Ezra Pound: “Ballad of the Goodly Fere”

Simon Zelotes speaketh it somewhile after the Crucifixion
Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drunk his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ss no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

(Read Pound’s bio and more poems here.)

Co-ed Dorms: Sign of the Apocalypse?

ABC News’ Boston affiliate reported this week that Clark College in Worcester will soon become the 21st nationwide to have co-ed dorm rooms, as if co-ed residence halls hadn’t already done enough to eliminate whatever modesty America’s 19-year-olds possess:

“Having a policy that bans men and women from living together — it’s a double standard because if you think about it, same-sex couples are allowed to live together already,” said [sophomore Jeffrey] Chang.

“I think what it has done instead is to be affirming of different lifestyles and allowing students to have the option to live with someone with whom they will truly be compatible,” said Clark Dean of Students Denise Darrigrand.
Folks, I support same-sex couples as much as anyone, but they’re 10% of the population at most. Is that a good enough reason to impose a culture of cohabitation on everyone else in the dorm who finds it offensive? I hate this kind of phony “neutrality” because this is a situation where there really is no neutral option. Either the school creates an atmosphere that protects the privacy and psychological vulnerability of young people who don’t want to live in the middle of an orgy, or it does not. Just ask the Yale Five how much that august institution respected their lifestyle.

UPDATE (12/19): Gender studies prof Hugo Schwyzer has a more sympathetic assessment on his blog that’s worth a read. Says Hugo:

Part of being a young feminist woman or pro-feminist man is learning to live at odds with cultural expectations for femininity and masculinity. While feminism doesn’t have a mandatory dress code, or a stated policy on hair removal, or a blanket prohibition on loving NASCAR or football, there’s little question that in order to live as a feminist, one has to reject certain aspects of a profoundly sexist culture. To a very great extent, particularly for young collegians, most of whom are just finishing adolescence, embracing feminism or pro-feminism is a dramatic rejection of broader cultural norms. To be a pro-feminist man is to choose to “not be one of the guys”; to be a feminist woman is to choose to be publicly and privately critical of sexist expectations for the “fairer sex.” And that kind of rebelliousness means encountering a lot of hostility from one’s own gender.

Anecdotally, I hear the same thing from young feminists of both genders: “It’s easier to get along with the opposite sex.” Many of the young folks I work with have spent years being ostracized and judged for failing to adequately live up to the standards for their gender; their same-sex peers have humiliated and hurt them deeply. In their woundedness, it’s not surprising that many of them find other-sex friendships (which presumably are less competitive and judgmental) to be much easier to find and maintain. And the students at NSGC seem to be arguing that students like this should be able to live together as opposite-sex roommates — an attractive option to many young feminists/pro-feminists in particular.
I suppose I’m more cynical in assuming that most of the co-ed dorm proponents simply want to make shacking-up easier. Perhaps my impression of modern college life relies too much on I Am Charlotte Simmons. Real-world input, anyone?

George Herbert: “The Dawning”

Awake, sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns ;
Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth ;
Unfold thy forehead, gathered into frowns ;
    Thy Saviour comes, and with Him mirth :
                                            Awake, awake,
And with a thankful heart His comforts take.
    But thou dost still lament, and pine, and cry,
    And feel His death, but not His victory.

Arise, sad heart ; if thou dost not withstand,
    Christ’s resurrection thine may be ;
Do not by hanging down break from the hand
    Which, as it riseth, raiseth thee :
                                            Arise, Arise;
    And with His burial linen drie thine eyes.
Christ left His grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears or blood, not want a handkerchief.

(Read more about George Herbert here.)

What Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?

My parents are Reform Jews, nonpracticing for most of my life, who are rediscovering their heritage through some Chabad Lubavitcher friends in our town. My husband, raised in the Reform tradition, is now a Buddhist, and I was baptized into the Episcopal Church in June 2001 after many years of feeling that Christianity was like a thrilling ex-boyfriend I could neither live with nor forget about. Needless to say, this makes the Christmabuddhakwanzukkah season somewhat complicated, though not as bad as you might think. It’s one of God’s little jokes on me that the doctrinal relativism I routinely complain about in my liberal church is what keeps us from coming to blows over the Christmas turkey.

This past Friday we celebrated the first night of Chanukah with some Orthodox friends and their five wonderful children, aged 8 months to 7 years, with whom I played a game involving a war between miniature Barbie dolls and a Playmobil pirate driving a giant wrecking truck. (I was the U.N. negotiator, the kickboxing pizza delivery girl and the one-legged princess.)

The one disturbing note was a picture book that I tried reading to the kids (I say “tried” because they got distracted after about three minutes) about the story of Chanukah. I always thought of Chanukah as a holiday about faith in God and freedom of religion. God miraculously gave the Jews enough oil to purify their temple, after the Maccabee warriors defeated the Syrian king who had banned their religious observances and made them worship the Greek gods.

This little book really played up the culture clash between Jews and Greeks. The Greeks start out being persuasive, even seductive: why don’t you folks take off those long robes, compete in our sports events, and enjoy the nice statues? The Jews respond that they’re too pure for that sort of thing. They only care for inner beauty.  The Torah is all they need. One of the illustrations even shows a Jewish mother blushing and covering her child’s eyes so she won’t see the Greek statue. At that point the king blows his stack and tells them he’s going to ban Shabbat and force them to worship a pig. The rest is history.

This kind of thing makes me glad I forgot to put the little menorahs on the Christmas tree this year. Perhaps the best way for me to respect my ancestors’ traditions is to recognize that they’re no longer mine, rather than combining them with my current beliefs in a syncretistic stew. For me, religion is not like ethnic food day at kindergarten. It’s about finding the best possible description of how the universe works, and I don’t mean whether the world was created in six days. I mean issues like the balance between the individual and the community; what do I do about my own sinfulness and that of others; how do I cope with the impermanence of the material world; are evil and impurity localized in some group, trait or condition that we can improve or eliminate, or are they a universal phenomenon that binds us together in a radically equal brotherhood of sinners?

It’s this last point that sums up the difference between Judaism and Christianity for me, and is one reason I was so upset by this dumb little book. Asceticism and self-righteous withdrawal are certainly not unknown among Christian sects, but that path seems to me to go against the audacious intermingling of pure and impure known as the Incarnation. Whereas in hardcore Judaism, separatism is central.

Yes, earthly beauty can be a snare. Yes, some statues should wear pants. But a worldview based on fear of temptation can be a bigger, badder idol than a golden calf the size of Madison Square Garden. It means you’re obsessed with your own righteousness when you should be thinking about God and trying to see God in your neighbor, even if she’s a Satanist in a miniskirt.

Nathaniel Hawthorne got it right, I believe, in the story “Earth’s Holocaust,” a dark fable that shows preachers, social reformers and well-meaning citizens consigning one after another field of human endeavor, from pipe-smoking to Bibles, to a vast bonfire, in hopes of purifying the world for all time. As their hysterical enthusiasm mounts, a laughing bystander (whose aspect has become increasingly demonic) observes:

“Be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes- though they had burnt the earth itself to a cinder.”

“And what may that be?” eagerly demanded the last murderer.

“What but the human heart itself!” said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. “And unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery- the same old shapes, or worse ones- which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by, this live-long night, and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”

This brief conversation supplied me with a theme for lengthened thought. How sad a truth- if true it were- that Man’s age-long endeavor for perfection had served only to render him the mockery of the Evil Principle, from the fatal circumstance of an error at the very root of the matter! The heart- the heart- there was the little yet boundless sphere, wherein existed the original wrong, of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inward sphere; and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms, and vanish of their own accord. But if we go no deeper than the Intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble instrument, to discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole accomplishment will be a dream; so unsubstantial, that it matters little whether the bonfire, which I have so faithfully described, were what we choose to call a real event, and a flame that would scorch the finger- or only a phosphoric radiance, and a parable of my own brain!

Religious suspicion of the arts (again, not unique to Judaism) is a subject for a whole ‘nother post, but let me briefly say that another way the kids’ book got my goat was its insistence that God can only work through certain approved forms of expression – specifically, verbal and intellectual versus sensory, visual and emotional perceptions of divine beauty.

I could say more, but I have to go bake peanut butter cookies for the winter solstice party at the sangha.

Power Madness

Our backyard is a little boy’s dream today, with a big green bulldozer and an even bigger orange cherry-picker for some very brave folks to repair our aging roof and install lightning rods. Which means that the electric power will be down for several hours, for the third day in a row. (I was proofreading the Winning Writers newsletter by flashlight yesterday – somehow setbacks like this become tolerable and even an adventure when you work for yourself.) So, dear readers, if your comments don’t appear right away, please be patient till the weekend. Actually we should all be patient all the time, but let’s start small.

Poem: Sedona

That indifference still surprises—
that the sheer scrub-haunted cliffs
pile slab on ferrous slab, dinosauric
in ancient sun, hot before there was August.
Before there was.
                              That cactus grips
the yellowed hillsides, profuse as locusts.
That anything mindless could still need teeth.

That the cold water stings like advice.
You dip your feet again in the same stream.
The pain is still there for the asking,
same as rocks jeweling the streambed.

Nothing visible moves
down the mountain, even the cooling sun now
diffuses gray light through a whale-bellied cloud.
You descend the root-crossed path
slowly, as slowly as rocks
would slide, if shaken loose.

That the cactus, even dead, raises
its arms to the sky:
neither grotesque nor wise.

Where you have no reason to be,
you lay your blanket over stones.
The pine does not descend to the desert,
nor the lizard seek the snow.
You make your camp on the mountain.

That the stars are old grandmothers
who have forgotten their names.
Beneath the mountain’s dark apron
the flat town glitters and blinks,
a hive of intentions.
                                 And you, suspended
clean as wind, between craving and unminding,
drunk on the thin air of angels,
remember which world is yours
and rise, taking not a morsel
of memento rock, lest you hope to change the mountain
by burdening yourself with one more stone. 

                  Note: Sedona is a mountain range in Arizona.

This poem won a 3rd Prize in the 2005 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Awards and was published on their website.

Evolution versus Darwinism

Books & Culture: A Christian Review has just posted a thorough and compelling article by Edward T. Oakes tracing the intellectual legacy of social Darwinism – the belief that societies have the right and obligation to weed out their weakest members in order to advance human evolution. Oakes points out that the premises of ethical naturalism are bound to conflict with the Christian belief that every life is equally sacred because made in God’s image:

[S]ome of the most vicious Darwinian apologists [of the Victorian era] were quite willing to declare war on Christianity precisely because of its total incompatibility with Darwinism.

Among the most egregious of these anti-Christians was Alexander Tille, who taught German language and literature at the University of Glasgow until 1900 but regarded his work on evolutionary ethics as his real calling. One must at least credit Tille for seeing the real issue in all its starkness: “From the doctrine that all men are children of God and equal before him,” he said, “the ideal of humanitarianism and socialism has grown, that all humans have the same right to exist, the same value, and this ideal has greatly influenced behavior in the last two centuries. This ideal is irreconcilable with the theory of evolution … [, which] recognizes only fit and unfit, healthy and sick, genius and atavist” (emphasis in the original).

Where Christian critics of Darwinism go astray, I think, is in opposing evolution as a scientific theory, instead of questioning the project of drawing our ethical lessons from biology. According to the Bible, the natural world has been tainted by original sin, so why should we be surprised that the lessons of nature are contrary to the lessons of grace? What Darwinism tells us about physical power is no different from what the stories of ancient Israel tell us about political power. We want to put our trust in obvious displays of material strength instead of trusting the one whose “strength is made perfect in weakness”.

Holiday Shopping for Pessimists

Is there someone in your life who’s just too happy? You know, that person who’s been wearing a sparkly reindeer sweater to the office every day since Thanksgiving…who began addressing his Christmas cards in October…who doesn’t realize that “Jingle Bell Rock” is the leading cause of atheism?

That person clearly needs a copy of A Talent for Sadness. For maximum effect, we also recommend Jean-Paul Pecqueur’s The Case Against Happiness. Just because we care. But not too much.

Not Turtles All the Way Down?

Dinesh D’Souza, who was a hero to all of us Young Republicans in the oh-so-PC 1990s, has a good post at his website tothesource.org defending the classical argument for the existence of God as First Cause. D’Souza shows how professional atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris once again really don’t understand the intellectual legacy they’re ridiculing:

Think of the chain of causation in the universe as represented by a series of dominoes falling. Each domino that topples over is itself knocked over by another domino. The dominoes have been arranged so that, when the first one falls, it knocks over the second one, and so on. The trail of dominoes may be extremely long, but it cannot go on forever, because the whole process is only triggered by the fall of the first domino. If the first domino isn’t toppled, then the second and third and fourth ones aren’t going to fall either. Moreover, the first domino isn’t going to topple itself. It relies on some agent outside the series of falling dominos to knock it over….

Given that nothing in the universe is the cause of its own existence, the universe cannot be explained by an infinite regress of causation. If there were infinite regress then the series would not have gotten started in the first place. The universe is here, just like the fellow who has gotten his driver’s license or like the dominoes that we see toppling over before our eyes. And just as there had to be a first number at the DMV that got the sequence going, and someone or something that got the dominoes to start falling one by one, so too there must be a first cause for the universe that accounts for the chain of causation that we see everywhere in the world. We may not be able to say much about what this first cause is like, but we have logically established the need for it and the existence of it. Without a first cause, none of its effects—including the world, including us—would be here.

Book Note: Best American Mystery Stories 2006

Nearly all the fiction I read is mystery or sci-fi, so I’m very interested in how genre is defined and which genres are considered “respectable” in the literary world. This year’s installment of the Best American Mystery Series anthology, edited by Scott Turow, has undeniable literary quality but also left me feeling hollow. I love mystery stories because they look honestly at human evil, an obsession of mine, but also place it within a moral universe where order is brought out of chaos, and justice is possible. Contemporary realist fiction about the darkness within has a tendency to wallow in perversion, irony and hopelessness.

The stories in the 2006 anthology aren’t mysteries but crime stories, stories in which a crime occurs but is usually unpunished. Many of them come from mainstream literary magazines, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when combined with the overall mood of amoral violence, suggests that Turow and series editor Otto Penzler were feeling insecure about their genre. I had the same reaction when I read McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales a couple of years ago. No matter how many femmes fatales and circus elephants you have, it still tastes like anomie.

Genre fiction is refreshingly sincere at a time when sincerity in the arts still labors under the accusation of naivete. Mr. Penzler: Be true to your school.