KEATS’ LAST NIGHTINGALE: message from France #2

The simplest things are right in front of you, and then you suddenly realize what they mean and it breaks your heart.
I especially admire writers when they can pull this off-- ,at the climax of ”Manon of the Spring”; Raymond Chandler in “Farewell My Lovely” or “The Long Goodbye”when things that appear unconnected suddenly tie back together; Fitzgerald in “Gatsby”; a few others.

So sometimes life itself quietly whispers, “Do you get it now, stupid?”

I might not be ready for something, the first time I read it; I tried reading “Gatsby” when I was 18, didn’t get it, fell in and out of love with the rich girl across the river when I was 20, dreamed of literary success (my own green light at the end of the dock), and now that I’ve had my ass handed to me by the American Dream, I think I’m starting to “get” Gatsby.
Poems have a way of creeping up on you like that.

I’ve been listening to my first nightingale for the past week now. I’m awake between one and three in the morning, local time, and the little creature—they call it “rossignol” here—is singing its heart out. Last night there were two, one answering the other from a little further up the mountain.

Of course I’ve read Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” before; John Keats is my partner’s favorite poet. “My heart aches…” I like the leopards pulling Bacchus’ chariot. All true lungers, from Doc Holliday to asthmatic Proust, have some fellow feeling for Keats coughing out his tuberculosis. Rumpole of the Bailey, contemplating a glass of Pommeroy’s Chateau Thames Embankment, speaks of “a draught of vintage! that hath been/ Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth”… And when greeted with unimportant news, such as the cover story of “People” magazine, we are wont sarcastically to say “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.”

What is unsaid in the poem—the simple thing that escaped me until now—is that the bird is singing in the center of the night, when Keats is the only one who hears her, probably having coughed himself awake. He might as well be alone in the world, no one to hear or coax him back to sleep-- and the ecstacy of the birdsong so indifferent to “the weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan”.

Further up the road, just outside the village limits, the boar hounds are all yelling at something moving on the dark mountain. Twenty hounds baying like the call of the Questing Beast, or Cavall, the great hearted dog of King Arthur. In Scotland and Northern England that’s the sound of the Gabriel Hounds, carrying off the souls of children lost in infancy.

MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Hate, Hate, Hating the French

This is being posted from the south of France, and the annoyance some of you feel for that nation only underlines my point: that we have become a nation that hates instead of thinking, and shoots before it thinks. The knee jerks up before the doctor has even tapped his hammer. “The sleep of Reason produces monsters”, Goya said, and we’d best remember— but no, that’s already way too much metaphor for most.

We might tell our children that hatred is immoral, and yet the hatred of foreigners, and the hatred of Americans who happen to agree with those foreigners, that hatred is now a source of strength for the political Right. Witness the career of Ann Coulter, who has almost nothing to say without her hatred. The political world has always been full of men who hate, but when we make best selling authors out of women who hate, it might be time to look for cover.

This is no puff piece for the French, though I’m having a wonderful time. They have their national quirks and flaws as do all human beings, and if I were French I would probably be hollering about those. As an American my primary concern is with my own country being turned to garbage by its appetite for hate.

People like being given an excuse for hating, especially when Hatred masks itself as Virtue. How else explain the rise of Falwell, Dobson, Robertson and now Ratzinger, all of whom spend more time talking about what they hate than what they love.

Another fine hater is the representative who so hated “the French” that he changed the name of pomme frites to “freedom fries”. (They seem to keep electing these folks in the South, where they admire men who play at soldiering and shoot off their mouths as carelessly as their granddaddies shot off their guns. When Northerners starts to catch the same disease…)

This extraordinary fellow has become one of the first right wingers to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of someone who demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq, but who now objects to withdrawing the troops. If you break it, you bought it—and what kind of monsters are we, to bomb hell out of a country and then say “Gee, we’re sorry we trashed your house, but those insurgency guys keep trying to blow us up, and if you’re still pissed off ‘cause we shot your grandma, so I guess we better go now. You clean it up.”

George W. Bush gave Al Quaeda a second front in Iraq, but he won’t be the one accused of treason, of aiding and abetting our enemies. And why isn’t the beetled brow of Bob Novak in jail?

How about we all Shut the Fuck Up about things like fighting for “freedom’? Those who hate are calling for a world of "freedom" in which people will be free only to agree with them.


Republican party regulars, like German industrialists in the 1930s, thought they would use the Christian right as a way to power—only to find that the fundamentalists have used them. The most powerful nation of earth is now in the hands of zealots, whose devotion to the Biblical faith of our fathers means a belief in Biblical science as well—until such time as a crippling disease awakens their faith in stem cell research.

Lawmakers in Kansas, Ohio, Texas, where next--?– are spending your time and money debating evolution and intelligent design. Madness is contagious, and wemust not be drawn into this conversation with the barking mad. There never was a conflict between religion and science, only between the science of 2,000 BC and the science of today.
It is no wonder that modern Republicans take this debate so seriously-- they’ve been devolving for years.This can be shown in the fossil record from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to Reagan and Bush.

As shown in the diagram the Republican in its natural state would repulse any electorate. Shown here with their kindly house mother, Mrs. Rove, candidates must be cleaned, shaved, taught to use simple tools, walk upright, and perform the speeches of others.

The chest thumping phase has discovered Fox “news”. He believes that John Kerry was a traitor for asking that we stop wasting our own soldiers, that Joe McCarthy was a great American, and the ravings of Ann Coulter have some connection to reality. This is akin to the fellow who saw a book once and thinks he read the whole library.

A little less filthy after a bath, the creature is able to read the essays of Pat Buchanan and Cal Thomas and recite simple phrases. Theirs is a politics of resentment, born in the schools where Catholicism embraced fascism as a bulwark against godless communism. People who spout morality are ipso facto moral. War criminals were misunderstood. Richard Nixon was a saint, I tell you, a saint. Mr. Nixon never had the lie about a blow job, I can tell you that. Strangely enough, their interests coincide with populist Democrats on the subject of American jobs being shipped overseas, but even broken clocks are right twice a day.

Freudians speak of a period when Republicans are strangely obsessed with other men’s penises and what they might be doing with them. The Republican animal now lives by Mark Twain's dictum that nothing needs reforming so much as other people's bad habits. Unmarried women who have sex will be punished as well. Fornicators cannot be trusted with their own bodies, and must be stopped from murdering an unwanted child. Their carelessness with a moment’s pleasure will chain them to fatherless children for a lifetime, because after the child is safely born we need have no more bother with it. A variant species, the Santorum of Pennsylvania, has expressed concern that an expanded marriage contract will lead to sex with dogs. This might never have occured to us until he brought it up.

In the penultimate stage, the specimen has evolved past the concerns of the flesh. He has read The Road to Serfdom and now has a rationalization for despising the poor. For him the Welfare State is the root of evil. He does not see the irony of his own serfdom as apologist for a Welfare State where millionaires find more charity than paupers. His concern for other people's genitalia has now refined itself into something called the Culture War. The appalling state of the popular arts is blamed on the fornicators, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is the result of the same free market forces that the creature worhips as the Invisible Hand of God. Our hypocrisy knows no bounds.

In the final stage of readiness, the Republican animal is polished enough to stand as a candidate. He has learned to shake hands, smile at inanities and not crap on the floor, with exceptions like DeLay of Texas. In Texas, crapping on the floor is something to be proud of, something that shows you know in your heart what's right and don't have to listen to anybody.

In summary, we can see why the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt now views view Darwin’s theory of evolution as an affront to
their precarious hold on humanity. We can also see why handlers such as Rove feel compelled to clean them up first. Red faces, a bright blue ass, and a strained expression on its face-- it would be easy to confuse the Republican with the baboon, were it not for the advanced social conscience of the baboon.

"People who censor books are usually illiterate."

"People who censor books are usually illiterate." --John D. MacDonald

I've no empirical data, but I have anecdotal experience with people who censor comic books and yes, they are illiterate.

... A high school senior, male, borrowed a comic book called "Arrowsmith" by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco, clearly labeled "for mature readers"-- about PG-13. "Arrowsmith: So Smart in their Fine Uniforms" is an alternate history of World War One-- if magic had been used as a weapon. The student's father brought "Arrowsmith" back to the school and withdrew permission to borrow books, NOT because of the explicit World War One gore-- the book's main theme is the loss of innocence-- but because of shadowy panels of a nurse making love with a soldier (shades of Ernest Hemingway and "A Farewell to Arms"). Sex bad, violence okay; Lenny Bruce used to complain that the violence in "Psycho" was permitted, but Janet Leigh's bare breast was forbidden.
The same father told the teacher that as far as he was concerned, "Where we really went wrong was back in the Age of Reason, because that's when religion started to veer off from daily life." If I'm lying, I'm dying. There are at least two witnesses.

In another case, a parent complained about "Death: The High Cost of Living" by Neil Gaiman. This is a variation on "Death Takes a Holiday", with the Reaper spending one day a year as a mortal in order to experience death herself. Two of the characters are "lesbians". Thank God this parent never saw Gaiman's "use a condom or die" message involving a banana. Censors never seem to actually read the books they complain about-- they just skim for the dirty pictures. Don't they know what that says about them?
I also worry about the souls of adolescents so trained to go running to the church police if they see anything upsetting. Shades of the Nazi Youth Movement, with every deviance reported! In Benton Harbor we were made of sterner stuff. Uncensored material was cause for celebration, and could only add to a book's popularity.
...The dastardly author, Neil Gaiman, was kind enough to e-mail his support to the teacher. The book, "The High Cost of Living", is still listed as a "recommended book for teens". The student took the book -- clearly labeled for mature readers-- off the teacher's desk without permission, but the teacher clearly should have been more... limited?

... A Sherman Alexie book of short stories, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" was banned from the same high school because of language; too bad, since it was recommended in a Western Michigan University adolescent literature class.
I'm told by teens that if you say the F word once in a movie, it's still PG-13; any more than that and it's rated R. They learned this from watching John Travolta in "Stay Cool".

Lastly-- you're gonna love this one-- a high school teacher was told not to read "Mr. Roberts" in drama class next year, because the sailors talk (mildly) about booze and nurses. Yes, that's right-- the World War II, Greatest Generation, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell and Jimmy Cagney "Mr. Roberts". [Well, he wouldn't let his mind be put in prison, for one thing. Sadly, the nimrod in the photo was trying to evoke Mr. ROGERS-- Oh Literacy, Where Art Thou?]

This is just one year in one rural district in Michigan. Earlier complaints were made against "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" and "To Kill A Mockingbird"-- not because of the rape trial, but because Scout said, "Pass the damn ham!" School administrators in small towns are notoriously afraid of conflict. American schools emphasize sports, so the kids who love books and their parents have no real pull in the community. These same children, like their peers, report watching R-rated movies and worse-- but hypocrisy is a way of life here. Better to be an American Idiot than be called a pornographer.

Alas, public schools are for the most part under control of people who hate books, ideas, and independent thought. Censors especially fear the sight of a bare breast; perhaps they are more reptilian than mammalian. I'll save you a spot in the detention camp.