Borges’s Deep Grasp of Memory


The blog Literary Hub recently shared a fascinating excerpt from Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering, where author Scott Small contends that Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges anticipates significant neurological breakthroughs in his short story “Funes the Memorious.” He grasped before science did that forgetting is cognitively beneficial. If we didn’t forget, we couldn’t generalize.

Small explains how this works:

No matter how routinized our lives, the continuous alterations to existing memories are vital for us to adapt to our rapidly shape-shifting worlds. Just as the most elegant home remodeling is often a combination of construction on top of demolition, the brain’s optimal solution for behavioral flexibility turns out to be a balance between memory and active forgetting.

Neurobiology, Small says, has been able to study this further since discovering that there are two distinct molecular mechanisms, one for memory and one for forgetting.

In “Funes the Memorious,” a young man has a fall from a horse that leaves him paralyzed. But it also appears to have turned off (neurobiology would now say) his mechanism for forgetting. As a result, he remembers everything:

We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table.; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negor the night before the Quebracho uprising.

This leaves Funes, however, without the ability to generalize. As the narrator explains,

He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).

Funes observes at one point that “I alone have more memories than all mankind has probably had since the world has been the world.” And because this is so overwhelming, he confines himself to a small dark room, usually without light, to lessen the stimuli and achieve a certain degree of sameness. And even this environment presents him with challenges. The narrator observes,

To sleep is to turn one’s mind from the world; Funes, lying on his back on his cot in the shadows, could imagine every crevice and every molding in the sharply defined houses surrounding him. (I repeat that the least important of his memories was more minute and more vivid than our perception of physical pleasure or physical torment.).

Small observes that Borges’s short story is an illustration of

how literary insight into the workings of the mind often predates scientific knowledge, Borges recognized that memory needs to be balanced by normal forgetting in order for a person to cognitively generalize. Without forgetting, young Funes could not generalize from one sensory experience to the next….Without forgetting, Funes found that his only respite from life’s constant fluctuations was to routinize his life and to minimize sensory overload by banishing himself to his dimly lit, quiet, and never-changing bedroom.

Borges also anticipated breakthroughs into autism. Dr. Leo Kanner, now considered the father of child psychiatry, was to conclude that children with autism differ from others because they are “overly fixated on parts.” Small mentions several of his examples:

Charlie, for example, would lash out if the dining room table was not set identically each night. His family was allowed to sit down to eat only after the silverware had been reset precisely as he remembered it. Susan became transfixed by and anxious about a new crack in a wall so minuscule that it had gone unnoticed by the rest of the family. Richard’s inflexibility was most evident during his bedtime routine, which he insisted follow an exact, repetitive sequence of events.

Contrast this with the way that most people operate:

Most of us will walk by a familiar and fully stacked bookshelf and scarcely notice if a single volume was missing or has been transposed with another. Seeing the forest for the trees, or in this case the bookcase for the books, is what psychologists sometimes call generalization: a cognitive ability that allows us to extract general patterns from component parts, to synthesize and integrate parts into a unified whole.

Like Funes, children with autism insist on sameness because otherwise everything seems to be changing all the time and the chaos overwhelms them. They can’t forget the way others do.

Small concludes that recent neurological breakthroughs and recent studies of autism are bearing out Borges’s observations:

Researchers investigating the new science of forgetting have shown that the implicit assumption underpinning Borges’s science fiction was right: we depend on our normal forgetting to cognitively generalize. More than just validating Borges’s assumption, science is beginning to explain why and how forgetting is required for healthy cognition. Scientists who investigate animal models have relied on research in mice and flies to validate and explain Borges’s insight. But clinical scientists investigating autism have contributed to the broader understanding of how our minds benefit from forgetting, of how forgetting helps us to cognitively engage our ever-fluctuating worlds.

Aristotle wrote that literature is truer than history. Apparently it is also giving biology, neurobiology, and psychology a run for their money.

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i thank You God for most this amazing

Monet, Palm Trees at Bordighera

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve only recently discovered e. e. cummings’s Christian poems and am impressed. In “i thank You God for most this amazing,” the poet has taken his distinctive style of idiosyncratic capitalization, punctuation, line spacing and word order and applied it toward capturing the glory of God.

Note how, following every semi-colon and colon, he doesn’t leave a space, as though he is breathless with excitement. And how the best word he can think to characterize God is “yes”:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

The last two lines may refer to Matthew 13: 13-16, where Jesus explains why he too must be creative in order to convey God’s word to others. In his case, he uses stories:

This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.

Cummings may also have in mind Bottom’s own riff off of the Matthew’s passage (in Midsummer Night’s Dream) as he tries to capture his dream, something else that is beyond expressing:

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. 

God may defy our attempts to capture him in language, but those attempts can bring out the best in us.

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Better Living through Lit, the Book

Rembrandt, An Old Woman Reading


I can announce that I’ve completed the revisions of my current book project (!) and am now awaiting feedback from some trusted sources. I celebrate by sharing the table of contents, which has been through various iterations over the past ten years. Feedback welcome.

And whew!

Better Living through Literature: A 2500-Year-Old Debate
Every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living.
                                                                    —Bertolt Brecht

Table of Contents

Part I – Introduction

Part II – Better Living through Literature in Theory
Prehistory: Storytelling, the Key to Species Domination
Plato: Poetry, a Threat to Justice and Virtue
Aristotle: Poetry, Truer Than History
Horace: Instructing While Delighting
Sir Philip Sidney: Poetry as a Guide to Virtue
Samuel Johnson: Shakespeare as a Faithful Mirror of Manners and Life
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poetry as a Force for Liberation
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Literature as a Portrayal of Real Conditions
Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung: Literature as a Blueprint to Self-Mastery
Matthew Arnold: Poetry, Civilization’s Savior
W. E. B. Du Bois: Literature’s Hidden Biases
Terry Eagleton: Literature and Classroom Socialization
Bertolt Brecht: Art as a Hammer to Shape Reality
Frantz Fanon: Post-Colonial Literature, a Form of Combat
The Frankfurt School: Literature That Protests One-Dimensional Society
Hans Robert Jauss: Literature That Expands Horizons
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Literary Endings, Marriage or Death
Allan Bloom, E. D. Hirsch: Literature as Essential Being
Wayne Booth: Literary Works as Best Friends
Martha Nussbaum: Literature, Indispensable Tool for Citizenship
Psychological Studies: Empirical Evidence of Literary Impact

Part III – Better Living through Literature in Practice
How Jane Eyre Has Made the World a Better Place
Jane Austen on Pop Lit: Enjoy but Be Wary
Assessing Literature’s Personal Impact


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Real Teaching Is Always Uncomfortable

Denzel Washington in Hard Lessons


It’s time for us to see attacks on “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) for what they are: attempts to rewrite history in a way that favors Whites. My past two posts (here and here) have been about a Tennessee Contemporary Issues teacher who, in the grand tradition of John Thomas Scopes, was fired for teaching his students things their parents didn’t want them to hear (white privilege in this case). It’s not only Tennessee as rightwing attacks on history teachers and history curricula are breaking out all over the country. And then there’s the Texas governor not allowing the truth to be told about the Alamo.

Of course, this is all part of a larger history-rewriting trend where people are already trying to erase the January 6 insurrection and Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory.

I noted yesterday that African-American poet Lucille Clifton used to tell audiences that she wrote poetry to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, a mantra that some newspapers have also used. The attacks on race education make clear that sometimes, to afflict the comfortable, one just has to remember what actually happened. Clifton asserts this in her understated poem “why some people be mad at me sometimes”:

why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and I keep on remembering

I didn’t realize, when I first read this poem years ago, how mad people could get over remembering. That itself is an instance of my white privilege as only groups that are history’s winners can afford to forget history.

Upon rereading “why some people,” one realizes it has more of an edge than first appears. Clifton uses a colloquial Black English expression—“be mad at me” (instead of “are mad at me” or “get mad at me”)—which makes it sound as though she’s resignedly shrugging it off. The qualifiers “some people” and “sometimes” shows her going out of her way not to blame everyone, as though she’s a naive innocent. But don’t be fooled: she knows exactly what her remembering means, and the “mine” at the end of the poem hits with seismic force. She is insisting on her own identity, no matter how much Whites want her to do otherwise.

She’s a bit more explicit in a poem I’ve written about in the past. In “note to self” she talks about how a white community wants to stifle the cry of a black student when she wants to tell them uncomfortable truths.

The “right” she is talking about in the following passage is the right to define African Americans. As I was one of the trigger points of the poem (I explain the history in this post), that places me as one of the “best” white folk—a mixed compliment as you will see–although the complaint is easily extended to other well-meaning white liberals:

even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live,
as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them,
as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one
and will again…

We never learn anything of significance if we limit our intake to what makes us feel comfortable. Teachers around America know this, which is why they will begin fighting back against attempts to turn American history into rightwing propaganda. Clifton gives us a taste of what that fight will look like.

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White Privilege Explained in Oral Poetry

Kyla Jenée Lacey


Yesterday I wrote about a Tennessee high school teacher that was fired for teaching a Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The First White President” (about Donald Trump) and a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey. I tracked down the video of Lacey delivering her poem (here) and a transcript of it (here) to get a better sense of what was going on in the course.

Lacey’s poem appears to have been composed between 2005-2008—in the latter years of the Geroge W. Bush administration—since there are references to Hurricane Katrina and to Bush cabinet officials. Then again, although it doesn’t mention Obama, it may be from 2009 as the allusion to Sandra Bullock could well be to The Blind Side. (Lacey is objecting to white savior movies since she also mentions Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.) In any event, the poem appears as timely as ever.

Which is disconcerting since often it seems like nothing ever changes. Thankfully, the Black Lives Matter movement has made us more aware of the issues involved. Thanks to Black Lives Matter, at least awareness of the issues has grown. Oh, and we can also thank poets like Lacey and to teachers who share their work with their classes.

We live in a society where many Whites, when they feel uncomfortable around Blacks, call the cops. Increasingly, GOP legislatures are also passing laws for punishing teachers who teach uncomfortable facts about our history. Sometimes conservatives don’t feel they even need laws, as in the case of Matthew Hawn’s firing. While they complain constantly about “cancel culture,” they have no compunction about canceling people they disagree with.

Lacey is aware that she’s making her audience uneasy, even asking rhetorically at one point, “Am I making you uncomfortable?” African American poet Lucille Clifton often used to describe her own poetry as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

But making audiences uncomfortable is dangerous business. Hawn forfeited his white privilege when he called it out and paid the price.

White Privilege
By Kyla Jenée Lacey

We learned your French
We learned your English, your Dutch, your Spanish, your Portuguese
you learned our nothing, you called us stupid

that’s white privilege

and I’m sure it probably hurts for you to hear those two words
kind of like gunshots and explosions
from those commissioned to protect you whisking past your ears

what is white privilege?

it is only five decades of legal acknowledgment expected to correct 400 years of white transgression
it is crack versus cocaine, blacks receiving almost 20% longer sentences for the same
exact offenses
or like, for instance, a black man without a record is less likely to geta job than a white felon
or maybe it’s because we’re lazy and we don’t work hard enough, like what the fuck? 400 years in the same fields literally is an incredible resume builder.
it is Katrina answering the government’s prayers of eugenics
Dick Cheney going fishing the next day
Condoleezza on a shopping spree
Bush in San Diego
But Kanye is the one you call crazy cuz like
it only took the USA two days to get aid to Asia but five for FEMA to get to Canal Street and Esplanade
it is the only one black kid who beat the shit out of the odds
but only thanks to Michelle Pfeiffer and the white shadow and Sandra Bullock so now we all can make it
It is only time thousands of white people are cheering for a black kid to win is in a stadium

it is you looking at me crazy if I told you to go back to Europe even though we didn’t have a say, and your great-grandparents came here voluntarily
it is you, all of sudden having a problem with immigration, like, this isn’t even your nation
how the hell do you discover something that wasn’t even missing to begin with?
you’ve Columbus’ed our traditions
got white girls twerking in high definition with multi colored nails and purple hair but it was ghetto when we did it

Oh am I making you uncomfortable?

try a cramped slave ship
but wait, slavery is over now,
it’s just called the prison system
cuz like you’re not racist cuz you don’t
use the ‘n’ word,
but y’all use n*ggas everyday

what is white privilege?

It is the acceptance of bombs over Baghdad but not over Boston
it is European history being taught as a major and African as an elective
it is learning about my people only 28 days like I’m not black every fucking second

it is every white boy who wanted to f*ck my brains out not because I’m pretty,
but because I’m pretty for a black girl

it is people saying that black people destroy neighborhoods but forgetting that white people destroyed continents

it is every time i have to bring up my plight some white man is telling me that I’m crazy
but is kind enough to praise my English
or say that we are all given the same opportunities
when he has a family history of wealth
and I don’t even know my family history at all

it is the justification of police brutality like what did that person do? well I’m sure it doesn’t hurt as much
when the victim doesn’t look like you

it is throwing out a qualified applicant cuz
their name sounded too African American

it is Newports being imported into black communities but black boys exported for weed
it is big plastic asses being called fat when we naturally have them
it is an Australian woman as the new classic of rap music

it is everyone who hears this poem,
and dismisses all this truth as just spit

that is white privilege

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Tennessee Returns to the Scopes Days

Tracy grills March in Inherit the Wind


A Tennessee high school teacher was recently fired for teaching about white privilege in a Contemporary Issues course, bringing to mind the John Thomas Scopes monkey trial, which occurred in another Tennessee town just under a century ago. Growing up in Tennessee, I remember being fascinated by the account we get of that trial in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. I remember the play assuring my adolescent self that the forces of enlightenment will always prevail. I’m no longer confident that this is the case.

According to an article in The Boston Globe, Matthew Hawn was fired for teaching the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay “The First White President” (about Donald Trump) and a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to his students. I’ll see if I can track down the poem for a future post, but the Globe cited the following passage from the Coates essay:

“[Donald Trump’s] political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that Black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built,” Coates writes of the former president. “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

According to the Globe article,

Hawn’s firing was precipitated by a parent who complained to the district that the essay conveyed a “somewhat angry, and hateful opinion towards President Trump” and contained words he believed should not be “introduced to our children by a high school teacher,” according to documents provided to

According to the documents, Hawn said he was comfortable assigning the essay because “those were the words of the President and I thought the kids were mature enough to handle it.”

When asked what other reading materials he could have assigned to offer a differing viewpoint, Hawn replied: “There is no credible source for a differing point of view.”

Most of the public accounts of the affair are from the School Board so I don’t have the full story. Some former students report that Hawn was a balanced teacher so there’s that. If the School Board is right that Hawn was simply preaching to the class rather that getting his students to probe the issues—well, that would not be good teaching, although if teachers who lecture their classes regularly got fired, there would be a teacher shortage.

I want to know what the school board means by balanced, however. If they think that Hawn should be open to, say, debating whether Barack Obama is Kenyan-born or not, that’s not teaching but just lending legitimacy to fringe theories (as though facts are open to debate). It’s one thing to debate reasonable positions, but is a teacher supposed to rub his or her chin thoughtfully if someone trots out the latest “Democrats are pedophile cannibals” QAnon theory? You can see the challenges teachers face. Teachers have to listen to where students are coming from, but they can’t surrender intellectual integrity.

Meanwhile, another Tennessee parent is objecting to her school teaching “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” written by Bridges about her experience as the first Black child (she was six at the time) to integrate a segregated New Orleans school when she was six. As The Week reports,

Robin Steenman, who heads Moms for Liberty’s Williamson County chapter, reportedly pointed to this book and others at an education committee meeting, claiming its mention of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school” was too harsh and pointing to the fact that it didn’t offer “redemption” at the end, the Tennessean reports. Steenman also reportedly objected to another book about school segregation and expressed disapproval of teaching words like “injustice” and “inequality” in grammar lessons.

I have some experience with Tennessee race education, although admittedly it is from over 55 years ago. In our seventh grade Tennessee history course at Sewanee Elementary School, we were taught that the Civil War was about economics, not slavery. Fred Langford, who would go on to become a corrupt county superintendent of schools, told us the Civil War was actually “the War between the States” because the main issue was states’ rights. (At least he didn’t call it “The War of Northern Aggression,” as some did.) While we learned almost nothing about actual slavery, we were taught that Reconstruction failed because African Americans were incompetent at governance. Nothing was said about the use of white violence to establish Jim Crow rule.

Incidentally, I was once punished (this in sixth grade) for not standing up for “Dixie.” At the local high school, meanwhile, anti-government feelings were so strong in the 1960s that “Dixie” replaced the “Star Spangled Banner” at football games, and I’ve heard that it continues to be played there to this day (although no longer, following Black student protests, after every touchdown). The team is still called the Franklin County Rebels.

My history education didn’t become any more balanced in high school. I remember walking into my U.S. History class the day after Martin Luther King was shot and being told by Jim Miller that King “had lived by the sword and died by the sword.” These teachers were not fired for their views.

Nor were they thrown into jail, which is what happened to Scopes for teaching evolution in a 1925 biology class. In the play, his name is Bernard Cates, and I’m hoping that Hawn can hold onto Cates’s sense of humor as he goes through his ordeal. For instance, at one time Cates tells fellow teacher Rachel,

You know something funny? The food’s better than the boarding house. And you’d better not tell anybody how cool it is down there, or we’ll have a crime wave every summer,

The actual trial pitted populist politician and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady in the play) against legendary defense lawyer Clarence Darrow (Henry Drummond) against each other. I remember being a Darrow fan in high school, having reading Irving Stone’s biography Clarence Darrow for the Defense.

In any event, I found the play reassuring because it’s so clear that reason and truth win out against superstition, even though the jury verdict goes against Scopes. While the fundamentalists have the power at the moment, it’s seems clear that the tide of history will go against them.

Why my confidence has sapped, as I return to Tennessee in retirement, is that the rightwing seems to have as much power as it ever had. In my childhood, segregationist Democrats ran things. Now it’s Trump evangelical Republicans, but the politics seem to be the same. Many today have the same opinions of Democrats as Cates’s neighbors have of him:

Cates: People I thought were my friends look at me now as if I had horns growing out of my head.

Drummond: You murder a wife, it isn’t nearly as bad as murdering an old wives’ tale. Kill one of their fairy-tale notions, and they call down the wrath of God, Brady, and the state legislature.

Of course, politicians make hay out of culture issues in the play just as they do now. Drummond notes, “Matthew Harrison Brady came here to find himself a stump to shout from.”

But in some ways, while trying to ride this evangelical wave to political power—or at least relevance again after three failed presidential bids—Brady finds himself like numerous GOP politicians: he thinks he can exploit the evangelical vote, only to discover that these people are crazier than he ever imagined. This he realizes at a revival meeting when he discovers that Reverend Brown is willing to consign not only Cates to hell but his own daughter Rachel if she stands up for him:

Brown: (Deliberately shattering the rhythm, to go into a frenzied prayer, hands clasped together and lifted heavenward) O Lord of the Tempest and the Thunder! O Lord of Righteousness and Wrath! We pray that Thou wilt make a sign unto us! Strike down this sinner, as Thou didst Thine enemies of old, in the days of the Pharaohs! (All lean forward, almost expecting the heavens to open with a thunderbolt . Rachel is white. Brady shifts uncomfortably in his chair; this is pretty strong stuff, even for him) Let him feel the terror of Thy sword! For all eternity, let his soul writhe in anguish and damnation—

Rachel: No! (She rushes to the platform) No, Father. Don’t pray to destroy Bertl

Brown: Lord, we call down the same curse on those who ask grace for this sinner— though they be blood of my blood, and flesh of my flesh!

In the end, both Bert and Rachel, who have previously been uncertain, decide to think for themselves. To do so is not easy, as Drummond tells Bert and Rachel earlier when they’re both thinking of backing down:

Drummond (to Rachel) Can you buy back his respectability by making him a coward? (He spades his hands in his hip pockets) I understand what Bert’s going through. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world— to find yourself standing up when everybody else is sitting down. To have everybody look at you and say, “What’s the matter with him?” I know. I know what it feels like. Walking down an empty street, listening to the sound of your own footsteps. Shutters closed, blinds drawn, doors locked against you. And you aren’t sure whether you’re walking toward something, or if you’re just walking away.

After the case ends, Drummond tells him what he’s achieved, despite being found guilty:

Drummond: You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow it’ll be something else— and another fella will have to stand up. And you’ve helped give him the guts to do it!

Then Rachel comes in, having determined to leave her father, and gives what can be seen as the message of the play:

Mr. Drummond, I hope I haven’t said anything to offend you. You see, I haven’t really thought very much. I was always afraid of what I might think— so it seemed safer not to think at all. But now I know. A thought is like a child inside our body. It has to be bom. If it dies inside you, part of you dies, too! ( Pointing to the book) Maybe what Mr. Darwin wrote is bad. I don’t know. Bad or good, it doesn’t make any difference. The ideas have to come out— like children. Some of ’em healthy as a bean plant, some sickly. I think the sickly ideas die mostly, don’t you, Bert?

While I enjoyed Inherit the Wind, I thought, even as a high schooler, that it read too much like shooting fish in a barrel. Drummond tears apart Brady’s religious views so effectively that he all but causes Brady’s fatal heart attack. Then he grandly proclaims him to have been a great man. If you’re confident that Science is on the rise and will eventually dispel the mists of darkness, as many thought in the 1950s, you can afford to be magnanimous.

Could the authors have foreseen, however, that evangelical Christians would still be in the ascendency 75 years later, at least in parts of the country. They held the reins of power for four years with Trump and currently hold the GOP in thrall. Currently, they have Republican lawmakers running away from the Covid vaccine and denying the facts of the January 6 insurrection. Dark things are possible if they return the GOP to power.

The easy Enlightenment optimism of people like me is being sorely tested. Inherit the Wind may think it can get fundamentalists to stumble on the witness stand, but you don’t stumble if you can make up reality as you go along.

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Great Literature Shifts Expectations


To save time as I near completion of my current book project, I have been sharing chapters rather than writing new blog posts. I promise that this will be the last time I do so since the revisions are almost done. Today you get to hear about Hans Robert Jauss, who has had a significant influence on me. I wrote about Jauss a couple of years ago but have revised a number of my thoughts about him since then.

We have seen lofty claims for the changes that literature can bring about, from Percy Shelley’s contention that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world to Matthew Arnold’s assertion that literature can forestall class warfare to Brecht’s belief that it can bring about class warfare. In 1967 Hans Robert Jauss of the University of Konstanz earned his 15 minutes of scholarly fame by giving us a way to see literature-caused change in action. Look at how a great work disturbs readers, he said, and you will see audiences on the cusp of significant transformation.

Jauss (1921-77) was a member of the so-called Konstanz School, which pioneered innovative approaches to studying literature. Jauss had a dark past, spending two years on the Russian front during World War II as a youthful member of the SS, a fact he managed to keep hidden until shortly before his death. After the war, he fled from his past by immersing himself in French literature, and his belief that great literature can rewire its readers in a progressive direction may owe something to his own transformation from Nazi to scholar. The momentous power that Jauss ascribes to literature is what attracts scholars like myself to his theory.

During Jauss’s Konstanz career, he and his colleague Wolfgang Iser called their approach Reception Theory, which changed the way we see readers engaging with literary texts. Iser argues that readers essentially collaborate with the author in the realization of the work—they fill in gaps left by the author—while Jauss contends that great works change the reader’s horizon of expectations so that one can become a different person following immersion in a masterpiece. Potentially, one emerges with a broader and more complex framework through which to view the world.

Jauss is most interested in works that confront or unsettle audiences, his assumption being that readers resist change and therefore will kick back against works that demand it of them. In this he owes a debt to Bertolt Brecht’s theories about confrontational theatre and also to avant garde art, which in the 1920s judged itself by how thoroughly it scandalized the bourgeoisie. Jauss’s horizon, like Brecht’s “Weltanschauung” or world view, feels comfortable because it’s familiar whereas a great new work causes a commotion by challenging readers to change their horizon. Perhaps the work is roundly attacked because its vision demands that people abandon traditional modes of thinking and embrace new and broader ones.

Jauss looks at a work’s reception to chart its dialogue with readers: how does it challenge them and how do they push back? To determine this back and forth, one resorts to everything from personal diaries to published reviews to (in certain cases) trial transcripts and political attacks. The literary historian should also check book sales and other indirect ways of assessing impact. Finally, one can find implicit acknowledgement of the author-reader dialogue in future works by the author—how has he or she changed as a result of audience reactions?—as well as in works by his or her contemporaries.

As for literature that does not challenge readers’ horizons, Jauss calls it “culinary.” Culinary works do not stretch readers’ vision of what the form or genre could accomplish but merely satisfy what people expect. It’s as though culinary authors provide a literary Big Mac to readers who have ordered a Big Mac. More to the point, readers who come expecting a certain kind of, say, crime novel experience will be irritated if they are served anything different. Imagine their distress, or at least confusion, if after ordering Agatha Christie’s enjoyable but lightweight Partners in Crime they are instead served with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

A great work may challenge readers in ways they cannot perceive. By focusing on horizon changes, Jauss’s theory resembles Thomas Kuhn’s influential idea of paradigm shifts, found in his landmark work Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Because people see reality in a certain way, Kuhn says, they cannot accept new ideas, even when faced with compelling scientific evidence. For the longest time, Europe could not accept the ideas of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo about the solar system because the reigning paradigm had humankind at the center of creation. Only with incessant challenges did the paradigm eventually change. Jauss’s horizons are his version of Kuhn’s paradigms. Great artists like great scientists hammer away at our understanding of reality until we come around to seeing things through their eyes.

Jauss’s major example of a horizon-changing work is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), which was brought up on charges of indecency. At first glance, Jauss says, the charges don’t make sense. After all, another work with a similar treatment of adultery appeared the same year to a dramatically different reception. Georges Feydeau’s all-but-forgotten novel Fanny was a smash success, going through 13 editions.

A lengthy account of Jauss’s Madame Bovary example is warranted given the insight it provides into literature’s reality-changing potential. Both Flaubert’s and Feydeau’s novels, Jauss says, “understood how to give a sensational twist to the conventional, rigid triangle which in the erotic scenes surpassed the customary details.” In Flaubert’s novel, the wife of a provincial doctor has a sordid affair with a local landowner and commits suicide after he dumps her. Feydeau, meanwhile, “has the youthful lover of [a 30-year-old woman] becoming jealous of his lover’s husband, although he has already reached the goal of his desires, and perishing over this tormenting situation.” Despite the similarities, however, Madame Bovary shook the very foundations of French society whereas Fanny did not.

Jauss locates the difference in the way the stories are told. Fanny might depict immoral actions in a titillating way, but the reader is aware of what’s right and what’s wrong and, more importantly, knows that the author knows it as well. While social rules get broken, the underlying moral structure remains intact. Because Fanny makes no real demands upon the reader’s value system—it has just provided a temporary illicit thrill before returning the reader to familiar moral grounds—the novelis a comfortable, culinary read. No horizon having been challenged, none is expanded.

Flaubert, by contrast, disturbs readers with a new style of storytelling, called “impersonal telling” or “le style indirect libre.” Instead of signaling a value system by which to judge the action, the author appears to have absented himself. Accustomed though we are to this style now (think Ernest Hemingway), it challenged the 1857 horizon of expectations. One can see why Flaubert was taken to court by examining how the prosecution responded to Emma’s ecstasy over having a lover. Here’s the offending passage:

But when she saw herself in the glass she wondered at her face. Never had her eyes been so large, so black, of so profound a depth. Something subtle about her being transfigured her. She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. 

As the prosecutor saw it, Flaubert seems to be glorifying adultery:

The prosecuting attorney regarded the last sentences as an objective description which included the judgement of the narrator and was upset over this “glorification of adultery,” which he considered to be even more dangerous and immoral than the misstep itself.

When we read the passage today, we know that this is not Flaubert’s opinion but Emma’s belief. We know the author has taken us into her mind. The defense in fact made exactly this argument. Readers of the time, however, were not accustomed to having the responsibility thrown upon them.

In earlier novels, omniscient authors make clear how we should assess characters and events. To cite a random example, Charles Dickens intrudes to reassure readers following the heartbreaking death of Little Nell at the conclusion of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841):

Oh! it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven.

The issue with Flaubert is more than a new storytelling technique. If that’s all it was, then there would probably have been no trial. Indirect style, however, appeared to undermine society’s moral guardians as it shifted power to the reader. Without an author to guide them, Flaubert’s readers felt as though they were wandering in an amoral world. Looking at the case through the prosecutor’s eyes, Jauss asks,

To what authority should the case of Madame Bovary be presented if the previously valid standards of society, “public opinion, religious beliefs, public morals, good manners,” are no longer sufficient for judging this case?

As with the scientific breakthroughs that challenge Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms, masterpieces don’t change horizons all at once. For a while, novelists continued to write as they had the past. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which appeared five years after Madame Bovary, features an author who regularly intrudes to comment on the action and draw moral lessons. Nor did a significant mass of French citizens stop looking to society’s reigning social guardians for guidance in how to live their lives. But wheels had been set in motion for significant changes, both in the way stories were told—showing rather than telling eventually became all the rage—and in the way traditional institutions were seen.

Whether Madame Bovary made French lives better depends on who’s making the judgement. The court, tasked with upholding public morality, agreed with the prosecution that the novel undermined prevailing social standards. Without these, it feared, society was slide into Matthew Arnold’s anarchy.

On the other hand, if those institutions had become so problematic or debased that society, to renew itself, needed citizens capable of thinking outside the prevailing horizon of expectations, then we can regard Madame Bovary as a force for social progress. We’ve seen Herbert Marcuse praising the novel for exposing one-dimensional capitalism, challenging readers through its “great refusal” not to settle for less but to keep imagining the possibilities for a more fulfilling society. If Flaubert prods people to address in a substantive way the underlying causes of Emma’s longings, then he has made lives better.

Jauss’s model doesn’t work for all literature since not all works create a ruckus, let alone make court appearances. It does, however, provide insight into those works that do. Whenever one encounters a reading controversy, one can ask about the horizon of expectations that is being challenged. Even when one doesn’t agree with the attackers, one can construct their horizon to make sense of their responses. If Jauss is right that great literature changes the behavior of readers, then such reading is indeed akin to playing with dynamite.

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Salomé, the Morning After

Andrea Solario, Salomé with Head of John the Baptist (ca. 1507-09)

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading is the lurid story of Herod, Herodias, Salome, and John the Baptist. It has caught the attention of numerous authors and artists, including an intriguing poem by Carol Anne Duffy.

First, here’s the reading:

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I’ve never heard a good sermon on this passage and would be intrigued to hear what people would say about it (other than using it to illustrate the decadence of Herod’s court). There seems to be a trajectory to literary treatments of it, however. In the original version, Salomé is an instrument in her mother’s machinations instead of an independent actor, and the same is true of Flaubert’s Salomé in Herodias as well.

Oscar Wilde, however, turned her into the central figure in Salomé. The daughter of privilege, she is drawn to the ascetic prophet, whom she longs to kiss upon the lips. It’s a decadent longing of someone who has everything for that which she can’t have.

There are erotic passages in the play where Salomé expresses her fascination/revulsion, and it is she, not her mother, who engineers the king’s promise. After she gets her wish, she kisses John’s (now severed) head, only to be executed herself by her horrified step-father.

T. S. Eliot has a comic allusion to the Biblical passage in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I love how he throws in a parenthetical aside:

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet…

Prufrock aspires to be like John the Baptist, awakening his society to the spiritual emptiness of its existence. Or at least he considers trying to be prophet, only to back down when he imagines (1) not being able to express himself adequately and (2) getting blank stares even if he did successfully communicate. He’s fairly sure that women will (as the saying goes) hand him his head on a platter if he says anything. So yes, he is no prophet.

Duffy, a Scottish lesbian poet and no shrinking violet, seems to relish the thought of women handing men their heads. The speaker is a promiscuous woman who has had a series of one-night-stands. Then there’s the surprise ending:

By Carol Ann Duffy

I’d done it before
(and doubtless I’ll do it again,
sooner or later) woke up with a head on the pillow beside me – whose? –
what did it matter?
Good-looking, of course, dark hair, rather matted;
the reddish beard several shades lighter;
with very deep lines around the eyes,
from pain, Id guess, maybe laughter;
and a beautiful crimson mouth that obviously knew
how to flatter …
which I kissed …
Colder than pewter.
Strange. What was his name? Peter?

Simon? Andrew? John? I knew I’d feel better
for tea, dry toast, no butter,
so rang for the maid.
And, indeed, her innocent clatter
of cups and plates,

her clearing of clutter,
her regional patter,
were just what needed –
hungover and wrecked as I was from a night on the batter.

Never again!
I needed to clean up my act,
get fitter,
cut out the booze and the fags and the sex.
Yes. And as for the latter,
it was time to turf out the blighter,
the beater or biter,
who’d come like a lamb to the slaughter
to Salome’s bed.

In the mirror, I saw my eyes glitter.
I flung back the sticky red sheets,
and there, like I said – and ain’t life a bitch –
was his head on a platter.

My shock at the ending comes from my realization that we have left metaphor behind for the realm of the actual. Does she really have her recent lover’s head in bed with her? Images of the horse head from The Godfather come to mind.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to a Norwegian noir detective story by Jo Nesbo—The Snowman—that I’m thinking this way since severed heads (and other body parts) make regular appearances there. In any event, Duffy’s Salomé is no longer a passive tool or even someone who has to use her arts to someone else to do the dirty work. She’s fully her own woman. “Ain’t life a bitch,” she taunts whoever (or whatever) she is looking at.

But surely her maid wouldn’t be serving breakfast if it were a real head, right?


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More Concluding Remarks on Lit’s Impact

Franz Eybl, Girl Reading


In Wednesday’s essay I shared the first part of the conclusion I’m writing for my current book project, Better Living through Literature: A 2500-Year-Old Debate. I share the second half here, only noting that this is still in draft form and that I’m looking for feedback. As I noted earlier, I am using my blog deadlines as spurs to finish my book, which means that, this week, you are mostly receiving excerpts of the latter rather than freshly minted essays.

Literature’s power, for good or for bad, has been the constant theme for our theorists, going back to Plato. What is different is the audiences, which have expanded. It was easier to talk about literature’s impact when readers and playgoers looked like you—Athenian male citizens for Plato and Aristotle, Elizabethan courtiers for Sidney. That all began to change in the 18th century, to the consternation of authors like Pope and Swift, as the newly affluent middle class began demanding narratives and characters that spoke specifically to them. The franchise expanded even further as the working class, women, people of color, members of developing nations, LBGTQ folk and others called for true universality. Their demands have often led to heated debates.

We also saw the rise of literature missionaries, with literary experts spreading the news of literature’s good effects and declaiming against the bad. Johnson taught new readers how to appreciate Shakespeare and various contemporary poets while warning them away from novels. Matthew Arnold, seeing the potential in universal education, thought that the arts, led by poetry, could replace religion and usher in a new Renaissance, transforming the “philistine” middle class and the anarchic working class into model citizens. Teachers in this vision were to be the new missionaries, bringing enlightenment where before there had been only ignorance and darkness, including to women’s colleges and worker universities. Cambridge professor F.R. Leavis and his followers, regarding literature as the quintessential means of achieving a civilized society, persuaded schools to make literature instruction an integral part of their curricula.

This had the effect of transferring the inevitable political battles to the schools. As faculties and student bodies became more diverse, the question arose as to what a model citizen looks like. In the 1960s, with the rise of the various liberation movements, activists saw in literature the chance to awaken minds to a liberated consciousness. In the reactive 1980s, conservatives pushed back, contending that the great minds of the past were being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. For all their disagreements, however, the one area of agreement between left and right was literature’s transformative potential, whether for good or for ill. Poems and stories were still seen to be firing bullets.

The ultimate threat to literature is not attack but indifference. That being acknowledged, literature has encountered indifference before and weathered the storm. Thomas Peacock, writing in the early days of utilitarianism (1820), voiced (albeit partially tongue-in-cheek) an early version of current STEM thinking when he contended that “the progress of useful art and science” was rendering poetry obsolete. (Shelley took the bait and responded with his magnificent Defence of Poetry.) Arnold shamed the money-obsessed middle-class with the “philistine” epithet, thereby triggering what Eagleton calls “the rise of English.” In 2018 Salman Rushdie, responding to the cascade of lies pouring out of the White House, pointed out that the classics will always remain powerful because of their commitment to truth. The STEM disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math may not be able to fight back effectively against assaults on evidence-based reality, including on science itself, but literature can.

Literature, in short, will remain a force for those who encounter it. Add film and television to that mix and few would argue, but even limiting ourselves to poetry, fiction, and drama, we will see their enduring impact. As long as there are books and people to read them, horizons will expand and lives will be changed, to the joy of some and the consternation of others.

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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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