all the tribe of hell

Tribes. All of us.

How we see ourselves. Others. Angels. Demons.

Gustave Doré’s 1866 illustration of Satan Yielding before Gabriel, for John Milton’s 1866 epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Hatfields. McCoys. The family of Devil Anse Hatfield against the family of Ole Ran McCoy, although both sides had fought for the Confederates against the Yankee Union in the American Civil War.

We are the quick. The dead. The moving. The still.

We. They. Us. Them. We are them. Montagues. Capulets. Aufidius. Coriolanus. England. France. Oberon. Titania. Theseus. Hippolyta.

Ineffectual Democrats. Heartless Republicans. Lazy. Bigoted. Immoral. Amoral. Greedy. Greedy.

Trouble choosing sides. Historicists. Cultural materialists. Deconstructinists. All the contexts of the world rolled into a rolling stone. The fate of Hippolytus, that papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died…

Maybe it’s the gods. Goddesses lined up like just desserts–Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, “Tell us, Zeus, which of us is most beautiful–the most beguiling, the most compelling.”

Zeus for all his faults still wiser than to call that particular coin in the air–almost laughing–almost weeping, “Ohhhh no. Let Paris choose. Uncle Billy, he’s your man.”

Greeks. Trojans. Cressida. Troilus.

Titus. Tamora. Romans. Goths. Old. Young. Experienced. Naive. All pulled down into the pits. La Brea.

Robert Bruce Horsfall, Smilodon californicus and Canis dirus fight over a Mammuthus columbi carcass in the La Brea Tar Pits, fronispiece for A History of Land Animals in the Western Hemisphere by William Berryman Scott, 1913.

Some decent restaurants not too far away. Once upon a time.

Now pits. Tar pits. Time. Mammoths. Rich and poor. Cats and dogs living together but no nearer.

The title line for this post appears in Othello. Roderigo, intoxicated with the idea of being with Desdemona, comes to Iago for help, saying that he will drown himself if he cannot have her. Iago ‘promises’ Desdemona to Roderigo if Roderigo can provide enough money, allying himself with ‘all the tribe of hell’ to get the deal done.

IAGO It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission
of the will. Come, be a man! Drown thyself? Drown
cats and blind puppies. I have professed me thy
friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving
with cables of perdurable toughness. I could never
better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse.
Follow thou the wars; defeat thy favor with an
usurped beard. I say, put money in thy purse. It
cannot be that Desdemona should long continue
her love to the Moor—put money in thy purse—
nor he his to her. It was a violent commencement in
her, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration
—put but money in thy purse. These Moors are
changeable in their wills. Fill thy purse with money.
The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts
shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida.
She must change for youth. When she is sated
with his body she will find the error of her choice.
Therefore, put money in thy purse. If thou wilt
needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than
drowning. Make all the money thou canst. If sanctimony
and a frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian
and a supersubtle Venetian be not too hard for my
wits and all the tribe of hell, thou shalt enjoy her.
Therefore make money. A pox of drowning thyself!
It is clean out of the way. Seek thou rather to be
hanged in compassing thy joy than to be drowned
and go without her.

Othello 1.3.377-404

We know how these devil’s deals go. Ralph Kramden will not become wealthy. The scheme will not work. His tribe cannot. George Bailey may be the “richest man in town”, but he will not become wealthy either. And even after triumph, single combat under the eyes of angels, Henry F. Potter will still be living across town–in a nicer house, with servants and a nicer car.

In The Philadelphia Story we watch them. The social elite. The rich. Material world inhabiters. It’s not only the girls who are material. Diamonds are everyone’s best friend. In the story, the tribe’s world, customs embedded in wedding, is invaded. Another tribe intrudes–the tribe of commoners. Reporters sent secretly to cover the wedding (which never fools Tracy Lord, the lead socialite herself).

Republicans. Democrats. Tories. Labour. Lib dems. Wait, that’s three. Black, white, gray. Earl Grey–with blue blossoms (Lady Grey) or not. Debt holders and debtors. A social and economic minefield. Squid games. There’s even a swimming pool.

Those who are for education. Who think that studying literature and philosophy is edifying and promotes the kind of critical thinking which fosters capable and responsible citizens. Or, those who think formal education, college/university, is largely a waste of time. In the United States, this rhetoric seems to be on the ascendant. In large part, this is due to the increasingly corporate structure of the U.S. We need people who can fill boxes in Amazon’s vast warehouses, and people to drive delivery trucks much more than we need people who can think for themselves or understand Plato.

Rhetoric from Fox Business (known for being popular amongst political conservatives) is case in point:

College bad. Money good. Suddenly, the ‘cool kids’ are not going to college, the article tells us. The article supplants the narrative of university providing a formative higher educational experience with a narrative of its own–that being successful (equated with making money), does not require college. Being a dropout is better than being a grad, the article suggests (in spite of the fact that most dropouts tend not to make nearly as much money over a lifetime as their degree holding contemporaries.

The rhetoric isn’t new. More than forty years ago, in an essay for Newsweek in 1980, Isaac Asimov noted the prevalent anti-intellectual current in the United States:

Of course, the U.S. has arguably become a place where making as much money as possible over one’s lifetime is of paramount importance. If one doesn’t retire with millions of dollars (as much as $ 5 million, according to some sources, albeit it is hotly debated–usually with the disagreement coming from conservative financial mouthpieces), one cannot afford one’s healthcare in later life. And that’s just healthcare costs. The idea of traveling frequently or living comfortably someplace can cost much more.

Making money is essential. Making lots of money has become the most important thing in American culture, superseding intellectual and civic discourse, human interaction, and most of human sympathy. ‘I’m all for the arts as long as I don’t have to pay for them. I pay more than enough in taxes for national defense and other things I need.’

It might be worthwhile noting that after the populists kill education completely (something which they’ve tried to do wholesale ever since Ronald Reagan cut the U.S. education budget by 80% in the 1980s), no one will retire comfortably anyway except the descendants of wealthy corporate and political (which are far from mutually exclusive) families.

This may be just what U.S. conservatives want (the politicians, not their more deluded voters). By dumbing down the general populace, we render them incapable of thoughtful voting. More susceptible to media rhetoric and much less able to think for themselves. Easy votes. Just shout loudly enough. Or ‘loud’ enough, if you prefer the flat adverb of the contemporary colloquial.

Timon of Athens plays with the polarity. The two tribes of wealthy and poor? The generous versus the opportunist. Timon starts wealthy, supplementing friends and giving lavish entertainments. After he loses everything, he lives alone in a cave, rejecting human society. His extravagance and generosity transform into the negatives of those attributes. Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit, a kind of embodiment of a null set. Empty intersects with empty. Rage.

Moon Over Buffalo is not the same. These characters are working actors not glamorous socialites. Were these folks on a cruise, no one would care with whom they fraternised except themselves and each other. George Hay’s affair in the play is not the same as Nickie Ferrante’s in the film An Affair to Remember. Only Charlotte Hay cares about George’s indiscretion. The whole world cares about what Nickie Ferrante does. Different tribes intersecting at a null set.

After all, we are from different places.


Paris. Author photo.


Rome. Author photo.

Dubuque, New York, Wharfdale, Napa:

New York. Author photo.

We are donkeys, elephants, giraffes. But wait, that’s three again.

What prompts this triple goddess, this Hecate of transformative witchcraft? What makes the good soldier murder, rise, and become the despotic king? What makes the fair and foul confuse each other? Does good need evil to be good?

Hamlet slouches away towards some Bethlehem we never envisioned. Nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Tell that to Ophelia. Or, after the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, be revenged on the whole pack of them.

Then we awaken momentarily as winter sunlight. The calm before the sea comes to war with the harbour once again.

We are camels. Thirst. Obi Wan Kenobi buried deep on the far side of desert world, watching the rest of the star system ice over. Watching winter come. Bantha tracks. The sand people always ride single file to hide their numbers. The stars are lovely, dark and deep. Yoda has dinner engagements to keep.

Promises? Those who keep them. Those who don’t. The existence of Santa Claus seems to be largely a matter of opinion. Some firmly believe in him. Others do not.

Perhaps we can all still talk with one another.

Miracle on 34th Street, 20th Century Fox, 1947. (Edmund Gwenn, Marlene Lyden, Mary Field)

Perhaps we need to read each other’s literature. Sing each other’s songs.

Sure, you’ve read Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, Hamlet.

What? Haven’t read them? Don’t really read much? Saw the movie? Maybe a movie like that, a period piece anyway. Well, in that case you’ll fit in well with the new conservative agenda. Perhaps you can be a greeter at a big box store and help customers find their shopping carts or trolleys after you retire in your old age. No need to sit around talking about literature at the retirement home anyway. It’s likely that no one else will have read the books you’ve read or seen the films you’ve seen.

Maybe there’s the crux of the problem–the crux of misunderstanding. Perhaps it arises from never actually going there. Never reading. Never striving to understand outside of any context but our own. Perhaps it is not so much from the ignorant as from the incurious. Or perhaps those two are closely related.

Here are some insights about anti intellectualism from a blogger who is much more widely read than the ghost may ever be:

Things tend to overlap. One thing may not be distinct from another. When we vote for those who would censor our school libraries, we vote for a whole host of other intersecting and overlapping ideas. When we change one idea, we change the whole structure of our world.

How can that be? How can banning a single book change the world?

Here’s a well known video about how wolves change rivers. (If you’ve seen it, it might be worth watching again. It’s a great piece):

In The Oysters of Locmariaquer, Eleanor Clark describes the immersive process of properly tasting a local Morbihan Bay Breton oyster, and she relates the experience, in part, to architecture.

As for architecture, the French can build as horridly as anybody else when they set their minds to it, and it may be true, as educated Bretons will tell you, that in another ten years the region will have gone the way of the world in that respect, as its little summer resorts mostly have, and the sections destroyed in the last war. Only the old towns and buildings, especially farm buildings and the obscure little chapels with their extraordinary sculpture, are beautiful. But they are still in such preponderance, and the lovely countryside from all the inland heights down to the various, sometimes demonic chinoiseries of the shore, is still so undefaced by our standards, there is such pleasure to the eye and the mind everywhere, it is as though a know in your stomach, cramping the nerves and brain, were letting go. The sudden freedom from strain is bewildering. You are so used to ugliness–pervasive, scandalous, fly-by-night, brain-smashing ugliness, it takes a while to realize what has stopped hitting you. You can feel, you can think, you can enjoy food.

Clark, Eleanor. The Oysters of Locmariaquer. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992, p. 8.

Do we still have time to enjoy the food? Certainly in the day to day, for this moment we do.

We may have time to talk with each other as well, before the rulers divide us so much that we become docile (or not so docile) zombies at their command. Food for powder, Jack Falstaff? Let us hope not. Let us hope we can still have discourse. Still enjoy a different kind of food with each other.

We have so many challenges to tackle which are not each other, which are not our points of disagreement. We can only meet our current global challenges in common, working side by side. Divided, yes. And we will be so. Not everyone will enjoy Shakespeare, for example (perish the thought)! Still our mutual success, our continued survival, depends on us finding ways together.

My first suggestion, of course, would be not to vote for people who want to dictate what your children should read. When someone tells you what to think, evaluate it for yourself independent of what you might hear on any media platform. Think for yourself. Read things for yourself and talk with your children (and perhaps with other children) about it. Be open to questions and perspectives, even when those might differ from your own.

My second suggestion is to find all the books banned by any particular group who proposes banning books, and read to read them.

It can be so tempting to judge before we hear. Before we read. But true open listening, and open reading is a gift. Read books. Read to your children. And listen to them. Listen to others too, of course, but listen to children with particular care and attention. Children as a whole are our greatest teachers, especially if we can hear them before they are brow beaten into being adults. They teach us patience, nobility, perseverance, and love. What more can we need?

All the literature and arts, the creative, the ‘God spark’ within humanity stems from these virtues. When we capture that, hold it, and practice expressing it for ourselves, we become truly human again.

Iago allies himself with all the tribe of hell because he cannot serve two masters. The idea shows up in the Bible, of course, in Matthew 6:24:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

When Roderigo wonders how Iago can serve Othello when he hates him, Iago responds:

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed.

Othello 1.1.45-7

Having chosen his tribe, Iago has chosen his master too. “In following him, I follow but myself,” he says (1.1.64). Iago seems to be aligned with Satan indeed. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan says that it is “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” (Paradise Lost, Book 1. 263)

What about us? Should we abandon the false idea of ‘higher knowledge” promoted by universities in favour of making more money, or in favour of making money sooner? Would that be following mammon? Is our collective cultural fascination with billionaires–who seem to have displaced movie, television, and music stars as the popular icons of the present day–is that an indication of our society’s collective service to mammon?

Maybe we should read up on this. Perhaps, if we recapture the divine creative spark within ourselves and learn to speak that truth, then even ancient monsters will hear us and lay down their spears.

Let us hope so. The ghost still has serious doubts, but he’s like that.

4 Replies to “all the tribe of hell”

  1. Your writing ALWAYS touches my soul! Thank you friend to standing up for academia, scholarship and the divine creative spark!! Penniless dreamers unite!! 👏👏👏

  2. You are a genius, John. What a pleasure to read.
    It’s often a frustrating thing, to be a witness to the polarities in the world, and my heart goes out to all who grapple with it.

    Besides the Dutch girl in the older “Miracle” film the newer one has Santa chat with a deaf girl, a sweet scene. It’s great when we are surprised by the treasures others have to offer…


    1. Thank you, Paul, as always. The newer film scene is charming as well. Years ago, I was in a production of Meredith Wilson’s largely forgotten musical, Here’s Love, the stage play upon which A Miracle on 34th Street was based. Although the play may not be as enduring as The Music Man, it was an honour and a privilege to be able to work with such accomplished artists, and I still have a bit of a soft spot for this show in whatever form it appears.

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