Stephen King and Detention Centers


Literary Hub alerted me to this New York Times interview with Stephen King that gets at the sometimes tangled relationship between fiction and current events.  The Institute features kids with supernatural talents who are rounded up and placed in detention centers by a shadowy organization. After they have been used up, they are brutally discarded.

Of course, America has also been rounding up children and placing them in cages.  Anthony Breznican notes that, while King was writing his novel last summer, its broad strokes

began to parallel what was happening in real life: Children, seeking asylum at the border, were being removed from their parents under the administration’s family separation policy.

King acknowledges the parallels but says they weren’t conscious. Rather, given that he is writing in the age of Trump, certain themes arise naturally:

“All I can say is that I wrote it in the Trump era. I’ve felt more and more a sense that people who are weak, and people who are disenfranchised and people who aren’t the standard, white American, are being marginalized,” King says. “And at some point in the course of working on the book, Trump actually started to lock kids up.” At least seven children have died while in immigration custody since the policy was enacted. “That was creepy to me because it was really like what I was writing about,” King says. “But I don’t want you to say that was in my mind when I wrote the book, because I’m not a person who wants to write allegory like Animal Farm or 1984.

The interviewer confirms that King confines his political opinions to social media (he has 5.4 million twitter followers) and regards novels as “a place to explore human nature, not current events.” But King also points out that “if you tell the truth about the way people behave, sometimes you find out that life really does imitate art,” and adds, “I think in this case it really has.”

As I see it, authors are more like shamans than journalists, capturing the dream-like contours of our lives so that we have something tangible to reflect upon and explore. One can say of King what Harold Bloom says of Edgar Allan Poe, that he dreams America’s nightmares. His novel IT, for instance, captures America’s endemic violence, with Pennywise the clown making regular appearances in racial firebombings, homophobic murders, child molestations, instances of marital abuse, deadly barroom brawls, and various explosive bloodlettings. The Institute sounds as though it captures what American adults are doing to the next generation.

Fortunately, King doesn’t see this generation as helpless. Apparently he thinks of the novel  

“not as a horror story but as a resistance tale.” One has 12-year-old telekinetic genius Luke, teenage mind reader Kalisha, and 10-year-old power-channeler Avery joining forces to rebel inside their detention center. For all his horrific descriptions of American life, King sees hope in the next generation.

I fervidly hope that King’s optimism is a case of shamanistic depth rather than sentimental wish fulfillment. Then again, I think of Neil Gaiman’s observation about fairy tales being “more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

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“Rhinoceros” and Trump’s GOP Takeover


I’ve come to believe that Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is must reading in the Trump era. Although I found the play heavy-handed and not all that relevant when I read it in the 1970s, I now believe it brilliantly grasps how people find ways to avoid confronting creeping authoritarianism. In other words, it helps us understand how Trump has taken over the Republican Party.

If you don’t know the play, it is set in a village where, one day, people see a rhinoceros charging through the main square. Abnormal though the sight is, people downplay it. To be sure, they are momentarily startled, but they soon return to whatever they were doing. The following dialogue is only a small sample of what goes on for pages:

All: Well, of all things!
Berenger: It certainly looked as if it was a rhinoceros. It made plenty of dust.
Housewife: Well, of all things! Gave me such a scare.
Grocer: Your basket…and all your things…
Old Gentleman: [approaching the lady and bending to pick up her things scattered about the state.]
Proprietor: Really, these days, you never know…
Waitress: Fancy that!…
Housewife: Very kind of you, I’m sure.
Old Gentleman; Oh, please don’t mention it, it’s a pleasure.
Jean: Well, what did you think about it?
Berenger: Well…nothing…it made a lot of dust..
Grocer: [to the Housewife]: I’ve some good leeks as well….
Housewife [to the Old Gentleman] Oh, you are kind! Such a pleasure to come across the old French courtesy. Not like the young people today!
Grocer: You should buy from me. You wouldn’t even have to cross the street, and you wouldn’t run the risk of these accidents.
Jean: But you must admit it’s extraordinary.
Old Gentleman: [taking off his hat and kissing the Housewife’s hand] It was a great pleasure to meet you!

When a second rhinoceros is seen, people are once again surprised and then once again distracted by other matters. Debates break out about whether they were African or Asian rhinos, with categorization seeming to be more important than the animals’ actual presence. It’s like furor over Trump’s tweets while he undermines the Constitution, accelerates climate change, trashes the environment, encourages Russia to attack our democracy and undermine NATO, and turns the government over to crony capitalists.

What once was unthinkable becomes the norm as more and more people turn into rhinos. At first, as with Trump and his supporters, people deny reality, disparaging witnesses and blaming the media:

Papillon: Let us try and get things clear. Did you yourself, with your own eyes, see a rhinoceros strolling through the streets of the town?
Daisy: It didn’t stroll, it ran.
Dudard: No, I didn’t see it personally. But a lot of very reliable people…!
Botard: [interrupting him] It’s obvious they were just making it up. You put too much trust in these journalists; they don’t care what they invent to see their wretched newspapers and please the bosses they serve!

When Daisy’s account is verified by Berenger, they find a way to dismiss him as well. Like Trump supporters with the Mueller Report, they use any uncertainty to dismiss the substance:

Botard: Pff! It’s possible that Mr. Berenger thought he saw a rhinoceros. [He makes a sign behind Berenger’s back to indicate he drinks.] He’s got such a vivid imagination! Anything’s possible with him!
Berenger: I wasn’t alone when I saw the rhinoceros! Or perhaps there were two rhinoceroses.
Botard: He doesn’t even know how many he saw.

Hannah Arendt famously applied the phrase “banality of evil” to Nazis responsible for the Holocaust, and banal is a good descriptor for most of the conversations that occur in The Rhinoceros. A fringe movement on the rise must be countered with vigorous resistance, yet all we see are vapid responses. By the end, only Berenger is holding out, and even he has moments where he desires to become a rhinoceros.

Ionesco witnessed first-hand what he describes. As a Jewish student in interwar Rumania, Ionesco saw his professors and fellow students transform into fascist anti-Semites, which led him to escape to France. Then, following World War II, he called out French intellectuals in love with Stalinism. People find many ways to rationalize their behavior.

It’s not only peer pressure that turns people into rhinos. In an important New York Times column, political scientist Thomas Edsall notes that Trump’s greatest asset may be his political nihilism: he attracts people who say we should burn everything to the ground and start over. In the play, we watch Berenger’s best friend Jean turn into a rhino while spouting such rhetoric:

Jean: We’ve got to build our life on new foundations. We must get back to primeval integrity.
Berenger: I don’t agree with you at all. Just think a moment. You must admit that we have a philosophy that animals don’t share, and an irreplaceable set of values, which it’s taken centuries of human civilization to build up…
Jean: When we’ve demolished all that, we’ll be better off.

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans either shrug off Trump’s outrages or remain silent. Their hides have gotten tough and their psyches contorted as they run with the herd.

Whether anyone can stop them remains to be seen.

Added note: There is one irony in applying Ionesco’s play to Republicans: RINOs or “Republicans in Name Only” have been drummed out of the party. David Brooks, often called a RINO, once defended the animal as a noble beast. The rhinos in the play are not noble beasts.

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The Bible, As True as Literature

Spiritual Sunday

Our church’s Adult Forum today is discussing Rachel Held Evans’s Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Raised in an evangelical household, Evans grew up thinking that the Bible is literally true, which caused her to turn against it as an adolescent. Now an Episcopalian, Evans tells how she returned to the Bible once she realized that it contains the wisdom, not of factual recording, but of fictional stories.

As she puts it,

When you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic. The ancient rabbis likened Scripture to a palace, alive and bustling, full of grand halls, banquet rooms, secret passages, and locked doors.

“The adventure,” wrote Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky in Reading the Book, lies in “learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.”

Evans evokes several different literary genres in describing how the Bible operates. At one point she says it has the wisdom of fairy tales and quotes G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman to make her point:

Citing G. K. Chesterton, author Neil Gaiman often noted, “Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In those first, formative years of my life, before I knew or cared about culture wars or genre categories or biblical interpretation, this is what Scripture taught me: that a boat full of animals can survive a catastrophic flood, that seas can be parted and lions tamed, that girls can be prophets and warriors and queens, that a kid’s lunch of fish and bread can be multiplied to feed five thousand people.

Then she adds,

At times I wonder if I understood my sacred text better then than I do now or ever will again.

Moving from fairy tale to drama, Evans likes how New Testament scholar N. T. Wright

compared Scripture to a five-act play, full of drama and surprise, wherein the people of God are invited into the story to improvise the unfinished final act. Our ability to faithfully execute our roles in the drama depends on our willingness to enter the narrative, he said, to see how our own stories intersect with the grander epic of God’s redemption of the world. Every page of Scripture serves as an invitation—to wonder, to wrestle, to surrender to the adventure.

Evans takes up that invitation, refusing to let the Bible off the hook but also giving it full credit where it is due. She wrestles with what it means, for instance, that God appears to command Joshua’s armies to carry out genocidal slaughter. She also finds herself

singing Psalm 121 to my baby boy each night. “He who watches over you will not slumber,” I sing into his sweet-smelling wisp of hair, as many thousands of mothers and fathers have done before. “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

I am teaching my son the ancient songs and hearing them again for the first time. I am caught up in the story, surrendered to its pull.

A particularly wise chapter deals with miracles and arrives at a conclusion that applies to literature in general. Those fundamentalists and atheists who square off about the miracle stories, Evans says, both miss the point. Jesus’s miracles, she believes,

prefigure a future in which there is no more suffering, no more death, no more stigmatization, no more exclusion, no more chaos. They show us what it looks like for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and they invite us to buy into that future now, with every act of compassion and inclusion, every step towards healing and reconciliation and love.

Then she quotes again N. T. Wright, who says that hope

is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to change the world.

The miracles, then, are not “magic tricks designed to awe prospective converts” but instructions and challenges. “They show us what to do and how to hope.”

As a result, we should think about miracles as a question of action rather than belief. We should act as if we believe miracles are possible:

Am I including the people who are typically excluded? Am I feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Am I holding the hands of the homeless and offering help to addicts? Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that marginalize ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities? Am I behaving as though life is more than a meaningless, chaotic mess, that there is some order in the storm?

In that the Bible’s stories help us orient ourselves in the world, they operate like all great works of literture, which can justifiably claim to be true even when they are fictional. Evans notes,

Researchers tell us one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the ability to tell stories. Helping them apply narrative to their everyday experiences, and to see a purpose and direction in the forces that shape their lives, improves both cognitive function and well-being.

In short, those who insist on reading the Bible literally, along with those who summarily dismiss it as fantasy, miss the point. The Bible is true because it functions as literature functions.

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Read to Resist Trump & Trumpism

Kurodo Seiki, Woman Reading


For the next few months, I will be devoting my Friday columns to a general examination of what aid literature can provide in the battle against Trump and Trumpism. At stake is our country, the global community, and the planet.

To be sure, I have been regularly examining matters Trumpian for the past three years and will continue to do so. This project, however—which I plan to gather together in a book–will look at my old essays to arrive at an overarching view. What can poems, plays and novels teach us about the man, the phenomenon he represents, and the prospects for fighting back?

Looking back through those essays, I see that I first started paying attention to Trump in 2015 when he launched his presidential run. Before then, I thought him a mere carnival sideshow and shrugged off his claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, viewing them as a bizarre means of attracting attention. For far too long I didn’t take him seriously.

Once he started gaining political traction, however, I did what I always do when faced with life’s mysteries: I turned to literature. To be sure, literature wasn’t my only recourse, and many seasoned commentators on American politics have helped me out. Literature, however, made its special contribution. As Salman Rushdie has observed, when political leaders undermine our grasp on reality, literature delivers “the truths of the great constant, which is human nature.”

The Roman poet Horace tells us that great literature simultaneously entertains us and speaks truth, and the most truthful literature is the literature that lasts. Times may change but (to cite some of the authors I have turned to) Mark Twain, Herman Melville, John Gay, John Milton and William Shakespeare knew a con man when they saw one. Meanwhile George Orwell, Milan Kundera, and Shakespeare (always Shakespeare) understood authoritarian impulses, Dante and Melville gave us unforgettable images of flatterers and enablers, and authors as ancient as Aeschylus and Euripides wrote dramas where victims push back.

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

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

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

As I read through my early Trump essays, I see that I regarded him initially as a relatively harmless (albeit nasty) con man. In my later essays, however, I became alarmed and began exploring his authoritarian tendencies (Trump as a wannabe Macbeth). From a mere Tolstoyan grifter like Prince Vasili, I came to see him as a Iago, malevolently and spitefully whispering into America’s ear on his way to destroying all that is honorable and innocent.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature doesn’t only articulate the problems we face, however. It also shows us people working to solve them, and in ways that provide a powerful resource for activists. I have periodically looked at different ways that literature pushes back against Trumpian politics.   

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

I see that I’ve also written essays about poems that show a way forward. While it is true that good art is not prescriptive–“the poet he nothing affirms,” wrote Sir Philip Sidney–it does manage to capture our complicated reality while providing a framework within which to explore our options.

As I look back the book I wrote seven years ago–How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage–I realize that I have become less optimistic. In my defense, I correctly identified America’s monsters, especially our resentful Grendel (lower class status anxiety) and our dragon (threatened upper class entitlement). I may, however, have had too much confidence that our foundational values would fend them off. I underestimated the lengths that GOP Republicans would go, led by dragon Mitch McConnell, to protect their privilege. I didn’t anticipate that Machiavelli, not the U. S. Constitution, would become the new playbook.

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

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

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

Literature, in other words, provides tools and perspectives that we can find nowhere else. As such, it can be a treasure house for frontline activists, community leaders, commentators, political scientists, legislators, teachers, lawyers, journalists and others. These Friday essays are written to provide those fighting back against Trump and Trumpism with plays, poems, and fictional stories that will serve them.

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Trump’s Catch-22 Doctoring of Maps

A sharpie extension designed to prove the president right


In case you haven’t heard the story, apparently someone in the Trump administration doctored a hurricane map to cover for the president’s fabricated assertion that Dorian posed a threat to Alabama. The incident reminded Politico’s Jeff Greenfield of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

The doctoring involved using a sharpie to extend the hurricane track (see picture above). It was designed to counteract the National Weather Service in Birmingham, which following Trump’s announcement issued an immediate correction:

Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.

Rather than admitting he had been wrong, Trump doubled down, making up things left and right:

Actually, we have a better map than that which is going to be presented, where we had many lines going directly — many models, each line being a model — and they were going directly through. And in all cases Alabama was hit if not lightly, in some cases pretty hard. … They actually gave that a 95% chance probability.

Greenfield’s Heller reference involves a bombing line:

This is right out of Catch-22 when someone moves the “bombing line” on an official map to show that Pianosa is in allied hands, so that a highly dangerous bombing mission gets called off.

Actually it’s Bologna, not Pianosa, but Greenfield’s gets the rest right. The men come to hate the bombing line because it reflects a reality that they don’t like:

All through the day, they looked at the bomb line on the big, wobbling easel map of Italy that blew over in the wind and was dragged in under the awning of the intelligence tent every time the rain began. The bomb line was a scarlet band of narrow satin ribbon that delineated the forwardmost position of the Allied ground forces in every sector of the Italian mainland

…The resentments incubating in each man hatched into hatred. First they hated the infantrymen on the mainland because they had failed to capture Bologna. Then they began to hate the bomb line itself. For hours they stared relentlessly at the scarlet ribbon on the map and hated it because it would not move up high enough to encompass the city. When night fell, they congregated in the darkness with flashlights, continuing their macabre vigil at the bomb line in brooding entreaty as though hoping to move the ribbon up by the collective weight of their sullen prayers.

The rational Clevinger is mystified:

‘I really can’t believe it,’ Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. ‘It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.’

Yossarian then pulls off a Trumpian move, redrawing a map to obtain the reality he wants:

In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.

Trump appears to have faced few consequences for fabricating fake news. Reality still means something in World War II, however, leading to the capture of Major de Coverley:

Moving the bomb line did not fool the Germans, but it did fool Major de Coverley, who packed his musette bag, commandeered an airplane and, under the impression that Florence too had been captured by the Allies, had himself flown to that city to rent two apartments for the officers and the enlisted men in the squadron to use on rest leaves.

Yes, we’re living in a Catch-22 world.

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Killer Claimed to Be Captain of His Soul

Mourners following Christchurch massacre


Last week Radnor High School English teacher Carl Rosin reported on his students grappling with the use of Dylan Thomas by the Christchurch killer. The man also cited William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus, the subject of today’s essay. In addition to his use of another famous poem, what does it mean that this same poem inspired the great South African leader Nelson Mandela?

By Carl Rosin, English, Radnor High School

When an Australian man murdered fifty Muslim worshipers during their prayers, I interrupted my high school seniors’ British Literature curriculum to interpose a “Poetry Emergency”: a call to face and assess the terrorist’s use of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” in the rant he posted online. As Prof. Bates’s “better living” model might suggest, we dug deeper into the man’s grotesque application of literature. After last week’s post on the Thomas poem, which opens the Christchurch killer’s screed, today’s focuses on the Henley poem, which closes it.

When my student Megan McK. presented “Invictus,” she connected it to the Invictus Games. Here is her description of that “international sporting event for wounded, injured, and sick service personnel”:

The games began in the United Kingdom, started by Prince Harry after he visited the Warrior Games; a similar event was organized by the U.S. Department of Defense. The Invictus Games drew inspiration from the poem “Invictus” by W. H. Henley, who was an amputee himself. The Games most significantly represent the line “My head is bloody, but unbowed,” in that these men and women, who have sacrificed themselves for their country, came out wounded, but refuse to give up. Seeing the use of this poem, especially this line, in the terrorist’s rant saddens me deeply. It weighs heavily on my mind that the same poem that inspired a man to start an event to celebrate men and women who were injured serving their country also inspired another man’s means of killing multiple people in a racist and hateful act of violence.

The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber, in his article about the Christchurch murderer’s screed, summarized what is both widely known about Henley’s poem and not mentioned explicitly in it: that the poet, who had had one leg amputated when he was a boy, wrote the poem while recovering from a radical surgery to save the other leg. Kornhaber continued,

With its avowal that “my head is bloody, but unbowed,” it’s among the most commonly cited poems ever, with famous invocations including by [sic] Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned for resisting South African apartheid and Timothy McVeigh before his execution for killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing.

It goes without saying that Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh are already a bizarre pair of citers. Liam, one of my seniors, added a further reference, from Nobel Peace laureate and now Burmese leader (although her star has been badly tarnished by her complicity in the Rohingya crisis) Aung San Suu Kyi: “This poem had inspired my father, Aung San, and his contemporaries during the independence struggle, as it also seemed to have inspired freedom fighters in other places at other times.”

The term “freedom fighter” does hint at the problem we face when trying to get a handle on interpreting this poem and many others. The American revolutionaries of the 18th century were freedom fighters…but not in the contemporary British accounts, in which they were terrorists. Mandela’s African National Congress were freedom fighters…but not to the apartheid government of South Africa, who imprisoned him for 27 years. On the flip side, the U.S. and its allies certainly do not agree with the freedom fighter self-designation that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have adopted.

Conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg disparaged the common phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” in his book The Tyranny of Cliches, calling it “simply absurd to contend that because people may argue over who is or is not a terrorist that it is therefore impossible to make meaningful distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters.” This is a critic’s comment about literature: sure, there may be some legitimate difference in assessing the validity of a particular theme or thesis, but some things indeed have merit and some don’t. Perhaps it’s better to say, some things have an overwhelming amount more merit than others do.

I ask students of American literature, when they encounter Langston Hughes’s essential 1951 poem “Harlem,” about the images and actions Hughes catalogs. Is the poem all negative, all positive, or something in between? The key verbs include “defer” (technically, in participial form), “dry up,” “fester,” “run,” “stink,” “crust and sugar over,” “sag,” and then, finally, “explode.” Every year, without fail, more than one of these suburban high schoolers says that the last one gives a sense of hope. After all, who hasn’t heard of a new performer exploding onto the scene?

I can’t even imagine what Hughes would say if faced with this analysis. Sure, it’s possible – a word that memorably worked wonders for Henry Fonda as Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men– but, as Goldberg might say, in context the assertion is absurd. Could the leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, who evoked hope in such classic poems as “Mother to Son” and “I, Too” back in the 1920s, have retained that level of hope through continued disappointments for three more decades? Possible, but unlikely.

Especially given the poem’s total lack of setup for such a “possible” reversal, especially given the decline of his tone through his many other writings over those decades, the much more reasonable answer is No. I understand that these teens, full of hope, who have not faced the degradations that decades of discrimination imposed on Langston Hughes, see “explode” in an affirmative sense – possibly because they very much want it to be so. Their perception does not make it valid.

The application of Henley’s and Hughes’s contexts butts up against what French critic Roland Barthes famously called “the death of the author.” He described how a multiplicity of interpretations “is collected, united,” but the location of this collection is in the reader, not the author:

[T]he reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.

This may seem far-fetched or even idealistic, but I’m confident that Henley would not have assumed that his medical history would be known to a random reader. His narrator’s first-person recollection of being “bloodied” under the unspecified “bludgeonings of chance” is broad enough to be applicable to any set of oppressive circumstances. I’m not so confident saying the same about Hughes, whose oppression was not in the individual realm but in the world-historical.

Poet Reginald Shepard’s essay “On the Intentional Fallacy” takes a middle road. On the one side is our studied awareness of the poet’s life; on the other lies the theoretical denial we see in Barthes, which follows the earlier argument of William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley that considering intent leads to fallacy.

“The use of biographical evidence need not involve intentionalism,” Shepard writes, “because while it may be evidence of what the author intended, it may also be evidence of the meaning of his words and the dramatic character of his utterance.” He qualifies this by adding, “an author’s biography won’t explain his or her work. If it does, that indicates a failure in the work: it’s not fully realized if it needs to be completed by biography. In work that lasts, what lasts is what remains after things like the author’s intentions have faded away.”

After Henley’s biography faded away and he surrendered his work to history, the text that remains holds more and more room for interpretation. Enter Mandela, Suu Kyi, McVeigh, and others. This is why Jackson, another of my senior students, had a “nauseated feeling” about the Christchurch murderer. Jackson sensed that the murderer’s “actions are supported by the theme of the poem.” Henley’s narrator, “unbowed” in front of his opponents, describes proudly how “the menace of the years / Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.” Jackson continued,

He’s saying don’t be afraid, stand tall, and state your opinion confidently. All of these claims I made in my annotations, thinking this was a good way to think about life. Express yourself and don’t be afraid of what others think. But the terrorist took it the same way. He did express himself and claimed to be inspired to do so by this poem, and that leaves a really sour feeling in my mouth, despite the poem being so well-written.

Jackson is one of the few who admitted what none of us, because if feels so wrong, wants to admit: that the poem’s theme is not easily separable from the shooter’s motivations.

Sarah was one of several students who pushed back on that idea, arguing that “the shooter was the one who caused the ‘bludgeonings of chance’ and the ‘wrath and tears’ described in the poem. He was not the resilient victim but the perpetrator.” Josh H. cited the same lines, noting that the terrorist “believes he has been hurt by others who actually have not done anything wrong to him.”

Decrying the pain of “‘this place of wrath and tears’ does not feel like an endorsement of pushing either these conditions or ‘the Horror of the shade’ onto others,” wrote Hannah. She also quoted line 5, “In the fell clutch of circumstance,” which “implies that the issues the speaker is having are not being purposefully caused by any entity, and yet the shooter seemed to feel he had found someone to blame.” Words like “passionate” (Jade) and “resilient” (Melissa) appeared in other students’ arguments against the killer’s screed, demonstrating what Liam referred to as a poem that “promotes positive self-empowerment.”

Bauti reinforced the anti-screed position with characterization provided by allusion:

The line “it matters not how strait the gate” is a reference to the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus says, “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’” This goes directly contrary to the terrorist’s ideology, as the way through the narrow gate is to follow the Ten Commandments, which number 6 clearly states “you shall not kill.”

Giulia, who presented the poem in my second section, summed up the terrorist’s logical shortfall in a meditation upon the poem’s famous last two lines,

I am the master of my fate; 
I am the captain of my soul.

These, she wrote, are not suitable to be paired with the terrorist’s actions – “Taking one’s life into one’s own hands does not mean hurting a bunch of other people.” Adriana also argued that “becoming ‘the master of [his] fate’ does not justify his trying to become the master of other people’s fates.”

But we cannot deny what Jackson and his classmate Alana most directly conceded: that both this poem and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” are undoubtedly inspirational, and that (as Alana wrote), “the idea that they might be used to inspire something grotesque is not completely insane.” The murderer’s direction and plan may have been insane, but the selection of these poems, disconcertingly, was not.

Does that make the poems complicit? How can it not?

And yet, after these 17- and 18-year-olds held “Invictus” and “Do Not Go Gentle” up to the light, the conclusions they reached – emotional, intelligent, empathetic, relying on critical thinking – exonerated the art by showing how evocative and vigorous poems can be. The murderer carried these works with him, sullying them by connecting them with his ineradicable crime. We cannot undo this. Fortunately, the poems still emit their own light and will continue to do so.

What happened in Christchurch, Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso, Dayton, and dozens of other places is not okay, is never okay. But our art’s very vitality, its ability to slip beyond our grasp and into the hands of an evildoer, is okay. It’s uncomfortable, even infuriating, and even worse that we can’t keep beauty out of the hands of those who may distort and corrupt it. Were we to cower into demanding disambiguation and explicit specificity, the power of language and imagination would suffer. Censorship would be an even greater victory for the barbarians.

This is what it feels like to care about the world as deeply as artists do.

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Homer, Anti-War Poet

Cades, Achilles Plays the Lyre with Patroclus


One of my most satisfying reads in recent years is Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and The Trojan War. Alexander is the kind of writer that I aspire to be: an academic who taps into the meticulous research of other scholars to write for a popular audience. This audience, Alexander believes, needs the insights into war that Homer offers us. As she points out,

The Iliad’s evocation of war’s devastation…is as resonant today—perhaps especially today—as it was in Homer’s Dark Age. Now, as at any time, Homer’s masterpiece is an epic for our time.

According to Alexander, Homer does not glorify war but exposes its utter waste.

I thought of our endless war in Afghanistan as I read Alexander’s account of the Iliad. Both go on and on with no apparent end in sight, with the Greeks having all but forgotten why they are fighting it. The few tantalizing possibilities of peace go for naught, and in the end the war will spell the end of the Greeks as well as the Trojans. Few successfully reach home after Troy falls.

Achilles is a reluctant participant in the war. Alexander notes that at one point he sounds like draft-resisting Mohammad Ali as he argues with Agamemnon. First, Achilles:

I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan 
spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have
done nothing.
Never yet have they driven away my cattle or my horses,
never in Phthia where the soil is rich and men grow great
did they
spoil my harvest, since indeed there is much that
lies between us,
the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea; but for your sake,
o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favor.

And now Ali:

I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong…No Viet Cong ever called me nigger….I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave masters over dark people.

As Alexander reads the epic, Achilles is a natural-born leader as well as the Greeks’ preeminent warrior. Because he is serving under an inept commander, any number of issues arise regarding military codes of conduct. Despite images of horrendous slaughter, however, what finally emerges are moments of humanity, as when Achilles grants Priam permission to reclaim the body of Hector.

So why do we think that The Iliad glorifies war rather than castigating it. Alexander observes that early audiences didn’t make this mistake:

Writing in the first century B.C., Strabo summarized the far-reaching consequences of the disastrous war at Troy as it was understood by later history: “For it came about that, on account of the length of the campaign, the Greeks of that time, and the barbarians as well, lost both what they had atthome and what they had acquired by the campaign, and so, after the destruction of Troy, not only did the victors turn to piracy because of their poverty, but still more the vanquished who survived the war.”

Alexander explains that readings of the poem changed once it began to be taught in school:

[T]he elite schools whose classically based curriculum was dedicated to inculcating into the nation’s future manhood the desirability of “dying well” for king and country. Certain favorite outstanding scenes plucked out of context came to define the entire epic: Hector’s ringing refusal to heed the warning omen, for example— “One bird sign is best: to fight in defence of our country”–or his valiant resolution—“not die without a strangle and ingloriously.” Homer’s insistent depiction of the war as a pointless catastrophe that blighted all it touched was thus adroitly circumvented.

The final Homeric glimpse we get of the Trojan War occurs in The Odyssey, which Alexander uses to punctuate her point. Odysseus, still in disguise, requests that Phaiakian bard tells the story of the Trojan horse, only to be reminded of war’s horrors:

                                    As a woman weeps, lying over the body
of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people
as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children;
she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body
about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her,
hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders,
force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have
hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with
pitiful weeping.
Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed from under his brows.

We should all be crying as we remember the deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, World War I, and all those other pointless wars. Homer sounds like an early day Wilfred Owen.

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A Poem for Labor Day

Cliff Rowe, The Textile Workers

Monday – Labor Day

I can think of few poems that better capture the spirit of Labor Day than Daniel Pinsky’s “The Shirt.” I love how it moves seamlessly—I use the adverb deliberately—between the craft of labor and the conditions of labor. Sometimes we see a lovingly described piece of clothing, sometimes we hear about the bloody history of textile manufacturing.  

The poem reminds me in this respect of Pablo Neruda’s poem about Machu Picchu, which also toggles between a remarkable creation and the blood that was spilled constructing it.

As you read “The Shirt,” be alert to words that can function as puns, such as “yoke” in the context of shirts fabricated in sweatshops. When the textile terms sound particularly violent (“the presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle”), we see them followed by an account of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where workers threw themselves off the building when they couldn’t escape through padlocked exit doors.

Pinsky also alludes to Britain’s bloody history with Scotland and to American slavery. I don’t understand the reference to George Herbert but know that the poet wrote “The Collar” so perhaps that’s the link to southern black textile workers.

The characters mentioned in the final stanza are both the lettering on the shirt and the figures in the labor drama. In fact, all the nouns in the final stanza could refer to both the garment and the workers.

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms   
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

Applaud labor’s products while decrying labor’s harsh conditions. Happy Labor Day.

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God’s Work vs. Religious Dogma

Max and Simeon A. Beeger, Miss Nightingale in the Hospital in Scutary

Spiritual Sunday

Many of us in today’s world are baffled by evangelical support for Donald Trump, even when his administration is guilty of inhumane practices against refugees. Abraham Verghese’s wonderful novel Cutting for Stone has an episode that shows how basic humanity can restore a true Christian perspective and has me wondering if such a perspective could shift Trump evangelicals out of their ideological trance.

The scene occurs when, amidst a catastrophe at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, a board member from a Texas Baptist church funding the hospital unexpectedly shows up. His timing could not be worse, but “Matron,” the Carmelite nun in charge of the hospital, tells him how they spend his money. Previously, she has not be truthful:

If Harris wanted an accounting of money, she had nothing to show him. Matron submitted progress reports under duress, and since what donors wanted to spend on had no link to the reality of Missing’s needs, her reports were a form of fiction. She’d always known a day like this would come.

As she converses with Harris, she finds herself defending the religious views of a hospital staff member:

“But, Matron, the priesthood here is almost illiterate—Gebrew, your watchman, doesn’t understand the litany that he recites because it is in Geez, which no one speaks. If he holds to the Monophysite doctrine that Christ had only a divine nature, not a human one, then—”

“Stop! Mr. Harris, do stop,” Matron said, covering her ears. “Oh, how you vex me.” She came around the table, and harris drew back as if he worried that she might box his ears. But Matron walked to the window.

“When you look around Addis and see children barefoot and shivering in the rain, when you see the lepers begging for their next morsel, does any of that Monophysitic nonsense matter the least bit?”

Matron leaned her head on the windowpane.

“God will judge us, Mr. Harris, by…what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. I don’t think God cares what doctrine we embrace.”

The sight of that plain, weathered face pressed against the glass, the wet cheeks, the interlocking fingers…it was for Harris more powerful than anything she had said. Here was a woman who could give up the restrictions of her order when it stood in the way. From her lips had come the kind of fundamental truth which, because of its simplicity, was unspoken in a church like Harris’s where internecine squabbling seemed to be the purpose for the committee’s existence, as well as a manifestation of faith. It was a small blessing that an ocean separated the doers like matron from their patrons, because if they rubbed shoulders, they’d make each other very uncomfortable.”

Later in the chapter Matron takes Harris for a tour of the hospital, showing him the desperate conditions of the patients. The chapter ends with the following interchange:

When they emerged from the war, Matron stopped to catch her breath. “Do you know that at this moment we have funds for three days, that’s all? Some nights I go to sleep with no idea of how we can open in the morning.”
“What will you do?” Harris asked, but then he realized he knew the answer.

Matron smiles, her eyes almost disappearing as her cheeks pushed up, giving her a childlike quality. “That’s right, Mr. Harris. I pray. Then I take it out of the building fund or whatever fund has money. The Lord knows my predicament, or so I tell myself. He must approve the transfer. What we are fighting isn’t godlessness—this is the most godly country on earth. We aren’t even fighting disease. It’s poverty. Money for food, medicines…that helps. When we cannot cure or save a life, our patients can at least feel cared for. It should be a basic human right.”

Harris’s anxiety about the steering committee had all but gone.

“I’ll confess, Mr. Harris, that as I get older, my prayers aren’t about forgiveness. My prayers are for money to do His work.” She reached out for his hand and held it in both of hers patting it. “Do you know, dear man, that in my darkest moments, you have so often been the answer to my prayer?”

Matron felt she had said enough. It was a gamble. She had nothing to put on the table but the truth.

Imagine how religion would flourish if it were grounded in such caring.

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  • 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.

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