1. On Suffrage

    February 8, 2021 by Chris Motley

    August 18, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Regardless of what was happening in the world, and in an election year, Mouse knew it would publish some of the key documents and stories from the movement that led to this landmark event. 

    We always want to create series and books that speak to our moment. While we conceived of and created the Suffrage Series in anticipation of the 100th anniversary and the 2020 election, I am now composing this blog on 19 January, 2021, the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration. But I had also written a draft of this blog over the summer. In that blog I wrote the following passage:

    The 2020 US election will be one of our most consequential, not least because it will test our democratic structures, especially around voting. Whose rights will be upheld? Whose will be blocked? Who will have access to the booths? Who will not? In these times it is important to remember that certain things that seem normal and natural — like the ability to decide, by voting, who will lead us — did not come into being without a fight. And the fact that they needed to be fought for should remind us that there are still many people — many of whom hold our highest offices — who would like to see basic rights such as voting be denied or even rolled back.

    I have the tendency to anticipate negative outcomes. Fortunately, many of my worst fears have not come to fruition. In this case, however, I understated the severity of what lay ahead. There is no need to review the events surrounding the 2020 election, which led to the assault on the Capitol on 6 January. And who knows what will happen from here? But perhaps now we can read these remarkable authors and texts with an even firmer that nothing about our democracy can be taken for granted. 

    I hope you will, like I have, stand in awe of these texts, and the movement they represent. Together they constitute a robust, searing, eloquent indictment of profound injustice, a meticulous articulation of its causes, and an envisioning of its ameliorations. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the name of justice–this to me is America at its redemptive best. 


  2. The Odyssey and The Aeneid

    January 28, 2021 by Chris Motley

    The ancient world has fascinated me since my days as a student. How does culture emerge? How do stories endure? Why is there such commonality in beliefs and practices across time and space? In my adulthood, I am working on deconstructing for myself the belief that the ancient world was backwards and we have progressed by leaps and bounds. Even a naive understanding of the twentieth century and of recent history will reveal the extent to which we not only repeat the violence of the past, but perhaps accelerate it. Ours may be the most brutal generation. 

    But beyond questioning “progress,” is it possible that the ancients understood life, death, and violence in ways that are lost to us now, in ways that could benefit us somehow? In addition to the three questions on the syllabus, I am thinking about this idea: that Odysseus, Aeneas, and anyone who lived in their milieu, believed that they were part of a world. There was a unified, shared belief about what the world was and what was a given person’s place in it. Setting aside questions of social hierarchy, patriarchy, slavery, oppression, war, etc. (reminding ourselves as we do so that it is impossible to set aside such things for even a moment), there remains the idea that one’s life was a drama that played out in the eyes of the gods, that one’s small and seemingly insignificant being was nonetheless bolstered by the whole vastness of all being. 

    With this potentially problematic view in hand, I want to focus on a key moment from the text. When Odysseus travels to Hades to gain information about getting home, he runs into his old friend Achilles. Achilles seems to embody the idea I introduced in the paragraph above. He is the son of a goddess, and his place in the cosmos as the greatest of all warriors was solid. He proceeded with the gods behind him. Though he died in Troy (per his destiny), he nonetheless gained ultimate glory for himself. But when Odysseus encounters him in Hades, he says, “Say not a word…in death’s favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” Though Achilles does not fully denounce violence and war (he would later threaten violence to anyone who attacked his father, and he would sing the praises of his son’s many kills), we nonetheless see another instance in which Homer uses the greatest of all warriors to at least suggest that all that killing might not be worth it. At the conclusion of the Iliad (Mouse readers recall), Achilles weeps alongside his arch-enemy, sharing in a father’s lament for lost sons. Here, Achilles hints that he would forego his glory to gain even a few minutes of peace above ground. 

    In mythology, the supernatural firmament is whole and solid, because the cultural beliefs that raise the firmament are whole and solid. But in Greek mythology in particular, there are cracks in a firmament that may otherwise wish to validate war. Achilles regrets his excessive brutality and doubts his glory; Odysseus is punished by the gods for war crimes and foul play; women have prominent roles in denouncing violence, not only in the Homeric texts but also in tragedy (particularly in Euripides’ The Trojan Women). 

    If we were able to contact the dead today, what wisdom might they impart? What cracks might appear in the firmament, were we to really know what awaited us on the other side? What myths might we debunk once and for all?


  3. Inferno

    January 14, 2021 by Chris Motley

    In our selection from The Odyssey, Achilles asserts that he “would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” We examined this statement in our blog, but there is another item to add. Namely, Achilles suggests that there might be some kind of hierarchy of souls in Hades. In the underworld scenes of The Odyssey and The Aeneid, however, the souls of the departed are mingling and wandering as a collective. This device serves the plots of each poem, but in fact the Greek and Roman underworlds consisted of a series of zones, from darkness and punishment, to the dwellings of monsters, to the Elysium fields, to the Isles of the Blessed, each reserved for souls who lived certain kinds of lives. In fact a summary glance at the structure of the classical underworlds may prompt us to ponder the extent to which Dante draws his Judeo-Christian vision of Hell from the Hellenic and Roman ones. 

    I leave that work to scholars. For now, we should note that the key feature of Dante’s cosmos is the gradations of its hierarchical structure. Everyone has found a punishment that corresponds to his or her sins. I ask my students to conduct a similar thought experiment, whereby they “condemn” certain public figures to certain punishments according to certain sins. The result is not to point out how “bad” these figures are, but in fact to point out how merciless we can be in our judgment. In Inferno, Dante is exacting poetic revenge upon his rivals, who, by the time he was writing this poem, had banished him from Florence. That he can sustain such a dark vision, dwell in such an aggrieved mentality, is itself a feat. 

    For Dante, the vast majority of us will end up in Hell. But stepping back from the rigidly Medieval morality, we can see that those who experience torment in Inferno have manufactured their own misery before their arrival in Hell. This is the real definition of sin and perdition: the separation from divine love by the unconscious repetition of our dark patterns. It is not God who ultimately punishes us, but rather we ourselves. Here we can connect to our second main consideration of this series. While Dante imagines Hell as a world, a separate ontological space, he is always also writing about the Hell within, Hell as a state of being. The poet himself is the primary case-in-point throughout the Divine Comedy. His grief for Beatrice, presumably, has led him to wander and become lost in the dark wood, and to arrive at the infernal gates. But his longing for Beatrice will initiate the greater journey toward final and everlasting love. That Beatrice herself will greet him there is the gesture that binds the worlds of the living and the dead. One need not die in order to enter Hell, but one can experience Heaven in this life too.


  4. Paradise Lost

    January 3, 2021 by Chris Motley

    It should be said plainly, right away, that Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most influential works of literature in the history of the English language. If I am being honest, I use the word “influential” as a substitute for “great,” greatness being a problematic concept in general, especially in literature. That being said, if there was ever an occasion to ponder “greatness” in terms of literature, this is it. For me, as someone who wishes to write, I marvel at the pure achievement that is this poem. Few works cause me to say, “How did he do that?” 

    All this being said, I understand if this feeling does not emerge upon your first encounter with the text. Your initial question might in fact be, “What is this guy even saying?” That is actually a great place to begin. The difficulty of the text, for any audience at any time in history (we are not alone in our consternation), is a large part of what I love about it. My main piece of advice, which helped me tremendously when I first was assigned the poem in graduate school, is to gravitate towards the moments of clarity, grace, force, wit, etc. In fact I wager that the moments that do stick out to you are the most important and poignant anyway.

    We wanted to offer some of those moments in our selection. Namely, we wanted to showcase the poem’s “hero,” who is the most dreaded and hated mythological figure in the history of Western thought. This is another key to the poem’s “greatness,” its ability to present Satan not only sympathetically, but charismatically. If you get nothing out of this reading, get this: 

     

    Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,

    Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat

    That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom

    For that celestial light? Be it so, since he

    Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid

    What shall be right: fardest [sic] from him is best

    Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream

    Above his equals. Farewel [sic] happy Fields

    Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail

    Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell

    Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings

    A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.

    The mind is its own place, and in it self

    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

    What matter where, if I be still the same,

    And what I should be, all but less then hee

    Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least

    We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

    Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

    Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce

    To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:

    Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

    But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,

    Th’ associates and copartners of our loss

    Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,

    And call them not to share with us their part

    In this unhappy Mansion, or once more

    With rallied Arms to try what may be yet

    Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?

     

    The two main considerations of this series come full circle in this one soliloquy. Satan and his crew have arrived in Hell, which is indeed full of “horrours,” a place so bad that God would never pay them any mind down there. But, says Satan, in one of the most human moments in literature, 

     

    The mind is its own place, and in it self

    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

     

    What a declaration! What defiance! In the mind, “Here at least we shall be free.” Who can not identify with this kind of a statement, born in turn by having been rejected by a being who would not share power? 

    But do we believe him? The remainder of our selection, from Book IV, depicts a Satan who is still thoroughly resentful of his rejection from Heaven, not quite “free” of the wound he has been dealt. We see the plan take shape to spoil his rival’s grand plan and cause humanity’s fall. He becomes the villain we know him as. 

    I opened the blog with the word “influential.” This is where Milton’s influence takes shape: in depicting events from the perspective of the one we should hate. To boldly court the dark side. This is what literature can do. 


  5. On Hell

    December 28, 2020 by Chris Motley

    In the general syllabus for this series, I discussed two aspects of the title “Hell.” On the one hand, I wanted to nod to the frequency with which we tend to invoke the idea of hell, often to refer even to mild inconveniences. On the other hand, I wished to check that cultural phenomenon by reminding us that many around the world already live in conditions and situations that one might describe as hell, and that “hell on Earth” may well be the destiny for all people who will come after us. 

    In either case, the language and imagery of hell are very much with us.  Indeed, from Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton (much more so than even the Bible) we derive our imagery and language of hell. This idea alone speaks to the power of literature to shape consciousness.

    In the general syllabus I introduced two key concerns for our reading. On the one hand, there is the idea that hell is an actual place, somewhere “away” from Earth (or, often, deep beneath its surface). Through this lens, we see how the authors in question express cultural beliefs about what comes after death. They are both creating and expressing a mythology. In contemplating this idea we can ponder another idea: that it is quite possible that we are the first culture in human history not to believe in some kind of world of the dead, not to believe therefore that contact with the dead is possible. What does the dominant culture gain from having us believe that this short, precious life is ultimately all there is? What does the dominant culture gain by cutting us off from our ancestors, by rejecting the idea that it is our destiny to join them? What would it mean to regain contact with the world beyond, which, these texts remind us, may not be “beyond” at all, but rather very close indeed? 

    If the first question on the syllabus points to hell as an actual place, the second question points to hell as a condition, an internal state. And in fact, each text in this series addresses one aspect or another of the “hell within,” whether it is Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ longing for a home, Dante’s bereavement and terror, or Satan’s jealousy and ambition. As you read, keep track of how various characters express the particular hell that they are going through, whether they live in hell or not.

    I can conclude by offering a connection between these questions. Namely, by cutting ourselves off from ancestors, from myth, from ritual, from belief, we exacerbate the “hell within.” I am by no means advocating a return to superstition or religion as we know it. Rather, I continue to ponder vastness and wholeness, which these texts attempt to address. The idea that there is a cosmos of which we are an integral part, alongside anyone who has gone before us. I also continue to ponder the extent to which we, in an age dominated by scientific and capitalistic thinking, banish such ways of being, uprooting ourselves from our place in the vastness and wholeness. To be adrift in this world we have created is to end up like the characters in these stories, who have been severed from their roots in one way or another. 


  6. Darkwater

    September 13, 2020 by Chris Motley

    We are experiencing a period of necessary upheaval, where we are scrutinizing the details of our public discourse, the structures that appear in public spaces, the names that we give to institutions, the history that we continue to memorialize, the injustices from which we continue to benefit. The images of Black men and women murdered by police and vigilantes should cause us to lose sleep, should cause us to pause everything until the reckoning is worthy of the outrage. 

    In that regard we can find some new heroes. W.E.B. Du Bois is one of them. Though we can perhaps join Ibram Kendi and others in challenging Du Bois for certain of his assimilationist views, we can still find formidable fire and truth in his writings from over a century ago. He was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, but rather than retreat quietly into a successful career as an educator and scholar, he asserted himself at the vanguard of a burgeoning movement for civil and human rights. Toward that end his writing is at times scholarly, at others lyrical, at others haunting in the stories it tells. Frederick Douglass famously announced, “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Du Bois takes this dictum to heart, and his stylistic virtuosity in the service of scorching irony should rouse us. 

    Questions for Discussion:

    1. Many white people are turning to books such as Peggy Irving’s Waking Up White and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to help them understand whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, etc. What do you make of Du Bois’ characterization of whiteness and white people in “The Souls of White Folk”? If you identify as white, how does the essay speak to your life? If you are a member of a BIPOC community, how does Du Bois’ assessment resonate with you?

    2. The second excerpt from Darkwater is called “Of Beauty and Death,” in which Du Bois wishes to account for the conflict at the heart of life, between beauty, truth, goodness, etc., and all the violence we encounter day by day. Where do you see this conflict playing out in your experience? What is a sentence or passage from this section that particularly resonates?

    3. The text makes occasional use of the n-word. We invite conversation about the history and harm of this word. As you read, notice the contexts in which the word is used, and imagine Du Bois’ intention in doing so. While we don’t use that word in civil and public discourse today, what are some words and concepts that “legitimately” serve as substitutes, serving a similar purpose? 


  7. Democratic Vistas

    August 10, 2020 by JCraig

    “Song of Myself” brought forth Whitman’s vision of variety. Not only does he depict multiple ways of life and of making a living, but he also offers insight into the fabric of reality on an almost subatomic level. This is the crux of his poetry.

    How to theorize about such variety? This is the stated aim of Democratic Vistas, presented in its opening. Making reference to John Stuart Mill, Whitman outlines two conditions for true liberty:

    1st, a large variety of character — and 2d, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions — (seems to be for general humanity much like the influences that make up, in their limitless field, that perennial health-action of the air we call the weather — an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart upon counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality.)

    From here Whitman begins his exploration, in lyrical prose, of the manifestations of such variety in American history, with an eye in particular, most especially, towards possibility: “For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”

    In this context Whitman’s “New World” connotes far more than the newly discovered land of explorers. Rather it connotes a world that is continually under construction, whose status as being under construction is a constitutive feature of its makeup: the work of building America is never finished, precisely because of the endless variety that its commitment to liberty allows (or should allow). In other words, the world of America is one that is closely aligned to Whitman’s (correct) vision of cosmic reality: everything participating in inter-relation with everything else, with creation perpetually ongoing. 

    But there are counter-forces, as Whitman and, to our lament, we well know. If we are able to perceive reality as an endless “full play for human nature to expand itself,” what other realities are being presented? Realities in which conformity, alignment, rigidity, and control dominate our affairs. Even modalities that pass for “liberty” nonetheless require a certain degree of control as an entry point (e.g., participation in the market economy as a non-negotiable requirement for your very survival). 

    In my kitchen hangs a copy of an old flier from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, featuring a young John Lewis kneeling in prayer. The headline reads: “Come, let us build a new world together.” Perhaps that world can be predicated upon precisely the “democratic vista” that Whitman countenances, a vista that evinces that endless variety of human life, which can not be controlled. 


  8. Specimen Days

    June 20, 2020 by JCraig

    Specimen Days Blog

    The syllabus questions for Specimen Days are as follows:

    1. Whitman is still writing about his “self,” but in a different format. How does this change in genre, from poetry to fragmentary prose, affect your overall impression of Whitman? 

    2. Whitman is more interested here in history, both personal and collective. How does he present a “self” that is situated in these histories? What stories does he tell? 

    3. If you were to tell stories of your “self” in this kind of a mode, what fragments would appear, both in terms of your personal history, and your situatedness in collective history? 

    You can perhaps glean that these questions are interested primarily in form, especially in teasing out the differences between Whitman’s achievements in “Song of Myself” and here in Specimen Days. Indeed the differences are in kind rather than in degree, and that is the main exercise. How does a complete shift in genre facilitate new forms of meaning, especially surrounding the same set of questions about self, other, society, history, etc.? 

    As I prepared to write this blog post, one main thought I couldn’t escape. While there is much to work with here in terms of form, style, etc., one key thing that we should not lose sight of is this: Whitman lived through the Civil War. The Civil War. I am left imagining what that could have been like, particularly for a non-combatant participant like Whitman, who tended the wounded of both sides in Washington, D.C. field hospitals not far from where I live. If his stanzas in “Song of Myself” aim for lyrical profundity, Whitman’s prose here is characterized by tenderness . While he describes harrowing battle scenes and heart-wrenching hospital visits, he also takes time to express his admiration for American democracy, a preview of our installment from Democratic Vistas

    Here is a striking description of the White House, whose inhabitant at the time, Abraham Lincoln, was a personal hero of Whitman’s:

    THE WHITE HOUSE BY MOONLIGHT

    February 24th.—A spell of fine soft weather. I wander about a good deal, sometimes at night under the moon. Tonight took a long look at the President’s house. The white portico—the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow—the walls also—the tender and soft moonlight, flooding the pale marble, and making peculiar faint languishing shades, not shadows—everywhere a soft transparent hazy, thin, blue moon-lace, hanging in the air—the brilliant and extra-plentiful clusters of gas, on and around the façade, columns, portico, &c.—everything so white, so marbly pure and dazzling, yet soft—the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon—the gorgeous front, in the trees, under the lustrous flooding moon, full of realty, full of illusion—the forms of the trees, leafless, silent, in trunk and myriad—angles of branches, under the stars and sky—the White House of the land, and of beauty and night—sentries at the gates, and by the portico, silent, pacing there in blue overcoats—stopping you not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes, whichever way you move.

    Amid a tumultuous milieu, The White House stands for Whitman as a beacon, and for many today it retains the regality that Whitman invests in it. And so I’m left wondering how I would create a Specimen Days about the tumult of my own age. Could I muster the tenderness and vision that Whitman is able to muster here? For now, when I pass The White House, as I do rather frequently, I am reminded of so much else, so much that Whitman and Lincoln his hero wished to oppose in their own time. Is it even desirable to regain an almost innocent love of symbols? Whitman stared war directly in the face, in the broken faces and spirits of his fellow citizens. Into what are we gazing today, and how do we record what we see? 

     


  9. Song of Myself

    June 14, 2020 by JCraig

    When I teach “Song of Myself,” I refer to The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman, by M. Jimmie Killingsworth. In particular, I refer to what Killingsworth identifies as the five major features of the poem. For my students I further identify these features as “breakthroughs” that would come to largely characterize the modern poetry that followed. They are as follows:

    Breakthrough #1: The poem conducts a radical experiment in poetic form (Killingsworth 26).

    Breakthrough #2: The poem embodies the ideals of personality within the context of political democracy (Killingsworth 28).

    Breakthrough #3: The poem spiritualizes the body and materializes the soul in an effort to reinvigorate the religious experience (Killingsworth 30).

    Breakthrough #4: The poem uses catalogues of images and vignettes to suggest the open-ended and endlessly varied range of experience within modern life (Killingsworth 34).

    Breakthrough #5: The poem pushes the limits of human knowledge and language (Killingsworth 36).

    As my students work through the “Songs,” I ask them to identify how a particular song manifests one or more of these breakthroughs. I also ask them to consider which of these breakthroughs is the most significant and why. I encourage you to undertake a similar exercise here. Though we want “Song of Myself” to wash over us, even overwhelm us, using these breakthroughs as a frame of reference will nonetheless enhance our engagement. 

    Then, I encourage you to identify a favorite song, or even a favorite line or moment. I will share mine. It is the concluding couplet of Song #6: 

    All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

    And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

    I love it for personal reasons, particularly Whitman’s attitude towards death, which is the general subject of Song #6. One can take this attitude as a personal consolation, and others can investigate the possibility, as many have, of Whitman’s engagement with Eastern religions. Either way, it is an act of defiance, especially in our culture, to say, when all seems to point to the finality of death, that “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” What would it mean for you to say, when you consider your beloved dead, that they are “alive and well somewhere”? It is possible that to utter these phrases and believe them, we must reframe our perception of what life and death really are, beyond what our cultural messaging continually conveys. “Song of Myself” is up to nothing less.


  10. On Whitman

    June 8, 2020 by Chris Motley

    In Moby-Dick, Melville wants to give us the cosmos, covering significant philosophical and theological ground in his “disorderly” story of a man’s obsession with killing a whale. If Melville wanted to account for everything under the sun (and beyond), his contemporary Walt Whitman is primarily and consistently preoccupied with one subject: himself. One need consider the opening line of “Song of Myself,” one of the most recognizable in American literature: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” 

    My students struggle with this stance, especially when I ask them to write their own “Song of Myself.” They are inculturated not to “celebrate” oneself, but rather to be “humble.” Fair enough. But what is Whitman really doing, not only in “Song of Myself” but also in the selections from Specimen Days and Democratic Vistas that we have here? What makes Whitman’s explorations of himself so transcendent (and we can use that word mindful of the Transcendentalist context with which he is often associated) is that by exploring himself he is exploring The Self, selfhood as broadly construed as possible. So, like Melville, he is ultimately interested in the cosmos, inasmuch as we “contain multitudes,” to use another famous line from “Song of Myself.” 

    There is much to be discussed about the cosmic sources of the self, which posits a self as foundationally relational. From this “spiritual” insight Whitman builds his philosophy of democracy. This vision of the embedded self runs counter to much of the individualistic rhetoric of American-ness emerging during the same time period. 

    Each selection here provides a different angle on Whitman’s exploration of self. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman wants to make deep and vast connections, between quotidian life and the life of the universe. In Specimen Days Whitman recounts his own life as one swept up, inevitably, in the tides of history and progress, particularly regarding the Civil War (during which he worked as a nurse for the wounded at a field hospital in Washington, D.C.). Finally, Democratic Vistas gives us Whitman at his most “external” and academic, providing a lyrical encomium of and issuing an urgent challenge to American democracy, particularly calling for a literary art which is commensurate to its world-shaping vision. But in doing so he of course imagines himself as integral to the success of that democratic vision, in turn urging us to think of ourselves in a similar light.

    As you read, then, think of yourself. Think of your Self. Think of yourself in the grand terms in which Whitman thinks of himself. And then think of your position within American democracy, or, if you don’t live in America, democracy globally considered. You are integral to it. Celebrate.