NONFICTION: Homeland Mythology
Christopher Collins, Homeland Mythology: Biblical Narrative in American Culture (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).
Ed Sanders, Revs of the Morrow: New Poems by Ed Sanders (Libellum, 2008)
We can put it like this: the Christian Right has diabolically fused biblical storylines, which are generally socially retrograde in the first place, with an updated, inspired jingoism, laced it with an extract from the conservative beliefs of Puritans and Southern slaveholders, and secreted it as a poison into the bloodstream of the American polity. Such at least is the thesis of a recent book by Christopher Collins, called Homeland Mythology: Biblical Narratives in American Culture, which can be usefully paired with the Revs of the Morrow: New Poems by Ed Sanders, which prepares something of an antidote to this toxin by drawing on alternate sources of historical tradition and offering down-home guides to living.
As many readers may know, the Christian church is founded in the claim that Jehovah cancelled his original covenant (circa the Old Testament) with the Jews, and extended its benefits to any righteous Christians. As Collins explains, some Fundamentalists have restricted its beneficiaries to Anglo-Israelites. No, these are not British Jews, but rather Jews who “crossed the Caucasus (whereupon they came to be called “Caucasians”) and eventually migrated to northern Europe, where one group … called itself Isaac’s sons (or Saxons) and became British Israelites.” Later, this pack, trailing the covenant, hopped on the Mayflower, en route to setting up a “city on a hill” in New England.
Now, this new covenant does not only offer benefits to the sons of Isaac, but has binding clauses disposing of the lesser races. Depending on which strained reading of the Bible is taken, they can be relegated to secondary places in one of two ways. (Note, I found the parts discussing Asians the most blood-curdling in that, though I am, apparently, Anglo-Israelite ethnically, my wife is Chinese.)
According to the still-current interpretation of the Good Book created in the Antebellum South, “the original color of humans was red (‘Adam’ is the Hebrew word for ‘red’).” This color had a lot of shades, it seems, since it is found in the skins not only of Native Americans, but Chinese and even Jews. However, when the descendants of Adam’s son, Shem, reject Jesus, Jehovah’s blessing passes to the children of white Japheth.
However, of late, this rationale has taken a back seat to the ideas of the Christian Identity movement, which hold that Asians, Blacks and others “are several hours older even than the white race of Adam, being among the ‘beasts of the earth.’”
This means that when Noah filled his ark, besides pigs, sheep, and cattle, he had to round up a male and female member of the black, yellow, and red races of soulless pre-Adamic humanoids in order to provide his future white descendants with serviceable beasts of burden.
Both these explanations, by the way, should give you some idea of the type of “science” Fundamentalists would like to use as a replacement for such unproven theories as that of evolution.
Collins is not saying, of course, that Bush and his Republican paymasters hold such wild-eyed beliefs, but rather that such ideas—and his book exposes many more tentacles of this Protestant infrastructure than I’ve been able to mention—are the ugly and integrally joined underside to surface espousal of more sanitized, super-patriot notions such as the idea that our nation is the world’s most puissant beacon of freedom.
This is a point Collins makes chillingly and well, indeed, so well, that at a book talk (sponsored by the Rail) he showed photos he had gathered since his book’s publication of notices in front of different Fundamentalist churches, which called on parishioners to burn Homeland Mythology.
Let’s shift to the other camp in this civil war of ideas. Although Georges Sorel argued that to animate the lower classes a myth, as unreal as those produced by the right wing, was a sine qua non, other writers, such as Ed Sanders in Revs of the Morrow, have taken what might be called an anti-flamboyant stance. Rather than pit a set of good myths against the doped-up hallucinations of the far Right, Sanders offers “revolutionaries not yet born,” a sober, unadorned, unassuming patchwork of pointers, histories and reminiscences, grounded in three humanist principles.
1) People are never unabashed heroes, but they can have moments, episodes, when their higher instincts guide them. Sanders suggests this in his poem “Ginsberg in India.” He mentions things that happened to the Beat poet abroad, but then focuses:
There were many more adventures…
But it is the tale of how Allen Ginsberg aided
Someone left for dead on the streets
that to me throws up a giant torch
on his humanity
While Ginsberg, certainly, could exhibit different faces, in this episode (as Sanders powerfully goes on to explain), the poet shows simple compassion.
2) People one deeply respects should be met, not with passive idol worship, but by sharing part of their adventure. Such a thought comes to the fore in reading “Poseidon’s Mane,” in which Sanders recounts a trip with friends to visit Charles Olson. Their meeting moves from a discussion of verse to raving and roistering once Olson presses on them tabs of acid from his huge stash. Memorably, Sanders feels the drug take effect while Olson is driving a car.
I glanced to the front seat
and Olson had turned into Poseidon!
literally, the Horse from the Sea!
with kelp in his mane
matted and wet
The night turns into a rollicking, unsettling evening for Sanders (rendered in forceful strokes), and can, to some degree, be read as a cautionary tale. The broader point, shown not only in this instance but in poems recounting different circumstances, such as hearing Ginsberg read at the Living Theater, is Sanders’ open-hearted admonition to be willing to (within reason and for a limited time) share another creative person’s reality as a way of enriching and chastening his own ego-locked views.
3) Perhaps the most important principle in the book is this: the best sustenance for a progressive (who is sure to meet innumerable setbacks) is knowledge of previous struggles and people of conscience. One of the more hard-hitting, terse and touching pieces in the book is “Ode to Rachel Carson,” which describes the environmentalist’s finishing the writing of Silent Spring and “shaping the p.r. battle” to keep the book before the public, all the while dying from an increasingly virulent cancer. Also of this genre is Sanders’ “For Emma Goldman,” a fitting, low-flown (attesting to Sanders’ avoidance of hollow rhetoric), moving tribute to this tribune of justice, whom he characterizes as “known for her brilliant speeches & anarcho-leftist organizational skills.”
God knows (pardon the expression), we need a poetry book of this type, given the rabid intellectual dishonesty that the Christian Right is spewing through the net waves and air waves, as Collins so carefully exposes. Though they are debasing the past, the Right’s zealots are primarily focused on the present, on making the next buck and winning the next election, while Sanders pitches his work into the future where he foresees “a Permanent // cradle-to-grave society of the Sharing Rose // w/ freedom to speak, dream, act & create.”
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