Beach Bum Bummer, Boomer Edition


Caroline and I have invested/wasted time over the Thanksgiving holidays checking out two films and a flick. On Monday night, we watched an HBO documentary on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and an experimental film called Notes on an Appearance, a slow-cut edited paean to stasis, directed by Ricky D’Ambrose, .

On the following evening, we watched the recent stoner film The Beach Bum directed by Harmony Korine and starring Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dog, Isla Fisher, and featuring Jimmy Buffett playing himself.

Here’s my amphetaminic spoiler-infused synopsis.[1]

Moondog, the eponymous beach bum, is supposedly a genius poet, though the pap he recites isn’t even, strictly speaking, verse, much less poetry.  Perpetually drunk and stoned, he divides his time cavorting with multiple sexual partners in Key West or at his obscenely rich wife’s mansion in Miami.

Despite being deemed loveable by a host of movie critics, including the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, Moondog shows up late for his daughter’s wedding, strides up to the couple taking their vows, grabs the groom’s crotch to measure his manhood, and calls him “a limp dick.”


After the ceremony, Moondog and his wife (who has been having an affair with Snoop Dog’s character Lingerie) go for a drunken drive, crash the car, and Moondog ends up a widower cut out of his late wife’s will until he publishes a significant collection of poetry.[2]

Pissed off at having his inheritance delayed and predicated on productivity, Moondog recruits a host of homeless people and trashes his daughter’s house (tee hee), which results in his going to rehab to avoid prison. At the rehab facility, he and an arsonist named Flick (get it?) become buddies.  They escape in a golf cart that somehow outraces the pursuit.

Short of money, the unlovable rogues attack and rob an old man in a mechanical wheelchair, bringing to mind A Clockwork Orange, except in that movie brutalizing an old man managed to be funny, thanks to Alex’s “Singing in the Rain” routine, whereas in The Beach Bum the assault seems simply cruel.

Moondog and the Flick split ways, and our antihero takes up with Captain Wack, who charters a swim-with-the-dolphins business.  With a family of tourists on board, including pre-pubescent children, Moondog spews vulgar sexual terms (the daughter actually puts her hands over her ears).  Despite his love for dolphins, Captain Wack can’t distinguish them from sharks, dives in to model swimming with them, and loses a foot.[3]

After copping some magic muse-like ganga from Jamaica, curtesy of Lingerie, Moondog writes what Wikipedia calls “a poetic memoir,” receives critical acclaim, and wins the Pulitzer.  Now, he can receive his inheritance, 17 millionaire dollars in cash delivered in a freshly purchased yacht.  Sailing off into the sunset, Moondog purposely sets fire to the money (which killjoy me thinks could have bought some food insecure children a Big Mac or two).  The yacht explodes; some bills rain down about a party that has gathered to celebrate the occasion.  Of course, Moondog escapes unscathed as he floats along in a dingy, one of Dionysius’s chosen.

The End.


Now, don’t get me wrong; I can love movies that thumb their cinematic noses/give double barrels to the establishment, movies like A Night at the Opera or Jean Vigot’s Zero for Conduct, and I’m okay with a dash of  gratuitous sex, but as my wife Caroline so aptly put it, the entire movie is gratuitous.

What exactly is the point? Unlike Fellini’s The Satyricon, The Beach Bum isn’t mocking Late Empire extravagance or moral turpitude; it’s celebrating it, hence the presence of that Apostle of Hedonism, the venture capitalist Jimmy Buffet, who, I understand, is  marketing “a string of Margaritaville retirement homes” where the bald and cellulite-ridden can bask in what remains of their days (and nights).

Wasting away in Margaritaville



Here’s a spiel for you golden-agers:

“It’s always been that happy place in your mind, the spirit of adventure in your soul. It’s the state of mind when it all comes together in one of life’s perfect moments. When your mind wanders to this paradise, why not follow it home?” reads the site. “We have heard your call… Minto Communities and Margaritaville welcome you to Latitude Margaritaville!… Inspired by the legendary music and lifestyle of singer, songwriter and best-selling author Jimmy Buffett, your new home in paradise features exciting recreation, unmatched dining and FINtastic nightlife. With Minto’s 60 years of experience developing award-winning, master-planned communities and building quality homes for over 80,000 families, innovative new homes are a given.”

Perhaps if Donald Trump weren’t president, I might have been less caustic in this review, but to me, Moondog is what Trump would be like as a stoner: vulgar, narcissistic, privileged, someone whose supposed “genius” gives him license to be a perpetual asshole.  Although Moondog shares some characteristics with Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Dude of The Great Lebowski, he, unlike those sympathetic characters, is arrogant, entitled, not in the least bit clever.

That said, he only harms himself, his family, and the occasional wheelchair bound Boomer. I just happen to find Barabas of Marlowe’s farce The Jew of Malta to be much more of a hoot.

FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed—

BARABAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

[1] Charleston’s own The City Paper pegs the plot as “hilarious misadventures” and calls it a “funny, ultimately sweet movie.”

[2] Several times this not yet published collection of words is referred to as a novel, though what we get at the end is a Pulitzer winning collection of poems.  It’s almost as if the screenwriter, Mr. Korine, doesn’t know the difference.

[3] Okay, no doubt a fan of the film will note that this is a farce, that the shark fins are cardboard, that it’s not supposed to be realistic, to which I say, Moondog-style, fuck off.


A Series of Subtractions


Photo credit: Caroline Tinger Moore

A Series of Subtractions




If you make the mistake of living too long,

old age can seem like as a series of subtractions.


The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry.


That romping pup you chose a flashbulb pop ago,

today, a husk headed to the vet to be put down.


Like the one before that and the one before that.

Jack, Sally, Bessie, Saisy, Ruskin, Milo,


Completing their abbreviated seven stages

right before your clear . . .  fogging . . . rheumy eyes.


The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry.


And the musicians and authors you’ve loved

seem to be dropping like dragonflies.


Foster Wallace, Zevon, Petty,

Toni Morrison, Prince, Winehouse, Reed,


Kaput, no longer cranking them out,

Deaf to the doo-da-doo-a-doohs of the colored girls.


And who in the hell are these movie stars

in the paper celebrating birthdays today?


The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry.


Quit your whining, boomer, time’s a-wasting,

beneath a mountain of books you haven’t read.


No use crying over spilt water bowls,



The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry.


The Death and Resurrection of Pan

pan dead

Several springs ago, I wrote about the Death of Satan, ruing his demise, fretting that without the fetters of everlasting, agonizing imprisonment, Christianity offers no concrete constraints on human misbehavior, a simple, “I’m sorry, Jesus,” sufficing to cleanse a lifetime of sadism, bigotry, predation.

Poof!  Forgiven!



With Satan alive and well, imagine Josep and Idi facing the everlasting wrath of Jonathan Edwards’ or Father Arnall’s God!

First, Preacher Edwards:

Tis everlasting Wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this Fierceness and Wrath of Almighty God one Moment; but you must suffer it to all Eternity: there will be no End to this exquisite horrible Mis- ery: When you look forward, you shall see a long Forever, a boundless Duration before you, which will swallow up your Thoughts, and amaze your Soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever hav- ing any Deliverance, any End, any Mitigation, any Rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long Ages, Millions of Millions of Ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty mer- ciless Vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many Ages have actually been spent by you in this Manner, you will know that all is but a Point to what remains. So that our Punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh who can express what the State of a Soul in such Circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble faint Representation of it; ’tis inexpressible and in- conceivable: for who knows the Power of God’s Anger

Your turn Father Arnall.  Can you render “the faint representation” of eternity a little more concretely?

You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.

A whole long lot of misery, O my brothers and sisters!


When I posted “Satan Ist Tot,” it hadn’t dawned on me that Satan is Pan’s doppelgänger, hoofed and horned, half-human and half-bestial, our intermediary between the celestial and the cesspool, heaven and earth.

Perhaps one of the most curious events in the ancient world is Plutarch’s announcement of the death of Pan, which occurred during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE). Here’s Plutarch relating the story via Philip the Historian in On the Obsolescence of Oracles:

As for death among such beings, I have heard the words of a man who was not a fool nor an impostor. The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, Cnot known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that he was the son born of Hermes and Penelopê.”

Of course, the death of Pan coincides with the life of Jesus, and Christian philosophers have taken Plutarch’s pronouncement as the ending of the old order and the beginning of the new.

James Hillman (whose prose style I detest but whose anti-Buddhist ideas intrigue me) writes

When Pan is dead, then nature can be controlled by the will of the new God, man, modeled in the image of Prometheus or Hercules, creating from it and polluting in it without a troubled conscience.  (Hercules who cleaned up Pan’s natural world first, clubbing instinct with his willpower, does not stop to clear away the dismembered carcasses left to putrefy after his civilizing creative tasks.  He strides on to the next task, and ultimate madness).  As the human loses personal connection with personified nature and personified instinct, the image of Pan and the image of the devil merge. Pan never died, say many commentators on Plutarch; he was repressed. Therefore as suggested above, Pan still lives, and not merely in the literary imagination.  He lives in the repressed which returns, in the pathologies of instinct which assert themselves, as Roscher indicates, primarily in the nightmare and its associated erotic, demonic, and panic qualities.

Perhaps, then, Satan hasn’t actually died but merely morphed back into his prototype, Pan.  They both have served as lords of the underworld, Satan in his hell, Pan in our unconsciousnesses.  Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine Jesus smiling and nodding his haloed head as he looks upon Jonathan Edwards’ and Father’s Arnall’s visions of eternal damnation.  After all, Jesus himself supposedly comes from the primordial ooze of Mary’s stock as well as from the stars.  Part of Pan no doubt dwelt in him as well.

It’s a shame, by my heretical reckoning, that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas didn’t make the ecclesiastical cut.  In that quizzical compendium Jesus strikes me as being much more soulful.  For example, here he is in “Saying 70”:

Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you
bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is
within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Here is Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University:

The Gospel of Thomas also suggests that Jesus is aware of, and criticizing the views of the Kingdom of God as a time or a place that appear in the other gospels. Here Jesus says, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there first. If they say ‘it’s in the ocean,’ then the fish will get there first. But the Kingdom of God is within you and outside of you. Once you come to know yourselves, you will become known. And you will know that it is you who are the children of the living father.”

O for a rapprochement between Jesus and Pan, lamb and goat, inside and out, here and now!

meltitsm copy

Perry Mason, a Corrupt Nation Turns Its Not Easily Entertained Eyes to You


I grew up on Perry Mason, viewing the show with my parents virtually every Saturday night up until I was old enough to go out and create my own trouble. Until then, I enjoyed watching the virtuoso attorney leisurely handle the one case he had per week. I mean, that burly barrister was hands-on.  He’d drive around LA and its environs half the night sleuthing, make house calls galore, and be in the office the next morning alert and ready to go. Most importantly, however, he used his prodigious mind to solve each and every case in a bang-bang third act confession, all the loose ends neatly wrapped-up — ta da!

One of the pundits covering the Impeachment Inquiry evoked that great lawyer’s name, warned us not to expect the proceedings to be “Perry Mason.”  Indeed, after the first “episode” featuring Taylor and Kent, media critics complained that the proceedings lacked “pizzazz.”  No way the American public whose attention spans have been decimated by fast cut editing, screen memes, multi-tasking, and herky jerky gifs could ever focus on a series of uninspiring factual questions.

Nevertheless, Devin Nunes, who, I understand, is suing a cow, has likened at various times the proceedings to an actor’s audition, a circus, and a crusade. To be truthful, he and his shirtsleeve henchmen Jim Jordan have been the most animated performers, especially Jordan who rat-a-tats details of debunked conspiracy theories like a carnival barker, and when finished, exudes the smug, self-congratulatory demeanor of  an overconfident high school debater. Every melodrama needs a villain to hate, and from my admittedly left-of-center perspective, I find the two to be, well, for lack of a better word, deplorable.  Boo!  Hiss!

Despite Nunes’ contention that the Inquiry is tanking ratings-wise,[1] I found Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s broadcasts to be fascinating. I especially enjoyed Democratic Counsel David Goldman’s questioning of Timothy Morrison, who appeared beyond uncomfortable as he continually looked left at his lawyer to make sure what he was saying wouldn’t result in a perjury indictment. Watching him squirm, his eyes darting as if he expected some predator to swallow him at any moment, reminded me of what great literature often depicts: consistently telling the straight truth is preferable to prevarication. [2]  What a difference in demeanor between him and William Taylor, who calmly looked his questioners in the eye, answered their inquiries, and actually smiled while being assailed.


Wednesday’s NY Times morning teaser posited three possibilities for Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony.  He could lie, plead the Fifth, or fess up. As it turns out, the episode might have been billed as The Monster Bus Show, as Ambassador Sondland flattened the upper echelon of the Trump Administration, including Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, and that Master of Reality Television himself, Donald J Trump, who before leaving for wherever on his helicopter read from a piece of paper: “I don’t know him very well.  I have not spoken with him much.  This is not a man I know well.  He seems like a nice guy though.”

C’mon, Donald, learn your lines.  It’s so much more realistic.

For his part, at least at the beginning of the festivities, Sondland seemed calm – some have used the adjective debonair – perhaps secure in having decided to tell the truth and knowing he has millions of dollars at his disposal for securing topnotch legal counsel.

Of course, it would have been more dramatic if Trump burst into the chamber, fell to his knees, and blurted out a tearful confession like the murderers on Perry Mason.

At the end of each episode, Perry, his detective Paul Drake, and secretary Della Street huddle to explain how the case was solved.  How fun would it be to  peek in on Adam Schiff, David Goldman, and Nancy Pelosi connecting the dots in the Speaker’s office after today’s testimony

But, like I said, this is reality television, not an adaption of an Erle Stanley Gardner courtroom drama. That doesn’t mean, however, that the action necessarily lacks interest, especially given the stakes.

[1] From what I understand, television ratings don’t take into account streaming, which I suspect is how most of us viewers are accessing the proceedings.

[2] Compare Hester Prynne to Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth.

Paean to Thanksgiving

turkey with bonnet.png

Despite its rather depressing backstory,[1] Thanksgiving ranks as my favorite holiday.

This Thanksgiving won’t be as festive as most.  Ned’s in Germany, Harrison and Taryn will be in New York, and Brooks is flying to Seattle to spend time with her father.  However, Caroline and I will make the most of it, maybe take a road trip to check out some foliage, probably eat some turkey and trimmings with her great cook of a dad up in Awendaw.

Why Thanksgiving? Well, Easter doesn’t work if you don’t believe, and Christmas depresses me, especially since it’s more or less degenerated into an obscene potlatch whose blatant materialism obliterates the tropes of the nativity story – being born in a barn, lying in a manager, etc. – not to mention the adult Jesus’s warnings of the spiritual poverty that often accompanies wealth.

Certainly, inquisitive good little boys and girls of modest means must wonder why Santa showers rich-as-Nebuchadnezzar bully Trey Warbucks and his sister Sassy with presents whose cost eclipses the GNP of Gambia while the inquisitive good little boys of modest means end up with Chinese-manufactured trinkets that may not survive until New Year’s.

lavish xmasthreadbare xmas

You’re not obligated to buy anyone presents or unwrap any yourselves on Thanksgiving. The holiday is about food, family, and considering your state and contemplating the positive, which, psychologically, seems like a good idea.


I feel extremely fortunate to have met and married Judy Birdsong and to have begotten and reared two successful sons with her, to have found true love despite my grieving, and to have a sweet, intelligent, talented, creative stepdaughter who brightens every day.

I feel fortunate to live in a country that allows me to express myself freely and to have taught at a school that allowed me to express myself freely (including publishing  this blog without censure).  I suspect the Powers-That-Was (and Continues-to Be) might not have dug my declaration of the death of Satan,  or my call to bring the missionaries home from abroad to minister to Republican operatives, or my declaring myself a sun god whose first edict is banning bikini tops on Folly Beach – oh, wait, that’s next week’s blog’s big announcement.

wes sungod

[Odd segue warning] I also feel incredibly thankful for Bob Dylan, despite his being somewhat of an asshole.  Over the years, I cannot think of any musician who has provided me with so much pleasure.  When I was a disaffected teenager, Bob supplied me with oxygen to breathe and a model to follow.  His lyrics – the imagery, sonic associations, themes – gave me strength somehow.  And let me add that I feel extremely fortunate to have caught his gig at the Orange Peel, a bar in Asheville, where Judy Birdsong and I got to stand within twenty feet of the master.


I feel thankful for my host of friends, whom I’m not about to list for fear of omission, but you know who you are.

Let’s face it, there’s so much to be thankful for that I could fill 5,000 Gutenberg-Bible-sized journals with them.

For example, I’ve never had to give or receive the Heimlich maneuver.

4x5 Heimlich

I’m thankful for not having my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother’s being convicted of witchcraft.

hanging witch

I’m thankful for not being invited to Thanksgiving at John Currin’s.



Come to think of it, that looks sort of fun.

At any rate, our blessings are indeed bountiful.  Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

And thank you for reading.  I really appreciate it!

[1] I.e., soon-to-be-exterminated natives helping land-grabbing religious fanatics survive the winter so they can begin the important business of drowning and hanging witches.


22 November 1963



Today marks the 58th anniversary of the death of Aldous Huxley.

Midmorning on that day as a fifth grader, I sensed something amiss.  Miss McCue’s eyes were red, and she sniffled as we hunched over our worksheets, but for whatever reason, she decided not inform us that the author of Point Counterpoint had checked out of this earthly Motel 6 of woe for quieter lodgings in that permanent vacation destination known as death.

I guess she figured the news would bewilder us or that it would be better coming from our parents.

triple final headline

I found out on the school bus from a sixth grader, Steve Ripley, who seemed delighted at the prospect of Huxley’s not producing any more novels that might be assigned as book reports.

I, on the other hand, was devastated by Huxley’s passing because his novel Brave New World had given me reason to hope that the 21st century was going to be a blast – an endless hallucinogenic phantasmagoria that included indiscriminate sex with a variety of partners.

What a miserable weekend with football games cancelled and regular programming preempted.  What’s an early late empire tween to do but stare at the short bio on his dog-eared copy of Chrome Yellow and think Huxley was alive when the book was bought.


Sandwiched between the passing of eminent composer Cecil Forsyth on 7 December 1941 and American author Alice Stewart Trillin on 11 September 2001, Huxley’s death was especially eerie given that a very famous someone also expired on that day.

That’s right.  CS Lewis also died on 22 November 1963, a day that will live in infamy.

But let’s end on a positive note.  Those fifty years have come and gone, and many of Huxley’s prophecies have come true – we live in a hedonistic age to the tune of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”  As days pour at increasingly swift rates through our lives’ hourglasses, what can we do but embrace Richard Wilbur’s sage advice:

It’s almost noon, you say? If so,
Time flies, and I need not rehearse
The rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse.

If you must go,

Wait for a while, then slip downstairs
And bring us up some chilled white wine,
And some blue cheese, and crackers, and some fine
Ruddy-skinned pears

                                        “A Late Aubade”

Hell Hath No Fury Like YA Authors Scorned

mourning bride

image by Violet D’Art via Flicker

As I was destroying my eyesight Wednesday simultaneously watching the Impeachment Hearing /Twitter feeds on the screen of my desktop computer, I ran across a linked tweet concerning a literary brouhaha originating at South Dakota’s Northern State University. A recent graduate named Brooke Nelson has provoked outrage from several Young Adult novelists for suggesting that a novel by best-selling YA author Sarah Dessen was too simplistic to qualify as mandatory reading.  As a junior, Ms Nelson had served on a committee to select a book all incoming freshman at Northern State University would be required to read. Several members on the committee, according to the Washington Post, “were pushing for a young adult novel by best-selling author Sarah Dessen.”

A quote in the local paper, the Aberdeen, ignited the ensuing furor: “[Dessen]’s fine for teen girls,” Brooke Nelson said, “ but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

Somehow Dessen caught wind of this slight diss.[1] Directly addressing Nelson by name, Dessen tweeted the following to her legion of followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally [my emphasis] how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

Let’s just say Nessen’s fans were not happy, including published YA authors Jodi Picoult and Roxane Gay.  Jennifer Weiner accused Nelson of being misogynistic:

“It’s hard to know what’s sadder: that Brooke Nelson has internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by “teen girls” but is presumably impressed with the merits of a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys; that Nelson joined the committee not to champion a book or a genre but to keep a specific author’s work out of contention; that she bragged about her actions, as if she’s done some great service to literature, or that Nelson graduated with an English degree, is pursuing graduate work in English, and will someday be foisting her sexism and elitism on the next generation of readers.”

However, this comment ignores the question of whether the work possesses the complexity that required reading should possess. Are Nessen’s novels more profound than The Hand Maid’s Tale?  Are today’s in-coming freshman incapable of reading adult literature?  I was the English Department Chair of an independent school for six years and a teacher there for thirty-four, and I can assure you we never had a YA novel on our required summer reading list for the Upper School.

Here’s last year’s list, the last year I taught there:

9th grade  On the Beach by Neville Shute

10th grade: 1984 by George Orwell

11th grade: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

12th grade The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

AP Language and Composition: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

AP Literature and Composition: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The majority of complaints from the YA authors cited in the Post story ignore the quality issue and focus on how Nelson’s quote marginalizes teenaged girls.  Here’s Jodi Picoult: “[Nelson’s quote] suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous.”

But Nelson didn’t say that novels about teenaged girls “matter less.”  She said that Nessen’s novels essentially didn’t “cut the mustard,” as we Boomers used to say.  I suspect that Nelson wouldn’t have any qualms with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Josephine Humphrey’s Rich in Love being required reading.

Well, Nessen should be gratified because Nelson has found it necessary to suspend her social media accounts because of a barrage of incoming hatred.  And Northern State University has publicly apologized to Nessen.

It brings to mind Dylan’s line “at pettiness that plays so rough.”

[1] I consider it a “slight diss” because I believe that it’s not terribly insulting to suggest one’s work doesn’t rise to the level of mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen of a college.  In fact, although it’s considered a classic, I don’t think To Kill a Mockingbird rises to that level because of its black and white (no pun intended) portrayal of good and evil.  What I would consider a genuine diss is Carrie Courogen’s summation of Dessen’s work as “formulaic patronizing garbage of the lowest hanging fruit variety and deserves every criticism leveraged against her.” Courogen added in a subtweet “sarah dessen books are nicholas sparks but by a woman and even dumber and slightly less christian.”  I haven’t read any of Dessen’s books, so all I’ll say is that I can’t imagine they possess the ambiguity, complexity, and depth that would elevate them into the realm of serious art.

Show White, Bruno Bettelheim, and High School Seniors


A few years ago, the principal at my school asked that the English Department develop elective courses to provide students with choices suited to their particular interests.

I came up with a course I called “Psychoanalytical Criticism, Modernism, and Paris in the 20’s.”

I spent the summer before its debut culling public-domain texts I could publish in a “reader,” a quite laborious undertaking —  almost overwhelming — but I managed to amass 376 pages of essays, short fiction, and poetry.  In addition,  I required students to purchase Hesse’s Steppenwolf and a copy of Hamlet.

I started with Freud, providing an overview of his theories,

then delved into fairy tales, using Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment as a guide.

I began with “Snow White” because Bettelheim does an excellent job of synthesizing Freud’s stages of psychosexual development with the plot of the tale.

He writes

While, psychologically speaking, the parents create the child, it is the arrival of the child which causes these two people to become parents.  Thus, it is the child who creates parental problems, and with these come his own [. . .] As soon as the position of the child in the family becomes a problem to him and his parents, the process of the child’s struggle to escape the triadic existence has begun. With it, he enters the often desperately lonely course to find himself – a struggle in which others serve mainly as foils who facilitate or impede the process [. . .] In “Snow White it is the years Snow White spends with the dwarfs which stand for her time of troubles, of working through problems, her period of growth.[1]

Typically, fairy tales don’t deal with a child’s pre-oedipal history, and “Snow White” is no exception.

“Snow White” begins

Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. 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 red 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. A year later the king took himself another wife.

Bettelheim associates the drop of blood with menstruation, “a pre-condition for conception.”

Although her mother died in childbirth, and Snow White has a stepmother by age one, she doesn’t face problems until she starts to mature, and then her narcissistic stepmother takes notice.  Bettelheim points out that “[n]arcissism is very much a part of a young child’s make-up” and “a child must gradually learn to transcend this dangerous form of self-involvement.”

He adds that “all children are jealous, if not of their parents, then of the privileges the parents enjoy as adults [. . .] Since a narcissistic (step)mother is an unsuitable figure to relate to or identify with, Snow White, if she were a real child, could not help being jealous of her mother and all her advantages and powers [. . .] If a child cannot permit himself to feel his jealousy of a parent (this is very threatening to his security), he projects his feelings onto this parent.”  The child wants to be rid of this parent, which again, according to Bettelheim, is projected onto the parent, i.e., the child perceives the parent wants to get rid of her.

So, essentially, Snow White’s oedipal struggle is not repressed. The queen hires a hunter, a father figure, to murder Snow White in the forest, but “he fails to take a strong and definite stand,” not following the queen’s demand to murder her stepdaughter nor doing his moral duty of rescuing her. Rather, he abandons Snow White, expecting her to be killed by wild animals. “A weak father is as little use to Snow White as he was to Hansel and Gretel [. . .] It is such fathers who create unmanageable difficulties in a child or fail to help him solve them.”

Since Snow White is more beautiful than the queen, she has charged the hunter to bring back Snow White’s lungs and liver, which she cannibalizes, though, of course, she’s actually devouring the lungs and liver of an animal the hunter has slain.


The pubertal child is ambivalent in his wish to be much better than his parent of the same sex because the child fears that if this were actually so, the parent, still much more powerful, would take terrible revenge.  It is the child who fears destruction because of his imagined or real superiority, not the parent who wants to destroy.  The parent might suffer pangs of jealousy if he, in his turn, has not succeeded in identifying with his child in a positive way, because only then can he take vicarious pleasure in his child’s accomplishments.  It is essential that the parent identify strongly with his child of the same sex for the child’s identification with him to prove successful.”

Which, obviously, isn’t the case with Snow White. She ends up escaping her original home and stumbling across the dwarf’s dwelling in the forest. To satisfy her hunger, she takes a little bit from each of the dwarf’s plates, which Bettelheim suggests shows that she can control her “oral cravings.” She does the same with the dwarf’s beds, settling eventually in the seventh dwarf’s bed.  When these workaholics come home, the seventh dwarf “slept with his companions, one hour with each, until the night had passed.”  Bettelheim argues that “Work is the essence of [the dwarfs’ lives]; they know nothing of leisure or recreation [. . .]  and the price of living with them is conscientious work.”  He adds, “dwarfs are eminently male, but males who are stunted in their development [. . .] They are certainly not men in any sexual sense – their way of life, their interest material goods to the exclusion of love, suggest a pre-oedipal existence.”

Snow White’s sojourn with the dwarfs symbolizes the latency period, yet it is not a time free from dangers.  Her stepmother reappears in her life and tempts her three times, first with stay laces, suggesting that Snow White is now an adolescent.  Disguised as a peddler, the stepmother laces Snow White so tightly that she faints from a lack of oxygen.  Bettelheim argues that here the queen stands “for a parent who temporarily succeeds in maintaining his dominance by arresting his child’s development.”  Bettelheim posits this incident denotes Snow White’s becoming “overwhelmed by the conflict between her sexual desires and her anxiety about them.”

Indeed, vanity also plays into the queen’s second temptation, the poisoned combs that she places in Snow White’s hair.  The final temptation, of course, is the poisoned apple, which Bettelheim argues is a symbol for love and sex, harkening back to the Eden myth and the Judgement of Paris. The queen divides the apple in half, eating “the white part herself, while Snow White accepts the red, ‘poisonous half.’”  Bettelheim goes on to add, “Repeatedly we have been told of Snow White’s double nature: she is as white as snow and as red as blood – that is her being has both its asexual and its erotic aspect.


“Eating the red (erotic) part of the apple is the end of Snow White’s innocence. The dwarfs, the companions of her latency existence, can no longer bring her back to life; Snow White has made her choice, which is as necessary as it is fateful. The redness of the apple evokes sexual associations like the three drops of blood which led to Snow White’s birth, and also menstruation, the event which marks the beginning of sexual maturity.”

He ends the essay by stating that the tale “teaches that just because one has reached physical maturity, one is by no means intellectually or emotionally ready for adulthood, as represented by marriage.”

“Like Snow White,” he writes, “each child in his development must repeat the history of man, real or imagined.  We are all expelled eventually from the original paradise of infancy, where all our wishes seemed to be fulfilled without any effort on our part. Learning about good and evil – gaining knowledge – seems to split our personality in two: the red chaos of unbridled emotions, the id; and the white purity of conscience, the superego.  As we grow up, we vacillate between being overcome by the turmoil of the first and the rigidity of the second (the tight lacing, and the immobility enforced by the coffin). Adulthood can be reached only when these inner contradictions are resolved and a new awakening of the mature ego is achieved, in which red and white coexist harmoniously.”


Depending on the student, these high school seniors either dismissed Bettelheim’s analysis or had their minds’ blown.  I emphasized that Freud was not what I would call a scientist, that his theories are not empirically based, but that they do offer sometimes extraordinary insight into the realm of the unconscious.  I stressed that it’s not necessary to buy into a paradigm to be able to employ it in interpretation, that whether you believe in Freud’s theories or not, being able to synthesize them into a coherent argument is good exercise.  Indeed, for their exam, I provided them the text of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and had them provide a Freudian interpretation.

[1] Bettelheim is no fan of Disney’s version.  “[A] bowdlerization,” he writes, “which unfortunately emphasizes the dwarfs, who failing to develop into mature humanity, are permanently arrested on a pre-oedipal level (dwarfs have no parents, nor so they marry or have children.”)

Peeking into Poets’ Bedrooms

bedroom head

I’ve only visited three famous writers’ domiciles  –  Yeats’ Tower, Thor Ballylee, in County Galway (1979); Shakespeare’s birth house in Warwickshire (1995);  and a home Frost lived in on a side of a road somewhere in New Hampshire (2007).

It felt like calling on the dead – the houses restored, sort of Disneyesque, way too un-lived in.

A while back, a friend posted on her FaceBook page a photograph of Walt Whitman’s bedroom back in the day. Alas, the image somehow conjured the Muse of PhotoShopping, Plagiaria.  Alas, I say, because no way I have the artistic talent to pull off the idea Plagiaria whispered in my ear.

Anyway, let’s take a peek into the Barbaric Yapper’s bedroom.

whitman's br

My idea, which I am bestowing to any 3-D artist out there, is to use the concept of a bedroom as a representation of an author’s interior life, his or her unconscious as it were, each installation with a window looking out (hence not an attic) onto the world the artist perceived – dingy Dublin brownstones for Mr. James Joyce/Lucy-in-the-Sky butterflies flitting just outside the window of Miss Emily Dickinson.


Take Ernesto Hemingway, par example.

ernest-hemingway boxing

His mother called him Ernestine and dressed him like a girl.


the unhairy one ~ 2 yrs

Here’s a crude approximation of Hemingway’s unconscious installed in EA Poe’s dorm room at UVA:

hemingway collage

Obviously, an actual artist could do better, perhaps creating a doll-house, each room devoted to a different writer from a different era, vestiges of influence sprinkled about, La Commedia on Eliot’s bedside table next to an overloaded ashtray of unfiltered Pall Malls.

Art On Pall Mall

At any rate, what strikes me about the actual bedrooms of these writers, except for Whitman’s, is how spartan they are.  For example, here’s where Yeats slept at Thor Ballylee:


Barely a step up from Thoreau’s:


Of course, there are exceptions. Truman Capote lay him down to sleep here:


And Virginia Woolf in this swanky boudoir:

The interior of Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monks House, East Sussex

And, finally, the bedroom where this barely published poet tosses and turns:

bedroom 3

At any rate, we all can be thankful that we’re not the inhabitant of this bedroom:


And sleep tight, Marcel!

Note:  This post originally appeared in Late Empire Ruminations 20 November 2012