Homer, Virgil & Dante Visit the Afterlife

Tuesday

Thursday I will begin teach Dante’s Inferno for the first time. It is the final work in my Representative Masterpieces class (essentially “Epics in Translation”), and I am using today’s post to help my students situate the work. If you wish, consider yourself as one of the students in my remotely taught course.

I focus RepMas (as Sewanee calls it) on “Gods, Monsters, and Heroes,” and we have already encountered some of literature’s most memorable monsters and heroes in The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf. In each work, the monsters represent an internal challenge that the hero must overcome, and the same is true of inferno.

Odysseus twice must grapple with whether to fulfill his duty–return to Ithaka and restore order—or remain forever with beautiful goddesses on enchanting isles. Zeus and Athena, representing the voice of duty, declare he must go home, but the fact that Odysseus spends a year on Circe’s island and seven on Calypso’s shows the choice to be a difficult one.

Other monsters can be read as part of this psychological drama. Would he be any better than Polyphemus the Cyclops, for instance, if he gave up the call of civilization and surrendered to nature. Polyphemus, who doesn’t cultivate fields or forge tools, turns his back on Zeus and only acknowledges a god of nature (Poseidon). If we read Odyssey as an internal identity drama, Polyphemus’s cannibalism can be seen as a swallowing up of Odysseus’s Greek identity. If Odysseus were to stay with Circe or Calypso, he would revert to this primitive state—Circe turns men into swine while Calypso uses him as a sex slave. (Seven years pass before he objects—only then does Odysseus’s inner Zeus start paying attention.)

The other cannibalistic figures he meets along the way can be seen in the same light and all, significantly, are female, showing them to be another version of the Circe/Calypso temptation. The Laestrygonian queen (a “mountain high” giantess), the sirens, Scylla (I’ve described her as a toothed vagina), and the whirlpool Charybdis all threaten to swallow up the male ego and its forward purpose. The drugged-out lotos eaters, who have lost all memory of home, are another seductive lure alone these lines.

Odysseus is a hero because, in the end, he can rise above the siren call of seductive distractions and fight for Greek ideals.

A key moment in Odysseus’s journey is the visit to the underworld. As I taught the episode to my class, it’s as though Odysseus is grappling—perhaps in a trance or a meditative state—about whether to stay with Circe or to go home. Some of the figures he meets in Hades offer ambiguous answers. Achilles says that fame is overrated (if so, then perhaps he should stay with Circe) but is then heartened by news of his valiant son (reminding Odysseus that he too could live on through his son). Agamemnon warns him that wives can be deceitful and treacherous (there’s no telling what you’ll encounter when you get home) although he concedes that Penelope is no Clytemnestra (so perhaps Odysseus should journey on after all).

Following the visit to Hades, Odysseus chooses to leave, eventually reaching home. By restoring order to a kingdom that has lapsed into anarchy and (what is the same thing) contempt for the gods, he reaffirms the values of the nation.

The underworld scene operates similarly in The Aeneid. Before going there, Aeneas too is torn between remaining in the various ports he reaches and journeying on to Italy to sow the seeds of the Roman Empire. Guided by the Cumaean Sibyl, a priestess presiding over an Apollonian oracle, Aeneas consults with his dead father and others and also sees laid out Rome’s glorious future (which he then must forget upon reemerging). He returns reaffirmed in his quest.

Aeneas doesn’t have to wrestle with as many monsters as Odysseus, but women do stand in his way. Most famously there is Dido, queen of Carthage, whom he could marry (perhaps does marry) and become king of what will later be Rome’s major rival. Later he must contend with a wives riot as, tired of traveling and desiring to remain in Sicily, the Trojan women attempt to burn the boats. (This occurs while the men are playing sports, a sign that not much has changed in human history.)

The battle between a comfortable present and an uncertain future is also occurring in heaven, where Jupiter wants Aeneas to found Rome while goddess-of-the-hearth Juno wants him to fail. Although she’s willing to have him marry Dido and be king of Carthage, that’s another version of staying rather than going.

In the end Aeneas overcomes his inner doubts, conquers the Italians who stand in his way, and marries a Latin princess, thereby setting the stage of Rome’s royal lineage. Jupiter placates Juno with a consolation prize, however: Aeneas’s descendants will be called Latins, not Trojans.

In Beowulf, the drama is slightly different. If society is to remain stable, warriors must loyally serve their kings, which includes handing over their gains, and kings must be generous and fair in their redistribution of the wealth. If a warrior becomes a resentful and murderous Grendel or if a king becomes a paranoid and selfish dragon, then the basic social contract is broken and society falls apart.

In this violent world, an unstable society is vulnerable to invasion, with your neighbors showing up to either kill or enslave you. The monsters, in other words, articulate the society’s deepest fears while Beowulf represents the ideal leader, one who can quell murderous tantrums and unending blood feuds (Grendel’s Mother) without becoming a paranoid, fire-breathing hoarder.

Some scholars believe that Beowulf’s journey to the Grendels’ underwater cave may have been influenced by Virgil’s underworld episode. While there, Beowulf discovers a symbol of his destiny, a great sword forged by giants in the golden age before the flood, With this sword, Beowulf is able to bring an end to the endless cycle of Grendelian violence, just as he will go on to become the greatest Geat king. Under his reign, Geatland will experience a long and uninterrupted period of peace and prosperity.

We have a different kind of hero and different kinds of monsters in The Inferno. The hero is the poet himself—a first for epics—and the monsters are evil people, some of them historical personages that Dante knew. In this case, the epic journey is the individual Christian journey, and as such it would influence Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. If Dante is to become a selfless servant of God, he must first identify and root out his own sinful nature.

Thus we see, at the poem’s beginning, Dante lost in a dark wood and unable to advance toward the light. Three animals, representing his own tendencies towards violence (the lion), fraud (the leopard), and especially fleshly appetites (the she-wolf) stand in his way. With Virgil guiding him as the Cumaean Sybil guides Aeneas, Dante must first journey through the Hell to understand the nature of his sins.

Dante has Virgil, representing Human Reason, to guide him through Hell and then through Purgatory, where he is shown the process of purification. Human Reason, incidentally, includes poetry, which both the ancients and Dante regarded as “the original and comprehensive form of knowledge in general” (William Franke). But Rome’s premier poet can only take Dante so far and, in the end, he needs a new guide This proves to be Beatrice, a childhood friend whom he worshipped and who died, who comes to represent Divine Love. She is his guide through Paradise, the promised end.

Once we realize that the punishments meted out in Inferno are symbolic accounts of the damage that sin does to us (what Dante calls “the law of symbolic retribution”), then we realize that the work can be read psychologically. Dante’s sinners essentially enact their punishments upon themselves.

For instance, violent people who wallowed in blood have constructed their own river of burning blood, in which they are immersed forever. Flatterers are  appropriately mired in excrement, not unlike the shit they themselves produced; gluttons are drowned by dirty rain; and lustful lovers are blown ceaselessly by unending winds, never finding a point of repose. (Think of those who jump from relationship to relationship without ever finding spiritual union.)

As Virgil explains, the dead eagerly seek the level of hell that awaits them. The boatman Charon and the minotaur judge Minos are basically just there to help them get there:

“My son,” the courteous Master said to me,
  “all who die in the shadow of God’s wrath
  converge to this from every clime and country.

And all pass over eagerly, for here
  Divine Justine transforms and spurs them so
  their dread turns wish: they yearn for what they fear.”

Unlike the other three epics, I won’t be having the students read the Divine Comedy all the way to its conclusion (there’s not enough time), so we won’t see Dante overcoming the hell of the separated soul and finding union with God. This is the poem’s version of Odysseus restoring order, Aeneas setting in motion Rome’s destiny, and Beowulf achieving stability. We’ll study the monsters that block fulfillment but not the Christian hero vanquishing these inner monsters. It will be a bit like only reading the early books of Paradise Lost.

Nevertheless, by contrasting Dante’s underworld scenes with those of Homer, Virgil, and the Beowulf poet, we’ll get a sense of his project.

We’ll also get insight into our own blockages since we too have journeys, epic to us if not to other people. If we are successful, our lives will be fulfilling and joyful. If we are not, we will find ourselves acting out versions of Inferno’s torments.

Posted in Dante | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cuomo Channels Shakespeare’s Henry V

Branagh as Henry V

Monday

Following a particularly stirring speech by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to the National Guard, Harvard English professor Derek Loeb tweeted out comparisons with Henry V’s stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s play. [Thanks to Lois Stover for the alert.] The parallels are so striking that I feel confident that Cuomo has read or seen Henry V, whether or not he was consciously alluding to it.

Henry delivers the speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, one of England’s greatest military victories. The troops need inspiration because the French troops far outnumber them. Compare the two speeches, starting with Henry’s:

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

And now Cuomo’s:

And I want to thank our National Guard because you are the best of us.

And whenever we call on you, you are there. And what you did in this facility in one week creating a hospital is just incredible.

I don’t know how you did it. Now you did such a good job that I’m asking for four more from the president. That’s the downside of being as good as you are at what you did. But what you did is really incredible.

And I want to make two points to you, and I want to make two promises to you: This is a different beast that we’re dealing with. This is an invisible beast. It is an insidious beast.

This is not going to be a short deployment. This is not going to be that you go out there for a few days, we work hard and we go home.

This is gonna be weeks and weeks and weeks.

This is going to be a long day. And it’s gonna be a hard day. And it’s gonna be an ugly day. And it’s gonna be a sad day.

This is a rescue mission that you’re on. The mission is to save lives — that’s what you’re doing. The rescue mission is to save lives and as hard as we work we’re not going to be able to save everyone.

And what’s even more cruel is this enemy doesn’t attack the strongest of us. It attacks the weakest of us. It attacks our most vulnerable, which makes it even worse in many ways.

Because these are the people that every instinct tells us we are supposed to protect. These are our parents and grandparents. These are our aunts, our uncles. These are our relatives who are sick. And every instinct says protect them, help them, protect them because they need us.

And those are the exact people that this enemy attacks.

Every time, I’ve called out the National Guard I’ve said the same thing to you. I promise you, I will not ask you to do anything that I will not do myself and I’ll never ask you to go anywhere that I won’t go myself. And the same is true here.

We’re going to do this and we’re going to do this together.

My second point is, you are living a moment in history. This is going to be one of those moments they are going to write about and they’re going to talk about for generations. This is a moment that is going to change this nation. This is a moment that forges character, forges people, changes people, make them stronger, make them weaker. But this is a moment that will change character.

And 10 years from now you’ll be talking about today to your children or your grandchildren and you will shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost, and you’ll remember the faces and you’ll remember the names, and you’ll remember how hard we worked and that we still lost loved ones.

And you’ll shed a tear and you should because it will be sad. But you will also be proud. You’ll be proud of what you did. You’ll be proud that you showed up — you showed up — when other people played it safe you had the courage to show up and you had the skill and the professionalism to make a difference and save lives.

That’s what you will have done and at the end of the day nobody can ask anything more from you. That is your duty, to do what you can when you can. And you will have shown skill and courage and talent. You’ll be there with you mind. You’ll be there with your heart. And you’ll serve with honor and that will give you pride and you should be proud.

I know that I am proud of you. And every time the National Guard has been called out they have made every New Yorker proud. And I am proud to be with you yet again. And I’m proud to fight this fight with you and I bring you thanks from all New Yorkers, who are just so appreciative of the sacrifice that you are making, the skill that you are bringing, the talent that you’re bringing. And you give many New Yorkers confidence.

So I say, my friends, that we go out there today and we kick coronavirus ass.

That’s what I say. And we’re going to save lives and New York is going to thank you. God bless each and every one of you.


Now, I’m not entirely sure that Henry will pay the passage back to England for anyone who doesn’t want to fight. That could be empty (albeit effective) rhetoric. On the other hand, I’m glad that Cuomo didn’t go so far as to deliver some version of “We would not die in that man’s company/ That fears his fellowship to die with us.” That would have been rhetorical excess.

That being said, however, healthcare workers are aware they are risking their lives, and indeed some have died, in large part because they entered the battle insufficiently armed. If Donald Trump tried to give this speech, it would fall flat because we have seen him dithering about ordering companies to manufacture the protective equipment that our health workers need. He has been more like Falstaff, who uses war to enrich his coffers (in Henry IV, Part I) and who, by Henry V, is dying offstage, an afterthought and irrelevance. To draw on the latter play, Trump is to Cuomo as Falstaff is to Henry.

Falstaff’s game has been to use his powers of enlistment to prompt wealthy families to pay him not to draft their sons. As a result, the castoffs he sends to fight England’s battles are useless. While Henry is ready to sacrifice his life for England’s good, Trump is determined to use congressional COVID money to bail out his own properties. Like Falstaff, Trump will take credit when things go well—Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I when Henry has actually done the deed—but he’ll take none of the blame. Note that he hasn’t volunteered space in his New York hotels to help with COVID quarantines, even as he expects others to make such contributions.

But back to the speeches. When interviewed by the Harvard Gazette on his comparison, Professor Loeb laid out the parallels:

Cuomo echoed Shakespeare’s Henry primarily by calling attention to the historic nature of what was taking place. Just as Henry foretells that ‘He that outlives this day and comes safe home/Will stand a tiptoe when this day is named,’ Cuomo imagines the members of New York’s National Guard telling their grandchildren about their exploits, mingling grief for lives lost with pride in a job well done.

And Cuomo, like Henry, emphasized shared sacrifice. Cuomo spoke about what “we” are doing “together” and promised to “fight this fight with you, recalling Henry’s address to his army as a “band of brothers.” It hit so many of the same notes from Henry’s speech that I joked on Twitter that it was a “Shakespeare for Dummies” translation. More seriously, though, I felt that Cuomo’s speech was just as powerful, in its modern idiom, as Henry’s, even outdoing Shakespeare in his impressive use of anaphora [repetition of “This is a moment”].

Loeb concludes with observations about the importance of such speeches:

This was a reminder that a leader’s oratory plays a central role in creating a sense of communal purpose at times of danger. By casting this challenge in historic terms, Cuomo helped give everyone’s daily fear and drudgery meaning, even for a brief moment. In Shakespeare’s play, the speech wins Henry the Battle of Agincourt against the vastly larger French army. Let’s hope Cuomo’s speech — and all the other labor it inspired — has a similarly good effect on our fight against this pandemic.

Many of us wish Cuomo—or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden—were directing the national defense against COVID. Instead we’ve got Falstaff.

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

When Millenarians Meet a Pandemic

Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, Elijah Slays the Prophets of Baal

Spiritual Sunday

While many churches and church denominations have chosen to suspend in-person religious services, enough are bucking health recommendations to constitute a significant risk. Emily St. John Mandel’s pandemic novel Station Eleven, which I wrote about Friday, provides us some insight into their thinking.

First for the news. Two days ago, CNBC reported,

Churches and other religious facilities will be allowed to remain open in more than half of the states that are the most vulnerable to coronavirus, often with special exemptions to mandated closures of nonessential businesses. 

Of the 15 states in the nation home to the highest percentage of especially at-risk individuals, at least 11 were not barring religious gatherings as of Thursday morning, a nationwide CNBC review of emergency orders found.

And a week ago, Center for American Progress  had this report:

While most faith communities are choosing to follow public health guidance, religious exemptions only encourage some religious entities and leaders to disregard or even openly challenge public health guidance: “We are not stopping anything,” Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said to his River Tampa Bay Church in Florida. “I’ve got news for you, this church will never close.” In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) implored ministers, priests, and rabbis to “think about your congregation.” But that didn’t stop Solid Rock Church outside of Cincinnati from continuing to hold in-person services. Likewise, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church not only continued to hold services, but also told The Washington Post: “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors.” And in New York City, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities continue to congregate and have seen a “huge spike” in coronavirus cases.

Doubts about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic among many religious communities didn’t arise organically but rather were spurred by President Donald Trump, who downplayed the concern for many weeks and is now casting doubt on his own government’s social distancing recommendations. Just this week, Trump said he would like to see “packed churches all over our country” on Easter, even as public health experts warn that such circumstances would be disastrous. Some of the president’s top Evangelical supporters have also cast doubt on the public health warnings. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. peddled conspiracy theories about the virus being a North Korean bioweapon on Fox News and refuses to close the campus of the university. Trump adviser Robert Jeffress speculated that the virus was a “judgment from God,” and Paula White, special adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, headlined an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally at Solid Rock Church in Ohio earlier this month—ignoring public health warnings. Both Jeffress and White dragged their feet on suspending in-person services.

Howard-Browne, incidentally, was the one who told his congregants that closings were for “pansies” and that only the Rapture would interrupt services. To be fair, that was on March 15 so hopefully he has since seen the light.

I predict we’re going to hear a lot in the upcoming weeks and months about “judgement from God” and end times, with the follow-up belief that the elect will receive preferential treatment. This is the message from “the Prophet” in Station Eleven.

A particularly lethal flu pandemic has wiped out most of the earth’s population, leaving little groups of people to flounder around and build makeshift communities. One group coalesces around a charismatic leader who preaches from the Book of Revelations. At one point he delivers the following sermon:

“We have been blessed,” he said, “in so many ways, have we not? We are blessed most of all in being alive today. We must ask ourselves, ‘Why? Why were we spared?’” He was silent for a moment, scanning…the assembled crowd, but no one responded. “I submit,” the prophet said, “that everything that has ever happened on this earth has happened for a reason.”…

“My people,” the prophet said, “earlier in the day I was contemplating the flu, the great pandemic, and let me ask you this. Have you considered the perfection of the virus?” A ripple of murmurs and gasps moved through the audience, but the prophet raised a hand and they fell silent. “Consider,” he said, “those of you who remember the world before the Georgia Flu, consider the iterations of the illness that preceded it, those trifling outbreaks against which we were immunized as children, the flus of the past. There was the outbreak of 1918, my people, the timing obvious, divine punishment for the waste and slaughter of the First World War. But then, in the decades that followed? The flus came every season, but these were weak, inefficient viruses that struck down only the very old, the very young, and the very sick. And then came a virus like an avenging angel, unsurvivable, a microbe that reduced the population of the fallen world by, what? There were no more statisticians by then, my angels, but shall we say ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent. One person remaining out of every two hundred fifty, three hundred? I submit, my beloved people, that such a perfect agent of death could only be divine. For we have read of such a cleansing of the earth, have we not?”…

“The flu,” the prophet said, “the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood. The light we carry within us is the ark that carried Noah and his people over the face of the terrible waters, and I submit that we were saved”—his voice was rising—“not only to bring the light, to spread the light, but to be the light. We were saved because we are the light. We are the pure.”

And further on:

The prophet was still talking, about faith and light and destiny, divine plans revealed to him in dreams, the preparation they must make for the end of the world—“For it has been revealed to me that the plague of twenty years ago was just the beginning, my angels, only an initial culling of the impure, that last year’s pestilence was but further preview and there will be more cullings, far more cullings to come”…

Talking about the sermon later, two members of the Traveling Symphony discuss its implications. “If you are the light,” the protagonist reflects, “if your enemies are darkness, then there’s nothing that you cannot justify. There’s nothing you can’t survive, because there’s nothing that you will not do.”

Among the things that his group does is kidnap women, designate girls to serve as the prophet’s wives, and hold children hostage to extract guns from their parents. People who object are shot, some as object lessons for the others. There’s very little of Jesus in their vision.

Which appears the case with our own white Christian nationalists. For them, building heaven on earth means affirming their tribal identity and smiting anyone else. When disaster hits, they have ready-made explanations and ready-made consolations. Maybe that’s what makes them nonchalant about COVID-19.

In their certainty, however, they risk infecting the rest of us.

Further note: I just saw a CNN interview with a woman leaving a large church gathering (in Ohio) who said that she wouldn’t hesitate to visit stores like Walmart, Target, and Home Depot in upcoming days because she is “covered with the blood of Jesus.”

Posted in Mandel (Emily St. John) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bard Answers Pestilence’s Challenge

C. Walter Hodges, Traveling Actors

Friday

I have just reread Emily St. John Mandel’s luminescent Station Eleven (2014), a dystopian novel about a deadly pandemic that my brother Sam sent me a few years back. Bleak though the subject matter is, the novel also reminds us that art is always there to sustain us, even in the most unimaginable of circumstances.

Although civilization as been eradicated from the earth, a few people survive here and there, some of whom join “the Traveling Symphony.” Sometimes the musicians and actors play “classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs,” sometimes they perform Shakespeare. The troupe’s motto, emblazoned on their cart and also tattooed on the protagonist’s arm, is “because survival is insufficient.” Art, in other words, is not a frill but a necessity.

Survival is still a concern, however. Travelers must be on the lookout for bandits, gangs, and “ferals,” even as they themselves may be shot at by terrified communities.  There’s also a violent doomsday cult, led by a self-proclaimed prophet who cites the Book of Revelations and kidnaps women to be his wives. To defend themselves, the actors must know how to wield weapons as well as instruments.

In these dark moments, the Symphony’s faith in art’s sustaining power is challenged:

Sometimes the Traveling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it, especially at times when they had to camp between towns, when they were turned away at gunpoint from hostile places, when they were traveling in snow or rain through dangerous territory, actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows, the horses exhaling great clouds of steam, times when they were cold and afraid and their feet were wet.

However, when they are grip of Shakespeare, everything else falls away, as when they are performing Midsummer Night’s Dream in a Michigan town. The all-too-relevant reference is the contagion and “rheumatic diseases” caused by the non-stop rain that arises out of Oberon and Titania’s quarrel. As the protagonist reflects, Shakespeare too was well acquainted with pestilence and death, but this did not stop his artistry. If anything, it spurred it:

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-erased by candlelight. The audience is silent. Sayid, circling her in a tuxedo that Kirsten found in a dead man’s closet near the town of East Jordan: “Tarry, rash wanton. Am I not thy lord?”

“Then I must be thy lady.” Lines of a play written in 1594, the year London’s theaters reopened after two seasons of plague. Or written possibly a year later, in 1595, a year before the death of Shakespeare’s only son. Some centuries later on a distant continent, Kirsten moves across the stage in a cloud of painted fabric, half in rage, half in love. She wears a wedding dress that she scavenged from a house near New Petoskey, the chiffon and silk streaked with shades of blue from a child’s watercolor kit.

“But with thy brawls,” she continues, “thou hast disturbed our sport.” She never feels more alive than at these moments. When onstage she fears nothing. “Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, as in revenge, have sucked up from the sea contagious fogs….”

Pestilential, a note in the text explains, next to the word contagious, in Kirsten’s favorite of the three versions of the text that the Symphony carries. Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theaters again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king. “Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, pale in her anger, washes all the air, that rheumatic diseases do abound.”

Oberon watches her with his entourage of fairies. Titania speaks as if to herself now, Oberon forgotten. Her voices cries high and clear over the silent audience, over the string section waiting for their cue on stage left. “And through this distemperature, we see the seasons alter.”

We are experiencing our own moment of distemperature, altering our routines if not the seasons. Shakespeare, however, is still Shakespeare.

Posted in Mandel (Emily St. John) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Iago Corrupts Othello

Odera, Peakes in Folger’s Othello

Thursday

On Tuesday, writing for the “Composition and Literature” class that I’m teaching remotely, I opined that Iago is motivated by status anxiety, an identity disorder that lies at the heart of fascism and that has contributed to some of the world’s darkest moments. Today I share my theory on why why I think Othello gets taken in.

My aim is not to persuade my students but to model critical engagement for them. They come to the play with their own life experiences and so will focus on their own issues.

How does Iago manage to play this honorable man like a drum? To be sure, Othello isn’t the only character that Iago dupes, with Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona, and Iago’s wife Emilia all falling under his spell. But none of these others is so thoroughly manipulated.

I mentioned race as a major factor in Iago’s hatred and wonder if it doesn’t play a major role in Othello’s gullibility as well. I think of him as the outsider who is excited about joining the cool kids, only to discover that they always had it in for him.

Othello makes it into the club (or thinks he does) because of his exemplary military accomplishments. Once a slave, he is now the man that Venice turns to when the Turks attack. His exploits are such as to convince Desdemona to fall in love with him:

Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question'd me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges,
fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent
deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels' history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads
touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,--such was the
process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to
hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her
thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She'ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse: 

One of Othello’s happiest moments may be when the Duke of Venice, hearing this account, concludes, I think this tale would win my daughter too.”

For an outsider, experiencing Desdemona’s love and the Duke’s acceptance appear to be proof that he’s arrived. The friendship of Cassio and (seemingly) Iago are further confirmation. All is going well, and Othello’s reunion with Desdemona following the Cyprus campaign feels like the final scene in one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

It’s only Act III, however, and everything goes downhill from this point on. Although Othello appears outwardly confident, one can imagine him being insecure in this new identity.

Iago knows just how to exploit such insecurity. Is Othello’s friend Cassio really as friendly as he seems? Iago raises doubts and lets Othello fill in the blanks. Is Desdemona really in love with him? Maybe (as Iago tells Roderigo) the Moor is just an exotic fling that she will tire of in the long run:

It cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor… She must change for youth: when she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice: she must have change, she must…

Compounding Othello’s insecurity are manhood anxieties. “A horned man’s a monster and a beast,” says Othello, expressing the fear of being cuckolded. When Othello’s fraternity brothers, including even the gentlemanly Cassio, voice demeaning stereotypes of women, the seeds are sown for doubting Desdemona.

Although Othello’s view of women appears relatively liberated before joining the group, Iago’s peer pressure gets to him. In fact, Iago uses the fact that Desdemona has a mind of her own as proof that she could betray her husband. Iago essentially trains Othello in toxic masculinity, and his impressionable pupil delivers in spectacular fashion.

Othello, of course, should resist such pressure. I’m not excusing him for his horrible deed. But seeing him as an insecure outsider at least helps us understand why Iago’s tactics work. Suffering from imposter syndrome, deep down Othello doesn’t believe that he could be loved by Desdemona and honored by Cassio. Iago voices Othello’s dark self-doubts and tragedy ensues.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump’s Modest Proposal

Charles Jervas, portrait of Jonathan Swift

Wednesday, April Fools’ Day

I have written several April 1 posts about literature’s greatest prankster. Jonathan Swift loved April Fools’ Day and wrote essays that appeared as close as possible to that date (see the links below). I write with more serious purpose today, however, since his most-well known essay—perhaps the most notorious essay ever written—is suddenly all too relevant.

I have in mind, of course, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public. Its argument, as I’m sure you know, is that scruples about eating babies should not stand in the way of economic progress. I’m not the first to note that a number of public figures are making a version of the argument regarding COVID-19: that the economic benefits of keeping our society open outweigh the humane consideration of saving lives.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was one of the first to put forward such a case, arguing a week ago that grandparents should be willing to die in order to ensure their grandchildren’s economic future. As USA Today reports,

The lieutenant governor of Texas argued in an interview on Fox News Monday night that the United States should go back to work, saying grandparents like him don’t want to sacrifice the country’s economy during the coronavirus crisis.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, 69, made the comments on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight after President Donald Trump said he wanted to reopen the country for business in weeks, not months.

Patrick also said the elderly population, who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said are more at risk for COVID-19, can take care of themselves and suggested that grandparents wouldn’t want to sacrifice their grandchildren’s economic future.  

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”  

Patrick traffics in the misconception that only older people die of the disease, but put that aside for a moment. Because he’s 69, he seems to think he’s selfless, just as Swift’s Modest Proposer assures us that he himself will not benefit from his cannibalism scheme. “I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny,” he tells us, “the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

And then there are those who turn people into mere statistics. Trump, who once assured us that we had the virus contained and who had to be talked down from “packed churches on Easter,” is now declaring that, if we can limit COVID-19 deaths to between 100,000 and 200,00, we will have done “a very good job.”

As Washington Post’s Dana Milbank asks incredulously, “How does a human being use the phrase “a very good job” in contemplation of the deaths of 100,000 to 200,000 souls?”

Well, the same person who boasts about the high ratings of his COVID-19 news conferences:

Because the “Ratings” of my News Conferences etc. are so high, “Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers” according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. “Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.” said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!

Death for Trump has the same kind of impersonal aspect that it does for the Modest Proposer. Check out the following:

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

The Modest Proposer claims not to be inhumane—after all, he’s trying to relieve Ireland’s extreme poverty—and we have heard the president making similar arguments. Think of all the misery that will come from closing down businesses, he pleads:

“You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression.” Trump said Tuesday in a Fox News town hall. “You’re going to lose people. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”

Trump diehard Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson recently made a similar claim in a USA Today editorial:

Each year, approximately 48,000 Americans commit suicide and an estimated 67,000 die of a drug overdose. That level of individual despair has occurred in a strong economy with near-record low levels of unemployment in virtually every demographic.

Imagine the potential psychological and human toll if this shutdown continues indefinitely, unemployment reaches 20% or higher, as some now predict, and we sink into a deep recession or depression.

And then, just to make feel better about the losses we can expect, he reminds us that “death is an unavoidable part of life.” Besides, he adds, we’re already losing tons of people already:

Every premature death is a tragedy, but death is an unavoidable part of life. More than 2.8 million die each year — nearly 7,700 a day. The 2017-18 flu season was exceptionally bad, with 61,000 deaths attributed to it. Can you imagine the panic if those mortality statistics were attributed to a new virus and reported nonstop?

Johnson groups prospective COVID-19 death with other dead people in the same way that the Modest Proposer lumps slaughterhouse babies in with sheep, cattle, and swine. In Johnson’s argument that he is the real humanitarian, I hear the Modest Proposer’s self-righteousness:

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

Of course, Swift really does care about the poor. He doesn’t actually expect his proposal to be taken seriously but uses its shock value to awaken our consciences.

Trump and Johnson, on the other hand, aren’t worried about how repealing Obamacare or cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP ) will impact the suicidally-inclined destitute. Johnson’s and Patrick’s so-called worry about passing a trillion dollar deficit to the next generation didn’t come up when the GOP was handing out tax cuts to the very wealthy. (We won’t even talk about their views on passing along a warmer climate.) No, the GOP’s sudden concern for the poor arises only when a tanking economy threatens the president’s reelection prospects.

Then again, maybe I’m coming down too hard on Donald Trump. Maybe he really does feel deeply for those contracting COVID-19.

April Fool!

Posts on Swift and April Fools’ Day
Swift’s Spectacular April Fools’ Joke
Meditation upon a Broomstick (April Fool!)
Jonathan Swift, Master of Fake News

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

Iago, White Supremacist

Fishburne, Branagh as Othello, Iago

Tuesday

Today I begin teaching my two Sewanee classes remotely, meaning that you, dear readers, will be the beneficiaries of some of what I’m writing for my students. In my Composition and Literature class, we have been focusing on the issue of identity. They are currently reading Othello, which raises an identity problem all to familiar to Americans.

At the end of the play, bewildered by why his apparent friend and confidant Iago would betray him, Othello asks the authorities,

Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?

Iago, however, refuses to illuminate us. Perhaps he himself does not know. At any rate, he retorts,

Demand
me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Before explaining why I think the psychology of identity offers a powerful answer, let me outline the course. We opened with a poetry section in which we looked at different poets wrestling with identity issues, including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Alfred Lord Tennyson (“Ulysses”), T. S. Eliot (Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), Lucille Clifton (“wishes for sons,” “homage to my hips,” “questions and answers”), and Adrienne Rich (“Diving into the Wreck”). The drama section includes Twelfth Night (sex and gender issues) and Othello (more on that in a moment). For fiction we will be reading Toni Morrison’s wondrous novel Song of Solomon. I also had the students write essays about a dramatic incident that caused them to become aware of some aspect of their identity that they had previously been oblivious to. (The model was Cullen’s “Incident,” in which the poet recounts his first encounter with the n-word.)

In recent years there has been much talk of “identity politics,” with political scientists arguing that identity may play a bigger role in a person’s political choices than economic self-interest. Of course, the two are never entirely separated, but the concept helps explain certain otherwise strange alliances, such as that between GOP billionaires and members of the white working class. Integral to this drama is “status anxiety,” the fear of losing cultural and social dominance. When people are afraid that their status is being undermined, they may countenance behavior—and even themselves behave in certain ways—that they would condemn in other contexts.

Status anxiety lies behind the behavior of many who join hate groups, whether organized by Islamic terrorists or white supremacists. Mass killers like the 9-11 bombers, Charleston killer Dylann Roof, Norwegian killer Anders Breivik and many others have voiced grievances that don’t make logical sense but that can be traced to fears of “the Other.” Some version of “Othering” is going on in Othello.

Iago may not tell the authorities why he hates the Moor, but early on he offers up an explanation to Roderigo, whom he has seduced with false promises. His purported reason is Othello choosing Cassio over him for lieutenant. As Iago sees it, he would have been the worthier choice since he has seen battle at Rhodes and Cyprus whereas Cassio is a mere desk warrior. “Be-lee’d and calm’d” means being cut off from favorable winds:

But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd.
...
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I--God bless the mark!--his Moorship's ancient [flag bearer].

Many worthy people have been passed over for promotion, however, without resorting to slander and murder. In fact, after Iago subverts Cassio and takes his position, his bitterness doesn’t go away. Thus we must look for other explanations.

From our modern point of view, race is the obvious place to look, and it certainly is borne out by the way Iago fans miscegenist nightmares, a black man sleeping with a white woman. As he cries out to the Desdemona’s father after she has eloped with Othello,

Zounds, sir, you're robb'd; for shame, put on
your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

And later, using further comparisons of black man and beast,

Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you'll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

Scholars debate whether the 17th century saw race in the same way we do, but as an exotic stranger, Othello is subject to the same Othering that people of color suffer today.

The sexual slurs get at another dimension of racism, which is a fascination with black sexuality. In his groundbreaking study of fascist fantasies, based upon studying Freikorps novels written after World War I, German sociologist Theweleit says that authoritarian personalities are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by such sexuality. They long for pure women who will cleanse them (the clean image of singer Taylor Swift has long been a figure of fascination to American white supremacists) but secretly resent such women because their purity accentuates the men’s own dirtiness. In this way, they identify with the black savage, an identification they then must exorcise through ritual execution of this dark desecrator.

The drama can be seen in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), where the KKK rises to defend of white womanhood. First, however, viewers get to see “black renegade” Gus pursue Little Sis until, to save her honor, she throws herself off a cliff.

In other words, in their fantasies racists and fascists get to have their cake and eat it too (which is how fantasies work). As voyeurs, they pruriently enjoy the desecration, which tickles their sadistic and misogynist fantasies. Then they assert their manhood and reclaim their purity by exterminating the blight. Some version of these psychological dynamics lie behind many of the brutal lynchings in America’s history.

Does Othello encourage such fantasizing? The fact that Desdemona’s bed is front and center at the end of the play suggests it might. The place where prurient fantasies have been acted out offers a kind of moral: bed down with a black man and we will watch you suffer the consequences before our eyes on this very bed.

Shakespeare, however, no more turns Othello into a one-dimensional projection of white fears than he turns Shylock into a one-dimensional projection of anti-Semitic hatred. Othello is too complicated and too noble to fit the stereotype. For that matter, Shakespeare also depicts Desdemona as something more than a white angel, giving her agency and intelligence.

There’s an 1822 account of an American soldier at a Baltimore production shooting Othello and breaking his arm. Afterwards he explained, “It will never be said that in my presence a confounded Negro has killed a white woman!” In other words, the play invites racist responses. Shakespeare’s drama, however, clearly reveals such people to be Iagos.

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

The Sun Rises in Spite of Everything

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun

Monday

Irish state television concluded a recent program with a poem by Irish poet Derek Mahon. You’ll understand why when you read it.

The speaker is looking out of a window from what appears to be a sickbed. It could even be a deathbed since the speaker mentions (twice) that “there will be dying.” Yet death appears to be an afterthought compared to what he sees and what he knows to be out there. “The sun rises in spite of everything”—in spite of the things that drag us down, that is—”and the far cities are beautiful and bright.” How can one be disheartened given that “poems flow from the hand unbidden/ and the hidden source is the watchful heart”?

With such forces as work in the world, the poet can confidently assert that “everything is going to be all right.” This is not facile consolation but deep truth, uttered with conviction.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

We are about to see death at a scale most of us have never experienced before. Let’s make sure we watch the day break and the clouds flying.

Posted in Mahon (Derek) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Valley of Dry Bounds, a Waste Land

Gustave Doré, Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones

Spiritual Sunday

As we are in the Lenten season, the liturgy has of reading one of the strangest passages in the Bible, that being Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones. I repost today an essay from April 6, 2016 on  T. S. Eliot’s allusion to the imagery. Given how desolate many of us are feeling these days, it’s worth revisiting both the Biblical passage and Eliot’s poem.

Reposted from April 6, 2016  

I find one of the strangest passages in the Bible to be Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, which we will hear in church today. Although Ezekiel envisions a happy ending for his bones, the image of death and sterility is so grim and unsettling that T. S. Eliot uses it as one of his foundational images in The Waste Land (1922). Yet for all his pessimism, Eliot’s hints at a possibility of spiritual renewal.

Here’s the passage from Ezekiel (37:1-14): 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. 

My friend John Morrow, a retired Episcopal priest, says that the story reflects God’s deep and abiding love for his people. If He can create Adam out of dust, He can breathe new life into those who have lost touch with Him.

Eliot is describing a world where people feel cut off from spiritual meaning. His first reference to the bones occurs as part of a sterile domestic conversation in Part II (“The Game of Chess”), a scene that may be based on Eliot’s own troubled relationship with his first wife. Hearing her incessant complaining, he silently thinks of Ezekiel’s valley:

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.” 

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

The poem continues on with an ironic allusion to the divine breath that God promises the people of Israel. In this case, the wind is empty: 

  “What is that noise?”
                        The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
                           Nothing again nothing.

Bones show up twice in Part III (“The Fire Sermon”), the first time in a terrifying echo of a line from Andrew Marvell’s famous carpe diem poem “To His Coy Mistress.” Pleading for his mistress to yield to his overtures, Marvell’s speaker comes up with a startling version of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”:

But always at my back I hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

Eliot drops Marvell’s cavalier tone and describes only our grim condition:

But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

The poet then returns to the image of the impotent fisher king that is at the core of the poem. At the same time, rats make a repeat appearance, prompting us to wonder about the state of Eliot’s London apartment. The passage also has images of death (Ferdinand in The Tempest mourning his father’s apparent death) and of sterile sexuality (“white bodies naked”):

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year
.

In Part IV (“Death by Water”), there is another image of bones being picked clean, although this time they are not dry bones. Nevertheless, the image has the same effect:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. 

Finally, in Part V (“What the Thunder Said”), we have yet more images of death with no resurrection: a decayed hole (Jesus’s tomb?), overgrown graves, an empty chapel, and a door swinging helplessly in the wind. These dry bones will “harm no one”:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
     Dry bones can harm no one.

Despite the grim images, however, there is subsequently a hint that resurrection may be on its way, although Eliot detects no more than a hint. A cock crows—think of Henry Vaughan’s poem about the resurrected Jesus as a rooster—and then there is a flash of lightning and “a damp gust/bringing rain.” This is not “the dry sterile thunder without rain” from earlier in the poem. There may be hope after all.

Eliot does not offer us easy grace in this poem. He does not have Ezekiel’s energizing faith as he struggles with deep spiritual depression. But because his hints of spiritual redemption are so hard won, they have a ring of truth to them.

Posted in Eliot (T. S.) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

  • AVAILABLE NOW!

  • 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.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!