What Are Days For? Larkin’s Non Answer

Philip Larkin

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Monday

Thanks to Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s blog, I am now acquainted with a lovely Philip Larkin poem entitled “Days.” In a very subtle way, the lyric grapples with the meaning of life, including with whether life in fact means anything at all. “What are days for?” the speaker asks.

And at first, days don’t seem to be for anything other than living in. Put that way, there’s no real difference between humans and animals since, for both, days “come, they wake us/ Time and time over.” One hears an echo of Macbeth here:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 

Unlike Macbeth, however, Larkin then adds that days “are to be happy in.” There’s a suggestion here that he favors a Taoist acceptance of the life we have been given. But while that sounds fine, it doesn’t strike everyone as an answer. Those who are dissatisfied, Larkin observes, call in doctors and priests, the first presumably to prolong their days and the second to find cosmic meaning in them. Here’s the poem:

Days
By Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.   
They come, they wake us   
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:   
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor   
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Doctors and priests, who wear long coats to signal their authority, seem out of place.There’s a Blakean drama of innocence and experience underway here. In Songs of Innocence, children play in fields, sometimes filled “with many sweet flowers.” But in “The Garden of Love,” where this is mentioned, a chapel has invaded the green while “Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,/ And binding with briars, my joys & desires.”

Difficult though it may be, we must strive to live each day to the fullest, treasuring what we are given without being sidetracked. After all, where can we live but days?

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Every Stone and Every Star a Tongue

17th century poet Thomas Traherne

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Spiritual Sunday

For our Lenten study, our church is reading Green Gospel: Foundations of Ecotheology, by my dear friend and colleague John Gatta. Among other things, the book is giving me a new respect for the 17th century poet Thomas Traherne, who plays a key role in the book. More on Traherne in a moment.

First, however, to John’s thesis, which is that Christianity and environmentalism can complement and feed each other. That’s in part because Christianity does not apply only to human beings. John writes,

Faith must encompass everything—all things seen and unseen, human and nonhuman beings of every stripe, throughout the whole of creation. For us living today, a Jesus capable of rescuing just ourselves, or our kind alone, from sin and death can no longer be recognized as God’s savior of the world. Only a cosmic Christ, as Saint Paul first envisioned, could possibly fulfill that role.

Extending the idea of salvation to nonhumans as well as humans is central to Green Gospel. As John notes, God didn’t just create the universe and then sit back. Rather, God is incarnate within the evolving universe, simultaneously within it and beyond it. This, John says, is the meaning of the trinity, which captures this paradoxical situation:

The vision of a Triune God contributes most critically toward shaping a robust ecotheology, I believe, by holding together, in creative and paradoxical tension, two seemingly contrary notions of the Godhead. Or as [Jürgen] Moltmann puts it, the “trinitarian concept of creation binds together God’s transcendence and immanence,” thereby conjoining the partial, opposite truths represented both in radical monotheism and in a pantheism that would virtually equate Nature with divinity.

The idea of God having created a blueprint in which everything is foreseen, John says, is ironically similar to 18th century deist notions of God as a clockmaker winding up the giant clock of creation. John says that those Christian fundamentalists who embrace the theory of intelligent design, and with it attack attack scientific theories of evolution, turn God into a “lifeless, loveless, and cheerless” being or force:

Far from bolstering esteem for the Creator-God, the ideology of intelligent design fails to recognize the richly creative, cooperative, and dynamic force inherent in the Creator’s inspiration of evolutionary processes. Even if we affirm, in faith, that God is the first cause and ground of all creation, we must acknowledge—as intelligent design does not—the substantial role and freedom that God has allowed within the cosmic drama for all manner of secondary causes and chance developments. Such causes, though sometimes agents of sorrow and malignancy, also infuse into existence a welcome color, variety, beauty, and unanticipated marvels.

In sum, the Creator-God of intelligent design is not genuinely creative—not, at least, by analogy with the sublime expressions of creativity we have come to recognize in great literary authors, composers, public leaders, and painters. Nor is the Designer-God artistic, vital, original, or playful. What this God designs, in figurative essence, is just a series of static blueprints, destined for sequential realization in the material realm. These preconceived blueprints for the design of all creaturely existence might be correct in every detail but comparatively lifeless, loveless, and cheerless in their conception.

A number of poets have seen God is simultaneously prime mover and incarnate in nature, including William Blake (“to see heaven in a wild flower”) and Alfred Lord Tennyson (“Little flower—but if I could understand/ What you are, root and all, and all in all,/ I should know what God and man is”). But one doesn’t need theology or poetry to realize this. Think of times in your own life when you have looked at nature and experienced a sense of the divine, even while knowing at the same time that natural scientific processes were at work.

But while we can know this without poetry, poetry clarifies and intensifies the vision. Take, for instance, Traherne’s poem “The Sand Is Endless,” where he writes,

In all Things, all Things service do to all:
And thus a Sand is Endless, though most small.
   And every Thing is truly Infinite,
   In its Relation deep and exquisite.

In “Dumbness,” meanwhile, he writes,

And every stone, and every star a tongue,
And every gale of wind a curious song.
The Heavens were an oracle, and spake
Divinity: the Earth did undertake
The office of a priest…

Finally, there’s Traherne’s beautiful poem “Walking,” clearly written by someone who treasures the activity. At one point the poet writes,

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
Admire each pretty flow’r
With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
The marks of his great pow’r.

Traherne  wants us to pay attention when we venture out into nature. Otherwise, we are no more than “dead puppets” whose

              silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.

Here’s the poem:

Walking
By Thomas Traherne

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
The glory that is by;
Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
The bliss in which they move;
Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
Yet never see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
Admire each pretty flow’r
With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
The marks of his great pow’r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
To cull the dew that lies
On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
The fructifying sun;
To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
May rich as kings be thought,
But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk,
’Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
For we may by degrees
Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
From viewing herbs and trees.

So go take a walk.

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Conquering the Darkness Within

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Friday

From my recent immersion in the works of Terry Pratchett, I’ve come to see the fantasy author as a post-modern Tolkien with a sense of humor. Although much more supportive of a multicultural and egalitarian society than Tolkien, like Tolkien he often focuses on the lust for power, which can even corrupt good people. Like Tolkien, he is interested in what it takes to resist the attraction.

Given that Donald Trump is willing to shred the Constitution in pursuit of power and the GOP appears willing to go along, the theme is a timely one.

The ring of power, of course, is the central focus of Lord of the Rings, and protagonist Frodo is able to break free of its spell only through a kind of grace, made possible by the mercy he has previously shown towards Gollum. The latter, who functions as Frodo’s dark or shadow side figure, can be seen as a power addict, hollowed out by his craving.

In Terry Pratchett’s Thud!, meanwhile, police inspector Sam Vimes too finds himself in possession of a destructive power known as “the summoning dark.” In his own Mount Doom moment, he finds the internal strength to resist it.

Written in 2005—which is to say, when the world was experiencing not only an uptick in Islamic violence but also America’s catastrophic response to 9-11 (especially its invasion of Iraq)—Thud! shows Vimes succumbing to a blind rage after fundamentalist dwarfs invade his home and try to kill his child. These terrorists, obsessed as they are with the belief that dwarf culture should remain pure, bear no small resemblance to ISIS extremists. The real drama is whether Vimes, in fighting them, will become like them.

We watch his interior dialogue, which brings to mind Satan’s attempt to seduce Jesus in the desert, an appropriate scriptural passage for this Lenten season. The following passage is told from the Summoning Dark’s point of view, which can’t believe that Vimes is rejecting it. The “figure” in the metal helmet and leather cloak is Vimes, the “entity” the Summoning Dark:

Water cascaded off a metal helmet and an oiled leather cloak as the figure stopped and, entirely unconcerned, cupped its hand in front of its face and lit a cigar.

Then the match was dropped on the cobbles, where it hissed out, and the figure said: “What are you?”

The entity stirred, like an old fish in a deep pool. It was too tired to flee.

“I am the Summoning Dark.” It was not, in fact, a sound, but had it been, it would have been a hiss. “Who are you?”

“I am the Watchman.”

“They would have killed his family!” The darkness lunged, and met resistance. “Think of the deaths they have caused! Who are you to stop me?”

“He created me. Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”

“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”

“One who fears the dark.”

“And so he should” said the entity, with satisfaction.

“Indeed. But I think you misunderstand. I am not here to keep darkness out. I’m here to keep it in.” There was a clink of metal as the shadowy watchman lifted a dark lantern and opened its little door. Orange light cut through the blackness. “Call me…the Guardian Dark. Imagine how strong I must be.”

The Summoning Dark backed desperately into the alley, but the light followed it, burning it.

“And now,” said the watchman, “get out of town.”

All this, we learn later, occurs during a four-second pause as the sword-wielding Vimes looms over unarmed dwarf fundamentalists. That pause gives his werewolf lieutenant the time to disarm him, Angua being (along with fellow cop Sally, a vampire) a character who must find her own means of controlling her dark side. In the end, lights wins out and peace is restored in the long-running feud between dwarfs and trolls.

Pratchett may well have been responding to how the Bush-Cheney  administration (emphasis on Cheney) used torture and other forms of extra-judicial punishment on those it held responsible for the 9-11 attacks. I think it’s possible that this eruption of the Summoning Dark helped pave the way for Trump, whose blatant disregard for the rules of civilized society seems like an extension of those dark days.

Pratchett has assisted me towards a new understanding of Trump cultism. In the past, I’ve quoted former Republican Tom Nichols, writer for the Atlantic, about how America has become an unserious nation, preferring reality television celebrities to politicians concerned about responsible governance. Building on this, I’m wondering whether this segment of the population is experiencing something akin to an addiction. Just as it has long been addicted to the power that comes with owning guns (including assault rifles), so now it has become addicted to the Trumpian fantasy that one can, with impunity, violate the law, minority and women’s rights, various protocols, and common decency. And there are plenty of politicians, rabble rousers, media influencers, and grifters who are eager to keep feeding that addiction.

How do we encourage people to kick the Summoning Dark habit and join the Guardian Dark instead? As Vimes notes, that’s where real strength is to be found.

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Leo, the Napoleon of Rightwing Courts

Leonard Leo

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Thursday

How to describe Leonard Leo, arguably the man most responsible for the rightwing tilt of the current Supreme Court? Perhaps by comparing him to Professor Moriarty.

It is with Moriarty imagery that Greg Olear of the blog Prevail uses to describe Leo. But first, let’s look what Leo has done. Here’s Olear:

Leonard Leo, 56, has made himself one of the most powerful figures in the United States. He’s put five—count ‘em, five!—justices on the Supreme Court: Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Sam Alito, and John Roberts. A sixth, Clarence Thomas, is one of his closest friends. And, perhaps most impressively, he quietly led the 2016 crusade to deny Merrick Garland a hearing, when Barack Obama nominated the highly-regarded jurist to replace the late Antonin Scalia (another of Leo’s pals). In the lower courts, he’s been even busier. He’s installed so many judges on so many courts, it makes you wonder if he really is the instrument of God’s will he believes himself to be. I mean, there are only three branches of government. One of those three—arguably the most important one—is Leonard Leo’s domain.

How does Leo wield so much power? Olear explains that his secret lies in networking:

Like an invasive cancer, Leonard Leo has metastasized from the Federalist Society to the broader conservative legal community. He knows anyone and everyone, from John Roberts to Mick Mulvaney to Ed Whelan to Seamus Hasson to Nina Shea to the sommelier at Morton’s who pours out the vino. Despite being a generation younger, he was good friends with the late Antonin Scalia and remains tight with Clarence Thomas…. He delights in pulling the marionette strings. 

And now for the Moriarty imagery:

But it’s the financial networking that moves the needle. Leo sits like a giant spider at the center of a complicated web of non-profits and PACs and 501-whatevers: The Federalist Society, which identifies, develops, and grooms future conservative judges. The Judicial Crisis Network, the PR arm of the operation. The Becket Fund, a legal outfit that does pro bono work for religious freedom cases. The Freedom and Opportunity Fund, which helped bankroll the Brett Kavanaugh nomination hoo-ha. Reclaim New York, a charity Leo set up in 2013 with Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon The Council for National Policy, the Christian coalition group. And God knows how many others.

Olear notes that “for non-profits, these entities sure do rake in the cash.” In the case of his association with Mercer and Bannon, according to a Washington Post article, they pulled in a quarter of a billion dollars in dark money.

Holmes too compares his archnemesis to a giant spider:

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defense. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught—never so much as suspected. This was the organization which I deduced, Watson, and which I devoted my whole energy to exposing and breaking up.

Like Leo, few people have heard of Moriarty. Certainly Watson hasn’t, prompting Holmes to exclaim,

Aye, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing! The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime.

And in fact Leo, like Moriarty, is fairly unassuming. Olear describes him as “a short, foppish, pear-shaped man, in wire-rimmed glasses and pricey suits. Think a dandier George Constanza.” Meanwhile, we have the following description of Moriarty from Holmes:

He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.

Leo is as much a threat to social order as Moriarty. In a Daily Beast article, Jay Michaelson notes that Leo believes that

most of the New Deal and administrative state are unconstitutional, that corporations have free speech and free religion rights, that women and LGBT people are not ‘protected classes’ under constitutional law, and that there is no right to privacy implied by the due process clause of the Constitution (i.e., banning abortion, contraception, and gay marriage are entirely constitutional).

Whether we see Joe Biden as our Sherlock Holmes or whether we see ourselves, the voters, as the bulwark against a Moriarty victory, the occasion calls for the steadfastness and smarts of Doyle’s great detective. The 2024 election is shaping up to be our Reichenbach Falls moment.

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In Betraying Ukraine, Graham Is an Oswald

Graham with Zelensky and Blumenthal in July, 2022

Wednesday

I thought I’d seen everything from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, but his recent betrayal of Ukraine after once having supported its resistance to Russia’s invasion has stunned me. In July of 2022 he made a special trip to Ukraine to affirm America’s commitment to the country, shaking Volodomyr Zelensky’s hand and praising  the “resilience and determination of the Ukrainian people in the face of such unprovoked inhumanity.” And now, because of Donald Trump, he has reversed himself, an instance of sycophancy that puts him in Oswald territory, Oswald being Goneril’s steward in King Lear.

The Washington Post reported on Graham’s reversal last week:

Graham voted repeatedly against sending $60 billion in aid to [Ukraine] as well as against other military funds for Israel and U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific. The longtime hawk dramatically announced on the Senate floor that he also would no longer be attending the Munich Security Conference — an annual pilgrimage made by world leaders to discuss global security concerns that’s been a mainstay of his schedule.

“I talked to President Trump today and he’s dead set against this package,” Graham said on the Senate floor on Sunday, a day after the former president said at a rally that he would let the Russians do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that did not spend enough on defense.

Oswald enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to do whatever dirty work Lear’s eldest daughter wants done. That he follows her orders is not a crime—after all, she’s his boss—but the pleasure and ego boost he gets out of doing so is what marks him a villain. He enjoys insulting Lear and, later, enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to kill the blind Gloucester.

It is this enthusiasm for groveling that invites a comparison with Graham, who has done everything possible to ingratiate himself to Trump. This has even included lying about Trump’s golfing prowess, something we normally expect from North Koreans praising Kim Jong Un. (At one point Graham tweeted, “President Trump shot a 73 in windy and wet conditions!”) As a U.S. senator, Graham has less of an excuse than either North Koreans or Oswald.

Standing in dramatic contrast to Oswald is Kent, who is willing to speak truth to power, even at the cost of his job. When Lear banishes Cordelia, Kent comes “between a dragon and his wrath,” warning the king that he is making a mistake:

Kent:                                  [B]e Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound,
When majesty stoops to folly. 

When Lear threatens him, Kent replies,

My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.

Kent has sworn an oath to kingship as Graham has sworn an oath to the Constitution, which is why he stands up to the king. Therefore when Kent, now disguised so that he can continue serving Lear, sees someone willing to abandon all integrity, he sees red and challenges Oswald to a duel:

Kent: Draw, you rascal: you come with letters against the king; and take vanity the puppet’s part against the royalty of her father: draw, you rogue, or I’ll so carbonado your shanks: draw, you rascal; come your ways.

I’m sure I’m far from the only one who would like to unload on Graham as Kent unloads on Oswald. I’ll conclude today’s post with Kent’s ringing denunciation:

Kent: Fellow, I know thee.
Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
Kent: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

One that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service? A composition of knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch? I couldn’t have said it better.

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Gandalf and Saruman, Biden and Trump

McKellen as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Saruman

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Tuesday

Even as Twitter (or X) plunges into a rightwing abyss, it’s still good for an occasional laugh. I loved the following Xeet, which exposes the difficulties the mainstream media is having with the 2024 election. Both-siderism is a real problem when one of the candidates is essentially promising to end democracy if he is elected while the other is, well, acting like a traditional president.

Juxtaposing pictures of Gandalf and Saruman, Xeeter JRR Jokien sarcastically observed,

But they’re BOTH so OLD! Gandalf can barely remember his passwords and even forgot that people called him Gandalf (yikes), while Saruman betrayed the Free Peoples of middle-earth and led an insurrection that stormed Helm’s Deep. You can see how they’re equally bad choices.

Jokien may be referring to how the media paid more attention to Biden’s memory lapse than it did to Trump encouraging Putin to invade NATO allies—words that may have contributed to the murder of Alexei Navalny, although that’s something that can’t be proved. If you need a refresher course on Tolkien, here are the Gandalf references. The first is to the wizard’s initial failure to open the gates to Moria after reading what is inscribed upon them:

“The words are in the elven-tongue of the West of Middle-earth in the Elder Days,” answered Gandalf. “But they do not say anything of importance to us. They say only: The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. And underneath small and faint is written: I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.” “What does it mean by speak, friend, and enter?” asked Merry. “That is plain enough,” said Gimli. “If you are a friend, speak the password, and the doors will open, and you can enter.”

As it turns out, it’s a riddle: if one “speaks ‘friend’” in the Elven tongue, the doors open. At least one Tolkien enthusiast with knowledge of the Silmarillion (@joshcarlosjosh) came to Gandalf’s defense after reading Jokien’s Xeet:

To be perfectly fair to Gandalf, it wasn’t actually HIS password. It was Celebrimbor’s, and he’d been dead for thousands of years. Conversely, the password was written right on the door, and Gandalf read the inscription multiple times.

As far as forgetting that people once called him Gandalf, that moment occurs when the wizard appears to Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn after escaping from and defeating the Balrog. No longer Gandalf the Grey, he has become a figure shining in white:

At last Aragorn stirred. “Gandalf!” he said. “Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight? Gandalf!” Gimli said nothing, but sank to his knees, shading his eyes.

“Gandalf,” the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. “Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.”

Helms Deep, meanwhile, is Saruman’s first target after betraying his former allies, the Rohirrim. His Orcs attacking the walls are like Trumpists swarming the Capitol:

The enemy surged forward, some against the Deeping Wall, others towards the causeway and the ramp that led up to the Hornburg-gates. There the hugest Orcs were mustered, and the wild men of the Dunland fells. A moment they hesitated and then on they came. The lightning flashed, and blazoned upon every helm and shield the ghastly hand of Isengard was seen. They reached the summit of the rock; they drove towards the gates.

It’s worth noting that Gandalf saves Middle-earth by surrounding himself with good people–he doesn’t do it all by himself–while Saruman places his future in the hands of mindless hoards. And yet there are news outlets suggesting that Joe Biden mixing up the heads of state of Egypt and Mexico is of the same order as Trump instigating an attack on the Capital or promising retribution against his enemies.

Imagine how the hobbits, elves, dwarfs, and men of Middle-earth would respond to such a claim.

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Alexei Navalny as Harry Potter?

Potter (Radcliffe) squares off with Volemort (Fiennes)

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Monday

Whether he was murdered or died as the result of harsh imprisonment, Russia’s Alexei Navalny has paid the ultimate price for opposing Vladimir Putin. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes Friday night, dissident Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar talked about how many Russians had come to see Navalny as Harry Potter, “the boy who lived,” and can’t believe he is dead. Just as Harry three times survives Voldemort’s attacks, once as a baby and twice in the final book, so it appeared to many that Navalny would survive Putin’s machinations. After all, Putin had once poisoned him and he had bounced back from that.

In the end, however, the man Zygar described as the last uncynical Russian—a man who believed in democracy with all his soul—could not hold out against a bloodthirsty dictator. Russians had hoped that Navalny was Russia’s George Washington, Zygar told Hayes, but said that instead he proved to be Russia’s Martin Luther King.

Let’s examine the Harry Potter comparison, however.  In the last of the Harry Potter novels, Harry becomes a Christ-like figure, sacrificing himself for his followers and for all that is good and right. Once he discovers he is one of the horcruxes keeping Voldemort alive, he knows he himself must die if Voldemort is to become mortal. Therefore, he allows Voldemort to kill him—only instead of ending Harry’s life, Voledort’s killing curse kills his own soul fragment that is lodged in Harry. As a result, Harry can return to confront—and this time defeat—the tyrant.

Deathly Hallows, however, is a fantasy whereas there is no coming back for Navalny. It’s as though the final Harry Potter novel ends with Voldemort delivering the curse:

Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly; while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear—

He saw the mouth move and a flash of green light, and everything was gone.

The comparison with Martin Luther King reminds me of a Lucille Clifton poem on the assassination:

the meeting after the savior gone
4/4/68

what we decided is
you save your own self.
everybody so quiet
not so much sorry as
resigned
we was going to try and save you but
now i guess you got to save yourselves
(even if you don’t know
who you are
where you been
where you headed)

So if Navalny can’t save Russia now, “i guess you got to save yourselves.”

But maybe, just maybe, there can be a Harry Potter ending after all. Once Harry, with the help of Neville, manages to kill the remaining horcruxes (himself and the snake Ngani), Voldemort is suddenly vulnerable in a way he hadn’t been before. At the same time, Harry’s inspiring sacrifice manages to galvanize “Dumbledore’s Army” into action so that, when he returns from the dead, it is to witness a full-blown rebellion against Voldemort.

Maybe it’s not too much of a far-flung fantasy to think that Navalny’s sacrifice has not been in vain. Maybe, just maybe, he has opened up cracks in Putin’s reign of terror. Maybe, just maybe, Putin will suffer Voldemort’s end. Here’s the moment:

And Harry, with the unerring skill of the Seeker, caught the wand in his free hand as Voldemort fell backward, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upward. Tom Riddle [Voldemort] hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, the white hands empty, the snakelike face vacant and unknowing. Voldemort was dead, killed by his own rebounding curse, and Harry stood with two wands in his hand, staring down at his enemy’s shell.

And if, or when, that moment occurs, can we fantasize that we will see something comparable to the reaction to Harry’s victory:

One shivering second of silence, the shock of the moment suspended: and then the tumult broke around Harry as the screams and the cheers and the roars of the watchers rent the air. The fierce new sun dazzled the windows as they thundered toward him, and the first to reach him were Ron and Hermione, and it was their arms that were wrapped around him, their incomprehensible shouts that deafened him….[A]nd Harry could not hear a word that anyone was shouting, nor tell whose hands were seizing him, pulling him, trying to hug some part of him, hundreds of them pressing in, all of them determined to touch the Boy Who lived, the reason it was over at last—

It’s important, when opposing authoritarianism, to be clear-eyed. Fantasy will get one only so far, and wishing can lead to spectacular shipwrecks on the rocks of reality. But that being acknowledged, it’s also true that literary narratives, including those found in fantasy novels, have sometimes propelled activists to change the world in ways that no one could foresee. Don’t underestimate the power of dreaming. Harry Potter may yet stage a comeback.

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African-American Lit for Lent

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Sunday

Each year, as a Lenten discipline, I take up a challenging reading project that I believe will deepen me spiritually. As poet priest Malcolm Guite observes, Lent is a good time for poetry since, through poems, we can arrive at “clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.” Lent, Guite says,

 is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that…

Guite then quotes Seamus Heaney as to how poetry offers a “a glimpse and a clarification,” and he quotes Coleridge about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was

awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

 An article I blogged on 13 years ago, by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, compares reading literature carefully to the ancient practice of lectio divina, which involves “reading Scripture slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, pausing to consider prayerfully the gift being offered in those words for this moment.” Reading this way, she says,

can change the way we listen to the most ordinary conversation. It can become a habit of mind. It can help us locate what is nourishing and helpful in any words that come our way—especially in what poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said”—and it can equip us with a personal repertoire of sentences, phrases, and single words that serve us as touchstones or talismans when we need them.

And:

In each reading of a book or poem or play, we may be addressed in new ways, depending on what we need from it, even if we are not fully aware of those needs. The skill of good reading is not only to notice what we notice, but also to allow ourselves to be addressed. To take it personally. To ask, even as we read secular texts, that the Holy Spirit enable us to receive whatever gift is there for our growth and our use. What we hope for most is that as we make our way through a wilderness of printed, spoken, and electronically transmitted words, we will continue to glean what will help us navigate wisely and kindly—and also wittily—a world in which competing discourses can so easily confuse us in seeking truth and entice us falsely.

Over the years, for my Lenten reading I’ve read Proust’s Swann’s Way, Book I of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the poetry of George Herbert, John Milton’s Paradise Regained, the religious poems of T. S. Eliot, and Dante’s Paradiso. 

This year I’ve decided to read works by African American authors that I should have read years ago, along with Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which has been made into a movie. (Julia and I watched it in a theater a week ago.) By seeing caste rather than racism as America’s underlying problem, Wilkerson is able to connect America-style discrimination with what has happened to marginalized groups in other societies and other times, such as the Dalits or “untouchables” in India and the Jews in Nazi Germany.

I’m eager to see how thinking of racism as a caste will influence my reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son, Laraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, all works which I should have read but for one reason or another haven’t. And of course I’ll read Caste as well.

In a recent column on why Trump is so popular amongst the white working class, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait recently made a compelling case that other factors than the economy are the determining factor. After all, these voters were ravaged by the Trump presidency and are benefiting from the Biden economy. Chait writes that

delivering broadly shared prosperity for the working class has done nothing so far to reduce the appeal of Trumpism. His appeal is not born of desperation or despair. Whatever alchemy produced the Trump cult, money alone will not dispel it.

Perhaps America’s caste system is the explanatory alchemy. Creative writers who have been victimized by that system often have the deepest insight into it, understanding best how it has worked into the fibers of our being. Understanding the dynamics of caste may allow me to be a more articulate critic.

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A Swift Birthday Poem for Julia

Julia Bates

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Saturday

In the film Dead Poets Society, the Robin Williams character informs his all-male English class that the purpose of poetry is to “woo women.” Needless to say, this is more a tactic to sell poetry to adolescents than a truth statement. Nor can I claim to have used poetry to woo my wife Julia, who today celebrates her 73rd birthday today. Nevertheless, it did play a role.

We were in our junior year at Carleton College and Julia, through my roommate, had invited me to join a poetry reading group she had started. I dutifully came, read the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”—the first stanza of which I recited by heart—but then informed her that my work on the school newspaper was so time-consuming that I could participate in anything else. And that appeared to be that.

The Hopkins poem, which is very bouncy and alliterative, is not exactly woman-wooing material, given that it is about the evanescence of beauty. Here’s how it begins:

How to keep–is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere
known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch
or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing
away?

Although nothing further happened between Julia and me at that point, she was impressed with what she saw as my poetic soul. In other words, the seeds had been sown for our future relationship, which started up the following March. By the summer we had decided to get married.

Poetry has played a major role in our marriage, beginning with the erotic D. H. Lawrence poem that we had someone read at our wedding (“Tortoise Shout”). Sometimes poetry has entered in unexpected ways. I recall one time when I had been an insensitive jerk, going out with graduate friends on a sudden impulse and not asking Julia along. Julia was asleep in bed by the time I returned home, but she had left 20 angry poems plastered all over our apartment (numbered, so I knew what order to read them in) letting me know how she felt. For Julia, poetry has always been a major way of expressing her deepest feelings.

I too have always used poetry to celebrate special occasions with her (although not my own, not being the poet she is). Which brings me to today’s birthday poem.

I’m sharing one of the birthday poems that Jonathan Swift wrote for Esther Johnson (“Stella”), whom he first met when she was a girl (he was 14 years her senior) and to whom he may or may not have been married. (It’s crazy that we don’t know for sure.) Swift wrote a birthday poem for Stella each of the last ten years of her life, and although they always have the bantering tone that is characteristic of Swif’s poetry, the last one he wrote—not long before she died at 46—has an unexpectedly serious side. As he puts it, “Accept for once some serious lines.”

One of the wonderful things about being married to Julia for fifty years has been a growing tenderness. The highs and lows have evened out, mellowing (to borrow a line from Langston Hughes) to a golden note. Every day I find myself feeling grateful that she is in my life. I think that’s what Swift is feeling as well in this last poem.

To set up a contrast with what he wrote previously, here are the opening lines of his first birthday poem, written ten years earlier when Stella would have been 36. Note that he points out she’s aging and gaining weight:

Stella this day is thirty-four,
(We shan’t dispute a year or more:)
However, Stella, be not troubled,
Although thy size and years are doubled
Since first I saw thee at sixteen,
The brightest virgin on the green;
So little is thy form declined;
Made up so largely in thy mind.

And now for the last poem, written when he knew she didn’t have much time left. It begins by deciding not to talk about either her illness and his own aging:

This day, whate’er the Fates decree,
Shall still be kept with joy by me:
This day then let us not be told,
That you are sick, and I grown old;
Nor think on our approaching ills,
And talk of spectacles and pills;
Tomorrow will be time enough
To hear such mortifying stuff.Y
et, since from reason may be brought
A better and more pleasing thought,
Which can, in spite of all decays,
Support a few remaining days;
From not the gravest of divines
Accept for once some serious lines. 

If we can’t look forward, he then notes, at least we can look back:  

Although we now can form no more
Long schemes of life, as heretofore;
Yet you, while time is running fast,
Can look with joy on what is past. 

In a somewhat convoluted argument (so I’m skipping the first half of the next stanza), Swift examines different ways of looking at virtue. One of its advantages, he contends, is that it gives us something comforting to look back on. It leaves behind 

Some lasting pleasure in the mind,
Which, by remembrance, will assuage
Grief, sickness, poverty, and age;
And strongly shoot a radiant dart
To shine through life’s declining part. 

Stella, he says, has much virtue to look back upon, acting providentially to help people in need:  

Say, Stella, feel you no content,
Reflecting on a life well spent?
Your skillful hand employed to save
Despairing wretches from the grave;
And then supporting with your store
Those whom you dragg’d from death before?
So Providence on mortals waits,
Preserving what it first creates.
Your generous boldness to defend
An innocent and absent friend;
That courage which can make you just
To merit humbled in the dust;
The detestation you express
For vice in all its glittering dress… 

When I read these lines, I think of how Julia too works unstintingly on behalf of other people. I sensed that she had this commitment when I first met her (at the time she was training to be a middle school and high school teacher), and so it has turned out. Where she sees people needing help, she always steps forward. 

After a few comments on how Stella is stoically enduring her illness,  in part because she can look back at “a life well-spent,” Swift concludes by talking about how much she has meant to him. I “glad would your suffering share,” he tells her—and because she has taken such good care of him, he is in a position to express his appreciation:   

O then, whatever Heaven intends,
Take pity on your pitying friends!
Nor let your ills affect your mind,
To fancy they can be unkind.
Me, surely me, you ought to spare,
Who gladly would your suffering share;
Or give my scrap of life to you,
And think it far beneath your due;
You, to whose care so oft I owe
That I’m alive to tell you so.

I use this poem of appreciation to tell Julia how much she means to me. Happy birthday, beautiful!

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