Chaucer & a Trump-Enabling GOP

1787 etching of Chaucer, Merchant’s Tale


On Tuesday I talked about GOP denial in the face of Donald Trump’s extortion/bribery attempts in the Ukraine, along with their willingness to accept any explanation from their dear leader. How is the president able to exert such power? According to Chaucer’s Merchant, the power comes from the gods–which is to say, there’s something otherworldly about it.

The tale demonstrates the power of pure effrontery. If you summon up enough confidence to brazen something out, it’s amazing what you can get away with.

Perhaps unsettled by the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, the Merchant launches into a misogynist attack on wives. The old knight January marries the fresh young maid May, who then predictably falls in love with one of January’s youthful retainers (Damian). When he is struck blind, January becomes convinced his wife will cuckold him.  Sure enough, May finds a way to Damian, even when her husband thinks he has her alone in a locked garden.

She has provided her lover with a duplicate garden key, and he awaits her in a pear tree. May persuades January to hoist her into the tree, and Chaucer’s merchant apologizes for what he must next report:

Ladies, I pray you that you be not
I cannot use circumlocutions, I am an unlearned man --                   
And suddenly at once this Damian                   
Pulled up the smock, and in he thrust.

It so happens that two supernatural beings from fairyland have been witnessing the drama. Pluto, feeling sorry for the husband, is prepared to grant him his sight again. His wife Proserpine, taking May’s side, grants May a counteracting power, which I’ll mention in a moment. First Pluto:

See you not this honorable knight, 
Because, alas, that he is blind and old,                   
His own man shall make him cuckold.                   
Lo, where he sits, the lecher, in the tree!                   
Now will I grant, of my majesty,                   
Unto this old, blind, worthy knight                   
That he shall have again his eyes' sight,                   
When his wife would do him villainy.
Then shall he know all her harlotry,                   
In reproof of both her and many others."

Prosperpine, however, grants May a gift that seems particularly Trumpian, at least when it comes to the GOP. Whatever the husband sees, the wife will be able to explain away:

"You shall?" said
Proserpine, "will you so?             
Now by my mother's father's soul I swear                   
That I shall give her sufficient answer,                   
And all women afterwards, for her sake,                   
That, though they be in any guilt taken,                   
With bold face they shall themselves excuse,                   
And bear them down who would them accuse.                   
For lack of answer none of them shall die.                   
Although a man had seen a thing with both his eyes,                   
Yet shall we women face it out boldly,                   
And weep, and swear, and chide deceitfully,                   
So that you men shall be as ignorant as geese.

And so it pans out. The no-longer visually impaired January, looking up into the tree, is as horrified as the Democrats are (and as the Republicans should be) when looking at the Ukraine facts:

Up to the tree he cast his eyes
And saw that Damian had treated his wife                   
In such a manner it cannot be expressed,                   
Unless I would speak crudely;                   
And up he gave a roaring and a cry,                   
As does the mother when the child shall die:                   
"Out! Help! Alas! Help!" he began to cry,            
"O brazen crude lady, what dost thou?"

How many times over the past three years have we learned of scandals that would sink any other presidency. In Trump’s Ukraine bribery scandal, we even have Trump releasing a telephone transcript where he is recorded as attempting to bribe the Ukrainian president for dirt on Joe Biden. May, benefitting from Proserpine’s divine aid, makes an escape worthy of Trump. While her first excuse doesn’t work, her second does:

Excuse #1 is that, in order to restore her husband’s sight, she needed to struggle with a man in a tree. January, however, observes that he saw something other than a struggle:

"Struggle?" said he,
"Yea, indeed in it went!             
God give you both a shameful death to die!                   
He swived thee; I saw it with my eyes,                   
And else may I be hanged by the neck!"

Excuse #2 is that someone who has just had his eyesight restore is bewildered and shouldn’t think that what he sees is what he’s actually seeing. (As Chico Marx famously puts it in Duck Soup, “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”) May proceeds to upbraid January for his criticism after she has kindly restored his sight:

"You are dazed, dazed, good
sir," said she;               
"This thanks have I because I have made you see.                   
Alas," said she, "that ever I was so kind!"

When he insists that he has seen her with Damian, she replies,

“Yea, sir,” said she, “you may think as you please.                   
But, sir, a man that wakes out of his sleep,                   
He cannot suddenly well take heed                   
Of a thing, nor see it perfectly,                   
Until he be fully awakened.                   
Right so a man that long has blind been,                   
Cannot suddenly so well see,                   
First when his sight is newly come again,                   
As he that has a day or two been able to see.                   
Until your sight be settled a while                   
There may full many a sight deceive you.                   
Beware, I pray you, for by heaven’s king,                   
Full many a man supposes to see a thing,                   
And it is entirely different than it seems.                   
He that misunderstands, he misjudges.”

For those who saw an extortion attempt in Trump’s telephone call to Zelensky (“I’d like to ask for a favor, though”), well, “Full many a man supposes to see a thing, and it is entirely different than it seems.” What did we think we saw when Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney admited to a quid pro quo. And when Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani frankly admitted on television that he was searching for dirt on Biden (and still is, according to recent reports. Our own May would say that we are misunderstanding and therefore misjudging. Or as he puts it more succinctly, “Fake news.”

The Democrats certainly don’t like what they see, and we’ll see how many members of the American electorate do. The GOP, however, appears as pleased with the explanation they’re getting as January is:

This January, who is glad but he? 
He kisses her and embraces her full often,                   
And on her womb he strokes her full softly,                   
And to his palace he has her led home.

If you are anxious to be deceived, even smoking guns won’t change your mind.

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GOP’s Best Case: We’re All Mad

John Tenniel, Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland


I report today on two literary sightings in the testimony of law professor Jonathan Turley, the expert witness on Constitutional law chosen by the GOP for yesterday’s impeachment hearings. At one point Turley echoed Alice in Wonderland, at another he quoted Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons.

Although Turley was arguing against impeachment, his Bolt allusion had the effect of casting Donald Trump as “the Devil himself.” And while disputing the evidence assembled against the president, Turley conceded that, if Trump were in fact guilty of the what he is charged with, impeachment would be appropriate.

Turley echoed Carroll’s Cheshire cat in a riff about the heightened emotions surrounding the proceedings:

I get it: You are mad. The president is mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My Republican friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad — and Luna is a goldendoodle and they don’t get mad. So we’re all mad.

I think his point was that, if we’re all mad, then we’re incapable of behaving sensibly and should therefore drop this crazy impeachment business. It’s a self-serving argument but it does allude to the mayhem that Republicans want to create, not having the facts on their side. Here’s the passage:

 ‘In that direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.’

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reports on Turley’s Bolt allusion:

He testified that Trump’s call “was anything but perfect” and his targeting of the Bidens “highly inappropriate.” He acknowledged that the quid pro quo, “if proven, can be an impeachable offense.” Quoting from A Man for All Seasons, he spoke of the need to “give the devil the benefit of the law.”

The relevant passage involves a man who, while a spy in Sir Thomas More’s household, is not a proven spy:

ALICE MORE: Arrest him!
ALICE: He’s dangerous!
WILLIAM ROPER: For libel, he’s a spy!
MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad.
MORE: There is no law against that.
ROPER: There is! God’s law!
MORE: Then God can arrest him.
ALICE: While you talk, he’s gone!
MORE: And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the
ROPER: So! Now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER: Yes! I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Milbanks wryly asks,

Do Republicans realize who the devil is in Turley’s scenario?

Actually, More comes across as a bit naïve here, thinking that the law will save him. It doesn’t, as his beheading at play’s end indicates. And I think of Attorney General William Barr’s response to perceived spies in our midst. While it looks as though an Inspector General’s report is about to disprove Barr’s theory that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign, Barr appears ready to once again take the law into his own hands (as he did with the Mueller Report) and declare that his opinion should prevail.

But yes, More is right that, if we don’t have the law, we don’t have any checks on autocratic behavior. We have to believe that our institutions will work, that the Truth will out, and that the Devil will be revealed for who he really is. And that the madness will end.

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What Is This Thing Called Literature?

William Worchester Churchill, Woman Reading on a Settee


I’ve been reading This Thing We Call Literature, a collection of essays by Arthur Krystal, and his essay “What is Literature?” addresses an issue that some readers may have about this blog’s subtitle: “How Great Literature Can Change Your Life.” Given that the works I write about range from classic masterpieces to hard-boiled detective fiction and hero quest fantasy, so I really see these all as great literature?

If so, Krystal would not approve, disturbed as he is by what some now categorize as literature. In his essay he complains,

There’s a new definition of literature in town. It has been slouching toward us for some time now, but may have arrived officially in 2009 with the publication of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America. Alongside essays on Twain, Fitzgerald, Frost, and Henry James, there are pieces about Jackson Pollock, Chuck Berry, the telephone, the Winchester rifle, and Linda Lovelace. Apparently, “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed in whatever form”—in which case, maps, sermons, comic strips, cartoons, speeches, photographs, movies, war memorials, and music all huddle beneath the literary umbrella.

Although I too see this as a bit extreme, I suspect that Krystal would call me out for not distinguishing between the truly great and and what Slovenians call “trivialna literatura.” Because I move freely over a wide range, however, I have a special contribution to make to the discussion. I’ll let you know my conclusions in a moment, but first let’s look at what Krystal has to say.

He acknowledges that the very term “literature” has been contested for quite some time. “For the greater part of its history,” he points out, “lit(t)terature, from the Latin littera (letter), referred to any writing, formed with letters and pertained to all written materials.” It wasn’t until the 18th century that people began formulating hierarchical canons.

I believe some of this was due to the rapid expansion of a literate middle class. Wanting to know what they were supposed to read, people turned to professional critics like Samuel Johnson to guide them. The resulting canon, Krystal notes, went uncontested for almost 200 years, at which point it ran into

that mixed bag of politicized professors and theory-happy revisionists—feminists, ethnicists, Marxists, semioticians, deconstructionists, new historicists, and cultural materialists…Essentially, the postmodernists were against—well, essentialism.

The so-called canon wars had been joined. Traditionalists believed that “to mess with the canon was to mess with civilization itself.” Culture critics, on the other hand, thought that “literature with a capital L was nothing more than a bossy construct, and the canon, instead of being genuine and beneficial, was unreal and oppressive.”

Lost in the brawl, Krysal says, has been the distinction between “a list of Great Books and the idea that some books are far better than others.” Just because some of the traditional list makers have been narrow-minded and prejudiced “does not mean there are no great books.” As Krystal sees it, all serious writers aspire to literature with a capital L. If it’s not good or great, then it’s something other than literature:

Writers may be good or bad, but literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature, but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level,” as Wilson characterized the Sherlock Holmes stories, but one can’t have dumb or mediocre literature.

I like what Krysal says next:

We want important writing (bearing in mind that not every successful poem or story need be utterly serious) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.” Such exploration may be mediated by personal as well as historical forces, but the world will always reveal nature to be more obdurate than the institutions that seek to channel it. Indelible truths, as Auden might say, stare from every human face, and they are not at the whim of regime change. So while lesser writers may summon enthusiasm or indifference, great writers power their way into our consciousness almost against our will.

While I agree, I’m struck by the parenthetical qualifier he feels compelled to add. I think he worries about sounding like the utterly serious but humorless Matthew Arnold if he makes exploring the human condition the sine qua non of literature. After all, there are sublime works of nonsense, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Or what about Thomas Love Peacock’s mock-heroic gem “The War-Song Dinas Vawr”? But yes, the greatest works exhibit the power that he describes.

Now for what I’ve learned from my daily application of poetry, drama, and fiction to life. The greatest works have the most to say and I turn to them the most frequently. Sometimes works like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Maltese Falcon spring loose ideas that tickle the mind, but my best essays have been those that drew on Odyssey, Oedipus, Beowulf, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Beloved and poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson. When I’m in their grip, I see into the life of things more profoundly than I do with lesser literature.

That being said, one wants a bit of variety and there’s plenty to be learned from “literature on a humble but not ignoble level.” Krystal says one has to be a “real sourpuss” not to like Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and he’s a big fan of Leonard Elmore. But he says one must distinguish one kind of appreciation from another, and he picked up the distinction at an early age:

When I was growing up, no one told me that The Three Musketeers or the Sherlock Holmes stories were tales I should read; they were simply books that, once picked up, I had to finish. But when Stendhal and Dostoevsky and Gogol first fell into my hands, I became alerted to the fact that I was supposed to read, that reading was something I was good at. Although I didn’t know there was a canon, I knew that some authors were manifestly more intelligent, more thoughtful, more skilled than others. How could they not be?

I experienced something similar. Once I discovered real food, I was no longer willing to settle for junk food (although I will indulge myself with donut from time to time). Since this blog isn’t in the business of ranking works, I’ll keep my masthead since lesser works have their own role to play in illuminating the human condition. But I behave differently when putting together survey courses of must-read literature.

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Wycherley Describes Self-Deceiving GOP

Peter Jackson, Audience Watching The Country Wife 


I’ve been thinking a lot about the durability of Trump’s house of lies. Will anyone in the GOP stand up to him rather than dancing forever in his shadow? Will cracks appear in his wall of support? A Restoration comedy featuring many of the same behaviors argues against optimism.

In William Wycherley’s Country Wife, a society defined by self-deception almost collapses when one of the few innocent characters wants to tell the truth. All is “saved,” however, when she is stifled, allowing willful self-blindness to continue on. The play actually concludes with a “dance of the cuckolds”—which is to say, of men who refuse to confront what is happening to them.

Produced during the decadent reign of Charles II, Country Wife is one of the darkest comedies in an era that produced many. Horner is a notorious rake who exists to cuckold husbands (put cuckold horns on their heads). Needing a new strategy to get past their heightened defenses, he has Dr. Quack start a rumor that venereal disease has rendered him impotent. When Quack warns, “[B]y this means you may be the more acquainted with the husbands, but the less with the wives,” Horner replies, “[I]f I can but abuse the husbands, I’ll soon disabuse the wives.” Sure enough, before long Sir Jasper Fidgit asks him to chaperone Lady Fidgit, who becomes one of his many mistresses.

How does this apply to our political situation? Well, we have for president a conman who the GOP establishment thought it could manipulate to their own ends. To their amazement, like Horner he has been (excuse the verb) screwing everyone over to his heart’s content. His presidency has been one long self-indulgence with not a glance toward higher principle, and the foolish husbands and wives find themselves hopelessly entangled in his machinations. He’s not playing their game. They’re playing his.

Yet their sense of pride doesn’t allow themselves to admit this. Likewise, the play provides a master class in self-denial. Even when Wycherley’s husbands finds their wives in compromising positions, they find ways to rationalize what they are seeing rather than admit the truth. Take the following scene, for instance, where Sir Jasper enters to find his wife in Horner’s arms:

Sir Jasp. How now!

Lady Fid. [Aside.] O my husband!—prevented—and what’s almost as bad, found with my arms about another man—that will appear too much—what shall I say?—[Aloud.] Sir Jasper, come hither: I am trying if Mr. Horner were ticklish, and he’s as ticklish as can be. I love to torment the confounded toad; let you and I tickle him.

Sir Jasp. No, your ladyship will tickle him better without me, I suppose. But is this your buying china? I thought you had been at the china-house.

Horn. [Aside.] China-house! that’s my cue, I must take it.—[Aloud.] A pox! can’t you keep your impertinent wives at home? Some men are troubled with the husbands, but I with the wives; but I’d have you to know, since I cannot be your journeyman by night, I will not be your drudge by day, to squire your wife about, and be your man of straw, or scarecrow only to pies and jays, that would be nibbling at your forbidden fruit; I shall be shortly the hackney gentleman-usher of the town.

Sir Jasp. [Aside.] He! he! he! poor fellow, he’s in the right on’t, faith. To squire women about for other folks is as ungrateful an employment, as to tell money for other folks.

What follows is the famous china scene where “china” takes on so many sexual innuendoes that for years afterwards people familiar with the play tittered when they heard it used.

Horner also makes love to the country wife of the title, Margery Pinchwife, but she has none of Lady Fidgit’s cosmopolitan sophistication. In her innocent eyes, if you fall in love with someone, you should just leave your husband and go off with him. In the play’s brilliant finale, she is ready to testify, to her husband and to the world, that Horner has not in fact been incapacitated by venereal disease.

If she does so, every one of Horner’s mistresses faces dishonor and every one of their husbands risks being shamed as a cuckold. In the Ukraine bribery scandal, every Trump supporter who mouths his defense risks being seen as a Russian dupe.  So what happens in the play?

Forget about character witnesses. When Quack offers to bring in fellow doctors to testify to Horner’s STD, a skeptical Mr. Pinchwife says,

They!—they’ll swear a man that bled to death through his wounds, died of an apoplexy.

It’s like asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rudy Giuliani, and William Barr to testify to Trump’s honesty.

Instead, to save the situation Mrs. Pinchwife is persuaded to accede to a flimsy lie. She was just taking revenge on an overly jealous husband, the maid Lucy says, and then leans on Margery to agree:

Lucy (the maid) to Mr. Pinchwife: Indeed, she’s innocent, sir, I am her witness, and her end of coming out was but to see her sister’s wedding; and what she has said to your face of her love to Mr. Horner, was but the usual innocent revenge on a husband’s jealousy;—was it not, madam, speak?

Mrs. Pinch. [Aside to Lucy and Horner.] Since you’ll have me tell more lies—[Aloud.] Yes, indeed, bud.

Trump and the GOP have been doing all in their power to keep our own Margery Pinchwives from telling the truth. Sometimes they do so by lambasting the truthtellers, just as Lady Fidgit angrily calls Mrs. Pinchwife a fool. In any event, keeping faith with Trump requires a tremendous amount of self deception, which is what Mr. Pinchwife acknowledges in the end:

For my own sake fain I would all believe;
Cuckolds, like lovers, should themselves deceive.

His resigned speech is followed by the dance of the cuckolds. Unlike most social comedy, no new social order emerges. Life goes on as before.

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Doubling Down on Trump’s Lies

Astor and Lorre spin stories for the detective in Maltese Falcon


It’s never been easy for the GOP to defend Donald Trump. Every time they think of some way to rationalize his actions, he himself undercuts the defense with an interview or tweet. It’s been particularly difficult to justify Trump’s attempts to bribe/extort the Ukrainian president.

In their defense of Trump, Republicans have moved from “no quid pro quo” to “rogue actors, not the president, asking for favors” to “okay, quid pro quo but, while bad, it’s not impeachable” to “of course the president had to pressure Ukraine because it supported Hillary and funded Biden corruption.” This last charge is Vladimir Putin’s disinformation, but Trump has gotten senators like Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, and John Neely Kennedy to go along with it.

It all reminds me of a scene in the Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade gives the police a ridiculous explanation to get out of a jam, putting Joel Cairo in the unenviable position of having to vouch for it.

The police come to Spade’s door when he is dealing with two of the parties chasing after the falcon. Not having a warrant, the police are about to leave when they hear Bridgit O’Shaughnessy attacking Cairo. This gives them the excuse they need to enter, and they are prepared to arrest everyone when Spade comes up with his explanation:

“I dare you to take us in, Dundy,” he said. “We’ll laugh at you in every newspaper in San Francisco. You don’t think any of us is going to swear to any complaints against the others, do you? Wake up. You’ve been kidded. When the bell rang I said to Miss O’Shaughnessy and Cairo: ‘It’s those damned bulls again. They’re getting to be nuisances. Let’s play a joke on them. When you hear them going one of you scream, and then we’ll see how far we can string them along before they tumble.’ And–“

The ploy works except for everyone except Cairo, who is arrested for his handgun. He is then grilled on what really happened, just as Trump-supporting senators are being grilled by the media. Later he tells Spade how it went:

“What did you let the police shake out of you?”

There was prim satisfaction in Cairo’s smile. “Not a single thing. I adhered to the course you indicated earlier in your rooms.” His smile went away. “Though I certainly wished you had devised a more reasonable story. I felt decidedly ridiculous repeating it.”

Spade grinned mockingly. “Sure,” he said, “but its goofiness is what makes it good. You sure you didn’t give them anything?”

“You may rely upon it, Mr. Spade, I did not.”

Spade drummed with his fingers on the leather seat between them. “You’ll be hearing from Dundy again. Stay dummied-up on him and you’ll be all right. Don’t worry about the story’s goofiness. A sensible one would’ve had us all in the cooler.”

Trump’s Ukraine story is so goofy—especially the part about Ukraine having Hillary Clinton’s server–that it’s doubtful that any senator really believes it. Like Cairo, however, it’s the story they’re stuck with.

That’s because no sensible explanation short of the truth is possible. And the truth still has a chance of taking Trump down.

Further thought: Perhaps I need to amend that last statement since we are increasingly living in a world where Republicans are making up their own facts. I think of another change between the detective and Dundy:

Cairo had nothing to say for nearly a minute while he stared at the Lieutenant’s chest. When he lifted his eyes they were shy and wary. “I don’t know what I should say,” he murmured. His embarrassment seemed genuine.

“Try telling the facts,” Dundy suggested.

“The facts?” Cairo’s eyes fidgeted, though their gaze did not actually leave the Lieutenant’s. “What assurance have I that the facts will be believed?”

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A Pueblo Novel with an Advent Message

Navajo Sand Painting Celebrating Corn

Spiritual Sunday

I recently taught Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and, as always happens with that remarkable novel, discovered new things. Since we are entering the Advent season and I’ve just written a post about the dangers of a soulless materialism, I focus today on that issue from a Laguna Pueblo perspective. In Silko’s novel, a drama involving a villainous Ck’o’yo’ magician serves to capture how white technology is destroying sacred Indian ceremonies and, with them, the world.

Some explanation is needed. On one level, Silko’s novel is about an Indian war veteran who must go on a quest to find healing, not only for himself but also for his people and for people everywhere. Interspersed through the novel, however, is a narrative poem about undoing the damage inflicted by an evil medicine man.

The story may well go back centuries, perhaps even predating the whites. By using it, Silko shows how the old stories, even while they may seem dated, nevertheless have a wisdom that applies to the changing times, including the incursion of white culture.

The medicine man who shows up promises marvelous things:

He asked the people
“You people want to learn some magic?”
and the people said
“Yes, we can always use some.”

Ma’see’wi and Ou’yu’ye’wi
the twin brothers
were caring for the
mother corn altar,
but they got interested
in this magic too.

The medicine man lives up to their expectations. At one point he causes water to pour out of a wall (it sounds like indoor plumbing), at another for a bear to appear. The people are impressed:

From that time on
they were
so busy
playing around with that Ck’o’yo' magic
they neglected the mother corn altar.

They thought they didn’t have to worry
about anything
They thought this magic
could give life to plants
and animals.
They didn’t know it was all just a trick

The mother goddess become so disgusted with how her people have abandoned her that she deprives them of what is really important:

“I’ve had enough of that,”
she said,
If they like that magic so much
let them live off it.”

So she took
the plants and grass from them.
No baby animals were born.
She took the rainclouds with her

As the novel opens, the area is undergoing a severe six-year drought, leading the Laguna to recall the old stories. But the story also works as a powerful parable for the numerous ways that modern technology is depleting the earth. In another story, we see such depredations tied more explicitly to the whites:

They will carry objects
which can shoot death
faster than the eye can see.

They will kill the things they fear
all the animals
the people will starve.

They will poison the water
they will spin the water away
and there will be drought
the people will starve

In the story about the Ck’o’yo’ magician, the people need animal intermediaries to make things right with Mother Earth. After performing a complicated set of tasks that culminate in a purification ritual (you can read about it here), the mother goddess agrees to return:

Everything was set straight again
after all that ck’o’yo’ magic.

The storm clouds returned
the grass and plants started growing again.
There was food
and the people were happy again.

So she told them
“Stay out of trouble
from now on.

It isn’t very easy
to fix up things again.
Remember that
next time
some ck’o’yo' magician
comes to town.”

There are a number of passages where we see the protagonist reconnecting with the earth. One of my favorites occurs after Tayo has been captured by whites guarding the cattle that have been stolen from his family. Although all hope seems lost, Tayo’s communion with nature appears to lead to a miraculous release. In the scene he is lying on the ground with his hands tied behind him:

He was aware of the center beneath him; it soaked into his body from the ground through the torn skin on his hands, covered with powdery black dirt. The magnetism of the center spread over him smoothly like rainwater down his neck and shoulders; the vacant cool sensation glided over the pain like feather-down wings. It was pulling him back, close to the earth, where the core was cool and silent as mountain stone, and even with the noise and pain in his head he knew how it would be: a returning rather than a separation. He was relieved because he feared leaving people he loved. But lying above the center that pulled him down closer felt more familiar to him than any embrace he could remember; and he was sinking into the elemental arms of mountain silence.

 If the earth provides one spiritual connection, the heavens provide another. Following the successful completion of his final trial, Tayo looks up at the stars and is reassured:

He had arrived at a convergence of patterns; he could see them clearly now. The stars had always been with them, existing beyond memory, and they were all held together there. Under these same stars the people had come down from White House in the north. They had seen mountains shift and rivers change course and even disappear back into the earth; but always there were these stars. Accordingly, the story goes on with these stars of the old war shield; they go on, lasting until the fifth world ends, then maybe beyond. The only thing is: it has never been easy.

Advent is a time when we are confronted by darkness, which tests our faith. Christians have their own version of a fertility story, a momentous birth under trying circumstances, and many turn to evergreens and mistletoe as a reminder than new life will return. In Silko’s healing story, we learn how both Indian and white culture have lost their spiritual center and what we must do to reconnect.

Posted in Silko (Leslie Marmon) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Temptation of the Attorney General

Hieronymous Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1500-10)


Reader Brendan Murry has alerted me to a Garrett Epps Atlantic article that uses C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters to critique Attorney General William Barr’s advocacy for an all-powerful presidency. As indicated by both his words and his actions, Barr believes that the executive branch should take precedence over the legislative and judicial branches. Epps sees him in league with Lewis’s Devil.

The University of Baltimore law professor says that Barr wants Trump to have dictatorial powers with no accountability:

At [the government’s] center is one individual, the president. Congress cannot call a president to account by effective oversight, nor can it require a president’s subordinates to explain their decisions…The courts cannot step in when the president uses his authority to circumvent or negate the constitutional authority of Congress. And the courts cannot examine whether his actions comport with statutes—statutes he is bound by oath to “faithfully execute.”

What this means, in practical terms, is that the president is not accountable to anyone at all. There are not three co-equal branches; there is a president who is the source of authority and two subsidiary agencies, called “Congress” and “the courts,” which exist to facilitate presidential decisions. The president is not above the law; the president is the law.

For those of us who grew up believing in constitutional checks and balances—well, Barr thinks we’re wrong. Applying a Lewis dichotomy, Epps says the attorney general chooses force over principle. America’s principles include a vision of men and women as equal before the law and having an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Barr, on the other hand, believes that people like him should be able to impose their vision on others. Forget about celebrating America in all its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.

In Screwtape, the Devil teaches a lesser demon how to corrupt humankind. The key, he says in Letter VII, is getting people to abandon God and worship materialist “Forces”:

If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’—then the end of the war [against God] will be in sight.

Epps writes,

That image—of those who worship force while denying spirit—has haunted me ever since; it epitomizes the dilemma of a human society in moral free fall because it has, without knowing it, abandoned belief in its own pretended first principles.

In the age of Donald Trump, we are seeing a legal incarnation of Screwtape—the lawless legalist who worships the law as force but denies the existence of its spirit.

Epps ends his article with a dire warning:

Like Screwtape’s materialist magician, Barr, the lawless legalist, embodies force without spirit; constitutionalism without liberty; democratic form without self-government. For two generations, he and people like him have been working to bring this vision to reality. They are on the verge of victory.  

That Barr sees himself as religious, caricaturing progressives as godless secularists wreaking moral havoc, doesn’t negate Epps’s point. In fact, later in Letter VII Lewis anticipates how some will misuse God to achieve material ends. His observation applies to those rightwing faith leaders, along with former Texas governor Rick Perry, who regard Trump as God’s anointed:

Let [man] begin by treating [his political agenda] as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of [his agenda]…Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours — and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours.

Then, in a dig that shows where such evangelical Trump fanatics as Jerry Falwell, Jr., Patty White, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham may be headed, the devil tells his interlocutor,

I could show you a pretty cageful down here.

The Rev. William Barber refers to such Christians as heretics because of how they ignore Christ’s admonition to support the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Religion aside, however, it’s enough that they are perverting the Constitution to impose their will upon the rest of us.

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This World Is Not Altogether Bad

Thanksgiving at a homeless shelter


Mike Hazard, a Carleton hall mate my freshman year, is allowing me to share this year’s Thanksgiving poem. It appears in his collection The World Is Not Altogether Bad, a series of portraits of people on society’s margins. We meet Vietnam vets, alcoholics, dementia patients, cancer patients, and homeless people, as well as friends and family. Given the subject matter, one might expect the book to be depressing, but in fact each life blossoms under Mike’s treatment.

In “Blessed for Life,” the speaker picks up a random hitchhiker, not unlike how he picks up subjects for his collection. He never knows what lies in store when he makes a new acquaintance. In this case, he receives a Thanksgiving gift that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

The man, who needs a ride for a Dorothy Day center for the homeless, looks and sounds like an Old Testament prophet. He is “jazzed, jazzed” about a Thanksgiving feast at the Dorothy Day Center for the homeless, which leads to a heartfelt declaration: “This world is not altogether bad.”

Grim though life may appear at times, his understated words hit with the force of divine revelation. The poet sees heartfelt gratitude in its purest form. He feels “blessed for life.”

Blessed for Life

A wild-looking man I don’t know
from Adam begged a ride from the PO
to the Dorothy Day Center. He’s jazzed,
jazzed about a Thanksgiving feast
With a shock of hair like a thundercloud,
he looks like an old Testament prophet.
He got out and paused next to the window.
Standing so I can’t see his face, I was
blessed for life when a rich voice said,
“This world is not altogether bad.”

Previous Thanksgiving Posts
2018 Joy Harjo: At This Table We Give Thanks
2017 Kahlil Gibran: A Time for Laughter: Sharing of Pleasures
2016 James Joyce: Thanksgiving in the Age of Trump
2015 Paul Laurence Dunbar: We Come to Pay Our Thanks to Thee
2014 Hilaire Belloc: America’s Obsession with Pie
2013 E. V. Wright: When Father Carves the Turkey
2012 William Wordsworth: All Which We Behold Is Full of Blessings
2011 John Milton: The Most Delicious Feast Ever Served
2010 The Pearl Poet: Double Sized Servings and Sundry Fish
2009 John Milton: Praise God for the American Dream

Posted in Hazard (Mike) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Is Old Age Becoming Overrated?

Eduard von Gebhardt, Portrait of an Old Man (1913)


I once had an exuberant friend, stage actress Maurine Holbert Hogaboom, who declared that each decade of her life was better than the one before. Her sixties were better than her fifties, she said, and her seventies better than her sixties. To be sure, she stopped saying this once she reached her nineties—she lived to be 98—which would mean that, in her eyes, she reached her peak in her eighties. Still, she made a compelling case for the joys of aging.

I thought about Maurine while reading a recent New Yorker article by Arthur Krystal, who is skeptical of such claims. Krystal takes aim at the spate of books claiming that our senior years are a time “to celebrate ourselves and the wonderful things to come: traveling, volunteering, canoodling, acquiring new skills, and so on.” He pays special attention to “five chatty accounts meant to reassure us that getting old just means that we have to work harder at staying young.” In Krystal’s contrarian view, it’s still better to be young.

Literature for Krystal has more authority than the various sociologists, psychologists, and self-help gurus he mentions. I use today’s post to dig into the literary works he mentions.

Looking at recent fiction, Krystal notes the sheer number of novels that are being produced:

Now that we’re living longer, we have the time to write books about living longer—so many, in fact, that the Canadian critic Constance Rooke, in 1992, coined the term “Vollendungsroman,” a somewhat awkward complement to “Bildungsroman,” to describe novels about the end of life, such as Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, and Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird.” Since then, plenty of elderly protagonists have shown up in novels by Louis Begley (About Schmidt), Sue Miller (The Distinguished Guest), Saul Bellow (Ravelstein), Philip Roth (Everyman), and Margaret Drabble (The Dark Flood Rises). 

“The library on old age,” Krystal observes wryly, “has grown so voluminous that the fifty million Americans over the age of sixty-five could spend the rest of their lives reading such books, even as lusty retirees and power-lifting septuagenarians turn out new ones.”

Krystal doesn’t attempt to synthesize the vision of aging that arises from these novels other than to say that “there are as many ways to grow old as there are people going about it.” If one is to go by the classic authors that he cites, however, aging is a grimmer process than the recent flood of self-help books indicates.

To be sure, there are exceptions, one of which is Walt Whitman:

YOUTH, large, lusty, loving—youth full of grace, force, fascination,
Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace,
force, fascination?

And of course, there’s Tennyson’s well-known “Ulysses,” although Krystal points out that it was written when the author was “a mere twenty-four”:

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

Krystal finds many more grim versions of aging, including Gulliver’s Travels’ Struldbrugs, some of whom are born immortal. Sounding like one of those old age enthusiasts that Krystal targets, Gulliver initially sees this as a blessing:

I cried out, as in a rapture, “Happy nation, where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal!  Happy people, who enjoy so many living examples of ancient virtue, and have masters ready to instruct them in the wisdom of all former ages! but happiest, beyond all comparison, are those excellent struldbrugs, who, being born exempt from that universal calamity of human nature, have their minds free and disengaged, without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehensions of death!”  

Gulliver figures that the Struldbrugs will have the wisdom to provide the best counsel. This perspective, incidentally, is shared by Plato, who according to Krystal “thought philosophy best suited to men of more mature years.”

Gulliver, however, in then informed that immortality is a nightmare:

When they came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in this country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.  They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren.  Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions.

This sounds more like Aristotle’s vision of the elderly. Krystal notes that Ars Rhetorica “contains long passages denouncing old men as miserly, cowardly, cynical, loquacious, and temperamentally chilly.”

Other literary characters that offer up unflattering images of old age include:

–January from Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, who marries May and, for such a violation of the natural order, is predictably cuckolded. (The same occurs to the old carpenter in The Miller’s Tale.)

–Tennyson’s Tithonous, once beautiful but, like the Struldbrugs, now aging without any hope of death. Tennyson writes:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground…
…I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream…

–old people as described by the misanthropic Jaques in As You Like It:

                             The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

–Yeats’s old man in “Sailing to Byzantium,” who sadly acknowledges that “this is no country for old men” as he watches the young in one another’s arms. In the course of the poem he describes himself as

a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, 

and containing  a heart that is

sick with desire 
And fastened to a dying animal...

Krystal quotes poet Louise Bogan’s observation that “[a]t first we want life to be romantic; later, to be bearable; finally, to be understandable,” but only to challenge that final goal. “I have my doubts about whether the piling on of years really does add to our understanding of life,” he says, and then quotes King Lear’s second daughter:

Doesn’t Regan say of her raging royal father, “Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself”? The years may broaden experience and tint perspective, but is wisdom or contentment certain to follow?

To accentuate the point, he quotes the poet author of Ecclesiastes:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. . . . The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? This too is meaningless.

To all these overvaluations of old age, Krystal answers with depressing biological facts and the following dash of cold water:

Sure, there’s life in the old boy yet, but certain restrictions apply. The body—tired, aching, shrinking—now quite often embarrasses us. Many older men have to pee right after they pee, and many older women pee whenever they sneeze. [Clinical psychologist Mary] Pipher [author of Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age] and company might simply say “Gesundheit” and urge us on. Life, they insist, doesn’t necessarily get worse after seventy or eighty. But it does, you know. 

Given how well-read Krystal is, I’m amazed that he doesn’t mention Samuel Johnson, either Rasselas or The Vanity of Human Wishes. Both systematically deconstruct the prospect of elderly happiness. In Rasselas the youthful protagonists seek out an old man and are disabused of the notion that they have anything positive to look forward to:

As they walked along the banks of the Nile, delighted with the beams of the moon quivering on the water, they saw at a small distance an old man whom the Prince had often heard in the assembly of the sages.  “Yonder,” said he, “is one whose years have calmed his passions, but not clouded his reason.  Let us close the disquisitions of the night by inquiring what are his sentiments of his own state, that we may know whether youth alone is to struggle with vexation, and whether any better hope remains for the latter part of life.”

“Sir,” said the Princess, “an evening walk must give to a man of learning like you pleasures which ignorance and youth can hardly conceive.  You know the qualities and the causes of all that you behold—the laws by which the river flows, the periods in which the planets perform their revolutions.  Everything must supply you with contemplation, and renew the consciousness of your own dignity.”

“Lady,” answered he, “let the gay and the vigorous expect pleasure in their excursions: it is enough that age can attain ease.  To me the world has lost its novelty.  I look round, and see what I remember to have seen in happier days.  I rest against a tree, and consider that in the same shade I once disputed upon the annual overflow of the Nile with a friend who is now silent in the grave.  I cast my eyes upwards, fix them on the changing moon, and think with pain on the vicissitudes of life.  I have ceased to take much delight in physical truth; for what have I to do with those things which I am soon to leave?”

“You may at least recreate yourself,” said Imlac, “with the recollection of an honorable and useful life, and enjoy the praise which all agree to give you.”

“Praise,” said the sage with a sigh, “is to an old man an empty sound.  I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake the honors of her husband.  I have outlived my friends and my rivals.  Nothing is now of much importance; for I cannot extend my interest beyond myself.  Youth is delighted with applause, because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and because the prospect of life is far extended; but to me, who am now declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection or esteem. Something they may yet take away, but they can give me nothing.  Riches would now be useless, and high employment would be pain.  My retrospect of life recalls to my view many opportunities of good neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness and vacancy.  I leave many great designs unattempted, and many great attempts unfinished.  My mind is burdened with no heavy crime, and therefore I compose myself to tranquillity; endeavour to abstract my thoughts from hopes and cares which, though reason knows them to be vain, still try to keep their old possession of the heart; expect, with serene humility, that hour which nature cannot long delay, and hope to possess in a better state that happiness which here I could not find, and that virtue which here I have not attained.”

He arose and went away, leaving his audience not much elated with the hope of long life.

Vanity of Human Wishes offers more of the same. If you wish to grow old, you will either get (1) days filled with pain or, (2) days filled with the death of friends and loved ones, not to mention a fading of life’s joys. On the one hand, “Unnumber’d maladies his joints invade, /Lay siege to life and press the dire blockade.” On the other,

New sorrow rises as the day returns,
A sister sickens, or a daughter mourns.
Now kindred Merit fills the sable bier,
Now lacerated Friendship claims a tear.
Year chases year, decay pursues decay,
Still drops some joy from with’ring life away...

Take your choice.

Krystal’s article is very Johnsonian only Johnson takes an axe to youth as well to aging. In fact, give up on ever achieving happiness in the material world, the great cham informs us. The final chapter of Rasselas is entitled, “Conclusion, in which nothing is concluded.”

Given that Krystal wants to rip off our rose-colored glasses and show aging for what it really is, he would stand to benefit from the concluding advice of Johnson’s Vanity. Look to heaven, Johnson tells us, because only there will you find “the celestial wisdom that calms the mind, /And makes the happiness she does not find.”

So happiness in old age? Forget it.

Posted in Aristotle, Bogan (Louise), Chaucer (Geoffrey), Johnson (Samuel), Plato, Shakespeare (William), Swift (Jonathan), Tennyson (Alfred Lord), Whitman (Walt), Yeats (William Butler) | 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.

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