succeeded, installing their preferred candidate on the throne. Perhaps we can at least take heart from the fact that, in Lord of the Rings, Helm’s Deep stands strong. Decisive action and the appearance of the Ents preserve it:

Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king’s company. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down leaped Shadowfax, like a deer that runs surefooted in the mountains. The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.

We must now turn our attention to our own Orcs, which is to say Trump and his allies in Congress and the rightwing media. The situation looks as bad as it did to the wall’s defenders. Only the most optimistic amongst us thinks that the Resistance can stop their advance, at least before the 2018 election.

Instead, we must hope that our version of the Ents shows up–which is to say Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And indeed the trees do have similarities to the rule of law, representing “not wizardry, but a power far older”:

Ere iron was found or tree was hewn,
When young was mountain under moon;
Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe,
It walked the forests long ago.

Dare we think of the Ents here as the foundations of democracy, so ancient and revered that they can withstand authoritarian assaults?

Can you believe we are having this conversation?

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Like the Crocus Budding through the Snow

Spiritual Sunday

For Advent I have discovered Herman Melville’s Clarel (1876), which at 18,000 lines is America’s longest poem. I’ve only read the epilogue, but I now want to read more as it indicates spiritual wrestling at a deep level.

Melville uses the figure of Clarel to sort through a pilgrimage he undertook to the Holy Land. Like Tennyson in In Memoriam, the poet grapples with faith and doubt and examines attempts to reconcile religion with Darwinian science. According to Melville’s good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville could

neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Clarel is returning to Bethlehem after having undertaken an Eliotian Wasteland journey to the Dead Sea. He discovers that the woman he loves has died, which partially accounts for the despair mentioned in the poem’s final stanzas.

His despair also arises from his religious doubts as he wonders whether Darwinism, the culmination of Martin Luther questioning orthodoxy, renders concepts like heaven and hell irrelevant:

If Luther’s day expand to Darwin’s year,
Shall that exclude the hope–foreclose the fear?

The real hell for Melville, however, is not Satan’s realm but a materialistic universe, which he refers to variously as “dust,” “dreary gongs,” and “clod.” In answer to the ancient Sphinx’s eternal question, “What is man?” Despair, uncowed, coldly scrawls a bitter cartoon of death “on that adamantine brow.” Meanwhile bloodied Faith, indignant and defensive, responds by inscribing a cross on the shards of broken burial urns that have spilled their ashes:

  Unmoved by all the claims our times avow,
The ancient Sphinx still keeps the porch of shade;
And comes Despair, whom not her calm may cow,
And coldly on that adamantine brow
Scrawls undeterred his bitter pasquinade.
But Faith (who from the scrawl indignant turns)
With blood warm oozing from her wounded trust,
Inscribes even on her shards of broken urns
The sign o’ the cross–the spirit above the dust!

Many in the 19th century hoped that Reason would heal the rift between the material and the spiritual, ape and angel. Melville warns, however, that science attempting to do so will only “aggravate” the feud. He is making a point that Moliere discovered the hard way (see my post) when he attempted to placate Church censors of Tartuffe by adding a character who makes a rational defense of religion. Science can’t function as an umpire, Melville says, because it is party to the debate:

  Yea, ape and angel, strife and old debate–
The harps of heaven and dreary gongs of hell;
Science the feud can only aggravate–
No umpire she betwixt the chimes and knell:
The running battle of the star and clod
Shall run forever–if there be no God.

Melville then makes an observation that is also important to Edgar Allan Poe: the more we see the light of reason and science, the darker the shadows grow. If Man is “tantalized” over the prospect of becoming “the spokesman of dumb Nature’s train,” he is also “apprehensive” as the intellectual questioning “ripen[s] us to pain.” A simple faith would be so much easier for those “who in life’s pilgrimage have baffled striven”:

 Degrees we know, unknown in days before;
The light is greater, hence the shadow more;

And tantalized and apprehensive Man
Appealing–Wherefore ripen us to pain?
Seems there the spokesman of dumb Nature’s train.

But why should we conclude that materiality is the final reality? As Wendell Berry puts it in Testament,

Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle

Hereafter, for all anyone knows?

Berry instructs, “Let imagination figure your hope,” and Melville appears to have a similar idea:

   But through such strange illusions have they passed
Who in life’s pilgrimage have baffled striven–
Even death may prove unreal at the last, 
And stoics be astounded into heaven.

Because astounding surprises are possible, the poet tells the heart-broken Clarel to “keep thy heart,” even though he may not yet be resigned to his loss. While he may currently feel beaten by death’s “whelming sea,” he should think of “the crocus budding through the snow” and “a swimmer rising from the deep.” As much as he may want to “hoard and keep” the burning pain that resides within his bosom, he will eventually emerge from the depths, proving “that death but routs life into victory”:

  Then keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned–
Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
That like the crocus budding through the snow–
That like a swimmer rising from the deep–
That like a burning secret which doth go
Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep;
Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory.

I like the verb “routs,” which suggests a battle. In spite of our determination to stay stuck in our sorrow, the invading army of death drives life out of the shadows and into victory. Put another way, the fact of death gives meaning to life, which otherwise would be an interminable succession of events. The poem leaves us with the Advent message that heart triumphs over despair.

The crocus would not be half so miraculous if it did not force itself through the snow.

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Studying for Exams, Risks & Rewards


My heart goes out to my students as they madly cram for final exams, which begin on Monday. I myself do not torment them in this particular way, although many of my science students tell me that they would rather take take tests than write the essays I assign. In any event, I picture them as Tom Sawyer straining his mind to memorize Bible verses:

Then Tom girded up his loins, so to speak, and went to work to “get his verses”…. Tom bent all his energies to the memorizing of five verses, and he chose part of the Sermon on the Mount, because he could find no verses that were shorter. At the end of half an hour Tom had a vague general idea of his lesson, but no more, for his mind was traversing the whole field of human thought, and his hands were busy with distracting recreations. Mary took his book to hear him recite, and he tried to find his way through the fog:
“Blessed are the—a—a—”
“Yes—poor; blessed are the poor—a—a—”
“In spirit—”
“In spirit; blessed are the poor in spirit, for they—they—”
“For theirs. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they—they—”
“For they—a—”
“S, H, A—”
“For they S, H—Oh, I don’t know what it is!”
“Oh, shall! for they shall—for they shall—a—a—shall mourn—a—a—blessed are they that shall—they that—a—they that shall mourn, for they shall—a—shall what? Why don’t you tell me, Mary?—what do you want to be so mean for?”

Tom, as it turns out, is not much different from the other children:

When they came to recite their lessons, not one of them knew his verses perfectly, but had to be prompted all along. However, they worried through, and each got his reward—in small blue tickets, each with a passage of Scripture on it; each blue ticket was pay for two verses of the recitation. Ten blue tickets equalled a red one, and could be exchanged for it; ten red tickets equalled a yellow one; for ten yellow tickets the superintendent gave a very plainly bound Bible (worth forty cents in those easy times) to the pupil.

To be sure, there is the class prodigy, “a boy of German parentage,” who ruins the curve for everyone else. Twain makes sure he gets his just reward:

He once recited three thousand verses without stopping; but the strain upon his mental faculties was too great, and he was little better than an idiot from that day forth—a grievous misfortune for the school, for on great occasions, before company, the superintendent (as Tom expressed it) had always made this boy come out and “spread himself.”

We also get a little lesson on cheating. Not thinking about consequences, Tom has traded in his gains from the whitewashing episode for other people’s tickets. Suddenly he has enough for a special Bible with Gustave Doré illustrations. Unfortunately, a visiting dignitary, prepared to be impressed, gives him a chance to display his knowledge:

“Two thousand verses is a great many—very, very great many. And you never can be sorry for the trouble you took to learn them; for knowledge is worth more than anything there is in the world; it’s what makes great men and good men; you’ll be a great man and a good man yourself, some day, Thomas, and then you’ll look back and say, It’s all owing to the precious Sunday-school privileges of my boyhood—it’s all owing to my dear teachers that taught me to learn—it’s all owing to the good superintendent, who encouraged me, and watched over me, and gave me a beautiful Bible—a splendid elegant Bible—to keep and have it all for my own, always—it’s all owing to right bringing up! That is what you will say, Thomas—and you wouldn’t take any money for those two thousand verses—no indeed you wouldn’t. And now you wouldn’t mind telling me and this lady some of the things you’ve learned—no, I know you wouldn’t—for we are proud of little boys that learn. Now, no doubt you know the names of all the twelve disciples. Won’t you tell us the names of the first two that were appointed?”
Tom was tugging at a button-hole and looking sheepish. He blushed, now, and his eyes fell. Mr. Walters’ heart sank within him. He said to himself, it is not possible that the boy can answer the simplest question—why did the Judge ask him? Yet he felt obliged to speak up and say:
“Answer the gentleman, Thomas—don’t be afraid.”
Tom still hung fire.
“Now I know you’ll tell me,” said the lady. “The names of the first two disciples were—”
“David And Goliath!”
Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.

Here’s sending out good wishes to all those taking exams over the next couple of weeks. To feel better, you can tell yourselves that “knowledge is worth more than anything there is in the world” and that one day you’ll thank your dear teachers who encouraged you and watched over you.

Or maybe, at the moment, you’d rather tell all sanctimonious souls to go stuff themselves.

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Derealized or Appareled in Celestial Light?

Claude Monet, “Springtime”


I report today on another new perspective I received from an Intro to Lit student. Abby Fisher has given me permission to write about her engagement with Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.

When I taught the poem this year, I mentioned that Wordsworth suffered from depression and asked the class to watch for mood swings. Intimations begins on a down note (“The things which I have seen I now can see no more”), after which the poet talks himself into a high note (“And I again am strong”). This is followed by another downswing, however (“Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”), after which Wordsworth feels compelled to figure out what is going on.

His metaphysical explanation is that (1) before we are born, we are part of a universal soul; (2) “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” which means that we lose sight of this soul (hence our depression); (3) the older we get, the more we lose sight of it (“At length the Man perceives it die away”); but (4) we never entirely lose touch but have intimations (“To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”). Beauty prevails in the end.

Abby had noticed Wordsworth’s depression even before I mentioned it since she herself wrestles with the illness. She understood the experience  of trying to talk oneself into a good mood and failing (“Oh evil day! if I were sullen…this sweet May-morning”).

It was striking to see Abby’s dialogue with Wordsworth. Since the poet doesn’t have our understanding of mental illness, we were impressed by how he used his metaphysical framework (separation from the universal soul) to describe and understand what was transpiring inside him.

Abby then said something which stopped me in my tracks. I mentioned how Wordsworth, in recounting the origins of his explanation, described how, as a child, he sometimes lost all sense of connection with the earth and would enter a mystical state. Abby said that something similar used to happen to her. She also said it has a psychological name: depersonalization-derealization disorder (DDD).

I juxtapose Wordsworth’s account with a definition that Abby provided so you can compare them. Wordsworth says that his difficulty of imagining death when he was a child

came as from a sense of the indomitableness of the Spirit within me. I used to brood over the stories of Enoch and Elijah, and almost to persuade myself that, whatever might become of others, I should be translated, in something of the same way, to heaven. With a feeling congenial to this, I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times while going to school have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality. At that time I was afraid of such processes. 

Here’s the Mayo Clinic’s description of DDD:

Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. Feelings of depersonalization and derealization can be very disturbing and may feel like you’re living in a dream.

Many people have a passing experience of depersonalization or derealization at some point. But when these feelings keep occurring or never completely go away and interfere with your ability to function, it’s considered depersonalization-derealization disorder. This disorder is more common in people who’ve had traumatic experiences.

Does psychology trump Wordsworth’s mystical explanation? No more, I would say, than the “God gene” trumps religion.  We seek for images and narratives that help us make sense of the world, and Wordsworth, in his attempt to do so, wrote one of literature’s greatest poems. Perhaps we can say that the universal soul shone through his depression, an incandescent consolation for his suffering.

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Euripides’s Attack on Authoritarianism

Pentheus torn apart by his mother and aunt


How will this blog fare after I retire in June? Well, I’ll have more time to devote to these posts. That’s to the good. Unfortunately, I will lose the new insights that my students provide. I was reminded of that while reading the latest batch of student essays.

Take, for instance, how Nico Bonetta-Misteli’s Bacchae essay is opening my eyes to the playwright’s interactions with Athens . Nico, a history major, interprets the play as Euripides’s critiquing the autocrats who hijacked Athenian democracy and helped run the city state into the ground. Euripides, in exile at the time, wrote in bitterness.

Such a reading makes Bacchae particularly timely as we watch the rise of authoritarianism in American politics. Be careful of individuals who claim to have all the answers.

Arrogant and intolerant, Pentheus may be modeled on the brilliant but unstable general Alcibiades. The king insists on absolute control, even as older and wiser figures urge for more tolerance. Nico speculated that seer Teiresias and Pentheus’s grandfather Cadmus resemble Athens’ elder citizen, wise but ridiculous in their impotence. Teiresias speaks truth to power as he strives to save the state:

         Do not mistake the rule of force
for true power. Men are not shaped by force.
Nor should you boast of wisdom, when everyone but you
can see how sick your thoughts are.


             For you are sick,
possessed by madness so perverse, no drug can cure,
no madness can undo.

Cadmus is more conciliatory but neither man’s advice has any more effect than, say, such advice is having on America’s current president.

Nico sees the Bacchae as stand-ins for Athens’ male citizens and Dionysus as human nature. When autocrats tighten the screws too much, treating men like women, they invite rebellion. The suspense builds as Pentheus ignores one warning signal after another. In the end he is torn apart by his own family, whose nature has been driven to madness by the king’s oppressive measures. It is a fate that Euripides predicts for Athens.

The Bacchae was published posthumously, perhaps because it was too volatile to be staged while Euripides was still alive. Internal dissension helped insure Athens’ final defeat the following year.

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Nature Lit Has Healed for Centuries

Vincent Van Gogh, “Wheat Field with Cypresses”


Today I reflect upon the last Introduction to Literature class I may ever teach as I anticipate retirement. Years ago St. Mary’s received a Pugh grant for increasing environmental awareness in core courses, and I’ve been teaching Intro to Lit with a Nature focus ever since. In addition to fulfilling the college’s Arts requirement, the course also contributes to the Environmental Studies major.

I bookended this semester’s course with contemporary novels, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. Several of my students were inspired by how Kingsolver’s protagonist pulls out of a funk once she dedicates herself to a cause outside herself (spreading the word about climate change). Atwood’s dystopia, meanwhile, concludes the course by looking at environmental devastation from economic, sociological, political, and spiritual perspectives.

Between those two novels we toured literary classics stretching back to Euripides’s The Bacchae.

Euripides makes it clear that disregarding nature’s call has dire consequences. Arrogant Pentheus has his head torn from his body, and a beheading motif also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Because Gawain reconnects with his natural body, however, he survives the chopping block.

Dionysus and Green Knight are both nature spirits, and a spirit shows up as well in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Egeus, the tyrannical father, may think that he can impose his authoritarian will over his daughter’s desires, but Puck has other plans and wreaks havoc in Shakespeare’s green world. By the end, an accommodation has been reached between anarchistic sexual desire and social order. Balance makes for comedy, imbalance for tragedy.

We then launched into a quick tour of the English Romantic poets, including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron. Only when the industrial, scientific, technological, and agricultural revolutions had tamed nature could nature become picturesque. Some of the poets romanticized soft nature (Wordsworth’s daffodils, Keats’s nightingale), some hard nature (Coleridge and Byron’s ocean, Blake’s tiger), but they could do so only because nature appeared susceptible to human control.

The deans of contemporary nature poetry, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, came next. Berry looks more at humans’ relationship with nature while Oliver uncovers parables for human struggle in animals and plant life. Both poets find spiritual sustenance in their interactions with the natural world.

Lucille Clifton is in a class by herself. With poems like “poem in praise of menstruation” and “to my last period,” we were reminded that history’s vexed relationship with female biology. Clifton speaks up for the downtrodden, including even cockroaches.

Finally we read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, a powerful exploration of how healing the planet and healing ourselves are inextricably intertwined.

From the beginning, authors have understood that a healthy relationship with nature is a key to social and personal health. Addvancing technology may have changed the dynamics, but the themes have remained the same.

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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.

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

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