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The Misfit's Wickedness

May 24, 2019

Thanks to James Keller, HMU student, for today's post.

Borrowing from Bradbury, Great Books Chicago 2019 was titled: Something Wicked This Way Comes. Taken as a statement rather than a title, it is a somewhat comforting thought—at least initially. If the wicked thing is coming, it is something outside and not of ourselves. It is something foreign to humanity, perhaps a distortion of humanity, but not endemic to humanity. But comfort turns cold when one asks, from where does this wicked thing come? From where does wickedness itself come? How is it that otherwise good people sometimes perform horrifying acts of violence? How is it that people have at times submitted themselves to great oppression, and worse, that they have become complicit in aiding the oppression of others? Lingering in the back of the mind is dread, the fear that wickedness is not something foreign after all, but something to which any one of us might be prone under the right—or rather, wrong—circumstances. Whence wickedness?

Among the readings at Great Books Chicago 2019 was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that short story, a murderer and thief who has adopted the name, The Misfit, explains the source of his own wickedness. The cause of his criminality is rooted in his doubts regarding the resurrecting power of Jesus. If Jesus did indeed do as he claimed to have done, The Misfit asserts, then one has no choice but to follow him, but “if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (71-72). He goes on to say that he wishes he could be certain whether or not Jesus raised the dead, because, if he had certain knowledge of the resurrection, he would not be like he is. But, the reader asks, why should religious doubt lead The Misfit to the mistreatment of his fellow human beings?

The search for an answer to this question involves other related questions: Why these pleasures? If one said that without a resurrection, one might as well devote himself to the pleasures of the moment, it does not follow that those must entail violence. Pleasure comes in many forms: food, sex, alcohol, art, fine conversation—perhaps about great books—sports... and so on. Why, then, does The Misfit focus on the pleasure to be derived from violence? And then, If there is no pleasure but meanness, why does he say about killing the grandmother, “It’s no real pleasure in life”? (73). By studying these questions, we may understand how The Misfit’s religious doubt is the root of his wickedness.

The limited pleasures of The Misfit grow out of a unique form of despair. For some, moral despair is induced by the belief that one is unable to improve, due to a natural badness or weakness of character. Because they find it unthinkable that they could morally improve themselves, they no longer make the attempt. This is just who I am. But this is not the source of despair in The Misfit. In his case, he cannot fathom why he ought to be punished. He relates the story of being imprisoned, despite being unable to remember the original crime. He is told that he killed his father, but he does not believe this to be true, claiming that his father died of the flu some time ago (69). An ambivalence marks his speech regarding his punishment. On the one hand, he suggests that he was rightly punished: “They had the papers on me” (69). But on the other, he expresses mistrust in the system that punished him, saying that no one ever showed him those papers and that from now on, he makes sure to keep a copy of all papers, with signatures: “Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see they do match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right” (71). Indeed, he calls himself “The Misfit,” not because he feels no sense of belonging, but because he knows of no crime he committed that merited the punishment he received (71). Moreover, he expresses indignation that punishment is dispensed arbitrarily, with one being “punished a heap,” while another is not “punished at all” (71).

The fact that The Misfit is punished for an unknown crime is the motivation for his malevolent behavior—a case of “Let the crime fit the punishment.” His is a despair that grows out of his perception that the world is fundamentally unjust. If one is going to be punished, despite having never performed a crime—at least that he can remember—then he might as well be a criminal. He might as well do something worth punishing. His criminality is a twisted attempt to restore justice to the world by making himself worthy of his punishment.

But, if The Misfit’s criminality is an expression of his despair, then it can bring him no joy. This is one reason killing the grandmother and her family brings no pleasure. It is true that he sees something good in her before killing her, and this seems to produce a sorrow in him over killing her. He seems regretful when he says: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (73). But the statement, “It’s no real pleasure in life” is broader than the regret of the single action. He expresses the lack of pleasure in the violence altogether, which supports the notion that his violence is an expression of his despair.

The Misfit’s despair and his complaint against the system can be read as a complaint against the doctrine of original sin. If one is born into the world worthy of punishment for the crimes of his forebears, crimes of which one has no memory, one response to that might be to be worthy of the promised punishment. The Misfit likens his punishment to that of Jesus, with the only exception being that “they” had no papers on Jesus (71). Both punishments appear to him to be unjust. Yet, in theory, Jesus was able to ultimately overcome death, i.e. reverse his punishment, while The Misfit cannot do so himself, except through belief in Jesus’ power to raise the dead. Through belief in the resurrection, The Misfit would be able to escape the punishment of death which he inherited. But, because he lacks certainty, he is left with the notion that he will be punished for crimes unknown to him, to a degree he cannot imagine having merited.

For The Misfit, then, the root of his wickedness is his religious doubt, the uncertainty that he merits death as a punishment and the uncertainty that he can be delivered from that death by Jesus. The belief that he will be punished, whether he is wicked or not, inspires him to pursue the pleasure to be found in violence. But, being motivated by despair, that violence cannot be an object of enjoyment, only an expression of rage against his perception that the world is unjust.

It will be obvious to the reader that the source of The Misfit’s wickedness is not the source of all human wickedness. The other readings at Great Books Chicago furnished other—perhaps “answers” is too strong a word—avenues for considering the origin of wickedness. They furnished us with good material for discussion. And, if it is a troubling notion that humans are capable of so much evil, some comfort is found in discussing the matter with others, looking together for the roots of wickedness within ourselves that they may be uprooted and never bear fruit.

I wish to express my gratitude to the organizers, speakers, discussion leaders, and fellow readers of Great Books Chicago 2019 and to Harrison Middleton University.

Work Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Vital Ideas: Crime. Ed. Theresa Starkey. Great Books Foundation. 2011, pp. 53-73.

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Poems That Celebrate Mothers

May 10, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I am blessed with strong women in my ancestry. Like most women, however, I find that their strength is often invisible. This invisible strength appears daily, hourly, routinely, in the way they made time for others, spent late hours fixing others’ problems, carrying the weight of the household in more ways than one. I love Alberto Ríos’s poem “Nani” which eloquently demonstrates this idea of invisible love. In the poem, Nani serves albondigas to a grandchild. In the poem, they have apparently lost a common language. The narrator explains that he is full, but then asks for more, realizing that she intends to serve. He writes, “All my words/ make her smile. Nani never serves/ herself, she only watches me/ with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.” They speak through an unwritten language which involves gratitude, faith, love. The narrator calls her the “absolute mamá,” which is a phrase that puzzles me, but I imagine that this absolute power grants her an ability to intuit scenarios of right and wrong, to offer help and sustenance.

Much of his poem speaks of a language divide which embarrasses the narrator. Yet, the two do communicate, and even though the foreign words make her smile, she does understand the narrator. Furthermore, there is so much unspoken dialogue in this poem. The narrator notes grandmother’s wrinkles, or the way her fingers work tortillas. Ríos writes, “I watch her/ fingers in the flame for me./ Near her mouth,/ I see a wrinkle speak/ of a man whose body serves/ the ants like she serves me….” She tempts fire for her family. She tends the stove and hearth. She bears the burden of the dead. She works steadily, aware of her grandchild, attentive to his needs. Furthermore, the poet links her to mother earth, and the relentless nature of nature. In describing the essence of this strong woman he writes, “Her insides speak/ through a hundred wrinkles, now, more/ than she can bear, steel around her,/ shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?” Though there is no dialogue in this poem, the reader feels a real connection between the two. The dynamic imagery, the string of actions we observe really ask us to question the language barrier that divides them. What is language? What does it mean to serve someone? The poem ends with: “Even before I speak, she serves,” which makes me wonder in what way(s) is language important to this poem and these two characters?

“Nani” celebrates a matriarchal figure. The way that the speaker critically narrates their own language gives the poem a bit of nostalgia. In Ríos’s poem, the reader feels the narrative presence of two figures, of the stove and albondigas, of the mint that sustains them all. That food is central makes sense for this poem, as it is another form of conversation.

However, in a poem like ee cummingsif there are any heavens my mother will,” word and deed and life have all been abstracted. cummings replaces any actual lived experience with an abstract expression of love. This poem describes the mother by comparing her to flowers. He writes, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have/ one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor/ a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but/ it will be a heaven of blackred roses.” The image of blackred roses invokes both strength and beauty, as opposed to the fragility of lilies-of-the-valley or the common pansies. The poet’s mother, then, is extraordinary in some important, and perhaps indefinable, way.

The poem also depicts the father gently swaying in this garden of blackred roses. His eyes are petals, and their faces sway, much like the poem’s line breaks, fluidly moving in and out. Regardless of what the father actually does for a living, cummings calls him a poet, perhaps because he lingers over beauty, or because he loves with such devotion. Whatever it is, the narrator describes the richness of love with the way his father lingers over the deceased mother. This man is tall and strong and devoted. The poet, too, recognizes the genuine beauty of love in the act of lingering. As the father sways, he performs an act of gratitude to this incredible woman. The poem ends:

(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

The interconnected world of flowers is the same as the interconnected world of humans. cummings gives voice to, what I believe, is one of the most elemental aspects of humanity: the idea that one act has the potential to reverberate. Here we see the father bow and, in response, the whole garden is likewise moved.

These poems of love and gratitude are interesting because they both involve unspoken language. The two characters of “Nani” share a room, but not a language. cummings’s poem, on the other hand, demonstrates a type of nostalgic devotion that exists when the mother is no longer present. Their care and nourishment remains, however, and in fact increases as the poets discover language adequate to represent such forceful emotions. These mothers are strong, capable, enduring, much like mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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The Book of Seeds

April 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spring is upon us. Just as blossoms begin to show their strength, color, and vibrancy, so too the weather changes and begins to warm. All of the seasonal changes often add up to a change in attitude as well. Flowers, I believe, bring out the best of human nature, fostering images of beauty, strength, love, hope, and imagination. But where does the beauty begin? How does the flower take root and gain enough energy to grow their blooms?

Paul Smith begins his recent book The Book of Seeds; A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World (2018) with the following lines:

“Seeds are amazing. They can travel thousands of miles across oceans and continents, and can live for hundreds of years. A seed no bigger than a pinhead can grow into the tallest living organism on the planet. The smallest seed can barely be seen with the naked eye; the largest is the size of a human head. Over a period of more than 300 million years, seeds have evolved into every size, shape, and color imaginable” (6).

All of that seems amazing when one considers how little we discuss seeds in comparison to how much time is spent on animals, even extinct animals such as dinosaurs. Often we fail to notice the same awe-inspiring capabilities from plants of the same time period – ones to which we still have access! Paul Smith continues:

“Plant life on land evolved a staggering 600 million years ago, with the ancestors of many of these early plants still extant today: the mosses, clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns. These species don’t produce flowers or seeds; instead, they reproduce through spores. It was not until approximately 240 million years later that the first primitive seed-bearing plants appeared, an adaptation that conferred numerous advantages for survival, including the capacity for sexual reproduction in the absence of water, the ability to disperse over long distances, and the adaptability to survive in a dormant state for long periods of time until the right conditions arose. Today, the vast majority of plant species (more than 80 percent) are found in the tropics, but even places as inhospitable as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert support seed-bearing plant species” (7).

Seeds have adapted many tricks to optimize their environments. For example, some seeds remain dormant for long periods of time waiting until the conditions are ripe for life. Smith explains that some seeds, particularly those in warm, wet environments, do not remain dormant. Instead of storing energy, they choose to sprout quickly and gain access to the immediate environmental benefits. Other seeds, like the coconut, float which enables them to travel greater distances to access better growing conditions. Many seeds may remain dormant for years. One of the greatest examples of this was found in the 1960s during an excavation at King Herod’s palace in Israel. A 2,000 year old date palm seed was found among the ruins and when planted, it grew normally.

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

More impressive than their amazing adaptations, however, is the important part that seeds play in determining human existence. Without plants that can be planted and cultivated as a food source, humans would have to remain hunter gatherers. Seeds, especially the ones that can be saved and transported, allow humans to move to a new place, or stay in one place. The ability to grow foods impacts social connectivity and health. Smith writes, “The adaptive leap that humans made from collecting grains and seeds to planting and harvesting them seems to have occurred in parallel in several different places” (18). This astounding idea – that multiple communities who did not know of each others’ existence arrived at cultivation simultaneously indicates something important about the nature of humans and of our interaction with the planet. Smith notes that around 9500 BCE Wheat, Barley, Pea, and Lentil “were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent – what is now Iran and Iraq” (18). From there, he continues:

“At around the same time, Rice was first cultivated in China, followed by Soybean. In the Andes, the Potato was domesticated around 8000 BCE, together with beans. In New Guinea, Sugarcane and the Yam appear in the archeological record about 7000 BCE. In Africa, Sorghum was domesticated in about 5000 BCE, and in Central America, Maize was first cultivated around 4000 BCE. Domestication of livestock occurred over a similar period of time. The transformation of wild plants into crops through artificial selection and breeding enabled human communities to establish themselves in villages, towns, and cities, and to flourish” (19).

While the history of seeds is astoundingly impressive (and seeds themselves are as diverse as imaginable), more importantly, however, may be the future of plants. Smith claims that plant diversity is of utmost importance since the majority of life on earth depends upon plants. He notes that we have studied relatively few, however. He claims that plants seem nondescript, but they have important roles in our daily lives. Smith ends his introduction with a quote by Aldo Leopold which underscores the point that humans would better serve themselves and the earth by adding a curious intelligence into their dealings with plants. He quotes, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (27).

I highly suggest thumbing through this massive collection of seeds. The diversity and colorful arrays are astounding. It will leave you with yet another reminder of the world’s vast richness.

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Book Review:  The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner by Ezra Taft Benson

April 12, 2019

Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Someone once asked me why I read books from writers whom I don’t seem to like very much. The response was simple. If one only finds ideas that they agree with on a whole-hearted level, they will end up only seeing what they want to see. Sometimes it is good to be challenged, even if it is not always in our comfort zone. That is what brings us to the discussion of The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner.

Ezra Taft Benson served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but perhaps his legacy is more rooted in his work as President of the Mormon Church (Dew 1987). In this work, which was an oral presentation transcribed into book-form, Benson attempts to make the case that the United States Constitution is a document that is the epitome of human freedom, as well as also having divine origins. Perhaps there is something poetic about how Benson introduces the subject, saying that sharing ideas through freedom is the work of God, and using coercion to force ideas onto people is the work of Satan (Benson 1986), yet that stands as only a poetic statement. Perhaps, what is more fascinating is when Benson discusses the relationship among freedom, governments, and the citizens of a nation. There is a bold statement that the people are superior to the government (of the United States).

To retort, in the United States, the government is not comprised of monarchs or theocrats, it consists of representatives of the people. Every member of the United States government is also a citizen or resident of the country. In short, the people are not superior to the government of the U.S.A. They are the government. As the monologue-style presentation continues, Benson states that the Constitution is a Heavenly Banner, for the Lord has approved the Constitution, and it is a document that emboldens freedom, which is the way of God. However, this fails to identify Article VI of the United States Constitution, which states that no one must pass a religious test to hold public office (Story 1874), not to mention a Bill of Rights, which also includes freedom of religion.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made regarding the meaning of these words. Freedom of religion applies not only to those who follow the pathways that Ezra Taft Benson is describing. It also applies to any other spiritual practice that is law-abiding and even to those who choose to refrain from spiritual or religious practices altogether (Cooley 1871). Therefore, to say that the Lord approved the Constitution is a statement that can stand as only a metaphor or figurative piece. It is the same Article VI and First Amendment that allow someone such as Ezra Taft Benson to hold the position of Secretary of Agriculture, for there are those who question whether or not members of the Mormon Church should be members of the government at all. Moreover, these are not relics of the Eisenhower administration. The same challenges were put forth during the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in 2011 (Tarpley 2012), and once again the First Amendment and Article VI triumphed over all.

Not to provide a complete sense of disagreement, Benson makes a compelling case for small government, arguing that the United States limits government functions to avoid tyranny. This is an interpretation that holds a lot of supporters, for whether it is checks and balances or even allowing people to believe and practice the spirituality of their choosing (or lack thereof) they are protected. The government cannot force a spiritual belief system on the citizens. Benson’s argument expands into a rather unique stance at this point, where he makes the claim that we cannot expect a higher level of morality from our elected officials.

While Benson makes some strong claims about the origins of the Constitution and who approved of it, there is some agreement here, for if our politicians are not monarchs or theocrats, we must recognize them as ordinary human beings and citizens. A person is a person. Therefore, we must approach our elected leaders as representatives of the people, but also use the laws of the land to monitor the actions of our elected few, so our nation does not turn into a domain dominated by tyrants. Sometimes we turn to writers and thinkers that we expect to disagree with, and we find that there are times when we have found the unexpected point of agreement. The world is wide.

References

Benson, Ezra Taft. The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner. Deseret Book, 1986.

Cooley, Thomas. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Lawbook Exchange. Ltd., 1874.

Dew, Sheri L. Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography. Deseret Book, 1987

Story, Joseph. A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States of America. Gateway Editions, 1874.

Tarpley, Webster. Just Too Weird: Bishop Romney and the Mormon Takeover of America. Progressive Press, 2012.

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