True to Nature

A friend recently sent me an article on Jack London from smithsonian.com. As the article by Kenneth Brandt makes clear, London is an author for our times. Someone who might truly be called a populist, London, like many of us born in the working class, had an epiphany. Perhaps his came earlier than many, but at the age of 18, while working laboring jobs, he noted that he “was scared into thinking.” He decided, before the idea of sending all kids to college had caught on, that he should acquire an education. In the words quoted by Brandt, he wanted to become a “brain merchant.” Certainly London’s works need no introduction from a guy like me. Robust and masculine, his stories are those of man pitted against a nature that is often out to crush, freeze, or starve him. Today we need to loosen up those pronouns a bit. Women, who’ve arguably had it tougher than men for all of biological history, have had to struggle for survival too. In the current political climate we all need to remind those who substitute testosterone for brains that we all share human rights.

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The Religious Right, or “alt-right” as they seem to prefer these days, wasn’t always a fetus farm. It has been historically documented that it was Francis Schaeffer, erstwhile hippie and free thinker, who when he got abortion stuck in his craw, decided that men had to protect the unborn from women. He seemed to have forgotten whose gonads planted that seed in the first place. Prior to Schaeffer Christian saints tried to avoid sex all together. Among the original “abstinence only” crowd, some of the more zealous put their money where their testicles were and castrated themselves. Ah, men were real men in those days. Today masculinity means ganging up on women and grabbing them by the Call of the Wild, apparently.

Like London, I think we all need to be scared into thinking. We’ve let a wildly distorted view of humanity—one-sided and with dangling evidence of gender loyalty—to steal the White House from the woman who thoroughly won it from the vox populi. Where is Buck when we need him? London knew, as evolution repeatedly teaches, in Brandt’s words, “abusive alpha males never win out in the end.” I say that “swing states” should look carefully at that hanging chad. In the meantime, while the fat cats bicker and argue over the best way to suppress females to make themselves look bigger, I think we should all read again about what happens when Spitz meets Buck. If you haven’t read The Call of the Wild before, it’s time to do so now.

Hollow Bible

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The proofs for my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow are now here. It will be appearing shortly in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. For those who know my previous academic work—hi, both of you!—this represents a departure from the familiar for me. Some years back, floundering for a teaching position like a fish that’d flipped out of the acadarium, I talked to a colleague who confirmed what I’d long suspected: study of the biblical text is dying. Face it, nobody cares about J, E, D, and P, or even Q, anymore. We’ve made our point. The Bible is a composite document with many sources that people can still tuck under their arms on the way to the polls. It’s so easy to forget that this text is the basis for so many lives and eternal plans. While we scholars have been arguing with one another, culture has moved on. That’s why I looked at the Bible in “Sleepy Hollow.”

If the Bible isn’t relevant, why bother studying it? If the main character—dare we call him protagonist?—of the New Testament says to turn the other cheek and his “followers” advocate for gun ownership it’s time to ask what went wrong. Scholars know the Bible, but do we know the Bible? Long ago meaning slipped away from academics. Consider science. We can question global warming because the science has become a topic of conversation among specialists that the rest of us can’t hope to understand. Instead of trusting that they know what they’re talking about, we politicize it. Scientific research, even in major universities, is funded by interested third parties. You know, some scholars don’t think there really was even an E after all.

The Bible no longer means what the specialists say it does. I may have spent years of my life and thousands of dollars to speak as an expert, but I soon learned nobody was listening. Meanwhile, culture marches on, somehow supposing if two Corinthians walk into a bar the rich man in his tower makes the best sense, according to the Good Book. Indeed, if you want to find out what the Bible says, all you need to do is head up the Hudson Valley for a season. Or listen to those who hand out tracts and purchase firearms. What could possibly go wrong there? My article will be out in a few weeks. If you’re one of the two who read it keep in mind that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.

Bibliotherapy

This may sound strange, considering the source, but I fear I don’t read enough. An article by Sarah Begley in a recent issue of Time, reinforces what we’ve known all along—reading is incredibly good for you. Even fiction. Especially fiction. For the most part, as I’m commuting, I read non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it doesn’t always help with literacy issues that might call for a bibliotherapist. You see, literacy builds a kind of psychological strength that helps with real-world issues. Part of it is because many books go through a rigorous process of approval. Still, it’s important to realize that this kind of reading may not be the popular fiction that can be found in grocery stores and airports—although even that is fine—but the level of writing that really helps is somewhat mysteriously labeled “literary fiction.” The kind of book an author writes, rewrites, and rewrites. Deep thought and care go into such books, and they can be a help to their readers. Reading isn’t just fundamental, it is transformative.

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I remember my school years well. Kids are amazing in their level of energy. They crave activity and experience. Getting them to read can be difficult. You need to sit still. And concentrate. Concentration isn’t easy. You have to train a child to read, and, at least where I grew up, that was a struggle. The fact that it’s possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate is one of the signs that learning to enjoy reading doesn’t always take hold. I knew guys in middle school who would rather do just about anything other than read. I often wondered what anyone could do to make them realize what they were missing. I read books and stories that took my breath away. There was something incredible going on between the covers—but how to convince others?

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that those of us in publishing are, statistically speaking, a very small number of people. We work in an industry that serves a small number of people. We are an odd lot. We read books, and some of us write books, and we do so for a small sector of society. Signs are hopeful that interest in reading is growing. Leading by example may help. At any one time I have at least one, generally two or more, fiction books going at the same time. On the bus I read through non-fiction at a faster rate. Maybe the mix is actually right. Fiction reading takes more time. It could be because I’m getting more out of it than I realize. I just wish I had more time to do it. More time for reading health. I may need to see a bibliotherapist.

Radio Nowhere

Those of us who somehow managed to be educated without the use of computers, at least nothing more advanced than a TI-30 calculator, fumble our way through the world-wide web. I’ve got this blog, a Twitter and a Facebook account, and I’m on Google + and Medium, and I really don’t know how any of these things work. One of my motivations for starting this blog was to continue the tradition of speaking to audiences that I used to have in my lectures while I taught. I was told that such a format was known as a podcast and I found a host site where I could leave my recordings for free. I could then make a link and bring them onto the podcast page of this blog. How any of that works, I have no idea.

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Recently a few would-be listeners have asked what has happened to the podcasts. Since I don’t really know where they were in the first place, I’m not sure how to send a map to them now. One of my readers, however, has kindly set up a new webpage where all 23 podcasts are available. You can find it by clicking on this link. My thanks to Ahmed Fasih for setting this up. The podcasts cover various aspects of ancient religion. Even now, every great once in a while, a world-recognized name in academia will ask me about some of these topics. When you’re an academic you have the opportunity to spend vast amounts of time focusing on a single subject. The only subject you have that privilege with outside academia is money. I do hope my friends in the academy realize just how lucky they are.

In any case, the podcasts are back. Maybe now that they’re not invisible any more, and since in coming days it may be important to remember when things were better, I may find time to add to them. Blogs—at least those that are regularly read—are locations for discussion. I’m always glad to answer questions that are posted here. During the work week my time is constrained, so you might need to wait for a weekend, but I will respond. I know religion is passé. I know people have better things to do with their time. I also know that for the vast majority of humankind religion remains a vital and integral part of their lives. Exploring it seems to make sense to me. For those who’d rather listen than read, the podcasts are once more available.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.

Abundance

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A few weeks before Leonard Cohen died I saw a story on how his song “Hallelujah” had been done to death. Covered and recovered, it seemed to be on every cover artist’s playlist. It is a haunting song, however, and the notion of a cold and broken hallelujah feels somehow appropriate this Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong—I am thankful for more things than I can name or would care to share with complete strangers on the internet. In fact, when I literally tried to find a job in Canada in anticipation of a horrible November surprise, one of my immediate regrets was that I’d no longer have American Thanksgiving to celebrate. Thanksgiving, to me, has been images of a cozy indoors with special food while the chill takes over outside. Two days in a row off of work. Sleeping until I’m not tired any more rather than waking according to schedule, no matter how troubling the night might have been. In short, feeling safe and secure in a world growing colder.

Since the first week of November the iciness has been growing more intense. I know it’s the circles I go around in—and perhaps they are small enough to call them semi-circles—but I have seen more sad and depressed and scared faces in the past weeks than I have seen in my previous half-century on this planet. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and even vegetarians look forward to something special by way of fancy nourishment. But it feels like a cold and broken hallelujah to me. Entrepreneurs have already been reminding us that tomorrow is Black Friday. We should get our game-faces on and our credit cards out and head to our favorite retail establishments. Pack up our troubles in the old plastic bag and spend, spend, spend.

Thanksgiving, of course, was an originally generic religious holiday. It’s hard to give thanks without someone to, well, thank. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or even one of those who thanks dharma, karma, or chance. Just be glad that we’re here right now and even though the wind is gusting and there’s perhaps a bit of snow in the air, we have an indoors where nobody hostile is looking for means to exploit us any further than we wish to be exploited. That our planet, for the time being, still supports human life. And that by any measure other than the Electoral College we all really want progress and fair treatment for all. I am thankful and mindful of those who had to sacrifice to allow us the privilege of being here today. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful.

United or Untied?

Beliefs can be most problematic things. I’ve spent the better part of the last five days in one of the reddest of “Red States.” People in Texas were unfailingly friendly and kind. They seem genuinely interested in helping me although I’m pretty stereotypically a “blue stater” (the beard, the tweed, the glasses—there’s no mistaking it). They help me when I’m lost. They look out for my well-being. But I’ve been conditioned to think poorly of my neighbors. My father was a high school-educated working man from South Carolina. I grew up poor in Pennsylvania. This man taking my check ticket is amiable and solicitous. He doesn’t ask me what I believe.

Sometimes the Founding Fathers got it wrong. The Electoral College has created Red and Blue States. God created people. I want to think that those who are from elsewhere are different. Predatory. Out to get me. In reality what matters is that you and I are beside each other right now, and we’re perfectly happy to be so. We are people. I don’t know what you believe. You don’t know what I believe. It really doesn’t matter unless you believe you should harm me or I should harm you. (I don’t.) This isn’t normalizing the devastating administration constructed brick-and-mortar on hate. There are legitimate foes to face. Me? I’m on the side of the people. All the people. Female people. “Foreign” people. People who love those who are biologically similar or different or anywhere in-between. I can’t believe that our government has tried to drive such a deep wedge between us. From Camelot to Asphodel in one lifetime.

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Our deeply divided country is in need of healers, regardless of belief. From everything I’ve heard there is no health in the incoming administration. Business has long been the enemy of people—long before Adam Smith formulated its name those who have, without intervention, take advantage of those who have not. Its no coincidence that those wounded in service of their country are given purple hearts. Not red hearts. Not blue hearts. I’m here among people who wish me well, and who, although they’ve disagreed about politics in the past, have never allowed an election stereotype them so badly. We need to end the Electoral College and its unholy progeny of red and blue and swing states. Let people be people who unite against the real enemy—the one that’s trying to tear us apart. That’s something I truly believe no matter how problematic it might be.

History and Its Discontents

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I’m standing in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. Before history becomes too falsified to recognize, I want to soak up the fact that Theodore Roosevelt organized his Rough Riders in this very hotel, and that O Henry stayed here. There were other notables too: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee among them. Southern and Northern supporters, Republicans and Democrats, writers and fighters. Once our country was big enough for everyone. I have a feeling that narrative history will be rewritten. I don’t think they make them like Teddy Roosevelt any more. A rich man who actually did care for the poor. There was a day when such things could be said without a wink and a nod. Before “In God We Trust” was inscribed on paper money, confusing forever deity and dollar. I breathe deeply. History weighs heavily upon me here.

Those of us who study ancient religions can’t help looking backwards. There is a consolation in it. Before progress also becomes a myth, I can stand here and gaze back into days when those who were presidents actually read. Theodore Roosevelt wrote books. He believed that the rich had serious social obligations. He had no words of complaint when his nephew Franklin Delano decided to join the Democratic party to become the president who saw this nation through the Great Depression. Today we stand on the cusp of an even greater depression. Or the Great Oppression. At least the incoming administration won’t need to stay in drafty old hotels. They’ll just built tasteless modern ones and say that they’ve always been there. Post-truth is the only truth now.

“The Gift of the Magi” tells the story of a doomed trade. A couple each sacrifices something they value to give the other a gift that they cannot use due to that very sacrifice. It’s kind of like electing a president out of spite. Like cutting off your hair when your Christmas present will be expensive brushes. Like believing that having money equates to intelligence. I hope there’s still something of Teddy Roosevelt left in this hotel. A sense of greatness that didn’t need a red cap to make itself appear as a lover of people. Roosevelt didn’t flinch from insults. He delivered a campaign speech after having been shot by a would-be assassin, bullet still lodged in his chest. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he believed sincerely in the obligations of the wealthy. I want to inhale that history before all of this becomes just another piece of fiction for an administration that doesn’t believe reading to be fundamental any more.

Foundation Myths

Foundation myths are some of my favorite myths. If you’ve got to believe in something, it may as well be something fun, right? Usually before I travel to a place I do some research on it. For some reason November of this year has proven to be under a kind of shadow and I wasn’t thinking clearly in the run-up to this year’s AAR/SBL meeting in San Antonio. I’d traveled here once before, and when I raise that occasion with anyone the automatic response, like so many automatic sprinklers, is “that was the year it rained.” This may be the year of the flood, but at least the skies have been dry. I decided to make up for my lack of knowledge by taking in the markers along the River Walk. There’s quite a lot about saints and the founding of this city. I learned that it was named for Saint Anthony of Padua. The site of the first mass, in 1691 (just a year before hell broke loose in Salem) is marked with a granite slab along the green river with its endless supply of ducks.

We’re fond of naming cities after saints. San Francisco, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Diego, Saint Petersburg. Perhaps we’ll soon be adding Leningrad to that list. I suppose we like to compare our communities to our better angels. We’re all trying to be good, after all, aren’t we? With all these saints looking over us these ought to be very kind cities indeed. We have yet to name a major city after Jesus, but that doesn’t stop the saintly communities from trying to cash in on the big name.

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Conversion has become a somewhat problematic concept. In current doublespeak we would all be better off if we were the same. If what I’m hearing is correct that means Caucasian, male, pseudo-Protestant, and rich. Well, we don’t want too many to be rich—it’s hard to feel special if too many join the country club. Our saints are those that know how to shuffle the money and make it all look above board. Meanwhile we can sell our Jesus tee-shirts and have those admittedly Catholic saints stand guard over our walls and bless our rifles and condos. It’s pleasant to live in the new promised land. Too bad the good Lord made some kind of error the first time around, but to forgive is divine, after all. I think we can afford to be magnanimous when we’ve got the saints on our side. Myths are so much fun to believe.

Post Post-Truth

One of the benefits of working with words is that you get to participate in reality. George Orwell famously wrote that if people didn’t have the words to express concepts the government didn’t like, those concepts would cease to exist. At least as long as they allow us to have the internet, concepts may survive. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year reflects just this. The word is “post-truth.” Post-truth is a word of hard currency in the political marketplace. It essentially means that objective facts no longer outweigh emotion and personal belief in establishing reality. Think “global warming isn’t happening because it cuts into my bottom line.” Think “humans didn’t evolve from a common ancestor apes because an outdated book doesn’t say they did.” Think “Donald Trump won the election.” Truth is no longer truth without “post” in front of it. Believe what you will. No, I mean that. I choose to believe Trump was not elected. Post-truth cuts both ways.

In a world where reaction has replaced dialogue and where you win arguments by revealing your NRA card, truth is merely the first casualty. Already mainstream media, who told us the post-truth that Trump, according to the polls, couldn’t win, are now telling us it’s all politics as normal. This will be a simple transition of power. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There is no wizard in Oz. Politicians lie. Only those born without a brain stem don’t realize that objective fact. We can be sure that even George Washington lied from time to time. There was no cherry tree-gate. Unless you choose to believe there was, then I guess it has to be okay. Your truth’s as good as mine.

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Over the past several years some prominent scientists have been saying philosophy is but misguided navel-gazing. It tells us nothing of reality. Truth, however, is a philosophical concept. Post is something to which you tie people before a firing squad. Truth has, until recent days, been considered that upon which all reasonable people could agree. The earth is not flat. We are flying around the sun so fast that it makes me earth-sick. We were able to put people on the moon. All of these are now post-truths. Along with the fact that every vote counts. In this slurry of fear, hatred, and distrust, who has time to worry about objective facts? Lexicographers do. And I praise them for giving us the most relevant word since Moses stumbled down the mountain with a tablet that read, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Who’s Bigger?

Sometimes we have to work so very hard for unity. On the day before the conference proper began, I decided to take in some of the sites. In San Antonio this means the River Walk and the Alamo. I was awake early, as usual, and since the Alamo doesn’t open its doors until 9 a.m., I took the River Walk first. Seeing the gift shops selling countdown to Obama’s last day novelties, I had to shudder. It may be a sad day when you have to look to the Alamo for consolation. What looked like a rainy morning became a sunny day and the Alamo was crowded by the time I arrived. Last time I was here I stopped in the church, and I think that was it. I decided to look in the Long Barrack room, noting the sign that read “Please remember this is a place of reflection and respect.” No photos. No food. Just respectful thoughts. I stepped inside.

 

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There can be no disguising that this site was host to a bloody battle some time ago. As I looked at the period rifles and the caliber of the musket balls graded up to cannon balls, I reflected how we’ve invented ways to hurl bigger and bigger pieces of hateful stone and metal at each other, faster and faster. A few thousand died near here, perhaps some in this very room. A couple of guys walked up and one said to the other in his beautiful Texan accent, “There’s some beautiful weapons here.” I could almost hear the tears in his voice. His companion agreed. “They’re bigger than what I carry,” he prayed. People had died here in the past, and it seemed that perhaps the best we could look forward to was more deaths in the future. Reflection and respect.

There’s no point in visiting a place like the Alamo without a sense of the history that made this place what it is. It is not a shrine to glorified warfare. It is a mission, an abandoned church, that became out of necessity a place of self-defense. I just can’t shake the thought that so many people died here, but the point of visiting seems to be celebrating a nation where you can wear your weapons proudly. It is a supreme irony that this particular November the conference I attend happened to have long ago locked in this particular venue this particular year. I could very much use a place of reflection and respect. Instead, I’m thinking of how so terribly hard it is to work for unity in what seem to be the increasingly Untied States.

Remember the Alamo

I’ve never started a fight. I’m actually a very conciliatory type, willing to be wronged in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This election has made me feel a little pugilistic, however. The sheer size of Trump’s loss based on the popular vote makes me hope I’m not alone in this. I find myself in San Antonio at the moment. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, which rolls around the weekend before Thanksgiving, has been a regular aspect of my career since 1991. My hotel room overlooks the Alamo, and the implications—indeed, the irony—are not lost on me. I don’t know a great deal of Texas history, but what kid grows up without hearing about Davy Crockett, who died a few yards from where I lay down my head?

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I’ve known many Texans in my life. Many of them have been, and continue to be, perfectly reasonable people. Good and loyal friends. Lots of people like to live here. Indeed, the population of the state has swelled over the past quarter century. I’ve also encountered Texans (particularly at Nashotah House) who acted like the enemy at the Alamo wasn’t Mexico, but the other states. In the light of last week’s election I’m reminded of the words of one of the Mexican officers, after Santa Anna declare the battle a light one. Reportedly another officer quipped, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.” Voices from the other side of the wall. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from getting in so late, but I’m looking at the Alamo and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is going through my head. The lesson of the Alamo is that although you may lose the battle you can still win the war.

This is my second visit to San Antonio. Last time I was here, for the same conference, one of my doctoral advisors was over from Edinburgh, and we walked through the Alamo together. Today we are lamenting Brexit and Trump together. By slim margins the alt-right has learned to game the system. The problem seems to be apathy. It’s clear that we’re going to have to fight from now on just to get a little social justice around here. Strange words coming from the fingers of a lifelong pacifist, but you’d think that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony might have had more lasting effects. Perhaps it truly is time to remember the Alamo.

Are There Not Workhouses?

dickensworkhouseAs colder days settle in I add layers and sit in our under-heated apartment and think about the lot of the poor. I don’t think billionaires really understand the plight of those who, no matter how hard they work, just can’t get ahead in a society that values class above individual welfare. I’ve noticed the increasing number of homeless on New York City streets. Many are clearly those who’ve lost jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent of even a modest apartment in the city, let alone Trump Towers. Having lost jobs myself after a lifetime of hard work, my sympathies are with the street dwellers. Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor reminded me that this is not just an American phenomenon. The book begins as kind of a detective story to locate the workhouse that Dickens features, if fictionalized, in Oliver Twist. Richardson makes a strong case that this workhouse has been found and that relics of Dickens’ under-acknowledged London residence just a few doors down from it influenced much of his first-hand knowledge of the life of the poor.

In the case of London, poor laws were put in effect to punish those who couldn’t fend for themselves. Inmates at poor houses were kept on a legally mandated starvation diet (literally) with inadequate medical care. Instead of censuring this injustice, the Church of England stood behind it. The perverted thinking was that if anyone knew how bad it was in such places they would try doubly hard not to be poor. The funny thing about living in poverty (I have some experience of this) is that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t particularly get along with my step-father. I can say, however, that he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Long hours spent at work, sometimes the whole night through, to support a family of six on just above minimum wage. This was his daily existence. I must’ve looked soft in his eyes.

Richardson’s book, although fascinating, is also distressing. The idea that a society thinks the most humane way to deal with those who are struggling is to punish them further, for me, defines evil. One of the characteristics of our species, according to biologists, is that humans often show extraordinary care for other creatures, often of other species. For our own, however, we feel that if you’ve “earned” something by exploiting others it is your “right” to keep it and let them suffer. This economic system is rotten to the core. We may have come a long way since Dickens’ time. We don’t have such exploitative workhouses in Manhattan. Instead, we have so many people sleeping in the streets that a walk to work has become very Dickensian indeed. Somehow I don’t see the situation improving in the next four years.

Cinematic Reality

monstersmadEven without the results of the recent presidential election, I would be reading about horror movies. One of the reasons is that I wonder what the appeal might be—why do I put myself in a dark room with an uncertain future? Until recently academics had thought this was something only unreflective, uneducated people did. As is often the case, such as with the electoral college, the numbers tell a different story. Andrew Tudor’s Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie is an example of what happens when a sociologically oriented film critic explores the genre. Although not overwhelming, there are plenty of tables and charts, showing the various trends of horror films from the 1930s up through the mid 1980s. Tudor analyzes what makes us afraid and the main sources of that fear: science, supernatural, and psyche. Since these are all day-to-day things it seems that movies express the basic human condition.

Reading a book published in the ‘80s, however, makes you wonder what might have been missed. We’ve had more than three decades of further horror movies and although categories may be useful, and perhaps even stable, recent events unlock further fears. I suspect there will be a comeback of Nazis in scary movies over the next few years. Horror is, after all, a reflection of those who are willing to be honest about what scares them. There’s plenty of subject matter lying about the headlines of the past weeks.

What I found especially interesting is, at least in the 1980s, statistically the great majority of films featured a supernatural threat. Of these, Tudor notes, the vampire is by far the most popular. We’ve had a dalliance with zombies since then. And I’ve seen plenty of examples where extraterrestrials form the threat. Even ghosts have staged a somewhat unexpected comeback. And movies of demons have proliferated. The supernatural does indeed scare us. I’m not sure that we can quantify it as easily as we used to. Unlike earlier generations of scholars, I’m beginning to see the horror inherent in much of society. We’ve created a scary world with even more scary possibilities. The thing about monsters is they have no sympathy. They are cold, calculating, and all about meeting their own unnatural needs. All the rest of us are just, not to put too fine a point on it, their food. I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing much more of this in days to come.