Why I Write

I thought an artist’s statement was something graphic artists composed and posted at an exhibition of their work in a gallery, so when my sister-in-law, who is carrying my books in her gift shop, requested that I write such a statement, I was at first perplexed. I certainly could write a biographical note, but an author’s statement in the manner of a painter or sculptor, confounded me.

But I began to ponder why I write. After mulling over the question for the next several weeks, I formulated my answers and writing philosophy. It was not difficult to do when I considered where my impulse to write began and what I hoped to achieve by pursuit of the art. Here are my reasons for the urge and why I can’t purge it from my soul:

I write to reflect upon my life, events, and the cultural climate around me. It is an effort at making sense out of human experience in all of its manifestations either in history, in contemporary society, in other people’s lives, or in my own experience. What I write must have spiritual value. I want it to broaden the reader’s perspective and uplift in some meaningful fashion. I do not write to entertain. If my writing entertains, it is a side benefit. I write to gain knowledge. Through research and probing into my subjects, I work to know intimately my characters and to express that each human life has meaning.

Art is a way of giving form to emotions and thoughts in a pleasing form. In that, the art object has intrinsic value. In the creative act, the artist imitates the divine act of creation of the universe, because the artist pours all her love into making something beautiful and pleasing to herself. The urge to create manifests the divine in human nature. As such, art assumes a religious aspect.What form, then, does my creative impulse take? The two currents that run strongly through my writings are an interest in history and in human motivation. How are we inheritors of what has come before us? How do we transcend our origins? How does what happened before influence who we are today? Psychological exploration plays an integral part in my writing process.

Beyond these concerns, I enjoy shaping language and playing with the multiple meanings a single word may carry. I am interested in metaphor and symbol. The human brain searches for signs and symbol in the environment. Language, the peculiar ability of the human animal, is symbolic and the ultimate tool for expression. I strive to embody ideas and emotions in the most pleasing linguistic shape. This propensity leads me to prefer poetry. Of the various genres or forms of literary expression, poetry strikes me as the highest, the most quintessential realization of language because of its compactness, concision, and sound effects. These elements combine to create the purest and most beautiful verbal art form.

I started as a teenager with writing poetry—a typical progression of many prose writers. I derive more personal satisfaction from crafting a well-wrought line of poetry than composing a prose paragraph. Little becomes more in poetry. I see the best prose carrying poetical traits such as parallel structure, alliterative passages, symmetry, cadence, and grace. After writing twelve novels, I don’t care if I ever write another one, but I do care to write some good poems before I die. I may be done writing novels, but I will never be done writing poetry.

Poetry of Louise Glück

Each year when the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced, I like to read the recipient’s work and decide if I concur with the committee’s choice. The year 2020 was no different, so I tackled the 627-page collection Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012.

I started at the beginning, reading them in the order of composition. In this way, I could see her development as a poet over five decades. I was immediately struck by the obscurity and highly personal references that make some of the poems difficult to entirely understand and concluded she most probably belonged to the confessional school of poetry. The titles did not serve to enlighten, although the images and turns of phrase are often striking and unusual. I want to understand how they connect, what it all means. Should I work longer at it to unravel her inner angst? Or am I just too lazy and read on to the next poem, hoping that the pieces of the mosaic will all be illuminated as one brilliant stained-glass window at the end?

As I read, I marked the poems that I thought were outstanding, intending to re-read them to determine if I still felt the same on a second reading. Some passed the test and others did not. More of the later poems passed the test, because they are not as highly personalized as the early ones. Here are some that passed the test: “Widows,” “A Novel,” and “Retreating Light.” The images are concrete and translatable to any reader’s experience. “Parable of Light” is poignant in its explicit comparison of the flight and disappearance of birds to the flight and disappearance of passionate love. Particularly good were her voice poems giving new looks at Odyssey, Penelope, and Telemachus. I feel her writing gains in comprehensibility and expands beyond the pity pot personal school of poetry.

In addition to the personal nature of her subjects, she addresses in many of her poems an unidentified “you” who may be her own psyche, one of her relatives, or lovers. Another characteristic is the posing of questions. In this regard, the poems are a search for answers–answers that may or not be implied, making the poems open-ended enough for the reader to supply his own answer. Her poems, then, are a continual dialogue with self.

She writes prosaic poetry, arranging prose–admittedly beautiful prose–in poetic lines. Not my cup of tea, yet some of the ideas are cogent and startling. For example, “Birthday” is a pretty good description of the teenage years although not poetical. It could have been delivered in one text paragraph. Two pages later, a poem appears that rises above the prosaic–“Ancient Text”–a successful extended metaphor in balanced two-line stanzas.

She and other moderns are writing in a new form–a crossbreed called prose poetry. It is a style out of the mainstream of traditional prosody. I don’t contest its validity and appeal to a wide audience, but my preference remains with formal traditional versification.

Because of her limited range of subjects, the poems grew tiresome to read as I progressed through the collection. I hastened to finish. On page 565, “Noon” is a curious piece, more of a vignette or cameo, not really even a prose poem. On the next page, “Before the Storm” ends with pedestrian lines I’d be embarrassed to have written: The night is an open book/But the world beyond remains a mystery.

So it is that not every poem that a poet writes is a memorable poem. Evaluated as a whole, do I think her work will be read one hundred years from now? Most likely, she will be read as much as John Greenleaf Whittier is today. We know from the record the Nobel Prize committee has not always been accurate in its predictions. I suspect mine will not be either. But for what it’s worth, I found Louise Glück’s collected poems a mixed bag. Some I liked and some left me cold. Nothing unusual about that.

Reflections on Year’s End

An older person, I’d rather see time stand still for a while rather than wave a year good-bye. Time always seems to speed faster the older one grows. Seeing that this year has been a tragic one with mourning and weeping around the world, most people are happy to bid it good riddance and eager to welcome in a healthy and prosperous 2021. My habit in the waning days of one year is to reflect on how I have lived my life during that dying year and to consider how I may best live the dawning year if I should be granted more time.

Here in my posts and in my daily activities I’ve striven to speak out against the erosion of democracy and mean-spirited, mendacious politics. I am proud that I have not remained silent in the face of evil. I have meditated on what evil is. I still do not have a good definition and cannot offer one here. The best I can do is to describe it as a failure to see that humanity is one and to acknowledge that truth in word and deed. Lies, insults, selfishness, greed, arrogance, viciousness, and cruelty are manifestations of that failure.  Talk of politics should not be avoided. Everything is politics, because it determines how we live, if our children are well-educated, if our families thrive, and what public services are available to make our communities safer and improve our overall well-being.

If anything, bad politics has served to make the body politic less apathetic and more aware of the importance of civic involvement and voting, which absolutely does make a difference. Bad examples can serve a good purpose. I have been active in the political process. In 2021 I cede the driver’s seat to the younger generation. The Baby Boomers had their chance to make a difference. While continuing to stay informed and to comment as I see fit, I am happy to take a backseat.

In 2020 I completed two books: Grant Me a Cloud, my collected poems 2017-2020 and Stranger in My Own Land, a verse-novel based on the life of Margaret Fuller, nineteenth-century American writer and intellectual. I begin the new year without a writing project in mind. The likelihood that I will not write another book does not bother me. I may have emptied the writing well. Nonetheless, I have a body of work that represents what I have thought and felt, what I have imagined and invented over four decades. The results satisfy me. Unless the irresistible force overtakes me to write a book that must be written, I plan to empty my mind by writing posts for How Public Like a Frog.

At year’s end, many minds turn to thoughts of New Year’s resolutions. Numerous articles appear to argue for or against making resolutions. Ambitious lists of resolutions are published both humorous and edifying.  Many are made and soon broken. Others are kept through sheer persistence. I myself believe in resolutions. To resolve is to make a firm decision, to decide to amend your life in some way. What could be wrong about that? We try and we fail; then we pick ourselves up and try again. We need a plan, a road map for the future, and resolutions give us a direction to follow.

So what are my resolutions for 2021? I resolve not to accomplish anything. I will not lose weight. I will not write the Great American Novel. I will not redecorate the house. I will not increase my bank account. I will not bake ten cheesecakes. I will not be jaded, cynical, and pessimistic.

What about positives? I will welcome each morning as a gift from heaven. I will walk gentle on this earth. I will treat each day as my last. I will try, and often fail, to love my neighbor as myself.

The Plague by Albert Camus

What does reading this novel that imagined an epidemic ravaging the Algerian city of Oran in 1947 have to tell us about the Covid-19 epidemic of 2020? In Camus’s story the plague lasts from June to February of the next year, dying out on its own. The current plague is nowhere fading away after nine months; rather it is accelerating. In other ways the course of the plague in Oran is similar to how it is playing out in the United States.

Oran’s citizens react at first like many Americans did, denying its reality. The authorities are reluctant to impose strict measures to control its spread. Not until the death toll reaches alarming proportions do they close the city gates and begin to quarantine people exposed to victims. In this regard the United States is unlike Oran because many governors refused to close their borders to visitors and to prohibit residents from leaving. Oran is similar in that some people thought the onset of cold weather would end the plague. Dr. Rieux’s description of the hasty funerals, the deaths in isolation without the comfort of family and friends, accurately prefigures the situation today.

Dr. Bernard Rieux, who is not identified as the narrator until the end of the novel, could be any one of the doctors who are selflessly tending the critically ill day and night in the overwhelmed hospitals across the country. This passage explains the reason for the narrator’s method:

Whenever tempted to add his personal note to the myriad voices of the plague-stricken, he was deterred by the thought that not one of his sufferings but was common to all the other and that in a world where sorrow is so often lonely, this was an advantage. Thus, decidedly, it was up to him to speak for all.

His purpose in writing his chronicle is: “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

That is a hopeful message in our own depressing time. Dr. Rieux cannot tell Father Peneloux that he believes in God, but he can say unequivocally that he believes in relieving human suffering. In the face of inexplicable suffering, the death of a child, Father Paneloux chooses not to lose his faith. It is all or nothing for him. He delivers a sermon in which he enjoins the all-male congregation: “We must convince ourselves that there is no island of escape in the plague.” Reacting to the sermon, the narrator comments: “No, there was no middle course. We must accept the dilemma and choose either to hate God or to love God.” To surrender to the will of God without understanding it is the course Father Peneloux takes. He ends his sermon with this clarion call: “My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!”

Rambert, the journalist exiled in the quarantined city, unable to return to the woman he loves in Paris, eventually resigns himself to stay and help in the fight against the plague. The other characters each in his own way realizes their communality in the struggle. The aspiring writer Grand constantly editing one sentence volunteers to tend the victims. Tarrou, another of Dr. Rieux’s friends, succumbs to the disease but dies bravely. Rieux reflects that if his friend had lost his match with death, “all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match.” He muses further upon the meaning of plague, and concludes it is “Just life, no more than that.” Sounding again a hopeful note in a dolorous time, the narrator states this at the end: “What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Plague changes the plague-stricken for good or ill. The one character who mentally disintegrates is Cottard who lives in fear of arrest for some crime in his past. Throughout the epidemic Cottard has taken comfort in the fact that everybody is now “in the same boat,” and the closed off city protects him from detection. When the plague dissipates and he no longer has that anonymity in the crowd of the quarantined population, he descends into madness and is going to shoot up the population in the streets from his window.

Dr. Rieux writes that it is fitting that he end his chronicle with Cottard, “the man, who had an ignorant, that is to say lonely heart.” Earlier in the novel, the narrator remarks:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

In other words, Cottard has not learned anything from the plague. His ignorance propels him to commit an insane act.

Dr. Rieux has learned that the plague can rise up again at any time and imperil our joy. He will remember his friends who died and will know that the plague never really dies or completely disappears. It is the human condition, the ignorance at the root of all evil.

I love this book, and strangely, did not find it depressing, but rather uplifting. Our very real plague of 2020 will eventually end, probably with the highly touted vaccine, an immunization that Oran never hoped for. The metaphorical plague will remain–vice, evil, man’s inhumanity to man, whatever you wish to name it. The question is what will Americans have learned about compassion and brotherly love as a result. Will they follow the path of sympathy as Tarrou, Rambert, Grand, Father Peneloux, and Dr. Rieux do in this novel? Will they stay and fight the plague together?

Above all, I love this novel for the brevity and compactness of its expression of eternal truths.

Language and Thought

The connection between language and thought has long fascinated me. It may seem a chicken and egg question of which came first, but clearly they have a reciprocal relationship; they work in tandem. The clarity and coherence of one’s language, thus, reflects the clarity and coherence of one’s thought. One’s speech patterns and prose style are only as good as the organization and logical stream of one’s thinking.

Good writing is impossible without a foundation of careful and critical thinking before the first word is ever written. How I hated those outlines that my teachers had me write as the first step in composition. Now I appreciate the crucial necessity of doing so. Similarly, wise men constantly caution to think before speaking. A suitable inscription for the fool’s memorial plaque is: “He/she opened mouth and inserted foot.”

Words are dangerous; words are weapons. Debate requires definition of terms; otherwise differences in what words mean prevent any mutual understanding and fruitful discussion. Tact and diplomacy at the highest level of government go hand and hand with superior language proficiency. The last four years testify to the damage a blathering, sputtering head of state does to international relations.

In the United States the corruption and abuse of language signal a rise in authoritarianism. Disturbed by this trend, I turned to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” He incorporates and dramatizes many of the ideas in this essay in his novel 1984, which I also revisited. Orwell contends that slovenliness of language facilitates foolishness of thought, and of course, the reverse is true. “To think clearly,” he writes, “is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”

Orwell identifies several characteristics that typify the decline of language: staleness of imagery, vagueness, empty verbiage, and use of meaningless words. He states that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This has always been present in political discourse but not to the proportions seen in Donald Trump’s speech patterns marked by fragments, disjointed sentences, and repetitions. Half-truths and evasions have reached a gargantuan level. As of July 12, 2010, the Washington Post recorded 20,000 of Trump’s false or misleading statements. Both his thought and language exhibit a lack of clarity and coherence.

In the novel 1984, an authoritarian regime thoroughly controls the media and rewrites history to suit its agenda. By repeatedly lying and drumming the same slogans into their ears, the populace comes to accept the government’s lies as the truth. Today the FOX cable network has emerged as the state-sponsored purveyor of misinformation and the megaphone for what the “dear leader” wants the public to believe. Furthermore, The Donald and his minions wage a campaign to discredit any other news outlets, accusing them of “fake news.” These trends are alarming. If Orwell arose from the dead, he would be shaking his head and telling us “I told you so.”

Many news anchors on whatever the network frequently exhibit the same lack of precision and clarity of language. They grab the cliché, engage in empty verbiage, use shop-worn phrases, and pose long-winded questions to their guests. How often have I heard “that’s amazing,” “at the end of the day” or “boots on the ground.” They are not thinking; they are filling in the blanks with stale, meaningless expressions.

Vocabulary development was a part of my primary school education. Every morning the teacher would write on the board a new word to be included in writing a complex sentence. Simple noun, verb, object constructions were not allowed. Subordinate conjunctions to elucidate the relationship of ideas were required—constructions that showed cause-effect, time, place, comparison, and contrast relationships. When I came of age in the 1960s, building a sophisticated vocabulary was an important barometer of intellectual achievement. Recognition of antonyms and synonyms was an important element of building vocabulary as well as skill using the thesaurus and dictionary.

To express the nuances of any topic, comparison through metaphor and analogy are essential tools to clarify meanings. Without imagery ideas fall flat and meaningless. Complex thoughts require a precise, extended range of advanced vocabulary; simple, general thoughts can make do with a fifth-grade vocabulary.

Language and thought are inextricably connected. Just try to think a thought without words. Pictures can be painted with words too, and the master painters are the cogent, eloquent communicators and thinkers so many of whom are absent from political office today. The sentences that clear thinkers design are musical too, lending a cadence and rhythm that falls beautifully upon the ear.

That’s why when I hear some politicians speak on television, I mute the discordant and ignorant sounds.

Reactions to Mary L. Trump’s Book: Too Much and Never Enough

In my commentary on Mary Trump’s book, I will concentrate on parts that have not been quoted and commented upon in reviews and in interviews with her. So many of the most salient and memorable points she makes about her uncle are already well-publicized.

Remarkably, I come away from reading this psychological explanation of The Donald’s development with more sympathy and less condemnation of the man. I do not sense any venom in Mary’s voice. She is very analytical and clinical in her account of what she observed and experienced. Both parents failed to discipline, and most lamentably, failed to really love Donald as a child. His mother threw up her hands at his bad behavior. Mary describes him as always talking back to his mother and never doing what he was told to do. As a Social Security representative, I assisted parents applying for disability benefits for their children who had a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. According to Mary’s description, Donald could very well have had the same condition. His father sent him to military school because he did not want to deal with Donald’s behavioral problems. Building his real estate empire occupied his entire father’s time. Mary writes that nobody sent their sons to NYMA for a better education, but rather the family considered it a “reform school.’

Mary explains the dynamics in a large family. Reared in a family with four children, I have raised the question to friends many times over the last five years whether they did not find it odd that we never heard from Donald’s siblings about what it was like growing up with Donald or that we never saw them with him at events. My siblings and I constantly have shared memories, have criticized each other’s shortcomings, praised our admirable qualities and laughed and cried together. I certainly noticed the siblings’ absence even if Mary writes at the beginning of her book, “The media failed to notice that not one member of Donald’s family apart from his children, his son-in-law, and his current wife said a word in support of him during the entire campaign. Her Aunt Maryanne did share with Mary that Donald was utterly unqualified for the office he sought, but her aunt confessed later that she had voted for Donald out of a sense of family loyalty. And that’s exactly what a lot of Republicans did out of party loyalty.

Mary is probably correct when she speculates that her uncle “may have a long undiagnosed learning disability that for decades has interfered with his ability to process information.” His aversion to reading and his inability to speak or write coherently give additional credence to this supposition.  She cautions he has a complex of mental and emotional disorders that only can be assessed accurately with a battery of examinations, which, of course, he will not submit to. Even the untrained observer can tell that Donald is somehow emotionally and mentally disturbed. Mary identifies the source of his psychological disorders as mainly arising from Donald’s father, and in fact, all the siblings experienced damage from their relationships with Fred Trump, Sr.

I found particularly sad and shocking her description of the family’s behavior when Mary’s own father, Fred Trump’s first-born son, died at age forty-two. She was age sixteen and at boarding school when she was told to call her grandparents. When she did, they were too cowardly to tell her that her father had already died and instead told her to call her mother who broke the news to her. No family member had gone to the hospital where Fred Jr. had been taken in an ambulance. While he was in the hospital dying, Donald and his sister Elizabeth went to the movies. Mary’s account of the aftermath of her grandfather’s funeral is no less demonstrative of an emotionally crippled family. Mary took her widowed grandmother home after the funeral. None of her children accompanied her back to her house to stay with her. She was left alone to grieve the loss of her husband of sixty-three years. At her grandfather’s funeral, Mary writes that when it was Donald’s turn to eulogize his father, it “devolved into a paean to his own greatness.” Her aunt Maryanne told her son not to allow any of her siblings to speak at her funeral.

Interesting and perceptive is her statement that “Donald has been institutionalized for most of his adult life, so there is no way to know how he would thrive, or even survive, on his own in the real world.” By institutionalized, she means that he has been living in a bubble, insulated from the consequences of his bad behavior or with no incentives to improve his character. He has been trained to never accept responsibility or admit a mistake. She writes: “Though Donald’s fundamental nature hasn’t changed, since his inauguration the amount of stress he’s under has changed dramatically. It’s not the stress of the job, because he isn’t doing the job—unless watching TV and tweeting insults count. It’s the effort to keep the rest of us distracted from the fact that he knows nothing—about politics, civics, or simple human decency—that requires an enormous amount of work.”

Incisively, she blames the media for failing to ask pointed questions. Throughout his campaign and continuing to the present, the media has allowed him to get away with murder. I am still angry that Donald’s bluster and nonsense eclipsed media coverage for John Kasich, a respectable and knowledgeable Republican candidate for the presidency. As a New Yorker, Mary knew about Donald’s bankruptcies, showmanship, and ignorance. She was astounded that the rest of the country did not. His lunacies and outrageous statements got more press than the exposure of his misdeeds and unfitness for leadership. She has good reason to believe that if she had spoken out early, even in 2015, her words would have fallen on deaf ears. Along with her I was also traumatized “when 62,979,636 voters had chosen to turn this country into a macro version of” what she calls “my malignantly dysfunctional family.”

Tellingly, she comments: “Large minorities of people still confuse his arrogance for strength, his false bravado for accomplishment, and his superficial interest in them for charisma.” I am astounded too at anyone who can still vote for The Donald after the ample evidence to his severely flawed character and unfitness for leadership over the last four years. At the end of the book she writes on the botching of the Covid-19 response: “The deafening silence in response to such a blatant display of sociopathic disregard for human life or the consequence for one’s actions, on the other hand, fills me with despair and reminds me that Donald isn’t really the problem after all.” I share her despair and wish that she had expanded on where the problem really lies, for I see part of it in a broken Republican Party that has lost its way and its principles and that continues to cater to the least admirable segment of our population and the darkest elements of human nature. He could not have reached the top where he struts without corrupt, venal sycophants preying upon his need for love, adulation, and constant compliments. Hence, Pence the lapdog and Putin pulling his strings. Plus a Senate majority defending the indefensible. The problem lies in ourselves. We’re the permissive parents.

If anything, reading Mary’s book has allowed me to feel a little compassion for this deeply unhappy and flawed man who has always covered up his insecurities and inadequacies with false bravura. With scowl and down-turned mouth, flab, painted face, and ridiculous do; he is to be pitied. He’s sired five children he does not really love any more than his own father loved his five offspring. For Donald and his father, children are but appendages to feed an ego.

Some perceived that Marianne Williamson running for President was a joke, but I looked at her as a necessary antidote to hatred and fear and a counterpoint to Donald Trump. As a student and teacher of A Course in Miracles, Williamson knows that The Donald’s attacks and insults are cries for love. In an attempt to conquer hatred for this pitiful man, I wrote this poem in November of 2017, and despite writing it, every day that The Donald occupies the White House, I struggle to suppress that emotion. My hope surfaces in that the Honorable John Lewis, representative from Georgia, succeeded admirably to love unstintingly. Our children need role models like him in abundance.

Go in Peace

Because I have not learned the lessons well

Of A Course in Miracles, The Donald came

To test my mastery of what forgiveness is.

In attack of him I haven’t learned I attack

Myself and I haven’t seen that if I forgive

His mistakes that I will heal and grant him

The love his insults, boasts, and lies all seek.

Can I grant him peace and freedom from fear

That I also seek by forgiving him for what

He knows not what he does as I grant myself

The same forgiveness for what I know not?

 

This is the great lesson of the Great Teacher

While yet earthbound seems impossible

Of achievement even as prayers ascend

To grant us peace, O Lord, in troubled times,

In this vale of tears where constantly it seems

Dog eats dog and brother still kills brother,

Ignorant, we war on ourselves and receive

What we give, whether pain and fear or gifts

Of love and peace, which their giving extends.

Give away then whatever the wish is to gain.

I have not earned a passing grade but wish

To go in peace with my neighbor without end.

 

 

 

 

Seven Centuries after Dante’s Death

There is no time like the present to read The Divine Comedy. Dante began writing his long narrative poem in 1308 and completed it in 1320. Dante titled his work simply Commedia, but a publisher in a later century added the adjective divina. Although the subject is serious, the term comedy in the classical world applied to a work which had a happy ending and used the low or vernacular language. Dante wrote in the Italian of his day, and the mystical vision in the third part Paradiso is an uplifting conclusion to his pilgrimage.

Dante lived in a period of political chaos, in which two factions warred for control of his native city Florence. The conflict resulted in Dante’s permanent exile. He died in Ravenna in 1321. To deal with his plight and the tumultuous state of affairs in Italy, he turned to study and contemplation, preparatory to the composition of his great poem. Dante conceives hell, purgatory, and paradise as organized structures of descent and ascent, each level representing a corresponding vice or virtue in his three-part journey through the afterlife. In contrast to the chaos he experienced, he imagines a cosmic order in which a divine purpose exists in the seemingly incomprehensible course of human events. Using Christian iconography and theology, he envisions a system of punishments and rewards. He populates his afterlife with contemporary people he has known and figures from classical literature and the Bible.  He classifies three main categories of sin–incontinence, violence, and fraud–and further subdivides the sinners in each of these categories. In purgatory it is made clear that the vilest sinner can be spared the inferno if he sincerely repents even at the moment of death and is purified for entry into heaven. Even the righteous pagans or those who died before the coming of Christ can attain paradise. It is only the incorrigibly unrepentant who are eternally punished, for they never cease blaming others or situations outside of themselves for their sins.

Similarly, the United States is experiencing a time of political strife and chaos. Corruption and misrule have characterized the last several years, compounded by failure of leadership and a botched response to the coronavirus epidemic. In 1300 Dante attributed the chaos to bad leaders, both secular and religious. His parade of venal politicians and sowers of discord and division can easily be substituted with leaders in our government today. At the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself in midlife, wandering in a dark wood; he has lost the straight path. His exile and the villainy he sees all around him have deeply depressed him. He embarks on a spiritual journey to obtain wisdom. As Dante progresses, he learns that freedom from evil is attainable through the embrace of faith, hope, and love. He learns from the great monastic contemplatives, such as Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux. He meets many good and bad examples along the way before he reaches the ineffable vision of God and experiences the unity of all creation.

All forms of art are spiritually liberating in that they imitate the divine act in creation of the universe. Dante accepts his commission to write a poem to relate his mystical experience. The activity of writing will free him from negative emotions and help him achieve peace. He has learned that the striving after worldly fame, power, and wealth is the road to perdition. He has experienced a mystical union powered by faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love, symbolized by Beatrice who after guiding him through the last phase of his journey, takes her place in the mystical rose. The all-encompassing divine Light has completely supplanted the darkness that weighed so heavily upon his soul.

The reading of this profound metaphorical and philosophical discourse on the human condition, as true today as it was seven centuries ago,  is a spiritual elixir during this dark and disturbing period in American history.

 

Back to the Future

It is Back to the Future this last week of May 2020. I could be watching the race riots in Detroit and other American cities in the sixties. The issues, the anger, the frustration, and inequalities are the same. What is not the same is a White House occupant and a Republican Party incapable of moral leadership. A severely mentally and emotionally handicapped person was voted into office–astoundingly–because a significant amount of my fellow Americans thought him fit for office, thus enabling an Electoral College win. This is the “Administration of Chaos,” that the capable Jeb Bush forecast. It is an administration marked by resignations and firings–a record turnover that no private business could sustain before going bankrupt–a place where no reasonable person would want to work–a toxic environment.

A leader unites; this man elevated to the top leadership position does nothing but divide and cut deeper into existing divisions. While the country burns and 100,000 Americans die, he golfs and eats himself into a frenzy. He looks every bit an unhappy man with downturned mouth, scowls, and dull eyes. If he had one iota of the self-reflection of a Richard Nixon or of a Lyndon Johnson, he would resign or refuse to accept his party’s nomination; then retire to play golf without interruption. However, inmates of a federal prison probably don’t have access to a golf course, although a portable putting green may be allowed in their cells. I don’t know. In any event, it looks like the nation has almost eight more months of chaos and his omnipresence in the news because there are no competent cabinet members to unite, invoke the 25th Amendment, and intervene on behalf of the common good.

There are none because he has surrounded himself with an unfit, corrupt, and sycophantic staff. I doubt he is loved, admired, or respected by these sycophants. In Russian terms, the boss is a “useful idiot.” They are leeches sucking as much power and money they can out of the body politic until they scuttle off somewhere else when the host is dead. Tyrants–autocrats–dictators–are not loved. They are users and manipulators. In turn, others use and manipulate them. It is a symbiosis of evil that only lasts for a while. They don’t build anything. They suck everything dry until exhausted themselves. Then the system they fed upon collapses. The sanitation crew enters to clean up the carnage and make way for healthy growth and interdependence. The word carnage, which he used in his execrable January 2017 inauguration speech, struck a perfect keynote; it offered, lamentably, a battle cry instead of a paean to peace and progress for the next four years.

I want to wake up one bright morning and not wonder what horrific thing the current occupant of the White House has said, tweeted, or done in the last twenty-four hours. What is the latest lie, insult, or abomination? I’ve lived through twelve United States’ presidencies, but during the present one, a day has not passed when I did not think about what absurdity had just emanated from the White House. As a child of the sixties, the last four years are worse than that period of unrest in which I came of age and lost my innocence, because moral decay and a vacuum of leadership reside at the top. Wasn’t Lyndon Johnson’s mantra, Come now, let us reason together?

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

This is not the most widely read or well-known of Carlos Fuentes’s novels, but it is certainly the longest, the most ambitious, and probably the most imaginative. It is baroque in the sheer luxuriousness of its language in which Fuentes piles on description upon description, almost a gaudy cornucopia that conjures up the most ornate cathedral of the sixteenth century, replete with realistic statuary, reliquaries, altars, triptychs, stained glass windows, and painted ceilings.  The funerary aspect and necrophilia that dominated Spain reminded me of the lugubrious paintings of the twentieth century artist Ivan Albright and the chiaroscuro art of the 16th and 17th centuries.  At 778 pages in English translation, the novel is daunting. Understandably, when I googled commentary on Terra Nostra, I discovered less was available on this work than on his other books, although I did find three books, two in Spanish and one in English, that treat exclusively this monumental novel. It is difficult to write about this book because it is so jammed packed with theories about time and eternity, historical figures, and characters drawn from Spanish literature. It is helpful to be familiar with Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Celestina; but it is not essential if the reader interprets everything as a phantasmagoria of Fuentes’s mind; everything is metaphorical, everything is a magnificent myth or legend.

Fuentes revels in counterpoints, counterarguments, and contradictions. Using the image of the mirror, opposites are seen to be in operation at all times. A face grows younger or older. Often sentence structure is reversed to produce these counterpoints such as in “I paint so that I may see, I see so that I may paint.” The idea of multiplicity, multiple versions of the same story, and multiple incarnations of the same or similar characters is confusing and baffling, but that manifestation of re-occurrence of people and events throughout continents and time periods serves to enhance the richness of this novel. In many ways the Aztec civilization depicted in the second part The New World is a mirror of the Spanish culture of the 16th century. Felipe II constructs the Escorial both a religious structure and monument to the dead. The executions of the Spanish Inquisition mirror the human sacrificial killings conducted upon Mexican temples. Fuentes frequently frames opposing views such as: “Did the Aztecs discover the Spanish conquistadors or did the Spanish discover Mexico? Each version is true.

Circularity is another concept developed in Terra Nostra.  Fuentes writes, “Everything that is eternal is circular, and what is circular is eternal.” Time is not linear; in fact, the concepts of past, present, and future are all contained in each other. Fuentes repeats several times, “One lifetime is not sufficient. Many existences are needed to fulfill a personality.” The painter/priest Julian and priest/astrologer Toribio discuss the idea of circularity in the seminal chapter “Aurora.” I would suggest  that anyone attempting this complex novel, start by reading this chapter. It will provide focus for your understanding of the novel’s major motifs. Toribio further explains:

Geometry knows nothing of good or evil, or of supremes or relatives, but it assures us we neither climb nor descend; we spin, we spin, I am convinced that everything is spherical and that everything spins in circles; everything is movement, incessant, circular . . .

Toribio and Julian express their notions about the importance and interconnections of painting, literature, and science. They are confident that the order of art and science is identical to divine order.

The motif of threes forms an important nexus of meaning. Three youths appear, each bearing a cross on their shoulder and six toes on each foot. There are three worlds marking three sections of the book: The Old World, The New World, and the Next World. Three objects–a mirror, scissors, and a feathered mask–are central to one of the youth’s account of his experiences in The New World.  Celestina has three manifestations.  Characters constantly merge and transform. There is no one single identity across time and place. One of the youths manifests as Don Juan. In his effort to create one truth, one national identity, Felipe II attempts to eradicate all heresy. Spanish culture was  nourished by three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Fuentes considers the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain as a contributing factor to its decline. In the last part of the novel, The Next World, he suggests that a melding of all worlds is necessary to bring about a rebirth. In the chapter  “Number 3” in part III, The Next World, Fuentes writes:

One is the root of all. Two is the negation of one. Three is the synthesis of one and two. Three contains both. It balances them. It announces the plurality that follows. Three is the complete number. The diadem of the beginning and the middle. The reunion of the three times. Present, past, and future. Everything ends. Everything begins again.

The passage brings me back to the theme of circularity. Terra Nostra ends where it began–in Paris the last day of 1999, at the dawn of the millennium with an apocalyptic vision of an old woman giving birth, of the streets filled with women delivering babies evocative of Yeats poem “Easter, 1916.” In the last pages the scene returns to Paris, the City of Lights, where the Enlightenment movement flourished, to see a “terrible beauty” born.

For Fuentes, imagination and language blend to create a gorgeous piece of writing. He is master of both. This novel does not provide a simple, straightforward narrative or even one main character or viewpoint to follow. He contends that art “presents an enigma, whose solution is another enigma. This is the function of art–to ask questions, not to answer them.”

Don’t expect to read this book just once and comprehend it completely. After three readings, I can only describe the experience as looking through a kaleidoscope.

 

 

The Mysterious Yeast in Writing

When I begin a prose piece or a poem, I have a teaspoon of an idea. The process of fingers striking the keyboard or a pen forming cursive letters on paper seem to awaken dormant images and relationships among ideas that I am incapable of imagining before I actually start the physical activity of writing. One idea sparks another, igniting another, until there is a conflagration of thought.

This is the magic of writing, the phenomena that other authors have noted in statements like: I didn’t know what I knew before I wrote it  or I write to find out what I know. They learn what they want to convey after the short story, novel, essay, or poem are written. The piece matured into adulthood as they wrote.  As if by spontaneous generation one idea awoke another and so on until a fully realized work of art emerged assuming depth and proportions that had not been preconceived. They muse that the work took on a life of its own.  I share that same feeling of discovery as I write and sense of that teaspoon of an idea expanding the flour into a warm loaf of bread fresh from the oven.

Expansion, elucidation, dramatization, and utilization of all the resources of language are enlisted in the writing process. At times the writer may feel the writing is being channeled and that some type of automatic writing is occurring. Other times, the process is not that effortless and certainly not magical. It may become labored, stalled, a bit constipated; then the writer pauses, takes stock, and takes a walk. In the out-of-doors, breathing fresh air, the senses awakened to nature; the yeast begins to work its magic again because the writer has paused to knead the dough longer in his mind. The ingredients run amuck in the creative hemisphere of the brain begin to interact spontaneously. Renewed, back from the walk, the writer resumes his work, and the creative juices flow once more.

This is the mysterious yeast of the writing process, in which the indispensable ingredients, imagination and language, coalesce, acting upon each other.