Marx & Engels on the Usefulness of Lit

Marx and Engels


I share today another chapter of my current book project, Better Living through Literature: A 2500-Year-Old Debate. Since I am still in the revisions process, I am particularly interested in feedback.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, while very interested in making our lives better, don’t have a lot to say about how literature can help. I include them in this book, however, because certain left-leaning literary theorists think that literature can join with class politics to advance human liberation.

Had things turned out differently, it’s possible that Marx would have had a lot to say about literature since, at 17, he was a brilliant student who wanted to study literature in college. (Instead, his father made him study law, which he finessed into law and philosophy.) He wrote some poetry, short fiction, and a play before shifting over to philosophy, especially the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. After leaving the university, he became a journalist increasingly interested in socialist causes.

Meeting Friedrich Engels was a major turning point in his life. Engels, the son of a Lancashire textiles factory owner, had researched the abysmal living conditions of mill hands, producing the landmark Condition of the Working Class in England (1844). Increasingly disenchanted by Hegel’s idealism, which believed that ideas shape history, Marx turned his attention to economics and worker activism. In 1848, a year that saw revolutions break out all over Europe, Marx and Engels co-authored The Communist Manifesto, designed to transform working class dissatisfaction into a mass movement.

As Marx and Engels see it, more inclusive forms of society invariably replace less inclusive forms, meaning that the proletariat will one day replace the bourgeoisie as the bourgeoisie replaced the landed classes. The desired end is a communal state where each individual, free of worrying about physical needs, can develop his or her particular potential to the fullest. Marx’s analyzed the workings of capitalism in Capital, his masterpiece. Engels, meanwhile, would go on to write, among other works, The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State.

According to his daughter Elaine, Marx was a fan of Shelly, whom he considered as “one of the advanced guard of Socialism.” It’s important to distinguish between the two, however. Defence of Poetry is closer to the Hegelian idealism that Marx rejected in that Shelley sees visions of human liberation, grasped by the great poets, inevitably seizing hold of human society and changing it. In other words, consciousness (including literature) shapes history, even though it can take a while.

If Marx is said to have stood Hegel “on his head,” it’s because he saw economic forces influencing consciousness, not the other way around. Shelley may have called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but Marx became increasingly interested in actual legislating. What does it take for power to change hands?

Consciousness and literature still have a role to play, however. To understand how, we must look at the relationship between what Marx and Engels call “the ideological superstructure” and “the economic base.” The superstructure involves “ideas, concepts and consciousness”—the mental structures that influence how we see ourselves—while the base concerns “the material intercourse of man”:

The production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the spiritual intercourse of men, appear here as the direct efflux of men’s material behavior…

The Marx-Engels passage has led to many debates about whether material life or culture (life or literature for us) is primary. At first glance, it appears that Marx and Engels consider material life to be more important:

We do not proceed from what men say, imagine, conceive….[R]ather we proceed from the really active man…Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness.

While this may seem to definitively relegate consciousness to the second tier, it’s actually more complicated than that. In pushing against Hegel’s contention that consciousness determines history, Marx and Engels may overstate the case, going to the other extreme. “Interwoven,” I think, gives us a better sense of the actual relationship. Literature can’t act independently from the material conditions on the ground, but it is through people’s ideological sense of themselves that the economic conditions manifest themselves. History may involve impersonal forces, but it takes place through actual people.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, a labor organizer who thought about these issues when locked up in Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, helps clarify the relationship. As he sees it, workers (economic base) and cultural activists (ideological superstructure) need each other. Without connection to actual working conditions, culture laborers (including poets) are prone to airy abstractions, while without the efforts of those who work with ideas, manual workers are vulnerable to what Engels calls “false consciousness” and Gramsci “bourgeois cultural hegemony.”

As Gramsci sees it, the middle class uses the institutions of culture (the media, universities, religious institutions) to “manufacture consent,” with the result that the middle class need not rely only on armies and the police to stay in power. The existing power relations will appear, to the working class, as just the way things are, what Gramsci calls the “common sense” values of all. William Blake, in his poem “London,” captures how people forge mental shackles for themselves. Although miserable, they do not cast off the internal restraints:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

When the reigning power structure can convince people to forge mental manacles for themselves, we have what Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power.”

If culture helps enforce existing power relations, however, it also can challenge them. Gramsci himself is more interested in how political philosophy can break the hold of bourgeois “common sense” on worker minds, but we will be examining literature’s ability to do so. W.E.B. Du Bois, Bertolt Brecht, Frantz Fanon, and various feminists (Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Tania Modleski) all examine ways that poetry, fiction and drama can break the hegemonic power of, respectively, racism, capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. If Sir Philip Sidney is right that literature is the best way to teach virtue, then maybe it is also the best way to break the hold of oppressors over our minds.

We will also see a contrary view expressed by Victorian poet and thinker Matthew Arnold, who openly calls for poetry to be used to ensure middle class hegemonic control, not challenge it. Literature, as Arnold sees it, should be taught in worker schools because it will “civilize” the masses, by which he means persuade them to be content with their lot in life.

Marx and Engels do not disagree with Arnold that great literature can play a reactionary role in class struggle. For instance, they both noted how members of the rising middle class used Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe for their own purposes. One can see how the story of a shipwrecked mariner creating a new society would appeal to entrepreneurs, casting someone like them as a heroic protagonist in a drama that breaks with the past and forges a new path into the future. Crusoe’s father wants him to stay at home and pursue a safe “middle way” whereas Crusoe wants something more, even though he can’t put his finger on exactly what that is. In any event, he continues to engage in risky ventures, with the final result that he creates a new world that far surpasses anything that his father could envision. The story so engaged readers that Robinson Crusoe became the 18th and 19th centuries’ most popular novel.

It’s true that the Robinson Crusoe story is interwoven with a historical power shift from the land-owning gentry to the mercantile and industrial middle class. The economic base was determining the ideological superstructure in that sense. But by giving entrepreneurs an identity, putting steel in their spines and confidence in their decision making, the novel helped propel historical forces forward. And not only Robinson Crusoe. In his seminal work The Rise of the Novel, scholar Ian Watt talks about how early novels in general reinforced new notions of individualism that were part of the new economic order. Each time readers immersed themselves in the story of Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe,  Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, Goethe’s Young Werther, Sarah Fielding’s David Simple, Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random, William Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling, or a host of other novelistic protagonists, they were invited to prioritize the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individuals over age-old traditions. Watt points out how the break is particularly striking in Crusoe:

Crusoe’s island gives him the complete laissez-faire which economic man needs to realize his aims. At home market conditions, taxation and problems of the labor supply make it impossible for the individual to control every aspect of production, distribution and exchange. The conclusion is obvious. Follow the call of the wide open places, discover an island that is desert only because it is barren of owners or competitors, and there build your personal Empire with the help of a Man Friday who needs no wages and makes it much easier to support the white man’s burden.

What’s for a middle class businessman not to like?

Marx was not entirely opposed to the middle class embracing this vision. In his dialectical view of history, the heroes of one era are the villains of the next. Although the capitalists who replaced the gentry would become oppressors in their turn, they represented a new prosperity where, theoretically, the needs of all could be met—although for that to become a reality, the proletariat would need to force capitalists to (a) stop exploiting them and (b) share the wealth.

So what are authors to do if their work is used in the service of progress at one moment in history and oppression in the next? Marx and Engels have a simple answer: don’t worry about it. The artist’s job is to tell the truth, not engage in politics. Authors are not to be activists but reality describers.

In this, Marx and Engels share with Aristotle, Samuel Johnson and Shelley the belief that looking closely at literature gives us access to certain larger human truths. Johnson, as we have seen, believes that “much instruction” is to be gleaned from Shakespeare’s deep understanding of human nature while Shelley finds evidence of humanity’s yearning for freedom in literature’s masterworks. For their part, Marx and Engels believe that novelists give us a deeper understanding of the workings of society than economists, sociologists, and political scientists. “Scientific socialism”—which is to say, socialism based on empirical reality, not on utopian dreaming—benefits from literature’s insights.

Even as Robinson Crusoe inspired capitalists, for instance, it also revealed the dark side of capitalism, especially its self-absorption and its readiness to use other people as instruments of profit. Crusoe thinks that God is using earthquakes to send him special messages, and he doesn’t hesitate to sell a Muslim friend into slavery when it suits his purposes. (His shipwreck, meanwhile, occurs when he is traveling to Africa to acquire slaves.) To reflect upon Robinson Crusoe, then, is to recognize both the energies of emergent bourgeois capitalism and the way it sacrifices human beings. Because these energies remain a powerful element of capitalism, socialist activists underestimate them at their peril. In other words, they can use literature to better understand the enemy.

To cite another literary example, Marx and Engels praised the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, even though he had royalist sympathies. Engels claimed to have learned more about French society and its history from the French novelist “than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.” Marx too admired Balzac and once planned to write a critical study of the author after his studies of economics were complete. Engels explains why Balzac’s grand project, his Comédie Humaine, is so revealing:

 Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses. That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favorite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found – that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.

If literary masterpieces like Robinson Crusoe and the novels that make up Balzac’s Comédie Humain function as objective mirrors of social relations, allowing political and economic theorists to penetrate to their core, then works that sacrifice truth to politic expediency will not serve us, even if we agree with their politics. Engels makes this clear in his criticism of the draft of an 1885 novel about salt miners sent to him by a hopeful author. In his letter to the author, Engels begins by pointing out that she appears chiefly interested in proclaiming her socialist convictions:

You obviously felt a desire to take a public stand in your book, to testify to your convictions before the entire world. This has now been done; it is a stage you have passed through and need not repeat in this form.

He goes on to note that he is not against partisanship per se. Some of the great authors have been partisan, a qualification that Shelley too should have made:

I am by no means opposed to partisan poetry as such. Both Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, and Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were highly partisan poets, Dante and Cervantes were so no less, and the best thing that can be said about Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe is that it represents the first German political problem drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who produce excellent novels, all write with a purpose.

The danger comes when partisanship clouds one’s vision, however. At that point, one has surrendered literature’s greatest strength, which is the ability to provide “a faithful portrayal of real conditions.”

Engels would undoubtedly endorse novelist Iris Murdoch when she makes a similar point, distinguishing between the writer as citizen and the writer as artist:

A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.

With a “faithful portrayal of the real conditions,” Engels says, the socialist problem novel will have done its job. Once one sees the truth about the world, the optimism of the bourgeoisie will have been shaken and its aura of invincibility shaken. Literary truth, in other words, will make us free, which means that novelists don’t need to offer direct solutions to the problems presented or even to take sides. They don’t have to write newspaper articles or pamphlets advocating for proletarian revolution—or if they do, they will be engaging in a different activity.

As we have seen, however, Engels himself is less interested in authors as activists than as truth tellers. Leave it to others, Engels might have said in his letter, to turn literary insight into active resistance. With his view that the arc of history bends towards equality for all, Engels shares with Shelley the belief that the greatest (and therefore most truthful) literature will, by definition, be consistent with history’s progressive march, expanding the vision of freedom for all.

One other issue is worth taking up given Engels’s preference for a truthful author over a politically correct author. Stalin’s Soviet Union chose political correctness over truth, with the result that authors whose works didn’t toe the party line could be imprisoned or even killed. Marxist literary scholars like Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson have labeled this “vulgar Marxism” and, citing Marx and Engels’s admiration for the monarchist Balzac, come to the defense of conservative writers. For instance, Eagleton praises reactionary author Joseph Conrad for accurately depicting the crisis of late 19th century capitalism in works like The Heart of Darkness.

Since we will be seeing figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Chinua Achebe, and Frantz Fanon attacking a work that depicts Africans as a howling mass, it’s worth looking deeper into Eagleton’s defense. As Eagleton sees it, Conrad’s pessimism reflects how capitalism has reached a dead-end. Because Conrad focuses on the individual when the world (so Eagleton believes) requires a collective solution, he finds himself in a dead end:

The pessimism of Conrad’s world view is rather a unique transformation into art of an ideological pessimism rife in his period— a sense of history as futile and cyclical, of individuals as impenetrable and solitary, of human values as relativistic and irrational, which marks a drastic crisis in the ideology of the Western bourgeois class to which Conrad allied himself. There were good reasons for that ideological crisis, in the history of imperialist capitalism throughout this period.

Consider, for instance, the contrast that Conrad draws between Kurtz and Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz represents Europe’s failure to reconcile enlightened Christianity with unregulated capitalism. He goes into the jungle to civilize the natives (also to make his fortune) but, in the process, descends into barbarism, displaying the heads of his enemies on spikes while coupling up with a native queen. Greed and lust expose civilization’s values. Narrator Marlow, however, is at a loss when it comes to alternatives. He finds himself admiring Kurtz because at least he at least strives for big things, unlike Marlow, who doesn’t believe in anything. Marlow downplays the fact that Kurtz has become absolutely corrupt..

Eagleton also has a Marxist explanation for why Conrad would see the bourgeois crisis so clearly:

[E]very writer is individually placed in society, responding to a general history from his own particular standpoint, making sense of it in his own concrete terms. But it is not difficult to see how Conrad’s personal standing, as an “aristocratic” Polish exile deeply committed to English conservatism, intensified for him the crisis of English bourgeois ideology…

Conrad wasn’t alone and Eagleton mentions other conservative writers of the time who provide similar critiques of capitalism. Marxist criticism, he believes, should use these insights in the service of building a better world rather than castigating the authors for their politics:

Whether those insights are in political terms “progressive” or “reactionary” (Conrad’s are certainly the latter) is not the point—any more than it is to the point that most of the agreed major writers of the twentieth century—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence—are political conservatives who each had truck with fascism. Marxist criticism, rather than apologizing for the fact, explains it—sees that, in the absence of genuinely revolutionary art, only a radical conservatism, hostile like Marxism to the withered values of liberal bourgeois society, could produce the most significant literature.

Since we’ve seen, in his critique of the salt miners novel, Engels’s own preference for truthful literature over doctrinally correct literature, we can imagine him and Marx criticizing socialist realism, the party line art that arose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. They would also have been appalled at the persecution of authors whose work didn’t conform to orthodox dogma. By executing writers or sending them to the Gulag, Stalin shut himself off from the truths that artists could have taught the Soviet Union about itself. Listen to literature or you will become stagnant, one could say.

In summation, literature provides revolutionaries with a powerful tool: if they reflect upon the master works, they will better understand the energies and tendencies of history. Just as (according to Johnson) “a system of social duty may be selected” from Shakespeare’s plays, so scientific socialism can build upon literature’s truth telling. Marx and Engels, of course, would then add that simply knowing the truth isn’t enough: literature can help expose the way oppression works, revealing the physical and mental chains that constrain humanity, but it is up to the working class to usher in a new world. As Marx lyrically asserts in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

That being said, we will be looking at theorists who think that literature should not only reveal the chain but also assist in throwing it off. Just as Sidney sees poetry as a powerful way to inculcate virtue, so Bertolt Brecht will see drama as a way to inspire and direct revolutionary action.

Posted in Balzac (Honoré de), Defoe (Daniel), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Poem for Those Enduring the Heat Wave

Jean-Léon Gérôme, An Arab and His Horse in the Desert (1872)


Here’s an H.D. poem for those suffering through temperatures reaching up into the 120s (50 centigrade) in places like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas. Hang in there:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air–
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat–
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

Posted in Doolittle (Hilda) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

I Will Take A Sprig from a Lofty Cedar

Spiritual Sunday

Today I get the privilege of reading the Old Testament lesson to our recently reopened and newly named church (we are now St. Mark and St. Paul on the Mountain). The lesson itself works as a tree poem and it puts me in mind of a gorgeous Robert Haas tree poem, with both poems signaling new hope.

First, here’s Ezekiel (17:22-24)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.

I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;

I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.

On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,

in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.

Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.

All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.

I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;

I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.

I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

The poem reminds me somewhat of Joyce Kilmer’s well-known poem “Trees,” which also sees trees sheltering winged creatures while lifting their arms up to the Lord:

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair…

In Haas’s “The Apple Trees at Olema,” meanwhile, a couple comes across two “old neglected apple trees”—like Ezekiel’s dry tree—and are transported upward. She is “shaken by the raw, white, backlit flaring/ of the apple blossoms” while he “is exultant, as if something he felt were verified.” She “takes the measure/ of the trees and lets them in” while he finds that his dismay, like a thin moon, “fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them.”

The concluding image is one where the speaker, knowing that he has a home he can always return to, confidently ventures forth to wander among strangers. The tree of faith gives one that confidence.

The Apple Trees at Olema
By Robert Haas

They are walking in the woods along the coast
and in a grassy meadow, wasting, they come upon
two old neglected apple trees. Moss thickened
every bough and the wood of the limbs looked rotten
but the trees were wild with blossom and a green fire
of small new leaves flickered even on the deadest branches.
Blue-eyes, poppies, a scattering of lupine
flecked the meadow, and an intricate, leopard-spotted
leaf-green flower whose name they didn’t know.
Trout lily, he said; she said, adder’s-tongue.
She is shaken by the raw, white, backlit flaring
of the apple blossoms. He is exultant,
as if something he felt were verified,
and looks to her to mirror his response.
If it is afternoon, a thin moon of my own dismay
fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them.
He could be knocking wildly at a closed door
in a dream. She thinks, meanwhile, that moss
resembles seaweed drying lightly on a dock.
Torn flesh, it was the repetitive torn flesh
of appetite in the cold white blossoms
that had startled her. Now they seem tender
and where she was repelled she takes the measure
of the trees and lets them in. But he no longer
has the apple trees. This is as sad or happy
as the tide, going out or coming in, at sunset.
The light catching in the spray that spumes up
on the reef is the color of the lesser finch
they notice now flashing dull gold in the light
above the field. They admire the bird together,
it draws them closer, and they start to walk again.
A small boy wanders corridors of a hotel that way.
Behind one door, a maid. Behind another one, a man
in striped pajamas shaving. He holds the number
of his room close to the center of his mind
gravely and delicately, as if it were the key,
and then he wanders among strangers all he wants

Posted in Ezekiel, Haas (Robert), Kilmer (Joyce) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Pushing 70 but Acting Like a Little Boy

Richard Waitt, The Cromartie Fool


The internet is a wondrous place when it can surface a poem that hits as close to home as this Lu Yu lyric. It captures the joys of being about to turn 70 at a time when I am on the eve of turning 70 (tomorrow).

Lu Yu was an 8th century Chinese poet who (this according to Wikipedia) authored The Classic of Tea, “the first definitive work on cultivating, making and drinking tea.” I love how the old man in the poem is carrying a battered book. No wonder he is whooping with delight.

Old man pushing seventy,
In truth he acts like a little boy,
Whooping with delight when he spies some mountain fruits,
Laughing with joy, tagging after village mummers;
With the others having fun stacking tiles to make a pagoda,
Standing alone staring at his image in the jardinière pool.
Tucked under his arm, a battered book to read,
Just like the time he first set out to school.

Carl Jung, while he celebrates the archetype of the “wise old man,” also has positive things to say about the figure of the “old fool.” Dignified old age can get trapped by respectability whereas crazy old age opens up new perspectives on life. W. B. Yeats agrees in his “Crazy Jane” series, having a poor old woman confront a holier-than-thou bishop. “Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement,” she defiantly tells him. Lu Yu’s old man would have hit it off with Crazy Jane.

While not crazy, my old friend Maureen Holbert Hogaboom, an actress who died at 98, insisted on being called a crone rather than a wise old woman, although she was both. Thinking of herself as a crone gave her the freedom of not always being entirely respectable. She used to tell me that each decade was better than the one before (although she stopped saying this when she hit her nineties).

As I enter my seventies, my prayer is that, like Lu Yu’s old man, I will continue to whoop with delight, laugh with joy, have fun, and act like a little boy.

Posted in Yu (Lu) | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hail 48 Years of Wedded Love

Gustave Doré, Adam and Eve before the Fall


We’re currently traveling so I missed writing about Julia’s and my 48th wedding anniversary, which was Tuesday. I turn to Milton’s celebration of “wedded love” in Book IV because it captures well my own view of marriage.

The scene occurs in Book IV, before the fall. After Adam and Eve have offered up spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving to God (“adoration pure/Which God likes best”), they venture into their “blissful bower,” which is also described as a “shady lodge.” Because they are naked, they don’t have to worry about taking off their “troublesome disguises” but get immediately to business. Milton gets a little cagey at this point, essentially saying that they did not not make love (“nor Eve the rites/ Mysterious of connubial love refused”). Then, rather than provide us with any more detail, he attacks people who attack sex.

Apparently, Milton entered fraught territory by having Adam and Eve engage in sex before before the fall. For Milton, however, this made sense. After all, Adam and Eve, guided by the Puritan work ethic, need children to help them trim the garden.

Sex within marriage  is sanctified by the sacred commitment between two people. Marriage is “founded in reason, loyal, just, and pure” and is befitting of “holiest place.” Designed to be a “perpetual fountain of domestic sweets,” marriage provides a bed that (according to saints and Biblical patriarchs) is “undefiled and chaste.” Shifting to a classical allusion (Cupid), Milton writes,

Here Love his golden shafts employs, here lights
His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels…

In contrast to wedded love is “adulterous lust,” such asis found “among the bestial herds to range.” Such sex can be found in brothels (“loveless, joyless, unendeared,/ Casual fruition”). One sees it in secret assignations, wild parties, and guys singing outside your window. Or as Milton puts it,

                                       …in court amours,
Mixed dance, or wanton mask, or midnight ball,
Or serenate, which the starved lover sings
To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.

Having distracted the reader long enough so that our prying eyes can’t see their lovemaking, Milton at this point returns to find them asleep in each other’s arms and covered with rose petals. “Sleep on, blest pair,” he says, “it doesn’t get better than this.” Or to quote Milton’s actual words, “O yet happiest if ye seek/ No happier state, and know to know no more.” Here’s the passage in its entirety:

This said unanimous, and other Rites
Observing none, but adoration pure
Which God likes best, into their inmost bower
Handed they went; and eased the putting off
These troublesome disguises which we wear,
Straight side by side were laid, nor turned I ween
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused;
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity and place and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
Our Maker bids increase; who bids abstain
But our destroyer, foe to God and Man?
Hail, wedded Love! mysterious law true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise of all things common else
By thee adulterous lust was driven from men
Among the bestial herds to range; by thee,
Founded in reason, loyal, just, and pure,
Relations dear, and all the charities
Of father, son, and brother first were known.
Far be it, that I should write thee sin or blame,
Or think thee unbefitting holiest place,
Perpetual fountain of domestic sweets!
Whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced,
Present or past, as saints and patriarchs used.
Here Love his golden shafts employs, here lights
His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile
Of harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared,
Casual fruition; nor in court amours,
Mixed dance, or wanton mask, or midnight ball,
Or serenate, which the starved lover sings
To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.
These lulled by nightingales embracing slept,
And on their naked limbs the flowery roof
Showered Roses, which the Morn repaired. Sleep on,
Blest pair; and O yet happiest if ye seek
No happier state, and know to know no more.

I don’t go so far as to condemn all sex that happens outside of marriage. I’m not a 17th century Puritan. But I agree something special happens when physical intimacy is linked with spiritual connection. I’m willing to add, as other instances of spiritual connection, committed partnership and even just two people evincing genuine respect for each other.

I think something precious is lost, however, if our sexual relations are no more than that experienced by “bestial herds.”

Love has been lighting his lamp and waving his purple wings over me and Julia for 48 years. Hail wedded love indeed.

Posted in Milton (John) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Delicacy of Dealing with In-Laws

Mrs. Musgrove (Cornwall) complains about her daughter-in-law to Anne Elliot (Root) in Persuasion (1995)


I am deeply grateful to be on good terms with my two daughters-in-law, whom I saw again recently for the first time since pre-Covid. Not everyone is so lucky. I was talking to a friend recently whose wonderful daughter is disliked by her mother-in-law. (That her mother-in-law is a rabid Trump supporter makes it even worse, but their friction predates Trump.) My friend advised her daughter that, if she ever feels the need to vent, to do so to her rather than to her husband. After all, a wife-mother battle puts him in a no-win situation. Fortunately, as he sees his mother with clear eyes, no wedge has been driven between him and his wife. Still, my friend’s advice is useful, and her daughter has followed it.

I think how valuable it is to have such third person interlocutors. Anne Elliot, my favorite Austen heroine, plays such a role in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

In this case, it is the daughter rather than the mother-in-law who is at fault. Anne’s sister Mary is the spoiled wife of Charles Musgrove and complains constantly about her mother-in-law, who lives close by. When Anne visits, she hears from both parties. In this case, the children are a major cause of contention:

One of the least agreeable circumstances of [Anne’s] residence there was her being treated with too much confidence by all parties, and being too much in the secret of the complaints of each house. Known to have some influence with her sister, she was continually requested, or at least receiving hints to exert it, beyond what was practicable….

Mary’s declaration was, “I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humors and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.” And Mrs. Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt! It is a pity you cannot put your sister in the way of managing them. They are as fine healthy children as ever were seen, poor little dears! without partiality; but Mrs. Charles knows no more how they should be treated–! Bless me! how troublesome they are sometimes. I assure you, Miss Anne, it prevents my wishing to see them at our house so often as I otherwise should. I believe Mrs. Charles is not quite pleased with my not inviting them oftener; but you know it is very bad to have children with one that one is obligated to be checking every moment; “don’t do this,” and “don’t do that;” or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.”

To give you a sense of Mary, being from the upper-class Elliot family she has the right to precede her mother-in-law into formal dinners. That she insists on this privilege marks her out as a snob. One of her sisters-in-law complains about it to Anne:

Again, it was Mary’s complaint, that Mrs. Musgrove was very apt not to give her the precedence that was her due, when they dined at the Great House with other families; and she did not see any reason why she was to be considered so much at home as to lose her place. And one day when Anne was walking with only the Musgroves, one of them after talking of rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank, said, “I have no scruple of observing to you, how nonsensical some persons are about their place, because all the world knows how easy and indifferent you are about it; but I wish anybody could give Mary a hint that it would be a great deal better if she were not so very tenacious, especially if she would not be always putting herself forward to take place of mamma. Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it. It is not that mamma cares about it the least in the world, but I know it is taken notice of by many persons.”

Infinitely patient Anne responds through gentle hints:

How was Anne to set all these matters to rights? She could do little more than listen patiently, soften every grievance, and excuse each to the other; give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbors, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister’s benefit.

Of course, it’s best if one can communicate directly without the need for go-betweens. We generally have achieved this with our own daughters-in-law although even we, upon occasion, have received gentle hints from our sons on certain matters (usually concerning the grandchildren). And although my wife and my 95-year-old mother, with whom we now live, have become best friends, there have been times when I have been called upon to channel my inner Anne Elliot. Even in the best of situations, one stumbles upon an occasional mine.

But minefield or no, Anne acknowledges that Musgrove family life is much richer than the sterile isolation in which her pretentious father and elder sister live. When her navy husband is called to duty and she must seek out family, she is more likely to spend time with the Musgroves than with Sir Walter and Miss Elliot.

Posted in Austen (Jane) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Devoured by Kisses

Eastman Johnson, Christmas Time


Released from Covid restrictions, Julia and I have been traveling and have finally, for the first time in over 18 months, physically hugged grandchildren Esmé, Etta, Eden and Ocean (in Buford, Georgia) and Alban (in Washington, D.C). I hadn’t realized how hungry my arms were for the touch. In the past I’ve cited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” to celebrate such moments and turn again to the poem today, even though parts of it are a little creepy.

That’s because the devouring love Longfellow describes overwhelms individual self. The poet’s children first devour him and then he devours them in return. The reference to the wicked Bishop of Bingen, whom legend has it set fire to starving peasants and then was himself devoured by rats, was the subject of a Robert Southey poem The rats, as avatars of divine justice, sniff out where the bishop has locked himself into his castle with his hoarded grain. His cat’s screaming signals that his supposedly impregnable fortress offers inadequate protection:

He listen’d and look’d;… it was only the Cat;
And the Bishop he grew more fearful for that,
For she sat screaming, mad with fear
At the Army of Rats that were drawing near.

For they have swum over the river so deep,
And they have climb’d the shores so steep,
And up the Tower their way is bent,
To do the work for which they were sent.

They are not to be told by the dozen or score,
By thousands they come, and by myriads and more,
Such numbers had never been heard of before,
Such a judgement had never been witness’d of yore.

Down on his knees the Bishop fell,
And faster and faster his beads did he tell,
As louder and louder drawing near
The gnawing of their teeth he could hear.

And in at the windows and in at the door,
And through the walls helter-skelter they pour,
And down from the ceiling and up through the floor,
From the right and the left, from behind and before,
From within and without, from above and below,
And all at once to the Bishop they go.

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop’s bones:
They gnaw’d the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgement on him! 

In Longfellow’s poem, the children are the rats, which would make the father the imprisoning bishop:

Between the dark and the daylight,
  When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
   That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
   The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
   And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
   Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
   And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
   Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
   To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
   A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
   They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
   O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
   They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
   Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
   In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
   Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
   Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
   And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
   In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
   Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
   And molder in dust away!

I can’t be overly critical of devouring love because, as I said, my own arms felt hungry for my grandchildren, and we hugged each other tightly for a long time when we met. The love felt so fierce, almost desperate, that devouring seems the right metaphor. In the moment, one wants to banish all separation. I felt caught up in a round-tower of arms.

Immediately afterwards, however, we all returned to our autonomous selves. There’s something wrong in a relationship where you don’t celebrate the loved one’s independence, keeping him or her imprisoned in a dependency dungeon. Hopefully the father in the poem does not, in the subsequent months and years, attempt to keep his daughters young and innocent rather than allowing them to become rebellious teenagers and self-reliant women. Hopefully he is not overly reliant on prepubescent daughters to save him from the night that is “beginning to lower.” The clock must turn on the children’s hour.

Maybe I’m overly concerned, with Longfellow doing more than finding images to capture how fierce and enduring his love is, guaranteed to last until he molders in dust away. In my own case, I know the love will endure. My love for my grandchildren’s fathers, one of whom will turn 40 next year, has only increased with time. I am in awe at how Darien and Toby have grown into adults and parents and husbands. I am in awe of their wonderful wives. Children are very nice, but grown-ups have a depth of soul that leaves me breathless.

All of which is to say that there should be a children’s hour, an adolescents’ hour, a young adults’ hour, a young parents’ hour, a midlife hour, etc.  If Longfellow accedes to this, I have no problem with the particular stage he has chosen to celebrate in this poem.

Posted in Longfellow (Henry Wadsworth) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Political Solution: Dissolve the People

Soviet tank in East Berlin, 1953


I’m here to report a Bertolt Brecht sighting, this one with regard to Republican voter suppression efforts. Adam Serwer’s article in The Atlantic applies Brecht’s poem “The Solution” perfectly.

If Republicans voted to block a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 coup attempt, Serwer says, it is

not because they fear Trump, or because they want to “move on” from 2020. They are blocking a January 6 commission because they agree with the underlying ideological claim of the rioters, which is that Democratic electoral victories should not be recognized. Because they regard such victories as inherently illegitimate—the result of fraud, manipulation, or the votes of people who are not truly American—they believe that the law should be changed to ensure that elections more accurately reflect the will of Real Americans, who by definition vote Republican. They believe that there is nothing for them to investigate, because the actual problem is not the riot itself but the unjust usurpation of power that occurred when Democrats won. Absent that provocation, the rioters would have stayed home.

Serwer notes that, in the past, both parties have been guilty of attempting to disenfranchise voters, with the problem now that all the disenfranchisers are in the same party. It is in this discussion that Brecht appears:

The closest historical analogue is perhaps the Gilded Age, when both parties worked to restrict American democracy to its “best men.” In the North, this meant seeking to blunt the influence of immigrants and workers; in the South, it meant disenfranchising Black men and the white poor. The result was a country with widening inequality, and one with an emerging bipartisan consensus on the justness of white supremacy. In Brechtian terms, they dissolved the people and elected another—but at least things grew more civil and less polarized.

Brecht’s “The Solution” is about East German workers striking against work quotas during the Sovietization of East Germany. (Brecht moved to East Germany after the House on unAmerican Activity Committee (HUAC) drove him out of the United States.) Not afraid to call out tyranny wherever he saw it, Brecht challenged doctrinaire communism as he had previously challenged capitalism. The poem was too hot to publish until after Brecht’s death, however, and even then it could only appear in a West German newspaper.

Brecht reminds readers that the government should reflect the will of the people, not the other way around. That principle should be in effect in the United States no less than in East Germany. Here’s the poem:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The mindset that Brecht describes, Serwer emphasizes in his conclusion, suggests that, following the 2022 mid-term elections, we are very likely to see minority rule in the United States for some time to come:

Trump’s election was, among other things, a gesture of outrage from his supporters at having to share the country with those unlike them. Successfully restricting democracy so as to minimize the political power of rival constituencies would mean, at least as far as governing the country is concerned, that they would not have to. Most elected Republicans have repudiated the violence of the Capitol riot, but they share the belief of the rank and file that the rioters’ hearts were in the right place.

Indeed, in the last three days we’ve learned that

–Trump tried to get the Justice Department to overturn the 2020 election results;
–Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, told Trump advisor Steven Bannon on a public show that Trump won Texas only because he blocked a great deal of mail in-voting; and
–Oregon Representative Mike Nearman held a meeting with Oregon anti-maskers to plan “Operation Hall Pass.” In the words of historian Heather Cox Richardson, “That operation ultimately opened the Oregon capitol building to far-right rioters, who endangered the entire legislature. The video, which shows Nearman winking and nodding at setting up the invasion, has raised questions about whether other Republicans worked with insurrectionists in other settings.”

Worried about democracy working as it should? Dissolve the people.

Posted in Brecht (Bertolt) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hawthorne Explains the Eternal Sin

Robert Duvall as Roger Chillingworth

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading includes Jesus’s pronouncement about “the eternal sin” ((Mark 3:30), which some people call “the unpardonable sin” or “the unforgivable sin.” It’s a concept that fascinated Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The passage reads,

Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

Jesus says something comparable in Matthew 12:31-32:

And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

As I understand the process, given that God enters out hearts in the form of the Holy Spirit, we essentially kill God if we harden our hearts because we deny God entrance. Under normal circumstances, our sins are forgivable because our hearts can soften and we can repent. But the process must start with the heart, without which nothing else is possible. That is why, in a poem like “The Altar,” George Herbert compares his heart to a stone and prays to God to soften it:

A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.

Christophere Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, by contrast, revels in the fact that “my heart’s so harden’d, I cannot repent.” When one is proud that one has killed the god within, one had cut oneself off from divinity.

One sees this pride in Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand, who goes out in search of “the unpardonable sin” and returns years later to give his account of having found it:

It is a sin that grew within my own breast,” replied Ethan Brand, standing erect with a pride that distinguishes all enthusiasts of his stamp. “A sin that grew nowhere else! The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony! Freely, were it to do again, would I incur the guilt. Unshrinkingly I accept the retribution!”

Brand notes the intellectual component to the eternal sin. In an act of pride–notice Brand’s defiant boast–the mind overrides any of those precious feelings we associate with being human, such as compassion, empathy, and “the sense of botherhood with man.” When we take pride in overriding what is best about being human, we—well—override what is best about being human.

Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter also appears to sin against the Holy Spirit. In this he differs from Dimmesdale and Hester, who only sin against God. The almost dispassionate way that Chillingworth toys with Dimmesdale’s guilt makes him an utter monster.

Hawthorne’s Richard Digby, meanwhile, is a “Man of Adamant” whose sense of righteous superiority over all other humans prompts him to retreat into the woods, where he prays incessantly. When a young woman whom he once converted, Mary Golfe, comes out to plead with him to return to humanity, he spurns her:

“Perverse woman!” answered Richard Digby, laughing aloud,—for he was moved to bitter mirth by her foolish vehemence,—“I tell thee that the path to heaven leadeth straight through this narrow portal where I sit. And, moreover, the destruction thou speakest of is ordained, not for this blessed cave, but for all other habitations of mankind, throughout the earth. Get thee hence speedily, that thou mayst have thy share!”

Later they have this interchange:

“Richard,” she said, with passionate fervor, yet a gentleness in all her passion, “I pray thee, by thy hope of heaven, and as thou wouldst not dwell in this tomb forever, drink of this hallowed water, be it but a single drop! Then, make room for me by thy side, and let us read together one page of that blessed volume; and, lastly, kneel down with me and pray! Do this, and thy stony heart shall become softer than a babe’s, and all be well.”

But Richard Digby, in utter abhorrence of the proposal, cast the Bible at his feet, and eyed her with such a fixed and evil frown, that he looked less like a living man than a marble statue, wrought by some dark-imagined sculptor to express the most repulsive mood that human features could assume. And, as his look grew even devilish, so, with an equal change did Mary Goffe become more sad, more mild, more pitiful, more like a sorrowing angel. But, the more heavenly she was, the more hateful did she seem to Richard Digby, who at length raised his hand, and smote down the cup of hallowed water upon the threshold of the cave, thus rejecting the only medicine that could have cured his stony heart. A sweet perfume lingered in the air for a moment, and then was gone.

“Tempt me no more, accursed woman,” exclaimed he, still with his marble frown, “lest I smite thee down also! What hast thou to do with my Bible?—what with my prayers?—what with my heaven?”

At that point Digby’s heart ceases to beat and Hawtorne tells us that

the form of Mary Goffe melted into the last sunbeams, and returned from the sepulchral cave to heaven. For Mary Golfe had been buried in an English churchyard, months before; and either it was her ghost that haunted the wild forest, or else a dream-like spirit, typifying pure Religion.

Those who glory in their triumph over the heart have blotted out their souls. While technically they could repent—God, after all, cannot be killed—their sin is unforgivable because they won’t allow it to be forgiven.

Posted in Hawthorne (Nathaniel), Herbert (George), Marlowe (Christopher) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

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

    powered by MailChimp!