Conrad and White Male Panic

Joseph Conrad


This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post about how Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides special insight into white terrorism. At one point I mentioned Conrad’s own racism and sexism, which leads to an interesting literary question: can we consider a work a literary masterpiece if it has one-dimensional depictions of women and Africans? For that matter, what kind of wisdom can we expect from such a work?

Conrad is unquestionably one-dimensional when it comes to race and gender. In Chinua Achebe’s widely taught essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” the Nigerian novelist points out how Conrad uses Africans as a metaphor for bestiality. Kurtz’s “descent” to the Africans’ life style—at least as imagined by Conrad–symbolizes the darkness at the heart of Europe’s Christian civilization.

Contrast Conrad’s Africans, whom he depicts as a howling mob, with Achebe’s Ibo tribespeople in Things Fall Apart, and you’ll get a clear sense of the difference between a stereotype and what sociologists call “thick description.” Nor is it a convincing defense to say that it’s the narrator Marlow, not the author Conrad, who gives us this limited perspective. Conrad sets up his novella in such a way that we are given no other perspective.

This is equally true of how Conrad depicts women. They are either naïve idealists like Marlow’s aunt, angels on the hearth like Kurtz’s Intended, or sensual earth goddesses like Kurtz’s jungle companion.

Nevertheless, Conrad is useful for understanding the fears of white men, including today’s white terrorists and those who go easy on them (including the president). It’s because of his racism and sexism that he provides us such a clear picture of white panic over those who threaten its domination. The insecure need to see oneself as superior requires designating others as inferior.

Marxist literary scholar Terry Eagleton explains how Conrad’s perspective makes him valuable. “The pessimism of Conrad’s world view,” he writes in Marxism and Literary Criticism, is “a unique transformation into art of an ideological pessimism rife in his period.” What Conrad captures, Eagleton believes, is “a drastic crisis in the ideology of the Western bourgeois class to which Conrad allied himself.”

In other words, Conrad turns the crisis he is experiencing into art, and because he does so skillfully and unflinchingly, he opens up an important window into our condition. His politics are less important than his insights. Eagleton says that he’s not the only conservative author of whom this is the case:

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

I agree with Eagleton, but only to a point. Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz slumming in the jungle—whites doing blackface is a milder version of this—does indeed get at an essential dimension of white terrorism. When they slip the bounds of society’s customary restraints, are capable of practically any savagery. The New Zealand massacre is only the latest example.

Similarly, that Marlow feels he needs to protect the innocence of Kurtz’s Intended is also a trait shared by many white supremacists. That he hides from her Kurtz’s real character is more for his own protection than for hers. “It would have been too dark—too dark altogether,” he says, but the darkness he fears is his own dark soul. Similarly, when the KKK talks about defending the honor of white womanhood, it is not their women but their own inner fragility that they are protecting. They fear a stain upon their whiteness.

Where Eagleton falls short, I think, is in treating art only as a symptom of history. The greatest artists transcend their times. Imagine if Conrad had truly taken a risk, for instance, and had Marlow tell the Intended the truth about Kurtz. Perhaps, in writing about the subsequent interaction, he would have discovered that women are not the fragile vessels he imagines them to be. Maybe he would have created a multi-dimensional Intended in the process. But because he thought that only white men have such depth, he has Marlow chicken out, as he himself is chickening out.

For a contrast, think of the magnificently complex woman that Chaucer creates in the Wife of Bath, despite the constraints of medieval misogyny. Think of the many Shakespeare characters who defy conventional stereotypes, starting with Shylock–characters who are “not of an age but of all time.”

We owe Conrad a debt because he gives us important insight into the pressing issue of white male rage. He lacks the talent, courage or imagination to see beyond the problem he sets forth, however.

Posted in Conrad (Joseph) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The World’s White Heart of Darkness

Brando as Kurtz in Coppola’s version of Heart of Darkness (Apocalypse Now)


The rise of white terrorism around the world is leading liberals like me to question some of our basic assumptions. Are our democratic institutions, which we took for granted, strong enough to withstand the murderous resentment of entitled people who feel threatened? Amongst the entitled I include both those wealthy individuals who countenance violence (or at least extremist threats) to retain their privilege and those not-so-wealthy whites who use racism to shore up their self-esteem.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness features a man who ascribes to humanist Christian values until he enters the Belgian Congo, at which point his ideals drop away and he becomes a bloody tyrant. Conrad has been rightfully criticized for his racism, but as far as diagnosing a naive optimism in liberal democracies, he may be on to something. What if liberals are like Kurtz’s Intended or the narrator’s Aunt, two women who can’t acknowledge the depth of darkness within their fellow human beings. The cynical Marlow describes his aunt’s vision of him as an emissary of light who will bring Christian civilization to the great unwashed:

It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.

“’You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

We can charge Marlow with patronizing sexism along with colonialist racism, but haven’t Americans been guilty of a comparable missionary zeal? Haven’t we thought that our democratic values would spread to all corners of the globe? For that matter, don’t we liberals think that it’s just a matter of time before a majority of all Americans transcend prejudice and accept African Americans, Hispanics, LBGTQ persons, and others different from themselves? Children of the Enlightenment that we are, don’t we assume that most people are decent at their core and that the light of reason will bring about something close to the society we dream of? Wasn’t this the vision of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers?

The resurgence of white terrorism and the corresponding rise of authoritarian states call our liberal optimism into doubt, as Robert Kagan writes in an important Washington Post article. Trump is like Kurtz unleashed in the Congo, causing us, like Marlow, to question our bearings. What if a significant number of Americans don’t care about democratic values? What does it mean that so many enthusiastically support a man who compliments extremists, calls for violence himself, and expresses admiration for autocrats?

If we liberals are like the out-of-touch women, Trump’s supporters are like Kurtz’s Russian follower:

‘We talked of everything,’ he said, quite transported at the recollection. ‘I forgot there was such a thing as sleep. The night did not seem to last an hour. Everything! Everything!… Of love, too.’ ‘Ah, he talked to you of love!’ I said, much amused. ‘It isn’t what you think,’ he cried, almost passionately. ‘It was in general. He made me see things—things.’

At one point Kurtz threatens to kill his fan, but that only deepens the man’s love. After all, what’s not to admire about a man who peremptorily demands obeisance? The Russian is like those Trump voters who continue to support him, even as they lose medical coverage, see their farms go bankrupt, and get hammered by his trade policies:

It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions. ‘What can you expect?’ he burst out; ‘he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know—and they had never seen anything like it—and very terrible. He could be very terrible. You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now—just to give you an idea—I don’t mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me, too, one day—but I don’t judge him.’ ‘Shoot you!’ I cried ‘What for?’ ‘Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. I gave him the ivory. What did I care! But I didn’t clear out. No, no. I couldn’t leave him.’

And who is the man who inspires such devotion? Marlow describes a narcissist who can’t stop talking about his own greatness:

“Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

“Sometimes he was contemptibly childish. He desired to have kings meet him at railway-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he intended to accomplish great things.

I’d drop the “unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression” when describing Trump, but everything else applies pretty well.

Kurtz, however, has what Marlow regards as a redeeming moment: right before he dies, he looks back at his life and is appalled at what he sees, crying out, “The Horror.” I’m not convinced that Trump is capable of such introspection, even on his deathbed. While he himself might regard comparison with Kurtz as a compliment, I think he’s more like one of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men, whom Eliot contrasts with the Kurtzes of the world.

So far, thankfully, our democratic institutions appear to be holding and Trump is not posting the heads of his enemies on stakes around the White House. We must remain vigilant, however.

Posted in Conrad (Joseph) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dark Grave Can’t Hold a Deathless Soul

Mourners at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque

Spiritual Sunday

In response to a white terrorist’s slaughter of 49 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, I turn to two poems by the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and Rumi helps us move beyond our conventional understanding of death to a deeper understanding of how spirit works in the world. The poems are to be found in Rumi, Fountain of Fire, translated by Nader Khalili.

I realize that poetry offers only scant consolation at such times as words cannot begin to capture the heartbreak of the victims’ family and friends. But poetry comes closer than any other use of language. As I tell my students, poems are words doing heavy lifting, words working double time.

In the first poem, we are reassured that we are deathless souls because we are filled with God’s glow. When we step beyond malice and allow our hearts to be immersed in “this blissful love,” “there is nothing but happiness and good times”:

you mustn't be afraid of death
you're a deathless soul
you can't be kept in a dark grave
you're filled with God's glow
be happy with your beloved
you can't find any better
the world will shimmer
because of the diamond you hold
when your heart is immersed
in this blissful love
you can easily endure
any bitter face around
in the absence of malice
there is nothing but
happiness and good times
don't dwell in sorrow my friend

The second poem reminds us that we must not wait until after death to show our love. Rise about your animalistic spite, Rumi instructs us, and “be kind to one another”:

come on sweetheart
let's adore one another
before there is no more
of you and me
a mirror tells the truth
look at your grim face
brighten up and cast away
your bitter smile
a generous friend
gives life for a friend
let's rise above this
animalistic behavior
and be kind to one another
spite darkens friendships
why not cast away
malice from our heart
once you think of me
dead and gone
you will make up with me
you will miss me
you may even adore me
why be a worshiper of the dead
think of me as a goner
come and make up now
since you will come
and throw kisses
at my tombstone later
why not give them to me now
this is me
that same person
i may talk too much
but my heart is silence
what else can i do
i am condemned to live this life

The last stanza calls for us to look past whatever irritants we may encounter in the other person and commune with the heart. We are not to be thrown off balance by this life to which we are condemned. Instead, we must throw kisses.

Posted in Rumi | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fantasy Frees Us from Narrow Thinking

Magritte, Castle of the Pyrenees


I share today a new insight that I gained from my recent Lifelong Learning class about “Wizards and Enchantresses.” To set it up, I first share my theory of fantasy.

As I see it, fantasy is always oppositional in its invocation of magic and the supernatural. If it flourished in the wake of the scientific and technological revolutions, that’s because it was pushing back against science’s narrow focus on the material world. People were (and are) hungry for something more.

Therefore, the gothic novel arose in the mid-18th century when the Enlightenment was at its height, and it has been going strong ever since (Steven King is the world’s bestselling author). In the 19th century, the Grimm brothers collected fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen wrote his own, Mary Shelley launched the monster novel ,and Tennyson brought back the Arthur tales. In the 20th century, J. R. R. Tolkien gave birth to the sword and sorcery genre, conceived in opposition to mechanized warfare and the rise of totalitarianism.

Now for the question I have long wrestled with: What are we to make of the fact that fantasy has always been popular, predating the Enlightenment by thousands of years? Even when people actually believed in ghosts and fairies, they still hungered for fantasy tales. Was fantasy oppositional for them as well?

I conclude that it was and owe my understanding to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. At the beginning of her tale, she complains about Christian friars, who she says went through the land expelling fairies, elves, and other supernatural creatures:

In the old days
of King Arthur, 
Of whom Britons speak great honor,                 
This land was all filled full of supernatural creatures.                  
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,                 
Danced very often in many a green mead.                 
This was the old belief, as I read;                 
I speak of many hundred years ago.                 
But now no man can see any more elves,                 
For now the great charity and prayers                 
Of licensed beggars and other holy friars,                 
That overrun every land and every stream,                 
As thick as specks of dust in the sun-beam,                 
Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, bedrooms,                 
Cities, towns, castles, high towers,                 
Villages, barns, stables, dairies --                 
This makes it that there are no fairies.                 

The Wife uses pre-Christian fantasy to imagine an alternative to a Christian misogyny that constrains her, which she counters with an Arthurian tale about a powerful fairy queen who effects a magical resolution. While all medieval Christians believed in magic, some magic was acceptable, some not. The Wife of Bath invokes unacceptable Celtic paganism when Christianity proves stifling.

Chaucer wasn’t the only author to do so. Geoffrey of Monmouth traces Merlin and Morgan Le Faye back to pre-Christian origins, and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives us a sympathetic green man. For that matter, one finds Celtic green men carved into medieval churches all over England and Ireland.

It didn’t matter that the Christian church associated paganism with Satan. People couldn’t let go of symbols that expanded their vision.

Occasionally Christian fundamentalists went to extremes to “purify” the religion, as Puritans attempted to do in the 17th century. They banned Twelfth Night festivities (associated with the winter solstice) and maypole dancing (associated with the spring solstice) and chiseled off green man carvings (as they did in Manchester’s cathedral). Yet these old vestiges could not be entirely eradicated and, thanks to Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, a pagan Christmas came back stronger than ever in the 19th century.

In other words, whenever orthodox belief attempts to constrict the imagination—whether it be religious belief or scientific belief—the imagination fights back with wondrous tales and images. Dogmatists and dull pragmatists dismiss these as “just fantasy.” The rest of us know better.

Posted in Chaucer (Geoffrey) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

When College Admissions Goes Awry

Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “steen”)


I agree with Vox’s Libby Nelson on the subject of the recently exposed scandal about rich people hiring consultants to scam admissions departments so that their kids will get into top colleges. The real scandal, Nelson says, is what is legal.

For instance, it was legal for Charles Kushner to pay Havard $1 million to take his son Jared. Accepting legacy kids has also been been a common practice for decades. Yet affirmative action lawsuits are always directed at people of color, never at the wealthy and well-connected.

Someone on twitter noted a famous literary example of a parental arrangement that goes horribly wrong. Check out how Victor Frankenstein got into college:

When I had attained the age of seventeen my parents resolved that I should become a student at the university of Ingolstadt. I had hitherto attended the schools of Geneva, but my father thought it necessary for the completion of my education that I should be made acquainted with other customs than those of my native country. My departure was therefore fixed at an early date…

Actually, Victor might well get into top colleges even under a blind admission policy. How many other students manage to create life in a laboratory? His study habits turn out to be pretty good:

My ardour was indeed the astonishment of the students, and my proficiency that of the masters. … M. Waldman expressed the most heartfelt exultation in my progress. Two years passed in this manner, during which I paid no visit to Geneva, but was engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries which I hoped to make. None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder. A mind of moderate capacity which closely pursues one study must infallibly arrive at great proficiency in that study; and I, who continually sought the attainment of one object of pursuit and was solely wrapped up in this, improved so rapidly that at the end of two years I made some discoveries in the improvement of some chemical instruments, which procured me great esteem and admiration at the university.

Then again, if you want someone who is well balanced with a good moral center, maybe you proceed with caution when young Victor applies. A diverse student population is far healthier than a class that just has high SAT scores.

But if one goes by the recent scandal, it appears that even brains weren’t the determining factor. Just parental money. If disasters happen, it probably won’t be because these kids spent too much time in the lab.

Posted in Shelley (Mary) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

From Frontier Racism to Wall Racism


New Yorker writer Francisco Cantu has alerted me to an important book on the role that the frontier plays in the American imagination. Greg Gandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, traces Donald Trump’s wall back to America’s frontier days. I describe the article here because it mentions two novels and a poem.

The frontier/border debate resembles the immigration debate in America’s identity struggle. Just as there are those who welcome diversity and those who want to shut it out, so there are those who see the frontier as an expansion of human possibility and those who regard as an opportunity to dominate and subdue. Grandin’s goal, Cantu says, is

to reposition race-based violence to the center of the frontier narrative, exposing it as foundational to today’s “border brutalism.” 

Cantu is familiar with this brutalism, having served for a while as a border patrol agent. He has witnessed how members of ICE dehumanize and are dehumanized in turn.

Among the incidents described by End of Myth is one where Arkansas soldiers

descended upon a group of Mexican war refugees in a cave, raping and slaughtering victims as they pleaded for mercy. Many of these rabid Army volunteers, Grandin notes, were former bounty hunters with an unchecked thirst for scalping their victims.

Two novels treat this history. One is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), often seen as his masterpiece. Judge Holden is an eloquent psychopath whose violence knows no bounds and who declares,

It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

By the end of the novel, the Judge reigns supreme, somewhat like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (if you’ve seen the film). Grandin draws from Blood Meridian to depict “the violence perpetrated by remorseless white American men, unconcerned with the traumas they were unleashing into history.”

Cantu also mentions a counter narrative that, while acknowledging the violence, shows us a principled protest as well. From Cantu’s description, it sounds like Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance (2017) has a Dances with Wolves aspect:

Set in the same historical period [as Blood Meridian], the novel depicts a young immigrant who has become separated from his brother on the docks in Europe. He accidentally boards a ship to San Francisco, while his brother, it is presumed, arrives in New York. And so our stoic protagonist sets out eastward across frontier America, crossing the country in reverse, against an advancing tide of settlers, explorers, and outlaws. As expected, he is engulfed by hardship, drama, and violence, but, when he finds himself in the middle of a McCarthyesque slaughter of Native Americans, he is unable to soldier on like the hardened men of so many Westerns. Instead, he retreats into the wilderness, where he hopes no human will ever find him, and burrows deep into the ground. But, even in his attempt to escape the violence of which he has become a part, the men he has killed stare at him in his dreams, and the rare utterances of his own voice sound monstrous.

Both novels bring home the point that Trump is tapping into a deep strain of American racism as he calls for his wall. Grandin notes that “the point isn’t to actually build ‘the wall’ but to constantly announce the building of the wall.”

Cantu concludes his review with a story that gets at the spiritual damage caused by walls and wall rhetoric. Ofelia Rivas, a Tohono O’odham elder, describes what happened when, following 9-11, new border barriers disrupted traditional pilgrimage routes:

The year the barriers went up, Rivas says, “we lost eleven elders. One after another, they passed away. It just seemed they couldn’t comprehend what was happening.” It was as if they had been poisoned, as if America had found a new way to take their land. 

To set up the impact on Rivas herself, Cantu references “Long Hair,” by O’odham poet Ofelia Zepeda:

the other side they sing and dance in celebration. 
When we get there our hair must be long so that they recognize us.
Our hair is our dress.
It is our adornment.
We make sure it is long so they recognize us.

Cantu writes,

When the walls went up, Rivas remembers, she had long hair. Each time an elder died, however, she would cut a length of it as an act of homage. “By the end of the year,” she recalls, “my hair was gone.”

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls the wall “immoral,” she may not have the Tohono O’odham in mind, but she recognizes dark energy when she sees it.

Posted in Diaz (Hernan), McCarthy (Cormac), Zepeda (Ofelia) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vets in WWI Documentary Do Not Age

Still from Peter Jackson’s colorized World War I archival footage


Last night Julia and I watched Peter Jackson’s extraordinary documentary about World War I in which he applied filmmaker’s magic to archival footage to create a sense of immediacy. By brightening dark shots and darkening overexposed ones, erasing scratches, evening out movement (World War I film was shot with hand-cranked cameras), turning long-shots into close-ups, panning photos to give new perspectives, colorizing the black and white, adding sound effects, and even reading lips to include dialogue, he created in They Shall Not Grow Old a film that looks as though it were shot yesterday.

In other words, the soldiers do not look old or like relics of a distant past. They are people like us who have been thrown into a nightmare.

To capture the day-to-day experience of those who fought in the trenches, Jackson uses for commentary the recorded reminiscences of veterans. As my own view of the war has been shaped mostly by poets and novelists like Wilfred Owen and Erich Maria Remarque, I couldn’t help but think of their own voices as I watched.

Three poems especially came to mind. First of all, I now understand better why Owen would write (in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” The veterans whose voices we heard in the film did not question why they were there but marched fatalistically off to slaughter. As one man reports, “We were just doing a job, if it came it came.”

I also thought of Owen’s “Greater Love” when the veterans described returning to England. Their fellow citizens could not understand what they had been through, leaving them alone in their memories. Here’s the final stanza:

Heart, you were never hot
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

The stanza also captures how deeply the soldiers experienced life. Living constantly in the presence of death will do that.

Finally, Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed” came to mind as the veterans expressed no animosity towards the German soldiers they had fought. Although politicians may have depicted the Germans as murderous Huns, to the British soldiers they were just people following orders as they themselves were:

"Had he and I but met 
            By some old ancient inn, 
We should have sat us down to wet 
            Right many a nipperkin! 

            “But ranged as infantry, 
            And staring face to face, 
I shot at him as he at me, 
            And killed him in his place. 

            “I shot him dead because — 
            Because he was my foe, 
Just so: my foe of course he was; 
            That’s clear enough; although 

            “He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps, 
            Off-hand like — just as I — 
Was out of work — had sold his traps — 
            No other reason why. 

            “Yes; quaint and curious war is! 
            You shoot a fellow down 
You’d treat if met where any bar is, 
            Or help to half-a-crown.” 

The unsettling calm of Hardy’s poem captures what I heard in the veterans’ voices. They were matter-of-fact as they described the horrors. One must listen hard to hear the real feelings underneath the stiff upper-lipped “quaint and curious.”

Further thought: Tolkien fought in the trenches and one reviewer pointed to a particularly relevant passage from the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Two Towers:

“Before the wall’s foot the dead and broken were piled like shingles in a storm; ever higher rose the hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on.”

Posted in Hardy (Thomas), Owen (Wilfred) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Morgan Le Faye through the Ages

Frederick Sandys, Morgan Le Fay


Last week I finished teaching a short “Wizards and Enchantresses” course for Sewanee’s Lifelong Learning program and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Having already talked about my class on Merlin (see here, here, and here), today I share what I had to say about Morgan Le Faye and her successors.

With Morgan, we looked at how various storytellers have used her to get a handle on, and in some cases attempt to contain, female power. Like Merlin, she has pagan roots, and Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1090) depicts her as a kind of fertility goddess:

The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides.  Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass.  The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more.  There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person.  Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies.  She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written 300 years later, Morgan is a puppet master, sending out the Green Knight and setting up various temptations in order to expose Camelot. As I read the story, she is signaling Christian culture that it cannot cavalierly ignore its connection with the natural world, including with sexuality and the desire to live. She is paired with a temptress, combining age-old wisdom and sexual allure.

In the following century, Sir Thomas Malory had ambivalent feelings about Malory. On the one hand, he saw her as a sexually voracious woman intent upon overthrowing her half-brother Arthur and reigning with her lover. At one point, she even sends Arthur a poisonous coat. Yet she also cares for him when he’s dying, taking him to her magical island, which has now become Avalon:

Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to that water side. And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen [Morgan], and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. Now put me into the barge, said the king. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then that queen said: Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all those ladies go from him. 

A misogynist medieval monk described woman as a palace built above a sewer, and the imagery continues on through the Renaissance and into the 20th century. The sewer is a reference to women’s sexuality (“blood coming from wherever,” in Donald Trump’s immortal phrase), and it shows up often in images of dragons and snakes. One finds it in Edmund Spenser’s Duessa (Faerie Queene,1590), Tennyson’s Vivien (Idylls of the King, 1859), and C. S. Lewis’s Lady of the Green Kirtle (Silver Chair, 1953).

Tennyson’s depiction of Merlin’s seductress was written at about the same time that Coventry Patmore was lauding “the angel on the hearth.” But even as the Victorians were trying to transform women into precious china objects whose main job was to submit to and nurture their husbands, they were also imagining just the opposite, powerful women who could emasculate even the most powerful. Note the use of snake imagery as Vivien takes down Merlin:

"O Merlin, do ye love me?" and
once more,
"Great Master, do ye love me?" he was mute.
And lissome Vivien, holding by his heel,
Writhed toward him, slided up his knee and sat,
Behind his ankle twined her hollow feet
Together, curved an arm about his neck,
Clung like a snake; and letting her left hand
Droop from his mighty shoulder, as a leaf,
Made with her right a comb of pearl to part
The lists of such a beard as youth gone out
Had left in ashes…

Lewis’s sorceress shows her true colors in a scene which gets at Lewis’s own anxieties about powerful women. Perhaps he was put off by the self-sufficiency that women had claimed during the World War II years:

The instrument [lyre] dropped from her hands. Her arms appeared to be fastened to her sides. Her legs were intertwined with each other, and her feet had disappeared. The long green train of her skirt thickened and grew solid, and seemed to be all one piece with the writhing green pillar of her interlocked legs. And that writhing green pillar was curving and swaying as if it had no joints, or else were all joints. Her head was thrown far back and while her nose grew longer and longer, every other part of her face seemed to disappear, except her eyes. Huge flaming eyes they were now, without brows or lashes. All this takes time to write down; it happened so quickly that there was only just time to see it. Long before there was time to do anything, the change was complete, and the great serpent which the Witch had become, green as poison, thick as Jill’s waist, had flung two or three coils of its loathsome body round the Prince’s legs. Quick as lightning another great loop darted round, intending to pinion his sword-arm to his side. But the Prince was just in time. He raised his arms and got them clear: the living knot closed only round his chest—ready to crack his ribs like firewood when it drew tight…

T. H. White, a repressed homosexual who was haunted by his sadomasochistic fantasies, doesn’t use snake imagery, but he exhibits a similar horror of female sexuality. In Sword and the Stone (1938), Morgan’s voracious sexuality is coded as gooey food (this is a children’s book, after all). To defeat it, Arthur needs a manly iron blade:

They plodded over the filthy drawbridge—a butter one, with cow hairs still in it—sinking to their ankles. They shuddered at the tripe and the chitterlings. They pointed their iron knives at the soldiers made of soft, sweet, smooth cheese, and the latter shrank away. In the end they came to the inner chamber, where Morgan le Fay herself lay stretched upon her bed of glorious lard. She was a fat, dowdy, middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache, but she was made of human flesh. When she saw the knives, she kept her eyes shut—as if she were in a trance. Perhaps, when she was outside this very strange castle, or when she was not doing that kind of magic to tempt the appetite, she was able to assume more beautiful forms.

To cite one more example before moving on to a healthier perspective, in Disney’s Little Mermaid, an emasculating sea witch shrivels King Titan and provides Ariel with a terrible role model if she is to become an acceptable wife to the prince.

Not until women authors begin rewriting the Morgan story does she become less than a nightmare projection of insecure men. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983), written in the wake of 1970s feminism, goes back to early versions of Morgan, depicting her as a Celtic fertility priestess at war with Christian patriarchy.

Celtic paganism experienced a revival in the 19th century, but in the late 20th century it took a definitely feminist turn. With Morgan no longer just a shadow figure, the doors has been opened for much more positive readings of any number of the female figures associated with Arthur, including Mercedes Lackey’s Gwenhwyfar, a warrior princess trained by Morgan.

And then there’s Nita Callahan (from So You Want To Be a Wizard), Hermione Granger, and a host of other empowered female wizards-in-training. Give women the pen, as Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot points out, and suddenly the stories look very different.

Posted in Bradley (Marion Zimmer), Geoffrey of Monmouth, Lackey (Mercedes), Lewis (C. S.), Malory (Sir Thomas), Sir Gawain Poet, Spenser (Edmund), Tennyson (Alfred Lord), Uncategorized, White (T.H.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lent: The Air Heavy and Thick

Picasso, “Woman with Folded Arms”

Spiritual Sunday

I share today a good Lenten poem by Denise Levertov where the poet finds herself in a funk, albeit not a dramatic funk. She’s experiencing neither a “dark night of the soul” nor a scorching wasteland desert, those extreme moments of crisis that have pushed people to revelation. (Today’s Gospel reading is Jesus’s encounter with Satan in the desert.) Rather, she is in a gray place “without clear outlines,” a soggy terrain that neither pulls one under nor provides one a solid place to stand.

She implies that the situation seems not enough to warrant a prayer, and “Oblique Prayer” doesn’t at first glance look like a prayer at all. Maybe that’s why she calls it oblique–and given that it appears in a collection entitled Oblique Prayers, Levertov suggests that all her poems are prayers if one looks at them from the right angle. Here, rather than straightforwardly requesting divine aid or offering up praise, the poet merely asks, “Have you been here?”

If she’s asking the question of Jesus, then she presumably wants to know whether he experienced her condition when he became human. (“Is it a part of human-ness?”) It’s certainly not on a par with his sojourn in the desert, his night in the Garden of Gethsemane, or the crucifixion.

While she doesn’t get a direct answer, simply asking the question reminds her of “the blessed light that caressed the world.” She didn’t ask for the memory—it came to her obliquely—but it is something she can hold onto as she stumbles around in no man’s land. It provides guidance in a world that is neither pitch dark nor scorching bright but “mere non-darkness.”

I value Levertov because she is a poet of half-light, one who doesn’t claim direct connection to the numinous but humbly requests a glimpse. To draw a contrast, Mary Oliver careens melodramatically between deep depression and ecstatic communion (this is not a criticism). For a “dark night of the soul” poem, check out Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” (“I fled him down the nights and down the days”). For a scorching desert poem, there’s T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”).

Levertov, by contrast, slips in the back door. “Oblique” pretty much sums her up.

Oblique Prayer
Not the profound dark
night of the soul
And not the austere desert
to scorch the heart at noon,
grip the mind
in teeth of ice at evening

but gray,
a place
without clear outlines,

the air
heavy and thick

the soft ground clogging
my feet if I walk,
sucking them downwards
if I stand.

Have you been here?
Is it

a part of human-ness

to enter
no man’s land?

I can remember
        (is it asking you
        makes me remember?)
even here

the blessed light that caressed the world
before I stumbled into
this place of mere
Posted in Eliot (T. S.), Levertov (Denise), Oliver (Mary), Thompson (Francis) | 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!