On Giving Thanks Just Now

It’s difficult to give thanks in America when we’ve decided bravery is simply a matter of bullying and bigotry. When we’ve forgotten courage was once a defense of the weak and that sustaining humanitarian values was what we imagined we stood for. At least that’s what we said. At least we used to say it. Maybe we only said it between 1932 and 1945. And maybe even then we didn’t mean it. Ask Japanese-Americans. Ask the Jews of Europe. Ask the men who were experimented upon at Tuskegee. Today you might ask the brave men and women fighting the Dakota Standing Rock pipeline. What values does America defend? One is tempted to say, “thanks are so old school.”

I’m giving thanks for our literary culture and it’s unafraid practitioners—those who dare say the Emperor has no clothes, who still believe our souls can clap their hands. From Chris Abani to Carolyn Forche; W.S. Merwin to Ethelbert Miller; Alberto Rios to Sam Hamill—oh it’s a long list…Rita Dove to Dorothy Allison; Marvin Bell to Natalie Diaz; Mark Doty to Gregory Pardlo—the list is vital, enduring, sweet and sour, filled with ichor and iodine, our tough minded American writers who believe still in Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Dewey.

I think the coming years will be painful, arduous, and mean spirited. When, last week,  Newt Gingrich floated the idea of a new House Un-American Activities Committee, one could only imagine the plan was already “off the work bench” as Newt never has an original idea and “The Donald” hates contrarianism, free speech, the press, academics, and science. I’ve seen several posts on Facebook quoting Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

Against this, or alongside, one may add Churchill’s axiom: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

I’m giving thanks for the continuation, the fights to come, the ardor that is poetry and literature, the rising notes and the silences just before them when we imagine impeccably how the song will go.

 

 

 

Teaching in the Age of Trump

When I was very small I didn’t know that I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one day, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki, Finland. This was a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sentient beings, its the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not exactly who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.

If you teach at the post-secondary level and care about soul (not all teaching concerns itself overtly with soulful things, nor should this be the case per se) you’re likely a stair climbing contrarian, the kind of professor who knows the Swedish dowagers both of history and the ones living next door. Knowing we’re incontestably faced with deviant personalities, people who, according to private or political history, have been rendered un-civic-minded is central to narrative literature and when properly encountered this can strengthen the ironies of  compassion. I swear, as a boy I felt sorry for my grey Swedish matron. She’s still (for me) the image of absolute loneliness. The reach of dramatic irony is broad in poetry and fiction and while it’s not my intention to sound new age-y the human soul needs all the nutrients it can get. Who hurt the old Swedish woman who lived downstairs? Was it her White Russian husband who beat her and her children and then died in middle age having drunk away her dowry?

No one should have the power to steal our compassion. Books alone won’t prevent the theft but they’re the perfect anodyne for thin skinned covetousness and envy, the two conditions most prevalent in hyper-consumerist, post-industrial economies. No one’s reading John Bunyan these days but he’s worth quoting: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Compassion is a muscle. It’s flexible when used. Employing it we enter wider circles.

In the Age of Trump we’ll need help with compassionate climbing. I do not single out students any more than faculty or administrators—all people of conscience are rightly confused by the wide and unrelenting brutishness we’re now seeing.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries, as the Dalai Lama has often said. Our survival both as individuals and communities will now depend on understanding this. Again, echoing the Dalai Lama, compassion is the radicalism of our time. It’s a radicalism that can be practiced daily. It’s also the hardest thing to put into action. “You must not hate those who do wrong or harmful things; but with compassion, you must do what you can to stop them — for they are harming themselves, as well as those who suffer from their actions.” (Dalai Lama)

Over the past few days I’ve been putting together a literary reading list for our present moment. I’ve been culling books that highlight the radicalism of what, for lack of a better term I’m calling compassionate irony. These poets, non-fictionists and fiction writers are assembled here in no discernible order—their work has come to me as I’ve walked in the public square. The public square is a steeper place now. I believe the following books are now necessities:

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

James Lecesne:  Absolute Brightness

Toni Morrison:  Sula

Anne Finger:  Elegy for a Disease

Gail Godwin:  Father Melancholy’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead:  The Underground Railroad

Adrienne Rich:  An Atlas for the Difficult World

Jacqueline Woodson:  Another Brooklyn

Kurt Vonnegut Jr:  Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade

Kwame Alexander:   The Crossover

James Baldwin:   Giovanni’s Room

Dorothy Allison:   One or Two Things I Know for Sure

Ralph Ellison:  Invisible Man

Saul Bellow:   The Adventures of Augie March

Azar Nafisi:    Reading Lolita in Tehran

Naguib Mahfouz:  The Cairo Trilogy

Sam Hamill: Habitations

Walt Whitman:  Leaves of Grass

Pema Chodron:  The Places That Scare You

Kenneth Rexroth:  Collected Poems

Deborah Tall:  A Family of Strangers

Kwame Dawes:  Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems

Mark Doty:  Fire to Fire

Wang Ping:  The Last Communist Virgin

Robert Bly:  My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy

Pablo Neruda:  Selected Poems

Bernard Malamud:  The Stories of Bernard Malamud

Anita Desai:  Clear Light of Day

John Banville:  The Sea

Thomas Hardy:  The Mayor of Casterbridge

John Irving:  The Cider House Rules

Richard Yates: A Good School

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Paule Marshall:  The Fisher King

W. H. Auden:  Collected Poems

Evelyn Waugh:  Brideshead Revisited

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  Americanah

Salman Rushdie:  Midnight’s Children

Naoki Higashida:  The Reason I Jump

W. B. Yeats:  Collected Poems

Per Petterson:  Out Stealing Horses

Magda Szabo:   The Door

Tove Jansson:  The Summer Book

Majgull Axelsson:  April Witch

Jean-Dominique Bauby:  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Bruno Schulz:  Sanitarium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Jerzy Ficowski:  Waiting for the Dog to Sleep

Gyula Krudy:  Sunflower

Chris Abani:  The Secret History of Las Vegas

Binyavanga Wainaina:  How to Write About Africa

Joan Didion:  The Year of Magical Thinking

Carlos Fuentes:  The Death of Artemio Cruz

Mo Yan:  Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

The list above is my start—a syllabus of the compassionate climb. You’ll notice I’ve left Kafka off but include Bruno Schultz. Left off Camus but included Carl Jung. One prefers the early Rushdie and Thomas Hardy before he elevated his wife to sainthood. Compassion resists Aristotelian templates—it doesn’t like being talked about. Like a milk snake it shines in its own way. Compassion is more than fellow feeling or empathy—it is mercy. All the books listed here are merciful. Please, start your own lists. Share them. The literatures of compassion are necessarily shared in a university without walls.