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Open Letter to Dick Cheney (out of “The White Devil”)

October 5, 2009

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Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on blood,
And not be tainted with a shameful fall?
Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost thou think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?—

—John Webster, The White Devil (1612)

“Months before September 11, 2001, that Cheney’s Energy Task Force investigated Iraq’s oil resources: 6.” —Harper’s Index: A Retrospective of the Bush Era (January 2009).

And let’s bear in mind, in connection with Cheney, this passage from the “Republic” of Plato (Jowett’s translation): “Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind…”

N.B.: Cf. the first comment below for a gloss on the “melancholic yew-tree.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 3:23 AM

    N.B.: From the O.E.D.: “yew, n. A tree of the genus Taxus (N.O. Coniferæ) widely distributed in the North Temperate Zone, esp. T. baccata, the common yew of Europe and Asia, having heavy elastic wood and dense dark-green foliage; often planted in churchyards, and regarded as symbolic of sadness.”

    Hence stanza one of Thomas Hardy’s “Transformations”:

    Portion of this yew
    Is a man my grandsire knew,
    Bosomed here at its foot;
    This branch may be his wife,
    A ruddy human life
    Now turned to a green shoot….

  2. October 8, 2009 10:49 AM

    Mark, I love the way you make historically deep connections. 1612 and perfect. What “White Devil” is Webster referring to?

    • October 8, 2009 9:09 PM

      Scholars believe that Webster had in mind a popular proverb: “The White Devil is worse than the Black.” Which means: beware people who appear to be acting from good/pure motives, because they are the ones who do the most damage. I suppose an equivalent proverb is the more familiar one about “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

      Anyway, the play itself is a “revenge tragedy” based upon an Italian murder story; I’ve never read it in its entirety. I’ve only read the extracts Charles Lamb collects in his “Specimens of the English Dramatists,” one of which I use here in connection with Cheney, our own white devil. He tossed out all manner of fine & false motives for going into Iraq: WMD, connections to Al Queda, Baathist “yellow-cake” uranium, etc., making the world safe for democracy, etc. Every one of them false, every one of them a lie.

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