The Leaves Are Falling

Van Gogh, The Falling Leaves

As we move officially into fall, here’s a melancholy Rainer Maria Rilke poem about falling leaves. It reminds us that, although we all must fall—not only the leaves—“there is one who holds this falling/ endlessly gently in his hands.”

By Rainer Maria Rilke
Trans. M.D. Herter Norton

The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.

And in the night the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.

We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.
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Buttigieg, Straight Out of “Our Town”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigning in New Hampshire


The Washington Post’s chief drama critic recently imagined South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as a character in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Once again, a classic provides insight into a public figure.

As Peter Marks see it, Buttigieg’s “snug-fitting blue jeans,” his “white long-sleeve shirt folded neatly up to the elbows,” and his “genial decency” are reminiscent of Wilder’s play:

Standing before us on a platform in the middle of rolling farmland, his silhouette framed by a red barn draped with the stars and stripes, the candidate seems as if he could indeed be a figure conjured out of Wilder’s imagination: a pleasant fellow of homespun virtues, the sort who would leap to help a little old lady cross a street.

Marks notes the New Hampshire setting just happens to be Wilder’s setting as well.  Both play and candidacy feature symbols that could appear in a Norman Rockwell painting. In addition, the bipartisan civility that Buttigieg preaches is characteristic of Our Town, where everyone more or less gets along. First, here’s Buttigieg:

“We just have to break the spell of people thinking that values belong to one political party,” because I’m not talking about conservative values. I’m talking about American values.”

And now the play:

In Our Town, Wilder professed a similar kind of ecumenical philosophy about civility, and civic life. A moment arises in the play when the narrator, the Stage Manager, calls upon the local newspaper editor, Mr. Webb, to enumerate some vital statistics about Grover’s Corners, pop. 2,642.

“We’re lower middle class: sprinkling of professional men … 10 percent illiterate laborers,” the editor reports, and goes on to break down the numbers of Republicans, Democrats and Socialists. “Religiously, we’re 85 percent Protestants; 12 percent Catholics; rest, indifferent.”

The point of the recitation is that numbers don’t tell you much, and percentages that might seem definitive don’t define the truth of shared experience in a small town.

Marks quotes another Wilder passage where editor Webb is asked whether there is any “culture or love of beauty in the community.” His answer is very Buttigiegian:

“No ma’am, there isn’t much culture,” Mr. Webb replies, “but maybe this is the place to tell you that we’ve got a lot of pleasures of a kind here. We like the sun comin’ up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of seasons, yes, everybody knows about them.”

Marks observes, “I can almost hear Mayor Pete saying something of the kind, to distill the character of his citizenry to simple plain-spoken aphorisms.”

Buttigieg may be small town in one sense but, unlike the character George—who foregoes college to take over his uncle’s farm—Mayor Pete left for bigger things: Harvard, Oxford, Afghanistan. He also left for a same sex marriage, which Wilder couldn’t have imagined. That being noted, however, he does have Wilder’s interest in the people he meets.

Marks describes the following tour of downtown, which he says could have shown up in a Wilder play:

In Lebanon, a city of about 14,000 just south of Dartmouth College, Buttigieg goes on a tour of downtown with some local officials, an event Wilder could have scripted. Over here is Scratch, the yarn store, where a bunch of women are gathered to knit; over on the other corner is the Salt Hill Pub, where New Hampshire residents Derry LaBombard and Claire Connolly show up to get the candidate’s signature on the requisite politician’s memoir, Shortest Way Home, published earlier this year. And then Buttigieg and a small scrum of reporters and staffers make their way to the fire station to greet the fire captain and a couple of Lebanon firefighters.

Mayor Pete knows this part of the script by heart. “How long are your shifts?” he asks the firefighters.

The intense interest that Buttigieg evinces in everyone he encounters is a major theme in Wilder’s play. Marks writes that the candidate has a “gaze of almost unsettling sincerity that he trains on an interlocutor,” and he observes,

His mayoralty, it seems, has taught him a kind of patient interest in everyone. His focus on a questioner, whether at a country fair or in a college gymnasium, is canine in its intensity.

This interest, however, is missing in Our Town, much to the distress of the recently deceased Emily, who returns to life to relive her 12th birthday. She is upset that people don’t pay attention to life as it slips by and flees back to the realm of the dead:

Emily: I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back up the hill to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners . . . Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking . . . and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

(She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:) Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

Buttigieg isn’t a saint but he does have something of the poet in him. His interest in life and in people does not seem feigned.

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To Avoid War, Look to The Iliad


As John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Bret Stephens urge war on Iran for striking Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, I turn once again to that great anti-war classic, The Iliad. I’ve written in the past how classics scholar Caroline Alexander believes the poem’s major theme is the waste and tragedy of war, not heroic glory. In the poem’s climactic moment, Homer shows what it takes to engage diplomatically with an enemy.

While Donald Trump, to his credit, appears reluctant to follow the hawks into another Middle East conflict, he has so botched his diplomatic options—by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement and alienating allies—that it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. The president needs to check out the interchange between Priam and Achilles.

More on that in a moment. Let’s look first at Alexander’s argument that Homer is an anti-war poet, which goes against the perception that epics are predominantly about glorifying heroes. Alexander counters that

no subsequent work of literature of any genre has ever made the fate of the entirety of any people more vividly and tragically unambiguous. In the epic’s finale, the import of its title becomes clear: the Iliad relates the fate of the soon-to-be-extinct city of Ilion. Through the speeches of Andromache and Priam, Homer conjures the individual destructions that will accompany the catastrophic fall of Troy: the Trojan War represents Total War.

Alexander notes that our distorted view of the Iliad can be traced back to those elite schools whose “classically-based curriculum was dedicated to inculcating into the national’s future manhood the desirability of ‘dying well’ for king and country.” This is not how original audiences would have seen the work, however. As refugees from the fall of the Mycenean world, they would have found in The Iliad scenes that recalled their own suffering:

The Iliad speaks casually of suppliant exiles who have fled their homes after murdering men of high estate, the selling of captives into slavery, the looting of cities, threats of usurpation, all of which provide murky glimpses into the period of upheaval in which its tradition was forged. It is to such actual memories that we may owe the Iliad’s most haunting images. Priam’s predictions that he will live to see “innocent children / hurled to the ground in the terror of battle’” and that his own body will be ripped raw by his dogs, pitifully revealing his old man’s private parts—the shocking specificity of such scenes arise, surely, not from poetic invention but historic memory.

Throughout her book, Alexander makes it clear that Achilles would choose peace over glory. Here’s what he has to say to Ajax and Odysseus early in the poem:

if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back
     home again.”

To be sure, he will later reengage in the fighting, but that’s to avenge Patroklus, not for glory. Alexander concludes that the Iliad

never betrays its subject, which is war. Honoring the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice and courage, Homer nonetheless determinedly concludes his epic with a sequence of funerals, inconsolable lamentation, and shattered lives. War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory.

And now for the extraordinary encounter of Priam and Achilles, where each recognizes the humanity of the other and which offers hope of reconciliation between enemies. Priam has ventured out, in peril of his own life, to beg the body of Hector from Achilles, and Achilles sees his own sorrow in the old man’s request.

“Honor then the gods, Achilles, and take pity upon me
remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful;
I have gone through what no other mortal on earth
     has gone through
I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed
     my children.”

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving
for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and
     pushed him
gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam
     sat huddled
at the feet of Achilles and wept close for manslaughtering
and Achilles wept now for his own father, now again
for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved
     in the house.

The encounter leads Achilles to offer hospitality to Priam, and the two agree to a nine-day truce that Alexander compares to the famous Christmas Truce between German and British soldiers during World War I. Alexander writes,

Priam and Achilles meet in the very twilight of their lives. Their extinction is certain and there will be no reward to behaving well, and yet, in the face of implacable fate and an indifferent universe, they mutually assert the highest ideals of their humanity. Like all cease-fires, the truce that Achilles pledges for Priam floats the specter of a wistful opportunity.

As in the Iliad, today we have powerful figures rooting for bloodshed. Hera and Athena, determined that Troy be utterly destroyed, have their modern equivalents. Yet against these implacable forces, two suffering humans carve out a different path, at least for a brief moment. Art sees possibilities that political leaders miss.

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Calvino on Reading the Classics

Fragonard, Young Girl Reading


After many years of hearing about it, I have finally read Italo Calvino’s stimulating “Why Read the Classics,” published in The New York Review of Books in 1986. A number of his points are pertinent to this blog.

The Italian novelist and essayist provides many definitions of “classics” in the piece. He starts out by saying, “The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: ‘I am rereading…’ and never ‘I am reading….'” That being said, sometimes we forget we have read them. That’s because the classics can work on us at such a deep level that they become

part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us.

This leads to another definition. Classics are

books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

No only do they feel like they are part of the collective unconscious but they actually become part of the unconscious. Therefore, one never feels as though one is reading a classic for the first time, even if this is in fact the case. As Calvino puts it, “Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.”

Fleshing this idea out, he explains,

The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed.

Calvino provides the following examples:

If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or expansions. When reading Kafka, I cannot avoid approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective “Kafkaesque,” which one is likely to hear every quarter of an hour, applied indiscriminately.

This observation leads to two more definitions of a classic:

A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives a lot of pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.

Along with feelings of familiarity, readers also experience unexpected pleasures:

The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.

Or put another way:

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

Later in the essay, Calvino makes a couple of observations that apply directly to this blog. The classics, he says, are not meant to take us out of contemporary world events but to help us situate ourselves within them:

The latest news may well be banal or mortifying, but it nonetheless remains a point at which to stand and look both backward and forward. To be able to read the classics you have to know “from where” you are reading them; otherwise both the book and the reader will be lost in a timeless cloud. This, then, is the reason why the greatest “yield” from reading the classics will be obtained by someone who knows how to alternate them with the proper dose of current affairs.

This leads to two further definitions. In the first, classics make contemporary events appear as “background noise,” even though this noise is our lives. In the second, the classics themselves are the background noise. They refuse to go away, even when all our attention in on more pressing concerns:

A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.


A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

After saying that the classics should alternate with current affairs, however, Calvino then admits they seem incompatible:

There remains the fact that reading the classics appears to clash with our rhythm of life, which no longer affords long periods of time or the spaciousness of humanistic leisure. It also contradicts the eclecticism of our culture, which would never be capable of compiling a catalog of things classical such as would suit our needs.

This admission in turn leads him to speculate that perhaps the classics don’t serve any purpose at all, a conclusion that contradicts the very premise of Better Living through Beowulf. By the end, he is making a very modest argument for reading:

The only reason one can possibly adduce is that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics.

Needless to say, I think there are stronger reasons than this, some of which appear earlier in Calvino’s own article. But I appreciate how he doesn’t want to reduce the classics to utilitarian instruments. To this end, he cites an observation about Socrates by Rumanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran:

While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning a tune on the flute. “What good will it do you,” they asked, “to know this tune before you die?”

In other words, read the classics or engage in art because, useless though they may ultimately seem, they will enrich the present moment.

Of course, Socrates also famously instructed us to “know thyself.” The classics help us do this better than almost anything else.

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Christian Man Bitten by Horse


There’s little I find more delicious than a humorous conjunction between a news story and a satiric poem. The news story in this case is Vice President Michael Pence’s claim that he was bitten by 2015 Triple Crown winner Pharaoh. The poem is Oliver Goldsmith’s “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.”

The Hill reports on Pence’s claim:

Addressing GOP lawmakers at [a] House GOP retreat in Baltimore…, Pence said the famed Triple Crown winner bit his arm so hard he “almost collapsed” during a visit in March 2018.

“I just gritted my teeth and smiled,” Pence said. “Because you know what, in our line of work, you’re gonna get bit sometimes, but you keep fighting forward.”

Some are dubious:

But farm manager Dermot Ryan, who was there when Pence was presented with an American Pharoah halter, said Friday that the horse is “sweet” and that it would be out of character for American Pharoah to bite someone, the McClatchy news group reported.

“If he gave someone a nasty bite, I’d know it,” Ryan said. 

Goldsmith’s poem features a man who, we are told, runs a “godly race” and is the soul of Christian piety. Our sanctimonious vice president, meanwhile, proudly proclaims his Christianity every chance he gets. Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, authors of the Shadow President: The Truth about Mike Pence, tell several revealing stories in a CNN profile about Pence’s Christian background. For instance:

As a college freshman, he was elected to head his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta. He also took command of a fellowship group, Vespers, which met in the campus chapel every Tuesday evening. At the frat he turned in his brothers for drinking beer. At the chapel he passed judgment on his peers.


Eventually his faith led him to reject some friends and even regard his fiancée, Karen, as a sinner whom he would have to forgive in order to marry. These habits of mind, later revealed in his hostility to equality for gay people and even climate science, were formed when he was barely an adult.

Vespers was organized around songs and testimonies of faith. It offered community to students who were adjusting to the emotional challenge of leaving home. It also gave the guitar-playing Pence the opportunity to preach with the zeal of a new convert to right-wing Christianity. His schoolmate Linda Koon recalls a charismatic fellow who turned cruel when she failed to meet his definition of true faith.

“He was rigid, condescending and exclusionary,” Koon said in an interview. “You had to fit into his little pocket of Christianity, and I didn’t fit.”

Koon’s problem was that she couldn’t recount a dramatic come-to-Jesus tale of Christian conversion. “He acted like he had been struck by lightning,” she said. “I had just grown up in the Lutheran Church and had always been a Christian. That wasn’t good enough. He told me that wasn’t good enough, ‘God doesn’t want your kind.’ It was a very narrow view of an infinite being.”

There’s little sign he has mellowed.

Now for one of British literature’s great comic poems:

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,--
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,--
Whene'er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,--
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound,
And curs of low degree.

The dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad, and bit the man.

Around from all the neighboring streets,
The wondering neighbors ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied;
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

How could Pharoah have bitten so good a man? If you want to worry about one of the parties in the affair, however, worry about the horse.

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Which Literary Conman Is Trump?

Fishburne and Branagh as Othello and Iago (1995)


As part of my weekly series (delayed from Friday) on how literature can help us understand and defeat Trumpism, I look today at various literary conmen. What useful insights can they provide into the president?

Combing through past essays, I see I’ve compared him to Twain’s King and Duke, John Gay’s Mac the Knife, Melville’s Confidence Man, Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Iago.

The Twain comparison occurred early when I was first learning about Trump University and Trump steaks, about Trump’s bankruptcies and how he defrauded contractors. Like Twain’s conmen, Trump seemed to take as much pleasure in the con as in the money he got from it. He could sound like the Duke and the King boasting to each other about what they’ve done:

The Duke:

Well, I’d been selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth—and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it—but I stayed about one night longer than I ought to, and was just in the act of sliding out when I ran across you on the trail this side of town, and you told me they were coming, and begged me to help you to get off.  

The Dauphin:

Well, I’d ben a-running’ a little temperance revival thar ’bout a week, and was the pet of the women folks, big and little, for I was makin’ it mighty warm for the rummies, I tell you, and takin’ as much as five or six dollars a night—ten cents a head, children and niggers free—and business a-growin’ all the time, when somehow or another a little report got around last night that I had a way of puttin’ in my time with a private jug on the sly.  

Of course, things get more serious when they defraud Mary Jane and her sisters and when they sell Jim. Things got more serious with Trump as well, with his con about invading rapists and murderers resulting in kids torn from their parents and dying in detention. Now that we see hurricane victims kept from entering the country and young people on life-saving medication ordered out of it, the con has taken a darker cast.

Only many of Trump supporters still see him as audiences once saw Gay’s Mac the Knife. Although Mac is a highwayman and a bigamist, he enchants viewers with his effrontery, his way with women, and his ability to slip out of trouble at a moment’s notice. Twice when he is about to be hanged, Mac miraculously escapes, the second time thanks to a reprieve arranged by the beggar playwright.

Similarly, while Trump appeared toast following the Hollywood Access tape, in a very Mac-like move, he (or friends) arranged a distraction, releasing stolen Democratic Committee e-mails and sending everyone scrambling in another direction. Scandals that would have ended anyone else’s career are just opportunities for Trump to thumb his nose at authorities. If he is defeated in 2020, don’t be surprised if he pardons himself to escape pending indictments. (That is, if he actually steps down.)

Melville vies with Twain as an astute observer of American conmen, and in The Confidence Man he answers a question that puzzled many of us during the 2016 election: How did so many people trust an outright liar like Trump over a careful truth teller like Hillary Clinton? And yes, Politifact reported in 2016 that, of all presidential candidates since 2007, Clinton was second in truthfulness only to Barack Obama, finishing ahead of Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders. Trump, of course, was dead last.

Melville’s novel is about a flimflam artist who boards a steamboat and dons a series of disguises to bamboozle the passengers. At one point he goes to work on the ship’s barber, who has put a “No Trust” sign—meaning no credit—in his window. The confidence man convinces him to start trusting people, after which he wriggles out of paying for his shave.

The barber helps us understand how Trump makes his lies compelling, even getting at the way that Trump’s flamboyant hair gives him confidence. (The barber also gets at Trump’s underlying insecurity–without such hair, the barber says, a man is shamefaced and fearful.) We also learn why the Democrats’ careful use of language (say, around impeachment) damage them more than Trump’s “pants on fire” “four Pinocchios” fabrications. Responding to the question, “How does the mere handling of the outside of men’s heads lead you to distrust the inside of their hearts?”, the barber replies,

[C]an one be forever dealing in macassar oil, hair dyes, cosmetics, false moustaches, wigs, and toupees, and still believe that men are wholly what they look to be? What think you, sir, are a thoughtful barber’s reflections, when, behind a careful curtain, he shaves the thin, dead stubble off a head, and then dismisses it to the world, radiant in curling auburn? To contrast the shamefaced air behind the curtain, the fearful looking forward to being possibly discovered there by a prying acquaintance, with the cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps forth again, a gay deception, into the street, while some honest, shock-headed fellow humbly gives him the wall!

Then he explains what is the Democrats’ problem:

 Ah, sir, they may talk of the courage of truth, but my trade teaches me that truth sometimes is sheepish. Lies, lies, sir, brave lies are the lions!”

So there you have it: Trump tells brave lies whereas his opponents parse their language.

So far I have focused on colorful conmen, but a closer fit might be Milton’s Satan, who adds spite to his con. Comparing him to the president, we begin to see a depth of malevolence we might previously have missed.

That Satan is a conman is fairly evident. He convinces a third of Heaven’s angels that they should resent God for holding them in thrall. While Satan employs the language of freedom, however, he is really out only for himself. Like the fallen angels, Trump’s followers may soon discover they elevated someone who leaves them worse off than they were originally.

Satan’s narcissistic mission is suicidal from the first. It is also driven by spite.

New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz saw spite at work in Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act. The 24 million newly insured were to pay for the fact that they were helped by Obama. Similarly, the earth will have to pay for Obama’s focus on renewables, regulation, and conservation.     

Milton’s narcissistic villain believes that everything is about him. God made Adam and Eve, he is convinced, just to spite him:

     [T]o spite us more,
[God] Determin’d to advance into our room
A Creature formed of Earth, and him endow,
Exalted from so base original, 
With Heavenly spoils, our spoils…

If spite motivated God, Satan says, then his own spite is justified:

Whom us the more to spite his Maker raised
From dust: spite then with spite is best repaid.

Satan, like Trump, brings his followers on board. In their council of war, the fallen angels approve Satan’s plan to stick it to God:

But from the Author of all ill could Spring
So deep a malice, to confound the race
Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell
To mingle and involve, done all to spite
The great Creator? But their spite still serves 
His glory to augment. The bold design
Pleased highly those infernal States, and joy
Sparkled in all their eyes; with full assent
They vote…

Satan takes a sadistic relish in imagining the suffering that Adam and Eve will undergo, even while pretending to be sympathetic. Gazing at them, he purrs,

Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy…

They will have God to thank for this suffering, he tells them:

                                             Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring; if no better place, 
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wronged…

Milton notes that Satan’s is utilizing “the tyrant’s plea” here, pretending that Adam and Eve will be victims of political necessity rather than pure spite. But don’t be fooled. Like Trump with his enemies, Satan wants to make others suffer.

My final conman is one who is also driven by spite but who plays a subtler game than Satan. In Iago’s case, the resentment is racially driven.

In this comparison, Othello would be Obama, the high-minded and competent leader whose fatal flaw is his credulity. Obama, who went high when others went low, got played by two conniving racists in the 2016 election (Trump and Putin), believing that it was enough to be on the side of right. As noted above, at times Trump appears to see his life’s mission as undoing Obama’s legacy. Iago has a similar mission.

As to the reasons for Obama’s and Othello’s credulity, it stands to reason they would believe in a system that recognizes their qualities and elevates them accordingly. Each is officially accepted within the club, with even Desdemona’s father eventually opening his arms to the Moor. Their faith that merit will rise to the top, even in a racist society, seems borne out. Perhaps because reality has matched up with their dreams, both Obama and Othello underestimate the extreme lengths to which racial animosity drives their enemies.

We the audience are given access to Iago’s thinking and thus can watch the hatred at work. It’s as though we’re watching Fox News rather than living in an MSNBC bubble. We see Iago’s rage in his early conversations with Roderigo, who has his own bone to pick with Othello over Desdemona.

I think we can dismiss, as the reason for Iago’s hatred, Othello’s choice of Cassio as his lieutenant. After all, Iago’s rage doesn’t diminish once he himself gets the post. I’ve written in the past about how we see similar racial resentment, driven by threatened white entitlement, amongst the young Venetian men who taunt Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.  

To use today’s terms, Iago is driven by fear of losing status, not by economic anxiety.

 Note, for instance, how Iago talks about Othello’s marriage to Desdemona. “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is topping your white ewe,” he tells her father. This is how racists often experience miscegenation: it is they themselves who feel desecrated, with the white woman symbolizing their own sense of violation.  

Iago, like Trump, gets his way by saying one thing and acting another. Arguing that loyalty is for suckers, Iago mimics the “forms and visages of duty” while actually attending only on himself:

                                           Others there are
Who, trimm’d in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them and when they have lined their coats
Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul;
And such a one do I profess myself….
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end…

I think of Trump promising that he would work only for the American people, even as he does himself homage by lining his own coat. “I want to be greedy for our country,” he told us during the campaign, but it’s clear that he has only ever been greedy for himself. Every day we see new instances of the Trumps monetizing the presidency.

Greed is one thing but, like Trump, Iago also thrives on the chaos he creates. He’s a consummate liar who riles people up with fake news, the major instance being Desdemona’s supposed love for Cassio. Like Trump, he is plagued by “the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The Meat it feeds on.” In the end, again like Trump, he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.

These literary characters remind us just how much chaos conmen can create. While we may find ourselves at times enjoying how they upend the established order, good people get hurt. Sometimes the damage is irreparable.

Posted in Gay (John), Melville (Herman), Milton (John), Shakespeare (William), Twain (Mark) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stately Pines, Cathedral Towers

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest (1902)

Spiritual Sunday

Last night I attended the annual gathering of the Southern Cumberland Regional Land Trust, a group dedicated to preserving wilderness areas in the southern Appalachians. Although the group doesn’t describe itself as a spiritual organization, its efforts have the feel of a sacred trust.  

From the beginning American poets, including such noteworthy figures as Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver, have looked to the woods to find God. Here’s one such poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow’s foil is Europe’s gothic cathedrals, with their stately towers and elaborate tombs. “My Cathedral” resembles Dickinson’s “Some keep the sabbath going to church,” which opens:

Some keep the Sabbath going to
Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

For Longfellow, the dome is two stately pines, and he too looks to the avian world for his choristers:

Like two cathedral towers these stately pines
  Uplift their fretted summits tipped with cones;
  The arch beneath them is not built with stones,
  Not Art but Nature traced these lovely lines,
And carved this graceful arabesque of vines;
  No organ but the wind here sighs and moans,
  No sepulchre conceals a martyr's bones.
  No marble bishop on his tomb reclines.
Enter! the pavement, carpeted with leaves,
  Gives back a softened echo to thy tread!
  Listen! the choir is singing; all the birds,
In leafy galleries beneath the eaves,
  Are singing! listen, ere the sound be fled,
  And learn there may be worship without words.

The concluding couplet appears to allude to Keats’s fading nightingale in his ode to the bird:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem
        Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
                Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
                        In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Each morning I walk beneath towering oaks and pines as I make my way from the guest cottage where Julia and I reside to my mother’s house. Unfailingly I experience a sense of awe, as though I am in an outdoors sanctuary. I have a glimpse of worship without words.

Posted in Dickinson (Emily), Keats (John), Longfellow (Henry Wadsworth) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friday 13th Is a Date Bewitched

In a rare occasion, a full harvest moon falls this year on Friday 13

Friday the 13th

My mother unearthed this Friday the 13th poem for her Sewanee Messenger poetry column. Unfortunately, we don’t know the author or the date. Enjoy.

Friday, thirteenth, is a date bewitched:
So be not born or hanged or hitched
Or hired or fired on that day;
Cut not thy nails, nor mow the hay,
Or wash the clothes, or visit sick
Or turn the bed, or take a trip,
Or spill the salt, or burn the bread--
Better thou shouldst stay in bed!
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Invictus,” a Flawed Poem Easily Abused

William Ernest Henley, author of “Invictus”


In two recent guest posts (here and here), Radnor High School English teacher Carl Rosin describes his students wrestling with two well-known poems that were cited by the Christchurch mass murderer in his justification. One issue is how much leeway a reader has in interpreting a poem. In his students’ responses, Carl mentions some disagreement over whether or not the murderer misinterpreted William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (1875).

Oscar Wilde, when cross-examined by the court that would eventually sentence him to two years of hard labor, said that he was not responsible for what people took away from Picture of Dorian Gray. While I think this is generally correct given all the strange readings that works elicit, I argue today that “Invictus” does bear some responsibility for its use by the Christchurch killer—and also by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who cited it immediately before his execution. I say this even while acknowledging that Nelson Mandela made positive use of it during his 27 years in prison.

“Invictus” may be memorable but it has some serious flaws, among which is a basic misunderstanding of soul. When the poet talks of his “unconquerable soul” and later says that he is “captain of my soul” (this repetition is also a problem), we must necessarily ask what he means by this. Is a soul something that one captains?

The Faustus story grapples with this question, with Marlowe’s and then Goethe’s control-freak hero thinking he can “sell his soul” to get whatever he desires. In other words, he regards the soul as a thing that can be bought and sold. We learn, however, that soul is not subject to mastery. The soul is our inner divinity, that which is most precious and integral to us. We can close our ears and harden our hearts to its call, but the soul itself is beyond any act of will on our part.

For instance, Marlowe’s Faustus is all but told that he never sold his soul and that he has but to open his heart to God to get back in touch with it. As the old man puts it at the end of the play,

I see an angel hovers o'er thy head,
And, with a vial full of precious grace,
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.

Faustus, however, is unwilling to relinquish control. He would rather die an agonizing death.

When Henley talks of soul, I think he’s really speaking of dignity and self-esteem. His sentiment is closer to the lyrics of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love”:

If I fail, if I succeed
At least I'll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can't take away my dignity…

This is what Mandela heard in Henley’s poem, and it’s great that he felt bolstered. But Mandela was far better served by the other authors he read in prison: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens and Sophocles. “Invictus” gave him a bumper sticker slogan but these other works helped him understand the human dramas that he was enmeshed in.

Henley wrote “Invictus” after having undergone an amputation and a complicated surgery, and as with Mandela one doesn’t want to critique him for infelicitous phrasing that comforted him. Those of us who come after, however, can observe that the poem does not explore soul. It’s more about the triumph of the will:

Out of the night that covers me 
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

That Henley could speak with such ringing confidence is in part because he was a citizen of a nation that used such language while conquering the world. Mastery was in the air so the idea of captaining his soul came naturally.

I’ve written previously of similarities between “Invictus” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (1833), especially the final lines, “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Stirring though the lines may be, they are problematic given that Tennyson is echoing Milton’s Satan:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield . . .

Tennyson recognizes that there’s something Satanic in Ulysses’s drive. Not man enough to govern Ithaca, which he relegates to a son whom he regards as soft, he will sacrifice his crew to satisfy his restless striving. Unlike Henley, Tennyson sees the dark side of heroic individualism.

In other words, there’s a reason why murderous monomaniacs are drawn to “Invictus,” just as there’s a reason why they are drawn to the works of Ayn Rand. While they fantasize dominating “the bludgeonings of chance,” in their mind such bludgeoning consists of–not painful surgeries–but the disrespect of women, liberals, Muslims, Jews, and people of color.

Think of this next time you read “Invictus.”

Posted in Henley (William Ernest), Tennyson (Alfred Lord) | 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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