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

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.

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?

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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.

Pop Culture Wins in 2016

Pop culture wins in more than one area in 2016.

In October when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, I questioned its appropriateness. Wasn’t the creation of a separate category more in order than pronouncing Dylan’s lyrics an accomplishment in world literature considering that songwriting spans the realms of music and literature? I recognize that poetry no longer has a general readership and that most Americans’ exposure  to poetry today comes solely through song lyrics. I have no elitist quarrel with this state of affairs, for clearly poetry has its roots in an oral tradition. Yet the gushing of some authors such as Salman Rusdie and Joyce Carol Oates over Dylan’s award struck me as excessive and unwarranted. The Academy justified the award because Dylan “had created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”–a peculiar rationale, which seemed to justify a new category–songwriting–not a prize for outstanding accomplishment in literature.

I wondered if I was missing something. Did others see literary merit where I had only heard successful popular folk music that I had enjoyed while growing up? I wondered if the lyrics would impress me as great poetry when I read them on the printed page. I determined to read all of Dylan’s lyrics and to formulate my own judgment. With this purpose in mind, I ordered the 679-page volume of The Lyrics 1961-2012.

It has taken me two months to read the entire book. By page 100, I was bored. Granted, there are some clever lines scattered here and there; but I didn’t see enough meat on the bones to pronounce this great poetry. I struggled to finish the book, only able to read a few pages at a time. Much is monotonous, boring, silly, lame, and the usual mournful love laments. The lyrics are dependent on refrain and repetition and are often rather banal. Dylan is a genius in use of rhyme, but on the printed page they come across as too forced. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” of course, stands out as rising above the ordinary lyric and reads well as a poem. Much of what I read is pure doggerel, light verse à la limerick. Did the Academy members actually read all of the complete lyrics?  How did they stay awake for the duration?

About page eighty-five the language is becoming more political, and in “One Too Many Mornings,” Dylan creates one of his memorable refrains: For I’m one too many mornings/And a thousand miles behind. A good example of his word wizardry that everyone enjoys occurs in “All I Really Want to Do:” I don’t want to meet your kin/Make you spin or do you in/Or select you or dissect you/Or inspect you or reject you. Or these unforgettable lines in “My Black Pages:” Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now. Of the intermittent lyrics that I consider crossing the border into what may be termed literary in the canonical sense is “Chimes of Freedom” in which the one-line, end-of-stanza refrain is not overdone and the line Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales/for the disrobed faceless forms . . . possesses the fresh, vivid imagery, assonance and consonance my senses love in fine poetry.

But moments of verbal virtuosity are lost  in pages of verse that are flat and trite. There are too many to choose from, but I’ll settle on this from “I Shall Be Free No. 10:” Now they asked me to read a poem/At the sorority sisters’ home/I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’/I wound up with the Dean of Women/Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it. Ogden Nash could do better. Dylan’s gymnastics with rhyme augurs the rise of rap and hip hop at the end of the twentieth century.

Half-way through the book, I began to note poems that seemed to transcend the jingle-jangle of merely a song lyric. “Tin Angels,” “Golden Loom,” and “Romance in Durango” (a bilingual ballad) have glimmers of more substance, and “Too much of Nothing” has the clever line evocative of Dylan’s social commentary. Then I rejoice, hearing the sounds of my favorite song lyrics in “Forever Young,” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Am I swayed by memories of listening to these songs, or are they also good, if not great poems? The Academy’s consensus apparently was that Dylan’s body of work rose above the trite and time-worn found in love ballads and folk songs. I am not so sure, especially, when I come to this final verse in “Where Teardrops Fall” toward the end of the volume: Roses are red, violets are blue/And time is beginning to crawl/I just might have to come see you/Where teardrops fall. Sometimes Dylan runs out of steam in playful language and his last lines bomb into vacuity. Is that his intention? Laughing at his own verbal play? Here’s another ending from “Dignity:” Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity. Here I hit the bottom of an empty well.

We have another figure of pop culture rising to prominent heights this year: Donald J. Trump, impresario of  the TV reality show “The Apprentice.” Pop culture has colored the nation’s judgment, taste, manners, and morals. So should I really wonder at the Swedish Academy’s wisdom in selecting Bob Dylan as recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature?  Can the world at large discern quality in literature any better than the general electorate of the United States can distinguish character and fitness for office among political candidates? Pop culture has triumphed in all spheres of life. Pop culture is largely entertainment and is supposed to be fun. I don’t fault it for being that, but I do fault those who are unable to appreciate that dealing with important national and global issues is no laughing matter.


Notes on Ursula K. Le Guin

Several months ago I set myself the task of reading as many of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books that I could get my hands on. I’ve always wanted to delve into her writing, and her name frequently being dropped as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature gave me the impetus to launch my Le Guin reading blitz. Her imagination and interests are wide-ranging. She draws upon her vast background in language, anthropology, and science to tell her stories. She prefers to create new myths and new worlds to illustrate truths about human culture in general and the big issues of war, peace, love, and death. She is also a poet, which often goes unmentioned; yet her writing has the beauty, flow, and richness of great poetry. The philosophical underpinnings of her work and her elegant writing style mark Le Guin as an exceptional writer.

Where to begin in defining the nature of Le Guin’s books? After due consideration, I’ve decided I don’t want to mainly summarize plots or dissect her b00ks in any way. To introduce her to readers unfamiliar with her books, I present the notes I wrote while I pursued this literary odyssey. I read the books in no particular order, only as I could obtain them from the library. I offer my sampler of comments and quotations from her books that may spark interest in your reading Le Guin.

Orsinian Tales, 1976, is set in the mythical country of Orsinia (derived from Latin origin of bear evoking Ursula’s name). It is her imaginative country with the flavor of an Eastern European communist country. My favorite in the collection of eleven stories is “An die Musik” about Ladislas Gaye who works in a ball bearings factory and tries to compose music in the little spare time he has between his job and family responsibilities. He brings four lieders and his unfinished Mass to Otto Egorin, a music agent. Otto tells him to not waste time on the Mass, to write lieder songs and to leave his wife and children so he has more time to compose great music. Gaye will not abandon the Mass for popular music. This is the choice of the great artist–not to cave into popular pressure but to pursue the desire of his soul.

“What good is music? None, Gaye thought, and that is the point. To the world and its states and armies and factories and Leaders, music says, ‘you are irrelevant’; and, arrogant and gentle as a god, to the suffering man it says only ‘Listen.’ For being saved is not the point. Music saves nothing. Merciful, uncaring, it denies and breaks down all the shelters, the houses men build for themselves, that they may see the sky.”

Changing Planes, 2003, (irony in the title) is another wonderful collection of stories all premised on the notion that when one is confined in the sterile going-nowhere space of an airport waiting for your next flight, you can travel to imaginary countries–other planes. You have your ticket to anywhere from the Interplanary Agency. Each story represents a trip to a different plane in which Le Guin details the customs, language, habits, and physical features of the humanoid species that inhabit that place. It is clever and funny, an amusing commentary on the relativity of surface differences. We are all animals. She has a very anthropological approach to story-telling, as if the traveler is a field anthropologist taking notes on the cultures she visits. My favorite story is “Social Dreaming of the Frin” in which Le Guin imagines a people who share dreams and explores the consequences to the society of that phenomena. The Frin also share the dreams of animals. Because of that, they don’t eat meat. This is a very deep story, questioning Freud’s interpretation of dreams as a search for the buried self. The communal dream “puts the notion of self deeply into question. I can imagine only that for them to fall asleep is to abandon the self utterly, to enter or reenter the limitless community of being, almost as death is for us.” As one of Frin’s own philosophers explains: “The purpose of our dreams is to enlarge our souls by letting us imagine all that can be imagined: to release us from the tyranny and bigotry of the individual self by letting us feel the fears, desires, and delights of every mind in every living body near us.”

“The Royals of Hegn” is a clever story of class role reversal in a kingdom where almost everyone is a royal and the commoners are a minority that the royals love to gossip about and whose scandalous behavior the tabloids write about. When the commoner celebrity dies, the entire royal population cries, much like commoners did over Princess Diana’s funeral, which makes me think Le Guin had the British royal family in mind when she wrote this story.

Le Guin’s imagination always posits interesting alternative universes/planes; for instance, Wake Island where no one sleeps is an exploration of the consequences of such a supposition. Le Guin has a marvelously inventive mind, and the strange countries are designed to consider the human condition in all its manifestations. This is a really profound story, deeply philosophical. Of the country of the insomniacs, she writes: “But they can’t live in truth, because the way to truth, says the philosopher, is through lies and dreams. “The Flyers of Gyr” is about a race of feathered humanoids, some of whom grow wings. Some pick one flyer to sacrifice in flight, shooting him down with arrows, reminding me of the plumed serpent of Mexico. Flying is risky; the fliers are subject to fatal falls, so some choose not to exercise this ability: “I don’t understand the people who have wings and don’t use them,” Ardiadia conjectures. “I suppose they’re interested in having a career. Maybe they were already in love with somebody on the ground. But it seems . . . I don’t know. I can’t really understand it. Wanting to stay down. Choosing not to fly. Wingless people can’t help it, it’s not their fault they’re grounded. But if you have wings . . . Of course they may be afraid of wing failure. Wing failure doesn’t happen if you don’t fly. How can it? How can something fail that never worked? I suppose being safe is important to some people. They have a family or commitments or a job or something. I don’t know. You’d have to talk to one of them. I’m a flier.” A non-flier who doesn’t use his wings says, “Fliers are stupid, their brains go all to feathers.” The narrator asks him at the end of the story, “Do you ever dream of flying?”

In The Lathe of Heaven, 1971, Le Guin hypothesizes about the nature of dreams and of reality. If creatures can inhabit each other’s dreams, then why not the possibility of effective dreams, in which what we dream in dreams becomes reality. If we have good dreams, then could we create a peaceful world? Or is even this good intention subject to go astray as are all good intentions? There are many deep philosophical constructs in this short novel of less than 200 pages. It draws much from oriental philosophy, particularly Buddhism, I think, although many of the chapter inscriptions are from the Chuang Tse, 4th century Chinese philosopher.

The Telling, 2000
“One of the historians of Darranda said: To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without the tune.” Teachers of the old ways and the old language were called maz. “The maz, however, were mostly middle-aged or old, again not because they were dying out as a group, but because, as they said, it took a lifetime to learn how to walk in the forest.”

“The subject matter of the tellings seemed to be endless, even now, when so much had been destroyed.” Sutty finally finds their sacred book The Arbor. “There was no correct text. There was no standard version. Of anything. There was not one Arbor but many, many arbors. The jungle was endless, and it was not one jungle but endless jungles, all burning with bright tigers of meaning, endless tigers . . .”

The central idea, Sutty thought, was Two that are One, because everyone was paired.

The Eye of the Heron, 1978
What is the symbolism of the heron? Why the title, particularly when Le Guin starts the story with Lev holding a wotsit, a small three-eyed bird that looks like a blue toad? The wotsit appears again when the band of colonists reaches the hidden valley at the end of the book and so does a heron. Force, represented by the city, is posed against Peace, represented by the town. Vera says at the beginning, “We don’t intend defiance, we shall simply hold fast to the truth. But if they begin with force, you know, Elia, even our attempt at reason becomes a resistance.” Elia argues, “Force will rule, as it did on Earth!” He argues that they must talk. The issue is moral force opposed to physical force. A single pair of herons lived near the town meeting house; they’re described toward the beginning of the book when Lev goes to the pool where they fish in order to contemplate. They are solitary, silent, watchful, elusive creatures that show no fear of men but never allow men to approach. These are the characteristics the band has to assume when they retreat to the wilderness to establish a colony free from the violence of the town. The focus on its eye would seem to suggest that the People of Peace must be ever watchful, careful, steadfast, and removed from physical force.

“Nobody had made this wilderness, and there was no evil in it and no good; it simply was.”

The tragedy of the story is that “They had died in the name of peace, but they had also killed in the name of peace. It had all fallen apart.”

The women’s names are very suggestive: Luz, meaning light, and Vera, suggesting veracity or truth. The female powers are positive. Light and truth are the principles that the people must “hold fast” to. The group discover the wotsits at the place where they settle. Andre says, “This is where we build the world out of mud.” They call their settlement Heron or Heron Pool, for the pair of gray creatures who live there across the stream, silent and untroubled by human presence. Watching them, Luz says they will dance tonight. “Elegant, long-legged, silent, the herons went about their own business of food gathering on the other side of the wide, dark pool; sometimes they paused in the shallows to gaze at the people with clear, quiet eyes. Sometimes, on still cold evenings, before snow, they danced.” I think the heron symbolizes peace–a peaceful existence in which no creature intrudes on another creature’s business, or exerts force whatsoever. They exist; they simply are. Is the heron also a code word for feminism formed as it is from her and on?

Rocannon’s World, 1966

Mindspeech is the fascinating concept elucidated in this short novel. Rocannon obtains the gift of mindspeech in the cave. “He had learned to listen to the minds of one race, one kind of creature, among all the voice of all the worlds one voice: that of his enemy . . . . Understanding must be mutual, when loyalty was, and love.”

The guardian of the well had that gift. . . . “of unsealing the telepathic sense.” Mindhearing was not hearing words, but intentions, desires, emotions.

Planet of Exile, 1966
This story seems to be about alien groups breaking down barriers and finding a common purpose. Building trust is a matter of listening to–in other words communicating both on a verbal and non-verbal level–with the other. Two peoples have to form an alliance to oppose the invasion of barbarians. “She shared nothing at all with him, but had met him and joined with him wholly and immediately across the gulf of their great difference: as it if were that difference, the alienness between them, that let them meet, and that in joining them together, freed them.”

“An untrained man, if you bespeak him, will shut his mind to it before he knows he’s heard anything. Especially if what he hears isn’t what he himself wants or believes. Non-Communicants have perfect defenses, usually. In fact to learn paraverbal communication is mainly to learn how to break down one’s own defenses.”

Cities of Illusion, 1967
When Remarren’s ship lands on Earth from the planet Werel and the expedition is destroyed, the Shing people raze his mind, that is, his memory is erased for six years. He comes out of his cave in the forest, blind, and without knowing where or who he is to meet the Forest People, who help him construct a life as Falk. Then he goes on a quest to recapture who he was originally. After many wanderings among different peoples, from whom he considers the meaning of trust and hope; lies and truth, he arrives at Shing. The Shing agree to restore his identity as Remarren if he will tell them the location of Werel, which they want to reach and conquer. He submits to the procedure only to realize he now has a double identity–Falk-Remarren, but he uses this dual consciousness to gain control of a Shing spaceship and return home to Werel. Le Guin poses important questions about the nature of humanity and of consciousness in this short novel. Sprinkled throughout are philosophical passages such as: “Hope is a lighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.”

“Laws are made against the impulse a people most fears in itself. Do not kill was the Shing’s vaunted Law. All else was permitted: which meant, perhaps, there was little else they really wanted to do . . . Fearing their own profound attraction towards death, they preached Reverence for Life, fooling themselves at last with their own lie.”

“Against them he could never prevail except, perhaps, through the one quality no liar can cope with, integrity. Perhaps it would not occur to them that a man could so will to be himself, to live his life, that he might resist them even when helpless in their hands.”

“They were afraid to kill and afraid to die, and called this fear Reverence for Life. The Shing, the Enemy, the Liars. . . . Did they in truth lie? Perhaps that was not quite the way of it; perhaps the essence of their lying was profound, irremediable lack of understanding. They could not get in touch with men.”

The Beginning Place, 1980
This short novel is about the absence of time in a world that stands still and silent–an undeveloped, non-industrialized, non-commercial domain. Hugh, who has a mundane job as a checker in a supermarket, escapes through a hole in time.”Here there was no use asking, “What time is it?” because there was nothing to answer for you, no sun saying “Noon” and no clock saying “Seven-thirty-eight and forty-two seconds.” You had to answer the question yourself and the answer was “Now.”

“For the time beyond the clocks is always now and the way to forever is now.”

Hugh and Irene, another teenager who previously penetrated the hole in time,  lead parallel lives; both are visitors of the beginning place in the woods. Tembreabrezi is the mountain-top town to which they retreat from their troubled families. Both are caretakers of their mothers, dependable children. There is a lot of stark realism in this novel, of the tawdriness of contemporary life, of lower working class life, of broken families, of scraping out a living in a market-driven society increasingly devoid of spiritual values. Irene thinks, “Her mother had to have somebody around to depend on.” The retreat in the woods is termed the “ain country.” The writing is remarkably poetical in this book: “Sleep in the ain country was so deep it had no dreams. I am the dream, she thought drowsily, the dream am I. I am the mare but there’s no night.” Hugh explains to Irene how he got to the beginning place: “I was running away. From . . . I don’t know. See, I’m sort of stuck. Not doing what I want to do.” For Irene it was a place where love was possible, not like the marriage who mother Mary had with Victor. “. . . There was room for desire without terror, there was room and time for love without effect, without penalty or pain. The only price was silence.” She loved the master. But she always had to leave the town. “This was not her home; she had always called it home, but she had no home; she stayed at the inn, there was no room here or anywhere that was hers.”

Earthsea, 1968

Earthsea is an mythical archipelago of islands of different cultures, one in particular inhabited by dragons, another the Island of Roke is the training ground for wizards and mages. What is the shadow following Ged the wizard? Is it the shadow of death? A creature of the underworld?

Central to Le Guin’s novel is the idea that power abides in the knowledge of a person’s or creature’s name. Knowing someone’s name in turn imbues the knower with power over him. “To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world,” Master Hand instructs Ged in the School for Wizards on the Island of Roke. A person’s name changes when his role or station in society changes. This idea is seen in other Le Guin novels.

The Master Namer Kurremkarmerruk further instructs, “For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing . . . . Many a mage of great power has spent his whole life to find out the name of a single thing–one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, till world’s end.”

The Master Changer explains how “if a thing is really to be changed into another thing, it must be renamed for as long as the spell lasts, and he told how this affects the names and natures of things surrounding the transformed thing. He spoke of the perils of changing, above all when the wizard transforms his own shape and thus is liable to be caught in his own spell.”

The Archmage tells Ged, “And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, every the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do . . . ”

A wise man has a close connection with all nature and communion and affection for animals as Ged has with the creature Otak, his pet. “From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

Ged gains power over the dragon of Pendor by pronouncing his name Vedaur.

The Roke-wind rises against Ged who asks to be put ashore at Serd He felt the shadow upon him. “But if once the shadow caught up with Ged it could draw his power out of him, and take from him the very weight and warmth and life of his body and the will that moved him.”

Skiorh, the oarsmen on the ship to Osskil and his guide to the Court of the Terrenon, is a gebbeth. Ged runs away from the gebbeth.

“He had come to this towerkeep by chance, and yet the chance was all design; or he had come be design and yet all the design had merely chanced to come about.” He meets Serret and Benderesk in the tower.

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

To free himself of the Shadow, Ged must learn its name. Ged meets the shadow when the sea turns to sand far to the east of Astowell, the Lastland: “Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of the shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.” The story implies that we must face our inner demons and that man is composed of both lightness and darkness.

“And he [Vetch] began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”

This is a quest story in the classical sense that eschews violence and warfare as the necessary component of becoming a man or a hero. After finishing the book, written in 1967, I wondered if LeGuin had anything to say about the Harry Potter books of such popularity that came later, certainly more popular than Le Guin’s book ever was, and I found this:

“This last is the situation, as I see it, between my A Wizard of Earthsea and J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter. I didn’t originate the idea of a school for wizards — if anybody did it was T.H.White, though he did it in single throwaway line and didn’t develop it. I was the first to do that. Years later, Rowling took the idea and developed it along other lines. She didn’t plagiarize. She didn’t copy anything. Her book, in fact, could hardly be more different from mine, in style, spirit, everything. The only thing that rankles me is her apparent reluctance to admit that she ever learned anything from other writers. When ignorant critics praised her wonderful originality in inventing the idea of a wizards’ school, and some of them even seemed to believe that she had invented fantasy, she let them do so. This, I think, was ungenerous, and in the long run unwise. I’m happier with writers who, perhaps suffering less from the famous “anxiety of influence,” have enough sense of their own worth to appreciate their predecessors and fellow-workers in the saltmines of literature. The whole history of a literature and of every genre within it is a chain of influences, inventions shared, discoveries made common, techniques adopted and adapted. Must I say again that this has absolutely nothing to do with copying texts, with stealing stuff?”  From

In another interview, LeGuin comments on J.K. Rowling:

Q: Nicholas Lezard has written ‘Rowling can type, but Le Guin can write.’ What do you make of this comment in the light of the phenomenal success of the Potter books? I’d like to hear your opinion of JK Rowling’s writing style.
UKL: I have no great opinion of it. When so many adult critics were carrying on about the “incredible originality” of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled; it seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a “school novel”, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited. (From horror.ursulakleguin)

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 2012
All I can say is that her poetry is wonderful, as shining as her prose. It has a clarity and originality of language absent from contemporary poetry. She believes in rhyme, rhythm, and metrics. She creates her own forms. Her language is clever and playful. I’m with her in how I discovered and first loved poetry. In “Meters” she writes:

And in old age, as strength again grows faint,
That poetry of order, wit, restraint,
Braces my soul; I honor the clear art,
And let the heroic measure pace my heart.

The Tombs of Atuan, 1970
Naming is the key to being human; naming is the way to freedom. Arha, the priestess, has to learn her true name, and in learning it of the mage Ged, she is liberated from her servitude as priestess of the dead.

“Knowing names is my job. My art. To weave the magic of a thing, you see, one must find its true name out. In my lands we keep our true names hidden all our lives long, from all but those whom we trust utterly; for there is great power, and great peril, in a name. . . . But what a wizard spends his life at is finding out the names of things, and finding out how to find out the names of things.”

Ged tells Arha his name in a gesture of trust to seal their joining as symbolized by the two halves of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. He says, “Alone, no one wins freedom.”

“. . . When you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before. It’s about as nourishing as eating your own words.”

“What she [Tenar/Arha] had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not east. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one.”

“In the darkness I found light.” Ged argues that any of Tenar’s sins have been expiated. He will take her to Gont and to Ogion.
“Gravely [she walked into Havnor] she walked beside him up the white streets of Havnor, holding his hand, like a child coming home.”

The Farthest Shore, 1972

“But when we crave power over life–endless wealth, unassailable safety, immortality–then desire becomes greed. And if knowledge allies itself to that greed, then comes evil.”

Here is an example of Le Guin being very philosophical: “We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. What am I–though I have the power to do it–to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?”

Everything’s grey in Lorbanery. They lack joy in life.

The Left Hand on Darkness, 1969
The only known thing is that we shall die. Faxe tells Genry: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” And not knowing is what keeps us reading stories. Genry Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen on Earth sent to the planet Winter to forge a peace alliance. In the process he studies their Gethenian culture and learns of their concept of shifgrethor  Here is the definition from

“Shifgrethor is a fictional concept in the Hainish universe, first introduced in The Left Hand of Darkness. It is first mentioned by Genly Ai, when he thinks to himself “shifgrethor—prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen”.[26] It derives from an old Gethenian word for shadow. George Slusser describes shifgrethor as “not rank, but its opposite, the ability to maintain equality in any relationship, and to do so by respecting the person of the other”.[54] According to University of West Georgia Professor Carrie B. McWhorter, shifgrethor can be defined simply as “a sense of honor and respect that provides the Gethenians with a way to save face in a time of crisis.” 

Shifgrethor is a way to manage differences without conflict. It is the management of dualities, sexual dualities too, light and dark, etc. Ai attempts to define it as “prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untanslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen.” Ai notes that Tibe in his rants does not speak of shifgrethor. He was advocating for war in his avoiding shifgrethor.

Obsle says, “The unexpected is what makes possible.”

The idea of the shadow is important in the book. Ai describes the leaders of Mishnory as somehow not casting shadows.

“To oppose something is to maintain it . . . To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.” [Is this why opposition to the vulgarian Trump went nowhere?]

The prisoners were administered a drug to prevent–kemmer–their sexual active cycle. “They were without shame and without desire, like the angels. But it is not human to be without shame and without desire.” The suppression of sexual desire produced passivity.

In their struggles, hardships, and isolation on the ice; Ai and Estraven come to love each other. “There is no world full of other Gethenians here to explain and support my existence,” Estraven writes in his journal. “We are equals at last, equal, alien, alone. He did not laugh, of course. Rather he spoke with a gentleness that I did not know was in him. After a while he too came to speak of isolation, of loneliness.”

Estraven recites Tormer’s Lay:

Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way.

Ai says to him “Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.” Estraven asks him about the differentiation of the sexes in his race. Ai speculates upon them, but really can’t say which traits are inherent and which are learned.

Lavinia, 2008

“It’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.” I couldn’t agree more with the words Ursula Le Guin puts in Lavinia’s mouth. Time is a motif in this novel well that re-visualizes the Aeneid, showing that Le Guin is as interested in re-imagining the past as well as envisioning futuristic worlds. She plays with a past-future time warp here and examines humanity wrestling with death, time, and immortality and their interconnections.

It seems a feminist book, recognizing women’s stories are often lost to history, but it is also a disquisition on the effects of war on the conscience and the personality of the warrior–the inconsistencies and contradictions he must practice to pursue the fight and consider war to be glorious. Aeneas lives to rue some of the killing he has done. Ironically when he tries to expiate a prior angry murder, he is killed because he spared another man’s life. The ironies of war are legion.

Aeneas ruminates: “I think I could have beaten Menelaus. And what if I had? Would I be a better man for it? Would my virtue be greater than it is? Am I who I am because I killed men? Am I Aeneas because I killed Turnus?” To his son Ascanius he says, “If you are to rule Latium after me, and pass it to your brother Silvius, I want to know that you’ll learn how to govern, not merely make war, that you’ll learn to ask the powers of the earth and sky for guidance for yourself and your people, that you’ll learn to seek your manhood on a greater field than the battlefield. Tell me that you will learn those things, Ascanius.”
Lavinia communes with the poet Virgil of Mantua in the sacred grove in a time warp with the poet’s ghost, for when Lavinia lived, Virgil had not been born yet. He prophesies she will marry the foreigner Aeneas who will shortly land on Italy’s shore. At the end of book she compares herself to Creusa of Troy and Dido of Carthage, the other women Virgil gave life to and that Aeneas loved. “But I will not die. I cannot. I will never go down among the shadows under Albunea to see Aeneas tall among the warriors, gleaming in bronze. I will not speak to Creusa of Troy, as I once thought I might, or Dido of Carthage, proud and silent, still bearing the great sword wound in her breast. They lived and died as women do and as the poet sang them. But he did not sing me enough life to die. He only gave me immortality.”


My grocery list of quotations gives a taste of the aphorisms sprinkled throughout Le Guin’s writing and illustrates how deeply philosophical, imaginative, and poetical that her mix of fantasy and science fiction is.


The Writer and Politics

Writers form part of the intelligentsia–the group of creative minds who through their writings, paintings, sculpture, music, and other forms of art, reflect upon and portray the spirit of their times. In doing so they cannot ignore politics. Who are the current players upon the national stage? What is the moral climate? How is the fabric of society being effected by events, styles, fads, popular opinion, new inventions, gadgetry, and fashions? Even if they write historical fiction, their narratives of the past seek to shed light on the contemporary milieu. It is not necessary for them to be polemical or take to the streets as activists. They can stay home and compose The Grapes of Wrath.

In the two weeks since the shocking election of Donald Trump, I have reflected how this event, thought so impossible by the intelligentsia, could have occurred. Like so many citizens who prided themselves on being informed and thoughtful voters, I was stupefied within one hour of listening to the election returns on November 8th and, thoroughly aghast, I turned off the television by seven o’clock. The country rejected elitist thought and chose a vulgar, ignorant, duplicitous man to be its president. My judgment had been terribly wrong. All Trump’s negatives, lack of temperament and qualifications did not matter to a goodly portion of Americans, both educated and non-educated, well-informed or ill-informed. They kicked elitists in the butt. Crudity and vulgarity ruled, which translated into not being politically correct–now considered a virtue. I moped. I still admired good manners.

I had invested time and energy in the last year and a half expecting him to be defeated. He was too absurd, too bizarre, too incoherent, to ever be elected. I am a pointy-headed intellectual who misread my country and my countrymen. It is a humbling experience. It is my comeuppance. It is the pride that goes before the fall, and the outcome made me extremely crestfallen.

Water therapy helps. Several bubble baths later, I can calmly reconsider this catastrophic event. This is my wake-up call, my eye-opener, not exactly being knocked off a horse like Saul on the way to Damascus, but it will have to do to give me new vision. I now have regained some serenity in the matter. My daily anodyne for twenty-five years has been A Course in Miracles, which tells me now “to loose the world from all I thought it was” and “not value what is valueless.”

Escaping from the political bombshell, I soaked in the tub, reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In the first paragraph the narrator Genly Ai, the peace envoy to the planet of Winter, states “Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.” I nod my head, thinking “Isn’t that the truth in this campaign cycle?” Facts were inconsequential, ephemeral, irrelevant; but still precious as pearls. This science-fiction novel holds out the hope for peace when the two main characters, alone crossing the glacier, build trust and love for each other despite their differences. A dose of the Chinese yin and yang was a salve to my jangled soul. Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light, Le Guin writes. Bingo! A light seemed to glimmer in my darkness. Trump is the shadow side of America, and I am a part of that America. I must own it, and in that darkness also acknowledge there is accompanying light. Something good may come of this bad.

Trump can’t fix the world; no one can, and certainly not one elected official alone. What’s real is love–the only fix-it-upper. To continue to lambaste this man is not the road to peace. To continue to find fault and to blame will not solve one problem (even if he did that in spades). The problem is in ourselves–our failure to forgive. Politics too much lately has been an exclusive game of fault-finding and finger-pointing. After the car breaks down, the owner has to fix it or buy a new one. I do not wish a failed presidency on anyone, but I feel the elevation of Trump to high office is bound to enlighten him and everyone who voted for him despite his inadequacies. He will have ample opportunity to fall off his high horse as I did. If he stumbles and falls, the experiment in electing an unqualified, low-minded person will have been tested, and we will have to form and test another hypothesis.

What I want to do in the next four years is first, stay alive; two, read a lot more books because that’s what an egghead does; three, play my harp while Washington squabbles; fourth, write some more blogs like this one that few people will ever read; five, knit fifty lace shawls; and last but not least, make new friends but keep the old ones. Have I given up following politics? No. I’ll just get my information entirely from reputable print and online news sources. Will I break down and watch the inauguration on January 20? No. I’ll be remembering my mother who was born on that day in 1917.

I append to these election reflections a two-part poem on the subject. The first part I wrote the morning of November 8th; the second part I wrote ten days afterwords.

Election Reflections


Election morning brings feeling
That in the evening
We’ll have a leader that is female
Then the world in one breath will exhale.

To play footsie with an ignoramus
Was terribly dangerous.
The chance of a bigot as POTUS
Was a blemish on all of us.

With the counting seek the polestar
That in the evening
Will project in bright light
All are not without foresight.

Election morning I’m foreseeing
That in the evening
Love’s heel crushes the head of hate
Then binds a divided state.


Premonitions are often wrong
Like morning’s hopeful song
That collapses like the twin tower
Folding in upon itself in horror.

Beyond dumbstruck by the dumb
Who’ve elected the worse than dumb
Stupefies and I’ve become the buffoon
Babbling like a baboon.

Reason is trumped, resentment
Excuses bad judgment,
Moral compass is jettisoned
And I’m utterly disillusioned.

The navigational guides are jinxed;
We’ve been hoodwinked.
The ship of fools sails on with broken spar,
Can Ahab steer to safe harbor?