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BlogJanuary, 2009
Dirge of the dying year (Shelley, Browning, Harold Bloom); Israel's Lincolnesque strategy + Obama's silence; NFL rookie wrap-up

Whatever you think of Harold Bloom, you must respect his sweeping assertions about literature and criticism:

  • “There is not a sentence concerning Jesus in the entire New Testament composed by anyone who ever had met the unwilling King of the Jews…” – Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 19 (2005)
  • “I myself find it curious that no one, in the entire history of scholarship, ever has speculated on the literary motives of the Kabbalists.” – Kabbalah and Criticism, 36 (1975)
  • “Freud would not bother to notice it, but Shakespeare was careful to show that Prince Hamlet was a rather neglected child, at least by his father. Nowhere in the play does anyone, including Hamlet and the Ghost, tell us that the uxorious father loved the son.” – The Western Canon, 351 (1994)

Perusing some Bloom on New Year’s Day, I happened upon this dictum: 

“When we read Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, we do not encounter in the poem any significant verbal elements that take us back to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind…” (Kabbalah and Criticism, 33)

It didn’t seem Bloom-like. Seldom does he hedge his bets with pansy phrases like “significant verbal elements.”

As it turns out, Bloom is just plain wrong here. In any poem, a simile is a significant verbal element, and both Browning and Shelley use hair similes in their poems. Here’s Browning (bold type is mine):

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud! (73-78)

And here’s Shelley:

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,

Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,

Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread

On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge

Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,

The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,

Vaulted with all thy congregated might… (15-26)

 
Hair similes are not the only significant verbal element the poems share. Both poems also possess what you might call anti-verdant imagery. Shelley writes of “decaying leaves” (line 16) while Browning mentions “thin dry blades” (74).

And there’s more between the two poems than this. For example, Shelley refers to “black rain” (28) while Browning writes of a river’s “black eddy” (113).

Bloom’s overall point in Kabbalah and Criticism is that the “initial aspect of Browning’s poem is hidden in Shelley’s poem” (33). But how hidden can it be if the poems share similes and imagery?

***

Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday is February 12. Publishers will barrage us with new biographies, but the one I’ll buy is Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life by Princeton prof James McPherson. While the title is as boring as Benjamin Button (not that I blame McPherson for the humdrum moniker), the book is only 65 pages and, according to the raves on Amazon, it’s still worth reading as a complement to longer Lincoln bios.

Another reason I’ll buy it: McPherson’s 1990 book, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, dazzled me with its essay, “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors.” (Now that’s a title.)

A different essay by McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” came to mind not long ago while I watched Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni’s interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Citing Carl von Clausewitz, McPherson defines war as “the continuation of state policy by other means – that is, war is an instrument of last resort to achieve a nation’s goals” (69). McPherson then argues that Lincoln, in his rhetoric and actions, established congruities between the North’s national strategy (the political goals of the war) and military strategy (the actual fighting). For example, Lincoln never referred to the Confederacy as such; instead he insisted on terms like “rebel states” and “rebels,” positing the entire conflict as not a war between sovereign nations with separate territories, but an effort to quell a domestic insurrection.

Livni and other Israeli officials are also emphasizing a congruity between national and military strategy. You hear the same five-pronged message in every interview: (1) the objective of the war is to protect Israeli civilians, something every democratic government has the right to do; (2) the destruction of Hamas, or at least its ability to launch missiles into the south of Israel, is the only way to protect Israeli civilians; (3) the question of disproportionate retaliation is moot as long as Israeli civilians are in peril; (4) the civilians of Gaza are not the enemies, Israel is doing everything to protect and aid them, but civilian casualties are inevitable in an effort like this; (5) Hamas unilaterally broke a ceasefire after Israel willingly left Gaza in the interest of a potential two-state solution in 2005 – so how trustworthy would another ceasefire be?

Is there a hole in this five-pronged propaganda? Perhaps, but it appears team Obama, for all their studying of Lincoln, has failed to find it. Until they do, their silence on Gaza (as of January 5) remains a tacit endorsement of Israel’s strategy. 

We’ll note here, too, that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also kept quiet.

***

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan won the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, leading the Falcons (11-5) to the playoffs while throwing for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

He had a superb rookie season, but he did not deserve top honors. That he ran away with the award – he got 44 votes, while the runner-up, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, got three – is a travesty.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, whom I wrote about before the 2008 draft, led the Ravens (11-5) to the playoffs while throwing for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Those numbers hardly pale in comparison to Ryan’s, yet Ryan had the luxury of playing alongside two Pro Bowlers, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White. Flacco’s supporting cast is nowhere near as talented, yet the Ravens offense (24.1 points per game) scored almost as much as the Falcons (24.4 ppg).

Still, I can grasp how voters chose Ryan over Flacco. It’s the margin of victory that disconcerts me. Regardless, neither quarterback deserved the award. My top five rookies:

5. Steve Slaton, RB, Houston Texans (8-8). Let the record show I was first on the Slaton bandwagon, back in March, when so-called experts dismissed him as a scat-back unworthy of first-round consideration. Slaton’s stats on the league’s fourth-best offense (by yardage) were flat-out awesome: He gained 1,659 yards from scrimmage, ranking fifth in the league. While Ryan and Flacco were competent quarterbacks, Slaton was a dominant running back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns.  

4. Jeff Otah, OT, Carolina Panthers (12-4). Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (18 touchdowns, 1,515 rushing yards, 5.5 ypc, no fumbles) should have been the NFL MVP. He was, hands down, the best player on one of the league’s four best teams. Otah was a huge key to this. Williams’ two worst efforts – in Week 6 and Week 7 – were games in which Otah (ankle) didn’t play. After Otah’s return in Week 10, Williams went on a rushing rampage that, in a just world, would have led to Williams’ MVP selection: An eight-game stretch in which Williams amassed 993 rushing yards on 153 carries (6.5 ypc) and scored 15 touchdowns. The bottom line is that Otah has become a franchise player on a team as likely as any to win the Super Bowl. Yet Otah did not garner a single vote from the members of the Associated Press.

3. Eddie Royal, WR, Denver Broncos (8-8). Catch 91 balls in your first season – ranking seventh in the league – and you deserve major props. In the entire history of the NFL, only Anquan Boldin (101 catches in 2003) had more grabs as a rookie. Royal also had precious few mental lapses (two fumbles), as opposed to Philadelphia Eagles rookie wideout DeSean Jackson (four fumbles), who is more explosive than Royal but simply not as reliable. Royal’s rookie teammate, offensive tackle Ryan Clady, also deserves accolades. But a receiver contribution of Royal’s (or Jackson’s) magnitude is far rarer than what Clady accomplished as a rookie lineman, impressive as it was. Every offensive lineman selected in the first round of the 2008 draft had a good rookie season. (Only Otah, in my view, was spectacular.)

2. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans (13-3). The Titans would have gone 8-8 without Johnson, their only big-play threat. Johnson’s 1,228 rushing yards ranked eighth in the league, while his 1,488 yards from scrimmage ranked tenth. Johnson managed to maintain his productivity and break free for big plays even after defenses began keying on him in Week 2. Only time will tell if he can handle a full workload while maintaining his burst.

1. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears (9-7). I believe Forte would get selected third in a league-wide redraft (after Ryan and Flacco, of course). Forte’s 1,715 yards from scrimmage ranked third in the league and first among rookies. His 63 receptions led all running backs.

Moreover, Forte was the only weapon in the Bears’ arsenal, the focal point of an otherwise nondescript offense. Whereas Johnson timeshared with Titans running back LenDale White (200 carries, 773 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns), Forte was a one-man gang. And whereas Johnson hit a wall of poor productivity in Weeks 10-12, Forte never lapsed: He either scored or gained at least 75 yards from scrimmage in every game. The Titans might have gone 8-8 without Johnson, but the Bears would have won four games without Forte. As a rookie, Forte was the heart and soul of a winning team. Barring injury, he will go down as one of the best running backs in NFL history: a faster, shiftier version of Curtis Martin. 

***

Final housecleaning note: I debuted as a fantasy baseball writer with an Impact Analysis on Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Cliff Lee. Thanks to everyone at KFFL for two years of great feedback and support. 



Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has appeared in Keyhole and been honored by
Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari