Books Held to the Chest, Close to the Heart

Jacob Lawrence, The Library (1960)


Yesterday I shared an excerpt from Richard Wright’s Black Boy in which he describes how secret access to a segregated library changed his world. Today I post a Nikki Giovanni poem that also mentions whites attempting to discourage blacks from using libraries. Happy African American history month.

When the thirst for books goes deep, readers will not be denied.

A Poem for My Librarian, Mrs. Long
(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book)

At a time when there was not tv before 3:00 P.M.
And on Sunday none until 5:00
We sat on the front porches watching
The jfg sign go on and off greeting
The neighbors, discussing the political
Situation congratulating the preacher
On his sermon
There was always the radio which brought us
Songs from wlac in nashville and what we would now call
Easy listening or smooth jazz but when I listened
Late at night with my portable (that I was so proud of)
Tucked under my pillow
I heard nat king cole and matt dennis, june christy and ella fitzgerald
And sometimes sarah vaughan sing black coffee
Which I now drink
It was just called music

There was a bookstore uptown on gay street
Which I visited and inhaled that wonderful odor
Of new books
Even today I read hardcover as a preference paperback only
As a last resort

And up the hill on vine street
(The main black corridor) sat our carnegie library
Mrs. Long always glad to see you
The stereoscope always ready to show you faraway
Places to dream about

Mrs. Long asking what are you looking for today
When I wanted Leaves of Grass or alfred north whitehead
She would go to the big library uptown and I now know
Hat in hand to ask to borrow so that I might borrow

Probably they said something humiliating since southern
Whites like to humiliate southern blacks

But she nonetheless brought the books
Back and I held them to my chest
Close to my heart
And happily skipped back to grandmother’s house
Where I would sit on the front porch
In a gray glider and dream of a world
Far away

I love the world where I was
I was safe and warm and grandmother gave me neck kissed
When I was on my way to bed

But there was a world
Out there
And Mrs. Long opened that wardrobe
But no lions or witches scared me
I went through
Knowing there would be
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How Literature Saved Richard Wright

Richard Wright


Today I share an extract from Richard Wright’s Black Boy in which he talks about how literature transformed his life. Although, as a black man in 1926 Memphis, he
was forbidden the public library, he found a white acquaintance through whom he
could get access. He was prompted into action by the mention in a black
newspaper of satirist and culture critic H. L. Mencken.

As the extract shows, his subsequent reading, especially of novels, initially gave him a framework for assessing his life, after which it made that life seem so
intolerable that he decided to leave for Chicago. In other words, the whites
who worried about him reading had reason for concern. Just as there were good
institutional reasons for keeping slaves like Frederick Douglas illiterate,
there was a logic to keeping African Americans like Wright out of the library.

That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened [Mencken’s] A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority.

What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words. Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon?

No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it

Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room. Who were these men about whom Mencken was talking so passionately? Who was Anatole France? Joseph Conrad? Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoyevsky, George Moore, Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Frank Harris, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, Zola, Norris, Gorky, Bergson, Ibsen, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Dumas, Poe, Thomas Mann, O. Henry, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Gogol, T. S. Eliot, Gide, Baudelaire, Edgar Lee Masters, Stendhal, Turgenev, Huneker, Nietzsche, and scores of others? Were these men real? Did they exist or had they existed? And how did one pronounce their names?

I ran across many words whose meanings I did not know, and I either looked them up in a dictionary or, before I had a chance to do that, encountered the word in a context that made its meaning clear. But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the Iook of the world different…

As dawn broke I ate my pork and beans, feeling dopey, sleepy. I went to work, but the mood of the book would not die; it lingered, coloring everything I saw, heard, did. I now felt that I knew what the white men were feeling. Merely because I had read a book that had spoken of how they lived and thought, I identified myself with that book. I felt vaguely guilty. Would I, filled with bookish notions, act in a manner that would make the whites dislike me?

I forged more notes and my trips to the library became frequent. Reading grew into a passion. My first serious novel was Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. It made me see my boss, Mr. Gerald, and identify him as an American type. I would smile when I saw him lugging his golf bags into the office. I had always felt a vast distance separating me from the boss, and now I felt closer to him, though still distant I felt now that I knew him, that I could feel the very limits of his narrow life. And this had happened because I had read a novel about a mythical man called George F. Babbitt.

The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days. But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently.

Whenever I brought a book to the job, I wrapped it in newspaper-— a habit that was to persist for years in other cities and under other circumstances. But some of the white men pried into my packages when I was absent and they questioned me.

“Boy, what are you reading those books for?”

“Oh, I don’t know, sir.”

“That’s deep stuff you’re reading, boy.”

“I’m just killing time, sir.”

“You’ll addle your brains if you don’t watch out .”

I read Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Sister Carrie and they revived in me a vivid sense of my mother’s suffering; I was overwhelmed. I grew silent, wondering about the life around me. It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel, and I could not read enough of them.

Steeped in new moods and ideas, I bought a ream of paper and tried to write; but nothing would come, or what did come was flat beyond telling. I discovered that more than desire and feeling were necessary to write and I dropped the idea. Yet I still wondered how it was possible to know people sufficiently to write about them? Could I ever learn about life and people? To me, with my vast ignorance, my Jim Crow station in life, it seemed a task impossible of achievement. I now knew what being a Negro meant. I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger.

In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.

I did not discuss my reading with Mr. Falk, who had lent me his library card; it would have meant talking about myself and that would have been too painful. I smiled each day, fighting desperately to maintain my old behavior, to keep my disposition seemingly sunny. But some of the white men discerned that I had begun to brood.

“Wake up there, boy!” Mr. Olin said one day.

“Sir!” I answered for the lack of a better word.

“You act like you’ve stolen something,” he said.

I laughed in the way I knew he expected me to laugh, but I resolved to be more conscious of myself, to watch my every act, to guard and hide the new knowledge that was dawning within me.

 f I went north, would it be possible for me to build a new life then? But how could a man build a life upon vague, unformed yearnings? I wanted to write and I did
not even know the English language. I bought English grammars and found them
dull. I felt that I was getting a better sense of the language from novels than
from grammars. I read hard, discarding a writer as soon as I felt that I had
grasped his point of view. At night the printed page stood before my eyes in sleep.

Mrs. Moss, my landlady, asked me one Sunday morning:

“Son, what is this you keep on reading?”

“Oh, nothing. Just novels.”

 “What you get out of ’em?”

 “I’m just killing time,” I said.

“I hope you know your own mind,” she said in a tone which implied that she doubted if I had a mind.

I knew of no Negroes who read the books I liked and I wondered if any Negroes ever thought of them. I knew that there were Negro doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, but I never saw any of them. When I read a Negro newspaper I never caught the faintest echo of my preoccupation in its pages. I felt trapped and occasionally, for a few days, I would stop reading. But a vague hunger would come over me for books, books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing, and again I would forge another note to the white librarian. Again I would read and wonder as only the naive and unlettered can read and wonder, feeling that I carried a secret, criminal burden about with me each day….

Later, when Wright tells his boss that he’s leaving, there’s this interchange:

As I talked I felt that I was acting out a dream. I did not want to lie, yet I had to lie to conceal what I felt. A white censor was standing over me and, like dreams forming a curtain for the safety of sleep, so did my lies form a screen of safety for my living moments.

“Boy, I bet you’ve been reading too many of them damn books.”

“Oh, no, sir.”

In his conclusion, Wright reflects on how books contributed to his decision to move north:

It had been only through books— at best, no more than vicarious cultural transfusions— that I had managed to keep myself alive in a negatively vital way. Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books; consequently, my belief in books had risen more out of a sense of desperation than from any abiding conviction of their ultimate value. In a peculiar sense, life had trapped me in a realm of emotional rejection; I had not embraced insurgency through open choice. Existing emotionally on the sheer, thin margin of southern culture, I had felt that nothing short of life itself hung upon each of my actions and decisions; and I had grown used to change, to movement, to many adjustments.

In the main, my hope was merely a kind of self-defense, a conviction that if I did not leave I would perish, either because of possible violence of others against me, or because of my possible violence against them. The substance of my hope was formless and devoid of any real sense of direction, for in my southern living I had seen no looming landmark by which I could, in a positive sense, guide my daily actions. The shocks of southern living had rendered my personality tender and swollen, tense and volatile, and my flight was more a shunning of external and internal dangers than an attempt to embrace what I felt I wanted.

It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these hooks— written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson, and Lewis— seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.

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Overcoming the Siren Call of Domination

Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens

Reader Letitia Grimes sent me the following thoughtful response to an essay where I argued that Odysseus’s monsters represent the emasculation fears of a warrior culture. Working from Freud’s notion of the uncanny, I noted that repressing our fears renders them monstrous.

Greek warriors feared becoming soft and so imagined monsters as either castrating women or island enchantresses who distract men from their mission. The six-head Scylla, who lives in a cage and snatches men from ships, has been described as a toothed vagina, while Circe turns men into swine.

In Freud’s pessimistic vision, we are forever trapped by our psychoses and can do no more than manage them. His student and colleague Carl Jung was more hopeful and described life journeys in which we can confront and overcome our monsters, thereby achieving integration or individuation. Freud and Jung’s disagreement over, essentially, whether life can have such a happy ending contributed to their bitter break-up.

Anyway, Letitia prefers a Jungian reading of the monsters. What if, she suggests, the island enchantresses

are initiatory experiences for Odysseus, preparing him to return home with a more integrated psyche? I’m thinking here of the Jungian principle of integrating discarded parts of the psyche – in the case of a man, to encounter and integrate his feminine side? Thus, the goddesses would not be merely fertility symbols and would not necessarily threaten his masculinity. They challenge him to hold a steadfast purpose and at the same time help him to achieve it.

Letitia points out that women “also need an inner masculine to hold a steady course and can also use the counsel of the goddesses.”

I like the observation because it gets me to look at dimensions of Circe and Calypso that I overlooked. Although they don’t initially want him to leave (especially Calypso), in the end they aid him on his quest. Calypso, heeding the orders of Zeus, provides Odysseus with supplies he needs for his journey, while Circe sends him to the underworld, where the prophet Teiresias helps him return home. In other words, the enchantresses function as threshold guardians, which Jung-disciple Joseph Campbell says transform from impediments to helpers once the hero resolves to heed the call. 

In my post, I noted that I had difficulty understanding the Sirens, who (unlike Calypso and Circe) offer not sensual temptation but total knowledge. Circe informs Odysseus that “[a]round them lie/ great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones,/ their skin all shriveled up.” Here’s their song:

Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods' will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth."

Letitia offers this wonderful observation:

Regarding the Sirens, I recognized immediately why they offer Odysseus knowledge – I know them well!  I’ve heard their modern sisters singing on the Internet, promising instant knowledge and amazing discoveries, luring my attention into the shoals of total distraction. Their victims can be seen scattered everywhere, following the Sirens’ irresistible voices on tiny screens, oblivious to everything else. But they can teach us (after bitter experience) to use the precious gift of discernment.

Letitia follows this up with a wonderful and illuminating passage from Loren Eiseley’s The Unexpected Universe, found in the chapter “The Ghost Continent”:

By contrast, Circe, the great enchantress, says coolly to Odysseus, “There is a mind in you no magic will work on.” That remark, however, is two-edged. It is circumspect, as one great lord of thought might speak to another. It hints at the dawn in the Greek mind of that intelligence which we of this age choose to call scientific. Nevertheless, beneath the complimentary words can be sensed a veiled warning. For the man whom no magic will charm may, in the end, find himself, by means of a darker sorcery, upon a shore as desolate as that which Odysseus narrowly escaped in passing the Isle of the Sirens. The Sirens had sung sweetly to him of all knowledge, while about them lay dead men’s bones. If living for the day and the senses is the folly of the thoughtless, so also is there danger in that insatiable hunger for power which besets the human intellect. Far more than modern men, Homer is wary of that vaulting pride the Greeks called hubris, which is an affront to the immortal gods.”

Letitia adds,

Although written over fifty years ago (Eiseley died in 1977), his words have a prophetic resonance with the 21st century dilemma of god-like technological power accompanied by ecological destruction. Like the Sirens of the ancient seas, their modern counterparts can warn us when we are approaching the regions of hubris.

What Odysseus gains in control (“Don’t you ever get tired of saying ‘Onward”? Margaret Atwood’s Circe says to Odysseus), he loses in a connection with the natural world. Significantly, it is Circe who tells him how to resist the Sirens.

As I watch Donald Trump’s all-out-war on the natural environment, all in the name of corporate profits, I see new monsters arising. The Homeric female monsters that await the Greeks when they seek to dominate are alive and well in the psyche of Trump and his followers (“Lock her up!”). Whereas if we work in conjunction with the goddesses, as Odysseus works with Calypso, Circe, and above all Athena, we will restore health and order to our kingdom.

Dream of the day when a union of Odysseus and Penelope overcomes the rapacious greed of the swine-like suitors.

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You Are the Salt of the Earth

Simon Bening, Last Supper (c. 1525-30)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading has Jesus telling his disciples that they are “the salt of the earth,” a metaphor that brings to mind a Lucille Clifton marriage poem. Clifton knew her Bible well so, although the poem does not have an explicitly religious message, it could well be drawing on the passage from Matthew 5:13.

Think of it as a reflection on the spiritual dimensions of marriage. I share it in anticipation of Valentine’s Day.

A dip into the internet informs me that salt was of immense value in the Middle East. Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt (thus Clifton’s comparison to “a peculiar money”), and Homer and Plato considered salt divine. One commentary offers several interpretations for what Jesus has in mind:

Theologians have different theories about the meaning of “salt” in Matthew 5:13. Some think that its whiteness represents the purity of the justified believer. Others say that salt’s flavoring properties imply that Christians are to add divine flavor to the world. Still others believe that Christians are to sting the world with rebuke and judgment the way salt stings an open wound. Another group asserts that, as salt, Christians are to create a thirst for Christ. Salt, however, has another vital purpose which is probably what the Lord had in mind-it stops decay. When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth”, He meant that all of His disciples were to serve as preservatives, stopping the moral decay in our sin infected world.

Clifton finds similar significance of salt to a marriage

he is salt
to her,
a strange sweet
a peculiar money
precious and valuable
only to her tribe,
and she is salt
to him,
something that rubs raw
that leaves a tearful taste
but what he will
strain the ocean for and
what he needs

Yes, there are days when marriage feels like salt rubbed in a wound, days when there are tears. Rounding out Jesus’s Biblical passage, there are times in a marriage when the salt loses its flavor. In those instances, the marriage can fall apart.

Speaking as the husband in my own marriage, however, I would strain the ocean for my union with Julia. It is what I need.

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A Rose for Donald Trump


Here’s a wild literary comparison that took me by surprise but has grown on me: Donald Trump as Emily Grierson from William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

John Stoehr of The Editorial Page came up with the idea when he was trying to describe his response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. Only a Southern Gothic masterpiece could do his feelings justice, he says:

Afterward, I struggled briefly to think of ways to communicate my feelings. I wanted to express their complexity, a fantasia of rage, delirium and dread, without speaking incoherently.

“Rose for Emily” is about a woman whose father won’t let her marry anyone and who later, as a desperate spinster, kills a man to keep him running away from her. She hides the corpse in the attic and sleeps next it, and the town doesn’t learn of it until after she dies years later.

Stoehr sets out the parallels as follows:

Trump is like Emily. America is like Homer. Emily couldn’t get her father’s love. Neither could Trump. Emily longed for what she cannot have. So does Trump. Emily would rather kill Homer than lose him. With Trump and America, we shall see.

While I’m as open as anyone to comparing Trump to literary figures, the image of him bedding down in a necrophiliac love relationship with an America that he has killed is a bit strained. Furthermore, Trump is unlike Emily in that his crimes are in the open for everyone to see. He openly skewers anyone who attempts to jilt him.

I’ll grant Stoehr that Trump, like Emily, is desperate for love and approval and also that many Republicans have been drawn to him before fully realizing his madness. It’s a shock to Homer Barron that, by dating Emily, he becomes entangled in a madness from which he can never escape. To that extent, Stoehr is on to something.

His best insight, however, is that Southern Gothic is a fitting vehicle to describe the Trump presidency. This will take some explaining so I’ll first let Stoehr lay out his case:

“A Rose for Emily” is a textbook example of a literary genre often called “Southern Gothic.” There are many ways of defining it, but I take it to mean an expression of life in which you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There are no choices save bad choices. There is no faith except bad faith. Hope is meaningless. Fate is certain. Human beings are mites compared to the menacing forces bearing down on them.

“Southern Gothic” is also an exploration of what can done to the human mind when social, political and communal conditions are arrayed against the individual. Empty and in pain, Emily has come to believe up is down, left is right, wrong is right—and that it’s totally normal to kill your husband and sleep next to his decomposing body. Emily’s father was a ghoul of a man bent on breaking her will instead of nourishing it. She’s now as broken as the line between victimhood and villainy. It’s impossible to say if she’s good or if she’s bad. Nothing matters. All that remains is power and death.

After watching last night two hours of Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, the word “gothic” keep ringing in my ears. It wouldn’t stop. His address was a perversion of morality, an inversion of common sense and a glorification of pettiness and barbarism. Making it all the more gothic and horrible was the press corps pretending it was none of these things. Afterward, CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell said: “This was a speech unlike any other I have witnessed from President Donald Trump—the reality TV president took on the state of the union, a master showman at his best.”

A sense of powerlessness is not unique to gothic drama. Many social realist and naturalist novels feature victims trapped in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenarios. Stoehr gets at the situation’s gothic dimensions, however, when he contrasts what he is witnessing with how certain members of the public and the media respond. They rationalize “perversion of morality” as “politics as usual,” and the resulting cognitive dissonance results in Stoehr’s sense of the gothic uncanny.

As I explained Tuesday, the gothic plays a major role in American letters because it captures a dark side that Americans don’t want to face up to. The energy we spend denying the darkness renders it toxic, and it returns (Freud’s “return of the repressed”) as Stoehr’s “fantasia of rage, delirium and dread.” (Cue the musical signature of The Twilight Zone.)

Watching Trump upend the stateliness of the State of the Union address–and watching many accept the upending–is like Faulkner’s townsfolk refusing to acknowledge what they in fact are witnessing. Although they could connect the dots–Miss Emily’s arsenic purchase, Homer’s sudden disappearance, the awful smell emanating from the house–they don’t because they are unwilling to admit the rot. Better to think of Miss Emily–and of Trump, the GOP, and the American republic–as merely eccentric.

In the story, when some want to investigate the horrible smell, the local judge turns them down. “Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens tells the complainers, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called out Trump’s speech for smelling bad by tearing up her copy. And she was the one accused of incivility.

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Support Trump or Your Head on a Pike

Jack Cade’s Rebellion


Thanks to my friend Glenda Funk, I now know the Shakespeare allusion in Adam Schiff’s warning that Republicans blindly supported Donald Trump in his Senate trial because they feared having their heads hoisted on pikes. Henry VI, Part II is one of the bard’s bloodier plays.

Although Republicans bitterly complained about Shiff, I suspect it’s because they recognized the truth behind his assertion. We saw a call for pike hoisting yesterday from Donald Trump, Jr. as he tweeted out that “Mitt must be expelled from the @SenateGOP conference.” This after the Utah Senator was the only Republican legislator who found Trump guilty of attempting to extort Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden.

A lot of beheading and threats of beheading occur in Shakespeare’s play. First off, there’s Gloucester’s dream:

Methought this
staff, mine office-badge in court,
Was broke in twain; by whom I have forgot,
But, as I think, it was by the cardinal;
And on the pieces of the broken wand
Were placed the heads of Edmund Duke of Somerset,
And William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk.
This was my dream: what it doth bode, God knows.

And then there’s rabble rouser Jack Cade, whose determination to “kill all the lawyers” we’ve all heard quoted. Cade is all too ready to undertake the dirty work:

Go, take him away, I say, and strike
off his head presently; and then break into his
son-in-law’s house, Sir James Cromer, and strike off
his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.

This leads to a particularly grisly scene where Cade imagines the two heads kissing each other:

[Re-enter one with the heads]
But is not this braver? Let them kiss one another,
for they loved well when they were alive. Now part
them again, lest they consult about the giving up of
some more towns in France.

Is this how the GOP sees people conspiring after it has driven them from the party?

If Shiff, whether knowingly or not, turned to Shakespeare, Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin turned to a play about Shakespeare’s era in a column about what Republicans have received in return for selling their soul. Very little, she concludes:

Republican senators will vote to acquit President Trump of obvious, serious and certainly impeachable conduct. They have made their pact with the Devil, and there is no turning back. However, on close examination, it sure seems as though they’ve gotten a raw deal.

Republicans’ thinking goes: “Sure, he is a monster, but look at all we got!” Comparing his fabricated account with his actual record, however, one is struck by how little he has done.

After examining and noting the lack of real accomplishments, she concludes, “As with so much that Trump does, the hype dwarfs the reality.” Then she quotes from Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons:

It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?

The passage occurs in an interchange between Thomas More and a man who has perjured himself to send him to the chopping block:

MORE I have one question to ask the witness. (RICH stops) That’s a chain of office you are wearing. (Reluctantly RICH faces him) May I see it? (NORFOLK motions him to approach. MORE examines the medallion) The red dragon. (To CROMWELL) What’s this?

CROMWELL Sir Richard is appointed Attorney-General for Wales.

MORE (Looking into RICH’S face, with pain and amusement) For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!

For all their becoming “intellectual and moral pretzels in service of Trump,” Rubin observes, they have gotten no more than a Wales equivalent.

One Republican, however, proved to be a Thomas More.

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The Dangers of Emotional Identification

Wilhelm Amberg, Reading the Sorrows of Young Werther


Zambian-American novelist Namwali Serpell recently wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books that challenges, among other things, some key assumptions of this blog. Criticizing those who laud novels for helping us sympathize with people unlike ourselves, she goes after George Eliot for asserting that, “if Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

Given that I see enlarging sympathies as one of literature’s strengths, it behooves me to examine Serpell’s arguments.

Just because we feel sympathy for a literary character, she says, doesn’t mean that we will then work to end oppression. For one thing, feeling doesn’t necessarily lead to action. As Rousseau warned, we may just remain within our private sphere, sympathizing without doing anything:

In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation, and work, which would involve us in their pains and would require at least the sacrifice of our indolence.

Serpell notes that, because narrative art is such an “incredible vehicle for virtual experience—we think and feel with characters,” we think that it stimulates empathy. Instead, however, it just simulates empathy. Furthermore, because literary characters are not real people, the simulation misleads us. Quoting philosopher Candice Vogler, Serpell writes that

fictional characters lack two qualities fundamental to humans: a capacity for change and a resistance to being known. In fact, she argues, “I will be making an ethical mistake if I take myself to have the kind of grasp of a person that fiction makes available to me in my engagements with imaginary people… No human being will be knowable in the way that any literary character worth repeated readings is knowable.”

Doubling down on this point, Serpell observes,

Whenever we rail against tokenism, objectification, or stereotype in our accounts of real people, we are saying that they ought not be reduced to a single imaginary fabrication. The very idea of readers using fiction as a guide for life is mocked in classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Many of our best fictions of recent decades, like Nabokov’s Lolita and Morrison’s Beloved, make a moral case against their characters overidentifying with others (Humbert with Dolores; Sethe with her children) lest they usurp them.

These attacks on sentimental sympathy are not new, and as I was reading Serpell’s piece, I figured it was only a matter of time before she got mentioned Bertolt Brecht. The German playwright excoriated 19th century sentimental drama, believing that it allowed cathartic venting (say, the death of Little Eva in the Tom shows) without further action. And sure enough, Brecht makes an appearance:

Brecht was against the catharsis of emotion that Aristotle once postulated as the purpose of dramatic art—to be moved to pity and fear in the theater so as to expunge those dangerous feelings. Brecht didn’t want audience members cleansed of emotions. He wanted them to leave the theater ready to start a riot. Art should not be a release valve, but a combustion engine. One of Brecht’s aesthetic innovations was to disrupt immersion—that characteristic “dissolve” of the line between audience and players. By highlighting the apparatus—the stage, the props, the set changes—this “estrangement effect” continually makes the audience aware of the artifice of the play. For Brecht, as for Arendt, the receptive experience should entail a measure of distance, not an emotional mind-meld.

I agree with Serpell and Brecht that mindless emotional identification does not further social justice. Great works like Middlemarch, however, are more than emotional baths. They are tough assessments of the truth, speaking to us an a rational and spiritual plain as well as an emotional one. Brecht targeted the bourgeois sentimental theater of his day, but those plays shouldn’t be blended with literature’s masterworks.

When it comes to truth, Serpell and I are on the same page, as is Hannah Arendt, whose idea of “representative thinking” Serpell praises. As Arendt sees it, one shouldn’t emotionally meld with characters but rather “train[ ] one’s imagination to go visiting.” You should do more than simply visit people who are not like you (emotional tourism) but not attempt to totally occupy them (assimilation). Rather, “you make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of your circumstances and to stay a while, where you’re welcome.”

I also agree with Serpell and Arendt that, the truer the work of literature, the more you will learn from engaging with it:

It’s no surprise that when Arendt turns to literature, she sees it as rooted in the “disinterested pursuit of truth”: “The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.” Arendt does not mean “acceptance” as a form of political quietism. She means “truthfulness,” as opposed to propaganda, which is partial—biased, incomplete information.

Then Serpell reports on a wonderful example provided by Arendt:

She traces the tradition of literary political representation to “the moment when Homer chose to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector, the foe and the defeated man, no less than the glory of Achilles, the hero of his kinfolk. This had happened nowhere before; no other civilization, however splendid, had been able to look with equal eyes upon friend and foe, upon success and defeat.” This is…offering a broader view of humanity, while maintaining a keen awareness of who is friend and who is foe. This is what Keats praised in Shakespeare as “negative capability.” To be sure, authors often feel the need to imagine themselves into others. But that act of empathy is instrumental, not ethical as such—writers are not historically renowned for being good people—and ideally, it is in the name of a greater impartiality and equality.

In the end, Serpell’s article is a useful warning not to treat literature as just an emotional bath. Don’t think that being emotionally moved will automatically make you a better person is a mistake. But this is hardly a new observation. In addition to the authors that Serpell mentions, I would add Jane Austen.  Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey must learn to engage with Anne Radcliffe’s gothics intellectually as well as emotionally, and Marianne in Northanger Abbey learns that there’s more to life than being swept along by the poetry of William Cowper. Goethe, meanwhile, warns against excessive emotionalism in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

It’s interesting that Serpell should quote Rousseau’s reservations about empathy given that he was responsible as anyone for “the age of sensibility.” Yet the seeming contraction makes sense. Even as the 18th century was enthralled by unleashed emotions, it immediately saw the dangers involved.

If we shouldn’t overemphasize emotional engagement, however, we shouldn’t underemphasize it either. Reading literature is a cold enterprise if in involves only our intellects. “We murder to dissect,” as Wordsworth warned. In my own classes, I advocate a three-step process: immerse, reflect, act. Give yourself over to the work, then step back, and finally figure out what productive use you can make of the experience.

My dream is that both sympathies and intellect will be enlarged and that a better world will emerge.

Posted in Austen (Jane), Goethe, Homer, Rousseau (Jean Jacques) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Understand America, Read Gothics

Young Goodman Brown venturing deeply–too deeply–into the human soul


Yesterday I began my Lifelong Learning class on “the Supernatural Gothic in American Fiction.” Although gothic novels are sometimes downplayed as genre fiction, some of America’s masterworks have gothic elements, including stories by Poe and Hawthorne, Moby Dick, Turn of the Screw, and Beloved, not to mention Southern Gothic literature. (While authors like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and James Dickey don’t truck with the supernatural, their fiction nevertheless has a serious creep factor.)

In my view, authors turned to the gothic to counter American exceptionalism, which gave us a one-dimensional picture of ourselves. This exceptionalism, in turn, can be tracked back to two historical movements, the Puritanism of the Mayflower pilgrims and the Enlightenment principles of the founders. While the founders were often deists rather than Puritans, their vision of an Enlightenment republic overlapped to a degree with John Winthrop’s dream of “a city upon a hill.” Both saw America destined for great things.

I discussed how Poe and Hawthorne push back against American arrogance, Poe against the Enlightenment, Hawthorne against Puritanism. Although Poe celebrates reason (Dupin’s “ratiocination”) in his detective stories, he is just as likely to see reason going haywire. In both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” the insane narrators go out of their way to argue they are rational. Here’s the “Tell-Tale” narrator:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Hawthorne similarly shows how an purity obsession turns into its opposite. Venturing into the forest of the human soul, Young Goodman Brown “discovers” that humans are irredeemably corrupt:

On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away.

In the class I introduced Freud’s notion of the uncanny, which involves refusing to face up to dimensions of ourselves that we find abhorrent. By pushing them under, we render them toxic, and they return to us in dreams or psychosis (the “return of the repressed”). The Enlightenment couldn’t acknowledge the degree to which human beings are susceptible to madness and unreason, but Poe wasn’t afraid to go there.

Similarly, the Puritans had such a stake in purity that they became obsessed with its opposite. Hawthorne’s Brown goes overboard in his revulsion at human fallibility (especially his wife’s), while Hawthorne’s scientist in “The Birthmark” inadvertently kills his own beautiful wife by surgically removing her one physical flaw. In Scarlet Letter, Pearl throws a fit when her mother tries to cast off the emblem that defines her.

When one of the students asked about Poe’s and Hawthorne’s intentions, I said that authors are, above all, committed to truth. I described authors as our shamans, channeling a sense of who we are and providing that assessment to us through stories. Since gothic fiction explores what we repress, authors find it particularly fruitful.

Whenever America resorts to chest-thumping boosterism, gothic literature responds with haunted houses that function as metaphors for the self. We are not as healthy and self-confident as we tell ourselves.

In next week’s class, I will be looking America’s obsession with innocence, as celebrated by L. Frank Baum in Wizard of Oz and seriously questioned by James in Turn of the Screw. To be continued.  

Posted in Hawthorne (Nathaniel), Poe (Edgar Allan) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Trump Is Like and Unlike Claudius

John Gilbert, Claudius Praying


My friend Glenda Funk has tweeted out a Hamlet passage as the Senate’s sham trial of Donald Trump nears its end. The passage is on target in one way and provides a dramatic contrast in another.

Claudius is praying—or trying to pray—for having murdered his brother. His question is whether one can be forgiven if one is still benefitting from the sin. Don’t expect the law to answer the question, he adds, since those in power simply buy out the law:

May one be pardon'd and retain the
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law

Senate Republicans are making sure that Trump will not have to answer for his crimes in the corrupted currents of this world.

But what about divine justice? For Claudius, “there is no shuffling” when it comes to God, who isn’t impressed with earthly power. With God, we must reveal every part of ourselves, “even to the teeth and forehead of our faults”:

…but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. 

Although Claudius ultimately finds himself unable to repent, at least he tries. Furthermore, he recognizes the difference between what is genuine and what is false:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Trump, by contrast, lives in the realm of pretense, refuses to apologize for anything he has done, and doesn’t feel compelled to admit his faults to God. “I don’t bring God into that picture,” he said during the 2016 campaign.

God is inconvenient for those who want to evade all accountability.

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


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

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