Lenten Meditation 2009 (for Bloor Street United Church)

In February 2009 I was asked to contribute a short text to a collection of Lenten Meditations that members of the congregation of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto were bringing together. (The invitation came, I suppose, because in the preceding several months I had delivered three public lectures at the church, two of them in the Reel Activism series organized by Karin Brothers.) The terms were quite strict: meditations were to be less than four hundred words in length, were to incorporate reflections on one or more of three set scriptural passages (in my case, Jeremiah 26: 1-16, Romans 11: 1-12, and John 10: 19-42), and were to be followed by the author's name and a short prayer. The result was this rather elliptical text—which I supplemented, some months later, with an Afterword which unfolds some of its implications. The present version incorporates a small correction in the third paragraph, for which I'm grateful to Lia Tarachansky. The Afterword has not previously been published.


In late 2002, one of my students, knowing that I had been speaking out in public against the impending American invasion of Iraq, sent me, as encouragement, a quotation from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I found this moving. Perhaps because I knew my efforts to help expose the fraudulence of the coming war would likely be futile, I valued all the more this incitement to courage and stamina, with its reminder that what counts—what is obligatory—is our participation, now, in an unassuming practice of justice and mercy.

Though my student didn’t say so, this Talmudic text is a midrashic expansion of words ascribed to the early-second-century Rabbi Tarfon, in the Pirkei Avot (or Ethics of the Sages), 2:16. Tarfon is elsewhere said to have debated with Rabbi Akiba the question of which was greater, ma‘aseh (deeds or action), or learning. Tarfon said action, and Akiba said learning; they concluded that learning is greater, because it leads to action (Kiddushin 40b). The same ethical imperative seems again to be implied.

This may seem a peculiar way to enter a meditation on the texts proposed to me: Jeremiah 26: 1-16, Romans 11: 1-12, and John 10: 19-42. But I would note that all three passages represent, as action, an undaunted proclamation of a message that the speaker takes to be both true and obligatory. Jeremiah is threatened with death for prophesying (bar penitence) the destruction of Jerusalem; Paul, quoting Elijah, implies that his own life has been sought for proclaiming the fulfillment of prophecy; and John represents Jesus as threatened with stoning for his proclamation of divinity.

These texts cluster around experiences of historical catastrophe. Jeremiah anticipates (or his redacted texts remember) the destruction of the kingdom of Judah. Paul—Saulus before his conversion—served the Temple authorities in repressing the messianism that culminated in the rising of C.E. 66-70 (and Romans 16: 11 suggests a link to the colonial elite, the Herodians). John, writing a generation or more after the cataclysmic siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple, is striving to revision events that preceded a war of genocidal intensity.

Rabbi Tarfon, one might add, lived through the final convulsion of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in C.E. 135-36.

Michael Keefer is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies of the University of Guelph; he lives in Toronto with the novelist and poet Janice Kulyk Keefer. The prayer he would suggest is from Act III, scene iv, lines 26-36 of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In this scene, the dispossessed Lear insists that his Fool enter ahead of him the hovel that his few loyal followers have found for him as shelter from the storm:

In boy; go first. You houseless poverty— 
Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep. 
[Exit Fool into the hovel.] 
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, 
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, 
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, 
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; 
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, 
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.


An Afterword

Though there wasn’t space in Bloor Street United Church's Lenten booklet to say so, this is an unusual prayer. Instead of invoking some higher power, Lear addresses his words to the homeless, the abject, the defenseless. He reproaches himself for failing to attend to their needs when he had the means to do so. And he exhorts those who now have position and power to learn about the suffering of the wretched of the earth—by sharing it, as Lear himself is being forced to do—and then to transform what they have learned into action by another kind of sharing, a distribution to the needy of “the superflux,” what they possess beyond their own needs.

The last line is perhaps the most startling: Lear is telling us that our sense of the justice or injustice of the cosmos arises out of our own human enactments of justice or injustice. The idea feels modern, so we may be surprised to encounter it in a play written four centuries ago.

But perhaps Rabbi Tarfon (or his midrashic commentator) was on to something similar one and a half millennia earlier. You want to live in a world governed by justice and mercy? Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.

The words of King Lear suggest that to act upon these imperatives we must first learn experientially what it means to suffer injustice and oppression. Lear proposes no more than a modest sharing out of superfluities, but declares, realistically enough, that action of this kind needs to be impelled by an empathetic understanding of what people who are oppressed and impoverished have to endure.

Yet as Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba seem to have recognized when they debated the matter, another kind of learning is equally necessary as the basis for just action. What, for contemporary purposes, would this learning have to incorporate? Ethical principles, to be sure, but equally importantly, an understanding of what is actually going on around us.

Take the example of Haiti. Canadians would no doubt like to think that we are, collectively, behaving justly and with mercy towards Haiti: after all, on a per capita basis, Canada is by far the most significant donor to that tragically impoverished country.

Would it alter our perceptions to know that in 2004 the Canadian government organized, and Canadian troops participated in, the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected government and its replacement by a reign of terror? That Canadian, American and French troops occupied Haiti with an illegal Multinational Interim Force, one of whose first actions was to shut down Haiti’s only medical school and turn its buildings into a barracks? That the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) gave generous support to a corrupted human rights organization which fabricated atrocity charges against senior members of the overthrown government, and that CIDA paid the salary of the deputy minister responsible for the appalling prisons in which these and other political prisoners of the coup regime were confined? That the RCMP took responsibility for training the Haitian National Police, which over the next two years repeatedly sent out sniper teams to murder participants in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations? That Canada continues to support a Haitian electoral system which denies participation to the Fanmi Lavalas, the party of the poor that commands the support of an overwhelming majority of the Haitian electorate?1

How just and merciful, to take another prominent example, has been the collective engagement of Canadians with the people of Gaza? Would most Canadians be proud to know that since 2006, when the Palestinians democratically elected a government of which our government disapproves, Canada has participated in an aid embargo against Gaza, and has provided diplomatic support to an Israeli blockade that has destroyed the local economy and deprived an already desperate population of food, fuel, medical supplies, and the materials needed to repair collapsing water supply and sewage systems?

And what of the fact that during the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, which subjected defenceless people to a storm of bombs, missiles, artillery fire and white phosphorus, killing 1,400 and wounding many thousands more, leaving tens of thousands homeless and wrecking their life-sustaining civic infrastructure, the Canadian government gave loud and unequivocal support to the aggressors?2

One remembers that Rabbi Tarfon, after exhorting us to do justly and love mercy, invites us to “Walk humbly, now” as we set about the work that we are not free to abandon.




1  For documentation, see the materials collected in Press for Conversion, issues 60 (March 2007), 61 (September 2007), 62 (May 2008), and 63 (November 2008), available at http://coat.ncf.ca; see also http://www.haitianalysis.com, http://www.haitiaction.net/, http://canadahaitiaction.ca, http://pih.org/inforesources/reading.html#Haiti, and http://www.ijdh.org.

2  For evidence that the Israeli Operation Cast Lead was unambiguously an act of aggression, see Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (London: Verso, 2010), pp. 311-17.   

Political Correctness

Is something seriously wrong with the humanities departments of our universities? In 1987 Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind set out to tell us, in the lurid wording of its subtitle, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.” Similar messages have been repeated with increasing vehemence in books like Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education [...].

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Ray Conlogue's Apocalyptic Reveries

This letter, sent to The Globe and Mail on June 12, 1991 in response to an article defaming university teachers of English, was not published: newspapers which would hesitate to print similar comments about other professions evidently feel that academics are fair game.


The Editor, 
The Globe and Mail. June 12, 1991.

One hesitates to intrude upon the apocalyptic reveries of Ray Conlogue (“Cross Current,” June 11, 1991): it would be unkind to spoil the pleasure he evidently takes in posturing as a defender of Shakespeare against a new breed of academic Philistines. But only in his imagination are English professors, whom he seems to have trouble distinguishing from Red Guards, engaged in smashing up the monuments of our culture.

As a Renaissance scholar and a teacher of Shakespeare, I honour Mr. Conlogue's love of literature—but not his more obvious fondness for academic gossip, threadbare anecdotes, and cheap gestures of contempt. Samson laid about him with the jawbone of an ass; Conlogue prefers to brandish that of Claude Rawson, whose abusive article in a recent issue of the London Review of Books appears to be his principal source of information about contemporary academic life. Mr. Conlogue also has a friend who is a graduate student in English: rejecting her view of art and culture as “a site of contestation” in favour of a more urbane comparison to “a conversation among related people,” he promptly spoils the gesture by denouncing Jacques Derrida, the philosopher and literary theorist, as “a reactionary intellectual fraud.”

That may be the way some of us talk to our relatives. But one can only regret the intrusion of such language into what ought to be a reasoned debate over the role of the universities in transmitting a heightened awareness both of our cultural traditions and of the liberating potential of contemporary cultural and interpretive practices.

English studies have been revitalized during the past fifteen years by the work of feminist, poststructuralist, new historicist, and cultural materialist scholars. In my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, this work has made us more responsive to the needs of our students, more sensitive to the interactions between literary texts and the social contexts within which they are produced and interpreted, and more alert to the ethical implications of our teaching. It has also given new energy—I speak again from experience—to such traditional areas of literary scholarship as textual editing and the close reading of texts.

There have been and will continue to be lively debates among the exponents of different modes of literary interpretation. Students of literature are exposed to a wide variety of approaches by teachers who, whatever their methodological differences, share a commitment to the inculcation of independent critical thinking. The notion that university classrooms and lecture-halls have been “hijacked” for political ends is thus both malicious and absurd. Equally fatuous, as a glance at the course offerings of any North American university will show, is the claim that the literary classics have been dumped from the curriculum.

Only in ill-informed or ill-disposed minds could the rich diversity of new voices that is now evident in literary studies take on the nightmare shape of a monolithic, anti-democratic wave of “political correctness.”

Michael H. Keefer
University of Guelph
Vice-President and President-Elect, Association of Canadian University Teachers of English  

Ponderous / Illuminating: Two New Editions of Marlowe's Edward II

First published in Marlowe Society of America Book Reviews 15.2 (Winter 1996): 1-2.


Review of Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second, ed. Charles R. Forker (The Revels Plays; Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), and of The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Volume III: Edward II, ed. Richard Rowland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)



It is not just because of their intrinsic value that the concurrent publication of two major editions of Edward II is a welcome event: this conjunction also provides us with an occasion for reflection upon the range of purposes served by contemporary textual scholarship.

The text of Edward II is unproblematic. The earliest surviving edition, that of 1594, which appears also to have been the first, now exists in a single copy (another copy that disappeared at the end of World War II contained trifling differences on the outer forme of a single sheet). There is thus only one substantive text. However, this play's interpretation is another matter. Recent analyses of the need for historical contextualization, of the cultural constitution of gender, and of the striking differences between early modern and contemporary discourses on gender and sexuality, together with the social impact of the gay pride movement, have profoundly altered the canons of judgment that critics bring to a performance or to their reading of Marlowe's Edward II.

However uncomplicated the textual situation may be, Richard Rowland and Charles Forker have had to make significant decisions about format and apparatus. Thus Rowland, recognizing that the sparse pointing of the 1594 text calls for emendation, sensibly gives preference in his old-spelling edition to the punctuation variants of the other early quartos, and provides a list of emendations to accidentals. (More dubiously, he offers scene numbers while eschewing act divisions. Why not give both? Neither kind of division appears in pre-nineteenth-century editions of the play—although as Forker remarks, Edward II does have a clearly defined five-act structure.)

Forker's modernized edition may be, as the Revels editors tell us, “the most complete and detailed edition of Edward II ever published,” but the results are not uniformly happy. Forker's work in collating forty-six editions of the play is Herculean, but do we really need, above and beyond a listing of substantive variants and a due acknowledgment of the sources of all emendations accepted (or seriously considered) by the editor, the more than five pages of additional collations of the 1818 editions of Broughton and Oxberry that Forker provides? (Most of these are “corrections” of metrical irregularities, “improvements” of diction and sense of the kind that pre-critical editors regarded as their prerogative, or, like Oxberry's substitution of “head” for “ghost” and “ghost” for “head” at V. vi. 98-99, mere carelessness.)

Forker's 136-page introduction begins with an excellent bibliographical and textual analysis. The ensuing sections on the date of the play, and on the complex web of mutual indebtedness that linked Marlowe and Shakespeare in the years surrounding the composition of Edward II, are also remarkable. The exhaustively researched study of the play's stage history with which Forker's introduction concludes will prove indispensable to the growing numbers of scholars interested in performance issues.

Nevertheless, this introduction may be more magisterial in scale than in achievement, as a comparison of the ways in which Charles Forker and Richard Rowland contextualize the play can show. Forker limits his gaze almost exclusively to two categories of writing: the printed chronicle histories which Marlowe can be shown to have used, and plays and poems from which he borrowed or which borrowed from him. Rowland is aware of much wider contexts in social and political history. The result, in much briefer context, is a continuously illuminating exploration of Marlowe's play.

In an analysis of Marlowe's use of chronicle sources that is longer than Rowland's entire introduction, Forker details such matters as Marlowe's deliberate debasing of the social rank of Gaveston and the Spencers. Rowland goes at once beyond this level, showing what makes Marlowe's dramatization of an “exhilarating and nightmarish” (xxiv) world in which traditional power structures are threatened with dissolution by the upward social mobility of royal minions not just formally intriguing but also topically relevant. As he observes, the 1587 expansion of Holinshed's Chronicles was contentious, to the point of “attract[ing] the hostile scrutiny of the Privy Council,” because it concluded with English events as recent as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots—and, in the Historie of Scotland, with reports on the manner in which the “roiall qualities” of her son, James VI, were being “obscured by the craft & subtiltie of some lewd and wicked persons ... for the most part of base linage,” who “keepe his maiestie thrall to authorise by his roiall power their abhominable and execrable facts” (xix-xx). An elegant analysis of the extensive parallels between Edward II and James VI (which includes a reminder of Thomas Kyd's accusation that Marlowe himself—perhaps like one of Gaveston's “wanton Poets”—intended to seek a place in the court of Elizabeth's probable heir) leads to the conclusion that Marlowe's main deviations from his sources serve to enhance the resonances of his play with this contemporary context, and at the same time to destabilize “the polarizations which the chroniclers were at pains to clarify and sustain” (xxiv).

The same sureness of touch and scholarly and critical acuity are evident throughout Rowland's introduction and his textual commentary. But when the Revels format obliges Forker to give an account of the play's critical receptions, he paints himself into a corner. His own commitments are made clear when, having devoted a full page (including two paragraphs of quotation) to Douglas Cole's 1962 book, he relegates the contemporary materialist work of Simon Shepherd, Jennifer Brady, Thomas Cartelli and Gregory Bredbeck to a single unfriendly footnote. Fair enough: they have at least been mentioned. But it will not do to counter Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England by an allusion to unnamed “recent psycho-biological researches, which suggest that sexual orientation, at least in part, may be genetically determined and therefore transhistorical” (94). As Stephen Jay Gould has argued, the belief that partial genetic determination permits an escape from history is a non sequitur. And are literary scholars really too lazy to want information about these vigorously contested researches?        

Theorizing Shakespeare

[I]f the study of Shakespeare and his contemporaries remains to any faint degree an Arcadian realm, it is no longer one characterized by a Theocritan nostalgia for past delights, or a Tillyardian nostalgia for departed orthodoxies, but rather such an Arcadia as Sir Philip Sidney imagined—delightful still, yet traversed by violent oppositions, and open to subversion from within and invasion from without.

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