Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

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!

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.

 

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

A.M.

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.

P.M.

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?