Amid the Ashes of the House of Commons — London, May 1941

And Churchill wept as he saw his beloved House in ruins.
—Vernon Bartlett

Deliverance wears thus a mocking face,
the last bomb of the last raid
stabbing sharp and deep into our moral belly.
How rapidly may men, unteachable from infancy to tomb,
match long eroding centuries in ruin!
As England sighs reprieve and licks her wounds,
you creep amid the rubble toward the Speaker’s Chair
now pulverized beneath smoking debris,
inhaling the mortal residue of the Hun’s contempt
for norm and decency and truth and law.

I am a House of Commons man.

Here you first tested your youthful tongue and timbre,
your heavy but not very mobile guns,
urging a principled peace in the war against the Boer.
Heckled and prodded you were by riotous voices
as cacophonous as sirens and bomb blasts,
the warring factions kept from each other’s throats
solely by an invisible barrier of honor,
that inviolable corridor measured across by two swords plus one inch.
This never was meant to be a place of peace.

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

Upon your cheeks, twin tears cut rivers through the caking dust.
How shall you rebuild?
Listen as the rivers whisper their reply …

Words are the only things that last forever.

The law has ever carved
its own path through the dust of chaos;
men must forever stand aside in humbled awe
and follow its chosen course.
Change nothing, rebuild it as you left and lost it,
so that rivers of words may find their way again
amid moldering wonders of stone, mortar, and timber,
vainglorious and doomed.

I am a House of Commons man.

The carnivorous sheep of the Reich
are done with grazing the bitter weeds of England;
the herd skulks its way toward fatal pastures of the East.
Let Britain prevail;
let the council of Europe join familial hands
and America bring forth her kindred vengeance;
let the sun set forever on the tyrant and his monstrous evil;
let him taste the bile of his transgression;
let presently burst from these coals the cleansing and devouring flame.
The Blitz has ended.
Let the True War begin.

*

(Appeared in Dissident Voice, January 20, 2019.)

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Collaboration and Creativity

I’m admiring the RC James song post of Wim’s poem, and other related pairs that show up on the Open Arts Forum (great place for creative people showing work and exchanging ideas). Collaboration can be like a conversation … Hey, is this what you meant? or How about this in addition to/instead of …? That can contribute mightily to creative experience when creativity is understood as not just a search for a way to express something understood but as a way of discovering more about whatever you’re reaching for. Probably musicians, especially jazz-inclined, get this better than those of us who use more stationary media. Not that either way of working replaces the other, but collaboration can open up possibilities in the process. Maybe it also readjusts our sense of how we function in the world.  — Pat

 

Three Double Takes

by Wim Coleman

1 allegretto

A zebra with a party
horn and hat has crashed
your thirtieth. This
creature was your friend
when you were three
and lived beneath the
checkered tablecloth
and would come up
from time to time
to munch with you on
globes of milk-drenched
Too-Sweets, but this
was not to be expected.

Hear the horn &
knit your brow &
turn & see &
nod as if you
understand &
turn away.
Your eyes pop out,
you turn right back
& stare amazed.

*

2 allegro

Her husband has
come back again
as you were raising
up your glasses
in a toast to
one another
naked in white
sparkling wine
swapping an
indecent ripe
Greek olive
faintly tinged
with feta. He
called her from
Tibet an hour ago.
This was not
to be expected.

Hear & turn.
Look & nod.
Turn away.
Beat. Beat.
Face react.
Turn again.
Stare afraid.
Beat. Beat.

*

3 presto

Death
has come
in a fake
tuxedo
t-shirt
with a
chainsaw
while you
were adding
a rhythm
section to
St. Matthew’s
Passion.
He calls
you by
a name
you can’t
pronounce.
This
was not
to be
expected.

Hear. Turn.
Look. Nod.
Turn. Six.
Seven. Eight.
Eyes pop.
Turn. Gape.
Stare. Six.
Seven.

“A Connecticut Yankee” in Trump’s America

800px-Twain1909Every several years, I have to re-read Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court just to make sure I got it right. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s so unlike its reputation, and it never loses its power to unsettle me. I finished re-reading it recently, and I found it to be especially disturbing in these dark days of Trumpism.

I suppose most of us have heard A Connecticut Yankee described as a light-hearted spoof of medieval chivalry, or a satire that pits Old World traditions against American innovation and ingenuity. The barebones story would certainly suggest just that. It’s the tale of Hank Morgan, an educated 19th-century Yankee with rare engineering gifts who gets magically transported back to King Arthur’s England, where he tries to bring things up to date.

As a premise, it sounds harmless enough. Indeed, Twain’s first mention of the idea in his notebooks suggests that he originally intended it that way …

Dream of being a knight-errant in armor in the middle ages. Have the notions & habits of thought of the present day mixed with the necessities of that. No pockets in the armor. No way to manage certain requirements of nature.…

As one might expect, the book does contain its share of burlesque humor. Knights roam through the kingdom wearing advertising placards for commodities like soap; they play baseball while wearing suits of armor; and Hank wins a jousting match by lassoing his opponents until he dispatches his last challenger with a pistol. In true Quixotic fashion, Hank’s future wife Sandy insists that he rescue a group of ladies held captive by a monstrous ogre—ladies who turn out to be pigs.

book coverBut as the narrative proceeds, Twain’s intentions seem to drift into more sinister realms. This isn’t unusual for Twain. Even his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is notorious for its abrupt shifts in tone and mood. In later years, Twain confessed to his own limitations as a novelist

A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story.… So he goes to work.… But as it is a tale which he is not acquainted with, and can only find out what it is by listening as it goes along telling itself, it is more than apt to go on and on and on till it spreads itself into a book.

Twain was, after all, a live performer who entertained audiences worldwide with his lectures. He honed his literary technique as a teller of tall-tales that defied conventional narrative expectations of logic or consistency. He was an improv artist whose greatest works, A Connecticut Yankee among them, are really tall-tales enlarged to epic proportions.

To some readers, Twain’s seat-of-the-pants approach to novel-writing is a weakness. To me, it is a rare and original strength. As Pat and I often say, “Art is a way of finding out.” As he staggered through A Connecticut Yankee trying to find his narrative way, Twain found out a lot—about his story, his characters, himself, and all the rest of us. And what he found out wasn’t pretty.

For all its burlesque and low comedy, much the latter half of A Connecticut Yankee focuses on the nightmarish realities of medieval life. Horror and comedy alternate at a dizzying pace during the memorable chapters in which Hank disguises King Arthur as a peasant and takes him on a tour of his own kingdom.

Tree & the FruitThe king learns a number of grim lessons during this journey. He and Hank visit a peasant home in time to find its last family member dying from smallpox. They witness the hanging of a young woman whose only crime was stealing bread for her starving baby. When Hank and the king are unwittingly sold into slavery, they and their fellow slaves are offered relief from freezing weather at a stake where a woman is burned alive for witchcraft.

From the beginning, Hank maintains a smug sense of his own superiority as a visitor from a more rational time and place. He decides that he’s going to accelerate history itself and bring the 19th-century American blessings of education, industry, and democratic government to King Arthur’s Britain. In principle, he has nothing against achieving these ends through violence. Echoing Twain’s own personal sympathy for the French Reign of Terror, Hank muses …

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break?

Even so, Hank hopes to carry out his own revolution through peaceful means. Working in secret to avoid the censorious eyes of the Church, he builds factories and schools and imagines that he’s making real progress toward ending the depredations and superstitions of feudalism. But after King Arthur dies and Hank declares Britain to be a republic, the Church reasserts its stranglehold on mass opinion and wipes all of his accomplishments away. And this leads to the novel’s dark and disturbing conclusion.

After the ExplosionAs they prepare for a final battle against the forces of chivalry, Hank, his apprentice Clarence, and 52 loyal young cadets take refuge in a cave, which they fortify with a moat, electrified wire, high explosives, and a battery of Gatling guns. Thousands of heavily-armored knights are blown up or electrocuted before the final charge, when the remainder of European chivalry must choose between a ditch suddenly flooded with water or a hideous storm of bullets …

The thirteen Gatlings began to vomit death into the fated ten thousand. They halted, they stood their ground a moment against that withering deluge of fire, then they broke, faced about and swept toward the ditch like chaff before a gale. A full fourth part of their force never reached the top of the lofty embankment; the three-fourths reached it and plunged over—to death by drowning.

Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated, the campaign was ended, we fifty-four were masters of England! Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us.

It is a futile victory, to say the least. Hank and his followers are literally and hopelessly walled in by mountains of corpses. As the corpses decay, the cadets begin to sicken and die.

But Hank mysteriously survives to return to his own time and tell his tale. The magician Merlin, hitherto regarded by Hank as a fraud and a charlatan, creeps into the cave disguised as an old woman and murmurs a dark spell over the wounded and sleeping Hank …

“Ye were conquerors; ye are conquered! These others are perishing—you also. Ye shall all die in this place—every one—except him. He sleepeth, now—and shall sleep thirteen centuries. I am Merlin!”

What are we to make of this bleak and nihilistic denouement? And what does it have to do with Trump and Trumpism? I think one of the book’s earlier episodes hints at an answer.

During their incognito travels, the king and Hank witness a spree of mob violence in which many innocent people are butchered or hanged. The two travelers soon come across a group of children who are playing at hanging one of their own fellows with a makeshift noose. The king and the Yankee manage to rescue the hanged child just in time to save his life. As Hank observes …

It was some more human nature; the admiring little folk imitating their elders; they were playing mob …

I think, as he wrote A Connecticut Yankee, Twain found himself increasingly faced with grim realities of what he eventually described as “the damned human race.” Human beings aren’t cruel, bigoted, and violent by nature, but they are by nature ignorant, and they can be easily persuaded to cruelty, bigotry, and violence under one another’s influence. This is why history can seem so hopelessly cyclical in its repeated patterns of civilization and barbarism, enlightenment and superstition. In the end, Hank himself falls prey to this cycle by wreaking apocalyptic destruction upon King Arthur’s England, and also in his final enchantment by magic in which he knows better than to believe.

160127164121-donald-trump-aug-rally-exlarge-169We are living out much the same situation in today’s America. In a nation steeped in the ideals of tolerance, equality, liberty, and justice for all, many of us are forsaking those very ideals under the influence of vile and unscrupulous leaders. We are in danger of rejecting all that is best about America. Can we escape this repetition of historical forces? Maybe—but not, I think, without fully understanding those forces. A Connecticut Yankee is an invaluable guide toward such understanding.

But for all its humor—and there is much humor in Twain’s novel—it is bitter medicine. Twain may have spared us the bitterest of his vision, remarking privately that he would need “a pen warmed up in hell” to share all of it. As Hank himself observes late in the book …

Lord, what a world of heartbreak it is.

—Wim

The End

Cold-Blooded Kindness …

Did anybody need a reminder that we’re living through mean times? Whether we needed it or not, we’re getting one right now, as states enact anti-abortion laws that have virtually nothing to do with protecting human life and a everything to do with controlling women’s lives and bodies. What has gone so terribly wrong with our culture?

Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain

The Good Samaritan by Aimé Morot (1880).

Perhaps our collective empathy is failing us. I’ve certainly thought so for quite some time. So did then-Senator Barack Obama back when he gave a 2006 commencement speech at Northwestern University in which he warned graduates of America’s “empathy deficit” …

[W]e live in a culture that discourages empathy.  A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

It’s gotten worse since 2006, as I’m sure Obama would agree. Incivility rears its head all over the place, from hate-filled Trump rallies to petty name-calling and ad hominem attacks on social media. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is descending into what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra calls the “Age of Anger.”

But is “cultivating empathy,” as Obama proposed, some sort of magic bullet? Maybe—but maybe not. Lately some writers have been suggesting that empathy has its limitations—and also its dangers.

Hanna Rosin recently wrote about the ideas of Fritz Breithaupt, the author of the book The Dark Side of Empathy. Breithaupt turns some of our conventional notions of empathy upside down. For example, while we routinely think of terrorists as lacking in basic human empathy, Breithaupt suggests that they are instead afflicted with an “excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.” Their empathy drives them to commit vicious acts against those whom they suppose to be responsible for inflicting that suffering.

I almost balk at this idea. Still, I’m afraid there’s something to it. Even those of us who are not terrorists can fall into narrow tribalism. It is easy to empathize with people who are like us, and near and dear to us; it is harder to empathize with people who are different and farther away. And this is dangerous. By giving ourselves over to divisive and selective empathy—the kind of empathy that excludes and persecutes the other—Breithaupt suggests that “basically you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy.”

Paul_Bloom_no_Fronteiras_do_Pensamento_Florianópolis_2014_(15062511061)

Paul Bloom
photo by José Luis Somensi

Also, because empathy focuses on individuals, it is just about impossible to exercise in the abstract—which is to say, on any truly large human scale. Empathy is like a spotlight that blinds us to widespread suffering. In his controversial and provocatively-titled book Against Empathy, Psychologist Paul Bloom comments on this “spotlight” problem …

[S]potlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

Bloom is fond of citing a question posed by the Chinese philosopher Mencius: If you are out walking and see a child drowning, what would prompt you to rescue her? Would it be empathy? I can certainly imagine feeling empathy for the child’s pain and terror, and also for her parents’ grief and sorrow should their daughter drown. But when it comes to actually rescuing her, I suspect that Bloom is right in suggesting that I’d rescue the girl because it is simply the right thing to do.

According to Bloom, this may not be an empathetic decision, but it is definitely a compassionate one. We’re not used to making a distinction between empathy and compassion, but they’re really not the same. Bloom quotes a paper by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki

In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

Bloom describes this sort of “non-empathetic compassion” as “a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others.” Such compassion involves a level of caring that empathy doesn’t necessarily engage. And because it isn’t easily exhausted, compassion also facilitates sustained, positive action to remedy human suffering.

800px-Ursula_(detention_center)_2

Migrant children detained in McAllen, Texas.

I can remember my own outrage when the crisis of family separations began at the U.S./Mexico border. Like many Americans, I was devastated by images, videos, and audio recordings of terrified children. But I’ve also experienced a feeling of gnawing helplessness at the sheer number of children who remain separated from their families. My tears did those children no good—but perhaps my modest contributions to the ACLU did. That organization’s tireless effort to reunite children with their families is a task for which empathy seems ill-suited, but for which the more distanced, diffuse, and nuanced emotions of compassion and kindness are essential.

Such thoughts about empathy vs. compassion aren’t exactly new. Zambian writer Namwali Serpell compares Bloom’s notion of non-empathetic compassion with Hannah Arendt’s theory of “representative thinking”

Hannah_Arendt_1924

Hannah Arendt

I find that the best way to grasp the distinction between “representative thinking” and emotional empathy is Arendt’s lovely phrase, “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”

I’ve noticed that new developments in neuroscience seem to bear out these ideas. The hormone oxytocin has lately gained what I’m tempted to call “celebrity status.” Because it facilitates empathy, trust, and social bonding, and is released during sex and childbirth, it is popularly known as a “love drug” or “cuddle chemical.” But as sociologist Christopher Badcock points out, oxytocin has a dark side. The empathy that it generates seems to be limited to one’s own group and can actually stir up hostility toward outsiders.

Nevertheless, recent experiments with oxytocin suggest some intriguing possibilities—and maybe even potential therapies. When administered as a nasal spray to human subjects, oxytocin alone does not change preexisting attitudes toward, say, refugees and foreigners. But if a dosage is accompanied by “peer influence” promoting the value of tolerance, subjects show increasing generosity even toward outsiders.

690px-Oxytocin-neurophysin

Model of oxytocin (ball-and-stick) bound to its carrier protein neurophysin (ribbons).

In other words, when administered with a spoonful of advocacy for positive social behavior, oxytocin might help transform “mere” empathy into robust and inclusive compassion. According to researcher Rene Hurlemann, “Given the right circumstances, oxytocin may help promote the acceptance and integration of migrants into Western cultures.”

That’s a tall order. I find it hard to imagine Americans lining up at clinics to get inoculated against xenophobia. Also, the mystique of empathy is so strong that people probably won’t easily give up their unquestioning faith in it. Even when it is painful, empathy makes us feel good about ourselves, promotes a desirable self-image. But there’s a difference between feeling good and doing good, and even between righteousness and doing what’s right.

bernard-shaw-on-self-effacement

Bernard Shaw

I’m reminded of the words of playwright Bernard Shaw, who could be notoriously unemotional—even chilly—in both his life and his writings …

The only aim that is at all peculiar to me is my disregard of warm feelings. They are quite well able to take care of themselves. What I want is a race of men who can be kind in cold blood.

—Wim

Beach Scene

—excerpted from Thing of Darkness,
a novel-in-progress by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin

The tide was coming in. The wide beach where people and dogs had been playing earlier in the day was rapidly growing narrow, and no one was in sight. My timing was excellent—not just the hour but the season. While I especially love the coast during the gray and stormy winter, the Pacific is plenty mysterious and daunting in the fall.

I spotted a familiar rock, the largest in a decrepit old breakwater of scattered and piled-up boulders reaching out into the sea. I took off my shoes and socks and dropped them on the sand, then rolled up my pants legs. I waded a little way through icy water that rose partly up my calves, climbed up on the rock, and sat down on it—a perch I’d enjoyed since I was a little girl. The wind was cold and sharp, and waves rolled in on both sides of the line of stones.

I’ve been to other beaches, some in tepid humid parts of the Atlantic, all full of things that sting, pinch, or slide out from under your feet. But the sea life out east is prosaic and familiar, and in most places the ocean isn’t particularly treacherous. Even on the West Coast, some of the more southern shores are docile enough if you don’t go out too far.

But northwestern waters are not for lubberly humans to enter casually. Just to wade in the shallows is to invite getting sucked out to sea by a powerful undertow or swept away by a giant sneaker wave appearing out of nowhere. No, the coast in those parts is the domain of cunning things living beneath that gray surface—and you never really get to know those creatures.

Staring off into that ambiguous stretch of sea lying between the shore and the true deeps, I glimpsed some of them—three hulking shadows of unidentifiable beasts drifting by, not distant enough to be whales, but too big to be anything a swimmer would want to run into.

Beyond those parts, out in the depths far, far beyond the horizon, were live creatures to stagger and puzzle the mind—great blue whales, undulating manta rays, seldom-seen and semi-legendary giant squids, to say nothing of primordial dwellers of unspeakably deep subaquatic canyons near scalding hydrothermal vents, those scale-armored snails, eyeless shrimp, red-plumed tube worms, and heat-thriving eels, all so weird and alien that they’d be just as much at home in the watery abyss of Jupiter’s planet Europa as here on Earth.

Even so, I’m not one to ponder the depths all that much. The deceptively intimate shoreline shallows are plenty inscrutable for my reckoning. Right down below my dangling feet, what had recently been damp sand now lay beneath a foot of water, a foamy world populated by tiny creatures that had emerged now that the tide sequestered them and invited them forth. But even the afternoon daylight was powerless to fully reveal those frolicking sprites. What were those wet shadows flitting by? I couldn’t tell. Some serpenty shape writhed before me, then slipped away before I could detect whether it was plant or animal.

Here, right here, I thought. Here lies the answer to every mystery that will ever trouble me.

If only my eyes could lucidly penetrate the chaotic rippling refraction of the water, if only I could reach down and pick up the right rock and look under it, if only I could cup my hands and capture an ounce of salt-saturated truth like a fluttering butterfly …

If only.

I’d understand it all.

No demon could mystify or frighten me.

But it wasn’t to be, not while my skull was young and thick.

Maybe when I was old and soft and supple like Monty and Beth, this place would tell me all.

But not now, not yet.

I’d have to wait to achieve that kind of ripeness.

And I could wait. I’d be patient.

I lifted my face to gaze at the sea. At that moment, a breaker swept along the breakwater before me and blew sharp spray into my face. The clouds suddenly split, and the late afternoon sunlight set the waves ablaze.

Laughter rose up in me—a kind of laughter I’d experienced before, but only in this very spot. It’s an extraordinary laughter that both affirms and denies, delights and grieves, embracing all that is joyful and tragic in life, true and ambivalent, the kind of laughter that makes the heartiest common workaday laughter seem weak and puny. I knew the laughter would be gone in an inkling, so I gave it free reign, letting it rumble ferociously out of my belly to fill up the sparkling sky, as mighty as the surf itself.

The clouds closed, the sun vanished, and my laughter ended. A sadness settled deep in my chest—a strange, good, healing sadness that always comes in the wake of such spells of cosmic laughter.

My communion with the sea had reached its lovely consummation.

It was time to go back to the house.

On the Literary Map

safe_imageThe North Carolina Literary Map has put up pages for each of us, listing our mainstream novels, anthologized works, and many of the titles from our years of making a living writing for educational publishers. Since most of our work is co-authored, the lists are much alike except for Pat’s book about unicorns and Wim’s published plays. Our more recent income is from ghostwriting, so we can’t give you those titles, but they include 3 nonfiction books and 17 short mysteries—so far.

Pat’s page

Wim’s page

in translation…

 

This week I was delighted to receive a Polish translation of one of my stories. It was attached to a very nice email from Elżbieta Kalinowska of Wroclaw University asking to use my retelling of a West African myth in a book she’s working on. I promptly gave permission.

She has translated my story into Polish. She explains that in Poland the national curriculum includes teaching a foreign language — most often English — from the last year of kindergarten and then continuing with that language in school. I’m happy to contribute to that. There’s considerable research showing the benefits to the brain of being bilingual. (Sometimes I think that the bit of Spanish I learned in Mexico is all that’s keeping my own brain going.)

Dr. Kalinowska holds a PhD in pedagogy and has worked for 25 years as a university teacher. She says:

The book will have introduction about storytelling, then the Anansi story in Polish, and then 16 simplified stories in English with illustrations and some tips for teachers. 

tiger illust

Illustration by Donata Golenia

Her friend, graphic artist Donata Golenia, is making terrific illustrations.

A shorter version of “Anansi and the Box of Stories” was originally published in READ magazine (English).

—Pat

Click here to download the English version.