How’s the Apocalypse working for you? My only surprise is the celerity with which it has unfolded; with such speed, the waters must have risen around Noah’s Ark during the Deluge. But I am taken aback by the surprised alarums of our clown dynasty and eminent members of the media who are shocked—shocked!—at the avalanche of lies emanating from the White House.
What did we expect? Anyone who has dealt with a used car salesman or with a drummer selling swamp land in Florida knows Trump. Any woman who has had to fend off unwanted advances from a leering “gentleman crook” who mutters “Now don’t get scared, lady, I ain’t gonna crack you on the bean!” recognizes the type.
To admirers of Dashiell Hammett, the Trump Apocalypse is not a surprise. As an operative for Pinkerton’s detective agency, Hammett came in contact with the Underworld of North American society. His novels portray crooks, thieves, murderers, pick-pockets, swindlers, forgers and assorted criminals with all the precision of a chronicler who has experienced what he writes about. (more…)
“Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” by Alexander Louis Leloir, 1865. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Jacob was journeying to the land of his father and kinsmen, he met the “angels of god” in a place called Mahanaim. When he was informed that this brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed,” for there was past enmity between Jacob and his brother. He sent his people and their retinue ahead. On the night when he passed over the ford Jabbok, he sent his wife, his servants and his eleven sons to cross over the brook and remained alone (KJ Gen., 32:2 and 7).
Then Jacob “wrestled” with a man until the “breaking of the day.” The man did not prevail against him, but touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and caused it to come out of joint. Still Jacob persisted, until at the first sight of dawn, the man asked to be released from their struggle. And Jacob said: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” (KJ Gen., 32:24-26).
The man replied: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob received the blessing from the strange man, for “he blessed him there.” Only then did he realize he had wrestled with an angel: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” He called the place Penuel, and as he passed from it “the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh” (KJ Gen., 32: 28-31).
What lessons can be learned from the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel? (more…)
“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the Catholic pantheon, the cult of Saint Joseph has three aspects: head of family, worker, and dreamer. In the gospel of Matthew, during the days of the birth of Christ, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph three, perhaps four times (KJ Matthew, chs. 1-2): (more…)
The dead Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi. Wall painting by Justus Becker and Oguz Sen at the Frankfurt East Harbor. (Credit: Frank C. Müller)
The waves of the sea lap gently around him, belying the horror of his small body face down, immobile on the beach. The boy looks frighteningly like one of my grandsons, and he wears an outfit that I remember my son used to wear—down to the sneakers—when he was small. He could have been any of our children, and he could have been a boy flying to Egypt to escape the Massacre of the Innocents.
His name was Alan Kurdi. His family was leaving Turkey in the hopes of eventually reaching Canada. Their small boat capsized on the Mediterranean Sea. Alan was only peripherally a casualty of war, not one of those swept up in the chilling term “collateral damage.” He was rather a casualty of the refugee crisis created by war, and by our shameful inclination to weep crocodile tears for dead children, even as we refuse to allay their suffering when alive. (more…)
Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:
War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. 
Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”
Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. (more…)
Bundoran Strand Co. Donegal, with surfers, on the Atlantic west coast of Ireland, June 2010. (Credit: Osioni / Wikimedia Commons)
(Bundoran, January 2017) George Bernard Shaw first led us to the National Gallery of Ireland, where a statue of the Irish sage (the very semblance of the ghost that haunted me) welcomes visitors. In his last will, Shaw donated a third of the royalties from his plays to the Gallery, “to which I owe much of the only real education I ever got as a boy In Eire.” I had always expected that if one were to meet the ghost of Shaw it would be in London, where he spent so many years, rather than in Dublin, which he left behind in his twenties and about which he would write:
To this day my sentimental regard for Ireland does not include the capital. I am not enamored of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply; and these were all that Dublin offered to the enormity of my unconscious ambition.
When we boarded a bus to the seafront town of Bundoran in the eastern coast of Ireland, I thought we had left the ghost of Shaw behind. (more…)
General Post Office, Dublin, Ireland. (Credit: Kaihsu Tai)
(Dublin, January 2017) Weathering under the foul winds of the Trump Apocalypse, I have been improving my soul by a visit to the Land of the Saints. One never comes to Ireland for the first time; one merely returns to a place as familiar as the fading memories of your grandfather’s or grandmother’s house.
At the airport the cabdriver greets you with a welcome and a broad smile. You have been told to mistrust the joviality of the Irish; it is a caricature—you have been told—used to control foreigners. But you cannot help to respond agreeably: when was the last time you were greeted by a cabdriver in the States with anything but a surly expression?
After pleasantries the talk inevitably turns to the recent US election. In gentle terms, the cabdriver expresses his unbelief at the fact that we spurned a candidate as intelligent and prepared as Hillary Clinton and elected a “crazy man” as president. I heard the underlying tenor of his words: it was the same one yelled indignantly by W.B. Yeats at the rioting crowds in the Abbey Theatre upon the premiere of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars: “You have disgraced yourselves—again!”
I couldn’t agree more, and therefore hung my head in shame. (more…)
White House lawn, 30 May 2008. (Credit: Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons)
Three impressive political lies came out of the White House during the first weeks of the Trump administration: 1) there was the summary affirmation, against all photographic and professional evidence to the contrary, that Trump’s inauguration was visited by “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”; 2) there was the illusory claim that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton in the past election, making Trump a loser in the popular vote, even though he won the presidency; 3) there was an Executive Order imposing a Muslim ban (which the White House denied was a Muslim ban), accompanied by an affirmation that we were in peril of terrorist attacks from seven Muslim countries, the citizens of which have never committed acts of terrorism against the United States.
To this we must add the coining of a new political concept by presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway (one missed by George Orwell in 1984): “alternative facts.” If this avalanche of fabrications continues unabated, Donald Trump will make Richard Nixon look like a paragon of virtue. One is tempted to shout, along with Big Daddy at the end of Act Two in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “CHRIST—DAMN—ALL—LYING SONS OF—LYING BITCHES!” (more…)
Credit: Joanbanjo / Wikimedia Commons
Why should I be civil to them or to you? In this Palace of Lies a truth or two will not hurt you. Your friends are the dullest dogs I know.
Don Juan speaking to the Devil, in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell
To face the Apocalypse we must fix squarely in the mind what Donald Trump is and what he’s not. These days I have frequently revisited George Orwell’s dark fable Animal Farm as an emblematic text from which much can be learned. “Animal Farm,” said Orwell, “was the first book in which I tried … to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
Among the animals of Orwell’s dark fable—the heroic cart-horse Boxer and the “motherly mare” Clover, Muriel the goat, Benjamin the donkey and Moses the Raven—none stands out for me more than Napoleon the Pig. (more…)
Circus poster showing battle between Buffalo Bill’s congress of rough riders and Cuban insurgents. (Library of Congress)
Sic semper tyrannis! I will not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. Dictators abound in the world; their deaths should be met with a silent shrug. What joy is there in the tragedy of a people still shattered, a country lost in childhood, and another failure in the centuries-old struggle of Cubans for liberty and equality? Let those who will dance on graves wave flags, honk horns and jump in the streets as a rite of passage.
Rather than spit on a corpse, I choose to recall memories of another Old Man—what he did, and what he meant to us. (more…)