Friday, December 23, 2011

"Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem"

What’s remarkable about “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem” by Maya Angelou (see previous post) is that it celebrates, not the birth of the Christian “savior,” but “the Birth of Jesus Christ/Into the great religions of the world.”

The poem takes a Christian holiday and uses it to signify a universal human longing for Peace.  It speaks as a universal “we,” voicing the hunger for Peace shared by “Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim….Jew…Jainist…the Catholic and the Confucian…Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers.”

In this poem the birth of Christianity does not usher in a superior religion so much as a new iteration of an ancient hope for Peace harbored in the human heart, regardless of what religious belief that heart might be bound to or whether it is bound to any such belief at all.  The hope for Peace transcends belief and non-belief.  And in that spirit, Christmas, like most religious holidays, can speak to all of us.

A non-Christian might conceivably resent the use of Christmas as a universal symbol, as opposed to a holiday from their own belief system.  Likewise an atheist might scoff at the idea of a religious holiday representing a secular value.  Yet who can resist the appeal of “lights of joy,” “bells of hope,” “carols of forgiveness,” “absence of war,” “harmony of spirit,” “comfort,” “security,” or “a halting of hate”?

The poem not only seeks to transcend religious differences but also those of color, calling on us “to look beyond complexions and see community.”  It is easy to dismiss such grand appeals as sentimental tripe or blind hypocrisy, but that would leave us with nothing but cynicism.  Surely we would rather live with ideals to aspire to than total resignation to conflict, strife, hate, and war.  It is those ideals of peace on earth and good will to all that gives the Christmas season its universal appeal, whether celebrated as a religious or a secular holiday.

How does the form of the poem reinforce and enhance its message?  It uses unrhymed free verse, which conveys a sense of openness, with a combination of parallelism and line breaks to create a rhythmic, poetic effect.  While the rhythm is hardly regular, it fits with the irregular pattern of nature evoked in images of thunder, lightning, flood, and avalanche, which the poem uses to represent the “climate of fear and apprehension” into which “Christmas enters.”

With the entry of Christmas the poem turns from images of nature’s destructiveness to more human images of “bells,” “carols,” “faces of children,” “shoulders of our aged,” the “whisper” of a “word,” the word “Peace.” And later it is through “language” that we “translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.”  It is through our “voices” that we “jubiliate,” “shout,” and “speak” Peace into being.

The shift from natural to human imagery conveys the idea that it is our human responsibility and capability—not that of a natural or supernatural power--to achieve the human ideals of peace, brotherhood, sisterhood, and atonement.

Though the poem uses images of “light,” which invoke the natural phenomenon of the Winter Solstice, the Peace that it celebrates is a human creation.  And while the creative power of the Word has parallels to God’s use of language in the creation story of Genesis, the focus of the poem is on human voices and human speech.

Just as humans created “the great religions of the world,” so we created the dream of Peace, and so we are responsible for making that dream a reality on earth.  That would indeed be an “Amazing Peace.”

A Christmas Poem

"Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem"

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightening rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait awhile with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you to stay awhile with us
so we may learn by your shimmering light
how to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.

We look at our world and speak the word aloud.

We look at each other, then into ourselves,
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul

--Maya Angelou

Monday, December 19, 2011

"The Gift of the Magi"

In case you can’t find the significance in “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry is sure to tell you.

As if the title were not enough, he directly compares the young couple “who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house” to the wise men “who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.”  And then he declares them “the wisest” of “all who give and receive gifts….They are the magi.”
Unwise because they sell their most valuable possessions, Della her hair and Jim his watch, so that she can buy him a watch chain and he can buy her a set of combs.  Yet wise because their love for each other is greater than their love for their “greatest treasures.”

The message is sentimental, beautiful, and hard to miss:  human love is by far the greatest gift, greater than any material gift, regardless of its value.
I have no quarrel with the message, but it might have been more effectively delivered if O. Henry had just told the story and spared us the commentary.

And forgive me if I find the buying and selling of hair somewhat discomforting, to say the least, but maybe that’s because of my daughter’s recent meeting with the rather strange proprietor of Leila’s Hair Museum in Kansas City (  Beyond that, though, hair is traditionally associated with power and sexuality.  Think Samson and Rapunzel.  Is there a subliminal and, no doubt, wholly unintended message in Della giving up her power and taming her sexuality?  Does she turn herself into the traditional submissive, modest wife of the Victorian era, sacrificing her independence and assertiveness on the altar of love and marriage?  Or am I stretching it a bit?
And Jim, selling his father’s watch.  Would it be a stretch to see that act as symbolic of an Oedipal killing of the father?  Probably.  But, if you see it that way, then, perhaps his newly shorn Della is, Oedipally speaking, a substitute for his, no doubt, very proper Victorian mother.

Now we’ve really gone out on an interpretive limb.  You can be the judge of whether “The Gift of the Magi” is a sweet, simple, sentimental story of love and sacrifice or whether it masks a representation of darker depths hidden in the human psyche.  In any case, Merry Christmas! (Or, should I say "Bah, Humbug!"?)

Friday, December 16, 2011

"A Christmas Memory"

When I read this story by Truman Capote as a teenager, it didn’t make much of an impression.  Reading it again recently, I dismissed it at first as a “nice, sentimental story,” but really nothing of significance.

I know better than that though.  There is always something of significance to be found in the texts that humans produce, even if they are unintended, sometimes especially if they are unintended.  In “A Christmas Memory” there is, of course, the irony of the seven-year-old boy and the 60+-year-old woman, who is “still a child,” being best friends, and there is the pathos of the two marginalized family members clinging to each other’s companionship.  But beyond irony and poignancy, where is the significance to be found?

In rereading and rethinking the story, I noticed that while the first-person narrator is called by the nickname “Buddy,” we don’t know his real name (though we assume it is the author), and the woman, his distant cousin, is never named.  Buddy refers to her throughout as “my friend.”  The other “relatives” in the house are also unnamed, but they are the ones who seem to occupy the center of the household, in which Buddy and his friend are outsiders.
The lack of names for the relatives can be explained from the perspective of the narrator and his friend:  “…though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole too much aware of them.”  But why the lack of specific identity for the two main characters?  Perhaps their namelessness underscores their status as near outcasts in the family (at least in their eyes).  Could part of the significance lie in the importance of belonging and community, even if it is a family community, to individual identity?  As Buddy and his friend turn to each other to reinforce their sense of self, we recognize the formative power of relationships.  Though their family situation is sad, the two characters experience great joy and delight together.

And it is this irony which brings us to the larger significance of the story.  While there are religious references in this “Christmas” story, there is no mention of Christ’s birth, though such a reference would fit well with the larger pattern in the narrative of life and light emerging from darkness.
Christ’s birth, however, is less important than the season of the natural year, the darkening days, the coming winter solstice, and the return of the sun’s light.  The most meaningful religious pattern in the story is more pagan than Christian.

This pantheistic theme is reinforced by the most explicit religious reference in the story when Buddy’s friend exclaims, while gesturing toward “clouds and kites and grass”:  “I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself.  That things as they are…just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him.  As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”
And, years later, when Buddy learns of his friend’s death, on a December morning, it is the kites they made for each other their last Christmas together that he imagines “rather like hearts…hurrying toward heaven.”

Like the rebirth of light in the midst of winter’s darkness, it is the memory of human joy and delight two unlikely friends created together that somehow brightens the reality of death and loss.
Thus does “A Christmas Memory” reenact the ancient mythic theme of spring emerging from winter, light from darkness, and life from death.  Such is the significance of the story, and in that spirit, I wish you all a most Happy Winter Solstice!

Monday, December 5, 2011

"The Invisible Man"

This short story is one of a series of Father Brown detective stories by G. K. Chesterton. See my "Dracula I" blog post (September 2010) for an overview of the genre invented by Edgar Allen Poe.

The typical detective story begins with a scene of relative normality followed by the crime and an investigation by an unconventional detective, who uses his/her, special powers of deduction and observation to solve the crime.

One part of the appeal of the genre is the contrast between rational order and the irrationality of the crime. Historically, the detective story participates in a cultural debate over human nature. Is it rational or irrational? If both, which is stronger? In the gothic tale, the protagonist may escape the irrational forces, but those forces remain unexplained and/or undefeated. In the detective story, on the other hand, the rational powers of the detective overcome the irrationality of the crime. Psychologically, the irrationality creates anxiety, which is relieved when the superior detective solves the mystery and restores the reader to rational order.

On another level, the conflict between the rational and irrational is akin to the conflict between good and evil, with the power of evil ascendant in the gothic tale and overcome by the power of good in the detective story. Unlike the religious representation of good and evil as angelic or demonic in traditional morality narratives, in the gothic tale and detective story, evil is represented either by human psychology and behavior or by the secular supernatural, such as monsters, ghosts, etc.

Unlike the typical detective story, “The Invisible Man” begins with a kind of bizarre courtship narrative in which a young man, Angus, enters a confectioner’s shop and proceeds to propose to the young woman who works there. She then tells her “suitor” of two other rivals for her affection (described as “freaks”) who had previously proposed to her. She had refused both of them with the excuse that she would never marry anyone who had not made his own way in the world. One of those rivals, Welkin, she claims is haunting her. She has heard his voice and his laugh but can’t see him. Just after receiving a letter from the other rival, Smythe, announcing his success as an inventor of household machines for doing domestic chores, she clearly hears the invisible Welkin say, “He shan’t have you though.”

As Miss Hope is telling this story, Smythe arrives, presumably to renew his suit, and announces that a message written on “stamp paper” has been pasted on the glass outside the store. The message reads, “If you marry Smythe, he will die.” It is the same writing as in a series of threatening letters Smythe has been receiving. All thought of courtship disappears at this point, as Angus offers to solicit the help of a brilliant detective friend to solve the mystery.

The two men stop at Smythe’s residence and discover another threatening note: “If you have been to see her today, I shall kill you.” Angus goes to fetch his detective friend, leaving four others—the janitor, the doorman, a chestnut seller, and a policeman—to keep an eye out and make sure no one enters Smythe’s door. When he returns, however, not only with the detective but also with the detective’s friend, Father Brown, they discover that Smythe has been murdered. All four of the watchmen swear they saw no one enter.

In the end, Father Brown, solves the mystery. Welkin, it seems, had disguised himself as a postman, delivered all the letters himself, put up the message on the store window, walked past the four watchmen, stabbed Smythe to death, stuffed his corpse in a mail sack, and disposed of the body in a nearby canal. The “invisible man,” as Brown says, was only “mentally invisible,” as no one notices a postman coming or going or carrying a large bag.

Mystery solved, the “detective” goes back to his rooms, Father Brown takes a walk with the murderer, presumably to reform him, and Angus goes back to courting Miss Hope.

Most everything in this story is bizarre, from the opening courtship, to the story of the two rivals, to the “invisible man,” to Smythe’s domestic inventions, to the crime itself, to the brilliant “detective” who doesn’t solve the crime, to the priest who does.

What does this detective story contribute to the historical debate over human nature? To the reader’s psychology? To the theme of good and evil? Considering that the most rational character is Father Brown, a priest, who presumably relies as much on faith in the supernatural as on rationality, the story seems to suggest that everyday “reality” and “rational order” are not that much more rational than the criminal and the crime. Considering how outlandish the story is as a whole, it is more likely to create hilarity than anxiety in most readers. Similarly, it is rather difficult to take it seriously as a moral conflict between good and evil. It might make more sense to see the story as nothing more than a spoof on the detective story genre.

Some readers might seek a religious message in that the brilliant detective turns out to be a priest, who has enough faith in humanity to seek the criminal’s reformation. However, the priest’s powers of detection are purely secular in nature and his faith in the criminal’s humanity might be as bizarre as anything else in the story.

One common feature of the detective story genre is the “double,” that is the detective and the criminal somehow mirror each other, or the notion that “it takes a thief,” by which the detective internalizes the criminal’s psychology. Although “The Invisible Man” does not suggest that Father Brown and Welkin are doubles, it’s curious to consider the possibility of a priest having a criminal psychology.  A twist on the "double" in this story is that Angus's "detective" friend is a reformed criminal.  He just doesn't solve the crime in this case.

Another common feature of the detective story genre is the sidekick.  In this case, however, the sidekick, Father Brown, not the detective, solves the crime.

Perhaps the story is designed to defy the reader's exptectations: it starts out as a courtship narrative and turns into a detective story, the victim of the crime is entirely unsympathetic, the criminal and his methods are rather ludicrous, the "detective" could be a "double" but doesn't solve the crime while the sidekick does, the priest is the most rational and realistic character of all, and the criminal might be amenable to reform (perhaps then able to become a detective in his own right and make an honest way in the world!)

In any case, whether taken seriously or as a “take off” on the genre, “The Invisible Man” is an entertaining variation on the popular detective story.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn III

Race? Gender? Sexuality? I’ve even read studies of Huck Finn on social class, arguing that the novel critiques the high and the low, but not the middle. These historicist and cultural studies focus on what divides us. There’s nothing wrong with them, but do they tell the whole story? Is there a dimension of Huck Finn that brings us together? Does the novel have a universal significance that transcends social categories?

Can a female and/or white reader identify with Jim in his quest for freedom? Can a female and/ or black reader identify with the moral dilemma of Huck as he struggles with the conflict between law and friendship, between society’s view of right and wrong and the individual’s?

Can we all identify with the escape, the river journey, the risks taken and obstacles overcome, the conflict with enemies, the camaraderie with friends, the encounter with death, and the rebirth into new possibilities in life?

Regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and class, there is embedded in the narrative a universal hero quest myth that never fails to capture, not only the imagination, but, perhaps, our sense of the shape of our own lives as we escape our own constraints, navigate our own journeys, pursue our own quests, take our own risks, overcome our own obstacles, contend with enemies, bond with friends, struggle with our own mortality, and seek our own redemption, whether it be in the form of freedom, love and belonging, maturation, atonement, recovery, recognition, prosperity, achievement, or enlightenment.

Similarly, we all progress from youthful inexperience and naiveté, to encounters with negative experience and struggles with decision-making, to either cynicism or healthy maturity. We can debate how much progress Huck makes in the course of the novel and where he might be headed, but we can all relate to his moral and psychological journey.

There are those who contest the very notion of “grand narratives” in the form of universal patterns and themes. From this perspective, we are all so trapped in our own historical time, place, situation, and identity, that we are incapable of transcendence. It is the differences among us that are significant, not the similarities. Taken to an extreme such a viewpoint leaves us in social isolation, incapable of human transactions across difference, maybe even incapable of love and belonging.

When it comes to Huck Finn it seems that controversy is inescapable. Rather than taking hard and fast positions—the novel is racist or it’s not, sexist or not, homoerotic or not, classist or not, universal or not—I prefer to see the value in contrasting views. The novel is racist and it’s not, it is sexist and it’s not, it is homoerotic and it’s not, classist and it’s not, universal and it’s not.

Nature and society, pleasure and pain, good and evil, freedom and power, love and belonging, absence and presence—these constants of human experience, historicized in concrete action, imagery, character, and language, are what give Huck Finn, and all great literature its lasting value.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn II

Race is not the only controversy that has swirled around Huck Finn. When it was first published in 1884, it was primarily known as a “boy’s book” and was attacked and sometimes banned because of its perceived glorification of a “bad boy,” who smoked, and stole, and used bad grammar.

Contemporary feminist readers have seen in its “quest for freedom” and “coming of age” themes a reinforcement of the “masculine myth” (see Judith Fetterley , The Resisting Reader…, 1978, and others) in which the male hero seeks to free himself from the females in his life (mother, wife, potential wife, etc.) who would domesticate and “civilize” him. (This myth is still alive and well in our own day.) From this perspective, the hero’s “coming of age” is understood in terms of achieving independence from those social forces (often represented by women) that threaten to emasculate him.

With a couple of exceptions, Nancy Walker (“Reformers and Young Maidens…” 1985) finds the women characters in Huck Finn to be based on popular stereotypes of women as either moral reformers of men or as pure, innocent, “sweet” young damsels in need of either protection or rescue. One exception is Judith Loftus who is smart enough to see through Huck’s attempted disguise as a girl and who offers to help Huck rather than turn him in.

The scene with Judith Loftus is seen by another feminist critic, Myra Jehlen (“Reading Gender…” 1990), as evidence of the novel’s consciousness of gender as a socially constructed performance.

Queer theorists have noted that the masculine myth of freedom and independence involves, not only an escape from women’s attempts to form and reform men, but also as homosocial, if not homoerotic, experience of male bonding in a world free of women. (Fiedler, Love and Death... 1948) Christopher Looby (“’Innocent Homosexuality’…” 1995) sees the Judith Loftus disguise scene as just one in a whole series of transvestite scenes in which male characters dress as women, which constitute a motif of “gender masquerade” that provides “an alibi for potentially transgressive male-male encounters.”

So, (1) is Huck Finn a quintessential “boy’s book” representing the psyche and experience of “natural” boyhood when freed from social constraints? Research into the human genome does support the notion of natural gender differences, but research also reveals multiple exceptions and supports the role that social construction plays in gender expression and behavior. Whether you see Huck as an archetypal “boy” or a stereotypical “boy” may depend on whether you lean more toward nature or nurture in explaining gender. My question would be, how do you explain the appeal of the river raft adventure to generations of female readers, who seem just as drawn to the quest for freedom, independence, and autonomy as males?

(2) Is there an implicit misogyny in the masculine frontier myth of freedom and independence from women? The powerful role of nurture has historically steered women into more domestic social roles and has held them to a higher standard of “virtue,” whereas men have been more encouraged and expected to pursue independence outside the domestic sphere and outside strict moral codes. While there may be some genetic basis to this difference, there is no question in my mind that society has taken a general tendency and enforced it as a prescription for gender-based socially acceptable behavior.

There is also no question in my mind that, as a result, healthy gender relations are disrupted, and to the extent that men feel pressured or seduced by women into artificial roles, misogyny can certainly result. Obviously there are many other reasons for misogyny as well since patriarchy and male supremacy send very strong messages of female inferiority. So, yes, to the extent that women in Huck Finn represent all that restricts Huck’s freedom and autonomy, there is an undercurrent of misogyny.

(3) Does the novel reinforce and perpetuate popular 19th century stereotypes of women? Yes, Nancy Walker documents this aspect of the novel very well.

(4) Does the novel offer any alternative female images? Yes, Judith Loftus and Mary Jane Wilks do not fit the common female stock characters. They are active and assertive without being controlling of Huck, and they show more ability to take care of themselves without relying on a male rescuer.

(5) Do the multiple gender disguises, particularly the Judith Loftus scene, in which she instructs Huck in how to “act” like a girl, undermine essentialist readings and expose the social construction of gender. Possibly, but I doubt it is self-conscious and that anyone but a post-modernist reader would notice. The Loftus scene could be also be read as reinforcing an essentialist reading, since Huck has a tough time acting like anything but a “boy.”

(6) Or, do those multiple scenes of gender disguise mask a homoerotic subtext? Given the frequency of these scenes, most of which occur in an all-male environment, and given what we know happens sexually in all male environments, I find this claim persuasive.

(7) Does the male bonding in the novel promote a homosocial, if not homoerotic, message? To the extent that male-male friendship is preferred over male-female relationships, yes; this does not seem to be an extravagant claim.

(8) Do all these questions over-analyze a text that is “just a story” told for entertainment purposes? If we answer “yes,” then are we trivializing the novel? Yes, Twain wrote that anyone “attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” But, is this (obviously exaggerated) statement to be taken a face value or is it tongue-in-cheek? It could just as well be read as an ironic statement and/or an attempt by Twain to deflect criticism, especially from readers who might be offended at the way white Southerners are depicted. If the novel is to be taken seriously, if it is worthy of being taught in schools and held up as an American classic, then it is worthy of being analyzed as a novel of serious significance, not dismissed as mere entertainment.

(9) Is Huck Finn a sexist novel? Heterosexist? So, yes, it is a sexist novel, though not without redeeming merit, even in the eyes of feminist readers. And, yes and no; it is both a heterosexist novel and one that can be read as homosocial and even homoerotic.

Controversy does not have to lead to polarization if one takes a "both...and" approach rather than an "either...or" approach and preserves what is of value in each contrasting position.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I

Recent controversy over The Help by Kathryn Stockett has reminded me of the continuing controversy over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

It seems reasonable to me that a novel by a white author representing African American characters and experience would be subjected to critical scrutiny. It also seems reasonable to expect that a white writer will depict that experience through a white lens, just as black writers will portray white characters and experience through a black lens. Does that mean that whites should not write about blacks and vice versa? I hope not. Even if that means white novels will bear vestiges, at the very least, of racism and black novels will exhibit prejudice toward whites.

One problem of American publishing history, however, in a white dominated culture, is that black writers have had to get past white editors and publishers while white writers have rarely been screened by black publishing filters. As a result, historically, more racism in white novels has been published than has the critique of white supremacy in black novels. It should be no surprise that black readers will react more strongly to and scrutinize more closely the way their experience is depicted by white writers.

Instead of being hypersensitive and resentful, white readers and writers might want to pay attention. They could learn something.

For the most part, though, criticism of Huck Finn as a racist novel has been met with furious defensiveness. Mark Twain, after all, is an American literary hero and Huck Finn has been considered his “masterpiece” (interesting word choice). To label Twain and his novel as “racist” seems unpatriotic at best and downright sacrilegious at worst.

How could Huck Finn be racist? The escaped slave, Jim, is a sympathetic character and the white Southerners are mostly unsympathetic objects of ridicule and satire. But, is an anti-slavery message the same as an anti-racist message? Can an abolitionist still be a white supremacist? Slavery had been abolished some twenty years before the 1884 publication of Huck Finn, but racism continued to run rampant. Does the anti-slavery message absolve the novel of racism?

Defenders argue that Jim is not only sympathetic but humanized as a man equally deserving of freedom as the white runaway, Huck. Huck, himself, must struggle with and overcome his own conditioned racism in order, not only to help Jim escape, but also to bond with him as a companion and fellow seeker of freedom. Some even see Jim as a father figure to Huck, putting Jim in a psychologically superior position.

Detractors counter that (1) Jim is hardly represented as “equal” to Huck, (2) even if he were, then he, a grown man with a wife and children, is being equated with a child, thus reinforcing a common stereotype of blacks as “childlike,” and (3) while Jim may be allowed moments of genuine humanity, he is largely portrayed as a caricature based on popular minstrel show “Jim Crow” stereotypes. Critics also question Huck’s moral progress and human bond with Jim, given the way Huck joins with Tom Sawyer in tormenting Jim when he is held captive at the Phelps farm at the end of the novel.

Defenders counter that, after all, how much moral progress can you expect a fourteen-year-old boy to make in such a short time span? Just the fact that Huck does have those pangs of conscience over Jim’s treatment is anti-racist enough. And, while Twain may not have completely transcended his own white supremacist and racist environment, he went further in challenging that ideology than any other white writer of the 19th century. (I would submit that Herman Melville, writing before abolition, went further than Twain did, though his subtlety in Benito Cereno, for example, would have escaped many readers.)

I wonder if the defenders and detractors are both right. I wonder if Twain himself was torn between challenging the morality of his white readers and placating them in order to promote his own popularity and book sales. The result is a novel that promises much in terms of an anti-racist message but falls far short of full delivery.

Van Wyck Brooks, in his critical study The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1933), claims that, just as this iconic author had two names, Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain, so he had a conflicted psyche, one that aspired to be, on one hand, a serious artist using satire to critique his contemporary society, and on the other hand, a popular humorist, using folksiness to endear and promote himself to the reading public. Brooks traces this split throughout Twain’s career and argues that his increasing cynicism and misanthropy was the result of his own self-hatred for having “sold out” his highest and best artistic and moral promise. If Brooks is right, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is but one episode in the sad psychological story of our revered American author Mark Twain.

This commentary is not meant to reflect on The Help. That will have to wait for a future blog post.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Overcoat" (and more on The Namesake)

The Namesake (see previous post) makes multiple references to Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.” Professional scholars of literature have special terminology for such reference. “Allusion” is one term, but the other is “intertextuality,” the latter suggesting a closer relationship between the two texts besides one merely mentioning the other. Just as Beloved (see previous posts) can be understood in a larger context of mythological and Biblical traditions, so The Namesake can be read, not only in the context of the hero’s quest myth and coming of age stories, but also, given the significance that Nikolai Gogol plays in the narrative, in relationship to the Russian writer’s works.

Unlike Gogol in The Namesake, the main character of “The Overcoat” is the son of a native Russian family who lives and works in St. Petersburg. Gogol’s short story is not a multicultural one of immigration and assimilation, but it is a story of identity. Unlike Gogol in The Namesake, however, Akakiy Akakievitch does not have to struggle with multiple identities. Quite the opposite. He struggles to achieve any sense of identity at all.

Both narratives include a scene in which the main character receives his birth name, Gogol, after the Russian writer, and Akakiy, after his own father. In each case, the main character receives his name somewhat as an afterthought, without careful intention, though the name “Gogol” has special significance to Gogol’s father, whereas Akakiy receives his name more or less by default, other choices suggested by his godparents having been rejected by his mother. Gogol’s father is a major presence and influence in his life, but Akakiy’s father never appears in the story at all and is never referred to except in the naming scene.

We do know that Akakiy’s father was a government official, and Akakiy himself is a “perpetual titular councilor” in an unnamed government department who seems to live in complete isolation without family or friends. At work he is an object of derision when he is recognized at all. His job consists of copying documents, like a human Xerox machine. He is so devoted to his work that he takes it home with him, apparently having nothing else to live for. When asked to do anything slightly original, he begs to be given his copying tasks back. Other than an occasional pathetic outburst when the ridicule by his peers at work becomes too much, Akakiy is as nameless and faceless as the government bureaucracy in which he toils.

Only when Akakiy’s overcoat becomes so worn that it can no longer keep out the cold, does he begin to show an interest in anything outside of work. He bargains with the tailor to get a good price, scrimps, sacrifices, and goes without in order to save up enough money, and is eventually able to acquire a handsome new coat. His new attire brings unaccustomed attention, congratulations, and pleasantries from his coworkers. They insist the coat must be “christened” (as Akakiy was after his name was decided upon) and invite him to a party. This “christening” party offers symbolic hope that Akakiy might receive a new identity and a new life.

At the party, he is overwhelmed by the noise and sociability, drinks more than he is used to, and stays up well past his usual bedtime. On the way home through dark and deserted streets, he is accosted and robbed of his attractive new coat (his new identity?). He tries to assert himself, seeking help from the night watchman and the next night from the district of police and finally from a “certain prominent personage.” But they all rebuff him, insisting that he has not followed proper procedures or filled out the proper forms, and then, heading home in a snowstorm wearing his old coat, he catches a fever, grows delirious, and finally breathes his last.

At this point Gogol’s somewhat “realistic” story, though a bit bizarre, to say the least, turns into a gothic tale, for a dead man, resembling Akakiy, begins to be seen on the Kalinkin Bridge accosting passersby and stealing their coats. Eventually Akakiy takes his final revenge, as his ghost steals the coat of that “prominent personage” who had treated him so rudely, an event that somewhat humbles the behavior of that “prominent personage.” Meanwhile, the ghost disappears and is seen no more.

Symbolically, the ghost could be said to represent the regrets of all those who had abused Akakiy in life, including the “prominent personage,” who had felt some temporary remorse after mistreating the poor copyist in search of his overcoat. Or the ghost could function as a kind of revenge fantasy for all those nameless, faceless civil servants performing their mechanical tasks in their unknown bureaucratic departments, suffering daily slights and abuses from their superiors and coworkers alike. Or perhaps the ghost is poor Akakiy’s buried humanity, his only identity, finally asserting itself postmortem.

Unlike Gogol in The Namesake, on a quest for self-definition among competing identities, Akakiy seeks only to provide himself with the basic necessities of survival and to preserve some semblance of human dignity. By comparison, Gogol’s “identity crisis” seems like self-indulgence, a luxury afforded only to the fortunate.

Or, does the significance lie in the difference between the burdens bequeathed to them by their fathers: Gogol carrying the name of the Russian writer whose book, Gogol’s father believes, had once saved his life, and the legacy of his Bengali immigrant experience in the U.S.; Akakiy carrying the name of a silent, faceless, absent father with no legacy at all to pass on to his son? Better a complicated legacy from one’s past than none at all? Perhaps the intertextual relationship between the two works is one more of contrast than similarity.

Another major contrast is the style of the two works. The Namesake relates its story in an understated, matter-of-fact manner that makes the unusual multicultural experience of the Ganguli family seem ordinary. “The Overcoat,” on the other hand, for all Nikolai Gogol’s reputation as a realist, is exclamatory, melodramatic, and fantastic in style, making the unremarkable life of a minor Russian bureaucrat seem extraordinary.

Regardless of the contrasts, both stories dramatize the universal dilemma of identity, whether it be culturally complex or a matter of simple humanity.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Namesake

This 2003 novel by Jhumpa Lahiri captures both late 20th century American immigrant experience and a timeless coming of age narrative, with all the complexities, conflicts, confusions, and compromises that both stories entail.

The immigration of an Indian family to the American Northeast is complicated by the father’s love of Russian literature and the somewhat accidental naming of his son after Nikolai Gogol, transforming an immigration and assimilation story into one of more broadly multicultural significance. The three cultures-- Indian, American, and Russian—could hardly be more different. Yet Gogol must navigate himself and his identity through these conflicting shoals of influence to find his way toward authentic selfhood.

His parents were joined in a traditional arranged marriage and remained faithful to each other throughout their life together. Gogol and his sister, born and raised in the U.S., marry for romantic love. Gogol, by the time he marries, has already engaged in pre-marital sexual relationships, including an affair with a married woman. His own marriage to another second-generation Bengali immigrant ends in divorce after he learns of her adulterous affair.

Marital fidelity is just one manifestation of a larger fidelity theme—fidelity to the past, family, and cultural heritage, not to mention one’s name. Gogol resents his name, and, it seems, his Indian heritage, which sets him apart from his American peers. He loves his parents, though, and constantly struggles between loyalty to them and rebellion against them.

At an early age, he rejects the formal name, Nikhil, that his parents seek to bestow on him, preferring Gogol, but later, as an adolescent he comes to hate the name Gogol and eventually changes his legal name to Nikhil. Such is the confusion and conflict that plagues his struggle to define his own identity, as a Bengali, as an American, and as the son of a father who reveres a Russian writer.

Grief-stricken by his father’s sudden death, Gogol finds consolation in his family and Indian heritage. Later he falls in love with, and marries, a Bengali woman, whom he has known from childhood, after his mother urges him to call her, a kind of compromise between a traditional arranged marriage and a Western style romantic marriage. They even observe the traditional Bengali wedding rituals.

Though Gogol is the main protagonist, the novel is structured by shifting points of view--from the perspective of his mother as a newly married woman in a strange country, where her husband is an engineering student at MIT, to his own perspective as a youth and young man finding his way in his multicultural world, to the perspective of his Bengali wife, Moushumi, a feminist studying for her doctorate in French literature (yet another cultural influence in Gogol’s life).

This organization throws into relief the contrast, not only between first and second generation immigrants, but also between the traditional Indian wife and the modern “liberated” wife. It’s hard to say which is the greater burden—obedience and fidelity or modernity and liberation.

In the end, Gogol, having rejected two serious Western girlfriends and divorced his Bengali wife, seeks reconciliation with his past, his family, his culture, and his namesake. At the age of 32, for the first time, he opens the book by Nikolai Gogol his father had given him long before and begins to read.

We can only speculate on how the young man will come to terms with all that he has inherited, all that he has chosen, all that he has become, and all that he may yet be. What one hopes is that he will come to accept himself as a global citizen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation

Did you ever read a book you mostly agreed with but still didn’t like? That would be my reaction to Sam Harris’ 2006 Letter to a Christian Nation.

Let’s start with the worst part, and the part I most disagreed with. Harris not only attacks Christians throughout, even moderate and liberal Christians, he launches into a three-page diatribe against Muslims in which he claims that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith” (his italics).

His extreme anti-religious stance is as arrogant in its atheism and as intolerant of religious faith as any of the believers he attacks for their arrogance and intolerance.

Harris asserts that atheism is not a dogma: “It is time that Christians like yourselves stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as dogma” (his italics). He then turns around and defines atheism as “simply an admission of the obvious.” Sorry, but that sounds pretty dogmatic to me.

He claims to rely solely on reason, evidence, and logic: “The conflict between science and religion is reducible to a simple fact of human cognition and discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes or he does not.” (I assume women are included as persons here, but Harris’ use of the generic “he” only reinforces male dominance.) He goes on to say that “…faith is nothing more than the license religious people give each other to keep believing when reasons fail.”

The problem is that reason, evidence, and logic don’t answer all questions or account for all human experience. They don’t fully account for ethics, values, human empathy or other moral feelings, and they certainly don’t account for the origin of the universe, which, as Harris admits elsewhere, remains a mystery to this day. When reasons fail, we still have to make ethical choices and we do so on the basis of our experience, the values we hold dear despite the lack of evidence to support them fully, and our feelings of human concern. Likewise we value aesthetic experience and beauty, not on the basis of reason, logic, and evidence, but on the basis of human sensibility. Are we to suspend making any moral or aesthetic choices because reasons fail?

In the same way, do we suspend all belief because reasons fail? When reason, logic, and evidence fail to support atheism fully (for as Harris says we simply do not know about the origin of the universe), does Harris suspend his belief in atheism? Hardly.

And I would really like to see him base his love life on nothing but reason, logic, and evidence.  Maybe religion is akin to romantic love.  In addition to common sense, they both require some chemistry, some tenderness, some imagination, and a strong appreciation for the mystery of it all.  Throw in enough compatibility and commitment and you have a life-long relationship, whether it be with a significant other or with a faith community that shares your world view.

For someone who claims to be guided strictly by rationality, Harris’ own logic is inexcusably sloppy at times. He repeatedly falls into the fallacy of simplistic either-or thinking, as in the “fact” that “either a person has good reasons for what he believes or he does not,” when “good” is a relative term that may mean different things to different people and when “reasons” may encompass one’s experience, intuition, values, and feelings.

Elsewhere, Harris states “Either the Bible is an ordinary book written by mortals or it isn’t.” Is it possible for the Bible to be an extraordinary book written by mortals, like other great works of literature? Considering the Bible is a collection of works by different authors from different sources, could it be a mixture of great literature, full of beauty, wisdom, and even symbolic truth, and “ordinary” writing full of both the mundane and the nonsensical? Harris’ simplistic language and chop-logic allows for no such complexity.

Next Harris reduces morality to the alleviation of suffering: “Religion allows peole to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not—that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation.” As important as the alleviation of suffering is to human morality, surely that does not exhaust the topic. What of honesty and truth-telling? Equity and fairness? Hypocrisy? Taking turns? Sharing? Do these principles rise to the level of morality only when human suffering is involved? Again, in his zealous enthusiasm to attack religion, Harris repeatedly oversimplifies and overstates.

I completely agree with Harris on the issues of abortion and stem cell research. I abhor the religious absolutism that would let a woman suffer and even die rather than abort a fetus and that would let countless fully conscious humans suffer from disease rather than seek treatment and cures through stem cell research. Yet, when Harris equates a human fetus with a skin cell as equally potential human beings, he has once again let his anti-religious zealotry get the better of balanced rationality.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his references to intelligent design. He begins by saying that “nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design.” Note the subtle shift from “designer” to “design,” as if they were the same thing. And is “compelling evidence” a matter of fact or a matter of interpretation and opinion?

Later, Harris gives numerous examples of what he calls “unintelligent design” in nature. Yet the underlying assumption of his argument is that every imperfection is evidence of unintelligence, as if intelligence were always infallibly perfect.

Despite numerous scientifically and rationally based theories of intelligent design in the universe, Harris rejects out of hand any form of rational science that does not support his own atheistic convictions. (See for example the work of Paul Davies, David Deutsch, and Bernard Haisch, as well as the process theology of Alfred North Whitehead. And see Brian Greene and Michio Kaku if you want your mind blown by scientific theories of the universe just as seemingly fantastical as the concept of God.)

Harris may be right that the universe and everything in it are nothing more than material phenomena, at most epiphenomena dependent on physical reality, but just because the material is all we can observe, measure, and quantify does not mean that that is all that exists. In the end, we do not know. Maybe someday we will. Meanwhile, it may be the better part of wisdom to keep an open mind.

After reading this post one might ask what is left for me to agree with. Well, most of Harris’ specific attacks on religion are directed at the most unreasoning, literal-minded, hard-hearted tenets of fundamentalist and absolutist believers. I have no quarrel with his rejection of mindless, uncompassionate, and downright inhumane religious belief and action, but (1) he extends his attack to all believers, leaving little room for complexity, subtlety, and even the rationality of belief, and (2) his own zealotry blinds him to his own irrational, arrogant, and intolerant attitudes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Beloved III: The Mythic Message

From a mythic perspective, Sethe, the mother who murders her own child, is the Earth Mother or Great Goddess. She is Mother Nature, who takes the lives of those to whom she has given life. A nursing mother of one child while pregnant with another, Sethe is the ultimate fertility symbol. Having arranged to send her three children ahead to their free grandmother’s house, Sethe escapes slavery on her own, giving birth in a rowboat on the banks of the Ohio River, across which she and her new baby are later ferried, like dead people crossing the River Styx, except they are reborn to freedom among the living instead of being taken to the Underworld.

After 28 days, the length of a moon/menstrual cycle, the slaveholder arrives to take Sethe and her children back to captivity, and the blood flows freely when Sethe cuts her third-born “already crawling” baby with a handsaw before she can be stopped from killing all four of her children.

Sethe’s quest to free herself and her children from slavery thus takes a twisted route, taking her back to captivity in prison for murder. Released after emancipation, she is restored to her family in her mother’s house followed by the ghost of that dead baby, Beloved, which is all Sethe could get carved on her gravestone (in return for ten minutes of sex with the engraver). Her two boys eventually flee the haunted house and her mother dies, leaving Sethe and her now grown born-in-a-boat baby, Denver, alone with the vengeful spirit of Beloved. Having finally achieved physical freedom, Sethe’s quest now becomes a psychological journey of healing and recovery.

Like Sethe, Denver has her own quest to fulfill. Like a mythic hero, she shows early signs of special powers and a special destiny. As an infant in jail with her mother, Sethe claims, “the rats bit everything in there but her.” Upon being asked by a schoolmate if her mother had been in jail for murder, and if she had been with her, Denver temporarily loses her hearing and develops an acute sense of sight. Living in fear of the Terrible Mother, Denver’s hearing is restored when Beloved is resurrected in fleshly form. Denver is the first to recognize who she is.

Having ingested her dead sister’s blood when she nursed at her mother’s bloody breast immediately after the murder, Denver forms a close bond with Beloved, a bond that represents her own psychological attachment to that moment in their personal history. She jealously seeks to protect Beloved from both Sethe and Paul D., Sethe’s lover.

When Sethe submits to Beloved’s power, however, and deteriorates into psychosis, it becomes Denver’s quest to save her mother and their household from the succubus that Beloved has become. She ventures out on her own for the first time, finds work to support herself and her mother, and seeks help from the community, which results in a kind of exorcism ritual conducted by the neighborhood women as Sethe re-enacts the murder but this time directs her rage at the white man instead of her child. This purging of the past that Beloved represents frees both Sethe and Denver from its power. Thus Denver, like a mythic hero, achieves her quest for liberation of both herself and her mother.

Beloved herself plays many mythic roles. She is a ghost, a spirit, familiar, devil, witch, seductress, temptress, femme fatale, succubus, enchantress, sacrificial lamb, both destroyer and redeemer. If Sethe is the Terrible Mother, Beloved is the vengeful child, the memory of the painful past and the legacy of slavery, which must be suffered and purged before the next rebirth and resurrection can occur.

In one scene, during those 28 days of glory when Sethe and all four of her children were together, the family enjoys a treat of wild blackberries “tasting so good and happy that to eat them was like being in church. Just one of the berries and you felt anointed.” If there is a governing deity in the novel, it is nature, which, as in pagan mythology, brings both death and life, pain and pleasure, destruction and triumph, suffering and joy, guilt and redemption, illness and recovery, apocalypse and creation, sacrifice and resurrection.

Just as “anything coming back to life hurts,” so the vitality of nature cannot be separated from loss and suffering, life cannot be separated from death, and good cannot be separated from evil.

The mythic message of Beloved transcends the separations of race, class, gender, and politics to unify us all.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Beloved II: The Political Message

The political goal of the traditional slave narrative was unambiguous: abolition now! That is hardly the purpose of Beloved. Instead, the novel serves to to show a contemporary audience, more than a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, that physical emancipation is only part of the story.

Beloved is not only the "devil child" who "possesses" the mother who killed her, but also the memory and legacy of slavery, which haunts, not only those who were physically emancipated, but also their progeny.

Sethe bears the physical scars of slavery on her back; psychological scars in her memory, her conscience, and her identity; and the social scars of deprivation, isolation, and condemnation. Just as her feet, swollen and numb from walking away from slavery while pregnant, must suffer pain as feeling returns to them, so those scars of slavery cannot heal without reliving the original injuries, both those suffered and those inflicted. And lest we forget, "Anything dead coming back to life hurts" is a constant refrain.

What are the implications for contemporary African Americans? for other Americans? Perhaps the novel suggests that one of the legacies of slavery is a kind of social and cultural neurosis that leaves no one untouched. If African Americans must relive slavery and its aftermath to heal themselves, then white Americans may need to relive it to purge themselves of ignorance, denial, guilt, and the corrosive effects of white privilege. Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans may respond with resentment at the focus on slavery as opposed to other forms of oppression, or they may empathize and apply the healing lessons to their own historical burdens.

The lesson of this novel can also be applied to non-ethnic minorities such as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, who can certainly resonate with the legal prohibition against slaves marrying without permission from their owners: " get to a place where you could love anything you chose--not to need permission for desire--well now, that was freedom." And like any oppressed group, LGBT people bear their own psychological wounds of social outcasting, stigmatization, invisibility, and self-denial, wounds that may need to be lanced before they can heal.

Women readers may identify with Sethe's oppression based on gender, as well as race. Humiliated, whipped, and raped, she gets herself and her children out of slavery while pregnant with her fourth. Whether the result of temporary insanity or rational calculation, she attempts to murder all four when the slaveholders arrive to take them all back, suceeding, before she is stopped, in slitting the throat of her third-born, a daughter, who later returns as Beloved. Can there be a stronger indictment of slavery than as an institution that perverts mother-love from life-giving to death-dealing?

Why is it necessary to revisit the pain of history, be it our own or our country's? "Can't nothing heal without pain, you know."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Beloved I

This 1987 novel by Toni Morrison might be her most “beloved.” It also might be the richest, most complex, most difficult, and most rewarding of her works.

Often categorized as “magical realism," it can also be read as a historical novel, a fictional slave narrative, a socio-political study, a psychological novel, a gothic romance, a re-enactment of Biblical myth, or a mythologizing of African American experience in universal terms.

Historically the characters and their stories represent the African American experience of slavery and its aftermath. Like the traditional slave narrative, it recounts Sethe’s escape from captivity to freedom, but its main focus is her post-slavery quest for liberation from the psychological and social legacy of slavery and achievement of full selfhood, independence, self-worth, and dignity as a human being.

The novel’s roots in history include the actual story of an escaped slave mother who murdered her own child rather than have her recaptured, a story that Morrison researched in newspaper archives. See Its roots in slave narrative can be traced to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which Jacobs confesses that at one point she thought she would rather see her own children dead than to suffer the indignities and cruelties of slavery. The myth of the Terrible Mother can be found in pagan traditions of the Earth Mother or Great Goddess, a personification of Nature, who not only gives us life but also takes it. A monotheistic parallel can be found in the Old Testament Jehovah who not only saves and protects his “chosen people” but also punishes them, sometimes with death and destruction, a la the great flood.

Mythological and religious references abound in this story of the murdered child, Beloved, who returns to haunt and “possess” the mother who killed her until the “devil child” is finally exorcized and purged by suffering, perseverance, love, family, and community.

At one level the story represents Sethe’s guilt and atonement for the murder of her child (or, in other terms, her psychological illness and recovery), but the historical and mythic contexts lift it to another level, in which Beloved represents the burden of slavery carried, not only by the fictional Sethe and her family, but by all African Americans, a burden that must be lifted before full “salvation,” psychological health, and ethnic pride can be fully achieved.

This story of redemption likewise rises to the level of universal myths of birth and creation, fertility, quest, death and resurrection, sacrifice and salvation. At the same time it addresses a contemporary social and political debate over the extent to which individual behavior is the result of genetic, biological, psychological, social, economic and political circumstances and the extent to which it is the result of free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Though Sethe’s act of infanticide can be explained in terms of her brutalization in slavery and the psychological damage she has suffered as a result, the novel does not let her off the hook as an individual responsible for her own actions. We might be tempted to judge her “not guilty by reason of insanity,” but the novel holds her accountable and insists that she undergo a necessary penance before she can achieve both moral and psychological “at-onement.”

In the end, in a work that is filled with images of fertility, birth, and creation, Sethe experiences a kind of moral and psychological death followed by resurrection and rebirth.

Similarly, the novel suggests, African American culture and community, having suffered the destructive effects of slavery, will be reborn into health and vitality. For all the horror and tragedy that the novel depicts, it is a redemptive narrative that offers hope to all individuals and communities, of whatever ethnicity, who have been victimized, brutalized, and terrorized by history.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Hive Dancer"

I’ve known Edie Rylander and her poetry since 1980. She writes about rural life, nature and natural history, family, marriage, farming, American history and culture, even football (though I don’t think that Brett Favre poem has been published yet) in a style that is both elegant and earthy.

“Hive Dancer” (see previous post), from her book of the same name, magically combines self-expression with factual information about hives and bees. Rylander compares herself and her lifespan of 69 years to a worker bee, with a lifespan of 45 days, distinguishing herself from the queen bee, which lives “one to three years,” and the male drones, which die after mating or eventually get driven out of the hive by the workers. She then compares her own lifespan to that of a worker bee: “…day one…would be about equal/To year twenty for me”; “Middle-aged workers (ten to twenty-one days)”; and “The old worker bees/On average, days eighteen to forty-five).”

While she was born “helpless” the worker bee “Emerges full armed with stinger…Honeypot, wax glands, pollen basket.” In each stage of life the worker bee carries out useful functions maintaining the hive, nourishing the queen and the larvae, making honey and storing it, protecting the hive from disease, and finally, in its old age, adventuring, foraging, scouting, bringing home “The pollen, the water, the plant resin, the nectar,/Everything that feeds the hive,” and doing “the bee dance,/Showing distance and direction to food sources…” At age 69 Rylander celebrates her identity as “Old Tatterwings the hive dancer…Humming off in search of sweetness/Borne on the song of her wings.”

In this self-identification with the worker bee, Rylander explicitly separates herself from the queen bee, who “Kills her sister queens, drives Mom away,/Flies, mates, multiple times, comes home,” and lives out the rest of her fertile days “Laying eggs, laying eggs, laying eggs—“ As mother of three, Rylander might have justifiably identified with the fertile queen, but rejects the dominant role and chooses that of sustainer, nurturer, builder, protector, one of “the tough old girls,” the dancers who “bring the good stuff home.”

Culturally speaking, the queen might be associated with our glamorous fertility symbols--the Marilyns, the Raquels, the Brittanys, the Lindseys, the Angelinas--who compete among themselves for adoration from their fans, followers, and would-be mates. And while they luxuriate in the honeycomb of celebrity status, the everyday women go about their work at home, in fields and offices, classrooms and hospitals, stores and factories, driving trucks, flying planes, sustaining, nurturing, protecting, building and bringing “the good stuff home.” “Hive Dancer” consciously rejects the role of woman as beauty queen and embraces a larger vision of “women’s work.”

Appropriately, it does so in a style that is down to earth and colloquial at the same time that it is soaringly lyrical and elegant, both familiar and educated, tough and sweet. It combines mundane information about bees and hives with personal story, metaphor and myth. Queens, drones, and worker bees emerge as both natural facts and mythical beings.

Hive Dancer is one of three volumes of Rylander poetry, the other two being Dancing Back the Cranes and Dance with the Darker Sister. See Red Dragonfly Press

Like a true dancer, this poet combines both muscle and magic.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Poem for "the tough old girls"

                        "Hive Dancer"

It seems all my life I've been a worker bee.
("Lifespan of the Worker Bee"
Says that poster at the Minnesota State Fair
Which I come back to every visit.)

Though there's no reasonable way
To compare the lives
Of old women and bees,

And anyway, why not be a queen?
Queens live one to three years;
Workers average forty-five days.

A queen struggles up out of the comb,
Kills her sister-queens, drives Mom away,
Flies, mates, multiple times, comes home,
And then that long last act
In the dark heart of the comb,
Fed and groomed by her little sterile daughters,
Laying eggs, on a good day, equal to her body weight,
Laying eggs, laying eggs, laying eggs--

Then of course there are drones--male--
Drones can't feed themselves, drones can't sting,
Drones fly when the queen flies,
Mate, if lucky, then die.
Some fail at queen-catching and bumble on home,
Hang around the hive cadging honey
Till summer ends, and the workers drive them away.

And there's no equivalent in human development
For that egg and larva business.
Sixty-nine years ago I came out helpless,
While a worker (three days an egg, twenty-one days
Curled in her cell in the comb)
Emerges full armed with stinger
Plus all those useful tools,
Honey-pot, wax glands, pollen basket.

But assume, for the sake of the poem
That day one for a worker bee
Would be about equal
To year twenty for me.

In days one to fifteen,
Young workers clean and polish cells,
Shovel out food to ever-hungry larvae,
Feed and groom the queen,
Cap the brood cells.

Middle-aged workers (ten to twenty-one days)
Build new comb, unload nectar from the foragers,
Convert it in their bodies into honey.
Ventilate the hive with their wings.
Some become undertaker bees,
Flying away the dead; diagnosing
Disease in the brood,
Flying sick larvae off
Where they cannot infect the rest.

Now comes the part I like. It is
The old worker bees
(On average, days eighteen to forty-five)
Who are the adventurers,
The foragers, the scouts.
It is the tough old girls bring the good stuff home,
The pollen, the water, the plant resin, the nectar,
Everthing that feeds the hive.
It is the old workers who do the bee dance,
Showing distance and direction to food sources,

And I, I am Old Tatterwings the hive dancer,
Having escaped a thousand dangers,
Zooming in with a golden load,
Making my circles and figure-eights,
   Basswood, two hundred yards south.
   Clover, north by northwest.
   Look out for bee-eating birds, for bad weather.
   Avoid two-leggers, unless they attack the hive.

I am the hive dancer,
Humming off in search of sweetness,
Borne on the song of her wings.

                                                       --Edith Rylander, Hive Dancer

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Three Cups of Tea

The recent 60 Minutes episode that challenges the accuracy of this 2006 narrative by David Relin and Greg Mortenson (Mortenson’s name is listed first on the title page, but Relin wrote the book with Mortenson as consultant) aired just as I was about to start reading it.

Questions about dates and time sequences raised by 60 Minutes and others are partially addressed by Relin in the introduction. After complaining about Mortenson’s habitual tardiness, Relin writes, “He operates on Mortenson time, a product, perhaps, of growing up in Africa and working much of each year in Pakistan.”

The question of whether Mortenson was actually kidnapped by Taliban as recounted in the book is another issue. Relin didn’t observe that incident but relied on Mortenson’s account. We may never know the truth about it unless it is settled in court, but even such a settlement would, no doubt, leave much that is unresolved.

The current brouhaha about this book raises the whole postmodern issue of “truth.” Even if there is such a thing as objective truth, is it knowable by the human mind, which can only know things subjectively, or at least only as our human powers allow us to know things, not as they independently exist? Rather than dwelling on truthfulness, the postmodernists say, let us focus on the way discourse functions socially and politically. Instead of asking, “Is it true?” let us ask, “What purpose does it serve? Who does it benefit in the ongoing power struggle that constitutes our social reality?” If Three Cups of Tea contributes to the betterment of impoverished, illiterate, uneducated communities in central Asia, then it is valuable discourse that is worth our time and admiration.

We could spend many hours debating the philosophical ins and outs of postmodernism, but it is worth noting that even postmodernists start with certain assumptions of “truth,” namely that we can’t know objective reality and that our entire social reality can be characterized in terms of a power struggle. (Note the blatant contradiction: If we can’t know objective reality, then how can we know that our entire social reality is a power struggle?)

My own view is that, while it is undoubtedly “true” that we cannot fully know objective reality, we can know it more or less objectively. Just because we cannot know absolute truth does not give us license to say anything we want and claim it is “true.” Our human task is to sort out which truth claims are most credible, based on experience, evidence, facts, and logic, and which are least credible, based on the same criteria. Our human dilemma is that even our most credible truths, based on those criteria, are partial truths, constantly subject to revision. Truth is a matter of probability, not certainty.

So, what of Three Cups of Tea? First, I want to suggest that, while it is presented as non-fiction narrative, the book might best be understood as persuasive discourse, not as a supposedly factual account of persons, places, and events.

This is not to say that factuality is not important to persuasion; indeed, the factual challenges that have been raised are damaging to the persuasiveness of the account. However, it is to say that factual precision may be less important to the effectiveness of the book than general credibility. Readers will forgive factual lapses if they find the overall narrative believable enough to support its thesis.

What is the thesis of Three Cups of Tea? I would say it is the claim that building relationships of trust with the Islamic world and helping that world reduce poverty, improve education, and increase access to multiple sources of information will do more to end terrorism than military solutions alone.

No one has questioned the accuracy of the book in terms of its representation of the local languages and culture or of the general mission that Mortenson carried out in the mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The overall impression it leaves of a friendly, generous, hospitable people who welcome strangers bringing gifts that they actually need and can actually use has gone unchallenged. If the publisher had included a disclaimer on the title page that the book is “based on Greg Mortenson’s true life experiences," that might have made it more acceptable to its critics, but I doubt it would have made a lot of difference to most readers.

As Samuel Johnson said to the 18th century neo-classical critics who insisted on the “unities of time and space” in the theater, most readers “are always in their senses.” Just as they know that “the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players,” so do they know that most purportedly non-fiction narratives are based on memory as much or more than fact, are selections from reality (not a replica of it), and are often exaggerated, embellished, or even fabricated in parts to enhance the story.

Whatever liberties the book takes with details are less important than the truth of the overall message about cross-cultural relationships and ways that Western, Christian nations can build trust and win friends among people who might otherwise be ripe for terrorist recruitment.

Nonetheless, Greg Mortenson’s creative memory and looseness with facts could and no doubt has damaged his credibility in some quarters. There are those who will say he “lied,” that is deliberately set out to deceive, and to the extent that such charges undermine his character, they will damage the persuasive effect of the book, the credibility of his work, and ultimately the success of his mission. Such is the risk of non-fiction.

Those readers who accept the representation by journalist David Relin of Mortenson’s character—that of a man full of soul and passion, sloppy with details, fuzzy about time and numbers, disorganized, impractical, no doubt naïve, but highly intuitive, empathetic and compassionate—will allow him the credibility that he is due and be amazed at what he has accomplished.

Facts and truthfulness do matter, but so do good story-telling, good character, good intentions, and good accomplishments. Readers must weigh these values and reach their own conclusions.

To close with a somewhat literary question, what is the significance of the title of the book? I think those three cups of tea refer to the hospitality of the mountain people that Mortenson encountered and their cultural practice of placing relationships above business transactions. They would conduct business only after time was taken for human social interaction and trust-building. Our own Western practice is more often to be on time and “get down to business” right away so we can go on to the next appointment. The title draws attention, not only to Mortenson’s understanding of that cultural difference, but perhaps also to his affinity for the central Asian way of life, which made him so effective there.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

It is hard to think of another novel that is famous for both its opening and closing lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”; “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done…”

Those two quotes also represent two poles in Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel: the pole of history and the pole of the individual, the public and private. The personal narrative of Charles Darnay and his family becomes entangled with the public history of the French Revolution, and both narratives play themselves out on a larger allegorical or mythic stage, if you will, of good vs. evil and redemption vs. tragedy.

The message of the historical narrative seems to be that the vengeance of the oppressed is no better than abuse of power by the oppressor, that violence and excess are worse enemies than any particular social class. At the individual level, the message seems to be that while love has the power to redeem, there are those in every social class who are unredeemable. At the allegorical or mythic level, while good may ultimately triumph over evil, there is a terrible price to be paid for that victory.

These broad themes are dramatized in Dickens’ inimitable style of caricature, melodrama, sentimentalism, colorful scene-painting, irresistible humor, and unforgettable pathos. It is easy to see why Dickens had, and has, both popular appeal and literary value. That combination is a rare talent.

One would expect Dickens to sympathize with the downtrodden, but in A Tale of Two Cities he shows the dark side of the French revolutionaries and Republicans as well as of the French aristocracy. He dramatizes the injustice of which both are capable when in positions of power. The Marquis who thinks almost nothing of running down a peasant child under the wheels of his carriage epitomizes the cruelty and arrogance of the ruling class before the Revolution, while the DeFarges and the woman called “the Vengeance” represent the viciousness of the street mobs bent on revenge during the Revolution.

These “unredeemable” characters are balanced by the redeemed: Charles Darnay, son of the aforementioned Marquis, who renounces his aristocratic heritage and goes to London, where he works for a living teaching French; Dr. Manette, who, after years of imprisonment by the ruling class is able, not only to accept Darnay as his daughter’s husband, but also to put himself at risk by defending Darnay in the Republican court when he is arrested simply because of his bloodline while on a trip to Paris to help a friend; and the drunken wastrel Sydney Carton, whose love for Darnay’s wife and Manette’s daughter becomes the redemptive power that enables him to replace Darnay in the prison cell and take his place on the scaffold.

Good and evil are equally to be found in each social class, and while “good,” in the form of democracy and the survival of a loving family, may ultimately triumph, the stage of history is littered with the bodies of good and evil alike who have died in the struggle for freedom and equality.

A Tale of Two Cities is a redemptive novel of political emancipation, personal atonement, and love triumphant, but it does not deny the dark side of human nature or of human history. The opening lines are no mere rhetorical flourish, for the novel vividly dramatizes the days of the French Revolution as, indeed, “the best of times” and “the worst of times…”

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Rainbow

Reading was interrupted when my Nook failed as I was trying to finish this 1915 D.H. Lawrence novel. I ended up reading the last few chapters on the Kindle application on my smartphone. Ah, the joys of e-reading!

I was familiar with Lawrence, having read, and in some cases studied, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love (the sequel to The Rainbow), selected poems, a few short stories, and Studies in Classic American Literature, possibly the most idiosyncratic commentary on American literature ever written. I had also seen the 1969 Ken Russell film of Women in Love, but not the 1989 film of The Rainbow, also directed by Russell.

My undergraduate Modern Fiction professor had engrained in me the habit of reading Lawrence through a Freudian lens, while my graduate professor emphasized the “sense of the numinous” in Lawrence. That counterpoint sums up the experience of grappling with the almost whiplash-like contradictions in Lawrence’s work. As you will see in this blog post, I have added a socio-political lens as well.

On the one hand, the human experience in Lawrence boils down to the biological urge for pleasure and dominance played out in endless power struggles with family, lovers, society at large, and even oneself. On the other, it is nature and natural expression that offers the only hope of redemption in an overly-“civilized," mechanized modern society.

The Rainbow tells the story of three generations of Brangwens: Tom, who marries a Polish widow with a young daughter; Will, Tom’s nephew, who marries Anna, Tom’s step-daughter; and Ursula, eldest daughter of Will and Anna, who pursues a teaching career and has both a female and a male lover. Each character struggles with sexual desire and the urge to dominate in all relationships, whether sexual or not. All the relationships are fraught with conflict, both expressed and repressed. In addition, the characters seek some kind of fulfillment in a society that is bound by tradition, artificiality, alienation, and industrial dehumanization.

In each generation Lawrence dramatizes the relentless Freudian conflicts that, according to Freud, characterize the human condition. Yet, whereas in Freud, these conflicts are never resolved, except in momentary flashes of pleasure or triumph, Lawrence seems to hold out hope of “salvation” in nature, as symbolized, for example, by the rainbow that appears to Ursula in the final scene.

Or, is Ursula simply deluding herself that any kind of redemption is possible? Such are the whiplash contradictions between nature as power struggle and nature as spiritual reservoir.

The first chapter of the novel is a paean to the natural world in rural England, scarred by coal mining to feed the industrial factories and populated by those like the Brangwens who are trapped in the conflict between nature and society, closest to the redemptive power that nature seems to offer, yet yearning for the ego advancement that society can provide.

What is most remarkable to me in The Rainbow is the language that Lawrence creates to represent the teeming energy of the Freudian Id and the awakening of consciousness in his characters. No one before Lawrence had written in such concrete terms of sexual desire, aggression, the will to power, the urge to submit, the longing for unity and transcendence, and the ever incomplete process of growing awareness.

And as that language captures the conflicted tumult of human psychology, it is sometimes difficult to tell when it is the characters’ and when it is Lawrence’s psychology.

Case in point: Ursula’s affair with Winifred is introduced in affirmative terms in a chapter entitled “Shame.” The waning of Ursula’s passion for Winifred is comparable to the ebb and flow of her feelings for Anton, but she looks back on her relationship with Winifred as a death-dealing “side show,” as if it were a freakish affair, unlike the one with Anton. Her feelings of revulsion for Winifred are associated with her growing maturity. Is this Ursula’s homophobia or Lawrence’s or both?

Later, when Anton returns from Africa, telling Ursula about “the strange darkness, the strange, blood fear” and “the blacks,” who “worship…the darkness,” is that Anton’s racism or Lawrence’s or both?

The Rainbow is an iconoclastic novel, challenging Victorian conventions, easy sentimentalism, and British cultural traditions, especially with respect to sex, courtship, marriage, domestic life, women’s roles, and religion. While it boldly depicts a lesbian relationship, it fails to challenge the prevailing homophobic attitudes of its day. And while it seems itself at times to “worship” nature, darkness and all, it also seems to reinforce popular Western imperialistic and ethnocentric views of nature-worshipping “blacks” on the Dark Continent.

These contradictions are perhaps the most difficult for a contemporary, progressive, pro-gay rights, anti-racist reader to grapple with, while a conservative reader, like those in Lawrence’s time who prosecuted it for obscenity and banned it, will be most offended by its open treatment of human sexuality and its Freudian view of human relationships.