The Herbert Poem that Converted Weil

Simone Weil

Spiritual Sunday

In a conversation with colleague and friend John Gatta, I learned that my favorite George Herbert poem had a profound impact on French mystic Simone Weil. She encountered it at a time when she was grappling with both doubts and migraine headaches.

Although raised an agnostic Jew and frequently engaged in political activism (including the Spanish Civil War), in her late twenties Weil began exploring Christianity. While suffering from crippling migraines, she encountered first choral singing and then Herbert’s “Love (3).” At that point, as she writes in her spiritual autobiography, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me”:

In 1938 I spent ten days at Solesmes, from Palm Sunday to Easter Tuesday, following all the liturgical services. I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow; by an extreme effort of concentration I was able to rise above this wretched flesh, to leave it to suffer by itself, heaped up in a corner, and to find a pure and perfect joy in the unimaginable beauty of the chanting and the words. This experience enabled me by analogy to get a better understanding of the possibility of loving divine love in the midst of affliction. It goes without saying that in the course of these services the thought of the Passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all.

There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance — for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence — made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called “Love”. I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me…Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

In the poem, Christ bestows his love despite the speaker’s intense feelings of unworthiness:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

The idea that Christ will come to us in our affliction spoke deeply to Weil, and she sent the poem to both her imprisoned brother and to the paralyzed poet Joe Bosquet. As Diogenese Allen writes in an article on Herbert and Weil,

It was a poem which uses the imagination that enabled Weil to break through to a domain above the intellect. The experience gave her the incentive…to assemble material to develop an epistemology which related beauty, truth, pain and supernatural good, and thus to achieve full conviction. She then can write such things as “The true mysteries of the Faith are themselves absurd but their absurdity is such as to illumine the mind and cause it to produce in abundance truths which are clear to the intelligence.”

Literature and religion have a lot in common in that respect.

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Turgenev’s Stories Helped Free the Serfs

Ilya Repin, portrait of Turgenev


The blog “Literary Hub” has alerted me to an essay asserting that the short stories of Turgenev played a role in emancipating the Russian serfs in 1861. According to Pakistani-American author Daniyal Mueenuddin, the Russian nobility were so oblivious to the humanity of the serfs that they couldn’t imagine what emancipation would look like. A Sportsman’s Notebook (1852) helped change that.

Born into a prominent landowning family, Turgenev saw up close the brutality enacted against the serfs. Both his grandmother and mother were despotic women, with the former once having beaten a page-boy to death, while Turgenev witnessed his mother abusing one of his own illegitimate daughters. (He would go on to free her and set her up independently.)

In his introduction to the recently reissued collection, Mueenuddin notes,

These stories are as much informed by his mother’s despotism as by the larger despotism of the Russian state. His personal revolt ran parallel to a larger national political revolt. Through his childhood and later as a man, Turgenev sought out the company of the serfs in the kennels and kitchens of Spasskoye because among them he found kindness.

As to how the stories contributed to the emancipation, Mueenuddin writes,

Unusually, for a work of fiction—for any work of art—the Notebook  played an important political role in the history of Russia. In the middle of the 19th century, the necessity of liberating the serfs, who were virtually slaves, had become pressing upon an increasingly westernized nobility. The necessity of their liberation, and then the means and outlines of that emancipation, puzzled the nobles and most importantly, the czar—Alexander II.

This constituency found it difficult to reconcile itself to the loss of their revenues and powers flowing from this emancipation in part because they knew very little about their serfs, had never paid much attention to them. They commanded obedience with banishments and the knout, and otherwise indulged themselves with serf orchestras on their estates and desperate feats of gambling and spoke French among themselves. If they gave it any thought, they would have considered it an impertinence for their serfs to have private lives. 

Turgenev’s stories imposed the humanity of these men and women upon their owners, showed them in all their complexity. The stories came as a revelation to their readership. Any man who’s ever killed a chicken knows that it’s best not to look it in the eye. Turgenev forced his fellow landowners to do that, look the serfs in the eye. Alexander II acknowledged the role these stories played in guiding him to issue the Emancipation Edict that freed the serfs in 1861. 

This past year I read for the first time Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and was impressed by its humanity and vitality. Apparently, such a vision had the power to influence a czar. Literature can’t change history by itself, but it can play a vital role.

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Jigsaw Order Out of Chaos

Frank Lloyd Wright, Hoffman House rug design


It’s not often that I do jigsaw puzzles, but I just completed a particularly challenging Frank Lloyd Wright rug design (challenging at least for me) and am feeling proud of myself. Perhaps it appeals to the side of me that has specialized in 18th century literature.

Many in that century were obsessed with finding order in chaos. Buoyed by the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and others, the deists saw God as a clockmaker who wound up the universe and then stepped back, having given humans the intellectual capacity to penetrate those secrets. Alexander Pope, for instance, extolled Newton with a perfectly balanced heroic couplet.

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

To be sure, the moment that classicism and notions of divine order discoverable by science took hold, authors spoofed them. Through his satire of a figure modeled on Leibniz, Voltaire famously takes shots at the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that a divine plan can be found underlying even the most disastrous of events. In “Upon a Lady’s Dressing Room,” Jonathan Swift has a voyeuristic lover rummaging in his mistress’s dressing room (including her chamber pot) to understand her beauty. While he emerges disgusted and disillusioned, the poem’s speaker says he’s just not looking at things the right way:

If Strephon would but stop his nose
(Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
Her washes, slops, and every clout,
With which he makes so foul a rout)
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravished sight to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.

In the past I have put together jigsaw puzzles featuring flowers—from tiny cardboard shapes, not from dung—and I long ago realized that I do so whenever the world feels particularly chaotic. When I first entered the job market, I obsessively put together jigsaw puzzles while waiting for employers to respond to my resumes, which I had scattered in a 20-mile radius around our house in Braham, Minnesota. As soon as I landed a job, I lost all interest in the puzzles.

Perhaps anxieties over a new course explain why I poured myself into the Wright puzzle. Now that the course is underway and the syllabi are completed, I have once again become indifferent. Nor, to cite an activity that provides similar reassurance, do I feel the need to read any new detective mysteries. Since I’m deep into Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone, I’ll probably complete it, even though I’m not terribly interested in who stole the gem. The novel has a great narrator in house steward Gabriel Betteridge, however.

For the most part, I’m now comfortable enough with the familiar day-to-day chaos of everyday life. Yesterday I declined my mother’s suggestion that I open another puzzle.

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To Fight Climate Change, Plant Gardens

Renoir, Woman with a Parasol in a Garden


Because the dangers of climate change should never be far from our thoughts, here’s Wendell Berry’s “Speech to the Garden Club of America,” written ten years ago. Rather than burn up our world, he tells us, we should be planting gardens, which “burn no hotter than the summer day.” Unlike the “anti-life of radiance and fume,” which “burns as power and remains as doom,” a garden “delves no deeper than its roots/ And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.”

The poem proceeds through a series of rhyming, iambic pentameter couplets, which suggests a longing for the order of a decorous garden. But forces are at work to disrupt that order, which Berry captures by turning many of the rhymes into half-rhymes and by making certain lines hard to scan. Order and chaos wrestle for ascendency.

So even as Berry longs for Candide’s concluding vision that each of us should cultivate his or her own garden, he acknowledges that, by flying to the conference, he was carried by “a sustained explosion through the air,” adding to carbon emissions. There are many ways that all of us falsify the land and falsify “the body’s health and pleasure.” We must change, at a foundational level, the way we think.

“Burning the world to live in it is wrong,” is as succinct a condemnation of fossil fuels as one will find.

Thank you. I’m glad to know we’re friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I’m sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast or cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
A creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.
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Knives Out and the American Dream

Armas, Craig in Knives Out


Julia, my mother and I went to see the thoroughly enjoyable Knives Out on Sunday, but because I applied Samuel Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes and Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” to the ending, I left slightly dissatisfied.

Did I just let literature mess up a pleasurable film experience, I ask myself. Is this better living? I think my reservations are warranted, however. There are spoilers ahead but nothing regarding the crime.

In the movie a very wealthy mystery writer disappoints his execrable family, who have been mooching off of him for years, by leaving all that he owns (this after a death that may or may not be suicide) to his deserving and very likable home nurse. The film sticks it to the entitled rich (think of the Trump family, or Trump himself) and lets us know that the American Dream is alive and well for deserving immigrants like Marta. We are assured that one really can come to America with nothing, work hard, be virtuous, and end up with millions.

My reservation about the film is not the one voiced by the narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

There are a set of religious, or rather moral writers, who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.

Fielding’s observation doesn’t keep him from rewarding virtue in his own novel, and we pretty much expect it from Knives Out as well. Virtue rewarded is an integral part of the genre so we make allowances.

Given how central to the film is the theme of wealth’s corrupting power, however, one worries about Marta. Will she remain a good person? While she is too nice to taunt the racist family members who have been ejected from the house, the inscription on her coffee cup inadvertently does so as she looks down at them from a balcony: it reads “my house.”

Perhaps we enjoy the moment because they are privileged bigots who thought they were entitled to wealth they have not earned. It’s Trump’s nightmare of people south of the border taking over. But will she make better use of wealth than the family has?

Samuel Johnson is pessimistic. In his exploration of “the vanity of human wishes,” he poses a question: How do you make a needy but carefree traveler unhappy? His answer: Make him rich:

The needy
traveler, serene and gay,
Walks the wild heath, and sings his toil away.
Does envy seize thee? crush th’ upbraiding joy,
Increase his riches and his peace destroy,
New fears in dire vicissitude invade,
The rustling brake alarms, and quiv’ring shade,
Nor light nor darkness bring his pain relief.
One shews the plunder, and one hides the thief.

And then there’s Sexton’s cynical take on the American Dream, captured in her reflections on the Cinderella story:

You always read about it:
the plumber with the twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
That story.

Or the nursemaid,
some luscious sweet from Denmark
who captures the oldest son's heart.
from diapers to Dior.
That story.

Or a milkman who serves the wealthy,
eggs, cream, butter, yogurt, milk,
the white truck like an ambulance
who goes into real estate
and makes a pile.
From homogenized to martinis at lunch.

Or the charwoman
who is on the bus when it cracks up
and collects enough from the insurance.
From mops to Bonwit Teller.
That story.

In her revised Cinderella, Sexton expresses doubts about happily-ever-after:

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

We the viewers want to believe in “that story” for Marta. History cautions us, however, that the great American Fantasy is invariably followed by the Great Disillusion. To be American is to ceaselessly dream and to ceaselessly wake up.

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Dante on Income Inequality

Gustave Doré, Dante’s hoarders and wasters


Rereading Dante’s Inferno in preparation for my course on Representative Masterpieces, my attention was caught by Dante’s description of the hoarders and the wasters, who are to be found in the fourth circle of Hell. That’s because I have been reading about Donald Trump’s “historically unprecedented action[s] to roll back a slew of environmental regulations that protect air, water, land and public health from climate change and fossil fuel pollution.” CSNBC reports that, according to Harvard Law School’s rollback tracker, the administration is targeting 85 or so environmental rules:

Existing environment regulations are meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions, protect land and animals from oil and gas drilling and development, as well as limit pollution and toxic waste runoff into the country’s water. The administration views many of them as onerous to fossil fuel companies and other major industries.

Dante doesn’t distinguish between the wasters and the hoarders, seeing them all in the grip of the same materialist mania. The heavy weights they roll against each other symbolize the dead weight of gold, with which they are obsessed:

Here too, I saw a nation of lost souls,
   far more than were above: they strained their chests
   against enormous weights, and with mad howls

rolled them at one another. Then in haste
   they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
   “Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?”

So back around that ring they puff and blow,
   each faction to its course, until they reach
   opposite sides, and screams as they go

the madmen turn and start their weights again
   to crash against the maniacs.

Not only are our own hoarders and maniacs indistinguishable, but often they are the same people. I think of those who champion huge tax cuts for the wealthy (wasting) but moan about the cost of food stamps and medicare expansion (hoarding).   Or the way the billionaire recipients of those tax cuts refuse to invest the money in more jobs or higher wages, instead rewarding their stockholders with stock buybacks that make them even wealthier. Whining incessantly about regulations, they perfectly fit Virgil’s description of them:

Not all the gold that is or ever was
   under the sky could buy for one of these
   exhausted souls the fraction of a pause.

Although Dante encounters many recognizable figures in Hell, those who give their lives over to money are so empty as to be unrecognizable. History, which honors many who served humankind, will not remember these exhausted souls. Virgil explains,

In their sordid lives they labored to be blind,
and now their souls have dimmed past recognition.

And further on:

Hoarding and squandering wasted all their light
   and brought them screaming to this brawl of wraiths.
   You need no words of mine to grasp their plight.

Now may you see the fleeing vanity
   of the goods of Fortune for which men tear down
   all that they are, to build a mockery.

As Dante describes them, the damned are eager to get to the circle of Hell that awaits them. Since they desired this empty existence on earth, why should they want anything different after death?

"My son," the courteous Master said to me,
"all who die in the shadow of God's wrath
converge to this from every clime and country.

"And all pass over eagerly, for here
Divine Justice transforms and spurs them so
their dread turns wish: they yearn for what they fear."

Sacrificing all that is honorable and sacred for wealth is hell on earth, yet people eagerly take this path. Also self-condemned are those who believe that happiness can only be achieved through incessant purchases. Dante’s genius lies in finding memorable metaphors, poetically expressed, for how we violate our higher selves.

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Lit Interpretation Related to Bible Reading

Gerrit Do, Women Reading the Bible

Spiritual Sunday

On Friday I wrote that Wilkie Collins’s humorous depiction of a reader’s obsession with Robinson Crusoe could function as a parody of this blog. As house steward Gabriel Betteridge in The Moonstone sees it, Daniel Defoe’s novel is the key to better living. In his eyes, the book has all the answers to life’s questions.

Do you see me making the same claims for literature generally?

Upon further reflection, I realized that Gabriel Betteridge uses Robinson Crusoe as Crusoe himself uses the Bible. That, in turn, has led me to reflect the extent to which my own interactions with the Bible have influenced this blog. I share that with you today.

A number of years ago, I took—and then taught—the Episcopal Church’s four-year course Education for Ministry. Founded by the father of my best friend in middle school (Charlie Winters), EFM is designed for those who want to better understand the Bible. When I took the course, the first year was devoted to the Old Testament, the second to the New, the third to church history, and the fourth to theology.

The study is not altogether academic, however. In the course, the participants share personal stories that are surfaced by the Bible reading for that day. As a result, the Bible is transformed into a living guide that helps us grapple with the most pressing issues we face. The participants apply the methods used to unlock the Bible to unlocking a “slice of life” that one of them shares. The resulting realizations are sometimes profound.

As I was involved in the course, I realized that I could apply the same method to works of literature. I therefore adjusted my teaching (allowing, of course, for the different situations), with the result that my students began applying the literature we were reading to their lives. This blog owes its existence in part to Education for Ministry.

A couple of thoughts come to mind as I say this. One is that the practice of “close reading,” which literary study came to prize highly in the 20th century, itself has been traced back to Talmudic study of the Torah. In the 19th century, the study of literature—when it was studied at all—involved historical anecdotes, author biographies, and random associations. The belief that literature could offer up precious truths—that students could be initiated into its sacred mysteries if they were taught to examine texts in a disciplined manner—owes something to the influx of Jewish students into the universities.

These students were willing to study in a way that privileged young men with their “gentleman’s C’s” were not, and they began changing college culture. For a while, certain universities saw this as a problem and set up quotas limiting Jewish admission.

In the end, however, these students prevailed, academic “drudges” were no longer held in contempt, and colleges became more than social finishing schools. Many of our most prominent literary scholars have been Jewish, with Lionel Trilling, Stanley Fish, Stephen Greenblatt, Carolyn Heilbrun, Elaine Showalter, and Harold Bloom coming immediately to mind.

In short, that I related studying the Bible to studying literature is no accident.

I also think of how Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold saw literature as replacing religion in our increasingly secular society, given that both religion and literature command immense emotional and experiential power. If religion could no longer control the potentially rebellious working class, Arnold argued, perhaps literature could do the job.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I myself didn’t see the point of religion. After all, as I told the rector of our local church, I had the rich symbolic language of literature. I no longer think this, and each plays a vital role in my life

But if I sometimes sound evangelical as I advocate for literature—well, you’re not just imagining things.

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Robinson Crusoe Has ALL the Answers


I’m currently on a Wilkie Collins kick, having just started on The Moonstone after finishing The Woman in White. In Moonstone there is a wonderful instance of a character whose use of literature could serve as a parody of my blog. House steward Gabriel Betteridge believes in Better Living through Robinson Crusoe.

Betteridge has been called to give his account of the events leading up to the disappearance of the fabled moonstone. Daunted by the task, he turns to Defoe’s novel, his guide in all things. The book falls open to the following passage:

Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it.”

Betteridge finds consolation that someone else has experienced what he is going through:

Two hours have passed since Mr. Franklin left me. As soon as his back was turned, I went to my writing-desk to start the story. There I have sat helpless (in spite of my abilities) ever since; seeing what Robinson Crusoe saw, as quoted above—namely, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost, and before we judge rightly of our own strength to go through with it. Please to remember, I opened the book by accident, at that bit, only the day before I rashly undertook the business now in hand; and, allow me to ask—if that isn’t prophecy, what is?

Betteridge then explains the importance of the book for him:

I am not superstitious; I have read a heap of books in my time; I am a scholar in my own way. Though turned seventy, I possess an active memory, and legs to correspond. You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years—generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco—and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad—Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice—Robinson Crusoe. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much—Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.

Later in his account, Betteridge recalls how Robinson Crusoe came to his aid when he was eased out of his position as bailiff into the less arduous one of house steward:

The perturbation in my mind, in regard to thinking about it, being truly dreadful after my lady had gone away, I applied the remedy which I have never yet found to fail me in cases of doubt and emergency. I smoked a pipe and took a turn at Robinson Crusoe. Before I had occupied myself with that extraordinary book five minutes, I came on a comforting bit (page one hundred and fifty-eight), as follows: “Today we love, what tomorrow we hate.” I saw my way clear directly. Today I was all for continuing to be farm-bailiff; tomorrow, on the authority of Robinson Crusoe, I should be all the other way. Take myself tomorrow while in tomorrow’s humour, and the thing was done. My mind being relieved in this manner, I went to sleep that night in the character of Lady Verinder’s farm-bailiff, and I woke up the next morning in the character of Lady Verinder’s house-steward. All quite comfortable, and all through Robinson Crusoe!

At another point, he turns to Crusoe when asked to venture out into the rain to track down the mysterious foreigners who have been seen around the house:

It was all very well for him [the master] to joke. But I was not an eminent traveller—and my way in this world had not led me into playing ducks and drakes with my own life, among thieves and murderers in the outlandish places of the earth. I went into my own little room, and sat down in my chair in a perspiration, and wondered helplessly what was to be done next. In this anxious frame of mind, other men might have ended by working themselves up into a fever; I ended in a different way. I lit my pipe, and took a turn at Robinson Crusoe.

Before I had been at it five minutes, I came to this amazing bit—page one hundred and sixty-one—as follows:

“Fear of Danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than Danger itself, when apparent to the Eyes; and we find the Burthen of Anxiety greater, by much, than the Evil which we are anxious about.”

The man who doesn’t believe in Robinson Crusoe, after that, is a man with a screw loose in his understanding, or a man lost in the mist of his own self-conceit! Argument is thrown away upon him; and pity is better reserved for some person with a livelier faith.

I second Betteridge but expand his contention: those who don’t believe in literature generally have a screw loose in their understanding. Argument is thrown away upon them.

Further thought: I just realized that Betteridge uses Robinson Crusoe as Crusoe himself uses the Bible. Perhaps that is where he (or Wilkie Collins himself) got the idea. In a practice known as bibliomancy, Crusoe lets the good book fall open at moments of crisis. Here’s an example following his panic after witnessing the cannibals on his island:

[W]hen I had done praying I took up my Bible, and opening it to read, the first words that presented to me were, “Wait on the Lord, and be of good cheer, and He shall strengthen thy heart; wait, I say, on the Lord.”  It is impossible to express the comfort this gave me.  In answer, I thankfully laid down the book, and was no more sad, at least on that occasion.

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Hopefully, Trump Is the Queen of Hearts

Tenniel, Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts


Like much of the world, I’m breathing a sigh of relief as it appears that we will avoid a shooting war with Iran. While the long-term repercussions Qasen Soeleimani’s assassination look to be severe, we may have escaped something comparable to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which remains the gold standard for foreign policy stupidity.

I’m coming to see Donald Trump as Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. Although she dominates center stage by ordering anyone who crosses her to be beheaded, the axe never actually falls. We learn this somewhat late in the book from the Gryphon:

They very soon came upon a Gryphon, lying fast asleep in the sun…”Up, lazy thing!’ said the Queen, ‘and take this young lady to see the Mock Turtle, and to hear his history. I must go back and see after some executions I have ordered’; and she walked off, leaving Alice alone with the Gryphon. Alice did not quite like the look of the creature, but on the whole she thought it would be quite as safe to stay with it as to go after that savage Queen: so she waited.

The Gryphon sat up and rubbed its eyes: then it watched the Queen till she was out of sight: then it chuckled. ‘What fun!’ said the Gryphon, half to itself, half to Alice.

‘What is the fun?’ said Alice.

‘Why, she,’ said the Gryphon. ‘It’s all her fancy, that: they never executes nobody, you know. 

To be sure, Trump executed Soleimani. And just because we’re not engaged in another Middle East war—at least not yet—doesn’t mean that many people haven’t suffered from Trump’s commands. His bungling, indeed, will likely lead to much worse. The great irony of the assassination is that it makes more likely the fulfillment of Soleimani’s dream, which is the United States leaving Iraq.

I don’t chuckle like the Gryphon at Trump’s bombast, as many of his supporters do. But I’m relieved that, in this case, he hasn’t followed through with his threats.

Further thought: In some ways, Nancy Pelosi, especially in the impeachment proceeding, is playing the role of Alice at the end of Wonderland. Here’s the passage of Alice’s confrontation:

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At first, standing up to a bully like Trump can appear to unleash a firestorm, and all the cards rise up against Alice in a scene that terrified me as a child. When all is said and done, however, the firepower dwindles to some stray leaves:

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

‘Wake up, Alice dear!’ said her sister; ‘Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!’

One day we will wake up from this nightmare. Imagine living at some future time, looking back at our time in the rabbit hole, and wondering whatever possessed this country we love.

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

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