The Continued Relevance of “1984”

When 45 was elected there were lots of postings on Facebook about the uptick in people purchasing and reading or re-reading George Orwell’s 1984.

I did not rush out and get a copy because I was already depressed enough and revisiting what I remembered of that grim world that Orwell first wrote about in 1950 did not appeal.  I stayed away from it until a former student reached out on Facebook, and we decided to create a two-person book club. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, we decided we would take on 1984.

As I read, I was surprised at how straightforward the narrative was, and while I could see some parallels to the political climate that we have been plunged into since the election of 2016, it wasn’t until half-way through the book that I came across some passages that really resonated.

I’m sure that some writers and thinkers have done much more work on this than I’m willing to so I will stick to a couple of parallels that were particularly striking.

Overall, I do not believe that 2016 looks like the world envisioned in 1984.  After all, we are a vibrant and diverse culture. Personal liberties are mostly still intact.  Their is robust political discussion, conversation, and protest that seems unending. The judiciary and individual states have managed to blunt some of 45’s excesses, and many of us are counting the days until the 2018 elections when some of our diffuse outrage might be turned into significant electoral action.

However, there are a few haunting similarities.  Just as Orwell envisioned the ministries of Truth, Peace, and Love that were all dedicated to their opposites, 45’s cabinet-level nominees seemed to have been hand-picked to destroy or work in opposition to the very principles of their departments.  The department of Justice under Jess Sessions is devoted to rolling back any initiative that was dedicated to advancing civil rights, and is working hard to find ways to increase voter suppression.  The Environmental Protection agency is being gutted by Scott Pruitt, and it appears as though every effort to protect our air and water that has been implemented over the past 10 years is going to be eliminated as a sop to coal and oil interests just at a time when many states are surging forward with innovations in renewable energy.  Just today, 18 states sued Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of the Department of Education, for trying to stop regulations that would protect students and parents from being defrauded by private, for-profit colleges.

The odd part for me about all of this is that the partisan divide is so deep that even though these policies hurt everyone, the polling seems to show little change since the election. 45’s base voters are as rabidly enthusiastic as ever although there has been movement among independent voters.  There continues to be a solid majority that are unalterably apposed to the man.  Of course, that was true on election day also.

The second parallel that was most striking to me was how the government of 1984 saw the power of re-writing the past and continually revising history in order to manipulate and control the masses.  Winston, of course, knows this because he works in the Ministry of Truth where he is continually making changes to history books and historical documents to make them align with the Party’s changing positions.  He tries to impress the enormity of this mass manipulation to his lover, Julia with an impassioned explanation: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.  And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute.  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

He is disappointed when his young lover shows little interest.  She is so jaded that Winston’s news does not surprise her, just confuses and bores her a little.  Of course the government lies. Yes, people are “disappeared.” Orwell describes her condition by saying that, [o]ften she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.”

Trump and his minions unapologetically spew out lies and contradictions at such a dizzying pace that I fear the populace has become anesthetized.  The New York Times has compiled an impressive list of lies (“President Trump’s Lies, the Definitive List”) that Trump has foisted on America since his inauguration and despite the enormity of it, or maybe because of it, the populace seems to have grown numb.  Thirty-five percent of Americans believe him or believe it doesn’t matter that he lies, and sixty-five precent have come to not believe anything that he says.  All investigative reporting is quickly branded as “fake news” and the White House is always able to present “alternative facts” if asked.  The deliberate confusing of all of the narratives surrounding the enormity of the scandals that are emanating from this administration has left many people unsure of who to believe.

Winston still has the capacity for outrage and the desire to join what he perceives as the resistance while Julia has accepted the duplicitous nature of the world she lives in and rebels through hedonism and other small defiances.

Seems like such a short time ago, we had a devout interest in protecting the environment, furthering the cause of civil rights, and working to provide for the good of all Americans.  We had a president who most Americans trusted and who seemed to be trying hard to maintain a the kind of sense of dignity and decorum that we used to expect of our presidents.

We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but we certainly have moved closer to it.

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Shakespeare Sunday: Poet Claims, “Yes I Am That Good.”

Sonnet 18

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 was always a lot of fun to work with in the classroom because students want to view it strictly as a love poem and because so much of the poem turns on the single word “this” in the very last line.  In case you’ve forgotten all of your Shakespearean sonnets, here it is:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Easy to see why it is looked at as a love poem, yes?  I even found it listed by one website as a poem suitable for Valentine’s Day, and for the first eight lines, I could not agree more.  The poet finds his loved one more beautiful than a summer day, “more lovely and more temperate.”  After all, a summer’s day can have “rough winds” and can be too hot or perhaps obscured by clouds.  The poet recognizes that “summer’s lease has all too short a date” and as all things in nature “every fair from fair sometimes declines.”  All things natural pass through their time of youth and beauty, decline and eventually die, a theme Shakespeare returns to time and again.

But line 9 surprises us.  If all things natural (including his lover’s beauty) decline, how can he say that “thy eternal summer shall not fade”?  He spends three more lines declaring that her beauty is immune from time’s ravages or the “shade” of death.

How so?  The final couplet is the poet’s tribute to himself.  He has given her immortality because  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” they will be able to read his poem, the poem which has frozen her beauty in time. He assures her that “So long lives this (his poem), and this (his poem) gives life to thee.

Trying to figure out those last two lines used to drive my students crazy which was, of course, another reason I loved this poem.

Have a wonderful Sunday.  Check in later this week for some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984, and it’s also time to check in on how things are going with Surviving the Trump Apocalypse.  Cheers!

Shakespeare Sunday: Macbeth Needs A Nap

Welcome my 12 faithful congregants!  If you’d turn your hymnals to the tragedy of “Macbeth”, let’s take a look at a very short passage:

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”,
the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast….

Macbeth (Act II, Sc II)

Even without knowing much about the context of this passage, I’ve always loved this image.  It seems to crystalized an image that I’ve always had of sleep–that it is a great healer of mind, body, and spirit. Whether it is a mid-day nap or turning in early to be able to shut my mind down to whatever may be troubling me, there is nothing like the retreat of sleep.  When I feel overwhelmed by exhaustion, worry, or anxiety there are sometimes where it is sleep alone that “knits up” and mends my soul.  Sometimes the clarity I have when I wake up is startling to me.

Of course, Macbeth has just murdered King Duncan in this scene and has a whole lot on his mind.  Not surprisingly, this little passage has been analyzed deeply but there is one simple (I like simple) aspect of it that I wanted to share.

Shakespeare often uses sleep as a metaphor for death or vice versa and so mixing them so closely here makes this passage even more interesting to me. He calls sleep, “the death of each day’s life” and then follows with two descriptions of it as a soothing “balm” that can cure the pains of both our bodies and our minds.

Then he calls it “great nature’s second course.”  Hmmm.  Does that make nature’s first course life and all that comes with it–experience, love, excitement, danger, sorrow, and death?

I needed some help from Dave’s blog “The Ape Philosophy” which can be found at (apeliterature.blogspot.com).  He suggests that:

“A “ravell’d sleave” is a tangled skein of thread or yarn. Macbeth uses it as a metaphor for the kind of contravention we experience when we have so many problems that we can’t see the end to any of them.”

Truth be told though, I need very little excuse, to find my way to bed in the mid-afternoon for my  escape into unconsciousness. You know how when you can’t get your computer, TV, router, smartphone, or tablet to work properly and after maybe an hour of frustration you remember that the best medicine for anything technological is to shut it down, talk nicely to it, let it rest a bit, and then start it back up?  Sleep is like that for me.  It’s my chance to shut down, reboot, and waken, energized and ready once again to enjoy what the rest of the day has planned for me.

Shakespeare Sunday: Pride Before the Fall

In reference to the title, it turns out that “pride before the fall” is actually a misquote from Proverbs.  In the King James Bible, the quote is, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall.”

Sound like anyone we’ve seen in the news recently?

In casting about for a Shakespeare moment that I liked for today, I couldn’t get my mind off the cascade of news coming out of Washington. It’s like I have the Trump virus and it’s infected my brain.  However, his bully-boy tour of Europe and decision to pull the U.S. from the Paris accords, his continued narcissism and dog-eat-dog mentality took me to a quote from Julius Caesar, where Caesar admits that yes, there are other men but compares himself to the Northern Star, immovable and incomparable–in other words he too sees himself as unpresidented.  It goes like this:

I could be well moved, if I were as you.

If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.

But I am constant as the Northern Star,

Of whose true fixed and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;

They are all fire and every one doth shine.

But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.

So in the world: ’tis furnished well with men,

And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.

Yet in the number I do know but one

That unassailable holds on his rank,

Unshaked of motion; and that I am he

Let me a little show it, even in this:

That I was constant Cimber should be banished,

And constant do remain to keep him so. (3.1.64-79)

Of course, this is moments before he is lured into the betrayal by his most trusted allies and is brutally assassinated.  The quote reminded me of how fragile leadership is especially when it is not tempered by self-awareness and a sense of morality.

And then columnist David Brooks’s essay in the New York Times, kicked my Trump virus into full gear with his insightful break-down of a statement made by two of Trumps lackeys this week.  Brooks wrote:

“This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: ‘“The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”’

What disturbed me most (and made me think of Roman times) was their use of the word “arena” to describe the world view of the Trumpistas.  They claim that their leader has a “clear-eyed” world vision that we are locked in battle with everyone seeking our own “advantage.” It derides and sweeps away generations of foreign policy that were centered on the creation of a “global community” for the greater good.

Brooks continues to comment that this attitude, “explains why people in the Trump White House are so savage to one another. Far from being a band of brothers, their world is a vicious arena where staffers compete for advantage.”

Have you seen the reports of how difficult it has become to find anyone willing to work at the White House? There are fewer people running this White House than there were cast members of the “West Wing” television series.

Brooks ends his column with a historical insight (Greeks this time) that suggests we are on a path that fills people like me with dread:

“I wish H. R. McMaster was a better student of Thucydides. He’d know that the Athenians adopted the same amoral tone he embraces: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Athenians ended up making endless enemies and destroying their own empire.”

Likewise, the Biblical passage above is somewhat incomplete.  The full passage is, “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall. Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”

Bits of wisdom that Mr. Trump would be entirely immune from.  Besides, they come in long sentences with big words and no pictures.

Oh, well.  Think I’ll just brew me up a big pot of covfefe and enjoy the rest of my Sunday.  I hope you do too!

Shakespeare Sunday: Sad Bastard’s Complaint Becomes Sweet Love Song

Starting this “Shakespeare Sunday” thing, I really wanted to focus on a particular SHORT passage for emphasis, but by week 2, I’m failing utterly because I want to talk about all of Sonnet 29.  There is one particular passage that I favor, but to get it, I have to talk about the sonnet in its entirety. Sorry. If you have never read the sonnet before, here it comes. Bear with it–I promise it will only be 14 lines:

SONNET 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing åçme like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I used to really enjoy using this sonnet as an introduction to the language of Shakespeare because it is highly accessible and it deals with two common human conditions–depression and being in love (two things which oddly seem to often go hand in hand–or is that just me?).

The thing is, kids often entirely missed the “being in love” part of it.  They certainly could pick up the aspects of depression that the speaker wallows in during lines 1-8. In these lines, the speaker recounts all of the things that are making him feel isolated and sad. He is in full self-pity mode, cursing God and his fate, and even worse, comparing himself to others who in his mind at least, all are more fortunate than himself.  I certainly know the destructive quality of comparing myself to those who are slimmer, more gifted, richer, or less bald than I am.

Of all of the lines the speaker recored, the one that most spoke to me was (bolded) “With what I most enjoy contented least.”  When walking, or spending time in the garden, or enjoying a visit to the local pub do nothing to improve my mood, I know that I’m in bad straits.

What saves this poem from being a straight lament is the major shift that takes place in line 9 (“Yet in these thought myself…”).  Here is where the depressive dude dissolves into a mush of romantic goo–and I love him for it.  He describes how just the very thought of his loved one, lifts his spirits which become “like to the lark at break of day arising” to “sings songs at heaven’s gate.”

By the end, the sad bastard would rather be with his love than to “change [his] state with kings.”  Just the act of thinking of his loved one is enough to dispel his sadness and make him realize just what riches he does possess.

Must have been one lucky guy.

Flirting With Insignificance

Day 10

Once I started teaching seniors, I looked forward every year to the day I would begin to introduce them to the concept of existentialism. I felt I had to go all Albert Camus on them because The Stranger was one of the central lit pieces that I taught.

I relished immersing them in the basic tenets of this philosophy, essentially alien to all of them, and for one or two days in a row I played devil’s advocate to every question, objection, personal experience, religious belief that they could challenge me with. For two days I would crush their spirits into the belief that they were living insignificant lives in an absurd and meaningless universe, continually verging on the edge of the abyss of despair and alienation.

Of course, then I would have to spend the next three weeks reassuring them that existentialism was simply one of many world views and not one that I was promoting. To avoid parent phone calls, I had to swear to them that I wasn’t anti-religion, that it was fine with me if they believed in God and the afterlife, and that, of course, they were leading meaningful lives.

But, for some of them, this one lesson was an earthquake. The fact that anyone could believe in such a philosophy, that it was a well-developed, much discussed pillar of post-modern society, that I could fill up a 40-minute power point with its principles was a shock to some 17-year-olds who had never considered a point of view that varied from what all of their families and friends had at least pretended that they believed in.

One student refused to speak to me for the rest of the year.

Part of the lecture was to discuss why existential thought considers an individual’s life to be meaningless. To illustrate this I had them think about how our 70 or 80 or 90 years on this planet compared to the eons that came before us and the millions or maybe billions of years that would follow our short lives. I asked them to add that to the fact that we are on a small planet, in a small galaxy, in the midst of an enormous universe, the size of which is, for me, incomprehensible.

So given all that, just how important was any single action, thought, or decision that any one of us might make? It usually got really quiet after that.

It took me a while to explain why I found this aspect of existentialism to be particularly freeing and not depressing. As someone who constantly second guesses himself and agonizes over sometimes trivial decisions, it helps me to be reminded that the world doesn’t turn on my decision on when it’s appropriate to buy a new vacuum cleaner or get the garden weeded.

It’s where I’d try to lead them to eventually—that meaning comes from within. That an existential point of view empowers them to wipe the slate clean and take responsibility for looking at their actions and decisions and figuring out for themselves what ultimately a meaningful life looks like.

Note: Most of them still liked me by the end of the year.

 

The Voices In My Head

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No, not the schizophrenic ones.   The medications seem to be working fine, thanks.

Having spent my adult life as an English teacher, I venerate authors. I view them as magicians, as possessing powers that regular people just don’t have. When I finish an epic novel by Marquez or Kingsolver, I’m stunned by the vision that allows for the elegant plotting of a story that consumes me for hours and then clouds my head for days with their characters, images, and elegant language.

I was staring up at my bookcase, trying to think of something to write, when I noticed how many really great authors I had met or had some kind of personal contact with.

After all, authors (the living ones anyway) want to sell books, so they are public people. Their publishers arrange book signings, speaking tours, appearances at English teacher conferences and book fairs around the country, and I have taken advantage of such events to get to see and listen to some of the best.

Maybe the most impressive author I ever had the chance to see was Maya Angelou—once at a teacher’s conference in Oakland and a second time at San Diego State University. I was shocked to hear when she passed away this year, just because after hearing her speak, it seemed as though she was one of those voices who would live forever. And what a voice—the most resonant, memorable, lyrical voice this side of James Earl Jones.

At SDSU, she did not just give a canned inspirational message, but it was as if it were a three-act play. She wove the story of her remarkable life—her difficult and abusive youth, her mastery of five languages, her time with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., her experiences living in Africa and the Middle East—with her message of hope and love. One moment she’d be telling of her time as San Francisco’s first African-American cable car conductor (at 14 years of age) and then break into a song. Before long she would be reciting the magnificent words of the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Every bit of it was seamless. I feel sad for anyone who never had the chance to hear her speak.

One Saturday in the spring of 2009, I drove frantically from a workshop I had given in San Diego, arriving at UCLA just in time to hear Ray Bradbury speak at UCLA’s annual Festival of Books. He was quite frail by that time and in a wheelchair, but still full of the fire that lead him to write such wonders as Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451. He still decried what he perceived as the advance of the totalitarian state and yet charmed the crowd with stories of his life as a writer. He told the story of writing the bulk of Fahrenheit 451 in UCLA’s Powell Library, using their typewriters which they rented for 10 cents an hour. He managed to finish the book for $9.80.

At that same Festival of Books, I had the chance to see Mitch Albom (Tuesdays With Morey) interviewed by Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, Tis, Teacher Man). If I die, I want to come back as Mitch Albom—I just wouldn’t spend as much time writing about dying and the afterlife. However, doing so has not hurt Mitch. His books have sold over 35 million copies. I love music, travel, and sports and Albom combined them all to advance his education, establish a career, and have the twenty-something experience of a lifetime.

He traveled across Europe, freelancing as a sportswriter and supporting himself by playing music along the way. At one point he settled for a time in a small, Greek village and became the town’s “piano man” at a favored local bar. I remember sitting and listening to this story and thinking “why would you ever leave?” Eventually though, he came home and in time became the lead sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Let’s see. Sportswriter in Detroit or musician in Greek village—and you picked Detroit??? On purpose??

He continued to play music, eventually forming a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders that included other notable writers such as Amy Tan, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Barbara Kingsolver, and others. The group did charity gigs at various locations including once at a book-sellers convention where they were so well received that they were surprised to find themselves being called out for an encore. They were startled when a stranger joined them on stage and grabbed an extra guitar, a guy who had been backstage and who Mitch thought was a janitor. Turns out the “janitor” was Bruce Springsteen, who sat in with them for their final song and offered the advice, “Your band’s not too bad. It’s not too good either. Don’t let it get any better, otherwise you’ll just be another lousy band.”

Throughout the discussion with McCourt, he had the crowd in stitches. The guy could tell a story. Novelist, sportswriter, musician, traveler, comic and guy who hung out for one night with Bruce Springsteen. I would take that life in a minute–as long as I didn’t have to live in Detroit.

I also have been surprised at how willing authors are to correspond with their readers. I got the idea to have my students write to their favorite authors and ask them five questions and see just how many responses we would get. This was in the early 90’s, pre-email and pre-Google, so contact information was much harder to come by. Most got either form letters (Stephen King sends out form post cards) or no response, but I scored.

I wrote to Thomas Boswell, sportswriter for the Washington Post, because I had just read his fine collection of baseball essays, Heart of the Order. It bothers me greatly that I cannot find that letter to this day, but I still remember that he took time on New Year’s Day of that year (91-2?) to pen a two-page letter to a baseball fan/teacher with his answers to my questions about the life and work of a sportswriter.

And, of course, an autographed book is gold. Both of my kids became admirers of Barbara Kingsolver so with a little trial and error, I found out the method for getting a book to her for her autograph. In both cases I wrote a letter describing my appreciation of her work and my use of her books and essays as a teacher. I included personal notes about my kids and why they were devoted to the particular works that I was sending her. I found a first edition Poisonwood Bible at a used-book store to give to my son, Nico, for a Christmas present. I got it back from her in time and while it was duly autographed, there was nothing of the personal touch that I had hoped for.

I tried again, several years later, sending Kingsolver a copy of the tenth anniversary edition of The Bean Trees, with a note about my daughter Emily who adored the book. Emily, a frequent worrier (not sure where she got that from), had trouble getting to sleep often as she made her way through the turbulent years of high school, and I described to Kingsolver that she would often pick up The Bean Trees, which she had already read several times, and simply pick a spot and start reading and let the beautiful words and tender characters wash over her until she could let her mind rest and fall asleep. This time Kingsolver came through. Inscribed on the title page of the book, in her careful script, was the note that read: “Emily, from one insomniac to another, best wishes, congratulations—and courage for the road ahead. Barbara Kingsolver”.

I guess what I learned, is that authors aren’t magicians. They are hard-working people, many of whom are quite humble and who appreciate their audiences. Like many gifted people, they are sometimes surprised at their own talent and by the response that they get to the work that they do. They are frequently insecure and scared to death that the wonderful idea upon which they are now working, may be their last (not unlike bloggers).

If you have a favorite author, find an email or an address and drop them a line. You might be surprised by the response that you get.