Kafkaesque & Other Common Lit Allusions


In a recent Literary Hub article, Emily Temple honors the 95th anniversary of Franz Kafka’s death (June 3, 1924) with a list of times she has encountered the media calling something Kafkaesque. As is often the case in such matters, the term has been much abused, but that shouldn’t make us any the less grateful to the author for setting up a framework that allows us to describe aspects of our lives.

Temple’s piece gave me the idea of starting a list of other literary allusions that have become so common as to be used routinely, often by people who haven’t read the works. But let’s start with “Kafkaesque,” for which Temple shares the definition of Kafka biographer Frederick Karl:

What’s Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance. That’s Kafkaesque.

Among the items on Temple’s list (for which she provides links) are:

Sex with Alvy Singer (the character played by Woody Allen in Annie Hall)
Getting banned for life from Airbnb
The NYC subway system
The commute from Princeton to Manhattan at rush hour
The no-fly list
The death penalty
Bond court
The California housing crisis
Trump’s bromance with Putin
The Amazon marketplace
Penn Station
Prison grievance systems
The American healthcare system
Fixing your credit report
The legal battle over Kafka’s papers

Here’s are some others. Think of how impoverished our thinking and speaking would be without them:

Big Brother
Scarlet letter
Sophie’s choice
Down a rabbit hole
Creating a Frankenstein
Selling your soul
Achilles heel
Trojan horse
Siren Song
Jekyll and Hyde
Don Juan
Uncle Tom
Chasing a white whale
Pound of flesh
Road less traveled

Consider this a starter list. Send in your own favorites.

Posted in Kafka (Franz), Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sherlock: Hard-Boiled or Soft-Boiled?


I share today an Alexis Hall essay I encountered in CrimeReads arguing that Sherlock Holmes is a hard-boiled detective. (Thanks to Literary Hub for the alert.) For those who study detective fiction, the thesis is startling because Holmes is generally grouped with the soft-boiled or puzzle-solving detectives, more like Dupin, Poirot, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe or Peter Wimsey than Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or Nick Hammer.

It has been said, in Agatha Christie novels, that murder is little more than a social faux pas, disrupting the elegant balance of country life until the detective arrives to restore the status quo. Raymond Chandler summed up the genre as

how somebody stabbed Mrs Pottington Postlethwaite with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lame in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.

Hall, however, makes the case that Holmes is grappling with the mean streets of London no less than Spade and Marlowe are grappling with California’s. As he puts it,

one can make a strong case that the Sherlock Holmes stories represent, in their Victorian way, a sincere effort to portray the reality of crime in all of its cruelty, caprice and banality.

Indeed, one doesn’t see Holmes sensitively engaging with upper-class protocol, as occurs with Christie’s and Sayers’s detectives. Rather, he’s pioneering what we now regard as standard crime-solving practice:

Holmes’s “methods” might superficially resemble the erratic genius of Poirot’s “little grey cells” but in many ways they’re better understood as the forebears of the techniques used in modern police procedurals. In A Study in Scarlet Holmes astounds Lestrade and Watson alike by providing a detailed description of the murderer of Enoch Drebber, but the methods he uses bear far more resemblance to modern forensic techniques than to the intricate puzzles of the country-house mystery. He estimates the man’s height from the length of his stride, identifies a hansom cab by its tracks and determines the make of the suspect’s cigar by closely examining the ash (the magnifying glass is such an iconic part of Holmes’s image that it’s easy to forget that he uses it much the same way a modern forensic scientist would use a microscope). When we first meet him he is even making a methodical study of post-mortem bruising. Holmes himself constantly denies that his methods are remarkable, and in a sense he’s telling the truth. He isn’t supposed to be a genius, he’s supposed to be a skilled and methodical detective who uses techniques that can be learned. And when you think about it, a century or so later, people really do learn those techniques. It’s just that these days we call it police work.

To reenforce his point, Hall quotes a Holmes observation in “Adventure of the Copper Beeches” that could appear in a Hammett or Chandler novel:

“But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

We shouldn’t throw Holmes out of the soft-boiled club too quickly, however. His famous dictum that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” is akin to what Dupin calls ratiocination and Poirot “little gray cells.” Contrast his approach to crime with Spade’s, which one critic has said involves throwing a spanner into the works and reacting to whatever kicks out. Holmes never gets beaten up by bad guys whereas hardboiled detectives are worked over regularly.

I agree with Hall that Holmes’s milieu is not the elegant country house. Christie and Sayers longed for the Downton Abbey England that was destroyed by World War I while Doyle, an urban writer, was grappling with how to makes sense of London’s criminality, its explosive growth, and its anonymity.

Doyle, however, provides us with a reassurance that is not found in Hammett and Chandler. While the clues he examines at first appear unrelated—think of this as a stand-in for urban confusion—in the end he finds a satisfying pattern connecting them all. In other words, the world isn’t as alien and random as it seems.

This pattern-finding is most dramatic when it comes to Moritarty. Anarchy may appear to reign on London streets, but Holmes shows that there is actually a pattern behind them all if we only look closely enough. Every crime traces back to “the Napoleon of crime,” and if there’s a pattern, then the forces of the law can intervene effectively and restore order.

The way that Doyle frames his stories is also reassuringly British. Each story begins in the cozy confines of 221B Baker Street where the crime is presented, often in conjunction with the morning paper. Holmes descends into the crime-ridden depths, but by the end of the mystery, the hearth fires are once again burning as Holmes explains the mystery to Watson. Justice prevails and all is right with the world. While a few stories are darker, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

America’s hardboiled detective stories, by contrast, lend themselves to existential readings. The world has no higher meaning, and we all fit the description that villain Jules Amthor applies to Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely: “a dirty little man in a dirty little world.” If the universe is absurd, then the only meaning we can find is the meaning we assert ourselves. For Hammett, his ultimate code involves his work:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. 

Love, in this world, isn’t a higher principle but just something that turns you into a sap.

Holmes is a soft-boiled detective because he appears to rise above the world and find order underlying the chaos. We turn to the hardboiled classics when we want to experience 20th century angst.

Posted in Chandler (Raymond), Doyle (Arthur Conan), Hammett (Dashiell) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Seductive Lure of Power

Rigaud, Louis XIV, the Sun King


Pundits are puzzled why respectable people yield to the lure of Donald Trump and join his administration, even though they invariably emerge tainted. I don’t have in mind those grifters like campaign chair Paul Manafort, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, or EPA’s Scott Pruitt, who were corrupt from the start, but figures like Chief of Staff John Kelly and Attorney General William Barr. To these I can add those formerly respected Republican legislators (Lindsey Graham especially) that have become Trump toadies. In the case of Barr, many considered him an institutionalist and have been horrified by his transformation into Trump’s Roy Cohn. Why is he doing it?

The pundits may be overlooking the seductive lure of Trumpian power. Yesterday a Washington Post headline read, “Trump, White House aides signal a willingness to act with impunity in drive for reelection” and described how the president has convinced those around him that one can do and say anything without accountability.

Why concern yourself with a Homeric-style legacy, which Barr has explicitly rejected, when you can experience the thrill of unbridled power? Think how much fun it is for Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to sneer at the press, for Kellyanne Conway to tell ethics officials to get lost, for Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross to shrug off congressional subpoenas. Only impotent wimps observe proper procedure.

Bill Clinton has provided personal insight into the mindset. When Dan Rather asked him why he had an affair with a White House intern, he replied, “Because I could.” There’s an aphrodisiac high to breaking the rules.

I thought of those Trump’s officials the other day when reading Abraham Verghese’s powerful novel Cutting for Stone. A coup against Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie has been thwarted, and because the narrator’s parents are friends with some of the coup leaders, they come under suspicion. A soldier who has long coveted a motorcycle in their possession takes advantage of their vulnerable position. The following scene involves three children and their caretaker:

The intruder’s eyes were bloodshot, and he looked as if he’d slept in his clothes, but his manner was jocular….

“This,” he said, almost purring as he stroked the motorcycle tank, “belongs to…to the army now.”

Rosina pulled her black shama over her hair, the gesture of a woman entering a church. She stood silent and obedient before him.

“Did you hear me, woman? This belongs to the army.”

“I suppose it is true,” she said, eyes downcast. “Perhaps the army will come and get it.” Her tone was deferential, which was why her words took a few seconds to sink in. I wondered later why she chose to provoke him and put us at risk.

The soldier blinked. Then he exclaimed in a high-pitched voice, “I am the army!”

He grabbed her hand and yanked her to him.

I am the army!”

In the Trump administration right now, everyone strokes their special privileges and thinks, “I am the power.” Why worry about tomorrow when today feels really, really good?

Posted in Verghese (Abraham) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Gnosticism’s Flight from Earth

Charles A. A. Delschau

Spiritual Sunday

I have found myself exploring Gnosticism thanks to a marvelous poetry collection by my best friend from graduate school, Norman Finkelstein (the poet, not the political scientist). Norman has been included in a group of poets labeled “the New Gnostics,” which helps me make sense of From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. I’ll review the collection in a future post, but today I reflect upon Gnosticism’s influence on poetry generally.

Gnosticism believes that the material world has been created by a lesser god (the demiurge), who has trapped the divine spark within the human body. This spark can be released through gnosis or spiritual knowledge.

Gnosticism arose out of 2nd century Judaism and Christianity. Jewish Kabbalists scrutinized the Torah for secret knowledge while Christian Gnostics saw Jesus as an angel sent to teach humans how to release the spark. Although the Christian church would eventually declare Gnosticism a heresy, it has never entirely disappeared, and poets in particular have been drawn to it.

Poet Patrick Pritchett, in a delightful list, draws up a long list of authors he considers to be gnostic. I’ve picked out those poets best known to English-speaking audiences and included in brackets some of the works Pritchett may have in mind:

–I don’t care what Ted Hughes says. Shakespeare was not a gnostic. Except in Lear and The Tempest.
–Henry Vaughan is a gnostic of eternity’s endless ring of light. [“The World”]
–Kit Smart is a gnostic of cats, for they roll in their prank. [Jubilate Agno]
–Blake is a gnostic of Blake and all his angels.
–Shelley was a gnostic who sailed to the moons of Italy. [“The Cloud”]
–Keats got drunk on a ripe gnostic vintage before he was engulfed in a cloud of blood. [“Ode to a Nightingale”]
–Could Hopkins be a gnostic? Like a kingfisher catching fire? [“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”]
–Herman Melville is a gnostic. He was burned in the darkness of the sea and the blind hills of Pittsfield and the whiteness of the unknowable. [Moby Dick]
–Emerson is a gnostic when he says that the way of life is abandonment. [“Circles”]
–Poe is the gnostic who saw nature for what it is: a gaping hole ready to devour us. [“Descent in the Maelstrom”]
–Whitman is a gnostic of the open road and the electric body and the emancipation of song. [Song of the Open Road, I Sing the Body Electric, Song of Myself]
–Dickinson is a gnostic of the white bone of the word. [“There is a poem—so utter—”]
–Kafka is a gnostic of infinite delay, otherwise known as grace. [The Castle]
–Lovecraft is the true gnostic of the deep weirdness of alien gods and the bottomless abyss of time. [“The Dunwich Horror”]
–Pound began as a gnostic, moving the souls of the dead through the facets of the phantastikon. But he burned his days to the ground. Still, “All things that are, are light.” [Pisan Cantos]
–HD stayed gnostic to the end, singing of a light inside the seashell that was Helen’s ear. [“The Walls Do Not Fall”]
–Hart Crane, tormented by gnosis he sang Atlantis from ruin to America, then he laid him down in his watery grave. [“Atlantis”]
–Lorca is a gnostic of duende, where the silver coins sob under moonlight on the road to Cordoba. [“The Moon Wakes”]
–Yeats, a Celtic gnostic. Chanting of Fergus and Byzantium and translunar paradise. [“Who Goes with Fergus,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” A Vision]
–Jung is a gnostic of the alchemical rose and the dead speaking from the drowned book of dreams. [The Practice of Psychotherapy]
–Simone Weil was a gnostic of affliction. [The Love of God and Affliction]
–James Agee was a gnostic of the poor and the soft summer nights of Alabama and his own deluded alcoholic beatitude. [Now Let Us Praise Famous Men]
–Camus? Possibly an existentialist gnostic of Algerian sunlight and shadow and the hunger for justice and of a cigarette dangling from his lips. [The Stranger].
–Stevens is a gnostic of the dandelion and the summer lawn and the ghosts of angels thronging drunk in the late light of New Haven. [“A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts”]
–Kerouac is a gnostic of the dark car crossing America all night long for brotherly love. [On the Road]
–Ginsberg is a gnostic of wanting to be fully alive amid Blakean visions and whirling sutras and the simple compassion of one person for another.
–Tolkien is a gnostic of Sauron. Think about it. [Lord of the Rings]
–Pynchon and DeLillo are gnostics of the radioactive sublime. [Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld]
–Beckett wrote the book of the ruins of gnosis. To fail at failure is all we can do now. Spirit’s nothing. Nothing’s spirit. A voice that comes to one in the dark. Go figure [Worstword Ho!].

To be sure, as Pritchett admits elsewhere, “because Gnosticism has become such an elastic term, used to describe such a wide swath of writers, often as different from one another as, say, Poe and Emerson, that it threatens to lose is usefulness as meaningful category.” Indeed, Pritchett’s list suggests that practically any author who uses poetic language to capture the spiritual dimensions of life outside traditional religion (and even within traditional religion, e.g. the Anglican Vaughan and the Catholic Hopkins) could be labeled a gnostic.

That being said, “gnostic” describes fairly well what, say, Shelley is up to in his poem mourning Keats (Adonais). The “one Spirit” is a creative force that blows through the universe, interacting with and seeking to infuse “th’unwilling dross” of “the dull dense world.” The dross reflects the Spirit to the extent that its material existence allows it to (“as each mass may bear”):

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there,
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’unwlling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts nd men into the Heaven’s light.

According to Shelley, Keats’s lovely poetry captured this Spirit as it blew through the world. For gnostic poets, poetry functions as a kind of prayer that seeks to (in Pritchett’s words) “redeem[ ] the ruins of history and the disjointedness of everyday life.” For the New Gnostics, poet Henry Gould says, poetry is “a spiritual discipline, dedicated to a sacred mystery.”

Poet Peter O’Leary, setting forth “the Seven Tenets of the New Gnosticism,” says “you are initiated into the New Gnosticism whenever you contribute to its incantations.” I take this to include reading as well as writing gnostic poetry.

One problem with traditional Gnosticism is how it rejected the world and the body altogether because, as matter, they trap the spirit. This is one reason why Christianity, once it became Rome’s official religion, condemned Gnosticism as a heresy. The Church wanted people engaging with the fallen world, not turning from it in revulsion. Institutionalists were understandably adverse to mystics running the show

In a frank assessment of the New Gnostics, poet Henry Gould says that they are illogical and “somewhat incoherent” on the question of matter and want to have it both ways, believing that “bodily existence is a matter both of shared suffering and of shared enlightenment/joy.” If matter imprisons spirit, then how can you celebrate the prison guard?  

Another problem, Hughes points out, is that Gnosticism believed in “a secret knowledge to which only bands of the elect, of inspired and persecuted geniuses, have access.” Hughes notes that this belief continued into Yeats, Pound, and modernism in general, and the New Gnostics ascribe to it. When poetry requires esoteric knowledge of its audience, many casual readers stop reading poetry altogether.

In the New Gnostics’ defense, Gould says they are “not afraid to speak of and express love,” unlike the intensely ironic Language Poets who preceded them. To demonstrate his point while showing a New Gnostic sensibility at work, I share a tender love poem from Immanent Foundation. Norman addresses it to his wife Alice.

Like a gnostic seeking divinity, Norman finds Alice in the “broken heart of the world” and believes that “in you mysteries are solved, hidden arguments resolved.” “No passions cool in her presence,” he adds.

She, on the other hand, realizes that, for him, “I was always and only the beloved.” Their subsequent joint observation that they were “always and already absent” may refer to a mysterious space in the relationship that puts it outside of time and language and that is to be filled by heavenly agents.

The phrase “On Wather on Land and Up to the Clouds” refers to an inscription on one of Charles A. A. Dellshau’s myserious drawings (see the above illustration). A 19th century outsider artist who figures heavily in Norman’s book, Dellshau suffered unimaginable personal losses but, late in life, poured his losses into his art, drawing thousands of possible airships. The dream of flight is a dream of transcendence.

“Fly into the world as you fly from it,” Norman instructs us. Flight, like love, takes us up to the clouds, and when we leave the earth, “love will fly to you.”


for Alice

Heart of the world, secret, broken
heart of the world; you are everywhere

and nowhere; you are what remains
and what is to be found. In you

mysteries are solved, hidden arguments
resolved. In this account (he wrote),

no passions cool in her presence;
in his account (she observed),

I was always and only the beloved.
And yet we (they) were always

and already absent, and as an absence,
agents sought us (them), On Wather

On Land and Up to the Clouds.
your losses into your art. Mysterious

and hidden, what you make is made
of what you are. Rise up now

and in your wish to fly, flight
will take you where you want to go.

Fly into the world as you fly from it;
fly and love will fly to you.

 Added note: Speaking of gnostic poets, when I dined with Alan Ginsburg during his visit to St. Mary’s and revealed that I was an 18th century British literature scholar, he rhapsodized about Christopher (Kit) Smart, especially Jubilate Agno, where he sings praises to his cat Jeoffry (“For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.”). In his reading later that evening, he had all of us singing the Blake line “And all the hills echoed” from “Nurse’s Song” for a full 20 minutes as he accompanied us on a finger pump organ. So yes, all three poets use poetry to approach the numinous.

Further thought: Taking up Pritchett’s challenge to think about Sauron in gnostic terms, I assume Tolkien’s arch-villain represents the matter that threatens to engulf the world, forever trapping the divine. Frodo then would be a gnostic hero, seeking to liberate the divine spark from the heavy drag of the ring. To get at what he’s up against from a gnostic point of view, here’s Peter O’Leary quoting Jacques Lacarriere’s description, in The Gnostics, of suffocating matter:

The world in which we live is not only opaque, heavy, and given over to death, but is above all a world born of a monumental machination; a world that was not foreseen, not desired, flawed in all its parts; a world in which everything, every being, is the result of a cosmic misunderstanding. In this whirlpool of errors, this universal shipwreck which is the history of matter and of man, we on earth are rather like survivors condemned to eternal solitude, planetary detainees who are the victims of injustice on a truly cosmic scale. Stars, ether, aeons, planets, earth, life, flesh, inanimate matter, psyche—all are implicated, dragged into this universal disgrace.

Posted in Finkelstein (Norman) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Amelia Bedelia, Working Class Rebel

Illus. by Fritz Siebel


Here’s a literary comparison I never would have anticipated: Amelia Bedelia as a feminist Bartleby.

Reader Donna Raskin alerted me to this New Yorker article by Sarah Blackwood, who came up with the comparison after reading the series to her children. Amelia Bedelia is a maid who gets in trouble because she takes every command literally, whether drawing the curtains, dusting the furniture, or making the bed. Always on the verge of being fired, she repeatedly saves her job through her delicious cooking.

I’ve read one of the early books to my granddaughters and can report on their enthusiastic response. Children love playing with language, and commands that can be read two ways fascinate them. Our readings are very interactive, with them shouting to Amelia to get it right and delighting when she doesn’t.

Blackwood, while reporting a similar response from her children, takes the discussion in a more political direction. She points out that the series appeared in the early 1960s, coinciding with Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. In her view, the work is a rebellion against mind-numbing labor. Whereas Bartleby rebels by withdrawing into passivity, however, Amelia does so by creating chaos. Blackwood notes,

When asked to “dust the furniture,” she sprinkles powder all over the living room; asked to “change the towels,” she takes scissors to them. She dirties and destroys her employers’ possessions, in other words, breaking one of the primary taboos of domestic employment. She’s a figure of rebellion: against the work that women do in the home, against the work that lower-class women do for upper-class women. 

Now for the Bartleby comparison:

 “I would prefer not to” is Bartleby’s famous refrain; if he took Amelia’s job, Bartleby would neither pull the drapes from the windows nor sketch them with pen and paper but sit and stare at them with stoic despondence. Melville’s story is one of American literature’s great tales of workplace degradation, and, though it takes place in an office, it is in some ways as domestic, as intimate, as a story about a household servant—Bartleby, increasingly depressed, begins sleeping and living at his workplace. But, where Bartleby responds to degradation by withdrawing, reducing, starving himself, Amelia Bedelia produces sugary excess. Throughout her daily grind, she cheerfully acquiesces to her lot even as she subverts almost every task assigned to her. Bartleby teaches us to look for resistance in forms of ascetic refusal; Amelia Bedelia turns passive aggression into a kind of art.

Author Peggy Parrish, who grew up in an impoverished family but went on to college and taught third grade at the upper-class Dalton School, could well be rebelling against menial work. Blackwood points out that the first book appeared at the dawn of the feminist movement:

The first Amelia Bedelia book was published in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; the series’ interest in wordplay, literalism, and figurative language is of a piece with its interest in the repetitive, devalued, yet highly intimate quality of women’s work. Perhaps more than other forms of work, domestic labor is often misnamed as love, duty, or some kind of irresistible biological calling. And that’s when it’s named at all; women’s work—the cooking, appointment-keeping, party-planning, soap-dispenser-refilling—is so often invisible. Parish’s books spotlight this labor, and refuse the sentimental fuzziness that usually attends it (especially when it is attached to a mother figure). In Come Back, Amelia Bedelia (my favorite), Mrs. Rogers is pushed to her limit when, having asked for coffee and cereal for breakfast, Amelia brings her a cup of coffee with cereal mixed into it. “Oh, you are impossible!” Mrs. Rogers exclaims. “You’re fired!”

The Bartleby comparison is strained, however, and Amelia reminds me more of Alice. Both are innocent and, like Amelia, Alice inadvertently causes mayhem, undermining suffocating Victorian child-rearing practices by unconsciously botching recitations, insulting various characters, and exposing the strangeness of the adult world. The world of nonsense flourishes when the world of sense becomes too constricting.

Other “sweet” characters in children’s books have their own ways of rebelling. “Sally and I” may be innocent, but their alter egos, Thing 1 and Thing 2, trash the house, overriding the protests of their inner fish conscience. Madeleine disrupts the straight lines of Miss Clavel, Francis tests bedtime rules and her parents’ tolerance, and George messes up only because he is “too curious.”

When the world doesn’t make sense to children, stories are there to capture their confusion. Since America’s extreme income inequality shouldn’t make sense to any of us, Amelia Bedelia’s rebellion speaks for us all.

Posted in Parrish (Peggy) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doctor Zhivago vs. Soviet Communism

Christie, Sharif in Doctor Zhivago


A new book explains how and why Boris Pasternak’s Nobel-prize winning Dr. Zhivago played an important role during the Cold War. Peter Finn’s and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, The CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book makes it sound as though former English majors were running the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division as they assessed the potential impact of the novel and then acquired, published, and helped distribute it. I owe my awareness of the book to Rebecca Renner’s summary in Literary Hub.

Renner explains why Soviet officials found the novel objectionable even in the post-Stalin era:

Its main character is a doctor and poet, Yuri Zhivago, who treats soldiers on both sides of the war during the Russian Revolution. He eventually returns home to find the Moscow of his childhood changed beyond recognition, with communists controlling the city, chaos reigning, and the rarified world of art and intellect gone forever, or so it seemed to Zhivago.

Amidst the novel’s famous love affair weaves a thread of free thought that questions deeply held Soviet beliefs.

“Not long ago there was a sacred duty to the motherland, military valor, lofty social feelings,” Pasternak writes in Doctor Zhivago. “But the war is lost, that’s the main calamity, and all the rest comes from that, everything is dethroned, nothing is sacred.” Zhivago waxes poetic and loves to the depths of his soul, but beset within the literary gilding, the reader will find a character who is very much a part of Russia’s former world of finery, who, much like his author, is lost in the present.

Doctor Zhivago laid Pasternak’s heart bare. It revealed him as a less-than-perfect communist in an era when the sin of all sins was longing for the past.

According to Zhivago Affair, exposing the USSR’s fear of a novel was a coup for the United States:

“Books were weapons,” writes Finn. “If a piece of literature was unavailable or banned in the USSR or Eastern Europe, and the work might challenge or contrast with Soviet reality, the agency wanted it in the hands of citizens in the Eastern Bloc.”

It didn’t matter to the CIA that the novel doesn’t directly critique the Soviet system. What’s important was its humanistic vision, which Pasternak contrasts with ideological commitment:

“Pasternak’s humanistic message—that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state—poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system,” John Maury, the Soviet Russia Division chief, wrote in a declassified memo. “There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches—political passivity—is fundamental. Pasternak suggests that the small unimportant people who remain passive to the regime’s demands for active participation and emotional involvement in official campaigns are superior to the political ‘activists’ favored by the system. Further, he dares hint that society might function better without these fanatics.”

Renner notes that the CIA

wanted the novel to reach as many average Soviet citizens as possible. If bombs couldn’t shake the ice out of the Cold War, planting doubts in the minds of the USSR’s citizens had the potential to rupture the superpower from within.

Therefore, it wasn’t Soviet émigrés who got the book to the west, as has previously been assumed. We now know that Soviet accusations about CIA involvement were well-founded. According to Zhivago Affair,

The operation to print and distribute Doctor Zhivago was run by the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division, monitored by CIA director Allen Dulles, and sanctioned by President Eisenhower’s Operations Coordinating Board, which reported to the National Security Council at the White House. The agency arranged the printing of a hardcover edition in 1958 in the Netherlands and printed a miniature paperback edition of the novel at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1959.

Finn and Couvée note that the CIA also printed smaller versions on onion skin paper that could be smuggled into Iron Curtain countries and that were handed out to Soviet tourists and students in the west. KGB officers told students they could take and read the book “but by no means bring it home.”

I’ve thought a lot about the use of culture in the Cold War since I myself was a Fulbright scholar in socialist Yugoslavia in 1987. Along with other Fulbrighters visiting Eastern European countries, I spent a summer at UCLA learning Slovenian and then threw myself into teaching and meeting people in Ljubljana and elsewhere. The American values we brought with us, including political tolerance, openness to student views, and excitement about multiple perspectives, were more powerful than any focused propaganda effort could have been. We were soldiers in the Cold War without even knowing it.

Doctor Zhivago could have had a similar impact. For those brought up in a rigid system, genuine artistic exploration can be exhilarating. The CIA sullied its reputation as it attempted to topple various regimes—the world is still paying for its 1953 Iran coup—but it did a better job with the culture wars.

Posted in Pasternak (Boris) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

I, My Dear, Was Born Today

Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hurrah!

Wednesday – On My Birthday, June 12

I turn 68 today so I share a birthday poem written by Matthew Prior (1664-1721). In it, he complains about being rejected by Clotilda, a name he plucks from the pastoral tradition.

While the poet’s “jolly comrades” are prepared to “bring me music, wreaths, and mirth/And ask to celebrate my birth,” he would rather have not been born as long as Clotilda withholds her felicitations.

If only Venus would chase “imperious anger” from his mistress’s face and prompt her to lovingly say, “Thou, my dear, wert born today,” then he’ll feel like celebrating. Without that, however, there will be no wreath surrounding his hair or music pleasing his ear. His happiness, he informs her, depends on her.

Sounds like emotional blackmail to me.

Fortunately for me, I have a wife and a mother who will be sharing their mirth, blessing my birth, and smilingly telling me, “Thou, my dear, were born today.” I, in return, shall “salute the rising ray”—which is to say, celebrate the day.

On My Birthday, July 21

I, my dear, was born to-day—
So all my jolly comrades say:
They bring me music, wreaths, and mirth,
And ask to celebrate my birth:
Little, alas! my comrades know
That I was born to pain and woe;
To thy denial, to thy scorn,
Better I had ne’er been born:
I wish to die, even whilst I say—
‘I, my dear, was born today.’
I, my dear, was born today:
Shall I salute the rising ray,
Well-spring of all my joy and woe?
Clotilda, thou alone dost know.
Shall the wreath surround my hair?
Or shall the music please my ear?
Shall I my comrades’ mirth receive,
And bless my birth, and wish to live?
Then let me see great Venus chase
Imperious anger from thy face;
Then let me hear thee smiling say—
‘Thou, my dear, wert born to-day.’
Posted in Prior (Matthew) | Tagged | Leave a comment

Couples Fighting: It Must Be Love

Russell and Grant in The Front Page


I read plays all day yesterday with an eye toward an upcoming class on “Battling Couples in Theatre and Film (the Comic Version).” The September course is part of Sewanee’s “Lifelong Learning” series.

As the course runs for four weeks, I will teach four plays and four movies, pairing a play with a film for each session.

“Romantic comedy” is an oxymoronic mixture of sentiment (heart) and wit (head). It has been cinema’s most popular genre at least since Clara Bowe played the “IT girl” in 1926, perhaps because joking about relationships protects a vulnerable heart. In rom-coms we get both love and laughter.

Battling Couples Comedy pushes the tension to a higher level. The fear of emotional vulnerability turns into hostility, often expressed through verbal barbs. Shakespeare all but invented the genre with Much Ado about Nothing (1598), where Beatrice and Benedick duke it out with spirited interchanges like the following:

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I
am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I
would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard
heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have
been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God
and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I
had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man
swear he loves me.
Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some
gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such
a face as yours were.
Benedick: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and
so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s
name; I have done.
Beatrice: You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.

Taming of the Shrew also features such a battle although Kate’s total capitulation at the end (if that’s what she does) leaves a sour taste in the minds of many modern viewers. Better to have a cease-fire which leaves both parties standing tall.

Aphra Behn took a page from Much Ado when Helena sets her eyes on the libertine Wilmore in The Rover. Far ahead of her time in 1677, Behn validated women’s sexual desire when her heroine refuses life in a convent and settles for marriage only because it’s better than “a cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of repentance at my back.” If she could have anything she wanted, she would, like Wilmore, choose “all the honey of matrimony, but none of the sting.”

Head and heart grapple for ascendency in the other two plays I’ve chosen, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (which points towards a Higgins-Eliza marriage, despite what the author wrote in his afterword) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), which is so dark that not everyone sees it as a comedy. Having never taught either work, I look forward to new discoveries.

Regarding films, I’m in love with 1930’s and 1940’s screwball comedies but unfortunately can only pick two. I’m leaning towards Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), which established the conventions of the genre, and Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940), which barely allows any room for sentiment in its fast-paced dialogue between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. But choosing them would meaning leaving out Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, Lady Eve, and Adam’s Rib. If you enjoy all these films as much as I do, you see my problem.

For the third film, I haven’t yet made up my mind between Pillow Talk (Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1959) and Moonstruck (Cher and Nicholas Cage, 1987). The first continues the screwball tradition, the second walks a fine line between comedy and melodrama.

For the last film, I’ve settled on Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in which Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s marriage is a life and death affair. Their battles will pair up nicely with George and Martha’s in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

“Words of love so soft and tender won’t win a girl’s heart anymore,” Big Mama Cass sang in 1970. But playwrights have been showing this to be the case for centuries.

Posted in Albee (Edward), Behn (Aphra), Shakespeare (William), Shaw (George Bernard) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curious George’s Escape from Hitler


A recent New Yorker article about “Curious George” forces us to rethink the beloved children’s classic. While at first glance, Rivka Galchen points out, it uncomfortably echoes the Middle Passage, it actually grew out of a different atrocity. Authors Hans and Margret Rey were Jews fleeing the Germans as they invaded France.

The Reys escaped Paris on bicycles and ultimately arrived in New York without their luggage but “with a tremendous sense of their extraordinary good fortune, their ultimate safety.” Not surprisingly, then, George has his own dramatic adventures:

[P]hysical peril is a constant: George floods a house, gets carried off by a kite, breaks a leg, crashes on a bike. The other constant is the reliably happy ending.

These happy endings echo one version of the American Dream:

[The books are] suffused with a reassuring and almost fantastical sense of wealth: when George makes it to the city, he is given a pipe, nice striped pajamas, and a cozy, golden child-sized bed in which to sleep.

“Curious George” was not the only comforting children’s classic birthed by the tumultuous events of World War II, Galchen observes:

The Finnish writer Tove Jansson also turned to writing for children at nearly the same historical moment. Jansson had been a brilliant political cartoonist; the winter the Soviet Union invaded Finland, she began writing and illustrating a gentle story about a family of hippo-like woodland creatures, called Moomins, who are escaping a flood. The Moomins eventually absorbed most of Jansson’s artistic energy, as they faced comets, drank whiskey, lived in lighthouses, and took in easily frightened ghosts. And Michael Bond wrote the story of Paddington—“Please look after this bear. Thank you.”—after having seen Jewish refugee children arriving at London’s railway stations with signs around their necks. These stories are written not necessarily for children under duress but, instead, by adults who are themselves in duress, and who now prefer to devote their time to making children happy.

Galchen’s initial concern about George’s abduction got me thinking about Ariel Dorfman’s critique of Babar’s similar journey. In Dorfman’s view, the beloved Jean de Brunhoff story functions as a colonialist parable about the superiority of the west. Babar leaves for Paris naked and returns clothed to civilize his fellow elephants.

Dorfman’s critique is vigorously disputed by New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who argues that it’s a comic send-up of French civilization, not a defense of it. I don’t aim to go into the debate here, however, but rather share Gopnik’s fascinating conclusion about the difference between French, British and American children’s literature. National history leads to different narrative arcs:

In London, in children’s books, life is too orderly and one longs for the vitality of the wild; in Paris, order is an achievement, hard won against the natural chaos and cruelty of adult life; in New York, we begin most stories in an indifferent city and the child has to create a kind of order within it. Each of these schemes reflects a history: the English vision being a natural consequence of a peaceful nation with a reformist history and in search of adventure; the French of a troubled nation with a violent history in search of peace; and the American of an individualistic and sporadically violent country with a strong ethos of family isolation and improvised rules.

For England, Gopnik mentions Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins, and The Hobbit. For France and America, he chooses works set in Paris and New York. Madeleine’s violent encounter with an inflamed appendix matches Babar’s traumatic loss of his mother to a hunter or his and Celeste’s kidnapping  by a circus. The American books are From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The House on East 88th Street, Stuart Little, The Pushcart War, and Harriet the Spy. In France, “to stray from built order is to confront the man with a gun.” In America, “Everything turns on the individual child and her ability to create a safe miniworld of her own within the big chaotic city.”

When adults successfully turn their own dramas into children’s stories, we end up with timeless classics.

Posted in Brunhoff (Jean de), Rey (H.A.) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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

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

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

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

    powered by MailChimp!