Memorial Day

Another Memorial Day has come and gone, a holiday dedicated to remembering.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to pause and consider the relationship of memory to the imagination, in this case historical rather than personal memory.  “Holiday” originally meant holy day, marked by a ritual dramatizing a central myth, and there is often a tension between that definition and the other definition of “holiday,” namely, “excuse for a party.”  But what we are trying to get at here is the underlying myth. 

          England has a similar ritual.  At 11:00 on November 11, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, two minutes of silence are observed for those who have died in battle.  But remembering those who have sacrificed their lives in war is an impulse far older than these modern observances.  Recently, I have been trying to re-acquaint myself with Old English, the first form of the English language, before the Norman Conquest, so different from modern English that it has to be studied like a foreign language.  I studied it for a year in graduate school at the University of Toronto in 1978-1979, and fell in love with both the language and its literature, so much so that for a brief time I toyed with the idea of becoming a medievalist.  The world, at least the academic world, is a better place because I came to my senses and realized I am dreadful at languages.  But other people have loved Old English as well.  One of them was J.R.R. Tolkien, who was very good indeed at languages.  It is in fact from Old English haligdaeg that we derive our word “holiday.” 

          Using my own forty-three year-old translation (!) as a crib, I have been making my way through “The Battle of Maldon,” commemorating the Anglo-Saxon warriors who, rather than flee or surrender, were wiped out to the last man in a battle against the invading Vikings in 991 CE.  It is a moving poem, known especially for the speech of heroic defiance made by an Anglo-Saxon warrior to the Vikings.  Tolkien has two essays on it and a kind of sequel to it, “The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son.”  Maldon still exists, a coastal town in Essex, by strange coincidence a mere ten miles from my friend Sandral, who lives in Chelmsford.  If San were to visit modern-day Maldon, I’m sure she would see no sign of what took place there over a thousand years ago.  What survives is the poem. 

          Why should the memory of that battle survive for over a thousand years?  One answer of course is that the Anglo-Saxon leader Byhrtnoth and his men were lucky enough to have found a gifted poet who enabled their survival by uploading them into words, sending them down the stream of time in a verbal equivalent of the ship burials common to that culture.  But why choose the battle of Maldon, an inconsequential skirmish that the Anglo-Saxons in fact lost—and not only that, lost because of the overconfidence or pride (depending on how you translate the Old English ofermod) that caused Byrhtnoth to allow the Vikings to cross a causeway so that battle could be joined? 

          The answer is clear from the poet’s focus, which is not on the cause, the ideological reason for the war, but on the courage and personal loyalty of men to the liege lord who gave them gifts, who above all gave them symbolic rings:  one ring to bind them.  There is no doubt that Old English poetry deeply informs The Lord of the Rings.   Causes can always be questioned; loyalty can be misplaced. The terrible uncertainty of history is undeniable, and the attempt to deny it merely turns people into fanatics, just as it does with religion.  What cannot be questioned is something so deeply human that it communicates across a thousand years and radical changes of cultural values. 

          Causes and loyalties in fact should be questioned, must be questioned, which is not the same as saying they should all be cynically denied.   Consider:  we have two holidays, one to commemorate those who died in war, the other to commemorate a man, Martin Luther King, who advocated non-violence.  Are we confused about this, not perhaps dishonest but at least evasive?  I would say not necessarily.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the presence of these two holidays in a potentially creative tension with each other is a credit to the profound vision of American democracy at its best. 

          I would distinguish between defensive and imperialistic wars:  wars fought against an undeniable existential threat and wars fought for causes, slogans, theories, occasionally outright lies.  World War II is to most Americans the primary example of a “just war” if there is such a thing because of the undeniable fact of Pearl Harbor.  The Civil War was fought because of the undeniable fact of slavery—those then and now who attempt to deny its evident horror are simply lying, whether to others or themselves.  In contrast, the “domino theory” that rationalized our involvement in Vietnam was a theoretical lie; the weapons of mass destruction that rationalized Iraq were a factual lie.   This is not mere opinion:  the other countries of Southeast Asia did not topple like dominos when we left Vietnam, and there were no weapons of mass destruction, other than, of course, the lies themselves. The lies were necessary precisely because there was no existential threat.  This is a personal interpretation, but Martin Luther King, and his mentor Gandhi in India, were opposing what they saw as imperialism, the use of violence for power and domination.  Such power is always rationalized by lies:  British imperialism had the “white man’s burden”; we have “American exceptionalism.”  The aftermath of violence in the service of a lie is invariably bitter disillusionment.  The imperial Roman poet Horace wrote that it was sweet and fitting to die for one’s country; in a famous poem, Wilfred Owen, knowing the horrors of World War I, called that “the old lie.”  This is why Tolkien’s ring of power is evil, what my mentor Northrop Frye would call a demonic parody of Anglo-Saxon rings of loyalty. 

 

          The tragedy is that good people may die in selfless, heroic service to bad causes.  I think that the true spirit of nonviolence is the renunciation of the bad causes, the ideological lies.  A primary purpose of education in a democracy is what we humanities teachers call critical thinking, which is simply practice at telling true causes from the lies that can sound so much like them.  But all judgment is heartbreakingly fallible.   The best we can do is make war an absolute last resort in the face of imminent danger, at the same time that we work to change the world into a place in which demonic possession by the will to power, going over to the dark side, is less likely because there are better ways to satisfy it, what William James called moral equivalents of war.  Examples are not hard to find:  the heroic rescue workers of 9/11 and the heroic health care workers of the pandemic deserve to be remembered for the same courage and loyalty, the greater love that lays down its life not just for friends but for strangers, simply because, libertarians notwithstanding, we are all members of one another on a level below either religious belief or disbelief. 

 Michael

Correction:  As some people no doubt realized, there was an inaccurate citation in my previous newsletter about Bob Dylan.  The speaker dryly says “good luck” to Columbus as he lands in America in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” not “Tombstone Blues.”  As my English friend San would say, Pfft!  She tells me it’s a European expression of exasperation, more sophisticated than the homegrown American expletive it would be my impulse to use.  Thanks to another friend, Dennis McCurdy, for catching the error.  A fitting postscript to a newsletter about memory and its vicissitudes. 

Three Months since Publication

            To my amazement, it is nearly three months since the publication of The Productions of Time.   It is therefore perfectly reasonable for my audience to ask, hey, what have you done lately?   Well, for one thing, I have written a chapter on the theme of “paradise and exile” as reflected in modern literature and culture for a projected six-volume History of Western Mythology to be published by Bloomsbury Press, the press that published six novels by an unknown woman about a young magician known as Harry Potter.  I cannot tell you how tickled I am to be (possibly) published by the press that published the Harry Potter books. 

            I am well aware of the contemptuous dismissal of Harry Potter by some academic critics:  literary critic Harold Bloom called them “goo.”  But if you go back and reread the description of the rise of authoritarianism, fueled behind the scenes by Voldemort, I think you will find that much of it is uncannily prophetic of what has happened in the United States in the last four years, and particularly the last four months.  

            That leads me to a second attempt to justify my existence post-Productions, so to speak:  I am writing another book, this one on fantasy and science fiction.  Disappointed noises, perhaps.  Oh, that stuff?  I prefer to read about real life.   Let me in a non-judgmental way suggest that fantasy and science fiction are about “real life,” depending on what you read and how you read it.  Some of the deepest examples of these genres even go on to ask, “What is real life, and are we sure it’s real?” 

            If Harry Potter is not “literary” enough for you, let me suggest a book called A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn, which won the International Fantasy Award in 1954.  Pangborn is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be (maybe my book will someday change that).  He posthumously won a Rediscovery Award in 2003, but I guess it didn’t take.  He has been admired, however, by Ursula LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson:  LeGuin says it was the work of Pangborn and Theodore Sturgeon that convinced her that science fiction could write about real people in a literate style.  If you want to give science fiction and fantasy a try, all of these writers are a good place to start. 

            The connection with Harry Potter concerns the “prophetic” element in literature, which has little to do with predicting the future, even though that is what science fiction is popularly supposed to do.  A Mirror for Observers is narrated by a dryly witty and humane Martian, several centuries old, who is a hidden Observer living disguised among the human race, hoping to influence it for the better, hoping that one day it will actually manage to develop something that deserves the name of civilization.  His efforts are opposed by a renegade Martian known as the Abdicator, who tries to influence humanity for the worse.  Yes, the scenario deliberately invokes the Biblical:  the opening clearly alludes to the debate between God and Satan at the beginning of the Book of Job, and the tempted human protagonist is not very subtly named Angelo.  But there is nothing supernatural about the story at all.  Neither is there any attempt to predict a technological future:  a few references to “copter buses” are about it. (It’s funny how that Jetsons notion of flying cars seems to have been ubiquitous during that period, yet there was never even an attempt at making it a reality). 

            What is prophetic is on the human level, and what this book, published when I was three years old, prophesizes is the rise of homegrown American fascism, the kind that is attempting to take over the country right now.   Angelo falls in with a political party called the Organic Unity Party.  Of its demogogue, the Observer observes, “He no longer yelps in public about racial purity, though some of the whispers against the Federalists’ Negro-Indian candidate must originate with Max.  In public he approves of human brotherhood—there are votes in it.  He’ll make a try in the fall election, shouting for America to rule the world.”  Promising, no doubt, to make America great again.  The Organic Unity Party is looking for donations from people with a sense of grievance, from people who feel that “the world was dangerously drifting.  Internationalist delusions.  Losing touch with the Eternal Verities.  Rampant skepticism.”  

To further its aims, the Abdicator has manipulated the human demogogue to employ a scientist to engineer a virus that will spread uncontrollably, with symptoms that start like a cold but become polio-like, fatal for older people, dire but survivable by the young.   The virus escapes and becomes a pandemic that kills perhaps a third of the population before burning itself out.

            Where do science fiction writers get their crazy ideas?   The book was published in the year in which Joseph McCarthy was—finally—condemned by the U.S. Senate.  When I was growing up, McCarthyism was depicted as a form of Cold War hysteria.  We were never told that McCarthy was supported by people whose grievance had nothing to do with the Red Scare.

The Wikipedia article on “McCarthyism” says this: “Although right-wing radicals were the bedrock of support for McCarthyism, they were not alone. A broad ‘coalition of the aggrieved’ found McCarthyism attractive, or at least politically useful. Common themes uniting the coalition were opposition to internationalism, particularly the United Nations; opposition to social welfare provisions, particularly the various programs established by the New Deal; and opposition to efforts to reduce inequalities in the social structure of the United States.”  Sounds vaguely familiar.  

            So Pangborn was prophetic not in the sense of technological prognostication but in the sense of a famous title by Robert Heinlein:  “If This Goes On—” (which is about the turning of America into a fundamentalist theocracy, decades before The Handmaid’s Tale).  He simply saw accurately what was there, and predicted that it would not go away.  If it went underground, it would resurface.  And now it has.  As for the conjunction of a fascistic movement with a pandemic—the word is actually used in the novel—well, that’s spooky, although it is the publicizing of the Unity Party’s role in creating the pandemic that in fact defeats it.  

            Pangborn is inquiring into the nature of evil—but even more so into the nature of the goodness that opposes it.  The epigraph of Part One is a luminous, pun intentional, passage from George Santayana: “The problem of darkness does not exist for a man gazing at the stars… the problem is not why there is such darkness, but what is the light that breaks through it so remarkably; and granting this light, why we have eyes to see it and hearts to be gladdened by it.”  But in Pangborn the light is not supernatural, as it is in The Divine Comedy, each of whose canticles ends with the word “stars.” 

            If there is no supernatural intervention, and even the Martians are only Observers, what is the hope of the human race?  The mirror of the title is a gift from the Observer to Angelo, a 7000 year-old mirror from Minoan Crete.  Like all old mirrors, it is not glass but polished bronze, so that images in it are seen “through a glass darkly” (that is what Paul’s famous New Testament image is referring to).   Hope for the human race lies in the capacity of individuals to look in that mirror and see themselves accurately.  The evil people of course cannot:  they are narcissists (Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water), and demand that the mirror tell them that they are fairest of them all, becoming furious when the mirror fails to cooperate.

            What is the mirror?  The book suggests two things.  First, the arts:  Angelo is a gifted painter, and Sharon, the female lead, a gifted pianist (Pangborn was classically trained at Harvard and the New England School of Music and took up painting later in life).  But there is also what we may broadly call criticism, including literary criticism, philosophy, and science, an intellectual detachment that attempts to see the Big Picture reflected, however darkly, in the mirror of human and natural phenomena.  What hope we have resides not in mass movements but in individuals with the courage to look in the mirror and the honesty to confront their own image.  There is nothing that terrifies some people so much as that, and they will unleash any amount of hatred and aggression to avoid looking at what they are. 

Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday!

Officially, at any rate: actually, we have no record of the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth, merely of his baptism on April 26, 1564.  However, since he died on April 23, 1616, the temptation to designate April 23 as his birthday as well proved irresistible, especially since in England that also happens to be the feast of St. George, the patron saint of England. 

We are all pandemic-weary, and it may be that pandemics, or plagues, to use the traditional word, are the last thing you want to hear about right now, but it so happens that Shakespeare’s life and career were affected by plague more extensively perhaps than those of any other famous writer.  Plague swept through Stratford-upon-Avon and London at least four times during Shakespeare’s life, beginning in 1563-64, when it killed two of his brothers. 

His career was interrupted at least three times by the plague.  In 1592-93, the theatres were closed.  Some actors formed traveling companies that toured outside the city, a fact reflected in the players that visit Elsinore in Hamlet.  It is often surmised that Shakespeare spent the time composing much of his non-dramatic poetry, including two narrative poems and the sonnets, courting rich aristocratic patrons instead of the general public.  But the hiatus also apparently served as a period of growth for the playwright, for the re-opening of the theatres in 1594 marks the end of his apprentice period and the advent of his early maturity as a dramatist, marked by Romeo and Juliet, probably written somewhere between 1594 and 1596, in which plague plays a minor role in the plot and also becomes a metaphor in Mercutio’s famous line “A plague o’er both your houses.” 

In 1603, plague returned so severely that it delayed the coronation of James I, killing nearly a quarter of the population of London, and gave intermittent return performances during the period 1606-1610, closing the theatres repeatedly.  Once again, however, quarantine gave Shakespeare time to write.  Some of his greatest plays, including King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, may have been written in periods of enforced isolation. 

The thing that most strikes me about the pandemic how it caught us by surprise.  In my long lifetime, it was simply not on the list of Things You Should Be Paranoically Anxious About until suddenly it shut down the entire world for over a year.   But other ages lived in its shadow, which falls across a number of famous works of literature, as far back as Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), a series of tales told by people to while away the time while self-isolating from Black Death of 1348, which killed a third of the population of Europe.  Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was inspired, if that is the word, by the Great Plague of London in 1665. 

For those who would really like to feed their paranoia, there is a whole macabre sub-tradition of works in which a fictional plague wipes out all, or nearly all, of the whole human race, from The Last Man, by Mary Shelley (yes, that Mary Shelley), whose plot is contained in its title, to the neglected Earth Abides (1949), by George R. Stewart in science fiction, to, but of course, Stephen King’s The Stand in 1978.  Slightly less apocalyptic fictional plagues are featured in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947).   I anticipate whole college courses in Plague Literature coming soon.  In fact, academia being what it is, I expect whole majors in Plague Studies.  

What is most striking is how we have forgotten, or perhaps repressed, the outbreak closest to us, the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, at the close of World War I, even though its mortality rate rivaled that of the war itself.   There is one famous story dealing with that epidemic, Katherine Anne Porter’s ”Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” based on her own near-fatal experience, but otherwise it seems a nearly forgotten episode of modern history.  Yet it devastated not only troops housed together during post-war demobilization but an American civilian population untouched by the war, with an effect that reminds me of the song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (famous version by the great blues-gospel guitarist Rev. Gary Davis): “He come into your house and he don’t stay long / You’ll look in the bed and somebody will be gone” [“he” being Death, of course].  There is a link on my website to the website www.bonneybonney.com, where my former wife Bonney Harnish has posted a transcription of a diary, along with photographs, kept by her great-aunt Elinor during the epidemic, describing at one point her attempt to care for an entire household of people when she was the only one not ill. 

It may be objected that all this is one hell of a downbeat way to celebrate somebody’s birthday.  But the pandemic forces us to confront our repressed anxieties about our physical vulnerability and our mortality.  It may be worth pondering that Shakespeare’s plays were written in the shadow of a constantly recurring epidemic in a period without the benefit of medical science.  Like the poems of Keats, dead at 26 of tuberculosis, they represent the power of the imagination to endure even in the face of death and despair. 

Podcast now available on Apple Podcasts

A quick heads up that Expanding Eyes is now available on Apple Podcasts, as well as on all the other major podcast platforms (see here for the current list) . Availability on Apple was delayed by technical-bureaucratic issues, and we apologize for the inconvenience.

Beginning with episode 3, the podcast will have new theme music, written and performed by Ian Compton, trumpet and Katie Morrow, Cello. They are both members of a 7 piece indie folk band called String Machine. You can find their music on all streaming services and at stringmachine.bandcamp.com. For inquiries, contact Katie at kmorrowcellist [AT] gmail [DOT] com.  It gives me special pleasure to have been able to commission Katie, a former student and my assistant for my First Year Experience course in Folk Music.

The Productions of Time appeals to a diverse reading audience.
Photo courtesy of Julie Ziebro-latarski. (Yes, another former student. Julie, that is).

The Productions of Time Publication Day

Today marks the release of The Productions of Time, for me a landmark, as it is not merely a book but a life’s work. But also because I hope its vision may be useful to a few people. To my surprise, my author’s free copies arrived today, so I actually have a copy of my own book—see the photo. I hope it is not too egocentric to post it, but my wife Stacey takes good pictures, so I couldn’t resist. Thanks to any of you who are generous enough to check out both the book and this website. I hope to post with some regularity starting soon, and some of my former students are urging me to consider podcasts, so who knows what the future holds?

Michael Dolzani standing in a living room holding a copy of his book, The Productions of Time.