Trump Uses Genocidal Language

Trump describes Turkey’s ethnic cleansing as two kids fighting in a sandbox

Monday

First it was children torn from their parents, then children dying in custody, then victims of white supremacist terrorism, and now it’s Kurds. It each case, the stage has been set by our sociopath in chief, who shows through his language how little regard he has for human dignity, human suffering, and human life. His latest example is endorsing the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, explaining that Persident Erdowan “had to have it cleaned out.” Later, he claimed that the Kurds who are to be cleaned out approve of the plan, regarding it as “the ultimate solution.” Yes, and European Jews embraced the final solution.

It’s become all to familiar to witness Trump employing images of infestation and dirt when talking about people who don’t look like him. Earlier this year he targeted the late Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and his “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” of a Baltimore district. Lucille Clifton, who once lived in Baltimore herself, has a poem about cockroaches that captures the frightening terrain that Trump has entered.

Reposted from May 20, 2018

I have become so inured to our president’s racism that it took me a moment to register the ugliness of a recent anti-immigrant tirade, where he referred to people crossing the border as “animals.” Here’s his statement, as reported by Dara Lind of Vox:

President Donald Trump referred to some people deported from the United States as “animals” during a roundtable discussion about California’s “sanctuary” law on Wednesday. After a California sheriff commented that her county is unable to notify ICE when an MS-13 gang member is in jail for a minor crime, Trump launched into a riff about “people trying to come in” and being deported who are “not people. They’re animals.”

As Lind notes,

It’s the latest in a series of statements stretching over Trump’s entire national political career that carelessly conflate immigration, criminality, and violence.

Let’s put aside for the moment whether any human being–including an MS-13 gang member or, for that matter, a white supremacist who shoots up a church or a school—should be regarded as an animal. Trump’s use of metonymy, with the image of a criminal immigrant standing in for all immigrants, is designed to inspired fear of “the Other.”

For the record, Trump is not just targeting criminals:

No matter how Trump is portraying his policy, his administration is not focusing on deporting people who have committed particularly heinous crimes, gang members, or people with criminal records. From Trump’s inauguration to the end of 2017, ICE arrested 45,436 immigrants without criminal records.

Lucille Clifton has a poem that captures what gives Trump’s metaphor its power. One would think that killing cockroaches isn’t controversial, and her poem “at last we killed the roaches” at first seems unexceptionable.

To be sure, in one of those unfortunate instances of evolving language, the poem has taken on unintended secondary meanings since she wrote it. “Roaches” is slang among some on the right, including police, for people of color living in urban areas. Some Hutus also referred to their Tutsi victims as cockroaches in the Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000.

As it turns out, however, the secondary meanings add to Clifton’s point because she doesn’t let herself, a descendent of people who were targeted by hate mobs, off the hook.  As she cleans her house, she realizes that even she is not immune from the thrill of righteous slaughter:

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

I’m struck by the use of the religious word “grace.” Do Trump’s evangelical followers feel a thrill when he goes after immigrants from “shithole” countries and urban inhabitants living in “hellholes”? Do they feel anything like those who were whipped up to join the crusades to fight  the infidel or like those eastern European Christians whose anti-Semitic pogroms were set in motion by Good Friday sermons? Many who participated in 20th century lynchings were born-again Christians who believed they had been washed in the blood of the lamb.

The exhilaration of cleansing can slide into “murder murder all over the place.” Trump is trafficking in very, very dangerous imagery.

Another cockroach reference: This one from British fascist commentator Katie Hopkins, whom Trump has retweeted upon occasion. In 2017 she referred to African migrants as cockroaches.

Related posts
Why Fascists Obsess about Invasions
The GOP and Trump’s Modest Proposals

Posted in Clifton (Lucille) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheer and Tune My Heartless Breast

Rhoda Nyberg, “Grace”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s gospel reading is a passage that got mentioned in a post from a couple of weeks ago. In a workshop on contemplative prayer, the Rev. Tom Ward cited it to (1) emphasize the importance of prayer and (2) illustrate Jesus’s sense of humor. The passage brings to mind one of my favorite George Herbert poems.

Jesus’s words (Luke 18:2-7) emphasize the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Interestingly, while the parable contrasts God with an unjust judge, it does so in a way that suggests some similarities:

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

Jesus then suggests that, if you want to get God’s attention, be like this widow. If you cry for justice day and night, sooner or later God will say, “Enough already! Okay, here’s justice.”

To be sure, Jesus then clarifies that God doesn’t demand such persistent prayer. Nevertheless, the similarity has been floated and the point made: pray to God as if you are a frustrated widow dealing with an indifferent judge:

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.

God is sometimes portrayed as an indifferent judge in Herbert’s poetry. In “Denial,” he imagines God as deaf to his devotions, even though he has benumbed both his knees and his heart crying out, “Come, come, my God. O come!” He even mentions God’s unreasonableness:

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Yet the poem ends like a chord resolution, with the poem’s half rhymes (pierce/verse, tongue/long) and lack of rhymes (disorder/alarms, hearing/discontented) shifting to a stanza full of rhymes:

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

The poet’s heart is no longer like an untuned instrument. God has heard after all, and we are left with a feeling of peace.

But only after considerable agony.

Denial

By George Herbert

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

“As good go anywhere,” they say,
“As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.”

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

Further thought: I ran into Tom Ward after posting this essay and he observed that Herbert would have been aided by Jesus’s sense of humor. According to his mentor Thomas Keating, to pray well we should try less hard, not more.

Then again, Herbert himself comes to a version of this realization in many of his poems, including this one, “The Collar” and “Love (III).”

Posted in Herbert (George) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Oliver, a Poet for Introverts

Mary Oliver

Friday

I love retirement but regret how it has separated me from the literary insights of students. Over half of what I know about literature I have either learned directly from them or have arrived at through class preparation. Fortunately, Sewanee College has asked me to teach a “Composition and Literature” class and, as expected, I’m learning new things.

I recently taught Mary Oliver’s American Primitive and finally understood three poems that have always eluded me. I now have new insights into how an introvert experiences life.

Oliver was a private person but could feel trapped inside herself. She understood that, frightening though it can be to venture outside one’s comfort zone, great rewards await those who do so. In a number of her poems one sees a tug of war between wanting to hunker down and wanting to venture out.

My student Alexander Knight alerted me to this particular dynamic in his essay on her poem “Flying.” Alexander is a self-described extrovert but he has several very introverted friends. He used the poem to understand them better.

In “Flying” the speaker is so struck by the beauty of a stranger on an airplane that she feels compelled to get up and lightly bump against him:

Sometimes,
on a plane,
you see a stranger.
He is so beautiful!
His nose
Going down in the
old Greek way,
or his smile
a wild Mexican fiesta.
You want to say:
do you know how beautiful you are?
You leap up
into the aisle,
you can’t let him go
until he has touched you
shyly, until you have rubbed him,
oh, lightly,
like a coin
you find on the earth somewhere
shining and unexpected and,
without thinking,
reach for. You stand there
shaken
by the strangeness,
the splash of his touch.
When he’s gone
you stare like an animal into
the blinding clouds
with the snapped chain of your life,
the life you know:
the deeply affectionate earth,
the familiar landscapes
slowly turning
thousands of feet below.

If he had been Oliver, Alexander said, he would have introduced himself. Yet he realized his friends, like Oliver, wouldn’t do so in a thousand years. Although this means they lose out on certain experiences, it also means what experiences they do have are particularly intense.

In this poem, a mere “splash of his touch” sends the speaker spiraling away from earth. The chain that holds her to life as been snapped and she feels as though she is flying.

Once Alexander pointed out this dynamic, I found it in poem after poem. In “Lightning,” for instance, Oliver describes a back and forth between fearfully remaining isolated and excitedly rushing out like blazing lightning:

…it was hard to tell
fear from excitement:
how sensual
the lightning’s
poured stroke! and still,
what a fire and a risk!
As always the body
wants to hide,
wants to flow toward it - strives
to balance while
fear shouts,
excitement shouts, back
and forth - each
bolt a burning river
tearing like escape through the dark
field of the other.

This other—other people—feels risky, but the passionate fire makes it worthwhile.

In “Bobcat,” one finds the same dynamic. The poet is driving through dark roads at night when suddenly a bobcat leaps into view, causing hearts to thud and stop:

What should we say
   is the truth of the world?
    The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
 or the push of the promise?
   or the wound of delight?

“Wound of delight,” like the tearing lightning, captures the experience for an introvert: the contact with the external world hurts but is exhilarating.

The poem “John Chapman” shows what can happen with an introvert is wounded too much. Johnny Appleseed, once deceived by a woman, seems most comfortable in the company of animals. Oliver notes that he

thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow long touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.

Yet the hermit finds another way of sharing himself with the world: he gives it apple trees, “lovely/ as young girls,” and to this day “you can still find sign of him”:

 In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.

Even when introverts have their worst fears realized, Oliver says they still have a decision to make:

to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something.

In other words, even wounded introverts can find their own way of sharing themselves with us. In the introverted Oliver’s case, her patches of cold white fire were her poems.

Personal memory: I had the honor of dining with Oliver when she made a rare campus visit, in this case to visit her friend Lucille Clifton. Although she was quiet and withdrawn, I was able to share with her an Oscar Wilde passage that she appreciated: “Ignorance is like a rare fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”

Posted in Oliver (Mary) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Connecticut Yankee in Northern Syria

Daniel Carter Beard, frontispiece to Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Thursday

Yesterday a tweet by a Wall Street Journal reporter in Syria brought me up short because it sounded right out of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The two situations are disturbingly similar.

First Dion Nissenbaum’s tweet:

Remarkable day in Syria: The US military carried out airstrikes to destroy the headquarters for its counter-ISIS campaign after Turkish backed forces closed in on the base. US military says it is carrying out “deliberate withdrawal.”

Now Twain’s progatonist:

Time for the second step in the plan of campaign!  I touched a button, and shook the bones of England loose from her spine!

In that explosion all our noble civilization-factories went up in the air and disappeared from the earth.  It was a pity, but it was necessary.  We could not afford to let the enemy turn our own weapons against us.

In Twain’s time-travel novel, Hank and his men find themselves fighting the entirety of medieval England, having failed to turn it into a modern-day republic. Their use of modern technology gives them an overwhelming advantage, and through the use of electrified fences and gatling guns they enact their own version of Desert Storm:

“Stand to your guns, men! Open fire!”

The thirteen gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand. They halted, they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, then they broke, faced about and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three-fourths reached it and plunged over—to death by drowning.

Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England. Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.

Twice in the past 20 years, America’s superior fire power has yielded what appeared at the time to be spectacular victories, once in Afghanistan and once in Iraq. Increasingly, however, those victories appear to have been as hollow as Hank’s. In his case, the illness unleashed by the dead bodies kills everyone in the compound. In Afghanistan, we are hunkered down in a compound and an interminable war. The situation isn’t much better in Iraq.

But back to Syria.  Trump boasted that we had crushed ISIS, then gave Turkey the green light to attack the Kurds, and now we are seeing ISIS raise its flag once more. While it appears that our troops, unlike Hank’s, will escape with their lives, for the Kurds it’s a different story.

Humiliated by Turkey, Trump is now throwing out empty threats. I’m particularly struck by the similarity between his letter to Turkish president Erdogan and Hank’s letter to the opposing knights. Both prove to be equally ineffective.

First Hank:

TO THE HONORABLE THE COMMANDER OF THE INSURGENT CHIVALRY OF ENGLAND: You fight in vain. We know your strength—if one may call it by that name. We know that at the utmost you cannot bring against us above five and twenty thousand knights. Therefore, you have no chance—none whatever. Reflect: we are well equipped, well fortified, we number 54. Fifty-four what? Men? No, minds—the capablest in the world; a force against which mere animal might may no more hope to prevail than may the idle waves of the sea hope to prevail against the granite barriers of England. Be advised. We offer you your lives; for the sake of your families, do not reject the gift. We offer you this chance, and it is the last: throw down your arms; surrender unconditionally to the Republic, and all will be forgiven.

(Signed) THE BOSS.

Now Trump:

His Excellency
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President of the Republic of Turkey
Ankara

Dear Mr. President:

Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.

I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don’t let the world down. You can make a great deal. General Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a copy of his letter to me, just received.

History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!

I will call you later.

How was Twain able to anticipate Trump so perfectly? Because he understood American braggadocio as well as anyone ever has.

Posted in Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Using Fiction to Imagine a Bright Future

19th century French postcard

Wednesday

Otey Parish’s adult Sunday School—our “Adult Forum”—heard an economist refer to Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward this past Sunday. It made sense given that our theme this year is Jesus’s words to his home congregation (Luke 4:18-19):

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The passage from Luke has inspired us to invite people to speak on poverty, addiction, abuse, imprisonment, medical care, education in poor communities, and other pressing social issues. Doug Williams, Sewanee College’s treasurer and former member of the economics department, talked about income inequality, a key concern of Looking Backward.

When he was an undergraduate at Sewanee, Doug encountered Bellamy’s novel in a history class taught by one of the college’s first women faculty (Nita Goodstein). Having come from a fundamentalist background in a small southern town, Doug said the book turned his world upside down. Although he was an economics major, the novel prompted him to add ethics, morality, politics, history and the arts to his understanding of the world. In other words, he entered fully into the spirit of the liberal arts.

Bellamy’s book is set 112 years in the future, which is to say, in 2000. I rely on Wikipedia’s version of the novel to summarize the socialist utopia that America has become:

The major themes include problems associated with capitalism, a proposed socialist solution of a nationalization of all industry, and the use of an “industrial army” to organize production and distribution, as well as how to ensure free cultural production under such conditions.

The young man readily finds a guide, Doctor Leete, who shows him around and explains all the advances of this new age, including drastically reduced working hours for people performing menial jobs and almost instantaneous, Internet-like delivery of goods. Everyone retires with full benefits at age 45, and may eat in any of the public kitchens. The productive capacity of the United States is nationally owned, and the goods of society are equally distributed to its citizens. 

Doug did not become a Bellamite. As an economics major, he learned that pure state planning does not work because figuring out consumer needs is too complex for any one entity. Some kind of market mechanism is necessary.

He also became learned, however, how capitalism contributes to poverty and income inequality. He is particularly critical of the way that income has increasingly flowed to the very wealthy while everyone else’s wealth stagnates.

The remainder of his talk looked at the reasons for increasing income inequality and the prospects for plans like Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax and Andrew Yang’s proposal to give everyone $12,000 a year. (He was sympathetic with both but also pointed out the downsides.)

Looking at the talk from a literary perspective, I was struck by the impact of a novel on an undergraduate. Even a work as didactic as Bellamy’s can set one’s imagination in motion so that the world seems less fixed and immutable. That’s a remarkable achievement.

Further thoughts: To fill you on on some further items in the talk, Doug gave five reasons why incomes for the top 5% have almost doubled since 1989 and climbed even higher for the top .1%:
–tax rates on high incomes have declined;
–there’s been an increase in “assortative mating,” where similar demographics marry each other;
–college education (or lack thereof) has accelerated disparities
–globalization and the outsourcing of jobs has undermined pay; and
–technology, especially artificial intelligence, has resulted in increasingly high levels of labor displacement. Only jobs that face constantly face novel situations can’t be replaced (in other words, jobs for which computer code can’t be written, such as security personnel and janitors).

Regarding his cautions about plans to redistribute wealth, Doug said economists look to see how much “leakage” there will be, whether through tax avoidance, bureaucracy and the like. Certain levels of leakage the general public will find acceptable, too much leakage not. But something must be done because, if economic disparities continue to rise, the lower classes will continue to lose faith in the economic system and populist demagogues will feast on their discontent.

Posted in Bellamy (Edward) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Anxiety of Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Tuesday

I come not to praise Harold Bloom, who died yesterday, but to bury him. Although he is much lauded, I have always found him frustratingly opaque. Someone once wrote that he wasn’t wise, just “well-read,” and in my irritation I latched onto that put-down.

To be sure, I had to acknowledge that his knowledge of literature was immense—he memorized Paradise Lost as a child, he claimed to be able to read a thousand pages an hour, and he produced a veritable library full of critical collections. When he picked up a poem, he could identify the influences immediately. But I always felt that, for him, poetry was chiefly about previous poetry.

He is best known for The Anxiety of Influence, where he imagined poets engaged in Oedipal battles with those who came before. Either you were successful, becoming a great poet in your own right, or you failed and were merely (shudder!) derivative. The anxiety of not being original sometimes led great poets (as Bloom saw it) to misrepresent their precursors, misreading them and then attacking them for what they supposedly said. Only when these poets found their own voices could they magnanimously go back and find something good to say about their predecessors.

While there are some poets who fit this model (for instance, T.S. Eliot appears to have been anxious about Tennyson), there are many who don’t. Furthermore, it may be more of a male thing. Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert in The Madwoman in the Attic argue that women authors see their predecessors more as supportive sisters than as rivals, and I suspect the same is true of many male poets.

The theory probably says more about Bloom than about poets in general. Check out Bloom’s view of reading as a power struggle in a passage that my poet friend Norman Finkelstein alerted me to:

Disabuse yourself of the lazy notion that any activity is disinterested, and you arrive at the truth of reading. We want to be kind, we think, and we say that to be alone with a book is to confront neither ourselves nor another. We lie. When you read, you confront either yourself, or another, and in either confrontation you seek power. Power over yourself, or another, but power. And what is power? Potentia, the pathos of more life, or to speak reductively, the language of possession.

While Norman reluctantly finds a disagreeable truth in the assertion, I don’t recognize myself in the description. I certainly see it at work in Bloom, however. The critic and scholar he most emulated—and who he therefore never ceased to criticize even while praising him—was the 18th century’s Samuel Johnson, a man who resembled him in girth as well as in extraordinary reading abilities. The latter half of the 18th century is sometimes referred to as “the Age of Johnson.”

But while Johnson often said brilliant things about poets like Shakespeare, Dryden, and Pope, he didn’t confine himself to poetry. He also said brilliant things about all manner of subjects, including the vanity of human wishes, the human search for happiness, and procrastination. Whenever I read Johnson, I’m always struck by how he knows me better than I know myself.

Bloom, on the other hand, seldom opens up the world in ways I find useful or enlightening. He is no Samuel Johnson, and we haven’t been living in the Age of Bloom.

Bloom had some bestsellers during the culture wars of the 1990s, but I always wondered if people didn’t buy his books more because of what Bloom represented than what he wrote. He set himself as a grand judge of all literature, championing the classics and accusing the elevation of certain women and writers of color as literary affirmative action. Some of his pronouncements strike me as nuts, like elevating Thomas Pynchon over Toni Morrison.

While I’m all in on revering the classics, at times Bloom struck me as encouraging a sort of literary idolatry, instructing us to genuflect before genius without seriously engaging with it. Or at least engage with it in a way that made sense to me.  

I might have taken him more seriously had I better understood his project, and I’m open to seeing him differently. From my current perspective, however, I see him as having made more of an impact through his anthologies and collections than through his ideas. As a Samuel Johnson wannabe, he struck me as (shudder!) derivative.

Posted in Bloom (Harold), Johnson (Samuel) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Et Tu, Brute!”–Betraying the Kurds

Vincenzo Camuccini, The Death of Julius Caesar

Monday

Literature is full of betrayal narratives, many of which apply only too well to Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds. Given that these men and women have been fighting side by side with American troops against ISIS, often taking on the most dangerous missions, the president’s choice to green-light Turkey’s attack against them is horrifying.

Which narrative fits it best? Shakespeare has several, including Macbeth’s betrayal of Duncan and Iago’s betrayal of Othello. As with the Americans and Kurds, both involve betrayal by former comrades in arms. But the one we remember best is Julius Caesar’s horror that his own fellow warrior Brutus is among the assassins. “Et tu, Brute!” he cries out, the betrayal as painful as the knife blows raining down on him.

Trump is akin to Macbeth in that, because he betrays others, he believes others are out to get him. In other words, he sees himself surrounded by Banquos. Yet in the end, Macbeth suffers an attack of conscience of which Trump seems incapable. Brutus too—the noblest Roman of them all–is haunted by Caesar’s ghost. He has depth and noble purpose, even if his betrayal goes horribly awry.

With that in mind, I’ll go with Trump as Iago, a comparison I’ve made before. Like Iago, he seems to be driven by pure resentment, and, like Iago, he shows no sign of regret or compunction.

It remains to be seen whether final justice will be meted out to Trump as it is to Othello’s betrayer:

To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture...

That, however, will be of scant comfort to the Kurds.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let Us Sail into the Promise of the Day

Martin Johnson Heade, Dawn (1862)

Spiritual Sunday

I came across this thoughtful Edwin Arlington Robinson poem in Harold Bloom’s American Religious Poems. “The Children of the Night” owes a great deal to Tennyson’s spiritual exploration in In Memoriam, finding faith in a dark world that at times threatens to crush all hope. (The poetic rhythm is the same, even though the rhyme scheme is abab rather than abba.)

Robinson is no sentimentalist, and many of the characters he has created live blighted lives (e.g., Richard Cory, Aunt Imogen, Mr. Flood, Miniver Cheevy). Because of this, his declaration of faith is startling.

To be sure, the poem starts off on a dark note, with “those that never know the light” finding themselves lost in the vicissitudes of fortune. These are the children of the night, for whom darkness is a sullen thing. If we become embittered from weighing our sorrow and our strife “in the scales of circumstance,” we might as well drown ourselves. That’s better than sailing forever in the dark.

The poem turns in stanza seven. If we are one of these anguished mortals, then God sees us as “a soul gone mad.” And because God is Justice and Love, he holds out the promise of light. Why are we charmed by twilight? Not because of the gray but because of the sunset’s crimson rays. Why do we find the starry sky sublime? Because we know that it carries within it “the promise of the day.” We thrill to light because we carry light within us.

For all our fears, there is a faith within “that holds us to the life we curse.” Therefore, let us revere this Self “which is the universe.” Instead of hiding our scars, let us throw off our cloaks and declare ourselves to be Children of the Light.

One other note: We should do this, not by clutching to narrow doctrinal creeds that often turn God into a fiend, but by glorifying God’s excellence. Cherishing God is “the common creed of common sense.”

The Children of the Light

By E. A. Robinson

For those that never know the light,     
The darkness is a sullen thing;
And they, the Children of the Night
Seem lost in Fortune’s winnowing.

But some are strong and some are weak, —
And there’s the story.  House and home
Are shut from countless hearts that seek
World-refuge that will never come.

And if there be no other life,
And if there be no other chance
To weigh their sorrow and their strife
Than in the scales of circumstance,

‘T were better, ere the sun go down
Upon the first day we embark,
In life’s imbittered sea to drown,
Than sail forever in the dark.

But if there be a soul on earth
So blinded with its own misuse
Of man’s revealed, incessant worth,
Or worn with anguish, that it views

No light but for a mortal eye,
No rest but of a mortal sleep,
No God but in a prophet’s lie,
No faith for “honest doubt” to keep;

If there be nothing, good or bad,
But chaos for a soul to trust, —
God counts it for a soul gone mad,
And if God be God, He is just.

And if God be God, He is Love;
And though the Dawn be still so dim,
It shows us we have played enough
With creeds that make a fiend of Him.

There is one creed, and only one,
That glorifies God’s excellence;
So cherish, that His will be done,
The common creed of common sense.

It is the crimson, not the gray,
That charms the twilight of all time;
It is the promise of the day
That makes the starry sky sublime;

It is the faith within the fear
That holds us to the life we curse; —
So let us in ourselves revere
The Self which is the Universe!

Let us, the Children of the Night,
Put off the cloak that hides the scar!
Let us be Children of the Light,
And tell the ages what we are!

Posted in Robinson (E. A. ) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beowulf Transcends Tolkien’s Racism

J. R. Skelton, Grendel as Tolkien may have imagined him

Friday

My son Toby Wilson-Bates just alerted me to a Dorothy Kim article about how J.R.R. Tolkien, even as he brought general attention to Beowulf, also circumscribed how people interpreted it. The Oxford don could only see it as a white, male hero story and, more disturbingly, he shut out scholars of other races who might have interpreted it differently.

While I find the article overly opaque and convoluted, it does alert us to Tolkien’s prejudices. It also provides me an opportunity to reflect on how literary works are more complex than the writers who authored them or the scholars who study them. This is certainly true of Beowulf and somewhat true (because it’s a lesser work) of Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s landmark essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” elevated the epic from an interesting historical document to the masterpiece that launched Britain’s literary greatness. Since then, however, Kim says that critics have read it “through the white gaze and a preserve of white English heritage.” Tolkien, she argues in an elliptical and not altogether convincing manner, regarded Grendel as a black man. I’m less skeptical that his concern was “solidifying white Englishness and English identity.” While he “abhorred fascism and antisemitism,” he “upheld the English empire’s white supremacy.”

Kim then contrasts Tolkien’s vision with Toni Morrison’s. While the white author focuses on Beowulf, the black author focuses on Grendel and his mother, regarding them as “raced and marginal figures.” In Morrison’s view, Grendel represents the dispossessed, one who yearns “for nurture and community.” I haven’t read Morrison’s essay but, by Kim’s account, it sounds like she regards him as a Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son.

That Tolkien has racial prejudices I am willing to grant, to which I would add gender and class prejudices. In Lord of the Rings, the good guys are Nordic-looking Rangers of the North (Aragorn), elves that resemble British yeomen out of the Robin Hood stories, and the very white Riders of Rohan while the bad guys (the Orcs) are Slavic-looking proles who threaten to overwhelm the comfortably middle class Shire. Women, meanwhile, are in scarce supply.

I also grant that his interpretation of Beowulf is lacking, especially as it omits any discussion of Grendel’s Mother. (In other words, he overlooks women once again.) This is why diversity in academic scholarship is vital: women and people of color spot things overlooked by scholars with Tolkien’s demographics.

But Beowulf is greater than either his or Morrison’s interpretations of it, and I believe that Lord of the Rings transcends Tolkien’s racism, classism, and sexism as well. Beowulf is one of the great literary works about violence—it ranks up there with the Iliad—while Lord of the Rings changed the course of fantasy fiction.

As I see it, Beowulf captures how violence hollows us out and distorts our souls. Tolkien may or may not have regarded Grendel as black, but the monster’s resentful rage maps easily on to our white supremacists, who themselves feel dispossessed.

Grendel’s Mother, meanwhile, I regard as the vengeful rage that wants others to experience the hurt she feels. To apply one instance of Tolkien’s own countrymen yielding to her rage, Britain firebombed Dresden, an open city for refugees of no strategic importance, in revenge for the bombing of London.

The Beowulf poet could create this timeless monster because he had seen up-close his culture’s endless blood feuds. If he imagined this monster as a woman and a mother, it’s because no rage seemed fiercer to warriors than that of a mother who has lost her son. Think of it as Mother Bear rage.

In other words, I don’t see Beowulf’s monsters as limited to any demographic but rather as archetypes of our most destructive impulses. In his society, the monstrosity could consume disaffected warriors (Grendel resentment), grieving warriors (mother vengeance) and paranoid rulers (dragon rage). Every age and country has its own version of these three monsters.

To touch briefly on Lord of the Rings, it suffers from some of the author’s blind spots. Fantasist Terry Pratchett’s Snuff, for instance, exposes Tolkien’s one-dimensional depiction of goblins by giving them personalities, even as British gentry hunt them down or ruthlessly exploit them. But Rings also shows, through compelling storytelling, the seductive lure of power. Having witnessed Europe’s 20th century madness from the front row, Tolkien created a drama that can be used to expose Britain’s Brexit arrogance as much as it reveals Hitler’s or Stalin’s ambitions.

To reiterate my basic point: while we should call out literary works for their shortcomings, we should not overlook their greatness in the process.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, Tolkien (J. R. R.) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

  • AVAILABLE NOW!

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

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

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!