Ride with an Outlaw, Die with Him

Jake Spoon and Dan Suggs in Lonesome Dove


As mind-blowingly abysmal as Donald Trump has been as president, even more stunning is how the GOP has capitulated. Nor does it appear that Republican legislators or Congressional members will ever abandon him. His banning Muslims, putting kids in cages, trashing the intelligence services, cozying up to Putin, and pressuring Ukraine to slime Joe Biden wasn’t enough, nor apparently is his inept and corrupt handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Many appear to be engaging in their own version of Trumpian magical thinking: if you don’t say anything and keep a low profile, maybe you can sneak your way to reelection without anyone noticing. Or as MSNBC host Joe Scarborough recently put it, “GOP politicians have long believed that ignoring Trump’s unfitness for office is their best political play…”

These Republicans remind me of Jake in Larry McMurtry’s frontier masterpiece Lonesome Dove. Somewhat by chance, he falls in with an outlaw gang and in the end pays for failing to distance himself from them.

A former Texas ranger who has ridden with the greats (Call and Gus), Jake always follows the path of least resistance. Rather than stand upon principle, he does what is most self-serving. Any sense of right and wrong gets left by the wayside.

Riding under the protection of the gang initially appears to provide Jake an easy escape from a past that is catching up with him. Like many in the GOP, however, he discovers to his horror that he has signed up for much more than he bargained for. The outlaws prove to be homicidal maniacs intent upon leaving a trail of blood across Texas and Kansas.

The drama, as it is for formerly reasonable Republicans, lies in watching how Jake tries to escape responsibility for what his comrades are doing. First, there are regrets:

Almost at once, before the group even got out of Texas, Jake had cause to regret that he had ever agreed to ride with the Suggs brothers….Their talk, it seemed, was mostly of killing. Even Eddie, the youngest, claimed to have killed three men, two nesters and a Mexican. The rest of the outfit didn’t mention numbers, but Jake had no doubt that he was riding with accomplished killers.

Jake finds himself wondering what has happened:

Somehow he had slipped out of the respectable life. He had never been a churchgoer, but until recently had had no reason to fear the law.

There are moments when things look up. Maybe Republicans were experiencing Jake’s “lucky feeling” in January, figuring they had paid no political price for Mueller’s findings, Trump’s impeachment, and all the rest:

The lucky feeling came to him as he rode, and the main part of it was his sense that he was about to get free of the Suggs brothers. They were hard men, and he had made a bad choice in riding with them, but nothing terrible had come of it, and they were almost to Dodge. It seemed to him he had slid into bad luck in Arkansas the day he accidentally shot the dentist, and now he was about to ride out of it in Kansas and resume the kind of enjoyable life he felt he deserved.

Trump, however, doesn’t let allies escape his orbit, nor does the Suggs gang. Jack’s mood changes when he realizes the outlaws will not be going to Dodge:

Jake’s happy mood was gone, though the day was as sunny as ever. It was clear to him that his only hope was to escape the Suggses as soon as possible. Dan Suggs could wake up feeling bloody any day, and the next time there might not be sodbusters around to absorb his fury, in which case things could turn really grim.

When rangers Gus and Call, tracking the killing party, realize that Jake is with them, they are first surprised but then figure out what has happened:

Jake would gamble and whore—he always had. No one expected any better of him, but no one had expected any worse, either. Jake hadn’t the nerve to lead a criminal life, in Call’s estimation….

“It’s his dern laziness,” Call said. “Jake just kind of drifts. Any wind can blow him.”

Accountability, which has been in short supply for the Trump administration, comes at long last for Jake, who is captured along with the Suggs brothers. In the eyes of the Texas rangers, a man must answer for his decisions:

Call was thinking of Jake—that a man who had ridden with them so long could let such a thing happen. Of course, he was outnumbered, but it was no excuse. He could have fought or run, once he saw the caliber of his companions.

Gus, meanwhile, when told by Jake that he was “aiming to leave them first chance I got,” replies, “You should have made a chance a little sooner. A man that will go along with six killings is making his escape a little slow.”

We’ll see if the voters hold Republicans to account for not leaving after seeing the caliber of their companion. As Call lays it out for Jake,

Ride with an outlaw, die with him. I admit it’s a harsh code. But you rode on the other side long enough to know how it works. I’m sorry you crossed the line, though.

Jake’s reply fails to convince:

I never seen no line….I was just trying to get to Kansas without getting scalped.

In the end, with rough frontier justice, Jake’s former companions hang him along with the others. “Die he or justice must,” as God puts it in Paradise Lost.

Too many in the GOP have been trying to get to reelection without being scalped by Trump or Trump fanatics. Unfortunately, by riding with a racist, misogynist, authoritarian, and incompetent conman, they have lost sight of ethical lines. We’ll see in November whether there is a metaphorical hanging.

Further thought: Looking back, I see that I made exactly this comparison two years ago and apologize for repeating myself. In that post, which you can find here, I reflect on a passage that I’d forgotten about but which captures Trump himself to a T:

Jake just dreamed his way through life and somehow got by with it.

The pandemic death toll, however, like those killed by the Suggs gang, bring an end to such dreaming.

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Primal Hatred of Coyotes & Blacks

Louis Agassi Fuertes, Howling Arizona, or Mearns, Coyote


Having been raised in segregated Tennessee in the 1950s and ’60s, I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by the depth of American racism, but I am. The recent shooting of jogger Ahmaud Arbery (Columbia journalism professor Jelani Cobb described it as “a suburban game hunt”) resembles the vigilante killing of high schooler Trayvon Martin almost exactly eight years earlier. Far too many Americans regard people of color the way hunters in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer (2000) see coyotes.

I mention Kingsolver’s novel because it gets at how primal such hatred can be. Forest ranger Deanna Wolfe encounters hunter Eddie Bondo, who has come to the Appalachians to participate in the Mountain Empire Bounty Hunt. Their brief but passionate fling is like a love affair between an Obama and a Trump supporter, with Wolfe wanting to protect coyotes and Bondo to exterminate them. Wolfe understands Bondo’s hatred once she discovers he’s a Wyoming sheep rancher:

A sheep rancher. She knew the hatred of western ranchers toward coyotes; it was famous, maybe the fiercest human-animal vendetta there was. It was bad enough even here on the tamer side of the Mississippi. The farmers she’d grown up among would sooner kill a coyote than learn to pronounce its name. It was a dread built into humans via centuries of fairy tales: give man the run of a place, and he will clear it of wolves and bears. Europeans had killed theirs centuries ago in all but the wildest mountains, and maybe even those holdouts were just legend by now. Since the third grade, when Deanna Wolfe learned to recite the Pledge and to look up “wolf” in the World Book Encyclopedia, she’d loved America because it was still young enough that its people hadn’t wiped out all its large predators. But they were working on that, for all they were worth.

The mountain Empire Bounty Hunt is organized around the first day of May, which Wolfe knows is

the time of birthing and nursing, a suitable hunting season for nothing in this world unless the goal was willful extermination. It had drawn hunters from everywhere for the celebrated purpose of killing coyotes.

Race hatred is similarly intense. My own explanation for this (not only mine) is that almost every immigrant group, upon coming to America, could base its identity on a superiority to African Americans. Usually immigrants start off at the bottom of the social hierarchy into which they enter, but in this instance, they were given certain cultural capital from the get-go: another scapegoated race eventually diverted attention from themselves. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of certain Irish-Americans, Scottish Americans, Italian-Americans, Serbian-Americans, Polish-Americans and others becoming just as racist as the original slave owners, even though they themselves had been the target of ethnic attacks in the old country. If racism becomes part of your foundational identity, it feels primal.

Which helps explain Donald Trump’s popularity. He rose to political prominence on the basis of anti-Obama birtherism, and many white Americans, fearful of being submerged by growing diversity, feel a profound sense of gratitude. Because this television star is affirming deeply held prejudices that they have been told are shameful, they will forgive him anything, even loss of jobs and loss of life. “Build that wall!” and “Make America White Great Again” resonate to the core.

Kingsolver’s project, in both Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior (where she tackles climate change), is to imagine ways in which a polarized America can talk to itself. In the course of Bondo’s brief relationship with Wolfe, his mind is opened, at least a little. He reads her thesis on coyotes and discovers the importance of predators to the food chain. He also discovers that coyotes don’t only eat lambs but “rodents and fruits and seeds and a hundred other things.”

When he goes, therefore, he leaves behind the ambiguous note, “It’s hard for a man to admit he has met his match.” While she may not have converted him, he at least spares the den of coyotes she has been lovingly watching. Dialogue, Kingsolver tries to show, is possible.

Will race dialogue ever be possible in this country? Obama thought so but failed to convince a significant segment of the population. If race hatred goes as deep as coyote hatred, we have some distance to travel.

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Is Golding’s Novel True? Sadly, Yes


My English professor son alerted me to a fascinating Rutger Bregman Guardian article about a real-life Lord of the Flies incident with a different ending than Golding’s. In 1977 six boys from a boarding school in Tonga shipwrecked on a desert island and survived there for 15 months. There were no killings or savage rituals, however. According to the man who rescued them, they

set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.”

Bregman observes that, “[w]hile the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.”

There were many other contrasts with the novel:

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarreled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

Bregman said that the experience better captures how humanity actually works:

For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures. That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. This development is still so young that researchers in different fields often don’t even know about each other.

Does this mean that Golding is wrong? I came across an intelligent twitter rebuttal by one Abigail Nussbaum, who argues that the point of Lord of the Flies

isn’t to illustrate what would “really” happen if a group of boys was cast away on an island, but to hold up a mirror to the processes that allow fascism to take hold in even “civilized” societies.

Regarding the “civilized” society Golding had in mind, his 1951 novel features

a particular type of post-War, barely-post-Empire, public-school-educated white English male. And it was written in response to colonialist fantasies starring such people. These fantasies all turn on the assumption of the inherent leadership qualities, the inherent “civilizing” effect of that particular class. That’s why the officer who rescues the boys is such a crucial character. He expresses that belief and expectation.

Golding doesn’t claim that all people are jerks, Nussbaum says, but rather that assholes like Jack can manipulate them. In his own time Golding witnessed the rise of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco, and we today, to our sorrow, have seen a number of authoritarian Jacks come to power.

Is Ralph and Piggy’s reasonable response enough to stop them? Civilized impeachment hearings weren’t enough to dislodge Donald Trump, and we’ll see what happens in the November election. Trump’s success so far, however, suggests Golding is on to something.

Nussbaum makes some other smart points:

It’s…worth noting that the Tongan castaways had various advantages the characters in LotF lack. They knew each other. They were friends (and thus presumably didn’t have a Jack amongst them). They apparently also had at least some wilderness skills. (They also had the weird good fortune of landing on an island whose previous inhabitants, stolen away by slavers, had left behind remnants of civilization that could be used for survival. Which in itself feels like an ironic commentary on colonialism.)

If Lord of the Flies has become a canonical part of high school English curricula, it’s because it strikes a deep chord. Those who are bullied and see their childhood innocence ripped away recognize its truth. I remember, as a senior, comparing Lord of the Flies to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, concluding with Marlow’s rumination, “This too has been one of the dark places.” If I felt compelled to take this existential journey (I wrote the essay for myself, it wasn’t for any class), it’s because the issues were urgent. I identified with Ralph and Piggy because I shared their belief in decency and rationality.

Golding’s context was rising authoritarianism while mine was the racist American South and the Vietnam War. My whole life has been devoted to figuring out whether the highest achievements of culture—specifically literature—can prevail over barbarism. I took Golding’s book seriously because it provided a powerful challenge.

I don’t disagree with Bregman that humanity’s ability to cooperate is its “secret power.” This happens to be the central premise of my book How Beowulf Can Save America, which concludes with the inspiring vision of Beowulf and Wiglaf working together to slay the dragon. Golding’s dark perspective, however, makes us earn our optimism. The Jacks of the world will ruthlessly hunt down facile declarations of hope.

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Students as Beowulf vs. Covid


I received insight into Covid’s impact on students through through several Beowulf essays I received recently. The connection is not a stretch since our students—like the rest of us—feel that a monster has invaded their safe spaces. Their responses demonstrate how literature helps us process trauma.

Teressa Colhoun, a political science major, sees similarities between Grendel and those Covid protesters carrying guns while refusing to wear masks or to practice social distancing. Teressa’s question: As a president or governor, how do you manage the chaos of resentment-crazed citizens taking the law into their own hands?

In the social contract that is foundational to all societies, both citizens and leaders have responsibilities, and beaching the contract imperils society as a whole. In Beowulf, Grendel is the archetype of the resentment-crazed warrior who puts his personal anger over the good of the whole. Danish King Hrothgar can only despair as his kingdom is ravaged by this anger:

Their mighty prince,
the storied leader, sat stricken and helpless,
humiliated by the loss of his guard,
bewildered and stunned, staring aghast
at the demon’s trail, in deep distress.

Teressa goes on to say that today’s leaders aren’t faring much better:

[I]t seems as though America’s “mead hall’ is under attack. Our leaders must grapple with dilemmas like those Hrothgar faced in his sixth-century Danish kingdom. Social contracts impose obligations on citizens; citizens are expected to act in accordance with these expectations. When they choose not to, we expect leaders to handle violations accordingly. Like Hrothgar, though, it seems our leaders still struggle to answer these questions.

To interject an observation here: Beowulf defeats Grendel with his mighty grip, which can be interpreted as applying a firm hand. Several foreign governments and certain of our own governors have had success applying firm measures. Unfortunately, our president is undermining these very measures, describing our weapons-toting Grendels as “very good people.” Trump’s inconsistent messaging is playing havoc as local leaders try to figure out what to do.

Teressa points out that Hrothgar sends out his own mixed messages in that he allows Unferth, someone who has killed kinsmen, a place of honor at his table. Unferth is the warrior who, “sick with envy,” challenges Beowulf upon his entrance. Here we have Grendelian resentment emanating from the upper reaches of the administration.

Eliza Hogan sees things slightly differently. In her own examination of Hrothgar’s handling of warrior resentment, she compliments him on how he puts ego aside in service of the higher good, key to leadership in Eliza’s eyes. Hrothgar, she notes, wisely allows a young warrior to help him with his Grendel problem. Rather than the Danes regarding Hrothgar as weak for doing so, the poet observes, “Yet there was no laying of blame on their lord, the noble Hrothgar; he was a good king.”

Eliza sees the dragon as the archetype of destructive egotism, with the bad king Heremod held up as the ultimate human exemplar. Hrothgar warns the young Beowulf against becoming a Heremod, but both Eliza and history major Thomas Simerville see dragon traits creeping in. Beowulf essentially sounds like Trump at one point, Thomas points out, essentially saying, “I alone can fix it.” Or to quote him directly prior to his battle with the dragon,

Men at arms, remain here on the barrow,
safe in your armor, to see which one of us
is better in the end at bearing wounds
in a deadly fray. This fight is not yours,
nor is it up to any man except me
to measure his strength against the monster
or to prove his worth.

Beowulf, as it turns out, is not up to the challenge. If the dragon battle is an internal one, he will lose because going it alone is a dragon trait. Only with the help of Wiglaf does he kill the monster.

Thomas gives Beowulf some credit for allowing Wiglaf to help him, comparing the young warrior to Dr. Fauci. Working together, they emerge victorious. Eliza, who is harder on Beowulf, says that, when our leaders let us down, it is up to us as individuals to become Wiglafs:

Wiglaf ultimately saves the kingdom, not Beowulf, because of his own selflessness. He shows the readers that great heroes and leaders rise from places of unselfishness, and despite differing backgrounds or homes, anyone can be a leader. This has been proven over and over amid the COVID outbreak. Not only great doctors and nurses, but postmen, cashiers at grocery stores, garbage men, perhaps some of the most unlikely and belittled members of society, have proven themselves leaders and heroes through their selfless commitments to their own work.

And in conclusion:

Not only our leaders hold great responsibility during coronavirus, but each one of us has a responsibility to sacrifice our own wants (to go to restaurants, to play with friends, to travel) for the health of others. As a young healthy person, I probably wouldn’t die if I contracted the coronavirus, so if I were to go out and ignore social distancing rules, I personally would probably be fine. However, I know that I would put others at risk by doing so, and therefore I will not. In order to beat the coronavirus, each one of us must sacrifice our wants for the good of others.

Ella Cobbs goes at our current crisis from a different angle, asking, “How do we keep our emotions from overwhelming us in a time of crisis.” The monstrosity of Grendel’s Mother is that her emotions lead her to destructive behavior. Beowulf’s heroism, by contrast, lies in his ability to keep a level head. If one sees his descent into the Grendels’ lake as a metaphor for being engulfed by emotions, then the giant sword he finds is the counterforce, a higher principle that Ella identifies as “devotion to the greater good.” She concludes her essay as follows:   

In times of stress and turmoil it is all too easy to let our emotions take the reins and control our thinking. Today we are living in a world dealing with overwhelming grief and uncertainty, and I know for me personally, I have wallowed in my own anger and sadness over the situation and often forgotten about the bigger picture. It takes our inner Beowulf to snap us back into reality, remind us that what we are feeling is momentary, and remember that we are a part of something larger than ourselves.

We are running the risk of becoming a world of Grendel’s mothers, and we need instead to follow in the footsteps of Beowulf. All of us are wracked with emotions, despair, depression, anger, loneliness, but we cannot let ourselves succumb to these emotions as Grendel’s mother does. If we selfishly let our loneliness influence our actions and we meet up with friends for a seemingly harmless gathering, we can be directly endangering the lives of others. Instead, we must be the Beowulfs of the world, keeping a level head and doing what we need to in order to protect everyone. Beowulf is a hero not only because of his immense physical strength, but because of the control he has over his emotions and his devotion to the greater good.

I’ll note one other essay which, while not explicitly about the pandemic, nevertheless touches on the depression many are experiencing. As Patrick Rodriguez sees it, Grendel and Grendel’s Mother represent forms of depression as experienced by young warriors, the dragon depression as experience by old men..

In battling depression, sometimes a young warrior, when tempted to become murderously resentful, can be redirected with a firm hand. The out-of-control rage of Grendel’s Mother—sometimes followed by sinking into deep depths of despair—can be countered by a higher ideal. But when one becomes an old man who, upon looking back over his life, sees nothing but a long string of meaningless deaths, all that can help is young people entering your life. If you open yourself to their vision and their energy, they may keep you from succumbing to dragonhood.

In other words, the five essays all seek to imagine ways forward when the world appears dark and overwhelming. God bless these students for refusing to be either cynical or fatalistic. And God bless Beowulf  for providing images and narratives that they can turn to.

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Mothering Jesus

Michelangelo, Pieta (1499)

Spiritual Sunday – Mother’s Day

For Mother’s Day, here are three Madeleine L’Engle poems about Mary and Jesus following the crucifixion. I love how they focus on Mary as mother.

Three days
When you agree to be the mother of God
You make no conditions, no stipulations.
You flinch before neither cruel thorn nor rod.
You accept the tears; you endure the tribulations.
But, my God, I didn’t know it would be like this.
I didn’t ask for a child so different from others.
I wanted only the ordinary bliss,
To be the most mundane of mothers.

Mary Speaks
O you who bear the pain of the whole earth, I bore you.
O you whose tears give human tears their worth, I laughed with you.
You, who, when your hem is touched, give power, I nourished you.
Who turn the day to night in this dark hour, light comes from you.
O you who hold the world in your embrace, I carried you.
Whose arms encircle the world with your grace, I once held you.
O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore, I played with you.
And I, who with all others, you died for, now I hold you.

Jesus is the speaker in the third poem, a silence presence as Mary returns to an empty house. Her non-argument (as Jesus sees it) is that her son can’t really be dead as no angel has announced his death.

I’m somewhat baffled by “second given son.” Is L’Engle saying that she has a premonition of Jesus’s second birth? Maybe the poem is telling us that angel voices will guide us in our hours of darkness, assuring us that love is stronger than death.

In a mother’s love for her child, we witness that love in action.

The Tenth Hour
My lips move. “Mother.” Though no sound comes.
She leaves the hill, the three crosses.
I follow. To her empty house.
She does not weep or wail as I had feared.
She does the little, homely things, prepares a meal, then
O God, Washes my feet.
“An angel came,” she said,
“to tell me of his birth. And I obeyed.
No angel’s come to tell me of his death.”

This, I thought, was not an argument.
I held back tears, since she held hers, though foolishly.
We ate—somehow—she always listening.
I said at last, “You do not mourn.”
She looked down at me gravely.
“No, my son. My second given son.
I obeyed then. Shall I do less today?

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Choose Life over Needless Sacrifice

Claude Monet, Water Lilies (1919)


I declare today that, even though I am about to turn 69, I wish to continue living and do not wish to be sacrificed so that Donald Trump can convince us that life is returning to normalcy. Apparently, our so-called pro-life party is shrugging off the danger of mass coronavirus deaths amongst our elderly as the price for reopening the economy. (I wrote about this yesterday.) Perhaps they are following the pathway already forged by gun violence: while solutions exist, they opt instead for lots of people dying.

Although other countries have taken effective steps to halt the pandemic, Trump apparently prefers a laissez-faire approach. Go shopping and, if you succumb to the virus, well, so it goes. Some on the right regard this as “economic patriotism.”

I’ve long wondered whether Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was an attempt to shake people out of a fatalistic acceptance of death that grew out of the Black Plague. Gawain’s apparent stoic acceptance of his upcoming beheading may have two origins, chivalric death with honor and Christian belief in an afterlife. Yet if these are no more than psychological insurance policies, then they do not allow us to truly live. We steel ourselves to death rather than embrace life.

As I see it, the Green Knight—as Nature—is doing everything he can to restore Gawain to a healthy perspective. For a moment he succeeds: as the falling axe merely nicks Gawain, the Camelot knight realizes he is still alive and experiences a rush of joy he hasn’t felt in years:

Not since he was a babe born of his mother
Was he once in this world one-half so blithe…

I’ve described the experience of teaching SGGK to an Afghanistan War veteran who realized how his time spent defusing roadside bombs had caused him to calcify over. The poem helped him reconnect with a love of life he had been missing.

As the Covid death count climbs—we’re headed for the equivalent of a daily 9-11—people will be tempted to turn the deaths into abstractions. I’ve noticed that MSNBC is highlight individual coronavirus fatalities so that we can’t entirely reduce them to anonymous statistics. Poetry too helps us hold on to our humanity.

Thinking of some way to express how sweet I find life to be, I return to a poem fraught with personal significance. I’ve written about how, when my eldest son died 20 years ago, I turned to Mary Oliver’s “The Lost Children.” I didn’t know at the time the content of the poem, just that it provided two images that my tortured mind clung to as if to a life raft.

Until I started writing today’s post, however, I didn’t grasp all the ways the poem hits home. Some additional context is necessary.

Justin drowned in water that was so cold that, for a while, people at first thought he had died of hypothermia. (The coroner told us he didn’t.) It was so cold that, for a couple of agonizing days, we wondered whether Justin had committed suicide. I learned from two students who had seen Justin earlier, however, that he was actually bubbling over with joy. The day was beautiful—one of the few beautiful days in what had been an historically wet spring—and out of this abundance of happiness, Justin threw himself fully clothed into the river. That’s when a rogue current grabbed him.

It was not the first time he had immersed himself in this fashion. The river had been safer when he had done so previously, however.

In the poem, a little girl goes missing in colonial America. She is never found and her father goes crazy as he searches for her (“pain picked him up and held him in her gray jaw” was one of the lines I held on to). But Indian footprints are found—maybe she didn’t die after all but was raised Indian—and Oliver says, “Now the possibilities are endless.”

The passage that I’ve been thinking about today is this one:

But I think the girl
knelt down somewhere in the woods
and drank the cold water of some
wild stream, and wanted
to live.

Justin launched himself into cold water because he was exuberant about life. For him, it was a kind of baptismal rite. In the face of this pandemic, I want to experience life just as intensively. If I were a doctor or a nurse, I would be doing so by working in a hospital fighting for the lives of others, but as I’m on the sidelines, I write to urge you to throw yourself into life. Do not surrender to Trumpian death cult fatalism.

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Blundering into the Valley of Death

Richard Caton Woodville, Charge of the Light Brigade (1895)


It now appears that the Trump administration has finally come up with a coherent response to the coronavirus attack. Alfred Lord Tennyson captures it in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

In other words, their approach is to reopen everything and send the American public charging into the teeth of the virus. Meanwhile, cannons to the left of us, cannons to the right of us volley and thunder.

We’re even hearing military analogies. Here’s the president on Tuesday:

I’m viewing our great citizens of this country to a certain extent and to a large extent as warriors. They’re warriors. We can’t keep our country closed. We have to open our country.

Sounding like General Buck “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed” Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove, he continued,

I’m not saying anything is perfect. And yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open.

In his turn, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) has invoked World War II, saying Monday that

the U.S. should push ahead with reopening its economy during the coronavirus pandemic because “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” He compared it to the loss of lives during the two World Wars, saying it’s a “sacrifice” Americans must make for their way of life.

“The American people have gone through significant death before,” Christie, a Republican, said on The Daily DC podcast with CNN’s Dana Bash. “We’ve gone through it in World War I, we’ve gone through it in World War II. We have gone through it and we’ve survived it. We sacrificed those lives.”

A Politico article foresaw that the GOP would get to this place, reporting in March,

Forget “15 days to slow the spread.” A growing chorus of conservatives have started arguing that older adults should voluntarily return to work to save the country from financial ruin.

Call it “economic patriotism.”

Into the valley of death are riding America’s elderly (along with doctors and nurses, meat packers, store clerks, prisoners and guards, and eventually all of us). But at least these patriots will save the economy. And (so these conservatives hope) the reelection of Donald J. Trump.

The early conservative chorus included Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who said in March, “Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population.” (For the record, 3.4 percent of 330 million is 11.2 million).

And then there was Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s “Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.” (“Taking care of ourselves” is a euphemism for dying, which residents of nursing homes have been doing in the thousands.)

In Tennyson’s poem, the soldiers are aware that a mistake has been made:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

In our case, the blundering has been going on for months. It began by dismantling the institutions and procedures set up to fight against just such a pandemic; then ignoring the intelligence services as they warned us to take this seriously; then firing or sidelining those officials who reported the truth; then failing to use the WHO’s tests and botching our own; then failing to mobilize all our resources to provide sufficient PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and testing; then undercutting the governors trying to institute the Coronavirus Task Force’s own guidelines; and now reopening the country—or pressuring governors to do so–even as infection numbers continue rising.

Meanwhile, hospitals and nursing homes are still not getting all the PPE they need while the country continues to lag in testing and contact tracing.

Trump’s response? Close down the Coronavirus Task Force and take a suicidal gamble.

When your bungling leads to abject failure, a bold Light Brigade charge is all you have left. Maybe the Administration hopes we’ll become as inured to Covid deaths as we’ve become inured to gun deaths.

Maybe that’s what acquiescent Republicans are counting on, figuring

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

If they take an electoral beating in November, however, at least they won’t literally die. No, that privilege will be accorded to the workers ordered back to work, with loss of jobs and health benefits if they refuse. They are the ones who are being ordered to do a version of

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
   All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
   Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
   Not the six hundred.

But set aside stirring accounts of heroes thrown into doomed battles, whether they be calvary soldiers or nurses, doctors, and other front-line workers. For the last word on leaders who tell us that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” turn to Wilfred Owen.

In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen describes a different lung death, this one brought about by poison gas. He still has in mind, however, those Trumps and Christies who call on people to senselessly sacrifice themselves:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Never forget that what is happening did not need to happen. A timely and competent response would have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Nor is it too late. There are still things we can do, including donning masks, washing our hands, practicing social distancing, and calling upon our elected leaders to be responsible. If you passively accept the order to charge, you’re part of the problem.

Further thought: I’ve written about my mixed feelings about Tennyson’s poem. On the one hand, I want our heroes to be honored, as he does in the final stanza:

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
   All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
   Noble six hundred!

Our own version is New York applauding its front-line workers every night.

But I also think of Galileo saying, in Brecht’s play, “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” If we had addressed the pandemic early, we wouldn’t need these heroic sacrifices.

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Gide’s Immoralist & Trump’s Double Game

André Gide


I’ve finally figured out a literary parallel that has been tugging at my mind for the past few weeks as Donald Trump plays a double game regarding the pandemic. The president is behaving like Michel, the narrator in André Gide’s scandalous 1902 novel The Immoralist.

On the one hand, the president has been pointing to the Coronavirus Task Force guidelines and telling governors it’s up to them to handle the pandemic. On the other, he has been undercutting the governors and encouraging weapons-toting protestors (“very good people”) to “Liberate Michigan” (and Virginia and Minnesota) from these very guidelines. Because of Trump’s wretched leadership, wearing a mask has itself become a provocation in some areas so that there’s been at least one murder, numerous tirades (in which potentially infectious droplets travel wild and free), and various governors deciding that requiring masks is “a bridge too far.” As a result, the serious governors are being attacked while the others have all but surrendered, opting instead for Trumpian magical thinking. The consequences we face are beyond imagining.

Immoralist is the first-person account of a narcissist who, after a bout with near-fatal tuberculosis on his honeymoon, discovers a passion for young boys. While Michel never acts on this passion, his fascination with the forbidden clashes with his responsibilities as married man and farm owner. Increasingly he becomes more interested in the secret lives of the peasants on his farm than he does in his marriage.

The Trumpian moment occurs when, intrigued by a poacher he catches—the younger son of his estate manager–he joins him in setting secret traps on his own land! Basically, he is a respectable landowner and married man by day and a secret thief by night.

From that moment I no longer cared for going out in the day, when there was so little to attract me in the emptied woods. I even tried to work — melancholy, purposeless work, for I had resigned my temporary lectureship — thankless, dreary work, from which I would be suddenly distracted by the slightest song, the slightest sound coming from the country outside; in every passing cry I heard an invitation. How often I have leapt from my reading and run to the window to see — nothing pass by! How often I have hurried out of doors. . . . The only attention I found possible was that of my five senses.

But when night fell — and it was the season now when night falls early — that was our hour. I had never before guessed its beauty; and I stole out of doors as a thief steals in. I had trained my eyes to be like a night-bird’s. I wondered to see the grass taller and more easily stirred, the trees denser. The dark gave everything fresh dimensions, made the ground look distant, lent every surface the quality of depth. The smoothest path looked dangerous. Everywhere one felt the awakening of creatures that lead a life of darkness.

Eventually, the older son of his manager catches him at it and calls him out: 

“Take care, Charles, you’re going too far. …”

“Oh, all right! You’re the master — you can do as you please.”

“Charles, you know perfectly well I’ve made a fool of no one, and if I do as I please, it’s because it does no one any harm but myself.”

He shrugged his shoulders slightly.

“How can one defend your interests when you attack them yourself? You can’t protect both the keeper and the poacher at the same time.”

“Why not?”

“Because . . . Oh, you’re a bit too clever for me, Sir. I just don’t like to see my master joining up with rogues and undoing the work that other people do for him.”

Unfortunately, in our case people get sick when Trump joins up with rogues.

Scholar Louis A. MacKenzie has noted that the “scandal” of Gide’s novel is how it lures the reader into sympathizing with a narcissist’s vision of the world:

One could in fact assert that the “scandal” of L’Immoraliste resides specifically in the friction between a tale of arrogance, ego-centrism, dissipation, and decadence and a style that tends to thwart the rush to judgment by cloaking such unsavory traits and actions in language that is as refined as it is clever.

I can’t say that I was won over by the narrator when I read Immoralist as a French minor at Carleton College fifty years ago. In fact, he left me cold. But then, even at 20 I was someone who believes in responsible leadership, whether of a farm or a country. I will choose a colorless but competent technocrat like Hillary Clinton over a perpetual adolescent like Trump any day.

Why some people are thrilled by an outlaw president who flirts with the dark side baffles me. I just pray that they’ll come around to Charles’s view, as expressed in his final words to Michel:

You taught me last year, Sir, that one has duties to one’s possessions. One ought to take one’s duties seriously and not play with them … or else one doesn’t deserve to have possessions.

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Feeding on Beauty in the Midst of Horror

Jewish band members at the Janowska Concentration Camp


Art arrives to rescue us–or at least comfort us–in dark times. What would we do without literature, music, art, cinema, and the performing arts (although no live performances, alas) as the coronavirus casualty figures mount up? Former National Poet Laureate Rita Dove speaks to our need in her poem “Transit.” (Thanks to my friend Carl Rosin for reminding me of the poem.)

To be sure, “Transit” is written about a far darker period than this. It was inspired by how Holocaust survivor and accomplished musician Alice Herz-Sommer turned to music to survive her Nazi concentration camp. Dove writes about Herz-Sommer’s experience to explain her poem:

Many Jewish musicians and composers were interned at Theresienstadt, the “model” concentration camp showcased by the Nazis when the Red Cross arrived for inspection: New clothes were issued, fresh produce displayed in the “marketplace,” while the musicians played concerts and marched in mock parades. As soon as the inspectors left, grim reality returned—including death marches to mass extermination sites like Auschwitz. Even so, those whom Fate spared one more time continued to compose and perform for their fellow inmates; they even staged operas from memory. How does one retain a human yearning in the midst of such horror?

Of her performances, Herz-Sommer herself wrote,

Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.

Dove’s poem begins with the opening line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Music is more than the food of love, however—it also is fundamental to survival, allowing us to pull ourselves, rung by painful rung, with barely “a fingertip’s purchase,” “across the unspeakable world.” We may be limited to black water passing for coffee and white water for soup, but we can still sup on Chopin.

The black and white soup appears to refer also to the music played for the rigged parades in which the prisoners marched and performed to deceive Red Cross observers. (As Dove puts it, “to soothe regiments/ of eyes, guilt-reddened/ lining the parade route.”) Art can be twisted to perverted ends. But while Dove “won’t speak judgment on” the “horn flash, woodwind wail” of such music, nothing matches how

in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty—and that,
my love, is what sustained us.

“Transit” may refer both to how Theresienstadt inmates would be shipped to Auschwitz and to how, for a moment, they moved into “the house that music built.”

To maintain your mental equilibrium as you settle in place, read novels and poems, listen to music, gaze at art works, feast upon films, and watch televised plays and dance performances. The arts will sustain you.


By Rita Dove

If music be the food of love, play on. 

This is the house that music built:
each note a fingertip’s purchase,
rung upon rung laddering

across the unspeakable world. 
As for those other shrill facades,
rigged-for-a-day porticos

composed to soothe regiments
of eyes, guilt-reddened,
lining the parade route

(horn flash, woodwind wail) . . .
well, let them cheer. 
I won’t speak judgment on

the black water passing for coffee,
white water for soup.
We supped instead each night

on Chopin—hummed our grief-
soaked lullabies to the rapture
rippling through. Let it be said

while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty—and that,
my love, is what sustained us.

[Alice Herz-Sommer, survivor of the
Theresienstadt ghetto /
concentration camp]
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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.

    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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