Robert Penn Warren’s Exceptionalism in All the King’s Men Reply


Part III of Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism

Over the next few days I am posting a paper I delivered at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City last week.   Today, I will delve into Warren’s Exceptionalism in his most well known work, All the King’s Men.  

Warren’s Exceptionalism in All the King’s Men

In All the King’s Men, the question of progress and means to progress lie as the animating narrative to reveal the personal characters of Jack Burden and Willie Stark.[1]  The role of progress has been explored in other contexts of the novel, such as Automobiles[2] and gender relationships.[3]  I want to consider how place illustrates the tension of progress against southern exceptionalism in Warren’s Novel.  Specifically I want to focus on two markers on progress on the landscape – namely roads and public schools.[4]

Robert Penn Warren begins his novel in the very first scene with an illustration of progress and social relations.

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll   come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a [black worker] [he used a different term] chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!” And the next [black worker] down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first [black worker] will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph.[5]

Warren’s first image in the book is a freshly tarred road (an image of technological progress) with black workers in the field (an image of past racial servitude).  In the early twentieth century, Roads were visible markers of economic prosperity and technological advancement.[6] Yet, the South’s lack of paved roads in the early 20th century posed a concern that appeared numerous times in National Geographic magazine. David Janson, in his articleAmerican National Identity and the Progress of the New South in “National Geographic Magazine” writes: “For the First half of the twentieth Century, the South’s roads were a concern for National Geographic writers. “Although the wealthiest counties of the state have their own excellent paved highways, there is no dodging Georgia’s deficiency with respect to many of her roads.” Janson continues that “Roads were clearly important to Economic development which is why a National Geographic writer observed with approval when “rough old roads of sand or clay [had] widened into smooth paved highways.”[7]

Just as Warren’s description of the smooth black top leading to Mason City is highlighted as a triumph of Willie Stark – a candidate whose political messages were populist in their promise to deliver government services to more than just the wealthy – the presence of African Americans in the fields suggests that progress remains illusive for some in the South.   As Stark and his crew travel down the good new blacktop, off to the side Warren’s African American field workers are in the distance – close enough to see the march of progress before them, to chuckle at the irony of tragedy in the face of progress, yet clearly not be in the path of progress.

That exclusion of African Americans from economic progress in the south also impacts Willie Stark.   In chapter two, Jack Burden retells being assigned to cover a School Bond issue in Mason City where Stark served as the elected County treasurer.   The reader is immediately tuned in that things are not on the road to progress in Mason City as Jack Burden drives “with his jaws clamped tight when driving over the road described as a “washboard” leaving dust in his trail.  Jack discovers, talking to people on the street, that the schoolhouse bond has stalled because Stark wants the county to “take the low bid” for the building of the new schoolhouse. It becomes clear very soon that “taking the low bid” means two things in Mason: giving jobs to African Americans and conversely taking jobs away from white folk. Burden reflects on this saying “Yeah, I said to myself, so that is the tale, for Mason County is red-neck country and they don’t like black people, not strange black people anyway, and they haven’t got many of their own.”   The last word from folks on the street, however is that giving jobs to African Americans meant taking jobs from white folk. Dolph Pilsbury, the chairman of the Mason City Commissioners, sees the problem the same way,  saying to Burden when asked if the Winning Bid was low says:

“Now look a-here—” and the shadow passed from Mr. Pills-bury’s face and he sat up in his chair as suddenly as though he had been stuck by a pin—“ you talk like that, and ain’t nuthen done but legal. Ain’t nobody can tell the Board what bid to take. Anybody can come along and put in a little piss-ant bid, but the Board doan have to take it. Naw-sir-ee. The Board takes somebody kin do the work right.”

Later, they refer to Stark as a “lover of [black people]” before telling Burden to “Git out.” Burden walks away from the meeting with Pilsbury and the Sheriff contemplating whether they are “real.”  Their archetype of rural politics seemed too fake and in a strange place.  But then, Burden is able to hold the contradictions together – of course they were real and grew up wading in creeks, and watching sunsets, and having babies and wives and having reasons for why they do what they do.

But these are not the only contradictions relating to the schoolhouse.  The exchange suggests to Burden that the sole reason why the Commissioners preferred the higher bid was because of the racial dimension.  But as we delve deeper into the story we learn that the problem is far more complicated. As Stark tells the story the problem of race was merely bait to turn the locals’ interest away from the fact that two other bids were presented that were also lower than the winning bid.  Dolph Pilsbury had a financial stake in seeing that the bid was awarded to the contractor that prevailed. The fact that African Americans stood to be paid more money (as more skilled laborers) than white workers from Mason City, threw oil on the fire.  As Warren would later argue in The Legacy of the Civil War, once race was implicated, everything in the south became about race, even if it wasn’t.[8]  This tension reflects the complicated relationship that race held with the South and with Warren.

Warren himself early in his career approached the problem of race with the idea that segregation was intractable. In his early essay the Briar Patch, Warren perceived the race problem as one of common respect, but which was not easily resolved by forced desegregation.[9]   Later coming off of that opinion, Warren observed that his view of race was primarily informed by his image of south.  He said “The image of the south I carried in my head was one of massive immobility in all ways, in both its virtues and vices – it was an image of the unchangeable human condition, beautiful, sad, tragic.”[10]  Despite changing his views on segregation, one aspect of Warren’s perception of the race problem did not change – its source.  Much of the angst against African Americans stemmed from poor whites who were afraid that Black Mobility meant diminished economic opportunity for white folks.  Warren saw this challenge as one that led to increased violence by poorer white persons who felt isolated by their wealthy white counterparts and black workers looking to obtain a foothold.  Thus Warren wrote in the Briar Patch, “What the white workman must learn… is that he may respect himself as a white man, but if he fails to concede the negro equal protection, he does not properly respect himself as a man.”[11] In Warren’s South – there is always the them versus us that is prevalent in how choices are made.

When Willie chooses sides (or at least chooses to be different from the southerners of Mason City’s government) it’s merely a confirmation that Willie was never an us, even if he wasn’t a them. Willie’s pseudo color-blind approach reflects Warren’s early views on race and relationships.   The school project was never about the black people for Willie, it was about the fairness of the government process. The black workers are merely on the side of the road, watching the progress pass along the side.  Like the early Warren, the violence against a particular people is largely irrelevant as long as there is fairness in how the violence is doled out.


[1] Progress and the question of Progress – namely industrialization – was a primary focus of the Southern Agrarians in their Work I’ll take my Stand.  Seeking to preserve rural identity of the south as a positive value, only Warren takes up the question of race directly.  See Ealy,supra note 15.

[2] Brian Abel Ragen, ‘We’ve Always Gone West:’ Automobiles, Innocence, and All the King’s Men in Weeks, supra note 7.

[3] Lana K. Payton, Out of the Strong shall come forth Sweetness: Women in All the King’s Men, in Weeks, supra note 7.

[4] An ample discussion could also be had of Willie’s hospital.

[5] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men 1.

[6] David Janson, American National Identity and the Progress of the New South in “National Geographic Magazine National Geographic Review 93 Geographical Review 359 (2003).

[7] Id.

[8] Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War .

[9] See Simpson, supra note 5

[10] Id.

[11] See Robert Penn Warren, The Briar Patch, in Donaldson, supra note 15.

 

 

 

American Exceptionalism and Southern Exceptionalism Reply


I'll take my stand

Part II of Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism

Over the next few days I am posting a paper I delivered at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City last week.   Today, I will delve into the meaning of exceptionalisms and southern exceptionalism.

Exceptionalisms and Southern Exceptionalism 

Exceptionalism is a common term reflecting the uncritical narratives that set one people apart from another.  For example, the idea of American Exceptionalism as framed by Martin Lipset is what he labels the American Creed: “Liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez faire, or what he calls a set of dogmas for a good society.”[1] American narratives often draw on these dogmas as sources of validation, suggesting that the society is good, right-directed, or pursuing valid-goals.  Exceptionalisms often, though highlighting the narratives at work by the majority, leave some with counter narratives for why those dogmas didn’t work for them.[2]  The Southern African American is hard pressed to find that narratives of egalitarianism validate his access to education, politics, or liberty in a society constrained by segregation.[3]   Nevertheless, exceptionalisms help explain why society believes itself different from others.  They also serve to explain the past as a triumph of the social system, rather than a mar on the past.  Thus, a narrative invoking exceptionalisms might choose to appreciate the progressive move out of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation rather than focus on the enduring effects any of those institutions may continue to have.[4]

      If the American experience is explained by exceptional qualities, then the Southern Experience may be described by a different reference to the past: “defeat, humiliation, and impotence in the face of intractable social problems.”[5]  The south eagerly adopted the idea of American exceptionalism for itself, believing the society to be set apart, unique, and validated by moral superiority.  This is best characterized by the collection of essays I’ll Take My Stand, in which Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, argued that the Southern rural life should be preserved in what they apprehended was Northern industrialization.  [6]

But as eminent southern historian C. Vann  Woodward’s The Search for Southern Identity argues, time proved that the real southern experience was characterized by “grinding poverty, political impotency, military defeat, racial conflict, and social guilt.”[7]  Sheldon Hackney has argued that Southerners have had to define themselves in opposition to a presumed American norm.[8]  Similarly, Orville Burton contends that the Southerner remains an “other” or “stranger” in the American narrative.[9] For our purposes, Robert Penn Warren embraced the idea that Southerners found themselves looking backward more than forward so to speak – consistently defining themselves, their environment, and their identity against the backdrop of how the exceptional failed in its promise, and the fact that the war was not won.  This is revealed in Warren’s life experience and works.

Warren himself takes up the mantle of exceptionalism in a number of contexts.  Jewishness and its meaning are pre-eminent constructs in a number of Warren’s novels including Flood and Wilderness.  In both novels, Jewish persons find themselves, like Warren’s southern characters as both out of place and in place.   Warren outside of his literary endeavors also pursued social justice on behalf of Soviet Jews by joining with the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews to urge Soviet writers to take up the mantle of Tolstoy, Dostovsky, Checkov and others to find a place in Soviet society for Jewish persons.  Each of Warren’s suggestions in his letter to the Soviet Writers Conference urges support for physical space allocated to the preservation of Jewish Identity – schools, synagogues, cultural centers and the like.  Similarly, it was primarily because of American Exceptionalism that Warren declined a Chaired Professor at the University of California.  At the time, California law mandated that government employees sign a loyalty oath affirming their allegiance to the country and their disavowal of communist tendencies.

For Warren, the presence of the counter narrative – or the contradiction – and the ability to reconcile the counter narrative is a primary reason the South exists as lonely.  Those contradictions are depicted in the way physical space and the law’s relationship to that space is described in both works.


[1] Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: The Double Edged Sword (1996).

[2] See Nancy Leong, The Open Road and the Traffic Stop: Narratives and Counter-Narratives of the American Dream, 64 Fla. L. Rev. 305 (2001) (describing the tension between the fiction of American equality and race-based profiled stops); David Levering Lewis,Exceptionalisms Exceptions: The Changing American Narrative, 141 Daedelus 101 (2012).

[3] See W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America 1860-1880 (1935) (suggesting that the choice for an American narrative is one between “freedom, intelligence and power for all men; the other was industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power”).

[4] Invoking W.E.B. Dubose’s emphasis on choice, see supra note 12.

[5] David R. Jannson, American Hegemony and the Irony of C. Vann Woodward’s the Irony of Southern History, 44 Southeastern Geographer 90 (2004).

[6] See Donald Davidson et al, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners (1930).  For an analysis of Warren’s contribution, which some of the writers believed was contradictory to the overall message, see Steven Ealy, ‘A Place for the Negro in the Agrarian Scheme’: Robert Penn Warren’s Contribution to I’ll Take My Stand,  30Political Science Reviewer 120 (2001).

[7] Jannson, supra note 14, at 90.

[8] Sheldon Hackney,  The South as Counterculture, 42 American Scholar 283 (1973).

[9] Orville Vernon Burton, The South as “Other,” the Southerner as “Stranger,” 79 J. Southern History 7 (2013).

 

 

 

 

Louisiana’s Bible Reply


Image

Louisiana legislators are attempting to revive the old times – back to 1611.  House Bill 503 proposed to declare that “Louisiana should have a state book,” and the state book shall be the “Holy Bible.” 

Such a curious choice!  Louisiana traces its roots back to French and Spanish settlers, particularly french missionaries that established mission posts along the Louisiana delta plains.  More likely to make the journey into the early Louisiana territory was the French Catholic Bible published at Leuven in 1550.  Certainly, at least early on, the various French translations of Catholic Bibles had more influence than the King James Bible.  

So what should the state book of Louisiana be.  I will offer my top five choices of books:

1.  The Louisiana Civil Code. This book has had the most influence on individuals, society, and the state in general.  It springs from the positivist tradition of a civil society, while blending spanish and french influences on the legal regime. It has been updated and revised as the years have passed. Indeed there is no more “Louisiana” book than the Louisiana Civil Code. 

2.  All the King’s Men.  This is an obvious choice given the influence of Louisiana politics and setting on Robert Penn Warren’s best known book.  It is, without a doubt, Louisiana’s book. 

3. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.  Solomon Northup spent twelve years enslaved in the Cane River area of Louisiana’s plantations.  His enduring memoir continues to shape historical dialogues on slavery, society, and memoir.  

4. Laussat’s Memoirs of My Life.  Pierre Clement de Laussat was a french bureaucrat assigned to the Louisiana post. He held posts in Martinet and Guiana, but was the last French provincial governor of the territory before the Louisiana Purchase.  HIs memoirs contain interesting reflections on the purchase from the french perspective.   Additionally, much of his memoir is concerned with life in the Louisiana Territory.  

5. A Confederacy of Dunces. John Kennedy Toole’s only published novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the novel is set in Louisiana’s cultural capital New Orleans, and depicts life from the perspective of a modern Don Quixote of the French Quarter.  

What other books should be considered?  

Image from Albert Pike and the Louisiana Civil Code: An Unfinished Epic…

Robert Penn Warren and Southern Exceptionalism Reply


RPW ImageOver the next few days, I want to deliver a paper I presented at the Conference on the Novel in Salt Lake City, Utah last weekend. The theme of the Conference was Land and the Novel.  I had the pleasure of joining friends that delivered wonderful papers on the Picaresque form in Spanish and American Literature, and the role of Native American and western discourses on Sovereignty and Conquest. Today I will introduce the paper I presented titled Robert Penn Warren’s Southern Exceptionalism in Place. Over the next few days I will add sections.  Comments are always welcome.

Robert Penn Warren’s preeminent subject was the American South.[1] Born in Kentucky and living in various southern states, including Louisiana, and Tennessee Warren once reflected, “The South never crossed my mind except as an imaginative construct before I left it.”[2]  Later, Warren claimed “he became a Southerner by not being there.” [3] His novels reflect the tension felt by the author whose characters, like him, are at once out of place in their environment, while at the same time in the only place that seems best suited for their identity.

Through these characters, Warren performs the tension of southern identity – wrestling with the problem of not belonging, while also being in the only place where one belongs.[4]   Warren’s reflections of feeling isolated in a place he calls home has led to some scholars describing Warren’s view of southern identity as hallmarked by a perception of loneliness. [5] While loneliness is a theme that Warren’s work captures, another more prevalent theme emerges from Warren’s characters and places – that of Southern Exceptionalism.

In the next few posts I will describe what I mean by Southern Exceptionalism and then describe how that theme emerges in Warren’s novels All the King’s Men and Flood.  All the King’s Men follows the workings of Jack Burden and Willie Stark through the political machinery that reveals identities as against place and time.  Jack Burden, thought to be the character that Warren most closely aligns with[6] finds himself torn between the Jack Burden that existed in the past at Burdens landing, and the Jack Burden of the present – a journalist lackey of Governor Stark — who seems to have a knack for “making things stick” and “uncovering the past.[7]  Both Burden and Willie Stark find themselves at one in the same time in and out of contradictions.[8]

Likewise, Warren’s novel Flood : A Romance of our Time, tells the story of Bradwell Toliver a novelist and screenwriter returning to his home town Fiddlersburg to tell its final story. Fiddlersburg is set to be flooded by the Army Corp of Engineers TVA Project in Middle Tennessee leaving as the preeminent question for everyone in the town – can Fiddlersburg residents be themselves without Fiddlersburg.  Like Burden and Stark, Tolliver and other characters find themselves living out contradictions, whether its Toliver’s inability to write about Fiddlersburg while in Fiddlersburg.[9]

I argue in this seriesthat loneliness itself cannot answer that question of Southern identity, but rather is one piece of a broader identity question in the south.   For Warren, the collective action of being “lonely together” helps explain certain aspects of the south.  It may also explain why characters like Burden, Toliver, and Stark move through the south the way they do -able to  both associate and disassociate themselves from their actions and physical surroundings, while others do not.  But it does not necessarily explain the south, despite the claim by Warren’s characters and scholars alike. Loneliness is a description for a people that invoke a state of mind about their surroundings – the choices to embrace or not embrace their surroundings. Exceptionalism, on the other hand is defined by the irony of living with the contradiction.  For the characters, it’s the various contradictions of moral purpose, outcomes and identities that present contradictory moments.  For the region, Warren describes the ability to balance the surroundings with its narrative of superiority.   The constructs of place and time provide boundaries by which characters in Warren’s work navigate the central notion of those ironies.

[1] Warren’s works in both fiction and Non-Fiction detail a fascination with the American South.  His nonfiction works,  John Brown: The Making of a Martyr (1929) Segregation: The Inner Conflict of the American South (1956); Who Speaks for the Negro ?(1960); The Legacy of the Civil War (1961); and Jefferson Davis Get’s his Citizenship Back (1980); and his fictional works All the King’s Men, Flood, Time and World Enough, Night Riders, Meet me at the Green Glen, At Heaven’s Gate, … all are set in the American South.

[2] Watkins, Floyd C., et al., Talking with Robert Penn Warren 383 (U. Ga. Press 1990).

[3] Id. at 374.

[4] Warren himself described this tension personally reflecting about a farm he considered buying in Tennessee later in life.  Though the Middle Tennessee area where the farm was located was the place he claimed to know best, he also said he felt if he bought the farm he’d be isolated. “ A lot of friends are dead and gone, but I also felt a real change in the whole nature of the world. And I felt it would be an idle dream for me to go back there. It would be ridiculous.” Id.

[5] Randy Hendricks, Lonelier than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (2000) (suggesting that Warren more than any other writer has dealt with the southerner as exile); Lewis Simpson, Robert Penn Warren The Loneliness Artist, 99 Sewanee Review 25 (1991) (“describing the autobiographical connections of personal exile in Warren’s various works).

[6] Simpson, supra note 5, at ___ (suggesting that Warren can no more disclaim Jack Burden than Shakespeare can Hamlet).

[7] See Martin Lumpkin, Jack’s Unconscious Burden: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of All the King’s Men, in Dennis L. Weeks, “To Love thee So Well the World: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Penn Warren, 197 (1992) at 197 (describing Jack Burden’s tensions as between “denying his past and living with his cynical present without alms”).

[8] See Lumpkin, supra note 7, at 207 (rejecting Burden’s tale as mere tragedy, for its failure to account for “ambiguities, conflicts, complexities of the human personality); Robert Feldman, Responsibility in Crisis: Jack Burden’s Struggle in All the King’s Men, in Weeks, supra note 7, at 105 (arguing that Burden’s contradiction is the temptation to avoid versus confront the burden of guilt and responsibility); Steven D. Ealy, Corruption and Innocence in Robert Penn Warren’s Fiction, Modern Age (Spring 2005) (describing Willie Stark as an Idealist turn pragmatist with an idealist bent).

[9] Bradwell Toliver can’t seem to understand himself in the town of Fiddlersburg.  This emerges in two ways through out the novel.  First, Toliver’s best selling novel is based on Fiddlersburg but is written when Toliver is away from the town.  The second is the movie script that he writes while in the town, but which, according to Yasha Jones, does not capture the essence of Brad in Fiddlersburg.

De-Politicizing the Terrorist Through an Apology Reply


NPR this morning posted the story of a Syrian terrorist issuing an apology for a man who was wrongfully beheaded:  

“Militant Islamist rebels in Syria … have asked for ‘understanding and forgiveness’ for cutting off and putting on display the wrong man’s head.” NPR quoting the Guardian.  

This is not conventional, but there is something deeply meta going on here.  Apologies require a form of remorse — some sense that the order of the world has been offended and for which one must account.   Thus, the very idea of an apology emanating from someone labeled a “terrorist” should give us pause to reconsider what being a terrorist means.   We conventionally think of those acting outside of any political or moral order.  We think about the zealots who have so twisted their own belief system that they now justify the destruction of others for the better good.  Individuals (even innocent persons) are often swept up into the chaos of horrible acts that are justified for the greater good.   

That someone would apologize for actions that cause injury to “an innocent” should force us to reconsider how we label political groups waging war — particularly when we presume that the groups we’ve labeled as terrorist has not conception of “an innocent.”   It should force us to reconcile that the way we use the term terrorism and terrorist are more often conclusions than they are meaningful identities.   

The Bard of Avon in Prison Reply


Los Angeles Times,November 25, 2012

Reading “Hamlet” Behind Bars

By David Schalkwyk

It doesn’t look like much — just a tattered, 1970 edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. But inside, the book bears testament to an era.

Currently on display at the British Museum as part of an exhibition called “Shakespeare: Staging the World,” the book belongs to Sonny Venkatrathnam, who was incarcerated during the 1970s in South Africa’s apartheid-era political prison, Robben Island. Having convinced a warden that the volume was a Hindu religious text, Venkatrathnam was allowed to keep it with him in prison, where it was passed from prisoner to prisoner. At Venkatrathnam’s request, his comrades signed their names beside their favorite passages.

On Dec. 16, 1977, Nelson Mandela signed next to these lines: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.’

Walter Sisulu, another African National Congress leader and close confidant of Mandela, put his name beside a passage in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ in which Shylock talks about the abuse he has taken as a Jewish money-lender: ‘Still have I borne it with a patient shrug / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.’

And Billy Nair, who went on to become a member of Parliament in the new South Africa, chose Caliban’s challenge to Prospero from ‘The Tempest:’ ‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak’st from me.’

The Robben Island Shakespeare is the only book from the prison that records an act of personal literary appreciation by the major figures incarcerated at the time, many of whom went on to play major roles in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a kind of ‘guest book,’ bearing the signatures of 34 of the Robben Island prisoners. But is also more than that.

When they signed their names against Shakespeare’s text, each prisoner recognized something of himself and his relation to others in the words of a stranger. The Robben Island Shakespeare records that community of character and signature as an example of Shakespeare’s global reach and as a historically specific witness to a common human identity and shared experience.

It’s not at all clear how big a role the book played in the lives of prisoners other than Venkatrathnam. Not one of the memoirs written by inmates at Robben Island mentions the volume. And when the ANC was asked to comment on the significance of the book this year, its spokesman asked, ‘What is this “Robben Island Bible”?’ He denied that it had played any special role in the struggle against oppression.

Nevertheless, all the accounts of political imprisonment in South Africa during the apartheid era suggest that the humanities were central to the lives and needs of the prisoners. In an environment of extreme sensory deprivation, designed to deny people their affinity with others and to strip away humanity, the soul staked its claims with striking insistence. Music, some prisoners declared, was more important to them than food; many were prepared to suffer physical punishment for the sake of a book or a newspaper; and the cold of concrete and steel was turned into the warmth of community through common reading and shared education. Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, has said he received his basic education at the ‘University of Robben Island.’ [….]

The rest of the article is here.

(David Schalkwyk is director of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly. He is the author of Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare.)

Related Miscellany:

Here’s an inspirational story of an inmate “sentenced to 16 years for felony assault, a period extended by three years after an altercation with a guard in prison,” whose prison reading contributed to his becoming something of an expert on hieroglyphs: “Hieroglyphics Turn Prisoner Away from a Life of Crime.”

Duly inspired, here’s a link to the Prison Book Program.

And this may be a propitious occasion for those of us dispositionally inclined to read the likes of Aristotle, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Iris Marion Young, G.A. Cohen, Thomas Pogge, and Amartya Sen on justice (distributive and otherwise), to be reminded of the relevance of Shakespeare, who also speaks to us about such things: A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice (2011).

Interpretive Imagination: seeking the power of illustration rather than the dogma of instruction Reply


Lets be clear, interpretation of difficult texts requires imagination.

When I teach Law and Literature, it seems every class turns to the same topic:  whose lens do we understand the text through, author or reader?  That question becomes particularly charged when God is the purported author.  Sacred texts have the unusual benefit of being endorsed as having a special relationship to the reader — a relationship that implies an authority to be heard – to say something that is meaningful – or to extol some virtue that the reader should pay attention to.

This problem of the sacred text and the reader’s dilemma increases as the text becomes more murky.   That is, a sacred text which is clear and consistent often requires fewer heuristics to justify its authority.   But those texts which lack clarity or which send contradicting messages often require an interpretive mechanism for the text to maintain its sacred authority.

In the Christian tradition, two mechanisms have been employed in this interpretive effort –  either the traditions of the church or the fiction of the inerrant Word. (I would argue that the law uses similar mechanisms to justify the stasis that the law maintains or the sudden change that the law undertakes — Justice Cardozo’s penchant for claiming the law has always approached problems in certain ways calls on a tradition (albeit one that does not exist) to support the new legal regime he created).

Those interpretive mechanisms (whether by tradition or inerrancy) tend to lead readers of the Christian sacred text on a search for its instruction, rather than its illustration.  For example tradition often binds the reader to only understand the text by the processes and order that was pre-established.   Inerrancy seeks to validate problematic texts by a mysterious unknown factor.  But interestingly, neither of these interpretive mechanisms limit individuals from claiming an instruction: that God wants you to do something; or that God is disappointed in some behavior.  For the inerrant, the biblical text is filled with land mines of inconsistency. For every command to not do something, there is an example of one exonerated who did that very thing.   In fact, I argue (indeed, I challenge anyone to prove me wrong) that the only norm that is not contradicted in the biblical text is the norm of fidelity to God and to to other human beings as being the highest order norm.  Problematically, the other norms of behavior have often been seen as supporting this fidelity to God — a point again refuted regularly throughout both the Old and New Testament as the narrative only sometimes attributes behavior with Fidelity to God.

So then what are we to do with an interpretation like Jay Michaelson proposed at the Huffington Post last week, titled “When Jesus Healed a Same Sex Partner.”  (To be clear, Michaelson is not the only or the first to proffer this argument).  Michaelson describes (convincingly) that Jesus’s healing of the Centurion’s servant was likely the healing of a same-sex partner (at least same-sex partner as the First Century would have understood the interaction).  Michaelson goes on to say:

If I and dozens of other scholars (some of whom are listed below) are correct, this is a radical act. Jesus is extending his hand not only to the centurion but to his partner, as well. In addition to Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in general (he never mentions same-sex intimacy, not once, despite its prevalence in his social context), it speaks volumes that he did not hesitate to heal a Roman’s likely same-sex lover. Like his willingness to include former prostitutes in his close circle, Jesus’ engagement with those whose conduct might offend sexual mores even today is a statement of radical inclusion, and of his own priorities for the spiritual life.
It also sets up a useful distinction for those who may be struggling with same-sex marriage as a religious act, but who nonetheless want their gay and lesbian family members, friends, and community members not to be discriminated against. Jesus is not conducting a same-sex marriage here. Yet he is recognizing a socially accepted same-sex relationship. Likewise, Christians and Jews today who may not be ready to celebrate same-sex weddings in their own churches and synagogues can and should endorse civil marriage equality in the public sphere. In a very different context, this is exactly what Jesus did 2,000 years ago.

Frankly, this type of interpretation creates some problems for both the tradition ladened interpreter and the inerrant interpreter.  For the traditionalist, its poses the possibility that the church misunderstood Jesus.  For the inerrant, it posses the possibility that the cannon is flawed.  But Michaelson’s interpretation need not be so limited:

What both tradition and inerrancy require is a third more powerful heuristic — imagination.   The ability to see beyond the text to the illustration, rather than stopping at the supposed instruction, allows one to treat the sacred text with authority, while acknowledging that difficult passages require more than just fictions or traditions to resolve.  It also allows the reader to imagine how the text might shift in light of its new surroundings (a limitation for both the inerrant and the traditionalist).

Thus, one might view the passage in the minimalist way as Michaels has suggested — that Jesus’s act of kindness is one that at the very least should be extended to similar folk.  Or, one can let the imagination take us where the normative message of the sacred text might — that whatever relationship one is in, be it heterosexual or homosexual, the virtues that Jesus affirms are loyalty and fidelity.

Literature and the Law of Torts Reply


Raghu Rai, “Bhopal Gas Tragedy” (In an interview Rai says he saw a Muslim family burying this little girl and asked them to remove the dirt from her face so he could take a photograph.)

At PrawfsBlawg, Jody Madeira writes:

“The last time I taught Torts, I came up with a (voluntary) ‘Torts and Tortes’ plan where interested students could sign up in groups of six to have dinner with me at a local restaurant.  That proved to be a lot of fun.  But this fall, I’m stuck.  I can’t easily implement Torts and Tortes again, because my 10-month-old has food allergies and so I have to modify my diet accordingly.  So I have thought up a new plan to implement a –“ book club” of sorts where interested students can read a book or two over the course of the semester and get together at a local watering hole to discuss them.  

For Law and Medicine, my selections are (I think) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and, for fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (though I am torn between that and My Sister’s Keeper).  But I can’t seem to think of a second book for Torts.  So far I’ve selected Ken Feinberg’s What is Life Worth, about the 9-11 compensation fund.  I can’t seem to decide on a second book.  I’m not thrilled about obvious picks like A Civil Action or The Buffalo Creek DisasterMost of the other titles that spring to mind are criminal law-oriented.  Any suggestions?”

One reader recommends The Unit (2008 in English) by Ninni Holmqvist. I seconded the use of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter (1991) in light of the reasons found in Zahr Said’s paper, “Incorporating Literary Methods and Texts in the Teaching of Tort Law,” available here on SSRN. I also suggested taking a look at a book I’ve yet to read, Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, on which Sinha is something of an expert:

“Sinha has been a passionate campaigner for justice for the victims of the Bhopal disaster since 1993,when he created the first advertisement for the Bhopal Medical Appeal (using the now-famous photograph by Raghu Rai of a dead child being buried) that raised money to build a clinic to provide free treatment for the survivors. He is an outspoken critic of Dow Chemical Company, the multinational owner of Union Carbide, whose neglected, dilapidated and undermanned chemical plant in the city of Bhopal leaked 27 tonnes of poisonous gas on the night of 3 December 1984, killing up to 8,000 people and injuring upwards of half a million. Around 22,000 people have died as a result of injuries sustained on ‘that night,’ and more than 100,000 remain chronically ill; the abandoned, derelict factory continues to leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater, poisoning wells.”

Readers are invited over to PrawfsBlawg to proffer your suggestions to Jody.

Ethics, Literature, and (internally) Deliberative Democracy Reply


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[Readers who have not already done so, may want to look at an earlier and related post here at the Table: Narrative Goodness.] 

Invoking both a philosopher: Aristotle, and a novelist: Henry James, in Love’s Knowledge (1990) Martha Nussbaum writes of the importance of “perception” for ethical attentiveness and judgment or practical wisdom (phronēsis). This perception is defined as “the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s practical situation.” Such perception works in conjunction with or supplements moral philosophy’s traditional emphasis on rules or principles and categories, for the latter are not sufficient alone to make sense of the novelty of, or interconnected “particulars” in, our experience. Put differently, they cannot, unaided, cultivate a capacity to sensitively respond to new circumstances and situations. Experiential learning with regard to ethical living, in other words, “requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action.”

This emphasis on perception reminded me of an aphorism from Nietzsche:

“Learning to see—accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it; postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides. This is the first preliminary schooling for spirituality.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

While we may cultivate such perception and responsiveness through the emulation of exemplars of ethical goodness should we have the good fortune to intimately know and interact with such individuals in the daily round, literature, and especially novels, at least novels of a certain sort, can likewise and more routinely if not reliably offer us guidance on this score as well for they, in Nussbaum’s words, “exemplify and offer such learning:” “Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what would otherwise be too distant for feeling. The importance of this for both morals and politics cannot be underestimated.”

Literature’s capacity to peer, second-hand or at one-remove* as it were, into the lives of others, to cultivate a certain kind of “seeing” characterized by “calmness,” “patience,” the postponement of judgment, the appreciation of different perspectives, and the engagement of our emotions (sympathy, compassion and empathy for example) in a way that complements and motivates our rational reflections and deliberations, these are among the features intrinsic to the act of reading literature of a certain sort that Nussbaum chooses to highlight for its contribution to ethical reflection, moral deliberation and our understanding of virtuous living generally. And fiction, especially the novel, is the focus of her analysis because modern philosophical rhetoric, the mode of writing philosophy, at least for one’s peers in the profession, is constitutionally ill-suited if not unable to cultivate the aforementioned qualities believed to enrich moral thinking and action. Literature’s capacity to widen our horizons in this manner, to help us appreciate various perspectives outside our own experience, called to mind yet another aphorism of Nietzsche:

“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing;’ and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” (Daybreak or The Dawn)

The best literature, for Nussbaum, in effect provides us with more and different eyes. Moreover, Nietzsche’s stress on “more affects” in this regard is repeated in Nussbaum’s discussion of our emotional involvement with the novel, which is shorn of the more intemperate or darker displays of feeling we find in personal encounters, and thus in some sense, with the act of reading we lack the degree of attachment to our emotions found in personal interactions: our emotional engagement with the text is characterized by a kind of detachment congenial to enhanced self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Linda Zagzebski provocatively argues for a “direct reference” exemplarist virtue ethics in her book Divine Motivation Theory (2004) that is of some relevance here. And we might benefit from her proposal even if we choose, as I do, to set aside (or ignore) the theological components of her theory. According to Zagzebski, the “concept of good person arises from exemplars:” “We do not have criteria for goodness in advance of identifying the exemplars of goodness.” Thus, the phronimos, that is, the person who exhibits practical wisdom, “can be defined, roughly, as a person like that, where we make a demonstrative reference to a paradigmatically good person.” The late Robert Nozick wrote about such practically wise and good persons in perhaps his best work, Philosophical Explanations (1981): 

“We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.”

It may very well be the case that we don’t intimately know such people as Nozick describes, or our encounters with them are few and far between. In such instances we can turn to literature as a substitute for live moral exemplars, for “if all the concepts in a formal ethical theory are rooted in a person, then narratives and descriptions of that person are morally significant [as in the narrative accounts, say, of the Buddha or Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist or Stoic sage, Jesus and Christian saints, Gandhi, Sufi saints…].” Narratives are given a priority in an exemplarist virtue ethics, for they’re capable of providing us with “detailed and temporally extended observations of persons.” Of course we need not simply have recourse to the narratives of perfectly good persons of the sort we often encounter in religious literature. Less-than-perfect narrative exemplars found in many novels can model the sort of virtue required “in the messy situations that ordinary, less-than-virtuous persons encounter in modern life….” As Zagzebski reminds us, cultures have traditionally “enshrine[d] the wisdom of exemplars in myths, legends, the lives of saints and heroes, and in sacred literature,” while today we more often turn to personal acquaintances and literature (or even films) for our moral exemplars, although we’re faced, alas, with the unfortunate fact that the post-modern novel represents a “notable decline in the depiction of individuals who are morally better than the ordinary, [as] art no longer has the function of representing moral exemplars.” The primary task of (ethical) literary criticism in the contemporary world might therefore be one of identifying those works of literature, in particular perhaps novels, distinctive for their narrative depictions in the broadest sense of moral exemplars (as well as their converse). In Love’s Knowledge Nussbaum invokes works by Henry James, Dickens, and Proust (among others), although we can well imagine other writers perfectly suited to this task: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Pablo Neruda (a poet), Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, J.M. Coetzee, Ursula Le Guin, Nadine Gordimer, and Margaret Atwood, for example.

We close with mention of one of our foremost political theorists, Robert E. Goodin, who seems to have taken to heart Nussbaum’s thoughts on the role of literature’s capacity to extend and deepen our experience with regard to morals and politics (whether directly or not is hard to say, although he does cite several of her books in a note) in his book, Reflective Democracy (2001). Goodin explains how “deliberative democratic theory” attempts to identify methods and procedures whereby we can correct for uninformed, malformed or distorted, in short, irrational or unreflective preferences of the kind commonplace in modern (mass) democratic societies: “Properly crafted deliberative processes can produce preferences which are more reflective, in the sense of being

  • more empathetic with the plight of others;
  • more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable;
  • more far-reaching in both time and space [i.e., not myopic or marked by inconsistent and temporal time discounting], taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples, and different interests”

The original and creative component of Goodin’s proposal comes in his formulation of a “new way of conceptualizing democratic deliberation—as something which occurs internally, within each individual’s head, and not exclusively or even primarily in an interpersonal setting.” As Goodin says, “Seeing democratic deliberation as being inevitably a largely internal mental process—and potentially more so still—we are led to see as democratically more central than we might otherwise have done a wide range of political arrangements designed to inform the political imagination.” I won’t here cite the cultural, institutional, and interpersonal dimensions of these political arrangements listed by Goodin as I want, in keeping with the suggestions of Nussbaum and Zagzebski, to focus instead on the intrapersonal model of democratic deliberation “within,” that is, the “internal-reflective” aspect of deliberation that might or should supplement and complement the more well-known external-collective models of democratic deliberation. Goodin understands that the precise ways in which good literature stimulates our capacity for empathy, our imagination and sensibilities, our appreciation of concrete particulars, is somewhat elusive if not mysterious. But more importantly, what is commonly acknowledged and well appreciated by literary theorists

“is not just that fiction (and art more generally) might, and often does, contain allusions to social, economic, political, and historical facts, and in that way may serve certain didactic purposes. The larger point is that those lessons come packed with more emotional punch and engage our imagination in more effective ways than do historical narratives or reflective essays of a less stylized sort [e.g., much of Anglo-American analytic philosophy!]. ‘Artists,’ John Dewey says, ‘have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception, and appreciation…. Democracy will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.’ That is not just to say that novelists are more evocative writers than historians or essayists (true though that may be, too). Rather, they fix their focus on the particular—one person, or one action or one period—and they introduce generalities by way of anecdotes, episodes viewed from that particular perspective. That vivid evocation of the particular, in turn, has important consequences for the uptake of works of art. Inevitably, we find it relatively easy to project ourselves imaginatively into the place of some specific (fictitious but grounded) other. It is necessarily harder to project ourselves imaginatively into the inevitably underdescribed sorts of amorphous and abstract others which are the stock and trade of historians and social scientists [and, Nussbaum would add, the real and hypothetical agents of ethical theorizing in contemporary philosophy].”

* This can be understood in several different ways, at least one of which entails recognizing that, in H. Porter Abbot’s words, “as true as it is that narrative can be an art and that art thrives on narrative, narrative is also something we all engage in, artists and non-artists alike. We make narratives many times a day, every day of our lives. And we start doing so almost from the moment we begin putting words together.” For a “philosophy of mind” analysis of the fundamental role of folk-psychological narratives in the child’s acquiring the capacity of understanding intentional actions performed for reasons, please see Daniel D. Hutto’s Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons (2008).

Further Reading:

  • Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1983.
  • Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
  • Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. [I have included this book because I believe the treatment of the emotions one finds in rasa aesthetic theory can best account for the way in which Nussbaum understands the unique manner in which works of literature engage our emotions. As I’ve written elsewhere: In Indian aesthetics, and speaking in this instance with regard to the art of poetry, the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) argued that, properly conceived and executed, a poem’s cognitive content allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience is said to be self-validating (or –certifying) (svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, “a form of self-contemplation.” Thus “rasa as ‘aesthetic flavour’ comprehends both the arousal and development of an aesthetic emotion in the mind of the aesthete, as well as the objective components of the art object, which arouse and sustain that emotion” (Harsha Dehejia). This is one way we might makes sense of the psychological and epistemic mechanisms behind Iris Murdoch’s claim that good art “affords us pure delight in what is excellent,” and why “Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.”]
  • Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
  • Hutto, Daniel, ed. Narrative and Understanding Persons. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Martinich, A.P. and Avrum Stroll. Much Ado About Nonexistence: Fiction and Reference. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
  • McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Murdoch, Iris (Peter Conradi, ed.). Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Follow up to Harry Potter and Cultural Property: Goblins as Allegory 1


In yesterday’s post, I postulated that Rowling’s treatment of copyright was similar to Goblin’s treatment of their creation.  I said:

in the latter case of copyright, Rowling seems to take the disposition of the more calculating goblin Griphook, claiming her entitlement to own, and therefore prevent others from claiming an interest in her cultural property.

Today’s inbox welcomed a message from a friend that teaches at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville School of Law, Gary Pulsinelli, pointing me to a paper he wrote in 2008 drawing a similar analogy.  The article titled: “Harry Potter and the (Re)Order of Artists: Are we Muggles or Goblins?” appeared in volume 87 of the Oregon Law Review, page 1101 et seq.  I am posting the abstract below with a link to where you can get the article:

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” author J.K. Rowling attributes to goblins a very interesting view of ownership rights in artistic works. According to Rowling, goblins believe that the maker of an artistic object maintain an ongoing ownership interest in that object even after it is sold, and is entitled to get it back when the purchaser dies. While this view may strike some as rather odd when it is applied to tangible property in the ‘muggle’ world, it actually has some very interesting parallels to the legal treatment of intangible property, particularly in the areas of intellectual property and moral rights. Because of the way these parallels have been developing and growing, we seem to be becoming more goblinish in our willingness to recognize ongoing rights in artistic objects, including allowing the artist to collect a commission on subsequent resale of the work. Practical and social considerations suggest that we are unlikely to go as far as recognizing a permanent personal right in the creator that lets him or her reclaim such an object after a sale or other transfer is made. However, we are moving closer to recognizing some forms of the collective right that the goblins actually seem to demand, a cultural moral right in important cultural objects that enables the descendants of that culture as a group to demand the return of the object. Thus, we muggles may not be as far from the goblins as we may have at first believed. 

Please feel free to send me more references or drop them in the comments.

MR