Read to Resist: An Introduction

John Singer Sargent, “Man Reading”


I share today the introduction to my upcoming book, which is still in draft form and whose title I keep changing. Latest title: Read to Resist: Classic Lit Provides Tools for Battling Trump and Trumpism. I’m still not entirely satisfied with that and so will keep tinkering. In any event, here’s my first attempt at an intro.

Introduction to Read to Resist

Looking back through the daily essays that I post on my blog Better Living through Beowulf, I see that I first started paying attention to Donald Trump in 2015, when he launched his presidential run. Before then, I thought him a mere carnival sideshow, viewing his claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States as a bizarre means of attracting attention. For far too long I didn’t take him seriously.

Once he started gaining political traction, however, I did what I always do when faced with life’s mysteries: I turned to literature. Of course, many seasoned observers of American politics also helped me out, but literature made its special contribution. I should note that the essays in this collection stop at the 2018 midterm elections. It will be interesting to see which ones withstand the test of time and which will seem outdated in two or three years.

In the book’s final essay, I quote Salman Rushdie’s observation that, when political leaders undermine our grasp on reality, literature delivers “the truths of the great constant, which is human nature.” The Roman poet Horace tells us that literature speaks truth while entertaining us, and the most truthful literature never loses its relevance. Times may change, but (to do a rundown of this collection’s opening essays), Twain, Gay, Melville, Gogol, Milton and Shakespeare knew a conman when they saw one. Meanwhile Orwell, Kundera, and Shakespeare (always Shakespeare) understood authoritarian impulses, Dante and Melville gave us unforgettable images of flatterers and enablers, and authors as ancient as Aeschylus and Euripides wrote dramas where victims push back.

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

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

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

The essays in this book show us how literature can help counter such an assault. Because we cannot resist effectively until we understand the problem, the first three sections look into Trump the man, Trump’s tactics and policies, and Trump’s supporters and enablers. Within each section I have arranged the essays chronologically so that the reader can track my own dawning awareness of the problem’s scope.

For instance, while early essays tagged Trump as a relatively harmless (albeit nasty) conman, later essays became alarmed and began exploring his authoritarian tendencies (Trump as a wannabe Macbeth). From a mere grifter like Tolstoy’s Prince Vasili, I came to see him as a Iago, malevolently and spitefully whispering into America’s ear on his way to destroying all that is honorable and innocent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature doesn’t only articulate the problems we face, however. It also shows us people fighting against the forces of darkness. In Parts IV and V, I delve into literature that inspires active resistance.

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

I also reference poems that people have written that show a way forward. Good art never limits itself just to prescription, and these works capture our complicated reality while providing a framework within which to explore our options.

As I compare this collection with my previous How Beowulf Can Save America: An Epic Hero’s Guide to Defeating the Politics of Rage (2012), I realize that I have become less optimistic. I correctly identified America’s monsters, especially our resentful Grendel (lower class status anxiety) and our dragon (threatened upper class entitlement), but I thought that we could draw on our foundational values to fend them off. I underestimated the lengths that GOP Republicans would go, led by dragon Mitch McConnell, to protect their privilege. I didn’t anticipate that Machiavelli, not the U. S. Constitution, would become the new playbook.

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

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

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

To make use of poems, plays, and works of fiction, immerse yourself in them, allowing them to work their magic on you. If you do, you will take on their power and their wisdom. Often works will impart grit or persistence or fortitude as they remind you of your ideals and why it is important to keep fighting. When the effects wear off (as they will), you have but to dive into another work to recharge your batteries. My essays will help you make the most out of a given story or poem.

To unleash a work’s full power, I recommend a three-step process of Immerse, Reflect, and Act (IRA). First immerse yourself in the work, identifying with the characters, the story line, the speaker, the emotions, the themes. Second, reflect upon your experience, perhaps sharing it with others or mulling it over privately. Reading the essays in this book, finding on-line analysis, and setting up book discussion groups are useful. Finally, use your reading experience as a springboard to action.

I am aware that creative writing, unlike most expository prose, is open to multiple interpretations and that Trump supporters can use literature for their own political ends. To cite one example, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn compared Republican senators to Atticus Finch and Judge Kavanaugh to black victim Tom Robinson. In other words, he appropriated African American suffering to serve the interests of white male privilege.

Yet literature’s nature is such that it deepens conversations even when one disagrees with someone else’s use of it. For instance, Cornyn’s comparison tells only half the story. When we look at the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s sequel (Go Set a Watchman), we see a man whose underlying racism is revealed once Calpurnia and other African American characters challenge his white entitlement and demand their rights. Although Flannery O’Connor called To Kill a Mocking Bird a fairy tale, the sequel proves that Lee knew the people she was writing about: they transform from benevolent patriarchs to White Council supporters when their elevated place in society is threatened. We saw recent examples when Republican candidates from Florida and Georgia turned to race-baiting and strong arm tactics once it appeared that their African American opponents might win.

Incidentally, that Cornyn turned to a work of literary fiction at a tense time in our nation’s history shows that literature still packs a punch, even in our non-reading age. The question is how to unleash this power in the service of social justice.

In the 1920’s, literary theorists such as F. R. Leavis regarded literature as the single go-to resource for people who wanted to make the world a better place. Following the devastation of World War I, they looked to the classics to save us. Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton exposed their faith as myopic and elitist in his Introduction to Literary Theory, and we would be naïve to hold these beliefs now. Literature may be powerful, but it cannot operate in a vacuum.

That being acknowledged, however, it is also true that literature provides tools and perspectives that we find nowhere else. It can be a treasure house for front-line activists, community leaders, commentators, political scientists, legislators, teachers, lawyers, journalists and others. If you see yourself as part of the resistance against Trump and Trumpism, this book is here to help you link up with the plays, poems, and fictional stories that will serve you.

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Lettuce, E. Coli, and Deregulation

Cartoon from when we had a president interested in protecting the public


A little over two years ago I posted on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in response to Donald Trump’s promise (threat) to roll back FDA regulations. It’s a promise he kept and–what do you know?–we had another romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak just before Thanksgiving. Forty people across 12 states were sickened by lettuce traced back to central and northern California.

When it comes to socially irresponsible businesses, Sinclair’s muckraking classic never gets old. “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach,”the author said after the Pure Food and Drugs Act passed in 1906.

You may recall the previous 2011 outbreak, when contaminated lettuce sickened 200 and killed five. Congress and the FDA did what they’re supposed to do in such cases, drawing up stricter regulations. Then along came the Trumpist GOP.

GQ and Wired tell the story:

Fruits and vegetables carry E. coli if they’re exposed to contaminated water, and salad greens, typically eaten raw, are especially prone to spreading it. Water can get contaminated by livestock or wildlife waste, and that fecal runoff can easily make its way into farming irrigation. So, Congress passed legislation requiring farmers to test irrigation water for pathogens. The legislation would have gone into effect earlier this year based on criteria drawn up by the Obama-era Food and Drug Administration. As Wired reports:

But six months before people were sickened by the contaminated romaine, President Donald Trump’s FDA – responding to pressure from the farm industry and Trump’s order to eliminate regulations – shelved the water-testing rules for at least four years.

Here’s my previous post from when Trump was still on the campaign trail.

Reprinted from Sept. 16, 2016

One of Donald Trump’s favorite targets is “overregulation,” and yesterday he went after food inspections and “the FDA food police.” This gives me the opportunity to talk a novel that very tangibly made our lives better. After Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) described what was happening in the meat packing industry, Congress went to work and required rigorous health inspections.

Now Trump wants to turn the clock back. As the Hill reported yesterday,

Donald Trump floated rolling back food safety regulations if he wins the White House in November.

In a fact sheet posted online Thursday, the campaign highlighted a number of “specific regulations to be eliminated” under the GOP nominee’s economic plan, including what they called the “FDA Food Police.”

The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food,” it read.

“The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when,” the statement continued. “It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”

“Inspection overkill” was not the problem in 1906. Although Sinclair wanted to alert people to the plight of U.S. workers, he observed that his book created a sensation “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” Passages such as the following stirred public outrage:

With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest—that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.

Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose. In the pickling of hams they had an ingenious apparatus, by which they saved time and increased the capacity of the plant—a machine consisting of a hollow needle attached to a pump; by plunging this needle into the meat and working with his foot, a man could fill a ham with pickle in a few seconds. And yet, in spite of this, there would be hams found spoiled, some of them with an odor so bad that a man could hardly bear to be in the room with them. To pump into these the packers had a second and much stronger pickle which destroyed the odor—a process known to the workers as “giving them thirty per cent.” Also, after the hams had been smoked, there would be found some that had gone to the bad. Formerly these had been sold as “Number Three Grade,” but later on some ingenious person had hit upon a new device, and now they would extract the bone, about which the bad part generally lay, and insert in the hole a white-hot iron. After this invention there was no longer Number One, Two, and Three Grade—there was only Number One Grade. The packers were always originating such schemes—they had what they called “boneless hams,” which were all the odds and ends of pork stuffed into casings; and “California hams,” which were the shoulders, with big knuckle joints, and nearly all the meat cut out; and fancy “skinned hams,” which were made of the oldest hogs, whose skins were so heavy and coarse that no one would buy them—that is, until they had been cooked and chopped fine and labeled “head cheese!”

It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the two-thousand-revolutions-a-minute flyers, and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast. Some of it they would make into “smoked” sausage—but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it they would stamp some of it “special,” and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.

Be wary of those want to take America back to the “good old days.” We may not like what we’d be taken back to

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America’s Dark Fairy Tale

Asylum seekers gassed by U.S. border agents


The sight of ICE officials teargassing asylum seekers, including women and children, joins those nightmare images of crying toddlers and children in cages that we owe to the Trump administration. The president’s obsession with exclusionary walls continues to bring out the worst in us.

Tomorrow in my Anglophone class we will discuss a horrifying Nadine Gordimer story about a family that finds ever more ways to shield itself from the outer world. It functions as a parable about how Trumpian fear destroys what we most treasure.

“Once upon a Time” opens with the author reflecting about a request that she write a children’s story, even though she doesn’t write such stories. When she is told that every author “ought to write at least one story for children,” she says she doesn’t “accept that I ‘ought’ to write anything.”

Nevertheless, the story comes to her one night when she is awoken from sleep by creaking in her house. Suspecting an intruder, she thinks of her vulnerability. Her house has “no burglar bars, no gun under the pillow,” and her windowpanes could “shatter like a wineglass.” She thinks of people who have been murdered, including one in her neighborhood.

It so happens that the creaking is not caused by an intruder but by something with symbolic significance given South Africa’s brutal mining history. Notice her use of the pun “undermined”:

The house that surrounds me while I sleep is built on undermined ground; far beneath my bed, the floor, the house’s foundations, the stopes and passages of gold mines have hollowed the rock, and when some face trembles, detaches and falls, three thousand feet below, the whole house shifts slightly, bringing uneasy strain to the balance and counterbalance of brick, cement, wood and glass that hold it as a structure around me.

The situation reminds me of an actual fairy story, George Macdonald’s Princess and Curdie, where the greed of a king undermines the capital so that the entire city is swallowed up. I wrote about the story in a post about how we sacrifice our environmental future for present-day gratification.

Gordimer makes a similar point. Once she understands why the house is creaking, her rapidly beating heart slows down, “tailing off like the last muffled flourishes on one of the wooden xylophones made by the Chopia and Tsonga migrant miners who might have been down there.” While she herself doesn’t face immediate danger, falling rocks may be burying miners in “the most profound of tombs.” In other words, her world is precarious because it is built on the backs of brutalized labor.

Her “fairy tale” is about similar fears of vulnerability. We are introduced to a man and a woman

who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy, and they loved him very much. They had a cat and a dog that the little boy loved very much. They had a car and a caravan trailer for holidays, and a swimming-pool  which was fenced so that the little boy and his playmates would not fall in and drown. They had a housemaid who was absolutely trustworthy and an itinerant gardener who was highly recommended by the neighbors.

Note how, from the first, “happily ever after” gets conflated with a safe and secure middle-class existence. “Sleeping Beauty,” the Grimm Brothers story referenced in Gordimer’s story, begins similarly:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

 The king gave a christening feast so grand that the like of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come to the christening as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

Unfortunately, the king has forgotten to invite one fairy and, when gift-giving time arrives, she utters a curse:

When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!

She is followed by a “wise young fairy” whose counter spell offers the promise of a happy ending. Nevertheless, the king attempts to control the future by destroying all spindles.

The “wise witch” in Gordimer’s story is the husband’s mother, who terrifies the family with stories of what could go wrong. She warns them “not to take on anyone off the street.”

The story was written in the final years of apartheid (in 1989, a couple of years before the white government ceded control) and is filled with social unrest and white fears. The family’s version of banning spindles is buying insurance and subscribing to the local Neighborhood Watch, which provides the plaque YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED on the gate. They also forbid entry to all black South Africans with the exception of “reliable” housemaids and gardeners.

These precautions don’t feel enough to the wife, however, as she watches “buses being burned, cars stoned, and schoolchildren shot by the police”:

Yet she was afraid that some day such people might come up the street and tear off the plaque YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and open the gates and stream in.

The family therefore adds more and more protection to the house so that they come to see the world through the bars on the windows and hear it through the “keening” of burglar alarms that the cat sometimes sets off. Then the “wise old witch” gives the family, as a Christmas gift, bricks to build the wall higher.

For his part, the little boy gets two gifts that involve protective enclosure: a spaceman’s outfit and a book of fairy tales, within which one can shut out the outside world.

When even the higher walls don’t feel safe enough, the family opts for a special kind of wire:

Placed the length of walls, it consisted of a continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so that there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs. There would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh.

And now for the horrifying denouement:

One evening, the mother read the little boy to sleep with a fairy story from the book the wise old witch had given him at Christmas. Next day he pretended to be the Prince who braves the terrible thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty back to life: he dragged a ladder to the wall, the shining coiled tunnel was just wide enough for his little body to creep in, and with the first fixing of its razor-teeth in his knees and hands and head he screamed and struggled deeper into its tangle.

By the time they rescue the child, he has become an “it”:

[T]hey carried it—the man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid and the weeping gardener—into the house.

Fairy tales, as Bruno Bettelheim and others have taught us, provide us with a reassuring way to handle fears and dark thoughts. By choosing the fairy tale structure, Gordimer seems to promise the same.

But there is no fairy tale ending when we allow our hysteria to demonize strangers and, in the process, dehumanize ourselves. Such hysteria, beginning with birtherism, fueled Trump’s rise to power, and it will continue to rip us apart and shred our ability to empathize. It will destroy what remains of our innocence.

Trump signals that putting America first means sanctioning the murder of journalists, siding with autocratic regimes over democratic ones, and using force against asylum seekers. If his vision ever takes hold, then farewell to the U.S.’s promising “once upon a time.”

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By Donne Logic, Chess Refined, Not Dull

Eakins, “The Chess Players”


The world chess championship teeters on the edge of something that has never happened before. If Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana draw today, they will go into the lightning rounds with no one having won any of the 12 regular games. While this is a disappointment to many casual chess fans, a John Donne poem helps us see the games as chess aficionados are seeing them.

These people find the games to be chock full of excitement. In a number of them, moves that appear innocent are recognized by the contestants to be mistakes leading to inevitable checkmate. In other words, Carlsen and Caruana are engaged in a high wire act, and neither so far as suffered a fall. At times (to shift analogies) the players have wriggled out of trouble with Houdini-like skill.

True, in one game the monitoring computer showed a path to checkmate for Caruana. That checkmate, however, required 30 more moves. Computers operate at those refined levels but not humans.

Which leads me to Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” where we also see two levels at work. In a love letter to his wife, Donne says that their sublime connection means that, when he travels abroad, they will not exhibit the same signs of grief as other people. Their relationship is so sublime that it doesn’t require mere physical presence.

Other people, by contrast, go into dramatic paroxysms when they encounter death or departure. Think of them as run-of-the-mill chess players who can see only a few moves ahead. They may make loud dramatic moves but miss out on the higher picture.

The refined speaker counsels his love not to break down into tears and heavy sighs:

So let us melt, and make no noise, 
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; 
‘Twere profanation of our joys 
   To tell the laity our love. 

Such responses would be like earthquakes, which shake everyone up. Earthquakes are child’s play compared to disruptions within heavenly bodies, however. These disruptions (“trepidation of the spheres”), which according to 17th century astrology have a profound effect on human affairs, nevertheless go unnoticed (are “innocent”):

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears, 
   Men reckon what it did, and meant; 
But trepidation of the spheres, 
   Though greater far, is innocent. 

Donne’s ultimately argues, in multiple ways, that he and his lover are so refined that they don’t operate the way we “dull sublunary lovers” do. So don’t expect any sublunary dramas for them:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love 
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit 
Absence, because it doth remove 
   Those things which elemented it. 

But we by a love so much refined, 
   That our selves know not what it is, 
Inter-assured of the mind, 
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. 

Carlsen and Caruana see things the rest of us miss. Even certain pawn moves have had chess pros, after some examination, gasping in admiration (and then spending 15 minutes to explain why the move was so brilliant).

Perhaps Carlsen and Caruana can’t see the board like a computer, but they’re still pretty damned refined.

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The Only Lasting Treasure, Truth

Tintoretto, “Christ before Pilate” (1567)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading brings to mind one of my favorite poems by William Cowper, reportedly Jane Austen’s favorite poet (and certainly Marianne Dashwood’s in Sense and Sensibility). I’m cannibalizing some of what I wrote about the poem in a previous post.

The Gospel reading features the famous dialogue between Jesus and Pilate (John 18:33-38). It’s one of those conversations where the participants have two entirely different frames of reference. Jesus, of course, understands this while Pilate is simply confused:

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Cowper references the passage in his long free-association poem The Task:

But what is truth? ’twas Pilate’s question put
To truth itself, that deigned him no reply.

Cowper sets out to answer the question. He does so by means of contrast in which he quotes Isaiah’s “all flesh is grass.” Much of what we celebrate and cling to is transitory:

All flesh is grass, and all its glory fades
Like the fair flower disheveled in the wind;
Riches have wings, and grandeur is a dream;
The man we celebrate must find a tomb,
And we that worship him, ignoble graves.
Nothing is proof against the general curse
Of vanity, that seizes all below.

Cowper then explains what is really important:

The only amaranthine flower on earth
Is virtue; the only lasting treasure, truth.

Why wouldn’t Jesus answer Pilate’s question? Cowper says it’s because Pilate wasn’t really interested in the answer. After all, God will joyously “impart His light to them that ask it.” If Pilate really wanted to know, Jesus would have told him. But because the Roman is “proud, uncandid, insincere” and “negligent” to boot, his question operates more as a dismissal:

And wherefore? will not God impart His light
To them that ask it?—Freely—’tis His joy,
His glory, and His nature to impart.
But to the proud, uncandid, insincere,
Or negligent inquirer, not a spark.

Cowper goes on to say that the author who writes a truthful book will reap contempt from such people. So will the truthful minister who, while bringing joy to those whose hearts are open, will be reproached by those who don’t want to hear his message:

What’s that which brings contempt upon a book
And him that writes it, though the style be neat,
The method clear, and argument exact?
That makes a minister in holy things
The joy of many, and the dread of more,
His name a theme for praise and for reproach?—
That, while it gives us worth in God’s account,
Depreciates and undoes us in our own?

Finally, Cowper compares Truth to Jesus’s “pearl of great price,” worth more than all one’s worldly goods. The rich man cannot buy Truth, and “learning”—by which Cowper means worldly sophistication—thinks it is beneath notice. After all, it won’t advance one’s selfish agenda.

The poor and despised recognize it, however:

What pearl is it that rich men cannot buy,
That learning is too proud to gather up,
But which the poor and the despised of all
Seek and obtain, and often find unsought?
Tell me, and I will tell thee what is truth.

Or as Jesus puts it,

[T]he reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

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Who Determines What a Work Means?

Rembrandt, “Two Scholars Disputing (Peter and Paul)”


Yesterday, while my fellow Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving, I delivered a lecture on reader response theory to a University of Ljubljana literary theory class and then, in the early evening, attended a public interview with Irish novelist Roddy Doyle at Ljubljana’s annual book festival.

So that I wouldn’t entirely lose the holiday, however, former student Milan Mandeljc invited me over for a dinner of turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin soup, broccoli and brussels sprouts, and a wonderfully light persimmon mousse. His wife, children, mother, mother-in-law, and siblings were there as well, providing me with a surrogate family and prompting me to resort to my limited Slovenian. I got to be officially thankful after all.

For the lecture, colleague and friend Jason Blake asked me to focus on Stanley Fish and Hans Robert Jauss. Since Fish is most interested in who referees literary interpretation, I departed from my usual focus on how literature impacts human behavior. Instead, I talked mainly about who gets to decide whether an interpretation is right or not.

Because college students in America are writing end-of-the-semester essays at the moment, I share that part of my talk here.

Fish famously pushed the issue by asking, “Is there a text in this class?” If everyone has his or her own interpretation, can we ever arrive at agreement? Fish answered that it was indeed possible because we don’t in fact make individual interpretations but operate within interpretive communities, The community sets parameters on what we come up with, and interpretations can be judged within those parameters.

Although it’s a useful formulation, interpretive communities can themselves be problematic. In the 1950s, for instance, English departments consisted mainly of white middle class men who determined not only which interpretations were acceptable but which works were worthy of interpretation. Those who experienced works differently were simply not heard.

To be sure, this has always been the case. When Aristotle said that we experience cathartic pity and fear while watching great tragedies, he assumed that everyone shared his own reaction to Oedipus’s fall. When Elizabethan Sir Philip Sidney talked about literary satire shaming us into good behavior, he assumed everyone had his particular morals. Both men automatically assumed they speak for all audiences.

People began to question such claims of universality in the 18th century with the explosion of middle class literacy. If Henry Fielding’s narrator has a combative relationship with the imagined reader of Tom Jones, it’s because the author doesn’t know exactly who his audience is. As a result, the age witnessed the rise of the professional critic, above all Samuel Johnson, who instructed readers on how to read.

Matthew Arnold in the 19th century also regarded his task as ensuring that the working class, with his aid, would read proper literature. If they did so, they would be contented with their lot in life and not foment revolution. Shakespeare was acceptable reading but not, say, Blake and Shelley’s revolutionary poetry.

Throughout the 20th century, various movements began pushing against the reigning interpretive communities. Four illustrative examples are:

–Marxist Bertolt Brecht, who exposed “bourgeois drama” and opened our eyes to working class concerns;
–African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, who made us aware of our racial biases while reading;
–feminist Judith Fetterley, whose Resisting Reader caused us to see American literature from a gendered perspective; and
–Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who called out Joseph Conrad’s stereotyped depictions of Africans.

Mainstream English departments resisted these conversations for as long as they could and, in fact, retreated into a formalism (the New Criticism) that insisted that author, reader and context were irrelevant. Only the text mattered. Beardsley and Wimsatt dismissed the author’s intention in “The Intentional Fallacy” and then dismissed the reader’s experience in “The Affective Fallacy.” At the height of New Criticism, one anthologist even published a literary collection with authors and dates removed.

Along with Marxism, feminism, and racial and post-colonialist criticism, reader response theory pushed back against New Criticism. Jauss was an important voice in that pushback, writing at one point,

Literature is not a monument that monologically reveals its timeless essence. It is much more like an orchestration that strikes ever new resonances among its readers and that frees the text from the material of the words and brings it to a contemporary existence.

Rather than strive for one definitive reading of a text, Jauss argued that interpretations are shaped by the “horizon of expectations” of the reader. By reconstructing what resonances the work struck at the time, we can make sense of past interpretations, which before we might have dismissed. In fact, we learn something new about the work.

I concluded this section of the talk by describing Jauss’s importance to me as a young scholar. By delving into the dialogue between a work and its first readers, I saw more clearly how literature is a dynamic, meaning-making process.

As a teacher, I told the Slovenian class, I look not only at how past eras have interacted with works but how my students do so as well. We each have our horizon of expectations, which shapes how we see the world, and works engage with that horizon. Those works that are light or “culinary” (to use Jauss’s descriptor) merely confirm the horizon. Great literature challenges it.

At this point I shifted from how we interpret literature to how literature changes our behavior. But that’s enough for now.

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At This Table, We Give Thanks

Van Gogh, “Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions, and Sealing Wax”

Thursday – Thanksgiving

I will not be celebrating my favorite holiday today as I’m in Slovenia teaching a class in the morning (on reader response theory) and attending a talk by Irish author Roddy Doyle this evening. However, a former student of mine (Sanja Struna) will be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in a week, so I will get to celebrate after all.

Today’s poem pushes against the grain in that it’s not entirely upbeat, which is appropriate given Native Americans’ understandably ambivalent view of the holiday. Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek nation, writes about her kitchen table, upon which “the gifts of earth are brought, and prepared, set.” The table, however, has seen bad as well as good and Harjo acknowledges it all.

In her account,  “babies teethe at the corners” and “scrape their knees under it,” children learn life instructions there, women give birth on it and bodies are laid out upon it.

As the poet’s vision expands, we hear about dire events that can be traced back to this table.  Wars have begun here and terrible victories have been celebrated. In other words, when we sit down to our Thanksgiving feast, we should contemplate life in all of its dimensions.

As we do so, we realize that life is bigger than any single event and can remind ourselves what it means to be human. We don’t give thanks that we have had sorrows–I dearly wish that my oldest son was still alive–but we can be grateful at how even sadness has deepened the rich texture of our existence. Because there has been crying as well as laughing, we can savor all the more the sweet bites that we are afforded.

If the world ends while we are all gathered around this table, is there any other place we would rather be? I’m sorry that I am not at my own family’s table this Thanksgiving, but I will be there in spirit.

Lift a glass for me.

Perhaps the World Ends Here

By Joy Harjo

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

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Teaching Lit in Ljubljana

Ljubljana statue of Slovenia’s national poet France Prešeren


Today I catch you up on my teaching experiences at the University of Ljubljana, where I’m spending six weeks visiting the classes of former colleagues. I’m also solidifying the St. Mary’s-Ljubljana student exchange program, which Julia and I set up in 2008 to commemorate our oldest son. So far I’ve taught classes on Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Midnight’s Children, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Oh, and I visited Trieste over the weekend and got to put my arms around the James Joyce statue.

I taught in Ljubljana in987-88 and again in 1994-95 on Fulbright fellowships (the first time it was still Yugoslavia) and developed many enduring friendships. My children went to school here, and when our oldest son died, we used money that people donated to set up the program. We’ve had 22 Slovenian students spend a semester at St. Mary’s and 19 St. Mary’s MAT students do student teaching in Ljubljana. Although I’m now retired, I’m here to ensure that the program continues.

When I’m in Ljubljana, I volunteer my services, which is how I came to teach these classes. In my remaining weeks I will be teaching Henry IV, Part I, Twelfth Night and King Lear in a Shakespeare class and God of Small Things, Purple Hibiscus, and short stories by Nadine Gordimer and V. S. Naipaul in a post-colonial literature class. I will also be teaching The Wife of Bath (in a medieval lit class) and reader response theory (in a literary theory class).

I’d never taught Romeo and Juliet or Taming of the Shrew before, and as teaching always bring me new insights, I’ve gained a new appreciation of both plays. I hadn’t realized just how radical R&J is and how, from the street brawls on, testosterone and hormones are ready to blow everything apart. As Friar Lawrence observes,

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume…

In other words, it is not a sweet romance.

I also hadn’t realized how much Juliet dominates the second half. As much as she loves Romeo, she may love even more her newly discovered sense of power. No wonder she captures the imagination of high school girls.

Since there are many similarities between Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer, I asked the class which they thought was written first (scholars don’t know). One student speculated that, following the no-holds-barred, idolatrous passion of R&J, Shakespeare wrote his Pyramus and Thisbe spoof to calm down. She said it was like the Greeks following up a day of tragedies (three in a row) with a satyr play. After venturing into the refined realms of heightened emotion, psychologically one needs an earthy comedy.

For Taming of the Shrew, we discussed different ways to interpret Kate’s final declaration about wifely duty:

Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

I had them vote on whether the passage is to be read as straight, ironic, a joint performance with her husband, or mere farce.

No one read the passage as straight, although one student wondered whether Kate has Stockholm Syndrome. Most read it either as ironic (perhaps she exchanges a wink with Bianca) or coordinated with Petruchio (she’s decided to join him in his extravagant behavior). Given Shakespeare’s immense sensitivity, none of us could believe he wants us to laugh at a woman’s humiliation.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, which I taught in a philosophy class on feminism, I explored Atwood’s mixed relationship with political feminists. Atwood has declared she is not a feminist, although she favors many things that feminists favor, and I discussed why this was an appropriate stance for a novelist. We need novelists to expand our horizons, including exploding sentimental or idealized versions of women. Activists, on the other hand, must focus their goals if they are to get things done. At their best, activism and literature coexist in a creative tension.

In the Anglophone class, at one point I had the students (half of whom were Slovenian, half from elsewhere) figure out  which of the postcolonial theories about literature applied to their own country. Had they been colonizers, colonized, or both and what role did literature play in that national drama?

To cite one example, if poet France Prešeren is Slovenia’s national poet (a large statue of him stands in the center of Ljubljana), it’s because he showed the world that the Slovenian language could produce great poetry. This was vital if Slovenia was to establish a distinctive identity within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In other words, poetry isn’t just poetry.

Along with teaching, I’m putting the final touches on a collection of my blog essays, which I’m entitling Reading as Resistance in the Age of Trump: Fighting Back with Aeschylus, Blake, Chaucer, Dante, Eliot, Fielding, Goethe, Homer, Ibsen, Joyce, Kundera, Le Guin, Milton, Nye, Orwell, Pope, Rushdie, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Virgil, Warren, Yeats, Zamiatin and Others. I plan to have it available in December.

Stay tuned.

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The GOP & Trump’s Siren Call

Herbert James Draper, “Ulysses and the Sirens”


The other day I detected one of Atlantic’s excellent columnists misusing a classical analogy. I flag Ed Kilgore, not to show off, but because the analogy is indeed enlightening if used correctly. See if you can find the mistake:

This would suggest that the occasional efforts by individual Republican congressmen to show some distance from Trump weren’t very effective. That may be because at the leadership level, the GOP has totally surrendered to MAGA, as Brownstein observes, deploying a nice metaphor comparing Republicans to Odysseus in the land of the Sirens:

Led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House and Senate Republicans made a strategic decision to lock arms around Trump over the past two years. They resolutely rejected any meaningful oversight of his administration; excused, or even actively defended, his most incendiary remarks; buried legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller; and worked in harness with the president to pass an agenda aimed almost entirely at the preferences and priorities of voters within the GOP coalition, including tax cuts and the unsuccessful attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Even as Trump’s presidency careened through daily storms, many of his own making, they lashed themselves to its mast.

As I’m sure you noted, Odysseus survives because he is lashed to the mast, not the other way around. Heeding Circe’s warning that no man can resist the Sirens’ call, he stops up his men’s ears with beeswax and has them lash him to his mast so that he himself can listen in safety. Otherwise he’s a dead man.

The symbolism of the sirens goes deeper. They are one of many figures in the epic who seek to get Odysseus to forget about his duties as king. Why take on the hard tasks of governing when the sirens, Circe, Calypso, and the Lotos Eaters offer such seductive alternatives?

So how about this? If they had practiced Odysseus’s self-discipline, the defeated GOP legislators would have successfully resisted Trump’s siren call. Think of the mast as bedrock principles and the ropes as their moral duty.

The Sirens promise men what they most desire, which in the wily Odysseus’s case is knowledge.

you famous man, great glory of Achaeans,
come over here. Let your ship pause awhile,
so you can hear the songs we two will sing.
No man has ever rowed in his black ship
past this island and not listened to us,
sweet-voiced melodies sung from our lips.
That brings him joy, and he departs from here
a wiser man, for we two understand
all the things that went on there in Troy,
all Trojan and Achaean suffering,
thanks to what the gods then willed, for we know
everything that happens on this fertile earth.’

GOP legislators may have thought that Trump had all the answers, that he could rewrite the past and forge the future. They may have thought he could deliver electoral paradise. Instead they were buried under a blue wave.

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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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