Welcome Stranger to This Place

Michel Angelo Immenraet, “Jesus and the Woman of Canaan”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s gospel reading is one of my favorites, in part because it shows us Jesus’s steep learning curve. It’s also particularly relevant as the Trump administration once again steps up its draconian measures against people seeking asylum.

Time reports on the latest Trump move:

When a June 20 executive order ended the practice, the Administration sought to detain immigrant families together. Those efforts have so far been thwarted because of a longstanding court agreement that requires the government to release immigrant children after 20 days in detention.

On Thursday, the Administration filed proposed regulation to terminate that court order, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, and detain entire families for the duration of the legal proceedings that determine if they can stay. The rule, which will published on Friday, would also allow the federal government to transfer family units to facilities that are not “state licensed,” which is currently required. The government says licensing requirements have limited its ability to use family detention.

Now for Mark 7:24-30:

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus at first sounds like those who claim that immigrants are taking American jobs, but in his case the prejudice represents the ritual taboos that comprise his world view. After the woman’s compelling analogy, however, he sheds centuries of religious practice in a moment, seeing God even in a Gentile. Under the power of love and concern, his vision becomes revolutionary.

I don’t like for my Sunday posts to be negative so I turn to a poem with a positive spin: heaven awaits us if we open our arms to those seeking asylum. “We reap not, what we do not sow,” Blake tells us, and if we were to welcome the strangers rather than treat them like criminals, the harvest would be plentiful.

Blake uses the image of a pure maiden, which contrasts dramatically with the contorted faces of those who would construct walls. Innocence would bloom on the cheek, honor would twine around the brows, and “the jewel health” would adorn the neck.

Welcome stranger to this place,
Where joy doth sit on every bough,
Paleness flies from every face,
We reap not, what we do not sow.

Innocence doth like a Rose,
Bloom on every Maidens cheek;
Honor twines around her brows,
The jewel Health adorns her neck.

How is that as a positive incentive for inclusivity and acceptance?

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Jack Burden, We Need You on Kavanaugh

Jude Law as Jack Burden in “All the King’s Men”

Friday

The Senate Democrats (and much of the country) are frustrated that the GOP is hiding 90% of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s records, including evidence of what he did during his time with the George W. Bush White House. Reportedly there is controversial material to be found on race issues, abortion, and torture, among other things. By way of contrast, when Justice Elena Kagan was up for the Supreme Court, she had to share everything from her days in the Clinton White House.

We need Jack Burden to investigate.

Burden is the narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, one of the world’s great political novels. Judge Irwin is proving a thorn in the side of Burden’s boss, Gov. Willie Stark, and Stark wants Burden to find dirt on him.

I don’t know enough about Louisiana politics in the 1930s to know if Warren is referring to a particular battle between the legislative and judicial branches there. I do know, however, that, on a national level, a very business-friendly Supreme Court was interfering with Roosevelt’s attempts to pass social security and worker protections. Perhaps some of that is at play in Warren’s novel. Judge Irwin is definitely on the side of the moneyed interests.

Irwin has been a father figure to Burden, who regards him as a saintly figure. In other words, he appears far less compromised than Kavanaugh. Stark’s view of human nature, however, tells him that Burden will find something:

I said, “But suppose there isn’t anything to find?”
And the Boss said, “There is always something.”
And I said, “Maybe not on the Judge.”
And he said, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie [diapers] to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

When Burden says that he won’t frame Irwin, Stark tells him that framing is never necessary:

“I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?”
“No.”
“Because it ain’t ever necessary. You don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient.”
“You sure take a high view of human nature.” I said.
“Boy,” he said, “I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And—” he grinned suddenly— “I have found it very valuable.”

Burden finds something all right—a bribe the judge took when a young attorney that ruined a man and made his own fortune—and when he tries to pressure Irwin with the information, the judge kills himself. Stark’s assessment of human nature proves to be correct.

Kavanaugh is not such a dramatic case, having neither Judge Irwin’s highs (he’s not particularly saintly) nor probably his lows (criminal behavior). Exposure of concealed documents will probably not lead to suicide.

Given his extreme views, however, they could peel away enough Republican votes to deep six his confirmation.

Then again, even GOP moderates appear ready to vote for anything that Trump and the GOP leadership want. High minded principles may lead Judge Irwin to end his life, but I’m not sure that current Republicans are experiencing even a fraction of his sense of shame.

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Trump Scandal as Comedy of Manners

Horner and Marjorie Pinchwife in “The Country Wife”

Thursday

Donald Trump is in high dudgeon (but what else is new?) about (1) Bob Woodward’s reports of White House staffers sabotaging his impulsive actions and (2) an anonymous insider confirming as much in a New York Times column. In response, Never Trumpers are urging insiders and recent insiders to tell publicly what they know. If things are as bad as reported, then these people have a duty to break their silence. A courageous truth teller might expose the full extent of the corruption.

William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy Country Wife helps explain why no one has come forth yet.

Among those calling for the anonymous writer to go public are former Republicans Steve Schmidt of MSNBC and David Frum of Atlantic. Frum writes,

Speak in your own name. Resign in a way that will count. Present the evidence that will justify an invocation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, or an impeachment, or at the very least, the first necessary step toward either outcome, a Democratic Congress after the November elections.

Your service in government is valuable. Thank you for it. But it is not so indispensable that it can compensate for the continuing tenure of a president you believe to be amoral, untruthful, irrational, anti-democratic, unpatriotic, and dangerous. Previous generations of Americans have sacrificed fortunes, health, and lives to serve the country. You are asked only to tell the truth aloud and with your name attached.

Majorie Pinchwife, the country wife, is the potential truthteller in Wycherley’s play. Some plot background is necessary to understand why her society would implode if she tells what she knows.

Marjorie is in love with Horner, who goes around claiming that venereal disease has rendered him impotent. He does this in order to circumvent husbands’ defenses so that he can sleep with their wives. As his name suggests, he wants to put cuckold horns on as many husbands as he can.

Horner’s deception works. The husbands, thinking him a safe chaperone for their wives, allow intimacy that they would otherwise forbid. The wives are obviously in on Horner’s plot, cavorting secretly with him while outwardly proclaiming their virtue. If they were to be found out, then their reputations would be ruined and their husbands would be humiliated. In other words, catastrophe.

Marjorie, however, is an innocent from the country who doesn’t know the game. As she sees it, she loves Horner and wants to leave her husband for him. She doesn’t care who knows it.

But (here’s where the play becomes wonderfully complicated) proclaiming Horner as her lover would expose his deception. Suddenly the husbands would know their wives have been unfaithful and they themselves would be ridiculed. Everyone would be ruined.

It would be like Trump cabinet members revealing that they consider Trump unfit for office and that they have been talking amongst themselves about deposing him via the 25th amendment. (It takes a majority of cabinet members plus the vice president to bring this about.) In other words, full-blown constitutional crisis.

So how does the play explain why White House insiders aren’t stepping up? In the play, husbands have heard enough from Marjorie to figure out that they’ve been cuckolded. As a result, the wives see ruin knocking on their door. But if Marjorie remains silent, everyone can pretend that nothing has happened and this decadent society can continue to lurch forward.

Which may be what these White House officials want. They can continue running the country while distancing themselves from the scandal that is Trump. Like the wives, they can claim to be virtuous while having their fling with power.

In the play, the other characters pressure Marjorie, the play’s one innocent character, to lie about her affair with Horner. In the end, a chastened Marjorie surrenders, claiming that she didn’t in fact make love to Horner but was just trying to teach her overly jealous husband a lesson. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the play ends with a “dance of the cuckolds.” Technically, Wycherley’s very dark comedy has a happy ending but the audience feels as though it’s been slimed.

Which is how I feel about all those working in the White House. Figures like Chief of Staff John Kelly and General Mattis are pretending that they didn’t undermine the president or say degrading things about him, and he publicly pretends that he believes them. The Times’ anonymous columnist and Woodward’s anonymous sources pretend they care more about the country than their jobs. GOP members of Congress, fearing an implosion’s impact on the midterms elections, hunker down and say nothing, hoping that things will blow over. The same goes for state television Fox News. The cuckolds continue dancing.

When I teach Country Wife, I ask my class what would happen if Marjorie told the truth. We conclude that, while there would be unpleasantness, in the end truth telling would have a salutary effect. Husbands and wives could let go of their insecurities and begin to have honest conversations, which is what happens in a play written 25 years later. In Congreve’s Way of the World, Mirabelle and Millamant talk frankly about the kind of marriage they want to have. It sounds healthier in every way.

So enough with all this leaking and talking anonymously. If the president is imperiling the country, come out and say so. Yes, there will be unpleasantness, but the republic will emerge in better shape. And that’s what’s important, right?

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Federer and Father Time

Roger Federer in defeat

Wednesday

Father Time, they like to say in sports, is undefeated, and after Roger Federer lost to journeyman John Millman Monday night, I finally had to concede the fact. Watching the most beautiful shotmaker in tennis history miss balls he normally makes in his sleep, I felt l was witnessing a kind of death. [Update: I felt similarly when Rafael Nadal withdrew from his semi-final match with knee issues, his second withdrawal from a major this year.]

To be sure, reports of Federer’s death have been exaggerated in the past. Four years ago I thought his days of winning majors were over, only to see him win three titles during the past year and a half and even reach #1 in the rankings for a few weeks. Maybe I shouldn’t panic yet. But I can’t help feeling that the last two years Federer has been in remission, his slide into Father Time’s clutches masked by his amazing racquet skills and serve placement. I compare this period of Federer’s career to the illness described in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which I’ve just completed: although the end signs are there, a brief period of recovery raises hopes, only to give way to the inevitable end.

Bazarov, a scientist and the son of a country doctor, has contracted typhus from an infected cadaver he has been dissecting. Although he and his father both know that it’s all over, like me with Federer his father can’t acknowledge the danger signs:

Bazarov abruptly turned round on the sofa, looked fixedly with dim eyes at his father and asked for something to drink.

Vassily Ivanovich gave him some water and in so doing felt his forehead; it was burning.

“Listen, old man,” began Bazarov in a slow husky voice, “I’m in a bad way. I’ve caught the infection and in a few days you’ll have to bury me.”

Vassily Ivanovich staggered as though someone had knocked his legs from under him.

“Evgeny,” he muttered, “what are you saying? God have mercy on you! You’ve caught cold . . .”

“Stop that,” interrupted Bazarov in the same slow, deliberate voice; “a doctor has no right to talk like that. I’ve all the symptoms of infection, you can see for yourself.”

“What symptoms . . . of infection, Evgeny? . . . Good heavens!”

“Well, what’s this?” said Bazarov, and pulling up his shirt sleeve he showed his father the ominous red patches coming out on his arm.

Vassily Ivanovich trembled and turned cold from fear.

“Supposing,” he said at last, “supposing . . . even supposing . . . there is something like an infection . . .”

“Blood poisoning,” repeated Bazarov severely and distinctly; “have you forgotten your textbooks?”

“Well, yes, yes, as you like . . . all the same we shall cure you!”

“Oh, that’s rubbish. And it’s not the point. I never expected to die so soon; it’s a chance, a very unpleasant one, to tell the truth. You and mother must now take advantage of your strong religious faith; here’s an opportunity of putting it to the test.”

So that’s Federer after he stopped winning majors the first time. Now here’s the past year and a half:

Towards the morning he felt a little easier. He asked Arina Vlasyevna to comb his hair, kissed her hand and swallowed a few sips of tea. Vassily Ivanovich revived a little.

“Thank God!” he repeated, “the crisis is near . . . the crisis is coming.”

“There, think of that!” muttered Bazarov. “What a lot a word can do! He’s found one; he said ‘crisis’ and is comforted. It’s an astounding thing how human beings have faith in words. You tell a man, for instance, that he’s a fool, and even if you don’t thrash him he’ll be miserable; call him a clever fellow, and he’ll be delighted even if you go off without paying him.”

This little speech of Bazarov’s, recalling his old sallies, greatly moved Vassily Ivanovich.

“Bravo! splendidly said, splendid!” he exclaimed, making as though to clap his hands.

Bazarov smiled ruefully.

“Well, so do you think the crisis is over or approaching?”

“You’re better, that’s what I see, that’s what rejoices me.

And now here’s last night, when Federer couldn’t make a first serve to save his life and netted routine volleys. When, frankly, he looked old:

The change for the better did not last long. The disease resumed its onslaughts. 

Of course, winning the Australian Open twice and Wimbledon once during your period of remission is nothing to sneeze at. Still, the past few months had Fed fans believing that age was no obstacle and that his sublime skills could carry him at least a little further. Then last night happened.

Maybe it is my own mortality that I mourn.

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McCain, GOP, Millennials & Cuchulain

Tuesday

 Of all the political pundits, no one quotes literature more frequently or intelligently than Esquire’s Charles Pierce. (New York Times’ Maureen Dowd used to shine in this area but no longer.) Pierce impressed me mightily over the weekend when he applied W. B. Yeats’s “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” to John McCain’s funeral.

Yeats’s Cuchulain poems were part of his project to resurrect Irish mythology, long buried by English imperial rule. In that way, applying Cuchulain to McCain seems appropriate since his brand of Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism has long been buried by a mixture of corporate toadyism and Nixon’s southern strategy.

The passage Pierce chooses sounds like it could be America asking for direction—where does our journey lie?—now that a senator who believed in working across the aisle is no longer with us. I suspect that Pierce chose it for this reason:

Yet somewhere under starlight or the sun,
My father stands.

Aged, worn out with wars
On foot on horseback or in battle-cars.
I only ask what way my journey lies,
For He who made you bitter made you wise.

Such an application falls short in one way, however, because McCain was not particularly bitter. In a characteristic move, he invited two men who bested him in presidential battles to deliver eulogies. For him, the line should read, “What would have made other men bitter made you wise.”

It so happens, however, that the Cuchulain in the poem is no John McCain. He may be aged and worn out with wars, but he has also strayed from his duty, leaving his queen and his son for a new mistress. The son asks his bitter/wise mother where his father is and she tells him.

The unfortunate upshot is that Cuchulain battles with his son, whom he does not recognize, and then goes mad after he kills him. Ally King  Conshubar, fearful how he will behave when he emerges from his funk, comes up with a plan:

Then Conchubar, the subtlest of all men,
Ranking his Druids round him ten by ten,
Spake thus: “Cuchulain will dwell there and brood
For three days more in dreadful quietude,
And then arise, and raving slay us all.
Chaunt in his ear delusions magical,
That he may fight the horses of the sea.”
The Druids took them to their mystery,
And chaunted for three days.

The poem ends with the success of Conchubar’s plan:

Cuchulain stirred,
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.

Seen in this way, Cuchulain works as a dark allegory for the GOP. Leaving responsible kingship behind, it alienates the millennials who should be its future and ventures out to fight phantom enemies (immigrants, Muslims, black athletes, “the deep state”). Druids whisper wild conspiracy theories into its ears.

But let’s go back for a moment to thinking of McCain as Cuchulain. Yeats romanticized the mythical figure but knew only too well that his time had passed. I felt some of the same when I watched people romanticize McCain over the weekend. For all the talk of coming together as Americans, more appropriate seemed to be another Yeats line:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…

If we cannot check the rough beast we have residing in the White House, McCain’s vision for America will be no more than an antiquated fairy tale.

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Langston Hughes on the Dignity of Work

Jacob Lawrence, “Carpenters”

Labor Day

Langston Hughes understood the working class as well as any poet I know. Here’s a Labor Day poem to honor those who pick up after us.

Brass Spittoons

Clean the spittoons, boy.
      Detroit,
      Chicago,
      Atlantic City,
      Palm Beach.
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the smoke in hotel lobbies,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
      Hey, boy!
      A nickel,
      A dime,
      A dollar,
Two dollars a day.
      Hey, boy!
      A nickel,
      A dime,
      A dollar,
      Two dollars
Buy shoes for the baby.
House rent to pay.
Gin on Saturday,
Church on Sunday.
      My God!
Babies and gin and church
And women and Sunday
All mixed with dimes and
Dollars and clean spittoons
And house rent to pay.
      Hey, boy!
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord.
Bright polished brass like the cymbals
Of King David’s dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
      Hey, boy!
A clean spittoon on the altar of the Lord.
A clean bright spittoon all newly polished—
At least I can offer that.
      Com’mere, boy!

Hughes gets the importance of finding dignity in one’s work. There may be few more undesirable jobs than cleaning spittoons (or today, urinals), but this janitor, addressed by the condescending appellation “boy,” finds a way to ennoble his work: he puts himself in the company of Biblical patriarchs.

The speaker isn’t a saint or a sinner but a real person: he attends church on Sunday and he visits gin shops with his “baby” on Saturday night. The money he makes goes sometimes to rent, sometimes to the collection plate, sometimes to his women. Trying to find coherence to his feelings that are as mixed as the coins he receives and the ways that he spends them, he taps into Biblical images of partying. These aren’t just spittoons but brass spittoons, just like the brass cymbals that David’s dancers danced to or the brass goblets mentioned in Song of Solomon. He may be drawing on the following passages:

Then David spoke to the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their relatives the singers, with instruments of music, harps, lyres, loud-sounding cymbals, to raise sounds of joy. (Chronicles 15:16)

Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. (Song of Solomon 7:2)

Or even:

Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. (Proverbs 31:6)

Whatever the passage, he has talked himself into a better frame of mind by the end of the poem.

Hughes leaves us, however, with an unsettling question: Can this new vision of himself withstand his next degrading order, which is only as far away as his next customer? The last line is a stinging indictment of racism, conveyed through the understated ironic juxtaposition that is Hughes’s trademark.

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Finding God in Nature

John Muir in Yosemite

Spiritual Sunday

I write today about a very exciting book that I’ve just encountered, along with its author, an English professor at Sewanee. John Gatta’s Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America, from the Puritans to the Present addresses some questions I’ve long had about nature’s spiritual dimensions.

Gatta writes that, in America,

no path for pursuing self-transcendence has seemed more enduringly accessible than the one leading nature devotees into the continent’s own forests, fields, river valleys, and mountains.

 Gatta points to characters like Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn and authors like Emily Dickinson, Henry Thoreau, Black Elk, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard as amongst those having encounters with “the ineffable spirits of nature.” For an example, think of Dickinson’s poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to church”:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

The connection between nature and Christianity particularly draws Gatta’s attention, and he quotes intellectual historian Perry Miller that

“God speaks to us” with peculiar force “in the sublimity of Nature” and that “America, beyond all nations, is in perpetual touch with nature.”

Yet for all that, most Americans haven’t turned to a pure nature religion, say, an “animistic faith that gods or spirits dwell directly ‘in’ the tree.” Instead, they have supplemented their inherited religions with nature spirituality. Or to put it another way, America’s religions have often evolved to include a strong nature component:

Among the major traditions of world religion, Christianity, not surprisingly, has most deeply affected the ecological outlook of English-speaking North Americans. More particularly, subcultures shaped religiously by Protestant Christianity have dominated imaginative expression in this sphere until the last half century or so, when more eclectically Christian and  Catholic versions of ecospirituality have also gained prominence in writers such as Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, and Kathleen Norris.

Gatta mentions also Buddhism’s influence on American nature writing, including such authors as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Peter Matthiessen. Native American religions, he points out, have a strong emphasis on “spirituality mediated through the nonhuman world,” and the importance of a spiritualized nature is also to be found in African American authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.

Gatta’s book excites me because it gives a framework for something I have long told my students, that immersing yourself in nature and nature writing deepens you spiritually. I talk about this as I teach such works as Euripides’s The Bacchae and the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Wordsworth voices such an idea in his sonnet “The world is too much with us,” where the poet notes how capitalism is draining nature of its spiritual dimensions. We can no longer sees gods when we look out at the ocean, he laments.

Nature writers may not speak openly of religion, but if one examines them closely, one can often find that they are using a religious framework to talk of nature’s spiritual influence. To cite an example, it has become a tradition of this blog to share a Mary Oliver poem every Easter. When I first began doing so, I didn’t fully appreciate the degree to which images of Christian suffering and grace suffuse Oliver’s work. Thanks to Gatta, I better understand what Oliver is up to and how she is not alone.

For instance, here he is describing his chapter on John Muir and Rachel Carson:

My reading of Muir, for example, aims to capture the sheer intensity of religious feeling—a piety at once unorthodox and mystical, yet biblically Protestant—that suffused this writer’s naturalism. In this chapter, too, I discuss Rachel Carson’s lifelong aspiration to blend scientific curiosity with a religious indeterminate yet robust spirituality. Resisting strictly materialistic appraisals of nature, Carson was awed by the beauty of what she examined, the beauty of things seen as well as unseen in a nonhuman order whose marvels exceeded human boundaries. Carson’s poetic praise of the world’s inexhaustible wonder and mystery is most evident in her oceanic writings, which expose the contemplative spirituality that informed her larger vision of ecology. This accomplished empirical scientist found herself enchanted, above all, by the concealed beauty of tidal pools set in ocean caves. Carson’s profound sense of “reverence for life” also generated moral passion, a prophetic imperative for change best displayed in the rhetoric of Silent Spring.

Gatta concludes his book with a powerful observation. Drawing on the work of Bill McKibben, he says that we need to preserve the environment to maintain our ability to “imagine anything numinous [divine] in nature”:

Once we construct the physical world so thoroughly that we can no longer see, to rephrase Wordsworth, anything in nature that is not ours, religion itself is endangered along with countless biotic species. McKibben contends that…we need continuing access to real-life “nature” for the sake of our own physical and spiritual survival—and it so happens, for religion’s sake as well.

Or as a character in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior puts it in a debate over whether God would want an Appalachian farm family to clearcut a mountain:

The land was bestowed on us for a purpose. And I don’t think it was to end up looking like a pile of trash.

The passage points to another important point that Gatta makes: we need religion to save the environment as much as we need the environment to save religion. After all, some of the most powerful environmental activists have been writers writing from the soul:

The imaginative hopes of these visionaries spring from their passionate spirituality, a re-creative impulse that is religious to the core, whatever its relation to tradition orthodoxies. Figures as theologically disparate as Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Annie Dillard share not only a passionate interest in wild creatures and places but a conviction that God, too, must be less tame and respectable than has been piously rumored. This other-than-safely-human Maker of all things, visible and invisible, may even be, as Berry claims, the wildest being in existence.”

The astute religion thinker C. S. Lewis tells us that “Aslan is not a tame lion.” When we attempt to whittle either God or nature down to our size, we cut ourselves off from the immensity of creation.

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A Final Resting Place on the Shore

Lake Eva, Sewanee, Tennessee

Friday

Yesterday Julia and I buried the ashes of writer Rachel Kranz, a dear friend who died a year ago. Her remains were divided between three who were close to her, and I chose to bury those allotted to me on the shore of Lake Eva, which sits on the edge of a bluff in the Southern Cumberland Mountains. Rachel was planning to visit us there but died of ovarian cancer before it could happen.

As I dug into the ground, I thought of the second stanza of Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal.” In the first stanza, Wordsworth writes that “Lucy,” the subject of several poems, seemed beyond “the touch of earthly years.” Now, however, she is firmly embedded in that earth.

A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, 
With rocks, and stones, and trees. 

Rachel wasn’t transcendent in the same way as the ethereal Lucy, but as one of the most vibrant people I have ever known, she too seemed beyond “earthly years.” As I joined her ashes with rocks and stones and tree roots, the lack of motion and force was all wrong. She was a woman of action, not one to be passively “rolled round.”

I contrasted Wordsworth’s chilling detachment with another passage, the final lines of Wuthering Heights. The narrator visits the graves of Catherine, Linton, and Heathcliff after having learned of their tempestuous histories. To his surprise, he finds a deep peace:

I lingered round [the gravestones], under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Since Rachel too was always enmeshed in some drama or other, the idea that she was “at rest” consoled me. And thinking this I surfaced yet another passage, this from Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree”:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Dear Rachel, may you be at peace in this quiet spot, the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. You reside forever in our deep heart’s core.

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National Inquirer, Political Sewage

Thursday

Having always considered the National Inquirer to be apolitical, I’ve been puzzled by its enthusiasm for Trump and its unceasing attacks on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (Hillary’s Crimes! Treason! Bribery! Perjury! Fraud! Espionage! Embezzlement!It sounds like we will soon learn more given publisher David Pecker’s immunity deal with prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case. At the very least, it appears that National Inquirer helped Trump by “catching and killing” articles that threatened his presidential bid, and who knows what other uses it has made of information at its disposal. Somewhere along the line, National Inquirer morphed from entertainment magazine into political operation.

Pecker brings to mind the publishers and political hacks that Pope attacks in The Dunciad.  I’ve already turned to Pope’s satiric masterpiece to capture our debased times generally (here), but in Book II he specifically talks about unscrupulous members of the media. All succeed in begriming themselves as Pecker has.

One warning: Pope uses scatological imagery (excrement) to make his point.

Pope imagines heroic games held to celebrate the coronation of a new chief dunce. In one, two unscrupulous publishers race after a money-making project, wading through the discarded contents of chamber pots to seize it. In a diving competition, political hacks dive into London’s sewer system, vying to see who can plunge most deeply into the muck.

Competing against Bernard Lintot, Edmund Curll, the more unscrupulous of the two publishers, encounters the slops which Corinna (his mistress or maid) has dumped in front of his competition’s shop:

Full in the middle way there stood a lake,
Which Curll’s Corinna chanced that morn to make
(Such was her wont, at early dawn to drop
Her ev’ning cates [delicacies] before his neighbor’s shop):
Here fortuned Curll to slide; loud shout the band,
And “Bernard! Bernard!” rings thro’ all the Strand.
Obscene with filth the miscreant lies bewrayed [befouled],
Fall’n in the plash his wickedness had laid…

Curll, however, has access to divine aid and sends up a prayer to Jove, sitting on a chamber pot and dispensing favors through his aide Cloacina, the Roman goddess of the sewers. Put bluntly, Curll has a long practice of publishing shit, so Cloacina gives him extra juice, revitalizing him with “ordure’s sympathetic force” and “effluvia strong.” Curll wins the race, albeit stained with excrement.

Oft had the Goddess heard her servant’s call,
From her black grottos near the temple wall,
List’ning delighted to the jest unclean
Of linkboys vile, and watermen obscene;
Where as he fished her nether realms for wit,
She oft had favored him, and favors yet.
Renewed by ordure’s sympathetic force,
As oiled with magic juices for the course,
Vig’rous he rises; from th’ effluvia strong;
Imbibes new life, and scours and stinks along;
Repasses Lintot, vindicates the race,
Nor heeds the brown dishonors of his face.

The diving contest is similarly obscene. Fleet Ditch, once the Fleet River, is now part of the London sewer system: as London’s population grew, the Fleet became clogged and the Thames grew increasingly polluted. The “Weekly Journals” for which the contestants vie are political publications:

This labor past, by Bridewell [the women’s prison] all descend
(As morning prayer and flagellation end)
To where Fleet Ditch, with disemboguing streams,
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames;
The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
“Here strip, my children! here at once leap in;
Here prove who best can dash thro’ thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well:
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the Weekly Journals bound…”

One of those expert at groping well and flinging filth is Smedley, a venial churchman who spent a lot of energy attacking Pope’s friend Jonathan Swift. Like Hylas, the Greek youth kidnapped by water nymphs, Smedley has his own encounter with underwater maids, although these ones are besmirched with sewage:

First he relates how, sinking to the chin,
Smit with his mien, the mud-nymphs sucked him in;
How young Lutetia, softer than the down,
Nigrina black, and Merdamante brown,
Vied for his love in jetty bowers below,
As Hylas fair was ravished long ago.

The end result is a man as thoroughly tainted as Pecker:

When lo! a burst of thunder shook the flood,
Slow rose a form in majesty of mud;
Shaking the horrors of his sable brows,
And each ferocious feature grim with ooze.
Greater he looks, and more than mortal stares;
Then thus the wonders of the deep declares.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just shrug off the garbage put out by National Enquirer and other such publications and social media. Pope himself worried that he elevated his targets by attacking them. Unfortunately, as we have seen, they play a significant role in our political discourse, as they did in the 18th century.

Nor did Pope’s satire have much of an effect on them. After all, there’s always a market for dirt.  Whatever the outcome of the charges that an immunized Pecker will testify to, we haven’t seen the last of him or of people like him.

At least Pope reminds us that there is virtue and decency in the world, even if it’s under constant attack.

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