Ayn Rand’s Treasury of Children’s Verse

“The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self-interest and one’s own hierarchy of values: the time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own happiness.” — Ayn Rand

 

Good Riddance

Jack and Jill went up a hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

And none of John Galt’s women
and none of John Galt’s men
lifted one little finger
to help either of them.

Pork

This little piggy went to market (as bacon)
This little piggy as ham;
This little piggy was injected with chemicals
And ended up as spam,
And this little piggy (see below)
went wee wee on the killing floor.

Pitch Black Night

Three blind mice
Three blind mice
See how they stumble
See how they starve.

All three were poisoned by the butcher’s wife
Who didn’t get the dosage of the poison quite right,
So now they spend their very last day
in pitch black night, pitch black night.

Yuk

Georgie Porgy pudding and pie
Hung with the girls and not the guys.
Puberty’s hitting him, however,
Precipitated a change in Georgie’s weather,
So Georgie ditched his girly toys
And hid in the closet with like-minded boys.

Mistress Ayn has this to say
To all of you who might be gay.
Breaking nature’s laws
Denotes “psychological flaws.”

She finds you personally “disgusting”
For your perverted lusting.
If you want to join her nation
Then you better switch your orientation.

Lullaby

Now I lay me down to sleep
in a universe dark and deep.
If I die before I wake,
Tough shit, them’s the breaks.

In High Praise of Deadwood

 

Yesterday in the cool air-conditioned confines of the Irish Pub St. James Gate, I told my beloved (who is more intelligent and literate than me I) that I considered the HBO series Deadwood to be a greater work of art than Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a particularly insensitive comment on the week of the Nobel Laureate’s demise.  However, I didn’t make the claim to diss Song of Solomon or Ms Morrison, but rather to heap high praise on Deadwood, which I went on to compare to a magnificent Victorian novel in its construction (created in the flux-time of serialization), its breadth and depth, the complexity of its characters, etcetera, etcetera.

Robert Penn Warren mentored the series’ creator and writer, David Milch, and as far as 20th Century narratives go, Deadwood might owe more than a little something to All the King’s Men, but forgive me; I digress.[1]  These multi-seasonal television series I consider a really important advancement in the making of fiction. No longer must Middlemarch be freeze-dried into 90 minutes of cinematic action, hence the breadth and depth alluded to above. We can see the action and hear the characters and tailor the pace of the narrative to our individual attention spans, be they flea-like or godlike, as we do when reading a novel.

Many have (to point of cliché-dom) compared Deadwood to Shakespeare’s works, not only in the broad array of human types incarnated in individual flesh, but also in the language Milch employs.

Here’s Milch addressing the language of the series:

Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.

Formal letters didn’t convey a great deal of how people spoke, but informal letters—say, a brother writing a brother about life in a mining camp, or period memoirs or diaries—do. Of course, much of the best stuff wasn’t written with the idea of publication. But you can get a fairly good idea of the evolution of the language and the derivation of most words and terms in the Library of Congress papers on oral history, and H. L. Mencken’s The American Language is very good on this too.

 

The dialogue, often iambic, can be stilted in its diction and syntax, but is infused with jazz-like riffs of alliterative vulgarity and profanity.[2]

I’ll offer a couple of quick examples from Calamity Jane, who is mostly employed as a means of comic relief but who possesses, nevertheless, depth, because of her sensitivity and moral courage.

Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane

Here are a couple of examples of her use of language, both dealing with African American characters. When Jane tells Samuel Fields (who has dubbed himself the Little N-word General) that she’ll help him bury fellow African American Hostetler, he says, “That ain’t gonna raise your popularity with your fellow white people.” She replies, “Question I wake to in the morning and pass out with at night: ‘What’s my popularity with my fellow white people?’”

Later Aunt Lou, George Hearst’s cook, asks Jane if she could have a taste of the liquor Jane’s been chugging from a bottle.  Jane says, of course, but stops Lou from reaching for a cup as she hands her the bottle. “Do not employ a mug lest next we’d be donning white gloves.”

I could go on and on, but unlike a television series, a blog ain’t the medium for long-windedness, so I end with this admonition.  If you haven’t seen Deadwood, you need to check it out.  Despite its battlefield load of corpses, it’s life-affirming in the truest since of the word, the story, in Milch’s own words “of order rising from chaos.”)

Listen to the language here (there are vulgarities and racial epithets, be warned).


[1]I’ve never quite succeeded in squelching my bad habit of name-dropping.  I actually met Robert Penn Warren in a smallish group of English majors when he visited the University South Carolina circa 1974.  One of my teachers (a PhD candidate) had the courage to ask the first question:  “Mr. Warren, do you think a formal education would have ruined Earnest Hemingway?” Mr. Warren (screeching): How in the hell would I know!”

[2]There is a difference.  Vulgarity traffics in sex and excrement; profanity traffics in taking the Name of the Lord in vain.

Channeling Joseph Campbell

Chapter 1

Hello, I’m an English teacher, so this blog post is about sex.  All English teachers talk about in class is sex.  Just ask any of our students.

Above is a photograph of the finish line of the most important marathon in which you’ve ever competed. That sperm that helped bring you into existence went up against ~ 250,000,000 competitors.  You know that cloying cliché, “we’re all winners.”  Well, in the case of conception it’s true.

The image below is an artist’s rendition of a comet or meteorite’s crashing into our planet, an occurrence that scientists believe set in motion the series of chemical chain reactions that resulted in life.

Chapter 2

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William Wordsworth.

           The  world is too much with us; late and soon,

          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

          Little we see in Nature that is ours;

          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

          The winds that will be howling at all hours,

          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

          It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be

          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10

          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

                                                              1806.

The world that Wordsworth laments in the octave of this famous sonnet isn’t the magical world he describes in the sestet.  No, the world of the octave is the dreary quotidian world of getting and spending, the world of the long line at Food Lion where you find yourself because earlier at Harris Teeter you had forgotten eggs, so now you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic headed home to a mailbox that holds a communication from the IRS.  No wonder as you walk back to the house with that letter in your hand that you don’t notice the hummingbird hovering above the impatiens in the forgotten flower box.

Wordsworth, of course, was big on childhood.  He believed in the pre-existence of the soul and that when children were born they brought with them traces of holy wonderment.  “The child is father of the man,”  he proclaims in “My Heart Leaps Up,” and “I hope my days to be/Bound each to each/By natural piety.”

Of course, what’s separating the Wordsworthian child attuned to the miracle of being and Thoreau’s wretched adult living a life of quiet desperation is school.

Chapter 3

 

Get born, keep warm

Short pants, romance,

learn to dance,

get dressed, get blessed,

try to be success.

Please her, please him,

Buy gifts, don’t steal, don’t lift.

Twenty years of schooling,

and they put you on the day shift.

Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

By the way, I’m not one of these people who grew up knowing they wanted to be a teacher.  To the contrary, I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school, for the world of school for me was a factory world, very much like the world depicted in the above photo.  Each class, though configured exactly alike in gridlike fashion, was its own little self-contained kingdom.  No teacher ever wandered outside her dominion to help us connect the dots.  For example, in geometry, when we were solving proofs, no one mentioned that we were also using deductive reasoning in the essays we were writing in English across the hall, which, in fact, might has been across the Gobi desert.  School seemed random, a series of disconnected facts and skills taught for the purpose of preparing us for employment – the factory, the day shift.

Now, if ever there was a place that should instill in us a sense of wonder, it is a school.  We should constantly be reminding our students of the mysteries of existence and how all the disciplines we teach are interrelated so that our students don’t end up like poor Charlie Kaufman, whom we’ll meet in the next chapter, a man leading a life of quiet desperation, despite the fact that he’s a bigtime screenwriter.  This clip is from the movie Adaptation, written by Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. In the film Kaufman – who has written himself into the script – asks the existential questions, who am I and how did I get here.

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

250,000.000 sperm

Now, we’ve seen how Charlie got to where he is, but what exactly the odds of his having gotten there? We’ve established that each ejaculation yields approximately 250,000,000 sperm, but then we need to factor in 300 or so ova an average post pubescent woman carries.  Humans have come up with a language that can compute these odds – mathematics, a sort of poetry in its own right – but what if we extrapolate those individual odds up the family tree to Genghis Kahn, and what if my great-great-great grand pappy hadn’t just ducked out of the way of that musket ball at the Battle of the Second Manassas – I wouldn’t be here in my this particular incarnation.

The odds of our existing are so infinitesimally small, it’s mind-blowing.  The idea that we possess self-consciousness on a pebble swirling around a hydrogen explosion wheeling through a vacuum shouldn’t drowned by the mundane.

Chapter 6

This is essentially the first lecture I delivered each year to my Honors tenth grade British Lit survey course when I was a teacher. To try reawaken student wonder of the world, I turned to mythology, and my guide was Joseph Campbell, he of the famous admonition – “follow your bliss.”  I used the word mythology, instead of religion, because, I know all too well that another person’s religion is a mythology.   However, as Campbell has eloquently demonstrated, myths are what make the world come alive for us, so each year, in British Literature, I began by talking about mythology and establishing science as the preferred myth of the class.

At first, students balked at the idea of science being a myth, but through the Socratic method, I led them to the idea that myths can be defined as symbolic configurations that attempt to explain the mysteries of Being – Being with a capital B – how the universe came to be and how we came to be.  I stressed, however, that although myths are not literally true, they can be metaphorically true.

But science is literally true they claimed.

Well, I said, let’s hop into my time machine.

Chapter 7

The year is 1970, and I’m in Mrs. Ballard’s physics class.  There I am center-right standing, tilting towards a desk (obviously, Mrs. Ballard’s classroom management left something to be desired).  Anyway, Mrs. Ballard asks, “What do we call the smallest component of an atom,” and my hand shoots up.  “A quark!”  I proclaim.   Mrs. Ballard frowns.  “No Rusty,” she explains, “we’ve been over this time and time again.  An electron is the smallest particle of an atom.”

Atom 1970’s style

Atom 2010’s style

 

Actually, though, I’m right.  Quarks are smaller than electrons, but in 1970, they hadn’t made their way into science books. By the way, Murray Gell-Mann, the discoverer of the quark didn’t know what to call it until he ran across the word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a novel so difficult it makes quantum mechanics seem like child’s play.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he hasn’t much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

But O Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark

To see that old buzzard whooping about for runs shirt in the dark

And he hunting round for runs speckled trousers around by Palmerstown Park?

Hohohoho, mounty Mark!

Of course, we could take this idea of science not being literally true back even further to Aristotle who had scholars convinced for two thousand years that the earth was the center of the solar system.

However, science does possess a significant advantage over older myths because it’s self-correcting, and that’s why it was the chosen myth of my British literature class.  I found myself needing to establish this standard because in past years I had had folks who took the Genesis myth literally, wasting class time challenging Darwin, whose theories had created a crisis of faith in Victorian England, a crisis that profoundly affected Victorian poetry and fiction.  In Wordsworth at the turn of the 19th century nature is paradisal; in Hardy you can hear the shriek of the raptors; nature is coldly indifferent to him.

Chapter 8

So on the first full day of class, I offered my students a history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, according to the myth of science.  In doing so, I hoped to engender in them a sense of wonder, but also to underscore the importance of science, how it is central in understanding the mechanics of the world, and how it informs the other disciplines they study.  I had a timeline that ran from left to right at the top of one of my white boards board, starting with the Big Bang.  The only two historical events (i.e. non-biological) I had listed on the timeline were the discovery of agriculture and the detonation of the hydrogen bomb at Hiroshima, eye-blinks apart in our species’ past. I would choose a student and ask her to plot the Eden myth on the timeline.  Of course, it comes after agriculture, right before Hiroshima.  Adam’s curse was farm labor.

Chapter 9

But what about the older myths – how can they be true?  Obviously the Greek myths are mere fantasy.

Well, let’s take a peek at the Greek creation story – Uranus the Sky mated with Gaea the earth to produce the first living creatures, which is more or less the current scientific theory a comet (sky sperm) impregnates earth to produce life. See, it’s true! The Greek creation myth and the scientific creation myth are essentially the same.

Chapter 10

Students love connections like this – love the integration of our disciplines, and, of course, what happens in outside of the realm of literature affects literature and the rest of the arts.  After Freud, the novel goes inward; after the invention of the camera, painting goes abstract; after Planck, poetry goes atomistic.

So, the more we can cross-pollinate across the curriculum, the more engaged our students will become, and the more connections they’re able to make, the more likely school will be a positive experience for them, and not the drag that Wordsworth bemoans.

Adventures in Editing

IMG_1968.jpeg

 

A few years ago when I chaired an English Department at an independent school, it occurred to me that I could save my employer literally thousands of dollars by replacing the ridiculously expensive textbooks of our survey courses with compilations we put together ourselves.  After all, 90% of our texts fall in the realm of public domain.  Rather than forking out $145 a pop for an anthology, we could download the material, format it, print and bind it for $20 each.  Although the volumes would lack background on historic periods and authorial biographies, we could provide the cultural underpinnings of the Augustan Age or Ernest Hemingway’s gallivanting via lecture. Even better, the kids could keep the books and therefore annotate the texts.  Since it was my big idea, I volunteered to do the amassing, formatting, and editing myself.

O, dear readers, that was a promise I wish I could have undone.  Formatting was nightmarish.  Any slight correction would send the text gaping open, sliding along the screen, the blocks of prose or poetry gaping open here and there, like this:

 [. . .] afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no     other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed    the door gently behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little             to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the courtroom, ears were always pricked up, as it    usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.

Plus I needed to number lines or paragraphs, which further disjointed the format.  We’re talking hours, days, weeks, a summer of uncompensated labor.

One aspect I came to enjoy, however, was providing footnotes.  Ever since I was a child, I’ve dug footnotes (endnotes not so much). Anyway, I started traditionally enough:

Passage: A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,”

Footnote: From Act 5.1 of Hamlet, the graveyard scene, when Hamlet contemplates Alexander the Great’s corpse decomposing into clay and Alexander’s clay ultimately being used to plug up beer barrels.

However, as time passed, I started relating the material to works they had read the previous year.

Passage: “The false society of men —

— for earthly greatness

All heavenly comforts rarefies to air.”

Footnote: From George Chapman’s (c. 1559 – 1634) The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey. Chapman, by the way,  is the translator Keats lauds in “On First looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

As even more time passed, I became self-indulgent and egocentric.

Passage: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged (sic) our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one    of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Footnote: Psalm 137.  Also, the first two lines are the beginning of the Reggae great Jimmy Cliff’s “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a lament about Jamaicans’ colonial enslavement. Slaves of the Americas identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament.

 

And then even more egocentric.

Passage: Porphyrogene!

Footnote: Literally “born to be purple,” as in of royal blood. Cf. the composer of “Purple Rain” and ”Little Red Corvette.”

Then downright sardonic:

Passage: “The evil that men do lives after them.”

Footnote: This famous line you should know, damn it! (BTW, you don’t get footnotes like this at the Magnet).

Passage: It is the excess of the suggested meaning — it is the rendering this, the upper instead of the undercurrent of the theme — which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists.

Footnote: Not exactly a ringing endorsement of ol’ Ralph Waldo and his gang.

Passage: The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.”

Footnote: Why spend all those days and nights studying Latin unless you get to flaunt your learning with an unnecessary, showoffish phrase or two?

At any rate, I managed to complete the project in time, and now, even in my retirement, I continue to edit the Readers as my former colleagues add and subtract entries.  It’s not nearly as burdensome now that I don’t have classes to prepare for or summer reading to complete.

Me, Myself, and Sigh

Ah, get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift.

                                                    Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

 

Vladimir Nabokov begins his memoir Speak Memory with an arresting sentence: “The cradle rocks above the abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”  He adds, “Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

To me, it’s not surprising that we don’t fret over our pre-natal non-sentience, and it certainly makes sense that relatively happy people typically dread their post-mortem non-existence. The problem lies in that we perceive life as linear, a journey — tick tock, tick tock — a pilgrimage — tick tock, tick tock.  But there’s a real problem in perceiving our existence in this manner, because the payoff of a journey or pilgrimage is reaching the final destination – Emerald City or Canterbury Cathedral – and, of course, when we reach the end of our life’s journey/pilgrimage, we’re no longer we but something to be disposed of, to be burned or buried.

detail from All Our Yesterdays by Michael Bilotta

Alan Watts:

And then you wake up one day, about 40 years old and you say “My God! I’ve arrived.” ”I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt.  And there is a slight letdown because you feel is a hoax And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax They made you miss everything. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end. Success or whatever it is, maybe heaven, after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.

Ulysses to Achilles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,

Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.

Yet, we keep wishing away the present, for the workday to end, for the workweek to end, for football season to begin or the holidays to arrive or for retirement.

Cindy Streit Mazzaferro: Sometimes Broadway, Sometimes the Catskills

But who are they – the they Watts accuses of making us “miss everything?”

Well, as Porfiry Petrovich said famously to Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment  when the latter asked him who had killed the old pawnbroker and her sister:

“What do you mean, who killed?” [Porfiry Petrovivh] asked as if he couldn’t believe his own ears.  “Why, Rodion Romanovich, you killed!  You committed the murders, yes.”

The they are we.  We possess free will, BF Skinner be damned.  How many sages have walked upon the earth extolling us to consider the lilies of the fields or that it is better to travel well than arrive?

Those sages say we must murder that conception-of-self psychologists call the ego, abandon the self-delusion that a homunculus somewhere inside our brain is the sum total of who we are, to realize that we and the lilies of the fields and the clouds in the sky and the birdcall are one.

Easier said than done.  Droughts can decimate fields, and although form is emptiness, the swirling subatomic particles of an axe can do real damage.  Food and shelter demand, unless you’re a Trump or Kennedy, labor, and most of us labor under the supervision of someone more powerful, whether it be a foreman or the always-right customer.  And, in truth, a very few people own and control almost everything, but we do ostensibly have autonomy over our thinking, how we behave.

 

Joseph Pennel: End of Work Day, Gatun Lock

 

Last night my wife Caroline said she thought that happiness ultimately lies in work, and I agree. It’s crucial to find employment that we love and to train our minds to concentrate on the bits and pieces of that employment, whether it be whisking an egg, laying a brick, or constructing a math test, in other words, to enjoy the music of the moment rather than racing forward in our minds to the final cymbal crash of the coda.

It’s hard to do, especially with all of the distractions, the mechanical slicing of time into periods, shifts, breaks, etc. – but we certainly don’t want to end up like John Marcher in Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle”:

He had justified his fear and achieved his fate; he had failed, with the last exactitude, of all he was to fail of; and a moan now rose to his lips as he remembered she had prayed he mightn’t know. This horror of waking–THIS was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze. Through them, none the less, he tried to fix it and hold it; he kept it there before him so that he might feel the pain. That at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life. But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened–it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.

So, ladies and gents, let’s don our dancing shoes before it’s too late.

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976

 

Fun for People with No Lives

Time to Pop the No-Doz

Let’s face it; you enjoy taking grammar tests because they make you feel socially superior to Deplorables who say, “Between you and I, I think Melania Trump’s nude photo shoots were choreographed by the Deep State.”

So here’s a chance to fill five minutes of your otherwise angst-fraught day in a beleaguered Late Empire democracy located on a dying planet having fun with rhetoric.

Uh-oh.  That sentence has a misplaced modifier.  Can you find it?

Damn right, the dying planet is incapable of having fun, even with something as absolutely entertaining as parsing sentences.

To begin the frivolity, let’s stick with misplaced modifiers. Here’s an easy question: which of the following sentences doesn’t contain a dangling modifier?

While reading a book, Reginald’s dog chewed the Chippendale.

While repairing the chipped Chippendale, Reginald’s dog urinated on the Persian rug.

While steam-cleaning the Persian rug, Reginald’s dog clawed a hole in the screen door.

While Zika-virus-bearing mosquitos flew through the hole in the screen, Reginald adjusted his dog’s flea collar.

Wow, that was fun, wasn’t it?  Let’s try something a little different.  Read carefully each group printed below, and decide which one of the four choices expresses the idea most correctly and efficiently. 

Having picked up a meth addict via Tinder at the rave, Edith invited the meth head up to her attic.

When Edith picked up a meth addict she met via Tinder at the rave, she invited him up to her attic.

Edith’s meth addict Tinder pick-up at the rave was invited up to Edith’s attic.

Edith invited her meth-addict Tinder pick-up from the rave up to her attic.

The section below contains a series of short choppy sentences, resulting in a monotonous style.  Using appropriate connectives and proper subordination, combine the sentences to show the relationship of the ideas that apparently belong together. You should be able to combine all the statements into a single sentence. 

  1. Thank you very much for being here.
  2. I just want to thank some of the people.
  3. Senator, congressman, you’ve worked hard on these things.
  4. You’ve worked so hard on the kidney.
  5. The kidney has a very special place in the heart.
  6. It’s an incredible thing.

Extra Credit:  Who is the author of the above speech?

Okay, let’s close out by increasing our word power by doing some synonyms.

  1. RACK: 1 – a pair of breasts; 2 – din; 3- Elmer Fudd’s pronunciation of the 35th president’s nickname; 4 – torture; 5 – wrack
  2. SURLY: 1 – the fat, bald Stooge; 2 – absolutely; 3 – bodyguard-ish;  4 – carriage; 5 – Mid-Eastern tent
  3. TABOO: 1 – drumbeat; 2- Oedipal; 3 – taint;  4 – OMG, that’s soooooo gross; 5  – culturally uncool to the max
  4. TEDIUM: 1 – churchlike; 2 – inert gas; 3 – the aura a Tupperware Party emanates;  4 – size between targe and tmall;  5 – Another word for Ted Talk
  5. WAYLAY: 1 – dating app; 2 – stray; 3 – hold up; 4 – hold down; 5 – potato chip manufacturer

Okay, boys and girls, the fun is kaput, time for a libation, followed by soporific reclining, if you catch my drift.

Neither in His Own, Nor in His Neighbor’s Eyes

Let me also wear

Such deliberate disguises

Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field

Behaving as the wind behaves . . .

                                            TS Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

It’s been my fate for the last twenty years or so to explore Heart of Darkness each spring with sixteen-year-olds.  The novella provides a rich cache – not of ivory – but of literary artistry, historical relevance, and profound prophecy.  I also find Marlow’s rebellious disdain for the soullessness of the people he encounters during his journey good role-modeling. By the end of his odyssey, Marlow has, as he puts it, “some difficulty in restraining [himself] from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance.”  He resents the sight of his fellow citizens “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.”  Marlow’s experience in the jungle has shredded the veil of illusion, or to move a bit westwardly metaphorically, he has stumbled out of Plato’s cave and can now see beyond the flickering shadows projected on the walls of his former existence.

Jeffrey Bren
Self-portrait watching television

The pressure of conformity weighs down adolescents like sodden woolen coats, whether it be the pressure to join a gang, the Fellowship of Christian athletes, or the circle around the bong.  Our narrator Marlow is a loner, the father of Nick Adams and Sam Spade (not to mention Philip Marlowe), an individual who remains true to his non-conformist core convictions.  As Marlow is telling his story to his colleagues on the deck of the Nellie, he’s also speaking directly to those adolescents – mocking hollowness and extolling independence and courage.  Given the barrage of images that assault young people each day through their various media –  images of air-brushed celebrities as insubstantial as Plato’s shadows, images of smiling actors succeeding at DeVry University, images of Vaseline-enhanced Big Macs beaming down from billboards – Marlow’s example of delving beneath the surface is more relevant than ever.

***

(To leaven the proceedings for a moment.  What do you think Marlow would think of this cover?)

Romance, Terror, and Exotic Adventure (rendered in 3.5-page sentences!)

***

TS Eliot in “The Hollow Men” quotes Heart of Darkness in the epigraph and employs Conrad’s symbol of the scarecrow to embody people without true convictions, people who go with the flow, behaving as the wind behaves, people who will say whatever it takes to get what they want – and then again, unsay it, with a mere shake of the Etch-a-Sketch.  The hollow men, the stuffed men.

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion . . .

In contemporary American politics, I can’t think of a better embodiment of those hollow men Marlow describes than Lindsay Graham.  If we’re going to draw analogies from “real life'” to Conrad’s novel, Trump comes off like Kurtz (albeit without his learning, Kurtz’s appreciation of and facility in creating art).  Kurtz sees himself as the center of the universe, as a god, a god worshipped by the natives as Trump is by his ardent xenophobic MAGAs.

Graham, on the other hand, obviously “behaves as the wind behaves.”

That was then, this is now.

“I am like the happiest dude in America right now,” a beaming Graham said on “Fox & Friends.” “We have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.” (19 April 2019).

Here’s Marlow on lying:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies–which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world–what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.

But, like I said, Trump is more like Kurtz or Guy Fawkes from Eliot’s epigraph, “lost/ Violent souls.” Graham lies for the sake of power; I doubt if megalomaniacal Trump even realizes he’s lying.

I guess it’s possible that Trump will be caught one of these days doing something that upsets the populace and that Graham will do some reverse flip flops, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

I guess it makes more sense to take Yeats’ advice:

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.