Who Has Begotten the Drops of Dew?

Spiritual Sunday – Rosh Hashanah

Today is the Jewish New Year, the two-day celebration of Adam and Eve’s creation—which is to say, the beginning of the narrative of humans entering God’s universe. Anthony Hecht’s moving poem “Adam” seems an appropriate poem for the occasion.

The poem alternates between God addressing Adam and Hecht addressing his own son Adam, each acknowledging the challenge of encountering an uncertain world. Hecht writes to young Adam, “Know that it was for you/ That all things were begun,” and imagines God having said something comparable to the Biblical Adam.

The words are meant to console and reassure at a dark time. For the Biblical Adam, they would come following the fall, while Hecht’s Adam will be leaving his father following a custody battle. Both Adamses, in other words, are about to be separated from loving father figures.

Anticipating that his son will be anxious, Hecht appends an epigraph from God’s response to Job, who is protesting unmerited pain. God essentially tells him, “I am much bigger that humans can understand so don’t try to reduce me to the contours of your small life.” Delivering his words out of a whirlwind has that effect, as do the rhetorical questions, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?”

After having made his point through thunder, however, Job’s God then shifts to divine sweetness, which provides Hecht with his epitaph: “Hath the rain a father? Or who has begotten the drops of dew?”

It is this sweetness that Hecht wants his son to remember when he feels alone and sad. Here’s the poem:

Adam

Hath the rain a father? Or who has
begotten the drops of dew?


“Adam, my child, my son,
These very words you hear
Compose the fish and starlight
Of your untroubled dream.
When you awake, my child,
It shall all come true.
Know that it was for you
That all things were begun.”

Adam, my child, my son,
Thus spoke Our Father in heaven
To his first, fabled child,
The father of us all.
And I, your father, tell
The words over again
As innumerable men
From ancient times have done.

Tell them again in pain,
And to the empty air.
Where you are men speak
A different mother tongue.
Will you forget our games,
Our hide-and-seek and song?
Child, it will be long
Before I see you again.

Adam, there will be
Many hard hours,
As an old poem says,
Hours of loneliness.
I cannot ease them for you;
They are our common lot.
During them, like as not,
You will dream of me.

When you are crouched away
In a strange clothes closet
Hiding from one who’s “It”
And the dark crowds in,
Do not be afraid--
O, if you can, believe
In a father’s love
That you shall know some day.

Think of the summer rain
Or seedpearls of the mist;
Seeing the beaded leaf,
Try to remember me.
From far away
I send my blessing out
To circle the great globe.
It shall reach you yet.

In their exile from Eden, humans will often be in pain and feel that they are speaking to “empty air.” Similarly, Hecht tells his son that “there will be many hard hours” and that his father “cannot ease them for you.” Hours of loneliness are “our common lot.”

Anthony reminds his son how they played games of hide-and-seek, which connects well with a game of hide and seek played in the Garden of Eden:

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

In other words, some terror was involved, as it may be again when young Adam plays the game in “some strange clothes closet.” Although he fiinds himself in a land that speaks a different mother tongue (Europe? Asia?) and although he will not see his father for a long time, he should nevertheless “believe/ In a father’s love/ That you shall know some day.” Similarly, the Biblical Adam needs to recollect God’s love.

One reminder will come from the image that appears in the passage that Hecht excerpts from Job: when his son encounters “seedpearls in the mist,” which will manifest themselves on “the beaded leaf,” he can take from them the consolation of momentary beauty. God may seem to be “far away,” just as little Adam’s father is, but his blessing will circle the great globe.

“It shall reach you yet,” young Adam is assured. In our dark times, we all need such reassurance.

Further thought: Hecht’s poem reminds me of William Butler Yeats’s “Prayer for My Daughter,” which also is a blessing. Writing while a storm howls outside, Yeats writes,

 I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream.

Like Hecht’s poem, this one too ends with an image of peace:

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Previous posts on Rosh Hashanah
Rachel Barenblat–Rosh Hashanah: How to Keep It New
Denise Levertov, Muriel Ruykeyser–Rosh Hashanah: A Stirring of Wonder
Marge Piercy–Rosh Hashanah: Weave Real Connections
Enid Shomer–How Rosh Hashanah Is Like Swimming
Marge Piercy–Let My Words Turn into Sparks
Yehuda Amichai–Theoretically, a Season for Everything
Emma Lazarus–High above the Flood and Fire Ye Held the Scroll
Kadya Molodowsky–Blowing for Hope in the Face of Darkness
Alicia Ostriker–Entering the Days of Awe

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Kushner: Cheshire Cat Explains Trump

Tenniel, illus. from Alice in Wonderland

Friday

I see that Washington Post satirist Alexandra Petri has pulled a Better Living through Beowulf maneuver and applied a literary work to Donald Trump. In this case, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Actually, the idea traces back to Jared Kushner, presidential advisor and son-in-law, who according to Bob Woodward said the works helps explain the president. According to a Washington Post article,

 [Bob] Woodward writes that [Jared] Kushner advised people that one of the most important guiding texts to understand the Trump presidency was Alice in Wonderland, a novel about a young girl who falls through a rabbit hole. He singled out the Cheshire cat, whose strategy was endurance and persistence, not direction.

The Cheshire Cat hardly seems a model of endurance and persistence. But I’ll circle back to Cheshire Cat comparisons in a moment. Let’s first look at Petri’s other parallels.

Petri says that comparing the Trump administration to the story of a girl who falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in “a nonsensical world full of hallucinogens” is tantamount to saying that Down and Out in Las Vegas and Dante’s Inferno are also applicable. I can testify that she’s right in the latter instance as I have written a number of posts applying Inferno (and Lewis Carroll as well) to the Trump administration. In other words, Petri finds parallels that probably did not occur to Kushner.

For instance, she says that suddenly-tall-Alice’s thought about mailing letters to her feet would have had to occur early in the Trump administration, when we still had a well-functioning post office. She also observes that Alice asking for advice from a drug-smoking caterpillar and receiving, in return, reality-altering mushrooms is like Trump getting advice from those around him— “except that none of them needs the aid of mushrooms to alter reality at any moment.”

Then there’s the mad tea party and the croquet game:

She has tea with the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and a dormouse who keeps falling asleep into his soup. I think this is supposed to give the impression of what it is like to attend a Cabinet meeting. The dormouse, I am absolutely certain, is Wilbur Ross. Given that the Mad Hatter is prone to wearing a hat with a message on it and being mad, he stands in for the ardent Trump supporter.

After tea, Alice winds up playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts, who keeps shouting, “Off with their heads!” at various parties; she uses a flamingo as a mallet and a hedgehog as a ball. I think this shows how the Trump administration approaches the use of government: There are tools designed for certain purposes that people have honed over a long time, but instead of even attempting to use them, you should seize a wild bird and bludgeon it repeatedly. It is good if everyone around you is terrified, at all times, of being beheaded. This is leadership.

The trial that concludes the book reminds Petri of Republicans at the impeachment hearing:

The triumph of loud illogic during this trial is an almost eerily exact replica of the Republican questions during the impeachment hearing, a chain of random non sequiturs presented as damning indictments! Did you know that not having done something incriminating proves that you are a guilty party, and vice versa? This section was uncanny! Anyway, off with everyone’s head!

In the Cheshire Cat, Petri sees someone who doesn’t make much sense and smiles endlessly. In other words, the vice-president:

Later, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat, apparently the embodiment of the best leadership philosophy you can have in the Trump administration. Alice asks the cat which way she ought to go; the cat asks where she is trying to get to, and she says she doesn’t care. The cat responds that it doesn’t matter, in that case, which way she goes. It then smiles, says several more things that do not make any sense and vanishes. This is most likely Mike Pence.

I disagree here in that the cat is much more of an independent thinker than Pence and isn’t afraid to confront royalty, prompting the queen to order his beheading. He is like Trump, however, in his ability to evade any repercussions for his behavior. Consider the following scene, in which the cat’s disembodied head hovers over the croquet game:

When [Alice] got back to the Cheshire Cat, she was surprised to find quite a large crowd collected round it: there was a dispute going on between the executioner, the King, and the Queen, who were all talking at once, while all the rest were quite silent, and looked very uncomfortable….

The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never had to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life.

The King’s argument was, that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren’t to talk nonsense.

The Queen’s argument was, that if something wasn’t done about it in less than no time she’d have everybody executed, all round. (It was this last remark that had made the whole party look so grave and anxious.)

The debate becomes moot when the cat fades away. The idea of Trump quietly fading way is a consummation devoutly to be wished. And also no less fantastical than Carroll’s book.

Previous posts applying Lewis Carroll to Donald Trump
Hopefully, Trump Is the Queen of Hearts 
Lewis Carroll Has Trump’s Number 
GOP’s Best Case: We’re All Mad 
Following Attorney General Barr Down the Rabbit Hole 
Trump’s Latest Queen of Hearts Beheading 
Is Trump Running a Red Queen Race? 
Lewis Carroll Describes the Caucus Races 

Trump and Dante’s Inferno
Trump and Inferno’s Nine Circles – Pick One 
Dante Weighs In on Trumpian Sins

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To Teach Empathy, Turn to Lit

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Mother and Children Reading (c.1860)

Thursday

My friend Sue Schmidt alerted me to New York Times article on the complexities of teaching children to be empathetic. We have but to look at America’s sociopathic president to realize the importance of connecting with others. That we will always come up short doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, making the effort is one of life’s most rewarding activities.

But how does one learn to feel another’s pain? Literature provides one path, but the literature must be taught in a particular way. One can’t just have students answering dry, testable questions. They must have the opportunity to explore their own emotional responses.

The article’s author Molly Worthen interviews African American Studies professor Alisha Gaines about empathy and the role of literature. While skeptical about whites who roleplay blackness, Gaines nevertheless acknowledges that we engage in a form of roleplaying when immersed in a work of fiction:

[A]s a literature professor, [Gaines] wants students to see books as passageways to experiences unlike their own. “I love books because I’m learning something about people I didn’t understand. I’m connecting,” Ms. Gaines told me. “I wasn’t reflected in books I read as a kid. I understood myself through ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘Little Women’ — little Black kids often have to understand themselves through white protagonists. At the same time, for me as a little girl reading ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ as much as I saw myself in her precociousness and her deep feeling, I also knew there wasn’t something speaking exactly to me. It was not a perfect mirror. We want to connect to the material on an emotional register and make space for the fact that each story tells a particular story.”

A Stanford professor agrees while adding that current teaching approaches can rob literature of its empathetic value:

“I really do believe literature is an empathy tool, and reading literature widely can actually make you an empathetic person,” Sarah Levine, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, told me. In many classrooms, the structure of standardized tests, especially multiple-choice questions and narrow essay rubrics, pushes teachers to drill students on finding arguments and literary devices rather than encouraging them to reflect on their own emotional response. “The standardized testing movement reduces literary reading to fact-finding,” Ms. Levine said.

She recently completed a study of a century of New York Regents exams and found that from the 2000s onward, “the reader disappeared from the questions that these tests are asking students. The reader is being asked to figure out what the central idea of the text is, as opposed to being asked to talk about how a text made them see something differently, or sympathize with someone,” she told me.

Later in the interview, thinking both of her former Chicago South Side students and her Stanford students, Levine observes,

We’re teaching that literature is not for them, because they aren’t a part of what they read. I don’t mean because they feel, ‘I don’t see Black and brown faces in my literature,’ but ‘I’m supposed to write an argument about a motif,’ and not do what kids do outside of the classroom: read and enjoy the experience.”

Levine notes that such approaches can cause children to dislike reading. Contrasting literature with other uses of language (such as political speeches and political tweets), she says that “[w]e should use fiction for empathy, aesthetic pleasure, examining ethical dilemmas and just the experience of escaping.”

Needless to say, I could not agree more. A while ago I wrote about the danger of literature becoming reified in the classroom, which is to say turned into a static entity rather than a dynamic force in our lives. If we turn Shakespeare into an icon to be worshipped (“bardolatry”) or literature into nothing more than a means of developing critical thinking, we rob it of some of its power. Sensing this, one of Worthen’s interview subjects has figured out an alternative way of engaging with literature:

Emerson Holloway, an English major at Oberlin College in Ohio, read a lot on her own to make up for the fact that in high school, she didn’t always have “the opportunity to connect and empathize with characters,” she told me.

At Oberlin, she helps facilitate a student group called Barefoot Dialogues, which invites students to discuss a text or work of art over a home-cooked meal in order to “engage in trust and vulnerability to make connections across differences,” she said.

It appears that Holloway is approaching literature in two ways: to find characters like herself and to explore her feelings about cultural difference. While it is certainly possible to discuss such subjects in a classroom—I certainly strive to encourage such discussions in my own—many teachers avoid them. Literary studies has had a difficult time entirely shedding New Criticism’s “affective fallacy,” which contends that a reader’s emotional response to a work is immaterial.

Furthermore, even emotionally sensitive teachers may not be able to spur the in-depth conversations that students can have amongst themselves. Nor is this bad. After all, our end goal is for students is to take literature into their own hands.

Our role is to signal to our students that such conversations are worthwhile. This blog is dedicated to this proposition. 

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Battling Our Inner Darkness

Wednesday

As I continue to work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, I’ve come across one that imaginatively addresses factional and police violence. Even more impressively, it shows how most of us have a dark side, which will rob us of our souls if we surrender to it.

In Thud!, age-old tensions between dwarfs and trolls threaten to erupt on the anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley, a famous conflict that occurred 500 years earlier. Pratchett may be thinking of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in which Christian Serbs battled with Ottoman Turks and which was invoked frequently to justify the Bosnian civil war. Since the novel was written in 2005, Pratchett probably also has in mind various Muslim terrorist organizations, although I won’t rule out anti-immigrant hatred in Britain or white supremacy in America. At any rate, Inspector Samuel Vimes, head of the Night Watch, is attempting to maintain the peace.

To do so, he has assembled a diverse police force consisting of humans, dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, zombies, golems, wee men, and (reluctantly on his part given his prejudices) vampires. He even insists on sending out troll and dwarf officers together, which would be comparable to pairing up, say, Italian and Irish officers in late 19th century Boston. At the end, Vimes makes a discovery that establishes a new peace between dwarfs and trolls.

The battle of Koom Valley, counter to dwarf and troll accounts, actually ended indecisively as a flash flood swept away both sides. Some of these were entombed together and, before they died, they arrived at a truce and left behind both voice and sculpted records of their new understanding. These records, having resurfaced, are now the target of fanatical dwarfs, just as Afghanistan’s great Buddhist statues were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. Like ISIS members, these dwarfs also kill those fellow dwarfs who stumble across the ancient account of the truce. In the novel’s happy ending, the truth emerges anyway and the caverns that served as a tomb for trolls and dwarfs becomes a shrine.

There’s another plot element that makes Thud! particularly relevant given police violence. A primal hatred called the Summoning Darkness is looking for a way to gain entry into the world, and its chosen vehicle is Inspector Vimes himself. When fanatical dwarfs attack his home and threaten his wife and child, he is prepared to enact extra-judicial violence against, not just these dwarfs, but dwarfs in general. At moments, he is desperately hoping that dwarfs will take a punch at him so that that he can unload his fury. He is prepared to lash out at the local dwarf businessmen who show up at the precinct station, just as some Americans wanted to lash out at all Muslims following 9-11. Here’s his interior monologue:

You scum you rat-sucking little worm-eaters! You heads-down little scurries in the dark! What did you bring to my city? What were you thinking? Did you want the deep-downers [the extremist dwarfs] here? Did you dare deplore what Hamcrusher said, all that bile and ancient lies? Or did you say, “Well, I don’t agree with him, of course, but he’s got a point”? Did you say, “Oh, he goes too far, but it’s about time somebody said it”? And now have you come here to wring your hands and say how dreadful, it was nothing to do with you? Who were the dwarfs in the mobs, then? Aren’t you community leaders? Were you leading them? And why are you here now, you ugly, sniveling grubbers? Is it possible, is it possible, that now, after that bastard’s bodyguards tried to kill my family, you’re here to complain? Have I broken some code, trodden on some ancient toe? To hell with it. To hell with you.

Although these dwarfs have only shown up to help—in fact, some of themselves lost family members to the deep downers—Vimes has trouble seeing it. I could well imagine Pratchett channeling some of his own prejudice at this moment, both voicing it and realizing how dangerous it is. Fortunately, he arrives at some self awareness when he is dealing with a deep-downer in custody:

And he was not certain, not certain at all, what he’d do if the prisoner gave him any lip or tried to be smart. Beating people up in little rooms…he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you’d do it for a bad one. You couldn’t say “we’re the good guys” and do bad-guy things. Sometimes the watching watchman inside every good copper’s head could use an extra pair of eyes.

Vimes is not the only character in danger of being swallowed by darkness. Two of his officers, a werewolf and a vampire, have their own issues. The vampire, who has taken the pledge and belongs to the Black Ribbon society (akin to AA), has learned to settle for biting beetroots or, when nothing is available, apples. The werewolf, meanwhile, has learned to control her transformations and curb her wolfish impulses. The novel’s central drama, however, is Vimes’s own interior battle.

Parents will appreciate how he holds on to his humanity: he reads to his two-year-old son every night at six. The book he reads sounds like a take-off of P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother, only it is based on the  question, “Where’s my cow?” Patchett’s description is hilarious. Following various false leads involving a sheep and a horse (“Is that my cow? It goes naaaay! It is a horse!”) the book reaches its crescendo:

At this point, the author had reached an agony of creation and was writing from the racked depths of their soul.

Where’s my cow?
Is that my cow?
It goes HRUUUUGH!
It is a hippopotamus!
No, that’s not my cow!

This was a good evening. Young Sam was already grinning widely and crowing along with the plot.

In Thud!’s own climactic moment, Vimes confronts the dwarfs who attacked his home in an underground cavern that is metaphorically his interior self. The Summoning Darkness thinks it has found a way into the world through him, only to learn that the watchman can indeed watch himself:

“I am the Summoning Dark.” It was not, in fact, a sound, but had it been, it would have been a hiss. “Who are you?”

“I am the Watchman.”

“They would have killed his family!” The darkness lunged, and met resistance. “Think of the deaths they have caused! Who are you to stop me?”

“He created me. Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes? What watches the watchman? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”

“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”

“One who fears the dark.”

“And so he should,” said the entity, with satisfaction.

“Indeed. But I think you misunderstand. I am not here to keep darkness out. I’m here to keep it in.” There was a clink of metal as the shadowy watchman lifted a dark lantern and opened its little door. Orange light cut through the blackness. “Call me…the Guarding Dark. Imagine how strong I must be.”

The Summoning Dark backed desperately into the alley, but the light followed it, burning it.

“And now,” said the watchman, “get out of town.”

One of the conciliatory dwarfs later reveals worries that Vimes’s struggle with the Summoning Dark “would rip your tendons from your bones.” By channeling “That’s Not My Cow,” however, the inspector reveals his interior strength.

Americans live in a country where the chief executive is trying to summon the Darkness. He did this when he suggested to an assembly of police not to be “too nice” to the suspects they arrested. He wants his military to kill the families of terrorists, he advocates tearing children away from their refugee parents, and he defends (on the grounds of self-defense) the armed vigilante who killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His violent dreams have led to an upsurge in rightwing violence over the past four years.

It’s up to America to resist the Summoning Darkness. Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy shows us how.

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Tennis Fiction and Osaka’s Brilliance

Naomi Osaka, U.S. Open champion

Tuesday

As a tennis player, I was in awe this past weekend as Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open while, at the same time, shining a light on black victims of police and vigilante violence. The tennis victory tennis gives me an excuse to share an old Paris Review article, which shows how literary depictions of the game can enhance one’s appreciation of it.

Ross Kenneth Urken recalls a middle school crush upon a girl who could “goose egg” him (6-0, 6-0) while playing left-handed. To recapture her magic, he turns to Nabokov’s Lolita, Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (which I cited last week), and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

For Humbert Humbert, Dolores’s tennis playing is part of her nymphette mystique:

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert describes how Dolores Haze plays singles at least twice a week with a classmate, Linda Hall, employing teasing tactics against her and “toying with [her] (and being beaten by her).” The particular beauty of Dolores’s tennis game is, for Humbert, a prerequisite for an amenable afterlife, or so he whimsically hyperbolizes one crisp afternoon as Dolores plays in Colorado:  “No hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that Colorado resort between Snow and Elphinstone, with everything right …”

The rightness encompasses all his senses: “The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke.” Not only is there acoustic beauty in the musicality of her hits but also riveting elegance to her movements: her serve has “beauty, directness, youth, a classical purity of trajectory” while “her forehand and backhand drives…were mirror images of one another.”

Urken observes,

As any player knows, this type of equilibrium raises the serotonin in the brain, makes the world seem ordered, cements the visuals into our heads so firmly that years later we can reflect upon those moments of total harmony. This is what I found so exciting in my own youth, and as Nabokov perhaps implies, with tennis’s peculiar focus on both finesse and power, it’s perhaps no surprise that the game includes erotic grunting—uvularly high-pitched, ecstatic screams on the women’s side and heaving-throatiness on the men’s.

While well beyond Humbert Humbert’s required nymphette age range of 12-16, Osaka had a little girl aura when she won the U.S. Open at 20 two years ago, exhibiting a painful shyness while accepting the trophy. It’s exciting to see her step into maturity, using her platform for social good. As a world-class athlete who also possesses an interesting mind, Osaka could become a worthy successor to Roger Federer as the leader of world tennis. To his credit, Nabokov’s pedophile protagonist, at the end, acknowledges that the real life Dolores Hayes is far more interesting than his fantasy nymphette.

Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye, Columbus shares nothing with Osaka (other then, perhaps, a relentless will to win) so I won’t return to that work. Wallace’s work, on the other hand, captures how Osaka rose to every challenge in this tournament. In her hard-hitting match with Jennifer Brady in the semi-final match and then her come-from-behind win over Victoria Azarenka, she drew on dimensions of her game she didn’t know she possessed, miraculously increasing the power of her serve by an extra 6 miles per hour.

Here’s how Wallace explains such moments:

There is a mathematical brilliance to a good tennis game that David Foster Wallace describes in Infinite Jest... In the novel, James Incandenza’s father tells ten-year-old Jim about his own views on the otherworldly, physics-bending elements of tennis, which are so beautiful they’re magical: “You enter a trance…You slip into the clear current of back and forth, making X’s and L’s across the harsh rough bright green asphalt surface, your sweat the same temperature as your skin, playing with such ease and total mindless effortless effort and entranced concentration … You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. Nothing touches it, when it’s right.”

Nothing touched Osaka in the third set of her matches against Brady and Azarenka. It felt like magic.

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Apocalyptic Fire Ravages the Nation

Pieter Schoubroeck, Aeneas Rescuing His Father from Troy

Monday

It was almost exactly two years ago when I posted the following essay, which is even more relevant today as the entire west coast goes up in flames. But then, most of my past posts on extreme weather events are proving timeless as the apocalyptic future that climate scientists have been predicting for years has arrived.

Reprinted from September 10, 2018

So much is going on in the United States these days that, unless you’re from California or Oregon, you may not be aware that fires continue to rage there. Add the Delta Fire to the Carr Fire and the fires that decimated the Mendocino area. It’s terribly depressing.

I thought of the devastation recently while rereading Virgil’s account of the Greeks sacking Troy, the first time I have looked at the Aeneid since I was a teenager.

Many Californians have a sense of what it was like for Aeneas to awaken to the Greeks sacking his city. The passage may lead us to recall California’s mudslides as well as its fires:

Meanwhile the city is confused with grief, on every side,
and though my father Anchises’s house is remote, secluded
and hidden by trees, the sounds grow clearer and clearer,
and the terror of war sweeps upon it.
I shake off sleep, and climb to the highest roof-top,
and stand there with ears strained:
as when fire attacks a wheat-field when the south-wind rages,
or the rushing torrent from a mountain stream covers the fields,
drowns the ripe crops, the labor of oxen,
and brings down the trees headlong, and the dazed shepherd,
unaware, hears the echo from a high rocky peak.
Now the truth is obvious, and the Greek plot revealed.
Now the vast hall of Deiphobus is given to ruin
the fire over it: now Ucalegon’s nearby blazes:
the wide Sigean Straits throw back the glare.
Then the clamor of men and the blare of trumpets rise.

Especially vivid is the reflection of devastation in the Sigean Straits (the Dardanelles). Aeneas escapes with his family (except for his wife), but most of the Trojans do not. California is paying its own price.

Another great quotation: This is from a fabulous Russian novel that a friend introduced me to. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate was submitted for publication in 1960 but confiscated and only appeared decades later. The scene involves the Battle of Stalingrad, which Grossman witnessed in real life:

It seemed impossible to escape from the liquid fire. It leaped up, humming and crackling, from the streams of oil that were filling the hollows and craters and rushing down the communication trenches. Saturated with oil, even the clay and stone were beginning to smoke. The oil itself was gushing out in black glossy streams from tanks that had been riddled by incendiary bullets; it was as though sheets of flame and smoke had been sealed inside these tanks and were now slowly unrolling.

The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the surrounding whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up and see a black firmament streaming with oil.

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Emily Bronte on Forgiveness

Eichenberg’s illustration of Lockwood’s restless night

Spiritual Sunday (reprinted from Sept. 14, 2014)

It has always been the case, and continues so today, that zealots pervert spiritually uplifting moments in sacred scripture to fit their own egotistical purposes. Wuthering Heights gives us a great example of this occurring.

Today’s New Testament reading shows us Jesus using numbers to teach his disciples the power of forgiveness. Actually, there are two different numbers in two different versions of Matthew 18:21-22. Emily Bronte would of course have been working with the King James Version but here they both are:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22, King James Version)

 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22, New International Version)

Needless to say, Jesus has neither 77 nor 490 in mind when he responds to Peter. Rather, he is poetically making the point that Peter has to think big when it comes to forgiveness, just as Jesus himself will do on the cross. Leave it up to judgmental fundamentalists, however, to focus on sin #491. Here’s the first of Lockwood’s two nightmares when he’s sleeping in Catherine’s childhood room at Wuthering Heights:

I began to nod drowsily over the dim page: my eye wandered from manuscript to print.  I saw a red ornamented title—‘Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First. A Pious Discourse delivered by the Reverend Jabez Branderham, in the Chapel of Gimmerden Sough.’  And while I was, half-consciously, worrying my brain to guess what Jabez Branderham would make of his subject, I sank back in bed, and fell asleep.  Alas, for the effects of bad tea and bad temper!  What else could it be that made me pass such a terrible night?  I don’t remember another that I can at all compare with it since I was capable of suffering.

I began to dream, almost before I ceased to be sensible of my locality.  I thought it was morning; and I had set out on my way home, with Joseph for a guide.  The snow lay yards deep in our road; and, as we floundered on, my companion wearied me with constant reproaches that I had not brought a pilgrim’s staff: telling me that I could never get into the house without one, and boastfully flourishing a heavy-headed cudgel, which I understood to be so denominated.  For a moment I considered it absurd that I should need such a weapon to gain admittance into my own residence.  Then a new idea flashed across me.  I was not going there: we were journeying to hear the famous Jabez Branderham preach, from the text—‘Seventy Times Seven;’ and either Joseph, the preacher, or I had committed the ‘First of the Seventy-First,’ and were to be publicly exposed and excommunicated…

[I]n my dream, Jabez had a full and attentive congregation; and he preached—good God! what a sermon; divided into four hundred and ninety parts, each fully equal to an ordinary address from the pulpit, and each discussing a separate sin!  Where he searched for them, I cannot tell.  He had his private manner of interpreting the phrase, and it seemed necessary the brother should sin different sins on every occasion.  They were of the most curious character: odd transgressions that I never imagined previously.

Oh, how weary I grow.  How I writhed, and yawned, and nodded, and revived!  How I pinched and pricked myself, and rubbed my eyes, and stood up, and sat down again, and nudged Joseph to inform me if he would ever have done.  I was condemned to hear all out: finally, he reached the ‘First of the Seventy-First.’  At that crisis, a sudden inspiration descended on me; I was moved to rise and denounce Jabez Branderham as the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon.

Sir,’ I exclaimed, ‘sitting here within these four walls, at one stretch, I have endured and forgiven the four hundred and ninety heads of your discourse.  Seventy times seven times have I plucked up my hat and been about to depart—Seventy times seven times have you preposterously forced me to resume my seat.  The four hundred and ninety-first is too much.  Fellow-martyrs, have at him!  Drag him down, and crush him to atoms, that the place which knows him may know him no more!’

‘Thou art the Man!’ cried Jabez, after a solemn pause, leaning over his cushion.  ‘Seventy times seven times didst thou gapingly contort thy visage—seventy times seven did I take counsel with my soul—Lo, this is human weakness: this also may be absolved!  The First of the Seventy-First is come.  Brethren, execute upon him the judgment written.  Such honour have all His saints!’

With that concluding word, the whole assembly, exalting their pilgrim’s staves, rushed round me in a body; and I, having no weapon to raise in self-defense, commenced grappling with Joseph, my nearest and most ferocious assailant, for his.  In the confluence of the multitude, several clubs crossed; blows, aimed at me, fell on other sconces.  Presently the whole chapel resounded with rappings and counter rappings: every man’s hand was against his neighbor; and Branderham, unwilling to remain idle, poured forth his zeal in a shower of loud taps on the boards of the pulpit, which responded so smartly that, at last, to my unspeakable relief, they woke me.  And what was it that had suggested the tremendous tumult?  What had played Jabez’s part in the row?  Merely the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice as the blast wailed by, and rattled its dry cones against the panes! 

Like many hell-fire fundamentalists, including the old servant Joseph, Jabez has no interest in forgiveness. He relishes too much the satisfaction he gets from pointing out to the world its many sins. If Jesus specifically mentions that 490 sins can be forgiven, then Jabez will single out the 491st.

Lockwood is spending the night with people whose lives have been ravaged by the failure to forgive. Heathcliff forgives no one and all must pay: Hindley, Hareton, Edgar, Isabel, Linton, young Catherine. Heathcliff can’t even forgive Catherine since, as he sees it, she has done away with herself:

Let me alone.  Let me alone,’ sobbed Catherine.  ‘If I’ve done wrong, I’m dying for it.  It is enough!  You left me too: but I won’t upbraid you!  I forgive you.  Forgive me!’

‘It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,’ he answered.  ‘Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes!  I forgive what you have done to me.  I love my murderer—but yours!  How can I?

The world of Catherine’s adult life is one where there is no healing grace. Come to think of it, there actually was one sin that Jesus found to be unforgivable and that was the sin against the Holy Spirit. Those who are without compassion, who cannot experience God’s healing forgiveness or forgive others, have condemned themselves to eternal torment. In Lockwood’s dream, the entire congregation, along with Lockwood himself, turn the wrathful eye of judgment upon one another and are locked in hellish combat.

The self-righteous Jabezes of the world are those that Jesus most had in mind when he called for forgiveness. My but they are a vocal lot!

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Poem for Remembering 9-11

Photo by Richard Drew

Friday – Anniversary of 9-11

Nobel Prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska has written one of the most powerful poems about 9-11, focusing on Richard Drew’s never-to-be-forgotten “falling man” photo. As Poetry Foundation points out, “By not adding a last line and by not giving the poem its expected (and easy) closure, Szymborska keeps the work open, the wound fresh.”  

Photograph from September 11

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them  
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened. 

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
Posted in Szymborska (Wislawa) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Using Tennis and Roth to Assess Character

Djokovic following his U.S. Open ejection

Thursday

Tennis fans everywhere felt the shock of Novak Djokovic’s ejection from the U.S. Open after inadvertently hitting a lineswoman. Although the mishap was inadvertent, the slapped ball was hit in anger. Professional tennis player Andrea Petkovic uses an episode from a Philip Roth novella to show how such moments can be used to assess character.

Writing for Racquet Magazine, Petkovic focuses on a class drama in which lower middle-class Neil Klugman waits for upper-class Brenda Patimkin to complete her tennis match before their date. How much can you read into Brenda’s character from the following scene, as recounted by Neil?

 I parked the car under the black-green canopy of three oaks, and walked towards the sound of the tennis balls. I heard an exasperated voice say, “Deuce again.” It was Brenda and she sounded as though she was sweating considerably. I crackled slowly up the gravel and heard Brenda once more. “My ad,” and then just as I rounded the path, catching a cuff full of burrs, I heard, “Game!” Her racket went spinning up in the air and she caught it neatly as I came into sight.

Brenda has just broken for a 5-4 lead and she calls out, “One more game, Neil.”

Petkovic observes,

We all know those people who loudly announce the score as long as it is in their favor, and we all know what that tells us about them. Brenda is that kind of a person. She calls out the score loudly and clearly because she is winning, behavior that could tip you over into the abyss of insanity that you have been balancing on so bravely for the past hour or so….

Roth presents Brenda’s behavior as cocksureness, but to me it reads as bourgeois privilege.

Given Roth’s exploration of class distinctions within the Jewish community, bourgeois privilege is a good interpretation.

Neil himself interprets Brenda’s chip and charge strategy:

Her passion for winning a point seemed outmatched by an even stronger passion for maintaining her beauty as it was. I suspected that the red print of a tennis ball on her cheek would pain her more than losing all the points in the world.

Petkovic elaborates:

Brenda Patimkin’s biggest fear is about her nose, which she had some work done on. She avoids the net and only rushes it when night begins to fall and she assumes she cannot be seen and hit in the face as easily. It is a simple fear, but it tells us that Brenda’s angst may be related to potential cracks in the facade she presents to the world, which is a herald of things to come in their love affair.

Petkovic gives literature and film credit for her key insight:

All the romantic moves in my playbook I have acquired from the books I have read and the movies I have seen. It is no surprise, then, that I’ve taken a page from Brenda’s book in my own life, too. Whenever I want to really get to know someone, I get them out on a tennis court.

She then elaborates while looking into the reasons why:

Tennis is a very difficult sport that is rarely ever picked up easily by anyone, even genuinely athletic people. It is a sport that is technically and mentally challenging and tends to bring out the true colors of anyone who attempts it. It can tell you a lot about a person’s persistence and determination and how willing they are to accept failures and mistakes in order to move forward.

It also boils down to an individual’s general state of competitiveness and which states of mind he or she prefers to be in. Is it something more peaceful and comforting, or is it the friction and tension that bring out the best in somebody? It is non-negotiable what a person feels is better for them; different stimuli are required for different types of people. It really does throw us back into a weird kind of childlike state of mind in which we are in some way closer to our true essence than after years of living under society’s influence.

Being on a tennis court and playing a match is mentally and emotionally challenging, no matter how accomplished a player you are. At one point in a relatively even match you will always have to face some personal angst that may present itself in the form of simple fears that can have nothing to do with tennis.

So what can we learn about Djokovic from his episode? My view of Serbians is somewhat biased as I see them from a Slovenian perspective (where I spend two years on Fulbrights). Because Serbs felt underappreciated when they were part of Yugoslavia (equal with five other republics and two autonomous provinces), they went about asserting their dominance over the others, which finally led to the break-up of the country. Once can see Serbian resentment underneath Djokovic’s genial exterior.

But setting national characteristics aside, Djokovic also is bothered at not receiving the love of Federer and Nadal garner, even though he has been better than both of them in recent years. Whenever he has faced either one in a match, he invariably sees the crowd pulling heavily against him. To his credit, he has found a way of using this to his advantage, playing with a chip on his shoulder. Still, it gets to him.

In this year’s U.S. Open, both Federer and Nadal are missing, perhaps letting Djokovic feel that it was finally his turn in the sun. In his match where he lost his temper, however, Spanish player Carreno Busta was refusing to roll over, once coming back from an 0-40 deficit to avoid a break (at which point Djokovic violently slammed the ball into the side barrier), and then breaking Djokovic’s own serve (at which point Djokovic hit the lineswoman). It’s as though Djokovic momentarily saw himself entitled to a set he had just lost.

In fact, he has been lucky in the past that his thrown racquets and swatted balls haven’t hit anyone. He has even derided reporters who pointed out he was playing with fire.

So returning to Petkovic’s point,

If you ever are unsure about a person, drag them to the tennis court of their choice and in a matter of minutes everything will be laid out in crisp clearness before you.

Posted in Roth (Philip) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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