America Plagued by Ingratitude


Red states have a long history of complaining about “blue state bailouts” while sucking up far more blue state money that blue states get from red, (Urban areas, the nation’s major income generators, generally vote Democratic.) Red state Congress members are also famous for denying disaster relief to blue states (think Ted Cruz on Hurricane Sandy in 2012) while insisting upon it for themselves, as we saw first with Hurricane Harvey and again last month the power outage. Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin made such points recently when wondering why the federal government should be bailing out Texas for its reckless Covid behavior.

While today’s post is about what Thackeray’s Vanity Fair teaches us about ingratitude, one of the funniest passages about people claiming to be self-sufficient while raking in federal money appears in Catch 22. I’ve included only a snipped here, but you read the extended passage in a post I wrote about Clive Bundy, who in 2014 launched a mini-insurrection when the federal government tried to bill him for grazing his cattle on federal land:

Major Major’s father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all. He was a proud and independent man who was opposed to unemployment insurance and never hesitated to whine, whimper, wheedle, and extort for as much as he could get from whomever he could.

But back to Thackeray, whose discussion of ingratitude has stayed with me ever since I read Vanity Fair in 1974. John Osborne, formerly a struggling merchant but now, with the help of stockbroker John Sedley, a wealthy man, turns on his former benefactor when the market tanks (caused by Napoleon’s escape from Elba) and Sedley goes bankrupt. Thackeray explains why Osborne, whose son is to marry Sedley’s daughter, is so bitter:

When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime. It is not that you are selfish, brutal, and angry at the failure of a speculation—no, no—it is that your partner has led you into it by the basest treachery and with the most sinister motives. From a mere sense of consistency, a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain—otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.

And further on:

Then Osborne had the intolerable sense of former benefits to goad and irritate him: these are always a cause of hostility aggravated. Finally, he had to break off the match between Sedley’s daughter and his son; and as it had gone very far indeed, and as the poor girl’s happiness and perhaps character were compromised, it was necessary to show the strongest reasons for the rupture, and for John Osborne to prove John Sedley to be a very bad character indeed.

In other words, it is because people feel a sense of obligation that they blacken the name of their benefactor. They deal with their guilt about their betrayal by going on the attack.

Osborne’s subsequent behavior resembles the way some Trumpist politicians demonize Democrats. I particularly appreciate Thackeray’s point that “you must tell and believe lies against the hated object…to be consistent”:

At the meetings of creditors, then, he comported himself with a savageness and scorn towards Sedley, which almost succeeded in breaking the heart of that ruined bankrupt man. On George’s intercourse with Amelia he put an instant veto—menacing the youth with maledictions if he broke his commands, and vilipending the poor innocent girl as the basest and most artful of vixens. One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.

When the great crash came—the announcement of ruin, and the departure from Russell Square, and the declaration that all was over between her and George—all over between her and love, her and happiness, her and faith in the world—a brutal letter from John Osborne told her in a few curt lines that her father’s conduct had been of such a nature that all engagements between the families were at an end.

Ungrateful though Osborne is, he’s an amateur compared to the emperor of ingratitude, Milton’s Satan. Satan first complains about “the debt immense of endless gratitude”—how can we ever thank God enough?—only to then concede that it’s actually not a burden. After all, feelings of gratitude are themselves gifts, with the grateful “at once indebted and discharged.” Satan’s awareness of this makes his behavior all the more criminal since he knows better:

The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still received,
And understood not that a grateful mind 
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged; what burden then?

Rather than resenting Sedley for the obligations he owes him, Osborne could simply express gratitude, which opens the heart and soothes the spirit. And rather than railing constantly at the blue states from which they receive disaster relief, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid payments, etc., etc., red states could be grateful that all will benefit from the efforts of those who work hard to enrich society.

Further thought: To apply ingratitude to Biden’s Covid relief bill, Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explains the politics of why the GOP may profit from their universal opposition to the measure, even though it is the most popular bill in years:

Indeed, I would add that after this is over, GOP lawmakers might be seen by their voters as having railed merely about phantom excesses in the bill that were invented for the base’s consumption. As Media Matters documents, right-wing media have wildly hyped such invented excesses.

And so, even as GOP voters pocket stimulus checks and get vaccines more quickly, the story in that information universe will become that GOP lawmakers rightly called out all these crazy socialist schemes brought to you by the Democrats who want to burn down your cities and cancel your children’s books.

Ryan Cooper calls this the “Republican grievance perpetual motion machine.” And as the Times reports, this might resonate with GOP voters more than the niggling matter of who supported sending that check.

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Elizabeth Warren, Like Eve, Persists

Erastus Salisbury Field, detail from Garden of Eden


Ah, the wonders of twitter. Thanks to one Arnie Perlstein, who declares himself a Jane Austen fan, I now see a similarity between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and John Milton’s Eve. It’s a comparison worth exploring.

Some explanation is required. On Tuesday, Sen. Warren declared that it was four years ago to the day that she had been silenced (Republicans today would say canceled) by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. During the Senate hearings of Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions for Trump’s attorney general, Warren read a Coretta Scott King observation, appearing in a 1980s letter, accusing Sessions of having “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” A perturbed McConnell accused Warren of badmouthing a fellow senator, and, as Warren reports in her recent tweet, “every Republican in the chamber that night voted to shut me up.”

When later asked why, McConnell memorably explained,

Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

From that point out, Warren wore “Nevertheless, she persisted” as a badge of honor. Tee-shirts appeared carrying the phrase, which in many ways sums her up perfectly.

For instance, she has persisted in pushing her long-proposed tax on upper incomes (2% on wealth between $50 million and $1 billion, 3% on wealth above $1 billion), which now that Democrats control the Senate will finally come up for a vote.

For that matter, she was absolutely right about Sessions, who backed tearing children away from the asylum-seeking parents and who weakened restrictions on police brutality and voter suppression. Only because he refused to become Trump’s personal attorney—he at least had enough integrity for that—was he fired and his career ended.

Now for the Eve comparison, which Perlstein tweeted in response to the “persisted” anniversary:

Sen. Warren, Re your 2017 persistence despite sexist/racist silencing, you have a great female forbear, who also refused to submit to male rule, but instead chose female knowledge & empowerment: “So spake the patriarch of mankind; BUT EVE PERSISTED…” — Paradise Lost, Bk 9

It must be acknowledged that Perlstein’s version of Eve is not Milton’s. The passage comes at the end of a prolonged marital dispute where Eve wants to go off by herself and is offended that Adam lacks confidence that she could hold her own against Satan. In other words, Adam sees female persisting as nagging and succumbs for the sake of domestic tranquility :

Go; for thy stay, not free, absents thee more;
Go in thy native innocence, rely
On what thou hast of virtue, summon all,
For God towards thee hath done his part, do thine.
So spake the Patriarch of Mankind…

Eve, having gotten her way, then reclaims the role of good, submissive wife, emphasizing that Adam is the one granting permission:

but Eve
Persisted, yet submiss, though last, repli’d.
With thy permission then, and thus forewarned…

Later, after the fall, she will throw this permission in Adam’s face, saying, essentially, that he should have been firmer with her. He, astonished, lashes back, although one senses that Milton agrees with Eve: he should have reminded Eve who wears the pants in the family. (Well, they’re naked but you get the point.) Here’s their interchange:

Eve: Being as I am, why didst not thou the head
Command me absolutely not to go,
Going into such danger as thou saidst?
Too facile then thou didst not much gainsay,
Nay, didst permit, approve, and fair dismiss.
Hadst thou bin firm and fixt in thy dissent,
Neither had I transgressed, nor thou with me.

Adam: It seems, in thy restraint: what could I more? 
I warned thee, I admonished thee, foretold
The danger, and the lurking enemy
That lay in wait; beyond this had bin force,
And force upon free will hath here no place.

Milton observes that no one’s going to win this argument:

Thus they in mutual accusation spent
The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning,
And of their vain contest appeared no end.

I’ve strayed from from Warren and McConnell so let me just say this. McConnell would like Warren to be submissive and deferential—we’ve just seen with the rejected Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tanden what happens when a woman tweets like a man—and Warren makes not even the slightest nod in that direction. Her persisting, in other words, is not like Eve’s in that she assumes that she has every right to go her own way. In fact, her refusal to play the subservience game is what irritated McConnell in the first place. When a male Democratic senator read the same Coretta Scott King letter later in the hearings, McConnell didn’t say a word.

So, in the end, Warren is no Eve and the contrasts are more illuminating than the comparisons. Eve imagines eating the apple will put her on the same playing field as Adam—“for inferior who is free?”—whereas Warren already assumes she’s on the same plane as men. No “he for God only, she for God in him” for her.

Milton was advanced for his age in that he at least gave Eve a voice and a fleshed-out character. It’s just regrettable that McConnell still has remnants of the author’s 17th century views.

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Hugo on Freedom-Loving Insurgents

Horace Vernet, Barricade, Rue Sufflot (1848)


This past year I have watched with awe as protesters around the world have put their liberty and lives on the line for principles that Americans—at least until Donald Trump’s presidency—have taken for granted. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is helping me get a better sense of those Myanmar citizens—and Russian, Belorussian, and Hong Kong citizens—who are risking everything for freedom and liberty.

Hugo writes about an aborted 1832 Paris insurrection that ends with the deaths of most of the insurgents. Their leader, Enjolras, draws on the ideals of the French Revolution to deliver an inspiring speech on a Paris barricade. Hugo observes Enjolras’s vision has grown in the course of the insurrection:

[F]or some time past, he had been gradually emerging from the narrow form of dogma, and had allowed himself to incline to the broadening influence of progress, and he had come to accept, as a definitive and magnificent evolution, the transformation of the great French Republic, into the immense human republic…. Enjolras was standing erect on the staircase of paving-stones, one elbow resting on the stock of his gun. He was engaged in thought; he quivered, as at the passage of prophetic breaths….A sort of stifled fire darted from his eyes, which were filled with an inward look. All at once he threw back his head, his blond locks fell back like those of an angel on the somber quadriga [chariot] made of stars, they were like the mane of a startled lion in the flaming of a halo, and Enjolras cried:

“Citizens, do you picture the future to yourselves? The streets of cities inundated with light, green branches on the thresholds, nations sisters, men just, old men blessing children, the past loving the present, thinkers entirely at liberty, believers on terms of full equality, for religion heaven, God the direct priest, human conscience become an altar, no more hatreds, the fraternity of the workshop and the school, for sole penalty and recompense fame, work for all, right for all, peace over all, no more bloodshed, no more wars, happy mothers!

Enjolras declares that the meaning of the struggle is self-determination:

Citizens, whatever happens to-day, through our defeat as well as through our victory, it is a revolution that we are about to create. As conflagrations light up a whole city, so revolutions illuminate the whole human race. And what is the revolution that we shall cause? I have just told you, the Revolution of the True. From a political point of view, there is but a single principle; the sovereignty of man over himself. This sovereignty of myself over myself is called Liberty.

Following a mini lecture on the social contract, Enjolras sets forth a Jeffersonian vision of the importance of education:

[L]egally speaking, [equality] is all aptitudes possessed of the same opportunity; politically, it is all votes possessed of the same weight; religiously, it is all consciences possessed of the same right. Equality has an organ: gratuitous and obligatory instruction. The right to the alphabet, that is where the beginning must be made. The primary school imposed on all, the secondary school offered to all, that is the law. From an identical school, an identical society will spring. Yes, instruction! light! light! everything comes from light, and to it everything returns.

To our sorrow, we know his next prediction will not occur. The 20th century, rather than being happy, will be one of the bloodiest in history. Nevertheless, the ideal is one worth striving for. And to give Enjorlas credit, the European Union has accomplished some of what he envisions, ending the wars that have ravaged Europe since, well, the Pax Romana:

Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then, there will be nothing more like the history of old, we shall no longer, as today, have to fear a conquest, an invasion, a usurpation, a rivalry of nations, arms in hand, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, on a birth in hereditary tyrannies, a partition of peoples by a congress, a dismemberment because of the failure of a dynasty, a combat of two religions meeting face to face, like two bucks in the dark, on the bridge of the infinite; we shall no longer have to fear famine, farming out, prostitution arising from distress, misery from the failure of work and the scaffold and the sword, and battles and the ruffianism of chance in the forest of events. One might almost say: There will be no more events. We shall be happy. The human race will accomplish its law, as the terrestrial globe accomplishes its law; harmony will be re-established between the soul and the star; the soul will gravitate around the truth, as the planet around the light.

The leader’s address concludes with assurances that the forthcoming sacrifice will not be in vain:

Friends, the present hour in which I am addressing you, is a gloomy hour; but these are terrible purchases of the future. A revolution is a toll. Oh! the human race will be delivered, raised up, consoled! We affirm it on this barrier. Whence should proceed that cry of love, if not from the heights of sacrifice? Oh my brothers, this is the point of junction, of those who think and of those who suffer; this barricade is not made of paving-stones, nor of joists, nor of bits of iron; it is made of two heaps, a heap of ideas, and a heap of woes. Here misery meets the ideal. The day embraces the night, and says to it: ‘I am about to die, and thou shalt be born again with me.’ From the embrace of all desolations faith leaps forth. Sufferings bring hither their agony and ideas their immortality. This agony and this immortality are about to join and constitute our death. Brothers, he who dies here dies in the radiance of the future, and we are entering a tomb all flooded with the dawn.”

I myself have difficulty surrendering to Enjorlas’s idealism, but it does take me back to when I was 18 and protesting the Vietnam War. Once, along with 80 other students and faculty from Carleton College and St. Olaf, were arrested for blocking the doors of the Hennepit County Induction Center following the Kent State shootings. I remember an electric shock going through us when we learned that the federal government was prepared to gun down middle class white kids and feeling that drastic measures were called for.

Now, I was never capable of violence and, to participate in our sit-in, people had to promise not to resist the arresting authorities. We knew we wouldn’t be facing the kind of risks that Enjorlas and the Myanmar protesters must confront. Still, Hugo provides glimpses of the higher vision that can supersede even care for one’s life.

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Does Lightweight Lit Do Damage?

Rockwell, —And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable


I’m currently completing my book on literature’s impact, which has been years in the making and which I’m currently entitling Does Literature Make Us Better People? Surveying a 2500-Year Debate, from Plato and Aristotle to Bertolt Brecht and Martha Nussbaum. (The title keeps changing.) In the book I seek to answer three sets of paired questions, of which the second one is

–Is there a difference between the effects of great literature and lightweight literature?
–If so, is great literature good for us and lightweight literature bad?

It’s amazing how many answers people have given to the that second pairing. I briefly summarize some of them today.

What I call lightweight literature, incidentally, the French call “un roman à quatre sous” (a story worth four sous) and the Germans “U-Literatur” (for “unterhaltung” or entertainment and contrasted with E-Literatur, with the E standing for “ernste” or serious.) [Thanks to colleagues George Poe for the French and Reinhard Zachau for the German.]

One of my favorite terms is the Slovenian “trivialna literature,” while means what it looks like.

John Dryden and Alexander Pope – It appears that people first starting attacking lightweight literature when the middle class, in the late 17th century, started reading in large numbers. John Dryden’s MacFlecknoe and Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad called out large numbers of bad writers, which they feared were destroying all standards. The Dunciad concludes with an apocalyptic vision:

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

Percy Shelley—While Shelley doesn’t talk about lesser literature, his distinction between the greatest literature and the runners-up helps set the terms of later discussions. The greatest poets (Homer, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Milton) see to the very essence of humanity while figures like Euripides, Tasso, Lucan, Spenser, Voltaire and Rousseau get sidetracked by local concerns.

Marx, Engels and later Marxist scholars – Engels once complained about novels that, because they seek to be politically correct, fail to grasp actual historical conditions. He and Marx both claimed that they learned more about history from a genius royalist like Balzac than from novels written as socialist propaganda. Terry Eagleton builds on this idea, arguing that sometimes reactionary authors like Joseph Conrad and T. S. Eliot capture the crisis of capitalism better than many progressive writers.

W.E.B. Du Bois –Although he once said, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,” Du Bois actually took a stance similar to the Marxists. Pointing out how Blacks have been stereotyped in many works of literature, he thought the author’s responsibility was to describe them truthfully, even if the resulting images offended readers, black as well as white.

The Frankfurt School – Marxists, because they were interested in the masses, were the first scholars to make a concerted study of popular culture. They would also prove to be particularly critical of it, calling lightweight lit the opiate of the masses. In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse accuses such literature of leveling rather than raising the public.

Feminism – Feminists have grappled with the issues raised by lightweight literature, with many arguing that Harlequins and other formulaic romances socialize women into patriarchal modes of thinking. Others, more sympathetic, argue that these works allow women to voice deep grievances. Although many such works feature an attractive but imperious man who humiliates the heroines (think Pride and Prejudice), he often then suffers a reversal and must be saved or nursed by to heath by the heroine. Yet even feminists who detect revenge and empowerment at work in this fantasy worry that, in the end, the woman sacrifices too much for a supposed happy ending.

Freud, Jung, and Their Descendants – To the extent that literature plays a Aristotle’s therapeutic role, the question is whether great literature does a better job at this than lightweight literature. A good case can be made that stories that offer cheap wish fulfillments and formulaic hero’s journeys simply perpetuate neurosis whereas great literature shows a genuine way forward.

Ethical Criticism – Wayne Booth, who is one of my favorite theorists, compares books to friends and says that great literature helps us “improve our desires—to desire better desires.” The problem with lightweight literature is that, like a shallow friendship, it doesn’t get us to aspire to anything greater. In fact, it gets us to desire less, as can be seen with Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel Jaws:

[I]t is on the scales of otherness and range that this friend really lets me down. The range is extremely narrow—physical survival and physical pleasure are good; physical destruction or self-denial are bad. And whatever is really “other” is simply to be feared, not understood. Here we are, average, normal, comfortably familiar folks, and there they are, the threat. In short, my time with this friend so far has been a narrowing time, a time of bifurcating my world into stereotyped victims and stereotyped, villainous “others.” What had looked like a harmless bit of escape literature, useful for killing an hour or two with some excitement, appears in this view considerably more threatening to the spirit than Benchley intended with his sharks….The story tries to mold me into its limited shapes, giving me practice, as it were, in wanting and fearing certain minimal qualities and ignoring all others. I am to become if I enter this world, that kind of desirer, with precisely the kinds of strengths and weaknesses that the author has built into his structure.

Jane Austen on Lightweight Literature–Jane Austen takes regular potshots at lightweight literature, which she sometimes sees doing active harm. To summarize briefly one of the chapters in my book, she shows how

–gothic potboilers lead Catherine Morland astray in Northanger Abbey;
–Marianne and Willoughby indulge in the romantic sensibilities of William Cowper and Sir Walter Scott while admiring Pope “no more than is proper”;
–the Bertrams and Crawfords in Mansfield Park are led astray by the steamy German melodrama Lovers’ Vows, which allows them to vicariously imagine illicit love. By the end of the novel, Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford will literally engage in such love.
–Captain Benwick seeks solace for his lost fiancé in the poetry of Scott and Byron. We see how ultimately shallow he is when he chooses a woman who shares his reading tastes (Louisa Musgrove) over the sublime Anne Elliot.

I think of lightweight lit the way I think of donuts: they’re fine from time to time but one mustn’t make a steady diet of them. Healthy foods taste so much better anyway.

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“Clarissa” Taught the Age Empathy

Francis Haymen, Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa


The Literary Hub website has alerted me to a work about my scholarly field of expertise that I’ve got to get my hands on. Apparently Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 contends that novels played a critical role in teaching empathy to an exploding middle class readership.

In an excerpt from the book, we see Ritchie focusing on epistolary novels, particularly Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Ritchie writes,

New scope for empathy was offered by the epistolary novel. By presenting a character’s experience through letters, the novelist brings us close to that experience as it happens. We follow the character’s thoughts and feelings in real time, as uncertain as they are about what will happen next. When a novel offers letters from several different people, we have something further: we understand characters’ experience from the inside while appreciating the diversity of characters. We are invited to feel the humanity even of those we dislike, and we are encouraged to feel intensely the sufferings of persecuted victims. Stories told in letters involve their readers far more intimately than stories recounted from the distant perspective of an impersonal narrator. 

Given that the 18th century became known for proclaiming the rights of man (Thomas Paine) and the rights of women (Mary Wollstonecraft), one can see why teaching empathy would be a big deal. Ritchie writes that reading novels

helped people in the 18th century to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and sensitized them to cruelty in everyday life, savage punishments and abuses of human rights: In reading, they empathized across traditional social boundaries between nobles and commoners, masters and servants, men and women, perhaps even adults and children. As a consequence, they came to see others—people they did not know personally—as like them, as having the same kind of inner emotions. 

Clarissa is about a rake who kidnaps the heroine under the pretext of rescuing her and who, when she continues to resist his advances, sedates her with opium and rapes her. Over a million words long, Richardson’s novel plunges us deeply into the psychology of numerous characters, especially Clarissa and Lovelace:

Lovelace stylizes himself as a Restoration rake and casts Clarissa as a proud beauty who must be conquered. His stale language of gallantry (“on the wings of love, I fly to my charmer”) contrasts with Clarissa’s directness and honesty, her “plain dealing,” which he fails to understand. Immediately after the rape, Clarissa’s distress emerges from a series of barely coherent draft letters, while Lovelace appears callously impenitent; but even as a victim Clarissa shows herself the stronger character. Her inner strength enables her to prepare for death, face it calmly, and write letters of forgiveness to all her family and even to Lovelace, while he tries to evade the fact of death by his fantasy of embalming her body and preserving her heart in a golden casket. 

Ritchie particularly appreciates how French philosophe Denise Diderot sees Richardson “disclosing the evil concealed behind flattering self-deceptions in the dark recesses of the self.” Diderot writes of Richardson,

It is he who carries the torch into the depths of the cavern; it is he who learns to perceive the subtle and disreputable motives hidden and disguised beneath other motives which are respectable and which are eager to display themselves first. He breathes upon the sublime phantom that presents itself at the entrance to the cavern; and the hideous Moor behind the mask is revealed.

I’ll have to see who else Ritchie treats in the book and hope he doesn’t overlook Daniel Defoe, who also got readers to enter the minds of people very much unlike themselves. In the first person narration of Moll Flanders, readers find themselves identifying with a thief, prostitute, and bigamist, in that of Roxana with a courtesan.

Other epistolary novels of the time include Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Tobias Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. Smollett’s novel especially gets at the discord experienced by traditionalists at the influx of foreign trade and the mixing of classes. Ritchie is right that epistolary novels were particularly effective at capturing the effects.

A confusing century required a new (or novel) genre to do it justice. Richardson and others stepped forward.

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Get Thee Behind Me, Power and Wealth

Vasily Surikov, Temptation of Christ (1872)

 Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading contains Jesus’s famous rebuke to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” I find it interesting that, when Milton employs the line in Paradise Regained, it is not metaphorical. Jesus directs it literally to Satan.

That being said, however,I’ve long seen “Satan” as a metaphor for our dark desires. I read the desert temptations as an internal dialogue with Jesus, having just had a revelation thanks to John’s baptism, try to figure out what it means. What is involved with being the Son of God?

Does it mean the ability to perform miracles? To defy death? How about achieving worldly wealth and power. Ultimately, he concludes, it means bringing God to earth so that God fills all of humanity.

Peter, expecting to reap the rewards of a worldly messiah doesn’t get it. In fact, he won’t until after the crucifixion. Jesus, however, has planted the necessary seeds, first by the rebuke (which gets Peter’s attention) and then through a series of apparently contradictory statements:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Paradise Regained, like Paradise Lost, was written after Milton had witnessed the collapse of the Puritan republic, which he had hoped would bring God’s kingdom to earth in a literal sense. I think of those Trump-worshipping evangelicals who see their idol doing the same, some of them applauding a golden statue of Trump wheeled out in this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Milton’s passage begins with Satan’s offer:

“All these which in a moment thou behold’st,
The Kingdoms of the world to thee I give;
For giv’n to me, I give to whom I please,
No trifle; yet with this reserve, not else,
On this condition, if thou wilt fall down,
And worship me as thy superior Lord,
Easily done, and hold them all of me;
For what can less so great a gift deserve?”
   Whom thus our Savior answer’d with disdain.
“I never liked thy talk, thy offers less,
Now both abhor, since thou hast dared to utter
The abominable terms, impious condition;
But I endure the time, till which expired,
Thou hast permission on me.   It is written
The first of all Commandments, Thou shalt worship
The Lord thy God, and only him shalt serve;
And dar’st thou to the Son of God propound
To worship thee accurst, now more accurst
For this attempt bolder then that on Eve,
And more blasphemous? which expect to rue.
The Kingdoms of the world to thee were giv’n,
Permitted rather, and by thee usurp’t,
Other donation none thou canst produce:
If given, by whom but by the King of Kings,
God over all supreme? if giv’n to thee,
By thee how fairly is the Giver now
Repaid?   But gratitude in thee is lost
Long since.   Wert thou so void of fear or shame,
As offer them to me the Son of God,
To me my own, on such abhorred pact,
That I fall down and worship thee as God?
Get thee behind me; plain thou now appear’st
That Evil one, Satan forever damned.

For too many self-proclaimed Christians have been falling down and worshipping power and wealth as their superior Lord. We know what Jesus would say to them.

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My White Queen Injury Experience

Tenniel, Alice and the White Queen


Last week, I gashed myself while cutting firewood, and what then transpired resembled the scene where the White Queen pricks herself with her brooch in Alice through the Looking Glass.

I’m happy to report that the cut itself was not serious. Using the axe as a hatchet to cut kindling, I hit an unexpected knot, which caused the axe to glance off the log and cut the top of my hand just over the bone at the base of my index finger. There was little bleeding and only four stitches were required.

Initially, as the White Queen is explaining to Alice “the effect of living backwards,” we see her bandaging her finger.

Shortly thereafter, she begins to scream:

Alice was just beginning to say ‘There’s a mistake somewhere—,’ when the Queen began screaming so loud that she had to leave the sentence unfinished. ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ shouted the Queen, shaking her hand about as if she wanted to shake it off. ‘My finger’s bleeding! Oh, oh, oh, oh!’

Her screams were so exactly like the whistle of a steam-engine, that Alice had to hold both her hands over her ears.

‘What is the matter?’ she said, as soon as there was a chance of making herself heard. ‘Have you pricked your finger?’

‘I haven’t pricked it yet,’ the Queen said, ‘but I soon shall—oh, oh, oh!’

Finally, there’s the actual injury:

‘When do you expect to do it?’ Alice asked, feeling very much inclined to laugh.

‘When I fasten my shawl again,’ the poor Queen groaned out: ‘the brooch will come undone directly. Oh, oh!’ As she said the words the brooch flew open, and the Queen clutched wildly at it, and tried to clasp it again.

‘Take care!’ cried Alice. ‘You’re holding it all crooked!’ And she caught at the brooch; but it was too late: the pin had slipped, and the Queen had pricked her finger.

‘That accounts for the bleeding, you see,’ she said to Alice with a smile. ‘Now you understand the way things happen here.’

‘But why don’t you scream now?’ Alice asked, holding her hands ready to put over her ears again.

‘Why, I’ve done all the screaming already,’ said the Queen. ‘What would be the good of having it all over again?’

To recap life in Looking Glass Land, bandage first, scream second, prick yourself third.

My own Looking Glass sequence began with a Christmas gift of special “cooling field towels,” designed for those times when one can’t take a regular shower. My wife’s gift didn’t make sense at the time since, as I am retired, I can take a shower whenever I need one.

Then, two weeks ago, I had a tetanus shot, recommended by my doctor during my annual check-up. “You haven’t had one for a while,” he observed.

At the check-up, I scheduled a follow-up appointment to monitor a new medication. That check-up was scheduled for 9:30 last Thursday.

I cut myself at 8:45.

It so happens that I had forgotten about the follow-up appointment. Julia, after first pouring peroxide into my wound, called our doctor, only to be told that I was already scheduled to see him.

So instead of

–cutting myself;
–scheduling an appointment;
–getting a tetanus shot;
— and dry washing myself,

I followed the White Queen’s example and reversed the order: buy special washing equipment, receive a shot, schedule the doctor, cut myself.

It’s Lewis Carroll’s world. The rest of us are just living in it.

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Cruz Is No Willie Stark or Richard III

Ted’s most excellent adventure


Conservative columnist Bret Stevens, who regularly engages in a New York Times dialogue with liberal columnist Gail Collins, offered up a choice observation about Texas Senator Ted Cruz following the latter’s Cancun vacation trip during the Texas freeze. I’m still trying to untangle it:

Gail, first of all, my heartfelt sympathies and condolences to all of our friends suffering in Texas, and not just because Ted Cruz is one of their senators.

Also, isn’t the whole Cancún Caper such a perfect encapsulation of Cruz’s character? He’s what happens when All the King’s Men meets National Lampoon’s Vacation. He’s Shakespeare’s Richard III as interpreted by Mr. Bean. He is to American statesmanship what Fifty Shades of Grey was to English prose writing, minus the, um, stimulus.

Cruz, trying to imitate Donald Trump, would like to be Willie Stark, the man-of-the-people-turned-autocrat in the Robert Penn Warren classic. Booking a week at the Cancún Ritz-Carton while your constituents suffer through a catastrophic deep freeze, however, sounds more like the opening premise of a catastrophic Chevy Chase road trip. Incidentally, both movie and Cruz feature dog incidents. Cruz left his dog Snowflake behind in their Texas apartment while, in an instance of black humor, the character played by Chase forgets he has tied a dog (a particularly mean dog, foisted on him– along with a senile aunt–by unscrupulous relatives) to the car’s fender. Unlike Snowflake, the dog in the movie doesn’t make it.

Cruz may fancy himself a shrew political manipulator a la Richard III, but a number of people have pointed out that, had he been Trump, he would have brazened out his Cancun vacation. Instead, like an inept Mr. Bean, he first tried to apologize—in the process of which he blamed the trip on his daughters—and then got the news media to show him loading bottled water into someone’s car. To call this a cheap publicity stunt is to give cheap publicity stunts a bad name.

As far as Fifty Shades of Grey goes, it’s true that Cruz has a sadistic streak, so maybe that’s why that particular novel comes to mind. Stevens’s point, however, is that Cruz is as far from a statesman as E. L. James is from a readable author. James, however, at least titillates us whereas Cruz just makes us cringe.

The best line I’ve heard about the Texas senator comes from another conservative, Matthew Dowd. Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? Answer: It saves time.

Further thought: Just to give you a taste of a genuine populist, here’s Willie Stark delivering the speech where he turns on the establishment. Stark, who has been drafted to (unbeknownst to him) split what he will call “the hick vote,” withdraws to throw his support behind the other “hick candidate.” If Cruz ever attempted a speech like this, he’d come across as an even bigger fraud that he already is:

“I have a speech here,” he said. “It is a speech about what this state needs. But there’s no use telling you what this state needs. You are the state. You know what you need. Look at your pants. Have they got holes in the knee? Listen to your belly. Did it ever rumble for emptiness? Look at your crop. Did it ever rot in the field because the road was so bad you couldn’t get it to market? Look at your kids. Are they growing up ignorant as you and dirt because there isn’t any school for them?”

Willie paused, and blinked around at the crowd. “No,” he said, “I’m not going to read you any speech. You know what you need better’n I could tell you. But I’m going to tell you a story.”

Willie goes on to explain how he has been duped and then, after he has (accidentally) pushed the establishment representative into the orchestra pit, concludes with his new announcement:

“Let the hog lie, and listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks, too, and they’ve fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool. Well, this time I’m going to fool somebody. I’m getting out of this race.”

Posted in James (E.L.), Shakespeare (William), Warren (Robert Penn) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking Back at a Year of Covid

Raimondi, 16th century engraving of the plague


Last July I collected all the essays I had written on Covid into a single post, with the first appearing almost exactly a year ago. This week, as we mark the once-inconceivable 500,000th official Covid death, I update that list. It has all been too tragic for words, but words are what we have.

Feb. 26, 2020 – Stephen King describes how pandemics spread in The Stand. Many Americans didn’t listen.

March 4, 2020 – Hand washing works better for people threatened by Covid than it does for Lady Macbeth.

March 10, 2020 – Bocaccio provides guidance for dealing with plagues in The Decameron.

March 13, 2020 – In this light-hearted lyric, Scott Bates suggests curling up with a good book, which is always a good piece of advice in dark times.

March 15, 2020 – Thomas Nashe’s “Litany in Time of Plague” provides healthy plague responses.

March 16, 2020 – Albert Camus captures how people respond to pandemics in The Plague.

March 17, 2020 – Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” describes the same kind of plague denial that many Americans have been engaging in.

March 18, 2020 – Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about the 1918 flu epidemic, gave us a glimpse into our own immediate future.

March 19, 2020 – Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year features many unsettling parallels with our current situation.

March 23, 2020 – Those who were living in the lull before the Covid storm should have heeded the warnings set forth in Jonathan Swift’s “Description of a City Shower.”

March 24, 2020 – In their first coronavirus relief package, Senate Republicans followed the lead of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Candide.

March 25, 2020 – Charlotte Bronte and Dickens, drawing on first hand experience, provide advice on how to handle epidemics.

March 26, 2020 – In IT Stephen King shows how Americans close their eyes to horrific truths, thereby predicting how many Americans would respond to Covid-19.

March 27, 2020 – As American Covid deaths mount up, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight teaches us how to grieve.

April 1, 2020 – Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal may have been meant, in part, as an April Fools’ joke. Certain Republicans seem bent on making their own version of it real.

April 4, 2020 – The approach that fundamentalist millenarians have taken to the pandemic is captured in Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel Station Eleven.

April 6, 2020 – New Yorker Governor Andrew Cuomo channeled Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day speech” when thanking the National Guard for stepping up and building overflow hospital space in mere days.

April 8, 2020 – Trump dealing with Covid-19 can be compared to the Ministry of Magic trying to deal with Voldemort.

April 10, 2020 – With Covid-19 exposing the wealth gap in new and dramatic ways, Orwell more than Dickens provides a way forward.

April 13, 2020 – In “Keeping Quiet,” Neruda offers us a powerful challenge in the face of the pandemic: what if the entire world were to observe a moment of stillness?

April 14, 2020 – There’s a special place in Dante’s Inferno for people who steal money from the funds allocated to Covid relief.

April 15, 2020 – Insensitive employers have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of employees during the pandemic. Toni Morrison calls out such types in Song of Solomon.

April 16, 2020 – As Covid threatens the U. S. Postal Service, it’s worth revisiting Thomas Pynchon’s novel on that institution.

April 17, 2020 – Trump handling the pandemic can be compared to Captain Queeg or to the captain in a recent David Eggers novel.

April 20, 2020 – Poets since the author of Oedipus have grappled for meaning in times of pestilence. I take a quick glance here at Sophocles, Virgil, Defoe, Porter, Camus, King, Mandel, Atwood, and Erdrich.

April 21, 2020 – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Margaret Atwood’s Oryk and Crake trilogy help us understand why some during our pandemic are suspicious of scientists.

April 27, 2020 – A good case can be made that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was shaped by the 1918 flu pandemic.

May 1, 2020 – Low-wage workers are taking the brunt of Covid-19. On International Workers Day, it’s good to revisit Shelley’s stirring poem about collective action.

May 5, 2020 – Rita Dove explains how beauty can be found even at times of mass death.

May 6, 2020 – Although America’s president, Trump too often incites rebellion against elected officials trying to keep their states safe. In this way, he plays the double game also played by Gide’s immoralist.

May 7, 2020 – We have blundered into catastrophe the way that the Light Brigade, as described by Alfred Lord Tennyson, blunders into cannon fire.

May 8, 2020 – Some in the GOP have expressed a willingness to write off old people as the cost of doing business during the pandemic. As an old person, I cite Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Mary Oliver in my desire to stay alive.

May 11, 2020 – My Sewanee students found hope in Beowulf when exploring ways to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

May 18, 2020 – Donald Trump follows the Queen Jadis approach (from C. S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew) for handling the Covid pandemic: when threatened, destroy everything.

May 20, 2020 – We think it bad when we’re quarantined for a few weeks. Count Rostov in A Gentleman from Moscow is quarantined for over 30 years.

May 21, 2020 – Oscar Wilde says that a mask tells us more than a face. During the coronavirus pandemic, we can tell a lot about people by whether or not they choose to wear masks.

May 25, 2020 – In her sequel to Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood shows us how authoritarians want other people to be heroic in the face of disaster, not themselves.

May 28, 2020 – Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which opens with an epidemic, is good reading during our current one.

June 12, 2020 – In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift shows how it’s possible to normalize abhorrent behavior and shut one’s eyes to human suffering—in our case, to 130,000+ Covid deaths.

June 23, 2020 – When given the choice between protecting their followers and feeding their egos, Trump and Lear play from the same script.

June 25, 2020 – Trumpists are willing to expose themselves to disease and death to prove their loyalty to their leader. Tolstoy describes similar behavior in War and Peace.

June 26, 2020 – Trump is no better at handling reality than Don Quixote, although for far less benign reasons.

June 29, 2020 – The spy/scout in M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions about the British in 19th century Afghanistan has the same success in warning the British army about impending disaster as our scientists and health care workers have been with Donald Trump.

July 7, 2020 – Ursula LeGuin’s “Nine Lives” shows how different cultures deal with apocalyptic disasters.

July 9, 2020 – A forgotten Willa Cather novel grappled with the great flu epidemic following World War I.

July 12, 2020 – Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Henry Fielding and Toni Morrison all capture what has been lost when Covid victims cannot share their final words with loved ones.

July 15, 2020 – To understand young people’s response to Covid, authorities would have done well to read the 17th century carpe diem poets.

July 26, 2929 – Langston Hughes’s poems on evictions were suddenly all too relevant as Covid-caused unemployment soared.

August 3, 2020 – This James Baldwin poem stressing the need to hang together was used to mark the moment when Covid deaths hit 150,000.

August 8, 2020 – This A.E. Housman poem was used to stress that teachers have a hard enough job without adding martyrdom to the job description.

August 29, 2020 – This Richard Wilbur poem addresses the role of prophets in times of disaster.

September 20, 2020 – Peer reporting of Covid rule infractions at a local college brought to mind Henry Tilney’s remarks in Northanger Abbey about community spying.

September 21, 2020 – When American deaths reached 200,000, Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” was used to capture the way that people can overlook momentous occurrences.

 October 4, 2020 – A White House superspreader event was shakeycam farce, not Shakespearean tragedy.

October 6, 2020 – Upon returning from his bout with Covid, Donald Trump resembled the diminished king in Maria Mulock Craik’s fairy tale The Little Lame Prince.

October 20, 2020 – Scott Atlas, the neuroradiologist in the Trump administration responsible for much Covid misinformation, shares a vision with the libertarian protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

October 22, 2020 – Trump scientist Scott Atlas, in advocating for a hands-off herd immunity approach to Covid, resembled one of the quack doctors in Fielding’s Tom Jones.

 October 26, 2020 – This Jane Hirshfield poem struck back at Donald Trump’s war on science.

November 1, 2020 – Because Sophocles’s Philoctetes deals with compassion—or lack of it—for a man who is sick, it’s appropriate that Joe Biden should quote a passage from a Seamus Heaney translation of the play.

November 7, 2020 – Following the election of Joe Biden, an Aeschylus passage on dealing with suffering seemed appropriate.

November 17, 2020 – Trump focusing on his own misery while ignoring the millions suffering from Covid was reminiscent of the French marquis in Tale of Two Cities.

December 13, 2020 – While Covid has been disrupted our dating lives, Milan Kundera, John Fowles, and Jane Austen lay out a possible upside.

December 14, 2020 – Robinson Jeffers offers a poem that reminds us of spiritual resources available to us in these dark days.

December 21, 2020 – A very smart Covid poem circulating on social media at the moment references 11 poems, all about longing to travel.

January 5, 2021 – Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dodd mysteries about World War I and World II capture the drama of living under attack and the particular tragedy of dying in the final days of a war, which is where we currently are with regard to Covid, what with cases declining and a final end in sight.

January 9, 2020 – Charles Bukowski’s “Laughing Heart”  shows us what we need to get through hard times.

January 16, 2020 – A Denise Levertov poem acknowledges an important truth: while it’s hard to survive difficult times, it’s also hard to open ourselves to those moments when things get better.

January 30, 2021 – A timely Joseph Awad poem about St. Jude, saint of impossible causes.

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

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