Native Lives Matter; or, The Fourth World

John Lennon, palm extended with message: "Free Leonard Peltier"

John Lennon: “Free Peltier”

When I saw the first videos of security teams unleashing attack dogs on the peaceful defenders of their sacred tribal lands and water supplies, and of the circumstances surrounding that action, my immediate thought was: My God! It’s the 1970’s all over again!

In particular I was thinking of the persistent violence on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation that led to a confrontation with federal agents and to the arrest and conviction of Leonard Peltier, who four decades later continues to languish in a federal prison—for allegedly killing two FBI agents who, as the preponderance of evidence would seem to show, were themselves the true aggressors. The case for that position is eloquently contextualized, laid out, and thoroughly documented in Peter Matthiessen’s literary testament In the Spirit of Crazy Horse; the trial transcripts themselves constitute more than ample proof of what a kangaroo court that was! And of how little the actual presentation of fact really matters when prosecutors and judge (and/or jury, we mustn’t forget) unite to impose an outrageous but pre-determined end.

"my girlfriend Annie Mae"

“my girlfriend Annie Mae”

I was thinking, too, of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s most political songs, from “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” (1964) through “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1992) to the present decade (see May 2015 blog essay). In the latter she gives a shout-out, first, to Peltier: the FBI is caught lying in court, yet “still Peltier goes off to jail”(followed by the exclamation: “bullets don’t match the gun!”); and, second, to “her girlfriend” Anna Mae Aquash, whose brutal murder in the same time frame and vicinity might have had something to do (the lyrics suggest) with her activism denouncing the illegal dumping of uranium near Native communities.

And now, as brute force is met by thousands of nonviolent protesters, the National Guard is called up to help state and local enforcers in an absurdly militarized response to a Constitutionally-protected act of nonviolent resistance; Native Americans rounded up en masse, brutalized and subjected to strip searches whose only conceivable purpose is to humiliate and intimidate; journalists detained and charged, for their reporting, with the ridiculously trumped-up charges of rioting and other nonsense.

Leonard PeltierStephanie Woodard reports in the October 2016 issue of In These Times—poignantly and at great length—that Native Americans are dying at the hands of police at an even higher rate than African Americans or Latinos. So it is only fitting that the epicenter of this growing exercise in mass civil disobedience should also be Ground Zero in the newly minted Native Lives Matter movement. And the same desperately vital issues are at play here as have been noted in other contexts: police violence and militarization; a racialized criminal justice system; and climate denial and environmental degradation, among other things.

So in that spirit I offer up the following humble piece of literary rhetoric, a story told in the form of a traditional origins tale and plucked from my unpublished 1980’s-era collection of a novella and four stories called Saint Mary of Magdalene. As to the story’s artistic merits or demerits, I can only say with assurance that it is at least a good deal better than previous drafts—and delivered as a genuine expression of solidarity.


The Fourth World

This they tell, and whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.

—Black Elk

… and when they arose in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.

—2 Kings 19:35 (KJV)


Iktome: Spider Man (Native American trickster god)

Iktome: Spider Man (Native American trickster god)

There were three worlds before this one but they were all bad. The Creative Power was displeased with the people who lived in them. He destroyed the first by fire and the second by water. Then he sent a rainbow as a sign that there would be no drowning of that world, because he was pleased with it, but in the end he saw that it was not better. “This world is like the others,” he said to himself. “I will have to destroy it the same way that I destroyed the first.” He would have done it but the people found a way themselves and for once did not need any help. He just waited until it was time to build the new world, and then he tried once more to see if he would finally get it right.

The end came at last because the people had made fire balls to fight their enemies with. The magic fire of the Wasichu was not like any that the people of the visions had ever known. It could make the hair fall out of women’s heads and faces drop to the earth like rain. The Wasichu brought together elements of both earth and sky, of seen and unseen worlds, and bound them, then loosed them and filled the air and covered the ground with poison.

They did not do this all at once. They would rise up in the metal birds they called airplanes and drop the fire balls on people who were hungry and poor and could only be made more afraid. Then the great leaders would make speeches and threats, and build bigger and bigger towers of weapons to see whose would be the tallest. They did not really plan to destroy the whole world but to keep control over what they had of it. These were the Wasichu, the terrible white people with hair all over who had overrun the holy Turtle Continent just before the end. They were the same ones who wherever they went bought up grass and trees and water and wind, who believed that they were wiser than the Creative Power, and everywhere destroyed the people who obeyed the true visions.

The end came because they learned to make fire balls, and because they could not stop there. It came because of their hunger and thirst to own what was not given them to own. It came because they hated earth and sky and water and wind and all of the creatures that the Creative Power put in the world.

The Wasichu hated cockroaches most of all and spent their last breath of life in a deadly fight to get them out of their houses and off of their land and their world.

The cockroaches had come first of all the creeping creation, long before any people, and they had even survived from other worlds that were destroyed. They were stronger than people. They spread many times faster than rabbits. The people knew all of that and resented it and wanted to destroy them. The Wasichu most of all, because some people did not mind so much if the truth is told. The Wasichu had watched too many bad movies, like The Blob that Ate Chicago, and feared that the enemy would eat their world. They waged a war of extermination.

Their first efforts did not work. The cockroaches were resistant to the poisons that were used, or their generations quickly built up resistances, and in no time there were more roaches than the people had ever seen. They were fighting a losing battle.

IktomeThen one man had the idea to fight a dirty war inside of his own home. Iktome, the Spider Man, who came in many disguises to the ancient people, must have seduced the Wasichu in some new form because at almost the same time, throughout the whole world, other people began doing the same thing, each one without any knowledge of the other.

The first man, the Wasichu warrior with hair that covered his head and face, took his family and camped with them in a faraway woods. He said to his woman: “Those filthy insects had better get out of there while they still can because this is their last chance. Any of them left tomorrow are going to die.” And in the morning he was inside of the house, covered from head to foot with a giant blackish bubble and a monstrous suit that made him look like a Wasichu demon from their darkest underworlds. Soon the fire bombs exploded and the poisons, for which our people have no names, followed the roaches into the tiniest cracks and crevices and then the man was gone. He did not come back with his family for a whole week.

Before he brought them home he came with other men, and they cleared the house of dead roaches and destroyed unhatched eggs and purified the air for human life. But during the night, while the children slept in one room and the conquering warrior and his woman in the other, the surviving enemy emerged from their hiding places and began to grow several sizes. The same thing was occurring all over the world, and in the morning the people woke up dead, except for the warriors who stumbled out of their beds and died seconds later of heart attacks when they each bumped into a giant cockroach.

The end came because they had to play with the magic fire that the Wasichu demons had taught them to make. For the roaches it was no great problem. In the morning they feasted on the men and were satisfied until later when they finished with the others and then wandered out into what was left of that third world. Fire-weed began to grow up out of the rubble of many houses, a sign of renascence, but the roaches still tracked the poison with them and finished destroying that world. They just waited then until the Creative Power was ready to build the new one.


I hope to follow, soon, with other material: the complementary re-publication of a letter-to-the-editor, published in my local newspaper, on the subject of Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement; the announcement of a new anthology (with some of my newest fiction) of the Southern Indiana Writers; and, perhaps, some brief notes on the Joan Baez concert my son and I recently attended.

Scudder’s Gorge, by Geoffrey Craig

12dee362a1fccccda845785f332e98ef.image.152x236[1]I have just ordered this novel by Geoffrey Craig, one of whose stories I edited for New Works Review during my year as managing editor, so I am well acquainted with the quality of his writing. I am chomping at the bits waiting for Scudder’s Gorge to come in the mail so I can begin to read it. But why wait for my review when I can show you this excellent one that the author just sent me?

Scudder’s Gorge, by Geoffrey Craig, Prolific Press, 290 pages. ISBN #978-1632750556. Price: $16.95 paperback, $8.95 Kindle format.

Reviewed by Sandy Raschke, Fiction Editor / Calliope, A Writer’s Workshop by Mail /Spring 2016 issue (#151) /

Calliope’s readers are familiar with Geoffrey Craig’s short stories, as several have appeared in our pages over the years. Although he has had a verse novel and novella serialized in a literary review, Scudder’s Gorge is his first full-length novel.

Scudder’s Gorge is a masterfully told story of family, unrequited and romantic love, hate, secrets, joys and tragedy, and exposes the depths of what man is capable of doing to his fellow man.

Craig’s elegant prose (evocative of the late Wallace Stegner), is impressive; he is like an artist, first using a broad brush to create the background, then employing a smaller one to fill in with details. The vivid imagery he uses to describe the Vermont landscape gives the story a genuine sense of place and atmosphere, and sets the tone for this family saga spanning almost one hundred eighty years and six generations.  It is a history that sometimes repeats itself, with sadness and agony. Several themes are reiterated throughout Scudder’s Gorge: tolerance vs. bigotry; peace vs. war; expiation for previous wrongs, and respect for all people.

An enigmatic Prologue begins the story, of an elderly Japanese man taking a walk in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945, stopping at a small temple after several air-raid sirens go off. But, unable to see any evidence of the bombers, he goes outside again…facing the bright flash in the sky…

Then moving back in time, Craig unveils the story of the Scudder family and others who settled on a land grant from the Territory of Vermont in 1795. Out of the wilderness, Lucas Scudder and ten settler families created farms and community. They live in peace, trading with nearby Native Americans, the Abenaki. That is until 1799, when Philomena, the daughter of Lucas Scudder, falls in love with a young Abenaki man she meets in the woods while picking berries with her sister Carrie. Eventually smitten by Susuph, she initiates a sexual relationship, which they carry out in secret places, unknowingly witnessed at times by Sean Reynolds, a mentally-challenged young man from the settlement. Philomena and Susuph want to marry, but an accident changes everything. After their last tryst, Philomena loses her footing and tumbles down a hill.

While Philomena lies unconscious at home, Lucas Scudder and eleven men from the settlement take revenge on the Abenaki, based upon their prejudices and Sean Reynolds’ misperception—that Philomena was raped and battered by Susuph then dumped in front of the Scudder’s cabin.

The settlers raid the village and are met with resistance; a shot is fired by one of the Abenaki, hitting one of the raiders in the shoulder. The ensuing carnage leaves twenty-one Abenaki dead: all the young men, five women and seven children. The few survivors flee to the north to another Abenaki village, but the reverberations of the massacre will last long into the future.

Philomena awakens two days after the raid, and when she discovers that Susuph has been killed along with the other Abenaki, calls her father a murderer and cuts off all communication with him.  Months later, she delivers a healthy baby boy that she names “Remember,” then dies within four hours of his birth. She has left her sister Carrie a letter, in which she describes the sins of her father and the responsibility of the family to see that such prejudice and violence never happen again.

Carrie marries and raises Remember as her own, and when she dies, she passes on Philomena’s letter to him.

The story moves from the first generation of Scudders slowly into the future, through recessions and depressions, World War I and II, the postwar era and the atomic age, into the late 1960s, and ends during a demonstration against the Vietnam War.  And through it all, Philomena’s letter is passed on to each successive generation, a reminder to the Scudders of their responsibility to regard all of humanity without prejudice.

Craig’s deft hand and sensitivity regarding controversial but important social matters draws the reader in and keeps one turning the pages. Highly recommended.

Calliope is the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd.

Hourglass: an international, bilingual, anti-nationalist literary magazine

cropped-brett6.jpgSince I posted yesterday on a new publication and the “reconciling of contraries,” I have heard from editor Voki Erceg at Hourglass Literary Magazine. As I mentioned in that blog post, I have another essay forthcoming in this journal.

Hourglass is an exciting and ambitious project whose first print edition seems to be well on its way to fruition. And, according to the visual and aural pitch that is being made for the crowd-funding campaign for next year, which Voki just sent to me, the forthcoming issue will be a very substantial and sturdy book. This brief note today is to get that address out to you ( Even if you are not looking to donate, it will give an intriguing and informative look at the project.

Danilo_Kiš_2010_Montenegro_stamp[1]Hourglass is named for the Serbian writer Danilo Kiŝ, whose 1973 essay “On Nationalism” is excerpted/translated at the bottom of their home page and is as pertinent today as ever; as is the magazine’s anti-nationalist and humane internationalist vision in the context of the demagoguery of too many political leaders around the world today, no less so in the U.S. when the Republican Party is running Donald Trump, who is perhaps the caricature of the nationalist/xenophobic Us-against-Them rhetoric.

Among his Primary opponents, who at best were smoother at it than he, Trump was not alone in nationalist demagoguery. And even progressive Democrats may occasionally flirt with it, though between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the American exceptionalism (an inevitable and necessary political rhetoric, perhaps) is tempered by a realization that we are in it together with the rest of the world; a mindset that honors diplomacy and compromise, though inevitably one wishes their foreign policy could move even further away from the extreme military “solutions” to our shared problems with terrorism and such.

In any case, it seems appropriate to close this little essay with a small excerpt from Kiŝ’s:

Nationalism is first and foremost paranoia. Collective and individual paranoia. As collective paranoia, it results from envy and fear, and most of all from the loss of individual consciousness; this collective paranoia is therefore simply an accumulation of individual paranoias at the pitch of paroxysm.

He goes on to call the individual member of the nationalist mob “an individual without individuality,” as is surely apt for any person moved to act by what amounts to massive and often violent “peer pressure”; and xenophobic nationalism itself, he calls “the ideology of hopelessness, the ideology of feasible victory, victory that is guaranteed and defeat that is never final.”

Kiŝ’s words are food for thought, and the argument more involved and nuanced than I have time to elaborate on here, but a fuller version of this text is available at And in the forthcoming issue, further perspectives and civil exchange of ideas.

We may quibble with the writer on one point or another (as my reader may quibble with me), but the above-cited passage does certainly bear some resemblance to the present state of affairs in my/our country and world. Given the intimate and recent (and ongoing) history of nationalism in the region of the former Yugoslavia, it might behoove us in the United States of America, in particular, to pay heed.



Reconciling Contraries

Revista Letra Urbana #33

Mural art: cover of Revista Letra Urbana, #33

With some excitement I announce the appearance, in Revista Letra Urbana, an online Spanish-language journal based in Miami (“a digital magazine of culture, science, and thought”), my first essay written for publication in Spanish. Undoubtedly the kind editors helped me to knock off a few rough edges, but on the whole it was a stimulating and enjoyable process and flowed rather more smoothly than I had anticipated. The essay, “Sobre la reconciliación de contrarios,” pays homage to the lives of three great literary artists on this 400th (or 30th) anniversary of their deaths: Cervantes and Shakespeare (d. 1616) and Borges (d. 1986) while addressing, through their literary work, what I believe to be a single literary/rhetorical project that they all shared in common: the reconciling of contraries.

Another invited essay, forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (which will appear in my original English and translated into the common language of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro), speaks to the same concern in a different and more personal way. Also, recently published in the local Perry County News, is a more strictly political attempt to counter Candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric and to rehabilitate Hillary Clinton as not quite the rabid, corrupt liar as her enemies—and her own foibles—have made her, in the perception of so many voters.

Early responses, from the usual local suspects, have been predictably hostile, but one must accept that some opinions have already been etched in stone and will not be moved. I was directing myself to those whose views still might. The entire comment, in any case, published under the heading “Presidential Politics and Donald Trump,” can be read here:

The core of my argument, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the newspaper column, goes as follows:

What this country needs is not to move toward an empty, depraved rhetoric of raw force and bluster. It is to move, instead, even if we never fully attain it, toward what one practical philosopher has called a “rhetoric of assent”; by which he means, not the empty eloquence of deceivers, but a kind of humane politics by which people of competing ideas and beliefs—deliberately and in cooperation with each other—seek a more complete understanding of the issues that face us; and labor, then, toward reasonable (if imperfect) solutions that move us as far as immediately possible in that direction.

From the Hourglass essay, “Small Graces,” I draw this brief provocation to thought:

 What might happen, if in our civic conversation, we were actually to explore the unspoken nuance that hangs between our competing arguments? Might extended dialogue of this sort actually bring people of good will on either side of an argument to a new consciousness of what we do or might come to agree on?



And from Letra Urbana—hastily translated, excerpted, and recombined from the Spanish—the following, in the context of a proposed rhetoric of the subjunctive mood (what otherwise might be called “the Quixotic principle”):


an attitude and a rhetoric that considers, with a certain humility, the possibility of multiple realities or perspectives. It is to be hoped that this concept, this attitude of the subjunctive, might come to be a new rhetoric for all people, whose world is at risk of disintegrating by means of the collision of absolutes charged with so much violence: destructive illusions on the planes of politics, religion, and everything else. The antidote that I propose to those apocalyptic ideologies is the perspectivism, the subtle and majestic Quixotism, of Cervantes.


My recent reading has included two books that, along with my recently completed translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Todos éramos hijos (All of Us Were Children), could contribute a great deal to the discussion of what the United States under an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump might look like. Certainly it would have a different face and a divergent reality from those of Argentina’s “dirty war” and Franco’s post-Civil War Spain. Yet, as the Bible tells us, in a sense there is nothing new under the sun; so any valid comparison could be, for any of us, words to the wise.

In my search for an English-language publisher for María Rosa’s novel—about Argentina in the first half of the 1970s, through the eyes of a group of young adults on the brink of an uncertain future—I have come on these two recent translations from the Canadian press Biblioasis: The End of the Story, by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger; and Black Bread, by Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalán by Peter Bush.

Liliana Heker

Liliana Heker

The End of the Story is a complex and disorienting book, as must have been the experience of being alive in Buenos Aires at the time, while some beloved other or others have been “disappeared” without a trace; but, bit by bit, the pieces of the life of the young revolutionary woman whose life the narrator is struggling to evoke are revealed more clearly. Though to say that, in the end, the novel achieves a perfect clarity would be to ignore the unknowable, the unanswerable, within the narrative itself and in the existential questions that are left provocatively hanging.

But if what we seek is the illusion of unambiguous, absolute certitude within a world of competing absolutes, we can only end up with something resembling (or approaching) the torturer’s logic in Heker’s novel, here compressed from a longer tirade (warning: this passage does include a lightning bolt of upsetting images, though with no gruesome elaboration of them):

 “There’s only one truth. What happens is that some people don’t even realize that they’re wrong. We have to wipe them out anyway; we have to wipe out all the garbage that piled up in Argentina as soon as possible, so it’ll go back to what it was. It’s like a serious illness: you have to operate, with or without anesthesia, in order to save the organism. I’m not about to put up with disrespect from some Commie traitor to the Fatherland. But I don’t do it for pleasure; I do it out of duty. I tell myself, this is a mission you have to fulfill, Sharkey, this vagina, these nipples, are your target; you have to rip these nails off because if you don’t, the Fatherland will fall into foreign hands. Those are the real enemies, because those people think they own the truth. You’ve got to eliminate them without being disgusted. And without hatred. This isn’t pleasant work. Necessary, yes, but not pleasant” (pp. 122-123).

The End of the Story, Biblioasis edition

El fin de la historia, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

I will leave the reader to contemplate the speaker’s unintended ironies and faulty reasoning. True logic, in any case, as Heker writes, is not “applicable in times of official lunacy” (p. 70); in this official absence of reason we come up with formulations like this: “[The poem] talks about torture. Spells it right out: t-o-r-t-u-r-e. It’s forbidden to write about, understand. It’s immoral. It’s subversive” (p. 103)—but of course, by inference, it is neither immoral nor subversive to inflict it on our perceived enemy; let’s not get carried away with ourselves, fellow bleeding-hearts!

But perhaps most chilling, if we cannot conceive of this happening to ourselves, good and law-abiding citizens such as we are, is what happens to the ordinary man or woman who, looking out of a café window (for instance) and then rushing out to greet someone in the street—without paying, though with notebook and purse still on the table—might lead so perilously close to the torture chamber (as a random traffic stop, to a law-abiding and courteous black man in the U.S., is many times more likely to end in death than for a white man in a comparable position):

“This is what’s changed, she thinks as she leaves: death lying in wait, floating over the minutiae of daily life. To unravel the meaning of these trivial, apparently unhistorical, actions, which nonetheless intercept History, diverting its course in unforeseeable ways” (p. 57); and, reflecting further on the same instance: “Civilized people. And yet one suspicious move on her part would be enough to make the man point her out with his finger” (p. 65).


Emili Teixidor

Emili Teixidor

Black Bread, which has been made into an Oscar-nominated film from Spain, reminded me of another film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which I have particularly loved. The common bond is the emotionally sustaining bread of imagination and of lush fantasy—in the former, the source is the grandmother’s store of fancy and lore, which must be suppressed if our boy protagonist is to make it in the cruel adult world he is to be educated for; and likewise, in the latter, the fairy tales that the mother (widow of one of the Civil War’s losers; now consigned to a loveless marriage with a cruel, misogynistic military victor) no longer wants the girl protagonist to read or to believe in, if she too is going to survive the new enforced reality.

In Teixidor’s novel, his more traditional narrative with its peaceful pastoral setting—not exempt, nonetheless, from the violent inroads made by the victors in their campaign to purify the land of any trace of liberal ideas—is an easier read than Heker’s; which is not to say that its secrets are any more easily obtained.

It is narrated, presumably, by an adult Andreu looking back on the effective end of that childhood, though entirely through the more ingenuous eyes of that younger Andreu’s at the time. This is a perceptive boy in his evolving notions of the adult world he cannot avoid entering, though continually perplexed by its secrets that he and his younger cousin, Núria (or Cry-Baby) must unlock on their own.

The hardest chapters for me to read, the hardest to emotionally bear up under, involve the boy’s journey with his mother to visit his ailing father in one of Franco’s prisons—a hellhole if ever there was one; and a testament to human cruelty and indifference to the sufferings of real or perceived enemies and their families—and, then, after the father’s death, the mother’s emotional breakdown and confrontation with the local leaders who could hardly be bothered to let her bury her husband.

Still, I would not give up the experience of having read them; for, of what worth is the literature of suffering that does not, in some degree, break our hearts?

This is not just a sad book, in any case, but a sad book laced with moments of intense joy and grace, of life and of beauty that are no less overwhelming than the horror of human violence and malice. In Andreu’s grandmother’s storytelling, for instance, hid a power “that could transform cruelty into happiness, laughter and hope. Death, into life” (p. 233)—which is undoubtedly true of the folk tales or fairytales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, or the literary folk- (or fairy-) tales of Hans Christian Andersen; and all the more so in their unsanitized originals, from which (perhaps unwisely) we try to shield our children.

As for the vitality of that fantasy world as developed so richly in Black Bread (likewise in Pan’s Labyrinth), it is not nor has it ever been enough for the world’s realists to pronounce that realm superfluous to the merely visible one we inhabit. For we must account for the world of beauty, of mystery, of imagination that sustains us and makes our spirits soar—and is the source of the slow advances and refinements that do take place, from time to time, even in the harsh yet necessary political realm.

Andreu suggests something of this, I think, in the following passage, which proceeds from a critique of the Church—religious leaders in league with the military occupiers—and the absence, within that victorious society that the Church implicitly blessed, of any thread of mercy or forgiveness:

[The adults] all knew mercy and forgiveness didn’t exist in this world and that everything priests said was like Grandmother’s fireside fairytales, pleasant, cheery chatter to pass the time, entertainment for our leisure time, but not totally nonexistent.

In fact, that was the source of the intangible beauty and virtue of Grandmother’s imaginary characters that were as evanescent as a dream (p. 227).

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

The personal and collective tragedy, within the thematic structure of Teixidor’s novel, is in the child’s anguished understanding that, in order to survive in the world of these conquerors, he will have to become a little more like them and live strictly in that real world, a world destructive of any true spiritual dimension that might come to us through worlds of imagination and tolerance; or, by a logical extension, through the risk involved in loving and confiding in any one person or relationship. Because, as Grandma Mercè puts it in one of her darker moments:

“War rots everything, that’s what Father Tafalla says, and he’s right. Blasted war spares nothing, saves nobody, simply kills…and…everbody scattered to the four corners…brother and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren…flung all over the shop, like thunder, lightning and hail that leaves not one plant standing” (p. 321).

A parallel tragedy, however, in pursuit of those spiritual intangibles that offer us sustenance, is a descent into the false certitudes of absolutist doctrines both political and religious, which are a frightful aspect of the false security of authoritarian regimes like those of the generals in Argentina and Franco’s decades-long Spanish reign.

We must become more comfortable as a people, it seems to me, with the inescapable facts of uncertainty, of difference, of ambiguity, of perpetual change that inevitably exists in any world we might inhabit. For, that golden age we hearken back to while latching onto slogans like “Make America Great Again” was never as golden as nostalgia paints it for us. And certainly not for the invisible sufferings of all those whom the relatively comfortable have almost always failed to take into account.

It is the search for absolute certitude and security, in other words, not the imaginative embrace of mystery and ambiguity or liberality, that leads almost inevitably to the destruction of all we hold dear.

And the politics or religion that cannot allow contraries (people or ideas) to live in harmony and tolerance—whether it be radical Islam or radical Christianity; the most extreme expressions of reactionary American Republicanism or of the radical Liberal or Progressive, or Democrat, or Socialist—is a politics or a religion necessarily at odds with an ever-evolving, flexible Constitution that seeks to reconcile the secular with the religious so that no individual or group be subject to “the tyranny of the majority”—a phrase variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams; and made popular by Alexis de Toqueville in Democracy in America.

Lord Acton offers this clarifying definition of the term: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather, of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”

The problem, then, a thorough discussion of which I must put aside for another occasion, is how to discern among competing claims on the status of most-tyrannized. And that is just one of the prickly subjects of contention that will have to be surmounted, if we are ever to truly be a nation of engaged citizens whose members can take part in civil discourse with each other.

Who can participate, in other words, in an ever-ongoing national reconciliation of contraries.

We Are Humanity (Every Last One of Us!)

Todos-somos-Whitman-350x550[1]Today’s title and theme reflect the English-language titles of my translations of María Rosa Lojo’s most recent novel and of the Arte Público Press’s newly published bilingual edition of Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s poetic response to Walt Whitman. The Whitman book is available here:

Luis’s book, from the Spanish title Todos somos Whitman, becomes in my version We Are All Whitman; while María Rosa’s, Todos éramos hijos, becomes All of Us Were Children (instead of, as might have been expected, We Were All Children). Why? Because the parallel being sought here is not to Ambroggio’s book but to Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons, which is a central motif that runs through María Rosa’s novel; which, in its Spanish title (Todos eran mis hijos, or, They Were All / All of Them Were My Sons, more closely parallels her own novel’s.

True, either English version would have included Miller’s word All, but it seemed to me that placing it at the beginning would echo that antecedent more effectively. Such are some of the seemingly trivial concerns that the literary translator faces on a daily basis. The translator of more technical texts—from the legal or medical professions, for instance—might not stop to ponder such fine points. Which is why they tend to work faster than we do.

images0HJCF060Like Whitman, in any case, Ambroggio writes about universal themes such as identity, love, and life; death, nature, and physical pleasure. But he does so from a distinctly Latin American perspective. Which is only logical, considering the degree to which Whitman has long been venerated by the people and poets of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Indeed, while Whitman’s subject is the people of this American nation in particular, his is an expansive and inclusive view of humanity. Drawing as he does on the experience and energy of all the people of this immigrant country, he writes of them in all their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity. The “Myself” of Whitman’s title is really a plurality, then, all the people embraced within the poet’s charismatic verse. It is not the merely egocentric musings of a single man, though he does speak like one of immense self-confidence; nor does it exclude the people of other lands—from which our various selves have originated, and who might also fall under his spell; as we, potentially, under the spell of José Martí or Pablo Neruda.

Ambroggio’s Hispanic or Latin American perspective is of particular value today for the light it sheds on what otherwise has long been our rancorous and often fact-free national “debate” on immigration: as in these United States, now again in Europe as we seek to contain the seemingly unending flow of refugees from a Middle Eastern inferno that our nations are at least in part responsible for creating.

Ambroggio illuminates the subject by attaching a more humane and human face to the voice of the immigrant Other, who contributes to our nations’ health in ways all too easy to ignore. He addresses this issue directly, in a passage that opens with one of Whitman’s most famous lines:

I am large, I contain multitudes.

They will not manage to deny me or ignore me or declare me undocumented:

I am written in you, in all,

as all are in me,

in clay and in the breeze’s gentle sky,

in the delightful meaning of your body.

images2T8B1O1VMy personal epiphany on this subject came when I was about twelve years old and my Vacation Bible School leaders took us to visit a migrant labor camp somewhere in south-central Indiana. The insight may not have approached the sophistication of my present understanding, but it was real and powerful and has been with me for all these forty-some years.

It was my impression, as I looked around at the poverty the migrant families lived in, and as I ran with the children to play by a nearby creek, that they were people just like me; so, why did they have so little and I so much? And I understood immediately that it was not because I, or my parents, or anyone else, was in any moral sense better than they. That something, which has haunted me forever after, was wrong in the world.

Those people who are so eager to run them off or keep them out should try to imagine how we would feel if we were in their situation and they, ours. But it is a difficult concept to get a hold on, I gather, and the best those of us who get it can do is probably to just keep keepin’ on in the struggle for basic rights for all human creatures; knowing that, if we can’t ever reach that utopian place of universally shared bliss, at least we can create—and fight to maintain—a little more of it for our fellow beings.


imagesFUTEWQ01In All of Us Were Children, María Rosa writes of what were troubled times in Argentina: from 1971, as political and social chaos reigned and Juan Perón was maneuvering his way back from exile to the presidency, to 1975 or ’76 as the generals’ dictatorship began to rain an unprecedented level of violence (a “dirty war”) on its populace. Unlike other treatments of the subject, we are allowed to see all of this from the perspective of an idealistic group of young students in their transition from their final year at a rigorous Catholic high school into university studies and other activities.

Arthur Miller comes into the picture because of this group’s performance, at the end of that academic year, of All My Sons. The priest and the young woman who chose that play, both of them teachers, did so because it spoke to their own national situation from the safe distance of space and time. It was an opportunity to address important issues like integrity and responsibility, as well as the far-reaching and unanticipated consequences of war and of the race to get to and keep one’s place at the top in a capitalistic society.

At center of the tale Miller weaves is Joe Keller, a successful businessman and provider, with one son at home and the older one, before his plane had vanished, flying missions over Hitler’s Europe. The crisis comes because of a faulty batch of airplane parts that he allows to be superficially fixed and shipped off to the European campaign. Everything comes to a head when we learn that his son—whose body was never found and, so, the mother continues to await him—deliberately crashed his plane, committing suicide; at shame over what his father had done and which had caused the deaths of other young men, and for which Joe Keller had sent his partner in business away to prison, for his own unacknowledged betrayal of all those sons.

And what is “so terrible” about Joe Keller’s personal tragedy, the one teacher comments to her female students at the end of a day’s discussion, is that he “is not a conspirator, a spy, or even a monster. Aside from that, until then he has been an admired citizen. Someone who has made himself with hard work, audacity, and a bit of luck. A model that everyone wanted to imitate. The conclusion, then, is that any other man like him could act that way under similar circumstances, perhaps because the evil is not just within himself, but in the society he lives in. A society whose greatest values are success, power, money, and which for that reason generates people who fail. Like the defective parts.”

We have all heard that banal truism that says capitalism is the worst of economic systems, except for all the other ones. But that is at best a diversion, one that lulls the most comfortably situated of us into complacency and discourages the rest of us from embracing the truly radical change—whether we come to it in four to eight years or over decades—that might actually make radical progress at lifting all boats. And at ceasing to discard people like defective parts, then blaming and shaming them for their misfortune.

It seems clear to me, in any case, that if we do not begin to shake the old ideological myth that exalts selfish and homogenous individualism over the common effort of an engaged and diverse citizenry—a citizenry at once tolerant of religious and cultural difference, but also fiercely determined to engage each other in informed inquiry rather than the ideological free-for-all that we have come to call political debate—until then, if I may wax colloquial, we scarcely have a snowball’s chance in hell of resolving the array of urgent problems that confront us.

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

There does, indeed, need to be something on the order of a revolution in all of our public discourse. If the present political season has not already been enough to convince us of this, I despair of knowing what will. Being an essentially Quixotic spirit, though, despite the melancholic streak that almost continually wrestles me toward darkest despair, I will continue as best I can to cultivate hope.

And if, as that good knight says, we are children of the things (good or ill) that we do, then why shouldn’t our extravagant and impossible dreaming bear some good fruit? We needn’t create Utopia in order to create a significantly better and more humane society. That the United States is not Denmark does not mean that we cannot (like Denmark) find a way to feed and house all our people, make their children’s education free or radically more affordable, and provide for their medical needs.

And just maybe, as long as we’re dreaming big, become a superpower in the arts of diplomacy instead of destruction, peacemaking instead of perpetual war, and environmental sanity instead of apocalyptic madness.

If we cannot produce any substantive progress in these vitally existential areas, then what good is our much-touted American exceptionaism and ingenuity?

It is, as the Seventies’ rock group used to sing, “dust in the wind.”

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

María Rosa knew from a young age that she was a writer: the Magi also knew and brought her this first writing desk.

A report on issue #60 of Rosebud, with commentary on X. J. Kennedy Award-winning essays and other matter

issue60[1]At the beginning of September, I announced that my essay “Attractions of Barbarity” had just received one of the prizes in the 2015 X. J. Kennedy Award competition – a prize that, aside from a small monetary award, included publication in the Fall/Winter issue (#60) of Rosebud.

Well, the award issue arrived in my mailbox (USPS, not virtual) almost precisely a month ago. It is a beautiful issue, graced with the whimsical art of Toni Pawlowski and a surfeit of amazing writing, so my essay is in very good company. What follows now, adapted from my personal journal entry of Dec. 13, is my further report on the entire issue:

The winning essay by Chris Ellery, “A Boy of Bethany,” is a poignant narrative and meditation about the situation on the ground for Palestinians along the great Wall that their oppressors have built to keep them out: a situation, according to one former aid worker, “between hopelessness and helplessness” (p. 58) – definitely worthy of the top prize.

Among the other three runners-up, two stand out as my favorites: the first one involving an experience in Spain and the second a trip to Cuba. “Adrián de Sevilla,” by Jennifer Arin, tells the story of her encounter with an elderly flamenco teacher and his wife, both having fled Franco’s Spain for exile in France; I was moved by the personal account, but especially fascinated by what it relates about the Jewish influence on flamenco music – made into such a popular art form by Gypsies.

And then there is Katherine Baker’s “No Gas, No Soap in Cuba” with the extended monologue of an elderly Cuban, whose children and his precious little granddaughter María have gone to Miami; his narrative expresses his mourning over that loss coupled with a hopefulness for her future and a pride in the aims and heroism of Castro’s revolution. (“We raised the literacy rate to 96%. A beautiful thing.” – p. 32)

It is a distinctly international issue, as is made only more clear by the rest of the issue. Among my favorites of the stories is a piece of “medical science fiction” by a Japanese doctor who teaches in the U.S. and whose protagonists are American, though in a desperate quest for a cure for their seven-year-old daughter’s cancer they end up on a Pacific island: that is “The Hope Sea Shore Squirt,” by Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro, whose story I found deeply moving and whose work “has been highly praised by Nobel Laureate in Literature Kenzaburo Oe,” according to editor Rod Clark.

Another is Tim Keane’s “The Man with Norwegian Eyes,” told in the linguistically rich voice of an illiterate Irish farmer who gives shelter to a mysterious fellow fleeing the Dutch navy from which he has defected, and who in gratitude leaves him a few lines of poetry; later, when the farmer happens on a priest who can translate it for him, the signature reveals that guest to have been none other than the famous French poet Rimbaud – who seems to me, incidentally, to have had some of the visionary eccentricities (if in a very different manner) of Songs of Innocence and of Experience poet William Blake, whose larger ouvre I had recently been reading.

There is another story by Turkish writer Kaya Genç, set in Istanbul (“The House on Arundel Street”); and yet another, by Shankar Vedantam, set in India at the time of a border war with Pakistan, a tale (“The Scoop”) with a dark, biting, and very instructive irony. And also some wonderful poems by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, almost certainly the last one he wrote (on the day previous to his death in Thailand); by the American avant-gardist Lawrence Ferlinghetti; and by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn.

Merton’s poem, appropriately enough (he’d had a premonition that he would not be returning from that Asian journey), deals with the subject of mortality. He uses the peaceful metaphor of clouds, which may linger for a while in a valley but “‘always / move on,’” concluding beautifully with this solitary line: “‘Soon I will be a cloud’” (p. 21).

Ferlinghetti’s “Poetry as Insurgent Art {I am signaling you through the flames}” poses these questions about our times: “What are poets for, in such an age? / What is the use of poetry?”; and answers: “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it”; then at last, his aspirational paraphrase of “the pen is mightier than the sword”: “you can conquer the conquerors with words” (p. 43).

Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Peace,” written in 1964 “before he escaped Vietnam as the war there escalated,” the editor writes, begins with the paradox of his brother’s death in battle while, at the same time, a rose on its bush slowly uncurls its petals and the poet remains among the living, “still breathing fragrance of roses and dung / eating, praying, and sleeping” – despite his anguish and “the unuttered words that are choking [him]” (p. 99).

In his description of my essay, co-judge Robert Wake calls it “a fiercely literary essay that mixes memoir and socio-political history’; and comments, among other things, on a particular strength: “that readers needn’t be familiar with Mansilla to come away with a truer appreciation for [Argentina’s] literature and past” (p. 6). For a further description of the essay, and to answer the question of Who the devil this Mansilla might be, see my September 1 blog entry.


As I also elaborate in that journal entry, I am toying with the idea of making another stab at publishing the larger memoir (Journeys and Digressions) from which my essay is adapted. Meanwhile, I have been at work sprucing it up a bit; including the addition of a brief “Author’s Note” at the outset and an “Afterword” to succinctly bring the work (an “epistolary memoir” written from the vantage point of my 2005 journey to Argentina) into the present.

If anyone among my readers knows of someone who might have an interest in publishing such a meditative, leisurely stroll through the mental and physical landscapes of an Argentine journey, with its scattered and sundry digressions, please don’t hesitate to send them my way (; – or to drop me a line so that I might contact them.

I would also encourage any one of you who is curious about Rosebud: The Biggest Little Literary Magazine in the World to visit their website (


Don Quixote, Cervantes, and Islam


Don Quixote as calavera by Mexican caricaturist José Guadalupe Posada

Anyone who really knows me is well aware that my secular Bible, my book número uno in world literature, is Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote. That has been the case since my senior year in high school when I took on Walter Starkie’s translation and afterwards wrote on the chalkboard in Mr. Beckley’s English classroom, while no one else was present, the following couplet from a fictitious elegy to our good knight – who by the end of Book Two (spoiler alert!!!) has died:

He had the fortune in his age

To live a fool and die a sage.

A straighter version, from Edith Grossman’s more strictly accurate rendering, is: “for it was his great good fortune / to live a madman, and die sane.” I still prefer the first to any alternative I have seen, mostly because it so charmingly captures the rhyme (in an aabba pattern in the original) that occurs between lines 1, 2, and 5, but nowhere in Grossman’s still justly acclaimed version:

Tuvo a todo el mundo en poco,

fue el espantajo y el coco

del mundo, en tal coyuntura,

que acreditó su ventura

morir cuerdo y vivir loco.

I had read an abridged and probably heavily adapted version of The Adventures of Don Quixote about three years earlier, in ninth grade, and immediately identified very personally with Don Quixote’s noble character. I sensed that, if he was mad, it was a spiritual or holy madness, that the titlting at windmills and all the slapstick were not the main point. Since then I’ve learned (most acutely after reading Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture notes on the subject) that the physical and psychic cruelty both knight and squire suffer in their earliest adventures is nothing to be laughed at; and, besides that, it is part of the mechanism by which readers are brought to understand that what they are reading is much deeper and more substantial than a raucous, comic satire against the ancient books of chivalry. Perhaps it even suggests the point at which Cervantes himself realized what kind of a book he was actually writing.


Don Quixote and Sancho by Gustave Doré

Don Quixote, as Nabokov rightly insists, is not comedy but high tragedy. The real humor in the book, and this goes a long way to softening the impact of its tragedy, is in the delightful and humanizing conversation between knight and squire that runs like a stream of healing water through the whole of it.

The range of Cervantes’s tragedy is multifarious and exists on many planes. The one that has provoked me to write today is the tragedy of Spain’s expulsion of the Jews and, with their new religion of Islam, the “infidel” Moors from its borders. I think it has something to say to our current international predicament.




Moors’ Invasion of Spain

The Moors invaded Spain in the year 711, less than a century after the prophet Muhammad had formed the new faith. In fits and starts over the next few centuries, culminating in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the Moors were pushed south by the Christian resistance – the Reconquest – from its northern mountain strongholds. At approximately the same time as Columbus was first sailing the ocean blue, the Jews were being expelled from Spain by the Christian Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and in 1502 the defeated Muslims were given the choice of conversion or expulsion.

Most of them stayed, only a few returning to their distant forebears’ northernmost Africa. But the Moriscos, the ones who stayed, were still persecuted, forbidden even from wearing their traditional clothing or taking baths. A common charge, in the malodorous air of the Spanish Inquisition, was that “the accused was known to take baths” – a suspiciously sensual indulgence to which the typical Spaniard of the day was little inclined.

“The sound of water to these desert people must have had something mystical about it,” writes John A. Crow in Spain: The Root and the Flower (Third Edition). Indeed, dazzled by the relative trickle of the Guadalquivir River, the Moors made the land they called Al-Andalus “blossom like the watered rose.” Daily washings were part of their religious ritual, Crow explains,

and one has but to roam through any of their palaces or gardens today to become aware of how much flowing water meant to them esthetically. Their finest architectural gems are inseparable from large reflecting pools and fountains. Their lovely gardens are possible only because of the constant flow of water. As a consequence of their own great love of water the Moors very naturally thought that the Christians never washed at all. “They were sprinkled with water at the time they were born, and thus relieved from washing for the rest of their lives” (p. 61).


The Alhambra in Granada, Spain

One clue to the Moors’ “mystical” relation to water is found in their sacred book the Quran (or Koran):

God hath promised to Believers,

Men and women, Gardens

Under which rivers flow,

To dwell therein,

And beautiful mansions

In Gardens of everlasting bliss.

But the greatest bliss

Is the Good Pleasure of God:

That is the supreme felicity. (ix. 72)

Aside from these Muslim invaders’ superior cleanliness, the Moors and the Jews together were the crucial element in the greatest flowering of arts and sciences in Christian Spain. A particularly bright moment was during the 13th-century reign of the Castilian king Alfonso X: Alfonso the wise or learned, “the scholar king.” His reign is remembered especially for its religious tolerance and his collaboration with Muslim and Jewish scholars in order to “mold a Spanish culture out of roots that were Greco-Roman, Islamic, Hebraic, as well as Christian and Castilian” (p. 97, emphasis in original).

“The culture of the Arabs,” Crow writes,

 was superior to that of the Christians in many ways. In the first place, its technical superiority was obvious. The Moors were better agriculturalists, better engineers, better architects, better tradesmen, better manufacturers of tiles, textiles, leather goods, armor, swords; they lived in better houses, they had larger cities, their lands were more fruitful and they possessed more things of all kinds than the Spanish Christians. But material wealth was not their only point of superiority. They were also more widely read, they were better philosophers, physicians, poets, musicians, and artists.


King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella

What the Spaniards had going for them, on the other hand, was what helped them to win the long Reconquest of the whole of Moorish Spain: “They were superior,” Crow writes

in individual drive, in stubborn will, and indefatigable energy, in the resolution to prove themselves the equal of any man […]. Their reservoir of inner strength was greater. They did not depend on outside things, but only on what they had inside themselves. Each individual soldier was a dynamic universe. Each man’s soul was in constant heroic tension. Each man’s faith was epic. The forward thrust of their collective might was irresistible. (p. 96)

The Moors, likewise, in the parts of Spain that they had subdued and held onto, were tolerant rulers in their way. They allowed Christians to practice their own faith, under mild restrictions of other sorts and the imposition of a special tax. That was the custom within Islam from the Arabian to the Iberian peninsula, so long as the resident Jews and Christians were not actively seeking the destruction of their religion.

It is true that the Quran contains passages that might conceivably be construed as justification for the indiscriminate “holy war” that some extremist groups (claiming to represent Islam) are waging today. But those passages – no more nor less than similar ones in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament – must be read in the context of the time in which they were written. In any case, the Quran itself gives ample proofs of the counter-assertion of much greater numbers of 21st-century Muslims: that theirs is at core, despite the unfortunate actions of a violent minority, a peaceable religion . Take this passage, to start with:

Those who believe in the Quran,

And those who follow the Jewish scriptures,

And the Christians and the Sabians,

Any who believe in the Last Day,

And work righteousness,

Shall have their reward. (ii. 62)


The Koran

Elsewhere, too, the Quran speaks of Christians and Jews who (like Muslims themselves) live by the precepts of a holy Book, and focuses on the principles of spiritual living that cross all borders. Consider, for instance, this verse, a personal favorite of mine:

It is not righteousness

That ye turn your faces

Towards the East or West;

But it is righteousness –

To believe in God

And the Last Day,

And the Angels,

And the Book,

And the Messengers;

To spend of your substance,

Out of love for Him,

For your kin,

For orphans,

For the needy,

For the wayfarer,

For those who ask,


And practice regular charity,


And to be firm and patient,

In pain or suffering

And adversity

And throughout

All periods of panic.

Such are the people

Of truth, the God-fearing. (ii. 77)


The sacred words in Arabic

Even so, in the rush of righteous satisfaction spawned by Christian Spain’s successful Reconquest and by the ensuing subjugation of much of indigenous America, no righteous act or intention of those people of the Other book was given any quarter. King Philip III expelled them en masse between 1609 and 1611: in other words, about six years after the publication of Book One of Don Quixote and about four years before that of Book Two.


 Even in Book One of Don Quixote, Cervantes pays special attention to the political and social “problem” of Moors and Moriscos. The first intimation of this comes in Chapter IX, which is also the first chapter in Part Two. I will use Edith Grossman’s translation from here on out.

“In part one of this history,” Cervantes narrates at chapter’s onset,

 we left the brave Basque and the famous Don Quixote with their swords raised and unsheathed, about to deliver two downstrokes so furious that if they had hit the mark, the two combatants would have been cut and split in half from top to bottom and opened like pomegranates; and at that extremely uncertain point, the delectable history stopped and was interrupted, without the author giving us any information as to where the missing parts could be found. (p. 65)

k2-_6824672d-6b6f-4c25-be75-598b29366a3b.v1[1]At this point, distraught over that unfortunate accident, Cervantes happens to stumble on a manuscript – “in characters I knew to be Arabic,” he writes – and looks around for some Morisco who could interpret it for him. To make a long story short, the manuscript turns out to be the lost “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha. Written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab Historian.” Then, before finishing the story of the Basque and the Manchegan knight, Cervantes the light-hearted ironist makes this famous observation about the history and its author:

If any objection can be raised regarding the truth of this one, it can only be that its author was Arabic, since the people of that nation are very prone to telling falsehoods, but because they are such great enemies of ours, it can be assumed that he has given us too little rather than too much. So it appears to me, for when he could and should have wielded his pen to praise the virtues of so good a knight, it seems he intentionally passes over them in silence; this is something badly done and poorly thought out, since historians must and ought to be exact, truthful, and absolutely free of passions, for neither interest, fear, rancor, nor affection should make them deviate from the path of truth, whose mother is history, the rival of time, repository of great deeds, witness to the past, example and adviser to the present, and forewarning to the future. In this account I know there will be found everything that could be rightly desired in the most pleasant history, and if something of value is missing from it, in my opinion the fault lies with the dog who was its author rather than to any defect in its subject. (pp. 68-69)

Perhaps this ironizing is part of Cervantes’s strategy to keep himself and his brainchild safe from the Inquisition, but in any case it is a brilliant technique that attaches whole new levels of unreliability to the whole and the parts of this “true history.” As in the novel’s first sentence – “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago …” (p. 19) – we have every reason to question the authenticity of almost any part of these narratives that come down to us. Or, as happens increasingly between knight and squire, or between either or both of them and multiple others encountered on their wanderings through the world, the truth lies somewhere within the meeting of those various perspectives. But be that as it may, if we harbor some doubt about whether the former soldier, Cervantes, really thought of his Arabian narrator as a dog, it might seem somewhat less likely after encountering the “history of the captive” (one of several interpolated tales) toward the end of Book One.


Illustration for the captive’s tale in Don Quixote

Cervantes, who was himself once captive in Algiers (and earlier, against the Turks, a wounded hero and Crusader in the battle of Lepanto), must have been in the historical sense, at least, closer to this fictitious captive than to his spiritual alter ego Don Quixote. While Cervantes was unsuccessful in his four attempts at escape (after five years he was finally ransomed), the narrator of this account not only does escape but makes off with the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Arab – unknown to her father, she is in her heart a Christian – and a portion of his riches. What is remarkable about this narration, though, is its complex, nuanced development that treats both Muslim father and Christian daughter with equal dignity. Surely there is no passage in the whole book more poignant than the extended and painful parting of the beautiful Zoraida from her father, who having interrupted their escape has had to be taken hostage until they can release him without risk of being retaken. In the culminating scene, finally, she is sailing away from him; on shore, as the escaped captive relates it, the father

pulled his beard and tore out his hair and threw himself on the ground, and once, when he called out as loud as he could, we heard him cry:

“Come back, my beloved daughter, come ashore, I forgive everything! Give those men the money, it is already theirs, and come and console your grieving father, who will die on this desolate strand if you leave him!”

Zoraida heard all of this, and she grieved and wept at everything and could only respond:

“Pray to Allah, dear father, that Lela Marién [her name for the Virgin Mary], who is the reason that I am a Christian, may console you in your sorrow. Allah knows I could not help doing what I did […]” (p. 363)

The story that should remove all doubt, though, about the great humanity of our author Cervantes, appears at two separate moments toward the end of Book Two. First, when Sancho Panza is returning to Don Quixote from a stint as the governor of an “island” somewhere in the landlocked sea of Castile, he comes across an old acquaintance from his village in La Mancha. Ricote, one of the expelled Moriscos who has been abroad looking for a hospitable place for his family to stay, is on his way home to recover their buried riches before calling for his family (believed to be in Algiers) to Germany where he has decided to settle.


Moriscos’ expulsion from Spain

Without going into much detail about this first meeting with Ricote, I will focus briefly on the acquiescent, uncomplaining tone of his brief narrative – which only lends itself to Cervantes’s more darkly ironic purpose. While he refers to His Majesty’s proclamation and edict and the terror and fear it brought to all of them, he doesn’t blame the King at all, but rather the bad intentions of a good many of his people: “‘In short,’” Ricote says, “‘it was just and reasonable for us to be chastised with punishment of exile: lenient and mild, according to some, but for us it was the most terrible one we could have received.’” “‘We did not know our good fortune until we lost it,’” he goes on, “‘and the greatest desire in almost all of us is to return to Spain.’” As for himself and his own family, he adds: “‘I know for a fact that my daughter, Ricota, and my wife, Francisca Ricota, are true Catholic Christians, and though I’m less of one, I’m still more Christian than Moor […]’” (pp. 813-814).

But what transpires some time later, after Don Quixote and Sancho have made it as far as Barcelona and its Mediterranean shore, puts flesh on the real suffering and upheaval of a people that otherwise – like Middle Eastern refugees in our day, their masses huddled at European and American borders – are mere statistics, proclamations, moral abstractions. In this instance, our faithful knight and squire are being entertained with a visit to the galley ships and become witnesses to a gun battle offshore. Two of the Spanish soldiers on deck are shot dead by two drunken Turks on the other boat, and the admiral general has promised to hang them all when “one of the handsomest and most gallant boys the human mind could imagine” (p. 878) is brought before him as their captain.

Except that the boy is actually a girl in disguise. “‘I am not of Turkish nationality, or a Moor, or a renegade,’” she says. “‘I am a Christian woman.’” And then, before the death sentence can be carried out, she is allowed to tell her story: “‘I was born to Morisco parents and am of that nation, more unhappy than wise, upon whom a sea of afflictions has lately poured down’” (p. 879). She was taken to Algiers by two uncles, “‘by force rather than by [her] will,’” despite her protestations that she is a Christian: “‘as in fact [she is], and not one of the false or apparent ones but a true Catholic Christian,’” daughter of Christian parents: “‘I drank in the Catholic faith with my mother’s milk,’” she insists; “‘I was brought up with good morals; neither in my speech nor in my behavior did I give a sign of being a Morisca.’” As for the place where her uncles settled her: “‘it was as if we had settled in hell itself’” (p. 880).

She ended up placed, to put things briefly, on this ship for the purpose of retrieving the family’s wealth for the Moorish king who covets it as well as her; and was then betrayed by the greedy and insolent Turks who were supposed to put her ashore in Christian clothes that she brought with her, but instead decided to keep her while they went in search of further prizes (p. 881). “‘This is, Señores,’” she says at last, “‘the end of my lamentable story, as true as it is unfortunate,’” and all she requests is “‘that you allow me to die as a Christian, for as I have said, in no way have I been guilty of the offense into which those of my nation have fallen.’”


Ships on Barcelona’s Mediterranean shore, roughly 17th century

At which point we have one of those coincidental, perfectly timed, and emotional comings-together that are part and parcel to so much literature of a romantic bent: consider Victor Hugo’s Les misérables, for instance, as well as other unlikely meetings besides this one in the Quixote itself.

“As the Christian Morisca was recounting her strange history,” Cide Hamete (or some complicit other) narrates,

an ancient pilgrim who had boarded the galley with the viceroy had not taken his eyes off her, and as soon as she finished speaking, he threw himself at her feet and embraced them.

“O Ana Félix, my daughter! I am your father, Ricote, who came back to find you because I cannot live without you, for you are my soul” (p. 882).

Then, as the girl rushes into her father’s embrace, Ricote confirms to the others that she is his daughter, “‘more unfortuante in what has happened to her than in her name’” (which, like feliz in today’s Spanish, means “happy” or “fortunate”); “‘I left my country,’” he goes on, “‘to look in foreign lands for a land that would welcome and shelter us,

and having found it in Germany, I came back dressed as a pilgrim, in the company of other Germans, to find my daughter and retrieve the great riches I left hidden here. […] If in the integrity of your justice our small guilt, and her tears and mine, can open the doors to mercy, then show us mercy, for we never thought of offending you, nor did we ever agree in any way with the intentions of our people, who have so justly been expelled.”

At which point Sancho, in the voice of the practical farmer he is, with his deep-seated aversion to getting mixed up in other people’s business, pipes in that he knows them both and that the part about their identity is true; but, “‘as for this other business of coming and going and having good or bad intentions, I have nothing to say about that’” (pp. 882-883). The daughter, of course, is at that point promptly pardoned.


Monument to Cervantes; image suggestive of “The Little Gypsy”

Both father’s and daughter’s  apologies for the supposed transgressions of their people may, from our distant vantage point, seem something of a cop-out on Cervantes’s part. Likewise with the convenient fact that Ana Félix (and in the other tale Zoraida, whose mother it turns out was a Christian captive) are either half Christian by blood or at least raised from infancy within that faith. But these must be the sorts of compromises that were a rhetorical necessity in his day, if only to keep oneself free of the meddling intrusions of inquisitors and, perhaps, the incomprehension of the common reader. Something similar occurs, in any case, for both Cervantes’s fair protagonist in “The Little Gypsy,” one of his “exemplary novels,” and for Hugo’s Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame: each of those enchanting Gypsy girls, at least by birth, is not really a Gypsy at all but was either abducted or else adopted by that wild and untrustworthy race. So to those who have ears to hear, I imagine Cervantes saying, echoing the words of Scripture, let them hear; while the common rung of readers take their parables, first, on the strictly literal level.

On the other hand, though, let us not be too smug about how advanced our thinking has become over the intervening centuries. For are we not the same people who are presently debating not only whether to accept Muslim refugees into our midst (as we did not accept Jewish children fleeing the Holocaust), but even whether to allow our current population of Muslim Americans to exist here in peace? Should we burden them with identity cards, the demagogues among us ask? Or with scarlet letters tattooed on their foreheads or sewn onto their clothing? Or should we close or burn down their mosques? Or “round them up” and put them in concentration camps as we did, during the second world war, to our Japanese American countrymen? Or maybe just surveil them into fearful compliance with every aspect, however dubious, of the strict orthodoxy of our 21st-century American exceptionalism.

May our friend Cervantes’s exalted literary rhetoric suggest to us how to answer the demagogic purposes, prejudiced assumptions, and distorting rhetoric of the warmongers, fearmongers, and all variety of other vile mongers who afflict us in our troubled times. Because the snake oil they’re selling can only bring further hatreds and divisions; constantly shrinking civil liberties and ever-rising civilian and military casualties; and a precious few’s perpetual profits, directly or indirectly, from the never-ending war economy that President Eisenhower once tried to warn us about: all the social, economic, educational, ecological, and other goods that a civil society might legitimately ask of its government up in smoke.


 We tend to forget, when we talk about Islamist extremism and the escalating attack on “our American way of life,” that for one thing we are not the only people in the world who have ever experienced or are experiencing terror. Nor, though it rub us the wrong way to admit it, are our foreign enemies the only ones who create terror. Imagine, for instance, that you are the woman crouched under a table at a Planned Parenthood clinic praying not to be one of the women murdered by the moment’s extremist Christian assassin, leaving your two small children without a mother. Or that you are the child who has just lost family, friends, neighbors in yet another mistaken U.S. drone strike on a traditonal wedding party (or school, or hospital) in Afghanistan or Pakistan. From your point of view at that time and place, who are the terrorists and who the terrorized?


Don Quixote in his library, by Doré

Among the great themes of Don Quixote is the puzzling question of reality and illusion: step into the role of knight-errant and, to the degree that you inhabit the role, knight-errant you are. Will yourself to believe in the precepts of any religion, and set yourself to living by them, or by some sadistic distortion of them, and the experiences of the spirit or of its evil caricature will become real to you; proving nothing except for the sure existence, on some plane or other, of your reality.

Don Quixote sees marauding giants where Sancho sees some windmills. Later our good knight sees the famous helmet (yelmo) of Mambrino where his long-suffering squire sees a barber’s basin (bacía). When a dispute arises over the ownership and the physical nature of that object, clever Sancho invents a whole new reality with his invented word: baciyelmo (for which the best we are able to do in English is the hyphenated “basin-helmet”).

Now, sure, there is the comedic element there. We can safely say that, to human perception at least, grass is generally green and sky, blue. Don Alonso Quixano’s wits are restored to him when he lays aside his chivalric identity as Don Quixote; he himself admits that a helmet is a helmet and a basin a basin, dismissing all his recent adventuring as tomfoolery. None of which stops those who have loved the frequently lucid lunatic from being as sad as Sancho when he casts off the noble dream, surrendering to the limitations of the flesh and of the physical and political world as it exists; nor can we deny the evidence of literature and the arts – and the unplumbable depths of the human soul – that Don Quixote lives and has remained continually alive in the world in countless incarnations.

What is more – and this is a vital and essential point – watch what happens when different people, or political parties, or nations, or the adherents to revolutions both reactionary and radical, armed and unarmed, discuss some noble abstraction like democracy, freedom, peace, security, capitalism, socialism, righteousness, good and evil. We all mean different things by those words and others that we so thoughtlessly (and sometimes maliciously) bandy about; and there is no clear empirical test to forever settle which definitions are right – if any of them are; and under what contingencies. Which is not to say, on the other hand, that issues cannot be argued and reasonable solutions reached through a dialogue that sets itself up as shared inquiry as well as persuasion – and in the place of coercion. Cervantes’s perspectivism is not a valueless, merely secular humanism (he was himself a Catholic or Christian humanist) without moral or ethical compass, but it does forego the absolutist’s illusion – secular or religious – of certainty; in favor, instead, of the necessity of honest dialogue, negotiation, diplomacy: those essential trappings of civilization and humane culture that the demagogues of every place and time (our present Presidential cycle not excepted) are so intent on tossing out like baby with bath water.


Don Quixote conjuring his beautiful Dulcinea

It is my quixotic wish that as a nation we might aspire to reach beyond the narrow confines of our private interests: to see the world, and even our homeland, in its multicultured splendor and points of view. Then, along with the fearmongering and demagoguery that is our present fare, we might throw out the new Berlin walls and “No Room at the Inn” signs that scar our landscapes. Instead of all that: let all the streams of healing waters, from celestial, terrestrial, or subterranean gardens everwhere, pour over us.