Could a Bestseller Help Defense Sec?


Gen. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense

Secretary of Defense General James Mattis is proving to be one of the few bright spots in the Trump administration, fighting to save the Iran nuclear agreement against a hostile president. It was therefore heartening for me to hear that he is also a voracious reader.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, the general has accumulated “perhaps one of the largest personal libraries of an active-duty military officer ever known in the modern world.” Although most of the books Mattis mentions in FP’s interview have to do with politics and military history, he also lists a historical romance that I have read.

In response to a question about the relationship of personal development and dealing with violence, Mattis responds,

Well, personal development is a broader issue when you deal with violence. If you don’t have an understanding of a letter from a Birmingham jail, and how Sherman put the enemy on the horns of the dilemma, and how Scipio Africanus was able to triumph, if you can’t take those lessons of life and tie them together as a military commander, you’re going to have a hell of a difficult time, especially in a democracy where if you rise to high rank, you’re selected for tactical reasons, and operational, but then you have to deal with strategic reasons, and often you’re bringing war’s grim realities and trying to reconcile those with the political leaders you eventually deal with, their human aspirations, which are for a much better world than the primitive, atavistic one of the battlefield.

So you develop by broadening your understanding of human nature, of the ascent of man and everything else so that you can reconcile war’s realities, grim as they are, atavistic and primitive, with human aspirations, without becoming a narrow-minded person who at that point, you ought to give good military advice, but you can’t do so without trying to achieve a better peace, and so you need to have that broader reading as you grow and personally develop so you can actually do the job as a military officer, if you’re so fortunate that they keep you around long enough that you get promoted for a while.

I guess on a tactical level there was a novel by M. M. Kaye called The Far Pavilions, and, of course, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier. Nate Fick had One Bullet Away, and there’s some others on the tactical level.

Far Pavilions (1978) is a gripping Kim-type story set in the 19th century that culminates in a famous British defeat in the Second Afghan War. I became engrossed in it on my way to an MLA job interview in 1980 and still remember tiny details.

I understand why Mattis cites it. It is, after all, about a British blunder that cost the lives of 969 British and Indian soldiers after they were ambushed by Afghan rebels. It has tactical lessons in that regard, perhaps particularly poignant to Mattis since it is now Americans who are fighting and dying in Afghanistan.

But there’s another side to the novel that he may find relevant. Protagonist Ashton is born British but, because he loses his parents, he is raised Indian so that he has a foot in each world. Ashton goes on to join the Corps of Guides when he discovers his English parentage, and because he knows the language and the customs of the local populace, he can clearly see when his superiors are making stupid mistakes.

His special knowledge causes him great internal anguish. Should he blindly obey orders even when he knows they will lead to disaster? If he ignores his place and speaks up to his commanders, telling them the truth, will it even make any difference? As it turns out, he does warn the commanders about the trap, pays a price for doing so, and is ignored. A massacre results.

You can see where I’m going with this. General Mattis has a clarity that Donald Trump lacks, especially as the president promises to reduce North Korea to ashes. Trump has been similarly blind with regard to Iran, transgenders in the military, and other matters. To be sure, since Mattis is the Secretary of Defense and not a mere serviceman, his voice should command more respect. But Trump has been criticizing him him and also blindsided him on the transgender matter. The general must relate to Ashton in that respect.

The novel doesn’t have any clear answers—in fact, it suggests that there is nothing that Ashton can do to ward off the looming disaster–but at least it provides Mattis with a heroic narrative through which to process his own situation. The good news is that the story helps him see his options clearly. The bad news is that the author stresses the heroism of laying down your life for a battle you know will be lost. The book has a happy ending only because the hero is knocked out in the battle (thus, he doesn’t survive by fleeing) and is saved by the heroine.

If Mattis sees it as his duty to go along as the president marches us into nuclear confrontation with North Korea, he won’t be the only victim. He owes it to the country to speak his mind and to resign if he sees the president as a clear and present danger to us and to the world.

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School under the Sea: Reeling, Writhing…

John Tenniel, Alice listens to the Mock Turtle & the Gryphon


I’m never sure when to publish my back-to-school post. In Maryland, my home state, school now begins the day after Labor Day, but in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I spend my summers, I’m already seeing school buses.

Anyway, teachers probably need a laugh these days so here’s Lewis Carroll’s description of the Mock Turtle’s and Gryphon’s education. In the past I’ve shared an essay by my son about how Wonderland satirizes general education, which England was just developing. Let me know how you like Carroll’s dream of a world in which the school day “lessens” from day to day until there’s nothing left. As the Gryphon explains, “That’s the reason they’re called lessons.”

Enjoy the puns and have a wonderful school year. The nation owes a debt to its school teachers.

‘When we were little,’ the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, ‘we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle—we used to call him Tortoise—’

‘Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.

‘We called him Tortoise because he taught us,’ said the Mock Turtle angrily: ‘really you are very dull!’

‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,’ added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth. At last the Gryphon said to the Mock Turtle, ‘Drive on, old fellow! Don’t be all day about it!’ and he went on in these words:

‘Yes, we went to school in the sea, though you mayn’t believe it—’

‘I never said I didn’t!’ interrupted Alice.

‘You did,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘Hold your tongue!’ added the Gryphon, before Alice could speak again. The Mock Turtle went on.

‘We had the best of educations—in fact, we went to school every day—’

‘I’ve been to a day-school, too,’ said Alice; ‘you needn’t be so proud as all that.’

‘With extras?’ asked the Mock Turtle a little anxiously.

‘Yes,’ said Alice, ‘we learned French and music.’

‘And washing?’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘Certainly not!’ said Alice indignantly.

‘Ah! then yours wasn’t a really good school,’ said the Mock Turtle in a tone of great relief. ‘Now at ours they had at the end of the bill, “French, music, and washing—extra.”’

‘You couldn’t have wanted it much,’ said Alice; ‘living at the bottom of the sea.’

‘I couldn’t afford to learn it.’ said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. ‘I only took the regular course.’

‘What was that?’ inquired Alice.

‘Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied; ‘and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’

‘I never heard of “Uglification,”’ Alice ventured to say. ‘What is it?’

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. ‘What! Never heard of uglifying!’ it exclaimed. ‘You know what to beautify is, I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ said Alice doubtfully: ‘it means—to—make—anything—prettier.’

‘Well, then,’ the Gryphon went on, ‘if you don’t know what to uglify is, you are a simpleton.’

Alice did not feel encouraged to ask any more questions about it, so she turned to the Mock Turtle, and said ‘What else had you to learn?’

‘Well, there was Mystery,’ the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers, ‘—Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling—the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.’

‘What was that like?’ said Alice.

‘Well, I can’t show it you myself,’ the Mock Turtle said: ‘I’m too stiff. And the Gryphon never learnt it.’

‘Hadn’t time,’ said the Gryphon: ‘I went to the Classics master, though. He was an old crab, he was.’

‘I never went to him,’ the Mock Turtle said with a sigh: ‘he taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say.’

‘So he did, so he did,’ said the Gryphon, sighing in his turn; and both creatures hid their faces in their paws.

‘And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

‘Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock Turtle: ‘nine the next, and so on.’

‘What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: ‘because they lessen from day to day.’

This was quite a new idea to Alice, and she thought it over a little before she made her next remark. ‘Then the eleventh day must have been a holiday?’

‘Of course it was,’ said the Mock Turtle.

‘And how did you manage on the twelfth?’ Alice went on eagerly.

‘That’s enough about lessons,’ the Gryphon interrupted in a very decided tone: ‘tell her something about the games now.’


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Crashing against the Debt Ceiling

John Tenniel, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”


I can’t believe that we are careening towards yet another debt ceiling crisis. We even have someone in the Cabinet who doesn’t recognize it as a big deal. At present, America and its budget are like Alice trapped in a small house.

Edward Kleinbard, former chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, describes the situation in a New York Times column:

Sometime in October, the United States is likely to default on its obligation to pay its bills as they come due, having failed to raise the federal debt ceiling. This will cost the Treasury tens of billions of dollars every year for decades to come in higher interest charges and probably trigger a severe recession.

The debt ceiling is politically imposed, and the decision not to raise it, and therefore to choose to default, is also political. It’s something America has avoided in the past. This time, though, will be different.

What’s different this time, Kleinbard says, is now we don’t have a responsible president, a Bush or an Obama, dealing with GOP extremists:

First, the administration is confounded by inexperience, incompetence and infighting. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has little expertise in congressional stage management, but he understands the gravity of the situation and has lobbied for a clean debt ceiling bill — one without conditions or unnecessary amendments.

But that puts him in tension with his White House colleague Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, who has intimated that breaching the debt ceiling would not be that consequential, and who has argued that the must-pass legislation should be used to advance the hard right’s agenda. Without a firm signal from the White House that the debt ceiling should not be held hostage to political agendas, it will be hard to get Congress to do the right thing.

Let’s remember that this is a self-inflicted wound. It’s not as though America can’t pay its debts. All Congress needs to do is raise the ceiling, as it has (with one accidental exception) ever since it mandated that there be such votes. Kleinbard explains what will happen if it doesn’t:

All valid claims against the United States are backed by the credit of the United States, full stop; the Constitution does not contemplate that some claims are more senior than others. The deliberate nonpayment of billions of dollars of uncontested claims every month thus constitutes default, even if the Treasury is paying some of its other debts. The resulting class-action lawsuits will enrich generations of lawyers.

Once the unthinkable happens, no future constraints on congressional irresponsibility with regard to the national debt will remain. Prioritization will constitute the intentional subordination, not just of one claim to another, but of all claims to the pettiness of congressional politics. As a result, the once unassailable credit of the United States will become a perennial hostage to politics, and in response the debt markets will demand much higher interest rates.

In the scene from Wonderland I have in mind, a miniaturized Alice has entered the house of the White Rabbit and drunk from a bottle, hoping it will make her larger. She gets what she wishes for:

‘I know something interesting is sure to happen,’ she said to herself, ‘whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does. I do hope it’ll make me grow large again, for really I’m quite tired of being such a tiny little thing!’

It did so indeed, and much sooner than she had expected: before she had drunk half the bottle, she found her head pressing against the ceiling, and had to stoop to save her neck from being broken. She hastily put down the bottle, saying to herself ‘That’s quite enough—I hope I shan’t grow any more—As it is, I can’t get out at the door—I do wish I hadn’t drunk quite so much!’

Alas! it was too late to wish that! She went on growing, and growing, and very soon had to kneel down on the floor: in another minute there was not even room for this, and she tried the effect of lying down with one elbow against the door, and the other arm curled round her head. Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney, and said to herself ‘Now I can do no more, whatever happens. What will become of me?’

For a while, the White Rabbit and various other animals cluster around confused–somewhat like the White House and the Republican Freedom Caucus–as they struggle what to make of Alice’s large arm protruding from the house:

There was a long silence after this, and Alice could only hear whispers now and then; such as, ‘Sure, I don’t like it, yer honour, at all, at all!’ ‘Do as I tell you, you coward!’ and at last she spread out her hand again, and made another snatch in the air. This time there were two little shrieks, and more sounds of broken glass. ‘What a number of cucumber-frames there must be!’ thought Alice. ‘I wonder what they’ll do next! As for pulling me out of the window, I only wish they could! I’m sure I don’t want to stay in here any longer!’

At one point they send in a lizard named Bill, who proves to be as ineffective as the amendments that GOP members are attaching to any attempts to raise the ceiling. (“The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill,” Carroll puns in the chapter title.)

Fortunately, there proves to be a simple solution: small cakes that will make Alice smaller.

So she swallowed one of the cakes, and was delighted to find that she began shrinking directly. As soon as she was small enough to get through the door, she ran out of the house, and found quite a crowd of little animals and birds waiting outside.

In our case, we can’t shrink Alice but we can enlarge the house. The point is, there is an easy solution.  Unfortunately, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observes,

To see default by a basically solvent government as more than a mere glitch, you’d have to believe that we have an unbridgeable partisan divide, with one party largely dominated by extremists, and with a president who is ignorant, incompetent, and vindictive.

Oh, wait.

Pray that the GOP comes to its senses. Send in the cakes.

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Trump as Raskolnikov


I’ve pretty much stopped reading Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, but I glance quickly at her columns to check for literary allusions, in which department she leads all other columnists. In her latest she compares Donald Trump to Raskolnikov, the axe-wielding protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s a parallel I hadn’t considered:

As we contemplate crime and punishment in the Trump circle, it should be noted that our Russia-besotted president does share some traits with Dostoyevsky’s spiraling protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

Both men are naifs who arrive and think they have the right to transgress. Both are endlessly fascinating psychological studies: self-regarding, with Napoleon-style grandiosity, and self-incriminating. Both are consumed with chaotic, feverish thoughts as they are pursued by a relentless, suspicious lawman.

But it is highly doubtful that Melania will persuade Donald to confess all to special counsel Robert Mueller III and slink off to Siberia.

Since reading Brothers Karamazov a few years ago—it’s become my favorite novel of all time—I’ve fallen in love with Dostoevsky. Recently I finished listening to The Idiot, with its wonderful and saintly protagonist Prince Myshkin. I was devastated by the ending and essentially went into mourning for two days. I’ve come to expect mad men in Dostoevsky novels and The Idiot delivered.

I actually see fewer parallels than Dowd does, however. True, both Raskolnikov and Trump see themselves as Nietzschean super men (Ubermenchen), superior to mere sheep-like mortals who slavishly follow convention. But Raskolnikov has an intellectual vision that he is trying to live up to, only to discover that taking the life of another person is a far more profound matter than he realized. He might be mad, but he has depth as well (for one thing, he reads extensively), and much of the novel is about his inner torment.

I don’t know that Trump is capable of inner torment. From what I can tell, he’s driven by nothing more profound than fear of failure. He has always thrived by brazening things out, and he assumes that what worked in the past will work in the future. America has yet to show him that he is entirely wrong.

This also means, however, that he couldn’t be a Dostoevskian protagonist. Those who go crazy in Dostoevsky novels are extremely sensitive individuals who think too deeply. In addition to Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin, there’s Ivan Karamazov and the Underground Man. Trump’s issue is not thinking too deeply.

Nor is Melania a Sonya, despite her Slavic roots. No prostitute with a heart of gold, she’s more an opportunist who saw Trump as a gravy train and climbed aboard. Don’t expect a repentance and redemption ending to their story.

Dowd may be on to something in comparing Mueller to the detective Porfiry, however. Porfiry figures that Raskolnikov is the murderer because of the way he keeps thrashing around. He figures that it’s only a matter of time before the student incriminates himself, and one can imagine Mueller nodding knowingly each time Trump let’s drop another clue.

In a sense, our own drama is how Crime and Punishment would read if we as readers weren’t shown Raskolnikov committing the murder. We see in Trump a man whose actions suggest that he’s done something wrong, but we still don’t know exactly what it is. (My guess is that Putin is squeezing Trump for laundering money for organized crime, but I don’t know that.) At any rate, Dowd is right about both Porfiry and Mueller: they are suspicious and relentless.

When, at the end, Raskolnikov sees an escape route open up for him—not to mention an opportunity to have committed the perfect crime—he chooses not to take it, preferring to save his soul instead: he confesses and turns himself in. I know for certain that Donald Trump would not make that choice.

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Transfiguration: I Saw a Tree inside a Tree

Vincent van Gogh. “Peach Tree in Blossom” (“Souvenir de Mauve”)

Transfiguration Sunday

The indispensable website Journey to Jesus alerted me to this Christian Wiman poem inspired by the Transfiguration story. The poem speaks of those moments where, to borrow from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, “we see into the life of things.” The Transfiguration was one such moment:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36)

Wiman describes seeing another reality beyond the one that normally presents itself to us (“I saw a tree inside a tree”) and like the disciples concludes that what he is witnessing “is not the life of men.” He senses “a single being undefined” or perhaps “countless beings of one mind.” Whatever it is, it has a “strange cohesion/Beyond the limits of my vision.”

“And that,” he concludes, “is where the joy came in.”

From a Window

By Christian Wiman

Incurable and unbelieving 
In any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree 
Rise kaleidoscopically

As if the leaves had livelier ghosts. 
I pressed my face as close

To the pane as I could get 
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit

That seemed a single being undefined 
Or countless beings of one mind

Haul its strange cohesion 
Beyond the limits of my vision

Over the house heavenwards. 
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood 
Exactly as it had and would

(But why should it seem fuller now?) 
And though a man’s mind might endow

Even a tree with some excess 
Of life to which a man seems witness,

That life is not the life of men. 
And that is where the joy came in.

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The Synergy between Statue and Poem


Senior White House aide and white nationalist Stephen Miller wasn’t altogether wrong on Wednesday when, in announcing Donald Trump’s support of a bill severely curtailing immigration, he separated out the Statue of Liberty from the famous Emma Lazarus poem connected with it. “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here,” Miller said, “but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty lighting the world, it’s a symbol of liberty lighting the world. The poem you are referring to, which was added later, is not part of the original Statue of Liberty.” 

The essay below, written by a former colleague and posted on this blog in the past, notes that there was indeed a divide. The statue was designed by the French as a testimony to Enlightenment ideals whereas the poem focuses on America’s status as a nation built and sustained by immigrants.

That being said, however, Miller was more wrong than right. After all, one of the triumphs of the Enlightenment was the Declaration of Independence, which riveted the world with its assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This belief is consonant with Lazarus’s poem and entirely at odds with the purpose of Trump’s support for anti-immigration measures. The White House was probably trying to gin up support amongst its base with the announcement, and that base has no more fondness for American-born people of color than it has for immigrants.

Ultimately, the synergy between statue and poem is greater than either one by itself. The two together inspire the world while generating attacks from the alt-Right. 

By Donna Richardson, Prof. of English, St. Mary’s College of MD

The New Colossus 

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” is a cultural icon, so popular when originally written that it redefined the Statue of Liberty as a celebration of immigration. Yet while the sestet (or at least its last five lines) used to be a cliché memorized by every schoolchild, most Americans are completely unfamiliar with the title and the first eight lines (the octave), which more broadly redefine American culture.

The poet initially structures her poem as a comparison between the “New Colossus” and the original Colossus of Rhodes.  The details of this comparison imply that America is a new kind of nation, a less patriarchal, more inclusive culture that values the worth of every human, even the most “wretched refuse,” rather than only the “storied pomp” of powerful elites in “ancient lands.”  Although many of these details are evoked by the language of the poem, a visual comparison of the Statue of Liberty with recreations of the Colossus of Rhodes reinforces this cultural difference, especially the features of geography that made America less self-protective and more welcoming.

Lazarus redefines the original meaning of the Statue of Liberty, which was intended by its creator as a monument to the spirit of revolution shared by France and America.  According to Wikipedia, the original name of the statue is “Enlightening the World”; she represents the Roman goddess Libertas, she carries a tablet of law on which is written “July 4, 1776,” and a broken chain lies at her feet.  These details imply that the torch is intended to represent the truths of the Enlightenment, especially the legal and political writings, which inspired both the American and the French Revolutions.

But Lazarus interprets the torch as a “lamp” lighting the path of “exiles” from political oppression in the old world; echoing the word “beckon,” Liberty’s “beacon hand/ Glows” with “world-wide welcome.” The Statue is particularly welcoming of the “poor” and “homeless” who can expect no social or political future in an overpopulated Europe which has rejected them (they are the “wretched refuse” of a “teeming shore”). These refugees are “tempest-tossed” literally and figuratively; the Statue is a welcoming sight after crossing the stormy Atlantic, but more welcoming as a sign of peace after political storms which have made them “homeless.”

The poet broadens her interpretation into a general cultural contrast between old and new worlds by focusing on the visual comparison and contrast between the Statue of Liberty and another statue that stood at the entrance to a city harbor, the Colossus of Rhodes.  One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was built in the early third century B.C. to commemorate the repulsion of an invasion from Cyprus.

The statue represents the god Helios, wearing a crown of light beams, carrying a torch, and armed with a bow and arrow. Since the Colossus lasted only about 60 years before it was destroyed by an earthquake, there are no known accurate representations of it that survive.  But later recreations of what the Colossus may have looked like suggest two major similarities with the Statue of Liberty: both wear visually-similar crowns of light, and both carry torches.  More important, both statues stand at harbor mouths to announce the victorious independence of their countries and the cultural values that made such independence possible.

Liberty, however, represents very different values.  To begin with, the statue is female rather than male.  Lazarus emphasizes several qualities that are traditionally-gendered female ideals connected with patron goddesses or female symbols for a culture.  Liberty is a “mighty woman” and her eyes “command” the harbor, but their gaze is “mild” and her power is that of a mother—the “Mother of Exiles.”

The Colossus of Rhodes, by contrast, is a “brazen giant”—“brazen” means “contemptuous boldness” in addition to “made of bronze.”  He also stands “with conquering limbs,” symbolizing the military victory of Rhodes over its neighbor Cyprus. Whereas the old Colossus literally stands for physical power and intimidation, Lazarus wants to interpret Liberty as representing a less tangible, more gentle, but even more powerful new female principle of welcoming and inclusion of all in freedom and equality before the law.

Lazarus uses a spatial description of Liberty to enhance the contrast between the values of the old Colossus and the “New.” The fact that there are no known accurate portrayals of its appearance led for hundreds of years to creative and unrealistic interpretations of its appearance.  Lazarus would have been familiar with the most flamboyant version, the one referred to in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1.2.136-139):

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

In this version, one interpretation of which is pictured here, the Colossus bestrides the harbor with one foot on each side, armed with bow and arrow, while tiny ships sail between his legs.  Such a giant statue would have been impossible to construct in that era, but the recreation emphasizes several ideas, including aggressive power and defensiveness, appropriate for guarding and controlling traffic into the entrance to a small enclosed harbor on an island.

Lazarus specifically invokes features of this visual conception of the old Colossus to emphasize that, by contrast, the New World is spatially as well as culturally welcoming and open (in fact, welcoming because open).  Rather than having “conquering limbs astride from land to land,” the New Colossus “gives world-wide welcome” to those who come to her harbor.  Visually, she is not “astride” either the harbor or other lands, but instead stands with her beacon on an island between the “twin cities” of Brooklyn and Manhattan (which in the late 19thcentury were still considered separate cities). The connection between these closely-related “twins” is not her physically conquering stride but her “mild eyes” that “command” the “air-bridged harbor.”

It is almost impossible to get the full scope of Lazarus’ description, including both cities that “frame” the harbor, into a photograph.  The broad, open vista her words evoke, along with placing her at a “sea-washed, sunset gate” relative to Europe, visually enhances Lazarus’ vision of what makes this New Colossus new and even more powerful than the sun-god of Rhodes.  She welcomes the “teeming masses” of Europe to the “open door” of a vast, apparently endless continent that dwarfs her physically in size, and whose airy openness is a metaphor for the intangibility of law, equality, and welcome which has superseded the glory of “Greek fame” with a greater moral as well as physical scope.

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Nazis and the Classics

Nazi book burning


I’m rushing to finish the theory section of my book on Literature That Has Changed History, which I will road test in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar this fall. Today I share with you my section on Marxist Terry Eagleton’s observations about “the Rise of English.”

Eagleton is interested in how the study of English language literature became the respected discipline that it is. He attributes a lot to F. R. Leavis and his journal Scrutiny:

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation. Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence—what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values—were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

Although a literary theorist himself, Eagleton is skeptical that literature is this powerful. In his characteristic humorous way, he accuses the Leavisites of elitism:

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James. The Scrutiny case was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College.

Then, to further bring his hammer down, Eagleton mentions a notorious instance of people who, even though they read classic literature, did not become better people as a result: Nazi concentration camp commandants:

For if not all of those who could not recognize an enjambement were nasty and brutish, not all of those who could were morally pure. Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer…to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had wiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.

Eagleton’s cautions are useful for those who expect literature to accomplish miracles, but I want to look closer at his example before conceding his point. I find his Goethe example to be more flashy than substantive.

First of all, there is nothing in Goethe that condones genocide. In The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship one finds more support for those who opposed the Nazis than for fascism. Perhaps some Nazi commandants genuflected before Goethe the way some worship Shakespeare, seeing him as confirmation of national greatness. That would be an authoritarian way to respond to the German genius. But whether they actually engaged with him is another matter.

From what we know of Nazi reading habits, they were probably more likely to be reading pornography, sentimental romances, and shallow war stories than German classics. German scholar Klaus Theweleit, in his book Male Fantasies, analyzed troves of novels read and written by pre-fascist paramilitaries in the early Weimar republic. The books are filled with violent revenge fantasies and self-pitying death scenes.

As far as Hitler’s voluminous reading was concerned, it did not include literature, which he hated. According to his former Press Chief Otto Dietrich, Hitler read newspapers and histories but

ignored on principle theoretical or belletristic works. He had a special antipathy for novels, which he never read, and for poetry; poems were an abomination to him.

Probably the best examples of Nazis coming into close contact with good literature is during the famous book burnings. Among the authors burned were Brecht, Thomas Mann, Hemingway, Dreiser, Jack London, Heine, and Remarque (for All Quiet on the Western Front).

I’m willing to concede that there have been bad men who actually did read great literature and came away unscathed. It’s amazing how the mind can twist a work to suit its own agenda, a point made dramatically in Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto. In it a Nazi actor reinterprets Hamlet to make it acceptable to fascist audiences, but he must edit out Hamlet’s indecisiveness to pull it off.

If a mind opens itself in any meaningful way to Goethe or Shakespeare, it cannot coexist calmly with the gas chambers. Leavis may overestimate literature’s power, but Eagleton’s example does not deliver the coup de grace.

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Trump as Miss Havisham

Harry Furniss, “Miss Havisham”


I had an aha moment the other day when New York Times columnist Frank Bruni cited Great Expectations in a column about Donald Trump’s obsession with Hillary Clinton. Thinking of the president as Miss Havisham explains a lot about his recent behavior.

Bruni contends that Trump has become a virtual stalker:

At this point I think it’s fair to say that Donald Trump has gone beyond taunting and demonizing Hillary Clinton to a realm of outright obsession.

He’s stalking her.

He can’t stop tweeting about her. Can’t stop muttering about her. On Monday he addressed tens of thousands of boy scouts at their Jamboree, and who should pop up in his disjointed thoughts and disheveled words? Clinton. He dinged her, yet again, for having ignored voters in Michigan, which he won.

The Jamboree, mind you, was in West Virginia.

Now for the explanation, which cues up the Dickens reference:

He’s more or less back to chanting “lock her up,” as if it’s early November all over again. He has frozen the calendar there so that he can perpetually savor the exhilaration of the campaign and permanently evade the drudgery of governing and the ignominy of his failure at it so far.

Can you see where this is going?

Nov. 8 is his Groundhog Day, on endless repeat, in a way that pleases and pacifies him. That movie has a co-star, Clinton. If he dwells in it, he dwells with her. He can no more retire her than Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations, could put away her wedding dress. Clinton brings Trump back to the moment before the rose lost its blush and the heartache set in.

Miss Havisham, of course, never recovers from being jilted at the altar. When the day that was supposed to be the happiest of her life becomes a nightmare, she tries to stop time, freezing the moment just before it all went wrong. Pip witnesses the horror show:

Whether I should have made out this object so soon if there had been no fine lady sitting at it, I cannot say. In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials,—satins, and lace, and silks,—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on,—the other was on the table near her hand,—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-Book all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

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

Nov. 8 was the day that was to wipe away all Trump’s insecurities, all the doubts that haunt him. At no moment did he ever feel happier. And then the heartache began.

The difference between Trump and Havisham, of course, is that Trump actually got what he thought he wanted. That aside, both find a way to make others pay for their disappointment. Miss Havisham poisons the mind of the beautiful Estelle so that, when she is a woman, she will break hearts as Miss Havisham’s heart was broken.

For his part, Trump forces his own surrogates to vent his fury, whether it’s Sean Spicer lying about inauguration day crowd sizes, Kris Kobach speculating that voter fraud caused him to lose the popular vote, or various senators continuing the jihad against Clinton. All are dragged into Trump’s mire like Estelle is drawn into Miss Havisham’s.

The GOP might take a lesson from Pip, who learns that Miss Havisham is not the benefactor he thought she was. In other words, don’t pin your future on Donald Trump but find your own way in the world, as Susan Collins, Lisa Murkoski, and John McCain have started doing. If this is to be a successful Bildungsroman or growth story for Republicans, they will cut the ties of dependence and becomes responsible grown-ups.

The country awaits.

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Trump as Alpha Dog Wannabe

Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross”


I don’t often read The National Review but a recent Kevin Williamson article looking at Donald Trump through the eyes of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glenn Ross has caught my eye. Williamson says that Trump, like the competing realtors in the play, is a wannabe alpha dog.

The play is about the cutthroat world of real estate and makes such liberal use of the “F” word that the original cast (this according to Williamson) referred to it as Death of a F***ing Salesman. I can still remember where I was when I first read the play’s scorching dialogue.

To me, the play is a searing exposé of soulless capitalism and, as such, a worthy successor to Arthur Miller’s play. Williamson notes, however, that certain fans of the play—or rather, of the film—love it, not because it exposes capitalism but because they fantasize being winners who lord it over losers. They want to be Blake, played in the film by Alex Baldwin, who delivers an explosive speech:

As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

And further on, when someone asks his name:

Fuck you! That’s my name! You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. THAT’S my name. And your name is you’re wanting. You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them – go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you fucking faggots? A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing.

And finally:

You see this watch? You see this watch? That watch costs more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much’d you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here – close! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don’t like it, leave. I can go out there tonight with the materials you’ve got and make myself $15,000. Tonight! In two hours! Can you? Can YOU? Go and do likewise. A-I-D-A. Get mad you son of a bitches, get mad. You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes BRASS BALLS to sell real estate. Go and do likewise, gents. Money’s out there. You pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t, I got no sympathy for you. You wanna go out on those sits tonight and close, CLOSE. It’s yours. If not, you’re gonna be shining my shoes. And you know what you’ll be saying – a bunch of losers sittin’ around in a bar. ‘Oh yeah. I used to be a salesman. It’s a tough racket.’

Williamson points out that Blake doesn’t have the same prominence in the play that he does in the film. The filmmakers wanted to create a larger-than-life alpha dog, which negates some of the power of the play, where the corporate bosses are more shadowy. Ruthless individualism is practically celebrated.

The same glorification of alpha dogs has occurred in other such works. My eldest son, who used to work in advertising, saw it at work in the television series Mad Men. While he found it a pretty good account of the emptiness of the industry, he noted that some in his office fantasized about living Don Draper’s lifestyle.

Or to cite another instance, a student of mine years ago told me how many of her high school buddies in a working class neighborhood fantasized about being Scarface in the Al Pacino movie. Again, they focused on the cars, the houses, and the beautiful women, not the soulless and ultimately dead-end existence of the protagonist.

Back to Glengarry Glen Ross. Williamson notes that some of these film’s fans have memorized Blake’s speech and were disappointed when they found them missing from a revival of the play. In other words, they want to be Blake:

They want to swagger, to curse, to insult, and to exercise power over men, exercising power over men being the classical means to the end of exercising power over women, which is of course what this, and nine-tenths of everything else in human affairs, is about. Blake is a specimen of that famous creature, the “alpha male,” and establishing and advertising one’s alpha creds is an obsession for some sexually unhappy contemporary men. There is a whole weird little ecosystem of websites (some of them very amusing) and pickup-artist manuals offering men tips on how to be more alpha, more dominant, more commanding, a literature that performs roughly the same function in the lives of these men that Cosmopolitan sex tips play in the lives of insecure women. Of course this advice ends up producing cartoonish, ridiculous behavior. If you’re wondering where Anthony Scaramucci learned to talk and behave like such a Scaramuccia, ask him how many times he’s seen Glengarry Glen Ross.

The article then goes on to say that Trump too has always been one of these wannabe alpha males. Williamson eviscerates the president as second-tier realtors are eviscerated in the play, describing him as a man who can’t close:

Trump is the political version of a pickup artist, and Republicans — and America — went to bed with him convinced that he was something other than what he is. Trump inherited his fortune but describes himself as though he were a self-made man. 

We did not elect Donald Trump; we elected the character he plays on television.

He has had a middling career in real estate and a poor one as a hotelier and casino operator but convinced people he is a titan of industry. He has never managed a large, complex corporate enterprise, but he did play an executive on a reality show. He presents himself as a confident ladies’ man but is so insecure that he invented an imaginary friend to lie to the New York press about his love life and is now married to a woman who is open and blasé about the fact that she married him for his money. He fixates on certain words (“negotiator”) and certain classes of words (mainly adjectives and adverbs, “bigly,” “major,” “world-class,” “top,” and superlatives), but he isn’t much of a negotiator, manager, or leader. He cannot negotiate a health-care deal among members of a party desperate for one, can’t manage his own factionalized and leak-ridden White House, and cannot lead a political movement that aspires to anything greater than the service of his own pathetic vanity.

If you want to get Trump mad, do not talk about him as a mean sonuvabitch. He will see that as a compliment. Describe him, rather, as soft:

He wants to be John Wayne, but what he is is “Woody Allen without the humor.” Peggy Noonan, to whom we owe that observation, has his number: He is soft, weak, whimpering, and petulant. He isn’t smart enough to do the job and isn’t man enough to own up to the fact. For all his gold-plated toilets, he is at heart that middling junior salesman watching Glengarry Glen Ross and thinking to himself: “That’s the man I want to be.” How many times do you imagine he has stood in front of a mirror trying to project like Alec Baldwin? Unfortunately for the president, it’s Baldwin who does the good imitation of Trump, not the other way around.

Williamson concludes his piece with a final blow: Trump is actually Shelley Levene, played in the film by Jack Lemmon. Levene is an over-the-hill salesman who whines constantly about how he’s the victim of unfairness and who commits a theft to keep from getting fired, only to be ruthlessly cut down by the play’s end.

Live by the alpha dog mythos and you’ll die by it. Unfortunately, if you’re in Trump’s position you can take a lot of people down with you.

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Our Most Prescient Sci-Fi Writer?

Octavia Butler


I have been singing the praises of Octavia Butler for a while now (for instance, here and here), so it is gratifying to see this New Yorker article praising the African American sci-fi author, who tragically died way before her time at 58 (she hit her head outside her apartment). Abby Aguirre believes that Butler’s Parable of the Sower wins out over Nineteen Eight-Four and Handmaid’s Tale in “the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time.”

Check out the following description to see if you agree:

Butler’s tenth novel, Parable of the Sower, which was published in 1993, opens in Los Angeles in 2024. Global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The middle class and working poor live in gated neighborhoods, where they fend off the homeless with guns and walls. Fresh water is scarce, as valuable as money. Pharmaceutical companies have created “smart drugs,” which boost mental performance, and “pyro,” a pill that gives those who take sexual pleasure from arson. Fires are common. Police services are expensive, though few people trust the police. Public schools are being privatized, as are whole towns. In this atmosphere, a Presidential candidate named Christopher Donner is elected based on his promises to dismantle government programs and bring back jobs.

The seminal figure in the Afrofuturist movement, Butler believes that social progress is reversible, a view that increasing numbers of people on the left are beginning to entertain. As Butler saw it,

As the public sphere became hollowed out, a fear of change would create an opening for retrograde politics. With collapse, racism would become more overt.

It perhaps takes a writer of color to see how potentially fragile are the hard-won victories of the Civil Rights movement. After all, Butler knew how poorly her mother, a maid and a single mom, was treated even in racially integrated 1950’s Pasadena.

Parable of the Talents is no less prescient than Parable of the Sower. It’s more unsettling now than when I wrote about the novel last August, before Donald Trump had been elected:

The sequel, Parable of the Talents, published in 1998, begins in 2032. By then, various forms of indentured servitude and slavery are common, facilitated by high-tech slave collars. The oppression of women has become extreme; those who express their opinion, “nags,” might have their tongues cut out. People are addicted not only to designer drugs but also to “dream masks,” which generate virtual fantasies as guided dreams, allowing wearers to submerge themselves in simpler, happier lives. News comes in the form of disks or “news bullets,” which “purport to tell us all we need to know in flashy pictures and quick, witty, verbal one-two punches. Twenty-five or thirty words are supposed to be enough in a news bullet to explain either a war or an unusual set of Christmas lights.” The Donner Administration has written off science, but a more immediate threat lurks: a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to “make American great again.”

If goose pimples are breaking out, you may like to know what prospects Butler sees for protesters:

In Butler’s prognosis, humans survive through an intricate logic of interdependence. Soon after leaving her family’s walled neighborhood, Lauren discerns that her natural allies are other people of color, including mixed-race couples, since they are likely to become targets of white violence. 

Are we seeing a comparable coalition beginning to form in resistance to Donald Trump, with people of color, women, LBGTQ and disability rights groups, progressives, and others finding ways to make their voices heard? So far, “the Resistance” has prevented Trump from implementing some of his most extreme proposals.

Science fiction, like fantasy, is able to dramatize social challenges in a way that engages readers who might otherwise turn away. After all, the future offers a safe, imaginary space to grapple with painful issues. As Ursula LeGuin notably said, the future in science fiction is a metaphor for the present, and the future that Butler imagined bears no small resemblance to our own present.

Further thought: A tweet from MSNBC’s Joy Reid reminded me of this quotation from The Parable of the Talents, which I had forgotten about. It should go up on every bulletin board:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

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The Pearl of Great Price Within

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s lectionary readings has Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a “pearl of great price.” The image shows up in a fine Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) poem, and knowing the allusion adds resonance to the poem.

First, here’s the passage. It’s one of a series of metaphors that Jesus uses to capture the process of spiritual search:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls.  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 3:45-46)

H.D.’s poem is one of a series in her book The Walls Do Not Fall . H.D. is famous for using images to capture complex emotional states. In this case, she uses shell images to convey how she goes through life with a hard exterior so that she won’t be hurt.  This seems necessary because she sees herself as a “flabby amorphous hermit” who can be devoured by sharks or crushed by the weight of the sea, which may be a reference to her depression (treated by Freud).

However, while she may shut herself off from the world, sometimes with a snap, she has a rich interior life which seems more valuable than anything the world has to offer. That is the spell that is to be found “in every sea-shell.” Therefore, do not be fooled by the hard exterior.

The reference to the pearl reminds us how pearls are created. A grain of send gets inside the vulnerable oyster, which must build up a defense against this denizen from the world out there. In its defense, the oyster, like the introverted poet, creates something of transcendent beauty, a pearl of great price.

Jesus calls upon us to seek out a comparable transcendence.

From The Walls Do Not Fall

By H.D.

There is a spell, for instance,
in every sea-shell:

continuous, the sea-thrust
is powerless against coral,

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone-marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow:

but infinity? no,
of nothing-too-much:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octopus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving.

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

that pearl-of-great-price.

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GOP “Moderates,” the Hollow Men

Anne Lyman Powers, “The Hollow Men”


The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri has a scathing takedown of GOP moderates in a recent column, dramatizing how, though they may sometimes talk a good game, they invariably follow the mob. This proved to be the case earlier in the week when all but Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski voted to let action proceed on a healthcare bill that didn’t exist. The occasion was an exercise in cynicism devised by arch cynic Mitch McConnell, designed to allow Republicans to repeal Obamacare without being blamed for repealing Obamacare.

In the process, the “moderates” bore a perilous resemblance to T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne explains the rationale behind McConnell’s bill:

The most insidious aspect of McConnell’s strategy is that he is shooting to pass something, anything, that would continue to save Republicans from having a transparent give-and-take on measures that could ultimately strip health insurance from 20 million Americans or more. Passing even the most meager of health bills this week would move the covert coverage-demolition effort to a conference committee with the House.

The rightwing caucus, of course, is fairly blunt about what it wants, although even most of its members don’t say right out that they are in favor of depriving tens of millions of Americans healthcare and rescinding the ban on preexisting conditions. (They talk about “freedom” instead.) Compared to the so-called moderates, however, they come across as profiles in courage.

Here’s Petri speaking in the voice of a GOP moderate:

This bill is bad, and it was made in a process that was even worse. The courageous thing to do would be to stand against it. And yet no one will, not even me.

I am disgusted.

Bills ought to be passed with deliberation by committees. Change should be achieved in a bipartisan manner. Incrementally, day by day, we should reach a consensus — not perfect, by any means — but something that we can be proud of, nonetheless. That is why, when this dangerous and secret bill came up for a vote, I said “Aye,” in such a cold and cutting tone.

And in conclusion:

This bill was not given the process it deserves. We should have deliberated in committee. We should have held hearings. We should have done this the right way. There is only one way to proceed: We must absolutely proceed with it. I, for one, will fight it tooth and nail. I will do everything except vote against it.

Who will stand without me?

Compare such politicians with Eliot’s Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us–if at all–not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

The poem has a running theme about feeling ashamed to look people in the eye, which is not a bad description for those members of Congress avoiding town hall meetings and refusing to meet with patients who would lose their healthcare. Instead, they prefer to gather in their bubble and avoid thinking about consequences to their constituents:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

When you have no core convictions–“Here we go round the prickly pear,” Eliot writes–then you don’t push back against rightwing billionaires but let them buffet you like scarecrows:

Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Eliot tells us how history will judge them if millions lose. They will be remembered with contempt.

If McConnell gets his way, the dream of affordable healthcare for all will end, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Further evidence of hollowness – The following just appeared in The Daily Kos lest you think that Petri exaggerates:

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) all really, really don’t want the skinny Trumpcare bill they are going to vote on in the coming hours to become law. They really, really hate it. They just held a press conference to say so.
Johnson says “‘virtually nothing we’re doing in any of these bills’ are keeping their promise to fix the problems with health care.” Graham called it a “fraud,” “disaster,” “pig in a poke” and also “half-assed.” McCain, again, said they needed some bipartisanship here.

So they’re all voting against it, right? Wrong.

This whole exercise was to say that they are going to vote for this bill just as long as House Speaker Paul Ryan promises he won’t let it become law. They are demanding a bipartisan conference committee with input from all the governors. And what will they take as a promise?

[Tweet from Frank Thorp V]: Asked how they’ll know they’ve got an assurance the House will go to conf: Graham: “It’s like pornography, you know it when you see it.”

Update: Good news! Three Republican moderates (I remove the quotation marks) stood up and joined with the 48 Democratic senators to kill the “skinny bill,” which would have thrown 16 million off of healthcare, raised insurance premiums by 20 percent, and started a death spiral (by revoking the individual mandate, key to financing the sickest). John McCain, perhaps thinking of how other cancer patients would be impacted by the GOP bill, shocked fellow Republicans by voting no, along with Collins and Murkowski. Maybe bipartisan fixes, such as reducing the price of pharmaceuticals and lowering premiums (which both sides say they want), are possible after all.

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Even Iago Should Not Be Tortured

Christopher Plummer as Iago


When Ariel Dorfman talks, I listen. In a recent New York Times article, the Chilean who fled the Pinochet dictatorship in fear for his life, criticizes the punishment awaiting Iago at the end of Othello.

Dorfman, now a professor at Duke, first gained widespread attention with his How to Read Donald Duck, which is about Disney’s imperialist messages in his cartoons. Dorfman gained my respect when he spoke out against the U.S. invading Iraq. Even though Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator who visited unimaginable tortures on his victims, Dorfman said that preemptive war against him was wrong and would lead far greater bloodshed. Dorfman had credibility because of his intimate knowledge of dictators torturing people, and he proved to be right as well.

In his recent Times article, Dorfman addresses an upcoming court case brought by three people who were tortured by the CIA under the Bush administration. The defendants are the two psychologists

who devised the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that became the basis for the C.I.A. torture program described in shocking detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report.

This case leads Dorfman to contemplate the punishment meted out to Iago at the end of Othello.

Dorfman is concerned that, following another terrorist attack, we might return to torturing people:

Donald Trump vowed, during his campaign, to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse.” As yet, we have not seen that “worse,” since the counsel of his defense secretary, James Mattis — that such methods are useless and counterproductive — has prevailed. At least, as far as we know. It is not hard to imagine that a major terrorist attack is all it would take to revive such maltreatment. A recent survey found that almost half of Americans approved the use of torture if it led to information being extracted.

Dorfman says that he understands collective panic but that he has first hand knowledge of how torture contaminates everything:

But for those of us, like my wife and me, who lived through the ouster of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and witnessed the murderous regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the damage inflicted by torture — not just physically on individuals, but psychologically on an entire nation — is deeply corrosive.

Dorfman then uses Iago as a test case. Perhaps no character seems more deserving of extreme punishment in Shakespeare’s plays than Iago. In fact, if one looks at the source material, one realizes that Shakespeare stripped away any mitigating factors so that Iago seems spurred by nothing but pure malevolence.

Thus, the audience may take at certain satisfaction in Iago’s promised end:

For this slave,
If there be any cunning cruelty
That can torment him much and hold him long,
It shall be his. 

Dorfman lays out what fate spectators at the time could have imagined for Iago:

In 1595, for example, a Jesuit priest and poet accused of treason, Robert Southwell, was strung up at Tyburn. He was sentenced to be disemboweled while still alive, and his corpse ended up quartered, his head cut off, before a large, ogling crowd. Before his execution, Southwell witnessed in prison men “hanged by the handes eight or nine houres, yea twelve houres together, till not only their wits, but even their senses fayle them.” Other horrors he described were bodies broken on the rack, genital mutilation and starvation so severe that inmates would lick “the verye moisture of the walls.”

I must say that, when I first read the play in high school, I too took a certain satisfaction in what was going to happen to Iago, although I didn’t have this detailed information about Elizabethan Age tortures.

Dorfman’s point is that, while Iago may richly deserve punishment, torturing him rebounds on all of us:

Only when we have the moral courage to declare that someone like Iago, who has done so much harm, should not be put on the rack or have his genitals slashed or be forced to open his lips and scream and scream … only then, when we understand that hurting him in this way degrades us all, will we have advanced toward banishing this plague of cunning cruelty from the earth. I fear that day will be a long time coming.

As long as we remain trapped by the desire for reckoning and revenge, we avoid the most difficult truth about Iago: He is human, and enjoys as his birthright certain inalienable rights. This monster who planned the ruin of Othello and Desdemona with the cold, deliberate passion of a suicide bomber, happens, alas, to be a member of our species — an extreme litmus test for that species.

From such a perspective, Dorfman argues that we shouldn’t be arguing about whether torture works or not. We should be examining what torture does to those who approve:

The argument that we should abolish torture because it does not work may be the wrong one. The question that Iago asks all these centuries later is how torture works on us, what it does to our humanity, when we look on approvingly as his malignant body is taken away to suffer unspeakable pain.

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A Little Bit Chipped Off in Brilliance


I’m back in my mother’s Tennessee house after a 12-day trip with her to visit relatives. On Sunday we had a day such as I haven’t experienced for a while: for hours we simply sat and watched an open field of goldfinches, bluebirds, hummingbirds, and one wild turkey from my cousin’s porch in Acton, Massachusetts. It felt like a throwback to an earlier time.

Everyone seems to have a hummingbird feeder these days. Down in Tennessee, two hummingbirds fight over our feeder, not realizing there is enough for all. The dominant one spends more time chasing the other one away than he does actually feeding. Of course, I don’t expect them to change their evolutionary behavior on account of  a few humans suddenly taking it into their heads to provide a bounty that may or may not last.

Speaking  of evolutionary biology, D. H. Lawrence has a strange but powerful poem about prehistoric hummingbirds in his very fine collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers. Enjoy the unsettling images:

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of time,
Luckily for us.

Lawrence could have could have contributed to Alfred Hitchcock’s nightmarish “The Birds.” For him, nature threatens to swallow us up, even as we try to maintain our individuality as “a little bit chipped off in brilliance.” The casual “luckily for us” pulls us out of the trance that we have been drawn into by trying to laugh it off.

Don’t be fooled, however. Lawrence is terrified by the vision of life as a heave of matter.

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Does School Teach Kids to Hate Reading?


A recent blog essay by an elementary school teacher has me revisiting some of my boring English classes at Sewanee Public School, which I attended for grades 1-7. Tony Sinanis argues that the assignments that teachers traditionally attach to reading cause students to hate reading.

Sinanis switches hats from teacher to dad as he sets up his argument:

This post is not directed at any specific teacher, school or leader because I know everyone is working hard and that most are doing what they think is best for kids. This post is not an attack on ELA or reading teachers because I know they are trying to help kids grow as readers. Instead, this post is a plea from me, Tony the dad, who has watched his son’s love of reading be pushed to the brink of extinction. I am not blaming any specific teacher or practice I am just pleading my son’s case. You see, Paul has always loved reading – from the time he was 18 months old – and he could literally get lost in a book for hours at a time. He would sit, curled up on the couch, and get so immersed in book that all we would hear is laughter, oooohhhs or aaaaahhhs based on what he was reading. He would zip through entire series in a matter of days and would beg for trips to Barnes and Noble or the library. He would tell us all about the characters and their adventures. But as he progressed in school, that love for reading started to change.

While acknowledging that electronic gadgets might play some role, Sinanis thinks that the major culprits are

–Reading logs;
–Written responses;
–Book reports;
–Reading passages just to answer multiple choice questions;
–Close readings that involve studying the same book for months.

While such assignments didn’t kill my own love of reading, I do remember being confused by my English classes. The stories in our textbook were nowhere near as interesting as the stories I read at home, and, to make matters worse, they had these inane questions at the end of them. When I was older, I would compare the experience to eating a bad meal, with the questions being the indigestion that followed.

But I didn’t have to wait until later in life. Even at the time, my eight-year-old brain came up with a theory. I concluded that there were two kinds of reading in the world, real reading and school reading. Being a dutiful child, I went along with school reading but remember being bored. Not until high school, when suddenly I got to read The Iliad (the wonderful Fitzgerald translation) and The Odyssey (a less engaging prose translation) did I have positive associations with “English.”

My own kids had similar experiences but there were notable exceptions. Their second grade teacher—both of them had the same one—used to read aloud in class every day and the entire class was enthralled. I remember them coming back from school excited about The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Given that I read aloud to my kids up through middle school, I could imagine middle school and even high school teachers generating excitement through reading aloud.

Here are Salamis’s recommendations:

1) Let kids just read what they want to read; choice is a powerful incentive.
2) Let kids talk about what they are reading… book talks are awesome ways to hook other readers and spread book love.
3) Don’t attach an assignment to every reading activity.
4) Books don’t have to be the only thing kids read.
5) If an assignment has to be attached to a reading activity (for accountability purposes), give the kids choices about what they might do.
6) Confer with kids – talk to them about what they are reading and use that data to help our kids set their own reading goals so they get better.
7) Don’t make kids read one novel for months at a time and if you must do this, make it engaging!

To this I would add that parents have plenty of options at home in addition to reading aloud. Regularly visiting libraries and researching books that your kids might like is a good start. Then there are multiple ways that one uses literature to stimulate conversations, from the simple (“who was your favorite character”) to the imaginative (“what do you think Frodo would do in this situation?”).

It worked with my kids, one of whom is a businessman who reads Moby Dick on the train to work and the other is an English professor who reads at a deeper level than I did at his age. Of course, I’m an English teacher, but I plugged into my playful side more than my teaching side when I was raising them. Or rather, kids learn through play and so that’s the best way to reach them.

After all, literature is a form of play and was never designed for Gradgrindian exercises. Parents and English teachers alike should be able to take advantage of that.

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Flattering Trump Is Like Wallowing in S***

Gustave Doré, Dante & Virgin look down on the flatterers


There’s no doubt in my mind where in Inferno Dante would place Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, Donald Trump’s new communications director. Before I share it, here’s The Hill’s account of Scaramucci’s first press appearance. As the reporters drily put it, he “showed off some of the traits that may have won him the job”:

He frequently praised Trump, saying he loved the president, and that he was “very loyal” to him.

“I love the mission that the president has since the early days of the campaign,” Scaramucci said.

 “I grew up in the middle class, and so there’s a struggle out there. The president saw that before I did. I wish I could tell you I saw it before him, but he taught it to me.”

Scaramucci in recent months had become one of the most vocal defenders of Trump and his family. During an appearance on CNN in April, he compared the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to Alexander Hamilton.

His effusive praise for the president was on full display during the briefing, as he pledged his commitment to Trump’s “America first” agenda and defended the president’s use of Twitter.

“To me, I think it’s been very effective use of reaching the American public directly and so listen, I welcome him continuing to do that. I think it’s very, very important for him to express his identity.”

Scaramucci also praised the president on his competitive nature and athletic skills.

“He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met, okay? I’ve seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire. I’ve seen him at Madison Square Garden with a top coat on, he’s standing in the key and he’s hitting foul shots and swishing them. He sinks 3-foot putts,” he said.

The former hedge fund manager also predicted the White House would score a victory in Congress on healthcare in the near future because “the president has really good karma.”

“I predict the president will get a win in healthcare. That’s my honest prediction, just because I’ve seen him in operation of the last 20 plus years. The president has really good karma, okay? And the world turns back to him,” Scaramucci said.

Dante reserves the two worst levels of hell, the eighth and the ninth, for the maliciously fraudulent. There we find the the Malebolge (“evil ditches” or “evil moats”), which according to Dorothy Sayers is “the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public.” (This is not a bad summation of the way Trump is undermining the public trust.). In one of the ditches on the eighth level are to be found the flatterers.

Dante must maintain a healthy distance, peering down upon them from a great height, because the stench is so great. The Scaramuccis of the world are immersed in human excrement, which has encrusted itself on everything around them. Not to mince words, they spouted shit when they were alive and now are up to their ears in it:

We were already where the narrow path
Crosses athwart the second dike, and forms
Of that a buttress for another arch.
Thence we heard people, who are making moan
In the next Bolgia, snorting with their muzzles,
And with their palms beating upon themselves.
The margins were incrusted with a mould
By exhalation from below, that sticks there,
And with the eyes and nostrils wages war.
The bottom is so deep, no place suffices
To give us sight of it, without ascending
The arch’s back, where most the crag impends.
Thither we came, and thence down in the moat
I saw a people smothered in a filth
That out of human privies seemed to flow…

Dante recognizes one of the figures, one Allessio Interminei of Lucca, who apparently was noteworthy for his incessant flatteries:

And whilst below there with mine eye I search,
I saw one with his head so foul with ordure,
It was not clear if he were clerk or layman.
He screamed to me: “Wherefore art thou so eager
To look at me more than the other foul ones?”
And I to him: “Because, if I remember,
I have already seen thee with dry hair,
And thou’rt Alessio Interminei of Lucca;
Therefore I eye thee more than all the others.”
And he thereon, belaboring his pumpkin:
“The flatteries have submerged me here below,
Wherewith my tongue was never surfeited.”

There’s one other figure described in this ditch, a prostitute who would extravagantly praise her lovers for the gifts that they gave her. Now, unable to find peace after a lifetime of linguistic perversions, she “doth scratch herself with filthy nails,/And crouches now, and now on foot is standing.”

I single out Scaramucci, whose tongue appears incapable of being surfeited with flattery, because he is a particularly blatant instance of the kind of people that Trump is surrounding himself with. I could just as easily have named Reince Priebus or Kellyanne Conway, and in an earlier post, I wrote about how Trump forced his entire cabinet to play Goneril and Regan to his Lear. The final result is that language is so undermined, so cheapened, that it’s like wallowing in shit. Only in the self-awareness that Hell inflicts–that is Hell–do they realize they are coated with it, leading to attempts to beat or scratch it off.

As always, Dante finds the perfect metaphor for the violation.

Further thought: Dante’s decision to stand far away from the flatterers as he looks down appears validated by the counsel of Eliot Cohen, former Bush Administration official, to stay away from the Trump administration. Last November Cohen warned that everyone who got pulled in would be poisoned and their good reputation sullied.

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Let Me Not Love Thee If I Love Thee Not

George Herbert

Spiritual Sunday

It’s been a while since I shared a poem by my favorite religious poet, George Herbert, so here’s one where he grapples heroically with “Affliction,” a current concern of mine given my ailing friend Rachel Kranz. I’ve posted on “Affliction” before but now, after seeing Rachel’s cancer up close, the images of illness hit harder.

I admire Herbert because of his willingness to go toe to toe with God. When he is suffering, he doesn’t hesitate to let God know.

Herbert reports that, as a young and healthy man, he found it easy to love God. He remembers his cockiness in the early days of his belief—“I thought the service brave”—as he focused on God’s blessings:

I looked on thy furniture so fine, 
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

Then, however, things took a turn for the worse, undermining his too easy confidence:

My flesh began unto my soul in pain, 
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

Even when he himself recovered, things continued bad as he saw friends taken down, turning him into a  “a blunted knife”:

When I got health, thou took’st away my life, 
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

I don’t entirely follow Herbert towards the end but it sounds as though he accuses God of a bait and switch, early on by making him think that belief will be easy and later by making possible a successful academic career at Cambridge to compensate for thwarting his court ambitions (“Thou often didst with Academic praise/Melt and dissolve my rage.”) Herbert finds himself so entangled with God that, when the going gets tough, he’s too far committed to pull out: “I was entangled in the world of strife,/ Before I had the power to change my life.”

By the end of the poem he is sick again and is so beaten down that he describes himself in uncharted territory: “Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me/ None of my books will show.” He wishes he were not human but a tree.

Regrouping, he tries to resign himself to God’s will. “I must be meek;/In weakness must be stout.” This doesn’t work, however, and he threatens to leave God altogether: “I will change the service, and go seek/Some other master out.” He makes this same threat in other poems, most notably “The Collar,” where he writes:

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
                         I will abroad! 

As in “The Collar,” however, he recognizes this as a temper tantrum rather than a serious threat. As I say, he is so entangled with God that though he feels abandoned (“though I am clean forgot”), he can’t help loving God. Life would be so much easier, he says, if he didn’t. “Let me not love thee, if I love thee not” is a way of saying, “I am tormented by not loving you as fully as I feel I should so please help me stop loving you altogether.”

God won’t allow this, however. Or rather, Herbert can’t leave God no matter how tormented he may feel. One finds Herbert periodically thinking, in his poetry, that life would be easier if his heart were a stone, but God seems always to find a way in, often through back door entrances. As Herbert writes at the end of “The Collar,”

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.

God watches us in our torment and loves us. Why do we find it so hard to get out of our own way and accept that love?

Here’s “Affliction (1)” in its entirety:

Affliction (1)

By George Herbert.

When thou didst entice to thee my heart, 
I thought the service brave:
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served?
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserved
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe.

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a lingering book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise,
Not simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill, till I came where
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth thy power cross-bias me; not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure I then should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

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Jane Eyre on Caring for the Sick

Fritz Eichenberg, a blind and maimed Rochester


I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with the elderly and the sick and it’s changing how I see the world. First there was the week I spent with my friend Rachel Kranz in a Bronx hospital (ovarian cancer, blot clots), and now my 91-year-old mother and I are visiting a 100-year-old relative in Maine who has difficulty walking. Life has both slowed down and gotten more intense as things once small suddenly loom large.

The image of Jane Eyre tending to Rochester comes to mind. When I returned to the novel’s conclusion, I discovered that Jane fits the angel on the hearth paradigm much more than I realized, as though she’s assuring the reader that she’s no longer the angry little girl or the restless governess.

I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth.  I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.  No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.  To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.  All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.

Jane proves to be the perfect helpmate:

Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near—that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand.  Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.  He saw nature—he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam—of the landscape before us; of the weather round us—and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye.  Never did I weary of reading to him; never did I weary of conducting him where he wished to go: of doing for him what he wished to be done.  And there was a pleasure in my services, most full, most exquisite, even though sad—because he claimed these services without painful shame or damping humiliation.  He loved me so truly, that he knew no reluctance in profiting by my attendance: he felt I loved him so fondly, that to yield that attendance was to indulge my sweetest wishes.

Jane and Rochester, of course, are two independent spirits, and I’m struck by how careful Jane is not to diminish him to “painful shame or damping humiliation.” I’m learning, as those experienced in the caretaking business already know, that it’s important not to regard the work as a sacrifice. Jane is well aware that seeing it as such can breed resentment and angry defensiveness, which is why she avoids the word. Here’s her interchange with Rochester right after he proposes marriage:

“Mr. Rochester, if ever I did a good deed in my life—if ever I thought a good thought—if ever I prayed a sincere and blameless prayer—if ever I wished a righteous wish,—I am rewarded now.  To be your wife is, for me, to be as happy as I can be on earth.”

“Because you delight in sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice!  What do I sacrifice?  Famine for food, expectation for content.  To be privileged to put my arms round what I value—to press my lips to what I love—to repose on what I trust: is that to make a sacrifice?  If so, then certainly I delight in sacrifice.”

“And to bear with my infirmities, Jane: to overlook my deficiencies.”

“Which are none, sir, to me.  I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.”

When one human being becomes dependent on another, his or her self-respect can be jeopardized. Caretakers need to respect both the needs of the patient and their own needs if the relationship is to remain healthy.  Jane finds a way to honor both.

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Ferreting Out Trump’s Purloined Letter

Roman Muradov, “The Purloined Letter”


One of the most remarkable things about Donald Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin is how open it all has been. Granted, we don’t know the whole reason why Trump has been so accommodating. Like many people, I think there are shady money deals, which Putin knows about and Trump knows that he knows. The potential for blackmail seems substantial.

But in such situations one doesn’t usually pay off the blackmailer in public. One doesn’t ignore the entire GOP platform at convention time except for its Ukraine plank, which you rewrite in Russia’s favor. You don’t name your major Russia contact as head of the National Security Administration. You don’t offer to return Russia’s compound, seized by the U.S. to punish Russia for its election intervention, right after taking office. You don’t openly talk about lifting the oil sanctions against Russia (put in place because of the Ukraine invasion) and then choose an oil executive and opponent of the sanctions as your Secretary of State. You don’t fire the head of the FBI when he refuses to drop the Russia investigation and then openly admit that this is why you fired him. You don’t (this is the latest) spend over an hour speaking privately with Putin—no American witnesses—and take minimal efforts to hide the encounter. Every time something like this happens, commentators are both appalled and incredulous—appalled that Trump is doing it, incredulous that he’s doing it in the open.

And yet, so far, Trump seems to have gotten away with it. Maybe that’s because being brazen has always worked for him so he just keeps doing it. Why abandon your running game if it gets you 10 yards every time? Or maybe he’s learned a lesson from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Poe’s story involves a compromising letter that has been stolen by D–. The police know that the letter must be in D—‘s possession and ransack both the man and his apartment with the utmost care. In fact, they boast of their thoroughness to Dupin, the private eye who has been brought in on the case. Here’s the Prefect of Police:

“Why the fact is, we took our time, and we searched every where. I have had long experience in these affairs. I took the entire building, room by room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We examined, first, the furniture of each apartment. We opened every possible drawer; and I presume you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man is a dolt who permits a ‘secret’ drawer to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk –of space –to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us. After the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the fine long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we removed the tops.”

“Why so?”

“Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece of furniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and the top replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are employed in the same way.”


“[W]e opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers. We also measured the thickness of every book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation. Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles.”

The letter, however, proves to be in plain sight: Dupin finds it, its exterior slightly altered, deposited in D–‘s letter rack.

D—has figured that the police will expect subtlety from him and so crosses them up with brazenness. To draw the parallel, it’s as though Trump figures that every scandal in the past (Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky) has been uncovered because of elaborate attempts to hide the evidence. So why not be open about it.

The press has certainly been like the police force in the story, tracking down every small lead and uncovering one thing after another. They even have a confession from the president’s son that he had a meeting with money launderers and Russian lawyers during the election. Drawing on the past, we anticipate that every new scandal will bring our D– down. Yet he continues to thumb his nose at us.

For the good of the country, not to mention truth and justice, we can only pray that we have our own Dupin in Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump may not be “an unprincipled man of genius,” as Dupin calls D–, but handling this scandal in the old way doesn’t look as though it will work.

Perhaps Mueller should take his cue from Dupin, who turns the tables in such a subtle way that D—doesn’t realize that he’s lost. By the time he is aware, Dupin predicts, he will have entrapped himself.

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A World of Books amid a World of Green

Edward Cucuel, “Young Woman Reading in a Garden”


My mother and I are currently visiting a 100-year-old relative, Marion Bowman, who alerted me to the Victorian/Edwardian poet Richard Le Gallienne. Marion turned to one of his poems about books when her librarian husband Ben died, and I found others when I went digging. The poems owe a debt to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and also make me think of Wind in the Willows.

Since Ben was passionately fond of books and Marion is a crack gardener (she loves books as well), Le Gallienne’s merging of the two worlds is perfect. These are also great poems for midsummer. The quotation by Edmund Gosse that inspires the first poem comes from a passage in his Gossip in a Library (1892), a set of personal reflections about the books in his own library:

I have heard that the late Mr. Edward Solly, a very pious and worshipful lover of books…was so anxious to fly all outward noise that he built himself a library in his garden. I have been told that the books stood there in perfect order, with the rose-spray flapping at the window, and great Japanese vases exhaling such odors as must annoy an insect-nostril. The very bees would come to the window, and sniff, and boom indignantly away again. The silence there was perfect…That is the library I should like to have. In my sleep, “where dreams are multitude,” I sometimes fancy that one day I shall have a library in a garden. The phrase seems to contain the whole felicity of man–“a library in a garden!” It sounds like having a castle in Spain, or a sheep-walk in Arcadia, and I suppose that merely to wish for it is to be what indignant journalists call “a faddling hedonist.”

A Library in a Garden

By Richard Le Gallienne

“A Library in a garden!” The phrase seems to contain the whole felicity of man.–Edmund Gosse 

A world of books amid a world of green,
Sweet song without, sweet song again within
Flowers in the garden, in the folios too:
O happy Bookman, let me live with you! 

The other poem was read at Ben’s funeral and captures how books reflect the wide range of our lives, from the spiritual to the mundane. Once again Le Gallienne resorts to garden imagery to capture their richness:


What are my books?–My friends, my loves,
My church, my tavern, and my only wealth;
My garden: yea, my flowers, my bees, my doves;
My only doctors–and my only health.

Doesn’t this inspire you to prepare a treat, grab a book, and head for a picturesque spot?

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Mourning Jane Austen’s Early Death


Today is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, which should be a designated day of mourning since Jane was at the height of her powers when she died of Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 41. If forced to choose, I would live in a world (reluctantly) that was missing the final works of Charles Dickens (Our Mutual Friend, the unfinished Edwin Drood), George Eliot (Daniel Deronda), Virginia Woolf (Between the Acts), even Shakespeare (although The Tempest), although I love all of them. At any rate, I don’t feel the need for these authors to have written more. I find it intolerable, however, that Austen didn’t finish Sanditon, and I fantasize obsessively about other works she would have written.

Emma and Persuasion, after all, were going in fascinating directions, the first in terms of character development and formal innovation (Austen anticipated Madame Bovary’s free indirect speech by several decades), the second in terms of feminist exploration. I would give a lot to see where she would have ended up. I know for sure that I would have relished more of her comic satire and her razor wit.

The New York Times had an article Sunday talking about how Austen was a much more ambitious author than history has reported. I supervised a senior project a few years ago which made exactly this point and filled in the details. You can read the posts I wrote on Carolyn Zerhusen’s project here and here but, to summarize them, Carolyn found Austen to be intensely ambitious. She wanted to make as much money as Anne Radcliffe and Sir Walter Scott, considered herself a better writer than either of them (which she was), and was irritated that her worth wasn’t appreciated.

This was beginning to change by the end of her six years in the public eye. While Mansfield Park and Emma weren’t as popular as Pride and Prejudice, in part because the heroines aren’t as attractive or the marriages as glamorous, I can imagine Persuasion—Austen’s most romantic work—bringing in the larger audience she longed for.

Carolyn sees Austen, who didn’t suffer fools lightly, taking shots at Radcliffe in Northanger Abbey and at Scott and Lord Byron in Persuasion and Sanditon. The mild-mannered but wonderfully strong Anne Elliot in Persuasion delivers a powerful feminist message in Persuasion. Here’s Captain Haville’s argument about woman’s constancy and Anne’s reply:

“But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

 For Carolyn, the image of Austen as a woman disinterested in a writing career is disempowering, and she observes that “it hasn’t helped that the 2007 Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane portrays the author as ‘a wildly romantic woman whose stories are only the result of disappointed love.’” The same type of men whom Captain Harville quotes also provided descriptions of Jane Austen. It’s time to move past them.

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Caves of Ice, Prophecies of War

Greenland’s melting glaciers


With so many things in the news to worry about these days, it’s hard to keep in mind the most serious threat facing us, which is climate change. Scientists are now discovering that the Greenland glaciers are melting faster than predicted, which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise by the end of the century. A technical description of the melting process brings to mind Coleridge’s haunting poem “Kubla Khan.”

A  March Washington Post article reported on a new study of Greenland’s glaciers, entitled Oceans Are Melting Greenland in order to give it the eye-catching acronym OMG:

Greenland is, in fact, the largest global contributor to rising seas — adding about a millimeter per year to the global ocean, NASA says — and it has 7.36 potential meters (over 24 feet) to give. The question is how fast it could lose that ice, and over five years, OMG plans to pull in enough data to give the best answer yet.

“We’ve never observed Greenland disappearing before, and that’s what OMG is about,” says Josh Willis, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the principal investigator on the mission. “We want to watch how it shrinks over the next five years, and see how we can use that information to better predict the future.”

According to the Post article, while the results are not yet it, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

said in 2013 that Greenland’s melting might at most contribute 21 centimeters to sea-level rise by 2100, with some possible addition from rapid ice collapse (this is the high-end number for what scientists call the “likely” range in a worst-case global warming scenario, to be precise).

One reason for the accelerated melting involves caves of ice into which rivers are pouring, which is what made me think of Coleridge’s poem. Here’s the technical description of a process known as “dynamic thinning”:

Dynamic thinning is, in a way, a positive feedback loop. When it gets warm enough, the surface snow and ice begin to thaw. The melt water either pools or flows in rivers along the surface, or begins flowing under the snow that covers the ice of the sheet. In the process, it flows into small cracks, enlarging them as it moves towards the bottom of the ice sheet. The amount of melt water traveling through these fissures varies greatly. Waleed Abdalati, head of NASA Goddard Space Flight Centers Cryospheric Sciences Branch, mentioned that “for the first few weeks, the melt water sounds like a peaceful stream. Soon it takes on the menacing roar of a rushing river.”

As surface melt increases, it collects into rivers that carry it to turquoise blue pools or plunge into crevasses or ice tunnels called moulins or glacier mills. Moulin…can extend downwards hundreds of meters, reaching the base of the glacier, or can flow within the glacier. Wherever the water ends up, moulins can affect both the melting rate and also the velocity of a glacier. The streams bring surface heat in the form of water down through the glacier to the bottom of the ice sheet. Once the water reaches the bottom of the glacier, it acts as lubrication for the glacier, which then gains speed as it flows downhill towards the sea. Thus, a little melting can have a large effect.

In “Kubla Khan,” the sacred river Alph springs out of a chasm, meanders five miles, and then reaches “caverns measureless to man”—at which point, the prophecies become dire:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion 
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, 
Then reached the caverns measureless to man, 
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean; 
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far 
Ancestral voices prophesying war! 
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
   Floated midway on the waves; 
   Where was heard the mingled measure 
   From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! 

Or as Abdalati puts it, “for the first few weeks, the melt water sounds like a peaceful stream. Soon it takes on the menacing roar of a rushing river.”

Like the poet in the poem, one expects him to add, “Beware! Beware!”

The prophecies of war, meanwhile, are not coming only from climate scientists but also from the U.S. military, which predicts that world conflicts will rise as climate change disrupts the world order. Scientific American, for instance, has pointed out that a climate change-caused drought in Syria—the worst in its history—led to the war there as farmers flooded into the cities.

Meanwhile climate deniers block environmental legislation and focus on tax cuts for the wealthy, which would allow them to build more stately pleasure domes and gardens bright with sinuous rills.

Beware! Beware!

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Please God, Prepare a Fruitful Place

Vincent Van Gogh, “The Sower”

Spiritual Sunday

William Cowper has a lovely version of the parable of the sower and the seed, today’s lectionary reading. Cowper wrestled with crippling depression, which makes his final George Herbert-like plea especially moving: he asks God to make his heart, which he experiences too often as stony, to be receptive to divine grace.

The Sower

By William Cowper

Ye sons of earth prepare the plough,
Break up your fallow ground;
The sower is gone forth to sow,
And scatter blessings round.

The seed that finds a stony soil
Shoots forth a hasty blade;
But ill repays the sower’s toil,
Soon wither’d, scorch’d, and dead.

The thorny ground is sure to balk
All hopes of harvest there;
We find a tall and sickly stalk,
But not the fruitful ear.

The beaten path and highway side,
Receive the trust in vain;
The watchful birds the spoil divide,
And pick up all the grain.

But where the Lord of grace and power
Has bless’d the happy field,
How plenteous is the golden store
The deep-wrought furrows yield!

Father of mercies, we have need
Of thy preparing grace;
Let the same Hand that give me seed
Provide a fruitful place!

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Trump’s Unseen Playmate Jim

Playing with the unseen playmate in “Child’s Garden of Verses”


The news is so universally grim with our current president that I find myself looking for light notes. An Associated Press article provided one the other day when it set out to solve the “curious case of Trump’s friend Jim.”

Little does AP know that Robert Louis Stevenson solved the case years ago in A Child’s Garden of Verses.

First, here’s the AP’s report:

For all things Paris, President Donald Trump’s go-to guy is Jim.

The way Trump tells it — Jim is a friend who loves Paris and used to visit every year. Yet when Trump travels to the city Thursday for his first time as president, it’s unlikely that Jim will tag along. Jim doesn’t go to Paris anymore. Trump says that’s because the city has been infiltrated by foreign extremists.

While Trump “repeatedly talked about the enigmatic Jim while on the campaign trail,” he “didn’t receive widespread attention until Trump became president.” The story observes that, for Trump,

Jim’s story serves as a cautionary tale – a warning that even a place as lovely as Paris can be ruined if leaders are complacent about terrorism.

Jim’s biggest moment in the spotlight was during a high-profile Trump speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Trump explained that Jim “loves the City of Lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris. It was automatic, with his wife and his family.”

Trump one day asked Jim: “How’s Paris doing?”

“’Paris?” Jim replied, as relayed by Trump. “‘I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.’”

Reporters have been trying to track down Jim but with no success. Stevenson knows where he is, however:

The Unseen Playmate

By Robert Louis Stevenson

When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him, and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
‘Tis he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
‘Tis he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

‘Tis he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
‘Tis he will take care of your playthings himself!

Of course, now that he’s disenchanted with Paris, Trump’s unseen friend may no longer take the side of the French.

As if we needed further proof that our president is little more than a child.

Further thought: People also refer to the president’s eldest son as a child. The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri quotes Peter Pan in a column pointing out that people have been referring to the 39-year-old Donald Trump, Jr. as “a kid” and therefore not responsible for colluding with the Russians.

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Federer, Unlike Ulysses, a Family Man Hero

Roger and Mirka Federer and daughters


I’ve applied Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to Roger Federer in the past and it’s time to do so again. The 36-year-old, after all, is once again sailing beyond the sunset while the younger members of “the Big Four” fall by the wayside with injury and fatigue.

And while I’m praising Roger, let me do the same for Venus Williams, also doing the impossible at age 37. Both are in the Wimbledon semi-finals.

Roger is different than Tennyson’s Ulysses, however, because he sees family as a boost, not as an impediment.

Ulysses complains about being an idle king with “an aged wife.” He want to taste adventure again and all but claims that those who want to live differently (i.e., Telemachus) are unimaginative bureaucrats. He has better things to do with his time and is prepared to sacrifice his fellow mariners for one last adventure:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. 

Federer, by contrast, has figured out a way to take both his wife and his kids on his adventure with him. In fact, many are attributing Federer’s continuing gusto for the game to the fact that he turns his tournaments into family outings. To be sure, it’s easier to do so when you have his money, his private jets, his ability to hire nannies, etc. Still, he’s not battling his family as Ulysses is:

        This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. 

Roger says he’ll quit when Mirka asks him to and I believe him for the simple fact that they seem to have the same goals at heart and will make their decisions together. Notice how, in one interview, he talks about “our” dream. And then, as proof that the “our” is sincere, he looks at the tennis through Mirka’s perspective, acknowledging that she doesn’t see the sport exactly as he does, given her disappointment at having to retire from professional tennis following a foot injury:

If she said, you know, I don’t want to travel no more, I’ll say, Okay, my career is over. It’s as simple as that.

So she’s the key to a lot of this. But she’s happy to be doing it, not on a weekly basis just because the traveling gets too much with the four. But, you know, I went to Stuttgart and Halle on my own. Now here we’re together. We’re having a great time.

So she’s been amazing support for me. She’s the best.

I’m happy she allows me to chase our dreams really, because she’s in it as much as I am, even though she’s more on a different side right now. She’s not as invested in the whole tennis bit like she used to be.’

I’ve criticized Ulysses in the past for being self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. Federer is certainly driven—one has to be to accomplish all he has—but he has a collective perspective. His victories aren’t only about himself, and he’s probably not going to sacrifice others in some doomed adventure.

Besides which, so far at least, he doesn’t seem to have been made weak by time and fate. Maybe things will change in the near future and I’ll have to revisit this post. At the moment, however, he seems to be playing as well as he ever has. Better in fact.

True, he is weak in comparison with the remaining men in the draw. He will have to be as crafty as Ulysses to prevail. As he notes,

They (Thomas Berdych, Sam Querrey, and Marin Cilic) will have their word to say of the outcome of the matches. They’ve got big serves, big forehands — big hitters, really. All three guys are taller and stronger than I am. I’ve got to figure out a different way — carve my way through the draw somehow with my slice, my spins, my consistency, maybe. I’m looking forward to doing that.

But there’s not the desperation in his words that there’s is in Ulysses’s. He’s far less dramatic—family men usually are—but that makes him no less the hero.

Here the poem in its entirety:

It little profits that an idle king, 
By this still hearth, among these barren crags, 
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole 
Unequal laws unto a savage race, 
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. 
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink 
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d 
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when 
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades 
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name; 
For always roaming with a hungry heart 
Much have I seen and known; cities of men 
And manners, climates, councils, governments, 
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all; 
And drunk delight of battle with my peers, 
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. 
I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move. 
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! 
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life 
Were all too little, and of one to me 
Little remains: but every hour is saved 
From that eternal silence, something more, 
A bringer of new things; and vile it were 
For some three suns to store and hoard myself, 
And this gray spirit yearning in desire 
To follow knowledge like a sinking star, 
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. 

         This is my son, mine own Telemachus, 
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,— 
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil 
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild 
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees 
Subdue them to the useful and the good. 
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere 
Of common duties, decent not to fail 
In offices of tenderness, and pay 
Meet adoration to my household gods, 
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. 

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: 
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, 
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me— 
That ever with a frolic welcome took 
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed 
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old; 
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; 
Death closes all: but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done, 
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. 
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: 
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep 
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. 
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: 
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. 
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Another literary parallel: James Gray of The Express has another literary parallel I wish I’d thought of. Declaring (prematurely?) that Federer will win Wimbledon, Gray writes,

His lifting the trophy will mark the complete regeneration of the legendary Swiss – like Gandalf the Grey he has returned as Federer the White, more powerful and more wise than ever before.

The wisdom, Gray say, lies in his decision to dial back his tournaments, and he suggests that Murray and Djokovic should listen:

Federer the White has returned and he brings with him sage advice. Those who should listen closest will only be able to watch as he lifts the trophy on Sunday.

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Sustaining Narratives Can Become Traps


I am currently mentoring a single mother of two as she writes a Margaret Atwood senior project and am seeing up close how powerfully the Canadian author speaks to certain women. With Ashley’s permission, I will be sharing some of her work in the upcoming year. In today’s post, I look at an incident in Life before Man where a child uses The Wizard of Oz to make sense of a confusing life.

Elizabeth’s mother has abandoned Elizabeth and her sister, and prickly Aunt Muriel has taken over. Elizabeth has no framework for understanding what has happened except for certain books she has read. One of them is Baum’s classic: 

For months, Elizabeth put herself to sleep with a scene from The Wizard of Oz. The book itself had been left behind, it was part of the old life before Auntie Muriel’s, but she could remember it. It was the part where Dorothy throws a bucket of water over the Wicked Witch of the West and melts her. Auntie Muriel was the witch, of course. Elizabeth’s mother was Glinda the Good. One day she would reappear and kneel down to kiss Elizabeth on the forehead.

It makes sense that a girl who has lost her mother would think of the Glinda passage. Here’s Baum:

Dorothy told the Witch all her story: how the cyclone had brought her to the Land of Oz, how she had found her companions, and of the wonderful adventures they had met with.

“My greatest wish now,” she added, “is to get back to Kansas, for Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than they were last, I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it.”

Glinda leaned forward and kissed the sweet, upturned face of the loving little girl.

“Bless your dear heart,” she said, “I am sure I can tell you of a way to get back to Kansas.”

The real truth, of course, is more complex. Elizabeth’s mother was a drug addict that Muriel supported until she finally died. Never knowing this, Elizabeth has grown up to hate Muriel and finally breaks with her. The Baum imagery comes back to her when she discovers that Muriel is dying of cancer:

Elizabeth hates Auntie Muriel. She has always hated her and she always will hate her. She will not forgive her. This is an old vow, an axiom. Nevertheless.

Nevertheless, this is not Auntie Muriel. The Auntie Muriel of Elizabeth’s childhood has melted, leaving in her place this husk, this old woman who now drops her blockish embroidery and with eyes closed and weeping gropes with her hands across the hospital covers.

Sometimes we discover that we must abandon the narratives that have sustained us if we are to move forward. Muriel may still be a witch in Elizabeth’s eyes, but something else is melting:

Elizabeth wants to get up out of the visitor’s chair and walk, run from the room, leaving her there alone. She deserves it.

Nevertheless, she leans forward and takes Auntie Muriel’s blinded hands. Desperately the stubby fingers clutch her. Elizabeth is no priest: she cannot give absolution. What can she offer? Nothing sincerely. Beside her own burning mother she has sat, not saying anything, holding the one good hand. The one good fine-boned hand. The ruined hand, still beautiful, unlike the veined and mottled stumps she now cradles in hers, soothing them with her thumbs as in illness she has soothed the hands of her children.

Sickness grips her. Nevertheless, nevertheless, she whispers: It’s all right. It’s all right.

The scene is not exactly a reconciliation. Atwood is too honest for that. But the human connection is all the more powerful because it is not sentimental. Sometimes, in the end, humans transcend their pain, their grievances.

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Is Chick Lit Bad for You?


Yesterday I discussed how some feminists have argued that even great novels like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Jane Eyre support patriarchal marriage. Austen and Bronte, however, at least have the excuse that they were writing in the 19th century. What are we to make of the “chick lit” romances written today?

Tania Modleski, in Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, examines the charge that novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary do active harm. Modleski’s book, which originally appeared in 1982, broke new ground when she took Harlequins, gothic romances, and soap operas seriously. While she didn’t exactly see them as progressive, she defended them as helping women cope with the prospect of male violence. Even though the heroines always end with Mr. Right, the books acknowledge the pain of female powerlessness before they get to that point. In other words, they do more than propose a good man as the answer to all your problems.

In her introduction to the second edition (2008), Modleski attacks those who think that great literature will counteract the reactionary seductions of chick lit. Since I myself think that great literature is more effective than such romances in handling our problems, I examine Modleski’s arguments closely here.

First, a description of Bridget Jones gives us a sense of what chick lit involves. Modleski points out that the novel is modeled loosely on Pride and Prejudice:

The author, Helen Fielding, created a ditzy character who is hilariously skeptical of marriage but hoping against hope to evade the fate of “singletons”—dying alone at the end of their lives and, not being immediately missed by anyone, are finally discovered half eated by their Alsatian dog. Bridget is obsessed with controlling her weight and limiting her alcohol and tobacco intake, and throughout much of the novel she is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with her boss, an attractive cad.

In 2001, many were horrified by the world-wide popularity of Bridget Jones and of chick lit in general. Modleski sarcastically writes,

Will it come as a surprise to anyone that the condemners of the “damned mobs of scribbling women” (to use Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notorious label) are bemoaning the success of chick lit, which seems to have taken by storm not only England and America but many other countries as well? In fact the worldwide popularity of chick lit has led one writer to refer to the phenomenon as a “pandemic”—the avian flu, if you will, of the literary world—that is felling those portions of the female population not fortunate enough to have been immunized by adequate doses of the Great Books.

One critic was Dorris Lessing, who wrote,

It would be better, perhaps, if [young chick lit authors] wrote books about their lives as they really saw them, and not these helpless girls, drunken, worrying about their weight and so on.

Modleski doesn’t tangle with Lessing but she does heap scorn on one Lauren Baratz-Logsted, who complains,

Chick lit’s formula numbs our senses. Literature by contrast, grants us access to countless new cultures, places, and inner lives. Where chick lit reduces the complexity of the human experience, literature increases our awareness of other perspectives and paths. Literature employs carefully crafted language to expand our reality, instead of beating us over the head with clichés that promote a narrow worldview. Chick lit shuts down our consciousness. Literature expands our imaginations.

Modleski accuses Baratz-Logsted of “mind-numbing humanist platitudes,” but that’s not really an argument. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum makes a more sophisticated version of Baratz-Logsted’s argument. Modleski, while taking high culture elitists to tasks, herself engages in a complicated dance about whether she should judge negatively the popular literature that she studies.

She identifies two ways of studying mass-produced fantasies, the ethnographic approach and the psychoanalytic approach. The first seeks to suspend judgement altogether, putting feminist politics aside and treating Harlequin fans or soap fans the way one would treat any culture.

The psychoanalytic approach, by contrast, sees women as oppressed and believes that they turn to literary fantasies as an unconscious way to resist and fight back, or at least to cope, with patriarchy. Is Modleski, when she sees Harlequin reader trapped by patriarchy, any the less elitist than Baratz-Logsted, who says they would be better served by great literature. Note how slippery Modleski gets, beginning her self-defense by seeming to agree before she disagrees:

One cannot quarrel with the notion that feminist critics ought not to engage in attacking or presuming to direct other women. But are there no limits to the actual support a feminist critic ought to extend to their struggles and their terms. To take an example, if romance writers and readers were to defend their genre or other forms of popular culture on the grounds of man’s natural superiority to women, should feminist critics simly go along with these “terms?” Do we not have an obligation as feminists to contest such notions? How can criticism call itself feminist if it is not first and foremost an engaged criticism.

Modleski, in other words, wants to have it both ways. She wants to take seriously women who read mass produced fantasies (which is good, everyone should be taken seriously) and she thinks that women should not be pinning all their hopes on romantic fantasies. In other words, she thinks she knows better than they do what’s good for them. When she calls other people elitist, she may be doing so to deflect such charges against herself.

I’m all for seeing mass produced fantasies as more complex that they’ve been given credit for. Modleski’s book is very useful in that regard. But I also see “Great Books” as even more complex and as far better for readers.

Posted in Fielding (Helen) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trapped in the Marriage Plot?

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, “Lady Reading by a Window”


I’m currently writing the feminism section of my book about literature impacting lives and am examining Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s idea that the marriage plot prevents women from imagining alternative lives for themselves. While DuPlessis doesn’t say so explicitly, this means that she regards novels like Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and The Mill on the Floss as complicit with the existing order. Powerful though they may be, they don’t help readers break out of the idea that the only worthwhile life for a woman is as wife.

DuPlessis’s book Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985) explores how later women writers struggled with the legacy handed down to them by society and by (among others) Austen, Bronte, and George Eliot. Raymond Williams, author of Marxism and Literature (1977), helps her frame her argument.

Williams says that imagining a new kind of consciousness “can be the long and difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practical consciousness.” This remaking requires “confronting a hegemony in the fibers of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships.” Put in terms of the marriage drama, the lives that women have been culturally taught to imagine for themselves are so imbedded in “the fibers of the self” that fighting against them seems impossible.

Those authors who want to create a new narrative, Williams says, must embody and perform “latent, momentary, and newly  possible consciousness.” Which is to say, imagine characters living radically different lives.

Until authors do so, however, readers will be stuck in the romance or marriage plot. Such stories, DuPlessis says, contain such elements as “yearning, pleasing, choosing, slipping, falling, and failing,” which are “some of the deep, shared structures of our culture.” Even when authors pushed against these plots, as Austen, Bronte, and Eliot all did in the middles of their novels, ultimately they surrendered. One might find women protagonists as “heroes” for a while, but by the endings DuPlessis says that they have dwindled to heroines. Women were denied the hero’s quest or the Bildungsroman (the growth story) because they had to end up married.

In Jane Austen’s Emma, for instance, Emma at first thinks that she herself can resist the marriage plot but, in the end, she succumbs:

[T]he problem and charm of the main character lie in the same traits: her resolute and aggressive assurance, making matches as if she were a thoroughly disinterested party, misreading the marital hopes of those she considers her entourage, and interfering with the rational self-interest of many people, but especially of the man in search of a wife. The engagement of Emma’s strong will and desire to dominate occurs each time Austen proffers an eligible person; the author graduates the interest of each man and of Emma’s involvement until, with Mr. Knightley’s apparent attentions to Harriet Smith, Emma is shocked that her impetuous scheming may have hurt her own best interests. At the point when she is sincerely repentant for her assumed powers, she is marriageable, and is therefore proposed to. Her proper negotiation with class and gender makes the heroine from an improper hero.

Something comparable occurs in Pride and Prejudice. DuPlessis writes that, because of the novel’s concentration on Elizabeth’s “force and her growing capacity for insight, her potential as a hero develops throughout the narrative.” Unfortunately, this means that, when Elizabeth does opt for marriage, she validates the institution all the more. After all, who can say that one of literature’s most popular heroines is wrong.

For those who don’t mind seeing traditional marriage affirmed in their literature, this is not a problem. For those who believe that women should have other narratives than marriage available to them, however, the marriage plot can feel suffocating. The fact that some of the characters—one thinks especially of Jane Eyre as a teacher and school mistress—succumb to marriage after struggling so mightily to establish their separate identities can dishearten those trying to expand the female imagination.

Or perhaps DuPlessis is wrong and heroine marriage endings don’t entirely drown out hero quest middles. After all, Jane Eyre played a significant role in the unionization of governesses, in the suffragette movement, and in 1970s feminism. It may be an open question whether the final message a reader gets from the novel is “Reader, I married him.” More on this subject in the near future.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Bronte (Charlotte) | Leave a comment

Once There Was Light

Edward Munch, “The Sick Child” (1925)

Spiritual Sunday

My dear friend Rachel Kranz, whom I spent several days with last week in a Bronx hospital, has had a heart attack on top of her ovarian cancer—cardiac arrest for six minutes—and is currently on a ventilator. The news has upended me as we had both thought she was getting better. Now we are getting varied reports from different doctors, some positive (there is eye contact and the heart suffered no damage), some negative (treating one problem leads to others). Please pray for her.

Looking for poetic comfort, I came across a Jane Kenyon poem written while she herself was suffering from cancer. It reminded me of the many talks I had with Rachel as we tried to make sense of what was happening to her.

The figures in the poem that anger me the most are the voice who squelched her childhood optimism (1); the smug religious voice contending that belief in God will dispel her depression (3); and the orthodox religious voice (I think) who disrupts a beautiful dream about mingling with souls both alive and dead (5).

The first voice she describes as a “mutilator of souls.” She lets the second pass without comment, and the third voice “arrives like a crow that smells hot blood.” By telling her that “I never let my dear ones drown,” this last voice—which claims to be supportive–asserts the conventional division between the living and the dead, thereby depriving her of a more vibrant understanding.

Along this line, I am currently reading the Booker Award winning Famished Road, by Nigerian author Ben Okri, which describes a far more fluid relationship between living and dead souls. The book has been described as “magical realist,” but Okri objects to the label because, for him, this intermingling is reality, not magic at all.

By the end of the poem, Kenyon has found transcendent moments that temporarily drown out these negative voices: listening to her dog breathe; experiencing short pain-free interludes when she can focus on marriage, friends, “pink fringed hollyhocks,” “my desk, books, and chair”; and hearing a wood thrush at four in the morning.

At such times, life has never seemed so holy.

Having It Out with Melancholy

By Jane Kenyon

If many remedies are prescribed
          for an illness, you may be certain
          that the illness has no cure.
                              A. P. CHEKHOV
                             The Cherry Orchard

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad—even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours—the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors—those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born.

For a few moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life—in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Posted in Kenyon (Jane) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lit Frees Us from Our Mental Ghettos

Maurycy Gottlieb, “Shylock and Jessica” (1887)


Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, has a fascinating article in the recent New Yorker exploring what Shakespeare taught him when he was growing up Jewish in America in the 1940s and 50s. Believe it or not, he has positive things to say about The Merchant of Venice.

Greenblatt encountered blatant anti-Semitism as a freshman at Yale in 1961 and, when he began to take literature courses, was further shocked to discover anti-immigrant sentiments in Henry James and anti-Semitic sentiments in the revered T. S. Eliot. For instance, in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Eliot “conjured up the primal ooze” from which he saw Jews emerging:

A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.

From Eliot’s mention of Venice’s Rialto, Greenblatt segues to Merchant of Venice, the most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays, which is set there. Greenblatt notes the confusion we feel as we watch the play:

What, exactly, are you applauding and smiling at? How are you supposed to view the Jewish daughter who robs her father and bestows the money on her fortune-hunting Christian suitor? Do you join in the raucous laughter of the Christians who mock and spit on the Jew? Or do you secretly condone Shylock’s vindictive, malignant rage? Where are you, at the end of the harrowing scene in the courtroom, when Portia asks the man she has outmaneuvered and ruined whether he agrees to the terms she has dictated, terms that include the provision that he immediately become a Christian? “Art thou contented, Jew?” she prods. “What dost thou say?” And what do you think the Jew actually feels when he answers, “I am content”?

Greenblatt says that, when he was a college student, he decided he would grapple with “the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright.” Doing so meant that, while he wouldn’t allowed himself to be crushed by anti-Semitism, he also wouldn’t adopt the defensive posture of his parents. He was determined to confront what was toxic in the culture as well as what was nurturing. As a teacher, he tries to get his students to do the same:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueller strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents….I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

What he learned is that this culture is a mixed bag. It must be studied, the bad as well as the good, because it shapes who we are:

What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.

The task derives from the kind of creatures that we are. We arrive in the world only partially formed; a culture that has been in the making for hundreds of thousands of years will form the rest. And that culture will inevitably contain much that is noxious as well as beneficent. No one is exempt—not the Jew or the Muslim, of course, but also not the Cockney or the earl or the person whose ancestors came to America on the Mayflower or, for that matter, the person whose ancestors were Algonquins or Laplanders. Our species’ cultural birthright is a mixed blessing. It is what makes us fully human, but being fully human is a difficult work in progress. 

Greenblatt admits that Shakespeare absorbed some of the anti-Semitism of his day, which accounts for the problematic aspects to Merchant of Venice. Where Shakespeare surprises, however, is giving unexpected touches of humanity to even his villains. Greenblatt says that, although making Shylock three-dimensional threatens to disrupt the plot, Shakespeare couldn’t help himself:

The life that sweeps across the stage here includes, as well, sudden glimpses into parts of an existence that the plot by itself did not demand. When Shylock learns that his daughter exchanged a turquoise ring for a monkey—a turquoise ring that she stole from him, and that had been a gift from his dead wife, Leah, his anguish is unmistakable. “Thou torturest me,” he tells the friend who brought him the news. “It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Greenblatt acknowledges that, while such touches don’t offset the play’s anti-Semitism, they do unsettle it:

Are such glimpses enough to do away with hatred of the other? Not at all. But they begin an unsettling from within. Even now, more than four centuries later, the unsettling that the play provokes remains a beautiful and disturbing experience.

Shakespeare himself may have found it disturbing. He set out, it seems, to write a straightforward comedy, borrowed from Giovanni Fiorentino’s novella “Il Pecorone” (“The Big Sheep”), only to find himself increasingly drawn into the soul of the despised other. Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.

Greenblatt observes that this occurs in other plays as well:

It wasn’t the only time in his work that this excess of life had occurred. The playwright is said to have remarked that in “Romeo and Juliet” he had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play, and he ran a similar risk with characters like Jack Cade, Aaron the Moor, Malvolio, and Caliban. Indeed, the ability to enter deeply—too deeply, for the purposes of the plot—into almost every character he deployed was a signature. It accounts for the startling vividness of Adriana, the neglected wife in “The Comedy of Errors”; Bottom the Weaver, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in “Hamlet”; Cornwall’s brave servant, in “King Lear”; and many others. It helps explain the strange illusion that certain of his characters have lives independent of the play in which they appear. And it contributes to the moral and aesthetic complexity that characterizes so many of his plays. Consider, for example, the fact that for centuries critics have debated whether Brutus is the hero or the villain of “Julius Caesar.” In Oskar Eustis’s controversial production of the play last month, in Central Park, audiences chortled at a Trump-like despot—but were then brought up short by the horror of what befalls him, the carnage born of self-steeling righteousness. What leads to disaster is Brutus’s ideological decision to think of Caesar not as a human being at all but, rather, as “a serpent’s egg,” and therefore to “kill him in the shell.”

How did Shakespeare achieve such three-dimensionality? Greenblatt says that the Bard was constitutionally incapable of settling for anything less. Like Martin Luther, he could do no other:

Even after a lifetime of studying Shakespeare, I cannot always tell you precisely how he achieved this extraordinary life-making. I sometimes picture him attaching his characters like leeches to his arms and allowing them to suck his lifeblood.

Percy Shelley, in his brilliant Defense of Poetry, sees great literature as ultimately liberating because it captures the complexity of individuals in a way that political systems cannot. Greenblatt says something along those lines when he discusses how Shakespeare releases the imagination to see the humanity in even those we would demonize and marginalize:

The conferral of life is one of the essential qualities of the human imagination. Since very few of us are endowed with great genius, it is important to understand that the quality of which I am speaking is to some degree democratically shared. Ideologies of various kinds contrive to limit our ability to enter into the experience of another, and there are works of art that are complicit in these ideologies. More generous works of art serve to arouse, organize, and enhance that ability. Shakespeare’s works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake.

This is why literature generally and Shakespeare specifically should be required reading for all of us. As Greenblatt eloquently puts it,

What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.

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

Brecht Explains Castile Shooting

The gun that is about to shoot Philando Castile


Of the many things we can predict with absolute certainty, one appears to be that juries will acquit police officers charged with shooting innocent people of color. Most recently, a Minnesota jury acquitted an officer for shooting Philando Castile, who tried to follow proper procedure when stopped for a broken taillight and still ended up dead.

Before then, it was a Tulsa officer shooting a stranded motorist, a Pennsylvania police officer shooting an unarmed motorist in the back as he lay face down in the snow, a Cleveland officer shooting a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun, and so on.

To understand what is going on, there’s no better explanation than one offered up by Bertolt Brecht in his play The Exception and the Rule (1957).

Before examining the play, let’s take a quick walk through recent history. The New York Times provides a list of what happened to the officer in 15 of the latest cases where innocent blacks were killed by the police or died in police custody:

Fired – 5 cases
Indicted or charged – 8 cases
Settlement reached – 8 cases
Officer convicted/pleaded guilty – 2 cases

In Brecht’s play, an entrepreneur is racing across a desert to be the first to lay claim to a valuable oil concession. He drives his coolie very hard and then, when the coolie offers him some of his water, shoots him because he thinks the canteen is a rock and that his life is in danger. The play concludes with a judge acquitting him of the killing and offering the following explanation:

The court finds proved that the coolie approached his master not with a stone but with a water-bottle. This fact established, however, the court takes as more reasonable the view that the coolie was about to attack his master with the bottle, and not that he was offering him water. The porter belonged to a class of men which has, after all, grounds for supposing itself exploited. For such a man it would be a matter of common wit to defend himself in face of an inequitable distribution of the water. Indeed it might even seem a matter of justice to such people as the coolie, limited and prejudiced as their outlook is by its dependence on mere reality, to revenge themselves against their tormentor. It must be said that, in the last analysis, they have nothing to lose. The merchant belongs to a different class from that of the porter. He could only anticipate the worst. He could not credit that the porter whom he had ill-treated, as he himself has said, would offer him an act of friendship. His common wit told him that he was in the greatest danger. The isolated nature of the area must have caused him great anxiety. The distance from the police and the restraint of the law would encourage his servant to demand his share of the water. The accused therefore acted in justifiable self-defense regardless of whether he was actually threatened or merely believed himself to be threatened. In the circumstances as established it was inevitable that he should believe himself threatened. The case is therefore dismissed and the widow’s claim fails.

The situation parallels the Castile shooting. When Castile was stopped, he tried to be cooperative and informed the officer that he had a licensed firearm in the car.He then reached into his glove compartment to get the demanded registration papers.

Perhaps the officer was like the businessman in Brecht’s play and figured that a black man felt towards him like he felt towards black men. Or perhaps he sensed that, because Castile was a victim of racism, Castile must be itching to shoot him, requiring him to shoot first. (“The porter belonged to a class of men which has, after all, grounds for supposing itself exploited.”) The jury may well have reached the same conclusion as the judge: “In the circumstances as established it was inevitable that he should believe himself threatened.”

“The circumstances as established” is what people today mean by “systemic racism.” Individuals are caught up in a larger system of paranoia and projection, making it practically inevitable that these shootings will occur. Brecht’s parable style makes the point that individual personalities don’t matter that much.

At the end of the play, the actors form a chorus and plead for us not to normalize such behavior. We can imagine a Black Lives Matter member delivering the speech:

You have heard and you have seen.
You saw the normal, that which happens every day.
But please, we say to you now:
Even when ordinary, find it strange
Even when familiar, find it inexplicable
Even when quite normal, it must astound you
Even when the rule, recognize it as an abuse
And whenever you have recognized abuse
Put it right!

In other words, do everything you can to keep from taking such shootings for granted. Continue to be astounded, even though such killings and acquittals happen again and again. Act collectively in an attempt to change the reality.

Posted in Brecht (Bertolt) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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

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