Did Clancy Influence Iran Decision?

Tom Clancy


Although I don’t often write about authors like Tom Clancy, his mention in connection with the recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani warrants some reflection. According to Malcolm Nance, former naval officer and intelligence expert, Tom Clancy has, at the very least, given Donald Trump and the neocons a narrative framework for the killing.

Following the incident Nance tweeted,

Trump is executing Tom Clancy’s “Ryan Doctrine” which was all foreign leaders will be killed if they sponsor a terrorist attack. Soleimani is literally the last page of Executive Orders where Jack Ryan orders CIA to assassinate leader of Iran during a speech announcing doctrine.

Nance is no fan of Soleimani, having fought against his  operatives in the Middle East in the 1980s.  Nevertheless, as Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—which Nance says is comparable to a combination of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Vice President of the United States—Soleimani was too big to take out. It breaks international norms, resembles too closely Israel’s targeted assassinations, heightens the risk of war, and makes Americans less safe.

Nance elaborated on his Clancy observation over the weekend for MSNBC’s Joy Reid.  The intelligence community, Nance said, has the acronym TCCC, for Tom Clancy Combat Concepts. This applies to those instances when a civilian decision maker reads something in a Tom Clancy novel and tries to pass it off as the basis for a political decision. In Executive Orders, President Jack Ryan orders the killing of an Iranian Ayatollah.

Since I haven’t read any of Clancy’s novels, even though he was a big favorite in the Maryland county where I taught (where there was a Naval Air Force base and where long lines formed whenever he came to the area for a reading), I turn to the responses that Nance’s tweet elicited. The general consensus appears to be that Clancy’s early novels were excellent but have in recent years become too tainted with ideology. For instance, Grant Stern responded,

I loved his novels until The Bear and the Dragon, when President Ryan bellicosely started a war and bragged about it, like a power drunk neo-con. Clancy’s (d)evolution matched the GOP.

Genre novels are capable of embracing the complexity of life (witness Jane Austen’s romance novels), but when they become formulaic or opt for cheap fantasy, they can become reactionary, if not dangerous. Rather than stimulating thought, they generate emotional venting. Bertolt Brecht leveled this charge against the sentimental bourgeois theater of his day, and it can be leveled against Clancy’s fiction today.

The difference between great literature and lesser is that the former always appeals to more than base impulses. It appeals to the head and the soul as well as to the emotions. It calls upon us to think things through and to invoke a higher ethical perspective.

I don’t know that the major decision makers in the Soleimani assassination–Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo–read Clancy novels. Nance admits that it may be just coincidence that the killing follows the Ryan Doctrine so closely. Nevertheless, the novels contribute to a world view that appears to have taken over the White House.

It’s hard to overstate just how dangerous this all is.

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America’s Ubu Confronts Iran

Jean-Martin Bontoux, King Ubu


A Chris Hayes’s podcast interview  with playwrights Tony Kushner and Jeremy O. Harris alerted me to an absurdist play which captures the nightmare currently unfolding between Trump and Iran. Think of Trump as Ubu Roi, “the shit king.”

Alfred Jarry’s play came up when the playwrights were asked what drama best captures the GOP’s utter capitulation to Trump. One of them (I can’t remember which) mentioned that Republicans were behaving like the townspeople in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a point I myself have made in the past.

The other, however, argued they were like Ubu’s followers, which I agree works even better. In the version directed by Peter Brooks, Ubu’s generals blindly run into a wall when he orders them to.

Ubu Roi grew out of a high school farce attacking an unpopular teacher. With references to Macbeth, Hamlet, and other classical plays, it features a gluttonous, cowardly, miserly, sadistic narcissist who is more a satiric grotesque than an actual individual. Ubu overthrows the King of Poland, kills his family (except for the youngest son Bougrelas, who escapes with his mother), raises everyone’s taxes, betrays his supporters, is attacked and defeated by both the Russians and Bougrelas, and in the end escapes. He has a grotesque wife (Madame Ubu), throws around obscenities (the first word in the play is “merdre” [shit]), eats everything in sight, runs away whenever there is danger, is gutted a couple of times (but always recovers), and in the end runs off to Spain.

The more I describe him, the more he sounds like a certain American president. I am currently watching in horror the news out of Iran as Trump boasts of his destructive capacities, promises to destroy world heritage sites, and trades taunts with Iranian leaders. What kind of a leader does this?!

Ubu possesses both Trump’s bragaddocio and his cowardice. Here’s the battle scene:

PAPA UBU. Let’s go, gentlemen. Let’s take up our positions for the battle. We’re going to stay on this hill and won’t commit the blunder of descending to the bottom. I will hold the middle like a living citadel and the rest of you will circle around me. I recommend that you put in your rifles as many bullets as they’ll hold, because eight bullets can kill eight Russians and that’s a few less I won’t have on my back. We’ll put the infantry at the bottom of the hill to receive the Russians and kill them a little, riders behind to throw themselves into the confusion, and the artillery around the windmill here to fire into the heap…
OFFICERS. Your orders, Lord Ubu, will be executed.

Incidentally, I played the role of Bougrelas in a Carleton College production of the play. I still remember my stilted speech as my mother dies in my arms (in the snow, no less) and, Hamlet Sr.-like, the ghost of one of my ancestors delivers me a sword with which to enact vengeance. I provide the dialogue to further convey the farcical nature of the play:

Bougrelas: Ah, it tragic to see oneself, alone at 14, with a terrible vengeance to pursue.

(His ancestors appear)

THE GHOST. Learn, Bougrelas, that I was during my life Matthias Lord of Koenigsberg, the first king and founder of our house. I place upon you the responsibility of exacting our vengeance. (He gives him a big sword.) Let this sword not rest until it has caused the death of the usurper.

(All disappear, and Bougrelas rests alone in an attitude of ecstasy.)

Ubu Roi (1896) had a major influence on Surrealism, Dadaism, and the Theater of the Absurd. In a number of ways, it captures the Trump drama more effectively than realistic theater might, especially the president’s utter lack of accountability.

Observations by South African playwright and academic Jane Taylor help us understand the allure of both Ubu and Trump. The two pull their followers down to their own infantile level. Their supporters get to act out their infantile rages and indulge in infantile desires without taking responsibility.

Taylor describes Ubu as “notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.” While the responsible part of us is shocked, a more primitive part takes a secret delight:

There is a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost.

Jarry was targeting stodgy middle class respectability, as were the Surrealists and Dadaists. I have to say, however, that such stodginess looks pretty good when contrasted with rampant irresponsibility. We elected an entertainer as a president when what we needed was a responsible adult, no matter how dull. Hillary didn’t excite, but she would have been competent.

We chose to live in an Ubu world and the results look worse all the time.

Further note: After some googling, I see that Charles Simic compared Trump to Ubu in a 2016 New York Review of Books article. Ubu is the only literary character who comes close to Trump, Simic argues. Simic’s examples remind us how extraordinary Trump seemed in his first year and how we must struggle to refrain from normalizing such behavior:

Since Trump became president, every time I told myself this man is bonkers, I remembered Ubu, realizing how the story of his presidency and the cast of characters he has assembled in the White House would easily fit into Jarry’s play without a single word needing to be changed. Everyone, I imagine, is familiar with the spectacle of his entire cabinet taking turns telling him how much they admire him. “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to the president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” Mike Pence said. After every member of his cabinet was through slobbering, and he himself had stopped nodding in agreement, he took the opportunity to heap additional praise on himself, declaring that he is one of the most productive presidents in American history—with perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt coming close—and everyone present concurred.

Even more Ubu-esque was that scene of a dozen pastors who came to the Oval Office to lay on hands and pray for the president, supernatural wisdom, guidance, and protection. “Who could ever even imagine,” one shaken participant said afterward, “we are going to see another great spiritual awakening?” Or how about that touching moment when the president signed a bill into law rolling back the regulation for people with mental illness to purchase guns? Or the spectacle of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and the White House economic adviser, Gary Cohn, pledging to American people that the wealthy are not getting a tax cut under the president’s plan?

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The Star Began Its Singing

Mural by 19th century Benedictine monks, Conception Abbey, Conception, Mo.

Spiritual Sunday

Journey for Jesus’s Dan Clendenin alerted me to this epiphany poem by Scottish poet George Mackay Brown. In simple parable-like language, Brown describes the magi encountering frustrating obstacles. Experiencing God’s apparent silence (“salt, snow, skulls”), they meet under a dry star.

Then the star begins to sing.

Epiphany Poem

The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.

The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.

The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.

The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.

The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.
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The World Will End in Fire AND Ice

Record high temperatures and high winds have caused wildfires to break out all over Australia, with no end in sight


Given the fires that are devastating Australia, I’m updating a post I wrote five years ago citing Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” From its ravaged coral reefs to its burning interior, Australia is showing itself to be one of the world’s climate change canaries.

“Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice,” Robert Frost writes in his well-known poem, and it increasingly appears that everyone is right.  Australia’s inferno follows terrifying reports of Greenland’s accelerating ice melt. According to National Geographic this past October,

Today, the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass about six times faster than it was just a few decades ago, whatever tenuous balance that existed before long since upended. Between 2005 and 2016, melt from the ice sheet was the single largest contributor to sea level rise worldwide, though Antarctica may overtake it soon.

Within the past 50 years, the ice sheet has already shed enough to add about half an inch of water to the world’s oceans, and that number is increasing precipitously as the planet heats. During this summer’s extreme heat wave that parked over Greenland for a week and turned over half its surface ice to slush, meltwater equivalent to over 4 million swimming pools sloughed into the ocean in a single day. Over the month of July, enough melt poured into the ocean to bump sea levels up by an easily measurable half a millimeter.

Frost, who may have Milton’s hot hell and Dante’s cold hell in mind, is writing about relationships, not climate change. As he sees it, the relationship is in trouble whether the partners are fiery passionate or icy cold. Fire is louder and more flamboyant, but the silent workings of cold can be just as deadly:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The poem is just as relevant to our current situation, however, where apocalypse is looking increasingly likely.

Speaking of apocalyptic accounts that get at our situation, here are two that I’ve cited in the past, one from The Iliad and one from C. S. Lewis’s Last Battle. I wrote the following last August about the burning of the Amazon rainforests:

My anger finds some articulation in a horrific scene in The Iliad. Because Hector has killed his dearest friend, Achilles reengages in the war and goes on a killing spree so bloody that the River Scamander reacts in horror. When Achilles clogs its channels with dead Trojans, it rises up in a giant wave and bears down on the Greek warrior.

Because Achilles is beloved by the Gods, however, the iron-working god Hephaistos enters the fray, and his technology is brought to bear. I think of the Amazon’s unparalleled biological diversity as I read what happens next:

                                    Then against the river
Hephaistos turned his bright flame, and the elms
and tamarisks and willows burned away,
with all the clover, galingale, and rushes
plentiful along the winding streams.
Then eels and fish, in backwaters, in currents,
wriggled here and there at the scalding breath
of torrid blasts from the great smith, Hephaistos…

And further on:

[The river] spoke in steam, and
his clear current seethed,
the way a caldron whipped by a white-hot fire
boils with a well-fed hog’s abundant fat
that spatters all the rim, as dry split wood
turns ash beneath it. So his currents, fanned
by fire, seethed, and the river would not flow
but came to a halt, tormented by the gale
of fire from the heavenly smith, Hephaistos.

This isn’t the only time that Achilles is associated with devastating fire. In an earlier passage, Homer uses fire imagery to capture his slaughter:

A forest fire will rage
through deep glens of a mountain, crackling dry
from summer heat, and coppices blaze up
in every quarter as wind whips the flame:
so Akhilleus flashed to right and left
like a wild god, trampling the men he killed
and black earth ran with blood. As when a countryman
yokes oxen with broad brows to tread out barley
on a well-bedded threshing floor, and quickly
the grain is husked under the bellowing beasts:
The sharp-hooved horses of Akhilleus just so
crushed dead men and shields. His axle-tree
was splashed with blood, so was his chairiot rail,
with drops thrown up by wheels and horses’ hooves.
And Peleus’ son kept riding for his glory,
staining his powerful arms with mire and blood.

Achilles may be Iliad’s hero, but Homer fully intends for us to experience the tragedy of what happens. Once the most humane of the Greeks, as Caroline Alexander points out in her superb book The War that Killed Achilles, Achilles has lost all perspective and grinds to dust everything that is human and sacred: Nature is ravaged, bodies are desecrated, and people’s hearts are torn apart. One can plausibly argue that The Iliad is the world’s greatest anti-war work as it exposes the colossal waste of armed conflict.

The war that today’s humans are waging against nature is occurring on an epic scale and is having epic consequences. Unlike in The Iliad, however, reactive nature will dole out consequences that even heavenly fire cannot resist. Our descendants will curse us for the world we have left them.


Now on to sea-level rise. Here’s the passage I cited from the last of the Narnia Chronicles in which C. S. Lewis rewrites the Book of Revelation:

At last something white—long, level line of whiteness that gleamed in the light of the standing stars—came moving towards them from the eastern end of the world. A widespread noise broke the silence: first a murmur then a rumble, then a roar. And now they could see what it was that was coming, and how fast it came. It was a foaming wall of water. The sea was rising. In that tree-less world you could see it very well. You could see all the rivers getting wider and the lakes getting larger, and separate lakes joining into one, and valleys turning into new lakes, and hills turning into islands, and then those islands vanishing. And the high moors to their left and the higher mountains to their right crumbled and slipped down with a roar and a splash into the mounting water; and the water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway (but never passed it) so that the foam splashed about Aslan’s forefeet. All now was level water from where they stood to where the waters met the sky.

When fire and ice team up, we’re in trouble like we’ve never seen before. As a character tells Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the popular television series by that name,

When I saw you stop the world from, you know, ending, I just assumed that was a big week for you. It turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.

Previous posts on literature that cast light upon issues raised by climate change:

Many of my posts have been about climate change denial. For instance:

Kingsolver Explains Climate Denial — Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior includes a deep dive into why poor Appalachian whites don’t believe that climate change is happening.

Climate Scientists, Our Cassandras–Climate scientists must feel like Agamemnon’s Cassandra as they try to warn the world.

Civil War Battle, Image of Climate Denial – Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story “Chickamauga” helps us understand why people ignore the facts about our changing climate.

Donne’s Warning about Climate Change – Donne mentions the movement of the spheres in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” but they are distant, and he makes the important point that we only see the effects of nature that occur right before our eyes, not the larger patterns. Think of Senator James Inhofe bringing a snowball to the Senate to disprove global warming.

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial – We can see that climate change denialists follow in the footsteps of the Moscow aristocrats in War and Peace, who can’t believe that Napoleon will take the city.

Out of Denial and into Responsibility – Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men gives us a great description of the philosophy of denial, which he calls “idealism.” By the end of the novel, fortunately, he decides to face up to reality.

Obama: A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall – Poet Henry Vaughan decries fools who “prefer dark night before true light,” and Alexander Pope in The Dunciad goes after the dunces who turn their backs on science, intelligence, and logic.

GOP Denies a Giant Problem – For another instance of denial, it is hard to top Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians, who refuse to believe that other men like Gulliver could exist. Their philosophers conclude that he must have dropped from the moon.

Haiyan, Climate Change, and King Lear – King Lear also closes his eyes to the family and political storms  that he has triggered. His most trustworthy counselor advises him to “See better, Lear,” thereby earning banishment.

When American Fantasies Are Dangerous – In American Gods, Neil Gaiman gives us a great example of denial: southern slave owners refuse to acknowledge that there has been a successful slave rebellion in Haiti.

Melville and Climate Change Denial – Another instance of slave society denial occurs with Captain Delano in Melville’s fine novella Benito Cereno refusing to see the rebellion going on right before his eyes..

Some write about the grim future ahead:

Amazon Fires and the Fury of Achilles https://betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/amazon-fires-and-the-fury-of-achilles/

Byron’s Climate Change Nightmare – Responding to a volcanic eruption that caused a year without summer, Byron imagined an end-of-the-world scenario.

Elemental Joy in California’s Wildfires? – Can it be possible that some people are actually reveling in the consequences of climate change?

Will Warm Days Never Cease — Classic poems like Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” suddenly look different as climate change has its way with us.

Still Falls the Rain – Hurricane Harvey, exacerbated by human-caused climate change–invites comparisons with the London blitzkrieg, as described by Edith Sitwell.

How Will the Future Judge Us for Trump? — Jane Hirshfield has a poem that gets us to look at ourselves from a future perspective, including what we did not do in the face of disaster.

Caves of Ice, Prophecies of War – Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem came to mind as I heard the catastrophic news about the breakup of arctic ice.

Neil Gaiman and the Pipeline Protests — Gaiman’s American Gods should us what will happen to us if we offend the local deities.

Our Children Will Reproach Us – Lucille Clifton shows us how our children will view us.

Climate Change, Fairies Fighting – Climate change, as described by Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Climate Action Will Lead to Dystopia – Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is about nuclear holocaust, not climate change, but it captures the same disregard and contempt for future generations that climate denialists are exhibiting.

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry God – Euripides’s The Bacchae shows how nature responds when we try to impose our will upon it. The control freak King Pentheus is torn apart at the order of Dionysus.

This Is the Way the World Ends – Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” sounds as though it was written for climate change. Will the world end in fire or ice? How about both?

Will Californians Become the New Okies? – The droughts that climate change is visiting upon California (not to mention other parts of the world) bring to mind the ecological nightmare described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.

The Mariner’s Advice to College Students – Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an ecological parable—the arrogance that the mariner exhibits by shooting the albatross unleashes “life in death” upon the world.

Some authors provide useful advice for climate activists:

A Talk with a Cli-Fi Activist – An interview with Dan Bloom about the genre of “cli-fi” or climate fiction.

Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior directly takes on the issue of climate change as it shows disruptions in the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Most usefully, Kingsolver shows various constituencies that must learn to talk to each other if we are to address the issues.

To Save the Planet, Scientists Must Protest — Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior shows why climate scientists cannot simply retreat into their labs.

Being Right on the Climate Is Not Enough – Along these lines, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People has important lessons for climate activists: if you want to change people’s minds, avoid self-righteousness.

Climate Change: Signs of Witchery – Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, vividly captures environmental devastation in her novel Ceremony but also has her protagonist discover a healthier way of living in the world.

Climate Hope Shines in Dark Times – Madeleine L’Engel has a wonderful Advent poem that I shared after the world gathered in Paris this past December to combat climate change. Despite the grim forecasts, we experienced a glimmer of hope.

And finally, if you are in the mood for light verse about the environment,here are a number of poems by my father, a deep lover of nature:

An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

The River’s Blood Turned to Stone

The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Oil and Ordure 

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Use Lit to Combat Racism


The Washington Post just ran an extensive article about Georgia Southern University students burning Cuban American author Jennine Capó Crucet’s memoir Make Your Home Among Strangers, assigned to all first-year students to raise racial awareness. As one who grew up in the segregated south and who has spent much of his professional life working to raise racial consciousness (my own as well as that of my students), I find the story to be both heartbreaking and familiar.

One student comment stood out to me. While not among the book-burners, the student defended them, opining,

She [Crucet] made a lot of assumptions about white people in general. I didn’t choose my race. It’s not my fault I’m white.

I feel this student’s pain. It’s horrible when strangers make negative assumptions about you. But here’s the thing. This pain, which led students to burn books, is a pain that people of color experience daily. Privilege lies in being regarded as an individual, not as a race, and many minorities are seen mainly through the race lens.

They would much rather be accepted for who they are and not have to think about their race or ethnicity. In other words, they would love to be privileged.

If we can get white students to understand this, major breakthroughs are possible.

Simply calling white students privileged or racist doesn’t work, however. Or rather, it works only with those sensitive souls who are already willing to engage in tough introspection. While I treasure such students, we need to extend the dialogue to a wider audience if we are to achieve social justice.

Literature is a particularly powerful tool in this endeavor. The best novelists, poets and dramatists of color (and not just of color) can present people of all races in their full complexity. Because “the poet, he nothing affirms” (Sir Philip Sidney), a great novel, poem or play doesn’t appear to have any agenda other than moving beyond conventional beliefs and listening to the deepest parts of ourselves.

To cite the novel I will be teaching this coming semester in Sewanee’s Composition/Literature course (focus: Identity Struggles), Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon features a series of black characters, some of whom are justifiably angry but unhinged (Guitar), some of whom are spiritually dead (Macon Dead), some of whom are lost (Hagar), and some of whom are intent on finding themselves (Milkman). White students and black students alike respond positively to the novel, but my white students, in addition to identifying with Milkman’s existential search for meaning, also get glimpses into the black experience. It’s harder to reduce African Americans to narrow preconceptions after intense immersion in a Morrison novel.

When I teach Lucille Clifton (I will include some of her poems in the course), I often point out how much richer and more colorful life becomes once you move beyond stereotypes. When you are no longer a slave to your fears, I tell them, everything becomes multi-dimensional.  Not only do other people become more interesting, but you discover new aspects of yourself.

My former colleague Jeff Coleman, who teaches Minority Lit at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is always careful to include an ethnic author (say, Korean-American) that is unrepresented amongst the students taking the class. That way, everyone is entering unknown waters together. Back when I used to teach the course, I still remember an African American student finding herself sounding like the white students when we were studying Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko. It was a real revelation to her.

Even before the Charlottesville Nazi demonstration, Trump’s inflammatory language, and the recent rise in hate crimes, we had Trayvon Martin shot by a vigilante, Charleston parishioners killed by someone trying to start a race war, and numerous innocent African Americans gunned down by police who regarded them as threatening. The health of our republic depends on our acknowledging and valuing our diversity.

College can provide the necessary education if it does it right.

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Dreaming of a Saturnalian Golden Age

Ernesto Biondi, Saturnalia (1909)

Wednesday – New Year’s Day

Reader Letitia Grimes sent me a poem by Horace so seasonally appropriate that I’m turning my New Year’s post over to her. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a time of merrymaking that has inspired our New Year rituals. At the same time that we celebrate the return of the sun, we imagine the possibility of new life. Forget about last year’s dashed hopes; perhaps 2020 will be the year when we return to the Golden Age of Saturn.

The rites of Saturnalia, like Christianity’s Twelfth Night festivities, often involved an overturning of norms, as though in the chaos of such inversions a revolution (in every sense of the word) can occur. In the Horace verse that Letitia mentions, a slave is given freedom to speak truth to power, and what emerges sounds like a good set of New Year’s resolutions.

Incidentally, a similar inversion occurs in the Christmas story: a king is born in a stable, upsetting the hierarchical order and promising a new dispensation. Note that the dynamic described by Horace’s slave sounds a lot like Hegel’s master-slave relationship, where the master is enslaved no less than the slave.

I love how Letitia applies the lesson to growing income inequality, one of our most pressing issues. Dare we dream of a golden age when people live on an equal playing field?

By Letitia Grimes

Reading your recent post on the Yule-Log, I was reminded of a poem I try to read every Christmas season, Horace’s Book II, Satire VII. In it, his slave Davus is given license, according to the ancient traditions of Saturnalia, to speak freely to the master.

Saturnalia celebrated a golden age when everyone was equal. It’s fascinating that Harriet Tubman wrote about the slaves not having to work as long as the Yule-Log burned. Horace would have understood this perfectly.  

Horace’s slave shames his master by pointing out his capriciousness, lack of self-control, and general corruption. Who is the slave, he asks–the one who is beaten by the rod or the one who is the slave of his impulses?

Are you my master, ruled by so many
Men and things? Touched by the rod three times, four times,
It will never release you from your miserable fears.
Add these words that carry no less weight than those
Whether one who obeys a slave’s called a proxy, as
Your lot say, or a co-slave, what else am I to you?
Wretch, you who order me around serve another,
Like a wooden puppet jerked by alien strings.


This reads now like the 99 percenters talking back to the 1 percent.

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Saying Goodbye to 2019

George Morland, Sailor’s Farewell (c. 1790)

Tuesday – New Year’s Eve

While we look forward to the new year, William Cullen Bryant reminds us that we shouldn’t turn our backs too quickly on the old year. “Don’t you get tired of saying Onward?” Circe says to Odysseus in Margaret Atwood’s Circe/Mud Poems, and in “A Song for New Year’s Eve” Bryant suggests we focus on the old year for “one little hour” more before sending him packing.

I’m all for living in the moment so here’s to 2019, which has had many delicious moments. For me these included teaching at a new college, improving my tennis, spending lovely hours with my mother and my wife, and making many new friends.

I’ll starting thinking tomorrow about the future.

Stay yet, my friends, a moment stay—
Stay till the good old year,
So long companion of our way,
Shakes hands, and leaves us here.
Oh stay, oh stay,
One little hour, and then away.

The year, whose hopes were high and strong,
Has now no hopes to wake;
Yet one hour more of jest and song
For his familiar sake.
Oh stay, oh stay,
One mirthful hour, and then away.

The kindly year, his liberal hands
Have lavished all his store.
And shall we turn from where he stands,
Because he gives no more?
Oh stay, oh stay,
One grateful hour, and then away.

Days brightly came and calmly went,
While yet he was our guest;
How cheerfully the week was spent!
How sweet the seventh day’s rest!
Oh stay, oh stay,
One golden hour, and then away.

Dear friends were with us, some who sleep
Beneath the coffin-lid:
What pleasant memories we keep
Of all they said and did!
Oh stay, oh stay,
One tender hour, and then away.

Even while we sing, he smiles his last,
And leaves our sphere behind.
The good old year is with the past;
Oh be the new as kind!
Oh stay, oh stay,
One parting strain, and then away.
Posted in Bryant (William Cullen) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mentor: Rare for Sons to Be Like Fathers

Charles-Joseph Natoire, Telemachus Listening to Mentor


Son Darien and grandson Alban have been here for the holidays, a visit that includes lot of tennis and some wonderful father-and-son talks. Discussing identity struggles with Darien meshes with my rereading of The Odyssey, which looks at the difficulty of father-son relations. We learn from Telemachus about the difficulty of growing up within a famous father’s shadow.

Not that I’m a famous father. But fathers of any sort cast a long shadow, as I can testify from my own experience. I idolized Scott Bates for much of my childhood to the point that I even wanted to share his infirmities, such as poor eyesight and inner ear problems. (I was granted the former.) It took me 15 years of college teaching before I decided that it was okay to be a different kind of professor than he was. He was a world-class researcher whereas I excelled in popularizing the research of others. While this made me an excellent teacher, for the longest time I regarded myself as a bit of an impostor.

In this regard, Odysseus’s son Telemachus has a daunting challenge. Over and over he is informed how great his father is. Athena, speaking through his mentor Mentor, doesn’t help matters:

Telemachus, you will be brave and thoughtful
if your own father’s forcefulness runs through you.
How capable he was, in word and deed!
Your journey will succeed, if you are his.
If you’re not his son by Penelope,
I doubt you can achieve what you desire.
And it is rare for sons to be like fathers:
Only a few are better, most are worse.

Then, however, she adds:

But you will be no coward and no fool.
You do possess your father’s cunning mind,
So there is hope you will do all these things.

Athena then proceeds to set up a number of leadership projects for Telemachus. She prods him into calling a community council meeting, and although it’s a bust, Telemachus has still has put himself forward. Then she persuades him to gather a group to young men to visit Nestor and Menelaus. The suitors don’t think Telemachus has a dangerous sea voyage in him, and once they realize he has pulled it off, they determine he’s a legitimate threat and must be killed.

The journey is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Telemachus learns to put himself forward and interact with legendary figures like Nestor and Menelaus. On the other hand, these figures keep telling him what a remarkable man his father was. They all but ask him if he’s willing to do what Orestes did, i.e. kill those (including his mother) who overthrew his father.

But they also speak to his potential. Here’s Nestor after he sees how Telemachus is aided by Athena:

Dear boy, I am now sure that you will be
a hero, since the gods are on your side
at your young age. This was a god, none other
than great Athena, true-born child of Zeus,
who also glorified your noble father.

Menelaus is impressed by how Telemachu tactfully rejects a gift of horses, which would not be appropriate for Ithaca:

My boy, your words are proof of your good blood. 
I will give different gifts, just as you ask.
I will give you the finest piece of treasure
of all the hoard I have piled up at home…

After Odysseus returns home, 19-year-old Telemachus is relegated to second place, confirming our fears. Tennyson picks up on this in his poem “Ulysses,” where the father essentially dismisses his son as a bureaucratic drudge:

         This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone.

And then, with thinly-veiled contempt:

He works his work, I mine.

No sailing beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars for junior.

But this differentiation allows me to make the point I’ve arrived at. Telemachus could well be a superb administrator, and to all appearance Ulysses—at least as portrayed here—would be a lousy one. So yes, it’s probably best for Ulysses to be off.

My father, my sons, and I each have our own special strengths. To say that we should all be the same kind of hero is to reduce heroism. The purpose of our lives is to identify those strengths and develop them.

To our credit, Bates fathers have done a good job in supporting their children in their quests.

Posted in Homer, Tennyson (Alfred Lord) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What Would Jesus Think of Christmas?

Spiritual Sunday

Luci Northcote Shaw has an interesting take on the symbolism of the infant Jesus. The schmaltz of Christmas—“our picturesque traditions, our shallow sentiment”– robs the Christian message of its punch, the exasperated poet complains.

If “Jesus the Man” rather than Jesus the child were to stride into our lives, he might start overturning cash registers. Certainly, he would demand

                much more
than the milk and the softness
and the mother warmth
of the baby in the storefront creche…

Shaw ends her poem with lines from a Christmas carol so she doesn’t turn her back on the season entirely. She’s just trying to return it to Christ’s message.

It is as if infancy were the whole of incarnation

One time of the year
the new-born child
is everywhere,
planted in madonnas’ arms,
hay mows, stables,
in palaces or farms,
or, quaintly, under snowed gables,
gothic angular or baroque plump,
naked or elaborately swathed,
encircled by Della Robbia wreaths,
garnished with whimsical
partridges and pears,
drummers and drums,
lit by oversize stars,
partnered with lambs,
peace doves, sugar plums,
bells, plastic camels in sets of three
as if these were what we need
for eternity.

But Jesus the Man is not to be seen.
We are too wary, these days,
of beards and sandaled feed.

Yet if we celebrate, let it be
that He
has invaded our lives with purpose,
striding over our picturesque traditions,
our shallow sentiment,
overturning our cash registers,
wielding His peace like a sword,
rescuing us into reality,
demanding much more
than the milk and the softness
and the mother warmth
of the baby in the storefront creche,

(only the Man would ask
all, of each of us)
reaching out
always, urgently with strong
effective love
(only the Man would give
His life and live
again for love of us).

O come, let us adore Him—
Christ—the Lord.
Posted in Shaw (Luci Northcote Shaw) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


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

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

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