The Meaning of Hell

Bosch, “The Harrowing of Hell”

Spiritual Sunday

Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s preeminent Shakespearean, has an article about hell in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books that has me thinking about a subject I generally avoid. It’s a smart piece but fairly grim. 

For the most part, my view of hell is the one set forth in the first work that Greenblatt cites. In Doctor Faustus,Christopher Marlowe seems to propose a psychological rather than a literal hell, one that occurs in the present rather than after death. If I read Marlowe correctly, it’s an extraordinary vision for someone at the end of the 16th century:

Faustus: Where are you damn'd?
Mephistopheles: In hell.
Faustus: How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
Mephistopheles: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

In other words, hell is separation from God’s love. No torture devices needed.

A later passage reiterates that hell is not a place in the future but a state of mind:

Faustus: First will I question with thee about hell.Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?
Mephistopheles: Under the heavens.
Faustus: Ay, but whereabout?
Mephistopheles: Within the bowels of these elements,
Where we are tortur'd and remain for ever:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib'd
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there9 must we ever be…

Milton’s Satan echoes these lines when he claims,

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Seen in this way, we create our own hells, which is far more important than what happens after we die. The corollary is that heaven is also here and now if only we will open ourselves to it.  

But however Marlowe himself saw hell, his play still catered to the imagery of the day, and at the end of the play Faustus is dragged away screaming into a gaping hell mouth. Greenblatt reports that audiences were overwhelmed:

There is evidence that Marlowe’s play produced a powerful effect on his contemporaries. During a performance at the Theatre—London’s first freestanding wooden playhouse—a cracking sound caused a panic in the audience; in the town of Exeter the players bolted when they thought that there was one devil too many on stage; and multiple rumors circulated of “the visible apparition of the Devill” unexpectedly surging up during the conjuring scene. In Doctor Faustus, hell may have been a form of theatrical entertainment; audiences paid their pennies to enter a fictional world. But when the performance was disrupted by a surprise noise, the crowd was prepared instantly to jettison the idea of fiction and grant that it was all too true. 

Greenblatt is writing about Scott Bruce’s The Penguin Book of Hell, which the Jewish reviewer says should be titled The Penguin Book of Christian Hell. From it we learn the origins of graphic hell depictions, starting with the third-century apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul. There we get

rivers of fire, insatiable worms, swirling sulfur and pitch, stench, and sharp stones raining like hail on the unprotected bodies of the damned. There are adulterers strung up by their eyebrows and hair; sodomites covered in blood and filth; girls who lost their virginity without their parents’ knowledge shackled in flaming chains; women who had abortions impaled on flaming spits. There are virtuous pagans who “gave alms and yet did not recognize the Lord God” and who are therefore blinded and placed forever in a deep pit.

Greenblatt finds an earlier culprit not mentioned by Bruce: Jesus himself. After all, he mentions unquenchable fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth several times. Now, I myself read Jesus’s words as metaphorical. When he proclaims that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven,” I assume he is talking about the hell we feel that comes from violating our inner divinity and our capacity to love, not an actual place.

In other words, I agree with materialist John Wilmot, English history’s most notorious libertine, who saw a loveless life driven by ceaseless desiring to be the real hell:

How blest was the created state
Of man and woman, ere they fell,
Compared to our unhappy fate:
We need not fear another hell…

But we, poor Slaves to hope and fear,
Are never of our Joys secure:
They lessen still, as they draw near;
And none but dull delights endure.

But whatever Jesus meant by hell, later Christians came along and saw it as mostly literal. Book of Hell often reads as a collection of sadistic fantasies, many directed at people of other faiths or denominations. For example, check out Dante’s description of Mohammed:

“No barrel staved-in/And missing its end-piece,” Dante reports in the Inferno, “ever gaped as wide/As the man I saw split open from his chin/Down to the farting-place.” Dante stares at the grotesque sight—“from the splayed/Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs”—but in this case he does not have to ask his companion Virgil to name the figure, for the sufferer identifies himself: “He pulled open his chest/With both hands, saying, ‘Look how Mohammed claws/And mangles himself, torn open down the breast!/Look how I tear myself!’”

Mohammed aside, Dante is actually one of the better writers on hell since at least his punishments operate as very smart symbolic representations of the sin–which is to say, they capture the hellish nature of the act when it is being committed. Therefore,

the wrathful are condemned for eternity to tear each other limb from limb, usurers crouch in agony with purses around their necks, lovers who were swept away in adulterous passion are now swept away in a ceaseless infernal wind.

Compared to the their unhappy fate now, these sinners need not fear another hell.

Most people’s hellish depictions are far cruder than Dante’s, especially when you have Victorian teachers threatening children with hell. Bruce’s anthology lists some good examples, but my own favorite has got to be Mr. Brocklehurst from Jane Eyre:

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began,“especially a naughty little girl.  Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell?  Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”

“How can you keep in good health? Children younger than you die daily.  I buried a little child of five years old only a day or two since,—a good little child, whose soul is now in heaven.  It is to be feared the same could not be said of you were you to be called hence.”

Surveying Christian hell throughout the ages, Greenblatt concludes it has served two major purposes: to console the powerless, who dream that their victimizers will one day be held accountable; and to provide the victimizers (like Brocklehurst) with a soft power means of enforcing compliance. Regarding the latter, Greenblatt quotes a cynical Voltaire observing,

My good friend, I no more believe in the eternity of hell than yourself; but recollect that it may be no bad thing, perhaps, for your servant, your tailor, and your lawyer to believe in it.

I suspect Greenblatt would agree with Wilmot’s “A Fragment of Seneca Translated” where the poet believes hell to be “devised by rogues, dreaded by fools”:

For Hell and the foul fiend that rules
God’s everlasting fiery jails
(Devised by rogues, dreaded by fools),
With his grim, grisly dog that keeps the door,
Are senseless stories, idle tales,
Dreams, whimseys, and no more.

There are many rogues out there playing God and imagining their enemies in the dark place. Ignore them as you strive to build heaven in the here and now.

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Philosophy Needs Literature

Goya, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters–united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels”)


The other day Eva Bahovec, a good friend who teaches in Ljubljana’s philosophy department, had me meet with two students preparing to write Women’s Studies dissertations. Although philosophy and Women’s Studies are not my areas of expertise, Bogdan Repič and Polonca Mesec want their studies to have a literary component, which is where I came in. In today’s post, I expand on something I told them: literature is always smarter than we are and, when we immerse ourselves in a work, we take on its wisdom.

This is not to say that literature is superior to philosophy (although I myself would rather read literature). Each discipline has its own special way of knowing and, in any case, this isn’t a competition. Literature’s way of knowing, however, adds emotional and spiritual intelligence to rational intelligence. Along with grasping literature intellectually, we also feel it and, in addition, we sense broader import. This happens all at once.

I told Bogdan and Polonca that I can speak confidently from having spent a lifetime systematically applying literature to life. When I find a successful match between a literary work and something in the world, it’s as though I can “see into the life of things” (Wordsworth). In following the fictional, poetic, or dramatic argument, I chance upon insights I would not have had otherwise.

Like Homer, our abilities are enhanced when we invoke the literary muse. We can think of literature as the river into which the infant Achilles is dipped, immersion bestowing warrior attributes. To adapt a formulation found in Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” we put on literature’s knowledge when we are in the grip of its power.

Only unlike with Achilles, the power doesn’t last, invariably wearing off so that we return to the same plane of reality as everyone else. To regain it, we must immerse ourselves again in a poem or play or work of fiction. Fortunately, the waters never lose their potency.

But back to applying literature to philosophy. What literature gains from holistic knowing, it loses in directness. “The poet, he nothing affirmeth,” Sidney said, alluding to the way that literature pulls us into its own world. In that respect, literature is like the Delphic oracle, whose words must be interpreted if they are to prove useful.

Philosophy, psychology, and sociology all have their own discourse, complete with conventions concerning argumentation, evidence, and testing and with a long history of conversations that practitioners must become familiar with. (Philosophy’s conversations go back 2500 years.) When a work of literature enters the world of the social sciences or humanities, it no longer looks like it did before. The various disciplines mine it for what they can use, and what the philosophers take away will be different than what the psychologists or political scientists take away. And that’s okay.

I therefore suggested to Bogdan and Polonca that they find a literary work or author that addresses their issues. The selection process should be intuitive as well as a rational. If the work is inspiring, if one is moved by its beauty as well as by its insight, then the subsequent exploration will not dwindle to a dry academic exercise. I think of such exploration as a spooling out from a potent emotional, spiritual, and intellectual core.

This image of power radiating outward brings to mind an analogy found in Plato’s Ion. Seeking to understand the power accessed by Ion, the age’s foremost performer of Homer, Socrates offers the following image:

The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. 

I should add that Plato, rational to a fault, does not see this as altogether a good thing. Comparing inspired artists to maddened Dionysian revelers, he says that lyric poets “are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains.” This is why he banishes poets from his perfect republic. Only the purely rational need apply.

Women’s Studies, however, has every reason to be suspicious of Platonic reason, and in fact some feminist philosophers have decried the absence of an affective or emotional dimension in classic philosophy.  As they search for ways to expand philosophy’s reach, these Slovenian students will find an invaluable ally in literature.

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Among Slovenian School Children

Friedrich Hiddemann, “The School Inspector”


Earlier this week I found myself standing “among school children” while visiting Polona Ramšak’s 8th grade English class in Celje, Slovenia. Polona, the foster mother of an exchange student who lived with us (you can read about their extraordinary story here), had invited me to answer their questions about America, which I did for over an hour. Looking back at the experience, my mind drifted naturally to Yeats’s poem of that name, which showed me the wider ramifications of the visit.

As the poem begins, however, it appears that Yeats’s visit to a girls school will be a downer. He was in his sixties at the time, a member of newly liberated Ireland’s Senate. Looking at the pupils, he feels acutely the difference in age and describes himself as “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” It was not so when, as a child, he played with Maud Gonne, who would become his poetic muse. He remembers Maud and him blending “into a sphere,” like the yolk and white of an egg, over some childhood disappointment.

In Symposium, Plato describes humans being traumatically split into two so that we experience life as frustrated desire, which is how Yeats feels at the moment. Maud, once beautiful like these little girls, is now “hollow of cheek,” and the poet isn’t doing so well himself. He imagines his mother, if she could see him now, wondering whether it was worth going through “the pang of his birth,/Or the uncertainty of his setting forth.”

In other words, he’s feeling his age, and not in a good way. He thinks of various philosophers and concludes that they don’t handle the aging process well. Plato thought we were eternal forms but these just strike Yeats as just so much ocean form (“spume”). Pythagoras may have believed humans are moved by the music of the spheres, but sometimes we here below are little more than fiddles and our muses are “careless.” Aristotle, the most down to the earth of the three, had to spank young Alexander the Great to get him to learn. In other words, there’s not much uplifting about mortal human beings.

In the end, however, Yeats feels better about his aging by thinking of these young people and himself as participants in a great dance. If, rather than trying to force ourselves into some mold, we listen to the creative energies within us, it doesn’t matter how old or young we the dancers are. A blossoming tree can’t be reduced to “the leaf, the blossom or the bole.” The splits that come with aging are not a problem after all.

Though I didn’t think of my own 67 years as I visited Polona’s class, I was invigorated as I watched the students use their newly acquired powers of a foreign language to learn about an exotic country. Had I met celebrities, they asked me, and why are Americans always killing each other with guns? How do I celebrate Christmas? Is all of California burning up? Do all Americans do drugs? Where do American Indians live and what do they think about Thanksgiving? Are Americans friendly?

Their world is opening up and mine is deepening. Together we swayed to the music of the dance.

Among School Children (1926)

By William Butler Yeats


I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way—the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.


And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age—
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage—
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.


Her present image floats into the mind—
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?


Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts—O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise—
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;


Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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Incoming Judge Cites Maya Angelou

Katja Šugman Stubbs, Slovenia’s latest Constitutional Court member


When I met last week with literary biographer John Stubbs, he mentioned that his wife, Katja Šugman Stubbs, quoted Maya Angelou last week when accepting a position on Slovenia’s Constitutional Court. Her use of Angelou shows that she understands the responsibilities of judgeship at a deep level.

Here is the relevant excerpt from Šugman Stubbs’s remarks:

When approaching every milestone in life, a thoughtful person will always have doubts and questions. The milestone I have reached today is one that is much less about me than about the people whose lives will be affected by my judgments.

I am very aware of the responsibility which lies before me. I take on this new role with gratitude for my teachers, great respect for those who have acquitted it so well before me, and with an open mind prepared to learn and listen. My guide in this respect is a document, the Constitution, which is a starting point and a foundation for the values that should underlie all respectful co-existence that is fit for humanity. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves again that according to our Constitution the Slovenian state is not only ‘legal’ but also ‘social’; and that the Constitution upholds the dignity of every human being, regardless of their nationality, race, sex, language, religion, political or any other form of conviction, material status, birth, education, social position, disability or any other personal characteristic.

It falls to judges to give real substance to such words. Let me conclude with a remark by the American writer, Maya Angelou: ‘Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.’

Thank you for recognizing in me the professional and personal qualities that I hope will allow me to give the words of law a human voice.

In Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a caring neighbor says those words to an 8-year-old Maya, who has gone silent after her mother’s boyfriend assaults and rapes her. Mrs. Bertha Mason, “the aristocrat of Black Stamps” (Stamps, Missouri), wants to draw her out and talks to her over lemonade and vanilla cookies:

“Now no one is going to make you talk — possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.

“Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.

As Šugman Stubbs indicates in her remarks, a constitutional judge must listen to everyone, including the voiceless. Mrs. Mason teaches Maya that such people deserve respect as much as anyone else:

As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations. 

To give Maya back her voice, Mrs. Mason has her read aloud. Just as a constitution must move beyond words on a page to become a living, pulsating reality in the lives of a people, so must a book:

She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible….

When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.  

“It was the best of time and the worst of times . . .” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.  

“How do you like that?”  

It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.  

I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.  

 I am aware that, in her acceptance speech, Šugman Stubbs reads Angelou’s passage more metaphorically than literally, with the human voice standing in for three-dimensionality. A judge must see people as more than mere abstractions. When we have voice, we have personhood and we have community.

This is how voice works in Caged Bird. Because of the rape, Maya suffers from PTSD, with not only sound but color disappearing from her life. To cope, she has retreated into the solitary world of books. By showing her the power of reading aloud, Mrs. Mason returns three dimensionality and human interaction to her world. It’s worth noting that Dickens himself, later on in life, gave dramatic readings of his works, believing that reading silently didn’t do them justice.

I’ll add that the Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar emphasizes the importance of voice in his groundbreaking work A Voice and Nothing More. Pushing against what he sees as the deconstructionists’ overemphasis on writing and on text, Mladen restored the importance of voice to the conversation. The corporeality of voice links self to society in ways that philosophy has overlooked.

In Caged Bird, Mrs. Mason has one more challenge for the woman whose voice would one day be heard at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and whose dramatic readings of “Still I Rise” have inspired multitudes:

There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite.  

Looking back at this episode in her life, Angelou talks about the importance of sharing books with another person—which is to say, moving from a profound private self to a public one:

I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.

Putting higher ideals above self is not a bad lesson for an in-coming constitutional judge. Katja Šugman Stubbs’s determination to honor every voice shows that Slovenia is in good hands.

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H. W. Bush’s “War and Peace” Lessons

Brian Cox as General Kutuzov


I have very mixed feelings about the late President H. W. Walker Bush. While he made a devil’s bargain to defeat Michael Dukakis—his campaign manager Lee Atwater pioneered the racist politics that later contributed to Donald Trump’s victory—he also conducted a wise foreign policy. He was judicious in his response to the break-up of the Soviet empire and he was wiser than his son when it came to Iraq.

In retrospect, his decision to end the Persian Gulf War without overthrowing Saddam Hussein shows considerable perspicacity. I wonder if any credit can be extended to War and Peace, which was Bush’s favorite work of literature and which he describe as “an inspiring, lengthy treatise. I read it twice. It taught me a lot about life.”

I’m thinking particularly of similarities to Kutuzov, the Russian general who battled Napoleon. Kutuzov made unpopular decisions despite unimaginable pressure. According to Tolstoy, he didn’t follow up the Battle of Borodino with further attacks because he realized the army was in no shape to do so. He also reasoned that he should provide the defeated Napoleon with a “golden bridge” rather than wasting Russian lives by chasing him.

The general was heavily criticized for both moves, and his subordinates sacrificed many men by disregarding his order to let the French flee. Think of them as the architects of the second Iraqi War, which created ISIS, unsettled Syria, and cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Here’s Tolstoy describing Russia’s version of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz et al., those figures in Bush Jr.’s administration who insisted on a second war with Iraq:

These men, carried away by their passions, …considered themselves heroes and imagined that they were accomplishing a most noble and honorable deed. They blamed Kutúzov and said that from the very beginning of the campaign he had prevented their vanquishing Napoleon, that he thought of nothing but satisfying his passions and would not advance from the Linen Factories because he was comfortable there, that at Krásnoe he checked the advance because on learning that Napoleon was there he had quite lost his head, and that it was probable that he had an understanding with Napoleon and had been bribed by him, and so on, and so on.

Not only did his contemporaries, carried away by their passions, talk in this way, but posterity and history have acclaimed Napoleon as grand, while Kutúzov is described by foreigners as a crafty, dissolute, weak old courtier, and by Russians as something indefinite—a sort of puppet useful only because he had a Russian name.

And further:

This procrastinator Kutúzov, whose motto was “Patience and Time,” this enemy of decisive action, gave battle at Borodinó, investing the preparations for it with unparalleled solemnity. This Kutúzov who before the battle of Austerlitz began said that it would be lost, he alone, in contradiction to everyone else, declared till his death that Borodinó was a victory, despite the assurance of generals that the battle was lost and despite the fact that for an army to have to retire after winning a battle was unprecedented. He alone during the whole retreat insisted that battles, which were useless then, should not be fought, and that a new war should not be begun nor the frontiers of Russia crossed.

Even if Poppy Bush didn’t apply Kutuzov’s wisdom directly to Iraq, it may be that Tolstoy taught him to look at the big picture rather than get caught up in the heat of the moment. Think how different the world would look if Bush Junior had followed his father’s lead.

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Balzac’s Gobseck Understands Trump

In this still from Czech film “Gobseck,” a rich debtor pawns her necklace.


At the recommendation of my friend Mladen Dolar, I’ve been reading Balzac’s short story “Gobseck” and find myself dazzled. Karl Marx famously said that Balzac taught him more about capitalism than any economist, and I can see why. The author also gets to the heart of Donald J. Trump.

“I am the king of debt,” Trump has boasted, and he has flaunted the way he spends “other people’s money,” including the money of America’s taxpayers. Like a dandy in a 19th century novel, he has a long history of stiffing his creditors, so much so that American banks finally stopped lending to him, forcing him to take money from shady Russian and Saudi sources. We watch him as we watch Balzac’s debtors, wondering how long he can keep up the high wire act.

Gobseck is an omniscient loan shark who lends money in part so that he can watch “la comédie humaine” up close.” As he explains to Derville, a lawyer and the story’s principle narrator, the desire for money reveals people’s inmost character:

[D]o you think that it is nothing to have this power of insight into the deepest recesses of the human heart, to embrace so many lives, to see the naked truth underlying it all? There are no two dramas alike: there are hideous sores, deadly chagrins, love scenes, misery that soon will lie under the ripples of the Seine, young men’s joys that lead to the scaffold, the laughter of despair, and sumptuous banquets. Yesterday it was a tragedy. A worthy soul of a father drowned himself because he could not support his family. To-morrow is a comedy; some youngster will try to rehearse the scene of M. Dimanche, brought up to date.

Those he hears pleading for money or begging him for relief surpass the greatest orators of the day, who appear “mere stammering beginners” in comparison. Trump too can extort millions even from those who sense he will never pay them back.

While Gobseck can see through the façade, the youthful Derville cannot. Take, for instance, his encounter with a spendthrift lover who is ruining his mistress. Derville knows he shouldn’t trust the man but falls for his charm:

My head was fairly clear, I was upon my guard. As for him, though he pretended to be decently drunk, he was perfectly cool, and knew very well what he was about. How it was done I do not know, but the upshot of it was that when we left Grignon’s rooms about nine o’clock in the evening, M. de Trailles had thoroughly bewitched me. I had given him my promise that I would introduce him the next day to our Papa Gobseck. The words ‘honor,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘countess,’ ‘honest woman,’ and ‘ill-luck’ were mingled in his discourse with magical potency, thanks to that golden tongue of his.

Trailles and his mistress, like the Trumps, reside in a world fueled by other people’s money. We peek behind the curtains of this world when Gobseck goes to collect a debt from the woman, a wealthy man’s wife who has “turned heads the night before.” The luxury items for which she is bankrupting herself are strewn about as though of no worth, even though she once believed they were crucial to her happiness:

She wore a loose gown trimmed with snowy ruffles, which told plainly that her laundress’ bills amounted to something like two thousand francs in the course of a year. Her dark curls escaped from beneath a bright Indian handkerchief, knotted carelessly about her head after the fashion of Creole women. The bed lay in disorder that told of broken slumber. A painter would have paid money to stay a while to see the scene that I saw. Under the luxurious hanging draperies, the pillow, crushed into the depths of an eider-down quilt, its lace border standing out in contrast against the background of blue silk, bore a vague impress that kindled the imagination. A pair of satin slippers gleamed from the great bear-skin rug spread by the carved mahogany lions at the bed-foot, where she had flung them off in her weariness after the ball. A crumpled gown hung over a chair, the sleeves touching the floor; stockings which a breath would have blown away were twisted about the leg of an easy-chair; while ribbon garters straggled over a settee. A fan of price, half unfolded, glittered on the chimney-piece. Drawers stood open; flowers, diamonds, gloves, a bouquet, a girdle, were littered about. The room was full of vague sweet perfume. And—beneath all the luxury and disorder, beauty and incongruity, I saw Misery crouching in wait for her or for her adorer, Misery rearing its head, for the Countess had begun to feel the edge of those fangs. Her tired face was an epitome of the room strewn with relics of past festival. The scattered gewgaws, pitiable this morning, when gathered together and coherent, had turned heads the night before.

 Gobseck says the woman attempts “to drink of the Tantalus cup of bliss,” Tantalus being the Greek mythological figure to whom we owe the word “tantalize.” Here’s Odysseus describing the punishment meted out to him in Hades:

Aye, and I saw Tantalus in violent torment, standing in a pool, and the water came nigh unto his chin. He seemed as one athirst, but could not take and drink; for as often as that old man stooped down, eager to drink, so often would the water be swallowed up and vanish away, and at his feet the black earth would appear, for some god made all dry. And trees, high and leafy, let stream their fruits above his head, pears, and pomegranates, and apple trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. But as often as that old man would reach out toward these, to clutch them with his hands, the wind would toss them to the shadowy clouds.

Never satisfied with what one has, one always wants what is out of reach. This truth applies especially to those billionaires who pressure politicians for tax cuts, even at the risk of bankrupting the nation. And to Trump, dissatisfied even with the presidency of the world’s preeminent super power. Gold, Gobseck informs Derville, is about self-interest and vanity (a.k.a. narcissism), and because vanity can never be fully satisfied, people always demand more money. I think about Trump’s gold-plated penthouse when I read the following passage:

The one thing that always remains, the one sure instinct that nature has implanted in us, is the instinct of self-interest. If you had lived as long as I have, you would know that there is but one concrete reality invariable enough to be worth caring about, and that is—GOLD. Gold represents every form of human power….[W]hen all sensations are exhausted, all that survives is Vanity—Vanity is the abiding substance of us, the I in us. Vanity is only to be satisfied by gold in floods. Our dreams need time and physical means and painstaking thought before they can be realized. Well, gold contains all things in embryo; gold realizes all things for us.

Or seems to realize all things for us. Because people have the illusion that gold will fulfill all desires, they grovel and debase themselves to get it. They even sell out their country, and Trump’s former lawyer is now testifying that Trump tried to land a Moscow real estate deal while running for president. Why not sell out America’s belief in human rights, its commitment to Ukraine, and its participation in NATO with such an end in sight?

The story’s conclusion reveals the emptiness of Trumpian grasping through multiple story lines. On the one hand, the spendthrift woman fears that her husband, now dying, will bypass her and bestow his wealth on their children. She therefore haunts his outer chambers, bribes the doctor and servants, and searches her young sons when they emerge from the bedroom. She makes sure that Derville, her husband’s attorney, can’t get close to him. She lives a wretched existence.

Gobseck too, despite his perspicacity, has the same disease. Acting as his lawyer, Derville surveys the moneylender’s accumulated wealth after he dies and is greeted by a suffocating sight. Every item that Gobseck has ever received as payment—and kept if he wasn’t able to dispose of it for the price he wanted–can be found there:

In the room next to the one in which Gobseck had died, a quantity of eatables of all kinds were stored—putrid pies, mouldy fish, nay, even shell-fish, the stench almost choked me. Maggots and insects swarmed. These comparatively recent presents were put down, pell-mell, among chests of tea, bags of coffee, and packing-cases of every shape. A silver soup tureen on the chimney-piece was full of advices of the arrival of goods consigned to his order at Havre, bales of cotton, hogsheads of sugar, barrels of rum, coffees, indigo, tobaccos, a perfect bazaar of colonial produce. The room itself was crammed with furniture, and silver-plate, and lamps, and vases, and pictures; there were books, and curiosities, and fine engravings lying rolled up, unframed. Perhaps these were not all presents, and some part of this vast quantity of stuff had been deposited with him in the shape of pledges, and had been left on his hands in default of payment. I noticed jewel-cases, with ciphers and armorial bearings stamped upon them, and sets of fine table-linen, and weapons of price; but none of the things were docketed. I opened a book which seemed to be misplaced, and found a thousand-franc note in it. I promised myself that I would go through everything thoroughly; I would try the ceilings, and floors, and walls, and cornices to discover all the gold, hoarded with such passionate greed by a Dutch miser worthy of a Rembrandt’s brush. In all the course of my professional career I have never seen such impressive signs of the eccentricity of avarice.

I think of Citizen Kane’s final scene where an overhead camera pans “the loot of the world” that Kane has collected. Trump has his own acquisition mania, and America is paying the price.

One other note: Balzac provides us with a contrasting vision in the figure of Derville, who marries a good woman, refuses to climb the ladder of ambition, and believes in truth-telling and integrity. He preserves the husband’s fortune for the children, which in turn allows a deserving young couple to find happiness. In spite of Gobseck’s contention, not everyone is ruled by self-interest and vanity.

That’s what we hope for in America today: that Trump and other self-interested billionaires, along with the legislators and grifters who feed off of them, will be checked by principled citizens. One’s level of optimism may depend on one’s view of human nature.

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At Once a Voice Arose

Spiritual Sunday

 One of the most powerful Advent poems I know was written by an agnostic. Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” isn’t explicitly religious because the writer had abandoned the faith of his childhood. Nevertheless, it very much captures a longing for spiritual light in a world where, to quote Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the sea of faith has retreated and there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light, /Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

I quote Arnold because Hardy’s title probably alludes to the poet’s “we are here as on a darkling plain,” “darkling” being a seldom used word meaning taking place in the dark. In addition to Arnold, the poet’s struggles can be compared to those of Aadam Aziz in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Returning to Kashmir after receiving a European education, Aziz finds himself “knocked forever into that middle place, unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve.”

“Darkling Thrust” opens with images of desolation (“spectre-gray” frost, “Winter’s dregs,” brambles like “strings of broken lyres”). Published on the eve of the new century (in December 1900), the poem looks back at the past century and sees a corpse in a crypt. Faith appears to be dead:

I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

In this winter landscape, however, “a voice arose.” Though it seems to make little sense, an aged thrush that has seen much hardship chooses to “fling his soul/Upon the growing gloom”:

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

Hardy’s use of the words “carolings” and “blessed Hope” point to religious possibility, even though the poet himself is in doubt. Could this bird know things he doesn’t?

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.

“Darkling Thrush” does far more me than confident assertions of faith. It captures my own struggling but leaves open the possibility of miraculous new life.

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In Praise of Literary Biography


Sometimes when I have a great conversation, I write it down to preserve it. I therefore report on yesterday’s discussion with John Stubbs, a literary historian with books on John Donne, Jonathan Swift, and the cavalier poets. John currently teaches at Ljubljana’s Bezigrad high school, where in 1995 I taught one of the classes he’s currently teaching (but only for six weeks).

Jonathan is married to a Slovenian lawyer (as of this past Tuesday, a judge) and appears to speak excellent Slovene. I met him through my colleague Jason Blake, and I grilled him about his projects over coffee and delicious pastries in a Ljubljana cafe. His book Jonathan Swift, the Reluctant Rebel (Viking/Penguin, 2017) looks at how the satirist was drawn into defending the Irish almost against his will. Swift challenged English stereotypes of Irish Catholics as brutes and saw Ireland’s real problem as colonization. He exposed this most famously, of course, in “Modest Proposal,” but he fought for Ireland in other ways as well.

Meanwhile, in Reprobates: The Cavaliers (Norton, 2012), John upends many of the simple binaries about who sympathized with whom in the war between the royalists and the Puritans. He shows that some Puritans behaved as cavaliers and that some cavaliers shared radical ideas with Puritans. We learn that Milton, Marvell, and the cavalier poets don’t fit neatly into the boxes we assign them.

John’s books interest me because I write frequently about his subjects. But I was also interested in what draws someone to literary biography. For decades, biographies were, if not frowned upon in literary studies, at least not encouraged or celebrated. In the days of formalism, most scholars focused only on text and considered authors irrelevant, those who paid attention to them being guilty of “the intentional fallacy.” The structuralists and deconstructionists weren’t much better, with Roland Barthes proclaiming “the death of the author.” (In Barthes’s view it is “language that speaks,” not the writer.)

John’s books are delightfully written, which means he has departed from his dissertation concerns, where he tracked Shakespeare’s use of a particular rhetorical figure in a study that he says became increasingly murky. I sympathized as I too wrote a dissertation that I’m glad is behind me. (My subject was the cranky novelist Tobias Smollett, whom I didn’t particularly like.) We both agreed that, while dissertations are perhaps necessary, it’s much more fun to write about literature now that we’re not facing academic pressure.

John turned to biography because authors like Milton and Marvell, as he had been taught them, seemed to float in a void. He said that he loves stories, and his books are written with a novelist’s eye. I noted that such love sets him apart from the literary theorists I waded through in the 1980s. For instance, many deconstructionists regarded literature as second rate philosophy (even though they themselves were literary scholars) because literature traffics in deceptive narrative and simulacrums of reality. We should study fiction’s fictionality, they asserted, and not the insights it provides into human nature and other real life concerns.

I told John that, while I made a good faith effort to understand the deconstructionists, I found myself craving, in a visceral way, the concreteness of character, setting, plot, and image. I ultimately found abstract theory too bloodless.

I noted that Robert Scholes’s The Crafty Reader believes literature teachers miss out on a valuable asset when they ignore biography. If you want to become an accomplished reader, Scholes says, begin “by devoting a lot of time to a single poet whose poems clearly emerge from and connect to the ordinary events of human life.” The poetry becomes far more accessible once one does so.

As we talked on, I thought of Anne Elliot’s observation (in Jane Austen’s Persuasion) that good company is “the company of  clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.” (Mr. Elliot replies that “that is not good company; that is the best.”) I was rejuvenated by this new acquaintance and reflected that, were I not now retired, I would be up to my eyeballs in student essays. Life felt good.

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Read to Resist: An Introduction

John Singer Sargent, “Man Reading”


I share today the introduction to my upcoming book, which is still in draft form and whose title I keep changing. Latest title: Read to Resist: Classic Lit Provides Tools for Battling Trump and Trumpism. I’m still not entirely satisfied with that and so will keep tinkering. In any event, here’s my first attempt at an intro.

Introduction to Read to Resist

Looking back through the daily essays that I post on my blog Better Living through Beowulf, I see that I first started paying attention to Donald Trump in 2015, when he launched his presidential run. Before then, I thought him a mere carnival sideshow, viewing his claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States as a bizarre means of attracting attention. For far too long I didn’t take him seriously.

Once he started gaining political traction, however, I did what I always do when faced with life’s mysteries: I turned to literature. Of course, many seasoned observers of American politics also helped me out, but literature made its special contribution. I should note that the essays in this collection stop at the 2018 midterm elections. It will be interesting to see which ones withstand the test of time and which will seem outdated in two or three years.

In the book’s final essay, I quote Salman Rushdie’s observation that, when political leaders undermine our grasp on reality, literature delivers “the truths of the great constant, which is human nature.” The Roman poet Horace tells us that literature speaks truth while entertaining us, and the most truthful literature never loses its relevance. Times may change, but (to do a rundown of this collection’s opening essays), Twain, Gay, Melville, Gogol, Milton and Shakespeare knew a conman when they saw one. Meanwhile Orwell, Kundera, and Shakespeare (always Shakespeare) understood authoritarian impulses, Dante and Melville gave us unforgettable images of flatterers and enablers, and authors as ancient as Aeschylus and Euripides wrote dramas where victims push back.

We need truth tellers more than ever as America’s president lies constantly while attacking such institutional guardrails as the justice system, the academy, the press, the intelligence agencies, religion, and science. When a president cavalierly shifts the grounds of reality, society flounders. That Trump is aided by powerful forces like Fox News, rightwing billionaires, and Vladimir Putin makes resistance to him particularly challenging.

Literature has always stepped up when truth and morality are under assault. In his mock epic masterpiece The Dunciad, for instance, Alexander Pope imagined stupidity, embodied in the Goddess Dullness, extinguishing everything that upholds civilization. At her universal yawn, all the lights of the world go out:

Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires. 
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

The essays in this book show us how literature can help counter such an assault. Because we cannot resist effectively until we understand the problem, the first three sections look into Trump the man, Trump’s tactics and policies, and Trump’s supporters and enablers. Within each section I have arranged the essays chronologically so that the reader can track my own dawning awareness of the problem’s scope.

For instance, while early essays tagged Trump as a relatively harmless (albeit nasty) conman, later essays became alarmed and began exploring his authoritarian tendencies (Trump as a wannabe Macbeth). From a mere grifter like Tolstoy’s Prince Vasili, I came to see him as a Iago, malevolently and spitefully whispering into America’s ear on his way to destroying all that is honorable and innocent.

Literature also explains how and why Trump commands such loyalty from certain followers.  For instance, after Milton’s Satan corrupts Adam and Eve, he doesn’t have to directly tell Sin and Death that they can rampage throughout the earth. Instead, they themselves sense their moment has arrived, with Sin discovering,

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep…

If there has been an uptick of white Americans verbally and sometimes physically assaulting Jews and people of color, it is because they feel a new strength within. Their wings are growing.

Likewise, H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man helps us understand why members of the GOP establishment have surrendered to Trump. By getting away with behavior that would have ended any other politician’s career, Trump appears to have suspended the laws of political gravity, just as Griffin suspends the laws of physical reality. Griffin’s exhilaration when he realizes he can escape accountability has spread to Republican politicians:

I was invisible, and I was only just beginning to realize the extraordinary advantage my invisibility gave me. My head was already teeming with plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do.

Trump’s impunity made an impression on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who worships at the feet of libertarian Ayn Rand. When Trump threw political correctness and common decency to the winds, Ryan must have felt he was witnessing the living embodiment of John Galt. After all, this new Atlas casually shrugged away the “pussy grabbing” scandal, making Ryan’s momentary attempts to condemn Trump appear weak. “So this is what an Übermensch looks like,” one imagines Ryan thinking.

Literature doesn’t only articulate the problems we face, however. It also shows us people fighting against the forces of darkness. In Parts IV and V, I delve into literature that inspires active resistance.

For instance, Agamemnon’s Cassandra, Euripides’s Bacchae, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Margaret Atwood’s Offred, and Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas protesters resist patriarchy, racism, and scapegoating generally. Heinrik Ibsen’s 1882 play Enemy of the People could not be timelier as it shows a man courageously fighting against manufactured reality. Sometimes Stockmann behaves well, sometimes not, but always in illuminating ways.

I also reference poems that people have written that show a way forward. Good art never limits itself just to prescription, and these works capture our complicated reality while providing a framework within which to explore our options.

As I compare this collection with my previous How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage (2012), I realize that I have become less optimistic. I correctly identified America’s monsters, especially our resentful Grendel (lower class status anxiety) and our dragon (threatened upper class entitlement), but I thought that we could draw on our foundational values to fend them off. I underestimated the lengths that GOP Republicans would go, led by dragon Mitch McConnell, to protect their privilege. I didn’t anticipate that Machiavelli, not the U. S. Constitution, would become the new playbook.

Barack Obama may have thought he could appeal to our better angels, but now we see Trump attacking the free press and the GOP packing the courts. If, as I argued then, the Declaration of Independence is our version of the giant sword Beowulf uses to slay Grendel’s mother, then what happens when the sword itself is neutered? Like Beowulf’s dragon, McConnell and Trump threaten to burn down our great hall.

While Grendelian resentment and dragon entitlement are proving more intractable than I anticipated, however, the same counter measures still apply. Fighting the monsters requires people to come together like Beowulf and Wiglaf. The ideals upon which America was founded still make our hand grips firm, our giant swords sharp, and our warrior unity purposeful.

Having made the case for literature’s importance, I must add a caution. Reading is no substitute for canvassing, making calls, giving money, participating in protests, running for office, voting, and much more. The arts have never defeated tyranny by themselves. Rather, they should be considered an indispensable ally, a safe space where one can center oneself amidst all the lying, gaslighting, and spin. Think of literature as a “No Bullshit” zone.

To make use of poems, plays, and works of fiction, immerse yourself in them, allowing them to work their magic on you. If you do, you will take on their power and their wisdom. Often works will impart grit or persistence or fortitude as they remind you of your ideals and why it is important to keep fighting. When the effects wear off (as they will), you have but to dive into another work to recharge your batteries. My essays will help you make the most out of a given story or poem.

To unleash a work’s full power, I recommend a three-step process of Immerse, Reflect, and Act (IRA). First immerse yourself in the work, identifying with the characters, the story line, the speaker, the emotions, the themes. Second, reflect upon your experience, perhaps sharing it with others or mulling it over privately. Reading the essays in this book, finding on-line analysis, and setting up book discussion groups are useful. Finally, use your reading experience as a springboard to action.

I am aware that creative writing, unlike most expository prose, is open to multiple interpretations and that Trump supporters can use literature for their own political ends. To cite one example, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn compared Republican senators to Atticus Finch and Judge Kavanaugh to black victim Tom Robinson. In other words, he appropriated African American suffering to serve the interests of white male privilege.

Yet literature’s nature is such that it deepens conversations even when one disagrees with someone else’s use of it. For instance, Cornyn’s comparison tells only half the story. When we look at the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s sequel (Go Set a Watchman), we see a man whose underlying racism is revealed once Calpurnia and other African American characters challenge his white entitlement and demand their rights. Although Flannery O’Connor called To Kill a Mocking Bird a fairy tale, the sequel proves that Lee knew the people she was writing about: they transform from benevolent patriarchs to White Council supporters when their elevated place in society is threatened. We saw recent examples when Republican candidates from Florida and Georgia turned to race-baiting and strong arm tactics once it appeared that their African American opponents might win.

Incidentally, that Cornyn turned to a work of literary fiction at a tense time in our nation’s history shows that literature still packs a punch, even in our non-reading age. The question is how to unleash this power in the service of social justice.

In the 1920’s, literary theorists such as F. R. Leavis regarded literature as the single go-to resource for people who wanted to make the world a better place. Following the devastation of World War I, they looked to the classics to save us. Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton exposed their faith as myopic and elitist in his Introduction to Literary Theory, and we would be naïve to hold these beliefs now. Literature may be powerful, but it cannot operate in a vacuum.

That being acknowledged, however, it is also true that literature provides tools and perspectives that we find nowhere else. It can be a treasure house for front-line activists, community leaders, commentators, political scientists, legislators, teachers, lawyers, journalists and others. If you see yourself as part of the resistance against Trump and Trumpism, this book is here to help you link up with the plays, poems, and fictional stories that will serve you.

Posted in Beowulf Poet, Lee (Harper), Milton (John), Pope (Alexander), Wells (H. G.) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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