Joyce’s Eveline & Vaccine Resistance

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Laundress (1888)


This past weekend, to celebrate my mother’s wedding anniversary—she and my father had been married 65 years when he died—we went out of the Sewanee Inn to celebrate. Everyone in our party of eight had been vaccinated (although we still wore our masks when we entered and the tables were six feet apart), and the occasion was joyous.

Yet even as a bright new day beckons, millions of Americans—mostly Republicans—are resisting the vaccine. Even as we’ve been handed this path back to normality, they’re essentially saying they want to remain in the throes of the pandemic. A James Joyce story from Dubliners comes to mind.

In “Eveline,” a young woman living a very hard life is suddenly presented with an exit. A man who has fallen in love with her wants to marry her and take her to Buenos Aires. The story shows her wrestling with the decision.

She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question. In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. O course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement….

But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations… [L]atterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And now she had nobody to protect her….Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably.

Frank, the man she will marry, is like a post-Covid world—which is to say, a breath of fresh air. He introduces her to a whole new way of living:

 He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theatre with him. He was awfully fond of music and sang a little. People knew that they were courting and, when he sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused. He used to call her Poppens out of fun. First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries.

Weighing on her mind, however, is a promise she made to her mother on her death bed. Apparently the phrase “derevaun seraun” is garbled Gaelic although interpretations include “the end of pleasure is pain” and “the end of the song is raving madness”:

As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:

“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.

Those Republicans who are refusing vaccinations are under their own spell. They’ve been living in an alternative reality for so long, bashing science for so long, that they can’t accept this miraculous way out when it is offered.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are like Frank calling out,

“Eveline! Evvy!”

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

It’s worth noting that Eveline behaves like a victim of abuse. The father who beats her seems more real to her than the fiancé who promises her a better life. “Sometimes he could be very nice,” she recalls. In our case, the abusers are Donald Trump, cynical GOP politicians, and a cynical Fox News.

On National Public Television news segment recently showed life in Israel following its successful vaccination program. Using vaccination passports, Israelis were working out in gyms and dining in restaurants. Life looked like it used to be. Thinking of how our vaccine resisters seem intent on blocking that prospect for the rest of us, a passage from Henry Vaughan’s “The World” comes to mind:

O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day…

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Byron, Shelley & Greek Independence

Lipparini, Byron Swearing Oath on Tomb of Marcos Botzaris


Rev. John Morrow, a dear friend and former babysitter (60+ years ago), just sent me a Wall Street Journal article by John Psaropoulos on “how poetry won independence for Greece.” It’s an article tailor-made for Better Living through Beowulf.

 There were a series of Greek uprisings in the 1820s against the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered the Greek peninsula in the 15th century. The rebels captured the attention of the Romantic poets, especially Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley. Looking for historical precedent, Byron referred to two famous victories against numerically superior Persian forces in “The Isles of Greece.” The king sitting on “rocky brow” is Xerxes, who saw his fleet decimated by the Athenian navy:

The mountains look on Marathon—
    And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
    I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

A king sate on the rocky brow
    Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
    And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set, where were they?

The article quotes classicist Roderick Beaton saying that educated Europeans and Americans saw “something of their own at stake because they’ve been brought up on Homer and Herodotus and Marathon and Salamis.” Therefore, Beaton doesn’t see Byron’s and Shelley’s support as altruistic:

It’s actually the belief that the Hellenic heritage is common to all civilized people and therefore…it’s your own civilization that is threatened by the common enemy.” As a result, hundreds of Europeans fought for the Greek cause, Byron being the most famous.

Byron had a rock star presence that dwarfs anything we see today, with the “Byronic hero” capturing the imagination of young people everywhere, including the Bronte sisters (think Rochester and Heathcliff). Therefore when, a decade before the rebellion, the protagonist of Byron’s long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage calls for the Greeks to rebel, it packed a punch. Don’t look to the French or Russians to save you, Childe Harold tells them. You must do it yourself:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
   Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
   By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
   Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye?  No!
   True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
   But not for you will Freedom’s altars flame.
   Shades of the Helots! triumph o’er your foe:
   Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o’er, but not thy years of shame.

Childe Harold, Psaropoulos notes, had been a publishing sensation in 1812, selling out ten editions in three years, an unprecedented accomplishment.

Shelley made his own contribution to the Greek cause, writing his verse play Hellas to help finance the rebellion. The play is best known for its concluding chorus, which imagines a glorious present replacing Greece’s glorious past. Why look to mythological figures like Jason, Orpheus and Ulysses, Shelley asks, when a new great age is beginning?

The world’s great age begins anew,
         The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
         Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.

A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
         From waves serener far;
A new Peneus rolls his fountains
      Against the morning star.
Where fairer Tempes bloom, there sleep
Young Cyclads on a sunnier deep.

A loftier Argo cleaves the main,
         Fraught with a later prize;
Another Orpheus sings again,
         And loves, and weeps, and dies.
A new Ulysses leaves once more
Calypso for his native shore.

Oh, write no more the tale of Troy,
         If earth Death’s scroll must be!
Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
         Which dawns upon the free:
Although a subtler Sphinx renew
Riddles of death Thebes never knew.

Another Athens shall arise,
         And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
         The splendor of its prime;
And leave, if nought so bright may live,
All earth can take or Heaven can give.

Saturn and Love their long repose
         Shall burst, more bright and good
Than all who fell, than One who rose,
         Than many unsubdu’d:
Not gold, not blood, their altar dowers,
But votive tears and symbol flowers.

Oh cease! must hate and death return?
         Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn
         Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past,
Oh might it die or rest at last!

Some in Greece lean too much on their past, just as some in Britain and France still imagine themselves as having empires. American boasts of exceptionalism sometimes ring similarly hollow. Shelley wants the Greeks to let go of the past and create new myths.

Neither Byron, who died of a fever after four months in Greece, nor Shelley were terribly practical. Instead of creating new legends, the Greek rebellion proved inept and undermanned. Psaropoulos says of the Greek rebels,

Before the might of Sultan Mehmet’s professional army and navy, they could field only brigands, skirmishers, and fire ships. They had no cavalry, no military navy, no experienced military officers, no central command, no money and barely a government.

In other words, you may not want to listen to poets when you’re contemplating rebellion.

Yet the poems had an effect after all, capturing the imaginations of Britain, France and Russia. These nations had been hostile towards national liberation movements following the Napoleonic years, which had sparked a desire for independence amongst various ethnicities. (I can testify that there is a monument to Napoleon in Ljubljana, Slovenia.) These poets made revolution cool again.

To be sure, political calculations also entered in. The perceived weakness of the Ottoman Emire prompted the nations to support the Greek cause, and after their combined forces decimated the Ottoman navy in the Battle of Navarino, the Greeks achieved independence. Still, the poets had played a part, and the Enlightenment ideals that they embraced prevailed. As a result, Greece

became the first European nation-state forged in the values articulated by the U.S. Declaration of Independence. “Setting up a new state according to enlightenment principles [is] what the Greeks did for the first time,”…says Prof. Beaton. “To create such a state at all…out of materials that existed before 1821 is an extraordinary feat for which the Greeks deserve far more credit that they’re routinely given.”

Don’t underestimate poetry, in other words.

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Plato & Aristotle’s Lit Disagreement

Raphael, detail from School of Athens


The more I work with Plato’s and Aristotle’s views of literature (for my book Does Literature Make Us Better People?), the more I realize that Aristotle is directly responding to his old teacher, even though he doesn’t come out and say so directly. Although, as I noted last week, Aristotle is never as specific about literature’s impact upon audiences as Plato is, I think I finally understand how his Poetics works as a counterargument.

Think about it this way:

Plato: Worse living through Homer and Hesiod
Aristotle: Better living through Aeschylus, Socrates, and Euripides (oh, and also Homer)

Interestingly, both men love literature. Plato, however, is suspicious of his love whereas Aristotle embraces it. Because Plato sees philosophy and poetry at odds, at one point comparing poetry to wild Bacchanalian dancing, he reluctantly banishes poets from his ideal society. The banishment extends to his “beloved” Homer.

One can see how Plato responds to Homer by how he fears others will respond. Take for instance his worries about the scene where Odysseus encounters Achilles in the underworld:

“But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
 than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
 We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
 we Argives did, and here your power is royal
 among the dead men’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus:
 you need not be so pained by death.”

                                                To this
 he answered swiftly:
                                                 “Let me hear no smooth talk
 of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
 Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
 for some poor country man, on iron rations,
 than lord it over all the exhausted dead.
(trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

Plato is concerned that this scene will cause young warriors to turn cowardly on the battlefield. But could it be that the scene unnerves Plato because it affects him so deeply? Perhaps Homer so grips his mind that he believes he himself would falter should his courage be tested. Better to prevent young minds from encountering such scenes in the first place.

In contrast, Aristotle embraces the intense emotions that literature unleashes in audiences. He see as a plus the fact that audiences experience an emotional purging or purification—a catharsis—when they witness a great play. The more intense the catharsis, the greater the work.

Catharis, Aristotle tells us, is brought about by a combination of pity and fear: we pity what the tragic hero is enduring and we fear that the same could happen to us. If classicist Edith Hall is right that 5th century Greek tragedy captured the conflict between individuals seeking control over their own lives and circumstances that inexorably crush them (see last Thursday’s post), then spectators felt themselves understood and therefore less alone. They were crying for themselves. (“It is Margaret you weep for,” Gerard Manley Hopkins would say.)

While such weeping strikes Plato as unmanly, for Aristotle it is a sign that tragedy is capturing our essential human condition. This is why poetry for him is “a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” Great poetry, with its acute understanding of humans, knows “how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.”

History, by contrast, is limited by the particular examples: “for example—what Alcibiades did or suffered.”

Plato refuses to grant poetry this special insight into reality. For him, poetry is not only inferior to philosophy but to the practical crafts as well. For instance, if (as his theory of forms goes), there exists an ideal form of a chair that all chairs echo or descend from, then the poet sees neither that ideal form (only God can see it, and possibly philosophers), nor the imitation of the ideal (manufactured by the chair maker). Rather, the artist creates only an imitation of an imitation, and the artist’s audience is yet another step removed. Two degrees of separation from truth, in other words.

Or as Plato also puts it, you don’t read Homer to learn how to drive a chariot—or for that matter, how to become a statesman.

With his own focus on imitation, Aristotle contradicts his master. He’s not concerned with chairs or chariot driving but with the human condition. His contention that literature has a special grasp of universal truth has been echoed by many literary theorists since, among them Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Johnson, Percy Shelley, Marx and Engels, and W.E.B. Du Bois. All argue that literature’s ability to express truth is its greatest strength, not to mention its primary responsibility. Forget your personal prejudices, they tell artists, and just give us reality. Or as Sidney puts it, “the poet, he nothing affirms.”

(As an aside, I note that philosophers have an on-going debate about whether Aristotle thinks poetry is higher than, not only history, but philosophy as well. Some argue that he thinks poetry’s insights can be folded into a philosophical framework (in which case it isn’t), others that poetry provides a radically different way of knowing. I myself am in the second camp, viewing literature at least on a par with philosophy if not higher. As I see it, literary knowing combines virtual experience with reflection whereas philosophy specializes only in intellectual reflection.)

Poetry, Aristotle says, springs from our desire to imitate, which in turns makes poetry a powerful teaching force: we desire instances of imitation to help us grow. Here’s how Aristotle puts it:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. 

Different form of literature imitate different things. Epic and tragedy (Aristotle mentions Homer and Sophocles) imitate “higher types of character,” comedy (Aristophanes) lower types. As Aristotle puts it, “The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons.”

Speaking of action, Aristotle’s considers it more important than character in a tragedy. Through action, we see a person’s character put to the test. This character, Aristotle says, must be good and motivated by a moral purpose but must be brought down by some internal “error or frailty.” Because tragedies ennoble their protagonists, they also inspire imitation-hungry spectators. We grieve when they fall but also take away important lessons.

In the end, Aristotle has more faith than Plato in general audiences to make good choices when moved by literature. We see the same divide today between liberals and conservatives. Both philosophers, however, regard literature as a potent force.

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Faulkner on Racism’s Deep Roots


I’ve finally read Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, which has been on my “books to read” list for decades, and have emerged with mixed feelings. One thing it does very well, however, is help us understand why cops are so likely to shoot African Americans. Although written in 1949, Intruder in the Dust’s deep dive into racism is only too applicable to today’s spate of police killings.

I’m not sure whether we are witnessing an increase in police-on-Black violence or just getting more visual evidence of it, but so many incidents have been packed into the past few weeks that even evangelical pastor and archconservative Pat Robertson is questioning the cops. He has in mind the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the shooting of 22-year-old Daunte Wright in a Brooklyn Park, Minnesota traffic stop, and the Black U.S. army officer stopped, maced, and threatened with execution after Virginia police failed to see his new-car license tag. (One of them said to him, “What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son.”) A number of law enforcement officials were involved in the invasion of the Capitol, and The Guardian newspaper has just reported that

[a] data breach at a Christian crowdfunding website has revealed that serving police officers and public officials have donated money to fundraisers for accused vigilante murderers, far-right activists, and fellow officers accused of shooting black Americans.

By taking us into the minds of southern racists, Faulkner shows us the degree to which White identity is predicated on Black subjugation. In the novel Black farmer Lucas Beauchamp drives the Whites around him crazy by acting as though he is as good as they are. They are therefore looking for a chance to lynch him—not only hang him but burn him alive—after he is accused of shooting a white man. Only because two boys, one Black and one White, and an 80-year-old White woman do some digging around (literally—they dig up the victim’s body) is Lucas discovered to be innocent and saved from a grisly death.

What the Whites in Faulkner’s novel demand from Blacks is what too many cops demand: that they signal submission. Beauchamp refuses to do so, as 16-year-old Chick Mallison discovers:

[W]ithin the next year he was to learn every white man in that whole section of the country had been thinking about him [Lucas Beauchamp] for years: We got to make him be a n*** first. He’s got to admit he’s a n***. Then maybe we will accept him as he seems to intend to be accepted. Because he began at once to learn a good deal more about Lucas. He didn’t hear it: he learned it, all that anyone who knew that part of the country could tell him about the Negro who said ‘ma’am’ to women just as any white man did and who said ‘sir’ and ‘mister’ to you if you were white but who you knew was thinking neither and he knew you knew it but who was not even waiting, daring you to make the next move…[The asterisks are mine]

And further on:

If he would just be a n*** first, just for one second, one little infinitesimal second…

In reading those lines, I think of a twitter thread that I posted upon recently about an African American man whose mother carefully raised him to (among other things) think that the Hardy boys were black. (When she read the books aloud to her children, she transposed them to inner city Detroit.) Because so much of American culture—including its literature—is defined by Whiteness, the effect of the mother’s program was to go against the grain and make Whiteness appear irrelevant. As a result, her son now finds himself behaving differently around Whites than many African Americans. Here’s the relevant passage for today’s discussion:

I honestly believe that the reason a lot of white people think I’m “the real racist” is because I never learned how to care what white people think. There is a subtle, subconscious deference to whiteness that MOST of us have.

Beauchamp refuses to engage in this deference, which Chick discovers early on after the man saves him from drowning and takes him home to dry him off and feed him. Confused that he is in debt to a Black man—we see the extent to which racial superiority is internalized at an early age—Chick tries to pay Beauchamp, only for the man to slap the coins out of his hands. Shaken to the core, Chick becomes obsessed with the matter. Each time he sends him a gift, however, Beauchamp outmaneuvers him with a return gift. Always, Chick remains indebted.

Hegel famously wrote about how, in the master-slave relationship, the master is no less enslaved by the system than the slave, and one sees this operating in Intruder. Chick’s entire sense of his identity, his supposed White superiority, is challenged. In the presence of Beauchamp, he doesn’t know who he is.

We see the same dynamic playing out when Beauchamp is challenged in a store. The White sawmill worker involved could easily be the Virginia cops who pulled over the military officer or the Texas cop who put Sandra Bland in jail (for refusing to stop smoking when he stopped her for a non-offense) or those Whites who have shot Blacks (or called the cops on them) for jogging through their neighborhoods or generally acting as though they belonged where they were. I quote it at length because it gives us such a clear picture of what enrages certain Whites:

[T]his day there were three youngish white men from the crew of a nearby sawmill, all a little drunk, one of whom had a reputation for brawling and violence, and Lucas came in in the worn black broadcloth suit which he wore to town and on Sundays and the worn fine hat and the heavy watch-chain and the [gold] toothpick, and something happened, the story didn’t say or perhaps didn’t even know what, perhaps the way Lucas walked, entered speaking to no one and went to the counter and made his purchase (it was a five-cent carton of gingersnaps) and turned and tore the end from the carton and removed the toothpick and put it into his breast pocket and shook one of the gingersnaps into his palm and put it into his mouth, or perhaps just nothing was enough, the white man on his feet suddenly saying something to Lucas, saying ‘You goddamn biggity stiff-necked stinking burrheaded Edmonds sonofabitch:’ and Lucas chewed the gingersnap and swallowed and the carton already tilted again over his other hand, turned his head quite slowly and looked at the white man a moment and then said:

‘I aint a Edmonds. I dont belong to these new folks. I belongs to the old lot. I’m a McCaslin.’

‘Keep on walking around here with that look on your face and what you’ll be is crowbait,’ the white man said. For another moment or at least a half one Lucas looked at the white man with a calm speculative detachment; slowly the carton in one of his hands tilted further until another gingersnap dropped into his other palm, then lifting the corner of his lip he sucked an upper tooth, quite loud in the abrupt silence but with no implication whatever of either derision or rebuttal or even disagreement, with no implication of anything at all but almost abstractedly, as a man eating gingersnaps in the middle of a hundred-mile solitude would—if he did—suck a tooth, and said:

‘Yes, I heard that idea before, And I notices that the folks that brings it up aint even Edmondses:’ whereupon the white man even as he sprang up reached blindly back where on the counter behind him lay a half-dozen plow singletrees and snatched one of them up and had already started the downswing when the son of the store’s proprietor, himself a youngish active man, came either around or over the counter and grasped the other so that the singletree merely flew harmlessly across the aisle and crashed against the cold stove; then another man was holding the man too.

‘Get out of here, Lucas!’ the proprietor’s son said over his shoulder. But still Lucas didn’t move, quite calm, not even scornful, not even contemptuous, not even very alert, the gaudy carton still poised in his left hand and the small cake in the right, just watching while the proprietor’s son and his companion held the foaming and cursing white man. ‘Get to hell out of here, you damn fool!’ the proprietor’s son shouted: and only then did Lucas move, without haste, turning without haste and going on toward the door, raising his right hand to his mouth so that as he went out the door they could see the steady thrust of his chewing.

We hear a little about the background of the sawmill workers when Chick’s uncle Gavin tells him that their ancestors chose to settle in Mississipi because it reminded them of Scotland:

Which is why the people who chose by preference to live on them on little patches which wouldn’t make eight bushels of corn or fifty pounds of lint cotton an acre even if they were not too steep for a mule to pull a plow across… are people named Gowrie and McCallum and Fraser and Ingrum that used to be Ingraham and Workitt that used to be Urquhart only the one that brought it to America and then Mississippi couldn’t spell it either, who love brawling and fear God and believe in Hell—— 

What Gavin doesn’t mention is that, upon immigrating to the United States, these Scots instantly received a very valuable piece of cultural capital that recompensed them for their poverty: there was another group of people that they could feel superior to. In other words, recent immigrants didn’t start at society’s bottom rung since they could at least tell themselves that they were White. Or as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green is putting it with her fascist America First movement, “Anglo-Saxon.” [Update: Green has apparently received such negative feedback from GOP leadership for her plans that she is reportedly “scrapping” them. It’s nice to know there are still some limits to rightwing extremism.]

This sense of entitled superiority is so built into the White psyche that it erupts over and over again. Faulkner, however, sees a flicker of hope in Chick, who despite his upbringing also comes to see what racism is doing to the Whites. It begins when, with his sense of indebtedness to Beauchamp, he responds to his request to dig up the body of the victim, which will prove that the white was not shot with Beauchamp’s gun. But it climaxes when he sees how, in the gathering lynch mob, their obsession with their whiteness has erased all individuality. He sees

not faces but a face, not a mass nor even a mosaic of them but a Face: not even ravening nor uninsatiate but just in motion, insensate, vacant of thought or even passion…

I mentioned having mixed feelings about Intruder and some of them lie in how Chick’s uncle, who at times appears to speak for Faulkner (but not always), complains about northern intervention. The south, as the uncle sees it, needs to work out its race problems by itself. Even though federalism has not entirely ensured equal rights for African Americans, however, it’s naïve to think that the south would have (1) given up its slaves without a war and (b) ended Jim Crow without the Supreme Court and the threat of federal troops. Faulkner himself has shown just how deeply racism is embedded in the American psyche.

And therein lies a key value to Intruder in the Dust: we see vividly the toxicity of Whiteness. Intruder also helps us understand why this disease is not limited to the south so that cops in Minnesota and Illinois are just a likely to be infected with it as cops in Virginia and Texas. Only after we have acknowledged the vast scope of the problem can we begin to address it.

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Feeding This Feverish Plot

Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve just made a connection that I should have made long ago. Mary Oliver’s “The Fish,” which I’ve taught many times when teaching her American Primitive collection, is about Luke 24:36-48, today’s Gospel reading.

The reading is about one of those moments following the Resurrection where Jesus appears to the disciples. We aren’t told exactly how he appears—he appears to just materialize—but to assure his followers that he something more substantive than a ghost, he eats some food. Here’s the passage:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?  Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

In “The Fish,” one encounters images of violence and death, followed by an initiation into mystery.  The poet carefully preparing the fish echoes the eucharistic feast, just as Jesus eating the fish brings to mind the Last Supper. Oliver, who was a practicing Episcopalian, came out of an American tradition (which includes Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson) of finding God in nature. What she describes as the “feverish plot” is our life and death, and while it often involves pain, we are at the same time nourished by mystery—the mystery of our interconnection with nature, the mystery of whatever awaits us after death. Oliver describes this drama elsewhere (in “In Blackwater Woods”) as follows:

Every year

I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss

whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.

In the eucharist, of course, Christians symbolically eat the flesh of Christ and drink of his blood in order to be one with God. Think of that as you read the poem:

The Fish

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.

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Madoff & a Pyramid Scheme Poem

Bernie Madoff


I see that Berne Madoff, the financier who bilked his clients of $64.8 billion with an elaborate Ponzi scheme, has died. The occasion gives me an excuse to share this entertaining poem, appearing in Poetry magazine in 2018. “Pyramid Scheme” begins by reflecting on the nature of such schemes but ends up going in a very different direction. At times I lose the thematic thread but hang on for a fun ride.

I suppose that makes the poem itself a pyramid scheme: we think we’re getting one thing but end up with something far different in the end. In this case, however, the money that comes pouring down upon the speaker in the final stanza is the sun’s rays, “which you don’t even have to pay tax on/ because sun money is free money.” Not that the speaker is against taxes—”because i believe that hospitals and education/ and the arts should be publicly funded.” It’s a nice thought to have the day after tax day.

At one point the speaker wonders whether love itself is a pyramid scheme and then hints at the way that this is so. We think everything will be beautiful and then encounter references to screaming arguments and pain. Or shifting to all “curse of the mummy” pyramid movies, the mentions “trapdoors and malaria.” Even the positive allusions to love are conveyed through images of old cartoons. “When i look at you, my eyes are two identical neighborhood houses on fire,” the poet tells his love. “When i look at you my eyes bulge out of my skull like a dog in a cartoon.”

But whatever disappointments or caricatures we get, love is still at the center of things. As we look back at Madoff’s life, it good to remember that what makes our lives rich has little to do with money. For those of us living at the bottom of the pyramid, a golden moment may involve “eating cold pizza on your steps at dawn.” Down here, people learn important lessons from relationships, such as that arguments are not the same thing as honesty and screaming is not the same thing as passion. Madoff made billions and all for what? Did he ever once achieve the happiness the speaker describes at the end of the poem?

When I read the poet’s images of fraudulent millionaires and their get-rich schemes, I think of Henry Vaughan’s image of the miser in “The World”:

The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves…

In contrast, Vaughan speaks of seeing “eternity the other night/ Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” For Hera Lindsay Bird, love is at the core, which may amount to the same thing. The image of the two lovers walking down the street “with the grass blowing back and forth” is reminiscent of Archibald MacLeisch’s imagist poem “Ars Poetica,” where love is captured in the image of “the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea.”

Madoff, like all pyramid grifters, lost sight of that. As Bird’s poem makes clear, such people are as one dimensional as a triangle.

Pryamid Scheme
By Hera Lindsay Bird

the other day i was thinking about the term pyramid scheme, and why they called it pyramid scheme and not triangle scheme
and i asked you what you thought
you thought it added a certain gravitas, and linked the idea of economic prosperity
with some of history’s greatest architectural achievements
unconsciously suggesting a silent wealth of gold and heat
a triangle is two dimensional, and therefore
a less striking mental image than the idea of a third dimension of financial fraud
which is how many dimensions of financial fraud the term pyramid scheme suggests
but i had to pause for a second at the financial fraud part
because it occurred to me i didn’t know what pyramid schemes really were
i knew they had something to do with people getting money from nothing
the person at the top of the pyramid scheme, or more accurately
triangle scheme, acquires a number of investors and takes their money
and then pays the first lot of investors with the money from another bunch of investors
and so on and so forth
all the way to the bottom of the triangle
or pyramid face
which is the kind of stupid thing that happens
if you keep your money in a pyramid and not a bank account
although if you ask me banks are the real pyramid schemes after all
or was love the real pyramid scheme? i can’t remember

maybe it’s better to keep your money in a pyramid than a bank
and i should shop around and compare the interest rates on different pyramids
maybe i should open up a savings pyramid
with a whole bunch of trapdoors and malarias
to keep the financial anthropologists
i mean bankers out
my emeralds cooling under the ground like beautiful women’s eyes

i think this was supposed to be a metaphor for something
but i can’t remember where i was going with it
and now it’s been swept away by the winds of
but knowing me, it was probably love
that great dark blue sex hope that keeps coming true
that cartoon black castle with a single bird flying over it

i don’t know where this poem ends
how far below the sand
but it’s still early evening
and you and I are a little drunk
you answer the phone
you pour me a drink
i know you hate the domestic in poetry but you should have thought of that before you
invited me to move in with you
i used to think arguments were the same as honesty
i used to think screaming was the same as passion
i used to think pain was meaningful
i no longer think pain is meaningful
i never learned anything good from being unhappy
i never learned anything good from being happy either
the way i feel about you has nothing to do with learning
it has nothing to do with anything
but i feel it down in the corners of my sarcophagus
i feel it in my sleep
even when i am not thinking about you
you are still pouring through my blood, like fire through an abandoned hospital ward
these coins are getting heavy on my eyes
it has been a great honor and privilege to love you
it has been a great honor and privilege to eat cold pizza on your steps at dawn
love is so stupid: it’s like punching the sun
and having a million gold coins rain down on you
which you don’t even have to pay tax on
because sun money is free money
and i’m pretty sure there are no laws about that
but i would pay tax
because i believe that hospitals and education
and the arts should be publicly funded
even this poem
when i look at you, my eyes are two identical neighborhood houses on fire
when i look at you my eyes bulge out of my skull like a dog in a cartoon
when i am with you
an enormous silence descends upon me
and i feel like i am sinking into the deepest part of my life
we walk down the street, with the grass blowing back and forth
i have never been so happy

Posted in Bird (Hera Lindsay), MacLeish (Archibald), Vaughan (Henry) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Tragedy Made Greek Lives Better

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer


I’ve been having difficulty revising the Aristotle chapter in my book Does Literature Make Us Better People? A 2500-Year-Old Debate and so am using today’s post to sort through some of the ideas. Although Plato has very definite ideas on how literature can be bad for us, Aristotle—even though he obviously disagrees—doesn’t do so directly. This confused me for a while until I saw an article in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Thought, where Derek Barker and David McIvor observe that

the Poetics never explicitly ascribes a political purpose or teaching to tragedy, a surprising omission for a thinker who was centrally concerned with politics and familiar with the civic context of Greek theater.

This led me to do some research into the civic context of Greek theater. One of the experts, classicist Edith Hall, has some enlightening things to say. For instance, in Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, she asks the question,

Why would Aristotle, a serious thinker whose objective was understanding the world in a way that would produce the best possible human community, spend so much time thinking about the fictional stories enacted in the popular theater?

Her answer:

The only explanation is that he was personally convinced that such entertainment had the potential massively to enhance the emotional and moral life of both individual spectators and the community as a whole.

While uplifted by the thought, I find this a bit vague. Luckily Hall then goes on to spell it out a bit more (but in way that Aristotle doesn’t):

Athenian drama was designed not only to enthrall its spectators but to train them in the cognitive, moral and political skills they needed to run a healthy city.

Hall is able to speak authoritatively on this because of her splendid book Greek Tragedy: Suffering under the Sun, where she does a deep dive into Greek theatre. In it she makes several suggestive observations. After talking about the immense “quality of attention” and “breathtaking” responsibilities required of those who sat on the Athenian Citizens’ Council, she notes,  

Greek tragedy offers a training in decision-making. From the Persian Queen’s request for advice from her elders on how she should react to her dream and the omen she has seen in Persians, to Iphigenia’s articulation of her limited alternatives (i.e. whether to die willingly or unwillingly) in Iphigenia in Aulis, the corpus of fifth-century tragedies offers many characters engaged in deliberation, both in soliloquy and in dialogue.

She observes that, of the three major tragedians, the one for whom “deliberation as a mental process” was particularly important was Sophocles, who it so happens was “the only tragedian amongst the ‘big three’ who himself held important public office.” It’s not accidental, then, that his tragedies are often

precipitated by the inability of a character in a quandary to listen to good counsel, to discount bad, or simply to spend sufficient time considering potential outcomes: Oedipus fails to hear Tiresias, neither Ajax nor the Atridae demonstrate much ability to anticipate the consequences of their actions, and Creon substitutes bluster for deliberation when faced with cogent arguments framed by both Antigone and Haemon.

To be sure, Hall is forced to admit that Greek tragedy often indicates that “much about human life…cannot be controlled even by the most competent of deliberators,”  which is a problem with her argument. On the other hand, “with more careful thought, many of the great catastrophes of myth could have been averted even at the last minute, or, at the least, their consequences in terms of collateral damage ameliorated.” So there’s that.

Ultimately, she concludes that Greek tragedies are still suggestive of a “self-confident, optimistic, and morally autonomous Athenian democratic subject.”

I think what it boils down to is that the tragedies helped Athenians negotiate the tangled issue of human control—as in, how much control do we have over what happens to us? If we have no control—if our lives are entirely in the hands of fate—then there’s no drama. At the very least, we think we can have some control (think of Oedipus). Otherwise, life feels intolerable. The tragedies captured audiences in their fragile condition, leading to emotional catharsis. People felt pity for the tragic figures, feared the same could happen to them, and had a good cry over the experience.

Hall speculates that Aristotle deliberately set up his school close to the Athenian Theatre of Dionysus so that it would be within easy walking distance for him and his students. She says she

can imagine Aristotle walking at dawn with Theophrastus and their students, along with many other Athenian citizens and resistant, to attend the tragedies and comedies in the city-wnter sanctuaries and theaters of Dionysus, and excitedly analyzing them as he strode back home to the Academy at nightfall.

One of his many achievements, she notes, was to be “the first thinker ever to work out arguments for the edificatory potential of stories and enacted entertainments.”

Better living through Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in other words. I’ll have more to say on Aristotle in a few days.

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Doonesbury, the Bard, & Trump

Parolles exposed as a fraud in All’s Well That Ends Well


Doonesbury applied Shakespeare to current affairs in an imaginative way in Sunday’s strip. B.D. overhears his wife Boopsie involved in an on-line bashing (or so he thinks) of a certain ex-president. Here is what he hears:

“I want to hear the outrage.”

“A most notable coward! An infinite and endless liar! An hourly promise-breaker.”

B.D. explodes, shouting, “The trial’s over! He’s off twitter! He’s gone! Why is everyone still obsessing over the former guy.”

Only it so happens that he’s overhearing an acting workshop, with the participants acting out a scene from All’s Well That Ends Well.

Here’s the passage, which describes the loathesome Parolles, a supposed friend of the count who is eventually exposed as…well, one of the Count Bertram’s friends says it best:

Believe it, my lord, in mine own direct knowledge, without any malice, but to speak of him as my kinsman, he’s a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy your lordship’s entertainment.

Once B.D. realizes he’s hearing Shakespeare, he wonders, “How could he be so spot on?” Which is another way of saying (in the words of Ben Jonson), “He was not of an age but of all time.”

The parallel proves even more apt when one dives into the play. Parolles, whose name is taken from the French word for words (paroles), is essentially a bullshit artist. A kind of Falstaff figure, he all but takes over the play, so much so that 19th century productions were sometimes staged under the name “Parolles.” Like Falstaff (and Trump), he talks a better battle game than he delivers, proving an actual coward on the battle field. As the admirable Helena remarks, You go so much backward when you fight.”

On the other hand, he talks endlessly about penetrating virgins. Helena, who has her heart set upon Bertram, is nice to him only because he is Bertram’s good friend (“I love for him for his [Bertram’s] sake”). While she (unlike Bertram) sees him for what he is, she nevertheless expresses admiration for how well he carries off his fraudulence:

And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, solely a coward;
Yet these fixed evils sit so fit in him,
That they take place, when virtue’s steely bones
Look bleak i’ the cold wind: withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.

If Parolles were virtuous, he would look “bleak i’ the cold wind.” Who wants “cold wisdom” when they can have “superfluous folly”? I think of Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn complaining recently about how boring Joe Biden is:

The president is not doing cable news interviews. Tweets from his account are limited and, when they come, unimaginably conventional. The public comments are largely scripted. Biden has opted for fewer sit down interviews with mainstream outlets and reporters. Invites the question: is he really in charge?

To which Andrew Feinberg observed,

Senator Cornyn appears to be under the impression that presidents are only “in charge” if they spend their time erratically tweeting about what they see on cable news and calling into TV shows.

One way in which the play diverges from our own reality is that, after he is exposed, Parolles falls out of favor and, by the end of the play, is groveling to retain a place at court. Trump, who has been exposed multiple times, still has Republicans making pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to pay him homage.

In the play, Bertram is guilty of Parolles’s irresponsible use of words, using them to weasel out of his forced marriage to Helena. Only at the end of the play does he recognize her worth and settle into responsible adulthood. It’s a bit like the ending of Henry IV, Part II where Hal decides to become a responsible king and casts off Falstaff. “I know thee not, old man,” he famously says.

If we see this as an allegory for our own situation, it’s what we want from the Republican Party. They must their infatuation with their bullshit artist—not to mention empty words generally (Fox News, shock radio jocks)—and settle into responsible governance with the opposition party (Helena). Until they do so, our realm will continue to totter.

Then again, if we are lucky, maybe one day we will be able to look back at this polarized time and say, “All’s well that ends well.”

Further thought: While All’s Well That Ends Well isn’t Shakespeare’s best, I have a soft spot for it as I saw Judy Dench perform the count’s mother in a production in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre. As such, she’s in alliance with daughter-in-law Helena against her son Bertram. I remember one scene where she packed a tremendous amount of power into a tiny hand gesture—I felt thrown back in my seat—as she dismisses Bertram when he’s throwing a temper tantrum. At that moment I got why Dench is one of the most admired actresses in British history.

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Read Jabberwocky for Covid Protocol

Tenniel, the Jabberwock


My son Tobias Wilson-Bates, a Victorianist who teaches English at Georgia Gwinnett College, blew up twitter the other day when he applied a poem from Alice through the Looking Glass to post-Covid-vaccine protocol. The high volume response testified to the love people have for Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” which I have shared at the end of today’s post.

Incidentally, I remember reading the Alice books to Toby when he was small. Later he wrote part of his dissertation about how Carroll’s satire of standardized education is related to the 19th century’s fascination with time. (You can read an account of it here. ) Now he has gone even further and taken Alice to twitter.

Toby tweeted,

Being vaccinated does NOT mean you can gyre and gimble in the wabe. REMEMBER that the borogoves are STILL all mimsy. And the mome raths outgrabe.

The tweet brought out the best in the twitter-verse:

–Ah, but you can – if you have had the Astra Zeneca twice, and if you wait three weeks. Roll on Saturday, 17th April next. Gyring and gimbling like you’ve never seen before. The wabe will never be the same again!
–Of course it doesn’t! What do I look like? A BANDERSNATCH?! (TWB replay: More like a jubjub bird.)
–Ran out of wabe halfway through the lockdown. (TWB response: You might still be able to outgrabe if you show up early in the day.)
–You burbled snicker-snack you! Oh wait…Mmmm Snickers, it’s a totally tasty snack. Carry on awesme vaccinated beamish boy, just may sure you chop that Snicker-snack with vorpal blade in half & share with me! Callooh callay! O Frabjous day! I am vaccinated too!
–I understand not gyring; that’s just being reasonable. But to gimble is my passion and cannot be denied. You can tell the wabe I’ll double-mask if that’ll make it feel safer.
–Oh I’m gyring all right, or my name isn’t Brillig! I’ll gimble like no one’s ever gimbled when I’m sufficiently frumious.
–Ah Jabberwocky. Still makes more sense than an anti-vaxer.
–And there’s still a damned good chance that the snark is a boojum.
–I am definitely going to continue being ware of the jabberwocky, but then I’m known for being antisocial and will frequently shun the bandersnatch as well as the jub-jub and others
–This only applies to the current vaccines but the new vorpal jab let’s you gimble all you want
–I’ll just be over here reading this thread and chortling by the Tumtum tree, as one does
–Come to my arms, my beamish boy
–Indeed, better to pause a while in uffish thought.
–But I can shun the frumious second mask and go with just the one. Callooh! Callay!
–What if I upgrade my Vorpal Sword with a Snicker-Vax
–Come into my arms, my beamish mRNA, I chortled in my joy!
–I thought gyring and gimbling were restricted to slithy toves only.
–Come to my arms my beamish boy…but 6 feet away, please!
–Make sure to socially distance as you galumph back!

And then there was this twitter thread as responders responded to each other:

–Bullshit. I’ve got a fucking vorpal sword.
–Vorpal swords don’t stop viruses. How many times do I have to say this?!
–One two, one two and through and through, the Pfizer jab went pinch and pack
–*nods* the vaccine will not protect you from the Jabberwock; even after the second dose; make sure you wear a mask, continue to social distance, and keep your vorpal sword nearby

As a number of people remarked, it was altogether brillig.

For those who need a refresher, here’s Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
     Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
     And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Alice’s response reminds me of when I’ve taught The Waste Land:

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, ever to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.)

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

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