Using Novels for Sexual Assualt

Edward Dubuffe, Abduction of Clarissa Harlowe by Lovelace (1867)


While I very much enjoyed the recent BBC/PBS Sanditon series (except for its ending), I was sorry to see that the filmmakers didn’t make the villainous Sir Edward Denham a reader. In Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, he reads novels for their seduction advice.

Many in the 18th century were concerned about young people reading novels. In 1750, the Bishop of London blamed Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random for two earthquakes that hit the city. Samuel Johnson used one of his famous Rambler essays to attack novels for their pernicious moral effects.

In Sanditon, Charlotte Heywood encounters Sir Edward and Esther Denham emerging from a library, which in turn leads to a discussion of novels. Edward is fairly incoherent as he disparages “the mere trash of the common circulating library” but then goes on to praise those novels that “display human nature with grandeur,” “show her in the sublimities of intense feeling,” and “exhibit the progress of strong passion.” In other words, like gothic-reading Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and romance-reading Captain Benwick in Persuasion, Sir Edward wants novels that engulf him in unbridled romanticism. First, here’s his attack:

… Sir Edward, approaching Charlotte, said, “You may perceive what has been our occupation. My sister wanted my counsel in the selection of some books. We have many leisure hours and read a great deal. I am no indiscriminate novel reader. The mere trash of the common circulating library I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences, from which no useful deductions can be drawn. In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; we distil nothing which can add to science. You understand me, I am sure?”

Sir Edward is saying nothing more complicated than that such compositiosn are shallow and don’t teach us anything of substance, but his convolutions confuse Charlotte. She then gets him to describe the novels he does like:

“I am not quite certain that I do [understand you]. But if you will describe the sort of novels which you do approve, I dare say it will give me a clearer idea.”

“Most willingly, fair questioner. The novels which I approve are such as display human nature with grandeur; such as show her in the sublimities of intense feeling; such as exhibit the progress of strong passion from the first germ of incipient susceptibility to the utmost energies of reason half-dethroned—where we see the strong spark of woman’s captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man as leads him—though at the risk of some aberration—from the strict line of primitive obligations to hazard all, dare all, achieve all to obtain her. Such are the works which I peruse with delight and, I hope I may say, with amelioration. They hold forth the most splendid portraitures of high conceptions, unbounded views, illimitable ardour, indomitable decision. And even when the event is mainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned machinations of the prime character, the potent, pervading hero of the story, it leaves us full of generous emotions for him; our hearts are paralyzed. T’were pseudo-philosophy to assert that we do not feel more enwrapped by the brilliancy of his career than by the tranquil and morbid virtues of any opposing character. Our approbation of the latter is but eleemosynary. These are the novels which enlarge the primitive capabilities of the heart; and which it cannot impugn the sense or be any dereliction of the character of the most anti-puerile man, to be conversant with.”

“If I understand you aright,” said Charlotte, “our taste in novels is not at all the same.”

At this point Austen weighs in to observe that Sir Edward is taking the wrong lessons from the novels of Samuel Richardson, who was Austen’s favorite novelist. (She particularly liked Sir Charles Grandison.) Unfortunately, in reading Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Sir Edward chooses to identify with Lord B___ and Lovelace, the two rakes who attempt to seduce the respective heroines:

The truth was that Sir Edward, whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot, had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s, and such authors as had since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling and convenience was concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character. With a perversity of judgement which must be attributed to his not having by nature a very strong head, the graces, the spirit, the sagacity and the perseverance of the villain of the story outweighed all his absurdities and all his atrocities with Sir Edward. With him such conduct was genius, fire and feeling. It interested and inflamed him. And he was always more anxious for its success, and mourned over its discomfitures with more tenderness, than could ever have been contemplated by the authors.

In other words, blame the reader, not the author.

Although Richardson’s Lovelace is a rake who imprisons and rapes the angelic Clarissa, for Sir Edward this is a point in his favor:

Sir Edward’s great object in life was to be seductive. With such personal advantages as he knew himself to possess, and such talents as he did also give himself credit for, he regarded it as his duty. He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous man, quite in the line of the Lovelaces. The very name of Sir Edward, he thought, carried some degree of fascination with it. To be generally gallant and assiduous about the fair, to make fine speeches to every pretty girl, was but the inferior part of the character he had to play. Miss Heywood, or any other young woman with any pretensions to beauty, he was entitled (according to his own view of society) to approach with high compliment and rhapsody on the slightest acquaintance.

As in the television series, Sir Edward is out to seduce Clara, the poor relation that Lady Denham has taken in and who is therefore a potential rival for her inheritance. Sir Edward, however, has no more success with Clara than either of Richardson’s rakes have with their targets:

But it was Clara alone on whom he had serious designs; it was Clara whom he meant to seduce.

Her seduction was quite determined on. Her situation in every way called for it. She was his rival in Lady Denham’s favour; she was young, lovely and dependent. He had very early seen the necessity of the case, and had now been long trying with cautious assiduity to make an impression on her heart and to undermine her principles. Clara saw through him and had not the least intention of being seduced; but she bore with him patiently enough to confirm the sort of attachment which her personal charms had raised. A greater degree of discouragement indeed would not have affected Sir Edward. He was armed against the highest pitch of disdain or aversion. If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his business. Already had he had many musings on the subject. If he were constrained so to act, he must naturally wish to strike out something new, to exceed those who had gone before him; and he felt a strong curiosity to ascertain whether the neighbourhood of Timbuctoo might not afford some solitary house adapted for Clara’s reception. But the expense, alas! of measures in that masterly style was ill-suited to his purse; and prudence obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections to the more renowned.

In short, despite his inflated self image he’s both ineffective and pathetic.

If the series did not make him a reader, I suspect it’s because, to our modern eyes, this might have signaled some depth. Sometimes we give past audiences more cultural credit than is warranted because we forget that today’s high literature was yesterday’s popular entertainment. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the plays of Shakespeare, and the novels of the 18th century were essentially the soap operas of their day. To applaud Sir Edward for reading would be like praising someone today for playing video games.

In short, Sir Edward has the depth of a microchip and is a bad reader as a result.

Further thought: Although Austen defends Richardson against Sir Edward, fiction regularly gets us to identify with evil characters, regardless of authorial intentions. Once Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders launches into her tale, one can’t help but sympathize, even though she’s a prostitute, a thief, and a bigamist. That’s one reason why so many 18th century moralists were worried about young people reading novels at all.

Interestingly, while Johnson was one of these moralists, he didn’t have any problems with Clarissa, which he described as “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.” I wonder if Austen, although she admired Johnson, isn’t taking a slight dig at him in the way she has Sir Edward make use of the novel.

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Sanditon’s Disappointing Ending

Williams-James: Are they Elizabeth-Darcy or Marianne-Willoughby?


I was fully expecting a satisfying Jane Austen-like marriage to conclude PBS’s six-episode version of Jane Austen’s Sanditon, which means that the ending came as a shock. Here are some of my thoughts on that score.

Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to capture the disappointment we feel over Austen’s own unfinished ending. To Janeites like myself, her dying before completing Sanditon is an absolute tragedy. Austen was venturing into new territory with Persuasion and Sanditon, leaving behind gentry dramas for new enterprises (the military, real estate). Anne Elliot’s life as a sailor’s wife will be far more unsettled than the predictable futures of Catherine Morland, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, and Emma Woodhouse. If Sanditon’s Charlotte marries someone in the boom-and bust-real estate market, then all kinds of things are possible. Alas, we’ll never know.

But perhaps the Sanditon filmmakers were just setting us up for a second season. Charlotte will apparently not be marrying into the Parker family, but there’s an up-and-coming builder/architect in the picture. Like Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, he is a self-made man who has confidence in his abilities. Will he come for Charlotte now that Sidney has abandoned the field.

To be sure, this character doesn’t show up in Austen’s novel. Because Sanditon is unfinished, the show has a lot of freedom, and it takes full advantage. It mostly does so, however, by rearranging previous Austen characters and plots. I share a parallel example in support of my view that this was a wise choice.

My youngest brother is a member of Madison’s First Unitarian Society, which several years ago confronted the problem of having outgrown their Frank Lloyd Wright church. An addition was necessary, but how does one add on to a national monument?

The architect chose to gesture towards the Wright style without slavishly imitating it. It’s partly appreciative homage, partly a new building in its own right. The Sanditon show struck me as doing something similar.

The show is filled with gestures towards the other novels. Charlotte most resembles Catherine Morland in that she is a young, enthusiastic, and somewhat naïve observer of a resort town (Sanditon aspires to be Bath). But there’s also an Elizabeth-Darcy vibe in her relationship with Sidney Parker, who however also has a Colonel Brandon-like past.

The show’s Lady Denham has echoes of Austen’s tyrannical widows, Mrs. Ferrars (Sense and Sensibility) and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pride and Prejudice). Like Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Denham has control of her estate and can disinherit if she chooses (and in fact does so).  She’s more down-to-earth than either of those two, however, maybe a bit like Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility. For that matter, the enthusiastic realtor Tom Parker resembles Mrs. Jennings’s son-in-law John Middleton.

Edward and Esther Denham, who are half-brother and sister, are not unlike the fast-living Crawfords in Mansfield Park. Unlike that novel, however, the Henry-like Edward doesn’t ruin the woman who, against all propriety, falls in love with him (his half-sister in the show, the married Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park), although he comes close. Esther Denham escapes, somewhat like sister Julia Bertram escaping her family’s blow-up by marrying a nobleman who happens to be handy. While we are just okay with the Julia-Yates marriage, however, we are genuinely happy for Esther and Lord Babbington. Their wedding helps console us (although not entirely) for Charlotte’s lack of one.

Clara, the poor relative dependent on Lady Denham’s bounty, is just as cold, shrewd, and manipulative as Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility. Were it not for Lady Denham’s miraculous recovery, Clara would pull off a version of Lucy capturing Robert, Lady Ferrars’s heir. Or to shift novels, she is Mrs. Clay in Persuasion, fully outplaying Mr. Elliot, even though he thinks he’s the one calling the shots.

While the show’s mulatto heiress shows up in Austen’s Sanditon, she plays only a small role. As I watched, however, I thought of Patricia Rozema’s film version of Mansfield Park, which shows the probable horrors occurring on the Bertrams’ Antigua plantation. While I disliked the Rozema film for turning Fanny Price into Elizabeth Bennet, I thought the slave allusions were good, with Austen giving out subtle hints that Fanny is anti-slavery.

In other words, I don’t see the liberties taken by Sanditon as out of line. Just because we don’t see couples making love on the floor in Austen novels doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. A smart television version of Northanger Abbey plausibly imagines that Isabel Thorpe has such a fling with Captain Tilney before he throws her over. And who knows what all Lydia and Wickham do?

In the show’s ending, Sidney goes from Darcy to Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby, sacrificing the woman he loves for a rich woman. To be sure, Sidney does it for a noble cause, which makes it all the more heartbreaking. Like Elinor for Willoughby, we feel a pang for Sidney.

Pangs are okay, but an Austen work that ends with the jilted heroine returning to her dull life in the country doesn’t feel very Austen-like. In fact, it feels like the ending of Northanger Abbey except without Tilney showing up. We can imagine how the immediate future will be for Charlotte by looking at how Catherine Morland responds to her forced return home:

Catherine’s disposition was not naturally sedentary, nor had her habits been ever very industrious; but whatever might hitherto have been her defects of that sort, her mother could not but perceive them now to be greatly increased. She could neither sit still nor employ herself for ten minutes together, walking round the garden and orchard again and again, as if nothing but motion was voluntary; and it seemed as if she could even walk about the house rather than remain fixed for any time in the parlour. Her loss of spirits was a yet greater alteration. In her rambling and her idleness she might only be a caricature of herself; but in her silence and sadness she was the very reverse of all that she had been before.

No wonder I was bummed out by the ending. Furthermore, informed sources report there will be no second season. Phooey!

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Stephen King on Pandemics


It appears that the world has a coronavirus pandemic on its hands. Although not nearly as deadly as the flu that takes out 99.9 percent of the world’s population in Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel The Stand, the coronavirus is still a killer. Thanks to Donald Trump, the United States is far less prepared to deal with it than it would have been three years ago.

In a chillingly impersonal chapter, King describes how the virus spreads. An employee at a biological weapons facility runs away following an accident, but not before he has been infected. Gas station owner Bill Hapscomb contracts the virus after investigating the car in which the man and his family have died, and he passes it along to his police officer cousin Joe Bob Brentwood. The following passage picks up the story from there:

On June 18, five hours after he had talked to his cousin Bill Hapscomb, Joe Bob Brentwood pulled down a speeder on Texas Highway 40 about twenty-five miles east of Arnette. The speeder was Harry Trent of Braintree, an insurance man. … And [Joe Bob] gave Harry Trent more than a speeding summons.

Harry, a gregarious man who liked his job, passed the sickness to more than forty people during that day and the next. … Harry Trent stopped at an East Texas cafe called Babe’s Kwik-Eat for lunch. … On his way out, a station wagon pulled in … Harry gave the New York fellow [Edward Norris] very clear directions on how to get to Highway 21. He also served him and his entire family their death warrants without even knowing it. …

That night [the Norris family] stayed in a Eustice, Oklahoma, travel court. Ed and Trish infected the clerk. The kids, Marsha, Stanley, and Hector, infected the kids they played with on the tourist court’s playground – kids bound for west Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Trish infected the two women who were washing clothes at the Laundromat two blocks away. Ed, on his way down the motel corridor to get some ice, infected a fellow he passed in the hallway. …

During their wait in [Doctor] Sweeney’s office they communicated the sickness which would soon be known across the disintegrating country as Captain Trips to more than twenty-five people, including a matronly woman [Sarah Bradford] who just came in to pay her bill before going on to pass the disease to her entire bridge club. …

She and Angela went out for a quiet drink … they managed to infect everyone in the Polliston cocktail bar, including two young men drinking beer nearby. They were on their way to California … The next day they headed west, spreading the disease as they went. …

Sarah went home to infect her husband and his five poker buddies and her teenaged daughter, Samantha. … The next day Samantha would go on to infect everybody in the swimming pool at the Polliston YWCA

In our interconnected world, viruses spread inexorably unless concerted action is taken to stop them.

As depicted in The Stand, a U.S. government biological warfare lab invents the virus that wipes out the world population. In our own reality, the Trump administration has been busy disassembling the mechanisms that President Obama set up to guard against pandemics.

Foreign Policy’s Laurie Garrett describes how, following the Ebola pandemic, the Obama administration

set up a permanent epidemic monitoring and command group inside the White House National Security Council (NSC) and another in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—both of which followed the scientific and public health leads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the diplomatic advice of the State Department.

In his attempt to undo all things Obama, Trump has targeted these command groups:

In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is–not just for the public but for the govenrnment itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.

And that’s not all:

In the spring of 2018, the White House pushed Congress to cut funding for Obama-era disease security programs, proposing to eliminate $252 million in previously committed resources for rebuilding health systems in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Under fire from both sides of the aisle, President Donald Trump dropped the proposal to eliminate Ebola funds a month later. But other White House efforts included reducing $15 billion in national health spending and cutting the global disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. And the government’s $30 million Complex Crises Fund was eliminated.

Meanwhile, the most recent recipient of the Congressional Medal of Freedom assures us that “the coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” That would be right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Stephen King provides a salutary reality check whenever we need to push through denial.

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Toni Morrison’s Black Gothic

Winfrey as Sethe in Beloved


In my Lifelong Learning class on “the Supernatural Gothic in American Literature,” I followed up the section on Southern Gothic writers with an examination of Toni Morrison, who provides an illustrative contrast. With those writers, I argued that the unacknowledged but very real violence against African Americans made possible the cultivated gentility that people romanticized and longed for. Writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, and James Dickey made their gothic home in the gap between brutal reality and gauzy illusion.

But what are we to make of a black author who writes in the Faulkner tradition? After all, African Americans aren’t invested in burying the facts of slavery. There’s nothing in our racist past for them to repress and therefore render toxic. Or is there?

In preparing the class, I became more aware of the psychological toll on the black community caused by slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing racism. Morrison was aware that African Americans are no more eager to explore this past than many whites, and she uses the gothic genre to explore the psychic damage of such repression.

The best example is the house in Beloved, where Sethe is haunted by the baby she kills when her former masters are on the verge of recapturing her. It’s a Sophie’s Choice situation, but that doesn’t lessen the guilt. In the course of the novel, the dead baby grows in strength, especially when Paul Dee enters the house and offers Sethe a new and more hopeful future.

Morrison’s point, I think, is that African Americans can’t simply shrug off America’s bloody past, even though many would like to do so. I’m sure she agrees with Faulkner’s that the past isn’t even past. It doesn’t matter that slavery pressures Sethe to kill her baby to prevent her master from reclaiming her. Blaming whites, while justified, doesn’t make that horror disappear.

Paul Dee not only fails to exorcise the ghost, but he becomes seduced by it. In other words, he becomes trapped by the psychosis of his fellow former slaves.

Another trapped Morrison character is Circe in Song of Solomon, who initially is linked with the spooky witch in “Hansel and Gretel”

When Hansel and Gretel stood in the forest and saw the house in the clearing before them, the little hairs at the nape of their necks must have shivered…[Propelled forward by blinding hunger,] they ran as fast as they could to the house where a woman older than death lived, and they ignored the shivering nape hair and the softness in their knees.

Circe has taken over her mistress’ house following her suicide. To express her anger at the house’s expensive trappings, which have been paid for in blood, she lets the owners’ prized dogs tear it to shreds. Although her sentiments are understandable, she is trapped in this house of the past no less than Sethe. The stench is overwhelming.

To triumph over gothic repression requires facing up to this past. One cannot simply say, as Henry Ford did, that history is bunk. One must delve into and face up to the trauma.

Song of Solomon’s protagonist undertakes this hero’s journey, which takes the form of a roots quest. By uncovering his family’s history, warts and all, he frees himself from his psychic hold on him and, in the process, transforms Circe from impeding witch into Joseph Campbell’s helpful goddess. Light banishes the gothic terrors.

So whenever you find yourself attracted by gothic fiction, whether Morrison, the Southern Gothic writers, Stephen King, Anne Rice, George Martin, or whomever, you can use your attraction for self-diagnosis. Ask yourself what secret corruption you are shutting your eyes to. And don’t think you are unaware of what that corruption is. Your denial is what supplies the power.

In my final post on the course, I will be providing my own interpretation of the insights provided by contemporary gothic authors. Stay tuned.

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What To Make of a Hero That Lies

Jan Stykla, Athena Inspires Odysseus to Vengeance


My student John Reineke has written an essay about Odysseus’s lying that I can’t get out of my head. What are we make of a hero, Jack wants to know, who fabricates stories every chance he gets? What are we to make of the fact that his lying receives divine endorsement?

Given that our president has told (according to the Washington Post’s tally), 16,241 false or misleading statements since becoming president—and that certain Christian nationalists nevertheless regard him as God’s anointed–it’s a good question to grapple with. While Jack is not looking at the issue through my political lens, the essay leads me to wonder about the effect such leadership has on young people. Are they becoming as accepting as Homer of a lying leader?

Jack notes that, when Odysseus tries to lie to a disguised Athena upon returning to Ithaca, she heartily approves:

                     To outwit you
in all your tricks a person or a god
would need to be an expert at deceit.
You clever rascal! So duplicitous,
so talented at lying! You love fiction
and tricks so deeply, you refuse to stop
even in your own land. Yes, both of us
are smart. No man can plan and talk like you,
and I am known among the gods for insight
and craftiness. You failed to recognize me:
I am Athena, child of Zeus. I always
stand near you and take care of you, in all
your hardships. (trans. Emily Wilson)

As Jack sees it, Odysseus’s lying appears to be just another weapon, one that most warriors don’t have. In Odysseus’s case, the lying take different forms, sometimes tricks and deceptions, sometimes fabricated stories.

His greatest accomplishment, of course, is the Trojan Horse. What ten years of assaults on the city can’t accomplish, Odysseus pulls off in a day and a night. Odysseus is also a master of disguise, which allows him to scout out hostile locations (Troy, his own suitor-filled palace). Jack notes that Homer describes disguising as a noble craft:

As when Athena and Hephaestus teach
a knowledgeable craftsman every art,
and he pours gold on silver, making objects
more beautiful—just so Athena poured
attractiveness across his head and shoulders.

And in the other direction:

      Then with her wand Athena
tapped him; his handsome body withered up;
his limbs became arthritic. She bleached out
his hair, and made his skin look old and wrinkled,
and dimmed his fine bright eyes. She turned his clothes
into a tattered cloak and ragged tunic,
dirty with soot.

While his lying often saves his life, there are moments where Odysseus sometimes lies just for the fun of it, as though to stay in practice. When the loyal swineherd asks the disguised Odysseus not to tell him any lies—he will host him regardless—the Ithacan leader can’t help himself and tells an elaborate account of himself as Cretan nobility. The story ends with Eumaeus commenting,

guest! Your tale of woe is very moving,
but pointless; I will not believe a word
about Odysseus. Why did you stoop
to tell those silly lies!

Yet Eumaeus appreciates a well-chosen lie, such as the one Odysseus tells a little later in order to get another coat for himself:

was a splendid tale, old man!
It worked. You will get all the clothes and things
a poor old beggar needs—at least for now.

Jack also touched on the fact that Penelope is herself a master deceiver, making her a worthy companion. Facing an explosive situation at home, she holds off the suitors by promising to marry once she finishes weaving a shroud for her father-in-law—a shroud that she unweaves every night until someone rats her out.

In his essay, Jack entered the arena of situational ethics: lying and deceiving are fine if done done for a good purpose (one endorsed by Zeus), bad if for an evil purpose. Jack identified the suitor Eurymachus as one of the evil liars:

Eurymachus, the most vocal suitor, fabricates one of the most malevolent lies directly to Penelope herself as he says to her:

No man will ever, ever hurt your boy
while I am still alive upon this earth.
I swear to you, if someone tries, my sword
will spill blood!

So Telemachus is now
the man I love the most in all the world.
The boy is in no danger, not from us—
there is no help for death brought by the gods. (16.439-448)

Homer addresses this blatant lie in the very next line, writing, “He spoke to mollify her; all the while / he was devising plans to kill her son.”

Lying, in other words, is simply a verbal extension of physical battle. Liars are not taken in by liars, and neither Odysseus nor Penelope believe Eurymachus. Nor does Odysseus fall for Helen’s trickery (this by Menelaus’s account) when she tries to lure the Greek warriors out of the Trojan Horse. Lies are likes bows or spears, most effective when wielded by accomplished hands.

I noted to Jack that attitudes changed 300 years later when numerous Athenian demagogues were using lying to catastrophic effect (like today). Neither Sophocles nor Euripides are okay with Odysseus lying.

In Sophocles’s Philoctetes, for, instance, the Greeks have learned they cannot win the Trojan War unless they bring back the famous archer Philoctetes, whom they have marooned on an island because a foul-smelling, ulcerous wound. Aware that Philoctetes is bitter, Odysseus wants Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, to participate in an elaborate lie. I share the passage because I suspect that the young man’s views are shared by my student:

Son of Laertes, I shall never practice.
I was not born to flatter or betray;
Nor I, nor he--the voice of fame reports--
Who gave me birth. What open arms can do
Behold me prompt to act, but ne'er to fraud
Will I descend. Sure we can more than match
In strength a foe thus lame and impotent.
I came to be a helpmate to thee, not
A base betrayer; and, O king! believe me,
Rather, much rather would I fall by virtue
Than rise by guilt to certain victory.
--(trans. Thomas Francklin)

In the end, truth and honor prevail and Odysseus is discredited, but only thanks to the divine intervention of Heracles. Given that lying is a trademark of autocratic leaders, I’m glad to see Jack troubled by Homer’s apparent approval.

I must add that I too am troubled. Normally an author as great as Homer will be ahead of his time and foresee problems. Perhaps I’m missing something. Whatever he thought in 800 BCE, however, I can’t imagine that Homer would have given Odysseus a free pass 300 years later.

Further thought: I acknowledge that different cultures have a different relationship to truth-telling. Because of the importance I myself attach to truth, I still remember being shocked by the following passage from M. M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions (1978) when I read it forty years ago:

The Sahib-log [the British] do not understand that Truth should be used sparingly, and they call us liars because when we of this country are asked questions by strangers, we prefer to lie first and then consider whether the truth could have served us better.

Should I just be culturally tolerant of Homer’s oral society? In any event, such a lax relationship to truth is among today’s greatest threats to democracy.

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St. Paul, St. Thecla, and the Wife of Bath

St. Thecla surviving one of multiple attempts to make her a martyr

Spiritual Sunday

Jeannie Babb, director of our church’s Christian Education program, gave a wonderful Adult Forum lecture two weeks ago on St. Thecla’s relationship to the apostle Paul. The talk got into the contentious relationship that many women have had with the establishment church, as well as with two different ways of looking at Paul. I was excited because I gained new insights into Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who has her own battles with church authorities.

According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla, a young noble virgin, broke with her fiancé and her family after hearing Paul’s discourse on virginity. After surviving various attempts to martyr her (one of them supposedly involving a basin filled with flesh-eating seals!), she went on to become a healer.

Jeannie noted two conflicting views of Paul, the ascetic and the domesticated. Thecla was responding to the ascetic Paul, the one who in 1:7 Corinthians counsels that “it is well for a man not to touch a woman.” The other Paul, however, explicitly condemns anyone who forbids marriage. Jeannie doesn’t believe any theologian has satisfactorily reconciled the two Pauls.

The Wife of Bath is no trained theologian, drawing on her experience rather than church authority as she defends her right to remarry as many husbands as she wants. (She’s been widowed five times and is looking for husband #6.) I imagine her local priest regularly directing his sermons against her, which would explain how an illiterate woman would be so well-versed in the ascetic Paul. How is she to fight back against his injunction?

After hearing Jeannie’s talk, I realized that Chaucer’s Wife pits the domesticated Paul against the ascetic Paul. Her arguments carry a surprising amount of weight.

To be sure, her prologue reads like a spoof of a theological debate, sometimes spinning off in hilarious directions. For instance, she refers to Solomon as an instance of someone else who had multiple partners but then starts fantasizing about all the fun he must have had in bed. Her sensual nature trumps dry theology.

She resorts to theology, however, because she sees the church authorities dictating her life with their pronouncements and believes she must talk like them to hold her own. In fact, she longs to be a member of their power club.

Despite botching the theological debate, she scores some points. Certainly God made the sexual organs for more than urinating and distinguishing the genders, she points out. Furthermore, Paul didn’t command virginity but only recommended it. And as for virgins, how could they be born if it weren’t for non-virgins?

The apostle when he speaks of maidenhead;
He said, commandment of the Lord he’d none.
Men may advise a woman to be one,
but such advice is not commandment, no;
He left the things to our judgment so.
For had Lord God commended maidenhood,
He’d have condemned all marriage as not good;
And certainly, if there were no seed sown,
Virginity, where then should it be grown?  

After Jeannie’s talk, I now realize that the Wife is drawing on the domesticated Paul tradition in these latter arguments. She also does so when she quotes him as saying that “it is better than to marry than to burn,” even though Paul probably didn’t have in mind a widow burning with sexual desire at the Wife’s now advanced age. But no matter. The Wife hones in on whatever concessions Paul makes to the world of the flesh, and, for good measure, throws in God’s injunction (in the Book of Genesis) “to be fruitful and multiply.” Her pilgrim auditors are alternately amazed, entertained, and horrified by her performance.

Which brings me to another point that Jeannie made. Chastity, for women, could be a source of autonomy, in that it saved them from answering to a man. St. Thecla, who journeyed all over the Middle East, had much more power than she would have had she married.  So does Chaucer’s Prioress, the only other woman amongst the pilgrim storytellers.

The Wife of Bath, however, wants autonomy and sex both, and the way she uses Paul to refute Paul now makes more sense to me. She’s there to show us that Thecla isn’t the only model available to women.

I mentioned last Sunday that Chaucer felt it necessary to recant Canterbury Tales at the end of his life, either to placate the church authorities or to insure his own entry into heaven. As I see it, however, the Wife is more spiritual than those misogynist monks who demonized women. In her longing for a good marriage, she has a vision of spiritual union between a couple, even though the reality so often is sabotaged by patriarchal fears, gender power struggles, and the like.

Her vision gets communicated in her tale, where an old crone argues that a union of souls is more to be valued than wealth, class, or good looks. She doesn’t convince her rapist husband, but she puts the vision out there. I suspect that both Pauls would approve.

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When We Yield to Inner Darkness

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son


A couple of my students’ Odyssey essays have me thinking of times in American military history when Americans have gone off the rails. I think of Lieutenant Calley and the May Lai massacre, those who ordered the waterboarding of 9-11 suspects, and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, credibly charged with various war crimes but recently pardoned by Donald Trump. Wikipedia sums up the charges against Gallagher as follows:

Gallagher had been charged in September 2018 with ten offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice over accusations that he had stabbed to death an injured, sedated teenage ISIS prisoner, photographing himself holding the dead teenager’s head by the hair and sending the photo to friends. He was also accused by fellow Navy SEAL snipers of randomly shooting two Iraqi civilians: a girl walking with her friends on a riverbank; and an unarmed elderly man.

Following reports of American torture following the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan, I recall a military official noting that the Geneva Conventions were in place to protect us from ourselves as much as from an enemy that may or may not abide by them. We ourselves require checks if we are not to descend into darkness.

The Odyssey has many images of monstrous darkness, perhaps none so horrifying as the cyclops Polyphemus. Because our monsters are always our own shadow side, the cyclops can be understood as the savagery that we publicly disavow and secretly recognize.

The Greeks saw themselves as more advanced than cannibalistic shepherds who don’t cultivate fields or construct ships. Spurning Zeus (law and order), Polyphemus worships only Poseidon (nature). When Odysseus asks him to honor the laws of hospitality as dictated by Zeus, the cyclops replies,

You order me to fear the gods! My people
think nothing of that Zeus with his big scepter,
nor any god; our strength is more than theirs.
If I spare you or spare your friends, it will not
be out of fear of Zeus. I do the bidding of my own heart.

The bidding of his heart takes him to a horrifying place:

up high, he reached his hands towards my men,
seized two and knocked them hard against the ground
like puppies, and the floor was wet with brains.
He ripped them limb by limb to make his meal,
then ate them like a lion on the mountains,
devouring flesh, entrails, and marrow bones,
and leaving nothing.

It is not only Polyphemus who is associated with lions, however. As Walter Coker pointed out in an essay tracking nature similes, Odysseus too gets linked with the animal. This is what nursemaid Eurycleia sees after the killing:

Among the corpses of the slaughtered men
she saw Odysseus all smeared with blood.
After a lion eats a grazing ox
its chest and jowls are thick with blood all over;
a dreadful sight. Just so, Odysseus
had blood all over him—from hands to feet.
(Trans. Emily Wilson)

We see Odysseus preparing to do more of the same when he confronts the suitors’ families at the end of the epic:

They were desperate to save
their lives, and they turned back towards the city.
Unwavering Odysseus let out
a dreadful roar, then crouched and swooped upon them,
just like an eagle flying from above.

Walter noted, however, that a Greek value system exists to check an absolute descent into animality. Homer’s predatory images, therefore, often are conjoined with heavenly messages, as a higher principle asserts itself. This is especially true of bird omens, where the violence is superseded by a message of divine order:

Then Zeus, whose voice resounds around the
sent down two eagles from the mountain peak.
At first they hovered on the breath of wind,
close by each other, balanced on their wings.
Reaching the noisy middle of the crowd,
they wheeled and whirred and flapped their mighty wings,
swooping at each man’s head with eyes like death,
and with their talons ripped each face and neck.

An old man gifted with prophecy interprets the omen:

                        Now Ithacans,
listen! I speak especially for the suitors.
Disaster rolls their way! Odysseus
will not be absent from his friends for long;
Already he is near and sows the seeds
of death for all of them.

Walter was especially struck by the final showdown with the suitors’ families, in which we see Odysseus preparing his lion/eagle attack. If Zeus forestalls him with a thunderbolt, it is because the killing must end if Ithaca is to experience peace:

But Zeus sent down a thunderbolt, which fell 
in front of his own daughter, great Athena [disguised as Mentor].
She looked at him [Odysseus] with steely eyes and said,

“Odysseus, you are adaptable;
you always find solutions. Stop this war,
or Zeus will be enraged at you.”

                       He was
glad to obey her. Then Athena made
the warring sides swear solemn oaths of peace
for future times—still in her guise as Mentor.

In other words, a powerful animal urge has been trumped by an even more powerful signal from Zeus.

This final scene was key in Rego Jaquish’s essay as well. Comparing Odysseus with Batman in some of the Joker episodes, Rego noted that Joker ultimately wants Batman to descend to his level. He’ll do anything, including goading Batman into killing him, to accomplish this.

In other words, Joker is our dark side. As I noted to Rego, Joker wants Batman to become Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Although Batman sometimes enjoys the pain and fear of his enemies–in other words, he feels the Joker temptation–he ultimately refrains from killing, thereby saving his soul. Similarly, Odysseus abandons a blood lust, whetted by the suitor massacre, that could lead to interminable blood feuds. Odysseus is a hero because he listens to a higher authority at such moments, with Zeus’s thunderbolt functioning as a metaphor for internal self-governance.

It’s not only the military that needs self-checks on its behavior. In America today we have a president who wants to abolish anything that thwarts his primal desires. Our Zeusian thunderbolt should be the Constitution, the rule of law, governing norms, and our own consciences. Pray to whatever gods there be that they hold.

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If Librarians Were Honest…

Mantra, Luxembourg street art (inspired by Marta Bevacqua photo)


I’m in love with this Joe Mills poem about libraries. If more in government ever started seeing libraries in this way, however—some already do—then they might take away this ready access to books. So here’s to librarians keeping up a deceptive front.

If Librarians Were Honest 
By Joe Mills

“… a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work….”
—Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute
. They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one
They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.

If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.

If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.
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Repressed Violence in Southern Gothic Lit

Final shot from Deliverance


I write today about my Lifelong Learning class on “the Gothic Supernatural in American Literature.” Like many scholars, I explain America’s centuries-long fascination with the gothic by Freud’s return of the repressed—which is to say, when we don’t like something about ourselves, we push it under, only to see it return in the form of dark dreams.

In the first week, as I reported, I looked at how Hawthorne uses the gothic genre to expose the not-so-pure side of Puritanism and Poe uses it to expose the not-so-reasonable side of the founding fathers’ belief in a republic based upon Enlightenment Reason. Continuing in this vein last week, I contrasted Henry James’s Turn of the Screw with L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz.

The stark contrast between the two works, written two years apart (1898 and 1900), made my point. Exhibiting the eternal optimism of an American pioneer, Baum wanted to write fairy tales with no shadows. Turn of the Screw, on the other hand, resides permanently in the shadow world.

After initially complimenting the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers, Baum introduced Wizard of Oz with the following:

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

What Baum wants is innocent children and an innocent America. Dorothy echoes the legendary pioneer women, venturing out to restore the American Dream. (Laura Ingalls Wilder would later write in this vein.) I’ve noted in the past about how Wizard reflects confidence in an America that can rediscover its head, heart, courage and idealism as it emerges from the Long Depression. Baum believed that a fresh new start was possible.

James, on the other hand, didn’t. Longing for an innocent America is like longing for the Puritans’ pure “city on a hill” or the founders’ shining republic. True believers shut their eyes to the fact that the world is never as innocent, pure or reasonable as we want. Often we look to children to embody our hopes, attempting to preserve their innocence (and ours) by sheltering them from stories with “horrible and blood-curdling incidents.”

James’s children are little angels until they aren’t. Flora has “the deep, sweet serenity indeed of one of Raphael’s holy infants” and the governess sees in Miles “something extraordinarily sensitive, yet extraordinarily happy.” And yet these same children appear (at least to the governess) to be interacting with malevolent ghosts that, when alive, corrupted them in unmentionable ways. Turn of the Screw is the most horrifying and frightening ghost story I know.

This past Monday I took a quick glance at the Southern Gothic, even though it doesn’t contain supernatural elements. What is America repressing, I asked, that would generate a fiction filled with grotesques and haunted venues? The answer: a belief in a golden age of gentility, swept away by the Civil War. (Check out Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind for cinematic images.)

The white South of the early 20th century wouldn’t admit how this golden past, not to mention its current iteration, was built upon oppression of blacks. Violence lurks in the decaying house of Miss Emily Grierson (Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily”), and it roams the countryside in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It resides within Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man” (a rapist hiding out in a southern freak show), it erupts and kills an innocent family in cold blood (Truman Capote), and it threatens to float to the surface in James Dickey’s Deliverance. The southern past that is never past, in Faulkner’s famous phrase, is a past of unacknowledged white violence.

Next week I’ll look at contemporary gothic stories, including the work of Toni Morrison, Stephen King, and Joyce Carol Oates. As always, I will begin every work with the question, “So what repressed truth led to this story?”

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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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