Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Winter's Tale

Winter came early to Minnesota in 2014.  November was as cold as January and February usually are.  I found my thoughts drifting to Shakespeare’s romance, with its theme of human failure and wrongdoing balanced with that of redemptive promise, just as the death of nature in winter is offset by the return of the sun to our northern hemisphere at the time of the solstice.

The play reminds us that we are in mythic territory with its title.  This is a “tale,” an old-fashioned story of wondrous events, not a realistic narrative.  By the time of Act V, bystanders characterize the events that have unfolded as “so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” and yet it is all “true.”  And when, like Pygmalion’s statue, Hermione returns to life, we are reminded how art and love can foil nature and death and preserve truth. 

The Winter’s Tale is not for the literal-minded or the hard-hearted.  It requires appreciation for the truth of imagination and for the power of human love.

Paradoxically, however, at the beginning of the play it is the dark side of imagination and love that rears its ugly head.  King Leontes’ love for Hermione is polluted by jealousy as, on the flimsiest of evidence, his imagination feeds his fear that she has been unfaithful to him with his best friend, King Polixenes.  The words “affection” and “infection” recur to suggest how the heart’s affection can be contaminated.  He plots to have his friend murdered and, interpreting Polixenes’ escape as an admission of guilt, he accuses his pregnant wife of carrying his friend’s child.  When the child is born Leontes orders that she be taken away and abandoned to die. 

An oracle brings news that Hermione is innocent, but Leontes is so sick with infection that he refuses to believe it and condemns her to prison.  The contagion spreads as their son, Mamillius (who seems to foreshadow his own death when he states, “A sad tale’s best for winter.”), dies of a disease brought on by the false accusations against his mother, and then Hermione’s death from grief is reported.  These tragic losses finally bring Leontes to his senses and he vows to spend the rest of his life in penance. 

Meanwhile, the child, Perdita (meaning “lost”) is abandoned on the coast of Polixenes’ country.  The servant wants to save her, but a storm wrecks his ship; then he is chased and killed by a bear.  Having arrived at the nadir of tragedy, like the darkest night of the year, we reach a turning point, just as we do at the winter solstice.  Fortune shines and Perdita is rescued by a shepherd, who takes her home to raise as his own.

Sixteen years later Polixenes’ son has fallen in love with Perdita and, in a spring pastoral scene, the two are about to be betrothed.  The plot nearly turns tragic again, as Polixenes, watching in disguise with the servant who had helped him escape Leontes’ murder plot, suddenly reveals himself, threatens Perdita and her adopted father and orders his son, Florizel, never to see her again.  Once more the servant Camillo intervenes, helping Florizel and Perdita, along with her adopted father and brother, to escape.  They arrive in Leontes’ country, where they are welcomed by the King, who is still in mourning.  Polixenes and Camillo arrive soon after, true identities are revealed, forgiveness is asked for and received, father and daughter are reunited, and friends are reconciled. 

In the final scene of redemption, Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo go to the home of Hermione’s servant, Paulina, to view a statue of Hermione.  Leontes is upset to see it, but then the statue comes to life; Hermione steps down; husband, wife, and daughter are reunited in forgiveness and love; Perdita and Florizel are finally betrothed; and everyone celebrates the miraculous happy ending. 

There are hints in the text that Paulina has kept Hermione in hiding all this time, but some prefer to read it as the supernatural event of an “old tale,” just as ancient people found something supernatural in the return of the sun at the winter solstice.

In either case, some have read the play as a Christian allegory of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, whereas others have viewed it in more universal mythic terms of death and rebirth.  And in fact, the text makes more pagan than Christian references.

It is well to note, though, that the death of Mamillius remains unredeemed.  Miracles, salvation, and rebith, it seems, have their limits; nature and human nature retain their imperfection; death and human wrongdoing endure.

Another theme of the play is that of nature vs. art.  While nature, including human nature, is “fallen,” human art has the power of redemption.  Most obviously, Hermione appears at the end of the play as a “statue” inside a chapel that is also an art gallery.  Even if we don’t read this literally, it is Paulina’s artfulness that has kept Hermione in hiding until the appropriate time, and it is her report of Hermione’s death that serves as the final blow that brings Leontes to a sense of his guilt and to his self-imposed penance, itself a form of human art.

The forgoing traditional reading of the play is to be expected from an “old tale,” but contemporary literary theory would look for its historical or political significance.  It can be found in the way that structural social power is wielded, and the way it is reinforced by the text. 

Leontes’ human folly is, perhaps, no worse than the average man, but, because he is king, it has much worse consequences: the death of his son, the abandonment and near death of his daughter, and what amounts to a kind of exile of his wife (assuming a non-supernatural reading).  Similarly, because Polixenes is king and head of his household, he can threaten a shepherd’s family and overrule his son’s marriage choice. 

Perhaps also because Leontes, as king, can wreck more havoc than the average man, he must suffer more punishment and undergo a longer penance.  However, in the end the social structure seems to be redeemed along with the personal lives of the characters.  Leontes has paid a price, but he is still king and structurally capable of wrecking more havoc, though one hopes he has grown in maturity and wisdom.  Likewise, while Florizel finally receives the blessing of his father in his choice of a shepherd’s daughter as his wife, it turns out that “daughter” is a king’s daughter after all.  The social structure remains intact.

One way in which the play undermines aristocratic superiority is found in the characters of the servants, Camillo and Paulina, both of who surpass their masters in wisdom and integrity.  Perhaps there is more ambiguity regarding social class than is immediately apparent.


While modern readers may reject the reinforcement of aristocratic social arrangement that does exist in the play, one hopes our own imaginative artfulness and human sympathy can enable us to transcend history and politics long enough to appreciate the universal message of both human weakness and human capacity for redemption.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Devil in Massachusetts

Marion Starkey’s 1949 study of the Salem witchcraft trials bears revisiting in light of the recent public hysteria over Ebola.

We like to flatter ourselves that we have progressed beyond the kind of mass delusion based on superstition, fantasy, and fear that resulted in the deaths of twenty innocent people in 1692.  And, indeed, it is hard to imagine a repeat of those events occurring in 21st century America.  However, Arthur Miller, in The Crucible, found them a salient analogy to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and we could cite any number of examples in recent history of persecution based on fears surrounding race, religion, gender, and homosexuality.

The Ebola scare, originating in West Africa, obviously has a racial component.  Would it be so scary, would we react the same if it had originated in Northern Europe?

In 1692 there were those who claimed the devil was attacking the spread of Christianity into the so-called “New World” by unleashing bands of witches on the God-loving people of Salem.  Irrational fears of the native “heathens,” not to mention the “voodoo” practices of the slave, Tituba, from Barbados, fed this religious fantasy.

In addition to documenting the seeds of the Salem events in the Parris household and the spread of hysteria through the village and into the courtroom, Starkey uses modern psychological theory to argue that the good people of Salem suffered from a kind of mass projection of guilt over their own “sins” onto certain individuals who were feared or disliked. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, in “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter (see post 10/24/12), had earlier dramatized the same phenomenon without the aid of modern psychology.

In the current Ebola scare, we project our fear and sense of vulnerability, not only onto the victims of the disease, but also onto anyone who had contact with them or who even looks like them.  We almost perversely ignore the medical and scientific facts of how the disease is spread in favor of our worst fears.


This contemporary scapegoating suggests that the 322 years between 1692 and 2014 may be shorter than we like to think.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

Almost two months ago some of my Facebook friends started challenging me to name ten influential books that have stayed with me.  I ignored these challenges because I’ve been reading books for 60+ years of life, 19+ years of school, and 30+ years of teaching literature.  It was just too overwhelming to pick ten books on short notice and have it mean anything significant at all.

I did give it some thought, though, and here are my ten books.

1.        Alice in Wonderland.  My parents read this book to me before I could read it for myself.  More than any other children’s book it stirred my imagination and stoked my love of literature from an early age.  I even remember having childhood dreams that sprang from the characters and episodes of this children’s fantasy.  Only later did I come to appreciate the adult themes.

2.       Silver Pennies (http://www.amazon.com/Silver-Pennies-Collection-Modern-Poems/dp/B0037A5UFK).  I remember spending hours as a child poring over this children’s poetry collection, memorizing poems, reciting them, acting them out, even taking notes in the margins.  This little book did more to stimulate and develop the early love of poetry that has stayed with me to this day.

3.        Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.  Having been introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry in Silver Pennies, I went on to read her collected poems in depth, mesmerized by both the style and content.  Many of the poems were cryptic riddles, but that only whetted my appetite for the joy of analyzing and interpreting literature, as well as enjoying its sensory and psychological pleasures.

4.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I read this in ninth grade English at my all-white high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, where schools were still segregated in 1960.  Having learned about the civil rights movement at the family dinner table, where my father frequently held forth on the evils of racism, Jim Crow, and segregation, I was struck by the bond between Huck, the runaway white orphan, and Jim, the runaway black slave.  Later I came to understand the racist elements of the novel, but at the time I was most impressed by the possibilities for interracial friendship and loyalty.

5.       To Kill A Mockingbird.  I read this novel in tenth grade English at the same white high school and have never forgotten the lesson in social inequality and injustice based on race.  My class at E. C. Glass High School was the last all white class to graduate from the school, as it was integrated in my senior year.

I look back in amazement that I read both these books in a segregated high school in the South at the height of the civil rights movement, and, as we studied these novels, we never once had a classroom discussion of how they related to the history unfolding around us.

6.       Catcher in the Rye.  As a teenager I was captivated by Holden Caulfield’s raw adolescent honesty and aversion to adult “phoniness.”  Although I was fairly conformist in those days, I had a secret admiration for the misfits and rebels of society that has stayed with me to this day.

7.       The Sound and the Fury.  More than anything this novel embodies my sense of southern regionalism, especially in the multiple voices of characters that seemed to echo members of my own family.  Though I have now lived longer outside of the South than in it, I still carry with me that underlying burden of Southern history—the loss, the guilt, the love and loyalty, the shame, as well as the enduring sights, sounds, smells of the South—its food, its climate, its landscapes, its flora and fauna, its accents, all of which are bound to my earliest memories.

8.       The Marble Faun.  Despite my roots in the South, I learned to love the literature of 19th century New England and the mid-Atlantic, going on to write my Master’s thesis on Henry James and my doctoral dissertation on Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The theme of Americans in Europe, the Old World and the New World, has always drawn me in, and in none more hauntingly than The Marble Faun, in which New England Puritanism and Old World Catholicism are strongly bound up together in ways that have led me to an abiding interest in history, religion, philosophy, human psychology, and ethics.

9.       Nature.  When I renounced my Southern Baptist upbringing I rejected religion in general.  My World and English History professor in college did succeed in sparking my interest in Anglicanism, but it was Transcendentalism that really made an impact.  This book-length essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson transcends all Christian denominations and all world religions to achieve a kind of religious philosophy or philosophical religion that eventually led me to Unitarian Universalism.  In addition, while most philosophers would laughingly dismiss Emerson as a philosopher, I think his writings show how philosophy and literature can meet and merge.

10.   Moby Dick.  My love of both literature and philosophy makes me a sucker for the philosophical novel or novel of ideas.  This novel is the ultimate smorgasbord of adventure, drama, poetry, comedy, tragedy, allegory, symbolism, psychology, religion, and philosophy, all somehow tied together by unforgettable characters, an unforgettable narrative, and an unforgettable epic style.


Creating this list has accomplished exactly what I thought it would—made me painfully aware of all I have left out.  So many books that have made me who I am, enriched my life, and opened my eyes to worlds beyond my own paltry experience.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Goldfinch

This 2013 novel by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.  It received mixed reviews when it was first published and mixed reviews from my literary friends.  Some gave it a thumbs up, some a thumbs down, and some, like me, a sideways thumb.

The strongest reaction from my friends was that it is too long (784 pages), too heavy on detail, repetitive, etc., etc.  I agree that economy is not the author’s strong point, and especially since a lot of the detail involves copious consumption of drugs and alcohol, I almost didn’t finish it myself.  I stuck with it, partly because I was looking for a good reason to award it a Pulitzer Prize; partly because I was curious how the main character, suffering from multiple psychological wounds, was going to end up; and partly because I was quite mesmerized by the actual Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch” as well as its fictional fate in the novel.

In any case, apart from the suspense surrounding Theo Decker’s life drama, starting at age 13 as a motherless, practically fatherless, unintentional art thief, the novel is worth our time for the complexity, the artistry, and the profundity that makes any work of fiction worth reading, however long and drawn out.

By the way, at one point the text indirectly defends the excessive detail in the novel, suggesting that no detail in a work of art is wasted.  The artist is trying to tell us something with every brushstroke.  That may be true, but a writer might be wise to attend to her readers’ capacity, lest she lose them.

As for the complexity, The Goldfinch can be read, studied, and appreciated from numerous perspectives.  It is a coming of age story as Theo is initiated into a world of violence, homelessness, drug addiction, petty theft, as well as not so petty theft, and a whole dark underworld of criminal activity.  It is also a conversion/recovery narrative as he eventually meets what he himself calls his Damascus moment, alone and suicidal in an Amsterdam hotel (on Christmas Day no less), and begins to take responsibility for his past misdeeds and heal from the early and sustained effects of his traumatized childhood.

It is also a realistic study of the dark underside of modern civilization in contemporary settings like New York City, the Las Vegas desert, and Amsterdam.  In these settings the disease of modern life is played out with drugs, alcohol, family dysfunction, gambling, deception, , crime, heartbreak, anxiety, pain, loss, and the incessant longing, not only for freedom from our history and circumstances, but also for the love and belonging that could somehow fill the absence of family and romantic fulfillment.

It is a psychological drama of Oedipal conflict, repressed desire, hostility, and relentless anxiety.

And it is a captivity narrative as Theo is trapped by his personal and social circumstances, his own desires, and the painting itself, his “fateful object.”

At another level it is the universal story of human tragedy and redemption—the hero’s entrance under dangerous conditions, his initiation into evil, withdrawal, trial and quest, the encounter with death, rebirth and return.  In this case the mythic promises of redemption and atonement are muted by the compromises of reality, but they are not entirely denied.  Though in the end Theo calls himself a nihilist, he leaves the door open for God and an afterlife. 

What redeems the “cesspool” of life, Theo comes to see, is art, illusory as it may be, for it is in art that reality strikes up against the ideal, and it is in that space that we glimpse a mysterious something that transcends the human tragedy and the “wreck of time.”

And what redeems The Goldfinch, for all its failures, is the way it weaves great works of art through its narrative, reminding us, as Theo comes to see, how beautiful objects can speak to us past the limitations of time, space, and mortality.

Thus in the first chapter, titled “Boy with a Skull,” Theo’s mother shows him Hal’s painting of the same name just moments before a terrorist explosion rocks the museum, killing her, turning Theo’s like upside down, and thrusting him into a future in which his mother’s absence becomes his constant psychological companion.

In that chapter, his mother, an art lover and student of art history, also delivers a commentary on “The Anatomy Lesson,” in which a cadaver, laid out on a table, is being dissected, surrounded by students and doctors in a medical school.  In chapter two, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” Theo learns the lessons of loss in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death.  As the painting exposes the stark mortality of every individual life, so Theo continues to be haunted by his mother’s death just as we are all required to live our own lives in death’s shadow.

But the painting Theo’s mother had really come to see that fateful day is “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, a trompe l’oeil of a goldfinch “chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”  In the 17th century goldfinches were popular as indoor pets, chained to their feeders in this fashion, instead of being caged as pet birds are today.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goldfinch_(painting))  A trompe l’oeil is a realistic painting that “deceives the eye” into seeing it as an actual object.  Theo’s mother first loved a reproduction of the painting in an art book she had as a child.  These details become significant later when Hobie, a furniture refinisher who becomes Theo’s surrogate father and the one stable point in his chaotic life, reflects on the value of art even if it is a copy or fake, and when Theo reflects on the value of art even if it is an illusion, because it saves us from gross reality.

The painting of the goldfinch also symbolizes Theo himself, chained to his time and place; chained to his life circumstances; chained to his addictions; chained to the painting itself, which he takes from the museum and has to hide and later rescue; chained to the memory of his mother; chained to a “self one does not want” and “a heart one cannot help.”

The painting thus represents layers and layers of reality and layers and layers of illusion.  The reality of a goldfinch chained to a wall is almost repulsive, but somehow the painting, the deceptive copy of reality, redeems that grossness, that “cesspool,” as Theo calls human reality. 

And the painting, which becomes Theo’s burden, also becomes his salvation, as it lifts him “above the surface of life” and teaches him who he is.  Surrounded by secrets and lies the painting becomes the means of Theo’s redemption, and such is the paradox at the heart of the novel—how truth cannot be separated from falsehood, good from evil, beauty from corruption, love from loathing, life from death.

Ironically, Theo’s friend/enemy, Boris, a Russian immigrant who had lived for a while in Indonesia, converted to Islam, and been given the Arabic name Badr al-Dine (“Badr” means “light”), for all his darkness—drug addiction, crime—becomes the means by which the painting is rescued and Theo is saved from punishment for having innocently removed the painting from the museum in the aftermath of the explosion.  And it is the light that draws Theo’s mother to both the paintings that she loves (“that clear pure daylight” in “The Goldfinch”) and those that she hates (that “radioactive” quality of the corpse in “The Anatomy Lesson”). 

No light without darkness, no darkness without light; no imagination without reality, no reality without imagination; no truth without illusion; no illusion without truth.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"The Road Not Taken"

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


This well-known poem by Robert Frost is often interpreted as an affirmation of unconventional choices in life. 

Careful study of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the poem and of the text itself, however, puts that popular interpretation into serious doubt.

Here’s Wikipedia’s account of how the poem came to be written and the misunderstanding that ensued:

"Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, where among his acquaintances was the writer Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost became close friends and took many walks together. After Frost had returned to New Hampshire in 1915, he sent Thomas an advance copy of "The Road Not Taken".[1] The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together. However, Frost later expressed chagrin that most audiences took the poem more seriously than he had intended; in particular, Thomas took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas' decision to enlist in World War I.[1] Thomas was killed two years later in the Battle of Arras." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken)

If it is true that Frost intended the poem as “a gentle mocking of indecision,” that is a far cry from the popular view.  And a careful reader wouldn’t necessarily need Frost’s word for it to detect the author’s tongue in his cheek.  For one thing, the road “less traveled” in the last stanza is worn “really about the same” as the other one in the second stanza.  Secondly, the so-called “difference” is projected into the future, when the speaker imagines himself telling this story “with a sigh.”  Is that a sigh of affirmation, as the popular view would have it, or is it a sign of regret”?  In either case, it’s an imaginary memory recalling the “difference” between two roads that were actually “about the same.”  Is all this an elaborate way of mocking indecision about two similar choices?  And the human propensity of reading more significance into such choices than there actually is? 

And the history of the popular interpretation could be a commentary on our human propensity to put a good light on something that really doesn’t merit it.

However, claims about authors’ intentions are always problematic.  Even if the above statement about Frost’s intention can be documented, there is always the possibility of unconscious motives lurking beneath the surface of the text, of which the author himself may not have been aware.

Is it just indecision that is being mocked?  And is the mockery all that “gentle”?  Does the apparent simplicity and innocence on the surface of the poem mask a more sinister sense of complexity and darkness in human experience?

To the extent that the poem undercuts the significance we attribute to certain decisions in life, what does that say about free will?  Do we really make free and independent decisions, or do we just rationalize the unthinking choices we make?  Are the choices predetermined?  By fate, predestination our genetic dispositions, our unconscious urges, our social circumstances?  Are they more a matter of random chance than rational choice?  Is there order and meaning to our lives or are we buffeted by forces beyond our control? Is our sense of autonomy, order and control merely an illusion?  To what extent are we fooling ourselves about being the masters of our fate?

The speaker of the poem seems to recognize that “ages and ages hence” he will be making more of this event than it deserves, but that self-awareness does little more than acknowledge how we delude ourselves.  Read this way there might be a hint of bitter irony in the last stanza.  It is, perhaps, our human tendency toward self-deception that is being mocked.

Did the poem play a role in Edward Thomas’ decision to enlist in World War I and thereby hasten his death?  If so, then, not only can poetry have unintended meanings, it can also have unintended consequences, in this case a rather dire one.  Or, perhaps Thomas would have enlisted anyway, poem or no poem. 

In any case, the popular affirmative interpretation of a well-known poem may often overlook the darker, hidden depths within the text.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Lesson Before Dying

As I reread this 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, I kept thinking, “Who is teaching who what lesson?”

 Jefferson, a young, black man in a Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940’s, is falsely convicted of participating in a pre-meditated crime resulting in murder and is sentenced to death.  The defense had argued he was too stupid and sub-human to carry out such a crime.  “Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this,” was the last statement in the defense attorney’s closing argument.
Jefferson’s grandmother knows there is no justice to be found for him in the white-dominated, racist criminal justice system; she just wants him to die with dignity. 

She and her friend turn to the friend’s nephew, Grant, the educated local school teacher, asking him to visit Jefferson in jail and restore his sense of self-worth after his humiliating victimization and his equally humiliating defense in that public courtroom.  Grant is reluctant to agree.  He will have to humble himself before the white officials of the town to get permission to visit Jefferson, and he has no idea what he can say or do to build Jefferson’s self-esteem on death row.

Grant bows to the pressure of the older women, however, and takes up the task.  He finds Jefferson in a depressed state; not only is he facing an early death, he cannot get that image of himself as a “hog” out of his head.  Grant has no lesson plan and despairs of getting through to Jefferson, but at the urging of his aunt and her friend, the grandmother, he continues to visit and try to talk to him. 

Grant, himself, we might say today, has a bad attitude.  He is sometimes disrespectful and even contemptuous of his elders, including the local minister.  He wishes he could escape the small town and its traditional environment, hates his teaching job, and resists almost every effort to participate as a full member of his community.  It doesn’t help that he has rejected the Christian religion that his family and neighbors live by.  He refuses to lie to Jefferson about salvation and life after death, though he does dutifully preside over the school Christmas program.

Grant’s inner conflict is represented by the fact that his secular schoolroom is housed in the church.  And the theme of religion vs. secularism runs through the entire novel.  How will a secular atheist fulfill the wishes of his Christian aunt and her Christian friend, as well as their minister, to rebuild Jefferson’s self-image as a child of God, worthy of salvation and immortal life in heaven?  And is it Grant who will teach Jefferson the lesson of self-worth or is it the community that will teach Grant the lesson of social obligation and self-redemption?

In the end it is both.

 Instead of using religion to persuade Jefferson that he is better than a “hog,” Grant uses history, the whole history of slavery and racial oppression under white supremacy.  Jefferson can use his execution and the manner in which he faces it to transcend that history and demonstrate to whites and blacks alike the full humanity, worth, and equality of the black man.  In effect Grant builds Jefferson’s self-esteem by reminding him of his duty to his race, his family, his community, and by persuading him that he has the capacity, not only to be a hero to his people, but also to prove their human dignity to their white oppressors.

By rising to the challenge of his community, especially of the women in his community, and by learning to empathize with them, as well as with Jefferson, Grant learns the value of social relationships.  When he teaches Jefferson that in the historical context of racial oppression his life and death have significance and meaning, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of social obligation, that he is a member of a community as well as an individual in his own right.  And when he refuses to take credit for Jefferson’s “transformation,” when he admits the minister and Jefferson are braver men than he is, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of humility.

Not only does the novel raise a protest against racial injustice and the death penalty, it raises questions about the meaning of education, religion, power, and individualism.

The minister tells Grant that his secular, formal education cannot help him help Jefferson; Grant proves him wrong but also comes to appreciate the value of education through human experience.  Similarly, while Grant does not undergo any sort of religious conversion, he comes to understand its meaningfulness in people’s lives. Likewise, he learns the difference between social power and psychological power, as the man who was reduced to a “hog” in public and sentenced to death emerges as the strongest and bravest in the room at his own execution.  And finally Grant learns to temper his sense of individual righteousness with a sense of community values.

The story is narrated almost entirely from first person point of view by Grant.  However, near the end we get Jefferson’s point of view in his journal and then the POV seems to pan out to an omniscient overview of the community.  This technique reinforces Grant’s (and Jefferson’s) shift from egocentrism to sociocentrism.

In a larger sense, the novel uses Christian allegory and the universal patterns of the hero’s quest and the scapegoat myth to lift the novel out of its historical context to a transcendent level of meaning.

If you think it a stretch that Jefferson serves as a Christ figure, consider that, when his execution is set for two weeks after Good Friday, Grant notes, “And on Friday too. Always on Friday. Same time as He died, between twelve and three.”  In addition, Jefferson is innocent of the crime he is accused of, and, like Christ, he dies with dignity and is lifted up by his community after his death as one who left a legacy as “the bravest man in the room,” braver than any of the white people who participated in, presided over, and witnessed his execution.


The Christian story, of course, and Jefferson’s are both examples of the universal hero’s quest and scapegoat myths.  Jefferson’s quest is to refute that public image of himself as a “hog,” and with Grant as his guide, he fulfills that quest, showing that he is a better man than his accusers and demonstrating the full humanity, not only of himself, but of his race.

Like Christ, Jefferson is also a scapegoat.  As Christ dies for human sin, so Jefferson dies as a scapegoat for the guilt and fear of his white oppressors.  By accusing and executing him, the dominant white class reassures themselves of their own supremacy.

Grant also, however reluctantly, fits the hero myth pattern.  He is called to a quest which he resists but ultimately fulfills—to “save” Jefferson from his shame and from an ignominious death.   In the process, he learns that, as much as he might like to live his live for himself alone, he is part of a community, a race, and a human family, calling for certain sacrifices and challenging him to leave a legacy that is larger than himself.  To that extent the novel serves as a coming of age story, not only for Grant, but for Jefferson as well.

And so both Grant and Jefferson redeem each other, contributing to each other’s maturation and growth into better people who leave something behind more significant than either would have done alone.  

Finally, as one who has no faith in God or an afterlife, Grant learns and teaches Jefferson that it’s not that you die, it’s how you die, and how you live, that matters.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Breaking the Spell VII

Family medical issues arose on multiple fronts and for the first time I missed a month of blogging.  It’s been weeks since I finished Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I’m just now concluding the series on this provocative but, at times, maddening book. (See previous posts starting in Sept. 2013.)

I largely agree with the skepticism Dennett expresses in chapter 10 that religion is the foundation of morality.  I know too many atheists and non-religious people who are upstanding, ethical, responsible folks to think that religion is necessary to morality.  Likewise, we read every day in the news of devoutly religious people, including religious leaders, committing unspeakable acts of violence, sexual crime, and moral corruption, sometimes in the very name of religion.

Dennett argues that religious institutions themselves are responsible for those who use religion as a cloak for their own nefarious behavior, and that religious moderates, even when they denounce the fanatics, are allowing themselves to be used by the lunatic fringe when they fail to recognize the way religion discourages critical questioning and rational thought.  By promoting faith in certain sacred dogmas over philosophical and scientific inquiry, religion, by its nature, enables irrational extremism.

I don’t quarrel with this reasoning, but Dennett goes on to blame, not only institutional religion, but a broader cultural belief in philosophical dualism over materialism.  Any belief in a non-material reality, whether under the guise of religion or generalized spirituality or the paranormal, it seems, reinforces the popular notion of “materialism” as the root of evil and “spirituality” as the source of goodness.  This na├»ve dualistic belief enables those with a religious or “spiritual” world view to, in effect, deny their own capacity for evil and rationalize any behavior done under the perceived guidance of “supernatural” powers. 

Just as he reduces religion to a system of literalistic belief in symbols, metaphor, and myth, he reduces the debate between dualism and materialism to a simple binary, with one element on the side of the angels and the other on the side of the devil.  I find this to be too simplistic.

As usual, Dennett fails to recognize the power and efficacy of symbolic thought, even though he makes repeated references to such abstract values as love, justice, joy, beauty, and freedom, none of which can be satisfactorily reduced to empirical reality alone. 

He claims that “all” of these values are “material benefits” without even addressing the long-standing philosophical debate between dualism and materialism or the role played in this debate by modern physics.

It is those times when Dennett makes such blanket assertions or assumptions without a supporting argument, which takes into account counter-arguments, that Dennett’s book becomes maddening.  I expect more from a philosopher.

In the end, Dennett’s conclusion in chapter 11 struck me as anti-climactic.  The best recommendation he could come up with for addressing the failures, excesses, and destructive tendencies of religion is more and better education.  I’m all for that, but after his long, extended build-up, I was expecting more. 

And I can’t help but wonder if the goal should be, not to eliminate religion, but to improve it.  To me the greatest fault with religion is literalistic thinking.  What if religious leaders spoke and acted like artists and storytellers, presenting their claims in figurative terms instead of facts?  What if religious believers were less literal and “materialistic” in their convictions and more symbolic and metaphorical?\

More and better education could certainly help with this, but even an educated philosopher like Dennett seems to have a problem understanding and/or appreciating symbolic thought.


In the end I do agree with Dennett’s statement that “we must recognize that people need to see their lives as having meaning.  The thirst for a quest, a goal, a meaning, is unquenchable, and if we don’t provide benign or at least nonmalignant avenues, we will always face toxic religions.”  And I agree that religious institutions have a responsibility for promotion of such avenues, but so do the materialists, atheists, agnostics, and non-believers among us.  I trust Dennett will help with that effort as well as the effort to explain religion as a natural phenomenon.