Literature, Life & Baltimore Riots

A scene from the Baltimore riots, visual commentary to the theme of the article on the function of literature“Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.”

Hamlet, 1.3

Articles published on this site are occasionally posted on other social media outlets, such as, for example, the “LITERATURE” Linked-in group.

Some critics in that group have objected to the unwarranted intrusion, on the grounds that the blogs in the “Your Daily Shakespeare” website are alien to literature.

I define myself as a Shakespeare ‘road’ scholar, as opposed to a  ‘Rhodes’ scholar, and here is why. Take the following lines,

LEAR Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
LEAR And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office. (1)

My ‘road’ interpretation goes like this, “Authority sucks, and no one said it better.”

I am sure my critics would find the comment tasteless and plebeian. Whereas (perhaps), they would object less to something as follows,

“The poignant image of a member of the canid family, associated with an economically challenged human, displays the author’s uncanny ability to extract discordant elements from real life (as lived in the late XVI, early XVII century), and to combine them into dynamic, vigorous and luminous scenes, pregnant with meaning, word rhythm and suspense.
The interrogative sentence, followed by a positive response and acknowledgment by the interrogated, and a cutting rejoinder by the original interrogator, suggests a comprehensive vision and understanding of sociological conflicts, in the realm of class identity and differentiation. The careful reader may ask himself, did the dog just bark, or perhaps did it proceed to bite the beggar? Or does the playwright artfully hints at a class structure where the human (represented by the beggar), and the animal (represented by the dog), are subliminally considered equivalent, in an almost clairvoyant anticipation of social Darwinistic principles, as embodied in the early XXI century, neo-liberal Weltanschauung?”

The establishment may accept the latter interpretation and condemn the former. Even so, an underlying question is whether literature should be confined within the narrow confines of specialists, or should it not be a means of conveying inspirations for a continuous renewal of society – almost the tool for a permanent revolution of thought, akin to the state of permanent revolution, advocated by some as the ingredient to prevent the growth of neo-liberal feudalism that developed unchallenged during the last decades.

The concept is certainly not new. Just to quote one out of many related sources, “… the ideas which are often offered to the mind will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them.” (Dr. Johnson, Adventurer)
And that literature can be a means for social change, is confirmed by the approach taken by the Catholic Church. In fact, the Index Expurgatorius (list of prohibited publications), published by the Catholic Church up to the second half of the XXth century, is probably the most complete catalog of the world’s best books.
And even if we cannot remember all that we read, “… not one of those words has remained in my mind. But there is the shape into which they have molded my thoughts and emotions, unchangeable, enduring.” So observed British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935).

To confine literature within the academic walls, under the control of sundry experts and captains of erudition, is, in my view, a distortion of the function of literature. The fact that Hollywood has taken over and monopolized the task of shaping the masses’ values and perception of life, does not make an art out of the entertainment industry. Which is, as I think I said before, but a top-down imposed ideology, masquerading as representative of popular taste.

And, for what is worth, the current passive acceptance of the aberrations imposed on the unreacting populace by its “democratically elected” government, is also a reflection of utter conformity of thought. To which the literature purists, by narrowing the function of literature, have, in their own way, contributed.

For, I also consider literature the following externation by an observer of the current Baltimore upheavals,

“ … People have become more radical. They’ve realized the power that they have. They’re no longer afraid of the police, the state, but also you have a police and a military force that’s been training for a year to deal with this type of circumstance….

… We can’t go back to normal lives. We get followed, harassed, death threats, phones tapped, social media watched, they hack into our emails, hack into our social media account, we all got FBI files. They know we here right now. So I mean it’s not a game, but it’s either continue to deal with not being able to just live like a regular person, and dream, and have an opportunity, or get up and do something about it. And we decided to do something.

….. I think D.C. is a perfect example of what America is. You have this big white house representing the government, that was built by slaves, that’s beautiful, excellent manicured lawns, and right outside the gate you have 50 homeless people sleeping in a park. Right outside of the gate of the White House. That perfectly describes America.

…. The difference between us and those (African American) leaders is that we aren’t doing it for fame, we aren’t doing it for political gain, we aren’t doing it for money, Obama, Sharpton, Jackson, Dyson and the other establishment black leaders. We’re doing it because every day that we’ve lived we’ve been denied normal human rights, and we could have lost our life. We don’t believe those leaders are properly representing our community. Because they are no longer a part of the community, they don’t speak for the community, and honestly they don’t do much for it. They do some things, because they have to, being 501(c)3s, (non profit organizations), but they don’t speak for the people.

Jackson and Sharpton have been heckled by crowds in Ferguson and told to leave, along with crews from CNN. CNN and other major news outlets are worse than politicians, worse than police.

So people in Ferguson is basically like, fuck Al Sharpton, and fuck Jesse Jackson, for real. And that’s the best way I can put it, for real, because they are co-opted, first off. They had their own movement. They were co-opted. Their movement got destroyed. Now they want to come to the new leaders and try to come in our movement and give guidance and stuff, but it’s a totally different generation. They marched with suits and ties and sung ‘Kumbaya’ and stuff. It’s people out there that look like Bloods, Crips, whatever, out there just mad, because they was pissed off and they was passionate about it.

Jesse Jackson came, actually we were in the middle of a prayer for Michael Brown’s mother, and we were at the memorial site in Canfield Apartments, where he was killed and laid down in the street for four and a half hours. Everyone has their heads bowed and he comes over and starts shouting ‘No justice, no peace’ in the middle of a prayer. So instantly the community is pissed the fuck off—like who the hell is this? I finally recognized his face. I went over to him, because the guys were ready to fight him. Like, you don’t come over here and, this mother’s grieving, we’re all upset, and break up our prayer. And he’s all like ‘No justice, no peace!’ He has his bullhorn, and his sign and everything, just for a photo op. So I went over and I said to him, you probably should leave, because they’re really angry and they’re gonna get you out of here. And he was like ‘No justice, no peace!’ and he just kept chanting. So I moved out of the way, and the dudes told him, like ‘Hey bro, if you don’t back the fuck up we’re gonna make you leave.’ And he’s like, ‘This is what’s wrong with us!’ and ‘generational divide!’ and everything like that. And you know the community wasn’t taking for it, so he got scared, and him and the people he came with, like his best-dressed suit on and everything, and everybody was out there shirtless, or tank tops, or just in their normal clothes. And he came out there with a cameraman and everything, like this is just a frenzy or a freaking parade or something to film. So people were pissed off and he instantly left, and he hasn’t really been back since.

Every national organization you can think of is in St. Louis, Mo. We have Urban League. We have the NAACP(2). We have all these different organizations. But yet for the last two decades we’ve always had one of the three top murder rates, one of the three highest crime rates. Poverty level is crazy, unemployment, you have all these mission statements on your website saying you do this and you do that, yet those programs aren’t available in our city. But you have offices here. You’re getting grants. But you’re not doing anything. And the community sees that now. So it’s gonna come a point in time to where all 501(c)3s, and all organizations, have to actually be active in the communities that they’re representing.” (4)

In his own colorful style (literati would say ‘poignant’ but I dislike the term), the utterer of these considerations explained why the presence and the words of the afore-mentioned African-American leaders are useless. Just as Henry the Eight said to Cardinal Wolsey,

“’Tis well said again;
And ’tis a kind of good deed to say well:
And yet words are no deeds.”(3)

To conclude, literature disconnected from life is like the wax reproduction of a beautiful woman. It may be beautiful, but no one will date her.

  1. King Lear
  2. For our international readers, NAACP = National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  3. King Henry VIII
  4. I extracted this interview from an article written by Chris Hedges

In the play. The original quote about censure is part of the motivational speech  by Polonius to his son Laertes, before the latter’s depsrture for Paris. In the King Lear quotation, the blind Gloucester and (ex) King Lear find themselves in a field near Dover.

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