The Sexual Politics of Circe-Odysseus

Angelika Kauffman, Odysseus and Circe


While reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I wrote about yesterday, I watched how she engages with previous literary depictions of Circe, Odysseus, and others. I think that she especially owes a debt to Margaret Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems,” which were important to the feminist movement in the 1970s and which I applied to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

Aware as I was of Atwood’s Odysseus–he’s an oblivious man whose sense of entitlement blinds him to his privilege–I was confused by Miller’s initially positive depiction. After all, with the exception of Homer, authors have not been kind to the Ithacan.  Sophocles (Philoctetes) and Euripides (Hecuba) regard him as an unscrupulous schemer, as does Virgil in The Aeneid. Dante puts him in the eighth circle of hell as one who misuses his tremendous talents to lead men astray, and Tennyson, drawing on Dante rather than Homer, is highly ambivalent. While many read Tennyson’s stirring lines as approval—”Come, my friends,/ ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world”—it is this very quality that leads Dante to put him in Inferno: Ulysses’s glib tongue leads his men to their destruction. Here’s Tennyson:

                   [F]or my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It so happens that listening to Ulysses puts you in the gulfs, not the Happy Isles. Here’s Dante:

"I and my men were stiff and slow with age
when we sailed at last into the narrow pass
where, warning all men back from further voyage,

Hercules' Pillars rose upon our sight.
Already I had left Ceuta on the left;
Seville now sank behind me on the right.

"Shipmates," I said, "who through a hundred thousand
perils have reached the West, do not deny
to the brief remaining watch our senses stand

Experience of the world beyond the sun.
Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes,
but to press on toward manhood and recognition!'

With this brief exhortation I made my crew
so eager for the voyage I could hardly
have held them back from it when I was through;

and turning our stem toward morning, our bow toward night,
we bore southwest out of the world of man;
we made wings of our oars for our fool's flight.

That night we raised the other pole ahead
with all its stars, and ours had so declined
it did not rise out of its ocean bed.

Five times since we had dipped our bending oars
beyond the world, the light beneath the moon
had waxed and waned, when dead upon our course

we sighted, dark in space, a peak so tall
I doubted any man had seen the like.
Our cheers were hardly sounded, when a squall

broke hard upon our bow from the new land:
three times it sucked the ship and the sea about
as it pleased Another to order and command.

At the fourth, the poop rose and the bow went down
till the sea closed over us and the light was gone."
(Trans. John Ciardi)

Ulysses isn’t the only inhabitant of hell that Tennyson alludes to. Ulysses’s celebration of will power directly echoes Milton’s Satan, whose eloquence also leads his followers to their destruction:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield…

As I noted in an earlier post ,

Tennyson recognizes that there’s something Satanic in Ulysses’s drive and golden tongue. Not man enough to govern Ithaca, which he relegates to a son whom he regards as soft, he will sacrifice his crew to satisfy his restless striving. Unlike [William Ernest] Henley [in “Invictus”], Tennyson sees the dark side of heroic individualism.

America has just traded in a man whose tongue enflamed millions for a low-key, competent leader. Which would you rather have?

Back to Circe’s Miller, whose view of Odysseus eventually evolves to something closer to Dante’s and Tennyson’s descriptions. If her Circe initially speaks positively of Odysseus, it is because she too is snowed by him. As a result, she gives the son she has had by him (Telegonus) a mistaken account of his father, leading to disastrous consequences.

Miller’s Circe has a much healthier relationship with Telemachus, who becomes her partner and in whom she discovers unexpected depth. In preferring the son to the father, she chooses the sensitive man over the man of action. In Tennyson’s poem, this man of action regards his son with thinly-veiled contempt, all but calling him a bureaucratic drudge. Don’t be deceived by the “most blameless is he,” which is a back-handed compliment:

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

Both Miller’s and Atwood’s Circe must evolve in their taste for men, from dominant to sensitive. Atwood’s Circe at first allows Odysseus to control her, admiring his male forcefulness. Writing in 1974, Atwood is criticizing those women who let men walk all over them:

There are so many things I want
you to have. This is mine, this
tree, I give you its name,

here is food, white like roots, red,
growing in the marsh, on the shore,
I pronounce these names for you also.

This is mine, this island, you can have
the rocks, the plants
that spread themselves flat over
the thin soil, I renounce them.

You can have this water,
this flesh, I abdicate,

I watch you, you claim
without noticing it,
you know how to take.

Eventually Atwood’s Circe comes to see the emptiness that Dante detects. The vaunted heroic adventure involves nothing more than “permit[ting] yourself to be shoved by the wind from coast to coast to coast,” even as you tell yourself that you’re the one in control:

There must be more for you to do
than permit yourself to be shoved
by the wind from coast
to coast to coast, boot on the boat prow
to hold the wooden body
under, soul in control


Don’t you get tired of killing
those whose deaths have been predicted
and are therefore dead already?

Don’t you get tired
of wanting to live forever?

Don’t you get tired of saying Onward?

Atwood’s Circe eventually learns that there is more to life than domination:

Ask at my temples
where the moon snakes, tongues of the dark
speak like bones unlocking, leaves falling
of a future you won’t believe in

Ask who keeps the wind
Ask what is sacred

Miller’s Circe arrives at the same understanding after her father, the sun god Aeetes, exiles her to an island for challenging him:

I stepped into the woods and my life began.

I learned to braid my hair back, so it would not catch on every twig, and how to tie my skirt at the knee to keep the burrs off. I learned to recognize the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral. I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac, and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the harbor safe for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud. I stroked the glossy brown scorpions who braved me with their tails. Their poison was barely a pinch. I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s halls had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.

…And when I did get lonely, … then there was always the forest. The lizards darted along the branches, the birds flashed their wings. The flowers, when they saw me, seemed to press forward like eager puppies, leaping and clamoring for my touch.

Miller doesn’t entirely reject enterprising men and makes Circe’s son Telegonus—hero of the lost Greek epic The Telegony—an adventurer who will found a kingdom. (To confuse stereotypes, however, she also makes him gay.) Once Circe sees through Odysseus, however, she comes to appreciate Telemachus, who rejects the destiny that the goddess Athena has in store for him. Rather than engage in killing—having slain the Ithacan handmaids at his father’s command still haunts him—he wants to do woodwork and live with Circe. This Telemachus may be the kind of man that Atwood has in mind when she talks of those who “have escaped from these mythologies with barely their lives”:

Men with the heads of eagles
no longer interest me
or pig-men, or those who can fly
with the aid of wax and feathers

or those who take off their clothes
to reveal other clothes
or those with skins of blue leather

or those golden and flat as a coat of arms
or those with claws, the stuffed ones
with glass eyes; or those
hierarchic as greaves and steam-engines.

All these I could create, manufacture,
or find easily: they swoop and thunder
around this island, common as flies,
sparks flashing, bumping into each other,

on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes..

I search instead for the others,
the ones left over,
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think
of themselves as
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.

Another election aside: we’re currently seeing the defeated Donald Trump “melt, come apart, fall into the ocean” like a sick gull,

I remember this poem being very important to me as a man when I read it in the early 1980s. It reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s “The Knight,” which is also about men who believe they must present a glittering image to the world, even as they are disintegrating inside. Given that we have been through four years of a president celebrating toxic masculinity, Miller’s Telemachus comes as a relief.

Mythic archetypes provide authors with fertile ground for exploring foundational identity questions. Miller’s Circe is, at different points in the story, obedient child, rebellious daughter, vengeful rival, nurturing earth mother, powerful witch, fierce warrior, protective mother, and loving wife. The novel is a worthy entry in the long and distinguished history of authors turning to the Odysseus story to understand the human condition.

Further thought: I haven’t mentioned Miller’s handling of Penelope, a survivor wife who keeps her own counsel. Penelope ends up on Circe’s island and, in Circe’s suggestion that she might enjoy mentoring young women, I recognized a nod to Atwood’s Penelopiad, which features Penelope’s complex relationship with her handmaids.

Posted in Atwood (Margaret), Dante, Euripides, Miller (Madeline), Sophocles, Tennyson (Alfred Lord) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The GOP’s Monster Continues to Strike

Henry Fuseli, Odysseus and Scylla


I have a new literary image to replace Frankenstein’s monster, the now overused allusion that has been used time and again to describe the GOP’s embrace of rightwing extremism. In Madeline Miller’s delicious novel Circe (2018), the island enchantress creates a horror she cannot control in Scylla, the six-headed monster that devours mariners. Then, like Dr. Frankenstein, she does everything she can to undo the damage.

The analogy breaks down here, however, since GOP leaders have shown little inclination to distance themselves from their monster. Trump lawyer Sidney Power recently threatened to “release the Kraken” upon Democrats, and while Powell is so nutty that even the president has distanced himself from her, we’re still seeing many Republicans go along with Trump’s lies about voter fraud. The more they enable the monster they have created, the more they threaten our democracy.

In the novel, Scylla is a beautiful but cruel nymph whom Circe turns into a monster for stealing her man, an act of jealousy that haunts her for the rest of her life. At one point she hopes to make personal connection with Scylla, only to discover she is beyond human reach. An id-driven beast with insatiable appetites is not a bad way to describe the self-absorbed Trump:

She was gray as the air, as the cliff itself. I had always imagined she would look like something: a snake or an octopus, a shark. But the truth of her was overwhelming, an immensity that my mind fought to take in. Her necks were longer than ship masts. Her six heads gaped, hideously lumpen, like melted lava stone. Black tongues licked her sword-length teeth.

Her eyes were fixed on the men, oblivious in their sweating fear. She crept closer, slipping over the rocks. A reptilian stench struck me, foul as squirming nests underground. Her necks wove a little in the air, and from one of her mouths I saw a gleaming strand of saliva stretch and fall.

After barely managing to save the ship and its crew, Circe reflects upon her creation:

Before me [in my imagination] was Scylla, her ravening mouths and those dead, empty eyes. She had not known me, I thought…Only the novelty of my being a god had momentarily checked her. Her mind was gone.

Many Republican NeverTrumpers, seeing their party’s corruption, have concluded that the GOP must be destroyed in order to be born again, which is why they argued for voting a straight Democratic ticket. Circe similarly concludes that destroying Scylla is the only remedy and returns with the world’s deadliest poison:

”Scylla!” I lifted the spear. “It is I, Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia.”

She shrieked, that old baying cacophony, clawing at my ears, but there was no recognition in it.

“Long ago I changed you to this form from the nymph you were. I come now with Trygon’s power to make an end of what I began.”

Trygon is an underwater creature from whose tail Circe has obtained the poison, and she has packed it into one of the decoy rams that Scylla swallows. Because it doesn’t take effect right away, Circe fears that her poison-coated spear will prove equally harmless:

She screamed again. Her breath washed over me, stink and searing heat. The heads were weaving faster in her excitement. They snapped the air, long strands of drool swing from their jowls. She was afraid of the spear, but that would not hold her for long. She had come to like the taste of mortal flesh. She craved it. Stark, black terror rolled through me. I would have sworn I had felt the spell take hold. Had I been wrong? Panic drenched my shoulders. I would have to fight her six ravening heads at once.

Fortunately, at this point the poison kicks in and Scylla falls into the sea. Having made the straits safe for future mariners, Circe sets off to start life anew.

Will we be as lucky? Unfortunately, while Trump himself may have been defeated, Trumpism has multiple heads, with figures like Texas’ Ted Cruz, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, and Florida’s Marco Rubio vying to take his place. The “taste of mortal flesh”—in their case, Trumpists’ crazed hatred of anyone who doesn’t agree with them—is insatiable.

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Remember the Real Meaning of Christmas

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim

Spiritual Sunday – 1st Sunday of Advent

The indispensable website Journey to Jesus has alerted me to Jim McPherson’s “December Humbug.” The poet echoes Scrooge but in a good way: the poet doesn’t challenge Christmas itself but the way it has been commercialized.

For a reminder, here’s Scrooge’s case against Christmas:

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Somewhat like Scrooge, McPherson talks of “December’s wild collective madness” when “we all submit like slaves to Santa’s lash/ and with our hearts and minds and credit cards/ crown Santa as de facto Season King.” While we “dream of better things/ beyond injustice, misery and toil,” this “cargo cult” figure who lives far from humanity offers only “tinsel hope and brittle joy.” Although the season is meant to celebrate the moment when God entered the world in human form, we settle for “Santa’s baubles or his sugared grift.”

Incidentally, Dickens is largely responsible for why we celebrate Christmas the way we do. Yet lest we blame him for the commercial extravaganza the season has become, we can look to Scrooge’s nephew to see what the author actually thought:

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

In other words, he too is grateful to a God whose feet, in McPherson’s words, “have touched the ground” (unlike the airborne Santa’s) and given us a vision beyond “injustice hunger and fatigue.” While less grumpy than McPherson, the nephew will not be settling for “happy pills.”

Think of “December Humbug” as a useful satiric corrective for when we lose sight of what is really important.

December Humbug
By Jim McPherson

December’s wild collective madness strikes!
We all submit like slaves to Santa’s lash
and with our hearts and minds and credit cards
crown Santa as de facto Season King. 

Remote from human suffering at the Pole,
he speaks to those who dream of better things
beyond injustice misery and toil
to offer tinsel hope and brittle joy:
“Just come to me, and I will bring relief ‑
my cargo cult will save you from your grief.”

I cannot soil the Incarnation’s gift
with Santa’s baubles or his sugared grift 

Give me the God whose feet have touched the ground
and walked with us as human as ourselves
to celebrate our joys and share our pain;
who’s borne injustice hunger and fatigue
and who, foreswearing all escape, endured
our human death; and Death’s defeat secured.

December’s now the torment of my year;
while Santa’s bogus claims assault my ears
the One we fete, who lived our living’s ills,
is trampled in the rush for happy pills.
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Trump Should Concede Like Cleopatra

Guido Cagnacci, Death of Cleopatra


Now that Donald Trump has instructed his flunky in the General Services Agency to fund President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition, we have as close to a concession from Donald Trump as we are likely to get. Last week I compared Trump to King Lear, a leader who departs the scene badly. Thanks to an article in Town & Country, I recall that Shakespeare also provides models for leaders who step down with class. Trump would do well if he modeled himself on Cleopatra.

Having lost Antony and determined not to become Octavius Caesar’s battle trophy, Cleopatra opts for suicide by asp. Her last words represent her finest moment:

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.

Daniel Mendelsohn writes,

But if history and literature have anything to tell us, it’s that the figures who have earned the greatest admiration are often not the ones who won the battle or the election or the girl/boy, or whatever, but those who knew how to lose gracefully.


[T]he fictional characters we love best are those who yield to life’s harshness while preserving an inner, inviolable aplomb…

Mendelsohn mentions Hector’s farewell speech to Andromache as well. The situation isn’t exactly the same as Hector intends to return victorious. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that his wife’s premonition that Achilles will kill him may be well founded:

Then tall Hektor of the shining helm answered her: ‘All these
things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting;
and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.
For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.
But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans that troubles me…
as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armoured
Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty,…
But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I
hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.
(trans. Richard Lattimore)

Compared to Cleopatra and Hector, Trump has it easy. Come January 20, Biden will not be parading him in chains down Pennsylvania Avenue or dragging his body three times around the Washington beltway. Trump could issue a short, dignified note and go off to play golf in Florida.

Instead, like Lear, he rages at everyone around him. No one is surprised.

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Joys Are Snowflakes, They Drift and Stray

Thursday – Thanksgiving

My good friend Sue Schmidt alerted me to this fine poem by Hungary’s Reményik Sándor, which reminds us to be thankful for “tiny wonders.” “Joys are snowflakes, they drift and stray,” the poet tells us, describing them as “silent, sifting petals of wonder.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

Silent Wonders
By Reményik Sándor
Translated by Leslie A. Kerik

Do not wait for the earth to shatter,
Sodom’s consumption by fire.
Tiny wonders from day to day are
Greater, deeper to admire.

Come, place your hand upon your heart and
Hear well, observe what it conveys.
Is this fine beating not by far the
Greatest, most wonderous music phrase?

Come, look into that deep blue Endless,
Look at those tiny silver things:
Not wonderous that your orphaned soul is
Rising towards them, spreading wings?

Look how your shadow runs before you,
How it expands and shrinks with you.
Not a wonder? Or that the waters
Reflect the heavens for your view?

Do not expect big things in life, for
Joys are snowflakes, they drift and stray.
Silent, sifting petals of wonder.
In them’s God’s voice: I’m coming.
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Chess as a Metaphor for Life

The knight (Sydow) plays Death in The Seventh Seal


Like many Netflix subscribes, our family has been enthralled with The Queen’s Gambit, the miniseries featuring a woman who takes on the very male world of chess and emerges triumphant. The series has taken me back to my own early chess playing days, including the time I spent avidly following Bobby Fisher, upon whom Beth Harmon is partly modeled. It also gives me a chance to share  a wonderful Ferlinghetti chess poem.

I was never terribly good at chess but nevertheless would follow the columns authored by Bobby Fisher in Boy’s Life.  I remember replaying and being awed by “the game of the century,” where a 13-year-old Bobby Fisher lures his opponent into taking his queen, after which he inexorably marches to a perfect checkmate. I cheered as Fisher took down Boris Spassky.

I also remember the shock I felt with my brother David beat me, even though he was five years younger. David would go on to play in chess tournaments

Chess  is often used as a metaphor for life, especially political life. (One figure is either playing chess to the other’s checkers or three-dimensional chess to the other’s tiddlywinks.) In a passage that is partially quoted in Queen’s Gambit, Aldous Huxley has written,

Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn, upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?

Yet, it is a very plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend on our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated – without haste, but without remorse. (The bolded passage appears in the series.)

Life is hardly so logical and scientific in the eyes of beatnik poet Ferlinghetti, however. Rather than playing “always fair,” you opponent may be

bugging you with his deep eyes
  or obscenely wiggling his crazy eyebrows
    or blowing smoke in your face
      or crossing and recrossing his legs
                          or her legs
or otherwise screwing around
  and acting like some insolent invulnerable
                     unbeatable god
    who can read your mind & heart

You may fantasize about beating this opponent with “some super end-game/ no one has ever even dreamed of,” but Ferlinghetti seems less optimistic than Huxley that you can pull this off.

In any event, “your move.”

Deep Chess
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Life itself like championship chess
                       dark players jousting
          on a checkered field
                  where you have only
          so much time
                 to complete your moves
And your clock running
               all the time
    and if you take
               too much time
                       for one move
       you have that much less
                      for the rest
            of your life
And your opponent
           dark or fair
     (which may or may not be
                 life itself)
bugging you with his deep eyes
  or obscenely wiggling his crazy eyebrows
    or blowing smoke in your face
      or crossing and recrossing his legs
                          or her legs
or otherwise screwing around
  and acting like some insolent invulnerable
                     unbeatable god
    who can read your mind & heart
And one hasty move
           may ruin you
  for you must play
             deep chess
     (like the one deep game Spassky won from Fischer)
And if your unstudied opening
                    was not too brilliant
   you must play to win not draw
      and suddenly come up with
                 a new Nabokov variation
And then lay Him out at last
        with some super end-game
               no one has ever even dreamed of

And there’s still time–
                  Your move 

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Inferno’s 8th Circle Reserved for Mitch


The GOP leadership continues to astound. We thought we’d seen everything when Republicans supported the president after he used his position to pressure foreign powers into sliming his probable opponent, but not calling out his attempts to subvert the recent election takes their complicity to a whole new level.

I’ve written about how the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno is the proper place for GOP moderates, who occasionally say the proper thing, even as they avoid confronting Trump’s abuses. We’re now hearing cautious words from the Susan Collinses and Marco Rubios about Joe Biden’s victory. Like the fence-sitting angels in the poem, such people are shunned by both sides and their names are forgotten, but at least this is better than nothing. Virgil’s advice regarding them is good: “Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass.”

Those who are actively abetting Trump’s sedition, on the other hand, belong further down. I propose the eighth circle of hell, eighth bolgia (ditch), for Mitch McConnell and those others who, if not actually trying to steal the election for Trump, are using his attacks on our democracy for their own purposes. McConnell has a lot in common with Guido da Montefeltro.

Bolgia 8 is supposedly for fraudulent counselors, but Dante scholar Anna Hatcher convincingly argues that the label doesn’t fully capture the crimes of its two most famous inhabitants, Montefeltro and Ulysses. Their sin is using their considerable intelligence for destructive ends, thereby wasting and abusing God’s gifts.

Ulysses employs his compelling persuasive abilities to, among other things, enlist Achilles to join the war that will kill him and persuade his own men to follow him on a suicidal journey. Montefeltro thinks he can play tricks with heaven, getting a corrupt pope to guarantee him absolution in return for treacherous war advice. I’ll get to the McConnell parallels in a moment but, as you read Montefeltro’s words, notice how calculated he is. He always has an angle that absolves him of blame.

Calling himself an old military fox who prides himself on his stratagems, Montefeltro reaches a point in his life where he starts thinking of heaven. As he puts it, he lowers his sail, gathers in his lines, and becomes a Franciscan monk:

                                 [M]y deeds
were not of the lion but of the fox: I raced

through tangled ways; all wiles were mine from birth,
and I won to such advantage with my arts
that rumor of me reached the ends of the earth.

But when I saw before me all the signs
of the time of life that cautions every man
to lower his sail and gather in his lines,

that which had pleased me once, troubled my spirit,
and penitent and confessed, I became a monk.

This calculated penitence and confession isn’t the end of it. Pope Boniface VIII, at war with the Colonna family for having disputed the legitimacy of his election, wants advice in how to extricate them from Palestrina fortress to which they have retreated. Montefeltro, after first receiving absolution for what he is about to propose, advocates offering them amnesty and then reneging on the promise. In his words, “[L]ong promise and short observance is the road/ that leads to the sure triumph of your throne.” The ploy works and Boniface razes Palestrina to the ground.

It was he [the pope] abused his sacred vows and mine:
his Office and the Cord I wore, which once
made those it girded leaner.

[Constantine] demanded my advice, and I kept silent
for his words seemed drunken to me. So it stood

until he said: "Your soul need fear no wound;
I absolve your guilt beforehand; and now teach me
how to smash Penestrino to the ground.

The Gates of Heaven, as you know, are mine
to open and shut, for I hold the two Great Keys
so easily let go by Celestine."

His weighty arguments led me to fear
silence was worse than sin. Therefore, I said:
"Holy Father, since you clean me here

of the guilt into which I fall, let it be done:
long promise and short observance is the road
that leads to the sure triumph of your throne."

Montefeltro may think the pope can grant him absolution, but Satan has other ideas, as Montefeltro learns after his death:

Later, when I was dead, St. Francis came
to claim my soul, but one of the Black Angels
said: 'Leave him. Do not wrong me. This one's name

went into my book the moment he resolved
to give false counsel. Since then he has been mine,
for who does not repent cannot be absolved...

Applying this to McConnell, he cannot invokeDante contrasts Montefeltro with his son. Because the younger Montefeltro feels genuine contrition for a misspent life—I wrote about him yesterday—he goes to Purgatory rather than Inferno.

Both Ulysses and Montefeltro are trapped within impressive flames that give them stature but burn incessantly. The significance of the punishment is explained through reference to “the Sicilian bull,” one of Dante’s most terrifying images. Translator Dorothy Sayers explains:

This instrument of torture was made by Perillus for Phalaris, the Sicilian tyrant. The victims were roasted alive in it, and their yells, issuing through the brazen mouth, were supposed to sound like the bull bellowing. Phalaris, with grisly humour, tried the invention out on Perillus.

In other words, like Perillus, the two blazing intelligences Ulysses and Montefeltro find themselves trapped for eternity in a hell of their own contrivance. Their powerful words, which misled others, are now delivered in torment. When your compelling words issue out of your own hollowness, you can never escape your own flame.

McConnell constantly invokes the Constitution and the rule of law for whatever he does. For instance, here’s what he said to the Senate a few days after the election:

The core principle here is not complicated. In the United States of America, all legal ballots must be counted and illegal ballots must not be counted. The process should be transparent or observable by all sides, and the courts are here to work through concerns. Our institutions are actually built for this. We have the system in place to consider concerns, and President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.

Because there’s no question that Biden has won the election, McConnell is actually legitimizing Trump’s challenges with his disingenuous statement. You can no more cite democracy at the same time that you are working to undermine it than you can ask for God’s absolution at the same time you are committing crimes. The Black Angel makes this clear to Montefeltro:

[N]or can we admit the possibility
of repenting a thing at the same time it is willed,
for the two acts are contradictory.’

In all likelihood, McConnell wants to keep Trump supporters riled up enough to vote Republican in the upcoming special Georgia senate election, which will determine whether or not McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader. If he were to admit that Biden has won, Trump might sabotage the election out of spite.

Montefeltro is so devious that he tells Dante his story only because he thinks that no one in hell ever returns to the land of the living, where his interior workings could be exposed. “If I believed that my reply were made to one who could ever climb to the world again,” he says, “this flame would shake no more.”

 McConnell is similarly calculating, and the result has been one of the Senate’s most consequential leaders. He has remade the judiciary in his own image and been brutally effective at ensuring that that nothing other than high-end tax cuts are passed. Norms have been shredded in the process, but as nothing matters to him other than wealth and power, it’s a tradeoff he makes willingly. The country be damned.

The Black Angels don’t have to wait until he dies to claim his soul. When this perpetually angry man delivers his pronouncements from the floor of the Senate, the emptiness of a roaring brass bull is there for all to see and hear.

Posted in Dante | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Citizen Kane” Foretells Trump

Still from Citizen Kane


While I no longer blog about film—there was just too much literature I wanted to write about—I make an exception with Citizen Kane, that most literary of movies. My most quoted scholarly article (you can find “Fiery Speech in a World of Shadows: Rosebud’s Impact on Early Audiences” if you google it) explores the rosebud symbolism and arrives at a similar conclusion to Netflix’s recent film about Citizen Kane’s screenwriter, but that’s not why I turn to it today. There’s a scene in the movie that all but predicts what we’re experiencing in our current presidential transition. Or should I say, non-transition?

First a quick note about the Netflix documentary. There has long been a debate about whether director Orson Welles or scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was most responsible for Citizen Kane, with Pauline Kael’s famous New Yorker article arguing for Mankiewicz and Welles scholar Robert Carringer counterarguing for Welles. (In my article, written with my father, I take an intermediate position: Welles, Mankiewicz and, for that matter, William Randolph Hearst were all obsessed with roses so that the rosebud symbol belongs to them all more or less equally.)

Back to the transition. Kane’s newspaper, awaiting the election result from his campaign for governor, has prepared two different front pages. The first headline announces Kane’s victory. The second screams, “Fraud at the Polls.”

Kane’s flunkies know that they must go with the second option when they learn that the only outstanding votes are those from boroughs with a heavy concentration of values voters. Apparently, there was a time when Christians might vote against you for significant character lapses, including adulterous affairs. How times have changed!

The “Fraud at the Polls” headline indicates that Kane thinks that, through his newspaper, he can manufacture his own reality. This doesn’t apply only to politics: he also thinks he can turn Susan Alexander into an opera diva. His best friend Jed Leland, displaying more spine than most members of the GOP, is fired when he tells the truth about her wretched singing. Charles Krebs, director of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, suffered a similar fate after contradicting the president by announcing that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”

In 2016 I explored why Citizen Kane is Donald Trump’s favorite film, and the subsequent years have shown us many more parallels. The iconic still from the film, with a huge photo above Kane at the podium, shows that he uses crowds to feed his ego in the same way that Trump does. His rallies, like Trump’s, are opportunities to vent grievances rather than to put forth polices. Kane’s only campaign promise is to imprison his opponent. Lock him up!

Although Kane, like Trump, has cast himself as a populist, Leland exposes the claim. Kane doesn’t care about anyone but himself:

You talk about the people as though you owned them. As though they belong to you. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights as if you could make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.

Also, like Trump, Kane hobnobs with authoritarians—Mussolini, Franco and Hitler in his case—even while claiming to love democratic America. Like Trump, Kane has inherited millions and uses some of the money to build gaudy surroundings designed to prop up his fragile ego. Like Trump, he collects trophy wives.

It remains to be seen whether Trump has any rosebud poetry at his core. While I’ve compared Trump to King Lear, I’ve been skeptical that Trump can ever find the love that Lear discovers, Kane reconnects with his soul on his deathbed so perhaps Trump can as well. All three men cause a lot of misery before they reach that point, however.

Speaking of last-minute soul connecting, Dante shows how it works in Purgatorio. In Canto V Buonconte da Montefeltro, who took up arms against Dante’s beloved Florence, reports experiencing a heavenly moment before he dies. That is why, unlike his father—who had no such moment and therefore is in Inferno—Buonconte can make the afterlife journey from Purgatory to Paradise:

There my sight failed me, and my last word sped
Forth in the name of Mary; there headlong
I fell; there left only my body dead.

‘’Tis truth I speak: proclaim that truth among
Live men. God’s angel took me, and Hell’s fiend
Shrieked out: “O thief of Heaven, why do me wrong?

He’s thine—one tear, one little tear could rend
His deathless part away from me!”

For the sake of Trump’s own soul, I hope Citizen Kane being his favorite movie is a sign that somewhere, deep inside, he thrills to Kane’s rosebud moment. The snow globe, found when Kane is tearing apart Susan’s room, takes him back to the time when he was an innocent boy playing with his sled in New Salem, Colorado—a time before his loving mother betrayed him by selling him to a bank. Does Trump have within him that “one little tear”?

Or does he love the movie because he wants Kane’s celebrity status? Does he thrill only to the fact that Kane runs a media empire, is the constant center of attention, and has newsreels made about him when he dies. If so, he may be trapped forever in the self, just as Kane is trapped within those dark, ceilinged interiors. Or as Dante calls it, Inferno.

Further thought: Here another Welles-Trump connection. Apparently, Welles initially wanted to film Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist takeover of America. It was turned down as being too controversial–it would have offended RKO’s German audience–but that novel has seemed prescient in light of Trump attempts to overturn the election.

Welles also wanted to make Heart of Darkness, about a supposedly civilized and humane culture losing its way. Given the rise of authoritarian regimes in the 1930s, neither of these films projects is a surprise, but they show why a 1941 fictional biopic of a wannabe autocrat would resonate with us today.

Posted in Conrad (Joseph), Dante, Lewis (Sinclair), Welles (Orson) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If Jesus Were to Return

El Greco, Jesus Drives the Money Changers from the Temple

Spiritual Sunday

The trumpification of white evangelical Protestants and rightwing Catholics is nowhere clearer to me then in their response to today’s gospel reading. They all but pretend it doesn’t apply to them. My father has a poem imagining how such people would respond to Jesus if he were to return.

The reading is Matthew 25:31-46:

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Jesus says the left group will experience “eternal punishment”:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

While a number of Trumpist Christians seem all too ready to predict “eternal fire” for Christians like Joe Biden and me—radical Catholics call the president-elect a “Catholic in Name Only” (a CINO) and white evangelical Protestants see people like me as not real Christians—I read Jesus’s hell the way I read Dante’s Inferno: as a metaphor for the internal hell that we create for ourselves.

We are in hell when, say, we turn a blind eye to children torn away from their asylum-seeking parents and families deprived of food stamps and health care. Our Catholic Attorney General is in hell when he seeks to speed up executions in his final days. Racists are in hell when they dehumanize people of color.

In Scott Bates’s “Second Coming,” such Christians would vote for Trump over Jesus if the latter were to return:

The Second Coming
By Scott Bates

And in that latter day
     It came to pass
When Jesus came again to Jerusalem
     Riding an ass

No children came to dance before him then
     His silent ride
Was heralded by no cries of hosannah
     On either side

No palms or garments strewn
     Beneath his feet
Only the dusty midmorning sun
     Carpeting the street

And when he’d climbed the ancient temple steps
     And opened wide
The clanging tabernacle doors
     And stepped inside

And when he’d overthrown the tables and the chairs
     It came to pass
The money changers and the sellers of doves
     Rose up in wrath

And cast him from the holy house of prayer
     They drove him down
Down through the twisted narrow ways of Jerusalem
     Out from the town

They drove him out past all the empty doors,
     The barren trees
And turned and went back to their Priests and Scribes
     And Pharisees.

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” reads the Lord’s Prayer. Opening one’s heart to those who suffer—not driving them out past “the empty doors and barren trees”—is how one achieves heaven on earth.

Posted in Bates (Scott) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


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