Think of Trump Enablers as Wormtongue

Dourif, Lee as Wormtongue, Saruman in Lord of the Rings


 Vox Ezra Klein may have said summed it up best, tweeting,

The question at the heart of the impeachment process isn’t “Did Trump do it?” We know he did it. It’s not in dispute. The question at the heart of the impeachment process is “What has gone wrong in the Republican Party that it will defend what Trump did?”

To slightly amend Klein’s second question, Republicans aren’t so much defending Trump’s Ukrainian shakedown as attacking anyone who reveals what the president did. They are playing Wormtongue to Trump’s Saruman.

I compared Trump to Saruman over a year ago, especially in the way the two turn their backs on traditional friends with seeking friendship with autocrats. In Trump’s case, it has been with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s MSB’s Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s XX, Brazil’s XX, and North Korea’s XX. In Saruman’s case it’s Sauron. The days of liberal regimes is coming to an end, he tells Gandalf:

“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.

“And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper! ” he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice. “I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you. before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow;

It’s one thing for Trump to turn his back on NATO, the European Union, our far eastern allies, and the Kurds. It’s something else again to see the GOP signing on to his agenda. Instead of an independent branch of government, Republicans have become slavish followers, parroting Ukrainian talking points that Trump himself borrowed from Putin. As Lindsay Graham could testify (but won’t), they follow the president’s lead regardless of how much Trump kicks them around. They may not be happy about it but, like Wormtongue in a scene where he and Saruman have been reduced to beggars, they follow his lead:

“Get up, you idiot!” he [Saruman] shouted to the other beggar, who had sat down on the ground; and he struck him with his staff. “Turn about! If these fine folk are going our way, then we will take another. Get on, or I’ll give you no crust for your supper!”

The beggar turned and slouched past whimpering: “Poor old Gríma! Poor old Gríma! Always beaten and cursed. How I hate him! I wish I could leave him!”

“Then leave him!” said Gandalf.

But Wormtongue only shot a glance of his bleared eyes full of terror at Gandalf, and then shuffled quickly past behind Saruman. 

Reports are that many GOP legislators would only be too glad to leave Trump if they could do so unscathed. As they see it, however, their career in politics would be over the instant they tried.

So instead they insult the truthtellers, just as Wormtongue insults Gandalf when he shows up to liberate the King of Rohan, grouping him with “pickers of bones, meddlers in other men’s sorrows, carrion-fowl that grow fat on war.” Elsewhere we learn that, like certain Trump supporters, Wormtongue diplomatically wraps Saruman’s harsh words “in terms more cunning.”

If Saruman and Wormtongue are Trump and the GOP, then we can think of Sauron as Putin, employing them as tools to undermine a great nation. This being the case, we must hope that these impeachment witnesses will have the same impact as Gandalf when he strides into Theoden’s great hall and helps the king see the light of day:

“Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?” said Gandalf. Do you ask for help?” He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. “Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.”

Slowly Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again. The woman hastened to the king’s side, taking his arm, and with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall. Wormtongue remained lying on the floor. They came to the doors and Gandalf knocked.

“Open!” he cried. “The Lord of the Mark comes forth!”

The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill. “Send your guards down to the stairs foot,” said Gandalf. “And you, lady, leave him a while with me. I will care for him.”

“Go, Éowyn sister-daughter!” said the old king. “The time for fear is past.”

Will the truth emerge loud and clear? Will America reclaim its once vaunted position as leader of the free world and beacon of hope for the world’s oppressed? Will we one day be able to say the time for fear is past?

Perhaps so, but it’s hard to imagine the current GOP rising to the occasion. Towards the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo encounters Wormtongue one more time, this time in the Shire, and repeats Gandalf’s suggestion that he leave Saruman. For a moment, he considers the possibility:

“Wormtongue!” called Frodo. “You need not follow him. I know of no evil you have done to me. You can have rest and food here for a while, until you are stronger and can go your own ways.”

Wormtongue halted and looked back at him, half prepared to stay.

His life has become so entangled with Saruman and Saruman’s crimes, however, that he can’t break free. Like Trump, Saruman has a way of permanently sliming those who work for him. In this instance he describes a murder, perhaps capped off with cannibalism, that he got Wormtongue to commit:

 “No, Worm is not really nice. You had better leave him to me.”

A look of wild hatred came into Wormtongue’s red eyes. “You told me to; you made me do it,” he hissed.

Saruman laughed. “You do what Sharkey says, always, don’t you, Worm? Well, now he says: follow!” He kicked Wormtongue in the face as he groveled, and turned and made off.

It is only at this point that Wormtongue turns on his boss, stabbing him with a concealed knife. Might Republican members, pushed to the limit, also flip? To be sure, Wormtongue pays a price—jittery hobbit archers shoot him—but he rids the world of a menace. Might legislators sacrifice electoral prospects for country?

Whatever the case, what Sam says about a post-Saruman Shire will apply to a post-Trump America:

“I shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess,” said Sam gloomily. “And that’ll take a lot of time and work.”

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Charitable Chimps Pick Fleas

Chimpanzees picking fleas

Reprinted from February 27, 2011

Whenever I want to generate a spirited ethical discussion in a class, I ask my students whether altruism derives from a higher moral sense or from enlightened self-interest. It is one of those questions that theologians, philosophers, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others can debate for hours.

Authorities draw examples from every realm. Why do vampire bats regurgitate blood for those fellow bats who haven’t eaten? Why does an individual donate to charity? If self-interest is involved, is the altruism tainted?  Is it even possible to be selflessly altruistic?  When people like Martin Luther King say they feel compelled to help others–that it doesn’t feel like a choice–does that diminish their heroism?  In short, every action that is done on behalf of another, whether in the animal or the human world, can be scrutinized endlessly.

To stimulate your mind on these questions,I turn to my favorite fabulist, one who writes in the tradition of Aesop. Looking at how chimpanzees groom their fellow monkeys, my father Scott Bates tells us not to agonize over the reasons.  It’s enough that the result is a flea-free ape.

So help someone in need today and don’t ask why you’re doing so. Whatever your reason, the world will be better off. Here’s the poem:

The Seven Charitable Chimpanzees

By Scott Bates

Seven charitable Chimpanzees
Were delivering a friend of fleas

The First one hadn’t dined for days
The Second aspired to public praise

The Third was suffering from ennui
The fourth one itched vicariously

The Fifth feared social criticism
The Sixth believed his altruism

Would get for him the keys of Heaven
While philosophic Number Seven

Thought to himself if I agree
To aid my fellow chimpanzee

Someone someday may deflea me!
The seven cornered every flea

Which proves that actions such as these
Keep our world safe for Chimpanzees.
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Feuding Rom-Coms Can Save a Marriage

The Smiths (Jolie, Pitt) following a domestic dispute


Today I teach my final Feuding Couples Comedy session in one of Sewanee’s Lifelong Learning sessions. I’ve been alternating between literature and film after tracing the genre back to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

Upon further reflection, perhaps I should have gone back to the Medieval passion plays, where one scene often played for laughs was Noah’s wife refusing to board his ark because she thinks he is crazy.

In any event, I moved from 17th century plays (Shakespeare, Behn, Congreve) to Depression-era screwball comedies (Capra, Cukor, Hawks, Sturges) to 20th century plays (Shaw, Albee). In today’s class I will start with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959), mention Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), and conclude with Nora Ephron’s 1990s Meg Ryan comedies (When Harry Met Sally [1989], Sleepless in Seattle [1993], You’ve Got Mail [1998]) and Judd Apatow’s 2000s gross-out comedies (especially Knocked Up [2007]). I will end the course with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005).

Pillow Talk was made when society still put a high premium on a woman’s virginity, which explains the edge to Oscar Levant’s famous quip about Doris Day: “I knew her before she was a virgin.” There’s also tension between the career woman who doesn’t think she needs a man and the womanizer who doesn’t think he needs to settle down. The erotic tension takes the form of quarreling, often over the telephone party line the two of them share. It is resolved through marriage. We never hear what happens to Day’s interior decorating business.

In the 1970s, New York University film scholar Brian Henderson predicted that feminism and the sexual revolution were rendering romantic comedies obsolete. If women could have sex without needing or requiring commitment, what was there left? As if in confirmation, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall doesn’t have the traditional tug and pull, lacks feuding, and doesn’t at all feel like a romantic comedy: Allen and Diane Keaton live together and then separate more or less amicably, agreeing that they’ve got a dead shark on their hands:

Alvie Singer: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.

Henderson’s observation, however, proved spectacularly premature as feminism didn’t sweep away the gender tensions that, in feuding couples comedy, lead to spectacular verbal fireworks. For that matter, it didn’t sweep away romance or marriage. As has been the case at least since Shakespeare, the two genders simultaneously need each other and kick against that need. They simultaneously desire intimacy and fear the emotional vulnerability that comes with it.

The genre, however, did undergo some changes thanks to the changing times. Sometimes the films end with committed partnership rather than marriage, and more weight is given to the woman’s career. The latter is particularly important for my women students. They don’t want Doris Day to give up her business.

More than anyone, screenwriter and then director Nora Ephron showed that the genre was far from dead with a string of 1990s hits, two of which harkened back to the 1930s with their verbal battles: When Harry Met Sally (1989) and You’ve Got Mail (1998).   The following conversation between Harry and Sally makes clear that there is still plenty of relationship tension, and therefore still plenty of comedy, in the post-feminist era:

Harry Burns: You realize of course that we could never be friends.
Sally Albright: Why not?
Harry Burns: What I’m saying is – and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form – is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.
Sally Albright: That’s not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry Burns: No you don’t.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: No you don’t.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: You only think you do.
Sally Albright: You say I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry Burns: No, what I’m saying is they all WANT to have sex with you.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: How do you know?
Harry Burns: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally Albright: So, you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry Burns: No. You pretty much want to nail ’em too.
Sally Albright: What if THEY don’t want to have sex with YOU?
Harry Burns: Doesn’t matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Sally Albright: Well, I guess we’re not going to be friends then.
Harry Burns: I guess not.
Sally Albright: That’s too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.

In You’ve Got Mail, the tension involves two conflicting careers as Joe’s new giant bookstore threatens to put Kathleen’s “Little Bookstore around the Corner” out of business. This leads to fireworks like the following conversation—reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant–after Kathleen discovers that Joe has visited her bookstore:

Kathleen: You were spying on me, weren’t you? You probably rented those children.
Joe: Why would I spy on you?
Kathleen: Because I am your competition, which you know…or you wouldn’t have put up the sign:”Just around the corner.”
Joe: Our store entrance is around the corner. There’s no other way to say it. It’s not the name of our store. It’s where it is. And you do not own the phrase “around the corner.”

The reason I came into your store . . . is because I was spending the day with Annabel and Matt. I was buying them presents. I’m the type of guy who likes to buy
Kathleen: . . . his way into the hearts of children
Joe: . . . who are his relatives.
Kathleen: There was only one place to find a children’s book in the neighborhood.
Joe: That won’t always be the case.
Kathleen: And it was yours.
Joe: And it is . . . a charming little bookstore. You probably sell, what, $350,000 worth of books in a year?
Kathleen: How did you know that?
Joe: I’m in the book business.
Kathleen: I am in the book business.
Joe: I see. And we are the Price Club. Only instead of a 10-gallon vat of olive oil for 3.99…that won’t even fit under your kitchen cabinet, we sell cheap books.

Me, a spy? Absolutely. I have in my possession the secret printout of the sales figures . . . of a bookstore so inconsequential, yet full of its own virtue . . . that I had to rush over for fear it will put me out of business.

You’ve Got Mail ends with (1) Joe putting Kathleen out of business, (2) a Kathleen now free from her mother’s legacy discovering that she can be an editor and author, and (3) Joe and Kathleen pairing up. The ending isn’t that different from Pillow Talk except that Kathleen will undoubtedly continue on in her new career.

Although Ephron wasn’t operating under the Motion Picture Production Code that ruled Hollywood from 1934-1968, her comedies are still remarkably free of physical sex. Like the Depression-era screwball comedies, she knows that erotic tension can be particularly powerful when it get sublimated into verbal battles.

Given how the pendulum swings, however, romantic comedies were bound to get more explicit in the next phase, as they did in Judd Apatow’s films of the 2000s. In Knocked Up, the protagonist (a television host) gets—well—knocked up after a night of debauch and then battles it out with the guy who got her pregnant (he lives in his mother’s basement playing videogames). Yet Apatow’s films have remarkably traditional endings. In the slacker/striver films, as the genre has been called, the slacker realizes he needs to grow up, the striver sees the virtue of motherhood, and together they discover the virtues of committed partnership. It’s Pillow Talk updated.

My favorite feuding couples comedy in recent years has been Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which is essentially a comedy of remarriage. (I talk about Stanley Cavell’s label here.) A romantic comedy masquerading as an action adventure film, the 2005 Doug Liman film shows two undercover agents given the assignment to take each other out. For reasons that are never explained, having agents that are married to each other is apparently “bad for business.”

The reasoning is irrelevant, however, because the shadowy bosses who issue orders are actually just a symbolic articulation of the career pressures that break up marriages. Both John and Jane must work after hours, both keep their extracurricular activities secret from their spouse, and the result is a sham marriage. They may have been enamored of each other once but, since then, they are attempting to live the American dream while living lives of quiet desperation. Or in their case, noisy desperation.

The film’s wit lies in how contracted killing is a metaphor for couples emotionally tearing each other apart. Unlike traditional feuding couples comedy, the tensions aren’t only transmuted into verbal sparring. We see John and Jane literally shooting at each other–and destroying the house in the process.

John’s friend Eddie reveals how the metaphor operates in a rant against emotional attachments after John seeks refuge in his house after Jane has just tried to run over him. (This after he has put a bullet through her windshield.) Eddie’s argument against partnership rings a little hollow by the end:

John: My wife. She tried to kill me.
Eddie: Yes. And you know what? Gladys tried to kill me. Not with a car. At least Jane was a man about it. But they all try to kill you. Slowly, painfully, cripplingly. And then, wham! They hurt you. You know how hurt I used to be? I used to beat myself up. Now I’m great. I got dates all the time. I just woke up from a thing, I’m in my robe.
John: You live with your mom.
Eddie: I choose to. Because she’s the only woman I’ve ever trusted.

We see the emotional fireworks, worthy of any screwball comedy, in a scene where John and Jane dine out. The difference is that they have just literally tried to kill each other:

John: We have an unusual problem, Jane. You obviously want me dead. And I’m less and less concerned of your wellbeing.
Jane: So what do we do?
John: Do we shoot it out here? Hope for the best?
Jane: Well, that would be a shame, because they’d probably ask me to leave once you’re dead.
John: Dance with me.
Jane: You don’t dance.
John: That was just part of my cover, sweetheart.
Jane: Was sloth part of it too? Think this’ll have a happy ending?
John: Happy endings are just stories that haven’t finished yet.
Jane: Satisfied?
John: Not for years.
Jane: Why is it you think we failed? Cos we were leading separate lives? Or was it all the lying that did us in?
John: I have a theory. Newly formed.
Jane: I’m breathless to hear it.
John: You killed us.
Jane: Provocative.
John: You approached our marriage like a job, to be reckoned, planned and executed.
Jane: And you avoided it.
John: What do you care, if I was just a cover?
Jane: Well, who said you were just a cover?
John: Wasn’t I?
Jane: Wasn’t I?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, however, has a happy ending. Despite all of the career pressures pulling couples apart, the two manage to team up, beat the odds, and emerge still married. It’s an ending reminiscent of Awful Truth, Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib. One of my favorite scenes is how, after they’re coming back together, they realize that a new level of truth-telling is necessary. The conversation occurs when they must coordinate their efforts to defeat anonymous killers, who are shooting at them in an epic car chase. Imagine the following talk interrupted by gun shots, leaping assailants, exploding cars, and other theatrics:

John (who has insisted on driving an unfamiliar SUV): It’s called evasive driving, sweetheart. Hold still. This thing’s all over the place. How do you drive these things?
Jane: Honey! Honey, let me drive.
John: I got it.
Jane: Move over. Move. I’m the suburban housewife, sweetheart. You move.
John: Fine. Go.
Jane: Go. (They switch places)
John: I think I should probably tell you. I was married once before. (She starts hitting him.) What is wrong with you?
Jane: You’re what’s wrong with me.
John: It was a drunken Vegas thing.
Jane: That’s better. That’s much better. Great.
John: Stop it. (The following cars bear down on them) Go, go, go!
Jane: Her name and social security number?
John: No, you’re not gonna kill her.

And a little later:

John: You know, sweetheart, you’re being a bit hypocritical. It’s not like you’re some beacon of truth.
Jane: John, my parents . . . They died when I was five. I’m an orphan.
John: Who was that kindly fellow who gave you away at our wedding?
Jane: Paid actor.
John: I said I saw your dad on Fantasy Island.
Jane: I know.
John: I don’t even want to talk about it.
. . .
We’re gonna have to redo every conversation we’ve ever had.
Jane: I’m Jewish.
John: Can’t believe I brought my real parents to our wedding.

The film ends with (1) the two have survived as a couple after overcoming insurmountable odds and (2) a couples counselor indicating they’ve made significant progress since the session that opens the film.

Which is the point of the genre from the beginning. Relationships can be like a minefield but, thanks to the holy gift of laughter, we can acknowledge the challenges without being emotionally destroyed. Feuding Couples Comedy steps up when the challenges are particularly intense.

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The Real Temple Can’t Be Destroyed

Francesco Hayez, Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (1867)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading about the temple’s destruction brings to mind a number of George Herbert poems, including “Sion.”  For Herbert, as for Jesus, the stone and mortar temple gives way to a bodily one.

In Luke’s account (Luke 21:5-6), Jesus warns his followers not to become too enamored with “beautiful stones”:

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Similar comments are expanded upon and interpreted in John’s account (2:19-21):

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Herbert named his collection The Temple, and “Sion” makes clear that the real temple is the “peevish heart.” Sometimes the heart crosses God and sometimes God crosses the heart. “The fight is hard on either part,” Herbert tells us.

Above all else, however, God treasures “one good groan,” which is good news for Herbert as he did plenty of agonized wrestling. Groans “are quick, and full of wings, and all their motions upward be,” whereas “brass and stones are heavy things, tombs for the dead.” In mounting, the groans sing like larks, which Herbert tells us is “music for a king.”

The poem begins with heavy images but, by the end, is moving into realms of light. Depression gives way to joy, death to resurrection.

Lord, with what glory wast thou served of old,
When Solomon's temple stood and flourished!
Where most things were of purest gold;
The wood was all embellished
With flowers and carvings, mystical and rare:
All showed the builder's, craved the seer's care.

Yet all this glory, all this pomp and state
Did not affect thee much, was not thy aim;
Something there was, that sowed debate:
Wherefore thou quitt'st thy ancient claim:
And now thy Architecture meets with sin;
For all thy frame and fabric is within.

There thou art struggling with a peevish heart,
Which sometimes crosseth thee, thou sometimes it:
The fight is hard on either part.
Great God doth fight, he doth submit.
All Solomon's sea of brass and world of stone
Is not so dear to thee as one good groan.

And truly brass and stones are heavy things,
Tombs for the dead, not temples fit for thee:
But groans are quick, and full of wings,
And all their motions upward be;
And ever as they mount, like larks they sing;
The note is sad, yet music for a king.

Herbert arrives at grace only after genuine soul-searching. There’s nothing facile about his faith.

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Jordan: Mac the Knife without the Charm

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan at the impeachment hearings


Washington Post conservative columnist Michael Gerson has me thinking of a line from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera following his piece on Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller. Describing Jordan as “the tireless, tendentious, often bellowing chief defender of Trump during the impeachment hearings,” Gerson first draws on Alexander Pope: Jordan and fellow sycophants Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Mark Meadows (N.C.) are fools rushing in where “Mick Mulvaney and Rudy Giuliani fear to tread.”

Of course, neither Mulvaney nor Giuliani are angels. And they’ve done their own rushing in.

The following passage from Gerson’s column, however, is what got me thinking of Gay’s Mac the Knife:

Jordan has mastered the art of talking utter rubbish in tones of utter conviction. His version of the events at the heart of the impeachment inquiry? Rather than committing corruption, Trump was fighting corruption. Military assistance was suspended, in Jordan’s telling, while the president was deciding whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “legit” in his determination to oppose corruption. When Trump found that Zelensky was the “real deal,” the aid was released.

Will such effrontery charm Trump’s base the way that Mac charms Mrs. Peachum. When her husband asks about banknotes the highwayman left with her the previous week, she replies,

Yes, my Dear; and though the Bank hath stopt Payment, he was so cheerful and so agreeable! Sure there is not a finer Gentleman upon the Road than the Captain! 

In other words, one must lie with style, and Mac’s supreme confidence gets him labeled a “Gentleman upon the road” rather than a common thief. It’s like Mae West’s self-description following a compliment she receives in She Done Him Wrong (1933):

Bypasser: Hello Miss Lou, my but you’re a fine looking woman.”
Lou: “One of the finest women ever walked the streets!

Jordan is one of the finest Congressman who ever defended Trump. Lumping him together with Miller, the white supremacist who has been steering Trump’s immigration policies, Gerson says they

are giving us a taste of the Truly Trumpian Man — guided by bigotry, seized by conspiracy theories, dismissive of facts and truth, indifferent to ethics, contemptuous of institutional norms and ruthlessly dedicated to the success of a demagogue.

Having made the comparison, however, let me now back off and draw a contrast. While these two men may have Mac’s effrontery, they lack his charisma and his charm. For that, we must look to the man they’re defending.

Twice I’ve compared Trump to Mac the Knife, both times to capture his remarkable ability to wriggle out of tough situations. The first post marveled at his ability to escape unscathed from the Access Hollywood tape while the second observed that Trump has access to a stratagem that Mac could only have dreamed of: the pardon power.

At the end of Beggar’s Opera, Mac is about to be hanged when one of the actors objects:

Player. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.
Beggar Playwright. Most certainly, Sir.—To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice.—Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all either hang’d or transported.
Player. Why then, Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.
Beggar. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—So—you Rabble there—run and cry, A Reprieve!—let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

With his ability to pardon people who might testify against him, and perhaps even to pardon himself, Trump could change his potential tragedy into a comedy. One can imagine his supporters cheering were he to pull of such a maneuver, just as 18th century audiences cheered when Mac is set free. Many of Trump’s supporters love how he plays by his own rules, such as informing us that a transcript doesn’t say what it in fact says. After all, he does it with such flair!

But now for the contrast. Trump can pull off Mac the Knife’s effrontery–that’s his genius–but I don’t think wannabe Trumps like Jordan and Miller can. They just come across as thuggish bullies and chilling ideologues, not as lovable rogues. What Trump and Mac do is not easily replicable.

And for that we should be grateful.

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Albee’s Play Explains Trump’s GOP

Segal, Taylor and Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Having reread Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the first time in 50 years (see yesterday’s post on the play), I now have a work that helps explain the GOP’s abject capitulation to Donald Trump. How is it that Trump employees and supporters invariably become mired in his slime? How is it (to cite former GOP strategist Rick Wilson’s book) Everything that Trump Touches Dies? For answers, look at how a promising new faculty member and his pretty wife become embroiled in George and Martha’s long-running marriage debacle.

Nick is a good-looking and confident member of the biology department specializing in the next big thing (genetics). He’s also athletic, having been a former middle weight college boxing champion. When he first meets George, he can’t help but patronize him. After all, New Carthage’s president is telling Nick he has a glorious future while the washed-up history professor married to the president’s daughter has only a past. Nick knows he is favored when this daughter invites him and Honey over for post-party drinks.

Next thing he knows, he’s spilling dirty secrets to George and humping Martha (the verb is Albee’s) while his own wife throws up in the bathroom. To crown the evening, he can’t perform in the clutch and is called a “flop.” Martha orders him around like a houseboy and George is equally cutting, completing his emasculation:

Here’s part of his interchange with Martha:

Martha: …you’re no better than anybody else.
Nick (wearily): I think I am.
Martha (Her glass to her mouth): You’re certainly a flop in some departments.
Nick (Wincing): I beg your pardon . . .  ?
Martha (Unnecessarily loud): I said, you’re certainly a flop in some. . . .
Nick: (He, too, too loud): I’m sorry you’re disappointed.
Martha (Braying): I didn’t say I was disappointed! Stupid!
Nick: You should try me some time when we haven’t been drinking for ten hours, and maybe. . . .
Martha: (Still braying): I wasn’t talking about your potential; I was talking about your goddamn performance.
Nick (Softly): Oh.
Martha (She softer, too): Your potential’s fine. It’s dandy. (Wiggles her eyebrows) Absolutely dandy. I haven’t seen such a dandy potential in a long time. Oh, but baby, you sure are a flop.

And later, after the doorbell rings:

Martha: Go answer the door.
Nick (Amazed): What did you say?
Martha: I said, go answer the door. What are you, deaf?
Nick (Trying to get it straight): You . . . want me . . . to go answer the door?
Martha: That’s right, lunk-head; answer the door. There must be something you can do well; or are you too drunk to do that, too? Can’t you get the latch up, either?
Nick: Look, there’s no need. . . .
(Door chimes again)
Martha (Shouting): Answer it! (Softer) You an be a houseboy around here for a while. You can start of being houseboy right now.
Nick: Loo, lady, I’m no flunky to you.
Martha (Cheerfully): Sure you are! You’re ambitious, aren’t you boy? You didn’t chase me around the kitchen and up the goddamn stairs out of mad, driven passion, did you know? You were thinking a little bit about your career, weren’t you? Well, you can just houseboy your way up the ladder for a while.

The next lines sum up Trump and the GOP only too well:

Nick: There’s no limit to you, is there?
(Door chimes again)
Martha: (Calmly, surely): No, baby; none. Go answer the door. (Nick hesitates) Look, boy; once you stick your nose in it, you’re not going to pull out just whenever you feel like it. You’re in for a while. Now, git!

Nick answers the door.

The once proud Lindsay Graham, now one of Trump’s major lickspittles, comes chiefly to my mind in the interchange, but in fact Nick could be any number of Republican legislators. George and Martha operate somewhat like Trump, throwing the young couple off balance and then pushing things further than they ever dreamed.

If Nick and Honey had core principles, they would walk out early, but they have embarrassing secrets of their own: an hysterical pregnancy has led to their marriage and the pot was sweetened when they inherited a fortune from Honey’s father, a shady preacher. Nick is also blinded by his ambition, his arrogance, and his lack of imagination. He and his wife never have a chance.

Come to think of it, maybe he’s not Sen. Graham but Trump attack dog Rep. Jim Jordan.

Only at the end do Nick and Honey, sensing the depth of George and Martha’s childless unhappiness, tiptoe away. Some dignity is salvaged by this recognition of their common humanity. Perhaps the two will profit from what they have seen and steer their marriage in a healthier direction.

I wish I saw some such soul-searching in Trump’s GOP followers. At the moment, however, everyone is still high on Trumpism, and the festivities appear far from over.

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Who’s Afraid of a Feuding Couple?

Taylor and Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? found few fans in my Feuding Couples Comedy class yesterday. Most thought the feuding too heated, the couples repellant, and the comedy unfunny. In fact, they couldn’t understand why I had included it in a comedy class.

The Edward Albee Society describes the play as a “dark comedy,” so there’s that. But how is it a comedy? Now that I’ve compared Who’s Afraid with comedies that clearly are comedies, I see enough overlap to at least consider the matter. Feuding Couples Comedy (FCC) is a subgenre of romantic comedy, and like its parent it specializes in relationship anxieties. The battle of the sexes gets transmuted into highly intense verbal duels where both parties give as good as they get. Who’s Afraid certainly has that.

As I’ve noted in recent posts (for instance here), the difference between FCC and traditional couples comedy is the intensity level. Without words, things would shift into actual violence—in which case the drama ceases to be comic and, equally fatal for FCCs, egalitarian. (That’s why, while Petruchio-Kate begin as a comic feuding couple, his patriarchal power over her means it doesn’t end as one.) But while FCCs don’t have actual violence (War of the Roses and Mr. and Mrs. Smith being notable exceptions), the prospect for violence hovers around the edges.

In Much Ado about Nothing, for instance, the Beatrice and Benedick relationship is played out against the Claudio-Hero drama where, at different times, the father wishes his daughter dead, the daughter is said of have committed suicide, and a duel is arranged. Only the fact that much ado is being made about nothing allows this to be a comedy. But then, there’s also much ado about nothing in Othello.

In Rover, the Hellena-Willmore relationship is played against a drama in which the ultrafeminine Florinda is almost raped twice (not to mention another time before the play opens). Better to be a strong woman who fights the other gender than a weak one who relies on male protection, the female author figures. Aphra Behn also knew that words were a better leveler than swords and brute strength.

In 20th century screwball comedies, His Girl Friday is played out in the shadow of the gallows and Adam’s Rib against the backdrop of a spousal murder attempt. Clark Gable in It Happened One Night says Claudette Colbert needs to be socked once a day, Cary Grant in Philadelphia Story actually shoves Katharine Hepburn in the face (after first considering a punch), and Henry Higgins threatens to wring Eliza’s neck. At one point in Adam’s Rib, in a scene that also shows up in Who’s Afraid, Spencer Tracy seems prepared to shoot wife Hepburn, only to reveal that the gun is fake.

So yes, FCCs capture the hostility that one partner is capable of feeling for the other. Even good marriages have such moments. Furthermore, because married partners comes to know each other so well, they know which buttons to push for maximum effect. The classic ones, which Albee’s Martha and George have mastered, are emasculation fears (on the part of the man) and attractiveness fears (on the part of the woman). She can make him feel less of a man and he can make her feel less of a woman.

As an instance of the first, Martha informs their guests that her husband is not the man her president-of-the-college father is:

Martha  (to Honey and Nick and also to George, who is standing at the home bar with his back to everyone):

So, anyway, I married the S.O.B., and I had it all planned out . . . He was the groom . . . he was going to be groomed. He’d take over some day . . . first, he’d take over the History Department, and then, when Daddy retired, he’d take over the college . . . you know? That’s the way it was supposed to be. (To George) You getting angry, baby? Hunh? (Now back) That’s the way it was supposed to be. Very simple. And Daddy seemed to think it was a pretty good idea too. For a while. Until he watched for a couple of years! (To George again) You getting angrier? (Now back) Until he watched for a couple of years and started thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all . . . that maybe Georgie-boy didn’t have the stuff . . .that he didn’t have it in him.  

By the end of this attack George, “almost crying,” breaks a liquor bottle against the portable bar.

After this game of “Humiliate the Host,” George responds with an even more devastating comeback: he reveals that their “son” is actually a fiction, thereby exposing Martha as sterile. He does this by claiming that he just received a telegram informing him of their “son’s” death:

George: Now listen, Marth; listen carefully. We got a telegram; there was a car accident andhe’s dead. POUF! Julst like that! Now, how do you like it?
Martha: (A howl which weakens into a moan) NOOOOOOoooooo.

Despite witty interchanges between highly educated people, Who’s Afraid does not have a lot of laughs. My class is right about that. But literary scholar Northrup Frye informs us that comedy is also about social resolution, and Who’s Afraid resembles other FCCs in that regard. Every play and film I have mentioned concludes with a marriage or (if the couple has divorced) a remarriage. Matrimony may be under stress but it is reaffirmed in the end. It may be reaffirmed in Who’s Afraid.

In this case, George and Martha think that the illusion of having a child is the only thing keeping them together. The big bad wolf they’re afraid of is Truth. Once George “kills” the child, there’s a chance—no certainty but a chance—that they will rebuild their marriage on a firmer foundation.

In an important book on film genre, University of Iowa film scholar Rick Altman theorizes that Hollywood genre films invite us to transgress norms, only to pull back from the brink when we start feeling too anxious. We imagine breaking the law with gangsters and creating mayhem with monsters but then look for reassurance at the film’s end (the gangsters are locked up or shot, the monsters are defeated). In romantic comedy, we may imagine freedom without the irritants of responsibility until, after 90 minutes of imaginary transgressing, a gradually building discomfort becomes intolerable. At that point, the film reassures us by returning us to the social norm of a committed partnership.

Who’s Afraid pushes the boundaries by making us far more uncomfortable than any of the other FCCs I have discussed. George and Martha are a long way from Beatrice and Benedick. Yet there’s enough similarity there for Who’s Afraid to join the FCC club.

At least if you attach the adjective “dark” to “comedy.”

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Verbal Combat Trumps Soft Romance

Eliza (Hiller) and Higgins (Howard) duke it out in Pygmalion


In my Feuding Couples Comedy class this week, I looked at George Bernard Shaw and Edward Albee. I’ll focus on Man and Superman and Pygmalion today and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tomorrow.

To belong to the genre as I am defining it, the couple must compete on a more or less even playing field. As a supporter of the suffragettes, Shaw peopled his comedies with strong female figures, making verbal gender battles inevitable.

Freud tells us that laughter arises out of relationship anxiety, meaning that witty banter can mask vulnerability fears. Many of Shaw’s male leads, like Shaw himself, hide their emotions under a barrage of words. “Always be verbally attacking” could be the motto of both Jack Tanner and Henry Higgins.

In Man and Superman, Ann goes after Tanner as Hellena goes after Willmore in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, another feuding comedy. We watch the advantage swing back and forth until she finally lands her man. Ann makes the first move:

[Ann, musing on Violet’s opportune advice, approaches Tanner; examines him humorously for a moment from toe to top; and finally delivers her opinion.]
ANN. Violet is quite right. You ought to get married.
TANNER. [explosively] Ann: I will not marry you. Do you hear? I won’t, won’t, won’t, won’t, WON’T marry you.
ANN. [placidly] Well, nobody axd you, sir she said, sir she said, sir she said. So that’s settled.
TANNER. Yes, nobody has asked me; but everybody treats the thing as settled. It’s in the air…

Like an expert fencer, Ann appears to let down her guard. As she anticipates, Tanner charges in, words flying. In the process, he sets forth the age-old tension between the freedom of bachelorhood and the stability of marriage:

ANN. Well, if you don’t want to be married, you needn’t be [she turns away from him and sits down, much at her ease].
TANNER. [following her] Does any man want to be hanged? Yet men let themselves be hanged without a struggle for life, though they could at least give the chaplain a black eye. We do the world’s will, not our own. I have a frightful feeling that I shall let myself be married because it is the world’s will that you should have a husband.
ANN. I daresay I shall, someday.
TANNER. But why me—me of all men? Marriage is to me apostasy, profanation of the sanctuary of my soul, violation of my manhood, sale of my birthright, shameful surrender, ignominious capitulation, acceptance of defeat. I shall decay like a thing that has served its purpose and is done with; I shall change from a man with a future to a man with a past; I shall see in the greasy eyes of all the other husbands their relief at the arrival of a new prisoner to share their ignominy. The young men will scorn me as one who has sold out: to the young women I, who have always been an enigma and a possibility, shall be merely somebody else’s property—and damaged goods at that: a secondhand man at best.
ANN. Well, your wife can put on a cap and make herself ugly to keep you in countenance, like my grandmother.
TANNER. So that she may make her triumph more insolent by publicly throwing away the bait the moment the trap snaps on the victim!

Behn’s Willmore also compares marriage to a hanging, and like Willmore Tanner ultimately surrenders to a persistent woman, salvaging his pride only by saying he’s not happy about it:

 I solemnly say that I am not a happy man. Ann looks happy; but she is only triumphant, successful, victorious. That is not happiness, but the price for which the strong sell their happiness. What we have both done this afternoon is to renounce tranquillity, above all renounce the romantic possibilities of an unknown future, for the cares of a household and a family. I beg that no man may seize the occasion to get half drunk and utter imbecile speeches and coarse pleasantries at my expense. We propose to furnish our own house according to our own taste; and I hereby give notice that the seven or eight travelling clocks, the four or five dressing cases, the salad bowls, the carvers and fish slices, the copy of Tennyson in extra morocco, and all the other articles you are preparing to heap upon us, will be instantly sold, and the proceeds devoted to circulating free copies of the Revolutionist’s Handbook. The wedding will take place three days after our return to England, by special license, at the office of the district superintendent registrar, in the presence of my solicitor and his clerk, who, like his clients, will be in ordinary walking dress.
VIOLET. [with intense conviction] You are a brute, Jack.
ANN. [looking at him with fond pride and caressing his arm] Never mind her, dear. Go on talking.
TANNER. Talking!
Universal laughter.

Henry Higgins in Pygmalion isn’t much different.  In class I contrasted Shaw’s most popular play with Taming of the Shrew, noting that Shrew starts as a feuding comedy but veers away while Pygmalion starts as something else but ends as one. Because she is Higgins’s pupil, Eliza Doolittle is not initially an equal opponent, but she has become one by the closing scene. Watch them go at it after Higgins threatens to wring her neck. Liza has threatened to branch out and teach phonetics on her own:

LIZA [defiantly non-resistant] Wring away. What do I care? I knew you’d strike me some day. [He lets her go, stamping with rage at having forgotten himself, and recoils so hastily that he stumbles back into his seat on the ottoman]. Aha! Now I know how to deal with you. What a fool I was not to think of it before! You can’t take away the knowledge you gave me. You said I had a finer ear than you. And I can be civil and kind to people, which is more than you can. Aha! That’s done you, Henry Higgins, it has. Now I don’t care that [snapping her fingers] for your bullying and your big talk. I’ll advertize it in the papers that your duchess is only a flower girl that you taught, and that she’ll teach anybody to be a duchess just the same in six months for a thousand guineas. Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself.
HIGGINS [wondering at her] You damned impudent slut, you! But it’s better than snivelling; better than fetching slippers and finding spectacles, isn’t it? [Rising] By George, Eliza, I said I’d make a woman of you; and I have. I like you like this.
LIZA. Yes: you turn round and make up to me now that I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you.
HIGGINS. Of course I do, you little fool. Five minutes ago you were like a millstone round my neck. Now you’re a tower of strength: a consort battleship. You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl.

Note that Higgins, although seeming to yield, still imagines a life lived on his terms. Here’s their final interchange:

LIZA. Then I shall not see you again, Professor. Good-bye. [She goes to the door].
MRS. HIGGINS [coming to Higgins] Good-bye, dear.
HIGGINS. Good-bye, mother. [He is about to kiss her, when he recollects something]. Oh, by the way, Eliza, order a ham and a Stilton cheese, will you? And buy me a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights, and a tie to match that new suit of mine, at Eale & Binman’s. You can choose the color. [His cheerful, careless, vigorous voice shows that he is incorrigible].
LIZA [disdainfully] Buy them yourself. [She sweeps out].

Despite this abrupt ending, however, audiences were still convinced of a future with wedding bells. According to Public Radio’s Studio 360, Shaw’s play was transformed from a feminist manifesto to a chick flick in its very first performance:

At the end of the play, after Eliza “sweeps out,” the actor playing Henry Higgins created a moment for himself — a moment Shaw never wrote and clearly didn’t want. As Eliza was leaving, Higgins watched her go, and then gave her a look. He didn’t change any lines, but he gave the audience exactly what they wanted to see: that Eliza and Higgins had been in love all along and that after the curtain fell, they’d be together….

Apparently there was nothing Shaw could do to rein this actor in. By the hundredth performance, the actor was throwing flowers after Eliza.

Both the 1938 film version and My Fair Lady (1964) are even more explicit, showing Eliza returning to Higgins. This in spite of Shaw’s long afterword explaining why Eliza would have married the worshipful Freddy, not Higgins.

Audiences craving for a union between a feuding couple were not altogether out of line, however. Although Shaw lambastes those of us “enfeebled” by our dependence on romantic endings and makes a compelling case for an Eliza-Freddy marriage, it’s also true that he makes Eliza’s continued relationship with Higgins sound far more interesting. Shaw makes it clear that Liza no less that Higgins is stimulated more by combat than soft romance:

It is astonishing how much Eliza still manages to meddle in the housekeeping at Wimpole Street in spite of the shop and her own family. And it is notable that though she never nags her husband, and frankly loves the Colonel as if she were his favorite daughter, she has never got out of the habit of nagging Higgins that was established on the fatal night when she won his bet for him. She snaps his head off on the faintest provocation, or on none. He no longer dares to tease her by assuming an abysmal inferiority of Freddy’s mind to his own. He storms and bullies and derides; but she stands up to him so ruthlessly that the Colonel has to ask her from time to time to be kinder to Higgins; and it is the only request of his that brings a mulish expression into her face. Nothing but some emergency or calamity great enough to break down all likes and dislikes, and throw them both back on their common humanity—and may they be spared any such trial!—will ever alter this. She knows that Higgins does not need her, just as her father did not need her. The very scrupulousness with which he told her that day that he had become used to having her there, and dependent on her for all sorts of little services, and that he should miss her if she went away (it would never have occurred to Freddy or the Colonel to say anything of the sort) deepens her inner certainty that she is “no more to him than them slippers”, yet she has a sense, too, that his indifference is deeper than the infatuation of commoner souls. She is immensely interested in him. She has even secret mischievous moments in which she wishes she could get him alone, on a desert island, away from all ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag him off his pedestal and see him making love like any common man. We all have private imaginations of that sort. 

Many great feuding couples comedies predict marriages that look something like this, including Much Ado about Nothing, The Rover, The Awful Truth,  His Girl Friday, and Man and Superman. Turning to a work in an entirely different genre that captures the dynamic, C.S. Lewis in Horse and His Boy reports the following future for Aravis and Shasta/Cor:

Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently. 

To be sure, this is a bachelor Oxford don talking, one who may share the same fears of emotional vulnerability as Shaw. But it helps explain why actors, directors, and audiences weren’t going to listen to an author dictate their imagining. They knew real love when they saw it.

On the other hand, if you want to see some marital quarreling that might get even Shaw and Lewis to think twice, tune in for tomorrow’s essay on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Ask Vets to Tell You Their Stories

Monday – Veterans Day

In addition to thanking any veterans you know for their service, ask them about their experiences during their service. And then listen carefully and with respect.

I know it meant to lot to my father for people to ask him about his World War II time in France and Germany. He particularly liked to poke holes in stereotypes. War is messier, more chaotic, and more random than military historians and generals like to admit, he would say, and he once wrote a poem about this when my son Toby (changed to Mike for rhyming purposes) asked him about 1944-45:

“The Greatest Generation”

By Scott Bates

“What was the Second World War like?”
I am asked by my youngest grandson, Mike,
Who has just remembered that he has
To write a paper for his English class
And hopes his grandfather will tell him a story
Like Private Ryan, full of guts and glory.
“That’s easy,” I answer—I am the One
Who Was There, the Expert, the Veteran–
(Who has read in the paper, by the way,
That thousands of vets die every day),
“It was boring, mostly,” I say, “and very
Gung-ho.”  I think.  “It was pretty scary.
And long.  And the longer it got, the more idiotic
It seemed.”  I stop.  “It was patriotic.”

How to tell the kid the exciting news
That we survived on sex and booze.
And hated the Army and hated the War
And hoped They knew what we were fighting for . . . .
And I remember my buddy, Mac,
Who got shot up in a tank attack,
And Sturiano, my closest friend . . .

It is still going on.  How will it end?

“It was people surrounded by dying men.”

“But what was it like?” asks Mike again.

It may sound as though my father didn’t want to be asked, but that wasn’t the case. Rather, he knew the difficulty of bridging the immense gulf between veterans and civilians.

The gulf is a major focus of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir/novel The Things They Carried. O’Brien intermixes fact and fiction as he tries to convey his own time in Southeast Asia. While acknowledging the inadequacy of his account, he makes clear the importance of telling the stories.

He says he became aware of the importance when a fellow vet challenged him to do write about their experience in a septic field where they lost a comrade. Norman Bowker’s letter helped O’Brien realize the importance of his storytelling:

Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me, how I’d allowed myself to get dragged into a wrong war, all the mistakes I’d made, all the terrible things I had seen and done.

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.

So make Veterans Day a day about storytelling.

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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.

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

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