Notre Dame’s Meaning for Non-Believers


Non-believers as well as believers may feel the urge to send up a prayer of thanks that Notre Dame’s basic structure appears to have survived the fire. The world-wide concern over the catastrophe indicates that the cathedral was not only meaningful to Christians. A friend alerted me to a Fleda Brown poem that helps us understand why.

The poet, who has abandoned her childhood Christian belief, is visiting the cathedral with her Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren. She uses Philip Larkin’s thoughtful “Church Going” to structure her reflection.

Looking over a country church that is becoming a ruin, Larkin wonders what its purpose possibly could be. Agnostic himself, Larkin is nevertheless startled by how the structure speaks to a deep hunger within him. Over the ages, he observes, people have gravitated to this place in order to “grow wise.” He knows this from their decision to be buried here:

…someone will forever be
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Differentiating herself (as Larkin does) from believers, Brown remembers back to when the dignity of the church held her childhood self in thrall. She re-experiences that feeling in her Notre Dame visit, even though “the stone and glass say[  ] not a word to make any of us believe.” She imagines this might have been true as well of the workers who built Notre Dame. Perhaps the project was more about a paycheck than God. Nevertheless, the wheel that pulled up stones created a glorious space that pulls up those who visit.

It’s therefore immaterial that her family doesn’t understand the church’s layout. The least she can do, Brown figures, is offer up a prayer, and so she prays to Larkin’s insight, to Notre Dame’s crazy architecture, and to the buttresses that hold it up.

In the final stanza, she indicates the church doesn’t have a very good history when it comes to Jews and non-believers. Notre Dame, however, is more than the orthodox Christian belief conveyed in the Portal of the Last Judgment frieze, which depicts the damned being dragged off to hell (see below). May her grandchildren, she prays, be buttressed by the cathedral’s crazy beauty against whatever life has in store for them.

Notre Dame
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure.
________—Philip Larkin, “Church Going”
In spite of fundamentalists, it keeps on being
true, what Larkin said. I’m walking through
with my Jewish daughter and her three boys,
the stone and glass saying not a word to make
any of us believe, but I’m seeing the church
I grew up with, shadowed like this to let
the glitter in. Dignity’s what held me
then and almost makes a Christian of me
now, again: God multiplying as he

enters through the glass, amusing himself.
We trace the transept, nave, and choir, walking
the sign of the cross, even the boys, who don’t know
what it means. We lift our eyes to the clerestory
a hundred thousand workers gave their backs
to put there, to feed their families, and only
slightly, if at all, I’d guess, to honor God.
The stones went up. The wheel that pulled each one
to greater heights was raised again, and left

up there at last, too high to bring it down,
the mind that glorious in its space, mathematical
in its hopes. It’s brought us here. The five of us
walk plaque to plaque, to each candle-lit niche
for each dead saint. A prayer, I think, is the least
I can do: I pray to Larkin’s poem, to gargoyle
waterspouts, to all the things that jut,
that disagree, disrupt. I pray to buttresses
that launch off wildly from the side and land.

May they brace everything up. And to these boys,
puzzling at the frieze of all the damned in hell.
Portal of the Last Judgment, Notre Dame Cathedral
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Tiger Conquers His Demons


In discussing how Tiger Woods has changed during the eight-year Majors drought between his U.S. Open win in 2011 and his extraordinary Master’s victory Sunday, golf commentators have noticed a new friendliness in the formerly aloof golfer. As Golf Channel analyst Rex Hoggard observes,

 “I’ve covered him his entire career. I started covering golf the year he turned pro, and I’ve seen the ups and incredible victories, and I’ve seen the unbelievable lows that he’s gone through. But the one thing that’s truly different is with the media. He is much more engaging. You can sit and have a conversation with him now about anything. 

“But it’s more about how he engages with everyone else around him. You saw it at Augusta National on Sunday as he’s coming off the 18th green, he’s high-fiving people. Tiger never really did that. He’s engaging with people in the crowd.”

To be sure, the ultra-competitive Tiger who plays with an edge and stares down his opponents has not altogether disappeared. It’s one reason why he triumphed Sunday. But now there’s this other dimension.

When Tiger missed the cut at the PGA Championship in 2011, I invoked Steven Pressfield’s golf novel Legend of Bagger Vance to understand what had happened. Could Tiger overcome his inner demons, I asked. Sunday provided us with an answer

Reprinted from August 13, 2011

I know that golf television announcers are reassuring us (and themselves) that the game has grown beyond Tiger Woods, whose brilliant career has been sidetracked by injuries and domestic problems. I also know that I will not be watching this weekend’s PGA Championship because Tiger missed the cut.

For people like me, golf is devolving back to the days of BT (Before Tiger), a time in the 1990’s when indistinguishable men vied for trophies that seemed to carry little meaning.  Then Tiger burst on the scene, taking golf courses by storm (including the once-segregated Masters) and sending golf’s television ratings into the stratosphere.  Now that time seems like a lightning flash, illuminating everything briefly before plunging the world back into darkness.

What could get me to come back?  How about Tiger following the footsteps of Rannulph Junah, the hero of Steven Pressfield’s golfing novel The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Bagger Vance is based on (of all things) The Bhagavad Gita, the great Hindu poem about a young warrior finding his way through the world.  Junah is a once promising golfer who has been emotionally devastated by World War I, even though he served heroically in it.  For various reasons, he finds himself involved in a special exhibition match with two of golf’s legendary figures, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.

He plays the match as much against his inner torment as against these golfers. As Pressfield puts it, he is battling against “his little self, that yammering fearful ever-resistant self that freezes chokes, tops, nobbles, shanks, skulls, duffs, flubs.”

Pressfield echoes the Gita to give an epic quality to this battle. Guiding Junau is an old black man named Bagger Vance, the novel’s version of Krishna.  As in the Gita, Bagger counsels the young warrior (Prince Arjuna) through life’s trials.  Junah must let go of attachment and surrender to “the perfect swing” that he has within.  If he does so, he will not only prevail in the match.  He will conquer his demons.

It’s interesting how golf has turned to Eastern religions in recent years.  Most notably, there was Michael Murphy’s 1971 novel Golf in the Kingdom, which he followed up in 1997 with The Kingdom of Shivas Irons. Then Tiger appeared to confirm Murphy’s insights by describing Buddhist meditation.  He seemed to have a feel for golf like no previous champion.

But if the Baghavad Gita is any model, Tiger must hit rock bottom before he can find true wisdom.  As Vance puts it, he must

act without attachment, as the earth does. As I do. The rain falls, with no thought of watering the land. The clouds roll, not seeking to bring shade. They simply do. And we must too.

Tiger’s 10-over par exit from the tournament (15 strokes behind the leader) is rock bottom. No one knows what will happen next.

Can Tiger come back after having lost his way in the self? Can a man who once ruled the golfing world and who then went through public humiliation find his swing again?  And by swing, I mean not only his golf game.  I mean his authentic self.

Now that’s a drama that I would watch.

Other Tiger Woods essays (posted chronologically)

Will Tiger Woods Weep Bitter Tears? (April 2010)

Tiger on the Prowl Again (April 2013)

Is Tiger, Like Sherlock, Presumed Dead? (April 2014)

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How Notre Dame Was Saved by a Novel

Luc-Olivier Merson, Quasimodo in Notre Dame de Paris


Notre Dame in flames is breaking my heart, along with hearts all over the world. For me, Notre Dame is the soul of Paris, and I remember counting the stairs and wandering around the demon statues when I was 11. My attachment was further cemented when I read Victor Hugo’s novel in French at 15. I did not know then, however, that at one time the novel saved the cathedral, which in 1831 was falling apart.

More on that in a moment. First, however, let’s look at Hugo’s celebration of the cathedral. Notre Dame, he observes, is like no other cathedral, being a mixture of different styles:

Notre-Dame is not, moreover, what can be called a complete, definite, classified monument. It is no longer a Romanesque church; nor is it a Gothic church. This edifice is not a type. Notre-Dame de Paris has not, like the Abbey of Tournus, the grave and massive frame, the large and round vault, the glacial bareness, the majestic simplicity of the edifices which have the rounded arch for their progenitor. It is not, like the Cathedral of Bourges, the magnificent, light, multiform, tufted, bristling efflorescent product of the pointed arch.

Drawing on Romantic notions of organic growth, Hugo says the cathedral grew as the nation grew:

Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending, pendent opera interrupta [“the work hangs interrupted]; they proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it, incrusts itself there, assimilates it to itself, develops it according to its fancy, and finishes it if it can. The thing is accomplished without trouble, without effort, without reaction,—following a natural and tranquil law. It is a graft which shoots up, a sap which circulates, a vegetation which starts forth anew. Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.

According to Vox’s Constance Grady, in the 19th century Notre Dame

was in a state of horrific disrepair. Its architecture was considered old-fashioned, it was largely neglected, and it was vandalized. Hugo ends the preface of Hunchback with the dark prediction that “the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.”

Thanks to the novel’s success, King Louis Philippe began a restoration project 13 years later. After that, it became Paris’s most popular site.

In large part, Hugo’s novel stayed with me because of its tragic ending. I couldn’t believe that the author would allow Esmeralda to be hanged. As I watched images of burning Notre Dame, I recalled my teenage heartbreak. I was Quasimodo once again, gazing upon destroyed beauty, although this time I was gazing at rather than from the towers. In the following scene, the hunchback has just thrown the evil archdeacon who framed Esmeralda over the balustrade, at which point his gaze returns to the gallows:

The deaf man was leaning, with his elbows on the balustrade, at the spot where the archdeacon had been a moment before, and there, never detaching his gaze from the only object which existed for him in the world at that moment, he remained motionless and mute, like a man struck by lightning, and a long stream of tears flowed in silence from that eye which, up to that time, had never shed but one tear.

We are like that man struck by lightning. The tears are flowing.

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Will Odysseus Shape 2020 Election?

Brocklin, Odysseus and Polyphemus (1895)


I won’t take credit for this but Washington Post’s Molly Roberts recently penned a very Better-Living-with Beowulf type column where she contrasted two Democratic presidential candidates by examining which version of the Odysseus/Ulysses story they prefer. Her piece gives me an excuse to apply other versions of the story to various 2020 contenders.

Roberts explains that Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg is currently besting Texas’ Beto O’Rourke because Joyce is more in tune with our historical moment than Homer. While O’Rourke sees himself in Homer’s mythic mode, Buttigieg is presenting himself as a Leopold Bloom-type everyman:

O’Rourke, a former representative from Texas, has said several times that not only has he read and reread “The Odyssey,” but he even named his first-born son Ulysses — because, as O’Rourke declared in perhaps the most eye-rollingly masculine statement made on the stump so far, he “didn’t have the balls to name him Odysseus.”

Buttigieg, on the other hand, doesn’t have any kids with his husband, Chasten. If he did, though, Ulysses might be his top pick, “balls” be damned. The Harvard grad, Rhodes scholar and Navy veteran (it’s impossible to weigh in on Buttigieg, it turns out, without reproducing his résumé) has told interviewers that James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece is “the basis” for his politics.

A fan of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, O’Rourke sees himself on a hero’s quest. That’s why he spent several months journeying around America deciding whether to run for the presidency. In Odyssey, Odysseus must decide whether he wants to spend the rest of his life on a quiet island or venture out onto rough seas that could kill him. He chooses the latter option after getting a summons from Zeus to do his duty. Interpreting the scene psychologically, Odysseus sees his kingly mission as more important than personal comfort.

Along these lines, Roberts quotes O’Rourke as saying (when running against Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race), “Every word was pulled out of me. Like, by some greater force.”

Buttigieg lays claim to Joyce’s ironic anti-hero Bloom, who becomes (at least for a day) the father figure for whom Stephen Daedalus has always longed. Bloom, as Roberts puts it,

is more or less a loser in the way all of us are more or less losers, and a hero in the way all of us are heroes. The novel aims to capture the fullness of humanity not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary.


 For all of O’Rourke’s jumping up on table tops, Roberts remarks that both men are attempting to be heroes in Joyce’s more down-to-earth way:

Buttigieg claims that this interest in the everyday is at the core of his politics, too. He wants Democrats to be “talking in terms that are nearer to the ground, really explaining what we mean in terms of everyday lived experience. . . . And that’s how good political narrative works.” There’s that word: narrative. This time, though, the stereotypical heroism is left out of it. O’Rourke live-streamed himself getting his teeth cleaned. Buttigieg live-streamed himself filling in a South Bend pothole.

Roberts ‘s article concludes by asking whether we want a heroic quester who promises to shake up the establishment in a major way or someone who is not “larger than life,” but more “regular sized.” Do we want our candidates to promise us the special elixir that will save society, as Obama once claimed for his program of hope and change? Or do we want to focus on issues that are up close and personal. While Joyce’s Ulysses is big and bold, Roberts observes,

 it’s also a pastiche of centuries of English literature. It’s a riff, in other words, on what we’ve done before. The orientation to everyday detail that seems to define Buttigieg could be as radical as Joyce, or it could tend to perpetuate the status quo that the insurgency on the left and those blue-collar voters alike want to leave behind. His desire to reclaim faith and community for the left could be a foray into the future, or it could end up calling Americans back to the past. Until we really see his policy positions — and we haven’t, yet — it’s impossible to know for sure.

In sum, these two candidates who are competing for the charismatic young white male slot pit grand epic against ironic epic, and it’s not clear which the country prefers.   Alluding to the climactic “yes” passage that concludes Joyce’s novel, Roberts concludes,

The question about O’Rourke is whether his personal questing is too much. The question about Buttigieg is whether the everyday version of the epic is enough to get voters to say “yes.”

There are other takes on Odysseus/Ulysses that give us insight into candidates who don’t quote them. Donald Trump, for instance, is the heartless Ulysses of Sophocles, Euripides, and Virgil, the word spinner who corrupts and deceives. Like the Odysseus in Sophocles’s Philoctetes, he lures others away from their morals on the grounds of pure expediency. Check out his interchange with the son of Achilles when he wants to deceive the great and suffering archer Philoctetes in order to placate the gods. It’s a version of “I love winning”:

Odysseus: I know, my boy, I know that this sort of thing is not in your character. You don’t like uttering such lying language nor do you like plotting against people but you must also know what a delight it is to gain a victory after a struggle.
Distressing words make for distressing deeds, Odysseus, son of Laertius and it is not in my nature, nor was it in my father’s nature to do treacherous things.

With grudging admiration, Virgil attributes the Trojan horse ploy to Odysseus, and it must be said that Trump has pulled off one of the great Trojan horse stunts of American political history in his hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

I conclude by comparing Joe Biden, if he chooses to run, to Tennyson’s Ulysses. Many people want “Uncle Joe” to call it quits and bask in the respect he has built up amongst Democrats. Ulysses, however, finds such a life deadening and wants to venture out one last time, even if it kills him:

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' 
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move. 
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use! 
As tho' to breathe were life! 

And further on:

Come, my friends, 
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

Readers debate whether Tennyson’s Ulysses is heroic or self-absorbed. Maybe the answer is both/and, and not only with Biden.

Note:If all this seems relentlessly male, I apologize. At the moment, I’m not actively looking for candidate literature stories but feel I must report on those that jump out at me. Come the June debates, I will go in search of literature that helps define the many fine female candidates. So far I’ve only encountered and written about one story, about Stacey Abrams’s childhood appreciation of Silas Marner.

Further thought: If you know Joyce at all, you may appreciate Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post piece about Buttigieg’s assessment that campaigning reminds him of Joyce’s Ulysses. Petri applies the moocow passage from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to campaigning in Iowa; spouse speeches to Molly Bloom’s concluding “yes” passage in Ulysses; and (in a real tour de force) all campaigns to the verbal chaos of Finnegans Wake.

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Caught Up in the Singing

14th century Armenian manuscript by Tserun

Palm Sunday

Anglican priest and poet Malcolm Guite is the author of many wondrous lyrics, including “Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year” found in Sounding the Season (Canterbury 2012). “Palm Sunday” captures something I’ve always noticed but never fully grasped—that days before the trauma of Good Friday, there’s a moment of euphoria that seems to clash with Lent. For a moment, hosannas ring out, after which each day becomes darker than the one before.

Guite compares the Palm Sunday celebration to an early and too-easy conversion that subsequently gets tested. We think we’ve seen the promised land and then all of our inner demons speak up. We rush out to join Jesus and then experience “the dreadful emptiness of a perverted temple.”

It’s like those horror movies that offer us a momentary lull before the monster strikes. When it does, in the form of self-interest, fearful guardedness, and hardness of heart, that’s when we must call to God. “Come break my resistance,” Guite pleads with the savior, “and make me your home.”

Now to the gate of my Jerusalem,
The seething holy city of my heart,
The savior comes. But will I welcome him?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing,
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal he is bringing
Changes their tune. I know what lies behind
The surface flourish that so quickly fades;
Self-interest, and fearful guardedness,
The hardness of the heart, its barricades,
And at the core, the dreadful emptiness
Of a perverted temple. Jesus come
Break my resistance and make me your home.
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Poaching: A Revenge Fantasy

Captured ivory poachers


I found myself enjoying a recent news report about animals striking back. First an elephant killed a South African rhino poacher before he could do any damage and then the man’s body was eaten by lions. As someone tweeted, the animals had each other’s backs.

D. H. Lawrence vents our rage against such poachers in his poem “Mountain Lion.” Although I share his anger, however, the poem arrives at an extreme conclusion that has me questioning some of my sentiments. “I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a million or two of humans/ And never miss them,” Lawrence reflects.

Mountain Lion
CLIMBING through the January snow, into the Lobo canyon
Dark grow the spruce-trees, blue is the balsam, water sounds
  still unfrozen, and the trail is still evident.

Two men!
Men! The only animal in the world to fear!

They hesitate.
We hesitate.
They have a gun.
We have no gun.

Then we all advance, to meet.

Two Mexicans, strangers, emerging out of the dark and snow
  and inwardness of the Lobo valley.
What are they doing here on this vanishing trail?

What is he carrying?
Something yellow.
A deer?

Qué tiene, amigo?--

He smiles, foolishly, as if he were caught doing wrong.
And we smile, foolishly, as if we didn't know.
He is quite gentle and dark-faced.

It is a mountain lion,
A long, long slim cat, yellow like a lioness.

He trapped her this morning, he says, smiling foolishly.

Lift up her face,
Her round, bright face, bright as frost.
Her round, fine-fashioned head, with two dead ears;
And stripes in the brilliant frost of her face, sharp, fine
  dark rays,
Dark, keen, fine rays in the brilliant frost of her face.
Beautiful dead eyes.

Hermoso es!

They go out towards the open;
We go on into the gloom of Lobo.
And above the trees I found her lair,
A hole in the blood-orange brilliant rocks that stick up, a
  little cave.
And bones, and twigs, and a perilous ascent.

So, she will never leap up that way again, with the yellow
  flash of a mountain lion's long shoot!
And her bright striped frost face will never watch any more,
  out of the shadow of the cave in the blood-orange
Above the trees of the Lobo dark valley-mouth!

Instead, I look out.
And out to the dim of the desert, like a dream, never real;
To the snow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the ice of
  the mountains of Picoris,
And near across at the opposite steep of snow, green trees
  motionless standing in snow, like a Christmas toy.

And I think in this empty world there was room for me
  and a mountain lion.
And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might
  spare a million or two of humans
And never miss them.
Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost face
  of that slim yellow mountain lion!

As Lawrence sees it, humans can never achieve the nobility of that mountain lion, especially if they are shame-faced Latinos. They are too bound up in fallen humanity, and we loathe ourselves when we recognize a kinship with them. (Like them, we smile foolishly.) There is no place for humanity in this dream-like landscape.

Note the poems many images of natural purity in addition to the lion, including “green trees motionless standing in snow, like a Christmas toy.” Lawrence is so angry at desecrated purity that he fantasizes wielding a vengeful gun, if only he had had one. It is his own lost innocence that he mourns.

People are capable of extreme positions when innocence is sullied. In the Jim Crow south, racists obsessed over blacks violating the honor of white womanhood. Pro-life activists see defending fetuses as a sacred cause, even though they then lose interest once the fetuses become three-dimensional human beings. (Note conservatives’ lack of interest in children born into poverty.) Some saw America desecrated when it elected a black president.

I generally like Lawrence as a poet but his sentiments here are troubling. Returning to the rhino poacher story, then, I am ashamed of my initial response. I’m glad the man failed in his goals and I am even willing to believe he brought his fate upon himself. The poem, however, alerts me to how quickly I wrote off his humanity.

Bonus Poem

As we’re on the subject of poached rhinoceroses, here’s a fine poem by my father Scott Bates about the reason they’re endangered:

Rhinoceros Poem
Rhinoceroses are becoming extinct.
Poachers are killing them by the hundreds for their horns.
Rhinoceros horns are very valuable on the black market.
Why are they valuable? Because of sex of course,

Because of macho old men and the one thing they dread
Which is sex failure. Fiasco. Not getting it up.
Rhinoceroses are powerful, their horns are stiff and hard
And when ground into powder and mixed with lots of older stuff

They are swallowed by doting old men who think they
   can become potent again
In spite of the fact that, scientifically, the whole business
   doesn’t make any sense;
Yet if they think they can, sometimes they can:”The powder
   occasionally works as a restorer of confidence.”

But it lets you down fast. Which basically proves a vast, horny
   lack of imagination in the world,
An idiot inability to take life simply as it comes
And move with Rhinoceros grace through complicated
   jungles of muscle and nerve
Making love with everything you have, rheumatic ears
   and elbows, arthritic knuckles and thumbs

In elemental equatorial delight. Because, after all, who wants
   to go to bed anyway with a worried old man?
Generations of women have proved that sex can be rewarding
   and a lot of fun too
If you aren’t drinking Rhinoceros juice by the gallon and
   hung up on whether or not you can
And forget about being a conquering hero and start doing
   what is most enjoyable for both of you to do.

So men, especially wealthy old men who can afford to buy
   Rhinoceros horns,
Take it easy. Relax. Stop acting like such horses’ asses.
Make love with what you have; you’ll get many more happy returns,
And she’ll like you all the more and you’ll save
the Rhinoceroses.
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Following Barr Down the Rabbit Hole

Tenniel, “The Trial of the Jack of Hearts”


I haven’t quoted the Alice books for a while, even though in the past I have turned to them many times to capture America’s fractured politics. We are now so far down the rabbit hole, however, or so deep into the looking glass, that Lewis Carroll is must reading.

On a general level, we have become only too familiar with Trump’s Tweedledum/Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty tactics for handling his enemies. More on that in a moment. First, however, I want to discuss how Attorney General William Barr has taken a page from the trial that concludes Wonderland. When it comes to legal investigations, he is verdict first, facts afterwards.

Although numerous legal pundits were hoping that Barr would prove to be an institutionalist and restore credibility to a battered Department of Justice, increasingly he appears to be the “Roy Cohn” the president has always wanted—which is to say, a lawyer who will fight doggedly with whatever ethical and unethical tools are available on behalf of his client. Given that the Attorney General is supposed to be the people’s lawyer rather than the president’s, this is wildly inappropriate.

To set the scene in Wonderland, the Jack of Hearts is undergoing a jury trial for having stolen the Queen’s tarts. Before any evidence has been presented, we see the King of Hearts asking for a verdict:

“Consider your verdict,” the King said to the jury.

“Not yet, not yet!” the Rabbit hastily interrupted. “There’s a great deal to come before that!”

“Call the first witness,” said the King; and the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and called out, “First witness!”

Another reversal comes later:

“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”

In the case of the Mueller investigation, it now appears that Barr was always prepared to conclude with an innocent verdict while dispensing with whatever facts the Mueller uncovered. Then, unlike every previous special presidential investigation (Watergate, Whitewater) he would refuse to let Congress—especially Congressional Democrats—see the evidence that had been gathered.

Maybe Barr will surprise us but there’s every indication that he’s out to whitewash Mueller’s findings.

When it comes to Democrats, on the other hand, Barr is more than ready to deliver a guilty verdict before fully considering the evidence.

Trump and his extreme right supporters have long been claiming that the FBI illegally “spied” on the Trump campaign. From what we already know, the FBI began looking into the campaign when it became aware of suspicious contacts with the Russians, first through Carter Page’s interactions, then through campaign aide George Papadopoulos boasting about them to an Australian diplomat, and finally through the Steele dossier. Although many have noted that the FBI would have been derelict if it hadn’t checked out such activity, Barr used the word “spying” in yesterday’s testimony—and this assessment comes before an Inspector General’s investigation into the matter has been concluded.

Lest there be any doubt about how he operates, Barr has repeated rightwing talking points about the Clinton Foundation and the Uranium One Affair, even though Hillary Clinton has been cleared on both counts. Again, it has been a guilty verdict independent of any evidence.

We long for a principled Republican to stand up and say, as Alice does, “Stuff and nonsense! The idea of having the sentence first!” So far, however, all we hear is the Queen of Hearts shouting, “Lock her up.”

Trump, it appears, has found ways to escape all accountability, at least so far. In part, he has done so by accusing the Democrats of whatever he himself is guilty of, thereby making their differences appear to be a case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Consider Alice’s first encounter with the quarreling brothers:

“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum: “but it isn’t so, nohow.”

“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

The logic reduces both parties to two quarreling boys, neither of whom can be taken seriously. Commentators calls this “bothsiderism.”

Where’s the impartial arbiter who will stand up and say, “Stuff and nonsense”? Trump’s Humpty Dumpty ploy has made this all but impossible.

In Looking Glass, Alice can’t win an argument with the giant egg because he determines what reality it. At one point, he throws her into confusion by his use of the word “glory”:

“I don’t know what you mean by “glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

At the moment, our own Humpty Dumpty is claiming to be master and his supporters find the sensation exhilarating. After all, anything is possible for those who can make the rules to suit themselves. Trump’s arrogance has spread to his Cabinet, to members of Congress, and to his supporters at large. Attempts to introduce logic and convention are dismissed out of hand.

At the end of Wonderland, Alice grows in stature and the cards are reduced to annoying but ultimately harmless irritants. She has been wandering in the realm of nonsense but awakes to a world in which logic prevails. Would that Trump’s supporters would wake up.

Further thought: Will all the GOP’s horses and all the GOP’s men be able to reassemble our egg-shaped president, or their own party, if ever he goes smash. The spectacle has us on the edge of our seats.

Posted in Carroll (Lewis) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sophie’s Choice at the Border

Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice


So Kirstjen Nielsen, the face of child separation, kids in cages, and tear-gassed immigrants, has been fired for being too soft. Now the president and white nationalist Steve Miller (and yes, you can be a Jewish white nationalist) want to present immigrants seeking asylum with a Sophie’s choice:

 Under a binary choice policy, which is highly controversial, migrant parents would be given a choice of whether to voluntarily allow their children to be separated from them, or to waive their child’s humanitarian protections so the family can be detained together, indefinitely, in jail-like conditions.

As a reminder, here’s the relevant passage in Styron’s novel: 

“You may keep one of your children.”
“Bitte?” said Sophie.
“You may keep one of your children,” he repeated. “The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”
“You mean, I have to choose?”
“You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege—a choice.”
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. “I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium. “Ich kann nich wahlen!” she screamed.
The doctor was aware of unwanted attention. “Shut up!” he ordered. “Hurry now and choose. Choose, goddamnit, or I’ll send them both over there. Quick!”
She could not believe any of this. She could not believe that she was now kneeling on the hurtful, abrading concrete, drawing her children toward her so smotheringly tight that she felt that their flesh might be engrafted to her even through layers of clothes. Her disbelief was total, deranged. It was disbelief reflected in the eyes of the gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rotten-fuhrer, the doctor’s aide, to whom she inexplicably found herself looking upward in supplication. He appeared stunned, and he returned her gaze with a wide-eyed baffled expression, as if to say: I can’t understand this either.
“Don’t make me choose,” she heard herself plead in a whisper. “I can’t choose.”

In the novel, Sophie survives Auschwitz but descends into alcoholism, depression, and a masochistic relationship with a schizophrenic, with whom she eventually commits suicide. How the already traumatized asylum seekers will respond to Trump’s policies remains to be seen.

We know, however, that what happens to the doctor could happen to America: he loses his soul.

Previous Blog Posts on Trump’s Immigration Policies

Nourish the Refugee Angels

The Snow Queen and Child Snatching

Whitman Would Embrace Trump’s Victims

Silko: Light and Dark Wrestle for America’s Souls

Adrienne Rich Keeps Immigrants Human

GOP Is Lonesome Dove’s Jake Spoon

Welcome, Stranger, to This Place

America As a Mixed Nut Bowl

Strangers Are Guides from Beyond

Imagining the Poor as Breeders

Thomas Mann on Nationalists’ Faustian Bargain

Goethe on Trump’s Faustian Bargain: Stop Caring

Trump Policy Is Oliver Twist Redux

The GOP and Trump’s Modest Proposals

Trump, Clifton, and Immigrants as Animals

Happiness Based on Another’s Oppression

DACA Kids Back to the Shadows

The Synergy between the Statue of Liberty and the Lazarus Poem

A Fascist Novel and Immigration Policy

Immigrants Face a Sophie’s Choice

Langston Hughes Dreams the Real American Dream

Our Version of Plague-Maddened Villagers

Trump’s Crusoe Wall Also Goes Up in Airports

Posted in Styron (William) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Tyrants Hate Laughter

Hogarth, “Laughing Audience”


In a recent essay on Arthur Koestler’s theory of comedy, the New York Review of Books’ Liesl Schillinger cites a passage from Koestler’s Darkness at Noon to explain Donald Trump’s attacks on Saturday Night Live. In his fictional account of Stalin’s show trials, Koestler shows that authoritarian personalities lack a sense of humor.

Loyal Bolshevik Nicholas Rubashov suddenly finds himself being questioned for counter-revolutionary tendencies. He is caught off guard when his “Neanderthal” interrogator asks him what appears to be a light-hearted question:

Gletkin looked at Rubashov with his usual expressionless gaze, and asked him, in his usual expressionless voice:
“Were you given a watch as a boy?”
Rubashov looked at him in astonishment. The most conspicuous trait of the Neanderthal character was its absolute humorlessness or, more exactly, its lack of frivolity.

Schillinger thought of this Koestler passage when Trump recently tweeted an attack on a rerun of Saturday Night Live:

“It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side.’”… This was not the first time Trump had gone off on SNL. In February, too, he had denounced the show. “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC!” he tweeted. “Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution?” In his March SNL tweet barrage, he renewed the call for payback: “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?”

Humor has long been used by the powerless when other weapons are denied them. Schillinger observes that comedians have traditionally “used the dagger of wit to stick the powerful, exposing hypocrisy and abuses that threatened the public good.” Comedy has this edge because, according to Koestler, it arises out of “aggression and apprehension”:

Given the insult implicit in laughter, Koestler suggests, it was not surprising that powerful men would seek to thwart those who inspired others to laugh at their expense. “Under the tyrannies of Hitler in Germany and of Stalin in the Soviet Union, humour was driven underground,” he writes. “Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.”

As long as comedy has a higher purpose, all is well and good. Laughter also has a darker side, however. Thomas Hobbes argues in Leviathan that we laugh at “the infirmities of others” to affirm our superiority over them. It can be used to exclude the marginal as well as to empower them.

To be sure, a comic satirist like Jonathan Swift said that laughter should not be used this way. Speaking of himself posthumously in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” he says that he never made fun of infirmities, only pride:

He spar'd a hump, or crooked nose, 
Whose owners set not up for beaux. 
True genuine dulness mov'd his pity, 
Unless it offer'd to be witty.

The assumption here is that comedy should perform a higher purpose. It is used for tribal purposes, however, by someone like Trump, who during the 2016 campaign mocked a reporter with arthrogryposis. Or in another egregious example cited by Schillinger, shock jock Alex Jones claimed to be engaging in performance art when he went after the parents of children who were killed at Sandy Hook and Parkland, calling them “crisis actors”:

To give himself cover, Jones caricatures himself: his lawyer, Randall White, has reportedly said Jones was “playing a character” and that his online persona did not reflect his real self. This is similar to the tactic alt-right bloggers and commenters use, masking provocation and bigotry as “only joking.” 

About such people, Swift, again thinking of himself in the past tense, writes,

For he abhorr'd that senseless tribe 
Who call it humour when they gibe. 

In short, humor, like religion or patriotism, is a force for good when wielded by good people but a noxious weapon when it falls into the wrong hands.

Posted in Koestler (Arthur), Swift (Jonathan) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


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