Kipling and . . . Dante?

The textbook I use to teach history has a picture of Dante in the section about the Renaissance. This year (September 14 to be exact) is the 700th anniversary of his demise. He is most famous for a series of three epic poems detailing a soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise, and then back to the world.

The third chapter (Canto) of The Inferno describes souls and angels who are tormented, but are not in either Hell or Heaven, because the angels would not choose between G-d and Satan, and the people were neither good nor evil. They can’t go up because they lack virtue, but they will be lorded-over by the truly damned in Hell, which isn’t just (and would reward some of the damned, so that’s not acceptable, either.)

For some reason, this year I was skimming over bits of the Inferno to use in a lesson about education and the Renaissance, and thought of someone who was neither good enough for heaven or bad enough for the infernal realm.

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair —
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die —
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.

“Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling.

The poem is much longer than the excerpt above, but Tomlinson, the newly dead, can’t get into heaven or you-know-where because he never did anything. Now, [spoiler] since Old Scratch is a lawyer at heart, he finds “the roots of sin” in the unhappy Tomlinson and sends him back to go, you know, actually commit a sin and earn his place among the damned.

Both Dante and Kipling are riffing off of Revelation 3: 14-22, the letter to the church in Laodicea. Because the Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold, they are rejected. “Go do something!” Preferably good, of course, but anything is better than nothing. Dante finds himself in trouble at the beginning of the Inferno because he is guilty of acedia (sloth). He knows what is good, what he ought to do, and . . . can’t be bothered. He’s spiritually lazy. He doesn’t do any good (” . . . those things which we have done and those which we have left undone,” as one confession puts it.) That’s Tomlinson’s sin as well. Acedia, “sloth,” not doing what should be done. In Tomlinson’s case, he hadn’t bothered to do anything but read about other people’s activities. Dante . . . spent a wee bit too much time on politics, but he claims sloth/acedia.

I’m sure that Kipling had read Dante. Everyone did, in those days. I know Kipling knew the Biblical reference. And he probably had met more than one Tomlinson, people who lived only in books, and never thought for themselves. “This I thought that another man thought of a Karl in Norway,” Tomlinson claims. But he, himself, never did.

Be either hot or cold, a saint or a sinner, choose G-d or Satan. But don’t just sit there!

Twenty Years On

I’m not really sure what to say. Most of what I’ve been thinking has been shrouded in cold anger laced with sorrow. The abyss has been looking back at me recently, and that part of my personality needs to stay quiet and under control. Meditating on September 11, 2001, and events since then inclines me to loosen the chains binding that . . . anima . . . and allow her free rein. Those around me don’t need to see that.

The United States was attacked. In the years that followed, Great Britain (London bus bombings) and Spain (Madrid train attacks) were also hit. Almost 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93. Others likely died because organ transport flights were grounded with all other air traffic. Air ambulance flights were permitted on the 12-13th, under very, very strict limits, then other types of aviation returned to the skies. The Hudson River corridor even reopened, much to the surprise of a lot of us in aviation. the DC area remains in effect a no-go-zone for the average Sunday flyer.

The United States was attacked. Don’t forget that. No matter what the current pundits claim, or insinuate.

We’ve been critiquing and rehashing everything that came after ever since. “No Blood for Oil.” “Not in my name.” “Don’t Invade Iran.” (That one always left me scratching my head – no one WAS talking about invading Iran.) Now . . . I’m staying away from current events for a reason.

Don’t forget. Tell younger people where you were, what you were doing, what you thought. Tell them the truth as you remember it. Tell them about the bravery and courage, the sacrifices and the efforts that followed. Tell them also about who celebrated the attacks, and why.

Lest we forget, lest we forget.

[Actually, I think I can say one thing I’ve decided on. I’m not one of the Winged Hussars. I’m one of the ones inside the Gates of Vienna, doing everything I can to hold onto civilization and what’s of value, and to help the defenders, so that there’s something left when the relief forces arrive.]

Those who know will know.

Nocturne or Matins?

There are days when you wake up earlier than you need to, and just know that returning to sleep is impossible. It was one of those nights/mornings. Two texts, both sent hours before they arrived, had kicked my fight/flight overreaction into gear, and midnight had passed before sleep arrived. At 0430 I woke from a rather odd dream – dreaming that I was dreaming about something – and after ten minutes gave up. At 0530 I tied my walking shoes and headed out, walking staff in hand.

A mild breeze stirred the cool, damp air. Not quite humid enough for dew, the morning still felt misty, enough that I could see the beams of headlights. Clouds, the remnants of storms overnight in New Mexico, hurried across the sky, hiding then revealing the waning moon and Orion. False dawn faded into true dawn, but sunrise would not come for another half hour or so. No colors save silver and dark, dark blue-black graced the sky. The air smelled of growing things now tired, of sweet flowers, a whiff of fresh asphalt, and moisture.

I had the sidewalks and roads to myself, more or less. The early-shift people had already departed, and the people who need daylight to labor were not yet on the road. I heard a few dogs, and a motorcycle or something else with a high-pitched engine racing along the straight stretch of road where people do that (much to the irritation of everyone else.) One bicycle commuter hurried past, his headlight flickering with each pedal stroke. A solitary jogger plodded along, thudding his way through the quiet morning.

Two or three birds chirped their opinion. The doves sleep in this time of year. A few cardinals are early risers, and anything that disturbs the grackles is greeted with loud, harsh dismay. The kites have begun moving south. I saw one toward the end of my stroll, warming up in a tree and waiting for heat and thermals. The cicadas stayed quiet. They favor afternoons and evenings for their conversations, harsh and whirring and loud, louder than lawn equipment, rising and falling in the heat, the droning sound of summer. A western kingbird perched on a road sign, waiting for cars to stir up the bugs in time for breakfast.

A bat fluttered past, darting and dodging ahead of my path. I see one or two bats a month during the summer, if I’m out early enough. The fox, another early riser or late-goer, crossed my trail last week. We avoid each other, after the little surprise as I was moving the neighbor’s newspaper. The fox was on the front stoop. I froze, he froze, I backed away, he departed. A bit like the Cooper’s hawk perched above the neighbor’s door two weeks ago. A younger hawk had found something in the chaos of ivy flowing down the front of the house. The senior hawk observed from the dormer peak. I opted to leave the paper on the windowsill and return later to put it in the basket.

Enough sunlight rounded the curve of the earth by 0630 that grey-white cloud towers appeared in the southern and western sky. Only a little paler than the fading night around them, they warned of another showery day in the offing. No one is complaining, not this year. The wheat is in, the cotton needs the rain, as do other crops, and the ranchers almost always want rain – at least until the first hard freeze. The southwest breeze, taking strength from the pending sunrise, teased my hair and face as I rounded the corner for home. As I unlocked the front door, I glanced over my shoulder. Orion had faded away, leaving the slender moon alone in the blue-grey sky.

Songs that Didn’t Age Well?

“Land of Confusion” by Genesis came over the radio/music system at the regional Barnes and Noble the other day. I shook my head a little. I’ve tried to use the video for that song as part of teaching the Cold War, and it goes thud for the students. Unless you have a lot of background, or you were alive then and remember all the cultural stuff around Ronald Reagan and US foreign policy and British politics then, the video makes no sense. The song is OK, but again, leaves a listener wondering what the problem was that the song is talking about.

That started me thinking about “modern folk” songs and what still works, as compared to songs that require the listener to already know the story before hearing them. Why does “Which Hat Shall I Wear?” make sense, and “The John Birch Society” go splat? Sting’s “The Russians Love Their Children Too” still gets the point across in a way “Land of Confusion” no longer does. Some are soooo trite, or so tied into their time period that a lot of us tune them out – or flee, in the case of “Imagine” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”

People have used songs to comment on policy and events going back to . . .forever. Psalm 136/137 [depends on translation of the Old Testament/Tanakh] is one. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” [NIV] The Children of Israel are lamenting their exile and cursing the people who dragged them away from Jerusalem. It’s not one of the Psalms we memorized as kids, and you can see why. But it fit the time, and place, and voices a feeling that many people have shared over the centuries. In England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and all over, people set political texts to folk tunes, or turned current events into doggerel that became childrens’ songs. “Jack and Jill went up the Hill,” “Hector Protector,” “The Skye Boat Song,” which is a lullaby and a political statement.

WWI and WWII saw a lot of music about current events created, some of which . . . stinks. “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” isn’t so great. “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” doesn’t have the same effect today, but “White Cliffs of Dover” still packs a punch. “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap?” Catchy but meh, and not universal. The ones that still work, from any conflict or political scandal, are the ones that seem to become universal.

The 1950s, 60s, and later have the same problem, if confusion and forgetability are problems. “John Birch Society” is funny if you understand what the JBS was, and Red Skelton, Pinkie Lee, and others. So, the popular culture of the 1950s and the so-called Red Scare, and the politics of the time. Or perhaps it’s not funny, now that we have the Verona decrypts and know just what the Soviets really were doing with US politics. “Which Hat,” about a hypocritical woman who claims to be all for equality and civil rights, but opposes actually doing anything, still makes sense, because her hypocrisy is so obvious. It’s not as effective as it was then, perhaps, but a lot of us still know people who are all for Great Causes of every kind, as long as the Great Cause doesn’t require any effort on the part of the person espousing it (see Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens for a classic example.) Of the two, I enjoy “John Birch” more, because the guys are having fun. “Which Hat” is more heavy handed.

Sting’s song “The Black Seam” about the coal miners’ strike against Margaret Thatcher’s policies is another one that goes thud, not the least because he gets the science of nuclear energy wrong (no surprise. “Uranium 236” doesn’t rhyme the way he needed to rhyme, so he used “Carbon 14” instead.) It’s not a bad song, but doesn’t make a lot of sense today. “Children’s Crusade,” alas, makes sense, because the heroin trade is still alive and well. “Russians” pokes at all sides in the Cold War, instead of just the US and Great Britain, and Sting used a very, very good Russian melody as the basis for the larger song. I don’t really care for any of those three, but I don’t care for the politics of the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement, either. I find myself talking back to the CD. It’s even worse for all the Vietnam War stuff.

What political songs from the 2000s will still make sense in the future? I have no idea. I don’t know what pop tunes will survive. There’s a lot of winnowing out over twenty, thirty years and more. How many folk tunes only survive because they became hymns? How many political songs from the Gilded Age are recorded today, or performed? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Blogging, Current Events, and So On

You have probably notices that I have not commented on many of the recent events, aside from weather, fires, and the like. There are a few reasons for that.

One, so much is tied in with US politics, and this isn’t a dedicated political commentary blog. There are other people who have a lot more background and interest in the political system and what it does.

Two, I’m a historian by training. We generally try to follow the thirty-year rule. This “rule” comes from two sources: classification time-limits in the US used to be thirty years, and the idea of a generation. What you live through is current events. What your parents lived through is history. Distance is supposed to allow 1) greater access to sources from a wider span of view points, and 2) dispassion. I have no personal dog in the fight over whether Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was a well-meaning, decent ruler or a tool of the AntiChrist and incompetent to boot, so I can opine away and show sources and documents. The legacy of the Presidents Bush? No, staying out of that.

Three is the language limit on this blog. Right now, I’m inclined to voice uncharitable thoughts using Anglo-Saxon and related verbiage.

Four, this blog is, when it comes down to cases, about selling books and stories, and entertaining my readers. People read fiction to get away, to escape into the lives of people different from they are, to get a happy ending where the forces of evil are defeated, the guy and the girl get hitched, and everyone can pay their bills in full and on time. Even if Arthur is losing to the computer 2:3, again. Sometimes I will wander into personal musings and views, but I’m trying to keep things lighter, or at least more diverting. My job is to divert my readers from current events, after all.

Choice or Privilege or Something Else?

A new ad-campaign for a federal nutrition program caught my eye. It shows a family sitting down to supper, and says, “Because a well-balanced meal should not be a privilege.” My first reaction was, “It’s a choice, especially this time of year.” I can choose to eat junk food, or choose to eat veggies and a good protein and fat source, or toss it all out the window and go ice cream all the way. So can most people. Granted, some face much tighter constraints, as I did when I was flying charter in Flatter-Than-You’d-Think state. One month I made all of, oh, four hundred dollars. Rent was $370 a month. Plus utilities. I had some savings to scrape by on, but I ate a lot of “discount protein and dented can stew.”

But yes, there are some people for whom this federal program is a very, very good stop-gap until things improve and other resources become available. And there are some people who never learned how to cook, and others who live in true utility apartments or hot-bunk and don’t have a place to store perishables or time to cook them.

Still, the description of a balanced meal as “privilege” implies that it is actually a right. That’s where I hit a mental wall. It’s the same wall that rises up before me when I hear non-emergency medical care called a “right” or fast internet access as “a right.” Who is taking whom to give to whom? Because, with a few exceptions, routine medical care costs someone. Even if the doctor is donating his labor and knowledge, or is a nurse in a religious order that provides health care to the truly desperate, someone has to pay for the lights, and the supplies, and so on. Someone has to pay for the wire or cable, and the router, and computer equipment, and other things to make the internet flow.

“Privilege.” From privas lex, later privilegium, private law. These were rules, or exemptions from rules, that only applied to one individual or one small group. Later it came to mean special rights belonging to a group or an individual, then the idea of a special advantage. In early English legal writings, privilege had a negative connotation. It was unfair, and the law should apply to all equally.

“Right” Recht, in German, a straight line, a legal entitlement that follows a straight and proper path. That goes back to the Proto-Indo-European sense of a good, straight path or road (or piece of wood.) The older sense was a piece of property, later more intangible things – fishing rights, justice no matter one’s weregeld or social position so long as he was free-born.

Interestingly, the Latin still has a whiff, strong whiff, of negative connotation. Food of some kind should not be only for the favored few. It is correct and straight dealings for people to have [noun].

More and more, I hear things described as “a human right.” Clean water, clean air, internet, free medical care, private housing with air-conditioning and comfortable furnishings and all the amenities. A smart-phone. Internet access, presumably whenever the person wants it, so she doesn’t have to go to the library and use a public-access terminal. In other words, a late 20th Century, middle class or upper lower-class standard of living, with the diet to match. The person declaring this often also declares that materialism is evil and we should all live simply, with fewer possessions and amenities (air conditioning) and spend more time in public spaces because that’s where true inner peace and satisfaction come from.

My brief taste of a greatly simplified, much harder laboring, lifestyle cured me of any desire to live that way, or to impose it on others. There was no bucolic, rural Arcadia outside of Romantic paintings and Rousseau’s fevered imagination.

Life, liberty, and property. Those are rights. The right to defend yourself and your family. The right to clear title for what you purchased. The right to relocate when I choose, to where I choose, so long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s rights. The right to determine, as far as possible for your time, place, and talents, how you will earn your living and what hobbies you pursue. The right to believe or not believe as your conscience commands. And even with employment choices, one might be limited by the rest of the people around you. I have a right not to have my goods stolen, so you don’t have a right to make a living as a thief. Most people also oppose human sacrifice, so no Aztec revivalist religion, either. Your rights stop where mine start. Where exactly is that line? Well, we humans are still sorting out a workable, consistent answer. If there is one.

None of those depend on other people giving you anything, or paying you simply for existing. Or for the government providing things. Actually, what our activist above called rights – internet, housing – are actually privileges in the legal sense. A private law and grant is made, consisting of a service or a good.

I have no problem with encouraging people to eat balanced meals. I will happily donate produce, or help sponsor cooking and nutrition classes for people who want and need them. But if someone chooses to make decisions about how and where to spend their funds that lead them to living on pizza, burgers, fried chicken, or mac-n-cheese, or tacos and burritos . . . That’s their choice. Especially if someone has tried to help the person make better choices.

It’s not fair that I can afford canned tomatoes and corn more easily than some, and have the time to find discount meat at the grocery, and can cook. Or that I have time to cook big batches so I don’t have to cook later, and the cost is lower per serving. But those are my choices. Not a privilege. My privilege is living here, now, when all these things are so amazingly cheap and plentiful compared to 100 years ago.

Leo Lionni’s Frederick

A repeat from 2017.

There are a few illustrated children’s books I grew up with that left a very deep mark on me. Tomi di Paola’s books, Ashanti to Zulu about the peoples of Africa, dinosaur and paleontology books, Three Trees of the Samurai, Holling C. Holling’s books, and one called Catundra about an overweight cat and how she slims down.

Leo Lionni’s story Frederick was one of these. The book is fifty years old this year, and is a wonderful story about the importance of Odds in societies. The author was Dutch, and did many children’s books, a lot of them about mice, including Frederick. I discovered it as a audio-tape and read-along book Mom and Dad got at the library. Continue reading

Smite, Smote, . . . Smitten?

So, frustration reached the point earlier this week that I had to either kill something (on paper) or write about someone who had been asking for it getting a lesson in “why you stop arguing before your hair stands on end and the sky turns black.” I chose option B, since it would go into what I’m supposed to be working on anyway.

Which led me to trying to decide what the passive past tense of “to smite” should be. And I found it, but it has become one of those words that, at least in American English, doesn’t mean that anymore.

“To smite” comes from the same family of verbs as “to write.” Everyone is aware of:

I write, I wrote, I had written. Or “The letter was written with a quill pen.” No one blinks at the construction.


The gods will smite him. Lightning smote the tree. He was smitten by the wrath of Zeus.

To begin with, most of us don’t use “to smite” in everyday speech. It is somewhat archaic, often considered formal, and we’re more likely to use strike or hit to describe the action, unless a deity is involved, or we are being poetic.

When we use “smitten,” it most often refers to a romantic infatuation, or a quasi-romantic infatuation. “He was totally smitten with her.” Sort of like “besotted,” but with a milder, less negative sense. At core, the meaning is the same. One person is struck with an emotion the same way trees are struck by lightning. The modern sense is restricted to love, infatuation, puppy-love, and the like. “She was smitten by his charms” calls to mind a young woman sighing dreamily as an attractive young man walks past her table at the cafe, completely unaware that she’s staring at him. Or more humorously, a young man staring at a bar-maid, and the rest of his table knows darn well that he doesn’t have a prayer of getting her phone number.

So back to the original problem. I can’t end the scene with one character staring at a pile of ash and declaring in awe filled tones, “He was smitten by the gods!” My readers are going to fall out of their chairs (or off their couches) laughing, because the modern meaning collides with the scene in the book.

Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a writer!

The Importance of Hope

A repeat that reminds me of some important things just now.


When I teach the period of Soviet history between Khrushchev’s retirement and 1985 or so, I tend to sum it up as grey. Brezhnev, Andropov, their successors kept watch over a grey country where concrete was the building material of choice, where the snow turned grey in the cities, where conditions slowly grew worse as things went unrepaired or were patched and mended but not really replaced. Individuals fared better, or worse, and had their own stories with color and joy, but as a collective whole? Grey.

Why grey? I’d argue that grey is what is left when hope goes away. Continue reading

Of Symbols and Unicorns

I was fascinated with unicorns and dragons as a teen, mostly unicorns. But not the overly-cute, round, pastel My Little Pony style of unicorns, no. The killer Classical and medieval unicorns were more to my taste. The ones that would skewer hunting dogs, trample hunters, made lions run in fear, could kill elephants, and liked virtuous young women. Those unicorns. Like the Karkadan of Islamic/Arabic myth, but the European forest version. I’ve never thought highly of the wimpy, delicate, harmless unicorn.

Unicorns, the one-horned, hoofed, European variety, came to serve as a symbol* of purity, chastity, healing, and in some allegories, of Jesus Himself. Pure white things were pure, especially things that stayed white. If toxins were the essence of the impure and corrupt, then it made sense that only perfect purity could drive out disease and poison. Thus the market for genuine, proven unicorn horn, especially once the Renaissance and Italian politics (and possibly papal politics in two cases) led to spates of poisonings of nobles, prelates, and monarchs. The unicorn could only be “tamed” by an equally pure woman, and would kill an imposter. According to popular theology, the Son of G-d could only be carried by a “virgin unspotted,” and thus the allegory of Jesus as the unicorn, with Mary as the maiden.

Unicorns were used in other places, such as the holding up the coat of arms of England. “The Lion and the Unicorn fought for the crown . . .” The Asian version, the kirin or ki-lin or qi’len, or . . . is used as the brand for a Japanese beer. Unicorns are not, and probably have never been, confined to spiritual symbolism.

Still, I tend to look at unicorns in pop-culture** in a rather different way from most people. To me, the underlying symbolism is still there in the background. Thus, when I read, and saw examples of, a roly-poly pop-culture unicorn being used for a form of sex-ed, my first reaction was to facepalm. You see, a gingerbread person wasn’t androgynous enough for the activists, but a purple unicorn fit the bill.

The more I thought about it, though, the more angry I became. Because it inverts the symbolism, and dollars to donuts, someone knew that, and did it with malice aforethought. “Shock the ‘danes” by taking a symbol of chastity and virginity, and turn it into a tool to teach gender theory to young children. The fact that it looks like a My Little Pony™-style figure standing on two hoofs doesn’t go without observation, either. It looks cute, sort of, which fits the target market.

Pretty much every legal system and religious system reserves special condemnation for people who deliberately target kids and innocents, especially those who take advantage of innocence. That’s how I feel about taking the unicorn and using it in this way. It makes me think fondly about unleashing a karkadan or medieval unicorn on the people behind the new logo. I’d stand well back, arms folded, a beatific smile on my face as mayhem and terror ensued. It’s not nice, or kind, or especially charitable, but some things ought not be messed with. Innocent kids and unicorns are two of those things.

I still have unicorns of various kinds around, books about unicorns, a study of unicorns in art, and similar things. I will not surrender the symbol.

*I wrote an English Lit paper in college on the plant and animal symbolism in King Lear, contrasting it with the symbolism in the “Unicorn in Captivity” from the tapestry series in the Met Museum’s Cloisters Collection. I may have had a wee bit too much fun with that assignment.

**Yes, I’ve read Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain. That is such a strange urban fantasy book, and in some ways so very 1980s. The ad-agency’s use of the unicorn image bugged me as well, although Bishop did a decent job using it to skewer Madison Avenue’s excesses.