Pushing Back Against Lit’s Detractors

Edvard Munch, Andreas Reading

Wednesday

Everyone knows that an essay needs a good thesis to be good. The same is true of a book, and although I have a complete manuscript of my book Better Living through Literature: A 2500-Year-Old Debate, I keep tinkering with my rationale for writing it. Here is my latest effort, which gets closer to the matter than anything I’ve written previously. The passage follows several memorable reading stories that I have included to demonstrate that literature matters:

Striking though these stories are, they are not unusual. Indeed, people have been having life-changing encounters with literature, oral and written, since families sat around campfires in prehistoric times. If STEM enthusiasts think they can sideline literature now, it’s partly because those responsible for sharing it with the public downplay or overlook its transformative potential. Think how differently literature would appear to people if they saw it helping us reconfigure damaged relationships, articulate life goals, deal with suffering, counteract oppression, and much, much more. In fact, what if they thought of literature as a personal improvement plan, designed by some of the world’s greatest minds and specially customized to their specific needs. At the cost of no more than a few hours of focused attention, you can receive a special program that knows you better than you know yourself—that intuits what you most desire and points the way towards a rich and fulfilling life. Book lovers already sense that literature can provide these services, but what if our educational and cultural institutions spread the word to everyone?

Instead, too many contemporary scholars treat literature as a specialized discourse, cut off from the rest of life. As this serves to marginalize literature, it’s easy for others to marginalize it as well. This is not how great thinkers of the past have seen it, however. Plato, Aristotle, and many who have followed have seen literature as a powerful change agent—usually for good although occasionally not—and they did so because they themselves felt transformed by literary encounters. Plato theorized about poetry’s life effects because he was shaken to the core by The Odyssey, and the same was true of Aristotle with Oedipus, Sir Philip Sidney with The Aeneid, Samuel Johnson with King Lear, Percy Shelley with Dante’s Divine Comedy, John Stuart Mill with Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels with Balzac’s Human Comedy, and Sigmund Freud with Oedipus and Hamlet. If these works had an outsized impact on them, they figured, then literature must be a force to be reckoned with.

While their writings on literature are well-known–most of the works treated in these pages appear in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism–for the most part scholars have not focused on what these thinkers have to say about literature’s life-changing potential. My hope is that, by gathering the thinkers together and showing how each makes a compelling case for literature improving our lives, I strengthen the arguments against those who would relegate literature to the sidelines.

For those engaged in literary study, this book will serve as an overview of the debates, a fascinating subject in its own right. But for the average person and even the casual reader, the question of how literature affects us is no less important. It matters when we hear a book has been censored in our child’s school. It matters when the liberal arts come under attack, when schools are told to focus more on writing than on literature, when the classics are declared irrelevant. It matters when you yourself decide which books to read in your limited spare time, including what is lost when you settle for lesser lit. What are you depriving yourself of when you confine yourself to formulaic genre fiction or when you read no literature at all? The thinkers you encounter here have seen versions of all these situations.

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Literature for Transforming Lives

Harold Knight, The Reader

Tuesday

As I continue to work my way through Thor Magnus Tangeras’s Literature and Transformation: A Narrative Study of Life-Changing Experiences, I am getting a clearer sense of my own book project. Tangeras makes intense reading experiences the foundation for his study, interviewing subjects who have had such experiences and then seeking to map out the psychological processes involved. I too put significant literary encounters at the core of my book, although in my case I turn to what leading thinkers throughout the ages have said about what these encounters mean and what they accomplish.

I’m also interested in more than literature’s psychological effects. Assessing literature’s impact on history involves other tools that analyzing sit-down interviews.

At the center of Literature and Transformation are five extended interviews with readers whom Tangeras either encountered haphazardly or found through sending out a call. In this course of the book we encounter

–Veronica, who used Lady Chatterley’s Love to break free from a dead-end relationship;
–Nina, who used Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka to break through mental barriers and become a successful musician;
–Esther, who used Norwegian poet Inger Hagerup’s “Episode” to understand and thereby come to terms with her parents’ dysfunctional marriage;
–Jane, who used Doris Lessing’s novel Shikasta to escape a debilitating depression and embark on a new career; and
–Sue, who used Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life” to, again, escape depression.

Because psychology, as a social science, likes to nail things down, Tangeras wants to spell out every step in the change process. His operating principle appears to be that, when readers have a powerful encounter with a work of literature, they integrate it into their self-narrative. Or as Tangeras puts it,

the expanded affect-consciousness allows for an altered sense of self in which the crisis can be resolved. Thus, in being moved new movement is created: that which was stuck is loosened, that which was frozen melts, that which was in the dark is brought into light and so on. Such transformations of the subject’s sense of self does not mean that life becomes easier or free from suffering, but rather that, as the muddled, restrictive, unclear or shallow self-experience is given greater depth, clarity, connectedness and openness, a renewed vitality and sense of direction becomes available to the subject.

Not everyone integrates literature in the same way, however. Therefore, Tangeras tries to categorize (1) the different ways that different readers engage with a work, (2) the different ways that readers perceive themselves being moved by a work, and (3) the different shapes the reader’s crisis may take, whether it involves “stuckness, restriction, despair, confusion or isolation.” In the reader stories featured in the book, different readers have different breakthroughs depending on the multiple factors involved.

While Tangeras is thought-provoking, I find myself often preferring the explanations his subjects give for the significance of their reading experiences over his intricate psychological analysis. In other words, I prefer a humanities approach to a scientific one. For instance, when Veronica reads the following passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I like how clear she it about how it starts her on her road to splitting with her husband. Connie is Lady Chatterley:

Connie really sometimes felt she would die at this time. She felt she was being crushed to death by weird lies, and by the amazing cruelty of idiocy.

Veronica says that Connie’s subsequent twists and turns allowed her to recognize her own back and forth, where she broke off the relationship, then went back, and then broke it off for good. In the novel, Connie has her own back and forth after she meets the gamekeeper Mellors. As Veronica explains,

So in the book [her marriage] goes from that being enough, to her then meeting Mellors. And the way that he almost changes something inside her, the way that her feelings then sit. Her emotions sit differently within her stomach and she reacts to things differently. There’s a part where she’s almost become a bit of a zombie, everyone’s quite worried about her and it looks like she’s quite ill and her sister comes along to intervene, to take her away. And again, that was something that I could connect with. With all the other emotions that were happening, I fell into a depression, so I had that sort of fuzziness around me where I was just getting through and could do my day-to-day stuff, but just felt quite numb, to the outside world.

And further on:

I think it was when I finished the book, and was just digesting it. And then the feeling arose: OK, I know what I need to do now. This is something different, I feel differently now.

Even though Veronica wouldn’t spit up with her partner for another six months, she said the novel got the ball rolling:

I remember there being a real kind of crystallising moment for me, thinking if I can want this [freedom] for a fictional character, then surely I can want it for myself. And that it shouldn’t just be, pardon me, a fantasy or like a ‘maybe one day’, or ‘I’ll get there in the end’. I realised that if I was going to make any changes, then it would have to be by my own hands, by my own doing. There wasn’t going to be a wonderful man to whisk me off and make me feel differently about myself, it had to come from me and from within. And it helped me find that, I’m not saying straightaway, but it certainly gave me the spark to make me to want to go and find it for myself and see what that would look like. It wasn’t for a few months afterwards that I decided to terminate the relationship, but the decision for me internally had been made, that this wasn’t good enough and that I had to do something. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was at that point, but my willingness to tolerate the status quo sort of evaporated, and something solidified in me about wanting to make a change.

One thing I appreciate about Tangeras is his distinction between literature as self-help and literature as exploration. The transformative experiences he describes are of the latter sort:

It is not a case of self-help reading, in which the reader has identified a problem, and then looks for an apt source that will provide a solution. Instead, what transpires is that, over and beyond the initial motivation for picking up the book – whether it was by obligation or serendipity, through titillation, after recommendation or by association with a pleasurable state – at some point it turns into an I–-Thou encounter; at some point these readers unreservedly give themselves over to, and surrender to, the experience, and become fully involved, body, heart and mind. Furthermore, in this evolving and deepening devotional transaction, these readers are deeply moved. The experience of a panoply of feelings that traditionally have straddled aesthetic and religious domains – such as wonder, awe, tenderness, jubilation and faith – come into full awareness.

Elsewhere he mentions the role of serendipity—one just happens across the book that one most needs. I’ve sometimes described this as the book seeming to find you, almost jumping off a shelf into your hands. Literature is often most powerful when it catches you by surprise–“surprised by joy,” as it were–and having a book prescribed detracts from that experience. It’s a problem that both Tangeras and I have with bibliotherapy. But that’s a subject for a future post.

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Blessing the Boats at St. Mary’s

A replica of the Dove, which landed in St. Mary’s City, MD in 1634

Monday

Yesterday I mentioned Lucille Clifton’s poem “blessing the boats (at st. mary’s).” As I explain below, it was written while Lucille was a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I find it a miraculous poem:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back         may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

The title refers to the Blessing of the Fleet that occurs every October at St. Clement’s Island, Maryland. It commemorates the blessing of the Arc and the Dove in England, which set off with the first English settlers in Maryland in 1633. They landed at St. Clement’s five months later. A modern replica of the Dove is pictured above.

At St. Mary’s College, however, we take the poem to refer to us. After all, we are a campus defined by our waterfront on the St. Mary’s River. There are almost always boats on the river and we have long had one of the top sailing programs in the country. This poem is inscribed on the wall of our campus center so that students will see it on their way to the dining hall.

In this way, the poem serves to put a frame around the St. Mary’s educational experience. For it is not, of course, only about boats. It is about people venturing into the unknown and about other people, those who love them, letting them go. The adventurers may be fearful and they may be passing beyond the lip of our understanding, but they can rest assured that they will have the wind of love—of their parents, teachers, and friends—supporting them. Those who are waving from the shore ask only for a momentary kiss and then accept that our children and students will be focused on the horizon and on the “water/ water waving forever.”

The image of waving, incidentally, reminds me of the penultimate paragraph in the James Baldwin short story “Sonny’s Blues” where Sonny’s fellow jazz musicians are trying to entice him back into music after a prison stint for heroine. Sonny’s brother sees how hesitant Sonny is about playing again but also notes how the band leader is assuring him that all will be well:

He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing–he had been there, and he knew. 

In Lucille’s poem, I love the image of the wind, a divine spirit that propels and that will be with the sailors always. I also enjoy Lucille’s word play in “love your back.” The “your” sounds like Black dialectic for “you,” pointing to confidence that love will remain even when the one who loves is absent. But it also functions as a possessive pronoun—you can go forth confident because we have your back.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the “this” and the “that” are. What counts is our wide-eyed openness to the

Monday

Yesterday I mentioned Lucille Clifton’s poem “blessing the boats (at st. mary’s).” As I explain below, it was written while Lucille was a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I find it a miraculous poem:

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back         may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

The title refers to the Blessing of the Fleet that occurs every October at St. Clement’s Island, Maryland. It commemorates the blessing of the Arc and the Dove in England, which set off with the first English settlers in Maryland in 1633. They landed at St. Clement’s five months later. A modern replica of the Dove is pictured above.

At St. Mary’s College, however, we take the poem to refer to us. After all, we are a campus defined by our waterfront on the St. Mary’s River. There are almost always boats on the water and we have long had one of the top sailing programs in the country. This poem is inscribed on the wall of our campus center so that students will see it on their way to the dining hall.

In this way, the poem serves to put a frame around the St. Mary’s educational experience. For it is not, of course, only about boats. It is about people venturing into the unknown and about other people, those who love them, letting them go. The adventurers may be fearful and they may be passing beyond the lip of our understanding, but they can rest assured that they will have the wind of love—of their parents, teachers, and friends—supporting them. Those who are waving from the shore ask only for a momentary kiss and then accept that our children and students will be focused on the horizon and on the “water/ water waving forever.”

The image of waving, incidentally, reminds me of the penultimate paragraph in the James Baldwin short story “Sonny’s Blues” where Sonny’s fellow jazz musicians are trying to entice him back into music after a prison stint for heroine. Sonny’s brother sees how hesitant Sonny is about playing again but also notes how the band leader in assuring him that all will be well:

He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing–he had been there, and he knew. 

In Lucille’s poem, I love the image of the wind, a divine spirit that propels and that will be with the sailors always. I also enjoy Lucille’s word play in “love your back.” The “your” sounds like Black dialect for “you,” pointing to confidence that love will remain even when the one who loves is absent. But it also functions as a possessive pronoun—you can go forth confident because we have your back.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where we sail from or to. What matters is our wide-eyed openness to the journey.

The poem has been read several times at St. Mary’s commencements. Indeed, our ceremony is set up in a way that conforms with the idea in the poem. When our students first come to St. Mary’s, we greet them in a convocation where they have their backs to the St. Mary’s River. Then the chairs are turned around during the graduation ceremonies, and the students can see the river beyond the speakers’ platform.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where we sail from or to, this or that. What matters is our wide-eyed openness to the journey.

The poem has been read several times at St. Mary’s commencements. Indeed, our ceremony is set up in a way that conforms with the idea in the poem. When our students first come to St. Mary’s, we greet them in a convocation where they have their backs to the St. Mary’s River. Then the chairs are turned around during the graduation ceremonies, and the students can see the river beyond the speakers’ platform.

Every time I reread the poem, I think of the many students I have taught, sailing out into unknown waters. While most I never see or hear about again, I love them all, just the same.

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The Lesson of the Falling Leaves

Ilya Ostroukhov, Golden Autumn (1887)

Spiritual Sunday

Lucille Clifton has written some wonderful poems about letting go, which are impressive given the multiple tragedies she faced, including the untimely death of her husband. One is “the blessing of the boats,” which I’ve written about multiple times (including here). Another is “the lesson of the falling leaves,” which is all the more powerful because it is short and succinct, proceeding through a series of simple declarative sentences.

The poem reminds me of the concluding stanzas of Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods.” The two women were friends, and I’ve encountered a number of their poems that seem to be in conversation with each other. In this case, I think Clifton’s poem came first but I’m not sure. “Blackwater Woods” concludes,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

So here’s “the lesson of the falling leaves”:

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves

If you think of the lyric as the leaves fall around you, you will find yourself in agreement.

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Bertie Wooster Bungles the Catch

P.G. Wodehouse on the cricket field

Friday

I owe today’s post to my mother’s weekly poetry column in the Sewanee Messenger. As today is the birthday of P.G. Wodehouse, legendary creator of the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series, she had me delve into Wodehouse’s poetry. We decided on the following poem, which sounds very much as though it features the inept Bertie. The poem is doubly relevant as America is currently in the throes of the baseball playoffs.

To be sure, this Bertie lookalike is playing cricket, not baseball, but both sports involve catching fly balls. Or not catching them, in this case.

Missed
By P.G. Wodehouse (10/15/1881)

The sun in the heavens was beaming,
    The breeze bore an odour of hay,
My flannels were spotless and gleaming,
    My heart was unclouded and gay;
The ladies, all gaily apparelled,
    Sat round looking on at the match,
In the tree-tops the dicky-birds carolled,
    All was peace — till I bungled that catch.
 
My attention the magic of summer
    Had lured from the game — which was wrong.
The bee (that inveterate hummer)
    Was droning its favourite song.
I was tenderly dreaming of Clara
    (On her not a girl is a patch),
When, ah, horror! there soared through the air a
    Decidedly possible catch.
 
I heard in a stupor the bowler
    Emit a self-satisfied ‘Ah!’
The small boys who sat on the roller
    Set up an expectant ‘Hurrah!’
The batsman with grief from the wicket
    Himself had begun to detach —
And I uttered a groan and turned sick. It
    Was over. I’d buttered the catch.
 
O, ne’er, if I live to a million,
    Shall I feel such a terrible pang.
From the seats on the far-off pavilion
    A loud yell of ecstasy rang.
By the handful my hair (which is auburn)
    I tore with a wrench from my thatch,
And my heart was seared deep with a raw burn
    At the thought that I’d foozled that catch.
 
Ah, the bowler’s low, querulous mutter
    Points loud, unforgettable scoff!
Oh, give me my driver and putter!
    Henceforward my game shall be golf.
If I’m asked to play cricket hereafter,
    I am wholly determined to scratch.
Life’s void of all pleasure and laughter;
    I bungled the easiest catch.

Incidentally, Wodehouse got the name of Bertie’s incomparable Butler from a cricketer he once happened to see play, one Percy Jeeves. Percy never knew that his name would become immortal as he died in the Battle of the Somme. We can be confident that neither he nor his literary namesake would have bungled the catch.

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Tough Lives Need Poetry’s Toughness

Fred Gardner, Poor Student (1934)

Thursday

I’m currently reading Thor Magnus Tangeras’s Literature and Transformation: A Narrative Study of Life-Changing Reading Experiences, thanks to an alert from Oberlin librarian Valerie Hotchkiss. Given that I’ve just finished my own book on literature’s life-changing potential, I found myself strangely defensive when I first started it. Had he beaten me to the punch in talking about the impact of literary immersion?

Thinking about it further, however, made me realize that this is all to the good. When the world is starting to wake up to your ideas, that’s the best time to publish.

I also appreciate it how Tangeras is introducing me to others who have written on the subject that I’ve missed. I share some their observations today and will discuss the book more in upcoming posts.

Although I have heard about novelist Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, I haven’t read it and and so didn’t realize the degree to which literature came to her rescue. Winterson was raised to be a Pentecostal Christian missionary but came out as a lesbian at 16 and left home. At a time when she was “confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels,” she read T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. The play turned her upside down, especially the lines,

This is one moment,
But know that another
Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.

Winterson says the “unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable.” She goes on to comment,

I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot book helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it’s irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

And elsewhere:

Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.

Tangeras writes that reading helped Winterson

feel belonging, gave her access to new experiences and helped her deal with hardship: “I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground…Literature is common ground.”

Tangeras also notes that literature helped author Rachel Kelly negotiate dark times. In Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me – My Journey through Depression, Kelly describes how reading poetry

helped her conquer two serious episodes of depression: “It’s no exaggeration to say that poetry proved a lifeline.” She drew strength from the ability of Gerard Manley Hopkins to celebrate the healing powers of nature, and George Herbert’s “Love (3),” which functioned as an antidote to the negative stories that dominated her mind at the time.

Literature and Transformation has put me on to some other great quotations as well, including this one from philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method:

The work of art is not an object that stands over against a subject for itself. Instead the work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.

And:

In the experience of art we see a genuine experience induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.

And then there’s Czech literary theorist Jan Mukarovsky, who in the following passage writes about the arts in general but in ways that apply to literature:

The work becomes capable of being closely connected to the entirely personal experiences, images and feelings of any perceiver – capable of affecting not only his conscious mental life but even of setting into motion forces which govern his subconscious. The perceiver’s entire personal relation to reality, whether active or contemplative, will henceforth be changed to a greater or lesser degree by this influence. Hence the work of art has such powerful effect upon man not because it gives him – as the common formula goes – an impression of the author’s personality, his experience and so forth, but because it influences the perceiver’s personality, his experiences and so forth.

In his book, Tangeras sets out to figure out how exactly this influencing works by sharing five extended conversations with readers about their life-changing experiences with specific works. Then, turning to the specialized language of psychology, he looks for patterns in their accounts. More on Tangeras’s book to come.

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Dryden on Charismatic Demagogues

John Riley, Monmouth (Absalom in Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel)

Wednesday

I wrote recently about John Dryden’s magnificent political satire Absalom and Architophel, applying the Earl of Shaftesbury’s 1679 attempt to strongarm Charles II to Donald Trump’s attack on American democracy. I’ve found some more passage from the poem that I just have to share.

Shaftesbury (Architophel in the poem) wants to establish Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom), as Charles’s successor in place of Charles’s Catholic brother James. In the poem he persuades Absalom to go along.

Not that Absalom needs much persuading, just as Trump didn’t need much persuading to pressure a crowd and various election officials to overturn the 2020 election. In the passages I share today, the charismatic Absalom/Monmouth uses his rhetorical powers to persuade the masses to follow him. Think of him forsaking the White House court and, surrounded by 17th century Rudy Giulianis and Steve Bannons, dazzling “the admiring crowd” with his own rally:

Surrounded thus with friends of every sort,
Deluded Absalom forsakes the court;
Impatient of high hopes, urged with renown,
And fired with near possession of a crown.
The admiring crowd are dazzled with surprise,
And on his goodly person feed their eyes.
His joy concealed, he sets himself to show;
On each side bowing popularly low:
His looks, his gestures, and his words he frames, 
And with familiar ease repeats their names.

Like Trump, Absalom knows how to glide unfelt into the people’s hearts:

Thus formed by nature, furnished out with arts,
He glides unfelt into their secret hearts.
Then with a kind compassionating look,
And sighs, bespeaking pity ere he spoke,
Few words he said; but easy those and fit,
More slow than Hybla-drops [honey], and far more sweet.

To be sure, Trump doesn’t limit himself to a few words, nor does he look at his crowds with a kind, compassionating look. But, like Absalom/Monmouth, he knows how to play a crowd.

Absalom and Trump also talk about their personal disappointments as a national tragedy. I’m so sorry, Absalom tells his adoring crowds, that you have lost your country, and that “arbitrary laws” (a rigged election, in Trump’s telling) have deprived you of (here he wipes the tears from his eyes) me:

“I mourn, my countrymen, your lost estate;
Though far unable to prevent your fate:
Behold a banished man, for your dear cause 
Exposed a prey to arbitrary laws!

And later:

Take then my tears,” — with that he wiped his eyes,—
“’Tis all the aid my present power supplies…

Meanwhile, of course, he is hoping that the people will rise up and establish him as Charles’s heir.

At this point in the poem, Dryden steps in to comment on the action. And while Trump may not have Absalom’s youth, beauty, and grace, but he has his own ways of “mak[ing] the people’s wrongs his own”—which is to say, persuading the people that his grievances are theirs. What results is a gathering march to support Absalom’s claims (“now begins his progress to ordain”):

Youth, beauty, graceful action seldom fail;
But common interest always will prevail;
And pity never ceases to be shown
To him who makes the people’s wrongs his own.
The crowd, that still believe their kings oppress,
With lifted hands their young Messiah bless:
Who now begins his progress to ordain
With chariots, horsemen, and a numerous train…

Like Trump, Absalom has no problem with grandiose comparisons:

From east to west his glories he displays,
And, like the sun, the promised land surveys.

Fame runs before him as the morning-star,
And shouts of joy salute him from afar;
Each house receives him as a guardian god,
And consecrates the place of his abode.

Dryden, however, warns us that beneath all the pomp lurks a dark agenda:

This moving court, that caught the people’s eyes,
And seemed but pomp, did other ends disguise…

In our case, the pomp of Trump’s January 6 rally, we now know, was intended to disguise its real end, which was unleash insurrectionists that would stop the vice president from certifying the election. We can therefore think of our Shaftesbury/Architophel as those manipulators behind Trump, Steve Bannon and Trump legal advisor John Eastman.

But in truth, Trump is also his own advisor, Absalom and Architophel combined. The last five years, Trump has been constantly testing the system to see how much he could get away with and testing people to see how loyal they were. Here’s Architophel doing the same, even as he claims he is acting out of love and duty to his prince (in Trump’s case, to America). Religion and justice (“redress of grievances”) are always on lips of scoundrels:

Achitophel had formed it, with intent
To sound the depths, and fathom, where it went,
The people’s hearts, distinguish friends from foes,
And try their strength before they came to blows.
Yet all was colored with a smooth pretense
Of specious love, and duty to their prince.
Religion, and redress of grievances,
(Two names that always cheat, and always please…)

At the end of the poem, Charles has finally had enough and lays down the law. Here’s hoping that the Department of Justice does the same with the insurrectionists.

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Toni Morrison’s Flying Lessons

Tuesday

Spencer Doerr, a Sewanee student who is one of my tennis hitting partners, recently earned his pilot’s license. Sewanee has a tiny airport and Spencer, in addition to taking flying lessons, has started a flying club (the Flying Tigers). I was honored to be his first official passenger and marveled, as I looked down, at the stunning beauty of the Southern Cumberland Plateau.

I shared with Spencer what Toni Morrison writes about flight in Song of Solomon. He loved the passages, which he said capture his passion. The first occurs in the opening pages. Milkman is born on the same day that a man makes an abortive attempt to fly from a bell tower, which somehow links the two:

Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier–that only birds and airplanes could fly–he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull…

The second flight passage occurs when Milkman and his best friend Guitarare discussing peacocks. Milkman at this stage is a bit of a peacock himself and must learn to jettison his self-absorption and his materialist values:

“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked.

“Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

The peacock jumped onto the hood of the Buick and once more spread its tail, sending the flashy Buick into oblivion.”

Milkman is with his aunt Pilate when she is shot by Guitar, who has gone crazy with race hatred. One of Morrison’s greatest characters, Pilate is not weighed down with ego, which Milkman has finally learned to appreciate:

Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly. ‘There must be another one like you,’ he whispered to her. ‘There’s got to be at least one more woman like you.

And finally, in one of the finest last sentences in American fiction, Milkman learns the secret of one of his slave ancestors. Shalimar, so legend has it, was one of the mythical slaves who flew back to Africa. In this magical realist novel, flight is a metaphor for being so in touch with who you are and where you come from that anything seems possible. In this instance, Milkman leaps from a precipice to close with his Guitar, who has been trying to shoot him as well. In this moment of completion, where he transcends division, who can say for sure that he’s not flying?

For now he knew what Shalimar knew. If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Posted in Morrison (Toni) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Columbus from the Natives’ Viewpoint

Dioscoro Puebla, Columbus, 1862 (an idealized version)

Monday – Columbus Day

I can believe that part of the United States still celebrate Christopher Columbus, even though we now know that he was a horrible, horrible man. Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko lets us know what the people he “discovered” think of him.

First, though, here’s Wikipedia’s account of some of his crimes against humanity on his third voyage:

Columbus’s colonists bought and sold slaves. Columbus executed Spanish colonists for minor crimes, and used dismemberment as punishment. Columbus and the colonists enslaved the indigenous people, including children. Natives were beaten, raped, and tortured for the location of imagined gold. Thousands committed suicide rather than face the oppression.

In February 1495, Columbus took over 1,500 Arawaks, some of whom had rebelled. About 500 of them were shipped to Spain as slaves, with about 40% dying en route.

Oh, and it wasn’t just the natives and those of us looking back who condemn Columbus. Jesuit priest Bartolome de las Casas was horrified, and his reports horrified Europe.

The Silko passage is from an account of a witches convention. There’s a contest about who can be the biggest, baddest witch, but rather than boiling babies or something comparable, the winner simply tells the story of the colonial conquest. First, there’s the lead-in:

The important thing was
this witch didn’t show off any dark thunder
charcoals
or red ant-hill beads.
This one just told them to listen:
“What I have is a story.”

At first they all laughed
but this witch said
Okay
go ahead
laugh if you want to
but as I tell the story
it will begin to happen.

I pick up midway through the story:


The wind will blow them across the ocean
 thousands of them in giant boats
 swarming like larva
 out of a crushed ant hill.

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

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

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

They will fear what they find
 They will fear the people
 They kill what they fear.

It goes on a bit longer in this vein. Even veteran witches can’t imagine anything this horrible:

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now

‘it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without it
we can get along without that kind of thing.
Take it back.
Call that story back.”

But the witch just shook its head
at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur
and feathers.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming.
It can’t be called back

History doesn’t have to be told by the winners.

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

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