— From the Xinhua Agency

Jean-Paul Sartre with Simone de Beauvoir at Tiananmen Square in 1965 for the sixth anniversary of the founding of communist China.

Jean-Paul Sartre was sketched for The New York Times by Reginald Gray.

The French existentialist philosopher and playwright John-Paul Sartre’s 1943 play “No Exit” (Huis Clos in French), contains one of the most celebrated lines in literary and philosophical history: “L’enfer, c’est les Autres.” “Hell is other people.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that sort of thing over the years but Sartre, as an existentialist, meant something more.

The play is a narrative about three people who have been “sentenced” to hell: Garcin, Inez, and Estelle. A man and two women.

When they meet, they start fudging facts about their prior lives especially about the acts that brought them to hell. Also they are puzzled about what their punishment is supposed to be.

That is, there is no fire, no brimstone, no “official torturer” working the sinful crowd. All there is is the three of them locked in a drawing room bedecked with a hodge-podge of period furniture, seemingly for all eternity.

Because they shave the truth, they get short with each other; a negativity arises and their distrust strengthens.

We soon find out that Garcin died by a firing squad for deserting in war; Inez, a postal clerk, was gassed by her lover for seducing a friend’s wife; and the beautiful Estelle had an affair with a man whose love-child she drowned in front of him; he then took his own life.

Sartre says hell does not need Torquemada to satisfy justice. It exists when we present a “twisted, vitiated” self to others and this occurs once we’ve accepted twisted, vitiated values as the basis of our identity.

The vitiating twist begins when a person relies on the judgment of others to establish personal definition and self-worth, the polar opposite of those souls who strike out on their own in search of authenticity. Strike out not in a John Wayne individualism sort of way but in a way that involves self-responsibility and includes concern for the needs of others.

Sartre’s existentialism, therefore, is about choices, about making decisions to free ourselves from the imprisoning “gaze” of others, from being the object of another’s view, from a consciousness that projects an identity for us to assume. Often under pressure.

Inez, the existentialist among the trio, says accepting such an imprisoning mode of self-definition is the hell we endure because “It’s what one does ... that shows the stuff one’s made of.”

Sartre wants his readers to see that a person’s decisions toward freedom determine his essence; it does not work the other way around. The pudding’s proof is in action.

A person’s addiction to false-identity-status is highlighted in the play when the beautiful Estelle discovers there is no mirror in the room. She grows anxious and panicky — Sartre called this state of being “nausea” — because she cannot connect with a reality that will make her feel alive.

Pathetically she pines, “When I can’t see myself in the mirror, I can’t even feel myself, and I begin to wonder if I exist at all.”

This frame of mind Sartre calls “bad faith.” It manifests little or no concern for others. It follows the axiom: An inauthentic person’s values cannot extend beyond the prison that contains him.

I’m sure that someone coming from proverbial Mars who watches the news in America today and listens to political commentators from every side of the political aisle, would conclude that America is a living Sartrean hell, a hell of its own choosing.

And should our Martian look at things with an existentialist’s eye, he would see sectors of folks who agree to be locked in a “base” (of ire’s hue), amount to little more than an object projected from a politician’s consciousness, gaze, and critical assessment — not for the collective’s well-being but for his own.

Under any circumstances, it’s not possible to create an authentic self by mouthing a script; this is more true when the script requires a person to fit into a one-dimensional, homogenized reality.

Donald Trump’s base seems to fit such a description having turned into a postmodern version of Marx’s lumpenproletariat.

You can search Wikipedia for what they say about lumpenproles but today they’re described as stereotypical clowns, the kind you find in an absurdist comedy.

Robert Bussard, now a music librarian at Western Washington University, once examined the lumpenproletariat the way Marx and Engels first described it.

He said in “The ‘dangerous class’ of Marx and Engels: The rise of the idea of the Lumpenproletariat” in 1987 that lumpenproles act out of “ignorant self-interest.” They shoot themselves in the foot and call it progress.

Because they are subject to a version of self-victimization, Bussard says they are “easily bribed by reactionary forces ... to combat” those primed to meet the needs of others.

That is, the lumpenproletariat is a spoiler. It does not “play a positive role in society,” Bussard adds, “Instead, it exploit[s] society for its own ends, and [is] in turn exploited as a tool of destruction and reaction.”

I’m sure you know people like this. They yell, they shout, they think it’s possible to keep things the way they were before the current upheaval began. They’re John Wayne or a comedian playing to the weakest part of the soul.

In movies and on TV these days, hell is projected in a host of dystopian formats, the bastard offspring of George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

In such works — include Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin’s among them — every soul from the orchestra seats to the far mezzanine — is panicked for a way out. Like everybody else, they do not like hell and scan the walls for a breach they might squeeze through and breathe life.

All of which points to how difficult change is. It requires re-vision, re-configuring the way the eyes see by reconnecting them to the heart, that is, creating a political economy in which the needs of others count as much as our own.

I ask people all the time about the means they use to escape the unhappiness of their hell — pharmaceutically and otherwise. At first they’re stumped, they stumble over the words. They never thought through what it means to see others as they see themselves.

In the speech he gave in December 1980 upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz said that freeing one’s self from prison requires a special kind of vision, the kind poets have: double-vision.

Milosz said poets see close-up and face-to-face, but they also see from up above, in overview, not sequentially but simultaneously.

Milosz used Selma Lagerlöf’s “Wonderful Adventures of Nils,” to make his point. Like Nils, he said, the poet sees close up but he also “flies above the Earth and looks at it from above.” He sees it “in every detail” but also “beholds under him rivers, lakes, forests, that is, a map, both distant and yet concrete.”

This is not a therapy session so how to get such a vision needs to be discussed. It will take years.

Realizing this explains why so many people are angry today. They do not want to have this discussion, they deny its importance and, in doing so, encase themselves in hell, a base that feeds on despair.

This may be cause for hope because, as Sartre said in his 1943 play “The Flies” (Les Mouches in French), “Life begins on the other side of despair.”

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This Paramount Pictures poster publicized the movie in 1962.

The great American western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a cinematic paradox. It’s set in the Old West but it’s a movie that reaches our times.

“Valance” is the story of a town coming to grips with a bully who runs roughshod over the civility of its everyday life by using violence to get what he wants.

Lacking self-control, the bully turns the town of Shinbone into a vortex. His name is Liberty Valance or “bad violence man.”

Early on, we see Valance and his few spineless thugs — pawns of the territory’s cattle barons — hold up a stage and, after forcing the passengers out onto the road, strip them of their valuables.

When Valence starts to rip the pendant off the neck of a frightened old lady, the indignant passenger next to her intervenes and for his act of courage is beaten close to death.

The man of courage is Jimmy Stewart, a lawyer by trade who’s headed west with satchels of books to teach the frontier how to settle differences without the use of violence. Stewart is “rule of law man.”

From the outset then, we see the rule of law beaten into submission by bad violence, making us believe that violence will be the way things’ll get done in the territory.

But John Wayne is in the movie, too: a middle-aged, purposely-driven, psychologically-detached, one-dimensional rancher who looks formidably-handsome in his white ten-gallon hat. He has dibs on the lady at the diner, which everybody in town knows.

They, including Valance, also know that the Duke is the toughest man, the fastest gun, in the territory. In a tense standoff between the Duke and bad violence man in the diner where the Duke’s gal works, Valance is forced to beat it out of town, his tail between his legs.

Valance, the Duke says, is “the toughest man south of the Picketwire … next to me.” We can see he’s a man not to fool with. “Out here,” he says, “a man settles his own problems.” The Duke is “good violence man.”

He’s at the other end of the spectrum from Valance but it’s still the spectrum of violence.   

And because good violence man beat bad violence man, and bad violence man beat rule of law man, we conclude that good violence can beat the rule of law as well — with a gun if need be.

The movie’s not even halfway through and already we see the rule of law stretched out on the ground with the black boot of violence — good and bad — standing on its neck.

Because his identity is based in the shaky foundation of power, Valance is thin-skinned. When he sees a story on the front page of the “Shinbone Star” critical of his mania, he throws a fit, raging about “fake news.”

He heads to the paper with his thugs and beats Mr. Peabody, the affable, bibulous publisher-editor, into nothingness just like he did with rule of law man.

Valance doesn’t want to be reminded of the weaknesses everyone knows he has. The paper articulates how bullying continues to bring pain and suffering to people’s lives — not the cattle barons Valance works for but the regular, everyday folk who strive to make Shinbone a cordial community.

Fast forward to the end — how we get there is explained in between — and we find the rule of law man forced into a showdown (on the main street of town) with Valance. The choice is clear: the rule of law or bullydom as the prevailing social ethic.

We all know the tenderfoot from the East is no match for a seasoned gunslinger especially when his weapon looks like a broken cap gun. Drawing his gun, bad violence man toys with the rule of law like a cat administering flesh wounds to a mouse.

Tired of the hunt, Valance aims his gun to drill the sockets of the law man’s eyes. Law man raises his piece and Valance falls down dead in the street. There is rejoicing: the rule of law has prevailed over bully-violence, the wicked witch is dead.

Thus the once-mocked agent of law is now revered as the man who brought evil down, who dismissed the use of violence as an ethic of worth. For his bravery, rule of law man is selected to represent the territory in its move toward statehood.

But halfway through the nominating convention — through a strange turn of events — Shinbone’s holy hero is told by good violence man that the law did not bring Valance down but he did, working with a Winchester from the shadows of an alley.

The revelation is disorienting. The rule of law did not bring bad violence down but good violence did. The law did not have the juice to take bad violence down; it took a “good” gun-packing bully disguised in the white hat of justice to do it.

Every day of the week on television, I see public officials, news anchors, political pundits, and people of the most conservative political ilk, call Donald Trump a bully with zero respect for the rule of law. Some say Trump is a gunslinger of sorts.

When I watched “Valance” the other day, Trump came to mind, an hombre who makes fun of the rule of law, who beats down the Mr. Peabodys of the world, and steps on anyone who stands in the way of his selfhood.

When this bully’s wife was most vulnerable after having a baby, he bedded a porn star to satisfy his adolescent libido. He himself says his needs take precedence over those of the collective —  the rule of law be damned! In one way or another, he reiterates: I’m the fastest gun in Shinbone, try me.

On my list of the top 25 westerns of all time, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is Number One. “Shane,” “Red River,” “The Searchers,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “High Noon,” and “Stagecoach” are not far behind.

In a review of a Harvard Square Theater production of “Valance” in the March 18, 1967 issue of “The Harvard Crimson,” Tim Hunter wrote that the director, John Ford, was “not interested in reality but in [a] subjective viewpoint, not fact but romance and legend.”

But such an assessment is wrong. Ford wants America to see there are times when “the people” are tempted to adopt violence as a way to govern and will mock the rule of law on its way to self-destruction.

When you view “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” you wonder if the rule of law does in fact have the juice to keep violence — good and bad — in check, and whether the United States today, as has happened at other times in history, will let the black boot of violence stand on its neck without uttering a sigh of indignation.

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— Jesus is coming. Look busy.

Poet-philosopher: George Carlin performs one of his last shows, in April 2008.

George Carlin is the greatest comedian of all time. Some “best of” lists put Pryor first and Carlin next but others say Carlin is a league all his own.

Jon Stewart may have solved the problem in 1997 when he introduced Carlin during the comic’s 10th HBO special “George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy” as one of the “holy trinity” of comedy: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin.

Carlin traced his roots to Bruce and, before Bruce, to Mort Sahl, a lineage of social critics who, through the millennia, called Aristophanes, the “Father of Comedy,” the seed of their comedic work. It was a bloodline that did not suffer Borscht Belt mother-in-law, two-guys-walk-into-a-bar, and lost-airline-luggage jokes.

While Carlin started out with a suit-and-tie Vegas act, when the Sixties rolled around, a beard appeared and his hair fell to his shoulders. He painted iconic characters like Al Sleet, the “Hippy Dippy Weatherman.” Fans recall with delight Al’s: “Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Continued dark tonight, turning to partly light in the morning.”

It seems from the beginning Carlin was piqued by people’s disabuse of language through mystifications, masked contradictions, and linguistic absurdities. While he could garner a laugh from his oxymoronic “jumbo shrimp” and “military intelligence” bits, his true interest lay in sustaining an attack on those who devalued the gift of language by using it to obfuscate reality.

In a classic bit on euphemisms he said: “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. ’Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation.”

Those familiar with comedy know Carlin was arrested at Summerfest in Milwaukee in July 1972 for saying the “Seven Words you Can Never Say on Television.”

It was a bit he introduced on his best-selling album “Class Clown” two months earlier. “There are 400,000 words in the English language,” he began, “but only seven of them that you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! 399,993 to 7. They must really be bad.”

You can see why Carlin remained an “outside dog,” as Mort Sahl would say. In the preface to his 2004 “When Will Jesus Bring the Chops?” Carlin revealed: “I’m an outsider by choice, but not truly. It’s the unpleasantness of the system that keeps me out. I’d rather be in, in a good system. That’s where my discontent comes from: being forced to choose to stay outside.”

In each of his 14 HBO specials, the first aired in ’77, he hammered away minute by minute at the shaky myths the human community creates and submits to thereby limiting its chances for achieving well-being. He spoke about the “American Okie Doke” with its pithy equivocations: “all men are equal;” “justice is blind;” “the press is free;” “your vote counts;” “the police are on your side;” “the good guys win.”

He also went after the duplicities of religion, spoliative parenting, the hubris of prayer, demeaning education, illness-producing health, the glorification of the military, and a pandering self-help movement. He made his fans laugh but he pounded out his points with such vehemence that anyone who went to see him live had to take a day or two off to let the mental dust settle.

In many respects, Carlin was a Socratic prizefighter faulting the Athens of his day, the hoi polloi, for submitting to the demands of the powerful and for settling for a robopathic existence energized by consuming the packaged goods the market sells as indispensable for survival. He blurted that the gods of nature were on their way to strip this planet of sentience.

One group he especially liked to buzz were helicopter parents, the familial wardens who hover over their kids to insure they grow up to be disciplinized, docilized consumers of packaged realities.

Thus for kids he said, “The simple act of playing has been taken away ... and put on mommy’s schedule in the form of ‘play dates.’ Something that should be spontaneous and free is now being rigidly planned. When does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore?” And maybe dig a hole with it. He said that.

The stick is a metaphor for the imagination of course, kids not being given time to think and muse, and sometimes peer at the sky on a summer day to wonder how it all came to be.

Carlin well understood his professional development. Playing off a paradigm of Arthur Koestler on creativity, he acknowledged that he started out as a jester, comedy’s bottom-rung.

But, he added, when he began to follow ideas to their logical conclusion, he turned into a jester-philosopher; his routines changed. He said after that, because of his love for language, he reached the pinnacle of comedic art: the philosopher-poet.

The unending flow of his HBO specials forced the philosopher-poet to become a writer; he said they made him a writer-performer. And, if someone failed to acknowledge the writing as central, he’d set the record straight straightaway.

And it became clear that, the more America sold out her dream of equality and justice, the darker Carlin’s comedy got, very dark, in fact fading to black in his final HBO Special “It’s Bad for Ya.” He said the human race could blow itself up for all he cared; the planet would survive.

Over time, Carlin’s fancy for drugs forced him (in 2004) to go somewhere to get unhooked. On the road nearly every week of his adult life, he struggled with being a good husband and father. In “Conversations with Carlin: An In-Depth Discussion with George Carlin about Life, Sex, Death, Drugs, Comedy, Words, and so much more”, published in 2013, Larry Getlen presents a man who speaks about every aspect of his life with disarming honesty.

Carlin made million-seller comedy albums, he hosted the first “Saturday Night Live,” he wrote funny books, and in 2008 was posthumously awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, I believe for being a great American.

Next month, that great American will be dead 10 years; I hope he’s doing well. Let us know if you run into him. The sad thing is: No one’s picked up the mantle of philosopher-poet.

The Australian-born but Americanized comic Jim Jefferies comes closest. Popular wits like Louis C. K., Amy Schumer, and Kevin Hart and a host of similars remain as distant from Carlin’s soul as Myron Cohen was 70 years ago. Even Chris Rock misses the boat.

As Carlin poured salt on America’s wounds he was the first to admit “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” And if he had had, like the comic legend Bob Hope, a theme song, it would have been “America the Beautiful” and Carlin would have pointed to the line “God mend thine every flaw” and say that was not God’s job but his.

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“Caritas,” which means “Charity,” was drawn by Pieter Bruegel in 1599. Dennis Sullivan writes that the work “portrays neighbors meeting the needs of each other with a reflective tenderness.”

I don’t know what your history classes were like in school but, when you studied the Civil War, were you taught the South had the “bad guys?”

It’s more than 150 years since the war and some southerners still say the North has the bad guys. Last summer, a band of Confederate-based, Nazi-leaning demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia waged a pitched battle on that city’s streets against citizens demonstrating for peace. One ill-witted Confederate cut down a living flower with the bumper of his car.

And some southerners still say the South was inches away from winning the first time. Terry L. Jones in a March 2015 article in The New York Times, “Could the South Have Won the War?,” quotes sources saying that, if Lee had tweaked his military strategies here and there, we’d all be singing Dixie.

In a comedy bit on the last week of the Letterman Show in 2015, Norm MacDonald opined that, when Germany went to war with “the world,” it was close. With a few turns in Wehrmacht fortune, we’d be goose-steppers.

During an interview with Elliot Mintz in 2015, as part of a celebration marking his 90th birthday, the social satirist Mort Sahl — the first modern stand-up in history — expressed concern about how the current civil war in America is going.

With a tone of pained uncertainty, he non-rhetorically asked the interviewer: Don’t the good guys always win? Isn’t that how things turn out in history? It was a latent fear of fascism’s growing claim on America.   

Early in his career, Democrats accused Sahl of being a conservative, Republicans said he was a Commie. In “Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy,” the wonderfully-written new biography of the comic, author James Curtis quotes Sahl as saying both camps were wrong; he said: I’m a radical.

Radical in the sense that he kept his satirical light shining on the powerful as they stepped on the dignity and well-being of people whose needs they dismissed as unworthy of attention.

Sahl hoped that, because a person has a particular race, color, creed, gender, or some other defining attribute, he would not be excluded from being treated as fully human. Consider the two black men arrested at a Starbucks in the City of Brotherly Love two weeks ago as they waited for a friend inside the café.

The satirist also used a word seemingly out of character for him; he said Americans have lost their commitment to “nobility.” In saying so, he sounded like the great 20th-Century poet Wallace Stevens who in his classic essay, “The Noble Rider,” addressed the nobility of the poet, laying out the requirements for being noble.

Stevens says the poet fulfills that function when he offers up his imagination to the community so the community can find the courage to delve into its unconscious ways and examine the justifications that induce people to become “bad guys.”

Those who persevere in the process develop an acute sense of human dignity, dignity as a political-economic variable that equates with a person’s worth.

Stevens said withstanding the abrasive assaults of bad guys requires “a mind of winter.” That’s what his beloved poem “The Snow Man” is about, standing up to the incursions of power, the deadly winter we create for ourselves.

I’ve mentioned the ongoing civil war in this country before. Some people seem unable to grasp its cultural context; a few say it’s a touch of conspiracy.

A person picks up a gun and shoots another dead. We see the death, we see the gun, we see the war. But today people obliterate each other ideologically, as when someone says to another: You’re dead, you’re of no account, your point of view is nothing, you’re a bad guy — and there’s nothing you can do for redemption.

The justification for this military incursion comes from a deserts-based view of reality. You hear it all the time: Hey, you don’t deserve this, you’re a Mexican! You’re nobody! Hey, you don’t deserve this, you’re a woman, you’re not equal! You’re a non-deserver too.

Civil war always has to do with deserts, over who deserves what according to pre-assigned value. If those who assert “conspiracy” wish to address value, they can deconstruct sexism, racism, ageism, classicism, cultural chic-ism, and all the efforts of the powerful to enforce modern-day versions of — shall we say: Aryan supremacy?

As our civil war continues, people of different ilk blame Donald Trump for pouring kerosene on the fire. But it’s not “Trump” because, if he had not come along, somebody else would have, so disconsolate is the Confederacy to find a secessionist standard-bearer.

Trump is a mirror for America to look at herself to determine how long she will allow her citizens to flail away at each other with unbridled id; Trump’s the clarion call for a secession-nation that devalues American commonweal. The lie promulgated by such an assault is that social institutions do not require benevolence for sustainability.

You can see why terms like “conservative” and “liberal” no longer have meaning. They’re like worn-out prize fighters banging at each other’s head to seize the title of: Assigner of Value and Worth.

And while the rights of all — including clouds and rivers — always require protection, the political economic map of a sustainable American future is rooted in needs, in communities across the country finding ways to meet the needs of all their citizens.

The nagging big-elephant-question in our national room then is: Are you a good guy or are you a bad guy? How do you know?

Outside the political boundaries of left and right there is indeed a measure to determine if you’re good: To what extent have you dedicated yourself to relieving the pain and suffering of others by tending to their needs? And do you support programs designed to do so?

Good guys are like living-hospice-morphine-drips, first listening to what people say their needs are, and then taking steps to meet them. In his 1559 drawing “Caritas,” Pieter Bruegel portrays neighbors meeting the needs of each other with a reflective tenderness. Is that not what their faces show?

If a person has one meal today and you come along with two, that person has three; it’s measurable. If a person is living in squalid conditions and you provide quarters that support the dignity of the person so he can sit quietly and ponder with gratitude the life he was given, it’s measurable.

Call yourself what you will — left, right, down, up in the air — the new American dream calls for needs-meeters, relievers of the pain and suffering of fellow Americans without charging for offered aid.

The decision to “form a more perfect union” and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Preamble to our Constitution says, is formed in the national unconscious. How a person handles the darkness there determines whether he becomes a good guy or a bad guy.

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In the mid-19 Century, news from family members living away from home came by letter, an experience many relished, as James Campell’s painting, “News From My Lad,” illustrates.

If you surf the Internet for “letter-writing,” you will find a scad of links bemoaning the disappearance of the “art.” That’s what they say, they say letter-writing is an art, a competency that’s gone by the boards.

When the American poet, Hart Crane, stumbled on the letters of his mother’s mother, Elizabeth, in the attic one rainy evening, as he tells us in “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” he saw packets “That have been pressed so long/ Into the corner of the roof/That they are brown and soft/And liable to melt as snow/.”

As he sat in the dim-lit space caressing the hand-writ delicacies, he realized that, “Over the greatness of such space/Steps must be gentle./ As is the case with any treasured love.”

My late Uncle Neal — who fought in World War II and Korea, retiring as a Commander in the United States Navy — married a Florida woman, Eleanor Perkins, in June 1944. She had two children by a previous marriage whom Neal took on as his own.

I searched and searched and found the children, one of whom was still alive, in his eighties, Frederick Perkins. He didn’t take my call at first; he said that he thought I was the Conservative Party looking for money. I told him who I was and how I got there.

He was a first cousin, at least until Neal and Eleanor divorced. My uncle was a handsome rugged athlete with considerable gravitas but never seemed to have success with women.

As we talked by phone, Frederick said Neal treated him like a son. He did not mention his biological father; he intimated Neal was his dad.

Frederick said Neal wrote to him after he was drafted in the Army. He said he still had the letters and, after a minute or two, asked if I would like them. I was dumbfounded: the revelations of an uncle I hardly ever met or talked to.

In a few days, a packet came with 10 handwritten letters in their original envelopes. Neal was always asking “Freddie” how he was doing, what his plans were, and sometimes offered advice. As I perused my treasure, I knew how Crane felt.

But, as I said, the competency for sharing who you are by letter has all but disappeared; the “art” is a has-been. If I asked how many letters you wrote this month to a friend or someone in the family, what would you say?

Nearly a century ago, Emily Post offered in her 1922 edition of “Etiquette In Society, In Business, In Politics and At Home”: “The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card.” And now there’s texting, Instagram, and all the other modes of surface-revelation.   

In a February 2016 article in Odyssey, “Why Don’t We Hand-Write Letters Anymore?,” Ashtyn Leighann said: It’s because we’re lazy. She also mentioned the price of stamps, but where can you get a letter delivered 3,000 miles away for half a buck? Her reasons are facile.

I’m not trying to set up a straw woman here to knock it down, I’m saying I have not seen anything that hits the “why nail” on the head. The answer is: We no longer write letters because letter-writing is a contemplative activity and we — Americans are not alone in this — have rejected contemplation as an integral part of our lives. A jaded critic would say we despise it.

When you listen to the voice that speaks in a handwritten letter — not about the weather — you hear an entirely different voice from what you hear on the phone. The letter-voice comes from a whole other place of being than where the chief-operating-officer-self does business. The letter-voice is open and vulnerable as the soul reveals itself freely.

And the contemplative dimension that allows the soul to write will not return until we embrace (or re-embrace) solitude; solitude provides a safe space where the heart can feel and say things as they are.

When we think of the voice we listen to a letter with, we know it comes from a deeper place than where we listen to a TV show.

I go by the old Irish saying, “If a thing is meant for you, it won’t pass you by,” so I am not about to tell anyone they ought to start writing letters by hand, much less with a fountain pen, though writing by hand is well suited to the tempo of the thoughtful tongue.

Stephen King tells us he wrote his 900-page novel “Dreamcatcher” with a Waterman fountain pen; elated he said, “To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been in years ... One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored.”

I write letters. I write them by hand. I write extended notes on 100-pound Strathmore Bristol, the 300 Series, cut in 5-by-11-inch strips. I use a fountain pen. I have one in each room where I write to those I care for.

I find the ballpoint pen an insult. Its leaky nose pales in comparison to the sensuous movement of a nib skating across a sheet of paper made for art. As the ink soaks in, I can hear the sigh of relief: está bien.

Younger people’s handwriting is so atrocious these days because they do not know what it’s like to speak by hand. If you think of what you say as art, you will create beauty on the page and, as John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

I get notes sometimes penned in chicken-scratch. I always feel the writer wanted to be somewhere else. I’m not saying someone need adopt Spencerian script or give a nod to Palmer, only that how we put our thoughts on paper, is a reflection of who we are, a measure of our discipline.

Read the letters of Emily Dickinson to her sister, Lavinia, or the letters of Thomas Merton, to the great (still-living) Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal — one of his novices at Gethsemani in the 1950s — and you will see an openness that is disarming. The artful letter disarms.

Will America ever regain its lost contemplative spirit and feel safe enough to say who we are and what we think in handwritten letters? If such letters are in fact disarming, might they ease our current civil(ity) war?

I’ll continue to write mine. I derive great satisfaction from it. But then you’ll have to ask those who get them, what they think of a soul speaking from the solitude of his being.

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Dorothy Day who helped found the Catholic Worker Movement was put forth for canonization in the 1980s.

— From the United States Library of Congress

Governor George Wallace blocks the door, at left, to keep the University of Alabama from being integrated in 1963, while he is confronted by a deputy United States attorney general and the press watches.

I have often wondered what it’d be like to be the grandson of George Wallace, the former four-term governor of Alabama.

In particular, I have in mind when he stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963, blocking Vivian Malone and James Hood, two black students from getting to class.

Wallace saw it as a way to live up to his inaugural vow: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” six words that still sit atop the most-ill-famed shibboleths of the 20th Century.

Wallace said those words but they were writ by fellow Alabaman, Asa Earl Carter, a hopped-up Klansman whom the governor hired to write his words. Wallace tapped Carter because Carter knew the kind of violence the governor was attracted to.

The regular Klan had not been good enough for Carter; in the mid-’50s, he started a Nazi-style-shirt offshoot of the group called the “Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy.” He knew it’d work, he said, because “the mountain people — the real redneck — is our strength.”

Much of that “strength” used to read the Confederacy’s periodical, “The Southerner,” which targeted the weak and the outcast, the sheep who needed a shepherd not a sadist of ridicule and violence. Some of the confederates were ready to take action.  

On Labor Day, 1962, six of them — Bart Floyd, Joseph Pritchett, James N. Griffin, William Miller, Jesse Mabry, and Grover McCollough — got lathered up to the point where they needed to “grab a negro,” “grab a negro and scare hell out of him.” That’s what the court record detailing the event says they said.

Newspaper accounts say the “Dirty Six” were riding down Huffman-Tarrant City Road when they saw a middle-aged black man walking with his girlfriend; his name was Judge Edward Aaron. He was a World War II veteran who some said was a bit “slow.” Maybe because of the war.

The mob grabbed Aaron, dragged him into the back of a car, and drove him to a cinder-block hole called “The Slaughter House.” They pummeled him with mockery and then hit him over the head with a tire iron, knocking him senseless.

Then one of the boys took out a package of razor blades, which they’d stopped off to get on the way, and proceeded to cut Judge Edward Aaron’s testicles off. As Aaron lay soaking in his blood, one of his fellow Alabamians poured turpentine of his bleeding self, I’m sure for further pain.

How do some people derive sadistic pleasure from hearing a fellow human-being squeal like a smitten pig — that they’re causing! The six dragged the bloody mess back into the car and, after going a bit, dumped him into a creek bed, leaving him for dead.

But Aaron lived and, when the facts were sorted out, the police took the six into custody. Concerned about their hides, two of the six turned state’s evidence; the other four got 20 years apiece.

But when my imagined “grandfather,” George, became governor, he shifted agency personnel around and the four were set free. Apparently severing the testicles of a black man for personal sadistic pleasure did not deserve a place in the Alabama penal code.

When I think of Wallace as a grandfather I’m overwhelmed with the thought of the work I’d have to do to disengage from my family’s social DNA, a gene that supports purging groups of human beings from the Earth like Nazi soldiers.

What a lot to chew on for a kid who’d like to live a life of justice, who not only does not wish to harm others but supports meeting the needs of every being despite race and creed.

Engaging with one’s social DNA is not a game. People are faced with realities that sometimes breed strange proportions.

When the American actor and filmmaker Ben Affleck found out his great-great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Cole, the sheriff of Chatham County, Georgia, was a slave-owner, he refused to go on PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” because that fact would be revealed to the public.

In another segment of the show, actor Ted Danson, wondering what he would find out, wistfully whined: Oh, please don’t tell me my ancestors were poor! Danson is wealthy but he knew that, if he found out “poor” was in his genes, he’d have to spend time examining the complex.

Social DNA flows from generation to generation like a tiny rivulet and pervades all who follow in the family, leaving each person to figure out the ways those genes drive him or her to ill or good. It’s not a minor matter.

Even those blessed with saints in the family are not exempt. The American writer Kate Hennessy, whose grandmother was Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, introduces us to how she faced her derivation from a “saint” in a disarmingly personal way.

In her well-received 2017 “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty; An Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother,” Hennessy tells us how she worked through the gene of having one of the most revered Catholics of the 20th Century as a grandmother.

Day’s case, as you may know, was put before the Vatican by Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, as someone who lived a life of “heroic virtue” and should be declared a saint.

Day had set up Catholic Worker communities around the country — and now the world — that offered hospitality to those in need of food, shelter, and clothing; many of today’s 200 communities in the United States have cots and hot soup waiting every day of the year.

And in almost every case, the Catholic Worker demonstrates against U.S. war policies that take food, shelter, clothing, and know-how out of people’s worth.

Those who come to the Catholic Worker are helped, no questions asked — unless they’re violent. There are no papers to show.

Finding herself “cast” into this saintly milieu — people attending to the needs of Skid-Row America without asking something in return — Hennessy said she felt like an “outsider.” The further you get into her book, the more you see, paradoxically, that she feels like a homeless person herself.

Hennessy reached the conclusion that, being needy herself, she could not attend to the needs of the more-needy, certainly not face-to-face. She looked at the social DNA that came from her mother, Dorothy’s only child, and realized the truth of what her grandmother said: “How little we know of our parents, how little we know of each other and of ourselves.”

Hennessy’s book is not a Catholic book. It’s about her grandmother and the movement she started of course, but it’s really about how a young woman deals with a delicate social DNA that’s part of her being — a DNA that mandates every person is responsible for alleviating the pain and suffering of every other — without a payoff.

Thus Hennessy’s book is for people who wish to examine their social DNA and how their particular genetic soup drives them toward good or leaves them mired in a swamp of violence.

The lifelong task of figuring this out is what it means to have a spiritual life, to being a “practical mystic,” as Dorothy said. And attending to one’s spiritual grounding, she added, requires at least three hours a day.

If you think this is a hard row to hoe, she would agree; she once said, “Love in action is harsh and dreadful when compared to love in dreams.”

If I were to imagine an inaugural address Kate Hennessy were to give today, following in the footsteps of her saintly mother and grandmother, I know I’d hear: “Love today, love tomorrow, love forever.”

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"Adoration of the Shepherds" was painted in 1622 by Gerard van Honthorst.

For my Latin student of 52 years ago, Thomas Halley (1952-2017). Requiescas in pace, amice.

For many years, I was part of and later oversaw a poetry workshop group at our public library. The meetings were essentially criticism sessions where poets and poets-to-be came every other week to share their work.    

A poet would read a poem and the gathered writers — a dozen or so — would respond with kudos or offer suggestions about how the writer might better say what he wanted. For concinnity’s sake at the very least.

A participant might use the phrase “to reiterate again” and a fellow poet would suggest: delete “again” because “re-iterate” implies repetition. That’s a small example.  

But there were two or three individuals in the group who, whatever was said, accepted nothing; they got huffy, short, and sometimes fired back at the offerer with a sharpened word. Their minds were made up about “what was what” and brooked no interloper.

Because Christmas is on its way, the other night I was re-reading the birth narrative of Jesus in the Christian gospel of Luke and, halfway through, began to think of those walled-in poets. I thought that, if they had been there that first Christmas, nothing would have happened. No angelic communiqué would have gotten over their psychic wall.

As you might know, the birth narrative tells of a young woman visited by an angel who informs her of a plan for a child to be born who will shake up the world and, incidentally, did she want to be part of it?  

A lot of old-timers believe the angel gave Mary an order, a command she could not refuse. But that’s not so. The angel told her she had a choice and should think things over because accepting the offer would bring great upheaval in her life.

He said the woman who accepted the invitation would be expected to conceive, give birth to, and rear a revolutionary whom a lot of people would call Savior or Messiah.

The angel warned her that this might sound exotic but the mission would bring considerable pain and sorrow. But he added that, if she adopted the ways of her son, she could experience a joy equal to God’s.

Like the poets in our library, Mary had been offered a gift about how to proceed in the future but the correction would not involve a typo or two but rather a restructuring of the grammar of one’s being.

The choice: revolutionary movement or status quo?

Those who have read these scriptures know that Mary accepted, got pregnant, and, just as she was about to deliver, had to go with her husband to a far-off town to be counted in a census.     

When she and Joseph arrived, they could not find a place to stay so were forced to use a stable, where animals were living, as the room where Mary would have her child.

There in the dark of night the young mother gave birth. She wrapped her son in shreds of cloth — the old scriptural versions say “swaddling clothes” — and, after feeding him, laid him in a wooden trough called a manger.

One of the other gospel writers, Matthew, adds to the story. He says, right after the birth, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds in nearby fields. The angel “announced” to them a child had been born close by who was destined to change the world and, incidentally, did they want to be part of the plan?

As with Mary, the shepherds had to think things over. They did, and soon found themselves in a stable overlooking the newborn child. Something happened there because they left and began going about telling people about what they had seen.

No one knows if they mentioned the Messiah-Savior thing, I don’t think they knew. Such labels were textual add-ons by the gospel writers.    

The Christmas story then is: an offering made and a choice to follow. But, as with the poets in our library who refused to choose, a lot of people want to hear nothing about choice at Christmas.

They want chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Der Bingle crooning “White Christmas”: “May your days be merry and bright.”

What they don’t want to hear is “where ... children listen.” That means becoming like a child, opening up to what’s in front of the eyes. Children are economical; they want to get things right so they can go about and offer joy to everyone.

Such a lot to chew on: never mind for a gal not yet 20. One of the gospelists says that, while Mary “treasured” all these things, she needed time to digest them. After all she was the Mother of Christmas.

Charles Dickens picked up on this in “A Christmas Carol.” A money-mongering miser, Scrooge, had reached a point in his life where he was treating people like dogs, dismissing their cries for help with a walled-in condescension.

The situation had reached a point, Dickens says, where the powers-that-be thought Scrooge needed a tune-up. They sent ghoulish ghosts to sully his dreams, hoping the scare would straighten him out.

It was Scrooge’s dark night of the soul. When he woke in the morning, he was radiant as he had seen things as they are; he started shouting out the window to passers-by on the street: “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Everybody!” But he kept asking them what day it was, fearing he had missed his date with destiny.

It was not too late; it was Christmas, they said. Scrooge ran about buying gifts for everyone he knew to be in need, those whose needs he had dismissed as of no account. Everybody who’s read the story has Tiny Tim imbedded in their minds.

Tim was real for Dickens but he was also symbolic of every person everywhere whose needs are not being attended to.

Scrooge went to Tim’s home, the home of one of his employees, and eased the worries of the family. Scrooge kept saying the gift was to himself.   

I think today Scrooge would be shouting up and down to the streets that no human being deserves to worry about being sick because he hasn’t the means to purchase needed care. Scrooge would say every citizen of the United States should have the same health care coverage as every Senator from anywhere.  

And, with respect to help after hurricanes, Scrooge would demand that every citizen on the Island of Puerto Rico and every soul in the Virgin Islands be treated as one of us. To think otherwise is a crime.       

These are the kinds of things Mary needed to ponder if she decided to follow the ways of her son. Bringing peace and goodwill to everyone is a dark night of the soul.

What I like about Christmas is Christmas Eve, after everybody’s gone to bed, and the cold silence of winter enters my room, and it does every year. But there, once, sitting in the darkness I swear I heard an angel asking about my plans and whether they included bringing peace and goodwill to everyone.

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When the British neurologist Oliver Sacks’s 46-page “Gratitude” appeared in print in November 2015, Sacks had already been dead for three months.

The book contains four short essays he wrote for The New York Times during the last two years of his life, each a canticle of thanksgiving, honoring the people and things he was grateful for.

As an M.D., Sacks had dedicated himself to helping people afflicted by the weirdest neurological problems. In a 1985 essay, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” he told the story of a brilliant music teacher whose brain malfunctioned so that he could not identify certain shapes.

Upon leaving Sacks’s office, he reached for his hat only to discover he had taken hold of his wife’s head. The diagnosis was visual agnosia.

In the last two years of his life, when death was “no longer an abstract concept” but “an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence,” Sacks says in “Gratitude,” his feeling remained predominantly “one of gratitude.”

He said he was grateful for all the things “I had been given by others” but was also grateful because he was “able to give something back” through his work. He said how wonderful it was he had been blessed with a calling in life, a vocation, which helped him achieve “a sense of peace within.”

Sacks did not wait for national Thanksgiving Day in November to express his appreciation for what he had; his feelings arose on their own accord. Indeed, he seems to marvel at just how grateful he was.

It’s interesting to trace the pathways of Sacks’s life and how gratitude made its way into his feeling structure. Oddly enough, his essays come at a time when an extensive national literature on gratitude is appearing in major newspapers, magazines, and on national radio shows.

In almost every case what’s said emphasizes gratitude’s connection to happiness, which Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu texts claim exists. The late German sociologist Georg Simmel called gratitude “one of the most powerful binding agents of society,” “the moral memory of mankind.” A community-maker.

What’s most gratifying, if you will, is that a small group of university researchers have begun to look at the link between gratitude and happiness. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis has been interested in the social and biological benefits of gratitude.

He said his research shows that people disposed to gratefulness develop stronger immune systems, their blood pressure drops, they’re less bothered by aches and pains, they fare better at resisting stress, and they develop a deeper sense of self-worth. What more needs be said? It’s a wonder drug.

In 2003, Emmons published the results of a study he did with colleague Michael McCullough in an article “Counting blessings versus burdens.” The two said people who experience gratitude tend to view life-events as positive when those events can be just as easily viewed as negative. Gratitude people are able to maintain a mindset that cherishes the moment.

In a December 2015 New York Times piece, “The Selfish Side of Gratitude,” Barbara Ehrenreich said one must be careful when talking about accepting negatives in relation to gratitude. She said feeling gratitude is not always an appropriate response to “blessings.”

“Suppose you were an $8-an-hour Walmart employee,” she asks, “who saw her base pay elevated this year, by company fiat, to $9 an hour. Should you be grateful to the Waltons who are the richest family in America? Or to Walmart’s chief executive, whose annual base pay is close to $1 million and whose home sits on nearly 100 acres of land in Bentonville, Ark?”

Ehrenreich answers her own question: “Grateful people have been habitually dismissed as ‘chumps,’ and in this hypothetical [Walmart] case, the term would seem to apply.”

She sees the relation between justice and gratitude. That is, can we expect someone to feel gratitude if he’s being taken to the cleaners but the offending party provides an Uber?

The Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has spent a good piece of his life trying to understand gratitude. His conclusion is: Gratefulness is critical for personal well-being because gratitude is the source of happiness in our lives.

Then he went a step further in a recent TED talk, stating it’s not enough to be grateful for what comes our way; we must live gratefully. It’s an active thing.

He says this happens when we agree that “every moment is a given moment ... a gift.” And each moment provides the opportunity for us to not only “enjoy it” but also “do something with it” and, when we avail ourselves of these opportunities, things tend to perk up.

But Steindl-Rast says that, because people rush “through life [they] are not stopping to see the opportunity,” which might involve doing something difficult like standing “up for [one’s] conviction.”

Therefore each person must stop and look and become aware of the opportunities, “to whatever life offers ... in the present moment.” When we do this, he says, we become revolutionaries of a whole other order.

This includes enjoying “the differences between people ... [being] respectful to everybody” because we are not driven to submit to condescension. With gratitude, we want to listen to each other and find the common ground that is the basis of happiness.

On Nov. 28, 1861, eight months after the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln ordered all governmental departments to close for a day of Thanksgiving. He was asking America to stop and look and become aware of its common ground, and be thankful for who we are.

Then, after two years of a suicidal war, Lincoln — inspired by Sarah Josepha Hale — declared the last Thursday of every November a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.” His proclamation begins, “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come … .”

He said they come from God but we know it’s each other.

Of course “turkey day” is a time for enjoying good food, good drink, and good conversation but it’s also a time for self-reflection to assess where “equal respect,” a condition of gratitude, fits into our lives.

Oliver Sacks, David Steindl-Rast, and Abraham Lincoln, each in his own way, would agree that that is what gratitude ultimately affords, an appreciation of the other as we appreciate ourselves.

Happy Thanksgiving.

In County Kerry Ireland and in Newfoundland and Labrador, All Hallows Eve is known as Snap Apple Night. Currier & Ives produced a print called “Snap Apple Night” modeled on Irish artist Daniel Maclise’s 1833 painting of the same name.

“Snap Apple Night,” an engraving by Daniel Maclise of Cork, Ireland, who was praised after his death by Charles Dickens for his “fertility of mind and wonderful wealth of intellect.” In parts of Ireland, All Hallows Eve is known as Snap Apple Night.

In many cultures throughout the ages, there are periods of time when the boundary line between this world and the “other” grows thin and those on the other crossover to visit us.

Often described as liminal, these times are linked to seasonal changes as in the fall when the darker half of the year (winter) is on its way or in spring when new light is coming back. The interplay of light and darkness upsets the way things are.

When the fall harvest season was ending and brought winter’s light, the ancient Irish celebrated the Gaelic festival of Samhain. They called it the time of the “new fire.”  

The late great 20th-Century anthropologist J. G. Frazer said, “In Ireland on the evening before Samhain a new fire was kindled which signaled the beginning of a new year. It was hoped the new fire would serve as a comforting light in the darkness to come.”   

Indeed inhabitants of many villages collected sticks charred by the new fire, hoping their presence at home would prevent house and family alike from being struck by lightening or shaken by some other catastrophe.

The festival of Samhain was celebrated on Nov. 1 and its vigil the night before was known as All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en, which means hallowed evening or holy evening; waiting for the visitors to arrive was a holy time.

Of course, we can see the connection between Halloween these days and the ancient festival especially after the Christian Church baptized the pagan rites and called them Allhallowtide. The triduum comprised All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows), and All Souls Day stretching from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.

In his unsurpassable-classic “The Golden Bough” — the full 12 volumes not the single that college students were once familiar with — Frazer says Allhallowtide is the “time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinfolk.”

The early winter winds drove “the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside.” Some folks approached the visitation with fear because spirits of any ilk could come their way, but others saw the fading light as a time for hospitality, for welcoming their loved ones back among the living.

To provide sustenance for the alien souls, the residents of towns in southern Germany and Austria baked “soul cakes” or “souls” on All Souls Day (many of which they enjoyed while waiting).  

In Shropshire, England, even into the 20th Century, on All Saints’ Day members of the community went house to house “souling” — poor people in particular, singing “A soul-cake, a soul-cake,/ Have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul-cake.”

It was hoped that neighbors would provide a cake, some apples, maybe a bit of change and, for the accompanying adults, a sip or two of new ale. Charlotte Sophia Burne and Georgina F. Jackson in their classic “Shropshire Folk-lore” published in 1883 recorded instances of homes whose “liberal housewives …  would provide as many [soul-cakes] as a clothes-basket full.”

In the Tyrol, Frazer says, the folk also made “soul-lights.” These were lit and placed on the hearth on All Souls’ Eve so that “poor souls, escaped from the fires of Purgatory, may smear melted grease on their burns and so alleviate their pangs.”

Over time numerous permutations of the earliest Samhain rites developed in different countries, some varying even by locality. Toward the end of the 19th Century in Europe, “souling” was still alive with people going from house to house in search of cakes filled with soul. Souling then morphed into guising or mumming, when children disguised themselves in costume and offered songs, poetry, and jokes — instead of prayer — in hopes of receiving food or coin for their dramatics.

Folklorists say the Scots in masquerade visited neighboring homes carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips not only to light the darkened way but also to turn away potentially-threatening ghosts.

When immigrants came to North America, this aspect of the festival morphed into lit pumpkins and trick-or-treating but older folks will recall that families came together to eat and drink and watch the kids play fun-filled games like ducking for apples. In County Kerry and parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Halloween is still called “Snap-Apple Time.”

Those familiar gatherings have all but ceased. Halloween has been reduced to costumed kids trudging door to door expecting treats — or else. Long forgotten is Allhallotide to honor the memory of the dead. Journalist Lesley Bannatyne who has given considerable thought to the holiday, says, “The otherworldly elements of Halloween have moved into the realm of fantasy, satire, and entertainment.”

She’s right but does not mention that no one has to accede to such debasement. It’s possible to honor the souls we once knew by going out to visit them, and our efforts are not limited to formal hallowed eves.

Writers in a class at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity” do not wait for liminal times when the past can meet the present. They thin the boundary themselves and enter the world of the other with enthusiasm.

That is, they honor the long-dead of their families with stories filled with love, humor, and truth. One soul has sung of a mother who lost direction — no one figured out why — so she and her family had to find ways to accept the ensuing senselessness.

Another writer told of his Italian-American family from Niagara Falls who never stopped talking when they came together, except in the case of a mother’s son who separated from the family only to die, years later, of AIDS. The writer was still having a hard time understanding why the family failed to wrap its collective arms around his brother.

Still, another writer spoke of a bell tower in her native town in Italy that through its hourly tolls reminded every resident to cherish the here and now.

All these writers dared to step across the boundary and speak to the departed with questions based in love and respect even when filled with pain.  

These memorists celebrate their own All Saints Day, their own All Souls Day, their own Halloween; they address the departed, especially those who cannot handle the truth, and in doing so render peace for all involved.

Happy Allhallowtide.

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Do you use irony in your conversations? It’s when you say the opposite of what you mean.

For example, on vacation you get to your room at the hotel and look out the window and there, 30 feet from your nose, is a solid brick wall. You say: Oh, look: Another great view of America!

To mask your disappointment — let’s call it that — you say the opposite of what you mean, the literary lexicons say for “humorous or emphatic effect.”  

Anyone hearing you knows you did not get what you wanted or hoped for. You were looking for a scenic view and got industrial brick.  

But I’m betting that understanding the nature and purpose of irony in your life is not on your bucket list as it’s not on the list of many others.

But that’s a poor approach to reality because the pervasiveness of irony in the cultural and social institutions of America today, especially through literature and television, is adversely affecting our efforts to forge a new national identity. We don’t know what people mean.

But I should point out that irony is a two-edged sword in that it can have a freeing function while other times, like now in the United States, it has morphed into a corroding sarcastic cynicism.

In a 1987 essay on the poet John Berryman, Lewis Hyde said, as a tool, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Subscribers are prisoners.

The great American writer of fiction and commanding revolutionary essays, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) — he took his life besieged by despair — called irony tyrannical and useless “when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” It lacks the power to transcend.

He points to postmodern literature’s love affair with irony but especially to television’s “cynical, irreverent, ironic, absurdist” depiction of social situations steeped in condescending mockery.

Wallace says at some point television swallowed irony whole (as well as its kin sarcasm and cynicism) and once it filtered into every channel it trained viewers “to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form.”

Is not the social commentary program of John Oliver (as was the case with his predecessor Jon Stewart) a savaging session?

When sharp-tongued comics Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce stepped into the arena in the 1950s, they opened the floodgates of a biting criticism that seemed perfect for the post-World War II generation. They skewered the McCarthy-reeking government and any other institution that held people down.

Over the decades, America’s institutions have taken it on the chin so often and in so many ways that an interloper like Donald Trump can come along and call The New York Times and The Washington Post purveyors of “fake news” and the FBI crooked and unreliable in serving the American people, thereby firing up a cadre of torch-bearing cynics.

That supreme generator of scorn is heralded as a savior for shielding the heapers of scorn from scorn. How can those who cherish the values of honesty and sincerity compete?

And the reason scorn, sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and the like remain “so powerful and so unsatisfying,” Wallace says, “is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’”

We have to ask ourselves whether it’s possible to get an ironist to say what he means even when someone “with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for,” Wallace notes, “ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig.”

The mouthing-off ironist, whether personal or corporate, sounds on the surface like a rebel but in truth is an oppressive tyrant because attention is drawn away from his needs and the needs of his neighbor, especially the less-well-off. The primary categories of reality are dismissed as fluff.

How would we ever know what anyone’s needs are when people say what they do not mean and what they mean they do not say?

A great part of the furor of the Trump supporter derives not so much from his supposed dissatisfaction with existing social institutions but from being trapped in a scorn-ridden identity that wears upon his being. He might think lashing out is a source of relief but it creates endless exhaustion for the rest of us.

And enough evidence exists that shows that those afflicted with irony-based despair soon begin to conjure up conspiratorial ghost stories laced with facts that do not exist.

Climate-change-deniers will never be convinced of a historical reality until they deal with the corrosive cynicism they suffer from based on needs not being met. And such cynicism is addictive because it provides a certain kind of neural pleasure; when you’re cutting a fellow citizen down, you feel alive.

What happens in the long run, though, is that the imagination is blunted. The tool that allows us to envision a way out of a morass such as irony, cynicism, and related deep-hole-diggers, loses its grounding.

But the imagination is critical because, as the educational philosopher Maxine Greene points out in “Releasing the Imagination,” it is our means “to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” Transcendence.

It may sound strange but we must start conversing about topics that cynics have long labeled utopian. Take full-coverage-lifetime-health-care as an example. The American cynic says it cannot work even though France and Canada and a host of other nations have provided such care for their citizens for decades. They shame us.

Impractical? Practical? These words pale in comparison to the corrosiveness of cynicism. With it comes to the practical; we have to remind ourselves of what Oscar Wilde said a century ago: “A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.”

Is it practical to suggest an annual income for every person in the United States of $100,000, students included because they work like the rest of us?

Is it practical to stipulate that anyone who makes over $1 million a year must hand over every dollar above the million-dollar mark to the national treasury? The Congressional Budget Office can figure out the details.

What about the provision of a comfortable abode for everyone? How might such a system work? And this would include home-repair and home-replacement for every U.S. resident done in by a storm, even U.S. citizens in the Virgin Islands.

We must include cynics in our discussions forward but must remind them that the agenda is about needs, the rightful needs of all. This means that cynicism must be checked at the door like they used to do with guns in the Old West.

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