5 January 2021

Myth Lessons

The carceral state and the limits of sentimental realism

Matthew Spellberg

This text is part of “Imagination and the Carceral State,” a series of essays organized by Joshua Bennett for Cabinet’s Kiosk platform. For his introduction to the portfolio, see here. The other texts in the series include Bennett’s “Wherever We Are Gathered,” “No Man’s Land” by Elleza Kelley, and “Abolitionist Alternatives” by Che Gossett.

Education in the Era of the Crime Bill: What Questions Can We Ask?
The Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994, is widely considered to be the capstone in the architecture of American mass incarceration. Among its many harsh provisions was a measure forbidding prisoners from receiving Pell Grants, the most important form of debt-free aid the government offers for higher education. Until 1994, there had been hundreds of college programs operating in the nation’s prisons. These were mostly affiliated with community colleges; the cost of faculty and overhead was paid for by Pell Grant tuition. After the crime bill, many of these programs vanished, or were drastically reduced.

A new model of prison education arose in their place. Where the old programs had been extensions of existing colleges, the new programs were formed expressly for the purpose of teaching in prisons. Some had no accreditation at all; others worked out improvised accreditation arrangements with other institutions. In the old programs, most, if not all, of the teachers worked in the prisons as part of their day jobs. In contrast, initiatives formed after the crime bill largely recruited volunteer faculty, and this widened considerably the range of people involved in prison education.[1] Graduate students, professors, teachers, artists, lawyers, and undergraduates gave their free time to work in prisons, which in turn meant that, in addition to community colleges, many research universities, nonprofits, and other institutions became involved in prison education. Eventually some of these new programs were able to hire and pay regular faculty, but this could not be done with federal money, so they were required either to raise funds specially, or to ask that their supporting institutions redirect money from other sources. These altered material conditions, in conjunction with a rising awareness of the incarceration crisis, gave a more precise political valence to prison teaching. It became something like a movement, one with two goals, one longstanding, the other historically contingent: educating incarcerated men and women as individuals, and fighting mass incarceration itself with education.

I am part of the long generation (at this point, generations) of educators who felt themselves called to work as prison teachers in the world the crime bill made. The time I spent teaching in prisons changed forever my sense of what education could be. It was for me a sacred honor, and it was a model for the life of the mind. In prison classrooms, I found that ideas and knowledge were pursued with zeal, urgency, and an incredible frankness. Some of my incarcerated students were the best I’ve ever had, anywhere; they were also some of my most important teachers. I similarly loved and respected many of my teaching colleagues who came with me from the outside.

But for all the joy and excitement that came from this work, it was impossible to forget that we were acting within a ubiquitously rotten and incomprehensible system. We teachers witnessed only some tiny portion of its capacity to debase the human being, but what we saw was enough for a sobering lesson: the prisons awakened savior complexes, desperation, dishonesty, petty feuding, greed, self-delusion, self-doubt, abuse, and outright corruption. Such things are not unexpected within a reality as catastrophic and bizarre as the American prison-industrial complex. But it was its own kind of education to see them firsthand. It was also an education to learn about the things I did not see, and I am still haunted by what I know transpired just beyond my ken.

My experience is representative of a national phenomenon. Prison education in the era of mass incarceration has been deeply meaningful to many people, incarcerated and not. Its reverberations have been felt in communities across the country at every socioeconomic level. It has become entwined with the culture and policies of universities, foundations, and even museums.

One day it will be possible to ask many important historical questions about American prison education at the turn of the millennium: Whether and to what extent it played a role in dismantling the carceral system; what these education programs were able to offer the generations of men and women who encountered them behind bars; what the long-term effect of these programs was on the communities ravaged by incarceration; how the rise of these prison education programs responded to the collapse of the academic humanities at American universities; how artists, scholars, and scientists across all disciplines sought in non-traditional education programs an alternative to the ever-more transactional, expensive, bureaucratized, competitive, and precarious institutions at which they worked.

To ask these questions now would be premature, maybe even counterproductive. There are, however, two questions that I am ready to pose now, and even answer in a preliminary fashion. These questions are philosophical rather than historical. In fact, they are somewhat anti-historical; they express a certain dissatisfaction with the way the lens of history frames the pressing concerns of our era, a dissatisfaction that may even extend to the narrative I have rehearsed in the first paragraphs of this essay. These questions are also in my opinion quite practical. I see them as everyday questions for teachers in the classroom. The first is, what tools do we have in the realm of culture for representing the enormity of carceral America, and the extremities of stress and suffering it has inflicted on millions of our fellow citizens? And the second, what forms of representation should we be teaching to students who are themselves caught up in this carceral state—whether directly (in prisons or surveilled communities), or indirectly (everywhere else in the country)? My response to both is, in a word, myth. To many people this may seem quite unexpected, even a non-sequitur; the rest of this essay will be an attempt to explain what exactly I mean by this response.

I realize that such questions are minor compared to the one that screams at us every day, from every direction: how do we make this stop? But they—along with myth itself—may offer some clues as to why we find it so hard to come up with an answer to this very cry, even as it plunges the knife into our hearts.

The Myth-World in the Everyday Life of the Prison Classroom
For six years, I taught literature and composition classes in the New Jersey prison system. The subjects were various: literature, philosophy, journalism, basic writing, also tutorials designed specifically around individual students’ interests. But one through line in my teaching practice was myth. The word has suffered from unfortunate misrepresentations in the last hundred years. It has often been defined as literature for children, or fantasy fiction, or a synonym for “falsehood,” or as a handmaiden of nationalism, or as a word that obtains only for a small corpus of ancient Greek stories. But when I talk about myth, I mean the human impulse to narrate at the limits of the cosmos, the desire to give an account from a mind standing “at the circumference and not at the center of its reality,” to quote Northrop Frye.[2] One of my most important teachers on the subject, Robert Bringhurst, defines myth further as “a theorem about the nature of reality, expressed … in animate, narrative form.”[3] In this sense at least, myth is a rich and foundational aspect of human cultures from across the globe. It is one of the oldest, and was once the most treasured, of narrative forms. It originates in orality, but has made a home in nearly every medium, whether text or painting or film. It often calls to tradition and the ancient times; but it is also a protean, metamorphic thing, built from variation, dissent, and the violation of taboo. Sometimes myth’s detractors claim that it is monolithic, imposing its values on a community. This can and does indeed happen, but it seems to me a late deformation of myth’s true nature, which I believe is anarchic: myth circulates in many forms and versions from many mouths, and therefore it allows for fluid, democratic, constantly revisable thinking about the nature of the world.[4]

I presented myth to my students as such a divinely ambitious, fluid, and powerful form of reasoning about the cosmos. I devoted lessons to myths and mythically inspired texts from cultures around the world—the Bible, Paradise Lost, Native American oral traditions, Greek and Middle Eastern stories as they appear in epic or theater.

I once taught a story by a great Indigenous American oral poet of the early twentieth century named Ghandl (or Gandll, or Walter McGregor, as he was called in English). Originally told in the Haida language, and translated by Bringhurst, the story is about a man abandoned by his jealous in-laws on a rock while hunting sea lions. It’s a difficult work to enter into, built on a lattice of metaphysics and ecology from the Pacific Northwest. I had the students perform it as a play. They barked as they imagined sea lions would, and stumped their hands into flippers. One of them narrated the hero’s descent to the bottom of the sea at the invitation of a grebe; his encounter there with a chief of the Killer Whale People; then his return home inside the stomach of a sea lion; and finally his elaborate revenge on those who had left him to die. Our performance led us into a discussion of exchange, honor, the potlatch, and the limits of human experience. At the end of the semester, many of the students wrote in their evaluations that it had been their favorite class of the term.

Another time, on the recommendation of my co-teacher Antonio Iannarone, I taught a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “Earth’s Holocaust”—a latter-day fable, aspiring toward myth, in which the do-gooders of the world set out to purge all the impure elements of society by starting a great bonfire on the American Plains. Eventually they decide they must burn everything—liquor, clothes, books, all the trappings of civilization—and start the world afresh. But their efforts are in vain, for evil still lingers among the men watching the blaze. On the day I assigned this text, only one student had done the reading. But the story had so kindled his excitement that he asked if he could teach it to the rest of the class. I said of course, and he spoke with unbroken intensity for twenty minutes, narrating the work in his own words, pointing to key passages, abstracting the ideas he thought important. The students became engrossed, particularly one, who kept trying to guess at the ending. He was calmly parried by the presenter, who kept saying: “I’ll get there, bro.” The student had elegantly transformed Hawthorneʼs text into an oral performance, complete with a call and response, and so he restored the story and its themes to the human voice, that earliest angel of meaning.

Many times I asked students to write stories in the style of one of the texts we had been reading. The student who had loved “Earth’s Holocaust” wrote a similar parable of an Eden destroyed. Another added a leaf to the Bible, “The Book of Cain,” in which we learn that God allows Cain to grow old, marry, and have children—but only to see his wife and children die before he does. This, Cain learns on his own deathbed, has been the slow-gestating punishment for that first murder. Yet another student wrote Paradise Lost, Book , having fallen in love not only with Milton’s grandeur, but also his habit of dropping vowels for scansion:

Awake my first, and look upon my world;
I am God; thou Creator, Father, and Master.
As th’ beautiful creature stood and look’d upon th’
Powerful brighten light and mov’d its body in an circle
Looking at the nothingness, that surrounds it.
Th’ creature speaks once it faces the powerful light.
Why; why; why? How; how; how? When; when; when?
Who; who; who? What; what; what? No?

I am wary of making generalizations about incarcerated students. Like students on the outside, they manifest a range of abilities and interests. Some of them will like myth, and some will prefer lyric poetry, or business, or trigonometry, or physics. This is as it should be. But two things might be said about why myth should be taught in prisons. First, myth is a complex and complete way of thinking, a form of reasoning about reality, that originated in an oral world. It can serve as a bridge between talking and writing, especially for students who are brilliant at the former but uneasy with the latter. An exploration of myth can serve to undo certain hierarchies of knowledge based on the distinction between the written and the spoken. To understand that a folk storyteller can be a major philosopher, handling questions of cosmic value in an idiom nourished on the front stoop, in a fishing boat, or at the many other Academies of the Everyday—this can awaken a love for ideas and stories unencumbered by their association with certain markers of status. It can also restore one’s ability to see the genuine beauty and power of the written word, since its vitality can always be traced to the immediate aliveness of speech, which is at once writing’s ancestor and sibling.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, myth presents narratives at the limit of reality, in which the stakes could not be higher: birth and death, the creation and destruction of worlds, the human and more-than-human all at once. Most of the literature currently taught in high schools and universities (as well as prisons) is—to be blunt—bourgeois literature. Even most of the novels and poems set in poor communities or written from the margins (at least those that end up on syllabi) are largely built on the scaffolding of the Western realist bourgeois style: domestic, inward-facing, self-conscious, sociologically and historically minded, secular. This style was, and perhaps could still be, a great achievement. I do not mean to denounce it altogether, or claim it should be excluded from study. But we should not fall into thinking that it furnishes the only possible medium for picturing the world. There are other forms of expression—wilder, grander, older, more anarchic, less deferential to the barrier between representation and reality, less interested in pity, justification, or judgment, more concerned with the sheer unavoidability of action and consequence. Sometimes to see a picture, in story, of the grand, cold, and indifferent universe is to realize you have the power to shape a commensurately grand picture for yourself. Sometimes this can be the more perfect mirror, the more resonant frequency.

The Limits of Sentimental Realism
And it is here that my two questions—how to represent the carceral state, and what to teach when everyone lives in it—begin to inform one another. It would be harsh, but not entirely inaccurate, to argue that American society has created a class of person who is consigned to live through certain extremes of deprivation and violence while progressive-minded people read and disseminate sentimental literary forms that impart to them the intensified feelings of extremity without exposing them to its dangers. (Perhaps it is right to say us here, rather than them.) It would be still harsher, though again not without a glimmer of truth, to make the same allegation against the whole project of prison education, with its heavy reliance on inspirational stories about incarcerated men performing Shakespeare and attaining moral uplift. Though such critiques are salutary to entertain, I continue to believe deeply in the twin projects of prison education and education about prisons. They are as urgent as any endeavor worth undertaking in the present.

But we ask both too much and too little of education in the fight against the carceral state and its economic allies. We ask too much in the sense that some people behave as if school and its adjacent fields will solve all our problems. Ideologically correct curricula in classrooms and at colleges, these people seem to think, will suffice to reshape the nation’s mind and bend it toward justice. These people, usually themselves part of the educational system (or in related fields, like the arts), have a misplaced idea of education’s power. There are many things it cannot achieve in the public sphere. By itself, it cannot change old laws or enforce new ones; it cannot redistribute capital in any meaningfully widespread way. I wish that some of the energy that went into reforming syllabi went instead into transforming the reprehensible behavior of corporations, banks, certain local governments and federal agencies, certain unions, and many other actors who disenfranchise poor people and people of color, and who hold up the carceral system in all of its ramifying branches. I sometimes despair that leftist activism’s agon with education and the arts is actually a retreat from contesting the more intractable institutions that perpetuate inequality and racism and have so far refused to bow to any pressure to change their ways.

Derrick Quintero, If My Journey Were a Book Title, 2012 (detail). Featured in “Life After Death and Elsewhere,” a 2015 exhibition at New York’s Apexart featuring the work of inmates on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee.

At the same time, we ask far too little of education, and have an impoverished sense of its importance in the fight for justice. The energy of education—whether in prisons or beyond—is stifled by a thick layer of sentimental piety, and the rhetoric surrounding education is enveloped by a certain sentimental literary style, born from, and reinforced by, the realist novel. It’s a style possessed of an important political and aesthetic history. But confronted with recent crises, it has fallen into self-congratulation, impotent critique, and sententious admonishment.

Bourgeois realism (including many works written in that style by people who do not think of themselves as bourgeois) is of limited use in depicting the absurdity and cataclysmic immensity of the carceral system, to say nothing of the history that bred it. This realism is at least partly responsible for the present difficulties we have in translating a sentimental education into concrete political action.

It is not just that we teach literary works written in this particular sentimental style, and so impart its values. It is that we teach everything in a manner saturated by this style. The study of literature and the arts has become almost entirely a historical and sociological project. It seems to me that scholars learned how to do this from the novel (and all the forces swirling around its rise), and it therefore makes sense that the nineteenth-century novel remains (even more than the lyric poem) the defining genre of the academic humanities. The sentimental realist style is embarrassed by any appeal to an authority beyond the societal. James Baldwin diagnosed this, with his usual apocalyptic accuracy, as the problem of the “protest novel”: “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”[5] The sentimental realist style says we must analyze people, situations, stories, and artworks as embedded within a specific historical context. It says that this context is by far the most powerful element in our lives, and that therefore the only possible intervention that can be made in the world is to change the moral valence of the context itself, that is, to reform society.

Context is massively important, of course, but the sentimental worldview takes agency away from those trapped within the contexts of injustice and confers it only on those who can situate themselves beyond it. In other words, the sentimental style encourages top-down structural interventions by sufficiently educated and morally vetted actors motivated by notions of social (merely social) justice. Now, sometimes this style and the structural interventions it endorses have genuinely contributed to positive societal change, even if that change has not been as thoroughgoing as is sometimes claimed. (I think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Jungle, or Native Son, or those masterpieces Bleak House and Germinal.) But the problem is that if such changes are delayed—or if they fail to occur at all—then the sentimental style breeds in its partisans an affected, stagnant, and superior outrage that goes nowhere and helps no one: “We know there must be reform, and our contribution to the cause will be to make known our indignation at those who don’t acknowledge this fact.” In his fearsome attack on the American protest novel from Stowe to Wright, James Baldwin once again exhumes the dead heart of the matter: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of a secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”[6] It incidentally seems to me (and I think to Baldwin) that this style is more insidious, more prone to dishonesty, and therefore more dangerous, in “literary” works than in the more nakedly sentimental productions of mass culture.

The sentimental style demands structural change, but when a corrupted structure proves intractable, hard to describe, protean, inaccessible to rational analysis, and deeply entwined with everything that is comfortable and good in our lives, then the sentimental style can do nothing but click its tongue in disapproval. (Some might even argue for a reversed causality: that the style is adopted precisely so as to make doing nothing seem like the only option.) If ever there was a time when the carceral structure was all those things, it is definitely now.[7] In the meantime, as sentiment treads water, other tools are thrown out of reach. The visionary, the ecstatic, the religious, the cosmic, the absurd, the chaotic—these deep sources of human power—are discouraged for being dangerous and irrational, or dismissed as mere ideological epiphenomena, or caramelized into a harmless Sunday-school piety. Academic leftists continue to lecture the world on how giving up the delusion of eternity is the only path toward social utopia, willfully blind to the fact that America is a nation whose struggle to bend toward justice owes an enormous debt to the Black Church, the Catholic Worker movement, The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Transcendentalists, and the Great Awakenings. (And how much closer to justice would we be if we had not tried to destroy, and then subsequently sentimentalize, Native American religion, with its profound and often severe theories about the human relationship to this continent.) I cannot count the number of men and women I have met in prisons for whom religion, or even visionary mysticism, is no prudery or opiate, but rather the well of meaning, the source of life, of perseverance, of courage, of resistance. The sentimental style of bourgeois realism has little respect for these things, and it tries to hinder their becoming instruments of political change, for fear of their unseemliness and extremity.

I have recently heard of a juvenile detention center in the Bronx where the young men who have attained the highest marks for good behavior can work at a café within the facility walls. They train to be baristas and learn to make macchiatos and cappuccinos. It would be very easy to make a sentimental literary reading—even several—of this café. If you believed in capitalism, you might read it as a grand project of uplift, young men preparing a new life for themselves. If you didn’t, you might conceive of a protest novel in Baldwin’s sense, pitched as a critique of late capitalism: the young men are forced to surrender their dignity in order to work in the service economy of a New York City where all meaningful labor has been replaced by playgrounds of privilege. Neither of these readings is entirely wrong so far as they go, but they do not go very far. In offering rational explanations, both gloss over the true bizarreness of the situation. Some of these young men (all under 18) are facing ten-year sentences as they sprinkle cocoa powder on milk foam, and all of them are living a life between the espresso machine and the threat of serious violence on the tier. Furthermore, I am told by a teacher in the facility that the men involved in this café are immensely proud of what they’ve built. We must reckon with this last fact in good faith, yet without ignoring the devastating context in which this pride was formed: we cannot allow ourselves to gloss over the paradoxical tension between feeling and experience here if we are to grasp what is happening. The sentimental style commonly falls prey to two symmetrical mistakes, arranged on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. As long as the disenfranchised do not revolt, it can say that either they are cheerfully on their way to being reformed, or they are simple-hearted prisoners of false consciousness. This is a hollow, demeaning binary, whose apparent oppositions in fact reinforce one another.

Myth Lessons
There are alternatives to the sentimental style all around us. The writer and prison educator Edyson Julio often says that Kafka is a great writer of the American ghetto. And there are American authors who have summoned, in bursts or even in whole books, the unforgiving intensity of myth to depict the American project above and beyond mere sociological description: Baldwin, of course, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, to name only a few. We need to learn afresh how to read them as more-than-realists, more-than-moralists, more-than-reformers, more-than-sociologists.

Even better would be to go to the source: to world mythology, and the oral literature in which it is most directly expressed. I think, for instance, of the central trickster figures in Native American mythology, Coyote and Raven. Their blundering, mad, greedy, destructive, lustful, gluttonous antics are as good a mirror as any I know for the representational (and actual) clusterfuck that is the year 2020. That these crazed carnivalesque jesters are also the bringers of balance and renewal—indeed, creators of the world—might offer some genuine philosophical hope for the future. How exciting it would be to see Native American storytellers take their rightful place as great and prophetic verbal artists of the American Canon. The twentieth century witnessed an incredible series of oral masters working in Indigenous languages: the Haida poet Gandll, the Tlingit storytellers Deikeenaak’w and Robert Zuboff, the Maidu master Hanc’ibyjim, the Kiksht teller Victoria Howard, and hundreds of others. To immerse ourselves in their stories might help us overcome one of our most dogged binaries, one that I, too, find my thinking trapped within: the binary of Modernity versus Everything Else. As we follow Coyote and Raven on their crazed paths, they might lead us to the medieval French Renart, to a renewed appreciation for Norse and Greek story, to contemporary reciters of the Mahabharata, to folktales and proverbs that arise in cities and factories and on the internet. It might even be possible to learn fresh historical and philosophical lessons about our present crisis from the spider Anansi and his sometime companion Adanko, the West African hare who crossed an ocean in a slave hold and became Br’er Rabbit. To borrow from Dipesh Chakrabarty, these crazed animal world-makers might provincialize Europe and enlarge the constrained modernity it birthed—constrained in its range of imaginative possibility, but also literally reliant on the prison and other institutions of constriction for its self-definition.

In the struggle to teach about and within the carceral state we need a change of style, a reorientation of mode, a refreshed approach to genre and therefore to narrative and knowing—an approach that stands a chance of undoing some of our present complacencies, and one that genuinely draws on the wisdom and force of cultures from around the world. Such a change must begin in the study of literature and art. If we were to take myth seriously in our classrooms, we might be able to recover a cosmic agency within narrative representation. This would be a complex and even risky project. Myth is a form of representation that makes claims on reality itself, and lacks the shield of the counterfactual: to declare something “a novel” or “a work of fiction” somewhat insulates it from responsibility for consequences in the world. Myth, on the other hand, is certain about its responsibilities in the world, and therefore does not know the dishonesty of sentiment, how sentiment cleaves heart from hand and refuses to cop to the deed. Myth’s certainty can be used for many purposes, beneficial or damaging, and we must learn to deploy it carefully. But the problem now is precisely that our sanctioned forms of narrative representation have been stripped of consequence (allowing other forms, like global conspiracy theories, to run rampant). No surprise then that our professional makers of narrative and our professional teachers of narrative have lost society’s respect.

To enter into myth as a mode of thought, most literature scholars would have to change what they do, and what they teach. They would have to recover the folkloric and mythic elements already present in European, Euro-American, and African American culture, and move beyond their narrowly sociological and historiographical methods. They would have to learn other stories and other conventions; they would have to take orality and oral tradition seriously; and they would have to make a sincere study of the world’s non-imperial languages, like those of Indigenous America, the Pacific Islands, or of sub-Saharan Africa.

To say again, there is much in realism and the sociological method it engendered that should be admired, and retained. But they are not enough. We need to embrace other modes for the future of narrative, and for the future of education in literature and the arts. The mode we eventually find will not be a mere imitation of anything that has come before, but it must have a foundation in forms that are available to us now. Myth makes an awesome claim about the purchase a narrative might have on the shape of reality. We would do well to investigate and teach this claim, to see if we can forge narratives of such consequence going forward. They will be needed if we want to meet the future as agents, and not merely as critics blinded by our own inconsequential tears.

  1. My observation that the pool of teachers widened considerably after 1994 is not in any way intended to denigrate the contributions of community college faculty to prison education. For decades, they manned the front line in this fight, as they did in many fights to improve access to education in this country, and they continue to offer excellent instruction to incarcerated people to this day. Even after Pell Grant funding dried up, many community colleges continued to provide limited programming by means of state legislation, special salary-generating student enrollment arrangements, and funding from private entities like the Soros Foundation. See Stefan LoBuglio, “Time to Reframe Politics and Practices in Correctional Education,” in John Comings, Barbara Garner, Cristine Smith, eds., The Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, vol. 2 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, and Washington, DC: The Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2001).
  2. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 119.
  3. Robert Bringhurst, “The Meaning of Mythology,” in Bringhurst, Everywhere Being Is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2008), p. 63.
  4. For more on the anarchic nature of myth, see Matthew Spellberg, “Myth and Anarchy,” The Yale Review, vol. 107, no. 2 (April 2019).
  5. James Baldwin, “Everybodyʼs Protest Novel,” in Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 23.
  6. Ibid., p. 14.
  7. Amitav Ghosh, using a slightly different vocabulary, has recently described how the sentimental style quails before yet another intractable and inextricable phenomenon: climate change. See The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Matthew Spellberg is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He studies the history and philosophy of dreaming, as well as the Indigenous oral traditions of the Pacific Northwest. For six years, he taught in the New Jersey prison system with the Princeton University Prison Teaching Initiative. He was guest editor of the “Dreams” theme section of Cabinet no. 67.

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