Trauma = Sense of Entitlement Violated

Cover photo for “Valley of Amazement”


As a white straight male, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my privilege has blinded me to reality. I now realize that a sheltered life has led me to believe that justice will ultimately prevail and that checks exist on abuses of power. “The GOP wouldn’t dare do something like this,” I have found myself periodically saying, only to see them do it.

I am learning from ex-Republican David Frum that “if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”  People of color, operating from experience, have known this for a while.

As the GOP packs the courts with rightwing justices who will support nationwide voter suppression efforts and otherwise tilt the decks to give themselves perpetual power, I at least sense how the other half has been living. I thought about this recently while reading Amy Tan’s 2013 novel The Valley of Amazement.

That’s because we see a character accustomed to privilege suddenly have everything stripped from her. Raised in turn-of-the-century Shanghai by a mother who runs a high-class house of courtesans, Violet suddenly learns how it feels to be one of the people she has felt superior to.

Throughout her childhood, Violet takes pride in the fact that she is American and white, seeing these as markers that set her apart from the courtesans and the servants. To differentiate herself, at times she even pretends that she doesn’t speak fluent Chinese.

Her easy superiority starts crumbling when she discovers her father is Chinese. The scene occurs when a courtesan usurps her chair and then spills secrets:

“What makes you think you’re the only one who can sit here?”

“Lulu Mimi is my mother” I added, “and I’m an American like her.”

“Since when do half-breed American bastards have the same rights?”

I was shocked. Rage was rising from my throat…I sputtered to Misty Cloud, “You’re a worm in a dead fish ass.” The maids burst into laughter.

Wah! The half-breed has such a foul mouth,” Misty Cloud said. She looked around the table to the others. “If she’s not a half-breed, how is it that she looks Chinese?”

“How dare you say that!” I cried. “I’m American. There’s nothing Chinese about me.”

“Then why are you speaking Chinese?”

I could not answer at first, because if I did, I would be speaking in Chinese again and give her the upper hand.

Eventually Violet admits her Chinese half but that isn’t the end of it. At 14 she is kidnapped and sold to a second-class courtesan house. Attempts to play the American card prove futile:

I struggled and shouted, and to everyone I saw—the people on the road, the gatekeeper, the menservants, the maids—I warned that if they did not obey me, my mother would later have them jailed for kidnapping. They gave me blank-faced stares. Why didn’t they obey? How dare they treat a foreigner this way…

My heart was racing and panic choked my throat. “I’m a foreigner,” I squawked in Chinese. “You are not allowed to do this to me…” The courtesans and little maids stared back.

“How peculiar that she speaks Chinese,” a maid whispered.

Later, her attempts at leverage receive a sarcastic reply:

“My mother is a very important American,” I said to the madam. “If you do not let me go this instant, she will have you convicted in an American court of law and your house will be closed forever.”

“Yes, we know all about your mother. Lulu Mimi. Such an important woman.”

All proves for naught and Violet undergoes a lengthy reeducation process. Even though she eventually surrenders, a couple of years later a patron still must chide her for trying to regain her “Yankee privilege.” She must relinquish entirely her sense of entitlement.

Violet thinks she has power and then learns that she doesn’t. As one who lives a privileged life, I can’t say we are in the same boat, but I am gaining a better sense of what it means to have things one believes in systematically stripped away.

And what about those who, unlike Violet, still have leverage? Don’t underestimate how far they will go to protect their power and their wealth.

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Imagining Little Ocean’s Future

Thomas Moran, “Sunset at Sea”


I’m currently visiting Buford, Georgia to help out my daughter-in-law, who has just given birth to her first boy after three girls. I’m here to cover her film history classes until she returns to the classroom in two weeks.

With each of my grandchildren, I’ve written a post about his or her name. Alban (Darien’s one and only child) was easy given the importance of Albion in William Blake’s cosmology, and Esmé conjured up Salinger’s fabulous short story “To Esmé with Love and Squalor.” (I wrote about the two of them here.)

Etta was more of a challenge but I took advantage of the fact that she shares a birthday with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and cited a wonderful motherhood passage from Aurora Leigh. Eden was easy as I turned to Milton’s luscious descriptions of the garden before the fall and then, for extra effect, cited one of Lucille Clifton’s Garden of Eden poems:

into the unborn world
chaos fell away
before her like a cloud
and everywhere seemed light

seemed glorious
seemed very eden

Ocean Hugh Wilson-Bates offers a special challenge because ocean imagery is found everywhere, with wildly varying associations. At first, I thought the task would be easy because I assumed that my English PhD son Tobias, named after 18th author Tobias Smollett (my dissertation subject) and Uncle Toby Shandy (from Laurence Sterne’s novel), was naming his child either Oisin or Ossian, who is a great poet and warrior in Irish folklore. The 18th century’s James MacPherson claimed to have discovered poems by a medieval Oisin (he actually adapted Irish ballads and added his own material), and William Butler Yeats wrote a poetic epic entitled The Wanderings of Oison. But “Oison” is not pronounced “Ocean,” which is what Tobias and Candice wanted, so they opted for the conventional spelling.

Could Ocean be linked with Byron’s “Roll on thou deep and dark blue ocean roll, ten thousand ships sweep over thee in vain”? He would be an inexorable force if that were the case. Or will he be Coleridgean quiet, “as idle as a painted ship/upon a painted ocean”? Will he fit the mold of Freud’s “oceanic feelings,” which are a sense of a mystical connectedness with the universe? Or will he experience the longing of Whitman’s restless sea:

O madly the sea pushes, pushes upon the land
With love–with love.

You see what I mean about the wide range of possibilities.

I think I’ll go with John Mansfield’s visceral longing in “Sea Fever“—”I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”—which has the advantage of capturing some of the reasoning behind the name. Candice is originally from Trinidad and sometimes longs for her island home. Adding her father’s name provides a pun—ocean hue—which brings to mind Trinidad’s greatest poet.

Nobel Prize-winning Derek Walcott wrote constantly about the ocean’s changing appearances. For instance, he says of Odysseus, that

The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam…

Flying away from the island he loves, meanwhile, leads him to see the ocean as follows:

I watched the island narrowing the fine
writing of foam around the precipices then
the roads as small and casual as twine
thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane
turned to the final north and turned above
The open channel with the grey sea between
The fishermen’s islets until all that I love
Folded in cloud; I watched the shallow green
That broke in places where there would be reef,
The silver glinting on the fuselage, each mile
Dividing us and all fidelity strained
Till space would snap it. Then, after a while
I thought of nothing; nothing, I prayed, would change;
When we set down at Seawell, it had rained.

If, as Tristram Shandy’s father believed, names are destiny, maybe little Ocean will grow up to be a dreamer and a seeker. Maybe he will have depths upon depths, rejecting (as Robinson Crusoe does) the safe “middle way” in search of some grander destiny. Maybe his life will be marked by exploration and we will indeed speak of  the wanderings of Oison. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” Zora Neale Hurston writes to open Their Eyes Were Watching God.

We can’t know little Ocean’s future, of course. But it’s fun to imagine what lies beyond the horizon.

Posted in Browning (Elizabeth Barrett), Byron (Lord Gordon), Clifton (Lucille), MacPherson (James), Masefield (John), Sterne (Lawrence), Walcott (Derek), Whitman (Walt), Yeats (William Butler) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Searching for God in Suffering

Blake, Job and his so-called “Comforters”

Spiritual Sunday

Like many, I am challenged by the Book of Job, which has provided the Old Testament reading for the past three Sundays. Of course, nothing is more baffling than why bad things happen to good people, at least if you believe in a benevolent deity. Milton grapples with this question when, in Paradise Lost, he seeks to “justify the ways of God to man.” The Book of Job wrestles with it in its own way.

To gain some insight, I turned to Archibald MacLeish’s 1956 verse play J.B. I can’t do full justice to the work in this post, but here are some thoughts. Just as Job rejects conventional explanations for suffering in the Old Testament, MacLeish has modern versions of Job’s so-called comforters in J.B. These are “friends” who show up when Job is diseased and forlorn.

In The Book of Job, the three friends find ways to rationalize what has happened to him. Since one shouldn’t question God, they conclude that the fault must lie in Job. They can’t acknowledge that, as Job puts it, God “destroys both the blameless and the wicked.” They refuse to accept that “there is no justice” or that the wicked often prosper (“the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power”). There will not grant to Job the right “to argue my case with God.” They recite by rote shallow platitudes.

In J.B., the comforters are History, Science, and Religion. (When Job asks, “Why have you come?” Bildad/History sarcastically replies, “For comfort, Big Boy. Didn’t you ring?”) The comfort they offer is modern-day explanations. History informs J.B. that individuals, whether innocent or guilty, are ground up in its mill, and Science provides a similarly impersonal account of human evolution. Zophar/Religion, however, informs him that all humans are guilty and so deserve whatever they get. To this J.B. replies,

Yours is the cruelest comfort of them all,
Making the Creator of the Universe
The miscreator of mankind–
A party to the crimes He punishes…

Making my sin…

                             a horror…

                                               a deformity…

Religion answers,

If it were otherwise we could not bear it…
Without the fault, without the Fall
We’re madmen: all of us are madmen…

J.B. banishes the three comforters for failing to adequately address his suffering, at which point MacLeish has God, as in Job, speak to him out of a whirlwind. The poetry is magnificent (“Where wast thou/When I laid the foundations of the earth?”) but neither the play’s Satan figure (Nickles) nor its God figure (Mr. Zuss) are satisfied. Mr. Zuss objects to how J.B. arrogantly forgives God:

        Then, he calmed me!
Gentled me the way a farmhand
Gentles a big, bulging bull!
Forgave me!…

                          For the world!…
                                                       for everything!

And further on:

…In spite of everything he’d suffered!
In spite of all he’d lost and loved
He understood and he forgave it!…

MacLeish, I think, is getting at how Job becomes a bigger person when he acknowledges the bigness of God, even when that bigness includes human suffering. It’s something I’ve noticed in Greek tragedies as well: while humans work within god-run systems, the divinities can never be more than a system. By contrast, humans like Oedipus or Agave have room to grow, even in their suffering. In that way, they are bigger than their fate. Especially in their suffering.

Nickles/Satan is not all that impressed with God’s complaints about Job’s arrogance:

His suppurating flesh–his children–
Let’s not talk about those children–
Everything he ever had!
And all he asks is answers of the universe:
All he asks is reasons why–
Why? Why? And God replies to him:
God comes whirling in the wind replying–
What? That God knows more than he does.
That God’s more powerful than he!–
Throwing the whole creation at him!
Throwing the Glory and the Power!
What’s the Power to a broken man
Trampled beneath it like a toad already?
What’s the Glory to a skin that stinks!
And this ham actor!—what does he do?
How does he play Job to that?
“Thank you!” “I’m a worm!” Take two!”
Plays the way a sheep would play it–
Pious, contemptible, goddam sheep
Without the spunk to spit on Christmas!

But Nickles doesn’t have better suggestions on how Job should respond, suggesting only suicide. That, he says, would be a way to get back at God.

The answer the play gives, however, has an element of divinity in it, even though the God figure isn’t part of it. Job reconnects with Sarah his wife, who earlier counseled him to “curse God and die.” She left him, she says, because

I couldn’t help you any more.
You wanted justice and there was none–
Only love.

Peering into the darkness of his suffering, J. B. says, “It’s too dark to see,” to which she replies,

Then blow on the coal of the heart, my darling.

        It’s all the light now.

Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by…

We’ll see where we are.
The wit won’t burn and the wet soul smolders.
Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll know…
We’ll know…

When I had my own Job moment—when my 21-year-old son Justin died in a freak drowning accident—I didn’t blame God only because I didn’t see God operating in our lives in this way. As I saw it, God was more a framework than an intervener.

MacLeish’s play, however, has opened my eyes to where God was. God was in the love of my wife and my other two sons and all my family and friends. I will remember until the day I die certain embraces I had with Julia.

It was love that kept me from becoming cold and brittle. I agree with Nickles that God’s magnificence doesn’t impress. But God can also enter into the most private moments of intimacy. Jesus understood such an intimate God and I catch glimpses of this God as well.

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Poetry vs. Saudi Atrocities


I have shared this Carolyn Forché atrocity poem in the past when Trump wanted to reinstate CIA black sites and bring back waterboarding,  but I didn’t think I would ever apply it to actual dismemberments. This is where we are, however, so I’m posting it again.

The Saudis dismembered Washington Post journalist and American permanent resident, perhaps when he was still alive:

Saudi agents were waiting when Jamal Khashoggi walked into their country’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago. Mr. Khashoggi was dead within minutes, beheaded, dismembered, his fingers severed, and within two hours the killers were gone, according to details from audio recordings described by a senior Turkish official on Wednesday.

Donald Trump, who openly admits to relying on Saudi money in his business enterprises, is trying out different cover-up stories to let Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) off the hook. The rest of the world marvels at the prince’s brazenness, not only in this instance, but in others as well (remember the virtual kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister last year).  Forché’s poem may provide insight into MBS’s mindset.

Forche´took a trip to El Salvador in the 1980s to see for herself the dictatorship at work. At one point, she had dinner with a military colonel, during which time the following took place:

The Colonel

By Carolyn Forché

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. 

The poem shows a leader believing he can do whatever he wants with impunity, which is easier when one has American backing. El Salvador’s military junta had such support during the Reagan years, just as Saudi Arabia and Israel have it now. Those bolstered by the world’s most powerful country can afford to tell people to “go fuck themselves.” In fact, they find it exhilarating.

This explains why so many in the GOP are hypnotized by Trump at the moment. Where other politicians might squirm, he simply shrugs his shoulders at the latest appalling act, such as mocking Dr. Blasey Ford at a rally. Other Republicans are taking note how he escapes any accountability, as are a number of ordinary Americans, who are letting their bigot flags fly.

In the poem, note how the son and daughter act as though nothing amiss. They could just as well be Trump’s wealthy supporters, not to mention his family, as they overlook threats of menacing violence (broken bottles, a moon that swings like a single lightbulb in a torture chamber). The papers, pets, and television program suggest normality.

Mixed in with the normalcy, however, is a pistol on the pillow and iron grates on the windows, contradicting the elegance of the meal and the casual conversation.

Then the colonel appears with his paper bag, and the horror spills out into the open.

The severed ears function as witnesses, as does Forché’s. We need such truthtelling, even as Trump seeks to undermine it. Dictators can be brazen only when they have terrorized people into silence.

Further thought: For a fine article on how Trump and his followers get off on cruelty, check out Adam Sewer’s article in Atlantic: “The Cruelty Is the Point: President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear”

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Returning to the Misty Past

Sewanee fog


I’m still trying to figure out what it means to have come home to retire. Home, in my case, is the town of Sewanee, Tennessee, where I grew up and which I left when I turned 18, returning only for vacations and once for a year-long journalism stint (when I was 23). My friend John Gatta has been helping me understand what home means through his book Spirits of Place in American Literary Culture.

Noting that “no single word in English is more pervasively evocative than ‘home,'” Gatta examines various authors who have explored its meaning. For instance, he cites Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, in which first Glory and then her brother Jack return home, each seeking some kind of stability. Jack, who rebelled against the small Iowa town, returns hoping that it will accept his union with a woman of color (the year is 1956). As Gatta notes, the act of homecoming speaks to “our insatiable longing for things enduring and ultimate.”

He also cautions, as Jack discovers, that “our mortal experience always falls short of [a place’s] promise.” The tolerant Iowa that Jack dreams of does not exist, and Gatta observes that “stories of homecoming…typically reveal more irony and pain than they do solace and blessing.”

Gatta mentions various religious authors who have described God as our final home. Only God can satisfy the “repining restlessness” of George Herbert, a phrase that appears in “The Pulley.” God in Herbert’s poem believes that only “weariness” will “toss him to my breast.” Only after we have thrashed, Herbert writes in “The Collar,” will we hear God calling:

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild 
          At every word, 
Methought I heard one calling, Child! 

          And I replied My Lord.

Gatta also quotes the final words of Augustine St. Clair in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Augustine, sorely conflicted and self-estranged, ends up countering at the point of death a doctor’s judgment that “’His mind is wandering.’ “No!” he insists, “It is coming HOME, at last!…At last! At last!”

Home takes on mythical dimensions in The Odyssey. Odysseus lives a life of ease on Calypso’s island but, after seven years, is so overcome by homesickness that he risks death at sea. This in spite of being warned, by the dead Agamemnon, about what could await him.  In Odysseus’s case, the longing is combined with a sense of duty, articulated by Zeus’s declaration that he has the higher destiny of kingship to fulfill.

Moving away from religion, John turns to Robert Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man,” where a man returns to his former work place in order to die. The husband cynically observes that home is

simply a last-ditch endpoint of life, nothing more than that “place where, when you go there,/They have to take you in.”

His wife, however, finds something more transcendent in the hired man’s return, saying, “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” Gatta notes that this resembles Christian notions of grace:

Something simply given, if experienced at all, rather than earned or deserved. For Christians, home viewed in this light carries unmistakable overtones of fittedness, of sacramental grace. Potentially, at least, home or another version of hallowed place qualifies as an incarnational sign of the numinous…

Gatta’s discussion of home thus highlights the central thesis of his book, which is that we assign spiritual significance to certain locales. Literature plays a major role in this process, manifesting

an enduring yet variegated fascination with spirits of place, often identified with those unfathomable, unmappable tokens of mysterious presence we either discover within, or attribute to certain sites more than others.

What light does this cast on my own decision to return to Sewanee? Every morning when I walk from my mother’s guest house to the big house, I marvel in prayerful silence at the overarching forest canopy, which is often punctuated by birdsong and the rat-a-tat-tat of pileated woodpeckers in the distance. Sewanee’s famous fog, some of which we experienced yesterday morning, renders everything mystical, all the more so because I remember if from my childhood. I do indeed feel that I am walking on hallowed ground.

“Home is where one starts from,” T. S. writes in an “East Coker” passage that Gatta quotes and then later, “In my beginning is my end.” Gatta writes,

Such domus-honoring conviction supposes in turn that where we live, especially in our primal dwelling, is a place enveloped in something like a palpable force field of spiritual energy.

To further capture the experience I am having, I add Eliot’s well-known passage from “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 

As I seek to know the place for the first time, I can’t say how much of my strong connection to Sewanee is due to the fact that my 93-year-old mother is still living. Will some link be broken when she passes on? Or will the bond with place become yet stronger because I will sense her presence in the surroundings. I regularly think of my father’s love for the woods when I’m out hiking so I think it may be the latter.

As he surveys the Wye River from a gorgeous spot a few miles above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth imagines how his sister will experience this place once he is no longer around. I imagine my parents passing on to me the poet’s advice to Dorothy, reminding me

That on the banks of this delightful stream 
We stood together; and that I, so long 
A worshipper of Nature, hither came 
Unwearied in that service: rather say 
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal 
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget, 
That after many wanderings, many years 
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs, 
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me 
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake! 

Gatta is right that we invest certain places with mystical significance. Home is always more than just home.

Posted in Herbert (George), Homer, Robinson (Marilynne), Stowe (Harriet Beecher), Wordsworth (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Befouling America’s Future

Charles Folkard, Detecting palace corruption in “Princess and Curdie”


When I was a child, one of my favorite fantasy novels was George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie (1883), which is about a miner’s son who journeys to a corrupt city, saves the good king from his evil counselors, and marries the princess, whom he has met in the previous novel (The Princess and the Goblin). The ending is an unexpected downer, however: Curdie and Irene have no children and their successor squanders the kingdom’s resources so that the country literally comes to a crashing end.

MacDonald could be writing about the way that Donald Trump is squandering America’s and the world’s resources while letting subsequent generations fend for themselves.

I’m thinking mostly of climate change, of course, but also of how Trump has decided to blow up the deficit to satisfy America’s financial elite (including himself), thereby jeopardizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I could also mention how he’s plundering our national parks, alienating long-time allies, and throwing the markets into chaos with his tariff shenanigans. Pray that he doesn’t start a war to to distract us from the Mueller probe.

Before turning to MacDonald’s concluding image, however, I should mention how Curdie drains his country’s swamp given the non-stop financial scandals involving Trump and those around him. Curdie has been given special powers to detect fraud by Irene’s fairy godmother, who has him plunge his hands into her “fire of roses.” As a result, he can detect a person’s character simply by touching him or her. For instance, here he is testing the king’s physician, who is secretly poisoning him:

But when he took hold of [the physician’s hand], Curdie very nearly let him fall again, for what he held was not even a foot: it was the belly of a creeping thing. He managed, however, to hold both his peace and his grasp, and pulled the doctor roughly on his legs—such as they were.

Curdie commands a troop of monsters known as “the Uglies,” and in an immensely satisfying chapter they swarm all over the palace and either capture or expel those he has identified as corrupt. Would that it were this easy.

But back to squandering. As a miner, Curdie discovers gold beneath the capital city, and when he becomes king he carefully uses this precious resource to undo the damage wrought by the king’s counselors. His successor is less prudent:

Irene and Curdie were married. The old king died, and they were king and queen. As long as they lived Gwyntystorm was a better city, and good people grew in it. But they had no children, and when they died the people chose a king. And the new king went mining and mining in the rock under the city, and grew more and more eager after the gold, and paid less and less heed to his people. Rapidly they sank toward their old wickedness.

In this attack on Victorian materialism, MacDonald concludes the novel with an apocalyptic image:

But still the king went on mining, and coining gold by the pailful, until the people were worse even than in the old time. And so greedy was the king after gold, that when at last the ore began to fail, he caused the miners to reduce the pillars which Peter [Curdie’s father] and they that followed him had left standing to bear the city. And from the girth of an oak of a thousand years, they chipped them down to that of a fir tree of fifty.

One day at noon, when life was at its highest, the whole city fell with a roaring crash. The cries of men and the shrieks of women went up with its dust, and then there was a great silence.

Where the mighty rock once towered, crowded with homes and crowned with a palace, now rushes and raves a stone-obstructed rapid of the river. All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer, and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.

The very name of America will not cease from the lips of men (or women) if Trumpism prevails. We’ll hear a lot of cries and shrieks, however.

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U.S. Is Still Fighting the Civil War

Lt. Col. Chamberlain and Maine regiment at Gettysburg


I have a love-hate relationship with the American south, not unlike James Joyce’s ambivalent relationship with Ireland. We moved to Sewanee, Tennessee when I was three, and I fled from it at 18, appalled by the racism. Yet after spending fifty years in blue states (Minnesota and Maryland) and a blue city (Atlanta), I’m returning to my childhood home.

This time, I’m determined to understand it better, even as I continue to witness overt and unapologetic expressions of racism on a weekly basis. To that end, I have just completed Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s fictional account of the Battle of Gettysburg.

As this is a literary rather than a history blog, I won’t go into the historical material other than to note that I was surprised to see how badly Robert E. Lee comes off. The North’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Buford and the South’s James Longstreet are the heroes. Instead, I focus on a point that is relevant today: although the war was clearly about slavery, no one on the southern side will admit it. Instead, everyone claims that it is about freedom (white freedom, of course) and states’ rights.

Today, no one in the GOP will admit that, when they say freedom, they mean white entitlement.

Shaara makes clear that the elephant in the southern room is America’s original sin. As Chamberlain’s brother puts it,

“When you ask them prisoners, they never talk about slavery. But, Lawrence, how do you explain that? What else is the war about?”

Chamberlain shook his head.

“If it weren’t for the slaves, there’d never have been no war, now would there?”

“No,” Chamberlain said.

“Well then, I don’t care how much political fast-talking you hear, that’s what it’s all about and that’s what them fellers died for, and I tell you, Lawrence, I don’t understand it at all.”

We see the southern generals reluctant to talk about slavery as they debate with an Englishman. George Pickett explains what sets them off:

“Well, Jim Kemper kept needling our English friend about why they didn’t come and join in with us, it being in their interest and all, and the Englishman said that it was a very touchy subject, since most Englishmen figured the war was all about, ah, slavery, and then old Kemper got a bit outraged and had to explain how wrong he was and Sorrel and some others joined in, but no harm done.”

 “Damn fool,” Kemper said. “He still thinks it’s about slavery.”

Note how this debate never acknowledges that the southern economy relies on involuntary servitude:

Longstreet caught the conclusion of Sorrel’s sentence.

“…know that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. Every government, everywhere. And, sir, let me make this plain: We do not consent. We will never consent.”

They stood up as Longstreet approached. Sorrel’s face was flushed. Jim Kemper was not finished with the argument, Longstreet or not. To Fremantle he went on: “You must tell them, and make it plain, that what we are fighting for is our freedom from the rule of what is to us a foreign government. That’s all we want and that’s what this war is all about. We established this country in the first place with strong state governments just for that reason, to avoid a central tyranny.”

Now contrast this vision with Chamberlain’s:

The faith itself was simple; he believed in the dignity of man. His ancestors were Huguenots, refugees of a chained and bloody Europe. He had learned their stories in the cradle. He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth. But it had begun HERE. The fact of slavery upon this incredibly beautiful new clean earth was appalling, but more even than that was the horror of old Europe, the curse of nobility, which the South was transplanting to new soil. They were forming a new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men, and Chamberlain had come to crush it. But he was fighting for the dignity of man and in that way he was fighting for himself. If men were equal in America, all the former Poles and English and Czechs and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as foreigner; there were only free men and slaves. And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.

To this, Chamberlain’s Irish companion adds a more personal understanding of the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”:

What I’m fighting for is the right to prove I’m a better man than many….There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice. ‘Tis why I’m here. I’ll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I’m Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen. I don’t know who me father was, and I don’t give a damn. There’s only one aristocracy, and that’s right here—” he tapped his white skull with a thick finger…

And further on:

“The point is that we have a country here where the past cannot keep a good man in chains, and that’s the nature of the war. It’s the aristocracy I’m after. All that lovely, plumed, stinking chivalry. The people who look at you like a piece of filth, a coachroach, ah.” His face twitched to stark bitterness. “I tell you, Colonel, we got to win this war.”

We have a version of this same war going on today. Many who vote Republican do not benefit economically from doing so, just as poor southern whites did not own slaves. But feeling superior to slaves was part of their core identity, and today I’m witnessing a comparable need. Since moving to Tennessee, I have encountered several instances of people–those who come to do odd jobs around our house–complaining about lazy or dirty blacks. I sense that they do so to bolster their self-respect, which relies on there being someone beneath them. Such sentiments explain why today’s economic elite, much like the South’s 19th century patrician class, can get them to dance to their tune.

As Washington Post’s Philip Bump put it, in Donald Trump’s two track strategy “the rich get richer and the poor get distracted.” Only the strategy precedes Trump, having been operative for the GOP since Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

Therefore I think Toni Morrison is right to attribute Trumpism to white panic. We’re still fighting the Civil War, with our millionaires once again playing the race card–ordering Pickett charges–to protect their privilege and wealth. Meanwhile, white liberals in the mode of Chamberlain are joining forces with people of color, the modern versions of Kilrain.

Our Gettysburg is November 6, 2018.

Clarification: I should note that I have encountered much racism in the north as well. My thought that I could escape it by going to college in Minnesota proved to be an illusion. To give a few examples, when I landed my first job (in Cambridge, Minnesota), I was told a racist joke on the first day. In my second job, my editor told me about how blacks smelled worse than whites. When I attended a Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) caucus in 1974, I heard Democrats advocating sterilization of welfare mothers in Chicago. The problem goes deeper than the south.

Posted in Shaara (Michael) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

At Last We Have Water, Water Everywhere

Gustave Doré, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


For those following our plumbing travails, I can report that we once again have water and are taking showers, washing dishes, and doing the laundry. To cite an e. e. cummings image, all is puddle-wonderful again, with the puddles being confined to the places where they are supposed to be. There will be city water bills to pay now that we’re no longer getting our water from our lake, but that seems a small price to pay.

The passage that comes to mind is the Ancient Mariner’s ecstasy over the peace that follows his albatross depression. Recall that he has been without water ever since he gratuitously killed the bird, so much so that one encounters such horrific images as

And every tongue, through utter drought, 
Was withered at the root; 
We could not speak, no more than if 
We had been choked with soot. 

Once he blesses the water snakes, however—in other words, once he acknowledges his connection with God’s creation in all its manifestations—he feels whole again. The wholeness is symbolized through sleep, a feeling of lightness, and (most important for me at the moment) water:

Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing, 
Beloved from pole to pole! 
To Mary Queen the praise be given! 
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, 
That slid into my soul. 

The silly buckets on the deck, 
That had so long remained, 
I dreamt that they were filled with dew; 
And when I awoke, it rained. 

My lips were wet, my throat was cold, 
My garments all were dank; 
Sure I had drunken in my dreams, 
And still my body drank. 

I moved, and could not feel my limbs: 
I was so light—almost 
I thought that I had died in sleep, 
And was a blessed ghost. 

Yes, our relief feels something like this.

Posted in Coleridge (Samuel Taylor) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Spirituality in Nature

Spiritual Sunday

I am excited about my friend John Gatta’s most recent book, Spirits of Place in American Literary Culture, which is a worthy successor to a book of his that I wrote about earlier this year (Making Nature Sacred). Exploring what it means, “existentially and spiritually, for human beings to inhabit a particular site or dwelling place on this earth,” John argues that it is “imperative to recover humanity’s connection with some form of sacred geography.” He believes that

the health, if not survival, of our increasingly urbanized civilization depends on finding means to reclaim the original ground of our being in spiritually revitalized earth.

At one point John cites Max Weber’s belief that “post-Enlightenment rationalism” has led to “an all-but-inevitable disenchantment of the world,” but he looks at authors who counter this. Some of them do so in explicitly religious terms, such as Barry Lopez, Wendell Barry, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder. For the Buddhist Snyder, John writes,

the “real work” falling to inhabitants of the United States is that of “becoming native to North America,” learning to accept primary citizenship in “the continent itself,” its land and creatures, rather than in the nation state. To feel at home in this land, Snyder insists, one must aspire to know it from the ground up. He believes that “to know the spirit of a place” likewise calls for a realization “that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made up of parts, each of which is whole.”

 John connects Snyder’s ideas with the Romans’ “genius loci” (spirit of place), often symbolized by gods associated with rivers, streams and groves. This hit home with me as I recently finished The Aeneid and was struck by Virgil’s many examples. For instance, a symbolic serpent appears at the shrine that Aeneas constructs for his father Anchises:

And as he finished speaking, a huge serpent
Slid over the ground, seven shining loops, surrounding
The Tomb, peacefully gliding around the altars,
Dappled with blue and gold, such iridescence
As rainbow gives to cloud, when the sun strikes it.
Aeneas stood amazed; and the great serpent
Crawled to the bowls and cups, tasted the offerings,
And slid again, without a hint of menace,
Under the altar stone. Intent, Aeneas
Resumed the rites; the serpent might have been,
For all he knew, a guardian of the altar,
Or some familiar spirit of Anchises.

John elaborates:

Identified with a discrete, unseen guardian spirit felt to inhabit a given locale, the genius loci principle affirmed the inherently religious potential of place, within the polytheistic or animistic world views of premodern peoples.

I note in passing that it is not only the Enlightenment that has warred with local spirits. The Wife of Bath complains of Christian friars ridding the land of fairies:

In the old days of King Arthur,
Of whom Britons speak great honor,                 
This land was all filled full of supernatural creatures.                  
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,                 
Danced very often in many a green mead.                 
This was the old belief, as I read;                 
I speak of many hundred years ago.                 
But now no man can see any more elves,                 
For now the great charity and prayers                 
Of licensed beggars and other holy friars,                 
That overrun every land and every stream,                 
As thick as specks of dust in the sun-beam,                 
Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, bedrooms,                 
Cities, towns, castles, high towers,                 
Villages, barns, stables, dairies —                 
This makes it that there are no fairies.     

Although he practices eco-criticism, however, John doesn’t only find the genius loci in nature but also in domestic structures. Thus, in his first chapter he looks at how houses themselves can have a spiritual dimension.

Literature plays an important role in this process, both detecting spirituality within place and bestowing it. Imagination half creates and half perceives, in Wordsworth’s memorable formulation, and John also cites Coleridge’s theories of the Imagination. For Coleridge,

Imagination carries an ecological meaning by way of defining and affirming our participation in a comprehensive community of Creation extending beyond humankind.

Using the Ancient Mariner as an example, John points out that it is a failure of imagination that leads the mariner to kill the albatross. He does not understand that he himself is part of a greater whole. By the end of the poem, however, the mariner understands his connectedness and feels driven to go out and preach this revelation to the world:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell 
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! 
He prayeth well, who loveth well 
Both man and bird and beast. 

He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small; 
For the dear God who loveth us, 
He made and loveth all. 

Many American authors have also used religious frameworks to understand this Imagination:

That the Imagination might be construed to bear some form of religious meaning and purpose has likewise shaped the poetic of American writers as diverse as Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and Levertov. Thoreau, for example, in his famous deep-cut passage from the “Spring” chapter of Walden, describes the course of creation, witnessed throughout the course of nature, as a divinely engendered, evolutionary process. Marveling at “this hieroglyphic”—that is, sacred script—he finds inscribed in the railroad’s thawing sandbank, he declares himself “as affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,–had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about.”

John also mentions Emerson, who saw the poet as organically participating in “the life of God.” And then there’s Levertov, whose religious poems I have turned to time and again for these Sunday posts. Levertov writes that “the imagination which synergizes intellect, emotion, and instinct, is the perceptive organ through which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God.” 

John’s book helps me understand why we find spiritual significance in settings, both in the world and in literature. The two are inextricably bound up with each other so that to experience a place and to read about it in literature cannot be separated. Twain’s Mississippi River, Willa Cather’s Nebraska, Richard Shelton’s Sonoran Desert, James Baldwin’s New York City are half perceived and half created, the reality and the spirit feeding off and enhancing each other. Spirits of Place is an important book.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey), Coleridge (Samuel Taylor), Levertov (Denise), Virgil | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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