Making Contact with the Numinous

Poet Norman Finkelstein

Monday

I’m currently writing a review of Norman Finkelstein’s poetry collection From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. As I noted in a recent post, Finkelstein, my best friend in graduate school, is a “New Gnostic” who uses poetry to get in touch with the numinous, the world of spirit.

Reviewing the work has proven more time-consuming than I anticipated, in part because I have had to track down the work’s many allusions, which in turn have sent me into unfamiliar works and subject areas. Suddenly I have found myself reading forgotten 19th century fantasy novels, accounts of secret societies, histories of alchemy and Gnosticism, and Aleister Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice (1929). In other words, Finkelstein writes the kind of poetry that one must read with a search engine at hand.

Fortunately, the side paths are fascinating enough to make the effort worthwhile. Given my own interest in fantasy literature, I am particularly intrigued by Finkelstein’s view that such literature provides glimpses into the supernatural. Even though the literature itself is fictional, Finkelstein believes that the authors sense something that is actually there, which they symbolically articulate through their stories and poems.

Among the fantasy works he alludes to are Arthur Machen’s White People, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” John Crowley’s Little, Big or the Faeries’ Parliament, Robert Browning’s Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came, perhaps George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin, and Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. Here’s the glimpse of divinity as it occurs in Graham’s work, along with the drama of the poet who tries to capture it.

In the episode, Rat and Mole have a momentary encounter with the great god Pan:

`This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror — indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy — but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. 

Following this encounter, however, Pan provides the animals with “the gift of forgetfulness.” As Graham explains it, this is “the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping.” That’s because, without forgetfulness, “the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.

As a poet, however, Rat senses what they have experienced and turns to poetry to recover it. Listening to “the wind playing in the reeds,” he says it reminds him of

[d]ance-music—the lilting sort that runs on without a stop—but with words in it, too—it passes into words and out of them again—I catch them at intervals—then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.’

Or as Finkelstein puts it in “Sentences,”

                             Suppose it is neither terror
nor delight, but a perpetual rhythm, undulant
insistent, like a lost melody in the sound of a stream.

In yesterday’s post, I quoted from Alex Owen’s The Place of Enchantment that poetry’s “non-discursive representation of intuited reality” is necessary to express—or at least to approach expressing—encounters with divinity. Fiction, being more discursive, doesn’t get us as far. For instance, Pan doesn’t seem quite as mystical once he becomes a fully-fledged character.

Rat comes closer to Pan’s divinity when the reeds provide him fragments of a poem. Before he can get the exact articulation, however, he falls asleep. This is always the case.

Finkelstein, however, tries to combine the discursive explicitness of story with the intuition of poetry. Immanent Foundation feels like a story, although whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, or adventure is not clear. In a process he calls “code switching,” Finkelstein refuses to settle on any genre, which means that we have to imagine possibilities for ourselves.

At the narrative center of these possibilities is the mysterious Foundation. “Immanent” means “infused with spirit” while “foundation” has multiple meanings that I’ll explore in a moment. Think of it for a moment as a think tank or a research institute that offers its students or members the opportunity to visit other realms.

To be sure, this is an oxymoron since something as solid and institutional as a foundation seems to have little in common with the spirit world of faerie and the imagination. Graham’s Rat would never visit a foundation, and in the poem “Shard” Finkelstein opines that the “true Foundation” should be “built upon air.”

Nevertheless, as soon as humans gather together in some joint enterprise, even one as ethereal as exploring the numinous, institutionalization becomes a fact of life. In an early poem, we see the Foundation promising to teach workshop participants how to penetrate the division between realms. In another poem, the Foundation has staged an academic conference, with papers on “The Medium and the Horse: Occupying Spectral Interiorities,” “Ectoplasm and the New Formularies: What We Need to Know,” and “Our Chakras, Ourselves: Forty Years of Microcosmic Pathfinding” (book signing to follow).

If Immanent Foundation is a fantasy, then people have journeyed there to acquire occult powers. These powers, however, can also be interpreted as skills valued by poets. “Diminution” in this case would be authors who seek to diminish themselves so that the spirit can possess them (possession), embodying itself in images and stories (embodiment):

                              You have come to acquire
certain skills, acquaint yourself with certain
technologies, refine your powers of stealth
and diminution, possession and embodiment.
The rhetoric becomes magic as soon as you arrive.

It is possible to read the entire collection as a reflection upon the poetic process. By putting the Foundation at the center of his narrative, Finkelstein can imagine poets as different employees—for instance, as the gardener of the grounds, as an accountant (who, after all, deals with numbers), as a translator, as a scribe, and as a sensitive. As these figures carry out actions characteristic of those identities, we get different symbolic accounts of poetry.

The major symbol is the Foundation itself, which sometimes helps the poetic process and sometimes hinders it. (The same can be said of creative writing programs.) Certainly the visitor’s early optimism wears off as the poems progress, with tales of bureaucratic infighting and intransigent boards of directors. Elsewhere (in Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems) Finkelstein enigmatically explains that the Foundation “is not a governmental agency, not a sect or cult, not a fraternal organization, not a think tank, not a research institution—but I think it ‘exists’ in the space between and behind all such entities.”

Let’s look at some of these possibilities. As a think tank or research institution, it might bear resemblance to the Edgar Casey Foundation, the Institute for Noetic Sciences, or Duke University’s Parapsychology Laboratory. At one time or another, governmental agencies such as the CIA, the FBI, and the Air Force have studied paranormal activity. And of course, there have always been secret societies and fraternal organizations that have devoted themselves to studying the occult.

One of the more famous is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which attracted W. B. Yeats amongst others. Scholar Alex Owen, in The Place of Enchantment, examines the explosion of such groups in the 19th century, when many people were dissatisfied with organized religion but felt that there was more to life than industrial capitalism and the scientific.

The Foundation refuses to be clearly defined, however. At one point it looks like a country estate, although one that has mysterious laboratories; a library where “the scholars sleepwalk forever and the catalogers despair”; a deconsecrated chapel where, “on certain days the choir is strewn with hay, on certain days with rushes,/ on certain days with ivy or with sand”; and a labyrinth featuring faded images from the Psychomachia, a medieval allegory. Regarding the laboratories, sometimes they feature older technology (pneumatic tubes, alembics, Kirlian photography for picking up auras), sometimes cyber technology from our own age (downloads, infected files). At one point, we encounter Emma, a “sensitive,” hooked up to electrodes.

The Foundation might also be the institution of literature itself, with generations of practitioners looking to works that have come before (found in the archives) to find how to connect with numinous. Or maybe the Foundation is simply the mind of a crazed poet.

The collection as a whole is divided into four parts and an epilogue. In the first (“Margaret Resigns, & Other Rumors”), we are introduced to the Foundation and some of its employees. Margaret, at one point a muse figure designed to aid workshop participants, appears to become disenchanted with the Foundation and goes rogue (or something).  The section ends with the gardener expressing his disillusion and climbing away on “invisible stairs.”

In the second (“The Dellschau Episode”) we learn about Charles Dellschau, a 19th century outsider artist who, after suffering a series of unimaginable personal losses, poured his losses into his art and drew thousands of visionary airships, some of which now sell for thousands of dollars. (You can read about him here.) Dellschau may have been a member of the “Sonora Flying Club,” which may or may not have existed (if it did, it was during the California Gold Rush), but in any case Finkelstein recognizes in Dellschau’s dreams of flight his own longing for transcendence.  He imagines Dellschau writing a journal entry:

                           Look how the rotors
turn!
New York Mechanical Zephyr Association?
No, my friends—these are winds from the stars.

An anonymous member of the Foundation recognizes in Dellschau a kindred soul. Referring to the town dump where Dellschau’s drawings were headed before being rescued by a collector, he explains,

                  Testing the limits of his need,
he opens a portal to another dimension,
accommodating alien geometries through
his bravura designs. An Americana of the skies!
And his dreams, blooming from his memories;
his memories, unfolding from his dreams:
What, finally, could we make of these images,
these bittersweet derivatives, rescued at the last
instant from the town dump. Had we acted
in time, he could have found a home among us.

Yet even now, he is part of our secret history.

Part III (“Code Name: Emma”) features a woman who has an ambiguous relationship with both the Foundation and the speaker. Is she a “sensitive” that the Foundation studies (and spies upon) to make contact with the numinous? Is she a character in a horror movie who thinks of herself as autonomous, only to discover that her reality has been controlled by attached electrodes. Or is she a rogue actor who rebels against the Foundation as she tries to find her own way in the world. Once again, the narrative is suggestive without pinning anything down.

The “Lucy” in the final section (“Lucy Rescued”) appears to be a poetic muse who has been kidnapped, thereby depriving the poet of connection with the spirit world (poetic inspiration). Without her, poetry is in danger of becoming just one damn sentence after another:

Suppose you are condemned to write sentences
forever, sentences announcing that this one comes,
followed by that one, until the place or the page is full.

And further on:

Then you think she is really gone, held
captive,
mute, spellbound, dancing interminably in a mindless
round. The joyless pleasure of her deathless
captors is the same pleasure they take in your sentencing,
the same impossible task…

By the end, however, the narrator appears to have reconnected with Lucy, as well as with Margaret, Emma, and his own Judaic faith. There is a marriage and the poet imagines sailing off with Lucy in one of Dellschau’s flying machines. They’ve experienced hard times and doubts, but the fantasies have been proved to be real:

And yet they have gone out and returned with
hardly
any support. Across perilous seas, through founding
fires, entombed in earth, and opposed by the monarchs
of the air, their fantasies hold true, even as they watch
them dissolve. He blinks. It’s all good.

Immanent Foundation concludes with a five-poem epilogue in which the narrator reflects upon the enterprise. There are allusions to the early Melies film Voyage to the Moon, with its fantastical dreams of flight; a love poem dedicated to the poet’s wife (“in your wish to fly, flight/ will take you where you want to go”); a reflection upon the power of simple symbols; and a sign-off in which, describing himself as an accountant, he “snoozes at his desk” and thinks of all that his poetic project, has created, maybe with a not to the Chinese fairy tale “Cloak of Dreams”:

       
In his dream, he sees the Lord
of Dreams. He sees himself and all the others,

“the living and the dead, and one by one
they vanish into the darkness of his cloak.”

If you like your poetry clearly set forth, you will find Immanent Foundation to be frustrating. If you just flow with the images, however—even without the use of a search engine—you’ll understand enough to intrigue you and tickle your imagination. After that, the question becomes how deep you want to go.

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Poetry, a Mystical Key to the Beyond

Ingres, Songs of Ossian

spiritual Sunday

I’ve recently been reading Alex Owen’s The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, which is helping me better understand how poetry aids us in our search for God—or if that sounds too institutional, for the numinous. Owen focuses on the spiritual exploration underway at the turn of the 20th century that would impact some of our greatest poets.

According to Owen, the end of the 19th century saw “a revival of interest in mysticism and mystery traditions of all kinds,” with a variety of groups promising “access to esoteric readings of the world’s sacred literatures and an unmediated experience of the divine”:

In this heightened spiritual atmosphere a series of notable conversions of Roman Catholicism occurred, but many of the most spiritually inclined no longer identified in any way with formal Christian observance. They turned instead to the heterodox spirituality of occultism, with its animistic sense of a living universe and broad range of teachings drawn from sources as diverse as those of mystical Christianity, the Hermetic traditions of the West, and the religions of the East.

Owen sees this development as, in part, a response to the dislocations and upheavals of the period, which included the rise of industrial capitalism, rampant materialism, and a crisis of faith in which Christianity appeared unable to address rapid social changes.

How does poetry fit into this? If mysticism and mystery traditions point to the existence of another realm, perhaps poetry gives us special access to it. As critic and poet T.E. Hulme saw it, poetry is “intuited truth” and a “non-discursive representation of intuited reality.” With the Symbolist poets, Hulme believed that

a symbol can act as the gateway to the apprehension of a reality that eludes everyday consciousness. This does not mean that a symbol can be reduced to a single meaning, but rather that certain powerful symbols can facilitate “knowledge” or an experience that would otherwise escape us.

Along with Hulme, Owen mentions William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot as poets influenced by this vision of poetry. But to move the discussion past a particular poetic movement and to poetry in general, we can say that it helps describe the sense we have that poetry touches upon realities beyond expression.

By this measure, to touch the divine you have but to choose a poem that makes your spirit soar. I could choose virtually any great poem as an illustration—Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” for instance–but since Owen talks extensively about W. B. Yeats and his interest in Celtic mysticism and ritual magic, here is a portal vision that shows up in The Land of Heart’s Desire:

Faeries, come take me out of this
dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame!

As I say, choose your own favorite poem. And know that, as it takes you out of yourself, it puts you in touch with spirit.

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Children Dying in ICE Custody

Asylum seekers Yazmin Juarez and her daughter Mariee before Mariee’s death

Friday

Testifying before a Congressional committee investigating inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, Yazmin Juarez’s gave the tragedy an all too human face by recounting how she lost her baby daughter due to “neglect and mistreatment” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I share an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet to acknowledge her heartbreak.

According to an NBC News account,

“We came to America, where I hoped to build a better, safer life for my daughter Mariee,” Juárez said in Spanish, sitting next to a photo of herself and her daughter. “Unfortunately, I watched my baby girl die, slowly and painfully. A few months before her second birthday, she ceased to exist.”

So far several children have died, either in ICE custody or shortly after being released. Here’s more from NBC’s account:

During her testimony, Juárez described being held in [Customs and Border Patrol’ custody for three or four days, where it was “very cold” and they were kept in “a cage” and “forced to sleep on a concrete floor.”

When transferred to an ICE detention center in Dilley, Texas, a nurse determined Mariee was healthy, she said. Juárez said she noticed there were many sick children at the detention center and that there was no effort made to tend to the children or to separate the sick children from the healthy ones.

 And further:

Juárez said after several days in ICE detention, Mariee became sick. She described taking Mariee to visit the clinic at the facility several times, waiting hours to be helped.

The first time she took Mariee to the clinic, she was told the child had a respiratory infection and was given Tylenol and honey for her cough. But the next day, she said, Mariee was worse and running a fever of more than 104 degrees and began having diarrhea and vomiting. Juarez said this time she was told the child had an ear infection and that they gave her antibiotics to treat it.

“I begged them to conduct a more thorough exam, but they sent us back to our room,” she said.

Juarez and her daughter were finally released to go stay with relatives in New Jerse and went immediately to a hospital. By then, however, it was too late.

Trump officials vacillate between saying that conditions are fine and that Democrats are too blame when they aren’t.

Many of the poems written about mothers losing children attempt to be consoling, as is only fitting. Given that this death is directly linked to a Trump administration policy to use inhumane conditions as an immigration deterrent, however, there can be no softening. I therefore turn to Millay’s agonized cry to capture the full emotional measure of the tragedy:

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied   
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!   
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;   
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,   
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;   
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.   
There are a hundred places where I fear   
To go,—so with his memory they brim.   
And entering with relief some quiet place   
Where never fell his foot or shone his face   
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”   
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

What should we say about those who close their hearts to such grief?

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He Said, She Said in the Trump Era

Hepburn, Tracy in Adam’s Rib

Thursday

Today’s poem is a good response to our president’s non-stop lying, gaslighting, and “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” For that matter, it’s a sharp riposte to centuries of mansplaining. Sometimes we need a witty poetic rejoinder like Wendy Cope’s “Differences of Opinion” to retain a hold on reality.

The part about “him” asking “her” not to yell is particularly relevant as we move into an election season that will feature numerous female candidates. Men are allowed to raise their voices in a way that women are not.

Having the final word, of course, does not make one right.

Differences of Opinion

He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.

The planet goes on being round.
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Epstein, Trump and “Lolita”

Mason, Lyon in Lolita

Wednesday

Jeffrey Epstein, whose money and high connections have up until now kept him out of jail for pedophilia, looks as though he may finally answer for his crimes.  One sordid detail is that the plane used to shuttle underage girls between New York and Palm Beach was nicknamed “the Lolita Express,” so there’s a literary angle to this.

Since the novel is a devastating expose of the mind of a pedophile, let’s apply it to Donald Trump as well as to Epstein since the president too has a history. I’m thinking of his alleged rape of a 13-year-old and his self-confessed habit of walking into the dressing rooms of teenage beauty contestants. Regarding the latter, he boasted to Howard Stern in a 2005 radio show, “You know they’re standing there with no clothes. Is everybody OK? And you see these incredible looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.”

There’s also his endorsement of Epstein in a 2002 New York Magazine article. As he told the writer,

“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

To be sure Epstein resembles Humbert Humbert more than the president does. Nabokov’s narrator is cosmopolitan, complex, and well-read, characteristics that do not fit Trump.  But there are things that our predator-in-chief does share with Nabokov’s narrator.

Among them is his ability to pull other people into his own world. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Lolita is the spell that Humbert casts upon the reader, getting us to sympathize with his statutory rape of the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. In their early history, novels came under attack for how they get us to sympathize with even lowlifes and criminals (e.g. Moll Flanders, Tom Jones). Because of his magic with words, Humbert turns a horrifying crime into a passionate love story and invites our complicity. Trump doesn’t have Humbert’s eloquence but he has his own magnetism.

If ever there was a novel that called for readers to recognize an unreliable narrator, it’s Lolita. It’s easier to identify if you actually share Dolores’s situation. In her fascinating work Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi said her students identified with Dolores while regarding Humbert as akin to the tyrannical mullahs. Speaking of the Ayatolla Khomeini and the other fundamentalists, Nafisi writes, “They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people’s lives.”

Nafisi’s students saw through Humbert “because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita. Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people. He had created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image.”

Both Epstein and Trump regard their victims as instruments for their own egos and desires. Only because of the determined efforts of a Miami Herald reporter does it appear that Epstein will finally be brought to justice. Whether Trump is held accountable remains to be seen.

Humbert gets jail time only because he shoots the man who stole Lolita from him, not for statutory rape. I’m not betting on any jail time for Donald Trump.

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The Lily Feels No Thirst, No Dread

 Tuesday

I write today about a personal problem. Our lake has been increasingly invaded by watershield and our neighborhood association isn’t sure what to do about it. It took out our water intake system so that we had to switch over to city water, and it makes swimming and boating difficult. If left to its own devices, it will turn parts of our beautiful Lake Eva into a marsh.

We tried stocking the lake with sterile carp but saw little evidence that they found the stuff tasty. Now that we no longer get our drinking water from the lake, I suppose we can try something chemical, but that idea excites no one. To add insult to injury, watershield (see picture below) lacks the glamor of water lilies. Please send along suggestions.

In the meantime, here’s a Helen Hunt Jackson poem from her Calendar of Sonnets that finds water lilies to be the one consolation for the killing heat of July (see picture above). All other plant life may wither in the heat, but “white lilies float and regally abide.” Unharmed by the blistering sun, the water lily “lifts her queenly face and head;/ She drinks of living waters and keeps fair.”

It sounds like a good guide for growing old.

Some flowers are withered and some joys have died; 
The garden reeks with an East Indian scent 
From beds where gillyflowers stand weak and spent; 
The white heat pales the skies from side to side; 
But in still lakes and rivers, cool, content, 
Like starry blooms on a new firmament, 
White lilies float and regally abide. 
In vain the cruel skies their hot rays shed; 
The lily does not feel their brazen glare. 
In vain the pallid clouds refuse to share 
Their dews, the lily feels no thirst, no dread. 
Unharmed she lifts her queenly face and head; 
She drinks of living waters and keeps fair. 
watershield
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Rapinoe Rises to the Occasion

Rapinoe after scoring championship-winning goal

Monday

For many Americans, the women’s World Cup victory was a refreshing break from our Trumpian nightmare. The win itself is wonderful enough, but in the context of our misogynist president it takes on special meaning.

For instance, the back-to-back titles can in part be chalked up to Title IX, the anti-gender discrimination law that emerged from the 1970s feminist movement and that led to an explosion in women’s sports. I also liked that the team was agitating to be paid comparably to the men’s team and had the finals crowd chanting, “Equal pay!”

And then there’s the fact that Trump began sparring with American star Megan Rapinoe after she said she would not be visiting the anti-LBGTQ White House if they won. In response to Trump’s subsequent attack, teammate Wendy Krieger tweeted, “I know women who you cannot control or grope anger you, but I stand by (Rapinoe) & will sit this one out as well.” As someone observed, Rapinoe served up a great ball and Krieger headed it home. 

America’s tournament began with a victory over Thailand so dominant (13-0) that at one point I thought of how Sam Spade humiliates Gutman’s bodyguard in The Maltese Falcon. After disarming the man, Spade delivers him to his boss:

Gutman opened the door. A glad smile lighted his fat face. He held out a hand and said: “Ah, come in, sir! Thank you for coming. Come in.”

Spade shook the hand and entered. The boy went in behind him. The fat man shut the door. Spade took the boy’s pistols from his pockets and held them out to Gutman. “Here. You shouldn’t let him run around with these. He’ll get himself hurt.”

The fat man laughed merrily and took the pistols. “Well, well,” he said, “what’s this?” He looked from Spade to the boy.

Spade said: “A crippled newsie took them away from him, but I made him give them back.”

Thailand was America’s only opponent that seemed entirely outclassed, however, and a string of competitive games followed, especially against Sweden, Spain, France, and England. In the finals, however, the United States were back to being their dominant self. Only a sterling performance by the Dutch goalkeeper kept the score from being more lopsided than it was.

As the U.S. sent shot after shot on goal, the poetic line that came to me was from Byron: “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,/ And his cohort was gleaming in purple and gold.” Only in this case, the colors were red, white and blue.

Or pink. The image we will probably carry away from this World Cup is the pink-haired Rapinoe striking her classic pose following her cold-blooded penalty kick. Trump told her to win the championship before she talked about visiting the White House so, as if in response, Rapinoe (1) kicked the championship-winning goal, (2) won the Golden Boot for most goals, and (3) won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s most valuable player.

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” therefore, may be the poem that fits best. Angelou is writing as a black woman but much of what she says applies to an out and proud lesbian like Rapinoe. And also to a team that came in with swagger and went out on top:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
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The Christian Right’s Faustian Bargain

Goethe’s Faust signs over his soul with his blood

Spiritual Sunday

Like many liberal Christians, I am baffled by Donald Trump’s popularity amongst rightwing evangelicals. How can anyone square the president’s behavior and his policies with Jesus’s teachings? A recent Atlantic article provides a compelling explanation: feeling embattled, the Christian right has traded core Christian principles for power.

In a post written a year ago, I called this a Faustian bargain, applying Goethe’s Faust to the humanitarian crisis at the border as it was then. Things have only gotten worse in the twelve months since.

First, to assure people that not all Christians applaud Trump, my Episcopal church has put together for next year an adult Sunday school program on “Practicing Faith in a World in Need.” (I am on the committee.) Our guiding passage will be Luke 4:16-21:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
 and recovery of sight for the blind,
 to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In our program, experts will expound on such topics as sex trafficking, medical outreach to poor communities, prison reform, pollution, family care, dialogue across difference, and the economics of poverty.

Jesus’s call “to set the oppressed free” would include listening seriously to asylum requests and granting them where they are warranted. (Even better would be to work seriously with the troubled countries so that people don’t need to emigrate in the first place.) An important first step is caring for these people as individuals, which was the subject of last year’s Goethe post.

From what I can tell, however, rightwing evangelicals are turning their backs on the children separated from their parents and on those packed into cages and mistreated. The Atlantic article explains that rightwing evangelicals see themselves in an existential battle for their survival and consequently are willing to embrace a man who employs cruelty to deter asylum seekers. The president unintentionally revealed that strategy this past week when he tweeted, “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”

Author Peter Wehner points out that rightwing evangelicals feel they are involved in an existential struggle for their survival. Many

are deeply fearful of what a Trump loss would mean for America, American culture, and American Christianity. If a Democrat is elected president, they believe, it might all come crashing down around us.

And:

Many evangelical Christians are also filled with grievances and resentments because they feel they have been mocked, scorned, and dishonored by the elite culture over the years. (Some of those feelings are understandable and warranted.) For them, Trump is a man who will not only push their agenda on issues such as the courts and abortion; he will be ruthless against those they view as threats to all they know and love. For a growing number of evangelicals, Trump’s dehumanizing tactics and cruelty aren’t a bug; they are a feature. Trump “owns the libs,” and they love it. He’ll bring a Glock to a cultural knife fight, and they relish that.

In the course of his article, Wehner interviews one Karel Coppock, a conservative who, while sympathetic to rightwing evangelicals, abhors their Trump embrace. As he sees it, they have allowed their faith “to become politically weaponized”:

Coppock mentioned to me the powerful example of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who was willing to rebuke the Roman Emperor Theodosius for the latter’s role in massacring civilians as punishment for the murder of one of his generals. Ambrose refused to allow the Church to become a political prop, despite concerns that doing so might endanger him. Ambrose spoke truth to power. (Theodosius ended up seeking penance, and Ambrose went on to teach, convert, and baptize St. Augustine.) Proximity to power is fine for Christians, Coppock told me, but only so long as it does not corrupt their moral sense, only so long as they don’t allow their faith to become politically weaponized. Yet that is precisely what’s happening today.

Something similar happens to Goethe’s Faust. In his case the villain is an 18th century capitalist rather than a Trumpian xenophobe, but both have contempt for those who help needy strangers. I owe the application to a fine essay by one Kirsten Ellen Johnsen, who writes about Faust’s war on Baucus and Philemon, Greek mythological figures who represent hospitality:

In The Metamorphosis of Ovid, Baucus and Philemon are an elderly couple who live in a homely hut by a stagnant marsh. A beautiful linden tree grows nearby. When the Olympian gods Jupiter and Mercury wander on their journeys “in mortal guise,” they are refused shelter “at a thousand doors.” Finally they are welcomed by a humble old couple. Baucis and Philemon are poor, but invite the strangers in and feed them what they have available. As their wine bowl begins to replenish itself, the old couple realizes their guests are not ordinary. “Begging pardon for food so meager… they got set to kill their only goose.” To prevent this act of self-sacrifice, the gods reveal themselves. In return for their great hospitality, the hut of Baucus and Philemon is transformed into a temple in the middle of the swamp. Jupiter offers them a wish to fulfill, and they simply ask to serve the temple as long as they live, and once their time is up, they simply wish to die together. The story of Baucus and Philemon is a famous tale of the sacred honor of hospitality to strangers and the power of love. They are the original border keepers, welcoming refugees with warm hearts. Their story speaks of the gift of the stranger: the arrival of God at the door. To welcome the stranger is to tend that temple.

Baucus and Philemon, however, stand in the way of Faust’s development plans:

Faust is enraged at Baucus and Philemon’s resistance to his plans to requisition their shoreline. “That aged couple must surrender/I want their linden for my throne/The unowned timber-margin slender/Despoils me for the world I own.” His plans to drain the ocean he considers his “achievement’s fullest sweep” as a “masterpiece of sapient man. Before Faust’s will to conquer, even the bloom of the linden tree annoys him. Listening to Faust’s complaint, Mephistopheles eggs him on, “one has to tire of being just,” he cajoles him, “have you not colonized long since?” Mephistopheles is, of course, well aware of the significance of Faust’s decision to clear Baucis and Philemon from their ancient, mythic home in his closing line of the scene: “There once was Naboth’s vineyard, too.” Mephistopheles is referring to the Old Testament story of murder and betrayal of a man of God for his land by the the vilified Canaanite Priestess-Queen Jezebel. Complying with Faust’s wishes, he and his lackeys visit the old couple and set their hut ablaze.

In my previous post, I noted that a Melania Trump visit triggered Johnsen’s essay. While visiting the detention centers, the first lady wore a jacket inscribed with the words, “I don’t really care. Do U?” Care is Goethe’s major concern in his play. After Faust destroys the hut, the four gray crones of Want, Debt, Need and Care arise from “the vapors of the ashes.”

Faust can fend off the first three but he can’t dismiss Care. Care would mean, say, not deliberately abusing asylum seekers. Faust, unlike the president, acknowledges the power of caring but, like Trump, chooses not to care. Johnsen writes:

Revealing herself, [Care] demands of him, “Am I unknown to you?” Faust refuses her. “All I did was covet and attain/and crave afresh, and thus with might and gain/stormed through my life,” he preens, with the excuse that an able man may seize and “stride upon this planet’s face.” Care has given him one last chance to repent, but he has failed. “Desist! This will not work on me!/ such caterwauling I despise.” Even as he finally rejects her, he admits, “yet your power, o Care, insidiously vast/ I shall not recognize it ever.” Care then curses Faust: “Man is commonly blind throughout his life/ My Faust, be blind then as you end it.” Faust’s own proclamation is his curse: “I really don’t care, do U?”

Johnsen’s conclusion reveals what is at risk for rightwing evangelicals when they accept Trump’s treatment of the immigrants:

It is the act of hospitality that humanizes us. This is where we are leveled. The capacity for compassion, for Care, breaks open one’s heart. To destroy the Sacred Guest — the sacred act of recognizing the heart of another human being — is the ultimate mythic sacrilege, for in this betrayal lies the seed for all crimes against humanity. Care may be the only Gray Crone who might slip unnoticed into the hearts of the rich, but Goethe does not suggest that the rich might save the world through finally discovering compassion, or even worry. He is saying that the moral failure of willful, blind uncaring ultimately portends spiritual downfall.

 In the Atlantic article, president of Fuller Theological Seminary Mark Labberton spells out the implications for American Christianity:

The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis—not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.

Labberton’s reproof does not apply to Christians like the Rev. William Barber, who heads the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. Those who choose resentment over love, however, have condemned themselves to Faust’s loss of soul.

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I Will Write Your Name, Liberté

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

Friday

With July 4th fireworks still ringing in my ears, I share Paul Eluard’s poem “Liberté,” which was written during World War II. Copies were dropped by the British Air Force into parts of Nazi-occupied Europe with the design of rallying the resistance.

Early on during his rise to power, Hitler ordered books to be burned, including works by Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Remarque, Hugo, and Gide. It seems fitting that literature fired back.

In 1995, when as citizen of one of the allied nations I read Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain” during Slovenia’s nationally televised V-E Day celebration, a French woman read “Liberté.” It’s a poem that lends itself naturally to such occasions.

It so happens that Eluard admired Whitman, and “Liberté” is a Whitman-style list. For the French poet, liberty refers not only to political liberty but also to liberty from what William Blake called “the mind-forged manacles”—which is to say, the shackles we internalize. As a surrealist, Eluard takes aim at restrictive customs and structures.

Sometimes Eluard writes “liberté” on the school notebooks that indoctrinate him, sometimes on “the crown of the king” that oppresses him, sometimes on “the whiff of daybreak” that promises a new day. “Liberté” gets written both on the lit lamp that shows us the way forward and the unlit lamp that needs to be awakened. It doesn’t matter that the word will sometimes vanish at the very moment he writes it, as it will when it is written upon “the sands of snow,” “the froth of the cloud,” and “the sweat of the storm.” Such poets don’t put a lot of stock in permanence.

By the final stanzas, where the images are of crumbled hiding places, sunken lighthouses, walls, ennui, bloodless abstractions, and the marches of death, he appears to use “liberté” to save himself from despair. “Liberté” will renew his life.

When he writes, “I was born to know you, /To name you,” he is talking about our deep longing to be free, as well as our equally deep longing to give our longing a name. The yearning to be free reaches deep, especially when we live in troubled times.

Liberté

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

On the pages I have read
On all the white pages
Stone, blood, paper or ash
I write your name

On the images of gold
On the weapons of the warriors
On the crown of the king
I write your name

On the jungle and the desert
On the nest and on the brier
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On all my scarves of blue
On the moist sunlit swamps
On the living lake of moonlight
I write your name 

On the fields, on the horizon
On the birds’ wings
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

On each whiff of daybreak
On the sea, on the boats
On the demented mountaintop
I write your name

On the froth of the cloud
On the sweat of the storm
On the dense rain and the flat
I write your name

On the flickering figures
On the bells of colors
On the natural truth
I write your name

On the high paths
On the deployed routes
On the crowd-thronged square
I write your name

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which isn’t
On my reunited thoughts
I write your name

On a fruit cut in two
Of my mirror and my chamber
On my bed, an empty shell
I write your name

On my dog, greathearted and greedy
On his pricked-up ears
On his blundering paws
I write your name

On the latch of my door
On those familiar objects
On the torrents of a good fire
I write your name

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name 

On the window of surprises
On a pair of expectant lips
In a state far deeper than silence
I write your name

On my crumbled hiding-places
On my sunken lighthouses
On my walls and my ennui
I write your name

On abstraction without desire
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name

And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you

Liberty.
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