Another Turn

I have read The Turn of the Screw before.  Henry James’ most famous ghost story is a classic of ambiguity.  My previous reading, maybe a decade ago, was in an edition of James that insisted on stuffing other stories into the same binding, most of which I’ll probably never read.  I located a reasonably priced edition containing only the novella I wanted and it is published by Heathen Editions.  Obviously priding themselves on the unorthodox, Heathen Editions provides books with some little commentary, particularly pointing out unfamiliar words or explaining circumstances that many modern readers lack the training to spot.  The edition ends with James’ own afterword to the story, something my larger James volume lacks.  The story I remembered in part, but the notes also engaged me.

These notes aren’t numerous and they don’t distract.  In my case I understood the words defined, but I appreciated some of the historical or literary context supplied.  With so much literature available these days modern readers have to be drawn back into the classics.  James’ style tends toward the choice of more words than would be strictly necessary to tell the tale.  The fact that it was serialized helps to explain that.  Like Middlemarch and The Woman in White, both of which I’ve posted on in the past, being serialized encourages a kind of verbosity that modern publishers of fiction eschew.  At least in my limited experience.  For The Turn of the Screw the slow building to the climax requires spreading out.  The story itself could be summarized in a paragraph (which I won’t do, because you should read it yourself), but the feeling of dread has to grow as bits are slowly revealed.

One of the notes particularly caught my attention.  In an oblique reference to David and Saul, the editor expanded the footnote a bit.  The scene is when Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit sent by God and David is called in to help him with a kind of music therapy.  David plays his lyre and Saul’s demons temporarily leave him.  This is subtly referenced in chapter 18 of the Heathen Edition.  The note briefly explains Saul and David and then, for the only time in the book, goes on to provide a reception history of the reference by informing the reader that Leonard Cohen also refers to this episode in his song “Hallelujah.”  I’m sure the opening lines are familiar enough that I don’t need to risk violating copyright to quote them.  So it was that while reading a ghost story the Bible was introduced, which, of course has been my research agenda for a few years now.  A turn of the screw indeed.

Ravages and Kings

I was recently thinking about King Saul. If it’s been a while for you, Saul was the “first king” of Israel, according to the books of Samuel. Saul had a problem. That problem’s name was David. David was younger, more popular, a gifted musician and lady’s man. In sudden fits of rage Saul tried to kill David, more than once. An unstable man was in charge, but claiming God’s sanction he was safe from any kind of impeachment. In the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be king.” So Israel limped along under weak leadership until Saul got himself killed in battle. I couldn’t help think that this story shows just how relevant the Bible remains today. Mad kings are difficult to displace. They have their fans and, to quote Alfred, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

David’s reign was no picnic either. He had his Bathsheba affair, and was constantly making war as well as love. He pretended to be insane to save himself from Saul, but he was loved by Yahweh and thrived. Oh, and he wrote the book of Psalms. It’s a bit of a shock when this much feted king gives Solomon, his son, his last words. Instead of some pious sentiments or perhaps a last-minute poem, his final instructions are a hit list. “I promised not to kill Shimei, but you made no such promise.” Wink, nod. And Solomon reigned, bragging of groping a thousand women. One of the one percent, he was fabulously wealthy and ultimately couldn’t hold his kingdom together. And none of this is even prophecy!

Why do we put up with mad kings? The world is full of good, and able people. They have a very difficult time getting elected in a democracy. They had trouble even when it was a monarchy. Yes, power corrupts. We know that. Those who are truly mad, however, learn to live by gaming the system. Lies are alternative facts and truth is fake news. Other elected officials, apparently incapable of reading the newspapers, follow the leader. Like lemmings, they ignore the cliff just ahead. Ironically the Bible has a role to play in all this madness. In fact, many people seem to think Israel had a cozy little history. They’re the ones who’ve never read the Good Book. Even during the golden reign of David there were schisms and political murders. All you need to do, however, is say God told you to, and even a madman can become a saint.

Love, American Style

If you’re going to thump the Bible, at least try to read it once in a while! Donald Trump, showing his true colors yet again, degrades women in the crudest terms imaginable and the religious right (what used to be called the Moral Majority) quickly falls in line. Videos swiftly emerged with conservative commentator Sean Hannity saying “King David had 500 concubines, for crying out loud.” Did he? David, I mean. Try to count that high and you’ll run out of fingers. But according to the Bible amorous King David stopped well short of 500. In fact, his affair with Bathsheba almost ruined him politically. And this was in the day when polygamy was supported by the law. I think Mr. Hannity was groping for the story of King Solomon, David’s frisky son. Solomon, famed for his 700 wives and 300 concubines, was underestimated by Hannity by half. And maybe if he’d read to the end of the chapter (come on, it’s only 43 verses) he might’ve stopped to think that the comparison did his candidate no favors.

Back in biblical times things were different. Even a monogamous man might have several wives since childbirth claimed a disproportionate number of young women’s lives. The average fella only lived to be about 40 himself. Lust existed, to be sure, but marriage was a practical affair. For the average citizen, you needed children to help out around the farm where you grew your own food. No golden arches in those days. Attitudes towards women back then were just plain wrong, in any case. The marriages of Solomon were political affairs, not prurient in origin. There are those with Trump signs in their yards that would like to see us return to such days, although they have no idea what such days were like. The consensus is that David had about 8 wives, but who’s counting?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Women are more than playthings for men. How have we ever reached the point where someone born in the last century doesn’t know that, and can get to less than a month before the election with that ignorant platform? This should make any American shudder. Make America great again? Treat women as equals. Treat people of color as equals. Treat those of differing sexual orientations as equals. Honor the principles upon which this nation was founded. Don’t just grab someone by the polls. And read your Bible, Mr. Hannity. The point behind King Solomon’s 300 concubines is that he died a sinful, disgraced king in the mere shadow of David. The next time you want to quote the Bible, try reading it first.

Of Cuckoos and Kings


Having a life-long phobia of mental institutions, I shy away from situations that refuse to make sense. Some have attributed this to my having had an alcoholic father and responding with an über-rational expectation of analyzing how other people would likely act. Whatever its cause, the fear is real. So thirty years ago, when I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I assumed it would be the last time. It was a relatively recent movie at the time, and it was required viewing for one of my college courses. With my phobia I really couldn’t get beyond the heebie-jeebies to consider what was going on beneath the surface, which is to say, most of the movie. Well, a few decades will cure many ills and I sat down to watch the movie again and my own experiences of asylum-like, heartless institutions in the intervening years had indeed hardened me a bit. I noticed much that I’d missed the first time around. For one thing the story of King David kept coming to mind.

For those who read the Bible somewhat objectively, David is a player, and not always the most admirable character. He has a subtle charm that wins the reader of the books of Samuel back time and again. He steps into a situation where his ambition is held back by a kind of Nurse Ratched named King Saul. So what does David do? He pretends to be insane and runs off to join the Philistines. He gathers a band of miscreants about him and goes to towns taking what isn’t his. He even brings a forbidden woman into his house. As R. P. McMurphy goes through these same shenanigans, he comes to really love young Billy (Saul’s son Jonathan). In the course of the movie our ersatz David takes a suffering nation and heals it. There, however, the parallels end and Ken Kesey’s story takes over.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Kesey intentionally drew on the story of David—that would be crazy talk—but I do often wonder about the aphorism attributed to his son Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. There were those who felt that Solomon had lost touch with reality as he sat down to write Ecclesiastes. The great stories, in some sense, have already been told. But not all. Those of us who write seek new truths, and sometimes use ancient sources to do it. David is remembered as one of the great biblical characters. One of the reasons, undoubtedly, is that he is so fallibly human—he’s not impossibly pious like Moses, or unfailingly sad like Jeremiah. He is a good man with peccadilloes for which we are willing to forgive him just for the pleasure of watching him go on. No, Kesey may not have had the Bible in his hand as he dreamed up the character of R. P. McMurphy, but he produced a true representation nevertheless. Of course, I might just be insane myself.

Hair to the Throne

Absalom was the first of the big-hair rock stars. According to the book of 2 Samuel, his hair was so luxuriant that he had it cut once a year and it weighed two hundred shekels (about five pounds, not sterling). This little bit of foreshadowing in 2 Samuel 14 will appear again in the story of Absalom’s demise, as he is caught in a great oak tree by his untrimmed hair. I’ve always related to Absalom on the coiffure issue—I don’t like getting my hair cut. In my more self-analytical moods, I relate it to having stepped on a bee’s nest as a child and having received multiple stings on my bare legs. That horrible buzzing of bees in my ears stayed with me, and whenever the girl at SuperCuts grabs the clippers and the bee-like drone nears my ears I flinch in terror. Like Absalom I have rather an abundance of hair, and so when I’m shorn, it is easily noticeable. I don’t like people to comment on it, however. One of the most banal phrases, not to mention an utter tautology, is when someone smartly observes, “you got a haircut.” With what am I to follow this up? “Yes—I was feeling a bit too much like Absalom in the forest of Ephraim where Joab found him dangling in the tree after David followed the advice of Hushai instead of Ahithophel”?


While walking through a mall recently, I commented to a friend how all the stores seemed to be clothing and shoe stores. You never find a bookstore any more, or museum shops, or anything approaching profundity. People really mostly care about what they look like on the outside. I’m more of an interior guy. Not among those generally cast among the hunky, good-looking examples of masculinity, I’m small, bookish, and still wear clothes that I’ve owned for two decades. My hair is usually out of control as well, but not in a fashionable Einsteinian way. I am, I fear, the heir of Absalom.

Religion used to be a source of profundity. It was, once upon a time, the queen of sciences, and philosophy was her handmaid. Seeing the way that religion appears in the media today, however, I’d have to guess she’s been shopping at the mall. Those who measure religion by the cut of her hem rather than by how deep her thoughts may be, have brought her into the limelight of popular culture. She used to be all about the meaning of life and offered a reason for many of us to get out of bed in the morning. Absalom’s trouble started out when he fell in lust with his half-sister Tamar. His addiction to appearances led him to bad decisions that ultimately divided David’s kingdom and cost him his very life. And I guess that’s the price you pay for not getting a haircut on a regular basis.

Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"

Kingship Divine

All conspiracy theories and history’s mysteries aside, there are some interesting correlations between the ancient Egyptians and the pre-European “New World.” Temples, pyramids, and large ceremonial structures are among the common features they share. Perhaps it is inevitable that where a ruling class becomes oligarchic that grand structures to their greatness will follow. Some factors transcend all times and cultures. It may be no surprise then, as MSNBC announced yesterday, that tunnels have been discovered under the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. The tunnels, first noticed under the temple of Quetzacoatl, may be the entry to the tombs of the royalty, not unlike Old Kingdom Egypt. This great pre-Colombian city was already abandoned by the time the Aztecs came along. They gave the city its current name, a title that may be translated as “the place where men become gods,” according to Mark Stevenson of the Associated Press.

Not being an expert on ancient Americans, it is difficult to interpret all this information. Having read extensively on the ancient Near East, however, the parallels are unavoidable. The place where men become gods may well apply to several aspects of ancient Near Eastern thought as well. Not only the Egyptians, but also most ancient peoples attributed divinity to their kings. We have no personal statements from such rulers indicating their personal satisfaction at having been considered better than their fellow citizens, although one might speculate that captains of industry and finance share those views today. The ancients, however, seem to have taken this literally. Kings were gods. When kings died, and were conveniently no longer observable, they were among the unseen realms of the divine, continuing to influence the world from beyond the grave.

Even the Bible shares, to an extent, the idea of divine kingship. David comes pretty close to the mark in the books of Samuel, and certainly the idea had appeal in the pre-monotheistic eras of ancient Israel. The place where men become gods is, however, in the imagination. The great and powerful pharaohs do not govern the affairs of modern Egypt, nor do the shades of Assyrian and Babylonian emperors protect the war-torn realities of life in Iraq. We don’t even know who built Teotihuacan. The fate of divine kings, it seems, is to grow obscure and irrelevant to all but historians and reluctant school kids. There are those who still aspire to divine kingship. They may have lives of immense wealth and power, but if they read a little more history they would glimpse their own fate in the tombs of the divine kings.