On Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Sex, and Death

It’s that time in the academic year when we select books for summer reading, and, of course, one of the many considerations our department weighs is the suitability of the book for the age of the reader.  Not surprisingly, puritanical parents tend to be especially frightened of fiction’s potential to somehow harm their children. Even if a novel doesn’t contain, as the movie people put it, sexual situations, it might very well deal with death.  Sex and death are the yin and yang of possible parental complaints.

Actually, I think perhaps the greatest danger that novel reading might pose lies not in the depiction of sex and death but in the extremely slim possibility that novels’  heightened realities might, like the speaker in Yeats’s “The Stolen Child,” lure impressionable readers into magical worlds that seem so much more alluring than the soulless six-lane highways and cell towers of the real world.  In other words, the danger is that the child might become a bookworm, bury himself between the covers, and withdraw from the realm of people, places. and things.

Away with us he’s going,

The solemn-eyed:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

Or the kettle on the hob

Sing peace into his breast,

Or see the brown mice bob

Round and round the oatmeal chest.

For he comes, the human child,

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

Yeats, “The Stolen Child”

Arthur Rackham

However, the problem with fairyland is that like Eden/Paradise it ultimately bores predatory primates unless, like buddhas, we can dismantle our egos and embrace the sheer bliss of existence, and if we can do that, to turn a phrase of Milton’s Satan, then “we ourselves are paradise”  – or, if you prefer Hamlet, “[we] could be bound in a nutshell and consider [ourselves] king[s] of infinite space.”

The scene depicted above, for example, looks like fun, except when you start considering the question of the aging process, estrogen and testosterone.  As Wallace Stevens wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty,” and without Death’s majesty, we’re back in the undifferentiated sexless world of amoebas.

Unlike the magical world of Yeats’s poem, the fairyland of most children’s books is fraught with conflict, which is the very stuff of fiction, as Bruno Bettelheim expounded in The Uses of Enchantment.  According to him, fairy tales with their wicked stepmothers, ogres, crones, and abandonment provide a roadmap of sorts to help children negotiate the treacherous ascent to adulthood as the tales shed a flickering light on their subterranean  unconscious sexuality.  For example, according to Bettelheim, the familiar beginning of the “Snow White” introduces children to not only the concept of death, but also to the blood link of menstruation and procreation.

As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle.  Three drops of blood fell into the snow.  The reed on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.”

Soon afterward she had a little daughter who was as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood, and therefore they called her Little Snow-White.  And as soon as the child was born, the queen died.

There you have them both– sex and death.

Several years ago I was congratulating an acquaintance on her daughter’s well-received first novel, and the mother said wistfully that she wished her daughter had written something less controversial, something more like, and she specifically cited this title, “Hansel and Gretel.”   In other words, a narrative about childhood abandonment and cannibalism is less horrible than a narrative about the various sexual encounters one experiences coming of age in a late empire.

Snow White, as we switch from Freud to Friedan, agrees to become a chaste hausfrau rather than take her chances wandering the wolf-prowled woods.  Yet, like her tower-incarcerated cousin Repuntzel, the pull of a sexual partner will liberate her from the narrow confines of chastity, in Snow White’s case, a glass coffin. Repuntzel, interesting enough, is the rescuer rather than the rescued as her tears of compassion restore the eyesight of the feral prince who has been wandering Oedipus-like in a barren desert.

Essentially Repuntzel is the story of how two become one and then three.

Ernst Liebermann

Of course, it’s not fairy tales that’s making the top-ten challenged books lists in high school but less subliminal fare like Love in the Time of Cholera, The Color Purple, and A Clockwork Orange. Actually, excellent literary novels tend by their very nature to be moral because they portray life realistically – promiscuity doesn’t bring happiness, avarice creates misery, and honor ennobles.  Also, good books, whether they contain sexual situations or violence, provide vicarious experience for the uninitiated.

In our discussion about summer reading last Wednesday, our department chair wanted to have his seniors read Margaret Atwood’s The Hand Maid’s Tale.  I lauded the novel but warned him that when I had been chair, I eventually removed the novel because of constant complaints from parents in consecutive years. One mother complained bitterly about how depressing the novel was and thought it dangerous for adolescents to be exposed to so much negativity.

Here’s a snippet from the letter I wrote her:

It is a legitimate question to ask why so much contemporary literature is so negative.  After all, looking towards Hollywood one rarely ever encounters an unhappy ending. However, unlike most movies, great literature provides students with a realistic portrait of the world and endows them with the vicarious experience that comes with experiencing the struggle, triumphs, and, yes, defeats of its characters.  For example, Hamlet — about as tragic a work of literature as you’ll ever encounter — provides a realistic portrait of a fallen father, a mother’s obscenely hasty remarriage, the dissolution of a love affair, and about as many corpses as will fit on a stage.  Yet, when we finish reading (or seeing) the play, we’re not depressed but can share in the nobility of a person’s battle against “a seas of troubles” and say with Hamlet “what a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason.”  Moreover, we can perhaps learn from Hamlet’s mistakes.  They have become a part of our experience because Hamlet is to us a fellow human being.

As far as The Hand Maid’s Tale is concerned, Margaret Atwood has said she wrote the novel in light of the subjugation of women in Iran and Afghanistan.  She does, I think, a masterful job of recreating that experience for American and European readers.  It’s much easier to emphasize with Offred, the protagonist, because she is of our world. We experience her shame and helplessness with her.  In addition, the central of the novel is a positive one: human love is unconquerable and very much worth dying for.

Ah, there it is again, that word dying.

She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel

The need of some imperishable bliss.’

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams

And our desires. Although she strews the leaves

Of sure obliteration on our paths,

The path sick sorrow took, the many paths

Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love

Whispered a little out of tenderness,

She makes the willow shiver in the sun

For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze

Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

She causes boys to pile new plums and pears

On disregarded plate. The maidens taste

And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

I would also add that a life of reading great literature helps in a way to face death’s awful but necessary reality because as Hamlet himself says, “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.”

By the way, we are going with The Hand Maid’s Tale.

Language, Thinking and the Oratorical Donald

Sir Winston Trump

Can we at least all agree on this: when it comes to verbal expression, Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill?

Yeah? But is he as bad as the critics claim?

Sarah Sloat thinks not. On the website Inverse, she argues that rather than being an indication of stupidity, Donald’s Trump limited vocabulary “exemplifies sly intelligence.”

She takes issue with Philip Roth’s contention in the 30 January issue of the New Yorker that Trump is essentially a fucking imbecile, both intellectually and morally.[1]

Take it away Mr. Roth:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

Because Trump has “a small vocabulary size,” Sloat argues, doesn’t mean “that the President is dumb.” I more or less agree with her on this point. A limited vocabulary doesn’t necessarily mean that a person can’t solve intricate quadratic equations or intelligently assess a potential business rival’s weaknesses. What I do disagree with, however, is that Trump’s use of an impoverished vocabulary is “the hallmark of a person sly enough to hook his listeners and persuade them using only a few words.” In other words, I don’t think Trump’s use of a small number of words in his speeches is a conscious action aimed at endearing him to downhome folk. I think he talks that way all the time.

For example, here he is discussing history with an interviewer on satellite radio:

They said my campaign is most like, my campaign and win was most like Andrew Jackson with his campaign. And I said, “When was Andrew Jackson?” It was 1828. That’s a long time ago. That’s Andrew Jackson. And he had a very, very mean and nasty campaign. Because they said this was the meanest and the nastiest. And unfortunately it continues.  His wife died. They destroyed his wife and she died. And, you know, he was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, you know, he visited her grave every day. I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee. And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee. I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

Trump isn’t shy about expressing his dislike of reading, which shows not only in the content of what he says but also in its expression.   The mind that produced the above is a mind not shaped by reading, a mind lacking the syntactical structures necessary for clear thinking, a mind with a threadbare vocabulary that limits the ability to detect and therefore articulate nuance.

It’s almost as if he’s invented his own brand of sub-literate Newspeak. Everything is either “bad” or “evil” or “great” and” tremendous.” Hence, the flip-flops. He doesn’t merely moderate his stances but completely reverses them. He rushes to judgement, proclaims something “tremendous” or “bad” but then after a discussion with a cabinet member pulls a 180.

Take his reversal on NATO, for example: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”

The implication is that NATO has just recently changed their posture towards terrorism because of Trump’s complaints, and now that NATO has changed, it’s no longer obsolete. This may be a clever strategy for hoodwinking his ardent followers but probably not all that an effective approach when it comes to our allies.

At any rate, what I most disagree with is Sloat’s conflating intelligence with ignorance. She writes, “Roth equates Trump’s small vocabulary with ignorance, [my emphasis] which is in line with the old-school view of verbal fluency.” But ignorance and intelligence are two very different matters. Unlike me, I suspect that Stephen Hawkins is ignorant of the various interpretations of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive floating around the Internet; however, I dare say that he would beat me on an IQ test.

At any rate, Roth’s charge of Trump’s ignorance “of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art” seems to me indisputable. Trump’s vocabulary is beside the point here. The idea of Andrew Jackson’s preventing the Civil War is about as credible as Noah’s releasing two penguins on Mount Ararat. It’s grossly ignorant and would be just as ignorant if Churchill had expressed it in all of his sonorous eloquence.

Skillful orators alter their vocabularies depending on their audiences. Trump uses the same impoverished vocabulary whether he’s making a speech to a stadium of his supporters, answering policy questions from an interviewer, or hitting on a model.

He’s tripleplusinarticulate.


[1] Quoting Sloat quoting researchers, “A voluminous taboo lexicon may better be considered an indicator of healthy verbal abilities rather than a cover for their deficiencies.”  Oh fuck yeah!