Storytelling Is Merry Playing

This past year I have been turning my hand to writing short stories on the lower end of the spectrum usually ranging to 3,000 words or less. Storytelling is merry playing. A writer is a merry player, so it is appropriate that I offer a story of that name to illustrate the metaphor. Music generated my tale in the first place. I was listening to a tape entitled “Earth Quest” of synthesized music that evoked merriment and a feeling of tripping through an old oak forest. The music furnishes the mood, tone, tempo, and rhythm to which a writer adds the images. Those images in turn give rise to scenes peopled with a cast of characters and a story line. Play as opposed to work is supposed to be fun. Not surprisingly, then, the verb used to describe the act of making music with an instrument is play. In theater arts the noun form refers to the dramatic production and the written script. Likewise, the actors are called players. Some writers describe the act of writing as enjoyable, and others describe it as merely hard work requiring concentration, dedication, and hours of solitude when it would be easier to abandon the task and go watch television. Either way, writing involves a willingness to play with language. Inherent in the activity is a delight in craft, in design, and in the incessant arrangement and rearrangement of scenes and characters into a pleasing order of sound and sense. If not always a merry pastime in its execution, the completion of the story results in merriment. Sometimes the journey from start to finish takes a dark path, but more often than not when I attempt to write a short story, I lapse into a humorous vein. I may begin with a serious theme, but I drift into the wry, the absurd, or the comical without realizing it. Eventually, I discover how my story has shifted to the whimsical, and I am happy at the outcome. I have made merry along the forest path.

Merry Players

The band of strolling players approached the thatch roofs of the village in the lake country, an obscure dell in the northwest corner of England. The emerald-green hedgerows glittered with the fallen rain. The dwarf at the head of the procession merrily skipped along the muddy lane, squeezing a jig from his small accordion. The troupe would perform a farcical skit for the townsfolk in the village square.

After a flash of lightning and another roll of thunder, the rain, which had dwindled to a stray drop or two ceased entirely. The sun peeped over the wet haystack. A carter met them at the outskirts of the village and hailed them with a hearty welcome.

He said, “I be going to market in Ramsbottom today and won’t return until late tomorrow. I’m sorry to miss your antics, but I’m sure the lads at the pub will tell me about the merriment.”

“May the wind blow gently at your back, sir,” said the leader of the band, a red, jolly-faced stub of a man, who looked rather like a diminutive Friar Tuck of Robin Hood’s band, striding beside the brightly painted covered wagon, the sides adorned in flowery motifs of brilliant blue, red, green, and yellow. The dwarf, his large head bobbling atop his stunted body, sauntered past the carter. The force of the dwarf’s personality had awarded him the position of leadership in this traveling band of players—a small circus act of sorts composed of tumblers, musicians, and dancers, and even a puppet show. Ethelrod was his name, no other given appellation; he demanded to be addressed only by his patronymic. Ethelrod’s third decade had commenced a month ago. Dwarves rarely lived beyond age thirty, but with the plague and fever neither did normal-sized men survive to a greater age. He would have married if he had encountered a suitable female dwarf anywhere in the north of England; but he had not, so he and the fat, boisterous soprano of the party formed an incongruous couple. He managed to find a way beneath her ample skirts and she treated him like a cuddly puppy that amused her without end. In Kate’s estimation, Ethelrod was a fine figure of a man although he was barely five feet tall. His head was nobly configured, a long, protuberant jaw, but magnificent brown eyes and high cheek bones and brow that was square and commanding, a head topped with lustrous black hair. She suspected he had a bit of the Welsh in him, because not only did he have the darkly handsome looks of the Celt, he also had the sonorous, bass singing voice of that swarthy race. Only the slight, yet noticeable hump making his left shoulder lopsided marred his generally handsome appearance. Kate was almost as round as she was tall. Her triple chin jostled like jelly when she rolled with laughter at almost anything, for life was a bowl of Yorkshire pudding for her and every day was Christmas Eve. The troupe had devised a few slapstick masques to regale the crowd, domestic spats between shrewish wife and badgered husband, Kate in the role of the nag and Ethelrod playing the hapless husband. He didn’t mind being at the short end of the stick, for his caricatures drew barrels of laughter and filled his felt hat with coins that he passed after every performance like a church basket throughout the audience.

When the band entered the village from the eastern gate tooting horn and beating drum, they discovered a crowd already assembled in the greensward. Ethelrod halted his troupe and restrained the horse-drawn wagon with a tug on the poor sway-backed white mare’s bridle.

“What, ho, be there?” he asked a chap in a torn tunic beside the lane.

“The sheriff be getting the square ready for a witch,” the peasant answered and picked a flea from his sleeve. A few straw shafts stuck out from his matted hair. Ethelrod supposed rightly that the lad had slept in the stable yard that night.

“I came to town last night so as to be here early to see the show.” Seeing Ethelrod’s curiosity, he volunteered this information. “You’ll not have an audience this day for your mummery, I daresay,” he added.

“Um . . . not likely . . .” Ethelrod mused. “Yes, it do seem my stage is taken.”

Kate popped her mop of thick, curly, carrot-colored hair from between the curtains at the back of the cart. “Did I hear someone say witch?  Witch they call only some pitiful wench, scrofulous men take a disliking for. That be the day they hang a witch in Digglebury Town.”

“It’ll not be a hanging. It’s a burning. She’s already been dipped in the brook and she floated.”

“Good god, she floated because she didn’t want to drown, you ass,” Kate bellowed.

“You’ll pardon me. I’m going to shimmy up the blacksmith’s roof to get a better view.”

Kate beckoned Ethelrod to the rear of the wagon. “I’ll not countenance such a scene. The rabble has always been for a freak show or two. Nothing so like drawing and quartering or lopping some chap’s head off to summon a crowd of stupid gawkers. For the love of Mary, we’ve played to such a crowd for our benefit. They love a fight, a bear-baiting, or a simple crofter’s housewife gouging her husband’s eye out for having a roll in the haystack with the milkmaid. But I’ll not have a witch-burning. No, sirrah. It’s superstition and deviltry.”

“You can’t do anything about it when god-besotted aldermen and black-robbed clerics decide a maid is bewitched.”

“They’re all addled with their own lust, I swear,” Kate pronounced vehemently.

“You can’t save the lass, so you may as well watch the spectacle and thank the Lord God you don’t burn in her shoes.”

“Humph . . .” Kate breathed and popped back into the protective cover of the gaily painted wagon.

Ethelrod unharnessed the white mare and led her to the stable yard for a fresh bag of oats and temporary pasturage in the stable yard. The rest of the troupe wandered off to investigate the uproar in the town, eager not to miss any excitement or spectacle the burning of the purported witch offered. After he saw the old mare content behind the fence, switching her tail at horseflies, he headed toward the village square. As he approached the troupe’s cart, Kate beckoned him from the back of the wagon.

“I’m not standing idle while they murder an innocent woman. Witchery . . . I’ll be damned if it is. It’s the blathering of both papists and Puritans and I’ll have none of it, and if you be more than half a man, which by heaven, I know you to be; you’ll go along with my scheme. Hear me awhile.” She climbed down from the cart. Leaning down to Ethelrod, who reached but to her shoulder, she whispered into his ear.

“Aye, woman, I vow someday, you’ll be the death of me.” He laughed despite himself. “You’ve spunk my girl, more than enough for a man that I wonder if you should not have been a man.” He laughed again. He slapped his hand against his thigh. “I’m the very size to do it.” Kate kissed him on both cheeks, and then ducked back into the wagon while Ethelrod directed his steps toward the bustle in the square. He elbowed his way through the crowd, intent upon gaining a closer view of the center stake around which bundles of brambles and dry branches had been spread. As yet, the convicted woman had not appeared nor had the civic and religious officials gathered on the raised dais or viewing platform. He eavesdropped on the murmurings of the crowd. A holiday spirit permeated the milling villagers, glad to take up a day of merriment in their usual dawn-to-dusk labors. Ethelrod was about to head to the tavern for a tankard of ale, when a trumpet blasted and the town crier announced the entry of the mayor and an entourage of clerics at his heels. The dignitaries took their positions upon the platform. Then the accused witch in a skimpy, umber-colored shift, her hands tied behind her back, escorted by a bailiff was led to the stake. One boney shoulder was exposed, and her golden hair spread like a misshapen heap of straw all askew, stretching at every angle from her head and down the middle of her back—a gigantic halo gone awry as if it were a devil’s plot to undo the highest-ranking seraph of heaven, he thought. Ethelrod could see that with a goodly scrubbing of her face, she was a comely maid.

The bailiff bound the slim young woman to the stake. When the chief cleric saw the task completed and the poor woman securely tied, her head lifted in defiance, her eyes steeled for what she soon must endure; he arose.

“Do you repent lest you suffer the pangs of eternal damnation in the fires of hell?”

“I repent of nothing, for I have done no wrong. Of this, you know full well. You are the one to be damned by the Lord of Heaven and of Earth. I do here condemn thee.”

“Do you not fear for your soul? Confess I say, repent, and you will be welcomed into the bosom of Our Savior.”

“Save your own damned soul,” she shouted.

“Then you seek the purification of the fire?”

“Have done with it. Do the foul deed now. I am confessed of nothing.”

With that the cleric gave the nod for the fire to be lit. The bailiff, holding a flambeau, walked toward a brazier of hot coals. At that moment, heads in the crowd turned in response to the clop of horse’s hooves and the shrill whoops of a woman. Rapidly advancing upon the square was a red-haired woman, stark naked, astraddle like a man an aged white horse. She was plump, her full breasts brushing the neck of the horse, her buttocks like pink panniers spanning its rump, and fleshy thighs grasping the sides of her mount as her heels spurred the animal onward. Agog at the spectacle of the nude, bareback rider, all eyes followed her as she circled the village square, shrieking in joyous abandon, unashamed of her exposed condition, but seemingly glorying in her display. The horse, too, appeared to have summoned new reserves of energy in the attention she was also receiving even though the best that the mare could do was a rolling trot. What dignity or shock remained to the mayor and the clerics on the dais evaporated as they watched in fascination the lewd performance. Dazed, they did not know if the devil had ensorcelled them, or the witch at the stake had conjured a profane vision before their eyes.

Ethelrod slipped through the circle of gawkers, a dagger held between his teeth, swiftly slithering to the stake and cut the girl free from the stake, hissing at her, “Run quickly. To the forest beyond the south gate.  Watch for the painted player’s cart there. Go.”

She ran, bare-footed, like a fleet doe while the crowd, stunned, still followed the circuit of the naked fat lady on the old mare. Then, the first licentious man whistled; another hooted; the shoemaker’s apprentice threw her a copper pence and cried, “That’s what I like—meat on a woman’s bones.” Some laughter erupted, but some good wives boxed their husbands’ ears. Catcalls and shouts of “For shame” mixed in the hullabaloo that arose in the throng, all attention continuing to be riveted on the naked lady.

Finally, the mayor stirred herself from his stupor and ordered. “Arrest her.”

The chief cleric shook off his shock and shouted, “Indecent exposure. Jail her.”

The dwarf jumped upon the platform. “Halt, My wife is touched in the head. She has spells worsened by the witch’s stare. Leave it to me. I’ll take her home and apply a poultice that brings her back to her senses.”

The authorities hesitated. “This is a matter for the courts,”

“Please, Your Grace. It is but a slight inflammation of the cerebrum. I can handle it. Allow me,” Ethelrod bowed low and scraped the boards with his floppy, felt hat.

At first the mayor looked skeptically and was about to utter a word when a hubbub arose in the crowd. “She’s gone! She’s gone!” Everyone’s attention turned to the stake, and certainly, the witch had disappeared.

“Search the town,” the major roared. In the confusion Ethelrod and Kate escaped beyond the square and quickly retreated to the covered wagon where the rest of the troupe awaited. Kate disappeared into the wagon to dress quickly. The men harnessed the white mare to the wagon, climbed aboard, and wheeled the wagon around, exiting the village by the south gate. The players formed a train, lagging several yards behind the departing wagon.

Not far outside the gate, the disheveled woman emerged from behind the gnarled trunk of an oak tree and raced toward the colorful player’s cart. Ethelrod extended a hand raising her up beside him on the driver’s seat. “No time to talk now. We make haste to the old forest road,” and he lightly snapped the whip on the nag’s swayed back. Gamely, she quickened her step a bit, energized by the oat bag fastened to her nose and sensitivity she had developed from a long relationship with the driver. She summoned a brisk trot for a mile, then lagged somewhat as the caravan swerved into the forest gloom. Ethelrod let the mare amble at a gentle pace. She was familiar with the way to the hidden dell deep in the recesses of the forest where they would make their camp. Toward dusk, the troupe angled into a narrow break in the dense foliage and stopped in an area circled by protective oaks. Minutes later, the train of players trickled into the dell. After the campfire was lit and the kettle of stew was warming above the flames, the troupe settled around the pit to hear the rescued woman’s story.

Ethelrod began, “With what witchery did they charge you?”

“Yes, tell us do,” Kate echoed, an amiable smile on her round face.

“Gladly, I’ll tell you who rescued me. I am an orphan, raised by the midwife who died and taught me her simples and medicaments. She trained me in the ways of the healer and showed me every curative plant and herb, mushroom and flower in the forest. When the chandler’s wife gave birth to a boy with a club foot, they blamed me. Then, the reeve’s daughter was born with a split lip and he pointed the figure at me again.”

“Nothing but a run of bad luck,” Kate exclaimed indignantly.

“Not to them. Bad births are a sign of sorcery—the devil’s work—to them. One addled love-struck maid, who couldn’t get the attentions of the mayor’s son, accused me of lasciviously dancing with him at the maypole.”

“Mere jealousy,” Kate bellowed. “That be the devil all the time.”

“Shut up, Madame, and listen her out,” Ethelrod gently reprimanded his effusive mate.

“If truth be told, the lad did have an eye for me,” the young woman laughed, brightening at the memory, her beauty heightening despite the disarray of her hair and garments.

“Aye, did you return the favor?” Kate asked playfully.

“Well, no . . . I am not disposed to marry. My vocation is nun-like as was the beldame, Mistress Marion, who took me when my parents died of the plague. My father was a traveling tinker. My mother passed first and afterwards he left me on the midwife’s doorstep before he expired also.”

“A sad tale,” Ethelrod said.

“You be safe now with us,” Kate said. “With a bit of sprucing up, you’ll be a player. Can you sing and dance, lass?”

“To be sure I can do a jig or Morris dance as well as the next one as soon as administer a healing draft or apply a poultice to a wound,” she answered cheerily.

“Will you join our band, then, of merry players?” Ethelrod chimed in.

“If you’ll have me.”

“We will,” the troupe cried in unison.

“Draw a keg of ale,” Ethelrod shouted. “Let’s celebrate our new player.”

“A fine witch’s brew as ever I drank,” Kate chortled, her jowls jostling. “Fill our chests with jests until every cow jumps over the moon.”

They celebrated into the night and the forest rang with their laughter and song as every woodland creature grew silent, scurrying into their dark burrows. The old forest was dark but comforting, only the merry players providing a spot of light within the gloom.

Fiddling around with Poetry

As I put together my eighth poetry book, Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry” keeps intruding into my thoughts. Her poem begins with the memorable words, “I, too, dislike it.” She goes on to refer to poetry as “fiddle.” I admit I have been unapologetically fiddling around with poetry since I was sweet sixteen. I’ve decided to title this latest collection of fiddling around Still Unrepentant. I am unlikely to repudiate this sinful pleasure any time soon. I will die both loving and disliking poetry.

I suppose I dislike poetry primarily because few people except other poets actually ever read it. I love it because it increases life’s meaningfulness. I dislike it when I don’t understand it, and I am like the bat “holding upside down” in Moore’s poem. I have been hopping around a long time like a real toad in that imaginary garden, which is Moore’s metaphor for the art of writing poetry. Inherent in that metaphor are two dichotomies: poetry is composed of both fantasy and reality; poetry deals with both the beautiful and the ugly. Gardens are thought of as beautiful places abloom with colorful flowers and greenery while toads with their warts and bulging eyes are perceived as unattractive.  For Moore, good poetry must be both raw and genuine.

When I confess to others that I write poetry, I receive blank looks in response, as if I am, in fact, a strange toad they just encountered in the road, and they are left speechless, not knowing how to react to such an oddity. “Really, a poet?” they’d like to say, staring uncomprehendingly at this eccentric who writes poems rather than action-packed thrillers. In the first poem in my new collection, entitled “Incorrigible,” I imagine asking absolution in Catholic confession for the sin of writing. Afterwards I leave the confessional as unrepentant as ever.

Above all, I like poetry for its playfulness with language and its double meanings, in the very way in which Moore uses the word fiddle. A fiddle is a musical instrument. The poet fiddles, or plays around, with words. Poetry is no more nonsensical or less serious an art than playing the violin. To fiddle around implies that an activity is idle and inconsequential, and therefore a trivial pursuit. Moore’s irony, however, leads to the opposite conclusion. In poking fun at the popular belief that poetry is purposeless, she asserts poetry is what is truly genuine, for it strikes at the core of life. Creativity defines the essence of our humanity. Man is the animal with language. The concision of poetry is the supreme expression of our ability to shape language into meaning. Poetry also is the ideal means to avoid the pitfall contained in Socrates’ dictum: The unexamined life is not worth living. I render my life meaningful, at least to myself, in the act of writing poetry, and I remain unrepentant.

The Brothers Karamazov

My inclination of late has been to revisit the great novels I read in youth rather than to read noteworthy contemporary books. This is my third venture into The Brothers Karamazov. Because it is such a long and comprehensive exploration of both the depths of depravity and the heights of virtue, each reading brings new insights and appreciation of Dostoyevsky’s achievement.

To a certain degree I retreated to literature this time as a respite from my obsession with Trump-watching. Day after day, being upset and depressed by his absurdities, ignorance, and lies was so tiresome that I sought relief in the magnificent product of an extraordinary mind. Getting lost in a great book is the ultimate stress-reliever.

But that respite did not last long, for from the first pages Fyodor Karamazov reminded me of The Donald. Fyodor has three sons by two different mothers and a presumed illegitimate son Smerdyakov. In the neighborhood, Fyodor is known as a clown and a buffoon of crude tastes and lecherous propensities. He’s acquired his wealth by dubious land dealings. He is a disgrace and an embarrassment to his sons who after their mothers’ deaths are neglected in childhood while Fyodor pursues his business affairs and licentious lifestyle. Friends and relatives take over the care of the dirty and ill-clad little boys. Dmitri, the son by his first wife, follows a military career. Ivan, an intellectual and writer, and Alyosha, a seminarian, are his two sons by his second wife. At the beginning of the novel the father, the three sons, and various onlookers assemble in the monastery to receive the advice of the old priest Zossima, who counsels the reprobate Fyodor Karamazov in this passage:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and who listens to his own lies gets to a point where he can’t distinguish any truth in himself or in those around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. Having no respect for anyone, he ceases to love, and to occupy and distract himself without love he becomes a prey to his passions and gives himself up to coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, and all this from continual lying to people and to himself. A man who lies to himself can be more easily offended that anyone else.

Luckily, as the novel progresses, my mind is diverted from the similarities between Karamazov and The Donald to philosophical and moral considerations beyond the current American political scene, for Dostoyevsky’s work encompasses both the Russian soul and the universal human condition.

The supremacy of love and of forgiveness in the regeneration of debased mankind is reinforced continually, personified in the character of Alyosha, the youngest son, who unconditionally accepts everyone as his brother. Karamazov is not the only one who has problems with honesty, but also Grushenka and Katerina, the two female characters contributing to the plot’s nexus of jealousy, revenge, and passion. To one degree or another all the characters are tortured souls. The novel is deeply religious and psychological, delving into the recesses of human nature to examine what would cause a man to commit vile acts and what motivates a person to murder. Why would a child hate his father so much as to kill him? Ivan comes to believe he is complicit in parricide, because he planted the seed in the mind of the actual murderer while his brother Dmitri stands accused of the crime and is unjustly convicted.

The theme of father-son relationships is expanded in the subplot of the boy Ilyusha and his father. In contrast to the Karamazovs, they have a loving relationship. Dostoyevsky takes this theme further in Alyosha’s friendship with the precocious thirteen-year old Kolya, who can overcome his worse instincts under Alyosha’s tutelage. In this dynamic, Alyosha replicates the loving relationship that he had with the Elder Zossima, his spiritual father, in the monastery. The opening of the novel juxtaposes the death of the beloved Zossima with the final scene in the novel in which Ilyusha dies, surrounded by the boys who once bullied him and who now love him. The anguished atheist Ivan also possesses a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of children in his repudiation of a God who permits innocent children to endure unspeakable brutality at the hands of adults.

Ivan is the nihilist, Dimitri is the sensualist, and Alyosha is the Christ-figure searching for verities in religious orthodoxy. During the murder trial, the prosecuting attorney compares the brothers to a troika, each one representing a facet of the Russian soul, pulling a runaway sleigh.  He engages in a lengthy psychological analysis–impressive in 1880 before the emergence of Freud and Jung. The defense attorney begins by stating psychology is a double-edged sword and uses the same set of facts to disprove the prosecution’s argument in psychological terms. The descriptions of the spectators’ morbid fascination and the courtroom drama are remarkably like the conduct of televised sensational court cases today. All the passions and motifs in the novel intensify once the accused murderer is brought to trial. If the reader has borne with Dostoyevsky’s long passages and meanderings until this point, he will be astounded with the relevancy of these last chapters to contemporary issues of crime and punishment.

In writing any book review, I strive to avoid giving away too much of the plot. In this case, it is pretty much an impossibility to scratch more than the surface of the plot and spiritual dimensions. The novel is far too vast, intricate, and philosophical. One reason the literary canon rates The Brothers Karamazov a classic is because it calls for multiple readings. Dostoyevsky died soon after its publication. Although it reads complete in itself with Alyosha comforting the grieving boys after Ilyusha’s burial in the final scene, Dostoyevsky purportedly considered extending the story to account for what becomes of Alyosha, the youngest of the three brothers. There are other characters not fully accounted for. What ultimately happens to Grushenka and Katerina? Does Ivan’s madness end in his commitment to a mental institution? How does the convicted murderer fare in a Siberian prison? Does the escape plan hinted at actually occur? Not all threads come together, yet the conclusion is not so open-ended either that I am left unsatisfied. Rather I find it delightful to speculate about the fate of the other characters.

So what did I gain from reading this book in the Age of Trump? Alyosha concludes after hearing Ivan’s poem about the Grand Inquisitor that anything is permitted if God does not exist. Ivan affirms that conclusion, saying “I shall never repudiate the formula of ‘everything is permitted,’ but you will repudiate me for it, won’t you?” Alyosha is silent and responds only by getting up and kissing his brother. Vileness, personal attacks, and repulsive behavior–as strange as they may seem–are cries to be loved and appreciated. Dostoyevsky’s answer like that of all great spiritual leaders is to forgive and to give your brother the love he seeks.

This is easier said than done. It takes a saint to treat a scoundrel in this way. But to return attack with attack, truly, does perpetuate the cycle of hate. However, I don’t believe it is virtuous to remain silent in the face of injustice. It is incumbent to speak up against the authoritarians who like the Grand Inquisitor offer us “miracles, mystery, and authority” in the belief that freedom is too much for the ordinary man to bear. I am no saint, so perhaps the next best course of action is to gently admonish, bless the scoundrel for he knows not what he does, and then fall silent.

It Happened Here

When clearly a demagogue blustered his way through the 2016 campaign many people chorused, “It can’t happen here,” meaning the electorate in our democracy could not be that stupid to fall for a con-man’s snake oil. To their everlasting dismay, it did happen here. In pointing out the fascistic characteristics of this man’s appeals, commentators often mentioned  Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here along with the apocalyptic or distopian works Brave New World and 1984.  Previously, I had not known that Lewis had written that type of book, so I determined to read it. Hardly a great novel in the usual terms, it does paint a picture of the rise of the  demagogue Berzelius Windrip (Buzz), carrying marked similarities to what just happened in the United States.

Windrip appeals to the masses by promising every citizen a guaranteed income of $5,000 per year and proclaiming white Americans are better than Mexicans or Bolsheviks. The enemy is Mexico that must be attacked. Extreme militarism and nationalism dominate his rhetoric. The protagonist Doremus Jessup appropriately is a small town New England newspaper editor who quickly experiences suppression of the freedom of the press, typically the first move of an authoritarian regime. At the same time there is a rise in militarism in which Minute Men groups begin to patrol the streets and squelch opposition to Windrip’s agenda.  In the same manner, we see attacks on the press and on journalistic integrity emanate almost daily from the current occupant of the White House. Likewise, military action is used to bolster support for his flagging credibility, ineffectual leadership, and vacuity in all areas of domestic and foreign policy.

Doremus accepts some responsibility for the election of a fascist. In many ways he is a self-satisfied, complacent intellectual who felt himself better than the ignorant, economically distressed populace who rally around Windrip. The editor realizes he failed to rub shoulders with the poor and to address their needs. This could be said also of liberals in the aftermath of our recent election. In Doremus’s words, “It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord! Is it too late?”

The descriptions of Berzelius Windrip apply equally well to the winner of the White House last year. Windrip was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.” Doremus further dubs him the Professional Common Man, saying, “Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup . . . And in Henry Ford . . . And the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers, and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.” In line with this description, The Donald has appointed more billionaires to his Cabinet and staff positions than any of his predecessors.

Doremus laments that there were not enough principled party members, in this case Democrats,  at their presidential convention to stop Windrip’s nomination, similar to what occurred at the Republican Convention last July.  He asserts that Windrip was chosen “not by the brains and hearts of genuine Democrats but by their temporarily crazed emotions . . . in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water–all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” Substitute The Donald here.

Doremus argues politics with his friend Karl Pascal who tells him:  “Why Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still fermenting in the stomach–quack economists with every sort of economic ptomaine! No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to–the sickness of more than 30 per cent permanently unemployed, and growing larger. Got to cure it!” Pascal pinpoints exactly the problem as it was in the 1930’s and as it remains today–the existence of a permanent underclass. Windrip exploits the fears and economic distress of the underclass in the same way The Donald did with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” President Windrip delivers a speech exhorting, “To you and you only I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs.”

As the authoritarian regime begins to imprison and to torture its political opponents, Doremus joins the underground resistance movement. When the police state threatens to endanger his family, they attempt to escape to Canada but are stopped at the border. How many Americans have considered or are still considering the option to move to Canada? Fortunately, the border is still open–at least until the time when fascist forces coalesce, tighten the screws, consolidate their power, and even begin to build walls to keep dissidents from escaping to freedom.

Windrip is a con-man and rumored to have been a medicine-show doctor before going into politics. He has a vulgar past similar to the real estate salesman who recently sold the American electorate a bill of goods. Doremus is disturbed that his son has bought Windrip’s snake oil. In a debate over the president, his son admits that Windrip is crude and adds “Well, so were Lincoln and Jackson.” And who should The Donald admire? Andrew Jackson. Similarly ignorant and uncouth, Jackson was guilty of genocide and deportation of Native-Americans.

Those who voted for an unfit candidate believed that no political experience whatsover was an asset, that, in fact, business success, although of a dubious nature, qualified one for a government job. In Sinclair Lewis’s novel, this belief holds sway also. The idea arises that anyone can successfully practice statesmanship and international diplomacy. “. . . Though foreigners tried to make a bogus mystery of them, politics were really so simple that any village attorney or any clerk in the office of metropolitan sheriff was quite adequately trained for them; and that if John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford had set his mind to it, he could have become the most distinguished statesman, composer, physicist, or poet in the land.” Those who voted for The Donald apparently thought a billionaire with no experience in government could run the nation.

We are all finding out to our detriment and dismay what billionaires running government can and will do.

White Trash and Democracy in America

I set to reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, a significant book of 2016, in light of the disastrous election of Donald Trump to the presidency. After finishing the book, I immediately began re-reading Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. I wanted to revisit what de Toqueville had to say about American culture and society in the era of Andrew Jackson when the Frenchman wrote his observations. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second volume in 1840. I first read the book in the late 1960s.

Isenberg argues that there has been a permanent underclass in the United States from the colonial period through the present-day. The powerful echelons of society have manipulated the underclass to preserve the existing hierarchy. As she traces the history of the underclass, her purpose is to dispel the myth that the United States is a classless society and that the permanent underclass represents an Achilles’ heel that may cause democracy’s eventual downfall. As in Jackson’s time, the underclass rebelled and voted into office a clearly unfit man for the presidency, similar to what happened in the elevation of Trump. Andrew Jackson is responsible for genocide and deportation of Native-Americans from their homes to west of the Mississippi, a policy that appealed to both plantation owners and the poor whites without property, who quickly occupied tribal lands.

De Toqueville’s book concentrates on analysis of how equality operates in the new republic. He dissects the strengths and the weaknesses of a popular majority. An aristocrat, he admires much about the fledgling American democracy but also expresses reservations over democracy’s susceptibility to the rise of mediocrity both in government officials and in the arts. He is prescient in so many areas, predicting a conflict over slavery and the rise of the United States as a maritime and commercial giant. Early in our republic, he notes frequently the anti-intellectual bent in America with a populace suspicious of the elite and convinced that one’s man opinion is as good as another one’s, because every man is equal. He sees a leveling in society and extols a system of political checks and balances. Yet, he interlaces some warnings. He writes:

Thus democratic nations have neither time nor taste to go in search of novel opinions. Even when those they possess become doubtful, they will retain them because it would take too much time and inquiry to change them; they retain them, not as certain, but as established.

As for the durability of our democratic institutions, he ventures this prediction:

 When the American republics begin to degenerate, it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation by remarking whether the number of political impeachments is increased.

Aha! on the presidential level, we’ve had two impeachments, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and one threatened, Richard Nixon.

In his pursuit of what he likes about the operation of equality in America, De Toqueville comments in passing that “the picture of American society has, if I may so speak, a surface covering of democracy beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep out.” He fails to elucidate on what he means, unlike Isenberg, who provides a great service by delving deeply into the existence of a permanent underclass in America. What we are seeing day by day, which supports Isenberg’s contention, is Donald Trump maintaining and enlarging the present power structure by including in his administration billionaires, vested interests, and people who have a record of opposition to the policies that would lift up the underclass.

In their everyday struggles to earn a living, the underclass only have time for sound bites and packaged opinions; so that I find de Toqueville’s analysis of public opinion accurate. He writes:

“The people have neither the time nor the means for an investigation of this kind. Their conclusions are hastily formed from a superficial inspection of the prominent features of a question. Hence it often happens that mountebanks of all sorts are able to please the people, while their truest friends frequently fail to gain their confidence.”

That’s why the common working man must have confidence in the credibility of the major reputable news outlets and steer clear of unreliable sources. The perpetual denigration of the White House press corps is the first tactic to undermine a democracy. Red lights should be flashing all over the country, from tiny rural community to urban metropolis.

Lastly, I offer this passage from Isenberg’s book, closer to our time in history. Lyndon Johnson’s quote has been cited before, but it deserves frequent repetition:

Poor whites are still taught to hate–but not to hate those who are keeping them in line. Lyndon Johnson knew this when he quipped, ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’
We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power. We see how inherited wealth grants status without any guarantee of merit or talent. To wit: would we know of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Jesse Jackson Jr., or such Hollywood names as Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton, except for the fact that these, and many others like them, had powerful, influential parents? Even some men of recognized competence in national politics are products of nepotism: Albert Gore Jr., Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo, and numerous Kennedys. We give children of the famous a big head start, deferring to them as rightful heirs, a modern-day version of the Puritans’ children of the Elect.

In 1964 Lyndon Baines knew that the permanent impoverishment of the bottom strata of our society had to be corrected.  Here it is 2017, and the underclass is still down and out–under-served, under-represented, and under-funded. The swamp is overflowing with oligarchs. The underclass has been used again; the hierarchy is strengthened and expanded.

Finally, answer this question: As used by de Toqueville, does Trump fit the following definition of a mountebank?  A hawker of quack medicines who attracts customers with stories, jokes or tricks; a flamboyant charlatan.

 

 

 

Adieu to 2016 and All Hail to 2017

On the last day of this momentous year when the fragility of American democracy and the danger of not directing the existence and the problems of an underclass in a nation purported to be the richest and most equal in the world were displayed, I mark its end by posting the very same meditation I wrote at the close of 2015. Those ideas remain pertinent and uppermost in  my mind. I contemplate the issue of the reality of progress and philosophize over the possibility of peace. I lament the continuing violence at home and abroad and view with alarm the rise of a demagogue on our soil. Today these concerns and ominous clouds persist. Nevertheless, as the sonnet sequence in the concluding sections presents, hope also still endures. Saints, heroes, and courageous spokesmen for love, justice, and peace continue to speak out.

I wonder if the activism of my generation, the anti-war demonstrations of the sixties, and the civil rights movement made significant differences in our politics. My generation came to power with the elections of Bill Clinton and George Bush. The baby-boomer generation has its last hurrah to make a significant difference in the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency. I have no doubt it will be significant, but I doubt it will be a beneficial one. Too late I admire the prescience of a Lyndon Baines Johnson, who recognized the cancer a permanently depressed poor class poses in a supposedly egalitarian society. Sadly, his vision to fulfill the American dream for all citizens has not been realized to this day. Yet it was a vision that Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, sons of wealth and privilege, first presented to the American people.

Fifteen to End the Year 2015

I
Another shooting, the innocent slain,
The slaughter mounts upon the screen
As it was in the past rings the refrain
So must it be that laws can’t vaccine
The insane from seizing a guiltless gun
And empty upon strangers rounds of rage;
So the rampage will recompose and re-run
Until minds imagine a better age
When gun ownership is restricted
And the surplus turned in and thrown
Upon the pyre, the metal conscripted
For purposes far from the killing zone.
So sing, we, in the silent, serene brain
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain.

II
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain
I dream, abiding still in Fantasia
For the very hour I sing the refrain
I falter, stricken by strange aphasia;
On December second, fourteen are dead
And twenty-one innocents are wounded.
I stagger to retrieve language that’s fled,
Its syntax ripped and torn, all sense shredded
While nabobs hold the right to a firearm
Untouchable, ensconced in sacred space.
If, as they say, guns keep us from harm,
The United States is the safest place.
Shall I go to Christmas-shop at the mall
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall?

III
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall
Because walls indeed protect (don’t they?)
As of late many say they do, from illegal
Aliens, refugees or Muslims who may
Conceal in backpacks bombs or bacillus
For who knows what other peril or plot
They could concoct as soon as sneeze at us;
Thus mind the mindless ranter’s godless rot.
But if a higher road than wall is sought,
Ascend the Mount where the vista is wide,
The one where the Master blessed and taught
The truth, the vulnerable at his side.
There hear the angels sing “Be not afraid;
For fear is the monger we must upbraid.”

IV
For fear is the monger we must upbraid
Like a dirty joke at a wedding feast
Although panderers of hate would trade
Every draft of love for the feckless beast
That fear unleashed wreaks upon the earth.
For fear is to be feared because it feeds
Upon itself, enlarging its reach and girth
While seas separate and brotherhood recedes.
Yet if the breach is to be sealed, then reach
To the elixir still sitting upon the shelf
In pure vials, undefiled, for each
To drink a toast for others and himself.
When mongers hawk fearsome wares of war,
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear.

V
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear
Though I worry if progress has been made
At all upwards on history’s tortured stair,
Questionable, when corpses are displayed.
Homo sapiens brain is the same since men
Of the steppe broke horses and rode to war
Ever now the ingenious devise the engine
To multiply a faceless gunner’s gore,
Even when they chorused “the end to horror”
After spitfires, trenches, mud and gases
Yet others aren’t loathed less or loved more
Than when captains killed with cutlasses;
Where have the sixties flower children gone?
The wind wails: gone to graveyards every one.

VI
The wind wails gone to graveyards every one
And three-pronged pitchforks mark the gate,
Upside down peace symbols the war hawks won,
All devil’s due for those who make hay of hate;
Yet gusts uproot as well as disperse seeds
That will weave fair flowers in children’s hair
Anew like happy hippies, decked in love beads,
Proposing love less exotic in the open air
Though peace is scarcer than yesterday when
The folk songs stopped and guitarists fell
Asleep the second the shot hit Lennon,
Whose music imagined better gospel.
The drones buzz on; dumb to loads they drop,
Regardless robots without minds to stop.

VII
Regardless robots without minds to stop
The garbage-mouthed mogul in obvious lies,
Who name-calls and insults his way to top
The polls even though his success relies
On utter absence of critical thought
In favor of ad hominem ad nauseam,
Heated harangue witless voters have bought
From dealer quite adept at trumping them
That dolts don’t detect the cards are marked
Against their winning a millionaire’s game;
Yet “Deal me in,” deluded dogs barked,
The pack that fear makes rabid—Il Duce’s aim.
The dens of madness and mayhem grow still
When mercy enters in hand with good will.

VIII
When mercy enters in hand with good will
The two tiptoe, at first they’re dimly seen
Then mankind is chiseled with keener skill
Like saints with huge heart, empty of spleen,
Like the seven sleepers roused from the cave
Into light angled to grasp peace and give it,
As Christ, defenseless, unjudging, forgave
The thieves, non-germane if they deserved it,
Awake to where love is, there is no fear
Or vengeance vying to meet blow for blow
Even though we reap what we sow is clear:
The law levying love on supposed foe.
Down through the ages, history has shown,
It signifies naught who threw the first stone.

IX
It signifies naught who threw the first stone;
What matters is who throws away the sling,
Opening arms to fling wide love alone,
For blessed are the peacemakers who bring
An end to blame, who forbid heads to roll
Emboldened by truth as old as it’s true
That eye for eye only blackens the soul,
While guilt demands penance jurists argue.
The sage rebuts with dictum there’s no crime
So foul to warrant the electric chair
Since error is mere blindness over time
To bonds of blood and brotherhood we share
Even though the injured choose to insist
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist.

X
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist
Conjures Pyrrhic victories dependent on
Memorized line that the delvers resist,
Those in radiant white robes who reason
They must halt the vicious wheel in its spin
Before no patch of earth is clean of gore
Where bands of brothers, singing, can march in,
The jubilee commenced to fight no more.
Is peace but read as romance, far-fetched dream,
Moonbeam and fairy dust pragmatists scorn
And all timid rowers against the stream,
Those hecklers of magic and unicorn?
In teen-aged century tattooed and proud
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud.

XI
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud
Because at times it seems minds are mired
In muck of sophists and bigots who becloud
Ideals the enlightened choir inspired;
But other times the sun pierces through
The murk when spokesmen arise who awake
Those better angels guiding us to do
Unto our brothers for salvation’s sake,
If not virtue, what the sane prove is right
Unless in circles, like the mad, we run
Endlessly in pursuit of the next fight
Then, the lunatic fringe indeed has won.
Of those today who awaken that hope,
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope.

XII
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope,
The Francis of benediction and of peace,
Whose correctness lifts the spirit to hope
The incessant fear-monger’s rant will cease
For milder speech is heard amid the din
Of kinder hands and gentler tones that mend
Divisions recognizing we are all kin,
Deceived by ego, saved when we extend
Empathy and compassion as he bids
In Congress, Liberty Hall and skid row,
Regardless, he picks up and kisses kids
Then turns and blesses the grotesque also.
Even amid violence, violets will bloom
With delicate pastel lips defying doom.

XIII
With delicate pastel lips defying doom,
Their gifts of spirit evaporate hate,
Their virtues set off lanterns in the gloom
Making way to declare war out-of-date
Because writers and artists still survive
Revealing emperors who wear no clothes
In nations where the free press is alive
So I strew roses on words they compose,
Their clear prose, unadulterated truth,
Their harmony and logic sound a note
Quieting cant of politics’ uncouth,
On wings of morning aloft from dovecote.
All praise and homage to thinkers like them
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn.

XIV
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn
And no pipe organ of dreams to conceive
Possible, if hearts filled to the brim
Overflow with compassion and receive
In turn the same measure of other’s store;
For let it be known here and now that I
Do not succumb to argument for more
Personal arsenals for those who cry
They’ll shoot the man who dares to take away
Their armaments—their divine right of guns.
Illogic of mass shootings serves to lay
In premature graves more daughters and sons.
The mind that devises deadlier slings
As well from chaos makes loftier things.

XV
As well from chaos makes loftier things
For intellect yet formulates the great
Society gilded with fellow feelings
And artists impelled by paint create
A venue for truth and beauty to meld
Even now when crazy rhetoric rules—
No small solace to view unparalleled
Creations, graphic and written jewels,
Genesis and genius of divine urge,
Superior imprint of man’s sterling coin
In which all finer impulses converge,
Trinity of faith, hope and love conjoin.
The art consoles after killings by Cain:
Another shooting, the innocent slain.

A healthy, prosperous, and hope-filled New Year to my “How Public Like a Frog” readers!

Never the Same

never_the_same_cover_for_kindle

In my latest novel Never the Same, I sketch  the shift in societal norms from the generation born during the 1930’s to the beginning of the twenty-first century. I view the omnipresence of mass culture through the media of radio, television, and movies as fueling these changes. The entertainment industry and advertising inexorably shaped tastes and stimulated consumerism. Frugality gave way to conspicuous consumption; unwed motherhood eventually lost its stigma. None of these social changes are entirely detrimental as some doomsayers would claim, charging that  all society’s problems stem from the decline of the family and rampant materialism. The openness has also given space for diverse opinions and tolerance of differences.

I see the decade of the 1930’s as a turning point in American history. It marks the end of the insular farm and the beginning of the stark realization that the rugged individual determining his own fate by hard work is a myth. Economic depression taught us that other forces are at work that make or break a family, a community, and a nation–social, intellectual, economic, and geopolitical factors–beyond a single man’s control. The radio best symbolizes the penetration of the outside world into the consciousness of the average American. The music, the soap operas, the commercials, the variety shows, and news broadcasts all would coalesce as taste and opinion makers over the next decades whether we were conscious of its impact or not. Television advertising exploited subliminal messaging. Both the programs and the commercials gradually grew more sexually explicit and employed less wholesome language, making it difficult to decide if they reflected societal mores or were actually creating them.  In any event, the phenomenon seems to work as a reversible chemical reaction–in either direction the results are the same.

The novel is cultural history in that the ups and downs of Ellie Finnegan’s life reflect the changes that are occurring on a national and global scale. They penetrate her story at every turn, although she may be barely conscious of their impact as they happen. She is that Depression era girl who experiences a World War II childhood, comes of age in the 1950s, marries, lives her middle years in comfortable suburbia, develops a career later in life, and has to come to grips with her past. This is a story about America and its heartland. I have synthesized in this novel everything I have witnessed in the course of my own nearly seven decades.  I see my own mother in the Bachmann family–a mother who loved ballroom dancing, who could not miss her soap opera, who loved the stars of stage and screen of the 1930s. As her daughter, I am part of that legacy. The American idol dominates our popular culture–inescapably plastered on billboards and forever gossiped about on talk shows, photographed and written about in the tabloids. This is our reality, too, as 2017 dawns.