What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Writing with the Rain

The Rain

By Robert Creeley

All night the sound had

come back again,

and again falls

this quiet, persistent rain.

 

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often? Is it

 

that never the ease,

even the hardness,

of rain falling

will have for me

 

something other than this,

something not so insistent—

am I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.

 

Love, if you love me,

lie next to me.

Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

 

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-

lust of intentional indifference.

Be wet

with a decent happiness.

“What am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often…”

Over and over in these blog posts, I look back to events in my life, trying to put my work and life into a context that makes sense. I am aware that I am insisting. I hearken back to Creeley’s poem, “The Rain,” because, like the speaker of the poem, I feel locked in some “final uneasiness.” I have had too much “intentional indifference”—that kind of willful professional distance that is meant to keep the ravages of freely ranging emotions at bay.

Creeley’s poem—tightly lined and sentenced—runs counter to the other great insistent poet in my life, Walt Whitman. Whitman’s Song of Myself insists stridently, and I wrote about the struggles my students face in the face of his relentlessness. I do not struggle. If anything, Whitman energizes me. His work reminds me that brio teetering on masculine bombast has its place. “Don’t restrain yourself, Brennan! Be all you are!” the poem declares. It urges me on.

“The Rain” does too.

Called between lyrical precision and unbridled energy, I find my balance in prose. I write fiction and nonfiction accepting the imperfections and imprecision, hoping that some meaning gets from here to an unknown there.

Besides I have been in the rain, under steady wet conditions on the ocean. I imagined myself as the “storm helm”—ready and able at the wheel in rough weather—when I sailed. I insisted on taking the wheel when the rain ran horizontally. I shooed my mates below decks while making way around Bermuda—from Hamilton to St. George—in hurricane wind. The local ferry even diverted course to check on us—it was not a day to be in the channel, but my father had a schedule. I kept us appointed.

Rain did not need to be as dramatic. Some stretches were just days long spirit flattening bouts of precipitation. Sailing did not have to be pleasant to feel necessary. Often, it was not. And yet, I felt called to it, in part by a commitment to my father, but also by the beauty of the ocean. Only onshore obligations kept me from finding further passages. Do I regret not having made them? Yes. Do I regret having kept my commitments? No.

Did the rain out there on the ocean wash away regret? Was I made clean? I wish it were entirely so. My experiences on the ocean are essential to the writer I have become, as all my experiences are. There are more salient lessons there though, if only because the lessons came with abrupt consequences. Life does not always have such clearly defined moments—it is more often like a day that is half-rain and half-sun. There is a reason that Thoreau calls life “quiet desperation”—it happens so silently that we do not even recognize the need.

Whitman—damned insistent Whitman—can loafe and still find original energy in that spear of summer grass.

I look skyward, into the rain.

Song: “When that I was and a little tiny boy (With hey, ho, the wind and the rain)”

By William Shakespeare

When that I was and a little tiny boy,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

But when I came to man’s estate,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

But when I came, alas! to wive,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

By swaggering could I never thrive,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

But when I came unto my beds,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

With toss-pots still had drunken heads,

For the rain it raineth every day.

 

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

 

At the end of Twelfth Night, Feste sings and sums up life. It is a particularly British vision of life. One merely needs to visit England to realize that the rain does indeed “raineth every day.” Of course, Shakespeare does not mean only actual rain, but that virtually everpresent British rain is not the storm on the heath, not the “Howl! Howl! Howl!” It just comes every day—not as a reversal, just as a steady ubiquitous presence. “The rain it raineth every day.”

Shakespeare is another touchstone for me. His plays contain absolute reversals and despair—too often self-inflicted injuries, and injuries that harm not simply the self but the state of the world. Consequence abounds. I am drawn to consequence.

Even Feste, the fool, is consequential. He helps to shape the story; he guides Olivia. And then he leaves. I love Trevor Nunn’s framing of Feste—and Ben Kingsley’s portrayal—in no small part, because of how Feste commands the end of the play. Feste walks off and insists, “Every day,” directly to the audience. This is the fool’s job—to entertain every day, and more, always more. If there is rain every day, so too must there be entertainment.

And the writer is the fool. I have always felt that. There is more than something foolish about attempting to entertain, especially when the entertainment strives to do more than simply delight. Although, delight is enough at times—“Be wet with a decent happiness.” More. I want more, of course, I want more. I want exuberance and ecstasy, a sundering of all that we simply accept—that intentional indifference. “Creeds and schools in abeyance!”

It is no surprise that I have supplemented my writing life with creeds and schools. I was drawn to them to overturn them. I wanted to make those worlds bigger. I have given up on one part of that desire. I have realized that as far as the other, it will not be enough. It cannot be enough, as attractive and meaningful as being the teacher-fool can be—and how enchanting teaching can be (and it can be! Watching the lights go on in my students’ eyes is beyond satisfying). I have to be the writer-fool.

Every day has been the mantra of the work. In rain. In sun. In light. In dark. Even though I cannot see your eyes while you read, or hear your gasps while I read, I undertake this foolish, giddy task. I am not indifferent, no matter what the cost, and there is a cost to caring. The reward is uncertain. Success is a chimera. And yet. It rains.

The rain came to the book. My characters ran through it on their way to seek shelter. Or they walked on streets slick with rain. Yes, those streets were in London. The city waits for me to return. The rain was real and metaphorical, as all rain must be. It came through happiness and sadness, as it must. And so the rain, the same rain in Creeley’s poem, in Feste’s song, and that I brought with me from London and the ocean came here. It is the rain that returns as persistent as ever. Always.

If she still felt love for him, it had become the love that the universe holds for all creation—children running down hallways and rocks washed onto distant shores. It had become permanent and impersonal. Or so she had convinced herself, how long ago? It was a night when she stayed out while it rained. The water drenched her, and she felt it seep into her. She worried, with a wild anxiety, that she would melt, dissolve into the ground, and disappear. The fear of disappearing made her heart pound—it felt as if it was pulsing into the mud beneath her, propelling her life into the ground. She was becoming part of the land. The tears that she cried became part of the rain. Was she crying because she had lost him, or because she was lost? She did not know. The water and the ground opened a space for her.

She did not go into the earth. The rain stopped. Her tears stopped. Her heart settled back into her chest, where it pulsed life back through her, rejuvenating her nearly lost body. In the morning, she rose, whole, not forgetting his absence, but welcoming the world as it was.

Writing the Dream

It is different for each of us, but being a fiction writer means living a large part of one’s life in the realm of make-believe. Wait, that’s not quite right. It means that we build something new—over and over again—in the land of make-believe. Fiction writers are artists of the possible. Sometimes the possible looks an awful lot like the everyday, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes the possible is just as sad or happy as the everyday, and sometimes it is happier or sadder. We decide what it will look like and how it will feel, and then use our prose to create a circumstance in which those visions and feelings come to life. In the most prosaic terms, we make the hammer that the protagonist drops on his bare foot, breaking his toe, and sending him into howls of hurt and anger. The hammer, the hurt, the anger, the foot—and the rest of the protagonist—come from the writer.

One of the joyful challenges of writing is not simply making a world that does what I want, but in making a world in which what I want makes sense. There is a difference. I am certain that all writers struggle with the switch from a world in which they create everything—and in which most of it works—to the world in which they do not—in which the deft use of language has absolutely no impact on reality, or worse, in which their singular ability to shape the world is denigrated, or produces an opposite effect than intended.

John Gardner said the goal of fiction is a “vivid continuous dream.” That’s a damn good metaphor for how fiction should work. The whole piece needs to bind together with the logical and artistic consistency of a dream—nothing that wakes the reader from that dream can be included. But a dream—with all its truth and disjunction—is hard to create intentionally. We’ve all seen—or read—dream sequences that were stupidly obvious. A great dream draws us in, surprises us, and finally wakes us from slumber wondering, “What the hell was that?”—and maybe, if we are lucky, driving us back into sleep for the chance to retrace our steps back to that magical lost garden. There is a reason that we pour over books of dream interpretation to discover the real meaning of the nightly synchronized swimming show our brains orchestrates for our (dis)pleasure.

The odd thing is that the real world sometimes feels more like a poorly written dream than my fiction does. People behave in random—seemingly so—ways. We are subject to momentary desires, and desires that have little to do with our present circumstances. No amount of professional therapy will ever translate a deep understanding of our pasts into a reasonable pattern of behavior in our present. Knowing why we are who we are does not give us the sudden ability to act other than we have been. If characters in fiction acted the way people do in life, we would all throw the books out the nearest windows.

When we write the dream, we must select and we must focus. The genuinely random bits of life must be jettisoned for a kind of “unity of effect” (that’s a term that Poe uses in the “Philosophy of Composition”) Hence writers fall back on routine while they write—trying to evoke this unity by listening to the same music (if they do) while they write, or writing in the same space, at the same time of day, using the same pen or pencil or computer, and the same kind of paper—or typing in the same font. The tricks are endless. The goal is the vivid continuous dream.

And yet, we are like the actors in Shakespeare’s time: we get our roles—just our lines—and little else. We must pull our parts together based on the parts we have already played—young lover, perfidious King, lascivious barmaid, starry-eyed daughter. Or so I imagine. Somehow, perhaps, we craft a starry-eyed King, or perfidious daughter. Shakespeare did.

When I was a child, we had a favorite book in the house. It had split pages and you could make new animals by combining the top of this animal, the middle of some other, and the bottom of that one. Some of the combinations were absurd—and that was the point. So, we experiment and put our stories together.

As for what to do with real life, I do not have an easy, or a happy answer. It will not be shaped. I write this even though I work as a teacher, a so-called shaper of young minds. Too much has happened in my life that has defied shaping. Like a fairly conscious dreamer, I have learned to act on the stage of the unconscious—which happens in the waking life just as much as the sleeping—and to fly into the tornado that devastates the landscape. I avoid destruction. I cannot stop the tornado though.

And here’s the secret: when I write, I pray for the tornado. Everything else is wind too calm. I need a wind wild enough to carry me. And it does.

Writing, Purpose, and Masculinity

I have been struggling with masculinity as of late. Which is to say, struggling with ambition. Or struggling with my career choices. Or struggling with relationship choices. Or, simply struggling. Because I am a man, I am struggling on the somewhat closed field of masculinity. I haven’t always thought of it that way, and yet, there it is. I have avoided masculinity for dozens of reasons.

I have seen more examples of toxicity and hypocrisy among men than anywhere else.  Maybe these are not inherently male traits, but I grew up in a male-dominated environment—which is to say, the world—including four years in an all-male prep school. I have been bullied and been a bully. I have seen puffery masquerade as accomplishment. I have seen might valued over intelligence. I have watched as surface characteristics outshone deeper wells of strength. In To the Lighthouse, when Woolf takes Mr. Ramsay to the cleaners for failing to see the world outside of his carefully constructed “a, b, c…” hierarchy, I knew of what she was writing. But that came later.

After college my father brought me to his company once, to ask his colleagues what career path I should pursue. One of the men counseled, “Don’t go into business.” This was a man my father had often spoken of as one of his few friends at work. This man did not offer an alternate suggestion, just “Don’t.” Then he spoke of a working world in which the soul found no home. That resonated with me. My father was often unhappy after a day of work, and I had seen that unhappiness first hand.

I drew a line between the life of the soul and the world of business and ambition—the world of men.

I spent a number of years in career limbo and ended up managing a restaurant and working 80 hour weeks. Ambition always finds a way, even in limbo, even when one says, “No.” Part of being a man, I suppose, at least this man, was finding my way into positions of authority. During this time, I started writing—the very definition of authority—something I had done in fits and starts in high school then in college. I applied to graduate school in creative writing and was accepted.

So in my late twenties, I became a student of writing and literature. I went all in.  I was never interested in “finding my voice”; I was interested in hitting the metaphorical home run, of, and pardon me for this, catching the big fish.  There was always a bigger fish in the ocean.  Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Marquez, Dickinson, Whitman, Marquez, and Calvino were among the literary fish that pushed me forward. The critical fish were there too.  Each set out a mark and said, “Meet me here.” And, right or wrong, I chased that mark.

I sought work that broke the hierarchies and offered more possibilities to all. Brilliance the only goal. Brilliance the reward. I reveled. My classmates often complained of this course or that course, or of school altogether. I did not. There was no class—even bibliography—that did not unlock some possibility. My purpose, clear and simple, was to learn and to write.

I was at graduate school at a time when feminism was fully asserting itself, and I allied myself with that movement, in part under the guise of being a creator, which I identified as a feminine act. I was full of it. In the end, I divided the world not between men and women, with all the problematic tangle that came between those energies, but between writers and non-writers. I saw a kinship between Charles Dickens and Jane Gallup. If you know the work, you know what a leap that is. Or, and this is easier, Hélène Cixous and James Joyce. Words held a primal energy for me, an energy that bridged gender and sex. The only ones who could experience jouissance, truly experience it, not simply having it happen, but calling it forth, meeting it, urging it on—if they could—were writers. And so I wrote fervently, seeking a pleasure beyond limits. And I found it.

Now, I realize that I had harnessed a most basic form of male sexual energy, of masculinity. If I had classmates who imagined me in black leather pants, well, there was a reason. I chased something bigger than me, something vital. And chasing is what men do—secretly or not. Part of our deep-seated masculinity drives us to seek—“to bear it out,” as Shakespeare writes, “even to the edge of doom.” What keeps us from doom, from becoming an Ahab (there’s that big fish) is not avoiding the sea and the hunt, just putting up the harpoon and dreaming of what might have been. We must learn to integrate the hunt with the world. We must listen to the world and find an honorable way forth.

I did not. I stopped. I did not stop all at once, but over a series of years. I let more temporary ambitions, often driven by temporary monetary concerns, take precedence. I grew nervous, even cautious. I stepped off the stage. I continued, as I had when I was younger, to find outlets for ambition. They were circumscribed by my career choices, but they persisted. I became principal of a school and, during a crisis at my church, helped hold a congregation together. But I was not doing my life’s work—the thing that brought me joy, even if it did not pay the water bill.

And, as a man, a life without a driving purpose withers. I’m sure this is true for women too. Finally, at 58, I made a change. It was not an easy, nor a secure choice. It is not the final choice I will make along this way. But it is the first step. And I realize that even though I have been writing—fervently, discovering along the way—that I also have things to learn. About me. About the world. And as a man.

The Cats

My cat is dying. I have four cats, and one of them is dying. In the past 35 years, I have had 9 cats. 5 of them have died. I have been present for the deaths of 4 of them—3 in the auspices of cat hospitals, where their deaths were hurried on beyond their suffering, 1 as renal failure finally blotted out his light. The cat who is dying now has some kind of neoplasm—a cancer—and his descent has been swift. He is just under 7 years old; he entered my life 6 years ago.

When you adopt a pet, you know you are, for the most part—tortoises and parrots aside—going to outlive your pet. Your cat or dog will die. A child’s first experience of death often happens when a pet dies (or Santa Claus is excised from their lives, another kind of death). But, by the time you are older, mortality has been hanging around, making itself known. It’s a savage kind of knowing.

I’m in the middle of teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets—bouncing between the appeal of the “eternal summer” and hard fact of Time’s “bending sickle’s compass.” There is no comfort in death, or in the slow inexorable passage of time. All the comparisons he discounts in Sonnet 130–the sun, coral, snow, roses, perfume, music, goddess—are ideals that flower easily in the imagination. These are worth striving for! And yet, we are all “Time’s fool”—how can we be anything else? We must “tread on the ground.” Life—and its end—happen here.

Of course, I hear Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And I do. I wear glasses that alleviate the dimming light. I adapt. I go to the pool and the gym, preparing to extend that rage, thinking “Only halfway!” Perhaps the rage blinds us to the grimmer particulars. Then I’ll take that blindness for now, and rage.

Still, my cat is dying, and is confused and anxious about what has happened, is happening to him. I try to comfort him, and know that in the end, easy passage may be the way (I have phone numbers at the ready). I wish I could hold him, pet him, and reassure him that his girls—the two kittens he tended when they followed him into my household, who are now 5 years old—will be all right. That I will take good care of them. That he has been a good cat and a good companion. And I know those reassurances are echoes of words and thoughts I had for other cats. And, of course, for other people.

I may be done with death, but death, I know, is far from done with me.

The Center of the Universe—words from a Graduation

I tell my students lots of things. There is the teaching, of course, but there are certain phrases that have become, well, worn. I repeated a story with my ninth graders just a couple of weeks ago. I think that’s a sign.

One of my sayings, usually delivered in class, when a student has interrupted everyone else to declare something like, “There are clouds in the sky,” or “I have a cat”—something that has floated in over the transom of their mind—is this:

“If you have lost the center of the universe, I think I have found it.”

Except, I haven’t told you, there is a secret, and the secret: you are the center of the universe.

Science backs that up—in an infinite universe, everywhere is the center. It’s one of those paradoxes that makes teaching science so much fun. Or like this one from math: which is longer, a ray, which starts at a fixed point and goes on for infinity, or a line, which is infinite in both directions? Something cannot be half as infinite.

That’s why I stick to teaching English.

Take Shakespeare’s universe. In his plays, there is almost—and I’m going to say almost, because unlike math, in English there are always exceptions—almost never anyone more important than the King. The King is always the center of the secular universe.

And you might think, “I’m the king? Cool! I’m the center! I have arrived!” I also tell my students how my daughter thinks that being principal is the best because I get to give out detentions. This is the worst part of the job, and not just because I get to sit on detentions. An authority that gleefully metes out punishments, is truly limited vision of authority. Henry wants—no, needs—his band of brothers to thrive, and they do, because he elevates them. He may be the center, but he is also the first peer, the first equal.

And here’s the trick, In Shakespeare there are only a few truly happy and successful kings. I think he leaves high school principals out altogether. He doesn’t leave students out. And that’s because students can learn. Kings, for the most part, do not. They are, as Caesar claims, as constant than the Northern Star. Once the have become the king they are who they will be. They will not change. And who would wish for an inconstant king? Shakespeare’s tragedies are littered with them: Macbeth, Richard III, even Henry’s father, who mutters, “Uneasy rests the head that wears a crown.” Be a king, indeed.

But, what does it mean to be a center? My juniors and seniors have seen the list of king-becoming graces that Malcolm provides to Macduff: justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude. It’s quite a list, and like any list we would quibble over each term a bit too much. My students can quibble.

Perhaps it is better to remember that in an infinite universe, if you are the center, so is the person sitting next to you, and so is some person sitting on the other side of the world. We are all centers, and must learn to live and live well with each other. And what better way to live than to live as brothers. Because if we are as brothers, then we shall share a cause—perhaps not so clear as that as faced by Henry at Agincourt, but a cause nonetheless.

And because today is father’s day, again, I am reminded by this:

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

And so, today, find your cause, but be sure to make it large enough so that you can be brothers with each other, and with all the other centers that are spinning around you.

And now, I have some diplomas to bestow…

Lascivious Grace

I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright’s recent album based on Nine Sonnets by Shakespeare, Take All My Loves, and especially the title song, which is a performance of Sonnet 40,  over and over again.  Maybe it’s just because it’s new, and maybe because it’s the season of forgiveness.  But, what the hell, that’s every season.  This is going to get a little academic, so forgive me a little (maybe more).

Sonnet 40

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all
What hast thou then, more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call–
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed if thou thy self deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes.

I suppose that as one goes through the stages of grief, this little meditation would be filed under the heading, “negotiation”: a lot of talk to put the broken world back together. Usually the trick with negotiation is that it takes two willing parties.  No one can be convinced to sit at the table and trade ideas and feelings in order to hammer out some kind of understanding.  Except, and this is what is most interesting to me, I’m not exactly sure with whom the speaker is actually negotiating. Let’s sort this out.

First, there is the problem of “love,” which appears ten times in the poem (a big deal, even for, hell, especially for WS). The first “love” is the loves which have been, or will be taken.  This may include some romantic partner of the speaker, but it also includes the speaker’s actual love and fellowship with the ill-behaving friend.  Take ‘em all, “my love”—the second “love” and this is the friend who has done the taking.  “No love”—the third—refers to any sort of love that his friend (“my love”—fourth) has never been able to call true, except for the speaker’s love (five), which, we suspect, was always true.  Look, the speaker says, if you (my friend) took my love (six, and now this one love may be the mistress) as a sign of my love (seven) for you, then go ahead, take her even if she is my love (eight). Unless, and this matters, unless you are refusing my actual love for you.  This is some kind of fraternal code: our friendship trumps romance.  The last two loves operate in this system. The speaker may be angry, even to the point of hate, but knows that hate will only cause a deeper, and finally self-inflicted injury.

But what about that final couplet?  “Lascivious grace”? Grace is easy: an echo of god’s grace–the kind of overwhelming forgiveness for which any gentle thief, or worse, could hope. But lascivious? The word shows up In Richard III during the “Winter of our discontent” soliloquy, when Richard imagines fell purpose converted to the “lascivious pleasing of a lute,” (which would be a euphemism, though I have never before or since heard a woman’s genitals referred to as a lute), and in Othello when Iago characterizes Othello as a “lascivious Moor,” which had simple direct (and still, sadly) racial overtones. So, why is grace lascivious?  What makes forgiveness wanton?

Pause a moment. Shakespeare writes that forgiveness is profligate and promiscuous. That’s what lascivious grace means. It’s like some half drunk handsome frat boy who is so in love with the world that he gets arrested in the town square for shouting, “I love this world!” at 3 am. Grace is the woman that class and status conscious coeds whisper about, except that there is no slut-shaming this confident, fully self-possessed being. In fact, she gets elected class president, or starts a revolution. There’s no stopping grace: grace shows all ill well.  That’s all, not some, not the ones that only bug me a little.  ALL. Kill. Me.

When the speaker breaks down to “Kill me with spites,” he’s talking back to grace.  Grace and the speaker must not be foes—and that is the negotiation.  Well, it’s hardly a negotiation. Grace, you will forgive anyone, even my wretched awful friend who slept with my girl, and then, you will drive me to find a way to that forgiveness. You will throw love back in my face; reminding me that if I am going to have any ground to stand on with true love, I am going to have to go all in, equal to the big love with all its unbounded implications. Kill me.

And that’s the rub with being a universalist.  You don’t get to turn away from this charge.  Yes, I’m me, and me matters, but there’s love too, and, like it or not, love matters more. Get off the mat, poet, and get back in there and find a way.  Grace is what gives you the vision, now hold up your end of the bargain and love (and forgive).  Who said it was going to be easy?