November 27, 2004

A Miscommunication About Communication

Last Wednesday at about 2:30 pm I drove off campus with Ashley, Audra, Rachel, and Uncle Doug, bound for West Texas. I had spent the lion's share of the preceding 72 hours writing two and a half papers. In fact, I finished revisions on my History of the English Language paper in the computer labs, sent a copy to Dr. Watson, printed out a copy for myself, and walked directly outside to climb into the car so we could leave.

I was quite satisfied with my paper, as I had successfully incorporated three of my favorite subjects (myth, literature, and communication) and kept the length down to five pages. Of course, I discussed the entire topic mostly in very general terms as any further detail would have required at least four times the length. I might have the inclination to write such a thing, but I certainly don't have the time.

Ironically, the main title of the paper itself applies equally well to the circumstances surrounding both it and me over the course of the next few days.

Uncle Doug read my paper and we discussed it during the drive. My mother read it the following evening, and . . . Yeah. She read it. And Asa read it in the car the following afternoon as we drove to Plainview and we discussed it. I had plans to post it here upon my return, and all was well.

All was well, that is, until late Saturday evening when, during a calm after-dinner discussion, a few careless remarks about the paper erupted into an abnormally violent tempest in a teacup. To make a long story short, I was provoked into picking a fight with three people who hadn't the foggiest idea what I was trying to say in my paper, but generally disagreed on principle, and in fact were quite offended by the implications of a few of my conclusions.

In an ill-advised move on my part, I didn't even attempt to exercise any restraint, arguing loudly and abrasively . . . I know how these people think, and I know where their blind spots are, and on issues involving religion (and, hey, what doesn't?) they have a blind spot you could hide a train in.

It could have been a discussion. We could have engaged in a mutual sharing of ideas and opinions. But they chose to be deliberately obtuse and take offense instead. And I chose to be annoyed by their narrow-mindedness rather than sympathetic and helpful. The results were disastrous. Perhaps someday soon I will prepare a post that will fully explain my views on the subject we discussed . . . But for now I will just post my paper instead.

Comments and criticisms are welcome. And if you choose to be offended as well, tell me why, and with what . . . I am almost always more reasonable when discussing something in writing than when I am arguing something in person.

And Thereby Hangs a Tale: Character, Communication, and Culture in Literary Allusion

Allusion is an act or instance of referencing an outside source without specifically identifying it. It is almost always expected that the audience will know the source of, or at least be familiar with, the reference and so either achieve a more complete understanding of the speaker’s meaning or share in the camaraderie of mutual knowledge.

In other words, allusions are the inside jokes of the surrounding culture. However, modern Americans show an increasing apathy towards the most lasting and significant allusions their past has to offer, relying almost exclusively on popular culture instead. The slowly dying cause of past-cultural literacy and past-cultural allusion is worth championing in order both to preserve and perpetuate what has come before as part of the growing group consciousness of the story (and stories) of human existence since time immemorial.

The more culturally literate people are, the more common ground they will potentially be able to find with others. Additionally, human beings naturally tend to use allusions in conversation, especially when they are, or wish to seem, familiar with each other. However, too much reliance on allusions only serves to block or dilute effective communication. The use of allusions brings about a sort of catch-22 for the culturally literate communicator.

Say, for instance, that you’re planning a vacation with the help of a travel agent and he is discussing the possibility of visiting various European cities with you. The first option sounds good, and as you continue to listen you realize that none of the other options will work. Returning to the first choice, you say to him, “Well, we’ll always have Paris.” Now, that remark might amuse you personally, but the entire point of making it was to share the joke. However, unless your travel agent is familiar with the 1942 movie Casablanca, he will have no idea that your remark meant anything unusual. In this case, he understands that you wish to travel to Paris, but he has failed to get your joke. This is a mild example, particularly since an allusion is often meaningless and even nonsensical when divorced from its original context.

And yet, an examination of our most common and lasting clichés, myths, and allusions reveals reason behind their perennial value. The use of clichés, for instance, becomes an easy way out of investing enough effort to coin one’s own metaphor, idiom, or analogy; one can simply substitute a phrase that is or was true enough to become overused. Clichés are seen, particularly in creative writing, as being the unoriginal products of a lazy mind, and they’re despised for it; yet everyone knows exactly what the words convey precisely because they have heard them before.

Take, for instance, the commonplace expression “right as rain.” The original context of this cliché is unknown beyond the fact that it originated in Britain, probably in the late nineteenth century. But although we have no real idea why it was phrased that way, we know that it means that whatever it is applied to is in good order.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his chapter on language from Nature, discourses very eloquently (although not always correctly) on a number of interesting points. His principle on the development of language applies to cliché as well:

Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right originally means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind . . . We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are, in their turn, words borrowed from sensible things and now appropriated to spiritual nature (Emerson 889).

Over time, clichés, like words themselves, come to mean something more broad than what they formerly meant. The semantic ranges of the phrases can widen to include the commonplace definition. In some cases, the number of words needed to express a potentially complex idea also shrinks. “In like manner, the memorable words of history, and the proverbs of nations, consist usually of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth . . . In their primary sense these are trivial facts, but we repeat them for the value of their analogical import. What is true of proverbs, is true of all fables, parables, and allegories” (Emerson 892).

Myth reveals a different aspect of the same principle. The myths of the human race are composed of those elusive, yet deeply resonant truths that run through the rich themes and ideas common to all great literature from the dawn of civilized thought until the present day. The label “myth” does not necessarily imply that the content to which it is applied is fictional. In a way, it means precisely the opposite. While the story told by a myth may or may not be literally true, the concepts it expresses are truer than anything in the physical world could ever be.

The Bible serves as the perfect example of a myth that conveys truth, from Genesis to Revelation, whether every story is taken literally or not. Much of the Bible is literally true, and can be taken to mean precisely what it says. However, the Bible also makes heavy use of metaphor and simile, as in the parables of Jesus. For instance, to use a simple and hopefully uncontroversial example, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a literal mustard seed. However, it can be likened to one in order to achieve a resonance of familiarity with the human audience which will successfully transmit meaning to the reader or listener.

These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there, but man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects . . . And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man. All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life . . . The motion of the earth round its axis, and round the sun, makes the day, and the year. These are certain amounts of brute light and heat. But is there no intent of analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy? (Emerson 890)

We can apply this theory to the poetry and prose of myth in addition to the facts in natural history, and to the human soul in addition to human history.

For instance, taken by themselves, the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling are charming and entertaining children’s books about the magical education of a young boy. But to anyone even basically familiar with British and Classical literature, history, and culture, the books are steeped in archetypal images and symbolic meaning. Was this accidental? Certainly not. A significant reason for the wild popularity of the series stems from the fact that these eternal themes echo within the most profound reaches of our hearts, souls, and minds.

Cliché, then, communicates by means of a universal phrase, understood by everyone. Myth communicates by means of a universal meaning, felt by everyone. And it is in allusion that these two modes of communication are united. Allusion can be viewed as a means of communicating a complete meaning through the use of a widely-known phrase. Allusions emerge into writing or conversation fully formed, with a host of connotations behind them.

If, in conversation, someone were to say mournfully “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” you would probably understand what they mean (Shakespeare 72). But how much more would you understand if you knew that those words are spoken by King Lear, an old man who has been turned out into a storm by his daughters after dividing everything he owned between them. There is a great deal more to the story than can be summed up rapidly, but to anyone familiar with it the entirety is called immediately into the mind at the use of the allusion. Certainly one could simply say “I’ve been wronged,” and if one’s audience would not know the other reference, then certainly, in a sense, this would be better. However, if the connections can be made, the sense of one who has been wronged is carried much more fervently by linking one’s situation to the plight of King Lear.

It is perhaps an oversimplification, but still somewhat accurate, to say that allusion can be used to connect with someone at the level of deeper meaning in myth with the rapidity and simplicity of the clichéd phrase. Emerson believed that words and clichés were borrowed from the natural world, which is in turn a reflection of the spiritual world.

Myths, too, are linked to the spiritual world, reflecting truth and meaning through symbols. The mythologist believes that myths are “dynamic factor[s] everywhere in human society; [they] transcend time, uniting the past (traditional modes of belief) with the present (current values) and reaching toward the future (spiritual and cultural aspirations)” (Guerin et al. 156-157).

Allusions seem to operate on the same principles. In the same way that myths unite us through commonalities in the human character and clichés through commonalities in the human language, allusions unite us culturally, not only with our contemporaries, but with our ancestral roots as well.

If the resources are available, educating oneself as thoroughly as possible in both past and current culture through the study of literature and history is an important responsibility. Educating others in allusion, sharing the richness of human culture, and bringing them into “the joke”, are duties of the culturally literate, and should be taken seriously for this reason. Equally important is that the cultural and intellectual gaps between created by unshared knowledge should not be allowed to widen if they can be narrowed.

Learn as much as you can about your own cultural history and literature, and those of others. Use your knowledge to gain understanding of and to foster communication and connection with others. But do not make the mistake of building walls with incomprehensible words, for that flies in the face of everything that makes language, myth, and allusion what they are.

Works Consulted

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1. Ed. George Perkins, and Barbara Perkins. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 881-908.

Guerin, Wilfred L., Earle G. Labor, Lee Morgan, and John R. Willingham. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

International Bible Society. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Nashville: Cornerstone Bible Publishers, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998.

Wheeler, Jared. "The Case for the Defense: Harry Potter as Wholesome, Valuable Christian Fantasy." 24 June 2004. Todo Tiene Su Como-Se-Llama. The Shadow Council. 23 Nov. 2004

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November 22, 2004

(lip)Id, Ego, and Superego

It's been three weeks or so since I did an online quiz. So here's an online quiz.

You are a lipid. You know whom you like and whom
you hate, and you like hanging out with people
who think like you do. People who disagree with
you annoy you to no end. You either love
Abercrombie and Fitch or you despise it, but
there's no middle ground. You're polar.

Which Biological Molecule Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

I could have said quite a few different things in response to the questions, so I played around with it a bit. This one seemed to be . . . close. There were others that were close, as well. I turned up "pheromone" a time or two, and "enzyme" several times in a row. But I guess I'll hang with the lipids for now.

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November 21, 2004


One is always pleased to find that one is not alone when one has these little opinions about this and that. And when one finds a kindred spirit among the great names in history, well . . . One feels, as they say, "like pigs in clover."

In 1847, Johanna Puttkamer (who was engaged to Otto von Bismarck) sent a letter to her betrothed which said (among other things), "Loyalty is the very fire which always vivifies and sustains the heart of existence."

Bismarck replied, "[That strikes me as being] one of those nebulous, misty phrases from which it is difficult to derive any clear meaning and which not infrequently have injurious results when they are carried over from poetry to actuality - especially by women who as young girls have observed life almost exclusively through the spectacles of the poet."

As the author of this book (From Bismarck to Adenauer: Aspects of German Statecraft by Gordon A. Craig) observes, "This was perhaps less than ardent; but then not even love should be allowed to excuse bad prose."

How true.

As a random aside in keeping with the ongoing Yiddish Project, and the ever-popular Personal Amusement Project, give the following site a visit. I promise that you will be entertained unless you're a nudnik.

Yiddish with Dick and Jane

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November 20, 2004

Bustiers, Bohemians, Ballads, & Bordellos

There was much SC movie-watching goodness last night, my friends. After a few of us had toyed with the idea for a few weeks, all of the movies finally came together at the right time and in the right place and we had a Burlesque Marathon.

Chicago, Cabaret, and Moulin Rouge . . . three very special musicals in one very special evening.

I happen to own Chicago and it's a favorite of mine. The only thing is, every time I see it again with people who have never seen it before I suddenly remember how racy it is. It's most annoying, because otherwise I really don't notice at all.

Cabaret was borrowed on VHS (bleah!) from the local library, and I had never seen it before. I kind of knew some of what to expect, but . . . Well, there's some really great stuff in there, but . . . See, it's just that . . . Wow. And having Liza Minelli as the leading lady doesn't do anyone any favors.

Anna had Moulin Rouge, which was by far the happiest and least cynical of the three (despite the ending). The unbelievably frantic pace of (in particular) the entire first half of that movie walks a very fine line between artistic brilliance and chaotic nonsense . . . but somehow it just works, and provides a good deal of amusement and entertainment besides. Absinthe and Bohemians! Yay!

Anyway, the resulting aftermath of all this is that I have the most random, bizarre, and disturbing hodgepodge of songs riding around and around in my head like so many wooden horses on a demonic carousel.

Oh, well . . . I'll figure out how to focus somehow.

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November 18, 2004

And you say there's no butler?


The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

Paige- Mollie Ralston
Barbour- Giles Ralston
Myself- Christopher Wren, Mr. Paravicini
Rachel- Mrs. Boyle
Scholl- Major Metcalf
Anna- Miss Casewell
Gallagher- Detective Sergeant Trotter, Mr. Paravicini

This play is a smashing little murder mystery, with a healthy dose of comedy thrown in and most of Agatha Christie's favorite stereotype characters present. Many of the standard Christie elements are present in the plot, and I'd love to go into what they are . . . but that would give away whodunit, now wouldn't it?

The reading worked fairly well all around, despite the unfortunate circumstance of having only two copies of the play. The inevitable result was a general crowding around books on opposite sides of the room, so the wild pacing we normally engaged in was excluded.

*sigh* If I could only find more copies of plays . . . There are so many good ones, dagnabbit!

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November 16, 2004

Because They Love Me

My professors are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings I know. They really are. Allow me to explain.

During the course of any given semester as an English and History double major, it is natural to expect that I would have numerous papers to write . . . And this semester has certainly been no exception. In fact, every single one of my classes requires some sort of major paper to be completed during the fall.

This is natural. This is fair. This does not cause me any bitterness at all. I signed up for this. I have no cause for complaint.

But my professors are good Christians, and they care about their students. They care about their students so much that they want them to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving break without having to worry about completing major papers . . . They know how stressful it is to write about *insert topic here* when you're stuffed to the rafters with giblets and cranberry sauce.

Side note: Ewww . . . It's stressful to think about being stuffed with giblets and cranberry sauce.

What I'm trying to say is simply this . . . three of my five teachers, out of the pure benevolence of their hearts, have decided that my papers should fall due right before my extra-long weekend . . . my lush oasis of free time . . . my tranquil island amid troubled seas . . . my comfy recliner surrounded by hard paddle-desks . . . my . . . I'm getting slightly off topic.

The point is that because three people decided to be nice to me, I have three papers to write in the next week, and I'm feeling very hated on. But, once Thanksgiving has come and gone, I will have (almost literally) nothing to do at all whatsoever. That's if I survive, of course.

If I survive . . .

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November 11, 2004

Transfiguring the Tradition

Fiddler on the Roof and I go way back, deep into the murky, lugubrious mists of my formative years. I don't believe that I was any older than five when I saw it for the first time. I remember two scenes from that viewing: "If I Were a Rich Man" (which I love . . . although I couldn't pick a favorite song) and "Miracle of Miracles" (which is the only song in the movie that I loathe). And unless I am very much mistaken, I was unceremoniously put to bed before the end of the movie. Such is the plight of the five-year old.

It was not until I was beginning my senior year in high school, in fact, that I rediscovered this delightful cinematic opus. My grandparents had given my family a two-video VHS copy and, being bored late one night, I popped it into the player.

Three hours and two minutes later I had nearly talked myself into rewinding it and playing it again.

Although I settled for a good night's sleep in the end, I watched it at least three or four more times that year, and I hadn't been at LeTourneau for even a full semester when I had the irresistable urge to get my hands on another copy.

I had talked Bryan (my roommate at the time) into going to Blockbuster with me where we had acquired and made use of a membership card, and it was there that I turned in my hour of need for a shiny DVD copy of Fiddler on the Roof.

In addition to having Bryan (who had never seen it) with me, I somehow also managed to collar Wilson and Uncle Doug (neither of them had seen it either), and the four of us enjoyed ourselves enormously.

I purposed then and there to ask for my own DVD copy for Christmas, and it was duly given unto me. With that, I assumed the mantle of the proud office of "Keeper of the Fiddler" . . . and I have worn it ever since.

That spring I watched it with Martinez (who also had not seen it before) and half a dozen or so of the Penn 2 guys. The following fall I watched it with Anna and Moore (they hadn't seen it) plus Wilson, Sharon, Scholl, etc. Last spring, we regulars were joined at the screening by Gallagher (who had seen it) and . . . Well, in short, it has become accepted practice to have a showing of Fiddler on the Roof during every semester I am at college.

And this semester was no exception. Quite far from it, in fact. I am currently taking "World Literature Through Film" as an Honors, junior-level lit elective, and the class requires students to form groups. This is in order that the entire last half of the semester may be spent showing movies based on works of world literature and presenting a comparison/contrast on the original work to the class.

After promptly forming a partnership with my close associates, Wilson and Martinez, we began to rack our brains for an appropriate selection. My initial tentative suggestion (Lolita) was shot down by Dr. Solganick (although he did it reluctantly, I must say), but it wasn't long before Fiddler came to mind. In the end, I'm rather shocked it wasn't the first thing that popped into my head.

The long and short of all this is that our presentation took place Thursday night, and was quite as successful as any presentation I have given before or could hope to give in future. And there was the added benefit of having nearly 20 people there for this semester's showing of the movie. I don't remember who exactly, but there were at least five there who hadn't seen the movie before.

What follows below the fold is the paper that Wilson, Martinez, and I wrote to go with the movie. Martinez wrote the beginning (on the book), Wilson wrote the middle (on the author and historical context), and I wrote the end (on the movie itself) . . . with Martinez fitting the three portions together and covering introduction and conclusion. This was followed by polishing and re-polishing and . . . blah blah blah. I'm rambling.

Read the paper if you have the time. And if you find yourself in the area, be sure to join us next semester for Fiddler on the Roof!

Translating Tevye: Tradition, Community, Faith, and Doubt
in Two Visions of the Dairyman

Sholem Aleichem’s novel Tevye the Dairyman is a classic piece of Yiddish literature. Fiddler on the Roof, the film based on Aleichem’s work, is likewise a beloved masterpiece. Many of the characters and plots overlap between the two versions; their ultimate theme is also the same, but it is expressed in slightly different ways and in a different tone. Although the film is based on the book, its approach to difficult questions of faith is significantly more playful.

Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman is a collection of short stories about a man who argues with God. Tevye, the main character, leads a difficult life and cannot understand why he is so poor while other Jews are so rich. Tevye struggles to reconcile the injustice of the world with the character of his God. The later stories tell of Tevye’s problems in marrying off his daughters; each one reveals a perspective on the Jewish tradition. Despite constant and recurring problems, Tevye remains true to his faith in God, which gives him courage to endure difficult times.

The early stories, particularly “Tevye Strikes it Rich” and "Tevye Blows a Small Fortune,” have a lighthearted tone. Tevye makes many amusing comments, such as the observation his horse is “only human too […] or else why would God have made him a horse,” or that an event “took place exactly a dog’s age ago, nine or ten years to the day, if not a bit more or less” (Aleichem 3). Such verbal acrobatics are entertaining to the audience, and they take some of the edge off of the otherwise-depressing subject of poverty. This lightness for the reader is reflected in Tevye’s nearly carefree attitude. He grumbles and complains about his lot in life, but he accepts that things “were meant to be” the way they are (13). He has faith in God and believes that He knows best. This faith provides the foundation for everything Tevye does; it gives him an anchor in times of difficulty.

The later stories, however, are not as lighthearted. All of Tevye’s daughters give him troubles, some more depressing than others. The sequence in which Tevye concocts a dream to cover Tzeitel’s marriage to the tailor Motl Komzoyl is amusing, but the family’s parting with Hodl is tinged with sadness, and Chava’s elopement leaves Tevye bitter throughout the remainder of the book. Later, Shprintze commits suicide after her failed engagement, and Beilke ends up living in poverty in America after driving Tevye mad with worry. Tevye describes his daughters as “too smart for their own good,” but he loves them all dearly, as he shows in dealing with their marriage problems (52).

But Tevye’s troubles do not end with his daughters. At the beginning of “Tevye Leaves for the Land of Israel,” Tevye tells of losing his wife, Golde (99). Then, Motl Komzoyl, Tevye’s son-in-law and Tzeitel’s husband, dies between that story and “Lekh-Lekho,” leaving Tevye responsible for his eldest daughter and her children (118). To round out his troubles, the village policeman tells Tevye that he (along with all the other Jews) must leave his home and move to another town.

In these later trials, Tevye’s faith begins to wobble. His conversations with God become more accusatory, and his rants against the injustice of life become more bitter. His problems with his daughters seem to harden his heart somewhat, so that by the end of the book he does not know whether God is really listening. At times, Tevye’s faith is little more than the mortar holding him together with his fellow Jews.

But there are two rays of hope in the darkness of Tevye’s life. First, Chava returns and reconciles with Tevye. Second, and more importantly, Tevye clings to his faith in God, shaky though it may be. The book ends with Tevye encouraging Jews everywhere “not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives” (131). The community of Jews still exists. But despite the positive elements, the ending carries overtones of bitterness and confusion as Tevye struggles with his faith.

The parting message from Tevye to his people indicates Aleichem’s preoccupation with the concept of community. In typical Jewish literary fashion, all of the Tevye stories show a profound attention to history and the fellowship of faith. The reader may gain a much more thorough appreciation for Aleichem’s work through a study of its literary and historical context.

According to Hillel Halkin’s introduction to the book, Tevye the Dairyman is “perhaps the only [novel] ever written in real time, that is, according to a scale on which time for the author and time for his characters are absolutely equivalent” (xxi). Because the novel was written over twenty years as a series of short stories, and is set within Aleichem’s own surroundings, the reader can follow a remarkable progression in the author’s thinking. The writing unfolds against the background of late Tsarist Russia, a time of growing persecution for Jews. This historical context provides a sense of urgency to the narratives; Tevye’s growing doubt is driven by the isolation and disenfranchisement of his people, which suggest a breakdown in the promises of their faith. Aleichem thus makes a strong statement about the condition of the Jewish people in his lifetime.

Sholem Aleichem shielded himself from scrutiny not only by using Tevye as a mouthpiece, but also by crafting a new persona for himself as the author; the writer Sholem Aleichem was actually the rabbi Shalom Rabinovich. The author used these fictional mediators to pose difficult questions to his readers. Joseph Sherman observes that Tevye the Dairyman often transfers familiar religious formulae to new situations, creating paradoxes of faith. He notes, for example, that “every time Tevye quotes from the Hallel [a prayer of praise], the effect of his quotation is to challenge the existence of the mercies that it celebrates in the everyday experience of ordinary folk like himself” (10).

David Booth explains further: “Tevye has no sense of the clear cause-effect nature of God’s will as evoked in earlier Jewish responses to catastrophe. In this strange new world, all that he can count on is his family and his community.” God is silent during Tevye’s troubles; at the end of the book, hope seems to come not from the fact that “God still lives” (since He has not been generous with deliverance) as much as from the fact that there is still a community of believing Jewish brethren scattered across the globe. In Booth’s view, Tevye has taken his questions so far that “the affirmation becomes more important than what is affirmed, the storyteller more important than the story” (302). This existential tone marks Tevye the Dairyman as a vital part of the modern Jewish literary tradition, a tradition preoccupied with the challenges posed by philosophical rationalism as well as human suffering.

In 1894, Jewish identity papers in Russia were marked with the word “Jew;” in this year, Sholem Aleichem wrote the first Tevye story. In 1905, Aleichem witnessed a pogrom in Kiev and subsequently left Russia; this is the date of “Chava,” the first truly tragic story in the series. In 1914, the flood of Jewish emigration from Russia was cut off by World War I; this year saw the end of the series with “Lekh-Lekho,” in which Tevye, although denied his dream of living in the Holy Land, is separated from his home forever (Halkin xiv-xv).

But the saga of Tevye did not end with “Lekh-Lekho;” Tevye the Dairyman was adapted into a stage play, which was later adapted into a film. The plot of the film is drawn entirely from the book, specifically following the plots of “Today’s Children,” “Hodl,” and “Chava” and including elements from “Tevye Strikes it Rich” and “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune.” The later, more depressing stories are absent, except for the common ending, in which Tevye is forced from his home.

One of the most important things to note about the adaptations is that both are musicals. The use of music is the primary distinction between the novel and the film; the poetic features of Aleichem’s prose are adapted to the screen in song form. The movie uses music to capture the feel of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. However, the reasons for the selection of this particular artistic medium run a bit deeper than that, and the decision to tell the stories of Sholem Aleichem through music works beautifully.

Music can overcome the barriers of language and culture in order to communicate directly to the heart and soul of the listener. In fact, we see this in the movie during the song “To Life,” as the Russians and Jews set aside their differences for a time of celebration. The music acts as an emotional unifier. It brings the characters in the movie together as they sing, and it draws the viewer in with them as well. This echoes the theme of community that is so prevalent in Tevye the Dairyman; the musical element in the film subtly reinforces this theme for the viewer.

Music is used effectively in a number of different ways throughout Fiddler on the Roof. Most of the songs fall into more than one of the following categories. First, music cultivates and reveals deeper connections between characters in a number of instances (e.g. “To Life,” “Miracle of Miracles,” and “Do You Love Me?”). Some of the songs, such as “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” give added depth to the characters. The forming of connections extends beyond individuals to the cultural level; a number of the songs draw deeply on Jewish culture, bringing out the importance of various Jewish beliefs and traditions. This is perhaps most apparent in the song “Sabbath Prayer,” a montage of Jewish families celebrating the Sabbath together in different homes throughout the village. The influence of Jewish customs can also be seen in dance during the “Wedding Celebration” number.

Another function of the songs is to emphasize a point or theme beyond what could be accomplished with normal dialogue. “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Far From the Home I Love,” “Tradition,” and “Anatevka” all fit into this category. In fact, “Tradition” sums up the major theme of the film: Jewish traditions form the foundation of Jewish identity. In “Anatevka,” furthermore, it becomes clear that this Jewish community consists of something much deeper and more lasting than the few dilapidated houses that make up the small Russian village. A bond far stronger than mere location binds these characters to one another.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, some songs are heavily symbolic. The best example of this in Fiddler is the “Chava Ballet Sequence.” The sequence is one of the linchpins of the movie, using music and dance to summarize the progression of the story to that point. As instrumental music plays, Golde silently teaches Chava to dance, after which Chava walks out to join her older sisters. The three dance together to the tune of the Fiddler (more will be said about this enigmatic character later), until the two eldest are joined by their respective spouses and dance away from their sister. Chava is left dancing alone until she feels the luring call of Fyedka. There is a brief struggle as the Fiddler tries to hold her back, but in the end Chava runs (but does not dance) to join Fyedka. Symbolically, this represents how the girls have been taught to “dance” to the tune of tradition by their mother, and how the first two have been joined in the dance by their husbands. Chava, on the other hand, has abandoned the dance completely; she has broken with tradition and community, leaving behind everything and everyone she has ever known, as her heartbroken father watches.

The musical numbers are not the only important elements at work within Fiddler on the Roof, however. The title character, who ties everything together as the movie’s chief metaphor, is quite musical in nature. He could effectively symbolize a number of different things, but the most significant is shown by what Tevye says at the beginning of the film: “A fiddler on the roof. Here [. . .] you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. You may ask [. . .] how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!” The Fiddler represents both tradition and the spirit of Jewish community.

The Fiddler appears several times during the movie, each one a key point in the plot or in the changing of Tevye’s fortunes. The first such appearance is in the opening credits, after Tevye has introduced the concept of tradition to the audience. After this, the Fiddler does not return until Tevye hears news of the pogrom, after an evening of carousing with Lazar Wolf. Here he moves from an emotional high to an emotional low, and this is one of several points in the movie where he questions God. It is here that the Fiddler appears to pull him back out of despair and lead him home.

The Fiddler’s role in the vital ballet sequence has already been mentioned. His fourth and final appearance in the movie comes just a few moments before the closing credits begin to roll. Tevye and his family have just left behind their home, and are slogging slowly through the half-frozen mud of a road in the middle of nowhere. They, like countless Jews before them, have been cast adrift in the world, and Tevye seems despondent. Then he hears the quiet playing of the Fiddler behind him. Turning, he spots the musician, who stares back with a mischievous glint in his eye. Tevye motions him to follow with his head, and then, as the Fiddler follows and plays joyfully behind him, strides purposefully onward with his head held high. The message seems to be that so long as the Jewish people keep their traditions with them, their fellowship with God and each other will remain intact, and they will have nothing to fear.

Here we see a significant departure from the message of Tevye the Dairyman. Both the novel and the film grow more serious as they progress, but the book has moments of utter sadness (e.g. the deaths of Shprintze and Golde), while the film remains relatively optimistic. In the book, the hope expressed at the end of the last story is almost half-hearted after Tevye’s recent expression of doubt. In contrast, the film ends with the lilting, happy strains of the Fiddler’s music, which accompanies Tevye and his family (which includes Golde, who is still alive in the film) as they travel. The film’s ending is almost happy; it certainly celebrates the stoic resolve of the Jewish people.

In short, the novel Tevye the Dairyman carries an almost bitter tone as it reflects on what seems to be God’s abandonment of the Jews. At the same time, it maintains that faith in God is necessary, if for no other reason than for the community it gives the Jews. The film Fiddler on the Roof has a similar focus on community, but its happier tone reflects a more hopeful outlook and faith in God.

Works Consulted

Aleichem, Sholem. Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. Trans. Hillel Halkin. Schocken Books, 1987.

Booth, David. “The Role of the Storyteller—Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel.” Judaism 42.3 (1993): 298-312.

Fiddler on the Roof. Screenplay by Sholom Aleichem and Joseph Stein. Dir. Norman Jewison. MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1971.

Halkin, Hillel. Introduction. Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories. By Sholem Aleichem. Trans. Halkin. Schocken Books, 1987.

Sherman, Joseph. “Holding Fast to Integrity: Shalom Rabinovich, Sholem Aleichem and Tevye the Dairyman.” Judaism 43.1 (1994): 6-18.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

November 09, 2004

Of Ravens and Whalers and Very Fine Rods

Today was the day of the grand and portentous presentation by Randy, Gallagher, and Yours Truly on Messrs. Poe and Melville for American Literature I. This means two things: First, I haven't posted in a few days because I've been trying to spend all of the time when I was anywhere near a computer drowning myself in information on said authors. Second, this is the first of the major projects, papers, and presentations discussed in an earlier post and that means that I will be swamped from now until the end of the semester.

In fact, even if the only use I had for my time was to do schoolwork, I would be swamped. But that isn't all there is . . . *sigh* Anyway, it's not as if I cared, so I don't know why I'm complaining. I suspect that the answer is something like "Because I can." But I'm getting off the subject . . . Let's talk presentation.

The basic outline ran something like this. Gallagher got up and gave a short devo. I got up and (literally) raced through the European Romantics ("The Dry, Musty Gallery of Old, Dead White Guys"), then transitioned into the American Romantics. After doing little more than mentioning that they existed (Dr. Olson already spent a whole class period on them, and will be spending many more in future) I jumped straight to the men themselves: Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe.

After a few minutes talking about why Poe is . . . well, worth reading, I guess . . . I turned it over to the guy in charge of his biography. He talked, blah blah blah. Randy talked about the darker elements of Poe, focusing on a few stories in particular. We had a copy of The Simpsons version of "The Raven" but we hadn't been able to get it to work. So that sucked . . . we could have used the break in talking. Then the girl who was doing Poe's romantic poetry stood up and talked and read a few of them and so on and so forth, etc.

Then I got up and transitioned from Poe to Melville. The biography guy got up and talked about Melville, blah blah blah. And then Gallagher took over and told us about Moby Dick, Billy Budd, and "Bartelby the Scrivener" (which is so great).

Then it was time for our dramatic reading of "The Lightning-rod Man" (full text provided with link). I read the non-dialogue portions, Gallagher played the narrator, and Randy played the title character. We used a black-and-red plastic pitchfork as the lightning rod, and very few other props. But nevermind that. I want to talk about the story.

Here's what I think it means: The Lightning-rod Man is a traveling fire-and-brimstone evangelist, the lightning rod is "salvation," and the Narrator is a Romantic, unbound by traditionalism.

Note the portrayal of the title character in the story. He is by turns furious and terrified, but strangely impotent throughout. While the Narrator is free to roam about his cabin, standing in whatever spot is most comfortable, the Lightning-rod Man is paralyzed in the center of the room, dripping water. ("I am better here, and better wet." What do you think that is a reference to?)

As for the sales pitch, the Lightning-rod Man is very loud and insistent, assuring the Narrator that immediate and certain destruction is the inevitable consequence of refusing to purchase a lightning rod. He refuses to provide any empirical reasons for his views when the Narrator asks. He insists that his lightning rod is somehow of higher quality than other rods (which are worthless).

In fact, this is the reason given as to why a girl was struck while holding rosary beads (one of the only directly "Christian" references in the story). When the Narrator points out that even those who purchased the superior rods have been struck by lightning, the salesman blames improper installation rather than his product.

The Narrator, realizing that there is no malicious, judgmental force at work in the midst of the thunderstorm, glories freely in its beauty and majesty. He attempts to romanticize the Lightning-rod Man as an avatar of the thunder god, and is soundly reprimanded for speaking in "pagan" terms.

Finally, the Narrator stands up to the salesman, calling him "Tetzel" and stating definitely that there is nothing to fear from God or Nature. "Tetzel" responds, true to form, with accusations of heresy . . . And is promptly thrown out on his ear.

The story ends with a warning to the reader that "the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man."

It all seems really bleeding obvious when I say it like this, (plus, Mr. Fry had already pretty much given that away in his comment a few months back . . . which I had completely forgotten about until recently), but it took me three or four readings to fully figure out what was going on. Anyway . . .

Cool story. Ultimately fun presentation.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

November 05, 2004

A Double Dose of Shakespeare Goodness


Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Gallagher- Macbeth, etc.
Anna-Lady Macbeth, Third Witch, etc.
Myself- Macduff, Banquo, Ross, etc.
Wilson- Duncan, etc.
Paige- First Witch, etc.
Ardith- Second Witch, Ross, etc.
Sharpton- Donalbain, etc.
Barbour- Malcolm, etc.
Scholl- Doctor, etc.


All's Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

Paige- Helena, Mariana
Wilson- Bertram, Second Gentleman
Anna- Countess of Rousillon, Diana, Violenta
Myself- Parolles, Duke of Florence, First Lord, First Gentleman
Gallagher- Lafeu, Lavache, Widow, First Lord, Second Lord, Fourth Lord
Bryan- King of France, Rinaldo, Second Lord
Scholl- Bertram, Lafeu, Messenger
Scott- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Play

No, this week wasn't a double-header by any means, I just didn't get around to posting on last weeks last week. Macbeth was fun, but I totally lost my voice from trying too hard on the Scottish accent.

And speaking of Scottish accents . . . Yeah. We murdered them. Like, really . . . I've heard worse attempts than ours (and some were actually not too bad), but the problem of attempting to sustain the thing for hours at a time is one that we failed (as a group) to surmount.

As if we cared.

Ah, and I couldn't possibly neglect to note the performances of Ardith, Anna, and Paige as the three witches. *cackles* Woooooooow, that was special. I'll refrain from making the obligatory snide remarks about type-casting. Instead, I'll just say that they had me convinced.

As for the latter play . . . we were bad. No, scratch that. We were horrible. I can't possibly go into detail, but nearly every person involved in that play (with the exception of Bryan) played up the already prevalent innuendo to absolute maximum effect.

Wilson: Shakespeare must have been in heat when he wrote this play.

Paige: No, I think he wasn't getting any.

It wouldn't be too far-fetched to suggest that both of these theories existed in concert at the time of writing . . . I don't know. But I would prefer to never again play a role where . . . Awww, nevermind. I'm still not going there.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

November 04, 2004

Blogging about Slogging

And the days move on and the names of the months change and the four seasons bury one another and it is spring again and yet again and the small streams that run over the rough sides of Gormenghast Mountain are big with rain while the days lengthen and summer sprawls across the countryside, sprawls in all the swathes of its green, with its gold and sticky head, with its slumber and the drone of doves and with its butterflies and its lizards and its sunflowers, over and over again, its doves, its butterflies, its lizards, its sunflowers, each one an echo-child while the fruit ripens and the grotesque boles of the ancient apple trees are dappled in the low rays of the sun and the air smells of such rotten sweetness as brings a hunger to the breast, and makes of the heart a sea-bed, and a tear, the fruit of salt and water, ripens, fed by a summer sorrow, ripens and falls . . . falls gradually along the cheekbones, wanders over the wastelands listlessly, the loveliest emblem of the heart's condition.

And the days move on and the names of the months change and the four seasons bury one another and the field-mice draw upon their granaries. The air is murky and the sun is like a raw wound in the grimy flesh of a beggar, and the rags of the clouds are clotted. The sky has been stabbed and has been left to die above the world. filthy, vast and bloody. And then the great winds come and the sky is blown naked, and a wild birdscreams across the glittering land. And the Countess stands at the window of her room with the white cats at her feet and stares at the frozen landscape spread below her, and a year later she is standing there again but the cats are abroad in the valleys and a raven sits upon her heavy shoulder.

And every day the myriad happenings. A loosened stone falls from a high tower. A fly drops lifeless from a broken pane. A sparrow twitters in a cave of ivy.

The days wear out the months and the months wear out the years, and a flux of moments, like an unquiet tide, eats at the black coast of futurity.

And Titus Groan is wading through his boyhood.

--Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast

And so life marches on, even though I haven't been talking about it here. I go about my daily routine . . . hang out with friends, watch movies, read, sleep, and (when no other options present themselves) get my homework done.

Everything from Fall Break or so is pretty much a blur. I went to the R. W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport last Tuesday, and that was really fun. I was motivated primarily by a need to see the page from a Gutenberg Bible they had on display there (Ps. 18-20) for extra credit in History of the English Language, but that turned out to be one of the least impressive things there.

By far my favorite thing there was a hallway of 16 fantasy-architecture sketches by Giovanni Battista Piranesi called "The Prisons." They were just about the first things we looked at, and Scholl, Randy, and I returned for a second look at the end while Anna and Rachel wandered the gardens. The drawings really looked the way I picture portions of Gormenghast Castle. Incredibly cool.

They had a great collection of antique guns that we enjoyed . . . some tapestries . . . lots of bronze sculpture (Too. Many. Horses.) . . . rare books . . . antique globes . . . The list goes on and on. We enjoyed ourselves.

Besides that one event, I'm drawing a complete blank on the last ten days. I know I've been doing things, but I have no clear idea as to what. My life feels like the above excerpt, and I'm just waiting for it to snap back into focus. I hope it doesn't take too long.

On a lighter note (tee hee) go take the Machiavelli Test. I scored a 79, and I'm guessing I'm low-end for this crew.

And, on a random note, remember: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." (Lisa Grossman)

Posted by Jared at 03:32 PM | TrackBack

November 01, 2004

Genuine Post Forthcoming . . .

Global Personality Test Results
Stability (67%) moderately high which suggests you are relaxed, calm, secure, and optimistic.
Orderliness (29%) low which suggests you are overly flexible, improvised, and fun seeking at the expense too often of reliability, work ethic, and long term accomplishment.
Extraversion (47%) medium which suggests you are moderately talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting.
Take Free Global Personality Test
personality tests by

trait snapshot:

messy, tough, disorganized, fearless, not rule conscious, likes the unknown, rarely worries, rash, attracted to the counter culture, rarely irritated, positive, resilient, abstract, not a perfectionist, risk taker, strange, weird, self reliant, leisurely, dangerous, anti-authority, trusting, optimistic, positive, thrill seeker, likes bizarre things, sarcastic

Via Sharptiano. Not dead on, but just about as close as online quizzes get.

Posted by Jared at 09:21 PM | TrackBack